Church in the Middle: A “State of the Church” address

This sermon was delivered at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers, on February 17, 2013, as the State of the Church address. 

Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

I.

In 1976, Argentina fell under a military dictatorship and hundreds of political prisoners were executed or imprisoned.  Three prisoners, all women, requested that a local minister and political activist Bishop Aldo Etchegoyen, bring them communion.

The Bishop baked the bread and readied the sacrament, but he was unable to get access to the women.  He put the bread in the freezer hoping to one day serve communion and fulfill his promise to them.  Sure enough, in 1983, the dictatorship crumbled.  Bishop Etchegoyen thawed the bread, visited the women, and served that communion with joy.

The Bishop had a calling that was exciting and fresh–to serve communion and be a part of something larger than himself.  Yet, when a hindrance remained, he had to wait to fulfill that commitment.  I’m sure that his excitement waned while that bread sat in the freezer all those years.

When one is called by God, things are exciting at first.  It is easy to commit to something new and fresh, easy to spread the word, easy to invest.  The accomplishment and fulfillment of a calling is also exciting and rewarding.  Nothing is greater than completing a task at hand.  But it’s the in-between time, the middle, the time that the bread sits in the freezer waiting to be used, that is hard.

How many of us started a new book, new devotional, new resolution, new promise for the season of Lent?  Perhaps you purchased a new wardrobe or started a new project recently.  That’s exciting stuff.

The middle–wearing the clothes, practicing the Lent commitment past the first week, actually doing the devotional, reading the middle 200 pages of a 400-page book that’s hard.  We want to give up or give in, we want to question whether the “new thing” was a good idea in the first place; we begin to doubt our calling or our ability to accomplish our calling.  We stall out or get stale.

But consider when we’re devoted to something for the long haul and venture through the “middle,” that blessings start to arise:

  • We are proud when we drive a car that finally hits the 300,000-mile mark.
  • We boast when finally finish that long book.
  • We confidently show off an old, well-used Bible.
  • We feel honored to offer communion after 5 years of waiting.

The “middle” is hard, but that is where the blessings are found.

II.

A life of faith and life in the church is more about journeying through “the middle” than it is about engaging “new beginnings” or finishing tasks.  It’s about venturing through the valleys rather than having continuous mountain-top experiences; for, its only when we go through the valley that we get to the next mountain anyway.

Jesus found this out early on in his ministry.  It was soon after his calling and baptism–the “new beginning” and the excitement of hearing God call him “beloved” in an audible voice–that the Holy Spirit sent him into the wilderness place, a “middle” if there ever was one.

The “middle” confronts people with three things:  To become doubtful or fearful; to give up; or to take matters into their own hands and bypass God.  These three things confronted Jesus when Satan tempted him  in the wilderness.

First, Satan asked Jesus to turn stones into bread.  This is a test of self-reliance, or bypassing God. The test confronted Jesus with several questions:  Was Jesus going to take matters into his own hands by fulfilling his hunger rather than relying on God?  Was Jesus going to take the easy road by exerting his own power and privilege?

This reminds me of all the diets I have committed to in the past.  Starting the diet–the new beginning!–was exciting, but after getting several days into it–into the “middle”–I was ready to turn any stone into bread.  Most often, I simply give up.

Next Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world.  “Worship me,” he told Jesus, “And all these kingdoms are yours.  I’ll hand you the keys to the new Cadillac.”

Jesus could have expedited his ministry, bypassed years of suffering, walking, confrontation, and work, if he only said three simple words to the Adversary, “I worship you.”  Jesus was going to inherit the kingdom anyway, so why not do it now instead of having to wait three years later?

Third, Satan put him upon the pinnacle of the temple and told him to test God by jumping off.  If Jesus ever doubted God’s call upon his life, now was the time to test the theory and see whether God was still supporting him or not.

Jesus saw through Satan’s ruse.  He knew that it required more faith to stay put than to jump and have faith that the angels would catch him.  Jumping was a sign that he doubted; staying put was a sign that he knew God called him and that he had to minister according to God’s timing, not his own.

III.

When we look at these three temptations, we quickly note that each one isn’t too far-fetched.  No one temptation is evil; in fact, Satan is only doing what Satan does best:  He is using Jesus’ own strengths against him and encouraging Jesus to take matters into his own hands. The temptations bypass God and treat life as something to be conquered rather than something to experience and cherish.

When I learned about these temptations in seminary, my professor noted that these temptations also confront Christ’s Church:

  • We are tempted to become complacent or give up all too easily because we can find bread elsewhere, even if it means baking bread and eating it at home.
  • We are tempted to bypass God because we feel the urgent need to fill our empty pews, put more money in the coffers, or are just too impatient for a Slow God.
  • We are tempted to doubt God’s call in our church in the first place and, by golly, why do we even need to go to church anyway?

When I look at the arc of Trinity’s history for as long as I’ve been here, I can see how these temptations have hit us in different times.  We are, after all, a church that’s seen quite a few new beginnings, middles, and endings over the years:

But now we find that our church is in a sort of “middle place.”  There is a status quo feeling and predictability that threatens to turn us into a stale ministry.  So, we have several solutions to this problem that stand before us, all of them with temptations attached:

To break this status quo, there is the temptation to try some other “new beginnings” and to bring some unique excitement to the ministry.  We can change worship, change the church name, or change the leadership model to match what other “new” churches are doing to attract visitors.

