Every minister has a different style of preaching.  I don’t write out my sermons.  Often people will ask for copies, either for themselves or to share with others.   Many times I have thought of preparing a written sermon, or at least outlines and notes, but then that would change the style that I preach now.  So this blog is a way for me to do both.  I can preach extemporaneously on Sunday, and write out sermons here.  These sermons may be similar to what I have said on Sunday, or they may go in a different direction.  But I hope that you will find them meaningful.  And with my sermons on Sunday mornings I encourage you to engage these as one part of a dialogue.  Email me comments, questions, critiques.  For what I am offering here are two-sided sermons.

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October 30, 2019
 

Being a pastor in a progressive mainline American Protestant denomination, it is difficult to avoid the topic of survival. In terms of raw numbers, it does not seem so bad: In 2012 there were about 384,000 churches in the United States. This number includes 113,000 churches from 13 major Christian denominations (Protestants and Roman Catholics, but not Baptist nor non-denominational). The United Church of Christ has 4,882 congregations, down from 5,116 in 2014.

Yet when people talk about the decline in the church, they are not talking about numbers; they are talking about perceptions. Church congregations are both families and communities. Like families, they are generational.  Members are born, raised, mature and die. Like communities, they come and go. The rule of a healthy church is to bring more people into your community than you lose. The rule of a healthy family is to have more young people than old people. This is the perception that drives our current conversations: we do not see more people coming into our community and we do not see more younger people than older. 

There is another perception that lies in the background of our conversations that we do not talk so openly about – a background issue that really doesn’t have as much to do with membership. We feel, and rightly so, that as a community we are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the society around us. 

Our congregations do not exist in a vacuum. We are not a social club, existing for fun and fellowship. We are driven by a gospel – a message to take to the world. Over the years we have disagreed with each other about how we are to accomplish our work; we have always agreed that we are required to do it. Today, our anxiety is that we are failing the gospel no matter how we do it. Whether we live the gospel in our evangelical call or our missionary work, the world around us is ignoring us. In the mainline church in the 1970’s and ‘80’s the concern was that we were losing members to the more evangelical church. Today we know that we (like the evangelical church) are losing members. Period. They are leaving the church. 

So whether you ask the question – how do we get more people in the pews, how do we get more young people in the church, or do we increase our income, or how do we speak for the poor and oppressed? – the bottom line question is – How do we get the world to take us seriously?

In this ongoing blog, I want to wrestle with this question. But where do we start?

I suggest that we go to the very foundation – morality.

 
 
 
 
October, 2019  This article was published in the Fox Valley Association, October Justice & Witness Edition:  The Difference between Justice and Mission Justice and Mission are two sides of the same coin. The side of mission faces toward that part of God’s creation that is in immediate need. Mission is our responsibility to help those who are in need. This need could be materialistic, emotional or spiritual. The side of justice faces those who are in power. Justice is our responsibility to address the causes in the world that create those materialistic, emotional and spiritual needs. God teaches us that through the divine creation, all of God’s creatures have enough to meet all our needs. But, because of the fallen nature of that creation, the balance has been skewed. God’s abundance is not distributed fairly to all. As Christians, we are called to provide to those in need when and where we are able. Because the imbalance of creation is so great, and because our own power is limited by both our mortality and our own sin, we do not have the ability to correct creation’s imbalance on our own. But we do have the power to teach and persuade so that powers greater than our own can help to bring creation closer into balance.
In most of our congregations, we tend to emphasize mission work over justice work. Why?
 
Because people rarely stand in the way of what we do to help people in need. Collecting food for the Food Pantry or buying Christmas gifts for needy families not only are encouraged by our society, but they are accomplishments that make us feel good about ourselves and others.
Works of justice are works that are neither encouraged in our society nor do that give us a feeling of warmth and accomplishment. Justice work is difficult; it is more often than not done in the midst of conflict. Think about how we talk about doing justice: we fight for justice while we engage in mission. And yet we are called not to do one or the other but to do both.
In the church neither mission work nor justice work are ends in themselves. They are work that we are called to do together. Handing out food, clothing and providing shelter is crucial work, but it is insufficient if we do not, at the same time, fight to address the imbalances in the world
(or, at the least, in our community) that keep those imbalances intact. We have found out, in our meetings in the Committee for Justice and Witness of the Fox Valley Association, that it is difficult to keep mission and justice separate. And yet, with the limited time and energy that we are granted, it is necessary to build a bridge between the two.
 
