Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Taste Of Annual Conference

This years’ Conference them was “Extending Jesus' Table.”
The worship services were excellent times of joyous celebrations. We spoke and sang of Jesus’ way of reaching out to everyone, especially those who were at the margins of society.
Preachers reminded us of the stories of scripture where great miracles of feeding occurred because Jesus had compassion for the crowds.
The wonderful metaphor was one of the table; the fellowship around tables at family gatherings when extra leaves had to be added in order for there to be enough room.

We heard reports of our peace witness.
We were reminded of our diversity as many new fellowships were welcomed to the ‘body’. Some were predominantly Spanish congregations, others came from different ethnic backgrounds.
And we together celebrated the work the Church of the Brethren has been given as servants who continue Jesus’ work; peacefully, simply & together.

But I have to admit, there were times when it felt like leaves were being removed from the table, not added - and those times made it hard to sing hymns that announced, “All are welcome here.”

My Pre-conference ministers’ event was focused on becoming more  intercultural and it led to many of the experiments you see in today’s bulletin.
I wondered how to share the good news I heard at the BVS luncheon from the Hiroshima Peace Center. I hope that later this month Jordan Blevins will share news from the Peace Conference in Santa Domingo and Kingston as he and Ruthann Johnson did during their reports to conference. These reports reminded me of the New Testament letters where Paul or some other missionary reported back to the Jerusalem body all the news of the exciting happenings on the mission field.

I suppose if Everett and I wanted to share a Real taste of conference, we would have brought you ice cream. Because tradition held this year and there was a build your own ice cream bar every night.
  Our tradition had something to teach the folks employed in Grand Rapids. When I first arrived, I wandered around the hotel getting my bearings. It was a big double lobby. The older building had the largest gold in-laid ceiling in North America. The newer side had a tall glass tower, where I stayed.
   While I wandered I found a small restaurant that looked like a little diner inside. It was back in a corner of the old lobby. After you entered, you saw a sports bar that was at a sunken level filled with screens showing every sporting event on TV.
  I wandered down there and found a lonely bar-tender. She asked when people were arriving for the convention. I told her I was early but most would arrive on Saturday.
   She asked if they would be coming in on Saturday evening after they arrived…I said, “well some might come in,     FOR FOOD….”
            I wasn’t sure how to break the news that this might not be the biggest group for bar revenue.
            On Tuesday night I looked into the restaurant to see if any place was still open for food. The sports bar had the doors closed and was dark. The hotel had wised up, and had shipped all the staff over to the main lobby, bar – from which they had removed the alcohol and replaced it with ICE CREAM. …… They learned how to deal with Brethren in town.

As united as Brethren are when it comes to ice cream, our diversity of beliefs surfaced again and again over queries and statements.
We have some Basic differences in the Body of Brethren.
And it’s not just how we feel about the questions of the day, but we have some basic theological differences.
I heard the question, “Did JC come to "save souls" or save lives?” echoed in different ways.
While some shared the perspective that we needed to get back to scripture, others asked

How you answer the question of social justice involvement is indicative of your theology. We can all find Bible texts, ancient church writings, and even theories of atonement to justify our side.

I couldn’t help but wonder how we could hold these different ideas together in one body. Then I had a conversation with the owner of Grand Rapid “roundabouts”. Jon was the owner and driver of the single car enterprise that transported me from and back to the airport.
            He shared his story of being raised in a mid-west conservative family and conservative church. He believes in reading the Bible literally. BUT, he said, he ALSO appreciates the metaphoric interpretation of scripture.
            Before I could ask, he said, he held them together in his head, separated into two sides, like two voices he listened to and learned something from each. . .

            I told him, we have a Conference paper like that. It’s a paper on how to interpret scripture. It has two columns stating different ways of reading scripture and at the end says, we, the Church of the Brethren are not of one mind when it comes to reading scripture.

Today’s scriptures from Matthew and Romans have been read and interpreted in a variety of ways. The ancient Greek dualism comes thru Paul’s writing about the separation of flesh and spirit. It’s a concept many of us have moved beyond to a more holistic belief that God trusted humanity enough to incarnate the Divine in a human being, named Jesus.

If we look at Jesus’ parable about the sower, we begin wondering,

Who are we in story? Who is God in the story?

