Text: John 1:1-18 (“In the beginning . . . “)
One year ago, on January 5, 2014, I stood at the front of this sanctuary for the first time and preached a sermon called “In the beginning.” It was based on the same reading as this morning’s – the first 18 verses of John, which is always the Gospel reading assigned to the Second Sunday after Christmas.
I titled today’s sermon “The end of the beginning” because, after one year here, I sense that we have reached the end of the beginning of our ministry together. Today I reflect on what I have learned so far; and I use a conversation last month with a fellow United Church minister as a catalyst.
I met Rev. Dr. Danielle James in December at a Christmas Open House at St. Stephen’s College at the University of Alberta. I was pleased to be there because, although I had heard about St. Stephen’s College and its role in training United Church ministers in the past and its current role in offering courses in pastoral care and theological studies to an ecumenical community, I had never been there.
Danielle James is the minister at Fort Saskatchewan United Church and is also the head of the Doctor of Ministry program at St. Stephen’s. After we introduced ourselves, she asked me about Mill Woods United. As an immigrant from the Caribbean, Danielle has a keen awareness of the goal of the United Church of Canada to become an intercultural church. She is also aware that Mill Woods is the most intercultural neighbourhood in Alberta.
Danielle asked about how our mission was affected by our intercultural context and about contacts I had made during my first year with other communities of faith. I found that I was not able to easily speak about the intercultural aspect of our mission – despite our initiatives such as The Bread Run, the clothing bank, Stitching Connection, Little Green Thumbs and others. I also admitted to Danielle that I hadn’t yet figured out either the Christian ecumenical context of Mill Woods or its plethora of Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu faith communities.
A few days later in my check-in to the December meeting of the Council, I talked about this conversation and how I felt sheepish about my ignorance of the context in which we work and my lack of experiences during my first year here.
I did make some progress in 2014. I attended a Muslim-Christian Dialogue in September in north Edmonton. I met some of our Anglican and Lutheran colleagues at a Worship Conference that was held in July at the Providence Renewal Centre. And I engaged with the United Church in Edmonton through Presbytery.
Then, as I ended my first year here with the four Sundays in Advent and the two Christmas Eve services, I realized that for me this first year was more about figuring out the culture of Mill Woods United than about our neighbours.
As people arrived for the Christmas Eve services, the last pieces of a year-long puzzle came together in my heart and mind. Having been here for 12 months, I now believe that I more-or-less get the history and culture of Mill Woods United — not that this process has an end. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to get to know people better. I experience a great richness here, and I know that I will continue to grow from worshipping, talking and working with you all.
Last week, as I relaxed after Christmas and enjoyed a chance to not preach and preside on December 28 – and thank you to Paul and Lesley Verdin for leading us in worship last week – I reflected on another thing that Rev. James had said. She told me that one of her mentors was a pastor at Mill Woods Assembly, the big-box Pentecostal church just south of the Town Centre Mall.
I was surprised that a minister in the United Church would include a Pentecostal pastor among her mentors. So I checked out this church on the Internet and went to worship there last Sunday. Both activities had a big impact on me.
Last Sunday, at the second of three worship services for the day, there must have been close to 1,000 people in the worship hall at Mill Woods Assembly. It was a fairly young gathering. 75 or so children came to the front of the hall for Time with Kids. The young couple beside me were Black. The large family on my other side were from South Asia.
I would guess that more people worshipped at that one church last Sunday than in all 30 United Church congregations in and around Edmonton combined. And this was just one conservative, evangelical church. In Mill Woods alone, there is another big-box Pentecostal church, Evangel Assembly, on 50th Street, Celebration Church at Argyll and 75th, Calvary Community Church on Mill Woods Road just to the west, and a large Alliance Church on 66th.
I appreciated last Sunday’s service. The music was upbeat, the production was quite professional, and the sermon was long – 35 minutes, which seems to be the norm at Mill Woods Assembly. I didn’t like the sermon, but unlike the six or seven I had watched on the church’s website, I didn’t object to it.
Mill Woods Assembly is meeting many needs in our community. Its gatherings are large and diverse. It puts a major emphasis on children and youth ministry. It preaches a message of Grace that provides assurance and joy to the faithful who gather there. The music is not to my taste, but it was so simple that I could immediately join in. I was warmly welcomed by the young couple sitting beside me.
Given all that I liked about this church, I am dismayed that its message of Grace is mixed in with sexism and puritanism. Further, its promotion of male dominance and its condemnation of queer sexuality is based upon idolatry: the worship of the Bible.
These are harsh criticisms. But I think that we in the United Church should both try to learn from our Pentecostal neighbours and to confront them with their sin as we see it.
