Choosing Now Over Later

Choosing Now Over Later

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We’ve been exploring together six choices that our church faces about our future. Following the outline of Paul Nixon’s book I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, we have have named these choices:

  • Choosing Life Over Death
  • Choosing Community Over Isolation
  • Choosing Fun Over Drudgery
  • Choosing Bold Over Mild
  • Choosing Frontier Over Fortress

And our last choice and the topic of today’s sermon, Choosing Now Over Later.

Nixon opens the last chapter of his book with a disclaimer that seems self-evident: Of course, there are times when waiting is a good thing. George Washington in the fall of 1775 wanted to attack the British forces that held Boston, but had he done so, the Americans would have been routed. The time was not right, and the Continental Congress advised Washington to wait, But the great general did not wait long. When the time appeared right, Washington attacked, and his audacity and assertiveness surprised the british and enabled him to frame key battles on his terms. George Washington was not one to wait any longer than absolutely necessary.

When it comes to truly urgent matters—like the future of our church—you cannot wait five years, three years, or even six months. You have to act. The leaders of the Civil Rights movement—people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and C.T. Vivian– understood this quite well. In Dr. King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail, he write about time and urgency, saying:

Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill-will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will…. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

 The scriptures agree with Prophet King. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

We live our lives one day at a time. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow never comes. Today is the only day we have.

No one dies yesterday and no one dies tomorrow. When we die, we die today.

If we as a church are to live into our calling as a church, we must redeem the days, because we haven’t much time. Our world is perplexed, our nation is adrift, confused, and divided, the fabric of our communities is threadbare and torn. We must act with the fierce urgency of now, and BE the church in these difficult times. There are people in our neighborhoods who long for a word from God to make life more meaningful, people who have been living in isolation from God and from their neighbors most of their lives. They crave connection. Hw long do we intend to wait before offering them ministries and relationships that can help them, restore them to their best selves, discover the joy of Jesus’ better way, and fall deeply in love with the God who longs to be connected to them? There are injustices and legacies of human suffering that must be addressed by God’s people. Is there a healing word from God? Can this mess we’ve made of the world ever be fixed? Can marriages be made whole, can children be reconciled to parents, brother and sister united, addictions overcome, demons of prejudice, racism, sexism, and classism be cast out? These things are all heresies, all contrary to the will of God who has called us to peace grounded in justice and fairness. God has entrusted this good earth to us, and we have raped and pillaged it. How long do we intend to wait before making common casue with other people of good will about doing something about economic injstice, discrimination by race and gender and class, or the plight of refugees in our broken world, and the unfolding genocide that threatens to annihilate entire peoples on earth. How long do we have to wait to be the church God has called us to be?

Paul Nixon, as he moves around this country working with struggling churches, has heard all of the excuses.

  • We need to get out of debt first.
  • We need to do a better job at pastoral care of our current members.
  • We don’t’ have enough workers for things as it is now, let alone new more ministries?
  • We first need to spend a couple of years on a self-study.
  • We need to wait until Mrs. Smith dies, because she runs the place and she won’t approve.

Guess what, says Nixon, if your attendance is stable and not in a free fall, a little bit of debt will not hurt your church, especially if the debt is related to the financing of something that is likely to help you grow. Guess what, if we wait until we have flawless pastoral care, we are making a choice to defer ministry to the wider community forever. Guess what, when a church makes a commitment to do ministry in its community, leaders emerge, because God is always speaking, always calling apostles who have encountered the Risen Christ to get out int the streets and get busy. And by the way, if you’re waiting for mrs. Smith to die, she will live to be a hundred and five, and it will be too late. The church will be closed.

Did you know there is a historic church up the river in Kingston, New York that was down and out, down to its last nine members? Well, a new pastor came and she came with a vision to feed people because they were hungry. And pretty soon the church filled with hungry people, and Pastor Darlene invited everyone of them to attend worship services. Over the years she invited thousands of people, and several hundred of them said yes! But I’m getting ahead of myself… Before the church began to turn around, there was great dissention among the church members at the changes they were seeing, and about “those people” who were coming to church. One day, Pastor Darlene was driving home from an out of town meeting, and when she pulled up in front of the church she saw that there were chains on the doors of the sanctuary. Her heart stopped. She got out of her car and walked into the church, climbing the stairs to the highest point in the church, and there she poured out her heart to God, saying, How long, God? How can I lead this church to welcome its neighbors? And then she had a vision, and the vision was of a key, and in her mind’s eye she saw the key in the top drawer of the secretary’s desk. So she went into the church office, opened the drawer, and lo and behold, there was the key. She took the key, walked outside to the chained doors, put the key in the lock, and sure enough the key fit the chains. She took off the chains and roped them around her neck like a necklace. And at that moment she looked up and saw a few members of her church walking up the street to her church—including the man who had put the chains on the doors. The church members were headed to a meeting, which turned into a turning point for the church. Sensing she needed help, Darlene went back up to her prayer nook up in the organ pipes for another conversation with God. And she distinctly heard the voice of God saying to her two simple words, over and over,  Love them, love them, love them, LOVE THEM!

Well, there are various accounts of got said in the meeting that followed. No one at the church talks much about it now, but there was a memorable exchange when one of the members complained that “somebody that looked like a drug addict sat next to me in church on Sunday.” Darlene countered: “Check the sign outside. It does not say Clinton Avenue Country Club! This is a church! We have to love folks and open wide our doors, not chain them shut!” And then Pastor Darlene moved from person to person hugging them one by one and saying to each of them in turn, “It’s all about love, and it starts with us.”

