This is a reflection on the past, present and future of the United Church of Canada as we celebrate 90 years. It incorporates Psalm 113 which praises God’s goodness. The psalm reminds us that God is bigger than we are. God has been faithful in the past. God is faithful in the present and God will be faithful in the future.
God is good in the past. God drew together and the spirit invited congregations across Canada from the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist churches to work together. God’s spirit offered a vision of what churches could accomplish working together. Over the last 90 years, God’s spirit has worked through the United Church to bring about social change and create leaders. The United Church was the first church to ordain women beginning in 1936. In 1942, the United Church was active in a movement to resist conscription. In the 1950’s, the United Church supported the development of Medicare. In the 1960’s there was a shift towards a more tolerant view on alcohol usage and the church provided emergency aid to Vietnam draft dodgers. In 1988, the United Church affirmed that people are welcome in ministry regardless of sexual orientation. In 1998, the United Church apologized to First Nations for our role in residential schools and we continue to live into this apology. The church has been involved in anti-racism work and inter-cultural/interfaith work, HIV-AIDS awareness and relief, support for same-sex marriage, peace work in Israel and Palestine, various emergency relief efforts following natural disasters and climate change. These are just some of the things the United Church of Canada has been involved with over the last 90 years. Some of these are areas of concern that we continue to learn more about and seek a faithful response. Right from its inception, the United Church has a history of speaking and acting in ways that are often counter-cultural but result from the prompting of the spirit. The psalm that we heard this morning speaks of how “God raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap…gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.” The Psalm has this sense that God’s faithfulness changes the circumstances of those most in need. Those who might otherwise be without the basic requirements of life and without community to love and support them are welcomed by this God. This is the work that the United Church has been about in the past.
God is good in the present. The congregation of St. Andrew’s, that I work with, is gifted with a healthy congregation. We have a large number of people, a variety of ages and financial stability and God continues to be active among us. There is an openness to exploring the ways in which God calls us to be church and to share the story of God’s loving presence with many people.
The past and present of the United Church place us in a good place to enter the future. There are mainline protestant congregations all over North America that are growing and thriving. These include some United, Evangelical Lutherans and Anglican churc, and, if you happen to be American, Episcopalians United Methodist and United Church of Christ, along with a few others. Diana Butler Bass, and others, have done research about these congregations and the characteristics they share.
Hospitality: Hospitality invites everyone into God’s love. People are invited as they are. There is no requirement to change or to become “like us,” but people are transformed by welcoming and being welcomed. There is no requirement to pay dues or fees. God’s table is open to everyone and when people are welcome they want to provide that welcome to others and so will support with their energy and their finances a community that invites and includes. Many congregations believe that they are welcoming but are hesitant to be explicit or have not addressed the invisible barriers that prevent full participation in the life of the community. Sometimes congregations assume that everyone knows they are welcome but for many people who are not used to coming to church there is a large question mark about whether they will be welcome and whether they will fit in. The churches that thrive have done intentional work internally to identify the barriers within themselves that prevent inclusion and then are explicit telling the community that everyone is welcome. This is particularly important in regards to sexual orientation and gender identity. The explicit welcome gives people a clue that this is a community where they can be safe and talk about all aspects of their lives. Hospitality requires us to look beyond our own social groups and intentionally invite people we don’t know into conversation.
Discernment: Discernment is about listening carefully to each other and listening for God within each other. Discernment requires that in all our decision making we listen carefully for God and ground our decisions theologically and spiritually. Sometimes the decisions God requires of us are not the easiest, the cheapest or the least complicated. Sometimes God requires us to enter difficult and painful places in order to be faithful.
Healing: The practice of healing may include things like reiki and healing touch which work on an energetic level to heal body, mind and soul. Healing includes praying with and for people who are ill and dying. Healing may include the act of anointing. Healing is also about mending broken relationships and the practice of forgiveness.
Contemplation: Contemplation includes all our spiritual practices: silence, meditation, prayer or walking a labyrinth. These are the things that calm our minds and bodies so that we can be open to God, open to the spirit. These practices ground us, root us, give us energy and peace in our lives so that we are better able to be faithful servants of Christ in the world.
Testimony: What is the story of God in your life? When and how have you experienced God? The practice of testimony is telling these stories. It doesn’t have to be a big story or earth shattering. There is no right or wrong story. My story is not better or worse than yours. Each of us has a story of God’s spirit touching our lives. Sometimes we tell these stories to one or two other people. Sometimes we tell these stories publicly. The setting doesn’t matter. What matters is the practice of talking about our faith with others.
Diversity: Diversity is related to hospitality. A congregation that is diverse reflects the makeup of the community around it including economic diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, diversity of abilities, sexual orientation and gender identity, ages and theology. A congregation that is diverse works hard to hold the differences together – not with the intention of trying to make others fit the mold but with the intention of celebrating the diversity that God created. The diversity is reflected in all areas of a church’s life.
Justice: Congregations that thrive are intentional in their justice making. They listen to the stories from the truth and reconciliation process and seek opportunities to build relationships with First Nations. They participate in Pride parades and celebrations – maybe even host their own. They are intentional about their responsibility to the creation and environmental concerns. They work to assist people living in poverty and to change the systems so that no one needs to be hungry. They support this work financially as individuals and as a congregation. They support this work with their time and their energy.
Worship: Worship remains central to thriving congregations. It is worship that engages all our senses: we hear, we see, we touch and move our bodies, we taste and smell. Worship reflects the diversity of our congregations in the leadership and content of worship. We use a variety of styles of music to enhance worship and touch our souls.
Reflection: Reflection includes study of scripture and theology and then applies what we are learning to the situations around us. Reflection invites us to think about situations in world and offer a faithful response. This is where our faith moves from an intellectual idea about our faith to an action that is lived out in the world. Reflection happens individually and in small groups.
Beauty: The final trait that Dianna Butler Bass identifies is beauty. The space needs to be cared for. It needs to be clean and occasionally updated. Sometimes things need to be replaced, not because they are no longer functional, but because they are looking worn and tired. Function and beauty need to go together. If you watch any of the cooking shows on television they talk about eating with our eyes first. The same is true of our worship and gathering spaces. If a space looks dull, boring and dingy people will want to spend less time in the space. We need art and things of beauty throughout our church buildings—quilts and banners, photographs, pottery, painting, sculpture, live plants. We include laughter, music, drama in all aspects of church life to help us feel alive and sense God’s presence among us.
All of these practices are ancient. They are not ideas and concepts invented recently. The original concepts are Biblically based. Many of these practices were part of the early church and have either been lost, suppressed or corrupted through time. Many of these practices have been a part of the United Church since our early days. We are in an exciting time in the church and I am incredibly hopeful about the future of the church generally and about the ministry that lies ahead for St. Andrew’s.
There are significant and unknown changes ahead for the United Church of Canada. The church as we currently know it will no longer exist. It will look very different five or ten years from now. There will be many proposals going to the national General Council in August and those decisions will need to be confirmed by congregations. Over the next few months, something will begin to emerge and congregations will be given the opportunity to participate in shaping the future of the United Church of Canada. Watch for this information as it becomes available and participate in the conversations that will be happening within our congregations.
As we move into a time of upheaval the focus for our congregation, and denomination, as we live into this future needs to be about grounding ourselves in God’s spirit and reclaiming ancient traditions for a modern world. I am confident and hopeful that a new church that will continue to serve God’s world will emerge in beauty, love and compassion. God’s presence has moved through the church, is among us now and will continue to be faithful into the unknown future.