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A Future with Hope:  “The Building”

October 18, 2020      

Gillian McLeod at Mt. Seymour

Isaiah 61:1-4, 11

Holy one… holy three.  May the words of my mouth, the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight.  And may your word come to your people now, either through me or despite me.  You have said that where two or more are gathered in your name you hear our prayers.  Today we gather with thanksgiving to bless you and to discern how to better do your will.  Amen.

For those of you enjoying this service later in the week, or from far away, please know that a small number of us are gathered together to record this service thinking of all of you and hoping that you too feel welcome in this virtual space.

The first time I have a memory of hearing about “First United in Vancouver” I was in Grade Three, living in The Pas, Manitoba and attending Westminster United Church with the Rev. Fraser Muldrew.  It was probably around the year 1972 or 73.  Today, I am with you as the Managing Director at First United, still in the same place as it was in the ‘70’s, at the corner of Hastings and Gore in Vancouver B.C.

First United Church is over 130 years old.  In the 1970s, when I first heard of it, the church was already doing double duty as an active congregation and as a full-time support for the residents in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver who were in need – in need of food, tender care, physical needs, mental health support and much more.  At that time, way up north in Manitoba, we, as young children, were encouraged to share part of our allowance, part of our Hallowe’en dimes, and even part of our Christmas money with the church so far away in Vancouver so that they could continue to do this good work.  My idea of what this “First United” was, was born in that moment, and as my RCMP family continued to move around Canada, I continued to follow the Mission and Service Fund announcements about First United, and the many other places in Canada that supported those who didn’t have enough.

It is a privilege to be here with you today and to talk about the good news of Isaiah 61, in hopes that I too may bring good news to all of you and perhaps bind up a few broken hearts. 

Some of you may know me as the former Library and I.T. Director at the Vancouver School of Theology.  Since then I have also worked with the City of Delta as their Social Planner – not a planner of parties – although that would be a great job, but a type of position that also looks at a city through the eyes of those who also may not have enough – enough what?  Enough tender care, food, money, health – physical or mental, daycare, social supports and much more. 

As in the Isaiah passage, I learned more about my own abilities to proclaim good news, favour and to comfort those who mourned.  As I have moved through my variety of careers I have been called the “joyful one” or one who brings joy or gladness or just silly fun.  And it wasn’t until I began preparing for this sermon that I realized that this passage in Isaiah speaks about so many of us and what we bring to each other and to our world.

There may not be many of us who can turn ashes into a decorative garland, but there are those who plant gardens that display the beauty of the created earth, those who provide care and love and comfort to God’s children, those around us who sing praises that lift us up with joy.

How did we all get so fortunate to be surrounded by those who have been called by God?

And I’m not talking about those who receive that big calls – you know the grand “You will be a preacher!”  or “You will lead a revolution”.  I’m talking about the kind of call that ensures that there are enough folks to surround us with love, support our ideas, and bring courage to plant the first seed or start the new project.  Who among you has the idea to get together a group of folks to plan a Christmas pageant, gather easter lilies, or knit toques and mittens to send to First United – and by the way – we are getting into the season where we need those now.

These are the calls of the people, The bits and pieces we do as part of our every day.  The New Beginnings of each week or month or job change or school change or whatever you can imagine.

There are those amongst us who, as Isaiah says, repair the ruined cities.  Who, with even the smallest task, build up former devastations of a burned out forest or home.  Those who are mental health workers, who can take the devastation of a hurting childhood and as a healing part of the body of Christ, cause hope, offer love and create joy for a hurting adult.

When I left the City of Delta in April of this year, I was very sad, discouraged and couldn’t imagine where I would work next. Ever since going to Westminster Church in The Pas, I had felt that I was going to be a minister when I grew up.  As we moved around Canada I became that keener student – you know, the one on the pastoral relations committee, the one who always had a question during the church’s annual general meeting, kinda well-liked and also a little annoying?  Yah – that was me.

When it came time to study for my ordination, a wonderful church in London Ontario, Siloam, led my time of discernment and as is often the case, I discerned myself right out of formal ordination in any church.  That didn’t stop me from taking theology, learning more about God, the Bible and the community of saints – including all of you – but I did decide that my Call was about more Public Service – and eventually was drawn to the work of libraries.  Over the next 30 years I worked in many different types of libraries and felt the ultimate privilege of creating welcome, barrier-free spaces for all types of communities.

Even at a young age, I knew that having a $1000 chair upholstery cleaning budget was better than saying that homeless folks were not welcome in the library.  I could clean any chairs that needed it – I knew that a warm welcome provides warmth long after a person has left the building.

As social planner I was also able to connect Delta residents with societies, organizations, and individuals where they could become part of the larger whole of our city, strengthening and creating foundations of justice and hope for those who didn’t have enough of something.

