Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on May 12, 2013 on Genesis 18: 1-25 & Genesis 21: 1-7 as part of a series on journey and transformation that is personal and lived out corporately in the life of our congregations.
Before I get to the scripture readings for today, what I’d like to first talk about is the next eleven weeks of worship (including today). With Mark and Ann Elyse here this academic year, our two interns from Princeton Seminary—there has not been an opportunity for an uninterrupted stretch in worship where I could put together a longer series on a particular topic. (Not that Mark and Ann Elyse’s wonderful sermons were any sort of a real interruption!). But for eleven weeks, before I go on vacation later in the summer, there is this opportunity. I have been thinking and praying for a while about what to do with this time, as I see it as a gift, an opportunity and a way to think through some of the larger issues about our life together in church these days through this medium of preaching and to share some of the ideas, thoughts and prayers I have been sharing these last few months.
As we all know, this institution we love and that is a huge part of so many of our lives, the Church; is undergoing great and momentous changes. Something new is taking shape around us. The church as we have known it for all of our lives is going away and something new will take its place. What that will be no one really knows. Some, probably most, of us here today will not see what that will be. I like to imagine that my daughter might see it. These changes are happening around the world in every single Christian community. We are just one tiny slice of the changes that are taking place.
But for Presbyterians in our denomination here’s the deal: In 1968 we had 4.8 million members in the United States. That was the last year we experienced growth. Every year since then, for the last 45 years, we have been in decline. In 2011 we were at 1.9 million members nationwide. The genius Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. These sorts of numbers hold true for every other major denomination in our country.
So, by Einstein’s definition, we must be what? It’s a bit harsh to say we are insane, but for the most part what we’ve been expecting to happen and what we’ve been expecting we would do has been the same. We all know the story: we don’t like much change in how we “do church.” One of my friends, a thinker about trends in the larger church and what will need to change for us to grow and become the new thing that the Spirit is already preparing around us says that what we’ll need to ask of our members is more engagement, more giving (and not just more financial giving, much more giving of time and personal expertise), and changes in our habits and behaviors. Growth in the new church will not be numbers of people in the pews. In some places it might. I hope we will cease to count “membership” in the current ways we do today. Instead it will mean a different kind of growth. The church will shrink numerically, but it will become stronger in its lived out expression of discipleship.
Spiritual growth, deepening discipleship. Getting closer to Jesus than ever before.
Jesus didn’t say, “Go out and make more members of an institution.” Jesus said
Go out and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them. And teach them to follow everything that I have taught you.
Are we there yet? Are we following everything that Jesus taught us? Because Jesus asks us to give up everything we have, everything—and follow him. Are you ready to be like the first disciples, who were fisherman—but rather than lay down real fishing nets (I don’t think we have any full-time fisherman in here today do we?)—are you ready to lay down the many tangled and intertwined nets that constitute your life, your family’s life, your life’s achievements—to follow Jesus into an unknown future? Can you walk away from all of it, or a little bit of it each day? It’s a spiritual question I know I struggle with in my life. Theologian Dallas Willard who died just this past week said that,
The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples — students, apprentices, practitioners — of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heaven into every corner of human existence.
Are we doing that? Are we living God’s kingdom that Jesus taught us about into every corner of the world? Every corner of the little worlds we each inhabit?
In my May letter to the congregation I announced this idea of this sermon series by re-telling a story and asking the question: Are we doing things in church that make us happy or are we doing things in church that make God happy? Are we pushing outside our walls to the needs that are literally on the doorstep of this building and addressing them? Are we being the church of Jesus Christ? Do we want to be? Because in this transitional time that will be with all of us here today the rest of our lives, if we want to get on board with where the church of the future—our beloved church is headed, I think it is going to ask of all of us big changes and lots of growth that will push every single one of us to dig very deep into our lives and give many things up for the sake of following Jesus—and in doing so, building the new church for the beloved children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren we already have, or that we are excited to welcome into our lives some day in the future. Are we ready for that?
