if only we knew: variations on theme of new in the key of now, part iii.

Genesis 12:1-9
Revelation 21:1-5
1 John 2:7-10

We’ve been talking the last few weeks about new—
and, somewhat counter-intuitively,
about how if something truly were new,
then it would be utterly beyond us—
beyond what we know—
beyond what we can recognize.
And how what’s old—what’s known and familiar—
can offer both a new perspective and new experience.

That’s a truth children also afford us—
who have been a part of human experience
ever since there was human experience,
and yet Sydney was absolutely and utterly new.
And even after Sydney, Audra was too—
absolutely and utterly new—
in and of herself and in the new family dynamic!

It has also occurred to me that, as people of the Book,
we’re part of a tradition of presenting as new what’s known
and as known what’s new.
So, for example, the creation story is not one
written at the time of creation
by some literate observer of the process
that was then told ever since,
but is, rather, a story that was first told
most probably during the years of exile
as affirmation and as celebration,
and has then been retold ever since.

Or, as another example, there’s the call of Abraham,
or the leadership of God into liberation in the Exodus story—
not just as tales of what happened long ago,
but as stories of what’s happening—
of what can happen here and now—
stories to read always in the key of here and now and us.

And time and experience in ancient Hebrew thought,
as best we can tell, were not linearly conceived—
not circularly or cyclically either,
but paradigmatically—
certain events in history and experiences in time
stand as paradigm for time and history.

And so bringing God into creation allows us to envision creation differently.
Bringing God into the particulars of our living
allows us to envision our living differently—
as ongoing creation—ordering out of chaos—lightning into darkness,
and it is still good.

But in all this talk of new,
some of you have asked,
“So what’s new for us?”
Now I’ll tell you upfront, I’m suspicious of new—
suspicious of churches always needing something new—
a new mission statement—a new vision statement.
Always seemed to me that saying
we’re trying to be the church
pretty much covers it.
Never gets old.
The people of God following in the way of Jesus,
as best we can,
through the particulars of our here and now.
Nothing new.
That’s always been church—
telling the same stories, singing the same hymns and songs.
So I’m leery of new.

But what’s old that might offer renewal?
Ah, well now that’s a good question.
And I’ve tried to suggest the answer to some of that
lies in our attitudes and preparations—
our commitments and disciplines.

I asked some of you this past Wednesday night
about what brings renewal—
about what might be new to us
from which we could benefit.
Someone suggested activities—
“We’re renewed in our activities,” they said.
And someone suggested new activities.
Someone suggested new service activities.
And I have to say, that while Operation Joy, at six years old now,
hardly qualifies as new, our commitment to support the hungry children
of Baltimore County Public Schools on a monthly basis—
also through the Baltimore County Public Schools Office
of Homeless Education thrills me.

Somebody suggested a rainbow decal on our sign out front.
Somebody suggested losing the name baptist.
Someone suggested doing different things at church—
trying a new Sunday School class,
volunteering in the nursery (it’s a lively place these days!),
singing in one of the choirs,
baking bread or helping Grover set up for communion,
coming early or staying late to help in the kitchen on a Wednesday night—
what could you do different at church when you’re already at church?

I’m going to tell you some of what I’d love to see—
trusting you to hear this not as an attempt to circumvent process,
but as answer to your questions
and as exploration of our theme—
less exegetical today than confessional.

I’d like us to rediscover as new
annual intergenerational mission trips.
We actually do two every year already—
with the August and December trips to Kentucky.
Sydney and I are going this year
and anticipating the experience,
but more people need to avail themselves of such opportunity.
And we have good connections to offer other such opportunities—
strong ties, for example, to Metro Baptist in New York.
We’ve had groups go, in the past, on several trips to Cuba.
We’ve had individuals go to Haiti and Zimbabwe.
We need that relational dimension to service
and the get-away-from-here-
and-experience-something-significant-together is important.

It’s time, I believe, for us to update our baptism policy.
According to what we have, someone coming from another baptist church
can “join by transfer of letter,” but someone coming
from another faith tradition has to be immersed—as is our tradition.
Here’s the first thing.
There’s not enough consistency across denominational lines
for that to mean what it once did.
Someone can now join Richmond’s First Baptist church—
that bastion of tradition and heritage—
someone can now join Richmond’s First Baptist church
from another denomination by statement of faith, not be immersed,
move to Baltimore and join us, and all our baptismal policy is moot.
At Park Road Baptist church in Charlotte, you may remember,
someone can join the church not just without being baptized,
but without making a profession of faith.
And according to our policy could then transfer their membership.
So it doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to. That’s the first thing.

The second thing, do we even want to mean that anymore?
Because that’s a policy from a time
when there was such a thing as denominational loyalty.
If you grew up in a Baptist church, then when you moved,
you joined a Baptist church. And that was that.
If you switched denominations, that was big!
Now people look for a compatible theology and worship and fellowship.
They pick a congregation, not a denomination.
And then they’re interested in that congregation, not that denomination.
So if someone chooses us,
I want it to either be something new enough
that they want to be baptized into it,
or something familiar enough, regardless of their past tradition,
that I want them free to immerse themselves in who we are
as celebration and validation
of the particular past that led them to choose us now.

