September 27, 2020

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

“Together on the Journey”

The parable of the vineyard is about two sons. Both were called to work in the vineyard.  The first son says he won’t go, but then he shows up. The second son says he’ll go, but he never arrives to work. After telling this story, Jesus asked those who were listening, “Which of the two sons did what the father wanted?”

I am sure that everyone would reply the son who showed up. The parable reminds us that faith must be more than just words. The son who promises to work in the vineyard and then fails to do so is no help to his father. In contrast, the one who hesitates to work, but then decides to take up the task, likely pleases his father with his unexpected generosity.

I think about this scripture today, as we reflect on the call to participate in our denomination’s shared ministry and mission.  We are connected through faith, governance, and sharing in ministry and mission. Through our gifts to Presbyterians Sharing, we participate in God’s mission.

Together, we equip congregations, ministries and presbyteries with skills and tools for evangelism and discipleship, stewardship and Christian education. Together we create and support new faith communities and participate in national and international mission. We engage in healing and reconciliation and support Indigenous ministries.  We prepare and support leaders and live out God’s call to justice. We empower, encourage and support youth. And we do so much more to participate in God’s mission.

Each year, congregations are invited to contribute to Presbyterians Sharing. General Assembly has agreed to encourage congregations to give a tithe – 10% of what they raise for regular congregational ministry – to our common ministry. Knowing how much funding is expected helps the General Assembly to plan and budget appropriately. It’s like a father with a vineyard knowing how much help he’ll have in planting, tending, and harvesting in the upcoming season.

Showing up to work in the vineyard is not always easy. 2020 has been a difficult year. The COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world and through our communities – disrupting our plans, testing our capacity to adapt, and challenging us to be the church outside our buildings and without our usual gatherings for worship and fellowship.

Thinking about how much things changed during the pandemic makes me realize we don’t know what was going on with the two sons in the parable. When the second son said he would go to work in the vineyard, he might have had every intention of doing so. Maybe he became ill or injured or had to give priority to a more urgent task at that moment.  And the other son who decided he could help… Was that because he saw that his brother was suddenly unavailable?

Was that because he realized that he had more time and energy than he expected? Or was it because he loved his father deeply, and he suddenly saw how desperately his dad needed his help?

Although we don’t know why the second son didn’t show up, we do know that showing up is important, and we can imagine how delighted the father was when the first son was able to be there.

But, while Jesus’s parable calls us to follow through on the promises and commitments we make, there is room for grace. We are called to give according to our ability, and while some congregations might not reach their goal, others are surprised when the generosity of their members allows them to surpass it.

There are a variety of ways that we are invited to share our gifts of money, time, and talents for the work of God’s reign on earth, and in difficult times we can pull together to support those who are struggling more. The important thing is that we all participate in the mission that God is calling us to do.

Today we’ve also read about the Israelites journeying through the wilderness in the hope of finding their way to the Promised Land. It reminds us of the importance of being on the journey together.

In those days, the struggles included the enormous challenge of finding food and water for all the people on the way. And their journey through that difficult time lasted not months or years, but generations of wandering.

The author of Exodus tells us that the whole congregation journeyed together – and they did so by stages.  Sure, they quarreled and complained about the hardships as they went along, but they looked after each other and didn’t abandon the weakest ones along the way.

In the midst of severe hardships, some of them began to wonder if God was still with them, guiding their journey. They complained against their leaders and questioned the whole plan of leaving Egypt in the first place. But when Moses asked for God’s help, he received it. The people needed water, and God showed him where to find it. God was still among the Israelites, and we know that God eventually guided them all the way through that difficult time to a new normal in a new land.

The story may lead us to gratitude for the fresh, clean water that is available for most of us right from our taps, and it may spur us to action for those communities around the world that do not benefit from such basic amenities – including many Indigenous communities in Canada. It also reminds us that God is with us as we continue to make our way through the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’ve endured months of restrictions, economic impacts and social isolation, and at times we have become frustrated and impatient, just wanting everything to go back to normal. Like Moses, we don’t know how long the journey will take, how many challenges we will face, or how many needs will arise that we will be called to respond to. We may feel scared and ill-equipped to deal with all the issues. But God is still with us.

When the pandemic began earlier this year, the Presbyterian Church in Canada at every level pivoted and adapted to changing circumstances and needs. Congregations moved online for worship, Bible study, meetings, prayer groups and fellowship. Large church gatherings like General Assembly and Canada Youth were cancelled or postponed. Planned meetings and events were moved online or put off until some uncertain date in the future.

Even as staff at our church offices in Toronto began to work from home, they quickly moved to produce resources and supports for congregations during the crisis. Guidance and support for worshipping online became a priority. Resources for pastoral care, stewardship, and Christian education at home were produced to support the new realities of physical distancing and sheltering at home.

