This morning I was blessed to be back at Liberty Presbyterian Church where it looks like I'll be for a while. It's a super, friendly, warm little congregation that we have already grown to feel at home with. There are a few Sundays in August on which someone else is preaching there still, but for the most part, you can come to expect a sermon posting from me every Sunday afternoon now.
This morning's passages are ROMANS8:12-25 and MATTHEW 13:24-30, 36-43. It was so neat to see how well the lectionary passages fit with what I wanted to share about my trip to Scotland, so this sermon served as a great opportunity to share my experiences with everyone.
It’s a joy to be back with you all this morning! My family and I were so graciously and kindly received the last time we were here and we are thrilled to back! We would have been back with you sooner, but I’ve spent the past month wandering around the world. Tim and I just got back from a 10 year anniversary trip to Turkey and before that I was on a mission trip in Scotland with a group of classmates and one of my favorite professors from the seminary.
I’ve gotten some funny looks when I tell people I was on a mission trip in Scotland. “Yeah. . . missions trip. . .”
When most people think missions, the United Kingdom is not exactly the first place that comes to mind. The World Mission Initiative - the group who sponsored our trip – generally does trips that sound more “missiony.” Vietnam, South Africa, Nepal. . . but Edinburgh? We actually had to argue pretty hard as a group to get them to support this trip, but the truth is that Europe today is a mission field. They aren’t in need of the kind of humanitarian aid, medical, or educational support that many of the other groups go to help with, but in Scotland and England, only about 2-3% of the population go to church at least once a month. Anywhere. That’s not just Church of Scotland. That’s every denomination combined. Stop and let that number sink in for a minute. . . 2%. That’s 2 people out of every hundred.
Out of curiosity about how that compares to the PC(USA) I looked up our denomination’s most recent stats. In Pennsylvania, about 1.5% of the population are members of the PC(USA). If you figure in the number of people who go to church and aren’t members, the PC(USA) alone in this area has about the same attendance rates as all denominations combined in Scotland.
We traveled to Edinburgh with the intent to talk to pastors and Church of Scotland leaders about what the church there is doing in the midst of such drastic decline. We were hoping to hear ideas for how to steel ourselves for the same apparent decline in the United States mainline churches. We wanted to know what we can do here in America to soften the blow of the seemingly inevitable. We wanted to hear their strategies for staying afloat.
We didn’t get that.
What we found instead was hope. Vast, exciting, imaginative, and unexpected hope. Even our Scottish professor who led the trip was surprised and encouraged by what we heard there. It hit us head on in our first meeting. We sat in a lovely church lawn on a surprisingly sunny and warm day – we were expecting to get rained on all week – and we listened to a story that floored all 11 of us.
Norman, the minister of a small parish in the suburbs of Edinburgh had discovered that by sticking with his parish and getting to know the community, as well as networking with other ministers in the Church of Scotland and encouraging the lay leadership in his parish, the congregation was beginning to grow and find new ways of doing ministry in the community. Beyond that, he was helping to foster relationships between other clergy in order to strengthen the denominational leadership overall.
Norman wasn’t just treading water. He was allowing himself to be swept away by the hope and creativity of the Holy Spirit and it was a wild and powerful thing.
Jean, a member of the Iona religious community told us about the great work that that community is accomplishing in the area of peace and social justice. People are flocking to be put on the waiting list to join the Iona community because of the very real concern for social justice in today’s world. Iona isn’t anything new. It’s been in existence in its present state since 1938, and the island on which they are based has been a monastery since 563. Not 1563. . . FIVE HUNDRED sixty-three. But their creative involvement and advocacy in the world continues to attract people.
Alan is the minister at a church plant in a poor, inner city neighborhood in Glasgow. Before he came there, the parish had been closed and joined with another parish, but he saw such a need in the neighborhood for their own parish minister that he did what is exceedingly uncommon in the Church of Scotland and planted a church. The church now IS the community center there and after years of patient, quiet, Spirit-led, and completely un-glamorous work in that neighborhood, filling whatever needs they could see around them. . . the church is growing.
Rory is the minister of the Church of the Holy Trinity at St. Andrews Cathedral in St. Andrews. Yes. . . THAT St. Andrews. . . the birthplace of golf and the “Chariots of Fire” beach. It’s a church building that is every bit as magnificent as the name and neighborhood suggests. Through use of creative liturgy and music, as well as finding new ways to involve the church elders in worship leadership, Rory has drawn young families and college students into the congregation in large numbers. By trying to mirror Jesus and simply worship wholeheartedly, rather than trying to just attract new people, they inadvertently attracted new people.
Our final meeting in Scotland was with two of the visionaries at the Church of Scotland headquarters who are behind church planting and something called “fresh expressions.” They are working with other denominations as well and told us about a church in England that started in a knitting group. Other worshipping communities have arisen from community centers, school involvement, and a variety of other unusual places. We even heard of one that started because a snowboarder thought the other snowboarders needed a place to worship and learn. They are redefining what “church” looks like in Scotland.
This morning’s passage from Romans doesn’t just apply to individuals – although it is certainly true for each of our own lives as well. There is no amount of striving to be “cool” or “contemporary” or “attractive” that will help the Church to reemerge from the crisis it finds itself in today. If we spend all our time worrying about how many people are in the pews, we miss the point and we miss out on exciting new opportunities to bring Jesus to the community around us.
