Last week, the United Church of Christ’s New Sacred blog posted Jon Berren Propper’s “A Kingdom of Nonbelievers? Maybe.” The blog post takes as a starting point the recent controversy over a United Church of Canada minister, Rev. Gretta Vosper, who has become an atheist but who wants to remain a minister serving a congregation in the UCCanada. From there Propper goes on to ask just how essential having the “right” beliefs should be to building the kingdom of Heaven, and he offers a vision of an inclusive Church that values diversity, love, and action over dogma.
I completely agree with Propper that right belief is often less important than we make it out to be and that churches should be open to all kinds of people who want to explore the common “touchpoints” of the Christian tradition. At First Church Somerville, we are a Christian church where everyone is welcome with whatever beliefs or doubts they may have. I think Propper would feel right at home at here. Our folks come from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds - completely unchurched, Catholic, Orthodox, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Baptist, Reformed, Pentecostal, Unitarian Universalist, New Age, Spiritual But Not Religious, interfaith, Jewish, Santería, and even (occasionally) cradle UCC. And, yes, we have a number of non-theists, atheists, and atheist Christians who are official members of the church or who are deeply connected attendees and friends of the congregation.
Why would an atheist come to a Christian church? The answers to that question are as diverse as the people themselves. Some come just to be with their families on Sunday morning. Others come because even though they can’t conceive of “God the Father,” they love them some Jesus all the same. Some are “Jeffersonian” Christians who don’t go in for anything supernatural or miraculous at all, but find great value in Jesus’ teachings. Others do “believe” in some sort of God, but just not the anthropomorphized old man in the sky. Others feel their lack of faith in a personal, loving God as an absence or loss in their life, and they show up every week to explore honestly what they can and can’t believe. Others show up for the music. Others show up for the community. The list goes on. But what is true of all of them is that they know that they have options - there are plenty of non-Christian spiritual communities or humanist groups they could join where they could still hear sermons, sing sacred music, celebrate holidays, be in community, and explore their belief systems outside of the Christian context. But for some reason, they have chosen to be a part of this explicitly Christian church.
And this is where I differ greatly from Propper’s take on Rev. Gretta Vosper. I agree that there is nothing “wrong” with not being a Christian, with belonging to another faith tradition, or with being an atheist. But if we are Christians, we must also at the same time affirm that there is something valuable (for everyone) about maintaining explicitly Christian churches and denominations. The identity we claim and are able to offer to people as the Church of Jesus Christ - the identity of Christian, disciple, apostle, Jesus follower - is also good and true and beautiful. Rev. Gretta Vosper, by her own admission and affirmation, is no longer a Christian. In other words, it’s not that the UCCanada has said that because Vosper claims atheistic beliefs, she can no longer call herself a Christian. She has explicitly identified herself as being a non-Christian. Could she be a part of the kingdom of Heaven? Sure. Is she, as a self-identified non-Christian, a suitable person to lead a Christian church or to hold ministerial standing in a Christian denomination? Absolutely not.
Propper writes about how Judaism makes room for participants and leaders of various beliefs and non-beliefs. True. So do many Christian churches. But does Judaism make room for leaders in the Jewish faith who are not Jewish in their identity? Propper writes that Vosper’s congregants must think “she’s as Christian as can be” because, despite her beliefs, she leads a good life. But because Vosper is not a Christian, even if her congregants did say, “She’s as Christian as can be,” Vosper would likely correct them. Christian identity isn't handed out to (or forced upon) every good person. Christian identity and faith in Jesus Christ are claimed and committed to. Vosper is not a Christian, nor does she want to be Christian. She understands herself as "growing out of the Christian tradition," but if you were to attend her church, you would not find the most common “touchpoints” of the that tradition. The word “God” is rarely used. Common creeds and prayers have been secularized, removing explicitly Christian language. Jesus Christ is not a focus. There is no Holy Spirit. Sacred music has been rewritten and secularized. The Bible is read rarely. There are no Sacraments.
