Re-purpose the building: a sermon for Transfiguration

In the Gospel stories of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it is the disciples’ response to Jesus’ glory that captures my attention and imagination.

In response to seeing the incredible transformation of their friend and master before them, Peter says he wants to build three “dwelling places”, or “tents” from the Greek. The Gospel of Mark suggests that Peter wants to build these shelters because they are “terrified”.[1]

It is a natural reaction when we are afraid for us to go to that which gives us security. For Peter, that means building a house. Or two. Or three. He must have been really scared. Not just a tent for Jesus, but also for Moses and Elijah who have mystically and supernaturally appeared alongside Jesus.

This is a glorious moment. Jesus’ divinity bursts upon their vision. And, we humans naturally want to contain this mountaintop experience. Put God, literally, in the proverbial box. Saint Augustine said in the fourth century, “If you can comprehend it, it is not God.”

The Gospel of Matthew goes further when he writes that it was “while Peter was speaking”[2] this, that a voice from heaven spoke: “This [Jesus] is my beloved Son.” The narrative feels like God interrupted Peter, cut him off.

It’s as if God is saying: “Don’t.” Don’t try to own such divine moments of God’s self-revelation. Don’t try to manage your spirituality. Don’t try to control the experience of gift, of unconditional love. We may want to build something and thus put God in a box. But we can’t. Because, really, there is no box.

In our religiosity, we may instinctively try to capture any glorious, God moments we experience in life. By repeating the experience, invoking certain feelings and the mood. We build buildings and keep them the same.

As with the disciples of old, we would rather escape the humdrum, ordinary realities of living in the valley of our daily, imperfect lives, and just stay on the mountaintop, containing God while we are at it. We don’t want it to change. We don’t want to change. We, like the disciples of old, just want to remain in this state of euphoric ‘mountaintop’ feelings and stay put, there.

Today marks the one-year anniversary that we have worshipped in this transfigured space. A year ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, we returned from an extended absence during which we worshipped every Sunday for eighteen straight weeks with our neighbours at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Coming back to this renewed space was a joy and a blessing. We were back in our own tent, so to speak.

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I say, ‘tent’, intentionally. Because the contractors who modernized this building emphasized the strap-over accenting on the exterior – to make it look like when you put a large fly over your tent. In fact, those of us on the ‘liturgical arts’ committee who consulted with the contract designer heard him say on occasion early on in the project, that the idea behind the contrasting colour choices was to make it look like a tent.

Which was by design. And very appropriate for the church, as a symbol. Not only was the natural element emphasized in the tent-like strappings on the outside, the blue colour on our ceiling inside was meant to image the night sky – looking up, in faith.

Indeed, the structure of our church, and its recent ‘transformation’, is not new. It is to emphasize an original idea when it was first built over fifty years ago: as a temporary house worship space. The tent image for our structure underscores an enduring truth about the church: The church is a movement. It is always on the move. It doesn’t stay put in one place for long.

A church ever changing, a church adapting its form yet reflecting its original mission.

The Jeróminos Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal, is a UNESCO world heritage site. When my wife and I toured the massive complex last summer, including the impressive cloister and the ‘chapel’ – which views more like a colossal cathedral in typical European grandeur, I understood why. These photos don’t do it justice.

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In 1833, over three hundred years after the site and property was inaugurated as a religious Order of Saint Jerome, a state edict transferred the property and all its assets to Real Casa Pia de Lisboa, a philanthropic institution that took in, raised and educated orphan children.

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It was hard for me to imagine that a three-hundred-year-old religious institution of this magnitude would relinquish its assets. And doing this, located on prime waterfront in Portugal’s growing commercial city during the sea-faring Age of Discovery.

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Without delving into the complex history and context of the Secularization Act of 1833, the fact remains: During a robust period of historical expansion, the church made a big change. I would argue, however, the church did not lose. Sure, it no longer could boast financial ownership of the property. But, by handing over its assets and combining them with the resources of the state, it bolstered its core purpose in mission – the care of vulnerable children. The space and property, as of 1833 moving forward, would now serve the needs of needy children.

Jesus says: “Unless you change and become like children …”[3] Without doubt, the religious of 1833 Lisbon were being true to the mission of Jesus.

In our lifetimes, we are witnessing here in North America – indeed in Ottawa – many growing examples of a church re-purposing its properties to build senior’s complexes and other social enterprise. We may believe this is a sign of the times – a negative, unfortunate, disappointing, mournful reality of the church. But, in truth, in many cases, such a re-purposing of a building is consistent with the Christian mission – to care for the weak, the vulnerable and needy in our society.

I can remember driving through rural country in south-western Ontario, and more in Saskatchewan, where you would see, stuck in the middle of a wheat field, a run-down, dilapidated old church building no longer in use, just left abandoned. It is sad to see this. It’s easy to jump to the negative conclusion that the church is dying by simply looking at its physical assets. When it’s not tied to a living purpose, the building will surely die.

But two hundred years after the so-called secularization of the Jeróminos Monastery’s assets, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site every year continue to pour in and be inspired by the legacy of that bold, courageous move of those 19th century Christians in Lisbon. Good for them.