From the unchained doors a new church was born of the Spirit, a true Pentecost church—not a pentecostal church, but a church where, as on the day of Pentecost thousands of years ago, the Spirit of God began to break down barriers between people and created a fellowship of the least likely people one could imagine together in community. Members of the church now report that everyone who enters receives a warm welcome. And as the chains and barriers came down, people began to experience God’s grace and mercy in their lives and to be transformed by it. Not long ago they did some visioning together and asked how can we better serve this transient neighborhood, and they came up with the idea of a second chance home for pregnant teens. The last I heard the church was working to create a space for six pregnant girls, using grant money from the county to make the renovations, and addressing wiring issues that the church would have otherwise had to repair using its own money. In a short time this church traveled a long way. I’m not sure what will happen to these folks, but aren’t you glad that the legacy of this church, the single thing they will always be remembered for, is NOT that they were the church that chained its sanctuary doors shut! And don’t you think every one of those six girls, not to mention the six babies born, when they grow older, will remember how some people they didn’t even know, people who were just doing what God has called them to do, had offered them a place to live, and get their act together, and make a new start? I’m telling you, that church needed those girls as much as the girls needed them.

And that, my friends, is why we must choose now over later. Amen.

ng Now Over Later

er Later

  • Source: Paul Nixon, I Refuse To Lead A Dying Church, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006. This sermon is drawn from ideas in this book. I am grateful to Paul Nixon for his ideas, and excited that many of us are reading this book together.

Choosing Frontier Over Fortress

frontier church, horses

This sermon was preached on May 1, 2016. it is the fifth in a series of six sermons that I offer as reflections on our study of I REFUSE TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH, a book written by Paul Nixon that we are studying in several small groups. You are invited to join one of these small groups, which meet on Tuesday mornings in my office at 9:30 am, and Sunday after church at the manse. All are welcome.

We face six big choices as a church. Here is the fifth.

One day in Ohio I was meeting with some clergy friends, each of whom represented different Protestant denominations, when the Presbyterian minister began to gently chide the Methodist minister. “You Methodists,” said the Presbyterian, “you used to be everywhere! You were the ones who beat a path out west, riding out there with covered wagons, starting churches, expanding, growing, what ever happened to you guys?”

The Methodist minister sighed, and acknowledged that her denomination hadn’t done a good job of starting new churches lately, and in fact was losing churches and people at an alarming rate. From 1960 to 2000 the Methodist lost 21% of their people, a net loss of two million souls.

“Well, don’t feel so bad,” said the Presbyterian. “We’re not doing well, either. But at least you tried. While you were evangelizing the wild west, training lay preachers, sending all those circuit riding preachers on horseback all over the land, we Presbyterians were ensconced in our leather chairs back east having cocktails in hotels and waiting for the railroads to be built.”

We all laughed, but it was an an uncomfortable laughter. The truth is, all of our mainline Protestant denominations were in trouble, and we knew it.

It was not always so.

In Paul Nixon’s book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, he points out that from 1790 to 1830, Methodists grew from roughly 58,000 adherents in 1790 to half a million in 1830, a growth of nearly 900 % in forty years! They outpaced population growth three times over, growing from 1.5 to 5.1 % of the U.S. population during these four decades. In countless communities across North America, the Methodist Episcopal Church, as it was then called, predated the formal founding of the towns where they settled! The Methodist movement was so nimble that the churches were organizing faster than the municipalities, arriving prior to the people in some cases! It is estimated that one third of these congregations had no building. They met wherever they could, in homes, in schoolhouses, even in taverns, and out in the open air! A circuit was usually between 200 and 500 miles around, and the rider was expected to complete the course in two to six weeks, riding on horseback, stopping every few miles to set up another meeting, and preaching two or three times a day.  The pace was always hectic. This of course meant that meetings could happen on any day of the week, not just on Sundays. Of those churches that had buildings, many had a simple clapboard chapel that would last only a few years before fire or the church’s growth would force their replacement. The emphasis was not on the building but on the people of God, and “Grace” rather than education was considered to be the main qualification for the job.  And the measure of grace was the ability to speak to the heart and win people’s hearts and minds for Jesus. The life of a circuit rider was physically grueling.  They traveled, usually by horseback, with little more than the clothes that they were wearing through all kinds of weather.  On the frontier where conditions were primitive, there were stories that preachers sometimes declined the offer of a bed and slept out of doors to avoid the fleas and bedbugs.  Circuit riders were supported in their task mainly by the fraternity of other circuit riders, whom they would often meet at conferences.  A great camaraderie developed, and many circuit riders maintained a lifelong mail correspondence among themselves.  Illness and accident were constant perils.  At the beginning of the 19th century, about one in six of the circuit riders died on circuit.  Speciakl hymns were sung at the end of the preacher’s visit that commend him to God’s care in case he doesn’t make it back the next time.

But by the 1840s the movement;s growth rate was slowing dramatically, about the time that American churches began building substantial buildings. Paul Nixon notes that there is a real correlation between the steady slowdown of the Methodist movement’s expansion and the steady construction of substancial church buildings, and makes this prophetic declaration: The more building-oriented any church becomes, the more it will be tempted to take on the settled attitudes and habits of an institution, and to leave the free-spirited, frontier-oriented attitudes and practices that grew it to start with.

It is fascinating to study the historical record and to see how many churches share this narrative arc. Just this week, a small group sat in my office on Tuesday, and several long time members recalled the origins of our church, a story recalled in this wondeful booklet that was put out on the occasion of our church’s 75th anniversary. I love the way the story begins. Let me read it to you:

“Along the muddy unpaved roads of the Highlands in the bleak winter of 1922, a few resolute people trudged past cornfields and apple orchards to reach religious services in scattered homes and to take children to Sunday School in an old barn.”

It was the beginnings of The Church in the Highlands.

The square mile of Highlands farmlans grew since 1922 into a cicrocosm of middle class suburbia until every street became paved and scarcely a lot was left without an attractive house and landscaped yard.

The new church was named the Greenridge Congregational Church, a name that remained until 1930.

