224th Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — July 3, 2010
When Heaven and Earth Touch
Sermon by Annual Conference moderator Shawn Flory Replogle
Tonight is the first test of the 2010 Annual Conference delegates. Having read all the materials you have been provided, you will know that this very moment is the fulfillment of page 178, line 23 in your Conference booklets, a part of business item number 5.
This is not a joke. It’s right there, in a list of duties of the moderator of the Church of the Brethren, embedded in the Church of the Brethren by-laws which we will look at further this week. There are six items listed, of which this–“give a ‘state of the church’ address at Annual Conference”–is the last on the list. And since this message is mandated in polity, that makes it a little bit different than other Worship messages you’ll hear this week.
But here is something that will not be different. Many, many, many of you will be listening tonight to hear something that resonates within you, something that makes you say “yes!” something that validates your belief system as it is, something that says rather crassly, “that guy is on my side!”
At the same time, many of you are also listening tonight to hear in what ways I might offend your belief system or your interpretation of the way in which the Church of the Brethren has practiced its beliefs in the past or should be practicing them right now.
This game of listening for what we want to hear or steeling ourselves against what we don’t want to hear is nothing new. I know it happens, because I confess I’ve played the game. And now, as the speaker, I am aware that it does not damage me. I will rarely ever know how this game stirs in each of your hearts. But I do wonder about the damage on us all, as that “litmus test” further divides us from being the body of Christ.
There is one other thing I need to acknowledge this evening. I spent a measurable amount of my time this past Fall responding to persons concerned about my fashion sense. This is nothing new for me. I am still wrestling with issues of forgiveness about a plaid pair of jeans that someone put me in while I was in the second grade.
This Fall was different though. There were quite a few persons concerned about a festive vest of mine that appeared to be rainbow colored, and what this might say about who I am as a person, what perspective I might hold on a range of social and church issues, or the kind of leader I may or may not be. Truth be told, I’ve had this vest for over 10 years; I got it on a Church of the Brethren youth workcamp in Mexico, and it is a traditional style for Central American nations. Folks in the McPherson congregation recognize that I usually wear it on special Sundays, like Christmas and Easter. And for the record, it lacks blue and indigo as a part of its colors, missing the lower range of the rainbow.
However, I received almost as many comments about the black vest I’ve often worn. These persons wondered if it was a not-so-subtle wink towards another perspective of persons within the denomination, or even a harkening back to the so-called “good-old days” of Brethren belief and practice. I got this vest from an on-line wedding supply store. You might not know how difficult it is to get just a plain black vest at a reasonable price, without the extra wedding accessories, like bow ties and cumberbunds? So, I hate to break people’s assumptions, categorizations, and presumptions–what a fun game that has been–but the reason I got into non-collared shirts and vests was because… I just don’t like ties. What better way in the Church of the Brethren to avoid ties than to throw on a non-collared shirt and a vest!
Now I never thought I’d say this, but I’m starting to wonder if my attire has become a distraction, albeit a minor one… I hope. In many ways I see this “vest debate” as symbolic of the simplicity with which we now deal with one another. We’ve been reduced to caricatures by how we dress, what we adorn ourselves with, and what we carry. It is official: we are now as political as the world around us. Our cultural assimilation is complete… not because of a debate on “fashion,” mind you–though it is a bit of an ironic twist a century beyond our last massive debates about how we would identified by our dress–but because we now interact with one another hardly any differently than the politicians we so easily critique for their lack of civility, and inability to compromise. Few of us are immune, and all of us are culpable. Is this the best we can do, when we read Jesus say, “Love one another as I have loved you”? May God have mercy on us all.
I don’t know what to do about it. There is nothing I can do about it. But since this has been symbolically dragged into the open because of my vests, I’ll start there. Starting now, I will wear no more vests this week. And I will roll up my sleeves and invite us all to do the same. It is time, Brethren, to move beyond the easy characterizations of one another, and do the hard work of being in relationship with one another: eating together; praying together; speaking and listening with one another. Carving out entrenched positions is much easier than the vulnerability required for true relationship, but it is not the right way for us to be all that God calls us to be. It is not Christ’s way. We can and we must do better.
