How Far?

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Mu message for Sunday is based on the sacrifice of Isaac story (Genesis 22:1-14) and Matthew 10:37-42 (those who do not put me ahead of their mothers or fathers or sons or daughters are not worthy of following me). My story time will briefly talk about Albert Schweitzer and then share a quote from a sermon he delivered in 1905. Here are the quote and my message.

Story: Albert Schweitzer

Brief history, then quote Quote of Albert Schweitzer: Our culture divides people into two classes: civilized men, a title bestowed on the persons who do the classifying; and others, who have only the human form, who may perish or go to the dogs for all the 'civilized men' care.

Oh, this 'noble' culture of ours! It speaks so piously of human dignity and human rights and then disregards this dignity and these rights of countless millions and treads them underfoot, only because they live overseas or because their skins are of different colour or because they cannot help themselves. This culture does not know how hollow and miserable and full of glib talk it is, how common it looks to those who follow it across the seas and see what it has done there, and this culture has no right to speak of personal dignity and human rights...

I will not enumerate all the crimes that have been committed under the pretext of justice. People robbed native inhabitants of their land, made slaves of them, let loose the scum of mankind upon them. Think of the atrocities that were perpetrated upon people made subservient to us, how systematically we have ruined them with our alcoholic 'gifts', and everything else we have done... We decimate them, and then, by the stroke of a pen, we take their land so they have nothing left at all...

If all this oppression and all this sin and shame are perpetrated under the eye of the German God, or the American God, or the British God, and if our states do not feel obliged first to lay aside their claim to be 'Christian'—then the name of Jesus is blasphemed and made a mockery. And the Christianity of our states is blasphemed and made a mockery before those poor people. The name of Jesus has become a curse, and our Christianity—yours and mine—has become a falsehood and a disgrace, if the crimes are not atoned for in the very place where they were instigated. For every person who committed an atrocity in Jesus' name, someone must step in to help in Jesus' name; for every person who robbed, someone must bring a replacement; for everyone who cursed, someone must bless.

And now, when you speak about missions, let this be your message: We must make atonement for all the terrible crimes we read of in the newspapers. We must make atonement for the still worse ones, which we do not read about in the papers, crimes that are shrouded in the silence of the jungle night .

Message: How Far?

Our two readings share the concept of followers being challenged in how far they will go for the sake of their relationship with the Holy Mystery.

Abraham was challenged to sacrifice his son. Jesus challenged his followers to put following him ahead of their family members. Scholars and preachers have probably written millions of articles and sermons about this passage, and there is no definite explanation. The main things I get from this passage are that the relationship with God can be one in which everything is provided and everything is demanded, and that Isaac was almost certainly traumatized for the rest of his life by this incident. All the stories about Isaac portray him as a weak person. A servant gets him a wife. When his sons become adults, he is nearly totally blind and needy.

The reading from Matthew which includes more than is in the lectionary mixes a tough demand along with stuff about being rewarded for doing what is right. If Jesus actually said what is claimed here, it would have been very confusing to his disciples. The bit about picking up your cross would have made no sense at that time.

The answer for Albert Schweitzer about how far was to the middle of a rain forest a long journey up an African river. It also included saying things that were very dangerous like the passage I quoted. The how far included abandoning the comfortable lies of his culture so he could grasp the truth. He gave himself wholeheartedly to every task he took.

The how far for the United Church included little things like getting rid of the phrase, “Who gives this woman or bride in marriage?” and big things like opening up ministry in the United Church to anyone equipped and suited for ministry regardless of who they ware or whom they loved. We are struggling right now to advance reconciliation with Indigenous people.

There are two questions for us. The first is how are we prepared to go as a congregation for the sake of our faith. The second is how far are we prepared to go as individuals for our faith.

The second question shapes how we answer the first question.

