The life-giving part of this stream, and why those of us in other streams need to have them be a part of our faith journey, is that they remind us of the bigger picture. They remind us of our world’s journey from chaos and division to one of peace and wholeness for all of creation.
Rev. Jenny Carter
July 9, 2017
Based on Isaiah 58:3-7
The United Church of Canada, at its very core, is a beautiful and life-giving denomination. Those who don’t know us, or have heard a rumour or two (and think that they do), can easily miss the beauty of the way we United Church people express our spirituality. We have been called a lot of things over the years (sometimes right to our faces) and will be called a few more before our time on this earth is done. But one of the biggest charges against us is that we have no core beliefs. We are the “groovy” church where “anything goes.” Which is not true of course.
At our very centre, in that deepest place of our communal faith we have two very real, very deep, and very biblically centered core values, or beliefs. Now, as we have been exploring over the last number of weeks, we have many streams that add nuance to our living out of the faith. But at our foundation, we have two biblical directives that we give equal weight to. One is Jesus’ call to make disciples is to encourage people to follow the way of faith: to help them discover how God/Spirit is working in their lives, to follow that divine call and to explore how God is working with and through them. The other directive is what theologians call the missio dei or God’s mission, or God’s dream for the world.
If we follow the rather arbitrary ordering of the books of the bible, God’s dream starts with that moment of divine creation the one we hear about in the book of Genesis – the world in harmony. It is creation in balance. Even if we know no other bible story than that one, we know how that turned out. Into order, came chaos. Trust was broken. Relationships between human and holy – broken. Instead of living into the divine dream of right relationship with and between all created things – greed, envy, desire for power, and violence combined to break the dream God had for the world.
If we were to flip to the end of our bibles, we would meet the Book of Revelation which is hands down the most misunderstood and theologically abused book in the canon. There we would read about the eventual fulfillment of God’s dream – that hopeful, beautiful place, where all that is, ever was, and ever shall be, is returned to peace and right relationships, where all of creation is once again in balance, and there is abundant life for all.
Now, between Genesis and Revelation are all the divine hints, imperatives, calls and instructions for how we, as individuals and as the whole world, are going to move from disorder and chaos, to peace and harmony. In this, the biggest part of our bible, we meet the prophets and we meet Jesus and his teachings, and if we follow those wise scriptural voices, we can catch a glimpse of how we might be a part of this great unfolding of the divine dream – or God’s mission for us and our world.
This is what informs the deepest faith of those in the ecumenical stream. This is where they meet God in their hearts and souls. God’s dream for the world, is their dream, and it informs everything that they do. They are less likely to feel God’s presence in a well-ordered liturgy so favoured by the ecclesial folks among us, or in an evangelical call to faith, or even in the missional feeding of the hungry neighbour – although that last one might be a bit closer than the other two. The life-giving part of this stream, and why those of us in other streams need to have them be a part of our faith journey, is that they remind us of the bigger picture. They remind us of our world’s journey from chaos and division to one of peace and wholeness for all of creation.
They are the prophetic voice among us, which remind us of Jesus’ words and the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Anna, Ezekiel and all the other prophets – who encourage the church to speak the truth to power – when those in power are only in it for themselves, or for society’s elites. When the poor are forgotten or abused, or made to carry more of the burden so that the wealthier might receive all the benefits; when power has too much to say; when violence or religion is being used to control the masses – then it is these folks who speak up, on behalf of the God they know, and on behalf of the littlest and the least of this world, and on behalf of all creation.
For those in this stream, God’s agency, or how God works, is found in the promise of life abundant for the oikumene (which is a fancy Greek word that means the whole, known world.) What God’s work looks like in this stream is following the divine summons to radical social transformation – and the church’s project or work, thus becomes joining efforts – becoming partners – with others who are working to bring peace and justice to the world we all share. That is the precious gift of this particular stream.
There is a shadow side of course. As we remember, those in the evangelical stream can drift into the shadow of tribalism. Ecclesial stream can find itself in the shadow of faith being dominated by consumerism. The missional stream can drift into naiveté. And the ecumenical stream – the social justice, social transformation – part of our church can drift into the shadow of ideology which is that life denying place where the desired outcome of peace and justice for all of creation, is obscured by the “one and only right way to get there.”
We don’t have to look too hard to find examples of Christians, who feel the call to radical social transformation, who have fallen into the shadow of ideology. One only needs to look at the Christian right in the US where the gospel has been replaced by a nationalistic, republican, ideology of the only right way to be in this world. If we simply did everything “their way” the world would be somehow better. But since I am going on holidays and don’t want to think about the mess in the US for two weeks perhaps a better example is a Canadian one.
In our own denomination, which was born out of the social gospel movement – the one that sought to live out God’s dream by calling the system to account over how it treated the poor and those living on the margins – the very edges – of Canadian society – we as a faithful people called the powerful of Canada to do better. And the powerful did. Laws and public policies were changed. Justice for the poor seemed to inch closer to reality. Yet what we failed to see in those early, halcyon days, was when our good work drifted into the shadow of ideology.
We see it now of course. Especially with the indigenous peoples of this country, where our denomination took a leading role in the assimilation process of first nations people through the residential school system. We were blinded to the ideology we held that said “if we could make indigenous peoples look and act just like us – live just like us – then they wouldn’t suffer the social ills that they are suffering.” Our firm belief that we were right, that deeply held ideology of European “progress” and way of living, blinded us to the different, equally life giving indigenous way of life. We caused a lot of hurt and pain to generations of First Nations People.
It was those among us who were from the ecumenical stream who also helped us realize we had drifted in to shadow. They were the ones that raised awareness, called the power of the church to account, and began their work of justice making and seeking reconciliation with indigenous peoples. This work may have started in the ecumenical stream, but it has moved mainstream for sure. And while some progress towards reconciliation has been made, there is still a long way to go. The path will most definitely not be pain free for us but then moving from shadow into light is never without risk and pain and discomfort. Yet it is so very worth the effort!
So, if you identify as part of this theological stream – stay in the light and keep up the good work! If you identify with one of the other streams, and hear someone say something about the United Church and what “those United Church people are up to now” (or have uttered them yourself at some point) – then open your heart, lean in, and listen for God’s voice and call and claim on you in what you are hearing.
God does indeed have a dream for this world, and we are a part of that dream, and when we tend the dream abundant life unfolds for all.
May it be so in your life and in mine.