Sermon: June 10, 2018 – John 17: 17-23. 93rd Anniversary of Church Union.
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
June 10, 1925: the inaugural service of the United Church of Canada It would have been quite the spectacle: eight thousand delegates, representing two of the largest Protestant denominations in Canada, all of the Methodists and about 2/3 of the Presbyterians, plus the smaller Congregationalist association, and a growing number of local Churches, especially in Western Canada, where local Protestants had already joined together into one worshiping body.
Each of these groupings brought specific gifts to this new United Church – as identified in the June 10, 1925 service, the Methodists identified their zeal for evangelism, the Presbyterians, their devotion to sacred learning, the Congregationalists, their commitment to spiritual freedom, the Local Union, their emphasis on community life. Since then, we have recognized the francophone presence and the significant congregational life of indigenous people in the Church, by adding words in their languages to the Church crest.
To my knowledge, no movie footage exists of this event which is unfortunate. The order of service describes quite a showy processional, as each of these denominational groups took the risk of leaving behind its former identity, in answer to Christ’s call to come together in faith. And while we’re trying to imagine this flow of humanity, let’s let that United Church crest of ours move a bit, too: the burning bush of God the I AM, burning without being consumed; the dove of the Spirit, swooping down from heaven, declaring Jesus as beloved and holy; the Word, not just sitting in a book but being proclaimed with courage; the Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, God’s dynamic presence challenging and changing us throughout our lives.
From its inception, to this moment, to the hazy horizon line we can sort of see off in the distance, the United Church of Canada has been on the move. At our healthiest we have always been outward oriented, engaging the actual needs of our neighbours and addressing injustices that impact more than just our local setting; and whatever future we will have, will be determined by our willingness to be led by God’s love into the world beyond these walls.
A first-hand experience of this outward-moving orientation came for me in 1981, on my first summer charge: Shaunavon – Eastend Saskatchewan. Every other Sunday on that pastoral charge, a third service was held: either in the tiny community of Admiral, or in the rustically named “stone-pile school”, a one-room schoolhouse with a big, upright piano with perhaps 65 functioning keys, out in the beautiful benchlands. The United Church went into hundreds of rural schoolhouses across Canada, because it was never our way to just set up shop in town and wait for people to come to us. We pulled our weight in the mean streets of big urban centres, as well, with ministries like the Fred Victor Mission in downtown Toronto, where my Dad did one of his summer internships, founded by the Methodists in the 1880s to deal with the social issues of homelessness and neglect. Sometimes we have missed the mark and sometimes our actions have been flat-out wrong but at our best – at our best – we have been in motion. Thoughtful, reflective, intentional motion, but motion nonetheless.
It’s a bit unusual, then, that back when the United Church of Canada came into being – when they were developing a Church Crest, and deciding what scripture should be preached at the inaugural service – that they ended up at the 17th chapter of John, which we heard this morning. This scripture comes at the end of a ponderously long sermon by Jesus, three full chapters, and to my ears the words sound lovely, but totally static: phrases like “abide in my love” (John 15:9), “believe in me” (17:20), “that all may be one”. (17:21) Yet if we check out two contexts for these words, perhaps they weren’t as conceptual and sedentary as they sound.
The first context, was what was going on around them. Jesus had been so uncompromising in his message of inclusive love that forces of empire were rising up against him, and he needed to give his followers an action plan of what they were to do and who they were to be in the turbulent days ahead. Gathered in an upper room to share a sacred meal, in an environment of great threat, Jesus was reminding them of their identity as beloved community, nourishing their souls so they could keep on telling people that everyone – everyone – is created in the beloved image of God. In telling them to be unified, as he and God were one, Jesus wasn’t imagining that they would live in perfect harmony, but was defining the singularity of commitment that they would need to keep on keeping on in a time of great threat. The disciples needed to know that the energy that connected them to one another and which drew them to the needs of their neighbours, was the same connective power as the bond between Jesus and God.
The second context, was who they had already been. At two points in his ministry, Jesus sent out disciples two by two into the countryside: first, the inner circle of twelve (Luke 9), then a broader circle of 70 or 72 (Luke 10). By the time they were in this upper room with Jesus, this group already knew what it was like to be vulnerable in his name, to meet people where they were, bringing gifts of healing and wholeness and new purpose. Each one of those pairs would have had their own style, their own personality, yet they went with one mission. Jesus had trusted them to go into the world in love, and now, with his own end in sight, he sends them once more and reminds them to be one, in the way they had been before, trusted emissaries going into unknown territory with the healing, reconciling, loving power of Christ.
