AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
The following talk was given as part of a worship service at Queensville-Holland Landing United Church on Sunday, April 30th, 2017. QHLUC is the congregation closest to the My Queensville housing development in East Gwillimbury. It is also one of our partner congregations. The goal of this presentation was to describe The Living Presence Ministry’s vision, to provide some Biblical context for LPM’s development, and invite others to join us in our mission of welcoming our new neighbours. It is based on a story called “The Road to Emmaus”, a synopsis of which can be read here.
So this image you see here: And now for something completely different…
As Robin was preparing the bulletin on Thursday she sent me a short note saying she recognized the Monty Python quote and wondered if she could use this picture of John Cleese as the projected image during my sermon. She did this promising me he was fully clothed. Being a Monty Python fan, and knowing that the other option she was referring to was John Cleese reclining in a pink bikini, I assured her that this is the exact image I’ve been pushing out to social media in anticipation of preaching here today.
Because this reading…the Road to Emmaus…
This is, of course, a serious message. Luke wouldn’t end his whole book on a joke. But reading this passage I can’t help but see the comedy in the thing. Jesus is there. He’s right there. And the reader knows he’s there. But these men don’t see it. And they’re going on and on, telling Jesus about his own crucifixion, as if it hadn’t happened to him. “He’s passed on! Deceased! This Jesus is no more!”
But comedians often use their humour to point out hard truths and shine the light on difficult situations.
The two men walking down the road are deep within the depths of despair. We’ve just celebrated Easter. We’ve had the daffodils and the hallelujahs. But these guys are still stuck in Good Friday. They’ve just lost their leader and their friend. They are blinded to Jesus’ presence by their grief “We had hoped he was the one…”
We had hoped.
Hope in the past tense.
Is there anything more sad?
What are the things you have hoped for but that never came to be?
Are there things you have hoped wouldn’t happen, but ultimately did?
In the time I’ve been working in East Gwillimbury, I’ve spoken to many people about the vision the Steering Team and I have for the Living Presence Ministry. But I’ve also been doing a lot of listening. Some of the stories I’ve heard are of grief, loss and anger. Grief over the decimation of the landscape to accommodate so many new homes. Loss over the elimination of a small town way of life so many in the community have loved and appreciated their whole lives. Anger at the pace of growth, and all the changes happening without feeling they have opted in.
In 2014, with the sense that change within the community was imminent, Toronto United Church Council carried out a demographic study on behalf of Living Waters Presbytery in order to have a better idea of what was happening in the East Gwillimbury area. They found that East Gwillimbury, and particularly the community of Queensville, is in the midst of an unprecedented level of population growth. By 2031, East Gwillimbury’s population is set to rise to 87,000 people — a 300% increase from 2006 levels. Your new neighbours are already arriving, and they are here before the new infrastructure to accommodate so many people has been developed. There are no new schools yet. Southlake is still the only accessible hospital. And yet, at the same time as all of this growth, our congregations are shrinking. There is sadness and there is sorrow and there is uncertainty about what the future is going to hold.
But despite their sadness, sorrow, and uncertainty about what is in store for them now that their leader has been executed, the two men traveling with an unrecognized Jesus along a seven-mile stretch are doing exactly what he asked them to do – to go out into the world and tell their people about the Son of God and what they had witnessed in their time with Jesus. For seven miles (two and a half hours of walking) the three men talk together about the meaning of Jesus’ life and death as tied to their holy scriptures. I like to think that Jesus isn’t being cruel when he calls the men “foolish” – “slow of mind” is another translation. Rather, I think Jesus is attempting to tease them in jest, just as friends do with one another.
But then the story shifts. The men arrive at Emmaus, and Jesus pretends like he’s set to keep going. But the other two implore him to stay, “It’s late! It’s dangerous! You must be hungry! We have food! Bread! Please stay with us. Have some dinner.”
They extend to him a sincere offer of hospitality. Hospitality to a stranger. Because remember the comedy – they still don’t know it’s Jesus. It is only with this offer of hospitality, and his subsequent blessing and breaking of the bread, that Jesus chooses to reveal himself to his followers. “Their eyes were opened” Luke says. They recognize Jesus in companionship and through the ritual he had so often shared with them during the time of his ministry. They recognized Jesus as their friend.
Jesus chose to be with and among his people when they anticipated the needs of a stranger and extended the offer of hospitality.
And in much the same way that Jesus chose to be with and among his people, and recognizing that this could also be a now or never moment, the Living Presence Ministry has been created in order to emulate an expression of faith that includes radical hospitality. There is no church building. There are no Sunday services. The entire ministry is devoted to helping people live healthy, meaningful, spirit-filled lives in whatever ways we can. We have a special focus on reaching out to people who might not be attracted to traditional church. Toronto United Church Council has purchased a home within the My Queensville development and it is to be the centre of our programming. My family and I will be moving into this new home on July 29th. I’ll be getting to know the residents of East Gwillimbury as their neighbour first. We will be working to create a sense of community within the new developments through activities such as community dinners, parent-child drop ins, house concerts, singing circles, podcasts and gardening clubs. We’ll be exploring the ways in which the secular and the sacred enmesh. We will have opportunities for worship and workshops. We will also be hosting welcome events, in partnership with the local congregations, almost every Saturday from the May long weekend right up into Labour Day.
While we won’t be walking around the community healing the sick with our bare hands, we will be attempting to connect people to the health and social services they need and offer transitional and crisis support to those who are struggling. If those social services don’t exist and it’s apparent the need is great, we will be a part of advocating for their creation. We will be working to make sure the new residents of East Gwillimbury feel welcome, and work to as best we can anticipate their needs living in a new community. And through conversations arising in these interactions, we will invite our neighbours into discussions about faith and about the Spirit.
But I want to be clear – we are also working with the existing residents to make sure that they don’t feel left behind, and partner with the local congregations to make them as inviting as possible for those seeking a spiritual home in a more traditional setting. This initiative is not meant to be competition with local congregations. It is a “both-and” approach. For those of you here today who are watching all the growth happening around you, I want for you to know that I think I understand what all this growth must feel like. I grew up on a farm, about 20km outside of Orillia, and I understand the beauty of rural Ontario. My invitation is for you to be a part of shaping how the growth happens. Rather than standing by and watching the community change without your input, I invite you to be a part of shaping the narrative of what happens when 55,000 new neighbours move in down the street.
Because when we extend a hand of authentic hospitality to our new neighbours where we are needed, that might just be the moment when we are most clearly able to see God’s work in the world. Just like the two men on the journey to Emmaus, when we live out what we’ve been called to do as followers of Jesus, the Spirit at work is revealed, and we’re able to recognize our neighbours as friends.
And just because I love Monty Python so hard…