REV. DR. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
Stouffville United Church
John 12: 20-33
With the advent of the First Day of Spring yesterday, will come the arrival of soggy ground and chirping birds. Add a bit of rain in there, and you get the muck and mire. The small buds of the crocus and snowdrop are pushing up through the decayed leaves on the ground. And new life is ready to spring out. In our Gospel today we will hear Jesus say, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The seed falls to the ground, and in its lowering into the earth, in its dying, in time a shoot of green will emerge, moving toward the light, and life. Wendell Berry, the American poet writes, “The opening out and out, body yielding body: the breaking through which the new comes.”
Jesus then adds, ‘In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is, destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” The seed needs the darkness of the soil. It needs the liminal space between what was and what will be to begin its journey. It needs to be free to lie in stillness, to wait for its time to emerge in strength and wonder.
Over the last several decades, the church as we know it has been declining, dying even. We’ve been hanging on to the vestiges of what worked then, hoping that people will walk through our doors once again, and we’ll get back to those glory days. And in answer to the church’s decline, different ways of ‘being’ church have been tried to appeal to people to come and join us! The jury is still debating on whether the ‘attractional’ model of church is a winner, or whether it is the ‘missional’ church that will get you across the post-Christendom finish line. The ‘attractional church’ comes with a check list that you will recognize in our own discussions of what we should be offering in order to be more ‘relevant’ to the culture. Here’s some items on what is a ‘classic list’: good coffee, “contemporary music, “relevant” preaching, and church buildings, language, and programs that strip down the tradition to make it more palpable.” Loraine Mackenzie Shepherd, in her recent book about Thriving Churches, defines the ‘missional model’ as “taking the ministry out of the church into the world to people who will never come through the doors of the church.”
As a church, we hang on to what some people call ‘sacred cows.’ Ross Lockhart, in his book, ‘Better than Brunch’, the title meaning that what your church offers should be better than brunch or you’ll lose out, makes a list of these sacred cows of Christendom: “cultural legitimacy, political influence, financial health, pews that repopulate themselves with every successful generation, and a perceived need by the wider society of our value and necessity as church.” Lockhart notes that there are ‘fumes of Christendom’ still “swirling in the air, with non-churchgoing ‘cultural Christians’ still accessing the church for rites of passage ranging from baptism to weddings to funerals.” But those fumes are quickly turning to whiffs of smoke from the dying embers of what the church used to be – Full Sunday Schools. Full pews. Balanced budgets. Full council membership with no vacancies.
It used to be that all paths led to Sunday at 10:30 am. But a year ago, the coronavirus took over the world. And our Sundays at 10:30 am were crossed out on the calendar for what has turned out to be a year of Sundays. However, in the apparent ‘death’ of our in-person worship services, new life has found its way through the muck and mire of our being ‘lost’ without our Sunday anchor. We have found other ways to be together, ways that have actually changed our lives, and our ways of being church in a short span of time. Curb side pick up is on my list now to keep. Church Zoom meetings on a snow storm night is on my list to keep. Maybe for some of you, watching church from home with your coffee and in your pyjamas might be something you’re going to keep. New life has come through the muck and the mire of the pandemic.
As Christians, the event of Christ’s death on the cross, followed by his resurrection is central to our faith. Jesus died on the cross, and on the third day, rose from the dead to new life. In our baptism, we die to our old self and rise to our new self through the waters of baptism. Our faith reminds us again and again that new life follows death. The seed in the ground, shrouded in darkness, begins to rise towards the light in growth and very green. We sing of this in the Easter hymn, ‘Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain, wheat that in dark earth many days has lain; love lives again that with the dead has been: love is come again, like wheat arising green.’
Next Saturday, our congregation is meeting on Zoom for the first of two Town Halls to hear from our Futures Team on four possible ways to move forward as Stouffville United Church. Part of the work of discernment for any church that is looking into its future is to think of what to leave behind, in particular the sacred cows of Christendom, and to decide what needs to come with them. What do we let go of and what do we hold on to? What is trying to emerge from the muck and the mire that the church is sunk into, from which new shoots of tender growth are trying to find the light? And how can we take care not to crush this emerging newness by the weight of past criteria we’ve used to ‘evaluate’ success – usually in the form of numbers of people in the pews or money in the offering plates.
This discernment work is one that we will do together. Remember how deeply we trust each other as a congregation that worships together, laughs and cries with each other, that shares our stories with each other. It was three years ago that many of us here at Stouffville United shared the bread and the juice of holy communion ‘in the round’ in this sanctuary. We formed a very large circle and we shared in communion being able to see each other, face to face. The energy in that circle told us that we belonged, that we were loved, that we were blessed by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
For Stouffville United, the time is here
to let some things die
so that new life might emerge.
And we can do this work,
trusting that in our dying, is new life.
This is at the core of our faith.
That in our dying, is new life. Always.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Wendell Berry, “The Broken Ground”, from New Collected Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012), 29.
 Jason Byasse and Ross A. Lockhart, Better than Brunch: Missional Churches in Cascadia (Eugene: Cascade Books: 2020), 42.
 Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Thriving Churches: Urban and Rural Successes (Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 2021), 37.
 Lockhart, Better than Brunch, 40.
 Lockhart, Better than Brunch, 37.
 Voices United, 186, Vs. 1