Five Things Mainline Christians Need to Stop Doing

1) Running churches and denominations like businesses.

I’ve been told that if I really want to be a highly-sought after pastor I need to get an MBA. First, I’m very happy right where I am. Second, even if I happened to be looking for a new call, no thanks.

There’s nothing wrong with having an MBA. There’s also nothing wrong with pastors learning from the field of business management. I do some reading in the area from time to time myself, and appropriate what works for use in the church. But I’ll never get an MBA.

Why? Because it’s not my call. My church is filled with well-educated people, including MBAs. They use their gifts in our church all the time. But even if we didn’t have a single MBA in my congregation, I still wouldn’t need one.

The church is an organization. That is indeed true. We are a collection of human beings trying to build, plan, and use our resources well. But, unlike businesses or even non-profits, we aren’t here to sell a product or fix a problem. We are here for the worship of God, and for the service of God’s people.

We don’t do our work in isolation. We do it by being led by the Holy Spirit.

True, we can use things like budget spreadsheets, revised organizational structures, and every physical resource we have to work towards that mission. But if we are spending more time thinking about how to use those things, and how to manage the people who are doing so, than we are about discerning God’s will for us, we are utterly lost.

It gets worse when the most unhealthy aspects of corporate culture make their way into our life together. In my larger church life I was once ruled out of order when I called for a prayer of discernment before a major vote. Other times I’ve seen transparency go out the window, or a small minority make decisions without consulting a larger group.

Check out what the Bible has to say about the qualities needed for pastors and for overseers (or “bishops”). None of them would make for great corporate leaders. But they do make for good enough church leaders. When we function as business executives, rather than church leaders, we not only disenfranchise one another, but we say we know what God desires better than the gathered church does. That is hubris at its worst.

2) Neglecting evangelism and church growth.

I’ve heard pastors say that they devote a set amount of their pastoral time every week to advocacy around one particular concern. It could be 10% of their time is spent on the environment, or 20% on LGBTQ inclusion. Those are certainly worthy of concern. But when I ask them this, I’m often greeted with a blank stare: “And how much time do you spend on evangelism and church growth?”

Usually none. Not unless you count the evangelism that comes as a by-product of advocacy. That’s surely important, but our advocacy work should not be undertaken as a means to increase our membership. That’s disingenuous.

Instead, what would it mean for our clergy leaders to actually take 10% of their ministry time and to engage in the work of proclaiming the Good News, and inviting people to discipleship? What would it look like to invest in growing our churches by encouraging life-transformative programming that proclaims God’s love? What would it look like if we could positively describe why we are Christians without first saying how we aren’t like other Christians?IMG_8457

Billy Graham once said that if you want to figure out what you worship, look at your checkbook. If I were to update it for today I’d say that if you want to figure out what you worship, just look at your planner. How you spend your time in ministry will tell you what you worship. If you, your church, or your denomination isn’t spending much of it telling the story of God’s love in some way, that’s deeply troubling.

This is the one thing the church can do that no other organization can. We have a commission to spread the Gospel by proclaiming the love and grace of Christ. Can you imagine how the mainline could be renewed if we focused our attention on reaching out to those who are hungry for spiritual depth and discipleship that requires something of us? Our churches would be growing spiritually by leaps and bounds.

3) Paying little attention to faith formation.

Does your denomination have concrete resources for faith formation? Is time and energy invested in curriculum development for children? Are youth learning what it means to be a disciple?

In Glorify I quote a sobering statistic: only 45% of the youth who grow up in mainline congregations continue to claim our tradition as adults. That doesn’t mean practice our tradition; that just means that they will admit they are one of us.

That number dips down to 37% when we are talking about Millennials. These are the kids who were raised in our churches, and they don’t want anything to do with us. They are either disengaging altogether or finding new traditions, often in Christian traditions with deeper formation programs. What does that say about our effectiveness at making them disciples?

Add to that the fact that we’ve all but given up on our college students. Every mainline denomination used to have an active college fellowship program. You could step on campus and easily find Canterbury, Westminster, Wesley Fellowship, and more. Now college ministry is dominated by well-funded programs from conservative and fundamentalist churches.

True, you don’t make any money supporting college students. They are a really bad investment from a financial sense. But the churches that are succeeding in college ministry care enough to spend that money anyway. They are planting the seeds that will yield a great harvest in coming years. Meanwhile, we mainliners are so short-sighted that we are slashing funding for our young adults who need support.

Finally, we don’t do the work of helping adults to keep growing as disciples. This is especially true of the former “nones” who come through our doors. For those of us who were raised outside of the church formation is essential. As a new Christian I had no idea how to say the Lord’s Prayer. I needed someone to help teach me the faith in a non-judgmental fashion. But even if you have gone to church every Sunday of your life, if the last time you learned anything about discipleship was high school Sunday school, then we are failing you.

4) Engaging in interfaith dialogue without doing our own work first.

