When I was a seminary student I took at chaplaincy course at a hospital in Toronto. That was a long time ago. The first day, everyone went around the circle and introduced themselves. The chaplain who was teaching and supervising us went last. He informed us that he was 59 years old. I can remember clearly thinking, “How depressing must it be to be 59 and realize your life is more than half over.”
Well, here I am today. 59 is a receding memory and I realize that my life is well more than half over. I also realize that the ministry I started in 1981 – at least the part of it with a pay cheque attached – is also almost over.
And, that the church into which I was ordained almost four decades ago has changed beyond recognition. One manifestation of that change is that Presbyteries, which in a lot of ways were the glue that held this widely flung church together since 1925, are soon to be no more.
It’s a symptom of our time. We no longer have the resources or the people to keep the kind of multi-leveled governance structure that defined our church for so long going. It points to a church that is diminished, more fragile and vulnerable. We might have restructured 30 years ago when our hand was not forced. But such is human nature that we often don’t change until our backs are against the wall.
I’ve done my share of complaining about Presbytery over the years. But – and there was a time I could not have imagined saying this – I’m going to miss it. My work as Presbytery Support Minister has given me an insight into the value of this much maligned dimension of the church’s existence.
For me personally, it was a godsend. In 2014, I left my last congregation after a conflict that I tried unsuccessfully to manage finally got the better of me. I had begun to doubt my effectiveness as a minister and knew that if I didn’t get out I would be no good to anybody. One Sunday night I called Greg Smith-Young and said, “Buddy, you got any interim appointments up your way? I’m going to need something.” “I don’t know about that,” he said, “But there’s this full time position the Presbytery has just created. I think the application deadline is tomorrow.”
And so here I am. People often tell me they appreciate my work. What you may not know is the role that Waterloo Presbytery has played in my own personal healing, and in the recovery of my confidence in my vocation. So thank you.
But this work has also made me aware of how, with a little support and some consistent attention, even struggling congregations can be very resilient. It’s been a joy to me to see small bands of faithful people recover a sense of hope and confidence in their future.
And, I’ve become aware of just how important the community and collegiality of Presbytery is to many of you, both lay and ordered alike. In the past, I was puzzled by the “Presbytery junkies.” You know who you are, you people who just can’t get enough of Presbytery. There was a time when I thought, “It’s my job to go to Presbytery. You mean there are people who do it because they want to.” I’ve grown to admire your dedication – you Presbytery junkies.
So, for me and probably for many of you, this is kind of sad time. It’s not just that something familiar is ending, but we recognize it as part of the move of the church from the respected centre of our culture to the fringes where most people barely notice us.
That’s why I chose Romans 8 for my Scripture text this afternoon. I think more than any other passage in the New Testament, this text reminds us of why we are here.
Someone once asked Lesslie Newbigin, that giant in the ecumenical movement of the last century, whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the church. “I believe Jesus Christ is risen from the dead,” Newbigin replied. “Optimism or pessimism has nothing to do with it.”
Jesus is risen. Regardless of whether the church is thriving or struggling, Jesus is risen. That’s all we need to know. And that’s all we need.
My guess is that Romans chapter 8 was written on Lesslie Newbigin’s heart. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful and compelling theological vision than these words of St. Paul which sit like an anchor in the middle of his greatest letter. Paul reminds us that, no matter what is happening around us, no matter how our fortunes may be rising or falling, God has a plan – a plan to restore the whole of creation – not just to take individuals to heaven when they die but to redeem the entire cosmos.
And so, no matter what, we live in hope. Hope, Paul says, is by definition something we cannot see. “Who hopes for what he or she already has.” No, we live in hope for what we do not see and, truth be told, what we cannot possibly see hidden in our present reality.
In our weakness, God out of love sustains us God’s Spirit. Which is a good thing, because without the Spirit we are pretty hopeless cases. For heaven’s sake, Paul says, we do not even know how to pray – ever felt like that? Ever felt that our empty, banal words are an offense in the face of the suffering and need that surrounds us on all sides? Well, you’re in good company. The Apostle Paul went through the same thing. But no worries, Paul says. God’s mercy is so great that, when our prayers fail, the Spirit even prays for us with sighs too deep for words.
“We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” This doesn’t mean that the faithful are protected from harm or that all they do always prospers. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Faithfulness to God more often leads to suffering and disappointment and heartache. But we live in the conviction that our faithfulness will not fall to the ground – that in ways we will never know, our faithfulness contributes in the furtherance of God’s purposes. I hope you who feel tired and discouraged and wonder what you could possibly do that will make any difference will hold these words close to your heart.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” In the end, says St. Paul, there is this. And it is on this that we build our lives. Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8 is a text most often heard at funerals. And there’s a good reason for it. It is about hope in the face of death, whether it’s our death, or the death of something we have loved and cherished.
I’m reminded of another great saint of the church who has given us some cues in how to prepare for the coming death of something many of us have given much of ourselves to. Eugene Peterson died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 85, in hospice, of complications of dementia and heart disease. I will bet that almost everyone here has been touched by Eugene Peterson, whether you know it or not -- through a reference your minister made to one of his many books in a sermon; or a passage read from the translation of the Bible known as The Message, which Eugene Peterson wrote. Peterson was an enormous influence on me and many pastors. Peterson understood the Gospel. And he understood that chipped and broken clay vessel called the church into which God, for reasons that often escape us, has placed that Gospel. He was a man of deep faith and humility, a teacher, preacher and pastor who has enriched the church immeasurably. His writings taught many of us a long obedience in the same direction.
Eugene Peterson was a Presbyterian minister and taught at Regent College in Vancouver, but he was raised in the Pentecostal church. Here’s what his family said about his dying “During the previous days it was apparent that he was navigating the thin and sacred space between heaven and earth. We overheard him speaking to people we can only presume were welcoming him into paradise. There may have even been a time or two when he accessed his Pentecostal roots and spoke in tongues as well.
Eugene Peterson wrote in 2012: “Resurrection does not have to do exclusively with what happens after we are buried or cremated. It does have to do with that, but first of all it has to do with the way we live right now,” “But as Karl Barth, quoting Nietzsche, pithily reminds us: ‘Only where graves are is there resurrection.’ We practice our death by giving up our will to live on our own terms. Only in that relinquishment or renunciation are we able to practice resurrection.”
Among Eugene Peterson’s final words were, ‘Let’s go.’”
And I think those are fitting words for us at this transitional moment in our history as a church. We know that things are not what they used to be. We know that the future is uncertain. But Christ is risen. And we are people of the resurrection.
So, let’s go.