CHANGING WORLD – CHANGING CHURCH
Rev. Mary A. Duncan
Sunday, June 3, 2018
SCRIPTURE: Micah 6:1-8 Psalm 71:6-12
The United Church of Canada will be 93 years old this month. In the overall scheme of things that is not very old, but let’s think about it for a minute. What is it like for us to be 93 years old? Well let me tell you a few stories that have been related to me over my years in ministry. They illustrate for me the frustration and disappointments of growing old.
One woman, whose name was Lialla, was caring for both her mother and her husband. Her mother was over a hundred years old and had difficulty seeing and hearing. Her husband had been an Air Canada pilot and was also hard of hearing. He had also been diagnosed with dementia. She told me that living with two people who were hard of hearing led to some pretty interesting conversations. On one occasion, she told me that she and her mother were in the kitchen doing dishes when her husband came up from down stairs and said, “My mouth hurts.” Where upon the old lady got quite excited and said, “Where? Where?” Lialla’s husband proceeded to explain to her by opening his mouth to show her. Suddenly she stopped him and said, “What did you just say?” “I said,” came the reply, “My mouth hurts.” “Oh,” said the elderly lady, “I thought you said you saw a mouse turd!”
When you are 102 or 93 sometimes you cannot hear very well. Another story illustrates that when you are old your body can change very rapidly. A parishioner told me that he had been sick with the flu for a week. After laying around for a week, he got up one morning and decided he was well enough to go down town and have coffee with his buddies. So he drove down town and parked his car in front of the café. He got out of the car and started to head towards the café when he tripped. He managed not to fall but when he looked down he saw that his pants were down around his ankles. He quickly looked around to see if anyone had seen him and sure enough he saw some younger guys heading into the café with a snicker on their faces. He was embarrassed, but what could he do? “Well,” he said, “the only thing I could do, was to bend over and pull up my pants and tighten my belt.”
When he went inside everyone was laughing so this elderly man being of quick wit, said, “I was sure I heard someone say, ‘Drop your draws and jump!’” Then they all laughed together. Sometimes your body changes very quickly when you are ninety-three and you have to tighten your belt! And is it any different for the church? We, as a church, are now ninety-three. Have we become afflicted with some of the things that frustrate ninety-three year old human beings?
As a church are we losing our hearing? Have we not heard that it is a different world out there than it was fifty years ago? Have we not heard people complaining that they do not like the old, stuffy traditions and the hymns filled with archaic words that make no sense to them? Have we not heard that they like a different type of music today? Have we not heard that people of today like a relaxed atmosphere when they come to church? Perhaps have a cup of coffee in hand as they worship? Have we not heard? Or do we just continue as if - as if things were the same. “As if” church was a priority in the lives of people. “As if” the values of society are the same as ours. “As if” we were part of the dominant culture. “As if” our way of doing things is the only way.
A few years ago, the United Church launched an ad campaign – remember the controversy over the bobble-headed Jesus. That ad was meant for those in our society who are looking for something new and different in a church. However the more traditional people were all upset.
We need to lighten up. Same old, same old, does not work today and somehow we as a church keep doing the same things again and again expecting a different result. Yes, at ninety-three we often find comfort in the traditions of the past but the younger generations do not and so they are turning elsewhere to have their spiritual needs met. Our traditions do not speak to them. Have we not heard the message society is giving us? Yes, at ninety-three a church can become hard of hearing.
Our bodies can also change very rapidly at ninety-three. Only yesterday we had the pews full and the Sunday school bursting at the seams. Now we find that we have gotten smaller and we have had to tighten our belts. And it is hard to get used to being smaller. It is hard to accept the fact that we have lost our influence in the society in which we live.
The United Church of Canada has gone from a church whose moderator met with the Prime Minister on a monthly basis to the point that we are considered to be no more than just another lobby group. Our body has shrunk and it has lost it’s strength and vitality.
Pat Moore, a twenty-six year old industrial design engineer, spent part of three years of her life disguised as an old woman. She wanted to learn how to design products to help the elderly, so she became one. Pat learned a lot about what it is like to be old. When she walked around her community she was often insulted. She was robbed on more than one occasion. She was taunted and made fun of. She began to feel vulnerable and afraid. But the hardest thing she experienced was just being ignored. She began to feel sad and depressed in her isolation. We can feel that way too as an ninety-three year old church. To use Rodney Dangerfield’s expression – “I don’t get no respect.”
