Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9; Proclaim Transformation
Early in Pablo Picasso’s career as an artist, he painted recognizably figurative paintings. There was a horse and a woman and a building, and they were identifiably the people and things you think they are. As time went on, though, Picasso developed in ways that were later termed “cubist.” Angular and geometric and often without familiar markers, he was the forerunner of a unique and distinctive style.
Somewhere along the way, he must have experimented with non-representational art because something inside him compelled him to try this new thing. Did he do this just to be different? Maybe, in a sense. But I doubt he was forcing something. It’s a style that emerged from somewhere in his core. He was heeding an inner prompting. His work had quite literally been transfigured. And I think it’s fair to say that it happened, in a sense, outside of his own planning. It happened to him.
I have a sense that’s what all significant transformation is like. It happens “of itself” (Mark 4:28), as something of a gift. At work, we may watch an upper manager lead in a way we had never thought about, and we ourselves are led to a new way of managing. Or maybe we’ve been in a marriage in which we never quite dared to say what was on our mind, and then a book unfolds how we might do that in a healthy and loving way. Or maybe all we’ve ever known of parenting is that parents set rules and punish. And then we see what it’s like when a parent listens and respects and celebrates with their child, and our own style of parenting is transformed. Transformation so often happens without our knowing how and without our having planned it. It’s fortuitous. It’s grace. It comes to us by the hand of One beyond us.
When Jesus goes up the mountain one day with three of his disciples, suddenly something happens to him. His whole face and garb and appearance change. They glow. They’re radiant. And as this happens, the three disciples are taken up in the mystery and wonder of it all.
Transformations are not unlike rivers. A river flows along under and around us. And we can resist it. We can try to swim upstream. Or maybe we just try to stand still. But that river is going to flow. And our lives are going to be much easier—so much easier!—if we go with that current, if we ride it, if we let it carry us. Maybe we could say our role in life is to discern the currents that are, in some sense, life-giving—or at least not life-denying—to sense the currents that may have as-yet unknown gifts, and to flow in the same direction. We can exhaust ourselves trying to push back against them. But life is going to be so much richer as we ride the currents and let ourselves be carried.
When I was in my twenties, I would probably have done anything to avoid being a minister. I worked for a bakery delivering donuts to convenience stores. I sold home audio systems. I taught and cared for mentally challenged adults who had committed crimes. And all the while, the river was flowing in a different direction. And I finally got it into my head and heart that the only way I could live authentically was to follow the currents of pastoral ministry. Gradually, and certainly to some extent against my will, I was transformed.
There are currents in all of life. Personalized news feeds boom, newspapers tank; lacrosse surges, bowling wanes. And today we look for some of the direction in which currents are carrying Federated. There is certainly something important about our own efforts in determining direction. But it’s also true that God is holding us afloat in ways we may not have dreamed. And our work, as people of faith, is, in some ways, to discern the current and to ride it in whatever direction it takes us.
There are, of course, lots of possible ways to look at what’s happening and at how the rivers are carrying us. Some church members see decline. Some seek to cast blame for the way members and leaders have done things. Some get caught up in shrinking numbers and measure success and failure almost entirely by parochial statistics.
But here’s some of what I see. I see a church that is carried on a difficult-to-resist tide that is sweeping us along. The shape of churches all through this culture is changing drastically. As many of you know, the numerical and financial decline in churches throughout this land is dramatic. A startling transformation is happening all over, whether we like it or not. And most of us, frankly, don’t like it. We feel as though we’ve lost something dear. We feel as though something precious is being stolen from us. It can be deeply painful and unnerving.
What if, though, we saw what was happening as a gift? What if we were to stop facing into the current trying to resist it, and we turned around instead, and were carried by the current to a new and strange land, but one that has the potential of fresh horizons and abundant gifts? What if we rode our canoe with the rapids and opened ourselves to what was downstream? What if we took a chance and let ourselves be transformed into something whose shape we can hardly imagine by standing still or by going upstream, but can be known only as we let ourselves be borne into a rich and promising and mysterious future?
