Finding Life: Summer 2020
The Good News Faith God is Always Rebeginning
Jul 26, 2020
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Click the YouTube link to watch video of our July 26 “Virch” worship service.
Click HERE for our Spiritual Practice, led by Pastor Lydia Shiu.
Hey, Friends, I don’t know about you, but one of the big novelties for me over the past month or two has been the occasional face to face conversation with someone who’s not one of my housemates. I don’t have nearly enough of these still. I’m hugely committed to this whole public love of neighbor through COVID caution, even as these days drag on far longer than we’d hoped. But, at a good distance, almost always masked, I’ve had the chance to talk face to face with a few folks, which has been great.
One of these chats, a friend and I ended up in a more of a downer moment of conversation, though, when we wondered if these days, we’re watching the death of the American church.
Maybe you’ve heard that churches have sometimes been super-spreaders of the COVID virus. It’s true. Not believing in science, or more concerned with carrying on their religious zeal than loving their neighbor, churches have sometimes been a significant part of the problem in our health pandemic. You likely know well that in the long story of America’s pandemic of racism and racial violence, churches have been major perpetrators and if not that, then bystanders. And in the parts of the church that line up unquestioning behind every race-bating comment of our president, or every anti-Black, anti-immigrant posture and policy of his, that continues.
My friend and I wondered, if ten years ago, the average young American thought Christians were close-minded, anti-science, anti-gay, untrustworthy, hypocritical, where are we today? Where will we be a decade from now?
Part of me wonders why I care. There is so much in American religious life that we’d be better off without, so much in American Chrisitanity in particular that needs to die.
But while that’s true, I’m sad too. Because the community of church has had an amazing impact in my life. I know that the God Jesus taught about loves and accepts me, partly because people who’ve loved that God have loved and accepted me so much. Most of what I’ve discovered about healing, about justice, about joy, about the good life really, I’ve discovered alongside people of faith.
I know the same is true for the friend I was talking to in his backyard about the future of the American church.
I know that’s true for many of you too. We gathered our new and returning Reservoir Board members for our first meeting online. And as we shared about our personal faith history and our history with this church over our time here, we heard stories about people’s profound experiences of love and acceptance and transformation in this community.
And I want more of that for more people. So I care about the future of the church – this one, Reservoir Church – and other good ones too. And I’ve wondered if there’s cause for hope.
Which takes me to the Bible passage I’d like to read and ground us in today. This spring and this summer, when life has been hard, I’ve again and again been drawn to this little letter called Philippians. I’ve been wanting to share with you a few things I’ve seen there. I’m going to read part of the first chapter of the letter, from a contemporary translation called The Message.
Philippians 1:3-11 (The Message)
3-6 Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.
7-8 It’s not at all fanciful for me to think this way about you. My prayers and hopes have deep roots in reality. You have, after all, stuck with me all the way from the time I was thrown in jail, put on trial, and came out of it in one piece. All along you have experienced with me the most generous help from God. He knows how much I love and miss you these days. Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does!
9-11 So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.
Friends, for what it’s worth, this is what it’s like for me to pray for you all. I spent much of Thursday walking and praying. I was praying that our legislators do good work on police reform and immigrant rights. Praying for ou church and praying for the city of Cambridge in particular, as I walked around its perimeter. I’m going to do the same in Somerville next, then some other communities where many of you live. But last week, each time one of you came to mind, or each time I prayed for one of you who is a Cambridge resident and sent me your prayers, I felt like Paul here – so thankful for you, my sweatier and sweatier self smiling as I thought of you. (It turns out you do sweat a lot, by the way, when you walk 10 or 15 miles in Cambridge in July. When I got home, my family banned me from their presence until I showered. God protect us all in this torrid heat wave.)
But anyway, like Paul, those smiles, that thanksgiving for you and for this community of beautiful people was a trigger to prayer. So I prayed more or less as Paul did, that your love will flourish, that you will love deeply and well. That we all will keep finding our way toward lives that Jesus will be proud of… (not because Jesus is super-hard to please, but because this is what it means to be connected with Jesus… to be increasingly aware that you are abundantly loved, and to be increasingly empowered to love with abundance… To love deeply and well, to love justly and to love with mercy, and to walk humbly – to not take yourself too seriously. All this does make Jesus proud! So I pray that for us all.)
But there’s this other line here I want to mention, just one line, that captures some of the big picture that was going on with Paul and the little Philippian house churches, a line that in this context, gives me hope as well for the future of Jesus-centered faith in our time and place. That “God who started this great work in you will keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish.” The God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.
I first encountered this verse as a personal promise, that anything God seems to have started in my life that is good, God will finish. Which I think is true, even if what I think God is doing and what God actually is doing aren’t always the same thing.
