The Wells Sermons are the three sermons that I preached
at the Ministers Week- February 2023 Conference at Brite Divinity School.
SERMON ONE – Inventory – Looking Back
Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
Lamentations 3: 21
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.
May the peace of Jesus be with you all. I am so happy to be here with you. I want to thank the folks from Brite Divinity School and especially the Center for Lifelong Learning for this invitation and for preparing such an amazing conference. It was Rev. Susan Moudry who contacted me first and then I had the guidance, kindness and love from the wonderful Rowena Tart. Thank you!
So many amazing speakers in this conference, you all here, I am deeply honored. I can tell you I come here all fired up for this time together. I tell you, I can barely hold myself.
Our theme for these days is a challenging one: “Imagining the Future Church.” To imagine the future of anything: ourselves, our people, institutions, countries, our planet and so on, we need a movement in three parts: past, present and future without rupture. Who we are now is what we continue to make of the past, who we will be in the future is also what we male of ourselves today.
We begin today with the past. Tomorrow we will look at our present, and then last to the future. I start with three questions about our past:
First, when you look back, what do you see?
What are the markers of the church?
Do you see a strong church? A struggling church?
Do you see a church connected with the poor or one connected with the institution itself?
Do you see a church of the gospel or a church of a group, a class, or a country with a flag inside?
When you look back, do you see yourself there? If so, with whom?
Second, when you look back, what do you feel?
Do you feel warmth and kindness flowing or a rigid sense of authority?
Do you feel people serving each other or do you feel a sense of entitlement?
Do you feel the church was closer to Saint Francis, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. living the fulness of the social gospel or closer to Constantine, Pat Robertson, Paula White and Billy Graham and the gospel of an authoritative and individual God?
Third, when you look back, what you think could have been different?
Nothing? It was all good?
What if we had not been coopted to become an institution of the State under Constantine?
What if the Reformation had not aligned itself with capitalism and Nation States?
What if we had fully engaged in the Civil Rights Movement and stood firmly against racism, homophobia and xenophobia?
What if we had preached a hard gospel that did not allow Trump to be elected?
To my friends here who are Trump supporters, I am open to talk to you after the worship. Preaching is about positionality and while I am clear where I stand, I would truly love an open conversation with any of you.
Perhaps you think the church should never engage politics.
Or perhaps you are lost, not knowing exactly what to do and to think, or where to go with your own community during these challenging times.
May invitation to you tonight is to be critical about our past and not idealize the church of Jesus Christ in any way. Let us look at our past as a double movement: first we will look at the ways we betrayed the gospel of Jesus and second, we will search for what has kept us alive. Again, agree or disagree–take what is worth holding in your heart and toss away everything else. But let us hang in this place together for these days. Diversity is what keeps us alive.
Qoelet, the preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us this:
Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
There is so much longing for an idealized church of the past, the church of the 50’s and 60’s when the church was packed and living its glorious, booming years. But to try to go back to this time is to waste the resources we still have and lose any possible future. We can’t afford any nostalgia based on idealizations and lies.
Selecting ONLY the best moments of our past and forgetting the harsh histories that brought us this far will erase any possible future for us. Instead of “Make America Great Again” we must visit the painful and hurtful moments of our past, so that we can find healing and a path to create a common future.
When we say “Why were the former days better than these?’ we are saying: “I want my church back!” Or “How can God restore our true church?” But these questions are fraught with complications…What church do we want back? What form of restoration are we looking at?
The longing for “the good old days” of white churches is often drenched in white patriarchal supremacy, led by white, heterosexual males who organize and perpetuate a hierarchical system according to social class, race and sexuality. In those days we knew what to do, who to follow and what proper theology to believe.
It was the church of those who had the upper hand, control and decisions. The upright hand of the white churches controlling and suppressing minority voices and participation.
Today, because of the erosion of this system, we all feel lost. And my friends that is a good thing! A sign of God’s movement within us.
The church of the past is also responsible for much of the suffering we have today.
We have condoned white supremacy.
We have said yes to the American apartheid.
We have kept silence when red lining divided our neighborhoods—the entire nation even!
When the poor moved to the cities, we moved to the suburbs and allowed downtown to decay.
Until very recently, we rejected women for ordination. In many places churches still don’t allow LGBTQIA+ people to be ordained and lead the church.
White churches have amassed an enormous amount of money in spite of the hunger of so many. We have invested in buildings and walls with plaques to celebrate our names in churches and schools while people live in shelters and lack money for education.
We have fully embraced capitalism.
We have accepted racism everywhere.
