Considering the fourth gospel of Luke, the roots of our Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the continued work of justice set in front of us...
by Pastor Stephen Yorba Patten
"The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm ... Some of the people were singing, others praying, some crying for mercy in the most piteous accents, while others were shouting vociferously. While witnessing these scenes, a peculiarly strange sensation, such as I had never felt before, came over me. My heart beat tumultuously, my knees trembled, my lip quivered, and I felt as though I must fall to the ground. A strange supernatural power seemed to pervade the entire mass of mind there collected. At one time I saw at least 500, swept down in a moment as if a battery of a thousand guns had been opened upon them, and then immediately followed shrieks and shouts that rent the very heavens. I fled for the woods and wished I had stayed at home."
This taken from a description of Cain Ridge in 1801, one of the great revivals of the Second Great Awakening. And, as did the ancient Israelites, those at Cane Ridge met God in the wilderness, an uncivilized encampment of 30,000, listening to Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist preachers froth at the mouth for days. A vibrant faith was formed, one that was less intellectual (almost anti intellectual) and emotionally driven. A faith deeply inspired by the Holy Spirit and its unexpected lure. It was a spontaneous, untame, emotional, risky, raw, and authentic faith! Women swooned, men howled, and others rolled in the dirt speaking in strange tongues. Sounding like something straight out of the first century church on that day of Pentecost...
"Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
As much as we may want to make sense of these experiences, I would rather lift up and celebrate that which we have no earthly explanation for. Given the Pentecostal roots of my upbringing, my theology lends itself to the raw and authentic movement of God's spirit. For all the words we produce in seminary and the volumes more we dole out on Sunday mornings, the movement of the Holy Spirit is damn near impossible to contain therein. The Spirit is often at work in places far beyond what we traditionally deem to be the parameters of Church.
In fact, we know that the Church began in small villages like Nazareth, the wildness of the Jordan River valley, on mountain tops, in fishing boats, during storms on the Sea of Galilee, in thatched roof homes, in upper rooms, on islands, on desolate roads, and inside prisons.
Just think of your own lives, and the journey that has brought you to where you are today. The many awakenings that have spoken to you, moved and shaped you. The work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is often unexplainable, unpredictable, unexpected, almost unreal, unable to be intellectualized, raw, authentic, sometimes chaotic, scary, and emotional. The work of the Holy Spirit is a risky venture, one that the church often avoids for a more civilized, safe, secure, and mature theology.
Think of the risk Jesus took in venturing out to be baptized at the Jordan River by John who had turned his back on the dignified faith of his father to lead a band of apocalyptic radicals; the lunatic fringe. And then to be lured, by that same Spirit even farther out into the wilderness, to confront the devil and perhaps his own reluctance towards what God was calling him to. Jesus' raw, unpredictable, risky venture of living into the lure of the Holy Spirit. And then, according to Luke chapter 4, to walk into his hometown synagogue and boldly chose a scripture reading from the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming a kingdom born of Justice.
Dr. King warned us, "The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century." Or the 21st century for that matter.
There is much talk about the church having lost its authenticity, having become irrelevant among younger generations, that the church is dying. There is even more talk about what the new church should look like, and what is needed for revival. Frankly speaking, the church needs to get over itself, stop admiring itself in the mirror, it needs to get outside of itself; the church needs to breathe again...I mean that ancient breath of God's Spirit, the Ruach, the Pneuma, the Spiritus. The Church needs to breath again. The church needs to venture out into wild places again, and be baptized again in the Spirit, spend some time in the desert, face its complacency, its doubts, its limitations and allow itself to reconnect with the raw, wild, authentic Spirit of God again. As Dr. King declares, "The church needs to recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church." Then the church will awaken in new and wonderful ways. And the sign that will follow such a Holy Spirit awakening? A radical thirst to do justice.
At UrbanMission, we are experimenting with this. What we are doing at UrbanMission is not rocket science, it's not some secret recipe that we learned from the book of some New Church guru. Here's what I think we have done at UrbanMission. We have decided to trust and follow the lure of the Holy Spirit. And she has led us down a rabbit hole that, I would say, none of us know for sure where it will eventually take us. But, if I might speak for the rest of us, so far, it has taken us to some of the most raw, authentic, beautiful, and unexplainable places that I, frankly, have ever encountered. To places where we find ourselves neck deep in the work of radical justice; preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.
This is the sign of a healthy and Spirit-filled church, IMHO, it is a church that shucks its pride, dares to dream, takes risks, speaks truth, and does justice.
If it is a living, breathing, justice oriented church we long for, then we must give in to the lure of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in our communities, willing to follower wherever it leads. Knowing that it will eventually lure us to the edges of our comfortability, challenge us to expand our notion of Church, leading beyond the norm, out into the wild places, where only the unexplainable and unimaginable things of God occur.
