ORDER OF WORSHIP
- Greeting & Announcements – Rev. Val
- Call to Worship, and Opening Prayer – Rev. Val & Congregation
- Holy Troublemakers
- Gloria Patri (UMH 70)
- Pastoral Prayer – Rev. Val
- Scripture Readings – 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 (CEB), Galatians 6:7-8 (CJB), Luke 4:16-19 (CEB), John 8:25-32 (CEB) – Rev. Val
- Message: Back to the Future – Rev. Val
- Offertory Prayer – Rev. Val
- Doxology (UMH 95)
- Benediction – Rev. Val
WELCOME, CALL TO WORSHIP, & OPENING PRAYER
No lengthy announcements today. Remember that the new Bible Study starts this Wednesday at 7 on Zoom and the handouts with the questions and pre-meeting activities are on the website. Also, there are no hymns today other than the Gloria Patri and Doxology. I don’t think my voice can take it yet. I apologize for the lack of bulletins. This printer is not working this morning.
Call to Worship
Come, Lord Jesus, Speak to Us, Rev Sherrie Boyens Johnson, Africana Worship Book for Year A
L: Come, Lord Jesus, speak to us in parables and rhyme.
P: For you are an intergenerational Savior.
L: Come, Lord Jesus, let us again hear some old-time religion.
P: For you are the Savior of all the ages.
L: Come, Lord Jesus, speak quietly to us.
P: For your Spirit speaks through the wind.
L: Come, Lord Jesus, speak loudly to us.
P: For your Spirit speaks through the thunder.
L: Savior of all age groups, languages and cultures, we await your voice.
All: We long to meet you in this hour of worship,
we hear your call. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Kind Creator, we thank you that your steadfast love never ceases and that your mercies are new every morning. Today, we ask for a fresh outpouring of your mercy, and may we begin to understand the depths of your love. May we remember that you have lavished your great love on us, so that we should be called the Children of God. As we walk through these turbulent times, let us walk as your children. Let us walk by faith in you and not by sight. As we walk through the depths of this valley, may we see you in the heights of your glory.
In Jesus’ name …
Holy Troublemaker – Rev. Charles Monroe Sheldon
Congregationalist Pastor, Author, Editor, Lecturer
Information from Wikipedia articles on Charles Monroe Sheldon https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Sheldon & In His Steps https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_His_Steps
Before we learn about Rev. Sheldon, those of you who know me well maybe scratching your heads over my choice of Holy Troublemakers this week as I am not a proponent of the WWJD thing. Let me point out a couple things: 1) I didn’t know the story behind it. 2) Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? And 3) As I will hopefully make clear in today’s message, my reasons for not being a proponent are not unfounded, but I now have hope WWJD might be redeemed to its original purpose. Now … about Rev. Sheldon …
Charles Monroe Sheldon (February 26, 1857 – February 24, 1946) was an American Congregationalist minister and leader of the Social Gospel movement. Born in Wellsville, New York, he was a graduate of Phillips Academy, Andover and Brown University. from 1886 to 1888 he was pastor of a church at Waterbury, Vermont, , and became pastor of the Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas, in 1889.
In 1896, for his Sunday night services, Sheldon thought he would write a story which would continue one chapter a week about various persons who applied “What would Jesus do?” to their lives. The unifying theme of these sermons was based on posing the question, “what would Jesus do?” when facing moral decisions. He viewed this question as traditional within Christianity and likely drew some inspiration from William T. Stead’s If Christ came to Chicago! (1893) and other earlier sources. Sheldon was soon preaching to a packed crowd. When the story was over, it was published in the Advance, one chapter per week, and finally the Advance printed a ten-cent paperback edition which sold 100,000 copies in a few weeks.
The theme of the sermons was later fictionalized into the novel In His Steps. The central ethos of the novel was not about personal redemption, but about moral choices related to encountering circumstances of poverty and deprivation. His novel introduced the principle of “what would Jesus do?” which articulated an approach to Christian theology that became popular at the turn of the 20th century and had a revival almost one hundred years later.
Sheldon became an advocate of the late nineteenth century school of thought known as Christian Socialism. His theological outlook focused on the practicalities of the moral life, with much less emphasis on the doctrinal traditions of personal redemption from sin in Christ.
