January 19, 2020

Acts 27:18 – 28:10

“Unusual Kindness”

Many of you know that I spent much of this week in Ontario. In my role as Moderator of the last General Assembly of our church, I get to travel quite a bit – often preaching in different churches or speaking about ecumenism and interchurch families, since I chose that as my focus for the year.

But this week was a bit different. I attended two retreats. First, a gathering of Presbyterian women clergy at Crieff Hills Community, our church’s retreat centre near Guelph Ontario. And then, a gathering of national level church leaders from various churches, organized by the Canadian Council of Churches at the Guest House of the Sisters of St. John the Divine, an Anglican convent in Toronto.

Although the two retreats were designed to meet the needs of a different group of people, they had in common the fact that their purposes were to give ministry leaders time away to connect, to share, to pray, to rest, and to support one another as colleagues in ministry. If it wasn’t for the late nights and the travel, I might well have returned home well-rested and renewed for the busy weeks ahead!

One thing that was reinforced for me during both gatherings was the realization that people in ministry today (and perhaps people in general today) live extremely busy, stressful, and challenging lives day-to-day. My female minister colleagues are very faithful and competent clergy, but even in this day and age many of them still have to put up with sexist comments, lack of respect, and ridiculously high expectations that cause them anxiety and exhaustion.

And many of my national church leader colleagues – whether moderators, national bishops, conference leaders, or territorial commanders – are experiencing “crisis fatigue” from all the difficulties they are facing in the church and in the world, as they try to lead their denominations in faithful, hopeful ministries in the context of a troubled and warring world.

Some of my colleagues commented that being in church leadership today is not like it was 20 or 40 years ago. We have a very difficult calling today. The churches are struggling and shrinking, and they’re feeling the stress of that change.

And the world is in crisis too – wracked with conflict and war, divisive politics, racism, hatred, and violence, not to mention the effects of climate change demonstrated in one weather-related disaster after another.

Young people in our time are experiencing more despair and disillusionment than ever before, and mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and risk of suicide are rampant. And as much as many of us enjoy social media and try to make use of it in positive ways in our lives and ministries, online hatred is prevalent and extremely destructive both to individuals and communities.

It was good for these ministry colleagues to retreat together to a community of prayer and care for one another, because out in the world – and even in the world of the churches, as we also are dealing with controversial and divisive issues in our denominations – kindness being expressed and shown towards one another seems rare and unusual.

Despite the differences and divisions between Christians in our own denomination and in the wider Christian Church, we continue to pray for and to work for the unity and peace of the church. For the sake of our shared mission to the world, we join in Jesus’ prayer that all may be One. Every year in the 3rd week of January, we join with Christians in our own communities and around the world and celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

This year, the materials for the Week of Prayer were prepared by the Christian Churches of Malta and Gozo (Christians Together in Malta, the group is called). In their reflection on the main text from the Acts of the Apostles, the “Christians Together in Malta” point out that “the story begins with the Apostle Paul being taken to Rome as a prisoner. Paul is in chains, but even in what turns out to be a perilous journey, the mission of God continues through him.

“This narrative is a classic drama of humanity confronted by the terrifying power of the elements. The passengers on the boat are at the mercy of the forces of the seas beneath them and the powerful tempest that rages about them. These forces take them into unknown territory, where they are lost and without hope.

“The 276 people on board the ship are divided into distinct groups. The centurion and his soldiers have power and authority but are dependent on the skill and experience of the sailors. Although all are afraid and vulnerable, the prisoners in chains are the most vulnerable of all. Their lives are expendable; they are at risk of summary execution. As the story unfolds, under pressure and in fear for their lives, we see distrust and suspicion widening the divisions between the different groups.

Early in the national church leaders’ retreat, we read the passage from Acts about the shipwreck on Malta, and we began to reflect on the story as a metaphor for our experience of the Christian Church at this time in history.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the logo for the Canadian Council of Churches is a boat. Actually, the logo for the World Council of Churches is similar – a stylized boat, with a cross, and the wind and the waves around it.

It reminds us that all of us followers of Jesus are together in the same boat, and that Jesus is with us like he was with the disciples when the storm came up on the Sea of Galilee. And even if troubles and challenges are happening in life, we don’t have to get worried or afraid because we’re together in the same boat with each other and with Jesus. We can trust that Jesus has the power to still the storms, and everything is going to be okay.

But the church leaders reflected that the storms are really bad right now. “We’re in the boat together, but the boat is leaking,” they lamented. “It feels like it’s in danger of breaking apart altogether!” “Like Paul and the others on the ship, we’re running out of resources, while struggling to stay afloat, and we’re worried that the ship is either going to sink or run aground on some inhospitable shore.”

The kinds of things that happened on the ship as the storm went on and on, day after day, we see happening in the Christian Church too. We get filled with anxiety and worry so that we can hardly think straight or pause to consider and make good decisions together. We’re fighting with each other, and trying to lay blame on others for the situation we’re in today as if they could have avoided it somehow.

