5 Ideas to Save the Church…all of them useless without Discernment

A sermon delivered at Second Church in Newton UCC on May 17, 2015

Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26

The Apostles wanted 12.  They had eleven perfectly dedicated and talented disciples who had journeyed with Jesus from the beginning, who had witnessed his death on the cross and his resurrection.  They  once had twelve, but Judas Iscariot had sold them out, was the reason Jesus had been put to death…and then he himself came to a bitter end.  So they were left with eleven…but they wanted twelve.  And it wasn’t just because they wanted to replace Judas.  Keep in mind that this story happens right at the beginning of the book of Acts, which means the early Christian church…wasn’t yet.  What did it matter if they began with 11 or 12, there was no structure in place, no particular position that needed to be filled.  They didn’t need 12 for functionality, they needed 12 because Jesus has told them to go everywhere in pairs—so an even number was preferred—but, most importantly, they understood themselves to be body of the resurrected Christ and the redemption of the people of Israel.  Israel always has twelve tribes.  They needed 12, not because they needed to replace Judas, and not because they had to fill a position, and not because they needed to do things the way they had always been done.  They needed 12 in order to be made whole. 

So then the question becomes: How do they choose a twelfth?  They did something that was both very normal and very historic. They cast lots, which essentially means they rolled some dice.  This was the way of their people, when you had a big decision to make and you didn’t know how it should go, you rolled some dice.  They weren’t actual dice, but they were any kind of small tokens with numbers and symbols on them, and the tradition was  “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD,” (Prov. 16:33). This was normal because it was how the Jewish leaders had made tough decisions for centuries.  It was historic because this was the last time that particular practice is recorded in our Christian history.  Because as soon as they get their twelfth guy on board—they go with Matthias, according to the lots cast, God has chosen him—as soon as he is with them, the Holy Spirit descends upon them, and upon all the 120 people gathered with them, and from that day on, the act of discernment is seen as a communal activity, with everyone having equal access to the divine will of God.

Flash forward a couple thousand years to…us.  A time in which we are having to rethink and reassess what church is, what we’re doing, how we’re doing it…wonder if we are still being fed.  We all have ideas about how to do church differently, in new ways, and I’m no exception.  I have 5 ideas ready to go right here

5)  Food Church or Church Truck…not sure.  A feeding ministry.  We take a bunch of money from our endowment, we turn big chunks of our green space on our property into gardens that grow fresh ingredients, we use that to make food, and we run a food truck that serves free meals to the homeless.  But, like, quality meals.  Church members eat with the people we are serving.  Anyone can donate to the truck, but only members of the church can serve in it.

4)  ZipMinistries.  Have you ever been broken down on the side of the road, waiting for AAA, knowing you’ll be ok eventually, but feeling very alone and frustrated and insecure while you wait?  Have you ever found yourself in the middle of your day when you receive devastating news that you don’t know how to handle…you can’t imagine continuing on with your day as usual, but you don’t know what to do?  Have you ever been lost and drifting…no one to turn to, just in need of someone who will listen to what you’re thinking and keep confidence?  ZipMinistries, just like ZipCar, would allow you to reach out to a network of Second Church people, find the closest one to you, and call them to come and be present with you.  No matter your emergency, no matter the time or place, someone would take your call and come see you.

3)  Second Ark at Second Church.  Our environmental stewardship group has only met twice at this point, but they already have enough ideas and passion to keep busy for years.  What if we all focused our efforts into educating ourselves and others about sustainable models for living our modern lives, and turning Second Church into a center for environmental justice.  It’s the most immediate need we have, and we know that how we utilize or waste our resources has effects on every other area of our lives.  We know that there is no better practice of our theology than caring for the environment and increasing relationships with other people.  We could make Second Church the home of the movement that will preserve life around the globe, creating The Second Ark at Second Church, weathering the storm together, preparing for God’s new world.

2)  Visible Sabbath Takers.  We are people who never have enough time.  Time is our most precious resource.  We can buy just about anything else that we don’t have enough of, but not time.  So what do we, as a people of faith, do with our desire to grow?  We want more members, we want more people here with us, but even we have a hard time setting aside other demands and responsibilities to be here…what do we do?  We start saying NO to some things, so that we can say YES to being here once a week, to reconnect with one another, re-center around the things God calls us to do and be.  We actively say NO to a world that will keep demanding our time and energy until we are used up, so that we can rest and renew ourselves, with our families, with our young people, with our older folks…we take time to actually sit with one another, to learn to love one another, so we can actually get to work figuring out how to serve in this world together.  What if we became known as the community of Sabbath Takers, willing to stand up and say NO to the things that eat us alive, and to do that in a public way. Maybe we all get matching t-shirts and other kinds of things to wear during our sabbath time, so that everyone who sees us knows that we are dedicating ourselves to something more important than our to-do lists. 

