ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 9, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Anniversary Sunday
A NEW DAY
Isaiah 35: 4 – 10; Mark 7: 24 – 37
Today is a day of celebration! On anniversaries we mark the years – it’s been 54 years since St. Stephen’s first held a worship service. We celebrate when we officially became a congregation, put up a building, became self-supporting, and added an addition. It’s a day to give thanks for St. Paul’s and the early members who had the vision to plant a new congregation. And to remember those who are no longer with us. We acknowledge those who paved the way for many years – previous clergy and lay leaders who built up and challenged our faith. We reflect on the successes we’ve enjoyed – 54 years of Worship and witness, Pasta Supper, Community Garden, Feeding the Hungry, Child Sponsorship, our Women’s and Men’s groups, our Church School and youth group. These and many programs like them have been or still are fruitful outreach strategies and rich discipleship opportunities. We also recall some of our highlights – Drama, Retreats, Intergenerational events, Banners, dinners, student ministers and our year of celebrating our 50th anniversary. It’s a good occasion to look at how we’re blessed with each other’s presence. In October, I’ll begin my 10th year as your minister which I mention only because I have no memory or personal knowledge of the years before that. During that time our congregation has grown from 127 in 2009 to 145 at present. That may seem like modest growth, but it’s more significant than it sounds. It’s about 17%; admittedly those numbers will fluctuate. Yet, as a mainline church we’ve defied the odds by growing; over all, during that same time, the average congregation in the PCC has sadly declined by about 38%, many have closed or amalgamated. What we have here is a grace and a blessing! Moreover, when we look at the composition of the congregation, we see that many have left us – some have moved, and some have died, yet many have joined us. In fact, about 42% of our congregation have joined in the last 9 years. I think that’s amazing. It speaks volumes about our inclusivity and ability to expand. We’ve been able to welcome the stranger, and to truly invite them into our lives. Not only are strangers now friends, they are family. You’ve done well. But it’s not just our growth in numbers or even our capacity to embrace people that we celebrate, it’s also the quality of those relationships. We’ve built into each other’s lives with love, support, prayer, joy and spiritual growth. We’ve pulled together in service to Christ. We’ve faced challenges. We’ve been a happy congregation. When we were in PEI, we had a visit with Doug and Allison Archbell, former members whom many of you remember, and also with Torrey Griffiths who did his Field Ed placement here and is now minister of two congregations on the Island. As we were chatting and reflecting on the present and the past they made some comments that were very telling. I want to be clear: they offered these without prompting or the use of torture. In speaking of their move, Doug said, “The hardest thing for me to leave was my Church family.” Torrey said, “The only thing I miss about Ontario is St. Stephen’s. Seriously, I love that place.” And Allison said, “What I miss most is my job”. I doubt she meant typing bulletins so much as having daily contact with her brothers and sisters in Christ.
Because of all these things an anniversary is, above all, a time to give thanks to God for his faithfulness to us and to rejoice in the health and life we enjoy as a congregation. In the congregation I grew up in we used to show our appreciation to God with something we called a “clap offering” – it’s just what it sounds like. So just for a moment, I’d like you to reflect on the grace of God in your life and all the wonderful blessings he’s given you and to think about this congregation and what it means in your life. Now I’d like you to express your love and gratitude to Christ with a clap offering – a standing ovation to the One who deserves it the most. By grace alone, we are so blessed and let’s never forget that.
An anniversary also includes gazing into the future, making or re-affirming our goals and rekindling our hope. As Proverbs teaches, “Without a vision, God’s people perish” (29:18). What do you foresee for St. Stephen’s? What do you believe our future will be? What will we be doing in 5 or 10 years? Will this congregation be here in 50 years? This picture of the future is key. Why? Because what we anticipate will come to be. If you believe it, you will see it. Our vision controls our perception and our perception controls our reality. If you think we’ll be among those congregations that have closed – we will be. If you believe we’ll be a vibrant witness in this community – we will be. If you think we’ll be nothing more than a memory – a name on a plaque or on a building somewhere – we will be. If you believe we’ll continue to attract new people, catch on fire for Christ and reach out with good news to be an even stronger worshipping community – that’s what we’ll become. Many people live with a world view of fear and scarcity and poverty. They believe life is limited, and we need to handle our resources carefully so that they don’t run out before we do. Death is everywhere. This is a pretty grim and restricting way to go through life. More than that it’s opposite to the gospel.