We have benefited from the ways the United States has spread its empire all across the world.
We Christians in this country have supported wars and still support the most obscene military budget in history.
Our voices are silent against the destruction of the earth and the drilling of oil and the global destitution of land and people.
We have not fought against colonizing movements that continues to kill Indigenous people and continues to destroy everything that is alive.
We have not raised our voices against the billionaires who rule our economy and our politics.
We have not said “enough!” to all of our privileges. We haven’t been able to say to ourselves: “There must be limits!”
And more, the white church rarely prays against racism and keeps silent about violence against Black people. How many churches wept over the killing of Tyre Nichols in the last weeks? Instead, we condemn protests, riots and the freedom movements of Black people.
If we look inwards to the grammar of our faith, we see that we have universalized our experiences without paying attention to how we Christians affect other people.
Our liturgies and prayers still carry a universalized language that does not name the specific hurts of those who suffer the most. Because to say those words would make us pay close attention. And change!
Again, if we are to “Imagine the Future Church,” of Jesus Christ, we must look back and see the ways we have constructed this very church. We must take ownership of our past actions and the ways this past have shaped us into who and what we have become. Friends, with this move, we seek awareness, not guilt. If we wallow in guilt, this emotion will pass and we will only hold grudges and revert to the same old religion that got us here. This process must be a long one.
However, we need more than that! We need to shift now. We need to look back to those moments and the people who kept us alive! Until now we have just looked back in sorrow, but now we must look back in gratitude and awe. We must be grateful for what God has done in our past as well! We must celebrate the cloud of witnesses who carried us through and brought us this far. We stand on the shoulders of those who gave their lives to Jesus, living the gospel in all its challenges and hard core demands. We must remember those who kept a kernel of the gospel alive:
those who lived with the marginalized ones,
those who defended the defenseless,
those who offered shelter to the persecuted,
those who took the sides of the oppressed,
those who honored Indigenous people and their presence in this land,
those who have supported the Underground Railroad,
those who walked in the Civil Rights Movement and boycotted the buses,
those who embraced justice for Black people without hesitation,
those who are now still fighting against the suppression of Black voters,
those who are still fighting against racism and helping others to sing a song of freedom,
those who are feeding people on the streets and providing them shelter saying you are worthy,
those who cry out with love for immigrants and say this is also your land,
those who have sided with the women and could not accept any discourse, be it lawful or not, that goes against the right of every woman to decide about their own bodies,
those who right now are placing themselves on the line so that gays, lesbians, transgender people can be fully ordained and stretch their arms over eucharistic tables and altars saying: “This is the body of Christ, eat and drink from it all, do this in memory of me.”
Thus, instead of looking back saying: ‘Why were the former days better than these?’
we must look back as the Prophet Jeremiah did and say:
I want to bring to memory what can give me hope.
We look back to see those who brought us this far, and if we look closely, we will see the wonders of God in our history. We will see the birth of liberation movements that led to the incarnation of God in people and movements that were filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
So look friends! Look to a great cloud of witness who transformed the world along the way. As heirs of the Jesus movement, we must carry the memory of transgression and seek out our hope in history—in the Underground Railroad, for instance.
The Underground Railroad helped free one hundred thousand people from slavery! When white Christian folks were enslaving precious Black people, it was Black people who reinvented the gospel of Jesus Christ for generations to come. The Underground Railroad movement carried the whole grammar and vocabulary of freedom and escape possibilities in coded language. Education to enslaved people was forbidden so movements for freedom relied on the common knowledge of the people, which included hymns. “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” for example, was a coded song, taught by a man called Peg Leg Joe, a conductor of the Underground Railroad. This song was a song-map for freedom. It says…
Follow the drinkin’ gourd
Follow the drinkin’ gourd
For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinkin’ gourd
The drinking gourd was the journey to freedom, a symbol for the Big Dipper in the sky to be navigated during the night. The old man was the agent of freedom waiting for them.
When the sun comes back, and the first quail calls
Follow the drinkin’ gourd
The Quail in Alabama begin their mating calls at the beginning of April, and it is said that was the time when they should leave the plantations.
The Underground Railroad grounded its fugitive organizations in darkness, secrecy and disguise. Running through the night and resting through the day, they jumped into rivers to wash away the scent of their sweaty clothes so the plantation dogs would not find them. Surely the darkest night of the soul is something only for white people to wrestle with. For enslaved people, the darkest night of the soul was the path to freedom, the safest place to be.
