On this 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, I was at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church). The service starts at 11. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 33: 12 – 23, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 10, and Matthew 22: 15 – 22.
I will be at Dover again on November 2nd and at Lake Mahopac UMC (location of church)on November 9th and 23rd (services start at 10).
I have edited this piece since it was posted.
This is about the church. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the local church, the denomination or the church universal. It is about the fact that the church, at whatever level, is a church in crisis. It is a crisis that involves the body and soul of the church. The body of the church is dying but unless the soul of the church is healed, no amount of healing will save the body.
And despite my own aversion to the use of business models in church settings, it will be what happens at the local church that decides the health and future of the denomination and the church universal. For, despite all the visions and ideas that change can come from the top, the most successful changes in any organization are the changes that occurred at the bottom first.
This crisis of body and soul has come because we (and here I mean the majority of those who call themselves Christian) have forgotten what it means when you say you are a Christian.
We are faced with an ever growing population, both church and unchurched, who seek answers to difficult questions, questions that come from the soul and from society. These individuals feel that possibly the church does know and can offer answers. But they quickly find that the church does not know the answers or offers answers which are limited in scope or even confusing.
They see a church that preaches hatred, exclusion, and condemnation. They see and hear people who say they are followers of the Prince of Peace but use words of hatred and violence or who incite hatred and violence. They remember when the church stood up for civil rights and against war but now preach exclusion and support war.
Is it because we have forgotten who we are? Have we forgotten how we got to this place? In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses and the Israelites are unwilling to move further and come closer to the Promised Land unless they have some indication that God is going to be there with them. The problem is that today we have continued on but have left God at the mountain.
In a 2004 interview Tony Campolo noted
I think that Christianity has two emphases. One is a social emphasis to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society-to relieve the sufferings of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. The other emphasis is to bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ, where they feel the joy and the love of God in their lives. That they manifest what the fifth chapter of Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” Fundamentalism has emphasized the latter, mainline churches have emphasized the former. We cannot neglect the one for the other. (from ‘Evangelical Christianity Has Been Hijacked’: An Interview with Tony Campolo)
I would say that while fundamentalists have emphasized the latter part of Christianity, they do not feel like sharing the fruits of the Spirit. As President Jimmy Carter noted in his 2002 Nobel Peace Prize speech, “the present era is a challenging and disturbing time for those whose lives are shaped by religious faith based on kindness towards each other.” He further expanded on this statement by saying,
There is a remarkable trend toward fundamentalism in all religions — including the different denominations of Christianity as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Increasing, true believers are inclined to begin a process of deciding: ‘Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently wrong,’ and the next step is ‘inherently inferior.’ The ultimate step is ‘subhuman’, and then their lives are not significant.
He went on to describe how he felt that fundamentalists had distorted the vision of Christ in the world and the nature of Christianity. He noted that fundamentalism could be characterized by three words: rigidity, domination, and exclusion. (From Our Endangered Values)
That is not to say that those who would be characterized as liberal and emphasize the social portion of Christianity are blameless. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted that the weak point of liberal theology was that while it recognized Christ as a part of the world, it gives him a place but in disputes between the church and the world, it accepted the dictates of the world. (Adapted from Faith In A Secular Age)
You cannot live a life that is entirely guided by religious rules and regulation. If you lead a life of private faith, you create a world separate from the real world and it is impossible to bring the two together. It was this separation of church and state that lead the German church of the 1930’s to acquiesce to the false worldly values of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.
Nor can you lead a life that is entirely in the secular world. By the very definition of the word “secular”, you are without the church. For Bonhoeffer, there was a desire to see a world that cuts through the sacred-secular dichotomy and would dispense with outward religiosity in order to free itself for the real world of human existence. But this relationship had to also be redemptive in its commitment to the true and costly transcendence of God expressed in Christ’s life of complete self-giving — in the suffering life of the One who was wholly ‘for others.’
We have to understand that Christ shows us God, not as the Omnipotent One who stands outside the word, a God that is God only in some religious world separate from our lives, but as the one who comes to us in our weaknesses and suffering, the One who comes to us by the roadside in the daily affairs of life.
The classic definition of the encounter between the Pharisees and Jesus in today’s Gospel reading shows us that relationship. The Pharisees are again seeking a way to trap Jesus into some statement in which he will either denounce Caesar or denounce God. It is the dilemma we often find ourselves in. We accept the secular world and ignore God, or we totally follow God and ignore the world around us. Neither works. The coin has no value if it has only one side and it cannot be used if it sits on the table with one showing. Evelyn Underhill wrote (in The Spiritual Life)
For a spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the center, where we are anchored in God: a life soaked through and through by a sense of his reality and claim, and self-given to the great movement of his will.
