September 17, 2020

The Church and The Current Presidential Election

Part 1

Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”  Let’s talk about voting. And let’s talk about what voting has to do with the church.

First, a question: does your religion determine your politics or does your politics determine your religion? Easy question, right? Think about it. Were you religious before you were political? 

I would imagine that you said yes. What if I told you that you may very well be wrong? An interesting and eye-opening article written by Michele Margolis was published in the New York Times a little over a year ago. The author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity”, Margolis, through her own studies, and the studies of other researchers, show that we form our political identities before we form our religious ones. When we go to church as adults, we go to the church that reflects our political bias. In other words, our politics choose our religion. 

Does that surprise you? It did me. I have always assumed that our faith determined our political values.  And yet, now that I am aware of it, it makes so much sense even as it bothers me a great deal. Why?  I have always believed that when we go to vote, our candidates should reflect our Christian values. I have never wanted the church to choose one candidate over the other, but I have trusted that our faith would lead us to always make the right choice. It has been frustrating to see other Christians vote in ways that I understood to be against the Christian values that we both adhered to, but I have chalked that up to either different interpretations of the scriptures or thinking that some people were claiming Christian values while not believing in them. If Margolis and the other sociologists are correct, though, then I must change my opinions. For example, what does the Sermon on the Mount mean? Is there a Republican version of the Beatitudes that is very different from the Democratic version? How are they different from Jesus’ original meaning? 

How do we trust a faith that is molded out of political clay? And why should we care? We have always been challenged to be critical about our faith and values; now that challenge is more important than ever! Why? Because our society needs our faith to be unbiased. If we are to have hope of reaching a peaceful conclusion to the frightening and angry impasse we seem to be in America today, we need to have the resources of peace that God promises. Margolis writes:

Researchers have found that hearing diverse political messages promotes tolerance, interacting in politically integrated social settings curbs partisan biases, and having key social groups represented in both political parties helps maintain civil political discourse. Churches used to facilitate this, uniting people with diverse political opinions. But when politics affects whether and where Americans go to church, even our houses of worship become political echo chambers. 


Being a citizen in a democratic society puts a heavy burden of responsibility upon us. Being a Christian in a democratic society demands even more responsibility from us. Phillip Yancey, in his book Christians and Politics Uneasy Partners writes: 

Be careful,” warned Nietzsche, “lest in fighting the dragon you become the dragon.” I see the confusion of politics and religion as one of the greatest barriers to grace. C. S. Lewis once said that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when religion is confused with politics. Politics, which always runs by the rules of ungrace, allures us to trade away grace for power, a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.

Yancey continues:

The church has allowed itself to get so swept up in political issues that it plays by the rules of adversarial power. In no other arena is the church at greater risk of losing its calling than in the public square. Somehow the paramount command to love—even to love our enemies—gets lost. Seeing this, the watching world often finds itself repelled by outspoken followers of Jesus rather than attracted to them.”

As Christians, we cannot avoid the public square. We need to be there, and we need to be there to vote. As one person said, “Every election is determined by the people who show up.”, echoing Plato who told us that if we do not participate in politics we will be governed by our inferiors.

So let’s start at the beginning. Are you registered? If not, or if you are not sure, go here: https://www.illinoisvotes2020.com  Here you will find all the information that you need to register and vote. If you have questions, go to the section entitled FAQ. There you will find everything you need to know about registration, deadlines, and Voting by Mail. If you still have questions, call me at the church office. I cannot tell you who to vote for, but I can help you in almost any other way. 

In part 2 of this blog, I am going to be discussing how we actually go about separating our Christian values from our political beliefs so that we can be informed about both of them, and use them not only to help ourselves but our society as well.


July 8, 2020

In the upcoming election this Fall, we are being asked to vote upon more than just personalities. We are being asked to choose a vision for the future of our country. We are not deciding for Donald Trump or Joe Biden but how we see ourselves as a society together and what we want our world to be. Elections, especially national elections, are public examinations of who we are in the present and who we want to be in the future. Candidates either want us to feel uncomfortable with our present circumstances, and so trust in their vision for our future, or they want us to embrace our current circumstances and move forward in the same direction.

The Constitution does not mention political parties. Originally, the Founding Fathers were opposed to them, primarily because of the damage they caused in Britain before the Revolution. The original idea was to run an election in which the most popular candidate won the Presidency while the second most popular won the Vice Presidency. Elections of Senators and Representatives were left to the States. Washington stayed in office for a second term out of the fear that political parties would be formed. Indeed, one of the most famous and most important speeches of American history – Washington’ Farewell Address – warns of the damage such parties can create.