The story of the prodigal son reminds me of Led Zeppelin. Yep, that's right. Perhaps because Led Zeppelin was such a formative part of my adolescence, and for much of this period of my life I too was a prodigal. A privileged angsty adolescent who would strike out on his own, pride fully intact, to seize life by the horns. My anthem was Ramble On, “Gotta find the Queen of all my dreams, I've got to Ramble on, it’s time for me to go”...and with that, the prodigal son took his inheritance and left his father’s house, never to return again, or so he thought. It is never the intention of a young prodigal to fall on hard times and have to return home tail between his legs. For the prodigal is shortsighted, never taking into account that there is always a limit to his resources.
There is a deep forgetting that the prodigal possesses. Forgetting who he is and where he came from. Forgetting his own privilege. The prodigal ventures off, looking for something more, driven by a certain angst, a thirst, a wanderlust, a craving, never arriving, always searching.
And then one day, in the midst of his forgetfulness, the prodigal remembers. Laying face down in a pig troth, he remembers in a moment, in a flash, a door opens and his perception is immediately altered. He sees his life through a new lens, the lens of his experience. Through the harsh realities of life, through the pain and suffering, through the limitations, through the realization of his own limitations, he makes a turn. Only then to come full circle and return to where he began, home, to the waiting arms of a father who had never moved, always waiting, having never forgotten. And once home, he is whole again.
I might point out that the story of the prodigal son is a story of privilege. You can't be a prodigal if you don't have resources to squander. We all in one way or another have been blessed with various resources, some that we have even squandered away frivolously. ( I suppose there are some, who did not even have the love of family to squander away. Some, born into nothing, how can they possess the luxury of being a prodigal.) But for most of us, we recognize the relative abundance we have experienced. And from this, there are perhaps numerous stories of frivolity, squander, rebellion, lavishing living, and even forgetting.
This past weekend I heard God referred to as "the God of the ditches, the God who resides in the sorrowfulness, brokenness, and messiness of life." To me, that is refreshing and absolutely authentic. There is deep hope that resides in this understanding. Throughout scripture, we are reminded of the God of the mountaintops, there with Moses as he receives the Torah, there with Jesus as he experiences the transfiguration. Honestly, I am more interested in the God of the ditches.
For a large part of my life I lived in the ditches; the valleys where the shadow of death was cast across every square inch of terrain. My struggle to drag my way out of these valleys was always futile. I could see the mountaintops residing in the distance, but had no idea how to make my way there. "If only," was my mantra. Like some Tolkien narrative, like these lyrics from Ramble On,
“Mine's a tale that can't be told, my freedom I hold dear.
How years ago in days of old, when magic filled the air.
T'was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum, and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her, her, her....yeah.”
The Queen of all my dreams….
God must reside there in the mountaintops, in some magic-filled place, but I was stuck, like Bilbo Baggins, there in the valleys. Faced with the daunting task of returning to God by way of a treacherous and a damn-near impossible journey, the valleys held little hope for me. There was a point, while stumbling over the endless obstacles of the valley floor, that I cried out to God, "Lord help me make my way back to you." Surely, God could not reside in such brokenness.
Perhaps the Prodigal son felt this same way. There in the ditches, filled with slop, the Prodigal son settled on eating with the pigs. Imagine the sensory experience of this. Finding yourself face down in a ditch eating with pigs. I have been there, and believe me, I don't know how much lower you can get than that. Now, the parable is not absolutely clear on how the son "came to himself," but something spoke to him there in the ditch. Perhaps it was the owner who had hired him to tend the pigs, perhaps it was a talking pig or the telepathic cry of his father waiting at home. Perhaps, it was the still small voice of God, there in the ditches, that assured him of hope, that all was not lost, that there were brighter days ahead, that their were infinite possibilities. However it might have come to him, it came there in the ditch. And he remembered...home.
The hope-filled message here is that this prodigal son's transformation happened knee-deep in a ditch. And isn't that where God meets us, right where we are at? People, God is not waiting for your return in some warm home, on some far away mountaintop. God is there, in the shadows, in the cold, in the hunger, in the broken, sorrowful, messy places of our lives. Trust this and see.
This promising message is one of reconciliation. God reconciling the prodigal to God's self. St. Paul suggests that having been reconciled ourselves as prodigals, we have now become ministers of reconciliation. So, what does it mean to be an ambassador of Christ with the "ministry of reconciliation"? By not recognizing others by human standards, by not counting their sins against them, but by seeing them as new creations having been reconciled to God through Christ. By understanding each person that we encounter. To understand others differently.
Understand. From the Old English understandan "comprehend, grasp the idea of," probably literally "stand in the midst of," from under + standan "to stand." If this is the meaning, the under is not the usual word meaning "beneath," but from Old English under, "between, among." Thus, to understand is to stand between, to stand in the midst of. Just as God stands in the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of our everyday lives, we must stand with others, in the middle of their lives, in their brokenness, in order to really understand them. This applies, not only to others, but first to ourselves. Love your neighbor, AS YOURSELF. To understand ourselves, to see ourselves again, not merely as that broken and forgotten prodigal, face down in a pig troth, but to remember ourselves as children of a God always present to us, arms always open to us, always luring us towards love, beauty, peace, truth, reconciliation.
