A sermon based on: Jeremiah 17: 5-10 and John 15: 1-17

Christian faith is earthy, concrete. It is not about universal, timeless truth or generalized moral principles. It is about God invading time and place: being born in Bethlehem, growing up as a carpenter’s son in the village of Nazareth, walking the dusty roads of Galilee. It is about Jesus healing sick people, feeding hungry people, confronting greedy people, and dying on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem.

Christian faith is trusting that God deals with us in the same way: God invades our  time and our place. It is trusting that the Holy Spirit is involved in the actual circumstances of our ordinary lives. The Spirit’s work changes the way we spend our time and our money, the way we treat our families and friends, the way we conduct ourselves at work. The Spirit pushes us to offer radical hospitality to strangers and enemies. God is at work, training us to live cross-shaped lives in the midst of this world.

It is unhealthy for communities of faith when activities like stewardship and mission get reduced merely to give money away. A healthy congregation needs some hands-on work for people to do. It needs to provide tangible ways for people to experience the blessings of serving others. The Iona Community in Scotland was founded by people who believed that part of what was wrong with the modern way of life was that our brains and our hands got separated too often. People who live there and those who visit spend time not only in creative thought and worship. Part of their day is also given to physical labour. Christian faith is earthy.

However, in the midst of our doing, we can forget that God is trying to do something in us. It is easy to forget that the things we do in serving God are the overflow and outward expression of the work God is doing in us. We love because God first loves us We serve because Jesus serves and saves us. We forgive because the Holy Spirit works God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace into our lives. We welcome the stranger because God has welcomed us. What we do flows out of God’s work in us.

What we do is also the means by which God continues God’s work in us. You show up to serve at the Inn of the Good Shepherd and God is forming you as much as you are feeding the hungry. You take a trip to Haiti and the service you render the poor pales in comparison to the way God is shaping your character, your priorities, and your heart.

That work of God is going on all the time. It is the easiest thing in the world to ignore it. There is always plenty to do. There are always lots of distractions. There is always enough resistance within ourselves that we shove the signs of God’s work to the edge of our consciousness. We do not attend to what God is doing. Worse, we do not respond to it. Eventually, we drift away from the source of our energy and our life.

Sometimes, when that happens, we say that we are suffering from ‘burn out’. It is a term that is borrowed from rocketry. A rocket, soaring upwards, runs out of fuel and falls back to earth. The problem with the metaphor is that it is too mechanical. It implies that there is something external to us that is missing: the problem is that there is not enough fuel; the solution is to add more fuel. Problem fixed. The rocket remains essentially unchanged. It nurtures in us the illusion that, if we could just find the right thing to change about our lives, we would manage well. We look for something external to fix what is wrong: we cut back on our commitments; we find a new time-management tool; we start a new physical fitness routine; we take more vitamins; we learn a new spiritual exercise that will restore our energy.

All those strategies may be helpful in appropriate circumstances. However, when God is at work, God does not merely change what is happening outside of us or what is happening to us. In fact, the external circumstances may not change at all. God’s Spirit works within us, changing our spirits. God’s Spirit forms us, shapes us, and creates within us the capacity to receive God’s life.

That is why the Bible uses organic images when it talks about the spiritual life. Jeremiah says that there are two kinds of people. There are the kind of people who depend on human resources to see them through. They might use God as a background or adjunct to their project, but the dominant context in which they operate is human knowledge, human skills, human resources. Such people, he says, are like those little shrubs you see in the desert: small, easily blown around, brown and dry. They are surviving but just barely, meagrely.

The world is teeming with the energies of God. We live in the midst of God’s extravagant, lavish creativity and redemption. Human resources makes up such a minuscule  portion of that richly alive world. If you only count on human resources, if human capacities shape the limits of what you attend to, you end up with a life that is shallow and thin. When the lean times come, you lack the support you need to survive.

Other people, says Jeremiah, live strenuously. They are like a tree by a river: large, green, abundantly watered, deep-rooted and fruitful. They are the ones who attend to what God is up to. They are developing minds and hearts and spirits that are capable of receiving God’s extravagant grace and life. Even when the lean times come, they keep growing and bearing fruit.

God is always at work in your life. The Holy Spirit is always trying to shape your spirit so that you love with an eternal love and live with the energies of eternity. There is no circumstance that God cannot use to accomplish that work in you. God is at work, whether you are soaring like an eagle or trudging through each day, barely getting the hours in.

God is at hand. Sometimes God is affirming you, strengthening and supporting you. Sometimes God is making you face up to a truth you have been trying to ignore — a truth you need to face if you are going to be set free. Sometimes God is pulling you away from some habit that is becoming destructive. Sometimes God is refining your character to make it stronger, cutting away idolatry, or selfishness, or laziness. There is much in us that distorts God’s image in our lives. Always, God’s aim is to fill us with true and abundant life and to fit us to spend eternity in God’s presence. God wants to bless us and fill us with joy and make our lives fruitful.

It is not always pleasant to be God’s work. You can help God or you can hinder God. If you do not spend some time intentionally attending to what God is doing in your life, you will probably miss it. Says Jeremiah, “The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.” Given free reign, we will probably going to misunderstand what is going on.  Our hearts and our spirits need training and development so that we become capable of receiving God’s work in us and then capable of responding to it well.

“Abide in me,” said Jesus, “and you will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing. You will become like a withered up old branch that gets thrown into the fire and burned.”

