Church, Interrupted

When you come to church, what kinds of things do you expect to do?

Sing hymns? Say prayers? Read from the Bible? Hear a sermon? Receive Communion?

In our denomination’s Book of Order (part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church), we have a list of ‘the Elements of Worship’ and they are:

  • Prayer,
  • the reading and proclaiming of Scripture,
  • Baptism,
  • the Lord’s Supper,
  • Self-offering, and
  • Relating to each other and the world.

All of these things are pretty normal things to have happen during church services. We’ve come to expect them. If there was a church somewhere that said, “We’re not going to pray or read the Bible anymore during our services,” we would wonder about that church (*Side Note: I’m particularly delighted to see that more and more Protestants are including the Eucharist in their list of things that are central to Christian worship).

If there was a church somewhere that didn’t do any of the above things, most of us would probably want to ask, “What then, makes this gathering a Christian church?”

It might be a perfectly good social group, activist organization, or educational institution, but most of us would have a hard time seeing it as a church (as people typically understand the term) unless there was some part of its communal life that was specifically devoted to worship.

It was that way in the ancient world too. People in that culture expected certain elements to be part of their worship experience. One of those elements was sacrifice.

It was widely believed in the ancient world that deities fed off of the sacrifices offered by the people. These sacrifices could be things like bread, wine, animals, or even people. The general idea was: the more precious the thing sacrificed, the more pleased the deity would be. If you really wanted to get on a particular deity’s good side, you sacrificed something really valuable to you. In return, that deity would then grant you favors related to his or her sphere of influence (e.g. fertility, harvest, war, etc.).

To the ancient mind, that’s just how religion worked. They could no more imagine worship without sacrifice than we could imagine a church service without hymns.

Human sacrifice, in particular, was just one of those accepted elements of worship. It sounds horrifying to our 21st century ears, but the idea that God would ask someone to sacrifice their firstborn child was not all that unusual for people in Abraham’s culture. That’s why we don’t hear Abraham raising a fuss when God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac in this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis. Asking for the life of his firstborn would have sounded like a perfectly normal request for God to make.

Yet, this is a very shocking passage, to ancient ears as well as our own. The shock, for Abraham and the early Jews, was not that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but that God would stop the sacrifice from happening at the last second.

“Wait a minute,” they would have said, “do you mean to tell me that God didn’t want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in the end? Do you mean to tell me that God actually interrupted the sacrifice and asked for a ram instead? What kind of God would do such a thing?!

It would have been amazing and unheard of for them. It would have upset all their conventional religious ideas in favor of something new that had never been seen before. People in that culture might have even had a hard time imagining how such a religion would work; for them, it would be like church without hymns, or prayers, or the Bible, or Communion: it just wouldn’t feel like church.

Abraham stood at the forefront of a revolution: a radical shift in his culture’s understanding of God. His God would no longer demand human blood in exchange for favors. Only animals would be sacrificed from that point on. This move was a step in a particular direction.

Later on, the early Christians would do away with the practice of animal sacrifice as well, proclaiming that the death of Jesus had put an end to the need for sacrifice altogether. That was a step.

In the sixteenth century, our Protestant ancestors, Martin Luther and John Calvin (among others), started another revolution when they proclaimed that membership in the Church of Christ depended on one’s personal faith, rather than loyalty to the Pope. As we already know, this idea blew people’s minds and shattered their cultural expectations of what church was all about. That was another step.

All of this leads me to wonder: What is our revolution? In what ways is God calling us to be radicals? How will history look back at us and say, “Wow, those really stood at the forefront of a new understanding of God/church/religion”?

Let me be clear that I really do believe they will. I really do think that we live at one of those turning points in history: one of those moments that influences the shape of things to come for centuries. Just like the ancient and medieval ages before it, our modern world is now coming to an end. We’re entering what many academics are calling the postmodern era of history.

As we make this shift and the world is changing around us, we Christians are asking some pretty big questions about things like church, God, and religion. Some of us are questioning old patterns and forms of worship; some of us are questioning old dogmas and concepts of God that were based in assumptions about the universe that people in the 21st century no longer hold; at the end of the iconoclastic modern era, some of us are returning to more ancient and medieval practices with a new set of spiritual eyes. Most of these questions are bound to make us uncomfortable. Like most of our ancestors who lived at similar turning-points of history, people in the postmodern world will probably end up keeping some things from the past while they change other things. That’s just the way life works: nothing stays the same forever, and nothing is totally independent of that which came before it.

