Series on the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father Who Art in Heaven” (September 9)

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

James 2:1-17

“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Last week I said I would aim these sermons on the Lord’s pray ultimately at this question: “How can we pray this from the heart?” But first, a few preliminaries.

The first phrase is just an antiquated translation for saying, “Our Father who is in heaven”—although in the Greek it says “in the heavens.” And in more contemporary English we would continue: May your name be made holy. Hallow means make holy or sacred. Now, the “Thys” and “thines” might sound formal to you. It is not. In King James English, “You” is formal; it’s how you address a stranger. “Thou” and “thy” and “thine” is informal and intimate, the way you address a family member—a Father.

Or a mother. Let’s cut right to the chase about gendered language. There is no good reason to prefer Father to mother in addressing God. I can assure you that no important authority in 2000 years of Christian tradition has ever said, God is male. (And that’s significant, because for most of those 2000 years the church was deeply patriarchal; it denied equal power and dignity to women and was often violently misogynist or anti-woman.) But everyone knows that God is beyond male and female. The Bible refers to God as he, but also often uses maternal imagery for God. We will rightly, in a few minutes, conclude our communion by praying, “God our Mother and Father.” We could very wisely decide to change the Lord’s prayer to “Our Mother” to help correct for those 2000 years of women’s oppression.

But if we don’t, please notice that the prayer says, “Our Father in heaven.” We are addressing God as our transcendent Father, far above the flawed fatherhood that we know on earth. Some people fear that calling God father might make someone who suffered under an abusive father think of God that way. We should be sensitive to that, but Jesus is not telling us to picture our own father when we pray to God. He didn’t even have a biological father, according to the legend of the Virgin Birth. When I pray the Lord’s prayer, I never wistfully picture my Dad up in heaven, although he is a good father. To pray to Our Father in heaven is much more to judge our own fathers than it is to deify them.

And don’t forget to add, “Hallowed, Made Holy be thy name.” It is possible to read this phrase as saying the same thing as the two that follow it: hallowed be thy name; thy Kingdom come, thy will be done. You can say these three phrases as adding up to a prayer for God to complete God’s work on earth, that the final day of perfecting the earth may come. More on that next week. But this week let’s look at it this way: the Lord’s prayer starts with the tender address of God as our father, followed by the recognition that God’s name is to be made or kept holy. God is always holy, always sovereign, above us, beyond us in every way, beyond all the concepts of our mind, including the idea of fatherhood or parenthood.

And yet the point is to address God as our parent. Jesus didn’t pray: Almighty, mysterious God, who are also a father to us.” No, where we begin is with God as personal, very personal to us; and more to the point, parental. To pray this from the heart, we need to meditate on why Jesus wants us to pray to God as our parent.

Now I’m a parent. And I marvel at the naturalness of parental love. It is so strong. I couldn’t stop loving if I tried. I used to think I was pretty selfish; and now I know at least when it comes to my son, I’m not that selfish. It’s nice! I’m a pretty good dad, a good father. But I know one thing: I’m not Our Father in Heaven. My parental love is still very natural and earthy, still very limited by biological drives and competition. I know I’m not the only one who experienced becoming a parent, or just having a parent, as a big step up from being all about me, from placing myself at the center of the universe. Now I have a child, and I can never again be just about me. This is already true when we fall in love, and unite ourselves with another in love. But that love for your child—wow. Being a lover, holding dear a spouse is wonderful. But Fatherhood has shown me a whole other dimension to love I didn’t understand. And so it is that we do pray: “Our Lover in Heaven”—although we could have! God is also depicted as a lover in the Bible, a spouse. But it’s parental love that really captures something about God.

But I’m no parent as God is a parent, a Father in Heaven. I love just this one child. My parents had six; good thing, since I was number six. (And I think they intended to stop with five.) But I’ve just got one. And I want him to succeed. We’re saving for his college, we engage his mind in reading, we make sure he has good travel experiences that will make him worldly, we tutor him in French. We try to make him feel confident and to have a big imagination, so he’ll be able to do anything he wants—isn’t that the way we usually put it? I truly give myself to his cause. I don’t do that for other kids. Oh I care about your kids, but not like my own. And sure, I hold lofty political views that I think would benefit disadvantaged children. Bully for me. I’m willing to sacrifice a little for the cause of other children. But not my heart.

God’s a better parent than I am. Comparing myself with God isn’t the point of the prayer. Let’s say, God is a parent of a different order. I know you love your children. (Even though we are all flawed parents.) And all of us have known parental love—again, however flawed. But I know that you know what some children in this world are going through right now. You don’t need me to trot out example of the terrible sorrow that some children are going through, today, maybe across the globe, maybe down the street. I know you shudder with horror when you hear such stories. We inevitably turn away. We inevitably protect our hearts by saying, Thank God—hmm—it wasn’t my child. That’s our created love, the same good love animal parents have. A squirrel is not, I think, going to shed tears over another squirrel’s misfortune. And God our creator is the source of this natural love that puts my child above all others. But with us—because we are created in God’s image—God just won’t leave it at that. We can’t help feeling compassion. We can’t help pausing at least to think: That could have been my child. “My God what that parent must have felt.” That’s just in us—even if just a little, even if we don’t do anything with it—and maybe we should do a lot more with it. But we’re for the most part going to stick with being very earthy parents, for whom this is my child, that’s your child.

Not God. Not our Mother in heaven, not our father who is the perfection of parenthood. God refuses to say, Oh, that’s very sad, but thank God it wasn’t my child. You know, God could have been a parent like that, in our limited way. God finally got a righteous son. God finally had a child who honored and served God, and understood God and could speak to others about God. IT was all quite clear already by Jesus’ baptism: With you I am well pleased. God could have gone on: I’m quite satisfied. I’ve got my child. I got what I was looking for. The rest of you (who are kind of a sad lot, and anyway a bit of a disappointment too)—you are on your own. Good luck to you, and to your children.

God refuses this option. God refuses to be a father like me. God refuses to say, Not my child. God says this: That child you heard about last week, you heard those very sad stories about, and you shook your head in a brief moment of compassion when you identified with that bereft, aching parent—I’m that parent. Now multiply that by 10,000—that’s my day as a parent. You have a hard time imagining that, because you are not capable of it. And so I think you don’t believe me. You deep down suspect that I only love those who love me. I only love good church goers, or only love my chosen people, or only those who demonstrate loyalty and righteousness. Or maybe you think that if someone is suffering, if someone looks forsaken, it must be because I don’t love that one. Maybe you think that child you heard about last week suffered because I’m like some kind of horrible parent who arbitrarily abandons a child to neglect. A parent who plays favorites in the worse kind of way. Well, my child, you’re wrong. Look to Jesus. I had the perfect child. And I gave him up.

When we talk thus, daring to speak in God’s own voice, we must remember that God’s name is holy. God is beyond us. We can’t just imagine our way to God. God didn’t sacrifice Jesus in any simple sense that we can claim to understand. The Romans did it, the religious establishment did it; it’s even fairer to say we killed Jesus. But the point is this: God doesn’t play favorites. God doesn’t turn away from the bad child and content himself with the good. God’s not a parent who turns away from a suffering one and say, not my child. God is a parent to all, with all the suffering and forbearance that we can only imagine must come with that. But God’s love is powerful and triumphant. It is heavenly, joyful. Once in awhile, we get a glimpse of a deep joy that penetrates even our darkest sorrow. You know what I mean? That’s just a taste of the heavenly power of God’s parental love. (God is not to be pitied.) And Jesus is risen and triumphant, and not to be pitied.

