‘It is time, friends, to stop talking about the wilderness’

Rev. Julia Kimmett preached about Looking with Hope to the Future at the Saturday, May 12 morning worship during the 2018 Conference Meeting in Sherwood Park, AB.  Scripture: Jeremiah 31:1,23,31-33. Julia is minister at Okotoks (AB) United Church.  Video and Text are available below.

Wednesday, June 10, 1925 was a day full of promise and possibility. A new union was about to take place. The people who sat in that holy place that day were anticipating a new thing, a new beginning, Perhaps a few had some uncertainty and doubt as to how this marriage might work out. Most however were excited for what might come from this union. They were witnessing the creation of a new

Rev. Jun Kyok Chon, Edmonton Korean United Church, Rev. Julia Kimmett and Rev. Alwin Maben, Coronation Pastoral Charge, led Saturday morning’s worship.

family. Something that had not existed before this very moment. There was a feeling of excitement and optimism as people watched the joining of these parties in a new covenant, a new relationship. There was optimism and hope.

The Methodist minister who sat down to sign the documents that day wondered for a moment whether he was signing as a Methodist minister or as a newly minted United Church minister. But sign them he did. And for that I am grateful. For what he witnessed that day is what brought me to this place today, for he had just presided over the wedding ceremony of my grandparents, John and Marion Kimmett.

And oh yes, there was another significant event on that auspicious day – the inauguration of this denomination we call The United Church of Canada.

Creating something new, being something new, doing something new is in our nature – this United Church, a scant 93 years old. We are a restless folk, wanting to set the bar high, striving to be headlights, not tail-lights when it comes to doing what we believe is the just thing, treading where others fear to go – believing that the Spirit of God is always leading us to be bold and brave – whether that be ordaining women early on in our denominational life, creating new and controversial curricula that changed the way we saw God or understood the Bible, changing policy on who could be members and therefore ordained or commissioned, or apologizing early on for our role in residential schools. We have not always played it safe and sometimes we have paid dearly and painfully. People have left, our resources have declined and our reputation as Christians has been questioned by those looking on as we made these decisions.

At times it has felt like we have been in the wilderness, when others have questioned our choices and our direction. Yet, I believe, history will show that we have gone in the right direction, though difficult at the time.

Being in the wilderness is nothing new and shouldn’t be a surprise to people of faith. Exile and wandering is a major theme in scripture. The prophet Jeremiah’s career began in a time of optimism and hopefulness but ended when Jerusalem was taken captive. From prosperity to devastation, from community to exile. Yet our friend Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, who was very close to despair his entire ministry, dared to remind people that despite being in the wilderness God would do something new in and through them, writing that promise on their minds and hearts, their very being.

The church and the world seem to be in a wilderness state right now. There is a temptation to despair. But that is not a faithful response. For we are a people of hope. That is because we mistake hope for something that is in the future. Hope is always now, based on what God has done in the past. It is a present condition of the heart that compels us to believe that with God, anything is possible. Hope is the spark in the current situation that moves us to make what we hope for now a reality in the future.

It is time, friends, to stop talking about the wilderness. We are fully aware of where we’re at. Six years ago at Conference we committed to stop talking about the wilderness and begin envisioning where we can go, addressing the challenges we face. One of the speakers, I don’t know who it was, said “It took Moses one year to get the Israelites out of slavery, but forty years to get slavery out of the Israelites.”

What do you do when your present situation is unsustainable, unwinnable or untenable?

Julia KimmettYou give up, or you change. Living, loving and working in the wilderness is not for the faint of heart. It takes vision, tenacity, faith and hope. The change has to be radical. It comes from bold, creative minds. People in the United Church who have dared to make those changes before and are daring to do so again. People who want change and aren’t afraid to address the challenges we face with hope. Those who have led and continue to lead, though initiatives like The Emerging Spirit, Edge, Affirming Ministry and congregational initiatives that have rejuvenated dying churches.

The church of the future will differ from what it is now. As Diana Butler-Bass describes it: People will need to feel loved and accepted before they see any credibility in what we preach. Belonging will precede belief.

This means that more than ever we need to be less concerned about what people believe and more about how we create community, relationships and a sense of belonging. Belief will come as people participate in community.

We need to get ever better at engaging in big conversations without telling people what to believe; creating safe places for people to question, search and doubt. Hospitality is vital. Making the stranger feel welcome. People need life-giving communities full of the Spirit of hope and joy and possibility. When the world tears down, we build up.

