From Saddle Bag Preachers to Facebook Live Worship

By Rev. Warner Bloomfield

I will confess to spending more time this week experimenting with new ways of broadcasting this service than I initially did working on today’s sermon. I think it speaks to this remarkable time we are in and also to the strange and unpredictable journey this congregation, and, if we are honest, so many congregations have taken over the years and centuries.

At the earliest moments of Grace, it functioned as a community of faith led by circuit riders. In 1850 the Nanticoke-Dunnville circuit of the Wesleyan Methodist Church was formed. A team of Methodist preachers who traveled throughout the region offering worship in the small communities they entered. They carried their bible and various tools needed for the job. Prayers, hymns scripture and sermon and on to the next town. In his book Growing In Grace Lorne Sorge notes there were earlier itinerant preachers, part of what he refers to as the saddle bag brigade of the Niagara Circuit.

In any case it was out of the work of Rev. John Hunt and rev. John Baxter that a congregation in Dunnville began to grow. From preaching in the camps to using space in a public school to renting room above Frank Ramsey’s Menswear Store. By 1853 they built their first chapel on the corner of Alder and Cedar.

And here we are now. Meeting online, planning and holding worship services over Facebook Live while experimenting with other forms of online worship. It can be a strange journey at time.

At first blush, you must think there is very little similar between a circuit rider working through the many communities they serve. Apparently, it took about six weeks to fully travel the designated circuit, to our online services today. But those commonalities are there. Through it all is the drive to gather to sing our praise, to learn a little more about God’s work in the world, through the person of Jesus the Christ. The story is about ministers showing up and lay-people gathering and committing to creating a community that loves and supports one another and taking that commitment to serve their larger community.

Leaders of the Methodist congregation started to build on our current location in 1904 with the laying of the cornerstone on Dominion Day that year. The new Grace Methodist Church was dedicated in 1905 and it was part of church union in 1925 when the United Church of Canada came into being.

I must admit I like the name Grace. The reasons for choosing that name aren’t provided that I can find. But the word Grace is an important one in our Christian theology. It points to the generosity and unwavering love of God. It is the generosity and the gifts provided by God, not as a reward for anything we have done, but simply as an act of love. Furthermore, there is no demand of a quid pro quo for what we have received.

Diana Butler Bass in her book Grateful speaks of viewing generosity. One of those is a transactional view of blessing or generosity. The notion that we receive due to our work or faith. Or that having received we are required to return the favor. She then argues that the notion of Grace rejects that notion. Grace tells us that God’s love and blessing is freely given.

How we respond is entirely up to us. But if we see ourselves as part of a web of love, or a web of life in which God’s blessing is so apparent, how we see and interact with the world should be affected. I believe that in a great many ways this congregation lives out its name. Our love for the wider community is not built upon a need for receiving something in return, or out of a need to return what has already been offered. It is based on the idea love is inexhaustible. We give from a place of abundance, not of scarcity where we need to be careful parceling out our blessings.

Reading Lorne’s book there are many examples of how Grace worked to be a part of the community, from the CGIT working to raise money for a railway crossing, to the congregation sponsoring a family of refugees in the early 1980s. Grace was also instrumental in starting Meals on Wheels and has been active with Senior Support Services and community dinners. It has been incredibly generous with the Canada Food Grains Bank and has now begun work on a new set of sponsorship’s.

Grace United Church has flourished and struggled over the years. We can look at the current circumstances with anxiety. What the future holds is difficult to predict. That is certain. But we can also look to who we are right now. How we continue to maintain our faith and our sense of community and commitment to God and to one another.

God’s love and blessing is not a finite resource. God has not given up on us. The circuit riders of the early 1800s saw a need and experienced a call and answered with faith, making their way over dirty and muddy trails to preach and to serve. The people of Dunnville in those early days came together to build something.

That church continues today, more than 150 years later. The world today is vastly different than it was in the mid 19th century. Our challenges are different, but the yearning, I believe, for a sense of community; for a message that God loves us and wishes the best for us, remains. How we form community and how we look outward, from our church to the wider community remains the question.

We do so knowing God walks with us, inspiring us and strengthening us.

For that we say thanks be to God.



Permission to podcast /stream the music in this service obtained from CCL I
streaming license number 20369698, Size A.