Even as they are two sides of the same coin, justice and mission are two separate callings. Not everyone has the talent to engage in justice work nor can everyone find satisfaction in mission work. Fortunately, God brings those of differing talents to work the two sides together. Justice
and missions are complimentary, just as God’s mercy and grace are complimentary. And even as they are complements, they need to be balanced We need both sides to accomplish the task given to us. It is crucial that we do not mistake our mission work for justice work, and vice versa.
 
As the Book of James points out so poignantly, what good is our faith to someone naked and starving if we are not able to give them food and clothing? But, in flipping the coin over, what good is it for us to give food and clothing, when there are powers standing behind the naked and hungry ready to take that food and clothing away from them?  We are challenging our congregations in our Association to consider how we can do both mission and justice together. We understand that while some are called to do works of mission others are called to work for justice. We are not working in competition but together. Our challenge is how to do this work of God efficiently.

By Rev. Brian Cope
Pastor of The Congregational Church of Algonquin
Chair, FVA Justice & Witness Committee
 
 

November 20, 2012 

Characteristics of Church Membership: part three, The Church as social pioneer.

During the Presidential election, we heard a Biblical phrase many times to describe the USA – ‘a city upon a hill.’  It is taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and initially used (for political purposes in our country’s history) in a sermon delivered by John Winthrop in 1630 as he lead his group of pilgrims to the New World to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Before his congregation left the ship Winthrop delivered a sermon that ended with this paragraph:

The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.


Americans know the phrase not from Winthrop’s sermon, but from Ronald Reagan, who used the image to describe America throughout his political life .  Reagan also embellished the phrase to say that our country is a “shining city on a hill.”  During this presidential election, pundits used the phrase of Reagan to say that America is a positive example of democracy for the rest of the world. 

Reagan wasn’t the first President to use the quote of Winthrop, however.  John F. Kennedy used it in a speech during his run for presidency.  Speaking to the General Court of Massachusetts, Kennedy compared the United States in 1961 to the United States in 1630:

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less fantastic than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within.

 

The problem with the current use of Jesus’ parable is that it does not encompass the full extent of the metaphor.  It ignores the continuation of Winthrop’s sermon, who goes on to say to the people on the ship:

The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going. In other words, while being a city upon a hill can be a positive witness to the rest of the world, it can also present a negative witness.  Also, Winthrop made sure to let his congregation know that even while the world was watching them, God was watching them too.

Whenever we join a church, we join at two levels: we join as a member of the congregation, and we join to become a member of Christ’s body.  As a member of a congregation, for the most part, membership comes with very few requirements.  In our church, members are required to attend regularly and contribute regularly.  There are no other requirements to being a member, and even those requirements are extremely loose.  We do not define what it means to be ‘regular’ either in attendance or in giving.  So technically, you could come one Sunday every ten years, and contribute $1.00 every ten years and still be considered a member ‘in good standing.’

 

Being a member of Christ’s body, however, is not so loose.  To be able to say that one is a Christian means that one has entered into a direct covenant with God. This means that as a Christian you are able to expect certain things from God – and the God can expect certain things from you.  By even saying that you are a Christian means that you believe that you are a disciple falling Christ.  Christ defines what it means to follow him – you are to take up your cross (or, as he told the rich, young ruler – you are to go and give all that you have, and then come back and follow him.)  Basically, as a Christian, we are called to do what Winthrop asked of his congregation in 1630 – to give up everything and proceed in faith. 

