Reforming our churches
A series on becoming intercultural congregations
by Samuel Son
Few weeks ago in October I had the honor to host nine intercultural leaders across our denomination, I consider these theologians who gathered some of the best theologians of our time, because doing life together with people from different cultures and races (which means different world views and world experiences) means no assumption is safe. What is “absolute” is likely to be exposed as bias. Everything is sacred so nothing is sacrosanct. Everyone is loved so everything is questioned.
What other group wrestles with questions like “How do you disciple and admonish while aware of the power relations of race?” and “What is the interplay between Christian and ethnic identities, and within that, the dynamic of group and individual identity?” They don’t have the luxury of considering these questions in abstraction. Pastoral duty forces them to think through them daily. This is not a dissertation; this is congregational life.
We can dismiss these questions by labeling them practical theology, but I don’t know of any other theologies than practical ones. N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar, says Paul is the first true theologian, and a great part of it has to do with him answering questions raised by pastoring a people of God whose identity was constantly changing by the inclusion of different people. Because the churches in Corinth and Rome had both Jews and Greeks worshiping together, Paul had to wrestle with what food should be eaten, among many other cultural issues parading themselves as moral issues . This meant he had to unpack what it means to be righteous. A purely Jewish community had no reason to wrestle with this. In fact, the questions Paul wrestles with are so community-specific (he never raises questions the community didn’t have), it is more accurate to talk about Corinthian theology and Ephesian theology than Pauline theology since questions tend to shape answers and his answers were meant to navigate people who had names and faces, and not for all people at all times. So many different ideas and values!
They were messy days for the church, which is why it was important for Paul, and all the other New Testament writers, to do theology — not to sift the essential from accidental (which is a Greek concept), but what practice is faithful to Christ and the spirit of Christ that continued to surprise them in the Holy Spirit. They were learning theology that stretched the mind and heart to embrace the messiness as the beautiful work of God.
In today’s tsunamic rise of ethnic nationalism all over our one planet, the church has to be a microcosm that proves that our differences are not reason for division but actually the expression and evidences of our unity. But to do that, we need bold theologians like Paul, who can do theology robust enough to see God’s artwork in the stress and mess of intercultural community. We need a theology that is unafraid to question everything and a theology that can include more voices and experiences believing that God could speak to Cornelius before Peter ever does.
For the next several months, I will be introducing you to some of my pastor/theologian friends. They will be sharing their questions and practices. It will be a living theology. For those already engaged in intercultural work, we hope these reflections help you in your theologizing/pastoring. At the very least, you now know that you are not alone with your wacky questions. And you already know that we don’t offer any of our practices as the only one that can work. So, we want to hear from you, too.
For those who’ve been dreaming about your community becoming more diverse, but fear kept you from even sharing that dream, we know your fears – they still rattle in our hearts. We also know a God who says “Do not be afraid” and then backs it up.
So, after this rather long introduction, the first friend I want to introduce you to is Kate Murphy. She preached this sermon at the Presbyterian Center for Reformation Service. It challenges us to be honest about our attitude to Jesus, whether we are loving Jesus or still wondering about him. Which brings to the fore what I also see Paul saying in his letter to Ephesus: The work of becoming intercultural is freakin’ hard work, but it’s also a joyous work he wouldn’t trade for anything else. Or as Kate says about what God is doing in her community, it’s “lightning in a bottle,” why would you want to go anywhere else?
Reforming being “reformed”
by Kate Murphy
36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
There was a pharisee who knew God and believed in him. There was a Pharisee who knew God’s covenant and lived his life according to it. There was a Pharisee who knew God’s promises and was watching and waiting for their fulfillment.
And then Jesus came into that Pharisee’s faith-filled and holy life. And Jesus was healing people and cleansing people. And Jesus was raising the dead. So these were terrifying and undeniable signs that Jesus was the messiah.
But with those signs came words. Words which disturbed and denied & unsettled. He was raising the dead—so how could he NOT be the messiah? But Jesus was changing EVERYTHING sacred—so how could he be?
So this Pharisee made the only reasonable response he could. He invited Jesus to dinner at his house for a symposium. A symposium. A gathering where civilized educated elite people meet over dinner to exchange ideas, evaluate perspectives, debate philosophy. The Pharisee invited Jesus into his symposium. Because, after all, he might be the messiah.
Then again, he might not be. So Jesus was invited to come and show himself. He was Invited in and GIVEN a chance to be heard & prove himself. Because the Pharisee was a reasonable man. The Pharisee was intellectually curious and theologically rigorous. The Pharisee was a critical thinker, so he was willing to give Jesus a fair hearing because — what with his raising the dead and cleansing and healing, he might be the redeemer of the world.
