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Buoyed by Hope

I wrote this sermon on top of a mountain, which seemed appropriate, all things considered. 

I wrote this sermon on top of a mountain, my back to the room, staring out my office window at the sunshine over the forest, clouds in the distance, birds flocking and murmuring, although no visit from the Northern Flicker who often joins me on writing days. 

Staring out my office window is good for me in a lot of ways, not least because it allows me to ignore the piles of paper collected on the floor, the piles that every Thursday I insist I will clean up over the weekend, but then walk out, close the door, and forget it’s there. Until I walk back in on Tuesday morning to discover that the room has not magically cleaned itself. The cycle repeats. 

In between Thursday and Tuesday, I’m usually able to forget about the mundane. There are the Saturdays when I’m up skiing with my kids. Those days when they show me some new run that scares the life out of me, those times we have to chat on the chair lift. 

And there are the Sundays when we join together with all Creation in manifold witness to God’s great faithfulness. Sundays like this one when we come together as community to worship God and to practice the ways in which God calls us to live—as those who, like Jesus, give of themselves for the life of the world. That’s why we’re here—not simply to have a nice time and to do particular rituals, but to be nourished in silence and stillness, scripture, prayer, and song, in community and hospitality, so that we might be transformed more into Christ’s likeness, more into Christ’s body, and live that way not just for a brief hour, but in our daily lives. 

Earlier this  week, on Wednesday, Gillian and Ieuan Gilmore came in from Nelson. Along with Fr John Ruder, we celebrated the Eucharist. It was their first time in three years. And it was a beautiful moment that we shared in God’s presence. Gillian said as we were closing, “this time together was a mountaintop experience for me.” 

In today’s gospel, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John on a mystical backcountry ski trip. Here they thought they were just going for a jaunt at Zincton, everybody in their touring gear,  but when they get to the top, things are a bit different than they expected. They’re all a bit sweaty, but Jesus is starting to glow more than seems reasonable. He’s shimmering. And then, right before their eyes, Moses and Elijah are there, no backpacks, no skis. Just there. Nobody told them there was a conference for the prophets this weekend. And yet here they are. 

Do you remember what Peter says? “Lord, It is good for us to be here.” It’s good for us to be here.

And indeed it is. It is good for us to be here with one another. With Jesus and the prophets, the heavens aglow, mystery abounding, and the invitation to be transformed by indescribable encounter.

Each of us, I suspect, have had such encounters with God. Perhaps it was on a mountain. Perhaps in this community. In this building, even. Or the one up the road in New Denver. 

Pausing in this moment, perhaps you can think of moments when the Spirit was thick, and you felt God’s presence close at hand. Maybe it was something about the music. Or the liturgy that week. Perhaps you came in yearning to experience God’s presence, or you were moved by the prayers that were offered or the silence that permeated the space. Maybe you came in angry and skeptical, but God met you there anyway. Or maybe you’ve felt that connection to God with a coffee in the still of the morning or hands deep in the soil of your garden. This deep abiding awareness that God is Here. 

In our lives and in our community, we cultivate these spaces, we cultivate lives of worship and prayer, expecting that God will show up. We gather together in worship and prayer, cultivating rhythms of openness to the spirit, that we might listen and be moved. And then—at least for me—when God does show up, I find myself blindsided. Disoriented. Confused. Like Peter, James, and John. 

I pray in searching and yearning for God to show up, to intervene in my life, in the life of my community, the lives of my friends who are suffering. For a parking spot to open up, for miraculous healing to take place. And sometimes I don’t see what I want to see. At very least, God doesn’t seem to care where I park. And yet, there have been times, often vulnerable and exhausted times, times when I don’t know where to go or what to do next. When I can rely no longer on my own understanding, on going it alone, when I feel desperate to know the next faithful step. That seems to be when I am most open to listening for the God who still speaks to us today. 

There are times when God shows up, when I’m brought to tears, overwhelmed in the moment, and I find myself with Peter saying “It’s Good for us to be here,” 

And I want to preserve that moment in time. So that the feeling will never pass. 

And there are other tiems like Jacob waking up from a dream, I realise, ““Surely God was in this place, and I didn’t know it.” And so I place a monument, a signpost, and from time to time, I look back and remember that moment, and other moments like it, of deep encounter with the living God. 

