What Kind of Church Are We Anyway:
What It Means To Be Presbyterian.
The last in a three part sermon series on our community’s identity.
This week I was thinking about my friend and mentor Mark Ramsey,
One of those people
who taught me pretty much everything I know about preaching.
He believes in the power of story,
The way story helps open up this world of faith
That we’re trying to live in, in its full, complex, MESSY truth.
Story is important, when you’re a finite creature
In a community of finite people
Trying to discern the movement of an infinite God.
Mark once shared a story in a sermon on tragedy that has stuck with me
After a nation was in yet another bout of morning
And people were searching for meaning,
People of faith were looking for God.
Into that moment, Mark told a story first told to him by
The late theologian John Claypool.[i]
Its an old story, from ancient China,
About a farmer who owned only one horse.
He depended on that horse for everything:
To pull the plow.
To draw the wagon.
He didn’t have much, but he had that horse.
One day a bee stung the horse,
and in fright
the horse ran away, off into the mountains.
The farmer searched and searched for him but couldn’t find him.
His neighbors came up to him and said,
“We are really sorry about your bad luck in losing your horse.”
But the old farmer shrugged and said,
“Bad news, good news — who is to say?”
A week later, incredibly his horse came back,
accompanied by twelve wild horses,
and the old farmer was able to corral all these fine animals.
News spread throughout the village, and his neighbors came and said,
“Congratulations on this bonanza out of the sky.”
To which the old man shrugged and said,
“Good news, bad news — who is to say?”
Now, the only son of the farmer decided to make the most of this good fortune,
so he started to break the wild horses
you know, so they could be sold and put to work in the fields.
It was their future. It was their way out.
But as he attempted to do this,
The son got thrown from one of the horses,
his leg: broken, in three places.
When word of this accident spread through the village,
again the neighbors came saying,
“We are sorry about the bad luck of your son getting hurt.”
The old man shrugged and said,
“Bad news, good news — who is to say?”
Not two weeks later, a war broke out among the provinces in China.
The army came through conscripting
every able-bodied male under fifty.
Because the son was injured, he did not have to go,
and it turned out to save his life,
for everyone in the village who was drafted
was killed in the battle.
“…Bad news, good news — who is to say?”
Now, Ramsey points out: This parable is not simple.
In fact, it resists simple answers.
It’s NOT saying that “God has a plan” and we can only see the plan
in the rearview mirror.
It is NOT giving permission for oppression or tragedy to run rampant
with some vague promise of it all “being well” someday later…
This parable pushes—-
especially those of us who
want to draw clear, unarguable boundaries
around the kingdom of heaven.
We want to be able to define what fits within it and what does not.
So naturally, in the church,
there are important formulaic things that we say.
We have Scripture.
We have creeds and we have liturgy.
We have music.
We have tradition.
We have convictions about baptism. We have boundaries—
–nice neat rows of carefully tended doctrine and practice.
Then, just to keep us honest, and just when we are least expecting it,
we also have the voice of God whispering in our ear—
–pushing us beyond our boundaries,
forcing us to discern whether they are in fact
our boundaries or God’s boundaries.
Mark is a good Presbyterian
Reminding me, every time, that God’s amazing Spirit is blowing
In ways that are unpredictable.
Today we’re wrapping up this little sermon series, trying to articulate
Just a little bit about what this particular church, this Kirk
Has in its DNA.
Just What Kind of Church Are We, Anyway?
I’ve been challenging us to work a bit on our elevator speech,
That brief summary of what you find when you come here
Looking for God…
When you’re at lunch with your friends, or talking with your nextdoor neighbor
And you sense that they’re missing something,
Or that they’re open to visiting a place like this
What do you say?
Just what kind of church are we?
In a sense, every sermon is an attempt to answer that question
But we’ve just been a bit more open and plain about it these past few weeks.
We’ve affirmed that we are a catholic church, with a lowercase c
By which we mean we claim, with Christians all over this world
That we are part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic tradition.
We talk about being A faithful part of the body of Christ, not THE faithful part.
That word catholic, lowercase c, means universal, or comprehensive.
And by claiming this, we are saying that we don’t necessarily have it all figured out
And neither does anyone else
But we’re rooted in something far deeper than we know
And we’re structured in a way we have come to believe is faithful
And we’re on a journey after God on the way of Jesus.
This claim affirms all of those who are on that journey as brothers and sisters in Christ
Because God knows no boundaries
And we welcome all whom God welcomes in Christ.
