Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Monday, February 28, 2011

Tomorrow is the Day

Our new site launches tomorrow! That means this space is going to go quiet. It is not going to disappear immediately. We may eventually migrate most of the content over and close this space down, but for now it will remain if you wish to search through the archives. New high quality content from many different voices will all be hosted at www.twofriarsandafool.com.

If you haven't done so yet, there are a couple things you can do to keep track of our work and join the conversation:

Follow us on twitter: @TwoFriars

Like our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/TwoFriarsandaFool

Bring your friends to the party!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Preview: Many New Voices

The entire goal of the new Two Friars and a Fool is to open the provoke good conversation. To that end we want more voices represented on the site than our own, and we'd like those voices to come from a variety of backgrounds. We hope to continue to attract known speakers and writers like Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, but we also want to provide a space for a host of other individuals who have ideas worth sharing.

We are very proud that in the first two months you are going to be hearing from a wide array of people we find fascinating. Here is just a taste:

Rev. Lia Scholl is an ordained minister and sex work ally. She is the pastor of the Richmond Mennonite Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia. She has worked with people in sex trade for nearly 10 years, most recently as the Client Advocacy Program Manager at HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) in Washington, DC. She is the founder and former executive director of Star Light Ministries, Inc. Originally from Alabama, she earned her M.Div. from Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. Lia blogs at http://www.roguereverend.com and can be found on twitter @roguereverend.

Rev. Dr. Gregory Anderson Love is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union. He is an ordained Presbyterian pastor. His first book "Love, Violence and the Cross: How the Nonviolent God Saves Us through the Cross of Christ" explores the atonement in a thorough, sensitive, and surprisingly playful way, opening new possibilities for our understanding of salvation.


Megan Dosher is a 34-yr-old Presbyterian elder living and working in Oklahoma City, OK. She was born in Minnesota and raised both in Minnesota and Washington State. Megan now works as a half-time youth director at Santa Fe Presbyterian Church in Edmond, OK, and as a substitute teacher while she completes her ordination requirements to become a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA). She loves volunteering, rabble-rousing, avocados and stripey socks.

 Rev. Toby Brown is pastor of Jefferson Center Presbyterian Church, a blogger, and a self-described Classical Presbyterian. He can be found either smoking his pipe, remonstrating against liberal heretics, or here on Two Friars and a Fool doing both.

Heather Reichgott is a mother, a wife, a PhD student, a candidate for ordination to ministry of the Word and Sacrament, a Ballet teacher, a pianist, and many other things. She blogs at Voices of Sophia and has served in the past as a board member for More Light Presbyterians.

Michael L. Westmoreland-White, Ph.D.  is a former academic theologian turned peace activist and educator. Married to the Rev. Kate Westmoreland-White, a Baptist minister who works at a Catholic charity for homeless people. He writes a theological blog called Pilgrim Pathways from an Anabaptist, Social Gospel, and Liberation perspective. He expects Christians to be in permanent exile while the Lord tarries–not primarily citizens of their home countries, but of the Rule of God and the global church.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Preview: Reverend Tim Carson

Lest someone get the idea that the new Two Friars and a Fool is going to be a Presbyterian thing we remind you that one-third of our merry band is Disciples of Christ. In our first month we will have a DoC, a Mennonite and a Baptist.

We are especially excited about the participation of Rev. Tim Carson. You can read some of his excellent ruminations at his own blog, or see some of the ministry he is doing at Broadway Christian Church. He is a guy who speaks and writes with refreshing vigor and honesty.

We won't divulge yet, what his article is about, but we asked him for something provocative, and boy has he delivered. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Preview: Reverend Carol Howard Merritt

Our first month is starting with a bang on the new Two Friars and a Fool. We will have a new guest every 3 days with video responses and moderated forum discussions for each one. We want to put out consistently thought provoking content, but more importantly host some great conversations.

One of the first month's contributors we are very excited about is Rev. Carol Howard Merritt. She is the author of Tribal Church and Reframing Hope. She blogs at TribalChurch.org and HuffPo and a few other spots. She is the co-host of God Complex Radio and somehow she fits in being pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C.