We’re desperately throwing things overboard that we think may be weighing us down, and we’re thinking about throwing some of the other people overboard too when it seems like they’re the problem. We’re almost giving up hope that we’ll ever reach the promised land, and although we have some food, we’re hardly eating it. Who knows how long it will need to last us?

I suppose the story calls Christian leaders today to follow the example of the Apostle Paul in the midst of the storm on the sea. “Paul stands out as a centre of peace in the turmoil. He knows that his life is not governed by forces indifferent to his fate, but rather is held in the hands of the God to whom he belongs and whom he worships.

“Because of this faith he is confident that he will stand before the emperor in Rome, and in the strength of this faith he can stand before his fellow travellers and give thanks to God. All are encouraged. And following Paul’s example, they share bread together, united in a new hope and trusting in his words.”

On the 10th of February every year, many Christians in Malta celebrate the Feast of the Shipwreck of St. Paul, marking and giving thanks for the arrival of Christian faith on these islands. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles used for the Feast is the text chosen for this week’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and for today’s service.

Although the story describes the terrible disaster of a storm and a shipwreck, for the Christians of Malta, it is remembered as “the Baptism of Malta” – when because of the storm and the shipwreck, an Apostle landed on their island, and the Christian faith was first proclaimed to them in the 1st century CE.

And it didn’t happen with Christians coming to them in power and strength to solve their problems and enlighten their eyes. It happened with Christians landing on their island in desperate need, looking for help, and offering what they had in return – the good news about Jesus.

Although the people on the ship had plans for how to save themselves, their plans were thwarted. It was only by staying together and allowing the ship to be wrecked that they came to be saved through divine providence.

The Christians of Malta suggest that “in the search for Christian unity, surrendering ourselves to divine providence will demand letting go of many things to which we are deeply attached. What matters to God is the salvation of all people.”

It makes me think of the Christian Churches in Qu-Appelle. A couple of years ago, the Catholic parish had a crisis. Their boiler seized up, and the heat was off for several days. The pipes froze, and later they burst. The basement was flooded, and the water damage and mold issues were significant. The church building was condemned, and they had to get out of there right away.

Immediately, the Anglicans in the same town invited them in: “Come to our worship, or use our building for your liturgy. We have lights and heat and a place to gather, and you’re welcome here.” There was no hesitation. And when it became clear that the old building could not be salvaged, they made a more permanent arrangement of sharing and relationship between the two Christian communities.

I wonder who the transition was harder for – the Anglicans who made space for their neighbours, or the Catholics who accepted their hospitality? Although you wouldn’t wish the situation on anyone, blessings have come from it. Opportunities to pray together more, to share gifts and minister to each other in friendship and fellowship. And it’s a good witness, I think, to the community – that the churches that were divided historically are now getting along, working together, showing kindness and care across their differences. Some might say it is unusual kindness.

It can be difficult and humbling to admit that we need help. Often, something extreme needs to happen before we’re willing to accept the help of neighbours or strangers. Something like a boiler shutting down in December in Saskatchewan. Or something like a shipwreck.

The Maltese Christians tell the story of the shipwreck in this way. Perhaps we can imagine ourselves and our churches among the travellers: “This diverse and conflicted group of people runs aground ‘on some island.’ Having been thrown together in the same boat, they arrive at the same destination, where their human unity is disclosed in the hospitality they receive from the islanders.

“As they gather round the fire, surrounded by a people who neither know nor understand them, differences of power and status fall away. The 276 are no longer at the mercy of indifferent forces, but embraced by God’s loving providence made present through a people who show them ‘unusual kindness.’ Cold and wet, they can warm and dry themselves by the fire. Hungry, they are given food. They are sheltered until it is safe for them to continue their journey.”

Of course, the story encourages us as Christians to show hospitality to those in crisis and need in our world today. The Christians of Malta remind us that “Today many people are facing the same terrors on the same seas. The very same places named in the reading also feature in the stories of modern-day migrants. In other parts of the world many others are making equally dangerous journeys by land and sea to escape natural disasters, warfare, and poverty. Their lives, too, are at the mercy of immense and coldly indifferent forces – not only natural, but political, economic, and human.

“As Christians together facing these crises of migration, this story challenges us: do we collude with the cold forces of indifference, or do we show ‘unusual kindness’ and become witnesses of God’s loving providence to all people?”

At the same time, the story reminds us that we are not alone in our struggles and in our needs as individuals and as churches. Though the storms are raging around us, we are together in the same boat with other Christians and with Christ himself. And we must notice that the people who helped and cared for Paul and his companions did not yet know Christ, and yet it is through their unusual kindness that a divided people were drawn together.

During this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Maltese Christians suggest to us that our own Christian unity will be discovered not only through showing hospitality to one another as we gather for prayer, worship, and fellowship in our communities. But also through loving encounters with those who do not share our language, culture, or faith. Sometimes by offering hospitality to those in need, and sometimes by humbling ourselves to receive it when we are in trouble or need.

Although our world often seems to be divided by hatred, violence, and fear, the good news is that many of God’s children are guided and inspired to offer help and hope when others are in crisis. We praise and thank God for guiding us through the storms of life, and the fact that such kindness as actually not that unusual.