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PROPER 21 A – September 28, 2014

“Saying No and Doing Yes”
Matthew 21:23-32

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Tonight used to be a particularly challenging night at my house. It is garbage night. I have two sons who, when they still lived at home it was their responsibility is to see to it that the garbage gets out to the curb.

This is particularly important because these young adults stay up much later at night that my wife and I, and they sleep in much later than we do. The garbage man comes at O’ dark ‘thirty in the morning. So putting the trash out the night before is a necessity.

This is what the Sunday night scene used to look like: They would be wanting to begin their evening, going here or there about nine-thirty. PM. The garbage is not at the curb. On their way out the door I say, “do you know tonight is garbage night?” “Oh yea, Dad,” they say, yep, got it. But with frustrating frequency I would get up in the morning, get ready to come here to the office, and as I leave I notice that there aren’t any garbage cans at the curb in front of our house.

I go back into the house, raise them both from their sleep and interrogate them. “Don’t you remember me telling you that last night was garbage night?” “Yes,” they reply. “why didn’t you take it out” I ask? “Oh,” one said, “I thought you were just giving me a ‘heads up.’

Now, I know that none of you have problems like this, that someone tells you they are going to do something and then doesn’t do it. And, my children are only home periodically and so it is I, myself, who occasionally lets myself down. Focusing on the gospel lesson, beginning in verse twenty eight, we find ourselves observing this very scene.

The response to Jesus isn’t always this way. The disciples immediately left their boats and followed Him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the reasoning this way;
“the response of the disciples is an act of obedience; not a confession of faith in Jesus.” They did not consider His claims, make up their minds, and then decide whether to follow – they simply heard and obeyed…disciples are not so much people who follow as those who must follow. (Guiness, Os “The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.” W Publishing Group: Nashville. 1998, p. 65)

Many of you are parents and this status alone qualifies you as an expert in analysis of what is going on here when someone says yes and does no. Yet, I believe that others, without children, also perfectly understand what is happening. The greek word here is actually “children,” not sons. See it is not so much that the ‘Man’ had two biological sons, but that he had two heirs, two whom he claimed, and to them he offered a simple command.

You heard me right, it is a command. My father, when I would respond to his saying something similar would tell me: “That wasn’t a question.” The man is not offering alternatives as if it is equally acceptable that the ‘son’ lolly-gag around the house or ‘hang’ with his buddies over at the mall. No, he tells him to go work in the vineyard.

The young man says yes and does no. Another says no and does yes. And, in one way or another both men insult their father. They insult one who, in reality has authority over them, but who at the same time it is possible to disobey.

We do not know what the consequences were, in that moment. There is no mention of corporal punishment. There is no description of a follow up argument. Based upon my personal experience, this surprises me. But we just don’t know.

What we do know is that one young man had a change in heart. The text says that he changed his mind, but everyone knows that in the times that the gospels were written the idea of mind was not like our idea of mind and was closer to our idea of heart. The word here indicates that he ‘repented,’ literally, that he ‘changed direction.’ This is not so much an altering of how you think about something but is instead a change in what we do. The end of such conversations with my father was often punctuated with the phrase, “it’s just like lima beans, you don’t gotta like them, you just gotta eat them.”

As Christians told and retold this story, it dawned on them that this was more than an attack on the leaders of the synagogue. They began to see that the great danger was no different for them than it was for the Pharisees. See they knew their relationship with God was as heirs, as ones who through Jesus were made inheritors of the promise. They affirmed that Jesus the Christ the King. They also knew it was easy to say “Lord, Lord,” but not so easy to do what the Father asked. So we cannot hold this parable at arm’s length and shake our heads at the bad guys who ran the religious institution. This judgment is directed at all of us who claim the name Christian.

A friend of mine recently moved halfway across the country into the ‘bible belt.’ There are very few UCC churches near his new home, which isn’t necessarily a problem but he is definitely not religiously conservative so he doesn’t fit the local ‘mold.’ While visiting one church, for the fourth or fifth time, he spoke to the coordinator for the Adult Bible study. She asked him what he thought. He said, “I think a lot of people come to worship on Sunday and worship at another Chapel the rest of the week.” She did not understand his allusion. What he meant was that it is as if the fervent faith proclaimed on Sunday has no effect the rest of the week. I suppose he identified this trait because, well, it takes one to know one.

If this dichotomy between faith and practice is real, then no wonder the world turns away from our wordy gospel. What stops those outside of the church in their tracks and grabs their attention are those who have learned to move beyond the words. It isn’t only the Gandhis and the Rosa Parkses and the Mother Teresas who remind us what faith and commitment are all about. It’s those medical practitioners in Doctors Without Borders who travel on their own time and expense to work in out- of-the-way places like Liberia. They’re told that the people they treat are too far gone, the disease in that area is ‘too hot,’ and that ‘we are losing this battle with ebola.’ This doesn’t stop them — they do what they can do.

I admit that these grand illustrations are powerful. But for most of the world, there will be no opportunity for this kind of witness. Most of us are not called to such work. That doesn’t mean that we are not called to make the gospel visible in the world. That does not mean that what we do as a part of our following Jesus is unimportant. In our own daily tasks we can be Jesus’ hands and feet. One author claims that
“The church’s deepest challenge is neither political nor ideological, and certainly it is not military. It is spiritual and theological and comes to a head where behavior expresses belief and deeds express words.” (Guiness, Os “The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.” W Publishing Group: Nashville. 1998, p. 65)

Similarly, St. Paul told the disciples in Corinth: “Be disciples of me as I am of Christ.” Or as Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima said, “What is Christ’s word without an example?” Working in the vineyard is what we are called to do….and I hope that this serves as a reminder that not all ‘church’ happens on Sunday morning. And the good news is that it’s not always the ones who come to Sunday School or sing the hymns and pray the prayers who reflects the will of the Father. Sometimes it is the one who shows up on a Wednesday morning to take food donations to the food pantry. Sometimes it is someone who stops on their walk downtown and puts a dollar or two into someone’s paper cup. It may be one who drops off flowers to a shut-in. It could be, and most often is, simple kindnesses and graces shared with another, people doing what they can do, where they are — making the world a little better for Christ’s sake.

