Monday, October 28, 2019

Dream Dreams

Joel 2:23-32
October 27, 2019
This is the last time I will stand at this pulpit to preach with you as your pastor. It has been my great privilege to do so more than 600 times over these past 16 years under more circumstances than I could possibly have imagined back in August, 2003.
Back in 2003 I certainly never imagined that I’d be preaching during the middle of a World Series that DC would be hosting. The Nats didn’t even exist at that point, and so we loaded the kids in the minivan and went up to Baltimore to get treatments for baseball fever. Yes, a lot has changed.
As you might imagine, I’ve been reflecting recently on all these years and remembering that, for example, back in 2003, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was in the midst of the work of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity in the Church. The PUP Task Force, as it was widely known, would try, to decidedly mixed reviews, to find a middle way for a denomination rent asunder over the question of whether faithful gay and lesbian Presbyterians ought to be ordained to church office. I limit that to “gay and lesbian” because, honestly, we were a long way from adding other letters to the alphabet of references to bi and trans and queer and gender non-conforming and asexual Presbyterians much less to creating safe, welcoming, and empowering spaces for all of God’s children across the breadth of the denomination.
We were still years from talking about marriage equality at that point, and, in fact, only three states had added so-called “defense of marriage” amendments to their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. Within three years, about half the states would have enshrined such prohibitions, and nobody outside of his family and close friends had ever heard of James Obergefell. In case his name doesn’t ring a bell for you, he was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that, just four years ago, overturned all of those restrictions. It’s hard to believe all of that happened in barely more than a decade.
Oh, and back in 2003, nobody outside of Chicago had heard of a young politician named Barack Obama.
We were at war in Afghanistan. Alas, some things do seem to be forever.
So much else has changed in 16 years, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for hanging together here with me through all of it. You have demonstrated way more patience than anyone deserves, and I give a special thanks to all of the staff who’ve put up with my singular talent for deciding at a bit past the last minute to change things up. Similarly, thank you to everyone who has served on session over all these years and learned to expect at least once a year a proposal to shake things up. And, to all of you who’ve worshipped here over these years, thanks for your enthusiastic willingness to come in one Sunday for Sea Monster Sunday, another to create a huge butterfly, and perhaps another for a “peoples’ sermon” that you created.
Thank you all for learning, deeply and profoundly, the true meaning of liturgy: the work of the people.
It is good and right and appropriate to say some words of thanks this morning. It being also the Sunday of a congregational meeting, it also seems right to have a chart.
Y’all might remember this. It’s the chart that the Revs. Tara Spuhler-McCabe and Carla Gorrell shared with us last fall when they joined us for worship to interpret the results of the Congregational Assessment Tool – or CAT – surveys that most of us filled out earlier in the summer of 2018. National Capital Presbytery uses this tool, among other things, in deciding what kinds of support are appropriate for any given congregation.
Congregations, for example, that find themselves way down here in this quadrant really need hospice care. Seriously, they need support in finding faithful ways to bring their ministry to closure.
Congregations that find themselves in this quadrant – marked by high enthusiasm, high flexibility – are ready for transformation. I remember Tara and Carla saying that in the last five or so years that they’ve been interpreting the CAT for congregations they’d only seen one other congregation way up here off the chart in this quadrant.
In worship last fall they said, “this is where Clarendon is,” and asked, “so what does that mean?” And in that moment I heard a voice in my head and in my heart as clear as a bell saying, “it means it’s time for you to leave.”
You are ready not merely for slight tweaks to mission priorities, you are ready for generational transformation. The spirit of the living God is poured out in this place, and you are ready to dream dreams and see visions of a future otherwise.
Those Presbytery connections represented by Carla and Tara remind us that we are not in this alone, and on this Reformation Sunday, when we began with Martin Luther’s great hymn, we remember also that we stand in a long line of faithful people bent on being the church reformed and always open to being reformed according to the movement of the Spirit in their midst.
That has been true here for a long time, and people of faith in this place have responded according to the need and their giftedness, and so will you in the days to come.
That was true in 2003 when we dared in this place to envision a church as generous and just as the grace of God, and set about working in the presbytery and the general assembly of the church to reform our polity to make it so.
