Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sermon for September 21, 2008

Core Values: Holding Traditions
2 Thessalonians 2:13-17; 1 Corinthians 11:1-7

In March 1638, a Puritan woman stood shamelessly before a gathering of Massachusetts Bay clergy. As many of her former friends from Boston watched, Pastor John Wilson read a writ of excommunication, casting Anne Hutchinson out of the church and the colony. She was charged with “lewd and lascivious conduct” for having men and women in her house at the same time during Sunday Bible study meetings. Later that month, Hutchinson and over a hundred supporters left for Rhode Island.

Anne Hutchinson converted to Puritanism through the preaching of English Pastor John Cotton. When Cotton migrated to the New World, Anne and her family followed. There she began to hold weekly women’s meetings in her home to discuss Cotton’s sermons. The meetings grew in popularity, and women began bringing their husbands. These gatherings evolved into question and answer sessions in which Anne often voiced her own opinions. She suggested that some ministers in the colony promoted a covenant of works, while John Cotton preached a covenant of grace. The works-versus-grace debate violently divided the community. Authorities took action. The clergy condemned Anne for claiming that God spoke directly to her soul, giving her inner direction and personal revelation. Her teachings angered and shocked the clergy who believed that prophecy ended with biblical revelation. And by holding public meetings for both men and women in her home, Anne had moved beyond her authority. Some of the clergy referred to Anne as “an American Jezebel, who had gone a-whoring from God,” and who should be, “tried as a heretic.” Anne had to confess to being “guilty of wrong thinking”, even though she did not really believe it. In 1638, with the words of the excommunication burning in her ears, Anne Hutchinson declared, “The Lord does not judge as man judges. Better to be cast out of the Church than to deny God.” She was banished from her community, and forged a new life in Portsmouth Rhode Island.

Eventually, Anne and her family moved to East Chester New York. Because of ongoing hostilities with the Dutch, Indians massacred Anne, her servants and five of her children. While this news horrified some her friends in the Massachusetts Bay community, others viewed it as God’s final judgment of her blasphemy.

The same issues raised by Anne Hutchinson are still very much with us today -- spiritual freedom, the role of women in the church, the issue of individual freedom versus being part of a covenant community. We also deal with the question of how we know God. Do we only accept tradition, or are new ways OK? How do we know when our traditions are life-giving and valuable? And how can we tell when our traditions imprison us? Keep these questions in mind as we read our second scripture.

You should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.I am so glad that you always keep me in your thoughts, and that you are following the teachings I passed on to you. But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. A man dishonors his head if he covers his head while praying or prophesying. But a woman dishonors her head if she prays or prophesies without a covering on her head, for this is the same as shaving her head. Yes, if she refuses to wear a head covering, she should cut off all her hair! But since it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut or her head shaved, she should wear a covering. A man should not wear anything on his head when worshiping, for man is made in God’s image and reflects God’s glory. And woman reflects man’s glory (1 Cor. 11:1-7).
What are we going to do with that doozy? It’s in the Bible, so we traditionally affirm that God has something to say to us in these verses. Paul later says, “If anyone wants to be contentious about his, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God.” Case closed. End of discussion. Really? How many women here will agree to wear head coverings as a sign of submission to men’s authority?

Our Puritan women ancestors covered their heads in worship. When our church was founded in 1730, men and women sat separately. Women were not allowed to preach or teach in worship. Yet, they were the backbone of the nonconformist movement. In Puritan New England, a woman’s duty was household religion. Women helped found new churches, participated in public demonstrations and acts of symbolic defiance. Women wrote, translated, and printed religious literature. Some women even became involved directly in the government and ministry of the church, especially in England.

But the tradition held firm – no women were allowed to preach or teach in church. The tradition directly the apostle Paul, who insisted it’s disgraceful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor. 14:35). If a woman has a question at church, she should wait and ask her husband at home. Having been silenced, women like Anne Hutchinson turned to the Holy Spirit to find direct, personal revelation. The men who governed civil and religious life didn’t like it. As some women found spiritual freedom, authorities tried to repress self-expression. Later on, evangelicalism would foster this enthusiasm for the Holy Spirit that appealed to the powerless members of society.

