Nov 17: “I Believe in the Church’s Future”

I should also get Jessica’s excellent (no bias!) stewardship message posted.

Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

The way of the Christ is our past, present, and future—just as we confess at communion: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We embrace Christ and our past in him even as he opens us for God’s promise to Isaiah: “I am doing a new thing.” So our focus today is to be open to the future and what is new.

But we don’t have to be like the futurists who anxiously look for signs of what is to come and try to adjust our sails to whatever new wind blows in. Earlier, we confessed our faith in the Holy Spirit; that is the only wind we sail by. And we believe the Spirit is always different and new, but also always the same Spirit as the one Jesus Christ breathed on his disciples. So we draw our principles from the past, and apply them creatively to the present. We can keep an eye on the future, without getting too worked up about signs and portents. Mostly we live in the flesh-and-blood present.

That’s pretty much the message we get in our (admittedly strange) reading from Luke today: the future holds some dreadful portents, but don’t lose your head. Trials will give you a chance to testify, to show your faith, and to gain your souls. When that time comes, don’t get all anxious about what to say, don’t rehearse for the new, because by then your message will be dated anyway. But when that time comes, Jesus tells us, as you live in me, so let me speak for you.

Luke wrote his gospel when the world seemed to be ending. Jerusalem and the temple had recently been destroyed by Rome in 70 (which Luke refers to in the verse after our reading). Before the insurrection and brutal crackdown were over, perhaps 2 million lay dead on all sides. But God brought healing and new life out of that total catastrophe. Do we think our current crisis is beyond God’s salvation?

God will deliver our age too, I believe. But we must be prepared to let go of our present, of who we are. We need to embrace a new future; instead we may find ourselves digging in to our disgruntled pessimism. We cling unhappily to our current options, but we must be willing to let these pass. That mighty Roman world perished. The medieval world that replaced Rome slowly evaporated. Our age of tolerant democracy is teetering. But the Christian faith (as well as Judaism) has been preserved and reborn again and again. It has changed enormously from age to age. Yet because our faith does not live for itself, neither can it perish.

But every age, every nation, and every church that tries to live for itself, for its own power and prestige and self-interest, inevitably perishes. “Those who want to save their life will lose it.” I take that wise saying of Jesus to mean that those who wish to preserve me and us against you and them will inevitably lose; they always have.

But as we saw, that doesn’t mean that the futurists who race ahead to leave who we are now behind always do right. Our society’s future seems to hang on a dreadful balance between those who want to assert ourselves against “them,” and those who carry very high-minded ideals of openness to others, of tolerance and acceptance; ideals that are international and cosmopolitan, which in many ways sound like our Gospel. (Indeed, I can understand how some pastors confuse the two). But as these two sides push each other apart in a political shoving match, the nationalists look more and more bigoted, and the cosmopolitans look more and more snobbish, very quickly trying to outdo one another in being woke. The nationalists are the more brutal side in embracing their us vs. them; while the cosmopolitans really want to be open to others, but they end up looking hypocritical—they are not as open as they claim to be. Each side operates with their own us vs them, and more and more they are becoming each other’s them. And that angry energy is all getting funneled and magnified into national politics, into an Armaggedon between Democrat and Republican. That’s happening not only here, but all around the world: Great Britain, Europe, Israel—the way of liberal democracy is just about everywhere under trial.

It is scary to hear about wars and insurrections, especially when cooperative action on climate change hangs gets caught up in this political war, promising quite real famines and plagues to come. What is going to hold us all together in this frightening future that seems already upon us?

What Jesus said then stands even more true today: do not be terrified. There is an organization that exists in every town of this country, and indeed in every nation of the world. This organization welcomes everyone and seeks especially the lost and those who are not welcome other places. It seeks to bring people together around a table to live like family, practicing face-to-face belonging instead virtual “communities of preference.” No, I’m not talking about MacDonald’s. It’s the church! We are universal but also very local. And our world’s warring impulses of us vs. them will only be reconciled by practicing local, embodied, face-to-face reconciliation and learning to love again, while also being a genuine international, global community—your family and your nation can’t do that. The church uniquely follows a global, universal way of life that is genuinely local, a genuine “us” in the flesh, welcoming all kinds of people and all ages into a shared path of transformation toward oneness with God. (And to make good on being global, we need our denominational covenant with the UCC. Or does God live only in Granby?)