Because of some of the mistakes that churches have made in the past and still continues to make today, we have lost much of the respect that we once held. We have had many of the TV evangelists who have been preaching about a life based on the ten commandments all the while they have been living a life of sexual promiscuity. There have been those who have extracted money from people living in poverty while building a kingdom of wealth for themselves. I just heard this week about an evangelist who wants his people to buy him a private jet because he doesn’t want to fly on regular airlines because people always want to talk to him. Now there have been many tearful confessions when their wrong doings have been brought to light, but it has done a lot to discredit the church.
Then there has been the sexual abuse of children by priests and the apparent cover up. In our own tradition, we have had to face the part we played in the abuses of the residential school system. Is it any wonder we have lost respect? With the loss of our power over people and socitey, we often feel like Pat Moore, who disguised herself as an old woman. We feel ignored. We feel abandoned by God. And like the psalmist we cry out to God; Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.
The church often feels ignored .We send petition after petition to the government but get no response. We are made to feel that we have nothing to offer. Often in cities our churches are spray with nasty messages or the slogans of gang members. We often try to reach out to the poor but find that people are taking advantage of our generosity. We become overwhelmed with all the problems in the world. We become uncertain of our calling, our mission in the world. We feel vulnerable and afraid for our future.
Sometimes it is difficult being ninety-three! However, when Pat Moore conducted her experiment she also discovered something else. She discovered that there are some older people that are alive and vital. They accept the aging process but are determined to make the most of it. They are willing to change with the times and are willing to try new things and do new things. They haven’t given up on life. One time when I went home, I happened to run into one of my high school teachers. At the time she was past eighty years of age. When I saw her she had a broken leg. I asked her what happened and she said, “I fell off a camel.” I laughed because I thought she was joking, but she wasn’t. She had been on a trip to Egypt and had gone for a camel ride. Unfortunately, she had fallen off and broke her leg. But what a way to break your leg! If I ever break a leg, I hope it is by falling off a camel when I am over eighty years old.
The church needs that kind of life of vitality, enthusiasm, zeal, and spirit. Yes, we are aging, but we don’t have to be old and drab and dull. We need to ride camels in the desert and walk in the bottom of the Grand Canyon and climb Mount Everest. We need to celebrate by playing drums, singing with great gusto, clapping and dancing.
We need to think outside the box and live outside the letter. We need to celebrate and be joyous and happy and free. After all, Jesus was a radical. He challenged the principalities and the powers of his day. He healed on the Sabbath. He defended his disciples when they picked grain and ate it on the Sabbath. He spent time with children. He welcomed the outcasts. He spoke with women in public. He challenged the Scribes and Pharisees. He over-turned the tables in the Temple. He taught a radical message of love and compassion in a world of violence. Likewise, Jesus followers were radical.
When Paul and Silas entered Thessalonica, the residents of the city said, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here.” They brought a radical message that conflicted with the way people were living their lives. That message was turning the world of the Thessalonians upside down. Perhaps it is time we turned this 93 year-old church upside down, perhaps it is time we, like Jesus, challenged the norms and traditions of our day that we might better serve the needs of our changing world. A number of years ago an American artist, Dennis Oppenheim created a sculpture of a church turned upside down, he called it, “Device to Root Out Evil.”
For a few years it was on display in down town Vancouver. Of course it was controversial as people discussed what it meant. I am not quite sure what message he intended to convey through the sculpture. It may have been that he was being sarcastic about the churches inability to root out evil in the world and that perhaps the church has even been part of the evil. Or perhaps he was saying that the church needs to change, to be turned upside down, to drastically change in order to serve the world.
The artist did said, “Old doctrines do not capture the hearts and minds of today and a new order is required. It is not that people mock spiritually, rather they crave it in a form that is meaningful for contemporary lives.” The prophet Micah asks “What does God require of us?” And then he tells us, “What God requires is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to walk humbly with our God.” That leaves us a lot of leeway to be creative.
As a church we are called to serve God, but it should be a joyous, happy experience. It should not feel like a burden. It should be a celebration of life and love and all that God has given. Justice should be a way of life. Love should be a way of life. And our hand should always be in God’s hand. We can, as a church, be alive and vital, even at ninety-three! We can dramatically alter the way we worship. We can change the way we relate to our communities. We can take a stand on racism and speak out when we see evil in our midst. We can sing songs that are meaningful to the young people of today.
And we can try a new way of being in the world because the world has changed and we are called to a new way.
Are we adventuresome? Will we fling open the doors and windows of our church? Will we let the breeze rush in our doors? Will we allow God’s Spirit to enliven us with newness? Will we allow change to happen even if it might not be what we are comfortable with for the sake of the church and our community? Can we deal with our pains and aches while at the same time seeking a new vision?
Will we allow God’s spirit to move us towards what God would have us be?
May the Spirit strengthen us to become the church of today’s world.