Sunday, June 13, 2010

Life in Christ: 85 years of the United Church of Canada

Below, I have included not only the sermon, but also much of the liturgy. June 13th was my last Sunday at Knox United, and the Welcome, prayers, hymns, and "time with kids" all provide the context for the sermon. Ian


Welcome to Sunday morning worship at Knox United Church. My name is Ian Kellogg and I have been a student supply minister here at Knox this spring. Today's service has two special purposes. One is to mark the 85th anniversary of the United Church of Canada, which was founded during a worship service in Toronto on June 10th, 1925. The second is to mark the end of my almost 10 months here in Didsbury as a student intern and then as a supply minister.. I feel very sad to say farewell to Didsbury, to Knox, and to you all this morning.

When I said goodbye to Rev. Doug Waite on Thursday morning, he asked me to mention those like him and Jean who are unable to be here with us this morning because of family or other commitments. Indeed, many people have already said goodbye to me in the last few weeks; and I treasure the chance to say farewell and thank you to those here during coffee hour after the service this morning.

I will drive to Edmonton this afternoon to spend a few nights at my sister's condo and then head back to Toronto to finish my final year of studies. But this morning will be more au revoir than goodbye, I believe. I have felt blessed to be part of Knox this year, and I look forward to seeing you in Didsbury sometime in the future when I am visiting my sisters in Edmonton.

This morning, as always, we begin worship by lighting a candle. The light of this candle can represent the light of God that guides us our journeys through life and as a church. This morning we gather to remember, renew and rejoice . . .

We now turn to our opening hymn. This hymn, The Church's One Foundation, was the processional hymn at the first service of the United Church of Canada. That service was held 85 years ago in a packed hockey arena in downtown Toronto. The 8,000 members of the congregation rose and sang this hymn as General Council delegates representing the four uniting denominations -- Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist and prairie Union churches -- marched into the Mutual Street Arena. As the first Moderator of the United Church, George Pidgeon later wrote, "the hymn was sung with an emotion that can scarce be described." So in awe and gratitude at what those church pioneers set in motion that day, let us know stand and sing . . .

* GATHERING HYMN "The Church's One Foundation" #331 VU

And now we say together the call to worship and opening prayer . . .

* CALL TO WORSHIP (said together)

Though we come from
many places and perspectives,
God's Spirit unites us in worship
in the power of Love.

* OPENING PRAYER (said together)

Gracious God,
Help us to celebrate our differences
and your Love, which unites us.
Help us to take our next steps as a church
on the path of faith hope and love. Amen.


Galatians 2: 15-21           Life in Christ
Luke 7: 36-8:3                Jesus anointed by a sinner

SERMON: Life in Christ: 85 years of the United Church

85 years might seem like a long time in the life of a church; and it might also seem like a brief watch in the night. Consider these time frames: the oldest of our Holy Scriptures -- the first five books of the Hebrew Bible -- were written about 3,000 years ago. Jesus' death and resurrection occurred almost 2,000 years ago. The Roman Catholic church was founded about 1600 years ago. The Protestant Reformation began just under 500 years ago. Against these figures, what is a mere 85 years?

But of course, in a human lifetime 85 years is a long time indeed. Not many people now alive remember the creation of the United Church of Canada in 1925, though we are lucky to have some people here this morning who were born before then.

Church union in Canada was front page news in 1925. The United Church was the most successful ecumenical effort in the world at that time. Since then, we have had our ups and downs as a denomination. And today I look at our history using the lens we adopted on Pentecost Sunday three weeks ago: the lens of spirit and soul.

Church union was an ambitious and spirited project. It was an attempt to undo 400 years of splits within Protestantism. It makes sense to me that Canada was the first place where this effort was successful. Canada was a relatively new country and included immigrants from many parts of Europe. And so English Canada contained the full spectrum of Protestant churches: Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Mennonite and others. Canada was also a country of prosperity, hope and diversity. We spoke two languages -- French and English -- and we had close ties with both the British Empire and the emerging American powerhouse. Canada looked like the country of the future, and so why not try something ambitious and unprecedented here in the church?

The Christians who formed the United Church of Canada liked Canada, and Canada liked them; which leads me to consider the name of our denomination, "The United Church OF Canada." Contrast our name with the name of one of our counterparts to the South. In 1957, a union of churches in the United States resulted in the United Church of Christ. Note that its name contains the words "of Christ," which ours does not. The U.S. denomination is a Christian church in the United States, but it is not a church of the United States. Ours, in contrast, is a church of Canada.

In its initial high spirits, I believe that our church succumbed to the spiritual temptation of nationalism. Indeed, the second paragraph of the Basis of Union for our church reads: "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."

Two points about this: first Canada is a confederation of diverse regions: contrast, as an example, Newfoundland with B.C. And Canada also includes First Nations people and French Quebec. Second, the Christian church is of the whole world and not of a particular country. After all, nations come and go, but the God who is Love remains.

But as we know, Canada is a very appealing place, especially compared to many poverty-stricken or war-ridden countries; and so the nationalist temptation in our church seems quite understandable to me.

The United Church was very successful in its first 40 years. We began as the largest Protestant church in Canada and we have remained in that position ever since. And after weathering the Depression years of the 30s and World War II, the United Church grew very rapidly in the 1950s. In that decade, one new United Church sanctuary opened each week on average.

Success gave the United Church the confidence to tackle many difficult issues. We took early and courageous stands on the role of women in the church, on divorce, on abortion, on sexuality and on environmental and economic issues. Part of the radical tilt in our church flowed from the courage of our leaders. And part of it flowed from our relative isolation from churches in other countries. If the United Church had been part of a worldwide communion of churches like the Catholics or Anglicans; or if our identity were still Presbyterian or Methodist instead of United, then we might have had more difficulty in following the promptings of conscience to take these courageous positions.

