God of unconditional love, you tell us that heaven is a banquet where everyone has a place at the table. We look forward to that banquet in the world to come. But what if we could taste it right here, right now? What if we lived that reality today? What if we experienced that unbounded joy? It seems impossible, but you tell us that with you, all things are possible. We confess we live too much in our worries and fears. We worry that if more people join us at the table, there may not be room for us. We’re afraid that someone might take our place. Teach us a deeper truth. Teach us the reality that your love is limitless and that as we share it we will see that there is room at the table for everyone. Give us the tools to love people in the ways they need not the ways we would prefer because we know that love is the highest worship. Amen.
*Prayer of Dedication
We dedicate our offerings to the work of making room at the table so that more and more our earthly reality might reflect the heavenly one. Amen.
This Sunday is Communion Sunday. The Scripture is the opening statement of the most famous sermon of all time: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We’ve come to know this opening statement or “introitus”–as scholar Hans Dieter Betz calls it–as “The Beatitudes.” The name comes from the Latin word beatitudo or “blessed,” which is repeated nine times in this opening statement: “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are those who mourn . . . Blessed are the meek . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness . . .” and so on. The heart of Jesus’ message is blessedness. What does this have to do with Holy Communion?
The connection between Communion, where we are invited to participate in the body of Christ broken and the cup of the new covenant poured out, and the Beatitudes is in the categories of people Jesus singles out to bless: the poor in possessions and poor in spirit, the grief-stricken, the meek, the hungry and thirsty–whether physical or spiritual sustenance, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. These are the blessed ones. Conventional wisdom tells us that the rich, the happy, the strong, the satisfied, the well-connected, the well-thought-of, the folks with perfect bodies and amazing Instagram feeds–these are the blessed ones. Jesus teaches otherwise. The path of blessing is not the path of perfection. It’s the path of connection.
And Jesus practiced what he preached. Scripture shows us that Jesus loved to hang out with the left out and left behind. The Gospel of Mark tells us that one day as Jesus “sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16 When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (2:15-17). The scribes of the Pharisees were what we would call “well-connected” in that ancient culture. They benefitted from privilege, “social capital,” we sometimes call it. Perhaps some of it earned, but like much of what determines our station in life to this day, my guess is their self-perceived superiority was mostly an accident of birth. The well-connected scribes were upset that Jesus wasn’t playing by the rules that dictated that Jesus’ primary attention should be going to them. Instead, Jesus went out of his way to connect with the otherwise disconnected. As far as Jesus is concerned, there is room at the table for everyone, and he made it his business to make sure everyone was there, even tax collectors and sinners.
Years ago when I was conducting interviews for my book Reconstructing Church: Tools for Turning Your Church Around, I asked a church member what she thought was key to our success in growing the church. She said, “Before you came, it was like, ‘You’re welcome if you come.’ Now it’s like, ‘We want you here.’” One of our marketing slogans in the UCC is “Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” It’s a nice sentiment. But there’s a huge difference between a welcome that says, “If you show up on Sunday morning we won’t treat you like dirt even if you look, talk, or love in ways that make some of us uncomfortable” (which, it’s important to note, is an improvement over being explicitly racist, bigoted, or homophobic) and “We want you here, and we’ll prove it by getting up out of our pews, going out into the community, eating with you, drinking with you, listening to your hopes and dreams, and then creating a church that reflects your experience.”
That’s the connection between Communion and the Beatitudes: it’s a welcome that says, “We want you here.” Communion is the ritual that reminds us of Jesus’ central teaching. The broken bread and poured out cup teach us that the path of blessing is not about conforming to some arbitrary, often unspoken ideal of what is proper, normal, or respectable; it’s not about adopting conventional ideas of who is worthy of love and who is unworthy, whose voices should be listened to and who should keep quiet; the path of blessing is not about being well-connected or having it all together; the path of blessing is not about perfection; it’s about connection.
February is discernment month for First Church Granby. Feb. 9 following worship will be our annual congregational “discernment” meeting. I think it’s great that FCCG has one meeting a year devoted to the spiritual practice of discernment. There are many different approaches to discernment. You can find a number of different examples in the Bible: prayer and fasting, casting lots, consulting prophets, rituals involving sacrifice, pilgrimage. Gideon famously put fleece outside overnight to discern what God wanted him to do in battle. Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments. We won’t be doing any of these things. We will be doing prayer and conversation. But what all these have in common is the ancient human attempt to determine what God wants or what God is up to, in more formal language, “divine will.”
Divine will is a notoriously difficult thing to determine. The Bible is full of stories of individuals who claimed to know the divine will when, it turns out, they didn’t. The results are usually unpleasant. So humility is the first and most important quality to bring to discernment. The second is patience. Scripture says that “the Spirit moves where it will.” God answers in God’s good time. And sometimes the answer is silence. In which case, we might decide to sit with the question a while longer. But I want to encourage us that it is indeed possible to discern God’s deepest longing for us. I’ve experienced it. I’ve witnessed it happen in congregations. We’ll know we’ve nailed it when there is a moment of connection, joy, and release. God’s will may not be pleasant. God may not be inviting us to do something we particularly want to do. But there is joy and release knowing it’s the right thing to do. There is a deep sense of connection knowing that in the long run discerning and doing God’s will leads to abundant life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.
