Thursday, January 28, 2010

The congregational way of spirituality...

NOTE: This coming Sunday, January 31, 2010, is the annual meeting of our congregation. To mark this celebration - it is the two hundredth and forty sixth such gathering - my sermon notes explore what the spirituality of the congregational way might mean for us in the 21st century. We will also be singing Carrie Newcomer's great tune, "A Gathering of Spirits" which is a somewhat lofty take on faith communities. But as one of my singers said, "Hey, without a vision the people perish." And that is the gospel truth! Join us if you are in town at 10:30 am.

Today is annual meeting Sunday – which to some is simply another Sunday celebration of the Sabbath (as if that should EVER be ordinary) and to others a bureaucratic necessity of the church as an institution – but I have to tell you that I believe our annual meeting is something altogether different.

• It is something sacred and beautiful – something unique to be treasured and protected – because the annual meeting at its core is about how we are empowered by God to live as the body of Christ in the world.

• To be sure, there are budgets to be considered and slates of officers and ministry volunteers to be affirmed – there are words of gratitude and remembrance to be articulated – and even disagreements to be shared.

But this is always within the context of how we have been led by God’s holy spirit to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – jubilee as I said last week – a way of living that embraces the stranger, feeds the hungry and sets into motion a love that binds-up the wounds of the world.

How does St. Paul put it in the contemporary sounds of Peterson’s The Message?

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don't love, I'm nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God's Word with power, revealing all God’s mysteries and making everything plain as day - if I have faith that says to a mountain, "Jump," and it jumps, but I don't love, I'm nothing. Even if I give everything I own to the poor and go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don't love, I've gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I'm bankrupt without love. You see, love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn't want what it doesn't have: it doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head, doesn't force itself on others, isn't always "me first," doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, doesn't revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end… because, you see the love of God within and among us never dies.

We have been called by God to let the Holy Spirit help us become a living community of love:

• Not a museum of tradition because love NEVER looks back

• Not a collection of random, think and do what you will New Age spiritualists because this love is grounded in the Cross – a love that cares more for others than for self – a love that refuses to revel with others grovel

Our way of being the loving body of Christ has to do with a love that is simultaneously grace and responsibility – mission and ministry – spirit made flesh within the demands and realities of this moment in time. Julie Polter of Sojourners Magazine got it right when she wrote that we live by an alternative understanding of creation:

This is the big lie the world tells us: that the universe is connected by trade agreements, electronic banking, computer networks, shipping lanes and the seeking of profit—nothing else. Whereas this is the truth of God: all creation is one holy web of relationships, and gifts meant for all; that creation vibrates with the pain of all its parts, because its true destiny is joy.

And our annual meeting is all about giving shape and form to God’s love in suffering and joy. We call it discipleship – picking up our Cross and following – listening carefully for God’s still small voice amidst the whirlwind and responding with humble obedience.

• And people of faith have been trying to do this for 246 years in this place.

• You see, our tradition does not depend upon a bishop to tell us how to live into Christ’s love. We are not guided by a creed or a test of faith, we are not held accountable to a national or even international set of rules or ecclesiastical relationships and our way of being the church knows nothing about hierarchy.

No, for good or ill, our tradition is built upon the individual conscience listening for the invitation of the Holy Spirit to make Christ’s love real in covenant with God and one another – and then responding with joy-filled obedience.
Someone far wiser that I spoke of the Congregational Way like this and it bears repeating. “Ours is a covenantal rather than a creedal church. We join by promising one another that we will individually seek the truth (of God’s love) together. We will meet to find the ways of (making this love flesh) in respect and as best as we can see to do… for ours is a wise weakness.” (Lucinda Duncan)

Isn’t that an insightful way of putting it? Ours is a wise weakness – a humble insight – that must always be tested in community, affirmed through a democratic process and revised and changed when it outlives its usefulness. A wise weakness.

• Such a commitment was first articulated in the New World back in 1648 – 18 years after the first churches were established in Massachusetts – and our Congregational forbearers crafted something known as the Cambridge Platform.

• In part this document says our way of being Christ’s church in the world is based upon, “mutual care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation and relief and succor.”

In some ways it would be easier if we had a bishop to help us discern how to make this happen – but we don’t. Sometimes I wish there was a final authority I could appeal to when ethical problems arise – but there isn’t. And God knows it would be so much faster to get things done if I could say to church council – or even the annual meeting – well, father said so… so let’s get to it!

But our way – the Congregational Way – does not work like that: ours is a wise weakness – built upon prayer and scripture – nourished by individual conscience and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit discerned in community.

And that is part of what we honor and celebrate today. It is not better or worse than other forms of being the church. It is not any more likely to get God’s love right simply because we vote on something rather than follow the rules of a more structured and hierarchical setting. It is just our way – a wise weakness – searching to make God’s love flesh.

It isn’t always smooth sailing trying to enflesh this wise weakness of ours. Think about what happened to Jesus in this morning’s text. He read from the ancient scroll of the prophet Isaiah, gave the folks his spin on things and sat down to preach. At first, the crowd was thrilled that Mary and Joseph’s boy had turned out so well… but very quickly things go south.

• First he tells them that in their hearing the ancient words of Isaiah have been fulfilled, but what does that really mean? The year of Jubilee hadn’t been announced or realized: there are still people in prison, there are still beggars and homeless folk on the street and there are still wounded souls aching for comfort – then as well as today – so what was he talking about?

