Can A Church That Fails to Figure Out How to Share the Gospel Be Saved?, Old First Sermon of Call 11.18.12.

Can A Church That Fails to Figure Out How to Share the Gospel Be Saved?, Old First Sermon of Call 11.18.12.

John 4:4-14 and John 21:1-16

If I could sing… which you know full well I can’t, so no need to get all nervous… but if I could sing, I’d start this sermon with “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”

Harold, Melvin and the Blue Notes would be Philly enough.

But I’d go for the big, sassy, Patti LaBelle version. And I’d change the line about “if you don’t like me because me clothes come unfastened,” to “if you don’t like me because I wear my clogs…”

It’s a funny Sunday for us here at Old First. It probably even weirder for this Sunday’s first time visitors: you’ve dropped in on a conversation that’s been going on for almost 3 and a half years now. What took you so long?

But we’re glad you showed up today! We’re making big decisions about our future. Because we believe what we do here helps not only us figure out our selves and our world, but changes God’s world for the better.

In the United Church Christ, “a sermon of call” (that’s what how it’s referred to in the worship before the congregational meeting deciding whether or not to call a pastor) …usually, a sermon of call is part of a worship service in which a congregation sees the search committee’s candidate leading worship for the first time.

Everyone’s had some prior introduction — written material or a question and answer period over lunch the day before. But truth be told, the candidate and congregation barely know each other. The minister has some generalized and usually misconstrued impressions about the congregation from the search committee. And the congregation is hoping against hope they can go on the search committee’s recommendation. Because, right after worship, they’re expected to vote: is this the person, the one who God wants to pastor here next?

But, for us, it’s been over three years. I’ve preached most Sundays. And you’ve seen me in a hundred other contexts. As a pastor. As a person. If we all don’t, well… if we don’t know each other by now…

Which I hope frees us in some sense… even as it complicates the whole consideration! Yes, I too am as complex and ambiguous character, just like the rest of you, even if I am a pastor.

But as Karen said a few weeks back about the stewardship campaign that was deliberately started before today, “no offense, but this isn’t really about Michael.” Thank you, Karen: you were exactly right.

Beloved, the questions before you and this church are much bigger than whether or not I should be the settled pastor. More deeply you should ask, “what kind of church are we called to be? Or how can Old First serve faithfully today and into the future?”

Can we figure out how to share that cup of water with a thirsty. Offer to quench the need of those who have been thirsty so long they might not even recognize what they are missing? How can we approach and share in Jesus’ name, when the world and our own hearts are so complicated… and the well seems too deep, and we’re mostly without a bucket, and we worry that we’ll get thirsty again, or if there’s enough water there really?

In other words, how in the world can we share the Gospel despite all the the barriers and boundaries and fears of race, religion, gender, nation, class, context and convention? Can we figure out how to drink the Jesus water deeply ourselves, and how to share the cup of Living Water freely?

Jesus takes the Samaritan road which Jews didn’t usually travel, and he offers the promise to someone who his people (whether we mean his co-religionists or his closest followers) find unacceptable and unworthy.

Will we go out of our way? Will we enter enemy territory? Will we care enough to engage, respect, confront those who others say we should have no interaction with? Can we face our fears? Risk the dangers?

The roads less traveled take courage and faith. Are we willing and able?

We have been in the past. How many churches have built as many different buildings or moved as many times as this congregation? But our past can’t save us.

Our present is defining for this church: most distinctive of our ministry back at 4th and Race… we have worked a calling building bridges for people who otherwise may never encounter one another; to reach people that other churches have not.

But ministry as bridge building in order to cross over this, that or any chasm that divides in order to carry Christ to a thirsty world, to re-present Jesus to people who otherwise might not know him… that’s a good future definition of the predicament the whole church in North America. 4th and Race is not the only place where this needs be done. We’re not the only ones who first have to figure out how it can be done!

Some are still in denial– going on as if nothing’s wrong. Pretending they can keep doing things as they always have. But you don’t have to visit that many churches before you realize the people are missing from the pews, the coffers are running on empty, the vision is eclipsed and the mission is suffering. At last Saturday’s Conference Fall meeting, the property even went up for sale. How much longer can we fool ourselves (all the while when we are fooling God!)?

