Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The spiritual life in a soulful age

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-7 (the Suffering Servant); Romans 8:1-414 (children of God)

Sermon preached at the end of covenant service for student intern/supply minister Pamela Scott at Vanguard, SK, April 23, 2012


Let me start by saying how pleased I am that Pamela asked me to be here tonight as she ends her eight-month internship in New Ventures Pastoral Charge. I feel honoured to have this chance to reflect with you tonight on church, ministry and the call of God's Spirit.

I met Pamela in September at the church's Calling Lakes Centre in Fort Qu'Appelle at a Newcomer's Event. Those three days and nights were designed for people in ministry in the United Church who were new to Saskatchewan. I had moved to Saskatchewan in July of last summer as a newly ordained minister in Borderlands Pastoral Charge (Coronach, Fife Lake and Rockglen). Pamela, as you know, moved here to New Ventures in September for an eight-month internship to complete her requirements to become a United Church minister.

Pamela and I saw each other a few other times at Presbytery meetings and at United Church ministerial meetings in Assiniboia. And although we don't know each other well, Pamela and I seem to have a lot in common.

We are both beginning a second career in ministry during mid-life; me after years as a librarian, Pamela after years as a nurse and dental hygienist. We both come from big cities, me from Toronto in the East and Pamela from Vancouver in the West. And we both have now enjoyed an enlivening experience as ministers in three-point charges in rural Saskatchewan.

As Pamela leaves Saskatchewan and awaits news of a call or appointment that will mark the first stage of her new life as an ordained United Church minister, I am drawn to talk of the call of God's Spirit.

Our reading from Isaiah tonight reminds us that God gives "breath to the people upon the earth and spirit to those who walk in it." And our reading from St. Paul reminds us that "all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God."

As you have experienced here in New Ventures for these past eight months, Pamela is someone who has been led by the Spirit of God to offer her life in ministry in Christ's Church.

Church, ministry and God's call to new life in Christ are all very spirited endeavours, of course. But how do we square this fact with the reality that church in Canada today is often marked by a lack of spirit? Today, we do the work of ministry in an increasingly secular society, and in a church that is ageing and shrinking.

Like most people of my generation, I turned my back on church when I was a teenager. When I returned to church 11 years ago, I was surprised that the United Church hadn't completely withered away in the intervening decades. But I was grateful that the church still existed and that it had changed in ways that surprised and pleased me. I was looking for a community of faith in which to heal some personal wounds and in which to find a new basis upon which to found my life. And I seemed to find exactly what I needed in my local United Church congregation.

But even though a faithful remnant had kept the United Church alive, it was a lot smaller than when I had walked away from it in the 1970s. Nor is it just our denomination that has declined in Canada, of course.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me when I moved to Coronach last summer was the fact  that I was the only paid clergy person in our town of 800 people. The Alliance and Lutheran churches have both been without a pastor for several years now. The Roman Catholic parish does have a priest. But he lives in the other town, Rockglen. The Anglican church closed years ago.

In the 1940s, when Coronach had only 300 people, it had six paid ministers. In the 21st Century, it now struggles to afford even one.

One of the reasons that churches struggle in my area is that the population is shrinking again despite the coal mine and coal-fired generating plant in Coronach.

Many of the residents of Coronach and Rockglen are farmers who have retired off of surrounding farms. But since farms continue to balloon in size, today there are fewer farmers who might move to town in the next years. Also, with the improvement in roads and vehicles and the lack of doctors along the Border, more people now shop in, or retire to Assiniboia, Moose Jaw, or Regina than the formerly busy centres of Coronach or Rockglen. I am sure that you here in New Ventures are quite familiar with this syndrome as well.

In towns that are slowly shrinking in size, the decline of church-going in Canada perhaps becomes even more apparent than in the cities.

Most congregations are also now quite elderly. I looked at the United Church Statistical Yearbook recently, and I noted that in 1960, our church confirmed about 40,000 teenagers a year. By 2010, that yearly figure was down to 4,000. That is a 90% drop in just two generations.

There are some positives in this decline, I think. Church in Canada is no longer a social obligation. Those of us who come to church today, do so because we want to worship the God who is Love and to serve our communities out of gratitude for the grace we receive in our lives. We may be fewer in numbers than in generations past, but perhaps church now exhibits more faith, hope and love than it once did.

