Thursday, June 2, 2011

Re-thinking Church: Gifts from the Ruins

by Katie Shaw Thompson

My spouse, Parker Thompson, and I preached this sermon together at the opening worship of Young Adult Conference 2011 at Camp Inspiration Hills, OH. What you'll find here is the manuscript version with all the funky pause marks, punctuations, and paragraph indentations. Of course reading a sermon is never like experiencing a sermon
but this will give you the general idea if you missed YAC (which was a really really fantastic weekend!). We'd be happy to hear your comments and to chat back as we're available.
Katie Shaw Thompson
Picture credit: "Among the Ruins." Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. Oil on Canvas

Scripture: Isaiah 58
Along with Isaiah we thought we’d like to bring you the voice of another prophet-poet—one from the 21st century.
George Watsky is a young Jewish slam poet from San Francisco.
His poetry is often filled with out of the box theology that unsettles you and makes you think about things differently.
Neither of us would agree with every single thing he says, in fact he often contradicts himself. Yet, I think his voice is very much worth listening to.
The poem we’d like to bring in to the conversation between us and Isaiah today is called DRUNK TEXT MESSAGE TO GOD, and although it may be a little different I hope you’ll hear it (and us) out to the end.
Not all of us are like George Watsky.
Not all of us think bar hopping with your church would be so cool.
In fact, some of us may not have sent a lot of drunk text messages…
And some of us would rather not admit how many we’ve sent…
But I think we can all relate on some level
to the yearning for a different kind of church.
As emerging adults many of us are redefining and re-evaluating our relationship to the church.
Some of us still go to church to please our parents.
Some of us go to church because it’s the only place other than the bar to meet people in a small town.
Some of us feel more culturally Brethren than anything else even though we don’t go to church really.
Some of us sit in the pew on Sunday and have a nice enough time, but wonder what else church could be.
Most of us sitting here today have some sort of positive experience past or present with church or else we probably wouldn’t be here.
I would even venture that most of us sitting here today know that the place of church in this culture is rapidly changing,
yet some spark of hope keeps us wondering what might be.
Both Watsky and the prophet Isaiah name this yearning.
In Isaiah we hear it in the cries of the people.
They call out to God, look we’re doing what we’re supposed to be aren’t we?
We cross fasting and humbling and worshipping off our Piety Checklist every week. // But we’re not seeing much action from you. Like, what gives God?
I think this is the situation a lot of churches find themselves in today.
Look we’re doing everything like we always did. We’ve got worship on Sunday—check. We got the love feast twice a year—check. We made the pilgrimage to Annual Conference, ate some ice cream—check.
Yet, uh, we could still use some help here with our dwindling numbers and our big fight over sex. So, uh, what gives God?
God doesn’t seem to dig checklists.
Just going through the right motions doesn’t seem to get us any credit with God.
There doesn’t seem to be any bank where we can cash in our piety points.
It’s to these kinds of problems that Isaiah proclaims his prophecy.
Isaiah writes, “such fasting will not make your voice heard on high.”
The humility that the people practice is no more impressive than the tall grass bending in the wind.
The Israelites had been carried off to Babylon by their conquering empire. A society so defined by acquisition that the people and land of Israel were standard commodities to acquire.
When the Israelites in Babylon finally catch a break a generation later and get to come home to Jerusalem, they return to a devastated city. The city and the Temple are in ruins.
Upon their return, they began to go through the old Temple motions because they thought that was what they were supposed to do.
But it turns out that they only picked up an empty shell of a tradition.
Maybe the Israelites have hung out too long in Babylon or maybe it’s just something in human nature, but it seems the prophet is calling them out on their checklist worship.
The voice of the Holy through Isaiah calls the people out on using worship as a means to an end, as a way to get ahead in the eyes of God and in the eyes of society.
The “right motions” with the wrong intentions are unacceptable to God and the people feel the lack of God’s presence.
Young adults seem particularly perceptive to the emptiness of going-through-the-motions church.
After all we’re a generation that has grown up being inundated by advertisements at an unprecedented level.
So we have particularly keen noses for anything that smacks of being false or fake.
If you’ve ever sat in church and been annoyed by a prayer request that seems more like bragging than joyful thanksgiving—
If you’ve ever swallowed hard how you’re really feeling,
and what you really need help with,
because you can’t trust the people in your church
or you think they’d be ashamed—
Then you know what we’re talking about.
You know that too often church has become a place where we bring a very sanitized version of ourselves.
The version of ourselves we bring to church doesn’t swear, drink, smoke, have sex, eat red meat, own a gun, or any number of things that might be shameful in our particular church.
The version of ourselves we bring to church ALWAYS washes our feet before love feast, brushes our teeth, recycles plastic bottles, kisses babies, humors old people, is happy to be there, troubled by nothing, ready to sing and whatever else is good and honorable in our particular church.
It’s not that we need to be an open book to everybody we know, but when our churches become so sanitized that we can’t bring our real selves to worship, we stop being church.
We stop being community.
It’s not like God doesn’t know how many cavities we have, how many people we’ve slept with, what our carbon footprint is, or what we’re really worried about.
So when we swallow our real selves in favor of a sanitized version, we are either protecting ourselves from people we can’t trust, or we are trying to get ahead by trying to be the people we think everyone else wants us to be.
That’s not individuality.
That’s conformity.
And conformity is not community.
Conformity is not church.
And when this happens,
deep down in our guts,
where God so often speaks,
we know something is broken.
In the tradition of many other prophets, Isaiah makes it a priority to tell the people what their call from God is.
It is right back into the broken down ruins of the Temple that God calls the people.
Despite the rubble—all these checklist intentions…
In fact because of the rubble that needs removed from these ruins, we are called into them. It is in these ruins that we can find the foundation that we can build on.
Like the ancient Israelites our tradition too contains something of God.
We are called to re-imagine church yes, but we don’t need to start over from scratch.