So let’s say several things as clearly as we can. First, what’s happened to Federated isn’t our fault. It’s not that we have done something wrong. We do lots of things wrong, of course, because we are, after all, human. Those mistakes, though, have not brought about the numerical decline we see. Rather, like countless churches throughout this land, we are part of an inexorable tide, a tide that is pulling us in a different direction. I see signs of this, strangely enough, at clergy gatherings, where ministers used to brag, or do a kind of “humble brag,” about how their churches were growing and thriving. No one does that anymore. So, first point: an inescapable tide has brought us to where we are, not the mistakes of current or past leaders and members.
Second, we have choices in how we ride the rapids that are carrying us along. Yes, there are relentless forces moving us downstream in a direction that may not at first seem appealing. One possibility is to fight a losing battle against that rolling river by standing resolutely in its way. Or, in a different kind of denial, we can seek a tempting shore that offers us nothing but a seductive illusion, a shore that takes us nowhere and ultimately offers no real respite. We can try, in other words, to resist the flowing river or to escape it.
Or, in a far healthier way, we can ride the unavoidable current and see where it takes us, how it transforms us. It’s worth remembering that vitality is not measured by numbers. The society pushes us to think that, but in no significant way is that true, at least in a church context. A church of two thousand members is not a better church than a church of one thousand members. And a church of four thousand members is not better than either of the other two. They’re just different churches. It’s not unlike in families: a family of eight is not better than a family of four. It’s just different.
As in families, the measure of a church’s vitality is far more ephemeral and visceral than in the tallying of its statistics. Is there energy there? Is there a sense of connectedness? Is there a deep recognition of having been blessed by God? Is there a sense that the church family doesn’t just sit gazing at its own navel but reaches beyond itself? Vigor and liveliness in the church is a quality, not a quantity. To fully recognize and own that is to undergo a kind of transformation. Your family is not going to get better by having two or three or four more children—God forbid in Mary’s and my family! It’s going to live into its fullness as family members eat together and laugh together and cry together and talk together and pray together and listen to each other and tend to each other when we’re sick. As in families, so also in churches: quality, not quantity.
I am convinced that God is moving in life-giving ways right here at Federated Church. In the Annual Report that you will receive for our Annual Meeting, you’ll see a remarkable testimony to the countless ways in which members and friends give of themselves to support the church and to reach beyond ourselves to make a difference in the world. Angel ministries, book studies, prayer groups, choirs, youth groups, memorial and wedding ministries, men’s and women’s ministries, communion to those who are confined, Primetime ministries, SJAM, Search for the Christ Child, St. Paul’s ministries, Stephen Ministry, Trinkets and Treasures, Wondrous Wednesday, ushers and greeters: the list goes on and on. And all these activities embody vitality and devotion. There is joy and wonder and faithfulness and curiosity and beauty, and deep and abiding love. This church is fully alive. It’s a gift to its members and to the wider community and to a world beyond Chagrin Falls. God is working wonders right here at Federated Church. There’s an animating love at the center of this congregation. So second point: vitality is measured not in numbers but in quality of life. It’s measured not in statistics but in whether there is a passion for the presence of God and whether there’s a compelling sense of mission and purpose. Those qualities infuse Federated and they give it a remarkable spirit and dynamism.
Third, and maybe most important, if we’re to grow numerically as a church, it will happen not so much because of strategies we put in place or techniques we employ. It will happen because people sense here an effusive and joyful engagement with God and with the work God calls forth from us. It’s crucial, in that regard, that we never see newcomers as an answer to what we perceive to be our problems. Whenever we say or hear things like, “We need new members so we can balance our budget, or so we can maintain our buildings, or so we can achieve some numerical success”—whenever we hear things like that, such expressed desires have missed the heart of God.
