Sermon 1: Introduction – The Holy Mystery of God
God is Holy Mystery,
beyond complete knowledge,
above perfect description.
Yet, in love,
the one eternal God seeks relationship.
So God creates the universe
and with it the possibility of being and relating.
God tends the universe,
mending the broken and reconciling the estranged.
God enlivens the universe,
guiding all things toward harmony with their Source.
Grateful for God’s loving action,
we cannot keep from singing.
With the Church through the ages,
we speak of God as one and triune:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We also speak of God as
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer
God, Christ, and Spirit
Mother, Friend, and Comforter
Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love,
and in other ways that speak faithfully of
the One on whom our hearts rely,
the fully shared life at the heart of the universe.
We witness to Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.
As a United Church minister, I am often asked about beliefs – both mine personally as well as those of the United Church as a whole. Perhaps because I have spent so much of my life studying different religions and belief systems, I have to admit that the first time I was asked “do you folks believe in Jesus?”, I thought the person was joking. They weren’t. It’s not uncommon for people at funerals, weddings, or other public events to say things to me such as “in our church we read the Bible – what do you read?”. Depending on the interested party I have a variety of responses ready, some answers more in depth than others. I try and represent our denomination well, however when I answer, for the four hundredth time – yes, in our church women can be ministers, I might sound a little less than charitable. But lest I scare you away from asking me questions, what you should know is that the thing that gives me the most pleasure as a minister is when people like yourselves – interested and engaged Christians who think they have found a church home within the United Church of Canada but now want to explore things further – challenge me with deep questions about your faith. The sound of someone asking “what do we believe” is like music to this minister’s ears.
Now there are a whole bunch of ways to answer this question, and whole Master’s level courses that we ministers take on the subject. Lest this sermon devolve into a seminary lecture, the easiest way to talk about the official beliefs of the United Church of Canada is to look at the ways we have formally and legally expressed our faith in written documents. Beginning with the Basis of Union, written in 1925 when the United Church of Canada was formed, and then moving on to the Statement of Faith made in 1940 and A New Creed adopted in 1968 with several subsequent revisions, the United Church of Canada has stated its collective faith in words appropriate to its time. The most recent statement of faith is called A Song of Faith, and was approved at General Council, the national gathering of the United Church in 2006.
Now I will be the first to admit that creeds and statements of faith tend to make me a little twitchy. For many, myself included, these kinds of statements can seem directive rather than expansive, limiting as opposed to encouraging open-mindedness. Yet it is incredibly important for us as a whole body of Christ, as one community, to have the opportunity to affirm together what it is that we all believe – the bonds that unite us with each other in Christ. And so you will notice that we try on occasion to include in worship a corporate statement of faith – usually when we stand and say together A New Creed. We tend to do this type of congregational faith statement on days where it seems to particularly matter that we remember who we are as a church, and whose we are as children of God – times such as celebrations of baptisms or confirmation or around Holy days such as Easter or Pentecost. And on an almost weekly basis, we share our common beliefs as we say together the words that Jesus taught his followers to pray so long ago, our beloved Lord’s Prayer.
When considering what we might offer as a sermon series this summer, Glen came up with the idea that perhaps it might be interesting for us as a congregation to explore another one of our statements of faith, one that our congregation and many other congregations have not had as much exposure to as perhaps they ought. Very different from our succinct, bite-sized statement A New Creed, A Song of Faith is a lengthy document – 9 typewritten pages to be exact. We knew that we could not adequately tackle this beautiful and complex piece of work in several sermons, so what we decided to do was choose five sections from the whole document and preach on the themes contained therein. Our hope is that we will be able to tease you enough for you to want to read the whole Song of Faith – a copy of which you can easily access from the United Church of Canada webpage, or we would be happy to provide you a printed copy if you ask.
Today we just read together the beginning of A Song of Faith, a passage which speaks of the mystery and wonder of God and God’s interaction with the universe. We chose this passage as the first part of our five part sermon series not only because it is the portion that begins A Song of Faith, but because of the way its imagery speaks to the whole of this document. From the beginning of time, trying to describe God – in word, in action, in art – has been one of humankind’s great quests. And while many moving and magnificent tributes have come out of these attempts, the reality is that it is impossible for us to define the infinite, to describe that which is beyond words, to put a hard and fast label on God. Capturing the magnificence of God is like trying to describe the wonder that a parent feels the moment they first hold their child in their arms, or trying to paint how the sun looks when it is just setting on the horizon turning the lake into a sea of dazzling diamonds, or trying to replicate the taste of a just-picked strawberry red and luscious, warmed by the sun, taking you back to your childhood in one juicy bite. Indeed, God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description.
