These are both issues about which we can make a real difference in our local community.
Why, it’s the name I’ve settled on for a new effort led by the deacons to practice our faith and good works in a coordinated way. I confess that I’m a sucker for alliteration. But more to the point, in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, a mitzvah is a command from God. (I also considered the word “tzedakah” which means “righteousness” or charity, but that carries a general or unspecified sense.) Judaism has preserved this sense of mitzvah as a good deed. But Christianity, so skittish about “legalism” (in a sometimes anti-Jewish way), has neglected it. The idea is that we should try to be accountable before God and one another to follow a shared path of specific good deeds.
Just to be clear, this is totally New Testament. Consider Hebrews 10, where good deeds grow out of our “good conscience”: “Since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, …let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water….And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”
Here’s how it works. Each month, the deacons will select a practice for the whole congregation to strive towards. We will receive cards announcing the Mitzvah , with space to record anonymously how we were able to fulfill it. At the end of the month, we will post these cards as an offering to God.
The idea grew out of a frustration that whenever in sermons I recommended a practice or way to live out faith, there was no way to know whether we were actually doing it, and to celebrate that. It will be empowering and encouraging to us and to me if we can see real change happening in us as a community.
Moreover, our times show a growing sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. The news floods by, overwhelming us with developments that we feel powerless to do anything about. But church and communities like it gives us a way to affirm that we can make a difference. By “encourag[ing] one another and build[ing] up each other” (1 Thess 5), we resist the impression that we are isolated individuals helplessly bobbing along (or sinking) in the torrent of history.
For January, our deacons selected the theme: “Uncomfortable Kindness.” We are encouraging everyone in the congregation to reach out and act kindly and with love and compassion to someone you wouldn’t otherwise, because it would make you uncomfortable in some way. Now, don’t go putting yourself in a serious risk! You might be uncomfortable engaging with homeless people, the very ill, people of an opposite political persuasion, the incarcerated or ex-offenders. In short, the kind of people Jesus was very comfortable with: the poor, the marginal, the tax collectors! Or you may just be very shy and have a hard time reaching out to neighbors. Or you may need to say a reconciling word to a friend or family member and are uncomfortable about doing so.
So this can take many forms! Whatever it is, we all want to see if we can push past our discomfort to do something good and righteous. Or rather, if God working in us can do what will feel like something impossible.
This is not meant to be a one-off practice. The idea is that you will get in the habit of doing righteousness every month. Below I’ll attach my sermon that originally called for the idea. May God bless our effort and reward our discipleship.
“The Blessings of Demands”
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-inventory 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.
I can’t explain why I’ve let my blog languish. Sorry. I was hesitant to publish some of the sermons from December, because they contained some deeply personal stuff. I’d be happy to email them to anyone asking.
At the heart of the Christmas story and our Christian faith is a kind of two-sided paradox. So if you find Christian faith disorienting and hard to grasp, you are on the right track. These two sides are the fundamental reason we need our liturgical seasons, so we can acknowledge one side of our faith at a time, and then the next.
The first side of the paradox, and the primary one at Christmas, is this: We are united with God. We are somehow a part of God’s life; indeed, we are divine. That means God isn’t some distant supervisor of the world, who once in a while bends down to tinker with things if we ask nicely. God is among us. The name Immanuel means God with us!
Humankind is God incarnate—at least, that’s one side of the paradox. We are created in the image and likeness of God. I don’t think that means we look like God—as if God is a big man in the sky and fashioned us to resemble himself. I think it means that we participate in, instantiate, and embody God’s very being.
Now, you are perfectly entitled to picture God as a person dwelling in heaven (please, not a bearded man!). I’m sure the Israelites sometimes thought like that, despite all their caution about images of God. And lots of people have lived faithful, fruitful lives with that image. So you can go with it.
But if God far off in heaven doesn’t work for you, there are some good alternatives. First of all, God’s existence is beyond our grasp. We cannot apply to God a literal where and when. But if we want to say God exists and is present somewhere in time, that presence is in humanity. We are God’s existence. And John’s prologue helps us get to the truth of this, centered on the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God. Everything divine about humanity goes back to word, language. Because of language, we don’t just react to what we see like animals do, we interpret it. We evaluate and redescribe reality, even poetically. We can talk about the world as it ought to be; we don’t just take it as it is. And we can freely share our words about the world, influencing each other without violence or threats or bearing teeth. We can inspire one another with words alone. I bet each one of you has at one time or another said a word to someone that lifted them up with grace and truth.
This is the work of God in and through us. Throughout the Bible God is above all the Word, the Word of the Lord speaking through Moses and the Law; the word of the prophets, the apostles, and most centrally Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is God in the flesh; so most Christians have confessed for 2000 years. Today, many just can’t make sense of that. Was Jesus all-powerful? Could he summon armies of angels? Was he all-knowing—if so, why didn’t he teach about evolution or outlaw slavery? So we often settle for saying, well, Jesus was a good and wise teacher, like other wise teachers, but this Son of God business is just fanciful mythology. Christian authors who think this way are very popular—John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg. They practice their faith very well, and so do many who think of Jesus as just a teacher. It’s a view that can work fine. And if the alternative is Jesus as a God in disguise, secretly all-knowing and all-powerful, I’d opt for Jesus the mere teacher. When I was in college, that’s pretty much exactly what I believed.
But there are some practical problems with that view. The Bible does not want to talk about Jesus as a mere teacher, a wise man. It has the wise men come adore him, even as a mere baby. Besides, our worship and sacraments are deeply interwoven with the belief that Jesus is divine. We pray in the name of Jesus, and we claim to encounter the living presence of Jesus in baptism and in communion. Everything mystical and wonderful about Christian faith—the Word was with God and was God—only makes sense if Jesus is God.
So why does Jesus’ divinity have to be such a stumbling block? Of course Jesus is divine; humanity itself, in our language above all, exists in God and God in us. Seeing that changes everything, at least it did for me. What Jesus shows us on Epiphany, and what the Magi came to adore, is our essential divinity. God and humanity were meant to be together and one. So I have no problem saying Jesus is fully divine and fully human—that is the origin of all Christian wisdom.
That’s one side of the paradox. Let’s call it the good news. Here’s the bad news. We human beings make an utter travesty and mockery of our divine potential. How many words do you hear each day that not only fail to rise to being godly, to bringing salvation and justice and love—but are just trivial. How many words are aimed precisely at throwing off our divine calling and replacing it with something insignificant? Worse, how many words from others do we not hear because we’ve stopped trying to understand one another? We only listen to people who think just like we do. Or worse, how many of our words try to sneak a dig in at someone, using a passive-aggressive half-hidden meaning? (Oh, you know I only tease you because I love you.) Or Worse, how many words are just flat out lies, gratifying deceptions that I retweet because they make me feel good, often because they belittle and demean someone I don’t like? How many words are just tricks designed to get us to buy something? If Satan is the father of lies, than how much do the words we use and consume look more Satanic than divine? How many of your words convey a real, honest truth? We betray the Word. But this only confirms our divinity by the Word. Only human beings can lie. Only we can be children of the devil; only we can be the anti-Christ.
It is the Word which makes us divine, which reminds us that we are only divine by sharing it—only by sharing the word, only by living in a conversation with one another, and that conversation can be as big as the whole human race. We—all humanity, all users of words, are called to be God’s life. But we babble away our divine calling. God is always working to restore the divine Word, first in Israel as a people listening to God together. Then humanity is restored anew starting in just one person, the Messiah Jesus, who will rebuild the people of God, even as he exposes all our lies. We’ll hear about that soon enough. But in the beginning, today’s fulfillment of Christmas, we see in Jesus the Christ the epiphany of the glory we were created for. Let us come to the table to behold this glory and take it into ourselves as a restoration of our shared divinity.
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.”
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.
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.
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.