Sunday, September 22, 2013

Destruction or Transformation? Technical or Adaptive Change?: Sermon, September 22, 2013

As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem. He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?" But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them, and they went on to another village.
Luke 9:51-56, Common English Bible

This week we’ve changed some of our readings around. We’ve kept most of the ones that are in the cycle of readings shared by many churches, but I changed the reading from Luke’s Gospel so I can tell you about an experience I had this summer. We were in Chautauqua, New York, where I was selected to be a fellow in the New Clergy Program for ministers who have been ordained for seven years or fewer. Chautauqua is a summer community for the arts, religion, and knowledge, and there are 10,000 people there every day listening to lectures and the symphony orchestra and watching the dance company. One of the days our group was divided into two. Spouses went to a special lunch hosted by the wife of the Jewish rabbi in residence, and they got to go to this huge hotel on Lake Chautauqua, the largest wooden hotel in the United States. I don’t know what they talked about, as apparently what happened at the spouses’ lunch stays at the spouses’ lunch. But I imagine they discussed some of the challenges in being married to a minister.

The clergy had lunch at the Methodist church in Chautauqua and then we met with Peter Steinke, who is a Lutheran minister and expert on change in churches. And he talked about this story we just heard from Luke, as Jesus and his disciples are traveling and he sends messengers on ahead to find food and a place to stay for their group. They are going through Samaria, and we know from other stories that Samaritans and Jews were not friends. They were pretty hostile. And a Samaritan village refuses to welcome Jesus. James and John, friends of Jesus, ask him, “Do you want us to call down a bolt of lightning from heaven and incinerate them?” Jesus speaks sternly to them, probably something like, “Don’t be ridiculous,” and they continue on their way.

Peter told us that this story shows us the two approaches to change in churches. One is technical. A technical solution is like changing a tire. The other is adaptive, and it’s about changing people and systems. In this story of Jesus and his friends passing through Samaria, James and John have a technical solution to the problem of the Samaritan village refusing hospitality: Destroy them. Jesus, on the other hand, knows that an adaptive solution is needed.

And in churches we come up against problems of declining attendance and influence and finances and we usually propose technical solutions, just like James and John. We say, well, if we just redesigned the worship space, or we substituted contemporary songs for hymns, or the minister didn’t wear a robe, or we just got a new minister, then we would be full on Sunday. But these are technical answers to issues in the church that require adaptive solutions. Adaptive work isn’t as simple, as Jesus knows. In the story, it’s a lot harder to change the Samaritans’ hearts and lives than it is to wipe them out. Adaptive solutions take time, they involve dealing with the unknown, there is no certainty, they are unpredictable, and conflict will arise.

You may have heard that the United Church of Canada is engaged in a comprehensive review of all of our structures and processes. We don’t know yet, because we haven’t seen any recommendations, whether this will produce adaptive or technical change. And congregations across our area have been doing the same thing. So it would be helpful for us to know what adaptive change would look like, here at the local level, where we are. So here’s what Peter Steinke talked about.

I’ve mentioned this myself in speaking about discipleship, but we in the church today need to understand that we are not here to be members. We are here to be part of God’s mission. We have to shift from a membership model to a missional model. The church needs to leave our building to serve the needs of the world. And that affects the minister’s role too, with less emphasis on being a chaplain to members and more on being a witness for Jesus in the wider community.

As our denominations and our congregations have less influence in society, we have to replace our current approach. Right now it’s as if we have individual silos. There’s a United Church silo and an Anglican silo and a Presbyterian silo. So we need to break out of our silos and collaborate and share resources. We can’t continue to have completely separate franchises. There are hints of this shift coming; for instance, the United Church now shares publishing and distributing books and materials with the Anglican and Lutheran churches. Here we are clustering our congregations together to share ministry, and there have been conversations in at least one place about a community church shared by several denominations. I started a partnership with the United Church of Christ across the river in New York State, as we are physically closer to our sisters and brothers there than we are to United Churches in, say, Ottawa or Montreal.

