The Blessing of Gifts Received

A few weeks ago I was leading Wednesday morning worship at General Council Office – the last time I will do so. (I wonder how many times over the next few months I’ll be saying that phrase – “the last time”?) The scripture reading for the day was one of those mysterious resurrection appearances, where Christ suddenly materializes, speaks briefly, offers final “marching orders” to his followers, and then abruptly vanishes, leaving the disciples “disbelieving in their joy.” (Luke 24:36-48)

As a way of talking about the presence of the risen Christ in our midst, I decided to forego a traditional sermon, and talked, instead, about the various gifts I have received as Moderator in my travels across the church.

The first gift I lifted up was an amazing crèche felted by Rev. Stephanie McClellan, now serving in Newfoundland. In my first year as Moderator, Stephanie had sent me Joseph, Mary, and Jesus; more recently, the “visitors” arrived – not shepherds, but trappers accompanied by their husky dog; not astrologers from the east, but rather an Aboriginal person, a Viking, and a Newfoundland fisherman (in yellow slicker and sou’wester). Talk about contextual… and seeing the Christ event in the people around you.

The second gift, a bundle of sage and an eagle feather, came from the Aboriginal Spiritual Gathering last June, along with permission to offer the “sacrament” of smudging – such a rich and tangible way of experiencing confession, cleansing, and forgiveness. I recalled Jesus’ resurrection instructions to offer the gift of forgiveness to everyone – Christian community, the church, will only flourish when there is an abundance of forgiveness. And, I also thought of our United Church’s need for forgiveness as we journey, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal together, seeking reconciliation, knowing that the church’s apologies to Aboriginal peoples have been received but not fully accepted, in recognition that actions, in addition to words, are what will lead to right relations. How do we experience Christ in our midst in this journey?

Then, I spoke about four gifts that reminded me of how we see the risen Christ in the poor, the hungry, the oppressed…“Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

– a rag doll from the Alberta women of the United Church – a symbol of their determination to eliminate child poverty in Alberta. The  women have made dolls for every member of the Alberta Legislative Assembly. These dolls, accompanied by ongoing petitions, letters, posters, paper dolls, art and writing competitions, and speaking engagements, are part of a campaign to raise awareness that 70,000 children in Alberta live in poverty.

– a small replica of a life-sized statue created by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, located outside the entrance to Regis College, the Jesuit School of Theology at the University of Toronto. “Jesus the Homeless” – a homeless person, asleep on a bench, almost not recognizable as Jesus, until you notice, like earlier disciples, that his feet still carry the wounds of crucifixion nails.

– a picture of Tim and I marching in the World Pride Parade in Toronto last June. The United Church Observer had done a great story on the parade, complete with photograph, which the staff then had enlarged and framed as a gift… a reminder of how far we have come in the journey of inclusion… and, of how far we still have to go.

– and finally, I talked about the stole I was wearing, a gift from the Methodist Church in Cali, Colombia, one of our global partners, supported through the Mission and Service Fund. Christ sends us into the world, and we are called to engage in the work of peace and justice beyond our own borders.

I then wrapped myself in a prayer shawl, one of several I have received – my work as Moderator and our church’s ministry is sustained by prayer, by our life in and with the Spirit.

I  held in one palm a small pewter heron, a gift two years ago from seven-year-old Olivia (daughter of Cheryl Curtis and Bruce Gregersen, both on staff here at the General Council Office), who had remembered that the Great Blue Heron is for me a symbol of the Holy Spirit – every time I see a heron, either standing in silent patience, or in full flight, I pause, and ask myself, “What is the Spirit doing now?”

In my other hand, I held a hazelnut gathered from the property of the Naramata Centre by former Moderator Marion Best, (a wise voice on my Advisory Committee these past three years), filled with the mystical vision of Julian of Norwich:

And in this God showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed.  And it was as round as any ball.  I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding and thought, “What may this be?”  And it was answered, “It is all that is made.” I marveled how it might last for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.” In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Maker, the Lover, the Keeper.

Another special gift came from Matthew Stevens, a United Church minister of Kanien’kehá:ka Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) and Irish Métis heritage, and recognized as an elder within the Anishinaabek people. When we were both at Youth Forum last February, I had admired the “beaded Logo” for GC42 he had made: a circle of blue – sea, sky, God; and the pattern of silver waves and fish – Christ on the move! Lo and behold, a couple of weeks later a similar beaded logo arrived on my desk, letting me know that my work as Moderator was not yet finished, and to hold fast to God’s Easter promise, “Behold, I make all things new!”

Then, being the book lover that I am, I read a couple of pages from the children’s book, The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, a gift from Pat Gilmore and Ruth Doyon who so faithfully operate the church’s book display program.

You don’t need to see the Invisible String. People who love each other are always connected by a very special String made of love.” 

“But if you can‘t see it, how do you know it’s there?”

“Even though you can’t see it with your eyes, you can feel it with your heart and know that you are always connected to everyone you love…. No one is ever alone.”

Not a bad metaphor for being sustained by the love of the risen Christ.

And then one final gift, an amazing quilt, which had its origins at Rendez-Vous (the youth and young adult gathering that happened last August), when the Quilting Group from Trinity United Church in Winnipeg, volunteered to help the youth learn how to quilt. The chair of the Trinity “Sew and Sews,” Jo-Anne Muldrew, said,

The many and varied pieces of fabric seem to be representative of the many and varied kinds and types of people that make up the collection of people that call themselves Christian. I also like the fact that as you look at the banners, you can’t tell which blocks were made by a beginner and which ones were made by an accomplished quilter. 

quilt

After Rendez-Vous, one of the unfinished quilts came to the General Council Office, and members of the Quilting Group from nearby Royal York Road United Church offered to do the proper backing and final stitching. They joined us on that day of worship when the quilt was dedicated. So there it hangs in the office… a thing of beauty, the promise of Christ in our midst, the cross in the middle but surrounded by vibrant colour. Christ is risen – he is risen indeed.

Such wonderful gifts. And I am very grateful to have been called into this ministry as Moderator, and to be so generously and prayerfully supported by the people of the United Church.

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