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A Sermon For A Service of Ordination

"Finding the Church"
A Sermon Preached at B.C. Conference (Castlegar)
For the Celebration of Ministry Service
By The Rev. Foster Freed
May 1999

READING:  Isaiah 45: 9-12; Psalm 84: 1-6, 10; Ephesians 4: 7-13; John 21: 15-17
SERMON :  "Finding the Church"

	Judith, Bill, Wally, Catherine, Katherine, Reg, Gail, Michelle, Rob:  and anyone 
else who cares to eavesdrop: permit me to begin by trotting out four of the premises-
-four of the working assumptions--I bring to this occasion.
	Premise One: the God who shapes us in creation, is the same God who has 
called us into the church, the God who shapes us in and through the church.  That's 
premise one.
	Premise Two: we are here, this morning, to celebrate the varied ministries--the 
incredibly rich assortment of ministries--that God has established within the church, 
that the church might play its appointed role within creation.  That's premise two.
	Premise Three: this celebration is unapologetically focused on the church's 
"ordered" ministry, not because ordered ministry is better or more challenging than 
other ministry, but because ordered ministry has pivotal responsibility for guiding 
and nurturing-for feeding, for equipping--the church's other ministries.  That's 
premise three. 
	Premise Four: the church's ordered ministry, by and large, is an in-house 
ministry: ministry that attends to the church in its gathered mode.  And while there 
are certainly exceptions to that broad generalization--ordered ministers who serve 
primarily out in the world, laity who serve primarily within the four walls of a church 
building--functionally speaking, that distinction by and large holds.  In other words, 
ordered ministry has special responsibility for the life and health of the church.  
That's premise four.  
	And it's that last premise, especially, that leads directly to my theme, namely: 
that those who are called to such ministries, those who would presumably rather be 
doorkeepers in God's house than live in luxury any place else, need to be able to 
locate the house, need to be able to find the church.
	There is, I confess, a sense in which I mean that in a quite literal way.  When I 
sat here-actually three or four hundred kilometres North-west of here-as an 
ordinand a mere nine years ago, the prospect of locating the church seemed quite 
daunting.  Those of you who this year find yourselves having been settled in places 
as unfamiliar to you, as Hornepayne, Ontario was to me in May 1990 (I recall with 
embarrasment that I once or twice referred to it, until I got the name straight,  as 
Horsepayne instead of Hornepayne!): for those of you heading to places like 
Hornepayne, simply finding your church may prove a challenge.
	But no.  When I speak of "finding the church", I am pointing to a deeper issue: 
not so much finding a particular church, but finding the church, the church we have 
been asked to serve as people in ordered ministry.  Strange to say, of all the 
questions I have found myself asking over the years, that question--a question I 
never expected to ask--has come to loom as the largest question of all.  How to 
locate the church.  How to find the church.  And I ask your indulgence, as I share with 
you three of the answers I have stumbled upon during nine years in ministry.
	In the first place, I have discovered that the church is much nearer, much 
closer at hand, than I could ever have anticipated when I left seminary in the spring of 
1990.  The church, as I have come to discover, is as close at hand as the two 
congregations to which I have been called, as near at hand as the two communities 
of faith in whose midst I have been placed.

	And that is, of course, something of a truism.  We have all been taught, and we 
all like to pay lip-service to our conviction, that the church is wherever God's people 
are praising.  That was something my professors pounded into my head day-in and 
day-out. Nevertheless, very few of us are ready for the traumatic moment that so 
often arrives at some point during the first six months in a new parish, when we 
discover that our language of faith (as the one who has been called) bears nary a 
trace of resemblance to the language of faith of the ones who did the calling.

	And I doubt it matters whether the language to which you grew accustomed 
during the seminary years was that of neo-orthodoxy, or liberation theology, or 
church growth evangelicalism.  At some point in the first six months, as one begins 
to discover the dense maze of local customs and strange fetishes that comprise the 
life of a typical congregation, it becomes hard to resist the thought that the church is 
surely to be found any place but here, and preferably in places (depending on one's 
theological orientation) with names like Basel, New York, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, 
Geneva, Toronto, or God help us, even 4383 Rumble Street. Which becomes 
dangerous as soon as we succumb to the temptation of investing time and energy 
dreaming about the day when we will at last arrive in one of those places.

