Nov 15, 2009
Return to Sermons
Welcome to the second installment or the middle of a three-part sermon series on why the world needs a Church. Last week we simply asked the question, Does the world need a Church? I think it does, but I know that not everyone thinks like I do. So, I wanted to encourage this conversation so we can learn together where we all stand.
Last week I reminded us all about the 500-pound gorilla in the living room. People dont go to church like they used to. Its a frustrating reality for many of us who love our congregations so much. But I also pointed out that people are spiritual by their own definition and they deeply desire real relationships and a sense of community. If there was a word of hope for you in last weeks sermon, I hope it was that. People want community. We are something people want. We have an opportunity.
The waters get a little muddy now. I'm not trying to make excuses for my preaching ability. (We know that there's no excuse for that.) I'm simply saying that we are in the middle. In Hebrews we're in the middle of a mess. People arent gathering like they should and theres some question about the nature of worship. That sounds familiar!
In Mark we're in the middle of a ministry. Jesus has just finished making everyone at the Temple uncomfortable and as he leaves he says that the Temple, Gods gift to Gods chosen people, is going to be destroyed. Jesus does not offer some tidy promise. I wish he would.
As Church in 21st century America, we are in what I think is the muddy middle. Were in the midst of transition and change and we have to find a way to move forward.
We're not at the beginning. (That was a while ago.)
We're not at the end. (Im an optimist. What can I say?)
Things are too confusing to be either a beginning or an end.
So, we must be in the middle.
Let me show you what I mean.
This is a picture of Choluteca Bridge in Honduras. In 1998 hurricane Mitch destroyed much of the infrastructure of this area of Honduras. Thousands of lives were lost. It was tragic. Hundreds of bridges were also destroyed by the storm. One bridge, however, may have suffered a worse fate. Choluteca Bridge was a gift from Japan to Honduras. It was and is an engineering marvel. The trouble is that though the bridge withstood the storm, the river itself moved. The riverbed shifted several hundred feet so that the bridge was no longer useful at all. Its simply a tourist destination now.
If there was ever a visual representation for the phrase shift happens it is this picture. Brian McLaren, the popular Emergent church leader, likes to use this picture as a way to help people understand the drama and magnitude of the change that has happened in the world over the last generation or so
from modernism to "post-modernism" and how the modern Church (Thats the bridge. McLaren is not subtle.) is left at a disadvantage. He might add that most of us are still unaware that the river has moved at all. We still love our bridges
even if their original purpose, to incarnate and convey the Gospel of Christ Jesus, to be Gods bridge to the world, has been lost.
I think that Jesus in Marks Gospel is trying to say something similar to the disciples gathered with him at the Temple. Hes trying to explain the shift. He calls it the "coming Kingdom of God." He says that something has changed. We can live differently. We can love more boldly. We can give more generously. Its all about whether or not you can see as Jesus sees. And Jesus says that there are real world realities at work, too. Life in Jerusalem is going to shift. Life for Gods people is going to change. Jesus almost never speaks purely spiritually.
In 70 AD Rome will destroy the Temple. The Jesus community ast it understood itself will come to an end right alongside Judaism. Remember, at this time, Christianity is simply part of Judaism. It's pushing at some assumptions by claiming Jesus as Messiah and bringing the Gentiles into the fold, but they were Jews no less. And the Temple falls. Done. It's over. At least that's how it must have felt when the ground shifted that day. It must have felt like the end of the world.
But here we stand two thousand years later...The followers of Jesus at that time were likely feeling like it was over, that their world had ended
and yet...here we are.
Perhaps we actually know more about navigating shifts than we realize.
Another way to think of shifts is to think of bottoms. In 12-step programs people speak of bottoms. You have to hit bottom before you can truly heal or grow. The curious thing about bottoms is that they arent beginnings or endings, they are profoundly in the middle. In fact, the bottom may be the absolute middle. My experience of the bottom is that it is devoid of illusion. All illusion is stripped away. This is frightening and yet incredibly freeing. This is the gift of the bottom. The challenge of the bottom is that we finally encounter reality in all of its confusion and unanswerable questions.
