Sunday, October 6, 2013
TEXT: Luke 17: 5-6
5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
Jesus’ first followers begged him to give them more faith. “Increase our faith!” they demanded, as if they’d time traveled to our century and ordered Fast Faith like Fast Food at a Spiritual Drive-Through– after which God’s static-y voice replied, “Would you like fries with that?” Unfortunately, faith isn’t so easy to order. Fortunately, as Jesus explained, our faith doesn’t have to be biggie-sized. Even a little bit of faith—the size of a mustard seed—can accomplish seemingly impossible things. Just a little faith can be enough to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea—which you have to admit is one of the Bible’s strangest metaphors.
Just a little faith in God’s loving purposes can unite diverse people across the world’s cultures and times, for which we give thanks on this World Communion Sunday.
Just a little faith can plant new faith communities.
The metaphor of planting a tiny seed of faith is especially appealing to church planters like me and perhaps to you as part of a new faith community. In many ways Open Table is a just sprouting seedling. Tending this vulnerable seedling requires patience and faithfulness. And in the case of a mulberry tree or a congregation, its full potential won’t be reached for many, many, many years.
Sure, some of us know of churches that spring up almost overnight with hundreds or thousands of members. Wistfully, we might envy the sheer numbers these churches boast, so we pray, “Increase our numbers.” Worriedly, we might imagine that the key to a sudden influx of new members is a change to our worship service or one additional program or more and more activities or a slightly tweaked advertising strategy. These musings can be constructive if each of us is asking “What can I do?” rather than “What should others in the church be doing?” . . . and if we all stay focused on following in the ways of Jesus . . . and if we’re not flailing about to please hypothetical visitors in some misplaced belief that spirituality is a commodity we produce to fit consumer expectations. Up to a point, we need to accommodate the preferences of potential church members, anticipating, for instance, the best time and place for us to gather for worship and prioritizing the needs of those who are not yet with us over our own. But our faith community is not forming to serve up the spiritual equivalent of Happy Meals—even if that’s what sells.
While I would love for us to grow our numbers rapidly, I’m afraid the standard formula for doing so may not work for us. One blogger has recommended “prepack[aging] the Gospel” with this “quick and easy formula”: Take “1 dynamic preacher, 3 good musicians, a well selected location, and lots of marketing dollars” and in “two years’ time” you’ll have a church.
I’d love to have lots of money to devote to lots of marketing (though I suspect that even in the 21st century our love for God and one another and especially for those on the margins should be our best way to be known in our community).
I’d love to have the perfect location for Open Table (though the perfect location for a progressive church to grow numerically would not be anywhere in conservative Mobile, AL).
I’d love to have 3 or more fabulous musicians, and God knows I’d love for us to have a dynamic preacher!
But the standard formula doesn’t quite fit us because the gospel we are offering is not one we can prepackage and churn out for mass consumption. In fact, our Good News involves a rethinking of the Good News as you’ve heard it previously. As your pastor, I’ve got nothing for you, nothing at all—no glitz, no charm, no charisma, no brilliance—nothing but a Gospel that is, for me, truly Good News. That’s all I’ve got.
Open Table offers a Gospel that is demanding. And the demands of the Gospel don’t sit well with consumers who think they can place an order and have God delivered to them when and where and how they wish. The good news we preach and teach and try to live is about loving even our enemies, giving up control, forgiving, losing our lives in order to find them, dying to the old ego-driven self, living in grateful connectedness to all creation, recognizing our own belovedness while at the same time knowing that life is not all about me or you. The good news we teach and preach and try to live has nothing to do with believing certain doctrine in order to go to heaven but has everything to do with falling trustfully into the arms of Love and working selflessly to usher in God’s ways of peace and justice right here and now. The Gospel as we understand it is not about bolstering the faith you walked in with but challenging you to hear God’s voice unsettle your convictions. The Gospel is not about providing pat answers but about living the questions. But how many people in this city or in this world do you think will really think that’s “good news”? How in the world could Madison Avenue sell this?
