I usually post my sermons soon after I preach them, but for some reason I didn’t post this one last year. I filled in for the pastor at Plymouth Creek Christian Church in Plymouth, MN. Part of the reason I share this now is that I want to tell part of the ongoing story of the church that I serve at and how God is at work at this urban church.
John 13:31-35, Acts 11:1-18
May 2, 2010
Plymouth Creek Christian Church
How do you transform a church? That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer over the last eighteen months in my role as the Associate Pastor at First Christian. Working with Bob Brite, the Interim Pastor and the rest of the congregation, we are trying to find out how to make what was once a big downtown church into something that fits the current times. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I do know that it seems difficult to find an easy answer. We sit and pray and talk and wonder and so on. In some ways it seems like we are just plodding along and trying to see what works. Some people at the church think that the congregation’s best days are behind it and wonder if it is time to just give up.
At the same time, something else was quietly happening. One of our members, Deb Murphy was a little bit upset about the fact that there was no children’s program going on at the church. One of the things that can happen when a congregation is in decline is that certain things tend to get left by the wayside. The children’s ministry was one of those things that got left aside. There were hardly any children in the church. Well again, Deb was upset about this and she made the mistake of telling me about it. I asked her what she could do about it. Well, that got to Deb. She is an artist and has worked for years in the Twin Cities theatre community. After some thought, she came up with an idea of using arts to teach children about the Bible.
Come September of 2009, Deb started her class called Art of the Covenant. It was kind of amazing: kids started coming to the class. A friend from work ended up bringing her daughter to the program. A couple started brining their three grandsons. A woman who had stopped attending started coming back after her two adopted sons were eager to attend the class. I can stop by on a Sunday morning and see the classroom filled with little ones. Another couple announced they were ready to leave the church because there was not anything for their four year old son, save for this new class.
Little by little, Deb’s class is making a difference. On Easter Sunday during the children’s sermon, there are fourteen children who came forward, It was a wonderful scene.
Deb’s action was one of love and service. In all the questions regarding how First Christian transforms, we had forgot about one simple thing: that we were called to love people. Deb remembered. She remembered to love the children.
In today’s reading in John, Jesus leaves the disciples with a very simple rule. Love one another. This is what I like about Jesus: he loves to keep it simple. And yet, we tend to not be able to keep this very simple rule. The Church, that’s the big-c church, not this church, has had a bad history of not welcoming people who might different from the norm. We haven’t always loved those who are of a different race or nationality or sexual orientation or political persuasion.
Jesus call us to love each other. It is what the church is all about or at least what it should be all about. Earlier in the 13th chapter of John, we read about Jesus getting up from the table and starting to wash his disciples feet. Now, washing feet back in Bible times was kind of a needed thing. Unlike modern times, the streets were not clean, but filled with dirt and grime and dung. So, entering a house meant your feet were pretty nasty. That’s where foot washing came in. Jesus decided to wash his disciples feet, probably to clean their feet, but also to make a point: followers of Jesus are called to be servants, to express love in our actions.
That’s what we are called to do when Jesus asks us to love each other. We are called to love those within our walls and those outside our churches in actions of service. We are called to put aside our need to be right and love each other.
But loving is hard. It means that we are going to have to push beyond our comfort zones. In Acts 11 Peter is called up to Jerusalem to talk to some of the leaders of the young church. They wonder why Peter was out sharing the word of God with to the Gentiles. Peter explains that he had a vision where a sheet came down from heaven filled with food he wasn’t supposed to eat according to his faith. But God compels him to eat saying that what God has made was never unclean. The Peter meets Corneilus, a Gentile who wants to know more about Jesus. Peter shares the good news and Cornelius and his entire household become followers and he sees the Spirit working through these folks.
For Peter, loving meant not just loving his fellow disciples, but also loving someone outside his faith. And so the circle widens. We are called to love and be servants not just to those in the church, but to strangers along the way because they are also made of God and are not unclean. They are part of God’s family.
Back in March, Deb wrote a devotional called “Young Trees” based on a picture she took of some of the kids she teaches. I want to share some of that the devotion to close this sermon. She wrote:
If you look closely, there is a lot of life in this picture. Bob was gesturing at the moment I took the picture, so his hand is blurred with movement. Fletcher is moving closer to see what’s in the basket. Elizabeth has turned around to look at her mom. Tristan has turned toward Nancy.
Aidan is reaching out to the little girl in Val’s lap. (The two Masons are out of sight – but being active, I’m sure.) Earl is watching intently. There are fresh red tulips. Again, if you look closely, you’ll notice communion – the bread and the cup – on the tables, symbolic of new life in Christ.
Why did I title this picture Young Trees? Two things contributed to the title. One is the lectionary Gospel (Luke 13: 6-9) for Sunday, March 7th. The owner of a vineyard wants to get rid of a fig tree that hasn’t produced any fruit in the three years since it was planted. The gardener begged to be allowed to aerate the soil and fertilize the tree to help it produce. I see the children as the young trees in our vineyard that need both physical and spiritual nurturing and sustenance. And if you look at the picture again, these trees of ours are surrounded by a largeroomful of gardeners.
The church is called to be gardeners. We are called to love and tend to each other and to those strangers we meet along the way. That’s it. It isn’t about evangelizing people, or giving more money, or anything like that. We are called to love.
Thanks be to God.