Let us pray: O God, the season is bearing down on us, bringing with it the angst of Palms and Passion and the ways that tangible hope was turned into incomprehensible condemnation. We struggle under the yoke of polarization and decision making. May we truly understand what it means to live with your law written on our hearts. May these words weave a path through the trouble and the worry. Amen.
I think there’s a sense – based in an understanding of the human psyche – that as we move through a time of reflection and deep searching, that things will get better.
We start our Lenten journey, aware that it might be difficult, aware that it may involve some deep soul searching, but also confident – because we are people of faith and people of hope, that the journey will at some point start to come out of whatever depths we will encounter.
Last week’s theme, despite being Laetare Sunday – rejoice Sunday, pointed to the difficulties that life can present to us – and certainly a theme that Lent addresses. The answer that was offered was a message of grace – of undeserved and unconditional love. It’s a mark of the Christian faith, and a strong theme for this whole season of readings – as they tell of covenants upon covenants.
Even there though, the story is a complicated one. We began this year’s Lenten journey with a covenant marked by the appearance of a rainbow and a one-sided promise that God would always keep the covenant and the rainbow would remind God of that. The people did not have any responsibility related to this covenant, it was a covenant promised AND upheld by God. It’s the kind of covenant that’s hard for us – God’s people to break. And one might wonder how or why we would need anything else.
But we heard the following week of yet another covenant. Again, this covenant seems tilted toward God – not in favour of God, but for God to work harder at. It was a promise of multitudes of descendants for Abraham and Sarah – sporting new handles to remind them of this promise. Again, why would there need to be anything else – if God has the major responsibility to keep this covenant.
But again, there is word of yet another covenant. A set of laws written on two stone tablets. And this time, it’s much more of a mutual covenant – or a case could be made that it’s tilted more towards the people. These are laws or commandments that they are required to obey. The covenants are getting more personal. They are starting to require greater involvement of the people.
And each time, the reason for the new covenant is proposed as being a gift from God for disobedience. Presumably, since the earlier covenants weighed most if not all the responsibility on God, this disobedience could not be ascribed to a failure to uphold the promise.
Now the idea of disobedience is not hard to understand. It’s part of the human condition that we wander – wittingly and unwittingly. That we serve other gods, that we honour different impulses and attractions – to the detriment of community life and positive relationship. But the idea that it is failure to keep the covenant when the responsibility is all on one party – in this case God, is a bit mysterious to understand.
Today we heard what might be the culminating response. Jeremiah speaks to the people and tells them that this time the law will be written on their hearts. That’s the kind of promise that is hard to escape. Tattooed there. Inescapable. Bound to be part of every decision making moment.
The journey – at least as pointed to by the passages for each week – is not really getting easier. It’s getting deeper and at some point we might start to wonder if we’ll ever be able to dig ourselves out. And yes, as I said last week, it’s not going to get easier in the coming days. We are a week from the disillusionment of Palm Parades and the pain and sorrow of betrayal, denial, changed minds and hearts and political execution and religious martyrdom.
I’m serving as the chairperson of the Yellowknife Ministerial Association for this year. It’s something I said I would do, having avoided it for all the other dozen or so years I’ve been a part of it. That position provides a small opportunity to give some direction for the community and to employ some of the skills and resources I’ve learned in my time in ministry.
At February’s meeting – anticipating the beginning of Lent in a week – I invited the members to check-in to the meeting with a few words about how they mark Lent. I think it was a good exercise as we heard stories from different traditions and different branches of the Christian church and from different theological perspectives of ways that these leaders engage in spiritual practice as support and grounding for the work they do with their community of faith and the wider community.
I recall adding to the discussion myself by saying that I have used different ways of observing Lent over my life. I have used Lenten devotional resources and not all that successfully I have tried both giving things up for Lent and I have been somewhat more attracted and successful at taking something on for Lent.
This year, however, my Lenten confession is that I haven’t specifically given something up or taken something on, and yet I would say that this season of Lent has been particularly significant for me. I can’t say exactly why. I could posit several different factors which might have led to that sense and feeling, but not one of them seems dominant. And I want to leave some of the reason up to the presence of mystery.
I have not chosen a particular Lenten discipline this year, but it seems, and here is where the mystery comes in, that some of them have found me.
I was leaving my office to go home a few weeks ago – I can’t remember if it was for lunch or supper, but as I looked at my bookshelves a book suddenly had some focus. It was just there with all the other books – many of which I’ve read and perhaps many more that I bought with the intention of reading, but for some reason this one just stood out. It’s a small book written by the well known Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall. He’s quite famous in theological circles and he’s one of ours – born and raised in The United Church of Canada. I’m sure the title of the book was part of why I noticed it. The Future of the Church. It probably helped that I’d read something recently quoting Douglas John Hall, but I’ve also walked by that particular shelf many, many times over the past years without even giving it a second thought. But that day I took it off the shelf, took it home with me and read it in about three sittings.
He wrote it in 1989, my final year in theological college. It’s based on a series of lectures he gave. It’s like he could have written last week.
