Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sermon for November 7, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Nurture

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct. Galatians 6:2-6

Let’s talk about the ostrich. Did you know that the ostrich doesn’t sit on her eggs to incubate them? She will lay them in desert, kick some sand over them, and then run away to insure her own safety. Not what we would call a nurturer. The mother ostrich, in fact, has become the symbol of the careless mother. The book of Job says this about the ostrich: “She forgets that a foot may crush them, or that a wild beast may break them. She treats her young harshly, as though they were not hers; her labor is in vain, without concern, because God deprived her of wisdom, and did not endow her with understanding.” [Job 39:13-18]. Yet, despite all this bad mothering, the ostrich lays the largest, most beautiful and perfect egg of all. I got thinking about ostriches and I began to wonder if sometimes we see ostrich syndrome in our culture. We look around and see members of God’s beautiful creation, left to fend for themselves in a hostile world. When I think about nurture, I think about Eddie.

I met Eddie in a Boston suburb. He was sixteen years old. His hair was dyed raven black and his nose, lips, and ears with festooned with silver rings. His personality deflected all happiness. Eddie saw the world through dramatic and disturbed eyes, and he carried around with him a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. He was living in a divorced home, and he had little daily contact with his parents. Not only that, the mother had a new boyfriend. Not only that, the mother and the new boyfriend lived in the same house with Eddie, and Eddie’s siblings AND Eddie’s father. Eddie told me that his parents didn’t care where he was or what he did, as long as he wasn’t dead. You might think this is typical teenage exaggeration, except for the fact that I rarely saw Eddie’s parents. Eddie was in charge of taking care of his siblings. It’s not that he cared about his siblings as much as he was afraid of what his father would do to him if anything bad happened to one of the younger ones. Eddie’s father was a violent man who believed that the best way to raise a kids was to smack ‘em every once in a while. Even though Eddie carried a lot of responsibility for his and his family’s well-being, he had no conscience when it came to his own actions. Like his dad, he wouldn’t think twice about hurting another person who got in his way. He was always worried about betrayal and rejection, so he excluded himself from gatherings of his peers. He preferred to spend his precious little free time listening to Death Metal and fantasizing about what he would do when his court probation was over. His plans included getting revenge on all who hurt him, beginning his parents. I asked him once what his siblings would do without his care when he graduated from high school. He answered with a deadpan growl, “If I graduate, that’s their problem, not mine.”

It’s mother ostrich syndrome. The parents are too busy beating each other up to think about their obligation to raise their young. So, lack of nurture continues the cycle. Eddie became part of the rhythm of non-nurturing parents who allow their children to be eaten alive by bad choices. Psychologists say that parents with low-control and low-acceptance of their children, like Eddie’s parents, produce children who struggle with problems like delinquency and drug abuse. How does the church nurture Eddie? What do we, the followers of Jesus, do to love Eddie and help him experience abundant life in Christ?

Maybe Eddie’s story is too extreme. Let me tell you about Meg. Meg is a widow with four grown children. She loves them fiercely and would give them the world if she could. As a mother, she believes that it was best to let kids make their own choices when it comes to their faith. Meg is part of our country’s non-practicing Christian culture. She believes in God, but couldn’t tell you what God means to her personally. She believes people should go to worship, but she herself won’t go and sit with all the hypocrites. She firmly believed that when her children grew to adulthood, they would choose their own spiritual path, and she didn’t want to bias them or shove religion down their throats. Do you know what her children believe today? Nothing, really. They feel awkward, uncomfortable, and unwanted in church services, so they participate only rarely. Now Meg’s children have children of their own, and the cycle continues. I sometimes wonder of Meg is satisfied with the choices she made.

How does the church nurture Meg and her family? What do we, the followers of Jesus, do to love Meg and help her experience abundant life in Christ?

Is the church a mother ostrich sometimes? Jasmine might think so. Like many teenagers, Jasmine got caught up with the wrong crowd. Her language was vile. She smoked and drank and loved the weekend party life in the basements in town. Many of the troubled kids at school could sense Jasmine’s street smarts and wanted to hang out with her. Jasmine had one friend who was different. Teresa was always friendly to Jasmine and seemed to glimpse the real person beyond her bad-girl vices. Jasmine eventually started attending worship services at Teresa’s church. They went to youth group together, and Jasmine loved it. She even started going out with a guy from the youth group. Life was starting to look good for Jasmine. But she had a very hard time giving up her old habits. One night Teresa called Jasmine crying. “What’s the matter?” Jasmine asked. Teresa sobbed, “There are a bunch of people at church who don’t want you coming to youth group anymore. They think you’re a . . . bad influence.” “Why, because I smoke,” Jasmine defensively replied. “It’s more than that. They say it’s how you dress. They think it’s too suggestive. Some people have complained about your language, too. Even my parents are concerned about our friendship. Really, Jasmine, some of the people you hang out with are kind of scary.” Three weeks later, Jasmine dropped out of church and youth group, and started behaving worse than before.

