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Sermon for September 19, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Energy

“So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say? I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it. It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against that house, it stands firm because it is well built. But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins.” Luke 6:46-49

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. 1 Cor 15:58

A few days ago, I was talking with someone about the worst job I ever had. I paid my way through seminary by fixing boat propellers at a shop in South Boston. It was hard work. In those days, to fix a damaged prop, one worker would hit it with a sledge hammer while another worker held the prop against a cast iron pitching block. I was the guy who held the prop in place for the guy with the hammers. It was a backbreaking, dirty, painful job, with a lot of sore fingers.

It could be worse! British man Jon Hanson had what he describes as the worst job in his entire life: quality control on cat food. He described several tests he had to perform. Test 1: Bury face in a huge tub of cat food and sniff it to make sure it's fresh. Test 2: Plunge arms in it up to the elbows and grope for bony bits and take them out. Test 3: Scoop up huge dollop of it, smear it flat on surface and prod it with fingers to test how much gristle is there. Uggghh!

Some jobs are obsolete now. Some of you may remember when there were icemen and milkmen who delivered goods to your doorstep. By 2005, less than half of one percent got milk deliveries..

Switchbaord operators are becoming a job of the past. Switchboard operators used a "cord board" to connect callers by plugging incoming lines and metal pegs into the corresponding hole on the board to connect with the correct caller. Long-distance callers were routed through operators, but with only a limited number of lines. If all circuits were busy, operators took the caller's number and called them back when a line was available. Now, with the advancement mobile phones and long-distance plans, there are fewer operators.

Even show business is hitting a professional slump. Thanks to reality TV, talented actors are becoming unnecessary. These days, if you can launch your acting career and rise to success quickly, you must try to fizzle out by 2012 so that you are eligible to participate in the 2014 season of “Kickboxing with the Stars.” Film actors are in equal jeopardy. Right now, humans can be replicated on screen with computer generated animation, and audiences don’t really seem to mind. It won’t be long until studio execs realize that a digital version of Angelina Jolie, slightly altered for legal purposes, will work for free. Not only that, but CyberAngelina won’t have weird demands, like a dressing room scented with gardenia and 2 liters of organic Peruvian yak’s milk.

There’s another job in a slump: The work of the Church. Across the country, congregations of all sizes and denominations are struggling with issues of faith and finance as the tough economy grinds on. Churches are scouring their budgets for wasteful spending. While the collection plates no longer overflow, churches see an increase in requests for support. I have gotten more calls for financial assistance from people who need money than ever before. I’ve had to start turning people away. Funds are low. In the past, houses of worship did OK during recessions, even as other institutions struggled. But the magnitude of the current downturn has caught up with places of worship. The economic climate for religious organizations is the worst in at least 30 years, forcing membership drives and construction projects to take a back seat to balancing the budget. This is THE topic of conversation for congregations. All other conversations have ceased.

Churches are not known for their ability to adapt to change. While the world around us transforms at lightning-fast speeds, churches are often satisfied to maintain traditions. The expectation is that churches don’t need to change. Churches expect others to change when they walk in our doors. We like to think of ourselves as a safe haven from the world around us. A place of timeless tradition. A place of peace. A place where the novelties around us are kept at bay.

Here is the challenge: It sounds good, but in reality, it doesn’t work. To upcoming generations, our obsolete attitudes can sound grumpy and irrelevant. Kind of like my Mémé. As a kid, I had a 100-year-old great grandmother. I remember her knitting and her soap operas, her root beer barrel candies and her ways of showing love by yelling at you until you cried. She lived in the basement of my grandparent’s house, and I was afraid of her. All were afraid of her. My great grandmother (we called her Mémé) had an anxiety-inducing presence. The worst words one could ever hear was, “Matt, please take this to Mémé’s room,” as my grandmother handed me a tuna fish sandwich for delivery to Mémé’s lair. If I heard those words, a chill would run down my spine. It was easier to avoid her.

Is the church becoming Mémé to a new generation? Is the church an old-fashioned, mean-spirited, rigid or fearful presence that’s best avoided? To play a role in American life, to do our part in the renewal of American Christianity, mainline churches like Trumbull Congregational Church need to go back over their history and ask if we’ve lost the ability to inspire new generations with the gospel of God’s love.

