Imitation & Transformation

I preached on Philippians 3:17-4:1 at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on Sunday, February 24, 2013. Listen to it via this player or read the text below.

It was time. The scripture read, the congregation looked expectantly at the girl, a young woman really. She stood up, all 5 feet of her. Her long ginger hair flowed from her head and framed her young, fresh face.

As she made her way to the pulpit on this Sunday in which the youth led worship, the congregation smiled at her. They expected great things out of this girl. You see they’d been here on the Sunday when her parents and godparents came forward and she was baptized in the name of the Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Spirit swirled among them on that day. They remembered the smiles of joy as the congregation promised to support parents and child in a journey of faith.

As she made her way to the pulpit on this Sunday in which the youth led worship, the congregation remembered how when she was but three-years old she wrote a poem following her great-grandmother’s death. They remembered the funeral. They remembered how she stood next to her dad in this very sanctuary as he read the words she’d recited as mantra after her Great Granny died,

Flowers bloom in the springtime, 

Sometimes you die, 

Flowers bloom in the springtime.

Yes, they expected great things out of the now fifteen-year-old who was so wise at  three.

As she made her way to the pulpit on this Sunday in which the youth led worship, the congregation wondered what warm and fuzzy thing she would say. They expected great things out of this girl. You see they’d been here on the Sunday when she, wearing her white robe, read her confirmation vows. If they’d been a little more Pentecostal, they’d have sworn that they saw the Holy Spirit descend upon her that day.

Reaching the pulpit, she stepped up onto the stool, so she could be seen. She was a short fifteen-year-old. Expecting much from this remarkable young woman, the room became silent, every face looked toward her with expectation.  And the red-headed prophet spoke these words to the people who had raised her up to follow Jesus the Christ…

The fresh-faced prophet spoke these words to men with grey hair, to women with a few wrinkles, and to the smattering of young mothers and fathers with their children sitting beside them…

The prophet spoke these words, and I quote, “The church sucks!” The prophet’s parents looked at one another. This was not the sermon they’d heard at home before church. Holding hands with one another in the pew, they wondered if they would have a church home after their fifteen-year-old daughter was done.

After her shocking opening words from the pulpit, the prophet continued. She talked about the church’s functional if not outright hatred of gays and lesbians. She told them about her friend who committed suicide because of being bullied for being too effeminate.

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. He ate with the outcast and sinner. He loved all people but called out those who used their power to hurt others. Others like her now dead friend.

She talked about the inconsistency between the country’s war policy and the teachings of Jesus.

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. Why, she asked her faith mentors are you not speaking out for a better way?

She talked about drugs and alcohol. She talked about how she and her friends had easy access to drugs a block away from their school. Why, she asked, is the church silent when her friends overdose?

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. 

She talked about her friend who was sleeping around with boys because she didn’t have the kind of love from her parents that she deserved. Where is the church?

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. 

She challenged those who had raised her in the faith to be consistent. “Open your eyes and hearts,” she said, “you’ve failed too many of my generation.” With a determined look on her face and a tear welling up in her eye, she sat down.

The sanctuary was silent. The sanctuary was silent and though it was not in the church bulletin, the pastor stood up to speak.

“We’ve heard some hard words this morning. We’ve heard some words we’re not used to hearing in church but we need to listen and we need to act.”

Nothing significant changed. Now thirty years old, that teenage prophet is no longer a churchgoer.

***

Hear Paul’s words to the church at Philippi:

Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. Phil. 3:17-18 CEB

Imprisoned, most likely in Rome, Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. From a prison cell in Rome, where he would be awaiting his last appeal, something he was entitled to as a Roman citizen, Paul wrote to his beloved friends, the Philippians. The Philippi United Church of Christ was a church that had supported Paul’s ministry, probably on an ongoing basis. By all accounts they were a “good church” and a “successful church.” They were growing slowly but steadily.

In the middle of the first century, five decades after Jesus, Philippi was not the biggest city in its district. However, it wasn’t just a part of the Roman empire either. It was a Roman colony. This meant that its citizens had “great privileges…enjoy[ing] considerable property and legal rights.” (New Interpreters Bible, p. 470) Because the Philippi UCC was in a colony, its members would’ve been Roman citizens themselves. Their Roman citizenship would have been a point of pride and something of value to protect.

The still-young Philippian church of the mid-first century existed in a time when being a Christian was far from easy, however. The Roman gods and Roman values were dominant among the faithful of the city. Though different religious groups were tolerated by the dominant Roman cult and Christians didn’t have to worry about outright persecution, it didn’t mean all groups received equal respect.

At least one scholar contends the religious culture in Philippi was syncretic, meaning people were accustomed to picking a little of this from one religion and a little of that from another religion to meet their own tastes… And in the process avoiding the hard things that God demands of them in any of the religions.

Imagine striving to grow a church community in a culture of instant gratification, pain avoidance, and anything goes when your church is about loving sacrifice and sharing of resources.

For the Philippians in a Roman colony, there was a constant tension between the values of following Jesus and a culture with contrary, sometimes even hedonistic, values. And many in the church undoubtedly were tempted, as Jesus was in the wilderness, to compromise. To take the easy path.

And so, the apostle Paul writes to affirm and warn the struggling Philippians,

As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. Phil. 3: 18-20 CEB

Imagine striving to educate your young and attract members in a time when the culture teaches values contrary to those of your faith. When the culture is filled with those Paul calls “enemies of the cross.”

***

Can you? Can you imagine striving to educate our young and attract members to the Condon UCC when the culture teaches values contrary to those of Jesus the Christ? When even some other churches teach adherence to dogmas that exclude and lead to hatred of “the least of these”?

It seems to me that though Christianity is still the dominant religion in our time, secularism and capitalism and individualism have far more sway over our children than the church does. Sadly, our culture reflects a faith in acquisition more than in sharing. In winning more than in being community. While we all believe in hard work, some in our culture take that to an extreme anti-biblical position. They suggest the survival of the fittest and rugged individualism when our upside down Savior teaches that the meek shall inherit the earth and that peacemakers are called children of God.

***

The teenaged prophet challenged those who had raised her in the faith to be consistent. “Open your eyes and hearts,” she said, “you’ve failed too many of my generation.” With a determined look on her face and a tear welling up in her eye, she sat down.

The sanctuary was silent. And nothing significant changed. Now thirty years old, that teenage prophet is no longer a churchgoer.

***

What are we to do? We live in an era when fewer and fewer people are members of a church. According to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census released last year, 80% of Americans claim to be Christian but less than 49% are members of any congregation. In Portland only 36% are attached to a religious body be it Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian. Many media outlets called Portland the least religious city in the country, based upon this data.

But what about us? What about Condon? Well, of the people in Gilliam county only 26% are attached to a religious body. Twenty-six percent! That means three-quarter of the people in this county are without a faith community. We live in a time when the church of our youth is but a shadow of what it once was.

And despite prophets that have cried out to us for decades we keep doing the same things. We keep waiting for people to come back through the door. We think theologically shallow music or flashy screens will recreate the crowds of the 1950s. And, while good music and technology can be important tools in doing Christ’s work, they are not the answer in and of themselves.

Neither is offering a simplistic faith without obligation. Our faith is a sacrificial faith. It is one in which we are called to joyfully give up the earthly for our citizenship in the realm of God that began to unfold with Jesus.

Hear the words of the apostle Paul,

Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. (Phil. 3:20 CEB)

And, so, when we offer an easy or simplistic faith, we are not offering Christ. We’re offering something else. And why do we do it? Well, I suspect we think expecting little is the way to increase numbers. And, you know, a good number of churches have successfully grown in number with easy answers.

But our calling is not to fill pews. It’s not even to save the institution called Condon United Church of Christ. We’re called to make disciples. We’re called to spread the Good News of the One who breathed in the Divine, and breathed out extravagant love. A love so powerful that it can and does overcome death.

Dietrich Bonhoefer, a theologian writing as the German churches failed to stand up to the Nazis called this kind of faith, “cheap grace.” Writes Bonhoefer,

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (Dietrich Bonhoefer in The Cost of Discipleship)

Our faith is a faith in which we think about the whole community not only ourselves. Following Jesus means self-care and other-care. Remember, our Savior told us to love others AS ourselves not more than ourselves.

Following Jesus means leaving these walls and being Christ’s loving arms, hands of justice, and feet of action in the world as a response to the love that overcomes death.

***

So what do we do? Well, as I’ve said once or twice, we need to pray. We need to pray as individuals every single day. And we need to ask, what God wills us to do in this time and place. We need to prayerfully read our Bibles regularly seeking the still-speaking voice. We need to worship together as community because our faith is not a solitary act. And while I can’t say when you will hear God’s voice or how God’s voice will manifest to you, I know God will respond. Our God is a dependable God.

But what do we do?  For now, as we journey toward Easter we need to get into the habits of daily prayer, of Bible reading, and regular worship as community. Then, sometime after Easter we need to gather as community. We need to gather in retreat. We need to pray together, read scripture together, and plan together with the Holy Spirit.

We need to be open to the transformation promised by our God. If our God’s love is so abundant and so extravagant that it can overcome death  than God certainly will lead us to a transformation in this time and place.

Hear the words of the apostle Paul,

Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord. (Phil. 3: 20-4:1 CEB)

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