Whatever is taking up your energy, keep your eyes and heart and spirit open to the ways God is at work, teaching you to love more deeply. Let Christ’s great love permeate deeper and deeper into your life. Abide, make yourself at home in the love of the One who says, “I have called you by name. You are mine. I have cared for you from the time you were born. I am your God and will take care of you until you are old and your hair is gray.” (Isaiah 43: 1;  Isaiah 46:4)

Abide, makes yourself at home in the love of the One who knows all about you — your good moments and your bad ones; the times of glory and the times of which you are ashamed; the ways you try to live faithfully and the ways you have failed. God knows all that and loves you still.

Abide in the love of Jesus who left the glories of heaven and went to hell and back to prove that nothing in all creation could ever separate you from God’s love. Abide in Jesus’ love. “You will be like a tree, replanted in Eden, bearing fresh fruit every month. Never dropping a leaf, always in blossom.” (Psalm 1, The Message)

 Love divine, all loves excelling,

love that creates us in your image,

love that meets us in our brokenness,

love that pulls us out of deadly traps

and sets us in the wide expanses of your salvation:

You we worship;

You we praise;

You we love.

You know the ways we wander from your love:

the fears that drive us to make our world small and manageable;

the selfishness that shuts down our hearts;

the arrogance that limits our reach toward the ones you love.

Immerse us again and again in your lavish grace.

Bathe us one more in the cleansing stream of your truth.

Send you Spirit flowing through the dried-up, worn-out places.

Bring life — your life

your wondrous, abundant life,

for we pray in the name of Jesus, 

the Way, the Truth, the Life, 

your Word made flesh,

your Love.  Amen.

Many people in post-mainline churches have trouble talking about their faith in public. There are many reasons for this, but I began wondering about one of them the other day.

For many years, ‘faith’ was framed as something that was ‘private’. If it is ‘private’, then speaking about it to others involves risk — allowing oneself to be vulnerable. So, I wonder if one of the reasons people are reluctant to talk about faith is that they are afraid of being shamed.

For some people, the fear of being shamed comes because they do not believe all the things that they think they are supposed to believe. They have trouble with doctrines like the ‘virgin birth’ or the ‘resurrection of the dead’. They cannot believe that the miracles in the Bible really happened. Lots of people who follow Jesus also have trouble with some of the church’s doctrines. More accurately, lots of people have trouble subscribing to the popular conceptions about what those doctrines are saying. However, I have been surprised by the number of people who confess to me that they ‘don’t believe all those things’ as if such an admission might make me think less of them and their faithfulness. When I am looking at church websites I am amused by the study groups that have named themselves as ‘rebels’ and ‘revolutionaries’, when the focus of their group is nothing more daring than reading books that question some beliefs that are supposedly commonly held. Obviously, in some segments of the Church, there is still a mindset that considers being truthful about your doubts a risky thing. Some people are ‘rebellious’ enough to gather with others, admit their questions, and enter into conversation about them. Others keep their doubts to themselves and so do not talk about their faith in public.

On the other hand, I wonder if some people are reluctant to talk about their faith in public because they DO believe certain things and they are afraid that, in a culture of skepticism, others will make fun of them for that or will think less of them. Will they be mocked because they do believe that miracles happen? Will they be considered foolish if they admit that they have had an experience of Christ’s presence? ? Will people dismiss their answers to their prayers as a misinterpretation of the facts?

Churches could go a long way in helping people to speak about their faith publicly by cultivating an environment where respectful, open and honest conversations happen. In such an atmosphere, it would be all right to question. It would also be all right to believe. People wouldn’t be labelled as either foolish or rebellious. People would not be mocked for either belief or doubt.

Then, perhaps, churches could move the conversation about faith away from ‘belief’ to ‘trust’ — which holds even more risk because it moves the conversation from the head to the heart and will and body.

A sermon based on 1 Kings 19: 1-18

Dr. Andrew Stirling is the Senior Minister of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto. He lived and studied in South Africa during a time when apartheid was still in force. During the 1970s, he was a student minister to a small congregation in one of the black townships. While he was there, he took a stand against apartheid. He engaged in some activities in which he ended up protecting some black youths from the white police. In 1980, he was exiled from South Africa and came to Canada.

At one point, he was the minister at Parkdale United Church in Ottawa. He was serving there at the time when apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela was being installed as the Prime Minister of the new South Africa. In honour of that occasion, the Canadian government held a reception from some ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps. Somebody in the government knew of Dr. Stirling’s involvement in the struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa and arranged from him to receive an invitation to the reception as well.

He arrived wearing his clerical collar and a suit jacket. Very quickly, he felt out of place as the only clergy person in the midst of government officials, diplomats and ambassadors. He spent some time standing around awkwardly until, at one point in the evening, three ambassadors — from Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana — came up to him and introduced themselves. They asked him, “Do you represent anyone in particular?”

“Not really,” he replied.

“Then, what are you doing here?”

“I am beginning to wonder that myself.”

He told them about living and working in South Africa, about his role in the anti-apartheid movement and about the incident with the young boys, and how all of that had led to his being expelled and exiled from the country.

When he had finished, the three ambassadors put their arms around him and said to him, “Never underestimate the importance of the one whom you represent.”

“Never underestimate the importance of the one whom you represent.”  Like Dr. Stirling, we are prone to doing just that. Many voices these days tell us that what the church is and what the church does is unimportant to the real business of the world. These voices are pervasive and they are persistent.

