In my Week in the Word feature, I like to highlight progressive voices of faith here in the south-land. Following the annual gathering of the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, the community of churches which I call my spiritual home, I heard this thought-provoking sermon by Pastor Dana Cassell, who serves both in a local Church of the Brethren in Durham, NC, and also who does work within its wider denominational life.
She speaks a voice born and formed in the Blue Ridge of Virginia, yet also a life long active servant of others in the peace church tradition of the Brethren. Deeply rooted in the long tradition of her community of churches, which traces back to the radical reformation in Europe, she is also an outspoken progressive voice in that tradition, constantly calling her people to ask how they can re-shape their understanding and their expressions of faith to better serve, love, and work as healers in this changing, hurting world.
Pastor Cassell spoke at Peace Covenant’s 20th anniversary about the struggles of Paul’s churches, the choices her own church in Durham is facing, and also the struggles her denomination was facing as it approached its annual conference. As I listened, I was struck by what amazing parallels these struggles have with ones that I heard other young clergy at our annual Southern Conference gathering voice: how the church is at a turning point, in which we must struggle how to make our faith our own for a new generation, yet how so much of the externals of our institutional life together are becoming barriers to expressing the fullness of who our communities truly are in Christ. My feeling is this is a struggle going on not just among Congregationalists like myself or Anabaptists like Pastor Cassell, but across the Christian world among all communities and perhaps even in all faith communities of every tradition.
I hope her words also resonate with that tension in your own lives and communities, and opens up a conversation about how we can re-think the way we do church in ways to make them more relevant for our communities in this changing world.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
not the container
Peace Covenant Homecoming!
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
We are still lingering here in the book of Galatians, with our dear friend, the fiery and tactless Apostle Paul. Paul is one intense dude. He says some seriously offensive things – offensive both to our modern ears and to those of his first hearers.
The Galatians were no exception. Last week, we talked about how the Galatians were totally steeped in their identity as Jewish people – God’s chosen ones who belonged because they kept the law. And we talked about how offensive it would have been to hear Paul preaching such a destabilizing message as he does: that following the law alone is no longer sufficient for living an unblemished life of faith. Paul is just pummeling the worldview of these Galatian Jesus-followers, and he is not holding back.
Paul himself knows what it is to live by the law. He was, by his own admission, a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. He knew what it was to defend the law with a zealous passion, even to the point of violence toward another. Paul knew, intimately, what it felt like to be caught in the midst of great, systemic and cultural transition. He knew what it felt like to see your entire world and sense of identity crumbling around you. Raised on the ancient scriptures and rituals and practices of Judaism, Paul had been their fiercest defender until he encountered God on the road to Damascus, was struck blind and turned right around into the newness of life with Christ.
Which is why, even though Paul remains totally objectionable, tactless, offensive, chauvinistic and ill-equipped to broker compromise among the early Christians (or, for that matter, us here today), it’s also possible to hear in his strident message a word of unfathomable grace – made all the more unfathomable because he is who he is and has come from where he has come.
Paul, the former persecutor of any and all Jesus-followers, is now not only traveling the known world planting churches of Jesus Christ, fundraising and encouraging, circuit-riding and preaching the gospel, but also, at the very same time, committed to widening the welcome of this new body and ensuring that the essence of the gospel be carried on in new and surprising ways.
Paul is as objectionable a saint as there ever could be, but he is zealous in his insistence that anyone called by the Spirit to join this new fellowship of believers is to be admitted without any further test, requirement, background check or hoop jumping. The work of the Spirit, according to Paul, is more powerful than any work of law. He is utterly committed to the spreading of the gospel, the furthering of the message of resurrection, the continued growth and care of this world-shaking truth: that God loves us, calls us, and gathers us together into a life more abundant than any of us can ask or imagine. Listen to what Paul is preaching – and remember who Paul is, where he has come from, all that he’s witnessed and mourned and lost:
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.
Did you catch that last line, there? IF YOU ARE LED BY THE SPIRIT, YOU ARE NOT SUBJECT TO THE LAW. Um, what was that, Paul-the-law-loving-people-persecuting-Pharisee?!
Last week, we talked about how crazy Paul would have sounded to the Galatians, people born, raised, formed and steeped in the knowledge that belonging to God meant living up to the law. We recognized how scary this message would have been for them, how it might have felt like their entire world was crumbling beneath their feet when Paul struck that blow to the law as the Way the World Worked.
But here’s another really interesting thing about the people in the church at Galatia. Paul’s preaching comes a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Scholars aren’t sure of the exact date of this letter, but we know when Paul lived and worked. This letter could have been written anywhere between the late ‘40s to the late ‘50s of the Common Era.
That means that these Galatians, hearing Paul’s crazy word, would have been just edging into the second generation of Jesus-followers. The first disciples and church-plants would have been maturing into communities whose survival had been won and existence had come to a place of firm rootedness. But now, having secured their place in the world, communities like the one in Galatia needed to address some of the stickier questions of what it was going to mean, for the long-term, to be sustainable communities of faithful followers of Jesus.
“Okay,” I imagine them saying to one another, “we made it. We’re here to stay. Now, what does that mean for these new people coming in without understanding all our history? Should we make them take a history course? Should we sit them down and tell them how hard it was for us? Should we require them to do some sort of hazing ritual? Do they have to get circumcised before they can really be a part of us?”