Sheldon’s theological motif reflected his socialist outlook. Sheldon’s own parish work became identified with the Social Gospel. Of the social issues Sheldon espoused during his lifetime, the two he was most passionate about were equality and prohibition. He believed that all persons were equal and should be treated as such. He was a pioneer among Protestant ministers in welcoming blacks into a mainstream church. He was also committed to fair treatment for Jews and Catholics, and proclaimed the equality of men and women. A strong supporter of the feminist struggle for equal rights, he urged women to enter politics. He also pushed for full equality in the workplace.
In March 1900 he became editor for a week of the Topeka Daily Capital applying the “what would Jesus do?” concept. In that short time, the newspaper’s circulation exploded from just under 12,000 to 387,000, overwhelming the paper’s Topeka printing plant and causing them to have 120,000 copies each printed in Chicago, Illinois and New York City.
Sheldon’s book, In His Steps, is a best-selling religious fiction novel. First published in 1896, the book has sold more than 50 million copies, and ranks as one of the best-selling books of all time. The book received new attention in the 1990s through the popular WWJD marketing campaign among young people.
God who knows us in our struggles, our doubts, our disbelief, our disagreement, our desperation and loves us still …
Thank you for the blessings we’ve been too distracted to notice.
Thank you for forgiving us when we let all the noise of this world pull us away and lead us astray.
Thank you for calling us back when our worlds are crashing around us and we’re ready to throw in the towel and give up completely.
Thank you for giving us each other to lean on when we forget we’re supposed to be leaning on you.
(Prayers of the People)
Dearest Lord, whatever else You see that we need—whatever is for the good of our neighbor and redounds to Your glory—we pray that You would grant to us, Your children. We ask it Jesus’ name who taught us to pray:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.
Gracious God, as we turn to your Word for us, may the Spirit of God rest upon us. Help us to be steadfast in our hearing, in our speaking, in our believing, in our living, and in our loving.
1 Corinthians 12:12-26 (CEB) – Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell?
But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? But as it is, there are many parts but one body. So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary. The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most. The private parts of our body that aren’t presentable are the ones that are given the most dignity. The parts of our body that are presentable don’t need this. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it.
Galatians 6:7-8 (CJB) – Don’t delude yourselves: no one makes a fool of God! A person reaps what he sows. Those who keep sowing in the field of their old nature, in order to meet its demands, will eventually reap ruin; but those who keep sowing in the field of the Spirit will reap from the Spirit everlasting life.
Luke 4:16-19 (CEB) – Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
John 8:25-32 (CEB) – “Who are you?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “I’m exactly who I have claimed to be from the beginning. I have many things to say in judgment concerning you. The one who sent me is true, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.” They didn’t know he was speaking about his Father. So Jesus said to them, “When the Human One is lifted up, then you will know that I Am. Then you will know that I do nothing on my own, but I say just what the Father has taught me. He who sent me is with me. He doesn’t leave me by myself because I always do what makes him happy.” While Jesus was saying these things, many people came to believe in him.
Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The scriptures of God for the People of God.
Thanks be to God.
MESSAGE – Back to the Future
Citations are included in the transcript.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer. Amen.
John 8:31-32 “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.””
Last week, I introduced you to those darn “D” words, Doubt and Deconstruction. Just as a reminder, deconstruction is very often triggered by doubt, is not a bad thing, is really an element of healthy spiritual growth and faith, and is something we all go through from time to time … or at least should. And, as I’ve said before and so did one or more of the folks I quoted last week, it’s something the church goes through … not just “church” in our context of Christianity, but there are those that will tell you that all three Abrahamic faith traditions – Christian, Jewish, and Islamic – have gone through cycles of upheavals that have been, in essence, deconstruction. Today I want to introduce you to a third “D” word – Disagreement. Like doubt, it can contribute to deconstruction. I think you’ll see why as we go through today’s message.
We’re going to travel back through a history of church upheavals, look for relevance today and what that might mean going forward. In other words, I want us to go back to the future, or to the possible future. Sooooo … Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to UGUMC Time Travel Flight 4B7 with service from 2022 to sometime in the very distant past. We are in line for take-off. We don’t have seatbelts and, while you’re welcome to store any carry-ins under your seats, any “baggage” you’ve brought with you is best stored at the foot of the cross. There are no overhead compartments. You can’t or at least shouldn’t put God in a box. Just know He’s there and trust He’s got you. Please place your seats and table trays in the upright position for take-off. Please turn off all personal electronic devices, including laptops and cell phones, and remove any noise-canceling headphones for the duration today’s sermon … I mean trip. Thank you for choosing UGUMC Time Travel. Enjoy your flight.