An eighty-five year old woman does nothing more important than buy two winning lottery tickets and she makes headline news. A small group of women, mostly 60 to 90 years old, meet every month for years, quietly raising money in a variety of ways so that some young girl in a distant country will get an education and some shoes to wear. They donate some of their funds to the local food bank so that the working poor, persons with disabilities, and single moms trying to feed and clothe their children can get some pasta and soup to see them through to the end of the month. They do it because they believe that, by doing so, they are serving Jesus their Lord. They will never once make headline news but what they do has a far greater impact than any of us will ever know.

Jennifer Aniston breaks up with her latest boyfriend and her picture gets plastered on the front page of magazines as if this were world-shaking news. Yet, I know people who go about their everyday lives, trying to live with decency and integrity and faithfulness and courage wherever they work and play and serve their communities. They keep at it even though they will never receive the acclaim, money or notoriety that celebrities do in our culture. They do it because they understand that this is what it means to live out of the truth that Jesus is Lord. The witness of their lives will impact their communities in a depth far exceeding what any Hollywood star could accomplish.

Apple announces a new technological toy and stock holders rush to adjust their portfolios. Yet, week in and week out, small groups of Christians gather to worship God and to create communities where children are taught to pray and to live with compassion. Together, they learn the difficult art of loving one another and forgiving one another and loving again after the hurt and the pain. They are carried into an unknown future by hope in the living Christ. They do it because they have been baptized into a life of dying to self and being raised by God into a new creation. They seek to make and keep life human — caring, compassionate, and truthful. They just keep doing living this way even though most of their neighbours do not think that it matters whether or not their little churches survive. Those neighbours will only realize what the community has lost long after the building is closed and gone; yet, those congregations do more to effect the quality of life in that community than all the stock portfolios in the world.

“Never underestimate the importance of the one you represent.”

Many Christian churches are now in the position of being missionary outposts of the kingdom of heaven. We do not receive the support, encouragement or recognition from the culture around us that we once enjoyed. Because of that, we are constantly in danger of underestimating the importance of whom it is we represent. It is easy to get discouraged and disoriented. We can lose our way. When the people of Israel were in danger of forgetting those things, somebody told them again the story of Elijah.

Elijah was a prophet of the Lord God Almighty but, as can happen to God’s people, he was broken down, discouraged, worn out and used up. He wanted to do nothing more than crawl away and hide somewhere. He headed out to the desert. However, Yahweh would not let him settle for that. Yahweh sought him out in the wilderness and sent an angel to feed and nourish him. The angel told him that there was still a journey ahead of him that he needed to take. The journey would take him even deeper into the wilderness.

Elijah got up and, for forty days and forty nights, made his way to Mount Horeb — to the place where God had invited Moses and the people of Israel to live in covenant partnership. Elijah was being sent back to the roots of the people of God.

When Elijah got there, God asked him the kind of question that made him focus on the basics of his life again:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah could not get past his disappointment, discouragement and sense of isolation. “I’ve been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts. I, only I, am left.”

It’s not a very good answer. It is filled with self-pity. It’s all about him, but it’s all he has left.

God does not really respond to what Elijah says. God does not try to comfort him or encourage him. God does not promise that things will work out for the best. Yahweh just tells Elijah to stand on the mountain because the Lord is about to pass by.

Elijah cannot manage to do even that.

Nevertheless, there is a great wind, an earthquake and a fire. The Lord is not in any of those. Then, there is the sound of sheer silence.  Somehow, it was that silence, that sense of utmost awe and majesty that accompanies the presence of God, that drew Elijah out of the cave and onto the mountain before God.

God asks Elijah the same question God has asked before: “What are you doing here?”

Elijah gives the same answer: “I’ve worked so hard for you, God. It doesn’t seem to have made any difference. I’m the only one left who really cares.”

Again, God does not spend any time on Elijah’s fears and laments. He re-commissions Elijah. There’s still work to be done. He is not alone as he thinks: there are seven thousand who are still faithful and upon whom Elijah can count, even as Yahweh counts on them.

He is to anoint Elisha as his successor. God’s work is so big that it will continue long after Elijah is gone. It will continue: God is already preparing the next generation and it is up to Elijah to disciple them.

He is to anoint Hazael as ruler of Israel and Jehu as ruler of Judah. God is still at work in the world, even directing the future those who hold power. Elijah gets to get in on that world-shaping work.

Elijah gets up and starts again.

The question God is asking us in such a time as this is the same one God asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?” If Elijah’s story is any indication, the chances are that the first answer we give to that question will not be adequate. Probably, the second answer won’t be either. When we are feeling threatened or discouraged, we are prone to focus on ourselves and on what we have done and how we are feeling about all of that.

Nevertheless, God persists. “Why are you here?” Why is there a church in this place?

Even after we get past our initial self-focussed answers, we may make the mistake of looking for the presence of God in something big, spectacular, glamourous. We want an answer that hits us like a great wind or an earthquake or a fire. Yet, that is not the way of Jesus. When Jesus spoke about the church, he used modest metaphors. We are yeast, salt, a light in the darkness. We are a ‘little flock’.

The story tells us to listen for God’s answer to the question in the sound of sheer silence — in moments of awe and majesty when we know ourselves to be in the presence of a holy God. We cannot manufacture those moments. God reveals Godself when God wills. However, we can be ready to respond to them when they come.

That’s why we show up, Sunday by Sunday. We worship God who has claimed our lives and our hearts. We praise the one who rules the cosmos. We sit under the authority of these stories. We wrestle with them. Then we wait and we pray and we offer ourselves to live in obedience to God.