Time will not permit for me to talk about all the different questions and changes that might be coming our way in the near-future (I highly recommend the books of theologians like Stanley Grenz and Brian D. McLaren, if you yourself are interested), but there is one current shift that I would like to briefly touch on:

The Christian Church, ever since the days of the Roman emperor Constantine in the 4th century, has long been at the center of Western European and North American society. Even where Christianity wasn’t established as the official state religion, the church (as an institution) nevertheless enjoyed the benefits that come with considerable money and power. Church membership was culturally expected as part of what it meant to be a person of a particular nationality (e.g. English, Italian, or American).

In the past half-century, all of that has begun to change. Our society is becoming more secular. People no longer assume that their neighbors go to church anymore. Neither our pews nor our offering plates are as full as they used to be. The Church has gone from being at the center of society to being out on the edge. Christianity exists in the margins of society at this point in history.

Many people are saddened or even frightened by this shift. Looking at the empty buildings and smaller budgets, they long for the “good old days” when the Church was more culturally central and enjoyed the money and power that came with such privileged status. Some folks even think they might be able to re-create that imaginary Golden Age, if only their church had the right kind of pastor or Sunday School program.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Just like Abraham, Jesus, and Calvin, I think we’re living in a time when ideas about God and Church are changing on a radical level. The Church of the future will look very different from the Church of the past.

I see Christianity becoming a religion that exists at the margins, made up of people who live at the margins. I see us becoming a Church of the poor, for the poor, and by the poor: a home for the homeless, a family for the outcast, friends of sinners, a community of prophets that critiques the values of the dominant culture instead of underwriting them.

When I imagine the future, I see a Church full of people like Abraham, who was so open to hearing God’s voice that he was able to stop the sacrifice of his son Isaac at the last possible second. He looked instead at the ram caught in the thicket and imagined, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a new way of doing things, a new way of practicing religion, a new way of being Church, and a new way of understanding God that had never been conceived before.

I believe that we, at North Church, already have a head-start on that future. We are already a small church of the poor that exists on the edge of society. I believe we have something special to offer our brothers and sisters in the mainline churches. We are showing them where they are going. In our life together, we are living proof that the future is not all doom and gloom, but light and hope as the Church-at-large returns with its whole to heart, not to the good old days of money and power, but to that which really makes us the Church: our passionate love for God and one another in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Well in the Desert

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Have you ever experienced rejection?

If you’ve ever been a sixth-grader at a school dance, chances are you have.

“Eww, I’m not gonna dance with you, you dweeb!”

It’s a hard thing to go through, especially when you’re a kid. Those painful memories stay with you forever. Those of us who have kids of our own or care for other people’s kids know that crestfallen look in their eyes when they come home from school. We remember what it was like to be that age and experience rejection. It’s like our body still remembers the feeling of that knot in the stomach. We didn’t know how to fix it then and we don’t know how to fix it now. The best that any of us can say is that, by the grace of God, we got through it. So, when we see the kids we care about going through it right now, our heart goes out to them. Knowing that we don’t have any way to fix it (or even answers as to why it’s happening), all we can do when we see that look in their eyes is put our arms around them and say, “I’m so sorry.” We know that it’s just puppy love, but it’s real to the puppy. We know that our love for them can’t take away the shame of rejection, but we hope that somehow, it will help them get through it.

If we’re honest, we grown-ups can admit that we still feel that same pain sometimes. It might not come from the same sources (e.g. a twelve-year-old calling me a dweeb today will not phase me much), but there are certain things that other people can say or do that take us right back to feeling like that sixth grader at the middle school dance. It’s like the worst kind of time-travel. People can say things to us like: “I don’t have room in my life for a relationship with you… We don’t feel like you are a good fit for this position… Not tonight, I have a headache.”

It hurts, doesn’t it? And even though we are now adults facing adult situations, the pain we feel is still rooted in that childhood experience of rejection. Our brains may know the difference, but our bodies and our hearts do not. That old pain is still with us: the pain of not being chosen or wanted.

In our first reading this morning, from the book of Genesis, we heard the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael, two of the Bible’s most famous underdogs. They were two people who understood better than most what rejection feels like; what it feels like to be “not chosen” in ways that really matter.

Hagar and Ishmael are not “main characters” in the biblical story by any stretch of the imagination. They are the supporting cast, they are “extras” in someone else’s story. In this part of the book of Genesis, Sarah and Abraham are the main characters; they are God’s “chosen people.” God appeared to Abraham and said to him, “You shall be called the father of many nations. I will bless you and make you a blessing to all the nations of the world.”

Now, there was a problem with this arrangement because Abraham and his wife Sarah were already too old to have kids. And Sarah, being a very rational and practical person, came up with a solution: “I have this slave-girl, Hagar. She’s young enough to bear children. Here, Abraham, you go ahead and have a baby with her, so that God’s promise can come true.”