If you haven't been reading her stuff you've been missing out on some cogent, insightful analysis of where we have come, and where we are going as a church, like her most recent article about local food movements. We can rectify this gross oversight in your education. We are going to be reviewing her most recent book and hosting a new article by Rev. Howard Merritt in March.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Preview: the Right Reverend Landon Whitsitt

The new Two Friars and A Fool is going to play host to some awesome people bringing provocative ideas about church, theology, and life for us to debate. The very first contributor to our site will be the current Vice Moderator of the PC(USA), Rev. Landon Whitsitt. He is, in our opinion, a refreshing voice well worth a listen to. He wrote the free e-book Open Source Gospel, works with God Complex Radio, and is appearing in a bunch of other places as well. We're not going to reveal what he will be talking about when he comes to Two Friars and a Fool on March 1st, but here is one of his recent videos to get a taste:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Virtual Theology Pub

This site is just a collaborative blog, but we want to be so much more to you. We aspire to be a Virtual Theology Pub.

A what?

We want to be a place where you come to hang out with people you like and have spirited, but friendly conversations about things that matter. To accomplish this we are moving away from the blog format where we spout our opinions and you read them (if you can be bothered). Instead we are soliciting the opinions of people we think are cool on subjects where we can get some traction for a good debate. We are going to be responding to the submissions of the aforementioned cool people with short videos designed to make you laugh, and think, and most importantly jump in with your own opinion into the forums.

Spread the word on your own blogs, on twitter, on facebook, or wherever you make your digital home. This is gonna be fun.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Countdown to Launch

As we've said before this blog was always just a temporary measure until we were able to unleash our true plan on an unsuspecting world.

Something big is coming.

As of March 1st we will be directing all traffic to our new home. This blog will stay up for a short while as we figure out what we want to do with all the content here, but it will be a ghost town.

To those of you who have been loyal followers of us at this location: thank you. If you liked what was going on here, though, you are going to be blown away by the next step. It may be annoying to have to redo your links, and RSS feeds and what not, but it will be worth it. We promise.

Stay tuned in the coming days for previews about what we are up to and why you will soon be explaining to all of your friends what a virtual theology pub is.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Myths Busted

Mubarak resigned this morning.

The entire scenario playing out in Egypt is dispelling popular misconceptions so thoroughly that I hope we can lay some of these unfounded myths to rest forever:

#1 - There is a Culture War on.
Despite the best attempts of some the defining conflicts of our current age are not a continuation of the crusades. The fight is not between the Christian West and the Muslim Orient. Christians and Muslims have been protesting alongside each other in Egypt, and even protecting each other from sectarian violence. The enemy is political oppression, poverty, and injustice. It is an enemy which lives in the United States as well as the Middle East.

#2 - Arabs are backwards and hate-filled.
Egypt is the most populous Arab nation and is 90% Muslim. They have just managed to end 30 years of dictatorship without a war, in what was really a very sophisticated series of targeted protests. This is not a people who can't understand democracy. This is a people with a deep conviction in the authority of the people to hold their government accountable.

#3 - America is a force for spreading Democracy
If democracy is realized in Egypt it will be in spite vast amounts of money, diplomacy, weapons, and political influence expended by the U.S. to uphold a dictatorship there. We have been Mubarak's best friend and are even now working to keep Suleiman, a brutal enforcer, in power. Places in the Middle East where we have attempted to install democracy by force are stuck in a morass of perpetual Civil War. The best thing we can do for the spread of democracy at this point is get the hell out of the way.

#4 - Dictatorships are stable
Mubarak reigned for 30 years it is true. This gives the appearance of stability, but the cost to the region has been so immense and the failure of the regime seems so self-evident now that we must begin to realize that it is not in anyone's long term interest to continue to support oppressive governments. The arc of history bends toward justice. The powers and principalities are in their death throes. Everywhere justice and liberty will break out and take hold. It is past time we stopped putting short term gains ahead of long term peace.

#5 - Nonviolence doesn't work
A little more than two weeks of concerted nonviolent protests have brought down three decades of dictatorship. Who honestly believes an armed revolution or foreign military intervention would have been more effective? Conventional wisdom is that violent megalomaniacs like Mubarak cannot be reasoned with - that violence was our only option with Hitler, and Saddam, and now with Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-Il. The lesson we should take from Egypt is that peace is infinitely more powerful than war. One man on a cross broke the backbone of an empire. Even large scale geopolitical confrontations with entrenched militarily powerful and violent regimes can be won by unified nonviolent resistance.

