Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Reframe it with Resurrection

“Kids are leaving!”

“Change or die!”

“The church is doooomed!”

It has become quite trendy in the church to make sweeping pronouncements such as these. Consultants, coaches, superintendents, bloggers, experts of various levels of expertise, and so on - all seem to be chipping in these days about how awful the situation is, and getting worse every moment.

If you have read my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably read something I have written on this topic. I find myself a bit outside of the mainstream when it comes to questions of the church’s imminent demise. I’m not inclined to hand-wringing and navel-gazing. Instead, I find myself inclined toward resurrection.

It is from that perspective that I read the piece that made its way around the interwebs last week. It was called “Why Millenials areLeaving the Church,” written by Rachel Held Evans.

I almost always like reading what Rachel Held Evans has to say. She writes a lot, and I haven’t read everything she’s written, but what I have read I like. But I will admit that I definitely cringed when I saw the title to her recent post on “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” is a title that sets the stage for another hand-wringing, navel-gazing lament.

At first, I was upset with the generalization that an entire generation of people has a rather uniform critique of religion that the church was struggling to hear and understand. Been there, heard that. At first, it was just more of the navel-gazing same. But then I realized that this was clearly not just another “Change or Die” piece written by a church insider.

“We long for Jesus,” she said. “Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we long for Jesus.”

Evans’ short (and easy to read - I hope you do) piece is a call for substance, for meaning, for theology. It is a call to rid ourselves of obsession over superficial style and moralistic sermonizing and reclaim the depth, the complexity, the challenge of truly following Jesus.

Yes! Yes, please, and more of it.

Now … Can we please not frame that in “I-told-you-so” language? Can we please not write hand-wringing headlines for pieces with such life-affirming truth? Could we please re-do the prelude to this service so that it doesn’t set such a negative tone for the proclamation of the Good News?

The church does not need to change because we are dying.

Rather, the church is changing because God is at work in the world.

The choice that faces church leadership is not whether to change or not. The choice that faces church leadership is how exactly we will cooperate with the vast and transformative changes that clearly are taking place. These changes, I believe, are no less than a great resurrection movement of the Holy Spirit.

Much of that movement seems to be taking place outside of the outdated structures of the church. It’s happening over in the garden while the disciples are sitting in a locked room, wringing our hands and worrying. However, many, many churches are responding to that new movement in exciting and creative ways, and that’s where I believe church leaders need to place our focus.

No need to wring hands, no need to lament, no need to get all worried! God is doing a powerful, wonderful, brand new thing. A healthy doctrine of resurrection will convince you of that.

Come on, church. Let’s go out to the garden with Mary and see what God’s up to these days.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Lay Down Your Life

First he told them; then he showed them.

First Jesus said to his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Then he went and did it. “In case any of you were wondering what exactly I meant by that - here, I’ll show you.”

As difficult as that may be to wrap your mind around … that Jesus freely gave his own life for us … consider the fact that his radical definition of love immediately follows his command that his followers are to love one another in the same way.

“Love one another as I have loved you,” he says, “and in case you were wondering exactly how I love you - here, I’ll show you.”

Here, I’ll show you.

And then he did it. He laid his life down, quite literally. Knowing that his words would seem hollow without action to bring them to life, he chose a path that led directly, unavoidably toward his own death.

How much of the time is our decision to follow Jesus expressed in hollow and meaningless words, lacking the action to back them up?

What is Jesus asking us to do? How do I “lay down my life” for somebody else in 2013 in Springfield, Missouri? I mean, I’m a pretty nice guy. I’m friendly. I hold the door open for people. I volunteer at my kids’ school. Is that it? Is that what Jesus meant?

“[Costly grace] is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship. I wonder; has my discipleship cost me my very life?

Jesus said, “Here, I’ll show you.” And he went and did it. He died.

What does it mean for us, here and now, who are commanded to do the same?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

This Sermon - Justice, Hairspray, Race, and Perhaps Yoda?

My sermon is focusing on the movie "Hairspray" this week. You know, the musical with the "pleasantly plump" and incessantly chipper Tracy Turnblad who pushes her 1960s Baltimore relentlessly toward racial integration and acceptance of people's differences. Pushing boundaries, accepting one another, unconditional love ... stuff like that.

The themes for our worship services are set months in advance, and when this Sunday's worship theme was first planned, it was going to have been last Sunday, July 14. That would have meant that it would have been the day after George Zimmerman's verdict came out.

As it is, we had to switch weeks, so now it's a week and a day later. Much has been said in the intervening time. Anger. Elation. Disbelief. Calls for action. Calls for calm. Hoodies and Skittles. Smug satisfaction. Defiant hatred.

"Listening" to all of that, I'm trying to construct a sermon that centers on the scandalous action of the woman in Luke 7, who approached Jesus during a dinner party at Simon the Pharisee's place, cried all over his feet, dried him off with her hair, and then proceeded to slather anointing oil all over them, which to me makes a pretty good parallel to the actions of Tracy Turnblad, whose similarly shocking agenda included celebrating her own big body type, busting a few gender barriers, and ... what was that other thing? Oh yeah, dancing with the "negroes" on the Corny Collins television show - LIVE! "You can't stop the beat!"

There is an inevitability at the heart of the "Hairspray" plot. Full racial integration and acceptance is the assumed future, and anyone who resists it is pretty much a big square.

MLK often quoted Rev. Theodore Parker's idea that the arc of the moral universe may be long, but it must bend toward justice.

(Note to self: that would be a good quote to include in the sermon at some point.)

I believe that idea ... but ... Sometimes my faith in that notion is shaken. When I know that there are parents who have to console their children when they ask why they were not born with differently colored skin. When I know that there are parents who are absolutely terrified to allow their teenagers to walk through certain neighborhoods. When I know that store clerks follow certain kids around in their stores but not others.

When I realize that fear still rules, still dominates, still grips our world with such intensity and strength, in spite of what the angels always tell us, which is something along the lines of, "Do not be afraid."

I mean, come on, people! Did we learn nothing from Yoda? "Fear is the path to the dark side," remember?

So there's this sermon I'm trying to write.

The upbeat, happy, buoyantly hopeful beat of "Hairspray" held up against the death of a young black man whose killer faces no legal consequences for his actions.

The unconditional love of Jesus contrasting with the flawed, broken reality of this fearful world.

The cosmic bending toward justice of the universe's moral arc in tension with humanity's sinful, finite capacity.

Yep. Better get started.