December 6, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

I haven’t been experiencing a great deal of peace lately. I don’t mean that I’ve been literally participating in conflict, and I don’t mean that I’ve been troubled about my own relationship with God. But I haven’t been experiencing much peace because there has been some stress and anxiety in my work as a minister among you and within this presbytery.

I’ve been a minister for six years now, and before I became one, I never imagined that part of my work would include the job of closing churches. I thought of ministry as preaching and leading worship, as teaching and praying and providing pastoral care. I thought of ministry as reaching out and trying new things, imagining new ways of sharing the gospel in word and action with a world that is lost and confused and in need of God’s help.

The image of John the Baptist is very appealing. I can imagine myself (or the church as a whole) as the one crying out in the wilderness of our world. We cry out both warning and welcome. We warn that things must change — people must turn their hearts and their lives to God and God’s loving ways. And we welcome all people to come and be forgiven by God — to be baptized, to be cleansed, to begin again in relationship with the God who loves them.

But while the people of John’s time were streaming out to hear his teaching and be baptized by him, the people of our time are staying home, sleeping in, spending time with their families, or going to the mall. It raises all kinds of questions for those of us who are still in the churches. Are we failing in our mission to share the good news about Jesus? What are we doing wrong? What must we change?

The fact is that the churches haven’t changed very much over the last 60 or 70 years, but things have changed around us. The era of Christendom in our country – in which Christianity was the norm and participation in the church was a part of everyday life — that era is over. In other words, we can’t just set up a church, put a sign out front with the service time, and expect people to show up. Most younger people today have no idea what we’re doing inside this building on Sunday mornings, and unless we’re making as much noise as John the Baptist’s cry, they’re not too likely to find out.

The last several months and the last week, in particular, have been a bit of a reality check for me. A good deal of my time recently has been spent working with the churches in Saskatoon that are closing. Parkview Church closed in October 2008, and we welcomed many of their members to worship here with us. Circle West Church is scheduled to close at the end of 2009, and perhaps a few of their members may choose to join us as well. McKercher Drive Church has an average Sunday worship attendance of around 10-15 people, and they have decided to close their doors at the end of April 2010, and to come together to join St. Andrew’s as well. Meanwhile, the elderly congregation at Calvin-Goforth Church is determined to carry on — trying to forge a way ahead in a world that has changed around them.

Our church is in a slightly different position, in that we still have the critical mass required to worship and learn and serve and reach out into the community in some fairly significant ways. We have two ministers and a variety of groups and programs for various age groupings and interests. But we cannot make the mistake of assuming that means we are doing things right — that we are somehow going to survive where other churches have declined and closed down.

I spent three days this week at a conference in Ontario on the topic of transitions in congregations. Our national church sponsored the conference to give support and training to Regional Staff and other church leaders who are helping congregations move through change… things like amalgamations, clusters, closures, and size transitions, whether growth or decline. It was a very valuable time of sharing experiences from across the country, and receiving some very insightful guidance from Alice Mann of the Alban Institute.

It was helpful to know that we are not alone in this work of letting some congregational ministries come to an end. It is happening all over, and there are some things to learn about how to do it well. But I also realized this week that these closures are just the beginning. If you look at the demographics of our congregations today, you have to realize that there are going to be more closures or more down-sizing, at least, in the years ahead. Twenty years from now, who will be left? Who will be left in our church if we keep on doing what we have been doing — if we don’t change in some pretty significant ways.

Earlier this year, we welcomed four new elders into leadership in our congregation, and immediately, a number of older elders took the opportunity to retire after many years of faithful service. Our church includes groups for children and youth throughout the week, but some of our members are quick to point out that the largest group to gather (aside from Sunday worship) is often the Thursday Group — a gathering of older adults who come together for learning and fellowship. And as much as this congregation relies on the leadership of a team of ministers, and as much as I know you are committed to the work we do within the Presbytery and the Synod, the financial strain is a reality that we cannot ignore for long.

Are you finding this to be a rather depressing sermon? What’s the point in dwelling on the negative? I mean, there are lots of good things happening in and through our church’s ministry. Why don’t we just focus on those things instead, and keep on doing all we can to share the gospel in word and in action? Well, I guess I’m thinking that if we do that, we’ll just end up like the other churches in our city that are closing their doors. It will take a few more years, but eventually we’ll have to come to that same decision.

It seems to me that this has got to be the moment to act, to make changes that help us to reach out and bring the good news to our community, rather than just hanging on to what we have. I hate to think that the folks from Parkview and Circle West and McKercher Drive are abandoning their sinking ships, only to hop into a larger, but leaking, boat.

But I am not without hope. Because the scriptures testify over and over again that it is just when things seem the most bleak, that God appears to bring light and life and hope. The prophet Malachi spoke of a messenger who would come from God, and he wondered who would be able to endure the day of his coming. Who would be judged by God and not be found wanting? Who would be evaluated, and not be found needing to improve or change?

Malachi knew that none of God’s people — no matter how religious or devout — were worshipping and serving God perfectly. But he also believed that when the messenger came from God, there would be an opportunity to change. He said, the messenger “is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”

The descendants of Levi, the tribe called the Levites, were the priestly people, the ones charged with looking after things religious. In a sense, those of us in the churches are like their descendants. We are the ones charged with the responsibility of telling the world about God, of inviting the people into relationship with God. And in order to be faithful to that call, we are going to need some refining. We are going to need to change.

John the Baptist too, called the people to change. He challenged them to repent — to turn in a new direction BEFORE it was too late. And he encouraged them with the assurance that they were being forgiven and renewed for life in relationship with God.

I am not certain about what our new direction as a church is going to look like. I have some ideas of things that I would like to try — things that may get us opening our doors to let people in, things that may get us going out in Jesus’ name. But we have some work ahead to discern our direction together, to listen for where God is calling us.

But I think the first step needs to be a reality check. We can’t just keep doing what we are doing now until we run out of steam and have to just stop. We have to acknowledge that we are at a turning point — and, that Jesus is coming. In the midst of the darkest places, the most confusing times, and into our lives and our communities when we don’t know what to do or where to go, Jesus comes.

Jesus comes to us when we are stressed out and when we are tired. Jesus comes to us when we are worried, and starting to argue with each other. Jesus comes to us when we have not been paying attention to God very much, and we are needing to get back into that relationship of guidance and direction.

As much as this work of closing churches has been very difficult, I am more sure than ever today that it has been necessary work. We are at a time in our church’s life when we need to consolidate our resources, when we need to come together and make plans for a future with hope. We need to stop trying to do and be everything that the church once was, and discern what we are being called to do and to be today in today’s world.

The Baptist’s cry came out as a warning: Repent! Turn! Now is the time to change and to make space in your lives for what God is about to do! May we heed that warning today, and may we also have the courage to turn, to change, and to risk so that God may work in our lives and in our churches. Like those who came before us, we don’t know exactly what our future is going to look like, but we need to trust God and move forward in faith.

In the words of the Apostle Paul to the church at Philippi… “I thank my God every time I [think about] you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ…And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Amen.