So, ramble on, as ambassadors of reconciliation. Be reconciled, know that you are loved, and love others.
Hold On! Mark 4: 35-41
Over the last several weeks preparing for this sermon, I’ve ruminated over the story of Jesus calming the storm, and the images invoked by this narrative. I keep coming back to the image of those frightened disciples who, in the midst of a wild windstorm, were driven in a panic to wake their teacher from a much needed sleep and demand that he show concern for their present peril.
And then I heard the news coming out of Charleston SC, that a young white man had gunned down 9 black members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church during their Wednesday evening bible study.
They had welcomed this young gentleman into their sanctuary and trusted that he was there, like them, to add to his faith by pondering on the word of God. They had gathered, to listen to what God might speak to each of them. Instead, he was there for a different purpose. 45 minutes into the bible study, the young man stood up and gunned down 9 of the members.
I don’t know what the theme of their study was last Wednesday night, and I’m not sure of the particular passage of scripture they were focused on...but knowing the gospel message, I am sure it had something to do with love, the love of God that is found so prevalent throughout scripture, like a deep current that pulled the disciples along with Jesus. That same current that has drawn us here this morning.
And if that young man would have been listening, if he would have taken the time to reflect on the gospel message, perhaps things would have been different. If he would have taken the time to really sit with these 9, accepted the fullness of their hospitality, gotten to know them, gotten to know their faith, gotten to know the reason for the love they carried in their hearts, perhaps things would have been different.
Instead, this young man was deaf, isolated by the anger, hatred, and racisim that exists in this country. His narrow experience cut him off from the love that these 9 were willing to share with him last Wednesday night. Instead, he met their love with a horrible act of violence. And so, today we mourn, for those who lost their lives, for their families, for Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, America, and all those who live in the isolated hatred and anger of racism that gave birth to this young man.
Sometimes, in the chaos of such events we forget love and come to rest our attention on the hatred we see accessed through the media, or existing in our own communities. We give in to our worst fears, we become distracted by the chaos...and this is not to say that the chaos is not real, or that it is all the product of media hype. Sometimes, the hatred, anger, violence, blatant racism and discrimination is so overwhelming that we may feel that it outweighs love. I am reminded of a quote by Gandhi...
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it--always.”
From a simple reflection on today’s passage, it is evident that, for a moment, the disciples are consumed by the chaos of a sudden storm. Consumed by fear, they forget. And so they ask, “Jesus, don’t you care that we are about to die!” Jesus questions them, “Have you still NO faith?” It would seem fair to accuse them of lacking faith in themselves, as both seasoned sailors and disciples. I mean, this certainly could not have been their first encounter with a squall on the open Sea. How then could it be that they were completely lost in handling the storm themselves? Surely they knew how Jesus operated, that he was all about empowering leaders. So, why then did they feel it necessary to wake Jesus? Were they not equipped to handle things on their own? Perhaps that’s why Jesus responds to them, “Why are YOU afraid? Have you STILL no faith?” Fundamentally, they misunderstand Jesus’ presence. They mistake his sleeping for a lack of interest in their well being. So Jesus questions their faith. Now there are several points I want to make concerning faith:
First, faith, from the Greek, “pistis,” means “to persuade, ‘to be persuaded’, or ‘to trust’ or ‘come to trust.’ Understood in this way, Jesus seems to be asking the apostles, “Are you still not persuaded?” or “Have you still not come to trust?”
Second, It should be understood that ‘faith,’ as we see it here, does not arise from mere human confidence, nor does it grow merely from human persuasion. Pistis, in the Gospels, is a faith that is divinely given. It is Divine persuasion; received as a gift from God. As Ephesians 2:8 and 9 state, “For by grace you have been saved, through faith (pistis); and this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God; not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Third, faith is a journey, like the journey the disciples were taking with Jesus, on that boat across a rough sea. Faith is a dynamic process, made up of ALL the experiences of our life, good and bad.
For those gathered last Wednesday for bible study, their faith had brought them together. There divine confidence and trust in a God who is loving brought them together, their faith taught them to welcome this new visitor into their midst. By faith, they trusted that God had brought them together in love for a sacred purpose.
We may ask then, if this is the case, where was God when this young man stood up with different intentions? Like the disciples, who asked Jesus, asleep in the bow of the boat, “Don’t you care?” We are about to sink and you are sleeping! Why are you not concerned? Where is your protection from the storm?”
Faith contains all of this...the confident moments of joy when we experience the real presence of love, those moments of baptism, accomplishment, certainty, courage, clarity….yet faith also consists of the moments of fear, doubt, questioning, confusion, sadness, pain, and sorrow.
