Thursday, September 25, 2014

Church 2034--A Sci-Fi vision for the ELCA

            We land right where we started, St. Stephen, a few minutes before service begins. The first thing we all notice is that the Education Wing has a pitched roof. Praise God!
            The second thing we notice is the new sign on the side of the building, “St. Stephen Lutheran, a SP/P/ED/M-UP Church.”
            “Sped mup?” one of us says aloud.
            To which an usher responds, “Yeah, Sped-‘em-up… South Plainfield, Plainfield, Edison, Metuchen United Parish. Welcome to service, if you turn your Tablet to Wireless J3:16 you can find the order of service… oh… you all don’t have Tablets with you… that’s okay… we have some dead-tree editions somewhere,” and with that he passes you a paper bulletin.
            The service seems fairly normal, at least at first, though the person leading the service isn’t wearing a stole… then when it comes to the sermon a screen falls from the ceiling and Pastor Jim of St. Paul’s Edison reads the Gospel to both his congregation, as well as to St. Stephen. He proceeds to preach about the Good Samaritan and how our recent contact with sentient life from another planet is another opportunity to serve our neighbor in need.
            Then, at collection, everyone but us uses the Simply Giving application on their tablet and electronically sends their tithe in.
            The Deacon leading the service proceeds to preside over communion… I nudge one of the ushers and ask discretely, “He’s not ordained is he?”
            “No,” she whispers, “but that’s okay, the ELCA has allowed Lay Presiders for nearly a decade now… ever since tele-preaching became normal… Sped-‘em-up has 4 Pastors, so two congregation go without an ordained clergyperson each week… the options were tele-preaching or changing service times, and for whatever reason churches prefer a change of technology to a change of service times.”
            A young lady in the pew across from us shushes us.
            We take communion, are blessed, and then comes announcements.
·      Since none of the individual churches can hold us all, there will be an All Sped-‘em-up Advent Service at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Pastor Hagos of All God’s People Lutheran in Metuchen will preach.
·      Pastor ‘Tina is looking for a representative from St. Stephen for the South Plainfield Interfaith Council (formerly the South Plainfield Ecumenical Council of Christian Churches).
·      Sped-‘em-up’s confirmation students will play their confirmation Massive Online Role-playing Game from 4:30-6pm this afternoon.
·      If you’ve given clearance to Sped-‘em-up, an updated calendar of Parish events can be found on your tablet.
            “What’s All God’s People Lutheran?” one of the time travelers asks the Usher.
            “It’s one of the other churches in our Parish, you should check them out sometime… they meet in the basement of the Metuchen Assembly of God.”

            We make our way to Metuchen just in time for the service. We notice the congregation is mainly African and Asian (this shouldn’t have surprised us, already there are more Lutherans in the Global South than in the Global North). Our mainly European group of time travelers kinda stick-out.
            The usher hands us very well-worn copies of the ELW, along with song inserts in Oromo, Swahili and Hindi. The service is mainly in English, though Pastor Hagos breaks into Oromo on occasion. She preaches a powerful sermon on the Jews being in exile in Babylon and relates it to the feeling of dislocation many in the congregation feel, speaking English as a second language and watching their children Americanize before their eyes. She concludes by letting everyone know God provided in Babylon, and God provides now too.
            We feel quite at home in the service, up until communion time, when everyone but us seems to know the moves to a sort of shuffle/dance thing we all do around the altar during the singing of the Sanctus (which was done in Spanish).
            Pastor Hagos closes the service by giving a Seminarian from the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Campus, the mic. He proceeds to thank the congregation for its generous donation of $30,000 to the Fund for Leadership, which means he will have no student debt once he finished up his three years of seminary.
            “Hey,” you ask the Usher, “If you guys can donate that much money to the Fund for Leadership why don’t you have your own building?”
            He snickers, “That’s why we can do it… not having a building saves us $40,000 a year, we spend the other $10,000 on Sped-‘em-up’s joint evangelism team… this year we decided to send off a big donation to a church in Portland, Center 7, their Pastor, Chris, is doing some pretty amazing stuff.”