I know if I want to get people all riled up, I can just use the words "church bureaucracy." Now, I have been in the United Church national and Conference offices quite a few times, but these don’t seem to be staffed with the out-of-touch, time-wasting, slacker, overpaid career technocrats that we might imagine. It’s hard to run an organization our size with no one managing it. We have about as many congregations in Canada as Tim Hortons has restaurants, but I’m sure the Tims head office has more staff. However, adaptive change means that we have to rethink our church structures. When the United Church was formed in 1925, it made sense to have Presbyteries, Conferences, and General Council, but all of these levels of governance may no longer serve the same purpose, or be affordable, today. So bureaucracy needs to be more flexible and slimmed down even more.

As I said, adaptive changes like these will produce conflict. We naturally resist disruptions to our established ways of doing things. When most people have only experienced church as members, and are faced with church as mission and discipleship, some will drop out. There will be resistance as long-time patterns and habits are challenged. And we also have the idea that conflict is somehow sinful, and we try to avoid it and postpone adaptive change if there are disputes. But disagreements are normal in transformations that affect things that are near and dear to people, like their church.

If adaptive change is to be successful, it has to be connected to mission. We have to ask ourselves hard questions about the mission God has given us here in Long Sault and Ingleside. How do people in our community know that we care about them? How we will help each other, here in our congregation, to know that we can make a difference in people’s lives? How do we balance looking after each other in the church with doing good to all, in the community and across Canada and the world? And these are not questions the minister can answer for everyone here. Adaptive change is a long-term process, usually lasting longer than one minister’s service to a congregation, and it has to involve all of us - the entire community of faith - and consultation with our neighbours.

These days it is not just the church facing adaptive change. Education, business, law, charities, all kinds of public and private institutions, are struggling with transforming themselves. So we are not alone in this, although it still seems daunting. Change isn’t easy. It can be scary. Yet Peter Steinke’s research shows that challenged churches are actually healthy churches.

You know, back in the sixteenth century or so there were a lot of geographers and mapmakers in Europe. They didn’t travel, but made maps and globes of what they thought the rest of the world looked like, places they had never seen. Up until now the church has had a lot of geographers, who stay inside our walls. But what the church needs – what God needs - is explorers, who go outside, into the world. And exploring isn’t as comfortable and safe as mapmaking. Yet, when we explore, when we go out on God’s mission, Jesus is with us. And perhaps some of the ways we are church have to die and rise again, transformed, just as Jesus was.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

One Lost Sheep - and 99 Others: Sermon, September 15, 2013

Preparing to preach on these Scriptures, I came across the Summer/Autumn 2004 issue of the United Church of Canada worship resource Gathering. The sermon starter for these texts, written by staff from the church's London Conference, proposed asking "What if we are not the lost and found? What if we are the 99?"

The Scriptures are quoted from the Common English Bible.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So he appointed me to ministry even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. Our Lord's favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners"—and I'm the biggest sinner of all. But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I'm an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.
1 Timothy 1:12-17

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn't he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I've found my lost sheep.' In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

"Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won't light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I've found my lost coin.' In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God's angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life."
Luke 15:1-10

I don’t know how many people are familiar with dowsing or divining. In rural New Brunswick my grandfather - who knew all kinds of things that have been forgotten these days, like how to see fairies if you got up very early in the morning - would cut a branch shaped like a wishbone or the letter Y from a willow tree and hold it while moving around until it would start twitching to indicate something we were looking for was nearby. I was reading The Last Crossing, by Canadian novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe. One of the characters in the book has a great description of her grandmother, who dowsed lost things. Her neighbours would come from miles around, asking for help to find lost valuables, rings, cufflinks, watches, brooches, earrings, cash, and the woman would walk through homes and barns and fields with her stick until the sap in the wood would quiver with the tug of lost silver or gold. And the character’s mother had a different gift, with her stick bending to find water in wells and springs.

Jesus tells two little stories about finding lost things, but not with divining. A shepherd who cares for a hundred sheep leaves the rest of the flock and searches for and rescues one lost animal. A woman with ten coins loses one and searches the whole house to find it. One of the Bible commentaries I have, by William Barclay, says that in the time of Jesus “a coin was easily lost among the straw in a dark corner of a windowless Oriental house.” Well, it seems just as easy to lose things in our house, 20 centuries later. Today Jesus would talk about searching the chesterfield cushions.

A lost sheep. A lost coin. What great images, so simple, so easy for us to relate to, so powerful. Chevrolet even adapts one of these in a commercial for its Silverado truck. A rancher finds a broken fence, and the hoofprints of a calf in the mud. He drives his pickup past his grazing cattle and out onto his land, getting up to the high places and looking through binoculars for the calf as a storm approaches. It’s raining, and he comes to police warning that a flash flood may take out the road, so he heads off on another track. The rain is coming down harder, and it’s getting darker, as he pushes through the bush with a flashlight, until he finds the calf and gently takes it in his arms back to the truck. The announcer says, “This is a story about a man, a lost calf, and the truck that lets him search for as long as it takes.” Now, a farmer might notice that the ad shows a Holstein calf when the man’s herd is all longhorns, beef cattle, but still…

And when the sheep and the coin are found, there are celebrations. That same commentary notes that in the time of Jesus flocks of sheep were often communal, owned by the whole village, and looked after by several shepherds, as they still are in parts of the world. So when the flocks were brought home and the villagers told that one shepherd was still out searching for a lost sheep, everyone would wait for the shepherd’s return. When they saw him coming back, carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders, a shout of joy would go up, just as Jesus describes. Jesus says that’s what God is like; when a sinner changes their life, God’s joy is like the joy of a village when the shepherd emerges from the gloom with the lost sheep, like the joy of a woman who has lost the money that she needs to feed her family, and finally sees the glint of the coin in a dark corner of her house.

In these two images Jesus tells us that God is kinder than people are. Respectable society, the Pharisees and legal experts who grumble at the unsavoury characters associating with Jesus, would dismiss these sinners as hopeless, too far beyond and too undeserving of God’s love to be rescued. But God doesn’t write them off. God doesn’t give up on them. God loves them, and will celebrate when a lost soul is found and returns to God.

As I said last week, when we hear these stories Jesus tells, we think about who the characters in the story are supposed to be: who is like God, and who is like us. Who are we like? Like the lost sheep? Sometimes we are. Sometimes we have wandered off, distracted by flashy, seductive things.

Should we be lost like that, we will be found. There will be rejoicing when we are brought back into the fold. So we are comforted that God is kinder than people. But what if we are not the lost and found? What if we are the 99 other sheep? What if we are the ones safe and secure, behind the walls of the sheep pen? What if we are the ones disturbed that the shepherd is heading out into the night in search of one sheep that has strayed? What if we are the Pharisees and the legal experts, muttering about those seedy, suspicious folks who don’t deserve to be saved? Today’s Pharisees look at a person’s clothes, or hairstyle, or tattoo, and make assumptions about their moral behaviour. Today’s Pharisees point to the rare examples of fraud and cheating in the system as being typical of families on social assistance. Today’s Pharisees gripe about refugees, who have fled war and persecution, receiving health care. Today’s Pharisees feel bitter when an aboriginal person in line ahead of them at a store uses the status card that exempts them from sales tax.

We can sometimes – too often – be like the 99 sheep, like the Pharisees and the legal experts to whom Jesus tells this story. We can be angry and resentful. If we are honest with ourselves and look deep into ourselves, we admit that there are times when we find it hard to love others, when the attitudes our society teaches crowd out love in our hearts, when we see our neighbours not as God's children but as the wrong sort of people.

Look at our other reading today, the First Letter to Timothy. The writer says that he used to speak against God, he had been proud, and he had attacked God’s people. We may be doing these things, too, when reject others, when we complain that God does not share our judgment of people as being hopelessly lost. And yet, the writer of First Timothy says, Christ didn’t give up on him. Christ didn’t stop loving him. Christ showed mercy to him. Christ showed patience – endless patience, the letter says. The writer tells us, “Our Lord's favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus.” He changed his life, and was judged to be faithful, and trusted with a ministry, to be an example of that mercy and grace and love. He was a lost sheep, but was brought back to the flock. He was a lost coin, but was found.

