Thursday, January 30, 2014

Trust me

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

January 26, 2014



            Last Friday I attended a leadership workshop at Andover Newton Theological School, entitled “New Habits for Nones: Practicing Digitally-Integrated Ministry in the Post-Christian World”.  It focused on those who are unaffiliated with any religious institution and how we can form connection and do ministry with folks who have opted out. 

Later that night I had dinner with a friend from high school.  When we had finished, we ventured on to another restaurant to have a drink and continue our conversation.  Instead we found a place that was on its way out of business and a gregarious bar mate I’ll call Bruce.

            Bruce was unabashedly himself.  He not only inserted himself into our conversation, he drove most, if not all, of its major themes.  He could speak knowledgeably on a wide range of subjects and never lacked for an opinion.  So much for my friend and me catching up.  But could this be an invitation in disguise?  An invitation to form connection whenever and wherever we can, with whomever presents themselves.  Here was one of the “nones”—in Bruce’s words, “a lapsed Jew”—trusting and connecting with this wide open world in the form of me and my friend.

We are soft-wired for connection and trust.  We come into this world trusting that the people around us will take care of, love, feed, and comfort us.  Through our relationships with our families and later on, with other adults and peers, our ability to trust becomes more complex.  We adapt what we’ve learned, gauge what we can say and do with new people based on previous experiences, and choose whether to renew trust with someone who has broken it.  If we’ve experienced any kind of abuse, it can be very difficult, even painful for us to form connections, to feel like we belong, or to trust ourselves, let alone anyone else.

            But we are hard-wired for caution and fear, and with good reason.  These innate characteristics have saved human beings from becoming the next meal of a grizzly bear or African lion all the way to keeping us from making friends with every person on the street.  Caution and fear are what keep us alive some days.  They wise us up, saving us in our foolish and reckless youth to living to be older and levelheaded adults.

         In this morning’s gospel lesson, we see Jesus’ first disciples behaving as though they are unconditionally trusting.  They ask no questions.  Jesus does not say by what authority or training they will be doing this ‘fishing for people’.  Thus far he hasn’t preached any sermons, healed any people, or performed any kind of miracle.  Yet Peter and Andrew, James and John immediately leave their nets and boats, their families and community to follow Jesus.  What would induce them to trust this unknown and as yet, untested rabbi?

The author of Matthew himself gives Jesus some geographical credentials by quoting from the prophet Isaiah:  “13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

The territories of Zebulun and Naphtali, two of the lost tribes of Israel, to listeners in both Isaiah’s time and in Jesus’ would be like us hearing about places like Mogadishu, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Egypt, Syria—places where war and violence have made a living hell for those who live there. 

So when Jesus moves into this neighborhood, he is saying in no uncertain terms that he has come for the lost, for those who live in the shadow of death, for those who have been forgotten.  Jesus and his disciples would not be fishing for converts but for those the world has left behind.  They would be doing God’s work of gathering in those still in exile:  the poor, the outcast, those considered unclean.  Jesus was declaring not with words but with his actions that he was ready to do messiah work.  For this reason, these first few disciples trusted Jesus with their lives.  They initiated a new kind of community, made up of some of the most unlikely folks to succeed, setting up shop in a place not to be trusted.

Jesus takes his message and his disciples to those who need him the most.  He goes where they are.  He does not wait for them to come to him, though many do.  Jesus is more interested in closing the gap, making a connection with those who feel disconnected from God.

The time of churches relying solely on growing through attracting new members is gone, long gone.  Yes, we have a good, functional website through which some folks have found this church and found community.  But there are many for whom church is irrelevant and benign at best and hurtful and abusive at worst.  An ever-increasing population of religiously unaffiliated folk number as many as all mainline Protestants combined.

They’re called the ‘nones’:  when asked in a survey about their religious affiliation, they respond ‘none’.  It’s a very negative designation, the assumption being that folks who are unaffiliated with organized religion are not religious.  Actually, the majority of these folks do believe in God or Spirit or a higher power.  70% hail from a Christian background, which means it is our churches that have produced this phenomenon.  Ironically, churches have become communities in which disconnection is more than just a by-product.  In the last 50 or so years the church has been so focused on survival that we didn’t look to ourselves to answer the question, “Why are people leaving?”

People continue to make meaning, connections, and ritual regardless of whether they are in church or not.  Most human beings share a desire to make a difference in the lives of others, to recognize the sacred in our ordinary lives. But if folks aren’t finding meaning and connection in church, then it’s time for us to go where they are, rather than continuing to wait for them to come to us.  If we aren’t finding meaning and connection in church, then it’s time for us to examine just where we do find meaning and connection and take the church with us.

It’s time for us to trust where Jesus is leading us, which is right through the doors of this building.  Which means how we do church needs to change.  It means using technology to create a web of relationships and connection with not only ourselves but with anyone who would like to do ministry, create meaning, and imagine traditional rituals in new ways.  It means we need a broader understanding of what it means to belong.  It means that the institution, the Church, can no longer look for institutional solutions to save itself.


Up until now, the institutional church has looked at all of this as decline, disaster, and many of our efforts as tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  What if, instead, this is Jesus?  What if this is Jesus setting up shop with an unlikely crew in a place we’re not sure we trust because we’re afraid we’re the ones who will be lost?  What if instead of responding with our hard-wired fear, we went with our soft-wired trust and desire for connection?  What if the so-called ‘nones’ are leading the way and the church is the one who has to catch up?  What if this isn’t the end of church-as-we-know-it but the beginning of what church could be?  What if this is the way to resurrection?

