Churchill 2011

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(“Clergy Supply” in Churchill, Manitoba — Part Five)

Last things...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

It’s Sunday, and it’s Mothers Day, and I’m in the middle of a sermon, in Churchill Manitoba:

“The Bible passage we just read,” I say, “describes two people on a seven mile walk to their home village, in the course of which they are joined by a stranger.  The stranger – who we know is Jesus himself (but they don’t) – sees that they are upset, and asks why.  ‘Didn’t you hear about Jesus being crucified?’ they say.  Then they add, ‘and now some people from our group claim that they saw him alive!’”

“That pair of words, ‘our group,’ got me thinking:  these two people didn’t recognize Jesus... but I don’t think that it was because he looked different; I think it was because they had never seen him up close before.  After all, during his teaching ministry there was at least one occasion when five thousand people 2 attended one of his talks; and another time he sent seventy students out on a training mission. 3  Maybe these two had only ever seen Jesus from a distance.

“And yet they say, in quite a matter-of-fact way, that they belong to a ‘group’ – a group that has to have been the disciples, because that’s who Jesus appeared to when he rose from the dead.  So these two people belonged to Jesus’ core group, and yet they had never seen him up close.

“My point is this: during his ministry it is obvious that Jesus deliberately set up a ‘group,’ and it wasn’t just a group of twelve disciples, it was a very big group.  So big, in fact, that – as we also read this morning – when three thousand people later joined them after one of Peter’s sermons, the core group didn’t even blink! 4

“Now, over my lifetime I’ve met a lot of people who say, ‘I believe in Jesus, I just don’t think you have to go to church to be a Christian!’  But, if you really believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then I think that you would take very seriously anything that Jesus took seriously.  And it is very clear to me that he was very very serious about building up a big group that would function smoothly after the Resurrection.  A group that we now know as “the church.”

“So, if you don’t believe that you need to belong to a church, I very much doubt that you really ‘believe in Jesus,’ whatever you say.  Sorry about that.”

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A sermon interrupted...

As I moved on to the next part of this sermon, suggesting that there isn’t going to be much of a church in the years ahead if people don’t step forward to make it happen, an infant got away from its mother and made a dash for the front of the church.  The mother was too startled and too shy to move, so up he went, right to the altar.

No one was going to listen to my message now.  This was too much fun.  A diversion!  Relief from a very serious sermon!

I left the pulpit.  Going over to the child, I picked him up myself and took him to his mom, saying “It’s okay, you know.  If he gets away from you again, please don’t worry about going after him.”

Then I turned to the people.  “This reminds me of when my oldest son was just about the same age as this little one.  He too got away, and got into the pulpit.  Peeking through one of the openings in it, he called out, ‘Hi everybody!’  Well today, that son of mine is a priest in the Anglican Church, and a very good one.

“Could it be that this child here today will grow up to be a priest – leading Christ’s group in the next generation?

“And...” I went on, pointing to a pew with a lot of squirming children in it, “...maybe a couple of these children over here will also be priests!?”

Because it was Mothers Day, there were in fact several little children in church – many more than usual – and I figured I might as well go for broke.  With parental guidance, these children must be brought up to continue Jesus’ group into the next generation.

There was general laughter, but my sermon’s point had been made.

The town of Churchill has almost 900 residents.  There are three Christian churches: Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Alliance.  There are no synagogues or mosques, or any sign of another major world religion.  So, doing the math, if the 900 people of Churchill are divided equally between the three churches, there would have been 300 people in each church on Easter Day... right?

I did some checking, and as far as I can gather all three churches combined had a total Easter attendance of less than 100.  More than 800 people had managed to stay away from the ‘group’ that Jesus founded, on the most important Christian day of the year.

Interestingly, there were more people in our Anglican church on Mothers Day than there were at Easter.  I saw people there that I had never seen the whole time I’ve been in Churchill.  So, I was happy to give that sermon.

We went downstairs afterwards, for coffee and cookies (thanks to Joyce, who is, as you recall, Churchill’s ‘Cookie Lady’), and there was the usual quiet but pleasant conversation.  They even made a little presentation to me there, expressing thanks for my service to the parish, brief though it was.  My successor is already in place, and it remains for me to pack up and return to Winnipeg.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Four Sundays... three of them being important festivals: Palm Sunday, Easter, and Mothers Day.  I lived in Churchill for a total of twenty-five days.
a group of church members
Some of the people of St. Paul’s, Churchill

And, those twenty-five days were, for me, a wonderful and unforgettable experience.

If you’ve been following this blog, you might have got the impression that it was nothing but an adventurous encounter with the harsh world of Canada’s far north.  And, it certainly was that.  The environment around Churchill is infinite and majestic and beautiful beyond belief, but it is not friendly to human habitation, and being there was a great adventure.

But as you know my time there was not merely an encounter with nature.  I had a lot to do with the people, and while I really must not write in detail about those interpersonal encounters, I figure that the story of a child getting away during a sermon might give you a sense of the other, truly important, side of my time in Churchill.
Patricia Penwarden
Patricia Penwarden
in front of the Churchill airport terminal

I’ll remember with affection, people like Patrick Spence, a retired trapper who delighted in ringing the church bell and bringing up the offering; Patricia Penwarden, a retired hotel owner who plays the church organ and gives exceedingly competent leadership; Claudia Grill, the Austrian student and relief organist; Edna, whose husband is seriously ill, but who counts the weekly offerings faithfully and leads the prayers.  Gerald Azure and his wife Jenafor – faithful in church, and my wonderful hosts at home and on the dog sleds.  Joyce Urbanovitch, Churchill’s official “Cookie Lady,” who proclaims the scriptures and brings the cookies.  Amy, and Edith, and Caroline, and Louise, and Ivy... and... the list goes on.

These are the real people of Churchill.

I went there in the “off” season, so I didn’t see any polar bears, or seals, or beluga whales; but I also didn’t see any tourists.  The people that I met were those who live in Churchill all year round, and they are the heart and soul of the place.

I am home now, and happy to be back with Heather.  We missed one another, and are glad to be together again.  But I am very grateful to have had this opportunity to do “clergy supply” in the far North.

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1  If you’d like to look it up, this is in Luke 24:22.  The italics are my own emphasis.
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2  Five thousand people at a single lecture?  See John 6:10.  The “Feeding of the Five Thousand” is a well-known miracle, but it is important to recognize that all those people were attending one of Jesus’ teaching sessions.
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3  Seventy students?  See Luke 10:1-22.
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4  The additionof 3,000 members can be found in the Bible at Acts 2:41.  True, it doesn’t say – in so many words – that the core group didn’t even blink, but the line about the mass membership acquisition is so matter-of-fact that it is hard to imagine otherwise.
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