What does Church mean to you?
The year was 1840.
The sound of horses clip-clopping their way down the Main Street of Unionville could be clearly heard in the distance from the old mill at the top of the village. As John Henry Sommerfeld removed the logs that he had taken down from his property: from his wagon onto the floor of the mill, located where the stream intersected with Main St. Girding his back into the task a voice called out, “Henry! A fine day to bring the harvest to the mill, no?”
“Ah!” Sommerfeld exclaimed, straightening his back and gazing in the direction of the voice. “Brother Wilkinson. (they talked like that back then) Good to see you! And how is the baby? Your harvest this summer?”
And so a casual encounter between one of the founding members of St. Phillips Lutheran Church, Unionville, and one of the founders of Unionville Primitive Methodist church. It was just another day.
Today is a special one as the Lutherans of Bethesda come together with the people of Central United Church to worship.
I want to suggest that this union of two Christian denominations from the same community has greater significance than we first might think. Not just the coming together itself, but what it represents.
Two churches, with common beliefs in one God and of his son Jesus Christ.
While the story that I told here is a fictionized version of an everday occurrence in 1840, the year that this church was founded, it could not have happened as Sommerfeld and Wilkinson, founding members of the Lutheran and Primitive Methodist church’s’ here in Unionville lived here almost 50 years apart.
John Henry Sommerfeld was among the original members of a small group from Pennsylvania, who travelled with William Berczy to this place in 1792. The land was a gift from Lieutenant John Graves Simcoe to his loyal friend Berczy. Land that stretched from what we now know as the town of Markham, to Thornhill, inclusive of the land on which Unionville is located. Unionville: so named as it is the half way mark between Markham and Thornhill: a Union of the other two communities.
Sommerfeld was among the very first Europeans to live here. In 1793 he wrote in his diary, ““Late in the fall, shortly before Christmas, he (Berzy) let me have a yoke of oxen. Then I got under way, and also my wife, who carried one child on the back and drove the pigs. Between Christmas and New Year I came to my land, there I had to stay in the tent till spring. In that time we three went together, and chopped and brought wood together and built us houses. In spring we moved in.”
The Berzy settlers would begin two congregations of Lutherans, including the one that became known as St Phillips Lutheran, 2 kilometres north of present day Unionville.
What does Church mean to you?
I am reminded of a trip that I took with our then 13 year old daughter, Lynn. the eldest of our 4 kids. 1996, barely a year after the Bosnian Civil war concluded with the Dayton Peace Accords, brokered by President Clinton.
My wife, Mary, had embarked on an adventure called Rainbow Socks. Women living in refugee camps spread throughout Croatia and Bosnia/Herzegovina would sit in a circle and knit the traditional slippers by hand while reflecting out loud on their lives.
Loss and bereavement were heavy and frequent themes: many, if not most had lost sons and husbands in the dreadful conflict. The traditional socks, made from wool in every colour in the rainbow, were sold in the United states and Canada.
Refugees: by definition, unable to return home.
The founders of Rainbow Socks Project lived in Boston, Stu and Babbie Cameron They had invited Mary and me to join them on their 3rd trip to Bosnia and Croatia to meet and discuss with the refugee women details of the the Rainbow Socks project. They wanted to write a book about the experience of the women, and provide evidence of how knitting and meeting together provides a form of therapy, for women who generally had no opportunity to meet and support one another in any other way.
They wanted to gather evidence for the UNHCR, their supporting organisation.
Mary, busy with our 4 young children, asked if I would go instead
I did and we decided that I would take Lynn, our eldest, then 13 years old.
What a time it was.
Travelling through Croatia and Bosnia so soon after the war, we evidenced many spectacles of the war: evidence that a severe conflict had happened not long ago. Bombed out buildings, homes completely leveled, a bus that had been torched, black with soot, abandoned at a turn in the road.
But no image was burned into my mind quite like that of a church in Slavonski Brod, on the Croatian side of the Sava River. Known as the “river of blood” during the war, for the many nameless bodies that floated down it, the river represented something horrible about the conflict between Bosnia Serbs, Croatians and Muslims.
The church was located on the north side of the river, directly across from an urban area on the south side in Bosnia.
We walked up to the church in silence.
Walked through the front door and peered down the main aisle to devastation: a mortar, lobbed from the Bosnian side, had landed square in the middle of the roof, eliminating the pulpit, choir loft: the entire front of the sanctuary.
We crept slowly, deeper into the sanctuary, getting a closer look at the devastation. The smell of damp, charred wood, the darkness as there was no electricity.
I had to stop and steady myself against an end-pew. I had to breathe.
And I wept.
I have reflected on my reaction to that situation many times since: what was it that moved me to tears that day? Was it my own memories of the family church in Agincourt? Was some offence that I took at he sight of the thing? Or was it something deeper, something that I could not quite reach with logic?
I still don’t know what stirred up such powerful emotions on that occasion, but I will never forget the image and the feeling of it.
St Pauls. (2)
One of the most famous photographs of the Battle of Britain is that of St Pauls Cathedral in London, surrounded by exploding bombs: smoke and destruction everywhere.
And there, in the blue haze of it all, stands the great St Paul’s, as it had for almost 400 years: defiant among the ruins of war.
Why is that? Where did the defiance of a building come from? God’s intervention? Or good luck?