But, here the “you,” as it almost always is in the New Testament, is plural. It’s you all – it’s the community. Reading the Bible, or trying to relate to God, like it’s always all about me, that takes us weird places sometimes. The main thing that is being said here includes you and me, but it’s bigger than just you and me. It’s talking about what God is doing in the whole community. The good God is doing among you all won’t be stopped. God will see it through to flourishing.
Now in Philippi, there was religious life that Paul wanted to die. In the first century, religion had a lot of ugly too, just like in our times. Roman religion was often used to justify the status quo, to maintain an unjust order. The Roman gods and temples and religion were another way of asserting the whole Roman imperial dominance throughout the empire. The Jewish faith in which Paul was raised was kind of a corrective to that, asserting a smaller group’s distinctive value and culture, against this enormous imperial threat. But in Paul’s time, he had colleagues who wanted to assert a kind of Hebrew privilege or superiority – you’re not good enough until you join God’s chosen people and assimilate to their ways. And Paul fought all this – let bad religion die, he’d say.
But Paul and his friends also saw something really different that God was doing, something that needed to grow and flourish. Read Philippians, and the other early letters of Paul, and you come to understand that:
Unlike the ways of the Roman Empire, the good news communities of Jesus weren’t going to have privileged and marginal people. God was going to grow beloved communities where all belong on equal footing, and where the unjust ways of the world weren’t defended but challenged.
The good news of Jesus wasn’t that God was powerful, aligning with the interests of the dominant among us. The good news is that in Jesus, we see God as a servant – what Philippians calls God as slave – experiencing human life from the bottom of the status pyramid. In Christ, God is an undocumented clearning woman. God is a young black man unjustly harassed by police. God is a homeless refugee on the outskirts of some war-torn community in the Middle East. God is a poor, urban slum dweller in New Delhi. In Christ, God knows suffering and shame and humiliation and lack from the inside out.
The good news of Jesus isn’t a big cosmic fix-it, it’s not an immediate end to pain and difficulty, but an invitation to experience God’s friendship and support and kindness in the middle of every pain and difficulty.
The good news of Jesus isn’t that me and mine are justified or better or special. The good news of Jesus is the creation and sustaining of radically inclusive and equitable communities, where our human divisions are overcome, and our human privileges and status are undone in the name of love and justice.
The good news of Jesus isn’t a defending of the state of our lives and our world as they are. But the good news of Jesus is the personal and social transformation of our lives, until they are colored by humility and love, permeated with peace and justice, through and through.
Philippians tells us this, and this is what Paul is talking about when he says that God won’t give up on what God started, that God will see it through to flourishing. He’s saying that God’s beloved community, God’s transforming and transformative community will be made manifest among you.
God won’t give up on making your church, and perhaps in time, your city and your world, what it was meant to be.
Now this good news of course does not sound much like the brand of American Christianity my friend and I are watching die out. American Christianity, and by that I really mean White American Christianity, is a descendant of the Roman Imperial faith that in the fourth century co-opted the Jesus movement to justify its wars.
And so the American church, like the colonial church, is a tool of state violence and warfare. Has been since the beginning.
White American Christiaity is a descendant of the European colonial faith that saw difference as a threat to be tamed and a people to be converted, and so burned so-called witches and heretics, slaughtered Muslims and Jews, brought bibles and crosses on the same boats that brought genocide to the Americas. So if you’re Christian in America today, you’re more likely to fear immigrants and want them kept out than if you’re not Chrisitan. If you’re Christian in America today, you’re more likely to blame a person for their own poverty, more likely to scapegoat all kinds of vulnerable people, as if they are a threat.
And White American Chrisitanity is a descendant of the religious movement that justified slavery with White supremacy, that terrorized Black Americans once they were free, and that faught the civil rights movement tooth and nail, or sat it out on the sidelines. So if you’re Christian in America today, it’s more likely that you resisted integration in the 60s and 70s, and more likely that you’d be susceptible to a race-bating, make America so-called great again populist movement.
This kind of faith and religion needs to die. To that extent that White Christianity’s leaders continue to be exposed as frauds, that their institutions shrink and suffer and die, I don’t shed a tear.
But that’s not the whole Christian witness in America, and it is not what God is growing and doing. There have always been followers of Jesus in this land who practiced the beloved community, who believed in a God who is first among those who suffer, who nurture healing and justice in and through the church. Parts of the Black church in America, for instance, have always carried this good news and do still.
And here’s my hope. That where God is doing this good news, where God is growing the Beloved community – the place of love and belonging and equity for all people. The place where God is working healing and justice, where God is humbling the exalted and exalting the humble. The work God is doing to equip people to face suffering and pain with courage, hope, and love. God will not let that work and witness end. God will bring it to a flourishing completion.
