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Building Up Community: Homily and Report to Vestry for 2017

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Homiletical introduction to the priest’s report to vestry:

“Now, concerning food sacrificed to idols…” That opening line of the second reading identifies it pretty clearly as what it is — a letter, or a memo. This church has come to believe (or, trust) in the the Gospel: that in Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection, the world has changed.

But what does that actually look like, in a day-to-day situation? What does that look like when you bring together really different people from different backgrounds and experiences, and put them together and say: OK, model for the rest of the world what salvation looks like.

In the early Christian communities that Paul dealt with you have Jews and Gentiles. Country folk and urban dwellers. Some very rich people, and slaves. Sophisticates and simpletons. People that out there would usually have very little to do with each other. Now all of a sudden part of a close-knit worshipping community.

Their initial response to the challenge of living out their faith seems to have been to make up rules: no, never eat meat sacrificed to idols, because that’s blasphemous. Or, yes, of course eat meat sacrificed to idols, because it shows that so-called gods aren’t even on our radar. It’s meat sacrificed to nothing.

Another initial response is to draw party lines, by coming up with slogans. Paul quotes them: “all of us possess knowledge.” And “No idol in the world really exists; there is no God but one.” And “Food will not bring us close to God.” And Paul cites these slogans, but he doesn’t get stuck in them. In today’s world of Facebook, and Twitter, and sound bytes, it’s tempting to dumb things down into us vs. them, where we turn our opponents into caricatures. When what we really need is intelligent discourse and argumentation, and a desire for growth and transformation, rather than just the destruction of ‘the others.’

Now, does Paul answer their questions? Well, I’d say, in a tradition that Anglicans have picked up over the years, he doesn’t give a clear answer, but he does offer a way forward. He says, for what it’s worth, I don’t believe in other gods; and freedom in Christ means that we don’t have to stress out too much over the food we eat. But… for some of our, yes, weaker people, eating this meat, or seeing others eating it, might be a slippery slope, back into idolatry.

So for Paul, there are still people who think one thing, and others who think another. But for him the key to resolving the issue isn’t about figuring out the answer. It’s not about being a religious superhero, who is so perfect as to never eat meat, or so free as a Christian as to eat tons of that meat. Neither is the way forward.

The answer is to keep in mind that these Jews and Gentiles, urbanites and country bumpkins, rich and poor, need to ever be mindful of their calling to model for the world what the Gospel looks like. That more important than establishing parties, or sects, or splinter groups, and before drawing up laws and by-laws, we need to remember that we’re called to be a community. And to build each other up. Sometimes it might mean, like for Paul, slowing down and going at others’ pace. Not eating the meat, even though you know that it’s technically fine. Or sometimes it might mean remaining connected to a group, even when you’re not all in agreement. And in doing so, modelling for the world what it looks like to be reconciled. Reminding the world — and ourselves — that we’re called to be people of love first, and people who are right, second.

Here begins the priest’s report to vestry:

St. Paul’s words of guidance from the epistle for today, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (1 Cor 8:1-13), are important words for us as we look back on the last year, and look ahead to the next. Because in the midst of change and challenge, we desperately need (and thankfully, have) this love that builds up. Not that we don’t need knowledge. (I think we will, in fact, need much of it as we explore new ways forward. But I think St. Paul’s message, is, as he puts it elsewhere, If we don’t have love, we risk being just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.)

The love and compassion in our community has helped to get us through some significant challenges over the past year. Firstly, we all experienced 2017 in its context coming after a change in clergy leadership here at St. Andrew’s, for the first time in twenty years. Thankfully, it seems that this time of transition has been a welcomed and fairly fruitful one. Though I write this cognizant that some longtime parishioners felt that circumstances around this transition necessitated their leaving of the congregation.

 There were other challenges, as well; many of these reflecting the reality of our aging building. Burnt out lights in the narthex, for our 2016 Christmas Eve services. Burnt out sidewalk and parking lot lights, noticed when the long summer days started to give way to long autumn nights. (None of these being particularly easy to change.) A broken down furnace. A broken down PA system — its replacement delayed, apparently, by striking dockworkers on the west coast. A flood, covering much of our basement, during this past year’s record rainfall.

