Monday 18 June 2012

Dealing With Goliath

The first text in the lectionary for this Sunday is a portion of the story of David and Goliath (D&G).  I was surprised to discover that I have never preached on this text in thirty years!  I guess that the companion text from Mark, Jesus stilling the storm, always seemed more immediately applicable.  As well D&G has so much baggage wrapped around it that I preferred to avoid it.  After all, how much time can one spend saying what the text is not about before getting to what I think it is about?!

However, encouraged by a week with Ched Myers and Bill Blaikie at the Atlantic Seminar on Theological Education, I’m giving it a go.  Here are some initial thoughts. 

Context:   Despite our automatic preference for the Israelites it’s helpful to me to remember that, about 200 years earlier, Joshua and his people had come bursting into a land that was already occupied.  The “doctrine of discovery” has a long history in national interactions. Europeans used it to justify taking lands from and enslaving indigenous peoples because the way they related to the land was different than that of the newcomers.  According to the story, the Israelites, having escaped from slavery in Egypt, after a generation of wandering came into “the Promised Land.”  Shall we say, the discovered it.  However, that land was already occupied by people who had not read the same story and, not surprisingly, objected to their land being given in promise by someone else’s God to someone else’s descendents. At the same time, Egypt was the regional superpower.  As superpowers have always done, the Egyptians employed local tribes and nations to keep the status quo in balance.  In this case, it was the Philistines.  So while I was certainly raised in Sunday School to see them as “the enemy” and “the bad guys” an argument might be offered that they were simply doing their job, protecting the community from the newcomers – the Israelites.  If anyone has ever complained about how the neighbourhood has changed or what those “newcomers” are doing, they might sympathize with the Philistines more than they imagined!
 Regardless of whether this is an actual historical account or not, Goliath is certainly pictured as a larger than life character.  He’s one big, bad, dude!  All the details of his size and girth are designed to make him intimidating.  Armies in those days were built around a fairly small cadre of professional soldiers.  It was expensive to keep those otherwise useless mouths around, so this small group of professionals would be augmented in time of war with recruits and draftees armed with whatever they could find.  Unless they were defending their own homes those draftees weren’t too interested in putting their own, highly vulnerable, flesh on the line for the monarch.  So usually the professionals, the champions with the training and equipment, would engage in single combat.  After a few weeks of marching, posturing, shouting insults and so on, everyone could go home.  It was certainly brutal and combatants did perish, often horribly, but it was rarely the type of outright slaughter of civilians that has become the norm through the 20th and into the 21st century.  So Goliath is doing his job, putting down the Israelites and, since no one wants to take him on, things are at an impasse.
 Biblical scholar James Sanders taught us all, years ago, that if we find a passage of scripture making us feel self-righteous, we can be almost certain that we’ve misunderstood.  I’ve been haunted by that wisdom as I contemplate this text.  Where am I, where are we, where are you the representative of someone else’s “Philistines”?  Given the relative roles of the Philistines and Israelites in the evolving reality of Canaan, am I the representative of the status quo getting in the way of the “promised land” of someone else’s faith?  Who might say that I have been “Goliath” to their “David”?

Clearly there is a good deal more to the story which will need to appear in Sunday’s sermon, but that’s a place to start on a June Monday.

Sunday 17 June 2012


(from a sermon preached at Knox United Church)

