28 September 2010

Making All Things New

Revelation 21: 1-8

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 26th September 2010

This glorious text from Revelation 21 is often read at funerals or memorial services.  There’s so much about it that lends itself to such occasions in the life of the church.  In a time of sorrow and grief these words offer considerable comfort:  “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21: 3-4). Because of this reference to the death of death, of a time when mourning and crying and pain will come to an end, it is often assumed that this is a vision of the heavenly realm.  Hence it’s use at funerals and memorial services.  We suspect that these verses are describing a place in another world.

            But the text doesn’t say this.  At the beginning of the chapter it reads, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”  It continues, “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”  A new heaven and a new earth and in the earth a new city, a new Jerusalem.  Where is it?  Here in this world.

            That’s what John saw in his vision. (Revelation is an account of what he saw.)  Now, we could say this was “just” a vision, a religious hallucination, a spiritual insight that has no real correspondence to reality as it is.  Surely this can’t be a description of this world because how on earth can there be on earth an earth without the sea – what kind of world would that be?  Not a world we would want.  That is unless you were a Jew.  For a Jew such a world, without the sea, would be a kind of heaven because to the Jew the sea represented chaos, the part of creation that was beyond the control of God’s sovereignty.  Heaven would mean no sea.  The Jews have never had a strong association with seas and oceans.  You never think of Israel, for example, and say:  naval power. 

And, what is more, how can there really be world where death is no more?  Death, from a purely biological perspective is a natural process of creation.  No thing, no one lasts forever.  Death is as sure as taxes, we say.  But for a Jew, in Jesus’ time, in most of the Bible, death meant more than biological death. Death was understood as a power, a force in the creation that is destructive, that hinders God’s plans for creation.  Paul refers to death as an enemy whose sting has been blunted by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).   You can see why we assume that John’s vision is of heaven, heaven as another world, some other dimension, some place other than here.  The promises, the hope extended to God’s people  we think will be fulfilled and realized not in this world, but in a world to come.

            But that’s not what the text says.  The text says heaven is a reality that comes down to earth, so that it “may be on earth,” as we say in the Lord’s prayer, “as it is in heaven” (Matthew 5: 10).  The vision points to a place – a city.  The Bible might begin in garden, but it ends in a city.  It’s the city that matters to God.  It’s an urban setting where God chooses to pitch a tent to dwell with us and live with us, day in and day out.  The city becomes the place where heaven and earth touch, meet – which is what the Jews believed about old Jerusalem, the axis mundi, the axis of the world, the center, the navel of the world.  John’s hopeful vision is not a description of a place beyond time, but a place in time, here and now. 

            This vision is really quite extraordinary, given the fact that John and his fellow Christians have been living through hell at the hands of the Romans.  The fantastical, even violent, bloody images one finds in Revelation paint a picture of a world where Christians were seriously tortured and brutalized for their confession of Jesus as Lord instead of Caesar.   One would expect good news for these people who have victimized, broken, and abused by Rome, to be the promise of a new world some place else.  One would expect the promise of an afterlife in some other place would be their message.  But, no; that’s not what the text says.  It’s not the promise of some other world, but this world that John sees. Revelation is not escapist, it’s not otherworldly and there’s no account of a rapture (or the whisking away of Christians at the so-called end of the world).[1] 

            Instead, listen to the voice of the one who sits on the throne, whose orb and scepter rules the universe with justice and righteousness, who rules even over the chaos of the sea, whose power of love cannot be matched by the force of death or the strength of Caesar’s armies.  Listen to what the voice on the throne says to John:  “See – behold – look – I am making all things new.”  Write these words:  “It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end.”  The one who was there before time is the same faithful Lord at the end of time; the potentate of time who rules with love over the movement of our lives, the benevolent ruler who leads and moves all of creation towards its culmination and fulfillment, this is the one who says, “I am making all things new.”

            With these amazing words at the end of Revelation we are given a glimpse of the purpose and direction toward which God is moving the universe.  They point to the culminating work of Jesus Christ, what his life and death and resurrection, his defeat of death all point to at the heart of existence.  They give expression to the direction of all God’s handiwork, the very purpose, goal, or end of the universe – which is the recreation and restoration of all things, the recreation and restoration of the world and our lives within it.  This, my friends, is the force, the secret power deep at work in the depth of all things.

