Sunday, September 1, 2013

Harvest in changing times

Text: Luke 10 1-11, 16-20 (Jesus sends the 70)

It is the final long weekend of summer . . . a time for family and friends, for classic football rivalries, and for a holiday to honour the labour movement.

On this Labour Day weekend, our Gospel reading is about harvest and labourers. Jesus sends out pairs of followers -- 70 people in all -- to heal, preach and teach. He tells them that the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few.

Jesus is not referring to actual crops and farm labourers, of course. He uses harvest as a metaphor for all the people who are ready to hear the good news of God's kingdom. But given that harvest is now in high gear in Saskatchewan and that this is Labour Day weekend, I begin by talking about actual farms and labourers.

This year in Saskatchewan, the harvest is plentiful and the labourers are few -- at least, they are few compared to times past. In our lifetime, agricultural yields have soared because of new inputs, techniques, and machinery while the number of people working on farms and ranches has plummeted.

Similar changes in technology and the market are evident in all spheres of the economy.

When I was an undergraduate, I wondered if the Canadian working class was disappearing. Some commentators argued that the working class only included manual labourers in mines, mills, and factories.

I grew up in Cornwall Ontario, a city dominated by a pulp and paper mill, textile and chemical factories, and a hydro-electric power plant. Today the hydro plant remains, but all the factories have closed in the face of competition from low-wage countries. Perhaps this is why I was open to the idea that Canada would soon no longer be a working class country.

In Canada today, schools, hospitals, hotels, banks, retail stores, and government offices now employ many more workers than mines, mills or factories do. When I was a student, I wasn't sure whether such service industries created wealth. But that just meant, I think, that I didn't understand what wealth was.

Wealth is anything needed or desired by human beings, whether something you can touch like a manufactured good or something intangible like medical treatment. Many goods and services -- such as the air we breathe or wild berries that we find on a path -- come to us free of charge. Economics focuses on those goods and services that have to be produced by human effort and which therefore carry a price tag.

There are far fewer farmers and factory workers in Canada today than two or three generations ago. But the number of people involved in the service economy continues to grow, and so the size of the working class and the amazing power of its social labour continues to grow. My hometown of Cornwall can again serve as illustration. Cornwall's biggest employer today is Walmart, which runs a regional warehouse there.

When we turn our attention from Canada to the rest of the world, the growth of the working class and the wealth it creates becomes even more dramatic. Not only has the population of the world more than doubled since I was born, the number of people involved in waged work has grown even faster.

China provides the most dramatic example. Since the Communist government embraced private property and the market 35 years ago, more than 200 million  subsistence farmers have moved from China's countryside to its cities. In factories, offices and enterprises of all kinds, these workers have vastly increased the wealth of the Chinese people.

This week, I watched a documentary on Vision TV about one of China's growth industries -- religion. While East Asian religions like Buddhism have grown the most in recent years, Christian churches are growing rapidly there as well.

The documentary said that between five and 10% of the 1.4 billion people in China  -- or approximately 100 million people -- are now Christian. Unlike many Christians in Canada, Chinese Christians tend to be devout. On any given Sunday, more people attend a Christian worship service in China than in all of Europe. This fact astonishes me given that 500 years ago almost all the Christians in the world lived in Europe.

Chinese peasants who are newly arrived in cities seem eager to embrace the creeds and traditions of religion, whether Buddhist, Confucian, or Christian. In China, the potential harvest for the church is large while the number of ministers to handle this influx is few.

Unfortunately, I was not impressed by the work of China's growing religions as they were portrayed in the documentary. Buddhist leaders seem more focused on building hotel resorts near sacred sites than on the practices of compassion and meditation that form the core of Buddhism.

Most of the Christian churches preach respect for state authority and love of country, which reminds me of the bad-old-days when church was a key support for the various empires in Europe.

All the religions in China preach what I call superstition and moralism: that prayer guarantees good fortune and that so-called immoral behaviour -- including resistance to state authority -- leads to God's punishment.