	And there are, of course, any number of practical reasons why most of us 
need to resist that temptation most of the time: starting with the simple fact that 
neither the vibrant life of the seminary, nor the vibrant life of the denomination, (nor, 
alas, the vibrant life of the Conference) are conceivable without the vibrant life of 
countless local communities of faith.  And yet the larger consideration is theological, 
since the problem for most of us is not that the God we worship is too small, but that 
the God we worship is too big: too big, too distant and too impersonal to really care 
about the life of "Little Lost Church in the Woods", and the seemingly endless trivia 
that comprise the life of such places.  	

	And yet God is in the details: including the details that we continually stumble 
over within the very congregations to which we have been called.  As Jeremy 
Sheehy, Principal of St. Stephen's House in Oxford reminds us: "A valuing of locality 
is a gift that the church needs in our rootless age.  It can be very easy to believe in 
the transfiguration of all things by God's grace, but very hard to believe in the 
transfiguration of your particular corner of all things."  Which is why the real privilege 
of congregational ministry is the opportunity it affords us to take part in God's on-
going work of local transfiguration: with its never-ending frustrations, but with its 
endless assortment of unexpected opportunities to witness and to bear witness to 
God's grace. Which is why I hope you will discover, as I have discovered (often to my 
chagrin) that the church is much nearer, much closer to hand, than I might ever have 
imagined.  As near and as close at hand as the congregations to which we have been 
called.  That's one discovery I have made over these past nine years.

	A second discovery, one that will sound completely contradictory (which 
would hardly surprise the folks who are used to hearing me preach back in 
Parksville), a second discovery I have made, one that I hope you will make as well, is 
that the church is also further away than I had originally conceived it to be.  Further 
away both in time and space than I had once imagined.

	Here I need to speak of the acquaintance I have made of unexpected brothers 
and sisters: folks I never thought to meet over the course of my time in ordered 
ministry.  Specifically, those Christians who come in a bewildering and at times 
disconcerting variety of shapes, sizes, and flavours.  Christians from whom I have 
learned a great deal; Christians who have taught me how terribly artificial, and how 
terribly destructive our labels can be, and how readily labels such as liberal or 
conservative, feminist or orthodox, fundamentalist or charismatic, can distort the 
reality to which they point: how easily they can destroy our ability to learn from those 
to whom such labels have been affixed. 

	Dialogue, as David Lochhead reminds us, "is an attempt to see the world 
through the eyes of the other."  Whatever else ordered ministry has taught me, it has 
taught me (as I hope it will teach you) how important it is to struggle to maintain the 
kind of openness that permits us to see the world through the eyes of the other. The 
eyes of the other, including those countless Christian eyes from whom we no longer 
expect to have very much to learn. Whether it has been the pastor of the unhinged 
independent charismatic church down the street or the writings of that rag-tag 
assortment of desert Christians from the fourth and fifth centuries,  I continually find 
myself coming to the painful realisation that my view of the faith is too parochial, and 
that I have much to gain and very little to lose when I listen to my sisters and 
brothers, especially those whose experience I am most ready to ignore.

	And just as Richard Hays is correct when he insists that a hermeneutic of trust 
must take priority over a hermeneutic of suspicion in our appropriation of scripture, I 
am convinced that a hermeneutic of trust must take priority over a hermeneutic of 
suspicion in our appropriation of the great Christian tradition.  Not because the 
tradition is flawless; coming from a Jewish background I know its flaws only too 
well.  And not because there is no need to approach the tradition critically.  But no 
amount of criticism, and no amount of suspicion, can ever obscure the fact that we 
have much to learn from those who walked this walk before us: the Augustines, the 
Wesleys, the Bonhoeffers-and yes the Clarke McDonalds;  the Hildegaards, the ten 
Booms, the Thereses-and yes the Jesse Olivers.  They are our elders, and they 
have so much to teach us, if we are willing to listen to them where and when we find 
them, as we seek to find the church, the church that is further afield both in time and 
space, than we sometimes imagine. 

	I suppose that leaves but one further dimension, one further angle of vision in 
regards to this business of finding the church. It's the dimension that probably looms 
larger than any other on an occasion like this, but one that I have so far passed over 
in silence.  Because the church--which is both closer than we often assume and 
further afield than we sometimes imagine--is most certainly located precisely where 
so many of us hope to find it: especially at this time of year when we solemnly gather 
in hockey arenas and curling rinks from one end of this nation to the other. Yes, the 
church is also to be found in its numerous denominational formations, including this 
denominational formation.

	And I need to stress that my celebration of the local congregation on the one 
hand, and the Church catholic on the other hand, should not be construed as an 
attempt to do an end-run around the church denominational.  Indeed: as someone 
who would be hard-pressed to disown the label of post-denominational Christian, I 
nevertheless remain profoundly grateful and stubbornly hopeful for this 
denomination we call the United Church of Canada.

	John Webster Grant, in his masterful essay in the Voices and Visions 
collection that was published on the occasion of the United Church's 65th 
anniversary, speaks of "the widespread impression that the United Church comes in 
two editions, a hardcover official one, expressing decided opinions on a great variety 
of subjects and a loose-leaf one with which almost anyone can be comfortable."  My 
own impression is that the United Church cannot afford to settle comfortably into 
either of those identities.  Neither the rigidity of the "hardcover" version, nor the 
wishy-washiness of the "loose-leaf" version will serve us well in the end.
	On the contrary, as Gabriel Fackre tried to remind us when he was in British 
Columbia at the Vancouver School of Theology to deliver the Peter Kaye Lectures in 
1995, the greatest gift the mainline Protestant churches--including the United Church 
of Canada--can presently offer to the world-wide Christian movement, may well lie in 
our ability to maintain a thriving centre.  Such an option will differ dramatically from 
the strident sectarianisms of the left and the right, but will also resist the middle-of-
the road wishy-washiness that John Webster Grant rightly cautions us against.  More 
to the point, a desire to find the vibrant centre will leave us well poised to embrace 
our rich congregational diversity without feeling threatened by that diversity, as well 
as the multi-hued heritage that is available to us from the wider church, if we have 
the discipline to acquaint ourselves with it.  I am certain that it was the availability of 
that vital, vibrant centre within the United Church, that made it possible for this lost 
and lonely former semi-hippie wayfarer to hear and to embrace the Gospel of Jesus 
Christ some 20 years ago.  And I am equally certain that a denomination that is 
willing to reclaim that vital centre will be well poised to welcome many other 
wayfarers, ex-hippie or otherwise!

	Many such wayfarers.  In places such as this one (this lovely city of Castlegar, 
nestled in the midst of mountains and valleys), and in countless other places.  Places 
bearing strange and exotic names, like such as Bella Bella and the Elk Valley, 
Chemainus, Crofton and Quesnel, Quebec's Eastern Townships, Saskatchewan's 
Northern Lakes and Quill Plains, even Prince Rupert, ..downtown Victoria and yes 
even downtown Parksville.  

	Which, of course, is my parting wish for you, Judith, Bill,  Wally, Catherine, 
Katherine, Reg, Jay, Gail, Michelle, Rob, and anyone else who may have been 
eavesdropping this past 20 minutes.  That's my wish, better still my hope, better still 
my prayer for each of you.  That you will find the church.  Not just a church but the 
church. And having found it, that you will be enabled, in the midst of diverse 
communities of faith, to be the church.  To be the church with such clarity of 
purpose, creativity of conviction, breadth of compassion and depth of humility 
(perhaps especially the humility), that others--when they come knocking at your 
door--will quickly come to realise that they in their turn, have found the church.

copyright  - Rev. Foster Freed 1999 - 2006
             page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 1999 -2006   
                please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.

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