Monday, October 25, 2010

Sermon for October 24, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Independence and Community

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. In grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly. Romans 12:1-8

Did you know that the actions of one affect all? There was a bumper sticker around a few years ago. It reads, “Commit senseless acts of random kindness.” This saying ties in with a branch of science and mathematics called chaos theory. In a nutshell, chaos theory says that the tiniest changes in one small area of the world can cause massive changes in other, distant parts of the world. In 1961, a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz had been working on theoretical models about how tropical storms, typhoons and hurricanes develop. He came up with an idea that was called the “butterfly effect.” The small eddy of wind current made by a butterfly wing can change the weather on the other side of the globe. One small change leads to a larger change, which leads to an even larger change, and so on. Of course, if a butterfly fluttering by can add to a hurricane, more butterflies fluttering by can change the course of that hurricane entirely. In the same way, initial conditions of acts of kindness can also cause small changes that ripple out, and eventually change the world.

In reality, the actions of one affect all. This law of connectedness reaches to the subatomic level of our universe. For instance, we now know that once two electrons have connected or touched in some way, they can never be the same again. No matter how far apart those electrons go, what happens to one happens to the other. We inhabit a universe in which everything is part of everything else. No matter how far apart we may be, we are all one.

This is hard for some people to accept. Especially in churches. Most churches aren’t known for their go-with-the-flow-live-and-let-live-be-and let-be attitude. Throughout history, churches have been known for the ability to control, restrict, contain, narrow, purify, define, and restrain. We Congregationalists are especially susceptible to thinking that we can over control people and situations. The Puritans who founded this church and settled this area were not known for their tolerance and open-mindedness. The Puritans created strict rules that that governed everyone’s behavior. For instance, in 1648, a law was passed ordering all playhouses and theaters be taken down, all actors were to be captured and whipped, and anyone who was seen watching a play had to pay a fine. But guess what? There's a loophole! In Puritan law, someone convicted of a crime could plead “Benefit of Clergy.” If convicted person could read a passage from the Bible without one mistake, the sentence would be reduced.

We have a long history of over control. Our church tradition values independence and autonomy. Every person is a law unto him or herself. And every church is a law unto itself. At the same time, we tend to micromanage others. We expect people to conform to our image. We want them others to dress a certain way, to behave in certain ways, to talk in acceptable ways. We still try to control others. And our desire to control can get out of control. Left unchecked, people try to dominate or marginalize others. We create insiders and outsiders. The goal of the church has been to find the outsiders and bring them in. But not without some cost. We demand transformation, right? We want people to clean up heir acts, live new lives. Break old habits.

Old habits die hard. Even for the church. Do you know how outsiders see Christians? Here are some stereotypes:
  • Christians are known for what we oppose: anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, anti-thinking, etc.
  • Christians are viewed as angry, mean, judgmental, wanting to convert everyone and generally are not peaceful people
  • Christians are judged as hypocritical and inauthentic in our faith and lifestyle (we say one thing, do another or act like we have it all together)
Today, I want to suggest that one habit of healthy churches is to give up some control. We need to submit to the collective subconscious of the people in order to better fulfill our mission. And to do that, to tap into the wisdom of the community. At the same time, we need to act more individually and instinctively. Let me explain.

Lately I’ve been reading about swarm theory. Scientists are looking at the behavior of ants, bees, locusts, schools of fish, and crowds of people. They are learning that these swarms and crowds organize around some simple rules. Each individual member of a swarm, acting individually, will impact the behavior of others. The actions of a few members of the group affect the actions of all.

No one tells the group what to do. There are no orders or commands from the leader at the top. Groups organize spontaneously, following simple, basic rules. One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no top-down management at all—at least none that we would recognize.

Or consider bees. What commands a hive of bees to swarm? Scientists know it is not the queen bee. When a swarm pours itself out through the front slot of the hive, the queen bee can only follow. By choice of the citizens, the swarm takes the queen and thunders off in the direction indicated by mob vote. The hive commands. The queen follows. A mob, thousands of bees united into one, directs itself to swarm. The Queen Bee is not the leader. In fact, there are anonymous leaders within the swarm called “streakers.” The streakers direct from within the swarm by flaying faster and straighter than the other bees. The swarm has no center, but rather thousands of autonomous individual bees engaged in parallel actions, interacting with one another and influencing each other.

Relationship. Connectivity. Interactivity. Collaboration. These are the processes from which every living thing is created, survives, and prospers.

Almost any group that follows bees' rules will make itself smarter. Investors in the stock market, scientists on a research project, even kids at a county fair guessing the number of beans in a jar can be smart groups. Maybe even churches that want to follow God’s aims for the world. It turns out the group is smarter than the individual. If members of the group are diverse, independent minded, and use a mechanism such as voting to reach a group decision, they will reach a correct answer more with greater precision than any single expert.

