Saturday, 11 September 2010

Museum or mission, lost or seeking?

Readings: 1 Timothy 1 v 12-17
            Luke 15 v 1-10

A couple of years ago, when I was on study leave, I went to work in a huge Presbyterian church in Indianapolis.
A church with 5,000 members and 12 pastors.
On a Sunday, there are 5 services in an attempt to accommodate all those members both in terms of numbers and in terms of taste in worship style.
While I was there they were half way through a 10 million dollar building extension programme, building facilities to accommodate their choir and their young people.
We have been back to see the fruits of their labour – very impressive.
While their sanctuaries (they have two) are very traditional, the rest of their facilities – and in particular, their new extension resembles a shopping mall – with rooms for every conceivable purpose, numerous open coffee areas and a lift that is glass so that as you travel between floors you get a glimpse of what is going on in other areas.
And there is still pressure of space.
From a pre-school nursery programme, to a clothing bank, from an area dedicated to music ministry to a counselling centre and plenty of spaces for coffee and donuts!
And, of course, a huge admin and staff area, to keep all of this functioning.
Second Presbyterian church in Indianapolis had been an inner city church, located in an area of the city centre where there were few residents. But their location was in the prestigious circle, the heart of downtown Indianapolis, state capital and centre of business affairs.
About 80 years ago, the city council approached them offering them a great deal of money for their site, on which the council wanted to build a war memorial and museum.
The money would enable the church to move to another part of the city where they would find many more people to serve.
Even though this was exciting to some of the congregation, other members were resistant to the idea.
They pointed out that the church was the guardian of a building whose history and architecture reached back into the early part of the nineteenth century. (And that’s old in America!)
Denominational history had been made in that building, and some of the grand figures of the church had passed through its portals.
Well the congregation decided to sell the site and make the move to a new building in a busy city neighbourhood.
In the suburbs.
The folk of that congregation had to decide whether they wanted to be in a museum or in mission.
They couldn’t have it both ways.
It meant either staying on their site, glorying in their past history and serving a few people, or giving up their past and gearing themselves to a significant ministry among the city’s people.
They opted for mission status over museum status.

Something of this same struggle is indicated in the gospel passage we read today.
There are complaints about the kind of people Jesus was associating with.
Sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes.
Folk outside the temple precints.
The Pharisees and scribes came down on the side of museum religion.
They wanted attention given to those who were a part of the establishment – the pious folk.
They wanted to maintain their places of worship for those who “knew how to behave”.
Just like many of our congregations today.

Jesus disappointed the Scribes and Pharisees by insisting that the issue was one of mission: that what was needed was to reach out to those who were not part of the worshipping community.
Those who needed to be shown love, even those who might need lessons in etiquette, social graces, maybe even the odd bath.
But paying attention to these "lost" persons would change the comfortable fellowship the scribes and Pharisees enjoyed at the synagogue - to say nothing of putting a dent in the budget.
They would much rather have museum rather than mission.

But we don’t need to go back as far as the Scribes and the Pharisees:
When the foundation stone was laid at the Divinity Hall, New College, Edinburgh, where church of Scotland ministers were to be taught and formed: Thomas Chalmers said: "Nothing will ever be taught, I trust, in any of our Halls, which will have the remotest tendency to disturb the existing order of things ..."
Museum over mission.
An exciting new facility for the training of ministers being born amid words of status quo.
I sincerely hope that Thomas Chalmers is birling in his grave at what IS being taught at New College these days.
(Or maybe you still have to go the Glasgow for radical teaching.)

Too often the church chooses museum over mission.
We commit money, leadership and prayer toward keeping things as they are - at the local level and in our denominational traditions.
The minute anything even slightly radical is hinted at or offered, all sorts of denominational heritage and history seems threatened and we lose our nerve.
Mission rarely triumphs over museum when it really matters.

