The sermon for week June 08, 2014
I Wish They All Could Be ProphetsNumbers 11:24-30 and Acts 2:12-21
If there is one thing that atheists, agnostics, and Christians can agree on it is that the institution of the church as we know it is dying. The church structures of the past 50 years or so are changing, and radically so.
Pentecost is the birth of the church. Christian theologians throughout the centuries have stated that Pentecost is the answer to the passage in Numbers, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” The answer is the church. Today is the birthday of the church, and now the church as we know it is dying. What are we to make of this?
There are a variety of reasons put forth by many a scholar and blogger for the demise of the church as we know it. There’s not just one answer to why this is so, but rather combinations and layers.
Maybe Martin Luther King Jr. had it right when he wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail. He stated, "The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are."
Jesus was a game changer. He welcomed, ate with and healed all the wrong people. He was put to death but he didn’t stay dead. He came back and welcomed, ate with and healed all the wrong people. He spoke truth to power, troubled the status quo and eventually changed it. The church continued this message. And they were persecuted for it, burned at the stake, stoned, flayed with knives, yet they never returned violence for violence then. They welcomed, broke bread, and sought healing.
Then something changed. The church went from being people on a mission to a building, an institution with a private group. The church was no longer persecuted and instead became a nice place to gather and be comforted where nothing too controversial happened. As Leonard Ravenhill put it, “If Jesus preached the same message ministers preach today, he would have never been crucified.”
Indeed, the church as we know it is not like that early church. It isn’t like that first Pentecost or how it was with Moses. And now the lament of “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” feels so much needed for so many churches out there.
There are encouraging signs though. It is not all bleak. The church as we know it is dying and that’s okay because something else is rising. Note I say “church as we know it is dying” not “the church is dying.”
A new kind of Christianity is coming, and I have great hope for I have experienced it--it’s a return to the concept that the church is not the building, it’s the people who are the church. And we’re not a club, we’re a movement and witness to God’s love and forgiveness to all people.
Last May, Sam and I visited Fuller Seminary for a conference about science and religion. We were floored by how many people struggled with talking science and religion to their congregations. We don’t have that struggle here. One man asked if I had a problem with a presentation on Evolution.
"No," I answered. "Nor would my congregation. Most of them are evolution-lovein' Christians."
"Wow," he answered, sort of shocked. He became puzzled and then said, "You must not believe the Bible to be God's word."
"No, not all of it" I said.
"You mean, you don't believe the Bible to be inerrant?!" he questioned, voice starting to crack.
"I believe the Bible is authoritative and points me to God. But I have to wrestle with it a lot. It's my favorite conversation partner," I said, calmly as I could.
That answer seemed to satisfy him. He could see that I read the Bible and valued it, but I didn't use the same words as he did. It was a good conversation starter rather than stopper and lo and behold, two very different Christians from two very different traditions had a great conversation about the Bible and how we wrestle with it, and what our favorite stories are. I don’t believe this would have happened before now. Before I would have fought him, stood firm with my conviction and dismissed him without grace. But now, I feel like God has placed a new spirit on me. Now I see that God is doing something new, and something new is being born and what has been apart is coming together.
The United Church of Christ has played the part of being prophetic. Of speaking words of truth to power, of seeing where the culture is going and getting there first. These are things prophets do. Yet this man was able to speak truth into my life, he was speaking of discipleship, of teaching and of the power of small groups. His church couldn’t talk about evolution the way we can, but they know how to speak Bible and faith and share the deepest parts of their lives together. I’m not saying we can’t or don’t. I’m saying that how he spoke of his church, the passion which was apparent deeply moved me. It was beautiful.
The United Church of Christ is also very ecumenical, bringing together four traditions that were very different from each other. They sought unity in Christ, and they didn’t give up until they found it. I’m seeing that more and more. I experienced it at Fuller. I’ve experienced it in meeting with other ministers around Toledo. There seems to be this same search for unity in Christ rather than squabbling over differences. Indeed, things are starting to change. Something new is being born.
Our Chidester Lecture series is turning a lot of heads. There are many friends who might not ever think to set foot in our church. Yet they love that we bring in Walter Brueggemann and Diana Butler Bass and others. And that engagement is knitting us together, and something new is being born. We are able to invite prophets in and to learn from them and in turn, I think we’re starting to learn how to be prophets. And others are seeing that we take in everybody, and that’s what we stand for and that’s prophetic.
Nadia Bolz Weber is a 6 foot tall tattooed woman who looks more like a rock star than the Lutheran Pastor that she is. She planted a church called “House for All Sinners and Saints” in the bad section of downtown Denver. Her church is filled with all kinds of people: the poor and homeless, those recovering from addiction and those still addicted, the tattooed, the LGBTQ. It’s a young crowd which doesn’t have a whole lot in common with us here at Sylvania. And Nadia is a prophet, she preaches challenging sermons. Yet something happened in the last few years. Due to the presence and work of the church in the area, the neighborhood changed, became safer and more stable. And then the middle-class and upper class started moving into the neighborhood and attending Nadia’s church.
This prompted a crisis in Nadia. How do I pastor to these normal people? They don’t have tattoos, they aren’t struggling with addiction, they’re going to come in here and try to make this beautiful and weird thing we have going into something normal and bland and just like every other church. And Nadia said this to those she considered her “regular crowd of weirdos”.
“Just what will we do with these normals?” Nadia asked.
Asher spoke up. “As the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record and say that I’m really glad there are people at the church now who look like my mom and dad. Because I have a relationship with them that I just can’t have with my own mom and dad.” (186)
Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them. God is doing something new here and all across our land. Things are changing. What was apart is now coming together. The sons and daughters are speaking about the church anew. We heard on Confirmation Sunday that our young men and women are seeing visions. And those of us who have been here a while are starting to dream dreams.
We are engaged in Jesus’ work: to love as God loves, to gather and unite, to forgive and raise up. We can think of all types of excuses not to: we lack the right words or training or free time or money. Yet then we get inspired. When Spirit descends, we act just like Jesus despite ourselves. The Spirit which was in Jesus now fills our bodies and we become the body of Christ. I wish we all realize that we’re prophets. Yes church, you are all prophets. You are called to preach great hope to all people. The church as we know it is dying, yet we are a Resurrection people! We are a Pentecost people! We shall become something new, something different, we shall be wider in our love. We shall not be jealous when Eldad and Medad start speaking, instead we shall listen. We shall search for unity because of our newly opened hearts.
Again and again God promises to set us on fire with a promise that cannot be extinguished. God’s reigniting work will fill every single corner of the earth with love and blessing. And the fearful disciples hiding in the wilderness or huddled in a room are converted to the work that God has always been doing all along.
A Pentecost children’s sermon once asked how many candles should be on the church’s birthday cake. Eventually, one kid guessed the year but she added that “you can’t blow out that many candles.” (Schmeling)
Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Pastrix: the cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner and saint. Jericho Books, 2013.
Lindon, Luke. The Bible and Its Role on The Path. AssociatedLuke Blog:
Ravenhill, Leonard. Meme from Facebook.
Schmeling, Bradley. Reflections on the lectionary Sunday, June 8. Christian Century, May 28,2014 page 21.