First stop: 2022 – Oh! That was fast. We’re here! Don’t worry, we won’t be staying long. We already know the condition of the world at present … it’s on the news every day. But what about the church today?
According to a large scale survey of around 35,000 people conducted by Pew Research in 2014, the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians had dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – had jumped more than six points. The number of “Nones” has increased dramatically in recent decades. Nones are those folks who answer “none” to the religious affiliation question.
In 1972, the General Social Survey reported that only 5% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. That number shot up during the 1990s and again in the 2010s. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, the religiously unaffiliated represented around 23% of the country by 2020.
Phyllis Tickle had a pretty good idea why this is happening.
You may be wondering who Phyllis Tickle is. Wikipedia’s page on her says, “Phyllis Natalie Tickle (née Alexander; March 12, 1934 – September 22, 2015) was an American author and lecturer whose work focuses on spirituality and religion issues. After serving as a teacher, professor, and academic dean, Tickle entered the publishing industry, serving as the founding editor of the religion department at Publishers Weekly, before then becoming a popular writer. She is well known as a leading voice in the emergence church movement. She is perhaps best known for The Divine Hours series of books, published by Doubleday Press, and her book The Great Emergence- How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Tickle was a member of the Episcopal Church, where she was licensed as both a lector and a lay eucharistic minister. She has been widely quoted by many media outlets, including Newsweek, Time, Life, The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, The History Channel, the BBC and Voice of America. It has been said that “Over the past generation, no one has written more deeply and spoken more widely about the contours of American faith and spirituality than Phyllis Tickle.”
Tickle is Tennessee Native Daughter. She was born in Johnson City, and was living in Millington when she passed. Her book is setting the itinerary for our trip today with the exception of one side trip to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Quoting from her book, she writes: “The Right Reverend Mark Dyer, an Anglican bishop known for his wit as well as his wisdom, famously observes from time to time that the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first-century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. ‘And,’ he goes on to say, ‘we are living in and through one of those five-hundred-year sales.’”
In other words, about every five hundred or so years, the structures of organized Christianity … whatever those structures are at the time, become intolerable and ossified, as hard as a turtle’s shell, and the only way the church can renew itself and grow is to shatter that rigid shell … which comes with a price – it creates a “mighty upheaval.” Remember from today’s passage from 1 Corinthians: If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it.
When upheaval happens, there are always at least three results or correlating events:
- A new, more vital form of Christianity emerges.
- The previous “organized” form is also reborn into a more pure and less hardened expression of its former self. And, of equal if not greater significance …
- Every time the hardened shell of an overly established Christianity has been broken open, the Christian faith has spread and been spread dramatically … in fact exponentially … into new geographic and demographic areas.
Tickle and her colleagues referred to this period we’re in now as “The Great Emergence.” They recognized that the turtle shell of the “organized church” was about to burst, and a new church was starting to emerge. Not only did they recognize it, but they could trace backward in history to show when it had happened before.
Next stop on our journey is 16th century Europe. It’s 1517 AD and a prime example of the third kind of associated event. This is the time of Martin Luther, his compatriots, and the pivot point of what would come to be called the Great Reformation. Luther was Catholic, of course, because for Christians Catholic was the only religion at that time, and a professor of moral theology at Wittenburg University in Germany. It was during this time and in part to fund themselves that clergy were selling what was called plenary indulgences. In essence, they were selling “get out of purgatory free or at least less tortured than others” certificates. Luther disagreed. He rejected the practice of selling indulgences and quite a few other things about church doctrine.
Luther claimed that the repentance required by Christ in order for sins to be forgiven involves inner spiritual repentance rather than merely external sacramental confession, that the indulgences led Christians to avoid true repentance and sorrow for sin by allowing them to forgo it by obtaining an indulgence, and that the indulgences actually discouraged Christians from giving to the poor and performing other acts of mercy because the indulgences were seen as more spiritually valuable.
