Reverend Kent Organ speaks about what God is asking of us Americans at this critical time, and quotes Alexis de tocqueville from 1835, who said "America is great because America is good. But if America ceases to be good, America ceases to be great."
Text: Mark 4:26-34
Harry Golden once said that if a religious census had been taken in 50 A.D. (C.E.), the results would have shown that 64% of the population was for Zeus, 35% was for Mithra, and only 1% was for Jesus. That was the challenge the early Christians faced. It was the kind of situation Jesus addressed a generation earlier when he spoke parables concerning the kingdom of God.
The disciples were few. There had been some converts, yes. And there were many interested kindred spirits. But, on the whole, Jesus’ preaching, teaching and healing had not rallied multitudes to commitment. And so, he offered a parable to give his twelve companions encouragement and hope. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” It will expand. It will explode with astonishing growth.
And it did. In less than three centuries, the faith of these few had conquered the Roman Empire.
But in the initial lean years of plodding along the dusty roads of Galilee, the disciples could not have anticipated what was to come. So Jesus offered a parable of promise. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all the seeds of the earth; but when it grows up, it becomes a tree, putting forth large branches, so that birds can make their nests in its branches.”
* * * *
It is difficult for us in the early 21st century to realize that 150 years ago the Christian movement was identified with only parts of the globe – with Europe, western Asia, and much of the western hemisphere, our hemisphere. Africa, Australia, and the greater part of Asia and the Pacific were hardly touched.
But then, in the mid-19th century, the mustard seed of Christian faith burst forth. Dozens of missionary societies sprang up. Heroic men and women crossed oceans and deserts, jungles and mountains, with the watchword of William Carey impelling them:
Expect great things from God;
Attempt great things for God.
This was an era of prodigious evangelical expansion – the era when the Gospel was taken to distant peoples, despite danger and persecution – to lands and nations where the church continues to grow dramatically: Korea, Africa, China. The Christian movement is now universal.
Think how small the seed had been: a baby born into a harsh world; a teacher on a hillside; a condemned man executed; an empty grave; a handful of people who claimed it wasn’t over. The story of the Christ-event has spread, and burst all imaginable bounds: hundreds of millions drawn to faith, all over the planet. Like a mustard seed, just as Jesus promised.
But more recently, things have changed. Some of the older branches have shriveled. Notably, the old missionary-sending churches. Europe’s cathedrals have become museums. The once “mainline” churches of America have been declining for more than fifty years. We are less like a mustard seed, with promise and potential, and more like an aged tree, grand and stately, but with some branches brittle, and without foliage.
For American congregations, things are increasingly difficult. Pew Forum surveys say that nearly one-third of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised. For most younger adults – Gen. X, Gen. Y, Millennials – they were never part of church life. Most of them have never even been inside a church building. The fast-growing category in relation to religion in this country are the unaffiliated, those known as “the Nones.” That’s n-o-n-e. Because when pollsters now ask Americans about their religious preference, the largest percentage answer… “None.” No preference. No religion. For “Christian America” – and for many years, many lived with the assumption, and illusion that this was a “Christian nation” – for many American Christians, this loss has generated a cultural crisis. And a politics of resentment. But it’s been hard on us too.
What happened – to the promise in today’s parable? What happened to the “mustard seed… the smallest of seeds… [that] when it grows up, becomes a tree?”
* * * *
When Jesus first uttered this parable it can’t help but have been met with skepticism. The Jesus movement was tiny. Just a dozen disciples. Curious crowds, yes. But nothing much more. And when they got to Jerusalem, there was the overwhelming, repressive force of the Empire.
And when Mark was writing his Gospel, the mustard seed promise must have been met with deep pessimism. Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome, around the year 70, when the Emperor Nero was scapegoating and persecuting Christians – by fire, sword, and Colosseum spectacle. When Mark was written, the little Roman community of the faithful was being decimated.
So, realize that if we respond to this mustard-seed-of-exponential-growth parable with skepticism, and pessimism, we are certainly not the first to do so.
Your Pastor Search Committee and Church Council have recently begun an important conversation. They are wondering whether this congregation would be wise to seek a full time pastor or a less-than-full-time pastor. At present, Trinity Church probably cannot afford fulltime pastor compensation plus benefits – at least, not for very long. You’d manage for a few years. But then what? So there’s this basic question: In this era, in this location, could the right fulltime pastor lead you to sufficient membership growth? Is this the time to go for it? to lay it all on the line? Or not. Instead, would Trinity Church be better off with a more sustainable salary package, perhaps at three-quarters time? I will say no more. Because we all are invited to join this conversation on June 17th after worship. Mark your calendar. Everyone’s input is being sought.
* * * *
This morning, we’ve been talking about the prospects for the Christian church: growth? decline? potential for renewal? But we need to ask ourselves, Was the subject in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed – the church? Listen again. “Jesus said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” And, he continued, The kingdom of God “is like a mustard seed.”