In the midst of slavery, when they had nothing and nobody to rely on, Black folks recreated the gospel and the presence of God into their lives through songs. Oh alleluia they lived fully the gospel of Jesus so we can live this gospel today. They showed us what is to make a way out of no way! A free people can only live in freedom! So they invented routes of escape to be free!
Their songs were a full blown Black gospel sustaining their lives even amidst white oppression. They knew how to find life in the midst of death, routes of freedom in the midst of slavery. They made songs of resurrection in the midst of fields of death, and in the midst of forced labor they sang their freedom.
Again, they taught us how to find a way out of no way. So when we think how we got this far we must remember that it was Harriet Tubman and so many others who made it possible for us to be here. You and I are here because of the work and the faith of Black people during the Underground Railroad and throughout history.
As I finish and we search for the ways for a future church, we must look back.
When we look back, we must deal with all of the processes of death that took us this far, that have also killed us and the gospel of Jesus.
But also, when we look back, we must open our hearts in awe for those who brought us this far and with a heart filled with deep gratitude for those who gave their lives for the sake of the gospel and the least of these.
The past is very alive and with us here right now my friends. What are we going to do with it?
May God help us look at our past with courage and wisdom. Amen!
 Underground Railroad Secret Codes, http://www.harriet-tubman.org/underground-railroad-secret-codes/
SERMON TWO – Metamorphoses – Looking Now
26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,
29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”
32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
What an amazing conference this is! I thank God for this time we are having together. Yesterday we looked at our past and did a critical inventory of our common belonging.
Today, we continue the process of “Imagining the Future Church” by looking at our present and doing an inventory of where we are now. So here I am with more questions for you:
First: when you look at the present of the church, what do you see?
Do you see a strong church or a struggling church?
Do you see people like you around the church or people different than you?
Do you see the church changing or hoping to stay the same?
Second, when you look at the present of the church, what do you feel?
Do you feel a sense of joy and excitement or anxiety and sadness?
Do you feel confident or fearful? Hopeful or pessimistic?
Do you smell the fresh air of the morning resurrection or the smell of corpses putrefying? OR are you in between?
Do you feel empowered or completely powerless?
And finally, when you look at the church today, what do you imagine could be different?
Should we change our theology, liturgy, structure, leadership?
Should we change forms of gathering or buildings? Unite with other churches?
Should we evangelize, engage causes, be more active, more contemplative?
Let these questions stir your imagination…
When I look at the church today in the United States, I have a complicated vision of it. I believe churches are powerful communities who can actually change the world. Everything I write, speak and teach comes from this place of trust, believing the church to be a powerful (super)natural community! On the other hand, I see this community petrified, caught in systems of power and inequalities that oppress us.
In these changing and transformative times, to understand the church and envision our future, we must understand the tectonic shifts happening in the U.S. and globally.
- The world is no longer owned by white supremacy.
- Sexualities and gender specificities are melting away.
- Women are empowering themselves.
- Minorities are becoming majorities.
- The religious landscape of the world is shifting rapidly.
- Power dynamics everywhere are uneven and changing. Families are more diverse, empires are falling apart and the geopolitical configuration of the world is breaking.
- Colonization is still rampant and renewed.
- Capitalism is rapidly spiraling us into an abyss while fascism rises to support the end stages of capitalistic destruction.
- COVID came to change us but we were not changed.
- Human beings remain arrogant, believing we are the most important life on this planet and not caring for anything that is not human.
- The earth is striking back as we devour everything we can mercilessly.
- Our churches are lost and we don’t know what to do.
- The current divide in this country is splitting us apart in so many ways. Pastors are exhausted having to battle more anger, bitterness and accusations. As a pastor told me yesterday: before people came to church to learn, now they come to see if they agree with the pastor.
We could develop a whole sermon or lecture on each of these issues. But I want to focus on two main points: capitalism and fascism. I hope we can continue to talk after this sermon.
We live under the power of a capitalist economic and political system that organizes us to fight against each other. Capitalism ordains the value and the forms of relationships possible between people, work and the earth. Survival is based on individual, personal effort. Thus, if you are able to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, get an education, and find a job, then you deserve your salary, health insurance, schooling, etc. If you do not have those things, then capitalism insists you are lazy and undeserving of support.
Capitalism is not based on mutual care but on individual competition, which creates false scarcity, frustration, self-doubt, and worthlessness. Those who succeed under capitalism cannot see that capitalism is based on inequality. Look how our world is organized today: We have 1% of billionaires ruling the world and everybody else is losing their meager means. The middle class is disappearing and the poor and miserable are growing exponentially.