We are a welcoming, accepting, loving community of faith
Because we claim to be catholic.
We claim to be a Protestant church, too
And we talked a bit about our roots almost five hundred years ago
back to when Martin Luther posted those ninety-five theses
to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany
on October 31, 1517.
We are a Protestant Church,
Because we affirm that all of this is about God, and what she is doing
And not as much about us.
Luther wanted to comfort people
who were deeply afraid about whether they were good enough.
Who were doing all that they could to avoid
being on God’s cosmic naughty-not-nice list
when given 40 Hail Marys, THEY did 50
when asked to make a casserole for the pot luck
THEY added an extra package of bacon
Luther wanted to let THEM know that God came to the world not to condemn
But to save
That God doesn’t keep a scorecard,
tabulating bonus points and demerits
that this life of ours isn’t some sort of ultimate test or fancy audition.
God LOVES you, Luther said, just because God does.
Like a Mother who will not forsake a nursing child
Like a father who runs, who RUNS, to welcome a prodigal home[ii]
God loves you, and their ain’t nothing you can do about it.
And with that, the Protestant Church was born:
testifying to God’s amazing, unmerited love.
We, here at The Kirk, claim to be a Protestant church, because we affirm
That God is so much bigger than our attempts to get on God’s good side
And more than that
That God is so much bigger than all of our failures, too
Our mistakes and our stumbles
Whether they’re minor or huge.
That God can, and does, take all of them
Redeems all of them
And still, nevertheless,
Still welcomes us home with a prodigal, overflowing, amazing love.
But there’s more to our story than that.
We also are part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),
the denomination that formed us and that shapes us
through which we contribute time and energy and passion.
What does it mean to be a Presbyterian?
Well, we could talk about that denomination
The work it does in the world—through disaster relief or hunger abatement
Or to educate children or to pursue justice.
We could study its creeds or look at popular Presbyterians and their lives.
But maybe the best way to get to know us
Is to look at the jokes people tell about us…
You can take your pick.
My favorite tends to be the joke about how many people it takes to change
A light bulb.
How many Pentecostals does it take to change the light bulb, the joke goes?
Ten, they say. One to change it, nine to pray against the spirit of darkness.
Or how many Quakers does it take to change the light bulb?
Ten also, to sit in a circle until one feels the inner light.
Or how many fundamentalists does it take to change a light bulb?
NONE! THE BIBLE DOESN’T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT LIGHT BULBS!!
Or Presbyterians: how many Presbyterians does it take to change the light bulb:
At least 15. One to change the light bulb
And three committees to approve the change
And decide who is going to bring the potato salad.
But what do you think?
What does it mean for us to say that we’re Presbyterian?
Is it that we’re slow and plodding and rely too much on committees?
Are we the frozen chosen, a bit cautious and reactionary?
What do you think?
My friend Shannon is the pastor of one
of the largest Presbyterian Churches in the country.[iii]
Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago is a beautiful congregation
In the heart of the miracle mile, kind of a mecca for American capitalism.
Sure, it can be a vacationer’s paradise, but it also can be harsh and impersonal,
The miracle mile.
In that sense, people often do not understand the importance of that church
Standing on the corner of Michigan and Chestnut.
Fourth Church is a SANCTUARY in maybe every sense of the word:
It is a place to experience and worship God
With four services on Sunday
and many opportunities to engage God
throughout the week.
But they open their doors, every day of the week, too
Not only so that people can come and rest and pray
But so that the homeless of Chicago can find shelter
From rain or heat or lake-effect snow
And so it is a sanctuary in the sense of
A safe space away,
It is a place where the heart and the mind meet
Where massive art installations evoke the best of the human spirit
And the message from the pulpit is regularly erudite and passionate.
Shannon was featured on a Chicago Sun Times podcast this week
With the title “Prominent Presbyterian Pastor [Says]:
God is not a Christian…We are.”[iv]
Its always fascinating to me to see Presbyterianism getting press,
Particularly when it coincides with what I’m preaching about.
In that interview, the journalist asked her about what makes Presbyterianism unique.
Be brief, he asked:
In brief, good lord. She replied. She is a preacher, after all.
One of the cornerstones of what it means to be Presbyterian—
Presbyterian is actually the way we are governed;
We’re out of the Church of Scotland…our mother church,
and we’re governed by Elders—
so Presbyterians on the whole are pretty suspicious
of concentrating power in the hands of just one person or one entity.
We do everything by groups, everything by committee.
