A breakthrough? Compelling vision and common values

Isaiah 43:16-21

The people faced a challenging time. It was not a time simply that

one generation faced, but generation upon generation. Their families

were separated, some remained in their homes under brutal rule while

others were forced to relocate to the city of their conquerors to live not

as second, third, or even fourth class citizens. Hope felt in short supply.

Trust in even shorter. It was a time where trusting in God, even believing

that God had not abandoned them, was foolish. The only thing certain for

the people was uncertainty.

This is the basic scenario into which the prophet Isaiah proclaims his

words. Not just these words we just heard, but the entire context of his

prophecy. There is little or no historic interaction in this collection of

Isaiah. It’s mostly a combination of prophetic scolding and pep talk.

Isaiah’s challenge? How could the people hear a vision for the future

when they could not imagine a different one? How could a breakthrough

be realized in the face of such oppression? How could they seek a way

through when every conceivable path was mired in uncertainty?

The Church of the Brethren denomination, of which Beacon Heights

is affiliated, faces an uncertain future. Those of you who are plugged into

denominational happenings are at least somewhat aware of this and those

who are not plugged into denominational happenings really don’t need to

be. The presenting concern is often portrayed as a debate over inclusion

of the church’s members who identify as LGBTQ, but while our LGBTQ

members have been the target of abuse and mistreatment by some in the

denomination, I believe the root of the denomination’s struggles are

deeper and more systemic, and have absolutely nothing to do with

sexuality orientation and gender identity.

The deeper cause also has little to do directly with the Bible and

how we read it, although the Bible does get pulled into these debates.

The deeper cause is the framework or worldview that forms our

understanding of how to be church. In my estimation, there are three

primary worldviews that exist within the Church of the Brethren. One

worldview, formed by the denomination’s predominant views from the

1880’s through the beginning of World War II, is still largely followed by

conservative churches and groups with strong ties to the denomination’s

identity of that period. The second worldview, formed by the

denomination’s predominant views from World War II through the early

1980’s, is still largely followed by progressive and many moderate

churches and groups with strong ties to the denomination identity of that

period. The third worldview, formed not by the denomination, but largely

by American evangelical fundamentalism, has few or no ties to the

denomination and comprises a group of theologically ultra conservative

churches and groups.

While there is overlap among the groups, especially the first and

third, there is stark distinction as well. As our culture has gotten more

polarized and as the third worldview has gained strength within the

conservative side of the denomination, the denomination’s structures and

system have started to break down. Part of that is because the Brethren

have never adopted doctrine or dogma or a hierarchal structure to keep

order, but have instead relied on relationships. With increased

polarization and failing leadership structures, we have seen an increased

drive to define what behaviors are and are not permissible by the church.

Last year, our friends at the LaVerne CA Church of the Brethren

studied Annual Conference statements from the end of World War 2 until

2017. From the period from 1946 to 1978, there were ten different

categories of statements adopted, and the denomination made official

positions on the environment, racism, sexism, peace, nuclear

disarmament, indigenous rights, and other important matters. Until 1978

there was one category that never showed up, but then was the only

category that appeared for the past 40 years. That category? How we

govern ourselves, our churches, and our pastors. What does that say?

Moreover, for those who think all we need to solve the problem is clarity

on the church’s treatment of LGBTQ members, I would note that every

conference for the past 12 years and nearly every conference for the past

36 years has had business that directly or indirectly involves LGBTQ

sexuality.

Even though the contexts are far, far different, the Church of the

Brethren has had to navigate its own 40 year period in the wilderness. It

is interesting that we often tie this particular text of Isaiah to creating a

vision, but that’s not exactly what Isaiah has in mind. Isaiah instead

offers images of a God who finds a way, a path, to find its way through an

uncertain time. The God who makes a way in the sea and a path in the

mighty waters will be the same God who is doing a new thing, who will

create a path in the wilderness or a river in the desert. Isaiah’s primary

focus was to remind the people that the God who was a partner with

their ancestors remains a partner with them and will bring them out of

their uncertain present, no matter how long it takes.