And so the Song begins. Unlike some of the other statements which were developed either for use in worship, such as the New Creed, or for comprehensive theological explanation, such as the Basis of Union, A Song of Faith was written to provide a verbal picture of what The United Church of Canada understands its faith to be at the beginning of the 21st century. With the understanding that each generation has fresh perspectives, challenges and mission, A Song of Faith was meant to be a means of reflection, and an invitation for the church to live out its convictions is the current theological, social, political and historical context. And so, over a six year period of consultations, presentations and research, 16 diverse writers helped to pen this document.
A Song of Faith was never intended to be a statement for all time, but instead a statement of this time. Its name came late in its’ writing, when the recognition was made that United Church people tend to harmonize their points of view rather than sing in unison. This Song is one attempt to give voice to the diverse understandings of our denomination, and as such, it means different things to different. To me one of the great gifts of the United Church is that in our denomination, our United faith holds us together despite, and even because of our differences. This is the character of our church as we have nurtured it these close to 90 years. And this is the poetry that is captured in A Song of Faith. Evocative, expansive, full of phrases that beg to be read aloud and repeated, words invested with the depth and breadth of our faith.
In reflecting on this section of A Song of Faith, our on-line Bible study group this week picked up on the relational nature of God – the thought that while each of us have our own images and descriptions for God, what we share in common is our need, and God’s need, for being in relationship. Whether we experience the Trinity as Mother, Friend and Comforter…Father, Son and Holy Spirit…Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer…it is our heartfelt desire to know God in a profoundly personal and intimate way that unites us. And however it is we conceive of the Holy Mystery that is God, we know that we best experience God in relationship – in love shared, in care offered, in forgiveness received, in support provided. In gathering together each Sunday, in coming to the table to remember the gifts of Jesus offered to each one of us, in seeking to be the Church in this time and place, we witness to the Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.
In the coming weeks, Glen and I hope that exploring A Song of Faith will help you to continue to deepen your relationship with God, with this church community, and with the United Church of Canada. That in sharing some of the challenging, touching words in this statement of faith you will in turn be challenged to consider your beliefs, your relationship with God, and the ways you live it out in the world. And that you will be renewed in faith and hope by exploring the heart of who we are and what we believe as participants in the great choir that we know as the United Church of Canada. After spending some time with A Song of Faith, may we each be so grateful for God’s loving action, that we cannot keep from singing. In this hope and with God’s promise of faithfulness in our hearts, let us join our voices with the choir of the ages singing our faith – God, Whose Almighty Word.
Sermon 2: Sin and Grace
This morning we continue our exploration of the newest creed of the UCC, A Song of Faith, by taking a closer look at the section on “sin and grace.” But before we read it together, I want to remind everyone that this 21st Century statement of faith is solidly grounded in our Christian scriptures. It is biblical because it strives to remain true to the sacred wisdom revealed in the Bible.
There are many references to “sin and grace” throughout our Bible. The earliest descriptions of Christian belief concerning “sin and grace” are found in the letters of Paul. In them we can see how the early church began to describe the meaning of Jesus’ death – that Jesus died to save us from sin. This description was modeled after the ancient Jewish ritual of atonement, where an animal was sacrificed to God to pay the debt of our sinfulness. For Paul, Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice, the final payment, and although there are other ways of looking at how God’s grace works through Jesus, this is where we begin.
From Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 3, verses 23-26, in the New Century Version:
23 Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard, 24 and all need to be made right with God by his grace, which is a free gift. They need to be made free from sin through Jesus Christ. 25 God sent him to die in our place to take away our sins. We receive forgiveness through faith in the blood of Jesus’ death. This showed that God always does what is right and fair, as in the past when he was patient and did not punish people for their sins. 26 And God gave Jesus to show today that he does what is right. God did this so he could judge rightly and so he could make right any person who has faith in Jesus.
We now turn to A Song of Faith:
Sin and Grace
Made in the image of God,
we yearn for the fulfillment that is life in God.
Yet we choose to turn away from God.
We surrender ourselves to sin,
a disposition revealed in selfishness, cowardice, or apathy.
Becoming bound and complacent
in a web of false desires and wrong choices,
we bring harm to ourselves and others.
This brokenness in human life and community
is an outcome of sin.
