Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Messiah’s Misfits

1 Corinthians 4:9-16

It seems to me that God has put us who bear his Message on stage in a theater in which no one wants to buy a ticket. We're something everyone stands around and stares at, like an accident in the street. We're the Messiah's misfits. You might be sure of yourselves, but we live in the midst of frailties and uncertainties. You might be well-thought-of by others, but we're mostly kicked around. Much of the time we don't have enough to eat, we wear patched and threadbare clothes, we get doors slammed in our faces, and we pick up odd jobs anywhere we can to eke out a living. When they call us names, we say, "God bless you." When they spread rumors about us, we put in a good word for them. We're treated like garbage, potato peelings from the culture's kitchen. And it's not getting any better.

I'm not writing all this as a neighborhood scold just to make you feel rotten. I'm writing as a father to you, my children. I love you and want you to grow up well, not spoiled. There are a lot of people around who can't wait to tell you what you've done wrong, but there aren't many fathers willing to take the time and effort to help you grow up. It was as Jesus helped me proclaim God's Message to you that I became your father. I'm not, you know, asking you to do anything I'm not already doing myself.

I discovered that the text from I Corinthians was already the daily reading for today when it became crystal clear just a few days ago that the Come ToGather (C2G) ministry would have to move its home only seven weeks into its history. The stark and radical early-church symbols that Peterson makes even more poetic could not have been more telling & more obvious about the situation of our fledgling little creative worship community.

I take some solace that the early Jesus followers got kicked around, wore patched and threadbare clothes, got doors slammed in our faces, and were only able to eke out a living . Tonight, I am going to get into some of the specifics about what C2G was designed to be, what the criticisms were, and why we needed to move to remain moved by the marvelous spirit of the living God. The scripture says— When they call us names, we say, "God bless you." When they spread rumors about us, we put in a good word for them. —so tonight, I am not going to defend but expand, not complain but explain. I am not angry & only hope this will be an opportunity for C2G to find its fullest calling.

What a fitting scripture for how I am feeling. We’re the messiah’s misfits—not yet a congregation, gently entering the “emergent church” conversation, an itinerant ragamuffin band of Jesus followers & some of our friends just looking, just seeking, & even just looking at the candlelight. We’re the messiah’s misfits, a ministry in exile, that didn’t quite fit in a local church but got welcomed by an atheist thespian and the Jewish house manager. So this is the parable of the Atheist, the Jesus Freak, and the Jew. I’d tell you a story about what happened when the Atheist, the Jesus Freak, and the Jew walked into a bar—except I don’t drink anymore & thus don’t frequent bars.

To put it mildly, my conversion to Christ was cosmic & compelling —after years as a dedicated psychedelic sinner, I felt kinship with the images I saw of rag-tag bands of 1970s Jesus People convening on the Pacific Ocean beach for mass baptisms & convincing the hordes of Haight Asbury addicts that God’s glory had a better injection of insight than the bags of goodies getting peddled by speed freaks & acid casualties.

Drawn like a moth to flame to God’s magnetic love & forgiveness, I might have forgotten for a moment that not every Jesus follower is a Jesus freak—a reborn Christian, I was just so overjoyed & overwhelmed to get my Jesus freak-on. So apparently, this grassroots, organic, all natural Jesus freak ministry was just a little too freaky for my some of my friends at the church down the street, which is why Come ToGather suddenly finds itself worshipping in a small community theater on a college campus.

So what exactly is the emergent church—and why did C2G immediately identify with it? Or attempt to be Presbymergent? And also, why was an attraction to the emergent church something that some of our friends at First Pres so strongly objected to?

Well, frankly, it’s entirely impossible to define the emergent church—but what attracted me to it was how utterly engaged with the real world & excited about cultural innovation these folks were. I would describe it as: A fusion of liturgical flexibility with denominational fluidity played out in a theatrical way by fun-loving fools-for-Christ forever feasting at His table—or, put another way, I noticed right away that these people had it going on with the Holy Spirit, & I wanted in on the reformation & revelation.

It’s said that the emergent church is post-everything: postmodern, postevangelical, postconservative, postliberal. It’s post-everything except posting on the internet—because just about every emergent-type church leader I’ve encountered has a blog. To be Presbymergent—we would have been rooted in the Presbyterian Church-USA, which may or may not be an option for us anymore. We could choose to incorporate or affiliate or we could go the way of many Emergent movement communities & be a non-authoritarian, non-institutional, grassroots body of 21st century gatherers revisiting the first century model.

The emergent tag itself is not nearly as important as the kind of energy it points to: something deeper & more nuanced than just more-of-the-same “church that’s not churchy” contemporary service –which, as good for so many people as some of these services can be—does not yet approach the unguarded, disarmed, & intimate connection with God & our community of God-seeking humans that C2G was born to search for.

As we’ve stated before, we wanted a heart-over-head community, where we could be fearless about feeling our faith, saturated by Grace in what Brennan Manning calls the Christ-soaked universe, feeling God’s magic with feet stuck in the daily struggle, healing the people’s misery, willing to walk in the worldly muck.