A fascinating National Geographic article says:
Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part.
Science confirms something that some religions have taught for centuries. Selflessness. Losing the ego. Being a part of something bigger than yourself. Becoming a drop in the spiritual ocean.

One habit of healthy churches is to learn to tread the line between individualism and community. Leadership is less about controlling people than releasing them. In our tradition, every person must be given every decision-making power and boost to rise to the top. Creativity must be given free reign. Boards and Committees must be encouraged to self organize. Power and authority must be shared by everyone. When we drain complexity and chaos from our work, we snuff out the system. We limit our ability to learn and grow.

To me, this means we need to be defined less by what we reject, and more by what we select. For a healthy church, we need to focus less on control and more on collaboration. There is a difference between inviting the rejected into your circle and inviting them to help lead it. For instance, some churches will welcome a gay person into their church as long as that person joins a group or class designed to straighten them out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a minister say, “God loves you just the way you are — but too much to let you stay that way.” It’s not just gays. We put qualifications on all kinds of people: single moms, people living together, people who are going through a divorce, and any number of social choices. What would happen if we got rid of the “buts” and simply said, “God loves you just the way you are. That’s it. Nothing else to add. No pre-qualifications before you’re really welcome. You are welcome. Now please tell us your story so we can learn from you.”

And it’s not just a liberal thing. Tolerance is not just for Unitarians anymore. It’s not just tolerance either. It’s true acceptance. I think people are starting to see that they can keep their beliefs, liberal or conservative, without watering them down. We can come together in a church to share those beliefs, and also find value in the spirituality of others. We can be a church that leads others without the stigma of guilt or coercion. We are all in the same swarm and we have work to do. We work independently, and we work as a community of faith. We trust our collective wisdom, and we rely on our collective compassion.

The Apostle Paul puts it this way: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. May it be so.

Sources:
“Swarm theory supports spiritual independence,” at “http://hinessight.blogs.com/church_of_the_churchless/2007/07/swarm-theory-su.html”
“My Swarm Theory,” at http://theagnosticpentecostal.com/2010/04/19/my-swarm-theory-synchroblog/
"Swarm Theory" at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/07/swarms/miller-text
The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller
The Perfect Swarm by Len Fisher
Aqua Church by Leonard Sweet

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sermon for October 10, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Meeting Needs
October 10, 2010

As the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.” [Everyone liked this idea, and they chose seven men, including Stephen (a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit).] These seven were presented to the apostles, who prayed for them as they laid their hands on them. So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too. Acts 6:1-7

I recently read the following story from a sales clerk: At the clothing store where I work, I make it a point of pride to give customers my unvarnished opinion. One day, when a man emerged from the fitting room, I took one look at him and shook my head. "No, no," I said. "Those jeans look terrible on you. I'll go get you another pair." As I walked away, I heard him mumble, "I was trying on the shirt."

A shopper tells her customer service story: During a shopping trip to a department store, I was looking around for a salesperson so I could pay for my purchase. Finally I ran into a woman wearing the store's ID tag. "Excuse me," I said. "I'm trying to locate a cashier." "I can't help you," she briskly replied, barely slowing down. "I work in customer service." And she walked away.

Listen to this experience from another shopper: Late one night I stopped at one of those 24-hour gas station mini-marts to get myself a fresh-brewed cup of coffee. When I picked up the pot, I could not help noticing that the brew was as black as tar and just about as thick. "How old is the coffee you have here?" I asked the woman who was standing behind the store counter. She shrugged. "I don't know. I've only been working here two weeks."

We know when we’ve had great customer service and when we’ve been treated poorly by a company. Service is as important in the church as it is in the business world. Healthy churches are committed to meeting needs: serving people within our church as well as the meeting the needs of the broader community.

In our reading from the book of Acts, the apostles actively serve others. In fact, they’re so backlogged, they can’t perform their other duties. Like good church people, they form a committee to help out. Seven people are set apart to serve the physical and spiritual needs of the community. This is the first Board of Deacons. The word Deacon comes from the Greek word used to describe what these seven people do. The word is diakonia. It means “service.”

I don’t want us to think that the deacons are the only ones who are supposed to serve. In healthy congregations, it takes everyone working together to do the work of the church. When I think of people working together, I remember some of the great concerts I’ve been to in my life. Imagine the best concert you’ve attended. There is usually an energy that takes over the venue. At the end of the night, the artist performs his or her signature piece. The audience becomes unified in their thoughts, words, and actions. The audience sings and moves together with energy and power that is greater than any one person. Imagine the potential that humanity has if we could unify like that for longer, on a bigger scale. What would we be capable of? What can we do together as a church – what heights could we achieve if we stop thinking of ourselves as small little individuals in a hostile world and take charge of meeting needs in our church and in the community? What can we BE if each of us joins together to work for good, fully awakened to God’s power working through us.