In the book he writes of the humiliation of the church – and that was 1989 – think about the increased humiliation that has occurred in the intervening years. Our involvement in the Residential School system has been exposed and acknowledged. Our numbers have plummeted. We are anticipating a major change in governance at the end of this year. We need to cut massive amounts in our national church budget and we hear each year that we didn’t quite meet the Mission and Service Targets even though they were reduced from the previous years.
But surprising I would not say that this so-called humiliation is taken as a bad thing in Hall’s thinking – and he is gifted and insightful thinker – but merely a fact of life, and in some ways of consequence of becoming too big for our britches. Hall writes may times of the Constatinian Church and by that he means the major change that happened to the church when Constantine was converted to Christianity and the church went from being a counter cultural, society critiquing community to a state sanctioned community. It took a long time, but power and influence went to the churches head, we might say and things got taken for granted and a good deal of the edge that the church maintained was taken away.
We know about that in The United Church of Canada. We were formed by a Parliamentary Decree after all. Not much chance of anything like that happening in this day and age. Many branches of the Christian church in Canada would not want to have much to do with the Canadian government and if you believe an article from Thursday in the National Post – the Canadian government does not want to have much to do with the Christian church either. The United Church of Canada might be a singular exception – but even there, there is some question and events both recent and over a few decades bring that into question.
Hall, if I’m reading his book correctly, is actually arguing for a smaller, edgier church. A church that is not co-opted by the reins of power and the sense that our word is being held with great respect and weight by the powers that be. He argues for a cruciform church – a church that is marked by a cross – and the heavy journey that that implies and the call to justice and bearing our own crosses that is part of a cross centred church.
That’s not the only way that Lent has called to me this season. As I prepared this worship service this week I was led to another scholarly work – an article in an academic journal by some social scientists that makes a good case that growing congregations in mainline Protestant Canadian denominations are dominated by conservative theology, both in the church attendance and membership and in the pastoral leadership.
No consequence of this finding is stated, but it is a thinly veiled allusion to the idea that in order to grow, churches should be moving to a more conservative perspective. Or conversley that there is something inherently attractive in conservative theology that leads to growth.
As it turns out, one of the researchers is quoted in that National Post article I mentioned a few moments ago.
The presumption is that the church is about growth. It’s not a bad presumption. I don’t know of anyone I’ve ever met in the church who would not hope for growth. But as I read the article I found myself asking “growth at what cost”. Growth at the cost of forsaking our deeply held beliefs? Growth at the cost of forsaking what our heart is telling us is right? Growth at the cost of following a path which leaves rationality on the wayside.
A consequence of the writing that Douglas John Hall did in his book to me is a much smaller but stronger church.
I recall the words of Clifford Elliott – former minister at Timothy Eaton Memorial United Church in Toronto. When I was young, more than once I heard that Cliff Elliott was one of the best preachers in the United Church. T Eaton Memorial had a reputation of calling great preachers.
I didn’t hear Cliff Elliott preach when he was in his prime, or when he was writing a monthly column in The United Church of Observer, but after he retired he came to live at St. Andrew’s College as Pastor In Residence for a year. He accepted preaching invitations all around Saskatoon that year and eventually he came to preach at the church I attended. His notoriety as a good preacher was well deserved. I particularly recall one of the illustrations he used at the beginning of his sermon. He was giving a little autobiographical introduction and he told about being called to one of his earlier churches. He said that when he arrived there as something like four hundred members and by the end of his time there he had preached that membership down to about one hundred and fifty. Of course he got a lot of laughs, but they were those kind of nervous laughs that happen when we know that something funny is also true.
And remember that was when the church was much more in its heyday. And his point was two fold. The church, even then was declining and the people that remained were the faithful, deeply faithful remnant – the ones who were there because of the call of Jesus in their lives, the mission of the church in the community and in the world, and not because it was the thing to do.
And I remind you that was a few decades ago.
David Ewart a retired ministry colleague from British Columbia and a former national United Church staff person is quoted in the National Post article in this way. “A report titled “Welcome to the Last Days of the United Church of Canada,” by Rev. David Ewart, reported that the number of worshippers fell from 338,000 in 1990 to 151,000 in 2013. The study predicted that by 2025, attendance would hit 34,000.”
I’m sorry if that hits hard. David Ewart has been writing about these things for many years. I’m sure there are more recent statistics and I don’t know whether they are better or worse and I am not even sure that I know what better or worse even means.
What I know is that in “The Heart of Christianity” by Marcus Borg which I read a few years ago, that I found hope not in the promise of thousands of people coming to the church again or anew, but in the promise of a remnant, faithful, deeply committed, heartful church, a church that dared to challenge the powers and principalities, a church that spoke from the edges, a church that spoke about inclusion, and acceptance and embracing faith expressions of many different kinds, a church that put peace making and peace keeping and peaceful resolution of conflict at the forefront. A church that worked at eliminating systemic poverty and injustice, that recognized corporate sin and spoke out against entitlement and hierarchy and racism and sexism and heterosexism.
That’s not necessarily a bigger church. But it is a church that puts heart at the centre.
Lent is a hard journey and it’s getting harder. But please keep walking. Put your heart into it. Amen.