Confirmation Class Character Sheet

Trying to do something new and interesting (hopefully) with the confirmation class.  We're going to talk about gifts of the spirit, and I used Comic Life to put together a little character sheet for the kids to fill out.  The idea is to spark a conversation about the spiritual gifts described in the three main NT lists as well as turn us to thinking about which gifts we have, which we want to develop, and which we just wonder about.

I tried to change all of the spiritual gifts listed into I-statements that the kids can either identify with or not.  I hope this goes well.  The idea is just to jump-start talk about spiritual gifts, and to connect the lists in the Bible with what we do, or don't do, every day.

Anybody reading this brave enough to post your scores in the comments thread?

This is really a rudimentary sheet - the software is more versatile than this, but I don't have all that long to learn  how to use it better.  I got the idea from Pete Figtree using Comic Life for his syllabus and making character sheets for all of his high school English students. What he came up with is more of an example of what you can do with the software, which is free for 30 days, and based on its potential, may end up being something I pay to register.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Commanded and Enabled

Here is the text of sermon I preached at Broadway Christian Church on Matthew 5:13-20. I hardly ever stick exactly to my manuscript but this is what I have to offer.

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

I just want to begin by pointing out the irony of our scripture passage on salt when we just had the “snow-pocalypse.” Let me say this week I have been extra thankful for the truckloads of salt that have come into Columbia! I certainly used my share shoveling out my long driveway. As Terri likes to say… if I could add any text to the bible it would be that “Jesus laughed.”

This morning’s text expands on what we learn about the call to discipleship known as the Beatitudes in the first 12 verses of this chapter in Matthew and our verses sit as the middle transitional passage in the Sermon on the Mount. It sits between Jesus’ call for his disciples and the later ethical teachings. While we don’t have time to go into all of it this morning, it is important to set the context. Arguably this text and the whole of the Sermon on the Mount can be considered the very heart of Matthew’s gospel. The Sermon on the Mount is a short sermon, by relative standards, but it is some of the most brilliant and inspiring passages in all of scripture.

Our verses this morning are no different, Jesus continues his sermon with our two metaphors to describe and prescribe who his followers are and what they are to do for and in the world. This is the point where we preachers like to say he’s landing the plane, he’s bringing home the point. So after presenting the eight Beatitudes, Jesus launches into the heart of his sermon by making these analogies: that his followers are to be like salt and light. These are interesting choices, and both have implications for the implementation of mission and pastoral ministry.

The first metaphor, Jesus calls his disciples the “salt of the world,” suggesting that we have a distinctive capacity to elicit goodness on the earth. Like salt, which is used to alter or enhance the taste of food (and, yes, even melt icy sidewalks). Salt alters the world around it; it brings alive what would otherwise seem tasteless and bland. In the first century it helped preserve food, it was even used as currency (hence worth your weight in salt).

Jesus is making the point that if we live out the Beatitudes - becoming peacemakers, being merciful, pure in heart, those who care of the meek, dispossessed, ones caring for those who suffer loss, seeking to do justice -- to put it in the context of last weeks text those who act justly, love kindness, to walk humbly with their God – THEN we will have the capacity shift the world around us, to enhance the very flavor of goodness. Like my college Derrick Weston says, “We're the seasoning that brings out God-flavors.”

But then Jesus shifts into talking about salt that looses its saltiness…He offers us a challenge. This is a challenge to Israel to be Israel (his original audience), and it is a challenge for us as Christians to be Christ-like. He is both affirming the individual person and challenging the person to become more. Jesus accepted the rich young man, but challenged him to give away his possessions. He accepted the woman caught in adultery, and then instructed her to go and sin no more. He both manages to uphold the person’s dignity, regardless of circumstance, while inviting behavioral change towards a better way of life. Not an easier way of life, but a better way. His first metaphor here is no different.

His second metaphor is, “You are the light of the world,” where he invites us to consider the role of the disciples as a gathered community. Light enables us to see things, it is color, it helps vegetation grow, it provides solar power for electricity, and can even be focused into a laser. We are being called to be the light that brings out the God-colors, to enable diversity (giving things color), to nurture a healthy eco-friendly world (helping vegetation grow), and to even restore or repair that which needs mending (by use of a laser perhaps). This is what will make us the light of the world.

