Low Sunday Reflections

In the days following Easter, I begin hearing stories about how happy people were to see the church so full on Easter Day. It does make us feel good. Our ranks are fuller, and when there are more folks people generally feel good. But why? I think there are good reasons and bad reasons and today I hope to bring the objectives of the apostles alive – and remind us why we even assemble ourselves together.

So we begin with the aftermath of the Easter event. Peter and the other apostles , Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles , have a boldness and conviction – something, quite frankly many of us in 21st century churches lack. I think it is this simple – we live in a world that rewards winners and dismisses losers. Growing up in the South, I even heard street evangelists called “soul winners”. I think it is a ghastly title that makes it all about us. We don’t ‘win’ anything! No, Peter and the others knew it was about the message. The message is not about us or how able we are to present it perfectly, because the message has power in itself.

Peter is recorded as saying, “We must obey God rather than human authority.” (Acts 5:29) To be clear, this is not long after the disciples had seen the Lord killed, and had witnessed resurrection and ascension. Their message had power because it was centered upon the deity and witness of God in the Flesh. This was the new authority – not a religious system, not a secular power – and they knew that not even death had the power to topple that.

Humans crucified, but God exalted – in other words, as Paul tells us, God’s power is made perfect – in weakness. Ancient rulers often used the title “Savior” and “Leader”. If Jesus is Lord, the government is not, and, in fact, the church is not.

There is a severe problem brewing in the 21st century American church, and we continue to look at corporate solutions where scripture already has given us the remedy. Peter’s solution is a simple message. He says,
“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus,
whom you had killed, by hanging him on a tree;
God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior
That he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:30-31)

If we want the church to be filled, we need to abandon what makes sense. When we proclaim Jesus as Lord with radical self-abandon, it will not make sense, but it is the message that will transform the world – and our churches. We have gone about it the wrong way for generations. Consider these “solutions” to the reality of dwindling church attendance and the increase in our own anxieties:
1. Better programming
2. Inclusive language
3. Seeker sensitivity
4. Updated music
5. Less stringent membership requirements
6. Eliminating difficult language like tithing and sacrifice.

I suppose all of those things could have a place, but that is not what will grow a church, because those are not a message that saves. I have a hard time thinking Peter, the itinerant fisherman, would have ever imagined a corporate model church. He would however, have begun with the vantage point of changed lives.

The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus,
whom you had killed, by hanging him on a tree;
God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior

THAT is a message. When JESUS is what we are trying to spread, the Holy Spirit looks for a way to touch someone. When we choose to reflect that back on us, we make lords of ourselves and the Holy Spirit is squeezed out little by little until the church becomes dead.

Here in Grand Island, there are 60 active churches. In many cases we compete for market share – and precious few of us are really out there looking for new souls to meet with the message of the Gospel. Instead of seeking unity in Jesus, we promote diversity in product, or try to sell others the idea that we somehow are special.

That is one thing that makes me so excited about Shared Ministry between Messiah and St. Stephen’s. It is about Jesus, not us. What if our delight was in the person saved and sanctified and set on fire with a new life. and not in the typical self-serving way we look at numbers of attendees and pledged dollars.

Now how do we grow in this. How do we get soaked in the spirit so that our witness looks different from doing what we always did and getting what we always got?

1. Make ministry about Jesus. In our conversations, let’s talk about Jesus. Let’s talk about what he means to us, how he is leader and savior to us. How his death and resurrection is about his choosing us. How has it changed our families and how has it given us hope for tomorrow. If we can’t answer that, it is time to make an appointment with the pastor/priest.

2. Let’s make our message about SOULS, not attendees or members. If the church could get that right, what we do would look a lot different. We have long prized the attendance byproduct and avoided the salvation cause. What if every new person that came in the door was not a commodity for us to acquire, but a soul to be set on fire with the Holy Spirit. Such perspective will change what we do, perhaps. Rich souls and poor souls are equal to God and we are not to spend more time attempting to acquire one and reject another. Likewise God regards the souls of Anglos, Africans, and Hispanics the same, but do we act like that? Do we rejoice when someone comes alive in Jesus who looks, acts, behaves, loves, or cherishes things different from us?

3. Let’s make this about ETERNITY. Peter’s boldness was not to save his skin, but to covert souls in error. Peter knows the temple police and the Council of the Sanhedrin need what once he too did not have. The job of Christians is to be midwives for eternity, not recruiters and fundraisers for a social club.

The successful 21st century Church needs to begin looking more like the first century church, or it is going to become a dead church. We need always remember that it was the temple council who were the educated ones, the apostles were not, and yet their message changed the world. It was the temple officials who were the wealthy ones, and the temple now lay in ruins. On the contrary, the apostles had a message, but no lands, no silver or gold, and yet you and I are here.

Jesus, souls, and eternity. It is that message that made Peter speak with boldness, and it is that message that will give us a hope and a future too.

Seek the Lord: Creation Care and Midwest Flooding

“Seek the Lord why he wills to be found, call upon him when he draws near, Let the wicked forsake their ways and the evil ones their thoughts. Let them return to the Lord” Isaiah 55 – returning, the essence of Lent.

