Can You Picture That?

A Sermon for Sunday April 12 (The Second Sunday of Easter and Holy Humor Sunday), Acts 4:32-35 and I John 1:1-7a (The VOICE translation)

Have you heard the recent rumors?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is deathly ill.

It is dying.

It is irrelevant.

It is out of touch.

It is unfaithful and toxic.

It is irredeemable.

So say a small group of loud obnoxious voices about our denomination choosing to become more loving and welcoming of all of God’s people.**** However, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, the reports of the PC(USA)’s death was exaggerated.

True, Presbyterians have traditionally been known to be more stiff and reserved in the practices of faith, i.e. “the frozen chosen.” Fozzie the Bear gets it right when he walks into the church, sees the rocking band and says to Kermit: “They don’t look like Presbyterians to me.” The colorful, zany muppets of Doctor Teeth & The Electric Mayhem, we are not.

We Presbyterians are not inclined to raise our hands during a hymn or shout “Amen!” during a sermon or call loudly on the Lord Jesus while the pastor is delivering a prayer. We’re not eager to talk about the work of the Holy Spirit, as in “I believe the Holy Spirit moved me to connect with you today.” We like things to be decent and in order—a Reformed maxim that is often beneficial but sometimes can be a detriment for ministry.

And yes, not all Presbyterian churches are healthy. There are several churches that are stagnant and unsure of its calling or hurting from conflict or heavily divided over the interpretation of scripture or struggling with aging members and financial debt.

All churches, Presbyterian or otherwise, go through times of hardship, conflict and transition. And some churches do cease to exist. They close their doors because there are no more members, the funds dry up and the congregation doesn’t ever ask hard questions bout the purpose of their ministry.

But none of that means the denomination—with 1.7 million members and more than 10,000 congregations in the U.S.—is dying. It doesn’t mean that Presbyterians are longer viable or creative or imaginative or faithful or passionate about following Jesus and being Christ’s body in the world.

Nor does it mean that Presbyterians should accept that they are eventually headed to the precipice of death without hope in sight, even if the current state of Church and religion seems shaky at times.

Like billions of other Christians around the globe, we actively proclaim in this season of Easter that we are Resurrection people! We are about spring, and rebirth and new life! We are about planting and cultivating and growing! We are about sharing and loving and walking in the light of a bright dawn and a fresh day! We are Resurrection people!!!!

This is not a naïve rose-colored-glasses believing that ignores brokenness and suffering and strives for nice, cute answers to life wrapped up in a bow. It’s risky, faith-filled believing that says that even in the midst of the muck, we will painstakingly forge ahead in God’s hope so we can fill the cracks and holes of life with love and grace.

Image: Buddy Christ statue from the 1999 movie "Dogma"
Image: Buddy Christ statue from the 1999 movie “Dogma”

It’s the topsy-turvy wildly creative Jesus believing that says we can create life in the midst of destruction and death and shine light into the darkness.  As the late theologian and writer Mike Yaconnelli puts it:

Jesus was a dangerous man—dangerous to the power structure, dangerous to the church, dangerous to the crowds of people who followed Him. Shouldn’t the followers of Christ also be dangerous? Shouldn’t everyone be awed and dazzled by Christians? Shouldn’t Christians be known by the fire in their souls, the wild-eyed gratitude in their faces, the twinkle in their eyes, a holy mischief in their demeanors? Shouldn’t Christianity be considered dangerous—unpredictable, threatening to the status quo, living outside the lines, uncontrollable, fearless, wild, beyond categorization or definition? Shouldn’t those who call themselves Christians be filled with awe, astonishment, and amazement?

The answer is YES! YES! YES! That’s our purpose as Resurrection people!

The early Christians, the Jews and Gentiles who were figuring out how to follow Jesus post-Resurrection, embraced wholeheartedly that call to be dangerous, unpredictable, uncontrollable, fearless, and wild! According to the Book of Acts:

During those days, the entire community of believers was deeply united in heart and soul to such an extent that they stopped claiming private ownership of their possessions. Instead, they held everything in common. The apostles with great power gave their eyewitness reports of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Everyone was surrounded by an extraordinary grace.

