Sunday, November 04, 2001

"In Season and Out"
How theological education calls us to be steady in turbulent times

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Peter Wyatt
Sunday, November 4, 2001
Text: 2 Timothy 4:1-8

Over the years I have served on several education and students' committees of several presbyteries. Their main work is to interview prospective candidates for ordered ministry and to form some judgement about whether they bring appropriate gifts to this calling, and then make recommendations to the presbytery.

Well, it was late afternoon after a series of interviews with these prospective candidates and it was an afternoon in which we had heard them speaking not so much about a calling as about career options. One, in fact, already having had a very successful business career, thought that his career as a minister in the United Church might be Career Number 2 with, who knows, Career Number 3 just off on the horizon, not yet discerned.

Reflecting on our interviews that afternoon, one of our committee members observed: "Some of us are in for two years less a day. Others are lifers."

It was a long-serving, ordained minister who made that comment and I was greatly struck by it and so must have communicated it from the pulpit where I was then serving, at Trinity St. Paul's, south of here. About two weeks later, I heard one of the highly committed, very able, lay people of that congregation introduce something she was going to say with this: "I guess I'm a lifer."

What a joy for me and what an eye-opener to hear such a remark. We folk who are ordained, at least those of us of a certain age, likely think of ourselves as the shock troops of the Church, but we often are inattentive to the way in which lay people can commit themselves just as unreservedly as any ordered-ministry person to God known in Jesus Christ and to the mission of the Church.

Back when there was a remit, unsuccessful, to change the standard of membership in the United Church from baptism plus a faith confession and confirmation to baptism only, I heard several lay people in the congregation where I was then serving describe their profession of faith and confirmation as young people as the moment when they signed on for life with the living Lord.

Here is Paul in Second Timothy, facing certain death and appealing (this will be his last time) to young Timothy, one of his disciples: "Be urgent," he says "Preach the word in season and out of season. Do not let your zeal slacken. The one whom you serve, Jesus Christ, is coming to judge the living and the dead and to each faithful one, there will be given at the end of the race the victor's laurel wreath, the crown of a righteous life.

"And do not slacken your zeal," Paul implies also, precisely because he is departing. "You, Timothy, are needed now to take up the mantle of leadership and this will be no easy task, because the time will soon be upon us when people will go after any teaching that tickles their fancy."

Yes, the time was coming then, and it has come many times since, throughout the Christian era. And today in our own time, there is a smörgåsbord out there from Scientology to Marxism, from Spiritualism to New Age - you can fill in the blanks. People want what they want and there is no dearth of gurus to give them what it is they do want. But you, Timothy; but you, people of God: Be steady. Endure suffering. Do the work of an evangelist. Fulfil your ministry.

The United Church of Canada and most churches in Canada are living in rough institutional times. Suspicion about organized religion abounds today. Recurring articles in newspapers and journals tell us again and again that most people today see themselves as spiritual but not religious, not prepared to align themselves with anything that smacks of organization and, perhaps, accountability.

As well, there is a rampant secularism which denies the validity of religion in the public sphere, relegating it to the realm of private opinion and individual taste. Moreover, we are aware of the confident, not to say assertive presence of other world religions and those who profess them in our midst, and they don't seem to have any difficulty being bold about what they believe to be true about God.

Add to all of this the abuse claims of First Nations people resulting from somewhat misguided and colonial mission policy. These abuse claims are coming home to unsettle our confidence in the gospel. If we could have made such a mistake in the name of Jesus Christ to allow the abuse of these people, then how can we be sure that it can still be good news for anyone?
Well, I venture to say that the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist is against us and therefore we must hope that the Holy Spirit, the Heilige Geist, is for us.

And Paul says: "Be urgent, in season and out. Be steady."

What does it mean to be steady today? What role has theological education, as represented by the theological colleges, got to do with helping the Church to be steady?

In his summary of the Law, Jesus added one more human faculty to the human response to God required by the Shema' of Israel, the Hear, O Israel: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." To the Shema', Jesus added one more faculty: "All your mind." We are to love God with all our mind.

I believe there is something called intellectual hunger for God. It is this intellectual hunger that academic, theological education particularly strives to meet; to meet this hunger to know and understand the self-revelation and the commands of God. This hunger entails a certain striving and yes, the pursuit of excellence.

In the Bible, the pursuit of excellence is involved in the discerning of gifts of the Holy Spirit: We discern the gifts of the Holy Spirit; then we seek to nurture them; and then we look for a disciplined expression of those gifts having been discerned and nurtured. And among these gifts of the Holy Spirit are intellectual hunger and intellectual zeal. You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind.

In Tuesday's National Post, Robert Fulford was highlighting some comments in Northrop Frye's recently published diaries. Many of you will know that Frye was a United Church minister who, as a literary critic, rose to become Canada's pre-eminent intellectual in the twentieth century. Fulford notes Frye's comment about a "fatuous United Church," a church that Frye claimed was insufficient in intellectual integrity to be competitive with Roman Catholics in their tradition.

Well, let us hope that the only real competition that we are in today with Roman Catholics is the competition to outdo one another in love. Yet Frye's observation constitutes a continuing challenge for the United Church of Canada, and for institutions like Emmanuel College.

The United Church rightly guards against an elitism that would set up canons of exclusion: Only intellectuals welcome here. Obviously, we don't want to say that.

But we have come perilously close to disparaging the gifts of the Holy Spirit when we do not invite to the table of the Church's deliberations those who could bring the fruit of disciplined scholarship. I wonder how much of Frye's bitter comment on our church - his church - was related to the degree to which our church sought or did not seek the gifts that he had to offer.