It does not seem like much. Most of the time, it is not glamourous or spectacular in the way the world measures such things. Then again, it is not all about us and what we manage to do. It is all about God — a holy God who takes our fears and transforms them into courage. It’s about our God who meets our brokenness with resurrecting power and impels us into a new sense of mission in the world that God loves. Our work is never to forget the importance of the one whom we represent.

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett on John 20: 1-18

On the evening before Jesus died, Jesus gathered his disciples together and made them a promise. He said, “In a little while, I am going to leave you, but I will not leave you desolate. I will not leave you orphaned. I will ask the Father to send you the Holy Spirit to be with you in my name. So, don’t let your hearts be troubled. Don’t let them be afraid.” (John 14)

Though the centuries, in joy, in sorrow, in the midst of trouble, Jesus’ followers have counted on that promise. If I were to ask you, “What is the gospel? What is the faith that comforts you and sustains you and carries you when you suffer?”, I expect that many of you would answer, “God is with you. We do not journey alone. We do not suffer alone. ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For Thou are with me. Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me’ (Psalm 23)”.

A New Creed of the United Church of Canada proclaims, ‘We are not alone. We live in God’s world. . . . In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. Thanks be to God.” At Christmas, we heard Jesus named Emmanuel — God-with-us. As we headed into Holy Week, Jesus promised, “I will not leave you desolate.”

We count on it. We hold onto it. Time and time again people have told me that they have felt its truth in their lives.

And yet, there have also been times when counting on that promise has been more a matter of faith than of certainty. You can go through stretches — sometimes long stretches— when you do not experience God present with you. You can come to a place where you have to choose to trust that God is with you. You choose to trust the promise even thought there is so much evidence to the contrary. You lean into the promise rather than resting in it. There may be times when you cannot manage even that.

This morning’s gospel story tells us that that is where Easter begins. Did you catch it? “Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” “While it was still dark”, because on Friday, Jesus, the Light of the World, had died on a Roman cross and his disciples’ hope had died with him. “While it was still dark” — in those times when nothing you can do will fix what has gone wrong and you cannot make it right no matter how hard you try. “While it was still dark” — in those times when the disciples of Jesus, the community of faith, is scattered, and fragmented and frightened and not at all sure what the future holds.

In that dark place, where hope cannot be found, and you are full of questions and doubts and uncertainties and you may not even be able to pray, God is at work. Even there the promise hold.

Very often, God’s resurrection work in your life is going to be hidden from your eyes. That does not mean that nothing is happening. By the time any of us gets to Easter morning, God has already entered into the depths of our lives, overcome the power of death and brought the dead to life and begun a new creation, a new world.

The chances are that you are going to see the evidence of God’s resurrection, God’s saving work in your life, only well after Easter has already begun. More than that, the chances are that it won’t look anything like you thought it would.

Mary comes to Jesus’ tomb, expecting to sit for a while in her grief and her pain and her loss. She sees that the stone that had been rolled in front of the tomb on Friday now had been removed from the tomb. She does not immediately thing, “Oh, look — resurrection! God has raised Jesus from the dead. Everything is okay now.” No. She sees the emptiness and the absence and says, “Someone has taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” She thinks that the grave has been robbed. It wasn’t enough that the powers-that-be had killed Jesus. Now, they had added hurt upon hurt, sorrow upon sorrow and had stolen him away from her as well.

She runs to the church — to Peter and the beloved disciple. They are not too sure what to make of the empty tomb either. They both see signs of God’s resurrection power at work — the stone moved away, the missing body, the folded grave cloths —but only one of them ‘believed’ and they both just went back home. They went back to the way things already were, as if nothing had happened. Mary stays, weeping outside the tomb. She turns around and sees someone standing there and she thinks it is the gardener.

The God who comes to us in Jesus is a God who creates new life where there is only death; a God who takes our dead ends and opens up new possibilities; a God who makes new and heals and saves. Yet, this new resurrection life does not come easily. None of us receives it easily.

You can get stuck in your expectations of what God is supposed to do, or what God’s work is supposed to look like, or what God’s promised presence is supposed to feel like. You are going to have difficulty recognizing the risen Christ in your life. Nadia Bolz-Weber has said, “A God of resurrection means that the story is seldom over when we think it is . . . Being a person of faith doesn’t mean you get to be certain. It means you get to be surprised.”

Our God is a living God, a God of surprises. “I will not leave you desolate,” promises Jesus, but the only way to live into Jesus’ promise is to “live expectantly but without expectations”. All we know is this: God’s love is a firm, determined love that will not let you go. There is no situation so lost that God cannot find you in it and bring you home. There is no wreckage so total that God cannot redeem it and use it for good and holy purposes. God works way beyond your expectations. Resurrection is larger, deeper, more wondrous than any of us expects.

A Risen Saviour is on the loose. Nothing in all creation can stop him. And he knows your name. Thanks be to God.

In The Missional Leader, Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk describe the crises that many churches are experiencing as “the reactive zone”. In the reactive zone, ‘battle lines form around issues other than those that are critical to the life of the system. People take dies and demonize each other over secondary issues, which further reduces the system’s ability to address the real crisis” (p. 52 -53).

Ten years ago, in Confessing The Faith, Douglas John Hall wrote about the metamorphosis that was happening in our churches.  He acknowledged that it causes some anxiety for laity and for tenured theological academics.  However, he pointed out that it is the clergy who ‘find themselves on the biting edge of this cold front’ (p. x).  It is the clergy who are the most vulnerable when the church enters into the reactive zone.

