I am forever reminded that a sermon or, reflection as I choose to call it, commences with a blank screen! Sometimes there will be a germ of an idea around a scripture passage which to develop; there may be an event in the world that calls us to respond within a theological but helpful framework; or there just might be something about which we as leaders in the church feel passionate. Today what I have to share is mostly in the latter category. It may take a little longer than the normal time frame but I am sure that in your generosity on a summer Sunday you will give me a few minutes grace.
It is a few months since I chose this short passage that Laura read from the gospel according to Matthew as my text for today. Since then my thoughts have been moving in two parallel directions. First, I have been thinking about what meaningful approach might be appropriate this morning in raising these words up from the scriptures. I hope that as I proceed the choice of this gospel reading will become clear and I will return to these verses later.
At the same time I have been considering the multiplicity of challenges facing the church universal, especially for the mainline denominations. This isn’t just a once in a while thought process but one that is ongoing because, in the context of church, the urgent matters of relevancy; a meaningful theology in an essentially post-theistic world; demographics; aging; questioning the shelf life of tradition; and how to attract youth and other target age groups can never disappear from a leadership agenda. This summary alone reinforces why here at Lawrence Park Community Church we are beginning to address one of the more important ones that impact our survival, that being the investigating and researching of new avenues of reaching out to attract the age 25 – 45 demographic which is largely absent from church. As you know we will be utilizing the very best of social media tools and skill sets to establish a second community as part of the overall ministry of LPCC. We as a Protestant mainline church cannot delay taking action. The time for simply talking about the future is over and, notwithstanding associated risks, we must press on in some way to reconnect the concept of church with and make it relevant to the younger generations that we need to attract. That is a big undertaking.
Having said that, there is a sense in which these thoughts are not very far removed from our minds at any time as congregational leaders in that the challenges I have named have been very much current for the last 50+ years. I use that time frame because, if we look at our own United Church of Canada statistics, the membership of our denomination peaked in 1965 at 1,064,000. The most recent figure I have for 2015 is 424,000. The trend is clear in that the United Church has lost more than 640,000 members in half a century. That loss continues more rapidly as United Church congregations across our country face the critical question of survival. To consider the answers can be difficult and emotional: to close; to die gracefully; consider amalgamation where it is a viable; or to take a risk and do something new.
When the church has the courage to look at itself in the mirror it will be prompted to face a variety of what can be provocative questions. Tom Bandy, a United Church minister, and primarily now a church consultant, took a direct approach at an annual meeting of the United Church Maritime Conference that I was attending. His opening line was “What in God’s name are we doing here?” It was clearly a deliberate wake up question and Tom had our rapt attention. He continued with further provocative questions: “Who in the world are we?” and “Where on earth are we going?” The discussion continued and Bandy commenced a line of questioning that I would respectfully observe is critical to where the universal church is situated today.
For me his questions get to the heart of the matter: “Are we committed to Jesus Christ or the institution?” Do we build faith in Christ or in our heritage?” Do we create disciples or committees?” Is our mission for the public or the membership?” Do we worship dutifully or expectantly?” Do we guide newcomers or wait for them?” Yes, I am very mindful that such questions can come across as somewhat offensive but from my own experience of church over a lifetime and the last 25+ years in ministry, I believe firmly that they are today crucial questions for us all . . . not just ministers, church councils, or committees.
I think it fair to say that there has been a trend over the years within the Protestant Mainline church to distance itself from the evangelicals. It has done so by setting aside some of the language and terminology that is associated with Christianity from its inception. Discipleship and Follower of Jesus are two terms that are perhaps seen as too religious or unsophisticated. But despite how we might have intellectualized, sophisticated, and made the gospel more palatable for our modern minds, its imperative has not changed. We are to be salt and light in our world.
This brings me all the way back to the gospel lesson for today. Jesus reminds us, using these simple metaphors, what discipleship is all about. He calls us to reach out and share ourselves. Let’s consider the importance of salt in our lives. Like seawater, our bodies contain salt: a tear, a drop of blood, and a bead of sweat. Without salt our hearts would not beat, blood would not flow, and muscles would not work properly. Before birth a baby develops in a saline solution in the womb. Accident victims may receive a salt solution intravenously. Before the age of refrigeration, salt was and still is a preservative. Sufficient to say how indispensable salt is to our lives. In Roman times, salt was so precious that it was used, at least in part, to pay workers. I am sure that you have heard the phrase that a person is not worth his or her salt, the inference being that he or she is not worthy of wages. On the other end of the scale salt is a real positive when used in the statement “He or she is the salt of the earth.”
