Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sermon: "Mission Possible: Nurture", Deuteronomy 11:18-21/Revelation 3:15-20 (October 18, 2015)

(10/18/15, part two of a four part series on the life of the Church for our Stewardship drive)

(Video of this sermon)

I have a book that I bought at a used book store when I was in seminary called, “Children’s Letters to God.” Knowing that I was being called to a ministry specifically focused on education and Christian formation, I figured that this book could provide some important insights as to what I was getting myself into. Now, being a long-time veteran of church school and children’s sermons, I knew that there would likely be some real gems in there, and I was not disappointed:

“Dear God, In Sunday School, they told us what you do. Who does it when you are on vacation?”

“Dear God, Maybe Cain and Abel wouldn’t kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother.”

“Dear God, My grandpa says you were around when he was a little boy. How far back do you go?”

“Dear God, I bet it is very hard for you to love all the people in the world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it.”

“Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a pony.”

Of course, go ahead and laugh. These definitely fall into the category of “kids say the darndest things”. But the point here, what really strikes me, is that the kids who wrote these letters, at this presumably tender age, are doing practical theology. They’re taking what they know about God and applying it to their lives. In the way that only kids can, they’re figuring out how this “God-stuff” applies to them and, consequently, nurturing their own faith, causing it to stretch and grow and thrive.

Now, it might seem to come naturally for kids to do practical theology in this way, but that doesn’t mean that it’s exclusively the domain of the young. When we think about what we, as the adult portion of the Church, are called to do, many of us will think first of worship (the singing, scripture, and sermonzing that we do together every week), and if pushed, we remember that we’re also called to look outside our doors and share God’s Word with others through Mission work. But less frequently do we remember that our own spiritual nurture and growth is an ongoing responsibility—one that doesn’t end when we graduate from High School. Too often, by the time we become solely responsible for our own spirituality, we assume we’re done working at it: we stop asking questions, stop wondering, stop searching. We stop considering the nurture of our spirits to be one of the primary tasks of the Church.

Friends, we’re doing ourselves and one another a disservice with this attitude. Don’t get me wrong—FPC is actually ahead of many other Christian communities with the Adult Bible Studies that are readily available and relatively well-attended. But let me ask something—and these are rhetorical questions for us to consider: How many of us continue wondering and seeking after the lesson is over? How many of us, unable to attend the Studies because of one commitment or another, actively pursue an alternative way to nurture our spiritual growth? And how about this one—how many of us see our adult spiritual growth as intimately connected to the nurture of the children in our community? Consider a child’s answer to these questions—another one of the letters to God from my book says, “Dear God, I think about you sometimes, even when I’m not praying.” From the mouths of babes, eh? Way to nurture your spirit, kid!

Maybe we should back up a little bit. Maybe the term “nurture”, which I’ve already used six times in this sermon, is a little too nebulous to mean anything to you. It’s the kind of term that SEEMS like it should be easy to understand, but for some reason, when put in the context of the Church, is surprisingly difficult to pin down. So let’s see: defines nurture as “helping someone to grow, develop or succeed”. So when we talk about “nurturing” in terms of the church, we’re talking about anything that helps us to grow, develop, or succeed in our relationship with God. In terms of traditional church categories, this probably primarily includes Christian Education and Fellowship. These are the basic ways that we in the Church grow as individuals and as a community.

This, of course, begs the question: If the act of “nurture” is encompassed in these traditional categories that are already well-established in the Church, and if the term “nurture” itself has the potential to cause confusion with its ambiguity, then why use this new term at all? Here’s the thing: the problem with the traditional designations, comfortable as we are with them, is that they enable us to take a limited view of the work that falls into those categories. Christian Education? Oh, that’s that thing that the kids do before worship. Fellowship? That’s just coffee hour. These categories describe the things themselves, not the action that should be motivating them. They explain the church-work, with a lowercase “c”, the work that we’re doing just for us within the church right now, but they make it easier for us to ignore the bigger, outward-focused picture…the connective work…the kingdom-work…the work for all of God’s people…that they are intended lead to. Christ calls us to such kingdom-work, because that’s the work that’ll transform the world. Our former labels allow us to ignore the verb in favor of the noun. By using the term “nurture” instead, we are reminded that we are called to be people of action.

And if scripture tells us one thing, it’s that we are called to be a people of action. Take today’s reading from Revelation, for example. People usually think of the book of Revelation as a book of prophecy and apocalyptic literature, but forget about the reactionary second and third chapters. I say “reactionary” because these two chapters consist exclusively of a message from Jesus Christ (by means of John’s vision) to seven ACTUAL churches in the world, responding to the ACTUAL things that these ACTUAL churches had been doing. Of the seven churches addressed by Christ, he has kind, encouraging words for each one except for the last one, the Laodicean church. And why? Not because they had done terrible things in Christ’s name or because they had blasphemed or broken every one of the ten commandments systematically.

Because they were lukewarm, apathetic, halfhearted. Because they couldn’t bring themselves to make an effort beyond the bare minimum. Because, in the face of the dominant Roman culture, they couldn’t be bothered to take a stand for their faith, but rather hedged their bets, hoping to avoid making any waves.