I know just a little of that divine, parental love. Some of you know more of it. Some of you have adopted children generously, almost promiscuously, beyond your “natural” family, or taken a grandchild as your own child. Some of you have had no choice but to keep loving as a parent when your child has spurned your love. And all of us have adopted each other, at least in principle, as un-natural family, as brothers and sisters not by our blood, but by the blood of Christ that covers all. You all know something of God’s divine parental love. But not so much that I’m going to pray to you. None of us is a father or mother in heaven, holy be my name. God alone is this parent to whom we pray. And you may have experienced the love of God, filling in where a parent or lover failed. Maybe you haven’t felt that, or haven’t needed to. But we know that this love is there, because God has created an amazing love already in us, and even more so God gives us glimpse of this call of perfect love beyond what we can imagine being capable of.

What is it to pray from the heart: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name? It’s very different from meditating on my good qualities as a parent. It is to confess already that I’m not the heavenly parent. I can’t help but turn away from being a parent to all. And really, I’m not even supposed to be that. But though I turn away, I can at least turn toward the one, the Holy One, who is that parent to all, who is our Father, and Jesus intended the whole world to take up this prayer of the disciples and say as one family: Our Father. And in turning to God as our Father, I open myself to be more like God, and to be forgiven when I’m not.

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Notes from the July 29 Sermon Discussion

There was a little confusion about this, since we had never done it before. I broke up everyone in the pews into seven groups, and gave each group a pad of paper to record thoughts. Discussion seemed to go well from where I was; I had to break it up after five minutes.

I want to emphasize that this kind of discussion, if we do it again, should be fun and refreshing. It must be nice to hear from each other, rather than having to listen only to me all the time! But it is also part of our sacred duty. We are all ministers, and as a Congregational church, we are all called to listen to God in each other’s voices to lead the church together–not as the “Gentiles” do, lording it over each other, but with everyone serving each other. I hope it felt that way.

From the Notes

The jotted-down notes aren’t all easy to decipher, and they represent more thoughts than conclusions. Here’s some interesting things:

One group talked a lot about politics. Some people really agreed with my July 22 sermon, and my emphasis on keeping our focus on local issues more than national issues, and avoid pushing activism. (This was a Granby group; not sure if Center Church people feel the same way.) A nice reminder from the group: “With any issue, approach it with a Christian perspective.” I’m glad those messages resonated, and that I could be very honest about this issue. I realize I am criticizing my colleagues in ministry, even while I very much respect their work and personally agree with much of the activism going on in the UCC and elsewhere. I do urge the laity to remember the other part of my message (see July 15): we should be willing to trust our leadership and listen to them, including about our political opinions.

Another group suggested that we need to “learn about our Christian life.” And that we “need to do activities with our groups in church.” Is this shepherding groups at Granby? I think that’s a great idea, to move toward a “small group” model. 

Another group wondered about how everyone is in a different stage of journey, or people hear messages or sermons differently depending on their background and current state of mind. People also have different needs. We need to respect where people are, but how do you address different mindsets or different needs?

Several groups talked about my call to “loosen our grasp” on our opinions, so that we can hear each other, and hear God afresh. Some thought we stick with “we always have done it this way” and so we fail to think of other options. Perhaps younger people can usher in change. One group talked about “opinions” vs. “values,” and maybe we could hold our values firmly but be more flexible about our opinions.

There were a few great comments on the 8 proposals. One view was that #4 on Jesus Christ and #5 on the Christian Life should be the main emphasis for the church. (I’m not sure if that means we should work hardest on rethinking these areas together, or if those topics should be central to our message, or both.) 

One person related well to my proposal #1 to recapture something of the transcendence and even judgement of God. But it was also helpfully noted that in our culture and media, the dominant perception is that the church teaches too much about a judgmental God. I wonder if this perception has any basis, however. Some conservative churches still maintain a strong sense of God judging “sinners” who are mostly “out there,” those people. But the overriding message I get from evangelical churches is, like ours, that God is love. My own view is that judging “those sinners out there” is simply hatred of others. But to imitate and follow Jesus is to take the judgment of sin upon yourself. 

Thanks to everyone for your thoughts! You can also comment below.

Mainline Ills and Cures: Finally! Some (Proposed) Cures (July 29)

“The Spirit of Truth”

Ephesians 3:14-21 ; John 16:12-15

This sermons concludes a month of looking at the decline of mainline churches and denominations and what we can do about it. Your thoughts and comments would be most helpful to me as I continue to work on my research and book.  Even (especially!) if you disagree! Just tell me why as best as you can. Use the “comments” link at the bottom. 

What you need to understand this sermon is the Sermon Guide, which you can click on here: Sermon guide  It gives you my 8 theses for adjusting the church’s message.

We experimented with a five-minute pew discussion in groups after the sermon. It sounded great! Look for my next post discussing the notes from this session. Thanks to all who participated; please continue the conversation using “comments” below!

We’ve spent four weeks looking at the decline of mainline Christian denominations, including our own United Church of Christ, over the last 50 years. We looked at it from three very different angles, each of them biblical. The first angle offered a strong and clear response: we are doing some good ministry and work as a church and should persevere in it, and if anything, we should confront more assertively the outside forces that have been chipping away at us. The second angle was also clear and strong, but exactly the opposite: we have failed to be a faithful church; instead we have become a clubby, conformist church that has little compelling to say to newcomers or our own youth. We should repent our lukewarm commitment and embrace a serious faith that is worth coming to church for.

Now, although there is truth in both of these first two pictures, I tend to think that I had it most right last week. Many of our problems, so I said, originate in the good things about our way of being mainline Christian churches: our intellectual openness, our progressivism, and our pluralism. But because of our weakness in the face of the great challenges to being faithful in our day, these good qualities end up working against us. The response is not to continue just as we are, nor become a different church. Instead, we need to live into being mainline Christians in a revised, more nimble way. I have some fairly straightforward proposals about how to do this, but I’ll save those for the end.

Because the real and total cause of the problems from last week—our problems with authority, with politics, and with asserting our faith—runs very deep. The factors that make us turn a right and good way of being Christian into something kind of lame and, O, namby-pamby, are deeply engrained in us and not easily changed, although I do think we need to try. What I think needs to happen in the long run is fundamental change in the way we think, and the way we pursue truth for ourselves. In fact, I tried to make this whole month-long series into an example of a better way to pursue the truth than our normal way. Let me explain.

When we hear talk about problems and solutions today, we usually either get some TED-talk guru who thinks he has all the answers: he’ll confidently tell you the one cause of the problem and the one solution. That makes it all seem so clear and easy, and we feel like with just a minimum of effort, we can understand something and fix it. Or: we watch the pairs of pundits on one of the many crossfire TV shows who very colorfully lay out what are supposed to be “both sides of the issue.” As if every single matter of importance just happens to have the same number of “sides” as we have political parties. And of course most of us already know which side we are going to agree with. So we’re not really getting a broader perspective on the truth from our “fair and balanced” TV pundits.

Whether it’s the TED-talk guru or the left/right pundits, the appeal is the same: laziness of mind. Our media culture is playing on our natural tendency to settle for the simplest solution. We want something easy to grasp that doesn’t challenge us, but makes us feel like ‘we really get it. Now we know the score.’ Well, for most things, we don’t. The world is increasingly complicated. Truth is rarely easy and simple. But the easiest way for the media to make money is serve up click bate, and we like this intellectual fast food.

