Text: 2 Corinthians, selections from chapters 3 and 4
Were any of you like me last week? Did you spend long hours glued to your computer watching the public sessions of the meeting of the General Council of the United Church of Canada in Newfoundland? No? I am not surprised that I am the only one here who watched the worship services, deliberations and decisions of General Council. It is a group of 350 elected Commissioners that meets every three years as the highest decision-making body of our denomination.
We join a local church more than we join a denomination. Many things might draw us to church: a desire to be part of a community; to reflect on the wonder and mystery of life; to work for justice and equality; to help children learn to respect and value themselves and others; to sing and pray in gatherings that remind us of our values; to mark and honour life transitions; to care for one another in times of sickness and loss; and for many other reasons.
Not so high on the list for most of us, I would imagine, is a desire to participate in the life of a wider denomination. But it is different for me. As your called minister, I am deeply engaged with this congregation, but I am not a member of it. I am a member of the Edmonton Presbytery of the United Church of Canada, and so my professional identity is tied to the broader church.
I didn’t like much of what I saw from General Council last week. But watching the proceedings led me to think more about what we mean by the phrase “The Good News,” or the treasure that Paul says is contained in the clay jars of the churches that try to follow Jesus.
The last General Council meeting in 2012 initiated a comprehensive review of the United Church. In the face of a 50-year decline of the church, it had a mandate to “put everything on the table,” to consult widely, and to bring recommendations to this year’s meeting that would respond to shrinking membership, declining finances, and the aging of the members who remain.
Over the past three years as I participated in discussions of the comprehensive review – in congregations, at Presbytery, in online forums, and in one-on-one conversations– I became discouraged. I had thought that this was a “Kairos” moment, to use a Greek word from the Bible: an opportune time for decision, and a time when the presence of the Sacred might be revealed more clearly.
But in my opinion, most church leaders do not yet see the rapid decline and distress of our churches as a Kairos moment. Most see only loss and pain. Others even deny our decline.
On Friday after more debate and with great emotion, General Council passed the recommendations of the Comprehensive Review Task Group. They are: to use 10% of the Mission and Service Fund for experiments in ministry; to eliminate one level of governance — Presbytery — leaving only congregations, regional councils and General Council; to maintain funding for our ministry with First Nations people despite cuts in other areas; to create a new system to train, commission, and discipline ministers; and to implement a new funding formula. These changes will not take effect until congregations vote on them. But I assume they will be in place in a few years.
The meeting also passed resolutions on justice issues and increased our ties to the United Church of Christ in the United States, the Presbyterian Church of Korea, and the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.
Finally, the Council elected a new Moderator, Rev. Jordan Cantwell, who is a minister in a pastoral charge outside of Saskatoon. Her resume includes work in Alberta in the 1990s in a solidarity project with southern Africa and in Winnipeg with the Centre of Christian Studies in the 2000s.
In her speech to the commissioners before they voted, Rev. Cantwell talked a lot about Gospel, which for her seems to be synonymous with social justice — the inclusion of oppressed people, reconciliation with those harmed by colonialism, mending the environment, and working for peace and equality.
Like Cantwell, I value the struggle for justice. But I don’t see this as the Gospel. Jesus longed for justice and built a movement that welcomed all oppressed people. But his ministry didn’t overthrow the Empire. Instead, the Empire executed him and continued to wage war and exploit the poor.
Health, wealth, and equality are good news. But for me the Gospel — the Good News with a capital “G” and a capital “N” — is something stranger, deeper and more mysterious. As followers of Jesus, we wrestle with the paradox of a Gospel bound up in death, as in this sentence we heard from Paul this morning: “We who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” I didn’t hear this strange Good News in Rev. Cantwell’s speech on Monday as a candidate for Moderator or in the sermon she preached after her installation at the meeting’s closing worship service on Friday evening.
Happily for me, another of the 12 candidates for Moderator articulated a message that better resonated with my sense of the Gospel — Rev. Dr. Andrew Richardson of PEI who placed third in the voting on Thursday.
His speech focused on death and resurrection. He reminded the Commissioners that the sting of death is just about everywhere, especially in churches like ours that have been disenfranchised from political power in the last century. He offered no program that would stem our losses. He offered nothing to save the church. He offered no certainty, except the certainty of death . . . and of resurrection.
In her speech, Moderator Cantwell said that our church must survive for at least another 90 years because of our social justice work and our inclusivity. In contrast, Richardson did not flinch from the death of our churches. I believe this is why he was able to also summon the infectious joy of resurrection. He called us to see resurrection everywhere, both within and without church.
Most importantly, he reminded us that you cannot have resurrection without crucifixion. In the light of our many crucifixions, he spoke of hope and encouraged an ongoing conversation about love that would move beyond lament or fear.
As followers of the Crucified One, we have no guarantees for happiness, wealth, or justice. But in the cracked clay jars of ourselves and our churches, we carry a treasure — a joyous certainty that out of the inevitable loss of everything to which we are attached, we are constantly given Grace to enter a new life within the heart of God.
Today looks to me like a Kairos moment for religion precisely because denominations like ours and others are dying. The closure of churches and the loss of traditional beliefs and practices can be very painful. But Kairos moments also offer the mystical joy of a life beyond ego or fear.
I am disappointed that many of our leaders do not acknowledge the seriousness of the humiliation of our churches. But I am glad that a leader like Rev. Richardson proclaims crucifixion as well as resurrection; that he sees both in the current state of our church; that he expresses joy and hope because of them; and that he won substantial support from those who gathered last week in Newfoundland.
Living into the paradox of the Good News is not easy for me. This is another reason why I am grateful to people like Richardson. I need all the help I can get in articulating the joyous Good News found on the strange spiritual path of Jesus.
There are many reasons to join a church, some of which have little to do with death and resurrection. I am glad that the work of our congregation has so many facets: from pastoral care, to community-building, to social justice, to administration, to education.
I embrace all aspects of this work with enthusiasm. But what keeps me wedded to ministry is Jesus’ call for us to face death and so rise to a new life of Love.
When church numbers are large, when children and youth are well represented, and when finances are not an issue, it might be easier for a church to evade the starkness of Jesus’ call. In 2012, I had assumed that the statistics of our decline would force the church to wake up to this call. In 2015, this does not seem to have happened. But I am confident that our Kairos moment will come. Such sacred moments of enlightenment always come, to churches as well as individuals.
My prayers are with The Right Rev. Jordan Cantwell. Not only is she the first Moderator who is younger than me at 48 years old, she is also the first lesbian to be elected to the highest position of a major denomination. The United Church’s courage continues to surprise and delight us.
I don’t expect that the new Moderator or the comprehensive review reforms will stop the decline of our church. But regardless, the many-sided work of Mill Woods United will continue with our neighbours, with other United Churches in the city, with other faith communities, and with all people of good will who try to care for one another and to bind up the wounds of a broken world.
As followers of Way of Jesus, we know that death is coming for us and for our churches. But in those deaths I see the Good News that a new life awaits us that is beyond egotism and fear, a life of Love within the heart of God.
2015 was not a Kairos moment for the United Church of Canada. But the moment is coming. Indeed, we can see this treasure here and now, carried in the cracked clay jars of the members of this beloved community and in so many others like it.
Thanks be to God.