Unless he wasn’t. In which case he was a blasphemer who was destroying everything that is most sacred. And, more disturbingly, making decent honest Pharisees feel like fools.
So you can come in, Jesus — conditionally — onto Pharisee turf. You are invited — because we can’t deny that you might be the Lord they say you are. But there are limits. Conditions. Signals to communicate your ambiguous identity. No water for your feet, because you might be a spiritual freak. We’ll let you speak, because you might be a teacher.
But we won’t exchange the kiss of greeting with you, because you might turn out to be a zealot. You can recline at my table because you might be a prophet. But we’re not anointing your head with oil, because you might turn out to be nobody at all.
So come to dinner Jesus — the Pharisees will listen to you. The Pharisees will deliberate. And then, the Pharisees will decide, once and for all, who you really are.
At least, that was the plan until holy chaos disrupted that dignified ordered reasonably brave space. A notorious woman who was a REAL sinner. She came uninvited and no one gave her permission. She thought she thought, she had the audacity to assume that because Jesus was there that made her welcome.
AND she made a spectacle of herself. Weeping and worshipping and…worst of all… wasting. Unbound hair, uncontrolled emotion, unreasonable extravagance.
The sight of her offends. The sound of her offends. And when she smashes her jar and pours out her treasured oil…
That perfume that had REAL value.
That perfume that had OBJECTIVE worth.
When she did that, even the smell of her offends.
And the Pharisee sees and has clarity. This man can’t even be a prophet. If he were, he’d know she’s a sinner. He wouldn’t participate in all of…THIS spectacle. And he wouldn’t allow himself to be touched by her dirty unclean fluids.
And Jesus knows the Pharisee’s thoughts. And Jesus also knows something else. Jesus knows that the Pharisee is more than a Pharisee. That’s all Luke has called him. The Pharisee. But Jesus knows he has an identity and a being deeper than his sect and istituions. Jesus knows him as an individual—and so Jesus calls him by his name.
Simon—let me ask you a question.
Let’s say two people owe money. One of them owes 500 denarii. The other only owes 50, but neither can repay the debt. So the lender forgives them both — who will love the lender more? And Simon, whatever else he is, he’s not stupid, so Simon says — I suppose the one who was forgiven more will love more.
And Jesus says — you have judged correctly. But Judging has never been your problem.
Seeing however…do you see that this woman has broken into your house? Do you see she is here to be the host you refused to be. Do you see she, in her passion, provides everything that you, in your dignity, deny. It was not your water, but her tears which washed my feet. It was not your kiss that greeting me, but her kisses which cover my feet. It was not any of your customary oil which anointed my head, but all of her treasured priceless perfume which anoints my feet. She has been forgiven much and so she loves much.
And Jesus declares to all them what she and he already know to be true, what the Spirit sent her there to proclaim. Your sins are forgiven. She who came in full of treasure and laboring in love is sent out empty-handed and full of forgiveness and peace.
On this day we’ve set aside to worship the reformation, I’m going to risk looking like a pathetic fool. I’m going to tell you what I really think about this branch of the church that I love. We might be reformed—you are the experts in that—but we are not reforming.
We are like Pharisees who see the churches as our homes. And we think we are brave and generous for inviting Jesus into our spaces where we will carefully consider his ideas and decide whether or not we can integrate them into our God ordered lives.
There’s a lot wrong with the PC(USA), but stupid isn’t one of them. And when 90% of our churches are white segregated communities, we don’t’ have a problem, we have a crisis. We have a catastrophe.
Because we know for certain that the body of Christ is not divided. We know that the true church of Christ isn’t either. The real church of Jesus Christ is the out-post of the kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God is multi-ethnic. That’s not new — that’s old — that’s the original radical root.
This multi-ethnic church is my preference, but it is not my opinion — it’s an incontrovertible fact. Because I’ve read Acts 2 and Acts 9, and they aren’t metaphors.
Because Galatians 3:28 isn’t a suggestion, it’s a fact. Because I’ve read Revelation 9 and Revelation 21 and so have you—and they are visions of what the Kingdom of God is. And the gospels teach us that the Kingdom of God isn’t someday out there, but the Kingdom of God exists this day right here. I know all these things are true because you taught them to me.
So I know that a segregated white church is an idolatrous lie. Because Paul didn’t go to Corinth and plant First Presbyterian church for the gentiles and Second Presbyterian Church for the Jews. One body, One Spirit, One Lord. We know this is true. We believe this is true. We agree this is true. We even long for this church. But this church is not our reality.