So don’t miss worship Feb. 9 and stay for the meeting after. Our transition coach, Claire Bamberg will be joining us and facilitating a discernment discussion on the topic of “What is Your ‘Why’?”
The above video is from church planter and consultant, Neil Cole. He is talking about a distinction between “movement” and “institution” that I first encountered in a talk by pastor, author, and activist Brian McLaren when my wife, Nicole, and I were church planters in Indiana.
I forget the details of McLaren’s talk, so I will give you my version of it. A social movement is a “loosely organized but sustained campaign in support of a social goal, typically either the implementation or the prevention of a change in society’s structure or values” (Encyclopedia Brittanica). An institution is a set of rules, norms, patterned behaviors, and organizational structures designed to sustain the social gains of movements and pass them on to the next generation.
McLaren argued a dynamic relationship between movements and institutions. Each needs the other. Social movements without institutional structures cannot sustain themselves. Institutions that are not periodically disrupted by social movements eventually lose their vitality and die. A powerful recent example of this dynamic in America is the Civil Rights Movement.
McLaren’s point is that Christianity can be understood in terms of movements and institutions. The Gospels tell us that Jesus started a movement. It was only many years later when the early Christians came to understand that Jesus wouldn’t be returning within theirs or their children’s lifetimes that the instituional forms of the church began to emerge. And since that time the movement-institution dynamic has been at play in Christian cultures.
Congregational transition engages this movement-institution dynamic in a complex, improvisational way. Often congregations in transition are dealing with institutional structures that are falling apart because they just don’t “work” anymore. Instead of working harder and faster to patch up what is no longer functional, transition work allows much of that structure to fall away. Some of it, however, may have value for the church that is emerging. So we sort through what we’ve inherited and decide what to keep and what to let go of.
Meanwhile we shift into “movement” mode. We focus on relationships and vision: that is, we build authentic relationships with people who are not yet members of the church, and we share a vision of changing the town of Granby for the better.
I spent Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning this week on meditation retreat. I came home and took a nap. Why? Because sitting on the floor in silence while maintaining as still a posture as possible for 10 hours a day is, in fact, exhausting. Why do I do it? Scripture says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Humans like to move. We rush around doing this and that. But even if we’re “vegging out,” our minds jump from this thought to that thought. The practice of meditation is stilling the body and mind together to become completely still like water on a pond. It turns out that the Bible is true! I can attest that cultivating stillness does, in fact, create circumstances in which God can be encountered in a profoundly life-changing way.
When asked my purpose, I tend to say “Helping people connect to God.” How can I help people connect to God if I am not myself living out of that connection? As a personal purpose statement, “helping people connect to God” seems to work for me. Working with our transition coach, Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg, has taught me to ask a different question, namely, what is your “Why?” I realized this week that “helping people connect to God” doesn’t answer the “why” question. Why help people connect to God? Great question!
I don’t know the answer, yet, exactly. Maybe something like this: I know the pain of being separated from one’s deepest longing. I also know the joy of connection. A world of joyful, connected people is a world I want to live in.
As a congregation articulating a “why” is vital to our future. More important than what we do is being clear why we do it. Claire will be leading us in a congregational conversation about our why. In the meantime, I strongly encourage you to watch these short videos and think about what is your “why” and what is FCC Granby’s “why.” The videos show why the question of “why” is so important.
My family and I had a wonderful holiday together in Windsor. We took some time off to focus on reconnecting. Fiona and her boyfriend (who is from Tokyo and stayed with us this winter break) cooked for us. My sister and her family of 6 (!) stayed with us for a week. They filled our sleeper sofas and bunk beds. Olivia directed the Christmas pageant here at FCC Granby and worked lifeguarding shifts at the Jewish Community Center. Even in this age of virtual reality and social media, there is no substitute for simply sharing space. While physical proximity does not guarantee intimacy, it is a key factor for cultivating closeness. (Which, just to drive the point home, is why there is no substitute for dragging your _____ to worship on Sunday morning.)
This week I’ve been settling back into a work rhythm. The answer to “What’s Up with Pastor Todd?” is “a lot.” I’m sitting in my office with the “to do” list Office Manager Sue prepares for me every week, to which I typically add a dozen or so more items. My view is that if my “to do” list doesn’t exceed my ability to complete it, I’m not living big enough. How do I avoid a constant state of overwhelm? Prioritizing and letting go. Even so, sometimes it’s difficult to prioritize. So many things demand attention. In these moments I use a tool I’ve learned in many years of meditation practice: focus on what’s in front of you. Sounds simple enough. But then the question becomes How do I get the things in front of me that are most consistent with my goals and values? This brings me back to the practices of inviting Sue to partner with me in creating a “to do” list and literally putting it on my desk where I will see it. This brings me back to the “big rocks” of Scripture study, sermon preparation, writing liturgy, namely, the spiritual practices that ground me in what is of ultimate importance.
One of my favorite Buddhist Scriptures is called “The Five Remembrances.” It’s part of an ancient text attributed to the Buddha entitled “Subjects for Contemplation.” The fifth remembrance is this: “My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of all my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.” The only place to act is here. The only time to act is now. What are you doing right here, right now? What practices help you align your deeds with your values? Who are your “closest companions?” Are they hindering you on your spiritual journey or propelling you forward? What is your “ground?” Is it a solid place on which to stand?