Pastor’s Blog – January 2024

A recent survey was sent out to the members of this congregation. They have been collected and compiled. One of the questions was, “What gets you to come to church on Sunday?” Forty-eight percent of the respondents marked “Fellowship.” Thirty-seven percent marked “Worship” and “Sermons” respectively.

The answers and percentages beg a question that is as old as the Christian church itself: What is the purpose of the church? It is easy to think that the people who answered fellowship in the survey come to church for the people; those who marked worship come to church for God. However, it is not that easy to interpret.

Holding fellowship and worship as separate categories can create a false opposition. People don’t choose either fellowship or worship. They come for both. And I believe that most people see the two in combination. Being in fellowship is a part of worshipping the God who provides this family to us. In any worship service, there is always a fundamental aspect of fellowship, whether it is in singing, unison prayers or holding hands while praying. In any congregational fellowship time, such as pot-luck dinners or fellowship hours, we know that we are together in God. Some days we will feel the Spirit of God in a prayer, hymn, or the sermon; other times we will find the Spirit of God in the fellowship around a meal or coffee.

We can worship alone at home in silent prayer, meditation, or reading the Bible or devotionals. We can certainly fellowship outside of the church, and never think about God. In the church, we find the real presence of God in a way that we can only do by bringing fellowship and worship together.

The tension between the two comes in how we, in the church, can keep them in balance. A church that emphasizes fellowship over worship becomes little more than a social club, or worse, a clique. A church where worship is emphasized is cold and judgmental. Neither imbalance is a witness to the presence of God. In fact, both imbalances create a place where God is not present, but is distant.

How do we balance worship and fellowship? To begin with, we must find out what the words mean to us. What does worship mean to you? The dictionary says that worship is “to honor or show reverence for a divine being or supernatural power, or to regard with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion.” In church, worship means so much more. It is a time that we set aside to focus ourselves on God through reading the Bible, praying, praising, and singing hymns. It is also a time when we devote ourselves exclusively to learning about what God wants and expects of us. In a way, we can say that worship is a time that we focus upon being in exclusive fellowship with God. 

Fellowship is the time when, after worshipping, we live what we have learned through spending time with each other. In a way, fellowship is interpreting what we learn in worship. We discuss and share opinions, not only about what we have learned in a worship service, but also about how we apply it to our own lives. This sharing is informal, good-natured, and allows us to meet people we would not necessarily get to know in our own life. We share experiences. Fellowship enriches what we have learned in worship, as it corrects us when we have misunderstood God’s word or meaning.

Through worship, we receive the tangible grace of God’s love and the assurance of God’s forgiveness. Fellowship offers us the opportunity to live out our grace and thanksgiving through missions and acts of social justice in ways that encourage and enrich us by working, not alone, but with others. 

I want to end this too brief discussion on a personal note. If I had filled out a survey that had asked me the question, “Why do you come to church?” I would answer, “Because I have no other choice.” I don’t say this because I am a minister and the church is my job. I say this because God called me and, in that call, directed me to the church. I don’t see this as a special calling reserved for the clergy.  I believe that everyone who is in any church is there because God called them to that church. I do believe that people can go to a church for the wrong reason; some people go to churches to make business deals, or because of politics (secular not church). Many people go because someone they know has invited them. And many people have negative experiences in churches and negative opinions about the people in the church. When God calls you to go to a church, you know it. You fit in.  You feel fed by the worship and supported by the fellowship.

Ultimately, the categories of fellowship and worship are not in an either/or dichotomy, but in a both/and relationship. Since the pandemic and the lock-down when we could not participate in in-person worship or fellowship, the challenge to the church has been, can it get back to ‘normal’?  I think you would agree with me that it cannot. We now have the technology to stream our services and conduct our missions so that we can stay at home and never come to church. In some churches, this has become a matter of controversy and contention; people are arguing that streaming should stop altogether so that people who want to worship at home have to physically return to church. We cannot take this attitude in the church. In one way, streaming has allowed people to stay spiritually in touch with the church in ways that would never have been possible before the lock-down. It is an evangelical triumph, in my opinion. But, then again, the pews are not full, at least not full of bodies.  What our church is full of is spirit. People are happy to be with each other. People smile and laugh, and their worship is boisterous (ok, I wish they would sing louder, but baby steps . . . baby steps!). We have active fellowship and a sense of family that one can only get when gathered together with God.

So, I would say that when you read the results of the survey, think of the answers not as separate choices, but as a combination of reasons. What gets you to come to church? Fellowship and worship and sermons. Or to put three into one: God, whose presence is in the midst of fellowship, worship, and the sermons.

Pastor’s Blog – December 2023

As we begin the Advent season, we want to remember that this is a season for preparation. It is one of the two important seasons of the Church year where we are asked to focus upon our spiritual and moral lives. Frankly, of the two seasons – Lent and Advent – Advent is the most ignored. At best, we come up with kitschy Advent calendars which are more like games to play, counting down Christmas – which, let’s face it, is the least spiritual of all the Church’s holidays. I am not going to change anyone’s opinion about either Advent or Christmas, and I am not sure that I want to try. But I do want to take a stab at talking about the meaning of the season of Advent and explore something that, in essence, we almost totally ignore: spiritual preparation.

Throughout Judaism and Christianity there have been variations on a belief that there will be a time when the Messiah comes. In the case of Christianity, Jesus is the Messiah, and so we believe that he will come again. Both Judaism and Christianity believe that with this coming, a new age will begin; an age of peace and justice. For Christians, Advent is a season in which we are called upon to prepare spiritually for this coming and age. But how do we make such preparations?

Advent is not like Lent, when we observe the coming of Christ with prayers of forgiveness, acts of repentance, and observations of fasting. Advent is a season which has evolved over the life of the Church. In the beginning, it was observed during the forty days leading up to Epiphany, which, at that time, was the season in which all new Christians were baptized. So, like Lent, Advent was primarily a time of repentance and fasting in preparation for baptism. Through the centuries, Epiphany lost significance, Christmas gained importance, and eventually Advent became a season to thank God for bringing the Christ Child to us. At this time Christians were not as focused upon the second coming of Christ, but on the fact that Christ had come and was now with us in the Holy Spirit. Advent would eventually become a season focused more on the family home rather than the Church as a way to help families to keep the meaning of Christmas focused on the spiritual meaning of the birth of Christ. Through more evolutionary thinking, the Church became focused upon the end times; the days of the Apocalypse. They then began to focus more heavily upon the prophets foretelling of the coming of the Kingdom of God. By the time we reached the Twentieth Century, Christmas became more and more of a secular holiday, and Advent became less and less important.

