Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 9, 2016

2016.10.09 ” Bloom Where We Are Planted” – Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7

Central United Methodist Church
Bloom Where We Are Planted
Pastor David L. Haley
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7
October 9th, 2016

exiledesert

“These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7, the New Revised Standard Version

Do you know that feeling you get when you have to do something you’ve never done before? Say, like go to a pool party when you know you are a lousy swimmer, maybe even afraid of the water? Go to an event where you don’t know anybody, when you are an introvert? Walk down the hall of the hospital in one of those backless medical gowns, before you have a procedure you’re also never had before? The feeling we get when we have to do such things is called “ANXIETY.” “EXTREME ANXIETY!”

Having inherited a good dose of anxiety genetically, one of the things I liked about being a fireman were the constant challenges to test such anxiety; I guess you could call it exposure therapy. Want to learn if you have acrophobia (fear of heights); climb a 100 ft. tower ladder. Want to see if you are claustrophobic? Crawl through a smoke filled maze with an air pack and a blacked out face mask. One anxiety-raising challenge I remember in particular was appropriately called a “church raise”: firefighters suspend a standing ladder with ropes at four corners; while they hold it upright, you climb up, over the top, and down the other side. Not only does it test your fear of heights, but also your trust in your colleagues.

In the church, however, – and I’m speaking for myself as much as for all of us – we don’t like anxiety. We liked the “tried-and-true”, the “way we always done it before,” unfortunately, even if it no longer works anymore. We are like the old joke about church Trustees: “How many Trustees does it take to change a light-bulb?” “Ten: one to change the bulb and nine to talk about how great the old light bulb was.” In the church, to try the new and different produces in us collective anxiety.

So it is with such anxiety that I begin a new series today, expanding the conversation begun at our recent Church Council gathering, about how the Church in general and Central Church, along with all other churches, is changing.

To do this, I want to use the Old Testament readings from the time of Israel’s time in exile, as our reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah today. What I’m suggesting is that we in the Church are now also in a time of exile, culturally and generationally, wishing for the way things used to be but are no longer, strangers in a strange land.

Appropriate to the experience of exile, I’m still unclear about exactly where this series and this conversation will go. Gil Rendle says it’s appropriate for a leader to propose a solution when we know clearly what the problem is; not so much when we not only don’t know what the solution is, but we don’t even know what the problem is. Then, he says, the best thing a leader can do is to lead the community to face into its problems. So that’s what we going to do. To have a congregational conversation about it, so that out of this conversation can come the adaptation and vision necessary for Central to remain a vital congregation into the foreseeable future.

I also want to tip you off that when I say conversation, this is exactly what we are going to have. It will not be a monologue, but a dialogue – a conversation – in which we do some talking among ourselves. And yes, I’m nervous about this too. It’s different than anything I’ve done for 42 years. I still like that old light bulb!

I wish I had begun this last Sunday, when we first read from the OT book of Lamentations, that lament written for and by people in living in exile: “How lonely sits the city (church?) that once was full of people.” Or Psalm 137 (my paraphrase): “By the shores of Lake Michigan, there we sat and wept, when we remember the fifties and sixties.”

Seriously, the situation at the time of Lamentations and Jeremiah was one of the most anxious and fearful times in Jewish history. Everything that could go wrong went wrong; in 587 B.C., Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. The king, the priests, all the leaders and many of the people were taken away to exile in Babylon.

What happens when everything you believe in and live by comes to an end, as least for life as they had known it? In exile against their will in Babylon, far from their homeland, they felt as though they had lost their identity, their purpose, even their God.

What I’m saying is that we in the Church in the United States are a people in exile, both culturally and generationally, and find ourselves to be strangers in a strange land. Like that light bulb, the familiar ways that we have known and trusted for so long have ended. Yes, there are a few – like the false prophets in Jeremiah’s time, who say: “Just hold on, keep doing what you’re doing, if you build it they will come; be a “turn-around church,” but the signs are that what is changed in society and culture regarding religion and religious practice is not only going to continue, but to get worse. If so, what will become of this institution called Church, what will become of United Methodism, and what will become of Central United Methodist Church. What will – what do we want to be like – 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now?

