This is my last sermon at St Thomas. On April 30, Archdeacon Stephen Rowe will be preaching here, and I will be celebrating communion.
It has been eleven years since Allyson and I first arrived, and were feted by the rich and famous of St Thomas. Those were heady days, but as each year has passed by those closest to me have changed gradually. A few of you have been close since 2006, especially my work-wife Jennifer.
Peter quotes the psalms when he says of Jesus “I SAW THE LORD ALWAYS BEFORE ME.” I would like my legacy at St Thomas to be similar, that I was summoned to you by the Spirit of God, and that “the Lord has always been before me.”
I mean that, even though you have seen me in my weakness and in my strength. You have seen me in my unrighteousness and in my holiness. You have seen me in my humanity, and you have seen me in the strength of God.
May this be my legacy, that I have been faithful to Jesus, whose servant I am.
When I arrived, the parish was home to some long established families such as the van Horne’s and the Bolton’s. Others have come in with a rush and left just as suddenly. Between Jennifer and me we have done something close to 200 Celebrations of Life. Many of them were for those who long attended this church. Every death and every family has affected us.
If I am sure someone is within hours of death, and after checking with family if appropriate, I often sing the words to Precious Lord. I won’t ask Rowland to play for me because it will be in a key I don’t sing in. It goes
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, help me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
When the darkness appears and the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
On one occasion, I was singing Precious Lord to a lady in Bradley Centre, and she was awake and watching me. Half way through, she suddenly died, almost in my arms. The two staff with me began sobbing, they loved her, but they also sensed as I did, Jesus had come for her.
On another occasion, after Jennifer had her terrible fall off the church steps, I followed her to Emergency and offered to sing Precious Lord. She almost stood up threw me out.
“I saw the Lord always before me.” (Psalm 16:8)
There was a dynamic youth group when I came. There were some things we did annually, like spend a weekend at Hick’s Lake. The tail end of this group were the young adults who went to Kenya for three weeks in 2012. They have all made us proud, and most are still connected. There are the makings of another youth group to be proud of, growing up now, if only their parents can find a way to come regularly and bring their kids.
In 2006 St Thomas was still recovering from a major church fight. The priest had been forced to resign his position in 2004. There was a great interim named Eve Wiseman. And then I came. For my family it was a deep uprooting from our home in the Thunder Bay area, and a 3000 kilometre trek to British Columbia. The cost of everything astounded us! Our home in Thunder Bay sold for something like $80,000 and it had a mortgage on it.
Getting here was a little like arriving at University in Saskatoon so I could earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Theology. My first day on the campus, we saw all the big buildings and the general scope of the campus – there were almost 20,000 students – and thought “What have we done!” And yet even there, Allyson and I could say “We saw the Lord always before us!”
So arriving here on the West Coast, with a church like this to look after, I felt like I’d ordered two hamburgers when one was enough.
Allyson and I come from ordinary folk. Our families were never of any great note in Thunder Bay. This parish did not get an exceptional priest, nor, might I say it, are any of you exceptional. Remember that if I did call you “special” it may not have been a good thing.
And yet the things that make us special are here in power. In all the difficulties, in all the challenges, in all those moments when we didn’t know what might come next, in those moments when every one of us felt hurt or afraid, I hope we could say together, “We saw the Lord always before us!”
Perhaps it is my style of leadership, but I have always relied on an inner circle. These are members who for one reason or another God has put into my life to help with the work of leadership, and with the work of getting things done. They have not always been liked, and sometimes they’ve even made a bad impression, but they have meant a great deal to me.
As you go forward without me, remember to make room for others. Jesus did exactly that with his disciples, they were an odd lot, some educated and some worse than uneducated. Even Judas ate at the table, and he not only betrayed Jesus, he was a regular thief. Remember to see the Lord always before you, and put out your hand to others in trust.
Throughout our married lives, Allyson and I have tithed our income. Sometimes it has been extremely hard to do so. In our final year at seminary, when we were broke and unable to do so, we didn’t.
Although I don’t usually look at offerings, as your priest I have always had the right to do so. Among my biggest disappointments and greatest marvels are those who have looked good on the outside, but given a pittance to the work of their church and its ministry. It’s nice to have power, but when the plate goes empty, it leaves a bitter taste. As an example that some of you will remember, we had a mass exodus in June 2009, when over a third of the congregation walked out. It was a very painful experience for not only me, but for everyone who stayed. You will remember.
At the end of that year, council expected a financial crisis but to our shock offerings did not falter. I was outraged, and I remember saying to someone, “If you want to pick a fight with me, show me your tax receipt!”
Remember, as I leave you, that your financial offerings are as important as your time and your talent, and all of us should be giving of our time, talent and treasure. There is an intimacy about wealth that is more powerful and more meaningful than sex, and much more telling of our personal discipleship. Remember how many times I have told you that your offerings are sacramental in meaning. “We saw the Lord always before us!” does not mean that the Lord is leading the baggage train. It means we are following him. And Jesus is generous in every way.
Thomas knelt before the Lord, upon being confronted by Jesus! The disciples themselves spread the good news of the resurrection across the known world at the time. Not just because Jesus was no longer dead. The Spirit of God, who animated Jesus and animates all who live by faith today, created a way through life that is no longer a dead end. Through Jesus, we can rejoice in salvation for ourselves.
I want that to be my legacy at St Thomas, that I might have modelled faith in God to you. Not the kind that serves by rote, or the kind of faith that calls itself blind, but the kind of faith that knows Jesus my Lord. Thomas refused to follow blind faith when he questioned the resurrection, and Thomas refused to be a parrot for what others knew. Jesus honoured his need to know for sure for himself. May it be true of you also, that you have pressed on to make this Saviour your own.
Life for Jesus, in the world, was seldom easy. There were times when he was feted on a hillside, and times when he was drenched by storms. There were times when he was given the world, and times when he had to stand up and defend the weak and powerless. Crowds hung on his preaching, and there were times when he spoke firmly into the face of terror. Jesus was loved and adored by some, and hated by others. His goodness and generosity were always a threat, as was his grasp of truth, to those who tried to hide behind wealth, or learning, or facades of self righteousness.
Lay hold of him, that living stone, tried and true, and live by his Spirit. Paul wrote, “Show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 2 Corinthians 3.3
So we leave you next Sunday, the end of April 2017. If you put my photo up again in the narthex, you can have a before and after shot. Allyson and I have made some very good and special friends here. We have loved you all. As we get ready to leave in a few days, we commend you to the Lord’s faithfulness. God will never fail you. “We have seen the Lord always before us!” Amen.