I love interfaith work. I think it’s absolutely crucial in our world. We need to be addressing our historical relationships to Judaism and Islam. We need to be standing against religious oppression of all faiths. We need to learn from one another. And we need to be hearing from those who are atheist and agnostic too.

But we can’t do this honestly until we know who we are, and whose we are.

You know how you can’t really love someone until you know and love yourself? No one should get married, for instance, until they know who they are and what they stand for first. Otherwise they will just become enmeshed with the other. That’s never healthy.

And yet, well-meaning mainline Christians will often engage in interfaith dialogue without first knowing what we ourselves believe. In that case we do a disservice not only to ourselves, but to those we meet who genuinely want to know more about us. If they ask us what a Christian believes, or what our own denomination believes, and we can’t give an answer, then really we aren’t there as equal participants. We’re just asking them to teach us.

At the same time, we also risk becoming appropriative. Just like Christians who appropriate the Jewish Seder for our own reasons, without full understanding, we risk appropriating the traditions of other religions and cultures as well. When we meet our siblings from other traditions on the path we should do so with both self-knowledge and generous spirits. And when they teach us about themselves, we should use that new knowledge in order to better understand them, not to make what is theirs our own.

5) Dismantling seminaries.

Seminaries have seen better days. Once communities of formation and learning, they’ve become optional in some mainline traditions. While some never receive any educational formation for ministry, others take their entire course of study online. After all, many say, I can’t be expected to quit my job and move my family.

IMG_8461Except, Jesus was pretty clear about leaving everything behind and following him. Over half my seminary classmates packed up families, took out student loans, and left lucrative jobs to do so. Is it convenient? No. Is it easy? No. But, it’s faithful. And it’s worth it.

Seminary is more than an academic experience. It is a place where a community is formed by worship, learning, and living together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his words to a seminary that still formed during the rise of the Third Reich, wrote to the students about the importance of living in community. He believed that it would transform both their faith and their ministry to come. (See Life Together for more.) Surely, if any generation had an excuse to skip the spiritual formation of seminary it was German seminarians in the 1930’s. And yet, they not only formed an underground seminary, many also eventually went to prison for being seminarians.

No one is asking you to do the same. But perhaps making the small sacrifice of giving three years of your life in order to be formed as a pastor is worth it. Yes, you might have to change everything in order to do so. But if you think that ministry is going to allow you the luxury of staying in one place or doing things your own way, then you are in for a disheartening shock.

That’s why denominations, and their churches, have to support their seminaries and their seminarians. This means both financially and in terms of encouraging attendance and demanding rigorous preparation. The church needs clergy who know who they are, and what they believe. We need clergy who can live in community, and wrestle within it. And we need clergy who take the call seriously enough to know they are not yet prepared to undertake it.

Without clergy who understand that enormity of this call, we will never have leaders who understand the enormity of what God has called the church to do next.

If you found meaning in this post, you’ll love Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. There is hope for mainline renewal, and this book can show you how to claim it for your local congregation, your denomination, and beyond: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

On Throwing the Baby Jesus Out with the Bath Water

I love the United Church of Christ.

I do. After growing up a “spiritual but not religious” “none” at the tail end of Generation X, I found my way into Christ’s church at the age of 17 and was baptized. Eight years later I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a church I also love deeply. Because I was openly gay, though, in 2010 I felt that I needed to transfer my ordination to a church that could openly affirm all of me.

The United Church of Christ was that place, and for the past six years I have served as a UCC parish pastor, a delegate to General Synod, a member of Association and Conference committees, and as someone actively involved on the national level.

But I’m not writing as any of those things today. Today I’m writing as this: a disciple of Christ who wants to be a part of a church seeking to love God and follow Christ in this world.

The Gospel is radical. It requires us to acknowledge first and foremost not just who we are, but WHOSE. For those who would call themselves Christians, that means acknowledging that we belong to God and that we are claimed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

That’s why we call our denomination the United Church OF CHRIST.

Which is why I’m shaken by a recent piece of marketing (I can’t bring myself to call it evangelism) from my denomination. A new meme circulating on social media proclaims us the “United Church of ‘I’m a Very Spiritual Person.'”

12592230_10153339764751787_1236073688534807391_nSo, first of all, I’m not exactly sure what the message is supposed to be in this ad, which is already troubling from a marketing perspective. But I suspect what we are trying to do is reach out to the “spiritual but not religious” folks, or the religious “nones” out there who are numerous in Generation X and the Millennial crowd.

Like I said, that was exactly what I was growing up. And so I think I’m qualified to say that this ad just doesn’t speak to me. In fact, it turns me off now, and it would have turned me off as a spiritually seeking young adult.

Why? Because it conveys the message that the United Church of Christ is a place where nothing will be required from me. I don’t have to believe in God (or even try). I don’t have to develop a relationship with Jesus. I don’t have to be a disciple in the world. I can just say “I’m really spiritual” and that’s enough.

