Sunday, June 5, 2011

Good Cheer -- June 5, 2011

Sermon preached by Ian Kellogg at Kingston Road United Church, Toronto, Ontario. I have included the text of the lesson from John because I use the RSV translation for John 16 -- the version used by my father four years ago -- and the NRSV translation for John 17. The last paragraph of the sermon is inspired by the anthem "Deep Waters," which the choir sang just before the sermon -- Ian

Text: John 16:29-John 17:11

The Gospel reading this morning is from John. I am including a bit more of from John than is printed in the bulletin. I will start with last five verses from John 16 since that is the text used by my late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, in his final sermon four years ago

[On the night of his betrayal, Jesus had spoken at length to his disciples. And at the end of his teaching] they said, "Ah, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and need no one to question you; by this we believe that you came from God."

Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every one to his home, and you will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world."

When Jesus had spoken these words, he then said "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

SERMON: Good Cheer

Let us pray . . . Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen

This coming Friday, the United Church will celebrate its anniversary. June 10th will mark 86 years since our church was formed in 1925 at a worship service in downtown Toronto. In many United Churches this year, not too much is being made about the anniversary, especially compared to last year when it was our 85th.

Nevertheless, since today is my farewell to Kingston Road; since I want to talk about the state of the church; and since the Gospel reading this morning is, as it always is on the final and Seventh Sunday of Easter, from John 17 from which the United Church adopted its motto -- "That all may be one" -- I have decided to highlight our church's anniversary today . . .

I mention that this is my farewell to KRU although I have not often been around during the past three years. In 2008-09, I fulfilled a required Field Placement in Presteign-Woodbine United Church in East York. In 2009-10, I lived in Alberta as a student intern where I was the minister of  Knox United Church in Didsbury. And this past year as I finished my third and final year of a Masters of Divinity degree at Emmanuel College, I have "church-hopped" most Sundays in order to learn how other congregations worship and live out their faith. And now I am leaving on July 1st to work as a full-time minister in southern Saskatchewan.

But my absence from KRU for much of the past three years does not mean that this church  doesn't hold a central place in my heart. When I first walked into KRU 10 years ago, I knew right away that I had found what I was looking for. I had no idea then how far the Spirit that dwelt here would take me, but I knew this was the right place. So, for helping to bring me back into the church, for helping me find a new purpose in life, and for supporting my journey towards ordination over these past four years, I thank Kingston Road and all of you who are here today . . .

John 17, part of which we heard this morning, marks the end of Jesus' long farewell speech to his disciples at the Last Supper. Every year at the close of the Easter season, a selection from John 17 is one of the assigned readings, and it is set alongside the story from Acts of Jesus' ascension to heaven, which we also heard today. Next week is Pentecost where we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the early church and learn how they continued as a community without Jesus in their midst.

Personally, I don't find the text today to be the easiest one to follow. Like the rest of the 3,000 word speech of Jesus that John records from the Last Supper, the ideas are thickly packed together.

The United Church particularly picked up on Jesus' hope for unity expressed in John 17. We took this as an inspiration to mend the divisions in the Christian church. So in 1925, the Methodist Church of Canada, two-thirds of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, and the union churches from Canada's West united. It was a wonderful moment of hope and enthusiasm and it created what was then and remains today the largest Protestant denomination in Canada.

But many of our church's hopes have not come to be. After 40 initial years of growth, the United Church entered what is now more than 45 years of decline in the 1960s. We are probably smaller today than we were in 1925, even as there are three times more people living in Canada today than 86 years ago.

Our decline is hardly unique. All mainline churches in Canada and in most other rich, industrialized countries have been shrinking for 50 or more years. On the other hand, Christianity on a world scale is now growing quite rapidly. This growth is in rapidly industrializing countries like China, India and Brazil, and in many of the desperately poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia. But there is reason to believe that if these countries were to achieve a level of economic and social development like that in Europe, North America, and Japan, a process of secularization similar to what we have experienced might occur there too.

The United Church's dream of greater church unity has not come to pass either. With the exception of one small union with the Evangelical United Brethren in the 1960s, we have not merged with other denominations. In fact, since the 1970s the United Church has been isolated from most other Christians because of our theological openness and our support for inclusion and justice.

Think, if you will, of the top 5,000 leaders of Christianity around the world today. This overwhelmingly male group would include the Pope, all the Roman Catholic cardinals, the leaders of the flourishing Pentecostal denominations in Africa and Latin America, the Orthodox Patriarchs, the archbishops of the various Anglican churches, the major televangelists in the United States, and small groups of leaders from all the world's other denominations. One of the few women would be Mardi Tindal, our Moderator, who would be joined by perhaps one other United Church leader. In this group of 5,000, I suspect that I would have major disagreements with well over 4500 of them. I would consider most of them to be on the wrong side of issues like equality, justice, church democracy, and attitudes towards modern culture. Most of the 5000 would oppose equality for women in both church and society. Almost all of them would be hostile to sexual minorities. I would dislike the theology of all but a handful of them.

And yet, when I was ordained in Orillia last Sunday I was ordained as a minister of Word, Sacrament, and Pastoral Care within the Holy Catholic Church -- that is, within the universal church of Christ. Similarly, when Christina was baptized this morning, she was baptized into the One, Holy, Apostolic and Catholic Church of Christ. But while Christina's baptism will be recognized by any church around the world, my ordination will not have much purchase outside our own walls.

And I don't have a problem with that. I am quite happy to work in ministry with the 200,000 or so of us who gather for worship each Sunday in thousands of United Churches across Canada. I don't want to be recognized by Pentecostal or Baptist ministers who preach a message that often strikes me as nonsense. I don't want to be recognized by Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches that don't allow women to be ordained, let alone gays or lesbians. And so on.

