June 7, 2015 | John 17: 1,2,6, 17-23 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
90th Anniversary of The United Church
90 years ago this coming Wednesday, a crowd of thousands gathered at the Mutual Street Arena in Toronto to mark the birth of the United Church of Canada. As part of the service of worship, representatives from our founding denominations: Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians listened to the same words about unity and love from the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel we heard read for us morning. When the preacher chosen for this auspicious occasion, Rev. S. P. Rose, stepped up to the pulpit, the gathered community was no doubt poised to hear a sermon reflecting on the singular phrase from the reading that is so important to our church it is written in Latin on our crest “that they all may be one.” Instead Rev. Rose pulled out his bible and started reading from the 12th chapter of John’s gospel focussing particularly on the part in that chapter where Jesus says “except a kernel of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
There they were ready to celebrate the birth of a new church, the unity of three denominations coming together as one, and Rev. Rose wanted them to focus instead on death.
United Church historian Phyllis Airhart says this about that moment “The image of wheat falling to the ground must have been a poignant one for those who just moments before had ceremonially relinquished their old institutional names, and symbolically bequeathed a prized feature of each tradition to the United Church as an “inheritance.” The ritual captured the paradox that had brought them together: they intended to be a life-giving presence in communities across Canada in the future- and were willing to let their separate denominational identities die to make it happen.”*
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will not bring forth fruit. In the Christian way of understanding, new life comes through death.
On the pages of this month’s United Church Observer, Phyllis Airhart ponders the question: does the United Church of our day and age have a compelling enough inheritance worth investing in to birth the church of the future?
Like those gathered in the Mutual Street Arena 90 years ago, we too are at a pivotal moment in the history of our denomination. This summer at the 42nd General Council meeting in Corner Brook Newfoundland, commissioners will be invited to vote on proposals issuing forth from a Comprehensive Review the national church has undertaken over the past 3 years. The recommended changes are sweeping. They intend to reduce our national budget by 11 million dollars. They include the removal of an entire court in our current four court system. Some suggest the recommendations, if adopted will change our ecclesiology forever.
As we stand at this historic moment in our church, on the eve of our 90th birthday, I wonder what you think our compelling inheritance is. What is it we are so willing to live for that we would face our death in order to see it come into fruition?
I don’t personally know what it is like to turn 90 or to face my own death in a just around the corner kind of way, but I do have some personal experience of walking that road with my mother who as many of your know turned 90 in October. Interestingly enough, on the eve of my mother’s 90th birthday, just like the United Church of Canada, she too was faced with the decision to downsize. She too had to let go of some things in order for her new life to begin.
When we first went to see her new apartment at Cedar Springs, I soon realized I had been making assumptions about what a 90 year old would and wouldn’t want to take with her into a new place and that many of my assumptions were wrong.
For example, I was sure she would want to rid herself of her old living room furniture and keep the barely used couch I had bought her when she moved to North Vancouver. The new pull out couch was newer, smaller and practical. Out of town guests could sleep on it when they came to visit. Mom wanted the furniture that had been with her throughout her married life. That couch and armchair have been recovered at least three times that I can recall, refreshed and renewed but rebuilt on the same foundation. They have sat at the heart of our life as a family, in the living-room in several different locations. And live in and on them we have. They have stood through countless Christmases, birthdays, thanksgivings and easters. They have provided rest and welcome for adult children arriving home from travels around the world; housed toddlers nestled into Grammie’s side with their books and withstood generations of abuse from kids playing steamroller, holding tea parties and making forts with their cushions. That couch and chair were built to last, made to withstand the passage of time.
Of course the livingroom furniture should be kept and along with it the secretary desk that stood in the hall of the house where my mother grew up, the desk my grandmother would sit at to write letters to my mother and my uncle each and every week of her life. And the footstool upon which my grandfather would rest his feet, we’d be keeping that too. But interestingly enough we didn’t need to keep the china, nor the silverware. That came as a surprise to me. We ate off that china each and every Sunday night of my childhood. But maybe what Mom knows is that ultimately it’s not the china or the silverware that matter, it’s the experiences we had together gathered around the table. That’s what shaped and formed us as a family, breaking bread together, sharing our life experiences together, laughing, celebrating and even grieving together, not the quality or even the durability of the Wedgewood, but the quality and the durability of what we experienced together as family.
