Sunday, December 29, 2013

'Go West young man'

Text: Matthew 2:13-33 (the flight to Egypt) -- the following is from a "Release from Covenant" service in Rockglen, SK, Dec 29, 2013. For 2014 onwards see http://mwucsermons.wordpress.com/

When I was 19 years old, I hitchhiked out West in search of adventure. I had just finished my first year of university at Queen's University in Kingston. I planned to take a break from school and seek my fortune in the Canadian West.

Unfortunately, I only made it as far as Winnipeg. After staying two nights in the YMCA, I let fear get in the way. I turned on my heels and hitchhiked back to Ontario. Because of that fear, I view that trip as a failed journey of faith.

My childhood had been constrained by fears, whose origins, even to this day, remain obscure to me. My decision to take a year off school and travel West signaled that life at Queen's had increased my courage. The fact that I only stayed on the journey for a week showed that my fears were still getting the better of me. My ability to trust in myself, the world, and the Loving Source we call God was weaker than I had hoped.

I didn't come out West again until 2009 when I was sent to Didsbury Alberta as a student intern minister. That trip also scared me. In particular, I was afraid I would not be able to provide a pastoral presence for grieving families. But in the event, I loved the work of being the minister of Knox United in Didsbury, including walking with grieving families and presiding at funerals.

I imagined that those 10 months in Didsbury would be the end of my life in the West. In June 2010, I returned to Toronto for the last year of my Masters of Divinity degree. Then in 2011, I took another leap of faith and applied for settlement as an ordained United Church minister.

I had hoped  to be settled in Ontario, but instead I was sent to Borderlands, which is by far the most rural and isolated place I have ever lived. Although Borderlands was not the settlement for which I was hoping, I have loved my work here as your minister. I have enjoyed our three churches, the people of our communities, and the beauty of this area. My fears of isolation were overblown.

In August, when I started to look for a call to another congregation, I expected that I would return to Toronto. But as you know, Mill Woods in Edmonton was looking for a minister and I liked their profile. When I met with the Mill Woods Search Committee in September, we felt a mutual call. So I will continue to live and work out West.

Today as we consider journeys of faith, we do so against the backdrop of story of the Holy Family after the first Christmas. They flee west from Bethlehem to Egypt when Joseph has a dream in which an angel warns him that King Herod is  plotting to murder the baby Jesus.

The dangers facing Joseph are much bigger than mine. Nevertheless, I identify with him. Joseph is the patron saint of workers. But I believe he should also be the patron saint of step fathers. Joseph cares for Jesus without hesitation despite not being his biological father.

The role of paid, accountable minister strikes me as a cross between a step parent and a foster parent. A minister is called to an existing family of faith. The role of the minister is to love the members of this family and to allow himself to be loved by them in turn. When the call is over, the minister moves to another family.

As I leave Borderlands today, it is not clear what is next for this charge. Will you call another "foster parent?" Will you join with other faith families to the north? The congregations of Borderlands are no longer large or energetic enough to continue without change.

I appreciate all I have learned and experienced here. I also feel a call to engage with a different congregation as I continue to confront fear and journey with other pilgrims towards faith.

The idea of God's call continues to mystify me. In today's Scripture reading, Joseph responds to a call from God in a vision of an angel in a dream. My own experience has not been as clear cut.

I returned to church 12 years ago in the face of a disintegrating marriage. As I engaged with worship, I was surprised by the strength of the pull that God's Spirit exerted. When I was a child, I had missed the power of the story of Holy Week in which Jesus is arrested, tortured and executed by the same evil Empire that had tried to murder him as a child.

Coming to grips with the story of Holy Week changed my life. Finally, here was a story that captured the truth of my small life and of all our lives. It reminds us that the false gods we worship die in the painful vicissitudes of life, and that out of the ashes, the God who is Love rises to new life in our hearts.

The story of Jesus provides what I had lacked in many failed faith journeys. It helps move me from self-preoccupation to faith in a God as big as the universe and as powerful as Love. I am trying to follow the pull of this heartbreaking and hope-filled story wherever it leads.

On a Sunday in July 2007 in Toronto, I made the decision to pursue ordination as I walked home from church to my apartment southwest of  the church near the shore of Lake Ontario. The "call " I experienced that day felt like the pull of gravity. It wasn't like Joseph's vision of an angel in a dream. It wasn't God speaking as to a prophet. It was the simple pull of gravity as I walked down a steep hill.

Sometime later, I read an interview with the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett in which he was asked, "Surely, professor, you must believe in a higher power that orders and creates the universe?" To which Dennett replied, "Of course I believe in such a higher power. It is called gravity."

I don't know if that quote invalidates my call to ministry. Responding to God's call for me feels like surrender. It is not verbal, but is felt in the gut and heart. It acknowledges that my small self is utterly dependent on vast forces that are greater than us, forces which we know as God's Love.

When I decided to seek ordination, it was not clear to me that at the end of the process there would be congregations. But when congregations showed up -- first in Didsbury, and later in Borderlands -- I got it. Congregations are a crucible in which we can confront fear and to try to accept God's grace.

Any family would do for this purpose, I suppose. But since I don't have children of my own, I am grateful for the role of foster parent that is given to a minister. As a still inexperienced minister, I am aware of my sins of omission and commission during our time together. I am also grateful for all that I have learned by worshipping and working with you all.

Joseph responds to God's call amid the violence and evil of King Herod. He doesn't doubt or hesitate, but simply obeys. His faith does not mean that children are not murdered in Bethlehem. His success in keeping Jesus safe as a child doesn't save Jesus from arrest and execution as an adult.

Ministers sometimes dread preaching on dark biblical stories like the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the Killing of the Innocents in Bethlehem, and I can understand that attitude. On the other hand, the stark horror of today's story strikes me as realistic and therefore reassuring.

As with Joseph and Mary, our journey of faith is not one without warnings, danger, or pain. The journey is about accepting God's grace to confront and then shed our fears despite the difficulties and pain of life.

When we feel the pull of God's Spirit, we don't know where it will take us. Nor does our response mean an end to all heartbreak or to the evils of a violent society.

Responding to the call means awareness of God's support on the journey. It reveals the truth that no matter the outcome of our journey, we are assured of God's mercy. We will all return to the Love from which we have all come.

I don't know what life in Edmonton and Mill Woods will be like, but I am excited for 2014 and beyond. I don't know what is next for Borderlands charge or for you as individuals. But I am sure that it will be within God's love.

God seems to be calling me West again, as happened when I was 19, when I was sent to Didsbury, and when I was settled here in the beauty of Borderlands.

I leave Borderlands with gratitude for our experiences together and for all that I have learned from you. I offer you my wishes and prayers with the sure hope that God's blessings will continue to enrich you regardless of what happens with the church.

Sometimes God calls us to flee in the night. Sometimes God calls us to stay rooted in a land of courageous settlers, like this one.

Wherever our journeys take us, may they take us beyond the fears of our small selves and closer to a trusting faith in the God who is Love.

On all of these journeys, Jesus is our loving companion. To him be the glory and praise forever.

Amen.

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