Hebrews 12 (selected verses)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
14 Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
18 You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 19 and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
I John 4 (selected verses)
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to die, proving how much God loves us. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
It is the policy of the Presbyterian Church in Canada that the church is committed to providing safe environments for all persons, including, children, youth, vulnerable adults and those who minister to and with them…. And not just in church but in all milieus where we are ministering.
There is a reason we have fire alarm systems, and cameras outside the church, and we have a portable automatic defribrillator, and a first aid kit.
We have policies that mean that our children in Church school are supervised always by at least two adults. The staff here get criminal record checks.
We don’t let people sit in the front row of the balcony.
We are trying to keep this place a safe place.
I suppose most of the impetus for this policy came because of the stories of churches and denominations that were not safe places and in particular stories of sexual abuse and misconduct, sometimes by the clergy themselves, and there were many stories of children being the victims.
But the policy became more than just sexual misconduct or sexual predators, it became about all the ways we make a place safe.
So we talk about fire safety and medical safety and physical safety.
But safe place can mean more than just physical safety.
What would it mean to you for this place to be absolutely safe for you?
Do you think about fire alarms and sexual predators, or would you think about a different kind of safety.
Would you think of this place as a safe place to unburden your sins, your crimes, your wrongdoings, your wicked thoughts, your moral failings, your addictions…
And find understanding, sympathy, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation?
Would think of this as a safe place where you could share anything, talk about your doubts, your weird theology, your reservations about the creeds and the doctrines of the church, your novel ideas, your secret passions, and deepest hurts?
And find listening ears, who would honour your thoughts, and not try to have you committed or excommunicated, or feel it was their mission to change you back in to a good little Presbyterian.
Would you think of this as a safe place to talk about your emotional problems, your issues with children or spouse, your parents or in-laws, to bring to the surface old wounds, psychological trauma, unresolved issues, conflicts with other church members…
And find guidance and healing and emotional safety and good counselling and level-headed conflict resolution advice?
Would this be a safe place to talk about your hopes and dreams, your vision for a new world of inclusion and love, your job, your potential life mate, your career, your faith, your choices, your likes, your dislikes…
And find that it is okay to be you and that you are affirmed and loved just for being you.
I think the tragedy is that the church is not like that. Pockets of it are… and there are those in this congregation I am sure that people seek out, because there are a bunch of people in this church who are themselves safe place for others.
You probably have a best friend. I have a friend who is a safe place and all those things I talked about, I think I could share with that friend and that friend would not judge, but would listen and understand and love. And maybe that friend would not have all the answers or be able to solve conflicts and problems, but maybe just having a safe place were I can dump and vent and share and express and process is what I need.
And maybe the way forward is not so much what the friend suggests as much as what my heart will decide with God.
It is just that I need a safe space to vent and work it out and that space is someone else’s emotional strength and love.
Maybe I am being too optimistic to think that church could be that kind of safe space…
Maybe I should be a good Calvinist and realize that we are just too broken and too sinful and too damaged that when you put a whole bunch of humans together they just cannot be collectively a safe place.
Maybe that is just Harry’s vision for a church that this place would be a safe place for women, children, men and those whose gender is fluid or unknown.
That this be a safe place no matter what one’s race or ethnicity,
that this be a safe place no matter one’s faith or belief system…
That this be a safe place for heterosexuals, homosexuals and those whose sexuality doesn’t fit in column A or B.
That this be a safe place for Evangelicals, Fundamentalist, Liberals, Modernists, Catholics, or whatever brand of Christianity.
What I do know is that one of the reasons that people do not find the church relevant today and why some people do not come to church is their perception that the church is not safe…
That they will be judged. That they will be condemned and if not them personally then their parents who are divorced, or their friends who are gay, or their buddies who are Buddhist, their neighbours who are Muslim, their daughter who had an abortion…
They are not so much worried about the fire drill and fire safety as there are about emotional safety.
Will I be assaulted by perception and misunderstanding, by judgement or condemnation?
I don’t know. In fact to be honest the times I have been judged, condemned, mistaken, assaulted verbally, gossiped about are many, and I am the minister.
Throughout the years I have had letters under the door telling me that there were those who didn’t want me as minister.
I have had letters to presbytery complaining. I have been verbally assaulted at the door of the church.
People have lied about me, misunderstood my motives, given me the silent treatment, castigated me… gossiped about me.
Some of my colleagues say to me. “Suck it up princess. It’s part of the job.” But sometimes I wonder.
Many years ago someone complained to presbytery that I helped myself to a cookie out of the cookie jar one time when I was visiting their house.
When I preached for a call in Yorkton, Saskatchewan some 24 years ago and told them I wasn’t perfect and that I had helped myself to a cookie out of the cookie jar, that’s when they knew that’s the kind of person they wanted to be their minister, so they called me. Who knew?