The actions of the first Jesus followers may seem foolish and unrealistic in the 21st Century, particularly in a more individualized, capitalist society.  And yet it’s not all that strange when you pause to consider that their practice of being deeply united, sharing ownership and holding things in common is reflected in how the Church operates today.

PC(USA) churches (as an example) contribute financial tithes, offerings and stewardship pledges to make up the budget which provides pastor salaries, curriculum for church school, meals and resources for the poor and much more. And members creatively share together their time and gifts for preaching, teaching, praying, serving, inspiring, healing, comforting, nurturing and creating so that the church can be a presence of grace in its community and world.

So if holy mischief  and being united in heart and soul is part of our DNA as Presbyterians and Christians, then why are so many congregations in our denomination and Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, including Pleasant Hill, been experiencing drops in worship attendance and budget shortfalls?

Could it be that while we aren’t dying, we are sometimes lost and stumbling around a bit in the darkness or at least in a gray haze of uncertainty about the future?

Our wandering would be completely understandable, of course:

In less than two years, we’ve had two major staff changes, encountered a dip in our finances and said goodbye to beloved church members who have died, moved away or left for other reasons. We’ve also been going through some transitions with our mission programs. And we’re trying to determine what Pleasant Hill’s ministry looks like in an ever-changing multi-cultural community and evolving social-media connected society.

Change of any kind is hard to embrace and change of this magnitude can be so overwhelming that it spins us around and causes us to stumble on one another. We have the gifts and ideas to move forward and do something incredible and extraordinary, but we’re unsure if they will be accepted and given the opportunity to thrive.

The author Marianne Williamson suggests that:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

Image is from Biblia.com
Image: Biblia.com

It is God in Christ whose light shines brightly in our lives as the First Letter of John to the early Christian churches testifies:

This One is the manifestation of the life-giving Voice, and He showed us real life, eternal life. We have seen it all, and we can’t keep what we witnessed quiet—we have to share it with you. We are inviting you to experience eternal life through the One who was with the Father and came down to us. What we saw and heard we pass on to you so that you, too, will be connected with us intimately and become family… What we are telling you now is the very message we heard from Him: God is pure light, undimmed by darkness of any kind.

Many of us have seen and shared God’s light in our lives and we are invited to illuminate the lives of those in our midst and beyond that are having trouble getting their light to shine.

It doesn’t do us any good to play small and not make manifest the glory of God that is within us. Nor does it help for congregations to rely solely on their church leaders to manifest God’s glory. Each of you are capable of shining light in amazing ways. Each of you are capable of transformation. And you don’t have to have a Masters of Divinity or be an ordained elder to shine!

You just need a touch of love like the nuns of Sister Katherine’s Catholic Church in the movie Sister Act. The 1992 comedy stars Whoopi Goldberg as Dolores, a lounge singer who is goes into hiding after witnessing a murder. Pretending to be a nun named Sister Mary Clarence, Dolores soon realizes that the church is on hard times. In addition to a dilapidated roof, graffiti on the building and a chain link fence to keep out thieves, worship attendance is down to a handful of people and the choir’s music is quite stuffy and sleep-inducing. Being an outsider who sees the potential for something better, Dolores suggests to the other nuns that they can make a difference by leaving the safety of their church walls.

Did you notice that even though St. Katherine’s had a repair-the-roof fund sign, they didn’t ask a single person to give to the project? The nuns also didn’t invite people to come to worship or attend a class or a program. Instead they did something much simpler and more important: they went out to meet their neighbors and build relationships!

Although it wasn’t their intention to fill the pews with more bodies, the result was that more people came in the church to be a part of their ministry, and more people shared gifts of time and money to ensure the ministry would continue. And people did this not out of guilt or obligation or coercion, but because the nuns truly cared about them and desired to be in authentic relationships with them.

