September 2, 2012
Currents of Alienation Sandra Harrington 2004
I. When we took our oldest son, Jon, to Grove City College in Pennsylvania for his freshman year, someone from the administration spoke just to the parents shortly before we were to head home. He said something like this: “You have unloaded a trailer load of stuff into your son’s or daughter’s dorm room. You’ve toured the campus together. You’ve opened an account with the bookstore and the meal service. Right now they are meeting their upperclassmen big sisters and brothers. In less than an hour you will cry and hug each other on the parking lot. Your children will walk back to their dorms for welcome parties. You will drive off and by the time the campus fades in your rearview mirrors, you will have wiped your tears and shouted, ‘Whoopee!’”
A. I’m sure both you and Les and Joyce Brown had many thankful tears when you bid them farewell. I don’t know if Les shouted “Whoopee!” when he woke up Monday morning and didn’t have to come into the office. But I did have lunch with him on August 22. Yes, he still loves and misses you, but I can tell you he’s enjoying himself and has no regrets. Candy and I are thankful for the way you have welcomed us, but I doubt we have evoked and “whoopees” from you. My job is to get you ready to welcome your new pastor with a genuine “Whoopee!” Right now you’re between “whoopees” in ambivalence.
B. Both personally and as a congregation, as uncomfortable as it feels, ambivalence welcomes you to Christ’s creative, constructive adventures.
C. Ambivalence comes when we feel tugged in two seemingly contradictory but equally compelling directions. In September we’re going to put some of the words of Jesus from Mark’s Gospel up against some of what James wrote in his Epistle. I expect we’ll feel an ambivalent tug between the two. If we listen closely, in this sometimes uncomfortable space, I believe we can hear the voice of God. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 captures the essence of just such a conversation between Jesus and some religious critics. Remember what we just read from James as you listen to Jesus.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand:15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
II. I hope you enjoyed the change of pace with the Call to Worship from the Song of Solomon this morning. Perhaps you’re wondering how that relates to Jesus and James. In that ambivalent space between Jesus and James, I believe I hear the voice of our Divine Beloved calling, “Arise, my Love, my fair one, and come away. The time of singing has come.” You’re not quite ready for that yet, so feel ambivalent.
A. All of that washing by the Pharisees and Scribes had nothing to do with hygiene. It was not Mom calling, “Supper is ready. Wash your hands, and come to eat. We’ve got your favorite tonight.” Oh no, this was an arduous ritual to be sure that if you had touched a sinner during the day, or a sinner had touched your carrots or your frying pan, you wouldn’t be defiled by taking some speck of a sinner in with your supper. This was not about love but about suspicion and fear.
B. Like a lot of traditions, this one started with good intent: health and a reminder to live a holy life. But also like a lot of traditions, it deteriorated into lifeless, loveless routine.
C. This is Labor Day weekend. Labor Day first became a national holiday in 1894 when President Grover Cleveland settled the deadly Pullman Strike. It was a way of recognizing the contributions of labor unions to the working people of the United States. Over a century later we take a day off work and school, but very few are thinking about labor unions or workers.
D. All nations, communities, families and, yes, churches have rituals to celebrate important people, events and ideas. I expect you started some rituals when the church moved here to Reno and Anderson, and some of them have become well engrained traditions. Nothing wrong with that, but Jesus asks us, “Are these God’s traditions or our traditions? Do they nurture love or conflict?” Ambivalence welcomes you to Christ’s creative, constructive adventures.
III. Both Jesus and James are concerned about what defiles us. Neither of them would say, “eating with ritually unwashed hands.” James wrote that pure, undefiled religion or worship was to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Jesus said that the evil intentions that come from within the heart defile a person. Though it sounds like James is advocating exterior religion and Jesus interior, I think this ambivalence takes us directly to love that is both heartfelt and expressed in relationships.
A. For both Jesus and James, religion or worship have nothing to do with the style of our services, the selection of the hymns, the length of the sermon, or whether anybody messed up. Neither of them even mentions the assembly of the congregation for worship. For both of them, pure religion and worship is about how we treat people. For James it is caring for weak, needy, hurting people. For Jesus it is about fidelity, integrity, respect, generosity, humility.