Re-purposing church property is not just a recent, contemporary phenomenon borne out of the institution’s modern demise. Re-purposing assets is not a sign of Christian defeat in a secular society. First of all, it has evidently been done throughout history when the need and opportunity arose.

Moreover, changing a physical structure doesn’t mean Christians are being decimated by an oppressively secular, contemporary, multi-cultural, diverse society in Canada. The physical transfiguration of Christian property may in truth be a positive sign of healthy, missional spirit, consistent with our Christian identity. A sign that the church and its original purpose in their properties will endure for centuries longer.

The disciples of Jesus accompany him to and from the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah appear with the transfigured Jesus, linking the present moment with the great tradition spanning all times and places. The community, the people, the saints on earth and the saints of heaven, accompany us on this journey.

The journey is a movement, not to remain stuck – even in moments of glory and victory. Rather, we are called to embrace the hardship as well, the challenges, the disappointments and opportunities of the daily grind of living, down in the valley of our lives. Ours is not a denial religion. Ours is not an escapist religion, one that ignores the plight of those who suffer, avoiding the normal difficulties of life, pretending that somehow we can with God only experience the highs without the lows. That is false religion.

Jesus interrupts our striving and tells us, “Don’t”. Don’t build those false expectations of a prosperity gospel. Don’t pretend you can stay on the mountaintop with Jesus forever while you live on earth. Because, Jesus, the divine Son of God, also embraced his humanity, and leads us down into the very human valley of life on earth.

Positive change and transfiguration in this light don’t come by way of escaping the world. The cathedrals of our hearts are meant to house people – all people, in their needs and for the sake of the other.

We are not alone, in this enterprise. As Jesus accompanied the first disciples up and down the mountain, God goes with us, up and down. Jesus leads the way. And, we walk shoulder to shoulder with our co-pilgrims who go with us.

[1] Mark 9:6, NRSV

[2] Matthew 17:5, NRSV

[3] Matthew 18:1-5

Annual Pastor’s Report

Effective Partnerships

The most significant event in the life of Faith Lutheran Church in 2016, was the decision to complete an extensive renovation of our worship space and narthex hallway. To complete this major modernization project, we partnered with the capable and esteemed contracting company from Stittsville, “Amsted”.

This decision precipitated what may in the long run prove to be just as significant, if not more so: The decision to join with the local Anglican parish on Sunday mornings during the time of the renovation (which lasted into 2017).

Even should nothing enduring come of the relationship between Faith Lutheran Church and Julian of Norwich Anglican Church, the mere exercise of gathering as a hybrid congregation for the last ten consecutive Sundays in 2016 plus two Christmas Eve services caught the attention of the Christian community in Ottawa and across our Eastern Synod.

Meeting to worship with local Anglicans affirmed both the existing Full Communion relationship between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) and the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC), an agreement existing since 2001. As such, given the other options during our vacancy from 43 Meadowlands Drive West, meeting with an Anglican congregation was attractive, since doing so facilitated many logistics of worship between our similar liturgies, as well as kept a certain momentum alive for meeting at all, during the renovation/vacancy period.

On Lutheran liturgy Sundays (every other Sunday) at Julian of Norwich, we expressed our unique identity within the union of two distinct congregations. For example, each congregation has different histories, as well as contrasting governance structures (i.e. Anglicans are governed episcopally, while Lutherans are governed in a congregational structure).

While comparing congregations is fruitful, challenging and enjoyable, the fact that we began this relationship knowing we were returning home at some point allows us to pose critical questions of review of our ‘way of doing things’ freely, both around sacramental practice and mission.

During the Eastern Synod Assembly in June, your lay delegate (Julia Wirth) and the pastor heard again the four main, missional themes of the Eastern Synod (Effective Partnerships, Healthy Church, Spirited Discipleship, Compassionate Justice). No doubt, our congregation participated in a way no other Eastern Synod congregation has, in affirming the value of seeking “Effective Partnerships” in fulfilling God’s mission, especially during times of need and change.

Loss and Transition

A basic assumption of committing to the renovation project was that we had to take leave of our current building, and specifically our place of prayer. Doing so was an act of courage. Leaving a place that has symbolized a constant certainty in the lives of Faith members for over fifty years was not easy. Our sense of stability in faith was disrupted, as we were challenged to distinguish between the form (‘our’ building) and function (the purpose) of faith.

This leave-taking coincided with other endings. June 2016 marked the last time the Faith Lutheran Women (FLW), structured the way they had been for the last few decades, met in typical fashion (see report). For some time prior to this they had been talking about closing their account and ceasing to meet ‘as is’. In the latter part of 2016, that talk became reality.

Also, the Confirmation program that for several years had been a successful experience for leaders and participants alike, did not in the Fall of 2016 achieve the critical mass of students to warrant a class structured in the same way. As a result, no program started up at the start of the school year.