Instead we are called into the rubble to sift through our heritage for what can be built upon,
for what is useful,
for what our ancestors have left us.
From the midst of the rubble Isaiah proclaims:
loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke,
let the oppressed go free, break every yoke.
This is where so many of us in the Church of the Brethren really wake up. When it’s time to pray with our hands, backs, and feet, we’re there.
God’s call is for peace and justice, and this is a central gift, a strong piece of foundation upon which our church seeks to stand.
That kind of peace and justice work that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and brings justice and freedom to the oppressed—that kind of work makes sense to us.
And it has an honored place in our particular heritage.
The call to this kind of holistic peace work that seeks the well-being of all creation, runs like a thread through our tradition.
It is the very life-blood of what our spiritual ancestors have handed down to us.
But service and activism in the name of peace is not enough in itself.
Isaiah’s prophecy from God does not end with passionate peace and justice work in the streets.
For this work too can be done out of an acquisition model.
You can try and put in some time and money for some more of that social credit, but that’s not the call.
It is when this work is God’s call—that makes us a peculiar people.
Scholar Stanley Hauerwas likes to say atheists can do peace work but that doesn’t make them Christian.
I (Parker) like to put my own spin on that when I say, Bono’s doing great AIDS work in Africa but that doesn’t make him my Jesus.
For as people of God we have the unique opportunity and call
to care not only for the physical well-being of our world
but also for its spiritual well-being.
And becoming a vehicle for God’s work of spiritual healing,
that work starts close to home.
You can run as far as you want from who you are and where you come from,
But until you stand and face that truth,
REAL, RADICAL, ROOT transformation cannot take place.
We need to turn all that transformative energy not just out into the furthest, darkest corners of the world.
We need to turn it on ourselves too.
We need to turn it on our own neighborhoods,
on our own churches,
and even on the darkest, grittiest corners of our own hearts.
Doing that kind of holistic work takes the help of real community that can hold you when you need held,
that will see you for who you really are,
that will forgive you your shortcomings,
that will help you forgive yourself,
that will listen with you for the calling of the Holy.
This kind of transformative work
that fills you up so you can go back out
to transform the world
is exactly the work of a strong church community.
It is the work of a church community that comes together to build each other up, not to get ahead of each other, or to tear each other apart.
It is the work of a church community that can handle real differences and real non-conformity.
Sifting through our heritage we do find an emphasis on real, strong community.
Even if we also find that it has always been plagued by the specter of a painful conformity.
While the ban and the tradition of conformity it engendered haunt us yet today, we are also a people who are deeply geared toward and concerned with creating community.
From the earliest group Bible studies of our spiritual ancestors to the intentional communities of our BVSers today, our tradition, at its best, has highly valued real community.
At its best, our tradition has always valued highly the role of each uniquely gifted individual in that community through our belief in the priesthood-of-all-believers.
At its best our tradition has empowered every member to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth, for the spiritual growth of their community, and for the healing of our world.
This is the gift of the church.
This is the gift the church has to give to itself, to us and to the world.
Although church like every other institution or organization is flawed, when we sift through that flawed rubble
we find the foundation of what we yearn for,
we find the foundation of the church of the future,
we find the foundation upon which to build the kind of real transformative community that has the potential to open the way for the healing light of God in our world and in each individual heart.
We find in this foundation the transformative energy that is the life of abundance.
Instead of the checklist mentality that tells us we must acquire to be happy, to be spiritually fulfilled and saved,
We find a foundation for a transformative church, one that can teach us to live in abundance, to delight in the glory and love of God, which we never have to earn and which never ends.
So yes, re-imagine church.
Call out the places where individual congregations and our larger church body falls short of the calling of God.
Shout it out! Do not hold back.
But also be willing to get your hands dirty by getting down into the ruins of all that is wrong with church,
sift through the rubble,
cast aside that which we no longer need,
in order to reach what is good and worthy about our tradition, in order to find the foundation upon which to build the church of the future.
THEN, when we are standing on that strong foundation,
when we have faced all the good and the bad our tradition has to offer,
when we have committed to non-conformity,
when we have committed to real, unsanitized community,
when we have been fed and watered by our heritage,
then our dreams have a real chance of becoming an exciting reality.
Then we shall take delight in God.
Then we shall live into being the body of Christ in the world.
So dream.
Dream a big dream for what the church could be and should be.
Take risks.
Risk being yourself and voicing your perspective.
Stand firm on the foundations of this tradition but look and listen for the ways God is calling us to grow, for what we can leave behind and for what we can reclaim.
With a strong foundation, the sky is the limit.
If you thinking sharing a brew,
Playing Star Foxx,
Throwing foam parties in elevators,
Taking Mondays off for religious reasons,
Climbing a Mountain together,
Screaming at the top of your lungs,
Laughing or crying with the people who will let you do either,
Will build real community
and you think God is calling you to that—
then do it, dream it, make it happen.
Because re-thinking church will take all of us
and all of our individual quirkiness
standing firm on our foundation
and dreaming into the future
to make it happen.
I believe this is the calling of our generation.
Isaiah writes, those who build upon these ancient foundations, “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
So dream,
risk community,
be fed by your heritage,
take delight in the calling of God,
and lead us into the church of the future.


Lindsey and Chris said...


bekah said...

Dawn would be proud of the "funky pause marks, punctuations, and paragraph indentations" - I hope she gets to read this! :)

AmySGR said...

I want to hear this sermon in real life. There are two venues that would be appropriate with very little tweaking....the Seminary and RCoB. I'll be expecting one or the other. Thanks. :)