150607 – Like 90

Yr B ~ P2 ~ 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Wednesday June 10th will mark the 90th anniversary of The United Church of Canada. I like to reflect on the state of the union, so to speak, at the major anniversary times.

90 is an interesting number. It’s a number that fits nicely into the age range of a person. If our church was 400 years old I wouldn’t be drawn to make this comparison. But we’re 90. (I’m aware that generalizations are only so helpful, but here goes anyway.) A mentor of mine joked when the church was 75 that we were acting like a 75 year old – still with some energy but kind of tired and starting to withdraw from most of our work, picking and choosing what we liked. We were comfortably retired, he said.dandelion-seed-renewal

So I wonder if we’re acting like we’re 90 now? 90 year olds can be very faithful folks, but they know that life doesn’t go on forever. And with advancing age comes increasing frailty, illnesses, slowing down, and in some sad cases giving up. Is the United Church like 90? Are we thinking the end is not so far away? Are we frail and slowing down and giving up? Depends on who you listen to.

90 is long enough in the life of a denomination to have really solidified who you are and what you’re about. Or at least it should be. But the problem for us is that we had a crystal clear idea about who we were back in 1925 when we started, but the silly world went and changed on us over the decades.

We began with the dream of Christianizing the country of Canada – of being the national spiritual identity of the country. It was as much or more a cultural goal as a spiritual goal, but the spiritual parts were deeply held by the early folks – so much so that they were “assumed” – and you know what trouble you get into when you assume!

We started with dreams of social assistance, and fair income taxes, and quality accessible health care (to name a few) and over time they all became bedrock policies of Canada – but that meant that the church didn’t need to focus on them.

So over the decades as the ground shifted and the country changed – largely because of the influence and the work of the United Church – we needed to take some time to rethink what we were all about. But we never did. We still haven’t. And because we spent so long assuming we all knew what was at the foundation of all our work we never seemed to notice that we hadn’t been naming it.

And now we’re 90. Is it too late to name it?
Is it too late to dive deeply into that conversation and pour our energy and resources into discerning our foundational mission?
I mean, if we’re gonna die soon anyway, why bother? We’re 90, after all.

Obviously you can see right through where I’m going with this. 90 for a person is pretty old, but 90 for a church is nothing. In the larger scheme of things the United Church is a little kid. A colleague of mine recently wrote: “We’ve managed to survive for four-and-a-half percent of the history of the Christian Church. In human terms, we’ve just learned to tie our shoes.” [M.Kooiman]

We had a great burst of energy with a grand idea for the first few decades, and even though that idea may have run its course it’s entirely reasonable to be ready to take some time and think about our next season. Where shall we look for guidance and inspiration?

You’ve heard me make this argument many times, but I’ll say it again anyway. I think the times we find ourselves in currently relate more directly to the environment of the New Testament writings than ever before. They were experiencing the growing pains of trying to establish a new spiritual and religious tradition in the midst of a sometimes hostile and often indifferent society.

Paul would go out with zeal and plant churches, and then he spent much of his time solving conflicts and putting out fires from well-meaning people who got off in the wrong direction. And then there were the arguments about whether the People of the Way – which is what followers of Jesus were originally called – whether we needed to be Jewish first, or whether there was a valid way to follow as a Gentile.

In other words, they were struggling to redefine their spirituality in new forms that fit their times. They were striving to figure out how to love God, love people, and love one another in their time and place – and it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Listen to the passion for ministry and the Church in Paul’s writing – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (MSG)

We’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace.

These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us.
There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.

Look, I am not living in a state of denial about the overall health of the institution known as The United Church of Canada as it turns 90. We have some serious challenges ahead. In a couple of years the national church is going to hit a financial wall. There will be sadness, pain, and dying.

But such is the rhythm of life.

And we who follow Jesus are supposed to know a thing or two about that rhythm – especially the part about dying – because at the core of our theology is an affirmation of a mystery that we couldn’t possibly hope to truly understand and yet we know to be absolutely true
– that dying is the end of one thing and the beginning of another
– that dying is the letting go of one way in order to embrace another.
It’s the rhythm of resurrection.