Mark tells us it was this kingdom that Jesus came to announce, the good news that God is putting things right – in Jesus’ life and ministry, God restoring the world to the way God intended in its creation. God’s reign, as a decisive assault in Jesus against everything that opposes life, that opposes the way things are supposed to be.
In June, 2011, David Hollinger published an influential essay concerning “ecumenical Protestantism” in America, which is us. Hollinger knew full well that our brand of “mainline” or “old line” Christianity has been hurtling downhill for decades. But when he looked at our impact on American culture, he saw a much more hopeful picture. “Ecumenical leaders may have lost American Protestantism,” he wrote, “but they have won the United States.” He pointed to our denominations’ commitments to religious diversity, to anti-racist legislation and judicial rulings, our skepticism of aggressive, militant foreign policy, our concern for civil liberties and civil rights. And all this, he said, is now embraced by many Americans, and our government, as normative, David Hollinger wrote that this is “in no small part due to” the efforts of the ecumenical churches. That was 2011. This is seven years later. And much has changed.
The ecumenical, mainline view of what it is that God intends in this society and in the larger world, is under great stress. And threat. If it’s true that the kingdom of God (reign of God) trajectory is toward compassion and justice and peace, toward the mending of the world and all its populations, then there is certainly lots more work to do. And the mustard-seed promise of inexorable, decisive growth hangs in the balance.
Now, there’s one last thing I want us to notice in relation to the mustard seed metaphor. Which is, to remember that just as seeds produce trees, so also do mature trees produce seeds. You know what it’s like to walk through a forest or woods, the diversity of growth: fully grown trees, saplings, seedlings, shoots. And here and there, a fallen trunk, decaying but becoming a nurse log, from which emerges new growth, new sprouts, the forest of the future.
There is work for us to do. Not just our little congregation, of course. There is work for all who seek to further God’s mission in this, God’s world. Last summer’s General Synod of the United Church of Christ lifted up God’s call to seek a just world for all, and to practice “The Three Great Loves.” As we, last fall, were discussing who we are, what we stand for, what it is God calls us to be, we were drawn to those great loves. We placed them in our vision statement. We saw ourselves, and see ourselves, called to love of neighbor, love of children, and love of creation. The Love of Creation mission group immediately tackled a local issue, advocated with the Village to ban toxic coal tar sealants, and it happened. Another task force has been exploring the possibility of a ministry with LGBTQ youth.
So, we got started. Or… re-started. Demonstrating that mature trees – even little mature trees – can recycle themselves, can produce seeds, produce seedlings. We’ve gotten started – re-started – on this path. But, friends, as you surely know, it’s really only a start.
Reverend Kent Organ pays tribute to long-time Trinity parishioner, and retired Chief of the Deerfield Fire Department, Jack Gagne. While drawing parallels between Christ sacrifice for his friends and followers, and those men and women who have lost their lives in service to our Country.
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: John 3:1-17
A team of fundamentalist Christians invaded Shipshewana, Indiana, to bring the lost of Shipshewana to Christ. In front of Yoder’s dry goods store, one of the earnest souls confronted a Mennonite farmer with the challenge, “Brother, are you saved?” The farmer was stunned by the question. All his years of attending Peach Bloom Mennonite Church had not prepared him for such a question, particularly in front of the dry goods store.
Not wanting to offend, and believing that the person posing the question was of good will, he wondered how he should answer. After a long pause, the farmer took out pencil and paper, and wrote the names of ten people who knew him well. All of them were perceptive and honest. And the farmer suggested that the evangelist might ask these people whether they thought he was saved or not, since he certainly would not presume to answer such a question on his own behalf.
* * * *
People who identify with the UCC tradition live quite a distance from the eager evangelist of Shipshewana , a distance both theological and cultural. We would probably flinch in response to the question, “Are you saved?” And as to the matter of being “born again,” we tend to be those whom Henry James described as the “once-born” in religious experience, those who were gradually nurtured into Christian faith, rather than dramatically changed.
It is interesting to realize that if anyone in the Bible ever fit the United Church of Christ profile, it would be Nicodemus: intelligent, well-bred, civic-minded, conservative, cautious. He came to Jesus at night, probably so he wouldn’t be seen talking to him.
Nicodemus is nobody’s fool. When Jesus speaks of the need to be “born again” – that’s the familiar King James translation; the New Revised Version has it “born from above,” or in the footnote “born anew” – when Jesus speaks of the need to be “twice-born,” Nicodemus wants rationality. He fends off this challenge by taking Jesus’ turn of phrase literally, making it absurd: “Can somebody re-enter the womb?” That’s his rejoinder.
I think of my father’s story, of the time when he was a graduate student in religion, and he was accosted on a Chicago elevated train by a man who asked him, “Brother, are you saved?” to which he patronizingly responded, “Brother, are you educated?”
That could have been Nicodemus, not about to be taken in by any flash in the pan evangelist. Still, there is something about this Jesus that nags at him. Too bad we aren’t told more about Nicodemus. Though he appears once more at the end. After the crucifixion, John refers to Joseph of Arimathea as “a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one [out of] fear.” Joseph got Pilate’s permission to place Jesus’ body in his own tomb. And then John adds that “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came bringing [spices].” Careful Nicodemus, not one to go overboard, nevertheless, never quite able to shake the impact of those words uttered years before in the shadows: “You must be born anew.”
