This last Christmas at 8 p.m. at Central we all lit candles and sang Silent Night. I am always careful to announce clearly at the beginning of the service for people to light their candles (and nothing else) then blow them out after the hymn is finished. It is beautiful moment. The glow of the candle light on Christmas Eve, the voices of a congregtion singing the carol.
This particular year, I had met a family just arrived in Canada a few weeks earlier, and they had come for the service. Brand new to Canada, from a country of another language and climate and culture. And here they were Christmas Eve. One member was a child of about 10. When Silent night began, we all lit our candles; when it was over we blew them and continued to the end of the service.
As I walked to the back after the benediction, something caught my eye.
Everyone had put down their candles, blown-out, resting on pews. But as I walked by this 10 year-old, new to Canada, they sat in the pew with their candle still lit, staring into it. The candle light reflected on their face. It was a moment when I wanted to stop, and say something – like welcome to Canada, or Merry Christmas the Lord bless you.
But I didn’t stop; there was this simply look in their eyes – that it was a holy moment. One in which I am glad she lingered.
“Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.'” Exodus 3:5
The morning starts at 8:30 a.m., our custodian placing two sidewalk signs, bright blue on white, ‘Central Presbyterian Church – 10:30 a.m. Worship, 10:45 a.m. Children’s Worship. Sharing Hope Since 1841’ on the sidewalks on Charlton and Caroline. The Grade 7-12 youth begins arriving at 8:45 a.m. for the youth breakfast, where an adult in the congregation meets with them over fresh fruit, home baked biscuits and a conversation through Genesis 6-9. By 9 a.m., the coffee in the kitchen is ready, and people from different areas of the church pop by to fill up on caffeine. A post-service lunch team arrives, and begins prepping tables. By 9:30 a.m., ushers are on site, arranging the entrance, opening the main doors, preparing bulletins, offering plates, getting ready to host and greet. Toddlers trickle into the Nursery by 9:45 a.m., some parents off to different tasks. Members of the choir begin coming in through the ramp door on Charlton, hustling downstairs to gown. At 10 a.m., the sounds of the old basement piano resonate through the hallways upstairs, cold voices warming up.
A the live stream camera goes into place, and three people ask about the live stream and how it works. A soloist practices in the chancel. The custodian prepares the front of the sanctuary. By 10:15 a.m., two Scripture readers report to the Vestry, checking-in ready to read, and a small group gathers for prayer, asking God’s blessing on the morning. Just before 10:30 a.m., there are prayers in the Hall with the choir, and the opening hymn begins.
‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the king of creation. O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation.’ A violin raises high notes during the hymn, accompanying the organ. The choir sings a descant to this hymn, and hearing it the congregation sings noticeably louder. I share during the announcements how it is my privilege to serve as Minister at Central, where last year in HOOTC, Spring BBQ and North End Mother’s event, we served over 4000 meals in this city. I share that I love how seriously this congregation it takes the resurrection of Jesus, living out his power in serving around us. The second hymn is from the Taize community of France, a movement of a re-inspired generation of Jesus followers in that country – ‘Praise, I will praise you Lord.’ The piano opens up, and it accompanies the congregation’s singing, along with a ‘cello played standing up. The three instrumentalists almost dance in place as they play. The last verse is singing, ‘Love, I will love you Lord.’ And it is loud.
A child takes the shepherd’s staff during that verse and walks up the side aisle, and down the centre, children from Faith Finders following. Our Director of Discipleship for Families, leads the children to present their Bible Verse for the month, with actions. ‘For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble; you surround me with songs of victory. Psalm 32:7’ On the word ‘songs’, all the children put their hands to their mouth like a vuvuzela and shout out ‘songs’ in falsetto voice, as if they are all opera singers. It is joyous. The congregation is delighted by their delight.* Maddie, in grade 1, stands to lead the Prayer for Illumination, and reads Psalm 126. ‘When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.’ The way she says ‘dream’, in a grade 1’s pure voice, leads us somewhere beyond the page. A man, just married at Central a month prior, reads the rest of Scripture; the choir sings a moving piece. I preach a sermon on renewal (re-printed below).
