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.