            Now the text doesn’t say the removal of all things.  It doesn’t say everything old will come to an end followed by something new.  It doesn’t say all new things.  Instead, its says, “all things new.”[2]  This is what God loves to do, over and over and again, creating and recreating with all the “stuff” of our lives.  Isaiah foreshadowed this when we hear God say, “I am about to do a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19).  Or, here:  “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17, see also 66:22).  God loves to take what is old or worn or broken or useless or tired and transform it.  God loves to take into Godself all the hate, all the sin, all the excruciating pain and mind-numbing, heart-freezing sorrow of human existence and then do something marvelous and wonderful with it, offering something new in its place.  God loves to take all of our tears and our hurts and our regrets, our shame and our guilt and then d something extraordinary with them, transforming them.  God takes on every death force in ourselves, in our families and relationships, our communities, nations, and world and decisively redeems and restores.  That’s the goal, that’s the purpose, that’s what god is doing now and that’s the direction of God’s time.  It’s the promise of the Christian experience. 

About eleven years ago, about a year before she died, I remember visiting my grandmother in the nursing home in New Jersey.  My maternal grandmother lived with my family.  Some of my earliest memories are with her.  I couldn’t say the word “grandma” as a toddler, so I said, Mama.  And that’s who she was to me.  I was extremely close to her.  She was about 92 at the time in declining health and suffering from dementia.  It was a difficult visit.  It was tough finding something to talk about and she kept falling asleep.  Although I visited her many times before there, I couldn’t help but remember the way she used to be:  loving conversation, engaging me, asking questions.  Frustrated and sad with nothing to talk about after a few moments of silence, I said, “So, Mama, what else is new?”  As I heard those words coming out of my mouth I thought to myself, how absolutely stupid you are  – what was new for her when every day was relentlessly the same, where she was surrounded by death and the ravishment of time.   All my pastoral care training, in that moment – gone.  I asked it as if she wasn’t even there.  I was felt terrible.  Then she came to and turned to me and said, “Oh, Kenny, everything is new.”  And I smiled.  That is the deeper truth of the universe because that’s the deeper truth of the gospel.

            The good news is that Jesus Christ declares to our hearts and to the heart of his church and to the heart of his world:  “I am making all things new.”  At the core of the gospel is this experience of new life.  At the core of our encounter with God is the same message:  “Behold – see! – I make all things new.” 

            Is it any wonder, therefore, that these words are among those used to describe the Christian experience:  renewal, regeneration, rebirth, restoration, revitalization, redemption, change, new Creation.  Transfiguration.  Transformation.  Conversion. Revolution. Resurrection?  They all point to the same reality: the movement, the dynamism at the heart of the Christian life.  There’s nothing about it that calls us to secure the status quo.  In fact, the status quo can too easily become status woe

            Woe, because there is something else within us, in our psyches, in the depths of our being that really doesn’t like all of these words, that resists renewal or restoration or change.  There’s something in us that really doesn’t embrace resurrection in our lives because that means something first must die in us.  Until we come to terms with this resistance within us, until we face, head-on, our fear of rebirth, we will remain stuck.  To acknowledge that Jesus is at work in our lives and the world, actually working to form and reform us, to give a place to the movement of God’s Spirit blowing through our lives can be very scary indeed. We prefer to keep God at bay.  We prefer to think we’re in control of our lives.  We prefer to think we understand what it means to be a Christian and what God expects from us.  There’s no need for change.

            “There’s an old Celtic story about a monk who died and was interred in the monastery wall.  Three days later, the monks heard noises coming from inside the crypt.  When they removed the stone they found their brother alive.  He was full of wonderment, saying, ‘Oh, brothers, I’ve been there!  I’ve seen it! And it’s nothing at al like the way our theology says it is.’ So they put him back in the wall and sealed the crypt again.”[3]

            It’s an illusion to think we can wall-up the truth.  It’s an illusion to think we can resist forever the grace that seeks to enter into and work through our lives.  It’s an illusion to think that nothing will ever change; that we are bound by our circumstances or contexts or histories or our limited visions or even our budgets, and that there’s nothing new under the sun.  It’s an illusion to think there’s no cause for hope.