 

When Niebuhr listed his three criteria for church membership that we have been looking at in this series, he was thinking more of criteria for being a Christian rather than being a member of a congregation.  The criteria of apostolic responsibility and finding the lost sheep are characteristics of our journey as a Christian disciple: we are to share the Gospel message as we understand to the rest of the world, and we are to find those in God’s family who are lost.  His third criteria is also directed towards us more as Christians and less as members of a congregation: we are to be socially responsible, specifically as a pioneer.  The responsibility that God gives to us a Christian is to be a pioneer in the world.  As God is the Ultimate Creator, we, who have been made in his image, are given both the power and responsibility to create as well.  In our case, we are to go into the world to shape the world into the image of God’s kingdom.  As Neibuhr says:

 

. . . the Church is that part of human society, and that element in each particular society, which moves toward God, which as the priest acting for all men worships Him, which believes and trusts in Him on behalf of all, which is first to obey Him when it becomes aware of a new aspect of His will. Human society in all of its divisions and aspects does not believe. Its institutions are based on unbelief, on lack of confidence in the Lord of heaven and earth. But the Church has conceived faith in God and moves in the spirit of that trust as the hopeful and obedient part of society.

 

The disciple, because of their faith in God, knows that the foundation of all of human society can be justice, mercy and righteousness.  They know what Jesus knows, that peace on earth is possible, even though we are surrounded by violence and suffering.  Our responsibility to God is to find ways to make this knowledge reality in the world around us.  Winthrop reminds us that we are not given this responsibility in isolation; Neibuhr also reminds us that we are not called as disciples to live as individuals.  Our responsibility is to join with other disciples and work to bring about this kingdom in the world – both locally and globally.  (It is also why we do not place demands upon membership in the congregation; we need to leave ourselves free to meet God’s obligations, not weigh each other down with our own obligations.)

It is exciting being a social pioneer for God; but it is also frightening.  It is always exciting to work with God and God’s people to construct the kingdom.  And yet, there is always the possibility of failure.  As Winthrop told his congregation:

Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.


We stand at the same place that Moses did when he received the commandments on Sinai; we are at the same place as Joshua ready to cross into the Promised Land.  We can rejoice as David did when he brought the arc of the covenant into Jerusalem and we can feel the excitement of Solomon as the Temple was completed.  We are no different in our relationship with God today than Abraham, Isaac or Jacob were in their time.  We stand at the brink of a new world with God’s power in our heart.  But we can still fail.  

 

And yet, so much depends upon our faithfulness to our membership responsibilities.  Neibuhr understands what is expected of us: “Where this responsibility is being exercised there is no longer any question about the reality of the Church. In pioneering and representative action of response to God in Christ the invisible Church becomes visible and the deed of Christ is reduplicated.”  Kennedy ended his speech with another quote from the Bible: “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”  It is a perfect description of the requirements of being a Christian disciple and member of the Church. 

 

November 12, 2012

Characteristics of Church Membership: Shepherd of the Lost

The first characteristic of being a Christian and a church member is our apostolic responsibility.  (Please see blog of November 4th for that description) The second characteristic is that we are to be a shepherd for the lost.  (In more traditional terms, our first responsibility is evangelical and our second characteristic is for us to be pastoral.  The third characteristic is to be prophetic – which we will discuss next week.)

Being responsible to find the lost demands that we understand what exactly we mean when we say ‘lost’.  In biblical, metaphorical terms, we recall the image of the ‘lost sheep’ – the one animal who has wandered away from the protection of the flock.  In social terms, we see the ‘lost’ as one who willfully or intentionally walks away from the protection of the church into the dangerous areas of sin.  The first, biblical image, creates a scene in which it is our responsibility to be a strong protector for those who are weak and ignorant (or, at best, innocent and naïve).  The second, social image sees us as social reformers, therapists, or police, called to stop the wicked from continuing in their sin, and bringing them back to the protection of the church. 

I would like to argue that neither of these images is correct.  Fundamentally, if we categorize two categories – the lost and us – we need to see that there is no difference between the two of us.  We are neither the strong protector of the weak nor the enforcer of the law.  To find the lost that God is referring to makes us have to ask the question – how did they become lost in the first place?  The only viable answer is that we – the ones who are to look for them – threw them out in the first place. 