Regardless of the size of the light, even a dim one can bring light to darkness, to offer wholeness in a fractured world. The light is the light of the gospel, and it draws people to its warmth and radiance. This mission has been primary, from the very beginning of scripture, throughout every age. William Temple said, “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” In order for the light to be seen, we must be willing to go where the darkness exists, to engage and walk through it, trusting that the light will overcome it.

But we know that darkness, and brokenness does not exist only outside these walls, but within ourselves. We must be willing to seek what Parker Palmer calls “the dark night of the soul.” We must be prepared to see and read our inner landscape. While this is never easy, it is essential. We cannot bring the light of Christ to others if we are unaware of where that light needs to shine in our own hearts. We do not need to banish all darkness inside us, that is too difficult a task for any, but we must understand our darkness, and even because of it, reach out beyond ourselves.

These two metaphors, of salt and light, make me think of Psalm 34 "Taste and see that the Lord is good." As verses 17-20 remind us, it is because of who Jesus is and how he understands his mission that his disciples individually and collectively are enabled to be salt and light.

Jesus goes on to declare to his newly commissioned disciples and followers that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets. But he claims his place in God’s history of the liberation of and covenant with God’s chosen people. He aligns himself with the ever-expanding trajectory of God. By so doing, he does not dismiss the Judean tradition but rather speaks of it being fulfilled. Here we can begin to see Jesus aligning himself with the essence of a covenantal God who continually pursues his creation; from the first moment of creation itself, through the Abrahamic covenant, leading his people out of exiles (on multiple occasions), to the prophets social criticisms, to Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God is at hand, to the early church meeting the needs in their midst, to our day in those seeking equality for all people. To Matthew, “to fulfill” was an eschatological category to see that God was already at work in the world. Jesus was telling Israel and his disciples to read Torah no longer in the context of sin, but in the context of the kingdom. Now that the reign of God was being inaugurated, the measure was no longer human pettiness or brokenness, but the abundance of God’s righteousness.

The very righteousness of God that flows into Jesus and, in turn, is the ground of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, with us. Jesus’ followers are both commanded and enabled to surpass conventional and institutional practices, exceeding even what we perceive as being the most gracious, most loving gestures we can imagine! Jesus is proclaiming that as his followers, as Salt and Light in the world, we can and should become participants in transforming the world into God’s vision. The community of Christ is formed while engaging in this mission together.

Let me put it another way: this is your mission, if you choose to accept it; to venture forth, to risk it all, to push passionately beyond our own comprehension of the righteousness, of the commandments, of the prophets, of even the gospels to extend love beyond ourselves. For God is always bigger than we can fathom.

But to be honest this makes me worry. It makes me worry because first of all it’s hard, these things Jesus preaches about on the Sermon on the Mount are some of the most challenging things to actually do, anywhere.

But these days it makes me even worried for another reason. As some of you already know, Julia and I are expecting a baby. And honestly being on the verge of becoming a father (while something I have looked forward too) calls to radical discipleship scare me even more. It scares me because my son or daughter may feel called because of their faith in Christ to leave the comforts of our home and venture out into the danger, crazy upside down world and do something pretty much insane. Like the Coptic Christians in Egypt that I’ve been reading about who are literally putting their lives in harms way to protect Muslim protesters. As a future parent that scares the ---- out of me, both with joy that my child might so concretely live their faith, but also with fear that my child might get hurt doing something so brave and bold as that.

The thing is this hard part is what Jesus seems to be asking of us. Jesus seems to be proclaiming in this text that if we don’t live into these characteristics of the Beatitudes and lack the passion for justice and living into God’s reordering of human life, then we, in effect, break the covenantal relationship. That if we do not embrace our enemies, if we do not bless the poor, then Jesus says here that we will “never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In a very important sense we are being commanded and enabled to live into the reordering of humanity, society, family structures, into the full embrace of a self-giving all loving God. To fulfill the law and the prophets is to bring their purpose to complete expression in everyday community. And that will mean risk, and making ourselves vulnerable, and letting go of some of the control over the way we think something should turn out (despite my new found fears).