Sin is not only personal
to become habitual and systemic forms
of injustice, violence, and hatred.
We are all touched by this brokenness:
the rise of selfish individualism
that erodes human solidarity;
the concentration of wealth and power
without regard for the needs of all;
the toxins of religious and ethnic bigotry;
the degradation of the blessedness of human bodies
and human passions through sexual exploitation;
the delusion of unchecked progress and limitless growth
that threatens our home, the earth;
the covert despair that lulls many into numb complicity
with empires and systems of domination.
We sing lament and repentance.
It has been assumed by too many for too long that before we can sing of God’s grace, we must first lament and repent, as if these are preconditions for us to experience the forgiveness of God. But this may be a misunderstanding of how grace actually works, one that has inadvertently put the emphasis on our sin rather than on God’s grace. On the surface, even this contemporary faith statement suggests this – not only does the sin talk come first, but twice as much is written about sin than about grace. Just take a look. Is it any wonder then that one of the biggest criticisms of the Christian church over the years is that it tries to control and manipulate believers by making them feel utterly guilty and completely dependent on the forgiveness only it can supply? Some might even suggest that this is one of the church’s own systemic sins. So today I want to flip everything upside down.
I had a preaching professor once who graded every sermon on a sin-grace scale. It was his opinion that unless at least 51% of your sermon was about grace, you were not preaching Jesus’ Good News. He’d say, “You can’t spend 2/3 of your sermon expounding about the troubles of this world and human sinfulness, and then rush in at the end with a few platitudes about God’s goodness and grace, and call it Good News.” And I’ve always agreed. So that’s about all from me on the sin side this morning. Let’s turn the page and sing of grace!
Yet evil does not—cannot—
undermine or overcome the love of God.
and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings
with honesty and humility.
and calls us to repent the part we have played
in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other.
and calls us to protect the vulnerable,
to pray for deliverance from evil,
to work with God for the healing of the world,
that all might have abundant life.
We sing of grace.
I don’t know what these few words conjure up in your heads and hearts, but for me there are two really important insights here. The first may be more obvious. If sin is described earlier as “selfishness, cowardice, and apathy,” (which by the way I do think is an astute observation), then grace is proclaimed as “forgiveness, reconciliation, and transformation.” These three actions of God are at the heart of our living faithfully. But the second insight, though a bit more subtle, points us to how grace works in the first place. What I’m conscious of is this, confessing our sins is not the requirement to receive God’s forgiveness. In reality, just the opposite. Think about it, who in their right mind would honestly confess a wrong, if condemnation was the only possible result? Why would you? No, what’s implied here in this faith statement is that the only true motivation to admit failure and say, “I’m sorry.” is a trust that God’s forgiveness is already offered, already available, already happened. It’s not a 50-50 chance that God will forgive you. It’s a sure thing. It’s what opens the door to that kind of honesty in the first place. And this, friends, to me is really good news. Look how it’s written in A Song of Faith. “God forgives (first), and (opens the door for us) to confess our fears and failings with honesty and humility.” As we strive to be more honest to God and honest with each other, let’s celebrate a grace that says, “absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God,” not even our reluctance to admit when we’ve made mistakes. We are forgiven! That’s the kind of grace Jesus taught, and lived, and offered, and even was willing to die for … a forgiving grace that opens doors rather than creates impossible barriers.
Someone said this week that the long list of systemic sins in the 2nd paragraph felt a lot like a big guilt trip. And it got me thinking about what the purpose of listing sins like this was in the first place. Guilt trips don’t change lives, they just make us more calloused. I really do appreciate how such a list could feel manipulative and unhelpful; but what if we started with God’s forgiveness. What if we looked at this list through the eyes of God’s grace. Perhaps its intention is not to impose guilt on us at all, but to invite us into the realities of brokenness in this world and help us be more honest in contemplating the part we play.
According to this “song of grace,” God not only forgives but also reconciles relationships and invites us to wrestle with the many ways we are bound up in each others’ struggles. By turning again toward the goodness of God, and with God’s love toward our fellow humans, we might begin to discover new ways to restore the fragile relationships we share on this earth. Someone observed that we’re either part of the problem or we’re part of the solution … by claiming God’s Spirit of reconciliation at work in us, we choose to be part of a global solution.
I’m moved by the third action of God’s grace here – “God transforms.” Of all the ways we might speak of grace, its capacity to inspire our choices for good is most compelling. Grace is not God’s work alone … by its very nature it prompts us to respond and become partners with God in changing the broken circumstances that surround us in our relationships and in our world. And that brings us back to Jesus.
