"What 'church' can be," it's more than a slogan. What Zion Faith Community boldly proclaims is Good News. Ah, but the world of Jesus is a world of Empire, of rights reserved for the moneyed, with poverty and illness seen as divine punishment, women as property, people living in fear and no room for love, justice, and generosity. Sounds a lot like today, doesn't it? And the Temple church pretended that all the injustice out there had little to do with the God who was proclaimed in here. That too, sounds all too familiar. Fast forward to 2017, where Lake Edge and Zion have the nerve to apply the Gospel to the injustice all around us. And we get punished for our trouble. That's right, "punished." But all of us who hear the good news between the Gospel preached in here and the need to make it real in our lives out there, are blessed. This is how church can be. But popular, that's gonna take same work.
In the Gospel story, John the Baptizer gets "handed over" to the powers of the day because he dared to hold evil men accountable for their corruption. And Jesus doesn't miss a beat. Rather than back down when his cousin John gets "disappeared" by Herod, Jesus goes public. Does Jesus back off in attacking the corruption, injustice, and evil of his day? What do you think? Jesus goes fishing, not for a couple of perch, but for his first seminary class. It's time to organize. It's time to stand against the cozy relationship between the polite church and the powers. It's time for "What 'church' can be."
And with his first group of students in tow, Matthew reports the crowds followed Jesus everywhere. The people were desperate for a savior, but the one they were expecting would do everything for them and fill their bellies with bread. Jesus sensing their anxiety and expectation leads his students and the multitude up a hillside to a quiet place for their first lesson. The setting already tells us what church can and must become under this new reign of God. In the Temple church there were sectioned off areas, courts, where entry was based on status and gender and a myriad of other rules and customs. There were lots of barriers. But when Jesus sits down with everyone around him, there aren't any barriers. No obstacles. The students sat closest to the Master, but the rest of the people were right up there in the next row. And this is how church can be. Jesus proclaims the Good News without opening his mouth. When it's clear by looking around that each person has value, each story important, the Gospel is preached. It's "What 'church' can truly be."
The Beatitudes, the sermon Jesus preaches; it's not a new set of commandments. It's about "how to be." What's inside informing what comes out. This Church isn't simply about a new set of rituals or traditions, but a new attitude. I love the paraphrase of Scripture written by Eugene Peterson called "The Message." Peterson knows the ancient words of the Gospel so well he can offer truth for today without having to translate every single word. Peterson wants our modern ears to concentrate on the message, not just the words. And what a powerful message it is.
(Read "The Message" MATT. 5:3-10) I believe our two faith communities have been brought together because we're ready to hear this revolutionary news and live it side by side. Jesus tells us, "...count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me...the truth is too close for comfort and they're uncomfortable." Why is it always our fault - we who hear Good News - when someone in church gets uncomfortable because the Gospel is preached? "Beware" Jesus tells us. "If you dare live my Word don't expect applause from the polite and comfortable church." Both our faith communities know the sting of rejection and loss when we fuss and fight over a Gospel that includes everyone, no matter who they are or where they are on their life's journey. Pastor Pat and I both know the loneliness that comes with such a ministry. As popular churches grow around us it's normal to wonder if our lack of popularity means we've somehow messed up. When the people of Jesus' time begin following him they had expectations too. Jesus' first act was to make them uncomfortable. "No," he tells then. "I am not going to be that kind of Messiah. I bring Good News to everyone left out and left behind. And you the comfortable aren't gonna be happy. Prepare for a bumpy ride as your own expectations get challenged. You can be glad when this happens," he says, "give a cheer, even! ...you and others may not like it, (but) I do! And all heaven applauds."
For Lake Edge UCC and Zion Faith Community blessed are we. Because we're "What 'church' can and must be."
Yesterday morning I sat in a coffee shop waiting to join my sisters at the Women's March on Madison, and I was thinking about fishing. Well, not so much about fishing as fishermen, and not just any fisherman, but those first "fisher guys" called for job retraining by Jesus.
And so I was thinking, Donald John Trump gets inaugurated the 45th U.S. President, and Matthew's Gospel has Jesus inaugurated (installed, like we do ministers) into his public ministry. The irony does not escape. While Donald John Trump's call to serve is a joyless one. Jesus' call is extravagant in its love and generosity. Donald John Trump says, "Fear me." Jesus says, "Follow me." The Madison March, what I hope to be the first of many non-violent public demonstrations, is a demand from "we the people" for our government to represent all of us, and not just the moneyed ones.
Donald John Trump took his oath under God and promptly assumed the bully pulpit, literally as a bully. His previous claims to be Christian proven false by his ignorance of Jesus' great commandment to love. Jesus takes his oath when John the Baptizer's arrested; beginning a three year long protest march of his own to proclaim a new government by, of, and for God. It's a tale of two inaugurations: One of human imbued hate and the other of divinely inspired love.
A closer look at these two men tells us a lot. Donald John Trump, a son of wealth and privilege, and a man who made and lost more cash than all of us combined - and then some. He opens his mouth and the most vile, hateful, and factless opinion rolls out. His call to the highest public office in the land is all about his personal brand. Jesus, on the other hand, comes to public service as the ultimate calling; service to others, not just himself. Actually Jesus steps up not because his cousin John's "arrested," but because John's "handed over." That's really the phrase used by the oldest translations of the Gospel to describe what happened and what calls Jesus to step forward. John's handed over to evil, greedy men; much like Jesus will be handed over by Judas Iscariot later on. In fact, the Gospel uses the same word in both places. This is important, because in the world of men and women we must be on guard against the worst behaviors and motives of our own people. Once our people get anxious and uncomfortable with something or someone, it's only a short distance from there to the likes Donald John Trump.