            With that, we all hop back into our time machine and use it to whisk us to Portland and Center 7… which is a bar!?! And behind the bar is a 51 year old guy with no hair and a potbelly… “Oh my… that’s Pastor Chris?” one of the time travelers (perhaps present day Pastor Chris?) says in horror.
            “Hi, what can I get you?”
            “I thought this was a Church?”
            “Oh… sort of… Here at Center 7 we’re a decentralized worshipping community centered on the 7 central things of worship: Gathering, Confession and Forgiveness, Baptism, Word, Thanksgiving, Meal, and Sending.
            We have teams that make sure those seven things happen… they don’t necessarily check with me in advance, hence the de-centralized thing… it can be rather chaotic and uncontrollable, but as the two congregations I served before going part-time can tell you, control was never my strong suit. So, on any given day the Gathering Team will be knocking on doors, both physical and electronic, inviting people to events or checking in with people connected to Center 7; the Word Team… God bless them, run 10 Bible Studies, discussion groups, book groups, what have you—maybe more than 10 now… they agreed to split every 6 months and I can’t keep track of them anymore—they also train newer members on how to tell their faith stories; the Sending Team coordinates the food bank and keeps an ear to the ground regarding needs in the community… it’s a good time.”
            “So you’re part-time?”
            “Yeah, when I went to Seminary they kept talking about Pastors having to be Bi-vocational—in other words being a Pastor and some other job at the same time, but pastors wouldn’t do it, I mean who could afford to with student debt as it was…before the Leadership Fund really took off… but once I paid off that debt I kinda felt guilty about being full-time when everyone kept saying moving to a part-time call was the faithful thing. So I did something about it, I quit my second call, moved out to Oregon, bought a bar, and re-named it Center 7. I do the bartender gig and also making sure Church takes place in and around the building.”
            “You’re a worshipping community, but not a Church?”
            “Yeah, the official ELCA term is a Synodically Authorized Worshipping Community—a SAWC—as long as we stay a SAWC we can organize in a much more decentralized way than we could otherwise, this makes us more nimble and empowers lay folk to do more, which is good, because I’m part-time and I have to manage the bar… speaking of which, can I get you a drink?”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pastor Grace: A Retelling of the book of Jonah

“Pastor Grace”

          Sometimes we know a story so well, we no longer know it. It becomes a parody of itself, a stereotype of its own meaning.
          Think about the book of Jonah we read from today.
           Just saying the word Jonah, half of you are already thinking of Sunday School, or Pinocchio’s whale, or the tried and true phrase, “It’s a big fish, not a whale,” as if that’s the important point to the story.

          And in doing that we miss really big, glaring pieces of this biting funny, weird, prophetic, story that fits better in a George Carlton stand-up routine or a Monty Python Skit than in a Sunday School classroom.
          We miss that Jonah’s name means Dove—as in he’s a really upstanding peaceful guy.
          We miss that he runs to Spain in the West when God tells him to go to Assyria in the East.
          We miss that the Pagans are the only people who praise God without their finger’s crossed.
          We miss that Jonah has experienced the destruction of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians and doesn’t want God’s mercy extended to the enemies of his nation, he wants revenge.
          We miss the strange man covered in fish barf speaking in a foreign tongue, and getting results.
          We miss the ridiculousness of all the Animals in Assyria putting on sack-cloth and pouring ashes upon themselves.
          We miss just how obsessively suicidal Jonah is.
          We miss the bizarre ending with those poor animals bearing Jonah’s wrath.
          We don’t hear the message of Jonah any more.

          We need to hear Jonah with fresh ears in order to hear it at all.

Pastor Grace—a Retelling of Jonah
          Did you hear the one about the Pastor from Lower Manhattan who God called? Her name was Grace.
          God said to Pastor Grace, “Go to Mosul, Iraq, to the extremists there, and I will tell you what to say to them.”…
          And Pastor Grace took the first plane to Beijing, China.