These elements combine in different ways to add to the ‘synergestic narrative’ that is our particular faith journey. In these moments, everything becomes clearer as we rise to new levels of understanding and our faith is perfected.
I’m sure you can identify such moments in your own faith journey, perhaps a moment that brought it all together, a moment of clarity, perhaps a turning point, a slight push, a word, the passing of a loved one, a tragedy or violent act you struggle to make sense of. These are the moments that never leave us, they are the fundamental elements of our narrative, they teach us to trust, they build our confidence, they persuade us to hold on, to keep going, to let go, give up, to forgive. They sometimes cause us to ask the very human question: Why God, do you not care that we are perishing? And in turn, Jesus responds to the chaos “Peace, Be still!”
What happened in Charleston has now become part of our collective narrative, speaking both of the strength of Christian faith, but also of the continued presence of racism in this country. We must remember both, without letting this act of violence distract us from the task of love set before us. Remember the faith of the Emanuel 9 who offered sanctuary to a stranger. Remember the words of forgiveness spoken by their loved ones. Remember the narrative of love that Jesus left us, and continue to trust in it.
With this in mind, I propose that we continue to Hold On to this community, and in holding on, to take further action in building relationships in this community. Continue to eat together, to dialogue together, to seek understanding together. Hold on, as a testimony of our faith in the one who has promised a steadfast love that endures forever.
From the east and the west, from the north and from the south of this great community, may we have the confidence and the trust to continue building bridges of hope in this community. Let us keep our doors open, continue to feed those who are hungry, to love those who have been marginalized, give assistance to the incarcerated who are moving back into society, offer a safe space for families to explore their faith, and for youth to seek their true potential. May we also remain open, affirming, and hospitable to any and all who might seek us out, regardless of gender, race, or religion, young or old, black, brown or white, gay or straight. May we, be the ambassadors of this kind of faith, a faith that is able to meet any kind of storm. And, in the face of chaos, may we carry with us the words of Christ, “Peace, Be still”
By Pastor Stephen Patten
4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
If we are not out in the world getting our hands dirty, then we are not being church. And by that, I mean knee deep in the pain, suffering, and injustice present in our world. If the church is not in the thick of it, nurturing personal relationships, building vibrant communities, facing injustice with practical action, then what is it that we are actually doing? If our congregations are not experiencing the uncomfortableness of sitting with others whose demographics are unfamiliar and marginalized, then they have yet to experience the resurrected Christ.
Far too many churches call themselves church when, in fact, they are more like social or civic clubs that meet once a week, set certain rules, and distinguish 'members' from 'visitors.' We should not call ourselves church if all we are doing is staring intently at our own reflection each week. Over the course of two thousand years, far too many have labored and died for the cause of the gospel to allow us to cheapen it by claiming that we are doing the same. We are not. We only need to take account of all the things we demand are so important to the life of our church, and attempt to match them with biblical justification. In this, we may find little biblical support for the majority of what we call church.
Have we related with the poor, the sick, the lame, the widow, the prisoner, the naked, the homeless, the mentally ill, the homosexual, the transgendered, our neighbors, the 'strange' parishioner who shows up every week silently slipping into a back pew. Notice how I say 'related with,' not greeted, welcomed, or even served. By this I mean, have we chosen to embark on the patient journey of relationship with these 'others?' Have we reached our hands down into the muck and mire of peoples' lives, have we spat into dirt and made a salve for the wounds and brokenness of our world? Christ did, and we should do no less. For, the privilege of calling ourselves Christian demands more than a legacy of faithful ancestors, fanciful theologies, and ornate real estate. It demands that we "work the works" of the God who sent Christ into the same world that we have been called into. This world cannot be accessed, nor the works of God accomplished, be staying safely entombed in our "houses of worship." We are called, instead, to leave these safe havens behind and venture out, just as Christ left the synagogue for the dusty villages of Galilee. We are called to get our holy hands dirty, that they might know us by the calluses we develop, worn from the work of being church to a tired and broken world.
Ministry as Relationship
By Pastor Stephen Patten
There is one word I want to expunge from our theological vocabulary - service, and one I would like to see replace it - relationship.
My greatest insight this past year concerns the importance of relationship as ministry, especially in new church development and revitalization in an urban setting. This is what I have concluded: Ministry is relationship, and relationship is ministry. Not rocket science, and neither is this a huge discovery, right? Yet, I wonder if this is really where our hearts and minds are when the church engages in the "work of the church"? Relationship involves the risk and vulnerability of seeing others and allowing oneself to be seen. This single notion alone has helped me to frame the ministry we are committed to at urbanmission. Relationship is what builds and sustains ministry, and is how success should be gauged in ministry. This insight comes from having spent this past year opening myself to a community that is, in many ways, different from me. I have struggled to create a space where relationship can happen and thrive, and the result has been personally rewarding. Relationship has bound community with church leadership, lay leadership, and other ministry partners, to the point where lines between these entities become blurred. These relationships, having grown over time, become the real success and sustainable factor in our ministry.