Jesus' calling stands in stark contrast to human history. He moves into public service with no delusions of grandeur. He represents the greater good. Like all movements for justice, Jesus steps forward when his forerunner is "disappeared." Jesus stands firm in spite of, or maybe because of, the threats of violence and intimidation by the opposition; both by those who follow him and those who do not. No matter how much the world hems him in and attempts to suffocate and co-opt his message, Jesus doesn't back down. Holy love's that powerful.
I woke up Saturday morning and for the first time since November, I felt despair. I was tempted to give up all hope. The propaganda from the worst of us can affect us that way. It's then I remember, Jesus' first act after taking up his mission isn't to campaign to be emperor. His first act is to organize. "Follow me," he says to the fisherman. "Leave your nets and mundane lives and I'll show you a new way. Let go of your toil and strain and come follow me into a higher burden - a holy burden. Be fishermen no more. Be the church!"
When faced with very steep odds, Jesus doesn't quit. He organizes. He calls trainees to the first seminary. He prepares them to lead a new movement for love, justice and inclusion. We're their decedents. While Donald John Trump angrily offers a bleak picture of the state of the union here and abroad, Jesus by contrast calmly strolls along a seashore and invites everyday people to inaugurate a new meaning to public witness and to do it together.
(point to Friday night slide) And those trainees in our time who've heard the call once more, came together on Friday evening to do the only thing a follower of this Jesus can do - organize. We came together to reach out, first to each other, and then to children and families in our neighborhood school. The joy and love was real. Good News was everywhere. Remember, to be a part of Jesus' Gospel we must consent. We must hear God and offer our unqualified "Yes" in response. The Donald John Trump's of this world want only our obedience; not our consent. They won't wait for us to consider our answer. They'll cajole, lie, and use force if needed, in order to get their way.
For the final word on our inaugural Gospel journey, I've got to give credit to Douglas R. A. Hare. Being fishers of people, he tells us, is a "summons to evangelism," which means speaking and acting as good news wherever we go. But "...for evangelism to be real it must be non-manipulative." Unlike the governance of the likes of Donald John Trump, "People of faith can't be coerced into the Kingdom (of God). Our task" as followers of the one called to organize in love "is to share a faith that's exciting enough to be contagious." (Point to the slide again) Like that!
It's a tale of two inaugurations. Which one will be ours?
Amy and I are into a new TV show called Travelers. Travelers are people from a future where humans have all but destroyed themselves. In order to repair the future, "travelers" enter our time and assume the bodies of key people in the present at the moment they're supposed to die. The travelers then continue the lives of those they replace while going about their ordained mission. Travelers must take orders from an unnamed person known only as "The Director." But as they adjust to their new lives travelers begin to get their own ideas and have doubts and fears about their Director and mission. Since The Director never fills them in completely on the plan, many are tempted to turn away. To help stay on the right path travelers follow a set of mission rules. Their only job is to trust The Director and each other, wait for instructions, and follow. None of this works without the consent of the travelers.
Does this basic plot sound familiar? Anyone? How about the Way of Jesus. As followers of our "Director Christ" we're reborn into a new life. We continue the daily demands of living, while going about our baptismal mission in order to create a better future. To stay focused on our mission we must be disciplined or disciples (from the same root word). We never get the entire story from our Director either, only pieces as we go. We too have rules to follow called Commandments. Our Director even simplified our rules to just two: Love your Director with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and Love everyone as you love yourselves. While on our mission, we too are tempted with the trappings of our human condition. We too have been inserted into lives we must live. Sometimes those lives seem overwhelmingly difficult. Those demands can make our mission from the Director Christ seem useless. Our own fears and worries can cause us to "go rogue" and forget our mission entirely. Every day we must freely consent to follow the Director of our life along with others.
In Matthew's story of baptism; the line - "Then John consented" is what got me thinking. Every key moment of calling in the Gospels revolves around consent. John must consent. Mary, Joseph, the Disciples all must consent. Consent or control; which one best describes our relationship with God and God's church? For the travelers on the TV show, everything breaks down the minute they stop actively choosing the relationship with each other and with their Director. Jesus shows us the way through his consent; his voluntary "Yes" to what God requires in every moment of every day. And the moment of consent begins with water.
John was sent to preach the kind of change needed to turn around this corrupt and self-serving world. It was change from the inside out. No one can idly approach the baptismal moment lightly. Although many do. Once we consents to baptism we've got to be disciplined and focused on the Director for the rest of their lives. The waters, although an important symbol, can do nothing apart from the consent of the baptized. If we don't stay focused on our Director, we get ideas and the rest is predictable.
In the show each traveler assumed both the name and life of their human host. They also had their true name and identity as a traveler. Jesus enters the waters of John's baptism as Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph. He steps out of the waters and God names him "Beloved." The true name of everyone who consents to the waters of baptism is Beloved. As Beloved ones we join our Director Christ in a mission to renew the world around us along with the team members we're sent to join as church. We can never take a single moment of our lives together for granted. We must be on guard so our fears and personal beliefs don't take over our thinking and turn us away from our mission.
Witness is yet other key component of our lives as travelers under the Director Christ. Matthew's story of Jesus baptism is different from the other Gospels because the identity of Jesus is made known to everyone. (Mention Scripture) This public witness validates John's mission, and challenges the baptized to consent and follow Jesus, not just through waters, but throughout the rest of their days.
On the TV show several travelers break ranks. They no longer trust their Director and chart their own way apart from the community of other travelers. They offer all kinds of very human excuses for their lack of faith in the way of their Director. As this church of the baptized continues to chart an unsteady but clear path forward, I'm deeply disturbed as some of our fellow travelers insist on leaving our ranks simply because they're uncomfortable with the mission we've been given by our Director. "But Pastor," they say, "I'm uncomfortable with the direction we're going as a church." Well, I'm uncomfortable too but you don't see me leaving. God wants our consent, our willingness to voluntarily accept the discipline of a traveler in the faith and trust in the direction we're given along the way.