          And as they flew along there was greater and greater turbulence and while everyone was freaking out about impending doom… Grace was spread out across several seats snoring away.

          On that plane were Communists Party leaders, every last one an Atheist… and as the plane went into a tailspin they all began to pray.

          And one of them shook Pastor Grace awake and said, “What do you do? What is your faith? Perhaps you could join us in prayer.”
          And Grace, heavy sleeper that she was, mumbled to the Atheist, “Oh, yeah… I’m a Christian, a Pastor, a Minister of the Church of Christ, I have Christ’s authority”…
          And the Atheist responded, “Why in God’s name aren’t you praying for our safety?”

          And Pastor Grace responded, “If you fling me out of the plane you all will survive.”
          But the Atheists, good folk that they are, talked amongst themselves and responded, “It would be unholy and against God’s law to throw you to your death.”

          But Pastor Grace insisted they throw her out... and as the ground grew closer and closer they finally gave in and threw her out the emergency exit.
          And at that very moment, the plane leveled off saving the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party—Atheists every one… and they rejoiced and praised God every last one of them.

          And Pastor Grace careened down toward the ground… but at the last moment a stork swooped in and picked her up.

          She clung to the stork’s feet and neck, and prayed to God, saying:
 “O’ Lord Jesus, you know how faithful I am, that at all times, whether I’m awake or asleep, I call on you to protect me in all things… that when I’m in trouble you lift me up on eagles wings… that I, and I alone rejoice and praise you, even when the ground rushes at me.”

          Then the LORD spoke to the stork, and it flung Pastor Grace into a manure pile on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq.

          “Get up and go into Mosul, into the very center of the city” the LORD said to Pastor Grace.
          And she walked and walked through the town, and when she neared the center she shouted, without God’s prompting and in English—while still smeared in manure, “Three days from now God will destroy every last one of you!”

          And the people of Mosul, every last one of them, believed God, and repented by fasting, and mourning, and looking downcast day and night... Even the cats and dogs and cows fasted and mourned and wore cute little vests that had embroidered on their sides, “Sorry about that.”

          And news of this reached the head of ISIS in Iraq and the head of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan—they too repented and decreed that every member of their organization, and every person in territory they controlled, were to repent as well.
          When God saw this, how they turned away from evil… God turned away from the evil He was to bring upon them.

          But God’s grace and mercy deeply displeased Pastor Grace and she became angry.
          “Lord Jesus, this is why I tried to flee to China, I know you—you with your mercy and grace and generosity… I knew if I showed up doing what you asked me to do you’d be merciful. I’m so angry I want to die.”

          And with that she stomped off and camped out in a hut she made for herself right outside Mosul… waiting to see what happened next, hoping against hope for blood and destruction and death and terror and violence and all kinds of mean nasty things.

          It was very sunny in Iraq, and she didn’t have sunglasses, which made her even grumpier. But then in the middle of the night a spider built a web on the side of her hut, and the next day it kept the sun from Pastor Grace’s eyes, and she rejoiced at that!

          But then, in the night, a wind blew and the web and spider floated off elsewhere.
          “Lord Jesus!” she prayed in the morning when the sun came out, “Why have you taken away that web? I’d rather be dead than alive!”

          And God said to Pastor Grace, “Really? You’re freaking out about a spider web? You, who were perfectly okay with the smiting of thousands of people, you who wanted to see blood and destruction and violence and all kinds of mean nasty things, all because these people remind you of the people who knocked down the twin towers, are worried about that a web? Seriously?”
          Without a second thought she responded, “Yes. Yes I am freaking out! I’m angry, angry enough to die!”
          And God responded, “You mourn a web, yet condemn a whole city, a whole country, a whole people—don’t you see how much more substantial all these folk are then a web. You don’t fit your name, you’re not very gracious—you’d even condemn all those mournful little animals to die.”
          Word of God, Word of Life.