Why are we hungry for cheap fare? I think we are frightened by all the diversity out there. No truth seems self-evident and reliable, because there’s always someone or some group who believes something very different. And there’s no authority that everyone recognizes and can agree upon. It makes sense that we hunger for the taste of cheap calories that make us feel satisfied, make us feel like we are grasping something reliable and useful, something that gives us power. So we didn’t exactly choose to have lazy minds. We were seduced into it by those who stand to make money or acquire power. Our fate was sealed once we made truth into a commodity, a consumer good./ This whole mess is typical for the way sin works. No one chooses all by himself to be a sinner. But we are still responsible for it, because we can acknowledge and resist it. (For instance: Remember that chart on media bias? It’s posted in the fellowship hall. You don’t have to watch badly biased news. But we like how it tastes.)

I’ve tried to give you a different way to approach the truth in this series on mainline decline. I didn’t play the TED talk guru, boiling everything down to one cause and one cure. Nor did I pretend that there are two familiar sides: a liberal view and a conservative view. Instead, drawing on many different studies, we looked at three different ways to tell the story of mainline decline; each one was biblical, and each called for a distinct response. And I hope it has been a richer and truer presentation of our problem than the kind of stuff you get on TV or Facebook.

Because of all this information fast food, we have lost patience for profound but difficult truths. That’s a problem, because the great truths of Christianity are profound but difficult. Take the Trinity, or the traditional doctrine of Jesus: fully human, fully divine. If we can’t get these truths in five minutes, we’re done and conclude there mustn’t be anything there worthwhile anyway. We like having our right to an opinion, and things that we can’t easily grasp annoy us.

How do we break this cycle? Actually, this one is pretty simple. For at the center of our life as a church is God, and we all should realize that we can’t grasp God. God is never click bate. We never fully understand God. Belief in God should teach us to be humble about the truth, not so that we give up on the truth, but so that we are always searching and hungry for what is higher and better.

Jesus told his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” It’s not as though his disciples knew nothing. But when God is revealed to us, we are given an identity and a purpose and a way forward, but we are not satisfied or filled. We are filled only with a desire for more and more. The revelation we have received will continue to unfold. So Jesus tells us, You must wait for the Spirit to “guide you into all the truth; …he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

Jesus is telling his disciples to humble their minds, be patient, and count on the Spirit to lead us. But if we are content in our opinions, then we will never learn and grow together, and there will be nothing higher that we are striving toward together. In one poll, 81% of Americans agreed with this statement: “One should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of a church or synagogue.” That’s stunning, and maddening to me. It makes no sense. “One should diagnose oneself before arriving at the doctor’s office; just sign the prescription for me, doc.” If we aren’t here to learn anything together, how then are we supposed to grow together in the faith, to strive toward a common accord?

I can’t see God. I can’t comprehend God. The more I come to understand God, the more I see that God is beyond my understanding. But that doesn’t leave me thinking, ‘No one can know anything about God,’ or ‘Your guess is as good as mine.’ The problem isn’t that there is too little to understand about God; it’s that there is too much. So what I rely on and humble myself before are these wonderful repositories of wisdom about God that we share at the center of our worship. Scripture is one. You never understand all of Scripture at once; there’s too much. You have to attend to each little part, sometimes just a single word, knowing that there is much more for another day. Our great creeds are like this; they give us the whole scope of who God is, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, without explaining how all of that goes together. But my current favorite is our liturgical church year, and that’s what the rest of my book is about. Our liturgical year presents us an orderly series of different portraits about who God is and who we are before God: humble witnesses to the incarnate baby, confused disciples called by a commanding Jesus, sorry penitents before the merciful judge, wondering and awestruck witnesses to the resurrection of the crucified, a new family gathered seeking guidance by the Spirit of truth. You never comprehend all that in one glance. You dwell in the fullness of each present season, knowing that there is much more for another day. We can trust ourselves to the inexhaustible riches of our liturgical year, more than we can trust our own opinion about this and that, or anybody else’s for that matter, mine included. Trusting ourselves to the cycle of the church year means having faith. But for many people, “you have to have faith” means trusting only my own experience of God. Well try something bigger. Try trusting in this encompassing wholeness of the liturgical year as a better mediator of God for us.

If you can trust yourself to the rhythms of the liturgical year, and to the ever new interpretation of Scripture that we do together, you can start weaning yourself off of the junk food diet of instant gratification with easy truths. That’s the long-term strategy I offer to all of us for the healing of our mainline problems with truth and authority.

But in the short term there are specific changes we can make that go to the problems we discussed last week, namely, the lack of balance in our mainline identity. I’ve set out eight proposals or thesis statements—far fewer than the famous 95 theses of Luther, and hopefully more manageable. They are a work in progress, so I look forward to your thoughts. I’ve put a brief version of them on your sermon guide. I want to comment on a few in closing.

Starting with the first. I’ve talked about God’s holiness and beyondness (or transcendence) already, both today and on July 15. I have come to think that, even though our affirmation that God is love is the highest truth, even love can lose its revelatory power if it becomes one-dimensional and unbalanced.

Second, I think mainline Christians sometimes don’t see a real reason to gather in public worship of God. We get good works, we get fellowship; because these are also secular goods that anyone can appreciate. /We don’t get why worship is necessary. But orienting ourselves in worship toward God as our sole truth and ultimate reality, while not easy, is absolutely vital to our future as a church.

Third, recovering sin and grace. I maintain that sin is an indispensible biblical word for naming everything wrong with ourselves and the world that calls out for God’s salvation. Now, all of these terms—sin and salvation—have been very poorly employed by many Christians, and that is why we are often uncomfortable with them. You will hear me use them very differently, but I would argue, even more biblically than supposedly old-time religion Christians. We need to recover the drama of sin and salvation, with great sensitivity. But if the world needs no salvation, and we aren’t offering any, then I’m not sure we have a compelling reason to be here.

I mentioned the fourth proposal last week: many of us have trouble articulating how Jesus is divine, but this belief is deeply imbedded in our sacraments, our liturgy, and our hymns. We had an adult confirmation series here that took Jesus the Christ as its theme. The participants were patient and enthusiastic, but I’m not sure if we got very far, and I’m not sure why, but I am committed to keep working on it, because I believe this is critical.

The fifth proposal asks: what is the point of being a Christian? What is the goal? Is it to be a better person, or to get closer to God? Does the goal concern me as an individual, or us as a community? Is the goal found in this life, or in a life beyond? We have differing views about this. Mostly I want to include all of these into a rich, multi-dimensional sense of the purpose of being a Christian, and our liturgical seasons help us bring out the different ideas mentioned.

The sixth proposal may sound dense, but it speaks to our need to serve a role in supporting both our community, our families, and our personal needs, while also creating a distinct way of being God’s own people, set apart from the world. It’s a balance that requires great care.

I preached about politics, number 7, in June, and talked about authority, number 8, today.

I’ve already given you a lot of my ideas. I have more than probably anybody needs—plenty of putative answers to at least the questions that I have posed. But my answers are largely untested and unproven. I believe that we can craft and put into practice a mainline message that is different in some important ways from what we’ve been saying, but still recognizably mainline—true to our best commitments. It’s a message that will be more biblical, but not agreeing with everything in the Bible; more classical or in keeping with the long tradition of the church, but in some ways very modern and new. It draws on the work of many of my colleagues in theology, but for the time being is claimed by no one but me. I want it to be ours, because we need a shared way forward. And that of course means, you will change it. You already have changed me. May the Spirit of truth guide us into all truth, and declare to us what are the things to come.

