Text: Mark 1:14-20 (Jesus calls his first disciples)
Happy New Year!
Does Labour Day still seem like the start of a new year to you? For students, of course, it marks the beginning of a new grade; and I have not yet lost the sense I gained as a child that Labour Day is the real New Year’s Day.
I raised this issue at a service at the Laurel Height’s senior’s residence on Friday. One woman said she hadn’t realized that Monday was Labour Day. Others talked about grandchildren who were entering college this month.
One woman who had grown up in Germany talked about why September 1st is a date of enduring significance to her. She was eight years old on September 1, 1939, the day on which Germany invaded Poland. The unimaginable horror of the world war that followed means that September 1st still resonates fearfully for her, 78 years later . . .
The last time I returned to school after Labour Day was just seven years ago. In September 2010, I started my third and final year of study for a Masters of Divinity degree at the United Church of Canada’s Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto.
But even when not in school, Labour Day still feels to me like a good time to start something new. Over the summer, many activities shut down. Choirs take a break. TV series go into re-runs. Churches and other civic organizations scale back as people enjoy longer and warmer days.
For these reasons, September feels like a moment for new beginnings; and not just for school students.
This is why I chose to hear the call of Jesus to his disciples today on the first Sunday after Labour Day. To what new thing, I wonder, is God calling us today?
I ask this question since the context in which we respond is always changing; and I was struck by some of these changes last weekend at the “Ever Wonder” conference held at Southminster-Steinhauer United Church.
I enjoyed the conference and was pleased at its success. One hundred and fifty people registered. More than 250 attended a public lecture by the Rev. Gretta Vosper on Sunday afternoon that was followed by a discussion on the future of the United Church. I was enlivened by the Spirit that flowed through the weekend.
Conference participants divided into small groups that met four different times over the weekend. The group I was in included a retired minister from near Swift Current whom I knew from Chinook Presbytery in Saskatchewan when I was placed there six years ago, and the minister of McDougall United Church, the Rev. Christina Bellsmith.
Christina’s presence and that of another leader from McDougall, Larry Derkach, prompted me to tell Larry about a worship service that I had led at McDougall United in 2016 at a Presbytery meeting.
My inspiration came from a story about my late father, the Rev. Clare Kellogg, and the time he visited McDougall United. In 1960, my father was a Commissioner to the United Church of Canada’s General Council, which met that year in McDougall United. I had learned of his trip to Edmonton from my mother when she visited my sisters here at Easter 2008 and worshipped at McDougall in his memory.
I looked up a history of General Council on the United Church’s website and discovered that the main item of discussion in 1960 was alcohol. A controversial resolution was debated and passed that said full membership in the United Church of Canada would be available not only to teetotalers, but also to people who chose to drink wine, beer, or other alcoholic drinks!
How times change, eh? In 1960, the United Church was a bulwark of puritanical moralism. But after crossing the Rubicon of booze in 1960, General Council tackled other social issues over the next 30 years. Successively, the church came out in support of artificial birth control, married women as ministers, no-fault divorce, choice on abortion, and equal rights for gays and lesbians in the church.
Today, the United Church of Canada is both drastically smaller and much more liberal than it was in 1960; and one of the threads running through the Conference last weekend was how these two trends influence one another. Vosper wondered if the United Church is now trying to return to its conservative roots in an effort to stem its losses.
Before 1960, the United Church spent a lot of energy policing morality. It denounced alcohol, card playing, and sex outside of traditional marriage. Since 1960, our response to God’s call has led us to shed our moralism and to pursue inclusive love and expansive spirituality.
This was the United Church that I rejoined 16 years ago this September. I would not have returned if it had still been a bulwark of puritanism. I would not have rejoined if it had focused on ancient dogmas and doctrines.
I am grateful to Kingston Road United Church in east Toronto, which I joined 16 years ago. It is there that I learned to love singing and praying with others, celebrating and mourning in community, and reaching out to neighbours in love.
By gathering with other people on Sunday mornings, by running programs like food and clothing banks, and by discussing how to align our lives with the dream of Love we call God’s realm, we find meaning and purpose. We also improve our chances to find balance amid all the many changes that swirl around us.
Moralism and out-of-date teachings get in the way of that gracious work, I believe. The church can try going backward, but I am sure it won’t work. More importantly, doing so would dishonour the call of Jesus. The path to which Jesus called his first disciples 2,000 years ago led beyond old doctrines and traditions; and it is to such paths that God’s call guides us today.
The drastic evolution of church in our lifetimes came to my mind this summer when Kim and I watched the first season of the Netflix series, “The Crown.” These 10 episodes tell the social history of Great Britain from 1947 to 1955 through the life of Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family. I am not a fan of the monarchy, so I was reluctant to watch this highly acclaimed series. But I am so glad that I finally succumbed.
The final episode tells the story of how in 1955 the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, was not allowed to marry her lover Peter Townsend because he was divorced. The bishops of the Church of England railed against divorce as a sin and so they blocked the marriage.
Happily, such cruel moralism has largely disappeared, as has the Church of England. Like the United Church, Anglicans are a pale shadow of their former selves. In a recent survey of Britons reported on in “The Economist” last week only 15 percent called themselves Anglicans, a rate that drops to three percent among people aged 18-24.
This is another sign that church is moving to the margins even as ancient morality and dogma wither away.
Nevertheless, beloved communities like Mill Woods United continue with energy and hope in changed circumstances; and we do so with our eyes set towards the future and not back to discarded rules and doctrines.
As summer wanes and we head into the Fall, we have heard again an ancient call from Jesus. How we will respond? Will we sing in the choir and try a new role at the Bread Run? Will we join a committee like Property or Worship to help shape the life of this beloved community? Will we participate in a Thursday morning Bible study group, or respond to a Stewardship campaign in late September with an increase our givings?
The call of God’s Love is always present, I believe. It guides, leads, and heals us. It is a call from the Love from which we have all come and to which we all return. Circumstances may change and churches may move from the centre to the margins. But Love remains at the centre as does our desire to gather with others who value it as sacred.
So, this morning I wish us all a Happy New Year! May this September be the start of something new that — at the same time — feels as familiar as the embrace of an old friend. May this be another season of living in the light of God’s eternal Love.