This is the work of G-d’s people – it is the work that I wanted to keep doing in some way, and the work that all of you watching this service today are probably doing right now whether you know it or not.

When I first heard about the new Managing Director position at First United I felt like I’d been pushed over.  My big bag of mixed skills and talents, often not focused enough to have full-time employment in one area – was exactly what was being sought.  I could offer Human Resources experience, Union liaison work, administration talents, financial skills, theological education, and an awareness of the homeless, the hungry, the addicted and those with mental health issues.

I was so excited to apply that I began to get scared that it “wasn’t” MY job.  What if?  What would I do?  As I shared my growing fears with my friends and colleagues I was fortunate to receive their words of solace and encouragement.  “But look at what you’ve already done for the world Gillian”  “Take hope in what you know you can accomplish”  “Even if you just retired early, you would have already raised four wonderful children, connected so many with what they needed, and changed the world”.

Take a minute.  Take a minute everyone listening and KNOW that even if you too retired early – you have already changed the world for better.  The small seeds you planted earlier in the season have bloomed.  Your commitment to be part of one body of Christ has helped create a foundation of love and justice, faith and hope for the long term.

What are you putting your efforts into now?

Where do you hear God speaking to you?

What are you doing for the good of the whole earth?

Isaiah says that G-d conforts all who mourn.  How?  Is the extent of the comfort the restoration of beauty?  Oil of joy or a dropped off cake, Temple rebuilding OR a timely phone call, a smile in a store, a kind word at a doctor’s office.  I would venture a guess that each one of us has done something like this.   Did you know that you were supporting the community of God? 

We don’t often go around offering people crowns to wear these days, but we are all participating in the constant co-creation of a beautiful world.

I imagine that there are a few builders, contractors, repair and maintenance folks in our midst and just like Nehemiah and Isaiah, you are being used to restore and rebuild things that are broken down or ruined.  With the power of the spirit, and in the ministry of the world – you are earth’s rebuilders. 

And for the cooks, the providers of things needed, those that greet the newcomers or find homes for the unhoused – you too have a holy occupation.

And I mentioned earlier one of society’s most needed workers, those who can do something I absolutely cannot and so I admire it more than anything on the planet – those who can make things grow.  For the yards I pass on my daily walks, for the bouquets I send and receive to mark celebrations and times of mourning, for the tending of forest paths, or municipal parks or for even creating a small mixed container garden – I give thanks and appreciation for you have made beauty in this world. 

There is a garden store in the Downtown East Side that often brings over to the old church building a bouquet or collection of older flowers and I am delighted each time I see it. 

And while I am mentioning the “old church building” I have some news to share.  Did you know that The First United church Community Ministry Society just submitted a Development Permit Application with the City of Vancouver.  Yes we did!  The plans to tear down the old First building and develop the new site at the corner of Gore and East Hastings are underway – and we are all very excited!

Part of the need for my new position is the need to free up time for our Executive Director, Carmen Lansdowne to work on the redevelopment!  She needs to be working on the money-raising, the stewardship of those funds, the planning for current and possibly changed services, and the work with architects, contractors, designers and more.  And of course, there is the great work involved in finding spaces for all of our current services and positions during the development timeline, which begins as soon as later this fall!  We are preparing the soil for a NEW FIRST United, and we are excited.  We know that the changes, the challenges and the opportunities will be as extensive as we can imagine and then more, and we are all confident that the staff, the supporters and the larger community will support the goals, the hopes and the dreams for this new, safe space to welcome everyone who is in need.  We are planting the seeds for a new growth, much like each of us do when we wake up each morning and prepare for our days.

And for those of you who are wondering – yes – there are needs at First right now.  During the time of Covid we have been unable to welcome those who used to come and make and serve lunch for our shelter residents and the drop-ins.  We are sorry to not have you in our space, but we are always grateful for your financial support of our meal preparation and giving.  At the same time, for those of you that wonder what we need – you can check out the First United website as we update it frequently.  And for my visit with you all today I asked specifically what was needed so that I could share it with members of God’s community. 

As I mentioned earlier – this is the time of year we begin to gather toques and gloves.  Not so much mittens but gloves. Scarves are also helpful.  And a few more items on “the list” right now include rain ponchos, large bottles of shampoo and new mens and womens underwear in all sizes.

I am grateful.  I am grateful that on August 31st – I began the next step along the path of my work in God’s world.  And I am grateful that each of you listening today is also part of the amazing work of our Creator.  Even though we may not know the roles we play, the results of our smiles, our good work, our small things – we are being used to bring joy and to build up the body. 

I am also grateful to have been asked to be a part of this week’s service and I pray for all of us as we move into our next week, ready to take on whatever work God has for us as we create a future of hope.  Amen.