I also find it useful to look not only at life in the spirit but also at the aspect of life described by the word "soul." I used to think that soul and spirit referred to the same thing. But then I read the 1992 best-selling book "Care of the Soul" by Thomas Moore. Moore makes a distinction between the two. Spirit, he writes, is connected to consciousness, idealism, and activism and looks to the future. Soul on the other hand is connected to the body, feelings and tradition and looks to the past.

Despite these differences, soul and spirit complement each other. Both can be seen as a kind of fire. Spirit is like an out-of-control flame that signals action and change. Soul is like the glowing embers in a hearth fire; a fire that has burned down, become tame, and which we can rely upon for warmth and comfort.

Spirit without soul can be ungrounded and dangerous. Soul without spirit can be lifeless. But when they work together -- when with Grace, our spirit is grounded in soul and our soul is enlivened by spirit -- then life flourishes.

Isaiah's portrait of the Suffering Servant, which we heard tonight, illustrates both spirit and soul. The Servant is one who moves with gentleness. "He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;  a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice."

Though filled with the fire of God's breath, the Servant will patiently guard a sputtering wick until it safely ignites. He will tend a bruised reed for as long it takes to heal and grow.

The Servant's focus is on justice: to be "a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon."  But this Servant knows human suffering and  gently tends to all of us who are broken and fearful.

Christians often link Isaiah's portrait of the Servant with Jesus; and the life of Jesus  illustrates both spirit and soul as well. Jesus begins his ministry when he is anointed by the Holy Spirit at baptism; and he ends his ministry by promising the disciples that God will send his Holy Spirit to guide and teach them.

In between, he models for his friends a humble and soulful path that grounds God's Spirit in human reality. Jesus is God-with-us, God in the flesh. He experiences all of the joys and pains of human existence. His path is one of humility and suffering -- the way of the Cross; and it this gracious and difficult way that we are called to follow, and which we do follow through God's grace.

In Christ's church we have idealism and spirit, which are represented by soaring  steeples, challenging Scriptures and ambitious missions to work for the reign of God. In the church, we also have the comfort and grounding of soul, which is represented by the communion table and the baptismal font. At the Lord's Table we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in a simple meal of bread and wine. And at the font, we are initiated into the Way of the Cross using that most common and essential element, water.

Water, bread and wine: the soulful elements of a humble and embodied life in Christ. Steeple, cross, and Bible: the spiritual elements of an idealistic and ambitious life in Christ. We have both sides in the church. And because we have both sides, worship and mission can be moved by the power of God's Spirit while remaining grounded and balanced.

Today, many United Church congregations are in a more soulful phase than a spiritual one, I believe. We are ageing. We are often inwardly focused. Many of us love tradition. We provide comfort and hope to one another in lives that often seem difficult. And what is not to love about this aspect of church?

On the other hand, life in Christ can quickly change gears. At a Christmas cantata, a rural community can raise its voice in song and in doing so, fan the flames of love of God as high as it ever burned. In a large community funeral, the spirit of a loved one can burn brighter in the hearts and minds of those who have assembled to mourn, celebrate and comfort one another than at any other time in the life of the family. In a joyous wedding, the spirit of God's love can burst through the hearts of everyone gathered there as we celebrate the love of a young couple.

In the same way, the enthusiasm of a new minister can merge with the glowing embers of a small church whose congregants are seeking hope amid doubt, trust amid fear, and joy amid the day-to-day problems of life. In the church, we could try to remember that glowing embers may burst into the bright flame of Spirit at any moment, just as we realize that quiet and contemplative gatherings are often what will work best in the moment.

None of us know what is ahead for us as individuals, as a congregation, as a church or as a society. All we know that is we can be assured of the presence of God as Holy Spirit within us and as a soulful companion in Jesus at our side every step of the way.

Tonight we give thanks for the ministry of Pamela Scott here in New Ventures. And we wish her well in her new life as an ordained minister. We know that, like us, she goes filled with the fire of God's Spirit, which strains after justice. She also goes with a humble companion on God's path of faith, hope and love. He is the Suffering Servant, Jesus the Christ who keeps us grounded in simple sacraments of water, bread and wine.

Thanks be to God . . . Amen.

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