Let us pray:

O Thou that asketh much of him to whom thou givest much, have mercy. Remember me not for the ill I’ve done but for the good I’ve dreamed. Help me to be not just the old and foolish one thou seest now but once again a fool for thee. Help me to pray. Help me whatever way thou canst, dear Christ and Lord. Amen. (Buechner, Frederic, Godric’s prayer)

September 14, 2014

“Learning Gratitude”
Psalm 65
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 12:13-21

Psalm 65 NRSV
Praise is due to you,
   O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed, 
   O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come. 
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
   you forgive our transgressions. 
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
   to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
   your holy temple.
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
   O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
   and of the farthest seas. 
By your strength you established the mountains;
   you are girded with might. 
You silence the roaring of the seas,
   the roaring of their waves,
   the tumult of the peoples. 
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it,
   you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
   you provide the people with grain,
   for so you have prepared it. 
You water its furrows abundantly,
   settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
   and blessing its growth. 
You crown the year with your bounty;
   your wagon tracks overflow with richness. 
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
   the hills gird themselves with joy, 
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
   the valleys deck themselves with grain,
   they shout and sing together for joy.

1 Timothy 6:6-19

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
What a pleasure it is to gather together today in the presence of such wealth. In the sanctuary today we are surrounded by the symbols and reality of the bounty of the earth. For some of us these gathered goods are more symbolic than they are tangible examples of the richness of our existence.

IMGP2850There is so much distance, for most of us, between all that we have received and the source of these riches. Fortunately, we have Christian brothers and sisters in our midst whose lives are lived close to the ground. And so I am quite aware that the pork I select from the meat case, packaged so neatly as it is on that foam tray, wrapped with that plastic wrap; I am aware that there was a time when it was not packaged this way.

Most people realize this, at least at some level. But the distance remains and it is easy to forget, not only that a pig gave its life, but also that someone fed this animal daily. And moreover, someone raised the grain and processed it so that it could be fed to this animal. Someone prepared the meat, packaged it, shipped it. That neat package of pork chops did not drop from the sky into my shopping basket.

The same can be said for other things we use or consume. We are often unaware of how these items got into our hands.

And sometimes we can be too aware. What I mean is that there are times when we look around at all that we possess and find great comfort in it. This is relative, of course. I have told you before of the fishing trip my dad and I participated in for years. Northern Ontario. Remote lake. Island in remote lake. No electric. No plumbing. Take in what you need. Carry out what you don’t need. No TV. No Cell phone, and no “onstar’ does not work there. And yet every time I have gone on that trip I sat near the fire eating some fresh fish, swatting at mosquitos or blackflies and thinking, I am living like a king.

Fortunately, we all receive a reminder that it was not, actually our own efforts that provided what we have.IMGP2851

You know what it looks like when we think that it was solely the sweat of our brow or the uniqueness of our own intellect or the resources of our own finances that created the bounty we enjoy. The reminder that what we enjoy is not, in fact, the product of our own efforts is a necessary correction. And nothing serves as quite a reminder as when we feel we are lacking.

John Reynolds, in his Anecdotes of the Rev. John Wesley (1828), tells the story of Wesley’s student days at Lincoln College in Oxford. A porter knocked on Wesley’s door one evening and asked to speak with him. After some conversation, Wesley noted the man’s thin coat (it was a cold winter night), and suggested that he had better get a warmer one. The porter replied: “This coat … is the only coat I have in the world – and I thank God for it.”

When asked if he had eaten, he replied: “I have had nothing today but a draught of spring water … and I thank God for that.”

Wesley, growing uneasy in the man’s presence, reminded him that the headmaster would lock him out if he did not soon return to his quarters. “Then what shall you have to thank God for?” Wesley asked.
“I will thank Him,” replied the porter, “that I have dry stones to lie upon.”

Deeply moved by the man’s sincerity, Wesley said, “You thank God when you have nothing to wear; … nothing to eat … [and] no bed to lie on. I cannot see what you have to thank God for.”

The man replied: “I thank God… that he has given me life and being; a heart to love Him, and a desire to serve Him.”

The man left with a coat from Wesley’s closet, some money for food and words of appreciation for his living testimony. Wesley later wrote these words in his Journal: “I shall never forget that porter. He convinced me there is something in religion to which I am a stranger.”

We are a people prone to see what is missing, rather than what is present. We see a nation at war, endless political infighting, economic woes, and declining moral values. We bemoan the downward spiral of our time without regard to our relationship with the God of grace, might, and providence. We need a new perspective.

This Psalm for today is usually categorized as a “Thanksgiving Psalm.” One scholar describes it, instead, as a “Reorientation Psalm.”

This is part of a learning cycle that we all participate in. It begins with orientation (assigning meaning to something); disorientation (or experiencing something that denies or diminishes that meaning); and finally Reorientation. Psalms of Orientation help create, not just remind us, a sacred ‘canopy’ where we as God’s people can live without fear and anxiety. These Orientation Psalms notice and proclaim that God’s creation is good, and that it works for our good.

And there is also the experience of disorientation. Bad things happen to good people. For no apparent reason this same creation seems to betray us. And yet, these Disorientation Psalms demand a God who is not absent but who is present in the dark days.

But Psalm 65 is a Psalm of reorientation. What it does is it begins, not at the beginning but at that low spot, the dark day, and it points toward a transformation that God has created. Paying close attention to this Psalm we can learn gratitude. Gratitude keeps us from thinking that being a disciple of Christ is all about us and our needs. It includes the act of noticing. Then our relationship with God is enhanced because we’re focused on God instead of ourselves.

IMGP2855All the Abrahamic faiths know this.