Ministry as relationship has also helped me to re-imagine community building as more than just brokering partnerships and serving a community. Community building is about intentionally cultivating relationship at multiple levels. I am convinced that a call to 'serve others' may be a misdirected emphasis placed on the gospel. Rather than serve, we are called to journey side by side with others. We are called to grow, cook, eat, pray and share table fellowship with a community, not merely feed them. We are not called to provide services and locate resources, we are called to be a relational resource ouselves. We are called to journey with, live on the same block, shop at the same markets, and ride the same public transportation. We are called to mourn the same loss, enter the same schools, bare the same burdens, and struggle with the same tensions. Community building is more than serving a community, speaking for a community, or fighting a community's battles. Community building is 'being' community, being in community with, dismantling any separating identities, becoming one. The only way to understand this happening is to understand that community building must come from within the community itself, wanting more than to be served, but determined to muster up its own salvation. This demands a different notion of church planting and ministry development. This demands a whole new way of defining the role of church in an urban setting. This demands that a religious leader rethink their role in the community.
Ministry as relationship, also works to redefine the structure of church leadership. Church leadership focused on kin-dom building, is better done in relationship with others, where power is decentralized. Working in relational leadership teams that are both connected and each their own appendage, provides a catalyst for greater creativity. By myself I am limited in my perspective, but with a team I am strengthened and challenged continuously. The interactive relationship with my pastoral team, ministry leaders, community partners and immediate community allows for greater empowerment and support, while creating a much deeper shared vision.
Ministry as relationship is slow, intentional, deliberate, compassionate, and selfless. It is 'us' work. It demands patience and demands that we open ourselves to others over and over again. Relationship is risky. The image that keeps appearing in connection with this is the image of the communion table. This table becomes the centerpiece to any practical theology. Literally, community can be built around a single dinner table where food is shared in a loving act of radical hospitality. The energy generated from simply gathering around a weekly dinner table is enough to unite a community. Not only is a whole ministry born, but a whole congregation! Whether weekly communion or weekly dinner, both are deeply sacred, both are deeply church, and both embody ministry as relationship.
Our work at The Open Door @ urbanmission involves the invitation to live into the vulnerability of seeing people; seeing them again, seeing them as God sees them. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged us in this way. The civil rights movement was, in many ways, a struggle to see people differently, to gain a new perspective. We continue to be challenged by this, challenged to look beyond our limited perspective of prejudgement and see ourselves and others as God sees us. We are called to see and be seen. Perhaps this is the real work of the Church; taking the time to see others. Of course there is a time for looking into the mirror. Socrates did say, "the unexamined life is not worth living." There is a time and place for self reflection, the action of which is tremendously valuable. But, if we stare too long, there is the danger of becoming like Narcissus. The danger being, that we stay to long at the river's bank, that we die there, never able to attain the object of our desire. Perhaps the Church has stayed too long, mesmerized by its own reflection, having fallen so in love with itself that it has no time for anyone else. The object of the Church's desire is to live as Jesus did, to love and serve humanity. Yet, we cannot do this if we remain planted at the river bank. Yes, it is the river of self reflection and meditation that nourishes our roots, but our branches must grow and extend beyond. Let us move from the river, and make our way into the highways and byways.
Let us not be afraid to stare lovingly into the eyes of every stranger we meet, knowing that they long to be seen just as we long to be seen. let us fall in love with the reflection we see there; the reflection of Christ found in the face over every stranger we see.
So I just bought a book on Amazon and had it downloaded to my iPad Kindle. Here is an excerpt from the book Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance by the Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers (Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ Church, Oklahoma)
"The sad truth is that much of the church today is a harmless handmaiden of the corporate machine, clinging nostalgically to a gospel that is as unacceptable in practice now as it was in the beginning. We confuse performance with ministry, beliefs with faith, and charity with justice. Our demise is the result of the abandonment of our peculiar witness to the upside-down instructions left to us by a God-intoxicated misfit. Christians can survive almost anything, save the loss of distinctiveness. We can make our share of mistakes, but we cannot be a mistake.
The very definition of what it means to be a Christian must be salvaged now, taken back, by force if necessary, from those who domesticated a way of life and turned it into a quarreling quagmire of noisy “believers.” While we fiddle with the meaning of the Trinity, present-day Rome is burning. While we mumble our prayers for the poor, their poverty and pain increase by the hour. While we coddle the industries that ravage the earth for energy and then market death to us disguised as comfort, the conscience of the faithful has been euthanized by public relations campaigns that make us swoon with gratitude for the humanitarian altruism of Big Oil.
Where are the holy fools for God today? Who stands out in the crowd as a troublemaker for justice? Where can we find the spiritual contrarian, unplugged and unmoved by the choreographed hysteria of celebrity culture? Where do we find real wisdom in the age of the blog, where everyone with an opinion can self-publish, where authors presume not to need editors in a worldwide web of intellectual autoeroticism?
