Theme: What are we doing here?
I had a sermon written by Friday noon. Maybe some day I’ll even preach it.
But then I watched the news Friday night and Saturday morning out of Paris, and suddenly the only question that made any sense to wonder about was “what are we doing here?”
What are we doing here? Why are we in church this morning?
Why aren’t we gathering and gathering our friends and neighbours at City Hall, holding French flags and praying together for the victims of the attacks, and sharing in the sorrow of the people of Paris?
Why aren’t we on our way to Toronto or maybe even Ottawa to stand in front of a French embassy, sign La Marseilles, and hold signs that say “Nous sommes parisiennes” and “Nous sommes unis”?
Why aren’t we on-line or in line trying to reach out to local Muslims, assuring them of our support should they face any backlash or persecution because of the attacks carried out by ISIS?
Or some may wonder why aren’t we home, limiting our movements, creating even more secure and insulate lives, to save ourselves from any terrorist attacks that are just as possible in Canada?
What are we doing here?
In the words of last week, let us remember what it is we are doing here. Lest we forget.
For one thing we are here to celebrate an anniversary – the 219th anniversary, of this church. For 219 years there has been a community of faith and a body of Christ in this place – on this spot – on the banks of Fifty Creek. First the people met in the woods. Then when that was no longer adequate, in a little wooden structure they built. Then, when that burned down in the late 1860’s, in this fine brick building that still is standing and that we’re in today.
It makes us sound a little like the three little pigs – over 219 years of faith and faithfulness to God and the way of Christ, looking for a place of security and stability in a world of wolfish winds and terror – looking for something to help us survive threat and fearful vulnerability – something that will withstand the shifting sands and storms of time and history.
And in a sense that’s not an untrue image, because prominent among the first European settlers of Winona and founding members of this church in 1796 were United Empire Loyalists – in other words, refugees fleeing persecution and displacement in the revolutionary turmoil of the United States. And this community and church have been fed, time and time again, by the arrival of new immigrants, refugees and settlers looking for a good, safe place to call home.
For another thing, we are here to celebrate a baptism – the baptism of Julia Johanna into the body of Christ and the community of Christian faith in the world. And we are glad that you – her family, are finally here. This is a special place for you, Hollie. It’s where you first experienced Christian community and friendship, and where you received your grounding in faith. We’re so glad that this is a homecoming for you, and that you want to build on what you received, for Julia.
And we were ready to do this in the spring, until life – and death, intervened and interrupted so tragically. There was Ethel’s stroke and disability. Then Bob’s death. And even more tragically, Bob Jr’s. It just wasn’t the time to celebrate – not the time to start looking ahead yet in quite that way. As it says in Ecclesiastes 3, there is a time to mourn and a time to dance, and we needed to honour each time for what it was and what it needed.
So that’s what we’re doing here, and both of these things – the anniversary of this church and the baptism of Julia, have everything to do with how we face and live into what’s happening elsewhere in the world this weekend and every other week and weekend of the year.
Because did you notice and do you remember what we said together as a congregation as our statement of purpose at the beginning of the liturgy of baptism – the words taken from “A Song of Faith” – the United Church’s new statement of faith adopted in 2006?
“Before conscious thought or action on our part, we are born into the brokenness of this world,” we said.
And isn’t that true? And don’t we feel it this weekend?
There’s no escaping our share and our partnership in the world’s brokenness. There is no way really to escape and insulate ourselves from it, or deny our engagement in it. Justin Trudeau poetically called the people of Paris, “our French cousins.” Barack Obama rightly called the French, “America’s oldest allies.” And David Cameron, British Prime Minister said, “the victims of these attacks were not being political or trying to make any kind of statement to anyone; they were simply going about their way of life – our way of life.”
It really was an attack on us as well. There really is a deep sense in which nous sommes parisiennes, and nous sommes unis.
But even then and at the same time – and this is important – it’s not simply a matter of us and them – of us all and ISIS – even though there are ways we are forced – and they are forcing us into thinking and acting that way. Because in a larger sense and in a larger perspective, we are all – us and them, friend and foe – we are all in this together. We are all of one race, one species and one humanity on the face of Earth, all creatures of God in one web of life, and we either somehow make it together, or we don’t really make it at all.
That’s the first thing we have remembered and affirmed this morning.
Then the second is, “before conscious thought or action on our part, we are surrounded by God’s redeeming love.”
Is this really true? Can we see this and do we believe this – can we believe this, this weekend?
We look for signs, and we celebrate them when they appear. Like in the way Parisians used social media immediately in the midst of the attack under the hash tag “portes ouvertes” to let people caught on the streets and unable to get home, where they could go and find safety and be taken in.
Like in the way cities and governments around the world Friday night illuminated their landmarks in blue, white and red – the colours of the flag of France – the CN Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the White House, the Sydney Opera House, and scores of other landmarks around the world illumined in the colours of sympathy and support.
Like, too, in the way news commentators showed restraint in the way they reported the attacks, not leaping to conclusions before all the facts were in, and then when it was clear it was ISIS making sure they included in their coverage, honest concern over the unsteady and vulnerable place that the Muslim population as a whole is in, in France and many other Western countries.
Which raises the question of what happens now? Where do we and our neighbours of all kinds go from here?
For us, the third thing we have remembered today is that “baptism by water in the name of the Holy Trinity is the means by which we are received, at any age, into the covenanted community of the church. Baptism signifies the nurturing, sustaining, and transforming power of God’s love and our grateful response to that grace.”
In a nutshell, this means that we together with others who bear the name of Christ and Christian, are among those who are called to be salt and light, to be leaven for good in the world.
Do you remember the reading this morning? Jesus and the disciples are in the Temple of Jerusalem. It has only recently been rebuilt to its magnificent state, and the disciples like most other Jews of their day are in awe of it. They take it as a great and wonderful sign of God’s presence among them, and God’s renewed faithfulness to them as a people.
But Jesus tells them not to get too attached. It will soon be destroyed, he says. In a generation. By the Romans. Not one stone will be left on another. It will be rubble.
But, he says, it will not be the end of the world. It will not be the end of life. It will not be the end of God’s kingdom on Earth. It will not be the end of your life and calling and service and mission as my disciples and as servants of God. In fact, all these terrible things that will happen not the death throes of the world, they are the birth-pangs of new life.
And the question is, what is it that will be born? What is it that God is struggling and labouring to bring forth? What is it that you are called to help bring to birth as midwives of the kingdom of God in your time?
The pains are many. The attacks in Paris are among them. The day before, there was the suicide attack in Beirut that killed 43 moderate Muslims. In the weeks before that, the explosion of a Russian airliner over the Sinai that killed over 200. And who knows what more pains there may be for us and the world to suffer.
But it’s not the end of the world, Jesus tells us. It’s the pain of new life -- the pain of restriction against new life, of reaction against the new life that God is labouring to bring into being among us and within us.
I’ll end with – and give the last word today to a simple text exchange with my son Aaron from Friday night:
“It makes me angry and sad,” he texted, “that people are capable of doing this to each other. I’m still waiting for our global community to be realized where religion and politics don’t necessitate violence. So much has to happen to get there but I’d like to keep hoping.”
“Me too.” I texted back. “I’ve been told Martin Buber once said that the purpose and meaning of each human life is to help move the world one inch in a good direction.”
“I like that,” he replied.
The question for us?
Maybe just, what and where is your one inch?