The old barn behind the home of Thomas Bernie at 151 Longview, no longer need for horses and cows, was converted for Sunday School use. An overhead hayloft accommodated some of the classes.

When news of the new congregation seeped through the city, a local newspaper editorialized: “There’s a little church up our way, urged on by zestful earnestness, that has shown itself to be contagious in the community.”

I love those words, “zestful earnestness, contagious in the community.”

That is the frontier spirit.

Sadly, too many churches have now settled into a fortress mentality, with big imposing buildings built in another age that look like impenetrable castles to new neighbors walking by. Our Tuesday morning study group took the “fortress test,” answering true or false to questions like these:

  • Less than six persons a year join our church from within a mile of our church building
  • All doors to our church building are locked during weekdays, even if some have an intercom and buzzer.
  • There are warning signs posted on our church property for any of the following: skateboarding, loiterers, unauthorized parking, trespassing on the playground…
  • The major outside doors from the street to our church’s worship sace have no windows to see inside
  • There is an imposing tower or steeple attached to our church building
  • Our facilities are closed for business most of the time during weekdays.
  • 90 % of church group gatherings and ministries are help inside our building (as opposed to elsewhere in the community
  • The church phone number sends me to an answering machine during daytime hours
  • None of our weekly worship services specializes in a style of music that many neighborhood people under the age of forty or fifty would listen to on their radios or electronic devices
  • The official church sign on the street offers no specific invitation to a specific event, or invites me only to worship services.

Well,we took the test, and we did not fare so well, I’m sorry to say. Like so many churches, our church is in danger of slipping into a fortress mentality, holed up in a fortress, oblivious to the neighborhoods around us. Our buildings have become idols and albatrosses.

It was not always so! We were once called by the local paper “zestfully earnest” and a contagious force in the community.” And we worshipped and dd Sunday School in a barn.

So here is a question: Even though we currently worship in a beautiful Gothic fortress, with lovely stained glass windows containing 7,000 pieces of rare glass and 1,500 pounds of lead made by Mantague Castle, a master craftsman who studied the famous windows of the Chartres Cathedral in France—can a fortress church go back to having that frontier spirit that it possessed at its origin?

Can we shift the focus of our ministry away from Board meetings in the building to street ministries in the community, in the homes and businesses and public spaces of White Plains? Can we go from an insider game—a church for members—to outsider ministry to the wider community? Can we become the church for others?

If you would have asked those circuit riding Methodist preachers what business are we in, they would shot back a quick answer: They believed that their mission was to “reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness over the land.” Folks, that is a BOLD mission.

The unstated mission that drives most churches today is “providing fellowship, comforting ritual, and care for insiders.” This would have shocked and horrified our Highlands ancestors! They understood their mission as changing the world, not exhausting all their energy on one another. They understood with infectious zeal that the mission of God in Christ is about carrying good news to the frontier, not guarding it in a fortress.

They are a great cloud of witnesses, praying for us, encouraging us, cheering us on, counting on us, to choose frontier over fortress. May it be so.  Amen.

 

  • Source: Paul Nixon, I Refuse To Lead A Dying Church, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006. This sermon is drawn from ideas in this book. I am grateful to Paul Nixon for his ideas, and excited that many of us are reading this book together.

Choosing BOLD Over Mild

This sermon was preached on April 24, 2016. it is the fourth in a series of six sermons that I offer as reflections on our study of I REFUSE TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH, a book written by Paul Nixon that we are studying in several small groups. You are invited to join one of these small groups, which meet on Tuesday mornings in my office at 9:30 am, and Sunday after church at the manse. All are welcome.

We face six big choices as a church. Here is the fourth.

“Choosing BOLD Over Mild”

A Reflection on Acts 11: 1-18

So, the early church had a meeting, and guess what it was about? Who was “in” and who was “out!” Does this sound like cliques in the high school cafeteria? Yes, that’s right, the church has not changed much in 2,000 years! “Headquarters” in Jerusalem was in a tizzy over the report that Peter had been breaking some very important rules and boundaries in his ministry with the Gentiles. Now what was this big scandal about? One might expect that it was over some deep theological controversy, that some were scandalized that he baptized them, or preached to them, or even healed them. But, no, the first question out of their mouths was, “Why did you eat with them?” The lines were very clear in those days, and so were the rules. You couldn’t eat unclean food and you couldn’t eat with unclean people, and the Gentiles were unclean people.  You could not eat with just anybody in those days! There were limits to hospitality.

What strikes me in the text is the transformation that has happened with Peter. When we last saw him, in John’s gospel, he was denying three times that he even knew Jesus.

But now we see a different Peter, standing before his challengers. He has already worked through this stunning reversal of everything he had formerly believed and practiced. His understanding of God’s will is not just for his personal life and faith practice but for the life of the church, and its core identity, through his boldness, was transformed. The church becomes a new, welcoming, inclusive community of love and extravagant hospitality to strangers. Peter meets the challenge of a new day with boldness. He does not retreat into the safety and rigidity and orthodoxy of the past. He chooses bold over mild.

Imagine what might have happened if Peter kept doing what he had been doing—eating with gentiles when none of his fellow Jews were around, then leaving the gentiles table in mock horror and hypocrisy when they showed up! Trying to be all things to all people, Had he done that, Peter would have have offended everyone.

The message seems clear: The church must decide who it is and declare it with boldness. Mildness muddies, boldness clarifies. The church in the middle of the road is roadkill.

That is the theme of Chapter Four of Paul Nixon’s book: Choosing Boldness Over Mildness. He begins the chapter with observation about American eating habits, which have changed over the past few decades. Starbucks challenged McDonalds for the best cup of coffee in town, ramping up a simple cup of joe to a dazzling array of hi-octane choices. McDonald’s countered by offering Premium coffee. The battle goes on, but guess who lost? Mild mannered coffee. Boldness won.