            These illusions are really lies, because nothing can resist God’s redemptive determination to restore, to heal, to make new.  John tells his fellow Christians, yes, you’ve been through hell, but I’ve seen into the future and the future cannot compare to what is coming and has even now broken into our world.  Because the future is in God’s hands, this means the present is as well.

            I invite you to meditate on 21:5, “Behold, I am making all things new,” this week and claim this vision for yourself, ask yourself:  what does this verse mean in this season of your life?  What does this verse say to your family situation?  How does this inform your worship life and experience God’s presence in the life of this community?  What’s in need of renewal in life?  Where is God trying to regenerate new life in you?  What is God through Christ trying to give birth in your or through you – and in us together – for the sake of the world?

            As theologian Christopher Morse writes in his recent book on heaven, “…we are called to be on hand for that which is at hand, but not in hand, an unprecedented glory of not being left orphaned but of being loved in a community of new creation beyond all that we can ask for imagine.”[4]

            To everything in the world that is worn and tired comes this word of good news, “See, I am making all things new.”

            To everyone who is weighed-down and weary and wants to begin again comes these words of healing, “See, I am making all things new.”

            To every relationship, family, community or church that hungers for a different way to be faithful and loving and forgiving comes these words, “See, I am making all things new.”

            To everyone who wants rebirth and renewal come these words:  listen to the one seated on the throne:  “See, I am making all things new.”  Alleluia.  Alleluia!  Amen!

[1] Brian Blount, Revelation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 2.
[2] Citing Eugene M. Boring’s study Revelation, in Blount, 376.
[3] Told by Parker J. Palmer in “Taking Pen in Hand,” Christian Century, September 2, 2010, 25.

22 September 2010

The Tragic Fall from Faith to Religion

Ephesians 1: 15-23

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 19th September 2010

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus (Ephesians 1:15),” Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus.  He commends them for their devotion to Christ and their “love toward the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers (Ephesians 1:16).”  Note how he didn’t applaud these Christians for their religion or religiosity.  He didn’t celebrate their spirituality or spiritual growth.  He didn’t praise them for their piety.  It was their faith in Jesus that mattered most to Paul. 

            The New Testament’s understanding of faith is very rarely about believing in, well, beliefs, that is, a set of doctrines.  This was especially true for Paul.  His own faith in the Lord certainly contained certain claims about the identity and mission of Jesus, particular claims about him.  But the claims, the content of the faith were rooted in his encounter with, experience with the risen Christ, through his own ongoing relationship with Jesus of Nazareth through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Through the relationship with Christ, Paul came to know something of who God is and God’s purpose for his life.  He didn’t just come up with these ideas or beliefs about Jesus on his own.  He wasn’t trying to form a new philosophy or even a new religion.  What he claimed to be truth flowed from his encounter with the living God.  Doctrine is rooted in experience.

            In her latest book, Almost Christian, Kenda Dean reminds that until very recent (the last two hundred years) we held a different understanding of faith.  “Christianity has always been more of a trust-walk than a belief system,” she argues.  “In Christian tradition, faith depends on who we follow, and that depends on who we love.  Believing in a person —having utter confidence in someone—creates a very different set of expectations than believing in ‘beliefs.’ For Christians, faith means cleaving to the person, the God-man, of Jesus Christ, joining a pilgrim journey with other lovers and following him into the world.” [1]  

            Somewhere along the way faith became confused with religion.  “Religion functions as an organized expression of belief, but faith —to quote theologian Douglas John Hall—is a ‘dialogue with doubt,’” a personal reckoning with God’s involvement in the world, and investment in our own lives.  Hall has even argued quite convincingly that “one of the great themes in twentieth-century theology [and by extension, of the church] was [spent] chronicling Christianity’s fall from faith to religion.”[2]  And that is tragic.  Why tragic?  Religion refers to an organized set of beliefs, ideas, and doctrines (that we then propose, argue, and feel we have to defend, sometimes by the sword).  Think of religion as a container of religious beliefs.  It’s static.  And, did you know that the word religion is never used in the Bible? 