I think this tension (of safety and risk) is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he offered these two metaphors. Salt and light both transform their worlds. I want to close with this story that Tim posted on his blog from our very own, Lynelle Phillips who is on faculty at the University of Missouri in Public Health. It’s an excerpt from her journal about taking a recent trip with a group of nursing students to Cape Coast, Ghana.

The goal of the trip was to expose nursing students to urgent dimensions of public health in a 3rd world context, to participate in an international immersion experience and to offer some help in public health education and HIV screenings in particular villages. They were also able to enjoy places of local history and cultural richness.

On one day the students visited the historical locations of the transatlantic slave trade. This included a slave camp and the path the captured slaves took down to a stream for their last bath and last drink of stream water before they were confined in the dungeons of Cape Coast, where they languished for weeks before being shipped long distances to be sold.

There were four African American young women among the students and for them this visit had special poignancy. This was the departure point of the ancestors and the remains of many were buried directly beneath their feet. As the group stood on the banks of the last-drink-stream contemplating all this Lynelle writes in her journal:

Local African women appeared out of the woods as if by magic. They took our African American women by the hand and led them one-by-one into the creek to let the cool water soothe their feet and souls. The good Lord sent them angels this morning.

Somehow these wise mentor women, whoever they were, took these women by the hand and led them to the stream of their ancestors. They were baptized in the meaning of it all. And after they came out of the waters, without so much as a word, the strange visitors disappeared into the forest from whence they had come.

Lynelle ends her journal with a reflection on mission trips, what really happens, and prayer. I share it with you now:

“It is the secret riddle of all mission trips – this paradox of giving morphing into receiving. Perhaps it’s God’s little practical joke on modern humanity. On the one hand we privileged Americans are driven to sign on, undergo injections and forfeit our vacation. We are compelled to help. We want to make that difference, even if it is only one random dribble off the hillside…yet in a gradual, puzzling twist of fortune, we become the recipient. What sets off to be a practical journey of service mysteriously winds up as our own spiritual enlightenment. We dine on the love and warmth and character of those we hope to serve. We magically transform from master to servant, from giver to receiver.

I sit and ponder winter/spring, servant/master, giver/receiver … in my place of confused wonderment. Oh my dear Lord, what is your calling for me? Wild geese honk their friendly greeting overhead. Looking down, I notice my hands are more beautiful when intertwined together, their left-right/giver-receiver distinctions fade as they unify in prayer. Oh…maybe that’s it…”

Let us pray.

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]

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sermon Notes: State of the Church Address

Dalton Presbyterian Church, 1/30/11
Show of hands: who has seen or heard Obama’s State of the Union address?

Yeah, this will be nowhere near that good.  Not even Joe Biden good.  But I felt like the timing was right to try something - Elder retreat, talking about the present and future of the church lately.

So because I am not a famous public speaker, I’ll need some prayers.


State of the Church address
Thanks to leadership (stand, clap)

Remember the empty seats, and those who cannot be with us because of physical limitations or health (Dan Rudy, Susanna Amstutz, Jodi Smith)

Thankful for differences - we’re diverse (not ethnically - a shimmering rainbow of Caucasian!) in beliefs and politics.  Sometimes this comes out as fear to delve into divisive issues - but I see this as a strength, that we can come together even though we don’t agree on every line-item of a given creed.

Commonalities and continuity; this church, in one form or another, has been here a loooong time.  200 odd years.  From back when the flag didn’t nearly have so many stars.  In a couple years, we might want to think about doing something for our bicentennial.  That’s a long time.  Imagine all those saints who came before us - just in this little place in the world.

History - we’ve known times of flourishing, we’ve also known schism - the split 25 years ago that is still fresh for some of us - a split that is still felt now (I see it impact our live and ministry on an almost-weekly basis - it sneaks it’s way into other issues); and thru it all tremendous change.  We are inheritors, but the church now is almost nothing like it was 50 years ago; even less 100 years ago, or 150.  We’re not suddenly talking about change.  We’re simply continuing to change.

In recent memory, though, the world has moved.  The world always moves faster than the church - Facebook killing the church? - Evangelicalism and conservative politics - Christianity is a third-world movement, and will be for generations to come.  Even if we’ve tried to stand still, the ground has moved out from under us.

The state of the church is always this - the world has moved, and we must be part of it.  