I say this as one who believes in the church’s future; but we’re not there yet. The church is only starting to equip itself for this future, for the healing of the nations. We’ve been terribly complicit in the various factions and interests of the world. We’ve been seduced into seeking to force others to be Christian and we’ve put down other faiths; but then, in our rush to distance ourselves from the sins of our past (and those of our evangelical nemesis), we nearly lost our identity in Christ, preferring the vagueness of “faith” or “doing good.” Our future, I think, lies in being true to our past, the only legitimate foundation of which is Jesus the Christ who perfected the art of being embodied and local as well as global and universal. But others have their own way of being local and universal. All religions and even secular movements are capable of this. I can continue to believe that Jesus perfected it even while appreciating how others offer their own version, and often do it better than Jesus’ own followers have done. What matters is the practice of it, and we can admire and learn from others there.

These global issues that are hard to get a handle on. If I’m not making them clear, don’t worry. Just know that you are in the right place. The future of the nations and the kingdoms and the parties is indeed bleak. But do not be terrified, although our media knows that’s what keeps us glued to our screens. The “dreadful portents” we see will be our opportunity to testify. And if the church makes up its mind to not rehearse the same old message but allows Christ to be our words and wisdom anew, none of the warring sides will be able to withstand our way of peace.

I believe in the church we will become. I believe the church has a future, because I believe the church is the future—that future in which “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together.”

Nov 10:”I Believe in the Church We Are Becoming”

Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

There are weird things going on in our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. I’m not even going to try to explain it. Let’s just say that what Paul and the early Christians were trying to do is to live as if the world were about to end (and doesn’t it feel that way these days, with our political system in chaos!). So don’t sugar-coat things. Things are bad and they could get a lot worse. Embrace it! God will be victorious in the end, of course, because God alone is eternal. So stand firm, hold fast to who you are, and take comfort and strength in the grace of God.

So let us not sugar coat our problems as a congregation. We are reasonably healthy—look around! But in recent years we have been running a budget deficit—over $10,000 this year. That’s an unsustainable burden we put on this church, especially on our Trustees and other Boards (and staff). In the midst of financial stress, it is tempting to lose faith and turn away from being a generous church that lives to give to our community and to world with our partner ministries. (You can support the UCC with the separate envelope.) We’re already a less generous church than we were: we’ve cut $300 from our missions budget this year, and in years past we used to give much more of our budget to missions. But under duress, whatever we are giving can look like a waste; we could be spending that money on us!

But hear Paul: hold fast to our traditions. Giving to God’s world is absolutely essential to being the church that we confess faith in. The church represents God, and God’s very existence is a grace—generous, undeserved giving. (We’ve all received this grace.) God even gives Godself away in Christ. It is not faithful nor is it wise to become less generous as a church. We cut ourselves off from the life of God which is our true reason for being. And someone coming here looking for God is not going to be impressed with a church that only looks after itself.

We should pause to give thanks for the tireless leadership of our missions board, who have refused to give up on missions in the face of less funding. Just in the last month, we led several churches in CROP Walk, which raised over $2000 to alleviate hunger, $850 from us; we served chicken pie to dozens of grateful people in Greenfield at Cathedral in the Light (on your bulletin cover). Youth and missions contributed $200 to supporting the amazing effort at MacDuffy that put together 50,000 meals for the Western Mass food bank. And Missions continues to provide us with blessing bags that each of you should have in your car to offer to people living without a secure home. These kits are a great way to practice face to face love toward the least of these, those needing food and clothing whom Jesus tells us are where we’ll find him.

It is also tempting to neglect Christian Education. And we’ve cut $350 from our budget for this year. We are just about out of funding for Tasondra, our Director of CE. But she keeps doing more (on top of working Chicken Pie Supper and Crop walk and so on), donating hours when necessary. (She should not have to. Supporting our children in their very real struggles, teaching them courage in the faith is good work and we should be honored to pay her for it. Not to mention the new mouth to feed Tasondra and Jenni have taken on out of pure love.) We’ve expanded Christian Ed this year, despite budget cuts. We brought back Vacation Bible School, because summer is a golden opportunity—our youth have free time and we can do wonderful things with them. We’ve committed to offering Sunday school at 9:30 for all, and added a class for 7 to 10 year olds (thanks Sharon), so that our children can also experience worship and learn to love it and feel part of the whole church from a young age. We are putting together our own curricula, instead of buying them as we used to do.