The sad truth is that to help the American church “grow” we have dressed it in the uniform of Western culture. We have taught its leaders to be entrepreneurs, and to fret more about parking spaces than about peace and justice. We sing familiar hymns, but the lyrics fall on deaf ears. We recite creeds in worship that move no one, while others have decided they cannot speak them aloud in good conscience. In short, countless communities of faith are engaged in a charade on Sunday morning. The pews are full of pretenders.
The easiest thing would be to give up, of course, to disappear, to slide happily into retirement while telling the same tired old stories in the pulpit about walking with Jesus on the beach but seeing only one set of footprints in the sand. The real enemies of the church are found inside its walls. Sadly, the clergy shop as frantically as anyone at Christmastime, instead of warning people that the nativity is really a spiritual apocalypse. We commend praying for our enemies without confessing that the idea is more absurd and un-American than soccer. We cheer Jesus the Gentile lover while funding allies who are Gentile haters. We read the Sermon on the Mount as if it came from the back of a cereal box."
A rather lengthy quote, but packed with a powerful punch to the gut . I love it when someone cuts to the chase, slashes to the bone, throws caution to the wind, calls out the elephant in the room. At a seminarians conference a number of weeks ago, a young seminarian proclaimed in reaction to some "church is dead" talk, "I am tired of people saying that the church is dead!" OK, how about this, "The church is dead, long live the church!" Can we at least say that something of the church is dying, and in fact must die? Can we also say that something of the church is alive, and in fact must continue to live in new and meaningful ways in the 21st century? Yes, I think we can, and should.
This passage from Rev. Meyer's book reminds me of a conversation I had some months ago with retired pastor and activist, Rev. Henry Hayden. I sat with him in his small one-room apartment at a local retirement home. The first thing he wanted to share with me was a paper he had written on the summation of his life's work as a minister. There were several points that he wanted to make, the first of which stuck with me. "I always tried to remain on the prophetic edge." He then proceeded to tell story after story of how he helped organize counter sit ins during the civil rights movement, how he threatened to resign his pastorate several times because he was not allowed to preach what he felt God had called him to preach, how he received death threats after publicly participating in the ordination of the first gay man in the United Church of Christ. "If you ain't receiving death threats, then you ain't preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ!" He quipped.
"Where are the holy fools for God today? Who stands out in the crowd as a troublemaker for justice?" Meyers asks. Very good question. Where? Who? In our denomination, in our conference, in the wider church? While we "fiddle with the meaning of the Trinity," hold another counsel meeting, plan for the next church picnic, bicker over how many Easter lilies on the chancel is too many, issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, mass incarceration, unemployment, inequality, and many such injustices linger right outside our Narthex. In order to be its true self, to be what it was called to be, the church must move to the margins and confront these issues head on. As Rev. Hayden suggested, we have to exist on the prophetic edge, we have to be troublemakers for justice. Isn't this the real work of the church: in community, on the margins, and out of our comfort zone, and raising hell?
So, good riddance to the church that is unwilling to take such a stand, the "harmless handmaiden" shuttered behind stained glass. Let this church, that clings to itself, die. And, let the church that says "yes!" to being a "holy fool," a "troublemaker for justice," and radical resister, let this church live!
This is the fourth Sunday of Easter, a season in which new life springs into being.
It is also Earth Day ( a few days ago), so we remember the earth, our home, and how magnificent it is, full of beautiful things, yet fragile and hurting, suffering from exhaustion.
Today's scripture suggests how important the earth is and how it is intricately involved in our relationship with God. With that, I want to highlight three points that I find in the reading of today's scripture, both from Psalm 23 and the first Epistle of John chapter 3. Since we are in the Easter season of resurrection, I want to suggest that the resurrection is about reawakening to the following understandings:
1. That we live in the presence of a God who provides abundantly.
2. That we live in the presence of a God who penetrates and relates with the natural world.
3. That we live in the presence of a God who lures us into loving action.
1. We live in the presence of a God who provides abundantly.
Considering this Psalm in the original Hebrew, the first line is translated, "The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing." Think of this promise, the Lord is MY shepherd. I lack nothing, or I want for nothing. I can think of at least 10 things right now that I don't have, that I either need or want. Can you? I have 'wanted' my whole life, I have craved, coveted, dreamed, wished for, pleaded, begged, worked hard for, and even stolen things that I wanted (yes, stolen). All of it based on an overwhelming desire to have what I did not have, convinced that I needed it. I studied some Buddhism in college and remember that The Buddha said we suffer (dukkah) because we want...we grasp for things...we cling...and this in turn causes us to suffer. The Buddha wasn't saying we shouldn't have things, he was merely commenting on our mind set towards things. We want the lush life. We want peace. We want to do the right thing.