Lunch afterwards is standing room only. A dozen people stand by the food table, no tables left. I greet a family visiting Hamilton from China. I say, ‘Nee-how’. All I know in Mandarin. We pause at lunch to thank the organizers. We pause also to recognize a couple, members of Central, David and Kimberly, married off-site a month before. I look around and see Willie, whose husband died this summer. I see Reuben, who lost his dear wife. I speak to a 5 first time attenders from out of town. I speak to two couples at a table, who although both attend Central, had never met each other. I see a woman back from a long trip. I speak to a boy who is 4. I greet a father pushing a stroller. I pause a minute in the middle of the din, and thank God from this congregation. A place to belong. A place of hope.
As I leave, and most are gone home, I see one man left standing. He came to Central through the Spring BBQ last year, has joined the Alpha Course; said he hadn’t been to church since 1969. Lives in the neighbourhood. And there he was ’till the end this Sunday. He had found a mop, and was sweeping up the floors; he looked happy.
And it struck me again, the joy I find, in serving Christ and in serving this church.
*I am told later 40 children/youth 0-17 are at Central this morning.
Sermon Preached on October 14th, 2018 by The Rev. Dr. Gregory Davidson, 12th Minister of Central. Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18, 25. <unedited>
Karl Marx, the philosopher and political theorist, reportedly said to his housekeeper, who asked Marx when was dying if he had any last words, “get out, get out, last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”
Put that way, Joshua, in chapter 24, is a fool. He is about to die, and he does have some last words for Israel. And I believe they are words for us today.
Remember Joshua, that young, nervous, some what timid young person to whom Moses spoke: I hereby command you: be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. And Joshua has gone a lot of places in his life. He has seen God’s faithfulness and guiding. And here Israel stands at the verge of a new era. And Joshua, a man about to die, calls Israel together, the ones with whom he has crossed over the Jordan River, and seen God’s help; and he then gathers around and says these words:
Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him; put away the gods from beyond the River; choose this day whom you will serve – the gods beyond the River or the gods of Amorites, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
Joshua’s final words to God’s people in this moment, are an invitation to renewal. They are invitation to renew the covenants God has made with them thus far.
Now we can take a few things from this passage that can help us as Christians today.
One of them is that there are times when renewal is needed. Joshua doesn’t waste his last words. He speaks them for a reason. In some ways, it is like the buzz, the generational buzz of leaving Egypt, and settling in a new place, seeing God’s hand at work, a real time of divine energy shall we say, is on pause. And things for Israel are a little flat. The hymn singing is, you know, a little quiet. People are, you know, around, but not all that passionate. Things are kind of just going along. And I think that’s the case, in a lot ways, for the mainline protestant churches in Canada. My, how we have enjoyed generational buzz, after generational buzz – and energy. But today we are in need of renewal. And that’s OK to admit. In fact, it’s good to admit. Because with Israel in this passage, we can hear Joshua’s invitation.
There are times when renewal is needed – now is one – and we can learn a few things about renewal in the Lord. First, renewal comes from remembering God’s faithfulness in the past. What a list Joshua recites, here. We didn’t read the whole thing. But it’s the first half of the chapter. The list of God’s faithfulness presence in the past. From Abraham and Sara, to Issac and Rebekah, to Jacob, to Moses, to the read see, to the cross ing, to the land of promise in which to live. Generation, after generation, God is faithful to God’s people, says Joshua.
When new members join central, they are offered a tour of the church, from the basement to the bell tower. (We need a bell.) One of the stops is the vault. And if you look in our vault – yes we have one – you have a tour of God’s faithfulness in this place. You can see the first minutes of this congregation. Planted in Hamilton by Christ in 1841. You can see the blessing of God in its children’s ministry and the latest 1950s technology of coloured glass Bible story projections. You can read about Central’s old Sunday evening service. Hymns sung out to God at night in this city, week by week, for years. You can find lists of thousands of children and adults baptized and teenagers saying publicly they believe in Christ. You can track budgets, of a place where God’s faithfulness and blessing in each generation was given by to God. If you look, you can see God’s hand guiding this church, from decade to decade, place to place, event to event, to today. Up to today, where I, as the 12th minister of this congregation in 177 years, I can say to you, from this place, Remember the Lord God this day, God is faithful in all generations. // Remember the past says Joshua, remember God’s hand guiding you there. We all come from different places and different churches. Just pause a moment and remember with me times when you can remember God’s faithfulness to you in the past. Was it a valley so deep you saw no way through. Was it a mountain so high you saw no way over. Was it a bottom, where you were able to say, your rod and your staff they comfort me. This is the first step to renewal.
