.. and when [Goliath] got a good look at David, he was filled with scorn for him because he was just a nice, good-looking boy.
1 Samuel 17:42
A GOLIATH AMONGST US
When Goliath took a good look at David, he was filled with scorn. Why? Because all he saw was a nice young boy whom the Israelites had sent to make fun of him. "I will give your dead body to the animals and birds for their lunch," he chided David.
David, however, was more than he appeared. All Goliath saw was a young boy. What he missed was the fire within this young person. He couldn't see the man who had rescued lambs from the jaws of bears and killed lions with his bare hands. The giant underestimated the boy and he paid the price. David sliced through his mighty armour with a single well placed stone, felled the great warrior and cut off his head.
Goliath learned the hard way that looks can be deceiving.
There is a David in our churches who works long and hard for the benefit of the Kingdom of God and is often more important than we would expect at first glance. It's actually not an individual. It is a group of people whose contribution to the life and work of our church is invaluable. I am speaking here about the United Church Women (UCW). Our National Church thought that it would be a good idea to take one Sunday this year and reflect upon the work of the UCW. This morning, I would like to do that.
On the surface, the UCW doesn't look like much. It is a group of women who quietly go about their business visiting shut-ins, raising money, preparing meals, baking pies and sewing banners. They, often, are not highly visible but don't let that fool you. Looks can be deceiving because the UCW is one of the backbones of the United Church of Canada. It is one of the pillars that holds up many of our congregations.
Where would we be without the hard work and dedication of these women?
How important is the UCW to the mission of the Church? I would like to take us back 10 years to the time when we first came to this Pastoral Charge to minister among you. I recall vividly my first Sunday leading in worship in Espanola / Webbwood. There was a total of about forty-five people in attendance that week between the two churches. That was about half the size of the little churches that I had left on the Prairies to come here. Virtually all who attended had gray hair - not that there is anything wrong with gray hair. There were only four children in the Sunday School; two of them were mine. I had heard that this Pastoral Charge had had some problems but I really wasn't prepared for what I saw. I, certainly, had expected more people.
I looked at the number of people in the pews and I remembered my contract and, to be frankly honest, the first thought that came to mind was, "How are these people going to afford to pay my salary." I was really worried.
The next day, I phoned the Conference Office and talked to the Personnel Minister. I told him of my concerns and he listened quietly and patiently. After I had finished sharing my burdens and my fears, he asked me one single question, "Do the churches have active UCW's?"
I knew that they did. "Yes," I said.
"Then you have nothing to worry about," he told me. He was right. The Church can survive without a lot of things. We don't need photocopiers and computers (although they make life a whole lot easier). We can train our children in the faith without a Sunday School (although I wouldn't want to). We can sing without a choir (but I'd rather not). We can get by without a secretary (but I wouldn't like it). Congregations have proven over the years that even the clergy is dispensable. But churches that have no active women's group are in serious trouble.
Looks can be deceiving. Who would think that a group of women going about their business would have such an impact? The point is that they do have an impact and they do make a difference.
REMEMBERING THE HISTORY
There have been women's groups in the church for as long as the United Church of Canada has been in existence. Originally, there were two groups. The Woman's Missionary Society (WMS) was oriented towards world mission and Bible study. The Woman's Association (WA) was more concerned with local issues in the congregation and community. When those two groups merged to form the UCW in 1962, it became the largest woman's organization in Canada.
The strength and influence of women in the Church has always been known. There is an amusing story (I suspect that it is apocryphal) that tells us that when women first began meeting together as an organization, they were under some interesting guidelines. They were able to meet to discuss business and fundraisers but if they ever wanted to pray, they would have to have a man present because the men who ran the church were concerned that the women might pray for the wrong things.
We are blessed in this pastoral charge with five UCW units; four in Espanola and one in Webbwood. Some of the units are getting older and smaller. Others are gaining a few members but, on the whole, we've been fortunate that our UCW continues to be active and stable.
So, what does the UCW do? Some of the things are pretty obvious. The units meet once a month and do their business. In Espanola, the different units take turns preparing refreshments after worship. When there's a funeral, it is the UCW which prepares the lunch for the fellowship time. The UCW puts on suppers and when it isn't putting on the meal, it's members usually have their sleeves rolled up in the kitchen anyway.
Through it's fundraising, the UCW supports the local church and all kinds of other worthy causes. Just this year, Andrew, my oldest son, decided that he was going to try to do the Bikes for Bibles ride around Manitoulin Island. He's never ridden 300 km before but he thought he could do it. I think that he can too. The only glitch was that he had to raise $500 in sponsorship for the Canadian Bible Society. In order to do that, he wrote a letter to all of the UCW's in North Bay, Sudbury and Algoma Presbyteries. There are a total of about 50 UCW groups in those three Presbyteries so Andrew, in faith, asked them each for $10. It has been interesting to watch as every day three or four envelopes arrive in the mail. Many of them have more than the requested $10. With many of the cheques, there is also a note of encouragement for Andrew. He's not going to have any difficulty at all getting his $500. It's actually me who I am beginning to worry about. The UCW supports all kinds of other projects just like Bikes for Bibles.
The UCW is active in the nuts and bolts operation of the Church. I also have noticed that involvement with the UCW leads to other interests in the work of Christ. In Webbwood, most of the readers and greeters on Sunday morning are members of the UCW. In both congregations, when I think about the people who take part in weekly Bible Study, virtually all belong to the UCW. If we have a special worship service or a special speaker, I can count on there being a high proportion of UCW members in attendance. This all goes to show me that the UCW is not only about baking pies and doing dishes. It is also about maturing in the faith of Jesus Christ. Looks can be deceiving. Behind those dishpan hands is a whole lot of Christian faith and maturity.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The UCW is an example of what it means to be faithful to the mission of Jesus Christ. UCW members are involved in every aspect of Church life. One by one, they share the Good News of the Gospel in their words and actions.
I think that it is safe to say, however, that the UCW is at a crossroads in its life and history. It is no secret that, as a women's group, nationally, it is in decline. Memberships are dropping. Interest among younger women just doesn't seem to be there in many places. We are blessed to have so many younger members in our groups. But that is not the case nationally or even in our Presbytery and Conference.
There are those who are predicting the end of the UCW. They see it dying a slow and sometimes painful death. But I think that once again, like David, looks can be deceiving.
There is currently a national consultation under way which is discussing the future of the UCW. Three things are certain. The first thing is that, on a national level, the UCW probably can not survive in its current form. The second thing is that, if the women of the United Church of Canada are going to continue to be a national force, changes will have to be made. The third thing of which we can be sure is the most certain of all. We can be sure that the women of the United Church will change and grow and continue to be a vibrant pillar upon which congregations stand and rest. We are not at all sure what this organization will look like. Whatever emerges, however, will have to be better able to meet the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of all woman. I have no doubt that the women of this Church will achieve that goal if they seek God's will and listen to the Spirit as it speaks to their hearts.
I learned a long time ago that we can never underestimate the power of an individual woman. When a group of women together, watch out. When you get a group of them which is filled with the Holy Spirit, expect miracles to happen.
>From its inception, the Spirit of God has been working through the UCW to work miracles of caring, healing and nurturing. Because of the UCW, many people have come to Christ who otherwise would still be living in darkness. Because of the UCW the world is a better place in which to live.
We are very grateful for the faithful service of all women in the Church who work for the Kingdom of God. We give special thanks on this day for the women of the UCW and pray that the Spirit will lead them into even more faithful areas of life and service.