Monday, February 11, 2019

What We Risk

Luke 4:21-10; Luke 5:1-11
February 10, 2019
It’s at least slightly ironic that the sermon I’m going to offer this morning was intended initially for a week ago. It’s ironic because, as it happens, the whole thing – intended for a week ago -- turns on the word “today.”
I reckon the irony is also a reminder that whenever you find yourself, it’s always today. Which is great, it turns out, because God is present now.
Too often, we are not. We’re caught up in old hurts and yesterday’s anger, or in fear about what tomorrow will bring, and we miss what’s right in front of us in this moment.
It’s helpful, no doubt, to pause for just a moment and point out what Jesus was talking about when he said “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In the verses just prior to this morning’s text Jesus has returned from a time of trial in the wilderness to his hometown of Nazareth and, like a nice Jewish boy, gone to synagogue on the sabbath. He stood up to read, was handed the scroll of Isaiah, and proclaimed:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
That’s when he says, “y’all heard it hear, first.” Or words to that effect.
And the next thing you know, the good church folks rush in to try and throw him off a cliff.
Wait. What?
What the heck is going on here? All the guy did was read a little Isaiah to the people. This is supposed to be good news. After all, it literally says “good news” right in the text!
Why, when they hear good news, do the people react with mob violence?
What is going on in this story?
As with so many stories in the gospels, the quick answer is, “a lot.” That is to say, we can read this brief story – and read it well – in several ways, but this morning, right now, today, I want to focus on Jesus’ first word in preaching to his hometown neighbors.
He stands, as was the custom, to read the sacred scroll and the word rings out, “bring good news to the poor … proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, jubilee to all who are indebted!”
Then – again as was the custom – he sits down to teach. So the first thing we notice is that Jesus honors these basic liturgical customs. Nothing radical or disturbing in his manner, thus far.
But when he sits down and begins to teach the first word out of his mouth, the inaugural utterance of Jesus’ first public preaching, is the most threatening of all possible words: he says, simply and clearly, “today.”
Today. Right now. This moment.
This is not a comforting promise of good things to come by and by, after a decent time of planning and preparation, when whatever changes may be necessary to accomplish this vision have unfolded in an orderly and non-disturbing way. No. This day. This moment.
You know those folks in prison on nonviolent offenses? Liberate them today. You know those young adults staggering under college loan debt? Jubilee now!
This is not an invitation to gradual, patient, orderly reform. This is the fierce urgency of now.
Reading this passage in the midst of Black History Month, I can’t help but think that the local religious leaders of Nazareth might have been responding to Jesus’ preaching the same way that the local religious leaders of Birmingham responded to Martin Luther King’s preaching in their town in 1963. To be fair, they did not take mob action and threaten to throw King off a cliff. Instead, they took the far more decent and orderly measure of writing a public letter in the local paper calling King and his followers radicals, outside agitators, impatient, “unwise and untimely.”[1]
King responded with a letter of his own, written from his cell in the Birmingham city jail, answering the criticism of his fellow clergy. The heart of King’s response reflects that first, singular word of Jesus’ preaching.
Today is the right time to proclaim news that will be good for the poor. Today is the right time to deliver new sight to the blind. Today is the right time let the oppressed go free. Today is the right time to declare jubilee – the forgiveness of crushing debt.
Today is the right time to proclaim that black lives matter. Today is the right time to end police violence. Today is the right time confront the fact that inherited wealth in this country is both the result of white supremacy and its sustaining foundation. Today. Right here and right now.
As King put it, “We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”[2]
Doctor, the crowd responds, heal yourself! Do for us what you’ve done for others! Our lives matter! All lives matter!
Yes, but you know what? There were these particular folks who were being particularly oppressed while you were living reasonably comfortable lives disturbed only by the raised cries of those oppressed folks. You seem pretty upset by the noise, but you don’t seem overly concerned by the oppression that’s prompting the noise.
And, with that, they locked the doctor up in jail. With that, they tried to throw Jesus off the cliff.
Dr. King also uttered a prophetic word about the church in that 1963 letter. He warned his clergy colleagues, and, by extension, the whole of the American church about what he feared would become of us in the remains of the 20th century:
“The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recover 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.”[3]
Judging by the numbers alone – the loss of literally millions of members – King was absolutely correct in his understanding of the future confronting a church that forgot Jesus’ first word.
Moreover, we fail to understand the word of the Lord that comes in the second gospel reading – the old, comfortingly familiar story of Peter’s call to become a fisher of people. Two things stand out, for me, in that story this morning:
First, Jesus begins with his oft-repeated, trademark phrase, “do not be afraid.” I’m pretty sure he began there because he understood that moving from a traditional and well-understood, socially acceptable if economically marginal way of making a living – that is to say, fishing – to the radically different way of life as discipleship was going to be fearful.
He began there because he knew that, even though they had literally just witnessed a complete reversal of their own expectations, his followers would always be filled with deep doubts. The tried and true methods of fishing all night had resulted in nothing; and then Jesus comes along and says, “hey, try this new thing.”
They didn’t appoint a committee. They didn’t enter a season of discernment. They were nothing like decent and in order. They were tired and ready for rest, but they gave it a shot. And what do you know? This new thing works.
Standing here, more than a half century after King’s striking condemnation of the decent and orderly church, I’m led to conclude that what we risk in delaying faithful action for justice is far worse than what we risk in trying something new, in boldly proclaiming that now is the time, this is the day for jubilee! For when we delay, when we sit fearfully on the sidelines of history, we risk the slow rot of irrelevance. When we proclaim boldly the fierce urgency of now we risk a life worth living.
For though the powers and principalities may rise up in angry defense of their own standing, and the mob itself may rise up in fearful response to change, a life worth living begins with the determination to stride toward freedom, to walk in the paths of justice, to go forth as repairers of the breach and restorers of the city’s streets to walk in – risking all for the sake of the gospel.
May we have the courage of risky faith: today, tomorrow, and all days. Amen.