A no-party political system is now lost to us. But what should not be lost is the faith that the citizens can choose, not between personalities or political campaigns, but between different visions of what is best for the country. While we do not adhere to such a faith today, we need to find it, if we are ever going to break the stalemate that is polarizing our society today. We must stop giving the power of the vision that guides us away to vested interests.

This begs the question – what is a vision? The way to begin to answer this question is to first imagine what is the ideal society in which you would like to live. Is that ideal society formed by how we treat each other, or how comfortable and safe we are? Is that society held together by world peace and cooperation or by materialistic security? Is it a society where diverse cultures share common space or a society where diverse cultures live in peace separate from each other?

Picture your ideal world. Now look around and become more realistic. While we may not be able to create our ideal, what type of society will bring us the closest to this view? What exactly needs to be changed? Or what needs to be reclaimed? Is your ideal image nostalgic or is it something that needs to evolve beyond where we have been?

At this point, learn everything you can about the candidates running for office. Knowing that no one candidate will ever agree with your vision completely, which candidate presents the best possibility for getting at least close to your vision? Creating our vision relies upon us, our work and effort. It could be that the candidate that you vote for will be able to do things that will help you in your own work. We should not approach the election as if we are making a choice of one political party over the other. Voting for a party rather than a candidate is intellectually lazy and socially irresponsible, in the same way that any public servant who only follows a party line is both intellectually lazy and socially irresponsible. Your vote should be determined by the vision that you hold for the future of both the country and the world. Every candidate for every office should be judged, first and foremost, by your own vision. And that entails that you have one – and that you work at that vision constantly.

May 25, 2020

 

Let’s face it – we are not a people who rely heavily on the Holy Spirit for either our worship experience or our religious lives We talk about the Spirit, we sing about the Spirit, we make claim to faith in it as part of the total person of God. But we don’t live with the Holy Spirit daily. The Holy Spirit is neither an integral part of our faith nor a felt presence in our daily lives. I think this is to our detriment as Christians. Worshiping God as the Three-In-One is, in fact, living three-dimensional lives. By ignoring the Holy Spirit, we live as two-dimensional stick people. Admittedly, we have been able to get by most of our lives as religious stick people. But the world that we have now been pushed into requires us to have a three-dimensional faith.  Let me explain:

If you have been raised in a Protestant church, your faith formation has probably not been formed by teachings about the Holy Spirit. Take the Apostle’s Creed, for example. It explains what we believe about God, the Father, and Christ, the Son. It explains what we believe about the Church (admittedly, not in detail). But when it gets to the Holy Spirit, it simply says that we believe in the Holy Spirit. Nothing else. No explanation of what the Spirit does. Nothing. If we know anything about the Holy Spirit, we associate it with tales of the Pentecostal or Charismatic church, and not in a positive way for someone who is used to a structured and orderly worship service.

The Church has never really known what to do with the Holy Spirit because the Bible is not clear about it. We know that it has power – the disciples on Pentecost described it as a ‘violent wind’ and flames of fire. Jesus told them that he was leaving so that the Spirit could come, but the gospels never explain what that means to us. For the most part, the Church has had to rely upon its own to explain it. If the Holy Spirit is a power that we cannot see nor control, then it has been most expedient for the Church to bring it under control. It has been reduced to a spirit of camaraderie and fellowship. We are implicitly taught that the Holy Spirit is the warm feeling that we have when we come together in worship and mission. Any other definition, like the way that Quakers or Pentecostals define the Holy Spirit, has been frowned upon and those Christians have been cast aside in the overall fellowship of the Church (we don’t openly defy them; we just ‘cross to the other side of the street when we see them coming’.)

All of this works as long as we can meet together as a congregation. It is the fellowship -the gathering – that defines us and holds us together. The preacher’s job has been to keep us as that one body – exhorting us to loyalty to our group, our brand, our tribe. Everything that we do – prayers, sermons, music, communion, fellowship, food, and money – binds us and is a sign that the Holy Spirit is active in our midst. The Bible never tells us that baptism leads to membership in a congregation, nor that signing on the dotted line is required to receive communion, and yet we have drilled that into people. And underlying it all – this common identity – we quietly define the Holy Spirit as the glue that holds us together. It has worked – in our congregation it has worked for 170 years!! It works in the Catholic Churches, the mega-churches, the small country churches. It has formed the model for the missionaries who have gone all over the world.

