Here is the sermon I shared at the decommissioning service for Wilson United Church in Florence, NS last night (June 21, 2015).
Wilson Decommissioning Service
Rev. Nick Phillips, June 21, 2015
Scripture Reading: John 1:1-18
Thank you Wilson United Church.
Thank you to everyone who was here each and every Sunday. Thank you to those who sang in the choir. Thank you to those who greeted people at the door. Thank you to those who took up the offering. Thank you to those who read scripture and minute for mission.
Thank you to those who sat on committees. Thank you to those who raised funds to keep the church going. Thank you to all of you; Those here now, and those who have called this church home for the last 108 years.
This church has been the source of wonderful memories for many, many people. Baptisms. Funerals. Weddings. Confirmation. Dinners. Celebrations. Laughter. Tears. And everything else.
And thank you for letting be part of this special night with you after the last few years we’ve spent together.
None of us wanted to see this night come. I certainly know I didn’t. I’m also sure many of us wish we weren’t here tonight. Not because we don’t want to be in this building, but because we know we may never be in here again. And that’s not an easy thing when this church has been like a home to you for a very long time.
My hope for tonight is to know that we have not lost hope.
Yes the church is closing. Yes Wilson United Church will exist only in our memories and in the archives of Maritime Conference.
But we cannot lose hope.
The opening of the Gospel of John is so full of hope. Right from the very first verse!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
Word… life… light!
The Word was with God. The Word is life. The Word is light. The Word cannot be overcome.
The Word is Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Saviour.
A few weeks ago, I stood in this pulpit and talked about the highs and lows, the joys and the struggles that the United Church of Canada has faced over the 90 years since it came into being.
In the 1960s, the denomination was at it’s peak with over 1 million members. Now we are just under half of that, in only 50 years. And David Ewart predicts, based on current trends, by our 100th anniversary we’ll be halved once again to about 250,000 members. That’s only 10 years away.
The United Church of Canada, one could say, is in free fall. We’re losing members faster than ever before. We’re closing churches all across the country. What is the future of the United Church of Canada, and more importantly, what is the future of our local churches?
Our future is in the hands of Jesus Christ. Jesus told Peter he would be the rock upon which the church would be built. And here we stand today as a result. We are that church.
And it all begins with Jesus.
Jesus told his disciples to preach the word to the nations, baptizing and teaching in his name. Jesus gave his disciples the Holy Spirit to give them the words to speak at the right time. Jesus builds his church.
I can’t build a church. You can’t build a church. The disciples cannot build a church.
Well, not on our own we can’t.
What I’ve learned over the last few years is that it takes more than our own desire to build a church. We worked hard here at Wilson. We sent invitations. We sent letters. We changed our service times. We had special music. We had special services. We did we thought Jesus would like us to do.
In the end, nothing changed.
No new people. No new leaders. Which led us to the final choice we had to make. Which brings us to tonight.
We did not fail. We were faithful to what we thought would help build this church back up. We worked hard. YOU worked hard. We did not fail.
The world is a hard place to be “the church” right now. The world out there thinks everything is wonderful just the way it is. Everything is great. Life is good. There is no need for the church in their lives.
We reached out, trying to say it’s important. They turned away.
We did not fail.
John 1, starting at verse 9 says this,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:9-11)
The world has not received Jesus. It’s nothing new for us today. Go back a flip through the Old Testament. It happens again and again. People ignore God. They ignore what God has set up as rules and guidelines for life.
And what happened? Whole societies fell apart. Crumbled under the weight of problems they had gotten themselves in to. They ignored the prophets who warned them to turn away from their ways and turn back to God. When they realized just how bad it was, they cried out to God, and God rescued them because they came back to their faith.
The world around us is crumbling. The church is full of prophets warning people to turn from their evil ways and turn back to God… and we’re being ignored.
Jesus was rejected by those who should have been the first to recognize him.
God himself came to the earth and they rejected him. They tortured and killed him.
Verse 14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Wilson United Church, you have been a faithful people. You have leaned on God through our Saviour Jesus Christ, but the world is a different place than 50 years ago when this place was full to overflowing with people.
We did not fail.
The world has other dreams. It has other goals. It has other treasures.
But there is no greater treasure than Jesus Christ.
We are in a season in the church where we need to come together and rebuild our faith. We need to immerse ourselves in scripture and prayer. We need to look to God more than ever before. We need to be ready for when the bottom falls out and the world begins to cry out to God for rescue.
We need to be ready because it’s coming. We need to be ready because we will be the ones who are on the front lines to receive these people when they seek to come back to God. And we need to be ready to welcome them with arms open, offering love, grace and hope.
The same love, grace and hope we receive through Jesus Christ and our relationship with him.
Saint John says this in verses 16 and 17, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. “
We have received grace upon grace. In Jesus we have life. In Jesus we have hope. In him we find capital ‘T’ Truth. In him we have received forgiveness and love. All of these things offered freely in the life, death and resurrection of our Saviour. Only God can offer these. We cannot. It’s impossible. The cost is too great for us. But it’s not too great for God.
In the life of Jesus, the price has been paid for us.
So while we as a church, as a denomination in the United Church of Canada, and other churches around the world, while we may have an uncertain future in terms of how the church exists in the world, we have a Saviour who walks with us each and every day.
And each and every day he offers us an incredible invitation.
Flipping to the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus is sitting with his friends, his disciples on the beach having breakfast. Jesus is visiting his friends one more time before he ascends to heaven to sit at the right hand of God.
He turns to Peter and says, “Do you love me?”
He asks three times. And each time Peter replies, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”
And what does Jesus say to him?
He says, “Follow me!”
The same words Jesus used when he invited Peter and the other disciples 3 years before. When they joined him on an incredible journey where people were healed, where people were miraculously fed, where teaching was shared and God’s presence was fully near.
This is not an easy invitation to hear tonight. But it is offered still.
How can we follow when we are closing a church?
To follow Jesus is to throw out all of our expectations and trust God in ways the world out there just cannot understand. Even if it means we have to close a church.
We are a faithful people. We are people who daily try and live into that invitation to follow Jesus.
It’s not an easy thing to do. It really isn’t.
It’s not easy when the world has its heart set on other treasures. Treasures which can never give life like the life our Saviour offers us.
Two simple words.
But words when spoken by Jesus Christ are life changing. Even world changing.
Words we really need to hear right now in a most uncertain time.
May we be so bold. May we be so courageous. May we be so faithful that we listen and take those words to heart.
May we be the ones who follow him. May we receive the grace upon grace he seeks to give us. May we realize the one who was there in the beginning, the one who bring life and light to us all, the light which cannot be overcome… may we realize it is Jesus Christ who walks with us, leading us as we follow him.
And may Christ be one with us, offering love, grace and mercy to a world in need.
And may that light shine for all to see.
My friends, again I thank you. I thank you for your dedication to this community. I thank you for your love and kindness. I thank you that you will continue to follow Jesus wherever he may lead.
Amen and amen.