Second, we can learn from this passage that is that renewal includes an invitation to make a decisive commitment to the Lord. Or a decisive recommitment. Joshua says, choose this day, whom you will serve. It’s the Hebrew word bachar. A simple word for choosing this or that. Lot, when his brother Abraham gives him the choice of which land to settle on, the plains or the valleys, Lots chooses the plains. Bachar. Choose this day, whom you will serve. Now, the reason in Joshua’s time that this decisive commitment is welcomed; is that in the ANE, it was common belief in a multiplicity of gods. Regional gods. Gods for certain causes or needs. And common practice was that people would worship, would serve, would call out to a given god for a given need. You would want to cover all the bases. Joshua recognizes these options available — the gods beyond the River or the Lord. And so with Israel, when it comes to renewal, we are left with a choice.
Third step to renewal, we can learn here, is to acknowledge that renewal is needed in every generation. A similar situation happened with Moses. A generation earlier. God’s people had made a golden calf – do you remember that story. And there was a strong moment of re – newel to God. The generation before Moses were the ones who had cried out to the Lord and the Lord heard them. And this generation, at the end of Joshua’s life, is faced with the need for renewal again. It is the end of one era – of Joshua’s time and leading – the beginning of another era. A new generation is rising up. And the question of serving the Lord or not remains unanswered. Select ancestry is not enough. We can’t be followers of Jesus because our parents were followers of Jesus. God has no grand children. If you understand what I am saying. This is something quite direct that every generation is faced with. I continue to make my baptism calls on behalf of this congregation. Most Tuesdays. Sometimes I call people baptized here as far back as 1951. And I wish them a happy baptism anniversary and offer them the best from Central. And I enjoy the conversations, and I often realize, that there are no guarantees from generation to generation. Each era, each time, is needs to find renewal – where serving the Lord is strong and wanted and beautiful.
Fourth, renewal in the Lord, affects everyone around you. Joshua declares, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. This is something that sinks in deeply to your life and affects those who see you most – with whom you live. Daily. Hudson Taylor the missionary to China, once said something like, if everyone in your house, including your dog and your cat do not know you are a Christian, then I doubt you are one. Tertullian in the 2c, writes about those who follow Christ – from the nature of their conduct may be estimated the quality of their faith. in their discipline we have an index o their doctrine. Renewal affects, if truly, those around us, as for me and my household we will serve the Lord.
Renewal comes by remembering God’s faithfulness. It includes a decisive commitment to the Lord. It acknowledges that such a choice is needed in every generation. Renewal in the Lord affects all those around you. And finally, renewal includes a covenant.
You see the people in verse 18, say, therefore we also will serve the Lord. But Joshua responds, You cannot serve the Lord – he is a holy God. Jealous (God wants all our life to be a shalom, not just part). And they say, yes will. And Joshua says, fine. Then put away the foreign gods that are among you and incline your hearts to the Lord. And they make a covenant. They need a covenant because serving the Lord can be hard. There are lots of other foreign gods. Have you ever served or are you serving a foreign god, today? God’s people will tell you that they are not all they’re cracked up to be. And I can tell what they promise they do not deliver. I have seen families break apart because of will control the money. There’s a god. I have seen people fall into depression after finally getting that big break in life, that big job, that big promotion – because they still feel unfulfilled. Achievements can be a god. Make that God yourself, your own intellect, your body – and you will be disappointed. Whatever our hearts cling to, more than the Lord, is a god to us. And the covenant Joshua makes is meant to remind God’s people of something. That the Lord they choose is good; is holy; is able. Is the Lord God. Better is one day in his courts than a thousand elsewhere. (Central hosted a big lunch this Wednesday, and some people came for it, then stayed on for the Alpha Course and I thought of this verse for them.) But it is true. O taste and see the Lord is good. He has made us and we are his. We are his people the sheep of his pasture. Jesus speaks of the character of his Father, “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?”