In Jesus, we see the partnership between God and humanity as transparently as possible. We even go so far as to talk about both the humanity and divinity of Christ. Yet, however we understand that relationship, and however we interpret Jesus death on a cross, we see in Jesus a sacred potential that transformed the people with whom he lived on this earth, and continues to transform believers like you and me through 20 centuries. Because at the heart of who Jesus is, pulses a grace that offers forgiveness with no strings attached … a forgiveness that will reconcile and heal any broken relationship … a forgiveness that will transform even the most calloused human heart and turn us into partners with God in transforming lives … a forgiveness that can and will make all the difference in the world.
That’s a song worth singing, and a life worth living.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved and strengthened me!”
Sermon 3: The Church and Its Mission
We hear 1 Corinthians 12:12, 27-31a (NRSV): The Church as One Body with Many Members.
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.
29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But strive for the greater gifts.
We continue with our Summer Sermon Series on the UCC’s A Song of Faith by speaking together the section on “The Church and Its Mission.”
We sing of a church
seeking to continue the story of Jesus
by embodying Christ’s presence in the world.
We are called together by Christ
as a community of broken but hopeful believers,
loving what he loved,
living what he taught,
striving to be faithful servants of God
in our time and place.
Our ancestors in faith
bequeath to us experiences of their faithful living;
upon their lives our lives are built.
Our living of the gospel makes us a part of this communion of saints,
experiencing the fulfillment of God’s reign
even as we actively anticipate a new heaven and a new earth.
The church has not always lived up to its vision.
It requires the Spirit to reorient it,
helping it to live an emerging faith while honouring tradition,
challenging it to live by grace rather than entitlement,
for we are called to be a blessing to the earth.
We sing of God’s good news lived out –
a church with purpose:
faith nurtured and hearts comforted,
gifts shared for the good of all,
resistance to the forces that exploit and marginalize,
fierce love in the face of violence,
human dignity defended,
members of a community held and inspired by God,
corrected and comforted,
instrument of the loving Spirit of Christ,
We sing of God’s mission.
We sing together “Deep in our hearts there is a common vision.” As you sing, consider the ways “singing church” helps us commit to “living church.”
+ + +
There’s something about singing together that creates a unique spirit of community. Watching the London 2012 Olympics these past 2 weeks has reminded me again, that when there’s critical mass, the singing of a national anthem can bring tears to my eyes. And it doesn’t even have to be my own national anthem. As the Brits were on their way to winning more gold medals than ever before, I found myself moved by “God Save the Queen” in a way I would have never expected. There’s just something about singing together with heartfelt enthusiasm, especially when you can join in.
I’m aware that church is one of those few places anymore where people choose to sing together (that and major sporting events), and I for one am glad for it; mostly because you don’t have to have a great voice to be able to join in. Let’s be honest, we’re all glad for the great voices among us … but we should also be grateful that they encourage us to add ours to theirs and make a joyful noise together. Such is the spirit and character of church.
Singing can not only lift our spirits, but also can focus our intentions. It’s one of the reasons why this 21st Century creed of the UCC is named A Song of Faith. It wants to remind us of the power of singing together while reminding ourselves of the common purpose we share. In this I’m grateful for these words on “The Church and Its Mission,” because singing “church” here gives a vision of what the “body of Christ” (as 1st Cor. 12 calls the church) looks like in 2012, and a tangible way of saying, “Count me in. I want to be part of Jesus’ life here and now.”
Turn with me to this section and let’s take a look at what it describes. In the opening lines of this first stanza we are reminded that, as the church, we are an extension of Jesus’ resurrection life in this generation – we “continue the story of Jesus.” We concluded last Sunday’s worship by singing “Christ has no body now but yours. Here on this earth, yours is the work, to serve with the joy of compassion.” We represent the love of Jesus here and now, and if we don’t, who will? This is what every generation of Christian believers before us has passed on to us – a commitment to Jesus’ invitation to live faithfully, passed down through the centuries.
In retrospect we know that every generation makes mistakes, and we will too. In this way we are broken believers, but not just that. We’re also hopeful believers, trusting that God still believes in us and works through us to bring Jesus’ Good News to our world. By acknowledging our brokenness as a church in that brief middle stanza, we open our hearts to the transforming love of Christ’s Spirit, empowering us in this generation to bring blessing to others … just think about the examples we heard of our Summer Stewardship experiment from last week, and imagine what cumulative potential lives among us. OUC is very rich indeed with the love of Jesus.
