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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.

2017 National Gathering Sermon: Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, gives the final sermon of the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering during closing worship.

Scripture: John 4:19-26

The liturgy from this service is also available:


Paul Roberts is is president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA, a position he has held since the spring of 2010. He is a native of Stamford, CT; however, he grew up in Bradenton, FL, which he considers his home. Paul graduated from Princeton University in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture and African American Studies. Prior to his career in ministry, Paul worked in advertising in New York City. He later received the Master of Divinity degree with a concentration in New Testament Studies from Johnson C. Smith Seminary. He also is an Academic Fellow of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey in Celigny, Switzerland. From 1997 through 2010, Paul was the pastor of Church of the Master (PCUSA), a church founded in 1965 in Atlanta, GA, as an intentionally interracial congregation. He serves on the boards of the Presbyterian Foundation (PCUSA) and the Macedonian Ministry Inc. of Atlanta. He is the recipient of the 2016 Devoted Service Award from Louisville Theological Seminary. Recreationally, Paul enjoys tennis and yard work. Paul and his wife, Nina, have three beautiful children—one adult daughter and two teenage sons.

2017 National Gathering Opening Worship

Alonzo Johnson preaches the opening worship service of the 2017 National Gathering.

Scripture: John 4:1-42

Alonzo Johnson is coordinator for the Self-Development of People Program (SDOP). SDOP is a branch of the PCUSA’s Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministry. He is also the convener of the Educate A Child, Transform the World initiative. Alonzo has 25 years of experience specializing in urban, youth, education, creative arts and social justice ministries. He served an urban congregation in Philadelphia, PA, and worked as a volunteer chaplain for 9 years at Luther Luckett Correctional Facility in LaGrange, KY. He has an MDiv from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is currently a DMin student at the same institution.

 

“Spirit in the Dark” Examines the Boundaries of Religious Life

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Derrick McQueen

The book that is providing theological perspective and inspiration for me these days is Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics by Josef Sorett. It is a work that examines the African-American cultural movements and their artistic offspring. From the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920’s through the Black Arts movement, Dr. Sorett examines the pervasive effect religion plays on these commonly seen as secular literary visions. This work is exciting because it puts religion in conversation with the secular and in doing so allows the church/religion to erase the divide between what is inside and what is outside of the church walls, or the boundaries of religious life.

Spirit in the Dark does not attempt to answer the question, “How does the church make itself relevant in the secular world?” It lays claim to the ways in which the division between the sacred and the secular is an artificial one. In fact, it sees the religious as an integral ingredient in the African-American literary tradition.

Church book study group leaders will find this book extremely helpful in training the eyes and ears to the religious undercurrents in the secular literary tradition. As Dr. Sorett’s work deals with the African-American experience, the culminating lessons are also applicable or at least adaptable for many different communities. It is just that in Spirit in the Dark, Sorett’s impressive research makes clear that the African-American experience is one that able to be clearly defined and claimed as such in this rich tapestry of literary tradition and can serve as a model to other communities.

Specifically, it frees the preacher up to understand that the literary resource of the African-American literary tradition is ripe for bringing in texts to be in conversation with the Bible and the community. It also provides a way for preachers and pastors to parse culture without giving in to the demand to “do something new to fill the pews” by watering down the theological foundations upon which their churches and communities are built. This is an important book and readers will definitely find their own jewels within.


Rev. Derrick McQueen, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Director for The Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University. He is also serving as pastor to St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem, N.Y., and is an adjunct professor of Worship and Preaching at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Derrick has been actively involved in work for LGBTQ inclusion in churches and society, facilitating dialogues and serving on the boards of such organizations as Presbyterian Welcome, That All May Freely Serve, More Light Presbyterians and Auburn Seminary. Recently he served as the Moderator of the Presbytery of New York City.

The Grass Withers and the Flower Fades

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Today’s piece is excerpted from a sermon preached by Joe Clifford on December 6, 2015 for the second Sunday of Advent at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. You will see that it does not directly answer the question that has guided our blog postings this month, but you will also see that question is answered by God’s promises to us in scripture – promises that save us. To listen to the sermon in its entirety, click hereWe invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter! 

