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Sermon for 16 Feb 2014

FIRST READING Deuteronomy 30:15–20

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

PSALM Psalm 119:1–8

1 Happy are they whose way is blameless, who follow the teaching of the LORD!
2 Happy are they who observe your decrees and seek you with all their hearts,
3 who never do any wrong, but always walk in your ways.
4 You laid down your commandments, that we should fully keep them.
5 Oh, that my ways were made so direct that I might keep your statutes!
6 Then I should not be put to shame, when I regard all your commandments.
7 I will thank you with a true heart, when I have learned your righteous judgments.
8 I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.

SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 3:1–9

1 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

GOSPEL Matthew 5:21–37

[Jesus continued to teach them saying] 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.


I think all of you would agree that everyone has their gifts as well as their shortcomings. For example, each summer I enjoy the fruits of many of your gardens, so I know that some of you were are born with green thumbs. As a matter of fact, I think there are some here today who could water and plant a barren landscape and turn it into a lush garden. However, there are those of us who seem to have been born with gangrene thumbs. I’m not even sure I could grow one of those “Chia Pets.” Or, some people, like my older brother for example, are born with the ability to take things apart and put them back together again and they still work. And then there are those who have the talent of being handy-dandy, fixer-uppers; able to repair most anything, despite the complexity of the job. I envy these people. And then there are those few who struggle to simply change out a light bulb.
And of course, there are a few who splashed around in the shallowest part of the wading area of that “fixer-upper” gene pool. For these folks, they’re the ones who should never be allowed to handle hammers, screwdrivers, or saws. I think everyone one of us knows a person or two that falls into this category. And depending on the task at hand, there are those (like me) who find “Plumbing for Dummies” more challenging than a dissertation on quantum mechanics. The point is, all of us have our special gifts; all of us have our special limitations for those things fixable or tweak-able.
But, as we so often fail to realize, not everything in life can be “fixed.” Nor was everything meant to be. Cars and plumbing are areas of expertise some of us can “fix.” But soul growth or church growth, the bringing forth of new life, the conceiving of new blooms of vitality and vigor, is something none of us can bring about by “fixing” the body of Christ. Despite all the books published and the seminars that are offered, telling us how to “fix” our growth problem, the new life in the Spirit only comes from one source. That source is God.
Dr. Alex Abraham, a well-known neurosurgeon in northern India who is an expert in India’s 4000 people groups, 400 languages, and 600,000 villages in a nation of 1.2 billion people, echoes Paul’s words for today when he says, “We cannot grow God’s church. Anyone can build a church building, but only God can grow a church. None of us can grow a tree or even vegetables.” That’s why the language of “church growth” is problematic.
Church growth consultants are everywhere. And too many churches have turned their organic bodies of Christ into fixer-upper greenhouse constructions and genetically-modified synthetic super-foods. For those who subscribe to self-help church growth, the Holy Spirit seems to have been relegated to the back burner, and a passion for the gospel has gone with it. Instead of hearing about the movement of the Holy Spirit and the life-giving blood of Christ, we hear too often about the latest strategy for body-counts and marketing for programs. I’m to the point that I’m expecting, at any time now, for some church growth consultant to start calling themselves “The Church Whisperer?” I think when that happens, I might be tempted to actually recommend hiring that one. NOT!
A few years ago, a consultant specializing in “church growth” for some of this nation’s largest churches declared to one of his clients, after hearing Jesus brought into the discussion one too many times for him, “Just leave Jesus out of this. Jesus doesn’t fix churches, I do.” This consultant believed that human actions, strategic plans, and winning formulas could “fix” God’s Holy House. Human engineering and ingenuity could “fix” plummeting membership rolls, “fix” falling reproduction rates, “fix” unmet budgets, even “fix” broken trusts, “fix” Saharas of the soul, “fix” the hurts and horrors that haunt every human community. After hearing that claim, I’m sure that it doesn’t come as a surprise to you, that that church consulting firm went bankrupt this past year. There are things humans can “fix” – plumbing, landscaping, crooked teeth, dinner. But there are those things we cannot “fix,” at least not by ourselves. And those things are the things of the soul, the things that really matter.