These events, I believe, constitute ground for growth and maturity of our community as we practice the spiritual gifts of detachment and trust. The prophet Isaiah spoke the word of God to the exiled people in Babylon in the 6th century B.C.:

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

Before the new thing arrives, we need to stop the old thing. These endings are not failures as such; rather, they provide the space for the new thing God will have for us. What we are called to in disruptive times of loss and transition, I believe, is to be patient, have presence of mind and openness of heart, and be willing to take a risk together when something presents itself in our hearts as possibility and passion.

Poised for renewal

Moving into the new year, Faith Lutheran Church is poised to embrace a season of discernment, reflection and new beginnings.

Not only will we return to enjoy the gift of a refreshed, safe and healthy environment for meeting in our newly renovated building, we will be encouraged to reflect on what this space, created for at least another decade of ministry, worship, and mission, will be used for.

Late in 2016, the congregational council unanimously endorsed a proposal for a 3-month sabbatical for the pastor in 2017. The sabbatical covenant, based on the Eastern Synod Guidelines for Sabbatical, addresses the need for leaders to take periodic and extensive ‘pauses’ in vocational life, for renewal, reflection and discernment.

The benefits for the congregation mirror those for the pastor. From the perspective of providing some distance, a sabbatical gives freedom for everyone to step back, assess the structure of ministry and mission in the congregation, and contemplate new ways of supporting one another in our lives of faith.

For example, healthy congregations in general have several highly functioning lay leaders who engage proactively not only in managing a church, but in leading the mission of the church. The health benefits to the congregation, as for the pastor, following the sabbatical give opportunity for renewal of the mutuality of the relationship between pastor and congregation in God’s mission. The ‘reset button’ is pressed, and energy flows again.

Adaptive Change: Put away the mallets and start asking “Why?”

“There is a wonderful story of a group of American car executives who went to Japan to see a Japanese assembly line. At the end of the line, the doors were put on the hinges, the same as in America. But something was missing.

“In the United States, a line worker would take a rubber mallet and tap the edges of the door to ensure that it fit perfectly. In Japan, that job didn’t seem to exist.

“Confused, the American auto executives asked at what point they made sure the door fit perfectly. Their Japanese guide looked at them and smiled sheepishly. ‘We make sure it fits when we design it.’

“In the Japanese auto plant, they didn’t examine the problem and accumulate data to figure out the best solution — they engineered the outcome they wanted from the beginning. If they didn’t achieve their desired outcome, they understood it was because of a decision they made at the start of the process.

“At the end of the day, the doors on the American-made and Japanese-made cars appeared to fit when each rolled off the assembly line. Except the Japanese didn’t need to employ someone to hammer doors, nor did they need to buy any mallets. More importantly, the Japanese doors are likely to last longer and maybe even more structurally sound in an accident. All this for no other reason than they ensured the pieces fit from the start.

“What the American automakers did with their rubber mallets is a metaphor for how so many people and organizations lead … a series of perfectly effective short-term tactics are used until the desired outcome is achieved. But how structurally sound are those solutions?

“ … Long-term success [is] more predictable for only one. The one that understands why the doors need to fit by design and not by default.

“Going back to the original purpose, cause of belief will help … [churches] adapt. Instead of asking, “WHAT should we do …? the questions must be asked, “WHY did we start doing WHAT we’re doing in the first place, and WHAT can we do to bring our cause to life considering all the technologies and …[other] opportunities available today?” (1)

Being poised for renewal means we need to understand the nature of change in institutions such as the church. Some definitions, outlined in a report generated by the Eastern Synod Mission Committee late in 2016, draw the distinction between Technical Change and Adaptive Change:

Technical Change is about fixing problems while essentially keeping the system the same. In other words, where’s the mallet?
Adaptive Change, on the other hand, is about addressing fundamental changes in values that demand innovation, learning and changes to the system itself. Start with ‘Why?’ And then lead from there, by design not default.

During this coming year, which will give all of us permission to pause and reflect, please resist the temptation to rush into doing something either because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or because we are too anxious not to remain awhile in the uneasy ‘in-between’ time of loss and transition. Be patient, take deep breath, pray, and reflect on the following questions:

Our adaptive challenge questions for 2017:
1. How do we communicate? To whom is each of us accountable?
2. How well do we listen and seek to understand the other? Give concrete examples.
3. Will we create a list of those who are not in church (technical strategy); or, will we identify the needs in the community surrounding 43 Meadowlands Dr West, in Ottawa (adaptive strategy)?
4. How will prayer be our starting point?
5. What are other ways besides worship that serve as entry points for the public to engage the church? This is important.
6. How do we see worship as a launching pad, not a destination, for following Jesus? This is very important.
7. What are the gifts we have as a church? (personnel, space, talents, passions, etc.)
8. How well do you know your fellow congregants’ jobs, professions, contacts, interests, hobbies, talents, passions?
9. Why do we initiate a ministry or mission outreach activity in the first place? Who is the target group? What is the purpose of doing it? Does everyone know the purpose? Why or why not? Is there general agreement about the purpose? Why or why not?

Thank you again for the privilege of another year doing this work with you. Blessings and Grace, on our journeys moving forward,
Pastor Martin

(1) Simon Sinek, “Start With Why”, Penguin Books, New York, 2009, p.14-15, p.51