            Instead, the Bible gives witness to faith as a relationship, as “trust-walk,” humanity walking with God out of the garden into the world fulfilling God’s mission to love and redeem.  Faith is dynamic, it’s fluid, it’s alive, it’s hot, it’s passionate.  Faith is about love, agape, yes, but it’s also eros, desire.  “Faith is a matter of desire, a desire for God and desire to love others in Christ’s name—which results in a church oriented toward bearing God’s self-giving love to others, embodied in a gospel-shaped way of life.”[3]

            Somewhere along the way faith became confused with religion.  There are many reasons for this.  One might be that it’s just so much easier for us to talk about religion than faith.  It’s so much easier for the church to teach people about religion (that is, all the beliefs of the Christian religion, all the things that one believes or ought to believe as a Christian).  It’s so easy to over intellectualize it all and just talk about the beliefs, beliefs that usually require little commitment.

            But as any parent, church school teacher, Christian educator, or pastor will tell you conveying faith, cultivating faith, nurturing faith is something completely different.  How do you teach someone to have a desire for God?  How do you teach someone to become passionate for Christ?  How do you teach someone to give sacrificially of themselves, to venture out, to risk for the sake of their neighbor, for the world?  How do you teach commitment?  These are all something completely different.

            Kenda Dean’s recent book, Almost Christians:  What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, is sending shockwaves through the church (that’s why I’m quoting her so much).  Kenda is professor of youth, culture, and church at Princeton Seminary.  Her book comes from working on the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), a massive study from 2002 to 2005 of 3,300 American teenagers, which included 267 face-to-face interviews.  It’s the largest study on the religious life of adolescents ever done in the United States (or probably anywhere else).  It provides an invaluable window into the religious views and faith perspectives of today’s teenagers.  What is perhaps most stunning is the discovery that what is being “held” as Christian faith is not anywhere near orthodox Christianity.  [Our youth, of course (!), are exceptions to this trend. ]  It’s not that our teenagers are atheist or agnostic or antagonistic toward the faith, because they’re not.  It’s just that the faith they hold is not exactly Christian, it’s, well, “almost Christian,” a do-good, feel-good, whatever-ism spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God and even less to do with loving and following Jesus Christ.  This study is slowly becoming a major wake-up call for parents, but even more so for the church. (My pastor-theologian study group will be studying this text on Tuesday.)

            The study is showing what many professional Christian educators and professors of Christian education in our seminaries have known for decades:  it’s exceedingly difficult to convey or teach faith.[4]  Instead, we have offered “a well-intentioned but ultimately banal version of Christianity.”   Kenda writes, “Most youth seem to accept this bland view of faith as all there is – nice to have, like a bank account, something you want before you go to college in case you need to draw from it sometimes.  What we have not told them,” Kenda argues, “is that this account of Christianity is bankrupt.  We have not invested in their accounts:  we ‘teach’ young people baseball, but we ‘expose’ them to faith.  We provide coaching and opportunities for youth to develop and improve their pitches and SAT scores, but we blithely assume that religious identity will happen by osmosis, emerging ‘when youth are ready’ (a confidence we generally lack when it comes to say, algebra).”[5]  There’s work to do and we need to be intentional about it.

            We expose others to faith – children, youth, adults, neighbors, and friends.  And yet, what do we ask of parents and the church as a whole at baptisms?  “Do you promise to live the Christian faith and to teach that faith to your child?”  Granted, there are many ways to educate.  The point is this:  teaching about God is not enough, it’s not the same as being exposed to an experience of God.  We cannot give to our children and youth, we cannot to pass on to others who might be searching after God, what we do not have ourselves.  To expose them to faith in a living, loving, dynamic God, who put a new power at work through Christ, as Paul says here in Ephesians, a power in us to live into the hope God has for each of our lives, they need to see it in who we are and what we do, how we live and move in this world with God at the center of our lives.  They need to see the fire.

