Monday, June 18, 2012

On Growing the Church

Third Sunday after Pentecost,  June 17th, Year of Our + Lord 2012                 
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Mark 4:26-34

A Conversation - "Grandpa," the boy asked, taking a bite from his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, "Where does bread come from?"  Grandpa smiled.  He was eating lunch with his visiting grandson out in the middle of the family farm, their pickup parked overlooking 35 acres of wheat. "Right out there.  Bread comes from wheat, which is what is growing in this field.  "Bread is grass?"  "No, the wheat will grow a head on top, a head full of grain, or seeds.  Those seeds are ground up to make flour, and flour is what bread is made from."  "Oh, … how does the plant make the seeds?"  "Well, as the wheat plant grows, it just forms the seeds, that's what wheat does."  "How does the wheat grow?”  "Well, the wheat grows from just a little shoot, using water and sunlight and nutrients from the soil."  "Where does the shoot come from?"   "It comes from the seed.  Farmers like me plant seeds of wheat down in the soil, and with water and sunshine they sprout and grow until they push a shoot up above the ground."  "So wheat plants grow from wheat seeds, which farmers put into the ground, and wheat seeds come from wheat plants."  "Yes." …  "Grandpa, which came first, the wheat plant or the wheat seed?"  "Uh, I think we'll have to wait until we get to heaven and ask God that one." 

How does the Kingdom of God grow?  As we can describe the growth of  wheat, but cannot fully explain how it grows, so also we can describe the growth of the Church, but even more the precise details of ‘how’ are something of a mystery.  People may pass through our congregation, on their way to somewhere else.  God may touch their hearts through what we say and do here, but the harvest only becomes visible later, somewhere else, that we may never see in this life.  Deathbed conversions, like the thief on the cross, may, Lord willing, be much more common than we know.  Such last minute, hidden-in-a-hospital-room harvesting is hardly noticed on earth, but the angels rejoice.

Sometimes the Church is very deliberate about growth, seeing opportunities, and working to maximize them.  When the former Soviet Union collapsed, an opportunity presented itself.  The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod sent missionaries, and then professors from the Fort Wayne Seminary, and then we brought men from there to Indiana to study, after which they returned home to preach and teach.  Now there are several growing Lutheran Churches in former Soviet countries. 

Today, similar opportunities for mission are opening up in Africa, and Europe, even in Wittenberg, the home of the Lutheran Reformation, now a city almost completely without the Gospel.  And, much closer to home, our own Montana District of the LCMS resolved at last week’s convention to make pursuing mission and outreach opportunities right here in the Bakken Oil Boom region the next priority of the district mission strategy, right after current efforts to call a missionary at large to the Livingston-Big Timber area. 

So, we are planning, and working, and praying for growth.  But at other times, there doesn't seem to be a particular plan, and yet growth occurs.  It wasn't until something very bad happened, not until the Church was driven from Jerusalem by persecution after the stoning of Steven, that the she really began to grow in Judea and Samaria.  Likewise today, we, as members of the Church, may plan, or not, but we do have a role to play in growing the Kingdom.  But we must remember that we don't control the outcomes, or even fully understand the process.  

There is one key concept that always applies, however.  To continue the farming metaphor, there are lots of methods for farming, but you always have to have seed.  Likewise, there are lots of methods to grow the Church, but you must have the Seed, which is the Word of Christ, who was crucified for sinners. 

The Word of Christ is the minimum and effective requirement for mission.  But we are prone to think we must add something to the Word, to make it work, that if we aren't friendly, or relevant, or dedicated, or something, the Kingdom can't grow.  We think we must keep up with the times.  Or maybe we need to be more traditional.  More relaxed?  More sacred?     If we don’t figure it out, how will the Church grow?

We think these sorts of things because we forget that, like the farmer, we're not in charge of growth.  In fact, the farmer has a lot more influence on his crop than we have on the spiritual harvest.  The spiritual harvest involves us, no doubt, because Jesus ascended into heaven and has sent His Church out into the World to proclaim the Gospel. 

Simply because the Gospel is holy and good, we seek to proclaim it well and faithfully.  We can mess up our part, and all too often we do, confusing the message, or worse, in our sinful weakness, failing to take advantage of opportunities to speak of Christ which God puts right in front of us.  We can and do mess up.  Sometimes, we even do our part pretty well.  But either way, whether we play our part well, or poorly, the harvest always depends on God.  We may do our part poorly, and still see results, or we may do our part as well as we can, and yet never see the harvest we hope for.  It all depends on God.  

In this we see the delivery of the Kingdom to individuals today is like the winning of the Kingdom 2,000 years ago.  Jesus spoke in parables about the coming of the kingdom because the people couldn't handle the unvarnished truth.  Jesus, the Seed of the Woman come to deliver on God's promise to save the sinful children of Adam and Eve  was never quite understood during His three years of earthly ministry, not even by His own disciples, to whom "He explained everything." 

This lack of understanding was because salvation is so contrary to everything we expect, it had to completely depend on God.  You see, Jesus would ‘win the kingdom’ by losing everything.  Jesus' ‘great plan’ was to die.  Jesus' death was to give life.  Such an approach to Kingdom building was too strange for the people to understand.  So Jesus gave them clues, explaining things in parables, so that after the Kingdom was established, after Jesus had died for our sins and risen again for our new life, they, and we, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word, can understand and believe in what Jesus said and did.  And then, saved by faith in Christ, we declare that good news to others. 

And so it is today.  The greatest of our efforts may not produce any visible results.  And yet, the smallest of things can be used by God to grow His Church.  The tiny mustard seed grows into a great bush, and the weakest of churches still delivers God’s saving power, if it proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus for the salvation of sinners.  Like the power of a mustard seed, the power of the Kingdom is not ours, but God's. 

Our calling as Christians is to do all that we can for God's Kingdom, to be faithful in the Church, to serve our neighbors without thought of reward, and to be ready to give the reason for the hope that is in us.  But often we can barely manage to hang on.  Our confession of the faith is weak, our missionary zeal deserts us, our sins embarrass us.  Sometimes all we can do is beg God for mercy, for Jesus' sake. 

But that's enough.  It's enough for you, because each time you beg for God's mercy, His mercy has already enveloped you, God wrapping His arms of mercy around you even before you kneel in confession.  The Father’s mercy says you are forgiven, already, in Jesus, for into His life and death you were baptized, and with His Body and Blood you are fed forgiveness.  Arise and rejoice.  God’s mercy is enough for you, and for me. 

And, amazingly, God will use even our weakness to reach out.  God will use our weakness and hurts to show weak and hurting unbelievers that they too have a place at His table, with all the rest of us weak and hurting sinners. 

The kingdom of God is like  a man (who) scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain-- first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come."     The Harvest has come.  You have been gathered into God's barns by Jesus.  And He uses you as He continues harvesting.  Rejoice in the Bread from Heaven, the Lord of the Harvest, Jesus Christ, your Savior.  Amen.    

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