In August of 2008 I had the first of what I knew would be four meetings during this moderator tenure at the New Windsor Conference Center, in New Windsor, Md. This area of the country has some importance for me. Between New Windsor and Union Bridge is the Pipe Creek Church of the Brethren and its cemetery. The cemetery is located high up on a majestic hill. In the cemetery are the resting places of my grandparents and great aunt, and many, many more ancestors. As a seminary student I participated in two burials there for family members. And I remember that cemetery hill having the most fabulous view of the countryside around it, including being able to see way down to Francis Scott Key High School and just down from that, the Snader family home place where I had spent so many summer days.
When I knew I had four opportunities to get to that cemetery during meetings over the course of the next year, I had to try. I wanted to recapture that glorious view, soak in beautiful memories I had of ancestors long gone, and feel the sense of belonging I had felt in that place before. It was a little like wanting to go home.
The first time I was in New Windsor I wasn’t physically or mentally ready to embark on the journey. But a few weeks later, during a longer break in meetings, I ventured out down the road, following signs to Union Bridge, knowing that it would get me in the right, general direction.
Besides not really being in the kind of physical shape I needed to be in to complete such a journey, I had two problems. First, I wasn’t really sure how many miles this run was going to require. I didn’t know if I could actually make it. Second, and more importantly, I had little more than a vague idea of where I was going. No maps; no GPS; no mapquest. Just childhood memories. It’s really not a very good combination.
Cell phone in hand — some unknown distance of pavement behind me — I called my Dad and explained what I was up to. “You’re doing what?!” was his fatherly reply. Based on my description of my location, he guessed that my quest was a three to four mile trip, and that I still had about three miles to go, because long ago I had passed the turn I needed to Pipe Creek. Even if I did make it, he reminded me, I still had to turn around and run back to New Windsor. Yeah; thanks, Dad.
My third trip to New Windsor was far too brief to make an attempt. I was down to one last opportunity in September of 2009. And this time I was ready. It took me awhile, I certainly wasn’t going to win any medals. But eventually I made it. With some effort, and confusion about which section of the cemetery I thought I was supposed to be searching in, I found the grave marker for my grandparents. I have the photo to prove it. For just a brief moment it was if Heaven and Earth were touching.
But here’s the thing: when I lifted my face to take in the memorable scenery I expected, everything had changed. Actually, one thing had changed. Amazingly, in the intervening decades, the trees had grown. They had grown so much that the high school was completely obscured, and there was absolutely no view of the family home place down the road. I had made it to my goal–reached the proverbial mountaintop–but it wasn’t all I thought I’d see. It certainly did not live up to my expectations. I even had some confusion and fear that maybe I wasn’t in the right place or somehow my childhood memories had conjured up something for me that had not really happened.
Of course, it wasn’t the trees’ fault… or the cemetery’s. The world had changed regardless of my fixed-in-time childhood memories. The journey back to New Windsor was filled with a mix of contentment for having accomplished what I set out to do, and disappointment that my perspective was a little less than I had hoped it would be.
This seems to be the kind of journey that the disciples can relate to. Great anticipation. Hoped for experiences. Followed by unmet expectations, fear and confusion. Throw in a little heavenly fog, and you’ve got Matthew 17.
You know the story: Jesus encounters an incredible spiritual experience. It is so intense that even the disciples who have traveled with him can see and feel it. Jesus looks completely changed, transformed. He shines and is radiant and is glorious. On this mountain the disciples see Jesus as they have never seen him before. Here, their friend and teacher looks other-worldly.
Jesus is seen with the most revered of Hebrew ancestors: Moses, bearer of the sacred laws; and Elijah, a prophet of the highest standing, reportedly never dying but being swept to heaven in a windstorm. His reappearance on earth was the signal of the Messiah’s imminent return. And Jesus is seen with both of these historic figures.
The whole spiritual experience is so great for the disciples that the they don’t want it to end. All their expectations of Jesus as a political and religious Messiah are finally being realized. The presence of Moses has confirmed Jesus’ religious legal authority, and the presence of Elijah has confirmed Jesus as that Messiah. They must think, “Finally, after two and half years we’re getting to the good stuff! Can heaven ever be closer to earth than this?!”