But one, microscopic, invisible virus has challenged all that work. It has brought down all our structures. It has attacked our identity and left all of us with the question: what do we do now that we cannot do it together the way we are supposed to? Do we just wait around and hope that one day everything can go back to normal? The wait is risky – how long will it be, and will our congregation be there when we do reach ‘normal’?

As much as we want to admit it, we will never be going back to normal. We will reach a new normal, but that will not be a ‘return’. Think about it. I have never read an account of how the world reaches normal after it has been through a major cataclysm such as a world war, a civil war, or a major natural catastrophe. I am sure that none of us ever envisioned a day when it would not be safe to sit in our sanctuary together and take communion. And yet that day has arrived. We will be back together, but it will not be the same.

The normal way that the church has worked is that Christians come to church to receive the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the working of the worship service. Then they leave the worship empowered and educated to go into the world to take God’s mission (or be evangelists – its according to what worship service one attended). With this understanding of Christianity, if a Christian cannot come to church, then they are, in a way, frozen in their mission/evangelism. They are separated from the Holy Spirit, and only can rely on the memory of their teaching to get them through the time of isolation. One can pull this understanding of the Christian and the Church from the gospels themselves. The disciples are brought to Jesus to learn about God’s purpose and to receive God’s power. Then they are sent out (the story of the sending out of the seventy, for example). But they must return to Jesus. When Jesus dies on the cross, the disciples (in isolation) are frozen. Jesus returns to tell them that they are about to receive the Holy Spirit for empowerment and education. The story of the first Pentecost resets the pattern, and then the book of Acts outlines how Paul and Peter are sent out, but eventually must return to the Jerusalem church. The same pattern is set for their own disciples. They must go back and forth between the Apostles (the Church) and the people they are sent to.

But what if this pattern is reversed? It seems that this could very well happen to the Church today. What if instead of coming to the church to receive the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is found in everyone in their own life? Would the Church/church become redundant or superfluous? This has been the message of the American Christians who left the church over the past decade to become “spiritual but not religious”. They assumed that they could follow the Holy Spirit alone. I would argue with this. If the Holy Spirit is indeed found in everyone, how is that power manifested in the individual’s life? Jesus established the community as a model of how God’s power and purpose is spread through humanity. He could indeed have done everything that he needed to do on his own. He had the power, the wisdom, and the ability to persuade. He could have worked alone. Yet, he chose to work through people in community.

Why return to church? So that we can learn from each other; empower each other; encourage each other. One thing that the Church has known since the beginning is that the power and love of God is not spread just through words (preaching), nor through supernatural acts, nor even through pastoral acts of love and care. These elements must work together, and we need to learn how to do these works together. That learning happens through disciplines: what the Church call ‘Practices.” For example, much of the work of God is accomplished through prayer. Prayer is a practice learned and honed through work – work alone and work with others. When we pray in a worship service, the prayers are not effective only as petitions to God, but they are instructive for the congregation. We learn to pray alone when we pray together in the body. We gather together to learn these Practices and then to hold each other responsible to them.

And yet, we may have to learn these Practices in solitude. What is changing in the work of the Christian is that our work together will become a work where, when we are gathered, we will teach each other in ways that we have not done before. We will experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our individual lives, and then, gathered in one body, we will share our experiences and thus teach each other the work and the practice of God. All of this has made me think: The Church has two sides. One side is the work of God through the individual. The other side is the work of God through the congregation. I used to think that God in the congregation informed and empowered the work of God in the individual. Now I think that it is the work of God in the individual that will inform the work of God in the congregation. That reversal will require a lot of rethinking about how we “do church.”

 

An Important Note: All of this brings me to a critical aspect of Christian life that I feel God is calling us to rethink: the sacraments of communion and baptism. During this pandemic, people have been asking me when we will be able to have communion again. They are seeing that some churches – Lutherans and Catholics, for example – are having ‘drive-by’ communions – where the minister/priest hands the members the elements through the car window. Other churches are having ‘virtual’ communions where the minister tapes a communion service and expects people watching to provide their own elements and take them while they watch. I have chosen not to do these communions. ‘Drive-by’ communions assume a high church theology of the role of the Minister/Priest in the act of communion. The Minister/Priest acts as the mediator between the people and God. The Clergy has the power to bless the elements and the people receive the power of God through the blessed elements. There is little difference between a drive-by communion and a drive-by confession. They are both acts whereby the person in the car receives a blessing. It is effective if you believe that the Clergy is the intermediary between you and God.