And we’re acting like the house isn’t on fire. We’re acting like being a multiethnic church is one option among many good options. It’s not A WAY to be church, it’s THE WAY to be church.
And we’ve got nothing to say about our own unfaithfulness. We don’t even see it. But the body of Christ isn’t waiting for our approval or agreement. It just IS what it is. The body of Christ, the church just is what it always has been since the holy fires of Pentecost first fell down. And if the body of Christ is the uncountable tribe of all nations, with bearing the glory of all cultures, where the saints are casting crowns and bowing down in worship of the one triune God—and that’s not us, then we’re just the crowd. The crowd considering Jesus.
The crowd deciding whether or not we will follow him. Deciding whether or not we will integrate him into our holy lives. We believe in Jesus—we do. But we also really like bagpipes and bowties and, for reasons that completely baffle me, we have a pathological preference for the word ‘kirk’ a word that’s so white it’s not even English.
We want to be the church of Jesus Christ AND we want all of those things. But there is no such things as ‘Jesus and.’ We are smart people — we know that. How is it that we are smart enough and passionate enough about the gospel to write position papers for the Israeli government, for us immigration policy and the farm bill and climate change, but we’re not on fire about this?
How is it that we, white Christians, will go to 37 lectures a year on white privilege, and read Michelle Alexander, Ibram Kendi, Ta-Nahisi Coates at our book clubs, and then conclude that we’re done. Believe that that is all that the Lord requires of us, thinking about white supremacy, disavowing it.
But our biblical scholarship about the Kingdom of God and the evil principality of white supremacy won’t compel us to talk to our own church members about why, why, WHY are there no people of color here with us when we gather to worship Jesus on Sunday mornings. Why do we not share our sacred lives with the whole body of Christ?
Or maybe we will ask the question — and decide that asking the question is the same thing as seeking the answer and repenting and conforming to it. We’ll just invite the question to dinner and talk about it and call it a movement.
Why? Why? WHY?
Well, I’m a Pharisee in recovery, a Pharisee who relapses, so I’ll tell you why it was so for me. Because I love God and I love the church. Because before I loved God, I was loved by the local church. Because I love God by loving the church. And sometimes — so much of the time — I love the church more than I love God. The great seductive danger of my soul is that when I am most broken, I love and worship the church as my God.
Because my church makes me feel chosen because of my worthiness. And my church makes me feel safe and comfortable. And my church makes me feel necessary and vital and righteous. And God Almighty offers me none of these illusions.
If the Spirit drags my real self, my real life into the real presence of the holy, then woe is me — I am a woman of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips. How can I stand under the weight of my sin? How can I face the truth that grace gives me a new life, but that new life replaces my old life. I can’t live two lives at the same time. And there are parts of my old life I treasure so deeply, I won’t let them go. Not only won’t I give them to Jesus, I won’t even let him touch them. I treasure things that are not Jesus.
Eleven years ago I came to Hickory Grove Presbyterian church as an interim pastor. And I was the lead pastor for the first time. I was called to show those saints the joy of ministry in the urban context. And from the first moment, I loved them and I LOVED pastoring them. And I had some skills and some experience and some gifts. And I did all the things I knew to do, made the plans. And none of it works.
We were a small old white church worshipping on Sundays and a vibrant community program hub during the week. We served “them” during the week, but on Sundays, we worshipped God alone. There was an “us” and a “them.” And I knew it wasn’t right, it wasn’t faithful, but I also knew it was the best I could do. It was all I could do.
And I couldn’t understand why if I was doing everything right, why wasn’t God being faithful to me? Why wasn’t the church growing and why wasn’t it becoming a multiethnic community like our multicultural neighborhood?
And in his mercy and love, the Lord did two things for me. The first was through the institution of the Presbytery of Charlotte and the person of Rev. Warren Lesane. My church and I were invited to participate in a transformation process of education. Basically they created a space where people loved me enough to tell me the truth. My church and I had done all the things we were willing to do and made all the changes that we could stand to make. And the truth they told me, the truth that pissed me off and set me free was that the reason we weren’t growing or transforming wasn’t because of the unfaithfulness of other people. And the trouble wasn’t God wasn’t being faithful to me. The trouble was, I wasn’t being faithful to God.
I thought I was the righteous host inviting people into MY space. And the truth was I was an unrepentant sinner who loved my robe and my authority and my hymns and my organ music and my expertise and my excellence and competence — and loved BEING LOVED by my congregation — all these things I treasured and loved more than I loved Jesus and my neighbor.
