As some of you know, I am taking an online class on the history of our denomination. It has been exciting to read how the forbearers of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) stirred up thousands of people in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with their writings and sermons. Some people estimate that when Barton Stone held his revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, nearly 30,000 people showed up—10% of the entire population of Kentucky at the time. [i]
What were these folks preaching that started a movement that would later become one of the largest denominations in North America?
They simply had the audacity to preach messages that called for a return to taking the message of the Bible seriously. They denounced all man-made creeds and confessions and committed themselves to following Jesus at all costs. And in so doing they were continually bucking the system, going against the doctrinal grains of the Church.
They preached against slavery, preached for the inclusion of all Christians at the communion table, stood against the power of the clergy over the laity, the power of Bishops over the clergy and anything that did not jive with Jesus. And for doing so, many were excommunicated, labeled heretics, radicals and fools. In fact, The Fool of God is the title of a novel based on the life of our forebear Alexander Campbell.[ii]
But here’s the thing, people responded to these fools. And by 1960, the movement they started had grown into a denomination with 1.6 million members.
Now here’s some troubling news. In 2012 we only had 625,000 members. Since 1960 our denomination has had a 60% decline in membership.[iii]
There are many complex reasons for this decline. However, this morning, I want to suggest what I believe is at least one of the reasons, and here it is: We stopped actin’ a fool.
In fact, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has been labeled by many as “a moderate, mainline, mainstream protestant denomination in North America.”[iv] Did you hear that: moderate, mainline, mainstream!
Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell would roll over in their graves!
While Alexander Campbell was studying at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, the time had come for communion at his Presbyterian church. Communion was only observed a couple of times a year, so it was a pretty big deal. His church had a custom, like many Presbyterian churches of that day, to pass out these “communion tokens.” You would line up, present yourself to the minister. If the minister believed that you were worthy that day to participate in communion, he would hand you a token, a little coin. This was your ticket to the table. When you arrived at the table, you would present your coin, and then and only then, could you receive communion. If the minister did not think you were worthy, he would not give you a token, and thus, no communion for you. It also implied there may be no heaven for you either!
With his communion token in hand, Alexander Campbell approached the communion table. When he was handed the plate where he was to place his token, it is said that Campbell, “threw” the coin onto the plate, publically refused the bread and the wine, and then walked out of the sanctuary as a “free man” in Christ.[v]
Now, does that sound mainstream, mainline and moderate to you?
Alexander Campbell was anything but a mainstream Christian. He would say that he was an upstream Christian, swimming like a salmon against the mainstream currents of his day. And many said he acted a fool.
This is what I believe we must regain as a church. We need more people like Alexander Campbell who are willing to humbly walk with Jesus, kindly love all people and do the justice of Jesus even if it makes them look foolish.
The Apostle Paul very clearly and outrageously writes: “The way of the cross is foolishness” to the world. We proclaim “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
But this is a hard message for us to get. Because there is a part of all of us that does not want to look foolish. When I was trying to help a family at Christmas, someone asked me, “Are you sure they are a deserving family?” She didn’t want me to do anything foolish. And it did make me pause, because I didn’t want to do anything foolish either.
A recent survey by Bill McKibben reveals that three-quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.”[vi] However, that statement is from deist Ben Franklin; not the Bible.[vii] “God helps those who help themselves” is in fact one of the most unbiblical ideas. It is Jesus who made the dramatic counter assertion: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But, deep down we prefer Ben Franklin don’t we? Doesn’t sound so foolish.
There is a large part within all of us that yearns to be moderate, mainline and mainstream. However, when we stop actin’ the fool in the eyes of the world, I believe we stop being Christian, we cease being disciples.
Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, writes: “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd. Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them. It’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry.” He goes on to name a few of Jesus’ shocking and absurd assertions: “Blessed are the meek; love your enemies; go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.”[viii]
And you know the others: “forgive seventy times seven, turn the other cheek; someone takes your coat, offer them your shirt, pray for those who persecute you; blessed are the poor; visit the imprisoned; to save your life, you must lose your life, take up your cross and follow me.”
And then there is the entire foolish story: The foundation of his arrival was laid by a murderer with a speech impediment and a bad temper named Moses; his advent was promised by prophets who did not deserve to be prophets; he was born to ordinary peasants in a cattle stall and laid in a feeding troth; worshipped by loathsome shepherds; his family on the run in Egypt like illegal immigrants; a triumphant ride into Jerusalem to liberate the world on the back of a donkey—and then there is the most foolish part of it all—the arrest, the trial, the desertion of the his friends, the cross and those shocking words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Then to add audacity on top of audacity, foolishness on top of foolishness, Jesus is resurrected by God and given right back to the very ones who nailed him to a tree.
