A portion of the sermon I preached today at the Amistad chapel in Cleveland:
GOOD NEWS FOR NOVEMBER DAYS
Kelly B. Brill
November 13, 2013
Romans 8:35-39, from the Message version of the Bible: “Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture…
None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”
Last October I received a fat packet in the mail, a packet which is as anticipated by clergy as the acceptance package to college is for high school seniors. My fat packet came from Indianapolis, from the Lilly Foundation, informing me that Avon Lake UCC had been awarded a clergy renewal grant. I began planning my first-ever sabbatical. I had taken extended study leave before, but when I had young children, I couldn’t figure out a way to really take a sabbatical. The last time I was eligible, I pursued a Doctor of Ministry degree instead. So I began to plan my first real sabbatical. My focus was “rekindling creativity for worship planning.” I sent dozens of emails asking people for suggestions of churches I should visit, and for the first third of my time away I spent time with four congregations, each of them quite different, but each of them known for their vitality. One was UCC, one was in the United Church of Canada, one was Disciples of Christ, and one was a UCC/Disciples congregation. I also worshiped in several other settings, but these four were visits which included interviews with staff involved in worship planning. I also, as you would expect, did a lot of reading. Then my husband and I spent a month in Europe, where rekindling creativity involved seeing spectacular art and architecture, soaking up the beauty of nature from the Italian coast to the Swiss Alps, and exploring the culture of German beer halls. Then I had a month at home, by myself, to prepare for re-entry and to reflect on what I had learned.
Now I’m a naturally optimistic person, but if I were to summarize my sabbatical learnings in one sentence, it would be this one: “It’s a hard time to be church.” In my travels and in my reading, I didn’t come across anyone who’s figured out how to be church in this time and place. We’re all struggling in different ways. I’m most familiar with the challenges of the local setting, but I also right now happen to serve on the Western Reserve Association council and on the Ohio Conference Board of Directors, so I’m intently aware of the challenges at those judicatory levels. And while I’m not involved personally at the national setting, one of my friends who works in this building sent a message to me last Friday that said this, “Today was the hardest day since I joined the national staff. The losses are so great, and I think the words “shaken” and “sad” describe all of us.” So I’m aware of the difficulties of being church in this particular place as well.
Folks like Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass and John Dominic Crossan say that we are experiencing an enormous shift in the way people understand and experience Christianity, the kind of upheaval that happens, historically, every 500 years. If the ground beneath is shifting dramatically, it makes sense that we all will feel, in the words of our mutual friend, “shaken.” Our steps are unsteady. We don’t know what the landscape will look like once things settle. We wonder, to ourselves, or at least I do, if things really will settle, or if tumultuous change is going to be a constant.
At the congregational level, I’m aware of an ever-present tension between the need to change and the need that some parishioners express to me passionately, which is the need for the church to be a sanctuary from change, the only place in their lives where change doesn’t seem to be disruptive and explosive.
We see this cultural shift in worship, of course. My visits to churches this spring proved to me that the worship war is not over. Some churches have decided to completely change; all their services feature worship bands and projections. Other churches have decided to not change at all; their services feature choir robes, organs and hymns. Some churches, like the one I serve, are attempting to minister to the people who experience God’s presence through traditional forms of worship and those who experience God’s presence in a service of worship that is different every week. But the dialogue about how much to change when is ongoing.
We see it in theological understanding, so that in my weekly Bible study, I have participants who believe in predestination, those for whom the virgin birth is an important tenet of their faith. I have others who read Marcus Borg enthusiastically and understand the crucifixion to be a purely human event caused by the political zealotry of Jesus.
We hear it in political rhetoric. I have parishioners who love every pronouncement that comes out of General Synod, and I also have parishioners who send me forwarded emails about how all of America’s problems would be solved by prayer in schools and the public display of the Ten Commandments.
We see it in stewardship and fundraising. At Avon Lake, we have an increasing number of participants who choose to be very active in certain ministries of our congregation, but who aren’t members and who don’t see Sunday morning worship as the focus of their involvement. So our old ways of reaching folks and asking for their financial commitment aren’t working.
It’s a hard time to be church, but it’s also an exciting time. To me, it feels alive, it feels interesting. I’m curious to see what comes next.
Friends, nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not hard times. Not layoffs. Not cutbacks. Not the decline of mainline denominations. Not worship wars. Not political or cultural debates.
There are hard days, there are gray days, especially in November in northeast Ohio. But God is with us. Let us help one another to keep the faith.