Adopt-a-Pew.  Last year I heard someone on the radio talking about a program they started during some of our snow storms.  One of the bigger issues during snow storms is that the fire hydrants get buried in snow, which keeps firefighters from being able to access them when they need to.  So they started a program called “Adopt a Hydrant.”  You can still do this, you can go online, you can adopt a fire hydrant on your block, and when you adopt that hydrant, you take on the responsibility of shoveling it out of the snow.  And many people have taken so much pride in their hydrants that they have named them, decorated them, dedicated odd amounts of time to posting about them online.  All for a fire hydrant.  We look around this sanctuary on any given Sunday, and we wonder why there aren’t more people here.  We can’t help but remember there was a time when you had to pay the church in order to have a pew to sit in.  There’s a painted sign in the Narthex that boasts “all sit for free.”  And yet, how is the church thought of in our culture?  It’s still thought of as a place of judgment and exclusion, it’s still thought of as a place that is out to get your money…and you’d better be willing to pay if you come inside and sit down.  So what if we changed how we are perceived so completely radically that people come to understand Second Church in Newton as a safe haven that wants NOTHING from ANYBODY, but to offer such refuge.  What if we each adopted a pew, taking responsibility for getting people to sit in it every week?  What would that do for us as a community?  Would it empower us to talk to our friends and neighbors, and strangers, about why they should come join us?  Would it turn into a weird competition that creates more problems than it solves?  Would it challenge us to think about how to make this a more welcoming and comfortable place, so it’s easier for us to feel good about inviting people in?  Would it cause us to confess that we ourselves don’t always like being here…and would it cause us to reflect on that? 

The simple answer to all this is: I don’t know. I don’t know if it would do anything, I don’t know if it would mean anything.

This week i found myself in the midst of several kinds of these questions, “What am I doing?  Why am I doing it?  What is going on?”  You know those moments when you finally take stock of your situation, and you look around, and you wonder aloud…to no one in particular, “Is this for real?  How did I get here?  How did it come to this?”  And it all started with a problem that we have all encountered at some point.  That moment when you have to sit and honestly ask yourself, “Is my sandwich still a sandwich?”  Let me explain: I had the opportunity to go to Sam LaGrasse’s downtown.  If you’ve never been to Sam LaGrasse’s and you are a fan of a good sandwich, you need to get down there.  They make these huge, juicy, delicious sandwiches.  And they pack so much into this sandwich that at some point in the meal, you are covered in sauce and cheese and as soon as you can wonder, “What is going on?  Why is this so messy?”  You suddenly realize…the bread is gone. There’s been so much STUFF in the sandwich that it has forced the bread out, the bread has disintegrated and there are pieces of it all over your plate.  And if you’re eating something like, say, a chicken parmigiana sandwich, with the sauce everywhere, you don’t even see the difference between the chicken and the bread.  At which point you are forced to ask, “Is my sandwich even a sandwich anymore?”  And if you’re a sensible person who wants to put more of your food in your stomach than on your shirt, you have a moment when you admit defeat and think, “Maybe I should get a fork.” 

There are those moments—sometimes silly, sometimes disastrous—that force us to confront the reality of our situation.  We have to look around and wonder, “What is this?  What did it start out as?  What is it now?  What do I need to do?”  Sometimes we have that in our jobs, sometimes in our relationships, sometimes in our church.  This is, indeed, what the Crossroads process is all about, taking time to say, “What is this thing we call Second Church?  Are we who we think we are?  Are we being fed the way we want to be fed?  Do we still have a sandwich, or do we need to get a fork?”  The sandwich analogy—yes, that’s right, I’m dubbing it the “sandwich analogy” and running with it—is actually pretty apt for our situation:  Second Church was started by, believe it or not, 12 pairs of West Newton citizens.  Twelve men and twelve women who were no longer being fed by the First Church in Newton petitioned and schemed and, in some ways, conned their way into permission to start a new church in West Newton.  It couldn’t have been easy.  Churches in those days were reluctant to let go of their power.  The First Church in Newton had only fairly recently been established, and before then everyone had to travel all the way to First Church Cambridge every single Sunday for worship.  Our society was set up in a way that you had to have a church in order to be your own town, and you had to participate in church if you wanted to be a citizen, to have voting rights, to be elected office, or even to run a legitimate business.  So as a way of consolidating political power and organizing the colonial villages, churches did not often grant permission to start new churches.  But once 12 couples in West Newton were given permission to start their own church, the other villages wanted one too.  So we got Central Church, Eliot Church, Newton Highlands, etc.  None of those churches cared about growing, none of them were seeking new members.  The mindset was different in those days.  You had to go to church in order to be a citizen of the town.  So the question was not, “Will I go to church today?”  It was, “Which one?”  And the answer was obvious…you go to whatever church is closest to you.  Because they were all Congregational.  They all had the same theology. And everyone you knew was going to that church too. 

