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The Church: What is it Good For?

Pentecost +3 Common Lectionary Year B
Anniversary of Church Union

Acts 4:13-31, 2-37.

©2018 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R Jones

It seems that anniversaries put one into reflective mode.
And with this Sunday falling on
the day of Church Union, June 10,
and coming but a week after my own 20 year milestone as an Ordained Minister in this United Church of Canada,
it seemed “right and proper”
to reflect with you, on a question that has shaped this denomination, my own ministry within it, and that of this congregation, then and now.

The question is a blunt one: what is the church good for?
Back in 1925, the 8000 people gathered in
the Mutual Street Arena
declared in unison that the Church was good for this:
“to dedicate ourselves,
as heirs of the precious gifts of the Gospel,
unto the service of God in his kingdom among men.”

I wince a little at the Christendom overtones,
but if you re-phrase into 21st century language,
it goes something like this:
Today the church, “as inheritors of a rich tradition of faith and practice stretching back millennia, and centres on life and the teaching of the Way of Jesus Christ, dedicate ourselves to living the Dream of God here on earth, among all people.”

When I was ordained,
I was asked not to serve the needs of the people of the congregations
and colleges in which my ministry was to be exercised,
but rather to live, teach, uphold and support the Gospel, the Dream, the kingdom of God as it is lived out by and among the people.
If you read Acts, the question is there, and it is answered in the same manner:
The Church exists not for itself,
but for the good of God’s Dream for all creatures of the earth.

The church is good for the world.
If it is not good for the world,
it is not the church of Jesus Christ.

Now I don’t know quite what the founders
of the UCC had in mind when imagining how,
in practical terms,
it would “serve the will of God among men,”
but within four years of its inauguration,
drought was turning the prairies into a dustbowl,
the fallout from the 1929 Wall Street crash
rendered tens of thousands of Canadian men unemployed,
and riding the rails in search of any work
that would keep a roof above, and food in the bellies of
their families back home.
United Churches across the prairies
set up food stations by the railroad,
United Churches from Antigonish to Pender Island
turned their church lawns into cottage gardens,
they bundled children’s clothing, and sent both
them down the line to those most in need.
While this new church was still figuring out
what it was good for,
it pretty much re-wrote Acts 4.
Those who had plenty shared so that there was no-one among them left needy. Sons and daughters of encouragement.
In so doing, the UCC found that its heart and soul,
nourished with the theologies and liturgies
of great souls like Dwight Chown
and George Pidgeon, and RBY Scott,
took on flesh and bone in the simple basic
kitchen care of the nation’s hungriest, loneliest people.

If the Church is good for the world,
it is the Church of Jesus Christ.

Now, plenty, over the years have taken the UCC
to task for its lack of doctrinal clarity,
its broadest of tent inclusion that makes
the edges appear invisible or messy,
its periodic uncertainties about just what
the resurrection of Jesus meant and means.
It’s been criticized, ostracised, condemned
for its ordination of women,
its serious but not literal approach to Scripture,
its inclusion of divorced people in leadership,
its headlight inclusion of the LGBTQ+ communities
in all aspects of its life and ministry.
It’s been punished for its involvement in social justice,
at home and abroad.
In all these, the question that has led to these positions
these values, these ministries,
has been the founding one:
What in God’s name is the Church to be good for?

That’s a huge question,
but taking my lead from the UCC of 1929,
let me focus on one room in this place;
the kitchen.
If it was the kitchen and the kitchen garden
which forged a pragmatic, justice-oriented church
of radical inclusion out of the angst
of a world Depression,
what might this kitchen do for us who ask
What is this Church good for now?

I asked a few folk this week to share memories forged in our now 62 year old kitchen:
Memories of Fathers and Sons banishing the women
from the kitchen for the Pancake/Sausage lunch,
Fish and chip pub night where newspapers held the food, (worth remembering!)
while new friendships were formed.
Husking hundreds of corn cobs for the Welcome BBQ.
More than a few trapped fingers in those blessed
cupboard doors,
and countless blown fuses,
dishpan hands from MoW tray washing.
Curry cooking for Free the Children fundraisers.
The discoveries of new, now life-long friends over the chopping of onions.
Dicing fingers while dicing squares for Coffee House,
the disappearance of a tea- urn by a certain too-new to know better minister…..
the love and grief and tears stirred into tea at funeral receptions.
The list- your list- goes on.

In all of this, people hungry for food,
and for fellowship
and for purposeful connection,
have been fed.

Now some may be thinking that all we really need
in there is a plug socket,
a stove, a fridge, and a supply of cups for our coffee.
Some may blanch at cost of renovating
and bringing it up to code,
thinking it to be too great a risk in uncertain times.

But…remember the question: what is the church good for?
It is for the good of the world.
This world. Now.
As Charles Taylor has so convincingly said,
our secularized, individualized world is starving.
It is starving for spiritual and human connection.

Is this the Dream of God for us?
In response, F4, which began as an insider church family meal
has grown to respond to this starvation
in the most amazing of ways;
the tables are now set for Nigerian, Russian,
Chinese new Canadians
starving for a place to connect, over food and safe space for their children,
and in so doing creating a foretaste of the blessed commonwealth of God,
where all are indeed one.

Meals on Wheels, LPF, Corbeille du Pain
and Ugly but loved programmes
are feeding the lonely, the isolated,
the less well-off, and Seniors
with increasingly fragile food security,
without stopping to ask, “Do they belong? Do they believe?”
but simply asking the question Jesus asked his followers,
2000 years ago, looking at a starving multitude,
“Are they hungry? You Feed Them.”
This, among other things,
is what we are good for, Church.
So let’s get cracking, shall we?

Resources used for this sermon include Inaugural Worship of June 10, 1925 (UCC Archives); Ordered Liberty by Bill Kervin; Church with the Soul of a Nation by Phyllis Airhart, Church in the Canadian Era by John Webster Grant, United Church of Canada: A History ed. Don Schweitzer.

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