Learning Time for April 30, 2023 “They liked what they saw”

(The photo is of a community meal at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Leadville, Colorado. I have a friend who attends there, and another who is soon moving there to serve as the pastor.)

My partner and I went to a funeral last weekend. I don’t often go to funerals where I’m not the presider. This one was for someone in our daughter’s partner’s family, and it was at a Roman Catholic church in Sarnia.

Something I thought quite wonderful was the priest did not assume everyone in the room was Catholic, or would understand what was happening. He paused at different times during the mass to explain the rituals he led. He did this in a way that was informative, and inviting, rather than excluding.

It was a good reminder that we do things in church that may seem perfectly normal and obvious to many, but can be confusing, and even a barrier to those who don’t know our secret language of ritual and movement.

I presided at the funeral for Dona Langlois on Tuesday. I made a point of bringing greetings from this congregation, and letting the family know that Dona was known, and remembered fondly. I also followed the example of that good priest from Sarnia. I did a lot of explaining along the way. There was quite a gaggle of little ones at Smith’s Funeral Home, something like 19 great-grandchildren. It was a great opportunity to do what I often attempt here at church- to use the “children’s time” to connect to the kids, but also say some things in a clear and simple way to the adults in the room.

Our rituals, the things we do over and over again, contain great meaning- but the meaning is not always obvious, unless we provide some commentary, and clues.

We heard a passage today from the Book of Acts. The Book of Acts is volume two of Luke’s Gospel- the continued adventures of the Jesus’ Followers.  I mentioned last week that Luke’s Gospel was written down at least 100 years after the earthly life of Jesus. The same is true of Acts- it is a collection of stories about people whose earthly lives were long over, by the time the stories were written down. 

These were stories that were treasured in the community, and in families. Like a valued heirloom, sometimes the stories would be brought out, and polished. They might get smoothed out, or told in a fresher way- but always with the intention of offering clues and signs to the next generation, to help them understand in a deeper way why the community did certain things, and to underline the meaning of the message that needs to be passed on.

I have opportunities in my work, to sit with families as they share stories about a loved one. I can sometimes tell when they are bringing out one of the heirloom stories- that have been passed along, told and retold because they capture, or evoke something important about the person.

I can, if I listen, get a sense of the character, and of the impact of the person being talked about, even if I never had the chance to know them.

It’s also a fact of life that in some of these stories, certain parts are left out, and other parts are, if not exactly exaggerated, told with greater emphasis, to make a point.

In today’s story from Acts there were a couple of points at which I wonder how much polishing has been done.

We heard about the disciple Peter, who has quickly evolved from a stumbling former fisherman, to an eloquent and forceful preacher. He called upon a crowd to change their lives and turn to God.

The story says about 3000 people took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.

I asked a colleague this week if he was going to talk about this story of Peter preaching, and 3000 responding by getting baptized. My friend said, “No way! It just makes the rest of us preachers look bad!”

Did Peter’s preaching really win 3000 new converts to the Jesus way, in one day? 

Maybe. I kind of think the story’s been shined up a bit, to get our attention.

This week I attended the annual meeting of the Windsor Downtown Mission. When I pre-registered online, and signed up for the pasta supper, the website asked if I wanted to make an extra donation to support the mission, so I did.

This reminded me that it’s perfectly okay to ask for help. Not to bug people, but to be honest about the need, and to ask, knowing that the answer might be, “Sorry, I’m doing all I can.”

The website also asked me what organization I was connected with. 

When I got to the supper, and was checking in, the woman at the entrance asked my name, and looked me up.

She looked at her list, and then at me, and said, “Are you from Harrow United Church?” 

When I admitted I was, she gave me the biggest smile, and said, “I help organize the Coldest Night of the Year. The HUCsters, your team from Harrow are amazing! We are all so grateful!” 

She then turned around and announced, “He’s from Harrow!” She signaled someone in the back, and they played a trumpet fanfare as I walked in the room.

I’m not exaggerating or polishing that story. It’s all true, except for the part about the trumpets. 

The Downtown Mission folks expressed their gratitude for the money the HUCsters have raised over the last five years.  Board members, staff members, and other donors all came up over the course of the evening to say thank you. 

I also got to hear many stories, about how the work of the mission saves, and changes lives for the better. 

It got me thinking about what a world it could be, if we really put people, all people first, and not just with our words, but with all that we have. 

In the story we heard today from Acts it says:

“Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.”

Did you catch that last part? Let me say it again. 

“The believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.”

The story goes on to describe how this first community of Jesus’ followers kept growing and growing, because those around them liked what they saw they community doing to help others.

As our congregation emerges, with the rest of the world, from under the big shadow of COVID, we face challenging questions about our survival. 

Right now, we have the biggest financial shortfall anyone in this congregation can remember. We are running out of reserves, and are working like crazy to make pies, plan for the fall supper, and keep on going. 

If you are in a position to give more money to the church, now is the perfect time. I know that our church leaders, and those working hard to fundraise, will deeply appreciate it. I am talking to everyone here, and also to those folks who watch us online.

I guess we’d have no problems if we just pooled all of our resources, and saw to that everyone’s needs were met, and used the leftovers to fund the church. But I don’t think we are likely to do that. I am not likely to get that ball rolling, by giving all my money to the church. I still need it!

And I totally understand that you also need your money. It’s okay to say “No, I’m doing all I can, right now.” No one is going to bug you about it.

At the same time, I think it’s important we hear the story of this first group of Jesus followers sharing all they had, and seeing to everyone’s needs.  This beautiful, polished story can inspire us, and point us in the right direction.

It reminds us we are meant to live not just for ourselves, but to contribute to the common good.

We all need reminders that people do good things, and not everyone just thinks about themselves. Amen