The only trouble is, there are a million places that exist for those who just want to be “spiritual”. You can engage your spirit in a yoga class, book group, therapist’s office, arts class, and more. Those are all great things, by the way. But they are very different than a Christian church.

Another meme recently put out by the UCC asked, “What do you need most on Sunday mornings?” The possible answers: music, community, love, inspiration, donuts. Again, all great things, but none of them are in any way unique to church. In fact, I’d wager you could find just as good or better examples of most of those things outside of the church doors.

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I come to church to worship God. I come to experience the awe that comes in knowing of Christ’s grace. I come to hear the Word and receive the sacraments. I come to be better equipped to serve God’s world.

I don’t come for the donuts.

And neither will other Gen Xers and Millennials.

At this point it might be tempting to say, “Hey, it’s just a meme. Calm down.” But this is more than just a meme. This is a prevailing trend in our denomination, as well as other mainline denominations, that has been going on for years. It’s the slow and steady rejection of theological depth and meaning in favor of what is easy and popular.

My concern is that as we try to market ourselves to a sort of lowest common spiritual denominator, we are forgetting that churches are unique places in a culture where commitment is increasingly devalued. In church we are asked to seek not our own will, but God’s. We are asked to serve not ourselves, but Christ. We are called on to receive from a tradition that is radically transformative, and not watered down.

That is counter-cultural to what my generation has heard for its whole existence. It’s Niebuhr’s classic idea of Christ transforming culture. And, if the church is to be “marketed” to the spiritual seekers under 40, this is our strongest “selling point”. The days of obligatory church attendance are over. If people fill our pews again it won’t be because we are offering something they can get anywhere else. It will be because we are sharing a Gospel that challenges and sustains them.

There is a tradition in recovery communities like Alcoholics Anonymous that the program grows by “attraction not promotion”. There are no ads for AA. Instead, people join because they meet others in recovery, see the good in their lives, and decide they want to be a part of something like that.

I think the church needs to relearn that concept. I’m a big believer in social media, but in the end social media doesn’t hold a candle to the power a disciple of Christ has to live a life that witnesses to God’s love and grace.

And so, I have a radical proposal. What if as a church we invested less in ad campaigns and overhead, and instead created resources that helped to raise up a denomination full of Christ’s disciples? What if we invested in developing Christian growth materials that congregations could use? What if we took the theological seriously, and trained our future pastors to talk about their faith, and explain why it matters? And what if we rooted our outreach not in our own anxiety about the church losing members, but in our joy over what Christ has done in our lives and what Christ calls us to do in the world?

I believe God has great plans for the United Church of Christ. But I also believe we can never hope to claim them if we continuously insist on throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water. Now’s the time to try something new. Now’s the time for us to try something truly radical. And it starts with remembering that we are the United Church OF CHRIST, and that’s an amazing thing.

How to Be a Pentecost Church: Five Pointers for Congregations

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday in the church. It’s the Sunday when churches everywhere are filled with the color red, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate a story from the church’s earliest days. On Pentecost we remember how the Holy Spirit came to the early disciples like a “mighty wind” and rested on them with “tongues of fire”. Suddenly they were able to speak in the languages they did not know, and all the people gathered around them in Jerusalem, a host of nations, were able to understand what the disciples were saying.

There’s a tendency in the church to think that everyone is supposed to learn our language. But if you look at the Pentecost story, you find the exact opposite is true. The Holy Spirit could have easily touched everyone around the early disciples so that they could understand the language the disciples spoke. But instead, it was the disciples who were transformed. They were the ones who learned new languages, ones they could use to communicate with people using the words they already knew.

So why does the church sometimes miss the point?

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No, really. This Pentecost stuff is going to be fun.

We often talk about how our church is very welcoming, but new members are few and far between. And often it’s true…many churches are extremely good at welcoming visitors who walk through the front doors. But the first place we should be meeting people is not inside our buildings. It’s out where they (and we) live.

The Pentecost story reminds us that witnessing to Christ is not about our own convenience. It’s about being radically transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the language (literally and metaphorically) of those God wants us to love and serve. Pentecost reminds us that we cannot sit ideally back and wait for people to learn our ways. We have to be the ones who learn new ways.

So how do we do that? Here are some suggestions:

1. Check out your social media presence.

If this seems like a strange place to start, that might be part of your church’s issue. I’ve heard countless people in churches deride what they see as an over-dependence on social media in younger generations. Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the like are seen as distractions and barriers to community.

But in reality, social media can be a wonderful way to build community. I don’t believe it can ever replace face-to-face interactions, but it can help to spread your message. If you talk to your Generation X and Millennial parishioners, in fact, you might find that a surprising number of them found your church via social media. The days of looking in a phone book for a church, or even just knowing where a church is located, are over. For many a Google search will be their first stop in their search for a new church.