I wanted to be part of an urban multiethnic church WITH ALL OF THOSE THINGS TOO. I wanted Jesus and my treasure too. So we gave up our treasure — all the things we worshipped more than Jesus. And there was no happy ending. And then it all REALLY went to hell. And we were failing and dying without dignity. And I was BROKEN and defeated and bitter.
And so the second thing. God sent a teacher into my life who looked me in the eyes with love and said, “Kate, your ministry has become your whole life with God. You love being a pastor more than you love Jesus. In fact, you resent Jesus for not giving you the ministry you think you deserve. You love the gifts God has given you more than you love God who gave them. You won’t admit it—but you see Jesus as a threat. But before you were a pastor, before you were a preacher — you were a disciple. Be that again.”
And then she said, “God misses you.”
I’m trying to fit an 11-year story into a 20-minute sermon because I don’t have authority, I only have a testimony. So let me tell you what is true for me because it might be true for you too.
Being reformed is easy. Because it’s just agreeing with what somebody who came before did. It’s just condemning someone else’s heresy. There’s a saying that Jesus doesn’t have any grandchildren. I don’t know if I believe that, but I know for sure reformation doesn’t have any grandkids.
Reforming isn’t something we do for God. Reforming is something God does in us. Reformation is what happens when we surrender and allow God to do whatever is his will in us. Reformation isn’t something we agree with or believe it. It’s something that happens to us. Or not. And the seed of reformation, in this gospel story, in Martin Luther’s story, and in my story, is repentance.
Repentance is allowing the Spirit to lead you to face the magnitude of your own sinfulness and feeling your knees buckle under the weight of it. It’s allowing the Lord to show you that there are things you love more than God and accepting that you can’t keep them. It’s facing the truth that it’s not your house — it’s his. And if you won’t host him in his house, he will raise up a leader who will. A leader who is a servant. A leader who sees the ugly truth of her deep sinfulness and knows she can never ever ever repay it or atone for it and save herself from it.
A leader who cries out for forgiveness and mercy and new life and when she receives it, it becomes the most valuable thing she possesses. And all the things she used to see as worthy, the precious commodities she used to hoard, the treasures that were too good to use or touch or waste, she joyfully and emotionally brings them to the feet of the one who freed her. She breaks the seal and shatters the jar and pours them out completely an act of worship that, in the kingdom, isn’t extravagant at all. It’s the only rational reasonable response.
I think this is the season for our church to take a fearless moral inventory. To face the truth of who Jesus is and what his body looks like and what our churches look like. This is a season to face the truth about our sin and sinful systems that have possessed our churches.
And in this season, I’m for repentance. I’m for falling back in desperate love with Jesus. I’m for worshipping with all our hearts and praying til the breath runs out of our bodies. I’m for imagining—what if, what if Jesus won’t save our institutions or our headquarters or our mission agencies or our seminaries or our churches—not even the very best and biggest and richest most important ones—what if Jesus in his mercy won’t save any of them? Do we even still want Jesus if we can’t have any of that?
I’m for imagining what if it all goes, every grand organ, every endowed chair, every last sacred tartan, what if Jesus strips away every last illusion until the only thing left is words on the pages of sacred scripture, the Word made flesh in our hearts.
All that’s left is the story that is our way and truth and life. The story of a real human man, born in the scandal who made the audacious claim that he was the son of God, the word God spoke at the beginning made flesh. And he was born to redeem creation, the fulfillment of the covenant, He is the one the prophets foretold, the one the wise and holy have been waiting for. And in him is LIFE. He still heals and cleanses and redeems. And brings dead things new life. He doesn’t bring dead things back to life. He brings life to dead things — radical, holy, abundant new life.
I’m for returning to the message. That the last will be first, that what nourishes us isn’t the bread we eat, that the world and its power is dangerous deadly illusions, but they are passing away.
I’m for communities where people can COME ALIVE in him. Rough impulsive fishermen like Peter, greedy lonely half-dead tax collectors like Zacchaeus, half-hearted cowardly luke-warm scholars like Nicodemus and perfect holy murderous men like Saul. I’m for a community where people like that can encounter the living Christ and by his power empty themselves of themselves and be born again, filled with his spirit.
Not as who they were before, but as their authentic selves. To live a life of goodness and power and joy that is beyond their wildest imaginations. I’m for recovering kinship with redeemed women.
And none of this we can do. We can only surrender what we treasure, break it empty it release it, not in one season, but in every season. We can be a people who constantly pour our treasure at the feet on the one who treasures us. The one who claims us in our sin-soaked weakness and fear. The one who calls us by our names as he calls us out. The one who treasures us and so he empties us and fills us with new life.