I’ve been thinking about this gospel text a lot lately, as it relates to the places where we meet. Our ancestors came to this land—for a variety of reasons—and over time, after meeting in homes and barns and community halls, said “let’s put a space aside where we can gather and remember that God is here.” Let us put a space aside that we can point to, and say that God is with us, and we can meet with God over there. In this community. With these people. In this building. It’s an impulse as old as time. 

And it’s a good idea, isn’t it? Knowing where we can go to be together, to meet with God in community. A sort of training ground for the Christian life. A place where we become accustomed to opening ourselves to the Holy. And we have used these spaces to invite others in, to offer hospitality to the broader community, all in the name of the God who welcomes one and all, the God who draws the circle wide, that all may come to know that they too are beloved of the Creator.

And when the buildings were built, and the community gathered, it seemed as though nobody had to invite or tell the others. They just showed up. It was the air we breathed. The water we swam in. We knew that to meet with God was to come together in one place as a community, to this place set apart. The building was a visible sign. People would look and say “that….that’s a place where encounters with God happen.” 

But also, it was a place where people met their closest friends, their partners, even. Business was done in coffee hour after the service, or in notes passed during the minister’s long-winded sermon. 

For many, church was not just A social circle, it was THE circle.

And so we built these buildings for people to gather in God’s name, and to share this space in God’s name. They reminded us and gave a focal point to the Holy in our community. That reminder of God’s love, a love that does not turn its back, that will not turn its back, come what may. 

These past few years we’ve had to contend with a lot of building issues in our parish. Leaks and roofs and chimney fires and doors and windows and septic systems. For a period of years, we did not gather in the church buildings, discovering during our COVID pilgrimage that while it wasn’t ideal, we could still worship God elsewhere. We could still care for our neighbour. We met on zoom for worship and prayer. We met in parks and on the church grounds. When we did move back inside, we continued to mask, even though it was strange, wanting to do our best to keep each other safe. There’s been a lot to deal with these past years. 

In some ways, we cannot tell what the future holds. And some days, it seems, we are waiting for others to tell us what to do. I’ve heard more than once someone ask “When is the Bishop going to tell us what we should do?” And I’ve heard the Bishop say more than once as we’ve met to talk about ministry in the West Kootenays, “I’m not going to tell you what to do.” And so we’ve gathered, and prayed and sought what’s best. And in the seasons ahead, we will continue this as a whole community. 

Throughout the seasons of Lent and Easter, such prayerful discernment will become our focus.

Meeting with the Liturgy Guild a month ago, we reflected on the liturgies of the past seasons, especially our advent prayer practice here in Castlegar of writing prayers on stars. People reflected back that over the course of those weeks, this practice had become meaningful as we saw the shimmering effect of our prayers lightning up the space. As we reflected further, we asked questions like, “how can our ways of gathering help us to listen more deeply for what God is calling us into?” 

And so, throughout the coming season, we have selected music and crafted liturgy that will help us to listen. We will take on intentional prayer practices during the service that help us to focus our thoughts, and to share them—as we are able—with other members of the community. Throughout this coming season of prayer and fasting, each of us will be invited to pay attention to what God is calling us into—as individuals and as a community—to offer these things to God in prayer, and as gifts to our collective discernment. 

Another decision we made together was to re-organize the worship space in Castlegar throughout Lent and Easter as a way of retraining our focus. With the altar in the centre, and the pews arranged in choir on either side, we will create a different kind of space. A space allowing us to see and hear one another, even as the altar remains the focal point of our gathering. In Lent, we walk with Jesus and one another on his journey towards the cross, and in Easter, we walk together with him into the way of new life. As we reconfigure the space, we are seeking to be transformed by the one who lies at the centre of our faith.

This transformation of the space will also bring into worship something familiar to those who used to gather at 8am—offering Communion one to another around the circle. 

For some of us, this shift will be disorienting at first. And yet our hope and prayer is that as we open ourselves to this change, and as we deepen our practice of communal discernment and prayer, we will open ourselves to seeing not only ourselves, but also our sense of ministry and call in a new way. It is ours. It is shared. And it ripples forth from God’s table at the centre. As a community, we enter this season with intention, seeking to listen deeply for God’s whisper of hope. 

