Seeking a More Perfect Union
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, January 31, 2021
Reading: John 17:1-5; 20-25
I was fascinated by the recent inauguration of the president in the United States. Now, I know it is not my country, either by birth or by adoption, although over the years I’ve spent many months studying and even preaching there. I have family that live in Massachusetts, and I have friends everywhere, from Georgia to Tennessee, to California, to North Carolina and Florida. So, I have an affinity for the United States, and of course, it is our border country here in Canada. But I was fascinated by the tone of the inauguration. I listened carefully, as a public speaker to the oratory, to the use of images and words, and I was taken by Biden’s address and analysed it from an oratorical point of view. I also listened carefully to the cadence of Amanda Gorman’s poetry.
It brought me back to years ago, and the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, when none other than poet, Robert Frost read, The Gift Outright. In that poem, he explained how, in many ways, the land of the United States had existed before the people came to it, and that the future is something that, again, is in the hands of the people, but also beyond. There is a past, there is a present, but there is also a future. Inaugurations really are moments when those three things come together. Now, an inauguration is, in many ways, the celebration of a mixture of religious ideas and national pride. It’s like a civil religion.
It got me thinking about something else that Robert Frost said in his most famous poem, The Road Not Taken “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”. There is a choice in the direction we go, and I’ve been thinking not about nations so much, but about the church; where does the church go, and are there divergent paths that we too can follow? What word does the church need right now when many people are writing, both in magazines, in newspapers, like The Telegraph in Britain as well as other magazines and theological journals and blogs, pondering what path the church should take in this COVID-19 era, and in the post-COVID era. I’ve been thinking and praying about this.
Today’s passage from the Gospel of John, a little convoluted in its language, but nevertheless very profound is a passage that is both a sermon and a prayer, a prayer in a sermonic form. There’s a message being sent here. Jesus has three audiences. He is departing, going to his Father, he knows that. There is this sense that in this parting prayer, he wants to send a message to his disciples. But I believe he’s sending a message to us and to the church today.
The three audiences began when Jesus prays directly to his Father. It’s a moment of great intimacy, and love. He knows that the hour has come, to use Jesus’ language, a reference to his crucifixion and resurrection. He talks about the Father glorifying him, lifting him up, showing the world who he really is. He thanks God for the oneness that he has with his Father, and that the Father and he are one; they are one in this mission of salvation. He also, from the depths of his heart, speaks about the love that he has from his Father, and the love that has sustained him and has kept him going, and that love manifests itself in Christ’s self-giving love of eternal life for others. It’s beautiful, it’s intimate, it’s warm.
He also prays for His disciples. He thanks them for they have kept the Word, they have been faithful to that very moment when he is with them, about to depart, and prays for them from the bottom of his heart. He prays that as he is one with the Father, so they may be one with each other. He thanks God that they have been protected by grace, and that they have been sanctified by the truth. These things he is grateful for, but he prays that they may continue for the life of the disciples.
Then he prays for us. He talks about those who will believe in what the apostles teach, and their word about him. He prays also that those who follow will also be one, as the disciples are one, as he and the Father are one. He prays that the Church too will be protected and that they will continue the work of the apostles, and that they will do it in the bond of the love that the Father has for the Son, and the Son has for the Father.
It’s a beautiful prayer. It’s a prayer for the Church at all times. And so, as we are in this moment of questioning our future, of discovering which of these divergent roads we travel, which direction we go in, I believe that prayer is our guide, the way that we can move forward. There are a couple of things that really stand out for me about this road that we’re to travel. The first is that wherever we go, we go together. The path into the future is unknown. We have no idea what the future holds. We have no concept of it. We might imagine it, we might try to plan and think about certain things, but there are some immutable things that we should consider, and one of them is our unity.
I don’t mean organic unity; I don’t mean structural and functional unity. I'm talking about a unity of purpose, a unity of mission, of knowing the mission is what drives us forward into the future. If we have a commonality, if we have a vision of that mission, then there is a lot of ways we can go, but we go together as a unified group. And we do so with no fear. We do so with no apprehension. The problem, I think, that so many of us face, especially when we’re right now locked in our rooms or our apartments, are constrained and confined by our relationships, is that we tend to think in very individualistic terms.