 

Mainline Ills and Cures: “Plumbing the Depths of Our Responsibility” (July 15)

 

Proverbs 3:1-12 ; Amos 7:7-15

Call to worship: Ephesians 1:3-14

The Letter to the Ephesians, heard in our call to worship, tells us that God has blessed us in Christ. But as we read on, it becomes clear, and has become clearer to me in recent years, that this blessing does not mean we get a pass. (In the same sense as God’s words to Amos, “I will never again pass them by.”) Again from Ephesians: “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love.” God’s election of us in Christ doesn’t mean that we get nothing but God’s love and grace, while those sinners out there get all of God’s wrath, if we still even believe in wrath. Instead, our election means that holiness is particularly on us. We receive the fullness of all God has: grace and judgment, love and wrath. That is how it was with God’s messiah, when according to the deepest mystery of faith, Jesus the beloved took upon himself judgment for the sins of the world. And that’s how it has always been with God’s people. Those whom God chooses, beginning with Israel, God also judges. We heard from Proverbs: “Do not despise the Lord’s discipline, or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves (or reprimands) the one he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Love and judgment or correction, aren’t opposites, they must go together, as every parent knows. Have we forgotten this? Have we repeated so often that God loves us the way a spoiling parent loves us that we have forgotten, God is also our judge?

We don’t like thinking of ourselves as “the elect.” It sounds so exclusive and presumptuous. But if we are elected by God to both judgment and grace, election makes more sense. Yes, God has chosen us and the church is blessed and special, but with that election comes enormous responsibility and humility. When Israel lost that humility and came to think of God as their cheerleader, God sent prophets like Amos to drop a plumb line in the midst of God’s people, and make them see just how crooked their walls are. And perhaps it took a devastation for Israel to again learn humility. We seem to be on the way to that. Let us not wait until our sanctuaries are laid waste. Let us open ourselves to God’s judgment today.

We are considering this month various ways of telling the story of the decline of mainline churches across the country. Last week the story went like this: we have been in many ways a faithful and true church, but the world has lost interest in us; or maybe we are even under attack by conservative evangelicals, or by forces of secularism that no longer have any respect for what we do. And so we have lost members and influence. If this is the story, then what we should do in response is be true to the good work we are doing, challenge our detractors as best as we are able, and trust in God whether we succeed or fail.

By opening ourselves to God’s judgment this week, the story is going to look very different. As with last week, we have to try it on and see if it fits. As I mentioned last week, the story doesn’t begin with a slow decline starting in the 1960s, but with a remarkable boom in the mainline immediately following World War II. Some of you remember that time, and it is easy to become sentimental about this rather brief golden age of the mainline church. I’ve heard stories about the packed balconies and crowded Sunday school rooms. Some people are naturally inclined to think, if only we could go back to that.

But was the church really so faithful back then? Why did so many people suddenly want to come to church? How much of it was just that church was the thing to do? Wasn’t it what young families, and especially white and middle class young families did if they wanted to look respectable and feel connected? Historians tell us it was a time when Americans wanted to feel good after a terrible War. A booming economy with all kinds of new consumer goods made them feel good, and so did the church. Remember Rev. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking? It was also an age of paranoia about communism; the church could stand for everything upright and American. It was an age obsessed with fitting in, and the church not only became a way to fit in—the church itself did its best to fit in to prosperous but paranoid middle America, rather than asking tough questions about what we should be doing with our newfound wealth and power.

Now some wonderful Christians came out of our churches in that period, but how seriously did the church of the 40s and 50s take advantage of its opportunity to really form people into a faithfulness to God? How much did we really try to reshape American culture? How much did we trust the Lord with all our heart, and not rely on our own insight—on whatever counted for wisdom in small town, middle class, 1950s America? I’ve heard stories about parents just dropping kids off for Sunday school, and people in the church making people feel unwelcomed for being divorced, or having racially mixed families, or whatever. How much did the church do to address the serious racism in our community back then? (Not to mention now.) Only those of you who were there can rightly judge, how blameless we were before God. My point is that we don’t need to hold up our pre-decline days as the model for the church we should hope and strive to be.

We had a modest impact back then, and we had the wealth and influence to be a major impact—at least as big an impact as the evangelical churches are making today. But we became a conformist church. And when the kids of the 50s grew up and, for better or worse, found conformity stifling, they ditched the church. Now there’s a lot of debate about what caused the upheaval of the 60s. But dare we imagine God seeing our failures precisely in our time of success and plenty and saying to us, Behold I am taking away your full balconies and your scampering hordes of children and will bring you desolation, for you have made my holy temple into a place of pettiness, gossip, and display.

I know it takes a lot of nerve for me to say all this, and I’ll be accused of being negative.  Scripture does talk like this. It’s not how I talked last week, when I talked about persevering in our strengths, nor how I’ll talk next week. But we should be able to accept our own responsibility for the failures of the church, and to receive that with all the gravity that comes with failing before God. We clergy and denominational leaders bear our share of the responsibility; I’ll be talking about us more next week.

But much of this responsibility falls on the laity. I’m not pointing the finger of blame at you individually, whether you were alive in the 50s or not. The problem is the culture and situation of the mainline church, all across the country, and we are all the inheritors of that culture. None of us created it. But we are all still affected by it, and so we need to take responsibility for it. That culture by and large wanted a church that would complement our middle class lifestyle. It wanted a church that would provide the services we were in the market for: values education for our children, comfort and consolation for those parts of life that weren’t in our control, and a place for socializing that was more polite than honest, more pleasant that demanding. In supporting this culture, did the church trust in the Lord with all her heart, not relying on her own insight? Did she despise the Lord’s discipline? Those of you who were around then can provide your perspective, and I would love to hear it, but we all must answer for the continuing legacy that was formed in those years.

That legacy has left us with a problem. I can’t determine if it came from the 50s, or 60s, or 70s, or if it goes all the way back to the 4th century when Emperor Constantine made Christianity into the “official religion.” But today we have this problem: we don’t view religion as very important. When asked in 2015, somewhere between just 40 and 50 percent of Mainline Christians said that their religion was “very important.” By contrast, 74% of Southern Baptists and over 80% of Pentecostals replied, “Very important.” Guess which mainline denomination came in at the bottom? Only about 39% of members of the United Church of Christ said religion is “very important.” That represents nothing short of a failure of our church to take God seriously. And that is a grave failure whether we are growing or shrinking.

But many theories suggest that the lack of a powerful faith commitment in the mainline churches is a significant cause of our decline. Why join and, just as important, actively participate in an organization that does not seem to take itself very seriously, that makes no claim on you? Our churches are “lukewarm” places, as John Cobb puts it in his book on mainline decline, with little room for reflection and controversy. Yes, we are welcoming, wherever you are on life’s journey. But why commit your heart to a group that isn’t going to take you beyond where you already are? This appears to be a question that especially young people in their 20s and 30s are asking, because they are dropping out of mainline churches in rates never seen before.

And I think it’s no coincidence that the conservative evangelical churches, despite all their problems and hang-ups, have either lost fewer members or have even grown while we were shrinking. When people go to evangelical churches, they know that something is at stake, that church really matters, that our relationship with God is of utmost importance. I don’t want to and could not be an evangelical. But imagine if we had the gravitas of those churches, without all their parochialism and narrowness? Don’t you think we’d be outgrowing them? Imagine if like evangelicals, we liked talking about our faith, reading books about it, holding discussion groups. I shouldn’t have to preside at an empty sermon discussion table, like I did last week. I’m not going to try to guilt you into going. That won’t work. You can’t fake an interest if it isn’t there.