That was true in 2005, when we sent a small team to be among the first Presbyterian Disaster Assistance groups on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and in all of the rebuilding and disaster assistance work we’ve done together since.
That was true later that same autumn, when our session declared that if the pastor here could not legally marry same-gender couples then the pastor would not legally marry any couples.
That was true in 2007, when our session declared our determination to open ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members “because of scripture, not in spite of it; because of our confessions, not in spite of them; because of our polity, not in spite of it; because of who we are, not in spite of who we are, for we are all beloved children of God.”
That was true in 2010, when our session reminded the whole denomination that “the mission of the church in any generation is to be found in ‘sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable, and loving rule in the world,’” and thus launched the PC(USA) into a six-year season of discernment around peacemaking that has led to countless peacemaking actions over the past decade.
That was true in 2013, when we declared as a community that we would be church differently, and set about hiring staff to support a new vision and new mission centered around radical hospitality and the fellowship of the table. It was true when we broke ground on a garden that has produced more than a ton of fresh vegetables for our neighbors in need. It was true when we welcomed the youth of the GenOUT chorus to band camps here, and when we welcomed the gay-straight alliance kids to hold their prom in Wilson Hall downstairs.
“O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God!”
We have walked together through but a brief season in the almost hundred-year history of this congregation, and we have felt the Spirit poured out in abundance in our midst. You will walk faithfully into a future with other leaders in the seasons to come, and the Spirit will continue to blow powerfully in your midst.
The prophetic vision cast by Joel is filled with images of apocalypse, of an uncertain future, of a “great and terrible day of the Lord.” Stepping into an uncertain future can certainly be fearful. I would be lying if I told you that I head out to Burke without any doubt or uncertainty or fearfulness.
But I leave you also filled with several core convictions, three of which I’ll name in concluding:
First, I believe that change that matters always begins from the margins. That is the story of Jesus’ life – a marginal Jew, as one theologian called him, who changed the world. With that in mind, I feel like an agent of change being sent from this small community that by so many measures sits on the margins of the larger church but that has, from this marginal space, helped lead changes that matter in the church and in the larger world. I leave you inspired by you and committed to carrying on that work in other places.
Second, but in the same vein, I believe that change that matters is led by servants way more effectively than by masters. That is why I covered the communion table with stoles this morning. Stoles have become liturgical costume in the church, but they began as symbols of service from the days when servants wore them to use in wiping up after their masters. I’ve picked these up at various points along my path in ministry. They remind me to lead as a servant. Some were made for me way back at my ordination. Others were gifts at particular points along the way. Some were made as parts of symbolic protest actions, and a few I picked up at conferences just because I think they’re pretty – and beauty is resistance, too.
Finally, third, I believe that the Spirit of the living God calls us in this particular moment to the urgent work of resistance. On a planet that human beings are killing, we are called to resist an economy of waste and destruction. In a time when vast and growing economic inequality consigns billions of our neighbors to abject poverty, we are called to resist winner-take-all capitalism. In a moment when our nation’s leaders call news they don’t like “fake” and call lies the truth, we are called to proclaim the gospel truth that will set us free. In a world caught in endless cycles of violence, we are called to proclaim liberty that the oppressed might go free because we know that justice is the only ground from which true peace grows.
We are pilgrims on a journey. We have walked so closely together for so many years. I’ll take up my walking stick now to sojourn with others at some distance from you, but you will remain always in my heart.
For we are walking in the same light, and it is the same Spirit poured out on all flesh. I know that your sons and daughters shall prophesy in this place. Your elders shall dream dreams, and your young ones shall see visions. And for everyone born, there will be now and forever a place at the table. Amen.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Giving Voice

Giving Voice
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19October 13, 2017
I’ve been rereading Resident Aliens this month. That little classic, by theologians Stanley Haurerwas and William Willimon, turned 30 this year, and like most 30 years olds, it’s aged well in some ways, less well in others.
