Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fresh Visions

Isaiah 40:18-23
Luke 13:18-19

At each meeting of our session this year, we have spent time studying at least one of the confessions, or creedal statements, of the Presbyterian Church. Last week the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were up. Westminster was written in the mid-17th century in England. It has all the hallmarks of a document written by a culture on the cusp of the Enlightenment – the age of reason. Listen to this question and answer from the Westminster Larger Catechism (question 7, from the section called “What Man Ought to Believe Concerning God”):

Q. 7. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty; knowing all things, mos twise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.


Well, that just clears it all up for you, doesn’t it? After that bit of inspiration why don’t I just take my seat and we’ll call it a sermon? (Don’t get excited, I actually have a little more here to share.) The Westminster authors, God bless them for the work they did for the church, did more than write one of the most defining documents of American Presbyterian history. It could also be said that they left us with a beautiful example of why words aren’t everything. Or at least, some uses of words aren’t everything for inspiring faith and action.

The endless galleries and churches, and even volumes upon volumes of books, filled with sacred art, the innumerable compositions of music that have flourished through the ages tell us that theological tomes and philosophical descriptions haven’t cut it alone in sharing the faith within or outside of the body of Christ. Sometimes a picture is needed, or a musical experience, to get a different kind of idea about what God is like, or how the Spirit is guiding God’s people. Sometimes an image is needed to catch the visions of Christ’s ministry in a way that an academic dissertation would NEVER be able to do. And sometimes even just a different kind of writing or telling, sort of painting a picture with words, can even do the trick.

Jesus told MANY parables. The gospels are dripping with them, and for some that is exciting because the descriptive and sometimes even cryptic language excites them with endless possibilities. Others hear another parable coming and groan like the disciples occasionally did, “Why, Jesus, do you teach in parables?” Deciphering the message isn’t always easy. Yet somehow it seems like you get more in the long run because of this. In fact, I think you can get a new and fresh meaning just about every time you come to a parable where a little (or a lot) more is left to the imagination.

Jesus’ parables are quite often about the kingdom of God, instead of simply God, the divine being. In talking about the world under God’s reign, instead of just describing divinity, he gives us plenty of opportunity to find ourselves in the vision. Jesus’ kingdom parables are a snapshot of the divine reality, or better yet an active movie clip, a short depiction of how the world would operate if everything was moving along according to God’s divine will and purpose. The WHOLE PICTURE gives us our fresh vision, how people or animals or plants interact, not just what individual parts of the story are doing, and usually this comes with a twist or something unexpected to help make the point. Also, as parables about God’s kingdom, Jesus’ parables can often set up a mission statement for God’s kingdom bearer on earth – the church.

The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed. The twist comes right up front. The kingdom of God, the realm of the almighty, the same God about whom Isaiah spoke as so big that people look like grasshoppers from the heavenly throne, is like a mustard seed. Not only that, but the kingdom of God is something that is buried in the ground, sowed in a garden. It isn’t set on a pedestal overlaid with gold and dripping with silver jewelry. The seed is sowed in a garden, in the ground.

It is placed deliberately in a designated place. It was planted for a purpose. It was planted to grow, and it was planted to grow in that very place. There is great intentionality in this particular vision of God’s kingdom. It isn’t haphazard. It isn’t an accident. The tree does not grow by chance. The seed was taken by someone and sowed in a garden, a place where things are expected to change and nurtured and cared for while they grow.

And grow it did – not a small plant from a small seed, but a huge plant, a tree even came from that tiny little brown ball pushed down into the earth’s soil. The tree’s branches spread invitingly into the air, attracting birds who made their nests among them. The tree is more than something beautiful to look at. The tree does more than just produce the seeds it needs to perpetuate itself. The tree exists so that others will come to it, find rest and shelter, build their homes among it, and become a part of the picture and activity of the garden. The diversity and life in the garden expanded to include others because of the transformation of the seed.

This is the kingdom of God, Jesus says. This fresh vision, this picture of activity and growth and nurture and attention and intentionality -- This scenario of taking care of one another, of growing beyond what seems possible in order to serve in ways that seem natural -- This description of purpose and surprise and service -- Even this understanding that development and movement forward, transformation from the tiny seed to the welcoming tree, takes time (that tree didn’t grow in day) -- This is the kingdom of God, Jesus says, and this is the kingdom of which we are a part.

Last fall the leadership of this congregation took a retreat to begin to define what our next set of congregational goals will be. It has been a longer process than I first anticipated, but at the same time I think it has been a more challenging process, too. There are stages in life when goal setting seems easy either because the goals are more obvious or because the pressure is higher to make a decision. When this congregation was housed in an older building, where bats joined choir practice and stairs made accessibility an issue, the decision, while certainly not a quick one, was probably a little clearer. The options, at least, were probably a little more obvious, even if the final decision was not.