Virtual communions on the other hand rely upon a low church understanding of the sacraments: the elements are symbols. The whole act of communion is a symbol and ritual whereby no power passes from the elements to the body of Christ. The member may or may not receive a blessing, but that blessing comes through the symbolism and their trust in it.

I understand the sacraments in this way: Both sacraments convey the power of the Holy Spirit through their consecrated elements; they are efficacious in the work of saving grace, providing the assurance of God’s forgiveness to us. They are more than symbolic and more than rites or rituals. They are means by which the body of the Church is connected to each other and God in a very real sense. They both embody the covenant that God has made with us through Christ and the Holy Spirit. They remind us of and renew our covenantal relationship, and they point to the future fulfillment of this covenant and God’s promises to us.

They are real, but they are not magical.

The power of the communion comes in the gathered body of the congregation. Through the power of the Church, both by the presence of the congregation, and the covenant made alive in the ordained ministry the power of God works through the reality of the consecrated elements in the life of the congregation. The saving grace that is conveyed by God (forgiveness and salvation) is not just for the individual but for the whole body of the church gathered. This was made clear to me from the words of an eighty-eight-year-old woman who was home bound following surgery. I brought communion to her, but she refused it. She said, “I will wait until I can take it again with the congregation. God is here with me. I know that. When we take communion, he is with us all together.” We will be together again and we will share communion again.

 
May 11, 2020

I always consider the season of spring to be a joyful time of flowers in motion, not so much as blooms dancing in the wind, but as different flowers bursting out at different times and then disappearing to make room for other types of blossoms and colors. The crocus blooms in the brightest whites, purples and yellows close to the winter ground to pave the way for the deep colors of tulips and the glory of the yellow of daffodils. They move aside for other flowers – hyacinths, lilies – until the whole world is bathed in colors, smells and the lush green that becomes their palette.

I can be worried, down and sad, and step outside and find myself smiling in the laughter that is spring. It is not a coincidence to me that we celebrate Easter in the spring. Springtime is more than just a symbol of renewal; it is the world breaking out in the contagious joy that is the new resurrection that comes in Christ. Like in the hymn, “Morning Has Broken”, spring shows us that the energy that is the resurrection has broken out around us and in us. Our joy does not come from within us; our joy pulls us out of ourselves. 

Henri Nouwen writes in his book, The Road to Peace:

There is a very old piece of wisdom that comes from the fourth-century monks of the Egyptian desert: ‘Do not combat the demons directly.’ The desert fathers felt that a direct confrontation with the forces of evil required so much spiritual maturity and saintliness that few would be ready for it. Instead of paying so much attention to the prince of darkness, they advised their disciples, focus on the Lord of light and thus, indirectly but inevitably, undo the power of the demon. The desert fathers thought that a direct confrontation with the demon would give the demon precisely the attention he is trying to get. Once he has our attention, he has the chance to seduce us. That is the story of the fall. Eve’s first mistake was to listen to the serpent and consider him worthy of response. 

I have said in my other blogs as well as my sermons during this time of the pandemic that we should be thankful for what we do have and not bemoan what we are missing at this time. I want to emphasize that living with the joy of God in the resurrection is not an attitude, but it is a realization and acceptance of the power of the new life that we breathe in every day. Nouwen, in another part of his book, quotes Floris Bakels, a Dutch lawyer who was imprisoned in a German concentration camp during World War II. Bakels describes, in his book Night and Fog, 

I had an idea . . . hard to articulate . . .  Being born again presupposes also for me a dying, a dying however of the old man, the birth of a new man . . . But this departure of the old man . . . was an ultimate sorrow, a ‘sorrow towards God.’ a world sorrow, a sorrow for what is passing, for the vanishing world, for the letting go of all things. . .I started to realize my strong attachment to this world, but to the degree that this process of detachment developed itself, my adoration of the . . .beauty of this world increased. It was heartrending, it was one great birth pang. What to do? What about love, love for a woman, my wife, my family, the butterflies, the waters and forests? . . .  All the attractiveness of that great rich life on earth . . . was I too attached to it? Under the shimmering eternity I started a new process, a laying down of the old man, a saying farewell, a departing, even an attempt to be no longer so attached to life itself . . . and then a wanting to take up the new man, to be a quiet flame, a a reaching upwards . . . a wanting to come home to the Power out of which I was created . . . couldn’t articulate it well . . . I only knew one thing to do: to surrender everything to Him. (quoted by Nouwen, The Road to Peace)