Luther had 95 complaints or objections in total … now called the 95 Theses … had them printed on placards which he then nailed to the doors of the cathedral and other churches there in Wittenberg. Thanks to the advent of the printing press 100 years earlier, Luther’s theses were reprinted and circulated among the general public. He managed to get himself into a “pamphlet war” with Johann Tetzel, one of the priests selling indulgences. He was even so bold as to send a set to the Archbishop, possibly not the best idea. Luther was eventually tried by the church, found guilty of heresy, and excommunicated. However, the actions of Luther and several others who shared his views eventually led to the birth of Protestantism.
Through the birth of Protestantism, not only was a new, powerful way of being Christian established and Christians given a choice of which kind of church they could attend, but Roman Catholicism was forced to make changes in its own structures and practices. The result of both those changes was that Christianity was spread over far more of the earth’s territories than had ever been true in the past.
BUT … Luther’s upheaval didn’t really begin in 1517. It started way before then. We are about to arrive at 1054 AD and the onset of the Great Schism. Take a moment now and reset the stage. We’ve left the 16th century with its printing presses that could mass produce books and placards and things and gone back in time to the 11th century where all documents including the scriptures and the missives of the church leaders had to be handwritten by scribes. Government is all kingdoms and fiefdoms. Traveling to and communicating with people over a distance is a major task and takes significant amounts of time. There is only one Christian church … the Catholic church … which, due in part to logistics, was being operated out of two different places and led by two men: Pope Leo X in Rome over the Western church and Patriarch Michael Cerularius in Constantinople over the Eastern church. To quote Tickle again, “the Patriarch of Greek or Eastern Orthodox Christianity had his anathemas and Leo X had his bulls of excommunication. The Patriarch had Constantinople and the Pope had Rome. One had Greek, used leavened bread for the mass, and believed the Holy Spirit descended from God the Father. The other called Latin the language of God and God’s uses, used only unleavened bread in the communion meal, and argued that the Holy Spirt descends equally from God the Father and God the Son.”
It was that bit about the Holy Spirit that was kind of the straw that broke the church’s turtle shell. The Eastern theology of the Byzantine Church had its roots in Greek philosophy, whereas a great deal of Western theology was based on Roman law. This caused misunderstandings that eventually led to two widely separate ways of regarding and defining one important doctrine—the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father or .. from the Father and the Son. Of course, it didn’t help that the Roman churches, without consulting Cerularius and the Eastern churches, added “and from the Son” (Latin: Filioque) to the Nicene Creed. Also, the Eastern churches resented the Roman enforcement of clerical celibacy, the limitation of the right of confirmation to the bishop, and the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist.
It all came to a head in 1054. Leo X excommunicated Cerularius and all his followers. Not to be out done, Cerularius excommunicated Leo X and all his followers. It was a case of “You’re fired; Yeah? So are you.” And, while it wasn’t the first time there had been mutual excommunications, it was the first time such actions caused a permanent schism or division in the church. The Eastern Orthodox Church – a new portion of the body of Christ operating independently of the Roman church – was born.
Time to time hop again. This time we’re headed to 5th and 6th century Rome. The days of the Caesars and their military force are gone. Rome and the empire are essentially dead following a 200 year period of attacks by Germanic people from the north which caused so much physical and economical damage that, eventually, the Roman Senate declared there was no city or empire to govern and officially disbanded. Just to make things more interesting, the invaders began to settle in Rome and the surrounding area and were far less educated in terms of reading and writing or the language spoken in the church at that time.
As if that weren’t enough upheaval on its own, the churches were beginning to argue between themselves. Emperor Marcian (mahr-she-unn) of Asia Minor took it upon himself to find a remedy and convened the Council of Chalcedon. Marcian had two primary goals: to determine and codify what the correct doctrine of the church would be and declare what would not be correct doctrine, and to sever any commonality and affection between the Western church and some parts of African and Middle Eastern Christianity. Marcian wanted decisions made on two major questions that were dividing the church:
- Whether Mary should be called “Mother of God,” and
- Whether Jesus was ‘one “person” of two natures’ or ‘“two persons” inside one skin.’
