The contour of faith

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — Jesus, a Roman military man and a household slave. This is another one of those odd Biblical mini-dramas: For starters, we never get all the actors in the same place at the same time. Somebody is always offstage. Then we have people who keep speaking for each other, almost like a Greek chorus comprised of an unlikely mix of Jewish religious leaders and friends of the centurion who were probably Roman soldiers themselves. Finally, the characters in the story are supporting people they don’t usually support: Jewish leaders speaking well of their archenemies, the repressive Roman Empire’s military; Roman centurions providing financial resources, religious devotion and emotional support of the Jewish community; a slave owner eager to help his nobody slave. Add to the mix: Jesus has been recently preaching about loving one’s enemies. Jews, gentile Romans, bottom-of-the-barrel slaves. Lots of cultural expectations being challenged and societal boundaries being crossed here.

The military officer has a problem: one of his slaves is seriously ill. We wouldn’t necessarily expect this to be of concern for someone of his rank and socio-economic status, as slaves were like any other physical property: If it breaks, you replace it. Slave gets sick and dies, you buy another one. Something unusual is going on here for the centurion to even bother with trying to get his slave fixed.

Jesus himself was known for breaking with convention. Boundaries of class, religion, gender and socio-economic status were permeable to him. In the name of God’s inclusive reign of justice and mercy for all, Jesus freely transgressed these divisions to heal marginalized people and to spiritually challenge the privileged. Word had reached Capernaum, the setting for this story, about Jesus’ forthright teachings, his healing powers, his outreach to those not valued by society. This particular centurion had heard about Jesus. As someone also reaching out across boundaries to the “foreigners” under his domain, the Jewish inhabitants of this region, perhaps the centurion recognized a kindred spirit in Jesus. What enables people to cross a boundary in a stratified society where some are considered worthy and some are clearly not? What enables someone to use his or her privilege of power, wealth, predominant skin color or heterosexual orientation to help someone who is marginalized?  How might this story guide us here?

Jesus arrives in Capernaum, a town near the Sea of Galilee. A military officer sends word to Jesus that his slave is sick. Please, will Jesus heal him? Now the chorus of other characters chimes in to support the centurion’s plea. First the local religious leaders, who seem to fall all over themselves, praising this wealthy gentile. He has contributed to their synagogue building campaign and acts lovingly towards the Jewish people in his community. Are the leaders more interested in fawning over this military officer or do they also have the slave’s physical health in mind? The text is quiet on this point.  But like religious leaders throughout time, they were constantly parsing the question: How far does God’s grace and mercy extend? How open can we be to those who seem to have little value or have little to give in society, in our house of worship? We don’t want to be seen as the “loser synagogue,” or the “gay church,” do we? We are always happy to welcome a young family with 2.5 children, husband and wife who look like they can support our budget. We may feel less welcoming of someone who appears to be living on the streets. What will it look if we welcome and associate with these people?

It’s always this way, isn’t it? For these first century religious leaders, the pull would be between the Jewish Law’s requirement to welcome and help the foreigner, the stranger in their midst…and the fact that all sorts of people were deemed unhealthy for their community. They were to avoid those who worshiped idols, people who were disfigured with illness or deformity, and people who were poor. The great sea of those deemed “unclean” would taint the community’s righteousness (being adherent to the rule of Law) and very well-being as a collective.

Perhaps we can relate. For us it is an ever-fluctuating mix of people-not-like-us. The list probably varies among us, but usually represents people in whose presence we feel most insecure, most wary and afraid. The Other who represents an unknown that covers the gamut of foreignness: strange cultures and mysterious or misrepresented religions, other skin colors, people of other sexual orientations than our own, people with dementia or mental illness, people with gender identities that are other than stated on their birth certificate. All perceived as the Other that we would rather avoid.

What is curious about this story is that the Roman centurion himself represents the Other: not just an “unclean Gentile,” but also the ruling group who will eventually torture and kill Jesus, the Roman Empire. Yet as always, our tendency to separate people out into binary categories of black and white, good and bad, is challenged by the Biblical narrative. In our current political climate, we are being urged to do this kind of moral separating, which is essentially contrary to Biblical principles. What are the cultural assumptions and distinctions that need challenging among us? Categories of good and bad, boundaries of who is included and excluded that we need to face as followers of Jesus? Cultural assumptions that no longer serve, be they about race or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity?