            It’s this kind of faith that fires us up, not dead religion.  So let us stoke the flames, deepen our passion and commitment to Christ, step out on the journey, and follow Christ into the world.  We don’t do all of us on our own. Heck, we can’t even take the first step on own.  It comes from the power of God at work in us to enlighten the eyes of our hearts (Ephesians 1:18).  What we can do is help open up the way.  To repeat the mantra I offered up last week (also the words of Kenda), this is what we can do:  till the soil, prepare the heart, ready the mind, still the soul, and stay awake so we notice where God is on the move—and God is on the move—and then follow, follow, follow.[6]  May it be so.

Image:  Deeis mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (1261), Hagio Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom), Istanbul, Turkey.
[1] Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian:  What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press, 2010), 6-7.
[2] Unpublished lecture given at the 2009 Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ, April 28, 2009, cited in Dean, 7.
[3] Dean, 6.
[4] See John H. Westerhoff, III, Will Our Children Have Faith?  (Harrisburg:  Morehouse Publishing, 2000); Parker J. Palmer, To Know As We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1986); and, most significantly, James E. Loder, Religious Pathology and Christian Education (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1966), among others.
[5] Dean, 15.
[6] Dean, 15.

13 September 2010

Nurtured for Growth

Mark 4: 1-9, 13-20

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ September 12, 2010

“Who will nurture my son?”  That was the plaintive plea of a Presbyterian, a Presbyterian mother as her son went off to college, concerned about the future of his faith.  It was tough to say good-bye to him on the steps of the dorm.  She knew he was prepared to face the academic challenges of college and she knew he was, for the most part, emotionally mature.  But she was anxious about something else:  would he find a faith community that would continue to nurture and support him on his faith journey?  He tried-out one or two Presbyterian churches near the campus, but the response wasn’t great.  On an Easter Sunday the pastor greeted him, but not one other person said hello to him.  “Who will nurture my son?” she cries.[1] 

            This anxiety-filled question is familiar to many a parent. She can at least rejoice that her son has a faith substantial enough to be nurtured. Many parents fear that their child will not grow up with such a faith.  When our children graduate from high school and venture forth into the world, will they go with a mature faith or enough of a faith to lead them on into life?  Will they be prepared?  That day isn’t far off. Thirteen years if your daughter is five. Ten years, if your son is eight.

            “Who will nurture my son?”  Who will nurture our children?  Her question might be your question, our question.  What if my child doesn’t confess Christ?  What if I fail them in not teaching the faith?  Even though I don’t have children (I have a sassy cat!), these are still my questions:  What if they get turned off by the church?  What if they’re not confirmed? What if in the end they don’t care about God or Christ? What if they’re bored?  What then?  What if our youth in the end want nothing to do with the church?  What then?  How will they make ethical decisions?  What will inform the choices they make?  What if they don’t get it?  It being the message of the church, God’s good news in Jesus Christ?  What if they don’t get it? What then?

            Jesus had the same concern, that people would not get itit being the message of the gospel, the Word, the good news of God’s kingdom.  Jesus didn’t want anyone excluded from God’s kingdom-living.  He wanted people to see God’s justice present before them in him.  He wanted the scales to fall from their eyes in order to see the abundance of God’s grace all around them, that they might be healed of their spiritual blindness.  He wanted them to see – really see – him, and themselves, and all of creation in an entirely new way.  But before they could see who and what was before their eyes, they first had to hear something.  In the biblical world, hearing usually comes before seeing.  Seeing is not believing; hearing is believing.  We hear in order to see.  The way to the heart is through the ear, not the eye.  When we hear a grace-filled word, how we see is transfigured. (This is really what preaching is all about:  offering a grace-filled word that transfigures reality.)  And so with the crowds gathered along the sloping shore of the Sea of Galilee, forming a kind of natural amphitheatre, Jesus sits in a boat facing them, using the water for amplification, with the Word of God traveling at the speed of sound across the surface of the deep, the crowd falls silent as he commands, “AKOÚETE!”  “Listen!”  “Pay attention here – you need to listen to this!  A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path…”