We have given too much power to capitalism, and the social welfare net created after the second world war is disappearing. Retirement, health insurance and education are limited to those who can afford it. Housing insecurity and homelessness are on the rise—owning property, a sin in itself, is only for the wealthy.
Increasingly people are faced with choices to pay the gas bill or buy food. We cannot even feed people on the streets because some states are criminalizing helping poor people.
Capitalism is based not on care but on development and growth at any cost. Everything and everyone must have a profitable value or they don’t need to exist. Exploitation, abuse and domination shaped by coloniality and racism has brought us to our present day.
Second, Fascism and the alt right movement
In many places around the world fascism is growing. What happened in the U.S. with Donald Trump–and in Brazil with Bolsonaro, in Hungary with Orbin, in Italy with Meloni – is challenging the most basic forms of democracy.
In our congress, there is little to no desire to create anything collective. The authoritative ruling of fascism uses the collective to keep individual power intact. It runs on screams, accusations, and furious anger and authoritative power. Fascism is the demise of democracy. It is the ruling of billionaires, the erasure of minorities, the destruction of social rights, the imposition of a curriculum where Black Lives are considered political leftist agenda, where climate change is labeled a hoax and a few white males are held up as saviors from communism, socialism, social welfare, immigrants, and the poor. Fascism is based on a suicidal state, a form of “pure destruction and abolition” of the fulness of life.
We have supported racist governments for too long. We have lived a false gospel intertwined with genocidal fascism. When the gospel is used to support leaders like Bolsonaro and Trump we have lost any truthful sense of the gospel.
What happened to us? Our churches should be communities based on the social gospel, supporting social welfare, defending rights and opportunities for all, providing sustenance for everyone, welcoming the stranger and holding on tight to the theological belief that every person, animals and plants and rivers are indeed the “imago Dei.” In a more communal or socialist system we value the collective over individual gain.
In this kind of Ubuntu system, we care for each other, providing health insurance, retirement, schools, equal salaries, equal responsibilities and opportunities for all. Instead, we are losing the social gospel and becoming more individualistic, with narrow forms of thinking, believing and living our faith. We have become partners of capitalism, individualism and we are now fueling fascism which will destroy us all.
But what does that mean for our churches? Let me tell you an imaginary story:
Imagine we are all one church here. We all care for each other and we all wish the best for each other. We live the faith together. Let us now imagine that Mary, a 25 year member of this church is beginning to struggle economically, and consequently socially and spiritually.
Mary lost her job and is now getting anxious to get a new one as fast as possible since she, like many other people, live paycheck-to-paycheck. But time is passing, she cannot get another job. We the people of the church are supporting her with thoughts and prayers. After three months Mary still can’t get a job. Her bills start to pill up, and she is more anxious than ever. She has tried everything to survive with her three kids. She has no husband to help.
When the fifth month comes she is quite desperate. She approaches the pastor to ask for help. The pastor goes to the session and explains Mary’s situation. The session decides to help her with $400 dollars and they make an announcement during the Sunday service to show how this church cares for her. That money only lasts a few days.
One month later she goes talk to the pastor and asks for help again. The pastor at this point is less sympathetic. He brings the issue to the session and by this time the elders and deacons let the pastor know that Mary has been annoying other members by asking for help. Everybody is troubled by her behavior.
The session decides to give her a few hundred dollars and this time the pastor gives it to her personally, saying that this is the last time the church can help. He also asks her to stop asking for help from other people because people are getting annoyed. Next Sunday Mary is crying during worship and everybody is upset with her.
After worship, during coffee hour, the buzz is about how Mary can’t stand for herself, lacks resources and has been lazy, abusing people’s good will. They all have answers to her situation but can’t understand how she allowed herself to get to that point.
Next Sunday Mary doesn’t show up. Somebody asks for a prayer during the prayers of the people. A generalized prayer is offered. Mary never comes back. And the church continues to be the church, singing glory to God, asking for God’s generalized forgiveness and for God to send us new members.
This story illustrates the spirit of what togetherness means in many of our communities. Instead of seeing how the social structure is killing us, we are fast to blame the individual. It is always the individual fault for the system is there for anyone! How did we let be that much trapped in those lies my friends? Mary is not to be the faulty one, it is the system. We should be angry with capitalism and our political leaders and not Mary. Mary should have been embraced, helped and supported all the way.
Instead of a collective who truly attends to each other needs, we are a social community with individual goals, individual demands and individual expectations.
