Zero To One: A New Wineskin

(Preached at Melville United Church, August 28, 2016)

I was born in August of 1960.

The world was changing. The United States elected its first Catholic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Smoking was linked to heart disease in middle-aged men. Xerox introduced the first commercial document reproduction machine. And despite their astronomical price of $219.95 for a 23-inch black and white television, there were over one hundred million sets in use world wide. The FDA approved “The Pill.”

In other ways, the year 1960 was much like the years and decades before it.

65 out of 100 children lived in a family with their biological, married parents, where mom stayed home and dad worked. Only one child in 350 lived with a single, never-married mother.

80 percent of Americans thought that people who wanted to be single were “sick” or “neurotic” or even “immoral.” Only 28 percent of the adult population was single—divorced, widowed or never-married. Gay men and lesbians were not only sick and neurotic and definitely immoral, but criminals as well, according to the laws of the time.

Almost everyone went to church on Sunday, and stores and entertainment venues were closed.

The FDA may have approved the pill, but it wasn’t legal or available to single women.

The average cost of a new house in 1960 was $12,700. A man in manufacturing in Canada could expect to earn $1.98 per hour. A salaried worker on average earned $116.41 per week. Given a forty-hour work week for that manufacturing worker, the average house cost just over three years’ worth of wages. A worker would earn the equivalent of about ten loaves of bread per hour, and it would take him over one hundred hours to earn the cost of that television set.

Back then, a moderately-priced computer cost about one million dollars and took up several rooms. Those are 1960 dollars, unadjusted for inflation by the way. Only government agencies, universities, and large corporations could afford a computer, and they rented out time on it to smaller entities by the hour, charging thousands of dollars a day.

It’s now 2016, of course, and the world has changed.

The average wage of someone working in manufacturing is now $21.06 per hour, according to Statistics Canada. Interestingly enough, if that worker buys the store brand of bread, he or she is still earning approximately ten loaves of bread per hour. Despite moaning and groaning to the contrary, food and wages seem to have kept pace with one another.

As for technology: that 23” black and white television has become a quite modest Insignia 32” 720 pixel High Definition LED Smart TV, only two hundred and nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents, on sale this week, only at Best Buy! Instead of over one hundred hours, it now takes the worker a little shy of ten hours to earn wages equivalent to the price of a decent television. And my Moto G cell phone, which I got for free when I signed up with Wind Mobile, has more computing power than that one million dollar gigantosaurus from 1960.

It’s not all good news, though. This week I looked up the average price of a house in Guelph. A modest house is now selling for about four hundred thousand dollars.

In wage terms, that’s about ten times a full-time manufacturing salary. But it’s obvious from the Stats Can data that a lot of workers are not working at full time permanent jobs, even in manufacturing. The average yearly salary is just over 30 thousand dollars, which is about 75% of a full time salary. Which makes a house worth more than thirteen times the yearly salary of a manufacturing worker.

In 2016, only 22 percent of children are living in homes with a mom and a dad where mom stays home and dad works. Another 22 percent live with single moms, and half of those moms have never been married.

Single adults are no longer seen as sick or immoral, and comprise about 44 percent of the adult population. It’s no longer illegal to be homosexual, and transgendered people are slowly making headway with respect to human rights.

Most people don’t go to church on Sunday. Stores and entertainment venues are open not only on Sunday, but sometimes 24/7. Even most banks are now open Saturdays.

Not that anyone uses a teller anymore. A worker is often paid electronically, pays the bills electronically, and pays for purchases electronically. In today’s world, you can be broke and get rich and go broke again, all without ever handling a single piece of cash money!

The world has changed. The reality that my children inhabit is vastly different from the one that I encountered as a young adult, and even more different from the one that many of you encountered when you were their age.

They meet their mates online, even if they’re old high-school friends. They play games online, get their news and weather and sports information online, they shop online and very often work online (and from home).

Most of our young women now attend college or university, and over 50 percent of university graduates are now women. A high school diploma is a necessity if you want to work at Linamar, or even get promoted to a junior management position at McDonald’s.

With student debt skyrocketing, and house prices soaring, fewer young people are able even to dream of owning their own home. Not that it’s always practical anyway—our society is much more mobile that it was, with the average person moving about every five years.

Everything seems to have changed…

Or has it?

Growing up in the 1960s and 70s in the United Church, I remember a little bit about the services. There was an opening call to worship, and some prayers, and three or four hymns, and two or three scripture readings, and a sermon, and the offering, and an anthem, and a prelude and a postlude. Sunday morning, ten-thirty to eleven-thirty, in the same building. Everyone sat in the same pew they sat in the Sunday before. Kids went off to Sunday School.