In Judaism, The day starts with the Shema: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might “(Deuteronomy 6:5). The concluding prayer, the ‘alenu,’ thanks God for the particular destiny of the Jewish people. Gratitude for everything is appropriate in Judaism because all things come from God in the Hebrew world view; therefore, Jewish life is filled with this recognition. A prayer is said upon hearing good or bad news, and God is praised for everything. In this way, a divine perspective on life is maintained.

One pillar of Islam is fasting during the month of Ramadan. This period is intended to lead believers to a state of gratitude. “He wants you to complete the prescribed period and glorify him that He has guided you, and perchance ye shall be grateful “(Koran,2:185).

Jonathan Edwards, the 17-century revivalist preacher and theologian, described two types of gratitude in his classic work, “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.” He described these two types as natural gratitude and as a gracious or spiritual gratitude. Natural gratitude is thanks expressed to God for the benefits a person has received, whereas gracious gratitude has its source in the knowledge of the goodness of God independent of favors received. This is why Paul urges Timothy to set his hopes on God.

As a discipline, this means we are to able to realize our indebtedness to God and “practice” our faith because of what God has done for us. Thus, this ‘Discipline of Gratitude’ enables us to know God as we keep our focus on God’s promises and not our circumstances-His provision and care, not merely our experiences. See, following Jesus is not for our personal benefit; it is for His glory. Seeing life from the perspective of what I can’t get or what I deserve rather than what I have already been given will create problems in our relationship with God (and others). In a similar way, it is the ‘Love of Money’ that creates a problem…not money.

Look, no one is born grateful. We learn to be grateful, We can volunteer to do things for others and then feel gratitude for the work that others do for us. It takes a pause and sometimes an effort to identify something we are thankful for. Yet, the simple act of saying thank you teaches gratitude and this is the core of worship.

There has been a practice going around on the internet lately. On Facebook, participants are asked to list 3 things they thankful for, every day for a week. I think what would help this exercise be even better is to remember that those three things did not come out of nothing. Each one was a gift from God waiting for you to recognize it.

The purpose of Harvest Home is to create people of Gratitude. And for the faithful, gratitude needs to be directed in a certain direction. The practice of recognizing the blessings God has given us, and giving thanks is what today is about.

I have been off work for several weeks, recuperating from surgery. Before this started, I promised myself that I was going to get to some professional reading I have wanted to do for a while.

Didn’t exactly happen. At first, my brain seemed so ‘fuddled’ that I couldn’t concentrate on much of anything and my attention span was very brief. So much for reading.

Eventually, this all changed and I have done some reading, just not as much as I imagined.

One thing I did was finish two texts that I began reading together. The first was: “Zealot” by Resa Aslan. Along side this I was also reading: “Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was” by Gerhard Lofink. Being that Aslan is a historian, his text was rich with description of the ‘sitz em lieben’ (setting in life) of Jesus. I thought the book was well done, even though I did not agree with the conclusions that Aslan reached. You may remember that this author received a good bit of criticism about his authorship from some evangelicals, because he is a muslim. I did not share this concern as by all accounts he is a fine historian and this text intends to be a historical review, not dogmatics.

This is not true for Lohfink’s text. Because Lohfink is such a fine biblical scholar and ‘practitioner’ (he is a jesuit scholar), the book speaks not so much to history (although that is one lens used) but rather to the consequences of ‘what he wanted and who he was.’

I also read three other books about the church. The first one, recommended by a bookseller and friend, Byron Borger, was “Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient way of Jesus”. The second was “The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community.” The Third in this grouping was “Strangers and Pilgrims Once More” by Addisoin Hodges Hart.

“Slow Church” is basically an affirmation of what Byron Borger wrote: “We need courage to say no to “bigger is better” assumptions and the patience to see what better desires and habits will emerge among us.” What is most valuable about this book is that while it critiques our hectic lifestyles and our all too often capitalistic version of church, it also makes the case for an alternative. For me, at least, I usually slow down because I am exhausted or am forced to because of some other circumstance beyond my control. These authors make a case for the faithfulness of slowing down so that we might notice each other and the world around us and in so doing transform our lives. The final chapter is titled “Dinner Conversations.” I immediately thought Eucharist. But actually it is about that very practice of sitting around the table with old or new friends and enjoying food and conversation, only to realize much later, when the busboy is trying to mop around your chair, that the evening has flown by.

Dave Klundt reviews the book “A New Parish” On “The Burner,” a blog for Fuller Theological Seminary, saying:

As an alternative to the technique-driven, one-size-fits-all, packaged approach to ministry, The New Parish authors suggest faithful presence, entering “into a perpetual practice of careful responsiveness to the Holy Spirit speaking through your context” (72). Surveying four “modes of church” (seeker, heritage, community, and missional), they suggest each tends to disintegrate and distance people from place. In response, they envision New Parish leaders to find a new ecclesial center where “the love of God manifests itself in holistic love of neighbor” (90). Finally, the New Parish must engage the new commons – “all the dimensions of life for which everyone in your neighborhood shares a common concern” (specifically in the areas of education, civics, economy, and environment) (95). The New Parish church’s role in a particular place is to “exist as connective tissue between every issue” (111).

I am reminded of a much older book, ‘The Dynamics of Religion” by Bruce Reed. Like “A New Parish” it uses a sociological model to examine the church and its various ‘styles’. Because Reed was an Anglican, living in the UK, he uses the term Parish in a way that is foreign to most americans. Parish is a geographical region for which that particular church is ‘responsible,’ religiously speaking.

What is valuable about this text is that (perhaps) it takes up the heart of what ‘slow church’ is asking and encourages the Body of Christ to discern our ‘neighbors’ and their ‘needs’ and not just ‘how we get more people in the pew.’ Engagement with the ‘common concern’ is also a corrective to the otherworldly focus we often have. It answers the questions my adult children sometimes ask of the church: Why, and So What? This is what the authors believe is transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community.

One thing I particularly like about this book is that it forces ecumenism on us. To these authors, the “Church” is not a particular church or denomination, but rather “The Church(s)” in a place. The intentional connection between churches of various stripes, mission projects, and even business that cooperate for the ‘common concern’ is an essential element of this “New Parish” idea.