B. Widows and orphans were about the most disadvantaged people of that time. “Widows and orphans” became a kind of shorthand for all of the disenfranchised and outcast, including foreigners, the disabled and publicly scorned sinners. Without a doubt plenty of people in Midwest City and Choctaw qualify. I know that this congregation cooperates with other congregations in the area to offer some help in the name of Jesus.
C. I am also confident that for many more people in Midwest City and Choctaw personal, emotional, relational and spiritual pain is all too real even when economic poverty is not a significant issue. For many of them “religion” offers little if any hope, so they don’t naturally look to the church. These are your neighbors, your coworkers, your classmates, maybe even your relatives. The kind of religion and worship Jesus and James propose makes each one of you a bridge for someone to the love of God.
D. Jesus and James would agree that pure religion and worship is not about institutional maintenance or even growth for the church but about the mission of Christ’s love for hurting people. When that happens, the Church grows. Growing is a byproduct not the goal. Investing in the church is not so the organization will survive, but so that it can be about its mission. Ambivalence welcomes you to Christ’ creative, constructive adventures.
IV. To move a congregation from maintenance to mission will necessarily tamper with its traditions and invite ambivalence. When a church seriously explores its mission, differing and even conflicting opinions are not only inevitable, they are desirable! Ever practical, James recommends “listen more, speak less.” When someone suggests what seems just plain wrong to you, “be slow to anger.” Who knows? As questionable ideas bump up against each other, the Holy Spirit can use the energy to spawn something better. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “It is no harder for God to use our mistakes than our triumphs.” As you look at the virtues that counter the defilements Jesus named, we see the humility and selflessness that can welcome ideas from any source.
A. Part of the property of Central Christian Church in Dallas had been a children’s playground but the equipment was gone, and it was unused. Except that some neighbors let their dogs run there. A couple of members complained about the trespassers, until they saw a couple from their Sunday school class who had a dog sitting business using it. The very ones who had objected, now suggested fixing it up to be a real dog park, and it became one of their most effective outreaches to their neighbors.
B. I have heard some conversation about dreaming that this this campus could become a community center for your neighbors. Some things are already happening in the JCAC. What activities can you imagine attracting people? You might think of these as sorts of “fishing ponds” for bringing people to Jesus. Not everyone, of course, but you who participate in those activities can think of yourselves as “anglers” who are alert to build relationships with people who are hungry for Jesus, even if they don’t know it. The sky’s the limit!
C. As your interim pastor, my job is a lot more than keeping things going until you get a new pastor. I intend to be leading you through some steps that can be done much more effectively in the time between pastors.
1. Recognizing how your history brought to this point.
2. Sharpening the vision for future mission.
3. Developing and focusing the congregation's leadership, both staff and lay, for the mission ahead.
4. Renewing connections with the larger Church.
5. Preparing to welcome a new pastor with “Whoopee!”
D. Ambivalence welcomes you to Christ’s creative, constructive adventures. I am already excited about what I believe God wants to do with 1st Christian Church of Midwest City in the decade ahead. One very helpful way of thinking about the future for this congregation is to ask yourselves, “What can this church be and do, so my grandchildren and their friends will want to participate and have their spiritual needs met here?” Some of you have grandchildren who are involved here now. Some of your grandchildren are in other churches or maybe no church. Some of you have children and are not thinking about grandchildren yet, but use your imagination to see what God might have in store. I know not all of you do or will have children, but I think projecting a generation ahead can still be helpful for forming a future vision
When I think of our grandchildren, I realize that no one model answers this question.
Hannah,14, and Isaac, 12, in Pennsylvania go to a large big-box, high energy, very produced “ultra-contemporary” congregation of young families. Hannah went with her Dad on a mission trip to Guatemala, and Isaac went on a middle school mission trip to Washington, D.C. Their Mom spearheads a ministry to mothers of preschoolers.
Sam, 10, and Elizabeth, 5, in Wisconsin go to a small Mennonite church that meets on Sunday afternoons in a Lutheran Church’s building. Their worship is traditional but informal and includes a whole range of ages. They have no pastor and their Dad shares in the preaching rotation and their Mom leads worship. Several times a year they do a whole church weekend retreat at the farm of one of their members.
I mention the contrast in the churches our grandchildren love to remind us not to think of narrow or stereotypic models but of a wide range of adventures.