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the term scapegoat is introduced and defined.  In ancient Judaism, the people believed that there was a direct correlation between illness and sin.  A disease was seen a God’s punishment for sin.  In order to keep a community safe from the consequences of sin, someone – or something – had to pay for the sin.  The community would take a healthy goat and thrust it out of the flock into the wilderness, believing that in the wilderness the goat would meet its death.  Therefore, the goat would be the sacrifice for the peoples’ sins – it would be the scapegoat.

While we do not today believe that a goat can take on the responsibility of our sins, we very much believe that there are those among us who can, and should.  These are the scapegoats.  Most families can identify one member who gets blamed for most of the family’s problems.  It can be one of the children, or it can be an alcoholic parent.  Whoever it is, though, it is a strong pattern that most of us carry over in our lives – whether it be private or communal.  (One need only think of the recent presidential election – both parties where only too willing to characterize the other as the scapegoat for all of the country’s problems.)

We even have scapegoats within our congregations – those members who are constantly seen as causing problems for the church.  One of our problems as Christians is that we are so good at creating scapegoats, that it becomes easy for the one we choose to accept the definition as well.  While scapegoats are not thrown into a physical wilderness, they are certainly driven into a social ‘wilderness’ – an isolation. And most of the time, these scapegoats will believe that they belong there, and then do things to assure that they will stay isolated.  (The best example of this is the battered spouse, who believes that they deserve to be beaten for the bad things that they do.) 

There is only one problem – in Christianity there is only room for one scapegoat – Jesus Christ.  Because Christ died on the cross, the debt of our sins were paid.  Once and for all.  By continuing to force people around us – even people we love – into the role of scapegoat, we are forfeiting our first responsibility: we are not being true to our apostolic task.  We are claiming that the gospel is not true.  Our witness to the world is false. 

Our responsibility to find the lost means that we need not just bring into the community those we have forced out as scapegoats, we need to convince them and ourselves that they are not scapegoats.  We are all equal in the household of God; Christ has made us equal.  That is why we cannot say enough that it is not alright for us to accept the status quo of Christian history.  It is not just our task to point to people whom we have isolated due to their race, gender, economic status, age, or sexual orientation and claim that we are the same.  We have to reach out to them and convince them that we are the same.  And first we have to believe it ourselves.  Once, in a conversations with some black and white ministers in the south, a white minister asked what we could do to bring our congregations together.  Should we have pulpit exchanges, or choir exchanges, or joint services?  The answer shocked them.  They were told: we don’t want to come into churches.  We can’t do anything with you until you change your own congregations.  You need to rid your own people of their prejudices.  Then and only then can we be Christians together.

It could very well be that if we go searching for others labeling them as lost, we have missed the point of our pastoral responsibility.  Maybe, our responsibility is to find ourselves as Christians.  Maybe we are the lost that need to be found!

The shepherd of the lost

The Church discharges its responsibility to God for society in carrying out its pastoral as well as its apostolic functions. It responds to Christ-in-God by being a shepherd of the sheep, a seeker of the lost, the friend of publicans and sinners, of the poor and brokenhearted. Because of its pastoral interest in individuals the Church has found itself forced to take an interest in political and economic measures or institutions. Many of the early leaders of the social gospel movement were pastors whose concern for individual slum dwellers, the poor, the prisoners and the sick led them to attack the social sources of human misery and to understand the corporate character of human sin. Genuine pastoral interest in individuals will always lead to such results. The Church cannot be responsible to God for men without becoming responsible for their societies. As the interdependence of men increases in industrial and technological civilization the responsibility for dealing with the great networks of interrelationship increases. If the individual sheep is to be protected the flock must be guarded.

The pastoral responsibility of the Church for society is, however, direct as well as indirect. Compassion and concern for the Jewish people as a whole, pastoral interest in the defeated nations and in the victors who stand in great moral danger characterize the Church which responds to the God who not only creates men but also their societies. This pastoral mission of the Church to the nations includes all those measures of large-scale relief and liberation which the times call for. It cannot be sufficient for the Church to call upon the governments of nations to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Direct action is required here as elsewhere.