When a young person graduates from high school, again the choice may not be easy, but at least the opportunities are somewhat well-defined: education can continue formally through some sort of additional schooling, entering the workforce can be the next step. When our backs are against a wall, decision-making time and the definition of choices often becomes clearer, and the need to act seems more crucial.
However, when in life, there is no immediate crisis, when there is no major discernable fork in the road, clarification of new goals becomes a bit trickier, it seems even more challenging because the sense of urgency just isn’t as high. Why rock the boat, we may ask. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

But the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a garden. The garden existed. I assume that means something was growing. It doesn’t sound like it was an empty plot of land just begging to be filled. There was something there, growing, going along just fine without one more seed to be sowed. But someone took that seed anyway, and planted it in the garden. Someone decided that something new needed to be done to add to the garden, enhance it, develop it, give it a new and continuing purpose no matter how “just fine” things seemed to be going. The kingdom needs transformation to continue being the kingdom of God.

As the body of leaders in this church, in the fall, the session took on the task of writing a sort of “kingdom parable” for our congregation. Pulling from the image of a garden, based somewhat on the biblical bend toward things of nature and based a LOT on the beauty of a number of gardens on this property, the guiding vision and setting for the parable is a garden. Hear the parable, try even to close your eyes and see the fresh vision, the purpose and call from God that our leaders discerned for this congregation:

“In the kingdom of God, our community of faith is called to be a welcoming garden planted and sustained by the Spirit of God. Many hands work as one to plan, sow, nurture, and harvest. Inviting diversity, we bloom in all season of life. With compassion for those who are weary, we provide continuous shelter, healing, support, and growth. From the abundance of blessings we receive, we celebrate and share with those close and far the nourishing and life-giving love of our Lord.”

The parable came after we worshiped and studied together, after we celebrated the ministries of our present and past and dreamed of ministries for our future. It is a vision of our congregation as one that has been purposely put in this place and is fed and nurtured and tended to by the Spirit of God. It is a place where many are called to the variety of tasks that it takes to maintain a garden, each with a job in any season or stage of life. The vision of our ministry takes note of God’s particular call to reach out with compassionate care for others, offer welcoming hospitality to all who come our way, and worship God with thanksgiving and celebration for the abundance we are blessed to share.

It is a rich and faithful vision of what this part of God’s kingdom is called specifically to do in this time and place. There is room for the diversity of our members and friends, but also a unifying purpose to provide a place of rest, a place of growth, and a place of engagement with God and with the world in which we live. This is our fresh vision for our church. Where within it do you see yourself?

Yesterday there was a gathering here in the church to begin answering that very question. Members of the congregation who attended and even those who sent their ideas, but couldn’t attend in person, shared ministries about which they are passionate, items they couldn’t imagine NOT being in our garden. They also shared new ministries toward which they feel a tug or call from God, new ways to engage our congregation in faithful ministries that will help us follow God’s call as it has been captured in our fresh garden vision.

Many of us thought this would be one of the final steps in the process of understanding the new goals God is setting before us, but I think, in the end, while it moved us forward, the specifics of those new goals are still a couple of months away. We did begin to identify specific gardens or ministries that will help us follow God’s call, that will give our family of faith the opportunity to get involved in the vision in specific areas of passion and energy. We determined there are multiple areas of ministry that will help us answer God’s call to be a compassionate, hospitable, and worshipful congregation, and now the next step is in the hands of the session.

In the coming weeks the session will be working diligently to reorganize our structure to fit the needs of our new vision, prioritize some of the on-going and developing ministries of the church, and plan how they will best communicate the specifics of our goals with the rest of the congregation. Please hold the session of this church in your prayers. Please lift them up into the light of God that they may seek God’s direction for this church and no one else’s. Please encourage them with your words and your support as they take the task before them seriously and spiritually.

Please also be prayerfully preparing yourselves for the exciting future that is coming. There are some amazing faithful ideas on the table that will tap into expressed interests to serve our community and our world in new ways. There are ideas that will help us grow closer to God and one another. The difficult part will come, however, as we decide which seeds we will plant in our garden and which seeds will have to wait or which existing plants will have to be thinned. Our garden cannot be sustained by just throwing seeds on top of seeds on top of seeds. We will have to be careful to use those plants that can live alongside each other, not competing for important resources of time, energy, and talent, but complementing each other with the right balance from among our members and friends. Be prayerful in the coming weeks and months as we are all engaged in discerning God’s leading for our church.

In worship for most of Lent, we will dig around a bit in the dirt of this garden. Using more parables from Luke’s gospel we will explore the three aspects of God’s call that the session discerned in September – compassion, hospitality, and worship. Again, those who were here yesterday discovered that it takes a variety of ministries in different areas for us to follow that call, but when they listened to the places where our congregation’s greatest passions seemed to meet our world’s deep hunger this is the call that they heard. Each week we will look at one of these portions of our call that as a united congregation we can see and follow the fresh vision before us.

May God’s grace surround us, Christ’s passion inspire, and the Spirit’s presence lead us as we tend to God’s garden in our midst.

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