True Worship

I love Disney movies so I mean no disrespect to those films and that fine company, but we suffer from a Disney Outlook both in our culture and in the church. This was pointed out to me by a park ranger in Denali National Park in Alaska last month.

A Disney outlook is classifying things as good and bad. Like the big bad wolf. The sleepy yet grumpy grizzly bear. The kind-hearted dopey moose. The predators are often portrayed as the villain. The prey are portrayed as good. Yet nature doesn’t use those categories.

If we were to look at the stats, it would seem predators like wolves, bears, and mountain lions have not harmed as many people in recorded history than what moose do in a year.

Our Disney outlook on nature causes us to miss what is actually going on. It’s not the wolves we should worry about, it’s the 10’ tall violent vegans. Moose are huge. They charge. They trample. They can run up to 35 mph. They are everywhere in Alaska. They are something God forgot to put a size limit on. 1700 lbs at 10 feet tall at the shoulder. They can dive up to 20’ in the water. They are built like a truck wearing tree branches for a hat. Most predators don’t mess with moose, and the only thing in the wild that kills a moose is another moose.[1] Moose also outnumber bears three to one in Alaska so you’re more likely to see them.[2] Moose are the deadliest thing in Alaska causing millions of dollars of damage to people and cars each year. Yet our outlook or fairy tale narrative can miss reality.

When we were in Denali, it was raining. Which was great! July was the wettest in Alaska ever, and it followed the hottest and driest June ever. There were fires. We tend to think that fires are morally bad. Fires just are. There are species of trees that only reproduce through fire. Fire cleanses the land. Fire is a necessary part of nature. Yet often we label it bad. Because for us, it is bad. The California fires we hear about each and every summer. It’s bad for our houses yet it’s a necessary part of nature. We can miss this with a Disney outlook.

I mention this as the church often suffers from a Disney Theology/Outlook in our culture. It’s surprisingly pervasive. When reading scripture, we often picture ourselves as the hero in every story. We’re Peter, but never Judas. We’re the Samaritan, never the guy in the ditch. We’re Jesus, healing… never the woman unable to stand up straight. We’re definitely not the religious leaders complaining that Jesus healed someone at a worship service… you know… ON THE SABBATH… which you just don’t do.

I mean, we never complain about anything here at church. Not about the liturgy or something that was said in the sermon or what the preacher wore or about a child crying, I mean we couldn’t be the complaining religious in the story.

But often we are. If we’re honest and we set aside our Disney theology for a second… we see ourselves as the bent-over woman. We can’t stand up straight with all the weight we carry. The responsibilities we have to friends and family. The expectations we have of ourselves and others. The weight of the world and the headlines we read this morning that are now written across our faces. The weight of history, or the names we are called or the things that keep us up at night. The existential dread of living. We are weighed down with all this stuff, and we can’t stand up straight.

The church is like that too. We’re weighed down by liturgy and tradition and history and expectation and doctrine and what is acceptable in church and what we’ve always done… and then Jesus shows up and a woman can stand up straight and we complain and he asks us, “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 years be set free from this bondage on this sabbath day?”

The answer is yes, by the way.

I’ve been your pastor for 5 years. I started on Easter 2017, and we had about 2 and half normal years. Then two and a half pandemic years. When I was interviewing, I was told you needed someone who could preach, start faith formation, and visit folks. What I’ve found in my time is that you needed someone who could preach, bring energy and ideas, and help us focus on mission. I can do faith formation and Bible studies, but y’all don’t really show up for those. No judgment, just stating facts. You show up here on Sundays. We averaged 201 this summer and had incredible special music all summer long and two amazing guest preachers with Julie and Ryan. It was a great summer. And mission… Mission you all are here for. Y’all show up for that. You’re here to make an impact, and you get really fired up about feeding folks, cooking for CUPS, building homes in Costa Rica, making 23 disaster relief buckets and launching Operation Homes at our church. Y’all are a missional church.

Our Isaiah passage states that those actions are true worship of God. This is the fast you are about: to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke and let the oppressed go free. Share your bread with the hungry. Shelter the homeless poor. Cover the naked. You are about shining a light and doing the work… You show up for that because you know that is true worship.

A Disney theology church wouldn’t be doing these things. Or if they did, they would benefit from these actions. Sure you can have bread, but first you must pray with us. Sure you can stay here, but you have to attend a bible study. Yeah, you can have clothes, but first say the sinner’s prayer and get baptized. That’s not our play. True worship is doing good for the sake of doing good. Not because you’ll gain members for it or because you’ll get your ticket to heaven.

The author Cole Arthur Riley writes, “Sometimes I think that if some Christians stopped talking about a someday hell and started bearing witness to the hellish conditions of life and the world at present, they’d see a lot more people in their churches on Sunday. When I watch somebody name what should not be and earnestly question God about it, I immediately become a fraction of the skeptic I am. Lament is a very compelling apologetic.”[3]

It is when we name society’s ills. It is when we’re honest about what we carry and what’s keep us bent over that the divine can come and heal us. When we say, “Nah, it’s not the wolves or grizzlies you need to worry about in our world… it’s the moose.”  The wolves & grizzles aren’t all bad, and the moose isn’t all good. They’re still helpful for the ecosystem. They all have their part to play. One is not necessarily the villain we make them out to be, the other is not really a hero. The point is to unlearn the narrative and consider another way of listening and approaching the world. Another way like, we’re not the heroes in this story. We have our part to play, but we’re not the hero. I’m not the hero.

