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January 21, 2018
The Reverend George Anastos
Joel 3:1-5, 10 God Calls Jonah a Second Time
Our first lesson this morning is from the book of Jonah, the third chapter. It describes God calling Jonah a second time. (After the first call Jonah ran away and ended up in the belly of a whale. After that he was “vomited” up on a beach, this is what happens:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it.
Sermon Part I “Disciples Don’t Go to Church”
As amusing as it is to think about this, when Andrea and I move to Minnesota in the summer of 2019 we are going to have to go church shopping. Jeesh. We did this once before when our daughter was a 14-years-old and neither of us were serving a church. Week after disillusioning week we went to a different church. After nine months of untrained musicians and truly awful preaching, our daughter came downstairs one Sunday morning and quipped, “So where are we doing our penance this week?” We went out to brunch.
Church shopping is the norm now and obviously I am no exception. It is how many of you found this church. Curiously, it is a relatively new phenomenon. When I was first ordained most people went to the church, or at least to the denomination, of their childhood. Heck, in Salem, Massachusetts where I first served, the loyalty to the individual parish was so strong that our sexton had been with us for 45 years. His father had been sexton before him. And his father’s father had been sexton before him, going back to the late 1800s. Loyalty to church or your denomination was one reason to go to a church. Sometimes you went because your friends were there. But it all points to the fact that going to a given church was based on history and on relationships.
Things started to change in the 1980s. Parish and denominational loyalties dissolved and church attendance started to plummet. People, if they wanted a church at all, wanted one that met their needs. Church leaders lamented this. Article after article wrote about church shopping and how terrible that was: people wanted value for their dollar, they wanted worship as entertainment, they wanted personal fulfillment and needs met. As church attendance declined, conservative, mainline and liberals alike measured (literally) success as the number of butts in the pews. In a time of decline, chatter about church growth was all the rage. Attendance continued to sag. Churches still looked for ways to hook the people who came shopping to their doors.
What is odd about all these growth models is that they are, well, so unbiblical. Prophets did not go searching for a god they liked and then speak in its name. God went and found them. The disciples did not go shopping for a rabbi and settle on Jesus. Jesus went shopping for them and asked them to transform their lives. That was different from how it worked back then: just as happens now, people then would seek a rabbi they liked, one that affirmed them in what they largely already believed. They then aligned themselves with this rabbi/teacher in self-affirmation. This is what I imagined myself doing in Minnesota: finding a church that I agreed with, or, to put it more baldly, that agreed with me. Then I read this week’s story of God calling Jonah a second time, and also the gospel lesson. Really read them, and felt a chill run down my spine. Church shopping and church marketing may be the norm today, but it ain’t the gospel, it ain’t the call.
Scripture Reading Mark 1:14-20 Jesus Calls His Disciples
Our second lesson this morning is from the Gospel according to Mark, the first chapter, verses 14-20. It narrates Jesus’ call of his first disciples.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Sermon Part II “Disciples Are Sent from Church”
The trouble with the model of shopping for a church I like is that it is about me as a shopper and my own fulfillment, rather than about the gospel and the gospel’s call. Because if the call of the disciples as described in this morning’s lesson is the model of church participation, then we got it all wrong. Be we a conservative church that is saving souls or a progressive church offering spiritual fulfillment, it’s not the gospel. And the church that plays into these models with its growth programs and numerical measures of success has lost its way.
The New Testament model is radically different than what is offered by churches. Jesus, when looking for disciples, invited them to turn their lives upside down, and not just religiously, but politically, socially and about every other way you can name. You see, he wasn’t out to affirm people in what they already believed, nor was he out to form a religion. He was out to follow God. In following Jesus we are more like Paul and Mary and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., because then we will upset any apple cart that exists outside the ways of justice and mercy.
In following him we upset any apple cart that exists outside the ways of justice and mercy. ANY apple cart. And, right now we do not have to look far for apple carts to upset. This month at First Plymouth we have been looking hard at racism in our society. We didn’t have to look hard for examples. From white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville to the appalling rhetoric of the highest office in our land, we are not only having to face the racism so tightly woven into the fabric of our society, we are watching it being woven tighter still. In defending the President of the United States’ comments about excrement-hole countries, people actually defended him by noting that he was simply stating what many others already think. This is, of course, true; he is stating what he and others think. Are we to conclude from this line of non-reasoning that because others share my prejudice that makes me right? Are we to conclude from this that name-calling and prejudice are acceptable because others think so?
