(Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-40)
Several months ago some of the younger members in the congregation were having a conversation about why it’s important to us to be part of a church community. We talked about the importance about raising children with solid values that include being caring neighbours, kind friends, and good citizens of the community. We talked about wanting to counteract the “me-first” culture that surrounds us, and all the messages that tell us we are what we buy. We want to be generous, giving people. We talked about the importance of being in an intergenerational community – making connections outside of people our own age – and that sense of extended family we find in the church. We talked about concern for peace, justice and compassion in the world. And we talked about recognizing how connected we are with the rest of creation – human beings and critters and the earth itself – and how that connection is sourced in something or someone that is greater and more mysterious and infinitely Holy. The United Church’s Song of Faith calls this “Holy Mystery, Wholly Love”. Encountering that Holiness in Jesus the Messiah gives us a model to follow and an assurance that we are forgiven when we don’t quite make it.
A while back somebody left me an article by Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun about a recent UBC study of the role of religion in society. (Saturday, April 26, 2014, Vancouver Sun, p. C5) It suggests that the more fear-filled or unpredictable life is in a nation, the more likely its citizens are to be religious. The suggestion was that religion is needed in such situations to bind people together and help them work for positive change in society. But the results of that change are that people in liberal democratic societies feel they no longer need organized religion, because it has already accomplished what it does best: produce a compassionate, harmonious, egalitarian society in which the vulnerable are cared for, upheld by the judicial system, public policy, and social service programs. What were religious values – in Canada’s case specifically Christian values – are now assumed to be society’s values, and they become purged of any religious overtones. “Loving your neighbour as yourself” was the impetus for most of what is now our social safety net; and that love of neighbour was based on the belief that we are all children of God, equally beloved and equally valued by the God whom we owe all our devotion. Equality before God is the soul of our democracy – how quickly humanity forgets!
What happens when we lose sight of why and how those values came to the fore? What I see in Canada is that as a growing number of people have abandoned religious values of any kind, we are also seeing an erosion of the systems, supports and values that grew out of that religious background. Religion is abandoned and personal spirituality takes precedence – AS LONG AS we keep that spirituality to ourselves and don’t allow it to inform public life. Spirituality is treated like a hobby. We might enjoy flying remote control airplanes or knitting sweaters, or saying our prayers at night, but it doesn’t change society much, if at all. The rhetoric of “the bottom line” takes precedence over anything, and those who challenge that from a religious basis are often dismissed as fanatical or unrealistic and their voices discounted.
All of this got me thinking about legacy. I know there are people who don’t care what happens after they’re dead – whether it’s the life of the church, their community, or their world. But as people of faith who believe God is Lord of past, present AND future, we cannot in good conscience take that attitude. Whether or not we have children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of our own whose future we want to protect, we still need to look to the future and work for the kin-dom of God, even if we may never see it ourselves.
We do so, sharing the Gospel AND sharing ourselves. Sometimes we think that when we are no longer able to chair a committee, or serve a dinner, or lead public prayer, or teach Sunday School, we are no longer of use to the church. Sometimes we even block the community out, thinking we have no role to play and focusing solely on our own spiritual needs. Yet who we are is just as important as what we can or cannot do! Each of us carries a treasure of faith. Paul would say we carry it in earthenware jars – and the longer we live in the world, I’m guessing, the more the cracks in those jars can start to show. But the treasure’s still there. Each of us has a lifetime of living Christian discipleship, and that’s worth sharing with those who are just growing into the faith, or may never have even encountered it! Each of us has wisdom and knowledge and insight. We learn from our mistakes, we live through our tragedies, we stay faithful through our struggles, we find the light after the dark night of the soul. This is all a precious gift. Do we really want to see that die for lack of sharing?
Look at Moses! He dedicated the majority of his life to bringing his people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of their Hebrew ancestors. He risked his life many times, put up with hardships and complaints and threats, to see that vision come to be – yet at the end of his life he stood, on a mountain, overlooking that land, but knowing he would never enter it. Did he just give up then and there? Did he say, ‘Well, that’s someone else’s problem now.” No! He worked with the successor God had appointed to make sure the people would see the promise fulfilled. He taught and commissioned Joshua, and sent him out to lead the people into a future he would never see. The prophet Elijah did the same for his people, passing his mantle to Elisha, his disciple. Jesus chose the 12 and sent them out to do his work, and after he died, sent the Holy Spirit to lead and inspire the early Christians. The apostles Paul, Peter and James all had younger companions whom they commissioned to continue their work. And so it has gone, throughout the centuries. We live and serve, generation after generation, passing on the legacy of faith and the hope for a compassionate and just community, from one generation to the next.
The feast of All Saints, when we honour the faithful dead, and Remembrance Day, when we think of the legacy of those who gave their lives for freedom, are fast approaching. It’s a good time of year to be aware of what legacy we will leave behind us – what we will pass to the next generation.
And for those of us who still have a whole lot of living yet to do, it’s a good time to think about how we will connect with those of older generations, so that we can be like Joshua, Elisha, the 12 disciples, John Mark, Luke, Timothy, Phoebe and Junia, and others, who took the faith passed on to them and kept the light burning.
Beloved, let us not be a church where the generations never meet. Let us not be a church that dies for want of faith in the future. Let us not be a church that values its past more than its present and its future. My sisters and brothers in Christ, with Paul and his coworkers I assure you that I believe our Christian faith is a precious treasure, that our world and our nation needs desperately. Humanity needs to hear the call to love God and to love neighbour as much as we ever have. We have it in us, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to continue to carry that precious treasure, and to pass it on. Whether you are with Moses at the top of the mountain, or with Joshua, preparing to enter new territory, you are bearers of an important message. Never forget it! Amen.