And those are just (some of) the building issues. As a church community we are aware that this past year has been a time when several parishioners have experienced serious illness, and wrestled with other trials that life has brought about. We also began the year with several parishioners encountering rumours around town: “I heard that St. Andrew’s was closing?!” And in the background of this year’s church life, I, along with our wardens and parish council, explored, considered, and dialogued on the potential of seeking out alternative forms of ministry for 2018, by partnering with another congregation (an option that was, after much reflection, declined).

It would have been nice to not have had to deal with all of these challenges, I’m sure we agree. But this congregation stepped up, and through your generosity, commitment, support of one another, hard work, and yes, knowledge and experience, we got through it all.

But 2017 wasn’t all heavy. There have been some highlights, moments of levity, and identifiable instances of God’s goodness and grace:

• Many people remarked on the beauty of our worship space for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
• The consistent presence of the baptismal font, as a reminder of our call to new life.
• Special events, like our bazaar, time and talent auction, and nature walk, that were not only fun, but also more popular than expected.
• An openness to new aspects of existing services, and new services entirely.
• Foot-washing on Maundy Thursday
• Taizé music on Good Friday
• An office of end-of-day prayers (compline, or night prayer) on Thursdays in Lent
• A Christmas Eve service for children
• Day time and night time pet blessing liturgies on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi

And there have been other, more subtle, highlights:

• Various ways of responding to the named desire of many parishioners for closer interaction with their clergy. (More frequent home/hospital visiting; the weekly drop-in at Tim Horton’s; the Advent open house at our apartment, to which the whole parish was invited.)
• The often behind the scenes — yet substantial — direction and work by our wardens, and the ideas and guidance of our parish council, and countless others who make our worship and congregational life possible.
• Reusable handouts of additional authorized eucharistic prayers from around the world.
• A volunteer fair to educate about, and recruit for, our various ministry groups.

We also, I think, have become more conscious of the need to reach out beyond our walls:

• This year we started a Facebook page, and have used Facebook as an evangelistic tool to promote special events and services.
• We’ve built on existing relationships with St. Stephen Lutheran and the Mill Courtland Community Centre (and through them are meeting with regional and city contacts that could open up new ministry and redevelopment possibilities). And we have a solid awareness of local issues, including the nearby housing and transit developments.
• We participated in (and received funding for) a popular Neighbours Day event.
• We replaced the “We are out of grocery cards” and “This door is locked” signs with signage that conveys a more welcoming message.
• We brought about the creation and installation of a Little Library box that holds both books and information on our church.

As your priest I am aware of the privilege of serving this congregation, and being invited into your lives’ moments of grief, and moments of joy. I appreciate the support and patience of this parish community, as I continue to grow into the role of ‘priest.’ I can tell you that no two days, or even two hours are the same. At one moment I might be doing research for a sermon or article, and then doing administrative work, then taking part in a meeting, then washing fruit for a deanery-wide Bible study, or buying diapers for a family that lives near our church, and then, at 3:00 AM, getting called in to the hospital. I get to interact with people in academia, people serving federal prison sentences, grieving families reaching out to the Church for the first time in years, and community organizers and civil servants.

But most often I get to take part in the ongoing life of St. Andrew’s: helping to prepare and lead worship; visiting with parishioners; and in our governance, building on the best parts of this church’s DNA, and helping to shake things up just enough to shed some of the unhelpful bits of DNA.

This year our diocese has given us a gift, in the form of the requirement to develop a Mission and Ministry Plan. While it does not lay out everything that we will do as a congregation, it does provide a starting point for our life in the coming year and beyond. It is my hope that as a congregation we can endorse the Mission and Ministry Plan, which reflects the work of many people. It is a symbol of our commitment as a congregation to strive to live out our baptismal vows and the Five Marks of Mission. And it is a sign to our diocese that we are actively seeking to discern what the Gospel looks like in concrete ways in our specific context, at this particular moment of time.

I believe that as we begin this new calendar year we move forward with more hope, renewed energy and vision, less anxiousness, and the relief of having overcome some significant hurdles. We can’t coast, but the road ahead isn’t quite so steep an uphill climb. To use a non-theological concept, I think that we have some momentum. To put it in theological terms, I think this momentum might relate in some way to the mysterious line that concludes some of the parables: For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

May we be good stewards of that which we have been entrusted, and continue to grow.

For the vestry meeting of 28 January, 2018

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter