By Rev. Joan Kessler
Matthew 11: 2 – 11
It was 1965 when Canadian journalist and author Pierre Berton published his assessment of the religious landscape in Canada in well-known book, The Comfortable Pew. Some of you may know this book for yourselves. Berton critiqued the state of churches becoming too comfortable and becoming more like country clubs than organizations of social change based on the teaching and life of Jesus. I read a particular excerpt a few times over and bristled at its message. And I am going to read for you a paragraph to begin this time of reflection this morning as we consider John’s good question he poses from prison.
“But there seem to be two ways in which a truly Christian reformation could come about. It could come through some terrifying persecution of the Christian Church – a persecution that would rid the Church of those of little faith, of the status-seekers and respectability-hunters, of the deadwood who enjoy the club atmosphere, of the ecclesiastical hangers-on and the comfort-searchers. Once the Church becomes the most uncomfortable institution in the community, only those who really matter will stick with it. At this point, one would expect the Church to come back to those basic principles of love, faith and hope…”
Pierre Burton, The Comfortable Pew
I share these words because it illuminates for me how far we have come in our attitudes toward Christianity. I wonder what he means by the only hope for the future of the Church is to become “the most uncomfortable institution in the community”? Perhaps at the time of the mid 1960s he had good reason to offer this assessment… that in many Canadian churches the status and being seen and affiliated with a Church advanced your standing in a particular community. Sadly, Berton’s vision likely has been lived out in many communities with people leaving because they didn’t feel they were enough; devout enough, wealthy enough, smart enough or healthy enough to contribute.
I believe that as United Church of Canada congregations we have moved to a new place, far ahead of Berton’s criticism. We strive to create a place of belonging and inclusion that makes space for our questions and our wonderments about what gives life meaning and how we wish to spend our time and to what causes to contribute our gifts and resources.
This week, I read the details outlining the United Church of Canada’s new strategic plan to address our rapid decline. As congregations continue to close, our General Secretary, Rev. Michael Blair, unveiled an ambitious plan over these next three years to grow 100 new congregations and communities of faith with a special focus on the spiritual needs of migrants, young adults, francophones, people with disabilities, and intercultural communities. This exciting vision, grounded in a growth perspective, will also focus on the Church’s response to climate change, leadership, and the common good. This plan comes together in response to recent statistics indicating United Church affiliation dropping in the past decade from 2 million to 1.2 million; in 2019, the United Church had just under 400,000 members on its roll. For those of us who like stats, this decline certainly gives context to the General Secretary’s plan for revitalization. This plan speaks to the Spirit-filled hope for the future. The United Church of Canada’s mission and ministry and all its ground-breaking accomplishments over the past century, has not been in vain and our denomination will continue to work to be relevant and address spiritual needs of a changing demographic and population.
In our Advent reading for this Joy Sunday, we hear of John the Baptist’s imprisonment. He has gone from being a gatherer of people, wandering freely in the wilderness, of speaking out against the Roman government and its oppressive tactics and announcing the arrival of a new leader, a messiah … to being arrested, stripped of his freedom and confined to a small cell. Joy is not evident this day as he puts out to Jesus a profound question of his day: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? We can speculate where his question comes from. We can imagine his disappointment over the way things have come to pass, and all he has left as he paces his cell is an anguished question for the One he put his whole life into proclaiming; the coming of the would-be Messiah. He asks his question from a new and different place, having moved from freedom to confinement.
Jesus takes no offense at his cousin’s question. He responds with compassion, gentleness, and an understanding of where John’s despair is coming from. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see… Tell him of the work we have done, the difference we have made… that healing and restoration are happening and the poor have Good News brought to them. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me”. Jesus encourages his disciples to go back to John and tell him their stories, tell him what you have seen and heard and experienced. Jesus doesn’t offer a dogmatic response to his question but a lived-on-the-ground story to encourage and sustain him as he faces imprisonment.
In January, on the 13th and 14th we are going to have an opportunity to come together as one whole community and to tell our stories of who we are, who is our neighbor and what are we being called to do and to be in this particular time and place. These are good and timely questions to be asking as we wonder like John, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another”. Change is all around us. We should always be discerning an answer to John’s good question because it is what spins us as a community of faith and of questions, of doubts and of yearnings. So, I don’t make many demands on you my folks, but I am excited for this opportunity and am really hoping for us to come out and support this important work. All of us are asked to participate, as we are able, either in person or via Zoom (which will be made available). With the facilitation of Kathy Davies, our Regional Minister, we will in essence begin to write our own strategic plan for the future. Our relationship to this property and how we utilize it for our mission and ministry is also part of the wider conversation.
If John’s good question, if my invitation to a congregational retreat, rattles you this morning, I am happy to hear it. Because the alternative would be complacency and that is not what the church or community of faith or spiritual center of the future is calling for. We cannot stay in the comfortable pew. We couldn’t in 1965 nor can we settle into it with a new year on our doorstep. We are always on the move, asking new and hard questions about where we are heading as a community. May we live into Jesus’ story, tell our own stories, be agents of healing of restoration, of heart-opening wholeness. May we become a place where all find comfort and compassion, understanding and belonging. Joy to you dear friends this third Sunday of Advent and may the Spirit of Questions be with us all. Amen and Amen.