I believe Reservoir is meant to be part of this story, to be part of the good news faith in Jesus that survives in our future.
I love this church and like many of you, I think God is doing something special here. 15 years ago my family was looking for a church and we landed and stayed here because it was spiritually vibrant, because we could experience and grow faith that mattered, because it was easy to get to know all kinds of honest, authentic people. And it also didn’t hurt that were lots of interracial families like ours.
Nearly eight years ago, when some of you asked me to think about being this church’s second senior pastor, that was so far outside of my plans for my life. I didn’t particularly want to be a pastor at the time, but it became clear to me that for this church, for this one church, I do. It seemed like we had a chance to keep growing a community of healthy faith that would make sense in our times, that wouldn’t exclude people, that would teach and practice a faith that wasn’t all about the tired, toxic ideas and practices that make for so much dying religious life.
Four or five years ago, we had done a fair bit of work to become a church that was more inclusive, that was closer to the Beloved community. But as I looked around our church, which we all celebrated as a very diverse community, I noticed that our leadership was whiter than our membership as a whole. And I thought about the long track record in American Christianity of centering white people and white voices and white concerns, and wondered if we were immune to that in our beloved church. I wondered if we didn’t have some more important work to do.
So with the help of a fellow Board member with experience in this area, I led our Board through a discussion on what kind of diverse church we were. Had we yet seen all we could see in the kind of community of healing and justice we hoped to be? Had we yet become the Beloved community of Jesus, or was there more good work God had to flourish in us?
We looked at a spectrum for churches, where on one end was the White supremacist church, where White leaders may say all people are welcome but where White people and white culture run the show, in the long tradition of white Christianity. And on the other side of the spectrum was a truly anti-racist church, where all diversity in the church experienced true, equitable belonging and voice, and where the church’s community of healing and voice for justice was transformative, inside the church and outside in the broader community.
And we honestly acknowledged that we were in the middle. We were a multicultural church, to be sure, much more diverse than the average American church. And we tried to be welcoming and inclusive to all the diversity in our community – people who are valued and treasured, made in God’s image, after all. But we saw we had work to do.
We had work to do in who was leading and in how we lead. We had work to do in how people of color experience all our worship services, and all our community groups, and all our ministries and programs.
We named a goal of becoming a true community of healing and justice, a not just diverse but fully inclusive church, of becoming the kind of church that could be a light in our members’ lives and a light to our city in this regard.
And you what happened…four or five years ago… not enough. Seeing God complete this good work didn’t take on enough urgency for me, I’ll admit. It’s too easy for a White person, for a White leader to settle into a slow pace of change. There were times where I heard what it was like for a Black member of our community to not have their experience or voice or culture centered in our worship services very often. Or I heard an Asian-American member of our community having an unsafe experience of being diminished in a community group. And I’d respond, of course, but not enough.
This struck me last fall, when I realized that 27 years into my own serious work to not just see the world through white eyes, I still had work to do. And that our church can’t rest until we achieve true Beloved community in our midst, for everybody. Until the 30 or 40 % of us that are people of color see and feel that every aspect of this church’s community and programs and culture and ministry is for them just as much as it is for anyone else. Until all God’s children in our community experience that everything here is for them just as much as it is for anyone else.
It’s been humbling, sobering, to me this year to be in repentance for my too slow pace and not urgent enough attention to this flourishing. And so when I pursue, along with our whole team, specific, real progress toward this church truly becoming a community of healing and justice, a beloved, anti-racist, good news community in our city, I am not just on a post-George Floyd trend, I am aligning myself, inviting us all to align ourselves with God who insists that God will complete what God has began in this community.
That God will make this church a beacon of healing and joy and delight for people of color throughout our city and region, as much as for any white person. And that we will worship and love and follow the God who is first known on earth in the margins, not in the center of power or privilege.
Friends, could you join me in praying for Reservoir? That the good work God began here will continue to its full flourishing. That the voice and experience and needs of people who have felt marginal at different times – working class folks, queer folks, disabled folks, to name a few – would be included at the center. And that a White-dominant, White-centered way of being church in America would die here, that our church will be a truly safe, empowering, celebrating community of every person of color in our midst – now and in the future – for the sake of all our healing, and for the sake of the gospel.
And join me please in praying for us all – inside and outside the church – in this time, that in a time of so much change, so many threats, so much anxiety and weariness, that we’d all have the courage to stay engaged in discovering and being part of the renewing, redemptive work that God is doing in this season.
When COVID pandemic physically separates us, we could emotionally, relationally separate too, or we could keep binding together in mutual love and support. And when cries for racial justice are loud among us, those of us who are White in particular, or who are newer to reflection on racial injustice, could close our ears or shut down in fear, or we could welcome the work of Beloved community God can do through this, and humbly, but persistently, seek to see it into being.