I also read “The Bible’s Yes to Same Sex Marriage: How an Evangelical’s Mind Was Changed.” This book was an important read for me. I appreciated it, not because it changed my mind on anything, or because I agreed (totally) with the author. I appreciated the honesty and clarity of thought that went into David Achtemeier’s changed mind.

Because the state I live in has now legalized same sex marriage, pastor’s no longer have the luxury of hiding behind the fact that, “it’s not legal here.” So, in my view, a conversation has to be had in the congregation to decide if ‘we will honor any marriage license and conduct a wedding for those holding it.”

Some years ago I realized that the for and against arguments are not rational. Mostly, they are emotional. That is why Achtemeier’s story is so compelling.

For me, though, I don’t believe that a church should honor every couple who wants to be married in the church by doing so. I believe that the acceptance or rejection has to do with the nature of the relationship. Is it abusive? Is there a strong commitment? Do they understand this as a ‘faith’ event and not a ‘civil’ event? Does the couple have some connection with the congregation? (in my case I don’t believe holding weddings is good evangelism and I don’t want to be a local ‘wedding chapel’). You may have noticed that none of these questions had to do with race, ethnicity, religion (as in interfaith), or sexual orientation. With Achtemeier, I ask the question, ‘does, and will, this covenant commitment glorify God.’

I also read Nadia Boltz Webber’s Autobiographt “Pastrix.” The title is her embrace of a derogatory term one person labeled her with. She has had quite a personal journey, from stand up comedy and addiction to the founding of a congregation in the ELCA, “House for All Sinners and Saints” in Denver. Although her story is quite unique, folks who have heard the call to ordained ministry will recognize the strange paths that God calls us to travel. We may not describe it with quite the same ‘ahem’ coarse language but the experience of discernment is similar. It is an excellent read (don’t let some of the language disturb you). She describes one way that the church can reach and bless folks who are usually on the margins of our congregations.

I also read two ‘narrative’ cookbooks. I say narrative because both are much more than a collection of recipes. The first is a book by someone i cam across who shares many of the interests I do, Hank Shaw. It is his book “Hunt Gather Cook.” I hovered over this book. For instance, in chapter 14 Shaw discusses the question “Why hunt?” See Shaw wasn’t always a hunter. As he says, “For most people, foraging for wild plants poses no moral problem.” He recognizes that the whole business of hunting can seem weird or alien to some folk. The reality is that all meat comes from somewhere, and some animal (with the possible exception of stone crabs) had to die in the process. But really, with stone crabs they catch them, lop off a claw and put them back…not all that civilized really. In this chapter he covers how to take some specific animals from the field to the table. This is, in my estimation, why so many people do not like wild game. First and for most, said game was handled improperly from the get go. And then Shaw offers some basic recipes. This covers the second reason some folks don’t like wild game; it wasn’t cooked properly. This summer I invited over a couple of friends who also guide upland hunts (and their wives). I prepared 3 kinds of sausages (2 fresh and 1 smoked), A grilled venison loin. One friend stared in disbelief as his wife went back for seconds saying, “She never eats wild game.” I treasure those moments of ‘conversion’ when someone tells me they don’t like wild game and then they are surprised when I tell them that’s what they are eating. Anyway, Shaw’s book is well written and was interesting.

The second cookbook is titled “Charcuterie: the Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.” This book was just what I was looking for! Last Christmas the family got me a smoker. I have used it for the normal stuff, but wanted to do it right. (it is quite easy to make people sick if your sausage or cured meat.) These Authors, Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn are chefs from my home state, Michigan. Their credentials are stellar.

I got this book on the advice of Hank Shaw (mentioned above). It covers the waterfront speaking on such matters as pate to dry cure sausage, salted fish and confit. Part of the reason I wanted to read this book was its opening chapters where the authors address the question: “Why bother?” In the days of the refrigerator, dominoes pizza, and the 24 hour grocery store, These guys make a case for this labor of love called Carcuterie.

Well, maybe I did do some reading after all.

June 15, 2014

“Something to Be and Do”
Psalm 8 – 2 Corinthians 13:5-13

I hope you will not be too disappointed if on this Trinity Sunday I do not spend much time trying to unpack the mystery of the Holy Trinity in a way that is easy for us to understand. Instead, I want to share with you a text about a pastor who is under fire and a congregation that is in conflict.

The assigned reading is a short and sweet benediction of sorts. I thought it would be good for you to hear the paragraph that precedes it:
5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to pass the test! 6I hope you will find out that we have not failed. 7But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have passed the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. 8For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 9For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect. 10So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.

11 Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

St. Paul has come to the church in Corinth at the height of their disagreement. We do not know what sort of whispering behind the scenes has been going on. We do not know what small group has rallied about some preference of practice that is being changed. If someone was disappointed at the singing of an unfamiliar hymn or the rearrangement of the furniture we are not privy to the particulars.

We do know that that this disagreement is unbecoming of a Christian church. Passive aggressive behavior may well be acceptable outside in the world, but not in the church. Dividing and conquering, that great Napoleonic tactic, is not appropriate. Bullying others into cooperation or at least resignation is not ok.

It is a bit surprising to me that Paul doesn’t address the Corinthians directly, saying, “Where is the gospel in all this?” After all, that is the point of the church, the spread of the gospel in word and deed. Everything else is just a happy accident.

It is also surprising that he doesn’t spend a great deal of time defending himself. Despite the obvious amount of personal pain that this friction is causing him he turns instead to the basic message of the faith and urges the Corinthians to ‘do something,’ and to ‘remember whose you are.’

First, Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘test themselves.’ It is the path of least resistance to cling to our own interests and understanding of events. Something comes up that we don’t agree with or is inconsistent with our own practices; the first response is usually to question the other. And, if we are thoroughly honest with ourselves we often enter into this questioning only to discredit the other and not in a spirit of openness or inquiry. And so Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘test themselves.’

