A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Pentecost 3 ~ UCCan 93rd Anniversary ~ 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
It all began when formal talks started between the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists in 1902 – at the turn of a new century. It was a time of big dreams and endless possibilities. Canada as a country was only 35 years old – Oldsmobile pioneered the first assembly line for automobiles – the Wright brothers made their first airplane test flights.
The 20th century was filled with promise. Back then they bragged that it would be the “Christian Century”.
The United Church of Canada was formed in the cradle of what was called the Social Gospel movement which “applies Christian principles to social problems, especially poverty, inequality, liquor, crime, racial tensions, slums, bad hygiene, poor schools, and the danger of war” [wiki]. It was a time when the dream was to establish a truly national church.
Several years ago the Very Rev. Peter Short – our Moderator at the time – wrote a letter to the first Moderator – the late Very Rev. George Pidgeon. It was a creative way to offer reflections and pose questions about the state of the union today compared to then. I’d like to read you edited portions of that letter as a way of inviting you into reflecting on our church and our faith.
“Dear George, I serve The United Church of Canada as the 38th of its moderators. You were the first. How odd that you were elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and a week later you were elected moderator of The United Church of Canada. Here in the Maritimes we would say that was some week.
“This is a precarious time for the church we love – not bereft of hope, but a time of great diminishment and a certain desolation… We are (now 93) years old and something in us is exhausted. …I believe you would want to know how things are with us now, and I hope you will understand.
“Sometimes I wonder what was going through your mind in (Toronto’s) Mutual Street Arena that day at the inaugural service. …Was it you who chose the processional hymn, ‘The Church’s One Foundation’? Did your spine tingle when you came to the line that says, “Till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blessed?”
I wonder what vision glorious your heart was seeing as you sang with the great crowd.
“…My grandmother was in her 20s when her congregation joined the new United Church. All her life she used to say, “We were Methodist, you know.” My father, born in 1924, grew up in a congregation that was learning how to become a United Church. I was born the month after you retired. I have read accounts of the struggle for church union — how it was so hopeful in one place, so bitter in another. I have seen the scars, but I have no direct memory of it. My children don’t really care much about that struggle. The wounds have healed too well.
“After all these years we still encounter the old fault line though, the one between the socialists and the moralists (as they were called in your time).
Even today, some of us understand evangelism as calling people to participate in building God’s reign of social justice on earth.
Some of us (me!), on the other hand, understand evangelism as calling people to new birth in faith, thus building a better society one human life at a time.
You will recognize that long-standing division. It hasn’t changed much, but for the most part we don’t use the word evangelism at all any more. There’s something about it that embarrasses us.
“I guess I am still wanting to know about the vision glorious. There are allegations among us that the United Church has got away from the Gospel and into politics…Oddly enough, the evidence of General Council reports indicates that we were more radical in politics in your day than we are in mine. Still, I notice that two months after you were elected, you sent a letter to the whole church summoning members “to intercede for what our fathers called a revival of religion.”
Revival of religion is a hard word to hear today, given our reduced prospects.
Hard, and hopeful.
Is revival of religion a part of the vision glorious, too?
“… We grew up on a vision of Canada. The vision stands right up front in our founding document, the Basis of Union: “It shall be the policy of the United Church to foster the spirit of unity in the hope that this sentiment of unity may in due time, so far as Canada is concerned, take shape in a church which may fittingly be described as national.”
“…Is the vision glorious bound up somehow with Canada?… (We have made) great contributions to the building of this country. For example, the United Church has been an important actor in the work of immigration that has so shaped the emerging Canada. Health care, pensions, employment insurance, human rights, the environment — the church has been a leader, often at considerable cost, in all these fields and in many others. I hope you know, George, that much of what you must have dreamed in the vision glorious has come to pass.”
(Peter goes on to talk about stories of how so many congregations have been a blessing to their communities, but he also lifts up some of our failures – insufficient ministry among francophones – the Indigenous residential schools issue – our inability to fully welcome immigrants and refugees into our “mostly white” churches.)