It didn’t take a second for a fog to roll in… a holy fog. It is a fog that brings both fear and confusion, and also the very presence of God. It is similar to the presence of the heavenly host with the Israelites in the Tabernacle, after the Exodus. Out of this fog comes the voice that is to transform the perspective of the disciples: “Listen to him!” We know that the disciples didn’t respond with “OK” because the scripture says they fell to the ground and were overcome with fear. Then comes the familiar refrain, whether it be from God, or Jesus, or angel: “Do not be afraid.”
I can’t help but think that this describes the predicament of the Church of the Brethren.
Two years ago we, Brethren, made it to a place that feels at little like heaven and earth touching: 300 years of being the Church of the Brethren. It was a glorious mountaintop experience! Hundred year anniversaries don’t roll around any-old time. We remembered the best of who we have been, and those who have gone before us. There were modern records for attendance at Annual Conference. We celebrated God’s work among us. Could heaven been any closer to earth for us?!
But then a fog rolled in. It was inevitable after an anniversary as big as a 300th. We come off the mountain-top, not really wanting to lose the good feeling of the celebration, but not knowing how to sustain it. We’re not sure we want to face the reality of what lies before us once we’re off that mountain. Will it ever be the same again? Can’t we just stay in the glory of the 300th anniversary forever–you know, build a tent or something to remain in that place forever?
And have we ever been overcome by fear. Two years removed from that mountain-top, we are an angst-filled, anxious people. We are fearful of dwindling membership numbers and what that might mean for our own demise. We are nervous about controversial conversations and the ramifications they may have for our shared lives together. And we know that the common identity that holds us together has become awfully strained, to the point of wondering aloud if we even have a common identity. Is there anything in the present that speaks to something we maintain in common, as diverse as we are in geography, generational divide, and theology? Is there anything that keeps us together?
As if those things were not enough, let me add one more thing: I do not believe we can assume there is a coming of a wave of youth who reenergize and revitalize us. While I predicted such a wave at the 1995 Annual Conference in Charlotte–a prediction repeated by others more recently–I realize now that is what I hoped would happen.
We can no longer assume that our young people — or anyone else in the culture around us — will somehow learn the important values and beliefs and practices of being Brethren through osmosis or plain observation. This worked well in the past — in a time when our best evangelism was through procreation and the church held a more central role in public life — but in the context of 2010 and beyond, this assumption will not work. We live in a cultural context where we have to make our case within the marketplace of ideas:
• Is there a god? What is the place of that god relative to the natural order we have investigated and are continually discovering?
• Why should anyone consider the God we have come to know and love?
• Why Jesus?
• What is so important or unique about the Jesus understood through the lens of the Church of the Brethren?
• And for that matter, what relevance does the Church of the Brethren have in the context of a world where information overwhelms me, technology rules me, and meaningful relationships are being further pulled away from the physical connections I have with other people?
Brethren: like everyone else in this world, we have to make our case to our young people and the culture we seek to engage. What is our relevance? Do we have relevance? We must be prepared to make our case.
Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, I think we’ve never been more relevant. I’ve said this since the end of Annual Conference in San Diego, but it bears repeating. We live in the most violent, materialistic, self-centered society since the Roman Empire. As the Church of the Brethren, we know a little something about those things. We know something about non-violence… and simple living… and establishing communities. Hey wait, that’s our tagline! It has taken the Church of the Brethren 300 years, but we are in vogue! The cutting edge portions of the Christian movement are seeking the very same things that we sought three hundred years ago. We have embodied the values that the culture around us so desperately seeks and needs. But for those of us known as a “peculiar people,” we are not sure we know what to do with “vogue.”
Perhaps worse, as we try understand our own identity in this juncture of history, we may not actually embody the values that we have become known for. I can make the case that the Church of the Brethren is clearly a historic peace church, as in, used to be; that it is no more simple than the rest of the culture that it finds itself in, as evidenced by the strong germanic work ethic we’ve embodied and the middle to upper-middle class most of our members now enjoy; and that we are just barely together, being as fractured as any other group we might encounter in culture.
I do not know when it started happening, but somewhere in our past, the Brethren as a whole began to more closely associate the way in which it had historically lived out its core values as the core values themselves. Peacefully, Simply, Together wonderfully captures the essence of who the Brethren have at least been. But let us be clear to say that they are NOT our core values. They are the ways we have lived out our core values, at least in the past.