Mild mannered Anglo Saxon eating habits in middle America have given way to a bewildering array of ethnic choices, from Mexican and Cajun to Thai, Indian, and Pakistani, not to mention Portuguese, and a happy guy named Emeril on the Cooking Channel keeps preaching to us to “kick it up a notch.”

In politics, we’ve seen the disappearance of moderates, as Americans flock to mad-dog populist passion, reminiscent of Martin Luther, who boldly took his stand against the pope and religious establishment of his day declaring, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

This boldness used to be characteristic of us as Protestants. The Reformation, which is our theological heritage as Congregationalists, was a bold movement that challenged and reformed the status quo in Rome, risking life and and honor and fortune for what the reformers believed were things willing to die for. They were set on fire by the Holy Spirit as surely as the apostles were on the Day of Pentecost. In fact, the church was born in boldness, as on that day tongues of fire burned brightly and people spoke in tongues not their own in a display of unity and witness and communion that shook the world to its foundations and launched the Church of Jesus Christ, taking the gospel to every corner of the earth.

Boldness is nothing new. Boldness is our heritage. In the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit rushed like a gale-force wind into the mild mannered religion of the day, stamping people with a bold new brand of faith. What has happened to mainline Protestant churches? Why have we embraced mild, when our origins are revolutionary?

Beginning in the 1700s, freedom movements and democratic uprisings toppled monarchs and empires. In place after place, the ancien regime and the mildness and inequality and social stability of the old world was tossed out in favor of risky, messy, democracy—one of the boldest and most audacious forms of government one can imagine. And we in the Protestant congregationalist movement are the heirs of all this, choosing self government and autonomy rather than submit to centralized authority, rejecting pope and bishop in the name of democratic rule and governance, choosing boldness over mildness, on fire with the gospel and determined to change the world.

What happened?

Friends, we need a return to the boldness of the early church and the boldness of our Protestant forbears, to rally a base of passionate supporters who are sold out and committed to Jesus, even when their boldness may seem a bit controversial or offensive to some. Now, this does not mean that we should be overbearing or overtly offensive—choosing bold over mild doesn’t mean we have to choose stupid. It DOES mean we need to kick it up a notch. Paul Nixon makes it clear that NO institution will survive long in the 21st century without a passionate core of community support, which reaches into the current young adult population and has a mission far bolder than preservation of the status quo. Young people will not be drawn to the message of, Oh, hi, we are the Church in the Highlands, like, um, we have high heating bills? and a big sanctuary to fill? Would you maybe possibly, oh I’m sorry to be asking but, think about joining us and help us to survive a little longer before inevitably we die? Who would rally to that! The message should be, come on, hurry, Jesus is up ahead of us, he’s taught us to love and serve our neighbors, Look! The Risen Christ is walking with us, accompanying us, he has given us a mission, come with us and help change the world!

In 1983, John Scully was a successful CEO with Pepsi, when Steve Jobs from the fledgling Apple company approached him with a legendary pitch. Steve Jobs said, “John, do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?

In the Book of Acts, the boldness of the Holy Spirit was mission driven. It propelled the young Christian church out of the upper room where they had been hiding in fear, and into the streets of the city, taking the good news of the gospel not only to synagogues but to the halls of Roman power.

The bolder a church’s vision, the more engaged that church will be in its own neighborhood and community. The milder the vision, the more the church will resemble an episode of Mister Rogers on TV, boring people to death, where people sit quietly in rooms decorated to our grandmother’s tastes and moan about the budget and settle in for inevitable death. Many mainline Protestant churches look more like funeral homes than centers of revival. We are to be a hospital for sinners not a museum for saints. We worship the Living Christ not a dead orthodoxy. We need to take it to the streets.

So, this week a small group met in my office to discuss this chapter of Paul Nixon’s book, and their response to the book delighted me. What if we organized a community forum, and once a month we hosted a community gathering to discuss matters of urgent concern in our community? What if we did this in collaboration with our sister churches in the area—Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, white churches and black churches and Jewish temples working together to help sponsor it, promote it, and serve refreshments afterwards?

What if we formed a food ministry and called it, “The Largest Table,” and invited every segment of society in White Plains to come to church for lunch, serving locally grown organic food, with local musicians playing in the background and local artists and artisans displaying their handiwork?

In the short time that we have formed our small groups to study I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church I have noticed new ideas percolating, new visions being born, new dreams being dreamed. Some are excited about creating a quiet and beautiful space for meditation—that group should meet today after worship to plan next steps. Just grab some refreshments and sit at an open table and begin planning. Some have expressed an interest in a midweek gathering for food, fun, and fellowship each week. Some might like the ideas I mentioned today about a Community Forum and The Largest Table. Let’s get started! Do it now rather than later. Later may never come. If God is calling you today to be engaged in some ministry that opens us up and moves us out into the community to serve, get going! Call a meeting, do some planning, get busy for God. Isn’t that what it means to be a Christian, to share the good news with our neighbors? Once you catch fire and move with the vision God gives you, you will never go back to church meetings that waste time trying to decide who’s in and who’s out. We are all in. Catch the vision. Get out of meetings and get to work, church. Amen.

 

 

  • Source: Paul Nixon, I Refuse To Lead A Dying Church, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006. This sermon is drawn from ideas in this book. I am grateful to Paul Nixon for his ideas, and excited that many of us are reading this book together.

Choosing Fun over Drudgery

st francis laughing

This sermon was preached on April 17, 2016. it is the second in a series of six sermons that I offer as reflections on our study of I REFUSE TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH, a book written by Paul Nixon that we are studying in several small groups. You are invited to join one of these small groups, which meet on Tuesday mornings in my office at 9:30 am, and Sunday after church at the manse. All are welcome.

We face six big choices as a church. Here is the second of them.