I have heard some culture watchers say that the Church is a generation away from extinction. The first time I read that, my knee-jerk reaction was denial. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. This can’t be! The Church is forever.” As I thought about it some more, I began to see the power of these words. God is forever. Church is ephemeral. The church is the temporary expression of what God intends for humanity. We aren’t meant to last forever. While we are here, the church is supposed to align itself with God’s aims and show the world what, new, free and abundant life can be. And as members of the church of Christ, we are responsible for equipping the next generation of disciples. Jesus left the future of the Church in our hands. The future of our faith depends on our ability to pass it on. When I watch the news and listen to conversations, I often hear about the plight of our country and the older generation’s lack of trust in the younger. We see school shootings and work shootings, broken homes, and many other examples of disgruntled, misguided youth. What is going on? The more appropriate question is, “What is not going on?” What are we NOT providing to this rising generation? Why is Christianity not important to so many people?

Churches respond to these questions in different ways. Some churches decide that they need a new way to BE. Instead of opening their doors and expecting people to come to them, these churches have decided to take church to the people. I’m talking about traditional, protestant churches like ours. They realize that they have a God-sized task: to bring God’s good news to the next generations. To use Jesus’ metaphor from Luke’s gospel, these churches are building a house on a solid foundation. They seek to do God’s will in the world by looking outward and practicing their faith in a public way. They build a firm foundation by carrying out the teachings of Christ.

Other churches build themselves on shakier footings. Some churches think the solution to the shifting sands around them is to get more people to do more stuff. They focus on getting people to serve on church committees. They think that if more people serve as part of the governance of the church, if more people understood what it takes to keep the place going, the church will become a solid, healthy organization. Sometimes this strategy works. Oftentimes it does not. Some people find meaning serving on church committees. Others face burnout, sabotage, and frustration. Some people serve the church with energy and love. Others are turned off when it seems that church members are protecting their interests. They ask, “Where’s the common goal? What’s the God-sized task? What’s our God-sized vision?”

Maybe churches need to do less with our energy and more with God’s energy. Maybe churches like ours need to prayerfully realize our God-sized task that takes God-sized energy. As Paul tells the church in Corinth, “Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” The question is, what kind of work should we do?

Here is a good indication that you are serving the church for the wrong reasons. If you are doing something out of guilt, then you are spending your energy in the wrong place. If you are doing something because there's no one else to do the job, then you are spending your energy in the wrong place. If you are doing something to please people or because you are afraid to say NO, then you are spending your energy in the wrong place. If you are doing something for power and prestige then you are spending your energy in the wrong place.

You can always tell when people are doing things for the wrong reasons. You can see it in their energy level. Just ask my kids. If I say to my kids, “Can you pick up your rooms and then come downstairs and drink a glass of milk and eat a plate of broccoli?”, they move as slow as dead snail. At dinner time, limp, boiled-to-death broccoli really is the bane of childhood. Ask my kids to eat broccoli, and they suddenly lose their appetites. Five minutes ago, they were famished. Faced with a side dish of broccoli, they lose the will to live. While my kids are pushing their slimy broccoli around the plate, pretending to eat it, I will mess with their minds. “Who wants desert?” I’ll offer. Notice how the energy changes. Nothing feels better than broccoli amnesty! Now kids are laughing. Their appetites come back. There’s a party at the Braddock house. They have new hopes.. New goals. New vision. It’s exciting and refreshing.

I know, I know, broccoli is good for you. I know, it’s the king of lo-carb veggies. It’s full of vitamin C and antioxidants and calcium. But I don’t know a lot of people who get excited when told, “Eat your broccoli. It’s good for you.” This sounds more like a threat. It sounds like something my Mémé would say to make me cry.

New times demand a different attitude from the church. No more boiled-over broccoli when we have the sweetness of God’s love to offer. We need a God-sized task. We need God-sized vision. We need God-sized energy. Energy is ours, not when we hoard our strength, but when we devote it willingly and joyously toward living out the Good News. Faith and energy go hand in hand. If you have deep faith in what you are doing, you can move mountains. Energy is always highest when one’s cause is just. The greater one’s faith, the greater one’s will power. And the greater the will power, the greater the flow of energy.

Do you know what? This is a great time to be in the church! So what if we have no money, our membership is down, we run a deficit budget, and can’t do repairs. So what if people claim to be spiritual but are leaving churches in record number. So what if Christianity seems to be less and less relevant to our culture. This is a great time to be in the church! Unless we can say that with enthusiasm and passion and energy, I don’t think we will be able to communicate the good news to this changing world.

I refuse to let the Church to grow obsolete or extinct. How about you? Can we show others the love of God? Can we communicate the love of Christ to a world that’s waiting and hungry and starving to know God’s delicious presence? Will we use our energy, intelligence, imagination, and love to lead the church in this time of transition? In your own life, what keeps you from being all that God is calling you to be? What keeps our church from reaching out and communicating the love of Christ? These are in many ways the worst of times for the Christian church. But they can also be the best. The promise of the Scriptures says that no matter how difficult life is, God is good. Our good God has some good work for us to do, and the energy to do it.

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