I think more people are more interested in christianity than in brands of it—
in the church with a big “C” than denominational versions,
and I’m more interested in someone choosing baptist because they choose us
than someone choosing us because baptist’s a given—
more interested in making sure
someone has a meaningful baptism or confirmation experience
than requiring a potentially meaningless ritual
to fulfill membership requirements.

Should we be a welcome and affirming congregation?
I don’t think so.
But let me explain.
That’s too much of a blanket approval for me,
and I don’t believe in blanket approvals.
The particular details are too important.
Oh, not the particular details of gender
that I truly don’t think God cares about.

If you trust my years of study and my Scripture interpretation
(which I know is a stretch for some of you!),
I can tell you, there’s as much uncertainty and ambiguity
about what Scripture related to homosexuality could mean
as there is certainty about anything it does mean.
And within such lack of absolute clarity,
my choice is for grace to trump judgment
because the expectation of love is crystal clear.
And that’s not even to mention that, according to my theology,
true love—committed love, is always, of God.
I came across a line in a song I’ve enjoyed chewing on,
“Love doesn’t know when it’s a sin.”
Because if God is love, can love be a sin?

So who loves whom doesn’t seem important to me.
But the details of how people love each other,
and how they love others because of their experience of love,
now that’s worthy of our attention in every relationship.
So let’s not waste our time or God’s
thinking there’s one group to automatically approve and affirm
and another group to not approve and not affirm,
and, rather, spend our time working on the integrity of our own loving.

I do so want us to be known as a church
where everyone knows they’re welcome—
a community of faith welcoming everyone and affirming Jesus, I guess.
Welcoming everyone and affirming that God loves them.
And inviting anyone and everyone to be a part of that ensuing conversation—
figuring out what that means—to be loved by God.
With everyone more invested in figuring out what it means for themselves
than for anyone else.
Because if we’re on the way of Jesus,
I think we should be so much less
about kicking those trying to be on the way with us off,
than figuring out how that way
winds through the particulars of our own contexts.

As long as there are those who follow in the way of Jesus,
should there not be a place that welcomes and includes
those not welcomed and included elsewhere—
that makes a valued place at the table
for those no one else wants to break bread with?
Or have I fundamentally misunderstood Jesus?

Now, of course, the advantage
to being a welcoming and affirming congregation
is that that’s a surefire way of letting people know
you’re more interested, as a church,
in getting people on the way of Jesus than kicking people off.
But you do lose some of the nuance I find important.
How important remains part of our ongoing conversation.

I think it vital we keep affirming a new theology
(at least new given the last couple of hundred years
of evangelical theological affirmation),
a new way of reading Scripture
(that is in some ways getting back
to some very old ways of reading Scripture).
More specifically, we’ve talked about
emphasizing the experience of the individual—
in service, in theology, in worship and in prayer,
while making of faith less a matter of intellectual assent
as a matter of trust and conviction.
Not making the individual the heart of our faith,
but claiming the heart of our faith is always known individually.

We’ve also talked, significantly,
about rejecting substitutionary blood atonement
as part and parcel of a larger rejection of violence,
and so also rejecting the appeal of the power
that comes from wielding threats of eternal punishment and reward—
that comes from scaring people into the faith—
scarring them in the faith.

Some of you may have heard of the Didache,
a treatise dating back to the mid to late first century/early second.
It’s the teaching (that’s what Didache means in Greek—
interesting that it’s “did ache” in English, isn’t it?!)—
it’s the teaching thought by some to have been worthy of inclusion
in the then developing New Testament.
Like the gospels and some of the epistles,
it was passed around the early churches for its teachings
on ethics, rituals, and church organization.

In its section on communion it reads:
“Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way.
First, concerning the cup:
We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David your child,
which you made known to us through Jesus your Servant;
to you be the glory for ever.
And concerning the broken bread:
We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge
which you made known to us through Jesus your Servant;
to you be the glory for ever.”

Notice anything? Besides the reversal
of the traditional order of bread first, then cup?
Nothing about the last supper.
Nothing about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
And it’s one of the most ancient teachings on communion we have.
Atonement has become more important and meaningful
in tradition than it was in history—
doesn’t mean it’s not important,
but that it has perhaps become too important.

I’m excited by a greater seriousness about love—
by love as the tie that binds not just us together—
but also us with others who love.
I’m ever mindful of the time the disciples complained,
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name,
and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
But Jesus said, “Do not stop him;
for no one who does a deed of power in my name
will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.
Whoever is not against us is for us.
(Mark 9:38-41)
So if someone wants to claim the name of Jesus
and seek the way of Jesus,
is there any reason to stand in their way?

I’ve commented before about why I love the commandment
in the Johannine community so much: love one another.
No details.
Trusting the guidance of the spirit
and the conversation of the community
to figure out what it means to love one another
through ever changing circumstance
into the affirmation that it will never just mean tomorrow
what it meant yesterday.

