The following is the sermon was given to the Ottawa congregation on February 12th, 2023
Hello family and friends! My name is Evan Sharley. I am a trans woman who lives in Boise, Idaho, United States, but I am a member of the Toronto congregation. I grew up in the Mormon church, but left it when I started researching early church history. I studied Buddhism for several years, and even became an ordained Buddhist minister. After my studies with Buddhism, I felt a call back to the Restoration, and after some searching I found John Hamer’s lectures and interviews and became intrigued. I studied Community of Christ theology and history, and decided to join on February 6th, 2021. Since that time my chief hobby has been researching every facet of the tradition of which we are inheritors of.
Since I have joined the church I have given many sermons in Toronto and several other congregations. My sermons are often thought provoking and challenging; I encourage people to confront and reevaluate assumptions that have gone unexamined. Please know that while the things I talk about may be difficult, I am deeply in love with our tradition and heritage and want to see it continue to grow and flourish. In order for this to become a reality instead of a daydream, we have to do the work to make it happen. I am overjoyed that you invited me to speak with you today so we can work together to make that happen.
Growing up in a different sect of the Restoration tradition, I have seen how people can slide into a state of worshiping the president of the church instead of God. In fact, growing up Mormon I was taught that “When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” Historically Community of Christ has held a certain level of contempt for anything the Mormons say or do. We would like to believe that we do not hold similar opinions regarding our faith leaders, and we are instead a “prophetic people.”
I absolutely adore the concept of being a “prophetic people”! You, me, the children in attendance, and the person sitting next to you – all prophets in their own way. The Divine speaks to and works through each one of us, and it is our obligation to use our gifts to improve the lives of others. However, there are many people who get caught up on certain things that prevent them from actualizing what the Divine is calling us to do in our own day. In 1st Nephi, chapter 6, verse 5, Nephi recommends that we compare all of the scriptures to our own lives so we can understand them a little better. In light of that, I would like to read you a modified version of our highlighted scripture today, 1 Corinthians 3: 1-9:
“My family and friends, I cannot speak to you as a spiritually mature people. Instead, I have to speak to you as if you are children. I fed you milk, because you were not ready for solid food. In fact, you’re still not ready for it. You will not be ready for more mature spiritual discussions until you are no longer concerned with unimportant things which cause you to be jealous of and fight one another. Until you can do this, can you actually claim that you are spiritually mature?
When one of you says “I follow the teachings of Joseph Smith,” or “I follow the teachings of Steve Veazey,” does this not prove that you are totally spiritually immature? Who do you think Joseph Smith and Steve Veazey are, anyway? They are simply servants who helped you trust God, as they were asked by the Divine to do. Joseph Smith planted the seed, the succeeding presidents have watered it, but it is God that makes the seed grow. It doesn’t matter who did the planting or watering, because God is at the center of the process of growth. Being the president of the church has been an important job, but ultimately what they do is not as important as the growth that God spurs. You are the fruit that comes from God’s garden, and the presidents of the church just work in this garden.”
While I don’t believe our home is as bad as where I started my faith journey, its undeniable that we are not as spiritually mature as what we aspire to be as a people. I believe that we rely far too heavily upon leaders, and often DO default to a “the prophet spoke, so the debate is over”. For example, in the early 1900s, President Frederick Madison Smith proposed that the First Presidency had “Supreme Directional Control” over the church. This was an extremely controversial point of view, but in the end, we as a church accepted it and we canonized Doctrine and Covenants 134: 7, which in its entirety says “Let contention cease.” In short, our prophet had spoken, so the debate was now over.
We often want to restrict God to the words and deeds of the president of the church, and not let the spirit breathe. In doing so, we can come to worship the president, and other church leaders, as a sort of infallible demi-God who has a better connection to the Divine and would never lead us into error.
However, over the last several decades we have made a definitive shift away from Fred M.’s “Supreme Directional Control”, and the presidents have encouraged us to actualize our aspiration to be a prophetic people. This can be illustrated with D&C 161 verse 5 and section 162 verse 2E, which read:
“Be respectful of tradition. Do not fail to listen attentively to the telling of the sacred story, for the story of scripture and of faith empowers and illuminates. But neither be captive to time-bound formulas and procedures. Remember that instruction given in former years is applicable in principle and must be measured against the needs of a growing church… The spirit of the Restoration is not locked in one moment of time, but is instead the call to every generation to witness to essential truths in its own language and form. Let the Spirit breathe.”
As a people, I have found that there are 2 things which keep us from truly becoming a prophetic people:
- Unwillingness to change things
- Unwillingness to live in uncertainty
I would like to explore these in a bit more depth with you today.
In many places in the scriptures we are told that God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever”. While this is true, this line of thought has been used to prevent the Spirit from continuing to speak to us today. As we heard in D&C 161, instruction given in former years is applicable in principle, but it MUST be measured against the spiritual needs we have today.