            Jesus tells a parable, a common teaching tool within Judaism.  Jesus was the master of it; he perfected it.  Not simply allegory, but a teaching tool designed to awaken faith and crack open reality.  Jesus probably told this parable only once.  He probably didn’t rehearse it, spend a lot of time thinking about it, or even bother to write it down.  It was extemporaneous.  He often identified an ordinary, everyday object or event, and then used it as an entrée into kingdom life.  He used parables to help people understand that a new world has come and is coming into being through him.  We can’t perceive this on our own for it’s not immediately obvious.  We have to be initiated into this truth indirectly. That’s why he uses parables.  And Jesus wants them to really think about their faith, existentially embrace it, live it, and not just simply accept it passively.  Most people, including the disciples, didn’t see the Kingdom of God was in their midst.  Jesus came to show us that the fullest manifestation of God’s Kingdom is known through him, because he is the kingdom of God and he will have to open it to you.[2]          

            That’s what the Word of God does: it opens up reality. By Word of God, I don’t mean the Bible.  Throughout scripture, Word refers to the divine language, the active, dynamic, creative speech of Yahweh, the divine reason, the divine mind; it’s the Word that created the universe, the Word that speaks through the pages of scripture, the Word that speaks new life into death, the Word that loves to create something out of nothing; it’s the Word as logos that continually seeks enfleshment in the world, as we see in Jesus Christ, the “Word (logos) made flesh (see John 1: 1-5, 14),” and the ongoing enfleshment of the Word in human beings, in the depths of our souls.  The Word produces life within all those who hear it.  The Word impels us to faith, love, and hope.  The Word comes to maturity in us when it bears fruit in our lives.  And if you really want to hear and see and feel the Word of God, then listen to him, to Christ in all the blessedly diverse ways in which the New Testament gives witness to him.  The purpose of the parable is to provide for such a radical insight into the very nature of truth itself, such a truth that strikes us with awe and amazement.

            The message is being communicated all the time.  Sometimes we get it; sometimes we don’t.  But Jesus wants us to get it.  Jesus probably looked out and saw a peasant farmer on the shoreline and said, “AKOÚETE, Listen!  Getting the message is like that sower over there who went out to sow some seed, and as he did, the seed feel on all different kinds of soil.”  Peasant farming in Palestine was done using the broadcast method.  The seed was randomly, broadly casted, scattered throughout the field, landing on all different kinds of soil.  Jesus wasn’t making this up, he knew how people farmed.  He knew that often farmers would broadcast their seed in fields situated alongside the beaten path.  He knew the soil in that region was rocky, not unlike the soil of New England, with little topsoil over limestone.  He knew these peasant farmers would try to get rid of the weeds in their fields by just removing the tops of them, leaving the roots or burning the tops, never really dealing with the problems.  And he knew there was also rich, deep, soil perfect for farming.[3]

            We don’t want to overanalyze these metaphors, but the listener would have known that the seed is the Word of God; the message is like the seed that is broadcast through his preaching.  Jesus is the peasant farmer sowing seed.  We are the various types of soil. 

            Our lives can be so beaten down, hard, crusty, with little nutrients, unwilling and maybe unable to let the words of God penetrate our hardened, cold hearts.  Our lives can be like the rocky soil. We hear the message of Christ, it germinates a little, we see some growth, but when the hot summer sun starts to burn, when life becomes harsh and cruel we whither away because our roots are not deep enough to survive.  We become surface Christians, fair-weather Christians, or as Kenda Dean writes in her latest book, “almost Christian.”[4]  When the storms of life rage – maybe, the text even suggests, storms that are produced because the Word of God is taking root in us – we find ourselves overwhelmed and unable to endure. 

            Our lives can be like the soil that is covered with weeds and thorns that choke the message out from us.  All the worries and distractions of our lives are like weeds that choke the life from us.  Or when our lives are so busy that there’s little time left for service or prayer or we try to fit worship into our weekly schedules, we shouldn’t be surprised that the word of Christ isn’t taking root and growing within us. Growth is what matters, the yield.  I came across these words found on the church sign of the Ashway Pentecostal Holiness Church (Greeneville, TN):  “God is interested in spiritual fruit not religious nuts.”  But if we are good soil, rich soil, and deep, full of nutrients that will allow seeds to germinate, take root, and grow, we will see, Jesus tells us, a yield of thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.  These are staggering figures. We would love a yield like that on our investments.  However, in Jesus’ day, the average crop yielded only two to fivefold.  The life of one in Christ, where his words are growing, will bear fruit, will yield miraculous results.  Jesus is intentionally exaggerating here to make the point:  good soil produces the best yield.