People say that after the pandemic has become history, things will never be the same. But in a resurrection time, nothing is ever the same, nor should ever be. Every daffodil I see every spring is different. Every spring I greet is different. Every child’s laughter I hear is unique. It is different and it is in the difference that I rejoice. One of the greatest gifts of God’s grace is our memory. We will always be able to remember what life was like before. But another gift that his grace brings us is the hope that leads us into the future. We may find comfort in the memory of the past, but we experience the excitement of rejoicing as we live into the future. 

Don’t let the pandemic, or its shelter-in-place present rob of the joy of experiencing the laughter of the Resurrection Season. Embrace your new life. You have a new life. Rejoice and let your heart shout hallelujah!

April 28, 2020

I know that it was difficult hearing that we will be in lock-down in Illinois for another month. It was even more frustrating to hear that now it is mandated to wear face masks if you are in public. And whatever you do, do not let anyone reduce your emotions to mere inconvenience. We are living in an historical moment. Your reactions – your fears, frustrations, and depression are warranted. What is not warranted though is selfishness and pettiness. But how do we rise above our emotions when we are stuck in place? And how do we reach out to others when we cannot even reach out to our loved ones? As one writer recently asked, “How much are we obligated to help others when we need help ourselves?”

Once we have gone beyond survival and life doesn’t return back to normal, then being stuck in one place begins to wear upon our patience. We are seeing this played out in our society politically with these groups protesting at state capitals. We are seeing such impatience played out non-politically in unsafe gatherings of people at so-called “Pandemic Parties” and our crowding onto beaches in California and Florida.

Unfortunately, placating our frayed patience is not only selfish; it is dangerous. In one instance In Kentucky, the Health Department has followed an upsurge in virus cases that are attributable to people who attended a protest in the State Capital. By not following the guidelines of the CDC we are not only putting ourselves at risk, we are certainly putting other people at risk.

The selfishness of not following the guidelines extends much further than our own communities, however. The developing world is depending upon the wealthy countries, such as ours, to be able to help them when the virus hits their communities. “In global health, we know that you’re only as strong as your weakest link. . . Taming COVID-19 in China and the US and all of Western Europe won’t matter if it’s still raging and potentially mutating in Africa or Russia. It’s going to come back around.”  It is frightening but true. While it is certainly difficult for us living in our present circumstances, consider the living conditions in the developing world.

In Africa, according to a report at Foreign Policy.com 

What makes the pandemic even more painful is that it aggravates previous economic including the disruption in global trade due to U.S.-China trade tensions, the effect of Brexit on supply chains and financial flows, the decline in the price of industrial commodities such as copper, and the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

But it is not just trade and travel restrictions that are hitting African economies. The coronavirus outbreak will strain already weak social security systems. Besides health, nutrition is also a critical area, especially in poorer countries. Depending on the contagion rate, many sectors of the economy could be paralyzed—not just external trade and tourism, but the domestic sectors of the economy as well.

Health care systems are incredibly weak in many nations, with little preparedness for epidemics—as illustrated by the fact that until recently, few countries were able to offer widespread testing for the new virus. Some countries have strengthened their emergency preparedness since the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak and are now in a relatively better position to deal with the coronavirus. Yet most African countries have not learned enough from the Ebola crisis, which resulted in a GDP loss of 13.7 to 18.7 percent per year between 2014 and 2017 in Liberia alone.

Even worse is the situation of the millions of people in refugee camps. According to a report in RTE, a news service in Ireland, over 20,000 people are living in the largest refugee camp in Europe. This camp was built to house 3,000. In the camp, 242 people share a single shower, while 164 people share a single toilet. This camp is on an island off Greece. There is not the space for exercising safe social distancing let alone following the edict to ‘wash your hands.’ In this refugee camp, there are 6 ICU beds! To get an extent of how crowded the camp is, it works out to 200,000 people per square kilometer (New York City has 10,000 per square kilometer). Compare this to Lebanon which is housing 1.5 million refugees in camps, and we can begin to see how dire the situation is.