He continues: “Will you understand if I say that the plan of bringing a nation into being is over?… After doubling our membership in the generation after church union, we now count the same number of members as we did when you were elected in 1925 (and now 13 years later it’s fewer still). Canada is a secular utopia now, built on the pillars of human rights and multiculturalism. Canada is a beautiful dream, really. But I suspect you would agree that a secular, rights-based, multicultural utopia, for all its strengths, is not our Gospel.”
“I am asking your counsel, George, on how we might keep faith with your commitment to this country and how might we live again by what you called a revival of religion. It all seems so out of reach. Our circumstance is reduced in almost every congregation and mission.
That’s the truth and it hurts.
“…Instead of instructing the country on what to become, perhaps we are being moved by the Spirit to become something ourselves.
(And that intersects perfectly with our scripture from today – 2 Corinthians 4:16 – 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.)
“…We can no longer expect Canada to listen when we tell it how to behave and what to believe in. We can do something better. We can become in ourselves what we long for the country to be.
“…For the church, this would be an act of faith on a life-changing scale… The vision glorious would have to be shared and passed among different hands and new hearts. It would be a difficult passage. It would take a generation and we would surely not accomplish it perfectly. No generation ever has.
“… We will need leaders who are church planters, who have the courage and the vision to nurture communities of faith that are an alternative to the empires that demand and assume our allegiance.
“… We must set out again toward the incarnation of Christ. I know we’ll never be true to our gospel by becoming a rights-based utopia grounded in the ideology of multiculturalism. That’s not who we are. We are a body-based community grounded in Christ crucified and risen.
“We are not on the way to becoming a successful church; we are on the way to being changed into the likeness of Christ as it seems good to the Spirit to do… Grace, forgiveness and new life are the gifts by which we live.
“George, the story you tell about your first day of school is coming to mind — how at the age of four you set out from home to walk to the schoolhouse. You only got as far as your uncle Ben’s barn before turning back that first day. But the next day you tried again. Eventually you made it to school and from school to a wide new world. I think that’s how it is. In (93) years we’ve come as far as Uncle Ben’s barn. In the morning we will set out for our destiny again.” [End.]
An anniversary is a good time to take stock. With the big General Council 43 meeting coming into our backyard this summer we can’t help but be thinking about the national church, the denomination.
Our Church is another year older.
Our story has another page.
But what story will we share?
We’ve had Christianity for so long that we can fall into the trap of thinking that the Bible and the tradition and the institution speak for themselves. We think that our Jesus story is generally known, valued, and held to be true – but it isn’t. It may have been once – “back in the day” – but it certainly isn’t now. Nowadays many people think the Christian faith is nothing but a lot of odd rituals and controlling rules. Now, you may say – rightly – that that isn’t what your faith is like at all – mine neither – but who would know that?
You have a story.
It’s not someone else’s story – it’s yours – it’s not someone else’s faith – it’s yours.
It’s not George Pidgeon’s or our forebearers faith – it’s ours.
It doesn’t come out of a can, or even a head office – it’s not prepackaged – it’s not one size fits all.
It’s unique – it’s personal – but as Henri Nouwen said, “Often it is the most personal that is the most universal.”
If the popular belief about us is an unfair stereotype of what may be absolutely unthinkable to us, what are we going to do to change the stereotype?
The answer isn’t a fund raiser!
It’s going to require telling our story – and more than that – being ready to say how our story (mine, yours) is just one example of what God’s presence, forgiveness, and love can do in a person’s life.
When the United Church of Canada began the world was different than it is now. The message of God’s presence, forgiveness, and love never changes – but how it gets shared does. “Back in the day” our story got shared by osmosis – everyone went to church – everyone knew the story. You couldn’t avoid it – so we assumed that the foundation of the story – the gospel – was a given and we put all our energy into the social gospel.
And now that that pesky pendulum has swung again we find ourselves with answers to questions that are no longer being asked – and stuttering on the answers to the questions people do have.
They don’t know our story.
So we need to tell it – first with our lives, and then with our words.
2 Corinthians 4
13 We’re not keeping this quiet, not on your life.
16 [And] 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.
Today’s the United Church of Canada’s 93rd anniversary.
The state of our union is dependent on our reawakening to, re-articulating, and reclaiming that vision glorious.
And sharing it!
18 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.
May the vision glorious be ours!