Sermon 2-12-2017; ‘What’s Next?”
Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Harper and Brothers, 1941.
Yesterday I was invited to come to Fairfield Friends Meeting and speak in a retreat setting about the future of the church. I had a wonderful time with their Ministry & Counsel and out of that I have some words to share with us today.
What’s next? What’s next? …The church in the future. What’s next?
Well, I have three points to share with you. The first one is, we need to be weird. The second one is that we need to be community. And the third is that we need to be willing. Be weird. Be community. Be willing.
In this time of feel-good, fake news, we need to hang onto real news, good news. We need to hang onto the Gospel. And that’s weird. We need to hang onto Godspell.
Godspell is early English for “Gospel.” Good news. I think most of you have heard of the musical ‘Godspell’. (Sing a bit…) “I can see a swath of sinners sitting yonder and they're acting like a pack of fools.” Godspell. I like to think of the Gospel as ‘God’s spell’, that mystical thing that happens when God’s power, the power of the Holy Spirit, overtakes the world… when we allow the Gospel, the good news of God to run freely, unfettered, through our lives. The good news! When we allow God to sing through us. When we allow God to sing the truth, to speak the truth, through us, through our meeting, through our churches, through our lives.
That centered, simple, deep, real truth. Not empty promises. Not get rich quick, feel good religion. But the experience, the true experience of the goodness of God, the power of God, the love of God. The real, actual presence of God. People need this sense of truth. It’s really interesting to me as you look through the early Quaker writings, Fox and others always spelled truth with a capital ‘T’. Truth mattered. Truth was embodied in Christ. Truth was embodied in Christ’s presence. There’s nothing phony or artificial about God’s presence. It was the real thing. And in these days, when we are unsure of the future, when we are unsure of what’s going to happen next, when predictions are worthless, it’s really really important that we look for the constancy of God’s presence. The reliability of God’s presence. The truth and reality of God in us. And that’s weird.
Nobody, or I should say, very few people, know and understand and rely on the truth of God. We, Friends, need to live into our weirdness. One of the really great things about Quakers is that we’re already pretty weird! When you come into our meetinghouses, there is a sense of yearning for God speaking into us. A sense of waiting for God in silence. A sense of knowing and expecting God to come, of expecting God to speak in and through us. And that’s just not true in every place of worship.
If you look at the front of your bulletin, the picture you’ll see is not just the God of the future at all. Instead, this is the God of the present. There are many, many churches now that have all kinds of wonderful ways of bringing God in. Hopefully, by bringing you in. I just recently read a website this last week about a church in Texas last Easter that gave away free cars. They were speaking about God’s gift to mankind, and so they thought, the way to show God’s gift is to gift. ‘Let’s give away a free car!’ And then it went from one car to five cars and then—‘let’s give away fifteen cars!’ They gave away gift baskets worth $300 a piece. We see churches marketing God. Marketing their services in such ways that are artificial. The church of the future is actually the church of the past. The original, marked by God’s presence alone. A sense of belonging and longing for God to speak. For God’s realness, for the reality of God’s presence—not the pastiche, not the phony, not the artificial, but for the reality of who God is - expecting God to speak.
How are we called friends? “You are my friends, if you do what I command.” This comes from a large challenge that Christ gives to those who have chosen to follow Him. He’s not speaking to a random crowd on a hillside, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, his students, his followers, to his devoted ones. And this is what he says: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. There’s no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you love each other like that.” Just as My Father has loved me, I have loved you. I have obeyed My Father’s commands and I’ve lived in his love.” I’m not asking you to do anything more than what I’ve done and what I’ve required of myself. Life selflessly. Love selflessly. Be community.
When you love like that, you’re living in community. You’re living as a society of friends. You’re choosing to live in such a way that your self-interests are acknowledged, but weighed carefully in consideration alongside those with whom you work, live, worship, and walk the world. When you love like that, you will extend forgiveness. You will advocate for justice. You will act in mercy. You will seek reconciliation. You will require not only tolerance, but respect for others.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said, “We expect a theophany”—the appearance of God—“of which we know nothing but the place, and the place is called community.” Hear what Patricia Barber, a member of Goose Creek Meeting in Lincoln Virginia asks in a recent issue of Quaker Life: “How do we, flawed as we are, live in a time and a place that surely conspires against wholeness, and holiness? How do we go about creating a spiritual community where it’s safe to stumble forward in obedience, to the voice that rises up from our soul’s depths—how do we do that? Where in a culture that glorifies strength and individualism, can we completely disarm ourselves so that we can achieve humility and radical openness necessary to enter into God’s presence? How do we do that?” Every day something changes. Every day we’re hit with stuff in our own lives, yes? Stuff on CNN, yes? Stuff in our own Meeting, yes? How do we do this?
Acts 2:43-47: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by their teachers, the apostles, all who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute them to them all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread from house to house, ate food with glad and sincere hearts, praised God, having the goodwill of all the people.’
The early church was a learning community. They didn’t say, ‘Oh, we’ve got it all figured out now folks, we’re done.’ No, they were a learning community. They ate together, they prayed, they saw miracles, they recognized miracles that happened… signs, little bitty things, and miracles, big billboards! They distributed their funds as needs were made known, they took care of each other, they attended meeting (Temple) regularly, they had meals in private homes, in more intimate settings. They were joyful, they praised God, they didn’t forget to celebrate. And they were well-respected. They enjoyed the favor of those around them. People are, people have, people will, always look for this kind of community. This weird circle where God’s presence is ultimate. Ultimate. Where love and care matter. Where truth, with a capital T, matters. Where humility, a word we don’t hear enough about - not in our own meeting, and certainly not in the world - where humility and radical openness are intentionally practiced. And where the inward Teacher’s voice is welcome. Where that voice sings now. Where it sang a year ago, where it sang sixty years ago, where it will sing 200 years from now, where it sings now and always.
Thomas Kelly wrote this in ‘A Testament of Devotion’ in his essay, The Eternal Now: “A new song is put into our mouths. No old song has ever caught the glory and the gladness of this Now; no former Now can be drawn upon to give perfect voice to this Now. The well-springs of Life are bubbling up anew each moment. When the angel is troubling the waters”—remember that Bible story about how the lame man was laying by the pool and the bubbles were coming up in the pool and he had no one to carry him over there? “When the angel is troubling the waters it is no time to stand on the bank and recite past wonders. But the main point not that a new song is put into our mouths; the point is that a new song is put into our mouths.” Did you get that? The point is not that a NEW SONG is put into our mouths, the point is that a new song IS PUT INTO our mouths—what a gift!
“We sing, yet not we, but the Eternal sings in us. It seems to me, in the experience of plateau living in the Divine Presence, that the Everlasting is the Singer, and not we ourselves, that the joy we know in the Presence is not our little private subjective joy, pocketed away from other men, a private gift from a benevolent and gracious God. It is the joy and peace and serenity which is in the Divine Life itself, and we are given to share in that joy which is eternally within all Nows. The song is put into our mouths, for the Singer of all songs is singing within us. It is not we that sing; it is the Eternal Song of the Other, who sings in us, who sings unto us, and through us into the world.”
Let us be willing to open our mouths and let the Singer sing…
Over my head I hear music in the air.
Over my head I hear music in the air.
Over my head I hear music in the air;
There must be a God somewhere!
And when the world is silent, I hear music in the air…
And when I’m feeling lonely, I hear music in the air…
And when I think on Jesus, I hear music in the air…
There must be a God somewhere!