Monday, July 7, 2014

High Hopes and Realistic Expectations

Isaiah 55:1-5, 10-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

          Many years ago, when I was a lay member of a congregation, I remember sitting on the curb in front of the sanctuary of my church talking with my pastor.  He was wise and practical after a lifetime of ministry.  We were discussing why people stopped coming to church.  I was really concerned because I was missing several people who had worked on Vacation Bible School the year before, but hadn’t been in worship for a while.  My pastor reminded me that Jesus told us that people would fall away from the church and that we should expect it and not be too concerned.  Then he told me the parable that Carol just read for you.  I was shocked!  Weren’t we supposed to follow up on people and keep caring for them, even find out what we needed to change to make them happy?  “Not according to Jesus,” my wise pastor said.  “There are all kinds of things that get in the way of people becoming deeply committed disciples.  We just have to work with the ones that stick—that’s where our fruit comes from.” 
          I’ve taken all kinds of classes on how to become a sticky congregation, how to attract and integrate new people into the life of the congregation.  All of that really is necessary because Jesus tells us in his parable that our God is a prodigal sower.  Prodigal means lavish, extravagant, even wastefully extravagant.  God throws seeds everywhere—on every kind of surface, in every kind of heart.  We’ve all seen the improbable plant growing in a crack in a rock, or a tree growing sideways out of a cliff.  Those are the remarkable exceptions—the miracle of seed that lands in inhospitable soil and somehow takes root and grows.  It happens.  But most often, seed that’s scattered on the road gets eaten by birds.  And seed that lands in rocky or sandy soil doesn’t produce enough of a root system to survive hot, dry weather.  Seeds that fall in or near a blackberry bramble don’t stand a chance.  The blackberries will win.  Only the seed that falls in good earth produces fruit.  So if God, the prodigal sower, throws seed everywhere, God must have high hopes that some seed will find good soil and some may even thrive against all odds.  And if we follow God’s example, we also need to scatter seed as far and wide as we can, with high hopes and, Jesus tells us, realistic expectations.  We’re going to get a return of about 25 percent.  We invite, invite, invite, and welcome, welcome, welcome, and some will stick around and become disciples.  We need to have high hopes and realistic expectations.  We can’t waste time and energy trying to keep people engaged in the life of the church that have already moved on.  Ouch!  It’s way easier to talk about plants than about people that we love.
          Let’s go back to plants then.  I do not have a green thumb and I was raised in the desert where anything that is willing to grow even a little bit is treasured—even weeds.  As long as a houseplant has a single leaf clinging to a branch, I will water it, spray it, and try to figure out how to make it live and bloom.  I have a very ugly little indoor garden in my kitchen window.  My friend Deanna has an amazing green thumb and a lush, beautiful garden.  She finally shared her secret with me.  She tosses plants that don’t thrive and replaces them with new healthy plants.  Healthy plants respond to her nurture, but she knows she can’t revive a dry stick with one leaf—so she doesn’t try.  Those of you with beautiful gardens already know this.  But churches don’t.  We hang on to people long after they quit hanging out with us.  People get busy with other things or they don’t find value in the gospel message at this point in their lives and they stop coming.  Sometimes they just prefer the way another church worships or believes.  If Jesus is right, about 3 out of 4 are not going to stick and Jesus seems to think that’s okay, because God is such a prodigal sower.  There may be another time in people’s lives that the gospel will make more sense, or be more comforting or compelling.  We’re only in charge of our own soil and keeping it rich and fertilized and aerated.  Churches look a little sad and desperate when they hang on to people who already quit hanging out with them.  And they waste valuable time and energy trying to shape ministry to please people who simply aren’t interested.
