Sermon: Keeping the Family Together


There was a very strict order of monks, and they had a rule that said speaking is permissible only one day a year, one monk at a time.

One year, a monk stood up at dinner and said quietly, “I don’t like the mashed potatoes here at all. They’re too lumpy.” And then sat down.

A year goes by until it was another monk’s turn to speak for a day. He stood up and said, “I rather like the mashed potatoes; I find them very tasty.”

The third year came along and it was another monk’s turn. He stood and said, “I want to transfer to another monastery. I can’t stand this constant bickering.”

These monks had obviously never been to a Presbytery meeting.

Or a Session meeting for that matter.

You know, it’s amazing what church folks can find to bicker about. Sometimes I think people preoccupy themselves arguing over little things because it seems so much safer than debating and dialoguing about the things that really matter.

When I was a Deacon (at the church where I grew up), I once spent several months on an ad hoc committee designed specifically to determine what kind of communion bread to use (the lady in the church who had baked the communion bread for years had passed away and thrown the worship committee into a crisis mode).

After six months of impassioned debate, the committee finally came up with what it thought was the perfect solution: Gold Fish Crackers!

What is it they say: “Giraffe is a horse designed by committee”?

Sound process pre-empted by a safe consensus.

Of course, that idea went over with the congregation like a led sinker.

But that’s small potatoes.

What if we’d been discussing the vision and values of the church?

Or laying the course for the future of a nation?

Rather than take personal responsibility, all too often it seems we tend to hire out those difficult tasks to the experts. And then we take their documented results and put them on the – both proverbially and literally – on the shelf to gather dust. Because we have no ownership in that product.

How do we come to broad consensus – in this country, as obvious example – when so many diverse people are so deeply divided? How do we preserve and promote unity – whether we’re talking about the church or the country – when the stakes seem so desperately, existentially high?

Those are the very kinds of questions that cause even the experts to wake up in the middle of the night a cold sweat.

 

This past Friday Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of these United States. Over the course of the campaign season, the subsequent election and now the inauguration the people of this country have been imbued with contention, division and growing sense of strife. The American peoples’ ears, eyes and minds seem to be increasingly closed off to those who are viewed as part of the opposition – who disagree with the policies, vision, or values of their own candidate and fellow constituents.           Millions of Americans engaged in hearty celebration.

Millions of more Americans went into crisis mode.

And, I must say, I have found all of this to be somewhat worrisome, to say the least.

I love this country, as I know you do. And I’ve been grieving the past couple of months to see it suffering in such disunity and uncertainty; as perhaps you have.

So – as one who believes in God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ along with those principles and values and vision for the reconciliation of the world which accompany that belief system – I’ve been trying to think and pray more deeply about it all in recent weeks; as I’m sure you have.

And, as I’ve done so, it’s occurred to me that I’ve been around long enough to see our nation go through some pretty trying – even turbulent – times; as I know many of you also have, and perhaps even more so.

I happened to come of age in the sixties, which was a time of great civil unrest and social upheaval. Some tragic things happened during that time period; and some really remarkable things happened as well.

The Viet Nam War, the British Invasion, Woodstock, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy [Martin and Bobby within the span of two months in 1968: King on April 4; Bobby on June 6] – as tumultuous as all of that was, the 1960s has been widely considered one of the most consequential decades in our nation’s history. Virtually every aspect of the American culture was transformed in some significant – even, in some instances radical – ways.

Whether those changes were for good or for ill, I suppose, depends upon which way the tottering nation came down, as well as, perhaps, upon the individual’s perspective. The advent of the Civil Rights Movement has led to greater equality for minorities, women, gays and others; although that work is obviously far from done. On the other hand, one long-term residual of the drug abuse of the sixties is quite likely – at least partially – culpable in the epidemic of opiate addiction of that plagues our youth today.

Certainly, for millions of Americans the sixties was a deeply unsettling time, a frightening time; a time of great despair: rioting in the streets, violent clashes between protestors and police, a pervasive sense of confusion and uncertainty about the present. And yet (although it took some time) out of this – what can only be called a pervasive national crisis – ultimately emerged a resurgence of hope and optimism for the future; largely, I believe, because of the amazing resilience of the American people.

 

On the cusp of that decade, on April 12, 1959, John F. Kennedy, while still a young Senator, gave a prophetic convocation address at the United Negro College Fund in Indianapolis. Kennedy’s timely observation was, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word `crisis’ (wei/jji). One brush stroke for danger; the other for opportunity.” The man who would soon be our nation’s 35th President, counseled the crowd in attendance, “In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”

The truth is that meaningful socio-cultural transformation rarely arises out of complacency. It is inevitably the product of some kind of crisis.