By Joe Clifford

Isaiah 40:1-11 (click for text)

“Comfort, Comfort my people,” says your God.

That is the call God issues to the prophet Isaiah in the midst of the people’s exile in Babylon. No more indictment for idolatry. No more rebuke for ignoring widows and orphans. No more calls for repentance. There was a time for that, but now the call is to comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her time is served, a new day is coming.”

In the midst of our world of exile, a world defined by terrorism, born of a dangerous mix of extremism and distorted religion, a world where in this nation mass shootings have occurred at a rate of more than one per day this year, surely that is the word we are called to offer our world: comfort, comfort my people. A new day is coming.

Cry out! The Hebrew verb there is better translated, “Preach!” That’s what Isaiah was called to do. And that is what we are called to do. Cry out! Preach! The good news. The good tidings.

How does Isaiah respond to God’s call? “What shall I cry?” he says. “All people are grass,” dust in the wind, as the old saying goes. Every Advent for the past twenty years I’ve heard this passage and preached on it. I’ve heard its beauty. I’ve heard its comfort. I confess this year I heard something different. This year I heard Isaiah’s cynicism. What shall I cry? What shall we cry in a world gone mad?

December 2nd, 14 dead 21 injured in San Bernadino. November 29, 3 dead and 9 injured in Colorado Springs. October 1st; 9 dead, 9 injured in Roseburg, Oregon. July 16, 5 dead, 3 wounded in Chattanooga, TN. June 18th; 9 dead in Charleston, SC.[1] May 17th, 9 dead, 18 injured in Waco, TX. Those are some of 355 mass shootings in this country in 2015.

What shall we cry? Racism? Terrorism? Extremism? Gun violence? Mental illness? Xenophobia? Security now? What shall we cry?

“The grass withers, the flower fades,” says the prophet, “…surely the people are grass.” For some reason this year, I know how Isaiah felt. Don’t you?

How does God respond? This is a matter of interpretation, but I believe God says, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.” The word of our God will stand forever. What shall we cry? What shall we preach? What shall we proclaim? The word of our God! And what does this word say in Isaiah? Let me give you a taste.

Later in Isaiah 40, that word says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 43, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 2, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up the sword against nation…ain’t gonna study war no more!”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 58: “Loose the bonds of injustice… let the oppressed go free… break every yoke… share your bread with the hungry… bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, … cover them, and do not hide from your own kin…Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

What shall we cry? Again in Isaiah 58: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

This is what we are called to proclaim. This is what we are called to embody. Or as the Lord tells Isaiah and all the people, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. All people shall see it together. ALL people shall see it together.”

What shall we cry? The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our Lord endures forever.

[1] Los Angeles Times Staff. “Deadliest U.S. Mass Shootings: 1984-2015,” published in the Los Angeles Times on December 2, 2015. Cited here: http://timelines.latimes.com/deadliest-shooting-rampages/


JoeJoe Clifford is the senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. He serves on the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

When Creativity Saves You from the “F” Word in Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Lisle Gwynn Garrity is one of our workshop presenters for the 2016 National Gathering. Learn more about the workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Lisle Gwynn Garrity

We all know the feeling.  You’re neck-deep in sermonizing, lesson-planning, worship designing, or any venture that requires you to put your blood, sweat, and tears into creating something as an offering to others, and then the “F” word starts to rear its ugly head. FEAR is creativity’s brute oppressor; it shows up right when we’re in the thick of imagining or creating something new, and whispers not-so-sweet nothings in our ears.

“This is the WORST sermon ever written–even Calvin will be snoring from his grave.”

“We can’t possibly try this new youth activity–the youth will mock it and laugh in my face.”

“Members will certainly LEAVE THE CHURCH if I suggest we do something different for the prayers of the people this Sunday.”

Fear has this way of gripping us by the throat, choking us of any God-breathed inspiration for which we are gasping. And, too often, the “F” word wins out, shutting down the whole creative operation.  God forbid, the “F” word may even have something to do with that dreaded and familiar moniker, the frozen chosen.