In the past 100 years, Pentecostalism has emerged as a church freed from ties to monarchy or empire. This is one of the reasons I believe that Pentecostalism is now the fastest growing wing of Christianity.
But in finding a way to worship without a monarch, Pentecostals and other fundamentalists have clung to the other rotten plank of ancient religion, the domination of men over women. Not only does this sexist stance perpetuate guilt, injustice, and violence, it also threatens the viability of religion. In 2015, it is no longer acceptable for churches, mosques or temples to preach second class status for women and to condemn queer people to the fires of hell.
This is where the United Church can help. Churches like Mill Woods Assembly say that we have abandoned Christ. But I disagree. I believe that we have used the freedom revealed to us in the death and resurrection of the Christ to grapple with vast shifts in our culture on issues of gender, sex and sexual orienation. We have gained lot of wisdom in this area, I believe, which we could share with our Pentecostal friends and so help us both to survive and thrive deeper into the 21st Century.
The disaster looming over Pentecostalism was evident in the sermons I watched on the Mill Woods Assembly website. In November, the Assembly held an evening sermon series on five hot-button topics: homosexuality, abortion, other religions, marriage, and hell. To be frank, I hated all of the sermons. But given changing social attitudes, I could see why the church would try to tackle these issues.
The other sermon series I listened to was on how to read and interpret the Bible. I hated those sermons too. But they helped me to connect the church’s sin of worshipping the Bible to the nonsense that was preached on the hot-button topics.
Like most fundamentalist churches, the Assembly urges people to not just trust God in Christ, but also to believe that the Bible in its writing, transmission, translation and interpretation is the supernatural product of God’s Holy Spirit. It treats the Bible as a supernatural robot, which is both silly and a serious mistake that leads it to preach oppressive nonsense about sex and gender.
In a city where different cultures meet and mingle, it is no longer reasonable to privilege one set of sacred texts over another. The sutras of Hindus and Buddhists, the Holy Koran of Islam, the Hebrew Scriptures of Judaism, the Book of Mormon, and the Christian New Testament are all present in Edmonton.
Each faith community treats its Scriptures seriously. But in today’s intercultural context, to say that one set and only one is the inerrant and infallible Word of God strikes me as anxious, irrational and unfaithful. It also flies in the face of the Way of the Cross show to us by Jesus, I believe.
John writes: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ This reminds us that the books of the Bible are not the Word of God. Jesus as the Christ is the Word of God.
The Romans kill Jesus on a cross and God raises him to new life. But this new life is not what the followers of Jesus expect. The resurrected Christ is not a national king like King David. Nor is he a tribal God like Jesus’ namesake, YHWH. The resurrected Christ is God’s Love, which exists in the heart of all people. It is a Love beyond the tribal ambitions of Jew or Greek, slave or free person. It is a Love so strong that it can lift us beyond all of our ancient prejudices and hatreds.
Most fundamentalists have been able to rise above the support for slavery that is prevalent in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. There is no reason why God’s Spirit cannot also raise them above the noxious ideas that women are inferior to men and that non-traditional sex and gender roles are sinful, ideas which unfortunately are also prevalent in Scripture.
Ending idolatrous worship of the Bible and embracing equality for women and queer people would allow Pentecostal churches to continue to thrive in Edmonton. Perhaps even more important, it would help them to spread the good news of women’s liberation and the acceptability of queer lifestyles to the Global South where many members of churches like Mill Woods Assembly come from and where Pentecostal churches continue to grow rapidly.
I can understand why Rev. James likes Mill Woods Assembly. Of all the Pentecostal churches I investigated on the Internet last week, it was by far the most appealing to me. The Assembly tones down fire and brimstone stuff, it steers clear of rampant militarism or nationalism, it makes a graceful distinction between primary and secondary doctrine, and it does a great job in welcoming people of all backgrounds to its worship and mission life.
This year, I hope to get to know the pastors at Mill Woods Assembly along with other religious leaders in Mill Woods. I pray that this can happen despite my strong objection to what I see as their idolatrous worship of the Bible and the harm their preaching based on this idolatry does to the struggle for equality between men and women and for the inclusion of queer people in church and society. I also hope they will be open to us despite their conviction that the United Church of Canada is no longer Christian. We have much to learn from each other, I believe, and we would be stronger together than apart.
We know about Jesus through the gospel accounts of his ministry, death and resurrection. But more important than those texts, I believe, is the Christ we meet in each other and the new life in Christ we experience in the many crucifixions and resurrections of life. With grace, these resurrections bring us into God’s eternity to which we give the name of our most sacred value, Love.
As 2015 begins, I pray that our struggles for justice and love will continue to be informed and enlightened by God’s Holy Presence. May God’s Love bear fruit in our lives and throughout this diverse and blessed city as we walk further along paths of faith, hope and love.
Thanks be to God.