The covenant Joshua makes here between the Lord and God’s people is a covenant made new and final in the person of Jesus.
And I believe that renewal in the mainline protestant churches will focus on him. On rediscovering the sweetness of life in Christ. The goodness of it. Of being drawn to him. From our hymnbook, that German anonymous hymn, “Fairest Lord Jesus…Thou my soul’s delight and crown.” Will we pray for renewal today. Whom shall we serve. With whom shall we trust the years we have been given. When we die, like Joshua dies, what will our last words be? As people, as humans on this earth.
I had a lot of fun? Hm. I saw the world? Mhm. I enjoyed gin at the end of the dock? Mhm. Is that it. Think hard about this. Life is not a dress rehearsal. Consider the apostle Paul’s last words “I fought the good fight, I have kept the faith and now there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.” …..Or maybe consider Jesus; maybe our last words won’t matter as much as his do. When on his last night, he says to those serving him – This is my body, broken for you. Maybe our lives, when they are done, will actually be most whole, and worthy and redeemed and beautiful – spent in days serving him.
Choose this day, whom you will serve.
Choose X, who in love and great mercy chose to give himself for us.
A while ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a child about summer camp. Christian camping ranks high in the National Survey on Youth and Religion (NSYR) for what has helped children and youth grow most in faith. So I always ask, always try to ask, when I the opportunity arises. This day I did. “Have you ever been to a church camp?”, I asked. “What is that?” Well, there is one our area, up on the shores of a lake. You go, there is wall climbing, football, soccer, you sleep in cabins and eat along big, wide tables, you swim in the lake, which is like the ocean – by this time I had their attention – and at the end of the day, you to the chapel, sing songs, pray, and have a worship service.
By the end of this paragraph, the child, usually chatty, was speechless. They lived in an apartment building in our city. Had never been to camp. Had seen a lot of things – mostly in cities – but hadn’t spent a week by the lake with other kids, growing in community and faith.
When I had finished, like children do, and like adults learn not to do, they were direct, inhibited and honest. They looked me straight in they eyes without a blink, and asked, “Can I go there?” They emphasized the I. And the there. Like there was this gap between their life, and a week of Christian camping by the lake. Like there was a gulf, unreachable. Like it was beyond their grasp. Not possible.
What a joy, believe me, what a joy, that I could answer that day: “Well, there are lots of generous people at our church, lots of them, and we have camperships available if you’d like to go.”
Without so much as a second of hesitation, they took up the generousity of the fine Christian people at my church. They exclaimed, like a hockey player scoring a game wining goal; like a University basketball player scoring at the buzzer; like a young child, picturing something hopeful, exciting, faith-filled in the world in front of them. They shouted, and I mean, shouted, “Yes!”
I don’t know what will become of this kid. Where they will end up. I believe they are going to go far. Very far. But it is nothing short of a gift to be able to offer, in the name of a Saviour who has a church in a city, goodness and hope in the first few years of their life. I have a feeling this kid is going to make to it camp, and far beyond.
Sandy had kind eyes, a black leather jacket, large eyes, several rings in each ear, and few in her nose. She was confident and kind. I met her at Central Presbyterian Church, at a BBQ on the front steps. I noticed Sandy for what she was doing. She wasn’t standing in line, waiting for the street vendor-style ‘dogs to be ready. She was kneeling down beside one of the two, large, stone potters by each pillar.
Someone had put in some beautiful, yellow and fascia tulips. It had rained hard all day though, and they were beat down, their stems and petals lying in the soil. Sandy had her hands in the pot, pushing the tulips down deeper, so they had enough soil to stand straight. She carefully did the same with the other side. Always looking to plug people into ministries they love, I went over to talk to this potential church gardener. One more volunteer. Victory.
