Five years ago last month when I first walked in the doors of Mount Seymour United for what was essentially a job interview, I came prepared with a question for those gathered. In my ministry I was interested in how we as congregations and individuals live out our faith. I had looked at your website, to see what you said about yourselves, and I saw the three phrases, Nurturing Spirit, Being Community, Living Generously. When I drove up to the church that day, I thought it was promising that those words were on the side of the building. The question that I was wondering about was what that means to you as individuals and a congregation. How do you live out your faith through those words in this place and in your lives. As it turned out, through the process of getting to know a bit about the congregation in that interview, I didn’t really have a need to ask the question, because it was answered by hearing about all the ways that you tend the community within and outside of these walls, the way that you nurture spirits and the generous ways that you live.
Over the past five years, I have felt so blessed to walk alongside you and witness the many ways that you live out your mission. Each year when the Council does an annual review, we often measure everything that we do here by categorizing them with the three phrases. Some activities and programs cover all three.
In this morning’s scripture reading, Jesus appears to his disciples for the third time after his death. In this exchange with Peter, Jesus uses the word agape for love, which is the highest form of love – the kind of love like God’s love for the world – a pure, selfless love that could only have a divine source. This kind of love involves an inherent expectation of “doing.” Love is as love does.
Have any of you read that book the Five Love Languages? The book talks about how people have preferred ways of feeling loved and also of showing love. The five ways are receiving Words of Affirmation, Spending Quality time together, Receiving gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch. Reading this scripture, it suggests to me that Jesus’ love language is Acts of Service. A man after my own heart! He is asking the disciples, do you love me, but the love he is speaking of is love as courage, love as risk, love as not wavering, regardless of what we are called to do. Christ calls Peter and us, as individuals and as communities of faith, to follow him even where we would not otherwise go, even where we might not want to go. The love he is calling them to is a way of loving as embodying God’s love for humanity. Feed my sheep, care for the poor, the outcast – he calls them to love – to be God’s love in the world. We are called – in grateful response to God’s love for us, to be God’s hands and feet – to make a difference in the lives of others, particularly those in need. The way that Jesus loved was to value the lives of the ones whose lives were usually not valued by society. The poor, the prisoner, the outcast, the unclean. We can think about who the equivalent in our society are now. Those are the ones we are called to love and care for.
One of the things I love the most about ministry here is experiencing the ways that you make a difference in the lives of others. I’m going to share a few stories that have really touched me over the years.
A few years ago I was mingling in the thrift shop, chatting with customers and volunteers, and one of the volunteers told me with hushed excitement what she was going to do that day. She asked me to keep watch for a family that she chatted with sometimes – customers in the shop. The elderly father – in his late 90s, was about to be honoured for his military service at a D Day anniversary ceremony in Normandy, France the following month. It was going to be his last opportunity to go because of his age and mobility challenges. The thrift shop volunteer knew that he was soon heading to France, but that his daughters were not going to be able to go because they could not afford the airfare. So this volunteer decided to give this family – just customers she got to know at the Thrift Shop – she gave the family money for the daughters’ plane tickets so that they could attend the ceremony where their father was to be honoured. I don’t know if any of you volunteers know about this story – because I know the volunteer who offered this gift did not tell many people – though I do have her permission to share the story with you today! I was so touched by her generosity – as was the family – completely blown away that essentially a stranger would offer such a gift.
Another story – this one is a story of generosity on your behalf, that some of you may not know about yet. Last year I was introduced to a refugee named Ilham from Palestine. She lives in North Burnaby with her two teenaged sons. She is a very hard worker, managing a local restaurant. Her husband is stuck in Palestine and can’t get to Canada. Her paperwork has been delayed and lost and delayed some more because of a variety of issues with Covid and system overload and fraudulent so-called helpers along the way. She was trying to get a meeting with our MP to see if their office could help her in any way. So some of you on Council and on our Mission and Outreach team signed a letter outlining her story and her needs and requesting a meeting with our MP. He met with us, and she told her story, and he was very helpful and compassionate. His office continued to follow her file to make sure it didn’t get stalled along the way. This past summer, Ilham finally got her proper paperwork so that she could sponsor her husband to come here. He is a journalist in Palestine and has had his life threatened on a number of occasions. Ilham did not have enough money for the application to get her husband here, so she contacted me to see if I knew of any funds or grants available in the community to help refugees with situations like this. I remembered that here at Mount Seymour in the past we have helped to sponsor refugees, and we still had some money earmarked as refugee fund money. So I asked the Council if we could use some of that money to help Ilham apply to get her husband to Canada. They agreed that this was a good use of the refugee funds. I had the privilege of making the phone call to Ilham. She was so surprised, she could barely speak, and we both were in tears on the phone. Me because I was so proud of you all here for caring for the ones Jesus asks us to care for – and for having the foresight to have those funds raised for the purpose of helping refugees. I believe that we helped to change a life that day, and you can all be proud of that. And I hope that soon I’ll be able to share with you that Ilham’s husband has been reunited with his wife and sons after more than 5 years apart.
One more story. A week and a half ago I got a very special email. It was to inform me and congratulate our congregation on being selected by the Government of Canada to receive the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Award for our hard work and community dedication as well as for exemplifying the spirit of the Queen’s Jubilee. I was invited to go to our MP, Terry Beech’s office, last week on November 10th to be presented with the award. In the presentation, he talked about all the reasons why Mount Seymour was a deserving recipient, and then I told him some more! He talked about us providing a safe and welcome space for LGBTQ+ folks. He talked about the work that we do to support refugees (he was speaking of Ilham in particular and our advocacy on her behalf). He talked about our support of youth through the summer job program. And of course he talked about the great work that the Thrift Shop does to support the community through low cost goods, recycling and opportunities for volunteerism and creating community. I told him about our support of First United in the Downtown Eastside with a portion of our profits and also with items like clothing and blankets. He talked about how we serve the community when we open our building for use by all candidates meetings and concerts. I told him about the Giving Tree that we have during Advent to collect necessities for the North Shore Youth Safe House and First United. I was so proud to represent you and accept the award for all that we do as a congregation in the community, and Nancy thought that today when we talk about generosity in the community, it would be a perfect day to share with you about this significant achievement that we were awarded. So congratulations to you all for being part of the reason we were awarded the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Award and for exemplifying the spirit of the Queen’s Jubilee.
Today we reflect on some of the ways that Mount Seymour United has been Living Generously for the community over the last few years. Many of you have a much longer history with this congregation, that predated being in this building, which has been just since 1989. Your generosity has served this community so well. Even in the five years since I have been here, I have seen that generosity played out time and time again. The way that you have shared God’s love through service to the community has been an inspiration to many. Whether it be serving on Council and committees, participating in small groups, volunteering in the Thrift Shop, tending our gardens and outdoor space, helping at fall or spring clean up days, making our sanctuary thematic displays beautiful, baking bread for communion, being part of our caring connections, prayer team, making meals for beloved members, writing cards of condolence and compassion, volunteering with our children, reading scripture, greeting, making coffee, serving as church treasurer or envelope secretary, helping at congregational lunches, welcoming newcomers, singing with the Gospel Choir, driving others to church, inviting a friend to church, knitting prayer shawls, taking care of the library, serving communion, participating in Christmas Eve pageants. What else?
I could not begin to calculate the number of hours of service you as a congregation have given to our ministry here, but also living out your community involvement in other ways and in many other organizations. As those disciples were invited to show God’s love for the world, so we are called to be the embodiment of that love, the hands and the feet of Christ in the community here and beyond this place. Thanks be to God.