What’s Happening Now
Rev. Mark D. Wilson
I watched some t.v. shows in the 1970’s that were probably a little too mature for my young self. I remember being miffed when Watergate pre-empted All in the Family. I laughed with Laugh In - “Sock it to me!” - and cried as I laughed with MASH. When Donny Osmond broke out his tubular keytar, well, that was about as good as it got for a boy learning how to play “If,” by David Gates and Bread. For a small-town Maine kid, 70’s t.v. also showed me the lives of people of color, as t.v. wanted to show them to me: Good Times, Chico and the Man, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and The Flip Wilson Show. I loved Flip. Maybe it was the name. Besides his drag act Geraldine Jones, Flip played another recurring character, the scoundrel Reverend Leroy of “The Church of What’s Happening Now.” Redd Foxx would often be the one to answer Reverend Leroy’s altar calls. Sample quotes: “There are many fallen women in Las Vegas. I’m going to pick ‘em up;” “Dig deep into your hearts, and dig even deeper into your wallets;” “The Temptations are with us tonight, but temptation is with us every night.” Then Reverend Leroy would ask for an amen - “Can I get an amen?” - and folks would call out: “Amen!”
The Church of What’s Happening Now. Reverend Leroy would say, “We don’t talk about how it used to be, or what’s going to happen in the future, we talk about what’s happening now. Can I get an amen? Amen!” But to talk about what’s happening now, we do, in fact, need to place ourselves in history, and allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit into where she would have us go, because what’s happening now, in the church, has been a long-time coming.
If you want to learn more about the historical context of where the church finds itself, I would point you no further than to our own Rev. Dr. David Anderman’s short, fine, accessible work on the Post-Christendom church, “We’re Not Dead Yet.” And yes, you can read that title in at least two ways. Go to our website - www.watervilleucc.org - and click on Church Stuff in the menu, then on “About the Church,” and then on “About the Waterville UCC.” You’ll see the place to click there on the bottom of the page. If you need a paper copy, I can get one for you. The long and the short of it is we are in the middle of another Reformation, and one more challenging and more powerful than the one that gave birth to the church as we’ve know it. That’s what’s happening now. Can I get an amen? Amen!
Five hundred years ago this Tuesday, the Augustinian Friar Martin Luther wanted to start a conversation about where the church had been, and where it was, and what was happening now. This debate was in response to what was happening then - that our salvation by God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus was being ignored by the church in favor of a works-righteousness that asked for money in exchange for salvation - that Martin wanted the church to reform. The church needed the money to pay for upgrades to its flagship, St. Peter’s, and it was selling God’s pardon to do that. So yes, there was something there that clearly needed reforming, for this was one issue among many. And reform the church did: five hundred years later, here we are, as its children.
Theologically-speaking, we find ourselves these days engaged in similar debates, with some expressions of faith also being turned into works: believe this about Jesus or the Bible, some say, and you’ll be saved; believe something else about Jesus or the Bible, and be damned. How is this different from works-righteousness? It isn’t. Faith isn’t a work, it isn’t about adhering to a correct doctrine. It is about trusting in the grace of the one who has offered it to us, and even our trusting it (or not) doesn’t make it any less true, or operative, in our lives. The gift of the gift is good for everyone, for all time. It’s not the things we believe about Jesus I care so much about, what I want to know is do we trust God’s grace to have the faith of Jesus: the same mind, Paul said, that caused him to lose his life, that he might find it again. We are all justified, Paul said, by God’s grace as a gift: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. There is no distinction. Jesus has made us free, indeed. God’s law is now within us, written on our hearts. We no longer need to say to each other “know the Lord,” for we all know, from the least to the greatest. Our iniquities are forgiven, and are sins are remembered no more. Once you come to understand and acknowledge the depth of that love, and the height of that mercy, how could you not respond gracefully yourself?
Once upon a time, a faltering Roman Empire hitched its wagons to us, to the church, the very group it had worked hard for centuries to oppress. The original reason, according to the Emperor Constantine, was that he thought it would win him a military battle. ‘Nuff said. In these days, the Empire has shown that it doesn’t need us any more. Those parts of the church that won’t marry themselves to the American Empire are being divorced by it. It’s about time, we might say, and we might even be grateful that we are now free indeed to find our way in Jesus’s Way and outside of corporate structures and the heteronormative patriarchy.