Here’s a summary by Gil Rendle of some of the seismic shifts impacting all churches right now, but especially the United Methodist Church:

■ Our United Methodist denomination is increasingly unsustainable, living off more and more money given by fewer and fewer people who are getting older and older.

■ We are projected to close more than 10,000 churches in the next several decades.

■ We have fewer large churches because they are becoming mid-sized; fewer mid-sized churches because they are becoming small; and we have fewer small churches able to support the salary and benefit packages of full-time clergy.

■ Driven by generational patterns that are both constant and accelerating, people are increasingly not drawn to organized religion and do not resonate with congregational forms.

In the current mission field, we have two tasks to attend to, neither of which we do well:

■ Improve and do better what we do with the “affiliated”, those with a allegiance to Christ who are highly middle class in lifestyle, values or economics and who appreciate membership and institutions.

■ Create a whole new thing (which we have no idea how to do) with the “unaffiliated,” those with an allegiance to Christ, but who are other than middle class in lifestyle, values or economics and avoid member-ship in favor of participation and avoid institutions in favor of communities and movements. (Waiting for God’s New Thing: Spiritual and Organizational Leadership in the In-Between Time, by Gil Rendle (2015); posted on the website of the Texas Methodist Foundation, https://www.tmf-fdn.org/leadership-ministry/learning-resources/congregational-resources/

You don’t have to be a Ph.D. in religion or sociology to know this, we are seeing it here at Central. There was a time when membership was an important number; now very few people are interested in being a “member” of anything, it smacks of a country-club exclusivity. There was a time when attendance was an important number, but what does that mean now when people consider themselves active if they attend once or twice a month? For decades we have talked about tithing – giving a percentage of income to God and the church – except in rare instances giving has never exceeded more than 2%. Now, to most of the younger generation, it makes no sense to pay an institution or professionals to do what they can do for themselves, often online at that. Practically speaking, the younger generations – including all those who went through Sunday School and Youth groups – are gone from the Church. Even though many (but not all) still consider themselves Christian, they no longer feel a need for institutional church. They might agree with what Mae West once said about marriage: “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” What then shall become of congregations, including our congregation of Central United Methodist Church?

What shall we do? To those in exile in Babylon, Jeremiah assured them that no matter how despairing or how alien they might feel in their “new normal,” God was not done with them yet. So, while in a strange land, they should make the most of their time there. And so Jeremiah tells them to build houses, plant gardens, get married, have children, find life, and work for the betterment of the people and the place where they found themselves:

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

This is what we are going to do to. Over the next four weeks, we are going to talk to one another and listen for God’s word to us. We are going to embrace our exile, as an opportunity to become deeply invested in each other and our neighborhood. This will mean getting to know one another and to understand the issues and possibilities our community holds, in order for us to seek peace and prosperity not only for ourselves, but for our neighborhood and community.

Today we would like to begin the conversation by inviting you to find a partner (one on one, if possible). This might mean moving around so you can sit with another person; afterwards you can return to where you are sitting. We’ll take a few minutes to share and listen to one another. (Remember, good listening skills include questions that begin with: How and Why). I’d like you to answer the following questions:

Why are you a Christian?

Why do you worship at Central?

Anybody want to share what you learned? I invite you to email me over the next week if they want to share more.

desert-flowersLet’s end with this: While we wait, work, listen, and pray, let’s bloom where we are planted, like cactus flowers in the desert. Cactus flowers grow in the adverse conditions of the desert, under the hot sun with little water. They bloom in the cool night, away from the day’s withering heat. Often they cannot even be touched because they are surrounded by prickles and thorns.  And yet, they are one of the most beautiful of all flowers.

Like the cactus flower, let us bloom where we are planted. Even though we may feel ourselves in exile from the life and the church we have known for so long, even though we may not know what the future is going to be, let us bloom where we are, and – in the name of God – be the best and most beautiful we can be.  Amen.

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