Written by Pastor Ed
Hope for the Future
February 4, 2018
Isaiah 40: 21-31
I Cor. 9: 16-23
It’s not hard for us to become discouraged. If we get evaluated for our jobs, we tend to focus on any negative thing that’s said, even if most of the review is positive. It seems to be in our nature, whether as individuals or as organizations. And when we start to focus on the negative, we can soon get on a downward spiral that is hard to overcome.
The Children of Israel were in such a spiral as their exile in Babylon drug on for years and years. Would they ever be able to return to their homeland and resume life as they had once known? I’ve known congregations that have gotten into that thinking as well. I recall one interim pastor who reported to me that when he asked the members of a rural, prairie congregation what their vision for the future was, their reply was that they wanted to be the last congregation to close in their community! Not a very uplifting vision.
And other congregation that was facing difficult times said aloud, “The Conference won’t let us die, will they?” It was a small urban congregation, started by Mennonites who had moved to the city and who were happy with their little group and had no interest in inviting newcomers to join them. The conference let them die.
The early church of the first century could have easily become disheartened and ingrown. They were a small minority and faced opposition from many quarters. And they were trying to figure out exactly what it meant to follow the way of Jesus. Clearly they didn’t all agree as evidenced in many of Paul’s letters to the churches. It was just such a disagreement that Paul addresses in the passage we read from I Corinthians 9.
The argument, presented in chapter 8, is over eating food offered to idols. If you wanted to have a large banquet, the biggest halls were in the pagan temples, and they catered as well. Or perhaps it was like the local casino, where the food was good and cheap. But it was food that had been given to the temple in honour of the local deity. Does eating that food mean that you are paying homage to that deity? Some said yes so you shouldn’t eat there, while others said since those deities weren’t really gods anyway, it didn’t make any difference.
In addressing this issue, Paul offers himself as an example of someone who, although he has the right to claim certain things, and is free in Christ to act in certain ways that might be outside the Old Testament law, he is, in fact ready to give up those rights if it will further the mission of the church and bring others to Christ. “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessing” (I Cor. 9: 22b-23)
Was Paul just being wishy-washy about his ethics? Isn’t there a point at which you have to say this is how it is and we won’t compromise? I believe what Paul is really doing is reminding the church what its true mission is; that is, to spread the gospel and invite other people to join the way of following Jesus. And people will be at different points on that journey, which means that you have to meet people where they are at and go from there.
So how do we do that and what does it mean for the church today? We don’t have to worry about food offered to idols. I recently saw a quote from Amy Butler, Lead Pastor at Riverside Church in NYC in which she said this, “Make it our priority to perpetually reframe the narrative from scarcity to abundance…. When congregations speak in narratives of decline and death, desperation and fear, we are crippling our ability to think in new ways and take action toward the next expression of our lives together.” One of the principles of the missional church movement is that congregations need to build on their strengths rather than focusing on their deficiencies. It’s a principle that I have seen in action and believe in.
Too often we want to focus on our deficiencies, what we don’t have, rather than celebrating what we do have and building on those strengths. Sometimes that focus on our deficiencies takes the form of looking back and remembering “the good old days.” That’s what the exiles in Babylon tended to do, remembering how good it used to be in contrast to what they were now experiencing. Congregations do it when they remember the big boys and girls clubs they used to have, or the choirs that used to fill the front. Oh if we could only go back to those days.
Or we look around and see what someone else has that we don’t and decide that if we could only be like them, offer that program or have a preacher like them, then we too could grow and attract more people. But each congregation is unique and must offer what it is that they are strong in and what fits their particular setting. Focusing on what we do well and offering the strengths we have to offer will do much more than trying to imitate someone else’s success.
So let me be so bold as to name some of the strengths that I see here at First Mennonite that I hope you will continue to build on in the years ahead. There is a large group of senior citizens who remain committed and active. There is an even larger group of children and now youth who bring their enthusiasm and talents to the congregation and who have leaders to guide them and channel those gifts. Music has been and is important to this congregation, and again there is new musical talent being developed.
This is a friendly congregation and people feel welcomed when they visit. And this facility, the building that is 60 years old this year, has been maintained and upgraded in many ways (although I’d still argue that you should replace all of the leaky windows to save energy.) Whenever someone comes and wants to look at the facility for a possible wedding venue or other event, they inevitably remark on the beauty of the sanctuary and the nice kitchen. All of these things are strengths that can be built on.
But Paul would also remind us that all of these things are not ends in and of themselves. Having all of those things, or any other strengths, are only tools for building up the kingdom, for spreading the good news, and if they become ends onto themselves, then they have become idols and will hinder that mission rather than move it forward.
I recall visiting a congregation which prided itself on its giving to mission. They were celebrating the congregation’s centennial and much of the program was reflecting on all of the mission work they had supported over the years, which was all well and good. Except that it was all focused overseas and they had done nothing to further mission in their own backyard, and so they were on the verge of closing their doors because they were such a small group. If our children or our music or our building become our main focus and we see our task as simply maintaining what we now have, we will soon find ourselves with no children, stale music and an empty building, however pristine.
Paul reminds us of our mission in the world and that our focus must always be on why God placed his people in the world to begin with, to be a blessing to all the people around us. And Isaiah reminds us that no matter how discouraged the exiles were, they were still the people of God. And, Isaiah says, look at who this God is. Look around you, Isaiah says. This is the God who created the world, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, who raises up and brings down, the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth!
If you trust in this God, and listen to God’s leading – not wait as in sit and do nothing, but actively listen for God’s Spirit to guide – then you can face the future with anticipation and hope. For the exiles that meant a return to their homeland. But as Charles Aaron, Jr. says in his commentary on this passage at workingpreacher.org,
“In one sense, the prophet offers encouragement to go back. The scattered exiles can go back to Jerusalem from the far-flung regions of Babylon. In reality, though, they do not go back. They go forward. They accept a new adventure. The thesis sentence of this part of Isaiah comes in 43:19, that God does a “new thing.” The people will go back, but in reality, everything has changed. They cannot go back, they can only move into God’s new future.”
He continues, “The contemporary church cannot go “back” to anything. The church can only move forward into an uncertain world. Where would we start with the problems the church faces? Declining numbers and influence. A divided society that cannot seem to communicate. Threats both international and homegrown. What does the church need moving into that future? This passage offers a call to harken back to the faith that formed the church. That faith includes God’s power and creativity as well as the affirmation that God sees and knows us. God cares for us. God can give the church the energy it needs to move into an uncertain future. Although these words originally spoke to people whose faith might have faded nearly away, they can speak persuasively to people whose faith is shaky and tentative. They can speak a word of courage to those who see reason for fear in what the church faces.”
I don’t think I could say it any better. We can’t go back. We can only move into the future that God has for us, opening ourselves to God’s leading and using the strengths and tools that God has given us to proclaim that faith to all we meet, across the street and around the world. I can’t predict what God has in store for First Mennonite, Calgary, but I am convinced that God will continue to be present in this neighbourhood and in this city and our task is to open our eyes and hearts to join in whatever God is up to wherever we find ourselves.
May our next hymn be your prayer, as it is mine. #363 Renew Your Church