The Gospel of John has a special feature the other gospels do not. In John Jesus makes a number of theological statements that begin with the phrase “I am”: “I am the light of the world”; “I am the Bread of Life”; “I am the true vine”; “I am the resurrection and the life”; “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” There are seven “I am” statements in all. Two are found in John chapter 10, part of which serves as the lectionary text for this coming Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter also known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The “I am” statements of John 10 are: “I am the Good Shepherd,” and “I am the gate for the sheep.” I have heard many sermons and sung many hymns about the Good Shepherd. I have never heard a sermon or sung a hymn about the Gate, good or otherwise. So let’s talk about the gate!
It’s easy for me to understand why the Good Shepherd would get all the attention. The Good Shepherd invokes the romantic images of the “green pastures” and “still waters” that “restore my soul” in Psalm 23. The Good Shepherd feels accessible and relatable and comforting. The Gate seems a little weird: The gate for the sheep? What does that mean? However, my experience in life and in reading the Bible is that it’s often the overlooked things that bring the biggest insights. So this Sunday we’ll sing songs about the Good Shepherd, but we’ll reflect on the Gate and our own calling to open the way to abundant life for all during this time of pandemic.
We quiet our minds and open our hearts to you. We await an encounter. Our ears alert to an authentic word of life. We recognize the fragility of existence. Life and death are of extreme importance. Time passes quickly and opportunity is lost, so we strive to awaken. We fear dropping our defenses, but the danger is really only a danger to our ego, our pride is threatened, or narrow sense of self, our old, tired stories: I’m alone, no one will help me, all is lost. We step past all of these fears.
The only thing lost is scarcity thinking. The only thing lost is self-pity. The only thing lost is the sweet drug of defeat. Instead of indulging our whining, you invite us, even command us to get up and get busy building your kingdom. With the slightest breeze you breathe us to life.
When I was a kid, we had our own slang. Now that I have kids of my own I find myself in the role of deciphering the distinctive, sometimes confusing languages of their tribes. “Salty” is a term my youngest, Olivia, likes to use. From context clues I gather it means something like “annoyed,” as in “I was salty with my professor because she gave a list of assignments for the week on Monday but then added more on Wednesday.” “Salty” can also be used in the context of disagreeing with something someone said in class, a friend forgetting a birthday, someone undeserving getting recognition. When Olivia uses it, “salty” isn’t particularly angry, resentful, or mean, but I think that has more to do with Olivia, who is a naturally happy and loving person, than with the term itself, which, according to the Urban Dictionary, is more along the lines of “angry, bitter, resentful.” For Olivia, “salty” is along the lines of “feisty.”
“Salty” as a term for angry, upset, “suddenly enraged,” is actually throwback slang first used in 1938 and associated, not surprisingly, with sailors, who had a reputation for gruff, rowdy, and drunken behavior.
The other common use of “salt” as an adjective comes from our Scripture text for this Sunday. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt should become insipid, by what shall it be made salty?” From this famous text we get the phrase “salt of the earth.” I hear people use this term to describe folks who are humble, have moral integrity, and are generally considered “good people,” “pillars of the community,” whose goodness often goes unrecognized. While I think there’s some of that meaning in the text, it certainly doesn’t capture all of it.
To get the rest of the meaning, we need to look at the rest of the sentence: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt becomes insipid, by what shall it be made salty? It is no longer of any use except to scatter outside for people to tread upon.” “Insipid” means “dull, boring, flavorless, weak, vapid, spiritless.” Yes, “salt of the earth” has to do with humility, moral integrity, and all of those things we tend to like as Christians. But I hear Jesus giving a sharp, dare I say, “salty” warning to his followers against dullness, irrelevance, blandness, a kind of false humility that is really just acquiescence to the status quo. It’s a form of spiritual laziness that views the church’s role as being “chaplains to power,” reassuring the wealthy and spiritually satisfied that everything is “OK.”
I am super grateful that my children are faithful Christians and dedicated churchgoers. I don’t attribute that to any special example that their parents set, other than that while they were living at home, we brought them to church every week. If you asked them, my guess is that they would agree with many young people that the church is too often “insipid, boring, and irrelevant.” And, by the way, it has little to do with whether a band is used in worship or video clips or anything like that–though these things can help. The reason my children are still engaged is that church provided the context in which they could build authentic relationships with “salty” Christians, that is, feisty Christians who had some flavor, some fire, who were not satisfied with the status quo but who risked their personal comfort to stand up against injustice, who viewed the church not as a social club where “we take care of our own,” but as a social movement whose purpose is to change the world.
Loving God, as children we learn to ask Why? Why is the sky blue? Why do ducks quack? Why do I have to go to bed? Why do I have to share my toys? “Why” is how we learn about our world and our place in it. God of “Why,” you have told us that unless we become like one of these little children, we will not enter your kingdom. Teach us to never stop asking Why. Teach us to never stop trusting your answer. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
We dedicate our gifts and our lives to your holy purpose, O God. Amen.
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.
I’m sitting in one of the living-rooms-turned-into-conference-rooms of the Edwards House Retreat and Conference Center in Framingham, MA. Edwards House is a giant farm house situated on several acres that serves both as the (now former) Massachusetts Conference UCC headquarters and–as the name would imply–a site for conferences, retreats, meetings and other types of church-related gatherings.
I’m here for a week-long training in leadership coaching. This is the second part of a Lilly Endowment funded program to train an ecumenical group of clergy–who were selected through an application process–in the theory and practice of coaching groups and individuals for the purposes of raising awareness, clarifying values, and maximizing effectiveness.
Coaching is NOT therapy. It is not spiritual direction or pastoral counselling. It is a way of working with people through deep listening, artful language, and powerful questions that is designed to produce real world, life-changing results.
Coaches work with pastors, lay leaders, congregations, non-profit and for-profit organizations, managers, “C-suite” executives, parents, teachers, and leaders of all types. The idea behind training clergy in leadership coaching is that clergy can, in turn, coach their staff, volunteer leaders, and teams. Coaching is a leadership style that brings out the best in individuals and groups.
I have greatly benefitted from working with a number of coaches over my 20 years of ministry. If it weren’t for the coaches who have encouraged me and helped me grow as a leader, I probably wouldn’t be in ministry today. I’m glad for this opportunity to give back. Once we’re certified, those of us who are being trained are required to donate 50 hours of coaching to churches, teams, and/or individual leaders of the Southern New England Conference UCC.
My training requires that I log 500 hours of coaching for certification. If you are interested in a sample coaching session, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.