But don't we have the right to question leadership, our the pastor, or even each other? Of course we do. Unfortunately, few travelers who've left our church have taken the time to publicly question anything, publicly ask anything of anyone in leadership, and be challenged by what God or others feel. With rare exceptions, the people who've left Lake Edge are unwilling to speak their truth in love. Baptism's a commitment to a lifetime of work in community with other believers, yet some just awkwardly slip out the door without a moment's thought for their accountability to the Director Christ or their baptism.
We must learn from this Gospel lesson. Jesus didn't need baptism. He was already ordained for his mission. We needed baptism then and we need it now. In Jesus we can have a name far greater than the one our mothers and fathers gave us when we entered this world. We can have a name alongside the one above all names. But these waters of initiation must be seen as something more than a casual ritual or a one-time initiation we can take or leave whenever we feel like it. Our Gospel story is all about consent; the willingness for the person to walk into the waters and confirm in their lives the mission of the Director of their days. We who come through these waters aren't finished with our mission. We're travelers whose mission together has only begun.
Mary agreed to carry God into the world of men. Is this all Mary should be credited with in understanding God with us? Was all womankind's role in bearing God simply about the 9 months and that final labor and birth?
I was reading chapter 10 in John Dorhauer's book "Beyond Resistance" this week. (Say something about this "all church" read here) Dorhauer speaks of an encounter with a young mother who had been crushed by the "mighty fortress" that is our church. She literally had a break down on her way from avid church-goer to what's now categorized as a "religious none." This young woman in the face of the worst behaviors of church people in our day, still remained a seeker, still nurturing a calling to explore the deeper nature of the holy in her life. Over time she wondered if there were others who felt like she did. She began to talk to friends and acquaintances, and their friends and acquaintances. Soon some 40 people were meeting regularly in her home to explore how God could be experienced without the - and please forgive my bluntness - without the burden of wrote prayers, set responses, stale Bible talk, standard hymns, and condescending clergy.
Tired of having been told at an early age she must "color between the lines," whether at Kindergarten or at home or in church or simply as a woman she decided it was time to explore how she felt and what those feelings had to say to her about the nature of God. Now, I already know the hardest part about opening our minds and hearts to the ideas presented by our General Minister and President for many of us gets stuck on the idea that worship can be something other than wrote, structured, and repetitive. Many of us church folk like the comfort of the structure of Sunday worship. There's a sense that in a world that gets further and further out of control we can count on the refuge of the sanctuary every Sunday. I understand.
Mary provides so many layers to the emergent story of the church that no single sermon could do them all justice. But regarding the duel church identities of worship and acting out of that worship, Mary was the first to declare "Yes" when God asked her to color outside the lines.
The life of woman in Gospel times was pretty lousy. It was a man's world, and in religion doubly so. If men could've figured out a way to conceive and give birth, I've no doubt women would've been replaced altogether. So here's this teenage girl from a nobody family, unwed and without much in the way of prospects beyond getting married to some older guy, tending his house, and having his babies. She's chosen by her God to be the vessel to birth a new way to bring color to this drab and dreary world. It had to be a woman. Yes, women were the only ones who can give birth, so there's that. But more, Mary herself would later be seen by some as a "bad girl of the Bible." "Bad" because she's a nobody in her world, defying both gender and social norms. God impregnates her? "Sure, he did," say the leaders of men. From this unwanted and unworthy person comes the perfect "delivery girl" for the Holy Light to burst onto the scene. After centuries of attempts to "teach" men to recognize another authority over life and living besides whichever one of them was in charge, God decided what was needed was to come down here and start offering private and group lessons.
Mary definitely defied all convention. She also risked a lot in the process. She'd have a target on her from the moment King Herod caught wind of the child she carried. Her husband would have every right to kick her to the curb (if there were any curbs back then) and she'd be the worse off of people - destitute, homeless, female, unwed, and a mother. Yet, her song of praise we read today doesn't sound at all like the words of a woman burdened by her situation. In her "God is magnified." She "rejoices in a God who rescues her" along with all people. She feels "favored" and not cursed by her circumstances. It is the "Mighty One who has done great things" for her in giving her the honor of carrying this child into such an unjust and inhospitable world for women, let alone into poverty. Unlike the greedy and self-possessed world ruled by men who lift up their own greatness over that of the God whom they claim to honor, Mary doesn't regard herself as important. Her name isn't lifted up, but God's. "Holy is God's name," she proclaims. Then she catalogs all the things such a God has already done and will do again: Mercy, Strength, Standing for the Little Ones and scattering the big shots, Feeding the hungry and pushing out the rich, and most important, this Holy One's word is worth something. Our God has integrity and stands on what's promised.
Mary would take her umbilical crayon and draw an image so radical that her name would never be forgotten. Here's the hardest teaching for us to embrace today. Church as we know it once more is in need of a radical makeover. Do we have faith in God's promises; the integrity of the Holy to deliver a new day and a new way? Or will we stubbornly stand firm in our insistence to be church in only the way we see fit? Will we open our minds and hearts to people of all stations in life who seek a new way to experience God in community? Or will we turn away with a million and one reasons to disagree?
Church, I'm not asking you to do anything in particular. But I am asking you to be God bearers in our moment in time. To hear God calling us as vessels of Good News today and to have the courage to say "Yes."
"My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my savior." I don't care how many good deeds we do or how many dollars we put out there in charitable pursuits or how much our worship is reverent and moving for us, if we can't declare our relationship to God in as glowing and exuberant terms as does Mary, then something's wrong.
God's calling us Lake Edge, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you...Do not be afraid...You'll take your crayon and conceive a new way of church for a new day, and it will be overshadowed by the Holy and the offspring of this moment will be called the child of the most high God."
Can you color such a picture with your God? Are you ready to say, "Yes?" Pick up your crayons and let's get to work.