To do this means that we have to pause, to take a step back, honestly unpack our own motives and reasoning. It is a time of self-examination that intends to foster self-improvement.

This advice is not always taken well. See, to enter into it means that you need to assume, even provisionally, that the problem is not out there, but rather in here. It is ‘Pogo’s’ famous quote “We have met the enemy and they is us.”

I understand this. I have been in the midst of more than one disagreement between otherwise nice church folk who have a tendency to hurl accusations at the other and to assume that they (or I) am the innocent victim, the one who is right.

Without self examination and entertainment of the idea that the other position may be correct, relationships become tenuous, and in the worse cases, break. More than 600 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola wrote a guide for spiritual growth; and one of these exercises might just be helpful in this situation:

…it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement that to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate mean through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved (SpEx 22).

This exercise may seem difficult and even ‘abnormal,’ but that is why it is called an exercise.

What Paul seeks to remind the Corinthians of is that, without an intentional change in our way of reacting, these conflicts allow the unity of Christ to become more and more frayed, sometimes to the point that someone will claim ‘you do not belong to Christ.’ Whenever we insist that the other no longer belongs to Christ we give ourselves over to that which is not Christ. We give ourselves up for inappropriate anger, or self-righteousness. Where is the gospel in this?

In previous correspondence, Paul urged the Corinthians to remember that ‘you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.’ This is a call to remember whose you are. If the admonition to ‘test themselves’ is to do something; the second admonition, to ‘pull yourselves together,’ ‘or put things in order’ actually means to maintain the body of Christ. This is a plea for wholeness, not in some medicinal fashion but rather in an organic way; evidenced in the protective way that Paul seeks to ensure the survival of this flawed and fragile community that he birthed. This begins as we remember whose we are. We are God’s own people.

Paul’s scripture was the Psalms. He may have turned to Psalm 8 to help the Corinthians. When I consider the moon and the stars, the whole of the cosmos that God has created, why does God pay so much attention to us? Paul knows this. His concern is not only that they maintain the faith he gave to them, but rather that they find a way to maintain the unity of the church. Pastors will come and go, members are born and will die. What remains? We are not the first of God’s people and we are not the last. In that same Walt Kelly, Pogo, comic strip, Porky Pine once said, “don’t take life so serious son it aint nohow permanent.”

It would also be good if the people over in Corinth would remember that they are a little less than God. I know, I know, some people act like garbage sometimes. One morning this winter I looked out and saw our garbage cans overflowing with trash from holiday festivities. I thought, ‘that’s awful.’ That very evening it snowed and the next morning the garbage can looked so clean and white, a splendor of glory.

It would be tempting to remind the Corinthians of what Paul told them in his previous letter, in chapter 13, the love chapter we like to read at weddings. In practice, however, I think that this second letter is better for relationships. When all is sweetness and light it is easy to look at a friend and recite that treatise on love. It is better to hear these words when a day of difficulty has arisen. It is on those days it is good to remember that the other person is a child of God. It is good to try and hear what is good about what they are saying, and if you can’t find it, ask them to explain it to you again. If you still don’t agree, simply tell them that. It need not have an effect on how they feel about you or how you feel about them. Your commitment to one another is all you ever had in common anyway. Listen to what Paul tells the church. Then, take a look at the stars tonight and remember how small you are. See if that doesn’t give you some perspective.

How does Paul put it? “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”


April 20, 2014

“An Upworthy Story”
Matthew 28:1-10

We have gathered to celebrate the resurrection. But a close reading of the Gospel lesson reveals we have been invited to a funeral. Jesus is dead. He has hastily been placed in a tomb by one disciple, a secret disciple, a man who had one foot in the opposition and another amongst the disciples, just like most of us.

The women come to the tomb. It sounds as if they have come to sit there, a ministry of presence, to keep vigil there. Customs related to the passing of our loved ones have changed over the years. One such custom was the “sitting up” of loved ones and friends in the home of the deceased with the body until burial. Some cultures still keep a family member with the body of the deceased until burial as is their custom.

In our past, the night after death when the body had been prepared and displayed was accompanied with many people visiting and some staying all night. They consumed lots of coffee and snacks throughout the night. A member of the family usually took turns with the sitters in keeping the vigil so that the deceased was never left unattended. 

The women have come to sit. It is foreign to us but there is a Jewish tradition of sitting with a dead body until burial, This is called shemira. The women have come to keep watch.

They do not have to sit long.

Suddenly, the earthquake takes place, and the angel rolls back the stone. As a story, the stage is now set for a marvelous event. We might expect Jesus to rise and come out of the tomb (as Lazarus does in John 11:41-44). Yet that does not happen. The resurrection has taken place already, while the tomb was sealed. The tomb is empty (28:6).

Like the women, we too arrive too late. The resurrection has already happened, even though we don’t realize it, even though there isn’t any visible evidence that anything has changed.

In this gospel, as in the others, we do not actually have a “resurrection account” in the strict sense, but a “post-resurrection account.” The transformation of the physical to spiritual body has taken place (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:42-57), an act of God that took place apart from human view.
The angel commissions the women to tell the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection and to let them know that they shall see him in Galilee (28:7). He is coming to them.

Since Galilee is the “doorway to the world” in the thinking of Isaiah, Jesus, and the Gospel of Matthew, the light of the gospel is then for the whole world, not just the Jewish people, not just the original disciples, and not just for us. It is to be taken to the world. God seeks to have fellowship with all people, not just us.

When the disciples meet Jesus on the mountain in Galilee, Matthew tells us “but some doubted.” That’s okay. The resurrection is big enough to handle our doubt. “Thus the same elements of worship, doubt, and little faith exist in the church after Easter as before. Whatever the nature of the resurrection event, it did not generate perfect faith even in those who experienced it firsthand. It is not to angels or perfect believers, but to the worshiping/wavering community of disciples to whom the world mission is entrusted.” (New Interpreter’s Bible) It is to these ‘little to normal faith folk’ that Jesus comes.