“Choosing Fun Over Drudgery”

Well, it has been a bad week for harsh, judgmental, joyless religion.

The pope was in the news again this week, with his latest document from the Vatican–“Amoris Laetitia” — the Joy of Love, and it was a lot about….well, sex! And the coupling of sex with joy and family life.

Here is the place where we pause to remember the comedian George Carlin, who would have had a field day with this Pope, who is continually surprising us. After all, for most of my Catholic extended family members and almost all of my Catholic friends, sex is more intimately connected with catholic guilt than joy! George Carlin used to say that he was a Roman Catholic “until I reached the age of reason.” For Carlin, that happened sometime in the eighth grade, when all his probing questions about faith were answered with, “well, it’s a mystery.” Of course, as a lifelong contrarian, Carlin also wondered if it was O.K. for a vegetarian to eat animal crackers.

Timothy Egan, a former Catholic himself, wrote a wonderful article in the New York Times this week, in which he spoke of the Amoris Laetitia a setting the tone for the continuation of the Pope’s quiet revolution. Egan pointed to the title of the document, noting that it’s not called the Job of Love, the Duty of Love or the Unbearable Burden of Love. Instead, the pope implies that there’s considerable fun to be had in human relationships. You can even find in its 256 pages a mention of the “erotic dimension” of love and “the stirring of desire.” Yes, sex. The pope approves of it, in many forms.

Egan goes on to say that, while skeptics were disappointed that the latest apostolic exhortation did not change church teachings regarding Catholics who are divorced or in same-sex marriages, the document signals the end for one particular kind of medieval millstone — Catholic guilt, especially in regard to sex.

Egan observes that the new teachings from the Pope seem to be intended to transform the judge from a harsh judgmental institution to a place of genuine compassion, a church that seems to have decided that it needs to speak to the everyday lives of modern people who don’t believe that they should be constantly reminded of their inadequacies. The pope even offers tips  for how to keep “the passion” alive in marriage. In short, the Pope speaks of the joy of the erotic life, when it is properly ordered.

As a lapsed catholic, Egan marvels at how far his church has traveled, from the days when Catholic doctrine featured an exhaustive list of enumerated offenses. Sex was dirty. Sex was shameful. Sex was unnatural. Thinking about it was wrong. Premeditation itself was a sin, and so was flirting. Sex had one purpose: procreation, the joyless act of breeding. “The sixth commandment forbids all impurity and immodesty in words, looks and actions,” was admonition No. 256 in the Baltimore Catechism, the standard text used to teach the faith from 1885 to the late 1960s.

The old message was: If you break the rules, you’re condemned. Shame, shame, shame. The new message is: Welcome, for forgiveness is at the heart of this faith.

“Sex is a marvelous gift from God,” Francis wrote. “The stirring of desire or repugnance is neither sinful nor blameworthy.” Those living less than ideal marital unions are no longer vilified as sinners to be scorned.

Later in the week the Pope was in the news again, made an emotional visit into the heart of Europe’s migrant crisis on Saturday. The pope took 12 Muslim refugees from Syria, including six children, back home with him back to Rome aboard the papal plane.

The 12 people taken to Rome were three families whose homes had been bombed in the Syrian war.  At a critical moment in the continung refugee crisis in Europe, when European attitudes are hardening against refugees, the pope’s actions were striking and a visual reminder of the power of love over hate, and joy over fear.

“We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution,” Francis said, during his visit to the refugee camp, where he was joined by leaders of Eastern Orthodox Christian churches, in a sign of Christian solidarity.

“As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf,” Francis said. “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”

Francis showed reporters two drawings given to him by children in the refugee camp. One showed children drowning in the sea. The other showed the sun crying.

“The children have these things in their minds, and it will take time before these memories go away,” the pope said. “If the sun is able to cry, so can we. A tear will do us good.”

“Welcoming the stranger is the heart of the Christian message,” said Charles Camosy, a professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University in New York. While Francis is often seen as a progressive pope, Mr. Camosy said, he also is “pushing a more traditional understanding of what Christianity is all about.”

Exactly. Pope Francis is simply trying to follow Jesus, and do what Jesus would do in this situation. And have some fun while he was at it. The Joy of Love. Look at the picture of the man on the cover of your bulletin (above). Does this look like a man who is burdened by the job of leading tens of millions of people? Is this a man too busy to smile at a child, or to cry when given the art work of a refugee child? People of God, the most serious tasks in life require the lightest touch. Our life is Christ ought to be a matter of joy not a job.

Even serious tasks like fundraising can be fun, as our young choir members are showing us. In the days of the civil rights movement, faced with all the dangers and the daily reality of violence, men like CT Vivian and Martin Luther King kept laughing and shaking their heads at the absurdity and the sadness of the world, while never losing their ability to stay focused on the task at hand. Friends, serving God is a joy. We should never allow anyone to rob us of our joy.

Are we raising money? We can choose fun over drudgery. Are we meeting for small group discussion and bible study? We can choose fun over drudgery. Are we praying and working for social justice in our community and in our world? We can choose fun over drudgery. The joy of the Lord is our strength!

Last week a small group gathered at my house for pizza. Pretty soon people were sharing their visions for what they wanted to see in their church. Someone said, I would love to have a quiet space where I can just sit and be still and feel the presence of God. We thought about that. Various spaces in the building were discussed. Suddenly it occurred to us that there is ALREADY  a small chapel that could be used for this purpose. We started to imagine that space lit with candles, art on the walls, maybe the door opening onto a small peace garden, making use of a gifts from the Oleson family.

Others wanted to talk about how to celebrate the new boiler being installed, and how to say tank you to the kids and the parents of our ECC, for hanging in there with us and being patient with us. So we threw a party for them, complete balloons and yummy cookies and smiles for all.

