There is a thirty year old story that has been shared with me by multiple sources about an Anglican Church in downtown Toronto that was about to receive their new Rector. This former church of the establishment had fallen on hard times, you might even suggest these were the wilderness years in the parish. But their search committee had selected a new Rector and the church had high hopes that at long last the Spirit would return to the congregation.
The search committee had been bold. They had selected the parish’s first woman Rector and thirty years ago that was considered a revolutionary move. This new rector was due to begin her ministry on Christmas Eve, she would meet her flock on the most well attended service of the year. The anticipation and excitement at the church was electric, everybody showed up, and many came early. On this cool evening as parishioners climbed the steps to the front doors of the church they passed by a small woman dressed in rough clothes who called out, “It’s Christmas, I’m lonely, please sit and talk with me for a while?” Some smiled and told her they were busy but wished her a Merry Christmas but most hustled by without a glance. The woman on the steps did not ask for money, she was not demanding, her tone was measured and warm, “It’s Christmas, I’m lonely, please sit and talk with me for a while.”
As the service began a Parish Warden stood before the congregation and led them through the Prayer Book liturgy. You could hear the murmurs, “Where is the Rector?” “Why isn’t she here?” This continued until the Eucharist was about to be celebrated. As the hymn was being sung and the elements were being prepared the small woman in rough clothing walked up the centre aisle to the Altar. In the last verse of the hymn she dressed herself with vestments over her rough clothing and stood behind the Altar and began the Eucharistic Prayer.
Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota writes of our Gospel text this morning:
Mark asks us to view God's good news in a different way. We find God's good news not in Jerusalem but in the in the wilderness where the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to meet John the Baptist. God goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be. We find ourselves not in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem but outside of her city walls, in the margins, on the sidelines. The good news of God brings hope to those who find themselves in the peripheries of our world, but it also belongs there. God's good news of grace announces God's presence on the fringe, God's love that goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be, and God's promise that there is no place on earth God will not go or be for us.
Jesus carried out his earthly ministry by going to rich and poor and telling each Good News. To the woman who was bleeding he touched and healed her. To the man who had been begging he said, “Take up your mat and walk.” To the woman at the well who was a Samaritan and had been married many times Jesus explained that he knew her past and the differences between them but wanted to give her “living water”. As soon as she drank it she knew he was her Saviour. Jesus also saw a rich tax collector up in the tree and went to his home, this connection changed the tax collector’s life as he immediately became more generous.
Jesus did not come in a palace or appear exclusively to the powerful, nor did he carry out his ministry in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Jesus made a way where there was no way. And John the Baptist came to announce this ministry was coming.
I remember a conversation I had with an Elder in a previous church about the men’s service organization this man served as a leader. I asked him why he enjoyed the service in this group. He responded, “Because we take good men and make them better.” That has always struck me as real mission of the church over the last several hundred years, “To take good people and make them better.” That was certainly the theme of services I remember from the church in my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. The church attracted people who were living by the rules of our time, doing reasonably well and encouraged them, us, to do even better.
There were many positive outcomes of this approach. It created a warm and supportive community for Christians to rely on and be inspired by. Many of us have great memories of that model of church, it is likely why we are here today. The downside of this approach was this; the folks whom Jesus spent much of his time with, the places Jesus spent much of his time visiting, were largely absent from this model of church.
When my mentor, the now 90 year old retired United Church minister Nathan Mair was studying at Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown he went to the large church in the downtown where the establishment came to worship. As a poor student from a small town the only place he felt he belonged in that church was the balcony. There with him in the balcony were others who did not feel like they belonged down below.
And here’s the interesting thing I have observed in my 28 years as an ordained minister, the good middle-class people like me who want to be better have stopped coming to church. But those who used to sit in the balconies, who were rarely noticed in our churches, they are still coming and they are now assuming more leadership roles in the church. Of all the years I have served as a minister the single largest increase in attendance occurred the year a low-income apartment building opened next the church. Many were persons 55 years and older who were on a disability pensions and could only afford to live in that building. They were lonely and started, one by one, to come to the church, join the choir, attend Bible Study.
I tried in vain to convince the Nominating Committee to appoint some of these new persons to leadership positions in the church. At coffee hour the people who had been attending the church for years had difficulty making conversation with these new members. The model of church then was still to attract people who looked and sounded like the people who were already in the church. It was nice to have more bodies in the pews but when it came to leadership and making new friends that was a harder sell.
I am convinced that issue would be easier to resolve today. Necessity makes virtue less challenging. With fewer people and more persons who previously sat on the margins of the church community assuming more leadership roles what we think of as “good Christian woman and men” has evolved. But there is still much work to be done.
Advent is a season of preparation and getting ready for the celebration of a birth that would remind us “God is with us” Emmanuel. I know you come here every Sunday looking for a connection with our God, hoping God will touch you, know you, and perhaps heal you, even save you. I pray that will be so. But know that God comes to us outside the walls of our established churches too, and many times I believe God goes to the wilderness places quite intentionally.
When I first came to Bethany I put a sermon title on our large outdoor sign that read, “Looking for Jesus, he is on the #15 bus.” I received a lot of email and letters asking how this could be true. If Jesus were among us why would he ride the #15 bus? My answer to those inquiries was this, if John the Baptist came dressed as oddly as he did, in the wilderness, if Jesus came to a manger and was raised in the most ridiculed town in the middle east, Nazareth, if Jesus ate with the outcasts and told people that if they were looking for God they should know the story of the Samaritan who helped the Jew, then why wouldn’t Jesus come to ride the #15 bus.
Look where you normally would not expect to find Jesus. And find church where you would not normally expect to meet your new best friend. God will surprise you. Amen.