There’s nothing “wrong” with Rev. Gretta Vosper’s spiritual journey or her beliefs. There is nothing wrong with the congregants who remain at her church who support and desire such a community and leader. And there is also nothing wrong with the United Church of Canada being honest about the fact that Rev. Vosper and her church have stepped almost entirely outside of Christian tradition and fully outside of Christian identity.
Liberal, progressive Christians need to think seriously about what the Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ is. Are all welcome here? Absolutely! And if that were the end of our Mission and calling as Evangelists of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it would be absolutely appropriate for a non-Christian to be a “Christian” minister. But hospitality is only the first step, the base line, the context in which we go on to offer Good News to all people. A non-Christian leader can welcome people into community and take them on a rich spiritual journey! But they cannot offer the Christian Gospel, an invitation into a life dedicated to and transformed by Christ. This is our unique Mission, the sacred gift we, as the Christian Church, have been entrusted with and which no one else can offer.
Last month I preached on the Jesus' exhortation (via the Gospel of Matthew) that we ARE the salt of the earth and the light of the world. What is the relationship between the salt of the earth and the light of the world - where do these two ideas meet and how do they influence one another? As First Church Somerville continues to progress through the grief, the possibilities, and the work of the interim period, I offered them this affirmation of and challenge to their identity as a congregation.
Our scripture reading this morning comes from the Gospel According to Matthew chapter 5, verses 13 – 16. Let us know hear the Word of God:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Parent in heaven.”
In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
Will you please pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be truly salty. Drop us in the ocean of your love and purpose, O God, and brine us until we are ready to taste the way we say we taste. Amen.
I haven’t preached in a while so I’m going to rewind the clock one whole month to what was a watershed historical moment in American history – the Democratic National Convention. Besides a woman – named Hillary Clinton – becoming the first woman ever nominated to run for president by one of the major political parties, which was an amazing historic moment for sure, there were a lot of other ways that the Democratic National Convention was unlike any we have ever seen before. The Convention fully embraced the language and the symbols of patriotism, family values, and religion in a way that surprised us – we’re used to seeing this kind of stuff at the Republican National Convention.
But at the Democratic National Convention, Liberal Religion and progressive Christianity had their most significant platform in the great American public commons since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Rev. William Barber’s speech on morality in which he called Jesus, “a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew,” followed directly by Khizr Khan’s speech in which he described his family as representing patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to their country is just one example of the narrative that was being created throughout the DNC – a narrative that argued that Christianity (and Islam) are not fundamentalist religions, but liberal ones and – more than that – PROGRESSIVE religions.
Christianity stated loudly and clearly at the DNC, along with other great faith traditions of the world, that we’re called to work within and to celebrate a pluralistic society, we’re called to love and serve our country and all who call it home, we’re called to defend and promote diversity and justice, and we’re called to be the moral defibrillators of our time for the failing heart of our democracy threatened by the indecency of an off-the-rails white nationalist movement and an absolutely complicit, morally bankrupt Christian right. This was a big moment for Christians and people of faith like us. This is a moment for us to be SALTY and to be BRIGHT in the world.
At the DNC Progressive Christians boldly stated their identity and their mission in the world. Well, what about our identity and our mission here at First Church? Before we rush out the door to add our efforts to the great liberal religious renaissance that may be coming, let’s take a lick off our own selves and trim the wick on our own lamp – let’s assess where we are now in this moment as a church, and as a congregation, in transition, and in the interim period between lead pastors.
Jesus asks us, if salt loses its saltiness – what good is it? Well, that’s stupid, Jesus. Salt can’t lose its saltiness. Salt IS salty, right? Once again the son of God proves his ignorance of chemistry and the hard sciences. But back in Jesus’ time and place the salt that was harvested was not entirely pure – there were other crystalized minerals mixed in and if exposed to moisture the salty parts could be dissolved away leaving you with a bunch of crystalized sulfates and borides which tasted terrible and were of no use. When this happened to your salt there was no getting out of it – you needed to let that salt go and get yourself a new batch of salty salt. From Jesus’ cultural perspective salt could not be defined by pointing to a big pile of the stuff, it could only be defined by tasting it – by its true essence or its flavor, by its saltiness.
