At last Saturday’s All-Church vision conversation, we spent the morning having each person reflect and share about what metaphorical body part they were in the body of Christ. It was fascinating to take what everyone had said (hands, feet, eyes, ears, heart, lungs, nerve cells and mitochondria) and build a body of our church. The first insight was, together we are so much more than we are as individuals. Then the question was, what is missing. Someone said, we have no reproductive organs. That got my attention since I knew the Gospel lesson for today. Out of 40 people gathered, no one said they were the ovaries of the church, or the testicles of the church. This has been a problem for liberal Protestantism for a generation. We have low birthrates, we aren’t keeping our youth as they grow up, and we don’t evangelize, so we are in decline. If Mainline Protestantism is a body, the problem is it does not have enough sex to perpetuate itself. It has taken a vow of celibacy.
Part of our challenge is our identity and our strength. We are not a creedal church. If you grow up Evangelical you know what you believe (Virgin Birth, bodily resurrection, substitutionary atonement, the Second Coming of Christ, inerrancy of scripture.) We are diverse and unsettled on many of these doctrines. I remember the first time I said, from the pulpit, that the Virgin Birth was not essential to my faith, it was an ancient mythological concept applied to Roman Emperors to give divine sanction to their power, and the church use of the mythology to counter Rome’s power with God’s power. The retired pastor of the church said, “That was brave, I would have lost my job for saying that. But the congregation’s response was “Thank God, I was always afraid I was a heretic.” Times have changed. But it consistent with our traditions. Early American Baptists pledged, “No creed but Christ.” Congregationalists had covenants like the Salem Covenant, “We hereby do bind ourselves together to walk in all of God’s ways.” We don’t have to all believe the same things about Jesus. We have an open communion table. (In fact, we fired Jonathan Edwards for narrowing access to the table.)
To Evangelicals and people who want orthodoxy, we seem soft and wishy-washy. That’s unfair. I think it takes courage to be post-modernists, who believe we must act with love and justice, even though we do not have the corner on the truth. Anyone who tries to do that is not soft. I think trying to make the Bible inerrant and defending it against modern science is soft in the head. Telling people they are going to Hell if they don’t believe the way they do is soft in the heart. Why are we the softies? I don’t think so. We are passionate about loving our neighbor, inclusion and acceptance, bringing justice. But we are not always good at explaining why, or how we got there, or what God has to do with it. We know what we don’t believe, but can’t always say what we do believe or why. Getting more clear about our core values, yet leaving room for questions is a reproductive challenge. (We will work on that Saturday, March 5.)
Let’s look at how this Gospel lessons encourages us to share our faith. First, many of Jesus’s great teaching moments take place outside the synagogue. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches in the synagogue when he was 12, then preaches in Nazareth, but most of the big stuff happens while preaching in a boat, a home, a sermon on the Mount or on the Plain, or while creating a soup kitchen to feed 5000 people. There was not a synagogue in all of Galilee that could hold everyone who wanted to hear Jesus. We have the opposite problem. Too much building. John Dorhauer, our UCC General Minister and President, wrote a whole chapter of his new book on how we have to let many of our buildings go. We are like Staples, we overbuilt and now we have too much floor space. But we need some buildings, and I think this is one we need to keep. First, this sanctuary is a sacred and holy space. I sat in the crowd on Frist Night and listened to people speak of the beauty and spirit of this place, surprised this was even here.
We have a unique opportunity of ministry because of our location. Our building is a community center for others to do their mission. The community comes to us. But that is not enough by itself. We are developing an inside-outside strategy. Common Ground is an inside-outside worship service, where worship can happen in the kitchen, the hall, and at a garden or a farm. This is our version of preaching from a boat on the water. Cathedral in the Night, with worship and a meal on Sunday nights is also a ministry where people who worship inside on Sunday morning, connect with some people who live outside during the week. The church of the future must be a bridge-building church, where traffic flows both ways. Its not just about how we get people in here, but also how do we need to connect and serve people out there.
Let me say one more thing about Jesus. Jesus was deep. Listen to the first line again. “Once when Jesus was standing by the lake the crowd began to press in upon him to hear.” It does not say, “Once when Jesus was teaching and preaching.” It says, “Once Jesus was standing by the lake.” I wonder if Jesus had gone out to meditate and enjoy some quiet by the lakeshore, and it turned into a flash mob teach-in. If fact, he had to make a boat into a pulpit so everyone could see him. This would fit a repeated pattern in the the Gospels. Jesus was often withdrawing to a quiet place to pray, he climbed mountains, got up early in the morning, moved to the next town, sailed across the Lake, spent 40 days on retreat in the wilderness and told people to be quiet about who he was. Jesus was a mindful, prayerful spiritual person, and that was the source of his appeal. He was not a PR expert, constantly sending out selfies and tweets. And yet people hunted him down and even tore the roof off of homes to get to him. He channeled a genuine experience of God to people. Deep authenticity makes an impact. We crave it. Jesus did not just make speeches about “To God be the glory” he had a deep spiritual life, he showed compassion, and he challenged traditions where necessary. In the next generation, churches that seek this kind of authenticity will thrive, while doctrinal orthodox churches will flounder.
When Jesus says, move out into the deep waters and caste your nets, I find a powerful metaphor. A vital faith has the courage to go out into deep waters. Some deep waters are inside us. When you sink down into the depths of your soul, you can’t hear all the surface noise. That is where the still, small voice can speak to your soul. Deep waters also symbolize wordly challenges, an openness to stretch ourselves to new ideas, new people and cultures, new experiences. Our depth increases as we test life outside our comfort zone. Jesus says, “Caste your nets in the deep waters.” That is where the greatest value thrives.
After I wrote the first draft of this sermon, I noticed something about its structure. My first point was about courage, the boldness of love and justice instead of the audacity of doctrinal certainty. Point two was the need for building bridges outside the sanctuary, not just preaching inside. Point three is the need for depth and authenticity. This weekend I was at the Massachusetts Conference board of directors meeting, and during worship we read together the three core values of our Conference – Courage, Depth and Bridge-building. That made my heart sing! If the more liberal, non-Evangelical church is going to reproduce itself in the future, these are core values that feel substantive and worth striving for, and I think they are also the core of how Jesus lived.