1st Scripture Reading: Psalm 15 & Galatians 27-28
So, welcome to this sermon series: “This United Church of Ours”. Sometimes we take for granted, I think, that everyone knows why we are here and who we are when we are here – and where exactly have we landed anyway?!
And that’s OK. In a way that actually defines who we are in our diversity of beliefs and backgrounds, as we come together in search of the experience of God or the Divine.
It also speaks to our identity as a welcoming community – as we try to live out the words of the Psalm (15): “God, who may be a guest in your house or dwell on your holy mountain?” You are welcome here. If you care enough about being a good and loving person to be here, then you are welcome here. If you are reaching out for help to be the kind of person you want to be – then you are welcome here. If you have faced discrimination, racism or sexism in the wider world, and you are seeking acceptance and validation as a child of God – then you are welcome here. If you are suffering in any way, and feel the need of the support of a loving community – then you are welcome here.
During my period of discernment, something every candidate for ministry goes thru, I was at one point asked why I had chosen the United Church to be part of. Well, to be honest I hadn’t given that question a whole lot of thought. But sometimes you just know what to say: I said, “I guess I just really like the name – united seems an important concept to me.”
Little did I know…. The United Church of Canada came into being by an Act of the Canadian Parliament, in 1925 – a uniting of four denominations: Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, and the Association of Local Union Churches (mostly from the prairie provinces). The UCC is a mainline, Protestant denomination, second only in size to the Roman Catholic denomination in Canada. At the time of its inauguration, June 10, 1925, the combined membership was about 600,000. At its peak in 1964 membership was 1.1 million, a number that has been declining since then. In 2011, according to stats Canada, about 2 million people self-identified as adherents. Texada UC joined the union in 1925 – it had been a Presbyterian church since 1900.
There are on-going attempts to further expand the UCC umbrella to include the Evangelical United Brethren Church (1968), and unsuccessfully so far, the Anglican Church of Canada.
So “uniting” is an action word for this church! But with differing denominations come more challenges in the form of doctrinal beliefs, worship practices, and cultural reforms.
We have been challenged by our scriptures to widen our definition of who God loves, to include women and children, the LGBTQ community, our indigenous neighbours, immigrants to our country, and people of different races, religions and cultures.
Defining ourselves as an inclusive church has meant that we recognize all marriages (heterosexual and same-sex), baptisms done in all main stream Christian churches, and admit and welcome all persons to membership and to ordination regardless of sex, race, or sexual orientation. Membership in the UCC is recognized all over Canada.
So when we talk about being a welcoming church, we know that what we mean by that is all God’s children are welcome here. The first woman Moderator of our church, Lois Wilson, famously said as she addressed the Council for the first time (facing a room full of mostly dark-suited men – some of whom were angry at the election of a woman), she said, “We are all in this room because of Jesus.”
That inclusivity has not been easy, as many Christian denominations as well as individual congregations, are socially conservative, and we have all paid the price for that in declining membership and attendance.
But Jesus set the mold, being an example for all of us. He welcomed women and children to his teaching and healing. He ate and drank with sinners and outcasts. He never said anything bad about gays or women or even good people who didn’t follow his particular way or believe in him. He openly challenged many of the established practices of his day, and threatened those whose power rested in the status quo.
Jesus taught that the supreme commandment is to love your neighbour as yourself, and to love the Divine Power that is Love. The UCC strives to live out its calling to learn, teach and practice the Way of Love as taught by Jesus.
We have not always lived up to this huge calling: at the time of Union we inherited involvement in the Indian Residential Schools where generations of indigenous children were incarcerated, indoctrinated with dominant culture, and many sexually and physically abused. The UCC has accepted full responsibility for this terrible injustice, closed the schools, apologized formally, and is making financial compensation. We will talk more about Reconciliation at a later date.
Our church is not perfect. But historically it has brought a lot of people together, helped and healed a lot of people, and is striving to more and more closely follow the Way of Jesus – the Way of Love.
Hymn # 12 MV “Come Touch Our Hearts”
2nd Scripture Reading: John 7:37-38
“out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
Let’s talk nuts ‘n bolts for a few minutes. for many people the thought of going to church is anathema! They have visions of dark somber interiors with uncomfortable seating, dreary organ music, and a sour-faced person preaching fire and brimstone as the wages of sin from an elevated pulpit at the front of the room. Some have even worse memories, sexual abuse or exploitation at the hands of powerful elders, financial pressure to give more than was possible, reinforcement of guilt for past misdeeds or sexual orientation.
This version of church has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. The UCC is working very hard to counteract this vision of our church. We have new music, we welcome a variety of musicians and musical styles to our worship services, we can see many churches changing the physical space for worship, with different more flexible furnishings and arrangements of the space. We make our leaders accountable for their actions, and teach appropriate behaviours and reporting mechanisms for breaches of trust. We actively work to empower the laity to minister to one another – to become whole people of God. Many are not happy with this loss of power to a privileged few, but openness and transparency support equality in the congregation, and reduce the possibility of fear and intimidation and abuse of that power.
We celebrate the gifts that each person brings to the community of faith, and encourage and support the spiritual growth of each individual as they engage with the teachings of Jesus.
We don’t have a special “lingo” for church stuff. We pray. We sing. We help each other. We read the Bible. Sometimes we meditate – which can look a lot like prayer. Occasionally we have a book study, or a movie to talk about. We do wonderful pot lucks!
Many of us ministers don’t really do sermons any more. We do short reflections – which you are free to disagree with, by the way! Or meditations – something for you to think about, or meditate on. Its our job to offer you spiritual material – meat, if you like – to chew on, to help you grow in your faith or understanding.
The UCC is not a cult. There is not a set of beliefs you must adhere to or you will be punished. We are a non-creedal church, which means you don’t have to literally believe creeds written by other people unless they resonate for you. The Wisdom tradition is the basis of many of our practices – we want to learn what is right and what is good, we want to grow in wisdom as we learn about Jesus Christ.
For some, this looseness of doctrine is not very comfortable. For others, it is essential. We are all in this room because of Jesus. For us who call ourselves Christians, his very presence is nourishment, is mana from heaven. For some that is literally true. For others it is metaphorically true. But to grow spiritually requires commitment to some direction, some Higher Power – some star that is just beyond your grasp. We need a teacher. For us, Jesus the Christ is that teacher. From him flows the wisdom that we can call living water.Hymn # 87 MV “Living Water”