So, do we need Advent? Do we need to have time set aside for spiritual preparation? My argument is that we need it now more than ever. If I had my way, it would not occur this time of the year. In my tenure as a minister, the one thing that I know about this time of the year is that no one has time to schedule anything in the Church. No one has time for spiritual preparation now. It has always fascinated me that during the time that we celebrate the birth of Christ, people in the Church have always complained that they do not have time to go to worship – except on Christmas Eve – and even that is becoming more and more problematic. A lot of Christian churches have begun holding their Christmas Eve services on the Sunday evening before Christmas Eve. Perhaps we have gone back to the earliest years of the Church when the congregations never celebrated Christmas. 

Spiritual preparation should be a communal event in the Church. It should not be a private time of prayer when we go into a prayer closet. Private spiritual preparation is more appropriate for Lent. What I am envisioning are gatherings of prayer, meditation, and song/music. Our focus would be twofold: why should we prepare, and what do we need to do?

For this year’s Advent season, I am pondering what it would be like to be in a world before Jesus was born. Would we be living for the future, or would we just be living day by day? What hope would we find in life? Think about it: today, even if you left the Church, you would not be leaving a life in which Jesus never came. You wouldn’t be giving up on salvation or grace. But what if these things had never existed, how would we relate to each other? I keep returning to the parable that Jesus taught about the maids who had to wait for the bridegroom to come. Some had more than enough oil for their lamps and others didn’t have enough. Today, what is enough spirituality for us to have for the wait? Where do we get it in a world that never had Jesus or the Holy Spirit as we know them now?

Pastor’s Blog – November 2023

In my last blog, I spoke about the resolutions passed at the UCC General Synod 34 in July, highlighting those that asked for specific work by the congregations. Two of the resolutions needed more discussion than a summary. In this blog, then, I am going to discuss the background of the UCC’s historical and present relationship with Native Indigenous Peoples and the Indigenous People of Hawai’i. The resolution is entitled:


A Resolution of Witness

The text of the resolution can be read here:

The official Summary of this resolution from the Synod states: This resolution calls on the United Church of Christ to do a new study on the United Church of Christ’s relationship with Indian boarding schools and boarding schools in Hawai’i. On May 11, 2022, the Department of the Interior held a press conference to reveal a “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report.” The report showed that between 1819 and 1969, the United States operated or supported 408 boarding schools including 7 schools in Hawai’i. Although the Executive Summary mentioned 7 schools in Hawai’i, within the report 11 schools are named.

This resolution was offered by the Hawaiian Conference; while not asking for any specific actions by the congregations, its subject matter is asking us to learn the history of the Church’s involvement in the establishment of Federal Indian Boarding Schools. The ultimate goal is to have our denomination acknowledge sins committed and come to terms with what seeking forgiveness of those sins will require of us.

The resolution is broad – it asks for the United Church of Christ to study the history of the Church’s relationship with the boarding schools established for Native Americans as well as Hawaiians.

Native American Boarding Schools (also known as Indian Boarding Schools) were established by the U.S. government in the late 19th century as an effort to assimilate Indigenous youth into mainstream American culture through education. This era was part of the United States’ overall attempt to kill, annihilate, or assimilate Indigenous peoples and eradicate Indigenous culture. The Native American assimilation era first began in 1819, when the U.S. Congress passed The Civilization Fund Act. The act encouraged American education to be provided to Indigenous societies and therefore enforced the “civilization process.”

The passing of this act eventually led to the creation of the federally funded Native American Boarding Schools and initiated the beginning of the Indian Boarding School era. The duration of this era ran from 1860 until 1978. Approximately 357 boarding schools operated across 30 states during this era both on and off reservations and housed over 60,000 Native children. A third of these boarding schools were operated by Christian missionaries as well as members of the federal government. These boarding schools housed several thousand children. (The U.S. history of Native American Boarding Schools by Melissa Mejia, an article of the Indigenous Foundation –

In short, Boarding Schools were the joint efforts of the United States government and church missionary organizations to eradicate non-American cultures. The creator of the first Boarding School, Richard Henry Pratt, said in a speech in 1892: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”  Pratt “developed the paradigm of compulsory immersion education. At various times, it would be used in the attempted assimilation of other minorities in the United States and its territories, including African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, Asians, and Mormons. He took his pedagogical inspiration from the Puritans”.

Native children were given Anglo-American names, bathed in kerosene, given military-style clothing in exchange for their traditional clothing, and their hair would be shaved off for the boys and cut into short bob styles for girls.

Education primarily focused on trades to make Native students marketable in American society. Male students were taught to perform manual labor such as blacksmithing, shoemaking, and farming amongst other trades. On the other hand, female students were taught to cook, clean, sew, do laundry, and care for farm animals. Standard academic subjects like reading, writing, math, history, and art were also taught, however, these subjects emphasized American beliefs and values. For example, students were taught the importance of private property, materialized wealth, students were forced to convert to Christianity, and celebrate American holidays such as Columbus Day. Richard Henry Scott eventually implemented a “Placing Out System” that placed Native students into American communities for a certain amount of time, varying from a summer to a full year. These programs tended to exploit students and used them for domestic and physical labor.

Native students were not allowed to speak in their Native languages. They were only allowed to speak English regardless of their fluency and would face punishment if they didn’t. The discipline enforced at these boarding schools was severe. (Melissa Mejia)

The purpose of our denominational study is to learn how the forebearers of our Wider Mission Board participated in these Boarding Schools. How did the purpose of Christian Mission become the eradication of cultures and languages? Why did missionaries participate not only in this eradication, but in using the schools in such a way to keep the people that they were bringing their mission to in poverty and limiting their intellectual potential? In Hawai’i, for example, the Native Hawaiians were taught farming and housekeeping so that they could work on sugar and pineapple plantations, while the missionaries’ children were taught science, art, and mathematics that would enable them to be leaders in the Hawaiian society. 

