Faith and Diversity

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                               Nov. 18, 2018

Hebrews 10:11-18, 23-25


A Word about God. God actually made it into the news a couple of weeks ago. It was about the United Church and its struggle with an atheist minister. A confidential settlement was made with the minister so that she can remain serving her congregation. That’s all we know about the settlement. But in the course of this protracted confrontation, the United Church has had the occasion to make its official beliefs clearly known.

Our past Moderator, Jordan Cantwell, reminded us in 2016 that “at the heart of the concerns being raised is a tension between two core values, both of which are central to our identity as the United Church. The first is our faith in God. The second is our commitment to being an open and inclusive church.” Our current Moderator, Richard Bott, writes that “the dance between these core values, how they interact with and inform each other, is one that we continue to explore as followers of Jesus and children of the Creator.”

Let’s look a bit closer at these two core values. The first is that the United Church upholds a belief in God, Holy Mystery, divine presence beyond knowing. We have a series of faith statements that have been proclaimed over the decades, all of which affirm our belief in God. We also have a process of discernment for ministerial candidates that asks them to affirm their belief in God and to be in essential agreement with all of our Statements of Faith. This has not changed.

The challenge comes when ordained or diaconal ministers change their beliefs and their congregations share their changed beliefs—or non-beliefs. This was the context of last week’s decision, which leads us to the second core value of the United Church. We offer an inclusive church that is welcoming of everyone, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe. This means that anyone can walk through those doors and be welcomed in our service. We do have some bottom lines of respect and justice, but if people can be accepting of others with different beliefs, we can be accepting of them.

We therefore have a national church, as well as a local congregation, that has a diverse mix of traditional believers, progressive believers, people who belong to other faith traditions, agnostics and atheists. We have all of these faith identities here at Westworth United Church. This leads us to a tension between inclusive diversity and Christian identity in the United Church of Canada, as a whole, as well as here, in this congregation.

This even plays itself out amongst the retired ministers who are with us. I’ve mentioned before that I receive regular emails of critique from a minister who thinks I’m not traditional enough and from another minister who thinks that I’m too traditional. For the record—what I am is someone who believes passionately in God as the source of love, in Jesus as love incarnate, and in the Holy Spirit as love’s power. I believe that the love dance of this Holy Trinity works creatively through each one of us, nudging us every second of every day towards healing and wholeness. It is based on forgiveness and grace that lovingly embraces each one of us.

Our lectionary reading for today highlights the diversity of Christian belief, because it talks about atonement—the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus for our sins. I expect that there are as many views about atonement as there are ministers in our midst—let alone diverse lay beliefs. The main camps are separated by a conjunction: Christ Jesus died for our sins or Christ Jesus died because of our sins. Some believe that Jesus gave his life to pay the price for our sins. Others believe that God is not an avenging God who requires punishment for sin. Instead, God took on the form of a human being who persevered with unwavering justice and was killed because he refused to give in to our collective sin of oppressive powers.

I realize that’s a mouthful and I can unpack it at another time. But all of these different views of atonement lead to the same conclusion—death did not have the last word and we live in grace. We love because God first loved us and pours the love of Jesus into our lives by forgiving us time and time again.

So how do we hold all of these diverse beliefs together at Westworth? At communion, we have what is called an open table, another official belief of the United Church. This means that I can invite anyone who seeks to follow Jesus to receive the bread and the cup, regardless of their church affiliation or non-affiliation.

At our Worship Team meeting last week, we reaffirmed our requirement for a profession of faith for baptism and membership, in order to uphold our identity as a Christian church. Drawing upon historic tradition, we continue to ask four questions based on United Church guidelines:

  • do you believe in God, however you understand God?
  • do you seek justice and resist evil?
  • do you follow the way of Jesus?
  • do you support the ministry and mission of this congregation?

You’ll be hearing these questions next week as we welcome 6 members.

For those who are adherents, we don’t have any faith requirements. However, we hope that everyone, whether members or adherents, will be able to support our mission statement: to be the hands and feet of Christ within Westworth and beyond.

Our non-negotiables consist of Christian values such as compassion, generosity, forgiveness, and humility. We are inspired by the teachings of Jesus and other faith figures as they move us to action. Christianity has never been a passive faith. There should be no such thing as an armchair Christian. Even contemplatives and those who are shut in are moved to passionate prayer. We are all called to love in action of one form or another.

Our passage from Hebrews says that we should consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. The Greek word provoke actually means to “irritate”. In our diversity of beliefs and personalities, we can irritate one another. But if we all share the same driving motivation to love and serve others, those irritations might help to smooth away our rough edges as we learn to minister together as one body, united in all of its diversity. Without irritations, pearls of beauty would never be formed.

As we minister together across our differences we realize that we need each other. We need every single one of us, if we are to be faithful to our call to ministry. There is a synergy of energy that happens when we pull together. The whole becomes greater than the parts.

I have read that the strength of the thumb’s pressure is 15 times greater when used with fingers than when used alone. When one horse that could pull 600 pounds was hitched to a horse that could pull 800 pounds, they were collectively able to pull not their sum of 1400 pounds but 2300 pounds. Two huge draft horses were each able to pull 8,000 pounds, but when they hitched together, they were able to pull not their sum of 16,000 pounds, but 24,000 pounds. And when these two horses were trained to work with each other, they were able to pull 32,000 pounds—four times as heavy as either of the horses could pull by themselves.[1]

On this last Sunday of stewardship, I would like us to celebrate, not hide, our diversity of beliefs, of identities, of gifts. When we respect the full potential of each person, and try not to make everyone like ourselves, we will gain an appreciation for God’s Mission that is so much bigger and more expansive than we could ever imagine. If even one of us fails to offer the little bit that we can give to this body, Westworth and its ministry will be the poorer for it. So let each one of us discern what we are being called to offer to the ministry of Westworth. When we say yes to the Spirit’s nudgings, we will find a synergy of energy, amplified by the Spirit, that will exponentially impact our ministry.