Eight years ago today, on Thursday January 2, 2014, I began work at Mill Woods United Church. I’d been here the previous September for a job interview; and I’d driven to the church on New Year’s Day from the apartment in Oliver where I’d moved from Saskatchewan on December 30, 2013. I came to the church that day to gain a feeling for the drive and to look around the Mill Woods neighbourhood; and I met Maurice Oldham who was here that January 1st clearing the parking lot of snow.
But Thursday January 2nd was when I started work. I was warmly greeted by the Office Administrator Janice Martin and the Custodian Laura Webster; and I enjoyed a lunch of soup and sandwiches, which was offered by a group of about 12 people, a few of whom had been on the Search Committee and the rest of whom were new to me. I thought this was a great way to begin my ministry at this, my second church posting.
On the first Sunday of that year, which in 2014 was on January 5th, I preached on the same passage as we just heard – the beginning of the Gospel of John. I titled that sermon “In the Beginning,” since it was a new start for me and for Mill Woods United Church.
Over the next seven January’s, I’ve preached on this passage — which is always assigned to the second Sunday after Christmas — three more times. In January 2015, I called my reflection “The end of the beginning,” because after one year here, I had begun to figure out how this community worked. In January 2016, I called my reflection “It was 40 years ago today . . . ” and used the Gospel passage from John to begin of a year of remembrance for Mill Woods United in what was our 40th year as an official United Church of Canada congregation. And last year, I titled my reflection on this passage “Beginner’s Mind.”
Today, I chose the title “The beginning of the end” since this spring I will retire from ministry and end my time at Mill Woods United Church. I will be here for Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, and will finish with a service on Sunday May 1st. I turn 65 this winter, and I look forward to a new beginning in retirement even as I will be sad to say goodbye to this community after more than eight years as your called minister.
Eight years ago, my January 5th reflection started with the song “Do-Re-Mi” from the musical “The Sound of Music” – which begins “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” ‘Except, we never do get to start at the very beginning,’ I wrote. ‘When we’re born, we join a family with a history and existing relationships. As children, we come to consciousness in a particular time and place. We struggle to discover the gifts of the past and to avoid its pitfalls.’
It will be the same, I believe, when I leave this community. We will part company, but not at the end of our lives nor at their beginning. Instead, it will be somewhere in the middle. I will continue to live my life with Kim, family, and community, and Mill Woods United will continue to live into its gracious mission in this neighbourhood.
Nevertheless, this ending and our disparate new chapters are significant; and I hope to make the ending as meaningful as possible.
I had assumed that by May 1st, the pandemic would be at an end. But given the strength of the fifth wave that is hitting Alberta and much of the world at present, it is hard to say. Still, an ending of some form will happen, and the new relationships we will begin will be like all relationships – ones that start somewhere in the middle.
It is not that I dislike the start of John’s Gospel nor the start of the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, which also begins with the phrase “In the beginning.” Much can be learned from both – not about natural history, I believe, but about lessons of the heart; and you can turn to those earlier sermons if you are interested in my thoughts.
In structuring these last four months, I am turning to something I have appreciated during my time here: the seven Catholic sacraments and their connection to the seven wheels of light in the spine called the Chakras in Hindu philosophy. Kim and I used these seven stages to structure our wedding ceremony in November 2016, and I used them in a sermon series in the summer of 2017 as I tried to stay grounded after the world had spun into social chaos in 2016.
I have been challenged by these last five years, which have been colored by fascism, racism, and pandemic misinformation; and I know these difficulties will not magically disappear in May. But no matter how well or poorly we respond to personal foibles or social situations, finding a better balance through reflection on our religious traditions is always possible, I believe.
Starting next week on the Sunday when we remember Jesus’ baptism, I will examine the first of the seven sacraments with a reflection on Baptism. On January 16, I will look at Confirmation. On January 23, it will be Communion; on January 30, Marriage; and on February 6, Confession. Following that, I will take a two-week break in my final time away during my tenure here at Mill Woods United; and I am confident people will enjoy the services the Worship Committee is preparing for those two Sundays.
I will reflect upon the sixth of the seven sacraments – Ordination – when I return on February 27. Then, I will take a second break from this series for the six Sundays of Lent and for Easter Sunday and the first Sunday after Easter. This will lead to my final Sunday on May 1, when my Reflection will be on Last Rites. I pray that this final service will provide spiritual food for our separate journeys and offer a proper ending to our covenant as a community of faith and its settled minister.
I hope we will gain from these seven Sundays. Baptism can be seen as a path from fear to faith; confirmation, a path from shame to self-respect; communion, a path from egotism to charity; marriage, a path from grief to love; confession, a path from lies to honesty; ordination, a path from illusion to reality; and last rites, a path from earthly attachments to union with God. I realize that we are always united with God, but I hope this ending, with its promise of new beginnings, will help us remember the paths we try to follow despite of, or perhaps because of, the conditions in which we are fated to live.
I have learned a lot during my eight years here, and I look forward to all that we will do together over the next four months. I also pray that moving through these seven sacraments will be an aid to this ending and to our new beginnings.
May it be so. Amen.