Lisle Gwynn Garrity1

As a liturgical artist, retreat leader, and worship consultant, my ministry is constantly butting heads with the “F” word. When leading worship arts retreats, where I invite anyone and everyone (artist and “non-artist” alike) to create art in community, I talk a lot about the “F” word. There’s something about a blank canvas and a paintbrush that tend to strike fear into the hearts of most grown adults. So we talk about that fear. I declare that, if the “F” word shows up, we can acknowledge it, observe it, and then move right past it. That is the gospel promise, after all–fear and death will not have the last word.

When creating live visual art during worship, I am forced to practice what I preach. Being a self-proclaimed “artist” offers no protection from the “F” word, believe me. Painting for an audience to witness and scrutinize any mistake is vulnerability at its finest. But, when I step past the “F” word, I can fully offer myself as a vessel to be shaped and molded by God. Giving my whole self to the creative process is a full-body prayer; in those moments of fearlessness, I am most open, most willing, and most able to offer my gifts to others and to God.

Lisle Gwynn Garrity

So, what’s your fear-stomping creative practice? What’s one way you can regularly practice creativity (perhaps through painting, singing, cooking, gardening, wood-working, etc.) to strengthen your capacity to confront the “F” word? What’s one way you can offer your whole self to a creative process and to God? Most importantly, how can tapping into your unique, God-given creativity open yourself to that wild and restless divine Spirit that is so ready to do good work through and in you?

Lisle Gwynn Garrity2

 


Lisle Gwynn Garrity HeadshotLisle Gwynn Garrity is a Pastorist (pastor + artist) diving into ministry with a creative and entrepreneurial drive. A recent graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, she holds master’s degrees in divinity and practical theology. If you’re interested in pushing past the “F” word to create art in community, sign up for her workshop, “Arts & Worship” at the 2016 National Gathering. See more of Lisle’s work at www.sanctifiedart.com or on Facebook at A Sanctified Art.

Papers, Colleagues and Christian Fellowship

By Kathryn Johnston

“I’m just here for the papers.”

papersI said that to my cohort group at one of our early gatherings. We began in 2008 based on an existing  model. A group of pastors from around the country gather together once a year bringing with them two papers each. These papers are based on the Sunday lectionary readings for the upcoming year. A finely tuned schedule through the week guides the group as the papers are presented and discussed in 20 minute segments with the benefit of everyone going home with a huge stash of resources for the upcoming preaching year.

But that’s not all…

Our group began with the instigators inviting one person each and then having that person invite someone else. I was on the outer layer of invitees and so when I arrived at our first gathering I knew only one person. That was hard. Our first evening together was spent at someone’s home and folks naturally split into those who knew one another from one seminary in the south in one room and folks who knew one another from another seminary in the south in another room. I was the only one from the seminary in the northeast.

It was awkward.

I didn’t blame them. We all know how much we miss those seminary connections once we get out into the cold, cruel world of ministry. The cohort group is a great way to have your continuing education budget legitimately pay for a reunion. And this group was incredibly welcoming. I remember how surprised I was when I had slept through dinner and everyone had made sure there was food left for me.

But still… the main reason we were together was to work on the lectionary texts for the upcoming year. And so as we were having one of our logistics meetings about where we would meet the following year and whether we should create more free time and who else should be invited to join us I found the opportunity to say, “I’m just here for the papers.”

And it’s true. The papers – the work – are both the ticket in every year and the glue that holds us together. But we are so much more. We sustain each other through the year in both the sacred and the profane. We create safe space for frustrations with the greater church, our individual churches, our communities and we create safe space for celebrations, too. We challenge one another, we question one another, we pray for one another, we support one another.

As for me, this group has been there through numerous family transitions including a divorce and remarriage. They have heard stories about my Dad and respected my tears when he died. They embraced me when I came out as gay and prayed and supported me when I came out to the congregation I serve. They rallied around this Session and congregation as we all moved forward together in ministry.

So yes, it is still about the papers. But it is also about camaraderie and collegiality; it is about the deep, rich relationship that comes in the walking through valleys and over mountaintops together; it is about the yoke of trust when we put our relationships above the Calls we are trying to discern often to the same churches.

It is about Christian fellowship and friendship in its purest and most Holy of forms – and I am blessed and a better person for it.

