Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sermon for Sunday, May 24

The Return of the Church
May 24, 2009

Even the wilderness and desert will be glad in those days. The wasteland will rejoice and blossom with spring crocuses. Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers and singing and joy! The deserts will become as green as the mountains of Lebanon, as lovely as Mount Carmel or the plain of Sharon. There the LORD will display his glory, the splendor of our God. With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands, and encourage those who have weak knees. Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you.” And when he comes, he will open the eyes of the blind and unplug the ears of the deaf. The lame will leap like a deer, and those who cannot speak will sing for joy! Springs will gush forth in the wilderness, and streams will water the wasteland. The parched ground will become a pool, and springs of water will satisfy the thirsty land. Marsh grass and reeds and rushes will flourish where desert jackals once lived. And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there. Lions will not lurk along its course, nor any other ferocious beasts. There will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will walk on it. Those who have been ransomed by the LORD will return. They will enter Jerusalem singing, crowned with everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be filled with joy and gladness. -- Isaiah 35:1-10

Isaiah says, when the Messiah comes, the deserts will bloom. I say, forget about the deserts. I need the Messiah to return and help my tomato plants bloom. I have the worst luck with tomatoes lately. I planted these from seed. I had visions of growing food, and feeding my family and sustaining the earth with my simple organic home agriculture. I bought reputable heirloom seeds. This one is called “Silvery Fir.” It is an heirloom from Siberia, bred to grow in cold climates with a short growing year. I figured, if they can grow them in Siberia, than I can grow it in Connecticut. I’ve tended to them, watered them, and transplanted them. I even sing to them (they like Russian opera). Look at these things. They are small, leggy, spindly, and wispy. But I have not lost hope.

These little Siberian tomatoes have a lot of competition. There are bigger, sexier, tomatoes on the market that make mine look puny -- like the Burpee Best Boy. Best Boy was born to be a star in the garden. Best Boy’s maturity produces large, firm fruits on a compact plants, with excellent uniform coloring disease resistance. I had a landlord who used to buy these beautiful hybrid plants. We lived in a two-family house near Boston, Chris and I living above our landlord’s family. The landlord and I shared a garden patch in his yard. Every Memorial Weekend, I would plant my tender seedlings. He would come home from a garden center with a two-foot tall hybrid tomato, small green fruit already forming on thick vines. He was competitive like that – a vegetable bully. He had to have the biggest and best tomatoes in the garden. Both he and his tomatoes were show offs.

So, what would you rather have – a giant, fruitful, reliable, uniform, hybrid tomato, or this spindly little heirloom. Before you answer, let me give you some information. Hybrids are bred with an emphasis on yield at the expense of hardiness and resistance. New hybrids do not last long. They eventually succumb to pest attack after a few years and have to be replaced by another newly bred hybrid. New seeds displace the old. When once hundreds of old varieties were grown, now there’s only a couple of varieties that need constant replacing. Hybrid tomatoes are bred primarily for their appearance and their production abilities. Taste has always been secondary and has been largely neglected. The worse part is that Best Boy cannot reproduce. I know, it’s sad, but once Best Boy has ripened, his future is gone. You cannot save the seeds and grow it again next year. If you want to grow Best Boy, you need to buy the seeds from Burpee, who protects Best Boy’s lineage as a close-guarded company secret. This is the price you have to pay for a beautiful tomato.

When my leggy little heirloom grows, it will certainly have challenges to face. But it will have a well-documented history. It will bear fruit with unique shapes and colors. I will be able to save the seeds and grow the plant again next year. And the taste! Silvery Fir will grow into something wonderful – robust and fruitful tomato plants – the pride of my garden. You wouldn’t know it now, but these tomatoes are going to do great things!

So which one is for you – the heirloom or the hybrid. What if I told you that everything we need to know about church is found in my tomato plants? What if I told you that the survival of the church is like picking between an heirloom or a hybrid tomato? Which church would you want? Over the past few weeks, I have preached on the challenges the church faces as Christendom declines in the West. Where once the culture relied on the church as a moral compass and center of community life, American churches now find themselves pushed to the margins in the most religiously pluralistic country in the world. We struggle to find relevance in a culture than is less interested in organized religion.

We are not the first ones to experience a seismic shift in our religious practice. In the Bible, the people of Israel went through something called the Exile. God’s people were taken over by the armies of Babylon and deported from the Promised Land. Babylon’s armies killed the monarchy and smashed the temple in Jerusalem to the ground. Some Israelites remained in their devastated homeland, but most were forced to live as defeated prisoners in Babylon. Everything they relied on to define their spiritual existence was taken from them: the Temple, the religious establishment, the monarchy, their sense of entitlement, their self-assurance of God’s favored blessing.

I think that our churches face our own modern-day exile. We can’t imagine living without our church buildings, our denominational structure, our preeminent place in the culture, our belief God will favor us and our nation forever. But those things are changing. Our buildings are so expensive that they compromise our witness. Our denomination seems to be fading away. Christianity is no longer the unofficial state religion. Sometimes it feels like God has withdrawn favor toward us. In other words, we are being forced to live in a land and a church that is far different from what it was when most of us grew up.

