Every stage of life
A few years ago at a meeting of Halton Presbytery I heard a man named Mark McDonald speak. Mark is an Anglican priest, who studied at Wycliffe College in Toronto, and served for a time in Mississauga. His career has taken him all over North America. He served for ten years as the bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska. In 2007 he became the first National Indigenous Bishop for the Anglican Church in Canada.
Bishop Mark talked at our meeting about his understanding of the role of the church within the wider society.
He described for us the little mission churches that still exist in small native communities in Alaska. There might be one priest serving 7 or 8 little churches, visiting each congregation on a rotating basis. But even on the Sundays when the priest was not there, a core of faithful people, often mostly women, will gather in each little church, for prayers, and to sing hymns. When the priest is able to come, the core is there, and then a few more. Mark said in most places, a big congregation gathered for communion might be 12 people, mostly elders.
Mark also told us that in each of these communities, if something major happened, like the a death, or a wedding, or a weekend of gospel music, then the little group of 12 worshippers would grow and grow, and all the people of the village would be there, joining in for the occasion.
The bishop had an interesting, and inspiring way of looking at this, drawing upon his aboriginal heritage. He said that in each of these small communities, the little core of people who meet every week for prayers and hymns are like the elder women from the ancient days, who did the important work of tending to the fire, literally keeping the home fires burning. In the centuries before matches, and barbeque lighters, this was no small job. In the midst of a winter storm, the fire kept people warm and alive. The fire gave them the capacity to cook and to clean, and to prepare medicine.
Hunters could go off in search of game, with the knowledge that when they returned home they would have a warm place to rest and recover, and that the meat they brought back could be cooked and preserved to sustain their families.
Rather than look down on the people who may only come out to something at the mission church once or twice a year, Bishop Mark celebrated the faithful ministries of those who are there every Sunday, and during the week.
During the first world war there was a popular song with the title “keep the home fires burning” which was meant to encourage the mothers and wives, sisters and girlfriends of those who answered the call to go to war. The phrase points to the importance of those who often have the most thankless jobs while others are in the limelight
Those affected by the ice storm last year, who lost lights and heat when the power wires came down, know what it means to be at home in the dark and in the cold. They know in a very tangible way what it means to keep the home fires going, and what it is like when we can’t.
We had a great crowd here on Christmas Eve. Some people we may not know very well, and some who we only see once or twice a year, along with folks who come back to visit when they are home to be with family. The presence of all those people in the sanctuary literally heats the place up.
It is possible to become cynical, and a bit resentful of those we don’t see here that often. We may wonder what our little mission church would be like if we needed extra seating every week. But it also important to remember that we don’t necessarily know what is happening in the lives of those people. We don’t have a way to calculate the importance in their lives, of having this place to come to, when they seek the warmth and light.
This morning in our Gospel reading we heard about about Anna, who seems to have spent most of her life faithfully tending the home fire. In her 84th year of widowhood, she saw the effect it had on Simeon when Mary and Joseph brought their infant son Jesus into the Temple for his dedication service. Anna broke out into song, and began to tell everyone she met about the special child. It is as if the little spark she had been helping to tend could now burst out bright and hot into a full fledged fire.
Last year I became reacquainted with a man I went to school with, a Quaker pastor and author named Philip Gulley. Phil has written a series of novels and short stories that reflect his life in small town Indiana, usually centered around the goings-on at a Quaker meetinghouse, which is what they call a church. In his book of short stories called “Hometown Tales” there is a story that he turned into fiction, but rings true for me. It is about a woman named Margaret, who believes that got has been tending to her, gradually getting her ready to serve.
Every Monday morning, my friend Jim and I eat breakfast at Bob Evans and swap war stories. Jim pastors an inner-city church, and his stories have more meat and gristle than mine. One morning he told me about Margaret. Margaret is an eighty-year-old widow in his church. She lives in a retirement center and ventures out once a week to buy groceries at Safeway. Margaret, Jim reports, is a sweet lady, though that hasn’t always been the case. She told Jim that when she was younger she was not a good person, but God has slowly changed her.
Occasionally, God builds the house overnight, but most times God nails up one board each day. Margaret was a board each day. Several years ago, Margaret felt God wanted her to do something for her inner-city church. So she prayed about it, and after a while the Lord told her to save all her pennies for the children of the church. Margaret was hoping for something a little grander, but she didn’t complain. A person has to start somewhere, she told Jim. So every year at Christmas, she wrapped up her pennies, about ten dollars’ worth, and gave them to her church. She told them it was for the kids and not to spend it on pew cushions.
One afternoon a lady down the hall from Margaret came to visit. She noticed Margaret’s mayonnaise jar full of pennies. She asked her why she was saving pennies. Margaret told her it was for the kids at church.
“I don’t have a church,” the lady said. “Can I save up my pennies and give them to the kids in your church?”
“Suit yourself,” Margaret said.
Before long, thirty folks in the retirement center were saving their pennies for the kids.
Every Wednesday, they climb on the retirement center’s bus and drive to the Safeway. They steer their carts up and down the aisles, then stand in line at the checkout counter. They put their groceries on the moving belt and watch as each price pops up on the display. When the checker calls the total, the old folks count out the money a bill at a time. Then they ask for the change in pennies. They count that out, too, one penny at a time. The other customers stand behind them and roll their eyes. They don’t know a work of God is underway.
The next year at Christmastime, the women loaded up their jars and took their pennies, twenty thousand of them, to the church Christmas party. The kids staggered from the Christmas party, their pockets bursting with pennies.
When the kids found out who was behind the pennies, they wanted to visit the retirement center and sing Christmas carols. Pastor Jim took them in Big Blue, the church bus. They assembled in the dining room. Jim watched from the back row. In front of him sat one of the retirement center ladies. Jim didn’t know her, had never seen her. She was explaining to a visitor what was going on.
“These children, you see, they’re from our church, and they’ve come to visit us. We’re awfully close.”
The next week, one of the men in the retirement center passed away. Jim came and conducted the memorial service right there at the retirement center, which is fast becoming the new church annex.
All of this, mind you, began with Margaret in her apartment praying to the Lord to let her do a mighty work. She admits now that she was a little disappointed when God told her to save her pennies. She was hoping for a more flamboyant ministry. She didn’t want to start with pennies. Then she thought back on her own life and how sometimes God builds houses one board each day. Amen