Sometimes the church is so concerned with outward appearances, we forget that God nurtures the heart and changes the inside first. We become like parents who are authoritarian figures: high in control and low in acceptance. Psychologists say that this kind of parenting can produce offspring who are at risk of compromising themselves to find acceptance from anyone with a better offer. How can the church nurture Jasmine? What do we, the followers of Jesus, do to love Jasmine and help her experience abundant life in Christ?

Today’s reading from Galatians reminds me of what it takes to be nurtures in an age where many are left as spiritual and emotional orphans. There is more to life than just taking care of our own needs while ignoring others’. In Galatians Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2). Paul’s assumption here is that we all have burdens that God does not want us to carry alone. You know, some people try to. They think it is a sign of stoicism not to bother other people with their troubles. The Bible says that the opposite is true. You and your problems are not a hardship to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Lightening another’s load is an act of truest love which requires involvement in the troubles of others. The fact is, sometimes there are burdens which are too heavy for one person to bear alone. I think our nation is waking up to this fact as we struggle through the effects of terrorism in our country. Nurture means loving enough to help someone carry their load. Nurture also means we need to accept the help of our sisters and brothers when it comes.

Nurturing the children of God means not running away from the messy, uncomfortable situations we see around us. The truth is, as many of you know, there really is no escape. Nurture means that I’m going to do what I can to help you claim your identity in Christ. Part of being a nurturer means that I’m going to give you every resource you need in order to know the saving love of God. It also means that I’m going to do whatever I can to help equip you to live out your faith in the world. Think about it. What would it look like if the church showed God’s love to the Eddies, Megs and Jasmines in our midst, and put them in touch with the Life-giver? What would it be like if we helped one another put on the armor of God for the daily battles ahead? We would declare to the community that we are a vital church that values abundant life over slow, spiritual death.

Healthy churches nurture people. For instance, at TCC, we nurture our children and youth Our Christian Education program is only meant to be a support system for what you are doing at home. Your home is the number one influence in the life of your child. The average church has a child for 1% of his or her time. The home has him 83% of your kids’ time and the school for the remaining 16%. This does not minimize the need for churches and schools, but it establishes the reality your home is 83% of your child's world and you only a brief amount of time in life to make the most of it.

Do you kids and grandkids see you pray? Do your kids observe you worshiping from your heart? Do they see you as a person of compassion? Do they see you asking for forgiveness when you’ve blown it? Do your kids ever hear you openly and honestly talk about your own faith journey with the living God? Do our children see us modeling compassion with each other? Do they see us taking care of our community and being stewards of the earth? Let’s model these basic behaviors to our children.

We also need to ask ourselves: How do we nurture one another as we live our lives together as the church? A lot of people here today are hurting. Your burdens are heavy, but no one will ever know. It is hard to risk vulnerability. We don’t want to be pitied or looked down upon as weak. It is our job to care for one another. How about making a commitment to reach out to one person today with a warm greeting and a smile of caring? How about, going up to someone and saying, “I’d like to pray for you today. Is there anything I can pray for specifically?” How about praying for someone live and in person? How about a hug, a letter of encouragement, a random act of kindness? Paul reminds us to do good to all, especially to the family of believers.

How do we nurture people whom we wish would just go away? A holy man was engaged in his morning meditation under a tree whose roots stretched out over the riverbank. During his meditation he noticed that the river was rising, and a scorpion caught in the roots was about to drown. He crawled out on the roots and reached down to free the scorpion, but every time he did so, the scorpion struck back at him. An observer came along and said to the holy man, “Don’t you know that’s a scorpion, and it’s in the nature of a scorpion to want to sting?” To which the holy man replied, “That may well be, but it is my nature to save, and must I change my nature because the scorpion does not change its nature?”

There is always going to be someone in the church who stings you. It part of living in community. Paul reminds us that we don’t have to sting back. We live by the law of love, not retaliation. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Don’t be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position.

I could tell many more examples of people who need the nurture of the Body of Christ. I could also tell you stories of people who have come through incredible hardship by relying on the support of the church. The point is, we have something real to offer each other. When we are attentive to how we nurture, we create a church home where people meet Christ, and are given what they need to follow him. I encourage us find ways to nurture one another, and also to take the risk of being nurtured by others. We need it right now. And the world needs us.

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