How do We Grow the Church?: Psalm 23 and John 10.11–18

psalm 23Delivered at Ames UCC on April 26, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

How many times do you think you have heard the 23rd Psalm? Ten times? A thousand? It is used at funerals and memorial services more often than any other piece of scripture. Perhaps you’ve already decided to have it at your own. Perhaps we have all heard it so many times that the words flow together into that still water, losing a little of their meaning.

That’s why I chose the Jewish Publication Society translation. Instead of “the Lord,” “the Lord is my shepherd,” we heard HaShem, meaning “the name” in Hebrew. The Name sets a table with our enemies; the Name leads us to green pastures.

The two present distinct perspectives on God. “The Lord” is a very political title: It is a way of saying that God is our master rather than any king or president. Regardless of the other assertions of lordship out there in the world, we align ourselves with THE lord.

“The Name” lacks that political edge. It is vague, at a degree removed from God, a respectful distance, which is kind of odd because names are very personal. Naming a child is the beginning of forming or projecting that child’s character, even her or his experience of this world.

But we don’t have a name for God beyond God. In the Jewish tradition, it is said that God’s name was lost with the temple. The title Ha-Shem, The Name, then, does not personally define God so much as point to what holiness does: create. Just as our names contribute to our formation, THE NAME IS formation. All names come from The Name.

HaShem not only guides us, HaShem defines us. We are discrete enough being to be called Elaine, Bradley, Linda, Allen, Diana, Rachel, or Ed. But for these particular translators, God will always surpass any names, familiar or formal, that we might apply.

But as we heard in today’s second reading, the authors of the Gospel of John are very intent on giving names to God, to the holiness evidenced in Jesus Christ.

Despite being the newest of the gospels, so at the furthest remove from the actual events of Jesus’ life, death, and Easter mystery, John provides the largest number of direct quotes from Jesus about his identity: I am the voice, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate for the sheep, I am the shepherd, I am, I am, I am.

Jesus is nowhere near this clear about who he is and where he comes from and what his role is in the other gospels. In Matthew Jesus outright refuses to say who and what he is. Then we have the practical Jesus who didn’t just talk, but walked. Along the way Jesus ate and fed, healed and prayed, rested and resisted. And all the gospels end with the Jesus of the Easter mystery: the holy hope that cannot be conquered by petty politics and cruel human punishments.

This is a most precious gift, our Bible. Instead of a streamlined and logically consistent account of God and us we have this jumble of histories and fables, poetry and song, describing lives of faith, betrayal, boredom, pain, and ecstasy. We have preserved, side by side, without explanation or rationale, differing accounts of Jesus Christ himself.

And so we hold in our hands evidence vetted over time and culture that there is no one way to describe the holy. In its very composition, our Bible shows us that there has never been, and can never be, one way to offer God our service and praise. The Bible is not locked in amber or frozen in time. It is alive and inviting us every day to encounter God anew.

But one of the most common questions I’m asked is not about the Bible and its translators or the Gospels’ contradictory portraits of Jesus. It is “How do we grow the church?”

It’s a great question. We have lots of reasons to want to grow our churches. As members of the United Church of Christ we have such exciting news to share: God is still speaking! God is right here among us, just waiting for our ears to hear and our mouths to proclaim, with no barriers or hierarchies for gaining access.

As an extension, there are no barriers or hierarchies for gaining access to church. One of our most powerful theological statements is that Jesus didn’t reject anyone, so neither do we. Our church doors and our human hearts are wide open to everyone, everyone no matter their race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, economic class, nation of origin or even religion. In a world where “us and them” divisions prevail, this is a home for ALL.

Yes, we want to grow our church because we so passionately want to grow that living radical welcome.

But underneath the passionate, excited question of growth, I also hear a fair amount of practical anxiety. How will we grow the church so we can sustain what we already have? Most churches have significant liabilities, like church buildings, but fewer people, with less giving power, are present to keep it all going.

Which keeps leading me to a different, much more basic, question. Not just how do we grow the church, not just how do we sustain it, but how do we DO church? Right now, in 21st century America, in 2015 Ames, Iowa, how do we DO church?

Sunday morning no longer meets everyone’s needs, not when the HyVee needs workers at 11 a.m. and families with kids have soccer tournaments. Claiming to have the one true path to God no longer works. Either. We know and love too many people with differing approaches to holiness and our hubris has been tampered by millennia of singularly non-Christian violent anti-Semitism and now Islamophobia. And what about those here today who have been here every Sunday for the last 20, 50 years? How do we do church so that the traditions we cherish are preserved yet space for newness that welcomes newcomers is created?

My answer comes back to Jesus and the Bible. Just imagine the questions the disciples must have had after Good Friday and Easter morning. What just happened? How are we to share this startling, good news and organize communities to keep walking, talking, eating, feeding, healing, praying, resting, and resisting? How are we to do it without being executed ourselves? How will we overcome the barriers to beloved community, like the social class and ethnic hierarchies fostered by colonialism?

The author of Ecclesiastes wrote that there is nothing new under the sun. Our contemporary worries about growing, sustaining, and doing church are not new. They are as old as the Christian movement itself, they are inherent in being Christian.

We do church just as Christians always have: we celebrate our faith by embodying its Biblical multi-vocality and our capacity to live with contradictions and unanswered questions.

We do church by rejecting fear and anxiety, as the disciples must have, so that we may privilege the unconquerable Easter hope of God.

We do a lot of practical things, just like Jesus: we walk and talk, eat and feed, heal and pray, rest and resist.

We do church by sharing the good news we find on such a journey: God IS still speaking, all ARE welcome.

We have met a living Jesus that transcends scripture and we find present whenever two or more of us are gathered in his name.

And we keep faith, fellow seekers, that even when we walk through shadowy valleys, we need not fear. For the good shepherd knows OUR names and the rod and staff of holy presence have always and will always continue to comfort and guide us.


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