Where in this hell is Christian witness? Why the silence? Where is the backbone of the self-professed Christians in the Congress? Where is the faith? You have to wonder if they have ever read bible at all, never mind the gospel of Jesus Christ, because if they had they would not be silent. No follower of Jesus can be silent here.
Last week a church member gave me an article by a Baptist minister who notes, “I have noticed that many . . . in the pews misunderstand the concept of the Separation of Church and State and often conflate it with their own personal desire to separate the church from politics. . . . Many Christians are far more loyal to their particular party platform than they are to the teachings of Jesus. . . . The primary reason so many Christians react so strongly to political statements in church is that their partisanship has been offended.”
Where in this hell is the church? Progressive or conservative, we have created an institution that is about serving us rather than serving the Gospel. And when it is about serving us, saving us, making us comfortable, we end up stripping the Gospel of its central message because, let’s face it, the Gospel is far from comfortable. (What is that Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. . . . for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’) When it is about serving us we save souls and not the Way of God. When it is about serving us we emphasize self-fulfillment and not justice. When it is about serving us we alter the Gospel from Jesus’ discipleship net to our safety net. This may be the church’s norm, but it ain’t the Gospel. And the Gospel demands that we stand in the ways of justice and equity. And that means, despite how uncomfortable it may be to hear it, and then do it, we have to speak out against the rampant racism coming from our government right now.
Last February I said from this pulpit that the political climate in this nation may demand, DEMAND, that as I preach, I do so from time to time with a prophetic voice: to challenge injustice and any political initiative that defies what I called biblical no-brainers. Biblical no-brainers are those things that are consistently and stridently present in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the teachings of Jesus. What Moses and the prophets and Jesus all did, ALL of them, was confront the nation’s leader. Moses confronted Pharaoh, Samuel confronted king Saul, Nathan confronted king David, Ahijah spoke truth Solomon, Elijah to Ahab, Isaiah to Uziah; John the Baptist spoke truth to Herod, Jesus confronted Pilate. Early Christians challenged Rome. And they did not do this as ideological Republicans or Democrats. They did it in order to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. The Word of God is by definition political because the word ‘political’ by definition means the good of the polis—the city, the nation, the people—the very message, in other words of the Law of Moses, the proclamation of the prophets, the Word of Christ.
If the teachings of scripture disagree with your politics, it’s not the scripture that has to change. And scripture is very clear about our shared humanity, and that all people are created in the image of God. Racism in any form defies the Law of Moses, the proclamations of the prophets, and the Way and teachings of Jesus. Naming African nations as excrement-hole countries is racist. Defending white supremacists’ behavior is racist. Describing Mexicans as rapists is racist. Saying, “Laziness is a trait in blacks” is racist. Saying all black immigrants from Haiti have AIDS is racist. Not rejecting the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan is racist. Hiring senior staff who publish overtly white supremacist media is racist. This list goes on and on and on.
This church will not be silent. Jesus didn’t call us to go to church for self-fulfillment; Jesus called us to be sent from church to participate in his work to heal creation. That means confronting the powers that be. That means standing against any and every system that puts a particular race over universal humanity. That means understanding the vast and profound difference between the wisdom of the separation of church and state and the atrocity of separating the church from politics: that is unbiblical.
In last week’s excellent sermon our student intern (Alix Wright) noted the following about this church:
We are a justice driven church
We fight for the justice of the hungry
We fight for Justice for fair housing for the elderly
We fight for Justice for those in Rwanda
We fight for Justice for those who seeking mental health and struggling with brain disease
We fight for Justice for the earth
We fight for Justice for those suffering from gun violence
We fight for Justice for the homeless
[We fight] Justice around racial equity
[We fight for justice for the LGBTQ community]
I remind you of this list, because in the past
We stand and say
“Here I am” when we hear God call
Right now the call is clear. The Word of God is intersecting with the world of politics. Racism in any form is an abomination in God’s creation. Being a congregation that unabashedly declares its commitment to racial equity is vitally important.
After Alix’s sermon last week she asked how hard a preacher in the Congregational tradition can push, how much of a stand a preacher can take. She noted that it is the members of the church that will decide whether we become a racial equity church, not the minister. What is the preacher’s role in this?
The preacher’s role in the Congregational tradition is to preach the Gospel in its entirety and to trust the people in their integrity to follow Christ. Amen.
