September 30, 2018
This past week, I traveled with a group of 30 other young UCC clergy to join with about 2000 other pastors and church leaders across the country at the Leadership Institute at the Church of the Resurrection in Overland Park, Kansas. The Church of the Resurrection is the largest United Methodist church in the country with about 20,000 members, so we were here to learn from them some of their lessons of how to do church faithfully and fruitfully.
We had workshops and sessions on things like preaching a “dangerous sermon”—one that engages our moral imagination to envision a more compassionate and just world, to things as technical as graphic design.
And a question undergirded all our conversations, all our learning:
How do we faithfully respond to change?
Whether it is in our churches, our individual lives, or our public life together, how do we know what to do when things feel frightening and uncertain?
I look at the scripture for today, and see disciples who got caught and got scared in the midst of transition. In the midst of moving from one shore to another.
Who are leaving familiar territory to a strange new land—the foreign territory of the Gerasenes.
Disciples who became terrified when the winds picked up as they left where they had been for where they had to go.
A storm rises up. And imagine being in a small fishing boat, open to the sky and wind and waves, in the middle of an inland sea—it’s the middle of the night, dark, no land any direction in sight—this is absolutely how many people would die in their era. If lifelong fisherman are afraid, you know they’re probably not overreacting—this was a serious storm.
And so often, I hear the disciples’ shout of “teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?” as a sort of frustration and hurt at his lack of care for them. An admonishment of negligence.
But I also hear this as, how are you okay with this? “how are you not as freaked out about this as we are?” How can you be calm during this crazy storm?
It’s not uncommon to become overwhelmed in the midst of transitions. Especially when the shore we’ve left is out of sight, but we also can’t see the shore to come. That liminal, in-between place can be scary. Yet Jesus speaks a word of God’s power right in this place where people felt most afraid.
Fr. Richard Rohr describes these three key gestures of our lives: Order, disorder, reorder. Things are good, things fall apart, things come back together in a new way, more resilient for the falling apart that happened.
These are the movements of the significant moments of our lives. These are the crux of most compelling narratives across books, movies, television. These are at the beating heart of myth and story that resonates throughout centuries. We even see this in our land—this is the gift, for example, of wildfire.
Order, disorder, reorder.
The path of transformation is one that embraces change and ambiguity. And if you can turn that change into strength, into opportunity, that is powerful. This is true for our individual lives; this is true for our communities, our churches.
There’s this narrative of decline that we hear across churches, mainline like ours and evangelical alike. Attendance isn’t what it used to be. Our children grow up and don’t come back. The models that used to work don’t work the same way anymore.
We’re in the midst of this great change in our institutions. We’ve left the shore of the models we knew, but we haven’t yet reached the far shore of what faithful churches in the future will look like. We’re in the middle of the crossing. And, like the disciples felt, being stuck in that middle can be scary.
But in the midst of considerable cultural change that is landing hard on churches, i am convinced we still have something unique and potent to offer: the ancient wisdom and witness of the scriptures that teach a more loving and sustainable way of living on the earth with one another.
For when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the prophets say that God is more pleased with generosity to the hungry and afflicted, than empty rituals and false piety.
And when there are those who scapegoat the most vulnerable, immigrants and refugees seeking to survive, we hear the early writers of the law tell us that one should treat the immigrant with as much love as our own family.
When the earth is treated as simply a bundle of resources waiting to be used by humans, the creation poem in Genesis reminds us that our identity in God is to tend to this creation and care for it as stewards.
And when it seems as though justice is smothered over and over and truth, in the words of Isaiah, has stumbled in the public square, God reminds us that our life is cyclical and goodness and righteousness will blaze strong once more.
And when it seems like we’ve reached the deepest pits of the worst thing, the resurrection at the heart of the Gospels reminds us that the worst thing is never the last thing.
If it’s still dark, if it’s still stormy, we haven’t reached the other side yet.
When power is hoarded and used to exploit, freely-chosen sacrifice can be where God shows up to undermine that hoarded power.
I saw Jesus in the testimony of Dr. Ford. More specifically, I saw Jesus’ crucifixion.
In Jesus’ crucifixion, I see him enter into this torture and death, even with fear and sadness, not to be victim to torture and death but in order to destroy torture and death.
He was pulled into the death-dealing machines of our own violent nature as human beings, so that they might be broken apart. So that those awful systems of violence and scapegoating might be proven to have no power over the Love of the universe made flesh.
And like Jesus, even with great fear and trembling, Dr. Ford entered into the machines of violence and oppression so that she might be able to break them apart. She stepped with full consent, although not without great anguish, into this system of violence that has held women down for millennia so that it might be, in some way, broken apart. She stepped forward in all her courageous vulnerability, so that fewer and fewer women might go through what she has. The time of suffering in silence is ending; the pangs of speaking painful truths are the first step in transformation.
What if our faith, growing in the likeness of Christ so that the world might be transformed, looks like learning how to dismantle the machines of violence and death in our world?
The machines of death these days are not literal crucifixions. Right now, I think of the systems that oppress people, sometimes to death. White Supremacy. Patriarchy. Capitalism purely for the sake of greed. These are systems we live in that dehumanize the oppressed and oppressors alike.
In the midst of great change, it can help to hold close to your most deeply-held values. I have found that, in times of uncertainty, if I act out of the values I hold most dear, I minimize the likelihood of regret. Even if things go south, even if that wasn’t the winning choice I made, I can still feel assured in my soul that I acted as best as I knew how, and maintained my integrity. I see in Dr. Ford the choice to live out of her integrity, her honest story, even if it meant hardship, uncertainty, and anguish.
What values do you live your life from?
What values does this church community live from?
This path of change, crossing from one shore to another, is the heart of faith: How to make life out of death, hope out of loss, faith out of fear. Faith is mostly about trusting in God’s presence with us through tumult until you can stand on your own feet again. To trust that the things that rend us, also, in some ways, with God, make us whole in new ways.
It’s not that we won’t go though storms, but that the fears that arise during those storms don’t need to have power over us. For we are aligned with a power far greater than the principalities that assail us.
There’s this line in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome when, during their own uncertainties and grief as they try to figure out what next right step to take, he reminds them that they are wrapped up in a long arc of grace and love. That that’s the ground we’re standing on, we’ve been standing on.
And he reminds them, in a passage that sounds like thunder to me, that “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So beloveds, whatever powers and principalities assail us, may we know a peace in our hearts. Even as storms blow, even as we lose sight of the shores that felt like our anchors, may we trust in the grace at the farther shores, and the presence of God in the crossing.