It’s my experience that the same could be said about the church.

Since I’ve been here I have heard varying (and some quite interesting) reports of the two year, or so, interim period when you were without a permanently installed pastor.

Some say it was a time of great despair.

Others, however, tell me it was a time of great fertility.

Complacency morphed into a crucible moment.

The community of faith engaged, out of necessity, in meaningful dialogue with each other. Eyes and ears and minds were opened to new ideas, new thoughts, new possibilities. A sense of clarity emerged concerning what direction you wanted to take and what kind of pastoral leadership you wanted (or perhaps specifically did not want) to guide, encourage and empower you to move forward.

A Kairos moment, is what the ancient Greeks called it. God’s appointed time to act. A `kairos moment’ is a moment in time when the Holy Spirit draws near to do a special work in and through a person or group. The Holy Spirit creates and orchestrates such `kairos moments.’

In his book, The Fourth Dimension, South Korean evangelical pastor David (Paul) Yonggi Cho illustrates what a kairos moment is and how we can cooperate with Jesus when they occur.

For  years, when Pastor Cho preached, he saw in his mind’s eye cancers disappear, tuberculosis cured, cripples throwing away their crutches and heal, and much more. However, nothing ever actually, physically happened. No one left the service restored.

At first Pastor Cho thought that the hindrance to healing was Satan, so he rebuked the devil. Still nothing happened, other than his visions of God-at-work among them intensified.

Following a time of prayer and fasting, during which Cho sought the Lord for answers, the Lord directed his attention to Genesis chapter one which opens with the Spirit of God hovering over the void. God spoke and then things began to happen in the natural realm.

God then also spoke to Pastor Cho’s spirit and said: “You can feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in your church – the pulsating, permeating presence of the Holy Spirit – but unless you speak the word, nothing might happen. Souls may not be saved or broken homes may not be reunited. You must speak the Word in Faith.” (Cho, 1979, p. 81, from the blogspot Kairos Defining Moments, by Philip Noordmans, Oct. 8, 2012, on the “Holy Spirit Empowers website)

 

Merriam-Webster’s defines the word crisis as: “to decide . . . 1. a. the turning point for better or worse . . . c. an emotionally significant event or radical change in status in life . . . 2. the decisive moment . . . 3. a. an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending . . . b. a situation that has reached a critical phase.”

Based on that definition, I believe we can say that we have, indeed, entered a time of national crisis.

But then, it sometimes takes a crisis for people to morph out of complacency; to force people to open their eyes and ears and hearts and minds; to create a fertile compost from which may arise new dialogue, new ideas, new possibilities – perhaps even, eventually, new hope.

On Friday, in his Inauguration address, President Donald Trump declared, “…today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D. C. and giving it back to you, the American people.”

On Saturday we witnessed the American people exercising that power: through peaceful demonstrations and protest marches in cities across this nation; through people, by the millions, standing up and making their voice heard.

If you don’t like mash potatoes you are being served, you have to stand up and say something. And if you happen to like those potatoes, you have to let that be known as well.

The problem wasn’t with the first two monks. It was the third monk who blew it. He missed the Kairos moment. Instead of simply complaining and threatening to bail out of the situation; he should have stood up and said, “Brothers, let us not be divided over this current state of potatoes. I believe that we can find a way peacefully together to preserve the tastiness while removing the lumps.”

I believe that we have grown, as a nation, since the 1960s. I believe that we can find our way through this challenging time together, peacefully and productively, by remembering and reclaiming the vision and values that this great nation was founded upon 241 years ago.

 

Proclaimed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality . . . I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

From a Birmingham Jail cell, Dr. King gave us the following charge: “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century . . . Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partner in the struggle for freedom . . . They have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.” (from The Christian Century, June 12,  1963)

 

Politically, socially and culturally we are now confronted with a national crucible; a time which, I believe, will ultimately compel the American people to make some challenging choices and decisions about the future of this great nation. It is a time for us, as a people, to take ownership of our own collective destiny.

For the church, this is a Kairos moment: a time to stand up and speak a Good Word, in the streets, from the pulpit, at our workplaces, on our Facebook pages: a word of hope into the void of despair; a word of justice into the abyss of discrimination; a word of love into the chaos of hatred; a word of healing to a wounded and hurting nation.

President Trump closed his Inaugural address by saying, “So, to all Americans in every city, near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, and from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again.”

To that I say, “Amen, Mr. President.”

But be careful what you wish for. For the eyes and ears of the American people have now been opened. And they will be watching. And they will be listening. And, indeed, they will not be ignored. And, in truth, they do have the power. Amen.