Acting Head of Staff
At last Thursday’s Presbytery meeting, I shared a sermon that had been burning in my soul since the middle of summer. Based on Acts 4, I believe that God is calling us to acknowledge the reality of the situation we find ourselves in, and, nevertheless, renew our steadfast commitment to the ministry to which God has called us. I’ve also recorded the sermon as a video, and you can find that on our YouTube channel.
Some of you will know the name Ken Bailey. Ken was a Presbyterian minister, New Testament scholar, missionary, and, not to brag, the commencement speaker the year I graduated from seminary. His book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” probably sits on many of your shelves. But, some of you may not know that there was another Bailey, his son David. In 1996, David was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, and was given six months to live. So, David left his corporate job and became a singer-songwriter. David’s sound was a unique one, and it reflected many aspects of David: survivor, poet, philosopher, theologian, comedian, activist, husband, father, friend, and lover of all things coffee. His sound, a Presbyterian hippie-folksinger’s vibe, resonated deep in the souls of his fans. Six months turned into 14 years until cancer finally claimed him in 2010.
Like many artists, David had a signature song, and it was the song he closed every show that I ever went to with, One More Day. The song was impactful enough for me that it was the song that I used as my alarm throughout all of seminary. My take is that it’s a catch-all of David’s wisdom about faith, life, and family. And for us today, I want us to hear just one section from that song:
“Don’t let the cynics tell you they know better, better yet don’t let them to talk you at all.
You’ve got one more day to prove they know nothing, one more day to find your private call.”
Cynicism. I’ve come to believe that cynicism is the morphine of the mainline church. We indulge voices of cynicism around and from with us to help explain why things are the way they are in the church. The compelling, and sinister part of cynicism, is it justifies our underlying belief that things simply cannot be different than they are. Cynicism tells us that change just isn’t possible, and even if we changed, it wouldn’t really make a difference. Oh, let’s be clear: it’s easy to be cynical. We will talk about numbers today, but I don’t need to convince you of the reality we find ourselves in: our pews are emptier, our buildings in worse shape, our average age older, the number of full-time pastors fewer. The ever-elusive “young families” seem more elusive than before COVID, and that sound we hear is the sound of the door slamming on the age of Christendom, in which the church was granted privilege and deference in our society. Article upon article upon article reminds us that the church is dying, that the world of pastoral ministry in 2023 verges on impossible, and taken all together, the most logical for many of us to do would be to throw up our hands and either find something better to do with our time – or just ride it out until the inevitable and insurmountable end. It’s easy – perhaps compelling even – to be cynical – to believe that things can’t be different than they are. Cynicism, as I said, functions like morphine – it numbs us to the pain and discomfort of the reality we see around us – and offers us an explanation for it.
Acknowledging all of that, what I have to say may be received as insensitive. But, I’ll say it anyway: We don’t have the corner on trying to do ministry, to be faithful, in challenging times. We simply don’t. In fact, some church historians would say that the period we are emerging from, dating roughly from the Post-WWII era, is, in fact, a historical anomaly for the church, rather than the norm and expectation. If we look back at the Book of Acts, we discover that doing ministry in challenging times and places is the environment in which the church began. To be clear, I’m not drawing a connection between the social-political environments of the 1st century and ours today – that’s not my point. But rather, I think the example – the attitude the disciples embodied – that’s what I want you to pay attention to. Because I truly believe we need to respond with the same fervor and intensity to the voices of cynicism that surround with which the disciples responded to the authorities in the 1st century. Simply put: vs 21 “For we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” John and Peter felt compelled, despite all the challenges around them, to tell of what they had seen and heard about Jesus.
Confession time: I resonate with John and Peter here. I don’t feel like I have a choice, even if I so wish I did. If I’m really honest, and I probably speak for many pastors in this room, I think about the many other things I could be doing about once a week. But then I remind myself that we’re not unique. We’re not special. Challenging times and circumstances aren’t new for the disciples of Jesus, and the Gospel message compels us. To quote St. Paul: “So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news.”
Even in the most challenging times, God’s call to be faithful never pauses.
Even amidst the chorus of cynicism, we are called to be faithful.
The word I want to close with today is the word “nevertheless.” Nevertheless is often a transitional word – in which once challenging and difficult realities are named, identified, and followed by a statement of steadfast commitment. It doesn’t do us any good not to acknowledge the reality of our situation – that’s just reality – but cynicism twists reality into fatalism. For us, despite the myriad of challenges facing our church, we will continue to be faithful. And why? Because let me remind you, we believe in the God of Easter. We believe in a God who raised a man from the dead. That’s what animated Peter and John – a man they had seen die – came back to life, talked with them, ate with them, and commissioned them – no matter what they were told to do, they could do nothing else but tell that story.
I believe, that if we believe in God of Easter, we must acknowledge the reality of our world, and, nevertheless, faithfully respond to God’s call with passion and urgency.
For me, I steadfastly believe that the gospel – which for me means Jesus’ call to be a disciple – is life-transforming. And for me, my nevertheless has always centered around the next generation. To put my own cards on the table:
- I cannot imagine not wanting an emerging generation of teenagers to know the identity-shaping, purpose-giving message of the Gospel.
- I cannot imagine a generation where loneliness is rampant, not having the opportunities to connect with peers and caring adults through the fellowship of the church.
- I cannot imagine a generation not experiencing the transformative and life-giving power of worship.
That’s what gets me up in the morning. That’s why, nevertheless, I will keep going – keep preaching, taking meetings, and trying new things.
There’s irony in the cynicism in which we swim. If you look beyond it, the research overwhelmingly shows that what we have to offer is, in fact, good for people. Teenagers who are involved in church, despite reporting being busier than their peers, report lower levels of anxiety and a greater sense of purpose in their lives. Adults who attend church live longer and report having more friends. Time and time again, the research has shown that the decline in church involvement is a net loss for our society.
So, in the words of David Bailey:
“Don’t let the cynics tell you they know better, better yet don’t let talk to you at all.
You’ve got one more day to prove they know nothing, one more day to find your private call”.
What’s your “nevertheless”? What the thing, today, that you are committed to, against all else and against all odds – what is your nevertheless? What’s the thing that compels you – that God has set fire deep down in your soul for? That you cannot help but share?
I pray that we will both acknowledge the reality of our context and, nevertheless, with passion and urgency, seek to be faithful to who God is calling us to be.