Vive la Révolution

The following sermon was given as part of Westway United Church‘s anniversary service on February 24, 2019.  The scripture passage referenced is Luke 8:27-38.

I love this passage. I love this whole sermon on level ground. Probably because I am a fan of subversion wherever I can find it.  I am a fan of this Jesus…Jesus in one of his finest, most radical moments.

“Love everybody. Everybody! It’s easy to love the people you like! It’s so much harder to love the jerks.  But, I am telling you to love the jerks.” It’s as radical a thought now as it was 2000 years ago. Love and compassion as weapons of subversion.

I feel like I can say this to you. I feel like we’re already friends because, dear Westway, you and me…we are very much alike! Westway and Living Presence…we are born of the same substance. We share the same genes. We are the same family.

Over 60 years ago, this was a brand new neighbourhood. Over 60 years ago, a group of people recognized the need for a unique Christian presence in this neighbourhood—a United Church presence. They came together and for more than 60 years, Westway has been a faithful presence within this community. You, Westway, looked at what the needs of the community were and tried to fill them. You, Westway, were in and with and among your people as you knew how to be.

But, I want to go back to our Gospel reading. Our passage from Luke this morning is one of the most famous and quoted passages of the Christian Scriptures. Turn the other cheek, love your enemies. Even people I know who have never set foot in a church for fear of spontaneous combustion can recite these words.

However, as is so often the case in these quotable, easily memed passages, it’s important to understand the context in which Jesus is speaking.

Jesus and his people were an oppressed group, occupied by the Romans and living under their rule. The Romans had a number of ways to control their subjects, many of which involved violence or fear. However, another tool the Romans used was shame.

Now, shame is one of the most powerful emotions we can experience as human beings. Because it is so powerful and so uncomfortable, we will do almost anything to avoid it. Because we will do almost anything to avoid it, shame is a very effective method of controlling people. In the context of the Roman Expire, shame highlighted the lack of agency people held in their own lives. Culturally, using the back of the hand to strike a person was a grave insult. It signalled the strik-ee was not the equal of the strik-er… that the strik-ee was “less than”. Unimportant. Insignificant.

We heard last week, in the first part of this same sermon on level ground, about blessings and woes. Another way to think about the blessings and woes is in the context of the shame and honour system prevalent in Jesus’ time. Jesus is offering another version of this code; the shame of poverty and oppression is no longer for his people to bear.

And I think, sometimes, shame is where we in congregations can get caught up. I’m willing to bet, because I hear this sort of thing no matter what congregation I happen to visit, that 60 years ago, there were a lot more kids sitting in the pews here. There were probably just a lot more humans sitting in these pews. Every church I go to, I hear how the church was full. But then I hear how things are different now. It’s not that the church is different. The WORLD is different. But we don’t recognize ourselves and there is…shame. I’m not sure it’s always identified as that, but whenever I start telling people about Living Presence Ministry and the kind of work we do in the community, if the response is to put us down, to say it will never work, that it’s a waste of the Church’s resources when so many traditional congregations are struggling…I think what people are hearing is that by trying something new, Mother Church is saying that everything that has come before is the wrong thing. So, there is defensiveness, and that is born out of shame. Because we somehow think we should look the way we did 60 years ago. However, shame is not for our congregations to bear.

Because new does not mean that what has come before was wrong. Remember, we are of the same genes. We are the same family. I could be your grandchild! And, I have learned much from you, about how to be in community. About how to recognize needs and how to fill them. About what it means to reflect Christ’s light in the world.

Now, I may not do things the same way as you. I may not dress the same. I may sing and listen to different music, and it might seem very, very strange. But the core of who I am—my values—I learned those from you.

Like you, I was born out of a recognition of need. By 2031, East Gwillimbury’s population is set to rise to 87,000 people—a 300% increase from 2006 levels. The changes to the community are already happening. Houses are going up. New neighbours are arriving, and they there before the new infrastructure to accommodate so many people has been developed. There are no new schools yet and there is still only one accessible hospital.

But besides the sheer numbers of people who are coming in, the demographics of these new developments are becoming far more multicultural. Like Luke’s audience, East Gwillimbury is now a diverse and multi-faith community. There are people who would not darken the doors of a church because their experiences of Church—not necessarily the United Church—have been painful. Hurtful. Negating. Most of the people who have moved into East Gwillimbury would either identify as being non-religious or belong to a faith community other than Christian.

Understanding this, Toronto United Church Council has purchased a home within one of the new developments and this is the centre of our programming. My family and I now live in this new home and I have been spending my days drinking a lot of coffee and getting to know the residents of East Gwillimbury as their neighbour first. We are working to create a sense of community within the new developments through activities such as community dinners, parent-child drop-ins, rock liturgies, and our Harry Potter and the Ethics of living group—a gathering of 10-14-year-olds from various faith backgrounds, discussing the antics of Harry, Ron and Hermione while exploring what they have to teach us about living bravely, justly and compassionately in the world. I host a weekly Christian podcast for commuters highlighting the intersection of faith and the secular world.  We are…very busy.

