Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“Plant Your Garden, Tell Your Story”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 23, October 13, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7 and Luke 17:11-19

As happens so often in the Biblical text, it is the outsider, here the Samaritan, a people hated by the Jews, who ends up doing the right thing. He comes back and praises God, and Jesus lifts him up as an example. So often it is the outsiders who get paid attention to, and that seem to “get” the message.

And we are at a time in which outsiders ought to be paid more attention to, in a sense. Ought to be given more of our attention. More of our attention as Christians, as the Church. I’m seeing in this passage from Luke, and especially this Jeremiah passage as I have thought of it the past few weeks. I like to read the scripture lessons a number of weeks in advance and let them roll around in my mind as things go on and I live my life and events happen. I try to put things in some kind of scriptural context.

I think we are in times that are similar to what Jeremiah and the people were experiencing, and also what these lepers are experiencing in their time.

We live in strange and wondrous times. We live in a weird time in history. In some ways it is a scary time, it is anxious time for us, both here in America and Eau Claire, and even just in the world in general. There seems to be an awful lot of anxiety out there and fear and things to worry about.

So especially this passage from Jeremiah comes at just the right time, in many ways. It is sooo relevant.

Jeremiah is sending the letter to Jewish people who had a country, but then have been forcibly moved. People put into exile into a foreign land. There are many ways in which the Church – the Church universal, all of Christianity – is living in a kind of exile in a foreign land. The world has changed so much. It is no secret if you have listened to the news or read anything about the state of the Church, it is no secret that Christianity has been declining. Certainly in America, and absolutely in Europe. In Europe the Church has really dwindled. The world has grown more secular – sort of. But within that, there is also still a great sense of spiritual longing and spiritual yearning by people. They just aren’t seeing the Church as the place to go to fulfill that, unfortunately. The Church has been slow to change.

This is not new news, but we have not spoken about it much. It seems to be the secret of the Church that we have just kept under wraps, hiding it under the covers. But since the 1960s in the U.S., Christianity has been in decline, especially the mainline churches.

This is not unique to Plymouth, to Eau Claire, to the UCC. We are, in a sense, in a foreign land as our numbers have gone down as the population has gone up. We are resident aliens in a foreign land, just as the people in Jeremiah’s time had been sent to exile in Babylon, after their country was invaded and taken over by the Babylonian Empire.

Jeremiah writes to those people in exile this Good News from God. He says, “Don’t worry. Continue to live. Be who you are. Plant your gardens. Build a house. Have a family. Have children. Trust in your future because God holds your future.” And also he says, as you make your community better, you are made better.

Imagine being sent to a foreign country. Everything you know taken away from you, and you hear these good words from God saying to go ahead and live as you normally would.

We are in a kind of exile time as well – what we have known, who we have been, our traditions, it has all been up for grabs, tossed out, churned up. People have been critiquing us from the outside because they don’t really know who we are, or what Christians are about. We are changed, by forces outside of ourselves. Much as a conquered people being forced into a new land and to learn a new culture, language, a new system of everything. A new way of being.

And it’s kind of scary, and causes some anxiety to have the world changing all as much as it is, and to see the Church changing and suffering from it. But I do not think we need to be afraid. Angels always show up and say, “Don’t be afraid.” “Fear not.” “Things are going to change, something different is coming, but don’t be afraid. God holds it all. God is in charge. God knows what God is doing. Let God be God.”

I want to give you a clear picture of what has been happening. We should have talked about this much more publicly starting 30 or 40 years ago. The National Council of Churches puts out a yearbook ever year, and the last statistics they have offered without having to pay the $55 to get the book, are from 2011. In 2011, what have been the biggest and oldest churches in the U.S. – the mainline churches – here are the changes they have gone through in membership drop, just in 2011:

The Presbyterian church lost 2.61% in 2011, and The Episcopal Church lost 2.48% in 2011, and The Missouri Synod Lutherans lost 1.08%, and Southern Baptists lost 0.42% in 2011, and United Methodists down 1.01%, and Evangelical Lutheran Church down 1.96%, and And the United Church of Christ is down 2.83%

All lost members in 2011.

Since the 1960s, the mainline churches – that’s those I listed plus some others – we are down 25%, even as the population of the country has gone up. The population in our churches has gone down by one quarter. The Presbyterian Church USA was formed 30 years, and in 30 years it is down 30%. The United Church of Christ is down almost half from what we were in the 1950s.