[1] King quoted the clergy letter in his opening paragraph. All citations from King’s letter come from the early draft version held in the King papers collection at Stanford,

[2] Ibid. 10-11.
[3] Ibid. 16-17.

Monday, January 28, 2019

One Body

One Body
1 Corinthians 12:1-12
January 27, 2019
And the apostle Paul said to the church at Corinth: “Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes …” This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.
That’s the quite completely revised, not quite at all standard, preschool translation of First Corinthians. We are one body, and individually members of it. Every member brings something to the whole, and each one of these gifts matters to the whole. Indeed, without them, the body is not actually whole. It is fractured and broken and not able to function as intended by the One who created it.
So, whatever part you play matters. There are no small parts, as they say in theater, only small actors.
We all know that it’s wise to get regular check ups to assess the health of our bodies, and so it is with the body of the church. We go to a physician to get our head, shoulders, knees, and toes; eyes and ears and mouth and nose checked up. We know that there are standards to measure our vision and our hearing, our heart rate and blood pressure, our strength and flexibility, and we trust medical experts to assess our health according to such standards.
What are the standards against which we judge to health of the body of Christ, the church?
At the congregational level, the traditional measure of institutional health used for the better part of the past century has been “butts and budgets.” That is to say, congregational and denominational health has been measured according to membership, worship attendance, and budgets.
By those measures, let’s be honest, we are a marginally healthy part of a dying body. That is to say, Clarendon Presbyterian Church has a reasonably stable membership, some significant questions about attendance, and a decently healthy budget – all of which we’ll look at in more detail together in a few minutes.
Meanwhile, lest we forget our context, we are a congregation of a denomination that has lost about three quarters of it total membership since 1965, and whose membership has continued in decline every year for decades from a peak of about 4.5 million in the mid-60s to the current total that is a bit less than 1.5 million. The denomination is barely more than half the size it was when I entered seminary in the mid-90s. Denominational budgets have, of course, tracked membership.
We are a part of a body that is dying. Moreover, many, perhaps most, of the individual parts of the body – that is to say, the congregations that make up the denomination – are also dying. Locally speaking, there are six Presbyterian congregations in Arlington County this morning. I would be shocked if more than half of them remain as stand-alone congregations 15 years from now. In fact, I’d be somewhat surprised if more than half of them remain by the time I retire. And, oh, yeah, I turn 60 this year.
We are a part of a body that is dying.
We can weep and wail and gnash our teeth. We can huddle together and sing songs of lamentation. We can wax nostalgic and dream of by-gone days.
Or, we can rise up and live into the fullness of our faith as a resurrection people.
That is to say, the heart of our faith beats with the conviction that God can bring new life out of death; that God can speak a creative word into the chaos and call forth the ordered creation itself; that God can breathe into the dry bones and then watch those bones dance.
We are a resurrection people!
What does that mean for us? What does that look like in our context? Where can we look to see signs that God is already bringing forth new life in our very midst?
To some extent, those questions beg us to think differently about how we assess the health of the body of Christ in our context. Thinking differently does not mean ignoring traditional metrics and measurements.
We are right to be pleased with the shape of our budget; we are also right to be concerned with dips in attendance on Sunday mornings.
