Joy in the wilderness

Texts: Genesis 3 (“the Fall”); Matthew 4:1-11 (Jesus tempted in the desert)

Last week, we marked the start of Lent in a couple of ways here at Mill Woods United Church. Yesterday after the Bread Run, a group of volunteers changed the tall banners at the front of the sanctuary from Epiphany Gold to Lenten purple. On Tuesday after a Pancake supper, twenty of us participated in a ritual of ashes on the eve of Lent, which officially started on March 1, Ash Wednesday.

But I believe that for some of us, Lent started a week ago with the annual financial meeting! While productive in terms of information exchanged and ideas expressed, the meeting had a Lenten feel to it. Following a small budgetary surplus in 2015 and a small deficit in 2016, last week Randy Round presented a 2017 budget that projected a deficit of $30K. With only $70K in the bank and without other assets, such a deficit would see the congregation facing bankruptcy in about two years!

Listening to Randy’s reports made me wonder if the church was entering a Lenten wilderness. Last Sunday’s meeting might have felt to some of us like the start of a journey to Jerusalem and the fate that awaits us there.

Randy presented some tough facts. Despite having had a full staff complement for almost a year, the numbers at our Sunday morning gatherings and the number of identifiable givers continue to shrink. Despite a lot of effort, we still have few children and youth. And despite the fact that a lot of us participate in outreach projects, there is not much turnover in Council positions.

Smaller numbers; lack of children; and burnout among leaders. Yikes!

Today I discuss these facts against two Bible readings — one about Adam and Eve expelled from Eden and one about Jesus tempted in the desert. And since today’s theme is questioning, I start by wondering why we are active in Mill Woods United Church.

Lots of answers come to mind. Many like the opportunity the church gives us to volunteer for programs like The Bread Run and The Clothing Bank. Others love gathering with Heavenly Hospitality to cater events or with Stitching Connection to knit prayer shawls and sew banners. Others want to grow in faith by discussing ideas with other seekers. Some look forward to socializing at events like Next Adventure or coffee-time after worship. Many appreciate gathering for prayer, song, and reflection on Sunday mornings. Most want to support a progressive and Affirming church in a neighbourhood that has many faith communities but not a lot that provide safe places for questioning and justice-seeking. In all these activities, we appreciate having a church in which we can mourn, celebrate, and grow in spirit together with others who seek to follow Jesus.

I am confident that the discussion of our financial and leadership deficits that began last Sunday and which will continue at a meeting of Church Council on March 14, a meeting of the Facing the Future group on March 28, and at the Annual General Meeting on May 28 will lead to ideas that will allow worship and outreach to continue here for many more years than just the next two!

This week, Brian Sampson drafted an appeal letter to send to the large group that gathered here last November to celebrate the congregation’s 40th anniversary. Cathy Bayly inspired this idea when, after that happy day, she noted that she had already pencilled in the date for our 50th anniversary in November of 2026! Thank you to Cathy and Brian for your inspiration and efforts.

Conversations are happening among several people about what role they could play as leaders. If you feel inspired to step forward or know of someone who might make a good candidate for Chair-Elect, Stewardship, or another role, please speak to me, Brian, or Kathy Poechman. With some prodding, I believe that the Nominations Committee could put together a good slate of nominees at our AGM in May.

Most important to me is the spirit that I see in the congregation. When the choir rehearses on Wednesday evenings, when Food Bank volunteers arrive on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and when we sing and pray our faith in God’s Love on Sunday mornings, I feel the strong bonds that exist between us and which call us to work together for compassion, care, and justice.

The 2017 projections and proposed budget showed weaknesses. But the reality of this congregation is one of both brokenness and blessing, of needs and nurture, and of weakness and of strength. And is this not always the case?

This is the first of six Sundays in Lent — a season of journey, repentance, and reflection. We usually say that the payoff for Lent is Easter Sunday, our annual festival of new life. But I think resurrection and joy are found in Lent as well.

Life is as a series of Lenten journeys after which Love is always reborn in a new way. No relationship or congregation lasts forever. Nevertheless, we make friends, get married, and commit to the work and joy of life together. We create communities of faith that help our souls to grow, and we do the work of worship, outreach and justice to express our highest values.

The conditions in which we work are not easy. Today’s reading from Genesis reminds us of this. We are all fated to live somewhere East of Eden. But the pain of childbirth, the sweat of toil, and the burdens of consciousness do not do away the joys of parenting, the pleasure of work well done, and the love that flows from waking up to our sacred nature.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is tempted by the Devil. Luckily, the Devil’s promises ring hollow. It is true that daily bread requires work, but so what? Work has its own deep rewards. Our bodies are fragile and prone to injury. But we trust that at the end of all our striving, we return to the source of Love from which we have come. In the face of injustice, we sometimes seem powerless. But we still love reaching out in care and working for justice. This work fulfills our values of equality and fairness and makes life meaningful regardless of success or failure.

Last week in conversation with someone who is sick, I talked about surfing as a metaphor for life. Surfers didn’t create the ocean. They can’t command the waves. Nevertheless, they surf them in joy as best they can. Sometimes they fall off their boards. But even if they do, they are still supported by the ocean and trust that they can give and receive love in all the storms of life.

This year at Mill Woods United, it may seem like we have hit some heavy surf. But we still experience joy with fellow pilgrims. As people called by the God who is Love, we build families, work for the church, and follow in God’s Way as best we can.

Even when we falter, we trust in the power of God’s Grace. And at the end of every Lenten journey in life, we are confident there will be a renewal of Love in ways that will surprise and delight us.

My prayer is that we will enjoy Lent this year and surrender to the difficulties and joys of the journey. May we trust in each other and in the Love within and between us. May we be confident that we will get to the end of the journey together and experience there a renewal of heart, mind and soul that will prepare us for the next Lenten journey.

After all, this is about all that this one wild and precious life guarantees to us: one joyous Lenten journey after another.

May it be so. Amen.

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