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Undergoing renewal and change

1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Ephesians 5: 15-20

August 16, 2015

Year B A

If we had read the entire 1King’s passage we would have learned that after King David’s death, a bloody struggle for power ensues between two of his sons, Adonijah and Solomon. This is a time of transition between political parties and most of us have lived through political/religious and social transitions. In the story from 1Kings, they are settling old scores, eliminating rivals and struggling with religious syncretism. (sin-kre-ti-zem) (
Syncretism is the combination of different forms of belief or practice, the fusion of two or more original different systems of thought). In this story from Kings they are struggling with the worship of past gods, in particular Baal. It is a chaotic time – this sorting out of the old and establishing the new. In some ways this is what’s happening in most churches today.

It is the same for the Ephesians story. Paul is attempting to establish the Christian church, and his letter is telling the people how to behave if they want to be a Christian. He writes, be careful how you live, be wise, make the most of your time and don’t waste time drinking wine. Be filled with the spirit, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Give thanks, be grateful and live like Jesus hoped you would. What was it that Jesus hoped for from his followers?

I think it is safe to say that he hoped we would take our lead from him, that we would follow his steps and engage in the kind of ministry he engaged in. He once summed up his mission, or his ministry by saying, that he had come to bring good news to the poor and set at liberating those who are oppressed. 2000 years later we call this kind of ministry social justice.

The United Church, founded in 1925, has been steeped in social justice. Most of you will know that the UCC General Council has just completed a week long meeting in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland where the delegates elected a new moderator for our church,
Jordan Cantwell, a minister from Saskatchewan.

They have also approved a new structure for our church, a three council structure, to replace our current four-court system of government. What that means in concrete terms is that there will no longer be either Presbyteries, or Conferences, because they will be replaced by Regional Councils, which could be either larger, or smaller than our present Conferences, the number and size of these Regional Councils hasn’t been determined yet. There are still lots of details to be worked out and this change can’t happen until it’s approved by a majority of the Presbyteries and congregations across Canada, but we could be looking at a quite different United Church within a couple of years.

The United Church has in many ways had a very successful history. However, we are in the midst of challenging times. We know that there has been a decline of members in congregations by 50% and that the Sunday schools have declined by 90%. I guess that doesn’t come as a surprise to most of us. It appears that there is interest in the work of social justice and this grows out of our history. There is some interest in exploring where to go regarding doctrine, or what to believe. At the present, at the time of ordination, for example we promise to believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the Trinitarian formula from the Basis of Union. 49% of the people gathered at General Council would like to see this changed, while 51% want it to remain as it is. Because of the close numbers on the vote, General Council Executive will continue to work on this piece. It might be time to have a broader perspective on what we believe, or we might want to think about more inclusive language.

In the 1Kings story Solomon is dreaming and he dreams that he has gone to the high sacred place called Gibeon. He goes there to seek wisdom from Yahweh. In the dream Yahweh grants Solomon his request for wisdom. This wisdom is not just about intellect, but it’s also about the will and the desire to do what is right by all of the people. It is about justice. If we are to continue as the United Church of Canada, I feel that what we believe is important and I think it is equally important, to act out what we claim to believe.

Seeking wisdom and understanding is a huge piece of all of our lives. In what ways do we seek out wisdom in our relationships, in our spiritual every day lives and in our church life? How do we discern how we live? What dreams do we dream?

I believe all of those questions are interconnected. I believe that we can’t separate them out into little distinct piles but that somehow all of life is about integration of the whole.

I have studied the work of
Carol Christ at length, and her book “She Who Changes” is an interesting read, and offers a new perspective. I went on pilgrimage with her and with eighteen other women in Greece on the island of Crete in 2005. When I attended seminary in the 90s, Carol Christ was a Christian and she was a tenured professor at Harvard University. She gave up that position to explore other avenues of thinking. She gave up Christianity so she could think, and write about God in a different way. She might say that Christianity was too confining for her and she wanted to explore God,and faith, as a way to conceive a God who creates everything in the world and then we would worship all that exists through God, but in a way where all is interconnected because all is sacred.

Carol Christ in her wisdom says that life is meant to be enjoyed. To enjoy life is to cherish the beauty of each living thing, it is to be interested in diversity and difference in the web of life. To enjoy life includes finding meaning in relationships, not only with those we know well but also with those we don’t know so well. To enjoy life is to influence and to be influenced by others. To enjoy life is not to have power over, nor to have it all, but to share. And of course, to care for the creation of our good earth and all that is.

She would also say, however, that, yes, life is about joy, but it’s also about suffering. Of course we suffer, we only have to watch the news to know that we live in a suffering world. We only have to look closely at our own lives to know that we suffer. But I believe that it is through knowing joy that we will learn to include and make others joyous also. Carol Christ’s work is just one expression of how we might explore our spirituality.

How do we create goodness and joy in our world? It’s a good question because as soon as I ask it I lean towards a model of inclusiveness. However, that is only one model and it could lead us towards other ways of living: like guaranteed income, jobs, benefits for everyone and adequate housing. Other projects might include clean water, more needle exchange sites and equal health care for everyone.

Creating joy could be a full time job.

Back to General Council and what direction our church will take. I have spent my entire life in the United Church of Canada and I suspect I will remain a Christian. I don’t believe everything about Christianity, but it is what I know and I understand its strengths and weaknesses so it seems to be as good as any place to be.

I was speaking with a woman at the market awhile back and she said, “I want to come and talk with you about Christianity. I have some problems with some of what it means to be Christian, but I know that all religions have problems. I know the most about the Christian religion and I think this is where I belong. I just want to talk about what I don’t believe.”

I replied, “A most reasonable thing to do, our faith has to make sense – if it doesn’t make sense for our lives then we need to re-think what it is that we believe.”

I know and I understand that many churches tell people what to believe and they tell them how to live. In some ways we do that too. But I hope in the midst of our doctrine and our teaching, that there is a very open path to discern what we need in our lives. I would ask, “What do I need to understand and believe to be joyous or happy?” If it is oppressive to myself and to others and leads to a dull, unforgiving and joyless life, then I want something else.

I can’t imagine that the United Church of Canada would teach or live out rigid doctrine. Surely, we have learned not to be rigid and controlling.

I remember this story from Haida Gwaii. When the missionaries came to the island in the late 1800’s - they of course converted the aboriginal people to Christianity. This was a process that offered no choice. Up until the missionaries left and residential schools closed, these people tolerated this chaos and attended the Anglican and the Methodist church and later the United Church. But when they were free to leave the church, most left - never to return. They left because they didn’t believe, and had never believed what they had been forced to believe.

This morning we are left with questions. But I do believe that everything is interconnected and it is this truth that makes room for everything to be possible.

May we be open to the spirit of freedom to choose our path and to serve as we see the need in our midst. May we be free to think through what works for us.

May we be happy and always seek ways to be a people connected in our wisdom.

This week I Invite you to think about joy. What makes you happy and what causes you to be unhappy? What do you find within the Christian faith and within the United Church that helps you to experience joy in your life?

Sharon Ferguson-Hood