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Bible readings:

6 Easter, Year C (May 25, 2014)                                                                  St James', Peace River

I’ve been thinking a lot about “goodbyes” this week, in particular as we sent Sue and Julian on their way to their new home, and many of us were thinking about how much we would miss them, both personally and as part of our St James’ and Peace River communities. The experience of feeling like a big hole has been left in our midst isn’t an unfamiliar one, though we’d have to say that this hole is bigger than most! But that also got me thinking about a pattern in our St James’ and Peace River lives, that I described a number of times to people at the conference I attended out east, the week before last.

Both as a town and as a church, we are a much more transient community than many other places across Canada. The last census showed that half of Peace River had lived here less than five years. So if you’re a veteran of more than five years, you are a relative old-timer! Those of us who have held out that long or longer, have seen many people come and go – and that’s as true in church as it is in our neighbourhoods or workplaces. And since we know that’s how it’s going to be – and many of the people who move here for a short time know it too – there’s a certain choice we have to make. Do you want to invest yourself into building up a community, a life you share with the people around you – knowing that it will constantly have to be renegotiated as some people leave and others arrive; and, even worse, knowing that the more you pour into that life you share, the harder it will be when someone has to move on – whether that’s you, or the people you’ve come to love and depend on?

There’s another question that shows itself, as people move on who are our “elders” in one way or another – people who have been around longer than us, or who have been leaders through their energy or ideas or organizing capability or just because of who they are. You start to wonder, “How are we going to keep this thing going?” And, in particular, you start to realize that others are looking at you and thinking you have the answer to that question! That’s a universal pattern in life as we start to fill the leadership roles our grandparents and parents once occupied, but it’s accelerated when you live in a place where people come and go quickly, and any moment the responsibility for some key element of community life could devolve on you, as unprepared as you might feel.

Thinking about all this, I remembered my own feelings when I was first landed with the job of being a regional dean – bringing together the neighbouring clergy for monthly meetings and mutual support. The dean before me was Ken Burningham, whom some of you may actually remember as he did occasional work in this diocese at the time. He and his wife Betty were wonderful hosts and leaders, creating an atmosphere where the clergy and spouses actually looked forward to coming together, sharing a meal, enjoying each other’s company, and going home with hearts uplifted and energies recharged. Then Ken retired, and it wasn’t until my second or third meeting as dean that I realized all that didn’t just happen! Not only did it take work to organize those gatherings, it also took grace, humility and perseverance to bring even a handful of clergy together in an atmosphere where we could talk about things that mattered and not go home at war with each other - “herding cats”, I believe, is the metaphor most people would use to describe it!

I wonder if something like that thought didn’t go through the minds of Peter, James, and John, when they began to realize what Jesus was saying at the Last Supper – when it started to get through to them that he was telling them he wouldn’t be around much longer, and that the responsibility for keeping his movement and his teaching going would soon rest on them. It was all very well for him to say that they just needed to “keep his commandments”, and that he would ask the Father to send “another Advocate, who will be with you for ever... the Spirit of truth.” But who was going to keep Simon and Thaddaeus from heading off on a crusade against the Romans? And who was going to feed the multitude the next time a crowd of five thousand gathered? And was there ever going to be a crowd like that again, anyway, if the person they really wanted to see was no longer there? Even though Jesus had tried to train them for leadership, I bet they didn’t believe in themselves nearly as much as he believed in them, and they must have wondered what would stop it all falling to pieces in a heartbeat.

Except that, what they had with Jesus genuinely mattered. They knew he was on to something, with his talk of the kingdom of God and what it looked like. His trust in them didn’t just flatter them, it changed them; they knew they were worth more than they’d ever realized. And they could look around at those crowds and see not just the fans of some rock star, but people whose lives were being touched: given hope and healing, or shaken out of their destructive habits. You couldn’t just walk away from all that, let it drop just because you didn’t feel up to the challenge of taking on responsibility. That’s how I felt too, after that third deanery meeting. It was going to be hard, but it was worth doing – it was even worth failing at, if it turned out I didn’t have it in me.

Perhaps that’s the question we face as a church every moment, though we don’t always ask it out loud: Is it worth doing? Is the message of God’s love and forgiveness important enough to keep passing it on? Does this hodgepodge community bring people together in a way that makes us all different, and better than we would otherwise have been? Does our existence mean that some people find hope and healing and repentance, who otherwise wouldn’t have? I think the answer is yes; and I think you think the answer is yes, and that’s why you’re here. And that’s why we keep it at, year in and year out, and it’s why we don’t run away when our time comes to take on responsibility and leadership that we’re not convinced we can handle. Because what is at the heart of this enterprise is something that matters, and so it’s worth doing.

When the first apostles acknowledged and accepted that, and took up Jesus’ mantle and began to speak and act in his name, something extraordinary happened. It didn’t fail. It didn’t fall apart. Crowds still came to hear about the imminent breaking-in of the kingdom of God. People continued to find healing and liberation. Oppressive authorities were challenged. The community of disciples found ways to agree and disagree and share what they needed to share, to test and shape and nurture each other. And when new people came to be part of that community, they came to know Jesus – even though he was no longer, in the most obvious sense, there. They knew him in Scripture, in the breaking of bread, in the life of the Christian community, and in the power he continued to exercise to transform their lives and to revolutionize their world. Those disciples spoke and acted with confidence and boldness, because Jesus’ promise to them was actually coming true: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” As followers, they had to look outside themselves to see Jesus; by taking up leadership in his name, they discovered he was with them after all.

Our story is the same. We are constantly being faced with new challenges, not least of which is finding enough of a belief in ourselves to keep trying. But it actually isn’t our self-belief that we need; it’s Jesus’ belief in us, and in his mission. His project is still going – he still cares, as much as ever, about reaching the lost and lonely; about healing the sick, changing the world-view of the rich, and bringing all the odds and sods into one ragtag community where they can find a home in each other. Each of us has been touched by that project, and it’s worth spending some time to think about how: What is different in your life because of the mission Jesus set in motion so long ago? How have you found a wholeness you never expected? How have you been enticed out of a satisfaction with what you had, into a healthier striving for something beyond you? How have you found your life opened up to others, and so transformed into something quite different from who you thought you were?

Because we are each part of Jesus’ own work, we know it matters, and we know him. We know it’s worth carrying on with his intention and design, in a way which transforms lives like our own. Even if we don’t know how to do that – we know it’s worth doing. And every day that we try – every day that we let ourselves grow a little more committed to our neighbours, and invite them to draw a little closer to knowing who Jesus is for them – we discover a little more that we have not been left on our own. We may wonder where Jesus has gone and what he’s doing leaving us in charge! But the more we accept that challenge, the more we find that he is here, inseparable from us as we are from him, lending us his passion and his confidence. “Because I live, you also will live,” he says, and he is alive in us whenever we live the new kind of life that we have received from him.