AN ATHEIST MINISTER
What do we do with a minister who is an atheist? The answer seems to be obvious; an atheist has no business being a minister. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Or so one might think.
I supposed that many of you have heard about what happened a week and a half ago in the United Church. It had to do with Gretta Vosper, the United Church minister who does indeed claim to be an atheist. Back in 2016, Toronto Conference, which is the church body to which she is accountable, questioned her suitability for ministry which means that a formal hearing had to be held to evaluate her suitability and whether or not she could remain a minister in the church. That hearing was set to begin earlier this week. But just days before that hearing was to begin Toronto Conference issued the following statement:
Toronto Conference, the Rev. Gretta Vosper, and West Hill United Church have settled all outstanding issues between them.
The Rev. Vosper will remain in ordained ministry at West Hill.
We acknowledge the faithful work of all of those who have been involved in the process.
And most of us in the know were left scratching our heads. How could it be that there are no outstanding issues between Gretta Vospers and the United Church? Did she do an about face on her theology? No, that didn’t happen. Then does the United Church no longer think that its ministers need to believe in God? No, our church leaders, even the Moderator Richard Bott whom I have known for years and is a very faithful evangelical Christian, has issued another statement claiming that we do, in fact, insist that our ministers believe in God. And so we scratch our collective heads and wonder how to respond to such things.
That, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is what I’m going to try to do this morning. I’m doing it because people have asked me what this is all about. I’m going to tell you how I am responding to the events of this past week and pray that you may glean some wisdom from what the Spirit has said to me.
But first, let’s ground ourselves, as always, in Scripture. Mark 13:1-8 says this:
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
In this passage, Jesus is talking about the end times, when he returns in glory to complete the kingdom that he began 2,000 years ago. That’s the context. Jesus is coming back and we need to watch for the signs. Be careful though. These signs will not tell us when he will return because we know that when he comes it will be a surprise. All he ever tells us is that he is coming and we are to be ready when he does.
There are various places in the New Testament where we are told how to be prepared for Jesus’ return. This particular story also gives us some clear instructions. It’s right there in Mark 13:5 (NIV) which says, “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.” Jesus tells us that as we await for his second coming we are not to listen to the deceivers but to stay faithful to him right until the very end.
DO NOT BE DECEIVED
“Do not be deceived,” Jesus says. What does that mean in context of Gretta Vosper? Clearly, most of us would consider that Vosper is being deceived into thinking that there is no God but that’s not the issue that I want to address because we can’t do anything about that. All I will say about that is that I strongly suspect that Ms. Vosper is going to be in for a surprise when one day she walks through the valley of the shadow of death and discovers how wrong she has been. But that’s between her and God.
When it comes to deception, the first thing I want to say is this: don’t be deceived by the media who have had a bit of a field day with this. The only person in all of this that says that they don’t believe in God is Gretta Vosper. The United Church hasn’t said that and neither have 99.99% of the people in this church. All the statement from Toronto Conference said was that all outstanding issues have been resolved and that Vosper will remain as the minister of West Hill United Church.
So what happened? Most of us don’t know because there is in the agreement a non-disclosure clause that prohibits the participants from making public the details of the decision. But, knowing how the church works and watching this process at work for the past couple of years, my hunch is that the church found itself caught between a rock and a hard place. Because of the current state of Canadian labour laws – which the church, just like every other employer needs to follow – any attempt to defrock Vosper would probably have led to a very long, protracted and expensive legal battle that we as the church would almost certainly have lost probably because in an effort to be nice, the Church did not deal with the initial issues on a timely basis.
And I must admit that I would never advise anyone to enter into a legal battle that they have little chance of winning. If the United Church had decided to proceed anyway, it would have resulted in at two things. First, it would have cost us a ton of money. Second, it would have given Vosper a public soapbox for as long as the hearing lasted. Again, either way, the church gains nothing.
I think there is some wisdom in the Bible that addresses this situation. Do you remember that story in Acts 5 where the Apostles were being put on trial for teaching the people that Jesus was the Messiah? The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem didn’t really appreciate this and so wanted to punish the apostles, accusing them of blasphemy and all sorts of other things.
But the Jewish leaders were not stupid. They knew how popular Jesus and his message had become among the common people and that if they punished the apostles, those regular folk would be up in arms. So the Jewish leadership also was caught between a rock and a hard place. What could they do? They felt trapped. But then a wise man named Gamaliel stood up and said this in Acts 5:38-39 (NIV): “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Gamaliel looked at the situation and realized that the best thing they could make was to do nothing at all. They needed to just let God take care of it. If God is behind something, then it will succeed. If God is not, then it will surely fail. We know, of course, how that worked out. Did the ministry that the apostles were doing fail? No. In fact, God blessed the ministry of the early Church and Christianity became and still is by far the largest faith group on the face of the earth.
What does that say to us now? To put it in a nutshell, if what Gretta Vosper is teaching is true then God will bless it and she will prosper. But if God is not for it, her ministry will fail. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
So what is the state of her ministry at West Hill United Church where Vosper is still the minister? Gretta Vosper herself is sixty years old and retirement may be looming just over the horizon. Beyond that, I’ve never been to her church but others have reported that West Hill United Church is a small, aging and dwindling congregation that has few children or young adults. They are currently renting space in another church because their building has a leaking roof that seems to be taking a long time to fix. Let me ask you; does this sound like a ministry that is being blessed by God? It doesn’t sound like that to me. In fact, it reminds me of what Gamaliel said to the Jewish leaders when he advised them that, sometimes, the best thing to do is nothing and to trust God to deal with it. I think there’s some wisdom there.
