A Living Prayer (July 21, 2013)

A sermon preached by
George V. (Tripp) Hudgins
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, July 21, 2013

Texts:  Genesis 18:1-10; Luke 10:38-42

And here we are again. Gathered. Us. Together.

Have you ever wondered about this habit we have of gathering together to sing, to pray, to listen to old stories, and to share what is happening in our lives? Have you ever wondered why we spend our financial resources in this manner? Have you ever wondered why we do it?

I have. I wonder about these particular spiritual habits all the time.

Several months ago in our Adult Spiritual Formation class someone asked what the great theological debate of our present time in history in the Church might be.
Is it over human sexuality?
The environment?
Global poverty?
What is The Great Concern?
What is the present debate about Christian Belief?
Well, might I humbly offer this possible response to that great question: It’s not about what we believe at all. The great theological debate of our present time is more fundamental than that. It is about what we do.

The Great Question is this: Why do we gather together?

Those of you who have been in the Adult Spiritual Formation class know a lot about this already. We’ve been talking about it for more than a year. We’ve been addressing issues of culture and change and generational relationships with every cultural institution, not just Christian congregations. We’ve spoken about the “spiritual but not religious” (those who claim no single religious identity) and the ongoing critique of the Church from those who consider themselves to be outside of the institutional structures but still a part of the Body of Christ.

Wait. Did you catch that? There are a bunch of people who understand themselves to be Christian. They work for justice and peace. They give generously of their time and money. They are devoted to Biblical study. They are liberal and conservative and everything in between. Yet, these same people do not “go to church.” They claim “We are The Church. We don’t go to Church.”

This challenge comes from every generation within the church. It’s not about being young. It’s not about community or family. One of my favorite theologians (and Executive Minister of Chicago), Larry Greenfield and I would tangle over this issue all the time. So the critique is not limited to a small group of disenchanted young people. Not at all.
“We are The Church. We don’t go to Church,” they say.
“Stop putting the cart before the horse,” they say.
“Stop spending money on rock-n-roll liturgies when people are starving in our own neighborhoods.”

The Church is not a destination or a social club. It is a People. We aren’t members of institutions, but are instead members of a Body. We are part of one another. Tear down all the buildings tomorrow and the Church still stands. So, explain to us why we gather. Why do we worship?

It’s a powerful critique of the institutions and our communal practices that many of us, myself included, treasure.

And, to be candid, it’s a question that causes me to doubt everything I’m doing right now. It sends my head spinning and I end up with more questions than answers.

In our story about Mary and Martha we’re presented with a familiar dichotomy. Devotion or “work.” Are we to be Mary or Martha? Every time I read this passage or hear a sermon about how we need to be more like Mary and less like Martha I become more and more convinced that the passage has little to do with the two of them. I mean, sure, yeah. That works. I get it. But really? Is this all?

We are distracted by many things. We are even distracted by Mary’s devotion. Look at her! She’s doing it right! Be like her! I’m so distracted by Mary!

What? Wait…what is this passage all about? Who is actually the central character in this story?

Well, it’s not Mary. It’s not Martha, either. It’s Jesus. Jesus. This passage is about Jesus. Luke wants us to know something about the nature of Jesus.

That a woman welcomed Jesus into her home when he was visiting her village.
(Luke loved to point out the scandalous nature of Jesus’ ministry.)
That Jesus taught women when the tradition of his day would have prohibited it.
(Jesus pushes those conventions around, you know.)
That Jesus is worthy of devotion and emulation.
(Brian Savage, a friend in Chicago reminded me this week that it’s dangerous to be in the presence of Jesus. Devotion is not safe.)

Now what do we do?

So, Abraham and Sarah are old. They’ve been wandering the deserts and cities of their time for quite a while. One day they receive visitors. Abraham starts ordering everyone around. Sarah makes herself scarce but useful. They are hospitable. They are generous to their guests. And then there’s this promise, this old forgotten promise of God that Sarah and Abraham will be the parents of multitudes. The visitors, the messengers of God offer this word, a reminder of God’s promise. We know how the story goes. Sarah laughs. Of course she does. It’s absurd.

Old. Out-dated. Barren. What good is Sarah? What good is Abraham? They have seen their time. They are people of the past and not of the future.

Not so, says God. Not in the least.

It’s similar to what I hear about the Church. Old. Outdated. Barren. It has seen its day. Let it go.