* * * *
Because fundamentalism has set up camp on the phrases, “born again” and “Jesus saves,” non-fundamentalist Christians have tended to shy away from them. I certainly do. Even though salvation is an essential teaching of our faith.
The argument we have with fundamentalism should not be that it emphasizes salvation. The argument is that fundamentalism stops short. Fundamentalism tends to see salvation in terms, rather exclusively, of rescue – the rescue of individuals from – from this world, from eternal punishment, from a fate worse than death itself. Whereas Reformed theology tends to understand salvation as salvation for – for the eternal, but also for life abundant – for God’s created purposes, for humanity’s potential, and working for God’s reign “on earth.”
Bill Muehl used to teach at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. Muehl had a grandfather who ran a saloon, and was saved by Billy Sunday five times. His grandfather loved to tell about those conversion experiences. His eyes would light up as he talked about his sense of sin, his separation from God, his contrite heart. Sometimes he even wept as he told about the joy of knowing that no matter how low the sinner, Jesus was always waiting to receive him into grace. And then, Bill Muehl says, his grandfather would rise out of his chair, clap one arthritic hand against the other, and say with a grin, “But every Monday morning, there was that damned saloon!”
And that’s the way it is, whether for you and me it’s “that damned saloon,” or some other irresistible, damning temptation. So long as the function of the Gospel is only to convict and then to rescue, there is something crucial missing. Listen to the way that grandson and theologian expresses the positive meaning of salvation: “The function of redemptive love,” Bill Muehl says, “is not to make sinners feel good about the past. The function of redemptive love is to give us back the future.”
* * * *
Billy Sunday used to say that the best thing that could happen to anyone would be to accept Jesus Christ as Savior, and then walk out of the revival tent and be run over by a truck! Now, that might be all well and good if Jesus is only our Savior, but that is not all we claim. Jesus is also Lord.
Now, let’s not get too self-satisfied here. Let’s not slide too quickly past the challenge of “twice-born” religious faith, the challenge to Nicodemus and to us, his kin, who also approach Jesus gingerly and guardedly. “You must be born anew.”
In mainline Protestant traditions, and here at the Trinity United Church of Christ, our approach to faith-development, our Christian education program, has assumed that people become Christians imperceptibly, step by step, that we evolve into faith. We don’t seem to expect that to be a Christian entails a crisis, or even much of a decision. Ours is a “once born” tradition. And there is much to be said for that, for the nurturing of persons within the faith community, confident that through the influence of other Christians, and through God’s Spirit, it rubs off. We grow into faith. Believing becomes a constituent part of who we are.
But it is not enough – never enough – for individuals merely to float along like little paper boats in a current. Because being a Christian involves choosing. And “not to decide is to decide.” Will your engagement with Jesus Christ be such that you, in the stream of life, have a rudder? a compass? a sail? Are our lives touched sufficiently for us ever to dare rowing against the prevailing current?
Real Christian faith is a faith that is claimed, owned, that has some sense of a difference between before and after. “You must be born anew.”
* * * *
But then, what about Monday morning, where there is that damned saloon, or something else every bit as damning? What lies beyond repentance? Or, to put it differently, what does it mean Monday through Friday to say, “Jesus is Lord?”
Jesus saves. Yes. But for what?
In the fullness of the Gospel, Jesus saves me from giving in to my lesser self.
Jesus saves me from judging others more harshly than I judge myself. Jesus saves me from hatred and vindictiveness toward those with whom I disagree, or who have shown hatred and vindictiveness toward me.
Jesus saves me from claiming more forgiveness and grace for myself than I am willing to show toward others.
Jesus saves me from indifference toward the suffering of other people; saves me from ever assuming that someone’s social condition, or economic plight, or health or un-health is simply a matter of God’s will, so that there is nothing I should do to interfere. Jesus saves me from ever accepting evil as the dominant reality.
Jesus saves me from a self-centered view of the world, saves me from ever thinking God loves me more than another, and therefore challenges me to share what I have more readily than I might otherwise do.
Jesus saves me from despair, from ever believing life has no purpose, or giving in to the inclination to abandon hope.
Jesus saves me, finally, for joy, and for the full and abundant life which derives its meaning from knowing that God can be trusted, trusted not only with my sin and my salvation – my eternal destiny – but also trusted to redeem each day from insignificance.
* * * *
Even we can be born anew – born of water, symbol of cleansing, and of the Spirit, symbol of power. We have to respond – as somehow, that night, our brother Nicodemus could not – in order to move from the ranks of Jesus’ admirers to the ranks of his followers. There is always a choice. Think about it.
Lent is a good time for that.
- with thanks to Stanley Hauerwas and P.C. Ennis
For me, the intersection of faith and life is full of insight and surprise. Browse here for sermons and other sacred and profane ponderings.