As a child I knew that there was something very special about a person when my parents referred to him or her as the salt of the earth. It was as if this phrase served to summarize everything that was good, giving, wholesome, unselfish and humble about the person it was used to describe. What better word than salt to emphasize metaphorically what discipleship should look like? Likewise the metaphor of light speaks to our purpose as disciples to lead and to guide. Jesus’ audience would have fully understood his use of these terms.
As salt to the earth we can emulate Jesus’ ministry of hospitality, by loving our neighbours whoever they might be, welcoming, accepting, and forgiving. We are called to stand out as those who enhance the flavour of life in this world. St. Francis of Assisi sums up so eloquently what this requires of us in his well-known and often used prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace; Where there is hatred let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy.
Whether we are in the process of seeking new avenues of ministry, as is the case here at LPCC, or a church like the one I experienced a few years ago discerning amalgamation, the questions of vision, mission, purpose, and commitment must, in my opinion, take precedence over every other consideration.
If I may I would like to share an actual case history from my own ministry which describe how the miscellaneous and trivia can, if we let them, take away from the focus on what is important when the future of the church is under consideration.
The setting was St. Paul Street United Church in St. Catharines in 2008. I had accepted an interim ministry appointment two years earlier soon after retiring for the first time in 2006. The congregation had been divided over the circumstances of the ending of a difficult pastoral relationship; conflict over traditional and contemporary worship, and was also in serious conversation with two other United Church congregations nearby looking at the potential for amalgamation. Hence some hefty challenges. You may ask whether I was in my right mind! However these are precisely the types of situations to which Interim Ministers are appointed to work through in an agreed upon time frame, usually two years. To briefly state the challenges, this congregation was in need of healing in order to move forward with new possibilities.
I recognized very early in that appointment the multiplicity of details, agreements, and a myriad of practical considerations that have to be addressed before an amalgamation can come to fruition. The extent of the details can often overshadow the need to undertake, as a congregation, considerable discernment as to the opportunity for renewed ministry in a newly named church. In fact the essential question of mission can be totally lost in the detail.
The United Church women’s groups from the three churches had endeavoured to work together and had completed an inventory of all the cutlery in the three church kitchens . . . the total was 1782 pieces. Not only that one church group thought it helpful for us to know how to neatly replace cutlery in the kitchen draws and so they photographed their kitchen draws and placed the photographs in our kitchen draws as a guide to chronic obsessive compulsiveness! Needless to say I could see that a problem was developing around priorities!
Well, Interim ministry requires a large helping of humour and the week following, with tongue in cheek, having recalled Tom Bandy’s questioning, my sermon title was “What in God’s name are we doing here?” Now that we have counted the cutlery what next? Naughty perhaps . . . but to the point. I wanted to turn this levity into the serious question of the new church’s vision. In this particular case here was a congregation joining with two other congregations with the enviable opportunity of doing something new. Moving away from the status quo. Imagine being able as a church to start all over again.
God continues to call us to do things in God’s name. That calling is as vital and relevant to what we are and will be doing here at Lawrence Park Community Church. It has already been acknowledged that we have to do something and that to do nothing is not an option. We are very mindful that it entails risk. And may I add that it requires careful discernment and a great deal of faith.
Our raison d’etre, our reason to be, as the church of Jesus Christ must go beyond the details and the inevitable bureaucracy that has the ability to sour an initiative, to embrace a renewed vision of what God is calling us to be. The question “What in God’s name are we doing?” cannot be dismissed. That is the very essence of the gospel. If I am mistaken . . . then I have missed entirely its message. Whatever our vision for the future, whatever strategic initiatives (to use the terminology adopted here at LPCC) are employed to make our church more inclusive, attractive, more open, and more relevant to those we wish to welcome, it should first and foremost be informed by the spirit of the gospel and its imperative. This morning I have shared very openly, and hopefully respectfully, of where I stand. I cannot think of any other personal agenda item that has stirred a greater degree of passion in me at this stage of my ministry. Thank you for listening. As always I welcome your feedback. Amen.