Some churches respond by becoming hybrids. They try to become the religions Best Boys in the religious garden. They market themselves as a commodity in the religious marketplace. In fact, some churches try t brand themselves. They know that today’s consumers define their identity and construct meaning by the brands they buy. Think of the commercials that feature a trendy young man who introduces himself saying, “Hi, I am a Mac.” Standing to his right is a pudgy, bespectacled, middle-aged man in an outdated brown suit. He stiffly says, “I am a PC.” The message could not be clearer. Purchasing a Mac means you are young, hip, and friendly. Nothing in the commercials states that PC users are dullards, but the power of branding triggers the imagination. Apple is not selling computers,. Its selling an identity. Some content that this is also happening in some churches. Two generations ago, when loyalty to denominations was high, a church was chosen because of its doctrinal beliefs. Today some churches market image over substance. They have rock bands, high-tech lighting, multi-media projectors, coffee shops in the foyer, and a vibe that says, “We are hip. We are relevant. We look good.” They feel like this is what they need to do to capture the heart of the next generations. They value, appearance, production value, and external transformation. But can these Best Boys reproduce? Can they sustain their brand, or will they keep devising new pitches, new looks, and new branding to look good?

Facing the decline of the Western Church, some congregations will respond by becoming heirlooms. They will remain steady and reliable oddballs – variegated, diverse, slow-growing beauties. They will be able to reproduce. The results will be small but steady.

And then there are churches that will do nothing. Their life will become monotonous and routine. Locked into a faith is safe and predictable, they will only be able to express themselves within the established patterns of tradition. They will not look for new experiences and will not expect anything new or different to happen. So, of course, it nothing different will happen.

Which version of the church will survive? The hybrid? The heirloom? The inherited church? A combination of all, or none of them? Like the biblical exiles of old, we know that God has something planned for us, but we are not exactly sure what it will be. The biblical exiles believed God’s promises that they were not doomed to extinction. God would not leave them. God would not forsake them. The deserts would bloom as God carved a pathway through the wilderness and lead them home. In Isaiah’s prophetic vision, parched land springs to life, announcing the glory and majesty of God. Those who are weary, enfeebled or fearful can take heart because God comes to save. God gives sight for those who are blind, hearing for those who are deaf, speech for those who are mute. The lame now leap and those who are speechless now sing. Isaiah’s prophecy promises restoration to a people who have been pushed to the margins.

I think the church will survive, and we will survive by reclaiming our role as pilgrim people. Back in England in the 1600’s, when Christianity was the established religion of the kingdom, every citizen in England was a member of the Church. A group of Christians believed that God called them out of the national church. They dreamed of transforming the church from within. They were called Puritans. They thought that if they practiced their faith, they could reform the government. Some reformers were not content to wait. They were called Separatists. They were willing to separate themselves from the state church and establish congregations of their own where they could worship freely. Some of these separatists made their way to the new world. They were the Pilgrims who eventually landed at Plymouth Rock. A few years later, the flood tide of English Puritans flowed toward America and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Pilgrims and Puritans eventually united into what we now call congregational churches. Those Separatists knew the promises of Scripture, and they were ready to die to make their point. If Christ promised to be present to ordinary believers, then that was the kind of church they were determined to be.

Pilgrim people are those who understand that life is a journey, characterized by experience, learning, personal growth, opportunity, challenge, success and failure, joy and sadness. Pilgrim people appreciate the opportunity from time to time to rest and renew their energy and strength, but they always move on to embrace the next phase of their life, whatever it may bring. Pilgrim people dare to dream and to vision for the future! Pilgrim people trust God to equip all God’s people with the gifts of the Spirit!

I think we are ready for our own reformation. We get so busy funding programs and maintaining traditions. But, tradition serves no purpose unless we are also willing to step outside of that tradition to think about what kind of church we need to be. We are a vibrant family of faith that is beginning to dare to dream of new possibilities with God’s guidance.

Let’s be a church in which all who enter in know of God’s consuming love that will never let us go . . . a place where we can come and be reminded that God knows us each by name. Let’s be a church a church where the real presence of the Holy Spirit is renewing and refreshing us. Let’s be a church that doesn’t have all the answers but asks the right questions.

Let’s be a church a church where worship is joyful, exciting, and expectant, as well as reverent . . . a place where we can come as we are and know we will be accepted and wanted in this place. It’s a church that suffers when you are not here with us. It’s a church where people gather to encourage and be encouraged, to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven.

Let’s be a church that’s not afraid of change, but a church that is able to see where God is moving and knows how to join in. It’s a church that calls forth men and women, parents and grandparents, single people, youth, and children who are equipped and sent out to revitalize our families and our communities. Let’s be a church that gives people tools to raise their families in faith . . . a church where people are encouraged to reflect God’ s Spirit at school, work, and home. . .where we are all sent out to add value to the lives of other people.

Let’s be a church that is so vital to the community that it would be missed if it was no longer around . . . a church so blazing in its worship, its quality of caring, it’s eagerness to reach out to those in need, that it can be seen by all and not contained

This is the church of the future. It may be a leggy, pathetic home-grown heirloom. But with nurture and patience, with strategic plans and humble faith, the church will bear fruit. It will be unique, odd-shaped fruit with a distinct taste and the ability to reproduce. The church will return – not to it’s old glory days, but to a new resilient state where we enact the love of a God who embraces all.

· http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2173
· The Divine Commodity by Skye Jethani

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