What is the work of the church? There was a time when works of charity - like helping needy people with money, food, and clothing; missions of assistance to places near and far; going out on occasion to work on low-income housing or volunteer at food pantries - was what it meant to do the work of the church. And "church," it wasn't a movement but a mighty brick and mortar refuge, where we hired a minister and staff, raised money and built and maintained a physical space where people came on Sunday's to sing, pray, study, give money, and share a little fellowship. Add to this a few special seasonal events like yesterday's cookie sale, a youth trip or retreat, a celebration or two, and this was the church.
Of course those things have value. But time passes and the demands on people's lives evolve, and as church avoided the daily needs of its people (the polis; where we get the root of the word political) church also became less and less vital to people's lives. There was a time where giving thanks to God for our good fortune, and sharing a bit of our abundance with less the fortunate was enough as the work of the church. But as American greed has increased and the buffer of middle-class living has become threatened, the definition of "needy" is no longer somewhere out there, but all around us right here. The church is no longer made up of fortunate people of abundance. The church today are needy people struggling to keep a job, a roof over their own heads, and food on their own tables. Yet, church still shy's away from standing in the muck with the people.
Jesus asks us, "Are you being my church today? How does your church square with my Good News?" And if the Good News isn't being proclaimed by what we do and say, how will we challenge ourselves to ensure it does?
John the Baptizer courageously proclaimed the coming day of God on earth. "Prepare," he cried out. But John doesn't just speak about the past, he's talking to us right now. John critically examined the church in his time and found it woefully out of step with the Holy. The leaders of the people had made deals with foreign oppressors and gotten too big for its britches. The wealth of the state was concentrated in Jerusalem in the palace and at the "big steeple" church called The Temple. In order to matter, you needed to travel to the city and pay homage to the power of men. Over time as the state and church got bigger and stronger, rather than share with everyone, the elites kept their wealth for themselves and their own class.
John's was a ministry to the margins not the powerful. Rather than pay homage to Jerusalem, he dared call people to the wilderness. In the ancient world the Holy wasn't found where the power of men rests, but in the wild places where God's Genesis creates a new thing from nothing. Unlike the worldly, John was wild and unpredictable. His focus wasn't on his needs but on repentance. Repentance from the disregard for the needs of others and healing from the social-sins of men. John proclaimed Isaiah's promise, "The ideal leader was coming. Get ready!" Think of John as the Bernie Sanders of his generation. He preached the need to reverse the greed and enrichment of the few and share the wealth of the nation with the many. John made ordinary people feel like they mattered. His message called forth a return to the faith. He broke with the Temple cult and puppet rulers declaring God's stand for the common good.
At first the fat cats in Jerusalem ignored him, calling him "a dreamer" and "crazy." Yet, God proves over and over what power there was in "crazy dreamers." As the people went to John in larger and larger numbers, the powers got nervous. When the elites of the Temple church themselves traveled to see what this wild man was all about, John wasn't a polite host. "You collection of snakes!" he yelled. "Who warned you to flee from your lairs and seek refuge in God's family? If you really want to join in, show a little repentance and humility. And don't tell me you're the official clergy and are owed respect. God can duplicate guys like you from these rocks!"
In truth there really isn't a standard definition for the work of the church. The Christmas story witnesses to a God who requires our attention and readiness for whatever's needed in every time and place. And we'll know it's Good News if it calls for generous hearts and open minds. Above all, as Isaiah tells us, true leadership finds its source from a "spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, a spirit of knowledge and... delight in the awesome presence of God with us."
John the Baptizer stood his ground against excess and wanton disregard for human life. Isaiah called out the leadership of his day, secular and religious, and said, "You'll be punished for your sins, ...and you'll learn the hard way to lead as God intended...You shall judge not by your human senses and human thinking, but with a sense of God thinking. You shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the little ones of the earth."
As in the time of John and Isaiah, and today with the likes of Donald John Trump, touching the lives of people, ensuring kindness, and caring compassion is almost unpatriotic. We're taught it's a dog-eat-dog world, and the big dog's always wins. Yet prophets still cry from our wilderness. Lake Edge, we're on the edge of a new era in the work of the church. Today, our work must counter the isolation and fear around us, building the largest possible community of connection. In the face of distrust, become allies and friends to school children and parents, neighbors to every shade and ethnicity. Welcome the stranger, and the poor, and the lowly ones. Share our lives and our resources to the fullest extent possible, so all may know a mighty God lives here. The more lives we touch, the more those lives will touch us, and "there will be no hate or fear anywhere" on this holy hill on Buckeye Road.
The work of the church is the work of building up. The work of the church is to reach beyond the comfortable, normal, and easy, and to make miracles happen. Our national church believes, and I do too, that perhaps we were created for just a moment as this.
In January you'll be asked to come together with our church and neighborhood partners in a ministry of compassion and care to public school children. It's the work of the church and each of us must do our part.
What's the word Advent really mean to us? Check the definition and the word that stands out for me: "Arrival." Pastors love to ask which arrival's more anticipated Santa Claus or Jesus. And then it's consumer Christmas versus the birth of the Prince of Peace, like that's the only question that really matters. With or without a preacher-led guilt trip we're still waiting for an arrival.
But what or who do we wait for? Are we waiting for a miracle to change us and everything around us? Is our "waiting for" a passive activity; yet another spectator event where we just sit in the audience helpless to do anything to influence the outcome? As I was growing up my experience of church was just that... passive. Over the years, whether Catholic or Protestant, it seemed more a tradition of helplessness. The more devout I was the more the world seemed to get worse. And the layers of bureaucracy? It was easy to conclude my participation didn't matter much at all. Still somehow I knew I needed to stick with it. As I grew in knowledge and experience, I began to question things. As the world got more complicated parking in a pew, singing songs and saying prayers, dropping my weekly offering in the plate, and sharing communion with what felt like strangers wasn't near good enough.
