You Can’t Be Serious
Disciples of Christ National Convention
July 20, 2015
Good evening, Disciples!
It’s wonderful to be here with you all, to catch up with so many dear friends, and to feel the movement of God’s Spirit in this place, among all of us, God’s people. I feel like it must be among the principle obligations of the church to remember that we need each other, and I can feel the strength of that truth here in this room tonight.
That said, I do have to marvel at the courage it takes to give a Baptist a podium and a live microphone…! So, thanks for that. And, it’s with deep gratitude that I join you here tonight, ready to do some thinking about how it is God is calling us to life, calling us to turn our eyes from the rubble of this world that threatens to break our spirits and deflate our hope, to gather ourselves together to face a future we cannot see, and to soar into the transformational work of the gospel in this world.
Friends, the time is now; the pain of our world is desperate; and the call of God is clear. It’s that serious.
As some of you may know, I’ve recently moved to the big city. What a year it has been at The Riverside Church in the city of New York! An amazing congregation with an incredible history, becoming it’s pastor is a job that has taken a little bit of adjustment this year. Frankly, it’s been a wild ride, learning the intricacies of such a large church system, gaining intimate familiarity with the prophetic tradition and voice of this congregation, getting to know so many wonderful church members. I’m learning as fast as I can, but just a few weeks ago I was walking through the narthex and a visitor said: “Excuse me, do you know where the restroom is?”
So, apparently I have a few more things to learn.
In my free time…, I’m trying to experience everything I can in the amazing place that is New York City. I’ve done a lot of the touristy things, like Broadway plays and cupcakes at Magnolia bakery. But I’ve also tried to get around to some of the things you do if you’re a native New Yorker, like watching the sun set over the skyline of the city while sitting on a picnic blanket in Central Park, or wandering around looking at amazing pieces of art at the Met, or visiting the 9th Avenue Food Festival in Hell’s Kitchen.
I would say I’ve tackled getting to know the city with a fair amount of enthusiasm. And I’m pretty game to try just about anything, but I draw the line at an activity I saw advertised on Groupon a few months ago. Apparently, in my new city of residence, you can sign up to take flying trapeze classes.
As you can probably guess, this particular activity involves swinging, suspended in the air, from a couple of ropes and a bar. But that’s not the worst part. After you have mastered your first lesson, jumping off a high platform and hanging on to the swing very tightly, the instructors promise to push you to excel.
The Trapeze School of New York’s website describes the second lesson like this: “You’ll be instructed to swing out, put your knees through your hands and wrap them around the bar just like you did when you were a kid on the playground. Then you will be asked to let go with your hands and swing upside down. This puts you into the best position for your first catch.”
By “catch,” of course, they mean letting go completely of the swing (the ONLY thing keeping you from crashing to the ground) and grabbing on to another swing. Don’t worry, though, the site offers helpful tips for managing anxiety: “If you can breathe and relax you will progress and enjoy [the experience] more!”
I don’t know what kind of playground you played on when you were a kid, but I can tell you I was not hanging upside down during recess. And, frankly, I have no desire to do that now. In fact, I don’t really much want to let go of anything that I think is keeping me from crashing to the ground. So, when friends suggested we try out this Groupon, you know what I said: “You can’t be serious!”
(Probably, knowing me, in a slightly more colorful way than that.)
It was my fear speaking right then, I confess.
I know this about myself—when it comes to roller coasters or flying trapeze, or…life: when the fear gets too intense, then we stand in one place, paralyzed, limited, mesmerized when it nags at our hearts and whispers in our ears things like: this will feel unfamiliar; I’ll be scared; I’ve never done anything like this before; I can’t do it; I might fall…you can’t be serious…
It’s the fear of falling that keeps me from jumping off, keeps me from embracing a future I don’t know with abandon…because most times all I can see are visions of what it would feel like to land hard on the unyielding ground.