Have you have heard of a friend or a colleague in ordered ministry who has been badly wounded or damaged in a church fight? Do  you know more than one such person?  Do you know this person personally? What did you do when you heard about it?  Did you call?  send an email?  invite that person to go for a coffee? Did you speak out when you knew there had been some injustice?

How many of these people do you consider to have been eminently suited for ministry/church leadership but who have now left ordered ministry because of the anger, hurt, frustration, or despair?

If you are in ordered ministry, do you think it could not happen to you?

Roxburgh and Romanuk note that ‘a leader who wants to innovate missional change must learn to deal with change and transition (Missional Leader, p. 162).  This leader must be creative and take bold risks.  However, when they talked with a group of actual leaders in churches, the authors were struck by the low morale of the leaders–  their sense of discouragement and their lack of hope for their congregations.  They concluded, “Without addressing this malaise among leaders and congregations, there will be little innovation in missional life.” (p.16)

I have been on a quest to discover resources for ministers to survive and hold fast while their churches are in the reactive zone.  Increasing numbers of congregations are there.  Nothing in my seminary training prepared me for living in that zone.  That was thirty-three years ago.  As far as I know, it is still the case that very little is done to prepare people in ordered ministry to lead congregations that are in crisis or dying.

When ordered ministers respond to the treatment they receive either by leaving ordered ministry or by going on long-term disability, the initial response of the governance structures has sometimes been to say that what is needed to improve the discernment process for people wanting to go into ordered ministry.  The implication:  If better people were going into ministry the church wouldn’t have these issues to deal with.

Part of what makes ministry such a dangerous vocation is the conflict that comes with the territory.  It is not just that missional leaders must take bold risks that will sometimes get them into trouble.  It is also that there can be no change without conflict.  When that is added to the normal conflict that is an inevitable part of human relationships, congregational leaders find themselves in the eye of a storm.

A few years ago, my spiritual mentor was talking with another retired minister about yet another situation in which a minister was being ‘bushwhacked’ by his congregation.  Said the retired minister, “In over 30 years, I’ve never seen it this bad.”

There are many reasons why it’s ‘this bad’. Among them is the paradigm shift that is happening in our culture and in our churches.  Many of the structures with which we currently function were created to deal with different realities.  We try to function in the gap that is created by this, but often issues don’t get resolved.  Then, the issues escalate into problems.  Then, the problems escalate into crises and things get ugly.

On top of that, many people generally are anxious, confused, and distressed by the effects of the world shifting under their feet.  Some people are emotionally immature and some have toxic ways of relating with others.  They bring those characteristics with them into the church which has somehow conveyed the message that ‘being loved’ means they will not be confronted.  Then, for some reason, when the church itself is under stress, these people can gain a disproportionate amount power and influence, wreaking havoc.  And, for some reason, good people who should and could speak up, remain silent or walk away.

This is a part of the church’s life that is often unacknowledged in helpful ways.  Life in the reactive zone is full of deep valleys that are full of pain, hurt, frustration and even despair.  A lot of collateral damage happens there.

When we do not speak about those realities, we give them even greater power than they already have to shape our churches in destructive ways and to wound and even destroy those who are in ordered ministry.  “Unspoken feelings and anxieties act like a powerful, dominating control mechanism.  They are like the unpredictable chaos out of which anything can emerge not as relationality but as dominance and control.”  (The Missional Leader, p. 88)

We are on our way to something new.  I haven’t yet seen the promised land.  I haven’t even  seen the Jordan River.  But I have seen one or two of the birds that circle overhead when water is near.  We can call it a paradigm shift, rapid discontinuous change, the transformation of the church, a time of exile or wilderness wandering.  Whatever name we give to it, “the passage will almost certainly be stormy, disruptive, disorienting” (The Missional Leader, p. xiv)

If we witness to the newness that God is bringing to birth among us, there will be opposition.  We live in a world that ‘yields most painfully to change’, as Robert Kennedy once said in a speech in Capetown, South Africa.  The clergy may find themselves silenced, exiled and threatened by the keepers of the status quo.  Some of those leaders will be acting merely to preserve their own power.  Some will be acting out of jealousy when they see new life and do not know how to be a part of it.  Some will simply be scattering their own emotional baggage – a different kind of missionary activity, if you will.

When you read the literature on the missional church, some of it gives only a slight nod in the direction of the opposition and conflict that clergy encounter.  Some will offer one or two strategies to deal with it.  However, they often tend to suggest that such conflict can be easily resolved simply by learning appropriate conflict management techniques or by the leader maintaining a non-anxious presence.  A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation gives the example of a congregation that had decided to begin a new contemporary worship service.  This decision also meant that the traditional worship service would move from 9:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.  When a member of the congregation complained about this to Carol, the congregational president, Carol explained, in a non-anxious way, that this was a way to reach youth and visitors.  The complainant listened to Carol then said, “I never thought of it that way.  I guess that’s important, isn’t it?  I can come early.”  (p. 71)

It may be that easy.  It may not be.  Those who resist change can be determined and persistent.  They can exercise their power in abusive ways.  It is  the minister who often gets caught in the cross-fire.  In such situations, the clergy lose hope and energy.  Sometimes they also lose their jobs.  Some even lose their vocations.

On one level, most ministers are not surprised.  When we signed on to follow Jesus, we knew that a cross came with the package.  We who have died and risen with Christ in baptism know that it is going to cost us something.  There will be scars.  That doesn’t make it easy.  It does not mean that we are equipped to deal with the challenges.  It does mean that, if we are going to stay in this terrible, glorious vocation and even lead some of God’s people through the wilderness, we shall need to find resources to hold on, to endure in the face of resistance, conflict, opposition and sometimes, abuse.

