Posted by on Jun 17, 2018

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Who Do We Say That We Are: The Future Plan, Table Talks, 

Affirming Ministries and Being There When the Future Comes

Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

Sunday, June 17, 2018 — The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Knox-Metropolitan United Church — Regina, SK — Treaty 4 Territory

Cameron Fraser

In 1959 four new Congregations of the United Church of Canada were opened each week.

Throughout the 2000s one Congregation of the United Church has closed each week

The institution that we here at Knox-Metropolitan are part of is experience a moment of significant change, one might even say transformation — whether it wants to, or not.

The late Loren Mead, an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church of the US, and the founder of the Alban Institute at Duke Divinity School, whose ministry was described after his death as one who told the church the truth about itself, even when that truth was neither fashionable, nor expedient, wrote:

“We are at the front edges of the greatest transformation of the church that has occurred for 1,600 years…by far the greatest change that the church has ever experienced in [North] America; it may eventually make the transformation of the Reformation look like a ripple in a pond.” 

Change and transformation incidentally are two of the core invitations of the season of Pentecost, the season of the church year we now find ourselves in.

Over three weeks within Pentecost this year, last week, next week and this morning, we’re been pondering this, what might we, as a Congregation, and individuals within, be invited into, in terms of the broader institution we part of, in terms of our local expression and embodiment of it, and next week, we ponder this in terms of the very structure of the building we’ve inherited from generations before.

Towards the end of April 2013, I was sitting in my office in Southern Ontario, looking at the Observer, the National Magazine of the United Church, specifically at the back page where churches are invited to publish postings for positions of ministry, and I read in the Bold Print which always begins these postings Regina, Saskatchewan – Knox-Metropolitan.

The Juno Awards had been held in Regina that year, that very month in fact, and the host of a CBC Arts and Culture show had opened a live show with an ode to the uniqueness of this city, and so I was immediately intrigued. The show had included passionate discussions with both Sandra Butel of the Regina Folk Festival and Jayden Pfiefer, of Red Hot Riot and Dream Agreement.

Since I’ve moved, I’ve connected both Sandra and Jayden, but only on refection while writing this week did I remember that hearing their disembodied voice over the radio discussing this city and their passion for working in it, was part of my journey. What they said

I read on and below the Bolded font was a line of italics – We are downtown, on purpose.

With that you piqued my curiosity even more.

What might they mean by this? What invitations to connection with community might be found within a congregation who would label themselves in such a way?

What might I have to offer to such a goal?

Your posting invited anyone considering the position to explore a report you adopted in 2012 as a congregation from your Future Planning Committee, which I read to be a glimpse of the organization that you dreamed you one day might become, a dream which existed within you already, to use the words of our readings this morning, perhaps as tender shoot, or seed, a dream you hoped to nurture.

You saw change was coming and that change was necessary, you knew that transformation of your community was already on-going and that you could either allow it to happen, or engage with it, in curiosity, and find what potentials, what invitations you might find.

I mentioned during Announcements a retreat in late August, part of which will include a request to arrive having re-read that Future Planning Report and reflected on the question, are we more like this today than we were in 2012 when we wrote this down?

I hope you will join us.

In 1959, when the United Church of Canada was opening four new congregations a week, it did not need to say much about who it was as an organization, and an initial congregation needed to say little about itself beyond it’s name, where it was located, and when worship would start on Sunday morning. Who it was, what it stood for, and more significantly to the practice of opening new congregations at such a rate, why that mattered. Was in that moment in Canadian society, self-evident, or at least self-evident to enough people for the institution to not only survive, but thrive, and grow.

In 1959, enough people attended church, were going to seek meaning, hope, community, from this institution, that the questions was which one.

That’s not the question anymore — at least not for enough people for churches to expect that their future will look like their past.

John Pentland, minister of Hillhurst United Church in the Kensington neighbourhood of Calgary says that one of the key questions churches must ask themselves today is:

Who do you say you are?

In 1959, saying, “we are a congregation of the United Church of Canada” was more than enough to connect with people, today, not so much.

Franscican Monk, and Director of the Centre for Action and Contemplation, Richard Rohr, says that today, he assumes that of people who do not attend church (and are not engaged with another religious/spiritual expression) that perhaps 5% these do not do so because of a specific, namable disagreement with the institution or the tradition, exclusivism, hypocrisy, a current or historical injustice, and Rohr would suggest (and I agree) that these critiques are well deserved, and that we in churches should take them seriously. But that’s 5% he says. The other 95% do not attend church because it is not even a consideration, that of the things they seek, meaning, community, connection, they could not imagine that they would find it in a church.

Who do you say that you are?

The Future Planning Report of 2012 was one way you have answered this question.

At the annual meeting of this congregation in March 2017, the congregation voted to begin a conversation about Affirming Ministries, about what it would mean to offer public, explicit, enthusiastic intention to be open and welcoming to all, to all economic situations, racial and ethnic identities, abilities and disabilities, ages, and particularly sexual identities and gender identities.

Our Affirming Ministries Committee has offered surveys for feedback, space for conversation and the occasional piece of information. Their work to now has been purposefully low-key due to the conversations that have happened around the building, the Joint Needs Assessment, and the future of Ministry as we ponder what it means to set ourselves up for Being There When the Future Comes.

Over the summer you’ll find in your bulletins regular pieces of information in response to questions — some which have come from this congregation, other which have come from Affirm United itself. Questions like, we’re already welcome, why do we need to become affirming? Does being an Affirming make an actual difference?

