Theme Address at the “re:VIVE Conference” sponsored by The United Church of Canada in the BC Lower Mainland on March 27. 2004 at St Andrew’s-Wesley Church, Vancouver, BC
It is a rare privilege and more than a little humbling to be here today. But, to be honest, it is also more than a little terrifying. Lately I have had the opportunity to be a guest speaker at events like this outside of BC. And I am learning that there is a certain freedom in arriving from out of town. You leave the next day! I come into those situations something of an unknown quantity. And I leave town before I can get into too much trouble. But you - or at least many of you - know me. This is home. I won’t be hard to find tomorrow. It could be really terrifying to be standing here at this moment if I hadn’t come to trust you, to love you as my sisters and brothers in Christ and to know that I am safe to offer my testimony in this sanctuary. If not, I will soon be enrolling in the church’s witness protection program (By the way, does anyone know if I can access witness protection through the Employee Assistance Program?).
In preparing for this morning I could not help but feel a deep sense of calling. You see, on May 9th I will celebrate the 50th anniversary of my baptism in Penticton United Church on Mother’s Day 1954. My Dad had not yet entered Union College and my Mom had no clue that she would one day be the Conference Staff person for Christian Education in BC. Nor did the United Church I was baptised into have the slightest idea of what was to transpire in the course of the next fifty years. The church I was born into was full of people. From 1955 to 1957 my father was the Student Associate here at St Andrew’s Wesley in downtown Vancouver. I asked him about those days this week. Dad said he remembers coming into church on Sunday morning and finding it full, right to the back, week after week. Sunday evening worship wasn’t quite so full, but the Ed Sullivan show hadn’t yet arrived, so it was still a large gathering. The big issue at the time was sports on Sunday and Dad recalls that both papers - the Sun and the Province - would each send two or three reporters to take notes from Dr. Cunningham’s sermons for their stories in Monday’s papers. Now I knew that things have changed. My father’s memories shouldn’t have surprised me. I read all the statistics and know that in just the past decade the United Church in BC’s lower mainland has declined in every category that one can measure (membership, givers, number of congregations) by nearly twenty per cent. In ten years! And this in the fastest growing urban area in Canada. I know that things have changed since my baptism all those years ago. But just hearing Dad picture the scene here, in this sanctuary, on any given Sunday in 1955 took my breath away. It was a different world and it was a very different church.
Somehow, in some way that I do not understand, I have been being prepared to stand here today for a long time. The church that I have known since my first fleeting memories of running through this sanctuary as a toddler has been in decline. It has been declining in numbers and in money and in resources and in energy and in young people and in hope. When I recall that journey I think of so many attempts to revive the church. Oh, we didn’t call them revivals. That would have sounded too desperate. Perhaps a little too close to being a church that could only afford a tent on the outskirts of town. But my memories are filled with so many attempts to bring energy and people and faith back into the church - the new curriculum and then many other even newer curricula. The move to contemporary worship in the 60s and in the 70s and in the 80s and in the 90s. We tried dialogue sermons, danced sermons and worship without sermons. We tried overhead projectors and sitting in the round and guitars instead of organs. We tried living love and doing justice and making peace. Mostly, I think, we tried to be relevant and appealing. Well, maybe that’s too harsh. We were also seeking to be faithful to Jesus. All I know is that the church I have known all my life has been trying hard to turn things around, to be on an upswing rather than a downswing. Sometimes we even manage to spin doctor our image enough to convince ourselves that things really are turning around, that less is more, that we’ve found the key to a new kind of future. But mostly I sense a certain level of deep fatigue and even of anxious desperation in the church. This community that should be a place of great joy and abundant life and incredible energy feels more often for too many of us and of our congregations like a drain and a drag and a burden.
But why me, here, today? Well, aside from the odd possibility that it really is the call of God and not just that I am close at hand and the next likely suspect, I know of two communities that send me to you. One of those communities is a circle of colleagues and a network of friends that I have had the privilege to come to know over the past decade. They are pastors, teachers and lay people in churches all over North America. They live in all sorts of denominations and serve all manner of congregations - large, small, conservative, liberal. What they have in common with us is that they, too, long for revival. They tell me that this is not just a matter for the United Church of Canada. We’re not as unique as we like to think. Nor is it just an issue in such a secularized pocket of North America as BC - and this is the most secular society in all of North America. In fact, when they look at what challenges we face and at what we’re up to and at what we’re talking about on days like this they get excited. They ask questions. They sit up and take notice. They want to know more about how we are and what’s happening. They want you to know that this particular location at this particular time holds promise for the church beyond our little world here in the mountains. This work that we are about may be far more significant than we realize. We think its another church meeting, another day, another bunch of talk and song to cheer us up and keep us going. But there is something else at work here.
That is what the other community that sends me to you would have me say, with clarity and honesty and courage. I have been serving Christ at University Hill Congregation for nearly a decade. It is, as some of you must be getting tired of hearing by now, a congregation that nearly expired in the 1980's. The congregation owns no property. We do not leave church on Sunday, because we don’t have a church. On Sunday, after worship, the church scatters into the world until it gathers again on the next Sabbath day. I have had the huge privilege of learning about the gospel alongside this surprising congregation that cannot quite figure out how or why it is alive. Last week we had our presbytery visitation. It is supposed to be a triennial visit, but you know how it is with presbytery energies these days. As best we could tell it was our first visit in something like twelve years. And on Friday evening I heard members of the congregation recounting all the various attempts that had been made in the 70's and 80's to turn things around. None worked. All ended in apparent failure. Yet somehow the congregation did not die, but has come to a surprising place of deep joy and faith. Then I heard one of our presbytery visitors ask: “Well, how did this revival happen then?” There was silence in the room. And then a voice said: “We don’t know.” Well, that’s not quite true. We don’t know what we did to bring the congregation to life. But we have come to believe that it wasn’t our doing. On Sunday the elders of our congregation laid hands on my head as I knelt at the font at the conclusion of worship. They were praying for me and sending me to you today. They sent me to bring the kerygma, the proclamation, the message that there is something else - someone else - at work here.
The congregation might have sent me to speak about any one of the five ancient marks of the church. Over the past few years we have been rediscovering this way of describing Christian communal life. The five marks of Christian community are now the agenda for every Council meeting and shape the format of our Annual Report. They are a way of keeping us focused on the kind of community that Christ is cultivating in our life together. Those five marks are: liturgia - worship of the God who we meet in Jesus Christ; didache - teaching of the Way of Christ; diakonia - serving Christ in the neighbour and stranger; koinonia - living in Christian community; kerygma - proclaiming the gospel. The truth is, of course, that none of these marks ever exists on its own. So, for example, our life as community (koinonia) and our service in the world (diakonia) is itself a living proclamation of the gospel (kerygma). And our worship of God (liturgia) is a powerful communal experience (koinonia) and time of teaching (didache) . These five benchmarks - liturgia, didache, diakonia, koinonia and kerygma - are becoming almost everyday language in our congregation. Of the five, the one mark of the church that we have found to be most difficult and yet most crucial for us as a United Church has been kerygma.
So here I am. You have given me the rare privilege of proclaiming the message of revival for the church, but even more of revival for these streets and this city and yes, even for the creation itself. I am here to remind you, to cajole you, to provoke you, to encourage you, to challenge you to be a kerygmatic people ... to be a people of the message, to be a gospel people, to be an evangelical people. Now if I hadn’t riled you up yet I suspect that I may have just caught your attention. Kerygma sounds a bit odd, all Greek. Gospel, well - we can qualify that with ‘social gospel’ if need be. But ‘evangelical’? Now, as one of my southern friends would say, I have just moved from preaching to meddling. Let me be very clear. When I say that the revival of the church we know is directly related to our willingness and even our desire to be an evangelical people I do not have in mind a particular style of evangelical witness, nor do I imagine that evangelical equals conservative or liberal or any other political camp within the church. I mean to recover the word evangelical for the whole church because, you see, Jesus was an evangelical preacher. Matthew, Mark and Luke all begin their gospels by quoting Jesus’ stump sermon: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” And the word in Greek that we translate as ‘good news’ or as ‘gospel’ is the word ‘evangelion’. Heaven help us - Jesus is an evangelical!
Jesus comes announcing and embodying the evangelical good news of God. He speaks the message and he is the message of the kingdom come, God’s will done. This seems so obvious that you would think that it would be silly to spend a Saturday morning in a church, of all places, announcing to church leaders that the kerygma - the central message of the church - is that God is up to something astounding and incredible and wonderful in Jesus Christ. And maybe I am very mistaken, and maybe this odd gospel is the heartbeat of the life of our congregations. But I am not so sure. I am not so sure that the kerygma that our lives as congregations and the message that our lives as individuals communicate is really all that good or even really news at all. What I mean to say is that more often than not the message - the kerygma - that we find ourselves living and speaking is not the gospel that our ancestors treasured and died for and longed for us to know and to live.
This silencing of the kerygma, this deep amnesia amongst us is no accident. For whenever we gather to preach and sing and tell the gospel, there are always forces present that desire the silencing of the good news. If we do not know this or name this then we are easily seduced by these powers and principalities. Perhaps you are wondering just what I am talking about. What I mean to say is that often our version of the message - of the kerygma - is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. And this is not our fault. We don’t set out to misrepresent the good news. But we are tempted by powerful forces to disbelieve Jesus. It isn’t simply a problem of the church being faithful to Jesus and the world rejecting such faithful witness as false. More often than not, the church itself has strayed far from the good news. It has been led there by tempting idols who promise life but cannot and do not deliver on their promise.
One of those idols turns the gospel into a spiritual product that meets the needs of religious consumers. Sometimes this manipulation of the gospel is so blatant that it is almost funny. Like, for instance, the church signboard that advertises what is inside by parroting an American Express commercial: “Free Coffee, Eternal Life: Membership has its Privileges.” We are not nearly so crass as that. But we are deeply influenced and shaped by a culture whose functioning gospel is all about acquiring and consuming. We are submerged in messages - kerygmas - that convince us that having more and consuming more brings life eternal.
Advertisers know only too well that the best way to sell us a soft drink or a beer, a car or a retirement plan is to picture the life eternal that is to be enjoyed while drinking a Coke or driving a Honda or lolling on the sand into the sunset of life. But have you noticed? We have more and consume more than any other people in any other time of history and yet we still do not have enough. We worry about not having enough. And there isn’t anything left to give. So we, more than anyone, should know that products do not satisfy. Yet we are powerfully tempted to turn the gospel from a relationship into a product. We sometimes imagine that the revival of the church depends upon its ability to market this gospel product so as to meet the needs of spiritual consumers. Of course, Jesus does quench thirst and satisfy hungers. But he does so by calling us to lives that are not hooked on acquiring and consuming. We have even taken to including in the search process for new ministry personnel in the United Church a “needs assessment”. Notice how easily this language entraps us into imagining that ministers of Jesus Christ exist to meet needs. This is a lie. Servants of Jesus are called to announce Jesus’ need for disciples, for witnesses, for followers on the Way of Christ.
And there is another lie afoot. The powers of modernity and the spirits of the age are determined to convert the church. We don’t much like speaking about conversion. But we ignore it at our peril. For not only are the powers and principalities seeking to convert our children into well-trained consumers who worship in the mall but they are also bent on convincing us that the future is up to us. This is an even more dangerous temptation for a church that knows its need of revival. We are so tempted to look at the evidence of decline and to imagine that we had better get busy and revive this church because God is apparently asleep at the switch. We are such children of productivity and of efficiency and of endless ‘to do’ lists that we no longer actually believe that the future belongs to Christ. How many of our congregations are proclaiming a kerygma that sounds something like: “We aren’t doing enough and we aren’t giving enough and we aren’t good enough ... better get busy.” After all, not only the church but the world is in need of revival. Amen? And we can see that too many people aren’t doing enough and aren’t giving enough and don’t seem to be good enough. But, of course, that’s not exactly news. You don’t have to go to church to figure that out. Its just that it is so difficult to believe that God is up to something incredible until this good news infects us with the Holy Spirit’s strange and life-giving hope that resists all despair.
My rabbi, Martin (I have come to think that every Christian preacher needs a rabbi) has taught me something crucial in this regard. He tells me that he keeps the Sabbath week in and week out because it is so hard for him to believe in God. We throw around the word ‘faith’ as if it were some natural inclination among us. We make it sound like the church is full of believers. My rabbi teaches me that the People of God have a very hard time believing that its not up to us. Martin says that he must practice stopping productivity for twenty-four hours every week - no ‘to do’ lists, nothing that must be done is to be done - in order that when he is an old man he will trust in his bones that God is the Creator of the universe who is still creating and producing life. This is astounding good news that the powers of our age wish to silence because a people who believe this about God in their bones will trust their future and their lives and their deaths to God’s peculiar ways.
Before I go any further, I want to take a moment to speak privately with any preachers here today. Preaching, after all, is the place where the kerygma is to be announced when we gather. It is a regular reminder that there is an odd message at the heart of Christian life. You preachers are our kerygma people. And what I want to say to you is that your voice is crucial in these days to help us all rediscover the gospel. I, like you, am not always sure that I grasp the gospel or have words for it. I, like you, know that the people want us to have an answer, want us to lead them to the promised land, want us to meet their needs and produce a revived church. I, like you, know that we don’t actually know where Jesus is taking his church. So what I want to say to you is that you need to find ways to tell the truth about all of this with Christ’s people. Help them to hear that the good news is not about what we have to do, but about what God is doing. This daring word that we can trust in Christ, not in a new program or a new technique or a new theology, is the heart of the good news. And, if you need it, call the Conference Personal Minister for help accessing the witness protection program!