So make it count. If your church doesn’t have a webpage, you need one now. You can get a domain name for $18 a year and build a page on WordPress, so there is no excuse. And, if you do have a webpage, give it an honest assessment. Is it up-to-date? Are your address and service times clearly displayed? Could a visitor determine whether or not they would be welcome at your church? Is there information about programming and what you believe? Is there contact information? Are there pictures of people and not just the building?

And don’t limit yourself to a webpage. A Facebook “like” page is free and a great way to spread the word about your church. Use the page to post updates, photos, reminders, sermon links, and more. Encourage members to “like” and “share” posts on their page. You’ll be surprised how a post can go viral in no time. When the daughter of one of my current church’s members won a silver medal in the Olympics this winter, for instance, we posted a photo congratulating her. That photo was shared by 72 people and reached over 5,500! It was a wonderful way for our church to share our celebration.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

Finally, make sure that you have a “like” page and not a Facebook group for your church. A group is fine for discussion purposes, but it will not reach new people. They are not going to join a group of people they do not know. Instead concentrate on putting out clear information, inspiring links, and warm invitations on your “like” page. Make sure that your social media presence exists more for others than yourself.

2. Get out in your community.

Like I said earlier, you might be the warmest church in the world when people step inside of your doors. But for the vast majority of your community, you are just another building that they have never been inside. As untrue as it sounds to those of us who are churchgoers, church buildings are often seen as private clubhouses. Others might be curious about what is going on inside, but it’s going to take more than a little bit of curiosity to go in. This is especially true of the growing number of us who are younger and did not grow up in the church.

So instead of waiting for others to come to you, go to them. Get involved as a church in the community. Host events like concerts and lectures. Make your building as accessible as possible to local non-profit groups needing a space to meet. Host AA meetings. Welcome community groups. Provide hospitality to outside youth events. And don’t just be a landlord. Be a host. Consider sharing your building as a ministry to the community.

But more importantly, go outside of your doors. Get involved in community celebrations. Serve lemonade and cookies on the lawn if the town’s parade is going by your doors. Sponsor a Little League team. Volunteer at youth events. Go into retirement communities. Work with other congregations. Whatever it is, find out what matters in your community and then figure out a way to contribute. You can’t serve a community that you don’t know and love.

3. Enable your pastor to get out in your community.

The work of representing your church in the community is the work of the whole congregation. It is never just the pastor’s job. But, the reality is that the pastor can be a great ambassador. So, as much as possible you want to make sure they have your blessing to be involved in your community. So don’t keep them locked up in their office! Encourage them to go out in the world.

I am finishing my pastorate in a small community right now. During this time the church has nearly doubled in size. This is not due to me, but I believe it does have a lot to do with our church being more visible in our community. And that has happened in part because my congregation has blessed me by encouraging me to be involved in the community.

For me this has meant being the chaplain of our local fire department, as well as working with Habitat for Humanity, writing an occasional column for our local newspaper, and more. It has also meant holding community “office hours” in a local coffee shop. Once a week I stationed myself at a table for a couple of hours and bought the coffee for anyone who dropped by for a chat. People who had never come through the doors of the church before met me for the first time there. Finally, when a natural disaster came to our community in the form of a flood, the congregation didn’t want me in my office. They wanted me out on the streets talking to people and giving out energy bars and water. (They were there too, by the way.)

Not every church understands this, though. Once when I was in a pastoral search process the search committee ran through their list of questions about how I planned to grow the church. When it came time for me to ask my questions, I led off with what I thought was a softball question: “Do you want a pastor who is going to be actively involved in your community?” The response shocked me. Members hedged their answers, telling me they really weren’t sure. To them the pastor was “theirs” and had enough work to do with current members. It was clear for me this was not the right church for me. But what struck me was that due to their inward focus I was sure it was clear to prospective parishioners that it wasn’t the right church for them either.

Your pastor can be a tremendous gift to your community. Don’t keep them all to yourself.

4. Don’t assume everyone knows your insider language.

So let’s say everything is going right and new people have started coming through your doors. What do you do now?

Well, first, keep doing what you are doing in terms of being hospitable. Welcome people when they walk in the doors. Show them the sanctuary. Invite them to coffee hour. Make them feel at home. But, also, watch the “insider language” and help to translate what might be new.

I did not grow up in the church so when I started attending as a young adult I was keenly aware of what I did not know. Every Sunday we would get to a point in the service where everyone recited a prayer together. I didn’t know it, and I felt like everyone was looking at me as I stood there in silence. It was the Lord’s Prayer, and I had no clue what to say.

I learned it quickly by getting a copy and sitting in the privacy my home and repeating it over and over to myself. I didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore. But I remember that feeling. And so years later, when I heard members of a church talking disdainfully about how visiting younger people didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer, it hit me hard.

From then on I have always tried to print the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin for those who do not know it. The same is true of the Gloria Patri, Doxology, and other “well known” pieces. We should not give up these important parts of our liturgy, but we should be aware that as more people grow up as religious “nones” they are no longer a part of the common language.