The kingdom of God is a party! Jesus is the good shepherd. You in the flock are invited to the party! And there are others, outside, who need to be invited in. Because jesus has other sheep, still outside the fold. What good is a church if it does not serve its community? What good is a church that does not welcome the stranger. It has ceased to be the church when it loses its authority to welcome, to show hospitality, and to share our common humanity with joy.

Friends, this is the good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Choosing Community Over Isolation

This sermon was preached on April 10, 2016. it is the second in a series of six sermons that I offer as reflections on our study of I REFUSE TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH, a book written by Paul Nixon that we are studying in several small groups. You are invited to join one of these small groups, which meet on Tuesday mornings in my office at 9:30 am, and Sunday after church at the manse. All are welcome.

We face six big choices as a church. Here is the second of them.

Choosing Community Over Isolation

You know what they say on Easter afternoon in my line of work: “Christ is risen; the pastor is dead.”  That old clergy joke brough me some much needed laughter this Easter season, when I have been laid low all week by a bug, and shared it with Resea, who has also been sick all week. It’s been a tough week.

But it has also been a wonderful time, because we are beginning to see a good response to the study of our little book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church. Our church faces six critically important choices in these challenging days. Last week we addressed our first and primary challenge: Choosing Life Over Death. Can we be a people that welcomes new life, or will we choose instead to cling to cour fears, our doubts, and our unbelief that change and growth and renewal is possible? A group of eight gathered at the Manse after worship last week to discuss this idea, and we will gather there again today over pizza to discuss the topic of today’s sermon: Choosing Community Over Isolation. You are invited to attend, or if you can’t make it, join us Tuesday morning at 9:30 in my office.

 There is a deep, abiding hunger in our world for meaningful community, says Paul Nixon. Churches that organize themselves to feed that hunger find that they are thriving, and they repeat the pattern that we heard in the gospel this morning: People, joyful, gathered around Jesus the Risen Christ, who feeds them. Peter and the apostles are repeatedly told, Feed My Sheep! Don’t let anyone tell you that the world out there is not hungry for genuine spiritual communion. The world is literally dying for it. Sadly, the institutional church seems to have forgotten how to fee a hungry people.

Today, almost no one will remain loyal to any church or organization unless they perceive that it works for them, and not for itself. In a world of splendid and sumptuous menu choices, too many of our churches are offering up reheated Spam, available only at certain hours of the week, served to bored people who receive it without joy. Church has become ritualistic, tasteless drudgery. As Paul Nixon says, In a world of wonderful choices, there is simply no reason anymore for any of us to waste our time on enterprises that we perceive as boring or irrelevant. There are too many other good things to do out there that are far more tasty! A recent study of college students tracked from their freshman to senior year discovered what I have always known to be true: with each passing year, the students interest in exploring life’s spiritual dimension increases! Yet, over the same time, their sense that organized religion is relevant to that exploration steadily diminishes. Church, as we know it, simply doesn’t work for most young adults. It is important for us to realize that it neither the quest for spirituality nor for authentic community that turns this generation off. Rather, they are exasperated by the wearisome, irrelevant, institutional expressions of spirituality and community.

Our churches have become bastions of isolation, not places of thriving community. Go worship in any mainline protestant church in the country and here is what you are likely to find, according to Nixon:

  • People scattered across a worship space that is too big for the crowd present, sitting in isolation from one another.
  • No systematic design for contacting or connecting with people when they drop out of worship participation for more than a couple of weeks, feeding the common perception that “nobody cares whether I show up or not.”
  • A nice coffee time after the service, but a lack of settings where people move beyond small talk to share real hurts and hopes with one another.
  •  Fortress-like buildings erected in another era by people that used to live in the neighborhood, but who etierh died or moved somewhere else—so that the building now functions as an alien and intimidating presence in the new neighborhood, typically locked up for 165 hours a week.
  •  Ministries to the poor often offered at arms-length distance from the people served, rather than drawing neighbors together in partnership and authentic spiritual community.

I have been personally challenged recently to think more intentionally about how to move beyond isolation to authentic community. This week I drafted letters to area hospitals and funeral homes, offering my services to those in need of pastoral care during times of sickness, loss and grief. I’m also sending letters to service organizations in the city, looking for ways to get engaged in the work of the community, going back to my roots as a community organizer in Springfield, Ohio, where I was a visible presence in that community for decades, often going door to door, leading an Adopt a Block Program, neighbors reaching out to neighbors. As Paul Nixon observes, the most effective pastors turn off their computers, grab their cell phones and leave their offices for a meaningful period of time each day to interact purposefully with others in the community. I want to spend time with the groups that meet in our building, dropping in occasionally to let them know that I am here, that I am available, that I am a friend.

But no pastor can do it all. Everyone in this church must begin to think: community first. So let me make a deal with you: I am willing to meet any of you for lunch if you will arrange to bring with you a colleague from work or a friend, so that I can meet them as well. I’d even be willing to set up a short term group at your workplace or in your home, for communion and fellowship, for study and fun.

We know that people are hungry for communion, hungry for community, hungry to be heard and accepted and loved and welcomed, so let’s do it! All of this works best in small groups, which is why we are seeking to set up more small groups in our church. Small groups can be powerful forces for spiritual life! Thnk of a small group as a party, where we gather at least once or twice a month, to break bread together, to intentionally welcome new people into the circle, to pray together and to serve the community together, and to experience the presence of the Risen Christ together, there in our midst, serving us, feeding us, blessing us.

We are all apostles, sent by Jesus into the world to announce the good news that there is bread and fish enough for everyone, and everyone is welcome at the table!