This Roman military man was a non-Jew known as a God-fearer. He and other gentiles like him were drawn to Judaism’s moral precepts and worship of one God. They would attend temple services and follow Jewish law…everything except the distinctive marking of circumcision for men. I doubt the centurion’s support of the Jewish community played well in the barracks with his men, nor did it help his reputation with his military superiors. The centurion is part of Herod Antipas’ militia, part of the army that keeps the Jewish community under the repressive control of the occupying Roman Empire. But this particular officer appears to have an unusual relationship with the community under his jurisdiction. And Jesus will say that this man shows us what living faith is really like.

A servant in the centurion’s household is very sick and the centurion is convinced that Jesus will be able to heal him. The centurion has become the slave’s ally, and now he seeks to draw Jesus in as an ally of this marginalized human. But instead of coming to Jesus directly, the centurion makes his appeal through intermediaries in the community. Certainly, the centurion could have simply commanded Jesus’ presence. But the centurion knows and respects the customs of the Jewish tradition: mixing of Jews and Gentiles, in a private home, would render the honored teacher Jesus ritually unclean. This centurion is apparently well-known by the Jewish elders in the community. “He is worthy of you doing this,” the leaders assure Jesus, “…he loves our people.” There is a web of connection that has reached across boundaries and been built over time. Cultural assumptions and fears have begun to evaporate.

Jesus is intrigued and starts heading for the centurion’s home. But before he can arrive to heal the slave, another group approaches, this time the centurion’s friends. Fellow soldiers? Neighbors? Clearly this man has developed deep relationships in this community. And apparently the centurion has had second thoughts. His friends tell Jesus that the man is overwhelmed by his own sense of unworthiness. But the centurion’s reaction is also coupled with a peer-to-peer acknowledgement with Jesus of their mutual power and authority. The centurion’s realm of authority is over the men in his command. This is not a person who is used to asking for help. He tells people what to do. But he has chosen to use his own authority to be an ally for a marginalized and helpless person, his slave. And, the centurion humbly recognizes Jesus’ realm of authority is over a different and far larger sphere. “But speak only the word and let my servant be healed.” And Jesus heals the servant, a nobody slave who has been found to be of value by a whole community. “Jew and gentile, slave and free, all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord,” the apostle Paul would later write (Galatians 3:28).

The centurion acknowledges the privilege of his authoritative resources, and also is humble about God’s greater power through Jesus. This is the shape of faith that catches Jesus’ attention, and we need to follow suit. In the United Church of Christ, we are part of this brave centurion’s legacy. From the fight against slavery to early support of women in leadership, to the ongoing work for civil rights for people of color and for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, our denomination has served as an ally to the marginalized. One person, a Roman centurion with authority and wealth, steps forward as an ally. He connects with Jesus, he humbly partners with Jesus, for the well-being of someone one on the margins. This is the shape of faith, these are its contours, says Jesus. Let’s have some more conversation about how we, like the centurion, might become better allies to those on the margins.  Amen.

Committee plans for congregational small-group discussions

May 25, 2016 — Our Pastoral Search Committee met Tuesday evening, May 24, and members explored the reading they have been doing in “Healthy Churches, Faithful Pastors: Covenant Expectations for Thriving Together.” They will use this material in leading small group discussions with the congregation this summer about expectations of our next pastor. These once-a-month discussions will take place in June, July and August as part of an extended Sunday morning worship and exploration process. Also at this week’s committee meeting, members began sharing questions and comments they are hearing from the congregation, and they organized the work to be done on the church profile. Please continue to keep this group in your prayers.

Summer Sundays for kids

The Children’s Ministry Team is excited to announce this summer’s Summer Sunday theme: “All Around The World.” Each week, June 12 through Aug. 21 (except for July 3), we will learn about the deep cultural and spiritual backgrounds of our neighbors, including Somali, Hmong, Karen, Kenyan, Native American, Mexican, Syrian, Jewish, Chinese and Indian. We’ll learn about the foundation, current leaders and important figures of each group’s primary religion, as well as a little about their everyday life, including their holidays, foods, traditions, and games.

The children will join us in worship at 9:30 a.m. for the children’s message and then leave with their teacher for the remaining 45 minutes of worship. Kids of all ages from preschool to middle school are welcome to join us.