One of the sources I use for study asked, “Who qualifies as good soil?” That question came across my electronic news right during one of the discussions about welcoming persons of different sexual orientations into the church. I wondered if we could answer it, or should we try?

It seems clear to me that in this story, God is sowing.

All 3 synoptic gospels carry this story of ‘the sower’. Matthew names it thereby putting the emphasis on the farmer.
 I’m sure you’ve heard it interpreted in a number of ways.
For some, the story seems to be a focus on failure. You can add up the negative situations and there are more environments that are unwelcoming to the seed than those where the seed flourishes.
Some say it’s a story about waste. They point out the hostile environment where some of the seeds land.

Others point out that Jesus’ is really saying that God's word will thrive and grow to miraculous levels even when it is sown in unpromising places.

When you put the story back into the context of Matthew’s story, we do see that Christ is one who sows recklessly, investing even in unpromising people like the disciples who fail again and again to ‘get with the program’.
            If we fast-forward to Gethsemane, we know the men Jesus chose as leaders will even run away and dissert Jesus. And after he is raised from the dead, what does he do? Does he go recruit another bunch?
NO, he calls the deserters back together, tells them, “Meet me in Galilee,” and entrusts the WHOLE FUTURE OF HIS MISSION TO THEM.[i]
God is sowing. In this case God is the mad sower, indiscriminately broadcasting seed EVERYWHERE!

Looking closer at the story and trying to find ourselves, we realize that sometimes we don’t get a choice of what kind of soil we are.
Or if we are the seeds being planted, we don’t get to choose the soil where we land.
Whether soil or seeds, we have to deal with what we’ve got, the grit, the rocks, the roots and the weeds that threaten to choke us.

But God is still sowing. Perhaps the importance is not on who we are, or what kind of soil we are, but on trust in the sower. . .

Growth is always possible.
The results of the planting are God's worry not ours. We have enough trouble trying to grow around the weeds and rocks.

And seriously, Jesus not telling dirt it should try to be better.. See how ridiculous that sounds?[ii]

Instead, our assurance is that God’s word WILL produce an abundant harvest.

Jumping over to Romans we find that Paul's message is not a condemnation but a word of grace, "8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in X Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death… that we may walk περιπατουσιν according to God's spirit….

That ‘walk’ is the Greek word peripatusin, it means more than walking, it means LIVING.
Our life walk-  is to allow the seed sowed in us to grow. (Whether the potential is in the seed or in the soil) it is sowed in ALL of us to bear fruit. The fruit of the one who sent Jesus.

That’s why Paul’s good news chapter begins with, “There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION FOR THOSE WHO ARE IN CHRIST Jesus.” 8:1 (repeat)

This is truly good news, for all of us.

I find hope in this parable because I have felt as hopeless and hapless as the disciples.
I wonder at times what hope is there for a church . .a denomination like ours. . and so many others . . then I look at what God was able to do with those disciples…
            Choked with doubt,
                        Hiding under rocks
                                    As dried up and lifeless as sand.

God is sowing. And the results are amazing.

One night at conference, after a very hard day. Where harsh words had been shared. And young adults on the twitterverse were asking how and when they would ever have a voice in the church, we recessed and I walked to the back of the huge hall.

            There in the back was a semi-circle of 6 or 8 wash tubs and chairs. Young adults and those ‘self-titled’ as progressive brethren, were washing feet and sharing the embrace of peace.
I wondered how hard it had to be to wash the feet of the one who just threw rocks in your garden.
            And I knew God is still sowing.

As for me, I am discerning what it means to be called to grow right where I am.
I have to discern how to walk/peripatusin/to walk justly, while I love compassionately, AND walk humbly with our God..
and with you.

I can tell you that YOU witness to me with your openness.
            Your welcome and compassion impress me with your willingness to let relationships & love trump opinions and uncertainty.

Walking with you and Your Powerful Witness, I find hope, even in unproductive soil, because GOD KEEPS SOWING EXTRAVAGANTLY.

So I can leave the burden of results to God, and I, -- WE can work AND BLOOM where we are planted – ever watching for God to surprise us with the miraculous gift of abundance.

[i]Elisabeth Johnson, pastor in Watertown, MN
[ii] ibid

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