In 2008, there are still Christian churches that don’t let women speak during worship. Women are excluded from authoritative teaching. They may not read scripture publicly. Why? Because Paul said so in the Bible. Because that’s our tradition, in word and in letter. In some Christian churches, women still need to cover their heads and wear long skirts to cover their legs.

At TCC, we’ve obviously gotten past this. The first ordination of a woman took place in a congregational church -- Antoinette Brown in 1853. Today, denominations like the UCC, PCUSA, and United Reformed Church will reject ministerial candidates who are against the ordination of women. Liberal mainline churches think that this issue is a no-brainer. Too bad this is not the case for all churches. In 1995, The Christian Reformed Church voted to allow women ministers. In 1998, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council suspended the Christian Reformed Church’s membership because of this decision. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest protestant body in the US, actually revoked the ordination of women. In a statement issued in 2000, the Southern Baptists said, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” Their existing female pastors are allowed to remain, but no new female pastors will be ordained.

All of this is prolegomena for getting to my question. In our first reading, Paul says, “Stand firm. Hold to traditions.” During our cottage meetings last Spring, we affirmed that one of TCC’s core values is to honor our cherished traditions as life-giving witnesses to us and to future generations. But which traditions? We certainly don’t follow Paul’s teachings on women any more. How do we know which cherished traditions hold us back? How do we honor the traditions that help us live faithfully into the future? We need to find ways to hear God’s voice in our traditions and decide whether they are life giving or death dealing.

The story of TCC’s traditions takes on mythic qualities. Some of today’s church members still echo the sentiment of one local historian who wrote, “It can only be hoped that the legend is correct. Nothing could be more fitting than that a Puritan Church should take form, and its principles first be heard under the cathedralled trees in the wilderness of a new world of freedom.” The mythological significance of TCC’s founding continues to nurture the lives of its worshipers and helps define who the church is today. We believe that what we teach, how we express ourselves in worship, and how we live are important enough to pass on to others.

The church building itself has the ability to make the past come to life and reproduce the past. Sometimes I invite groups of people to sit in the sanctuary and tell me about meaningful experiences, remarkable sermons, and significant family events. As people talk, the walls come alive as if the space is able to hold these memories for generations. Some stories are forgotten, waiting to be heard again. For example, TCC’s first pastor, the Rev. James Beebe owned two slaves, Nero and Peg, who were admitted into church membership. Who tells Nero and Peg’s story as part of the living tradition? While we tell stories of a pleasant church home and cozy memories, we must also listen for the stories of those on the margins. As we tell our stories to future generations, we remember that there are hidden stories waiting to be told – unstoried traditions waiting to live.

When do we hear God’s voice in tradition? The word tradition comes from Latin. It can mean to hand on – as in passing on a teaching from generation to generation. It can also mean to hand over, as in betrayal. Our traditions can help us faithfully reproduce, or our traditions can betray us.

I propose that we test our traditions by listening for the voice of God in them as a community. Our traditions pull us forward to God. At the same time, our life-giving traditions anchor us to God. One of the earliest images of the church in Christian art is a boat. Throughout church history, warnings abound that we must stay anchored to the Bible and tradition as we enter the choppy waters of life. We remain grounded in our faith. We can become so grounded – so comfortable -- that we decide never to leave the docks. But don’t boats belong on the high seas? Shouldn’t a boat be in forward motion? How can the church move into the future when it’s anchored?

Imagine what would happen if we cast our anchor of tradition into the future and winched our way toward it. There is an ancient shipping practice called kedging. When storms or turbulent seas threatened a ship that was docked in a harbor, a crew of eight or nine sailors would be sent out in a launch. Their mission was to haul the ship’s anchor out into the sea as far as the chain would take them. The anchor would be let down and the ship winched forward into deeper water on the anchor chain. This practice also helps a boat move when there is no wind. Our job is to let traditions guide us into the future – to make our past current.

Some traditions are not worth passing on. They betray us. They do not deliver us to the future or firmly anchor us to God. When we identify a tradition that subjugates or suppresses another – whenever our past exiles, or excludes – it does not give life. We do not hear God’s direct voice in scriptural texts that marginalize or abandon others. If our traditions are not based on Christ’s self-giving love for all, then they are not of God. If our traditions lead to complacency or anxious over-focus on survival, they do not serve us.