The hymns have changed, and we’ve changed the words to the prayers, and our theology has evolved. Most churches now don’t have the children go off to Sunday School right at the start of the service, but have them stay for a short while. We’ve added a children’s time.

But we still gather every Sunday morning, often in the same buildings we were meeting in then. We still have prayers, sing hymns, listen to the sermon, put money on the plate. And in most mainline churches, the people in the pews are the ones who were there ten and twenty and thirty and even forty or more years ago. We’re just older.

And we wonder why, with “all these changes,” our children and grandchildren aren’t coming to church. Where are all the young adults? We need them—to fill our pews and help us feel less alone, to bring their kids to our Sunday Schools, to put their money in the offering plate, to learn and perpetuate the values and traditions we hold so dear.

I was introduced a couple of weeks ago to the concept of “zero to one.” It’s a way of talking about innovation. Ordinary innovations are most often of the form “one to n,” which in commercial terms means it’s “new and improved.” We add features, or tweak existing features slightly in order to improve a current product.

Think of your basic kitchen stove. When I was a kid, our stove had four burners on top, and an oven on the bottom with two elements. If we wanted to broil, only the top element came on, and if we wanted to bake, they both came on.

Today’s kitchen stoves are substantially the same, with a few tweaks. They’ve got digital clocks and timers so that dinner will start cooking when you want it to start cooking. You no longer have to guess whether or not the oven is up to temperature—the sensor beeps when it’s finished preheating. Some stoves have flat glass cooktops instead of those spiral electric burners most of us are used to.

That’s the “one to n” concept—adding to and improving a current product.

Zero to one happened for cooking with the advent of the microwave oven. The only thing my microwave has in common with my stove is a clock, a timer, and an electric plug. It uses the electricity to heat the food directly, instead of heating up the whole oven beforehand and cooking indirectly. As a result, it’s much faster.

It’s not a replacement for my stove. There are things my stove does well that my microwave doesn’t (like produce a luscious roast of beef or a wonderful peach pie), but there are things that my microwave does much better than my stove. For example, I can cook oatmeal, NOT the quick kind but the large flake, yummy kind in large batches in ten or more minutes on my stove, or I can put 1/3 of a cup of oats and 2/3 of a cup of water in a bowl and microwave it for three minutes, and it never burns.

In the church, we’ve been concentrating for nearly forty years on changing our services to hopefully bring in more young people. We’ve changed the music, we’ve changed the theology, we’ve experimented with different Sunday School curricula. What we haven’t done is changed the basic structure. We’re trying to appeal to millennials with a wineskin that appeals to their grandparents. And they’re mostly not buying it. The new wine, the spirit that is contained in our young people, is pouring out of and away from our old wineskins.

We need to ask ourselves why, in an era where the average working family is in debt up to their eyeballs and may never be able to afford a house, why are we asking those folks to contribute to the upkeep of buildings that are locked up most of the week? Why are we asking them to commit an hour or two of their precious spare time every single Sunday morning when many of them are working two or more jobs, often with irregular and unpredictable schedules?

Don’t get me wrong. We do need the church as it is. We need it because the fastest growing age group in Canada is the over-80 age group, and those who have tasted old wine prefer it to new, and are better fed by it. We need it because some of our young people have tasted the old wine and find they prefer it.

But I believe we need a new expression of church as well, one that can hold the new wine that is the spirit bubbling through our 20- and 30-year olds.

How will it look, this new wineskin?

I don’t know, but I have some ideas. With real estate currently priced at record high levels, and with it trending steeply upwards rather than down (I just read that in the first six months of 2016, the house prices in Guelph are up ten percent over last year), more church congregations will be landless. Many may not even meet physically more than three or four times a year. An active internet presence, with blogs, Facebook, Twitter and whatever comes next will be a big part of their ministry.

And I believe they will teach that personal spiritual practices, personal scripture reading, and personal reflection are more important than weekly bible studies and participation in church-run programs.

This last was brought home to me when I was reading an article about Willow Creek Church yesterday. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the mega-church to end all mega-churches, with eight different locations. It’s basically a denomination in its own right. The mega-church model is one that requires intense participation—in addition to the “celebration services” every Sunday, each member belongs to one or more small groups that meets weekly.

The leadership team of Willow Creek conducted a qualitative study, which means they were asking not about how many people were participating, but about whether the activities in which they were participating were helping them grow spiritually.