And this is where things get complicated. At this point, the biblical story almost starts to look like a “reality TV” show. Jealousy and rivalry set in quickly. Hagar and Sarah never seem to get along after this point.

First, Hagar does have a baby with Abraham and names him Ishmael. And Sarah is jealous of Hagar for this. Later on, after Sarah does have a baby against all conceivable odds, she decides that she doesn’t need Hagar anymore, so she tells Abraham to break up with Hagar and send her packing.

It’s interesting to note that Hagar never has a say in anything that happens to her. She is Sarah’s slave: an object who just gets passed around and used like a piece of property that can then be disposed of when she is no longer needed. Sarah and Abraham were the chosen people, but Hagar and Ishmael were leftovers… afterthoughts.

Sarah comes across as pretty heartless in this passage. Abraham fares a little better, but not much. The text says that he is “distressed” (we might say “stressed out”) by Sarah’s demands. After all, Ishmael is his firstborn son. He loads them up with as many supplies as they can carry, but it’s not much: a loaf of bread and a bottle of water. And then he sends them out into the desert, knowing that he will never see them again and they will most likely die there.

Out in the desert, Hagar’s water runs out pretty quickly. And here she is: all alone in the desert with a baby and no water. She’s been used, abused, and eventually abandoned by the people who were supposed to take care of her.

She keeps going for a little while: as long as she can, which is obviously not long in a place like that. But eventually her strength gives out. She knows what will happen next: she and her son will die out here and their bones will probably never be found.

If there is anyone in this story who is lower-down and worse off than Hagar, it’s Ishmael. He is just a baby at this point. He owes his very existence to this twisted situation. He didn’t ask for any of this. You could say that he never even had a decent shot at life. The playing field of opportunity was never really level for him. And now, because Sarah and Abraham, God’s chosen people, were acting so petty and hard-hearted, he was going to die.

This is where Hagar reaches her breaking point. She can’t go on, so she gives up and throws in the towel. Above all, she can’t bear to watch Ishmael die, so she abandons him: she sets him down under a bush and walks away. She can hear him crying behind her, but she won’t turn around. It’s too late for them. It’s over.

And then… in that moment… the moment after all hope is lost, hope finally begins to dawn. That’s when God finally decides to show up in this morbid scene: not alongside the chosen people, but with the rejected ones; not in the city or the camp, but out in the desert; not with the rugged, faithful, positive-thinking overcomers who soldier on no matter what, but with those who have given up and given in to the worst parts of their humanity. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “It is only for those who hold on for ten minutes after all hope is gone that hope begins to dawn.”

God shows up in the least likely places. In this story, there is a definite hierarchy among characters: At the top there is Sarah, who just doesn’t care. Next you have Abraham, who is caught in the middle of his two wives and sons. The text tells us that he is “distressed” by what is happening. After that, you have Hagar, who is rejected, abandoned, and heartbroken. And finally, at the very bottom, there is Ishmael, who never asked for any of this. This baby is going to die because God’s chosen people are too hard-hearted to see past their own petty issues. (Sounds like the Church sometimes, doesn’t it?)

And where is God in all this? Sitting on heaven’s throne, objectively evaluating the situation? Does God make excuses for the chosen people, justifying their selfishness, no matter what the cost?

Whose voice does God listen to in the end? Not Sarah’s, not Abraham’s, not the chosen people’s, not even poor Hagar’s. Genesis tells us that “God heard the voice of the boy.” Ishmael. The voice that mattered least. The voice that no one else wanted to hear (not even his own mother, in the end). Ishmael was the least of the least in this situation, the one who even the rejects rejected. He didn’t even have words to form, much less a theology for calling out to God and arranging salvation. The only thing that came out of him was the wordless wail of a child who has just been abandoned by his mother.

Rejection. Ultimate rejection which, in his case, meant certain death. And God heard the voice of the boy. God shows up where the pain is greatest and the hope is gone. In spite of the sacred covenant established with Abraham and continued through Isaac and Sarah, God cannot help but reach out to be with these forgotten folk, particularly this baby boy.

God speaks to Hagar his mother and says, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here. I’m listening. Go, pick up your son and hold him close, because this kid has a future. I will make a great nation of him.”

And then, according to the text of Genesis, God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw something: a well of water in the desert. Not just a bottle, like Abraham had given her, but a full-on well where she and her son could drink and drink to their hearts’ content.

According to the text and history, God made good on that promise to Hagar and Ishmael. They learned how to survive out in the desert. They made a life for themselves. Ishmael grew up, got married, and became a great bow-hunter.