So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace.

A couple of weeks ago we celebrated Pentecost Sunday – the birth of the Church – Spirit gushing on, in, and through the followers of Jesus. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the institutional church stops the Spirit from gushing (nothing can stop the Spirit from gushing) but we certainly seem to be intent on making it harder for the Spirit to flow as we build our human structures in an effort to respond.

We’ve built churches on every corner and in every little hamlet, and we’ve built a national structure to try to administer it all. And that’s all well and good. We need institutions and structures. A free-for-all sounds all energetic and passionate but without some sort of structure it tends to lose focus and scatters.
So we need structures, but we mustn’t worship the structures. Our buildings and our institution are only tools to further our mission.

And what’s our mission? Same as it’s always been – growing deep, mature disciples who love God, love people, and love one another – love, love, love.

Our challenge as a United Church is that we’ve got a paradigm that isn’t working anymore. The church building in every hamlet and on every corner idea beautifully met the needs of our first decades. But it was designed to serve a world with one room school houses, small general stores for groceries, and a culture that needed the local church as the community gathering place.

And the very same people who fret about us closing little churches in small hamlets and big empty churches in cities wouldn’t dream of giving up their well-equipped schools, their grocery superstores, or their 1001 coffee shops and shopping malls. So we’re closing about one church a week on average these days. And maybe that makes our denomination feel like it’s 90.

Now, this is not going to make me very popular with some people, but I’m really happy about this.
I’m glad we’re closing churches.
I’m glad we’re finally waking up to the reality that the world has changed and we didn’t react fast enough.
I’m glad that as we come to the realization that we can’t keep the structure afloat that we’ll practice resurrection – we’ll let go of what was and open ourselves to the possibility of Spirit gushing in new ways for us.

Paul had it right: Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace.

But don’t mistake this for being an indictment against church buildings. God’s people need a place to gather together. The difference that’s emerging is we’re having to rely on the Spirit to show us where and how many our gathering places ought to be.

We’re having to open ourselves to that gushing Spirit and let it propel us forward rather than deciding on our own. As God’s Spirit renews us on the inside that Spirit will flow through us and become visible on the outside. Spirit isn’t just for your inner bits – but that’s where it starts, and grows, and from there it gushes forth.

So what’s our job? Do we just sit back and wait for it all to happen?
No, we open ourselves to the gushing Spirit and dare to dream dreams of a new future.

How do we know if our new ideas are any better than our old ones?
Here’s the thing. The old ideas weren’t necessarily bad. The old ways we did things weren’t wrong. They were inspired by the Spirit for their time.
But while loving God, loving people, and loving one another never changes the structures and styles and forms that give shape to that loving are not fixed and unchanging.

Dying and rising is a good thing.

Letting go and embracing is a good thing.

Resurrection is a good thing.

Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace.

So happy 90th anniversary to The United Church of Canada. For many, perhaps too many, it feels like 90. But for those who have caught a glimpse – for those who are inspired to dare to risk

– for those courageous enough to let down their guard and let the Spirit gush and carry them into an unknown future, a future that will be less encumbered by too many buildings and too constricting a structure

– for those willing to let go of what was and embrace what might be

– for those ready to practice resurrection

– I think it’ll feel unfathomably invigorating, energized, hopeful, and alive. It’ll be mind-bogglingly wondrous and overflowing with love.
Caught up in the gushing flow of Spirit it’ll feel like we’re going like 90!

2 Corinthians 4:17-18: These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us.
There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.

This church building will not last forever.
This denomination will not last forever.

But love will. Spirit will. Jesus’ way will. God’s mystery will.
And love, Spirit, Christlikeness, and Mystery are not now, nor have they ever been, stationary things.

They have energy.
They’re in motion.
They’re generative.

They’re constantly flowing and emerging in new forms.
They’re blazing a path calling us to follow and resonate in harmony.
They’re going like 90!

Shall we go with the flow?

Amen.