The answers to those questions were far more important than one might think and the answer to the first question basically answered the second. If Mary is considered the “Mother of God,” then Jesus’ divinity is inseparable from his becoming flesh therefore Jesus is definitely “one Person in two natures.” By saying one Person in two natures, we are saying that God and humanity are one in Jesus of Nazareth. We are affirming “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. And he became flesh and walked among us.”
On the other hand, if the Council were to accept limiting Mary’s role to only the mother of the human vessel in which the divine was trapped or from which the divine operated, Christian doctrine might have reduced Jesus to … and I’m quoting Tickle again, “… a guru soul inhabiting for a time a human vessel. Even the agony of the cross itself and of the path leading to it would have thereby been diminished and rendered less sacrificial.”
The arguments within the Chalcedon Council got so heated that Oriental Christianity was exiled from … or withdrew from, depending on who you ask … both Western and Eastern Christianity, creating three grand divisions of Christian faith: Western Christianity, which was comprised largely by Roman Catholicism and now includes Protestantism; Eastern Orthodoxy which was originally in Greece, Asia Minor, Eastern Europe, and Russia; and Oriental Orthodoxy which we are likely to know better as Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, or Syrian Christianity.
All that happened in the 5th century around 451 AD. One hundred and forty years later, Gregory I, affectionately known as Gregory the Great, became Pope in Rome. Now remember … Rome was in shambles. No senate, pretty much on the edge of a 6th century ghost town, the economy was shot… in fact, the whole European continent was in total upheaval.
That was Gregory’s inheritance and, rather than lead a revolution, Gregory the Great cleaned one up by leading the people and nations into a coherent church-state relationship and guiding Christianity into monasticism – an action that would protect, preserve, and characterize it during the next five centuries.
OK, one more time hop before we make the return trip back to the present because there is one more major upset of the church that we cannot ignore.
We are heading back to the 1st Century, the center of Judaism, the most effective turtle shell shatterer of literally all time … Jesus of Nazareth … and the birth of Christianity. Jesus’ birth, public ministry, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection would cause both believers and non-believers as well to change how they marked the spans of time. BC – Before Christ, and Anno Domini – the Year of the Lord, with the year of his birth being year 1 and all time before being counted backward. Talk about some serious deconstruction!
As Tickle puts it: “In that momentous century, the Judaism out of which the new faith came and Messiah spoke was ground down into such small parts that its adherents would be forced to leave their natural land, regroup, and ultimately broadcast the seeds of their faith, be it Christian or Jewish, all over the known world. In 70 AD the Temple of stone would be destroyed. In 130 AD the Holy City would be permanently barred against Jewish blood even entering it. And between those two dates, much of the structure that we know as the Church was born.”
Alan Kreider makes an important observation about this time period. It was not Christian worship that attracted outsiders; it was Christians who attracted them. It was how the Christians lived and what they were doing.
We could keep going back, looking at Jewish and Islamic upheavals, but every trip has to reach a point where you head home or, in our case, back to the present.
It’s important to remember that not only are we living through the shattering of the current turtle shell, but we are also the product of an earlier shattering or, more accurately, chain of shatterings, and we need to look back and gauge our pain against the patterns and the gains of each of the previous upheavals. Because here’s the thing. No standing form of organized Christian faith has ever been destroyed by one of those upheavals. Not one.
What those upheavals did each and every time was break the hegemony or pride of place of the old structure and surrender it to the new and not-yet-organized form that was being born. Which is pretty much precisely what has been building up and happening for the last 200 years or so. And really? Look around at those two hundred years and you’ll see a lot of similarities between them and the 1800 years before them. In fact, nearly all the causes and issues of all the previous upheavals are present today.
Leaders from various divisions of the church universal vie with one another for the ear and support of political power while they argue over whose theology is the correct theology, science vs. blind faith, women’s rights vs. women’s place, tribalism vs. diversity, racial equality, sexuality, and so much more, and all of them are competing with all the others to gain the most “converts for the salvation of the world.”
Religion fuels and simultaneously is fueled by conflicts as nations and even empires are in various states of rising and falling. Income inequality is not just an American issue, it’s global. Fundamentalist religious idealism is not just a Middle Eastern thing, it’s global. And all this has been going on for some time … a century or more, actually.
