Monday, February 7, 2011

Reflection: We Can Haz Elderz?

Here are my notes from yesterday's sermon. Not counting what happens when talking in the moment, embellishing and examples and cutting things at the last minute and so on, this is pretty much what I said.
There is an italic part in the middle, added at the last minute based on a good conversation I had with a colleague Saturday night. I put it in italics so I could decide, in the moment, whether I would use it. I decided to use it - it introduced some ideas I wanted to introduce, and said something connected to what I was talking about (or so I thought). I try to mention something at least a half-dozen times in various venues before I expect anyone to address it with me.

Oh, and the title doesn't mean anything - it was just my working title. In the bulletin it just said REFLECTION.

ISAIAH 58:1-12
1   Shout out, do not hold back!
         Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
    Announce to my people their rebellion,
         to the house of Jacob their sins.
2   Yet day after day they seek me
         and delight to know my ways,
    as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
         and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
    they ask of me righteous judgments,
         they delight to draw near to God.
3   “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
         Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
    Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
         and oppress all your workers.
4   Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
         and to strike with a wicked fist.
    Such fasting as you do today
         will not make your voice heard on high.
5   Is such the fast that I choose,
         a day to humble oneself?
    Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
         and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
    Will you call this a fast,
         a day acceptable to the LORD?
6   Is not this the fast that I choose:
         to loose the bonds of injustice,
         to undo the thongs of the yoke,
    to let the oppressed go free,
         and to break every yoke?
7   Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
         and bring the homeless poor into your house;
    when you see the naked, to cover them,
         and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8   Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
         and your healing shall spring up quickly;
    your vindicator shall go before you,
         the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9   Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
         you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
    If you remove the yoke from among you,
         the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10  if you offer your food to the hungry
         and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
    then your light shall rise in the darkness
         and your gloom be like the noonday.
11  The LORD will guide you continually,
         and satisfy your needs in parched places,
         and make your bones strong;
    and you shall be like a watered garden,
         like a spring of water,
         whose waters never fail.
12  Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
         you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
    you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
         the restorer of streets to live in.


When I finally decided to go to seminary, the last straw was reading Isaiah 58.  It’s one of my favorite passages in the entire Bible.  It touched me because, at the time, I liked a lot about Christianity...except for the religion part.  If we could just do Christianity, but not have churches, I thought that would probably be the way to go.  I felt acutely how church got in the way of following Jesus, of being true disciples.

Isaiah 58 is all about the difference between religion on the one hand and following God on the other.  It’s easy to confuse the two, but they are not at all the same thing.  (To be clear about now, I think it is easier to follow Jesus in a church committed to that - but it is a lot harder in a church that is committed to...the church)

The first job of an Elder is to follow Jesus.  This comes before the best interests of the church, before finances, before meetings, before any of these things.  The first job of an Elder is following Jesus.

I had a chance to talk to Peter a little bit earlier this week.  We were going through the Book of Order, and what it has to say about the call of an Elder.  

Ask: what is it that a Christian does?  What is a Christian’s job?  [some answers: to share the good news of Jesus’ life, to live a Christ-like life, to open our hearts to God’s Spirit, to have a personal relationship with Jesus]

It is possible to sum it up pretty briefly: there are things which all Christians are called to do - for an Elder, those things are your job.  By accepting this call, by saying yes to it, you are saying that you will take as your special responsibility following Jesus, seeking to become more like him in every way.  You will do this first and most.  You will set an example for the congregation that you serve. (list answers they gave to the question)

In contrast to following Jesus, there is church; there is religion.  It is Jesus who calls people, and it can be church that drives them away.  You come to church, maybe excited about following Jesus, but suddenly you’re caught up in someone’s political agenda, or you’re embroiled in gossiping, or you spend all of your time worrying and working just to maintain what the church has done in the past.  You drift off, or storm out, or whatever, because whatever following Jesus is, this ain’t it.

Or maybe it isn’t so dramatic - it is Jesus who calls people, and it is church that somehow convinces them that their calling (of God the creator of the universe; the risen Christ, the HS in us like a fire) amounts to attending worship once a week and maybe volunteering now and then, or making a donation.  It’s underwhelming.  You read the prophets; you read what he says in the Gospels, about giving up your whole live in order to find it, about moving mountains, and it doesn’t compare with what you experience in the church building.