Mostly what I have found so far has been helpful advice – tools and techniques– for dealing with conflict and managing change.  These have largely been adopted from the business and social services worlds.

  • Maintain a non-anxious presence.
  • Establish healthy communication styles.  Don’t allow rumour, gossip, third-party comments, anonymous input
  • Face conflict head-on
  • Insist on truth-telling.  No secrets.  End the ‘confidential’ meetings
  • Work on your own emotional maturity and become a person of integrity and courage – a leader worthy of the trust of people

Much of it is good advice.

We had better learn all we can about systems theory, conflict management, organizational skills and abusive behaviours and how to stop them. We had better work on our own emotional baggage and character formation.

And we need to be on a very intentional journey of spiritual formation, opening ourselves to the transforming work of God.  Get a spiritual mentor.  Find a team of peers who will keep you honest and accountable but who will also provide a place to vent and will support you through the tough parts.  Develop deep and robust practices and disciplines of praying, indwelling scripture and keeping Sabbath.

One of the most helpful things that my spiritual mentor said to me was that I needed to recover a sacrament that Jesus had given to his disciples.  It is one that we have neglected but it was commanded by our Lord when he sent the disciples out into the villages and town to proclaim the arrival of the Realm of God.  If they were not welcomed, they were ‘wipe the dust of the town off their feet’.  And they were to say as they were leaving, “Nevertheless, know this:  the Realm of God has come near to you.”  Then, Jesus said, “I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town,” (Luke 10: 12) which can be a very comforting assurance when the hurt is new and fresh.

That said, if we are going to find the resources to endure the struggle, we need something beyond all that.  Douglas Hall contends that the only resource strong enough to help us endure is theology.  We shall need to live into this theologically.  And that ‘living into it theologically’ shall need to be at some depth, not just shallow proof-texting (p. x).  We shall need to find what Newbigin described as ‘some kind of faith that [will] fortify us… against apathy and despair” (Weston, Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian, p. 2)

It is this deep theological reflection that I have found missing in much of the literature about the missional church.  It may be simply that I haven’t been reading the right books. However, I took great comfort from one of the ‘Haynerisms’ that Steve Hayner used to say:  “It is more important to ask the right questions than to have the right answers.”

So, I want to ask three questions about living theologically in the reactive zone:

The categories that commonly occur in the missional church conversation provide good places to start.

1)  Missional churches are Incarnational.  What does it mean that the Jesus whom we follow is a crucified Lord?  Sometimes our crucified Saviour is hard to recognize in the heady promises that pepper the missional church conversation:  that if we just ‘sneeze’ into the right conditions, the gospel will travel like an unstoppable virus into all the world (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways); that a non-anxious presence will turn around a floundering church in short order to the great acclaim of all the leadership in the church; that if you just put the proper structures and processes in place, your congregation will thrive.

Many authors writing for the church that is emerging are bravely venturing into new territory and trying to find the way as best they can. They will not always get it right, but at least they are trying to find a new way. For that, those of us who are following behind, can be grateful.  However, where they seem to be driven by a need for success (whether that is defined as big churches or as many little church sites), we lose sight of Jesus who left his disciples with the closing words, “the world will hate you for it” (Walter Brueggemann, Peace, p.157)

Most of the churches I know are not models of success and competence.  They struggle and stumble and fall.  Many of them are broken and will not easily be fixed.  Does the Incarnation also have something to say to such congregations? Can we only be ‘missional’ when we look successful?  Is there not a word of grace in our brokenness and in our failure?  What does it look like to believe that, even when we do not succeed, when we are the broken Body of Christ, God is at work?  What if our mission in a world addicted to competence and control is to demonstrate what God’s kingdom means when we are not capable and successful?  What if that is the way the world will experience what grace really means?

2)  The mission of God is the reconciliation of the world.  The work of the church is to witness to the shalom that is God’s purpose for and work in the world.  As the Body of Christ, we are a foretaste of the end (telos) God intends for all people.  Meanwhile we live in an age that is becoming more and more prone to choosing violence as its way to respond to conflict.  The way we navigate conflict within our churches becomes part of our witness to such a world. The way we navigate the crises can be the way we incarnate the peace that Jesus comes to bring. What does this mean for the way we deal with conflict in our midst? In many of our churches, even the existence of conflict is denied and hidden.  It goes underground and festers.  We shy away from telling each other the truth because we are afraid of confrontation. What does shalom look like when there are deeply held and/or irreconcilable differences?  We had thought that caring was enough: that, if we all just cared enough, things would all work out.  Things don’t all work out.  Out of our ‘caring’ for one another, we end up telling lies to one another, not wanting to confront each other with the truth, fearing that the truth will hurt and so we shall not be ‘caring’.  I once asked Stanley Hauerwas how we go about living in a Sermon on the Mount kind of community.  He said in his usual pastoral way, “Don’t lie. It’s the lies we tell each other in the name of love that are killing us. Peace requires confrontation. We have to love each other enough to tell the truth to one another. Don’t lie.”

3)  Hospitality to strangers is an elementary practice for missional churches.  That presents challenges for us when we consider the strangers outside our walls.  What does ‘hospitality to strangers’ require of us when the stranger is the person sitting next to us in worship?  when the stranger is the person who opposes everything we propose at the Board level?  when the stranger is actively at work to undermine us?