Likewise, is your bulletin or worship leader clear about when to stand and when to sit? If you are turning to a certain page, do you announce it? Do you clearly state at the communion table that all are welcome, and let people know whether you are using grape juice or wine (an important consideration for many)? Or are your visitors just left on their own?

It’s important to make worship as accessible as possible. No one wants to feel like an outsider. It’s the surest way of making sure that visitors won’t come back.

5. Be willing to keep being transformed.

Here’s the secret no one wants to tell you about bringing new people into the church: they are going to change everything. I actually think more churches realize this than let on, and I believe that, subconciously, a lot of churches have chosen not to grow as a result.

When new people come to a church they bring with them new stories, new gifts, and new energy. They also bring new needs, new ideas, and new perspectives. And your church will be changed by them. Or else it will not be. And they will leave.

We often think of the church as “our church”. But it has never been “our church” It is Christ’s church. We are just the stewards of the church in this time and place. And when new people are brought into the church, they join us in that role. And even though you may have been their thirty years and they’ve been there one, they are equally important. And that can be frustrating.

There is a tendency to fall back on “we’ve always done it this way” in these situations. Resist that temptation. It’s wonderful to know our history (in fact, I think if we all knew more of it we’d find that we haven’t, in fact, always done it “this way”) but we cannot become a history museum. We must be willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, speaking in new ways through new voices. That’s what being the church is all about.

So when the young families arrive with their kids, let them teach you about what will keep their kids engaged. The old Sunday School models might not work anymore. When young adults come, let them shape their own programs. Maybe they want to meet for a “faith on tap” discussion at the local pub on a Wednesday night rather that for Bible study on Sunday mornings. And when someone brings that new idea to deacons that makes everyone tense up and want to say “but we don’t do that here”, give it a minute. Hear them out. And ask whether God is leading you into the future. It’s scary, but it’s also full of promise.

Most of all, this Pentecost Sunday, pray that the Holy Spirit will teach you to be a Pentecost Church. Open your hearts to the ways the Holy Spirit teaches us new languages. And then, let yourself speak them. Meet others where they are, and learn what God is already doing in them. And then, let yourself be transformed. You just may find that you, and the entire church, will be blessed.

 

Does “All Are Welcome” Really Mean “All Are Welcome”?: Some tips on finding a welcoming church

From time to time someone will email me asking for help in finding a church. Quite often they are looking because they experienced some sort of rejection from a former faith community. If I know of a a church in their area that is truly welcoming to all, I’ll share that information. But often I know nothing about their particular city or town, and I don’t feel comfortable recommending a church without at least some information.

29671_389906276786_3698836_nOne thing I do caution spiritual seekers, particularly those who are LGBTQ or who have had other experiences of rejection in the church, about is to be “wise as serpents, and gentle as doves” when it comes to what a new church claims. Just about any church out there will tell you “all are welcome”. But what does that really mean?

All are welcome could mean this: we will not turn you away at the door. You can come in, sit through the service, and maybe even have coffee afterwards. Depending on the church, you may be greeted warmly and genuinely, or you may get subtle (or not so subtle) signals that people don’t think you belong. My hope is that the latter will never happen to you at a church, but if it does run!

So what happens when you go to a church and people do seem to welcome you? Maybe they have even been enthusiastic about the welcome. What if they have not only shared the coffee and the cookies, but they’ve invited you back for worship next week and Bible study on Wednesday? This is when you might be tempted to say, “Great! I’ve found my church!” And maybe you have. In fact, I hope that you have.

But for those who have in some ways been marginalized by the church, this is where you might want to ask some explicit questions about what that welcome means. You want to find out now; not a year down the road.

There’s a church near me that claims that they welcome all. And I believe that people in that church genuinely would be glad to see anyone come through the doors. In fact, a few local gay folks have even asked whether they would be welcomed in church, and the answer has been “yes”. But being welcomed to attend and being welcomed into the full life of a church are two very different things.

In the case of this particular church, for instance, women are not invited to hold leadership positions. Additionally, while they might welcome LGBT people to attend and worship with them, they believe that being gay is a sin. A gay couple could be welcome to attend, but they could never get married in that church. In fact, they may be pressured to somehow “change” their sexual orientation. This will all be done under the guise of “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and with the belief of the church that they are legitimately being welcoming.

So, how do you determine that a church really is as welcoming of everyone as they claim? My first suggestion is this: ask a lot of question. Ask about the role of women in the church. Ask explicitly about whether gay and lesbian couples will be blessed and accepted as equal in the eyes of the congregation. Ask about who is allowed to hold leadership roles in the congregation. And then ask more questions. If there is something you are scared to ask, that probably means it’s even more important than you think that you go ahead and ask it.