I told Tasondra recently: “You’ve got to slow down. You’re making me feel like I’m not doing enough. And I’m trying to keep this part-time (only 25 hour, remember?). I could easily work full time here, and some weeks I do. There’s so much more ministry I could do, and Tasondra too. Deacons have stepped up to do some of the visitation that I would like to be doing. No one here on staff—not Michael, Ginette, Dennis, nor me—is just coasting. We all think big and take on more than we need to because we believe in the church. We applied for two grants this fall which could total about $30,000. I am on pins and needles waiting to hear about them. But we did it because we want to expand our ministry, not contract.

Our Board of Missions believes in this church. They don’t want to do less, and there isn’t less to do. They want to keep reaching out. Christian Ed doesn’t want to do less. They see our youth going through all kinds of challenges and they want to equip them with the faith that will get the through. And that goes for the adults too. Christian Ed is now for all ages, because we all face challenges and we need to be equipped with the faith that will get us through. We want to expand Christian Education. We don’t want to just keep the lights on, and the oil tank full. (Some of us would rather not be using oil at all.) But we’re barely doing even that. It would be such a relief to those who want to expand our ministry if we didn’t have this sword of budget deficit always hanging over our heads!/

Unlike some past ministers, I have never harangued this congregation about money. I’d rather harangue you about God. Because if you really understand God and place your heart in God’s hands, your money should follow your heart (any other motivation is suspect to me). And I still have a hard time asking questions like, how much more are you spending on cable than you are giving to the church? But I have to ask, do you believe in the church? Is there another organization that believes in the truth? That lifts itself to see our world, not just from my little view or the warring views of democrats and republicans, but from God’s all-seeing perspective? Who else has such vision? Is there another organization that practices love not just for our kind, folks like us, but loves even those most estranged, most neglected, most lost, as God loves? Is there another organization that can teach us, children and adults, not how to succeed, how to win, how to beat your opponent—but how to treasure all life, how to cooperate and bring out the best in others, how to love your enemy? I believe in the God of Jesus Christ because God teaches me alone teaches me this in the church; there is no other.

My family is stepping up. We are upping our pledge by 20%, maybe more, because we believe in the church, this church that hasn’t been able to afford a pay raise for our staff in the four years I’ve worked here. But your staff keeps stepping up. Our Board of Trustees keeps stepping up, donating their own time and money to keep up our facilities. Our Board of Missions is stepping up. Christian Ed is stepping up. How about you? Stand firm, and step up.

Nov. 3: “I Believe in the Church We Have Been”

Stewardship Month! Our theme is past, present, and future. 

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Ephesians 1:11-23

I confess: I am a future-oriented guy. I do love the rich and long tradition of the church—I mean Church with a capital C: all 2000 years of it. But that same history is also a mess. So I believe that the church’s greatest days lie ahead of us. I’m too pessimistic, or too honest, about the shortcomings of the past to believe our best years are behind us.

And despite the way people associate the Bible with the good old days, I think the Bible is future-oriented to. Especially as you move into the prophets and get into the New Testament, the Bible dispenses with sentimentality about the past. Jesus is fully directed to this New Kingdom of God that is coming in the future. And even those writing after Jesus don’t dwell on the good old days with him, but on the coming fulfillment of God’s promises in the future, and the return of Christ. It’s simply amazing, within the context of the ancient world, which was very conservative, to hear 2 Corinthians say: “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

So when I interviewed with the hiring committee, I talked about the future I saw for this church. I guess I tried to sound like Habakkuk’s prophesy from God: “Write the vision; make it plain [well] on tablets…for there is still a vision for the appointed time.” We’ve made some changes; and there are more to come. I’ve tried to do this slowly, with lots of consultation. And you have been a very willing congregation to let go of some of the past and embrace new ideas. I really haven’t heard that much of, “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” (I was warned I might.) Thank you.