I think a big part of this is that people don’t really know what we are doing. We have not been good at getting out the message of who we are and what we are about. All of our churches have one brilliant ministry. We have been at the forefront of LGBT rights, women’s rights, education for women and for minorities, inclusiveness of all people. We have done incredible, incredible ministry, but people don’t know about it because we haven’t told them. We have been so quiet about what we have done. And about why we have done it (which is that we do it because Jesus calls us to do it).

There is also no longer the social pressure any more to belong to a church, so there isn’t the compulsion for people to go join. We are also kind of the victims of our own success. As we have educated people more, given women positions of power, educated women, lifted everyone up, talked about birth control and family planning... our birthrate has gone down. That is part of our decrease as well. The conservative churches that have seen growth, have seen much of it because they have a higher birthrate.

But mostly we have just been so quiet about who we are and what we are doing. We have not wanted to be “in your face”. We do incredible ministry, but tend to do it behind the scenes. We don’t advertise ourselves, talk about it so much, we’re not out in public trying to get the TV time. Part of that is that we prefer to spend the money on ministry, not telling people about it.

I was at the clergy retreat last week for the Northwest and Northeast Associations. When we get together there is always some talk about the tensions, difficulties, issues in our congregations. What one could call mostly typical stuff that churches deal with. Some more than others, some bad. But when we were together last week, I was amazed (as were they) talking with pastors that the anxiety level and tension level in our churches has skyrocketed. And it is not just church struggles, but much is feeding in from outside: toxic politics, economic anxiety from this long slump that is wearing people down, general discourse in public is so nasty and mean and that is wearing people down, some fear of the future of America. But there is also stress in the churches with declining numbers and an existential sense of wondering, Does what we are doing matter? Is it even worth doing? I think it is worth doing. But it was interesting to hear and talk about the anxiety level of our churches. There are those churches that are simply dysfunctional that have been so for a long time and will be until they figure out how to live together in peace and harmony.

The Church has the counter message to that: we have the Good News! We have the message of the Gospel, which is Don’t Be Afraid! Calm down. God is in charge Jesus has the reigns. Our power comes from the Holy Spirit. God has brought us together to do God’s work, and if God brings people together, God gives what is needed to get that done. The Church belongs to Jesus.

So even as the numbers have gone down, and Christianity not so relevant to the outside community in ways that it was, it is also an exciting time. There are no more rules about what we ought to do or ought not to do. We are free to be creative. To rethink the Church. To come up with new ways and free to lead the way. The way of being the church bringing the good news of God’s love to the people, and focusing on our communities. It might very well look different than the old ways, but not really. The Gospel Message stays the same: relationships are still important, and love is still key. That’s the message to all the anxiety that is out there. People are searching for meaning, for comfort, for a better way. We have the answer! The Hope of Jesus Christ! We have that answer.

There is a longing in people to know that there is something more to life than just going to work and watching TV at night, or whatever it is that they feel that they are spinning wheels about. People seek community, and that is where we shine. Certainly here at Plymouth, that is where we shine, is in community. In loving one another, in being welcoming. So much hope. There is in this congregation so much spirit. The Spirit is here. It is in this congregation. I can feel it and see it. Look at how generous we are to the St. Francis Food Pantry. The quits that we make. The ministry on the street that we are doing – going out and serving people. The way that we work together at thrift sales and the pie and ice cream social. How quickly we rallied last yer when we needed the new dishwasher. There is a generosity here, and a love for one another. We know each others’ names, the kids know the elderly, the elderly know our kids, and they like being together. That is a rarity in churches, and not typical, which is sad. We pray for one another ,we sing together, we eat together, we go on river cruises together. Sometimes we go eat lunch together at Culvers or Chuck’s. We like to do things together. We care about one another.

I have to say that as I talk to other clergy and our Conference Staff, people who know this congregation, who have visited here, this really is a functional congregation. This congregation works well together, and is good at being the church. I think that is A huge, huge plus that not every congregation can claim. You are all really good people and a good congregation. We have something wonderful here. I listen to some of the other ministers talking about what their churches are like, even beyond that stress level that shot up the last year I mentioned, and you guys shine. You are the ray of light. There are many clergy that hear me talk about Plymouth and say, “Wow, that’s a church I would like to serve.”

Our children enjoy being here and they’re included in the life and work of the congregation, I think there is more functionalism, more Spirit, more love for one another, more caring, more adaptability, more willingness to be the church of Jesus Christ, than in most congregations.

