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.
On Tuesday at Frank Allis Elementary School I caught a glimpse of the resurrection. God let me peer around the corner for just a moment. What I saw was a promised land of prosperity and new life for not only Lake Edge church, but for this entire neighborhood. In a world full of "NO" I experienced a room full of God's "YES." It was awesome, and the antidote to my own doubt and fear.
In a time of "exile" life can feel pretty unstable. I can understand why some here want to restore the doxology to our 9am service, as well as others who worry about preserving the unique and uplifting music of our 11am service. But in uncertain times church as we've know it can cling so much to worship that we miss the point of what worship is all about.
The Prophet Jeremiah understood. Forcibly removed from everything they knew and counted on; seemingly tossed aside and abandoned by God, the Jewish people are lost and fragile. In a strange land; they no longer feel like they belong. This feeling shouldn't be a big stretch for any of us today. Weeks before one of the most contentious presidential elections any of us can recall, the feeling of being ripped away from anything we've come to count on is all too real. As God's church at Lake Edge continues rebuilding, what's emerging is quite foreign to many. The natural reaction is to lash out against those we blame for our discomfort. In Jeremiah's time the blame went to the Babylonians. The Jewish upper classes were swept away bag and baggage. Worse, God doesn't lift a finger to save them or appear to care about their captivity. When such moments of "exile" occur in any place or time rather than honest reflection on what we may've done or left undone or could've done better, we often settle for assigning blame. Then, we say and do awful things, things completely the opposite of the faith we're trying to preserve.
Since Jeremiah's people blame the Babylonians and since God isn't going to fight for them, they decide to stand up for themselves. Their idea has merit, but their initial response doesn't. Like our moment of "exile" elders stood up and complained, "Let us wage guerrilla warfare and harass and topple these evildoers," becomes a rallying cry. Jeremiah responds with a strong but decidedly minority voice amidst their dis-ease, "Thus says the Lord, (do not blame and shame and avoid this moment where I have sent you, instead settle in and build yourselves up) seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your own."
Last week I quoted John F. Kennedy, and today I repeat this wisdom, "Too many of us prefer the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." Or as Jeremiah would say, "Thus says the Lord, (do not blame and shame and avoid responsibility for your choices, instead settle in and build yourselves up) seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray on its behalf, for in its welfare you'll find your own."
As Jesus was traveling on the border of Galilee and Samaria (a place where Jews and Gentiles mix and things were known to be testy) he was approached by 10 men with serious skin ailments separating them from the rest of society. No self-respecting son of Abraham would dare allow contact with diseased outsiders, let alone risk a public interaction with Samaritans. Jesus does both. He prescribes the ancient remedy for return of social standing, "Go show yourselves to the priest," he tells them. On their way all are healed of their disease. One of them, glimpsing something greater returns to give thanks and seek deeper communion with a healing God. The other nine do not.
What we do on Sunday does indeed matter. When some of us demand special prayers and songs at services I hope it comes from a true desire to ensure worship sustain and prepare us for meaningful outreach and support to our neighborhood and each other. Ah, but are we directed from above or from the evil spirit of these days? The answer is easier than we might think. A few simple questions will tell: Do we allow ourselves to sit with whatever causes us discomfort before we open our mouth? And if we're certain a word needs to be said, do we show respect and care for others or do we simply blurt it out unconcerned with who gets hurt along the way? Do we own our feelings or do we blame others?
Jeremiah tells his exiles what all exiles today need to hear. "Don't self-righteously seek to blame and shame someone else for whatever you feel without a moment's thought for their feelings or your responsibility to treat others with the same loving kindness we all claim as sisters and brothers in faith."
Our UCC General Minister and President, John Dorhauer in chapter two of his book, Beyond Resistance tells us, "The Church was birthed for mission." For those among us uncomfortable with the idea our church might turn its attention outward and become what one member called "a mission club," hear this: Jesus didn't establish His church to be a building; full of classrooms and offices, with a grand sanctuary and a cafeteria. Nor did Jesus ask to be worshiped. Dorhauer reminds us the church, was "birthed for sending. To be in mission," he says, "(means) to be sent." Not about budgets or buildings and bloated infrastructure; "At the heart of what it means to be Church is a sending." As one seminary professors told us, "The Church is a base camp for mission and ministry." In this sense your darn right were a mission club...and Jesus is club president. And as president Jesus believes worship isn't an end onto itself, but a means for getting out into the world to serve and build community. Doxologies and uplifting music are powerful tools to deepen and activate faithful people. But if our church identity is only about one hour each week, or our little social circle or click, then all the special prayers and songs in the world aren't gonna matter one bit.
Jesus said to all his Disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, to send out workers into the field. Go! I am sending you."
The ten former lepers encounter the healing power of a Living God; nine slip back quietly into business as usual. Only one has the presence of mind to turn from the crowd and give thanks to God for a glimpse at a new way of life and then make it happen. I had my own glimpse this past week. Let's all see it together, so we too can be made well.