Choosing community over isolation will require the development of new leaders who can carry the fire. What impresses me most in the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is that the other apostles recognized him, and accepted him, even though they were initially afraid of him, because he had been a major persecutor of the church! But they soon recognized that God had called Paul, and Paul had leadership ability, and they invested their lives in him, and were not afraid to welcome him into the company of the apostles. Anyone who has had an experience and encounter with the Risen Christ is an apostle, and you do not need to be knocked off your horse on the road to Damascus to be an apostle: You simply need to acknowledge that your relationship with the Risen Christ empowers you to do everything that is required in the ministry that God calls you to do, and that may include founding and hosting a small group.

In our small group last Sunday someone expressed a desire for an intimate, quiet space, where on could go to be in the presence of God, in quiet prayer and contemplation. Someone suggested using the Chapel just off the sanctuary for this purpose! All it would take is to light the candles, perhaps put a chair or two in the room, or a prayer cushion on the floor, and voila! Others expressed a desire for something to happen midweek—for various small groups where we can gather for discussion, for study, to learn some new skill, like cooking or baking, and to invite members of the community to join us. All of these things are possible, and I am here to encourage you and to assist you as you carry out the ministry to which you have been called. Jesus spent the majority of his time in leadership development with his band of twelve. The old world way of looking at church leadership is focusing on selecting the right people for the church committee structure. But when we choose community over isolation, we may discover that developing small group leaders is far more critical to our future than filling slots on a committee.

Choosing community over isolation means that we will need to trust each other, pray with each other, work with each other, and above all, listen to the needs of the community itself! And the community, in turn, will respond, because who doesn’t want to be fed, who doesn’t want authentic community, who doesn’t want to feel that they are being heard and that they are loved and cared for? Listen again to the earliest testimony of what life was like in the early church of the apostles:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

So be it.   Amen.

 

  • Source: Paul Nixon, I Refuse To Lead A Dying Church, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006. This sermon is drawn from ideas in this book. I am grateful to Paul Nixon for his ideas, and excited that many of us are reading this book together.

 

Choosing Life Over Death

This sermon was preached on April 3, 2016. it is the first in a series of six sermons that I offer as reflections on our study of I REFUSE TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH, a book we are studying in several small groups. You are invited to join one of these small groups, which meet on Tuesday mornings in my office at 9:30 am, and Sunday after church at the manse. All are welcome.

We face six big choices as a church. Here is the first of them.

“Choosing Life Over Death”

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Last week we looked at the gospel lesson in Luke where we read that an angel of the Lord asked Jesus’ disciples a strange question: Why do you look for the living among the dead? What kind of question is this? I mean, if you go to a graveyard, filled with tombs, Mr. Angel, you’re gonna see a lot of dead people, right?

Death is something we get accustomed to, even as we try to evade thinking too much about it.

Relationships end; so do friendships. People die, or move away, or get divorced. In sports, dynasties come to an end. The 2016 Yankees don’t look much like the ‘27 Yankees. Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault. Sometimes it’s caused by neglect or bad management or worse. Cities can die. Flint Michaigan appears to be dying. For a while it looked like the auto industry in Detroit was dying.  Some people think that civility is dying in the United States, that our culture is becoming increasingly crude, fed by reality TV which gets stranger and courser by the hour, and presdential politics, which is coming to resemble Reality TV. We can become desensitized to death. Death on TV or our video screens can become less shocking. More and more homes have multiple TVs, meaning children have greater opportunity to view programs without parental consent or supervision. By age 18, a young person in America will have seen more than 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence, according to the American Psychiatric Association. We hear about another terrorist attack or a mass killing on some campus or shopping mall or movie theatre and we can become complacent—just the latest shocking incident of gun violence. Once you have accepted the fact that twenty beautiful children in Newtown were shot to death at their school in broad daylight, I guess you can get used to just about anything. Death insinuates itself into our daily life, it is a spectre haunting our thoughts and actions, something we would prefer not to think about but know is lurking, silent, watching, waiting. Many live in fear of it. Some think that good manners are dying, that the simple act of writing a thank you note or sending an RSVP is dead, a thing of the past. And of course, we know that churches across America are dying.

So the truly shocking thing about Easter is that everything we knew or thought we knew about death is wrong! Easter changes everything! Death is not all powerful, and death will not have the last word! In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God dealt a death blow to death itself, and we no longer have to life in fear of death! This is the happy message of this Easter season, that we do not fear death, we can look it straight in the eye without blinking, and fearlessly choose life!

So when the angel asked that fascinating question to the disciples (who are after all, stand ins for us)—Why do you seek the living among the dead?— we can hear it with new ears today. Because of Easter, the living Christ is among us—this is why we have taken to reading the gospel from the center of the church, this is why as we are able we rise to our feet to hear the gospel—not just as a sign of respect for a dead man, but we are acknowledging that the risen Christ is alive and he is among us, in this very room, and where two or three together are gathered in his name there he is, in the midst of them! So stand up, people of God, do not fear death, and remember, you do not have to watch your church die, you have a choice. You can choose life over death.

Some of us have made a choice to read this little book, and you are invited to join us. Two groups have formed: one meets in my office on Tuesday mornings at 9:30 am and the other begins meeting today at the Manse after worship for food and conversation today and for the next five weeks. The book is titled, I Refuse to Lead A Dying Church. And when we finish reading this book we are going to read another little book that is just as exciting if not more so—WE REFUSED TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH: 15 CHURCHES THAT CAME BACK AGAINST ALL ODDS.

Here is another powerful question for us, and it may be the most important question we can ask ourselves as a congregation: Can we welcome new life?

Don’t be too quick to answer. Give the question some time to sink in; settle into it. This is a question we will need to live into as a church. Death is more than literal cessation of life, death  is a power that insinuates inself in subtle ways into our thoughts and into our psyches, an insideous power that inclines us to doubt and fear and downright unbelief. Can we welcome new life? Or are we so ingrained in the habits and the patterns of death that we accept a dying church as our due, as the new normal? You may recall the story in John’s gospel where a man has been lying by the healing waters of the Pool of Bethesda for 38 years, waiting for someone to help him, to get to the pool for healing, making excuses day after day, until the weeks and months turned into years and decades, and Jesus asked this man a simple question: Do you WANT to made well?