Please understand, once again, that I’m not trying to shame you as individuals; I’m saying to us as a church, this is our culture. We are all stuck in it, whether it suits us or not. What’s wrong with mainline culture that it can’t generate that passion and commitment that makes people really want to be shaped, heart, soul, and mind, by their faith? How are we going to change it? I think that’s crucial, not only for stemming our decline, but making us a real people of God who do not rely on our own insights but allow the Lord to make our paths straight.

This is the week for you to take responsibility for our mainline culture. What we can do about it is repent. Each of us can this day renounce our lukewarm commitment, our tendency to see the church as my service provider, rather than seeing my service to God as the only thing that ultimately matters. We can renounce that and commit ourselves to a renewed faith in God, by which we shall be remade in the image of Christ.

But I think it would be naïve and a little heartless to leave it at that. You don’t usually change a whole culture by a call to repent. And not just because the flesh is weak. It’s because that there are important reasons why that culture got to be that way in the first place. So without taking anything away from the call to repent, which is completely legitimate and necessary, I want us in conclusion to have some compassion on ourselves and on each other. Singular devotion to God is hard, harder than ever. There have always been distractions away from true worship, always been other gods. Today our gods may take the form of hitherto unknown wealth and military power, mind-numbing technology that continually outpaces us, or the glitz and glamor of expertly manipulated media that is always persuading me to just look out for me and mine. All of this distracts us from God and love of neighbor. But God himself comes to us with so many question marks attached. We have so many questions about God that arise from science, or from our awareness of all the other religions in our world, many of them just down the street from us. And so many people just don’t seem to need God in any real way; why should we? Living with these questions and feeling nonetheless confident about our belief in God is really hard, and it probably weighs on us more than we care to admit.

It is particularly hard to be faithful to God in the good and right way that we mainline Christians try to be faithful: we don’t belittle other religions, we celebrate and respect them. We don’t think our way alone is right. We are very careful about judging others or enforcing rules or wielding authority over others. We recognize that ambiguity touches all things, including religion; it’s not all black and white, rather, there’s so much gray. That is the right and honest way to be faithful, in our day and age—so I believe. But it leaves us wondering exactly what is it that we are faithful to and what difference it makes.

We have indeed failed in many ways to be the church God would have us to be, and we must take responsibility for that. But we are up against challenges that we did not invent, and trials that we did not ask for. Next week we will shift terrain again, finding ourselves somewhere between last week’s holy pride and this week’s call to repent. We will consider how the very things that make mainline Christianity what it is, things that are in one sense our strengths, also give rise to our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Our response to this challenge can’t be just to persevere in our good works, nor to repent of who we are. Instead, we might need to learn balance and nuance, so that we can sustainably live into the richness that is ours by virtue of being mainline Christians. May God preserve us. Amen.

3rd in Lent (3/3): What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Our Religion?

A challenging topic, which some might have found off-putting.  It was an interesting message to preach right in front of the communion table, however. 

Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22

We heard the Ten Commandments read from Exodus. Now, people make a big deal out of the 10 commandments, and some have tried to post them in public places, to make them some official moral code. Others are content with the commandments as an insightful personal guideline for living a moral life. All these folk are thinking mostly of the last five commandments: honor your parents, don’t murder, cheat on your spouse, steal, slander someone, or scheme about getting your hands on your neighbor’s stuff. Do we really need a divine revelation about these matters? Sure, some people break these commandments; but I can’t imagine they have no inkling that they shouldn’t. Because most cultures, most religions agree about all these commandments. And that’s great.  But for that reason, these five commandments don’t seem very revelatory to me. They seem like common sense. And I’m just not inclined to pat myself on the back because I follow five common sense moral principles.

But the first five commandments, which many pass over to get to the common sense second five, are where I think things get really interesting, really revelatory. These commandments show us that some of the most important sinning that we do is nothing so obvious as murder; real sinning happens precisely when we are being religious. And this is revelatory, because don’t we imagine that things like prayer and praising God’s name are good, pious, honorable things to do? Aren’t we inclined to think well of someone who attends church regularly and prays often; but we are suspicious of someone who observes no religion, even if that person otherwise seems like a good person? (In polls, Americans have ranked atheists among the least favorable groups; in one scenario, an atheist was deemed equally as untrustworthy as a rapist.)

God apparently doesn’t agree. God in the Bible is much more concerned about those who misuse religion than about those who have no religion. Idolatry is a bigger problem than atheism. In our prejudiced minds, we might hear the word “idolatry” and imagine some primitive “native” bowing down to a little statue. But Amos, in our call to worship, was talking about Israel’s idolatry. And we have to wonder if his hard words could apply to us, the New Israel. An idol is simply any part of our religion—it doesn’t have to be a little statue; it could be an idea, or value, or practice—that comes from our small minds, not from God’s Spirit. And we all do this. Who here has not inserted something of your own wishes and imagination into your view of God? We all commit idolatry, even if in little ways.

And in the words of Exodus, “we make wrongful use of the name of the Lord.” In Sunday school, right, we learned this as “Do not use the Lord’s name in vain,” and it meant do use God in swear words. (I can still remember my Sunday school teacher demonstrating, very self-consciously and tentatively, a swear word using “God.”) That’s not it. This commandment is about claiming to speak for God when you don’t. The ancient Israelites understood, better than we, that is not wise to throw the word “God” around. They understood that God’s name is holy. And it should be obvious who in this room is most in danger of claiming to speak for God when you don’t: me! I guess that’s why you spend so much of our budget on me, because I bear the occupational hazard of making wrongful use of God’s name; and notice Exodus says, “The Lord will not acquit anyone who makes wrongful use of his name.” My goodness, you people have led me to sell my soul!

In his book God Against Religion, my friend Matt Boulton notes that, at the beginning of the Bible, there is no temple or worship in Eden, and at the end of the Bible, no temple in the New Jerusalem of Revelation. “Religion,” he writes, “far from being the happy solution to the basic human crisis of separation from God, is rather the very occasion for that crisis in the first place.” Religion done wrong is what most separates us from God, and religion is always done at least a little wrong.

So our question this week is this: Must we give up our religion to follow Jesus Christ? We have all this religious stuff that we do. Images we have for God, things we say about God and to God, prayers we fall back on, values that we assume are based on God, rituals we perform. How much of all that religious stuff might be misguided? How much of that might be idolatry? (Because there doesn’t seem to be much neutral ground when it comes to God.) This religious stuff might be the stuff God most requires us to change.

Jesus himself demonstrates out this cleansing of religion in today’s reading from John. He’s not a Christian criticizing “those Jews,” he’s purging his own established religion, the only true religion of his day, of its corruption. He pointedly commands: “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” We can only imagine what Jesus would do if he came in here. Would he overturn our tables, and pour out our collection baskets? Maybe he’s exclaim: “Hey, nice windows. Smart investment there.” Who knows? He wouldn’t drive out our sacrificial animals because no one has those anymore. But do you know that religious scholars commonly refer to America as sporting a “marketplace of religion”—that’s the idea that churches have to compete like businesses to attract “consumers” of religion. You’ve heard the expression “church shopping,” right? And of course the customer is always right; if you don’t like what you hear, you can pull out and go elsewhere. It’s not all bad, I suppose; this marketplace of religion keeps churches on their toes. But in our own way we’ve absolutely made our Father’s house into a marketplace.