GOD IS STILL SPEAKING
WHEN GEORGE ASKED ME TO SPEAK TWO WEEKS AGO, I SAID YES WITHOUT THINKING TWICE ABOUT IT. I SAID YES, BECAUSE I WANT TO GIVE THIS TESTIMONY.
BTW, HE GAVE ME MORE THAN 3 MINUTES….WHAT’S UP WITH THAT? I THINK GEORGE IS SLIPPING….
I BEGAN SEARCHING FOR A CHURCH HOME IN OCTOBER 2015 WHEN I FIRST MOVED TO DENVER FOR WORK. AND BELIEVE ME, I WENT TO QUITE A FEW CHURCHES IN THE DENVER METRO AREA….BAPTIST CHURCH, METHODIST CHURCH, EPISCOPAL CHURCH, I EVEN WENT TO A BUDDHIST TEMPLE. . . WHICH WAS PRETTY GOOD. . . AND I AM ALSO A CURIOUS PERSON.
I DIDN’T GIVE UP, I JUST COULD NOT FIND “MY FIT”. . . YOU SEE, I PREVIOUSLY ATTENDED ONE OF THE MOST PRESTIGIOUS CHURCHES IN THE WASHINGTON DC METRO AREA, SO OF COURSE, I WAS IN SEARCH OF A CHURCH COMMENSURATE WITH WHAT I HAD BECOME ACCUSTOMED TO. A CHURCH WITH DIVERSITY, A CHURCH WITH A STRONG COMMUNITY, A CHURCH WITH A GOOD HISTORY, A CHURCH WITH OUTREACH IN THE COMMUNITY, A CHURCH THAT LIVED THE “ALL ARE WELCOMED” CREED, LGBTQ, RACE, ETC….ALL ARE WELCOME INTO THE BELOVED COMMUNITY OF FAITH.
I CONTINUED MY SEARCH TO FIND “MY FIT”.
I REMEMBERED THAT MY DEAR OLD FRIEND ROGER DIGGLE AND HIS WIFE LEE LIVED IN THE DENVER AREA . . . AND AS YOU MAY KNOW, ROGER PREVIOUSLY INVITED ME TO FOUNDRY IN WASHNGTON DC, SO WHY NOT ASK HIM ABOUT HIS CHURCH? HE WILL TELL YOU HIS VERSION OF THE STORY, THAT HE INTRODUCED ME TO FOUNDRY UMC AND NEVER SAW ME AGAIN AS I WAS TOO BUSY IN “MY” CHURCH COMMUNITY DOING THIS AND DOING THAT. SO I CALLED UP DEAR OLD ROGER AND HIS WIFE, LEE…AND THE REST IS THE STORY . . . HE INTRODUCED ME TO FIRST PLYMOUTH AND THEN NEVER SAW ME AGAIN . . .
IN ALL SERIOUSNESS, FINDING A HOME . . . A CHURCH HOME, IS NOT ABOUT ME OR MY FIT BECAUSE I TELL YOU, SITTING IN THE BALCONY ALL I SEE ARE BALD HEADS AND SILVER AND GREY HAIR AND VERY FEW FOLKS WHO LOOK LIKE ME.
THIS BELOVED COMMUNITY OF FAITH IS A WELCOMING COMMUNITY . . . AND, WHAT ALSO TOUCHED MY HEART WAS THAT GEORGE NOT ONLY REMEMBERED MY NAME BUT HE WROTE ME A PERSONAL EMAIL WELCOMING ME AND HOPED THAT I WOULD VISIT AGAIN.
AND NOW, I AM NAMING NAMES AND CASTING BLAME . . . DON’T LET HEIDI THOMAS GET A-HOLD OF YOU OR HUG YOU . . . SHE WILL NEVER LET YOU GO.
DON’T LET RUTH NEIL SMILE AND WELCOME YOU . . . SHE WILL INVITE YOU TO LUNCH OR DINNER AND SOMEHOW SHE DRAWS YOU IN WITH HER HONESTY AND HER OPEN HEART.
SUSAN OAKES AND HER HUSBAND GREETING YOU AT THE DOOR WITH A SMILE AND A HUG IS A WELCOME WITH SINCERITY AND GENUINE CARE.