The community of God

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — It occurred to me this week that sometimes Jesus speaks like an intentional interim pastor. Did you catch this part in today’s text where Jesus is talking with his followers at what will become their final meal together? “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Jesus had a strong sense of the challenges that lay ahead for those who would follow in his Way of self-emptying love, radical inclusivity, passion for justice. He understood human overwhelm, especially when it is filled with longing, grief and anxiety about the future. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” So often in my interim ministry with congregations, there are things I want to say that people cannot bear. In the churches I serve, I often encounter expressions among some members of longing for the former days, the good old days, in their church life together. Underneath the familiar tales of once-full Sunday school classes, multiple young families, numerous women’s circles, nursery staffed by parent volunteers, members who were really committed to church and filling the pews every Sunday, I hear a deep yearning for what was. I hear grief about what has been lost. The institutional future of church as we have known it is unclear. I have found that no amount of money in an endowment fund can guarantee a church’s vibrant future. People are understandably anxious about this. So often, like Jesus, the thing I want to say, the thing that some people cannot bear, is this: the church you loved is gone. And I often wonder, are congregations ready for, open to the new thing that God wants to build in their midst?

Among my seminary classmates, we have a saying: “The church we were taught to serve no longer exists.” We began our ministries in the late 1970s on the tail end of the great post-World War II Protestant church building explosion. We were trained to craft intellectual lecture-like sermons, to lead huge youth groups and multiple adult education forums, to direct large Sunday School and outreach programs. Church as the center of the community! I think back to that time, which now looks like the technological dark ages: hammering out sermons on a typewriter, using paper maps to get to parishioners’ homes and hospitals, the clacking stencil machine used to produce the worship bulletin. But this was the norm, and church-going was the norm and everyone assumed we lived in a “Christian nation” with shared experiences and expectations about God, civic duty and community participation.

Inexperienced and optimistic, most of my classmates and I were called to churches that were, in reality, slowly beginning to experience drops in attendance and dollars. And through the decades, my clergy colleagues and I have heard an ongoing lament: “The church used to be the center of our lives, there were no kids’ sports on Sunday, and church activities were the focus of our community…like a community center! And people were committed!”

The Gospel of John tells us that on the night of his arrest, Jesus looked around the supper table at the men and women who had been his closest companions, who had listened to him teach, had prayed and eaten countless meals with him, watched him heal and debate with the religious elders. Jesus must have felt really torn, as he sensed his time with them was short. There were many things they just couldn’t bear, couldn’t handle at this point. And so he continued: “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth; for the Spirit will not speak on its own, but will speak whatever it hears, and it will declare to you the things that are to come.” Once again, Jesus is grappling with simple words that describe a great mystery: this aspect of the divine that has been present at the beginning of creation, God’s spirit, God’s breath, that moved over the watery chaos, this Spirit, this Comforter and Advocate as Jesus would have it, is in me and here for all of you. Guiding us, like a conduit for God’s word of truth. How to imagine this? Like billions of thin filaments of fiber-optic cable, running from God to each of us and between us, weaving a web of sparking connection among all things? Like a vast cloud, an ether, filled with particles of insight, flowing between God to humans? Not really a conduit for discrete facts, but a relational network, humming, vibrating, connecting. A relational community of God, within God the Creator, Jesus the son and the Holy Spirit. What do you see in your mind’s eye? What is the truth about the church that the Spirit can teach us in this time? What will help us bear the bad news about the end of church as we have known it, and welcome the good news of what’s to come?

I recently came upon the writings of a Lutheran pastor in western Canada named Erik Parker. He blogs at a site he calls “The Millennial Pastor: An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church.” What a great image: we’re in the land of the internet and smartphones, but sometimes the church still seems back in the typewriter age! In a recent post called “Why Nothing Seems to Get People Back to Church – the Issue at the Core of Decline,” Pastor Parker unpacks the current debate about young people’s supposed lack of commitment.

We are stuck, Parker contends, with focusing on seeing the church as community, to which we make a social commitment. “Most churches are, at their core, institutions formed around a social or societal commitment,” writes Parker. “The core of churches have been based on the fact that people (were) expected to attend because of societal pressures….These churches did good ministry, … and they were servant communities. But now that society is no longer providing the pressure to be church attenders (and there are so many new social commitments vying for people’s time and energy), attracting people to a social commitment at church doesn’t work. In fact, it may be the very thing that is driving people away.”

