Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Sermon preached on April 27, 2014 (ACPO) by The Venerable Judy Walton, Archdeacon Emeritus

Easter 2
ACPO Spring 2014

My Friends, I speak to you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

In my time in ministry, I have been privileged to preach in several different churches. Some have been large and some have been small, some have been Anglican and others not. But no matter where I have been, I have discovered that there are certain things that unite churches. The clergy tend to act like clergy no matter where they are. Most of the churches enjoy pot-luck suppers and chopped egg sandwiches and the fellowship that eating together brings. But for many that is where the similarity ends. In many other ways, they really don’t have much in common. They gather in vastly different circumstances, there is no common architecture. They worship differently. Some are low church, some high, some evangelical, charismatic or Anglo Catholic.

Some of the churches in the Diocese of Toronto seem to have everything. Trinity Streetsville or Trinity Aurora are such churches and I am sure you could name similar churches in the various dioceses which you represent. We have state of the art buildings, sound systems and audio and video technology of exceptional caliber. One has a band on Sundays and a choir quite different from most. They are multi staffed and pride themselves on their programs and their welcoming friendliness.

St John The Divine Chapel where we gather today has a character of it’s own. This building is lovely, with brilliant stained glass windows with millions of pieces of jewel like glass. They have a pipe organ and two pianos, and music thoughtfully chosen and prepared.

What else would you need to have a church?

Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral said that the most important attribute of a church was an accessible, large, fully available parking lot.

Granted, good parking is important, but what else would you need , other than a good parking lot, to have a church?

Today’s gospel gives us a picture of a church that had no pipe organ or even an upright piano. No choir. And only 11 members. In fact it seems to be a picture of the church at it’s worst. And yet, it was the first miserable little conglomeration ever to take upon itself the name “church.”

What I am describing is the disciples of Jesus gathered after his resurrection. Look at them! Throughout the long, painstaking chapters in John’s gospel, Jesus has been preparing the disciples for his departure. He has gone over and over his commandments to love one another, to be bold, to trust him at all costs.

But it would appear that someone wasn’t listening. Look at them. Cowering like frightened children behind closed and locked doors. Lost in their confusion and grief.

They were the ones who were to be walking confidently out into the world, full of the Holy Spirit, announcing the Easter triumph of God. Yet here they are, withdrawn and hurting - hoping that no one discovers where they are. As the church was born in that upper room it was one that was frightened, disheartened and defensive.

What kind of an advertisement might this church put in the Saturday paper to attract members? “The friendly church where all are welcome?” Hardly. Locked doors are not a sign of hospitality. “The church with a warm heart and a bold mission?” Forget it! This was the church of sweaty palms and shaky knees.

Could this even be called a church? Not only is there no sanctuary, there is no pulpit, no choir, no parking lot. More significantly, it has no plan, no mission, no conviction, nothing.

Not long ago, people were asked what they looked for when seeking a place to worship. Some said “friendliness.” Number two was bold interesting preaching. Nobody replied “Locked doors.” “Frightened members.”

Here was a church with nothing going for it except….

Except that, when it gathered, the risen Christ pushed through the locked doors, threw back the bolt, and stood among them.

Maybe that’s every church. Even the ones that don’t have every conceivable modern device, the best preacher in the city, or the beautiful sanctuary and stained glass windows. For the truth is, none of this amounts to anything, if we depend on our own devices, and the impressive props. We are nothing, nothing more than a huddle of questioning, timid, sometimes cowering failures who follow Jesus. Unless, we recognize Jesus in our midst. For it is the Presence, His Presence which makes our human gatherings … the church of God.

Have you noticed that in spite of all of the preparation for he service and the concern that goes into the liturgy, some Sundays can come and go with seemingly little impact on the worshippers.

But then on another Sunday, somehow by the grace of God, the Holy Spirit slips through our closed doors, witnesses our plodding through the liturgy and there is worship, inspiring worship not of our own creating but worship as a gift. And we want to take off our shoes in awed wonder realizing we stand on Holy Ground and realizing we have finally become the church.

If you want to see us, stripped of our sacred trappings, our pretense peeled away, then look in this 20th chapter of John. There we meet a pitiful, huddle of sad souls, hanging on to one another behind
locked doors. And if the truth be known, some days we are no different.

The good news is that it was to this church, which was hardly a church, that the loving, risen Christ came saying, “Peace be with you”. Into this depressed and empty void, there was a voice, a presence.

You might have thought that Jesus might have come like one of our bishops, bringing a sense of the office and some pomp and ceremony.

But Jesus comes humbly, and says, “Peace be with you,” showing them his hands and his feet. He says again (in case we failed to get the point,) “Peace be with you,” telling them that he is sending them out into the world. Then he breathes on them, giving the Holy Spirit, bestowing upon them the awesome power to forgive sins.

We are the church, not because of the buildings we worship in, not because of the music or the preaching or the many activities that take place and keep us busy. We are the church because to us, even to us, he has come and given us the gifts of the Spirit, the gift of mission, and forgiveness, commissioning us to go into the whole world in his name.

That is why we are called the church.

My first parish was three small churches. I was there for eight years. During that time I began to appreciate how multi point ministry was different. Because of the small size, it was more about relationships than the buildings or the politics, which can exist to a greater extent, in the larger church. However, that did not mean we didn’t have our own unique struggles too. Some days, there would be very few people here, the music would be none existent, and my preaching not the best. And yet in spite of all that, there was a presence there which bonded the folks together in a way that empowered them to be the church in their small communities. I truly believe each of those small churches got intruded upon. I think someone greater than any of us, knocked the lock off the door and kicked it open, and offered us God’s peace, the Holy Spirit and forgiveness. And in those moments we became the church in the best sense of the word. I have to say, I remember moments like that.

You see, the church isn’t about the Rector’s hard work, our earnest efforts, our long range planning, or heavy duty giving. Church is a gift of God’s grace, a visitation, an intrusion of the living Christ standing among us.

Sometimes churches go through very difficult times and it is amazing that they survive. But their survival is testimony to the power of God working with and through God’s people, empowering them with his marvelous gifts to do the work of the church.

And each time as church overcomes the struggles which face all churches at one time or another, their very existence is evidence of the embodiment of the power of God in Christ.

If I might I would like to address the Candidates of ACPO here this week end. In the days ahead some of you will be ordained deacons and eventually priests in God’s Church. Some will go to large parishes and others small congregations. No matter which, what a privilege will be yours. However, in all of the excitement that comes in being called to serve in this manner, we must not loose sight of the fact that no role is greater than another. It matters not if we are the ordained or the laity. By our Baptism we are called to be the church, to offer our differing gifts for the benefit of God’s kingdom here on earth. Should any of you not get the affirmation you seek for priestly ministry this morning, do not despair. God always has a plan for your life. Do not be frightened, do not be concerned, trust in God. To each one of us God offers and brings fullness of joy and his peace. Who can ask for more?

Yes, the church is a gift, a visitation, an intrusion of the living Christ standing among us. Let us be bold and confident in our faith. Let us believe the truth of Christ’s words to his disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me so I send you.” This is every Christian’s mission, lay or ordained, to bring that peace to others, to go into the world, and into our communities, large and small, and be the church, the presence of Christ, where ever we may find ourselves. Amen

This was preached on April 27, 2014 by The Venerable Judy Walton,
Archdeacon Emeritus