One of the questions you’ll see addressed will be an inquiry about why name things particularly, why not just say “All Are Welcome” — it’s a valid and indeed important question, and in fact one that lies at the roots of where Affirm United as a National network began, with folks within United Churches who were part of LGBTQI2S communities who noted that their lived experience was that All did not include them, or at least required them to check parts of themselves at the door. Out of this painful (and to call it painful is so deeply an understatement) experience came a desire to know, where will I find not only welcome, not only tolerance, but affirmation, where will who I am, be affirmed, not in-spite of, but including these parts of me which have been, and continue to be explicitly (and implicitly) condemned by churches of many stripes.

It is worth noting that it was these folks who recognized that their experiences of exclusion was shared by others not connected to sexual identity or gender expression, but due to race, ability and disability, economic status, age, and more, who insisted that this process be extended to include these conversations as well.

Distinguished Womanist Theologian and Professor at Boston College M. Shawn Copeland wrote:

“If my sister or brother is not at the table, we are not the flesh of Christ. If my sister’s mark of sexuality must be obscured, if my brother’s mark of race must be disguised, if my sister’s mark of culture must be repressed, then we are not the flesh of Christ. For, it is through and in Christ’s own flesh that the ‘other’ is my sister, is my brother; indeed, the ‘other’ is me…”

There are many more conversations to have about this — but it is indeed one of the ways we ask ourselves, Who do you say that you are?

During Lent of this year (the 6 Sundays leading to up to Easter) we gathered around Tables with the help of Tracy Murton, a facilitator from the United Church EDGE Network for Ministry development and asked ourselves questions.

These questions were organized around themes and phrases that we’ve been using, some for a long time, some in the past several years.

We asked quite simply, What Brings your Here on Sunday Morning, and How would you describe Knox-Met to someone else?

One week the Theme was Music that Moves the Soul and we spoke about the role music plays, on Sunday morning as well as the broader ministry here.

We spoke about Conversations that Matter and what sort of topics one might find discussed in sermons, studies, or events.

We spoke about Spacious Spirituality about how both Sunday morning services, Labyrinth Walks, Dinner Church, Centring Prayer offer both food for thought through song, and story, prayer and reflections, but also the design of leaving space.

We spoke about Companions on the Journey, about the importance of community and connection, across ages and difference, about how that is at once beautiful and also complex, about the place of children in this space, and about the dance that is balancing differing needs.

There are more discussions to come about these, and I hope you will reflect on the summaries provided. The responses are in a way data, that tell us what it has been like when we have pursued the goals of the 2012 Future Plan. The responses are feedback, but they open the door to evaluation — how are we doing, are we moving in good directions, are we trying what we said we wanted to try, and how has that felt, was it what we expected?

Next week, we gather after worship to discuss the process and project of building design and how it connects with these questions of identity — of who we say we are.

We also answer this question in our stories, our songs, our rituals, and reflections, although these answers pop up in threads that sometimes call to be collected and woven together.

For we reach deep into the treasures of this Tradition, naming that there are some parts that have been and continue to be deeply problematic, but we look to the stories, the songs, the rituals and practices of the Christian Tradition, and bring these into conversation with our everyday lives, with insights of science and psychology, with vexing ethical questions of our day, and with dialogue and teachings from other religious (and non-religious) ways of being.

And to what end?

I think that question is key to our larger question of Who Do we Say we Are and absolutely essential to Rohr’s observation.

Our expressions of Faith from the United Church offer us some starting points, seeds, or shoots if you will…

A Song of Faith, the most recent of these (copies of which can be found in the Narthex and on the book table in the Lower Hall), invites through lyrical poetic meanderings, reflections on the wonder of the world, enlivened by a goodness and energy that we in this tradition name as God, inviting relationship, with self, with spirit, with neighbours human and non-human, demanding repentance and lament, confession of brokenness, apathy and complicity, but also potential for beautiful creativity and deep solidarity.

A New Creed, which you will find in your in your bulletins and which will read together shortly in closing, offers another expression of this — and it is worth noting that while Creed (from the Latin Credo) has come to mean belief in the sense of intellectual assent or agreement, actually is rooted in the word for fire, and it’s ancient meaning refers to heart not head.

A colleague in Ontario once suggested to me, that if one wants to know what the ancients meant by believe, we might substitute terms…

We believe…We are inspired by, Our imagination is captured by, Our hearts are moved by…

There is a line in the middle about God:

Who Has Created and is Creating

Who works in us and others by the Spirit

Within those phrases is what I would consider a pretty compelling answer to the question who we say we are.

Participants in an on-going creative project. Not sole participants, not the ones who have the only correct blue-print, but enlivened by divine energy, connected to others. Which others? I think this invites us to imagine that as though who find a connection to this tradition and those who don’t, seeing within them not a shadow of ourselves, but a complement and occasionally even correction or challenge.

And it is that project of creativity, of the sort of world being created, that matters, that is the reason to sing, the reason, to read, the reason to pray, that these are all but tools to animate that creativity.

That the tradition is not about simply preserving itself for a next generation, that the institution is not about securing it’s own survival — although if we’re honest, that’s often what’s happened.

But all of this is like a twig to be grafted or a seed to be planted, that something beautiful would grow.

There is more to say, but for now, in closing, if you are able, I’d invite you to read with me…