So while more than two billion of the seven billion people alive today are Christian, the unity that Jesus hopes for in our reading this morning and which first inspired our denomination remains only a dream. And this has often been the case.

In the first 300 years of the church, its small numbers and its isolation led to a  profusion of wildly diverse Christian sects. Some groups thought that Jesus was divine -- a modern incarnation of Yahweh, the God of Israel -- but not also human. Some thought Jesus was human -- another prophet like Moses or Elijah -- but not also divine. Some embraced all the tenets of Judaism. Some turned their back on their Hebrew roots. Some focused on the practical work of mutual aid and healing. Others pursued ecstasy and enlightenment through strange rituals. Each city's church had its own unique collection of gospel stories and other texts.

This changed in the Fourth Century when Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. With a series of Councils that began in 325, the Imperial Church created a common Bible, a common creed, and a common way of running the church. But this unity was created from above through police action, book burnings and forced conversion to Catholic Christianity. The Roman Empire created a unified church that at one level might be seen as what Jesus hoped for, but at a cost. The cost was replacing a gospel of justice and love with one of oppression and fear.

I am glad that this unity did not last. First there was the break between the Greek-speaking Orthodox Church in the East and the Latin-speaking West 1,000 years ago. Later there was the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, which shattered the church in Europe into a dozens of shards. The timing of the Reformation was ironic. This was the point where the European empires began to conquer most of the rest of the world. Through colonialism they knit all the world's continents into one economic system for the first time. European conquest also allowed Christianity to leap ahead of Islam, Hinduism and other faiths to become the most dominant religion in the world. It was both a moment of imperial glory for the universal Catholic Church and also the beginning of secularization and the fracturing of the church into the wild diversity it exhibits today.

I had an up-close experience with the diversity of Canadian churches last year during my internship in Didsbury Alberta. I represented Knox United in the meetings of the Didsbury and Carstairs Ministerial Association, which met for lunch one day each month and which planned worship services at retirement homes and long-term care facilities. I am glad that I attended these meetings with the 12 or so other pastors from the region. But also I often felt like a stranger in a strange land there. Other than me and the United Church minister from Carstairs, all of the pastors were fundamentalist right-wingers in various Mennonite, Lutheran, Missionary Alliance and Anglican garbs.

Each month, the host pastor began lunch by telling the story of his journey to faith, and I often struggled to hide my astonishment. All of them had come to adopt theological ideas that I considered to be bizarre and irrational. So I felt nervous when it was my turn to host. But the others listened respectfully as I spoke about being a preacher's kid who grew up in eastern Ontario in the 1960s and 1970s; about how along with my most of my friends, I became a secular atheist as a teenager, and a political radical as a young man; how a trip to Nicaragua in 1984 marked a turning point for me both spiritually and politically; and how I returned to church via Kingston Road after 9/11 where I found a new way to trust the Christ and follow the Way of the Cross. Perhaps my story might have confirmed their prejudices about the United Church just as their stories might have confirmed my prejudices about small-town evangelical pastors.

And yet at a deeper level, I could sometimes see our connections. Despite our differences, I liked most of the other men around the table. And I am sure that in moments of celebration such as birth and marriage and in moments of mourning such as sickness, loss and death, these men were true pastors to their congregations. Despite our theological and cultural differences, at the deepest levels of life, in moments of heightened awareness, and in ones where each of our uniqueness was most evident, we might touch hearts and hands and be united in Christ.

Jesus put it this way: by giving us the gift of a life in God through Christ, which is a birthright symbolized by the sacrament of baptism that we participated in this morning, we are also given eternal life. And what is eternal life? Jesus simply says that it is to know the God who is Love.

This eternal life is right here, right now. We may not always be aware of it, but in our deepest moments it beckons to us and helps unite us across our differences.

All of which leads me to conclude with a question: how is that we can move from the shallow end to the deep end? And the quick answer -- we don't have to do anything; life continually throws us into the deep end whether we want that or not. The deep end can be found in dark moments of illness, family conflict, social oppression, pain or loss. It can also be found in joyous moments of connection, sharing, community and love. In such deep moments, we are best able to know our own unique brokenness and loveliness and also, paradoxically, best connect with other people.  Such a connection is a unity from below. It is unity built on compassion, mutual respect and solidarity. While it might not always solve our practical problems, such a unity in God through Christ heals us and put us in touch with eternity regardless of our circumstances.

I suspect that the Christian church will never achieve the denominational unity that our ancestors hoped for in 1925. Nor, I suspect, will our broken world achieve political unity, which we so badly need to solve our many military, environmental, economic and social ills. But in our individual and collective tribulations, we have experienced again and again the truth that God in Christ has overcome the world. Because of this, in the midst of fear, we often touch faith. In the midst of despair, we often touch hope. And in the midst of conflict and violence, we often touch love.

These eternal moments of union with God happen most often in the deepest waters, which is where the trials of life continually throw us. Therefore we can say with Jesus, be of good cheer. In deep waters, where only love can make us go, harvests of faith will overflow. Harvests of faith will overflow.

Thanks be to God.


We Respond To The Word

Our hymn of response is VU#331, "The Church's One Foundation." This hymn was sung as the processional hymn at the founding worship service of the United Church on June 10, 1925 at a packed Mutual Street Arena in downtown Toronto. Years later, the first Moderator of the United Church, The Very Rev. George Pidgeon, said that as the elected General Council commissioners from the Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, and Union churches marched into the arena to mingle together for the first time as members of the United Church, the hymn was sung with quote "an emotion that can scarcely be imagined." Let us now sing it together.

HYMN: VU #331 "The Church's One Foundation"

Back to "Completing the Circle"

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