I know these are not easy questions.  I’m hoping, though, that we’re up to the call to imagine the possibilities, the Holy Spirit maneuvers, traveling the Jesus path in new ways.  Not to survive, not necessarily to grow, but to be faithful to the trust God places in us each day.  Amen.

                                                         Trust is...

by Kristen Noelle - see more at her website Trust Tending

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Justin Case: A Fingers-Crossed-Behind-His-Back, Well-Meaning Christian (8)

Justin was wondering what his word for the new year might be. 

He thought he might play it safe as usual and go with the word "maybe".

Don't tell him this, but it's a pretty hopeful word, when you think about it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How do you know?

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

January 19, 2014


            During the last two years as I was searching for a church to call home, I had a list of questions that I would ask during interviews.  One of my favorite questions was, “When was the last time you saw Jesus?”  Sometimes folks would be caught up short in their answer, as if it was not the first thing anyone would want to know about them and their experience of church.  I’m not entirely sure what one person’s motives were when they responded, “Right now”, while appearing to look at me with both intensity and casual regard.  Still others would indeed call to mind a story about local mission in their church or when it was difficult to welcome someone into their community or when a person became an unexpected catalyst for change and growth.

            This is the season of Epiphany, that time in the Christian calendar when we celebrate God made manifest in Jesus, God made visible, revealed in the flesh.  When was the last time you saw Jesus?  How did you know?

            (congregation gave various responses)

            Revelation is a tricky thing.  Most of the time it’s a personal, intimate experience—something between us and God.  No one else can really validate our encounter with the holy, the ineffable, but when it happens, when we know it in our bones, that’s precisely what we wish we could do—explain what happened in such a way that another human being would believe it down to their bones.

There are some things I may not know;

There are some places I cannot go,

But I am sure of this one thing:

That God is real, for I can feel God deep in my soul.

Yes, God is real, real in my soul;

Yes, God is real for God has washed and made me whole;

God’s love for me is like pure gold;

Yes, God is real for I can feel God deep in my soul.

            From the time of the witnesses to the resurrection to Paul’s conversion and beyond, Christians have been wrangling over what consists of authentic spiritual experience, revelation, and the power, the authority that we ascribe to those who experience revelation.  So we created apostolic succession, authority conferred from Peter, James, and John—disciples who lived with Jesus and died for him—to others deemed worthy, men and women, who, like the apostle Paul, have experienced God, seen Jesus, been revived by the Spirit in their own flesh, who knew themselves called to preach the good news. 

            And so we drew a line between who could receive revelation and who couldn’t, who had power over human souls and who didn’t.  We created a hierarchy of spiritual experience, strata of ordained servants and lay people; that some human beings were set apart for service to God and therefore, special, unique, endowed with extraordinary qualities and abilities.

            But it seems that whenever there is an imbalance of power, there are those in power who will abuse it and the less powerful who will rebel against it.  Even more so, the Holy Spirit cannot be contained by human systems and constructs, much as we’ve tried.  One of the foundations of the Reformation was that no intermediary was necessary to receive forgiveness, to intercede between human beings and the divine.  Anyone could receive revelation.  Anyone could experience the Holy One in their midst.  Anyone could walk the road to Emmaus and meet Jesus on the way.

(click comic strip to read)


            Eventually, this radical idea paved the way for the three Great Awakenings of spiritual experience in the United States, over a period of 200 years.  Out of these awakenings came evangelicalism, a deeper understanding of free will, the social gospel movement, and both personal and community transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit—all of which helped give rise to the United Church of Christ and its many ways of being church.  And though we are one of the more progressive denominations in the U.S., there are times we have difficulty not only knowing when was the last time we saw Jesus, but also telling that really good news to others.

            But in the gospel of John, written some 70-80 years after Jesus’ ministry, we read not once but twice that John the Baptist himself did not know him; that John came baptizing with water for this reason, that Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, might be revealed.  This is a gospel written by and for people who never knew Jesus in the flesh, yet knew themselves to be witnesses of that Word made known in Jesus—God-with-us.

            All of this is to say, we are still figuring out how we know we have seen Jesus and how to live out of that encounter.  There are times we are cautious, wary of another’s spiritual experience, yet we can also be caught up in the ecstatic encounter of the holy with others.  Most of the time, it’s a simple as having a feeling.  How does God make God’s self real to us?

Some folks may doubt, some folks may scorn,

All can desert and leave me alone.

But as for me I’ll take God’s part,

For God is real and I can feel God deep in my heart.

Yes, God is real, real in my soul;

Yes, God is real for God has washed and made me whole;

God’s love for me is like pure gold;

Yes, God is real for I can feel God deep in my soul.

            We know we have seen Jesus, we have experienced the divine, we have felt the Holy Spirit moving through our lives when our lives change, when we take a different direction, when we see our lives and the lives of others through different eyes, through the eyes of love and not fear. 

We know we have seen Jesus when we have been forgiven by another and our sin is removed.  We know we have seen Jesus when a community is transformed from conflict to trusting one another and a renewed sense of mission.  We know we have seen Jesus when power is shared, risks are taken, when anyone steps out in faith that lives might be changed for the better.  We know we have seen Jesus when the power of love casts out our fear.

It’s really not as complicated as we’ve made it.  It’s not a special ability, and what really makes seeing Jesus extraordinary is how it changes our lives and the lives of others.  When we realize we have been healed and made whole, when we live that way, and we pass it on.

I cannot tell just how you felt

When Jesus took your sins away,

But since that day, yes, since that very hour

God has been real for I can feel God’s holy power.

Yes, God is real, real in my soul;

Yes, God is real for God has washed and made me whole;

God’s love for me is like pure gold;

Yes, God is real for I can feel God deep in my soul.

"Psalm 40" by U2