Break forth. For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and hills before you shall break forth into singing. The Prophet Isaiah calls us to break forth.
Break forth and bear fruit – a blessed life of holy love and complete joy. “My joy in complete in you” as Jesus tells his friends, “so that your joy may be complete.” “As God loves me,” Jesus says, “So I love you. Abide in my love.” And live by the precepts and principles Jesus offer, and that will lead us to a blessed life of holy love and overflowing joy. It will also, let us not forget, lead us to the Cross and through the Cross into risen Life. Bear fruit. Break forth.
“Break forth.” This how the Holy Spirit so often works in our lives, I find. There is a pressure that builds up below the surface. New life has taken root, often below our awareness. It bides its time, and when the right season comes, it stirs and moves with one focus: to break forth. However fragile it may be, the sprout strives with all its strength to break through. You shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and hills shall break forth into singing. It’s like the rioting rites of spring, this life-giving push of the Spirit, all around, within and without. Those urgings of the Spirit can become irrepressible. Our enthusiasm, our love, our joy: these are part of the urgings of our Spirit. But so is our desperation, the ferocity of our humanity as beloved children of the living God: irrepressible. Breaking forth requires breaking. There may be pain, even crisis.
Some people even say that crisis is required. Dr. James Cone, the great theologian of Black liberation, who died last week, he taught that we encounter God by going into the crisis at the heart of our humanity. So often that crisis comes when humanity is denied – when our humanity is denied or when we deny the humanity of others or the very forces of inhumanity that press upon us from our social environment. This means for us racism in our culture and in our hearts, the white supremacy beneath that, violence, chauvinism, this means the consequences of war through the decades, through the generations, this means all the various forces that lead to despair and desperation and the suffocation of full human flourishing. And breaking through all of that is the Word of the Gospel, the Truth of the Good News. It breaks through. The Gospel speaks especially to and through those who are most pressed down. It breaks through so the human spirit can break forth into the full light of the love of God. Lives going out in joy, lives led forth in peace. Lives where the heart survives in defiance of all that would choke it out.
And I’ll tell you, that breaking forth happens here, at our church. It is a good and beautiful thing to witness that here and to struggle together with that, with the yearning possibility of new life fresh in the Spirit. And I experienced that breaking forth and that struggle of new life, as well last weekend, at the yearly gathering of all the UCC churches in the Pacific Northwest. It was exciting. Something fresh and vital is on the move throughout many UCC churches, and folks were enjoying that together. We are part of a movement. I have the privilege of being connected to churches and leaders throughout the country. And I can report: What’s happening here at 1st Cong’l in Walla Walla is part of a larger movement of the Spirit breaking forth in these times.
Rev. Mike Denton, our Conference Minister in the Pacific Northwest – like our bishop, except in the UCC we’re too cool to have bishops pawning us around, you know, we’re over that, so we have ministers who minister to churches rather than boss us around – anyway, Pastor Mike last weekend preached, “In more and more places, the period of mourning our not being the church we once were is coming to end and the celebrations of the church we are becoming are just starting. Something new is breaking forth! In more and more places, there’s the recognition of that Truth “that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.” Something new is breaking forth! In more and more places there’s that growing recognition of the Truth that what God requires of us is do justice, do acts of loving-kindness, and walk humbly with God. Something new is breaking forth!” “Amen!” That’s why I’m here – here here.
That’s why I’m excited to be on the move in the church at this time and age. Gone are the days when you come to church because just that’s just what everyone does if you want to seem halfway respectable. Gone are the days of going to church just to keep up with the Joneses. That all may fill out the pews but it does not fill empty hearts. I’m glad those days are over. There’s plenty to mourn about the church of Christmas past, some good things that are gone. But we’ve moved on and we’re on the move. And I’m so so glad. Now, we come here and join together to be church and to do church only because we’re clear we want to be here, we need to be here. We come out of our hunger. We come out of our desire for what is deep and true and abiding. We come out of our crisis. We come as a committed response to the crisis of our times. We come out of our confrontation with the forces that deny the humanity of all children of the living God. We come here because we know what this church stands for and we know what God is calling us to in our place and time. We come here out of our joy for life abundant. We come here out of our gratitude for what God has given us and this world. We come out of our hope, even if it seems like hope against hopelessness. We come out of our love and care for each other. We come together in this sacred community because of what is straining to break forth from us.
The heart of what we learned and practiced last weekend, is that the heart of how we be church together, be the body of Christ together, is in how we connect with each other as we are connecting with God.
So last weekend, one way we explored connecting in this sacred way was through sacred conversations. Really listening and hearing and speaking with each other, in a different way than our culture usually teaches us. Not just chatting, on the one hand. And not just a big display of gossipy details, on the other. Going below the surface that’s nice and polite, and deeper into what’s really taking root in our souls and pushing to break forth. This is an intentional conversation, a one-on-one, where we learn what’s really at stake for someone. We learn what they really need and yearn for. We learn what they are most passionate about, what fires their creativity and vitality. We learn what keeps them up at night. We learn what they are willing to fight for. We dare to discover and to share these things about ourselves. We dare to see how our struggles and our passions and commitments are connected. And we can then explore what we can do together about it. The intention of these one-on-one conversation is if there is a connection about how our needs are connected, we leave with something of a plan about what to do next. And we leave a little changed, a little or a lot. At the conference meeting we experimented with these kinds of one-on-one, intentional conversations. We broke out into smaller groups with a facilitator (I was one of them). And then we experimented in pairs. And it was just amazing how the energy of the room boosted. Having these conversations really lit people’s fire. Someone told me, the person I had a one-on-one with was someone I’ve on committees with, but until now I never really got to know them. And they’re amazing. Someone else told me, this makes me think about the times I’ve gone to funerals for people I’ve gone to church with for years and at the funeral, hearing about their life, I realize I hardly knew anything about them and they had led this wonderful life and now they’re gone.
So here’s my invitation and my challenge to all of us – and I’m going to do it too. Think of somebody who you’ve brushed shoulders with here at dear old quirky 1st Congregational church, who you’d like to sit down with and hear their story. Someone perhaps outside of the circle you’ve already embraced. And then invite them to get coffee, or a beer, or walk your dog with them or do a jigsaw puzzle or whatever you do. Really, I invite you pray on this: Is there someone here you’re led to reach out to and get to know and learn what’s at stake for them, what they’ve been through, what lights their fire? For my fellow introverts – I’m sorry, this is totally awkward. Take it as an invitation not coercive. You can put it off for a while. It rarely ends up being the disaster we imagine it to be. But I hope this is some encouragement to take a chance if you feel moved to connect with someone. For the extroverts: perhaps the Spirit may lead you to an introvert. You all are great. God bless you all.
(Delivered May 6, 2018, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)