This notion that we can “fix” things ourselves is the plot line of some of our most storied blunders of Babel, of bloody battles among brothers such as Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, Jacob and Esau, and many others. But, as more and more people are realizing, churches don’t “grow” through expansion of programs and ministry events. They “grow” through a relationship with Christ out of which ministry and mission bloom forth as blossoms and fruit. I’m not saying we’re supposed to sit on the sidelines, expecting God to do everything and us do nothing. We’re called to work in the harvest fields; which means we need to be active in the ministry, preaching, teaching and reaching out to others. The gospel must go forth; understanding that only the Holy Spirit of Christ can breathe the breath of life into a failing body.
The gospel is the green thumb of Jesus the Grand Gardener; it’s the life of the Holy Spirit that germinates within us. And it’s as mysteriously brought forth as is life itself. Just as your gardens this spring will soon start budding again with fervor, we don’t know how to control it or direct it; but we sure know that it happens. In fact, the springing forth of life from seed to bloom is one of the great mysteries of creation. Even science finds it difficult to explain why a dead, dormant seed can produce life when buried in soil.
But we know that almost immediately upon contact, something within that seed starts to move and change, and within hours, the seed’s outer casing begins to give. Within 10 hours, the seed’s whole chemistry begins to change, and soon it will begin to produce life. This is what happens when a Christian is nourished by the Holy Spirit of Christ through the gospel. This is the mystery of Christ’s power in our lives still today. This green power of germination, of Christ DNA, belongs to God alone. And the power of God touching our hearts sets off actual chemical, emotional, spiritual, and physical changes within us, as we begin to grow in Christ and as Christ grows in us. The moment the Holy Spirit of Christ infiltrates the core of our hearts, the hardened shell of our doubts, our sin, and our fears fall away, and we begin to take on new life in the Spirit. When everyone in the body begins to experience the green thumb of the gospel, a garden is grown, a field is sown, a vineyard is born — all of which will one day bear the precious fruit of God’s vineyard.
In this week’s Corinthians text, Paul is clear and concise about who is “large and in charge.” It isn’t Apollos. It’s not Paul. It’s not any human being who brings the gift of life to each Christ-body community. Apollos, and Paul, and each generation of disciples, since those first century confessors of Christ, are not the ones who “fix” things, so that a community of faith may be born and sustained. All of us who labor as disciples, as members of a community, can only offer up our faith, our service in the name of Christ. But it’s the Holy Spirit, the living presence of Jesus, which makes it possible for a true “Body of Christ” to be incarnated within our churches and within our neighborhoods.
For our faith communities to be infused with a living presence of God in this world, we need to lay down our hammers and nails, and pick up our hoes and watering cans. These are the “tools” of discipleship that allow us to “till and keep” our hearts grounded and nurtured in relationship with the God who not only created, but continues to create and recreate the Body of Christ for the world.
I just wish we could understand that it’s that easy. But I find more and more here in the US that we have almost “built-in” apps that prevent God from growing our churches. Like the Tower of Babel, we not only believe we can “do it ourselves,” but we shut out the only Person who can build our spiritual House.
Recently, a fellow pastor found out that for 27 years, she was prescribed and taking a daily dose of synthetic hormones that she should have never been taking. Instead of helping, the overdose prevented the normal functioning of all of her endocrine systems. Instead of instilling normalcy, the drug insured dysfunction. When we spend all of our time in the Church infusing the body with synthetic growth “fix-its,” we can actually inhibit the natural growth of our discipleship that’s based in faith and reliance on the Master Gardener. We can stunt our growth, impair our bodies, hinder our ability to allow the “mind of Christ” to direct our limbs.