For years, under the leadership of lead pastor Rev. Molly Baskette’s leadership, the size of our church boomed. We were a growing mountain of salt! But we never really figured out how to go from being a sprinkling of salt to a great big pile – there were always growing pains – a constant struggle to be the next-sized church that we never quite figured out. Numbers were up, giving was up, but growth – growth in the sense of development along a path – growth that wasn’t about piling on salt but that was about fulfilling the destiny of the flavor of salt – was a different story.
In a little while we’ll be adding a new member to our ranks – Jesse Stansfield. He’s been around for years now, but today he officially and fully immerses himself in the covenant of membership here at First Church. Our covenant at this church is not worth joining because of the number of people involved, but because of the quality of the relationships here and the quality of our ability to serve God and the world together. Our covenant, our agreement to be church with one another, is the salty flavor of God among us. It’s our identity.
Our covenant has changed recently. One of Rev. Molly’s last acts among us was to ask us to revise the covenant of membership so that it no longer required baptism as a prerequisite for church membership. No matter how you felt about the potential change, we wouldn’t have tackled it when we did it if Rev. Molly hadn’t pushed the issue as she was leaving. It was a big decision for many of us, but the conflict, the consequences of conflict, and the resolution of the conflict stayed largely focused on Rev. Molly. It was her idea, her agenda, and her organizing that led to the discussion and so she absorbed the conflict as she always did, and ultimately we made the change.
But really it was just the beginning of a change in the nature of our covenant of membership – a change that we are ultimately not in control of and maybe we’re even resisting thinking about it – that despite what the membership promises have stated to the contrary much of our covenantal relationship at First Church Somerville has focused on our individual, personal relationship with one particular pastor – with Rev. Molly Baskette. When Rev. Molly left, the flavor of the covenant seemed to change radically for many of us.
For those of us who are committed to the mission of this church into the future, we’ve come to a time when the size of the pile marked “salt” has to matter less to us than the flavor found in each individual grain. This is a different kind of growth – a movement away from being attached to quantity as a marker of vitality and a sign that we have something to contribute to the world, and a movement toward discovering our true quality – a quality that can’t go away just because someone leaves, just because things are changing. Things are always changing. Perhaps, one way of looking at it is that we haven’t really lost our flavor at all – we just haven’t really, truly, confidently tasted it yet.
One of the most important pieces of the interim period, I think, will be to realize that the particular flavor, and that particular way we related to Rev. Molly Baskette can never be replicated or replaced. That’s just not the way it works – ever. And if the hope is that our new senior pastor will restore the saltiness to our covenant, we’re setting ourselves and our new pastor up for quite a disappointment.
Nobody – and I mean nobody – in all of Christendom – wants to serve as Rev. Molly Baskette’s replacement – as her stand in. Our next Senior Pastor will want to serve God, this church, and the world as themselves. So, YES, we want a strong, organized, charismatic, visionary leader who knows how to preach, teach, and lead! But do we want someone who will be willing to cram themselves into a Molly-shaped hole, or do we want someone who wants something much bigger than that?
At moments of difficult change in any life, it can feel like the lamp is on the lampstand, but that the flame is out. And we’re waiting for someone or something new to come along to light the lamp. Or maybe to actually BE the light itself. Is that the pastor we want? Is that the pastor we need? Or do we want someone who wants something much bigger than even that?
When potential new pastors are checking us out, I think we want them to see the lamp burning brightly because we, the beloved community, are that light, and the caretakers of our own light, and as a community we’ve set the lamp on a stand for the world and it’s higher up than any one person could ever hope to go on their own! And we want that pastor to GASP and be inspired by US and think MY GOD MY GOD these people have something to teach ME. And then they start to dream about how they can help us to raise our lamp even higher, to expand the circle of its glowing, rather than having to worry about constantly keeping the fire burning. In our most nervous and exhausted moments of change that’s what we think we need – someone who can keep the fire burning for us. Someone who can add flavor to this bland meal. Someone who will brighten up our dingy covenant.