“Oh, and what about all the rest of the things? Do we need to build ourselves a new temple? Do we still keep all the dietary laws? How important are all those old commandments now that we have this new sense of being led by the Spirit into this new, abundant life? If anyone can join us, do we need rabbis or priests anymore? What about all those sacrifices we were making to please God? Can we do away with killing our livestock now that we understand God to be pleased with us?”
“And how about a new building? Should we start a fundraising campaign so we can have a respectable place to meet so that everyone knows that we are a religious group? Maybe we could put an ad out in the paper for a good rabbi who’s looking for something new and creative. Maybe our Torah teaching sessions could use a new curriculum update to include all this new learning from Jesus. Our infrastructure is really going to need some beefing up, here.”
Can you hear that conversation? Things have changed, drastically, and these were people formed and shaped by a religious system that had rituals, rules and practices to govern every part of their life together. If things were changing so much, can’t you imagine that some of their first thoughts would be how they could edit, adjust and restructure the institutional and legal boundaries of the tradition?
I can hear it, because I hear it all the time in the church of today.
Interestingly, Peace Covenant is also in the position of edging into second generation questions. Twenty years is quite the landmark! Generally, I think, a Homecoming Celebration is a pretty nostalgic time – a time to remember and honor those faithful people committed to the founding and care of an institutional, congregational structure. And man – am I ever grateful to those of you here and those of us elsewhere who caught the vision for a congregation of Brethren here in this place and poured your hearts, souls, time, money and effort into making it a reality. I am one among hundreds of people who have encountered deep and lasting blessing in this fellowship. We’ll have some time, over lunch, to tell some of those stories about how Peace Covenant came to be and what it’s been like over these last couple of decades.
But actually, on this Homecoming Sunday, I am far more interested in the kind of thing that Paul was talking with those Galatians about. I am far more interested in how we will encounter and engage the second-generation questions of what it is to be in community together. I can feel, here, in addition to deep commitment to the fellowship, a stirring among us, a curiosity about where the Spirit will lead us next. It’s here – we are here, God is here, and there is a deep calling here for Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren. I can feel it. Can you?
What I think we will have to bear in mind – along with all our sisters and brothers in the Church of the Brethren and the wider Church universal – is this message from Paul: just because you learned it that way, just because everyone expects it to look this way, just because there are rules and laws and unspoken requirements pressuring us to conform to this old way DOES NOT MEAN that the Spirit is calling us to maintain the old structures, the old laws, the old institutions, the old boundaries. In fact, Paul says,
If you are led by the Spirit, then you are no longer subject to the law.
What a scary place to be. And what a thrilling one, too.
I was listening, the other day to a podcast with a Jewish rabbi – Rabbi Sharon Brous – who is the leader of a new kind of Jewish community out in California. She grew up Jewish, went to Israel to understand her roots, came home convinced that she was called into the rabbinical work of leading a congregation, but could not find a synagogue that made sense to her. She could not find a spiritual home or community that understood the deep roots of Jewish belief and practice and at the same time applied all that force of spiritual tradition to the very real and pressing questions of modern life. She found synagogues that did one and synagogues that did the other, but had a very hard time finding a community engaged in both the deep rituals of tradition AND an alert awareness of the modern world.
So, she decided – with the help of lots of other Jewish people who felt caught in the same bind – to begin a new Jewish community. The growing fellowship doesn’t call itself a synagogue – not, she says, because it is NOT a synagogue, but because the people she connected with had such lukewarm associations with the word and the concept. Instead, their community is called “Ikar.” That word – ikar – is a Hebrew word that means “essence.” In fact, when Rabbi Sharon and her community sat down to talk about what, exactly, they wanted this new fellowship to be about, they made a list of words: essence, root, heart, foundation, core. And when they translated their list into Hebrew – a language that has far fewer words than English – every single one translated into this: ikar.
Here’s what Rabbi Brous says about why she and her community are doing this new thing. She talks about what most people call the modern rejection of religion and says that when she talks to people, she learns that:
They are not rejecting ritual – they love ritual. Not rejecting community – they desperately seek out community. Not rejecting the ideas of gratitude and humility and mindfulness…They love the idea of discipline around eating. They resonate with all of these things. What they reject is the twentieth-century iteration of religious institutional life that feels dead to them. They don’t like the container. They love the essence when they’re introduced to it…It’s not the container that’s holy. It’s the essence, the fire inside that’s holy.
This is also, I think, what Paul was preaching to those Galatians, and what he is preaching to us, here at Peace Covenant. It’s not the container that’s holy. It’s the essence, the fire inside, that’s holy. And Paul gives us some really particular ways of discerning what that holy essence is made up of.
If we are to live our lives dedicated to Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, then our lives and our life together will embody the essence of Jesus’ life death and resurrection, the ikar of it all:
If we live by the Spirit, Paul says, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Not bound by the law, forced to a lifetime of replicating old containers in the hope that something new will happen, but open to the surprising, troubling, terrifying newness of God’s Holy Spirit pulling us ever into something both new and utterly familiar, creative and also ikar.
I don’t know what that looks like here at Peace Covenant, but I am heartened by the openness, the curiosity, the dedication and the creativity that live here. I am incredibly excited to be moving into this community’s second-generation, third-decade life together, led by the Spirit and guided by the essence of this life together in Christ.