In Mark 13, Jesus tell us not to be deceived. God is alive and God is well and God is present among us even now. So, what do we do in the wake of the decision to retain Gretta Vosper as a minister in the United Church? Do we simply sit on our hands and wait for it all to blow over? No, I don’t think we do that either. What we need to do is really quite simple. We need to be whatever is opposite of being deceived. And do you know what that is? That’s called being faithful. All kinds of forces in this world will seek to deceive us. But we are called to remain faithful to Jesus and his Gospel of salvation.
So, what does that look like? I’m going to ask all of us to do two simple things. These aren’t difficult. In fact, I’m sure that all of us can do them.
The first thing that I want you to do is pray. I want you to pray for the United Church as we walk together through this time of confusion. Pray for our leaders who truly are caught between a rock and a hard place, that they may be find the courage to stand strong for the things of God and to uphold the name of Jesus Christ.
I want you to pray for all of our churches that lift up Jesus Christ and the truth of the gospel which is ours to share.
And, of course, I want you to pray for Gretta Vosper and the people at West Hill United Church, that the Holy Spirit will move in their midst and touch their hearts so that their eyes will be opened to the truth of the gospel and the reality of God’s amazing and limitless love for them. For God loves nothing more than when the sheep who have wandered away are brought back to the flock. Pray that the lost sheep will return.
That’s the first thing I want you to do. The second thing I want you to do is be prepared to let the world know what we stand for here at Cottam United Church. There is a perception out there that all United Churches are bastions of liberal secularism that have abandoned the faith and no longer stand for biblical teachings. I understand why people think that because it is people like Gretta Vosper who get all the press. They’re radical. They’re interesting. They’re newsworthy. The media isn’t really interested in the many faithful churches out there that feed the hungry, care for the lonely and quietly go about the business of leading others to Christ.
The truth is that the United Church in general is a very broad tent. There is a large diversity of theological perspectives in this denomination. There certainly are liberal churches. But there are also a growing number of more conservative evangelical congregations just like ours. But somehow, liberal or conservative, evangelical or social justice, we all seem to get along and co-exist for the sake of the broader mission of Jesus Christ. And I celebrate that.
So what about us? What do we stand for here at Cottam United Church? Like our denomination, people are at various stages in their walk with Christ. Among us there are mature Christians who know the Bible and live by what it says. But there are also people who are relatively new to the faith and are seeking to grow in their relationship with Christ. There are people everywhere in between. One thing that we all have in common is that we all have questions and that’s okay because we’re all on this road together and we support each other in our quest for the truth.
But ultimately we stand for Jesus Christ. We believe that he was born in Bethlehem and grew up to become man. We believe that in his life on earth he showed us how we are to live together in peace and justice and worship God in holiness and righteousness. We believe that he died on the cross of Calvary and that in his death, he took on all of the sins of the whole world. We believe that by his sacrifice, he paid the price for all of the sins of all of humanity for all time. But the story does not end there. We also believe that, on the the third day, he broke down the gates of hell and shattered the chains of sin that bound us, thereby defeating death itself and opening up for all of us the heavenly kingdom. We believe that Jesus is now with Father in heaven and that he is preparing a place for everyone who puts their faith in him. And finally, we believe that he will come again at the end of time to gather all of his people into a place that the Bible calls the New Jerusalem.
Not only do we believe these things but as a church we are passionate about them because we are passionate about Jesus and his message of love and hope. Why are we passionate? Because we know what a difference Jesus makes in our lives. Sometimes those differences are huge and sometimes they are gentle. He gives us hope in the hard times, love in the lonely times and strength when we feel there is none left.
This is the God we worship. This is the God we adore. We believe he is real. We believe he cares. We believe he is here with us even now as we gather to worship.
In closing, I’m going to ask you to say the Apostles Creed with me. It is the one of the oldest and clearest creeds of the Christian Church. How far does it go back? The first record of it was in 390 AD. That’s a long time ago. No creed will cover everything about our faith. That’s not the purpose. The purpose is to provide Christ followers with brief outline of the major tenets of the faith and the Apostles Creed does that better than any other.
I also know that you probably don’t have it memorized so just look at the screen and follow along. So please, if you would, stand with me and repeat the Apostles Creed.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
the life everlasting. Amen.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Great God of Love, we come to you with thankful hearts. We are reminded of the cleansing that you have given us in Jesus Christ. He is our Brother. He is our Saviour. He is our Shepherd and our Friend. We offer our grateful prayers for his sacrifice and for the forgiveness that only he can offer.
We thank you for healing in its many forms. By the power of your Spirit, relationships are restored. New life is breathed into tired institution. People are able to come together despite their differences to share their common faith and bond of love.
Gracious God, we are grateful that regardless of circumstances, we are never alone. Even in those times when we may feel alone, help us to confidently trust in the promise of your unbroken companionship and unchanging presence. You are always here with us.
We pray, O God, for those who have no faith or who have lost their faith. Touch them with your Spirit, O God, and move in their hearts that they may come to you openly, honestly and freely. Heal them, we pray, of their unbelief and help them to experience the joy and the peace of knowing Christ as Saviour and giving all of their cares to him in this life and the next.
Our prayer go to all of the world’s people wherever they may be who suffer from the effects of war, terrorism or oppression. You are able, O God, to make all things right. May your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
We pray for those who have been sick this week, either at home or in hospital. We remember, especially, Sharon, Lyle and Diane. Grant them peace. Grant them love. Grant them your special blessing.
O Holy One, there are many opportunities each day to respond to others in anger, unforgiveness, rudeness, or vengeance. Help us to make love and compassion the motives and model for all that we do and say. We are thankful that you forgave us and gave us the gift of eternal life. Help us to share that Good News with others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.