When Jesse comes up here this morning to join our Covenant of membership, he’ll be carrying a candle. All of you who have joined us have done the same thing. You carried your lit candle up to the altar as a symbol of joining your gifts to the gifts of everyone else here. Pay attention to that symbol this morning and consider what it says about our greatest hopes for our salty, shiny selves.
The connection between salt and light brings us back again to the opportunity of the present moment – the opportunity to be a part of taking back the religious dialogue in this country from ideologues and hatemongers. The dynamic connection point between the salt of the earth and light of the world is called Mission. Mission is about who we are in covenant together (our saltiness) and how we live out who we are in the world (our lampiness).
I think First Church Somerville might have a bit of a mission problem, in that the dynamic point of connection between our saltiness and our lampiness, the point from which we step out to act in the world, and the point to which we return to reflect on what we have done and how it has changed us – that all-important point is in need of well – growth, development.
We have a Mission and Vision Statement – in which we define ourselves as a diverse group of progressive Christians and in which we layout some goals for ourselves as a community – we want to grow, we want to welcome people more deeply into the life of the church, we want to become more diverse, we want to provide a good religious education to our kids, and we want to develop new congregational leaders. This seems to be more or less our internal mission.
And then we have a Mission & Justice committee that is focused on making sizable charitable donations to outside groups and causes and to developing relationships to outside organizations and movements. This seems to be more or less our external mission.
Our mission somehow got divided in two – and it’s critical that we reconnect the two halves. Yes, absolutely, our sizable contribution to the Somerville Homeless Coalition every year is a part of our mission. If we try to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, we will no longer be a functioning church – we’ll be salt that’s lost its saltiness. And, yes, absolutely, the Youth Group is a part of our mission. If we ignore the educational programs for our kids, we will soon cease to be a functioning church – we’ll essentially be knocking the lampstand out from underneath the lamp.
We cannot have one half of our mission in competition with the other. If we’re going to be a church for the future, contributing to the best of what Christians can offer the world, we will be a church with one unified mission that equally supports the baby born here and the movement builder fighting for justice on the street outside. Because those are not two different things. They are connected! Movement builders make babies. And babies grow up to be movement builders.
Now this is great because I can feel the anxiety rising in the room just at the mention of the fact that we might need to evaluate our mission and RE-evaluate how we support that mission – why is there forced conscription of volunteers for Sunday School and Coffee Hour but no requirements for protesting and lobbying for justice? Why is there so much money to support charitable donations to outside groups but not enough money to functionally staff or supply our Sunday School or to buy food for the coffee hour table?
Undoubtedly, there will be CONFLICT! And I can’t imagine anything better – anything more honest, more revealing, and more SALTY than a little fight around here. A conflict that doesn’t begin and end with the senior pastor making a unilateral decision, but a fight that we have to start on our own and that we have to settle on our own.
This is precisely the sort of problem, and the sort of learning, we’re meant to tackle in our interim period. Imagine if we figured this one out NOW and we were able to use that learning and self-discovery process to teach us about ourselves so that we could use the new knowledge to help us hire the pastor who will be the best leader for who we are and where we’re going INSTEAD of hiring someone and sticking them with the unfortunate first task of picking a fight about how we support the mission of the church.
Actually, we’ve made some great progress. We have an amazing, dedicated search committee who take finding a great new pastor for this church very seriously. We have a Building Task Force Committee who are for the first time in five years bringing the renovation project under true congregational control. We have a Family Ministry Taskforce Committee who are exploring how our Sunday School stacks up to the competition in order to make recommendations for the goals we need to set to fulfill our Mission to our kids and to the families who will be arriving SOON, when things change again, and the salt starts piling up.
Now what we need to do is not to just make this about the work we need to get done until the new pastor gets here. We need to make this about figuring out who we are, how we relate to one another, and where we see ourselves getting to – I mean really getting to – not just “program-sized church” whatever the heck that means. Who cares how big we get? Let’s grow by really understanding who we essentially are as salty Christians, by committing to being the light, not just watching the light show, and by evaluating and merging our mission work so that when it comes time for our new pastor to start we can actually tell them who we are and what we’re called by God to do in the world. Amen.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations