What a thrill it is to be with you this morning as we officially reopen and bless the Church of St. Aidan after the recent renovation. My goodness, what an amazing transformation of this space! I want to thank all those who have been involved in this project over the past number of years, from those who first had the vision of how this might come together, all the way through to completion over the past few weeks.
I understand the lead architects are with us today, and the building site supervisor, as well as the local city councillor. Welcome, and thank you for your huge part in making this dream a reality. And thanks to the churchwardens – past (Amy and Matt) and present (Matt and Sheila) - and other parish leaders who have worked tirelessly; to the clergy and staff team, and to parishioners for your patience, faithfulness and generosity; and, of course a huge thanks to your beloved Incumbent, the Reverend Canon Lucy Reid. You have all done an amazing thing – and to do it during a pandemic when so many things seemed to become untethered. What an accomplishment! We have every reason to pull out all the stops today, even if we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of Lent. Well done, and thanks be to God!
Being with you this morning got me thinking about “the journey home”. Now, it may have been a while since some of you have had small children in the backseat of the car on a long road trip. But trust me, as the parent of younger kids, those trips can be hard on everyone in the back seat and in the front. Just last weekend we returned home after a vacation in Quebec City over March Break with our 9-year old twins. From the backseat came those nagging questions: “Are we there yet? How much longer? I’m hungry and I have to go to the bathroom, are we stopping soon?” And then from the front seat comes the familiar responses: “We’ll get there when we get there!” “No, it’s not much longer, but please stop asking.” And, of course, “Can you just hold it for five more minutes?”
Those conversations played out more times than I care to remember in my parents’ 1981 Oldsmobile station wagon, as my sister, my two brothers and I, headed off on family vacations with my parents. And I’ll bet that same scene has played out for many of you – either from the front seat or the back – in a station wagon, or a minivan, or an SUV - depending on your age.
And so it was with the people of Israel as they journeyed from exile to home in the promised land. “Are we there yet? How much longer? When can we stop and get something to eat or drink?” Poor Moses! It’s hard to be in the driver’s seat when you have 600,000 passengers in the back, and when the road trip is 40 years long, right?!
For the most part, Moses was amazingly patient during the Exodus from Egypt. Long-suffering and dutiful, he eventually succeeded in leading the people to the threshold of that place that God had promised, a land flowing with milk and honey.
But it wasn’t without some bumps along the way! We know that the people of God spent a whole lot of time far away from where they had started and far away from where they would end. There had been some amazing moments along the way: the whole congregation of the Israelites had passed safely through the Red Sea on dry ground when God formed a wall for them on their right and on their left; they had received the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai; their thirst had been quenched as Moses struck the rock at Horeb and water poured out; and God provided manna from heaven when the people cried out in hunger.
But for much of the time, they were still a long way from anywhere. And they complained - bitterly - to Moses and to God. They didn’t want more manna, they wanted meat! They didn’t want some utopian vision of what might lie at the end of the road, they actually wanted to go back to the security of their lives in Egypt – even though they had been slaves there. Complain, complain! So, at various points, Moses went to God and said, “That’s it”. I’m pulling over to the side of the road, and I’m getting out. Someone else take the wheel!”
But here’s some good news: when Moses complained so bitterly about his travelling companions, when he was tempted to toss the keys out the car window and never look back, when he was at his wits’ end with God’s chosen people, God was there in the midst of it. We read in the Book of Deuteronomy that God tapped Moses on the shoulder and said, “Your time is coming to an end, good and faithful servant; so call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, so that I may commission him.” And when Moses died overlooking the promised land, the Lord turned to someone else – Joshua – and says, “Joshua, now you, be strong and courageous, for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to your ancestors to give them.” And Joshua did just that. We read today that he led them into the land of promise, to Gilgal, which means, “I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And in that place the people kept the Passover for the first time in their new land, and all of that white fluffy manna that had sustained them in the barren wilderness – it stopped – they didn’t need that anymore. And for the first time, they ate the produce of their new land, they were fed in their new home.