Rev. Charles Sheldon, our Holy Troublemaker today, recognized it and the direction his congregation and the folks in his town were going way back in 1896. It’s what prompted him to begin his “What Would Jesus Do?”. Through his series, he effectively proposed a “deconstruction of the church,” a deconstruction of what calls itself Christianity or, as Sheldon puts it in his book, “a challenge to Christianity as it is practiced in our churches.”
Sheldon began a sermon series telling one chapter per week of the story of a congregation and town much like theirs with each week’s chapter ending in a cliffhanger so that you had to come back the next week to find out what happened. In the book, the fictional congregation, town, and its pastor of his sermon series were named “the assembly of the First Church of Raymond, the Right Reverend Henry Maxwell, Pastor.”
The book begins on a Friday morning when Jack Manning, an out of work man, appears at Rev. Maxwell’s front door while the pastor is preparing for that Sunday’s upcoming sermon. Maxwell listens to the man’s helpless plea briefly before brushing him away and closing the door. Jack shows up in church that Sunday just as Maxwell’s sermon is ending, walks up to “the open space in front of the pulpit,” and faces the people. No one stops him. He quietly but frankly confronts the congregation—”I’m not complaining; just stating facts.”—about their compassion, or apathetic lack thereof, for the jobless like him in Raymond. Upon finishing his address to the congregation, he collapses and, a few days later, Jack dies.
The next Sunday, Rev. Maxwell, deeply moved by the events of the past week, presents a challenge to his congregation: “Do not do anything without first asking, ‘What would Jesus do?'” This challenge is the theme of the book and is the driving force of the plot. From this point on, the rest of the book consists of certain episodes that focus on individual characters as their lives are transformed by the challenge.
In the real sermon series and in the book, Sheldon’s congregation and the First Church of Raymond are called to “re-assemble, to regroup, called to a new order, by a shocking Christlike street person who comes bearing the truth.”
John 8:32 – Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
If the truth can and is going to make us free, it cannot do so without deconstruction – the way of making or letting the truth happen. As John D. Caputo, author of “What Would Jesus Deconstruct,” writes, “The truth is not the stuff of edifying hymns, rather it is dangerous, dirty, and smelly business. To seek the truth is to play with fire and a way to get burned. Not everyone has a stomach for it, above all those who say “Lord, Lord” and then head for cover the minute the Lord shows up dressed in rags and smelling like a street person. Be careful what you pray for. Lord, give me the truth – but not yet!”
The challenge in Sheldon’s book – to not do anything without first asking ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” is solid and good theology. I know, I know … that sounds odd coming from me when I’ve maintained WWJD was messed up and should be avoided because it’s too easily manipulated to “What would we have Jesus do?”, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
What Jesus would and did do, however, is one of the primary goals of the Gospels, of discipleship, of following Jesus. He both showed us and told us what we needed to do. Repeatedly. Whether or not we grasp what he taught is most visible in who we turn away, but not just in who we turn away, but what we do and say prior to turning them away.
We should all learn that, when we pray “Come, Lord Jesus,” Jesus is likely already here pushing a grocery cart containing all his earthly belongings along the street as he moves from homeless camp to homeless camp or he’s one of the “illegals” trying to cross our borders. He’s the guy heading into a local synagogue or mosque, or teaching yoga at the Y dressed in a t-shirt, warm up pants, barefoot and tattooed sporting a man-bun. He’s the single mom living in the projects with a houseful of kids to feed. He’s any one of those kids that mom is feeding. He’s the guy marching in the Pride parade with pink hair, glittery face paint, and a rainbow flag.
No matter what label you assign him … and all those he’s standing amongst … in those situations, when you draw a line in the sand to separate yourself and your Jesus from “those people,” you’d best be prepared to scurry across that line if you want to continue to be with him because he’s already over there becoming their Jesus. He stepped to that side and joined them before you could even finish making that silly, totally pointless line of yours.
Sheldon’s book had significant and life-changing impact not just in his own congregation, but throughout the country and possibly even further as it has since been published in 16 languages and has sold, as I mentioned before, 50 million copies.
In the 1990s, conservative and evangelical churches turned Sheldon’s “What Would Jesus Do?” into the “WWJD” campaign, reducing the title to 4 letters that could be imprinted on rubber bracelets, bumper stickers, and graphic t-shirts. They threw in what we now call “contemporary worship” replete with rock music and fireworks, and arranged mission-cation trips around the globe to fulfill that “go forth and do what Jesus did” aspect.