And they found, to their surprise and dismay, that participating in lots of church-run programs did not predict whether someone was progressing spiritually, or whether they were becoming more of a disciple of Christ, or whether they loved God or people more.

Bill Hybels, Willow Creek’s founding pastor, summarized the findings this way:

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.

Hybels confesses:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

That’s actually really good news. I know a fair number of young people, and one thing that stands out to me about that generation is their passion for self-development, and having seen how computer technology has been used to transform education and gaming and shopping and banking and just about every other aspect of life, I can see how it might be used to help our young people develop as Christians.

When Jesus talked about new wine and new wineskins two thousand years ago, the Jewish culture was transitioning from temple to synagogue. Jesus preached on hillsides and plains, and asked no-one to sacrifice any animals. He did not follow all of the strict Jewish traditions around what one ate and when and where and with whom. He reached out to outcasts who would be turned away from even the most progressive synagogue. He was pouring new wine, one that was for everyone and not just a chosen people, and it needed a new wineskin. And so the Christian church was born.

A few hundred years later, Constantine wanted to unite an empire of disparate peoples, and he did that by embracing a faith that was for everyone, and not just a chosen few. The church transitioned once again, from being on the fringes of society to being the glue that held society together. The Roman Catholic church was born.

When the printing press was invented, and literacy rates in Europe soared, the church changed yet again to accommodate those who could and did read scripture for themselves. The Protestant Reformation was born.

And now, we find ourselves in the digital age, with a world that is beyond the imagination of the dreamers of the past. The church as we know it will transform yet again, but the faith of our ancestors, transmitted to us through the ages, is as alive and vibrant and new as ever. Amen.

A Cure for the Christmas Hangover

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church on January 8, 2017)

I was in a store that shall remain nameless this past week, and I noticed that all of the Christmas stuff had been taken down, and the Valentine’s Day stuff had been hung prominently on the wall behind the cash. That is all to be expected, I suppose.

What wasn’t expected were the Easter decorations and eggs which were being placed on the shelves beside the Valentine’s things.

Christmas is finally over.

The shepherds have gone back to their sheep, and they’re trying to find the ones that strayed away while they were oohing and aahhing over the baby Jesus.

The three wise men have gone home by another way, hoping that when they get back no wars have broken out, no one close to them has died, and their houses are still standing. After all, by the calculation of some scholars, they’d been following that star for nearly two years and it only makes sense that it would take them as long again to return home. Maybe they were hoping that they’d actually get home, because they didn’t have a guiding star on the return journey, and the route was not familiar.

One wonders what happened next. Did the angels and the star and the dreams and the baby really cause any lasting change in their lives? After all, it was just a baby. It would be years before the grown man began to preach and heal and challenge the existing order.

Christmas is finally over.

The guests have gone home, or if we were a guest, we’re back home. The kids are contemplating the fact that today is their last day of freedom before another term at school begins.

The leftover turkey is (hopefully) gone, the chocolates have migrated from the boxes to our waistline. The chairs at Weight Watchers are full of people determined to lose those extra few (or not so few) pounds that have accumulated over this past holiday and countless like it before. The gyms are full of sweaty bodies trying to get in shape after a few weeks spent exercising only the finger that operates the TV remote.

If we haven’t already undecorated the house, we’re contemplating that chore, some of us with dread. After all, people like helping us decorate. But how happy are they to come back and remove all that tinsel they so gleefully put all over our tree?

The presents have all been opened, and in many cases, have been returned for something better, or for cash or a gift card. I’ll admit that I took advantage of some Boxing Week sales (notice how it’s become a week, when a few decades ago it was only a day?), and the line ups at the cash were long—not with folks buying, but with folks returning. If you don’t like what you get, take it back! It’s not the thought that counts, it’s the gift! And of course, if you didn’t get what you really want for Christmas, just go out and buy it for yourself! After all, it’s on sale.

And those sales—notice how they’re all timed to be just before you get your credit card statement? You’ve bought all those Christmas gifts, and you haven’t yet seen the final total, so the stores have one last go at your pocketbook before your eyes are opened to your peril.

Christmas is finally over, and some of us are probably feeling a little down. All the excitement, all the disruption and now…

Now we’re back to normal.

Or are we?

We are back to normal, only with bigger waistlines and emptier bank accounts, if we see Christmas as a once a year event that makes no real change in our lives, just as the magi and the shepherds would have been back to normal if they viewed the baby Jesus as just another baby.