But I still want the papers.

—–

head shotKathryn Johnston is the Senior Pastor at Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania. She is a member of The Well cohort group and would write more, but she has to go write her papers.

photo credit: notashamed via photopin cc

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Abound in Hope — A Sermon Amid Our Divisions

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

As we begin to wind down this month’s theme, we share a sermon that NEXT Church co-chair MaryAnn McKibben Dana preached at National Capital Presbytery on Tuesday, June 24 following General Assembly.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
National Capital Presbytery
June 24, 2014
Romans 15:4-13

Abound in Hope

4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
10and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
11and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
12and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

~

One of my Sunday morning rituals for many years was to drive to church with the radio tuned to NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. And while I like Audie Cornish, the current host, just fine, for me Liane Hansen will always be the voice of Weekend Edition Sunday. (Yes, even folks in their early 40s can get set in their ways.)

One of the things I miss on that program is the Voices in the News, a feature that was sadly discontinued 6 years ago. During this segment they would play short quotes from various world leaders or celebrities, in their own voices. It was sort of an audio collage of the events of the previous week.

Tonight I want to keep that spirit alive, and I’ve enlisted some friends to help me. (Keep in mind that these readers may or may not endorse the words they say!)

“Here were some of the voices in the news this past week”:

Voice 1: “We are not here to fight and divide, but to continue to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to testify to the transforming power of his love that is available to everyone. We urge you in the strongest possible way to refrain from actions, attitudes, and language that would mar the image of Christ in your response to the Assembly’s actions.”

Voice 2: “You should tell your pastor and the members of your session that you disapprove of these actions.  You should refuse to fund the General Assembly, your synod, your presbytery and even your local church if those bodies have not explicitly and publicly repudiated these unbiblical actions. God will not be mocked and those who substitute their own felt desires for God’s unchangeable Truth will not be found guiltless before a holy God.”

Voice 3: “We pray that the discussions that will take place around amending the Book of Order in the coming year can be vehicles for healthy conversation about what it means to be church together, even with deep disagreement.”

Voice 4: “Divestment is not the end, it’s the beginning of non-violent means to fight the oppression of our Palestinian brothers and sisters.”

Voice 5: “The decision will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on relations between mainstream Jewish groups PCUSA. We hold the leadership of the PCUSA accountable for squandering countless opportunities… to isolate and repudiate the radical, prejudiced voices in their denomination.”

(Thank you all for reading the words of others, and in some cases, giving voice to sentiments you don’t agree with!)

Part of the fun of Voices in the News on NPR was trying to figure out who was speaking and what they were talking about. I will save you that mystery and say we heard words from the Fellowship of Presbyterians, the Layman, the Covenant Network, former GA moderator Rick Ufford-Chase, and a spokesman for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

As for what they were all talking about: if you managed to miss the news about GA via CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, or heck, even the Springfield Shopper, you’re going to hear about it in our breakout groups with our GA commissioners in a few moments. Suffice to say that some people are elated, others are furious, some are elated about the one thing and furious about the other, some are proud of their denomination for speaking prophetically and at great risk, some are wondering why we even weigh in on half the stuff we weigh in on, some have been looking for any excuse to leave, some are trying their hardest to stay, some have been waiting for a decision for years, some wanted just two more years to study the matter.

In the midst of that, here’s another voice, not from the news this week, but echoing down through the generations: Live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.

Oh Paul, you ask hard things of us! One voice? The divestment vote passed by seven votes! Even the marriage decisions, as decisive as they were, left 30-40% of commissioners in opposition. Do you detect a lot of harmony in the voices we just heard? We are not a well-tuned barbershop quartet, glorifying God with our tight chords. At best we are one of those 12-tone pieces by Schoenberg or some other 20th century composer. If you’ve taken music theory and listen really hard with your head cocked just so, you can hear a unity and coherence to the notes. But 12-tone music is more appreciated than it is loved. It’s probably not going to be your choice of soundtrack for a dinner party or your first dance at the wedding reception. And it’s not likely to fill its listeners with all joy and peace in believing so that they will abound in hope. It’s more likely to leave people cringing with their hands over their ears.