So, here are some examples of what to ask. And here are the responses you should get before you commit yourself to any church. And remember, in this case “welcome” doesn’t just mean “you can come to worship”. Welcome means that you invited into the full life, sacraments, celebrations, and ministry of the church. Don’t settle for anything less:

Am I welcome if I’ve never been to church before? YES!

If I’m a single parent? YES!

If I don’t believe the earth was created in six 24 hour days? YES!

If I’m divorced? Or if I’m divorced and remarried? YES!

If I didn’t grow up in this denomination? YES!

If I believe there is truth in science? YES!

If English isn’t my first language? YES!

If I’m gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, or I love someone who is? YES!

If I’m in recovery from addiction? YES!

If I like to read “Harry Potter”? YES!

If my spouse/partner is of a different faith? YES!

If I’ve never been baptized? YES!

If I bring my small children? YES!

If I have to work most Sunday mornings? YES!

If I’m more comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt to church than a suit? YES

If I take the Bible seriously, but not literally? YES!

If I am a person with a disability? YES!

If I believe all people are created equal? YES!

If I’m a youth or young adult? YES!

If I believe women should be ordained? YES!

If I drink alcohol? YES!

If it’s been a while since I’ve been to church? YES!

If I prefer classic rock to Christian rock? YES!

If I’m a seasonal resident and not here all year? YES!

If I vote for Democrats? Or Republicans? Or any other political party? YES!

If I’ve made some big mistakes in my life? YES!

If I can’t afford to put anything in the offering plate? YES!

If I have doubts? YES!

These are just a few. What would you add? Leave a comment to let others know.

 

What God Sees, and What We Miss: Sermon for March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13

16:1 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”

16:2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’

16:3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.”

16:4 Samuel did what the LORD commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?”

16:5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

16:6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the LORD.”

16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

16:8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen any of these.”

16:11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

16:12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

When I was growing up, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest of all my siblings, by far. The youngest of all my cousins. Most of tine time I was even the youngest in my class. I’ve joked that growing up I had a permanent reservation at the children’s table.

I think that’s why I like this story so much. It is a quintessential youngest kid story. Samuel has been appointed by God to go and anoint the new king. And God tells Samuel that the king will come from among Jesse’s sons.

So Samuel goes to Jesse’s house and says, “I need to meet your sons”. And Jesse’s seven oldest sons are brought in. Now, it’s important to note that in these days seven was a very highlly valued number. Seven was the ideal number, the one that signified perfection. So when Jesse had seven sons, that was something to be especially proud of in his society.

But the thing is, Jesse also had an eighth son. David. David was the youngest, and the smallest, the unexpected one, and no one really expected much out of him. So when Samuel came to anoint the new king, they didn’t even bother bringing him into the house. They just left him out in the field to watch the sheep.

But when Samuel starts to look at Jesse’s sons, God makes it clear that none of them is the king. The first one comes, and Samuel thinks, this has to be the king. But it’s not. And then the second. And then the third. Again and again until none of David’s brothers has been chosen. And that’s when Samuel asks, “Are these all your sons?”

And Jesse tells him about David. And someone went out to the fields to get him, and as soon as Samuel sees David, he knows. This is the king.

I’ve always liked underdogs. When I watch football games I almost always root for the underdog. And this story is about an underdog. In fact, David wasn’t even really an underdog because he wasn’t even considered as a possibility. And yet, he was the only one for the job.

This story reminds me that sometimes we have preconceptions about how God works. We expect that God is going to choose someone who looks a certain way or acts a certain way to do God’s will. And when you think about it, why wouldn’t it be David’s brothers? Older, bigger, stronger…it just makes sense.

But God tells Samuel, “don’t look at their outward appearance…look at the heart.”

And David’s heart was strong. This is the one who would defeat Goliath with just a slingshot. The one who would reign as king. The one who is even an ancestor of Jesus.

What if Samuel had never asked Jesse, “are you sure you don’t have another son”? What if they had left David out in the field tending the sheep? What if Samuel had tried to settle for anything less than what God wanted? My guess is that the entire Biblical story would be very different.

It makes me ask, who are we leaving out in the fields today? Some of you read the story of the eight year old girl in Virginia who was pressured out of her Christian school because she was too much of a tomboy. The school told her grandparents that she couldn’t keep cutting her hair short, or wearing the clothes she wanted to wear. They told them that she had to learn to accept her place as a girl and to be more feminine. Thankfully, her grandparents decided that they weren’t going to subject her to that anymore, but they shouldn’t have ever been forced to make that choice.

This was a Christian school. This is a school that says they want to teach children what the Bible teaches. And that’s what this child of God has learned about Jesus…that he doesn’t like the way she dresses. And when you think about it, that is so different than what God tells Samuel in today’s Scripture: don’t look at the outward appearance…look at the heart.

But the thing is, things like this happen all of the time. Sometimes in ways as blatant as the child in Virginia, but other times in more subtle ways. We stop listening to someone’s voice. We dismiss it because they are too young or too new or too old or too…whatever it is that we can’t wrap our heads around. And slowly, we push them out into the fields.

