Each spring our bishop invites pastors throughout our synod to a two- day conference called the Bishop’s Convocation. This year’s convocation was this past week and the focus for our gathering was three questions: Why do we need a new church? What is the new church? How do we practice being a new church?
As we all know, the world has changed a lot over the past years and over the past decades. I think of our own congregation and our own stories. When people come to our church for the first time, for example, they often comment on how much they like our stained glass windows. Some of you remember a time when these great, thick, colorful windows weren’t here. They were thinner pale glass, and easily vandalized. The story I’ve heard is that the original windows were changed at least in part to keep them from being shot out by BB guns or small stones.
When we face what seem to be threats from the outside we are inclined to protect ourselves and guard what we like to think of as “ours.” But sooner or later all defenses fail. This past week, for example, we learned that all the technology and security measures of the 21st century couldn’t keep a giant Boeing 777 aircraft from disappearing without a trace.
Closer to home, we have found that even this stained glass is vulnerable. Sometime over the past few years somebody apparently used a handgun to shoot out one of these colored windows. It wasn’t hard to repair but the incident makes me wonder, “What does it mean to be church in this place and this time?” In last week’s reading Jesus faced and successfully resisted three temptations. We the Body of Christ also face temptations, and one of the great temptations is to invest most of our energy in protecting ourselves, our traditions, and our self-interest.
We’re not alone in facing this temptation. Every other congregation faces similar temptations to draw inward. At our bishop’s convocation last week, for example, one pastor shared her experience. This is her first experience working in the inner city and she spoke of her struggle to come to terms with what it means to be the Body of Christ in that place. When she arrives at the church some mornings she finds on the church property syringes, used condoms, empty bottles and other trash. What are these things? A problem to be solved? A nuisance to get rid of? Or…are they a ministry opportunity, a sign of God’s Spirit moving through the neighborhood? Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a messy business.
Lakeridge Lutheran is not in the inner city but we face exactly the same questions. In response to the messiness of life, will we devote ourselves to protecting ourselves and getting rid of the messes, or to rolling up our sleeves and looking for signs of God’s presence in the messes? It’s not easy. Sometimes little irritations seem like a big deal: the fellowship hall isn’t as neat as it could be. Sometimes there’s trash in the parking lot. But that’s what happens when there are lots of different people using a space. It’s been said that, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” I don’t know where that came from—it’s not in the Bible. In fact, if anything, Jesus’ full- time job seemed not to be cleaning things up but getting his hands dirty in the messiness of human life, as an example for us all.
This is one of the questions that Nicodemus faced in his night-time visit to Jesus. When Jesus said, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Nicodemus asked, “How can these things be?” Nicodemus was a Pharisee and the world of the Pharisees was about control and order and avoiding messes. But for disciples of Jesus Christ, the world is messy and unpredictable. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses.” Well, the word for “wind” in the Bible is the same word for “Spirit.” In other words, the Holy Spirit doesn’t necessarily move according to our needs for order and control. Human life and the life of discipleship is messy!
During our Bishop’s Convocation last week we gathered for worship no fewer than five times in two days. And I have to say that in those worship experiences I felt right at home. There were babies babbling and little kids running around during worship—just like here! Sometimes they’d get too close to the candles and a grown-up would run over and gently scoop them up out of harm’s way. It’s a messy—some might call it chaotic—way of doing worship, but which way do you think gives greater glory to God? Keeping things neat and orderly for the sake of us grown-ups, or, creating a space in which people learn at a young age that they are welcome, too. And not only welcome, but welcome to be themselves, even as they learn and grow!
Last Sunday young Katie came up, as she often does, just before communion. As I was preparing the table she looked up at me and said, “Can I help?” And being the “grown-up” I said, “It’s time for communion so you can go back and sit with the other children.” She left, but she looked disappointed. As I came forward with the bread and the wine, Velma Mullen came up to me with Katie and said, “Pastor Scott, Katie really wants to help.” So—Katie got to hold the pot of ashes as I made the sign of the cross on each forehead. It was a reminder to me that the Spirit blows where it will. We can try to create an experience that is solemn, formal, controlled and traditional. But the life of faith is as messy as those ashes on your forehead, or on my thumb. When a little child says, “How can I help?” we’d better be ready with a good answer that welcomes their gifts!–and maybe less concerned about the way we usually do things…because the Spirit blows where it will.
In his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus made clear that the life of faith is messy. Read the conversation again and you will see that the line between “spiritual” and “worldly” isn’t always so clear. The difference between “heaven” and “earth” isn’t so clear. The “temporary” and the “eternal”—all mooshed together. “Believing” and “doing”—all mooshed together. The “kingdom of God” and the “kingdoms of this earth”—all mooshed together. Try as we will to create order, the Spirit blows where it will. God shows up at unexpected times in unexpected ways through unexpected people!
As I sat in my office writing this sermon I looked out my window and noticed two plastic bottles of water, half-full, on the bench in the garden. Who left them there? Does it matter? Evidently someone felt safe enough on the church grounds to sit down for a rest. Those bottles could be seen as a nuisance or a problem to be taken care of. Or, they could be seen as a sign that there are people in our neighborhood! Some are here temporarily, some for the long haul, but all as a reminder that our main job in this life is not to be in control of our lives, but to be in mission to the world. For, as Jesus said, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Did you hear that? In a world of our choosing, there would be insiders and outsiders. God would love some and not others. But God so loved the world! Whoever believes in him is saved. In other words, whoever practices the love of Christ to the world is freed from the power of fear, free from the need to be in control of our lives, free to follow the Spirit.
Some of you received the sign of the cross on your foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Others received the cross last Sunday. The ashes have followed us to this day. If you choose, you can again make the sign of the cross on your forehead—or someone else’s. Get your hands dirty, as a reminder that following Jesus is messy work, and that God has chosen to be part of the messiness of our lives. The Spirit blows where it will. And God’s love is for all.