            It’s the yield that concerns Jesus most.  The mother worrying about her son at college is also worrying about the yield.  When we worry for the future faith life of our children, it’s another way of worrying about the yield, the outcome.  Will our efforts now yield success in the future?  Will our efforts now yield a stronger church in the future?  Will our children still be in the church in the future?  Now we have to be careful here.  As many child psychologists have said, children are not the future, they are the present.  To continually project the lives of our children into the future and look to them to preserve the church or save the world because of our mistakes is abusive.[5]  They are here and now.  Therefore, this parable calls us to make this very important distinction:  the parable tells us Jesus is concerned with the yield, that’s his domain – not ours.

            God provides the seed, the message.  God provides the harvest (Matthew 9:38), the yield.  What we have to be concerned about and the only thing we have any real influence over is the soil:  ourselves.  Are we nurturing the soil of our lives so that it’s receptive to God’s Word?  Are we nurturing the lives of our children?  How can we show them what that looks like without doing it first in our lives?   Farmers in Jesus’ day knew nothing about rehabilitating soil. Today, farmers have doctorates in agricultural science.  We know there are things we can do to ensure that the soil of our lives is rich and fertile, allowing the seed of God’s love to grow within us and bear fruit.  That’s what Christian education is about. Quite frankly, it’s what all of ministry is about:  nurturing the ground.  I recalled yesterday that in my home church we had a Christian Nurture Committee. We didn’t have a Christian Education committee. 

What can we do to prepare the soil so that our children, indeed, all of us, might hear the message, that is might take root in the soil of our lives and bear fruit?  Because, the truth is, the yield is not up to us.  I know there’s a lot of anxiety around this question.  Maybe the grace-filled word for us is that it’s not ours to worry about.  It’s not ours.  Jesus is lord of the harvest, not you, not me.  If we want something to worry about – or, to put it positively – a better use of our resources might be really investing our time, energy, imagination, and love in nurturing the soil of our lives and the lives of our children. 

Kenda Dean, professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Seminary, is on target in her newest, ground-breaking study of the religious lives of contemporary teenagers, which is really a study of the religious lives of the American church (a church that needs to wake up and realize it’s in a time of deep crisis).   We’ll be hearing a lot about this book in upcoming months.  Kenda reminds us that the seed or content of faith and the act of passing it on is not all up to us.  “Because Christians believe that transformation belongs to God, Christian formation – the patterning of our lives and our communities after Christ’s self-giving love – requires grace, not determination.  The church’s job is to till the soil, prepare the heart, ready the mind, still the soul, and stay awake so we notice where God is on the move, and follow.  It is in following Jesus that we learn to love him; it is participating in the mission of God that God changes us into disciples.”[6]

            The seeds of God’s message, God’s creative, life-giving Word are continually being sown by the Spirit in the world.  The role of Christian education in the entire church, for children, youth, and adults, is to ensure that we are committed to nurturing the soil that will allow for growth. As Kenda says, our job is to “till the soil, prepare the heart, ready the mind, still the soul, and stay awake.”  In order to show our children how this is done, we need to do it ourselves. 

            May this then be our mantra, our hope and prayer as we move into this new program year.  In all areas of our lives, let us consider how we can: till the soil  — prepare the heart —ready the mind —still the soul — stay awake long enough to notice where God is on the move – for God is on the move! – and then follow, follow, follow.

[1] Sandra S. Hawley, “Who Will Nurture My Son?” Presbyterian Outlook, September 14, 1998, 12.
[2] For the role of parables in Mark see William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1956), 80-86, and Eduward Schweizer, The Good News According to Mark, trans. Donald H. Madvig (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1970), 97.
[3] Barclay, 87.
[4] Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian:  What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford:  Oxford University Press,  2010).
[5] See David Elkind, All Grown Up and No Place To Go:  Teenagers in Crisis (Reading, MA:  Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1974).
[6] Dean, 15.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), “Sower with the Setting Sun” (1888)