The Present of the Church

This sermon was delivered at Church of Peace, United Church of Christ, in Rock Island, Illinois, on October 15, 2017. The scripture for this sermon is Mark 3:19b-31.

Last summer, I went to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod. This is the big meeting we have every two years where delegates from all over the denomination come together to elect officers and debate resolutions and do all of those kinds of things. And as part of this, there are youth and young adults who are encouraged to speak… to bring a ‘youth perspective’ to issues facing the church.

One of the resolutions this year was about gun violence. It was a resolution calling on Congress to allow the Center for Disease Control to study gun violence and to suggest methods to improve gun safety. And whatever you think about guns or gun control or anything like that, I want you to consider something: if today is an average day in America, 93 people will die from gun violence, 58 of those will be suicides, and the CDC is not allowed to study that.

And I want you to consider something else: if tomorrow is an average day, somewhere in America a classroom of children will have a drill where they hide in a closet and stay quiet. And they’ll have that drill because we’re afraid that someday won’t be an average day, and that staying quiet in a closet in a classroom will keep our sons and daughters alive.

When delegates were talking about this resolution, some young people got up to speak. They shared their stories of hiding in closets and making escape plans and going through active shooter drills and hearing the simulated sound of gunfire. And a little while later an adult stood up and said that he had been through active shooter training and that some elements of their stories — like the simulated gunfire — weren’t true.

Today’s reading starts with four simple words: “Then he went home.”

It sounds good. It sounds comfortable.

Jesus is a nice Jewish boy and — and even here in the third chapter of Mark — he’s been out in the world for a little while. He’s been baptized by John. He’s been tempted in the wilderness. He’s called some disciples. He’s healed people and cast out demons and preached to crowds and challenged Pharisees.

Then he went home.

And then things got out of hand.

Today, we’re continuing our series on choosing family. Today, we’re talking about sons and daughters. And that’s a bit of a clunky way of talking about children. And that’s a weird word. Sometimes, ‘children’ means ‘offspring’. My brother and I are the children of Robert and Janet Warfield. Sometimes, though, ‘children’ means ‘not adults’. A group of ten year olds is a group of children. A group of forty year olds is not.

And sometimes, in families, that line between being a child and being a child gets blurry. We all know that feeling, right? That feeling we get when we go home and we’re not just our parents’ children, but we’re treated like our parents’ children? That feeling when we know we have a role we’re supposed to play and a lane we’re supposed to stay in?

I wonder if Jesus felt that when he went home.

Because when Jesus went home, the crowd came together and they couldn’t even eat. And then things got out of hand. Some of the people were coming to be healed or have demons cast out or hear some good news. But others were saying, “He has gone out of his mind… He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”

And that, for sure, was not okay. If people really believed that Jesus was out of his mind — if people really believed that Jesus had Beelzebul and was casting out demons by the ruler of demons — that wouldn’t just be bad for him. That would be bad for his entire family. This was a time and a place and a community where you really could ruin a family name. Everything could fall apart. And Jesus’s family isn’t going to have any of it.

Now, I don’t have children, but I’ve seen that expression on parents’ faces — I’ve been the cause of that expression on parents’ faces — when they think their child is misbehaving in a public place. It’s a combination of embarrassment and shame and fear of judgement. And imagine that feeling, but a thousand times worse because there’s not going to be any understanding shrugs from strangers. People are saying that Jesus is out of his mind, that he’s an agent of the devil.

So Jesus’s family goes out to restrain him. That word — ‘restrain’ — is important. It’s the same word that gets used when people go out to arrest Jesus later. That’s how serious this is. Jesus’s own family goes out to kind-of-arrest him because he is a threat to the family; because he is a child who is out of control; because he isn’t playing the role he is supposed to play.
And when that guy at Synod stood up and said that those young people had embellished their stories, he didn’t touch them, but he restrained them, too. They were children who were out of control; they weren’t playing the role they were supposed to play.

But those youth didn’t stand for it. The next morning, there were speak outs, when anyone can take the microphone and share their thoughts or make an announcement. And some young people — some sons and daughters of this denomination — stood up and reminded us all of two things. First, that they are not the future of the church, but the present of the church; after all, they were speaking at Synod because we needed their perspective. Second, that no one would dismiss the experiences of older delegates, and no one had the right to dismiss theirs.

I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of the youth of the United Church of Christ. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as committed to a standing ovation. Because here’s the thing: Jesus did something like that, too.

When Jesus’s family went out to restrain him, they found the crowd. And some people said to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you.” And Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers? They’re here. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

Look, I know. That sounds like rejection. It sounds like Jesus is saying that his mother and his brothers and his sisters aren’t his family. It sounds like the people who raised him don’t matter anymore. it sounds like he won’t be coming home again.

And, so often, that’s what it sounds like when the young people in our communities — when our sons and our daughters — insist on a new way of doing things. We see congregations shrinking and fraternal organizations closing and millennials and post-millennials killing fast casual restaurants and cereal and napkins and diamonds and dozens of other things… and we think they are rejecting us.

But Jesus isn’t rejecting anyone. He’s inviting his family into a new possibility.

You see, Jesus isn’t be the holy infant, so tender and mild, anymore.

He’s been baptized. He’s been tempted in the wilderness. He’s called some disciples. He’s healed people and cast our demons and preached to crowds and challenged Pharisees. And while he might still be Mary’s child, he isn’t Mary’s child anymore.

And his family has a choice. They can try to restrain him, or they can walk alongside him. They can try to hold him back, or they can be part of a common vision and a supportive community. They can try to arrest him, or they can follow him into the Kingdom of God.