But while we’ve been traveling together in search of what this church needs to become, a change has come on me as well. I’ve come to more and more appreciate and believe in the church we have been, since long before I arrived here. You have been decisively shaped into a body of believers who really has faith in this church. Now, I’m a theologian. Got my Ph.D. and everything. So of course I’m not going to be satisfied that you’ve got faith all figured out—nothing left to learn from me. You know I’m going to trot out a new way to speak about and think about this faith—like, every Sunday—this faith that you’ve had since before I was born. The patient and wise among you will take this for the opportunity it is, realizing that I won’t be around forever, you’ll be here long after I’m gone, and (judging by the colleagues I get to know at our annual meeting) your next pastor will have different gifts.

So whatever you take from my intellectual gymnastics, you already have a faith. I’ve come to appreciate the power of that, as I watch you work hard and passionately for this church. Taking food out in the rain to people on the streets at Cathedral. Transforming the commons for Dinofest and our Tag Sale. Churning out an incredible amount of good food for Chicken Pie Supper and funeral receptions. Long meetings—productive, yes, joyful and spiritual, yes, but long. And the multiple hats thing. I’ll see one person at a deacons’ meeting and then teaching yoga; someone at choir and serving food at cathedral; someone working Chicken Pie and a youth event the next day. I’ll see the Masons at every darn thing (thank God they can’t sing). That’s faithfulness, and it shows up in action. I’ll have my fussy suggestions for how to put it into words. But that is stewardship, and stewardship is about action.

So I believe in the church we have been, because I see its fruits. That doesn’t mean everything we’ve been has been right and perfect. Earlier we confessed our faith in the church at the same time as we confess faith in Christ and the Holy Spirit. We don’t worship or have faith in everything about this church as it has been. But we have met Christ here and been moved by the Holy Spirit here. This is what Paul says: “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance.” Whatever we have that is worth treasuring is found in Christ and in all that he stands for—even when people didn’t know they were doing it for him. We received that inheritance from the saints of this church. By that inheritance in Christ, you “were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” And it’s on the confidence and foundation of that marking with the Holy Spirit, by passionate fruitfulness and dedication, that we can look forward to the future. “This is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.” For Paul redemption is grounded in the past in Christ but redemption is always something we’re going toward, something in our future—as the fulfillment and perfection of what we have already been, “God’s own people. To the praise of his glory,” Amen.

 

Once again on evangelicals for Trump–but this article stands out

There’s a particularly insightful apex about mid-way through, when the writer is surprised to find that the (white) evangelicals she is interviewing would rather have Trump than a more seemingly Evangelical candidate. Her explanation is persuasive.

I commend this article with a few caveats: it is primarily about white evangelicals, and we should never conflate white evangelicals with all evangelicals. Second, reading articles about evangelicals, even by journalists who are outsiders to that movement, tends to place you within their worldview. Apart from politics, there are all kinds of problems with that worldview. For starters: the literal reading of the End Times, the penchant for black-and-white morality (yes, with its racist connotations) despite the impressive witness to moral ambiguity in Scriptures, the easy assumption that we insiders have the truth and outsiders are suspect or de facto in the “dark.” Etc. Above all, the assumption that the answer to the world’s problems is to have power and authority in our hands. Evangelicals apply that to the Bible first of all, but it can easily be transferred to a Strongman leader. The lusting after power and authority is at the root of the popular longing for fascism. Evangelicals usually check that longing through a variety of biblical-based teachings. But more ‘fundamentally,’ the Bible questions that human lust for power and authority from Genesis 3 onward. It’s ironic that the decisive challenge for evangelicals is to let God be God–something they no doubt think they have licked. 

There is another possible force at work that the article doesn’t quite articulate. (If I may venture some more analysis as an outsider.) The evangelical stress on personal morality and holiness has a tendency toward sanctimony and moralism. That may create a psychic pressure, a longing (that Nietzsche would smile at) to express the nasty, brutish human impulses that evangelical faith has tried to repress. How indeed do you profess to be loving and merciful, while regarding the rest of the world as out to get you and awaiting the vengeful judgment of God? (Granted, I am trading in caricatures of evangelical personality.) Perhaps Trump is a vehicle for evangelicals to embrace their troubling, non-Christian impulses at arms’ length. 