DON’T LET KAT SIGN YOU UP FOR OUTREACH . . . YOU WILL FALL IN LOVE WITH THIS DELIGHTFUL LADY, AND HER KIND VOICE AND SMILE WILL HAVE YOU EATING OUT OF HER PALM.
AND THE RICHS . . . DEAR JANET HAS TO PUT UP WITH ME WHEN I RING HER DOORBELL TO HAVE A CHAT WITH BERKELEY ABOUT ONE THING OR ANOTHER THAT JUST CAN’T WAIT FOR SUNDAY!
AND THE ARCAS, GIGI AND TOM, MY OUTREACH AND JFIA COMMITTEE MEMBERS. THOSE PEOPLE, IN MY COMMUNITY OF FAITH.
I SAID TO MY MOTHER, “WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING IN THIS CHURCH?” I SHOULD BE GOING DANCING, HANGING OUT AND LIVING UP MY LIFE! WHAT AM I DOING GOING TO THIS CHURCH WHERE I AM THE MINORITY, MINORITY AND PLACING MYSELF IN THE MIDDLE OF ALL OF “THIS” . . . MOM, I SAID, THIS IS NOT IT, THIS IS NOT MY CHOICE, IN THIS CHAPTER OF MY LIFE, THERE ARE OTHER THINGS I’D RATHER BE DOING! . . . BUT MY MOTHER IS WISE AND SHE IS A STRONG WOMAN IN HER FAITH. SHE SAID, CARRIE . . . SHE CALLS ME CARRIE WHEN SHE HAS SOMETHING DEEP AND PROFOUND TO TELL ME AND CAROLYN WHEN SHE IS ANGRY . . . SHE SAID CARRIE, IT IS A “GOD THING” AND YOU MUST LET GOD LEAD THE WAY . . . IT IS A GOD THING, SHE SAID . . . I REMEMBER THESE WORDS.
AND I REMEMBER THE STORY OF JONAH . . . AND IF YOU HAVE EVER NOT LISTENED TO THAT VOICE THAT GUIDES YOU, YOU MAY PAY A DEAR PRICE FOR THE DIVINE MUST HAVE HER WAY. AND I HAVE BEEN IN THE PLACE WHERE I HAVE IGNORED THAT CALLING…!!!!
EVEN THOUGH IT MAY SEEM THERE IS NO WAY, GOD MAKES A WAY…AND I HAVE BEEN AMAZED BY THE MIRACLES I HAVE WITNESSED THROUGH THE POWER OF THE ALMIGHTY.
SO I HAVE BEEN ASKED, “WHY ARE YOU HERE…? WHY DO YOU CHOOSE TO BE IN THIS CHURCH?” THIS HAS NOT VERY MUCH TO DO WITH ME . . . BELIEVE ME WHEN I TELL YOU THIS, FOR I AM BEING LED BY THE ALMIGHTY TO DO HER WORKS . . . AND DO NOT ASK ME WHAT THE OUTCOME WILL BE FOR I CANNOT TELL YOU THAT EITHER.
WE HAVE BEEN DOING SOME SOUL SEARCHING ON WHETHER THIS CHURCH SHOULD BE A RACIAL EQUITY CHURCH. AND I DO UNDERSTAND THAT THERE IS A PROCESS, A PROCESS THAT WE MUST FOLLOW . . . BUT IN MY HEART OF HEART I HOPED THAT SOMEONE WOULD HAVE STOOD UP AND SAID “WHAT ARE WE DELIBERATING?” THERE IS NO DEBATE HERE . . . THIS CHURCH MUST CARRY THE TORCH AND LEAD OTHER CHURCHES IN THIS COMMUNITY OF FAITH, THAT ALL PEOPLE ARE CREATED EQUAL, THAT HUMAN DIGNITY IS WHAT WE MUST STRIVE FOR AND TO LOVE ANOTHER AS THE LORD LOVES US AND TO WALK IN THE LIGHT OF THE LORD.
I WILL SAY THIS, IF WE DO NOT STAND FOR WHAT WE BELIEVE IN, WE WILL NEVER STAND FOR ANYTHING.
FINDING A HOME, A CHURCH HOME . . . IS NOT ABOUT US, IT IS ABOUT WHAT GOD CALLS US TO DO—WALKING IN THE LIGHT.
January 21, 2018 – Rev. George Anastos – Disciples Don’t Go to Church
(God is Still Speaking – Carolyn Eustace)
January 7, 2018 – Rev. George Anastos – Giving Voice to Epiphany