We are here not to care for each other but to make sure our demands are met. We live in an illusory worshiping community. We all know God’s call to love our neighbor but we keep on asking: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We don’t feel we have to care for each other. Each one with their own lot, their own abilities, responsibilities, possibilities and fate!
It is no wonder our churches are dying, with the gospel confused with capitalism. Life together is no longer the desire of a nation built on individual freedom.
But more. Our churches mirror the financial markets rather than challenging them. We have CEO’s, presidents and leaders who amass enormous amount of money. Pastors of a few tall steeple churches receive large salary packages while the vast majority of churches are struggling. Only in the Presbyterian church , almost 70% of the churches are small congregations, struggling to survive!
Churches that don’t have endowments are trying to make it with part time pastors. Pastors are struggling to make ends meet sometimes pastoring 2-3-4 churches. A former student of mine who was ordained told me that she had an interview with a church who offered a position based on 19 and a half hours of work each week. And I naively asked: Why?! And she said: if they offer me 20 hours, they have to give me health insurance!
I was appalled by it.
How does a church have the guts to offer such a deal? When a church doesn’t care if the pastor has health insurance, this church should indeed die. But the problem again is not that individual church but rather, the whole system that organizes our churches.
Why is it easier for pastors to hear God’s call from congregations who can afford to pay a good salary? And I don’t blame them! But what happens to the small struggling churches? In capitalism, they are left on their own. If the church is not growing, it must be because the pastor is not that good or the people there don’t want change. We say, “Of course the tall steeple churches are full of amazing people and the small churches are all made of losers!” Based on this inequality, the church won’t go anywhere beyond the path of death. Small pastor, small church, I feel for you.
What is in the gospel that can explain a pastor getting 150-200 thousand dollars and other pastors 25 thousand? What explains presidents and CEO’s of Christian institutions getting 300-500 hundred thousand dollars a year while the secretary is getting 45,000? We are exactly like our society: a few rich millionaires and the rest of us struggling to survive. With the difference that we all say “God is good all the time.” We should be at least embarrassed with those discrepancies.
This system is so perverse that no church wants to change it. I once suggested the idea to a seminary to have everybody in the seminary to have the same salary- from the president to the cleaning people. They laughed and said: Oh Claudio is a Latin American socialist or communist. Oh friends, I wish I was…
I have been a broken record speaking about this: we need equal salaries, and we need equal resources distributed everywhere. We cannot have these discrepancies of salaries all over the church. This is driving us to death!
If we solve this inequity then the call to pastor a church in rural Alabama or the Magnificent Mile church in Chicago will NOT be because of salary package but because of God’s call to serve in this place.
The church can be a powerful change agent in the world … And yet, we are left struggling to survive. I still believe in the church! There is a kernel of radicalness that is the fundamental part of this being. I believe with Octavia Butler that God is change and that good and transformative changes can happen. I believe we can go from fossilized tradition to transforming the ways we are living out our days.
Oh friends, we have each other! We belong to a community called the church of Jesus Christ, and some churches are finding ways to renew themselves through love, prayer, and a real communal life.
Let me give you few examples:
A church somewhere in the northern United States wanted to offer shelter to the homeless but didn’t have money to change the building in order to comply with the insurance liabilities. Then they decided to begin a vigil. Every night during the winter they had a vigil from 10 pm to 6 am. If the police arrived, they were praying. There was loud snoring but they would say: “Yep this is a very deep prayer!” In fact, the spiritual life of the congregation was truly transformed.
A church in New York used the roof of their building to create a garden and for the last 20 years they have offered food to the folks from that and other neighborhoods.
A congregation sold their land and created an affordable housing project for homeless people, created a public garden for the whole community and now worships in a very small building.
Another church whose members lived close together offered daily meals to everyone throughout the week to ease the crisis of unemployment.
- A church started a ministry with bees, yes bees, so they would continue to pollinate the fields and make sure food would be enough for the people of that region.
- One church learned to eat a whole meal as the heart of their worship so no one would go hungry.
- Another church started to worship around trees and honor each of the trees around the church.
These churches are teaching us about the meaning of Matthew 6:26-34, our passage for today. When I have a group of people truly taking care of me, my family, the neighborhood and the environment, I feel like learning more about the words of Jesus:
I look at the birds of the air and say: we have the same value as they have.
I will not worry about my death, for I will be living well. My life is in the hands of God through God’s people and my death is in God’s hand.
I will not worry about clothing… for God, through this community, will clothe me,
and not even Solomon in all his glory will be clothed like me.
I will not be concerned with what to eat or to drink for I have food and drink in the house of the Lord every day.
