(Preached at Alma United Church, September 17, 2017)
Sabbaticals are important for ministers, or for any creative person for that matter. The different pace of life, the exposure to different ideas, the freedom from the pressure to produce daily or weekly material all allow the brain to recharge and become ready for another burst of genius ideas.
Ministerial sabbaticals are important for congregations, too. No matter how good the minister or how faithful the congregation, after a time, minister and church will fall into a routine way of working together. Routines are great—they allow maximum efficiency with minimum thought and effort, but over time, routines can become ruts, and when those ruts are deep enough, they can become very comfortable final resting places.
Marion’s gone for four months, and you have me. <evil grin>
When Marion first approached me about covering for her, I asked myself, what can I do at Alma that will help us grow together.
I could, of course, have chosen to preach from the lectionary. It’s not a bad option, but I’ve been there, done that, for a couple of years, and so have you. So I thought about doing a series.
Then a friend loaned me the book bullseye: Aiming to Follow Jesus, by Jamie Holtom and Debbie Johnson, both ordained United Church ministers. I read it cover to cover in two or three days, and what I read excited me. I wanted to start right away working through it with a congregation.
I wanted to explore with a congregation the wonders of spiritual practices, authentic community, powerful worship, joyful service and giving, and sharing Christ with those in need of hope.
Then I had the brilliant thought that perhaps, just maybe, before I tried it with my helpless guinea pigs at Alma, that I should try it myself.
So I started off reading my bible every day. Well, almost every day. Well, at least two or three times a week, which is, unfortunately, a lot more than I’d been reading it before. And I started listening to Christian music on the radio. And I started allocating the first fruits of my pay to God, instead of the leftovers.
I can honestly say it’s made a difference. I started my reading at the psalms, and quickly had enough really good sermon material for the entire summer. My drives were calmer and more pleasant, and every day I’m reminded of God’s love through beautiful music, some of which I hope to share with you as the months go on.
It’s been good, but has it been worth the extra effort? Why bother, when we’re all happy Christians together? And if we learn about the bullseye over the next four months, will it make a difference at Alma?
I honestly can’t answer that last question, but I can tell you that it has made a difference in my life, and also in the lives of a few of the congregations I have visited over this past summer.
This is how Jamie and Debbie start off the book:
Can you imagine a church that is alive with people who pray every day?
Can you imagine all kinds of people coming to church on a Sunday morning so excited to worship God that you can just feel the energy rise as they enter?
Can you imagine a church where people love one another and share t heir lives together in real and authentic ways?
Can you imagine a church filled with people who so love to give generously that the offering plates overflow each week?
Can you imagine a church where people are so in awe of God and what God is doing in their own lives that they can’t help but share their faith and invite their friends?
Can you imagine a church like this?
Can you imagine?
There was a time in my life, not so very long ago, when I couldn’t imagine a church like this.
Instead, I knew a church that had just begun to admit to the part it had played in the horrors of the residential school system.
I knew of churches whose members seemed to have only one concern—how do we get bums in the pews (and yes, those exact words were used) so that we can pay for the upkeep of our beautiful building?
I’ve been in churches where the worship was worse than mediocre—the music was so painful that I felt like plugging my ears. And this was at a church all of the singers in the choir were trained soloists!
I’ve visited churches whose members have threatened to walk, taking all their money with them, or whose members have actually left in a huff, because the governing body had approved a candidate or intern who was gay or lesbian.
I’ve been in churches where the sale of a surplus building to fund new and vibrant ministry initiatives could only take place over the cold, dead bodies of a couple of key members who were still very much alive.
I’ve known churches where the current members didn’t really care about the future of their faltering congregation—just so long as it lasted long enough to bury them.
I’ve been in churches that were so focused on the “problem” of how to get young families into the building that they ignored the large population of seniors living right in their neighbourhood. Or who went ahead and hired yet another middle-aged white male minister, despite being situated amongst a growing population of Asians who are hungry for the gospel.
I’ve been part of churches that pointed fingers. You’re socially awkward. You dress like a slob. She’s divorced! And from the choir loft, at the back and above the general congregation—oh, look! So-and-so needs to dye her hair again. Her roots are showing.
