I was listening to Ken Fong’s podcast, Asian America, last week and the interview that grabbed me the most was with Scott Okamoto. He’s a writer, a fly fisher, English professor, charming, articulate guy, and an ex-Christian, a former churchgoer.
He wrote this essay once called “The Road Taken – Sex and Waffles Triumph Over Church.” Because he’d been part of a church scene that seemed kind of rigid and controlling and self-indulgent, and then another that was powerful but where he felt like he’d never belong and then another that was nice but kind of boring.
And eventually, he was like: What I am doing going to church on Sunday, when I could spend my morning eating waffles and having sex instead?
He admitted later that the notion he had about his new Sunday mornings was more aspirational than reality. I mean take church out of life, and you’re still left with obligations, debts, chores, anxieties that occupy most people, most days.
But he was like keeping church didn’t really add any value, so why bother?
For decades, of course, more and more people have felt this way. For lots of reasons, church engagement peaked in the 1950s in this country, and it’s been on the decline ever since, more and more rapidly in recent years. And then a global pandemic comes our way and radically changes our instincts and our habits for how we gather with others, especially outside our immediate circles, which has always been at the heart of churchgoing.
So what’s next? Why be part of church? What’s the value proposition?
And for a church like ours, founded for people who might not otherwise choose church, called we feel to innovate in our tradition to adapt to the times we live in, how do we hold a hopeful vision of the future of our church and future of our faith when so many expressions of Christianity are driving people away from the faith, and so many forces make churchgoing less and less appealing?
OK, that’s a lot of questions. We might not get to all of them today, but I figured as part of our How to Heal the World series, we ought to talk about the role that the church still has in healing our lives and offering help and repair to our world. I think if we focus on those things, we can even help heal the institution of church a little bit too, at least in the parts of it we touch.
Let’s listen to some words from Jesus that take us there. These are from the fourth chapter of Mark’s memoirs of Jesus’ life, when Jesus is explaining why he teaches the way he does and what he’s up to in general. It goes like this:
Mark 4:26-32 (New Revised Standard Version)
26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground
27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
28 The earth produces of itself first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.
29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle because the harvest has come.”
30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?
31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,
32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Jesus is talking about what he called the Kingdom of God, that place of love and equity and justice, that beloved community of right relationships with God and one another that Jesus envisions for us.
Now Jesus’ beloved community is of course more than just the church. But if church can’t seek to embody more of Jesus’ vision of this community, we don’t have much to offer. Put another way, churches have rarely gone wrong when we’ve sought to be a beautiful expression of beloved community, of Kingdom of God. Jesus’ vision is still compelling, even if it’s couched in pretty earthy, old stories about seeds and plants.
I want to use the word remember today to talk about the healing proposition of church. I’ll use it in two senses, which I know I’ve done before here.
Remember in the usual sense of calling to mind things that we could too easily forget but need to know.
But also remember as in re-member, putting back together what is detached, disconnected, or scattered.
Because I think Jesus points us to remembering and re-membering as beautiful purposes of the beloved community.
First, the remembering.
Something I love about Jesus, which goes beyond today’s passage I read, is how much he really saw people. I love the times when Jesus meets a stranger and calls them son or daughter. It happens several times in the gospels. It makes me think it was kind of a habit of Jesus, to look into the face of a friend or a distant acquaintance or even a stranger, and see a relative of the human family, and not be shy to say that.
Now and then I’ve made this habit my own. You’ve probably noticed that I call you all friends, no matter how much we know each other, because that’s how I see you. And in an aspirational way, it’s how I see the human family, like the Quakers do, as friends or at least potential friends.
I’ve found myself doing this with strangers some over the years too, although for whatever reason only with other men. It hasn’t been a real thought out thing, but now and then and a little bit more over the years, when I’ve spoken with a man who’s a stranger to me, I’ll call him brother.
Like: hey, brother, how’s it going? Or: take it easy, brother, that kind of thing. This has caused some heated debate with one person in my household, who’s been like Dad, knock it off, stop trying to sound like you’re Black.
And when I first heard that, I was kind of shocked. But I guess with my slight Boston accent, sometimes the Brother comes out more like brothah, and now I have a kid who accuses me of cultural appropriation.
So maybe you can help me decide here? Steve calling stranger men “brother” – sharing friendship with all humanity, or obnoxious cultural appropriation?
Anyway, that’s been a thing that’s been going on with me. It’s felt good, or at least it used to.
Apart from this little bit of language, though, Jesus just really saw people’s real selves. He loved kids, famously so, encouraging their ease and comfort around him, enjoying everything that is curious and energetic and heartfelt about kids. He had an eye for people who were sick and injured, and time and curiosity and gentleness about how and why that might be so.
