The following reflection was offered to Keswick and Ravenshoe United Churches on June 11th, 2017.  The talk was designed to describe the Living Presence Ministry to two of our partner congregations.  It references a passage in the Bible often called “The Great Commission” – where Jesus instructs his disciples to go out into the world and tell people about his life, the nature of God and how the Spirit lives and breathes throughout their lives.

So hello!  I am delighted to be worshipping with you this morning, and to have the opportunity to tell you a little bit more about The Living Presence Ministry. This ministry is somewhat unique in that it has no church building and there are no Sunday morning services.  Our goal is to help people live healthy, meaningful, spirit-filled lives.

I am on the ground meeting and interacting with members of the community as their neighbour first.  I will soon move, along with my family, into a new home within the My Queensville housing development.  It is this house that will serve as the base of our outreach and our programming.

My title is Community Minister, but what does a Community Minister actually do?  We’re going to go into more detail about that in a bit, but for now, I can give you the Readers’ Digest Condensed Version:   I drink a lot of coffee and listen to a lot of people.  Drinking coffee and listening – you’ve hear about 75% of my week right there.

But let’s not get too deep into my caffeine addiction just yet.  We have time…

In our reading from Matthew this morning, we find ourselves standing alongside the 11 remaining disciples.  Unlike the Gospel of John, which draws the post-resurrection narrative out a bit more, this is both the first and the last time Jesus appears to the men after he’s been crucified. 

And we hear that when the disciples saw him they stopped and worshiped… but some doubted. 

And you know, I can’t say I really blame them.  These men would have been deep within the bowels of grief after watching their beloved friend and teacher tortured and murdered at the hands of the Roman state.  The movement they believed in – that they sacrificed everything for: family, possessions and perhaps respect – has seemingly been destroyed.  Just as grief is part of the cost of love, so too is doubt the price for high hopes and disappointment.  It is possible that the cost of hoping that Jesus was indeed alive and well and everything they had believed was simply too much for then. 

Sometimes hope is uncomfortable. 

Sometimes it’s safer to doubt.

I’ve been working within my role as Community Minister since January and as I mentioned before, I’ve been doing a lot of listening.  Some of the stories I’ve heard are of grief masked as fear and anger.  Grief over the decimation of the landscape to accommodate so many new homes.  Fear about 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 people have had any say, or opted in.

In 2014, Toronto United Church Council carried out a demographic study on behalf of Living Waters Presbytery in order to have a clearer picture of what was happening in the East Gwillimbury area.  They found that the town, and particularly the community of Queensville, is in the midst of an unprecedented level of population growth.  By the year 2031, East Gwillimbury’s population is set to rise to 87,000 people — a 300% increase from 2006 levels. New residents are already pouring into the new housing developments, and they are there before the new infrastructure to accommodate so many new people has been developed.  There are no new schools.  There is still only one accessible hospital.

And then there’s the people moving in.  They were sold on a dream of beautiful nature trails, rolling hills, family parks and vast amounts of space.  In actuality, they have moved into the world’s largest mud pit, with no parks, backyards the size of postage stamps, and commercial and public space five years away from being constructed.

And at the same time as this explosion in population, our congregations are shrinking.  I’ve seen churches who have tried many, many new things, trying to make themselves more attractive to new members.  New music.  New worship structures.  New Sunday School curriculums.  Maybe you’ve tried everything conceivable too, pouring everything you have into this congregation and this community that you cherish.  And yet the numbers keep declining…

There has been grief expressed from all sides. There has been sorrow.

There has been uncertainty about what the future has in store.  And just like the disciples in Galilee staring into the face of their friend after suffering so much trauma, it is natural to doubt that anything we try can cause a shift or can change things for the better.

This final passage of Matthew is often referred to as The Great Commission.  Now, a commission is very different than a commandment.  A commandment is simply a directive – something you are told to do. In Matthew, Jesus gives two very important commandments – Love God, and Love your Neighbour as Yourself.  Matthew could have used the slogan from Nike to complete these commandments: Just Do it.

But a commission is different.  A commission has the same directive as a commandment, but also provides the person being commissioned with the tools and resources they need to succeed.  Jesus commissions his followers to go out into the world and make disciples.  It is noteworthy that Jesus’ final words are about action and not belief – even those who doubted are presented with the same task.  How we live and act rises above what we believe.

And it is with this commission in mind – to go out and serve the world as Jesus did – that the Living Presence Ministry has been created.  It is a commission that has as its foundation a commitment to being in and with and among the members of the community.  It is a ministry that seeks to walk alongside those we aim to serve.  Our expression of love is born out in service and unexpected hospitality to those around us, no matter who they are, where they come from, whom they love or what they believe.

Love, as Jesus embodies it, is an action word.

And so, we try to take loving action.  As I mentioned earlier, Living Presence 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.  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, workshops and small groups.  And almost every weekend from June 3rd until Labour Day, in partnership with the local congregations – because, to be clear, this is a partnership and meant to compliment the inherited local churches – we will be hosting events to welcome new residents into the community.  One of the goals of Living Presence is for the congregations and this expression of ministry to be a blessing to each other.

We will also 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 like the town is their home, and strive to, as best we can, anticipate their needs living in a new community.  At the same time, we will be working to make sure members of established communities don’t feel left behind.

It is through conversations arising out of these interactions that we hope to invite our neighbours into discussions about faith and about the Spirit.

Because Jesus is commissioning his followers to go out and save the world.  For many years, churches have hoped that people will come in and save the church.  We want our congregations to be successful and thriving, but it is possible that we might need to shift our ideas about what success actually means.  Is it bums in pews on Sunday morning?  Is it witnessing the church making a difference in people lives?  Are these categories exclusive of one another?  We have the opportunity for the United Church to once again be a major community player and it’s important to embrace that opportunity.

The Living Presence Ministry has been provided a great number of tools to aid in our commission.  Multiple levels of United Church governance are involved with this project – Presbytery, Conference and Toronto United Church Council.  The church has invested a significant amount of skilled and financial resources into making this project a reality.  We also have an incredibly strong and passionate Steering Team.  In the beginning, I’m sure at least a few of them doubted whether it was worth trying something new and this outside the box.  However, it is exactly those members who have been the most courageous throughout this process.  It is easy to push forward if you believe everything is going to be fine.  It takes much more effort and resolve when you are not so certain.

But no matter what happens, it is the final sentence in our reading today that gives me the most comfort,

“And remember, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

Because as our song earlier says, “You and I could be safe for another day”, but the Living Presence Ministry is choosing to go – to go out into the world.  To try and make a different in the lives of the East Gwillimbury community.  We invite you to join us for the journey.

And because you can never go wrong with a Shia LeBeouf video clip, here’s the man himself telling you to Just Do It.

The talk also references a song called “I Will Go”:


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