            “Practice what you preach.”  That rather hoary old saw is often trotted out when a high profile person, experienced as “holier than thou”, has their wings clipped.  Or we hear it when someone who has made a great deal of their “sterling character” is revealed to have feet of clay.  The trouble with “practice what you preach” is that it depends on what you are preaching.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta certainly practiced what she preached – but then so too did Adolf Hitler.  Just because he was consistent few of us are likely to excuse the horrible excesses that followed on his practice and his preaching!  I sometimes wonder if we might be further ahead in the church if we were to focus on “preaching what we practice.” I don’t mean everyone sets up a little stand on the corner and haranguing the passersby!  What I was thinking about was being more willing to actually speak about why we as Christians do what we do.
            That comes to mind because I was asked to speak about Christianity and Professional Sport.  This is one of the topics purchased at our congregational auction.  The deal is that the purchaser gets to pick the topic and I choose how to address it.  So Ken and Kyle will have to tell us afterwards whether they got their money’s worth.  They introduced me to a fellow by the name of Tim Tebow.  Since I don’t follow the National Football League at all it took a little bit of follow up research on my part.  Tebow grew up in a very religious Christian family where he was home schooled.  His father is a Baptist pastor and missionary.  Tim Tebow has made headlines for his unorthodox quarterbacking skills, his surprise wins, and his frequent public demonstrations of Christian devotion.
            Now, I am the last person qualified to comment on someone’s athletic and quarterbacking skills.  From what I have read, however, Tebow does hold some impressive records and awards in different categories and he is noted by most – fans and critics alike – as being physically courageous and intensely competitive.  It’s the connection between his faith and his performance that interests us today.  Tebow is by no means the first or the only professional athlete to give public demonstrations of their Christian commitment.  We’ll speak more about that in a moment.  What seems to attract attention to Tebow is the fact that he does it more frequently than most and, just as importantly, he developed a certain reputation for pulling out victories in difficult situations.  43% of fans surveyed believe that God is actually helping Tebow win football games.  Which ought to be a matter of some concern for folk like us.  Because, if in fact God does intervene to help one side win something – excuse me, as trivial as a football game – then that immediately leads us into a whole lot of unhealthy and unhelpful other ideas about God.  Why Tebow’s team and not others?  Are they doing something special, have they uncovered the magic formula that pulls God in on their side?  I’m sorry, the mess is endless when we start down that path. 
I think it is both more faithful and wiser to say that God does not intervene in football games.  That’s not the same as saying God doesn’t care.  We just have no evidence either way.  And if God does intervene in something like a football game why not something important – like hockey.  Surely Leaf fans have sent up enough prayers over the decades!  Seriously though, if God does overtly interfere in football games, why not in a drought or plague or genocide, where tens and hundreds of thousands of innocents are losing their lives?  And we have no evidence of God’s intervention there.  Such a God, intervening in one setting and not another, would be monstrous, not worthy of worship.  So, is Tebow specially favoured by God?  No.  Is he exceptionally lucky?  Perhaps.  Does he play for an organization that is willing to try unorthodox tactics and does he perform exceptionally well in such circumstances?  Now you’ve got it.  Although 43% of fans believe that God is specially favouring Tebow there is no evidence to suggest that he ever prays for God to give his team victory or that he ceases to pray if they lose.
Tebow is part of a strain of the faith sometimes called “Muscular Christianity.”  This came into prominence in the Victorian Era, when there was a concern that Christianity was becoming the field of – in 21st century terms – “wimps” and “nerds.”  NT passages like these from Paul inspired a combination of Christian piety and physical health: “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.;”(Philippians 3:14) and “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  Of course, anyone familiar with Paul’s letters knows that he regularly employed images from athletics as metaphors for the Christian life.  So, “Muscular Christianity” sought to make a more obvious connection between physical fitness and faith in order to deepen the connection with men and boys and girls.  It played an important part in the formation of the YMCA and to a lesser extent the YWCA.
