Text: John 1:1-18 (“In the beginning . . . “)
Have you noticed how often I talk about anniversaries? Christmas Eve is an example. In 2014, my Christmas Eve reflection was about the centennial of an informal truce in Europe on December 25, 1914. Ten days ago, my 2015 Christmas Eve reflection was about the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the release of the film version of “The Sound of Music.”
In 2015, I preached on the centennial of the publication of the poem “In Flanders Fields,” the 50th anniversary of the Maple Leaf as Canada’s flag, and the 90th anniversary of the founding of the United Church of Canada.
In Saskatchewan in 2013, I preached on the 50th anniversary both of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington D.C and of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In 2009 when I was a student minister in Didsbury, I gave a presentation on the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” by Charles Darwin.
This morning marks another anniversary for me. It was two years ago today that I first preached here, and my reflection that day was about the same passage from the Gospel of John we just heard — “In the beginning was the Word.”
My attraction to anniversaries seems to be related to a desire to figure out what is going on. What happened in the past? And what does this tell us about what is possible and not possible in the present and the near future?
This week marks another anniversary — the beginning of the 40th year of Mill Woods as an official pastoral charge within the United Church of Canada. Last year when Janice was refreshing the church website, she added a bit to a “History” page. It now says that “Mill Woods United Church began meeting in Grace Martin School in 1974 and was officially constituted in 1976” — in November of 1976, I believe.
Forty years isn’t the most significant anniversary, but it does represent two generations. I hope that marking this anniversary will help situate us on the path of faith, hope and love on which we travel as fellow pilgrims. I know it will help me as someone who has been with this community for only the last two of its 40 years.
A lot has changed since 1976. Back then, Edmonton was smaller and more culturally homogenous. The Parti Quebecois was elected for the first time in Quebec. The watershed moment for the United Church when it decided to allow gay and lesbian people to be considered for ministry was 12 years in the future. The Vietnam War had ended the year before. The world had half the population it has today. Concerns over climate change were confined to scientific and environmental back rooms. The World Wide Web was 18 years away. One could go on and on.
When Mill Woods was being built in the 1970s, people of United Church heritage sought a place where they could be with others: to proclaim the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus; to follow in his way; to raise their voices in praise and thanksgiving; to discuss questions of purpose and meaning; to educate children and adults; to provide care for those who were sick or mourning; and all the other things that those of us who seek to know and love God and neighbour do together.
Given how important spirituality and faith communities can be, I see forming a congregation as an heroic act. It takes courage and above all faith.
I am so glad that people 40 years ago took up the challenge. Think of all the many people who have been blessed by this community — the baptisms, weddings, funerals, church school classes, study groups, outreach programs, youth group activities, social justice meetings, and services of praise and thanksgiving to the Divine Source of Love who is best revealed to us in the stories of Jesus of Nazareth.
To mark the anniversary, perhaps we could have a series of “Minutes for History” at some of our Sunday gatherings this year, each one outlining five years in the life of the congregation; or an outdoor service in a park in June; or other events that remind us of what we did in the past and help us decide what practices might work best for us today and in the near future.
Looking back forty years takes us to the beginning of this congregation; and today’s Gospel reading is about beginnings. John starts his Gospel by writing, “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . and through the Word all things came into being.” I love the evocative poetry of these well-known phrases. They help me think about some of the mysteries lying beneath everyday life.
But do these strange words have anything to say about the beginnings of this congregation 40 years ago?
This past week I finished reading a book about another spiritual community that is just over 40 years old — the Kripalu yoga community in Massachusetts. Stephen Cope is a psychotherapist and a resident scholar at this well-known retreat centre. His 1999 book, “Yoga and the Quest for the True Self,” tells some of the history of Kripalu, how it had been founded in the 1970s, how it flourished for two decades, and then nearly ended in bankruptcy in 1994 because of a scandal involving its founding guru. Subsequently, Kripalu has found renewed success as a non-profit educational centre.
A Hindu-influenced retreat centre like Kripalu is obviously different than a Christian congregation like Mill Woods United. Still, I pondered our own history as I read about Kripalu’s. One thing in particular struck me. Cope wrote that “in yoga, the end is in the beginning, and the beginning is in the end.”
He is arguing that spiritual practice need not be attached to any desired outcome. At our best, we live out our sacred values and engage in spiritual practices regardless of any fruits that might result. We pray, struggle for justice, give thanks, love ourselves and our neighbours, and stand in silent awe before the majesty of the Ground of Love, Life and Being — all in response to a call greater than ourselves. In our most enlightened moments, we are moved to create a church and live out our values regardless of so-called success or failure.
We follow Jesus, perhaps for no other reason other than this is what life at its heights and depths seems to demand and to also graciously allow.
The part of Cope’s book about endings and beginnings reminded me of today’s reading from John and of a poem by T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” from 1942. Along with the three other poems in his book “Four Quartets,” “Little Gidding” was instrumental in Eliot being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.
When I retrieved the poem, I found that Cope borrowed its last mysterious phrase — “the fire and the rose are one” — as a chapter heading in his book. Eliot got the title of his poem from a 17th century rural Anglican community called Little Gidding. He wrote the poem as a reflection on beginnings and endings in spiritual life, this while the bombs of World War II dropped around him in England.
I have trouble understanding the poem, just as I have trouble understanding the mystical opening words of Johns Gospel. But I love them both. So in the oblique hope that it might help inspire ways in which we could mark our 40th anniversary, I close by now reciting the last forty lines of Eliot’s poem, “Little Gidding.”
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
. . . is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel,
history is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything).
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”