This is what is exciting. The resurrection hasn’t ended. It is still going on in your life and in mine. We have the opportunity to participate in it by our life lived in the name of Christ. That’s why it is so beautifully fitting that we gather around this table, being with Christ even while we do not see him. This is a story worth remembering and re-telling!

You may remember that many things have happened in the gospel before this moment. For some, the excitement of this event so overshadows the rest of the good news that it is nearly dismissed, rejected as if it is only a prelude to what is important. Don’t you hate that! You are going to see a movie. For me, it is more likely I say “I am reading thus and such a novel.” A friend blurts out, “the butler did it, in the servants quarters.” Really? Does the whole of the story matter, or only the conclusion?
If so, then what happened along the way to the poor who were to have the good news preached to them? What about the captives in prison? The paralytics, the hungry, the anxious, the storm-tossed? And what of the victims of corrupt institutions? And those whose souls need washing? Are they just some kind of stage dressing in this drama? What of the fate of humankind; does it no longer matter?

It does matter. You see, the Romans killed lots of people. Often right on the spot; no muss, no fuss. No time consuming, expensive trial, flogging, mocking, marching off to Golgotha, stripping naked, nailing to a cross, more mocking and taunting, poking with a spear to make sure he’s really dead.
So why the showy death for Jesus?

Because they wanted to kill more than the person of Jesus. They wanted kill what Jesus stood for. They wanted to kill any thought in any followers of carrying on. They wanted to kill any future; any hope. The Romans tried to erase Jesus’ words and deeds from the face of the earth forever. But God raised Jesus to resurrected-life then, and now. This is a story worth remembering and getting involved in!

That’s what happened to Mary. If fear and joy struggle for mastery of Mary’s heart. That is how the text describes her departure toward Galilee. Even with the knowledge that God has gone ahead there is fear and joy. God waits for her – and us – to get moving. So, like the women at the tomb, we find that God is not only a fond memory from the past. God is ahead of us – in our future – as the one who will yet forgive sins, free paralytics, feed the hungry, make peace, wash our feet, comfort the grieving, raise the dead.

See, the women may have gone to the tomb so his body was not unattended. Instead, he came to them so that they would never be unattended. Along with his real presence at this table and day by day in our lives, what he stood for is with us still whenever the church does these things. That is the good news.

March 16, 2014

“When We Were Saved”
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

4 Well then, what can we say about our ancestor Abraham? 2 If he became acceptable to God because of what he did, then he would have something to brag about. But he would never be able to brag about it to God. 3 The Scriptures say, “God accepted Abraham because Abraham had faith in him.”
4 Money paid to workers isn’t a gift. It is something they earn by working. 5 But you cannot make God accept you because of something you do. God accepts sinners only because they have faith in him.

13 God promised Abraham and his descendants that he would give them the world. This promise wasn’t made because Abraham had obeyed a law, but because his faith in God made him acceptable. 14 If Abraham and his descendants were given this promise because they had obeyed a law, then faith would mean nothing, and the promise would be worthless.
15 God becomes angry when his Law is broken. But where there isn’t a law, it cannot be broken. 16 Everything depends on having faith in God, so that God’s promise is assured by his great kindness. This promise isn’t only for Abraham’s descendants who have the Law. It is for all who are Abraham’s descendants because they have faith, just as he did. Abraham is the ancestor of us all. 17 The Scriptures say that Abraham would become the ancestor of many nations. This promise was made to Abraham because he had faith in God, who raises the dead to life and creates new things.

More than a quarter century ago, a young chaplain walked into a hospital room. He was assigned to this floor. It was oncology. Most of the patients on this floor were not very talkative, the ravages of chemotherapy and radiation being what they were then and now.

Perhaps it was his condition, the illness, the disease, that caused this particular patient to have such an existential focus. I do not know why or how he was so talkative.

Walking into the room and before he could introduce himself, the chaplain was questioned: “When were you saved?”

The chaplain thought that it was a compliment for the patient to assume this status of justification. He didn’t ask ‘are you,’ he asked ‘when.’

‘Are you’ is an entirely different question than ‘when.’

‘Are you’ questions your status, ‘when’ accepts your status but wonders about timing. When is like this: There you are at the family reunion. All the regular characters are there. But you notice one unfamiliar face. You walk over with a glass of lemonade to this mop haired young man standing off on the edge of the tribe. You say hello, introduce yourself. He tells you his name, and then adds that he married your second cousin Susie last August. (Ah, that’s why you don’t recognize him). You chuckle and say ‘you’re new to the family.’ and he asks how long you’ve been here and you tell him ‘forever.’ I was born into it. You tell him ‘there never was a time when I didn’t know I was a part of this family.’

The way of ‘Are you’ is not as bad as it sounds. If the reunion was based upon the ‘when’ rather than the ‘Are you,’ the story would play out entirely different. The ‘Are you’ that Paul answers with a resounding yes is this: Salvation is received as a gift before any good works are done, it is not a reward, it is not a wage paid for work performed. It is predicated on trust. “… you cannot make God accept you because of something you do. God accepts sinners only because they have faith in him.” This is a God who does the unexpected – forgives rather than condemns the sinner.

The scriptures say that God accepted Abraham because he had faith in Him. We all know of the many acts of faithfulness that Abraham demonstrated. In his tent, in the mid day heat, his faith in God moved him, literally, to go to an unknown place only on the basis of a promise.

When was Abraham saved? When he had faith in God. Abraham was saved at the same moment you were. When you had faith in God.

One more thing about that reunion. It has to do with the ‘Are You?’ question. As in, ‘Are You’ really a member of this family? Whispered under the breath is ‘couldn’t be’ or ‘really?” If we go back there we might remember that there were some people who were missing. They didn’t come. Why? It was too difficult. They had made mistakes, maybe they had disappointed Mom-mom or Pop-pop, I don’t know. The message to them may have been direct or indirect, I don’t know, but the message was ‘you’re not welcome here.’

