Sunday, October 14, 2007

28th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Timothy 2:8-15
8Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, 9for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 10Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; 13if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.
14Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. 15Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

One of the distinct pleasures of having kids is being able to say, “Back in my day…” In my day we didn’t have calculators. We didn’t get driven to school. We walked two miles uphill, both ways! You get the picture. And with the pace of change in our world, even younger people can get in on the action, naming things that didn’t exist even a couple of years ago.

As time passes, even the church begins to change in sometimes-dramatic ways. Back in my day, if you thought about becoming a minister, you simply mentioned it to your minister, she would set up an interview with the Session, and presto, you were ready to be a candidate for ministry. Not a member of the church? Not a problem, just join some Sunday and meet with the Session later that day.
Contrast that with today: a non-member waits two years to start a discernment process that takes up to two years itself. This means that what used to take a few days now takes up to four years. Did you know we have a shortage of ministers?

Back in my day (if you will permit me a little nostalgia), I had my little thirty minute meeting with the Session, meeting with the minister and a couple of elders. Alvin, who had been reading his Observer back in 1986, when first. “I have only one question for you Michael…are you gay?” Camillia, my minister, turned white. She had a sense that this question was off-limits. Mary, who is also my mother’s best friend, started to giggle, knowing some of my dating history. And poor Alvin looked confused, thinking that he was asking a perfectly reasonable and very topical question.

It turns out that ministers have some human rights. Not a full set, but we have some. The place where our rights are violated is every time we have some sort of job interview and people want to know about our faith. If you’re interviewing for a job at Wal-mart and they ask you your views on the Holy Trinity, you can get a good lawyer and sue the pants off them. It would be a bit like winning the lottery. If you want to become a candidate for ministry, they might not ask that exact question, but they’re going to ask you something about your faith.

We do, of course, adhere to the human rights code when hiring. We can’t ask about race, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, etc. But we can ask about creed. The churches were given an exemption from this part of the human rights code because it would be just plain silly to interview people for ministry and not be able to ask them about their faith. In other words, you give up the right to avoid faith questions when you want to work in the church.

The relationship between the church and the world around it is always changing. The author of 2 Timothy is “chained like a criminal” for professing faith in Jesus Christ, and willing to endure suffering for the sake of the gospel. Much of the letter comes back to the question of remaining faithful in the face of persecution. Some have fallen away, denying Christ and leaving the church. Others have remained steadfast, taking the risk in the face of outward hostility to the faith.

It seems so far removed from our time. Professing faith in Christ is a right protected by the Charter. The community is dotted with churches. We occupy a place of privilege in the community. We don’t pay property taxes. Our revenue, like other charities, is not taxed. Even part of my salary is tax-free, something that surprises my non-church friends and makes them regret (for a nanosecond) that they didn’t become ministers. And while we may not occupy the same place of influence we once did, we are still regarded as unique and granted a special place in society.

But for how long? The government has tightened the rules on the tax-free housing allowance. Churches are now sent tax assessment forms, not to pay, but to remind us that we’re getting special treatment. Websites like remind the public that allowing some properties to remain tax-free constitutes an unfair increase in all the other properties in a given municipality. Are these minor irritants or the tip of the iceberg in terms of a changing view of religious freedom?

The news from Quebec this week is Premier Charest’s plan to amend the Quebec Charter of Rights to create a hierarchy of rights instead of the current understanding that all rights are equal. Specifically, he hopes to amend the Charter to say that gender quality is more important that freedom of religion. So, for example, if something like a Muslim woman’s veil is regarded as a symbol of gender inequality, an employer could insist she take it off or even refuse to hire her. This might also include Jewish men who choose to wear of yamika or any other religious garb based on gender.

Premier Charest, of course, heads a minority government. And he has discovered what countless other politicians have discovered since the advent of democracy. If you speak the lowest instinct of voters, you might just win the election. In 1995, Mike Harris couldn’t stop talking about welfare cheats (a problem that barely existed) and translated this mock outrage into votes. Even our Premier said he didn’t want to talk about faith-based schools during the election, but managed to turn an unpopular suggestion into a win at the polls.

It would be a stretch of the truth to say that we face persecution today. What can best be described as irritants or changes in perspective hardly constitute mistreatment. But what Premier Charest suggested in quite different. His suggestion goes further than all the other changes or suggestions we have heard to date. At least one commentator picked up traces of George Orwell’s Animal Farm where everyone is equal but some are more equal than others. It would create a system where the majority would decide which rights a minority can have, undermining the whole system.

The truth is that many and perhaps most Muslim women choose to wear head coverings or more. It has different meanings in different contexts, but most often is a reminder of religious piety. We live, however, in a time of fear and misunderstanding, and there are those in the public realm that exploit this for their own purposes. Our role as religious people is to encourage religious tolerance and understanding, since we expect the same tolerance and understanding in return.

It has taken us a long time to adjust to the idea that we are a minority. United Church worshippers make up less than one half of one percent of people in Scarborough. Across the country, less than 20 percent of the population goes to worship. In other words, more than eighty percent of the population does not share our passion for a public expression of faith. More than eighty percent of the population tolerates our choice to worship God in a public way. We are a definite minority, and though we don’t feel like a minority, we need to adjust the way we imagine ourselves.

In the United Church, we tend to be the most “worldly” of the Christian denominations. We support gender quality and gay rights, we apologize for the sins of the past and we are quick to defend “modern ideas” in the cause of fairness and equality. We describe our churches as community spaces, a place where everyone can gather and feel welcome. We enjoyed being described as a uniquely Canadian treasure, a place where civic and religious could come together. We hosted scout troops and Legion parades and recovery groups and never doubted our place at the centre of Canadian life.

This is clearly coming to an end. Community Centres and schools are the new gathering places, politicians no longer appear in the pews at election time, and we frequently find ourselves behind the social trends instead of ahead of them. We have become the minority in terms of numbers, prestige and place in society.

When tempted to despair this loss, we would do better to look back. The most dynamic period of church growth was during the most dangerous period. The years from the resurrection of Jesus to Christianity becoming the religion of Rome (300 years) was the most expansive and creative period in our history. For most of this period the church was illegal, there was no formal structure, no church buildings, no denominations or church hierarchy, no theological schools. For the first half of this period there was no Bible and certainly no ministers as we now know them. The church was illegal, powerless and without resources and grew at a rate never seen since.

All they had was belief:

I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 10Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him.

The Lordship of Jesus. The power of his death and resurrection. These were the only things the early church possessed and the only thing they needed to remain steadfast in the face of persecution. The love of God burned so brightly in them that they didn’t need all the things we take for granted to survive. They thrived in the face of hardship, knowing full well that being a minority or being persecuted has no bearing of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The great challenge for the United Church is to be in the world but not of the world. We need to rethink our desire to be “worldly” and at the centre of public life, both because it is disappearing anyway and because we will be more faithful without these things. We don’t look for persecution, but it will eventually find us. We may no longer be able to argue why we deserve tax-free status, but we should be able to describe why we deserve respect and why our core beliefs are valid in the meeting place of ideas.

Society is becoming both secular and multi-faith. In the face of this, we need to understand ourselves better than ever, and describe ourselves more clearly. We need to protect our rights as a minority and help the others religions that surround us. And we need to remain steadfast in our faith, to proclaim what we believe and remain faithful to the God of grace and mercy. We do this in Christ’s name. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home