Our task as church isn’t simply to create a comfortable space for ourselves alone – where we can gather for worship without the threat of disruption or change or challenge. Instead, we are to reach out to those in our community and our world, people who will most likely never come on a Sunday, and help them have what it is they need to have – food, shelter, company in times of distress, and justice. Which will, as it seeks to change the world, change us.
Message by Rev Jenny Carter
Legacy Sunday, November 19, 2017
(Based on John 17:1-3, 6, 17-23)
In seminary, one of my professors had a favourite line that he often used in his lectures. It was, “the church exists for the people who are not there.” Puzzling line in some ways. Given that a whole lot of very eager and earnest theological students were preparing for ministry within congregations – and were leaning forward anxiously to catch any bit of wisdom that would help in their ministry with a group of people who did attend church – it was a bit of a puzzle.
It was also the truth. In so many ways it is the truth. Over the years I have come to understand that line a bit better. On one level it reminds us that our task as church isn’t simply to create a comfortable space for ourselves alone – where we can gather for worship without the threat of disruption or change or challenge. Instead, we are to reach out to those in our community and our world, people who will most likely never come on a Sunday, and help them have what it is they need to have – food, shelter, company in times of distress, and justice. Which will, as it seeks to change the world, change us. It will change what we think, believe, and do. And that is how it should be.
Another understanding of this line came to me in the form of a person who is a musician who spends a lot of time in The Nexus – one of our community outreach initiatives here at First. I met him for coffee one day in the summer, and he said, “If all the churches disappeared, the community in Salmon Arm would feel it. There would be a great loss.” As we talked, I came to see it through his eyes – that the churches provide a refuge, a place of discovery, and an ethical voice amid the cacophony of competing demands for our attention. The church gives a solid voice for what is good, and noble and true. We lend our voice through the actions of individuals who attend here and then go out into the world, and we lend it when we take corporate action as First United.
Yet perhaps the most profound understanding of the line that “the church exists for the people who are not there” comes from our understanding of legacy. A legacy is anything that is handed down from the past; handed down from one generation to another.” Each one of us here, this morning, are the inheritors of a legacy. Each one of us here, benefit from the work of the thousands of people who came before us, who sought to do what was good, and noble and right, in their own time as they focused on their faith and their call to put gospel and good into the world.
Thirty years ago, we dedicated this worship space. Joanne Leatherdale and others worked on the plans, the fundraising, and supervision of construction that gave us this beautiful space. Thirty years before that, in 1960, the people of First United, in response to the sheer volume of children born in the baby boom, built and dedicated the Christian Education wing – or as it has come to be known as – the second story of our church building. Thirty five years before that, the congregations of St. Andrew’s (Presbyterian) and Wesley United (Methodist), came together, in a building across the street, for their inaugural worship as a unified congregation of the United Church of Canada.
While some of us were around for the dedication of this worship space, and perhaps even the dedication of the Christian Education wing, I don’t think any of us were around for church union – the day the United Church of Canada came in to being. Yet here we are. We have inherited the legacy – inheritors of the hard and faithful work of the generations that came before us.
It would be tempting to think of our inheritance in physical terms. We inherited a building. We inherited the property on which it stands. And while it is a true statement, it is an insufficient statement. It’s insufficient because we don’t own this property the same way we own our homes or cars. This building, and property on which it stands, is only a vehicle to be used by the people who gather and form the church. None of us own it. But it is ours for the building up of our personal and corporate faith lives, and ours for helping our neighbours in need.
And, there will come a time when we give the keys to this particular vehicle to the generations that will come after us. We inherited a living legacy, and it is our job to pass that living legacy on. That is how church works.
That is why I titled this sermon the way I did. “Roots, Wings and Faithful Things.” We inherited a living legacy, and that has given us our roots. Church union happened in 1925 – and we celebrate the anniversary of that in June. Yet church union took over a decade to achieve. Our founding traditions, the Congregationalist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches here in Canada had a vision of being united so that the good works, born of the social gospel, might change the lives of individuals, and perhaps more lofty, change the very social structure of Canada. A radical vision.
A vision that took years to achieve. While we tend to view church union through the mists of time, and it has taken on an almost legendary quality in some circles – the truth of the matter is that it was really hard work. There were fights and disagreements along the way. There were also compromises – some big and some small – and there were protests. If you remember your history, there was a group of Presbyterians who refused to join, and nationally protested on the day of church union by attending the new United Churches across Canada, and just as the service started, they got up en masse and left the building in protest.
Yet the United Church prevailed. And our mandate, ut omnes unum sint – which means “That all may be One” – taken from John 17 – became our lived reality. Reminding each generation that not only are we a united church, but we are to be a uniting church. Our roots, our legacy, is that we bring people together in real ways, to do the work of love and Spirit. Which is always hard work. Always fraught with some discord no matter how brilliant and faith filled the vision might be.
So, we have our roots. But the founders of our denomination also gave us wings. In our doctrine and polity we have enshrined the understanding that while the gospel imperative to love and to serve God and neighbour is unchanging, how we actually do that loving and serving most certainly does change. In fact, “change” and “changing” was at the very heart of church union. The people who believed in church union, believed in change.
The United Church is grounded in the Bible and in the life of Christ – and everything we have done in the past, and everything we seek to do in the present – has these roots. Roots to which we must remain true. Yet like the generations before us, we need to figure out how to live in the times we are given. This is where we are given our wings. This is where we have the freedom to fly. This is the space where brilliant visions of being “a united and uniting church” are given form and life.
This is also where all of you come in. All of us have something very precious in our hands. We have this faith community. Yes, we inherited a legacy, but we have shaped it for ourselves over the years. We have shaped it not just for our own comfort, but shaped it for the people who will never attend here – because that is what we do as the United Church. We serve God by serving others.
Our legacy is not this building – our legacy is how we have loved. How we have loved one another, how we have provided a place of refuge from the world, how we speak to the things that need speaking to, how we nurture one another as each of us grows in faith, and how we have loved our neighbours, whether they are in Salmon Arm, or a school in Ghana. We have done well with the things we have inherited. Love is found here. The gospel is found here. God is present. We know God is present, because love is here, and where love is, God is.
Yet the work of the church is also found here. As I look out at all of you I see how hard so many of you work to support the life of our faith community. It’s not always easy work, I know, but it is important work. And on behalf of First United, I want to thank you for all that you have done, and for all that you will continue to do. With each hour you spend, with every dollar you give, with every skill you have shared, and with all the love you have shown to people both within the walls of this building, and beyond them, you have given our community wings. You have helped us build upon the legacy we have received, and have strengthened the legacy which we, in turn, will pass on to the next generation.
So, well done, good and faithful people of First United! Together we have built something beautiful and precious, we have built this faith community. My prayer for all of us is a simple one: may we always know that our beauty lies in our ability to love – and that love can be a struggle – but when we love fully and well, we overcome challenges and bring life to one another and to our world – and that is what the United Church of Canada has always passed along, and it is what we pass along too.