Through this study we will come to the truth of this misappropriation of the gospel. The results of this study will require us to confront the moral and ethical sins of our ancestors and then decide how we should ask for forgiveness from the Indigenous peoples of our country. It will also ask us to consider how we can offer reparations to people who have suffered across generations for the moral and ethical shortcomings of our ancestors.

This task is not a history lesson. Today, state legislators are passing laws that attempt to eradicate the history of people oppressed by our own country. We cannot allow Christian Mission in the 21st century to repeat the mistakes of our forebearers. The effects of these Boarding Schools continue to be felt today:

Native youth still face several challenges within the American education system. They rarely have access to curriculums that are culturally relevant to them and experience difficulties in the classroom at alarming rates. According to reports given by the Kids Count Data Center and The National Violent Death Reporting System, Native students are:

1.2 times more likely to be behind in 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade math

1.4 times more likely to be suspended from school

1.5 times more likely to die in a homicide or suicide

1.7 times more likely to experience two or more adverse childhood experiences

1.8 times more likely to attend a high-poverty school

2.0 times more likely to drop out of high school


Reparations, like forgiveness, are not something that can be bought and paid for in cash. Both require a change of thinking, a change of heart, and the difficult work of helping these cultures to find a place in our society where they can flourish.

If you would like to learn more about how Native American and Hawaiians were treated, I recommend three books:

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki

(Back Bay Books, rev. ed. 2008)

A Larger Memory: A History of Our Diversity with Voices by Ronald Takaki

(Little Brown and Company, 1998)

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz 

(Beacon Press, 2014)

Or go to the following website:


Pastor’s Blog – September 2023
General Synod

In July of this year, the United Church of Christ met for their 34th General Synod. Think of it as a denominational ‘annual meeting,’ except that it meets every two years. Synod can be exciting: you get to meet people from around the world and see the great diversity of the United Church of Christ in a way that you can never see in a congregation. It includes bureaucracy, celebrations, worship, singing, and lots of discussion. Through it all the direction of the work of the denomination is decided. What is different about the Synod versus a congregational meeting is how that work of the church is decided: resolutions are offered, discussed, edited, and passed.

The resolutions will affect us; while each one may not apply directly to the work of congregations, all will have an impact on our work, so it is important that we know what they are. This article is an attempt to introduce them to you. Each resolution that has been passed by the delegates of the Synod is summarized. There are a couple of resolutions that will need to be addressed in more detail in later blogs; most of them will be understood in summaries of their “Be it resolved” sections. You can find all the resolutions at this web site: Look for the button that says “view post-plenary resolution” for the final resolution.

Resolutions, by their nature, can be controversial, as they deal with what church members and bodies understand to be the UCC’s Christian responsibility to the wider society. Each resolution includes Biblical and Theological Justifications for the resolution, and then specifies what it is asking the denomination, conferences, associations, congregations, and/or individuals to do. They cover a range of topics. Some of the resolutions are for the offices of the Denomination; others are specific to Bodies or working groups within the Unted Church of Christ. Those that ask for involvement from the congregations seek either advocacy, education, or, in a few instances, suggest that the congregations undertake limited action. I will mark the resolutions that ask something of congregations with an asterisk (*), so that you can find them easily.

Resolutions in the UCC show us directions in which we can apply our faith in real situations in the world. It suggests to us how we can live that faith through our actions both in the church and in the wider community. Two of our church members, Dennis and Nancy Kneip, attended the General Synod as Conference Delegates. When they returned, they presented the resolutions at an informal meeting after church services. From these discussions, a process to narrow the resolutions to a few that our congregation could work on was begun. The results of the meeting are on a bulletin board in the church narthex. Everyone is invited to mark with an X which resolution they are interested in. You are encouraged to look at them seriously. If you find that you are called to support one or more, mark the board in the narthex.

The Resolutions (in no particular order)

*The first resolution is entitled Denouncing the Dobbs Decision and Proclaiming Abortion as Healthcare. While the majority of the work called for resides in the Denominational, Conference, and Association work groups, this resolution calls for two actions of the congregations: to engage with the Our Whole Lives: Sexuality and Our Faith curriculum to promote holistic sexuality education, including information and education about contraception, and to support and offer access to contraceptives; and to physically, financially, and spiritually accompany people seeking and receiving abortions and other reproductive healthcare, in partnership with local health care agencies and abortion funds.

The second resolution is to permit Associations to allow Licensed and Commission ministries to be authorized by the denomination. Licensed and Commissioned ministers do not meet the same academic requirements, nor do they require ordination. This is a temporary allowance until it is changed in the UCC Constitution. 

The third resolution concerns the United Church of Christ’s relationship with Indian (Native American) Boarding Schools and Boarding Schools in Hawai’i. This is a complicated and important issue which I will deal with in a later blog.

The fourth resolution calls for us to close the digital divide and seek digital justice in the Church and wider society. Like the previous resolution, this resolution needs its own explanation in a subsequent blog.

*The fifth resolution urges the planning and implementation of electrification over fossil fuels heating and cooling and appliances through our church buildings and properties and to become advocates in our communities of the transition to address Climate Change.

*The sixth resolution is summarized in the following: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a one-year period ending in April 2021, over 100,000 beloved people died from an entirely preventable cause of death, accidental drug overdose. The national response to the overdose crisis has been largely shaped by the criminalization and dehumanization of people who use drugs, disproportionately impacting Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. Harm Reduction – an alternative treatment to imprisoning drug addicts, has been proven to save lives, heal communities, and is positively transforming social narratives and policies on drugs and the people that use them. Harm reduction is understood as a set of practices for minimizing drug related harm, a person-centered philosophy for addressing substance use across the spectrum, as well as a movement for social justice which recognizes the multitude of social determinants that impact a person’s relationship with substance use and their vulnerability to drug related harm. The resolution encourages “advocacy by all settings of the church for broader and more just access to 65 harm reduction services and programming including, but not limited to: syringe access programs, 66 overdose prevention programs, expanded naloxone (medication to reverse opioid overdose) 67 access and distribution, overdose prevention centers, access to evidence-based drug treatment, 68 healing centered engagement, access to medication for  all substance use disorders, as well as 69 funding to support these harm reduction services.” Part of this resolution is for the establishment of the third Sunday of August to be set aside as the annual Harm Reduction Sunday.

