Sunday, March 25, 2012

A dying and rising church

Text: John 12:20-33 (a grain of wheat)

In the passage we heard from John today, Jesus repeats the central message of his ministry: "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." Each of the many times we hear Jesus deliver this difficult news in the four Gospels, it takes a different form. But it always has a shocking and counter-cultural thrust. Trying to hold onto life means death; letting go of life means rising to a new and eternal life.

This week, I hear Jesus' message against the backdrop of the life of the United Church of Canada and Borderlands pastoral charge. In rich countries like ours, Christianity continues to decline. My question is this: Is the decline of the church a symptom of dying to an old way of life and rising to a new one, or is it just decline?

I start by looking at some markers of our life here in Borderlands. First baptism: today in Coronach, we baptized a child, Austyn Ruby Dawn Marshall. Austyn is the first person to be baptized in Borderlands since the fall of 2010; three other children will be baptized in Coronach on Easter Sunday morning. Second confirmation: we are planning a class in Coronach this spring, which will be the first one in any of the three points since 2008. Finally funerals: most years, we hold several funeral services, the latest being the funeral for Jim McColl of Fife Lake, which was held in Rockglen on Friday.

The statistics in Borderlands mirror those of the United Church across Canada. When I was away on study leave last week, I read a new history of the United Church, which I really enjoyed. It contains many insights that I believe will prove useful to me over the years. But one fact above others stood out for me in this history: the decline in numbers and influence of the United Church over the last 50 years.

When the United Church was formed in 1925, it provided care to about 30% of the people in English Canada. Today, the figure is closer to five percent. When I was born, approximately 60,000 children a year were baptized in United churches. Last year, it was only 10,000. There were only 4,000 confirmations last year, as opposed to 40,000 a year when I was young. The number of funerals has remained more consistent dropping only from 30,000 to 20,000 a year. Now, any church that buries twice as many people as it baptizes and fives times as many as it confirms, is one that is withering away.

The decline of the church was also front and centre for me 10 days ago when I attended an Open House at Rosemont United Church in Regina. After 60 years of serving a post-war suburb in the northwest of the City, Rosemont will close this spring. As part of that process, they are giving away their furnishings and other materials. We hope to get some of this material here in Borderlands, which was the purpose of my visit.

The closing of Rosemont United is sad, of course. Carla Yost grew up in this church, and her father still worships there. The Chair of the Board told me that about 40 people still come to Sunday services there. But as in most churches, their members are ageing, and they can no longer afford to pay for the upkeep of their 60-year old building and for a minister. For the past few years, the United Church has closed about one preaching point a week, and this trend looks like it will continue or even speed up.

I mention all this not to discourage us -- not least of all the Marshall's! -- but because these marks of decline are part of our reality as a church living in an increasingly secular world. Of course, the United Church is not alone in its decline. The same statistics apply to all the mainline churches in Canada, the United States and Western Europe. Nor are fundamentalist churches immune. They too are shrinking.

So, I wonder, what does the rest of society know that we don't? Why are most people in Canada relaxing at home this Sunday while we have trudged out to church again?  Perhaps most people figured that the sermon would be a downer!

Well, in the search for inspiration against this grim backdrop, we need look no further, I believe, than to our baptism today and to the beautiful baby, Austyn, who was at the heart of it. For me, the cry, "Remember your baptism" is often the tonic I need.

In the sacrament of baptism, we initiate a person -- usually an infant -- into Christian life. The sacrament, however, symbolizes the entirety of life and not just our first steps into it. Baptism symbolizes repentance, forgiveness, and new life in Christ. Baptism also  contains the symbol of the cross, and therefore it is also a symbol of death.

In Romans, St. Paul puts it this way: "All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life."

For Austyn, of course, all of this is still only a symbol. She is not yet seven months old, and I suppose that she has only begun to reveal her personality to her parents. We pray and hope that she will have a long, big, messy, and joyous life that contains all the usual twists, turns, and surprises.

We hope that in 12 to 16 years, Austyn will return to a church to take confirmation classes, and that there she will decide to reaffirm her baptismal vows.

Beyond baptism and confirmation, we expect that the trials of everyday existence will present Austyn with many new baptisms by fire, as is the case with any of us. We hope that in each such crisis of pain or joy, she will receive the grace to know that God is with her. We hope that each time she will accept God's help to turn towards new life in Christ, a life of trusting faith, unshakeable hope, and abundant love.

Does Austyn require church to weather the many baptisms by fire that await her? I believe that church can help, and I am deeply grateful for the United Church congregations in which I have searched for God's Spirit these last 11 years.

But if Austyn finds herself living in a community that has no United Church or perhaps no church of any kind; or if she decides at times to be part of the majority of Canadians who do not have a regular religious practice, this will not mean that God's Spirit is not with her.

I love and rely on the the sacraments of baptism and communion that we celebrate in church. I deeply appreciate the power of Christian symbols at a time of loss and grieving as at Jim McColl's funeral on Friday. And what a testament to Jim, Shirley and their family that gathering of 300 people was. It was also a testament to the deep wells of faith, hope and love that exist in our communities and of the ties that bind us together.

But God is with us even when we turn our backs on church, or when the church disappears after foundering on the shoals of a culture that it can no longer address.

Austyn's parents have entrusted her to God and to the church this morning, and for this we give thanks. But even if our church buildings fall down or the Board decides to close this pastoral charge in the future, God will still be there for Austyn. God's Spirit will still flicker within her.

Perhaps when Austyn is an adult, the church will have undergone a renaissance and will be expanding again. Or perhaps Austyn will worship with a small group of fellow Christians in a living room instead of in a church building. Or perhaps Austyn will find a path other than Christianity -- whether religious or secular -- that will give her a trusting faith in herself, her world, and in the loving Spirit at the centre of the universe and within each heart whom we call God. But church or no church, we are confident that Austyn will never be alone.

Christianity is built on failure and death. The Temple of God in Jerusalem is destroyed by the Romans, and the faithful find news ways to worship God. Jesus is killed on a cross by an evil empire, and God raises him to new life as the Christ who reigns in our hearts. Temples and churches come and go, but God in Christ lasts forever.

During my years at Emmanuel College, the Christian thinker whose works I most appreciated was the German Lutheran minister, Paul Tillich. Like many people in Europe, his faith was tested by the disaster of World War I. Tillich was a young chaplain in the German army during the War, and his faith was shaken because of the collusion between church and empire in that terrible nightmare.

After the War, Tillich struggled to find faith on a new foundation. His new faith included the following insight, which is found in his 1955 book on Jesus called "New Being,"  Tillich writes, "it is the greatness of Christianity that it can see how small it is. The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand the insight that it is of no importance."

We may love the church, but in the context of the burning of holy temples and of Christ crucified, it is of no importance. When a church is closed, we may feel sad, even devastated. At the same time, we can also view such a crisis as another baptism by fire. In all such baptisms, God helps to turn us towards a new life that is beyond our old ambitions and plans. In this new life, we taste again the eternity that helps us realize that all of our human constructions, including the church, are of no importance.

Austyn has now been baptized. Like us, she will undergo many more baptisms in the course of her life. Come what may, she will never be alone. Come what may, we will never be alone,

Remember your baptism. God is with us. Thanks be to God.


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