Therefore, we cannot afford to let our patience run thin. The virus has not hit developing countries like it has the wealthy countries, but it is only a matter of time. The people of these countries will need us – our help, our strength, our energy. God is going to call upon us to step up to the task. In a way, in His grace, we have been given a time to prepare ourselves. Now is the time. We have never seen anything like this: it is not about politics; it is about the human community. Please do not let your patience overtake your compassion.

 
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.  As 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.
 
To Contact Rev. Cope
 

Your Email (required)

Subject

Your Message

 

 

April 14, 2020
 

God did not leave Moses or the Israelites with a church, the way that we know it. Nor did Jesus leave the disciples with one. Both Moses and the disciples were taught to have faith and then communicate that faith.  Until 200 years after Christ, there were no church buildings. Christians gathered in homes. There was no new Testament until the 400’s. It is probable that the worship service as we know it was initially observed as the Lord’s Supper. Paul writes about gathering in someone’s home for a shared meal followed by the Lord’s Supper. Known as the agape meal, every family brought their own food for the meal, then cleared the table for the Lord’s Supper after the meal was eaten. Through the centuries, hymns, prayers and readings were added following the pattern of the Passover Seder, a Jewish worship celebration that was observed in homes.

I see the Christian’s role today as challenging for our faith, but not just because of the corona-virus. Allow me to explain, I am finding it odd that we are seeing ministers fight with local governments about holding worship services.  In our time of crisis, I find it crucial for Christians to practice and communicate their faith. And while the early Christians had to do this in the face of a hostile governing power, we are not in the same situation that they were.

The practice and communication of faith is not bound to a church building. It can only thrive outside of a church building. Today, during this pandemic and social self-quarantine, the last thing we should do is to tie our faith to a church building. We have been given a precious opportunity to experience the faith of the earliest Christians; we can study the word, pray, and break bread with our families, as they did in our own homes.  We have the chance to break free from the idolatry of religion and embrace the passion that Jesus taught us.

I have been concerned that so many Christians today either are uncomfortable with the Christian faith or at least uncomfortable with sharing it. I know that we live in a society that is growing increasingly hostile to Christianity, but I find that hostility more towards the Christian religion than towards God and our faith, or towards us. There is too much hypocrisy in the religion: hypocrisy of greed over compassion, hypocrisy of power over love, hypocrisy of tribalism over justice. Holding a worship service where you are putting your parishioners and the community in danger in exchange for publicity and political standing (and trust me, I know what is in a minister’s heart. They do not do this for God.) is not practicing your Christian faith, especially since you are filming and posting it over the internet at the same time!

Now is a time for humility in Christian history; it is not a time for grandstanding. It is a time for recognizing the true Christian leaders: those who are welcoming God into their home to have discussions, through prayer, of their faith and of God’s grace. It is a time not to bemoan the fact that you are trapped in your home but to be thankful that you have a home to be quarantined in. It is a time to think of those homeless who are given sleeping bags and a painted square on a parking lot, or those who are quarantined in a nursing home, and do not have the grace of a short term memory so that they cannot understand why they cannot see others. It is a time to think of people who are having to spend the last days of their mortal existence in over-crowded hospitals with no loved one to be with them.

And, It is a time to realize that when our house doors are finally opened, we will walk out into a community where so many who have been damaged in quarantine will not know how to vacate their fear or their anger.  They will need us to show God’s love.

The first Christians brought the love of Christ to the world, not in huge mega-churches but through their modest homes. We have been given a chance to live in our faith as they lived in theirs. Like them, let us take this chance as an opportunity.  I pray that none of us squander it.

God did not leave Moses or the Israelites with a church, the way that we know it. Nor did Jesus leave the disciples with one. Both Moses and the disciples were taught to have faith and then communicate that faith.  Until 200 years after Christ, there were no church buildings. Christians gathered in homes. There was no new Testament until the 400’s. It is probable that the worship service as we know it was initially observed as the Lord’s Supper. Paul writes about gathering in someone’s home for a shared meal followed by the Lord’s Supper. Known as the agape meal, every family brought their own food for the meal, then cleared the table for the Lord’s Supper after the meal was eaten. Through the centuries, hymns, prayers and readings were added following the pattern of the Passover seder, a Jewish worship celebration that was observed in homes.