Throughout Lent, our Wednesday mid-day prayer services will add ann in-person option to the service that is already online. We will come together in this space to read scripture, to listen in silence, and to offer our prayers of intercession and thanksgiving for our parish community and on behalf of our neighbours, beginning with our service on Ash Wednesday. We will also offer Ashes to Go on Wednesday night for those unable to make our noon service.

Discernment remains a theme for St. Stephen’s, as well. Much of this conversation was brought on by an inspection of the state of the vicarage. But at the heart of the conversation, one that we began in earnest in November, is this: what is our vision for ministry in New Denver? How are we reaching out to share the love of Jesus with our neighbours, and what is essential to do that? 

Estimates for the repair of the vicarage came in just the other week at around $150K, which is more money than is currently in the bank. We have put forward a proposal to the Diocesan Admin & Finance committee to fund this repair, awaiting an answer. 

And yet, no matter what the Committee says, we find ourselves in a place to ask what is the present and future ministry of St. Stephen’s. What is God calling us into? How are we being called to embody and to speak Good News in this community? And, what do we have the energy to do at this time? 

Vicarage aside, how might we focus our energy on sharing God’s love with those who we meet? This has brought forward many important, and yet challenging questions. Do we need the present building to do that? Is it possible to share space with another community? Ought we to consider meeting to worship in someone’s home like the church in Fruitvale? What can we do to reduce the pressure on the local community, while helping us to focus on worship and study and outreach? 

We don’t yet know these answers, which is why we will continue to meet and to pray and to discern and make decisions together.  

Over the course of the last year members of our parish—Art Lane, Chris Hildebrand, Chris D’Arcy, Lorraine Deans and me—have been meeting with our counterparts from Trail and Nelson and Grand Forks and Creston. The goal here, has been to discern a pathway forward together in the region. Through this work of discernment, it has become clear that there is a  natural link between the congregations in Castlegar and Trail. We have relationships, for one, but also, we regularly visit one another’s communities. And, we used to be a part of a regional ministry together. 

As we enter into this coming year, we are forming a small working group made up of members from this parish and Trail to ask the question “how might we work together to deepen ministry through partnership?” The group will be tasked with determining the areas that we wish to minister together—whether Christian Education, Worship, Communications, Community Events, Retreats, Outreach, Pastoral Care, or Evangelism. Our communities are already connected in so many ways, and this just makes sense. 

As an early experiment, and as a part of this discernment, we are going to take this step liturgically for Holy Week. While we haven’t yet finalized details, we have talked about marking Palm Sunday here, Maundy Thursday in Trail, Good Friday here, and a joyous Easter celebration in Trail. This year, the second Sunday of April is Easter, and so we will also discern with the New Denver community how to mark Resurrection Sunday there. 

Looking further into the future, we know that Rev. Neil’s last Sunday before his retirement is Pentecost—May 28th—and so we will gather in Trail for worship that day as we say goodbye to Neil and Lesley, giving thanks for their ministry amongst us in this region for the last eighteen years. More details of this will come in the days ahead.  

When Peter, James, and John went with Jesus up the mountain, I am certain they were tired. If they weren’t tired from ministry before, surely the work of climbing up the mountain did them in. The ministry we are all engaged in can be tiring. But energizing also. And there are times, plenty of times, when God shows up in surprise and mystery to energize us for whatever lies ahead. For these things we give thanks. 

As I look ahead to this next year, I am buoyed with hope. I am buoyed with hope because I know that God goes with us. Yes, we have challenges to face. Yes, we have decisions to make. And yet, we are God’s beloved people, and in the midst of all that is taking place, we ought not forget this. You are God’s beloved. And we together, are invited to go and tell the others that they are loved too. 

When I gathered earlier this week with Gillian and Ian and John, we reflected on this week’s gospel text together. Each person, after taking a moment to think, shared their own thoughts on the gospel. One person reflected how Peter, in wanting to build those booths for Moses and Elijah, had done a good thing—but perhaps not the best thing. 

Peter wanted to remember this moment. To preserve it. But for Jesus, this moment deserves a signpost, not a building. There is only so long we can stay in one place, he seems to be saying. Jesus is always on the move, and we are called to be part of that movement. 

May it be so for us.