I asked Sandy about the winter. Had been long. Just like everyone’s at the church, and in this city. Long and cold. We talked about Hamilton, about the bus service, about the living options, and community housing, about the cost of apartments, about heat and about electricity bills. It was the first day in a month comfortable enough to stand outside with no coat. A heavenly breeze of 14C, blew. I said how nice it was to feel that. She said, “yes, it was a cold winter.” “And a wet one.” I asked what she meant. Sandy went on to explain that in Hamilton, in the winter, downtown, when there is snow in melt, your feet get cold and worse, wet – cold and wet, if you don’t have a good pair of boots. She said she didn’t this year.
It reminded me of day, being a very cool grade 7 kid in the Ottawa Valley, refusing to wear a winter coat or boots to school one day. Playing outside in the slush in my shoes, and how miserable, cold and wet my feet were all day. Soaked cold.
So I asked Sandy, “do a lot of people in Hamilton not a have a good pair of boots for the winter?” She explained that good boots – warm and dry ones – are hard to get each winter.
And this made me wonder. What does it mean for me to a Christian in Hamilton, driving a good car, wearing a goose-down coat, and never really needing to walk anywhere in the new boots I can afford, in any case; what does it mean for me to be a pastor in a city if others have cold, wet feet all winter, and mine are warm? What does that mean to be part of a church?
Well, if Sandy’s experience is wide in our city, and this is a need, I thought that day – of a church that specialized in boots. Boots for women. Boots for men. Boots for children, who need them. Boots for newcomers to the city. Boots for people. And for a church to give them away, with joy.
What if we made everything – everything – in the church, about mission? What if, along side our signs for worship and programs and special events, we had a sign on our sidewalk. Need boots? Come in. All welcome.
I think that would be pure joy.
I don’t remember where the idea came from, but on Palm Sunday I woke up to a donkey on the front lawn of the church. Turns out it was Presbyterian. Its handlers part of a congregation, on the outskirts of the city. But there it was, a donkey on Charlton Ave, Palm Sunday. With it, there were children. One child, had been asked, I was told, by a family member to go a special trip that Sunday morning, away from church, to which they responded, “No thank you. I am going to church this morning. My church has a donkey.” So there was excitement. Children and teens – lots of them – coming over in the hour before worship to touch the donkey. To stand near it. To speak to it.
About 10 a.m., someone from the church handed out songs sheets, which people held awkwardly in their mittened hands. -4C. We practiced the song for our procession around the block. Hosanna. Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. We sang it once, and then, about 50 of us, all ages, left. Donkey first.
The donkey headed up Caroline, and right on Herkimer. We sang Hosanna, quite well, I think, as we walked. The line was long, and the voices became stretched out, so it eventually become a round. The ‘donkey processional choir’. A few things happened that surprised me. I was surprised how the children walked at the front. They had one hand high, waving their palms, and the other hand, three of children, had on the donkey. Right there on its back, little hands buried in its dusty hair. The whole way. The were very connected to this animal.
As we walked, a minivan came close, slowed down, and stopped in the middle of the road to watch. After a minute, the windows came down, and out came the arm of a man who almost the oldest member of our church. We waved back. Off they went. A few minutes later, the same van, having circled the block, was back. Both windows down now, the man, and his wife and his grandson, all waving out the window, right in the middle of Herkimer, as we sang Hosanna. Other cars slowed down, stared.
Like they had never seen a parade of Presbyterians singing Hosanna in this city.
When the donkey made it to Hess and Charlton, our whole procession stopped to catch up. We kept singing. An HSR bus stopped to let passengers off on Charlton. The bus driver, put his coffee down, looked over, gave us all an ear to ear smile, and a big thumbs up. Hosanna – as he drove off West in his bus towards Locke St.
Back at the church, we all gathered on the front steps, and sang Hosanna one last time before parading into the service with our palms. It was chaotic; it was loud; it was energetic; it was joyful. It was Palm Sunday. We went into our church, the donkey back to its.
Two weeks later, I led the Prime Time Bible Study, a Wednesday afternoon. We checked in, talked over our lives, what was happening in the church. Talked about the donkey. One senior, never short of words, never short of a good story or a kindness, asked me if we had all seen the cross? A Ph.D. and ten years of university later, I hadn’t seen the cross. She asked, “don’t you know, every donkey has one on their back?” It’s said that ever since the beast carried our Saviour, every donkey had a cross on it, where two lines of dark hair met.