Then I will learn that all I have to do is to strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to me and to all my people as well.
It is in the middle of this beloved community, right here, that I will not worry about tomorrow because today… today I am deeply cared! Today I have shelter, food, health insurance and love:
SO THAT I CAN SAY: THIS IS THE DAY THAT THE LORD HAS MADE. TODAY, IN THIS PRESENT MOMENT, BECAUSE WE DEEPLY CARE FOR EACH OTHER, I WILL REJOICE AND BE GLAD IN IT! AMEN!
 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 251.
SERMON THREE – Emergencies
Looking from the Future
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
My the peace of Jesus Christ be with you!
Again, I want to thank the folks who invited me here. Thanks All who prepared this huge banquet for us all. Everyone. Thank you Rev Russ and the folks at the church for the care and love you gave us hosting us with so much kindness. Some folks asked for the sermons and I will post it in my website tomorrow. It is claudiocarvalhaes.com Also, this book is all about I am talking tonight if you are interested.
We have come to the end of this wonderful conference. So many blessings, stories to tell, and hopefully a renewed heart. I pray you made friends that will continue to walk with you. A shot out to reverend Lloyd who is 95 years old and was part of this gathering. As we leave this conference, let us remember that the only way into the future is the way together. The only way also to appease our anxiety is to know that we have other people with us, to live with us, to do the work with us, to hold our hands and love us.
So tonight we finish “Imagining the Future Church” today by looking at our future and imagining becoming communities of the future. So I have some questions for you:
FIRST, When you look at the future of the church, what do you see?
Do you see a church crumbling or a church marked by the glory of God?
Do you see people holding each other with love or do you see a people dismantled, angry, distressed and broken?
Do you see the church holding the world together or only watching the destruction of the earth?
SECOND, When you look at the future of your church, what do you feel?
Do you feel a sense of trust in God or do you fear the church will disappear?
Do you touch the ground and feel the pulse of the earth within the heart of the church or you feel the decompensated beat of our painful frenetic days and our anxious breath?
Do you hear the birds singing or is there a silent spring coming our way?
Do you feel you have enough to go through whatever comes or do you feel weak when you think about your future?
THIRD, When you look at the future, what do you think we can do now to bring a future where we could all live?
My question is not what kind of church we might want but rather the necessary church we need. What is it the church we need?
And talking about you, what do you have to offer now for the church to become what we hope for in the future?
What conversions and metamorphoses we need to go through?
What do we need to attend now to bring about the church of the future?
I hope you will carry these questions to your own communities and think about them with your people.
When I think about the future I keep my ears open to hear what is coming from the future that we need to pay attention. What is it that the future is telling us now? What can you hear?
I can only tell you what I can hear now. It might be frustrating for some but to be honest with you, all I can hear now is a call from the earth..
Yes, a call from the earth. An earth who is hurting deeply and showing deep signs of weariness and a very concerned health situation.
This call started about 6 years ago when I adopted my three kids. Being a father made it impossible not to think about the future. I don’t worry much about my kids finding jobs or mustering the ability to make it to something. Mostly, what I worry about is the world they will be living in. And that worry has to do with the land, the earth and all its incredible diverse life everywhere. What earth will they inherit from us?
Right after they came into my life, I had an altar call, a come to Jesus moment when I heard the call from God through the voice of indigenous and scientist thinker Robin Kimmerer who wrote Braiding Sweetgrass when she was giving a talk at Union.
In that talk, she was telling us that the earth is hurting and we don’t have a healthy way to relate to the earth. She said we don’t have rituals to relate with the earth and at that moment I went through a metanoia, a conversion, and I started thinking about everything very differently, trying to hear the voices of the land and learn how to relate to them.
That turn changed my life completely, including way of reading the Bible and living my spiritual life. I started to read scriptures differently.
For example, I grew up with John 3:16 being the golden Biblical text that was a call to the world about God’s love. After that earth change in my heart, how should I reinterpret this passage?
When the apostle John said: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son…” I thought, well God so loved the whole world! The apostle John didn’t say: For God so loved the humans… instead he said: “For God so loved the world!” Well, that must mean that the world here must be understood I its entirety, which includes, beyond humans, all possible forms of life on earth: mountains, rivers, rocks, skies, clouds, rivers, oceans, animals, mosses, butterflies, ants, squirrels, dolphins, sharks, humming birds, eagles, awls, worms, beavers, chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats, horses, trees, plants of all kinds, soil, seeds, flowers, bees, spiders, donkeys, elephants, tigers, foxes, snakes, seagulls, peacocks, turkeys, monkeys, flinches, ladybugs, whales, rhinos, valleys, burrows, wind, fire, earth and air. AND CRABS.