Not only is the Gospel we live demanding, but the community we create around this Gospel is diverse. We come from many different walks of life and church backgrounds. Our politics and personal histories and abilities vary. We are unabashedly “out” as an open and affirming church, but we’re not “the gay church” and our progressive label means, to us, something broader than being open and affirming or social justice-oriented. Our diversity and a desire for even greater diversity is certainly no short cut for growing a church.
It’s not only the demanding Gospel we live and the diverse community we create that complicates our growth—it’s also the deeper spirituality for which we strive. We try to honor silence and simplicity so that God can talk to us more than we talk to God—but silence frightens many in our noisy culture. We offer surprise and elicit participation—which might be uncomfortable. Music and art and poetry and the love we bear for one another can touch us deeply in worship, but we are wary of emotionally manipulative worship practices. There are no quick and easy lessons for spiritual maturity. Because sometimes that growth is not up to you. Sometimes it’s a matter of waiting patiently . . . as the darkness teaches . . . and time heals . . .. and your roots go down deeper even as your spirit reaches upward toward the Light. Spiritual maturation is hard.
Especially because life is not on hold while your pastor is rearranging your theological map. Death may rob you of a loved one just as you’re rethinking eschatology. Or you may lose your job or your health at the same time you’re losing your ability to read the Bible literally but before you’ve acquired a confidence in reading it any other way. Many in our faith community have faced great challenges before they’ve had time to reconstruct their spiritual resources.
But today’s passage from Luke assures that with faith, even just a little faith, you can be transplanted from familiar soil into a salty sea and grow even there. Even on the salty seacoast of Mobile, Alabama. With just a little faith.
It may be tempting for us to sell our community a gospel that most people want to buy. But our mission is about following in Jesus’s way—not about selling a product.
The Slow Church movement has been developing over the last few years in resistance to just such a consumerist view of church. It was inspired by the Slow Food movement of recent years that critiques “industrialized [fast] food cultures and agricultures” and the way a fast food culture has affected not only our physical health but also has altered our economic systems as well as cultural values and family systems. Slow food advocates “insist that the ways we eat actually matter for the kinds of people we become.”They believe food should be “good, clean, and fair.” But living the slow food alternative is “messy and difficult.”
Like the Slow Food movement, the Slow Church movement questions the speed and efficiency and bigness of Fast Church and calls for a “vision of the holistic, interconnected, and abundant life together to which God has called us in Christ Jesus.” Slow Church is slow, hard work. But “we need this slow and steady witness to the Gospel not only because of its aims to save people from poverty, oppression and violence”—but “because we, too, need to be saved” and the planting, tending, harvesting, chopping, simmering, serving, tasting is all “part of our spiritual formation.” The stuff we might think of as the “business” of church can become, with thoughtfulness, our spiritual curriculum.
If you began this journey with Open Table thinking we’d be doing church as usual and that we’d be drawing in hundreds of worshipers by now, it may be time to adjust expectations.
We are offering to a conservative culture a progressive theology and healthy spirituality and not just a progressive social/political outlook.
We are planting a church at a time when church membership is in a steady decline across all denominations.
We are part of a fast food/consumerist mentality that teaches us we
can be nourished in fast, convenient ways.
This may be a time to adjust both our expectations toward a longer timeline—and raise our level of commitment to engage in the hard, slow work of church planting.
The Church Universal began as a mustard seed. It has sometimes grown like a weed. It has sometimes grown like an invasive weed that takes control. But the church has often been the mulberry tree that offers shade and fruitful bounty in the unlikeliest of places. May our seeds of faith grow into a mulberry tree.
PRAYER FOR THE CHURCH
God who loves the whole world, we recognize what a tiny part we might play in your grand scheme. We thank you that you love us into loving others. We would like to take on the demanding, slow, often invisible task of living and loving faithfully, of letting you grow us up into more mature individuals and a more mature faith community. Amen