I have a confession to make, I am a little jealous of all those who can stand up in the pulpit and preach without a manuscript. I’ve always wanted to preach without a text in front of me, and back when I was preaching every week I had worked my way down to an extended outline. I should say very extended! I have friends who have that ability. They can prep their sermon, maybe put together an outline, and then on Sunday morning just stand up and go for it. They look relaxed, engaged, make great eye contact with the congregation – all those things they tried to teach us at seminary. While the mere thought of walking up here with no notes is enough to make my stomach turn.
Actually, there are quite a few things that I could put on my list of “things about myself I wish I could change” such as making the voice inside my head match my actual voice when singing. Perhaps then I could sing better in tune and not need to be so diligent about turning my microphone off during hymns. And I would love to be the kind of person that can walk into a room full of people they don’t know and strike up a conversation with anyone. I’m a little tongue in cheek here, but we all have those lists don’t we? Lists of things that we wish we could do or be but don’t seem to have it in us.
Perhaps that is why I so loved a blogpost, “How to Follow Jesus…Without Being Shane Claiborne,” by Rachel Held Evans, that was forwarded to me this week. Shane Claiborne, you see, is an activist and part of a community called “The Simple Way” which makes its home among the poor of Philadelphia. This community, which is part of the new monastic movement, seeks to share the love of Christ by building relationships of love and service within an area torn by violence and poverty. I met Shane at the Wild Goose Festival this summer, and he and the members of the Simple Way are amazing people – and there was not a note in sight when he spoke to our gatherings... Shane Claiborne – think Mother Teresa of inner city Philly. Anyway, Rachel’s post begins by admitting she has been going through what she terms a sad and predictable cycle in her life of faith. She writes,
· Phase 1: My commitment to Jesus is primarily an intellectual one. He is an idea I believe in, not a person I follow.
· Phase 2: I read through the Gospels again and realize that Jesus doesn’t want me to simply like him; he wants me to follow him.
· Phase 3: I buy the latest Shane Claiborne book, read it in two days, and resolve that following Jesus means selling all my things, sleeping with the homeless, and starting a monastic community. I begin looking into the cost of apartments in inner-city Nashville.
· Phase 4: I remember that I have a job, a mortgage, and a spouse (who hasn’t read Shane Claiborne).
· Phase 5: Heavy with guilt and overwhelmed by the insurmountable nature of my own convictions, I give up and revert right back to Phase 1. Following Jesus, it seems, just isn’t realistic.
Rachel then goes on to speak of how she tries to break out of that cycle and be her own kind of follower of Jesus Christ, but we all can get to that place sometimes, can’t we? Tallying in our head lists of people. Lists of people we feel we should be more like, maybe it’s Mother Teresa, maybe it’s Shane Claiborne, maybe it’s your third grade Sunday School teacher that you knew for years and seemed like such a bastion of faith, or a mother or a father or a friend. But you just don’t seem to have it in you to be just like them, as faithful as they seemed to be, and so the guilt piles on and you settle back into comfortable patterns of believing about Jesus and continuing on in your daily life.
Into that cycle I want to pull the text for today from Romans.
Paul spends much of the first eleven chapters of Romans speaking about the nature of the grace we receive from God through Jesus Christ. It is in those chapters that we learn that Christ is our advocate and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. And then Paul starts out chapter 12 with a big, THEREFORE, signifying a shift from discussion of who God is to how we should respond. And it is a big response! “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” he says, “do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed.” Or I like how Eugene Petersen puts it in The Message translation since we aren’t generally conversant in sacrificial language. He translates this as, “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out.” A big response indeed, but then Paul shifts gears and moves into the images of community, of body, and of differing gifts. This is a theme that runs through many of Paul’s letters, this emphasis on a reality where different people are given different gifts, different abilities, different modes and ways of acting out the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. In the juxtaposition of these two ideas – the need for sacrifice and transformation and the idea of differing gifts – Paul seems to want the reader to focus not on one particular manifestation or embodiment of discipleship but on the idea of transformation. When we encounter Christ, when we “fix our attention on God,” seeking to put every part of our lives before God as an offering, then who we are – with our own particular brand of skills and affinities – will be transformed into the follower, the disciple that God intends for us to be.
Another way to put it, and I will quote Shane Claiborne on this, “We are all called to carry a cross, but that doesn’t mean all the crosses look alike. Consider the two tax-collectors who follow Jesus, Matthew and Zacchaeus. Even though they are both tax-collectors their responses to Jesus are not identical. Matthew leaves everything and follows Jesus, barefoot on the streets. Zacchaeus doesn’t. He sells half of everything and gives it to the poor, and then he begins paying people back four times what was owed them. He is a different kind of tax-collector, doing Jubilee economics and spinning debt on its head. Neither of them are conforming any longer to the patterns of their world. But they responded in different ways.” One person might have the kind of faith that leads him into a career as a missionary, another might have the type of faith that leads her to the field of education, and yet another might have the sort of faith that leads her to work as a lawyer and use her expertise to serve others as God provides opportunities. All are valid ways of following Christ.
In one sense, this is incredibly freeing, in that we no longer are measuring ourselves against someone else’s way of being faithful, being gifted, being a disciple. But in another sense it is a huge undertaking to fix our attention on God and seek God’s will and direction for our lives. A task that we are all called to undertake.
But what does any of this have to do with this idea of “open source church”?
To this point I’ve been talking about the individual applications of this passage, but there are also implications for the community of faith. For if we truly believe as we proclaim, that all the individuals that make up this community are gifted in different ways and are called to live into and live out that giftedness, then we must allow space and authority for that to happen in and through our community. I talked last week about the importance of multiple voices within the open source community. This week the focus is on multiple gifts and their contribution to larger whole.
Bruce Reyes-Chow, a Presbyterian pastor, relates a story of one of the first days of his first call. On a tour of the church given by a long-time member he was taken to a hallway which was decorated with the portraits of various pastors that had served the church. She began telling him some of the stories as they walked down the hall, and when they came to the end, she said, “And that is where your picture will go.” But she was not finished, for after a long pause she pointed further down the hall and continued, “And that is where the picture of the pastor after you will go.”
A funny story, but one that points to the truth that it is the ministries that spring from the passions and gifts of the church, that have the capacity to last far beyond the agenda or gifts of a particular pastor or particular leader. It’s a reality that this church has experienced with SEMP, with Forum, with the children’s programming that all utilize the skills of many and have remained strong through various changes in leadership. The church is meant to be a place where people are equipped and empowered to engage in ministry and mission themselves as they discover their gifts and their passions. And so it perhaps is time to look at our structures and determine if they serve us well. With the reality of long work hours, two career households, and travel schedules fewer and fewer are able to commit to year long or three year long terms and multiple monthly meetings. New needed ministries must navigate through a committee structure or become assigned as a subcommittee. It can be difficult to translate a passion or concern into a tangible action. Whitsitt suggests in his book, Open Source Church, “the key to good, faithful organization is to create structures where the smallest possible group of people is empowered to do what God is calling for with as little obstruction as possible.” It is a decentralized form of organization, which admittedly can be a little maddening to our Presbyterian, “we do things decently and in order,” culture. It will take vision, to set the direction and perimeters of who we are a community of disciples following Jesus Christ. It will take equipping, giving people the knowledge they need, the opportunity to grow, and the resources to complete their aim. And it will take trust, in God and in people, that we act not out of fear of what might happen but out of hope in what might be.
Last week I ended with a question – whose voices are missing from our congregation? And I’m ending with a question again this week. And for that question I’m going back to the beginning. For you see, we can work toward a more flat, more open way of organizing a church. We can change the structure to provide ways for people to initiate and support ministries of outreach and concern. But until that first step happens, that transformation, that willingness to fix your attention on God and look for the ways in which God’s will is going to make a difference in your life, to look for the gifts, skills and affinities that you’ve been given and wonder about what shape your discipleship will take – until that first step happens, none of it matters.
What matters is what God is calling you to be as a disciple. Are you willing to try to find the answer to that question?