Sunday, June 06, 2010

85th Anniversary Service

John 17
17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,* so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

I could tell you my son’s first word, but it would be impolite.

Suffice it to say it rhymes with ‘mitt’ and it remains a mystery how this came about. I was doing a lot of renovating during his formative years, but hammer didn’t fall on thumb often enough to create such a turn of events. You imagine what might make a suitable first word, maybe ‘please’ or ‘thank you,’ or ‘I love you, daddy,’ but never something mildly profane and fecal.

A few years later (Isaac would have been a lad of maybe 7) it was a Sunday and invited the kids to come forward for the children’s moment. Now, I should say it is a mixed blessing to have your own child at the front, among the other children, particularly one intent of making your life a difficult as possible.

On this Sunday I invited the children to think of an early memory, something from the past, maybe even their first memory if they could call it to mind. Isaac didn’t skip a beat: “I don’t know about my first memory,” he said, “but my first word was…”

Do you know that moment when something really bad is about to happen, and you know the kid is going to say something he shouldn’t, and the whole scene unfolds in slow motion as you try to get your hand over the kid’s mouth before he says what you know he is going to say? I was too late.

He wasn't speaking into the microphone, but pew by pew the laughter spread from the front of the church all the way to the back. I hung my head in my hands and thought to myself, “Please Lord, kill me now!”

This, however, is the United Church, so I wasn’t fired for having a boy with a potty mouth or for creating such a badly conceived children’s moment. This is why I love the United Church.


I could describe the planning meeting that led to this service, but it would be impolite. It’s not that we’re potty mouth clergy, although I’m sure the odd impolite word must leave our lips, particularly among the sailors in the group. It’s that whenever ministers gather the conversation tends toward what’s wrong with the church, meaning the United Church of Canada, not the fine churches we all serve.

And so there was an inevitable moment in the conversation when one of my insightful colleagues said ‘what, exactly, are we hoping to celebrate at this anniversary service?’ And a paradox was born. The paradox, or maybe the tension, is how to celebrate the mixed picture that is the church at this moment in history. One of our neighbouring churches will soon close their doors after 50 years of ministry, the national church is planning yet another round of cuts, and our new presbytery can best be described as a confused mess.

So, there is a temptation to simply celebrate the past. For a few days I racked my brain trying to come up with fun-facts that might best highlight our history. I’ll share just two:

In 1930, the Toronto Conference voted to abolish capitalism, denouncing it as a cruel system incompatible with the Gospels. Save that for the next time someone say the United Church is getting too radical.

Also in 1930, Nellie McClung and Louise McKinney, members of the Alberta Legislature, and active members of the United Church, joined with three others to form the Famous Five. These five women took the Canadian government to court to prove that women were ‘persons’ under the law and they won. If you have a $50 bill in your pocket, you can see a picture of Famous Five, along with a quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the same quote that appears in a mural downstairs in the Weston King Neighbourhood Centre. If that’s not a sign regarding where that $50 should go, I don’t know what is…

If we had stopped being the United Church as early as 1930, we still would have had a remarkable impact on Canadian life. But we didn’t stop in 1930, we carried on for another eighty years of transformative ministry in the name of Jesus the Christ. We carried on amid the tension and the conflict, through the years when our barns were full and on to the days when our barns seem more that a little thin. We carried on to celebrate new beginnings and comfort through sad endings, to speak for the vulnerable and apologize when we failed to do so. We carried on to take a unique reading of faith and life to the public square and accept both darts and laurels in return. We carried on down to today.

We may be no closer to answering that insightful question, ‘what, exactly, are we hoping to celebrate at this anniversary?’ But I’m certain that the answer, as it most often is, can be found in the Bible. Jesus said, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one: I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” If there is one thing we can celebrate, it is our continuing life together, our unity, ties that bind us one to another.

You could call John’s Gospel ‘the long goodbye.’ It’s a passion narrative with a lengthy introduction, a books of signs pointing to the sign of the cross. From very near the beginning, the twelve are being prepared for the time to come. Prepared for the time when Jesus would not longer walk among them, interceding for the church and speaking through the Holy Spirit.

And here is the moment the Spirit called to mind: the essential characteristic of the Christian community is unity, the capacity to love one another, forgive one another when we fail, and pray together for these gifts when they seem in short supply. You might say this essential characteristic has been hiding in plain sight: with the word “United” printed outside each and every one of our congregations, we are already marked with the goal.

How curious that we forget. How soon a name simply becomes a name and not a goal, a mission, a purpose for being. When was the last time you heard the church argue for unity among believers? For the first fifty years of our history we loved to call ourselves “United and uniting,” a phrase that has sadly left our denominational conversation.

So we celebrate unity, the unity that drew us to today, the unity that translates to common joys and common struggles, and the unity that links each congregation to the community we serve. And this we celebrate most: that every church, in it’s own unique way, works to maintain a unity between the congregation and the neighbourhood that surrounds it. From shiny towers to farmer’s fields, and everything in between, we try to reflect the gift of glory set upon each of us. We reflect the glory and we see it in the people who come to our door: with needs, and things to share, seeking to add glory to glory.

I could tell you my father’s first word in English, but it would be impolite.

Dad arrived in Canada with a few dollars in his pocket, a good trade, and no English whatsoever. Within a few days he found work, and the guys in the shop set about teaching him all the words he should know to master the English language (and cannot be repeated outside the shop). He took it all in good humour, learned a few more words and met my mom.

Time passed, and these two decided to get married. My mother, a lapsed Baptist from Mount Dennis, and my father, a Dutchman with no faith at all, set out to find a church. It was Rexdale United Church that answered 'yes' to this unlikely couple, married them, and as often happens, never saw them again.

Years later, when I was still a lad, my father had a stroke. We worried that we might lose him, but he slowly recovered. He never lost the ability to read a set of plans, or operate the big machines: the only thing he lost was his ability to speak, something we were assured would come back in time.

I could tell you which words came back first, but it would be impolite.

So we were at home, across the parking lot, listening by intercom to my father work away all day, the constant whirring of the machines and the odd moment of silence. On occasion, Dad would wreck a part, or cut himself, and the low muttering of a word I cannot mention would come over the intercom. Mom would grab her coat, head over to the shop, and care for Dad while my brother and I listened in.

The stroke changed a lot of things, but mostly there was a new look at priorities and the sense that something was missing. Such a life change seemed to open up a sense of longing: that there were larger things in life to be explored beyond hard work and trying to keep a business going. They decided to look for a church.

25 years is a long time to wait, from marriage to that first appearance back in church, but wait they did. And when they made their way to Mount Albert United Church that first day the church was waiting too: waiting to welcome these weary wanderers home, waiting to embrace a very-lapsed Baptist and a Dutchman who struggles at times to make himself understood.

Today we celebrate and we wait. We celebrate our unity, and our desire to be unified with weary wanderers, potty mouth people and the neighbours we have yet to meet. We celebrate and wait, giving God the glory and never losing sight that God has placed longing in every human heart, to bless us and make us one. Amen.


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