August 6: 9th Sunday after Pentecost

September 1, 2017

Reflection: I Have Confidence in – What? August 6, 2017
Micah 6:4-8; Luke 4:16-20; John 15: 12-14; Matthew 28:16-20

Youth of the world, arise,
Courage and service bring,
Life, full and free, before you lies,
Make Christ your Saviour-King.
Youth of the world, arise,
High hope is yours to-day,
Life offers many an easy prize,
Christ points the harder way.

Youth of the world, arise,
‘Adventure’ is your cry,
Then see before your very eyes,
The King who dared to die.
Youth of the world, arise
To sacrificial deeds,
‘Come, follow me,’ the Saviour cries,
Young lives like yours He needs.

Youth of the world, arise,
To bear His Cross and shame;
With him no true endeavour dies;
Go forth, proclaim His Name.
Youth of the world, arise,
Clear is the clarion call
‘I come, I come,’ true youth replies,
‘To Christ I give my all.’ AMEN. (Anonymous)

This hymn is a call to action to the young people of the late 30s and 40s; the young people responded in droves. This is a generation that sacrificed to save Europe, Asia and Africa from Axis occupation and especially to save the Jews from extermination. This was a generation that built the nation we live in today: with a social network supporting the vulnerable and a base of strong citizenship and enduring voluntarism. This generation flooded the church with activities, programs and people. This is the “muscular” Christianity I mentioned last week: strong, courageous, confident, committed, disciplined.

There is a confidence in the hymns of this generation that they know what God wants, and they are going to do it. But under the surface, that confidence was showing the cracks of modernity. For many, their confidence was shaken or even shattered by the experiences of both World Wars and the horrors they saw, leading people to question the goodness of God and to develop a much less optimistic view of human accomplishment. The “we’re all pulling together” approach of the 30s and 40s was replaced by a return to the rapid development of consumer goods in the 1950s and 60s, promoting competition and “keeping up with the Joneses” as the new way of life. Urban sprawl and suburban creep started to replace farming communities and city neighbourhoods where people knew and looked out for each other. More immigration from central Europe, Asia, Africa and elsewhere brought neighbours who didn’t look or sound like the British (or French) ancestors Canadians had tried to emulate. They also brought with them different ways of worship and different spiritual paths that seemed really strange to some and excitingly new and appealing to others. First Nations folks across North America began to reclaim their identity and their own spiritual practices. The consensus that being a good Canadian and being a good Christian are one and the same thing began to break down. As Canadians encountered more of the world, we began to wonder if other people really had to convert to Christianity in order to be acceptable in God’s eyes. As the “question everything” approach took hold in the 60s and 70s, we became more uncertain about previously accepted truths and our confidence in the mission of the church as we understood it began to be eroded.

But not everywhere. The radical social gospel of the turn of the century experienced a revival within mission-oriented groups in the church that were going strong: the Women’s Missionary Society which joined the Women’s Auxiliary to become the UCW; the Student Christian Movement, tied to the Student World Federation; The Women’s Interchurch Council; the Canadian Council of Churches and the Word Council of Churches; Ten Days for World Development which became Ten Days for Global Justice, and more. I found an old photo online of the mayor of a city in Ontario signing a declaration that the Ten Days for World Development would be observed by the whole city – it’s hard to imagine such a thing happening today!

These groups remained strongly oriented to furthering Christ’s purposes in the world, and over the decades moved from converting the people they saw as “heathen” to assisting, supporting and advocating in education, health, development, peace and justice issues. The United Church’s Mission and Service work comes out of this tradition of seeking to transform the world for Jesus. The United Church’s sense of mission has been profoundly shaped by the words of the prophet Micah we heard today: “What does the Lord require of you but to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah in his sermon in Nazareth fired the hearts and minds of his people to bring healing and hope to many. His commandment to love has caused many in the church to open wide the boundaries of their hearts and the doors of their buildings; and yes, his commandment to baptize other nations and peoples in His name, has inspired us, too – but this latter priority has taken a backseat in the last few decades, in part because of the dawning realization for many that there may be more than one path to God. How does one preach conversion if one’s neighbour is as devoted to their own religion as you are to yours – perhaps even more so? It’s become a real difficulty for some of us liberal Christians .

I did a little research to see if any of the mission and justice-oriented groups from the early to mid-20th century are still around and still active. UCW, of course, is active, though much stronger in some parts of the country than others, as is the Women’s InterChurch Council. The Student Christian Movement, to my astonishment, still exists, and still advocates radical social justice. I know I’d never heard of it outside of memoirs and it’s been replaced on most campuses by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ – both of which focus far more on the old model of mission as conversion and evangelization, though they too are starting to shift their attention to neighbourhood ministries and outreach. Our own Campus Ministry here in Victoria has a heavy focus on spiritual practices and fellowship, though it is not without its social gospel element. They have been involved in mission trips south of the border and in efforts around indigenous issues. The World Council of Churches and the Canadian Council of Churches of course, are still active, but as funds dwindle in the wider church they become a lower priority in the budget. Ten Days for Global Justice no longer exists, though much of their work has been taken over by KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

It seems like the world we live in today is very different from the world of the hymn I quoted at the beginning of the sermon. Yet Jesus still asks us to “Go Make a Diff’rence”. I have an image of Julie Andrews as the governess Maria proudly marching up to the gates of the Von Trapp mansion in “The Sound of Music”, singing “I have confidence” in many things but especially herself, and then reaching the gates and going, “Oh help!” We know we’re asked to follow in Jesus’ footsteps by bringing liberty to the oppressed and healing to those who are hurting, to live out the prophetic call to justice, to love one another, AND to baptize others in his name – but faced with our neighbours and friends and families who may not know Jesus, we tend to wither and emit a silent, “Oh help!” Making our actions and our words fit together can be overwhelming – and nowadays for us liberal Christians, I think it’s the words that give us more problem than the actions!

We are in a new missional period in the life of the Christian church. Instead of travelling around the world to evangelize others, our witnessing ground is right here – in our homes, our own workplaces, our own streets, parks and playgrounds. In fact, the enthusiasm for the faith that is burgeoning all around the South and East of the Globe is bringing missionaries to us for the first time in generations. I got a call just the other day from a youth organization out of Africa wanting to know if we’d like to partner with them in an evangelical after-school program! We are the mission field for those whom our predecessors evangelized. Out of this cross-fertilization of the old and the new mission-fields have come many songs from other parts of the world that enrich our worship. When I get back from my week off we’re going to go around the world in eight songs, exploring and celebrating the influence of different parts of the world on our faith.

In the meantime, what are we going to do with this calling to commitment, confidence, and yes, conversion? Other than utter a silent “Oh help!” to God?! I want you to practice this week what you might say to someone if the topic of religion, faith, Christianity, God, church, etc comes up with someone you know, or even with a stranger. Practice what you might say, and what you might ask. You might even mention some of those things the church does in our community and in the world, unbeknownst to many people. I’ve been asked several times in the course of some of the leadership programs offered by BC Conference to write down one or two sentences about my faith in Jesus. It changes every time, but every time it is good practice at “accounting for the hope that is me” as the Epistle Writer Peter says. (1 Peter 3:15)

Here’s one I wrote: “Jesus comes to bring us life – life in abundance. In him we see the love and concern God has for humanity made manifest.” Another time, I wrote something different. Speaking is always different from writing, anyway; but give it a try, friends. You’ve all heard the quotation attributed to St Francis: “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.” It’s time for actions AND words, my friends. God give us the confidence, the courage, the commitment to live and speak the Gospel, this day and every day. Amen.

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