I’m in a grace-filled mood at the moment, so I’m going to ignore its shortcomings and focus on the still resonant word for the church that Haurerwas and Willimon penned in 1989 when they noted that “a tired old world has ended, an exciting new one is awaiting recognition.”[1]The world whose ending they named was actually several worlds. The world of Christendom that began in the age of Constantin some 300 years after the time of Christ was the largest of those worlds, to be sure, but its American child – the great 20th-century Protestant Establishment consensus – was also rapidly passing away by the late 1980s.Now, 30 years on, we are living through a generation shift as those of us with living memory of the culture shaped by that establishment begin to retire. Thus, the church that is emerging around us is beginning to be led by folks not beholden to a memory of a time when Sunday morning worship was the only game in town.In the first chapter of Resident Aliens, Haurerwas and Willimon, who are both a bit older than I am – they’re in their 70s and I turn 60 in December – somewhat playfully date the death of that older world on a Sunday evening in 1963 when the Fox Theater in Willimon’s hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, showed a movie.
What film could have caused the death of the Protestant Establishment in America? Well, it wasn’t any particular movie. In fact, they didn’t mention a film title. It was simply the fact that the theater was open on a Sunday evening to show a movie at all.You see, if you are as old as I am you can remember a time when stores were shuttered on Sunday mornings, when no youth sports were scheduled, when everything revolved around the central organizing principle that people spent Sunday morning in church. Heck, in my southern childhood, nothing was scheduled on Wednesday evenings either because that was church supper night.But if you are closer to the age of Resident Aliens then you have no such memory at all.And you know what? That’s a good thing! The good old days weren’t all good for anybody and they were no good at all for somebodies.  After all, about the same time the Fox Theater was daring to open up on a Sunday evening in Greenville, South Carolina, Martin Luther King, Jr. was writing these words from a jail cell just a bit down the road in Birmingham, Alabama:“[T]he judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”[2]For most of the time since 1963, most of us who remember a time when the church felt like the comfortable center of American life have been trying to figure out how to return the church to that position that felt right, that felt normal, that felt comfortable.The problem is, the place of the church was never intended to be the center of a comfortable culture. If the church is the gathered community of followers of Jesus then that gathering is never supposed to be at the center of society because that’s not where Jesus lived and moved and had his being. And it is certainly not supposed to be comfortable because whatever else his life may have been, when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and said, “follow me …” … well let’s just say he probably didn’t mean let’s go have a nice pot-luck brunch.None of that is to say that we are not called to bear one another’s burdens, to bind one another up, to love one another. We are! None of it is to say that we are not called to make a joyful noise. We are! None of it is to say that we are not called to share good news. We are!All of that is good and right and appropriate. Moreover, as Jeremiah said to the captive Israelites living in exile, “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.”In other words, you may well be aliens in a strange land, but you are also residents of that land so live fully in it, and seek good for it.
But remember to return to give thanks to the one who makes you whole. In other words, you may feel like strangers to your homeland, you may feel like foreigners in the culture of your birth, but when you remember to return to me to give thanks and praise you are turning to your heart’s true home.Moreover, giving voice to that – to gratitude and to good news – is your central calling as the church.
In a few minutes we’ll move to the back of the sanctuary to make sandwiches for our neighbors at the Residential Program Center. It’s good and right that we do so. We are, as a Matthew 25 people, after all, called to feed the hungry.But you know what? We’ll never do that as effectively and efficiently as our friends at AFAC or A-SPAN do it. In a contemporary welfare state – and the United States is certainly one – we’ll no more compete with excellent nonprofits or government agencies when it comes to feeding the hungry any more than we’ll compete with Fox Theater for attention on a Sunday evening.So what is it that we can do? What is it that we are called to do?We’re called to give voice to the vision of a future otherwise, to imagine and show forth the example of community lived out through expressions of gratitude and praise that point beyond ourselves to something more, something deeper, something that roots us and grounds us and calls us forth. So, let’s feed our neighbors in body and mind and spirit, and let’s go forth into God’s world with love, joy, and creativity to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And let’s seek companions on the journey from every walk of life. May it be so. Amen.

[1] Stanley Haurerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989) 15.
[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in A Testament of Hope (San Francisco: Harper, 1986) 300.