We Make the Road by Walking

January 29, 2017 – Epiphany 4 2017

Readings: Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

We Make the Road by Walking

The church today is in unchartered territory. We can learn from our past but from here on in, we make the road by walking.

That is premise of the Brian McLaren book that is circulating in the parish. There are now 2 copies for the library.

We Make the Road By Walking is not a book to be read from cover to cover but a book of chapters to be read and pondered in a year-long quest for Spiritual re-formation.

It begins with the challenge that –rather than passively waiting for history to happen to us – we can become protagonists in our own story. We can make the road by walking.  Hold on to that thought.

This morning I am borrowing freely from McLaren’s chapter on the Beatitudes.

Imagine yourself in Galilee, on a hillside near a little fishing village called Capernaum. A small group of disciples encircle a young rabbi who is sitting, teaching. A crowd gathers behind the disciples, in a sense eavesdropping on what is being taught.

This is the day that Jesus is going to pass on the heart of his message to his disciples.  He begins by using the term ‘blessed’ to address the question of identity; the question of who we want to be.

In Jesus day, to say ‘Blessed are these people’ is to say ‘Pay attention to these people’. This is the group you want to belong to.

His words surprise everyone because society tends to suggest that we:

Do everything we can to be rich and powerful and avoid pain and loss; that we measure success by how much time we can focus on our own happiness; that we hunger and thirst for higher status in the social pecking order; that we guard our image so that we are always popular.

Now, we might want to object as this point but this message is reinforced by much of what we see in our world.

But Jesus defines success and well being in a profoundly different way. Who are the blessed? The sort of people we should seek to be identified with?

The poor and those in solidarity with them; those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo; the merciful and compassionate; those with untainted motives; those who work for peace and reconciliation and keep seeking justice even when they are slandered, threatened, mocked and harmed.

In only a matter of seconds, Jesus has turned our status ladders and social pyramids upside down; advocating an identity characterized by solidarity, sensitivity, and non violence. He celebrates those who long for justice, embody compassion, manifest integrity and non-duplicity. And in doing so he creates a brave, new kind of hero.

And – if we want to be his disciples, we don’t get to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society. We must choose a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.

And there is a cost to this move from being a fan of Jesus to a follower of Jesus. It’s not an easy or popular way of life.

But there are also priceless rewards for seeking this unconventional blessedness – like being fully alive in the commonwealth of God and creative non-conformists in the world. That’s the salt and light bit for next week.

Now I want us to think about all of this in light of this Parish.  As the world in which we live changes around us, we can choose – as a parish – to passively let history happen to us, and then react – OR we can be proactive – become protagonists in our own story.

Yesterday, some of us went to a Deanery cluster conversation in Carleton Place. All our churches are all facing the same challenges – mostly declining attendance due to factors like: changing social patterns, lower birth rates, more funerals than baptisms and so on.  So we talked about what we can do to support one another as Anglican churches of this Deanery.

As we pondered what helping each other with sustainable ministry might look like, new ideas began to sprout. You will hear more about this next week. And there will be a [Deanery] cluster conversation here in March.

This morning, we are focusing on our worship life at St. Paul’s. To be clear, we are not talking about closing the church. We are talking about pooling our 9:15 and 11 a.m. resources into a combined 10 a.m. service.

I can honestly say that I had hoped to be retired before this conversation happened.  And I know some of you were also hoping to be gone from the picture before it happened.

What changed for me was the sheer number of requests to consider this and witnessing the energy in and positive response to September’s combined services and the Bishop’s visit in October. That was a surprise.

I / we would be negligent and guilty of standing by and letting history just happen to us if we do not at least entertain the conversation. And I know all this makes some people very uncomfortable.

It’s about 22 years ago that Rob and the leaders of this church engaged in a process of prayer and conversation about whether or not to go to three Sunday morning services. When the third service was established there were both tears of sadness and tears of joy – and some people left.

For the next 10 -12 years, there was growth and excitement. But all that started to change about 10 years ago when attendance started to decline everywhere. About 20 % in the past decade.

Declining attendance impacts not just the budget but also the services because at a main service, a critical mass is critical in terms of the energy level in the room. We not only saw and heard but felt the difference in the fall – and people, including visitors – were able to articulate it.

Today, is not about making decisions – that will come later. Today is about having a conversation and gathering information.  We have been praying that folks will enter into this conversation with open hearts and open minds and open spirits.  To do less, is to close ourselves off not only to each other but to wherever the Holy Spirit is leading us.

Last week we heard Paul speak to the people about the divisions in the church in Corinth. When we only identify ourselves as belonging to

8 or 9:15 or 11 o’clock – we have a problem.  That’s when Paul’s words hit home; for we are to be united in the same mind and the same purpose, to worship God, under our one Lord, Jesus Christ.

At the same time, I am also aware that people are passionate about worship and we enjoy different tastes and flavours.  And for many years now this church has been able to offer great diversity in worship.

We know that God is not overly concerned about our style of worship as long as it comes from the heart and is lived out in the wider community. The Lord requires that we do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

One thing I want to be very clear about is that this: talking about a combined service is not a way to avoid hiring an organist (thankfully, John has agreed to stay on until June).

Nor is it a way to get rid of the choir or praise team or combine the two into one (though, I am really pleased to see the way the two have and continue to support each other).

Whether or not we decide to return to two services, it is important that we have this conversation and that we leave room for the Spirit to guide us in wisdom and truth.

Blessed are churches that approach God with open minds and hearts and are willing to have difficult conversations. Blessed are churches that have the courage to embrace whatever future God has in store for us and that see this time as an opportunity for new life and new direction, on the road.

Pat Martin +