*The seventh resolution calls the whole UCC Church to move forward from prayer for an end to gun violence to an active program to stop gun violence, particularly by learning about and participating in the Guns to Gardens movement, host events for safe surrender of unwanted guns for dismantling, as well as programs for providing gun safes and/or gun locks.

*The eigth resolution calls for the United Church of Christ to undo damage it has caused in the past by forcing Native Hawaiians to forgo their native language and adopt English as their language.  We are asked to support a movement to teach the original language in Hawaiian schools, by recognizing the first Christ Hawaiian language that was created in 1822 for Christian missionaries. We are encouraged to increase the awareness of the 64 indoctrination and Americanization policies that led to the cultural genocide of the Hawaiian natives, including sending funds that the Association of Hawaiian churches can use to set up these language classes.

*The ninth resolution calls for the UCC to work to free us from Plastic Pollution. This is a broad resolution that has specific ways that the denomination can move away from using plastic and non-renewable resources that are affecting our environment in negative ways.

*The tenth resolution addresses the issues that are being raised in our schools and universities and to support our public education systems and educators, as well as academic freedom, and the right of educators to make decisions that are in the best interest of ALL students, consistent with peer-reviewed research and best practice; that threaten the freedom to learn. This includes speaking out against censoring what is taught, banning books, and threatening, bullying, and hateful speech directed against educators, librarians, and students.

The eleventh resolution calls for the UCC to work towards studying and coming up with a plan for engaging the church in the work of Reparations for African Americans. This resolution does not call for action at the congregational level.

*The twelfth resolution seeks to have the UCC condemn the use of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons as torture and calls upon members to advocate and work through interfaith movements to see it condemned.

*The thirteenth resolution calls upon the UCC, in keeping with its historical roots, to affirm human dignity for all, to support transgender, nonbinary, and gender diverse experiences, to advocate against laws which discriminate against them, to provide places in our congregations, provide aid, comfort, and sanctuary to all who have been made refugees by hostile legislation.

*The fourteenth resolution calls upon all congregations to denounce White supremacy in all its forms and to have them embark on an intentional journey of public commitment, study, and action to actively construct “A White Supremacy-Free Zone,” using as a model information provided by the Potomac Association of the Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC.

Pastor’s Blog      August 7, 2023
Authority and Free Will

Have you ever argued with anyone about your belief in God? Or listened to other people arguing? For me, listening to the debates is frustrating. There can never be a clear winner. This is because debates and arguments are power struggles over beliefs born not out of reason, but free will. We decide to believe in God. We are not presented with a choice and then do research and base that belief on reasoned proof. We may have a thousand different reasons as to why we made the choice in the first place – wanting to please our parents, fear from being in an uncontrollable universe, guilt – but ultimately, we choose to believe in God, because we can make that choice. We have free will. 

As a child, we believe in things easily. We do not have to have a reason to explain our belief. We can accept it at face value. As we become an adult, we begin to question, test, and choose to keep or throw out those easy beliefs. The world around us becomes increasingly out of our control and more threatening, and we begin to understand that we need to do more than accept our belief; we need to depend upon it protect us. Since the belief as a choice of our free will is not strong enough on its own, we must find authorities that will support our belief and protect it.  

To illustrate this, let’s take the question: Is the sky blue? As children, we do not question the color of the sky. Because we can see it, we have no reason to doubt our belief. But as we grow older and learn about the world around us in more detail, we find out that the sky is not blue; it is a combination of light on the red spectrum and light on the blue spectrum. It is, in fact, violet. Now our retinas cannot see the red spectrum of the sky, so it only registers blue. Once we know that, we must throw out our belief that they sky is blue. We now must accept the fact that we can only see the blue light in the sky. (In this case, the old saying –‘Seeing is believing’ – is in fact wrong!)

The fragility of a freely chosen belief is that it could come up against facts that disprove it. But not all beliefs are the same. Matters of faith cannot always be proven or disproved. Atheism is a belief system just like Christianity. We can choose to ignore facts in favor of our own belief, such as those who believe that the earth is flat, but then our belief is as much of a delusion as believing the sky is blue.

So, when two people are debating beliefs that can be neither proven nor disproven, what are they debating? They are debating the authorities that are used to support those beliefs. Those who believe in a Christian God can list hundreds of reasons why they believe that God exists. To the person debating with us, they can hold just as many reasons why one should believe as they do. Yet, no matter what your challenger says, they cannot win their argument by denying your right to belief. 

It is in trust that the struggle between free will and authority resides. We do not build trust for our beliefs out of thin air. We look for something outside of ourselves that we can depend upon. By placing our trust in something other than ourselves, we are recognizing that source as an Authority. For matters of God and religion, that usually falls within one or more of these categories: Tradition (family/community), Scripture, or Reason (experts, scholars, others we highly respect). We may include experience, but I would suggest that trust in experience will come from one of the other three categories. In other words, we accept something as authoritative because of our experiences with that source in other areas of our life. 

Think of trust like a wall. The strength of that wall does not come because you freely choose it, but from the guarantees provided to you by the source itself (i.e., the person who builds the wall, the materials that the wall is made from, etc.). If, for example, I take details of my belief in God from the Bible, it is because I know that the Bible has been around for many thousands of years, millions upon millions of people over those years have accepted what it says as legitimate, and its arguments about God make intellectual and spiritual sense to me. The Bible not only gives me details to protect my belief in God from arguments, but it also helps me to strengthen my own experience of God’s presence in my life.

When accepting the security that an authority provides, however, I must conform my belief to the limits which that authority demands. If, for example, I use the Bible as an authority to protect my belief in God, then I must accept limitations on what I believe about God, such as that there is only one God. If my belief in God contradicts what the Bible says about God, then either my trust in the Bible as authority is significantly weakened, or I lose faith in my original belief.  

In my next article, I will be discussing authorities in more detail – both in their strengths and their flaws. In the meantime, ask yourself the question – what authorities do you rely upon to support your belief in God?