In this brief section from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we are made aware again of how each of us plays a necessary part in the full potential of the whole body of Christ. As body parts, each does what we are gifted to do, and regardless of what our role is, we should never assume that some gifts are more important than others. When Paul asks the rhetorical question, “Are all apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers?” we know the answer: Of course not. So whatever gift you possess is as valuable to the health and strength of the whole body of Christ as any other, assuming you give it in love. And when he writes, “strive for greater gifts,” Paul is not encouraging us to aspire to more prestigious, higher profile roles, but inviting us to bring whatever gifts we have and offer them in Christ’s love … that’s what makes gifts great. Just take a look at the verses that follow this chapter … 1 Cor. 13, Paul’s great love poem. Love-inspired gifts are what transform lives – theirs and yours.
Still, we are not only called to bless others through individual acts of loving-kindness, but also to shape our part of the Christian legacy which we will pass on to the next generation. And this brings us to the third stanza of today’s song. In this description of the Christian church’s purpose and mission I see language that seeks to interpret Jesus’ life and ministry in today’s terms and for tomorrow’s benefit. It reaches beyond past Christendom models of conquering the world for Christ, and articulates a role for our church that acts humbly but boldly to encourage good and resist evil in the Name of Jesus. In this way, we begin to frame for the future church what we see and value in the Christian gospel.
Every congregation must interpret that for themselves, and at OUC we have been working hard to give our own lyrics to this ancient gospel song. Over the past two years, our Future Directions team has done a lot of good stuff, including helping us reinterpret God’s mission among us. The result is a brief document, that could also be imagined as a song of faith, the way we sing it here. It’s called “Believe. Belong. Become.” and it goes like this.
In Christ’s Spirit, OUC is always striving:
- to welcome everyone, celebrate diversity, and recognize the Holy in all people
- to rejoice in God’s love through meaningful and engaging worship
- to create a spiritual support-network that shares Christ’s compassion in words and actions
- to learn and grow together as everyone moves along their faith journey
- to generate soul-inspiring energy through enthusiastic and affirming involvement
- to build and nurture community in our church, in our families, and in our neighbourhood
- to serve God’s purpose in the world by sharing our resources with others
And may God’s people sing, “Deep in our hearts there is a common vision.”
Yes, may it be so. Amen.
Sermon 4: Gifts for the Common Good
Romans 12 (New Revised Standard Version)
6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
A Song of Faith: Gifts for the Common Good
We are each given particular gifts of the Spirit.
For the sake of the world,
God calls all followers of Jesus to Christian ministry.
In the church,
some are called to specific ministries of leadership,
both lay and ordered;
some witness to the good news;
some uphold the art of worship;
some comfort the grieving and guide the wandering;
some build up the community of wisdom;
some stand with the oppressed and work for justice.
To embody God’s love in the world,
the work of the church requires the ministry and discipleship
of all believers.
This is not the sermon I intended for today. But after a number of emails, calls, and face to face conversations concerning the UCC’s General Council decision on Friday to endorse an Israel/ Palestine Policy, it’s one that feels necessary – necessary because as a UC congregation, we need to be able to talk together about the impact of it in loving and honourable ways. So this sermon is my invitation to each of you to say what’s on your mind and in your heart, while genuinely showing love for each other, resisting what is evil, and holding fast to what is good, as our scripture for this morning advocates. If you desire to join a conversation with each other sometime in the next few weeks, please let Molly or me know and we can help arrange that.
The intended theme for this morning was to focus on a section in A Song of Faith that Molly and I have described as “gifts for the common good.” The line that jumps out of this poem for me is, “for the sake of the world” – for the sake of the world, God gifts all followers of Jesus; and in response, each of us is invited “to embody God’s love in the world.” In essence, we make God’s love known by offering our service to others – and each of us is appropriately gifted to do so.
Today I’m wearing my red, GC41 volunteer shirt to help express what unexpected blessing can happen with our willingness to serve and volunteer for the common good. When the call for volunteers came, I told the Presbytery coordinators that I was able to offer a couple of days and would do whatever they need, though I’d preferred it not be too high profile or too mundane … some quirky little job that needed doing. So I became a “Sherpa” for two days in the Youth Forum’s Social Justice Stream, offering practical support for 24 teens and their leaders as they explored the justice dynamics of human sexuality. It was quite an education for me – an unexpected blessing.