There is nothing moderate, mainline or mainstream about this thing we call ‘Christianity,’ this thing we call ‘church.’ It is all so radical, so reckless, so shocking, so undeserving, so unconditional and so inclusive. It is a love that is so socially unacceptable, that it can only be described as foolish.
Henri Nouwen was a priest and brilliant teacher at places like Harvard and Yale. However, wanting to truly follow Jesus before he died, many say that he did something absolutely foolish. He left the Ivy League to spend the last decade of his life serving as a chaplain within a community of people with severe emotional, mental and physical disabilities.
In one of his many books, Nouwen tells a story about Trevor, a man in that community who was dealing with such severe mental and emotional challenges that he had to be sent to a psychiatric facility for an evaluation. One day Henri wanted to visit him, so he called the hospital and arranged for a visit.
When those who were in authority found out that it was Henri Nouwen, the renowned author and teacher from Yale and Harvard who was coming, they asked if they could have lunch with him in the Golden Room—a special meeting room at the facility. They would also invite doctors and other clergy to the special luncheon. Nouwen agreed.
When he arrived, they took him to the Golden Room, but Trevor was nowhere to be seen. Troubled, he asked about Trevor’s whereabouts.
“Oh,” said an administrator, “Trevor cannot come to lunch. Patients and staff are not allowed to have lunch together. Besides, no patient has ever had lunch in the Golden Room.”
By nature, Henri was not a confrontational person. He was very meek and gentle—much unlike Alexander Campbell—but so like him in many ways. Being guided by the Spirit, here was the thought that came to his mind: “Include Trevor.” Knowing that community is about inclusion, Henri thought: “Trevor ought to be here.” So, Henri swallowed hard, turned to the administrator and said, “But the whole purpose of my coming was to have lunch with Trevor. If Trevor is not allowed to attend the lunch, I will not attend either.”
The thought of missing an opportunity for lunch with the great Henri Nouwen was too much, so they quickly found a way for Trevor to attend. When they all gathered together, something interesting happened. At one point during the lunch, Henri was talking to the person to his right and didn’t notice that Trevor had stood up and lifted his glass of Coca-Cola.
“A toast. I will now offer a toast,” Trevor said to the group.
Everybody in the room got nervous. What in the world was he going to say?
Then Trevor, this deeply challenged man in a room full of PhDs and esteemed clergy, started to sing, “If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass. If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass…”
No one knew what to do. It was awkward. Here was a man with a level of challenge and brokenness they could not begin to understand, yet he was beaming. He was thrilled to be there. So they started to sing. Softly at first and then louder and louder until all of the doctors and clergymen and Henri Nouwen were practically shouting, “If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass.”
Henri went on to give a talk at the luncheon, but the moment everyone remembered, the moment God spoke most clearly, was through the person they all would have said was the least likely to speak for God.[ix]
This is what the entire Bible is all about. This is what the cross, the gospel and our faith is all about. God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.
This morning, after the hymn of commitment, we are going to install our officers that you have elected for 2014. We are going to ask them to commit themselves to following Jesus. And as Frederick Buechner writes: “In terms of human wisdom, Jesus was a perfect fool. And if you think you can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of yourself, you are laboring not under the cross, but a delusion.”[x] So we are going to ask them, in the name of First Christian Church, in the name of God, to act a fool, to shock this community with the grace of God revealed in the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. And then we are going to promise them our support which makes us just as foolish.
Are you ready? I hope you are. If this church is to continue to grow and thrive in this community, continue to make a difference, continue to be the church God is calling us to be, I pray you are.
[i] Duane Cummins, The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2009.
[ii] Louis Cochran, Published October 18th 2002 by Wipf & Stock Pub
[vi] Bill McKibben, “The Christian Paradox,” Harpers Magazine, July 7, 2005.
[vii] Deism is a religious and philosophical belief that a supreme natural God exists and created the physical universe, and that religious truths can be arrived at by the application of reason and observation of the natural world. Deists generally reject the notion of supernatural revelation as a basis of truth or religious teaching.
[ix] John Ortberg, in the sermon, “Guide.” Preachingtoday.com.
[x]Frederick Buechner, as quoted by Joe Roos, Sojourners Magazine, “The Foolishness of the Cross,” Aug. 2007.