That’s a temptation clergy often have: to be the hero. In the pandemic time and after, I’ve seen so many clergy resign or face a revolt of the congregation because they didn’t save them from a global pandemic. The Disney theology reared its head and comfort and easy narratives of Good and Bad caused anxiety to rise and folks to get illogical and do harm. We had our moments here. Yet we’ve weathered it. I think we’re very strong coming out of it.

Our giving is solid. Jeff reports our overall giving is up 14%. Realm giving is up 170%. We hoped our 25-39 folks would give and y’all have increased giving 66%! Our 40-59 age bracket is up 20%. 60 on up, y’all are up 11%. You are showing up on Sunday either live or livestream. You’re reaching out to me and to one another. Celebrating one another and dreaming up some next steps.

I met a few folks on the Alaska trip who wanted to talk church. They asked in conspiratorial and mournful tones… “Oh, how did you weather the pandemic?” We did great. Giving is up. We’re hiring a new music director and an associate pastor. Our folks are tight and happy and engaged. They were surprised because things aren’t back to the way they were at their churches. Of course they’re not… It’s gonna take a second if we ever even get there. Church has changed in some aspects, and in other aspects we’re getting back to the original plan anyway.

The original plan is that the people are the church, the body of Christ in the world. It’s about laity engagement. I’m not here to sell you a line or make demands. I’m here to notice you, remind you of our history and tradition, and also bless us as we make new traditions. As we make new traditions, we must free ourselves from Disney Theology of labeling things as bad or good or thinking we’re the hero. We’re not the hero, but we closely follow one. Jesus is our hero. The divine. Our God who wants our true worship of standing with and for the outcast and oppressed and healing them and they healing us. That’s true worship.

You might be asking, “Wait, Is this not worship?” It is. It’s a recharge. It’s a reminder. It’s a gathering for support and a chance to catch our breath as we head back into the world and our lives and try to bend it to blessing. To forgive and reconcile. To be the repairers of the breach in our society. The restorer of the streets to live in. May you enter in here stooped over, and may you exit standing tall. May you find a refreshing word or a bit of melody that will carry you through your week until we meet again.

I think in my 5 years here, I’m standing taller than when I first arrived. I think you are too, church. We’ve faced some things together, and we’re standing a little taller together.

I have a goal for us. First a word about what makes a good goal. For a goal to be good, it has to be a challenge.[4] There needs to be about a 50% chance of failure. If it’s too easy, like going to one bible study or attending one extra church event… then you won’t do it. You’ll just wait until the last moment, or get it done right away and it will make no impact on your life. Yet it also can’t be too hard. Like going to 100 bible studies in a year… If we have one bible study a week, and there’s 52 weeks… that’s an impossible goal. Or it’s too overwhelming and you procrastinate and it never gets done.

We need about a 50% risk for a goal to be worthy of pursuit. The goal for us that I see is to welcome in our new music director and a new associate pastor and to retain them. It’s a risk as the budget is going to grow. We have a year financed, but our giving is going to be challenged. It’s a challenge. We’re going to have to get focused and ready.

We do this not because growth is good. We aren’t doing this for my ego or to burden you or because this is some scheme on our way to becoming a massive church with a private jet. We do this to pursue the true worship of making our city, nation, and world better. To focus on mission and youth with our associate pastor. To make sure our youth are engaged and able to stand up straight from what would weigh them down. And so our music brings a joyful noise and refreshes your soul in our time together here. Music often does the trick for me. When I’m down… or I come home from work stressed… I put on music and suddenly I’m dancing and singing and my mood has changed and it brings up the whole house… if only to make fun of my singing and my dance moves. Whatever works, I’m not the hero.

You are a mission church. Always have been. Our history is full of folks like Eliza Northrop, A.I. Root, H.G. Blake, to modern saints Tom Evans and Jackie Smith. To our living legends like Betty Zarney who celebrated 100 this past week and more who’ve helped We’re partly why Medina is such a great place to live. They did so not because they think they were the hero, but because they knew like we know that’s what true worship requires. Your bones are strong. You are like a watered garden. You have raised up the foundations of many generations. We have many more to go.

This next year is going to be a stretch. We might fail. There’s a risk. If we fail, then our budget is busted. We’ll take on some debt. And worse, folks won’t find healing. They won’t find a place to stand up straight and heal them on the sabbath. The oppressed will stay bound, the hungry without bread, the outcast still maligned and silenced.

If we succeed, then we’re shifting to a higher level of mission and service. We’re bringing in teens and their families and healing and helping them stand tall. That’s the goal, it’s always been the goal, and our associate pastor and new music director will help us get there. And we’re not that far from success. If just our average number of folks who show up on Sunday, that’s 201 average this summer… gave $10 a week on top of our current giving, that’s $104,520. We can afford those two positions and have some left over for new music, office furniture, and whatever else we might need.

The threats aren’t the wolves or grizzles… The threat is our own Disney Theology, our own narrative and view on the world. Assigning labels of good and bad to things that might not deserve them or tell the full story. What we do here is only as good as the true worship we do the rest of the week, for we’re more than church on Sunday. We’re church wherever we go. So be the church through your call for justice and helping others stand tall. And may grace and peace be yours.

Works Cited

[1] I love this guy: https://youtu.be/cHzDLeCa5D0

[2] https://animals.howstuffworks.com/animal-facts/dangerous-moose.htm

[3] From her book This Here Flesh, follow her on twitter @blackliturgist

[4] Susan Beaumont, Stepping up to Supervision workshop, Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

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