By Bentley Stewart
What most surprised me about General Assembly was the way our theme “Lord, teach us how to pray” was profoundly true of my experience of the assembly. I’m not a fan of business meetings, but I was looking forward to being with friends, both new and long term. I knew there would be good teaching, but I was surprised by how the assembly created within me a teachable posture. I met some amazing people and we discussed, at times heatedly, things like the Zimmerman case and drone warfare. On more than one occasion, I witnessed hearts and minds changed. I heard phrases like “I’ve never thought about it that way before.” These Disciples taught me how to be teachable. Sometimes I was the one speaking into their lives. But really, while I gave them fortune cookie advice, they gave me true and deep wisdom. They modeled being transformed by the renewing of the mind.
I met a woman who has been to every Disciples national gathering since 1959. She informed me that they weren’t called General Assemblies then. She also told me that her husband was a fifth cousin to Barton Stone. Barton, my fellow ex-Presbyterian, who demanded we be called Disciples because we are forever learning how to follow in the way of Jesus; Barton, who co-founded this movement for wholeness in a fragmented world with revivals at Cane Ridge. I met a young pastor whose family hails from one county over from Cane Ridge. His family was at those revivals when the movement began. His father is also pastor. Father and son disagree on the most contentious resolution that faced the Assembly. The son could not be in the business meeting because he was playing in the worship band for the Disciples Youth. So, his dad stood in his place. His dad voted against his own conscience in order to stand up for his son.
This is the wondrous tradition to which we belong.
Not all the Disciples I met trace their lineage back to Barton Stone. Many had come to this tradition late in life. Two such pastors I met on Tuesday during the business meeting. Right before the discussion of the anxiously anticipated resolution, we were invited to stand. We were to find two neighbors that we did not know. There was audible groaning in the hall, for we had not gathered for an icebreaker.
We were to reflect on two questions. We were asked to share what we most cherish about the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). For the three of us who choose this tradition from different backgrounds, we were each clear on what drew us into this communion. For me, it is this wondrous, mysterious feast we participate in every time we gather. We are hosted by the holy and snack on the sacred. For me, it is the sacrament. My new friend shared that for him it was also communion but since he was originally a Baptist minister he can’t refer to the elements as sacrament. For him, they are precious symbols that point him to the divine. Our other friend wasn’t raised in the church and came to faith as an adult within a charismatic context. She migrated to the Disciples because she wanted a thinking person’s faith. She lamented “now if I could only introduce the Disciples to the Spirit.”
Can I get an “amen?”
Our second reflection was on what Disciple practice allows us to hold respectively diversity of thought? Or, something similar.
My new friends shrugged and both said “I guess communion.”
I said, “It’s this moment right now. I was angry when they asked us to stand up. I want this vote over. I want to move on and sweep the contentiousness under the rug.”
Both of my colleagues nodded, recognizing their own feelings in my statement.
“The table reminds us that we are forced to look at one another in the eye.” I continued. “Our covenant life together means we hold each other accountable to becoming better Disciples. I am angry that they are taking up my time by appealing to my better angels. This moment is forcing us to recognize the sacred worth and dignity in each other.”
So, I invite you to find a neighbor. Turn to your neighbor, just one neighbor. Groups of three are fine. But a group of four should be two groups of two. Say to your neighbor, “Neighbor, O’ neighbor, Christ is being formed in me.”
Now, turn to another neighbor. Find a new neighbor and say “Neighbor, O’ neighbor, Awaken to God’s movement in your life.”
This is our text for today. A pregnant teenage runaway flees to her cousin’s house. A cousin who though advanced in age has also become pregnant. Elizabeth is also in a tough situation. Her husband has been struck catatonic. There was no disability insurance then. There was no workman’s comp even though he was injured on the job while performing priestly duties. I’m sure that Elizabeth is wondering how she’ll ever care for her husband and a new baby. I imagine the last thing Elizabeth wanted was to shelter a pregnant girl.