Grayde Parsons, the Stated Clerk of our General Assembly, the highest elected office in our denomination along with others has begun to outline a scriptural map of how to see where we have gone, where we are, and where we might be going. It’s not complete, nor perfect, and it isn’t a guarantee, but that is where I’d like to start today—and then we’ll unravel this together in worship and conversation over the next eleven weeks. It will be a bit of time before we arrive in the New Testament, we’ll be listening to some of the Hebrew Scriptures only for a few weeks here. So listen with me for our story, the story of our ancestors: Abraham and Sarah in Genesis:
We know the story well, Sarah laughs at God. God shows up in Abraham and Sarah’s life when they are at an advanced age, well beyond the age of having children. This is a great story for Mother’s Day—how many parents out there have laughed silently to themselves, thinking that something that was being told to them was impossible—only to have it disproven? Sarah’s laughter isn’t about her knowledge of biology; of course she is too old to be of childbearing age. Sarah laughs because she doesn’t believe that God has more to offer her family. How often do we think that in the church? That God has nothing new to offer us?
We can understand her reasoning, God doesn’t even show up as God. No booming voice of thunder from the clouds. No burning bush. No drama. God arrives as three people, out of nowhere, strangers. Abraham is sitting in the entrance to his tent and three strangers show up. They seem to speak with one voice. Where Sarah laughs, Abraham is modeling what Israelite hospitality looks like. No matter it was the hottest part of the day and he had been sitting in the coolest, most comfortable part of his tent, protected from the desert sun. He took off running in 100+ heat to find a calf and prepare it for eating. He started a fire in the middle of the day. That’s not what you do if you are smart in the desert. He ran to meet them, and when he got to them, even though he did not know them he bowed low to the ground as a sign of respect. And they offered him and Sarah some good news, and for Sarah, a bit of fear.
Paul writes to the Hebrew church:
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Abraham, many, many, many years before Paul knows this truth deep down at the core of his being. You never know if the stranger in your midst is instead an angel. The cover art on our bulletin is from the great Russian Jewish artist Marc Chagall. In Chagall’s rendering of this story the angels sitting at Abraham’s table have wings. It’s a beautiful image of three angels, with Abraham and Sarah coming with food to serve them.
And finally in Genesis 21 Isaac is born. Sarah says that
God has brought laughter to me.
Her laughter is no longer the “Ha, ha…let’s see about that” kind of laughter. It is the joyful laughter that you only have when something extraordinary has come into your life. It’s the kind of uninhibited laughter that children have. It’s a beautiful laughter.
A few ideas for the new way church might look from these stories.
- Like Abraham and Sarah, we too are guilty of the age-old sin of having a limited view of what God’s capabilities are. Usually the limits of God’s capabilities line up quite neatly with the limits and lines of what a comfortable existence for us (with maybe a tiny bit of stretching thrown in for good measure) looks like. Yes, Abraham and Sarah wanted a child. But who really wants to be pregnant and then care for a baby when you are old? No one really does. Living into the new places our church is going means getting honest about what limitations we are putting on God without even realizing it, and then stopping that behavior.
- Hospitality. We tend in the church today, to usually practice hospitality when it suits us and we have time for it. When those conditions are met, we excel at hospitality. We have great potlucks and there is never a shortage of food. But we plan the potlucks don’t we? We schedule them weeks, sometimes months in advance. We have committee meetings to make sure all is organized so we have good hospitality. But what about when hospitality is inconvenient? What about when hospitality means that the strangers showing up on your doorstep really are strangers? What about when hospitality means taking a really big risk? What are we missing out on, what angels are we avoiding, what Good News from God are we not hearing when we limit our hospitality? Abraham’s actions invite some soul-searching questions for us today. What is the difference between human hospitality and hospitality towards God? Should we schedule it, or should it be at the core of our being?
- Laughter. Initially Sarah’s laughter is a disbelieving laughter. But then it turns to joyful laughter. Joy and laughter are qualities that the church of the future will most certainly in my mind have. Discipleship is hard work, but when practiced with others, in community—laughter is quick to follow. This in-between time that will not end in our lifetimes is full of stress and worry for us here in the Church. Change is hard. But if we forget laughter, we will not be tending to our souls.
Let me close today with a story. Thursday night I was conducting the final interviews with six other members of our Presbytery for our new Transitional Leader. The name should be public, God-willing in about a week and a half. We were sitting in a circle and next to the candidates there was a chair that remained empty throughout the interviews. We had inadvertently set an extra seat in the circle. No one said anything about that chair, but I looked at it several times in the night. I kept thinking to myself, after meditating on these scripture readings that that seat was for the Angel. And my silent prayer throughout the interviews was that the Angel was in that seat and that we were being accompanied and helped in our time of need.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.
May God’s unseen Angels be with you and with me in the coming days of our week. Amen. Amen.
+Art from Ecstatic Expression