Post article on evangelical support for Trump

 

Oct. 27: “I Believe in the Church”

We had a great time Sunday! We celebrated Jeff Dwinell’s 50 years as a member and Lois and Will Carr’s 60th wedding anniversary with a renewal of vows.

This sermon introduces the theme for the next four weeks of our stewardship and pledging season. Each week we’ll return to this passage from the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy and whole Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  

Joel 2:23-32 ; Colossians 1:15-20; 3:12-15

We believe in the Church, so we confessed, quoting the ancient Apostles’ creed. The typical translation makes us uneasy: “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.” Sounds like what the old Protestants used to call “popery.” “Romish idolatry.” But if we don’t in some sense “believe in the church,” we can’t be good stewards of the church; and stewardship season begins next week. So we need to figure out this belief in the church business.

First of all, our faith doesn’t begin with believing in the church. We believe in God above all. This is simple: we believe in something higher, beyond ourselves, and beyond all human achievement. We believe in God as perfection and fullness.

Second, we believe in Jesus the Christ. Now with Jesus, things get less clear. That’s ok; our faith in Christ is a work in progress. That’s why every year, from Christmas through Easter, we return to this mysterious and beautiful center of our faith in Christ. So for now let’s just say, loosely interpreting our Colossians reading, that Jesus represents the perfection of human life lived for God; and because of his particular death in the fullness of time, he also represents the perfect reconciliation between God and our imperfection. But we’ll get back to Jesus in just a few months.

From Pentecost until the start of Advent—our current Ordinary season—we focus on the words of the Apostles’ Creed we read earlier: I believe in the Holy Spirit, and in the Church. This is what we confess every time we say our prayers for the people: God is with us. God, the Holy Spirit, is in this room. The Holy Spirit is brooding here, loving us (which also means calling us higher and transforming us), hovering over us just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation. The Holy Spirit is here because we have called on her to come; and Christ promised to send the Spirit to the church. So I believe in the church, because it’s where I find the Spirit of God.

Now, what’s “the church?” It’s not the building; sure it’s lovely but it’s not God—right? The Greek word Paul uses for church is ekklesia—literally, “the assembly,” “the gathering,” so he’s definitely not talking about the church building. But neither is the church just all of us. I don’t believe in all of you as the very presence of God, just for who you are. Now you are fine and dandy folks. But I know myself, and I don’t believe in me as inherently godly. Based on my own experience, maybe yours is different, I don’t look deep inside of me and find some divine spark at my inner core. Underneath my outer layers that you see, I’m just very human. And beneath that, I’m just kind of animal. And if you go even deeper than that, I think there’s something plant-like in there, or lichen or something—something just barely alive in there.

But from outside myself, I can hear the Word, and I can breathe in the Holy Spirit, and then my life starts to look divine. That’s why Paul talks about “clothing yourself” with compassion, kindness…love. Our divinity, our becoming maybe even like Christ was—filled with God’s peace and power, filled with the Holy Spirit—comes from the outside in; it comes from the God we meet in this room. God is in the air here, and if we can let God all the way in from what we see and hear and taste in this room, then we may, as Paul said, “let the peace of Christ rule [deep down] in our hearts, to which we were called in the one body”—that body of Christ which is the church. [descend to table]

The church I believe in isn’t the building, it’s not all you wonderful people, it’s like a vessel, like this chalice and this paten. The church is a gathering in a space and time that makes room for God to fill her. The church is a silence and quieting that allows the word of God to be spoken and heard and [pouring juice in chalice] for the Holy Spirit to be poured into us. We are people like any other, and this is an organization made of human stuff like other organizations, but we take on the shape of a body [lifting chalice] that fits onto Christ as our head, as Paul says. And that means that just as Christ poured himself out for others, so as soon as God fills us, we pour ourselves out to the world.

But before we are filled and then pour ourselves out in mission, we’ve got to come to God empty in the first place. We the church make ourselves an empty vessel for the Spirit by confessing our lack, our faults, our accountability before God—and who else does this? What other organization lays itself bare and vulnerable before the judgment of God? I don’t believe in the church because we are perfect and “saintly,” nor because we all have some divine spark, but because we own up to our imperfection, and we come empty before God in whom is all fullness and perfection, and we earnestly ask God to heal us and make us better.