The state of the church is always this - God has remained still, and we must move the world.

THis church doesn’t just have a past - we’ve also got a future.  We are not like any other church, and we are planted  here for a reason, no less now than our predecessors were 200 years ago.  We are called to flourish; we are called to live out our passion; we all have a mission.  Our calling hasn’t changed - it’s just that we have to figure out how to follow God out into the world.  The way we do church will not be the way we’ve done church before.  Until we are perfected, until Kingdom come, we are not finished.

We have this future, but I cannot hand it to you.  I cannot go get it and bring it back.  It isn’t going to land in our laps.  It is possible to run away from our calling.  God is alive and moving in our lives, alive and moving in the world outside these doors - but can ignore that if we want.

This future will not be made clear to us through wisdom - we read that in 1 Corinthians.  If we are looking for a wise, well-considered path, that won’t quite get us to God.  If we are careful and deliberate and discerning - that won’t quite cut it.  

We continue to read, in 1 Corinthians, that this future won’t even come by way of signs and miracles!  If we are waiting for a miracle, even if we experienced a miracle, a sign, here and now, that wouldn’t quite get us to God.  That’s a load off of my shoulders, because I’ve got no miracles.

What will move us into the future is...foolishness - the foolishness of trusting a God we cannot see, trusting a savior who died on a cross, trusting in our own efforts when we know how flawed we are, trusting in the Holy Spirit to strengthen us when we cannot do one more thing.  

Our hope is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is life to those who are alive with God. If we look ahead with the mindset that we are dying, God’s future for us will look like nonsense.

If, however, we are able to become fools, to cultivate our inner foolishness, then it’ll all make sense.  We’re called to be foolish, and seek God’s wisdom - we are called to be weak, and trust in God’s strength - we are called to be regular folks, and let God be the one who grants us our status.

But these are all just words.

I thought about this passage, and about the Elder retreat we had yesterday.  We talked about a lot of things - including what we thought we as a church, and the Elders in particular, were good at.  What we care about most.  Where we should be headed.

And this is where a President would outline the government initiatives and programs that would bring us into the bright future.  I’m not a President, though.  Being a pastor is quite different from being President.  I can’t really make much happen on my own.  In light of that point of divergence...

I’ve been thinking about what I am called to do.  What it is that I am good at.  What I care about.  What am I supposed to do, in light of this reading, in light of our calling, in light of where we are, who we are.  Who I am.  I don’t want to speak for anyone else.

I will speak for myself.

I like the idea of being a Fool.  Some of the astute and observant among may have noticed - I am a fool.  I am a goofball.  My head is in the clouds.  I am a dreamer.  I log more time in my own imagination than I do in this “real world” everyone keeps telling me about.  Sometimes this is a strength, and sometimes it is a weakness.  Part of me is happy to read that we are called to foolishness.

I don’t have any miracles up my sleeves, and I am only occasionally wise - but a fool provokes.  I will therefore throw down a challenge.  I will call you out, here and now, you, and everyone who isn’t here this morning, and everyone we can convince to come through those doors.

My challenge isn’t to dare you to sit in the front few rows of the church - even though it is warmer up here, and a lot easier to hear.  I’m afraid what I have in mind is even worse. (and let me take a moment to honor the courage of the intrepid few who braved the front row this morning)

This morning, I’m going to use a dirty word in church.  I want you to say this dirty word with me.  Ready?  

“Evangelism”.  Say it with me: “Evangelism”.  

We had our Elder retreat, and do you know what the Elders chose as the highest priority for the church going forward?  Evangelism.  So I am doing something tremendously foolish.  I am calling upon an aging, shrinking Presbyterian congregation to join me in becoming evangelists.

Like fools, like Paul and the first apostles, we are called to proclaim Christ.  Whether we like it or not.  Whether it seems wise or not.  With or without miracles.  Whether we feel strong enough or not.

The state of the church is always this - we are chosen by God, we are called for ministry, and our future is present with us right now.  You remember what Jesus was saying in the hills of Galilee in our reading last week?  The Kingdom of God is at hand.

The state of the church is always this - we are the kingdom of God.  And we are called to carry this good news in our hearts, in our lives, and out into the world.

I’m not going to drop this evangelism thing.  If you ignore it, it won’t go away.

This morning, I dare you to believe it.