The only reason to receive new members is for their sake. It’s not to pad our rolls or fill our coffers. We seek new members so they will know the love of God, and so they will find healing and hope for their own lives. That’s it. Whenever we look at people with what we might term an “instrumental” gaze—as though they can somehow help us—we are way off the mark. Our focus needs to be on reveling in the joyful mysteries of God and on discerning and living into God’s mission for us, not on chasing after illusory measures of success that we imagine will somehow make us better. It’s a matter of proportion and emphasis: where’s our heart; where’s our focus? On numbers? Or on lives being fed and transformed and sent into service?
The irony of it all is that numerical growth happens only as we focus on other, more central, dimensions of church life. It happens only as we attend both to the whispers of God and as we make it our very point in life to care for each other. Numbers are merely an offshoot of faithfulness and love. They’re a byproduct, not the goal.
Our vocation as the church of Jesus Christ is not to desperately recruit new members. It’s to enact and live into the transformation God is enabling. Striking, on this front, is that Federated’s church leaders sense, at this moment, an opportunity to live out our mission in the development of the Community Life Collaborative, about which we will hear more at our Annual Meeting. The focus of the CLC is on engaging people and making a difference and serving the world.
One last thing today, a modern parable about joining the rivers of transformation. The story is told about a famous monastery that had fallen on hard times. Once a great order, its many buildings had been filled with young monks, but now it was nearly deserted. Visitors no longer came there to be nourished by prayer. A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised God with heavy hearts. It was just a matter of time until their community would die out.
On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a little hut. No one ever spoke with him, but the monks felt somehow reassured by his prayerful presence.
As the leader of the monastery, the Abbot, agonized over the future, it occurred to him to go visit the rabbi. Perhaps the rabbi could offer some word of advice. So one day after morning prayers, the Abbot set out to visit the rabbi.
As he approached the hut, the Abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome. And the rabbi motioned the Abbot to enter. They sat there for a moment in silence, until finally the rabbi said: “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts. You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you this teaching.”
The rabbi then looked straight at the Abbot and said, “The Messiah is among you.” For a while all was silent. Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.” The Abbot left without a word.
The next morning, the Abbot called his monks together in the chapter room. He told them he had received a teaching from “the rabbi who walks in the woods.” . . . Then he looked at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi said that the messiah is among us!”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the monks pondered this riddle, and wondered what it could mean. The messiah is among US? Could he have possibly meant one of us here at the monastery? If that is the case, then which one of us is it? Do you suppose that he meant the Abbot? If he meant anyone then he must have meant the Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.
On the other hand, he might have meant brother Thomas. Certainly, brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows and respects brother Thomas’ keen spirituality and insight.
Certainly, he could not have meant brother Elred. Elred gets very crotchety at times. But, when you look back on it, Elred is almost always right, often VERY right. Maybe the rabbi did mean brother Elred.
But surely not brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. Maybe Phillip is the messiah.
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one of them might actually be the messiah.
As time went by there was a gentle, whole-hearted, human quality about them which was hard to describe but easy to notice. They lived with each other as people who had finally found something. But they prayed and read the Scriptures together as people who were always looking for something.
Now because the forest in which it is situated is very beautiful, it so happened that people did still occasionally come to visit the monastery. They came to picnic on the lawn, to wander among the paths, even now and again to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently—to picnic, to play, to pray. As they did so, even without being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary humility and respect that now began to surround the old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. They began to bring friends to show them this special place. Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks.
Some of the younger men who came to visit started talking to the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And then another. More and more young men were asking, once again, to become part of the community. Within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in that area (slightly adapted from https://lifeondoverbeach.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/the-rabbis-gift/).
You and I have been blessed incredibly richly. We have the joyful opportunity, every single day, to be transformed, to be carried along on a gorgeous and sustaining river—to see each other as the messiah, to bask in the grace that never lets us go, and to share that holy love with each other. And that is the very heart of our life as children of God. As Jesus might well say: let those who have ears to hear, hear.