I was reminded, this week, of a story about a young minister who was new to congregational ministry. He was well trained but was nervous about one area of his work – how to relate and interact with children. He wanted the children to like him so he tried to look casual and relaxed as he began a story with the children of the congregation gathered around him. He began the story with the question – “What’s grey, furry, gathers nuts, and climbs up and down trees?” The children look puzzled but one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The minister called on the little boy to share his response but it was obvious the child was struggling…his brow was furrowed and he looked serious and stressed. Finally the little boy said… “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”
When we are at church we know that Jesus is a central focus in our worship and in our life as a community of faith. We talk about him, we sing about him, we pray in his name, we join together in his ministry, we break bread and share a cup to remember that it is because of him we are called to be the body of Christ. But, what does all this mean to us when we go about our daily lives? How does our faith inform and influence how we live and act in the wider community?
The lesson from Matthew’s Gospel we heard today helps us to remember that to be followers of the Way of Jesus means we are called to follow Jesus’ example and embody his ministry in our time and place. The Gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus’ ministry is a ministry of service. We are called to treat others in the way we would treat Jesus. We recall that Jesus treated others with dignity, respect, compassion, as God’s beloved. He nurtured relationships and created communities that were welcoming and inclusive. Jesus advocated for social justice and he encouraged his followers to take an active part in showing by their words and actions their love of God and neighbour. His definition of neighbour was broad and all encompassing. He showed by his words and actions that all people are members of God’s family and they are deserving of recognition, respect, dignity and compassion.
This week as I’ve been reflecting on this week’s Gospel lesson, I’ve been thinking of the ways in which we embody Christ’s ministry in our community and in the wider world.
As a community of faith, we seek to be welcoming of others. We are grateful for the gifts, wisdom and energy, that each person brings to our church family. We worship and work together, learning and growing together as people of faith. We care for each other through the joys and challenges of life offering love, encouragement, fellowship and the support of an extended family.
We feed and nurture each other physically and spiritually so that unified in faith and belief we can be of benefit and service to the wider community and world. There are many and varied ways that members of our congregation offer service to the wider community. We volunteer and support the Helping Hands Food Bank; the Loan Cupboard; The Pines; the Friends of the Library Bookstore; the Hospital Auxiliary Thrift Shop; the Public Library Board; the SWIM program; the Kimberley Arts Council and Centre 64, to name a few. We visit shut-ins and people in the hospital and provide transportation for medical appointments and for other reasons. We have Prayer Shawl and Card ministries that reach far beyond the bounds of our congregational membership.
As a church we have taken an active role in supporting the Food Bank through regular monthly donations and extra donations for Christmas hampers. We’ve allotted money in our yearly church budget for Food Cards for McKim Middle School and Selkirk Secondary School, a yearly donation for the Youth Centre and Dry Grad program and this year we sponsored a Free Community Swim at the Aquatic Centre.
We’ve begun to work in partnership with other churches and have supported ecumenical initiatives such as the Winter Clothing Reuse hosted by the Baptist Church.
We are part of a national church whose Mission and Service funding supports social justice initiatives within Canada and through partnerships around the world.
The most recent edition of The United Church Observer magazine (November 2014), contains profiles of eleven United Church members who exemplify Christ’s ministry in a variety of ways. These are stories of our neighbours; brothers and sisters in the United Church. They are hopeful stories – stories that remind us that we are not alone and that we share Christ’s ministry with many others in our country and around the world.
At the most recent BC Conference General Meeting of the United Church that I attended this past May, the outgoing president, Jenny Carter, said that:
“Grace abounds in this hurting world and it is best to travel with good people and pack a lunch. …It doesn’t matter whether it is good times or challenging times – what matters is what we do with the time we are given. Did we live, love, serve, share? …Living the Gospel is not easy. The kind of future we will have rests on the relationships we create now.”
The focus of that BC Conference General meeting was on getting to know our neighbours within the United Church and in the wider community. I heard inspiring stories of simple ideas that have blossomed into vibrant community ministries. One such story was shared by Robin Jacobson, minister with North Lonsdale United Church in Vancouver. Robin talked about how their congregation began the Sharing Abundance program that utilizes their kitchen and large gathering space for community meals. A local chef collects food that is nearing its “best before” date that is donated and turned into delicious meals served to anyone who wants to attend. There are young, old, homeless and middle class people who want to eat together and feel a sense of community. It is a “pay as you are able” system with the suggested price being $5.00. There are many volunteers who make this program viable and who have embraced this ministry of service that feeds others at the same time as it feeds their own sense of mission and purpose.
This program is not unique. There is a yearning for community in our world. Gathering around food with an ethos of respectful sharing is the example that Jesus set. When he spoke of the “least of these who are members of my family”, Jesus didn’t mean people who were of less value.
The “least” referred to people who, for whatever reason, needed extra care and attention. Jesus called his followers to be the “voice of the voiceless” and the “power of the powerless” not to take away their voice and power but to help them claim their worth, their voice, their power in God’s world.
I came across this comment from John Buchanan when reading the Feasting on the Word resource this week:
“What I can do and am called to do is to remember what Jesus said:
‘When you did it to one of the least of these, my family, you did it to me’ – not, please notice, just the certifiably hungry and truly deserving. The only criterion he set was the ‘least of these’, which means those who are weak and vulnerable, the little ones, particularly the small ones, the children. So what you and I can do and are called to do is not to ignore and overlook, but to look into the human face and to see there the face of Jesus Christ…
…Jesus said, God is here, in the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, particularly in your neighbour, the one who needs you. You want to see the face of God? Look into the face of [your neighbour]. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, Pg. 332 & 334)
And so, on this day when we’ve recognized and welcomed Susan, Ria, and Joy, as members of Kimberley United Church, we remember that we are all invited to be part of Christ’s family. We also remember that Christ calls us to respond to the needs of others with heartfelt compassion. We are not alone in this endeavour. Christ accompanies us on this journey, nudging us forward, helping us to discover what gives meaning to our lives and what we are called to be and do in this world. Now, more than ever, the love we share, the hope we embody, and the faith we act upon, is needed in our world.
With this in mind, I’ll close with a prayer of encouragement and hope:
we give thanks for this time and space
to gather and recognize the power
of your presence in our lives.
In the life and ministry of Jesus Christ
your love was made manifest in ways
that transformed the people around him.
The spirit of Christ, and the message he proclaims,
still lives and breathes in our lives
and we give thanks for this gift and blessing.
We recognize that we are challenged to respond
to Christ’s call to us with faith-filled action
and we give thanks that we are not alone in this ministry.
With faith and hope,
in Christ’s name we pray.