Office & delivery address: 165 Avenue Road, Unit 402, Toronto ON, M5R 3S4
Weekly Sunday Services on Zoom and in person at 10:30am at 729 St. Clair Ave. W
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Many of you know that before I came to work at Bloor Street United Church, I worked for 16 years at a church in Halifax called St. Andrew’s United Church. Near the beginning of my time there, that church went through an adaptive conversation and a re-missioning process similar to the one Bloor Street is going through this year, and one thing you can’t do when you go into an adaptive conversation is predetermine the outcome.
So, just as an aside Bloor Streeters, this is not my way of telling you where we should be at when we come out of the adaptive conversation, because you can’t predetermine.
And what was really surprising for the folks at St. Andrew’s United Church in Halifax, was that when they came out of their adaptive conversation, they felt a deep call into deep relationship with people unlike themselves.
Organically, relationships with a Buddhist community and Indigenous communities, and an African Baptist church started to grow. There already was quite a ministry on Sunday nights, in which 250 poor and homeless people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, were fed.
Then a relationship developed with an NGO called Phoenix Youth that served street kids, and one or two nights a week there were programs happening at St. Andrews with youth at risk, and street kids, choir programs, meals… the mission of that church grew to offer 15,000 free meals every year. And then an interesting thing happened in the summer of 2014.
I was just about to go on vacation when the treasurer, and one other person from the Finance Committee at St. Andrews, asked if they could meet with me. So, we met in my office and they said, “Russ, we hate to tell you this but we think there’s a fairly sizable fraud happening at St Andrews. We’ve identified at least $37,000 that’s gone the wrong way.” Over the coming months, it was revealed that our church administrator who’d been with us for four years, had been stealing about $100,000 a year, and there was a $420,000 fraud. She was later convicted and served time.
I said, “Well, should I not go on vacation?”, and they said, “We think you should take vacation because you’re going to need it – you’re going to need to fill your batteries.”
My first Sunday of vacation, that evening I was sitting at home and I remember very clearly I was sipping a little bit of tequila and lime and I got a phone call, “Russ, the church is on fire!” And I thought, oh no, Sunday evenings is when we feed the homeless folks. I thought somebody stayed behind or the people doing security missed it, and one of the homeless folks set fire to the building. Turns out, I was relieved but disconcerted to find out that the fire had begun in the two rooms where the financial records had been kept, so, you can draw conclusions. Nobody was ever convicted of the arson. The fire grew to be an $800,000 fire that left the entire building unusable for almost six months.
We had to start meeting as a church council. Then we had to meet with the congregation and let them know what was happening. And you could tell
this congregation, that for nine years had been opening up into mission and ease of partnership, was getting tight. And it was getting tight about money, especially because a lot of money had disappeared, and it was going to be an expensive repair.
So, when representatives of the council and the staff met for the first time with the insurance company, and the company that had been hired to restore the building, we were asked by the company restoring the building, “We’re assuming you want the sanctuary restored first?” I assumed that the leadership of the church would say yes, we have to get people back in the sanctuary, we have to start passing the collection plate.
Oh ye of little faith.
The person responsible for finances looked and said, “No. We can worship in the hall but we can’t feed people in the hall.” And at that moment, this nightmare became what my mentor calls a wonderful experience, except at the time.
The faith community, with remarkable faithfulness, came together and did the work of reestablishing the building, and getting the Sunday suppers back, and getting Phoenix Youth back in, offering the kitchen in the hall to the many refugee programs and immigrant groups that held their fundraisers there. But what changed, was that when those groups came back, they came back with such gratitude for the choices we had made that some of them started to join the congregation and St. Andrew’s United Church just became a more diverse community as a result. And there was such joy in new relationship that it transformed the whole congregation.
The other thing that happened was, as often happens in a crisis, people stepped up. And so, the lay leadership and the givings just rose, as though on a tide.
And the drift that St. Andrews had been on – the direction of growing into relationship with an ever more diverse web of communities accelerated.
And in the coming years, a charismatic church, that was made up 100% of people from Africa and the Caribbean, moved in with us.
In the coming years, with Indigenous people and Buddhists and African Nova Scotians, we started leadership programs for those from siloed communities – I’ve talked about those in worship before.
And then, Covid hit and Covid was bigger than the fire and the fraud combined.
For me, I think that story informs today’s parable in two ways: did you notice what happens when the shepherd finds the lost sheep? He invites his friends to celebrate.
What’s going to happen? They’re probably going to kill a sheep, or they’re going to have some kind of food, and it’s going to cost.
So, this is not a parable about economic recovery. It’s a parable about community. It’s a parable about people coming together. And the currency in this parable is not an economic one, it’s the currency of joy and joy and relationship.
And the same thing with the woman who has lost a coin – what’s her impulse? To invest it? To say, I have to find a better place to keep my money? No, her impulse is to call her friends together, which is going to cost her at least a coin.
So again, the currency in this parable is not an economic one, it’s the currency of joy, and it’s the currency of community. And there is something special about the joy and the community that happens on the heels of loss. I think both the shepherd, and the woman would say this was a wonderful experience, except at the time.
Let’s do a sidebar about sin, because sin has been laid on those of us in the western Christianity – I guess all of Christianity – so heavily, for so long that we’ve come to identify sin with sins.
What you do. What you think. Whom you love. The way your body has touched other bodies, or what you’ve said. I think that we have to understand sin not as actions primarily, or even the results of actions primarily, except in that sin is about a rupturing of relationship. And when we rupture our relationship with each other, we rupture our relationship with God.
The word origin of sin is ‘missing the mark’, in other words, missing the connection with God. And in this context, I think one line of what Diane was just singing stands out: we give our hearts so easily to the rulers of this world. That’s what sin was in that context, Jesus was trying to form an anti-Imperial community that was based on mutuality, and support and love, and did not buy into the power relationships and the economic predation of the Roman Empire. Sin was the lost sheep or the lost coin that was seduced into believing the theology of empire and abandoning the community as Judas did – the community of Christ – for the world of empire. That’s what sin was.
So why is there more joy in heaven when one lost sinner is found?
It’s the restoration of community; when the person who’s been seduced away into the values of empire, resulting in broken relationship, is brought back in.
What do you do? Do you punish that person? Do you put them on membership probation? Do you inform the ministry and personnel committee? Do you call in Presbytery? Do you call in the national office’s human rights officer? No! You celebrate! You restore humanity through celebration, through the sharing of food.
So here we are friends. A lot has been lost in this pandemic. A lot of relationships have been strained and separated, and a lot of decisions made based on fear.
Fear and carefulness are not the same thing. I don’t want to go through a long analysis of what our coins and our sheep are. I just want to say, I think for Bloor Street, you folks at St. Matt’s are our coins and our sheep.
And we take joy and in relationship with you, and it feels like home to come back here and worship with you. And I hope that for you folks at St. Matt’s that Bloor Streeters feel like the coins and the sheep, and that we can look at each other at this barbeque [today after worship] and in the year to come and we can say to each other, maybe this pandemic was a wonderful experience, except at the time for these two congregations, and we take joy in you. And let’s have a party.
Now you’re going to hear in moments of awe, about some special joy, as some folks are being drawn into this heart of this community through a family reunification of folks from far away, and that’s a very joyous moment!
So, friends get out the ketchup and the mustard – y’all are Methodists at St. Matt’s, so we’re not getting out the wine, at least not here – but let’s have a party!