A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on November 14, 2010.
Six centuries before Jesus was born, the great Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Babylonians carted off many of the upper classes in a huge repatriation program. Some Jews were left behind but have no doubt, the country was crushed and the Temple, the symbol of their worship of God, was utterly destroyed. The spirit of the Jews was broken as they pondered, “Where is our God who has abandoned us this way?” The prophet Isaiah focused squarely on the future and the emotional need of the people to come home with a vision in their heads of how they needed to go to work to rebuild their identity and their lives. Isaiah 65 is a prophetic word written after the Exile to a people who had major concerns they had to face …
- It deals with the courage of going home
- It deals with the struggle to redefine their identity
- It deals with the stamina of rebuilding their lives
Can’t you see that these three issues channel the banks for having a new understanding of the words of the prophet? If you did not know these things, almost surely you would miss the richness of the biblical story and go away wondering how this story addresses our world today.
Walter Brueggemann claims the passing of Christendom might be compared to the fall of Jerusalem and he adds there is no going back. He goes on to say, that the danger in being an exile is in becoming so preoccupied with the ego of the past that we cannot step outside ourselves to re-think, re-imagine, and re-describe the mission of the church in this new reality. Nothing could be more important today than to realize the experience of being an exile is being felt uniquely in our own time and in our own country and some of us are not even aware of it. Admittedly, no country has invaded our land nor have our churches been bulldozed to rubble. But by being a Christian today, we are experiencing faith in a revolutionary time. We’re living in a culture as exiles because we’ve entered a time when Christianity is no longer propped up or tacitly supported by the culture.
Some have called the new world we live in as “the passing of Christendom” (aka, “Post-Christian” – the name given to the religious culture that has dominated Western society since the 4th century when Constantine established Christianity as the official imperial religion). Perhaps you’ve heard it somewhere on the news or in something you’ve read as the effects of post-modernism. No matter what term is used, we’ve entered a time not like that of the past or at least a past that anyone can recall unless you’ve grown up in some other country with different cultural assumptions.
Consequently, here in America we’ve become exiles from an old world where the church and the culture got along quite nicely – each in support of one another. In not too distant times, the church was part of the wallpaper in the culture of our communities. Today, in traditional churches like ours, we’re grieving over our loss of place and struggling with a newborn humiliation as we struggle to keep our heads above water. The ground has slipped out from under the church and it’s altogether too easy to target the clergy for under-performing. Lest you think I’m merely being defensive, let me illustrate what I mean.
Every first Monday of the month, I sit at a table with fifteen other ministers, all pastoring churches not too unlike this one. They range in age from one who’s just recently retired all the way down to a couple of 20-something guys in their first pastorates. They are well-educated and bright shining lights for the future of the church. They are articulate and sharp theological thinkers. They have a clear-eyed understanding of the culture and are engaged in the world. “Not a dog in the bunch,” the old-timers might say. They are as bright as any young pastors I’ve seen and those with experience have had significant ministries. But almost to a pastor, everyone in the room is facing a serious challenge in leading their churches facing exactly the same issues as we are here at Holmeswood. Why is it these fifteen churches (all of them) have come to struggle with the same issues all at the same time? I don’t think fifteen area churches have all called under-performing pastors. Clearly, something has shifted in the culture.
Subsequently, Holmeswood became involved in the missional church movement five years ago in response to these changes admitting that how we did church in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s is not working as it did in the past. We have heard you clearly that the success of those years should be our target. Our pushback to that wish is to say, “We cannot go back to those times, no matter what we wish, no matter how hard we work to get back there.” The river of time flows endlessly and once you withdraw your hand you cannot put it back in in the same place again no matter how much you want to. That time simply does not exist and the culture is the first evidence that this is so.
That means the community is and will be less responsive to the old wineskin of the church with its emphasis upon programs and committees and age groups and endless activities meant only to gather the church but not meant to adopt missional thinking. This does not mean we’ve lost our voice – I suspect we’re simply singing a song the community doesn’t want to sing. Herein lies one of the biggest problems keeping us from realizing we must change. We are victims of nostalgia and shaken by fear.