          So this is what I take away from this parable and our reading from Isaiah.  God is in charge of God’s word and God is a prodigal sower, sowing grace and love everywhere all the time.  I need to do the same.  We need to do the same.  We need to invite, invite, invite, and welcome, welcome, welcome.  We need to sow seeds of grace and love with acts of justice and mercy everywhere, all the time.  We need to provide opportunities for spiritual growth that appeal to us so that we are becoming ever more deeply committed Christians so that we bear fruit—abundant fruit.  And we need to lower our expectations.  We can expect about 1 in 4 of those seeds or acts of mercy and justice to land in a good place/good soil today.  We need to quit hanging on to people who have quit hanging around with us.  We can bless them on their way, knowing that God is still sowing in their lives, even if they don’t know it.  Just because someone joined the church years ago, it does not mean they are still a member if they have moved on, if they don’t attend, and they don’t support the church financially.  Members promise to support the church with their prayers, their presence, their gifts, and their service.  Membership assumes an obligation to care for one another and our shared ministry.  So we need to focus our ministry on nurturing discipleship among those who are here and praying to be open to and welcoming to those whom God will send our way. 
Let me tell you two quick stories.  The last church that I served had no children, but they prayed that God would send them children.  They built a big toy similar to yours.  And they jumped on every young family with children who walked through their doors.  But none of those families stuck because there weren’t any other children.  They even sent invitational postcards to 10,000 of their neighbors—not the neighbors around the church, but to their own neighbors, one or two zip codes away from the church.  They refreshed their nursery with paint and new carpet.  Then God sent four preteen boys with skate boards and scooters from the neighborhood to coffee hour one day, and to their credit, the church welcomed them like they were Jesus—offering extra cookies and juice.  Those boys never brought their parents, but they invited their friends, and the church invested in making the church building a destination with games, a half pipe and a theater.  It was hard to paint over the wall that had the names of all the kids who had graduated a long time ago and no longer attended.  It was hard to paint over some beloved murals painted by a woman who got disinterested and left the church before she finished painting.  It was hard to be loving to kids whose parents weren’t interested in church and who had trouble following rules.  Now that church has a youth group with 50 at risk children, a ministry to foster parents and children in their nursery.
My colleague serves a church where there was a family with two older teens who had attended the church for ten years and been active in everything.  The mother was the only Sunday school teacher the church has in the six years my colleague has been there.  But when the church held a heritage Sunday event and decorated with photos of church members, there was not one photo that included any member of that very active family.  They were too new to catch the eye of the photographers.  Most of the photos in the video presentation that day were of people my colleague had never met and little children that were now young adults.  My colleague feels like she is serving two churches—the one people remember and the one that shows up on Sunday—and it’s exhausting. 
It’s natural to miss folks who are no longer here and to remember another time when we enjoyed this great program or that fun event.  But we won’t find Jesus in the past.  Jesus is always out ahead of us calling us to new adventures with people we may not know yet.  Some of those people are already here, waiting for a chance to share their stories, passions and interests.  So I’m curious.  Who are we right now as the Body of Christ?  What passion for ministry is fueled by our discipleship?  What will we give our energy and resources to?  What excites you?  Where is our fruit going to come from?  For instance, how is it that this church sends somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 quilts to Children’s Hospital each year and almost 100 sweaters to Knit for Kids?  No one needs to fan the flames under these ministries—you couldn’t get them to stop because people are doing what they love to do to benefit someone else.  That’s fruit—30, 60, 100 fold!  What is your passion? 

I’m going to ask you to take the blank card out of your bulletin.  Draw a line across the middle.  On the top, write down one or two of your passions—what gives you bliss when you do it:  gardening, running, teaching, working with wood, cooking, quilting, knitting, music, acting, dancing, organizing—whatever it is.  On the bottom write down who or what you believe God is calling you to serve, who or what you have a heart for:  children, the environment, seniors, the homeless or poor, families, returning vets, immigrants, teens or tweens, young adults.  We’re going to pray over these cards.  Then, when the offering baskets come by in a few minutes, put your card in the offering basket so that the Council on Ministries can assess where we have the most energy for ministry.  I’m going to ask you to commit to praying for what is on your card for the next year.  Let’s see who God sends our way because we have asked to share in God’s sowing and have prepared our hearts and church as fertile ground.

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