What do you think of these Bible passages? They're a real downer (buzz-kill), aren't they? After weeks of Jesus laying out the hallmarks of a new relationship between people - inclusion, mutual love and care - all the sudden "Bam!" Jesus appears to put the hammer down. "Don't whine about not having enough faith," he says. "Just a tiny amount of the genuine article is all you need..." and "Once you've got it don't expect a pat on the back for all you do. You've only done what's expected." Some say this message is "Harsh, perplexing and ungrateful." Now, throw in Psalm 137 and its angry and bitter lament...and that's without verse nine's demand God vindicate the exiled Jews by smashing their enemies children's heads against rocks. What's a preacher to do? Who are these ancestors and who is this Jesus? Maybe they're all just having a bad day?
With these passages as backdrop, we begin an exploration of our UCC General Minister and President, John Dorhauer's thinking about where the church has come and where it's going. Dorhauer's book title alone "Beyond Resistance" gives us a big clue to his thinking. Since our beginnings, every 500 years or so, the church of Jesus Christ has faced changes in society forcing changes in what it means to be the church. Today we've reached just such a time. The way church is seen in our society has changed dramatically in the past three or four decades. Church has gone from a vital part of life, to barely a concern for most of the adults who've come of age since just before the turn of this new century. Faith continues to be valued, church however not so much. I sit in a coffee shop to write my sermons in part to gain insight from the conversations going on around me. As I watch and listen to 20 and 30 something's there's so much more "I" or "my group" and less of a sense of a larger relationship. Distrust of authority has been deepened and religion tops the pile of stuff they no longer trust. They're more likely to trust their own and their peers judgment about making good decisions than some church or some mythic godhead. I think Ronald Reagan had the social pulse in 1980 when he asked, "Are you better off than you were 4 years ago." Very much all about what's good for me first. Today with our shortened attention span and social networks it's more like, "Are you better off than you where 4 minutes ago?" Harsh; but perhaps here's a way into these equally harsh Scriptures.
As long as any of us can remember Christ followers have been steeped in resurrection. The Good News of Jesus is that even though beaten within an inch of his life, hung on an instrument of state sponsored terror and killed, He defied the finality of death and was remade; born again in a new image to witness how to live in a new way. Awesome, right! And we all sing and shout, "Hallelujah!" every Easter. Resurrection's taken for granted; that is until God calls us to die. "Hell no!" we say. Resurrection's great for Jesus, and we're happy to claim it as long as we don't have to do it ourselves. Dorhauer says to move "beyond such resistance" and to rise with Christ in this and every new moment.
Luke's Jesus challenges us to embrace a new way to treat each other. We must forgive mistakes and accept our failures no matter how often we mess up. But this teaching is so not how things are done. The apostles are scandalized by this new thing? Pleading to Jesus they cry out, "Increase our faith!" The Message Bible captures Jesus' response beautifully, "There's no increase in faith," Eugene Peterson's Jesus tells us. Anyone with real faith needs but a pinch to handle anything the world throws at them. "You can move mountains with only a tiny seeds worth."
The Psalmist captures this mood all too well. Like us, our Jewish ancestors thought whatever they did was special in the eyes of God. They believed such specialness meant God would always bless them and keep them safe and prosperous no matter what they did. And like us they did a lot of dumb things. But when their stubborn self-righteousness causes God to let their enemies overrun and sweep them away into a foreign land, our ancestors are shocked. "Certainly this was a mistake on God's part," they thought. Not bothering to consider their own behavior as the cause of their exile, they instead sat down in Babylon to cry and moan and blame. Refusing to consider God's "Message" about their selfishness, they double down and insist God renew the old ways. In our time John F. Kennedy spoke to this kind of behavior saying, "Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."
I believe the central message of "Beyond Resistance" very much follows this Psalm and Gospel. As if channeling verse 4 of the Psalm Dorhauer in effect asks of our times, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" More than a lament, it's a plea for God to teach us how to understand and live out a resurrected life in an uncertain time. "How, O God, can we be Good News people when all the familiar and safe images we've come to count on are strange and foreign? How can we praise you when everything about our church appears to be unraveling? Can't you simply remove our discomfort; turning the clock back to the days of prosperity?"
How can we sing the Lord's song in the strange land we find ourselves in today? Dorhauer tells us, "First order of business is to die to self." Death to whatever part of us stands in our way is what Gospel living is all about. No one can say they follow Christ yet refuse to believe in dying to what Marques Bovre calls "the toys and the white noise" of this world that gets in our way. Dorhauer begins where every church must; with death. If we're unwilling to wrestle with dying, we might as well stop reading Dorhauer's book, and stop pretending to believe in the Gospel.
Some churches will close. Some because they must. Others because, like the exile, we refuse to see a banishment of our own making. Some however will embrace the moment by forming something new; either on their own or together with other churches and neighbors. And everyone who does will rejoice and sing a new song no matter how strange the terrain. The key is our willingness to not only express our opinions, but to live in the discomfort of our own thoughts, and in the thoughts of others. For Dorhauer this is the first and greatest obstacle facing the church today. If we cannot embrace death in whatever form, we'll never experience resurrection. And above all else, resurrection is the Good News.