Yesterday we closed a Presbytery worship service declaring a building vacated and dissolving that worshiping community as a congregation. It was a moment to recognize that death happens.
The week before that I preached at that same church on Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and Peter’s rebuking him that he can’t die (Matthew 16).
We have a tendency to confuse form and function. In that moment I believe Peter was obsessed with the form of Christ. He didn’t have a failure of faith. He has a failure of imagination. He could not imagine Christ outside of the way he had experienced him to that point. He was obsessed with the form, rather than the function of God… of Jesus. So resurrection held no hope for him. He didn’t want resurrection – he wanted not to have to go through any changes.
We get that way about Church. (God too…) We get where we obsess about the forms we know and are comfortable with and cannot see past them. But God is on the move. And the form of the Church is too… the Church will form and re-form as need arises to fulfill its function. When a form has played its part… it will die. But that doesn’t mean the Church dies. The Church is not a form. And the Church will find a new way to be manifest even as we mourn the loss of the way we knew, the way we were comfortable with, the way we wish it could still be.
The challenge I find with regards to death is that we are called to give it neither too much, nor too little, credit. When we obsess on death we miss the point, and those who wish we would talk more and longer about “a dying church” are perhaps a bit too obsessed with form. The Church isn’t dying… the Church is finding a new form. Its purposes will still be lived out, its function is as much in demand as it always has been and always will be. It just isn’t necessarily being met the same way we are used to imagining. Like Peter… we need to give that up a bit and challenge our imaginations to see a new way. We need to be Church making real the same hope, love, and justice in very new ways through unfamiliar forms. We need to trust that resurrection is real, and – wait for it – good. We need to be willing to be re-formed.
We proclaimed yesterday at the end of the service that this site was no longer a worshiping congregation of our church. But as I walked out the words that resounded in my head were, “but of his kingdom there shall be no end.” The Church – even THAT church – will go on. Its a form that died, not its function, not its purpose, not even its being. That is simply waiting for resurrection and the new form it will take as God coaxes life from the formlessness and void, and calls it good.
I have read a LOT of articles about the actions of the recent Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly. I have read a lot, I have seen even more posted. I hit my limit last night; I’m not clicking on them anymore. (So yes, if I were you I would not be reading this right now.) I made that call last night and thought to myself, “back to preaching the Good News!”
…And then I stopped short. Because that wasn’t at all fair.
What I love about my church is that we are willing to speak out loud what we believe. We are willing to imagine that the gospel does in fact meddle with our lives and views, be they social, political, or theological. And we are willing to be wrong.
I love that and I have to recognize that for a great many people preaching the Good News is EXACTLY what the General Assembly was, is, and will be doing. We are preaching liberation from injustice, and seeking to offer blessings and forgiveness and dialogue towards a worldview more God-open to the many ways God is at work. Many would view this work as evangelism: preaching the good news of the Gospel which embraces those who have been marginalized and oppressed.
Many others hear that news as bad. Many hear it as a departure from the established patterns. Many hear it as an affront to their faith, their politics, their attempts to love their neighbors – our neighbors.
And you know what? That has always been true of Good News. It sounds so easy. Oh – preach good news. Okay, I got that. But it’s hardly so easy. The Pharisees were an incredibly faithful group of people. They helped sustain Jewish faith for centuries of tough times. They had good news. But they differed with Jesus about what that is, or how we live that Good News. The conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in his faith (for he was a Jew too) isn’t because one of them was unfaithful and the other was faithful, the conflict was about two radically faithful people with a different understanding of what is good, or how to live that good.
And the issues compound. Paul preaches to Philemon that he cannot own a Christian slave and so he must free Onesimus. Is that Good News? I bet it was to Onesimus… not so much to Philemon. And Paul isn’t very gentle with him; in fact he is rhetorically manipulative.
8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love… 14b in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced… 21Confident of your obedience… 22One thing more—prepare a guest room for me.
