There is a wisdom story that I’ve shared with you before that bears repeating in light of our scripture readings today.
It is a story about a young pilgrim who set out on a long journey in search of peace, joy and love. The pilgrim walked for many miles and time passed. Gradually, the young, lively steps became slower and more laboured. The pilgrim’s journey passed through landscapes that were not always happy ones. Through war. Through sickness. Through quarrels and rejections and separations. …
But one morning, the pilgrim came to a little cottage at the wayside. Something about this little cottage attracted the pilgrim. It was as if it were lit up from the inside. Full of curiosity, the pilgrim went inside. And inside the cottage was a little shop, and behind the counter stood a shopkeeper. It was hard to judge the age – hard to even say for sure whether it was a man or a woman. There was an air of timelessness about the place.
‘What would you like?’ asked the shopkeeper in a kindly voice.
‘What do you stock here?’ asked the pilgrim.
‘Oh, we have all the things here that you most long for’, replied
the shopkeeper. “Just tell me what you desire.’
The pilgrim hardly knew where to begin. So many desires came
rushing to mind.
‘I want peace – in my own family, in my native land and in all the
I want to make something good of my life.
I want those who are sick to be well again and those who are
lonely to have friends.
I want those who are hungry to have enough to eat.
I want every child born on this planet today to have a chance to
I want everyone on earth to live in freedom.
I want this world to be a commonwealth of love.’
There was a pause, while the pilgrim reviewed his shopping list. Gently, the shopkeeper broke in. ‘I’m sorry’, came the quiet reply. ‘I should have explained. We don’t supply the fruits here. We only supply the seeds. The rest is up to you.’
(Wisdom Stories from Around the World, compiled by Margaret Silf, page 158)
This morning we heard words of wisdom from Hebrew Scripture that speak of the mandate for faith-filled action based on an understanding that God calls people of faith to “do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)
We also heard a story from Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus’ knowledge of Jewish religious law and his commitment to his Jewish faith tradition was tested. When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with some words from Jewish daily prayer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus then added, a quote from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)
Walk humbly with God, love God and neighbour, act with kindness and justice, these are words of wisdom that are at the heart of the Gospel message. Jesus’ life and ministry embodied these values and he called others to join him in the actualization of God’s commonwealth where all are valued and live in the fullness of life that God’s intends for all people.
As mentioned earlier, the 41st General Council of the United Church of Canada is currently meeting and are using as their theme the words of Micah 6:8. One of the many reports that was presented to General Council is a document written by Nora Sanders, the General Secretary of the United Church of Canada. The report is entitled, The State of the Church 2012. The State of the Church report outlines changes and societal trends in our country and outlines some of the challenges facing the United Church both nationally and in local congregations. In this document, Nora Sanders notes that,
“Change is being thrust upon us, but let us not forget the larger context. We are part of a movement that began roughly 2,000 years ago, when people were called to leave behind their familiar lives and follow the way that Jesus led. The things that Jesus said and did as he encountered strangers – breaking bread with outcasts, healing the sick – were a great challenge to the religious leaders of his time. Those who seek to follow Jesus, as we do, have invented and reinvented “church” many times over the centuries. We do not always welcome change, but it does give us the opportunity to reshape our structures and our lives, aligning them anew to the core of our faith.
…Changing times are times of opportunity and hope, times to engage in fresh ways and to include new people. The calling to journey to
places unknown is central to Christian life and times.”
Sanders also notes that according to the Identity Survey done by United Church members in 2011, that United Church members place a “high value on a church that is welcoming…and supportive…where faith is translated into action…and where belief is not a matter of dogma but of questioning, debate, doubt, and ongoing discovery.” (The State of the Church 2012, Nora Sanders, August 2012, pgs. 6 & 11)
Nine years ago I was an elected commissioner for the 38th General Council of the United Church of Canada. One of the candidates for moderator, Margaret Sayer, said something at that time that has stayed with me. She said, “We are the ones we are waiting for…the strength and vitality of the church depends on the whole church.” (38th General Council, 2003) The seeds of change and possibility are present in the teachings of our faith tradition, in our experience of God’s creative presence in our midst, in our sense of call to Christ’s ministry, in our daily experiences as people of faith. What is required of us is the willingness to be responsive and adaptive to the changing circumstances of life and be rooted and grounded in faith, trusting God’s presence to guide us through to a future which is unknown to us. All we really need to know is that God is with us, Christ is with us, and that we can make a difference in our community and in our world.
One of the current candidates for moderator, Gary Paterson, has offered some pertinent questions for United Church congregations to think about in these changing times. He says,
“…we must discover once again what ‘being church’ really means for us. …What are the practices that sustain and shape our faith? How can ‘church’ model a different kind of community, so that once again people will say, ‘See how much they love each other – I want to be part of that!’ How do we share our faith with visitors, strangers, and the community? …How do we speak to the spiritual hunger of a younger generation, people more interested in following Jesus than becoming church members? How do we reshape our ‘outreach ministry’, so that people will also say, ‘See how much they love the world – I want to be part of that.’ ”
This need not be onerous if we realize that we are, and have always been, an evolving community of faith seeking to be informed by God’s inspiration and empowerment. It is important to actively respond to the opportunities and challenges that are present in our world today. We simply need to be ourselves as we continue to: trust God and seek always to discern God’s guidance in our decision making; embrace Christ’s vision of ministry and realize our potential as members of the body of Christ; be a welcoming community of faith; offer the gifts of our lives in love and service; encourage each other to stretch ourselves and be brave enough to try new things even if it means letting go of the way we are used to doing things.
I’ll close with some words of encouragement from the late Wesley Frensdorff:
Let us dream of a church:
in which all members know simply and surely God’s great love.
…in which the Spirit is not symbol, but wind and fire in us all
gracing the church with a kaleidoscope of gifts and constant renewal.
A church in which:
…People break bread, then break down walls challenged by faith.
without all the answers, but asking the right questions.
So deeply rooted in gospel and tradition that, like a living tree,
it can swing in the wind and continually surprise us
with new blossoms.
…And finally, let us dream of a people called:
peacemakers…an open, caring, sharing household of faith
where all find acceptance and affirmation;
where all discover their spiritual gifts
and are serious about the call to ministry.
(Excerpts adapted from, The Dream of Bishop Wesley Frensdorff)
May this be our vision and practice of ministry,
this day and always. Amen