The hard part is this: the Paraclete is an excellent defense attorney, but a horrible practitioner of family law. We’re being divorced, but we don’t get to live the lifestyle to which we have been accustomed. We don’t get to keep the house of worship. We may go back to worshipping in a house! The kids have mostly grown up and moved out of the house. They aren’t part of this. There are other forces at work, of course, which Dr. Anderman’s paper spells out: the end of the idea of Christendom, demographic shifts that skew more elderly in our community, cultural shifts that have moved to post-modernism, retirement-age folks who are moving away, and the like. There’s the loss of the “church that was” that we are grieving. Being dead, it isn’t coming back, though it might yet be transformed into new life by God, if we let it. Our positions of privilege have kept us from really having to proclaim and believe our core message: embracing our loss will lead us to a place of resurrection; if we lose our lives for Jesus’s sake, and that of his Gospel, we will find them again.
So, what’s the church of what’s happening now? We are going to be forced to examine what it is we are going to need to fulfill our mission to those on the margins of our community. We can’t have it all anymore, but we have enough to do this work, if we discern faithfully and wisely how we are going to use it. John Dorhauer, the General Minister and President of the UCC, is in Maine over the weekend. The Deacons just read his book, “Beyond Resistance,” in which he hits the nail on the head about many things in the church, not the least of which is this: “It has been my experience of late that too many churches have slipped into an undeclared mission that can be reduced to this: save our church. At all costs, no matter what it takes, keep the doors open.”
Waterville UCC, give yourselves credit for starting to turn away from that impulse, and toward being a church in mission. If acknowledging and grieving our loss of the “church that was” is the first step in this process of moving through death to life, turning away from the church as its own mission to naming our mission as serving those on the margins of our community, is the second step. You’re doing really well with that! Next, we must ask ourselves the truly hard questions around what we are prepared to lose in support of this mission, that the life of Christ might fully take hold of us. Hold on! Because it isn’t going to look like the church we’ve known, even right up until now. For starters, you will note the Deacons have removed the standard, Empire-driven “numbers and money” metric from the bulletin. That was a measure for the old church. Soon, that will be replaced with a new metric: “numbers served.”
Some hard, faithful, and painful choices are going to have to be made. Here are some things we are going to have to consider: what are our non-negotiables? Are we ready to let go of worshipping Sunday mornings? If we wind up renting space from another church, we may have to worship on another day, or at least at another time on Sunday. Are we ready to truly live into the Reformation idea of the Priesthood of All Believers, by letting go of seminary-trained, full-time clergy, in order to keep this building as a tool for our mission? Or might we move to another site for worship, and have another one for our mission work, holding on to a familiar idea of the role of clergy in the church?
To your credit, you have been, and you continue to be, on the path of discernment around these things. Here’s where that process stands.
First, the work of the Planning Team continues. The Planning Team’s two action items were to seek tenants for parts of the building and/or to seek another congregation to co-own the building with us. Those efforts continue. Our space is being offered for lease by a local realtor. Our Pastor is meeting with other local faith leaders to see where they are in their lives around co-owning the building with us. So far, these efforts have not been fruitful. There’s a glut of commercial rental properties in Waterville, and other faith communities, even those in worse shape than we are, are holding on to their buildings. So, what happens if these two action items ultimately wind up not getting us to where we need to be?
Second, the Church Council has created a Church Vitality Team to address this question. Want in? See our Moderator, Mike Muir, or me, Mark Wilson. This will be a group of folks who seek other paths for the future of the church beyond staying in our building. To choose not to decide, in these days, is to decide to choose to put the church in a place where we will, slowly, be forced to lose whatever gains we have made. The Good News, literally, is that even this death might lead to life through our legacy, but this, too, is going to take some planning on our part, and this too, is following in the Way of Jesus, the one who gave himself for us, and the one who is our legacy.
None of this, for me, is a fall from grace. I would ask you to consider that this is a fall back into grace. Always reformed, always reforming, it’s the Church of What’s Happening Now. Can I get an amen? Amen!