He reminds us how today, both parents work in most families and household duties need attention on weekends. But also, “People are choosing things that they are passionate about, things that they love” for their precious weekend hours. Shared love of sports, brunch, sleeping in, music, time with family, being in the great outdoors. “But what is our shared loved at church?” Parker asks. “Are we just communities to join without a shared passion? If I had to guess, the vast majority of people who still might be looking for a church in 2016 are not looking for a social commitment to church. As a millennial,” Parker continues, “I never lived in the era of social commitment or social pressure to go to church. While most of my peers growing up weren’t interested in church, nor exposed to it beyond Christmas and Easter, the ones who did express interest did not do it for the social commitment.” The shared passion church goers are looking for, claims Parker? “My church-going peers are interested in following Jesus.”

“Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team. Now imagine members of that ‘soccer team’ wringing their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.”

This is the news we cannot bear. People are interested in following Jesus, and exploring this beyond simple socializing. And we can’t bear this because, as liberal-minded Christians who have focused on the social aspect of church-going for so many years, we often get nervous around the Jesus talk. His radical call to transformation, to changed lives, is perhaps more than we bargained for. I need to change? You need to change? Maybe we worry this will make us look like judgmental fundamentalists and that we are consigning all non-followers of Jesus to hell. We hesitate to talk with one another about the Jesus who says things like: “The Spirit will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Does it make us squirm, this notion of God and Jesus so interconnected that all that God has belongs also to Jesus? “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you,” continues Jesus. Statements like this make Jesus looks so divine-ish, and maybe we would just rather be Christian-ish: moral, good people who share a sense of civic duty in coming to church.

The Gospel writer John’s community was experiencing something different, something life-changing, something also offered to us in these uncertain times: Jesus’ ongoing, empowering presence and challenging teaching, coming through the presence of the Spirit, even now. Thanks be to God. Amen.

All-church BBQ Sunday, May 22

As school-year activities wind down each May, Falcon Heights Church celebrates the past year and welcomes summer with a barbecue on our patio and a potluck in our Gathering Room. A shiny new grill donated by the Women’s Fellowship will be put to the test. You’re invited to join us at worship at 10:30 a.m. May 22 and stay for the BBQ lunch at 11:30 a.m.

Two outreach projects wrap up May 22

During worship on Sunday, May 22, our children will dedicate their First Hour offerings to send animals to needy families through Heifer International. Adults are also invited to add to their offerings by indicating “Heifer” on a check or offering envelope.

Our Youth Group will also distribute Blessing Bags for us to carry in our vehicles for distribution to people in need.

Rev. Dr. Marion Pocker, former pastor, dies

The Rev. Dr. Marion Pocker, who served as pastor at Falcon Heights Church from 1973 to 1988, died May 4 at Our Lady of Peace Hospice in St. Paul. A memorial service will be held at Olivet Congregational UCC in St. Paul at 2 p. m. Saturday, May 14, with visitation at 1 p.m. We remember his wife, Dorothea, and adult children, Mike and Sarah, in our prayers.

Search committee leaders named

May 8, 2016 – On May 3, the Pastoral Search Committee met with the Rev. Rick Wagner, associate conference minister of the Minnesota Conference UCC, and learned more about creating a church profile and interviewing.

The committee also chose Carol Holm and Jenica Domanico as co-chairs, Joe Vance and Kari Willey as recorders, and Pat Bohman as chaplain.

May food collections: peanut butter and cereal

Peanut butter is the focus for this month’s food collection for the Department of Indian Work food shelf. In addition, we will continue to collect large boxes of non-sugary cold cereal through the end of May for students in need at Falcon Heights Elementary School. The food is sent home with children each Friday.

Please bring your donations to the church lobby and place them in the bins provided.

Plant sale May 7-8

The Women’s Fellowship will have its annual plant sale Saturday, May 7, from 9 a.m. to noon, with plants also for sale before and after church on Sunday, May 8. There’s a big selection of perennials and other plants this year — so big, in fact, that we’re in need of more pots. Donated pots can be left under the coat racks or on the back patio. Helpers are also needed to pot plants that will be sold.