What I realized was that these exceptional young people, from all across Canada, were so enthusiastic to name and unpack the issues of the day, yet they seemed to be free from having to overtly self identify themselves as heterosexual, homosexual, or any other variation. It’s not that they were embarrassed by their sexuality; on the contrary, it appeared as if they were quite comfortable with it, not obsessed by it, and actually living beyond those distinctions, in this uniquely sacred space – just sexually aware human beings searching together, respectfully wrestling with the issues we all must face as we grow into a more loving, welcoming, encouraging community in the world. It was pretty amazing, and you should ask me about “Sherpa-ing” 30 people on OC Transpo to the Museum of Science and Technology’s controversial “Sex Exhibit.” When I said I didn’t want mundane, I wasn’t quite expecting that!
But what I received was so much more. On Tuesday morning, the group had a visit from Ann Squire, the former UC Moderator who guided our denomination through the politically charged minefield of the middle 80’s concerning the ordination of gays and lesbians, which culminated in such a controversial decision that many thought it marked the end of the UCC. You likely remember that time. So there we were, sitting in a large circle sharing the sexual highlights of the previous day’s trip to the museum, when Ann, who’s now 92, asked if we all could come in a little closer and sit down on the floor at her feet so she wouldn’t have to strain her small voice. And there we sat, staring up at her wise, old face, with such kind, encouraging eyes, hearing her story about the church’s terrible struggle over this faith decision concerning everyone’s human sexuality. For over an hour every young face gazed respectfully at Ann, occasionally laughing at her gentle humour, and crying at the hateful things people said and wrote and did to her for years because of her role in the matter. But through it all, in faith, she and many others of that generation carried on, believing that this would be their grace-gift for the common good of all, in and out of the church. When one of kids asked if she ever doubted that it would come to pass, she said, “Never, the church always believes God and does justice.” And as I looked at those uninhibited teenage faces, I realized they are Ann’s sacred legacy today. And that was my unexpected blessing, a gift to me, by simply offering a couple of days and saying to the church, “Use me as you need.”
When Ann finished, we had a break and as I was walking to the washroom I said to one of the teens, “I hope you appreciate the story you just heard. Not many others will hear it firsthand like we just did.” And he said, “I haven’t had so much fun in storytime since I was 6.”
Which brings me to this terrible struggle we face right now concerning the UCC’s report on Israel and Palestine. One thing I know, it would be foolish to trust as our sole source of information, any one headline or editorial in the news media. They search for the lightening rod in a story and tend to sensationalize it. Still, of course there are many thoughtful critiques raised in the news and among the faithful, and justifiably so. For example, I think we all are concerned with how our Jewish neighbours and friends feel in the wake of this decision; it’s painful for everyone when relationships are strained. I wish it wasn’t so. But even though I personally may not be in full accord with every policy within the whole report, as I read the four page document I am aware that, consistent with many other decisions of the General Council over our denomination’s 87 year history, the UCC continually strives to align itself with God’s love and stand in solidarity with victims of power and violence. So when Palestinian Christians asked our church to look closely at what was happening to Palestinian people of all faiths as more and more Israeli settlements were established in annexed lands, the UCC decided to take seriously the situation (which it has been researching for years now), and with a vote last Friday to take a “stand with the oppressed and work for justice” – as A Song of Faith encourages.
From my perspective, even though I may have concerns about the effectiveness of specific “concrete actions” like “avoid(ing) any and all products produced in the settlements,” I am moved by the heart and soul of those gifted UC people who have gone to Palestine and come face to face with the heartbreaking stories of our Christian sisters and brothers there. I trust their spiritual instincts, even as I express concern about the effectiveness of certain tactics.
And so I live uncomfortably but faithfully with our church’s decision, mindful at its core that the UCC is neither anti-Jewish nor anti-Israel, that UC people at all levels will try to heal the wounds this decision may have caused our Jewish friends, that in the long term this decision will “be able to contribute to justice, even in a small way, lead(ing) to peace in Israel/ Palestine,” that as a church we will continue to risk our gifts of social justice for the common good of all; and mindful that you may not agree with what I’ve just said. And that, my friends, is not only OK, but what makes us the vital, dynamic church we are in the world today … in so far as we will never stop talking with each other. And, who knows, perhaps one day our great grandchildren will be gathered at the feet of this Moderator, and realize in this regard, they are a sacred legacy for the sake of the world and the common good of all.
Sermon 5: Our Present and Future Hope
We place our hope in God.
