February 1, 2004

Refocusing: From Bondage to Freedom
Ezra 1:1-4; 4:1-5; 5:1-2; 6:13-15

When I pastored Fellowship Chapel in the Bronx in the early 80’s, a vibrant and effective voluntary service unit was among the ministries in place there. During my final year, 15 or so college graduates served as VSers, moving into the city for a period of time ranging from six months to two years. These VSers, both men and women, lived on the upper floor of the apartment building that housed the VS unit, and each of them performed some significant role in the work of the church.

Most of the VSers held down fulltime jobs in the city, donated their salaries to the voluntary service unit, and served at the unit on a part-time basis. Some tutored local children. Others organized and ran the Friday community game night. Still others helped provide food and clothing to needy people in the area. A few VSers, however, worked fulltime at the unit, administering the tutoring center and teaching there on a regular basis. The entire ministry of the voluntary service unit was a source of deep delight for me, and it helped shaped the lives of the VSers and local people alike.

In more recent years, however, the VS unit in the Bronx has fallen into near total disuse. The VS program itself ended completely, and the building is used—ever so slightly—as a guest house, meeting place, and storage facility. When I was there the last time about 11/2 years ago, I nearly cried over what once was.

But all of that is changing now. Our denominational leaders have regained a fresh vision for south Bronx, and a major initiative is underway to rebuild the ministry of the VS unit. Imagining the unit as a place where people can serve in an urban context and where many can be discipled and equipped for ongoing ministry, the hope among many of us is that a new and vital center will emerge where the old VS unit once stood. Will there be challenges? Without a doubt. Will obstacles arise? Unquestionably. But the potential is exhilarating, and the call clear.

Over 2500 years ago, the people of Judah were themselves called by God to a memorable construction project. Having lived as captives in a foreign land for several decades, these Jews were sent back to their homeland and instructed to rebuild the temple, which was then lying in ruins. Even a cursory reading of the book of Ezra reveals the magnitude of their task. Completing it, for one thing, would involve embarking on a corporate journey. These people would need to travel together for some 500 miles, and the journey was either sufficiently difficult or the purpose so uninviting so that at least some members of the community chose not to go along. Some Jews opted to remain in the foreign land of Babylon rather than return to Jerusalem.

Furthermore, the building project itself would inevitably involve taking risks and withstanding challenges. People would of necessity be asked to risk forfeiting the comforts of what had to them become home in order to wander off into what was at least partially unknown. What would they find back in the place that they had left years and years before? And what challenges would they face? It isn’t long after the Jews arrive in Jerusalem, according to Ezra 4, that the local inhabitants raise a ruckus in their attempts to stifle work on the project. From all indications, my guess is that the locals were even more tenacious in their opposition to the building plan than were the residents of the town of Intercourse in Lancaster County when Walmart proposed constructing a new superstore in their community! The work was risky. Challenging. Questions and uncertainties were everywhere, so much so that bringing the project through to completion required intensive encouragement from such prophets as Haggai, who we will be talking about over the next three weeks, and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1-2). “You can do it,” they cried. “Stay focused,” they repeated over and over again.

And finally, after recognizing God’s call, catching the vision, taking the risks, joining others on the journey, and pooling their resources, these same people actually completed the work that God had entrusted to them. “They finished their building,” Ezra 6:14 informs us,
by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King
Artaxerxes of Persia; and the house was finished on the third day of the month of
Adar, in the sixth year of King Darius.

These are, in my mind, both trying and exciting days for the church in North America. In recent years, as many people, including Rodney Clapp in his book A Peculiar People: the Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society, have pointed out, American culture has shifted in profound ways that have inevitably left their mark on the role and self-confidence of the church. As a result of such cultural shifts, the church of the past has often taken a rather nasty beating, leaving it battered and in need of significant repair. I admit, quite frankly, that one of the key factors in my accepting the invitation of the pastoral committee three years ago to come to the Grantham Church was precisely this overwhelming sense, not only of what the Grantham Church already is, but of what it could become. The Grantham Church, unlike both the VS unit in the Bronx and the temple in Jerusalem, does not lie in ruins—thanks be to God—nor have its doors been “closed to business.” We have a rich past. We have a strong foundation. Many churches across the land cannot say the same thing.

Nevertheless, I believe that God is calling us to build and rebuild. I believe that God is inviting each of us individually and all of us collectively to embark on a journey, a journey directed toward a partially unknown destination. It is a journey that will require us to take risks, stretch and perhaps even abandon some of our comfort zones, explore new ideas and paradigms, and be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. It is a journey sure to involve challenges, challenges that might influence some us to remain behind. It is, nonetheless, a journey that I believe God is calling us to take together.