We speak the truth that we know—but admit that there’s so much that we don’t know about God because God’s infinite mystery can never be fully known. That’s what makes mystery mysterious. That’s what makes God God.

Truth travels quickly but could get quickly derailed or deranged if God’s delight were not our aim; this is at first a tenuous and tentative theological truth born of study—but then suddenly an innocent & ravenous truth born of wonder, born of the children’s feet dancing in the Cookietown streets.

The idea for Come ToGather (C2G) came together in a spontaneous burst of spirit, over dinner, among friends. A research trip to a Presbymergent congregation in Louisville, Kentucky gave us many of our ideas for how to structure & style our happy little liturgy of candlelight & liberation.

Some of the features that our friends at First Pres found problematic with C2G would have been easy to change—but we realized that each of these features had become central to our imperfect but focused journey after God’s truth. We could have made the changes & stayed at First Pres—but what would have been left would not have been C2G. So here we are.

We choose to begin each meeting with a moment of silence, of breathing in the spirit, of coming-to-gather in candlelight, of sharing the light, of lighting the tiny spark of God that lives within each of us. We worship in an ambient, dimly-lit room illuminated by candlelight.

Why do we start with relative darkness? Why do we need this light? Why do we need the light?

I can think of few greater symbols of God’s unfathomable & fabulous love than of candles illuminating a dark room. Aren’t we, each of us, called to be those candles, burning brightly with God’s unconditional love, a loving-liberating-light for a world rapidly descending towards its own destruction? Haven’t we all on our worst days felt like the dark world—lonely & scared, lost & searching? Isn’t the authentic faith journey a little like spelunking in a cave where we often crave just a little light? Doesn’t it just make you want to sing & shout, “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”?

Another objection to C2G came from our choice of music, from our blending of songs with secular roots & reviving them with a sacred flavor. Choosing the music & working with the musicians—thanks so much to Jesse, Talitha, Nate, Betti, & Kory—has been one of the greatest joys of creating C2G, &on the topic of sacred-versus-secular, I must admit it’s our distinction—not God’s. God’s love claims all of creation & transcends every category.

One of the reasons we had to move C2G resulted from hard questions. Is C2G really Christian? Or is it like Anne Rice recently noted —just into Christ but not His body, called Christians. Or is it some kind of Jesus-Curious, Unitarian Universalist-New Age-Pantheist Hybrid, sort of like the Prius of prophecy?

Now for me—having done more than just dabble in neopaganism & the New Age movement while compiling my walk-on-the-wild-side radical resume in devout heathenism & delirious hedonism, I’m at some liberty to talk about what’s dramatically different between the New Age movement & the 21st century emergent church: we follow Jesus. And if any of you are at all like me—following Jesus was not born of being trendy or cool or joining the “in crowd” in the born-again Bible belt.

Now, I was born-again & there are quite a few notches in this bible-reader’s belt—but come on, really, isn’t faith in Jesus always already less-than-hip, more hot-than-cool, a hopeful retreat from the cliff’s edge, a life-preserver for the drowning man, a ripped piece of bread dipped in juice & fed to the hopeless sinner, a life-or-death decision, a giant leap of faith into the realm of life-over-death?

While all of our stories differ in the details, we follow Jesus for a few basic reasons: for what He did when He walked the earth in the flesh—helping, healing, hoping, & hurling truth at hypocrisy—& for what He did on the cross—crossing the boundary between human & divine, heaven & hell, emancipation & empire—& for what He did when He met us in our hearts: forgiving forever & forgetting why we needed to be forgiven in the first place, making us once again perfect & pure in the imminent & transcendent power of perfect pure grace. For these reasons & so many others we claim Christ & Christianity for ourselves—but we also question what kind of Christ-like habits might best cultivate an authentic community of creative worship.

Perhaps we might see doubt & questioning & critical-thinking & still-seeking as the functions of a healthy faith—we’re willing to admit that we don’t have it all figured out. Another awesome aspect of this ministry is the way in which we want to embrace the mission to be the Messiah’s misfits, to be like Jesus in the company we keep—that is, to have a radically inclusive & inviting “open door” policy as stated in our original call:

More than anything, we want to be inclusive of folks, seekers and sinners, the unchurched and undecided, regardless of their spiritual history and spiritual self-definition. We want to invite Christians whose relationship with Jesus is not diluted by welcoming—and even worshiping and studying with—people from diverse and divergent religious paths.

Some see this tone of interspiritual dialogue & tolerance or interfaith openness at best as a concession to our democratic or secular society; at worst, some see it as a demonic force, even a form of devil worship.

The Jesus I follow already defeated death & the devil & by Good Friday & Easter Sunday accounts—He

isn’t afraid of anyone or anything. Most of all, He’s not afraid to have your back—while others perhaps just want to fact-check what our atheist brothers & sisters already claim to know is just fiction. I don’t know about you, but I have this intense sense that God is bigger, bolder, & brighter than the cozy little boxes that some believers prefer to confine God in.