But we Christians know that the baby Jesus was not just another baby, and that Christmas can last forever, if we let it.

Because Christmas isn’t about presents and big feasts. It’s not even about getting together with family and friends and singing lots of wonderful carols.

Christmas is about recognizing that God is here, among us, and that that coming means something, and that it should change our lives.

Last week, I took the congregation on a journey that started with naming what was broken in our lives and in our world to figuring out what actions we could take, to finally choosing one single action or habit that we could adopt in the New Year that would change how we react to our situations.

There was some good discussion about what to do about the big issues over which we have little, if any, influence—terrorism, environmental disasters and Donald Trump among them. One person wisely suggested prayer, and I responded that prayer connects us to others, and we will change, even if the situation remains the same.

But the best response came the next day. A woman phoned and told me that she was going to work on changing her attitude.

She was talking about developing patience when the person turning right at the red light was taking a little too long to do it, and I responded that I’d also be working on attitude, trying not to get upset at the person behind me who was honking at me to turn right when I didn’t feel safe!

And I realized that this woman had gotten the point of Christmas.

God chose to come, not as a great warrior who led his people to victory, nor as a prophet or priest who called down fire from the sky, but as a tiny baby who started out life as a child of poor parents, and who, with his parents, became a refugee, fleeing for his life.

He grew into an ordinary, curious boy, and finally became a homeless, itinerant preacher who got tired and hungry and thirsty and angry and sad and happy. He loved, not with the abstract love of an unseen God, but with the passion of a human being. And finally, he suffered the indignity and agony of a tortured death on a cross.

God became a real human being, someone we can relate to. Someone who, when we look into those infant eyes, reflects in our own frail human form the image of God.

Seeing the image of God, not just in ourselves and in others like us, but in every single human being who ever lived, is ultimately what God is asking us to do. And if we do that, we need to change our attitudes.

Allow me to explain.

My mother watches crime shows. Some are dramas like NCIS, and some are true crime cases like Forensic Files. And on more than a few of those shows, convicted criminals are described as losers, scum, and once, when a Christian was talking about an unrepentant murderer, the speaker said, “I hope he’s ready for what follows life in prison. It’s hot down there.”

And this bothers me, because that baby in a manger grew up to be a man who told us, “Do not condemn anyone to the fires of Hell, for the measure you give will be the measure you get.”

That baby in a manger grew up to say to the criminal hanging beside him on another cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

That baby in a manger grew up to choose, after his death, a man who had watched Christians being stoned as the bearer of light to the Gentiles, including us.

That baby in a manger came to both dirty, lonely shepherds at the fringes of their society, and rich, well-dressed sages who were right at the centre of power. That baby in a manger came to remind us that the breath of God animates every single human being, and that we all reflect the image of God.

Christmas is finally over. Except that it’s not.

Yes, the turkey and the decorations and the presents and the visitors and the shopping are done with. (Well, not really—only 351 shopping days left until Christmas, folks! Run out and get your presents now, then hide them so you forget where you put them and have to buy more! Gotta keep the economy running!)

But Christmas isn’t about turkey and decorations and presents and visitors. Well, maybe a little about the visitors, if you have the right attitude.

Christmas is about God-With-Us. Christmas reminds us to see the image of God in everyone we meet—the person ahead of us or behind us at the red light, the convicted criminals in jail, the homeless youth on the street, the refugees clamouring to be taken in, the business moguls who don’t care about their employees or customers or the environment as long as they’re making big bonuses, and yes, even Donald Trump.

When Christmas stops being about the once-a-year orgy of food and family and shopping, and starts being about Jesus, then we begin to understand that the giving has just begun and that the gifts are all around us.

Christmas will never be over.


Backwards Christianity

(Preached at Melville United Church and Alma United Church, November 20, 2016)

In the gymnasium of a real but nameless church in a real but nameless city there hangs a banner, doubtless made by the women of the church. It’s bright blue, with the picture of a world on it, and in large letters, the phrase “The World for Christ.”

The first time I looked at that banner, I thought to myself, “It’s backwards.”

Then I realized that perhaps, at many times in the past and present, we in the Christian Church have gotten this whole Christianity thing backwards.

Because to my way of thinking, the phrase should more properly read, “Christ for the World.”

Today is what is called, “Reign of Christ” Sunday, or sometimes “Christ the King” Sunday. And the words and the imagery that often go along with this particular Sunday are difficult for me to reconcile with the faith that I’ve developed.

