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Have you ever been punched in the stomach by the handle of a plow? That must have been the experience of the man that Jesus describes, who's behind his ox, plowing down the row, when suddenly the blade catches a huge rock, and everything stops, and this man is hurtled forward into the handle of his own plow. Some graphic four letter words, and then he notices that's not a rock, it's a box of some kind, so he reins in the box, kneels down and scooping with his hands pulls enough of the dirt away to be able to open the box. His eyes bulge, his jaw drops, it is filled with jewels and coins worth a fortune. Now what to do? There's a major obstacle here. He works this field but he does not own it. So he goes to the real estate office and begins to inquire. It is as formidable a psychological challenge as you can imagine; how do you act nonchalant in the real estate office, when you must have that field?
"Tell me, Jake, why all these questions? Why are you interested in that piece of property all of a sudden?" What do you suppose Jake said. Probably something devious like:
"Always enjoyed the view from up there." Or even better, may be he told a carefully camouflaged truth, "It has this unusually rich soil."
"Rich soil! Sure, tell me about it."
And what in the world is Jesus trying to tell us? Jesus who expends great time and energy warning us against complicating our lives with affluence, nevertheless is tuned in enough to human nature so that he understands that deep seated conviction in most of us, that if we should suddenly be blessed with a few million dollars it would settle a lot of anxiety and we would then be truly free to devote ourselves to the betterment of the human race. Jesus understood why a person would try to act nonchalant in the real estate office, or dutifully paste all her numbered stamps on the entry blank of the Publishers Clearing house, and invest 32 cents in the impossible dream of her riches.
The realm of God is such a treasure, a bonanza and you should go for it with the same guile, the same gusto, the same abandon, because there is nothing you could ever possess that offers more.
"Sure Jesus, tell me about it." The metaphor does not quite fit; it's an especially hard sell in the piece of the kingdom called the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church impresses us as something other than extravagant value, unimaginable treasure. In our particular field, all the numbers seem to be descending, and the only thing that's increasing is the anxiety level. We are not that burgeoning, blossoming movement that Jesus depicts, we are the folks who are projected to disappear, (when is it if the present trends continue?) around the year 2027?
The mood of the church has been infected with the dramatic loss of members and dollars. Since 1965 the so-called mainline churches, the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, have lost between 20 and 40% of their members. The trends in these churches seem to be virtually identical, so you can't blame it on what Bishop Oxnam said to the Methodists or Bishop Spong to the Episcopalians or what Angela Davis did to the Presbyterians. According to the research most of these people did not leave in a huff over the social witness of the church, very few of them have moved to more conservative churches. The large majority simply drifted away, phased themselves out of the community, slipped quietly away to that private place where the church is no longer a necessary component of their lives. They found that they could get along without it, and this response is particularly manifest in the so-called "baby boomers" and "busters." There has been a whole generation of people for whom the faith did not take.
So, we are hardly the treasure that people yearn to obtain. We have become a "take it or leave it" church, with a growing continuing number inclined towards "leave it." We are no longer perceived as a "with it" organization. We are no longer at the social center of the communities that we serve. We are no longer the primary catalyst for education, medical care, providing for the hungry and the homeless, that we once were. Others would say that our liturgy is out of date, our music is archaic, that we no longer mediate an experience of the presence of God, unencumbered by all of the institutional and theological baggage that we have accumulated through the years.
It is not easy to be confronted with all of that, because I suspect that much of the diagnosis is accurate, and the church must continue to reform, and to reconstitute itself so that we are become a more pertinent, current and helpful gathering of people. But on the other hand it is surely unhealthy to live with a sense of failure or with some burden of guilt for the inadequacies of the mainline churches. If we are a dying church, a loser institution, what are you and I still doing here? Are we not still the church of Jesus Christ? Isn't Christ alive and going before us? Has not Christ promised to be with us even to the end? Surely this gives a value to the church that no statistics positive or negative could offset. This gives to our experience of the church a quality of treasure, that continues regardless of the signs and trends.
Yet we cannot ignore them. But they may not indicate the failure of our program and message so much as they do the adjustment of the church to the monumental shifts and changes that are taking place in the world. Some of our church sociologists depict us at the end of an era; not just decline in the mainline churches but the conclusion of that experience of the church generated by the Protestant Reformation. One that I find particularly insightful, Loren Mead, finds us in the concluding days of Christendom, a form of the church that has persisted for 1700 years. We are returning to a context more reflective of the apostolic church, a minority community in a sometimes supportive, sometimes hostile but mostly indifferent world.
The church has been at these crossroads before. Endings are never easy and are always accompanied by grief and pain. But let me give you back something that I learned in the Church History Department at Princeton Theological Seminary many moons ago. In the Christian church endings have always been at the same time, beginnings. The pain of the demise of one form of the church has been at the same time the birth pains of the new spirit filled community. And I, but more especially you, are not so much the last of the Mohegans of the Christian church, so much as are the privileged children of God, who are called to be a part of the transition of the church from what we have been to the new church of God's making and doing.
So though we may be confronted with a loss of members and dollars in this church, there is no excuse for a loss of vitality in the church. There is still the presence of God, the good news of Jesus, the moving of the Spirit, so the predominant mood should be one of celebration, and we should continue to invest our best energy to the quality of life of our worship experiences.
You hear people say, "It's too bad, we can't have Christmas all year long." but if there is a season we need to stretch right now, my nomination would be Advent. Advent encourages the appropriate response for a people in transition. Advent calls us to hang in there in hope, and to live in expectation of God's new day, to keep a very light grip on what has been and cultivate openness and flexibility in anticipation of God's amazing and surprising future. I love the words T.S. Elliot in his poem from the Four Quartets where he summons us to wait without faith, hope and love, for fear that we will have faith in the wrong things, hope for what is inconsequential, love for what is trivial, and then it concludes,
"But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought; So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing."
In the meantime we can continue to do those things which have always been a part of the church and always will be. Like a football team that is not quite ready for the sophisticated west coast offense, but they can always practice blocking and tackling because that will be a part of the game, wherever and whenever it is played. So let us proclaim the good news, tell the story to our children, let us embody God's love for all of our near neighbors, especially the poor, the emotionally scarred, the homeless, the oppressed, the outcasts, the innocent victims. Whatever the form of the church in the future it will be composed of people in ministry, people living out of their gratitude for God's gifts. Finally let us take sensitive and generous care of each other.
There was a time of declining numbers and dollars in the career of Jesus, and He asked His disciples, "are you going to leave too?" And the reply was, "where shall we go, Lord, you have the word of life." The realm of God is still treasure, and our appropriate response is still, "Go for it."
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