What synthetics are replacing our faith? What “super hormones” are we infusing into our soil instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to nurture our roots in Christ? What hindrances are preventing the Holy Spirit from growing our church and our body? What is hindering the formation of Christ in you and among us? The first hindrance is something I’ve mentioned before.
As I’ve suggested in the past, we live in a hurry-up, fast-foods, microwave culture. We live our lives looking for instant answers and quick fixes. But growth requires oven-baked, slow-basted heating. There’s a new app called Duolingo, that says you can learn a foreign language in 34 hours. In fact, 34 hours seems to be the new magic microwave number: learn to play the piano in 34 hours, or learn to crochet in 34 hours. They’ve got everything now down to 34 hours . . . in 34 hours you supposedly can learn to do everything.
Although the technology for “radar ranges” was developed in the early 1950’s, it wasn’t until 1967 that the “microwave” oven was developed and marketed. It took another ten years before the cost and the technological developments made this now the standard of every kitchen, an available commodity. Microwave cooking is fast. There’s no denying that. Instead of 45 minutes in an oven that takes 15 minutes to heat up, we can have a baked potato in 4 minutes in a microwave. But some things don’t do so well in a microwave.
Some foods need the time and temperature of a traditional oven in order to cook up properly. You cannot bake bread in a microwave. You cannot get those good grill marks on a steak in a microwave. You cannot get the flavors of a low, slow braise in a microwave. There’s a big difference between microwave meals and slow-cooked, slow baked offerings. The microwave “quick fix” is great for a few foods, but it’s worthless for meal that you’re hoping will be delicate and delicious, saturated with flavor and full of richness.
When Paul was writing to the contentious, combative Corinthian Christian community, he didn’t offer them a microwave, quick-result option, as a way to “fix” their communal-spiritual problems. Instead Paul offered the One who was the final fix, the only and ultimate way in which disciples of Christ could find support for all their issues and problems. Paul insisted that it wasn’t himself, not Apollos, not any one of those who had been called to help in the ministry of the Word, who were to be called upon in times of community trouble and need. Instead, Paul declared that it was God alone who “gives the growth.” It’s only through God’s power and guidance that we’re given the ability to plant and water. The church built on the “chief cornerstone” is the result of “God’s building,” not of any human “fixing” ability. And building a relationship with God takes time and effort. Tilling and keeping. Basting and baking. Jesus is the Bread of Life.
Microwave bread and it turns chewy, dense and tasteless. However, bake bread slowly in an oven, toast it gently, and it comes out soft and light and inviting. The faster the world goes, the more important it is to know how to slow down. I think some of us are starting to look like our driver’s license photos. That means one thing: we need to slow down. A second hindrance to true “growth” is related to the first. This is our factory model for growing things.
Only plants that are home grown, organically fed in the “wild” are free to take on the unique characteristic of their location. Christ’s is a mustard weed gospel, not a Versailles-like topiary. One of the things I don’t like buying is those factory farmed strawberries. They all look the same: big, beautiful, and blemish-less red. But they’re card-boardy and tasteless. It’s worth waiting for the little, squiggly, non-uniform strawberries that come off our local farms if you want to experience the true taste and sweetness of strawberries. The same can be said for the factory-farmed blueberries. Taste those big blue beautiful blueberries, the same universal color, texture and shape, grown in clinical settings, and you’ll end up with “tasteless.” But give me some of those little wild local-grown blueberries that have survived the winds and the rains and the animals, and adapted to their surroundings, and your mouth will have one of the treats of its lifetime.
Disciples of Jesus aren’t grown to be “perfect” universal specimens of sameness. Christians are intended to grow like the mustard seed: wild in the fields, “artisan” berries, all a little different and unique, depending on their location, but strong in the vine and hardy against the elements. God is responsible for what we become when we entrust our body to Christ. And God makes everything beautiful. The third hindrance to growth is that we defy allowing ourselves the room and space to grow like God intends us to.