In his book "Beyond Resistance" John Dorhauer leads us on a journey through a faith tradition that for many of us has lost much of its meaning. In chapter 8, he discusses a very un-church like faith experience called ReImagine. Not that any one example's the cure all for every church at the crossroads. Still, the questions I asked back in the 1980's are no longer a minority point of view. People who're waiting the arrival of something a whole lot more meaningful than Santa Claus or their pay check are no longer willing to sit around and wait for church to figure it out for them. Men and women are taking the initiative and creating authentic expressions of Good News. And they're doing it in very unchurchlike ways. Still, Dorhauer says movements like ReImagine are Good News for the church, "ReImagine is faith-based," he tells us, "...built to explore how the details of Jesus' life are made (real in the life of) the whole person." Jesus came to show us the way to the Creator God. After a long time of malaise, there's a new movement to renew a living God for this age. These men and women seek authentic answers and actions to fulfill the deeper needs for meaning in theirs and their children's lives. And their gonna find the answers with or without the church.
But it's not all bad news for Lake Edge. Look at what we've done already to redirect our steps towards a "ReImagine" kind of generation. We've reached beyond our doors with as much hands-on work for the common good as we do charitable work. We've established an economic justice covenant and declared a new mission to stand with our neighborhood and public school children in need. As a new administration in Washington is poised to renew attacks on public education, we're suddenly in the vanguard to support equitable public education for all children. In building relationships of this kind we declare our Jesus not only has arrived, he's relevant, and ready to join diverse people for the common good. But our work doesn't just extend outside these walls. Look! (point to the new children's area widening welcome in our sanctuary) With our latest change in our worship space, we carry through on the vision that "widening our welcome" in worship is also Good News to everyone longing for a place where both they and their children matter.
But not just for others, this "arrival's" exactly what we've been waiting for. This past week a movie opened in theatre's with this same title. "Arrival" is a thinking person's science-fiction film. It's more about vision, seeking, and time than it is about aliens. Without ruining it for those who haven't see it, there's a central tension in what's anticipated to be "arriving" that all of us should bear in mind in our real world. While the question: "What do the aliens want?" is asked over and over, and the answer sought desperately by the humans, the real story's our inherent distrust and fear of each other. In the end the greatest threat to human kind aren't the mysterious visitors, but the other earthlings. The aliens presence simply confirm our hostility to each other.
It's our season of arrival. Jesus tells us in Matthew that we can't phone in our faith. And faith isn't just about our church or our group, as if no other group or expression matter. "...about the day (of God's return) no one knows...not even Me (says Jesus)." One my seminary professors says Bible stories like this that go all "end of the world" get everyone distracted. So many of us are arrogant enough to think we can figure out when Jesus will return, when Jesus himself says right here even he doesn't know. But that doesn't stop us from fussing and agitating our lives, as if the act of fretting alone will somehow change things. Jesus is speaking constantly, yet so many can't hear because one thing or another distracts them from listening and putting their energies to work where it can do the most good.
Church, join with me. First, get out of our own way. Our distrust and fear are far greater enemies than any other person, place, or thing. Jesus arrived and will keep arriving. What effort will we make to meet him?
"Arrival" is the key to this season before Christmas. How will we seek the One who once again demands our attention? When he calls will be see him or will we get distracted by everything else in our way? In the Gospel all Jesus examples point toward the need to prepare. He readily admits there are things in this world we should prepare for. But we should also keep an equally careful eye on preparing for the world to come. In the movie "Arrival" the aliens make their appearance in a spectacular way but then things slow down. This is when humans are pressed to commit and patiently figure things out. But time can be an enemy. Those in it for the long haul get rewarded. Jesus too appeared in a spectacular moment and then for two-thousand plus years we've slid back into the business of living. What matters isn't so much the arrival, but the effort needed to understand its meaning and live it.
Does Jesus' arrival matter to us? This next year will test us in ways we haven't been tested before. We'll need every one of us patiently working together to "ReImagine" a living God with us. Christ has arrived. It's time to join with him.
I was accosted after a communion service one Sunday. "You didn't say anything about the importance of the blood of Jesus!" This lady wasn't asking, she was telling. As pastor, I get "told to" a lot. "Don't you think Jesus died for our sins? Don't you believe his blood was shed for the forgiveness of those sins?" She had definite ideas about Jesus.
This Sunday we call the "Reign of Christ" is all about the leadership of Jesus over all our big ideas. But as this example illustrates "my Jesus" and "your Jesus" can be entirely different people. This election proved that. Which is fine as long as we respect where each of us happens to be, and then learn to live as one. As we renew our sense of ministry as an Economic Justice Covenant Church, the lines of demarcation between who Jesus is and what it means to follow him are getting sharper. So to understand this "Reign of Christ" in our lives who this Jesus is matters. First, How in the world are we expected to navigate the complex and confusing terrain of faith and not study the Gospels? Yet, in any given week, maybe 12 of you grapple with the core principles of our tradition and deepen your understanding of Jesus, and each other, through community Bible study. As we prepare to invite Frank Allis Elementary School, and this entire neighborhood into our lives, we'll need the Good News to make sure Jesus is always before us, guiding us.
Just as important, we need to know the belief and practice of this "United Church of Christ." In the UCC founding Constitutions we declare "Jesus Christ" as the "sole head" of our church. He's the boss and we dedicate ourselves to study his word and follow his lead; not by ourselves or just with the people who think like we do, but in "unity" with everyone. Our motto comes from the Gospel of John, "That they all may be one." But we don't stop there. We expand the idea of this Reign of Christ in our lives by acknowledging the word of God deepened together through the guiding presence called the Holy Spirit. This creative union, and not our personal opinions or comfort zones, is what inspires everything we do in the world. We act as one under the direction of a God who's with us every day. No easy thing in this demanding world. But here's where things get really sticky. We declare in our founding document as a United Church under Christ a sacred responsibility in every generation (not just in one time, but in every time) to shape our faith in how we worship, how we think and act, and especially in the honesty of how we share that thinking and acting together.
