Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A new thing: Sermons on my blog

Hi all:

I'm trying something new, here. Starting this week I'm going to publishing a sermon to this blog on a regular basis. Sometimes, what is written here will come after a sermon I preached on Sunday with some changes that help it apply more widely to the Pacific Northwest Conference. Other times. On Sundays I'm not preaching, I'm going to still try and write a sermon and publish it here. At this point, this is an experiment. Let's see how it goes.

This sermon was given on the occasion of the 125th Anniversary of our church in Colville, WA.

Micah 6
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

I was an assistant manager for a store in Boulder, Colorado in the early 90’s. The shop’s owner was a good man named Chris who made sure we took care of everyone who came in the door. Sure, he had products to sell but he always said our job was to take care of our customers, first. If we didn’t have what someone was wanted, we were trained to suggest other places that might have what they were looking for. If someone was visiting from out of town, it was our job to welcome them to Boulder and suggest places they try visiting. If there were kids, our job was to play with them, talk with them, show them where the toys were and let them play. People liked coming there and would invite others to come see the store and have the experience of being welcomed there. We were always happy to show the store off and help make the space worthy of showing off.

We were gently corrected and trained when we didn’t create a hospitable place for those who walked through the door. We received bonuses when we did it particularly well. Chris modeled this behavior with customers and to us. The store did quite well.

Eventually, I moved on but after seminary and ordination, I went back to Boulder to visit Chris. I was taking a lot of what I’d learned while working for him and applying to the little church I was serving in Ohio. I wanted to thank him for teaching me about focusing on caring for those who came through the door. After I thanked him, he smiled and said “Here’s the thing: all I learned about caring people I learned from church.”

That statement has stuck with me and made me think. I grew up in the church and was cared for by people in the church - good, loving, welcoming people. I grew up in churches that were very friendly. However there was something about the intentionality with which I was trained at this retail shop that made all the difference. There was something about the intentionality of creating a hospitable place, as opposed to the assumption of hospitality, that made all the difference. To describe the setting of church as open, friendly and welcoming was one thing but I was trained how to do that in a retail shop in Boulder, Colorado. The irony that sticks with me is that I was being trained how to treat people in the church by someone in the retail world who learned how to treat people through church.

It seems as though these kind of ironies are throughout church life these days. It is a not so small part of what’s causing our collective identity crisis. We don’t know or remember what is the distinctive nature of the church, anymore. I can’t tell you how many times I meet with churches that are in the middle of the debate about trying to figure out who they are by comparing themselves to other organizations. “We are a nonprofit” some say and we need to model ourselves on nonprofit structures in order to be effective. “We are a business” others say and we need have clear command and control in order to achieve very specific goals and be financially viable. “We are a democracy” others insist and chafe against any authority within a church that is not equally distributed or equally accountable.

This seems to be a unique argument within the life of the church. I never really hear businesses having this argument about what kind of organization they are. Nonprofits, sometimes have hints of this debate but not as much. Democracies debate about the nature of democracy itself but rarely about being a democracy. The church is trying to figure out where it fits.

So, we end up having a lot of conversations about mission statements. As mission vision statement conversations become more and more a part of the general conversation the wider world, they become more and more important part of church conversations, too. Almost all of the debates in churches centered around what category best describes the church end up around the need for a mission statement and some sort of agreement to try and figure that out.

And, the irony here? “Mission” is a church word. It comes from a Latin word meaning “to send” and was used by 15th century Jesuits who were sending folks out to bring the values, doctrines and beliefs of the church to the whole world. It wasn’t about what someone did, per se, it was about what people were sent out to do. They already has some idea what they believed and were called to do. They were sent out to share those beliefs and do what they were called to do. Being sent out on a mission was the fulfillment of what faith called for not the thing that people were being asked to believe in. They already had creeds; these statements that said what they were collectively called to believe. The mission was to fulfill that creed.

The irony for me is that the kind of mission statements called for by many who see this as the salvific solution for the church’s problems are not simply about how an organization will fulfill what they already believe but they are statements of belief, in and of themselves. They are creeds. How many times have you heard someone judge the effectiveness of integrating an organization’s mission statement with the question “How many of your employees or board members can give the mission statement when asked?” That is a question that seems more about shared belief than shared purpose. That is a creed.

So, yes, we may hear this call for mission statements from the non-church world as a solution for our own identity crisis but, let’s be clear, these are frequently not statements about sending people out. These are statements of faith or belief. These are creeds and treated as such.

So, if are willing to go with me with this thought, our challenge within the life of the church is probably not that we don’t know how to discuss what we can do that will bring us together and give us meaning but the challenge is talking about what we believe. In the UCC there is no denominational test of faith, no creed that we all have to believe in to be a part of the denomination. Collectively, we have determined that this is not the role of a denomination. However, within our congregational based polity, this means that the local church becomes responsible for having conversation about belief in the same way that part of congregational responsibilities to be self-governing without outside authority; self-sustaining without outside support; and self-propagating without outside evangelism.

Today’s scripture reading from Micah is not such a bad place to begin that conversation around what we might collectively believe. Chapter six of Micah is something we see sometimes in some of our ancient texts. It comes in the form of a almost a legal dispute God is bringing against Israel; listing both their misdeeds and messed up priorities. The text for today names the thing God sees as most important and is followed by what God’s punishment will be for not fulfilling this requirement. Verse 8 of chapter 6 is that verse many of us have heard before:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah, is unequivocal in this. The word translated from the Hebrew as “require” is stronger than that. It's probably closer to the word “commands” than “require.” The complaint against Israel is based around Israel not fulfilling this requirement and the suggested punishment that comes later in these scriptures is because Israel has not fulfilled this requirement.

So, let me ask the question, do you believe this is something God requires? Do you believe that God requires us to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Do you believe this?

Pastor Jim sent your church’s history to me this week and it seems as though what the church collectively remembers is many of those times you were living into this belief. Your church has had many ups and downs but every up seemed to be accompanied by either new leadership or some sort of clarity of belief and purpose. Your 125 years has been filled with risk taking, sharing of beliefs, serving others and adjusting to the reality of the world around you. That is your heritage and your hope and has usually meant more than the accumulation of property or organizational structures.

In recent years, you have taken positions that haven't made everyone happy with and have sometimes landed you and your pastor in bit of uncomfortable controversy. I think that’s good. There is a difference between focusing on our own comfort and trusting God to comfort us when we do what we are called to do. If we believe that God requires us to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God it means there will be moments of discomfort and sometimes even sacrifice. Although living in to this belief may comfort others, that’s usually because we are being called to take on some of their discomfort. Its for this thing we are called to do that God comforts us.

If we believe that this is what God requires of us, there is some amazingly good news, my siblings in Christ. I know that there have been moments when you have discerned whether or not you have future as a congregation. I have been with you for some of those conversations. But, again, of these things that are required of us, have any of them been fully fulfilled? Do you live in a community that is as just and fair as it could be? Is there as much kindness in this world as there could be? Is your walk with God as close and as humble as it could be? If the answer to any of those is no, you have your mission my friends. If your answer to any of these is no, your mission is not finished. If the answer to any of these is no, it means that your first 125 years were simply a good start.

Thank God for all that God has done through this congregation and I look forward with anticipation for all God is yet to do.