The only problem is that other churches are trying these “new” things, and they are not growing the church.  There is growth for a time in several communities that do these things, but the revolving door is always there, and eventually the newness wears out, and they are back in “the middle” yet again.

To break this status quo, there is the temptation to do more ministry.  We can try new programs and ministries, bypass God, and try to exert more “power” to simply minister more.  The problem with this, however, is that it makes us busy, and being busy is not the same as being effective.  Busyness often leads to burn-out rather than to spiritual or numerical growth in a church.

To break this status quo, another temptation is to throw our hands up in frustration, say, “ah!”, and jump off the pinnacle of the temple once and for all.  Maybe God is finished with us, so if we jump, maybe then and only then something will happen.

V.

Notice that none of these options are evil:  Some churches do need to change worship or their name; some churches need to do more ministry (or ministry, period!).  Some churches need to get off their seats, take risks, and make that leap into the next phase of ministry.

But in my prayer and discernment about Trinity, I don’t think any of these options are right for our church.  Yes, we are in “the middle” and it does seem status quo at times, but I think that we have to experience and appreciate what God is doing in our midst here and now.

In our Old Testament lesson today, Moses instructed Israel to realize that being in the “middle” between Egypt and the Promised Land provided a time to consider God’s blessings and recognize what they have rather than always looking to what could be.  The instruction to give a portion of the produce sets up an annual cycle to give back to God and remember that they are God’s holy people.

So let’s take a moment to consider the blessings in our church:

  1. People at Trinity are experiencing God in unique ways in the life of the church, in worship, and in ministry.  (Sometimes people are experiencing God, but just don’t take enough time to be aware of that fact!).  New people are attending discipleship activities; we have some great new members who have joined recently, and we’ve even had first-time volunteers for Family Promise this past week.  Worship is exciting and positive!
  2. People are communicating with one another and with staff–about things that are positive and about things that need improving.  A church is healthy and reflects a sense of trust when there is open communication about the weaknesses that a church needs to work on.
  3. Most significantly, people are taking ownership of the ministries in the life of the church.  People realize that our church cannot rely on the pastor or only a few people to do the things that are close to our hearts, and people are moving in positive and proactive directions!

None of these blessings are huge, billboard-sized blessings.  None of them would fit on a glittering sign, but they are blessings nevertheless and they show us that our faithfulness and sustainable community is actually a reflection, not only of a healthy church “in the middle,” but of a mature church serious about God’s call and ministry.

While so many churches are trying to conjure an illusion or “experience” by trying new things, we take seriously that we eventually had to “get on with it” and simply minister once and for all.  No special rewards here, folks; there won’t be any accolades, but this is what it means to be a church!

VI.

Yet, we still stand before a God on mission and a holy God on the move.  We are called to surrender to Him, submit to Him, and follow Him where ever He leads us.  So, though I don’t have any new beginnings to announce, I do have some challenges that I think we need to take to heart as we continue to be a church “in the middle”:

  1. Assess what helps you grow in the Lord in your personal life and focus on those practices.  Perhaps you need to learn how to live in your “middle” instead of always striving for the “emotional high” of the new.  See, when we can’t live in the “middle” and be content with faith, we often blame the church.  “The church isn’t feeding me” is no different than trying to turn stones into bread.  Man cannot live on church alone…
  2. Simplify your life and get on with the business of being Christian in your everyday.  When you simplify, by the way, make church a priority:  All we ask is an hour on Sunday, an hour on Wednesday, and few hours a month for ministry and voluntarism.  That’s not hard, is it?
  3. Think in terms of family ministry:  Every family can engage in ministry here at Trinity, and we should try to help our children and grandchildren find points of contact in what we do here.  The Faith in Action is praying about a ministry in which we go to our surrounding neighborhood to collect non-perishables for the food bank.  When we go, why not throw the kids’ bikes and scooters in the back of the car and bring them along when we walk from street to street?  Let them ride their bikes as we make connections and meet people.
  4. When you go on vacation or travel, visit other churches and bring back good ideas.  We always need good ideas.
  5. Work on communicating and participating in the church.  Fill out the “Participation Assessment Form” found in your bulletin, talk with one another about your life of faith, join a committee to help improve and minister in YOUR church.

VII.

At this church, as in any church, we will go through cycles.  There will times of excitement when we bake bread, and there will be times when we serve that bread and fulfill a task.  There will be times when we do something “grand” with glittering lights and fireworks, and there will be times when we simply have to put the bread in the freezer and get on with the business of living our faith in the midst of the mundane.

There will be times when God speaks and times when God is silent because we are doing what He’s called us to do.  There will be times of profound confidence and times of doubt.

The bottom line is to follow the examples of Bishop Etchegoyon, Jesus, and the Israelites:  When you’re in the middle, keep listening to the Lord, overcome the temptation to do things on your own, respond to God, give back to God, and be faithful to God’s calling on your life.  Then repeat.

Lord, help us to remember that we will always be a people in the middle.  We are in the middle of your call to salvation and the day of your Son’s glorious return.  Until then, give us the courage, faith, and confidence to take one step at a time, to be obedient, and to be aware of where you are already working in our midst.  AMEN.

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