Just off the Circle in Indianapolis can be found another church that made a different choice.
It didn’t have a long history, as did Second Presbyterian; but it was a prestigious church with a fine building and a loyal, resident mixed membership.
It was strong and prosperous - until the neighbourhood began to change.
Instead of reaching out to the new residents and welcoming them into the church, the congregation and pastor deliberately chose to keep things as they were.
But, of course, that couldn’t last and, as members died or moved away, the strength and life of that congregation dwindled to almost nothing.
Today that building has trees growing out of its gutters.
It’s still in a prime site, so they could sell up and move on to mission elsewhere, but there is no longer any heart left in the congregation,
Choosing what seemed to be safe led to them becoming a museum.

How we read this gospel passage today also speaks of choices.
Choosing to hear safe words, or words of challenge:

In safe hearing mode, we might hear a text that is all about lost things like the Pharisees and scribes listening to Jesus’ parables might have heard.
Jesus begins, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one…” —inviting them to identify with the hard-working shepherd who labours over his irresponsible and sometimes unreliable sheep.
In church we’re good at identifying ourselves with the hard workers, the folk who are meticulous.
For church folk through the ages, from the Scribes and Pharisees to the present day, we can find here a comfortable fit.
Hearing them as we traditionally hear them, these parables acknowledge our hard work and urge us on to be even more patient and particular in seeking out the lost; on the one hand, never giving up and on the other hand, treasuring even the most difficult folk.
And, in this day and age we would take little offence at being compared to a shepherd who went to great lengths for his sheep or to the woman who sought out her lost coin.

But what about the challenge?
What if, in this passage, Jesus isn’t just calling the Pharisees to be a bit more generous, a bit more open.
What if Jesus is calling them to repentance—a complete reversal of their way of seeing and being in the world.
The point of these two parables perhaps then is not for us to identify with the shepherd and the woman.
But with the things that are lost.
We are not the shepherd: we are the lost sheep.
We are not the woman: we are the lost coin.
God is the shepherd; God is the searching woman.
God is the one who takes the astonishing risk of leaving the 99 sheep and coming to look for us, because that is how much we matter to God.
God is the one who carefully, thoughtfully, seeks us out like a woman meticulously and methodically tracking down a lost coin.
This story is an invitation for us to become a part of God’s story— a call for us to stop running away and hiding from the one who yearns and searches for us.
While we are always called to mission – to embrace those outside our fellowship, so too we are being urged to respond ourselves to God’s mission – to bring us into the fold.
But it takes some doing for us to hear these parables in a different way – as a call for us to respond to God in faith.

Faith that has some life about it.
Another discovery I made on study leave that year, was a book called: Christianity Rediscovered, by Vincent Donovan.
Its not a new book by any means – indeed the copy I have is a 25th anniversary edition.
Donovan was a Roman Catholic priest-missionary in Tanzania in the 1960s.
Exasperated with conventional forms of Catholic education  he persuaded his bishop to let him simply wander among the Masai tribes, sharing their life and talking about God.
Initially he wrestled with his own doubts about how the particular story of Jesus’ cross and resurrection translated into the Masai culture all around him.
But a Masai elder converted Donovan by contrasting the faith of a Western hunter with the faith of an African lion.
The Masai elder showed Donovan that the notion of faith that Donovan held was a profoundly Western notion: it was merely an intellectual assent.
“To ‘believe’ as Donovan – and we - often see belief, pointed out the elder could be compared to the act of a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance.
Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act.” The Masai elder said, However,
“‘For a [person] really to believe is like a male lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up on the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his arms. . .pulls it to itself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a [person] believes. This is what faith is.”
The Masai elder went on. “You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.”

All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.”

God, like a lion, comes after us, seeking us out, not giving up until we submit to God’s embrace.

And so we wrestle with our choices:
Hearing the word of God in these parables as a message of safety or of challenge?
Considering ourselves lost or found?
Seeking or being pursued?
Opting for museum or for mission?
Which will it be?

May God help us to know him as he comes to rescue us, the missing ones and may we know the rejoicing waiting for us when we are found.
For the glory of God.

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