For God so loved the world of these precious beings!!! The whole world, oh thank God!
However, let me tell you, that list does not include cockroaches. That was God’s only mistake in God’s creation! If you can survive the atomic bomb, there must be something really nasty about you.
My jacket today reminds us about the risks of all of the vulnerable beings in this world: the poor, the Indigenous, children, women, colored people, Palestinians, people with disabilities as well as all of the non-human species who are running the risk of being extinct. My hat is a crab calling our attention to our oceans who are dying, becoming acidic as we throw such an enormous amount of garbage everyday into the oceans. Oceans are warming to a point where the corals reefs, who are a fundamental source of life for the ocean, are losing their strength and bleaching out. We are fishing beyond the limits of the ocean, depleting the rich life of the oceans! Our brother Dan Paul who is here among us is doing amazing work with theology and the oceans. Dan Paul, raise your hand please. And check bluetheology.com
Oh imagine to understand John 3:16 differently!
For God so loved the world that the earth was God’s own body!
For God so loved the oceans… the darkest parts of the oceans, the coral reefs, the crabs, and all of the fantastic and diverse families of species who live in the oceans.
For God so loved the bees that God never allowed pesticides in the fields.
If we are to survive as a church and as human beings, we must start loving all of these non-human beings with the same love of God.
For God so loved the forests that populated it with a beloved community made of endless numbers of species!
Let these species start to enter our worship prayers, friends, our daily prayers, our sermons, our songs. Let us have prayers of the people and prayers of other people: trees, rivers, groundhogs, whales…
Let us care for all God’s creation right there where we live. Let us begin a green ministry!
For there will be no future for the church if the earth dies! If there are no rivers around us. There will be no future for the church if we continue to relate with the land with capitalism, with agribusiness, for profit, as profit, drenching the earth with poison that kills the land, polluting the rivers, killing the bees and eating up everything that is alive.
As we move forward, let us start thinking theology differently:
Unless we care for the oceans there will be no church.
Unless we care for the bees there will be no church.
Unless we care for the seeds and soil, there will be no church.
Unless we care for the plants who provide our oxygen, there will be no church.
Unless we care for the forests, there will be no church.
God is calling us from the future, right now, to radically expand the notion of God’s love. Stop thinking about the future of the human church alone. Start thinking about the future of the earth as the whole church of Jesus Christ. If John Wesley said my church is my world, we must start saying: the ecosystems I live with are indeed my church.
Just now, at 54, I am beginning to realize that my growing up was marked by my mother singing to her plants. I visited her recently, she is 91 years old and every day she sings to her plants, living in a relational love where each take care of the other. My mom grew up harvesting coffee. I grew up in the city. I never paid attention to the land, to the rivers, to the birds. Now I must change and start to love and relate with the earth the way my mother did and does. I believe God want us all to do that too.
Last Friday I listened to Davi Kopenawa in New York, the leader of the Yanomamis, a powerful Indigenous nation living in the heart of the Amazon Forest.
It was a deeply moving talk of no more than 15 minutes. Davi Kopenawa is a shaman and he can hear the voice of the earth. When he speaks the Amazon forest speaks through the sound of his voice and the beat of his heart.
While Davi was speaking of his love of the forest, he was grieving the death of many of his own people, the Yanomami, who are going through a merciless process of genocide in Brazil. In the last four years, the fascist Brazilian government of former president Bolsonaro has enacted a full blown process of destruction of the Yanomamis.
There is death everywhere!
Davi kopenawa calls us na-pepe, the non-Indigenous people, the people of the merchandise. We need so many things that all we can think of is what to buy next. If we were to take away the ability to buy something for an entire month, besides food and medication, we would have our identity completely shaken. Our most fundamental identity is not to be a US citizen, or a Christian, but to be consumers; we are the people of the merchandise.
We have no limits. We think the earth is at our full disposal. But the earth cannot provide for all of our wishes and desires. We cannot pursue our happiness in the way we do.
Davi Kopenawa gave us a path forward. He said: “You need to love the forest. You need to allow yourself to be arrowed, pierced by the love of the forest. The love of your children and the love of your spouses are not enough to live.” He is right: unless we love the forest, we won’t be able to survive to love anyone.
Davi Kopenawa can hear the earth, he comes to us from the future with a loud message: unless we hold the possibility for humans and more than humans species to live together, with limits, there will be no future.