More and more I’m convinced we’ve got to figure out a word
for a worn out culture—worn down—
with too many souls that are fraying,
too many lives and relationships that are broken,
too many people who have snapped.
I can’t even tell you how many conversations I’ve had
with people saying, “I’ve said no to everything I can possibly say no to
and I still have no time.”
That’s honestly why I’m leery of adding more activities!

I read about one organization that has walking meetings.
A little exercise, a little administration.
Can meetings more intentionally include prayer as rest? as a sabbathing?
Would meeting at a centrally located coffeeshop instead of at the church
afford some measure of respite from the pace?
Or meeting over a meal shared together?
What more can we do to encourage people
to take the ten minutes they do have here, the twenty there,
and not fritter it away, but walk around the block,
intentionally take a quick nap, read—
teaching and modeling balance.
Our entire society is in danger, I believe, of becoming one big thin place
in the very not good horrible terrible meaning of the phrase.

And in the midst of the frenetic,
churches worry about how much they do—
whether they’re doing enough.
And sure there are things we do better together,
and there are experiences we need together.
But the ministry of this church is so much more
than what we do on church time,
it’s who we are all the time.

Scott and Kacey were driving through this area,
and Hazel said from the back seat, “Isn’t this where the church lives?”
And it is, but it moves and has its being throughout the region—
indeed throughout the country and the world.
The ministry of this church permeates classrooms in which you teach
and offices in which you work.
It cares for children and families.
It ministers to the sick and the dying and the recovering.
It treats people with respect and appreciation.
It extends grace
because of what you do—
because of who you are.
And we need to better name that, claim that,
encourage, sustain and celebrate that.

What else? I’ve been in conversation with Vaughn CroweTipton,
chaplain at Furman University,
about Furman placing a summer ministry intern with us.
Because this is a good church—
a healthy church which makes it an amazing church,
and I think it should be a teaching church.
When I think about the experience and the leadership we have here,
we need to be participating in the shaping of future leaders.

Now none of these things are new things.
They’re all part of church figuring out how to be church—
how to tell old, old stories that are nonetheless stories of us,
how to make ritual meaningful and relevant through the years,
what it means to follow Jesus in including the excluded,
how to embrace a radical and gracefull hospitality,
how to live love—
and how to teach young leaders.
All old church things,
yet they might offer us renewal.

Now are these things I’ve suggested all things that will happen here?
Are they even all things that should?
Who knows.
It’s not up to me.
We’re a baptist church!
And we’re in ongoing conversation.

I hope and trust you know me well enough
to know I present none of this as agenda.
I hope and trust I know you well enough
to know you will hear conversation as just that—
not as agenda.
And this will all unfold in further conversation.

In closing,
nostalgia is traditionally understood as a longing for the good old days,
and it come to us from the two Greek words:
algos, pain, grief, distress,
and nostos, homecoming—
which comes from even older roots in the Proto-Indo-European tradition,
nes, to return safely home—
manifest in words like recover and heal.

So etymologically, nostalgia represents
a combination of pain, grief and distress and safe homecoming
that, again traditionally, we’ve taken to represent
the suffering of looking back, wanting to return home.
But, theoretically, it could also represent
the suffering—the pain, grief and distress of having come home
and realizing that that’s not what’s wanted or needed!

So does the way things have been offer us a renewing?
Does it offer us a way forward?
Can we go back to go forward?
Because being renewed is not about going back to what was,
but about going on into what’s to be—
ever trusting the Spirit to guide us into truth.

So here’s what I want:
to be able to proudly say
we’re church.
That’s all.
And that doesn’t mean rigid, close-minded, judgmental.
In fact, it means gracefull.
It doesn’t mean small thinking, but deep thinking.
Not hide-bound, but creative.
It has to do with great acceptance
and high expectations.
It has to do with the best we can be and do together.
It means, above all else that we will love you—
that our love of God informs the way we relate to everyone—
that we have some deep sense of interdependence
and responsibility not just for each other,
but for the least among us.
It means we will embrace you and walk with you through your particulars
seeking ever the way of God.

And we recognize the profound challenge.
We are church, and, as church,
offer meaning to a culture that undermines it,
depth to a society that happily skates along the very surface,
accountability to a way of life that rejects it,
questions to people who want answers,
mystery to a definite preference for certainty,
counter-cultural stories to a culture that so aggressively
promotes and defends the stories it presumes,
nuance to a world that doesn’t want or appreciate it.
We are literature in a bumper sticker world.
Not the only literature; not only one kind of literature,
but literature in a bumper sticker world.

We are those not looking nostalgically back,
but those nostalgically looking forward—
less scared of never getting home
than of settling for a home that will never fulfill us—
knowing we’re called into the future not the past—
and that the old, old story is only as valid as it renews us
and prepares us for tomorrow,
even as it is renewed in our study and worship
fit for times such as this.

I’m glad to be in conversation with you.
Excited about oh, all the places we’ll go!


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