The result of our social justice work was ironic. We began as a united and uniting church. But by 1990, the United Church seemed so radical to outsiders that it found itself isolated from many other churches in the world. 20 years later, this isolation is lifting as other denominations go through the same debates and turmoil that we lived through from 1960 to 1990. Some of these churches might now even envy us and wonder what they could learn from our history!

And then starting in 1966, our church, like virtually all other denominations in Canada, began a slow numerical decline. Even as the population of Canada has doubled since the 60s, the number of members of the United Church has shrunk by 50%, from a high of just over 1 million to about 500,000 today.

I believe that these years of decline in numbers and influence have had their life-giving side as well. The United Church began in a huge gust of enthusiasm and spiritual fire, which has led to generous service to millions of Canadians. And we have also been humbled and tempered by 45 years of decline.

Humiliation can lead to humility. And I like the humble balance I often see in United Church congregations like Knox and in the broader denomination. We continue to seek to know God and follow God's will even if not all of our congregations are growing.

And is not decline an inevitable part of life? Life is a spirited and future-oriented endeavour. But it is also embodied and soulful. And the soulful life is one of wounds such as illness, ageing, and failures of all kinds. But with Grace, our Church has remained open to God even as we have sometimes stumbled; and so our evolution continues.

The United Church started with big ideas -- Christian unity, evangelism to the un-churched, and the Social Gospel -- and I believe that we have done great things with these ideas. I also believe that English Canadian nationalism in the church has sometimes been a problem, though others would disagree. On the other side, some of us argue that our positions on women or sexuality are problems, and I would disagree with that viewpoint. And such disagreements are natural and quite OK, I believe.

But whether we were growing or shrinking, the leaders of our church have striven to know, worship, and serve God and neighbour with courage and humility.

St Paul, the great disciple of Jesus in the First Century, followed a similar path. He began life as an ultra-religious Jew. And then he was humbled by the inevitable mistakes and missteps of his life. To him, this humiliation felt like death. As we heard in his letter to the Galatians this morning, Paul wrote that [quote] "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me." Paul died to his old, zealous religious life, and then rose to a new, selfless life in Christ.

Paul's born-again life was still very spiritual. But it wasn't the spirituality of ego, religion, or nation. It had been emptied of all those things. Instead, it was a spirituality that, with God's grace, followed Jesus to the cross. In Paul's new and transparent life, God's love flowed through him into joy-filled service despite his all-too human flaws.

This is also the opportunity given to us by God in the United Church of Canada; in Knox here in Didsbury; and to each of us on the path of faith, hope and love. As individuals we have ambitions and desires, which we are compelled to follow. As a church, we have ambitions and plans and we are also compelled to try to fulfil them.

But then life intervenes. Key members of the church age, and new ones don't come to replace them. We take a stand for equal rights and some members are upset and stop coming to church. We hire staff or repair a building, and perhaps income doesn't rise to match the need. And so on.

That's life. But the grace of it is that we are supported by God's love both when we have success and when we have failure. By the power of the Spirit, we are given the opportunity again and again to live a selfless and transparent life in Christ where God's love flows through us despite our best laid plans. We don't need to achieve success nor do we need to crave failure. With God's help, we wake up to this moment and try as best we can to love our family, our congregation, and our neighbours.

This side of the grave, there is no end to the process of striving, stumbling, and waking up to a new life in Christ. We never get it right, but neither does God give up on us.

And so this morning, we find ourselves worshipping again in a United Church congregation. It is 85 years since the denomination was founded and we might wonder what the future holds for us as individuals or as a church. But we are also reminded of God's grace amidst failure; of God's love amidst pain; of God's communion amidst unhappiness and disagreement; and of God's mission despite the impossibility of ever getting it "right."

The United Church helped form me as a child, and I often didn't appreciate it. But I am very glad that the church was here when I returned as an adult. In walking back through its doors, it helped that I knew that this was an inclusive and questioning church. So I also give thanks for the work of this denomination's saints who over four generations have prayed, debated, and disagreed as they tried to be both relevant to contemporary Canada and faithful to the Gospel.

Once back as a church member, I found myself being transformed by worship through the power of the Spirit. And now I have spent nine months in Didsbury working with Knox. And here at Knox, God's transforming power has continued its gracious alchemy. The transformation flows from the unique love that characterizes each of us and the congregation as a whole. And for that, I give thanks.

I give thanks with thousands of other people who have been supported and nurtured by Knox over the years. These moments of nurture and transformation are sometimes ordinary ones; and sometimes they are key moments of mourning or celebration. Regardless of when they  occur, in response, we can only say "Hallelujah!"

As for the future, I am confident that with the leadership of Rev. Nancy, with lively mission projects, and with an enthusiastic governing Board, Knox will continue to be a place where, with God's Grace, people find new life in Christ.

On days like today, we look back in order to know where we came from and to imagine where we might be headed. But mostly, we worship to give thanks for this gracious moment of life in Christ.

Fired by spiritual enthusiasm, we start churches and carry out mission work. When we stumble, as we always do, we try to comfort each other in humble acts of communion and love. Ego always gets in the way. And God is always here to help us move beyond ego and into life in Christ.

And so today, in this blessed United Church of Christ in a lovely town in western Canada and amid spring warmth and sunshine, I cannot keep from singing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Our hymn of response and the hymn before communion is . . .

* HYMN "Bread of Life, Feed My Soul #194 MV

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