He even became “a great nation,” as God promised he would: our Muslim neighbors trace their ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael, just as Jews and Christians trace their lineage through Isaac, Abraham’s son by Sarah.

What I take away from this story is God’s special love for the least of the least of the least. God really does seem to have a thing for underdogs. Church teaching has historically referred to this as “the preferential option for the poor.”

God is not neutral or objective when it comes to injustice. God sides with the poor and powerless people of the earth in their suffering. It’s not that God loves some people more than others; it’s that some people need God’s love more than others. God stands in solidarity with the oppressed peoples of this world, therefore we, as God’s people are called to do the same.

I believe the Church is called to be a safe haven for our outcast sisters and brothers. We’ve all heard stories of faith communities rejecting certain people, sending them packing, or kicking them out for one reason or another, perhaps sending them off with a single bottle of water to sustain their faith in the spiritual deserts of this world…

I believe the Church’s call in those moments is to be present with those rejected people, like Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. Rather than turning our heads and walking away because we can’t bear to see their suffering, I believe we are called to hold each other close in the darkest hours, to open the eyes that are blind, and inspire our hurting neighbors to believe in a future for themselves that they would not even dare to imagine.

We are not meant to pass out little bottles of water and then send people on their way. We care called to be that well in the desert, where exhausted travelers and fellow rejects can find rest and build a new life together out of the ashes of their rejection.

This is the kind of ministry that North Church has been doing for over a generation. We are the well in the desert. We stand together today, poised at the brink of an unknown-but-promising future, facing new challenges, ready to pursue new opportunities, and certain of this: that God is with us. We know this because we are the poor, we are the homeless, we are the addicts, we are the disabled, we are the mentally ill, we are often overlooked and outcast, we are the freaks and the geeks, we are the queer, like Hagar and Ishmael, we are the rejected ones: and that’s where God lives. Amen.

Reverence for Reality

Photo by Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team

I’ve often felt sorry for Abimelech.  He strikes me as a stand-up guy who got the short end of the stick.  We first meet him in the 20th chapter of the book of Genesis.  He’s named as the king of the Philistines who lives in Gerar.  One day, a rather attractive woman moves to town, supposedly with her brother.  She makes a splash on the social scene and turns the heads of some very well-placed individuals.  Before long, she’s dating Abimelech himself, who is quite taken with her.  Little does he know that she too is taken, but not in a good way.  The woman’s “brother” turns out to be her husband who is using her as part of a con-game that they’ve been running in several different towns.

Abimelech, an apparently decent fellow who’s not into that sort of thing, demands an explanation.  Abraham, the brother-husband, replies, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place”.

No fear of God?  That doesn’t seem to be the case.  First of all, I should explain that I tend to cringe at the word fear being used in this sense.  The actual Hebrew word means awe or reverence.  We, on the other hand, tend to associate it with dread or terror.  Abraham was insisting that he saw no reverence for the sacred in the house of Abimelech.  Yet, Abimelech seems to be a rather spiritually sensitive person.  One might even call him a mystic.  He hears God speaking to him in dreams and responds without hesitation.  If anything, Abimelech comes across as a much more spiritually centered person than Abraham the con-man.

Abraham saw no reverence for the divine in Abimelech.  I propose a theory that it was actually Abraham’s own prejudice that prevented him from seeing the truth about the kind of person that Abimelech really was.  Abraham was accustomed to seeing “foreigners” and “outsiders” in a certain way.  Abraham thought that he, as the exalted ancestor of the chosen people, was the sole-possessor of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” about God.  As a result, he was blind to the reality of reverence in Abimelech’s life.

Don’t we do this all the time?  We get used to seeing things in a certain way.  We come up with interpretive schemas that we impose on reality in order to categorically organize our perceptions of the world.  We want to know who is “in” and who is “out”, who is “saved” and who is “damned”, who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”.  This is a natural way of looking at things (especially for kids) but it causes problems for adults who know through experience that life is never that simple.  If we stay committed to such binary thinking in the face of more nuanced evidence, prejudice closes our minds and hardens our hearts against reality and reverence.  We fail to keep in step with what God is doing in the world and end up becoming the worst versions of ourselves.

Especially in this fast-paced and interconnected world of the 21st century, it is incumbent upon us to remain open to the varieties of reverence we may encounter in those who are different from us.  When I walk into a situation or relationship with the assumption that God is neither present nor active in another person’s life, I am more likely to misconstrue God’s presence and activity in my own life.

Through openness of heart and mind, let us maintain our reverence for what is sacred and celebrate together the incredible diversity we find in this universe.