What we see and what we know are often two different things. Anyone who has studied science knows this. Sometimes what we see is an illusion, making many things that we think we know actually not real at all. This is true of our cosmos. Think of the difference between what your eyes see and what we know. As seen with our eyes, the stars, sun and moon revolve around the earth, but we all know this is not true.
More importantly, we miss the clues and things that are right in front of our face. Find me on Sunday morning when I am looking for my keys for a great example of that! But seriously, we miss so much of the world because we are not paying attention or because we discount things we deem inferior.
This reminds me of a series of parables that Jesus is teaching in Matthew 13:31-33. In this parable, Jesus equates the kingdom of heaven to things like a mustard seed and yeast. The mustard seed and the yeast are both very small, but in the right conditions become much bigger than what they were. In the case of the mustard seed, not only can it become a huge tree, but the seeds of the tree will feed the birds of the air. As for the yeast, you can take a little bit of dough and make it expand greatly, feeding more people!
Personally, I always love the image of the mustard seed, because like so many of the prophets and biblical leaders, even King David himself, the small, disregarded person often becomes the one who is most faithful and connected, and should never be underestimated.
But that's not where this series of parables ends. It goes on to talk about how the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, or a valuable pearl, expanding the theme from an understanding that heaven may look small but is great to the treasure that heaven is. At the time this scripture was written, finding a treasure in a field or discovering a pearl would be life- changing, allowing you to move from a place of struggle to a place of comfort. Heaven is like that, going from a world that is difficult at best to a place void of that strife.
It is easy to look out at this world and say there is no heaven, and the empirical data would suggest that! People often say, “I see what I see, and I know what I know.” But the fact of the matter is that just because we can't see it, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. The problem with life is that we only see a small piece of everything that goes on. In a fundamental way, we know that the world is much larger than we are, yet we can only see so far ahead, and so far behind and to the side. There's a whole world that exists beyond what you can see and what you know. One of the most interesting things that I learned from my professor when I was in college was that the more education you have, the more you realize how much you do not know, because you're able to see that there is much more to the world than your narrow understanding of it.
As people of faith, we have a responsibility to share the message of Christ. In fact, the parables go forward to put the responsibility of salvation on the disciples. It's their responsibility to share the message of Christ and the message of heaven so that all can hear it and come to believe what they cannot see, or just overlook!
I was reading an article last week that said the Bay Area is one of the largest “post-Christian” communities in the United States, with the lowest worship/church attendance among the population. Granted, this is not isolated to Christian communities; other faith traditions are seeing declines as jobs and other things begin to take priority. On one hand, you cannot blame this community. While churches are fighting hard to be what they were, society has moved on to new realities and struggles. So you can understand why many millennials ask if the church is even relevant today.
Not many people would take that statement and attack it, speaking of the many ways in which the church is, in fact, relevant. But that would miss the point and further the divide, because the truth in that statement is not based on fact or even opinion. It expresses an emotion and a feeling, and therefore, it is true. The only way to address it is to stop and listen to what is going on in our world, and look for new ways to engage the world around us. This is not something that is easy or comfortable.
Every church can grow, but there is a sacrifice that needs to be given. That sacrifice is often what we want vs. what God wants from us. About three years ago, our session made this choice. It was a very difficult move to make, and upset some, but the call to follow allowed us to ask some really deep questions and look hard into our community.
Among the first things we did was letting go of what we know “to be right” and, more importantly, letting go of the power of the past. Things change, and change is hard, because what worked at one point in history rarely works the same way again, since all of the things that made it work the first time are often not in place for the next.
So by listening to the needs of those outside the church, we can take the knowledge of the past, but find new and creative ways to implement this to meet the needs of our community. It is like this: in the ’50s and ’60s, churches tended to grow because of the fellowship. Even in the growth of the evangelism movements in the ’70s and ’80s, the point of entry was not to seek faith as much as it was to join fellowship activities. You would invite someone to an event, and over time, they would come to church. While that still works, the bigger draw for folks now is spiritual development.
This is the issue that we have been focused on over the last three years as a session, and as a congregation: trying to distinguish what we want from what God wants from us. How do we make sure that we are focused on developing a deeper spiritual commitment among people in an overextended, burnt-out culture? This is one of the great difficulties in evangelism!
Reaching the emerging community we live in is something we are working on with Revive, and even during Sunday worship. We have to remember that the generation that is present in our culture cannot come back to church, because they were not part of it in the first place. This drastically changes the ways in which we approach and evangelize them, and it creates new struggles of overcoming the stereotypes so that we can reach this new population.
We must remember the community and their needs so we can be faithful to the message of Christ. Personally, the best ending of any book, movie, story, or song I have seen or will ever see is the ending of the Gospel according to Matthew. This calls the reader to task. The New Revised Standard Version reads: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
It does not sum up the gospel, but gives us a call to action. “GO. You heard the story, you know who I am, and now it is your job to do what you need to do to let others know of my story, knowing that it is I who will be working through you!” Thus, the responsibility of evangelism is a dual one, requiring action both on God’s part and ours. We have to go out and find ways to attract people to the message of God, and moreover, we have the responsibility to spread this message.
This Sunday, as we welcome four new members and have one baptism, we can continue to celebrate our embrace of the sacrifice of turning from what we want to what God wants from us.
The roof of the modern 1960s A-frame church where I was baptized looked like Dopey’s ears coming down to the ground. One Sunday I remember being startled by what sounded like a heavy rain, which was strange, since the weather outside was perfect. After more pounding and shuffling, the gathered congregation soon realized that something was amiss, and my mother and father gave each other that look, followed by my father’s quick exit from the sanctuary. The noise was my brothers and their friend playing tag, or something like that, on the roof! Granted, I was too small at the time to join in, but that was a good thing, since I was spared the punishment that was to come.
Worship in our family was something we did. It came first, and if we were to miss a week, we needed a good excuse. As a child, this was a good thing, because it instilled the importance of the church community and created a focus for my life. That being said, worship is one of those things that I find incredibly important, yet incredibly frustrating at times.
It is a constant struggle in almost every church to make worship inviting to children, and sometimes adults. As a child, I rarely related to the sermon, and the bulletin served two functions: a check list marking down how long it was until the service was over, and a doodle pad. Through college, I still went to church, even during the two years before I started to work for one. Somewhere inside of me, I knew that worship was and is a central part of life, but it was hard at times to make it click. Then I was given the opportunity to preach, and my worshipping world changed forever.
I often joke that I had to become a pastor because I could never sit through a worship service. Having preached through the lectionary so many times and having planned thousands of worship services, I have come to realize that my experience of God has a lot to do with my active participation in worship, especially in preaching.
However, as a pastor I am constantly concerned with how worshipful worship actually is to those who are gathered. Is the time a sacred time? Is it a time where people are meeting or seeing God? Is it time were people are having a spiritual experience?
Yes, it is good to experience God in worship through sitting in the service, listening to my sermons, but I often wonder if that really holds up to the test of worship. Are we building up the body if our focus is merely on the word received? In Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul writes:
“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
For me, worship is the place where I commune with God as I am actively participating in worship through the sermon. But worship is also happening as I experience other faithful people. So I wonder what difference it would make to have more people involved in worship. How might we better equip our small body to be stronger in faith by members standing up and sharing their faith? How different would it be if members wrote their stories for the newsletter? Most importantly, how might we engage others to grow in their faith, making worship more meaningful? Let’s spend time this summer exploring ways to make faith a priority, and ask how church can be a central tool for that to happen.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen