Based on Acts 2:42-47 & John 10:1-13
(for `bud, full bloom, and dying flower’ I added three tulips in various stages to a vase of water)
The people of Israel had been longing for a Messiah to bring a new kingdom of justice and peace. They were like this bud, not yet in full flower. For them, and for us, so much of life is about waiting – waiting and longing for the right relationship, the perfect job, the results of the medical test… We long for societies of justice and peace. We can choose to live in anticipation of what we hope will make our lives full and happy, which is perhaps what we are told by advertisements will make our lives full and happy, or we can be awake to the presence of God and God’s abundance here and now, in whatever form it comes.
Jesus’ teachings and example are the gate through which we may find abundant opportunities to be awake to life, to love others and ourselves, and to act for basic justice day by day.
In the reading from Acts we see the earliest church in full bloom. People are excited! They pray and teach and share possessions. Many join, and the whole city seems to be favourable to them. This is just what Jesus promised in the gospel reading, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Aren’t those moments when we feel life in its abundance so wonderful? Times when we’ve experienced new relationships, new jobs, a wonderful vacation, the birth of a grandchild, a sense of a
we in creation, or an awareness of God’s loving presence. Yet we know that much of life is not bloom time. The bloom in the brand new church as described in the book of Acts soon passed.
What happens when you are `slightly past your prime’? Dying flower. In the early church, according to Acts, 2:42-47 they have a full five verses of everything’s fabulous. Then came persecutions, dissention, and struggles for control. So, you can quiet the little critic in your head that says, `Why can’t we be like the early church,’ because we are – in all our glory! In fact, much of the New Testament wouldn’t have been written had it not been for those struggles of trying to sort out what was required to be faithful, how do you worship together with people you disagree with, and what do you do in the face of a hostile society that doesn’t appreciate your new-found religion.
Or, in our case, our `old-time’ religion. Just before Palm Sunday this spring, I drove to Kelowna to hear the guru of the evolving church, Diana Butler –Bass, speak at First UC: I confess, I don’t think I learned a lot that I didn’t already know. I suppose a small part of me was hoping that she would say, “Ah, my children, this is the true path that leads to enlightenment and a thriving church.” Didn’t happen! But I guess I’m not the only one harbouring such hopes. Diana told us she has been asked to be the principal of more dying theological schools in North America, than anyone else!
In the past 50 years (post WW2) Religion and Spirituality have switched places. Whereas 50 years ago, religion was seen as legitimate and spirituality was seen as suspect, it is now religion that is suspect and spirituality that is seen as a legitimate pursuit. Extremists in every religion have given each religion a bad name. Within Christianity alone, the Catholic Church internationally has had been riddled with sexual abuse scandals, the Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian Churches in Canada have the painful legacy of residential schools, the most fundamental church leaders especially in the U.S. are the most publicized and they leave religious folk looking like a bunch of intolerant, hypocritical, narrow-minded, joy-killing lunatics. The other option is `boring and irrelevant.’
When Diana BB asked a group of Presbyterians in the eastern U.S. what came to mind under the heading `religion’ the first response was Robert’s Rules of Order, flowed by various doctrinal creeds etc.
Under the heading of spirituality, the same minster yelled out `woo woo’ religion (whatever that is!) Wow – no wonder church doesn’t sound like much fun!
An interesting note however in the stats, is those who say they are religious and spiritual, remains constant. In that, I believe we can find hope. A couple years ago in Salmon Arm we had the honour of meeting the Three Interfaith Amigos – A Rabbi, an Imam and a Minister )Ted, Jamal and Don, from the U.S. who got together after the 9/11 attacks. They are indeed an inspiration on how to work together with mutual respect and care, while acknowledging their differences. In their book, Religion Gone Astray – what we found at the Heart of Interfaith, they wrote: “Spirituality might be seen as the water of life, but without a glass, it is far more difficult to drink. At best, the institution serves as a container. At worst, the institution believes it alone has access to the water and is unaware when the container, is fact, is empty.”
What do we have to celebrate as a container that holds the water of life? We know that `the Church/organized religion ‘is much more than all the negative press it receives, and to some extend deserves. We know that the church at its best has been at the forefront in the abolition of slavery, the formation of universal medi-care, it has stood up for human rights, and environmental protection, and has apologized and is seeking reconciliation where past harms have been done. We know that United Church congregations and UCW groups alone have raised around 30 $ million annually for the Mission and Service fund, over the past 10 years, supporting street ministry, hospital, university and prison chaplaincy, and many overseas partnerships, and international disasters.
In gathering for worship together, week by week, whether in congregations of several hundred people or where two or three are gathered, we still gather, with a desire and a willingness to connect our lives with one another, to root ourselves in the message of Jesus, to pray and lean into the grace and strength of God’s living spirit, to live lives of compassion, generosity and justice.
Jesus offered to be a trusted Shepherd for his disciples, and he trusted God to be the great Good Shepherd for him. Like us, I expect he was strengthened in spirit while reading and reflecting on the same psalm we sang this morning.
Are we a place that helps people to restore their souls? Are there green pastures here in the midst of a rocky life? Are there calm and refreshing waters here? Is this a place where we prepare a table, and invite others to the feast, in the name of God?
We may resemble this dying tulip, but let’s remember, even under the dying flower, is a bulb that endures the coldness of a wintery death to bloom again in spring. What we lean into is eternal and infinite. What we try to do when we gather for worship and work together, is to embody the spirit of the eternal and infinite – the Divine Oneness we call God. And that, my friends, is not too shabby. Indeed, it is a reason to rejoice. Thanks be to God. Amen.