There is, coming out of all of this, kind of a hyper-individualism. Yet at the same time, we realise that kind of hyper-individualism simply cannot sustain us, particularly when things open and get back to whatever normal will be. Think of it for a moment; if you're driving down the 401, it doesn’t matter how good a driver you are and how moral and upright you are, if a drunk driver decides they're going to drive on your side of the road, you are then dependent on somebody else and their wisdom every time you get in a vehicle. You have to, in some ways, rely on the fact that you're on a road with other people.
When we think of education, do we not need teachers who help and inspire, direct and guide us? No one can learn completely on their own without teachers. I was thinking about this with taxes, and people doing their tax returns soon and saying, “Oh, gee, we have to pay taxes.” Yeah, at the same time we also like our healthcare and we like our roads to be in good condition, and we certainly need people to help us when we’re in times of trouble. So, maybe we recognise we do need others, and it’s not just about ourselves. Well, it’s the same with our walk with God, it’s the same with the mission of the church. Whatever we do, wherever we go, we're doing it together. This is the unity that we need to have in our mission.
I know that Robert Frost, in that poem, had an even greater line. He said that he took the road less travelled. I think as a church, we’re going to a road that perhaps is less travelled. We don’t know really where it is going. But I liken the church and our direction in all of this more to a Union Station than just simple tracks. That the church is the gathering place, is it not? It is the coming together of things, rather than going our own way. I think for example, of the difference, the distinction that we even saw a few months ago between the gathered community that was physically present and the virtual community that is watching and listening online and the radio. Though most of us – well, all of us, are basically there right now.
The church going forward has to be trains on two tracks coming in at the same time. There must be a coming together of both the virtual and the gathered community. There will need to be a gathering of those who have had an established relationship with the church, who are baptised and confirmed, those who have had a longstanding relationship with the church, and those who are new to the faith, those who have heard the Gospel and responded to it.
I'm sure that both are listening right now. But together, to form the mission, the church must move forward. The church must move forward, I believe, also by the listening to voices, both present, but also past. It is like Union Station bringing together the voices of those who perhaps have not always been heard. To bring together – and this has been certainly a discussion and a movement in the last year, of indigenous voices, of black voices, of voices of various and disparate people, who need to be heard.
We also need to hear the voices of the past. We cannot just dismiss that which has come to us and been given to us, and the collective wisdom of the faith. It’s not just now that matters, it’s the recognition. Robert Frost said this in his poem about inauguration, that there have been things that have existed before us, from which we need to learn. That’s why we're studying Dietrich Bonhoeffer during Lent.
I see that the church has got to come together as one in its mission and draw together the disparate parts. Whatever road that takes us on, that is the way that we’re faithful to Jesus’ prayer for us, that we be one. That we be one in a common mission that was shared by the apostles, that was manifested in the ministry of Jesus, and that ultimately is to the glory of God. This is an eternal mission.
Let’s be clear: wherever we go, we go first with God. While, from an anthropological point of view, us being together is a good idea, and there is a need for us to be together and to share in a common mission, be under no illusion, our unity is a spiritual unity. It is a unity that comes from our walk and our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. It is not something that we make up as we go.
I know that throughout the history there have been all kinds of attempts, both to fragment the church when there was a need for renewal, and reformations and revivals, and there have been times when the church has come back together and there’s been a greater sense of unity. This church in which I stand right now, is a testimony to the creation of the United Church of Canada. Created in 1925 with a singular mission in Canada: to bring together different denominations.
Regardless of our history and our ups and our downs, our blemishes and our successes, the fact is that those things only matter on a peripheral level. What really matters is the unity that comes from our being drawn into the presence of God in Jesus Christ. That Jesus Christ in his lordship take over our lives, and that we become one with Christ, and having become one with Christ, we live in one glory to the Father.
That’s what really draws us together. That is the focus. That is the central gathering point at Union Station. It is the Spirit of Christ Himself. And so, as a church, as believers, as new believers, even as people who are seekers, come to that point, and you will find your unity.
It is also, most especially, a bond of love. Jesus talks a lot in John’s Gospel, “as the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” If love is not at the centre and the core of our relationship with God, and our understanding of God’s forgiveness and grace and power in our lives, if we do not have that love, what do we have? Not much. But with that love, we have everything, including that which is eternal. That which lasts, that which is of God.
