Questioning Advent: Day 12 – Ecumenical Peace

IMG_0886This Advent my congregation, a typical New England Congregational parish, is holding joint mid-week services with the local Episcopal parish. Last week we worshiped in the Episcopal sanctuary where I preached and their priest celebrated communion. This week my church hosted, their priest preached, and I celebrated communion.

Some clergy friends wanted to know more about how this arrangement worked. “What about the different theologies?” “But you don’t have the same understandings of Communion!” “Were your people really okay using the Book of Common Prayer?” There seemed to be disproportionate amazement that two different Christian traditions could worship together.

I can report that nothing, not even the suspect pairing of a Congregationalist and a prayer book, was capable of keeping us from successfully worshipping Christ together.

In the second week of Advent we focus on peace. We explore what it means to be people of peace on every level: non-violence, inner peace, and more. But this week I’ve been thinking about another kind of peace: the peace that we Christians can extend to one another across denominational lines, and the potential that peace brings for reconciliation.

In the old mainline Protestant churches (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, UCC, and more) there are deeply entrenched denominational identities. Often if you ask a member of one church what they believe, you’ll hear more about what they don’t believe. A member of the UCC might say, “Well, we don’t believe in having bishops to tell us what to do”. Or a Lutheran might tell you they don’t believe in waiting until you’re an adult to be baptized. Or a Methodist will tell you they don’t believe in predestination.

But the landscape of the American church is changing dramatically. In twenty years denominations won’t look anything like they do now. We simply are not going to be able to sustain so many large denominational headquarters and hierarchies. And, for many of us, that is rather terrifying. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The reality is that many of the historical Protestant churches are clinging onto identities forged in theological conflicts from the 1500’s and 1600’s. Others are still defined by regional differences from centuries past. And despite the fact that we have much more in common than we realize, we remain separated centuries later.

We don’t have to stay that way, though. I’ve never been one to believe that the church is dying. The church is the body of Christ, and if we are truly people who believe in the resurrection of Christ, that means that the church cannot die. But we are changing. And it could be that the situation American mainline churches find themselves in is just radical enough that it will give us the “gift of desperation” that shakes us out of our comfortable places and into a place of new cooperation.

Last night as we passed the peace of Christ, I wondered what it would take for that peace to find its way into every denominational meeting, and what it would mean for that peace to reshape everything. What would it mean to really believe that the peace of Christ is so great that our theological differences, while real, don’t matter enough to keep us apart? What would it mean to put our first faith not in our prayer books or polity documents or faith statements, but in Christ himself?

In Advent, we who are the church can look for new starts. We can look for ways that Christ’s peace is creeping into our life together. And we can reach out across the aisle in that peace, and find that together we can do far more than we ever can apart. That’s what Advent is all about: preparing us for God being with us, and us being with one another.

Question: What are the small things keeping our churches from extending peace and reconciliation to one another?

Prayer: God, you have reconciled us to you through Christ, help us to reconcile ourselves to one another. Save us from the false idolatries of what matters little, and grant us a peace that can overcome all, until all your body is one. Amen.

The Episcopal Church, Equal Marriage, and Religious (il)Literacy

Today the Episcopal Church voted to approve a liturgy which blesses same-sex unions. It’s a great step forward for equality, and a time for thanksgiving. It’s also another opportunity to watch the way that stories about mainline churches are often mis-reported by the media.

The headlines today say the Episcopal Church is the first maichurch denomination to approve same-sex marriage. That’s wrong on two counts. First, the Episcopal Church is explicitly avoiding the use of “marriage” in describing these same-sex rites. Second, the United Church of Christ, a denomination roughly the same size and with as deep a heritage as the Episcopal Church, affirmed marriage equality in 2005 and calls all unions (gay and straight) “marriages”.

This is just the latest example of reporters,including religion reporters, getting it wrong. Last year, for example, the ordination of the “first out LGBT Presbyterian minister” was heralded in religion sections everywhere. For the sizeable number of PCUSA clergy who had been ordained when they were also out, this was surprising news.