The Church of the Brethren has been in its own uncertain wilderness

for many years. But over the past year or so, the denomination decided,

wisely I believe, to pursue a different course. The denomination began

what it has called a ‘compelling vision’ process. The rationale? Instead of

focusing on the areas we can’t agree on, let’s spend time focusing on the

areas, if any, where we can agree. It’s a reasonable response, from a

structural standpoint, as long as the right questions are asked.

Thus far, the focus of the questions has been on uplifting our

common values. Again, that’s a reasonable place to start. If people are to

move forward out of the current impasse, finding and naming the

common values we hold together should be part of it. That was the focus

of the sessions at last year’s Annual Conference, at gatherings around the

country last fall, and is likely to be the same focus this week. It is

reasonable to believe that by reminding us of our common values, of

what we are at our best, the denomination can offer a way forward.

At the same time, there are also deep flaws with that line of

thinking. One is that it’s not the values that were forgotten, but how we

interpret and understand those values. Another is overlooking that how

some of those values were interpreted led to oppressive and mean

spirited decisions in the life of the denomination. And a third is even

more basic, and leads to an important question that I’ve not heard asked

yet. That the denomination does not share the same values any longer.

That the worldviews I mentioned earlier are so distinctive and different

from one another. The question: Should the focus be not just on common

values but also on whether those different worldviews can or should

remain together? If all we are doing is spending time fighting one another

in the denomination, how does that serve anyone, especially God?

This was a difficult sermon to write. On one level, any sermon that

focuses on the themes of uncertainty, vision, and a way forward is a

challenge. There’s always the question of whether the way forward is

accurate or speaks to or for the people to which it is intended. The way

forward often seems like it should be provocative enough to make its

hearers feel comfortable, but not so provocative that there’s a line of

emails in my inbox tomorrow morning. Its purpose should be to reveal a

truth or an idea that others have not yet seen, but at least have some

openness to receiving. That’s the key – are we ready to receive a vision

when God offers it to us or places it before us? And are we ready to

proclaim and embody that way forward?

In your bulletins this morning is a copy of a document called

‘Guiding Principles.’ This was a document crafted in a meeting that took

place here at Beacon Heights, by leaders from inclusive congregations in

the Church of the Brethren. It clearly and boldly offers a way forward, by

reminding us of who we are at our best – a people whose welcome is

wide, whose commitment to all communities, especially those who are

marginalized, is deep, and who are grounded in the teachings of

scripture, particularly the words of Jesus. These principles have been

given to denominational leaders over the past two years and will continue

to be a beacon for how we imagine God is leading our paths forward

together.

This has been a very denominationally focused sermon. To an

extent, I apologize for that. That’s something I try not to do often. With

this Annual Conference coming up, it felt important to address these

matters in a sermon. Despite our struggles and concern with the

denomination within the past decade or more, we must acknowledge the

formative role of Brethren identity in our belief and practice. It shapes

our ethos of peace, service, and justice. It encourages our community

and our understanding that church is not a place where I tell you what to

do as Pastor, but that we are all in this together. It shapes the lessons we

offer our children, our youth, and our adults in Sunday school, in Love

Feast, in Simple Suppers, and so on. And that’s ok, because we can be

shaped by the beliefs and practices of an institution while we strongly

disagree with some political decisions within that institution, and even

while we pray for a breakthrough that offers a way forward for the

denomination and its churches.

In my Council reports over the past couple of years, when talking

about the denomination, I have included these three points: the Church

of the Brethren faces an uncertain future. Its current systems and

structures are struggling or failing to address the conflicts. Beacon

Heights will be just fine. I believe those three points as strongly now as

when I first uttered them. I believe that not only because Beacon Heights

lives into the guiding principles outlined in the SCN document, but also

because we diligently, faithfully believe together, that God will create

our paths forward, not into an uncertain future, but one filled with hope,

trust and possibility. We have embodied that belief. We have lived that

truth. We, literally and figuratively, are called to be a beacon, in this

city, in this denomination, in this world. Thanks be to God. Amen.