Our mission as a Church is still shaped in these ways. When we gather to worship and when we gather at table, we re-live the importance of coming together in Jesus’ name. We look at the rainbow flag with its symbolic connection to the LGBTQ community and all forms of human diversity, and it reminds us of our desire to be a community where all God’s children feel safe and welcome. We gather, for as much as I know the importance of reaching out to others in love, I also need reminding that the love of God reaches out to me at this moment, as a child who is within God’s precious care. When we reach out to others, God’s love goes with us, not as a stack of handouts, but as a quality that lives within us and reaches through us. So each time we gather in Jesus’ name, my friends, please know God’s reconciling and inspiring love in YOUR life.
But it’s not all about coming together. We, like those first disciples, are also invited to be on the move. A few years ago, Mary Shearer developed a motto for our Presbytery – ““Moving our Ministry ON…OUT…and into the community” – and that very much describes what our congregation and denomination need to be about. Our decisions as a congregation need to be informed, not by what I want or by what we want, but by the call of Jesus Christ to love and to welcome and to notice the actual needs of actual people’s lives. To quote my friend and colleague, Rev Julia Kimmett of Okotoks United Church, “the church being built today for tomorrow will move from giving information to being a place of transformation, moving even more from the head to the heart, giving people a place to belong and explore for themselves”. With that in mind, we and our building need to be equipped to welcome whole-heartedly, to live Christ’s unconditional love, to create a safe community space for exploration and growth. Yes, this does involve forecasting into the future and we have no way to assure that we’re seeing that correctly, and we have no guarantee that those we are reaching out to will have any interest whatsoever in our invitation, but we have been entrusted with the next step of the journey… in exactly the same way that 8000 delegates left their old denominational identities behind, in the same way that Jesus sent the 12 and the 72 out onto the road: with hope, and love, and justice, and healing grace, and with no assurances – other than the assurance that God’s desperate, complete love for the world will never, ever waver.
Dr. Paul Simpson Duke beautifully summarizes why it is so important to continue in these efforts to bring people together, even though all mainline Protestant Churches in North America are struggling to figure out the spiritual yearnings of our surroundings. He writes,
“The longing of Christ is that we who live in so many forms of separateness should turn and step into the Light…in which we are all unconditionally, everlastingly, and beautifully held, and that we recognize each other in it, and in new ways move toward each other in it. We are one because the one love of God surrounds, permeates, and connects us. The secret of our oneness is not that we are alike, but that we are loved alike. As each of us consents to be gathered to that love and abide in it, we are inevitably gathered to each other.”
This summer, the United Church of Canada’s General Council – which will include our own Mary Shearer, and Rev. Murray Speer of Rundle Memorial UC in Banff – will be making decisions that will profoundly change the shape of our denominational structures. In those decisions, we will have no choice but to embrace an outward-oriented future, moving as the Spirit moves us, connecting us to others by a power that simply cannot sit still. And in so doing – in looking at new ways of being in a world of change – one of the great resources we have, is that going out to serve people where they are is what we have always done, as people of Jesus and as a denomination: we have always been oriented to get out there, in the communities of Galilee and in one-room schoolhouses, living the good news of Jesus as we attempt to be early responders to the issues that impact our sisters and brothers in all the world.
That is not a task for the faint of heart, but it is not a journey undertaken on our own. As Julia Kimmett reminded us at Conference last month, we, like our forebears, will continue to lean into God’s “radical generosity, expansive forgiveness, transformative justice, inexhaustible gratitude, and extravagant love.” With those wondrous qualities at the heart of our togetherness, the journey of faith and life continues. Thanks be to God, Amen.
Duke, Paul Simpson. http://blogs.baylor.edu/truettpulpit/2016/04/25/john-1720-26/
United Church of Canada, Inaugural Service (1925) – accessed at https://www.ucrdstore.ca/media/upload/file/9781551341873_excerpt.pdf
For further reading:
United Church of Canada, General Council 43: https://generalcouncil43.ca/
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church