You see, some people would rather cling to their pathologies and bad behaviors rather than be healed. When confronted with the choice, deep change or die, many churches prefer to die. Is Church of the Highlands one of them?

It is OK to have doubts. Thomas doubted, initially, but in the end Thomas had a powerful encounter with the Risen Christ and he turned, and made a startling confession of faith, one of the first in the New testament, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas was converted and became an apostle of the Risen Christ he had doubted. According to church legend he was sent to India, where he founded churches and brought many to Christ.

The profound gift and mystery of Easter is that God meets us in places of deepest darkness and death, and always, always offers us the possibility of new life.  The question confronting us today is whether or not we will welcome the possibility of resurrection, and step into all that it offers for us, for our world.

Can I welcome new life? Can we as a church welcome new life?

We are in the season of Easter now, but for the church Easter is always the season. Paul Nixon was once asked, why that title, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, and he said, “Because I don’t think it’s biblical to lead a dying church. We are Easter people and we can choose life!”   May it be so.  Amen.

 

  • Source: Paul Nixon, I Refuse To Lead A Dying Church, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006. This sermon is drawn from ideas in this book. I am grateful to Paul Nixon for his ideas, and excited that many of us are reading this book together.

Discussion Groups Forming Based on New Sermon Series

REFUSE TO LEAD DYING CHURCH PIC

For the next six weeks I will be preaching on six important choices that we face as a church:

April 3     Choosing Life over Death: We are an Easter people; we can choose life.

April 10   Choosing Community over Isolation

April 17    Choosing Fun over Drudgery

April 24    Choosing Bold over Mild

May 1       Choosing Frontier over Fortress

May 8       Choosing Now Rather Than Later

Two Discussion Groups are forming to discuss these choices that face us. Books and Study Guides are available. Come join us:

TUESDAYS AT 9:30 IN PASTOR GARY’S OFFICE

SUNDAYS AFTER CHURCH AT THE MANSE

In the midst of life we are in death

memento mori image

In the Book of Common Prayer we find these powerful words: In the midst of life we are in death.

We are mistaken if we think that “literal death” is the only kind of death. Time and time again in the bible we see that “death” is not merely the cessation of mortal life, but also a “power” that insinuates itself into the living of our days.

As we continue in this lenten season, moving toward an ‘early Easter” this month on March 27, it is good to be reminded that Lent is the season that invites us to consider the places in our lives that are dead.

What is threatened by death, the “power” that strikes fear into our hearts and causes us to feel insecure? What is the connection between death and life? Isn’t the Easter message the implausible message that death has been overcome in Jesus the Christ? What does this mean for us today? How exactly are we to be “Easter people?” What part of us is awaiting new life? What is waiting to be born in us? How do we conduct ourselves as an Easter people, filled with hope, when all around us we are “in death,” as the world asserts its domination power, even daring to come into our midst in the church?

In what ways has “power of death” had touched us. What is dead in our relationships, in our church, in our society? What is dead within us, where we once had life?

This kind of self-examination is never easy, but self-examination is one of the cardinal Christian virtues. It is painful to acknowledge death and the denial of death is strong within us. But the attempt to “evade” or avoid death is futile. The best approach is to acknowledge the power of death, but to not be afraid or anxious. We can only accomplish this by placing our complete trust in God, the One who raises the dead..

As I write these words, I am aware that our church faces serious financial issues. Many of our members are concerned about the survival of the church. Some have observed the plight of other churches in our area and in our denomination and others in the “mainline.” Some of our Roman Catholic friends have seen their churches shuttered and closed. How can it be possible that a church dies? Isn’t that highly ironic, that the place where the Easter message of resurrection and hope is safeguarded has closed its doors? Has “death” triumphed after all?

Here is what I think: The Church itself is a momento mori, an object serving as a reminder of death. We may be familiar with this Latin term from Shakespeare and other writers, who often employed a skull or “death’s head” as a warning or reminder of death, inviting reflection on our own mortality. Momento mori—remember that you must die!

In 2 Corinthians 6: 7-9, St Paul says that a healthy Church is dying all the time. Its outward being constantly wastes away, whilst imperceptibly its inner life is being renewed by is the spirit. It lives –

by honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things

St. Paul says death is at work in the apostolic community, and by extension to the community of Church in the Highlands; it is by that process that life is somehow made available to those it serves.

The message of the gospel is clear: Remember death but do not fear it. Its power is limited, not absolute, and it too will die. Yes, church, we will all die, and yet we are alive. So carpe diem, seize the day! Make your lives, and your church, extraordinary, in the days that you have on this good earth!

Jesus put it this way:  I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.

Happy, blessed Easter!

 

easter risen christ

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Today is February 10, 2016. it is Ash Wednesday, traditionally the beginning of the forty day season of Lent. Today I accompanied my dear friend Gawain de Leeuw to the White Plains train station, where we greeted commuters making their trips. As we stood there together, inscribing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful, and repeating these words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I noticed two things. First, the people seemed so grateful–they were astonished that someone was there in a train station, engaging in a sacred ritual of the church! And they seemed so grateful! The other thing I noticed is how oddly comforting I found these words. We are “thrown” toward our death, we cannot escape our own impending death someday. In the midst of life we are in death, says the famous prayer. Bearing the ashes on our foreheads is a visible reminder of our mortality, and it can make us grateful for life–life itself. How precious life is. How much we wish to share it with other, pilgrims who journey with us upon this good earth. I hope you have a blessed Lenten journey, whoever you are, and wherever you are traveling this morning, on your journey through life.

GAWAIN ASHES