If we are to start shaping a possible future for us and especially for our children and grandchildren, we have to start thinking-feeling with that which is not human. We must do away with the human-centrism of our faith that says that God only loves humans, a faith that assumes that we humans are the top of the chain in God’s creation and everything else is to be controlled and explored by us humans. We can only talk about humans, humans, humans.
Psalm 23 might bring us a path to walk. Perhaps, in order to get there, we might need to go through the valley of shadow and death, realizing our potential for violence and death. Along with that realization we also must know that if we continue in this path, the goodness and the mercy of God will be with us.
Psalm 23 tells us about these processes of change, of emergences and emergencies just before us. There are emergences in our lives that need our immediate attention. What is it in your own life, your church and your community that needs immediate attention? For there is no future unless we attend to our most fundamental needs right now.
I pray this conference is a metamorphosis in your life, a metanoia, a conversion of your mind and heart into new ways of perceiving and living.
Let me tell you a story of the Bedouins who lived in the Ancient Mediterranean lands shepherding lambs in the desert. The Bedouins used to search for small pockets of land where there was some moisture and a few plants could grow. They would place a sheep in that area and leave the sheep there for a year. The sheep ate the little grass, pooped, and fertilized the soil. Next year, if they were lucky, the pastors would find a bigger piece of land restored. Perhaps, they wouldn’t be lucky and the lamb would be dead, but even the dead lamb would decompose and fertilize the land. Then they would leave another lamb and wait another year. Perhaps the next year the almost deserted area would become a very small green pasture, and then they would place another sheep until they could have green meadows and could plant and harvest.
The difficult part of the history, however, was that the Shepperd had to break the legs of the sheep so the sheep would get used to the land and wouldn’t run away; this was the only way to survive.
Perhaps, in order to have God laying us down in green pastures we might need to let go of something, and have some forms of thinking and feeling within us die.
Perhaps God is letting the earth break our legs so we can change. Perhaps our valley of shadow will be to let capitalism die, to change our life styles, to stop buying, and to do a church not based on money but on the desire to be together. Have you ever thought of a church without a budget? What would that mean? How would we care for the pastor and each other? Can you think of a church with other ways of creating/producing means to live and survive?
Then the valley of shadow will teach us how to become ourselves green pastures, drawing the circle wide so that we understand ourselves not as isolated beings but a part of entire ecosystems with other species as full parts of a landscape. If we learn that kind of living and belonging together, we might start to ask: who are the other beings who live here where I live in this part of our common meadow? Who can I to care for in this meadow? Are the birds fed, are the trees healthy, are the rivers clean? Are the fields without poison?
Perhaps we will learn that we must provide for the future generations so they can lay down into green pastures and then they can provide for future generations. If we learn that, we will be able to understand in our bodies and minds, what it means to be have goodness and mercy following us.
How can we respond to the future and the call from God through the earth?
Perhaps you can start paying close attention to other species near you.
Perhaps you can start talking and singing to plants as my mother did.
Perhaps you can start listening to the birds more attentively.
In your church, perhaps you can start having plants in the altar/table not as decorations but full beings participating in the glory of God! Perhaps during the worship you can pray with them thanking God for their lives.
Perhaps you can go down to the river with your congregation to pray. Not to get the religion of the good old days but instead to learn a new religion, a new way of praying, a new way of feeling with other beings, and deeply caring for them!
Perhaps you can start reading the Bible with the land. What would that change in you?
Perhaps you can start to see your church not as a building with humans only but as a meadow, an ecosystem where you and your people live with a vast amount of other species.
Perhaps you will see that the threes, the flowers, the grass, the weed, the birds, the squirrels, the fox, the worms, the rivers are all part of your own wellbeing and thus of your faith.
For it is the earth who gives us all we need to live.
Perhaps you will worship outside sometimes and thank God for fire, water, soil and air.
Perhaps you will be able to hear the cry of the earth and start thinking together how to heal and restore the land you live. For every time you are healing the earth you are healing yourself and your community.
So my friends, as we move into the future, I invite you to do these three things:
First, love the world the way God loved: all other species and all its forms of life. Love the world like my mother loves her little plants, like Davi Kopenawa loves the forest!
Second, drenched yourself with other species until you are able to dream with them. Then you will be able to pay attention to both the emergences and emergencies of your life and your congregation.
Fear not little flock! Fear not! Fear not about the future of the church! Go to the earth with your people and find God where you are.
A renewed life is waiting for you right there!
Can you see it?
Thank you for this time together!