At the end of the passage, Jesus cryptically refers to the temple of his own body as a replacement for the temple in Jerusalem. This idea is absolutely critical for how Christians think of worship, but it’s so deep we can barely begin to understand it. We don’t have a temple. We don’t believe God resides in this building, as such. The closest we come to that is what we will do momentarily: communion. Jesus promised his continual presence with us in this meal; this [gesture] is our ultimate assurance that we have access to God through the stuff of worship, even the material stuff of bread and drink. And that could invite idolatry. But the presence of Jesus and of God in this meal is shrouded in mystery; to claim, as many do, that the bread becomes Jesus’ actual body and the juice his blood, I think is way too literal, a little ghoulish, and maybe even idolatrous. Christ is present in this meal but we can hardly say how. Consider this: Before we partake, we’ll say together: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That’s basically like saying Christ is present to us as a past story that culminated in his death; and Christ is present now in God’s eternal beyond, risen; and also Christ is not yet fully here, but will come again. This ancient saying points to just how complex and mysterious is Christ’s presence in our worship. Christ is no idol; he remains quite beyond us.

Through most of the year, we rightly emphasize Christ’s risen presence to us, and our presence to him before the Father. Communion can even be our momentary elevation into God’s heavenly banquet. But today, in Lent, we are right to recall that this meal that we share with God is also a reception of God’s judgment upon us—the bread that had to be broken for us, the cup that had to be poured out. In Corinthians, right after Paul recites the words of institution, which we will hear later, he adds this: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. …But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”

Lent is the right time to judge ourselves, to discipline ourselves, and when we do so truly, it is Christ who judges us. We have to recognize our worship of God as both this gracious access we have to God, which even makes us partakers in God’s own eternal life; but we each have to judge how we use religion, and seek to purify our religion, because religion is also the most serious source of our sinfulness. Maybe our religion is too much about me, and not enough about God. Maybe we picture God as too stern; or maybe we do not rightly honor God’s holiness. We certainly shouldn’t fall back on the old refrain: we’ve always done it this way, so it must be right.  And this judging of ourselves is part of God’s good gift of true worship, which is only made possible because of our Lord. Only in Christ Jesus, our Mediator, can we conceive of being fully one with God in righteousness, even while we are condemned and judged in our sinfulness. Most decisively on the cross, Jesus has brought together God’s mercy and judgment, and because of that we worship him as our true spiritual food and drink.

Second in Lent (2/25): “What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Our Connectivity?”

Moses photo

1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Mark 8:31-38

Last week, I asked whether we should become more aware of our mortality. I suggested that we should, if doing so makes us more aware of others. Our life projects—the way we attend to our plans, ambitions, schedules and so forth—can make us oblivious of others. Becoming aware of our mortality, and the inevitable limit to our life projects, can open us up to the suffering and joys of others. But by the grace of Christ, of course, we don’t have to give up our own lives and live only for others; and we are given a way to accept our mortality without becoming trapped in anxiety, for in Christ we need no longer fear death.

For this week, I had a very different thought. Many of us are, in fact, more connected with others than ever before, so much so that real solitude no longer exists. Through traditional news media, we are daily engrossed in the stories of all kinds of people, all over the world. And through the newer social media, we can keep up with the stories from all kinds of distant relatives, old friends, former classmates. We can also connect with like-minded people whom we otherwise don’t know, or indulge our passion for a flame war with a faceless nemesis.

This is our so-called “connectivity.” We are connected, but I want to propose that this is not the same thing as being supported within the bonds of community or of love. In fact, I think connectivity is manifestly inferior to community—at its best. So why do so many find ‘virtual’ connections so much more attractive than the old-fashioned bonds of community? Well, we can blame the technology to some extent. The power of point and click makes you feel like you are really in control, a feeling of control that you never get when you are facing a real, living human being. When we hook up to a network, we remain individually in control and at the center. The network makes no demands on us, it is there to magnify my individuality. So I can go online and find a tribe to echo my all quirky personal preferences. A foody jazz lover who likes pretentious conversation and disdains pop culture and pro sports—sure! We’ve got a tribe for that. And this can be fun. It can also be a lifeline to people in a small town like ours with marginal identities—people who are not straight, or not white, or whatever. But nevertheless, networks are all about magnifying your own identity. The network makes other people into a resource that I can consume. And at the bottom of it all is profit. Companies like Twitter and Facebook feed our desire for networking for no other goal but profit. There are no ads in face-to-face communication (yet); no one makes money off of it. Connectivity is profitable.

So you end up with people choosing to network in a way that puts them in control, rather than accepting the self-limiting joys of face to face community. Ever go out to dinner and see a couple or even a whole family, each on a device, instead of talking with one another? Oh Jessica and I love to wag our tongues. But before we get all self-righteously indignant, I remember going out to awkward dinners as a teen with my parents where silence predominated, as my mind wandered off elsewhere. I would have loved to have had an iPhone back then. Let’s admit that some of the blame lies with us. We have failed to nurture the kind of love and community that provides an attractive alternative to “connectivity.”

This is an absolutely vital calling for the church. We are committed to face-to-face relationships. The church wisely bases itself in a real space, where we can gather in person, in our bodies; a beautiful space is nice, but some space regardless. We can’t just text a Thanks to God. We need to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God. And only by all of us being wholly here, in our bodies, can we really be one body, one community.

We are a family, not a network. And there is something humbling and grounding about saying: these people, in the flesh, are my family. It is humbling, and it can be a little constricting, but the rewards are so much greater than however many likes and re-tweets you rack up online. Because we aren’t each here to magnify ourselves; we are here to magnify God and to find our true glory in God. When we join our voices together in song and prayer, we become one body that is bigger than any one of us. Once people burn out on trying to engineer their own networked family online, they will come back to the virtues of flesh and blood community, and we will be here to welcome them. //

I suppose Jesus could have secluded himself on a mountain, like the mount of transfiguration we read about two weeks ago. He could have carried out his ministry by the ancient version of tweeting—allowing one or two disciples to visit him up in the mist, who would carry down his sayings to the people below, like God did with Moses on Mt. Sinai. But God was done with that stone tablet tweeting. God wanted to put God’s being in the flesh and bones of a human person, and be with and among the people, even if it carried great risk. So Jesus taught openly, and we read about him mixing with his disciples and the ordinary people, but also his enemies who would destroy him.

Yet even his disciples are not always Jesus’ best friends. They, like us, are constantly flubbing Jesus’ message. So today we see Peter, face to face with Jesus, flub it. Jesus tries to pass on to his disciples a difficult truth, that he must suffer and die. And Peter, who is no dutiful delivery boy like Moses, gets in Jesus’ face, and rebukes him. Now, hearing this story, I don’t think Peter is there for us to approve one moment, and scold the next. The Bible isn’t really about these characters who lived long ago. Instead, try reading yourself into the Bible. And this week, Peter stands for the best of us. We are the disciples who invoke Jesus’ name and presence, and we confess him to be the Christ. And we are the ones who tempt Jesus. Remember last week, how Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, but we got no details from Mark. In today’s story, Mark has news for us: we are Satan (Ha-satan in Hebrew just means the Accuser or Tester). Like Peter, we get it O so right one moment, and O so wrong the next. It’s like the closer you are to Jesus, the more wrong you can get it.