It also means that we have no fear of the future. I believe a lot of people right now are really gripped by fear of the future. We’re frightened that we’re not going to get the vaccines that we want in the time that we want them. We’re frightened about the division that might occur in our society, where some receive vaccines and others do not. We’re frightened about the effects of those vaccines on us. We’re frightened about what kind of a world emerges. But there comes a point where, as Christians, we put that fear aside and trust in something greater than ourselves. This is what Jesus is getting at in his prayer for the disciples and for the church, to trust in him.
It was just over forty years ago – it’s hard to believe – that I visited a small town in South Africa with friends. It was January 1980, in the middle of the southern hemisphere summer. My friends in Langebaan and I were sitting under willow trees by the ocean in 40° Celsius – not minus 40 – 40° Celsius. Resting under a tree – and I shared this story with some of you, but it is worth repeating. As I am sitting there with a magazine on my lap, trying to enjoy the shade, my friend Michael, who had invited me to his cottage, looked at me with the sternest face. He was almost ashen white, and he said, “Andrew, trust me. Do not move.”
I thought he was kidding me at first. I gave a little laugh and he says – and with greatest seriousness – “Andrew, for God’s sake, I'm telling you now, do not move. What’s going to happen to you in the next few minutes, might shock you, but do not move.”
The next thing I heard was a police vehicle coming. I'm thinking, Lord, they're going to arrest me for something. But unfortunately for me, at that moment, two policemen came out with R1 rifles in their hands, and the police officer said to me, “Sir, whatever I'm going to do in the next few minutes, do not move.” He spoke to me in both English and in Afrikaans. He wanted the message to be clear.
He aimed his rifle at what I thought was my head. My friend Michael was standing next to him, and he shot right above my head. I could smell something burning but I had no idea what. Then they said, “Run!” And I ran immediately towards them. They told me that hanging over my head from one of the branches, was what is known as a boomslang – the most deadly snake in Africa. It was hovering over my head.
The level of trust I had to place in those police officers saved my life, and I'm forever indebted to them all these years later.
In many ways, there are some devilish boomslangs lurking for the church. There are dangers as we go into this divergent path in the yellow wood. There is the danger that we will become complacent, that having lived in isolation we forget the importance of worship and the glorification of God with our voices, our hearts and our lives. There is the danger of nominalism, where we think that this is not that important, except maybe for some entertainment value on a Sunday morning. We might become passive and feel that we do not need to engage with the issues of the world, that we do not need to struggle for justice, to give pastoral care to the weak, to teach the young, to feed the poor, to hear the Word, to celebrate the sacraments, to learn of God deeply. These are the boomslangs that hang over us.
But we have no need to fear. If we are one with Christ, if we are one with each other, if we’re built up in the bond of the Spirit, then I have no fear for the future of the church, for the it is not just a collection of people, not just an institution, and certainly not just a series of buildings. It is a fellowship based on and forever empowered by the very Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
In 2013 at Wycliffe College, the university – gave an honorary degree to a famous baseball player who was with the Blue Jays at the time, R.A. Dickey. You might wonder why they’d give it to a baseball player – we wondered at the time. I even quoted him right after the ceremony because he gave the speech at a seminary’s graduation.
I must admit, I did wonder why a baseball player and not soccer? But that’s an aside. I went back recently and reread what he said that day. I think it’s a wonderful clarion call for the church in its divergent roads. He said this:
“I think one of the things that we share in common, whether we’re Canadian or whether we’re American or whether we’re African, it does not matter. We are at all times bound by adversity and tribulation to some degree. Maybe the loss of a loved one, maybe a broken relationship, maybe something deeper, but we’re all in that together, and I have realised that at many points in my life.
I hope that we might go then into this world to have an impact on the lives of other people. I have started to develop disciplines and mechanisms and prayers to deal with the broken world, but I also realise how beautiful this world is, and how I go about being able to hold both the tragedy of this Earth and the joy of this Earth, in one of the great challenges of my life.
As I continue my life, whether it’s at the Rogers Centre, or here with you at the college, God has given me a responsibility to invest every moment, every conversation, every relationship with whoever, and devote it to the Lord Jesus Christ."
This, I think, is the perfect union and is the roadway for the church to follow. May the Lord give us the strength to do it. Amen.