Sometimes the hardest part isn’t what other people think about you but what you think about yourself. So then you don’t go to the reunion at all. The family gathers at that same grove they always gather at. The date is the same, there aren’t any surprises; third Sunday in August. Two pm. The family has gathered. After everyone has had their fill of aunt Alice’s fried chicken and sister Andrea’s macaroni salad, after that while they are playing quoits, a couple of the fellas ask, “where is Jon? I wonder why he isn’t here this year.” They all know about what you have been up to, but if you showed up they would have welcomed you. At least they say they would. And if they didn’t, well they must have forgotten that part about ‘forgive as we forgive those who sin against us…’ Maybe they will call next week to check up on him, I don’t know.

It is good to remember the most important point in this text. The most important point for everyone to remember is that this faithful God justifies the ungodly, not waiting for them to shape up first. In verses 5 and 17, God is identified as the one who justifies the ungodly, the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. There is no break in their invitation. They are welcome, even before everything is straightened out.

Back in that hospital room, way back when, that young chaplain paused for a moment, thinking about the question that patient asked him. Then he replied, ’33 A.D.’ that’s when I was saved, ’33 A.D.’

Here, via Diana Butler Bass, is an article that helps describe our current situation and how we got here:

Just yesterday an old friend commented on the death of Philip Semour Hopkins, saying something to the effect: “what sort of God takes PSH from us and leaves the lego movie?”

My friend is a fine musician and conductor. He is an artist who understands the angst that sometimes produces great artists. Nevertheless, expressing sorrow over the loss is not the same as assigning the blame or cause to God.

I have heard similar comments throughout my ministry. Without directing a response to my friend, specifically, the perspective deserves a pastor’s attention.

One way to describe this understanding of the world is theodicy. Theodicy is the problem of the coexistence of a good God and evil experiences. The gist of such a perspective is that God somehow permitted this evil to occur. The existence of evil (or even natural disasters, disease, ‘accidents’) can threaten notions that God is ‘all powerful’ (omnipotent), ‘all knowing’ (omniscient), ‘and all present’ (omnipresent). The question is if God has all these qualities, “how could this happen?” One of these assumptions must be false.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that a SimpleCountryPastor could sufficiently answer a question that theologians and philosophers have struggled with for thousands of years. And chock full of hubris. I offer nothing new. But don’t each of us have to come up with some sort of answer for this?

For me, the question is personal. My own experience of God is not capricious, or vengeful, but is rather loving and full of grace. This experience is a combination of reading the church’s texts and life in the trenches. This doesn’t mean that the question doesn’t come up, or that I am able to dismiss it with a wave of the hand.

My own perspective is borrowed, and a patchwork of other thinkers. Specifically, I would probably fall into the Plantinga camp, understanding that the existence of suffering and the existence of God are not mutually exclusive. Alvin Plantinga’s position hinges on a view of free will that allows these two seemingly incongruent ideas to coexist. Plantinga insists that God created a world in which creatures were primarily free, and while God did not create evil in the world, neither did God disallow the creature’s ‘bad behavior.’ A simple review of the church’s texts is consistent with this premise.

Without getting too technical, Planinga’s idea of ‘transworld depravity’ floats the notion that while it is possible that the creature could make not morally evil decisions, and a world could exist up to the point of the decision making, without moral evil, it is at the point of decision that the creature generally fails and makes the wrong decision. Christ, however, is the example of humanity without ‘transworld depravity,’ or the ability to perpetually make decisions for the good.

Critics point out that Pantinga’s theory does not address what philosophy describes as ‘natural evil,’ or those aspects of the biosphere that we creatures interpret as evil: storms, illness, accidents. Plantinga actually does address this issue, (in my view unsatisfactorily), by suggesting that everything that appears at first glance to be natural evil could in fact be moral evil committed by freely acting supernatural beings, such as ‘fallen angels.’ In either case, the absence of natural evil, or natural evil generated by supernatural forces, the question remains ‘why doesn’t a good God who has the capacity to stop it, stop it?’

In Evil and the Justice of God, N. T. Wright raises two objections against the project of theodicy: that it minimizes the badness of evil, and that it manifests a kind of hubris. In addition to recommending the abandonment of theodical efforts, Wright suggests that we turn our attention instead to biblical narratives in an attempt to more fully understand and appreciate what God is doing to deal with the evil we find in this world.

My own view of such things follows N. T Wright’s prescription: God did create the world and all that is ‘seen and unseen.’ However, God also granted creatures a certain ‘free will’ that allows some independence even if the creature is never really autonomous. Also, there is a basic and elemental ‘gone wrongness’ in the world that taints everything. God’s plan, revealed in the church’s texts is to redeem all of creation to the original condition that was good; indeed, very good. Salvation history, then, points in this direction.

Still, on a day to day basis creatures are dependent upon a somewhat orderly set of natural laws that determine the processes of the world. I, for instance, depend upon gravity to drive over to the church in the morning. It is good that gravity is not suspended, however briefly, in the answer to someone’s prayer during my commute.

That is not to say that the creature cannot effect the creation in a way that is destructive. Pollution, for starters, has catastrophic effects on both creation and creature (I am old enough to remember “Love Canal”). Our altering of the biosphere, wetlands, for instance, has had terrible and initially unpredicted effects on life.

[One of Pantinga’s points is that even ‘natural evil’ can be traced in many cases to ‘moral evil.’ e.g. the effect of climate change on weather and storms.]

Oops. I have somehow wandered far from the original question about Philip Semour Hoffman. I am grieved that anyone somehow has a predilection for addiction and dependency. I am frustrated whenever I have urged and coached my children to make a ‘good choice’ and as I allow them to choose they make a ‘bad choice.’

While I believe that God does intervene in creation, and that the ‘watchmaker’ notion of God (that God created the world, wound it up, and started it up, and is now hands off) is inadequate, I do not believe that we can depend upon God’s intervention denying the free will of individuals. I wish it was otherwise. What I have come to believe is that this same God, ‘bending the trajectory of the world toward redemption’ chooses to participate in this life with us.