I see the Christian’s role today as challenging for our faith, but not just because of the coronavirus. Allow me to explain, I am finding it odd that we are seeing ministers fight with local governments about holding worship services.  In our time of crisis, I find it crucial for Christians to practice and communicate their faith. And while the early Christians had to do this in the face of a hostile governing power, we are not in the same situation that they were.

The practice and communication of faith is not bound to a church building. It can only thrive outside of a church building. Today, during this pandemic and social self-quarantine, the last thing we should do is to tie our faith to a church building. We have been given a precious opportunity to experience the faith of the earliest Christians; we can study the word, pray, and break bread with our families, as they did in our own homes.  We have the chance to break free from the idolatry of religion and embrace the passion that Jesus taught us.

I have been concerned that so many Christians today either are uncomfortable with the Christian faith or at least uncomfortable with sharing it. I know that we live in a society that is growing increasingly hostile to Christianity, but I find that hostility more towards the Christian religion than towards God and our faith, or towards us. There is too much hypocrisy in the religion: hypocrisy of greed over compassion, hypocrisy of power over love, hypocrisy of tribalism over justice. Holding a worship service where you are putting your parishioners and the community in danger in exchange for publicity and political standing (and trust me, I know what is in a minister’s heart. They do not do this for God.) is not practicing your Christian faith, especially since you are filming and posting it over the internet at the same time!

Now is a time for humility in Christian history; it is not a time for grandstanding. It is a time for recognizing the true Christian leaders: those who are welcoming God into their home to have discussions, through prayer, of their faith and of God’s grace. It is a time not to bemoan the fact that you are trapped in your home but to be thankful that you have a home to be quarantined in. It is a time to think of those homeless who are given sleeping bags and a painted square on a parking lot, or those who are quarantined in a nursing home, and do not have the grace of a short term memory so that they cannot understand why they cannot see others. It is a time to think of people who are having to spend the last days of their mortal existence in over-crowded hospitals with no loved one to be with them.

And, It is a time to realize that when our house doors are finally opened, we will walk out into a community where so many who have been damaged in quarantine will not know how to vacate their fear or their anger.  They will need us to show God’s love.

The first Christians brought the love of Christ to the world, not in huge mega-churches but through their modest homes. We have been given a chance to live in our faith as they lived in theirs. Like them, let us take this chance as an opportunity.  I pray that none of us squander it.

 
March 30, 2020

Be Still and Know That I am Your God

It is not my tendency to see God’s will behind large events, such as this pandemic that we are in. My tendency is to see God’s presence with us as we all endure in this pandemic. COVID 19 is not a punishment from God nor is it a weapon of Satan. It is in our life now because of our very human propensity for making errors. It is a huge consequence of someone’s thoughtless and small decision. 

And even though the decision was small, almost dismissive, the consequences are tremendous! For most of us, the consequence will be inconvenience and fear; for others it will be isolation and claustrophobia. For others it will be life and death. No matter what you hear on the social media and the news, it will end when a vaccine is discovered. By that time, events will happen that will make these consequences follow them all their life, either through the loss of life or the loss of financial security. 

This past Sunday morning, as I sat in quiet and silence during the time when we as a church are usually the most active, this phrase from Psalm 46 kept echoing in my mind: Be Still and Know that I am God. I use this phrase a lot in funerals; the words are comforting in times of grief. Because they kept echoing, I decided to look up the passage. Interestingly, I discovered that the original words mean something very different from my interpretation of keeping peaceful.  According to one of the foremost scholars on the Psalms, J. Clinton McCann: “In the ancient near East , it was the particular responsibility of rulers to establish peace for their people. . . “Be still” (Hebrew rapa) is not a good translation. Contemporary readers almost inevitably hear it as a call to meditation or relaxation when it should be heard in the light of verse 9 as something like “Stop!” or “Throw down your weapons!” In other words, “Depend on God instead of yourselves.” 

It is a fitting message considering the pandemic: Trust in God not others. Instead of thinking that our peace will come from the government or the scientific community, it will come from God, who will use the governments and medical communities as his instruments of peace. When I view things in this way, I know this, I can rest and not worry. We are in God’s hands. And God is responsible for providing our peace. It does not matter if this goes on for days, weeks or months. God is with us. We will be okay. I can focus upon what we can do for God: how we can be God’s instruments for peace.

In our state of isolation, the words are a prescription for worship. Yes, we can view worship services on social media; we can watch them on television; we can listen to them on the radio or on a podcast. Or we can lay down our weapons of anxiety and fear and rest in the knowledge that God is our God and find joy, peace and love in that knowledge. In other words, worship doesn’t have to be busy and loud. It can be quiet. And in this quiet it can be as meaningful, if not more meaningful, then together with a roomful of people. 

