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A Place of Response and Action

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Frances Rosenau

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Paulo Freire

The NEXT Church National Gathering really stuck with me this year. I’ve been to a previous National Gathering and came home inspired and renewed. The same thing happened in 2017 as well.

What was different this year was the sense of urgency and action. Gone is the “woe is me” trope that the denomination of our past is shrinking. Instead of reacting to the situation in the church at large, the National Gathering is now a grassroots gathering for something: for including all voices at the table, for amplifying the contributions of young leaders, and for standing up against injustice.

The Sarasota Statement has had a lot of buzz since it debuted at the National Gathering. I particularly appreciate how the statement directly addresses groups of people and actions that will be taken to bring reconciliation. Not simply a statement of faith, this statement addresses its intended audience and brings the conversation to a place of response and action.

Through the month of May, the congregation I pastor, Culver City Presbyterian Church, is taking four Sundays to walk through the Sarasota Statement in worship. Below are the sermon titles, scripture passages, and themes of each service, each of which corresponds with one part of the Sarasota Statement.

Preamble 

“Kingdom Come” Matthew 6:7-15

The Preamble of the Sarasota Statement is rich with theology and imagery, the most grounding image being that of the coming kingdom. Jesus is Lord over a kingdom that exists already, as the statement reads. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus prays for the kingdom to be present on Earth as it already exists in heaven. That means God’s kingdom is possible; a reign free of violence, starvation, and injustice can be achieved on this earth, not just in heaven. Jesus prayed for it and Jesus calls us to join in that kingdom work here and now.

Part 1 – To the people we ignore, reject, or demonize for living outside the tribes we claim

“Peace in All Its Forms” Luke 8:1-3

We claim so many tribes. Like the star-bellied sneetches in the Dr. Seuss story, we create differences between people even if they don’t already exist. And when they do exist, we oftentimes become so entrenched in our own tribes that we “ignore, reject or demonize” others.

First, we recognize what tribes we claim, whether we have done it intentionally or not. Then we work to build a community across those tribes just as Jesus calls us to. Jesus called women to leadership, even though they were outside of the “tribe” of maleness he was a part of. Systems of power and privilege keep divisions in place, and we commit to intentionally work against them.

Part 2 – To the people we dehumanize and dismiss on the basis of political and ideological differences, and those who suffer at the hands of our idolatry

“Watered Down Idolatry” Jeremiah 29:4-7

The people in exile had lived through so much suffering, they held the Babylonians in contempt. They had been wronged and abused and could not see the humanity in the people keeping them there. And yet God through Jeremiah calls them to build houses and marry into Babylonian families. The people hearing these words likely did not welcome the call. They wanted to protect their identity and not open themselves up to the Babylonians.

Our context is quite different, and yet we often “conflate Jesus’ message with political platforms and look to partisan ideologies to affirm [our] ethics and action.” We commit to prayer for our political system and our leaders as well as speaking on behalf of those silenced or who may differ from us.

Part 3 – To the people for whom we have failed to seek justice, offer hospitality, or fully embrace as part of God’s beloved family

“On the Other Foot”  Leviticus 19:33-34

Whenever I travel in other countries and am confused or lost, I have overwhelming gratitude for locals who come to my aid. As a teenager, the light bulb went off – Oh, this is how all the foreign exchange students in my school must have felt. 

“For you were aliens in the land of Egypt…” is God’s not-so-subtle reminder of when the shoe was on the other foot. Welcoming and protecting immigrants and refugees is as ancient a practice as our faith. God’s people are on the move throughout scripture, often moving either toward conquest or fleeing from it. This is still our story. As people whose story transcends the narrative of any one ethnic group or lineage, we are called to listen to the stories of those who are moving now and stand with them.

The Church is called to live differently than the powers and principalities of this world. We are called to stem the cultural tide of racism and inequality in the way we do church, to intentionally work against our biases and form a community of equality. Since we swim in the waters of injustice from Monday to Saturday, we have to work very hard at doing things differently in the Church.

The NEXT Church National Gathering this year and the Sarasota Statement in particular has given me sustaining water for the long journey, overflowing to my congregation and beyond.


Frances Wattman Rosenau is the Pastor of Culver City Presbyterian Church in the Los Angeles area. Her DMin studies focused on multicultural and multiethnic worship. She has a passion for the global church and has lived in India, Scotland, Arizona, Upstate New York, Paris, Chicago, and Tulsa. When Frances is not at church you will find her training for a race, reading about bulldozers with her boys, or searching for her husband in a used bookstore.

Preaching Series: A Testimony

by Tom Are

Adapted from the 2012 Currie Lectures, given at Austin Theological Seminary.