So why do journalists who often pride themselves on accuracy so often get it wrong?

I think it points to a greater issue: the lack of mainline voices in the public arena. Members of the religious right have co-opted the public square and professed to speak for all Christians. Whether it’s birth control, LGBT rights, or the role of women, they’ve somehow convinced the news industry, and those who rely on it, that they are the voice of Christians everywhere. In doing so, we in the mainline have become less relevant, less well-known, and less distinguishable.

So, mainliners, how do we change that?

The Summer of Mainline Dreams

An interesting movement is popping up on Twitter. Mainline Christians of several denominations have started “dream” movements in which they tweet about their hopes for the future church and how to get there. One tweeter called this the “mainline summer”.

The United Methodists came first and are already holding tweet-ups. Their hashtag is #dreamumc and they facilitate with @dreamumc

The Presbyterian Church (USA) followed in the aftermath of General Assembly 220. Their hash is #dreampcusa and they facilitate with @wedreampcusa

The United Church of Christ folks came next with #dreamucc and @dreamucc

UPDATE: An Episcopal conversation is taking place under the hashtag of #Acts8 (see comments below).

There is also a hash starting for Disciples under #dreamccdoc

I’m hopeful the ELCA, and others will join in soon.

There’s also another hashtag for ecumenical conversation at #mainlinedreams with an account at @mainlinedreams. Since our futures seem more and more likely to intersect, it makes sense that we should start talking now. My hope is we will share our thoughts, sermons, and writing with one another, and that we will start the next chapter in mainline Christian renewal.

This is an ever-changing list, so please be sure to share what you know in the comments.

The Mainline Church and Dusty Feet: A sermon for July 8, 2012

When I was younger I used to hear people use the phrase “shake the dust from your feet” and I would have no idea what they were talking about. Someone would leave a job or their relationship would break up and another person would tell them, “just shake the dust from your feet and move on”.

It’s a weird phrase. What dust are they talking about? And what does shaking dust from your feet have to do with moving on from a bad relationship? It wasn’t until much later when I read this passage that I understood where that language even came from and why it made sense.

Jesus is sending out his disciples to the people. He’s sending them out two by two and he’s telling them to be prophets. That means he’s telling them to speak a hard, but liberating, truth to the people they meet. He tells them to leave everything behind. Don’t even take food. Just go.

Jesus tells them to stay in any place that welcomes them for a while, but if they are rejected, if people refuse to hear what they are saying, to leave. And he tells them that as they walk away they should shake the dust off their feet as a sign that they had not been welcomed.

When I think about Jesus I usually don’t think about him like this. I think about the shepherd who leaves the flock behind to find the one missing sheep, the one who never lets us go. But then I remember that there was a time that Jesus faced rejection too. He tells the disciples that a prophet is not without honor, except in their hometown. He knew that from personal experience. He knew what the disciples were going to face.

This is not Jesus rejecting or leaving people behind. Instead this is Jesus telling his disciples that sometimes this is the hard truth: you will be rejected and you will have to move on and hope that the ones who rejected you will later change their minds and follow you. Jesus knew that sometimes it was impossible to get everyone on board, but that sometimes you had to move forward anyway before the train derailed.

Its sort of a Leadership Principles of Jesus 101 class. As much as you want consensus, as much as you want everyone to join you, that won’t always happen. And sometimes you have to just move forward and do the right thing anyway.

I was thinking about this last week. I was watching the webcast of the biannual national meeting of my former denomination, the Presbyterian Church. It’s a church I still love, but I, like many others, had my own moment of shaking the dust from my feet in order to join a church that was truly committed to moving forward and embracing all in their ministry.

What struck me this day, though, had to do with youth and young adults. The Presbyterians stop periodically to worship. They had been in the midst of heavy, contentious debate, so the worship came at the best possible time. And on this day these young people, mostly high school and college students, had planned and were leading a very good service.

Except right before worship started, many of the meeting attendees slipped out. The youth found themselves with a far smaller crowd than they should have had. But that was okay. They moved forward, and they worshipped God anyway, and it was wonderful and prophetic.

In the midst of this, one wise adult quipped: Next time we wonder why young people are not staying in our church, we may want to remember this. They were right. The young people were bringing a prophetic voice, and it was being ignored. It makes perfect sense that they might shake the dust off their feet and move on to a place that hears their message and wants to work with them.

Now, Im not calling out the Presbyterians here, because this is an issue for the larger church. This happens in denominations, and in churches, all over. The younger generations, including my own, don’t want to engage in church arguments. We don’t want to watch lukewarm churches debate endlessly about doing something good, no matter what it is. We want to be in places of justice and action and goodness.

Those youth had just watched their church being torn apart over an issue that in their minds is greatly settled. But then they offered worship, and no one listened. They were so exhausted from the arguing, that they walked away from the balm of Gilead. I think that’s an example of why so many young people, and people of every age, have shaken the dust of organized religion off their feet, and decided to forge their own spiritual path instead. When the church doesn’t receive prophetic voices, those prophetic voices will walk away from us shake the dust off their feet, and walk into the future.

Sometimes I wonder if when Jesus, a person of prophetic action, was talking about not being welcomed in his hometown, he was talking about the church?

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if the church, and particularly mainline churches like ours, like the Presbyterians, like the Episcopalians, became places focused on listening to God’s still speaking, prophetic voice, no matter where I came from? What if we were less focused on weighing the pros and cons until the time for action had passed and we had become irrelevant? What if instead we chose to become a people of action, welcoming the prophetic voices that all of us have? A people known more for our good works, than our hesitation.

What if we shook some dust from our own feet, and left the places that were holding us back behind? What if both in our personal lives, and in our lives together, we looked at the places where we felt stuck, where we felt paralyzed with fear or anxiety or inertia, and we decided that we were going to leave those places behind, shake the dust from our feet, and follow Jesus.
If we did that, I believe we could create something that people would take notice of, and want to be a part of. Even the ones who had shaken the dust of organized religion off their feet might come back and join us.

There’s a business book that I’ve been looking at that might have some relevance for those of us in the church. Now generally I’m wary of mingling the corporate and the church worlds, but the reality is that God can speak through anything.

The book is called “Blue Ocean Strategy” and it was published about seven years ago. In it the author talks about two different kinds of oceans. Blue oceans, and red oceans. Red oceans are overcrowded, and contain a glut of organizations that to the outside observer may as well be all the same. They look like, they talk alike, they offer the same thing. Eventually they make one another irrelevant.

But blue oceans are different. They offer a new product. They do it in a different way. They explore the spaces that have never been explored before. And eventually, they stand out and they attract people to them.

The book is about marketing, but I’m not talking about increasing profits. At least not with an “i” I’m talking about increasing prophets, with an “e”.

What is to stop a casual passerby from driving past one more church and thinking that church looks exactly like the last one and the one before that and the one before that and I’ll bet their all the same?

Being a church that blends in doesn’t help to grow prophets. People have rejected “all the same” whether it comes in a white meeting house church with traditional hymns or an auditorium with guitar music. They want something different.

So how do we do that? I don’t ask because I want more people on our roles. The mark of a faithful church is not its membership numbers. I ask because I want us to become a place that welcomes Christ’s voice, and shares it with the world.

Do we offer that free meal? Do we go out of our way to welcome people who may feel unwelcome? Do we finally start that men’s fellowship we’ve been kicking around for years? I can’t answer that. That’s up to you.

But I do know this. Christ has sent us here with a message for the world. One that is important enough that he didn’t want us to waste any time. If we are really going to follow him, everyday we have to look at the places that are holding us back, shake the dust from our feet, and go. If we do that, we will find much more than a blue ocean. We will find the kingdom of God, and we will be welcome there. Amen.