• And second when Jesus started to explain how he understood the blessings of God becoming flesh, he really upset the hometown expectations. They had been hearing great things about the carpenter’s kid – miracles and blessings all around – but now he was telling them that God’s love was as true for the insiders as the outsiders.

He told them about the prophet Elijah who made certain that a poor, pagan widow got bread during a crippling famine that killed countless widows in Israel. I can hear the crowd start to murmur: Is he telling us that God loves the Gentiles more than the Jews? (Stoffregen,

• But it got worse because he went on to talk about the prophet Elisha – Elijah’s heir apparent – who helped bring about the healing of a pagan leper during a time when there were hundreds of Jewish lepers aching for healing.

• Are you with me? Do you see what’s going on here? Now the crowd is furious: we have sick lepers needing God’s healing so what are you talking about those damn outsiders for? We want to take care of our own – our membership comes first – we hate those Gentiles. Let’s get rid of this trouble maker…

And do you recall what the scripture says happened next? Yeah, they tried to throw Jesus over the cliff. This congregational way business is not for cowards because when you start talking about being the body of Christ for the world – not just the membership or the building – but the world… it gets risky. And dangerous. And not everybody gets it – it is a wise weakness.

This past year we did a few things that not everybody liked – things that grounded us more in a love for healing the world than simply caring for the insiders – but they were all about love:

• We put up a peace pole to be a visible prayer to God’s alternative vision – a vision of love and joy – rather than war and fear.

• We housed a group of folk over night that were walking across New England to talk with people about the war in Iraq. We brought hot chocolate to those on Park Square and began a study of Three Cups of Tea as a way of finding our way into God’s alternative vision.

• We also joined with the Berkshire Environmental Action Team – hardly a religious bunch – to clean up part of the Housatonic River to say nothing of organizing some of the other churches in town to raise funds to fight hunger.

In November we even held a quasi-secular/sacred revival on Thanksgiving Eve where we sang songs of hope and protest, hymns to the Lord and goofy songs, too, to raise money for our Berkshire neighbors in need of emergency heating oil.

• We opened our Sanctuary for quiet prayer and reflection during Advent, we celebrated a totally wild Christmas Eve pageant with our children where guests played just as vital a role as members and we celebrated Palm Sunday by giving our children cameras and letting them show us how they see what goes on here – for unless ye become as a little child you shall not enter the kingdom of God.

• Let me go so far as to suggest to you that even our hiring of Luke Massery, our new music director, who comes from a tradition VERY different from our own is part of what I mean by taking a risk on behalf of Christ’s love – he brings new insights and gifts to us – and I give thanks to God that he is here.

In a variety of ways we let our wise weakness lead us beyond the safety of our doors into the world this past year – and NEXT God is calling for more as 2010 unfolds. More in mission, more in risk taking and more in love: this is going to be a fun year, beloved, so hold on to your hats!

And when I survey what we did within the congregation in 2009 I sense that we also took another step down the road of making Christ’s love flesh:

• We affirmed a mission statement calling us into acts of justice and compassion – not building maintenance or institutional niceties – but compassion and justice. Did I hear someone say: Jubilee? Or the intoxication of the wedding feast and its wine?

• We reached out to our sisters and brothers in grief and brought them food – and prayer – and company: when did we see thee, Lord? Whenever you shared compassion with the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did so unto me.

Let me go deeper: in 2009 we worked at solving problems NOT by power trips or parliamentary manipulation – not by bullying one another or pulling rank either – but by listening and prayer – breaking bread together and discernment. And that happened not only with respect to our music ministry but also changing the direction of church finances, too. Through your hard and faithful commitments – your mutual care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation, relief and succor to use the words of 1648 – we are now saving $30,000 a year so that our mission and ministry in the world can grow stronger.

• We are conducting our church business under the model of a “blessed church” where we pray for one another and practice talking about hard things carefully and with love.
• We are thinking about fellowship in ways that welcomes the whole family of Christ – young and old, single and partnered – that is not only refreshing, but actually counter-cultural. Think of it: inter-generational BINGO in a congregational church. Man, I thought I was at Pentecost seeing all of God’s people here together in love and respect.

Well, you get my point and I won’t go on any further: this annual meeting business matters. It is one of our sacred charisms for this era. It shows others how hope can emerge from despair and light from the darkness.

Not perfectly – not consistently – sometimes not at all: for this is a wise weakness born of the marriage of spirit and flesh.

This year we need to go deeper into compassiondeeper into listening and noticing and welcoming in love our new friends deeper into justice and acts beyond our walls... but always with gentleness and joy and the intoxication of Christ's spirit. For that my dear friends is the good news for today.


Black Pete said...

Just curious: does your congregation use majority vote for decisions, or consensus?

RJ said...

That is a great question, my man: on council - the decision making body - we have moved to consensus as our default postion. And we are very interested in moving that way in the larger, congregational way, too. But that is more on an informal style on my watch than the official Roberts Rules of Order. This year we will move into the consensus model with fear and trembling... we shall see.

Black Pete said...

Be prepared for lots of time spent, RJ. But when it happens, there are no losers.

RJ said...

And that is so important, Black Pete, so important. That was how we operated back in Arizona and it was well worth the time spent. Thank you for your encouragement.

trusting the sacramental wisdom of the seasons: the autumnal equinox

Yesterday a little package arrived: my used copy of Christopher Hill's 2003 book Holidays and Holy Nights - Celebrating Twelve Seasonal ...