Today, on the occasion of our annual meeting, I want to speak with you about theholy foolishness of our tradition. To be solidly grounded in our unique but often misunderstood way of being the church is to simultaneously affirm both the holy and the foolish aspects of our tradition. The core of the Congregational Way, you see, has been constructed upon a foundation of both prayer and democracy.
Prayer teaches us to submit to God’s will or let ourselves trust God's love enough that we can unclench our fists and rest – it has to do with learning the difference between our concerns and those of the Lord – opening our hearts and minds to the truths of eternity rather than surrendering to the fleeting feelings of the present moment. Prayer is an inward act that is mostly silent – an internal and open-ended quest for intimacy with God – which Jesus tells us is fundamentally about surrendering MY will so that THY will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Democracy, in all its forms, is a totally different kettle of fish – especially in a church. Democracy calls us to clarify our thinking, persuade others to our cause and advance actions on the basis of majority rule. It is public, active and often confrontational – often with clearly defined winners and losers. It is sloppy, awkward, frustrating, incomplete and temporal. As Winston Churchill put it, democracy is the worst form of government ever created except for all the others.
And here’s the kicker: our way of being the church – our tradition born of those cantankerous English nonconformists of the 16th century like Robert Browne who taught that each distinct congregation “fully constitutes the visible body of Christ” in the world – asks us to create a marriage between prayer and democracy. Our charge as faithful followers of Christ Jesus in the world is to celebrate the sanctity of personal conscience in the church while, at the same time, insisting that each member surrender that conscience to the authority of the God’s grace. Did you get that? It is always both prayer and democracy, never one over the other as paradoxical and complex as that may be.
· Prayer without the challenge of community can lead to quietism – withdrawing from the real world – or worse the delusion that we alone fully grasp the vastness of God’s grace. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote the Congregational minister and poet, John Donne, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
· But democracy in the Body of Christ without the discipline of prayer and the accountability of community can be just as onerous. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns us against those who love to hear the sound of their own voices: “Beware the hypocrites,” he taught, “those who love to stand and speak in public so that they may be seen by others.” And by the year 100 CE II Timothy is teaching the church:
I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
This tradition of ours – this Congregational Way – is tricky business, yes? It is no simple calling – and more often than not, we don’t get it right. We fall away from that narrow path that holds prayer and democracy in balance. We push our own opinions, fears and prejudices without first being bathed and baptized in the cleansing waters of deep prayer. We judge the motivations of others without first taking our concerns to the Lord in prayer. We want the church and its leaders to be more holy, more pure and more honest than anyone in the Bible. And we want church to be easy, quick and satisfying when, in fact, it has always been sloppy, complicated and hard.
That’s why I chose the 12th chapter of Hebrews for us to hear again today on the occasion of our annual meeting. I wanted us to remember just WHO our great cloud of witnesses included. The ancient preacher said: Since, therefore, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
And for us at First Church that great cloud of witnesses includes loud mouths and sinners, wise guys and saints, adulterers and bigots, pacifists and warriors, fear mongers and geniuses, compassionate and generous civic leaders, greedy and small-minded captains of industry: in other words, broken, wounded and loving people just like you and me who did the best they could in their time. They didn’t always get it right, but then that is always true for those called to live in the balance of democracy and prayer: such is the holy and foolish burden of our tradition. And I want to call this to your attention – this broken but beautiful legacy of ours – because after worship (and a light lunch) we’re going to go into an annual meeting. Some people HATE annual meetings.
They resent the carping in public that sometimes occurs but never feels like it has been saturated in prayer. They hate the pettiness and fear that can so easily take over when we consider our finances. And they hate the sloppiness that always happens whenever human beings attempt to do democracy in public.
To those people here among us who HATE church meetings let me call your attentionto this morning’s gospel from St. Mark. Scholars tell us that each of the four gospels in the New Testament tell us only part of the story of Jesus. In Matthew we’re shown Jesus as a teacher – and new law giver – much in the manner of Moses. In Luke, Christ is the one who sets free the captives and brings healing to those who are broken and afraid. In John the Master shows us the “unexpected and unimaginable abundance” of God’s love. (David Lohse, Working Preacher)
And in Mark’s gospel we’re shown a Messiah who begins his ministry with confrontation. This Jesus is out to challenge everything that keeps God’s people from a full, vibrant and creative life. Jesus challenges and confronts sin, demons, institutions, individuals and the forces of evil with equal authority.
So, if something controversial or challenging comes up at our annual meeting, if someone speaks in a way that rocks the boat or makes you uncomfortable, pray for them. Don’t leave the meeting – pray for them. And if, as sometimes happens, someone is just shooting off their mouth because this is the only place they have a voice, pray for them, too. But also confront them. Don’t stay silent. Challenge them with love, “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Challenge is part of our holy foolishness – the way we keep prayer and democracy in balance – so never keep silent in the face of that which makes you uncomfortable. Your voice and your conscience are essential for the will of the Lord to be heard in this small congregation.
That’s one truth – and the other is its corollary: if you haven’t prayed about something that irritates or confuses you, please take it to the Lord in prayer first. That is your sacred responsibility as a full participant in our tradition. You are free to ask questions, raise concerns, confront and challenge our leadership and myself in the most vigorous ways possible. But only if you’ve done your time in prayer – in quiet – in discernment, listening for THY will be done rather than just MY will be done. That, too, is an essential for our tradition.
Prayer and democracy – humble reflection on the will of the Lord in relationship to your own conscience and unique insights – such is the heart of the Congregational Way and such is the discipline required for a faithful annual meeting. And here’s what has come to me as I have prayed and wrestled with the issues coming before us at this annual meeting. Over and over, I’ve heard this question rise to the surface in my prayers: what would it look like if First Church lived this coming year like it was our last? How would our use of money change? How would our mission and ministry be altered? Or strengthened? How would our fellowship and love for one another be different?
It is a question born of foolishness, you see, more informed by the Cross and Christ’s perseverance than budgets and reports and the limitations of our human knowledge. I know that we are not going to close show this year. I know that we actually have enough funds to be vibrant for a long, long time – not exactly in our current form – but for a long, long time. I know this in my head. But I wonder in my heart what would happen if we consciously and foolishly chose to stop fretting about what we know and simply put all questions about survival down in the vault – locked them away for a full year along with our antique silver and all the other stuff we never use – and just lived into our ministry as if this were our last year on earth?
· What would that be like? I don’t really know – but I want to find out.
· And because this question and confrontation has returned to me over and over again in prayer, that’s how I’m going to embrace this year – and this annual meeting.
In other words, I am going to trust the Lord in a radically new way this year. I am going to trust the Jesus in Mark’s gospel who confronts everything that would keep the “children of God from the abundant life the Lord desires for us.” I am going to look for the love of Jesus in the most unexpected places and trust that where we are most broken and afraid is also the place of our greatest blessing. For this is the good news for those who are fools for Christ: want to join me?