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was no more than a hut, and there was only one boat; but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea. They went out day and night, tirelessly searching for the lost. Some of those who were saved wanted to be associated with the station and give their time, money, and effort to support the work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew. Some of these new members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so small and crude. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided for those who were saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely because they used it as sort of a club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work.

About this time, a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them were foreigners. The beautiful new club was in chaos. Immediately, the property committee hired someone to rig up a shower house outside the club, where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside. At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities because they felt they were unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. A small number of members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. The small group’s members were voted down and told that if they wanted to save lives, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast.

As the years went by, however, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old station. It evolved into a club, so another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the passengers drown.

Herein lies the role of tradition at TCC: tradition grounds us so that we have the courage to set sail. To move ahead in confidence by casting our tradition forward and grasping the hope that is set before us. We include everyone in what God has in store for us. Those who are long time members and those who are new comers, those who are comfortable an those who are drowning, those who are in the center of the action and those who sit on the margins – we all have a place in telling the traditions and moving forward together into God’s future.


Sources:


Nugent, Madeline Pecora. 1989. “Apologizing to Anne Hutchinson.” Christian Century 106, no. 10: 304-305. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 18, 2008). See also: http://www.annehutchinson.com/anne_hutchinson_biography_004.htm

Greaves, Richard L. 1983. “The role of women in early English nonconformity.” Church History 52, no. 3: 299-311. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 18, 2008).

http://www.religioustolerance.org/femclrg13.htm

Beach, E. Merrill. Trumbull: Church and Town. Trumbull, CT: The Trumbull Historical Society, 1955. 23.

Honoring the Past, Building the Future. Trumbull, CT: Trumbull Congregational church, 1992. 2.

Sweet, Leonard. Aqua Church. Loveland, Co: Group, 1999. 72-73.





Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, September 14, 2008

Core Values: Prayer, Study and Service
John 8:31-41 (Ephesians 4:17-25)

“Jesus has a very special love for you . . .but as for me, the silence and the emptiness are so great, that I look and do not see, …listen but do not hear. Where is my faith? Deep down there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness. My God, how painful is this unknown pain. I have no Faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart, and make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me I am afraid to uncover them because of the blasphemy. If there be God, please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

Guess who wrote those words. Mother Theresa, of all people! Her personal writings reveal that for the last half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever, neither in her heart or in worship.

In today’s reading, Jesus says, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” But how many of us can truly claim that we know that freedom? If spiritual powerhouses like Mother Theresa struggle to know God, what can we expect for ourselves? How many of us here today can say we have remained faithful to Christ’s teachings and feel free from the cycles of depression, or addiction, or violence that life offers? How many of you came here today feeling that you remain faithful to God, but you secretly wonder if God notices, if God cares, if God’s presence truly has the power to transform you and your family?

In today’s gospel reading, we meet some people who also miss out on knowing God. They say, “We are children of Abraham.” They insist that their lineage guarantees them God’s blessing. They believe that birth determines character and that having the proper ancestors assures divine favor. They assume that their identification with Abraham should be enough to set them free.

Then Jesus, a child of Abraham himself, makes the social compass go haywire. He says they are not free because they have not made a place for his word in their lives. Knowing God’s favor has nothing to do with who your mom and dad are. Identification with God doesn’t depend on social status. Jesus insists that whoever is from God hears the words of God. If you don’t hear, you are not from God. Character and behavior determine one’s freedom, not one’s lineage.

One of our core values at TCC is that we are at our best when WE make room for God’s word. We insist that just having our names on the membership rolls of a church does not set a person free. God doesn’t pay attention to us just because we worship at the oldest church in town. What distinguishes true disciples of Christ is abiding in the Word, not loyalty to tradition. Freedom comes from remaining in God’s Word, and we do that through prayer, study, and service.

1. Prayer. If the truth sets us free, then prayer is how we listen for truth. Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view. Prayer is about not losing heart when the heart seems empty. It’s about keeping a watch for God when tragedy destroys our cities and our families are scattered or destroyed. We pray even when we don’t always see God’s face or feel God’s presence. If we can’t pray, it’s because we do not believe that God acts, that God is a creator, that God takes a hand in reality. We get stuck because we do not believe God would want to change divine will to suit our prayer, to lead us to where God’s will and ours mingle in agreement.