But they are not what unifies us in the present. As I ponder a “lowest common denominator” equation for the Church of the Brethren, I come up with “taking Jesus seriously.” For three hundred years, members of the Church of the Brethren have sought to respond in tangible ways to the Jesus they encountered in the New Testament, and especially in the Gospels. It wasn’t a very complicated formula. When Jesus used an action verb, early Brethren intended to put that verb into action:
• love your enemies
• forgive as you have been forgiven
• love one another as I have loved you
• do as I have done to you
• do this in remembrance of me
• go and make disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them everything I have commanded… in other words, teaching them to take Jesus seriously.
And in the ensuing centuries, that nearly desperate attempt to respond to the Jesus of the Gospels has remained true for the Brethren. Without being too judgmental, there have been times in our history where this has been easy for us, and times when it has proved more difficult than we could manage.
But the Spirit is moving across this denomination. I see it in Standing Committee’s renewed interest in denomination-wide visioning which will provide some direction for the coming decade. I see it in the spirit in which a diverse Standing Committee holds each other in love and mutual respect, even in the midst of difficult conversations.
I see it in the agencies of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference as they participate in incredibly high levels of cooperation and have each just completed or just begun visioning processes for those organizations.
I see it in the dozen or more districts that have propelled themselves into renewal and Transformation movements, not waiting for some “program” from on high, but proactively seeking to name God’s presence in their midst. I see it in those districts who are seeking to make “miraculous expectation” normal, and “maintenance” an anomaly. I see it in places like the Western Plains District where leaders from diverse perspectives are taking the time to fellowship together, spend several dedicated hours in small group with one another, eat together, and learn together. It is so much harder to distrust someone you have eaten with, prayed for, and who has prayed for you.
I see it in local congregations who are active, and creative, where grace and forgiveness are becoming standard practices, not simply concepts to be pondered. I see it in congregations who are sensing the Spirit’s movement in the community outside of their building walls and who — instead of waiting for that Spirit to knock on their door — are placing themselves in the stream of God’s movement in their local communities.
I have travelled to many, many places over the last 18 months, and I have heard the stories of God’s movement among us. And wow, have I heard some good stories. I wish I had time to share them all. Tonight, I’d like to share one.
There is a rescue mission in southern Virginia that serves the needs of the homeless in its area. They got the idea to once a month take care of the needs of these persons feet, which took so much abuse from a homeless lifestyle. The feet are examined by doctors and nurses, their socks are washed, and with worshipful music playing in the background, these feet are washed and anointed.
The Daleville Church of the Brethren in the Virlina District has become one of the congregations that actively and regularly participates in this ritual, especially in the act of feetwashing. Through their example, the Kalamazoo Church of the Brethren in Michigan has begun offering to wash the feet of visitor’s to the State Fair.
This is just two examples of local congregations taking Jesus seriously. What I love about these stories is the congregations’ ability to see beyond the traditional practice of Love Feast, and imagine the possibility that God might be inviting them into a new way of taking Jesus seriously outside their doors. They have proven the value, relevance, and authenticity of Love Feast and especially “feetwashing” to a skeptical but willing-to-listen-to-anything-real world. They have participated in making Jesus real in their local communities, and in the hearts and minds of the homeless and visitors they have shared with. That is “taking Jesus seriously” in today’s world. “Listen to him” God says.
Brethren, we may be in a fog. It may be confusing and surely produce anxiety, just as it did for the disciples. But it is a holy fog. In that fog the disciples were changed, transformed, and empowered. But it is not quite their time; Jesus instructs them to tell no one of what they have seen until after the resurrection.
Powerful Christian writer and thinker, Clarence Jordan, once said: “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.” 1
Tonight’s Annual Conference logo has added to it the image of an empty tomb. The reality, however, is that tonight’s logo is only fully-embodied by a denomination that is a spirit-filled fellowship, a carried-away church. And unlike the disciples, it is our time. God has never gifted us with as much relevancy as the Church of the Brethren has today. May we have the courage to not be afraid. May God grant us the faithfulness to be what we have been called to be. “Listen to him!”
1 Clarence Jordan, “The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons” by Clarence Jordan, ed. Dallas Lee (NY: Association Press, 1972), 29.
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