We grasp and come up short. We suffer after the very things we want. We are consumed by what we lack instead of recognizing and being grateful for what we have. We are driven to get more instead of content with having enough. The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. Do we really believe this? There is so much want in our culture. We are told over and over again that we need more, that we won't be happy until we have that special thing. So we scratch and claw for that one more thing, yet there is always something else we want. God has given us what we need; green fields, still waters, rest, nature, and all the elements that nourish my soul. However, our want seeks to destroy what we really need. Our want turns to greed and in turn creates an imbalance in the world, creating more and more need. A world dominated by scarcity where there is no equal access to food, water, and shelter.
2. We live in the presence of a God who penetrates and relates with the natural world.
In this morning's Psalm, the shepherd takes us on a journey, making us lie down in 'lush, abundant pastures,' leading us beside still, quiet waters, places that are meant to provide nourishment and restoration for our soul (our very being). God is present in all, and all of these places suggest images that invoke the notion of rest, comfort, abundance, necessity, security, satisfaction, etc. I could interpret these as figurative symbols if it were not for the fact that images of nature hold literal meaning for me. I draw tremendous comfort from these natural places; the beach, the desert, the mountains, meadows, and lakes. What natural places bring rest to you? What natural places in our own neighborhoods bring rest? Remembering the opening chapters in Genesis, God places humanity in the center of the garden, in direct relationship with nature, and commands that humankind take care of it. The natural world is our responsibility. The natural world is our sacred environment, where we are provided for in abundance. To abuse it, is to offend our relationship with God. We have forgotten the earth as sacred and have turned it into a commodity. This environmental imbalance causes tremendous need in the world, where poverty and starvation, and lack of access to clean water exist. These are Dark Valleys of Death for much of the world's population. Yet, even here God is present. God is in all, even in the midst of environmental degradation, and in the midst of scarcity, God is present, leading us to greener pastures, cleaner waters, urging us to do the right, take take care.
3. We live in the presence of a God who calls us into loving action.
"We know love by this, that Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide if we see a brother or sister in need and yet refuse to help? Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." (1 John 3)
For all the things we want, we live in a world where there exists a tremendous amount of need. God says we lack for nothing, yet there is obviously tremendous need, even in our own community, in our own lives. We need food, clean water, clean air, a healthy planet, jobs, money, clothing, shelter, rest, etc., etc. Yet we lack. Perhaps we do so, not because God hasn't provided but because we have wanted more than our fair share. Driven by greed, our want leads us to take, leaving others with nothing. God's abundant Kin-dom is thrown off kilter. And with this, we have forgotten that we lack for nothing. Somewhere along the line we lost trust in this and took matters into our own hands. We plundered and hoarded, we began to tell ourselves that only the fittest would survive, that we had to get what was ours or someone else would take it. We told ourselves that the earth provided endless resources, and that these resources were there for the taking. That the strongest and smartest had access to an endless supply, that those who had the ingenuity to harness it, would grow rich beyond their wildest dreams. And with this, we left many others to fend for themselves, calling them weak, unfit, and lazy. This too is a Dark Valley of Death.
We live in the presence of a God who continuously lures us to a life of resurrection and reawakening, a cycle of life that leads us through lush pastures, still waters, dark valleys, and restoration. A God who has prepared an abundant table set before us in the sight of even our enemies. When we awake to this, remember this, and live into this promise, we are living into the building of God's Kin-dom on earth. When we trust in this abundance, when we live and serve in loving action, God's abundant Kin-dom is brought back into alignment, into balance, into a Kin-dom where all of God's creation, both human and non-human, lack for nothing.
On a summer youth trip to New York City several summers ago, we visited the Holy Apostle Soup Kitchen where 1000 people are fed on a daily basis smack dab in the middle of their Episcopal sanctuary. Some years ago a fire had ravaged the sanctuary, and in the reconstruction it was decided that the destroyed pews would not be replaced. Instead, the church would utilize furniture with more mobility in order to serve their daily community meal from the floor of the sanctuary. On Sundays they would fold up the tables and set out chairs for the congregation. What a perfect idea!
This got me thinking about church furniture, sacred space, and the powerful message it sends. I find it pleasingly ironic that the Holy Apostle sanctuary had to burn down in order for a new vision of church to rise from the ashes. The decision not to replace the pews, after having perished in the flames, became the image that prompted public comments I recently made about the pews in our own church. I recounted the time when I first saw the sanctuary at UrbanMission. As I stood at the entrance with Pastor Al, I couldn’t help but see our plan for serving weekly community meals come to life. All we needed was to get rid of the existing pews and rip up the carpet. It wasn’t but several months later that someone broke through a sanctuary window, feeding a running garden hose in. The water ran all night, flooding the entire sanctuary floor. The reconstruction of our sanctuary involved more months of tearing up carpet and hardwood, prepping the concrete underneath, pressure hosing paint off of brick walls, and ditching the pews out back. Today, the sanctuary is a free flowing sacred space, vacant of permanent furniture, where both Sunday gatherings and community dinners are held. We intentionally avoided using the space as traditionally intended, and instead explored other ways of gathering. Only through the calamity of flood were we able to envision other ways of being church. And the pews? The last of them were cut up several Saturdays ago and pitched into a dumpster, destined for the landfill. Craig, part of our maintenance crew who happily cut them up, exclaimed that they were the best pieces of redwood he had seen in a long time, and that if they hadn’t been covered in a century of toxic paint, they would have made good firewood.
