Sermon by Ken Hull
Sunday, December 11, 2016
There is a word that many at St John’s have grown tired of hearing and tired of thinking about. What is that word? I’ll give you a hint: It starts with ‘T’…and ends with ‘ransition’.
While it seems that we’ve been talking forever at St John’s about transition, we might want to consider that the Children of Israel spent 40 years in the desert during their time of transition, under their Intention Interim Transitional leader, Moses. So looked at in that light, perhaps 2 years (rather than 40) in our moderately comfortable building (rather than the desert) is not so bad.
The Israelites in the desert were fun group, whose conversational openers included such winning lines as, “Things were better for us as slaves back in Egypt,” and, “Did you just bring us out here into the desert to die?” (There are of course no similarities in the behaviour of the Israelites and our own congregation.)
The Israelites were leaving a way of life that was miserable but familiar, for a future that held great promise but that they could not clearly see or even imagine. When God decides to do a new thing, as God did with the Israelites in Egypt, it can be a messy, confusing, and upsetting experience.
Advent is a season when we recall another person who found herself in ‘a time of transition’ in response to God’s decision to do a new thing–perhaps the most radical of all of God’s new things. An angel appeared to a young girl named Mary and told her that God wanted her to be the mother of his son.
Until the angel appeared, Mary’s future must have seemed comfortable and assured to her. She would marry Joseph, as good man with a useful trade and steady employment, have children, raise a family, grow old together with Joseph enjoying a rich and fulfilling family life.
Mary could not possibly have imagined or fully understood what God’s plan would mean for her. Quite aside from the immediate uncertainly of what would happen to her once it was known that she was pregnant unmarried, what could it possibly mean to be the mother of God’s son. What does parenting the son of God look like? It’d not covered in the parenting manuals. By agreeing to what God was asking, she was abandoning herself to a future she could not imagine. No-one could advise her about what it would be like–this had never happened before.
And it’s important to notice that Mary’s consent was needed for God’s initiative to begin. Mary did not ask for details from the angel. There were no contracts or covenants, no fine print, no assurances that all would be well. Mary’s only question was a technical one, “How can this happen” and once she had her answer to that question, Mary said ‘Yes”. Without that “yes”, God’s plan would have been stopped in its tracks. God needs our co-operation, our consent, to do new things.
It seems that we are once again living in a time when God has decided to do a new thing. Not just this parish, but the whole church is in a ‘time of transition’. Congregations are aging and younger people are not coming along in sufficient number to sustain our traditional structures. Many churches are closing or have already closed, and most are shrinking–even those evangelical and mega-churches that continued to experience growth after the decline of the mainline churches was underway are now facing declining numbers. Some churches across the tradition are experiencing renewal and growth, but it is difficult to see what these thriving churches have in common. What works in one place does not necessarily work in another. There is no longer a rule-book about what churches need to do to succeed. It’s no longer business as usual.
What is happening? Is the church dying? If we focus only on the losses, it can seem so. But there is also new growth. Christianity will survive, thgouh it will look different. We don’t know what I will look like, but we can be a part of bringing the rebirth about.
John Philip Newell, former Warden of the Iona Community spoke in Guelph a few weeks ago about his recent book, The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings. He observed that there seem to be three main ways people in the church respond to the seismic changes we are experiencing. The first is to deny that any fundamental change is actually happening. The second is to work harder and try to do better at the things we have always done. The third is ask what is trying to be born, what new thing is God doing, that requires a radical reorientation of our vision.
The first way says, “We’ve been through this kind of thing before. The church has always had ups and downs. We just need to wait it out–everything will be fine and continue as before.”
The second response, to do what we’ve always done but do it better, has something to be said for it. It is always a good thing to try to do better those things which we are important to us.
But for Newell, it is only the third of these choices which is truly going to be helpful in responding to our present situation. The changes that are going on around us are more seismic in nature. We need to look with fresh eyes at what is going around us and ask how God is inviting us to collaborate with the Spirit already at work in the world.
One of the more recent movements within the wider church that tries to embody this third way of doing things is called “the missional church”. The missional church movement says that rather than thinking of mission as something we decide do to and for other people on God’s behalf, we need to be looking for where the Spirit is already at work in our particular neighbourhoods, workplaces, lives, and collaborate with the Spirit in that work. This understanding is part of what lies behind the Anglican Marks of Mission. It is an approach that asks us to discern beyond the church, and pay attention to the particulars of our context, to work with the energies that are already being expressed. Not asking others to come and join us in what we think they should be doing, but joining others and the Spirit in what the Spirit is already doing outside these walls. I think that the missional church movement is one of the approaches to being church in the 21st century that is in tune with the re-birthing that seems to be under way.