One famous example of muscular Christianity you may recognize is Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman” who is a central character in the movie “Chariots of Fire.”  Liddell was an Olympic Gold medalist (Paris, 1924), a champion rugby player, and a famous Christian missionary.  During the Olympic Liddell refused to run in a heat held on the Christian Sabbath.  One of his famous quotes is: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
Today that connection between faith and sport continues in groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and Promise Keepers.  The phenomenon was investigated by Tim Krattenmaker in Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers (Rowman Littlefield, 2009).  It is particularly important in the United States where coaches and chaplains encourage players at all levels to make public professions of faith in different circumstances.  Tebow is certainly part of that movement.
So what might you and I learn from considering the witness of Tim Tebow and other Christian athletes.  We’ve already observed that God does not intervene to affect the scores of games.  Yet several commentators have made the point that Tebow’s convictions – chiefly his faith – leads to what successes he’s had.  In other words, because he believes he is willing to take risks which lead to positive results.  Not only that, he seems to have no fear of failure, not because he cannot fail but because his personal identity is secured in something deeper – in God.  So he believes in himself and his fellow players.  Perhaps you can recall a time when you did something without worrying what other people might think.  Maybe that was unusual for you.  When we live our lives looking over our shoulder at what others might say we can rarely do our best.  If our identity truly is rooted in Jesus Christ we can “perform” to our best ability in any sphere, and know that, win or lose, we are valued and treasured.
Tebow seems to have owned who he is.  He is an unusual individual – but then, so are you.  Can you accept that?  Each one of us is a unique combination of gifts, skills, life experience, faith, hopes.  No one else is you.  Does God help Tebow win?  I doubt it.  But I do believe that the 3rd century theologian was correct when he wrote: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” (Iraneaus)  That doesn’t mean just be yourself.  It means that we are fully alive when we have found that thing God wants us to be doing and do it with all our being.  When we do that, we make a difference.  What does God want you to do?  Have you found it yet?
Tebow seems to have a capacity to inspire others.  Football is not a sport where a single individual wins the game.  He apparently motivates his teammates to excel in seemingly difficult or impossible situations.  Someone who believes does that.  Someone who says to others, “You can do it” or “I believe in you,” has an impact far beyond their own individual self.  It has to be sincere, but in a world, a society, a church that is far more apt to criticize than nurture, if you can cultivate the habit of looking for the good in others and complimenting them, you can have a tremendous impact. 
Tebow is often mocked for his witness.  His signature stance has been ridiculed on several websites.  That kind of overt Christian witnessing often makes Canadians more uncomfortable than Americans but it does rub some people the wrong way.  The interesting thing is that Tebow does seem to be preaching what he practices.  In addition to football, he is engaged in a number of Christian philanthropic activities around the world; which is in definite contrast to the infamous excesses of a minority of professional athletes.  If we who call ourselves Christians are offended or put off by such demonstrations of Christian faith we need to ask ourselves why?
·         We are rightly offended when someone claims to be something they are not for personal gain – but Tebow’s convictions and behaviours seem consistent;
·         You might claim that religion has no place in professional sports, but have you ever watched the behaviour of sports fans?  If that’s not religious fervor I don’t know what is!  And professional sports is surrounded, cocooned and overwhelmed by a religion of constant consumerism and mindless buying.  Why exclude Christianity from that context?
·         His witness may be misunderstood, as when fans think God helps Christian athletes win games.  But, by a similar token, the silence that many of us practice in relationship to our Christian faith is equally likely to be misunderstood as faith’s absence.  Does one misunderstanding trump another?
·         We must not overlook the power of affinity.  If someone you know, trust and/or admire presents or celebrates a particular viewpoint or lifestyle – for good or for ill – you are more likely to adopt it as your own.  Why not do that for Christianity?
Like the muscular Christianity that it continues, the public witness of Tim Tebow and other athletes raises questions.  They bring the faith straight into the face of a demographic that might be most likely to dismiss it.  And for those of us who do believe they raise an awkward question: if we don’t like the way they preach what they practice what do we do differently? Let those with ears hear the Spirit’s word to the church.  Amen   

