All Saints, Dorval
February 9, 2020 (Annual Vestry)
First-century Roman oil lamp
On Annual Vestry Sunday 2019, I concluded my sermon with these words:
We may be a forlorn stump left in the midst of a howling wilderness. But there is life in us yet. Christ walks by the lakeshore, meeting us in the middle of our daily tasks, and inviting us to follow, to see the unimaginable, do the impossible, and find that our nets are full to overflowing when we least expect it.
A year later, it’s astonishing to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how remarkable things happened when we did, indeed, least expect it. New people keep appearing in this community literally out of nowhere, while those who have been here for decades are delving deeper into their faith and the study of Scripture. Starting in the middle of last August – a time when energy in church is often at its lowest ebb – suddenly there started to be kids in church again, more than one or two, and practically every Sunday; and folks from all over the congregation are stepping up to leadership in new ways, both big and small.
We are, in a very real way, the salt of the earth and light of the world.
That sermon a year ago reflected on how the church, as a cultural institution in the western world, had shrunk in size over the past 60 years or so, and what would need to change if we are to continue to be faithful in this new and very different context. Jesus’ words about salt and light give us some direction. After all, salt is only a very small part of the dish, but it is still essential; and as the scripture points out, even a very small lamp can light up a whole room. You can see lamps from first-century Palestine in museums; they’re only the size of a teacup, but that one flame, placed on a lampstand, can illuminate a one-room house enough that the people in it can carry on their necessary tasks.
Perhaps we were never called to be in a position of power in society. Perhaps this new, bright, salty smallness is more true to who Jesus calls us to be.
Which is not to say that we should stay small on purpose! It is a truly wonderful thing to see people come through these doors and catch the fire of faith, start to think about how God is working in their lives, and learn from the experienced Christians here what it means to love God and love our neighbours. But it is so much better – and so much more effective! – to be excited about welcoming people into a thriving community of people following the way of Jesus, than it is to try to get your friends to come to church because we desperately want people to be here so that we can pay the bills and staff the committees.
The center of our proclamation is what it has always been, what Paul summarizes in our reading from Corinthians: When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
Our central story is one that is incomprehensible to the conventional wisdom of the world. It tells of a God who came to earth in flesh and blood, who called people to a way of radical love, who confronted the powers of evil that were so threatened by his message that they arrested, tortured and killed him. And yet, God’s love was so strong that he could not stay dead, but rose from the grave to be the beginning of a new creation, and promises us that we can be part of that new creation too – and so can the whole world.
It’s a strange story, indeed. And yet, when we gather around it, when we live into it, when we claim it as our own, we find that – as Paul did – even if we stumble over how to articulate it, we find power, freedom, and joy in the knowledge of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We find a community that can laugh and weep, work and pray, together. We find a group of people being salt and light for the world. We find something that changes our lives and that we are eager to share.
Anglicans are notorious for being reticent about our faith and hesitant to be seen as imposing it on others. In this post-Christendom world, with its wildly varying sects all calling themselves “Christian”, that’s entirely understandable. And so it’s OK if our invitation to others to come and see what makes this community a blessing to us, is couched more in terms of the wonderful people and the joyful spirit here, than in terms of the technical theological details of the faith we profess.
But make no mistake: the spirit that animates this place, and this people, is the spirit of Jesus Christ, the God who died on the cross and rose again. We may not share that message with “plausible words of wisdom,” but then neither did Paul. We may speak the words in “weakness and fear and in much trembling” but it is God who gives us the courage to speak them, and it is the power of God that blesses this parish of All Saints by the Lake and gives us the strength we need to do God’s work here in this place.
Here, as in any Christian community worth the name, we live in the paradox: in the knowledge that our greatest joys and deepest sorrows are connected, and that God is present in both; in the knowledge that our truest fulfilment is found in giving ourselves away. But that is knowledge that comes slowly, and only through experience: in studying the word of God, in living together in a community of faith, and in getting to know those who already guide their lives by this story, and who can teach us how to follow Jesus in turn.
The next to last issue of the Anglican Journal had a big front-page headline referencing research that shows that at the current state of decline, the Anglican Church of Canada will cease to exist in 2040. But I refuse to believe that that will actually happen. There will continue to be communities, gathered around this story, trying their best to live the way of Jesus.
We may never be big and powerful again, and that’s OK; it’s far more important to be faithful. But if we are faithful – to that central, paradoxical, inexhaustible story – and if we know nothing with each other but Jesus Christ, and him crucified, then those who should be here, guided by the Spirit, will find us; and those who are here, guided by the Spirit, will do what God is calling us to do, and find joy in it, and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.