We sing of a life beyond life
and a future good beyond imagining:
a new heaven and a new earth,
the end of sorrow, pain, and tears,
Christ’s return and life with God,
the making new of all things.
We yearn for the coming of that future,
even while participating in eternal life now.
Divine creation does not cease
until all things have found wholeness, union, and integration
with the common ground of all being.
As children of the Timeless One,
our time-bound lives will find completion
in the all-embracing Creator.
In the meantime, we embrace the present,
embodying hope, loving our enemies,
caring for the earth,
Grateful for God’s loving action,
we cannot keep from singing.
Creating and seeking relationship,
in awe and trust,
we witness to Holy Mystery who is Wholly Love.
Today, in the final sermon in our series looking at the Song of Faith, we share a passage about Our Present and Future Hope. Now hope is one of those intangible qualities, much like love, that is so hard for us to define and that we use in very different ways. We hope the weather will be nice for the cottage this weekend. We hope our brother will win his battle with cancer. We hope will win the lottery. We hope there will be an end to world hunger. Somehow to lump all these different kinds of hopes into one basket just doesn’t seem right to me – because they certainly don’t mean the same thing. And if gathering all these kinds of hope together seems to feel awkward, then I’m really not sure what we do with the kind of hope we read of in A Song of Faith – that hope that speaks of eternal life, that hope offered to us in Jesus Christ.
Similar to the rest of the Song of Faith, this passage is beautiful in its language, in its poetic way of describing such an intangible quality. The Song speaks of a future, good beyond imagining, a time of wholeness, union and integration. It describes a new heaven and a new earth where sorrow, pain and tears will be no more. And, while the wording may have changed, what strikes me is that this passage expresses the same sentiments used by Moses to sustain the Israelites during their decades of wandering in the desert. The same images that Jesus shared with his followers to see them through their darkest hours. The same encouragement Paul offered to the first Christian communities as they struggled to figure out what it meant to be a church. Indeed, these words are part of the message we still preach to this day – in especially in times of grief and sorrow, at funerals and bedsides. Words of hope, that for thousands of years, remind us that there is more to life than what is happening right now, that as Christians we believe in a life beyond life, a future good beyond imagining. Described like that, good beyond imagining, we do, as the Song of Faith says, yearn for the coming of that future.
However…until such a future comes, as A Song of Faith reminds us, we participate in eternal life now. We live in the real world – imperfect, broken, challenging – and struggle as Christians to make this world a better place. And see, this is where I find it challenging to speak of hope. It’s not the future hope that bothers me so much as figuring out how we hold on to that present hope. Because there are times, and right now seems to be one of them, where holding onto hope for the present, for the life of our church in the here and now, can be a hard thing to do.
With the national gathering of our denomination, General Council, having just finished meeting in Ottawa, the United Church has been receiving a lot of publicity lately. And not the good kind. I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to tire of having to defend, explain and justify my denomination to those around me who just don’t understand who we are or what we do or why we say the things we say. A few too many one-sided, agenda-driven newspaper articles coupled with statistics about church membership that paint a sad but realistic picture have left many of us United Church folks sticking up for the church to the world but behind closed doors wondering for ourselves just what really we have in store if we stay aboard this ship.
I may have spoken before about the Facebook group I am a part of called Below Average Ministers. It is a group for ministers in the United Church who are below the age of 56 – the average age for us clergy folks. It’s a diverse group of ministers, some newly ordained, some with close to two decades of experience. While there are some in the group who are second career ministers, the majority of us are first career clergy – those who entered the ministry directly out of our undergraduate degrees. With these demographics, this group now faces a problem our older colleagues and predecessors did not have to consider – we belong to a generation of ministers who are not sure if we will have a church to serve until we retire. While our reasons for entering the ministry are varied, we all did so because of a deep sense of call we felt and which the wider church affirmed. And in so doing, we offered our lives – and our 35 years of pensionable employment – in service to Jesus Christ through ministry in the United Church of Canada. And when we entered theological college 10, 15, 20 years ago, full of hope for our church, it seemed reasonable for us to believe we could serve in this way until our retirement.
My how quickly times change. Watching the reality of our shrinking denomination, reading the studies and predictions, listening to the press, we Below Average Ministers are now beginning to think about what else we might do for gainful employment. With 27 Christmas Eve’s to go until retirement – but who’s counting – some would say there is a real question just how many United churches will be left in which I might preach my last Christmas Eve sermon. And many of my younger colleagues feel the same way. We pray and we work for the future of our individual churches and our denomination as a whole, but there are moments, sometimes many moments, where it is hard to hold on to the hope we once had for this United Church of ours. It feels as if participating in life now makes it challenging to have that future hope of which our faith has spoken for thousands of years.