I do not know the answers to many of the questions.  Indeed, I probably do not even know yet the right questions to be asking.  But I trust that giving voice to these issues and asking the questions that they raise will lead to the next step on the journey toward God’s future.  In that spirit, I finish with a quotation from Doug Hall in Confessing the Faith:

To be a Christian today, and more particularly to be in some office of Christian leadership, is in my opinion an infinitely more interesting, challenging, demanding, and also, of course, often unnerving, lonely, and frustrating sort of venture than anything drawn from the long past of ‘business-as-usual’ Christianity… the church is in a state of crisis.  ‘Crisis’ krisis, means judgment.  None of us escapes this judgment; there is pain in it, and much uncertainty.  But when we consider the ‘face’ of the Judge, we know that the pain is only the pain of truth, and that the uncertainty can be borne because it is only the other side of trust (faith).  (p. xi)

Wherever else God may send us, our ‘context’ — the context that determines all the rest — is the abiding, steadfast love and faithfulness of God.  This God meets us in Jesus Christ, claims us as God’s own, and sends us into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit to be servants and witnesses of the good news of God’s Reign.

The Turn Toward the Formative in Contemporary Worship (5)

This is the fifth in a series of reflections on a seminar at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium“The turn ‘toward the formative’ in contemporary worship. The seminar was moderated by John Witvliet. The presenters were: Miranda DodsonAaron NiequistGlenn PackiamJeremy Zeyl.

One of the topics for the day focused on the “Frames” we use in crafting worship services. Leaders frame worship through the words and actions they use to “focus the attention, stimulate the imagination, shape the perceptions, or form the interactions of worshipers” (John Witvliet in the Introduction to Frames, Deborah Knapp, p. ix). The frames are often made explicit in simple, beautiful ways of expressing why the congregation is doing what it is doing.

In his writings, Robert Webber has suggested framing worship as a ‘dinner party’: you being by greeting all who have been invited, you move into the conversations whereby you catch up with what has been happening with each other, you serve a meal, you depart into the world. Worship moves through  the Acts of Entrance, the Service of the Word, the Service of Thanksgiving, the Dismissal. (Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship)

Johnathan Dobson, Lead Pastor at City Life Church in Austin Texas, frames worship as an alternative to the secular liturgies that seek to form us all week long. “These messages, rhythms, and values create a certain kind of heart posture and longing that drives us away from Christ — individualism, materialism, experientialism, consumerism” (from the handout at the seminar).The gospel’s liturgy focuses us on God instead of self and on the church community instead of the individual. Dodson also notes that their worship attends to the church scattered out in the world. The frame, then, of their worship is: God, Gospel, Community, Mission.

One presenter talked about the basic pattern of Christian living that Jesus gave in the meals he shared: we are a people who are taken up into God’s adventure, blessed, broken, and given to the world. Another described the shape of the journey as ‘singing our way into God’s preferred future” where all God’s children are welcomed home. The introduction to the eucharist could be given as, “This table will one day be a great feast where all people come from north and south and east and west”.

Aaron Niequist mentioned that in Willow Creek’s experimental service, “The Practice”, they do not use a projection system. They hand out paper bulletins. They explain (frame) it this way: We offer you a ‘tactile, analogue experience’ so that you are holding something real.

A way to frame worship intentionally is to ask in the planning process, “What journey are we going on together this morning?” That journey is shaped by the scriptures for the day. The songs and rest of the worship service help move the worshipping congregation through that journey.

I have introduced the Passing of the Peace by reminding people that there are very places in our lives where we are aware of Christ’s peace being offered to us. Then, I would say, “As you pass the peace of Christ to one another, be aware that some people’s lives are so filled with struggle and anxiety that this may be the only peace that they receive all week. What you are going to do is holy work.”

It would be helpful, perhaps revealing, for your worship planners to look at the pattern of your worship services and ask the question, “What is the shape of the journey that happens in worship in our church?”  In what ways could that journey be made more explicit so that your worship is a richer and fuller experience?

A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday based on: 1 Peter 2: 1-10; Psalm 42; Luke 9: 28 -36

One of the abiding convictions of Christian faith is that God often works in hidden ways. God is alive and active in human history. God is working salvation in our world. We don’t always perceive it.

In fact, we can go for long periods of time largely unaware that God is present. Sometimes, our life is so filled with sorrow and suffering, that we cry out in anguish, “Where is God?” What is even worse, says the Psalmist, are the taunts of unbelievers who point to the suffering of the innocent, or to a horrific tragedy, and then jeer at God’s people, “Where is your God now?” In all of that, we are experiencing what someone called “God’s holy hiddenness.”

Those are not just poetic words that cover over the anguish. They give voice to the longing in the deepest part of our being for glimpse — just a glimpse — of God’s unmistakable presence in our midst. We thirst for a sign that God is healing the world’s brokenness; that God is healing our own brokenness.

The Bible does not answer the question, “Where is God?” directly. It asks the question often. Newly liberated Hebrew slaves find themselves in the middle of a large desert without food and drink. They ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Job loses his home and his family and his healthy in a cascade of tragedies. He asks, “Where is God? Let God show Himself and I will confront Him with the injustice of all that has happened to me!” The Psalmist cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” The question echoes from Jesus’ lips as he hangs on a Roman cross. The Bible asks the questions many times. It does not give a direct answer.

