Homily: July 24 2016. St. Albans Church
Reading: Acts 11.19-26; 13.1-4; 14.24-28
A Sending Church.
As most of you know, I returned recently from a three month sabbatical. During that time, Guylaine and I traveled to Portugal and walked the Portuguese route of the Camino de Santiago, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and then on to the coast at Finisterre, which means literally, the end of the earth. When you’re on a pilgrimage, especially on the Camino, walking 25 kilometers each day, you have a lot of time to think, and to talk, and to pray. The previous year, walking the Camino Frances, I thought a lot about my feet, which were covered with blisters. This year, my feet were good, so I could think about other things.
On Day 8 as we walked from Pontevedra to Caldas de Reis in Spain, I thought about St. Albans. We were coming up on the 5 year anniversary of the beginnings of this new church community, and that prompted some reflection. Part of my original vision for St. Albans, a goal if you like, was that by the end of our fifth year, by now, we would have grown to the point that we would be in a position to send a group of us out from here to begin another church plant or renewal somewhere. Now, I only told a few people about that goal. Perhaps that was because I felt it was a bit audacious. And maybe it was. We’re not there yet.
One of the reasons that we’re not there yet is because every year about one in four of us leave St. Albans. That’s normal in our community: students graduate, young adults get new jobs in new places, people who are homeless find homes in other parts of the city, people of all ages move on. But for my original vision of being able to send out a group to begin something new, this sort of turnover, which limits our growth, seems to pose a dilemma.
That’s what I was thinking about on Day 8 of the Camino de Santiago, walking along, with lots of time to mull things over. And as I walked I remembered the words of a bishop from Pennsylvania who spoke at our diocesan synod a number of years ago. When faced with a dilemma, he said, what you need to do is to flip the dilemma. Flip the dilemma. What if we were to become a sending church, not one which sends out a group of people every five years but a sending church which encourages, trains, equips and sends out those who are moving on every year. I kept walking.
Some ways down the path, I thought of Antioch, the new church that we heard about in our New Testament reading today. A sending church. The church which sent out Paul and Barnabas. And I pulled up the very passages that we heard today on my phone and read them as I walked.
Antioch was a new church, the result of the scattering that took place when the first persecutions began in Jerusalem. Antioch was a spirit-led church, and they did a new thing: they proclaimed the gospel to the Gentiles, and they welcomed them into their community. And that made a few people nervous back in the more established, more traditional church in Jerusalem, and that led to the Jerusalem Conference, the first recorded synod of the church that we talked about last Sunday, the synod which welcomed gentiles into the church.
But Antioch was not just a new church. It was not just an inclusive church. It was a sending church, led by the Holy Spirit. As we just heard, “while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
What would it look like for us to become a sending church, inspired by the sending church of Antioch?
That was Day 8 of my Camino. My thoughts moved on.
By Day 14 my Camino was over. Or so I thought. We had reached Santiago on Day 10, we had continued on and reached Finisterre by Day 13. Day 14 was the day we would travel back to Porto in Portugal. We got up early and took the bus to Santiago. From there we would catch the train to Porto that afternoon. We had some time, and walking into Santiago to get some lunch, Guylaine looks at her watch and says to me, we can make it to the Pilgrim Mass at the cathedral at noon. And so that’s what we did.
The first reading at the Pilgrim Mass that day was from the book of Acts. It was the exact same reading that I had looked up on my phone six days earlier, the one we heard together this morning about the sending church of Antioch. And that’s what the priest preached on as well. His sermon was about vocation and apostleship, about being a missional and a sending church. And if you’d been sitting near me at that mass in Santiago de Compostela, you just might have seen the light bulb go on over my head!
I believe that we at St. Albans are called to be a sending church, inspired by the church in Antioch. And in saying this, I am really only catching up with what the Holy Spirit has already been doing in our midst. We are a sending church. There are the visible examples. The postulants that have interned with us, Peter, Jonathan and Ryan have been sent out to minister in other parishes. There are at least four members of our community who are pursuing theology with a view to ordination, in the Anglican, United and Lutheran churches, and there are at least that many others who are thinking about pursuing ordained ministry in the church. But being a sending church is about much more than preparing people for ordination. I think of Sam as an example, who learned to play the drums with Zack here at St. Albans and is now drumming for a church in Vancouver. I think of Erica, who after serving as a communications intern here went home for the summer and helped her home church upgrade their communications. I think of the many others who have moved on from here and are doing wonderful things, in their jobs, in their communities, in their families, and in their churches.
And of course, today, I can’t help but think of Zack and Selina.
One of the things about being a sending church is that we don’t get to choose when people are sent, and honestly, most of the time, we’d be much happier if they stayed. Just like in Antioch, the Holy Spirit does the sending, or at least that’s what we trust is happening.
Selina is going to Montreal to pursue a Masters of Divinity at United Theological College, with a view towards ministry in the United Church. That is awesome! We pray that God will bless her studies and her ministry.
And then there is Zack. Believe me, no one is sadder to see Zack leaving us then I am. I have enjoyed every minute of working with him. He is a gracious and thoughtful young man, caring and enthusiastic, and has been huge part of our ministry here at St. Albans over the past four years. Some of you have heard the story about how Zack came to St. Albans, how he wanted a ministry internship somewhere after graduation from university, and how, being from the Vineyard church, he sent a big brown envelope with a CV and DVD to every sizeable Vineyard church in Canada, plus one Anglican church that he had heard about through a friend’s tweet and had been following on social media. That Anglican church was us. At the time that I received that brown envelope, we had twenty people, no money and no thoughts of having an intern. The only sensible thing to do would have been to send back a nice ‘no thanks’ and throw the envelope in the garbage.
But for some reason I didn’t. I kept that brown envelope on the corner of my desk, and one thing led to another and eight months later, Zack arrived at St. Albans as our new ministry intern. When Zack and I compared notes a few months later, I don’t think there was any doubt in either of our minds that this had been the work of God’s Spirit. Zack was sent to us and has been a blessing to this community for four years. Now, the Holy Spirit, and we, are sending him on. Just as they did in Antioch, we will place our hands on Zack and Selina and send them off. We don’t always have a lot of visibility on what that’s going to look like, neither for us nor Zack. I know that in the short term, Zack will be working with the Anglican Diocese of Montreal to develop music leaders and worship teams. Our prayer for Zack is that God will soon make clear what comes next.
And as for us, this community? I believe that God is calling us to be a sending church, calling us to live into that vocation just as the new church in Antioch lived into its vocation. What does it mean to be a sending church? As a start, I believe it means being a church which offers formation, which provides leadership development, a place where people can grow spiritually, a church which learns how to build community, a church that blesses and sends people. That’s just a start. And now I’d like you to continue. In our Open Space today, I invite you to consider the question, “what does it mean for St. Albans to be a sending church?” How do we live into this, how can we be intentional about it, how can we do it better? May the God who has blessed us with Zack and Selina continue to be in our midst as we consider what it means to be a sending church during this time of Open Space.