From the passage from Galatians: Those who keep sowing in the field of their old nature, in order to meet its demands, will eventually reap ruin; but those who keep sowing in the field of the Spirit will reap from the Spirit everlasting life.
For quite a while, that ploy worked. People got excited about the merchandise and the big showy concert-like worship services. But then things changed. Ruth Braunstein, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, believes major trends in religion and politics can be traced back to the rise of the religious right in the 1990s, a sea change moment that set in motion an array of phenomena ranging from an uptick in religious disaffiliation to the radicalization of some Christian conservatives.
People turned from actually doing what Jesus would do in this world and focused, instead, on claiming Jesus almost exclusively for the next life with little thought to what was going on around them in this life.
Caputo, writing about Sheldon’s original intent, puts it this way: “There is a kick in this bumper-sticker question that the Christian Right did not anticipate. It was posed by a man who looked kindly on the idea of a Christian socialism and pointed with admiration to the communal lives of early Christians. It contains a truth that will take by surprise those who wear it proudly on their T-shirts, those who repeat this question without quite knowing its history, who may just find themselves auto-deconstructed. What would Jesus do? He would deconstruct a very great deal of what people do in the name of Jesus, starting with the people who wield this question like a hammer to beat their enemies. My hypothesis is that the first thing that Jesus would deconstruct is WWJD itself, the whole ‘industry,’ the whole commercial operation of spiritual and very real money-making Christian capitalists.”
Erik Strandness of Premier Insight wrote, “Most stories of deconstruction begin with the failure of the church to meet the intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of its members. … I would argue that sometimes we need knowledge of life outside the fold in order to redirect us back to the Shepherd.”
There are a number of theories and reasons for the current decline in church attendance, fears and restrictions caused by the pandemic aside. I don’t want to go deep into US history with you, but it’s important to note that belonging to a church in the first three quarters of the 20th century was expected and almost went without saying. There was even a kind of social stigma attached to folks that claimed no religious affiliation, a stigma that was only slightly more reputation ruining than affiliating with religions other than some form of Christianity.
While some want to blame it solely on politics, it is more complex than that and includes at least a narrow backlash (per Braunstein) against a segment of American Christianity. Braunstein writes: “Backlash against the religious right doesn’t actually have to mean leaving religion altogether — even though that is a choice that many people are making. … There are some narrower forms of backlash that involve narrowly rejecting the religious right’s brand of politicized conservative religion by either reclaiming or reformulating a way of doing religion, of being religious and engaging in public religious expression.”
Think about that for a moment. There has always been a segment of Christianity that has been rigid and dogmatic in its insistence that its interpretations of scriptures, its way of worshipping, its policies for who can and cannot lead and so on and so forth are the only possible way all things Christian can, should, and will be done.
That kind of thinking is what caused the Oriental church to split away in the 5th century, the Great Schism of the 11th century, and Luther to declare his 95 theses in the 16th century. Today, the conflicts and disagreements stem from statements coming out of the pulpits and church leaders that begin, “People who” and end with “are going to hell” or “should be silenced” or are assigned a litany of derogatory and invariably inaccurate racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or other bigoted labels or are victim-blamed or “are not in line with our deeply held religious beliefs.”
Not even remotely good news and a big reason why people are turning away from the church in droves. Change is something that most congregations struggle with. The most common response to even the suggestion of change is, “But we’ve always done it this way!” There is an unwillingness to let go of the past. As Drew Brown put it, though, “Churches are dangerous when their past is more important to them than their future.”
Just a caveat here. Not all churches, not all Christians are guilty of making or in any way support those statements. Probably the majority of churches and Christians are not guilty of it. You just can’t hear them over the roar of the ones who do.
And it doesn’t mean the people leaving or the ones watching from the outside wondering, “what the heck,” are no longer believing in God or believing Christ. On the contrary, most of them do believe strongly in both God and Christ. They just aren’t seeing either in the loud portion of the church.
Braunstein did point to additional data from Pew Research that gives me great hope. The data shows an increase in Americans who identified as “spiritual but not religious,” rising from 19% in 2012 to 27% in 2017.