Judaism has a concept called the Bat Kohl. It means “Daughter’s Voice.” Jewish mystics understood it as an audible voice from heaven and a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes about his experience with the Bat Kohl. He experimented with an ancient Rabbi’s teaching about spontaneous, private prayer. The one praying pours out the heart to God, describing all one’s thoughts, feelings, problems and frustrations. Shapiro devoted himself to one hour of prayer a day. He prayed for weeks before he heard the Bat Kol, the Daughter’s Voice. For Shapiro, the Voice was clearly female, and it heralded an encounter to the Divine Feminine, God as Mother. He still hears the voice, and Her answer to his prayers is always the same: “Sweetheart, drop the drama and look at the truth, then you will know what to do, even if you choose not to do it. Here, let me help you.” Shapiro writes, “God’s help is rarely pleasant. Having my story wrenched from my grasp, being stripped naked emotionally and intellectually, and forced to see what is rather than what I so desperately want there to be, is humbling and often terrifying, and always profoundly liberating. And it is done with such love and compassion that in the end I fall into Her arms in selfless surrender.”

Prayer brings freedom. Prayer helps us discover the truth about who God is. Prayer reveals who we are. Prayer shows us the world for what it is, and gives us hope for its beautiful possibilities. Prayer help us find the truth.

2. Study. If prayer helps us listen for truth, study helps us know truth. Prayer helps us listen to our God who still speaks to us. Study confirms what we heard as we seek to align God’s voice with the words God has spoken through scripture. Does the thought of opening a Bible fill you with excitement? Do you listen to Scripture and read it expecting God to speak? Most people I talk to tell me that they don’t read the Bible because they don’t understand it. Some were raised in religious traditions where no one but the priest was allowed to read and interpret scripture. Some people are distracted by murders, holy wars, and fallacies in the biblical texts. Whatever the reason, we are left with a problem. The Bible is our holy book, and many Christians don’t know what’s inside. The most widely known Bible verse among Christians is “God helps those who help themselves”—and those words aren’t even in the Bible. They are from Ben Franklin.

Many of us in the church sit on our hands, thinking to ourselves, “I need more knowledge. I need to know God is real. I need a sign. I can’t do anything with my faith until I have more assurance.” Our core values affirm that we can know God through the study of Scripture, and that knowledge brings us freedom. I don’t want to limit the ways in which we hear God. God can communicate truth with us in surprising and unexpected ways. But we affirm that the predominate way to know truth is to study Scripture. When we open our sacred writings, God speaks to us as a covenant partner.

A couple of years ago, in the wake of the death of legendary ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, reporters reflected far and wide about his life. I remember one report centering on his love and admiration for America. Jennings, a citizen of Canada, always carried a copy of the Constitution of the United States in his back pocket. He marveled that a country as vast and diverse as America could be held together by a single document less than 10,000 words in length. Peter Jennings secretly became a citizen of the United States of America.

Our constitution, as the People of God, is the word of God. We would do well to carry it in our back pocket at all times and consult it often that it may become hidden in our heart and revealed through our life. Scripture nourishes of our vast and diverse life together as God’s people. Just as the Constitution of the United States outlines the articles of free people, so our scriptures bring freedom to the inhabitants of God’s kingdom. Read it, alone and together, and allow it to speak to you.

3. Service. In prayer we find the truth. Through study we know the truth. But we don’t stop there. We also serve others, and in service, we live the truth. God speaks to us because God wants us to respond. If we really understand God’s love and how God is speaking it to us, we will do something to let God know that we understand. Our duty is hear the Word, and to trust and obey it in life and death. We are liberators who free others from the shackles of despair with the Word of love.

In his book entitled The Man who Planted Trees, Jean Giono tells the story of a shepherd he met in 1913 in the French Alps. Because of careless deforestation, the mountains around Provence, France were barren. Former villages were deserted. Springs and brooks had run dry. The wind blew furiously, unimpeded by foliage. While mountain climbing, Giono came to a shepherd’s hut where he was invited to spend the night. After dinner, Giono watched the shepherd meticulously sort through a pile of acorns, discarding those that were cracked or undersized. When the shepherd had counted out 100 perfect acorns, he stopped for the night and went to bed. Giono learned that the fifty-five-year-old shepherd had been planting trees on the wild hillsides for over three years. He had planted 100,000 trees, 20,000 of which had sprouted. Of those, he expected half to be eaten by rodents or die due to the elements, and the other half to live.

