Text: Acts 17:16-33 (“To an unknown god”)
“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” This is how a 1647 Catechism of the Presbyterian church begins; and this phrase has been a touchstone for Presbyterians ever since, including in the United Church of Canada. Presbyterians were the largest group that formed the United Church in 1925.
However, many of us may no longer resonate with this statement of purpose.
So, if we no longer define our purpose as glorifying God and enjoying Him forever, why do we come to church? Why do we gather on Sunday mornings to pray, sing, and reflect? Why do we volunteer at The Bread Run or the clothing bank? Why do we join the choir, count the offering, attend study groups, cater funerals with Heavenly Hospitality, organize fund-raisers, help maintain the building, knit prayer shawls, and engage in the many other activities that constitute the life of a congregation like Mill Woods United?
These questions are an entrée to the first of five Monday evenings of discussion and sharing called “Making A Difference.” Our two Council chairpersons, Rob McPhee and Carla Janzen, have organized this series to help us revisit the church’s Mission and Vision statements.
I am pleased that Rob and Carla are doing this work. Having seen their planning document, I am sure that those of us who come tomorrow will enjoy the experience and get to know one another better.
I begin with two of the questions Rob and Carla will ask tomorrow evening, which I hope is OK with them. They are, “why did you first come to Mill Woods United Church and did you find what you wanted?”
For me, the answers are easy. I first came here because, after serving three churches in rural Saskatchewan for two years following ordination in 2011, I was looking for a church in a city. I responded to a job ad posted by Mill Woods, and after a Skype interview with the Search Committee in September 2013, I flew to Edmonton for an in-person interview. When the Committee offered me the position, I said “yes;” and I have been blessed by my work in ministry here ever since.
But those answers reflect my unique position here. A more apropos way for me to answer them would be to think back to why I first came to Kingston Road United Church in east Toronto on September 16, 2001, and whether I found there what I wanted.
As a teenager, I had drifted away from church. My late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, was a minister in the United Church of Canada. But like a lot of my friends, I decided after Confirmation that church was not for me. When I left home for university in Toronto, I gave up the habit.
After that, I only went to church when my parents visited Toronto. And September 16, 2001 happened to be one of those times.
In September 2001, my wife Fran and I had just moved into a house in the east end of Toronto that was just steps away from Kingston Road United. This was the church where my younger brother and his family went. So on September 16, 2001 with my parents visiting, we decided to walk the half block to Kingston Road United.
While I usually enjoyed attending church with my parents, I was dreading it that day. My anti-religious antennae were on high alert because it was the first Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Happily, the service touched me. The sanctuary was packed. The atmosphere was tense. And the message of the sermon was not what I had expected.
The minister, Rev. Rivkah Unland, did not use her sermon to bash Islam or cheerlead the military response being planned by the United States. Instead, she used it to call for openness in the midst of mourning, hope in the midst of fear, understanding in the midst of rage, and reconciliation in the midst of plans to bomb and invade.
The United Church had struggled with big shifts in society during the decades when I didn’t attend. Because of this, it now seemed to me more open to the stark message of Jesus as the Christ. It felt like a place where people were honestly trying to be salt, light and yeast in a suffering world; where they were trying to stand up against the powers that be; and where they sometimes woke up to the pain and glory of the human condition.
On that Sunday on September 16, 2001, I liked the message and the community; and I felt a space opening in my heart into which grief and hope would soon flood. So I joined the choir, and laid myself open week after week to the gracious effects of the Spirit that moved in that community and which slowly helped to transform me.
At first, I stayed at Kingston Road United because my marriage was crumbling and I needed a community to help me withstand the pain of its ending.
I continued after the divorce because I was still broken in many ways. I appreciated being with other people who seemed just as broken and blessed as me. I loved that it was a place where grief and joy were expressed, mysteries were explored, and faith, hope and love were pursued. I stayed because I found a space in which to heal and grow spiritually.
The quote used as a theme statement for this service was written by Frederick Buechner, who is an American Presbyterian minister. Buechner wrote “Your vocation is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
I like his statement; and in discussing idolatry today I also hope to express how the world’s hunger and one’s gladness sometimes meet within us.
In today’s reading from Acts, Paul is upset by the worship of hand-made idols in Athens. In contrast, he says there is One True God, who is revealed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
I understand why Paul is distressed by the worship of idols. An idol is any object of worship that, upon deeper reflection and experience, is not worthy of ultimate significance. Unfortunately, idol worship seems to be a universal phenomena.
As infants, we idolize our parents because of our utter dependence on them. When we get older we move to the worship of other idols – a peer group, a sports team, a nation; and as with the citizens of ancient Athens, many of our idols take religious form.
Worship is a universal human need even as it usually falls short of the one object that is truly worthy of worship – the Source of Being, Life and Love we call God.
In faith communities of all sorts, including United churches, we often find ourselves worshiping something less than the God who is Love. Instead of Love, we worship sacred texts, ancient creeds, or rigid moral codes. Try as hard as we might, the tendency to worship something not worthy of ultimate significance seems unavoidable.
Paul saw how prevalent idol worship was in Athens nearly 2,000 years ago. Today, we can see it in churches that despite trying to follow Jesus find themselves promoting ethnic cleansing, military power, and the suppression of the rights of women and LGBTQ people. We try to be people of faith and yet find ourselves succumbing to fear over and over again.
This is why I consider the path of death and resurrection so important. When, despite our fears, we take up our cross and follow Jesus, our idols are often exposed and our worship disillusioned. In the space which this opens, we can move closer to the God who is Love. This process never ends, at least this side of the grave. The Way of the Cross often involves loss and grief, but it also leads to freedom from fear and the joy of unity with Source.
At its root, idolatry is about ego instead of the God who is Love. One of the world’s deepest hungers is to be freed from the small fears and desires of ego. Our greatest joy comes when, with Grace, we move beyond fear and closer to God.
Participating in a faith community can raise our awareness of the ego’s fears and desires and remind us of our connection to each other, the entire web of life, and the source of Love we call God.
Church has many other benefits and attractions. It is a place where we forge and deepen friendships, learn through discussion and service, confront unjust forces, and so on.
But a key purpose for me in following Jesus is to remember, over and over again, that ego is an illusion. This can happen while serving the community, struggling for justice, and mourning and celebrating in community. The Good News is that ego is an illusion while the cosmos, culture, and communities in which we live and move and have our being are real.
Realizing that our worship has fallen short is painful. But the Way of the Cross can helps us rise from the ashes of idolatry to new life as many times as needed. On the Way, we find assurance that at the end of life our struggles with idolatry cease and our reunion with Source is guaranteed.
There are a thousand reasons to join a church. The key one for me is being reminded that life is not about the small self of the ego. At its best, church can be a place where we respond in humility and joy to a call to glorify the Source of Love we call God and to enjoy this Source of Love forever.
May it be so.