Tuesday, July 9, 2013

July 4th weekend: reflections on nation and church


Cara  joined the church today

It’s been hot. Very hot. The kind of heat where you walk around with a constant light layer of uncomfortable sweat, clothes sticking to you. Starting to get to people.

I’m disheartened to see all the doorways filled. Guys, it’s after 10. I need to get these doors open. Sunday morning. Church. You know? They begin to stir. I walk around the corner to go in the side door. And there’s Sean.

I know, I know. Just help me, OK?

So  help him gather up his stuff. Help him into the wheelchair. Get his backpack on the back of the chair. Help him pick up his stray items. He’s thirsty. I get him a Red Bull. Soon he’s on his way. The yellow gloves will come later. 

I’m doing all the set up by myself again. Go down the street to get what I need for communion. Rob comes in to get the broom and dust pan. Cara’s now here. Strikes up a conversation. Done my share of sweeping myself, she says just like Rob sweeps.

I’ve put on a day’s work by the time church is ready to start. We’ve got to figure this out. 

I start out playing Wade in the water with Marc. 

Wade in the water
Wade in the water 
Children wade, in the water
God's gonna trouble the water
Who's that young girl dressed in red
Wade in the water
Must be the children that Moses led
God's gonna trouble the water

Wade in the water, wade in the water children
Wade in the water,
God's gonna trouble the water

Who's that young girl dressed in white
Wade in the water
Must be the children of the Israelite
Oh, God's gonna trouble the water


Who's that young girl dressed in blue
Wade in the water
Must be the children that's coming through,
God's gonna trouble the water, yeah


You don't believe I've been redeemed,
Wade in the water
Just so the whole lake goes looking for me
God's gonna trouble the water

We sit in a circle. Share our prayers. Read our scriptures. 

As usual, there’s a lot to talk about. This is the weekend of July 4th. Usually a time for me to share a reflection on the nation. Reinhold Niebuhr (120th Street at Broadway is now named for him, he was many years at Union)  used to say we need to preach with the newspaper in one hand and Bible in the other. There’s plenty to attract our attention...countries in turmoil.. A tumultuous Middle East.. especially Egypt. Revelations about the ever increasing secret powers of the NSA. And out west, wildfires spreading like, well, wildfire....

But I’m drawn to two articles...One is from last Sunday’s New York Times Op Ed page, the gospel according to me....( It basically argues that our focus is now on well being, inwardness instead of meaning from some kind of collective project.

The unintended byproduct of the liberation movements of the 60s  -70s  was an increasing obsession with self defined by unbridled acquisitiveness, IE, you are what you possess.

It’s been 13 years since the publication of Bowling Alone  ... Since then we’ve seen a steady decline of social capital....break down of community.Of the sense of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  ( That is who we are as followers of the Reformed tradition. 

And today, an article about class war in the skies..
( you flown
anywhere lately? Noticed the difference between our side and the other side of the curtain? What used to be  luxury experience for everyone is now super luxury for a few, and bottom of the boat steerage class for the rest of us. (For a satiric look at this, see Pedro Almodovar’s I’m So Excited where all of the hordes in steerage have been drugged to manage the stress of economy class syndrome, something any of us who fly are familiar with.  

This is the context within which we look at the church. We seem to be in  a day and time where the church as we knew it is all but dead, as my pastor friend Elise and I were talking about it yesterday. 

Our Presbyterian churches tend to be small. Three-fourths (76 percent) have 200 or fewer members. The average, or mean, size of a Presbyterian church is 180 members. The median size is 89.Eight in ten (81 percent) have 250 or fewer members. More than half (54 percent) have 100 or fewer. (Data from

Our scriptures today suggest some clues. In Luke 10:1-12, we find a strategy.
Jesus sends out 70. Two by two, no one can go alone. As Jesus says the harvest is plentiful, laborers few (don’t we know it)  and that we must ask The Lord for laborers...

What’s at work here is radical discipleship. What is it? The young adults say they’re not sure but they know it when they see it...

Back to Strategy:
The workers are sent out nearly without resources to show that you have to win the confidence of those you go out to so that they will support you. You are to  Remain in the house,.....where you have been received, not run about from place to place, home to home. If you have found a  genuinely compassionate person, that is a good place to begin As we know from organizing, you have to stay long enough to develop core leaders.

We are to eat what is before you, that is to be accepting of the culture and gifts of those we go out to. 

And when you are rejected, Shake  off the dust from your feet... meaning know when to leave, know when to stop beating your head against the wall.

(The lectionary creators carefully excluded verse 12 where Jesus says that for those who show no welcome, no hospitality, it will be worse for them than Sodom showing clearly Biblically, and especially for Jesus, the sin of Sodom was refusal to grant hospitality and abuse of strangers, absolutely NOT same sex love...Thus our old friend and prophet Howard Warren could rightly proclaim those who reject the lgbtq community to be the true Sodomites)

When the apostles come back with their stories of success, Jesus said he saw Satan falling from heaven like lightning, .....that means the  power  of Satan , the accuser...that internal voice of criticism that drags us down and prevents us from being who we are created to be is defeated once and for all. 

In Galatians 6: 1-16, we also find helpful counsel. When someone has broken faith with the community or fallen short, we are to act with gentle compassionate correction. And avoid being tempted. Meaning I suppose the temptation to condemn or think ourselves better than.

Or perhaps it is to avoid being taken under ourselves. I remember my summer intern years ago in Tulsa who felt he was called to minister to dancers in a strip club. When the owner of the club called me to say he was concerned about my intern, who seemed to have  fallen  in love, I told him he had to be clear which part of himself was responding to what call. 

We are to  bear one another's burdens BUT all must carry their own loads. If we each carry our own loads, helping one another will be no difficult task. I love community organizing at least in part because of its golden rule as per Sol Alinsky: never do for anyone what they can do for themselves. Not charity (doing for), ideology (thinking for) or advocacy (speaking for) but building a strong community, an organization capable of shifting and changing and adapting because it is built on sustainable relationships...

As Paul says, you reap what you sow. It took me awhile to figure out what Paul’s flesh talk was all about. It’s not our natural response of the senses but self absorption. Preoccupation with self.

We are called to work for the good of all, especially the family of faith.

On the one hand we need to be aware of and respond to needs we that perceive to be in the culture, like the need to feel  authentic and connected. BUT....I see us called to be a counterculture. One where we celebrate the  good of the whole, the beauty and value of relationship, community.
Of a God that actually demands something of us, of a faith practice that expects something and a membership that means something...more than vague self oriented spirituality. Someone says, but if you make it too hard, people won’t join. And I say, we don’t ask enough. People want to know that it is important to us, that it matters. that is where we will begin to begin again.  

Today our new Deacon John and new Elder Don assist in serving our communion.

Then Elder Leila presents Cara as one who has requested to become a member of the church. And we heartily welcome her. 

We sing the old hymn of welcome Blessed be the Tie that binds then finish with I’ve got peace like a river. Another good Sunday.

Then back into the heat. 

We will end the holiday weekend serving at the shelter at SPSA. Kate has a wonderful meal planned. My recipe for pulled pork. 

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