It all started with a PBS documentary on the life of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Then on a trip to Chicago with an old friend we walked the streets of the windy city with the aid of an architecture student, telling us about the various architects who had participated in rebuilding the downtown after the city’s great fire. I’ve since watched extensive interviews with famous architects and two films about architects; Sketches of Frank Gehry where Gehry credits his long time therapist with his creative work and My Architect that shares the search by a son for the presence of his famous father Louis Kahn in the buildings Kahn’s designed. I have become an avid fan of architecture, how buildings are designed, most importantly how the architect imprints a sense of purpose into the structure s/he creates.
A few years ago I was sharing this new passion for architecture at Brunswick Street United Church. I could tell Jim Sykes was keen to talk to me after service. Jim worked at Dalhousie University for many, many years. Jim also designed the building we know as Brunswick Street United Church. Jim asked if I would like to see the designs he drew up for the church after its fire in 1979. I was eager to see not only the designs that had not been chosen but most importantly what Jim was thinking as he put his vision on paper.
Ever since Bethany United Church began to imagine what we might need from our building, what parts of this building we consider essential to our identity and mission, and of course, what we can afford, there has not been as much conversation about what this building; status quo, partial renovation, partnership with development, and selling and moving to another area, would say about who we are, what kind of a faith community we’ve become and are becoming. When I looked at the Epistle lesson for today I was struck by its clarity on mission for the church, what the Apostle Paul had to say about what church is and how a church lives out its mission.
Paul did not talk about architecture. The early church were worshipping in people’s homes so the design of the building was a lot less important to them than to us who only know church as a static and institutional entity. There may be some here who have experienced church as a place on the move, worshipping in people’s homes, in school gyms, store fronts, but I hunch most of us only know church as a building set aside for worship with all the symbols we and our ancestors knew so well.
For Jim in the early 1980’s his challenge was to recreate a church building out of the ashes of a true beauty of the institutional church model. Everyone then remembered the majesty that was the Methodist cathedral of Brunswick Street. What most of us do not remember is that the wealthy and powerful of Halifax at one time populated the area where the church now rests. But by the time of the fire all that had changed, that part of the city became the place many of Halifax’s poorest residents lived. The church was also shrinking in attendance rapidly. More and more the time of the Minister and staff of the church was being taken up with the social needs of the community, the spiritual identity of the church was to support the social needs of the people.
Jim designed the church with a very specific Christian character; the cross was outside and inside the building. But he also made the new church more accessible in every way, less imposing and intimidating, more house-like, more accommodating to purposes other than church (the chairs and all the Sacramental and liturgical hardware could be easily moved) and creating a large kitchen and dining area that we have come to know as the place the community eats breakfast Monday-Saturday each week.
As the Apostle Paul writes to the community of Corinth he is dealing with the question of identity, who is the church and what makes the church a church? He answers this question in four parts. Within this text this morning we hear words of welcome, words of personal morality, words of communal responsibility to counter run-away individualism, and words of spiritual empowerment. Having visited with 65% of the congregation I can say that almost all of you could and would find one or more of these words shared by Paul to be very, very meaningful. Bethany includes seekers who find Christ in the touch of hospitality, others who find Christ in acts of devotion often call personal piety, others who find Christ in the community (inside and outside the church walls) and still others who find Christ in the experience of identifying and liberating the spiritual gifts that each of us possesses.
Paul is writing to a Corinthian church in some tension. He speaks all four of these words to them confident that one or more of them will remind this church of why it was created in the first place. For those needing the touch of welcome Paul addresses them as “Sisters and brothers”, a remarkably intimate and familiar tone and wording. In those times your heritage and birthright defined your identity. Here Paul tells those seeking to belong that there is a place for them. For those needing the touch of personal piety Paul reminds the Corinthians that they remain “people of the flesh”. Those who need inner transformation in the form of personal piety find these words essential to their understanding of transformation, becoming a new creation in Christ. For those needing the touch of community Paul says, “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose…for we are God’s servants, working together.” In what has become a church where members are working at cross purposes without a common vision Paul reminds people that the difference in gifts are meant for a common purpose, that we must learn to work together in the spirit of community. And finally for those needing the touch of gift empowerment there are these words from Paul, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Our role in the church is to be in community so as to empower the gifts that are like seeds in each of us, the Spirit being the water that takes our gift and brings it to its full potential.
So how about you? When you come to this place of worship, this community of faith, this gathering of the saints, are you looking to be touched by hospitality, are you in need of tools to live out an authentic life of devotion, are you looking to be part of a dynamic Spirit-led community, are you wanting to be part of a small group that names and nourishes the spiritual gifts that wait to come to life amongst us?
In October of 2016 60 of us gathered on a Saturday afternoon to explore who we were as a faith community and what mission God was calling us to live out. Cheri and Ann gave us the spiritual discernment process to find these answers and Dave Reid nourished our bodies with good food but it was the Holy Spirit that provided the evidence that God is alive amongst us. Here is a summary of what we learned; there is a passion to engage youth, seniors and immigrants in our community and we feel we have assets to make these connections in the form of providing an open café, a regular speaker series, some skills development, exercise of body and spirit, and healthy food and conversation to nourish souls and bodies.
One of the things I want us to avoid is the trap many churches fall into when they examine their call to mission. All too often churches engage a paid facilitator, in part to contract out some of the discernment they find so daunting themselves. On top of that the exercise becomes more about the envy of what other “successful” churches are doing than what we with our particular, organic, gifts can bring to mission. And finally, there is a way in which the act of producing this report becomes the fantasy that the work itself as been done. “Oh look at us, we have a program church, look at our programs”, when in fact the programs never come to be since they were not created from the assets the church holds but rather from assets other churches have that we wish we had. My friends, there is a reason the Apostle Paul writes to each and every faith community differently, critiques and praises each of them differently, and envisions a future for each of them differently.
So we are coming to a place where we will need to decide in rather broad strokes where we will do our exploring in creating a space that meets our mission, a mission formed from an intersection of needs and assets. Whether we choose the status quo, a partial replacement, a partnership with development, or a sale of this building and a move to another location, we will take with us our unique identity, formed in large part by our collective needs to hear words of hospitality, personal devotion, community life and spiritual discernment and growth. What space is required to accommodate these needs that take root here at Bethany in reaching out to youth, seniors (which we already do and do well) and immigrants (a new mission for us)? The Spirit will lead us. Let us listen and listen carefully. Amen.