In the coming few weeks, I’d like us to think together about various aspects of this journey—where God might be leading us, internal tensions we might face, and what each and every one of us might offer to the project. Today, however, I’d like to briefly describe just a few of the cultural challenges that we must face together.
There is, first of all, a major social crisis in front of us. It wasn’t too many years ago that churches like ours stood at the very center of American society. For untold hundreds of years in the West, church steeples rose heavenward and symbolized stability and cooperation between the church and the surrounding culture. People went to church. People were expected to go to church. People were nearly obligated to go to church. Why, even the very structures of our society recognized and affirmed the central importance of the church. Businesses closed on Sundays, and the local little league commission would never even dream of scheduling a ballgame during the “worship hour.” Local churches, at least on the surface, apparently benefited from society’s assistance, not having to think very carefully or invest much time, energy and money into reaching out beyond themselves. People often came just because it was the proper thing to do. I don’t know about you, but when I look back on my childhood years, I can think of very few people in my neighborhood who did not dress up and walk or drive to church on Sunday morning. I also, to be honest, can think of few things that my own church did to get them there!

It is a new day, my friends. Society isn’t going to do our work for us anymore. People, by and large, no longer sense a social obligation to attend church every week. There are, furthermore, any number of alternative activities that are vying for peoples’ time and attention. Stores are open on Sundays, playgrounds buzzing with organized sporting events, and increased wealth makes it possible for people to pack up and go away whenever they want. Through it all, the church often finds itself standing on the street corner watching the world go by. We no longer occupy the same privileged position that we once did, and our position will most likely slip even further in the years ahead.

There is, secondly, the crisis of diminishing respect in our world for people and institutions in authority. This, of course, affects not only public officials, but our churches as well. People simply do not respect the church and its leaders as they once did, and the ongoing cases of ministerial misconduct only worsen the crisis. For many people, the church is outdated and irrelevant, and for others it has even been a source of considerable pain. We need to face this challenge if we want to make a difference for Christ in the world. We need increasingly to earn the right to speak, a right that has often throughout history simply been handed to us.

Thirdly, we are growing more aware of the crisis of religious pluralism. Our voice as Christians is clearly no longer the only voice on the block. Such phrases as “The Bible says” or “Jesus saves” don’t mean what they once did. When I was a child, I knew no one who embraced a faith other than Christianity. Our neighbors were Catholic, and that was a big enough stretch for me back then, I’m sorry to say! Now, we have people of other religions living in our own communities and riding on the school buses with our children. One of my daughter’s friends in Grantham is a Hindu, as is, of course, her entire family. We don’t need to drive very far to find temples and mosques anymore, and I’m quite certain that the number of people of other faiths will only increase in the years to come.
Finally, we face an expanding generational crisis. The shifts in our world are occurring so rapidly right now that I seriously doubt that the distance between generations has ever been greater than it is right now. All of us with gray-hair and balding heads grew up emphasizing reason and analysis. We typically embraced the American dream, worked hard to accumulate more than our parents and grandparents who endured the Great Depression ever had, and became increasingly independent and individualistic in the process. Our children, by way of contrast, prefer experience to analysis, asking “Does it work?” rather than the question that others of us have often beaten to death: “Is it true?” Our children often think in terms of sound bytes rather than weeks and years, and they prefer pictures and stories to hard, cold facts. And interestingly enough, our children are apparently growing weary of the fast-paced, corporate America lifestyle that previous generations handed down to them. In an article that appeared in Thursday’s Patriot, I learned that increasingly large numbers of young people like Sandi Garcia are leaving the rat race and simplifying their lives. “I hate traffic. I hate dressing in a suit. I hate sitting under fluorescent lighting.” 29 year-old Gregg Steiner of Sherman Oaks, CA, said. These people want what is “real.”

It is, once again, a different and continually changing world out there. So what are we to do? We can hang our heads and lick our wounds, longing for the good old days when we could simply live our private, Christian lives. Or we can say, “Thanks be to God, who makes all things new!” With the fading of religious obligations—people attending church and going through the motions because it is the socially acceptable thing to do—we might very well be entering a period of time when God’s Spirit can move more freely to inspire people to seek him out of sheer hunger. With the decline of respect previously handed out to the church, perhaps now we can stand up and demonstrate genuinely godly and compassionate lives that are worthy of attention. With the increasing number of people of other faiths all around us, we can learn to reflect and develop our own faith in Jesus more seriously and to build bridges and relationships with other people who we once found to be threatening. And with the serious questions that the wonderful young people all around us are asking, perhaps we can become more transparent and, yes, more “real.”

What are we to do? We can hang our heads in despair, stubbornly persist in doing business as usual, or recognize unfolding opportunities. We can see, as does Anthony Robinson in his wonderful book entitled Transforming Congregational Culture, a book that our church board and pastoral staff are currently working through, that these cultural challenges are in fact “birth pangs, not death throes.” “Or,” Robinson continues continues, “if they are death throes, they can be experienced with a certain hopefulness, because for Christians, death precedes a resurrection.” I particularly like a comment that Walter Brueggemann once made to a group of pastors who were struggling with feeling irrelevant in an ever-changing world. “The world for which you have been so carefully preparing is being taken away from you, by the grace of God.”

This is a new day, and we can view it as an unfortunate and even threatening demise of the world as we know it, or we can see it as a time of unprecedented opportunities. We can mourn what we sometimes consider to be the deterioration of American society, or we can follow the examples of the Jews 2500 years ago and those rebuilding the VS unit today. We can prayerfully focus our eyes on Jesus, join the journey, pool our energy and resources, and work together to build a church that will make an increasingly significant difference in the lives of people all around us. I want the Grantham Church to choose the second option. I believe that God wants that too.