The author of Romans is telling us to set aside living by the flesh – trying to meet the world’s standards and to live by the Spirit. What I saw in Scotland is a beautiful example of the Church as a community doing just that! They are following the wacky leading of the Holy Spirit, hoping in things they can’t see – things that are beyond their wildest imagination – and the results are astounding. Slowly but surely, the Church of Scotland is rising out of the ashes and starting to grow again. That is, to be completely honest, exactly the opposite of what we expected to hear when we started out on our journey. God surprised us with hope – hope for something we couldn’t see.
This is so much easier than what we as a team expected to hear! We were ready to come back equipped with strategies and plans that we would have to implement and instead we brought home stories! Wild, exciting, God-filled stories.
The best part of these stories is that these were every day pastors and congregants we met with. These were people who did really off the wall stuff and people who felt their calling was to carry on with traditional looking church and ministry. Rory’s right hand man at St. Andrews is a sweet grandmotherly English woman named Bunny. And what stood out most about Bunny is how much hope and love she had for the church and the community around it. She didn’t have education in ministry or social work or anything like that. She wasn’t a powerful CEO with important connections. She was just sweet little Bunny who could see opportunity and hope in everything because she took the time to listen for the Spirit and see where God was at work. She happily served a group of American seminary students the best lunch she could imagine so that we could sit back and learn from Rory. That was her ministry and the Holy Spirit was obvious to each of us in that room because she was there and she was listening.
I’m not saying following the Spirit is always going to be a walk in the park. It’s not always comfortable. Everyone we talked to in Scotland had stories of how hard it is to go against the grain – especially at first. “Provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” It’s hard, but it’s a difficult path of freedom rather than a resistance-free path of slavery and fear or just. . . waning away to nothing.
There are some who say that religion just gives people hope by trying to cover up or escape the pain in the world around us, but that’s not what we see here in our passages today and that’s not what we saw in Scotland. This hope accepts and leans into the suffering in the world around us. This hope is not about escaping, but about diving in deeper and coming out the other side. Hope is not escape from pain but is triumph over it.
Pruning can be painful. But after any season of real pruning, there is growth. We have reason to hope for things we can’t yet see.
When we bought our house about 9 years ago, the landscaping was a bit unkempt. By “a bit unkempt” I mean I’m pretty sure the previous owner hadn’t touched it in over a decade. There was this wild rose bush on the front hill. It had beautiful little pink roses all over it for about a week and a half in June and the rest of the year, it was just a complete ugly nightmare. Nothing else could grow there. It had begun to climb along the front stairs and railing and it had the most terrible thorns either of us had ever encountered. It didn’t matter how often we trimmed the silly thing, it would grow back in a matter of days and start attacking people again.
We named it Audrey 2.
We tried cutting it back all the way to the ground and covering it with plastic.
It came back through the plastic.
We tried planting other things to choke it out.
It choked the new things out.
We finally had to dig up the entire hillside and rip it out roots and all. We then planted berry bushes where it had been.
Our religion – our faith - our hope – doesn’t just cover sin and pain up with plastic or try to plant more things to fight it. It digs it out by the roots and plants something new – something hopeful and fruitful. It can be a long and difficult process, but there is something beautiful on the other side. That’s what’s happening in Scotland where they find themselves on the other side.
Often we read this passage in Matthew as being about good people vs bad people, which is certainly a valid point – provided we remember it’s Jesus’ job to see to the people-weeding, not ours. But Jesus mentions all causes of sin as well in the passage – in fact. . . he mentions causes of sin before mentioning evildoers. “41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,” All the things that stand in the way of hope and growth and fruitfulness. . . these are all just weeds that are going to be dealt with in due time. They are weeds that we’re going to have to deal with and learn to navigate and avoid.
We all have weeds: weeds like busyness, idle talk and gossip, stuff, stone-set perceptions and ideas . . . all these things can get in the way of growth. Some weeds are like the giant rosebush in my yard – they look attractive some of the time, but are invasive and sneak into all the corners of our lives choking out everything else. Some are like dandelions – smaller and seemingly innocent flowers that will take over your yard in a hot second if you let them. Some are easy to pull out of the garden and some take all your strength and a shovel to remove. Some affect one or two plants, some can kill off an entire garden. Some day the weeds will all be removed and chucked in the fire, but until then, we are left with the Spirit to help us navigate the garden.
The Spirit who has unending creativity and imagination.
The Spirit who gives us hope for things we can’t even see or dream of.
Through the movement of the Spirit, we can grow and prosper in the midst of weeds and hard times.
Think crazy thoughts!
The imagination of God is beyond the limits of our minds and God can work in incredible and surprising ways. We don’t have to limit ourselves – and more importantly we shouldn’t limit the Holy Spirit – to the way things have always been or to the confines of a program or to our own agendas. We should never lose our sense of history and tradition and there are many great programs out there. But those aren’t the only ways the Spirit moves in the world. And when we set aside our expectations for how the Spirit is going to move in our lives and our churches and our communities, we’re able to imagine with God these new and exciting ways of being Christ to the world. We’re better able to see him moving in places we wouldn’t expect. We’re able to hope more fully and more patiently.
“For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
Go forth into the world, full of hope that comes from the Holy Spirit so that you might be reflections of Jesus Christ in the midst of everyday life.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord be kind and gracious to you.
The Lord turn his face upon you and give you peace.