Nov. 5, 2017
I’ve said it before, but more and more I find these times to be incredibly confusing and unsettling. It’s our government, it’s our foreign relations, it’s the lack of civil discourse in society, it’s alternative facts and increasing polarization, it’s environmental degradation, it’s the degradation of community, it’s changing job markets, it’s Amazon taking over the world, it’s the cost of college, it’s terrorism and the thought that we’re growing accustomed to it.
It’s all that, but for me it’s also the Church, and by the Church I mean the greater Church of which we are a part. It is Christ’s Church and the state of Christianity in our country and around the world. There is no dispute that it is in decline. The church leadership seminar that I attended a couple weeks ago argued that by 2050 the state of the Church in America will be worse than it is currently in Europe, which if you do not know, is quite bad. Here’s a quote from the book they gave us. “The Christendom world we knew is gone. If you cannot accept yet that it’s over – if you choose to dwell a few days or few years longer in the unreality that the institutional ‘church-as-we-have-known-it’ still has significant control over the future of the Jesus movement – then you might as well stop reading right here. We can’t help you with denial.”
This, I know, is not a cheery way to start a sermon. It’s not a cheery way to start a book either, and the authors know that, so they are quick to remark that there’s hope. There may not be hope for church as we know it, but there is certainly hope for Church as Christ envisions it, Church that the Spirit is calling forth, Church that the discerning faithful will be a part of. There is hope for the Jesus movement because it is God’s movement, but the hope will be realized only by those who are willing to move with God.
The seminar featured a panel of speakers, church leaders who served as examples of those who have discerned alternative ways of being church. One pastored a farm-to-table dinner church in Northampton. It seemed cool, but maybe not for us. Another pastored a church and also headed up its foundation for social ministries for the urban poor. Another led a dinner and offered a refuge for the LGBTQIA community in and around Granby. Another started up a Saturday night service not so much for church members but for millenials and young families in Greenwich. I’m definitely going to check that one out. It got me thinking, maybe we should move our service to Sunday nights. You would get to sleep in. The kids would have time for sports. And then you could come to church as a family. Instead of coffee hour we could have dinner together, a weekly pot luck. Think about that. Is that the answer? Or, are you already thinking about why you don’t like it?
The thing is, I don’t know the answers. I want to know them. I want to be ahead of the curve. I want to be so insightful as to know the twists and turns that our changing value structures will take. I want to know all the right moves. I want to know them for your sake and for mine, and the weight of not knowing sometimes bears down on me like a test I don’t know how to prepare for.
What is there to be done about the changing face of Christian faith in this world? I believe that what the Church has to offer the world that the world cannot get anywhere else is Christ; it is a certain understanding of a certain kind of God. So, I think that somehow part of the answer lies here. I also think in a culture where community is increasingly virtual and interactions are increasingly depersonalized, the church can offer an alternative kind of community, real fleshy community, that has the capacity to confront us with our sacred realities and the “moreness” of God. But, what exactly to do with that I’m not quite sure. Again, the weight of that question can bear down on me pretty hard.
Our scriptures today help. Listen again to Psalm 107. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. For his steadfast love endures forever… Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way until they reached an inhabited town… He turns the desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there he lets the hungry live, and they establish a town to live in; they sow fields , and plant vineyards, and get a fruitful yield.”
The Psalm echoes a friend and colleague of mine with whom I was discussing my concerns and the concerns of the seminar. He knew those concerns well, and like me he doesn’t know the answers, but he said, “I have hope because I really believe in a God of the cross. I really believe in a God who brings resurrection out of death.”
Part of the trick for managing these confusing times has something to do with balancing the task of readying ourselves for that resurrection against the task of faithfully waiting for it. Sometimes the waiting, the trusting, and the confession that ultimately resurrection is God’s work and God’s alone, can be the harder part of that equation. The book states, hopefully, “It is a season for radical trust in God and for waiting. Waiting for the Spirit to fall upon us.”
I had a little taste of that at our mini retreat a couple of weeks ago. Ten of us sat in LeAnn’s living room and prayed a passage of scripture together. I won’t describe the whole prayer practice, but each of us heard a different message, a phrase or an image, from that passage, and after thinking about why that particular message stood out, we talked with God about our thoughts. My phrase was this little line from 1 Thessalonians, “wait for his Son [God’s Son] from heaven.” It was the “from heaven,” part that really spoke. The line struck me like a holy promise and it took from me the great burden of my responsibility to generate answers that I don’t yet have, and it reminded me to wait. It reminded me that God is coming, that the work of resurrection is God’s; it is from heaven, not from the very best of my anxious human striving, but from the one who rises from the dead and breathes upon us all the Spirit of life.
So, this is a season of waiting on a force, trusting in a force, that is greater than ourselves. But, please don’t mistake that waiting for passivity. Trust is hard work, especially trust in something other than our own efforts, and it demands a willingness to think a bit differently.
In his intro to a long chastisement of the scribes and Pharisees Jesus says in today’s passage, don’t be like them, don’t be the keepers of the faith, be the receivers of faith. In relation to God you can act like the Father or you can see yourself as a child. Be the child. You can act like the teacher or you can be the student. Be the student. You can be your own messiah or you can receive one. Receive one. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This season of waiting means a kind of humbling of ourselves; it means a kind of open hearted and open minded receptivity to the new things that God is doing. If we are limited by our own demands of how things must be we’ll miss new opportunities for how they might be. That’s true for the Church as a whole and it is true for our individual lives as well.
I have what may seem like an unusual example of this kind of openness. This is a piece of the All-Saints Day reflection of a long-time pastor who contemplates the end with courage and an openness that I think is fairly rare.
“Now ordained nearly 40 years, I want rest. I want to sleep until the trumpet sounds. I need to be healed and refreshed before I will be remotely ready to be raised, enlightened, and ready for the big show. I need amazing, astounding grace to make me like Jesus. I have been too much in this world of compromised and confused Christians, conflicted and enervated church folk. I am one of them. I need rest perpetual, peace beyond understanding, a big nap. No immediate launch into heaven can sound as inviting as becoming one with the earth beneath my feet until I become one with the resurrected Lord.
Don’t get me wrong, I am willing to wait awhile longer before that time comes, but I am happy to believe that is my fate. This is for me a direct correlation with the incarnation. From dust I came and to dust I shall return—but not forever. When I am fully rested and ready, when the blood has washed my robes white, when the tears have all been shed and the pain forgotten and a long cool drink of living water enjoyed, then I hope to be gracefully admitted to the redeemed in worship beyond imagining. I hope for a place in the back.
This is to me what it means to be ‘saved by grace through faith.’ Instant Heaven seems just a little too easy, and I don’t want to show up tired.”
I like that, because I think that if he can be open even to God’s will after death, if he can wait even then, I image he can wait on the lord now.
Will you pray with me? Dear God, give us the faith to wait on you, and in waiting to trust and to hope. Lead us into humility and an openness of heart and mind so that we might see the new things that you are doing and hear the new callings that you are offering. Give us your Holy Spirit anew. Where lands are dry bring pools of water and where death resides bring resurrection. For we pray this in the name of our risen savior. Amen
 Estock and Nixon, Weird Church, 2016, page viii.
 Ibid, 11.