Do you ever wonder what God sees? While God is aware of the current reality in our world, God doesn’t share our world view of fear, scarcity and poverty. While scripture tells of times when God was not too happy with his people’s unfaithfulness, overall, God has a vision of wholeness and a heart of boundless hope. God is the One who makes, “Springs of water burst out in the wilderness, and streams flow in the desert”; who turns the “Hot sands into a cool oasis, and the thirsty ground into a splashing fountain” (Isaiah 35: 6 & 7). God’s vision for the future is one of life and promise. That is the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus. Death and despair do not have the final word. When God looks into the future, he doesn’t see His Church fading away into oblivion. He sees the hope of the world. He sees resurrection and new life. He sees a new day, a day that had never been imagined before the first Easter morning. God sees what’s possible. God sees potential. Some people share that vision and create great and lasting beauty. Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set it free”. What do you see?
So why is our vision of the future so different from God’s? Today we read of the Syrophoenician woman’s encounter with Jesus. This woman had a sick daughter. She knew that suffering and death were the reality they faced. She had every reason to be hopeless. When our vision is guided by our earthly reality alone, there’s no room for anything else. Reality can be a road block which quickly leads us to playing it safe, going slow, or giving up. We tell ourselves to be practical and that’s important, not because it shows us all our limitations but because it brings us face to face with our challenges. Reality has the potential to give us a new vision and a hope for the future that we can address in tangible ways. As a congregation we have some challenges. We’re in transition, we’ve lost some key leaders, we tend to be an older group of people. Those challenges can become the end of our hope or they can become the beginning of new life.
The Syrophoenician woman heard that Jesus, the healer, was in town. She jumped at the chance. If anyone could ensure her daughter’s future it was this Jewish Rabbi. She had faith. Well, Jesus is in town now. He’s present today. He lives in every part of his body the Church. He has power. He desires new life for us. Do we have faith or is our reality too hopeless even for God? Do we believe Jesus can bring new life to whatever situation or challenge we face? Do we believe that life overcomes death? That light dispels the darkness? That God’s vision is reality and that God wants new life for us?
The woman in our story lacked dignity. She bowed down at Jesus’ feet. She begged. Are we, as a congregation, above begging Jesus? How fervently do we pray for God to fulfill the vision he has for us? Or maybe we think God should just know our hopes or God will do whatever he wants. Perhaps our need doesn’t feel urgent enough. God values humility. As Isaiah wrote, “There will be a highway called the Holy Road. No one rude or rebellious is permitted on this road.” (35:8). When things are going well, we grow complacent. We like things the way they are. It suits us. Our limited vision of being exactly as we are until we die is being fulfilled and it’s enough for us. God’s vision may be a little too much: we don’t want to get too big or change too much. We want God’s vision on our terms. New life that’s not too new. When we pray, when we beg, when we ask, we show our willingness to be part of God’s vision, whatever that demands of us.
What happened next in this woman’s encounter with Jesus validates our own lack of vision. Jesus challenges her. And it’s not pretty. He calls her an undeserving dog. Often, we feel like undeserving dogs. Why should God favour our church when the fate of many others seems to be to close? Why should we anticipate special treatment? Why should the Spirit show up here? Isn’t it arrogant of us to expect that God’s blessings will continue, let alone increase? Well, yes it is. There is no reason that God should answer our prayers. Nothing about us is that special. I have no other explanation for our being as healthy as we are now, let alone know why the Spirit should continue to work in and among us. We’re nothing more than dogs under the table. But that’s not a reason to stop dreaming. There are scraps up there! Delicious, mouth-watering, life-giving scraps and Jesus may throw some of them our way. Just as Jesus healed the child of this undeserving woman, our success is by the grace God. It’s God’s doing. We’re undeserving of the future God has in store for us, but it’s still the future God has in store for us. We don’t have to be deserving, we just need to share God’s vision and to be open to the extraordinary, to abundance, to opportunity, and a new day filled with new life.
As we reflect on the years behind us and as we dare to look forward to those ahead of us, let’s do it with a lively hope and willing hearts. The future can be scary, and it’s also filled with unexpected miracles. We may be fearful souls but “Courage! Take heart! God is right here, on his way to put things right and redress all wrongs. He’s on his way! He’ll save you!” (Isaiah 25:4). Let God be the reality we see and the vision that will lead us to a new day.