I know that many people prefer a simplistic, simple answer. ‘There must not be any God.’ or, ‘God must not be good.’ I for one believe that the creation does not allow for such a simple answer. I especially do not believe ‘there is a reason for everything.’

What I do believe is that the Incarnation reveals that God has eternally decided on the side of creature and creation, entering into it, perpetually, that there is the promise of redemption for all of it. in the meantime, I agree, it is a great loss. It stinks. it isn’t right.

I might also add that to just wish for the future of redemption is an inadequate response. Not everything should be put off “until the Lord comes.” N. T. Wright goes further, saying,

The call of the Gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world. The cross is not just an example to be followed; it is an achievement to be worked out, put into practice. But it is an example nonetheless, because it is the exemplar, the template, the model, for what God now wants to do, by his Spirit, in the world, through his people. It is the start of the process of redemption, in which suffering and martyrdom are the paradoxical means by which victory is won. The suffering love of God, lived out again by the Spirit in the lives of God’s people, is the God-given answer to the evils of the world. (N. T. Wright, “God, 9/11, the Tsunami, and the New Problem of Evil” from May 18-19, 2005, lectures at the Church Leaders’ Forum, Seattle Pacific University)

What we do, more often than not, is silently walk this difficult road with a friend who is grieving. We offer someone else’s prayers because they are so overwhelmed they cannot pray. Looking carefully and listening intently, we sense we are not alone and that God is with us in this work.

At a denomination meeting I saw a colleague. I said, “Good to see you.” He said, “it is better to be seen than viewed.” Part of the purpose of this meeting was to bring into conversation 4 different judicatories so that, because of the current situation, we might begin to discuss how to share some ministry. Based on the context of our encounter, I wondered if in some sense, the church today is not ‘seen,’ but ‘viewed.’ Is it, as the Spirit who spoke to the seven churches, who said to the church in Sardis, “These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead.”

No one will say that it is easy to be the church in these times. No one, at least, who has any experience in church leadership.

The days are long gone when there was a social undercurrent that supported the church culture and which promoted congregational life as a place to center your social life.

I would also say that now is a good time to be about the work of ministry. The Gospel and its resultant mission is as needed as ever. Folks define the purpose of the church in a variety of ways. H. Richard Niebuhr described it as “increasing love of God and of our neighbor.” We human beings always need to be worked on by this idea.

But in times when resources are stretched as tight as ever, the tendency is to wring our hands over declining revenues and volunteers, empty pews and weak programs. On this situation, Walter Brueggemann commented:

Old modes of power, old patterns of certitude – liberal and conservative – and old claims of privilege on which we commonly count are in deep jeopardy. In place of such power, certitude, and privilege, God is doing a new thing, the shape of which we cannot yet see. And not seeing makes us anxious, and then greedy, and then brutal. (Brueggemann, Walter Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope; Augsburg, 2000, p.36)

As I’ve been thinking about this, I have gotten a phrase in my mind, and I don’t know if I stole it or if I made it up. Still, here it is: “We do not grow by subtraction, but by addition.”

This applies in a variety of ways. We do not grow by seeking to (only) reach out to those who are in our congregation but absent for some reason. We do not grow by reducing opportunities and alternatives for worship and spiritual growth. We do not grow by reducing the opportunities for service.

Here then is the most dangerous reduction: We do not grow by reducing ministry so we can maintain maintenance. We grow by growing.

A dear friend told me that there was discussion in his congregation about eliminating two worship services on the Sunday after Christmas and going to one service. She said that there was a big reduction of attendance in the Sunday School, so that was cancelled, and the 10:30 service was a shadow of what was normally there. This scenario is familiar to most of us.

I wondered what kind of message the cancelations sent. Do they communicate that, “well, this isn’t that important, just sleep in that day.” If one service was kept and the other cancelled, does it say that one is more important than the other? If a new time is used, does it say that your preferred time for worship isn’t important? Someone once commented that because of small offerings, maybe a summer evening worship service shouldn’t be held. Is that why we hold worship services, to get money?

I understand that we are not called to be everything to everyone. That just isn’t possible. Still, it seems to me that churches who are on the downside of decline are partly there because they have forgotten what the point is. Institutional survival is not the point. Diana Butler Bass describes our situation this way:

Some things will cease to work, no longer make sense, and fail to give comfort or provide guidance. Institutions struggle to maintain only themselves, concentrating on their own survival. Political parties wither. Religions lose their power to inspire. But that only means we have work to do here and now – to find new paths of meaning, new ways to connect with God and neighbor, to form new communities, and to organize ways of making the world a better place. These are hard times, not the end times (Butler-Bass, Diana, Christianity After Religion, Harper Collins: New York, 2012, p. 31)

The end times, of course is when God in Christ returns to ‘set the world to rights.’ In the mean time, it means we have something to do. This is not so much kingdom building as it is participation in the kingdom here and now. I want to ask folks, “is there some part of the gospel you hear in our life together that you appreciate, strengthens your faith, connects you with God?” This is what is worth maintaining. This is the substance we invite others to participate in.

Throwing out beloved traditions and practices is not what I am talking about. In doing that, you suggest that there was nothing good about church prior to 2013. What I am talking about is allowing room for that “new thing” to find root and grow. I am not advocating adding things willy-nilly. This has to be a prayerful process of discernment. I say this because I believe God is calling us to a new day.

I say this is fundamentally about addition, not subtraction. It is about inclusion, not exclusion. It is about widening the margins, not circling the wagons. It is not about giving up central tenets of our faith; it is about inviting others in to join in our practices of worship, prayer, and service, way before they can give assent to a certain theological idea; and as they join us, we need to be open to the possibility that the Spirit is speaking through these new voices and, indeed, some things must change.

What this will mean for some of us mainline protestants is that we will need to take some resources that have been keeping bricks and mortar going and direct them into ‘boots on the ground mission and ministry.’ How important is a well manicured facility if the Spirit there is silent?

I do not believe that this cute little phrase will fix anything. I am quite sure, however, that subtraction will not be helpful.


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