While I am at it, perhaps I could also have a word with you who listen to, support and endure our varied attempts to proclaim the gospel. We preachers need you. We need you to give us courage to dare to speak unexpected news. We need you to assume that God’s word will trouble us as much as please us. We need you to keep asking us: “What is the gospel again, preacher?”. When we get busy doing everything else but announcing the odd good news in Christ, take us aside and remind us of our calling, remind us how easily the church loses faith, disbelieves, forgets and trusts in some other gospel. And when we forget and lose faith, proclaim the kerygma to us until we hear it and trust it and preach it again. Oh, and by the way, if you hadn’t already guessed you are our witness protection program!
So, to be clear, my message to you today is that the message - the kerygma, the gospel - is a crucial mark of a church that is longing to be revived by God. And this kerygma is always near at hand. The scripture holds this gospel and brings it to us week after week. So, rather than pick a favorite proof text today it seemed wise to include in your packets the readings that are set for tomorrow, the fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C of the Revised Ecumenical Common Lectionary. After all, there just might be a preacher or two here who haven’t quite put the finishing touches on tomorrow’s sermon. When we gather later this afternoon for worship we will hear a dramatic reading grounded in the gospel narrative of Jesus’ anointing. I will preach on the text from Philippians in order to practice proclaiming the kerygma with you. But now, to end this time together, I invite you to ponder Isaiah 43:16-21.
The thing about Isaiah and about Jeremiah and about Ezekiel - the thing about these three great prophets - is that they spend such a long time convincing the people that their decline, their loss, their ending as a people is not simply a matter of geo-politics or of cultural change or of sociology or of economics. Isaiah spends the first thirty-nine chapters of his prophesy saying that the reason the People of God are at a loss and have been in decline is because God has judged their ways and their doings. Jeremiah says the same thing. And so does Ezekiel. I know that the United Church is very fond of the prophets. They are our heroes. But I don’t quite know what to do with the fact that the prophets notice the hand of God in the ending of Israel’s cherished way of life. You see, it just might be that the fifty years of the church’s decline since my baptism is a season of God’s judgment on the church we have known and loved and worked so hard to shape. That is a painful thing to say here, in the church that has shaped me and loved me into being. But I am beginning to believe it. And, in believing it, I am beginning to see something else as well. For beyond God’s judgment the prophets notice an unexpected turn. They perceive that God is not done with the people yet. And this radical hope of revival is as hard for the people to believe as is the word of judgment. I wonder if we sit today somewhere in the midst of God’s sure judgment and God’s amazing revival.
Sitting in this place, pondering how revival might catch us up and make us new, notice tomorrow’s text. It is God speaking - the God that Moses met in the burning bush, the God whose awesome first name dare not be spoken, and which is a verb that means “I am what I am doing”. God reminds the hopeless people of the miraculous events at the exodus from Egypt. A band of slaves, powerless in the face of the world’s mightiest army, is liberated by God. But this memory is nothing in the face of what lies in the future: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” And this new thing is “a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert”. The people are being promised another exodus, another wilderness wandering, another homecoming. Notice that the people are not doing a new thing. The people are not creating a new future. The text is not really about the people. It is about God and what God is up to.
At the heart of the text is a deep question, one that must outlast every sermon on this text. God says: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth do you not perceive it?” We look around at our tired congregations, our aging buildings, our worn down lives and we are not sure that we perceive any sign of God’s new future. But this is all that the church is asked in this text. Do you not see what I am doing? Can’t you sense what I am up to? This is the question that our preachers must keep asking and these are the words that our congregations, like Mary, must ponder in their hearts. For then we will be listening when voices answer “Yes, we see”, “Over here, Christ is healing”, “In my life, the Holy Spirit is reviving hope”, “At the Table, our old familiar quarrels and our deep hurts are being reconciled”. “Yes, we perceive what you are up to, Holy One”.
When we perceive that God is up to something beyond all expectation ... when we notice that the church is not simply being reconstituted as it was in 1954 but is, in some mysterious way, being inspired by the Holy Spirit that is God’s energy and God’s deep hope for all peoples ... when we go home from a day like today and say “There’s something happening, God is up to something, I can sense it” ... then we will find that our congregations cannot help but be places of praise. This is our calling. We are a people formed for God so that we might declare God’s praise (Isaiah 43:21). We praise God not so much because of what God has done as because of what God is up to now. This praise is a political act. It announces that in spite of the powers that be, God has another future in store for you, another future in store for your neighbourhood, another future in store for this earth. This praise leads us to live with compassion among the hopeless and the desperate because we know a message - a kerygma - of abounding hope. And this praise is sung and lived in a multitude of ways and voices. You can hear it in plainsong and in Taize chant, you can sing it in gospel and in German chorales, you can read it from a hymn book or on a big screen. The new thing that revives us is not our doing. It is not the latest gadget or fad or program or speaker. The new thing that God is up to is this: Jesus Christ is coming, today and tomorrow, turning lives around, making his people new, reconciling the world to God. Amen? Amen! Praise God from whom all blessings flow.