Sunday, October 13, 2013

The mystery of giving thanks

Text: Luke 17 11-19 (the healing of 10 lepers)

This week, a minister in a Facebook group asked why churches make such a big fuss about Thanksgiving. His point was that all worship involves thanksgiving. Despite this, I am glad that Canada has borrowed the tradition of Thanksgiving from American Pilgrims and that we celebrate it in church.

This is the last of three Thanksgivings that I will spend here in Borderlands, and today I begin with some of the things for which I am grateful.

I am grateful that I was placed here following ordination. On my own, I would not have chosen to come to such a remote and sparsely populated place. But in that case, I would have never encountered the rolling hills of this area and the near-constant sunshine. I would never have witnessed the fierce productivity of this land and how it responds, often magnificently, to sharp turns in the weather.

Most importantly, I would not have met and known all of you. I understand that city people sometimes stereotype country people, and vice versa. But this obscures how unique everyone is.

Each of us bring a unique perspective, personal story, and mix of feelings to any moment. After 2.5 years here, I know a little about life in small-town Saskatchewan. But mostly, I know some of the colours of the bright flame of each of you just as I hope that you know some about the flame that flickers inside me.

Ministry, when practiced at the depths we yearn for, opens us up to each other's stories. A city is filled with a million unique characters while a small town is filled with scores or hundreds of unique characters. But no matter how big or small a congregation, there is never enough time to share all of our stories.

I am thankful that 20 of us came to a meeting on Wednesday night to discuss what is next for our churches. People shared fears, hopes and dreams. Despite not knowing how to proceed yet, the meeting itself showed us again why we gather for prayer, food, or fellowship.

With more prayer and conversation, I am confident that the love that has sustained our churches for four generations will continue to be expressed here. Ministry might not look the same in 2014 or 15. But people will continue to praise God and give thanks, to support each other in our vulnerability, and to reflect on our shared values of faith, hope and love.

On this Thanksgiving, I am also grateful that the congregation of Mill Woods United Church in southeast Edmonton has called me to be their minister. This is the first time that I have accepted a call. Previously, I had been placed in pastoral charges --  first in Didsbury Alberta in 2009 by an education and students committee and then in 2011 to Borderlands by a settlement committee.

I have loved my time here in Borderlands just as I loved the 10 months that I spent as a student minister in Didsbury. But going to Edmonton in response to a call feels different. It is a mutual response to God's Spirit by a congregation and a minister.

In my work here, I have felt sometimes like I was just keeping my head above the water. Partly this was being new in ministry. Partly it was adjusting to life in a remote area. Partly it was my own immaturity, despite my age.

The older I get, the more I sense the challenges involved in being  a parent. But my ex-wife and I did not have children. Without the highs and lows of that challenge, I have not always felt confident that I could rise to the challenge of ministry. And yet, by walking with people in sickness, and by presiding at funerals, baptisms, weddings, and at worship each week, I have learned a lot here.

I feel guilty about leaving Borderlands because only now do I feel ready for ministry. A process that started when I returned to church at Kingston Road United in east Toronto in 2001 and which accelerated when I decide to pursue ordination one Sunday in 2007 as I walked down the hill from that church to my apartment near Lake Ontario now feels complete to me.

Of course, I do not know what 2014 and beyond will be like for me or for Mill Woods United. But I go there filled with gratitude for God's Love, for the United Church of Canada, and for the three churches of Borderlands.

When I got a phone call from Mill Woods last Sunday afternoon to let me know that the congregation had voted to accept the search committee's recommendation to call me, I felt both glad and burdened.

I talked with family members and friends. I went for a walk, watched some TV, and tried to put the call out of my mind. When I went to sleep that night, I was exhausted and felt as though a veil was obscuring my sight.

When I woke up on Monday, the veil lifted. A big part of it was reading more about Pope Francis. In my sermon about the new Pope last week, I incorporated some excerpts from an interview he had given to the atheist editor of a major Italian newspaper on October 1st.

On Monday, a Twitter post finally led me to the full interview, which I have now read; and it astonishes me. I fear that if Francis keeps this up, I might have to become a Catholic priest! I pray that Francis lives a long and healthy life. There is no telling the impact that he might make given more time.

One of the things he talked about was mysticism. He said. "I love the mystics; [Saint] Francis [of Assisi] was a mystic in many ways . . . The mystic manages to strip himself of action, facts, objectives and even the pastoral mission and rises until he reaches communion with the Beatitudes . . . these are brief moments, but ones that can fill an entire life."

The interviewer asked the Pope if he ever had such moments. Francis said they were rare, but he mentioned one from the night when he was elected Pope:

"Before I accepted, I asked the other cardinals if I could spend a few minutes alone in the next room. . . I was seized by a great anxiety. To make the anxiety go way, I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position. After a while, my anxiety disappeared. Then at a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. When the light faded, I got up, walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting, and signed the act of acceptance. Then we went to the balcony for the proclamation, 'Habemus Papam' [We have a Pope]"

This summer, a cardinal said to Francis, "you’re not the same guy I knew in Argentina" Francis replied: "When I was elected Pope, an inner peace and freedom came over me, and it’s never left."

The Pope's mystical experience has given him courage make radical statements such as the following from that interview: "[Trying to convert people to Catholicism] is solemn nonsense," he said. "We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us."

He praised the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. He talked about a friend from university who was a Communist and who was later tortured and killed by the Argentine military. He spoke about leading the church away from glory and toward a mission for the poor that transcends doctrine and religion.

I mention this interview again this week because it fills me with hope.

Mystical experiences like that described by the Pope are ones in which we wake up to Grace. Attachments drop away. We enter a space beyond fear that is filled with light. We may only rarely experience such moments. But I believe that all of us enter into such a state at the end of life.

God's Grace does not depend on our actions. Still, when we wake up to grace, we are freed to act boldly. To put this in a local context, I don't see any requirement that there be a United Church in Borderlands. But God's grace give us the freedom to try to continue, perhaps in new ways.

Mystical moments allow God's light to enter our hearts and minds. In such moments, we might behave like the healed leper in today's Gospel reading who runs back to Jesus, get downs on his knees, and gives thanks.

Habemus Papam. We have a new Pope. While I will never become a priest, I intend to listen to Francis' words of mercy and try to follow his deeds of compassion.

In the years ahead as our churches continue to shrink, I expect that followers of Christ from different backgrounds will unite in ways we could only have dreamed of a few years ago. Together, we will run back to God, fall on our knees, and give thanks.

Amen.

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