In our anger, in our indignation, in our moaning and complaining, in our prejudices, we ourselves are lost, just as much as, maybe even more lost than, the people we may resent. We can all be lost. The letter to the Romans says, we have all sinned and fallen short of what God intends for us. Yet we are sought, searched for with a divine diving rod that twitches and bends as our true selves are discovered, hidden underneath all of our attitudes and biases. There is celebration when we are found and we change our lives to be disciples of Jesus, living as he lived, loving as he loved. And then, whether we have been lost and found, or we have been safe the whole time, we are called to join the shepherd in the search.

Monday, September 02, 2013

A Greenbelt Tale

Like later-day pilgrims from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, 100 United Church of Canada clergy headed to the Greenbelt Festival in England for a week-long experience of learning and growing.

The United Church's EDGE Network for New Ministry Development had taken a small group to the annual Greenbelt event the year before, and Moderator Gary Paterson was quick to propose taking a larger contingent - composed equally of ministers under and over the age of 40 - in August 2013. Those under 40 were selected and subsidized by EDGE itself; I was, of course, in the over 40 group, selected and funded by our Conferences. We were organized into smaller cohorts, which met online to prepare ourselves for the pilgrimage.

I arrived in Heathrow Airport from Ottawa on August 21st and, after noting that the arrivals area didn't look much like the one depicted at the end of Love Actually, took the Tube into London. I was born in Wimbledon, although the hospital site is now a housing estate, and lived in Putney, part of South London's borough of Wandsworth; my parents were in England as my father was posted to the Canadian Naval Mission in London. So I looked around Putney, seeing our old streets, the block where we lived, the church where I was baptized (now a Polish Catholic congregation), and The Green Man pub my Dad frequented (built on the birthplace of Thomas Cromwell, vicar general to Henry VIII). Then I was off on the Tube to the City of London and St. Paul's Cathedral, and Westminster to walk up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, The Mall and Buckingham Palace. I was in Cheltenham that night after the bus ride across Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, to meet up with arriving United Church folk. Some of us later took the opportunity to visit the nearby cities of Bath, with its Roman bath complex and beautiful Abbey church, and Gloucester, with its medieval cathedral.

Greenbelt, held at the Cheltenham Racecourse, is attended by 20,000 people, many of them young, in a country which North Americans are told is effectively "unchurched." It was an amazing, Spirit-filled experience. When there are hundreds of talks and workshops, some things won't work: I loved the music of "U2charist," a Communion service with the songs of U2, but the service itself was plain vanilla Church of England liturgy, straight out of the prayer book; another Communion service, supposed to be a Eucharist of the Divine Feminine, basically took the same Anglican liturgy and substituted "she" for "he"; I found Forest Church and its Old English-flavoured celebration of nature interesting, but some of it just didn't click for me as much as for others; and at one seminar I began to tune out the first time the speaker name-dropped "as I was saying to Jurgen Moltmann..."

But the occasional miss didn't detract from the many "hits" of Greenbelt in its 40th year: the opening talk by Barbara Brown Taylor; hard-hitting sessions on justice and faith; wonderful arts programming; Sunday morning Communion, with 20,000 people sharing bread and wine in small groups of 15 to 20 - like Jesus feeding the 5,000?; sessions I loved on English rural ministry, hymns of the Chartists (the nineteenth-century English reform movement calling for universal male suffrage at a time when only landowners could vote), and taking football back for the people (when many English clubs, founded by churches as community organizations, are now taken over by foreign billionaires and sponsorships by betting firms and payday lenders); seminars on dealing with and welcoming people with autism and dementia in congregations; deeply spiritual times of prayer and contemplation; a high-energy concert by the London Community Gospel Choir; Peter Rollins, who delivered a challenging talk about doubt, brokenness, and the need for church rituals that allow mourning for the God of certainty and satisfaction. His best quote: "I'm not saying you should doubt; I'm saying that you're already doing it." And whenever I am with a group of United Church colleagues - or any colleagues, for that matter - I learn a tremendous amount just from being part of their conversations. At Greenbelt EDGE and Conferences brought together a wonderful group of clergy, and I thank all of my colleagues for being passionate and supportive travellers with me.

So it was indeed a pilgrimage: into new ideas, challenges to existing ways of thinking and doing, and mulling over how to bring this learning to my congregations, Presbytery, Conference, and national church. This post, written five days after returning home, can only sketch out some preliminary thoughts. Watch this space.

My photos from Greenbelt are on Flickr.