Here is my farewell sermon,
preached Sunday, September 27, 2020
Peace and blessings!
One of the great things about the place Michelle and I have moved to is its location. We are a seven minute walk from her church, a ten minute walk to Sobey’s, Lawton’s and Canadian Tire, and in the other direction, a mere two minute walk to wilderness hiking. So yesterday after breakfast, we set out for a little hike in the woods. We were thinking we’d be gone about an hour, but it was almost two hours before we got home. Now I won’t say we were exactly lost. We could see Williams Lake on the right and there were signs of human habitation just ahead. And we knew that up the big hill on the left we would eventually run into familiar paths, closer to home. But perhaps you know what it’s like when you’re following a trail in the woods, and it divides into two smaller paths. And the one you go with divides into yet smaller paths, until finally you really can’t tell if you’re even on a path at all. So you have to make a decision, Do we go all the way back, or do we forge ahead, trusting in our sense of direction? Well, we forged ahead, and eventually did come upon the big open trail leading to home. But it did make me think of today’s reading about God’s people, wandering in the wilderness.
In the book of Exodus God’s people are going through a desert wilderness, led by Moses, on their way to the promised land. But for them, it isn’t a two-hour hike, but rather 40 long years, a whole generation. It’s a time of transition. They have left behind everything that is familiar. There are no signposts along the way. It’s easy to get lost. For them, it is a testing time. Remember the golden calf. It’s also the time when they are given the Ten Commandments, God’s Covenant, which forms them as a people in a new way.
In today’s passage, they come to a place where there is no water to drink and they complain bitterly to Moses. They say it would have been better to live as slaves back in Egypt than to die of thirst in the desert. In the end, of course, God provides water to sustain them in their journey. We read that Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the LORD, saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’”
This question, “Is God with us or not?” is always the question that arises, when we find ourselves in a time of wilderness, a time of searching, a time of transition. And today we find ourselves in times of transition in many ways and on many levels. For St. Margaret of Scotland, it is a time of transition from one rector to a new rector. This is always a major shift in the life of any parish. It is a time of uncertainty. When will we have a new rector? What will she or he be like? For better or worse the personality and faith of the rector colour the life of the whole Parish, so a whole a great deal rides on who that person is.
Likewise in the Diocese, we have a new bishop-elect. What will Sandra Fyfe be like as a bishop? In what new directions will she lead our diocese?
And the church as a whole is in a time of transition. Everything in our society has changed and things that used to work don’t work in the same way anymore. Many congregations are struggling and quite a few have closed.
On top of all this, our whole society is having a wilderness experiencing because of the pandemic. I’m starting to get used to wearing masks in stores and practicing physical distancing, but it all still seems so strange and difficult. And, of course, there’s the growing concern about the looming political chaos south of the border.
And in my own life it’s also a time of wilderness, this being day 58 of my retirement. For me, it’s very much a time of testing and discernment. Don’t get me wrong. There are many wonderful things about being retired, not the least of which is the luxury of time to think and reflect. Someone told me recently that being retired is something you have to learn how to do, and that I should give myself a year to figure it out. Well, that sounds about right.
The good news, of course, is that in all of these various wilderness experiences and times of transition God truly is with us. Even when we may feel lost or that God is not here for us, God is here, sustaining us, guiding us and forming us as God’s people. It’s like that beautiful poem about the footprints, which reminds us that those times when we may feel like God has abandoned us, are in fact the very times that God is actually carrying us. Our faith gives us the rock solid assurance that in the end, by God’s grace, everything will be okay.
But the question remains for us, How shall we live in this in-between time? What guides our actions? Here Paul’s letter to the Philippines shows us the way. He writes: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition… Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” He then quotes in full a beautiful and ancient hymn expressing Jesus’ own humility and self-sacrifice.
This “one mind” that we all share is the heart and soul of any congregation. At St. Margaret of Scotland, I think of the many people who are deeply committed to the life of the Church and seek not their own will, but rather the good of the whole congregation. The fact that there is such a spirit of willingness as opposed to wilfulness, that there is such a spirit of listening and cooperation, this is the great strength of this parish.
And for me beginning my retirement, I am reminded of Jesus, who after being baptised, immediately went into the wilderness for 40 days, before he began his ministry. It was a time of discernment and testing when he clarified his purpose and set the course for his whole ministry. So, when I’m not hanging pictures or unpacking yet another box, I’m taking extra long walks and extra long times of prayer and meditation, as I seek the answer to the big questions: Who am I if I’m not a parish priest? How shall I serve? I’m getting a paycheque. What is my work?
How is God calling me to make a difference in this last phase of my life? Discernment takes time and it’s no good to try and short-circuit the process. I know my call will become clear in due course.
Again at St. Margaret of Scotland, sometime in the coming months, you will welcome a new priest as your rector, a priest with different gifts that I have, a different personality and a different approach to ministry. Until then it’s a time to discern again what really counts and what is really going to help this congregation thrive and grow.
When I arrived in the North End almost eight years ago, there were many in this parish who had a deep loving bond with my predecessor, Diane Parker, and I know that for some it was a difficult transition, because church just wasn’t the same without her. But thank God for those who stayed on and adapted to the new leadership and a different style. I sincerely hope that those of you who came to St. Margaret of Scotland during my time as rector will remain strong in your commitment to the common life of this faith community during the next chapter.
In the meantime know that God really is with you. And not just with you, but working in and through you. As St. Paul says in today’s reading, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Make no mistake. You are the body of Christ in this place. You are the resurrection of Jesus. You are the way God is bringing peace and love and healing into this troubled world. May we be blessed in the years to come, as we seek to embody God’s love, each in our own way.