Grace, Oakville 70th Anniversary April 16, 2023
The Lord be with you ! How wonderful it is to be here today, to gather with you around Word and Sacrament and in thanksgiving for 70 years of ministry as a congregation. Just think of all that has happened during those 70 years! Some of those things we could actually count! How many services have been conducted? How many church council meetings convened? How many baptisms, weddings, funerals?
But what about the intangibles – the things that can’t be counted? How many people inspired to a deeper Christian commitment? How many acts of mercy and service done in the community? How many blessings bestowed? It really does boggle the mind and humble the spirit to consider those things whose number is ultimately known only by God! The Lord truly has done great things for us and it is good and right and proper that we rejoice and give thanks for God’s rich blessing upon our life and ministry together!
You were born in 1953 in the midst of a time like no other for North American Lutherans. Communities like Oakville right across North America were bursting with a post war baby boom and with huge numbers of post-war northern and central European immigrants, many of whom were “card-carrying Lutherans!” And our Lutheran presence on the territory of the Eastern Synod grew at a rapid pace. There were 41 new congregation established within the Eastern Canada Synod between 1953 and 1963. By 1957, Lutherans in North America were launching one new mission congregation every week! Can you imagine!
What a ride that was! It’s a history to be proud of and it is right, proper and good that we remember our elders of that day, the folks who began the life of this congregation and countless other congregations with deep respect, homage and gratitude.
At the same time, we know that circumstances change and that our primary orientation as Christian can’t only be backward looking to our glory days; we must engage the world as it is now and not necessarily as we might wish or hope for it to be.
The church of this present decade is also facing a time of historical and sociological change that is quite different from that which swept through the 50’s and 60’s. Now we have plummeting birth rates and completely different immigration patterns. We live in a time of rapid and head-spinning technological and sociological change; that has and will continue to impact the life of the church – whether we like it or not. It simply IS!!! And we need to address those realities with the same measure of courage and creativity as our forebears addressed the challenges of their day. They were incredibly faithful in doing so – but their solutions were not “forever solutions.” The church in each generation is challenged in new ways by new circumstances. We are always under construction and always being reformed. That means that some expressions of church are going to end, and new expressions of church are going to begin.
In today’s gospel lesson we witness the gathering of the disciples on Easter night, and we can’t help but asking some very basic questions about the nature of belief. How is it that you believe -or disbelieve- for that matter? Who can you believe? How much proof do you need before you can say that you believe something?
I’m going to come clean with you and tell you that I think poor old Thomas has received a bit of a bum rap by history. Think about it! We don’t know that he had any more doubts than the other disciples would have had, given the circumstance – certainly no more than I would have had!
Remember, the others had already seen Jesus; he hadn’t! All he had to go on was the strength of the disciples’ witness, and obviously, it wasn’t all that convincing! If Christ were indeed raised, why were they being so fearful? How could we expect Thomas to be inspired or convinced by the witness of a group of friends who claimed that the Lord was risen but were still hiding behind closed doors?
It’s interesting that while the Western Christian world speaks of Thomas as “doubting Thomas” the orthodox church of the east calls him “believing Thomas” in reference to his exclamation “my Lord and my God” after having seen Christ and touched his wounds! Isn’t that something! They choose to honour his exclamation of faith rather than his quite understandable – and temporary – expression of doubt. Jesus honoured Thomas’s questioning in a very special way! Think about it for a moment. He came back, just for Thomas! He’d already visited the others. He returned just for Thomas and said, “Peace be with you. Touch my hands touch my side. See and believe.”
The disciples of old could not reveal Christ while they remained fearful and hidden behind closed doors. Their witness couldn’t even convince Thomas, one of their own number! And neither will our witness convince modern day Thomas’s so long as we remain in a similar posture. The Thomas’s of this present age – who were not here with us to see the presence of the Risen Lord in our mid-twentieth century glory days – are not looking to affiliate with church communities in the same way that you, me or our moms and dads were. And that is leading to more than a little disruption and a lot of quite necessary soul searching for Christian churches and leaders throughout the Western world.
We need to follow Jesus’ example – Jesus who returned only for Thomas’s benefit – and go out to engage those who seek a new truth. Jesus went to Thomas; he didn’t wait for Thomas to come to him. Likewise, I think the Spirit is calling the church to go out and to engage in new ways of being church, confident in the knowledge that our faith tradition is robust and strong enough to bear the weight of our critical self-reflection. Indeed, if that faith tradition is to carry any real strength or authority, beyond mere lip-service, such reflection is of absolute necessity.
The story is told of a student who asked his teacher about the nature of faith. The teacher told her about a dog who scared up a rabbit and began to chase it. Soon other dogs heard the barking and joined in the chase, but slowly they began to drop out, one by one until only the first dog was left. “What does this tell me about true faith?” the student asked. The teacher explained, “the first dog stayed in the chase because it had seen the rabbit. For us to maintain a deep and abiding faith, it is necessary for us to have seen and experienced the risen Lord.
Churches today are very concerned, and rightly so, about questions of evangelism and outreach. But unless the church provides people with a living experience of the Risen Christ our efforts will be for naught. The hounds might follow for a while to see what all the barking’s about, but they won’t stay in the chase because they will not have seen the rabbit. And why should they?
To the extent that people are seeking an experience of God; an experience of “church”, I think they are looking for a body of believers that resembles most Christ’s Body, a church that is visibly following Him in the way of the cross and leads ultimately to the way to resurrection. A church that is willing to go to the places where they are, that will expose its wounds and says “come, touch, see and believe!”
The folks whose witness we remember today have left us a proud and noble legacy. But this begs the question, “What will our legacy be?’ What stories will be told about the witness we will provide during this 71st and final year of the life of Grace Lutheran Church in Oakville. How can your ministry in 2023 become a sign of hope, blessing, and encouragement for future generations of believers?
For starters you can work at embracing this 8-month opportunity to experience church without the burden of needing to endlessly engage weighty existential questions around your future. You have made a reasonable and, I believe, responsible decision. So lean into it and ask how can you use these coming eight months to celebrate your life together; to secure and safeguard your legacy and then to help yourselves responsibly transition to new communities of faith and new expressions of being church. Yes, there’s some heavy lifting still to be done, but you have an opportunity to experience something wonderful and good in this transition. Don’t let it pass!
We are currently celebrating the season Easter – the season of resurrection and new life. It’s an opportune time for us reclaim our place in the pack and dedicate ourselves anew to running the chase of our lives following Christ our resurrected Lord. It’s an opportune time for us to join with Thomas in His great confession “My Lord and my God” and to reveal the crucified yet risen Lord in all that we say and do. AMEN