 November 4, 2012

Sermon Series:  Three Aspects of Church Membership

Being a member of the church is not spectator sport, though indeed, many of think that it is.  Committing yourself to membership is not like joining a group like the AAA or AARP: you do not sign on the dotted line, and then wait for the Church to provide you with benefits as long as you keep up your dues.  And yet, isn’t this what many people believe membership to consist of?  For many members, the church is at best analogous to a major professional sports team.  There are those who do the work of the team, including the players and the coaches (Boards, Councils, and the Pastor); there are those who act as cheerleaders (the choir).  And, there are the fans.  As with the major sport team, the fans come in different classes.  There is the super-fan: those who buy the season tickets, and dress themselves up in officially-licensed clothing.  They sport the car antenna flags, and pay extra money for license plates proclaiming their support.  These fans are just as important as players, coaches and cheerleaders: just ask any team who has played to an empty stadium!  Then there are the run-of-the mill, average fans.  They go to a live game occasionally, watch as much as they can on TV.  But unlike the super-fan, they do not give the team a top priority in their life.  And then there is the arm-chair quarterback; this is the fan who watches the games on television, all the while judging the faults of the plays, the player’s abilities or the coaches strategies during the week.  In brief, the church has these same levels of players, coaches, cheerleaders, super-fans, regular fans, and arm chair quarterbacks.  The problem is that the church is not a professional sports team.  It may have evolved into sharing some characteristics, but it has been in this evolution that we have made our errors. 

First of all, we are not in competition with other congregations – no matter how often we seem to be! (Actually, it would quite interesting if we treated each other like competing sport teams.  I can imagine how exciting church would be!  But that is another story.) 

Our analogy breaks down, however, in the fact that becoming a member of a church is not a voluntary action by an individual, as being a fan of a sports team is.  More often than not, we delude ourselves into thinking that we have made the decision to join a church.  And yet, it is not our decision: it is God’s.  Church is not a voluntary society: it is community gathered by God for the God’s own purposes.

H. Richard Neibuhr outlined three characteristics of this community in an article that he published in 1946.  The first characteristic is what Neibuhr called ‘apostolic responsibility’.  “The Christian community must conceive its responsibility in terms of membership in the divine and universal society; it knows that it must give answer to the God who is Lord of heaven and earth for everything with which it deals.”  He further points out: “A society which does not acknowledge its obligation to render account to this God and this Christ may call itself church but it is difficult to attach specific meaning to the term. Without the sense of moral dependence upon or of obligation to Christ a society lacks the moral reality of the Church. It may be a religious association of some sort but it is no church in the historic sense of the word.”

Specifically, the responsibility that God calls us to as a divine community is defined by the apostolic call of the Gospel. 

The Church is by nature and commandment an apostolic community which exists for the sake of announcing the Gospel to all nations and of making them disciples of Christ. The function of the Church as apostolic messenger to individuals is clear-cut, but emphasis upon it ought not to lead to the obscuring of its mission to social groups. . . . As the apostolic Church it is the function of the Christian community to proclaim to the great human societies, with all the persuasiveness and imagination at its disposal, with all the skill it has in becoming all things to all men, that the center and heart of all things, the first and last Being, is utter goodness, complete love. It is the function of the Church to convince not only men but mankind, that the goodness which appeared in history in the form of Jesus Christ was not defeated but rose triumphantly from death.

While Neibuhr does a nice job of explaining this characteristic from a theoretical view, he fails to establish what apostolic responsibility means to the individual church member.  I want to suggest that, as members of Christ’s church, our responsibility is to determine how best to use our whole life to promote the message of the Gospel.  We can do it with words – either spoken or written – but, most importantly, it is a task accomplished by how we live our lives.  As Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”  How do we treat other people?  How do we live out Christ’s command to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves”? One of the reasons that God calls us to live out our membership in community is because we must continually be learning how to accomplish this apostolic responsibility.  Part of the responsibility is to understand that we cannot accomplish it alone.  It will not be accomplished unless we are working together.  Think of our congregation: separately we operate as one word; together we become a complete speech.  As we join with other Christians, we become a book, and then a complete library.  One word can be powerful – a speech can be even more powerful.  A book can change the world; a library can be for all times.  

Apostolic responsibility is one of our characteristics.  Next week, I will address the second characteristic: we are to be shepherds of the lost.