Text: “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver * context: a sermon given at the 40th anniversary service of Mill Woods United
Do you remember what you were doing on the evening of November 14, 1976? Everyone under the age of 45 is excused from answering, of course. Then there are the 13 of us here today who were charter members of Mill Woods United. Cathy Bayly reminded us at the start of the service that on that evening 40 years ago you were probably in a gymnasium of Grace Martin School at the gathering that constituted Mill Woods as an official pastoral charge of the United Church of Canada. But what about the rest of us?
I don’t remember what I was doing on the evening of Sunday November 14, 1976. I do know that three months earlier, I had moved 200 km west to Toronto from my parents’ home in Belleville to begin studying at York University.
However, the next evening — November 15, 1976 — is one that I remember clearly. I spent it at the offices of the student newspaper where my older brother Paul was an editor. A group of us — all left-wing radicals — were glued to radio reports from Quebec about an election that shocked North America.
Sound familiar? Forty years ago, the day after Mill Woods United became an official congregation, the Parti Quebecois won its first election in Quebec. The prospect of a separatist government shook Canada to its core. Would the PQ succeed in pulling Quebec out of Confederation? Would the rest of Canada survive?
Like this month’s election in the United States, that election 40 years ago brought to the surface long-simmering historical divisions. In Quebec, it was between the descendants of the colonists of New France, which had been conquered by Britain in 1763, and Anglo-Canadians. In the United States, it is division between the descendants of white settlers and non-white immigrants along with the descendants of African slaves.
The Quebec election in 1976 raised up a group that had often been losers in the history of colonial North America: French Canadians. My radical friends and I were thrilled. Visions of national liberation and revolution danced in our heads.
The American election of November 8 raised up the fears of a group that have been winners in the long history of colonial America, the descendants of white settlers. The election was what Van Jones of CNN on election night called a “whitelash” against demographic and cultural change.
I bring up memories of an election 40 years ago and fears of a recent one to focus on three things. One is the continuing effects of European colonialism. If we can’t bind up the wounds of the conquests and genocides that accompanied the movement of European empires into the Americas, they will continue to poison us.
Second, I am reminding myself that electoral surprises occur all the time; and that they often don’t lead to the utopias we dream about or to the nightmares we fear. The impact of this month’s U.S. presidential election will not be clear for a while, so I am trying to calm myself and focus on the sacred values that have always shaped our life and work.
Third, I am struck that the 40 years of the history of this congregation spans my entire adulthood. This is one of the reasons I have enjoyed commemorating this anniversary. For people like me who are nearing the end of their careers, it is a chance to reflect on what we have done so far and to discuss with younger people the challenge of finding a meaningful path in family, work, and community.
This process brought to my mind the phrase, “Your one wild and precious life” by American poet Mary Oliver. It is taken from her 1992 poem “The Summer Day,” which I now read:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Her poem highlights much of what I find central to a life of faith: paying attention; kneeling in stillness; focussing on blessings; and realizing that everything dies at last, and too soon, which helps us to remember that we only have this one wild and precious life.
People of faith do more than this, of course. We reach out to one another and our neighbours with compassion. We share our brokenness and our blessings. We come together in times of loss to mourn and in times of joy to give thanks.
We study ancient traditions and translate them in the changing context of this neighbourhood and time.
We cope with the stresses of a society that is not of our making and is often not to our liking. We find jobs, try to raise our children as best we can, and work with others to resist the forces of violence and inequality.
This work of life, church, and community is not about success or failure. The latter only exist in our minds. Instead, it is about the choices we make to stay awake or to be distracted; to respect our neighbours or to remain prejudiced towards them; and to stand up for peace with justice or to roll over in the face of bullying and hatred.
This month’s election in the United States reveals the ugly side of the church. So many white Christians were willing to support racism, sexism, and violence! Unfortunately, such currents have been part of our history even since the Roman Empire adopted the church as its state religion 1700 years ago.
But there is another side to our tradition, one that for 40 years has fed the souls and inspired the actions of people at Mill Woods United. It is the path of Jesus on which we find healing, inclusion and compassion; spiritual wisdom; non-violent resistance to empire; and a willingness to sacrifice everything for the love of friends and neighbours.
As fellow pilgrims on the road, we help each other to kneel in thanksgiving; to rise in songs of love and justice; and to be present to each other in times of loss and love, pain and joy.
People in the beloved community of Mill Woods United have been doing this for 40 years. I give thanks that we gather to worship, share, and organize. It is community where we can inspire our creativity, reach out to others in solidarity, and nurture our souls for the awesome journey of life.
I don’t know how dark the shadows cast by the presidency of Donald Trump will be. I do know that in good times and bad, this is the kind of community I want to build. It is one in which we can remember that everything dies at last, and too soon, but which helps us to stay awake to every blessed moment of this one, wild and precious life.
And for this and so much more I say again, “Thanks be to God.”