So, there is no new 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 of reaching out to people who might not be attracted to traditional church. In much the same way that Jesus chose to be in and with and among his people, the Living Presence Ministry was created in order to emulate this expression of faith and radical hospitality…on level ground.

Though we’re not walking around the community healing the sick, we are attempting to connect people to the 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 are a part of advocating for their creation. Already we have worked with the Town Council to see a reduction of the speed limit in front of the housing development and alerted the local public school to issues around bus safety related to the constant stream of new students into the community. I sit on town committees, offering insight into the diverse needs of new residents.
Perhaps most importantly, we are working to make sure the new residents of East Gwillimbury feel welcome and at home. And through all of these conversations, we hope to invite our neighbours into discussions about faith and about the Spirit.

We also work 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”, mixed economy approach. Some congregants in the inherited churches have felt bitter about the reality that they didn’t choose all this change. Rather than just standing by and watching the community morph without their input, my invitation has been to be a part of shaping the narrative of what will happen when 55,000 new neighbours move in down the street.

But this project is not about bums in pews. I hear a lot of questions to the tune of “How many new people have you sent to us?” There have been some very high expectations placed on this project by some members of the congregations. However, the reality is, this ministry will not save their church.

***

This sermon by Jesus, a sermon on level ground…it’s kind of where everything changes. Jesus is laying it all out on the line. Everything he is about, it’s all right there. Jesus is offering another way of being to his followers. Various groups within the United Church recognized a “now or never” moment in East Gwillimbury. Perhaps you identify with this “now or never” feeling? Within Living Presence, there was a “now or never” moment, as well as an opportunity to once again be a major player and presence in a new and growing community. But not in the way the church has been historically, exerting an ethos of moral superiority. We offer a presence of care and compassion, and a resource that those in decision making roles can call upon because we know the community. An invitation rather than an imposition. We know the community, because we are a part of it. We are offering insight that can only come out of Relationship.

It is still early days. We’re still at the stage where it is really all about the Moments. The Moments where we can step back and see how things are just a little bit better because the United Church has chosen to invest in this emergent community’s wellbeing.

  • The moment when I was able to help a mom whose four year old didn’t make it home on the bus the first week of school.
  • When 100 people came out to one of our partner congregations to worship and sing along to the Leonard Cohen canon.
  • The moment with 55 new members of the community, representing 10 different countries of origin, sat around the table for one of our monthly potluck suppers
  • The moment when a woman knocked on our door at midnight. It was a date gone wrong and after refusing to go home with him the dude dropped her in the middle of nowhere. On the coldest night of the year. She saw the sign and figured we were a safe place to ask for help.
  • The moment when a 10-year-old girl asked, “Are you a pastor?” and then replied, “Whoa. That. Is. So. Cool.”
  • And the most heartbreaking moment – when a member of the community pulled up to our house, pointed at the sign and asked my husband who was out shoveling snow, “Does Bri-anne help families in crisis? And then…sitting in the ICU with a family who had just lost their six-year-old in a tragic car accident.

Most of these people had never been connected to a local church community. There has been value in getting to know people as their neighbour first. There is far less hierarchy getting in the way of relationship. When I am asked by my neighbours what it is I don and I have to be succinct, I often describe myself as a Community Chaplain—I’m there to make sure everybody is okay. But living completely incarnationally, completely immersed within the same context as everybody else, has allowed for the emergence of trust and reaching those who either have no background in church or who distrust the church because the church has harmed them.

At a time when our denomination seems consumed with internal governance issues, it’s important to remember that none of these people give a rat’s…patooey… about whether we are a three court or a four court system. They don’t care how many orders of ministry we have, or what the heck a doxology is.  They don’t care how many Regional Councils we have. But they do care that the United Church of Canada has placed somebody in their community as a support for them. They care that they are cared for.

And so, Westway, we are of the same genes. We are of the same family. I could be your grandchild. Where you started and what I do…we are not so far removed from one another. And like I said, my values—the ethos that makes Living Presence tick—we learned it all from congregations like you: born out of a need in the community, for a unique expression of love. Christ’s love. In and with and among his people.

And as I continue to learn from you, I will come to you, like a grandchild who adores you, to invite you to the concerts, mail you the photos, the macaroni necklaces…I want to show you everything we’re doing. And maybe, someday, I will have something that you can learn from too.

Because we are both members of the same radical group. In a world that desperately needs it, we are using love and compassion as tools of subversion.

This isn’t “Welcome to the Revolution”. You’ve been a part of it for a long, long time.

 



The Living Presence Ministry is a community ministry of the United Church of Canada

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