Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pentecost 2 - Year B

It’s called “Q” like the letter “Q.” It’s “[quote] a rare gathering of cultural and church leaders from all over the world [unquote].”

If you go on their website, you’ll see that all the big names are there from the church world. Well, at least the big names from the biggest churches. The most published authors and the most celebrated Christian speakers. World famous speakers telling us how to build world famous churches.

The problem is, it’s by invitation only. You have to be either a best selling author or pastor of a mega-church to attend. They want Big Name Christians talking to Big Name Christians. No small church folks allowed.

Or they make it so expensive that most, everyday church folks can’t afford it. Only the rich and successful need apply to this Christian gathering.

Once upon a time such an event would have made me drool on my shirt. After all, I had read TONS of books exploring the cultural landscape that the church is called to inhabit, if not imbibe. After all, they say, how can a church impact the culture for Christ if it doesn’t know what is happening IN the culture?

But lately, when advertisements for such events cross my desk they most often end up in the blue box rather than my inbox.

And it’s not because they’re a bunch of snake-oil salespeople peddling easy answers to life’s toughest questions. Nor is it because they pontificate about a future that God only knows about.

It’s because these types of events, and the life they’re offering, is so contrary to what Jesus wants from us. It’s so opposite of how Jesus lived. At least the way the bible describes it.

Think of this morning’s gospel:

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” Jesus asks, “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Tiny mustard seeds growing into big...shrubs. Shrubs! Not trees. Shrubs. Hardly the image of the kingdom that we’re looking for if we want build a movement like some of those “Q” guys say the churches should.

It would be more impressive if the mustard seed grew into a massive Red Wood that could be seen from the next county, offering shade and sustenance to ALL, impacting EVERYONE’S life, spreading seed until every neighborhood had their own massive Red Wood, which would dominate the landscape.

But Jesus seems to delight in pulling the rug out from underneath our overblown ambitions. He has a way sticking out his tongue at our need for self-aggrandizement and personal empire-building. He seems to glory in mocking our need for social significance and status.

And no one really likes it when he does.

Jesus measures his followers not by how much we build, but by how much we serve.

He measures discipleship not by numbers of people coming to church, but by how many people we’ve loved the way he loves.

Jesus measures faithfulness and fruitfulness, not by how fast we grow but by how many tears we wipe, how many of our hearts break with the hearts of others, how many lives around us experience God’s unrelenting forgiveness.

What would it look like if our church took up Jesus’ mustard seed challenge?

What would happen if we stopped counting noses at worship services, and worried, not about whether the number is increasing or decreasing, but about who is here, and is NOT here, and why?

What would happen if council meetings were less about business and more about prayer?

What would happen if we thought less about getting people to church, and more about helping people grow as followers of Jesus?

There are times when I worry that our aspiration as a church looks more like the Q gathering I talked about earlier, and less about Jesus’ mustard seed kingdom.

The mustard seed is small and it doesn’t become big. It grows underneath our feet when we’re not looking. God's upside down, subversive, kingdom sprouting unseen until it quietly provides sustenance and shelter to those who need it.

In many ways, I see Good Shepherd as the Mustard Seed Church. We quietly, but faithfully, go about God’s business without drawing undue attention to ourselves. Our building is hard to find. Our advertising budget is pretty minimal. We’re not exactly bursting at the seems.

I don’t know about you, but I find that the more we TRY to grow, the more we decline. And when we find that our numbers are going up, it happens when we least expect it, when we hadn’t planned on it.

How could have predicted that Palm Sunday would be our biggest service of the year? Even bigger than Christmas or Easter? In fact, we ran out of communion bread that day.

While numbers in themselves don’t mean success, after all, we could hand out free beer on the way in and draw a pretty big crowd.

But God DOES want people to worship, to pray, to hear God’s message of forgiveness and new life. And God does bring people here. No matter what WE do or don’t do. It’s God’s mustard seed ministry in action.

But mustard seed ministry DOESN’T mean small for small’s sake. Too often, I hear people say that the church isn’t necessarily supposed to GROW, it’s supposed to be FAITHFUL, as if the two were mutually exclusive. When growth happens, it comes from God's handiwork, not our own.

As Sharon Ringe, professor of New Testament (at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC), notes about our reading, the coming of God's rule is "automatic" (automatē) and not of our doing: "the earth produces of itself" as Jesus says in verse 28. It's not us, although we sometimes get to be farmers and assist a bit. But it's God at work, whether it be in the seed growing by itself or the mustard plant taking over.

In the steps along our journey towards God's kingdom of love, I think we're prone to two problems: believing that we're the ones who've got to make it all happen, and believing we're alone in the journey. And Jesus tells us these parables that we might take heart, for the seed is scattered everywhere, and as any glance at a field can tell you, though we've used hands, hoes, and pesticides, the weeds are still here.

God is not going to stop with the project of transforming this world, including us. God is not giving up, and it is God's reign, after all. As the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero said,

We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise....

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

The seed will grow, we may not see how, but it will, and one day – one day, all the birds of the air will rest in its shade.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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