Sound familiar? I know it does, because in addition to whispering constantly in my own life and yours, it has been my observation that fear speaks awfully loudly… in the church. You don’t even have to listen very hard to hear it: constant messages flying at us, people of faith in an institution that is changing rapidly, in a world that is breaking to pieces around us. What does the church have to offer the desperation we see?; we can’t take the risk of engaging our culture—too dangerous; changing things will feel unfamiliar; we’ve never done anything like this before; we can’t do it; we might fall…you can’t be serious….
It’s fear, at every turn, at the prospect of this overwhelming call to be the church, and heal the world, and live into God’s hopes for my life, for all our human lives…it’s the fear of falling that keeps us from letting go, from jumping off, from embracing a future we don’t know with abandon…because most times all we can see are visions of what it would feel like to land hard on the unyielding ground.
And more often than not, when invited to soar like that, we respond with an incredulous: you can’t be serious.
Looking at our text for tonight, though, I got to thinking: what if you’ve already fallen? What do you have to lose?
Tonight we run into the prophet Isaiah in chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah at a “flat on the ground, battered by the fall” kind of moment. For the people of Israel and for Isaiah their prophet, the leader who had been working as hard as he could to keep them from falling, the worst had happened. The Babylonians had invaded; the holy city of Jerusalem was reduced to rubble, the people had been torn from their homes and carted off to exile.
This turn of events cut to the very heart of who the Israelite people understood themselves to be. They were God’s chosen people. The land had been given to them in fulfillment of a covenant between God and Abraham. And the Temple had been built to house the very presence of the divine.
They were asking: if Israel could fall, if the Temple could be destroyed, then what is the point of being God’s people at all?
We can hear the people’s desperation clearly in the Psalmist’s cry:
“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps…
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a strange land?”
In fairness to God, Israel had been warned. For 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah, the prophet had been pleading with the people: stop the way you’re living; turn around and mend your ways; live like you love God and love your neighbor, or else.
While Israel may have felt that God had forgotten the covenant by allowing them to be sent into exile, the people had forgotten their part in the relationship long before the Babylonian army showed up. They had taken their chosen status for granted. They assumed that their position of prominence was permanently assured. And they forgot to live in all those ways that made them stand out from the cultures around them: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.
But now, now the worst had happened and the people did not know what to do. If the Israelites had forgotten how to sing the Lord’s song while they were still in Zion, now they were at an utter loss. And, after all his warnings and pleadings, Isaiah too was left without words. Years of working desperately to maintain the status quo were now over. The worst had happened; Isaiah and the people of Israel were lying on the ground, flat on their backs.
I haven’t had much time to investigate this deeply, but I suspect that I may not be qualified to be clergy in the Disciples of Christ
After gladly accepting the invitation to be with you all here this week, I was asked to submit the text of my sermon for tonight two months in advance of this week’s meeting – that is, a full month and 29 days earlier than I would normally have a sermon finished.
That request led me to assume that it must be a strict requirement that all Disciples pastors have their sermons finished well in advance of Sunday morning. And as anyone familiar with my late Saturday night writing sessions in tandem with my Facebook group, the Saturday Night Sermon Writing Club, can attest, I think I would never make it as a Disciple.
I’ll confess that I was late. But I did get it done, and then sat back to revel in what it is like to have over a month of breathing room between finishing a sermon and preaching it.
So THIS is what it’s like to be a Disciples pastor. Huh.
Yes, I was all set to talk to you tonight about the “flat on the ground, battered by the fall” moment of crisis those of us who love the church are now facing. Like Isaiah, we in the institutional church are standing in the rubble of what once was. The evidence is in and the facts are clear. People are ditching institutional religion in droves. Witness:
- A Gallup survey from 2012 indicates that while in 1973, 68% of Americans said they had confidence in organized religion, in 2012 that number dipped to 44%.
- And the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life reported a study indicating that in 2007, 15% of Americans described themselves as religiously unaffiliated; in 2012 that percentage had jumped to 19%…four points in five years!
- And, in a survey of those who reported having left the church, 71% said it was because they’d drifted away: organized religion just wasn’t compelling or important to them anymore.
I know that so many of us care deeply about the future of the church and in the sermon text I sent in over a month ago, I wanted to call us all to face a future full of fear, with courage and conviction.