After World War I, Giono returned to the mountainside and discovered incredible rehabilitation: There was now a forest, accompanied by a chain reaction in nature. Water flowed in the once-empty brooks. The ecology, sheltered by a leafy roof and bonded to the earth by a mat of spreading roots, became hospitable. Willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, and flowers were birthed.

Giono returned again after World War II. Twenty miles from the lines, the shepherd had continued his work, ignoring the war of 1939 just as he had ignored that of 1914. The reformation of the land continued. Whole regions glowed with health and prosperity. Giono writes, “On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms . . . The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again . . . Little by little, the villages have been rebuilt. People from the plains, where land is costly, have settled here, bringing youth, motion, the spirit of adventure."

Acts of service are like spiritual reforestation. We dig holes in barren land and plant the seeds of life. Through these seeds, dry spiritual wastelands are transformed into harvestable fields. Life-giving water is brought to parched and barren souls. Lives are rebuilt. People begin to know healing and restoration. And that, my friends, is freedom.

Freedom is not about belonging to the right church, or the best family. It’s not about being at the right place at the right time. Jesus says it’s about take a new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a word-centered life -- a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God’s character reproduces in you (Ephesians 4:25). We are at our best when we take time for prayer, study, and service. We listen, we know, and we live the word of God. And in the process, we find the freedom God offers the world.

Sermon for September 7, 2008

Our Core Values: A Vision for TCC
Micah 4:1-5, 1 John 4:21

In the course of history, big people with big ideas make a big impact on world history. Sometimes, people of little notoriety with big ideas make a small ripple on the lake of history. The ripple expands, slowly spreading out, gaining momentum, and reaching many over time. Micah is one of these people. Micah prefers the simplicity of the country to the commotion of city life. The capitol city Jerusalem offers nothing that he can’t get at home or just do without. And like many people who live in forgotten rural areas, Micah is a patriot. He sees what the national leaders do to his country and he is outraged. Greedy leaders kill others for money and power. The King of Judah raises taxes to build luxurious fortresses and palaces for himself while the common people in the country suffer. Nobles fleece the poor, judges accept bribes, and religious leaders are more interested in wealth than truth. And Micah is mad (see Micah 3:11; 7:1-7).

Micah knows history. He knows that God entered into a mutual covenant with Abraham. He knows that God promised to make Abraham’s future generations prosper if Abraham made every effort to worship and follow God alone. Micah knows history. He knows God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and used the prophet Moses and the priest Aaron to lead them to the promised land. Micah remembers that in return for their salvation, the people promised to worship the God of Israel alone and to take care of each other. Micah knows history, but it seems like no one else does. In every sector of public life, the leaders don’t seem to remember God’s promises and their commitments. They don’t remember that God is reluctant to punish, and that there is sorrow in God’s anger. But Micah knows history, and the knowledge torments him. Micah not only knows where his people have been, he also clearly sees where they are.

The power of God comes upon Micah to declare his people’s sins to them (3:8). Micah hurls bitter words at his leaders:
Listen, you leaders of Israel! You are supposed to know right from wrong, but you are the very ones who hate good and love evil. You skin my people alive and tear the flesh off their bones. (3:1-2, NLT).
He relentlessly predicts disaster and disgrace for the leaders and the nation. And he stands utterly alone. Micah’s standards are too high, his stature is too small, and his concern is too intense. You wouldn’t invite Micah to a dinner party. He ruins gatherings with his doom and gloom. He never encourages people. He’s so negative. But Micah won’t back down. He knows that those who live selfish and luxurious lives on the backs of the poor, even though they offer costly sacrifices, suck the lifeblood of the nation.

Imagine Micah’s anguished frustration. He knows that severe punishment is at hand. He knows where Israel has been and where they are. He also plainly understands where they are going. And while it seems that Israel is facing some tough times, Micah sees the bigger picture. He knows that God has great things planned for Israel. Micah reminds them that one day a promised ruler from Bethlehem will come and lead Israel with justice–a true shepherd who will bring peace. He tells everyone that a religious and political revival like no one has ever imagined is coming. Jerusalem will become the most important place on earth. People from all nations will stream into Jerusalem to be in God’s presence. God alone will speak and settle international disputes. Poor farmers will no longer have to support a military state while their families starve, for all wars will stop and military training will come to an end. Swords shall be beaten into plowshares. True lasting peace and prosperity will reign. And Micah can put forth this awesome vision because he understands where they have come from, where they are, and where they are going.