Another mystery that we will never solve… however the image reminds us of just how powerful the church can be. This photograph inspired many British citizens to stand tall, to take it, and to fight on.
A story of a Canadian soldier who was invited into a British home during the Battle goes like this:
- He was invited in merely because he was wearing a Canadian military uniform.
- Tea was offered.
- And as he drank it, the woman who hosted him talked quietly about her son and her husband, both serving the war effort.
- A bomb dropped nearby during the conversation, the china in the cabinet shook, the pictures on the wall turned to a slight angle and the woman leaned forward to say, “would you like another cup of tea?”
- Perhaps she had seen the photo of St Pauls and been moved by it. Perhaps it gave her confidence to Carry On.
What does church mean to you?
Here at Central we had a fund raising campaign to support our addition, which opened in 1986. We were an ambitious bunch, us fund raisers, determined to burn our mortgage in 5 years. At one of our meetings a member of the committee put up his hand and said, in reference to our major fund raising dinner to take place in the church basement, “lets serve wine and beer. There is money in that! “
There were some protests and discussion but in the end it was agreed that we would approach our pastor, Rev. Daryl Doyle.
Asked how he felt about the proposition of serving alcohol in the basement of the church he gave this thoughtful response: “While there may be by-laws in our church that prohibit such a thing, I ask you to consider this. Our church is a sanctuary for all, including those who may struggle with an addiction to alcohol. If we serve it here, where can those people go that is safe from the temptation of the thing?”
No more discussion was necessary: the idea was put on a shelf with all the other goofy ideas that, for one reason or another, are simply not appropriate.
We moved on. Raised some money. And burned our mortgage in less than 5 years.
ALANON, the organisation that supports people living with people who are living with addictions, meets in this building every week. Year round.
To members of this group, what does Church mean to them?
What did church mean to our founders?
in Berzy’s time, the 1790s was indeed a period of great adventure.
The Lutherans named their church St Phillips and built the original building high on the hill, above Unionville next to the Berzy cemetery. The original building burnt down, and the moved to the village of Unionville to be nearer the population. But later moved back up the hill next to the cemetar, then they moved the lovely brick structure back to Unionville where it stands now.
In the mean time, around 1895 the Anglicans claimed the same name: St Phillips as their own. The dispute was resolved when the Lutherans chose Bethesda instead. In the 1800’s one did not argue with the Church of England.
Rumour has it that the rift has healed and Lutherans and Anglicans in Unionville are talking once again.
Central United has a story of it’s own. First formed by a small group of Primitive Methodists in 1840, the building in which we now worship was built by the Primitive Methodists, who merged with Methodists, and later, in 1925 merged once again with the Congregationalists and Presbyterians to become part of the United Church of Canada.
It is a little complicated. Primitive Methodists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists….. the story goes that the Methodists, who had occupied this church before the great merger, marched here and lined the sanctuary walled, standing and waiting while the new members, the Presbyterians who had abandoned their smaller and less well built building up the street, also marched down the main Street of Unionville, walked in and took a seat in their new church. Only then did the Methodists find seats of their own.
What a grand illustration of what a church should be.
One selfless act that demonstrated respect for their brethren in Christ… no wait, did I just say that? More confusion….
What did church mean to the original Berzy settlers of 1792?
To the Primitive Methodists of 1840?
What does it mean to you?
Which brings me back to my original question.
In my work as a public speaker on the subjects of horticulture and the environment, I often ask people to close their eyes and pull an image of a beautiful garden from their memory. “What is it?” I will say… keeping the information to yourself, as this is not a test.
And then I assure my audience that their image of a garden is theirs alone, likely different from every one else’s in the room. For some, it may be a blowsy perennial border, for others a pollinator garden rich with bees and butterflies, for some perhaps it is a golf course.
The image is yours, too, when you imagine what the church is to you.
An intensely personal one.
Words are used to describe “church” in many ways…. I have visited church’s with the word Peace emblazoned at the front. Others, joy, glory and triumph.
Whatever it means to you, it is a personal relationship that is yours.
While in Toronto just last week I happened to walk by Trinity Anglican on Bloor St East. And there was this marvelous bronze: (3) “I was a stanger and you welcomed me” Jesus, Mathew 25:35
And there, surrounding the bronze medallion: This. (4)
An image of a homeless person, head down, perhaps dejected or sorrowful.
Who is it? What is the point?
It is only when I got down on one knee that I could see the face of Jesus. (5)
“'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Mathew 25:40
Only defined by you. to me Church is friendship and welcoming. It is shared concerns for the world in which we work, worship and play.
Church represents prayer and prayer is hope.
Church represents comfort and comfort provides security.
Church, above all, represents love.
Matthew reminds us, in our gospel reading this morning that Jesus teaches us to: Love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.
What is the Church if it is not a place to sow the seeds of love, fertile ground on which love can sprout and grow and thrive.
Is this not why we baptize our children here?
Why many of us share marriage vows here?
And ultimately, celebrate lives lived?
What is the church to you?
If the church represents love, peace and the Living God, then what do we contribute in an effort to keep the church alive?
It may be Luthern
And it may be United.
“I am the church
You are the Church
We are the Church together
Come on everybody, all around the world.
Lets be the Church together.”
But God would not want either of those two words to stand in the way of His church and His love.