You will hear from our commissioners in a moment about what happened at GA. What I hope they will convey, and what I wish to convey, is that the debate was vigorous, and intense, but also prayerful and respectful. That matters.

Personally, I call it a success that we made it through the marriage debate without hearing the words pedophilia or bestiality. And nobody in the Middle East debate got compared to Hitler. Now I realize that’s setting the bar pretty low. But it’s bar we haven’t always cleared in this presbytery or at General Assembly, so kudos to us!

But regardless of how we made the decisions we did, the decisions themselves have consequence. And we are not of one mind and one voice. And what makes our current situation more challenging, especially here in this presbytery when it comes to the Middle East, is that folks who are used to agreeing with one another don’t agree about divestment. It’s one thing to be colleagues in Christ when you see eye to eye on a whole laundry list of social issues. It’s much harder when those colleagues disagree on something that feels so fundamental. This is going to put our unity to the test. (And at this point our loyal conservative minority is thinking, “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”)

And still, despite all of this, I do have hope. Because thank God, our hope is in God, who is the one true author of the joy and peace that we so sorely need.

This is the last section of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. It’s a sweeping epistle that has covered everything from the role of the law to the significance of Adam to the interplay between spirit and flesh. It’s no accident that after these weighty matters of the day he winds up where he does, in a place of unity, of welcoming one another, lifting up the steadfastness of the Christ we meet in scripture. But this is not quite his last word to the church. Later in this chapter Paul acknowledges that he has “written rather boldly,” or what the Message calls “bold and blunt criticism.” There is an edge to Paul’s words; they are not all sweetness and light. Deep issues are at stake. So Paul must feel like it’s possible to do both: To be bold and even blunt with one another, to say “here’s where I see God at work in our church,” but also to do the “one-anothering” that Jesus calls us to do.

But how do we live with that tension between the call for unity and the deep disagreements we have? Maybe we need an image to guide us. And the one that comes to mind is from an old Looney Tunes cartoon. (Stick with me.)

Those of you who’ve been to GA know is the exhibit hall, where you have booths for the different affinity groups. Whoever’s in charge of the placement of those booths has a godly sense of humor, because the groups that are diametrically opposed to one another often end up side by side. And it’s not unusual to see someone at one booth chatting amiably with someone the next booth over. And when I see that, I always think of Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog.

For those who don’t remember these characters, Ralph the Wolf looks like Wile E. Coyote and Sam is of course a Sheepdog. Ralph’s goal is to steal the sheep for his dinner, often with the help of various products from the Acme Corporation. And Sam’s job is to guard the sheep and keep Ralph from doing that, often with the help of his big doggie fists. Slapstick gold.

But what’s funny about the Ralph and Sam cartoons is that they’re not enemies. In fact, if you remember, they begin each morning by greeting each other: “Morning Ralph. Morning Sam.” They meet each other at the punch clock and they each punch their time card and go to work. And here they are, taking a lunch break together as friends before they go back to doing what it is they do.

Sam_and_ralph

Now, my point is not that one side is stealing sheep and the other is the benevolent guard! But maybe the kingdom of God is something like this. We have divisions. But we can decide whether we want to be a divided church. We will continue to address controversy, but it need not be cantankerous. The councils of our church will continue to hash out issues. We will line up at microphones, offering our best arguments and scriptural support for our position. We will be bold and sometimes blunt. And when it’s time to break bread together we will do so, as we did every single day of General Assembly, welcoming one another just as Christ welcomed us.

The things we decide matter. But do we believe that God holds our future or not? Do we believe that God works through our deliberations and beyond them, within us and without us, through us and in spite of us? Do we believe that God is not finished with us?

I do. I believe that God has got this.

And that belief is the  peace that Jesus promises, not as the world gives. That kind of peace can only be dreamed up by a wildly imaginative God… a God of joy, steadfastness and hope.

~

mamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is a pastor, writer and co-chair of NEXT. Connect with her at her website, The Blue Room.

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.