I freely admit that I am not perfect, but how do we deal with the imperfect in church.
Do we give them a safe place to talk about it, vent, work it out and process?
Do we give them a safe place to talk about imperfections and problems and inner hurts that make them want to hurt?
Do we give them a safe place to confess and share and be reconciled?
It seems to me that one of the things we remember on Remembrance Day is the sacrifice of many soldiers who died to make this world a safer place. Who died to grant to people freedom and liberation from those who in effect said:
You are not allowed to think this way. You are not allowed to act this way. You are not allowed to be yourself. You have to give your total allegiance to the State and do what you are told or else. If you do not you will be punished or executed.
It seems to me that just shortly after a Reformation Sunday celebrating 500 years of the Reformation that there were many who wanted freedom for Christians to worship in their own way, in their own language, to sing hymns, to gather together freely and to study the scriptures, and even to come up with their own interpretations, and… and…..be safe to do so…
No we are not perfect, but we could be better. We could be safer, we could be more understanding, we could be more inclusive, we could grant more freedom….
But it is hard… because one of the dominant emotions in our society is fear.
And when we are scared, we get suspicious and circle the wagons and won’t let the strangers in, or we want to get rid of those who are different or those we do not trust.
And when we are scared we point fingers and accuse and scapegoat and lie to protect ourselves.
When we are scared we don’t take responsibility and we blame.
And when we get scared we attack or get hostile…
There was a survey done by the American Psychological Association entitled “Stress in America.” There was a news release just a few days ago on November first which stated that Americans believe that this is the lowest point in American history and that they are more stressed out and fearful than any time in their history
And that includes those who lived through the Second World War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9-11.
And while this is an American study I want you to understand how big stress and fear is in this world and I am pretty sure in Canada.
Americans are more scared that even during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Second World War.
What is causing all this fear?
The answers: Health Care, the Division between the Right and the Left in American Politics, North Korea and American foreign policy, and Terrorism, both International and Domestic.
It is affecting the health of people.
And it seems to me that while many people have turned away from the church, for a variety of reasons, including the perception based on some reality that the church is not safe…
That people need the church and the message of Jesus Christ as an antidote to fear and mistrust and increased stress and loss of hope.
Jesus offers hope that the future can be better. Jesus offers a way to make that future better. Jesus offers a different vision than that of competition, fighting and blaming and it is simply to love one another.
And maybe, maybe, maybe we can’t make this whole world a safer place tomorrow, but maybe just maybe we can make this place a safer place…
And if everyone here feels safe and learns how to love, maybe each person here can be a safe place for others.
And we can start taking safe places into the world, by each of us being a safe place in the world to another person or other persons.
I am acutely aware on this Remembrance Day when we remember those who died to bring freedom and make this world a safer place…
That just one week ago during a worship service at a Baptist Church in Texas, a man who once was in the military, whose sacred duty had been to serve and protect his country, went into that church and methodically went about executing innocent people, men and women and children….
Last count I hear there were 26 dead and 20 injured.
I am acutely aware that I talk about this place as being a safe place one week after a church had not been a safe place at all.
But it seems all the more important to talk about this place as a safe place, a place of love…
A place not of violence and competition and strife, but a place of love, acceptance and freedom…. A place of peace and harmony.
Because that is what Jesus talked about.
The writer of Hebrews said. “Keep your eyes on Jesus. Keep your eyes on the finish line who is Jesus.”
“Remember that he endured hostility and violence. Remember that he was executed just like the Christians in that Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas…
yet he did not give up on loving, he did not give up on non-violence. He endured it all to show us a better way. And that way is love.
So lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.
Don’t give up, because you haven’t come to this place because of what you can touch and see and feel and control.
You have come to this place because of what you can’t see or touch or control.
You have come into the very presence of God and the whole host of God’s messengers of love, and the very city of heavenly love is here for you today…
All because of Jesus who loves you and dies for you.
The fullness of God’s love is here for you to make you safe, to forgive your sin, to heal your brokenness, to create relationships of love….
So that you are not only safe, so that you can be a safe place to others.
That is what we have to offer this world, each other, strangers, neighbours and even enemies…
Faith and Hope and love.
So don’t give up.
I cannot say I am an expert on mental illness and what turns people violent…
But the only thing that I know that turns people to good is to experience love.
It may well be that we need to do a whole lot more in this world about providing safe places to those with mental illness and providing them care-givers, and counsellors who love them.
There may be more that government can do to provide safe homes for the homeless and the poor and safer places in schools and in the workplace against bullying and various forms or harassment.
The one thing we can do is to honour the fallen of our country by making this place a safe place for anyone and everyone who walks through the door.
That is a peace that passes human understanding… that everyone here is loved, accepted and safe.
For that love, that acceptance, that safety casts out fear.