Frye also wrote: "The Lord's work for me as a scholar, you see, is sitting still in a comfortable chair thinking beautiful thoughts and occasionally writing some down. This also happens to be what I like to do, which just shows you how wise the Lord is."

A theological college is a community of disciplined learning, a community in which sitting still before truth, beauty and goodness is encouraged and honoured. For without intellectual integrity, our church cannot minister effectively to the intellectual hunger of its members or produce leaders who can make a credible case for the faith in the public square. I believe that theological education can serve the whole church by producing theological leaders of which the church can be proud.

Theological education also should foster growing faith and growing spiritual self-discipline in those who are engaged in studies of Christian theology. In other words, a theological college in the Christian tradition should be itself a community of faith and faith-formation.

Much noted today is the divorce in our society, and particularly in the academy, between intellect and character. Many people have lamented this split.

Ellen Charry of Princeton is one of those who laments such a split. She reminds us that when Christian doctrines assert truth about God, about the world, about ourselves, it is a truth that seeks to influence us.

Theological education is necessarily inflected by faith, or it wouldn't be theology. It aims first of all at constructive outcomes for the life of faith, so that those who receive a theological education are better able to communicate and to live the message more faithfully, more confidently, more contextually.

And so about any project in theological education, it is pertinent to ask:

"How will it preach in Brantford?"
"How will it pray in Saskatchewan's drought belt?"
"How will it bury the dead at the foot of the twin towers?"
"How will it open the way to discipleship in a city that has far too many homeless on its streets?"

Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave:
No-one was saved.
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

No-one was saved. No-one came home from a far country. No-one opened the door to Lazarus lying there at the gate with his sores. No-one heard the knock and invited Christ to come in and sup.

A college like Emmanuel is not a church, but it is a community of faith, in service of other communities of faith like Eaton Memorial Church. Emmanuel's identity and mission are shaped by the challenge of communicating persuasively the good news of God in Jesus Christ, and of forming Christian disciples.

The mission of theological colleges is also crucial for the church, insofar as theological education focuses faith on the biblical story. I think theological education is essentially about nothing else than the interpretation of Holy Writ.

Pierre Goldberger and Faye Wakeling are United Church mission personnel serving Mayan aboriginal communities in Guatemala. Often they travel for days into the remote hill country, from the village which is their home base, to meet with Mayan pastors who have themselves come days of walking to get to these villages where all of a sudden a circuit-riding seminary is to take shape and they are able to open themselves to fresh learning. Most of these Mayan, so-called "barefoot pastors" do not read or write, but they know the Bible by heart. Pierre told me - I hadn't heard him wrong - not just parts of the Bible by heart, the way you and I might know 1 Corinthians 13, or the Twenty-third Psalm - they know the whole Bible by heart.

And so, somebody in a teaching role can announce a scripture verse and at least one person in that circle will be able, after a moment's recollection, to speak the succeeding verses in the passage. How would anyone ever think to describe as illiterate people who are so familiar with the Book of Books?

Back in the Sixties and Seventies, several books were published and many events held on the theme of "telling our stories." The upside of these books and these events was that these were stories of the experience of faith, they were testimonies from the heart. But the downside was the tendency to focus on "me and mine" and to get lost in a wash of uncritical subjectivity.

My Old Testament professor at Union Seminary in New York, Jim Sanders, produced a book of sermons about the time these events were going on and these books being published, and to his own volume of sermons he gave the ironic title God Has a Story, Too.

We do need to be ready to give an account for the hope that is in us, and we do need to hear more testimony, testimony especially from lay people about why it is that we love God and why it is that we long for the beloved community and the fullness of its joy and peace. But the temptation is always with us to substitute pieces of our stories or great themes about life in community in the Church for God and God's story.

We do well in the United Church to affirm and to emphasize inclusive community, contextual utterance and ethical outcomes to our faith. These are integral implications of the gospel story, but they are not the gospel story itself, which I take to be the self-giving of a sovereign Love in search of estranged creatures.

I liked the vision set forth in the preamble to the 1940 Statement of Faith of the United Church: The Church's faith is the unchanging gospel of God's holy, redeeming love in Jesus Christ. And it goes on, this preamble, to call each new generation of believers to state the gospel afresh in terms of the thought of their age and with the emphasis their age needs. These two statements strike a fine and persuasive balance between continuity with an unchanging gospel and the emerging contexts in which we are called to announce and live it.

If I were to sum up my message this morning, I'd say that theological education serves in meeting intellectual hunger for God; serves in forming people to be effective leaders in the life of faith; and serves in helping such leaders become and stay faithful exponents of God's story in the scriptures. And above this summary, write "URGENT … in season or out, whether religion is popular or unpopular, whether the tide is with us or against us."

There was a news story some years ago about a couple living on the shore of the Juan de Fuca Strait in British Columbia. I can't recall their names at this point but for sake of ease, let's call them the Robinsons. Mr. Robinson was used to going fishing in a little rowing skiff but this time he didn't notice until too late that the tide was receding and that he was going to sea. He knew that he could not make any progress against the power of the tide but knew also that he would never get back if he quit rowing.

At nightfall, Mrs. Robinson, quite naturally worried, realized that she could do nothing but turn on the light at the end of the dock and go to bed. About midnight, imagine Mr. Robinson still rowing, the tide turned and at 6 o'clock in the morning, he tied up his skiff to the dock.

Speaking to news reporters after his adventure he said: "If I had ever stopped rowing, I would have been gone; so I kept rowing even when all I could do was hold my place. And then the tide turned and it brought me home."

So I kept rowing, even when all I could do was hold my place.

These are tough times for the Church and its ministries, but we hear Paul's words resonating down the centuries: "Be urgent. In season and out, be steady."
The zeitgeist may be against us but the Heilige Geist is for us. Amen.

This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.