But then late one Wednesday night just a few weeks ago, everything changed. Breaking news flashed across my phone: nine black people shot, murdered in a Charleston church at the hands of a white supremacist.
All of a sudden, those hard, hard questions about the relevance of the church stood in stark relief against the raw reality of life our country these days.
Almost exactly a month ago the big fear was the dying church. Then we saw nine people die in church.
And now the question is, perhaps as it should have been all along, no longer whether the church can survive, but more: “What is our call and responsibility as God’s people, in this culture of structural racism, injustice, and death?”
If churches cannot provide sanctuary and white supremacy can not only survive, but grow and thrive, what’s the point? If people no longer believe the church has any relevance for their lives or can address the crises we face, what are we doing here?
But now, perhaps more than ever, like Isaiah did, we are hearing God’s urgent call to “Cry out!”
But what can we possibly say?
Here we are, flat on our backs lying in the middle of this rubble and ruin. In many ways, the worst has happened. We have been issued an unmistakable wake up call.
But, how can we sing the Lord’s song in this land?
Maybe Isaiah knew just a little of what we, God’s people, are feeling now. Because it’s was there, in the hopelessness and destruction all around him, that the prophet heard God’s voice again: “It’s time to get up, Isaiah. It’s time to speak out again. The people need you to remind them who they are…and who I am.”
God told Isaiah to step out with courage, to speak hope into the despair, to cast a new vision, to remind the people that though the worst has happened, God imagines a hopeful future for them.
But Isaiah wasn’t sure. Year after year of warning, of begging the people to make things right, the hopelessness and desperation they were feeling settled over the prophet like a wet woolen blanket. “How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? How can I speak words of life into a culture of death?”
You can see Isaiah’s dubious response. Here’s my paraphrase: “God…you can’t be serious.”
Well, God was not about to let Isaiah off the hook, and I suspect God will not let us stay crippled by the fear that surrounds us. The future may look different from what we know, but the message we have to share is one the world still desperately needs to hear.
You see God’s answer to Isaiah’s protests in verse 8: “You’re right. Human life is fleeting; humans are fragile and flawed; they wreak destruction and cultivate hopelessness. But.
But, the word of God will stand forever.”
So, you doubting prophet, you, people of God, all of you who look around at the devastation you’ve tried so hard but failed to prevent, you who feel tempted to give in to the hopelessness around you: the Lord God says, “No!”
“No! You will speak! You will speak into the hopelessness. You will speak into the despair. You will speak into the destruction. You will speak into the death.”
“You will get yourself up to a high mountain. You will lift your voice with strength. You will not fear! You will say to the devastated city: HERE IS YOUR GOD.”
Here is your God!
The word of God will not fall to the Babylonian sword, or crumble under changes to the institutional church.
The word of God will not be extinguished by the evils of racism and white supremacy.
The word of God will not bow to broken systems that exploit the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
The word of God will not stay silent in a society with inadequate gun laws and a culture of violence.
The word of God will not fall victim to hatred, or exclusivity, or injustice, or even death.
Make no mistake about it, friends, this vocation to which we are called, the mandate to be God’s people in this world, is not for the faint of heart. But speaking a word of life in to a culture of death is the very essence of our faith.
It is stepping in to the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.
It is trusting that while the grass withers and the flower fades, while kingdoms fall and institutions change, the word of God will stand forever.
These past few days you have heard the call of God to a world in desperate need: be my people, adopt a different measure of success, live in relationships and cultivate communities that reflect the transforming power of God’s love.
And you have before you a challenge requiring courage perhaps like you’ve never summoned before: speak a word of hope for the future, insist that systems and laws must change, embrace abundance when this world prefers a grasping scarcity.
Now it’s time to soar. And, friends, we don’t have anything to lose. It’s time to just jump right off with courage and prophetic fire, to embrace the future that we cannot see but God certainly can, because the time is now, and perhaps this moment of being God’s people in this world is the highest calling of our lives. We must speak.
What? You can’t be serious!
God would say to Isaiah and God certainly says to us: I’m more serious than you could even imagine. So…jump.