If we are to be a prophetic people, we cannot forget our past. We have had successes and failures, both of which have taught us many things. If we were to forget our past, we would also forget all of the lessons that we learned from it. However, as a prophetic people we cannot eternally chain ourselves to aspects of our past that prevent us from embracing our future. American philosopher Eric Hoffer, who studied social movements, including religion, once said:
“In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”
The world in which Joseph Smith led us is long-gone. As D&C 162 gently suggests, we should not be held captive by a world which no longer exists. In fact, that same section of the Doctrine and Covenants counsels us by saying:
“You live in a world with new challenges, and that world will require new forms of ministry.”
The church is facing very real challenges at this very moment, one of which I am keenly aware of: the church’s future membership. Let me give you some troubling statistics:
- Our church has roughly 250,000 members
- Only about 25 or so percent of our church’s membership is under the age of 40
- The church’s activity rate is approximately 17%-21%
With some simple math, we can deduce that there are roughly 62,500 members of the church under the age of 40, but only 11 to 13 thousand of us are active. Such a small population will not be anywhere near enough to sustain the church over the coming decades.
This is a startling realization, but it isn’t unique to Community of Christ. In terms of people who are religiously unaffiliated, Generation X is 25%, Millennials are 29%, and Generation Z is 34%. As the generations go on, we see that religion is becoming less and less important to people. Many people and churches have come up with excuses for this trend, but these people have spoken for themselves. In a Pew Research Center study, it was discovered that an astounding 60% of these religiously unaffiliated people said that they question religious teachings and 49% don’t like churches’ positions on social issues!
In other words, the younger generations feel as if religious organizations have failed them because they refuse to change and actively discourage spiritual exploration and innovation. As I mentioned, it’s true that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but how we respond to the whisperings of the Spirit drastically changes over time. If today’s churches and religious traditions want to survive, we must adapt to meet contemporary spiritual needs. If we decline to do so, we will have selected ourselves for extinction.
What are we doing to show that questioning assumptions and teachings is acceptable and even encouraged? If someone were to challenge our traditional conception of priesthood authority, would they be met with curiosity or disdain? If someone were to call IHQ out for instances of nepotism, hypocrisy, or bureaucratic sluggishness, would they be accused of being an unfaithful member or as someone who discusses uncomfortable realities?
What are we doing to be continually on the forefront of contemporary social issues? LGBT folks see marginalization as the default treatment they receive from Christians; what is your congregation doing to show that our church believes in our worth and equality? What is your congregation doing to eliminate income inequality and abolish poverty?
If we want to attract the younger generations, who will eventually be the lifeblood of the church, we need to throw our heart and soul into these topics like we never have before.
We often look to our past to predict what our future will be like. Sometimes this is an accurate gauge, and other times it isn’t. Sometimes people are willing to explore possible better alternatives, while others enshrine it and refuse to let it be touched. Still others see this uncertainty as the very nature of our heritage. Apostle Leonard Young once said,
“From the beginning of our faith movement, Latter Day Saints have looked beyond the present with a sense of vision for what ought to be. … we have been willing to ask if established things are really so.”
Our tradition was begun by people who questioned societal norms, took care of the physical needs of everyone in their community, believed they were prophetic, opened up the scriptural canon, and built a priesthood out of laymen who served them. They were sometimes persecuted for having these different beliefs, but they didn’t care; they felt as if God was calling them into the future. This passion and dedication that they had has ignited a worldwide religious movement.
However, I feel like we, as a people, have grown complacent with the tradition that they began. Arguably one of the most pressing uncertainties congregations in the church are experiencing today is the reality that they often cannot afford to maintain their physical building anymore. Congregations seem to take one of 2 paths:
- Be gripped by uncertainty and which prevents any action being willingly taken, until all resources have evaporated. This path is far easier in the short term, because it does not require anything, and the status quo can be maintained until the abrupt and forced death of the congregation.
- Boldly venture into the unknown, discern what the spiritual needs are for its day, actively work to undergo this metamorphosis, and emerge as a powerful spiritual community. This path is quite difficult in the short term, but in the long term the congregation not only survives, but undergoes a resurrection of sorts.
I have seen both of these paths be taken by Community of Christ congregations. Every single one of our congregations will have to make this choice. Do we want to deny the reality of our situation because uncertainty is too intimidating, or will we honor our heritage by swimming in the uncertainty until we come to understand what the Divine is asking of us?
The Apostles, Presidents, and Seventies are not going to make this choice for us; it is up to us as members of this church to decide what our fate is.
The spiritual maturity that our scripture today advocates for is realizing that YOU are a prophetic person. Others can do the planting and watering, but ultimately it is God that causes growth. The Divine uniquely speaks to you in a way that no one else can hear, and thus you hold a power that no one else does. Do not let ANYONE diminish your voice, because yours could be how the Spirit is communicating to your community.
Being a prophetic person means being willing to dwell in a place of uncertainty. This state of religious anticipation is what we have inherited and enjoy today. Like our ancestors, it is now our privilege to not have the answers or know the future! It is a privilege because we get to embark on this perilous adventure of uncertainty with God to discover what is required for us today. This quest is always difficult, but is also always worthwhile.