Sometimes he saw people so well that he seemed strangely insightful about their lives, such that some in our tradition think he pulled out these cosmic god-powers now and then to know secrets that were humanly impossible to know.
But I’m not so sure. I think mostly Jesus was incredibly present and observant. He really saw people, because he believed so much in the meaning and mattering of every life.
I’ve been getting to know a retired pastor recently who’s been a great picture of this to me. Time kind of slows down when I’m around him, because he’s just never in a hurry. It’s pretty great. He doesn’t call me “brother,” I guess that’s my schtick.
But he tells me things like: I’m so honored to see you, when I’m thinking, I don’t know, I thought the honor was mine, but he shows me that he means it too. I always leave my time talking to him feeling seen, known, connected, like a sibling, like a friend. And that feels incredibly good.
Jesus even shows a lot of insight into the ordinary drama and toils of our working lives. Most of his parables, the little stories he tells like today, take place at work, or amidst family relationships and ordinary household tasks – farming, baking, construction sites, sibling dramas, and all.
Like today’s story about the farmer casting seeds, and about the mystery of all that we can’t control in agriculture, or in any kind of growth, and the kind of persistence and patience and care it takes to grow things.
Yesterday I preached a different version of this sermon at another church, where their senior minister was being officially installed, and I took the farmer spreading seed here to be the work of a pastor and the work of a church to share the good news word of God with others. That’s how the first half of today’s scripture is often read.
But today I read the farmer as Jesus, as Jesus spreading seeds of good news with everyone he meets, just scattering his greetings of “son” and “daughter” with anyone that has time for him, sharing his attention and insight with whoever will listen, knowing that sometimes that will do profound good for people and sometimes they’ll blow him off and move on.
Because I think we stay in church friends, because it’s the best place to have Jesus call us “son”, “daughter,” “sister”, “brother,” friend. It’s just about the best place to keep hearing Jesus speak to us, to have habits of worship and practice that make it more likely we’ll hear God calling our name, and showing us how much we matter to God.
This is after all something that is a core organizing principle of Jesus’ vision of Beloved Community – the meaning and mattering of all people, that we are all image bearers of God.
I’ve shared with you before that of all the Christian creeds out there, one of my favorites is one developed by a church that used to meet in Atlanta that would say every week when they worshiped,
“God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.”
“God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.”
You don’t have to, of course, but if you want, you can say that along with me, see what it feels like. Try if you want.
“God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.”
I don’t know about you, but that still surprised me a little when I say it, but it feels good. It rings true.
When church goes right, there are so many ways it helps us remember this. We read and teach scripture that reminds us how much we matter to God. We take communion, which tells us that God has shared God’s whole life with us – we matter to God – and that we are now called the Body of Christ – we matter to God, and we matter to each other. We are connected to each other.
We proclaim and encourage the practice of the faith built upon the two great commands – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
God, and not just any God, but a vision of a loving, beautiful, wise, and kind God, calls out for our attention and love. God matters to us.
And right along with that, love your neighbor as yourself. Without exception. Friend, neighbor, stranger, enemy, young, old, like to you, different – we matter to God, and we matter to each other. And we are worthy of one another’s love.
In a transient, commodified world, we need more places where we’ll be called son, daughter, child, sister, brother, friend, where the sacred mattering of our lives will again and again be affirmed.
And we need more places where we’ll be called, encouraged, invited to treat each other that way as well.
So that’s the seed that Jesus is sewing, the constant listening to invitations from Jesus, as we call it in our church membership covenant, including the invitation Jesus is always giving to remembering just how much all our lives and world matter.
But let’s go the re-membering, the connecting and putting together again for good used. And that has to do with the mustard seed.
I used to think that these parables were about big things that start small. Big trees from little seeds, big harvests from scattered seeds. And so big churches, big works of justice, big stories of redemption are possible for us, even if today, we seem small. After all, in my memory, the parable of the mustard seed was always about the smallest of seeds becoming the largest of plants.
But then once I tried Googling what a mustard tree actually looks like and, oh, the truth is sometimes a disappointing thing. I thought: oh, it’s not a tree at all. It’s a shrubbery, a bush. And it’s not that big either.
In fact, these mustard plants are kind of scraggly, homely. I read too that mustard shrubs have kind of a slow or sluggish growth rate. It’s not like they’ll be enormous and beautiful if you just wait long enough. Not going to happen. How disappointing.
If Jesus wanted to talk about big and beautiful things, he had other options, like the famed cedars of Lebanon. Now those are big and beautiful trees. But he didn’t. He asked: with what can I compare the beloved community of God? I know, it’s like the mustard seed, that becomes that funky looking mustard shrubbery. That’s what it’s like.