Thursday 14 June 2012


(from a sermon preached May 27.12

           Your parents may very well have taught you that there were certain things that you shouldn’t speak about in polite company.  Well, I’m about to combine two of them in this sermon.  This is one of the topics purchased at our congregational auction last fall, where several generous people bid for the chance to name the focus for a sermon.  I reserved the right to handle it in my own way!  It may seem odd to begin a sermon on Christianity and politics with the Pentecost reading from the Book of Acts (Acts 2:1-21).  But that’s precisely where I begin today.  When we hear that list of nations our eyes may glaze over at the collection of ancient and strange names.  But if you were to plot those nations on a map you would have a rough circle encompassing the width and breadth of the Roman Empire.  The Roman Empire was the greatest human organization ever created and it was done so by force.  It was held together at the point of the sword.  In the Pentecost story an important counter-claim is being made: through the power of God’s Spirit another empire has come to be.  An empire based on love and the unity of followers of Jesus Christ.  And when the Romans persecuted the Christians it wasn’t that they missed the point.  Indeed they got it quite clearly.  The followers of Jesus the Risen One were a challenge to the Empire.  For if Jesus is Lord then Caesar cannot be.  That goes for every ruler and leader in history who would take Christ’s place. 
           The Pentecost story reminds us that God in Jesus Christ is making a claim on all parts of our lives. Jesus himself taught us to pray for our daily bread and to love our neighbours in concrete ways.  But how do we live that day by day?  There have been different approaches. Some branches of Christianity – the Mennonites and Amish amongst others - have seen government and society as inevitably so corrupt and violent that they have chosen to withdraw.  A broader tradition has seen government – and service to government – as a legitimate forum for expressing our faith.  So it has been common for the Parliament of Canada and all of the provincial legislatures to have clergy from the mainline denominations as members – sometimes several.  You would generally find them on the social justice side of all the parties: so-called red Tories like the Rev David MacDonald; New Democrats like Rev Bill Blaikie or Fr Bill Ogle; more recently Liberals like Rev Rob Oliphant.  Indeed, in the United Church Manual membership in parliament or legislature is specifically named as an acceptable form of call for ministers.  For lay members, as well as clergy, active participation in Christian congregations is not in obvious conflict with their role in politics. 
           There has, however, been an interesting shift in public perception of religion and politics in the last twenty years.  During the ‘90s I attended a forum on Christianity and government in Canada held at Queen’s University.  The most interesting part was a panel discussion with several politicians of every political allegiance imaginable who spoke quite candidly about the impact their various religious affiliations played in their political lives.  There were some variations, as you would expect, but the general consensus was that while the intrusion of religious doctrine into public life was not appropriate there was an admissible and fitting role for faith. 
Contrast that with what may jump to mind when the subject of religion and politics is raised today.  We may think of some of the spectacles played out south of the border, where candidates seem compelled to cater to a portion of the electorate who have no hesitation in imposing particular religious doctrines on the public – on everything from what is taught in public schools to abortion to sexual orientation, as well as larger and quite a bit more dangerously complex questions such as Israel-Palestine.  There, for some very powerful figures, the interpretation of specific biblical passages leads to a foreign policy position with international ramifications.  That is not something of which we have seen much in Canada historically, although it appears to be on the rise.
The truth is that “people will come to politics with some view of what is ultimately real and true.  Questions of peace and war, the economy and the environment”[i] do not exist in a vacuum.  Our answers to those questions have to come from somewhere.  I would argue that it is at least as legitimate to shape our answers from a faith perspective as from any other. That’s not the same as saying if your church or faith perspective has a particular position on a subject that as a lawmaker you must slavishly follow that.  But surely it is worth putting into the decision-making mix.