Everywhere else I look outside of the church, I see so much human pride: “We’re number one! We’re number one!” I see pop stars and celebrities and politicians trying to put themselves in the best light. And I hear the resentment against others that inevitably comes when pride faces its own failures: We used to be great, until those jerks took it from us! I was a real man until women took over my role (and did it better, no doubt). I don’t believe in all the pride. I believe in the church because it has no pride; and that goes for the building too. When I do hear that empty pride coming from us church folks, then we’re not being the church—simple as that. We with our puffed-up chests we’ve stopped breathing in the Spirit.

I believe in the church with my whole heart and soul, as I believe in God. I want you to say it with me: I believe in the church! That’s not idolatry. I don’t worship all you, and I know you don’t worship me. I believe in the church because we have fashioned ourselves into a vessel for the Holy Spirit. And if we empty ourselves of all the vain clutter, and focus our hearts and prayers on welcoming God, and keep pouring ourselves out even as God fills us, as did Christ our head, the Holy Spirit will continue to dwell here. This house is a vessel, and its true, spiritual foundations are not made of stone and wood, but the Word and the sacraments and confession with which we empty ourselves; and we build up this vessel by practicing acts of justice and kindness, and loving fellowship. I believe in the church, as the vessel prepared to receive the Holy Spirit, prepared to be God’s own house and dwelling. Say it with me one more time: I believe in the church. Now that confession we just made is the only true foundation for stewardship. All things are prepared.

 

 

Oct.19: “The Blessings of Demands”

Reaction to this idea has been quite positive! You can share ideas for a month-long practice in the comments feature, if you like.

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 6:27-38

“Here’s something I want us to do as a church; I talked about it two weeks ago. We should eat less meat. We know this is right for the environment, for animals, and for our health. So I want you to go without meat for three days out of every week for one month.”

Actually, the preceding has been an experiment. How did what I just said make you feel? Did you find yourself thinking, “Who are you pastor, to tell me what to do? What I eat is my business. You’re just supposed to preach the gospel; and tell us about Jesus.”

Now, I don’t know if you’ve been reading your Bible recently, but at least in today’s reading, Jesus refuses to stay out of our business. And in our first reading from Jeremiah, when God says, “I will write my law on their hearts,” God does not mean: “Now you can just do whatever you think is right.” I can’t preach from this book and not hear demands being made on us, demands to change our life. You see, demands come with our Bible.

So why might you have found yourself reacting, “What I do is my business, preacher!” It’s not because you are a miserable sinner who resists the will of God. If a preacher told me I need to spend three hours a week volunteering in a shelter, I would bristle at the demand too. (Although, come to think of it, I am a miserable sinner who resists the will of God.) I’m sure I would say: “Hey, preacher, it’s my decision how I practice my faith! And I don’t have three hours to spend in a shelter.”

We’re really attached to personal preference—to having my own say, and control over what I do. So much so that we don’t like it when people challenge us to do something different. What if I said: “I want you to reconcile with someone you are estranged from, and I’m going to take a count of how many of you did that next Sunday.” That last part really gets you, doesn’t it? I as a pastor have been very hesitant to issue anything more than vague suggestions: “Why don’t you try reconciling with someone this week!” Or to quote from my Oct. 6 sermon: “Why not eat less meat? And then pay a little more for meat raised …with proper care…?” I guess I’m allowed to make suggestions so long as there is a question mark at the end of it—why not? But how many of you actually tried eating less meat? Or took any information? (Please, no show of hands. It’s your business.) But wouldn’t it be nice to know, for me and for all of us, whether our faith is actually changing us (question mark)?

Now, we have some good reason for reacting against a pastor standing up here and telling us to change our behavior, and saying, “Show me proof that you did it!” We are all aware that somewhere in the dim past priests and preachers guilted and shamed people into changing behavior, and some still do this. Some of you have had to listen to preachers tell you that your loving, sacred marriage is a sin because it’s a same-sex marriage. We have rightly reacted against authoritarian preachers judging us. It seems safe to say: let’s just have sermons that say something positive and inoffensive. I’ve heard the phrase, “warm fuzzies.”