Have you ever wondered who’s out there? And have you ever wondered what they can offer?

What are we missing out on? Whose voices are not being heard? Who is not sitting at our table? It’s a question we as the church have to ask ourselves every time we make a decision. Not just “what do we want or what do we need” but “what do the people who are outside the wall of this church need”?

Last year a family came to the church for help making ends meet. And we have a pastor’s discretionary fund which lets me help our neighbors who are having a hard time, on behalf of our whole church.

The family sent me a thank you email, and I wrote them back and said we were glad to do it. And I also said, “you know…you would always be welcome at our church if you ever want to attend. No pressure, but the invitation is there.”

The email back said, “Thank you…not every church lets just anyone come.”

It was heartbreaking. Because that’s what some people think that church is; a club that one has to be deserving enough to join. And even though you and I know that we welcome anyone who comes through that doors, the reality is some people truly do believe that that’s what church is about. They believe that the church puts people out in the fields, the same way David was left out in the fields.

You really can’t blame folks for believing that though. Because sometimes Christians are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting our message out there.

This is part of why we voted to become an Open and Affirming church. It’s part of why we decided to go on record as being the sort of place where we can honestly say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”. And, no, that won’t make the front page of the papers, or the news rotation on CNN, but it’s every bit as important a piece of news.

People need to hear that church is where you are not judged on worldly things, but you are welcomed because of your heart.

We all need to hear that. Because there’s another piece to this too. And that is, have you ever left yourselves out in the fields? Have you ever thought maybe there’s nothing about you that God can use? Maybe at some level you don’t feel like you really belong. Maybe you think your voice is not important.

But it is.

That’s especially true in church. Because church is not somewhere you go…it’s who you are. You are the church. And church is not a spectator sport. It requires more than one hour on Sunday morning. It requires your heart.

And so the questions for this church, the questions for every church, are this: Whose voices are we missing? And is one of them yours?

When they finally called for David, what do you think he was thinking? Do you think he was thinking “finally! They finally know what I am!”? Or maybe was he thinking, “there’s some mistake? It’s got to be one of my brothers”?

But it wasn’t a mistake. And in time, David came to know that.

God can do amazing things through you too. And God can do amazing things through the people we haven’t met yet. So, are you out in the fields? Do you know someone who is? It’s time to call them back. It’s time to come home.

And, by the way, there’s no children’s table back at home…the one God invited us to sit at has enough room for everyone. Even you. Amen.

 

“Jesus Doesn’t Reject People” – Sermon for September 25, 2011

Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

21:24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.

21:25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

21:29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

21:31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

21:32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

My grandmother grew up in Portland, Maine in the Little Italy. Her parents were immigrants who had left their homeland to come here carrying little else other than their Catholic faith. Like everyone else in her neighborhood, she was raised in the church and taught that it was the one true faith.

And then, as a young woman in the 1930’s, she met my grandfather. A soldier whose family had lived here for generations, and who was very Protestant. As best as I can figure it, they eloped. And sometime after she went to her priest and told him. He condemned the marriage and told her she would go to hell. The only way she could avoid hell, he told her, was to raise her children as Catholics. Then, maybe, she wouldn’t be damned.

When I heard this story for the first time I realized immediately that my grandmother must have been a pretty courageous woman. My mother and her siblings did not grow up Catholic. The priest did not scare her into compliance. And when you think about the insular, tight-knit community where she grew up, it’s pretty remarkable that a young, religious woman valued her love for her husband over the scare tactics of a clergyman. In the end she trusted her relationship with God over fear.

That’s the story I remembered when I read today’s Gospel. Jesus is entering the Temple, the most holy place in Israel, and he is stopped by the chief priests who want to know why he thinks he should be there. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they ask. And Jesus tells them a parable about two sons. Both are asked to work in their father’s vineyard. And one says immediately that he’ll go, but he never actually does. The other complains and says he won’t go, but then finally does. Jesus asks which one, the one who said he would do the right thing but didn’t or the one who didn’t want to do the right thing but did it anyway, did his father’s will. The priests agree it’s the one who went.

Jesus uses that story to show them how much they are like the son who says he will follow his father’s will but never does. And he tells them that the tax collector and prostitutes, the most looked down upon of society, will enter the kingdom of God before them. He tells them that these least of society, they truly believe.

I want to have the faith of the tax collectors and prostitutes. I want to have the faith of my grandmother. I want to have so much faith that I trust my relationship with God over the clamor of those who want to tell me God does not love me as much as them. I want to trust it over the voices of those who say others are going to hell.

My freshman year of college I had a friend who also later went on to be a pastor. One night after our campus Christian fellowship had worship, we were walking back to the dorms and chatting. As we came close to my dorm he stopped and looked at me and said, “Emily, I love you, but you’re going to hell.”