When we closely examine Acts 6 we see that there’s a two-fold service problem. In the early church there were two distinct Jewish groups, each with their own language and culture. Some members of the church were Jews who were born and raised locally. Their mother-tongue was Hebrew or Aramaic. Other members of the church were Jews who were born and raised abroad. Their mother-tongue was Greek. Each tended to stay within their own group. The first problem is when it comes time to hand out food, someone is ignoring the Greek-speaking widows in favor of the Hebrew widows. Now there are insiders and outsiders, haves and have-nots within the church. Jealousy and envy erupt between the two groups. There is also a second problem -- a management problem. The 12 apostles are in charge of the daily distribution or food. The job takes up so much time and effort that the apostles neglect their main jobs of prayer and preaching. The apostles find themselves spending so much time looking after the widows that they don’t have time for their first responsibility.

The apostles propose a division of labor: seven men to do the meet the needs of daily food distribution, while the apostles meet the needs of prayer and preaching. They choose helpers, seven deacons whose task is to wait on tables and make sure that everyone gets food. There are no social welfare programs, no food stamps, no Aid for Dependent Children (ADC), no WIC (Women, Infant, Children) program. The early church has a soup line. The hungry show up at meal time and the deacons serve them.

As the church grows, different kinds of service develop. As more people help, the church realizes there are varieties of ways to meet needs. The apostle Paul will say, "There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord" (1 Cor 12:5). There’s the service of the seven – to wait on tables. There’s the service of the apostles and pastors – to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. There’s the service of the elders – to keep watch over the flock. There’s the service of the members – to serve one another. Within the church must be different ways to meet needs so no vital area of ministry is neglected.

The idea here is that diverse people with individual talents come together to serve the greater needs of community. Since no further mention is made of the problem, we can assume that the early church does a better job of looking after the Greek widows and the poorer members. We can also assume that the apostles are better able to concentrate on their prayer and preaching, on spreading the Good News of the Kingdom. And because everyone helps out and does his or her job, something amazing happens. Luke says, “God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too”

At TCC, leaders often talk about how we want to grow. We want people to grow in maturity. We want the church to grow in members. We want families to grow in their stewardship and their active support of our ministries. The experience of the early church suggests that one way to keep growing is for everyone to do his or her part to serve. Each of us finds a way to use our time, our talents, and our financial gifts to meet needs.

From the beginning, the church feeds people. We feed hungry bodies. We share our food with others. We nourish hungry souls. My question is, are we wasting our resources. Are we using our resources to spread God’s message and meet needs?

I ask this because I know that Americans tend to be wasteful. We don;t always use our resources wisely. Especially when it comes to food. Hunger and malnutrition are the number one worldwide risks, greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Over 9 million people die world wide each year because of hunger and malnutrition. 5 million are children. Rich countries waste around half of the food supplies annually. America throws away 40 % of the food while UK throws away from 40 to 50 %. I recently watched the movie The Book of Eli, in which Denzel Washington travels through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in order to follow a mission from God. In the movie, people fight for water, food and survival. Denzel’s character remembers what it was like before civilization crumbled. In one scene, remembering the old ways, he says, “People had more than they needed, people didn't know what was precious and what wasn't, people threw away things they kill each other for now.” How true. 38 billion US dollars worth of food is thrown away every year.

The model of the book of Acts is for people to make voluntary contributions so that needs are met, pains are shared, and joys are amplified. Sometimes we get off track. We start thinking that the end goal of the church is to survive. We mean well. but sometimes we get caught up in the very patterns that repel us. The job of the church is to meet needs. The job of the church is to serve. The job of the church is to give, even if it means risking its own security. The church that meets needs will share with compassion so that no one shall be pushed to the margins of our compassion.

Meeting needs does not come cheap. The church that meets the needs of others practices a basic principle of Jesus’ teachings. If you want to gain life, you have to lose it. Put another way, if we want to gain, we must be willing to lose. If we want to get, we must give. Giving helps us grow. It leads to resurrection. Meeting needs helps people heal. Communities that practice resurrection are communities of healing and hope, places where individuals torn and tattered by the pain of this world can come and have a soothing balm of love and care applied to their hurt.

Let’s keep working to be a gathering of people who are so intent on meeting needs, we live and work and pray together until the lives around become richer, until individuals who feel excluded are healed, until we model together the possibility of healing hope for the world.

God help us to live with the grace, enthusiasm, and serenity. Help us to know that living and dying are one that life is precious, and beautiful, and limited. That nothing good is ever lost. Help us become the church you envision for the world. Amen.

Sources:
http://www.trinitycrc.org/sermons/ac06v01-07.html
http://www.lectionary.org/Sermons/Butler/Acts/Acts_06.1-8_7.55-60_Healing.htm
http://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/public-witness-addressing-power-affirming-peace/poverty-wealth-and-ecology/sharing-food-sermon-at-the-ecumenical-centre-morning-prayers.html
www.wfp.org/hunger

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