Micah inspires me. I’m no prophet for sure, but in the big picture I am a little guy with big dreams who is ready to make a little impact with a big wake. It’s funny, though, how one’s perspective changes overtime. Especially with religious experiences. I’ve been baptized three times – my mother baptized me Catholic, then promptly left the Catholic church to join the Congregationalists. I was baptized a second time in the UCC. In my teen years, I walked away from the congregational church and became a born-again Baptist, complete with a third baptism. I’ve spent time worshiping with the Christian and Missionary Alliance in a YMCA, attended an evangelical liberal arts school with a degree in biblical studies, and was ordained in a very conservative Presbyterian church near Boston. I used to hand out biblical literature in shopping malls and preach the gospel from city park benches. I only listened to worship music, and I pledged that I would never let me love for God grow cold. I would drop by acquaintances houses unannounced and try to convert them to my brand of Christianity. For a while, it was a happy world. I knew what I believed. I knew where I stood. Today I stand in a different place.

I don’t know if I can pinpoint the exact date the change happened. When I look back at who I was and what I believed four years ago, I realize that I have redefined by beliefs since coming to TCC. I no longer believe what I preached and taught in the past. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure it out – what I believe and what I don’t, reconciling my views with my understanding of Scripture. I’ve come to think of life as a journey. We never arrive at the final destination of our faith while we are alive. As we travel closer to the heart of God, we get rid of heavy baggage that we don’t need. We pick up a few helpful items along the way. We try new things. We also continue to use the tried and true articles that have been helpful in the past. We look back where from where we’ve come, we take stock of the present moment with its challenges and blessings. But we also keep moving on. In that process, I have become that which I used to dread and fear the most. I’ve been trying to hide it with phrases like progressive evangelical, but the truth is, I’ve become a liberal (Some of you may hear this little confession of mine and become disgusted. You will hear the word liberal and fill it with your assumptions. It’s OK! I used to be in the same place as you. I still do it, too. We tend to think in terms of absolutes and categories).

So, let me tell you where my faith is going. I still listen for call of Micah and Jesus: to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the oppressed, and the favor of God (Lk. 4:18-19). What defines me as a Christian is the quality of my love. For me, that means making faith a matter of community responsibility, not just personal commitments. It means remembering that being a Christian is more than personal piety–it has everything to do with how we work for justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). It means that I am no longer willing to prescribe what someone else’s Christian journey has to look like–not judging and condemning but learning the power of forgiveness and of being forgiven (Lk. 6:37-38). I want to walk with you on your path of discovery -- to help you find your own way as you seek to learn about what experiencing God’s favor means to you and those around you.

I believe that the possibility of a new way of life is the gift of God, whose beloved Son died for sin and rose to conquer it. My deepest conviction is that we are called to pour out our lives for one another as Christ Jesus did on our behalf. I believe that a world for God is a world transformed.
· It is a world where we are free to pursue the common good without becoming the enemy of a sullen, hostile, and suspicious government.
· A world in which the poor are fed.
· A world in which the homeless are sheltered.
· A world in which the prisoners are treated humanely.
· A world in which economic opportunity is shared by all, for the good of all.
· A world in which race is no barrier.
· A world in which love and fidelity is rewarded.
· A world in which soldiers' sacrifice is not wasted on vanity and greed.
· A world in which swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
· A world where we are united in our commonalities instead of excluded by our differences.
· A world in which neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us one from the love God has for us and that we show to one another.

That is my goal. That is my desire. That is the challenge I present to the status quo. That is where I am going. And I invite others to share their journeys with me as we seek to do God’s work and understand God’s plan together.

Let me tell you about a group of people I know. They live in a beautiful and vital town that seems to remain very stable, even when the world around them is falling apart. Their town was one of Money magazine’s best 100 places to live in the USA in 2007. These give money to their church and other ministries in the community. They have had some disappointments, some fights and struggles. They have also experienced great joys and successes. The people I have in mind do not primarily go to their church because they are drawn to congregational church government. They come because they want to be encouraged, and supported. They want to connect with God and one another. They want to raise their kids and grand-kids with strong morals and traditional faith.