So that’s a huge piece of what we’re about, sharing power,
believing that we hear the voice of God most clearly
through the voices of other people,
and through passionate debate and disagreements
and all of that stuff. Its messy.
Being a Presbyterian is messy.
I will also say that if you’re uncomfortable with Ambiguity
its difficult to be a Presbyterian,
because there is a lot of grey in our denomination.
You can have differing understanding of Scripture’s authority
and be a good Presbyterian.
We have all these confessions in our Book of Confessions,
based on different points of time in our history
when we felt called to state anew what it means to be the church.
So, its just this understanding that we are always being reformed by God,
and that we’ve never arrived,
we haven’t figured it out yet.
So we’re messy, we disagree with each other.
We try to listen and share power with each other.
And we give you space to think and to discern in conversation with others
what God is calling you to do and to be.”
The apostle Paul talks about all this along with the need to be DECENT with one another,
About doing all things decently and in order
Which is something like the Presbyterian catch phrase.
Paul was dealing with the real lives of people who were seeking to follow God
People who are trying to make ends meet
Who are in debt up to their eyeballs
Who have a sick spouse or child and wonder if they’re going to get better
People who suffer a setback at work
Or who fret constantly about the state of affairs in their nation
Or, in their insecurity, puff out their chests and
project an unnatural strength and false patina of pride
People, in other words, kinda just like us.
We’re Presbyterian because we acknowledge that life is MESSY
That our lives are messy, and that we’re searching for answers together.
Good thing? Bad thing? Whose to say?
We have to work together to understand what God is trying to say to us
That there aren’t quick fixes, that growth is sometimes slower than we would like.
We affirm that we’re in this together, and that we work better together
Because no one of us has all of the answers,
And we’re all still a work in progress.
Paul’s answer to this MESS is to stop pretending that we’re better than we are
And to put the things we are good at to work
Can you teach?
Can you speak in tongues (that was big back then)
Can you give money?
Then do it. Do it with love, do it for God.
There’s a humility in being a Presbyterian.
In his letter to the Church in Philippi,
Paul talks about this, too.
He has every reason to be proud.
His life might be messy too, but things have fallen his way.
Born of the people of Israel, the right people, the tribe of Benjamin,
Circumcised on the correct day,
A Pharisee by training, a zealot by temperament.
Its just the sort of resume that would project authority, having it all together.
But Paul says all of this is nothing, really.
To be regarded as rubbish, if that’s what we stand on.[v]
Nothing but Christ and the power of his resurrection, that I become like him,
The shorthand I have been using to describe us, this congregation,
Is to say that we are Protestant Church,
a congregation of the Presbyterian Church USA
A Christian community, seeking to follow God on the way of Jesus.
We are Protestant, in that this is about God’s amazing, boundless, uncontrollable love
That claims us and saves us and sets us free to do amazing things, because of Jesus.
We are catholic, a Christian Community, seeking to follow God on the way of Jesus
Brothers and sisters with a large family of believers in every time and space
And we welcome all because God does.
And we are Presbyterian, because we know that life is messy
And we listen together for God’s purpose
And then we work together to bring it to pass
And our lives are reformed, are changed, are renewed
Are given purpose and meaning and clarity in the process.
Our lives are made a little less messy, and a little more holy, through it all.
Shannon said something else in that interview that I kind of think we should mention
She talked about this little joke that Martin Luther used to tell
When talking about the life of faith.
Luther, apparently, used to say that between Grace and Judgment,
Its like a drunk man riding a horse:
You’re going to fall off on one side or the other.
We Presbyterians: We’re always falling off on the side of grace, everytime.
Because we think that the arc of scripture
Leads us to that space of love and liberation and compassion.
What a wonderful, glorious, joyful idea
Of how we’re trying to live this messy life together, as Presbyterians
trying to follow God on the way of Jesus.
May we, as we discern what God is doing in our lives together,
Celebrate the movement of God in our midst
Working to make all of this new and lively and faithful.
And may we fall off on the side of grace, EVERY time
Celebrating the messy, boundless love of our God.
May it be so.
[i] This example comes from Mark’s sermon entitled “Why Doesn’t God Do Something?” at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina, on October 13, 2013.
[ii] See the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Book of Confessions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brief_Statement_of_Faith
[iv] See https://chicago.suntimes.com/chicago-politics/prominent-presbyterian-pastor-gods-not-a-christian-we-are/, accessed October 7, 2017
[v] Rubbish is a polite way that most of our translations interpret Paul’s expletive here.
Image: Chaos Creativity, found at http://radiowest.kuer.org/post/messy