With openness, dialogue, compassion, exploration and creativity, we will together rediscover God in and among ourselves, in our conversations, actions and spiritual practices. We will recover the faith of the early followers and be more comfortable living with mystery, questions and wonder, rather than certainty, authority and rigid doctrine.

People literally have the world at their fingertips today but often lack a sense of community and belonging. This is creating a more anxious society. The church being built today for tomorrow will move from giving information to being a place of transformation moving even more from the head to the heart, giving people a place to belong and explore for themselves. Which doesn’t mean we won’t share Christ’s teachings, or invite people to follow Jesus, just that we won’t require belief to belong. For we know that God is bigger than any tribe or tradition.

The need for belonging will change how we do church, membership and programming.

There is another trend in the church that I am noticing, as are others, that will change the face of the church in the future. Christians will seek truth not only in their own tradition, but wherever they find it. What they seek must resonate authentically with them. They might find it in other religious traditions or in science, art, activism and politics. They will align themselves with those who follow a more enlightened way regardless of religion, gender, race, or any other human-made boundaries.

Christianity and the world are changing at a dramatic and unprecedented speed. Communication and information dissemination is instantaneous and ubiquitous, altering the way we perceive the world. Our brains, literally, are being rewired. Our devices are extensions of our brains. Technology makes information immediate. Frankly, we can find more interesting speakers and inspiration on-line than in some of our churches.

Therefore, we must be open and creative, doing church in new ways. Ways that appeal to the unchurched who enter our doors and those who choose to come to church. For there are now far more people in our communities who do not belong to a church or any religious institution than those who do. Preacher and teacher Fred Craddock reminds us that each week we should “assume your listeners almost didn’t come to church that morning.” We must create places of belonging and beauty, all the while grounded in the teachings and way of Jesus, because people are really attracted to Jesus.

At the beginning of 2019, if passed at General Council, we will engage and live into a new structure that will speak more of community than institution. Here’s what I love about that. First, a name change. We will be Communities of Faith, not churches. We worship and live out our faith in community, so Communities of Faith seems more authentic and they will be wherever and whatever we want them to be. We will have more autonomy to be creative.

We can be house communities, pub communities, storefront communities, yoga communities, mission communities, youth or aging communities, or all of the above and everything in between. They won’t require buildings, overly cumbersome administration or rules (hopefully).

The relationship between these communities will be based on covenants we create and enact, with God’s Spirit guiding us. We will be asked to be in covenant relationship with each other and to create communities, networks and clusters around all kinds of issues, needs and affinities. This is opportunity. Of course, we will have to be deliberate about engaging the possibilities. That will be on us. All of us in the church.

Secondly, in this structural change, we will be moving to Regions. Larger Regions that draw from the expertise and specialties of a larger circle, with resources to do bigger and better things if we so choose. We can be imaginative and creative in using our resources. We can share what we’ve learned in our Presbyteries and build larger networks and circles of influence. We can hire the staff that we need and create ministries and networks that allow us to develop new initiatives and share. Just like at the time of union, we are bringing together different players in order to broaden our mission and ministry. My hope is that as we transition out of Presbyteries and into Regions we will pass along not only our expertise but our resources to this larger body so that we begin from a place of abundance and not of scarcity. We will not hold on to what we consider ours but contribute it toward the greater good of all.

Jesus reminds us that God’s law is already written on our hearts. That we will be capable of being and doing greater things than he did. A Community of Faith will not be about getting the law into people’s hearts, but about creating spaces and places where people are set free to experience and express what it already in their hearts.

That is: God’s law of radical generosity, expansive forgiveness, transformative justice, inexhaustible gratitude, and extravagant love. To create places where transformation is a matter of course when we engage our faith in meaningful ways. Transformed, enlightened people transform the world.

What the future holds is uncertain. Our hope lies not in trying to keep what isn’t working, but in our willingness to change and try new things. We are grateful for those who have gone before us to pave the way. Now… we are the hope, for we are God’s people. God works through us as God has done in the past.

Benedictine nun, writer and speaker Joan Chittister, reminds us of this, “Despair colors the way we look at things, makes us suspicious of the future, makes us negative about the present. Hope, on the other hand, takes life on its own terms, knows that whatever happens, God lives in it, and expects that, whatever its twists and turns, it will ultimately yield its good to those who live it well. Despair cements us in the present, hope sends us dancing around dark corners trusting in a tomorrow we cannot see. Despair says that there is no place to go but here. Hope says that God is waiting for us someplace else. Begin again.”

What do you say? Are we ready to dance into the future to see what God has in store?