I am very lucky to be here and grateful for all of you, and you can be grateful for being part of this life. There is so much love for one another here, and caring, adaptability to be the church of Jesus Christ. We have something really special here. We are Open and Affirming. We are very welcoming to people who come through our doors. We trust that God is active and present. And trust that God is doing something spectacular.

We can say, “Yes, we are going to live here and make our community better. We will plant our garden and live as the resident aliens, in a sense, to bring this message out to the people in Eau Claire and beyond.”

I really think that we have everything going for us in terms of knowing how to be the church, how to be followers of Jesus, and knowing how to live that Gospel message of love for all people, Plymouth has it. We’re 90% of the way there. We have done most of the hard work of creating a community that is worth coming to. We are set to grow and fill Eau Claire with our goodness. We are getting connected with the LGBT community, and starting some other relationships. and farther than many.

The world is our oyster around here. There is so much longing from people for a church where they can be accepted, that is not anti-gay or anti-minority, that is loving and serving and doing ministry in the world. We are really good at all of that.

But, as I mentioned earlier, what we’re not so good at is letting people know that we exist. And it is not just Plymouth, it is all the mainline denominations. We have been so quiet, and so silent. But the good news is that getting the message out is not the hardest thing in the world. WE have done the hardest thing, which is to be a church that lives together very well. That likes being together and that is serving and following Jesus. That’s the hard part. Now we just have to get the word out that we are here.

That is going to be a focus here for the upcoming many months and year. To figure out how to do that.

And there are a lot of fancy things, and clever things, and programs that can be done, that one can buy and people that one can hire to come in give us the ten step program. There are certainly some options around there. But as I have been talking with pastors who are leading churches that have begun to focus on their communities and see some growth, what I see over and over is that whatever fancy system might be in use or come up with, what it always comes down to – the one recurrent and constant program that really works – is the invitation.

Most people come into a church because someone asked them to come.

The simple invitation.

That’s the part about not being quiet. About letting people know that we are here. They come because someone has invited them.

I am going to be focusing and spending energy on learning how to do this. This is just not part of our DNA in the UCC, or here. The UCC as a national is starting to get serious about this, and make some materials. But we are treading into new ground. And it’s sort of scary. We are told not to talk about religion in public. We don’t want people to think we’re “Bible Thumpers” or the screaming guy on the corner making threats or preaching the bad news to people. It doesn’t have to be that. Just a simple invitation to soeone that you know. Or your hairdresser, barber, someone at the store you’re chatting with while you’re standing in line. Not to say, “Come to church so you don’t go to hell”. That turns people off, and is not a good way to bring them in.

But to say, “You know what, I am part of a community where you would be so welcome and so loved, just as you are. This community of misfits and oddballs who would otherwise never have come together except for the Gospel message. This place where I have found love, and a place to belong, and a place of meaning. Why don’t you come join me in that?”

That kind of invitation is hard to say “No” to. Some will say no. And that is fine. Statistics say that it takes about ten invitations for every one that is accepted. But it isn’t rocket science. It is not really difficult. It might be very uncomfortable the first couple times. It certainly was for me. It is not part who I was or how I was trained.

But it can be done.

And the more that we invite, the more invitations that go out, both by you offering invitations, and me offering invitations, as well as some of the other things we can do let people know that we’re here, the more people will hear the Good News and have opportunity to be part of this spectacular community.

Many church thinkers have been writing and saying that we appear to in the birth pangs of a grand new reformation and transformation of the church, that seem to happen every 500 years. It did about the year 500, shortly after 1000, around the year 1500 (that Luther and Calvin, the Protestant Reformation). We seem to be at the cusp of another big reformation. Something is changing.

Jeremiah said to the people to go ahead and by land, buy a house, prepare for the future, plant a garden, go about your life. Don’t be afraid. Don’t fear. Don’t sit in anxiety. Just go and live. Go and be my people.

I think we are in a position for something new and grand and wondrous here, both in the Church around the world, and also here at Plymouth. Good things are happening, and have happened. This is something that we can at the front of. It means partly that we have to build ahead of us. We don’t have a road any more that has built for us. But we don’t have to build it entirely, because Jesus has been constructing this new road that we are being invited to come along on, and invite others to come and join us as we plant a garden here in Eau Claire and bring our message outside these walls. To bring it to a community that really needs to hear it. That needs to know that we are here. Needs to know the message that we – the Church of Jesus – have, and to experience the love and community that we have here at Plymouth.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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