Sunday, November 20, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "A Lonely Minister"

Luke 6:46-49

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?

47 I’ll show what it’s like when someone comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice. 

48 It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. When the flood came, the rising water smashed against that house, but the water couldn’t shake the house because it was well built.

49 But those who don’t put into practice what they hear are like a person who built a house without a foundation. The floodwater smashed against it and it collapsed instantly. It was completely destroyed.” (Common English Bible)

“The Wounded Healer: Finding Strength in Our Scars,” Week Five

In the small(ish) world of mainline Christian pastors with social media presences, Derrick Weston is the friend of a friend whose blog I stumbled across some time ago for the first time some months ago, when I was linked to an emotionally honest post of his as he reflected on his time at his first pastorate, a solo pastor job much like mine, and how he loved the church and its people dearly but struggled to make the sort of impact that he had felt called by God to make there. He wrote in part:

Every effort I made to think through ways of inviting new youth into the church or to develop programming for young people was met with either indifference or outright hostility. To make it worse, the loyal young people we did have in the church were treated very poorly. They were critiqued for what they wore to church. Their behavior when they stayed in worship was analyzed. They were looked down upon when they didn’t stay in worship. It was frustrating. How were we supposed to bring in new young people when we treated the young people we did have like they were a nuisance? And these were good kids! Really good kids! It pisses me off to think about some of the things that were said to and about them…

Easter of that year, I had a panic attack. It took a while for me to realize that that is what it was. I couldn’t breathe. My chest tightened. I lost my balance. This was before worship began and continued into the start of the service. I was carrying the pressure that this might be this church’s last Easter service on me and it was devastating.

Think about that for a minute—the inability to change the culture of the church in ways that both he and they knew desperately needed changing was such a heavy burden upon him that it caused a panic attack. On Easter, the day most associated with resurrection and rebirth in the entire calendar.

That is the sort of loneliness ministry can inflict, and sometimes be about. And it is the sort of loneliness that can move us to construct a house built without a foundation like here in Luke 6.

This is the final week of a sermon series that, believe it or not, has taken us right now just up to church season of Advent, which is the time we prepare for Christmas and begins next Sunday, the 27th. Before we arrive at the land of egg nog and gingerbread, though, we have one more series to undertake together, and it is based on a formative book which I first read in its entirety when I arrived here and a colleague and friend of this congregation, Marvin Eckfeldt, gave to me: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian who passed away about twenty years ago, but not before leaving behind him a rich vein of theological and pastoral literature. Though relatively brief as far as theological treatises go, The Wounded Healer is arguably Nouwen’s magnum opus: accessible, lucid, poignant, and passionate in its fundamental premise that only by understanding our own wounds and scars can we as Christians and as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ then, in turn, heal others of their own wounds and scars.

The Wounded Healer is a four-chapter book with a prologue, and we had five weeks in all, so we spent week on each section, and we finally arrive at the final chapter, which Nouwen entitled, “Ministry By A Lonely Minister,” and writes in part in it:

Ministers are called to speak to the ultimate concerns of life: birth and death, union and separation, love and hate. They have an urgent desire to give meaning to people’s lives. But they find themselves standing on the edges of events and only reluctantly admitted to the spot where the decisions are made…

In the cities, where children play between buildings and old people die isolated and forgotten, the protests of priests are hardly taken seriously and their demands hang in the air like rhetorical questions. Many churches decorated with words announcing salvation and new life are often little more than parlors who feel quite comfortable in the old life, and who are not likely to let the minister’s words change their stone hearts into furnaces where swords can be cast into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.

The painful irony is that ministers, who want to touch the center of people’s lives, find themselves on the periphery, often pleading in vain for admission…Our failure to change the world with our good intentions and sincere actions and our undesired displacement to the edges of life have made us aware that the wound is still there.

I promise this isn’t a “woe is me” message from either Nouwen or myself. What he—and I—are both lamenting is something far bigger than any one of us: it’s the willingness of people to set their lives about without that solid bedrock which Jesus speaks of in the Sermon on the Plain here in Luke 6.

Jesus is speaking the exact same lament that we are: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,” and don’t do what I say?” It’s probably the same lament you had or have as parents with your kids on occasion: “Why do you call me Mom/Dad and don’t do what I say?”

And it is the exact same sort of lament with the church. We pastors who shepherd the church hear ourselves being called “Pastor, Pastor,” but we really do lament why more of what we bend over backwards and turn ourselves inside out in order to teach doesn’t quite seem to land in the fertile soil rather than on the gravel and the stones where no seeds will easily grow.

A significant amount of what we teach falls into that category, but one teaching in particular stands out—to me and, I think, in light of the arc of his book, to Nouwen as well: the church is still not a welcoming place yet. Not for LGBTQ seekers, not for people of other faith traditions, and not for young people. That, in a nutshell, is what causes the sort of emotional and spiritual pain that leads a pastor like Derrick Weston to a panic attack on Easter Sunday.

For the lack of welcome in the church can be directly tied to its decline: millennials are abandoning organized religion in record numbers and believe me, it isn’t just because we would rather worship at the church of brunch (although that is certainly a part of it). And it isn’t just because Sunday is now a day to do all sorts of things as opposed to a day when everything shut down for the day (although that is certainly a part of it as well).

It is because with all of those other options in mind, why would we come to a place for a couple hours on a rare day off to be treated with skepticism, suspicion, or condescension? Why would any rational person subject themselves to that sort of subtle hostility when they could be doing any number of other things that they legitimately enjoy?

In other words—we here in the church are the ones who are getting in the way of the Gospel being heard by even more people, and it is because we are acting as Jesus’s audience did, calling Him Lord but not doing all which He says to do in terms of providing a radically open welcome to all persons, not just the ones who dress like us, or fit into our generation, or quite simply look like us.

The Gospel is not simply for the people who look like us. It is for the people who do not.

Jesus, after all, was an Aramaic-speaking Israelite—not an English-speaking American. He never lived past the age of 33 or so. And He was homeless.

All of those factors, do you really think if you saw them in someone that it would make you more inclined to welcome them into the church, or less likely? Be honest.

That, in a nutshell, is how we have lost the bedrock that Jesus speaks of here in Luke 6. It is what we pastors have known for years, and have been pleading with our churches to understand and embrace the reality of, but like Derrick, many of us have ended up seeing our pleas fall on plugged-up ears.

Yet Christ also says, let the one who has ears hear.

So hear the words of those who minister to you in your life—not just me, but your family and friends and especially the youth in your life. Do not allow us to minister to you in loneliness. Allow us to minister to you in vitality, spirit, truth, and power, in a symbiotic relationship in which each of us is made better for the other being in their life. Allow us to provide you with that firm foundation, that solid bedrock of love and mercy, upon which life eternal through Jesus Christ is predicated.

For it is in such conditions that the Spirit is known to thrive in us. And forever may it thrive in our churches, in our lives, and in the kingdom.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 20, 2016