Sermon June 9, 2024 by Tricia Gerhard

On June 10th, 1925 at the Mutual Street Arena, hundreds of our faithful ancestors gathered to worship and to mark the inauguration of the United Church of Canada.  Ninety-nine years ago, this church that we are part of now, was birthed from the dreams and dedication of members of the Methodist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian Churches, along with, particularly in Western Canada, the General Council of Union Churches.  One national unified church to spread the gospel and to live into the mission of Jesus.  I wonder, for those who had spent months in committee meetings, debating theology and crafting the Basis of Union, I wonder if they could imagine what the church would look like 100 years in the future.  I wonder, using the image of our scripture passage this morning, if they knew that they were planting the kernels of wheat that have since that day produced so many more seeds and have fed generations of faithful disciples the bread of the gospel and the ministry of Jesus.

Look at us now… 99 years later… what has this United Church of ours done to sow the seeds of faith in a complex and changing Canadian context?  Look at us now… did our ancestors in faith ever imagine that their infant church would look like this?  Be like this?  It is really really easy to slip into a reminiscence that looks back at our journey to this point and wonder where we’ve gone wrong – our Sunday schools are small, our congregations are aging, our churches are closing, our impact on the social and political fabric of our country is different.  Maybe all the seeds that were scattered in those first few years of union really have died… without producing new seeds.  If that is what you are thinking, then I want to argue that those initial seeds have indeed given way to new life… that they in their “dying” have provided us the fertilizer, the Christ-like zeal that we’ve needed to do the next right thing in the life of this church?  That’s where my heart lands… firmly in the camp of our founders giving us the foundation to create a church that is forever looking to Christ and living out Christ’s ministry, even if that calls us to risky moves.  Let’s take a quick look at where we’ve come from…

In the early years of the church, the majority of the leadership of the church – both lay and clergy – were men.  It was a reflection of the society at the time.  But it wasn’t long before a small contingent of people began to lobby the church to welcome women into the pulpit as ordained ministers.  The pioneer of this movement was…. Lydia Gruchy, who for 13 years served as minister in rural Saskatchewan churches, doing everything but the sacraments.  For 13 years, her presbytery petitioned General Council to ordain her.  It wasn’t an easy achievement, and many things had to change including minds that thought that for various reasons women shouldn’t preach.  Finally in 1936, Reverend Lydia Gruchy became the first woman to be ordained in our denomination, opening the door for generations of women preachers.  Seeds of faith died and brought about new seeds.

Then came the turbulent years of the 80s when the church began to hear the voices who questioned whether God wasn’t male only.  The United Church heard the voices and committed to “the disciplines of opening language”, working towards the first “guidelines for Inclusive Language” to be used for worship, dialogue, correspondence and publishing.  Through this the images, metaphors and pronouns for God were encouraged.

The 80s continued to challenge the beliefs and ethos of the church with the conversation around who could preach from our pulpits.  It was in 1988 that the United Church made the historical declaration that “all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, who profess faith in Jesus Christ, are welcome to be or become members of the United Church of Canada, and that all members of the United Church are eligible to be considered for ordered ministry.” In 1992, Rev. Tim Stevenson became the first openly gay man to be ordained, and twenty years later, his partner, Rev. Gary Paterson, became the first openly gay man to be elected Moderator.  Our journey with the 2s LGBTQIA+ community continued as we urged the Canadian government to allow same sex marriage. In 2010 the first openly transgender person was ordained, and in 2012 the church made it very clear that gender identity was not a barrier to membership and ministry. This was a hard decade for the church, and seeds of faith died, but brought about new seeds.

In 1986, at General Council, the church responded to the request of Indigenous Peoples that the church apologize for their part in the colonialization of the first peoples.  The apology said “we tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were.” This apology was not immediately accepted by the Indigenous community and in 1988 the Indigenous church acknowledge the apology and expressed its hope that the church would live into the words spoken.  Apologies are just words unless they are accompanied by action, and the church has been working on living into those words since then.  In 1998, the church made a formal apology for its role in Indian Residential Schools.  The United Church ran 15 schools from 1849 to 1969. Moderator Bill Phipps said “I wish to speak the words that many people have wanted to hear for a very long time. On behalf of the United Church of Canada, I apologize for the pain and suffering that our church’s involvement in the Indian Residential Schools system has caused. We are aware of some of the damage that this cruel and ill-conceived system of assimilation has perpetrated on Canada’s First Nations peoples. For this we are truly and most humbly sorry.”

Since that apology was offered, since the Calls to Action have been issued, since the MMIWG2S commission, since the unmarked graves of Indigenous children have been located, the church has committed and recommitted to the work of reconciliation.  The Healing Fund, a autonomous Indigenous Church, the recognition of the role Indigenous congregations played at Union reflected in the addition of Akwe Nia’Tetewa:neren” (aw gway/ nyah day day waw/nay rehn) meaning “all our relations” to the crest… these are all seeds that have come from the seed first scattered in 1925.

Do we know what the next year, decade, 100 years will hold for the church?  No.  This faith journey of ours can take us anywhere.  The impact of this church of ours will be shaped by the way we carry Jesus’ ministry, justice, radical love and welcome into the world.  We will scatter new kernels of wheat on the ground, and they will be nourished by the seeds that have been spread before, and our seeds will be the nourishment for the seeds of worship, ministry and social justice as the church continues its work.  Will it look and feel like church does right now, probably not.  But we don’t look and feel like the church of 1925.  And that’s okay.  We are dynamic, shifting people of God.  And as we step into this 100th year we do so carrying the new call and vision of the national church – that we are a church of Deep Spirituality, Bold Discipleship and Daring Justice. May God bless the seeds of faith that we scatter like glitter… this day and always, amen.