For 19 years I preached the lectionary. I loved it. I couldn’t imagine preaching in any other way. But I have changed my mind. I am among the growing number of preachers who find the most important approach to proclamation of the word for the salvation of humankind to be preaching series. I doubt I will ever return to the lectionary. My congregation just listens differently to series.

In my lectionary days I sat with the text, studied the text, prayed over the text until a word would come. Then I would turn and look at the people and search for the point of connection.

But, what happens if that process is turned around?  The people come to the sanctuary with questions and confessions, with hopes and with their own stories of faith to tell. What happens if the preacher begins by paying attention to the people? Begins with the questions and affirmations that are in the pew?  And once a clear engagement of the community is experienced, the preacher then turns to sit with, prayer over and study the text to find a point of connection—a word to speak to the context.

I believe this is how the New Testament has come to us.  Paul’s letters are not based on a text for the day, but are shaped by the issues on the ground. Matthew rewrites Mark because Matthew is speaking gospel to a different community.  The entire New Testament is shaped by the questions in the pew.

This is “incarnational preaching.” To begin with the people is faithful to a God who chooses to take on flesh and dwell among us.

What might this look like?

Let me give you an example or two from my own context.

I live in Kansas—only six blocks from Missouri.  In 2005 the Kansas Board of Education made a change in public school curriculum.  They determined that in addition to teaching the theory of evolution, public school science curriculum should include instruction in what they called “Intelligent Design.”[1]  This time, calling supporters of Darwinian evolution “fundamentalists captured by secular dogma,” the Board changed the definition of science, saying it would no longer be limited to searching for “natural causes for phenomena.”

Kansas City also boasts the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, one of the places in the nation that does stem cell research.  It has been hotly debated in the state, and the local Catholic Bishop has organized protests declaring the medical research conducted at the Stowers Institute consists of murder.

scienceThis is my town, so I preached a sermon series exploring the relationship between Christian faith and science. It was entitled “Jesus and Galileo.”

We explored Genesis 1 and the claims of Intelligent Design.

I visited with Dr. Bill Neaves, Director of the Stowers Institute, to learn what is involved in “somatic cell nuclear transfer” or stem cell research. The sermon explained the basics of stem cell research and also offered reflections on Psalm 139… you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

The series also included a sermon on Climate Change, again providing scientific research, not limited to but including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and reflection on Genesis 2 where finitude applies to not only the human creature but to all creatures, including the planet.

This is just an illustration of how a series can hold a longer conversation with nuance that the lectionary is less likely to provide.

Another example:

A few years ago I read David Jensen’s book, Responsive Labor.  That got me thinking about work.  I preached a series entitled Labor Daze: Church on Sunday, Work on Monday. To prepare I took fifteen members of my congregation to breakfast. Each was engaged in a variety of aspects of business.  I asked them to talk to me about how their faith connects or doesn’t connect with their work.  Their comments were very instructive for me in shaping a theological conversation about vocation, call, stewardship and Sabbath rest.

Some of the sermons were “What is your calling?” rooted in Mark 1:16-20 and the calling of the disciples and Exodus 3, the call of Moses.

A sermon about stewardship entitled “trust that you are gifted” proclaimed from 1 Corinthians 12.

The final and fifth sermon in the series was preached from Deuteronomy 5, and entitled “Sabbath: it’s a commandment, not a benefit’s package.”

One last example: Bible Stories from Childhood

I invited the congregation to submit requests of Biblical texts from their childhood on which they would like to hear a sermon.  Here’s why. Almost 70% of those who join Village Church do so by Reaffirmation of Faith. They come mostly as ones who do not know our practices, our language, our holy stories. Yet they may bring memories of their childhood church days. You can imagine the stories they would know: Noah and the ark, the Good Samaritan, Daniel and the Lion’s den, David and Goliath, the prodigal.

It was exciting to see members hear anew a childhood story that has grown up to become a new word that speaks with power and grace to orient the community?

I have changed my approach to preaching because I believe we must pay attention to our particular context.   It’s incarnational. It’s Biblical. It’s certainly not the only way to preach, but in our day it has much to offer.

Other examples of series:

Joy Even on Your Last Day (a series on the Philippian Letter)

9-11: Things Remembered, Things Forgotten, Lessons Learned (preached the four weeks leading up to the tenth anniversary of 9-11)

Just Can’t Say Enough about That Baby (An Advent Series exploring the unique portraits of Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John)

Where is God when it Hurts? (a series on theodicy)

Sacred Sound Bites (Words we hear every week in our worship liturgy)

Questions thinking Christians are asking (invited the congregation to submit questions on which they would like a sermon… preached on the most popular requests)


[1]  Both times the following election cycle replaced enough of the Creationist/ID supporters that the curriculum returned to traditional scientific standards.


Tom AreTom Are is the Pastor of Village Presbyterian Church and Co-Chair of NEXT Church.