All this, it’s only a little unfair — a bit of an oversimplification — to say it’s a sign of how our churches are failing to figure out how to share the Gospel in our day. Even though the UCC’s constitution reminds us: it’s the responsibility of every generation to make the Gospel its own in reality of worship, honesty of thought and expression and purity of heart. That’s about our need for a living faith, as well as the preconditions for sharing the faith with others.

As our compatriots become increasingly secular, and after a decade or more wherein conservative Christians have dominated public perceptions with their claims of being what true church looks like… meaningful, progressive — or even hopeful — talk of God has become rare in our days. The crucial question as we think about our future is how to change the conversation? Do we have the courage and creatively to speak loudly and proudly, in honestly and in the depths of our faith, so neighbors can hear an alternative to the narrow and unforgiving paths of conservative Christians or the secular roadmaps that they see before them?

In Covenant Ministry, we’ve shown that, at least, a downtown church with good bones can still live. We’re articulating our message clearer, louder — both institutionally and individually. We’ve opened our doors and our hearts wider, and shown a willingness to grow and change in order to share what matters to people, something they want to add to their lives. We’ve found a capacity to welcome people in as they come. And watched with amazement and gratitude as more and more people make their home among us, and some have risen to take up leadership.

Well done. We haven’t figured everything out yet. We still have big challenges before us. People who come to church today, both the newcomers and the longer-term members, offer church room in their lives differently. We are going to have to change more in order to be able to serve them effectively.

But it feels like we have a leg up. That we’ve opened ourselves to a strange encounter. Or listened to a strangely unfamiliar voice offering us advice we don’t quite grasp. That doesn’t yet make complete sense. After all, everyone knows the difference between the churched and unchurched. Everyone knows you can’t cast your nets on the starboard side of the boat.

But it’s becoming clearer that it’s Jesus’ command. Even if we never done it that way before. We’re in uncharted territory. Talking with people we don’t know well. Trying things that we haven’t thought of before. Things we assumed everyone knew wouldn’t work.

We need to keep at it. For the difference that it makes for every last life that gets caught up in the nets of God’s love. And for all the thirst that may be quenched.
We need to figure out the new routes on the map, and the new people to serve. and the new ways to fish. Not just for this congregation. But for how our efforts can help the whole United Church of Christ practice and preach a progressive Gospel.

We have a leadership role to play in the denomination. Lest we fall short of humility, we have particular advantages — our history and location; 50 years of particular openness to diversity and an abiding commitment to being proudly UCC. But, Old First, if we can’t show other congregations that the Gospel can still be shared, who will?

So in my sermon of call, before you make any decisions, let me sketch two steps. In the big scheme of things, they are both about getting people to take a second look at church and faith. In this presentation today, they are separate consecutive steps though they are more interrelated and simultaneous than my explaining suggests.

First, isn’t it time we stop being apologetic before the conservative Christians? God’s waiting on us to proclaim what we believe. Not because we got it all right or they are all wrong. No one’s got “the whole truth.” But, rather, because we have faith to share.

The world needs to know a church that’s thankful for the past, but not looking backward to recreate or a world that was. People need to hear we find God here in the present and leading us into the future. We’re looking forward to that which is new and different, what will yet be.

And that we’re a church founded on grace and love and hope and promise that make room enough for all (rather than fear and threat and punishment that continually scapegoat, vilify and deny others).

People need to know about the United Church of Christ.

I’m not calling for holy war, or suggesting we go burn conservative churches like once my predecessor in this pulpit called us to burn the Catholic church up the street.

Instead, I’m saying, let’s not give the faith away. With our silence, we’ve given up our name, our Scriptures, the sacred vocabulary of our religious experience, our reputation, our calling, our birth right.

It’s as if their black and white certainties about the right way to be acceptable to God shame us into quietude. It’s as if, when our conservative Christian sisters and brothers share their interpretation of the faith, we internalize and self-fulfill their accusations about our having lost our way and wandered into faithlessness. We have let them still us. Given up our voices. And our mission.

Yes, their faith is in some ways simpler to explain: it is comprised of prescribed steps (and clarity about the missteps); it’s a straightforward message about the only way to go to heaven (THEIR way!). Maybe all the bravado of their spiritual assurance shames us into resignation about disappearing.