The Gospel reading today is another stunning example of making the journey home. Here too, the journey home was not without hardship along the way. The Prodigal Son – as he is so often known – left home and had a merry old time with his father’s money. Wine, women and song – he didn’t have a care in the world – until the money ran out. He expected that even if his father would take him back, he would be treated as one of the hired hands, and not as a son. That’s what he would deserve, he figured, and that is what he would ask for.
But when the wayward son was still far off, his father saw him approaching. He hiked up his coat and ran to him. He put his arms around him and kissed him. And rather than treating him as a hired hand, he ordered that the fatted calf be killed, so that the greatest party could be thrown in honour of a son who was thought to be dead, but was alive, who was lost but was found. Welcome home!
These two readings: the journey home for the people of Israel and the journey home for the Prodigal Son. What powerful readings of reunion, homecoming and celebration as we return today. For you, my friends, are coming home. You have been in the wilderness – not for forty years, but at least for the last two. And you have been sustained by God through the many challenges that have converged in a pandemic and the massive renovations to your building. God has been with you on this journey, as difficult as it may have been at times. You couldn’t be here in this building, so you gathered elsewhere – on Zoom, on livestream, in the parish hall, perhaps even out on the street. But now you are home, welcomed back by the Living God who is our light and our salvation, our home and our heart. And as this building has stood here for the past 114 years, may this new space that we reinhabit today equip the saints of God for the next 114 years of ministry and mission in this community!
It might be tempting today – in light of the first reading – to cast Lucy in the role of Moses. Yes, Lucy has led this parish through the wilderness and landed us safely on Canaan’s side. She has been in the driver’s seat in many ways, and has undoubtedly heard the bumps and frustrations along the way – maybe even some grumpiness. And she is preparing to leave – not in the way Moses did – but rather through retirement. Lucy, what a gift you have been to this community. My goodness you will be missed in this parish in our Diocese. You have been an amazing gift to us. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
But I hope our focus today is not only gratitude for what has been over these past few years – as amazing as it has been - but also hope for what is to come. You, the people of this parish, the people of the Beach community – God’s goodness has raised up this whole community of people to be the hands and feet, the voice and heart of Jesus in this place. The people of this parish have been immersed in word and sacrament since the first little tent was built here as a meeting house for prayer in 1880 – long before people could dream of a magnificent edifice such as this. The many generations of people in this parish have seen joys and sorrows, times of hope and despair, these pews have been overflowing at times, and at other times… not so much. The clergy have come and gone. There are lots of people here who also know how to drive, and how to follow the GPS, and how to change a tire, and know when others on the journey need to stop for food and water. Back to today’s readings… just as God took some of the spirit from Moses and gave it to Joshua so that he could lead the people forward into the land that God had promised, be open to receiving the gift that God has given to you in this space. And just as the father welcomed his Prodigal Son back with unconditional love and forgiveness, may this be a community that models those things at it very core.
It’s always dangerous for the preacher to give advice, even when it’s the bishop. Maybe especially when it’s the bishop! But here it goes: I urge you as a church community to “Begin today as you intend to continue.” You’re in your new home now. So, starting here, starting now – re-immerse yourselves in the habits that will guide your life together as a community: faithful worship, prayer, study, the sharing of the sacraments, and the pastoral care of another. Nurture honest conversation and mutual respect. Let go of the past and get ready for the amazing future that God has in store for you in this place.
And most importantly, hang on to the wisdom of God from the readings today. Let these words of God to Joshua: “Be strong and very courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – let these be your comfort in times of challenge. And in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, let the words of the Father bring us back to the core our faith: “We must celebrate and rejoice”, he says, “for what was dead is alive, and what was lost is found.” The essence of the Gospel.
As we mark this new beginning today, this journey home for you – may we give thanks and praise to God. For the God who brought the people of Israel to freedom in the promised land, the God who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who restores what is lost and brings life out of death, this same God will surely bless this parish and this community as you seek to grow more fully into the people that God has called you to be. My friends, blessings on this exciting journey ahead. AMEN.