Luke 20: 36b - 48
“An Uncertain Sanctuary”

“An Uncertain Sanctuary”

Luke 20: 36b - 48 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ April 14, 2024


AGM Sunday…ah yes…AGM Sunday. Most people, I suspect, have well-formed opinions of what AGM Sunday will bring. Celebrations…evaluations…and all things in between. What does AGM Sunday mean to you?


Some would agree that this morning is celebratory: we celebrate how we have been the church. We read reports and consider the varied ministries of Northwood (and the larger United Church). And in an era of churches running massive deficits, shrinking in membership, facing closure, (frankly) we have a year with many things to celebrate. My goodness, we will even stay afterwards for lunch. Celebration is, indeed, in the air!


Evaluation is another thing that occurs on AGM Sunday. We evaluate where we are going. How are we meeting our vision and our four stated mission goals (which we reviewed most recently in 2022). We refreshed our memories of these this during our Call to Worship. Each week, in many capacities, we consider how we are addressing them. Evaluating how we are ‘being’ the church? Evaluating how the larger neighbourhood would recognize Northwood as being ‘the church’ amidst the many other community groups? Evaluating how the surrounding city would recognize us as being ‘the United Church’ witnessing to the progressive, liberal theology of our denomination? How will we move ahead in the coming years? This can be a challenge. And sometimes our exuberant celebrations do not match our daring evaluations.


I think one of the most challenging things to hold in tension on AGM Sunday is the importance of risk in being the church. I will suggest that being the church (has always been and always) should be risky; being the church should be an uncertain enterprise; being the church should involve creating an uncertain sanctuary that we are continuing to shape and build.


In the text that David read for us, we are invited (yet again) into the Easter world of the early church. Last week, we heard from John’s gospel post-Easter telling of the story of Thomas’ meeting the Risen Christ. This Sunday, we find ourselves in Luke’s post-Easter world. Backing up a little in the chapter, a lot has happened. Luke has told the Easter resurrection story. Luke’s powerful question “why do you look for the living among the dead” is asked. A few of the disciples meet a stranger on the road to Emmaus. Understandably, they are still talking about the unsettling events of Easter. They don’t recognize the curious stranger who joins the conversation. But they DO recognize him as they stop at day’s end and sit at table. And as he took, broke, blessed and gave the bread to them they recognized him…the Risen Christ in their midst.


This morning’s passage is yet another one of recognizing the Risen Christ. This time, they recognize Jesus immediately as they cast their eyes upon him. They recognize him and they are terrified! It is quite a contrast between the two post-Easter sightings of Jesus. The first sighting is one where they don’t even recognize him. Yet, when he welcomes them at table, he re-enacts the table fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, their eyes are opened. This time, they know (immediately) who he is. They see him; they see him and wonder if he is a ghost! Ghosts, then and now, have always brought fear and terror. And the Risen Christ offers the familiar words “peace be with you”. In their fears, in their uncertainties…the Risen Christ offers them peace.  


The church can be a lot of things: it can be a social club, a place for Christian education, a gossip station, a place for rest and care, a sanctuary for worship, a place to grow and support others…so many things a church can be. What would you add to the list? And of all these things…at its best, the church is the representational body of the Risen Christ. And as the early believers saw the Risen Christ they were terrified! The Risen Christ evoked fear, uncertainty and terror to all who saw him!


And this is why, I would suggest, that we (if we truly want to be the church) we must embrace the risky nature of being the church. The church has never, and will never, be a comfortable and certain place. The church that is the embodiment of the Risen Christ, must be an uncertain sanctuary taking risks as we move ahead in being the church. The Risen Christ is recognized by the pains inflicted by the world; the Risen Christ is recognized by the suffering that was endured; the Risen Christ is recognized by the depth of care and compassion we see upon his face. On this AGM Sunday, we must ask ourselves are we living the risky way of the Risen Christ? Are we risky…or are we comfortable…unrecognizable as the body of Christ? Are we an uncertain sanctuary?


Theologian, Dorothee Soellee was born in Germany in 1929. Growing up through the years of Hitler in the Nazi regime her theological writings are deep reflections on coming to grips with the horrors of the concentration camps and life after World War 2. She, and Christians like her, had to deal with their heritage of how Protestant liberalism had remained silent…how it failed to stop the war. Soellee committed her writing to challenging our human propensity for wanting to feel safe and secure from any threat by seeking that from God. In her timeless essay “Peace, Not Security” (see her book essential writings) she proposes that “change happens at the level of action that contains risk!” Risk is: an uncertain sanctuary; it is living the dangerous life of faith; risk is what the body of Christ is tasked to do! But how are we to do this? No one likes risk! How can we ever have the strength to choose risk? To choose uncertainty? To choose the uncertain sanctuary? In her essay “Jesus’ death” Soellee proposes that “because you are strong in Christ you can put the neurotic need for security behind you. You do not need to defend your life like a lunatic for the love of the poor, Jesus says you can give your life away and spread it around”. The key to living risk is being strong in Christ!


Can we do that? Can we adopt the risk that is required of the church of the Risen Christ? Well…I believe we can. If I didn’t, I would be in another profession! I have seen our denomination adopt risk for the gospel and move forward in the way of the Risen Christ. You have seen risk in the church too! Aren’t you proud of your United Church of Canada? The first denomination to broaden the inclusion of gender beyond males for our religious leaders. Ordaining women to an equal place of authority for 9 decades! The church that is strong in Christ has always been a place of risk! We further broadened our inclusion to include the LGBTQ2SAI+ community. The church has always been a place of risk! How about the official apology offered to Indigenous communities for the role the United Church played in running Residential Schools? Before our Government or any other church body, we took a risk because we were strong in Christ! On large scales and on smaller scales, we have been the church that lived the life of risk…an uncertain sanctuary that is representative of the Risen Christ.


We will shift over into the Annual General Meeting shortly; however, we will still be in the sanctuary. Will it be an uncertain sanctuary that makes decisions and plans into the future that involve risk? If you follow through the bulletin, I have written this as a part of our Worship Service! Perhaps as we are listening to reports, celebrating the past, and evaluating the future we might listen with the ears of faith. Perhaps you might listen for the presence of the Risen Christ in our mist. Where are the risks being taken? Where are they not? Where are we being the comfortable church? And were are we living into being an uncertain sanctuary that is witness of the Risen Christ.


May it be so!