Our United Church of Canada has some of its roots in the social gospel.  This was a Christian movement that flourished in the 19th and into the 20th century.  In essence, the social gospellers looked around at society and said we can do better.  In fact, not only can we, we must!  Our Christian commitment to love our neighbour is not exhausted by prayer and individual acts of charity – important as those are.   If we can clearly see that the system keeps people in need we must give a Christian response.  For instance, if the system is set up in such a way that a worker must buy everything from the company store and the basics of life cost more than even the most diligent worker could expect to earn, our Christian faith not only deplores that but pushes us to action.  Or if the system says that a family must go from doctor to doctor trying to find one they can afford in order to get treatment for a sick child, faith moves us to action.  What the social gospel affirms is a relationship between faith and politics.  Not a relationship between religion and the state or government.  No religion should receive preferential treatment.  Nor should there be a negative prejudice against any religion on principle.  There can be a positive, respectful, mutually beneficial conversation between all religions and politics.
The social gospellers were not all socialists by any means.  But they saw and were willing to name – on the basis of a Christian world view – the need for fundamental changes to the system around them.  They were not content with a Christianity that stopped at “saving souls” while bodies were enslaved.  Social gospellers shared a conviction, based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, that it is a lie to claim that competition is the best basis for society.  Unfettered profit is simply a license for greed and exploitation.  They believed in cooperation as the truest expression of social life.  They were sufficiently realistic to see that society had to create restraints to greed.  Fundamentally they believed that God is as concerned with justice in the world here and now as with the eternal salvation of individual souls.
With that background you can perhaps understand why I get so annoyed when a cartoon version of Christian faith, concerned only about a couple of hot button issues, is presented in the public media.  Or when religious opinions are excluded from public discussions as if faith is always and irredeemably selfish, narrow and bigoted.  The essence of the social gospel is that we have responsibility for one another, we need to share equitably in the resources and well-being of our rich land and our lust for easy and unearned gain needs to be contained.[ii]  That is by no means the same as socialism or communism.  But it does say that there is something wrong with the system when the gap between the wages of the CEOs and the shop floor is 187 times.  Or when the proportion that corporations pay to the public good has dropped from 45% to 15% in the last twenty years while profits soar and programs for the most vulnerable as slashed for lack of funds.  It reminds us of a time when a minimum wage was actually a living wage; or when unemployment insurance covered far more Canadians; or when Canadians with mental health challenges weren’t tossed into the street to fend for themselves; or when there were no food banks because they weren’t needed; or when the government knew it had a role in housing the most vulnerable Canadians; or when the tax cut narrative had not become the new infallible scripture of public conversation.
Bringing religious and spiritual convictions to the discussion of public policy will not make the hard decisions of government any easier.  It shouldn’t.  In fact, when you bring Christian faith in as an element in decision-making I can see how things might get harder.  If you have a pure capitalist outlook – get rid of everything that gets in the way of maximizing profit – then I imagine it can be pretty straightforward.  When you start mixing in concern for workers or the vulnerable or the environment the water gets murkier and the balancing more difficult.  That’s OK.  It’s appropriate that decisions affecting the lives of many should be complex and challenging.
Dietrich Bonheoffer was a German pastor and theologian who was martyred for his part in opposing Adolf Hitler.  He knew quite vividly the challenges that arise when our faith draws us into the arena of public activity and life.  He wrote that, for Christians, the choices we make about politics need to be both provisional and concrete.  Provisional choices remain open to change.  We can say, to ourselves and others, “We do not know everything.”  We are open to instruction from the Holy Spirit, by experience, by dialogue with others and so on.  It is wrong to put our choices in concrete just because we’re worried that someone might accuse us of changing our minds.  On the other hand, Christian political decisions need to be concrete as well.  Our faith and our politics need to result in something in this world.  Christ’s followers need to be of some earthly use.  Mouthing general principles is not enough.  At this point and time we have to do something, and that something has to be the best we can accomplish.  Sometimes we do that most effectively through the political process.  Let those with ears hear the Spirit’s word to the church.