When growth is stymied, the plant doesn’t fulfill its true potential. It loses its essential “plantness”. It loses its ability to reproduce, and to bloom, to bear fruit, to flourish. Even its identity becomes deformed. When you leave a plant in a small pot, its growth can become stunted. You need to keep allowing it depth to grow and feel its roots, room to spread, no matter how comfortable it has become in its setting. A good gardener knows that by repotting a plant time and time again just a bit beyond its comfort zone, it will soon adapt, and begin to flourish in new and beautiful ways. If you refuse to allow it to venture into larger spaces, if you won’t give it room for its roots to expand deeper and broader so that its limbs can reach higher and further, it will begin to choke itself and die. The very comfort zone of its original pot will eventually inhibit its growth. And this isn’t just true of plants.
Some years ago a tornado hit the Camden, Arkansas vicinity and did some serious damage. One chicken farmer in particular found that part of his farm was virtually untouched, and part was totally destroyed. When he got around to surveying the damage, he found that in one corner of his farm, the tornado had lifted up the roof and walls of his chicken coop, yet left the cement floor and all of the chickens undisturbed. By the time he discovered the exposed coop however, a week had passed and all 500 chickens, save five, had died. They didn’t die of the tornado. They died of starvation. They had become so accustomed to the industrial feeding of daily pellets that came to them as they remained unmoving within the coop, that all 500 of them, save 5, simply remained there on the cement floor, unwilling to waver from their routine, as they waited for food to come. They waited, and they waited, until they eventually starved to death.
Only five out of 500 chickens had decided that maybe they needed to step off the floor and eat some unfamiliar things that had never touched their mouths before: slimy, grubby worms; creepy, crawly bugs; yucky green grass; hard seeds. Yet once they started venturing into their native environment and eating these foreign substances, they discovered what they had been missing all along: the experience of real chicken food.
Are we growing and stretching, leaving safe platforms of comfort and convenience, so that we can reach upward and outward, into new places of risk and out of old zones of safety? Or are we locking ourselves in and blocking out the winds of the Holy Spirit that would challenge us to grow in our discipleship to include unfamiliar people and to go out into unfamiliar places, and then wondering why we’re withering away and weak in our faith?
Most of all, are we so comfortable with our little pot, that the thought of a bigger one frightens us into pushing God’s hand of growth away? Do we have the courage to pray for our churches to be infused anew with the true power of the Holy Spirit, to be swept away into unfamiliar territory that defies our attempts at playing fixit and acknowledges the true sovereignty of Christ in our lives? Do we have the gumption to pray for Christ to grow our churches, even if it means it will become something unfamiliar and comfortable to us? What will it take for our church to allow Christ to be the true Mind of our Body once again, to be our Tree of Life?
The olive tree has been a symbol in both Jewish and Christian faith for its hardiness, resistance to fire and storm, and its rejuvenating endurance. In fact, eight gnarled olive trees standing today in the Garden of Gethsemane were recently in the news. http://news.discovery.com/earth/olive-trees-jesus-121022.htm It seems that the trees are all related, all eight of them related to one single tree. DNA samples reveal that they came from the same tree that witnessed Jesus’ agony in the first century, a tree that was most likely cut down after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. Somehow, some say, that olive tree survived, and during the time of the Crusades, the olive garden was reconstructed from the original roots of that original tree, the tree under which Christ loved to pray, the tree under which our Lord and Savior sweat blood the night before His crucifixion.
Olive trees are some of the oldest in the world. The oldest olive tree currently still flourishing is 3000 years old. It resides on the island of Crete and it still bears fruit. This is how God means for us to be in His “garden” planet where the church is God’s field, God’s special garden, or as Paul says, God’s own living temple made up of all God’s people and built only upon the foundation or ground of Christ.
The Olive Trees at Gethsemane stand as a witness to Christ’s ability to grow His church, no matter how burned out, broken down, brutalized its body. If we want to regenerate our church, we must tap into our true source, reconnect to our Jesus roots, and allow God to grow our faith, and our church, to bear the blossoms and be the fruit that feeds the world.

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