But we ought also to be thinking about what it means that so many of us participated in last summer’s CAT assessment that the folks at Holy Cow, the consulting firm that administers the assessment tool, did IP address checks to make sure someone wasn’t stuffing the virtual ballot box. We also ought to be thinking about what it means the almost a hundred folks were gathered in the sanctuary last Thursday evening to talk about green energy, and that about a third of them were young adults. And we ought to be thinking about what it means that way more people tuned in to at least part of our Facebook worship service two weeks ago in the snow that ever come in person on a Sunday morning.
These are also signs and signals about the health of the body. We just don’t fully understand what they are signaling and how they might be signs pointing toward a future of new life.
One year ago in this “state of the church” sermon, I suggested that we are being called into a larger story, and we launched a season of discernment that led us, last summer and fall, to create a new staff position and set out to raise funds to support it. This winter and spring we will conduct the search and hiring process to give life to that vision cast one year ago.
That, also, looks to me like a sign of vitality.
But, I confess, I’m not always sure about such signs nor about the various ways we endeavor to measure and assess the state of the church.
I’m not sure that my confusion is anything new under the sun.
When we were in Rome a few weeks ago we toured the Vatican. Standing beneath the 430-foot dome of St. Peter’s is an awe-inspiring experience. One cannot help but look up, and, clearly, that’s the point. Human beings are invited in grand cathedrals to gaze upward toward the heavens to catch a sense of the divine existing on a plane far above human toil.
There is nothing at all wrong with that, but gazing upward is only one way to catch a glimpse of the divine.
We did not have enough time to get out to see the catacombs when we were in Rome. While the history and meaning of those burial sites remains contested, it’s fairly well accepted that they were used at certain periods in the first centuries of Christianity as worship spaces for Christian communities under persecution by Roman authorities.
I’m guessing that their worship attendance figures were unimpressive. Indeed, I’m guessing they didn’t keep much track at all. I’m guessing their budgets were – well, I’m guessing they didn’t have any budgets at all. I’m guessing their membership figures were equally unimpressive.
But I am also guessing – no, this is not a guess, this is preaching: the faith of those early Christian communities was so vibrant, so alive, and so clearly counter cultural, that they were perceived as threatening to the entrenched and absolute power of an empire that spanned most of the known world.
They didn’t just cast their eyes upward for signs of the presence of God. They cast their eyes down, into catacombs, and there, in the eyes of their Christian friends they saw the presence of God in the body of Christ.
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Is any entrenched power threatened by us today?
If the answer to that question is no, well perhaps then it’s best if we do simply fade away.
But I do not believe God is finished with us yet. I do not believe that the body of Christ in the world is merely a corpse awaiting last rights and burial.
I believe God is calling forth new life in our midst precisely because entrenched, concentrated, and corrupt power still exercises dominion over the lives of far too many people around the world, including in many places in our own country, and I believe that the body of Christ in the world is called to disrupt that power whenever and however we can. For when we are about that life-giving, death-disrupting work in the world, then the body of Christ is vibrant and healthy. Let us be about that work, in our time and place, for, whenever and wherever we are, then the state of the church is strong. Amen.