Frankly, I am not saddened by this. Neither do I feel I should keep these opinions to myself, or tip toe around this issue in mixed company. I think all pews should go the way of either fire or flood. Period. They are an outdated furniture, having served to hold congregations captive for centuries. With their fixed presence, pews serve to make the sanctuary a lecture hall, or a theatre at best. Today, for most mainline churches, pews remain like remnants of the past, calling us to a familiar (and safe) form of worship. They have become a point of much contention, something to be filled, a burdensome measure of church success or failure. They are obstacles to be tripped over in the trying of anything new. I will even go as far in saying the same for most of our traditional church furniture: pulpits, lecterns, chancels, baptisteries, choir lofts, etc. I am sorry, but most sanctuary designs that utilize pews and other fixtures send one giant message, “come in, sit down, and follow our lead.” Might we consider ripping up these instruments of stagnation, dragging them out into the church yard, and setting them ablaze? Perhaps not, if we continue to cling to them like a life line, unwilling to let go of them like some old friend. They bring us comfort and stability. They are sturdy. They are a symbol of security.
The reality, however, is that most of us destined for parish ministry will have to deal with these fixtures of traditional sacred space. We will likely inherit churches that are trapped in time, with limited options for incorporating anything new. Any change will perhaps come piecemeal at best. I suggest we challenge these spaces, and challenge those who cling to tightly to traditional ways of utilizing space, just as we would challenge any failed, offensive, or archaic theology. And in so doing, I suggest we give preference to designs that allow sanctuaries to breathe new life. I also suggest that we consider ditching traditional fixtures, giving preference to only one piece of furniture that, IMHO not only should remain but should be considered as the foundation on which any new sanctuary is built. The only piece of furniture being timeless and of any real sacred use; The Communion Table.
The Table remains portable, flexible, mobile, and fluid. So strong is The Table in structure, form, and symbol, that if the church were to crumble in a smoking heap, it would rise from the ash, reminding us of what the church has always stood for: communion, community, fellowship, hospitality, nourishment, and openness. Pews, and other such fixtures, do not easily lend themselves to these notions, in fact they lead us further in the opposite understanding. So again I say, let the pew perish the way of fire or flood. Let us further be rid of anything that ties us like an anchor to static worship. And if stability or life line be needed, let us put our confidence in the one piece of furniture that is tied to the biblical notion of God’s kindom: The Table. Centered on this, let us create new sacred spaces that breathe, that allow for movement, for creativity, that allow the church to sit, to stand, to kneel, to gather in the round, to acknowledge one another, to listen, and to dialogue.
“If everyone were holy and handsome, with "alter Christus" shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed, as St. John says, with the sun, a crown of twelve stars on her head and the moon under her feet, then people would have fought to make room for her. But that was not God's way for her nor is it Christ's way for Himself now when He is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth.” Dorothy Day (Room for Christ)
Most Sunday evening dinners at UrbanMission are populated by a cross section of our community. In one evening I sit and listen to two friends talk about the best places to sleep on the streets so as not to get harassed…a mother of four fending for herself, struggling to get shoes for her kids, her husband deported now for three years…an old 12th Street OG talk about his time in jail, drug addiction, numerous stories of over dose, and the experience of coming to Jesus in a Christian home…finally, two dark characters emerging from the shadows with runny noses, covered in sores and street grime, asking for food, groceries, and drink,…
“If everyone where holy and handsome” as sister Dorothy suggests, I might better see Christ in each of these. What confronts me is much less evident. Where is Christ in all of these? “He is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth.” How then does one develop eyes to see and ears to hear? How are we to go about unmasking these weekly visitors enabling us to see clearly the light of Christ shining, to see Christ himself standing before us?!
I am reminded this week of the apostle Thomas who failed to recognize Christ standing before him until he reached into his side. “My Lord and my God,” was his exclamation. If by his wounds Christ was recognized, then perhaps by the wounds we see in those who stand before us each week we recognize them as Christ. Reach out and put your finger here, in the holes left by divorce, deportation, incarceration, hypodermic needles, hunger, mental illness, addiction, abuse, homelessness, unemployment, loneliness. “Do not doubt, but believe.” It is the Lord in flesh and bone.
Pastor Stephen Patten
From the Mountain is a 'cyber sanctuary' where sermons and other musings are posted for the general consumption of a larger community. Feel free to reflect on them as you wish. You are welcome to leave comments below with thoughts, insights, and/or questions.