I had missed it. In the cold, in the singing, in the joy, in the crowds, I had missed the cross. Immediately I pulled up a picture, and there it was. The whole time we had been out there that Palm Sunday, up at front of the line, leading the way along the street, leading the singing, leading this public witness to the story of a certain kind of king, was a donkey, on Herkimer Street in Hamilton, with a cross on its back; and three little hands, holding onto it.
For several years now, I have attended a program at Central where, from November to March each year, hot meals are served to those who come. I walk around, feeling like a maître-d’, saying hello, getting to know the guests; feeling like I should have a violin, and be lighting elegant candles. At times, we talk about the weather, or sports. Two years ago, I came with a broken ankle. Guests still ask how it is doing. Other times, we talk about the birth of their grand children, the death of friends, pets, loved ones. We talk about visions some have. Of angels; of God meeting them. I hear favourite Bible verses quoted, and the latest books being read, commented on. If it is someone’s birthday, I will be told, and we will sing before grace.
And that is fine. We all go our separate ways.
Other times, though, there are cross overs. Like the wedding I have been asked to perform; or like the spouse, diagnosed with cancer, I was asked to visit over the months she was dying. And her funeral, hosted by the church. And like the three times individual guests came and spoke about these meals to the congregation.
I noticed something every year however. Every year around March, the final month, guests would start asking, “is this going to be over soon”, saying “we’re not going to see each other until next October”. One March, I batted around the idea of a summer reunion, small talk though, mumbling something about having to find volunteers, find time, budget etc. etc. Another March, I actually heard myself saying, “well, maybe next year”, hearing acutely how words can be so easy, and empty.
But this March something changed. One of the guests suggested a BBQ. And, I heard myself agreeing, joining in, yes, a community BBQ outside the front of the church. Yes. Perfect. Try it for a month, every Thursday in April. I said, let me talk to some people and get back to you, wondering if I would.
Yesterday, I attended the second community BBQ outside the front doors of our church. The team served 120 sausages, street vendor style, to 75 people. I noticed a few changes from the winter program. One the guests from the winter program actually had become one of servers. She had joined the church team. Coordinating the lines, handing out bottles of water. The coffee shop from across the street had joined in. They had provided two huge containers of hot drinks and coffee. People driving by the front of the church in their cars, slowed down, hanging their head out the window, and having a long look. As if they had never seen a BBQ outside the oak doors and tall steeple of a city church. I noticed how people spoke to each other more loosely, more relaxed, being outside, moving around, laughing, chatting. The atmosphere was almost fun. I noticed how easy it was to invite people. Three children played across the street with their Mom, and I yelled over, would you like a BBQ. Over they ran. We talked summer camps, gym space for after school basketball, and something about each of the kids. Shortly put, there were more connections with our neighbourhood in 30 minutes, then I might otherwise see in a month.
One interaction stayed with me the most.
Because the BBQ was outside, as the guests arrived, you could see them coming. One man, a regular during the winter, came by, limping. After he had his sausage, he explained to me how each step he took, hurt. His ankle, to his knees, up the leg, into his hip. (I asked him how far he had walked for the BBQ, and it was about 2.5 km, a mile and half). I said, “sir, that is no good, how can we help?”
He explained that he had gone to a pedorthist on James Street, was fitted for large orthotics and special shoes to balance out his gait, but not being able to pay for them, opted for the monthly payment plan, which after a month, he could not pay. So here he was, a large man, walking in pain at each step, with what he needed to walk prepared but on a shelf in a store on James Street. Nowhere near his feet. I suggested the church use its benevolent fund to pay off the shoes, and that he pick them up as soon as possible. His large eyebrows, unshaven, furrowed. His lips, still yellow from mustard, turned down. And he said to me, “can you do that?” I said, this church would be happy to do that. And so it is in the works. Set for next week. Next week, among other things, there will be a man, in our neighbourhood, walking without pain, because of a simple BBQ, the generosity of this congregation, and the grace of a God, who makes the sheer joy of opportunities like these, possible.
Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.