Not so, says God. I’m not done with you yet. I still have grace to give. I still have life to offer. I’m by no means done with you. Make room. There are children coming. There are little ones. There are sons and daughters too numerous to count. Stop counting. Stop sighing. Stop all the striving! Listen for the promise!

Listen to the messengers.

So much of this conversation about the present and the future of the Church neglects the promises that God has made God’s people again and again throughout human history.

There’s a kind of striving going on here, an attempt to purify the Church’s practices in some way. We think there’s a right way and a wrong way to be Church. And there is, be assured, but this conversation about the pure form, the ideal form of worship, does us no favors. We have all kinds of metrics for this, too…theological metrics as well as things like counting church attendance or the kind of music we play. We distract ourselves with many, many things. We strive. We sigh. We laugh.

We have this habit of trying to articulate the ideal liturgy rather than understanding the liturgy we actually take part in every Sunday. We keep striving for some perfect ideal when the truth is that no such ideal exists. What we have is, well, us. We have who we are.

We are all the characters from scripture this morning. We are Mary, Martha, Abraham, the unnamed servants, and Sarah. We all serve God and we are God’s messengers. That’s who we are. This collection of people is a description of what it means to be human. This is who we are.

We are a mess and we are the Body of Christ. We are a living prayer.

Imperfect, though we may be.

So, why do we gather together? That’s up for us to find out together. That’s up to us to continue to work out with one another over cups of coffee in one another’s kitchens.

But here’s what I think…

We gather because Christ is present. We gather because God is real. We gather as an act of devotion. Christ stirs our hearts every day and it is on this day that we gather and share the stirrings of our hearts. This is the Lord’s Day.

Our gatherings are symbols of God’s beauty. Our worship services are symbols of the divine encounter. They are opportunities to share our stories of encountering God every day. They are icons of Divine Love. Worship is a proclamation.

Worship is an art form.

Liturgy doesn’t produce anything. Asking what liturgy or worship contributes is like asking what the Mona Lisa contributes or what Beethoven’s Ninth contributes. They don’t contribute. They don’t feed the hungry. They don’t set the captives free. They don’t right great wrongs. No. Of course not. And we don’t expect them to.

And yet, they are profound…earth shattering. Dare we say revelatory? I hope so. Beauty matters.

Just before I moved out here to begin school at Berkeley, I had a conversation with the Episcopal Bishop of Chicago. We were both in attendance at a wedding of a friend. Bishop Lee was presiding and I was preaching. We struck up a conversation at the reception about liturgy and music and why any of it matters. He said, “I want liturgy to be so heartbreakingly beautiful that the only response is to go into the world and feed the poor, release the captives, and to end oppression.”

It’s not a bad idea.

To be made a living prayer takes so many forms. To be a living prayer is to do many, many things. We’ll be plenty busy. We’ll give who we are and what we have away at every turn. We’ll offer our lives. We’ll work to end oppression and injustice. We’ll give our time and financial resources away. We’ll make ourselves vulnerable in many ways.

And we’ll gather.
Some days we’ll be bored.
Other days we’ll be on the edge of our seats with excitement.

We’ll sit in adoration.
We’ll distract ourselves with many things.
We’ll order other people around.
We’ll laugh at the promises of God.

And we’ll do all of these things in the presence of Christ. We’ll gather. It’ll be messy.

We gather because of whose we are. We are Christ’s. We are all, no matter what our frame of mind, in the presence of Christ at all times. Our gatherings on Sunday are a service to one another and the world, a reminder, a symbol, a gesture.

We gather to make something beautiful, good, and true.


“edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange”

a new thingThe church and the gospel are not the same thing. I doubt they ever were, though there may have been times when they were more closely aligned than today. With acknowledgement of its ancient roots, the church that most of us have known and loved in this country was the product of the post‐war “boom” of the 1950s and 60s. I am a relatively early boomer (1947) so my experience of church life was thoroughly steeped in that tradition. The church was often the center of the community, a place where traditional, nuclear family life was idealized, where you went to make significant business contacts and your name known in the neighborhood. Denominations strategized church planting throughout suburbia, “silk‐stocking” downtown churches thrived.

The church my father served from 1945 to 1950 was in a small Kansas railroad town of 14,000 people. First Baptist, Newton, had a thousand members when he left to start one of the American Baptist “Churches for New Frontiers.” The denomination had purchased a large, well‐situated plot of land on which to build. He started out preaching to 13 people in the Borel’s living room, using the top of the TV as his pulpit. When he left that congregation in 1953, it had grown significantly and had built a parsonage on the site that was used as the church building for worship and Sunday School. He lived (1964) long enough to see Prairie Baptist Church, in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas, grow to several hundred members and become the largest American Baptist mission giving church in Kansas.