In my first year at seminary, I was assigned to a pastoral charge in which the largest congregation was in a fishing village called Sambro south and west of Halifax. A few years earlier, the congregation made the difficult decision to tear down the upper part of their church that was close to a hundred years old to build a new sanctuary. The church was built on the edge of a cliff with a two story basement that opened out on to the beach. A couple of families resisted the loss of the old sanctuary and quit attending church. Their loyalty was to the building, not their faith.

A congregation cannot go further than its members will go. Most of the members of Sambro UC wanted to better serve the community and their mission and let go of the church. The how far most often refers to what we are prepared to leave behind. When Randy Naylor from the national church offices visited Sambro the next spring, a major complaint was the hymn book from 1932 being replaced by the red hymn book and the complaint was by a man in his early 30s.

The letting go struggles often involve things like worship times, changes to the sanctuary, changes to music, and changes to organizational structure. One issue I encountered in ministry was parking lot decision making. When the chair of the board announced that a bequest was going to be allocated to the building fund, I insisted that the decision about the bequest be made by the board. Her husband was given the job as chair of the search committee of finding a minister, any minister, to replace me when my appointment ended.

The letting go struggles take many shapes. In another church I served, a woman had served as superintendent of the Sunday School for many years. She tried to resign once her children had outgrown Sunday School, but the board resisted letting her resign. About two years later, she quit attending church.

The letting go might mean letting someone for whom a role was no longer a spiritual blessing to leave that role. Sometimes it means a person letting go of a role which they no longer serve well. In another church I followed a minister who had no sense of identity outside of being the minister for a congregation. It took three months to get his books and stuff out of my office. His filing cabinet had close to 40 years of sermons and bulletins in it from when he first started ministry. His continuing presence on the edge of the congregation probably contributed to the eventual closure of that congregation.

The leaders of many congregations have often been leaders for decades who made it difficult for younger members to grow into leadership. For those leaders, the how far might be making space to share leadership with others.

A difficult how far in many aging congregations relates to financial support for the congregation. Most older members are on relatively fixed incomes with modest COL increases. Increasing their support of the congregation can become a real hardship. This how far limits what the congregation can do unless it grows.

The reality is most congregations today are shrinking. The ones that are growing are engaging people in the community in new ways. Towns in this area are gaining a variety of people that are a mix of people retiring and people moving out of major cities like Montreal, people like Bonnie and I. We started attending Knox Wesley when we saw an ad in the Review, but we were looking for a United Church to attend.

Many newcomers are not looking for a particular church to attend but are looking for opportunities to make connections with people. Bonnie and I are still looking for opportunities to make connections here.

Are there activities happening in LAM that would be of interest to non-church people? How would they learn about those activities? How far are we prepared to go to let others know what we are doing? How far are we prepared to go to learn what others are seeking? How far are we prepared to go to offer what others are seeking? Do some members of our congregations already want to offer something new but are reluctant to let the congregation know what they would like to do?

We do not know why God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but Abraham showed he was prepared to go that far. Jesus told his followers to put him first about all other relationships because, if they were not prepared to go that far, they would quit when persecuted.

How far are we prepared to go in terms of letting go of what has been? How far are we prepared to go in terms of reaching out? How far are we prepared to go in terms of trying new things?

As we consider these questions over the coming months, let us trust that the Holy Mystery will be with us however far we choose to go. Amen.
Physical devotion is a solid faith ... albeit a slight stoney ...

Now to put the light ahead in a dark future assist in the sentient nature of visionaries ... though many are dead against enlightenment of the common folk! This is counter to teaching my children, I know, but mnay deny such ideas of collective awareness due to the damage it would du to the corrupted powers ...

Seems a bit ignorant but is a great expectation with many attempting to trump the balances ... thus equitability fails as we consumne resources fighting! Parantage often shadows what children are impressed with ... and thus the beating one's head on a Wahl goes on interminably in reality! A rite required to get out of the paradox ...
Both passages from Genesis and Mathew have always seemed contrary to the ten commandments to me.
How far would I go? That depends on the circumstances and it may not always be a bible verse that encourages me.