And THIS was what Christ found most appalling out of these seven churches. He was more offended by these people and their perfunctory faith than by those who didn’t remember his teachings, or those who had abandoned their love for others, or those who followed the wrong teachings. The One like the Son of Man has no patience for those who rest on their laurels and assure one another that they’re “good enough,” saying, “I have prospered…I NEED NOTHING.”

Hear the Word of the Lord: Christ is calling us to reject the ways of the Laodicean Church. To reject the diseases of “That’s good enough” and “That’s the way it’s always been” and “I’ve already done my part.” To reject the idea that we who claim to be the Church are ever “done” becoming the Church. No matter how many Bible Studies we’ve held or how many Fellowship events we’ve organized, we’re never done. The nurture of our spirits is an ongoing project, and the moment we’re convinced that we’re in a good place, that’s the moment that we’ve become the Laodicean church. Christ himself is knocking at our door today, asking to come and eat with us, yearning to inspire our learning, questioning, and nurturing, begging us to engage in the kingdom-work that we are called to undertake.

The question, of course, still remains: once we’ve let Christ in, once we’ve committed to the task of nurturing our spirits…now what? How do we do it? If it’s not a simple matter of organizing Sunday School for the kids and Bible studies for the adults, if it’s not as straightforward as Coffee Hour every week and Potlucks every month, then what ARE we supposed to do? In answer, I invite us to turn back to my initial rhetorical questions: How many of us continue wondering and asking after the lesson is over? How many of us, unable to attend the Studies because of one commitment or another, actively pursue an alternative way to nurture our spiritual growth? And how many of us see our own spiritual growth as intimately connected to the nurture of the children in our community?

See, when it comes down to it, it’s not so much about WHAT we do, specifically, as it is about HOW we do it, and how it impacts lives in the long-run. THAT’S the difference between talking just about Christian Education or Fellowship and talking about Nurturing . That’s the difference between church-centered work and kingdom-centered work. This is such an important point that Deuteronomy, historically one of our go-to books for how to live by God’s rules, outlines it two separate times, almost verbatim: both in Chapter 6 and in our reading for today, from Chapter 11. In these passages, Scripture doesn’t give us specifics, telling us that the best way to nurture faith is to organize children into classrooms and ply them with coloring pages and popsicle stick crafts until the day they turn 18, at which point they should begin spending their church time volunteering for the potlucks and bake sales and planning committees—although some modern church models might lead us to believe that it does.

Instead, it gives us more general instructions, telling us that we’re to take God’s Words and affix them to our hearts and souls, to bind them on our physical bodies, to write them on parts of our very homes, to talk about them at every conceivable moment. And yes, to teach them to our children. But notice how many DIFFERENT ways Deuteronomy urges us to engage the Word of God. Not just with our minds, not just during the appointed times, but with our hearts, our souls, our bodies, our loved ones, our homes, our time. With every fiber of our being. Wondering about how God is present in the mundane parts of our lives, and not just on Sundays. Remember that child, who sometimes thinks about God even when he’s not praying? THIS is how God wants us to nurture our spirits—by thinking of God even when we’re not praying, even when we’re no longer a child, even when it’s inconvenient, even when the world is telling us we shouldn’t be thinking about God.

This is why today we are talking about the whole nurturing work of our community, and not just the discrete ministries that make up such work. When we talk about things like Fellowship in isolation, we’re doing church-work, focusing on the small picture. We ask, “How does what we’re doing build up our life here within the church?” That’s all fine and good, but it’s limiting. What we need to be aiming for is kingdom-work: how does what we’re doing build up the kingdom of God? How are we equipping ourselves to do the work that will ultimately show Christ’s love to the world at all times, not just one another for an hour or two on Sunday? How are we resisting being the lukewarm church, and pushing ourselves to be the church that constantly keeps God’s Word on our hearts, souls, lips, and minds?

Our scripture readings for today make it clear that we are not meant to be a people of existing, but a people of acting. The vivid language tells us that faith is not something that is accomplished or achieved once, kept in your “back pocket” until you need to prove your credentials, but something that is continual, active, and crucial to our everyday lives. Children seem to know instinctually how to live this way. Their questions about God wait for no classroom, no “appropriate time”. Their wonder is ongoing. I’ll let you in on a little secret: this is why I love working with them so much. They remind me that to be a child of God is to keep wondering, to ask the questions that seem silly or inconsequential, to be unashamed to nurture the part of me that is most like God.

I’ll leave you today with this thought. After his first day of Sunday School, little Josh said, “Dad, I want to ask you a question. The teacher was reading the Bible, about the Children of Israel building the Temple, the Children of Israel crossing the Red Sea, the Children of Israel making the sacrifices.”

“Yes,” said his father, “so what’s your question?”

“Well,” said little Josh, “Didn’t the grown-ups do anything?!?”

Let us remember that the nurturing work of God is not just for the children to do. It is for all of us, at all times. Let us pursue the kingdom-work that God calls us to, rather than the church-work that makes us feel comfortable in our Laodicean communities. Let us live our lives with a passion for the Word of God that penetrates our entire existence. And let us nurture ourselves, one another, and all of humanity in a way that shows the world that we’re all-in with God.


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