In identifying with the new creation of Isaiah, Michael Frost, author of Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, notes, “I suspect the increased marginalization of the Christian movement in the West is the very thing that will wake us up to a marvelously exciting, dangerous, and confronting message of Jesus.” The sooner the church recognizes it has lost its footing in the culture the sooner we can focus on what’s really next because the world has not lost its need for Christ and a spiritual connection to God. We’ve lost the song and need to learn how to sing again. There are infinite possibilities but we must relinquish our old wineskins that keep us from moving on!
To stay firmly planted in this world and all its frantic needs and to work for God’s new creation, theologian John Howard Yoder says the church needs to develop “a minority perspective.” That kind of perspective goes against the grain. It is counter-intuitive to what we might think needs doing because we’ve bought into a form of cultural majoritarian thinking. A majority perspective assumes that we can flex our power in the world or that we can buy influence. It suggests we make a mistake thinking we can work harder and things will turn out differently. A minority perspective doesn’t make any of these assumptions. A minority church perspective seeks to embody and be witness to the ways of Jesus, but without turning to worldly power or wealth or influence.
To illustrate, here’s an old story, but one told from this minority perspective. It’s a story of the endurance to work for the new creation comes told by historian Taylor Branch about the Civil Rights Movement. It was 1963 in Birmingham. Things for the movement had gone hard and it looked as though their efforts would be turned back once again. So far, there was room yet in the jail, maybe more room than the movement could muster. Then, one Sunday at the New Pilgrim Baptist Church, the young people poured out of the church and readied themselves to march. The police felt the tide turning with the sheer volume of their numbers as they realized there were now more marchers than they could possibly arrest. The line of young people who turned out to march with conviction that day was five blocks long.
As they approached the line of police officers and their dogs, Bull Connor, notorious for his violent treatment of marchers, walked out to confront them. He shouted at the firemen to turn on their hoses. Before they could do that, the line approached so close they were face-to-face with Connor and his men. There they stopped abruptly, knelt down on the pavement and prayed.
After a few moments a pastor, the Reverend Charles Billups, stood up suddenly and shouted with all his voice, “Turn on your water hoses! Turn loose your dogs! We will stand here ‘til we die!” And just a few minutes later, Rev. Billups and all those young people took a step forward and the firemen and police parted their line to let them through. Those gathered in the crowd to watch said it was if the Red Sea had parted for the children of Israel.
“What kind of church does it take to nurture Christians capable of standing like that?” How is it anyone gets a new vision for what God is mysteriously doing in the world, even when the world itself looks as though it might split apart and be destroyed? Can we do it? Can we stand here and see the work that needs doing? As your pastor, there is not room for us to sit idle. Remember the three-part guidance I’ve shared with you before? To be a healthy, growing, energized member here …
- You need to join a worshiping community
- You need a join a small group with whom you share your life and your struggles
- You need a ministry in which to share your gifts with the world
Some of you sitting here live out only one of these things – the gathering of worship. Others of you participate in two of these characteristics by being a part of a BFG class. But how many seek to live out all three and have found a ministry that’s a way for you to live out your faith? For every faith-step you take in these three areas, joy is multiplied. For every faith-step not taken for one reason or the other, joy is diminished and there is the likelihood you’ll adopt a critical observer spirit where you sit and analyze but don’t engage in the work of the faith. That spirit will overcome and stifle the joy God wants to bring to you.
The missional movement is not a motion we vote on and approve as a church program. The missional way of living is only enacted when our hearts and our hands are engaged in ministry. Want to make a major contribution to the health and vitality to this church? If you don’t have a ministry, get off your holy behind and get one. You’ll be a more energized and happy Christian and this church will make an impact once again in this community. Everyone I read who’s writing about the postmodern Post-Christian world will agree: This is not a time to be holding anything back … it’s a time to risk, to step forward, to want to see the world as God sees it … as an infinite possibility!
In Isaiah, God says to the beleaguered Post-Exilic refugees who had come home at last: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight (Isaiah 65:17-18, NRSV).
Hear the prayer of the storied old black pastor who had given much of himself to the Civil Rights Movement in his own community as he stood to pray with great conviction:
O God, send us the power of your Holy Spirit.
You know the battle is hard and the journey is long.
We can’t make it without you.
 Michael Frost, Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishing, 2006, 9
 Frost, 9
 Cited in Kyle Childress, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” Christian Century, 11/2/10, 21
 Kyle Childress, Ibid, 21