Brian E. Cope

Senior Pastor


Pastors Blog April 22, 2023

Dear Friends,

I have always wondered what I should write articles about to include in our newsletters.  The traditional “From the Pastor” in most church newsletters tend to be devotionals, or commentaries on current events (according to the minister writing, the events could concern the congregation specifically or could be wider political commentaries.)  I have never been comfortable with any of the three options.  We provide two different devotionals to anyone who requests one, and commentaries most often seem like passive/aggressive complaints at the worst and insignificant information at the best.  I have always wanted to write articles that were substantial and educational- addressing topics that I don’t get the opportunity or time to do anywhere else in my ministry.  I have decided that for the remainder of my ministry here, I am going to do just this: write about Christianity and the Church that is educational and significant to you in your Christian lifeIf we keep publishing two newsletters a month, I will be able to write around 50 articles to you.  These articles will focus upon five topics: The Bible, Theology, The Church, Mission, and Justice.  In each of these categories will contain five sub-categories.  I will strive to be informative as well as challenging.  And, as always, you are invited to disagree with me, or ask questions.  If you like, we can include your challenge or question in the next newsletter in order to create a public discussion.  My prayer is that these articles will make all of us stronger Christians and encourage us in our journey with God.

I decided that for my first article, I am going to discuss my foundational thoughts as a Christian: the fundamentals that inform and direct the way that I read, understand, and live out the Gospel and then share it with you.

Most of the members of the church know by now that I was not raised in the church.  In fact, I did not walk into a church, other than for a very few weddings or funerals until I was 27 years old.  By the time that I got into high school I was questioning everything that I could think of concerning God, the Church, life and death. My main question revolved around eternal life and its purpose.  I was never worried or afraid of dying; instead, I feared an eternity with no purpose. What if you didn’t want to live forever?  How could we claim to have free will if we didn’t have the freedom to choose to exist or not?

By the time I entered college, my questions had evolved.   Could humans be moral without God?  Was goodness, kindness, empathy embedded in our genes, or were we by nature violent and amoral?  I have always been an optimistic person, and just couldn’t think that people were naturally evil, and yet, the question of God’s judgment hung over me like a heavy cloud.  Why would a Creator God make us for eternal torture?

One thing and another led me to do what I had never done before: read the Bible.  I read it from the Old Testament to the New Testament. I must confess that neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament changed my thinking. It took reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans for that to happen.  In that letter, Paul goes into detail about God’s law and the understanding of salvation by grace. When I read that letter everything I had ever understood about God was turned upside down.  And everything made sense.

So, this is what I have come to understand:

God created us in God’s image. God’s image is neither physical nor pictorial.  God is Spirit and, according to Scriptures that translates to God is love.  Thus, we are love.  The purpose of our life is not to believe in God; the purpose of our life is that God believes in us.  God believes that we can live into our image and then spread the love in the way that he can spread it.  We have flaws (we call them sins); but that does not stop or hinder the love that we are. The explanation behind how we live through our flaws into our love is complex, and I will get into that in my articles.  God does not judge us, nor should we judge one another.  Judgment, as discernment, is useful, sometimes even necessary, but it is a tool that must be used sparingly and carefully or it becomes destructive not only to the ones judged but to the judgers themselves.

Questions remain, questions that I will address in my articles.  Sometimes, I will offer interpretations and claims that you may not agree with.  I understand that my understanding may not be consistent with the history of Christian thought.  I am also aware that my thoughts may have been considered heretical at some points in the history of Christianity.  But I can assure you that I try very hard to take Scripture at its word, and not pick and choose.  I also am a firm believer that |God does not just talk to us through the Bible, but through the Holy Spirit.  And since the Holy Spirit dwells in each of us, then we can only reach God’s truth by sharing the Holy Spirit within us with each other.  This is why I always encourage dialogue.  I cannot learn God’s truth in solitude; I must learn it in relationship and communication with all of God’s children – no matter their faith or lack of faith.  The fundamental claim is that all humans are God’s children, made in God’s image (love) and has God’s Holy Spirit working through them.

This, then, is my starting point.

Pastor’s Blog, July 2022


One of the most engaging challenges for me in ministry has been the confirmation process. On the surface, it should be straight-forward: we are to teach our church about Christianity, religion, and the church so that they are prepared to enter church membership. And yet, Confirmation is not simply a church membership class; if it were then we would have our youth join as our visitors do. Confirmation is more than preparation for membership. It is to give the confirmands the opportunity to understand and accept the baptismal vows that their parents took on for them when they were baptized as a baby.  Again, straight-forward enough – right? 

Not really. Not everyone is baptized at infancy. Some parents wait and have their child baptized after confirmation. Adults join the church and do not have to reconfirm their baptismal vows.  If a young person past confirmation age comes into the church, we do not require them to take a confirmation class. I was not raised in a church, so I was never required to take a confirmation class (I did go to seminary, but that is another story altogether!)  

The question stays in front of us: why do we have confirmation? Why do we hold the classes for the age that we do? Confirmation is not required by scripture.  So … lets have a discussion. 

To ask what confirmation is to ask what it means to be a member of a church. Some memberships are self-evident – membership brings specific rights and responsibilities. Being a member of a church does not have such rights and responsibilities spelled out. I think that most church members might think that responsibilities have to do with how much we give to the church, attendance at worship or serving on committees, but I don’t know of anyone who has had their membership taken away because they didn’t live up to any of these.  Even if they were responsibilities that were assessed yearly by the Deacons, they are not the essence of confirmation. 

Confirmation is one of those church terms that I have always believed has lost its meaning over the years.  In the past, confirmation was another word for catechism – which was a statement of theological beliefs and claims that people had to commit to memory and then recite to become a member of the church. I know people who think this is what confirmation should return; these adults will proudly recite words of the catechism that they had to memorize 50 or 60 years ago, just like other adults will recite the first stanza of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Old English or the 206 bones of the body which they were forced to memorize in high school. I wonder, though, how memorization helps us to be productive members of the church.  

The word confirm means “to strengthen the value or validity of something.” Taking this definition, then, confirmation should not be a process offered to our youth but to everyone in the church.  And it shouldn’t be a once-in-a-lifetime event since our understanding of our relationship with God, the church and each other changes over time.  

I am going to try something out. Between the months of August and December, I am going to use my sermons to address issues that would normally come up in confirmation classes. Each sermon will be an opportunity for all of us to ‘strengthen the value or validity of these issues for each of us. For those who care in the Confirmation Process, each sermon will be accompanied by a questionnaire which will be required to be returned to me.  For anyone hearing the sermon, these sheets will be available (whether at church or through out website). I encourage everyone to use these sheets to open a dialogue to discuss these issues.  

For the Confirmands themselves, this process will lead to the Confirmation Rite on the Sunday December 25 during the 10 am worship. At that time, they will make the decision to confirm the baptismal vows their parents took for them when they were infants or be baptized and join the church.  

If you have any questions about this process or these sermons, please let me know.        

June 28, 2022
To the Congregation, my friends,
I want to thank you for the prayers, the cards, the words, the phone calls and just being there for Sally and me. Please know that she felt your love and appreciated it. Saying words of gratitude seem so extremely inadequate. What we have experienced through her sickness and her death had been the immense love of God working through you. I will keep saying this – your prayers were answered – she is completely healed and extremely happy. I feel her joy when I wake up and go to sleep.
She is also telling us that we have work to do. While this church and its mission is strong, we must plan for its future. We are facing a transitional period and it is our job to lay the foundation for that transition and CCA’s future. We could freeze in our grief but that would be giving into the lie that Christ did not win eternal life for us. It would be bowing down to the temptations of Satan in the wilderness urging us to give up. God is with us now and he is with not only our future but the future of those who will follow us.

In 2025 we will be celebrating the 175th anniversary of our church. In 1850, God called thirteen people to a mission – a mission he is still calling us to today. As your minister, I am going to do everything I can to get us DOING God’s work. I have preached for 14 years, and while I like to hear the sound of my voice, I want to stop talking so much and work with you to put those words into action. We have made it through so much – so much joy, so much love, so much community – as well as so much pain – and even a pandemic – and we are stronger and more loving than ever. We don’t have any excuses because God is with us. It is time for us to take God’s Spirit and change the world.

Thank you – from Sally and from the Cope family – myself, Paul, Andrew, and Nikki. When we adopted Andy and Nikki, Sally swore that we could be a forever family. Little did we realize that this forever would grow to include you.


Pastor’s Blog – February 2022


A philosopher once said that history creates great people. Such a theory says that if Abraham Lincoln did not exist in the 1800’s, history would have created another great president in his place. It is an interesting premise: if Lincoln had been born in 1950 would he have made a great president in our era?  Perhaps. Perhaps not. I want to argue with the premise. It could be because I am a Christian and he is not, but I want to argue that God creates history and then uses the people in that time and place of history to accomplish his works. Not that I am suggesting predestination or fate here; I am saying that God helps direct the choices that we humans make to produce great history by helping us to see these choices. One individual, for good or for bad, does not create history alone. In this the philosopher and I agree. And yet I want to go further and say that history and great figures are not created randomly.

God not just use rich, famous, nor specifically male characters to make history. God’s history is made by unknown, oppressed people who make what may seem to them to be virtually insignificant decisions. But these decisions can have great historical consequences. Cell phones came from an invention of the actress Hedy Lamar in World War II. Her invention was rejected by everyone only to picked up by someone in the 1960’s.

God makes history with the materials that we provide for him. Take the decisions of Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot.  Both of them made decisions about Jesus which they thought would have specific consequences. Pilate was famous at the time; Judas was not. Both knew their decisions would get Jesus out of the way of their immediate plans. Both of their decisions would seem to stand in the way of God’s purpose. And yet God was able to use both in a way that would broad, sweeping consequences not only for the year 33C.E. but for all of human history. Did God create these two men so that salvation would be given to all? No. he used their decisions for his own plans. If they had not made them, and they both could have turned away from them, God would have used other decisions to accomplish his purpose.

This is significant for you and me. Because God can use our decisions to craft the future, we need to always be aware of the power that our choices have in our world, as well as the world of the future. And even if we will never see their impact in our own life, it does not mean that there will not be an impact.

Facing this can be daunting – even terrifying. If you had to worry about the impacts of your decision, you may just freeze and refuse to make any decisions. But don’t be afraid. While God can use our decisions for good, he can also make sure the consequences of our bad decisions are minimized.

That does not give us a free card to act carelessly and without thought. God gives us advice and guidance from both scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and other people to establish our life so that when we do make decisions, they are material that God can use for his good. With that in mind let me give you some examples of what I mean.

Use Hope for the foundation of our decision-making

                                   Hope” is the thing with feathers

                                  That perches in the soul –

                                  And sings the tune –

                                  Without the words  –

                                  And never stops – at all. (Emily Dickinson)


Peter tells us in his first letter – Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you. In other words, live a life full of hope and be purposeful in that hope. A foundation of hope helps to always remember that the future is in God’s perfect hands – not in the mortal hands of humans. Many decisions that we make are made out of fear, anger or some other negative feeling. Some are made with the thought of self-benefit. Making decisions out of hope reminds us who is in charge of the future and will direct our decisions to God himself.


Putting God Before Everything Else

Keeping hope alive in your life helps with another responsibility that we have as Christians – to put God above everything else in our life. Recently I heard this quote from a video essay about Jesus and Politics:

     There are some who view their nationality as just as important as it is to be a Christian. And this is a problem. If the United States collapsed into a dictatorship tomorrow, I  would be saddened and horrified. But I would not see it as my entire identity collapsed.  I love my country, but I love Christ more. There are some who would see this as the end of the world and not as an opportunity to spread the message of Christ.
     You may think that the United States is a Christian nation. That is a political choice that you are free to make and defend. However, you cannot claim that Christianity is an American faith. We will find God in every country, under every system if government, prayed to in every language. God is not confined by political or cultural boundaries.   
   God’s people thrive in countries where Christianity is outlawed, and Christians are oppressed. In fact, currently in the world, there are more vibrant groups of Christians south of the equator than there are in the United States and Europe.  

Putting God first in your life focuses everything in a very specific way. Too many of us want to place other foci before God: politics, nationality, tribes, or social causes. Some want to put religion before God. Just the title of a book of prayers: God Has No Religion helps me to remember that religions are human traditions and not created by God. God is not a member of a political party, a specific religion, denomination or philosophical tradition and every time we equate God which is something less than the divine, we are idolizing something of humanity. It is why it is important to not ever equate God with the Holy Bible. While the Bible contains the words of God, it is not the equivalent of the Word of God, which is and always will be greater than any collection of Scripture.

Worshipping God above everything else gives us an unshakeable foundation of hope – not only hope in the future but hope in ourselves. We can see that everything we do is to please God and work towards God’s plans for the future even if we cannot understand those plans. We can rest upon our faith in God that good will come out if our decisions.


Trust – another Foundational Layer

After hope and prioritizing God, comes trust. By trusting that God always works for the good of his creation, we can be strengthened in the hope that emerges from that trust. Trust gives us a strong foundation to stand and live upon. The world would take that trust away from us. In a recent editorial, Thomas Friedman –

“without a minimum level of truth and trust, everything becomes politics (author’s italics). Normal objects – like masks and vaccines, textbooks in public schools – suddenly become neon signs identifying who you are for or against. And when everything becomes politics there is no neutral, sacred ground for leaders to gather in and collaborate in the national interest. It means our democracy, like our climate, is much more fragile than we think.”

That “neutral, sacred ground” that Friedman defines is not just for leaders but for all of us. And we gather there not just to collaborate in the ‘national interest’, but in the interest of all of humanity. As Christians we are not only called by God to inhabit that space, but to expand it – through our trust in God, our hope in God, and our faith in God’s hand in both history and the future.



Pastor’s Blog, October 2021

    I often wonder about a question what most people think of as having an obvious answer: What is the purpose of a church? Saying “to worship God” works but those three words require intense unpacking. We are a part of the body of Christ; so then how do we make worship this purpose? Is it enough for us to come together on Sunday morning, say prayers, sing a few songs and leave? If we are a part of a larger body, how do we serve that larger body on Sunday morning?

    Is our purpose somehow linked to the rest of the parts of the body (the wider United Church of Christ, the wider Protestant Church, the wider Christianity)? Are we instructed in our purpose through these wider bodies? Or is our congregation an individual part of the body that determines its own purpose? Knowing that we are a part of a larger can be helpful in some ways, but it is a definition from a metaphor. Ultimately it doesn’t help us answer this question.

    We are a church – a building, an institution with a history in a specific community – Algonquin. Are we here to represent God and Christ to Algonquin? If we are then we must engage in this community by its rules – through politics and economic structures, in the same way that Jesus and the prophets do in the Bible. So thus, we could say that our purpose is to be prophetic. And yet, would members of our church be happy about this? We could not stay within the safety of our church building but would need to move into the streets.

   We are a church/building with a long history. Is our purpose to maintain our physical property? If we think about how much of our energy as a congregation is focused upon administrative and building maintenance, then we can see our purpose as institutionally driven. And yet, is that what the Bible calls us to do – build and maintain sanctuaries (temples) and then collect and invest money to keep them?

   We are a community – a group of people who have found each other and now exist to care for each other. We are always a community in the process of becoming a family. But does God only want us to concentrate on each other?

   These are all different threads of our identity and our purpose. These threads intertwine with each other, to create together an identity and a purpose with a richer meaning. This richer meaning is God. The Bible, which acts as a guide in sorting all of this out, keeps coming back to tell us that our purpose is always to praise God. Does that mean we should sing, and joyfully proclaim the good news of God? Perhaps, but I am beginning to see that Bible instructs us more specifically. It is not about getting a community together, building a building and then making noise (albeit fun and pleasant noise!).  Praising God means reaching out into God’s creation and letting others know, through our actions, that God is worth loving because He finds us worth loving. It’s by figuring out how to use each other and our property to act towards God’s children and creation the way that God wants to act. Everything that we are given – each other, our building, our wider community, and our wider Christian church should be tools that we use to actively praise God in this way. Therefore, we must keep talking about Justice and Peace, Compassion and Mission, to remind us that this is our purpose. If we only focus on our property and the administration of the church, we run the risk of making them into idols, turning from worshipping God. If we turn too much towards the wider Community or the Wider Church, we find ourselves making political idols and forgetting about God.

Our purpose as a church is to actively praise God. We do that by continually reminding each of that we can only praise God by keeping ourselves and all the tools at our disposal focused on God. That focus is found in the active work of mercy, love, justice, and kindness that we do together.

Pastor’s Blog, September 2021

Dear Friends,

As we were concluding a Bible Study on the topic of grace, we came across this passage from 2 Corinthians –

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,

“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
    his righteousness endures forever.”

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.

Usually, this text is used as a biblical mandate for good financial stewardship. But the author of the Bible Study wanted us to think of it in other ways. We were encouraged from Romans 12 to think of the gifts that we have received through God’s grace:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Often, we include not only a line for a financial pledge, but also one for time that we can give. Perhaps, though, we should be asked to make a pledge to live our lives in the coming year to increase any of the gifts that Paul lists in Romans. Which would you choose to focus upon?

In their book, Adventures in Missing the Point, Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo challenge the Christian Church to relook at fundamental attitudes the we have about the church, specifically through three over-arching themes: God, the World, and the Soul. Under those three themes they discuss topics such as Salvation, End times, Social Action Environmentalism, Sin Doubt and Truth, among others. They did not include Stewardship, the one topic we almost certainly not gotten right. To be good stewards of the gifts that God has given us, we have to be clear as to what those gifts are. When you think of the gifts coming from God’s grace, then our money and material possessions do not seem like gifts from God; what I have on my bank account or garage are not the fruit from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Money and material possessions are tools. They are necessary: you can’t build a house unless you have hammers or nails, or some other kinds of tools. The gifts that we are given, the gifts that we are called to be stewards are the gifts of God’s grace as the first letter of Peter tells us:

 Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10 Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11 Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.

If our pledge card listed these gifts, what would you commit to doing over the coming year? Maintain constant love for one another; be hospitable to one another without complaining; serve one another with whatever gift each of you have received; Speak or serve? What can you commit to?

Our financial pledge must follow our stewardship of the gift of God’s grace. Before we make a budget, don’t we need to know what that budget is for? How will the budget reflect the fruit of the gifts of God’s grace that we commit to work for? If all we do is give money to the church, then we end only being passive observers of the work of that money. Those funds instead will serve us even as we serve our God.




Pastor’s Blog August 1, 2021

We are on a roof, surrounded by flood waters rising. We pray for God to help us. We have faith that God will provide a miracle.

Like it or not, we are not through with Co-Vid 19. It is here and we must learn how to live with it. Living with it does not mean how do we keep ourselves from contracting it; it means how we keep ourselves from spreading it. I think of those who are not able to get it – children and people who allergic to vaccines. Because of them, the vaccine is not a choice. It is a responsibility.

Are you vaccinated? If not, get the vaccine. Stop arguing about freedom, politics, or fears about what the vaccines will do to you in the long run. Get it to protect others. It is our responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves. In this case, I would say, do for others what you would want others to do for you. Think of what it would be like if that choice were not available for you. You would be dependent upon those who could get the vaccine. And if they refused, your only choice is permanent quarantine.

Nobody wants to see another lockdown. I am sure you do not. If being able to go out of our house and be around other people means that we must wear a mask, we should more than happy to do so. Wear a mask if it means that people can keep coming to church on Sunday morning. One thing that this pandemic has taught us is that we can get emotional strength when we are together in the church that we cannot get anywhere else. So if wearing a mask is the only way that we get to be together then PLEASE:  wear your mask! (As I write this, the CDC is asking everyone to wear a mask when they are with others. It has not been mandated.)

If you think that vaccines and masks take away your individual freedom, please think again. Vaccines and masks are not instruments of freedom but privileges that we are blessed to have available to us. For Christians, they are God’s instruments of compassion. We give blood so that others can live. We sign up to be organ donors. I see no difference between receiving the vaccine and wearing seat belts and putting little ones in car seats.

When I got the chance to get the vaccine, I did not think that it was for me. I always understood it was for the safety of those around me, including you. It never entered my mind to think of the long-term side effects to me; it was always about the long-term effects that I was going to give to others – life. Getting a vaccine is an act of faith in God. For all of 2020, we have been praying to God to bring an end to the pandemic. God has answered our prayers.

We are on a roof during a flood and the waters are rising. We pray to God to save us. A boat comes. We refuse. God will provide a miracle. A helicopter arrives. No. God will save us. God’s help was the boat, and then the helicopter. God’s help, God’s miracle, is the vaccine.

Notes on a Sermon, June 28, 2021

Since I began my ministry too many years ago, there was one of several issues in the church that seminary did not prepare me for: whether I should preach by manuscript or extemporaneously (a large word meaning speaking without notes). I did not want to spend my life memorizing manuscripts each week; some pastors do this. Very early on in my ministry, I decided to preach extemporaneously. If you are a person who is not comfortable speaking in public, speaking without notes (off the top-of-your head) could be terrifying. The nightmare that hung over me while I was using manuscripts was the thought that I would begin preaching and the manuscript would be out of order, or pages would be missing. I found it easier to preach extemporaneously.

As you might expect, there are some good things, and some challenges to either style of preaching. For my sermons, the problem is that I do not get to go back and edit my sermon before I deliver it. Any mistakes I make remain. Many times, I make statements and claims which are complex. Because I have been thinking of the issue all week, I know all the details of the comment, and forget that everyone listening to it is hearing it for the first time. I often forget how much power hearing one detail has over the supporting details around it. When I began ministering, and wrote out my manuscripts, I could have my wife read them. She would be able to filter out these potential problems.

I have often thought of providing note sheets to the people who hear my sermons. They can take these, put their own notes on them, and I will provide more detailed notes that can help explain my points. After reading these sheets, you may still disagree about the main point I was making, but you will be able to understand better how I came to my conclusions.

I see a sermon as a three-way dialog – between myself and you, myself and the Holy Spirit, and you and the Holy Spirit. As such the sermon is not a static point but an ongoing relationship between the three of us. Why feedback is so invaluable to me, is that you will be able to give me insights through your part of the conversation with the Holy Spirit,

Let me explain: While the Holy Spirit can speak to us through words (and people often tell me that they will hear a voice speaking to them), often, the Spirit speaks through our experiences. I hear something that someone says, and I filter it through my own experiences. Your filters and mine will not be the same because our experiences are not the same. As the Holy Spirit communicates through us through those experiences and memories that are specific to us, we will glean insights that we don’t always share with others. But I am always eager to hear about how the Spirit speaks to you and then to share the differences and learn even more about how God works in our life. 

Let’s say that I am preaching about what Freedom means to a Christian. I am going to speak about it from the life that I have led. I have had a life that has been amazingly free, and my biggest problem is that I take it for granted. Someone who may hear my sermon may not have been able to live in Freedom – whether it is social, family, or cultural bars limiting them. Since we are both trying to understand freedom from God’s point of view, I know that the Spirit is active in this sermonic dialogue. There are things that I say that will benefit the person listening. But then there are ideas that my words will through the Holy Spirit that I will be unaware of. When those ideas disagree, it never means that I am correct, and you are not, or vice versa. It does not mean that you fall into one religious camp and I in another. It means that the dialogue is richer than you and I can imagine because it includes the Holy Spirit. So look for my Notes to a Sermon sheet, either on the web page or in the Narthex when you come. I pray we will find them useful.


February 2021

I want to be straight forward about this: when I became a Christian and decided to accept God’s call to the ministry when I was 27 years old, I would have never followed this call if I heard it through Christian nationalism.  I received my call, and my understanding about what Christianity is, and what the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches with the deep understanding that God is universal. I didn’t understand denominations then, and really didn’t understand why humans had split into different faiths. I told myself that people are different and they understand how they relate to God in different ways, and, therefore, denominations and faiths give people different ways to understand, relate, and respond to God in their life. Thus, the institution of religion does not exist to serve God but to serve human beings as they serve God.

I do know that while they do serve a purpose, denominations, rituals, and beliefs can also create problems for the Christian. We cannot have denominations without putting up walls between the people that God has created. Let’s face it: denominations, churches and faiths have not always been created with God in mind. More often than not, they have been created to keep people out. For this reason, I have always been opposed to church membership. I believe that we are baptized and that baptism has a purpose. I do not see that same purpose in church membership. I see that everyone that walks into our church building is a child of God who is invited into the church by God – not by us. If we stay, we enter into a community, but we are neither bound into this community nor do we keep people out of the community. I mean, we are invited into the community by God and it is God who calls us to leave communities. I have told people that if they are not happy in a congregation, then it is a sign that God is calling them to another community. Working for and with God always is marked with joy and purpose.

So-called Christian nationalism is not a community brought together by God. God does not build nations. God does not separate his creation and his children with walls, names, countries, or ethnic origins. God will never recognize us from the color of our skin, our gender, or our cultural identities. We are all his children and God calls us to work together in joy as siblings. Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust, once wrote: Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe. Christian nationalism is not and never will be the will of God; God’s will is always for the unity of human beings living and loving together.

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:  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 

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


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



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.