I’d heard that before. I didn’t really believe it. Not in most parts of my soul, anyway. But it still stung. Now, years later that classmate is now pastoring a church in the town where I grew up. A church where some of my friends who he would have also thought were going to hell attended. And I worry sometimes that some 14 or 15 year old kid will come into his office, and hear the same thing. And one of two things may happen. They’ll either believe it, and believe that God hates them. Or they won’t, and they won’t believe in the church anymore.

I hope neither happens, but I know that more often than not, one or the other does. When my grandmother left the priest’s office that day, she made a decision not to raise her kids in the Catholic Church. But, beyond that, she made a decision not to raise her kids in any church. And so my mother and her siblings didn’t grow up in the faith. In fact, most of her grandchildren and now her great-grandchildren didn’t grow up in the faith. And that’s all for two reasons. First, someone tried to convince her that she had done something so awful that God didn’t love her anymore. And, second, no other church came along and told her that wasn’t true.

Those of us who represent the church, and you are among them, have an incredible influence. And it can be used to inspire incredible things. And it can also be used to hurt someone so deeply that they think we are doing it in Christ’s name, and that they believe they have no place here.

When I was a chaplain I was often called to talk to someone who was dealing with some kind of addiction issue. They were often brought into the hospital because they finally had decided to go to rehab, or they ended up needing treatment for some illness the addiction was only making worse. And they would ask for a chaplain to be called.

We would talk and, since they called me, I would ask about whether or not they were involved in any religious community. And more often than not I’d get a response like, “No, they don’t like folks like me,” or “I live in a small town and everyone knows about my problem,” or “I’ve never been a saint. I won’t be welcome.”

I always wanted to say, “that isn’t true, you’d be more than welcome” when I heard something like that. I wanted to tell them that there would be no judgement because there were plenty of people in the pews, and, yes, even behind the pulpit, who had been through the same. But I sometimes found it hard to say that in good conscience because I know that welcome is not always universal. I know that I’ve even heard other clergy, not here in Vermont but in other places, complain about the AA groups that use their churches. It’s hard to have to give someone a cautious recommendation about going to church.

But the sad truth about churches, is that when many people think about us, they don’t think about people who will love them. They think about people who will judge them. And most people in this world get enough of that elsewhere.

Martin Luther rejected the view that we were all either saints or sinners. Instead, he said, we are all simultaneously saints AND sinners. Five hundred years later most churches still haven’t caught on to that. That those of us who come to church on Sunday morning are here both because we need God’s grace AND because God loves us beyond our deepest understanding. And what’s true of us is true of every one of God’s children. And it’s not our place to withhold the church, Christ’s body here on earth, from any of them.

There is a story by an author named Flannery O’Connor. She was a writer from Georgia, and a devout Roman Catholic. She wrote a short story called “Revelation” about a good Christian woman who was very assured about her place in heaven. The story follows her throughout her day as she judges the people she encounters. She enters a doctor’s waiting room and looks around and makes a judgment about everyone there, in her head making racist comments, judging the poor, belittling the appearance of others. And all the while assuring herself that she is “grateful” and a “good Christian”.

At the end of the story she is struck by a religious vision. She sees a line of people ascending to heaven. All the people she had seen that day are in it, and they are following one another up into the clouds. And she is not leading the line into the kingdom of God. She is at the very end of it. And she is shocked.

I see myself in the people she judged. But more importantly, I see myself in her too. Like Luther said, we are all simultaneously saint and sinner. All simultaneously the one who closes the door of welcome, and the one who opens it.

This summer, when I went to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod down in Tampa, we were greeted by a huge banner as we walked in. It read “Jesus didn’t reject people. Neither do we.” The UCC put a number of those banners up all over Tampa that said that. And I remember thinking what it was like, to grow up not even two hours from there, and to sometimes believe that the church was full of people who could never welcome someone who was in any way not like them. And I thought about what it would be like for a kid growing up there now to see those signs, and know that there were people who loved Jesus so much that they loved him beyond what he thought possible.

When I first realized what those signs might mean to the people who saw them, I cried. I’m not a big crier, and it shocked me to cry over a church sign, but I did. And when I realized that the simple act of a church making clear that they welcomed everyone no matter who they were or what they had seen moved me so much, I cried even harder. Because an act of hospitality, an act of welcome on behalf of a church, shouldn’t be so rare that it’s existence shocks us. I cried out of joy for the one who would find Christ’s welcome. And I cried out of pain for a church that has often withheld it.

It doesn’t have to be like that. We are welcoming churches, I believe that. I believe anyone who comes through those doors will be welcome. But I also believe that there are some outside those doors who have been so hurt that they will never dare to come in on their own. And so maybe, the welcome needs to go outside. I’m not saying a big sign on the lawn, though I wouldn’t object. But a big sign in our hearts, a big sign on our faces, a big sign unfurled by the work of our hands: you are welcome here. Jesus would never have rejected you. Neither will we. Amen.