We don't just come together for worship on Sunday or in a few ministry projects and call it a day. Our forefather's and mother's declared a commitment to know who Jesus is and reinvent our expression of this Jesus in every moment of our lives together. When I hear the "complaint train" coming at me from people with no intention of making an effort and are just wagging their tongue at me to fix whatever's bugging them, it hurts in ways few realize.
We can't say we follow Jesus yet refuse to be challenged with the deeper meaning of the faith we profess. In our Bible Jesus says, "Follow me." He knows even on our best days many miss the mark, not out of a lack of desire, but because there's too much of our will at play and not enough of God's. And doing stuff? Well, even our best work can have little value unless we know who we're doing it for and why? We can't claim Jesus Christ as the sole head of our lives and not take the time to understand what this Jesus calls us to become.
Like the person who thought her Jesus was the only one, I'm constantly bombarded with people who refuse to believe there's a better idea than their own. If we're to dedicate ourselves to having Jesus lead us, we better take the time to understand what he's saying, what he expects, and how others feel about it.
Kate Mathews Huey looks at Paul's Letter to the Colossians and sees a church struggling. For the people in Colossae, as with us, she says "Christ (can't be) one more among many competing approaches to life...Christ is at the very center of the meaning of everything for all people. The question of Jesus Christ isn't of secondary but primary importance...not just something we think about on Sunday morning or when someone asks us what church we go to, but a question that shapes our whole life."
Most of us church people have definite ideas about the God we follow. But rarely do we share those ideas because we're afraid, "What if someone doesn't agree with us?" Fair enough. But, if we don't allow our ideas to be challenged and be challenging in a healthy way, we can't continue to learn and grow. And we aren't living as a "united" church.
As a United Church of Christ we believe Jesus is our way. We also respect the many other paths seekers choose to follow. We believe there are many ways up the mountain to the one God. This idea alone ruffles more than a few feathers among the faithful. Yet, to be dedicated to unity we've got to learn how to get along within a group of very diverse thinkers. These days of Donald Trump challenge us in ways we've yet to understand. It's easy to hide behind our "gated" politics. But, listening only to people who think like we do risks the unity our church stands for, and denies the way of Jesus in our lives.
The God who gives us the church also gave our us the ability to think. Being united doesn't mean all of us have to believe everything exactly the same. "United" means we dedicate ourselves to hang together and struggle honestly, continuing forward under the banner of the Christ.
As we read along in his book, John Dorhauer says no matter what's going on around us in this wonderful and challenging movement called "church," we must move beyond our resistance and engage with the ideas and people around us. We must be willing to follow the Christ seeking unity especially when it comes in conflict with our own thinking. Not unity for unities sake, but an honest dialog which seeks above all else the common good. The Christ who reigns over us brought Good News that scared even his most ardent followers. Worse, it caused the most anxious and worldly to do more than disagree, but persecute and kill him.
How far are we willing to go to live united under such a Jesus today? The answer lies just beyond our resistance.
The first church I served was surrounded by cornfields. It's biggest employers were a high school and two prisons. Most of the prison population was Black or Hispanic. The village was mostly white folks. Outside the prison, there were hardly any good paying jobs. A history of distrust and fear seeped into the community. Before I arrived little had been done to unite neighbor to neighbor. In contrast, my home church in Buffalo focused on their neighborhood, the struggles of neighbors, and on what Jesus had to say to all of them every day. It was an Open & Affirming church, not because it was trendy, but in response to the need. They started an after-school arts program, a peace camp, and organized neighbors to stand up to greedy landlords tearing their community apart. Today, my former home church is a multi-cultural ministry with a Spanish speaking, openly gay pastor. God's alive, directing them to respond to what's around them.
In contrast, the good people of my first pulpit had become a religious social club. Ask a member what their church did, and you'd hear all about the election day roast pork and sauerkraut supper. Which would be fine if that supper actually "fed" a defined ministry, and not just a building and a budget. But St. Paul's was an old line rural church, and this Pork'n Kraut church had lost the "way" of Jesus Christ and with it why the church still mattered.
In chapter five of his book, "Beyond Resistance," John Dorhauer talks about authority; what it means to be the church and how and why these things still matter. Dorhauer believes a clear sense of ministry is a center-piece to define a healthy and vital church. Authority in a ministry oriented church is far different than the way power's handled in the general society. First, the Church as Jesus envisioned it isn't responsible to its membership base. You heard me. Church is responsible not to its membership, but to its mission and ministry. Dorhauer says without a clear sense of ministry, Church stops being church. Without constant renewal of the "why" of our church, we cease to be relevant in people's lives. We cease to be the Church.
Jesus authorizes; calls a flawed group of powerless people together to find a new sense of collective power. It's the same today. In the Gospel Jesus is followed from village to village by a ragtag group of nobodies; the rabble of the ancient world. They draw close because they're powerless, and in Jesus they see a chance to grab some power. Jesus knows this. He also knows that any congregation can get so wrapped up in their internal power struggles, they forget their reason for being. Like the prophets before him, Jesus attacked a system who's authority is used to blame, shame, disregard, and exploit. Jesus' "church," his social order, doesn't just turn the tables. It calls for a completely new way. No longer will the well-born and well-to-do rule over the poor and weak. Not just a new pecking order; Jesus calls for the end of all pecking orders. He authorizes his church around an equal distribution of authority and power. Jesus calls men and women to lead as he himself led; meeting the most pressing needs of their day and to do so with everyone working together for the betterment of all.
