NEXT Church gathering hears from Harvard professor about the dangers of public praise

Closing worship explores theme of ‘Living Again’

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Jonathan L. Walton speaks during his plenary talk titled “Be Suspicious of Praise!” on the last day of the NEXT Church 2018 gathering in Baltimore. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

BALTIMORE — The final day of the NEXT Church 2018 gathering started with a keynote presentation by Dr. Jonathan L. Walton, Harvard University Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister at the Memorial Church of Harvard University. His talk, titled “Be Suspicious of Praise!”, gave voice and encouragement to bold and prophetic ministry.

“It’s special for me to be here as a non-Presbyterian who has crossed over the burning sands of the Reformed tradition,” he joked as he acknowledged many seminary classmates and friends in attendance.

“One of the most baffling concepts in Christianity is the incarnation. … Jesus is God’s love made manifest as God came to walk in the garden of suffering with us,” he said, referring to the tendency to make Jesus into a sort of superhero. “When you consider the ways Jesus is taught in our churches, or how he’s seen in popular culture, I’d submit we are more comfortable with his divinity than his humanity.

“Maybe it’s easier for us to worship a supernatural savior than accept the challenge of a moral prophet,” he said, calling attention to Luke 4:14–28 in which Jesus moves from the adulation of those around him to disdain from the crowd.

“[These] 15 verses of popular acclaim and public contempt. … In 15 verses Jesus experiences the warm embrace of adulation and the icy chill of contempt,” he said. “If we leave the story here we miss an important part of Jesus’ story, an important wilderness experience. Victory and defeat, success and failure, aren’t as easy to identify as one might think. Jesus subverts the conventional and often inverts what we would regard as acceptable.”

Walton said Jesus teaches in this story the challenge to empire and offering an alternative world to one suffering violence and systemic injustice.

“Jesus welcomed the stranger, but Jesus challenged the social relations that made them strange in the first place. With every personal act of grace, there is a critique of corruption,” he said, pointing out the critique contained in the stories of the healing of the woman with the issue of blood and the man healed at the pool.

“We’re called to confront those, even our colleagues in ministry, who are abusing power,” Walton said. “If that’s true, then every minister should always endure some form of attack. And if we are not, then it’s safe to say we are not doing our job.”

Wondering if burnout, mental health issues, alcohol abuse and addiction are a result of what people enter ministry expecting — some sort of euphoric spiritual experience — and the realities of serving a church or a community.

“Others find out there’s an underside when you take on the challenges of ministry and leadership,” he countered. “The same people who praise you when you speak about injustice ‘over there’ are the same ones who call a meeting in the parking lot when you address injustice in your own backyard. … The same people who get behind your mission efforts in Central American or Central Africa are the same ones who accuse you of misusing ministry resources when you want to help people across your own town.”

The quick-lived cycle of praise and condemnation, he said, is contained in the Gospels, which “reveal to us how quickly the crowd can go from admiration to yelling at the cross ‘crucify him.’”

Saying religious leaders ought to be skeptical of being over-appreciated, Walton admonished attendees to establish a consistent moral framework by which their ministries could be judged and held accountable.

“My friends, if we are going to be a NEXT Church and turn the page on a milquetoast, corrupted, cowardly church, leave here suspicious of praise,” he concluded.

Kathryn Johnston preaches during the closing worship of the NEXT Church 2018 gathering in Baltimore. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Closing worship brought an end to the NEXT Church 2018 gathering and theme “The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying, and Rising in a Wilderness Church,” focusing on “Living Again.”

Led in song by a community choir comprised of NEXT Church gathering attendees and music performed by Bruce Henderson, the liturgy for the service was designed during the week by those who participated in liturgy track workshops.

The Rev. Kathryn Johnston, head of staff at Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in south central Pennsylvania, delivered a sermon on the topic of “the holy way.”

“Almighty God, you got me into this mess,” she prayed, adding an intercession for NEXT Church director Jessica Tate, who went into labor within the past 24 hours. “May this sermon not be the only thing safely delivered today.”

Johnston framed her sermon in a story of she and her wife taking a vacation together to the beach, calling packing for a vacation in just one suitcase “the test of a relationship.”

“It takes preparation; don’t try this in the winter, rookie,” she added, eliciting knowing laughter from attendees. “It takes sacrifice, usually by the one who makes the decision to go with one suitcase.”

Traveling the backroads of Pennsylvania — an “area is so conservative there’s a case to be made that the liberals are Amish, and the progressives are the Amish who grow tobacco” — she said she and her wife are careful not to say “our” or “we” lest local residents single them out for discrimination.

Attendees of the NEXT Church 2018 gathering serve Communion to one another during closing worship. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

In an unexpected turn, the transmission of their vehicle dies. After calling AAA, the two and their disabled vehicle are delivered to a “mom and pop mechanic.”

“I’d like to tell you I handled the situation with grace and savvy, but that’s a lie,” Johnston said, visibly expressing her nervousness toward “mom and pop” and their possible reaction to her and her wife. “Nothing says ‘just two friends passing through town’ more than one suitcase.”

But in spite of the possible misunderstandings, including “mom” asking at one point if the two are nuns, “mom and pop” provide boxes for the couple into which they place their belongings, call a rental car company to pick them up, and give them ice cold water to drink while they wait.

“Not everyone gets a pass on the road to the holy way,” Johnston said, acknowledging the kindness of “mom and pop” as a holy way activity.

“Friends, we can’t stay where we are. God calls us to the holy way,” she concluded. “No matter who you are looking at, they are the redeemed and they shall walk [on the holy road] too.”

The 2019 NEXT Church gathering will be held in Seattle on March 11–13.







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