Date: 28 February 2016 – Third Sunday of Lent
Text: Isaiah 55:1-13
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS
If you ever join the congregation of Brunswick Street United Church for worship on a Sunday night for 6 pm Bible Study and/or 7 pm worship Sandy will pass you No Other Foundations: The History of Brunswick Street United Church with its Methodist Inheritance written by Margaret Campbell. It’s a great read and provides a context for the great changes that have occurred by Brunswick Street Church and in the surrounding community. There are few churches in Canada that have seen the dramatic shifts in church size, church style of worship, church demographics, church influence and church mission. It may also be the only church I know with a large photograph, the largest item in the church, of the church on fire, literally, in 1979.
A fire is a good metaphor for where we mainline churches find ourselves in 2016. There has been a steady decline, now a fast and furious decline, in attendance at mainline churches since the 1970’s. In the midst of this decline our response has been uneven at best, lots of blaming (our clergy, our theology, too political, too passive, not political enough, cliques, senior members who won’t let go, younger members who won’t do anything, our culture, etc…), lots of hand-wringing, the hiring of consultants (because you know that an outside expert can solve all our problems!), a numbing acceptance, a spirit of denial. Any of these sound familiar? And into this malaise we read this text from Second Isaiah. Fred Craddock, well-known preacher and Bible scholar says, “This text is from the end of the Babylonian exile, it contains a call to hope and trust the promise of salvation.”
Israel has a long history of setting her sights on an identity as God’s people, living righteously and in covenant with her Maker, to be a light to the nations, a city on a hillside, salt in a tasteless world, a community, a refuge, where everyone is known, where everyone is connected, and where everyone works together to be love incarnate. And throughout this long history there have been periods of finding that “sweet-spot”, periods of being whole and together and righteous. And then, inevitably, there are years of confusion, mixing up this call to connectedness and righteousness with the worship of idols, division and hatred, us and them, and a feeling that provision is less about God’s free act of grace and more about our own hard work and merit.
The body of believers, the faithful, has long been conflicted in this living out of covenant. In the Temple there were the lawmakers and law enforcers, who cared more about rules and form than about love and Spirit. In the name of Jesus Christians evolved into the voice of the status quo, where a cunning tyrant named Constantine could embrace a movement he formally hunted down. Once co-opted the church began to look less like a movement and more like a civic religion, pomp and pageantry, regal looks for the clergy, the lay leaders, the building, the liturgy. Jesus would likely have turned these tables upside down, predicted the destruction of this “Temple” but he was long forgotten, something else had taken his place. More and more churches were about status and status meant earning something, becoming something and the church was there to consecrate it. And yet, as Craddock says, “Israel in Second Isaiah has in no way earned this new covenant; it is a free act of God’s grace.”
After the fire Brunswick Street United Church saw its self-image begin to be transformed. The community around the church, once the place of the wealthy, now became home to the city’s poorest people. The church that once spawned several other United Churches in the city now saw those same churches surpassing them in size and prestige. Slowly but surely, as the Margaret Campbell lays out in her book, the church ceased to be a sanctuary for the rich and accomplished and instead a place of social programs, social connections, and outreach.
Currently the church building is used for social mission, administered by a small and over worked staff who care for the area’s most marginalized persons. The congregation is now 15-20 people who worship in a circle, no one uses the high pulpit, and every one of the participants share some part of the worship experience. Why do I tell you this church story, because throughout Second Isaiah there is the contrast between human and divine wisdom. And our wisdom is this; to be satisfied one must be wealthy, have certain things and do certain things. It is just understood. We will work at any job, do anything we can, say anything we must, conform to any reality necessary, to achieve this satisfaction. And the same is true for our churches. We will keep doing the things we have always done, in the same way, hoping, praying the church will come back to the way it was in the 1950’s. Except, while there were undeniably beautiful moments of grace and righteousness then, there was also a strong message of success, measured in ways that have little to do with God’s covenant with Israel or Jesus the Christ.
Why work for what does not satisfy, because someone told you so. It wasn’t the Spirit who told you, it was the world. People feeling the Spirit calling them to a mission will work for any amount of money, withstand any criticism, work alone or in a group, and feel satisfied whether the end result is a sparkling “success” or judged a failure by the critics. Why, because we are working for that which is timeless and satisfying and just. We are connected to our purpose as believers, to our purpose as a church.
Walter Brueggemann, one of the most beloved of Old Testament theologians says of verses 12 and 13 For you shall go out in joy…the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress…an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. Go out from the old and tired, go out from fear…go out into God’s new, demanding mission. Go out singing, celebrating, and grateful, imagine concretely and know that:
* the mission of this church is not finished
* the work of this church is not a holding action
* the future of this church is not business as usual. Amen!