Information about government grants and loans was shared broadly and the church made its own emergency funding available for ministries severely impacted by the pandemic. Staff phoned clerks and ministers across the country to check in, offer support and encouragement, identify needs and resources. As the possibility of some churches reopening emerged, a resource was produced to help Sessions with step-by-step guidance and considerations for how to do so safely and responsibly.

Communication has been vital in keeping Presbyterians across Canada journeying together through the challenges of 2020. Our gifts to Presbyterians Sharing support the staff and resources required to communicate across the church through the website, PCConnect e-news, social media, and the Presbyterian Connection newspaper. Even as we are spread across this huge country, we do not need to feel isolated or alone because we can connect with each other and share the journey together.

We continue to support health, theological and Christian education, evangelism, leadership development, Bible translation and other ministry initiatives of our international partners.  Although international mission staff were called back to Canada, they are staying in touch with partners and providing support from Canada. Extra funds were sent to support the Near-East School of Theology when the devaluation of the Lebanese currency, political unrest and COVID restrictions, put the seminary in a precarious situation.

We’ve provided essential grants which train Indigenous women for ministry in Guatemala, offer spiritual and physical care for prisoners in Malawi and provide a safe space for people with mental health issues – a highly marginalized population – in rural Nepal – to name just a few.  Our partners ask us that we keep their work in our prayers during these challenging times.

Mission and ministry in Canada continue because of our gifts to Presbyterians Sharing. Grants continue to support new and renewing congregations and specialized ministries which support vulnerable populations such as refugees and people living in poverty. When physical distancing guidelines temporarily suspended in-person programs run by Indigenous ministries within the PCC, a special grant helped them shift to drop-off food programs to ensure that some of the most vulnerable community members could access healthy meals and personal supplies. New innovation grants equip qualifying ministries to develop discipleship, faith sharing and community outreach programs.

Due to the pandemic and cancellation of the General Assembly, I was asked to continue to serve as Moderator for a second year. I invited Presbyterians to join me every day of the summer to walk and pray for the church and its ministries. More than 100 people joined the pilgrimage of prayer, lifting up congregations and ministries from the West coast to the East, with additional prayers for our ecumenical partners.

It was a ministry of encouragement, solidarity, and love for one another, combined with a celebration of the beauty of creation and the gift of life, breath, and movement.  Presbyterians Sharing funds the General Assembly Office and provides a small grant for First Church so that I am free to devote significant time and attention to that role without jeopardizing our ministry here.

Walking and praying across the country and considering our diverse ministries brings to light the reality that some communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and are struggling more. In the last few months, we’ve all become more aware of the inequalities that persist in our country and the devastating effects of systemic racism. We tend to assume that Canadians value multiculturalism and diversity, but we are learning that people – particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour – still endure discrimination, hatred, and even violent racism in our communities.

Seeking justice is an important part of our shared ministry that is funded by Presbyterians Sharing. National staff, the International Affairs Committee, the National Indigenous Ministries Council, the ecumenical social justice agency KAIROS, and other partners are just a few who provide leadership and resources for our work towards the justice and peace that God desires for the world. In 2020, statements and resources to help congregations sow seeds of hope and respond to the justice imperatives of the gospel include a study guide on racism and hate in Canada, as well as resources for understanding and responding to the final report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The community that first sang Psalm 78 proclaimed their commitment to “tell the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that God has done.” Remembering their ancestors’ perilous journey through the wilderness, they sang about how they experienced the presence and help of God as they made the difficult journey together. “God split rocks open in the wilderness,” they told their children, “and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.”

I wonder… When we tell the story of the COVID-19 pandemic some years from now, or when our grandchildren tell their children about it even later, what will we say? Will we talk about the people who died, the economies that crashed, the hardships that people endured, the complaining and quarrelling that surfaced? Or will we share stories of God’s presence among us during this time? Will we tell the coming generation about how we stayed together, how we looked out for each other’s needs, how we gave generously as we were able to the continuing ministry and mission of the church, and how God enabled us to do that?

In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul describes his hope for a church that is united in the love of Christ. He encourages the Christian community to be “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” He invites each one of them not to look to their own interests, but to the interests of others, humbling themselves as Jesus did when he gave up his life for the life of the world.

Supporting Presbyterians Sharing is an important way for Presbyterians across Canada to give of ourselves for the needs of others, to share together in making God’s presence seen and felt in the midst of difficult times, and to be faithful to God’s call to work in the vineyard for the sake of the coming reign of God. Thank you for your gifts to Presbyterians Sharing.