What the Bible does is tell stories. Those stories draw us into God’s presence in the world. In the stories of Israel, Jesus and the early Christian Church, we become participants in God’s actions — healing, saving, transforming, comforting. Even in situations where God seems most profoundly absent, we are drawn into the surprising actions of God.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It is the last Sunday of Epiphany’s light before we enter Lent’s shadowed time. Just before this morning’s scripture, Jesus has told his disciples that the Messiah — the one anointed by God to be Saviour of the world — was going to suffer and be put on trial and found guilty and killed and, on the third day, would be raised up alive. The one who had come to save the world was going to be destroyed by the powers he came to destroy.

The disciples are still reeling from this incomprehensible juxtaposition of “Saviour” and “suffering”, of “Lord” and “killed”, of “sacrifice” and “salvation”, when Jesus pushes them even further. Those who want to belong to him, who want to participate in God’s saving work in the world, he said, will be led into a life of suffering and sacrifice as well. You can imagine that the disciples had more than a few questions — fundamental, profound questions, not least of which would be, “Where is God in all of this?”

The reply Jesus gives is to take Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. Actually, Jesus prays. The disciples sleep. Jesus’ appearance becomes dazzling bright and two great figures of the faith — Moses and Elijah— join him. They talk about Jesus’ departure, Jesus’ exodus, that he was about to complete in Jerusalem. The disciples, jolted awake, find themselves in the midst of glory.

Peter, always the one to blurt out what everyone else is thinking, says, “Let’s build a shrine. Let’s mark this as a holy place of God’s presence.” Before the disciples can start a fund-raising campaign or call an architect, they are interrupted by a cloud (which in the First Testament is a sign of God ’s presence) and by a voice which says, “This is my Son, the Chosen. Listen to him.” There is divine confirmation that, in spite of all that is going to happen that will seem to deny God’s presence and saving power, Jesus is to be trusted and obeyed and adored.

Then, it is over. The glory fades. Jesus is standing there alone. The disciples are left speechless, not knowing what to make of what the have just seen and heard.

Most of us do not often receive such a blinding vision of God’s glory. We do not often get such profound assurance of God’s guidance. We may long for it deeply, but most of the time, we are left with only our deep longings. I suspect that, most of us, if we were to be given such an epiphany, would be like Peter. We would want to capture the moment. We would want to memorialize it in some way. We would want something we could hold onto to so we could keep God’s presence near and certain. Then, in those long stretches when God seems absent, we could go back to it and find God there the way we did once.

Peter does get to build his shrine to the glory of God shining in Jesus’ face. He does get to build a temple; he just does not get to build it on Mount Tabor. He does not get to build it with bricks and mortar. After the mountain-top experience, Jesus leaves the place where God’s glory shone out so clearly, and takes Peter and James and John with him down to the valley below. There, they encounter a boy in the midst of a convulsion, his distraught parents and the prayer-less disciples who are unable to rescue or help him. The road from that place leads to Jerusalem and to suffering and to death on a cross, just as Jesus said it would. The road led to Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

That is the last time the question “Where is God?” is asked in the New Testament. It is asked over and over again in the First Testament. It is not asked in the New Testament. (thanks to Philip Yancey for this insight) It is not asked in the New Testament after the cross because Jesus is God’s answer to the question. Jesus, God-with-us, leaving the glories of heaven, entering into our suffering, experiencing our abandonment is God’s answer. Jesus, descending into the darkest place so that, when life takes you through the valley of the shadow of death, you will not be alone. Jesus has gone there ahead of you. He will meet you there. He will restore your soul with resurrection power.

Where is God? Not in some place you can point to. Not in a building we call the church. Where is God? The only answer we have is Jesus, crucified, risen and present with us through the Holy Spirit.

After the resurrection, God sends the Holy Spirit to the Church. Peter begins building a temple made out of people who want to belong to Jesus, who choose to worship and obey him with their lives. The cornerstone and foundation of this living temple is Jesus.

“Welcome to the living Stone,” he writes, “the source of life. The workmen took one look and threw it out; but God set it in the place of honour. So, present yourselves as building stones for a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God.” (1 Peter 2, The Message)

You and I are the temple of God. In our life together: in our caring for one another and for the world; in our speaking out against injustice and brutality; in our creating a space where the small and the weak are cherished along with the great and the strong; in a community where the gifts that each person brings are treasured and nurtured, where souls are nurtured and restored and made new, and where we learn together to walk in the paths of righteousness that lead to abundant living. In our life together, we are the temple of God. In our life together, we host God’s presence in the world.

“You are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do God’s work and to witness to God’s goodness and to tell others of the night-and-day difference God makes for you — from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.”

It is hard to believe, isn’t it? There are times when we are not very good at hosting God’s presence. We hurt each other. We remain silent when we should shout out. We look for easier ways to follow Jesus on his way to the cross. We try to get by with cheap and comfortable discipleship. Yet, for all that, God does not abandon us. God’s Holy Spirit calls us into worship in the company of God’s people. The Spirit stands us under these stories that tell of God alive and active and present in the most unlikely of circumstances. These are stories of God who marvellously works salvation in places that we are certain are utterly profane. In places that we are certain are utterly bereft of God, God is surprisingly bringing resurrection power.

So, week after week, we confess that we have fallen short of the glory God intends for us. Week after week, Jesus meets us in the emptiness that we offer to Him and He fills it with grace. We become again what He has made us to be: a holy people, a temple of God made to shine the light of God’s glory seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

We don’t deserve any of it. It is utterly a gift from our Holy God. When, in those moments when we do catch a glimpse of the glory of God, and in those stretches of time when we live by faith, we join with saints throughout the ages who, in awe and wonder, stammer out their praise. To God alone — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory and praise, age after age after age. Amen.


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