Our church was kind of obsessed with “big” in our early days. In our early days, our church dreamed of being one of those cedars of Lebanon. We had attracted a ton of people in the late 90s, grown just really fast, doubling in size every year for a while. And our vision was that we’d have many different sites for our church across greater Boston, attracting thousands and thousands of people every week, basically being the biggest church in Greater Boston. And our dreams were to be the greatest church for this and the greatest church for that.
Very early in my time as pastor, though, I felt like we should let that go, that maybe that was fine for a season in our giddy, early start up days, but that it was more important to be some other kind of beautiful than big and beautiful. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant back then, but maybe now I think: oh, all churches are called to a mustard shrub kind of beautiful.
Not dominant or imposing, for sure. Churches always go down a really bad track when we try to be dominant or imposing or impressive, whether that be American Chrisitans obsessed with political control and power or whether that be churches that are always making it their business to be a kind of moral cop for their community, telling everyone exactly how to live their lives, like God has appointed the churches or maybe at least their pastors to be moral judge over one another.
None of that has ever made the church or the good news of God more beautiful. It’s driven people out to their Sunday mornings of sex and waffles, or at least their lives without church, instead.
I think Jesus points us toward a different relationship with our surroundings, not one of power and control, but one of blessing, help, and renewal.
Look at the mustard bush after all.
I love that in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, he doesn’t even focus on the fruit of the mustard at all. Maybe because they didn’t have hot dogs yet, I don’t know.
But the fruit of this shrubbery that Jesus prizes and encourages here isn’t the fruit at all, it’s the shade.
Jesus says that when the mustard seed grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches, then the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
Grace and I, and my kids and mother-in-law, all live on this tiny urban lot across the river from here. And Grace with the micro-bit of land we’re on, Grace has shown all this care over the years as a gardener, spreading seed and growing beautiful things.
And last summer, in this tiny rectangular patch of dirt and bushes, and mulch and flowers, two birds made their home for the season. Yeah, a pair of doves made it their home base. I don’t know if they were mating or not – we never found a nest or any eggs, but morning after morning, they were sitting around that little patch of earth, waddling here and there a bit, cooing for one another and anyone else who’d listen, before they’d fly around or do whatever else it was they did during the day.
And friends, it was the most beautiful and sweet feeling to see them day after day and think, will you look at that? We’ve made – well, 98% Grace really – has made a home for them in the shade.
Jesus is like: this is what it means to be my followers, to live in this experience he calls the family, or the kingdom, or the commonwealth of God, what we’ve been calling the Beloved Community.
It’s to live and grow in ways that make home for others in your shade. To live and grow together, re-membered to one another, in ways that provide blessing and help and encouragement and renewal to the broader world.
I’ve loved the ways I’ve been seeing you all doing this, friends. It brings me no greater joy or pride as a pastor than when I hear about the ways your church involvement is shaping you for good and blessing and renewal in the world.
Just this past week, one of you was able to share excerpts of the sermon on anger and contempt with your team at work, because the themes were so resonant with the work you are doing. Reservoir longs to empower us all toward joyful, purposeful living in our work, whatever it is, and we hope that our teaching and your life in our community encourage you in your vocation and profession.
Another one of you reached out to me for prayer about the racism in the division you work in, asking for help to not be dehumanized or crushed by that, for prayer that God would change these dynamics, and for strength and wisdom to be part of that change.
I hear stories about how Jesus’ vision of the beloved community is helping some of you be kinder, more engaged parents, friends, and neighbors, how for others of you, it encourages you to try to disrupt whole industries of our economy for greater justice and flourishing.
For all these stories, my heart always sings out: Yes! This is so good.
Because this is us partnering with God in growing the mustard bushes of the beloved community. Often modest, slow growing, but in their own way beautiful offerings of mercy and justice to a broken world in need of repair.
Friends, this I believe, is the future of church in our times. It’s not about how big we are. It’s not about how many people show up on any particular Sunday in any particular sanctuary either.
Nope, it’s about a community, a collective of people having seed scattered in our minds and hearts, about remembering again and again that we matter to God, we matter to one another, we matter to ourselves, and God matters to us.
And it’s about a collective of people living in Jesus’ vision of Beloved Community, inspired, renewed, and strengthened to offer our time and talents to the world in the service of its blessing, mending, repair, and healing.
Friends at Reservoir, this is happening already in your midst. Be encouraged. Stay on the journey together.
Because sex and waffles and all the other glories of life are awesome, but this magic thing that Jesus is growing in church, we need this too.