Well, again, warm fuzzies were not what Jesus dispensed. He made serious demands, but with a promise of blessing in the demand: “The measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

But let’s forget about Jesus for a sec. Let me be pragmatic, because we are also “wise as serpents,” so we worry about things like budget deficits. Is it good for the church as an organization if you are spared all challenges and demands inside these doors, and indeed left completely free to your personal preferences (question mark)? “Wherever you are on your own groovy journey, hey, that’s cool. I’m ok, you’re ok.” Does that make for a strong church? The pragmatic social scientists who wrote this book have answered no. In fact, they think the lack of challenge and demand is an important reason why this congregation and many like it have lost members. “The strength of organizations…depends on the extent to which they can mobilize their members’ resources, including their enthusiasm, energy, time, money, and influence, for the attainment of shared objectives [so by demand, they don’t mean: “Nice to see you again. Can you serve on the Trustees?”]. The strongest organizations are able to define goals that take precedence in their members’ lives over any other interests they might have [in other words, personal preferences].” Think about a winning sports team or really successful business; we expect such organizations to drive us toward a goal. But “the weakest organizations…rank low on their members’ lists of personal priorities and can command only small amounts of their time, energy and other resources.” The data they collected shows that Christians in mainline churches (like ours) tend to be “uncomfortable with any religion that makes high demands on its members.” But those high-demand organizations and churches are often the ones that hold on to members and inspire them to do great things.

So I’m no fool, and I could talk at great length about the dubious assumptions and faulty arguments made by these authors. But they have a point. Can you imagine a soccer coach saying, “So you guys practice if you want; just do whatever you’re in the mood to do. I’ll be here if you want any help.” We would fire that coach. But isn’t that how I often sound, as your pastor? “I’m here, if you want help. Take this spiritual self-ventory with you, but of course what you do with it is your business.” Do we believe more in winning ball games than in being a community full of God’s grace and power?

So maybe if we want to be a stronger and healthier church, we should find a way to make demands on each other, like a good coach does, and like Jesus did of his disciples. But, contrary to what [gesture to the book] they say, we can make demands on each other in a way consistent with our congregational values and our rejection of authoritarianism. Take me out of it. I’m not Jesus or Jeremiah. I shouldn’t be the one who commands for God; but we together are the body of Christ—so can we call each other collectively to account as Jesus did in person (question mark)? What if we had a system like this: anyone could propose action goals for us to pursue. We would trust our deacons to discuss and evaluate these proposals (giving them a fresh way to fulfill the duty of “discipline” assigned to them in our Bylaws~). Maybe eat less meat, or read Scripture daily, or avoid biased news (remember that one?), or use less energy, or cut back on social media. Once approved, we would all try to practice that virtue for a month. People able to meet the goal could celebrate anonymously by displaying a token, maybe a candle, right in front of the sanctuary, as an offering to God. This would be a positive and freely-given way to really make ourselves accountable to changing our lives out of shared commitment to our faith. I wouldn’t be the barking coach, which is not me, but the cheerleader.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts on the response card in the bulletin. Is this a way to make our faith more real, to show ourselves and our community that we really stand for something, that we are “playing to win” and we “mean business?” Or is that something only sports teams and businesses can do? Well, I’m only allowed to ask questions, remember? It’s not for me to tell you what to do.

Oct. 27-Nov. 24: Parent-Child Curriculum and Class on Stewardship

For four weeks beginning Oct 27, we’ll run two classes concurrently.

For families (adults and children) we’ll offer an innovative four-week curriculum taught by Pastor Bill and our CE Crew. Children and parents will all learn about the same topic, breaking up into age groups to work on it in age-appropriate ways. The topics will be:

Week 1: How Does the Bible Regard Children? How Does that Differ from Today?

Week 2: How Do Parents and Children relate in the Bible?

Week 3: Why Do We Baptize Children, and What Does It Mean?

Week 4: Why Do We Confirm Young Adults? And What Do You Want to Know to Be a Confirmed Christian?  (This class is mandatory for members of this year’s confirmation class and their parents.) 

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During these same four weeks, Vicki L’Abbee will lead a class on Stewardship for adults without children, using a professionally-developed curriculum. Vicki will consider Stewardship from an inclusive perspective, well beyond the pledging we often associate with stewardship: care for creation, for others, for self, and for the church.