If you haven’t figured it our yet, I’m talking about you. I think you are great. You keep things going, even in tough times. Money keeps coming. Sunday School continues. Volunteers step up. And despite ups and downs, you have made it clear that this church has an important place in your lives and in the community–that life would be poorer if there was no longer a congregational church on the corner of White Plains Rd. and Reservoir Ave.

But I need to ask, like Micah asked his people, and like I asked myself: where are you going? What do you stand for, and where will it take you? We are starting to get a glimpse of our future possibilities. After last Spring’s cottage meetings, the facilitators and I drafted a document called “Sustaining TCC at Our Best; A statement of Vision." I hope you have had a chance to look at this statement of the core values that the members and friends of this church expressed. Listen to what we affirm:

As members of the Trumbull Congregational Church, our common life is rooted in Christ’s greatest commandment – to love God and to love one another. In light of this shared value, we aspire:
· To see a deeper relationship with God through prayer, study and service.
· To honor our cherished traditions as life-giving witnesses to us and to future generations.
· To encourage hospitality, extending a generous welcome to all our members, friends, and visitors. No one is a stranger here.
· To grow a church family that embraces diversity within a safe, positive, and nurturing environment.
· To move beyond simple tolerance toward genuine understanding. We recognize that all people are free to make choices regarding their own personal and spiritual journeys.
· To listen attentively, seek others’ opinions, and understand that differing values do exist within our church family.
· To deal with disagreements constructively, communicating with others in a direct, caring, and responsible manner.
· To recognize that children and youth are a vital part of our church family and to welcome them into all aspects of church life.
· To express gratitude and support for the staff, church members and friends who volunteer their time and talents in support of the programs and governance of the church.
· To extend God’s love, through service and outreach, to t hose in the community and the world, as best as we are able.

Trumbull Congregational Church, you know where you’ve been. You know where you are. We are a mixed bunch here: liberals open to pluralism and free thought; Evangelicals with fervor and determination to follow Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture; traditionalists and iconoclasts. But do you know where you’re going? Our vision for the future affirms that love covers differences and unites strangers. It is a high and hard calling because it is nothing less becoming a beacon to a world that rarely finds wider unity in sustained ways. It’s a vision of what it means for us to be followers of Christ. Do you know where we are going? The path is ahead, the path of Christ’s love ready for us to travel together. May God give us a new vision, and the courage to listen and follow together.

Sources:
· Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 1 (New York: Harper:1962), 98-102.
· George Robinson, The 12 Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker,1926), 94-105
· http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2007/moneymag/0707/gallery.BPTL_top_100.moneymag/68.html
· Life Together: An Agenda For Progressive Religion by Dan Schultz http://www.progressivechristianwitness.org/pcw/pdf/Expl_SchulzLifeTogether.pdf
· When Narrative Identities Clash: Liberals versus Evangelicals by Wesley J. Wildman, http://www.progressivechristianwitness.org/pcw/pdf/Expl_WildmanNarrative.pdf

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2008

What God Intends
Romans 12:9-21

Driving down White Plains Road, motorists see the street sign for the Trumbull Congregational Church. One of our deacons is in charge of updating the sign with quotes to entertain passing motorists. Once the sign said, “Don’t worry, Moses was also a basket case.” Another read, “Autumn leaves, Jesus doesn’t.” Right now the sign says, “God blesses us, even when we don’t sneeze.” I remember a moment about one year ago. Driving by the sign with a friend, my passenger read the latest message and groaned. It said, “Warning: Church may induce extreme bouts of happiness.” My cynical passenger turned to me and said, “It should be more like, ‘Warning: Church may cause extreme bouts of frustration.’ ” I laughed, knowing that his comments echo the response that many have towards church.

As a pastor, I am also frustrated by a religious institution that exists within twin realities. The first reality is that the church seems to fail in its mission. As one Christian theologian writes, “That the treasure of God’s grace reaches us surrounded by garbage will not seem surprising to anyone who is personally familiar with life in the church. Church history provides ample evidence of that garbage.” His words affirm something that I love and hate about the church: it is a human institution. We in the church make mistakes. We act like hypocrites. Idolatry tempts us as we seek to honor the values of God’s reign.