The good news is, though, that this is our church - your church.  We have a choice.  We all have the same job - following Jesus.  I have the absurd, luxurious privilege of being able to try to do that as a full-time job.  This means that I have the easiest job in this room - and I mean that.  My job is easy.  I share that job with the Elders, and we share that job with all of you, that job doing things like (list their examples again)

That isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges.  One of the challenges that come up among Elders is remaining together when we disagree - even when we disagree strongly.  Fair warning - I am not going to avoid talking about divisive issues.  Avoiding conflict is poison for a community, and I am not here to poison anyone, even though this will require periodically letting people feel uncomfortable; periodically being uncomfortable, even angry, myself.

A few days, a few dozen male pastors of some large Presbyterian churches wrote an open letter to the Presbyterian church as a whole.  In that letter they talked about one issue that has been divisive in the denomination for almost 40 years now - that of gay ordination, and the connected issue of gay marriage.  In this letter, they described our system as broken, our disagreements as entrenched, and as a solution, they laid out a plan to pull away from involvement in the denomination, and to form their own sub-groups, composed only of those people who agreed with them.

My thought was how frustrating and saddening this letter was. This is exactly what kills a community - breaking apart into tiny enclaves where we all are sure that no one will ever challenge us, or lead us to grow or change.  We become theologically fossilized, with rocks instead of bones, unable to move - sad, dead things.  What this letter, written by some stand-out names in the denomination, says is that they are no longer willing to work with anyone who disagrees with them.

They are no longer willing to be a community.

The test of love is always conflict.  If you say you love someone, but you’re not willing to disagree with them, and talk about your disagreement, and remain with them, then is that really love at all?  The test of community is the same.


This Thursday I was at a Presbytery training session, looking at factors that contribute to long-term church health.  I learned a lot that was helpful.  I got into a conversation with another pastor who is looking at retirement in the next few years.  He said to me something like “Why would anyone ever want to do this”, meaning pastoral ministry.  Honestly, this kind of question frustrates me.  As calmly as I could, I asked “Would you rather be a pastor, or a cashier at Wal-Mart?  Which is easier, being a pastor or a used car salesman?  We get to do meaningful things all the time.  But try to make being a cashier meaningful.  It’s possible, but it’s a lot harder.”  He had to admit - of the jobs I listed, he would still choose pastor.

Some pastors like to pretend that their job is really hard - I am not one of them.  I’ve had hard jobs.  Right now, I have the easiest job in this room.

In a similar way, the job of Elder can sound like a hard job.  You have to go to meetings, and learn to use Robert’s Rules of Order, and read the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions, and make hard decisions, and have long discussions and even arguments.

Or, it could be like this.  You get to help show us how to follow Jesus.  And when you do, when you take risks, when you stick your neck out, when you take a stand for what’s right, Isaiah 58 says that God is backing you up.  Listen again to what Isaiah says:

11  The LORD will guide you continually,
         and satisfy your needs in parched places,
         and make your bones strong;
    and you shall be like a watered garden,
         like a spring of water,
         whose waters never fail.
12  Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
         you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
    you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
         the restorer of streets to live in.

I hope that we find ways, through this church, to more closely follow Jesus.  I hope we find ways, through this church, to follow God, and to go out and to extinguish violence, and to raise up the lowly, and fight on the side of the oppressed, and to do justice, to show mercy - to do those things that God has always called people to do.

I hope we find ways to do this through the church - I bet you that we can, in fact, and that we will.  But the priority is to follow Jesus; the priority is to do those things that Isaiah is talking about.  That is my calling, that is your calling as Elders, that is the calling of every single person in this room, and every person who will ever come into this room, and every person who comes to know and trust the Lord.

We can look at this like it is the hardest job, or like it is the easiest and most wonderful job, like it is the only job worth doing.

[Praise hymn]

[Ordination/installation of Elders]


Aric Clark said...

"For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

I love your title. More sermon titles should be in lolcat speak.

I hope they take you up on this.

usha.digitalinfo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
usha.digitalinfo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
usha.digitalinfo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
usha.digitalinfo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
usha.digitalinfo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.