Rev. Heather Burton’s Covenanting Service Sermon

Oliver OK Falls Covenanting Service for Heather Burton 14 April 2013
Psalm 139; 2 Corinthians 4: 1, 7-10
Ministry in Changing Times

Will you pray with me:

Ever present God,
Be in my speaking and in all our thinking,
Be in our hearts and in our souls.

How good it is to have folks from both Oliver and OkanaganFalls together to covenant before God with Heather Burton and Kamloops Okanagan Presbytery for being in ministry here.

With your partnering arrangement you are one of the pioneers in what may well be the way of the future for smaller congregations who want to stay open and alive in order to offer Christian fellowship, faith development and service in the communities where they are grounded. It is not easy to break old patterns and it is heartening to know that while you are continuing as two separate pastoral charges, you are doing Bible study together, have a joint Worship Committee and have held combined services on occasion in each of your churches. That kind of co-operation is also a witness to the people in the communities where you are located, whether they are part of the congregations or not.

You have responded creatively to a situation that is facing many of our churches. Things are not as they once were and the way ahead is to recognize the changes that are occurring in both church and society and to find creative ways to adapt. Adapting means change and the challenge for leaders is how to provide for continuity and change at the same time. At this time leadership, especially of ministry personnel, is crucial.

It is indeed a challenging time to be in ministry. There is little in our culture that encourages or supports participation in a religious institution. Christians are often stereotyped in ways that make us cringe and can leave us reluctant to publicly declare our allegiance to a church. We live in the most secular place in all of North America. Survey results indicate that 60% of British Columbians say they have no religious affiliation or if they do have one they never attend services.


At the same time, many of those folks declare they put a high importance on the Spiritual and they say they have private, individual devotional practices and they often mix different faiths in their practices. This is part of the “I’m Spiritual but not Religious“ cry we hear. Cultural shifts are taking place.

There is a general consensus that in these times of cultural anxiety, economic collapses, environmental crisis, fear of terrorism, we are in the midst of a new Spiritual Awakening that actually started in the 1970’s. It is geared toward individual, social, and cultural transformation and it is not exclusively a Christian affair but is affecting other faiths as well.

The vision is for a global community based on human connection, care of the planet, a commitment to justice and equality and to raising millions of people from poverty, violence and oppression. The Millennium Goals of the United Nations are part of this awakening. This involves radical changes in both attitudes and behaviours. It can result in fear, confusion, and decline but it can also push us to open new pathways. There are feelings of loss, grief and fear we let go of some familiar things before we are completely sure of what comes next. It is not a comfortable place to be: in between endings and beginnings.

In her book “Christianity After Religion”, Diana Butler Bass delves into the marks of this so called Spiritual Awakening in society at large and how it results in a ‘spiritual/religious’ tension. She explored with various groups, mostly church members, what they associate with the term Spiritual and  the term Religious. There was a marked difference between what people said about being Religious and being Spiritual.

Spiritual was defined as experience, connection, transcendence, intuition, searching, prayer, meditation, nature, open, wisdom, inner life, inclusive and doubt. Religion was defined as institution, organization, rules, order, dogma, authority, beliefs, buildings, structure, defined, principles, hierarchy, orthodoxy, boundaries and certainty. A few people were sceptical of spirituality and described it as individualistic, selfish, lacking an ethical compass but religion got the worst of it as cold, controlling, narrow, and hurtful.

These lists carry certain stereotypes but are worth exploring. What chance do we have with a secular culture if that is how even church folks define what it means to be religious? However, Bass says after some considered conversation, most people in her groups said they wanted to be both Spiritual and Religious but they wanted a changed religious institution.

In order to be Christians, we need to be part of a community of faith: it is not an individual journey, but one nurtured and lived out in community.  How could any of us be on such a journey alone and so we need a place where we can gather and that calls for some organization, buildings and structure. Congregations are the lifeblood of the Christian faith but what does it mean for our churches if organization, beliefs and buildings are seen as negative rather than ways to help to form and nurture faith? Spirituality seems to have taken on an individualistic meaning; but surely we can be Spiritual in our congregations!

What seems to have been left out of the Religious list is what seems to be at the heart of the Spiritual quest. The Spiritual quest is calling for a deeper relationship with the Holy and those who criticize ‘religion’ say there is not enough emphasis on our experience of God and too much emphasis on belief. It seems odd because the root of the word religion means to ‘reconnect’; to open our souls to God and to others.

The Psalm we read earlier eloquently describes an individual’s Spiritual experience of the Holy. The writer feels truly known by God, there are no secrets and this person seems well assured of God’s watchful attentive care. This is a person wrapped in mystery and grounded in God.  The writer has a feeling of deep belonging in an age of doubt and fear. Such readings lend themselves to Spiritual Disciplines of meditation, prayer and observing a Sabbath. Our lives tend to be fragmented and anxious in these uncertain and troubling times. Spiritual disciplines can center and ground us.

While the Psalm centres on the Spiritual, the Corinthians passage is dealing with matters of the community’s religious life. Paul has been having authority issues with some of the churches he oversees and visits. He is like a one person Presbytery. He had recently been opposed in Galatia where there seemed to be competition for leadership. If you read much of Paul you often sense his strong ego but here his humility comes through. He remembers that it was out of his certainty that he persecuted the followers of Jesus before his dramatic conversion. He reminds the church in Corinth that authority resides in Christ, not in humans. The Gospel is a treasure but those of us who carry it are like clay jars that are fragile and imperfect but in our brokenness new life can emerge. But we need to be steady, faithful and not be discouraged. I think it is as much a word for us today as it was for the Corinthians. I think it is especially a word for those who are in ministry.

We all wish some of those who say they are on a spiritual quest would at least try us out. As we age and some of our energy wanes, we can become anxious about the future of our churches. In her book Diana doesn’t give any quick, easy solutions to those concerns. However she says there are three elements of Christianity that are important: believing, behaving and belonging. But she says the church has often had them in the wrong order by putting believing first. She says belonging should come first and then newcomers can watch and imitate how Christians behave as followers of Jesus, and then comes belief. So how we behave in our congregations really matters.

She suggests four areas for churches to pay attention to. Emphasize knowing the Christian story, deepen our relationship with the Holy, be hospitable by sharing meals and having fun together and engage in action in the community that seeks to better the conditions of those in need.

Don’t be afraid of new awakenings because although they will meet resistance along the way, they have historically always resulted in greater compassion and equality. After all isn’t our task as Christians to participate in making our world more humane, just and loving?

So Heather, your commitment to be with these two congregations in this new venture is a gift to them, to this Presbytery and to God. Thank you for responding to their invitation and we now celebrate this covenant.

Lest any of us become discouraged on the journey, let us keep the words of the Epistle in our hearts: “we have this treasure in clay jars so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

Amen                                                     Marion Best   Naramata B.C.  14 April 2013