My point is not to brag, though I hold my father and his ministry in high esteem. The point is to give you a taste of the times, not that many of you don’t have your own stories to tell from that glorious period in the life of the church. None of this is new to you. You’ve heard it all before. Now the church of the 50s and 60s is in rapid decline and I would guess will largely disappear in the next 50 years. Some church people are caught up in mourning what is passing, some are dedicated to moving back to the future, some are in despair of what can be done to save the church. One problem is that all of these folk have taken the burden on themselves. Either they are stuck in grief and guilt, they are busily replicating the methods of 50 years ago, or they are writing blogs, columns (like this one!) or books recounting the downward spiral, the reasons for it and myriad untested ideas about what the church should be and do next.

Our congregation has a mixture of all these, but for now we have voted to work toward renewal. Dan Cudworth has raised a question as to whether or not “renewal” is the right word to describe what some of us are looking toward. Renewal implies a resuscitation of that which is dead or dying. Should we let it go? Should we instead look for God’s new thing, for an outcome that we have yet to image, for transformation in service of the Gospel? You see the church as we know it may be disappearing but there is no reason that God’s good news should disappear with it. The Jesus movement has weathered the coming and going of any number of institutional forms that have attempted to encapsulate it. Still the gospel lives. The promised reign of God still looms on the horizon and trickles down into contemporary culture all the time.

I met today with Eric Swanson, pastor of Westhope Presbyterian Church and director of The Contemplative Center of Silicon Valley. Eric is working to turn around a congregation that was pretty much on its last leg. He has challenged
that community to turn from more traditional church life to a congregational life that is centered in the Spirit. They are not growing by leaps and bounds –not in numbers, that is – but they are clearly growing in the Spirit. One thing they do very deliberately is to ground everything they do in prayer and contemplation. They look to discern rather than dictate God’s will and way for them. Is that something we might explore as means of transformation rather than renewal?

There’s been whole lot of discussion in recent times about the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) and how they have either turned their backs on the church or else have never darkened its doors. Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist
Church in Washington, DC, in her latest blog, writes an open letter to the SBNR. She says to them, somewhat tongue‐in‐cheek, “I want to tell you that despite our collective panic attacks here on the Spiritual And Also Religious side of things, I am increasingly finding myself less and less interested in trying to find just the right song and dance to make you wake up one day and want to be part of a faith community.

It’s not you. It’s me. I just think that finding a way to be popular again may not be the most pressing work of the church these days.” I think she’s on to something. I think there was a time when we were popular and some of us long to be popular again. I think that’s more the name of the game than we’re willing to admit. We want to be popular, well‐liked, influential, just like Jesus was(n’t). Oops! Have we been on the wrong road, barking up the wrong tree, looking for love in all the wrong places? Maybe so. Amy continues writing to the SNBR, “I hear you when you say the church is irrelevant.
I get that you don’t care what we’re doing to catch your attention. If we’re smart, we’ll listen to what you’re saying to us and believe that you mean what you say. And then we’ll stop trying to package the institution to make it palatable and just get busy leading the church to faithfully do its work in the world.” If we’re smart we’ll listen, we’ll pay attention – not only to the witness of the SNBR but also to the witness of the Spirit.

What is the Spirit whispering to us? Where is God leading us? What does Jesus have to offer us today? The Gospel is not the church but the Gospel can and must surely shape any meaningful future we have. Amy concludes with an image of the body of Christ that may not be comfortable but is surely challenging. “I suggest to my angst‐ridden colleagues [SAAR] that your [SNBR] blatant rejection of the church, rather than a challenge to us to scramble for new ideas and back peddle when churches screw up, is actually a glimpse of what the church of the future will be: less attractive, more alternative, kind of edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange.”

Less attractive, more alternative, kind of edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange! Can you hear God calling us to such a reality? Can you feel the Spirit moving us in that direction? Does it seem like that’s exactly the way Jesus
walked? Uncomfortable, challenging, and still, good news, the Gospel that draws all creation into holy communion with God, leads us in the Jesus Way and empowers us with the Spirit. May we learn to pray, to discern and then say, “yes.”

Pastor Rick