This is true for us. When we leaders of the church get together, we who love the church so much that we give our time and effort tirelessly to it, we also get it wrong. One moment we say, God is all about grace and love and selfless giving. The next moment we are saying things like: “Are we getting our bang for our buck? Or: What are we getting out of giving these scholarships and goods to the needy? Or, how are we going to get those deadbeats to pony up? Or: we better set some policies; otherwise people will get something for nothing.” It’s understandable. When you are placed in charge of maintaining the church as an institution, these kinds of questions are hard to avoid.  They are a temptation.  And when Peter rebuked Jesus, he was probably just thinking, how are we going to maintain this movement if our leader has to suffer and die? He was so concerned with Jesus being successful that he was willing to tell Jesus to shut up. Understandable though it is, the only answer can be: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Notice that Jesus said this while turning and looking at his disciples; he’s not talking just to Peter, but to all of us.

But unlike Judas, Peter is saved. Judas stealthily betrayed Jesus, conspiring with Jesus’s enemies while pretending to be loyal and contented, apparently. Judas would have loved texting. He could just follow along behind Jesus as he preached, tweeting out fake news and quotes taken out of context, all under the hashtag, #crucifyhim! / So Peter was a true disciple not because he always got it right, but because when he wanted to deny Jesus, he did it to his face. And he didn’t run away when Jesus harshly corrected him.

So, do we have to give up our connectivity to follow Jesus? Well, completely giving up all communication mediated by devices would be almost impossible for some of us. But what we do here has to be face to face. We have to ready to face another’s face that doesn’t know what to say, that has only sighs too deep for words, that sheds tears, that needs a hug. I’ll take that over the flames, the pretentious witticisms, and the humble bragging of Facebook. Several of you cut back on Facebook and have reported feeling more alive and at peace. Good. If you are spending lots of time on social media, Lent can be your time to repent and change your ways. Then you can invest more in communities like ours, based on face to face, honest to God relationships. If you are not on social media, you can commit yourself to making us truer to our face to face community, because that is what the world needs today.

So much for social media. What about our connectedness to the news media? I’ve preached and written before that we should unplug from our media networks so we can focus on our local community, where we can make real and effective changes. Corporate news media want us to believe that only the big, hot button issues matter. They want us all to watch these massive, global issues unfold day by day, so they can make their ad money, while we feel powerless. Do we need to give up our connectivity to follow Jesus? Well, we who are news junkies should unplug at least a little and get back to our embodied reality in community.

But not completely. We shouldn’t have to focus on Granby, and ignore the rest of the world. Jesus and his disciples had their sights also set on the larger world. We should care about, pray about, and work to effect at least small changes in our larger world. And we are part of a world-wide communion of churches that can really do this. In our day, we must rely on the news media to learn about our larger world. The problem is, we can hardly touch that news media without contaminating this community with all the bad forces of division that dominate the media. Consumers of news more and more live in silos in which we only hear what we already agree with. It is causing a growing polarization in our country, and is threatening our democratic order. That polarization is already here in this room. Just try bringing up President Trump, whom we can hardly avoid.

Paul asks, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the debater of this age?” He didn’t have the word “pundit,” or “talking head,” but he might as well be talking about the folks who flood our news media. The worst of these folks never have something thoughtful or surprising to say. They never come off as vulnerable or searching. Not your Anne Coulters or Bill Mahers. They say exactly the kind of things you expect and want them to say. We like to watch them because they take our narrow prejudices and parrot them back to us, but making them sound more savvy and cocksure than we could ourselves. They are there to assure us that everything that is wrong with the world is really the fault of those people, again! And we like to hear our own small minds aggrandized. It’s all about power. We feel weak, and unsure, and so we latch on to some talking head that makes us feel sure and powerful. That’s just what Jesus didn’t do for Peter.   But appealing to our weakness and fear is what counts for wisdom with our consumerist news media, who are driven ultimately by profit, not by the search for truth.

Hear Paul’s words for today: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” For Republicans demand loyalty, and Democrats desire sophistication, but “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block” to those who each in their own way are driven by power, but to those who are called, both Republicans and Democrats, “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Paul is talking about the cross here, the cross that lies at the end of our Lenten journey. Jesus’ acceptance of the cross is God’s way of saying, Even if I’m right I do not count success and power as the ultimate goal. The wisdom of the cross is a humility that insists on loving even an enemy who is terribly wrong. You won’t hear that on the news media. And I’m afraid you won’t even hear it in a lot of churches.

So when it comes to the news media, we each have to discipline ourselves. Our minds have been entrusted with the wisdom of God. We are not at liberty to fill our minds with junk. Ginette found this nifty guide to news media bias, which has been used in college courses on journalism, so we put it on the back of your sermon guide. Toward the top are the media sources that are more fact-based and responsible, even if they are still identifiably liberal or conservative. Toward the bottom and sides are sources like Huffington Post and Fox News, that are very partisan and sometimes not responsible sources of information. Good journalism is a noble calling that we should honor and treasure. It doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear. And that’s good! True wisdom is not about what magnifies you and makes you feel secure and strong. The wisdom that fosters repentance is about fasting, not about doing what feels good. Your mind is a holy vessel that God has claimed and set apart for God’s wisdom. Don’t feed it junk food. Feed it what is wholesome and good for building up you, and our church community, in truth.

Resources:

To see the chart I refer to:  Media Bias chart

Another useful link

And another

Questions for further thought:

Are you willing to reduce your time on social media for Lent?

 

Consider the media chart available through the link. Where are the news sources you rely on? Would you consider changing your media habits, as a form of repentance?

 

Some people might respond: “It’s nobody’s business but mine what news I watch. I have a right to watch whatever I like. That has nothing to do with my faith.” Do you agree? Why might someone of faith see a problem with this view?

Annual Meeting Sunday! Jan. 21: “The State of the Church”

I went off lectionary for the day, and took a break from my “Love of God” series (all of a week into it!).  But lots of good feedback.  I wonder if anyone disagrees?  I’d like to hear from folks who do.  

1 Samuel 3:1-11;  Revelation 3:1-22

“The State of the Church”

In the Book of Revelation, John the Seer dictates letters to seven important churches of his day; we heard three of those letters. John shows a distinct attitude in each letter, ranging from encouragement to strong warning. I thought about using these letters to address our church in this way, on this day, as we take stock of where we are and plan for where we want to go. Would we be the church who is “dead,” who are told “to wake up and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death?” Or are we like the faithful church in Philadelphia, who has “but little power, and yet you have kept my word and not denied my name?” They are told “to hold fast to what you have.” Or are we like the church in Laodicea, who is so satisfied with their wealth and success that they are neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm. So God says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” like lukewarm coffee. It’s not my focus today, but we do learn something about God’s love here, when God says, “I reprove and discipline those whom I love.”

But I find these letters by John really off-putting too. They don’t read to me like letters dictated directly from God. John’s biases show through; he seems to think only martyrs are real Christians. Maybe John needs to lighten up.

We should be very wary of claiming to speak directly for God. So I have no letter from God for the church in Granby. And it may be that John himself is dimly aware of the dangers and limits of pronouncing divine judgment. The one constant refrain in his letter is: “Let him who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying…” I’d like to think that’s John’s way of saying, “Judge for yourself; if the Spirit speaks to you through what I say, then use it in good health.” Ultimately, the Spirit of God has to judge us from within, both individually and as a church.

So we must ask ourselves, what does God think about our church? And we must listen to one another. Those with long roots in this church can to share what was so valuable from the past that we need to preserve. Newcomers can add a fresh perspective, seeing the church for how it is today, not through some rose-colored lens that those with long associations might have.