This spring, the people of Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin experienced horrific flooding. Livestock died by the scores. Fields lie contaminated and unplantable. Corn reserves are lost. The effects of this disaster has yet to hit our grocery stores, gas pumps, or perhaps even effect those living on the coasts. Caused by record snowfalls, a sudden warming trend, freezing and thawing and being unprepared for the sheer magnitude of the water – it was an epic confluence of events. We saw the power of God in snow and rain and flood, a harbinger of the power of nature to disrupt our lives. But in the area between Grand Island and Kearney, Nebraska each year during Lent, people from all over the nation come to witness the annual migration of the Sandhill Crane. It is a sign of God’s perfect rhythms – like grace, ever present to those willing to receive it from their loving Creator. From time immemorial these regal birds make their way, resting, feeding, and preparing for the journey.

We can learn a great deal from nature. Considering that we have so much information, we are slow to remember that God has made his presence known over and over again in different mediums, the voices in our pulpits, the words inscribed by type in our Bibles, the pens of monk and scribe, the teaching of our Lord, Paul, Peter, and John, the prophets like Isaiah, and yes, in nature whom God declares good.

I found myself wrestling with the problem that the flooding and the migration of the cranes came at the same time. In my parish, St. Stephen’s in Grand Island, Nebraska, we have celebrated “Crane Sunday” for eight years now. The legacy of our Archdeacon, Betsy Bennett, Crane Sunday is a time of wrestling with our responsibility to care for God’s Creation, preserve what we have been entrusted, and, in the words of the Baltimore Grotto Caving Society, “”Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.” I fear, this odd timing, was a chance for us to get real with each other about our role as a church in setting things right. The time is now to look at being a church committed to Creation Care.

The theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that we could learn a lot about God from nature, which he called general revelation. This world’s rhythms and laws were established by God in creation. While science tells us how these laws work, it is God who tells us in the Creation account why. Aquinas saw the reality and dignity of being a human person in the fact that the individual is able to come to know the truth and choose the good. While I can imagine there are many differing views on the science of climate change among those who will read this, I think that one thing all of us could agree upon is that whatever power we may have to refrain from hurting this fragile earth, we ought to be doing it. God is still speaking to us about our own responsibility to be a steward of his creation, telling us – return to the Lord.

For too long we have figured that it was “Someone else’s job” to begin making changes. If it does not begin with individual churches and church members, who then will begin the action. Will we suffer more flooding? More lives changed and businesses lost? There is a problem of theological myopia – the initial problem with humankind – what’s in it for me? Creation care asks a different question, “What’s in it for those who will come after me?” It begs us look at different solutions like curbing our consumption processes, rewarding those who minimize their packaging and use of plastics. True, we have taught our children reduce, reuse, recycle, but we have been blind to real amendment of life.
In our super mobile, toss-and-go society, we buy new and rarely repair. We rarely reduce, in fact, we buy multiples. Our landfills are full because disposing of garbage is cheap – or is it? Consider that less than 100 years ago, our trash per capita was a fraction. We had newspaper drives. Things like aluminum foil were washed, reused, and saved. New uses were found for old things. Our culture was built upon repairing things that were broken.

This past summer, I had a little confrontation in a window store. I came in shopping for storm windows to cover my 1921 double hung windows. I did this partly to protect my wavy period glass, but also for another level of insulation. The salesman told me that no one sells storm windows anymore (a lie by the way)– they are too inefficient. He then proceeded to show me all of his special argon filled windows. And I patiently listened to his talk. And then he asked me, so what kind of windows would you like to have installed in your home.

I replied, “I should imagine something with wavy glass, century old hardwood, and with a protective cover.” I pointed out that I had done my research and that no window had an R Value that could economically justify the destruction of the old window. I also pointed out that I could replace my panes, should they break, with glass points and glazing. He looked stonewalled.

I then asked him, “So, if your windows break, how do I fix them.” He said, “Well, you have to replace it.” So then, window after window will end up in a landfill. This is being penny wise and pound foolish in our attempts to reduce our carbon footprint. When did you last see a construction site that re used lumber? Or plumbing supplies? If not for the Habitat for Humanity re-stores dotting America, we would thing that anything you remove from your home is, essentially junk – and not a treasure for another.

Seek the Lord, why he wills to be found, call upon him – he is drawing near. God has given us to the tools to avert our causing part of the disaster of the warming of the planet, but we just keep choosing not to fix old things, choosing to throw away, instead of save and reuse. The difference between innocence and wickedness is that we know different, better ways and we still choose selfishly.

But the good news is that God is still in the business of choosing us. He gives us warnings in things like abrupt changes in our weather. As if to shake us up and say ‘We can expect more”. Scientists tell us that as the average temperature of our planet creeps upward, precipitation will increase because evaporation does. Every act of material conservation we do lessens the water or snow drenching our backyards.

Seek the Lord while he wills to be found – there will be a time when we can’t escape judgement. Like when we have been warned, we used up our trees, warmed our world, and left nothing for our grandchildren.

Lent is a time of being at a crossroads. A choice has to be made. We all share a sin filled world and it is our task to live into our baptisms in such a way as to show Jesus’ light in the midst of the brokenness. Opportunities abound in the midst of the aftermath around us. Let’s be like the cranes – sure and certain signs that God’s patterns are still working. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm. -Joel 2:12-13 Now, will we listen?