Another historic church document expresses the second reality of church existence. It states, “The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity.” This is an amazing thing to say, isn’t it? God is using us, here and now, to show our community what God intends! Though the church may slog through its garbage, we also embody Christ’s redemptive presence in the world. The church remains a place of haven, the bearer of living traditions and the unlikely body of Christ. However, like the passenger in my car, you may hear this affirmation of the church’s purpose and be tempted to say, “You gotta’ be kidding me! Can’t the church do better?” Welcome to the church, folks.

The Good News is that you just heard an invitation: right now, as you are, you can be a part of something -- specifically, a member of the Body of Christ. The tricky part is that the Body of Christ includes a lot of people who are every bit as difficult as we are.

A recent study claims that most churchgoers who abandon their weekly worship do so because they have had a dispute with a fellow member of the congregation. A disagreement on a range of issues, from the way the organ is played to the content of the sermon, was the reason that nearly three quarters of respondents to a survey gave for why they felt people had left the Church. People don’t usually leave over big doctrinal issues. Typical arguments take place over types of buildings, styles of worship, youth work. If not that, then they argue over the flowers.

Once people start arguing, it’s easy to keep it going. There are some simple steps you can follow if you want to turn disagreements into full-fledged feuds. Here’s what to do:
  1. Be sure to develop and maintain a healthy fear of conflict, letting your own feelings build up so you are in an explosive frame of mind.
  2. If you must state your concerns, be as vague and general as possible. Then the other person can’t do anything practical to change the situation.
  3. Next, repeat these words to yourself regularly: “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” Assume you know everything and you are totally right. It will help if you can misquote a Bible verse to clinch your case. Just make sure you do most of the talking.
  4. With a touch of defiance, announce your willingness to talk with anyone who wishes to discuss the problem with you. But do not take steps to initiate such conversation.
  5. Latch tenaciously onto whatever evidence you can find that shows the other person is merely jealous of you.
  6. Judge the motivation of the other party on any previous experience that showed failure or unkindness. Keep track of any angry words.
  7. Always view the issue as a win/lose struggle. Avoid possible solutions and go for total victory and unconditional surrender. Don’t get too many options on the table.
  8. If all else fails, pass the buck! If you are about to get cornered into a solution, indicate you are without power to settle; you need your partner, your committee, whatever.
Of course, there’s another way. Our Reformed protestant tradition reminds us that the church is a servant for the reconciliation of the world. The local expression of the church is called to be a sign in and for the world of the new reality that God has made available in Jesus Christ. Our job is to communicate the reality of God’s grace to one another and the surrounding community.

Jesus gives some practical advice on how to handle arguments and conflicts within the church. Listen to what he tells his followers: “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church.”

The first thing we learn is that we're to approach the person whose behavior hurt us directly, and privately. That way, the person you're speaking with has room to listen without losing face. And you have room to listen to other person, just in case your behavior has contributed negatively to the situation.

The quiet conversation isn't just a necessary step to a juicy public drama, nor is it solely an opportunity to try to get one's way. Our goal is reconciliation.

In other words, church conflict doesn't have to be a distraction from the mission of the Church; it can be a training ground for mission. It can even BE mission. As Christians, we believe that Christ is reconciling the whole world to God and to one another. So when two Christians take their conflict as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, the way they handle it can stand as a visible sign for we believe Christ is doing in the world. We are doing what God intends. Get it? We become an outward and visible sign of a grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world.

The bottom line is that Christian community -- all community, really -- is, as St. Benedict said, a “school for souls,” in which we learn not just how to live, but also how to experience abundant life. Jesus knew something that experience has affirmed for me: we understand best and deepest how God loves and forgives when we are, in our limited but growing way, extending that kind of love and forgiveness to others.

So when you meet people who are really difficult, stay in touch, and stay focused on God's love. Rejoice and be glad in that day. You get to love them. In the process you get a sense of how God loves you, and those who are watching get to see how much we mean it when we acclaim that the church is the demonstration of what God intends for humanity.

Trust me on this one: as long as you need everybody to be happy and agreeable, you'll always be anxious, but once you find and keep hold of the joy and peace the Spirit brings in the midst of working for reconciliation in a tense situation, you'll know a bubbling fountain of energy and freedom that can bring healing. Being human means that we will face times when we are angry, confused, or blind. Faithfulness to God can lead us to gratitude – an ability to focus on the good things God does in our midst, and not just on the ways we separate from one another. As Paul writes
... love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. ... Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. ... Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...