I do have a role in this conversation. I see this church in light of the challenges that the larger church faces, and the resources its leaders have proposed. But ultimately I’m left with my own take on what ails the church today and what fresh ideas might help the church regain the right combination of faithfulness and power. I confess you won’t often find a pastor in a small church who has given so much thought and study to these questions, and believes, hopefully not foolishly, that he has insight to offer.

So what problems is the church facing today, and how can we address these? Let’s focus on churches like ours: mainline churches that are mostly middle class, mostly white, which don’t believe in dramatic spiritual powers and don’t believe the Bible is inerrant. Our kind of church is not doing well. According to the Pew Research Center, the percent of the population affiliated with mainline churches like ours has gone from 18% to under 15% just since 2007. And this is down from around 25% a few decades earlier. These statistics can be analyzed in a variety of ways, but they tell us that all is not well. Still, let’s not obsess about numbers; my first concern is always whether our mainline churches are presenting a compelling and faithful way of life, with God at its center. If we’re not doing that, then even if we were growing, we would not be a true church. And you’ll notice that the Book of Revelation’s letters never once mention whether the churches are growing. Let us be faithful to God, and be not ashamed of what we are but share our faith, and I trust God that all will be well. (Not that we don’t need to prudently manage the business side of things, of course!)

So what does that look like? Whether we are growing or shrinking, whether our budget is balanced or not, church should be a powerful experience. Church should change lives, even if it does so slowly. It should take your breath away. It should open you up to that raw, vulnerable, on-edge side of life, like you get when you’ve had a really intense personal conversation with a good friend, or better still, a stranger. You know what I mean? When your ears are perked up, and you feel you’ve finally let your guard down and exposed yourself to what really matters in life. At the end of such a conversation, I find I feel exhausted but also full of nervous energy. A good conversation, a great novel, even a movie that isn’t an escape but really calls to you—these can make you feel this way, like you are on the edge of a great precipice of life. Why shouldn’t church feel that way too—even more so?

What? You say you’ve never felt that way? Well it’s never too late. Imagine how Moses felt at the burning bush; or how Peter felt when, after pulling in a huge trove of fish, said to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am an unclean man.” Or how Adim Malek prayed as he fled for his life as a boy solider, and finally found liberation. Or how some of you have faced losing your own children, but God stood by you through it all.  I don’t wish these difficult experiences on anyone, but church can really happen when our hearts are at their most vulnerable and exposed. How many of our mainline churches tap into that kind of power? If they did, they wouldn’t be shrinking, I assure you.

Mainline churches should have that power; we’re talking about God, here, and what more than God can lead you to live life on the edge? But mainline churches have too often managed to make God ordinary, commonplace, blandly familiar, even boring. People who are hungry for life on the edge, who really want to feel life, have to flee the church and look to crazy extreme sports, or grizzly horror movies (or death metal). Maybe they fail to appreciate that ordinary life can also be extraordinary, but they are on to something. / Really, it’s shocking. Right where life ought to be most exciting and on the edge, we’ve made church the home for life at its most conventional—plain-vanilla. We should almost be proud of ourselves for such an unlikely achievement. How indeed?

I think what happened is the church went from praying for the Kingdom of God to come and for this age to pass, to recasting itself as a pillar of social order. It became the church’s role to uphold mainstream society. This dramatic shift started long, long ago; with Constantine, played a big part in the fourth century, but there were a lot of smaller compromises along the way. Our Puritan ancestors were remarkably counter-cultural when they lived in England, but when they settled here they became the establishment, and church became the place where rules were enforced and people kept in line. And still today, the small-town New England church might continue to assume that it is our role to be the center of town, the pillar upholding all the values that make a place like Granby what it is.

But exactly what those town-‘n’-chuch values are shifts through time and with location. Once it was important for church to reinforce sexual morality and patriotism, to shun divorce, and make anyone who was different feel judged—maybe they were foreign born, dark skinned, or gay. More recently, churches may reinforce the value of self-fulfillment and individual achievement; we endeavor to promote well-adjusted young people who have “positive values,” like healthy self-esteem. Often the main value we promote towards others is tolerance—“live and let live.” If you are up in Amherst, church might be a place to celebrate progressive political values, with just a touch of self-righteousness. In many rural areas, it’s the opposite—conservative social values reign, to which faith lends the hubris of absolute certainty that everyone else is wrong or degenerate. Now, don’t get me wrong; teaching values is, well, valuable. I do it. We can and should have important discussions about what personal and social values best align with the Gospel. But too often church serves simply to lend a vague divine blessing on whatever conventional values we mostly white, middle class people hold anyway; and predictably our teenagers will either rebel against all this just because it’s conventional, or the more conforming teens will ploddingly go along with it. But you don’t need a church to instill these values; the Bible just seems to get in the way of conventional values anyway—it’s such a strange book. No wonder people have stopped coming to church to imbibe conventional values, whether progressive or “family values.” You can rely on youth sports, Disney movies, and school to instill conventional values like self-esteem, hard work, and tolerance, in your kids.

None of this has anything to do with the real heart of church, as I want to present it to you: standing naked and vulnerable before the absolute God—placing yourself face to face with the God upon whom everything depends. That is what church alone can deliver; no other organization can. Church ought to be where everything superficial, everything fake, everything false is exposed; where we bring before the fire of divine love everything we have substituted in the place of real, unbounded living, to be burned away. Paul tells the Corinthians that they should be speaking with such a prophetic edge in church that when a new visitor comes in for the first time, “the secrets of” that person’s heart will be “disclosed,” and he or she “will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, ‘God is really among you.’” That’s power, not borne of manipulation and pulling heart-strings, but truth; real truth-power.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am looking for that in a church, but I’ve never been so explicit. Maybe you’re saying, Yes I want that! How do we get it? Good question. It’s nothing you or I can manufacture. At best we can open ourselves to this kind of raw, divine power: The God “who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open.” But we can try to clear out everything we substitute in its place: the god of convention, the god of Granby. We can choose instead to settle for nothing less than the true God who is far beyond our little lives. Maybe we find it hard to believe in this God. We can see convention; the everyday world has an almost oppressive reality to it. What is beyond it can’t easily be seen. Then the place to begin is with honesty. Wherever we are with faith, church has got to be the place where we are at our most raw and honest. You can’t fake it before God. Even if you’re not sure you believe in God, you surely don’t think you can fool God! Whatever God is, he’s nobody’s fool. So if we have intellectual doubts about God or are confused about God, or if we find the Bible strange or silly, we honor God by being honest about it. Nothing so dishonors God as pretending to be a ‘good Christian.’ Then church becomes just a show of piety, where you fake it for the sake of upholding convention; and then we’ve dethroned God. Instead, let’s be honest and vulnerable with our confusion and doubt, and only then are we open to better understanding. And then maybe the God we seek will be gracious and show himself here, will “come in to you and eat with you, and you with him.”

But maybe this isn’t what you come to church for. Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about, or you just prefer the God of ordinary life, of convention, who upholds everyday values. Maybe I’m freaking you out! You don’t need to be. I can work with where you’re coming from. God is our creator, the one who created the various orders in which our lives move and have their being. And God’s created goodness is still visible in the bonds of family, in ordinary neighborliness, in loyalty and reciprocity with one’s own people. I don’t think that these values by themselves are enough to make church powerful, and they are not the values we find at the heart of our redemption and calling in Christ. But some of you have helped me see that, seen in retrospect from the vision of that extraordinary calling we have in Christ, with its very unconventional way of being a distinct and holy people before God, the continuing goodness of God in even ordinary things can seem amazing. I continue to journey with you and learn; I hope you will do the same with me.