Most of our conflicts and difficulties come from trying to deal with the spiritual and practical aspects of our life separately instead of realizing them as parts of one whole. If our practical life is centered on our own interests, cluttered up by our possessions, distracted by ambitions, passions, wants and worries, beset by a sense of our own rights and importance, or anxieties for our own future, or longings for our own success, we need not expect that our spiritual life will be a contrast to all this. The soul’s house is not built on such a convenient plan: there are few soundproof partitions in it.
So we must build a new model for the church, a model which emphasizes the need of the individual to find the answers the questions of life while reaching out to the community in which the church resides. A model which emphasizes one over the other will die. The coin has two sides and is incomplete without both sides. As Elton Trueblood wrote (in The New Man for Our Time)
Because we cannot reasonably expect to erect a constantly expanding structure of social activism upon a constantly diminishing foundation of faith, attention to the cultivation of the inner life is our first order of business, even in a period of rapid social change. The church, if it is to affect the world, must become a center from which new spiritual power emanates. While the church must be secular in the sense that it operates in the world, if it is only secular it will not have the desired effect upon the secular order which it is called upon to penetrate. With no diminution of concern for people, we can and must give new attention to the production of a trustworthy religious experience.
We are called today to build a new church. We are called to build a church that reaches out, not just to the members of the church, but also to the people of the community. We are called to build a church that says to the people “we care”, not “go away, you are not wanted here.” We are called to build a church that reaches beyond age, income, race, creed, or lifestyle.
We are called to be like, among other churches, Grace UMC in Salisbury, MD.
Let’s hear it for Grace UMC in Salisbury, MD! Unlike many former downtown churches that have either closed or pulled up stakes, 142-member Grace UMC has “dug in its heels” to serve the surrounding neighborhood now plagued by drugs, prostitution and gangs, according to DelmarvaNow writer Bruce Stump. Through a partnership with several local agencies, Grace offers a feeding program that served 200 people on a recent Saturday. The church also provides housing help, scholarships, a Christmas outreach and other services. What’s more, it has grown 10 percent in the past three years and sent six members into the ordained ministry. Said member Anne Anderson: “It is easy not to look at places that have crime and social issues, but if we don’t make this place better, everybody suffers, the whole city suffers.” Laughed Grace’s pastor, the Rev. David Weber (who officially works only 20 hours a week): “All this is ‘typical good,’ but for a small church, we are kickin’ butt.” Amen! (From United Methodist Nexus for 10/15/2008)
In other words, we are called to build a church that once was the church, the church that Paul lauds in his letter to the Thessalonians that we read today. It was a church known for what it had done and was doing.
It speaks to the courage of the members of that church that they would be identified as Christian. It was a time when being a Christian was neither popular nor essentially healthy; yet, Paul speaks of the church in Thessalonica as being known far and wide. It can only be because of what the church and its members were doing and what they were doing was reaching out to the community, not keeping the community away.
It will take some doing to accomplish this. We are used to our present model; we are used to the comfortable in an environment where, for a couple of hours on Sunday, we can lock out the world around us. There will always be resistance to changes that call for the church to go beyond its own self-imposed boundaries, to witness in word and life for the true hope revealed in Christ.
We see the old ways collapsing so we need to find a new way to find Christ revealed, not hidden in some strange and dark theology, but as the One who has come to set us free. We are reminded that He told His disciples to tell others what they had seen and heard. There was once a time when the church said to the people, “in the world there is nothing for you but despair and exclusion; but in the community of the church you will receive the acceptance that the world refuses you, the dignity that the world denies you, and the spiritual guidance and community that will be for you a foretaste of the life in the Kingdom of God for which you were created.” It is time that the church says that again.
And while the church is calling out to the people, Christ is calling to the church, “in your years of despair, I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who know my grace and are formed from love; I call you know to join me in the midst of the struggle, interpreting that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of their daily lives.
We are called today for an evangelism that calls for decision for Christ which is related to calls for decision in Christ. We are called to create a new model of the church, where preaching points to what God is doing in the world, where the fellowship of the church reveals to the world that we are all one in God’s eyes and where the sacraments are a celebration of God’s redeeming work in Christ.
As we come to the table today, we join with others who celebrate the presence of Christ in their lives. As we come to the table today, we celebrate the beginning of the community two thousand years ago that brought Christianity into the world. As we come to the table today, we begin building that new model that will celebrate the rebirth and renewal of the church.