I kid you not. All of this has really happened, and is happening, in churches across Canada.
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
“O Lord God, you know…
…but if this is all there is to church, I hope not!”
But you and I all know that this isn’t all there is to church. I took a rather long sabbatical myself, well over two years, where I did not attend worship regularly. I worked in a secular setting, in factories, fast food restaurants, and movie theatres.
Out in the world, I saw people who were hurting. It’s not just that they needed food cupboards and other services that churches sometimes provide, but that they needed the gospel. They needed to know that they were loved, that their lives had meaning, that they had gifts.
And nobody invited them to come in and sit down.
When I returned to the church, I began to see changes. I talked about some of these in my sermon at the end of May, if you can remember back that far. How we’re in the middle of a “Holy Shift,” and there are United Churches across Canada that are growing, becoming more vibrant with the Spirit every day, many of them inspired by the book bullseye that I’d like to walk and talk you through this Fall.
About five years ago, I started an irregular practice of visiting other churches to see what they were doing. Not all of those churches were United Churches. Very few of them were big churches. But all of them, including Alma, had at least one area where they were performing at peak, with new ideas and things to share with the rest of the church.
I saw the sinews and the flesh and the skin reforming around the bones. I saw the church coming to life again with the breath of the Spirit of God.
Yes, God! Yes!
I talked with the children earlier about Transformers, about how we, as Christians, can become transformed by our religion, and about how that transformation can be good or it can be evil.
Too often, as in the case of the residential schools, the inquisitions, the crusades, and so on, we have used our religion for evil. It’s no wonder that there are atheists who very strongly believe that all religion is evil, and should be banned!
They fail to notice that some of the most vicious abuses of human rights occur in countries that have done just that, of course. But even worse, they overlook what belief in God can do for good.
To finish with a story from CBC Radio:
Glen Flett had his first contact with police when he was just seven years old, and was in trouble throughout his youth. In 1978, during an attempted robbery, Flett shot and killed Ten Van Sluytman, a Hudson’s Bay store manager.
Flett was given a life sentence for second degree murder.
In prison, his attitude continued to harden. He says, “Life meant very little to me, anybody’s life, including my own.”
Four decades later, Flett is out of prison.
He’s friends with Margot Van Sluytman, the daughter of the man he murdered. He’s an advocate of restorative justice, sometimes speaking in prisons alongside Margo. He founded LINC, and organization that works to support victims and perpetrators of crime. He speaks at schools and universities. He runs Emma’s Acres, a farm in Mission, BC, where victims and perpetrators of crime work side-by-side, growing vegetables. Flett hopes the profit from the vegetables will one day be sufficient to hire an outreach worker to help victims of crime who aren’t getting enough support elsewhere.
What a change from a guy who didn’t give a damn about anything or anyone!
It started when he was put into an experimental program where guards wore civilian clothes, called him by his name and treated him like a person.
He admits that at first, he didn’t like it much. He was content in Milhaven, where the guards were the guards and he was the prisoner and the prisoners and the guards hated each other and that was that.
Slowly, he began to soften.
But the real change, the change that led to his work in restorative justice, only came after he became a Christian.
That is what the power of God can do, that human beings alone cannot. That is why it is so very important that we keep doing what we’re doing, and doing more of it.
I think sometimes we think, “God, we’ve worshiped you all our days. We’ve always been faithful. Isn’t that enough?”
Well, yes, actually. Jesus tells us that whoever believes in him shall have life, and we do believe.
There’s so much more. More work, more change, yes. But so much more joy too.
Think of how wonderful it would be if this gem called Alma United Church could blossom and bear fruit that revitalizes a whole community! A whole county! A whole province, or country, or world!
Or maybe you won’t change all that much, except to have a slightly deeper appreciation of what God has done with you and for you.
That’s okay too.
I only have four months with you, barely time to travel through the six markers of faith outlined in the book. What you do with it after that is up to you and Reverend Marion.
Whatever you choose, and however you do it, God will journey with you.