On more than one occasion, I’ve said, “I’m not a good Brethren.” This statement doesn’t bother some of you at all. But this leads others to wonder, “What does he mean he isn’t a good Brethren? We’re a Brethren congregation. He’s supposed to be a Brethren pastor.” Please let me explain what I mean by this statement.
Worship attendance in the Church of the Brethren in the United States has been in shrinking over the past several decades. Currently many congregations have no children or even young adults attending. Their doors are going to close unless things change. This has led to a decline in finances and ministry opportunities for our denomination.
Each year, representatives from every Brethren congregation are invited to send delegates to our Annual Conference, or the “big meeting” as they used to call it. This is where we worship, study the Bible and have insight sessions about the things which are happening in the denomination. We also have business meetings to adopt statements which define what our denomination believes and how we should live out our faith.
When I attended my first Annual Conference in the mid 1990’s, a couple of the business items related to the issue of homosexuality even though our denomination adopted a statement on this issue in 1983. This paper calls on the church to love and befriend homosexuals but says homosexual relationships aren’t an acceptable biblical lifestyle.
Even though his paper was reaffirmed in 2011, guess what the main focus of our business meetings at Annual Conference are today. The homosexual issue. Liberals are constantly doing things that are against our stated position and conservatives are constantly fighting against everything they do.
This happens because we Brethren don’t agree on how to interpret the Bible. Many believe that Bible is the inerrant word of God so we need to look at our actions in light of what the Bible teaches. Others believe it’s to be interpreted according to our modern times so we need to interpret the Bible in light of how live.
There are now several groups within our denomination. Their desire – and main agenda- is to get everyone interpreting the Bible the same way they do. At times, there is open hostility. Many of the group members won’t even speak to members of other groups.
And we’re supposed to be a peace denomination. Over the years, I’ve noticed that some people who preach “peace” become the nastiest Christians alive when they don’t get their way. This comes out on a regular basis in our denomination and at our conferences.
This tension bleeds into the worship services because many people start listening to the sermons asking, “What agenda is the speaker trying to push on me?” instead of asking “How am I going to meet Jesus in this message?” In an effort to try and unite us, many recent conferences have focused on what it means to “be Brethren” instead of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
All of these issues have created a toxic atmosphere that’s evident to anyone who attends Annual Conference on a regular basis. For many of us pastors, Annual Conference is not something we enjoy. One pastor told me, “It’s stressful.” Another said, “When I got home from conference, all I wanted to do was sleep.” If you asked me to list the top three reasons I’d leave the ministry, Annual Conference would be on the list.
However, Annual Conference itself isn’t the problem. The problem is Annual Conference is the culmination of what’s happening in our denomination.
For the longest time, it’s seemed to me that our national leaders weren’t sure what to do so they didn’t really do anything to try and make it better. This has really frustrated me.
My father taught me a lot of good lessons in life. I’ll never forget what he said to me when he was teaching me to be a supervisor in our family logging business. One day he told me, “Son, when there’s a problem, do something. If your decision takes you in the wrong direction, you’ll see it and you can turn and go in the right direction. However, if you do nothing, you’ll always be at a standstill.”
I’ve found this principle to be true, at least most of the time. So, I’ve tried to apply it when problems arise, even in the church. Obviously, as disciples of Jesus, we don’t want to jump into solving a problem without praying about it. Sometimes the Lord does say, “Just wait.” So, we wait.
However, we never want waiting to be an excuse for refusing to face the truth. I’ve felt this is what our national leaders have been doing. I don’t want to be too hard on them because the solutions aren’t easy and our Brethren DNA makes some of them afraid to offend anyone, even if it’s needed.
Our 2018 Annual Conference is going to be held in Cincinnati, Ohio from July 4-8. The theme chosen by our moderator, Samuel Sarpiya, is Living Parables. We’re familiar with parables. Roughly one-third of Jesus’ teachings in the Bible are parables.
A parable is an illustrative story that creates a contrast or image for the listener. Rabbis in Jesus’ day used them to help students remember their teachings. What would we remember more? Jesus lecturing the Pharisees about how corrupt they’d become or hearing him call the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs” that are full of dead men’s bones?
