The Brand New, Very Old Problem
June 8, 2014
VIDEO – available on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmweXyEeoBw
Our problem isn’t money or divisions or arguments. Our problem is: we’ve got a story to tell, and we can’t help but tell it. That’s what the video says. I have a slightly different take on what our problem is. Yes, we’ve got a story to tell. And, yes, we can’t help but tell it. But we find it easier to tell it to ourselves. So that’s what we do. We tell it to the people we feel comfortable with, the people who are already here, on the inside. Instead of the people who are out there, on the outside.
This isn’t just your problem; it’s my problem too. Telling the good news to someone I don’t know very well feels intrusive, even rude. Sharing my faith can feel too vulnerable and exposed. Even for an extravert (!) it’s much easier to talk with someone I already know and trust about something as personal as faith.
It’s just easier to stay inside.
Last Sunday, you went outside! It was ReThink Church, and the Holy Spirit broke down your walls and sent you into the community! University Church had its own little Pentecost, a week early. You stepped outside the walls of this building and you went outside the box of “what usually happens on Sunday morning.”
I wasn’t with you when all of this happened. I was opening boxes and setting up my new home on the west side of Lansing. But I heard many wonderful stories, and I thought it was important that we all hear those stories. So I’ve asked (3/4) of the ReThink Church participants to tell us about their experiences.
Dave Holloway, Laurie Sommers, Kathy Tilllett, (Chris Blank)
(Thank you to Lynn Paine and the Outreach Committee.)
2000 years ago, the disciples also found it easier to stay inside. We might think this is just our problem, a brand new problem in the 21st century, but actually it’s a very old problem.
As the Book of Acts tells it, the disciples stuck together like glue after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They gathered in an upstairs room in Jerusalem, devoted themselves to prayer, reorganized their leadership to fill Judas’s spot…and waited. They were on the inside, the world of the Roman Empire was on the outside. They waited and watched and worried and hoped someone would come to fix their problems.
No one came to fix their problems. Instead the Holy Spirit came and created a new one.
The Holy Spirit created a new problem by rushing in like wildfire and creating a community whose members felt they had no choice except to share – in word and deed - the good news of Jesus Christ with the world outside. So the disciples start telling their story and Jews from all over the world, gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost, hear them preaching. Each in his or her own language hears the story of God’s powerful work. Some are skeptical. But many are inspired and come to believe in Jesus Christ as God’s chosen messiah, and in themselves as Christ’s new body.
No longer does the story belong to just one group. Now it has gone outside the walls. Not just the walls of the upstairs room in Jerusalem, but the walls of language and culture. Now the story is being told and heard in many languages.
Surely it is significant that from the very beginning, Christianity has always been a translate-able religion. We have much in common with other faiths, especially those that share their roots in the traditions of Abraham and Sarah. But one way in which we are different is that our faith can be expressed in any language. Not only “can be,” but “should be.”
Within one generation after Jesus, his followers had translated the story into their own languages. The name “God” was not limited to “Elohim,” in Hebrew, or “Theos,” in Greek, or “Deus” in Latin. Christianity thrives when it finds a way to be shared in many languages and many cultures. It thrives and it changes. It thrives because it can change. We don’t say “leave your culture at the door.” For the Christian, God meets us in the midst of our language and culture, not in opposition to it.
In this way Christianity is built to “go outside,” to break down the walls that try to confine it, to encounter the new and unfamiliar, to thrive there, to be changed there, to expand and adapt. It is part of the DNA of our faith to be shared.
Moving outside one’s own walls isn’t easy. It’s easier to stay inside. To watch and worry and wait for someone to come to fix things. Moving outside takes courage, and a lot of energy and time. (Right, Lynn Payne?) It also takes understanding what needed on the outside.
Christianity is built to go outside, but we get into trouble when we go outside without knowing what is really needed, and have simply assumed that we know what the problem is and we have the answer.
Ernesto Sirolli was part of an Italian program designed to teach people in developing countries how to grow food. He was assigned to a group going to Zambia.
We arrived in southern Zambia in this absolutely magnificent valley going down to the Zambezi River. We taught the local people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini. We were amazed that in such a fertile valley, they would not have any agriculture. But instead of asking them how come they were not growing anything, we simply said, thank God we’re here. Just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.
Of course everything in Africa grows beautifully, and so we grew these magnificent tomatoes. In Italy, a tomato would grow to this size. In Zambia, to this size. And we told the Zambian people, look how easy agriculture is.
When the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came up from the river and they ate everything.
And we said to the Zambians, “My God, the hippos!”
And the Zambians said “Yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“You never asked.”
“If you arrive in a community with arrogance,” Sirolli says, “and you don't listen to the local people, you don't ask, you are going to have your pride chewed off by the local hippos.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks says that most successful people “don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside, and see a problem that summons their life. Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and their self is constructed gradually by their calling.”
I believe that the same is true of the church, any church, our church. We will not discover our true selves until we give ourselves away. We can and will spend time developing mission statements and devising new member programs and capital fund drives and stewardship campaigns, but none of those can substitute for looking around our neighborhood and asking “What do you need?” and “How can we share God’s love with you?”
Red Cedar School is closing. The shopping plaza to the south is being renovated. Apartments are going up. Goodrich’s is closing. The Cherry Lane apartments that used to be across the street no longer exist. The future of the Spartan Village apartments to the south is uncertain.
Smaller and smaller numbers of Americans attend church just because it’s “what you do.” We can no longer assume that visitors will know the Lord’s Prayer, or what a hymnal is, or that we ask for money in the worship service. A whole generation of young people learns more through visual images – by seeing things – than by listening to spoken words. And they assume that wherever they go, so do their phones…and their coffee cups.
What do they need? How can we share God’s love with them?
Take a minute now to turn to your neighbor and discuss those two questions: What does our community need? How can we share God’s love with them?
(Time for conversation and hearing a few ideas.)
If we do this, brothers and sisters, if we follow the Holy Spirit outside the walls of this church and into the world, I am certain that we will not always be successful. It will take some mistakes, some false starts, some well-intentioned but poorly executed plans, before we figure out how to share what we have in ways that meets the world’s needs.
But that’s OK. In fact, that’s good.
Because ultimately, none of this is about us or up to us. God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of this cosmos, and only God can bring the kind of redemption we long for and need. Our job is to partner with God’s work where we can discern it. Our job is to listen to the need, and to share what we have.
The question isn’t whether we’re successful, but whether we’re faithful. It’s a brand new, very old problem.
And whatever the results are, we rest secure on the knowledge that our future is not secured by our own abilities but by God’s brand new, very old promise: resurrection, only and always, follows crucifixion.
David Lose. “Pentecost Paradoxes” WorkingPreacher.org. Sunday, June 05, 2011
Guy Raz and Ernesto Sirolli, interview transcript. TED Radio Hours: NPR. October 18, 2013.
Eric Barreto, Cameron B.R. Howard, Rolf Jacobson. Narrative lectionary podcast. #135, Pentecost. May 31, 2014. https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=515