I found this on a webpage of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ. 

  1. Read the Scripture – with your eyes and ears. Meditation comes from the Hebrew word, “Hagah”: to moan, growl, utter, speak, or muse; to make vocal sounds. In Joshua 1:8, God says that His word must stay on our lips; therefore, the first step in meditating on scripture is saying God’s word aloud to yourself. Let’s start with a simple, familiar scripture, Psalm 23:1 – “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Say the Scripture aloud to yourself, several times. Listen to God’s words. Think about what the words of Scripture are meaning and saying. What is one word or phrase that the Holy Spirit is drawing your attention toward? Take note. 
  2. Reflect – Meditate, ponder, think about, and ‘chew on’ the words of God. Say that word or phrase to yourself several times, in God’s presence. Listen to God’s words. Meditate, think about, ponder, and chew on God’s words until you taste the sweetness and goodness of the Lord for you. QUESTION: What do you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, through God’s written words, and His Son Jesus, the Divine Word of God, saying to you through this Scripture passage?  Take note; write down what you hear: for example, “don’t fear, don’t worry, I love you, obey me,” etc.
  3. Respond – Talk to the Lord (pray, praise and worship Him). What do you want to say back to the Lord, in response to what He has said to you, through His words? Now, speak to the Lord what is in your heart, this is prayer guided by God’s Words in this Scripture. For example: “I love you Lord for being with me always and for being my Good Shepherd.” Thank and praise the Lord. Begin to worship the Lord based on what the Lord is revealing to you and saying to you.
  4. Receive from the Lord, Rest in Him, Rejoice in Him. Let the Lord bless you through His Word and Holy Spirit. Let go and let God! Allow God to bless you. Again, receive from Him, rest and rejoice in Him! Receive His love, His forgiveness, His righteousness, His holiness, and transforming power! Receive Him inside you, upon you, at work in you! Receive Him in all His glory!
  5. React in obedience, act and do what He has revealed or done in you. What do you want to do now for God, in love, for what God has revealed, spoken or done for you during this time meditating and praying His Word? Ask the Lord to help you by the power of our Holy Helper, God’s Holy Spirit. 

The one thing that I add to this is to listen to music during this time of meditation. Don’t worry if you find it difficult to keep focused at first. The more that you practice; the more that you will find it easier to meditate. 

 

March 23, 2020

EVEN THOUGH WE ARE NOT HOLDING WORSHIP SERVICES, THE CHURCH IS NOT CLOSED

 

Many people are wondering if the church is going to have worship services. For the foreseeable future, we are not going to be having formal church services. But this does not mean that the church is closed. 

The church is not a building. Its welfare is not dependent upon whether we have a worship service. Worship services as such are preparatory for the work that is in the church. In other words, all the services you have attended and participated in have existed to prepare yourself for this moment: now you, the church, are called to be active. 

You are probably wondering how you can possibly be the church when we are all facing self-quarantine. As someone said the other day, they do not know of any telephone or computer that can spread a virus through use. So let’s talk about how our church is open, and what is expected of us.

The first task we have before us is prayer. Prayer is our primary responsibility and our primary source of strength during this time. What do you pray? That is where we in the church office can assist. Starting next week, we will get you one week’s worth of prayers for you to offer. Of course, you do not have to use ours. But the important thing is that you pray – that we all pray together. In the communique, we will also list prayer requests. (Joys and Concerns) And we will expect you to provide us with names and subjects to pray during the week. 

The second task is Bible Study. I will be providing you with weekly Bible Study opportunities. I will provide several tracks, just like I do during the week. You are invited to do all of them or none of them. The importance of keeping up with the Bible during this time is to remind yourself that you are not alone, but God is with you.

Because we are the body of Christ, working in his world, we want you to be in contact with each other during this time. Self-quarantine is not isolation.  Call each other. Email. Send letters. Do not let your universe become the television. When you find that someone you are in contact with needs help, call us. We are not in this alone; together we can do a lot.

Don’t give in to fear and anger. If you need to get something off your chest, call me. I am a good listener. Just don’t bottle it up. 

There will be things for us to do as the church in the coming weeks. We are not closed. I am depending upon every one of you to be willing to do the will of God now that you are not busy!

 
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.