What time is it in the life of First Church? And given what time it is, what deserves our best energy? What should be our focus now? My spiritual director helps me listen for God’s presence and guidance in my life and work. As we processed how things are going here at church, she gave me these questions to ponder. They immediately struck me as helpful and important, and brought them to the board for discussion at our meeting last week.
What time is it? It is a time that calls for division, Jesus proclaimed in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke. He said that his ministry would bring stress and tension. He would kindle a fire of destruction and renewal on the earth. In the larger biblical context, fire is a sign of God’s presence. As Hildegard says, the “supreme and fiery force that sends forth all the sparks of life.” In the story of the Exodus Moses encountered a bush in flames. The bush burned but was not consumed. So God’s fire is a loving one, which transforms us without harming us. Out of the fiery bush, God called Moses to the work of liberation. So God’s fire reveals the truth. It exposes our oppressions. It doesn’t burn us, but it does burn up the structures of death that bind us. And then, as the people left Egypt, a fiery pillar led them as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and multiple generations. So God’s fire illuminates our way us as we navigate the disorienting, disheartening seasons of our lives.
What time is it in the life of First Church? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. I feel diminishing energy. There are fewer of us than there were before. And those of us who are here seem tired. And we are, collectively, older and less active. We are losing people who have been at the heart of this community for decades. At the same time, our church school rooms are empty and silent, and supplies sit unused. These days, when I am alone in the building, with the shadows and spirits of a different sort of past, I often feel grief.
What time is it in the life of First Church? Board members expressed similar thoughts and feelings about lost vitality, exhaustion, and sadness. They had some other things to say as well. Our clerk took some great notes; I’m quoting a selection of those: “It’s a time of willfulness rather than willingness. Willingness is responding to a situation in terms of what the situation requires whereas willfulness is responding based on individual needs.”“People are frustrated with covid policies, without choir, with coffee hour being so different.” “Patterns got uprooted in the pandemic and now we are returning to normal but it’s not normal. The world seems similar but it’s different enough that it creates tension.” “This is a reactionary time. Act is the last thing in our statement . . . maybe we need to be more proactive than reactive.” “Our life is in a sandwich era. We need to care for elders and younger people, it’s like whack-a-mole.” “We are in our mid-life, looking back and ahead and uncertain about it all.” “We are in an untested place of doing it both ways: virtual and in-person. It’s messy but both ways have value.” “We have pockets of extreme engagement and need to branch this into the church at large.” “It’s a time of profound change with three simultaneous things going on: racial justice, climate justice, and Covid.” “We are in a transition (in our larger world) of such anger, mistrust, and tension. How can a church deal with that other than by remaining insular? It’s hard to keep your heart open.”
Our board members are seriously wise people, are they not? One thing that stood out to me was their observation that this is a time of tension. We are socialized to view conflict and division as negatives, as problems. Jesus says, instead, that there are times in which we are called to lean into tension, even create it. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” We have to hear this statement in its larger context. The Gospel of Luke begins with angels heralding the birth of an infant Messiah proclaiming: “peace on earth.” In Luke, the pursuit of peace is central. However, the peace Jesus brings is true peace, not the fraudulent peace of Rome, which silenced all diversity and dissent through overwhelming might. Peace, according to Jesus, cannot exist without struggle. Jesus’ ministry named and confronted the evils that prevented human flourishing, that stood in the way of justice. And truth-telling that truth was a divisive act.
The divisiveness of Jesus’ ministry permeated everything—it even tore families apart. It’s not that Jesus was anti-family. He was for a new kind of family. In After Jesus, Before Christianity the authors write about how early Jesus groups reconfigured the norms of gender and experimented with family structures. They explain that in the Roman society, households included land and property as well as relatives, enslaved people, and sometimes even “members of the same trade or local occupation in attached shops and workrooms.” All the members of the family existed “in hierarchical relationship to one person: the male head of the household.” (p. 152) Jesus groups experimented with that structure in a variety of ways: making space for people to choose their family associations; establishing households in which women were the head; sometimes dismantling the hierarchy all together; making members of the family mutually accountable to each other. In the Roman empire, families existed to reinforce the dominant political structure. In contrast, the aim of families, among the followers of Jesus, was to provide refuge, safety, belonging and mutual support in a harsh and unfair world. Forming this new kind of household was risky, both personally and politically. It was divisive. And at the same time, it offered a real and life-giving alternative to the violence and trauma of life defined by empire.
Following Jesus means living together differently, both in our intimate relationships and our larger political systems. The holy fire that prods us toward new forms of family and community is both destructive and creative. It is a revealing, cleansing fire of truth. It is a liberating and fire of justice. It is a loving fire of renewal and rebirth. And this fiery divine presence is not unifying. It does not lull us into quiet complacency. It is divisive. It brings stress.
So . . . what kind of time is it in the life of First Church? And given what time it is, what deserves our best energy? What should be our focus over the next year? The board is going to continue to discuss these questions at our next meeting, and will be reaching out after that with some possibilities for you to consider, looking for your reactions and your insights. This is certainly a time of division. Many of us are divided within ourselves, uncertain who we are now, confused and depleted and unclear about how to contribute to this church or the larger community. We are divided between virtual and in-person presence. People both within and beyond the church hold profoundly divided views of what Christianity even is. We are immersed in a world is filled with division, more often than not these days, violent conflict between opposing world-views and visions of the future.
As we sat in a circle on the church lawn, contemplating our losses, our diminished energies, and ways in which the church of the past is never coming back, one board member pointed out that there are also some remarkable new beginnings happening among us: Our partnership with the Community Kitchen and all the ways we are feeding neighbors; the racial justice and reparations process we are engaged in; the experiences of personal healing the church makes possible; the new members who continue to find us and find life, inspiration and support here. In this stressful moment I am holding on to what Jesus preached—that division is not always bad, that conflict is necessary for growth and change, and that tension, frustration and loss are often signs that it is time for new life to emerge. Amen.