Then came the mid-twentieth century, when a sudden influx of church goers and new residents to the area flooded the local churches.  In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, people flocked to churches in droves, to give thanks for the hard times they had come through, and to celebrate the relative wealth and prosperity God seemed to have bestowed upon our country overnight.  This huge influx of people, with tons of families and kids, was enough of a shift to change our expectations for what church was and how it was supposed to function.  This is when Sunday Schools began, this was the advent of Youth Group…because it was the first time in history that being a “teenager” was a thing…so we discerned and we adapted and we restructured so that we could accommodate all these new people with all their new needs  And then, just as suddenly, the world changed again, and as women earned their rightful opportunities in the work place and Sundays became days of rest and relaxation rather than days dedicated to worship…the church shrank.  And those of us who remain are left with this thing that used to be a sandwich, got this huge influx of food right in the middle of it, and now we’re looking around at the mess left over unable to even separate the sauce and cheese from the bread.  Is this still a sandwich?  Do we need a fork?

Each of the 5 ideas I lifted up for our church point toward all the things that the first Christian communities did to practice and live out their faith—they rested, retreating from the business-as-usual world; they dedicated themselves to prayer; they went into small spaces together to listen to God; they went everywhere together, serving those in need as they could; they shared meals; they made the reality of a God of new life and resurrection more real than the empire that would seek to destroy them.  And at the heart of all this…the only reason why any of it worked…is because they worked together to do the work of Discernment.  I have started to understand that the work of discernment is, quite possibly, the most important thing the people of our tradition are called to do.  It is the one thing that no other groups or organizations do, and it is the lifeblood of our faith.  Discernment.  The act of deciding well.  We are big idea people, we like exciting ideas, and we get most excited about ideas we can get behind and work on.  The thing is, big ideas are not enough to save us, and they are certainly not enough to help us be who God calls us to be.  For that, we need to practice the ability to Discern—to decide well—which most often is not the work of doing something new, but of restoration…becoming whole.

This has been a key part of our faith ever since the day of Pentecost…and it has lead to no shortage of trouble.  Primarily because we have been quick to emphasize everyone’s equal access to God, and slow to say that an individual’s particular spiritual insights are not the same as knowing the will of God.  So we’ve had charismatic preachers who have had some very particular ideas about the will of God—who God loves the best, how Christians are to practice their Christianity, insisting on taking the Bible literally even though no one ever did before in history, that “dominion over the earth” means we should be aloud to destroy the planet if we want to—they’ve had a lot of ideas, a lot of new crusades, that have not always panned out well.  And other than our Quaker brothers and sisters, we have been slow to insist that discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit is a communal activity.  Each of us may have a piece of the puzzle, but we rely on one another to figure out how they all fit together…and God alone knows the full picture.  We have been quick to allow individuals with passion and certainty to proclaim the movement of the Holy Spirit for all of us…and in doing so we have missed a key point of discernment.  The act of discernment is not necessarily to come up with something new, or to make a big choice for the sake of doing so.  Discernment is rooted in restoration.  We discern so we understand what must be done so we can be made whole.  Discernment is the bread that holds this sandwich together, and without it…we’ve just got a mess on our hands.

Centuries before the Bible, as we know it today, existed, Christians were relying on nothing more than the power of the Holy Spirit to know the will of God.  They practiced discernment in community…relying on one another to bring together various pieces of the larger puzzle…attempting to Restore what God had intended…to make themselves, the Body of Christ, all of Creation…whole.  It is the one thing we do that no one else does.  It is the lifeblood of our faith.  Without the act of discernment, we are just another nonprofit trying to find ways of staying relevant.  More importantly, without discernment, we as individuals and companions on the journey of Christ’s way miss out on the opportunity to be made whole.  Those of us who are older, retired, trying to adjust to new ways of living with bodies that fail us and a world that is changing rapidly around us…we need discernment.  For those of us trying to juggle work and family responsibilities, caring for our aging parents while raising kids, who never have enough time for anything…you’d better believe we need discernment.  For those of us who are still trying to find a place for ourselves in the world, still trying to figure out what our lives will be about, we need discernment.  Our little ones, our young ones….you will spend the first 18 years of your life being students and going through school, most likely you’ll do another 4-8 years after that.  School is something you do, being students is the important role you play in our society…but that is not who you are.  You are beloved children of God every day…and God is not waiting until you are done with school to do amazing things in this world through you.  You need the ability to discern as well.  And if your church community won’t teach you how to do that…well…no one else can. 

As we complete our time at the Cross Roads and we look to where we are going next…as we come to the end of another busy and overwhelming school year…as the world spins around a star that is traveling ever further into an an ever expanding universe…we need discernment.  More than ever, we need the ability to understand how God is calling us to be made whole.  Not to do something new or novel…though, that might be part of it…but to be restored.  And we need one another to do it.  We know for a fact that group discernment can only work if the group can trust one another, if we can rely on our relationships together, if we can trust that your piece of the puzzle is just as important as my piece of the puzzle…if we can be vulnerable enough to admit that none of us know the entire picture.  It is hard work.  And in the words of the immortal Jimmy Dugan from the movie, A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard.  If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it.  The hard is what makes it great.”  The world needs us to be great, to do the thing that no one else will do.  You, friends, are the bread that holds the sandwich together.  Just as Jesus himself became the broken bread of life for all people…we are called to be the body of Christ in the world…to feed the multitudes.  And no one should need a fork to eat a sandwich. 

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