And yet, when Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice the child within her leaps. The traditional term for the first detection of fetal movement is the quickening. Mary speaks and a quickening spirit descends. John the Baptist leaps for joy indicating that Mary is carrying the long awaited Messiah. Elizabeth is then the first disciple to confess that Mary is bearing our savior into the world. The Christ being formed in Mary awakens Elizabeth to what God is doing in and through her own life.
I like to think that this is the first church. Two desperate pregnant women awakening to what God is doing in their own lives because they are inspired by what God is doing in their counterpart’s life. They are Disciples appealing to one another’s better angels. Mary begins to proclaim that Mighty God is indeed being made manifest in the here and now. That God’s shalom is being brought about by the people of God. That justice will rain down. And that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We will be made into the beloved community, the caretakers of creation. We are blessed to be a blessing to a suffering world that God deeply loves. We are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.
The first church was two broke pregnant women. They had no committees, no elders, no deacons, and no pastor. All they had was a profession that the holy had come near.
Church, beloved Pershing Avenue Christian Church, you are the bearers of Christ into a suffering world, awakening others to what God is doing in and through their lives. Yes, we’ve hit scary financial times. In short, God will have to do something. We are in that scary place of having to be radically dependent on God. “Lord, give us our daily bread. Forgive us our debts.”
Church, do not be slaves to the fear of scarcity. We have been set free by God’s saving grace. Trust that God’s abundance will be enough.
Also, church, stop calling yourself “small.” The first church was two broke women. Your pastor constantly pleads with you to awaken to how beautiful you are; to know how precious you are in God’s sight. But you don’t believe her.
You’re like that young girl, who after years of playing with Barbie’s and comparing herself to fashion models, can never hear that she’s beautiful. She simply can’t believe it.
Church, we have a self image problem.
There once was a first grade teacher. The students were arguing over who was her favorite. “Tell us, who’s your favorite?” The teacher finally relents. “Okay, everybody close your eyes. The one who thinks that they are my favorite, raise your hand.”
They, of course, all raised their hands.
The teacher tells them “okay, put down your hand. Now, open your eyes. The one of you that raised your hand, you are right.”
You are God’s favorite. Each one of is God’s favorite. We are God’s highly favored ones. You might say “you can only have one favorite.” Apparently, God is unaware of that limitation of human grammar. We are God’s favorites, all of us.
Church strike small from your vocabulary. When you hear each other refer to us as a small church, hold them accountable, appeal to their better and more imaginative angels. Church, you are beautiful. I’ve loved spending this week with so many of you.
I was reflecting on how much change my family has endured over the year, and how remarkably well we’ve done with all that change. Like Jacob proclaiming surely God was in this place and I did not know it, suddenly tears are streaming down my face because I realize we’ve been able to uproot our family, leave our friends, family and church, and move 3000 miles, because of your prayers for us. Surely we have been held in prayer. Otherwise, how else could we have landed so gently in our new home?
Church we are a praying church. So, in addition to striking small from your vocabulary, stop calling us a nice church. Even the wicked are nice to their friends and family. We are a praying church.
We are not a small church. We are a beautiful church.
We are no longer a nice church. We are a praying church.
We are not a broke church. We are a missional church.
When there were 5000 needing to be fed, Jesus said to the disciples, “you feed them.” They didn’t have the resources to do this. But God provided through their meager offerings.
We are not a broke church. We are a missional church. We are sent into a suffering world. Now, I don’t know all of the ways God will work in and through this body. That’s for us to collectively and prayerfully imagine with God.
But, I will tell you one thing. We have an amazing gift to offer our Region. Many in our Region are hurting over the resolution GA 1327 “Becoming a People of Grace and Welcome to All.” This church can model a way of living out this resolution. We as a body have never been of one mind when it comes to our understanding of scripture’s witness to sexuality. And yet, we are a church that is comprised of diverse families, we have called people to serve in every capacity of this church regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. This resolution is in our DNA. We know how to hold the tension between ideological disagreements while striving to become a church that welcomes all.
If you feel called to live deep into this calling of becoming a people welcome and grace to all, if this body of Christ bearers has awakened you to what God is doing in your life and you want to awaken others, I bid you come now and join our movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.