But I have confidence in what we experience and know. Yes, of course, explaining is harder for us. We don’t have many simple, one sentence answers. We have complex sentences that are part of complex stories, full of nuance, subtlety and ambiguity, because neither human hearts nor God in the world, even in faithfulness, are simple or easy.

Nope, our holy stories are hidden in back alley stables and among criminals being put to death. Found in the lives of common workers — fishermen and shepherds and tax collectors, and women who are homemakers — folks not fitting into the limited social circumstances of their days.

We can’t simply point: “here is where God is.” We can’t state unequivocally, “This is what God is up to.” …because we find God in the world at large as well as in the church. In people of other faiths and in people of no faith as well as in Christians. Even in the science of Newton and Darwin and Freud and Einstein.

Yes, our “evangelical assignment” may be more difficult. We’re tasked with explaining and inviting people into an ever expanding universe with so much grey area and all the ambiguities of grace working itself out in real people’s lives.

God bless the brothers and sisters with whom we differ. May they live out the faith of their understanding with courage and creativity, just as we speak the truth we know in humility and love. God needs both of us. And I’m tired of us giving them exclusive claim to our shared sacred tradition…

And when we can make some progress on the first step, the second one is even harder. One we rarely ever get to these days. When we get folks past dismissing us for our theological or social politics, can we then make it our mission to introduce people in a secular world to faith? Can we re-present what a religious view of the world looks like, and why it makes a difference?

In September, Nancy and I had lunch with Uta and Uhland Kraft, leaders from our sister congregation in Bielefeld, Germany. At some point in our conversation, Uta was speaking of the difficulties facing their shrinking church. She mentioned the “inevitability of secularization.” Really?

With Western Europe farther down this road than North America, I understand her characterization– like some Tsunami unavoidably washing over the European church and taking all the ecclesial aspects of their culture with it.

I know the challenge, and, I too worry sometimes, “can we meet it, much less reverse it?” But, I’m not ready to give up the ghost on our faith to a godless world that reduces all life to the what humans can understand and manipulate.

Church, can we find words and actions and experiences that invite people to consider that there might be “more” to the world than what we can see, touch, control and understand?

That there’s something more, beyond us, more ultimate than any of us or even all of us together.

That we aren’t the center of it all. And that if we can get beyond ourselves, even just now and again, we begin to sense “Mystery,” or, maybe better, “Surprise” that confounds us because it cares for us when we’d rather be autonomous and responsible for ourselves.

That in giving ourselves in service to that which is beyond us, we finally really come alive…

Can we find words to describe not only what we believe, deeply and passionately, but descriptions that open an experience to people who have not yet known anything they would describe as religious?

I want us to grow to be able to use the language of faith fluently in church and everywhere else. To witness to faith adding to our lives and changing the world. How it directs and determines who we are to be, even if, ultimately, it’s our acknowledgement of limitation and mortality. Church, we must be able to share our religious experiences in ways that bless others, a blessing all the way to people who describe themselves as non-religious. Grow spiritually until we are unapologetic and unafraid to take our faith out into the “rest of our lives,” into that world God so loves: as an invitation, as a gift, our own spiritual maturity that enable us to share God’s love further…

One of you made me laugh yesterday in the reception after Carl’s memorial service. You asked, “So, tomorrow, does it mean you are willing to stay?” As another of you standing nearby explained, “We wouldn’t be having the congregational meeting and a vote if Michael weren’t willing to accept.”

True. Your Discernment Task Force and your Elders have done their job. But there is yet one condition.

I am willing, even eager — if you agree in the congregational meeting that it is God’s will — to serve with you in ministry as long as we are sharing the Gospel, expanding the franchise of God’s love, if you will. Talking to Samaritan women. Daring untraveled roads, even enemy territory. Listening to unfamiliar voices and strange counsel. Fishing new waters in different ways. And seeing the nets of God’s love fill.

Old First, my decision to stay came because we have welcomed more people into the life of the church. And I promise to work faithfully and creatively and tirelessly as long, but not one day longer than together we continue to carry that precious Gospel to where and who it can be received and in turn passed on.