For Dorhauer church authority isn't about role reversals; trading "their' power for "our" power. To be the church means embracing radical change. He says, "Jesus changed a church whose upper management, was so (in love with) its (own) power and the prestige it afforded them, (they had) lost sight of its core (reason for being)." When Jesus stops in front of the tax-man Zacchaeus he's saying this church/his church isn't simply about putting the poor in charge. When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, "Come down (from your tree). I mean to stay at your house this day" he's telling his followers, "Just because you've been kicked around (by the likes of this guy) doesn't mean it's your turn to do the kicking."
Zacchaeus recognizes the change. After all, as a Roman tax collector he not only took money the average person couldn't afford, he also took extra for himself. Zacchaeus makes an oath (a sacred promise); which in those days meant something. He swears to no longer cheat anyone. More than that, he'll pay back extra to anyone he's cheated. Such transformation's at the heart of Jesus' church. Jesus' doesn't just empower one group, he lifts up everyone; even enemies. Dorhauer tells us, God authorizes church calling and empowering pastors and everyday members not to get so lost in their buildings and budgets they lose the call to engage in mission that transforms everyone it touches.
Which brings us to what sets Church apart from charitable clubs, and causes...faith; a belief in something greater than ourselves and our own abilities.
In the Hebrew Testament at first Habakkuk sounds like he's whining about all the unaddressed injustice and terror. But a closer look tells a different story. After laying out his complaint Habakkuk says, "I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will say to me and what I will be instructed to do." Habakkuk isn't just another in a long line of bellyachers who too often populate the church. Habakkuk knows God. He's experienced the Holy in his life. As a result, he can speak openly and cry out to God in his distress. Such a complaint isn't faithless. Far from it. On our bad days we can all lose a sense of God with us. But because we've known God on our best days, we the faithful can remain steadfast, like Habakkuk, awaiting a word from the Holy One. Habakkuk knows God and believes the intervention of the Holy will come if he's faithful. To make sure he doesn't miss a word of consolation, Habakkuk takes his place on the highest point of the city. Like a sentinel, he stands at his post ready to receive orders no matter how long it takes. Habakkuk doesn't demand, he prays; he speaks passionately and personally because he trusts God will respond and renew his spirit, as well as the spirits of all the people.
Dorhauer's message mirrors our Scripture. No longer do we scrape and scratch so our little group can get "power over" some real or perceived other. If we accept God's authority in our lives we'll learn how to share "power with." Young men and women today who claim a spiritual center, but reject church as they've experienced it still stand watch for authentic community. Today's seekers search for what the ancient church wanted, a generation sharing the load and building a just and equitable society. This is the authority Jesus came to call "the church." Not power over, but power with.
There's a big vote happening...no, not Tuesday. But it's a ballot that's just as important. This one's a vote of confidence in the ministry and meaning of this church. It's called "a pledge card" and election day isn't coming, it's right now. For political candidates we measure their effectiveness on their ability to meet our personal needs. When we vote on a church we're taught not to be so selfish. Still, the standard measure of church success has been how many active members we have and how much money we bring in. Not that these are unimportant. But, today we've reached the point where these measures alone aren't nearly enough to gauge the health of a church. In fact, churches with decades of loses in members and money can still be quite healthy. Meanwhile, churches with larger member rolls and full sanctuaries can be poised for failure.
And right here is where we pick up our study in chapter six of John Dorhauer's book, "Beyond Resistance." Lake Edge United Church of Christ once boasted some 1000 members and some 400 or more givers. Today, our actual member base is some 225 with only about 200 actually supporting the church with their money and active presence. Dorhauer never suggests money and membership are unimportant, but the church today's facing a greater challenge to its existence than ever before, and dollars and fannies in seats aren't enough to gauge whether we're going in the right direction.
At this time of year we talk about "saints." For some, the saints are those members who've passed. But there's a truer definition of "saint" as it was understood in the early church. At the time of Peter and Paul "the saints" were those men (and women) who every day dedicated their lives to the Way of Jesus. In short, anyone who anchored the early church and followed Christ's teachings we're the saints.
In today's Gospel, Jesus lays out the exact qualities of God's saints: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of (me). Rejoice and be glad...your reward is great in heaven."
We've heard this one, but what's the real message here? First, we've got to define terms. At the time of Jesus the economically and socially poor where the vast majority of people. They knew their survival depended on an intricate connection to others. There was no time for being proud or independent. For the poorest, disconnection meant certain death. Jesus says, "Woe to all who are rich" and are isolated within their wealth and disregard for others. For they've already received all the pay they're gonna get. The poor, therefore, receive blessings not by the fact of their poverty, but by virtue of understanding that only in community is there life. What Jesus actually says here is "Blessed are those who connect with and work for the welfare of everyone. They understand what it means to be children of God."
The other "blessings" Jesus shares here follow this pattern. Everything points toward a common unity and shared purpose; the welfare of all people no matter who they are or where they are on their life's journey. Oh, yes, including our enemies. Such are the true expressions of God on earth. But woe to anyone who makes decisions solely based on what's best for them and their clan, or their 401k. For these people have missed the boat and sail instead on their own selfish winds. Everyone who drifts on their own power has received everything they'll ever obtain from this world, and are unfit for the world to come.
Dorhauer, and Jesus as well, would not argue against sheer numbers (whether in dollars or members) as an indicator of church success? They simply argue against such things as the only measures. When a bigger member base and the prestige and cash that go along with become "gods" unto themselves, both Dorhauer and Jesus warn, "Woe to us."