Image:  Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com, on nextchurch.net
Image: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com, on nextchurch.net

This concept of taking Church “out there” is something I learned by attending the NEXT Church Conference in Chicago last month.  The NEXT Church is a network of leaders across the PC(USA) who believe the church of the future will be more relational, more diverse, more collaborative more hopeful and more agile. More specifically their mission is:

to foster relationships among God’s people:

sparking imaginations;

connecting congregations;

offering a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ.

Trusting in God’s sovereignty and grace,

NEXT Church will engage the church that is becoming by cultivating vital connections,

celebrating emerging leadership and innovation,

and working with congregations and leaders

to form and reform faith communities

From a conference filled with breath-taking worship, captivating workshops and testimonies of new and vibrant ministry occurring across the country, I’ve discovered that the key to sparking imagination and vitality in the local church, the key to making sure a church stays viable and relevant, is about discerning important questions:

What biblical stories are we telling that  feed people’s hunger to know more about their faith and beliefs?

What might happen if we focus less on attendance in worship and other areas; less on the church building to hold classes, programs and events; and less on the cash it takes to run programs and maintain the building?

Image: "Imagination" search on google.com
Image: “Imagination” search on google.com

What cultural shifts are we willing to make so we can nurture and embolden others (who hardly participate in the life of the church) to be the body of Christ? Could we offer online worship devotionals and church school videos for adults, children and youth?

What does ministry look like out in the world God created as opposed to being in our church building? What happens if we change from being magnets that attract people to bring slingshots that go out among the people? For instance, what if we:

* held an adult church school class at a coffee shop near the church?

* attended Bible study on Psalms in a hospital waiting room?

* led VBS at a community rec center? 

* worshipped in the food court of a shopping mall?

* gathered for The Blessing of The Animals at a local park? 

* offered the imposition of ashes near the Five Points Metro Station at the beginning of Lent? 

* create worship stations or a spirituality walk in downtown Atlanta?

What is the purpose of the ministry we do:

* Are we passionate about participating?

* Are we comfortable with failing or afraid of trying something new?

* Are we doing something because “we have to do it even though we hate it” or because we feel deeply called to use our gifts to serve?

* Who is being spiritually nourished and what relationships are nurtured from the ministry we do?
 

* Who is being transformed to become more faithful? Who is being impacted?
 

Image: paper prayer cranes in the sanctuary of Broad Street Ministries in Philadelphia, PA
Image: paper prayer cranes in the sanctuary of Broad Street Ministries in Philadelphia, PA

How might our worship on Sunday morning be filled with more creative and artful collaborations:

*Hanging paper cranes with prayers of forgiveness from the ceiling of the sanctuary?

*An artist painting on a large canvass during a sermon or anthem to express the message in a different way?

*Offering prayer concerns out loud from the pews?

*A social-media focused service where people dialogue with the sermon or share their responses to liturgy on Twitter and Facebook?

How can our ministry take us beyond Sunday worship and spill over into every aspect of our week and lives?

Image: God created the Earth by Couboo, May 15, 2010, http://coubo.fr/category/t-shirt/
Image: God created the Earth by Couboo, May 15, 2010, http://coubo.fr/category/t-shirt/

How is God moving us to do something different, unexpected, colorful and imaginative with our ministry?

What might be revealed to us when we move beyond ourselves, our fears and walls and do more out there with a “touch of love”? Friends, I believe we must all grapple with the answers to these questions so that we—the community of believers who are deeply united in heart and soul and who walk step by step in the light of Christ—can join God in creating what’s next for our church, our lives and our world.

 

Can you picture that?

Amen.

****Google “PC(USA) is dying” and many articles and blog posts will appear, claiming the death of the denomination. Also, several news articles about the PC(USA) passage of Amendment 14-F have received numerous comments, stating that Presbyterians are irrelevant, toxic, unfaithful, condemned, etc., none of which is true. So let’s not ever give them the satisfaction, eh?

Image: The Electric Mayhem performing "Can  You Picture That?" in an old country church
Image: The Electric Mayhem performing “Can You Picture That?” in an old country church

 

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