St John’s is already doing some of this: we have partnered with others to create a rain garden, manage stormwater, and be more energy efficient. And we have joined in the movement among community groups and other churches in responding to the needs of refugees. Working collaboratively forms relationships and invites us to be more open to encounter God in unfamiliar ways. Some people may decide to join us at St John’s as a result, but that is not the focus. Rather, it is about incarnating God’s love in concrete ways that serve our neighbours.
A missional church approach is not the magic solution to all of our problems. It is one of many possible approaches to being the church in these times, and it has its limitations. For example, it does not directly address feeding the spiritual hunger that is a characteristic of our times, but one that most people don’t connect with the church as a source of nourishment.
This brings me back to the ‘T’ word, and to the process that we are currently engaged in at St John’s.
I am a member of the Transition Ministry Team, but I am speaking you today as an individual, not as the Team’s representative. I have sensed that there is still a lot of confusion within the congregation about what the transition process is, what the TMT is doing, why we are doing it.
I did not volunteer to serve on the TMT because I love meetings, or because I have unbounded confidence in church programs, or because I believe that once we can just get through this process, all will be well. There are no magic bullets, no sure-fire responses to the situation that the church finds itself in. But I am convinced that if we think we can just carry on as usual, we’re kidding ourselves about what the future holds.
The process is not perfect, and the members of the TMT are struggling too. We too are doing this for the first time. We have made mistakes and will probably make more. We are not trying to inflict an outcome on an unwilling congregation, but to facilitate a congregational process of self-discovery and renewal. Although the Town Hall process has been challenging for many, we have done some significant work together and accomplished a lot in our three Town Hall meetings, and it’s important to remember this.
The immediate motivation for our work together is the up-coming search for a new ordained leader for our community, but the truth is that it is not just the leadership or this congregation that is in transition, but the entire church. And while the formal transition process will end in just a few months’ time–our deadline is early April–, the larger challenge of the church in transition, for us and across communities and denominations, will not. Activities like doing Bible studies at a town hall meeting are not just about hiring a new priest, but more fundamentally about discerning the nature of the community that we believe we are called to be. Another way of saying this is that we are hoping to discern more clearly our particular vocation as individuals and as a congregation in this particular time and place.
For me, vocation is the core issue we need to address. There are lots of good things we could do, but we can’t do them all. There may be lots of things we feel we ought to do, but this can quickly become a joyless burden. The question needs to be what do we feel called to do given who we are and where we find ourselves. A calling energizes and fulfills in a way that just signing up for the next task on the list does not. A calling beings a sense of connectedness to a larger purpose and that we have something important and distinctive to contribute.
Parker Palmer is a Quaker writer and educator whose definition of vocation captures this well. Vocation, he says, is the place where my passion meets the world’s need. The place where my, or our collective, passion, meets the world’s need.
‘Vocation’ in this sense is different from career. It is rooted in an inner sense of what energizes us, in identifying those ways of doing and being that seem to connect us with our deepest self, that make us feel that we are ‘on our thread’. For many of us, vocation in this sense may be expressed only partially or not at all in our career path. Vocation then is not a question of what we think we ought to do, or what other people tell us we’re good at. Palmer suggests that it can be identified by asking what we are passionate about.
But this is only half of Palmer’s definition. To express our vocation, that passion needs to connect with the needs of the world. It needs to find its expression within the particular realities of context. There needs to be an affirming response from other people, or a meaningful connection with the world around us.
I believe that not only individuals but congregations have vocations, and that a large part of our work as a congregation during this transitional process is to begin to identify what our particular vocation in this specific time and place is. It’s not that there is a single sense of vocation that all of us will agree on. There is diversity among us, as there should be. But the choices that we make about future direction should both energize us, have a deep sense of rightness for us, and serve and connect with the needs of the neighbourhood, city, economic and social realities in which we find ourselves.
Like Mary, we are being asked to collaborate with God in bringing something new to birth. And like Mary, we cannot see or understand fully what this will mean, or even what our destination is. But let’s adopt Mary’s attitude to the opportunity and uncertainty she was offered, and say ‘Yes’ to where we find ourselves, embracing it with joy.
The angel says, “Do not be afraid.”
The prophet Isaiah says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”