And I’m not sure that the church is the only institution where people are finding hope to be a scarce commodity. My brother-in-law, a high school teacher, is finding it harder and harder to do his job in a system which seems to devalue teachers and put dollar signs before educational needs. My sister, a rural family physician is facing a similar struggle, with it costing her more to keep her clinic open than she actually earns in a day. Ottawa seems to have been especially hard hit in the hope department with the certainty and stability of federal government jobs being taken away in round after round of cutbacks. Factories close, companies down-size, not to mention marriages that end, cancer that is diagnosed, loved ones that struggle, and with each of these occurrences, that precious commodity of hope that sustains us is harder and harder to hold on to.
Now I don’t mean this to be a depressing sermon. As most of you know or can guess I am actually a pretty up-beat gal. Most days my glass is half full, my glasses rainbow-coloured. It’s sunshine and not storm clouds that follow me, and I can make the best of just about any situation. Furthermore, when I have to defend my church, work for her future and trust in God’s presence, I feel more called to ministry than ever. I believe that as challenging a time as it is for the church, it is a time rich with possibility and indeed promise for our future. And, springing from the discussion of our on-line bible study group this week, I think the reason that I can look to the future is because as Christians, our hope differs from the secular notions of hope.
When God wanted to deliver the Good News of mercy, love and hope in person, God knew the challenges people had experienced in the past. God had tried wind and fire, roaring thunder and burning bushes, but somehow they hadn’t quite delivered the message God had planned. Plagues and pestilence, man-eating fish and tablets of stone hadn’t exactly allowed people to warm up to God in the way God had intended. Approaching the omnipotent, omniscient Master of the Universe had proven to be… intimidating to people….so God made a plan. Babies – those snuggly, cuddly bundles of drool and goodness – now even the hardest of hearts will begin to coo or at least offer a grudging smile to a baby. Throw in a stable, a young mother, a shepherd or two…invite a few passersby to come, worship and adore and lo – a relationship is born.
Indeed we know the story – God chose to embody the hope that is ours in taking on the human form of Jesus – the baby boy – the Christ. And for me, it is in this loving action of choosing life, in focusing on the centrality of relationship, that we see how as Christians, our notion of hope extends far beyond any secular understanding of the word.
Sure I listen to the news and read the headlines and follow the trends – however – these are not the places from which I draw my hope. I don’t depend on statistics to be the only predictors of the future of my church. Similarly, I don’t use attendance totals or offering amounts to be the sole measures of the quality of the ministry taking place. Important factors they might be – but not the places that I find hope. For me, it is in the relationships I see growing within this congregation and this denomination – relationships between generations, relationships across social, political, economic and geographic boundaries, relationships amongst unlikely people, relationships with God – that serve to me not only as the greatest predictor of the future of our church, but as the indisputable and powerful source of hope to which I cling.
In much the same way, while the newspapers may have chosen to focus on the tangible results of General Council – motions, decisions, studies – having followed General Council on-line, having been part of discussions over the past weeks, having been a commissioner at a previous General Council – the outcomes that I am choosing to focus on are the innumerable moments of real relationship that were made possible because of this gathering. Moments of grace and wonder, of fun and play, of heartfelt debate and difficult decisions, moments of prayerful silence, moments of celebration. Now more than ever, I thank God that our denomination is one in which decisions are made in the context of relationship – relationship with each other, with creation, with God. And further, that our denomination is one which prizes relationship over doctrine, a place where we can agree to disagree and still care deeply about one another and about our church.
My friends, I have hope for our future – not only because I need a pulpit from which to preach in 27 years time – but because of who God is and how God works. I have hope because of the emphasis we place on relationship, because of the power we witness in community, because of the miracle that happens when two or three are gathered in His name. Yes I have hope – even now in the midst of all that threatens to tear us apart – hope for who we are, for what we can yet become, for the future that awaits us in which we will indeed realize that new heaven and new earth.
And in the meantime, as the Song concludes, I embrace the present, embodying hope, loving my enemies, caring for the earth, choosing life. Indeed this is my prayer for us all. That each one of us might, with our hope placed firmly in God, continue to sing this song of our faith, for generations to come. May it be so.