What Jesus is calling for, and Dorhauer is driving at, is a church that isn't distracted with dollars, donors, and Sunday attendees, but focused on how many people they touch with their mission through a life-changing ministry. Dorhauer says in this way a successful church is like McDonald's©. How many people do we serve? We've seen those "golden arches" signs all over town. Each one declares "one million" or more "people served," and the number's constantly updated. Wouldn't it be cool if that was our priority. "Welcome to Lake Edge UCC. This week 500 people were served." Here's where our General Minister and President feels the church has gone off the rails. He says, "I think we've gotten stuck imagining our health and vitality are measured not by lives served or changed, but (strictly) by money donated and members active." Of course, Dorhauer concedes we need members and money to fulfill our ministry and mission. But a singular focus on getting more of both is wrong-headed. Every church says they want a pastor to "grow our membership and our money." Jesus keeps telling us, "Fine, but you can't get either of these things if the Church isn't vital to people's lives."
Today people join the church not because of its size, or the glorious sanctuary and Sunday worship service, or the children's programming, or because we're nice and the coffee's good. People join a church, or more to the point even notice our church at all, not because our pews are filled and our bills are paid or we have a praise band or such. Dorhauer, and he's hardly the only one, believes people notice us and will check us out because of the number of lives we change. "The Church is the Church," says Dorhauer, "...when it inspires people to use their time, talent, and resources to serve the common good. It's the Church when it helps people love themselves, their God, and their neighbor." Every church loves to boast their entire worshipping community are ministers (point to sanctuary "Service Entrance" sign). Then we go off and hire a pastor and staff and expect them to do the work all by themselves. Remember, the "blessings" in the Gospel occur when all of us work together for the common good. The "woes" come when we don't.
Blessed are we who vote with our pledge dollars and our lives to serve others and build community, for that's the Kingdom of God.
As we continue reading and reflecting on the book, "Beyond Resistance" in chapter three UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer speaks not of "exile" for the Church today, but of a "new normal." When the Church universal struggles it's fashionable, and very human, to consider the past. Ok, but let's not stop at the last fifty years, let's go back some four hundred plus years before Lake Edge. In the 16th century the great mystical saint Teresa of Avila sums up this new normal Dorhauer's talking about, "Christ has no body now but mine," she wrote. "He prays in me, works in me, looks through my eyes, speaks through my words, works through my hands, walks with my feet and loves with my heart." Dorhauer explains, "Churches.. are called to believe in resurrection and hope...(but) many leaders in the Church (take) a sort of 'batten down the hatches, ride out the storm, and when things settle down take (just a little) corrective measure' attitude toward downturns in the economy(and with it the church)...but as one friend said to him, (but) 'John, this could be the new normal.'"
The Church of Jesus Christ was never about one single moment or one single expression of church. The catch phrase you hear in all the investment company commercials is just as true for our investment in the Church, "Past success does not guarantee future returns." The Church today must guard against investing our "spiritual capital" mindlessly or fearfully; waiting for a sure thing before we rise up in a world desperate for positive "returns." Dorhauer warns us, "Anticipating future needs and making adjustments (in how we're the Church) is risky business; and failure to get it right the first time can lead to something like: 'Well, we gave it a try. (But that didn't work.) So, back to what we know always worked before.'" Dorhauer cautions against a fear-based spiritual investment strategy, "Adaptability (grieving our loss, perceiving what God has to say in our discomfort and believing God is guiding us through the struggle) is... essential...to healthy and relevant communities of faith. It's never a question of will we change," Dorhauer says, "we most certainly will. It's a question of when, how, and under what circumstances." And remember this: It took hundreds of years to bring about the church as we've known it. It's gonna take a lot more than a few years or a few tries to bring about God's new thing.
A word of encouragement for this "new normal" is exactly what God's speaking to us in our Bible stories today. First, Jeremiah offers a word of hope to a people lost in their own Exile, "...the days are surely coming, says the Lord." The ultimate test of faith comes not when we're riding high on a wave of success (in church or in life). The ultimate test of faith or the lack of it comes if we can commit to the long haul and can see beyond what we might perceive as "a bad investment." Donald Musser digs further into Jeremiah's message and discovers a word for all of us, "The phrase 'the days are surely coming,' implies something will rise above the ordinary and the familiar....(The Bible promises) God's future is one of hope and meaning, brimming with promise." If we can believe and stand firm, and are united, to see it through.
In the Gospel, Margit Ernst-Habib, like Dorhauer, turns us toward the themes of "persistence and resistance." In the story of the "Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge;" she says, "...the Biblical message...speaks about God's persistent, unshakable, everlasting love for us, for all of God's creation." Even when we don't deserve it, "God's love for us is so unshakable, we can trust in this God to bring about justice." But there's a catch. We must overcome our doubt and believe God will answer our prayer. Then there's the next problem...Is that prayer one of relationship with God and each other, or is our prayer simply for what we want? The later, as the first community of exiles discovered, get ignored.
In every Christian church we center our prayer on the words Jesus gave the first believers; the "Lord's Prayer" or "Our Father." But such a prayer only works through "hopeful trusting in God, not in ourselves." "Thy Kingdom Come" is about just that "what God wants, not what we'd be most comfortable receiving."
Ernst-Habib tells it this way, (In this Gospel) "the widow kept coming to the judge, hoping against hope, persistent, determined, and relentless. (The message is we too must) keep praying, hoping against hope, (be) persistent, determined, and relentless" as well.
Which brings us back to St. Teresa. Like her we've got to be persons connected to God in fervent selfless prayer, and also connected to the larger world in active ministry. A persistent God puts up with our shortcomings. We must equal that persistence within ourselves and each other. If we quit when things get difficult; we disrespect both ourselves and the God we claim to follow. It's in the face of this world's resistance that our true faith or lack of it is shown. When our situation hands us a world full of "No," we prove our determination in our willingness to persist until God provides enough "Yes" to overcome it.
"What does the Lord require of you," the Bible asks. For all the times we feel like quitting; in God's answer is found our own..."Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God."
If we truly believe when we pray "God's kingdom come" and we demonstrate our persistence in active waiting, it'll come without fail.
It's the new normal.