Beyond Better Preaching: Stewardship through a Community Organizing Lens

by Andrew Foster-Connors

It was high up in the glass-encased office of the CEO of one of Baltimore’s large corporate players that my mind started drifting to stewardship.  It was an odd time to be thinking about stewardship.  The Baptist bishop, the Catholic priest, the city school teacher, the organizer and I were in this office to find out whether this CEO was willing to exercise leadership among his peers to support a campaign to rebuild Baltimore’s City School facilities.  This would be the true test of whether his words about young people were just words, or the stuff of true commitment.

from the BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) website

from the BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) website

We laid out the vision – political leaders, corporate leaders, religious leaders standing alongside teachers and young people calling on the MD General Assembly to change existing revenues to make it possible to leverage $500 million dollars this year toward the $2 billion need.  This, we said, was our “kairos moment.”  The CEO stopped to write this down – “How do you spell that word?” he wanted to know.  He asked a few questions then we moved to commitment – Would he stand with us in calling on the corporate community?  Yes, he would.  Would he call on other corporate leaders to use their leadership to support the legislation?  Yes, he would.  “This is what’s best for our kids,” he said.  And it was true.

But I was thinking about stewardship.  Like a lot of pastors, I never really received any training in stewardship other than the theology behind it, roughly summarized as this: because God has redeemed us in Jesus Christ, we respond out of gratitude.  Stewardship naturally grew out of this theological training.  When stewardship season rolled around, I preached some stewardship sermons, and people would, presumably, give out of their gratitude.  The first several years, the budget went up by a few percentage points.  Not bad, but not inspiring either.  So I did what any theologically trained pastor would do – I improved my message.  I labored over the sermons, and preached some really good.  I waited expectantly, but the budget numbers didn’t look all that different from the previous year.

Desperate, I turned to our lead organizer, Rob English, for help.  He diagnosed my problem immediately.  “You know what your problem is,” Rob said to me not waiting for me to give him permission to speak, “you preach these sermons and get these people all worked up, but you haven’t given them anywhere to go.  You want them to give money for the ministry?  Then you have to ask them for it out of the relationships that you have.”  “But I shouldn’t have to,” I protested.  “I mean, according to Presbyterian polity, it’s not really my job.”  He shook his head in disappointment.  I was a difficult case.  “I know what you’re going to say,” I said, “I’m living in the world as it should be instead of the world as is.”  His face brightened.  Maybe I was going to get this.

The next campaign, I met with about 20 families and asked them directly for a specific amount connected to a specific need.  Surprisingly, not only did 99% of the people with whom I met seem to enjoy talking with me about the church and all the exciting plans for the future, I learned things I had never learned about them before; stories about important people in their lives who had instilled a value of generosity, or why the church was so important to them.  In my first campaign, despite my ineptitude, I helped raise six figures for a capital-style campaign in our then 250 member church.

But here in the office of the CEO, I realized where I had failed in that initial campaign.  Rather than cultivating leaders to share the burden of the work, I had taken a lot of it on myself.  Not only had I generated a lot of work for myself, I had deprived others the opportunity of developing relationships, and deepening their own leadership.  My instincts had been partially right– my job wasn’t to raise money for the church.  My job was to help raise leaders for the church.  Just as we were calling on this CEO to call on his friends to commit to God’s work of nurturing the children of Baltimore, I needed to be developing leaders in my congregation to call on their friends to commit to God’s work in and through the church.

The next year, I identified people in the congregation who knew something about inspiring generosity in others – the development director for a local school, the grassroots campaign masterminds who unseated one of Baltimore’s machine politicians through their face to face work, a membership director for a local club, a jovial philanthropist, and one of my skeptics who, nonetheless is listened to by many when she speaks.  I met with each of them individually and asked them to serve, teaching us all in the process about how to connect the joy that people feel in our mission with their generosity to the church.

It took me 6 years of broad-based organizing experience before I came to see that organizing is not about politics – it’s about relationships that can be organized to build all sorts of amazing, grace-filled agendas for God’s work in the world.  Raising $500 million dollars for justice in the schools isn’t all that different than raising a money for a church’s mission.  Call it a kairos moment.


Andrew Foster ConnorsAndrew Foster Connors is senior pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD where he also serves as clergy co-chair of BUILD, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the oldest and largest community organizing network in country.