Like many of you here, I grew up with the old blue “Hymnary.” It’s got some wonderful hymns in it—some we still sing today, some, because of space considerations or because of outdated language, have been left out of our newer hymn books.

But there are some that have been left out because, quite frankly, they make some people cringe.

“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the Cross of Jesus, going on before!”

I know without asking that there are probably some of you here who miss that hymn. It’s rousing, uplifting, and truly wonderful—as long as we don’t think about the words we’re actually singing.

Or this one:

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Ye soldiers of the cross!
Lift high his royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory, His army He shall lead,
‘till every foe is vanquished and Christ is Lord indeed!

If you take the words metaphorically, and see the foes as incorporeal things like injustice, greed, lust, hatred, prejudice, poverty, etc., then those hymns, and others like them, can still be meaningful.

The problem is that words have power, and the words we use define our thoughts.

We all know what an army is. We’ve seen war documentaries on television, or videos on the news, or a few among us may have the unwelcome experience of actually being in an army and marching off to war.

Armies are made up of human beings who are armed with weapons that are designed to kill other human beings. Foes are other human beings who have been designated, for one reason or another, as being the “enemy,” and they are to be fought and conquered.

And a victory is when we have beaten the other guy.

These are the images our minds tend to supply when we sing these hymns.

From the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, when Christianity was officially declared the religion of the state, to the present time, Christians have all too often seen non-Christians, or even other Christians, as foes to be vanquished, more often than not by force.

Christ is the King, therefore all on earth should bow down to Him, and if they do not do so willingly, they will do so by force, or perish. Not only that, but they shall profess whatever form of Christianity is currently in vogue or at the top of the pyramid, or perish.

I grew up in the sixties and seventies, when bombings in Ireland were in the daily news. And both sides called themselves “Christian,” and justified the killings in the name of the “One True Faith.”

Before that and after that, there were the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Residential Schools, the rape and subjugation of the entire continent of Africa… I could go on here, but I’m sure you get the point.

Our insistence that the world is not just for Christ but for our version of Christ has led to a lot of misery on earth.

And that vision of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth is not borne out by scripture, least of all the one that we read today.

Jesus the King, hung up on a cross to die. He’s not the only one up there—Luke tells us that he was hung between two other common criminals, one on his right, one on his left. What Luke doesn’t tell us is what archaeologists have discovered—there was not one cross, not three crosses, but hundreds and hundreds of crosses.

Jesus was one of a multitude who perished in agony on a cross. He wasn’t unusual. He wasn’t special. He was one of many victims of an empire that chose to assert it’s power ruthlessly.

What kind of a king is that?

He was never rich. He never wore fine robes. While we’re told he sometimes dined with the rich and famous, his closest friends were common labourers, most likely illiterate, certainly poor.

What kind of a king is that?

And his preaching—let me tell you what he said.

“Blessed are you poor! Woe to you who are rich!”

“If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other towards him so he can hit you again. If someone asks you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it for two. If someone asks you for your coat, give her your cloak also.”

“Put away your sword, Peter!”

This really doesn’t sound like someone who’s going to lead an army of followers to conquer and convert or subjugate or kill all who stand against Him!

What kind of a king is that?

And more to the point, since those are the words and actions and life history of the one we confess as Christ, our King and God, how do we follow such a king?

What I read in scripture is a call to humility and service.

As Christ humbled himself, first as a baby born to a homeless mother who soon was forced to flee the country due to persecution, then as a healer and preacher who was both lauded and reviled, and finally as an outcast who was condemned to death, so we are called to humility, before both God and our fellow human beings.

Christ served, healing whoever asked it of him, feeding the multitudes even when his disciples thought there wasn’t enough food to go around, comforting those in distress and mourning, and so we are called to serve, without counting the cost, without stinting.

That is the image of Christ the King I believe we should keep in mind. The humble servant, giving comfort to those who ask it of him, even in his agony as he hangs on a cross in the hot desert sun.

This is not a Christ who demands that the world be for Him.

This is a Christ who has given himself for the world. As the Body of Christ, we too, should be for the world, giving, healing, feeding, comforting.

Because the Reign of Christ is not about golden thrones and waving banners and marching bands and shouting crowds. The Reign of Christ is Shalom—peace and wholeness and justice for all.


Backwards Christianity

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

In the gymnasium of a real but nameless church in a real but nameless city there hangs a banner, doubtless made by the women of the church. It’s bright blue, with the picture of a world on it, and in large letters, the phrase “The World for Christ.”

The first time I looked at that banner, I thought to myself, “It’s backwards.”