Do you remember the first time you walked into St Aidan’s? Maybe it was fairly recently, and you have a clear memory of it. Or maybe it was so long ago it just feels as if you’ve always been here. Some of you, during the pandemic, have started coming to St Aidan’s virtually, through Zoom, without yet being able to enter the building.
I remember when David and I cautiously peeked through the doors of St Aidan’s for the first time. We were visiting the Diocese of Toronto and meeting with Bishops Colin and Patrick, with a view to moving here to work in one of the vacant parishes. It was the morning of Doris McCarthy’s funeral, and people were beginning to gather, so we just poked our heads in quickly then stepped back. But we loved the Beach area! It was new to us, yet felt familiar and welcoming.
Becoming part of a Christian community often starts in a small, ordinary way: a drop-in one Sunday, maybe for a baptism, or for a Christmas or Easter service. But settling in, getting engaged in that community, can and should be a life-changing journey - no matter how young or old you are, no matter whether you’re a single person or part of a family that comes. Being part of a faith community that claims to follow the way of Jesus asks everything of you – because to follow that path is to open yourself more and more to God, and to the values and priorities of the realm of God here on earth. It’s a journey of faith and grace, with huge challenges and profound consolations along the way.
Jesus’ disciples began their journey by simply being called or attracted to be with this man who was speaking about the kingdom of heaven, healing the sick, choosing to be with the poor and outcast, and opening their eyes to the good news of God’s love. I imagine it was quite thrilling at first, travelling from village to village with him, seeing incredible transformations take place in people’s lives, being taught by him.
But then there were moments like the one we read about in today’s gospel passage, where Jesus speaks darkly about his coming suffering and death, and Peter tells him not to talk like that. Peter is rebuked sharply, and Jesus goes on to speak about his followers needing to deny themselves, take up their cross and lose their lives. Hard, frightening words. This is what is sometimes called the cost of discipleship.
Our faith isn’t just meant to be a warm blanket to make us feel good: it will also lead us to hard places, difficult decisions, risky action, self-sacrificing choices. You can all name, I’m sure, some famous Christians in our own time who have lived this out: people like Mother Theresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr. The big names, who seem out of our league in their holiness or bravery.
But there are also the more ordinary ones: I think of a woman in Guelph, a Roman Catholic nun called Sister Christine, who founded a drop-in centre where homeless, lonely and marginalized people are always welcome. She’s often mistaken for one of the homeless, with very simple clothes and wild hair. She’s always there, talking to the people who come in, caring for them, accepting them as they are. And she’s deeply loved. She’ll never be famous outside of Guelph, but she’s dedicated her life to the people we often ignore, as her response to the call of Jesus.
I think of my friends Larry and Kathy, who in their 50s each volunteered to serve for a stint with Christian Peacemaker Teams, an international peace organization that sends teams of trained volunteers into places of armed conflict to stand visibly with the civilians caught up in it, and to deter attacks by being there. Kathy went to Colombia in the midst of its long civil war, and Larry went to one of the occupied territories of Palestine. They knew they could be caught in the crossfire that was killing civilians frequently, but they also knew their presence as international observers could deter the violence and protect the civilians.
If we scale it down still more, to our own community here in St Aidan’s, I think of those of you who have given so much of your time and energy, self-sacrificially, for the mission and ministry of this church: sitting on committees, attending hours of meetings, speaking up when it’s hard to do so, listening patiently when that’s hard too. I think of the cookies that have been baked and given away, the meals served, the refugees helped. And especially over this last year I think of those who have taken on the huge burden of leadership and responsibility through the double challenge of a building renovation on top of a pandemic. You could have stepped away and said “No, it’s too much, I want to enjoy my free time. I don’t need this extra work and stress.” But you didn’t. You took up that cross and kept on going.
In the first reading today, from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, he’s writing about being faithful, holding on, believing in God’s promises. And he says it all comes down to faith and grace: faith that God’s got this, that this is God’s world, and God’s will for it is goodness; and grace meaning we don’t have to draw on our own strength and abilities to follow where Jesus calls us – we draw on the free gift of God’s grace that is given to us to empower us and raise us up and keep us going.
It’s through the grace of God that we have got through an outstandingly challenging year, here at St Aidan’s, in our community, and globally. And we’re not finished yet: there are injustices to be addressed, causes to be taken up, voices to be heard, more work to be done.
This Christian path is a steep one sometimes. It asks us to do and be more than perhaps we thought we could. It faces us with our fears and asks us to put our faith and trust in God’s presence with us. And always it holds up the vision of God’s realm here on earth, where the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the sick and incarcerated are cared for, the outsiders welcomed.
When you first came through the doors of St Aidan’s, perhaps you didn’t realize this was what you were getting into: a lifetime’s journey, a sacrificial path, a long and winding way like a pilgrimage with its times of sore feet, doubt and discouragement. But it’s the only path I want to be on, and I’m so thankful that I’m walking it with all of you, with faith, by grace. Let’s encourage one another and carry on. Amen.