What have I learned about downsizing at 90 from my mother? You need to keep something to remind you of where you came from, your roots. You need to something to hold and undergird you that is foundational, something built to last. And perhaps most importantly, you need to carry within your soul that which has shaped and formed you into who and what you are, so that you will know how to help shape and form the generations to come.
In the reading from John’s Gospel we heard read this morning, the one Rev. Rose did not preach on at the inaugural service of the church 90 years ago, the writer of the gospel is preparing the early followers of Jesus to pass on the faith they have inherited. As one writer puts it the writer is illustrating how movements gain institutional form so the movement will last longer than the time of the original group.** So Jesus prays to God, not just on behalf those first believers, but on behalf of us today, those “who will believe in me through their word.” The prayer is for the formation of the early church but also for those of us who have inherited their witness from one generation to the next. And what does he pray? That we may all be one, as God is in Jesus and Jesus is in God so too may we also be in God and in Jesus.
He prays for our unity. But the unity that he prays for isn’t that we would all believe the same doctrines, or worship together in the same form or all get along and never have any disagreements. He doesn’t pray for the kind of unity that gets manifested in outward appearances. He doesn’t pray that we would all look the same or even act the same. He doesn’t pray for the coming together of three denominations into the formation of one. He prays for our unity in God and in Christ. He prays that we would know God like he knows God and that our intimate knowledge of God and God’s ways would be a witness to the world. He prays that the way that we live our lives would be so compelling that others would want to live a similar life because that way is so life-giving.
The inheritance he prays for us is essentially an inheritance of unity in unconditional love, love that is forgiving and grace-filled and powerful in its capacity to overturn injustice, love that honours human life, that calls forth from us our commitment to everything and anything that makes love known in greater quantities, love that mirrors Jesus love, love that shapes and forms us into who we were created to be, love that we too, like him would be willing to risk our very lives to share.
What we would be willing to let go of, or to let die for the sake of this greater love?
When I think about the history of Mount Seymour United Church, what I think of is the ongoing willingness in this community to change and be open itself up for the sake of greater love. Ours is a congregation that gave up its identity as two individual congregations in order to become one. Ours is a congregation that opened its doors to our Anglican and Evangelical brothers and sisters when they needed a place to worship and became someone different because of it. Ours is a community that works side by side with people of other faiths and no particular faith to care loan a helping hand for our community. Ours is a community that is about to literally tear down walls and shift our understanding of what it means to be a church for the sake of the inheritance we have to pass on to future generations.
I can’t help but notice that when we are in the midst of the kinds of changes we are making in our congregation and in our wider church, it’s not always clear why we are making the changes we are making. Lots of times it feels like we are making them for the sake of our own survival. When we’re in that place the changes feel heavy and challenging. All change involves loss. But if the changes we are making are for the sake of love, if we are rooted and grounded and aligned with love when we are making those changes, if we remember where we came from and what undergirds and holds us, what is lasting and true, then surely the compulsion to keep love alive will make us more than able to let go and embrace the changes that are yet to come.
I was surprised to read in that article by Phyllis Airhart found in this month’s Observer just how tenuous and uncertain those early days of the United Church felt to its founders. At the 10th anniversary of the church the principal of St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon placed “it has survived” at the top of his list of “our achievements.”
The context in which we minister today is vastly different than the Canadian context of 90 years ago, yet what makes us one hasn’t changed one bit. Here’s to the 90 years that have been and to the 90 that are yet to come, whatever they may bring.
*Phyllis Airhart, The United Church Observer, June 2015 page 29
** Rev. George Hermanson, Holy Textures Website