This work — the work of being church — will not soon be over. Tomorrow there will be hungry people to feed. Next week there will be strangers to welcome. Next month there will be sick people to visit. And on an average day next year there might be 93 deaths from gun violence, 58 of them suicides. The work of the kingdom goes on and I doubt I’ll live to see it finished. Our ancestors laid the foundation, and we have continued the work, and our children — and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren and our great-great-grandchildren — will keep going until that long bending arc of history finally reaches justice.

Our sons and daughters are not the future of the church. Our parents and grandparents aren’t the past of the church. Together, we are all the present of the church. Together, we hold onto the best of the past and embrace the best of the future. Together, we bring diverse perspectives and powerful experiences. Together, we strive to be one family defined by the will of God.

And when we do that, the possibilities are endless.

Amen.

Hubs and Networks (and the United Church of Christ)

Last week, my denomination — the United Church of Christ — released a bit of bad news. Fourteen people were laid off as the national setting of the denomination reorganized itself around new mission priorities.  Among the transitions are the combining of operations and global ministries; the combining of justice work and local church ministries; and the combining of Publishing, Identity, and Communication with the Office of Philanthropy and Stewardship to form an Office of Philanthropy and Marketing. As a colleague and friend who used to work at the national offices pointed out on Facebook, this continues a precipitous decline in staff there: from around 300 near the beginning of the century to slightly more than 100 now (someone else pointed out that there were more than 400 in the early 90s).

These layoffs aren’t surprising. The national setting and muddle judicatories have been shrinking as long as the denomination has existed. Every year brings predictions about when the United Church of Christ will close its doors, even if individual congregations keep going.

One of the biggest challenges for the United Church of Christ is how money flows through it. Offerings are collected in struggling local congregations. Some of that money — almost always a shrinking amount — is sent to middle judicatories. Those struggling middle judicatories then send some of that monty — again, almost always a shrinking amount — on to the national setting. The pie keeps getting smaller every year and at every level, and much of the reorganization at every level is about surviving on less and less.

And, unfortunately, too many of the expressions of the United Church of Christ — from local churches to the national setting — respond to that shrinking pie by focusing on how they can get more instead of how they can connect more. We focus more and more on our hubs; we focus less and less on our networks.

Let me give a simple example. The new Director of Marketing and Philanthropy will be tasked with raising money for the United Church of Christ, meaning, by and large, the national setting and its initiatives. She will also be responsible for developing stewardship materials for local congregations. Historically, those materials include some third-party books on stewardship, as well as annual themed posters, bulletin inserts, pledge cards, letters, and so on (which, of course, local congregations have to pay for). That means she’s focused mostly on raising money for her hub: the national setting.

What’s missing? Real coaching and training for the local congregations who want to support the national setting and who are themselves struggling. In other words: the creation of networks that will connect professionals and successful congregations with congregations that they can help.

And that’s also true on a broader scale. As a denomination — and like many other mainline denominations — we are focused on the survival of hubs, from local churches through middle judicatories to the national setting.

But any future for the United Church of Christ, I suspect, isn’t found in keeping hubs alive. It’s found in creating and sustaining dynamic networks. If the United Church of Christ wants to be an effective denomination in the future, it needs to invest in serving and connecting its local congregations, covenanted ministries, and other expressions. For example:

  • we might invest substantially in a group of consultants and coaches focused on stewardship and church vitality
  • we might look at how congregations who are successful at a certain ministry can be connected to congregations interested in developing a similar ministry and share resources
  • we might provide smaller congregations merge into single church bodies with multiple campuses
  • we might investigate what new models of membership — models that recognize that fewer people are likely to belong to the same congregation for their entire lives — might look like

There are any number of options here, but they are all based on networks. And it is investment in creating and sustaining those networks — not keeping hubs functioning — that will help the United Church of Christ remain a powerful force in the future.

Consumerist: More Than 40% Of Americans Struggling To Make Ends Meet

The survey, which was conducted in 2016, asked respondents 10 questions, on which they were then given a score from 0 to 100.

In all, the average consumer score was 54. About a third of all adults in the U.S. have financial well-being scores of 50 or below, meaning they struggle to make ends meet or experience material hardship

Here is a revolver.

It has an amazing language all its own.

It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.

It is the last word.

A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.

Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery hide behind it.

It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.

It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.

It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.

It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.

When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution in and interfere with the original purpose.

And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.

Before Anything Else, They Are People in Need

If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all, you know that Puerto Rico is in crisis. While President Trump as tweeted attacks on the mayor of San Juan and other Puerto Rican leaders who have criticized the government’s response, FEMA and other agencies – both public and private – have been working to help the people of Puerto Rico. Whether the response has been adequate or not, untold numbers of people are waiting for food, water, medicine, power, and other necessary resources. It will take decades, perhaps even generations, to fully recover.

And because the need is so dire, many of my friends are reminding people that Puerto Ricans are Americans and that many are veterans.

And that’s true. Puerto Ricans are, by law, American citizens (even though residents do not have a vote in Congress and are not allowed to vote in presidential elections). And tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have served in the United States military since World War I. If we are grateful for the service of American veterans, we are grateful for the service of Puerto Ricans.

But none of that matters.

All that matters is this: Puerto Ricans are people in need. Before anything else, they are people in need. That should be the sole criterion on which we base our response.

So go, donate. I recommend the United Church of Christ’s disaster ministries 2017 hurricane fund, which will support efforts in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and wherever else help is needed. The reason I recommend them it simple: in a few months, memory will fade and other disasters will dominate headlines… and the United Church of Christ will still be working where help is needed today. The United Church of Christ provides the longterm support that is needed in disaster recovery areas.