Our moderator is asking us to be living parables. What does that look like? In describing what this means, the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference website says, “Living Parables” is a foundational call to be involved with the ministries of Jesus. It calls us to work for peace, reconciliation, and transformation of all things, visible and invisible. As living parables, Christ calls us to learn how to share our lives in grace with others–and our sharing should be a source of grace for others. This kind of sharing is not about telling information but being present in a world that so desperately needs to see Christ in action.
We’re being asked to live out our faith. And not to just talk about it. In order for us to be Jesus in action, we need to know the answer to a simple question. How did Jesus act?
This is what the founders of the movement that turned into our denomination did. In the book, Church of the Brethren, Yesterday and Today, Brethren historian Donald Durnbaugh writes, “On an August morning in 1708, five men and three women gathered at the small Eder Brook near the village of Schwarzenau in central Germany. Their purpose: to obey the command of Jesus as they understood it by accepting baptism.” They wanted to see for themselves what the Bible had to say about baptism.
When I was reading parts of this book while researching this sermon, I asked myself an honest question. Am I still Brethren? I did my initial ministry training in the Church of the Brethren, which is based on Arminian theology. I then went to a Calvinist Bible college and later a Missional seminary. It’s not important to understand all of these terms right now. Just know I was taught several different theological perspectives. Had this led me away from being Brethren and I didn’t realize it?
I took some time and reviewed the chapter in Yesterday and Today titled Beliefs. As I read them, I realized something, there wasn’t one doctrine or Biblical interpretation from our founding sisters and brothers that I disagreed with. There are a couple that I struggle with, such as how exactly should we live out our peace witness in a world that contains people like Adolph Hitler. However, when I read this chapter, I realized I agree with our Brethren doctrine more than I ever have.
When I say I’m not a good Brethren, I’m not referring to the doctrine of our founding sisters and brothers. I’m referring to what our denomination has become today. A religious organization that’s broken and imploding on itself.
The good news is there is hope. First of all, it’s God’s church, not ours. Christ is our leader. We can trust him to lead us forward. Second, our national leaders are now saying that we can’t continue with “business as usual.” They’re making preparations to lead us through a time of discernment to see what Jesus is calling us to be and to do. I have great hope for our future.
As we wait, let’s do what the early Brethren did. Read the Bible, see what it says and then do it.
We’ll begin our journey as living parables by looking at Luke 11:1-13. It says, “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us,
And lead us not into temptation.’”
Most of us are familiar with this prayer. It gives us a pattern for how to pray. We start off by acknowledging God is holy. Then we ask him to provide for our needs, forgive our sins, help us to forgive those who hurt us and then help us keep from sinning. These aren’t magical words that conjure up the supernatural power of God if we pray them just right. This is nothing more than an outline of how we should pray.
Jesus doesn’t stop right here with his teachings about prayer. He adds something else. “5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.”
When an unexpected guest arrived, the host was obligated to serve him or her food, and it should always include freshly baked bread. It was used as a fork or spoon to scoop up the food. Having no bread or even stale bread was unacceptable. In this culture, honor wasn’t held by just the individual. It was held by the community. If an individual didn’t have bread, another member of the community was obligated to provide some.
In this story, a visitor arrives and the man doesn’t have any bread to give him. The man goes to his neighbor and asks for some. The neighbor complies but not because the two men are friends. The neighbor answers the man’s request because he doesn’t want to bring shame on himself or on his village.
In relating this to prayer, Jesus is saying God isn’t obligated to answer our prayers just because we ask him. God answers them because his nature is good. He doesn’t want to bring shame on himself. We can pray with the confidence that God will answer us because of who God is.
Jesus continues. “9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The teaching point here is quite simple. When we pray, God won’t give us anything that will ultimately bring harm to us.
Our denomination started when eight women and men asked, “What does Jesus expect of us?” We should ask the same thing. This passage is clear that Jesus wants us to pray to God the Father. Jesus prayed to him. We become living parables when we pray. We don’t do it because we’ve done everything right as Brethren. We haven’t. We’re all sinners and not one of us has the ability to fully understand God. We pray because God is good.
Please take some time and pray for the following requests.
-For God to show our leaders what to do.
-For every one of us to have an open heart for whatever God wants to do in our lives, our congregations and our denomination.
-For God to forgive us for the areas in our lives where we’ve drifted away from the teachings of scripture.
Let’s be good Brethren. Let’s search the scriptures, learn what they teach and apply them to our lives.