If you hear someone at C2G call on The Creator instead of God or call on God the Mother as well as God the Father or call on the Spirit as well as the Holy Spirit, you might say, “They’re watering down their Christianity with New Age mumbo jumbo.” Or you might say, “My God doesn’t give vocabulary tests.” Or you might say, “My God’s a visionary jester who always sat at the wrong table with the wrong crowd & overturned tables & got chased out of temples.”

If you hear someone at C2G describe their spirituality as magical, you might say that we’re practicing witchcraft or paganism. Or you might say, “My God healed the sick. My God made the blind to see. My God fed five thousand people with a few loaves & a fish. My God walked on water & turned water into the wine. My God raised the dead & was raised from the dead.” You don’t have to call that magical or supernatural, but I do know that some Christians want to revise the Bibles & take the miracles out. They are obsessed with historicism & like the author John Shelby Spong see the miraculous at best as a “literary device” & at worst as “a distortion.”

I don’t know about you, but I want to keep the miracles in. I want to let go of stiff literalism & literary rationalizations & let the miracles in. I want to tell you about the miracle that’s on my heart every time I confess my sin & admit that I am powerless without my powerful savior. There’s a miracle on my heart every time I call on the name of Jesus.

Now how do you call on God? One reason that C2G had to move is that we do not limit our preaching & teaching ministry to the ordained clergy but are a lay ministry & a people’s ministry. While we have a loose co-leadership structure, we also practice an open pulpit.

A few weeks ago, I quoted Richard Foster on meditation, on the need to “enter the living presence of God for ourselves.” Foster warns against a pious religious professionalism, calling us all to “the universal priesthood of God.”

Years ago in my day-to-day teaching here at Tech, I learned that the best teachers are forever students. We bring that principle to the spiritual practice that is C2G: we are perpetually learning about God, learning to love God, & living our walk with God out loud. So we invite you to walk with us, or like the song said—let’s walk together children.

If C2G speaks to your heart, we want you to grow with us a garden. I don’t know what that garden will look like, but I imagine a fun & funky little family of friends & strangers & Jesus freaks who love a hungry life that forever seeks after God.

Tonight, we open the stage of this secular theater to sacred dance & to sacred art & to sacred poetry & to sacred music & to you—to sing God’s song as you hear it inside your own heart. Maybe you too feel like Paul described, maybe you feel like one of the messiah’s misfits, like the culture’s compost. Let’s take this compost of our lives, then, wherever we’re at tonight, & grow a beautiful new garden by planting again the seeds of God’s grace. Amen.—Andrew William Smith, Cookeville, TN 10/10/10


  1. Thank you for sharing your story. If Los Angeles wasn't a million miles away I'd be there with you. I too am on the outskirts of PCUSA, an emergent without a home and longing for a place like yours. Blessing and encouragement.

    Andrew Seely

  2. Thanks for this post. As an emergent who now works at a mainstream PCUSA church, you are speaking my language of faith. It feels good to hear your story and see God moving in your community's life. Keep following Jesus and listening to the Spirit.

  3. Great attitude, Andy. I'm sorry the church can't be more accepting and welcoming, but in a black and white world, the efforts of the emergent church are quite gray. Blessings!

  4. Thank you for sharing this. It moves me, inspires me, challenges me. Bless you!

  5. I was ordained into the institutionalized church over 25 years ago. I remained and worked in different settings trying to reach some with the real Jesus, but in order to keep a pay check coming in I left Jesus locked up in the pages of a book that can by some be restrictive and blind to the world. Keep up the good work and keep inspiring as many as possible to see the Christ as someone who lives and walks and works each day in the world, mostly in our hearts and lives. Keep reaching the world around you for God's glory.

  6. What a breath of fresh air. Having journeyed into The Metaphysical Realm of Christianity for over twenty years, I never figured I could attend an Evangelical Church again. About 5 years ago I wandered into a PCUSA Church where my questions were welcomed. Maybe some of the conclusions I arrived at were not as welcomed as my questions, but I am working with a few members of this same congregation in a Social Justice Ministry to this day. The Urban Poverty Forum, meets annually, presenting three to four speakers on issues of the day, issues many PCUSA congregations may not touch.
    I would love to start another community meeting in this same chuch again.

  7. I'm in Orange County California and left a church which was emergent-like for many years but turned in the direction of a cult with the pastor acting like a dictator suppressing conversation and what the Spirit was saying through anyone but him. Now I'm attending a progressive presbyterian church which is the closest thing to the accepting community I've come to consider an essential element of emergence. I hope that we can make space here for emergent worship as well but I'm afraid that we'll find the same kind of criticism and resistance you've found. I've heard non-traditional worship as critiqued as sentimentalism, self-centered and self-indulgent and I as yet don't know what to make of such criticism - to what degree are they seeing valid concerns and to what degree is it just defensiveness against expressiveness in worship with makes some people uncomfortable.

    Thanks for sharing your journey.