[i] Bill Blaikie, The Blaikie Report, Toronto, UCPH, 2012.
[ii] Walter Rauschenbush, A Theology for the Social Gospel, New York, Macmillan,  1917.

Monday 11 June 2012

The Future of the United Church of Canada

            Three distinct streams of Canadian Protestant tradition flowed in the doors of Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena on June 10, 1925.  They flowed out as one.  They were doing something that had never been done before.  Some said it was impossible: combining three distinct traditions, all of which were thriving.  This was not a desperation move.  This was not something done for survival’s sake.  They did it because they grasped a vision of God. Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians blended their different heritages in something which was uniquely Canadian – the United Church of Canada.  Other unions have followed – there are some nineteen united and uniting denominations around the world – but we were the first.  Instead of standing rigid on their particularities they surrendered their denominational individualism for the sake of a greater whole; for the sake of what they saw as their part in God’s mission for the world. 
            What was that mission?  It was a vision that was soon tested in the pressures of the Depression and the fires of a nation at war.  It was a vision of a Christian dominion from sea to sea to sea.  A vision of a new Christianity where historic divisions based on ancient dislikes and differences give way to an integrated faith community, based on Jesus’ ideal of peace, justice and service to all, regardless of any human-created barriers.  A church where the voice of God’s Spirit was believed to speak to all not just a few privileged ones.
            As one of the sermon subjects purchased at our congregational auction last fall I’ve been asked to speak about the future of the United Church.  The topic is someone else’s – the response is mine.  In responding, I am going take some of the changes – some might say the challenges – we face and see how they might play out in the future.  Because the foundations for our future are found in our past and our present – in those things we opt to continue and those things we choose to change.
            United Church is deeply impacted by the changing place of religion in Canadian society.  For many decades we benefited from an unofficial alliance of several important institutions that included government, church, business, and education.  We were supported by various practices, from opening exercises with prayers and bible readings in public schools to legislation prohibiting many competing activities on Sunday morning to the conviction that being part of a church was an important element in your standing (and sometimes your job) in the community.  So churches assumed that pretty much everyone was a Christian; we just had to make them our type.  While little of that privilege remains today many of our attitudes and practices are shaped by it.  For instance, when the suggestion is made that we need to be more active in inviting people the response is sometimes: “Well, the doors are open on Sunday morning, they can come if they want.”  That answer assumes that church, faith, worship are all reasonable and possible responses for our fellow Canadians.  But are they? 
            There is the challenge of relevance.  Once, the relevance and connection of faith to a good and complete life seemed evident – or at least unquestioned.  Today, many people believe that they can have a full life without worrying about religion.  Parents who are seeking to do the best for their kids may decide that swimming lessons are more important than church school. Survey after survey reveals that Canadians are seeking communities that are genuine, supportive, intellectually credible and spiritually nurturing.  But they rarely see the church – any church – as a resource for that desire.  How do we bring those desired characteristics, present in so many congregations, to people’s awareness? Most people are not hostile to the church.  They are not anti-church.  They aren’t staying away because of us.  For most Canadians church and vital Christian faith simply are not on their radar screen.  There’s no point in our simply saying that it should be. The future requires us to be much more proactive in sharing the benefits of Christian community.  That means working on our inviting and our receiving.  If someone risks entering this strange place called church what happens?  Are they genuinely welcomed?  Are they included?  Are they cared for?  Is there openness to their needs and gifts? Being church in the future will demand a great deal from all of us.
            Those folk who flowed into the Mutual Street Arena 87 years ago believed that Christianity and the church had something to say to the quality of Canada as a nation.  Sure, a goodly chunk of it involved equating being Christian with being loyal, middle-class, English-speaking citizens of the British Empire.  That’s more baggage than I’d care to own!  That outlook issued in a number of tragic results.  But that sense of Christian faith being more than purely personal fired formative Canadian concepts such as Medicare, Old Age Security, Employment Insurance, immigration and refugee policies – to name but a few.  The question is: do we still believe that the message of Jesus Christ can make a difference in our national life?  When we lose confidence in that unique story and we start to sound like any other interest group, why would anyone bother to listen to us?  Our mistakes, I believe, are well-intentioned.  We want to be heard by others. So we bury our unique view of the world under language designed to sound reasonable and accessible.  But Christianity is more than modern, rational and charitable.  It draws us beyond logical calculation of cost and benefit. We continually face a challenge:  on the one hand we are a welcoming, radically hospitable and embracing people of Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, we cannot be all things to all people and still be anything to anyone.
            Kermit the Frog used to sing, “It’s not easy being green.”  Well, it’s not easy in these times being United Church.  Some of the challenges we face come from changes in Canada as a whole.  Think of the changes in the last 87 years.  Whew! From a predominantly rural to an overwhelmingly urban population.  From a resource extraction economy to a manufacturing base to – well, what do we call our economy today?  From a country populated largely by white Europeans and their descendants to the most multi-cultural and multi-coloured nation on the globe.  From a country where it might take much of a month for a letter to go from St. John’s to Victoria to one of instant communication and rapid travel.  From a country where natural resources seemed almost painfully endless to one where we are concerned about the most precious commodities like clean air, water, and soil.  From a country where reasonable people spoke about Christianity being the only faith by the end of the 20th century to one where there is an incredible rainbow of spiritual diversity which gives evidence to the world that those with different commitments can indeed live in peace side-by-side most of the time.
            No, it’s not easy being United Church.  In fact it will be challenging as we go forward.  But it is far from impossible.  I compare our situation to the biblical story of the Exodus.  If you recall, God’s people were in slavery and Moses was sent to lead them out to a new land.  The journey was neither quick nor easy and the final destination was not clear to the travelers.  They trusted God; but not all the time.  If you remember the story, there were lots of times when the people grumbled and complained.  In fact, sometimes they said it would be better to be back in slavery.  At least there they knew the rules and knew where the next meal was coming from.
            If we are in Exodus what were we enslaved to?  We were pretty cozy in a society that was not always just – particularly to minorities.  We thrived in a society that kept women, children and men in pretty strictly defined roles.  Our role was clear and we were rewarded with full churches and Sunday schools.  Now we are in exodus and sometimes people remember fondly the days when there were so many children that the grade 5 met in the furnace room because that was the only space!  Not really, but you know what I mean!  Everybody’s good old days are someone else’s nightmare.  We were successful – were we faithful?  I don’t know.  I do know those days are behind us and much as we might long for them they are not returning. We have shrunk in numbers and social prominence and will continue to do so.  Actually, the year we stopped growing was 1965.  Many congregations face painful tests ahead and in those tests we will learn whether our commitment is to a particular building or group of people or to the call of the gospel that is larger than our comfort zone.  If we could no longer afford to keep this church building open, what would you do? 
            I believe that, in the cultural desert where different voices compete to yell loudly and shrilly that they alone have the truth that there is a place for a people and a church that is open to living through the questions without rushing to the safety of easy answers.  I believe, when so much popular spirituality is personal and inward looking, that there is a place for a faith community that combines a relationship with God and concern for society and creation beyond personal charity.  I believe, in a country where powerful forces increasingly seek to divide us up into interest groups that fear one another, that there is a place for a community that is willing to extend radical hospitality to all who will come.  I believe, in the desert of our world where we are often compartmentalized as individuals, chopped into little pieces of particular concerns, that there is a room for a community that greets people as whole – and potentially holy.  I believe our creed speaks truth about more than purely individual life when it says: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.  We are not alone.”  In the death of old ways of being and in the ending of comfortable certainties we are indeed not alone.  God is with us on the journey.  Thanks be to God.  Amen