This shift from “religious” to “spiritual” is both a sign and a result of the present upheaval. It means that 27% haven’t stopped believing at all. They’re just going elsewhere in an effort to get what they know they need as illustrated by Patheos author Jonathan Aigner: “Don’t give us entertainment, give us liturgy. We don’t want to be entertained in church, and frankly, the church’s attempt at entertainment is pathetic. Enough with the theatrics. Enough with the lights, the visuals, the booming audio, the fog machine, the giveaway gimmicks, the whole production. Follow that simple yet profound formula that’s worked for the entire history of the church. Entrance, proclamation, thanksgiving, sending out. Gathering, preaching, breaking bread, going forth in service. Give us a script to follow, give us songs to sing, give us the tradition of the church, give us Holy Scripture to read. Give us sacraments, not life groups, to grow and strengthen us.”
The folks leaving or avoiding the church just want the gospel truth and the truth of the Gospel, and want to translate that into living a transformed life and worshipping in a way that is honest to that truth. They want what Sheldon was trying to get across in his sermons and, eventually, his book. They want to do things that answer Sheldon’s question. They want sermons that make them think, that have substance. They want to be given information that helps them find their beliefs themselves, and worship that moves them and stays with them longer than a few hours to a few days.
They learned at the feet of their forebears, but they’re not seeing what they were taught in the organized religions of today. And they are deconstructing the church beginning with themselves to get to the faith they were taught. And honestly? I want desperately to not just to see where they’re going, but to take that journey with them and help them arrive. Don’t you? I mean, I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would do.
They just want truth. We should want it, too. I do.
Hermeneutics is the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts. In his book, Caputo says deconstruction is the hermeneutics of truth, the truth of the event, which is not deconstructible. It is that truth that disturbs us and that we try to repress.
Jesus is a deconstructionist. That’s truth.
The church, across numerous organized denominations, at least the visible public part, has become rigid and dogmatic, straying from the Way Jesus taught us and pushing more people away from the Good News than drawing them to it. That’s truth.
When Jesus came and walked among us, he shattered the hardened shell of the church of his earthly time. That’s the truth.
So ask yourselves, “What would Jesus do now?”
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Jesus gave us nothing but truth, and then he commissioned us to go forth and share that truth with the world. It’s not an easy task, especially these days when people listen to respond or react rather than hear. But we are called by him to do the work he gave us to do.
It won’t be easy. Many people won’t want to hear what we have to say, especially what Jesus and Paul said in our passages today. It wasn’t easy for Jesus or his disciples, either. It wasn’t long after he said the words in the passage from Luke that the people of Nazareth tried to throw him off a cliff. Calling for the year of Jubilee meant calling for the redistribution of wealth. People with vested interests in maintaining the unjust status quo tend to be opposed to that sort of thing.
But remember. God will make all things new, even the church. He’s been doing that here for a year and a half. He’s doing it in the middle of this Great Emergence, and he will give you the gifts, the tools, the resources, the words, the strength to do his will if you but ask. So keep the faith you have, continue to question, to challenge when you hear something that doesn’t sound right or righteous or that you don’t agree with because He taught you better. And continue to share the Good News as far and wide as you can, and I promise you we will emerge on the other side of this better for it.
Please join me in a prayer for our gifts this morning:
God who has blessed us with so much, activate our gifts today to Your service. Help us to grow these gifts and transform them into a strong and healthy community, educational opportunities and spiritual sustenance that moves through your people. With the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to use this offering to build relationships, invest in human dignity and form beloved community that demonstrates what Jesus would do, evokes a spiritual revolution and unleashes Christlike love.
“Christianity Today’ writer Lee Eclov writes that a benediction is “a good word, the best of words from God” and isn’t merely a wish (“I hope the Lord blesses you”), but a declaration (“The Lord blesses you — he really does.”).
“It doesn’t tell us what God WILL do for us, but what God is doing ever and always for his people. It’s sort of an uber-promise. When a pastor raises his hands and says these words (of benediction) as an emissary of the Lord himself, then God’s people really are blessed.”
I want you to know that I am blessed by your presence here, by those of you worshipping with us online, and by those who interact with us through our online presence every day.
Now hear this benediction:
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Go forth in peace to love and serve the Lord.
- All works cited within the text above.
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