So, how do you respond? What do you do when you hit bottom? Well, you take Pauls advice to the Hebrews and you gather. You meet in secret if you have to. Or you meet in buildings with the specific purpose of housing the gatherers. Then collectively you simply step forward in faith. You share. You listen (and thats key
no one tells anyone anything in a 12-step meeting). You find mentors. You spread the word. You embrace forgiveness
both the giving and the seeking of forgiveness. But most of all, you dont rush it. You dont push your way out of the bottom. You step forward in faith. Dont worry. If you like to work, theres plenty of work to be done, but pushing back against the bottom gets you nowhere.
Like I said earlier, this sermon is the middle, its about the middle
.The really interesting thing about being in the middle is that once you come to terms with its reality, it can the most productive time in life. Profound growth happens in the middle.
The middle encourages us to shed what no longer matters, what was based on illusion, and compels us to focus on what actually feeds us, what serves God, what allows for us to grow as Gods children
to move the bridge over to the river or to tear the bridge down and put in a ferry if that makes more sense. So, we gather. We listen. We share. We encourage one another to love and goodness. These are the things that matter most. Anything we build should serve this purpose.
Still, our question still is, "Does the world need a Church?" An organized, institutional Church? First, if you have the chutzpa to think that religion is ever really organized, then more power to you. I am not sure it ever is. And if you have ever served in congregational leadership, you might agree with me. Religion is always disorganized. But to run with the idea of organized religion, I refer you to Deborah Dean Murphey who, in a recent article said,
"'being against organized religion is like being against organized hospitals.' Institutions will always be subject to corruption and silliness, fraud and ineptitude, since they are, well
comprised of people." Murphey wants us to understand the necessity of our institutions but to hold them loosely like Jesus does by recognizing their fragility, their humanity.
Or to put it another way: Our institutions are to be a clear sign of being in the middle. And those of us who comprise the membership of these institutions must somehow come to terms with our "middleness." With the middle comes the need to embrace a certain fluidity or muddiness. To push against the bottom wont serve. To pretend there is no storm and the river has not moved does not serve. Neither does saying that all is at an end.
There is always someone out there claiming its the end of the world. In times of intense transition this is especially true. Jesus warns us of this reality. Maybe youll see the movie "2012" or "The Day After Tomorrow." Our collective imaginations are fixated on the destructive end of things.
The Church, however, with it's institutions is the community that can teach us all what it means to be human, to be perpetually in the middle, in the place of shift and change. We add a little structure, sure. We build buildings
magnificent bridges. But like Christ reminds us we are to hold on to the vision of the coming Kingdom aware that the world is constantly shifting around us, sometimes dramatically. Instead of being bulwarks against change, we are to show people how to manage change, the shifts, by holding on to a vision of Gods purpose for the world no matter what storms may come.
The world needs a Church because the Church follows Jesus and Jesus knows all about change. We were birthed out of incredible upheaval. It is, as I love to say, in our spiritual DNA.
To navigate that change we, the citizens of the Body of Christ, need to be flexible and to remember Jesus' lesson of holding the institutions lightly while we love and honor them at the same time. We need to have the courage to recognize that the landscape can and does literally shift under our feet.
Sometimes I wonder if we think we're at the end. We look back and wonder where everyone went or how everything changed. But you want to know the truth of it? I think we're in the middle. I think the way seems unclear because we're in the middle. Everything is shifting around us right now, so it gets a little confusing. And that is okay. We are simply asked to gather, to listen, and to share
Jesus says. "Look where I am looking. Look to the horizon. Don't look at your feet. Don't look back. Look at the Kingdom breaking in...so slowly. If you blink you just might miss it. But it's there. That's where you are headed. That's your vision."
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,
for he who has promised is faithful.
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,
not neglecting to meet together
but encouraging one another,
and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The Kingdom of God is always upon us.
The world shifts and we are ready. We were made for this.
Thanks be to God.