I love that last part… oh yah, and I’m coming to check on you too. Paul gets what Paul wants. But this dilemma doesn’t just involve Paul or Jesus, the cases abound. Look at the Biblical mandate for Jubilee. Jubilee is radically good news to the dispossessed who will get their lands back, but not so much the people who have accumulated those lands and slaves and worth… by the work of my hands and intellect and good management I obtained these lands and now I just have to give them back??? Is Jubilee good news to most of us in Presbyterian Church which, while not exclusively so, tends to be privileged and wealthy?
There is a struggle with this word good. Part of why I am always hesitant to use it for God (read that here). Good news rocks the boat. Good news unsettles established tradition. Good News breaks the rod of the oppressor, the yoke we carry, but also the structure and institutions we are invested and empowered by. This is hardly Good News for all people.
Did the General Assembly do Good News work this week? Will time tell us that we were out in front on justice, or off the path? I do not know. I have my passionate thoughts on the subject but that wasn’t was this line of thought is about. What this is about is recognizing that our call to preach Good News is rarely comfortable, and if it feels comfortable to you (or me) – we are probably doing it wrong. It wasn’t comfortable to Jesus. It wasn’t comfortable to God. It wasn’t comfortable to Paul. It wasn’t ever meant to be comfortable… it was meant to liberate us from the structures that comfort some at the expense of others. Maybe we acted rightly. Maybe we acted errantly. What I am grateful for is a church that is willing to be wrong. I am grateful for a church that will to go on record for justice at the risk of its own life. I am grateful for willingness to stand in the tradition of prophets, apostles, and reformers. And I am grateful for the humility to understand that we will yet need reform.
Yesterday I learned a phrase for the first time, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” (attributed with some dispute to the last will of writer François Rabelais.) I think there is something very reformed about this. I think as we preach good news we are always (as those who see through a glass dimly) at best those who are seeking something of a great perhaps. Those willing to dare that we might just be approximating God’s will and God’s good news for the world. But are also doing so through human understanding, with limited language, social baggage, and our interpretational lenses seeing and hearing what we want to see and hear. We dare to act, because otherwise what good are we? We act with humility, because we know we have erred and will err again. We seek a great perhaps endeavoring to be Good News.
So… preach the Good News? I’m trying. You are trying. We are trying together – thanks be to God.
The NEXT 2014 conference was centered on three words: Lead / Create / Discern. However, the three words I moved through in that time were: Awe / Inadequacy / Humbled.
There are so many great ideas, leaders, conversations that I was awed by the creativity. I could not help but imagine God looking down on creation again, and again, and again and thinking, “It is good.” In a conversation that could have been about all that was wrong, it was instead about all that goodness, the opportunities. The combined generative creativity was awe inspiring. There was not denial here about the death in the life of what it has and does mean to be church. But that wasn’t the word that was made flesh. It was not not-true that the church is dying, but it also was not true. Is not true.
I can’t help it. I feel so very ordinary, uncreative, and yes – inadequate – next to all these innovative leaders and passionate followers. Don’t rush in to console me please. I know I have gifts too – I’m not completely unqualified for the calling to which I have been called. I will be challenged by this, and I will find a way to grab hold of something – or something will grab hold of me – in a way authentic to who I am and who my community is, God knows what God is doing. But I guess what I mean to say is…
I feel humbled when I’m surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, a chorus of dedicated and loving people. I look around and think: the church is in very good hands and to anyone who thinks this tomb is empty… or that it is even a tomb. I say ‘stand back’ because some abundant life is going to trample all over that doom and gloom. I am humbled like the Psalmist who utters, “who am I that you are mindful of me.” And even while we are talking about the church that is next… what struck me was how much this church is right now. Springing up. Something new. Seeking the welfare of the city. Exile? It never looked so good.
And then this happened… in a service of prayer little slips of paper full of all our fears were read out loud. And I realized I’m no more afraid, no more attentive to my own inadequacy, no more paralyzed by the sense of what might happen if I fail big in a place that doesn’t seem like it can handle one more failure than everyone else in this room. We are humbled by each other, united by fears, and led to hope. That was the final word. Hope. I found this most strongly in our weakest moment when I felt united by our fears, and convicted by the sense that all of that fear wasn’t holding the Spirit of God back from leading us. Not. One. Bit. I’m ready for what’s next, are you?