I wonder about the staying power of the Chinese religious revival. Will the grandchildren of the new Chinese working class continue to follow religious teachings after they have lived in cities for several generations and have attained higher levels of education and wealth?

I am not saying that Christianity is only for poor and uneducated people. The problem, I think, lies in the history of the church. The church grew in the West -- and is growing now in places like China -- when repressive states required ideological support, this despite the fact that Jesus stood against the ruling elite of his day.

In a similar way, the church grew in the West -- and is growing now in places like China -- in an era when it preached a  strict moralism, this despite the fact that Jesus stood against the narrow religious rules of his time.

As China rapidly emerges from poverty, the state uses religion to help bolster its stability. But this no longer describes the relation between church and state in Canada, where a host of civic institutions and ideologies now support the state.

As millions of Chinese people deal with the turmoil that comes from moving from the country to the city, they turn to religion for a moral anchor. But this no longer describes the situation in Canada where people are more likely to turn to the mass media and online networks than to the church for moral discussion and guidance.

A church that preaches a gospel of civic and moral piety and superstition might work for now in an emerging powerhouse like China, but it no longer works in Canada.

What Gospel might reach people today in Canada? Well, I suppose that we can only preach the Gospel as it has grasped us so far.

In a few minutes, we will celebrate the sacrament of communion. At the centre of the Communion Prayers, we affirm our faith by saying "Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again." I now look at each statement in turn.

"Christ has died" means many things to me: that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine; that each of us shares his doom -- and hence his salvation; that all is change, flux, and decay; that old conditions, old idols, and yes, even old gospels eventually die. "Christ has died" reminds me that life constantly hollows me out and exposes my illusions.

"Christ has risen" reminds us that Jesus was fully divine as well as fully human; that after the death of old illusions and the decay of former conditions, Love remains; and that after the many small deaths of life, Christ now lives in our hearts.

"Christ will come again" reminds us that the incarnation of God's Love in Jesus was not a one-time only event; that, although we may be fearful and distracted even after finding new life in Christ, God's Grace can raise us again to new life in any moment. Finally, it reminds us that at the end of life, we are confident that we return to the Love from which we came.

Perhaps this Gospel cannot be easily heard in today's fast changing culture. The small farms of Borderlands of100 years ago have been swallowed by the giant ones of today. The factories of Cornwall have closed and been replaced by new service industries. The old certainties of civic and moral duty have been swept away by the intermingling of all human cultures in the wired world of the 21st Century.

Today, I see our church in a hollowing out phase. Much of what the church said in the past no longer resonates with today's culture or with young people. In these changed circumstances, we may no longer be sure how to express the love that we experience in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Still, we try. Two weeks ago, we had a Family Camping Weekend at Camp Woodboia. Next week, we experiment with "Children's Church." I hope some children will come. We will see.

Because of the hollowing out of the church, I often resonate more with the statement "Christ has died" than with the two other central statements of our faith. And yet, the other statements of our faith still stand.

We don't know what comes after the hollowing out of the church. But we know that after all the disasters of life, God's Love rises to new life and brings us along with it.

Today, the church in China grows as it deals with floods of peasants arriving in the cities. Perhaps as China's youth gain in education and affluence, the Chinese church will undergo a hollowing out similar to the one Canada's churches have undergone these past 50 years. Who knows?

We don't know what their ministry or our ministry will look like in the future. But we do know that it will be one born of Love, sustained by Love, and embraced at the end by Love.

Harvest time is here again, and only a small number of people will bring it in. But a great spiritual hunger remains in our lives.

At the Lord's Table, we receive food for life's journey. This food also fuels our ministry, which is our witness to the good news of God's Love. We undertake this ministry without either pretensions of success or fear of failure because we have already been blessed by God.

Culture changes and churches rise and fall with those changes. But the core of the good news remains: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

This is our creed. This is our ministry. This is our Gospel.

Thanks be to God.


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