Growing the Church
Zechariah 8:9-13 Let your hands be strong
Thus says the Lord of hosts: Let your hands be strong--you that have recently been hearing these words from the mouths of the prophets who were present when the foundation was laid for the rebuilding of the temple, the house of the Lord of hosts. For before those days there were no wages for people or for animals, nor was there any safety from the foe for those who went out or came in, and I set them all against one another. But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, says the Lord of hosts. For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.
Mark 4:26-34 The kingdom grows from a seed
Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Apocalypse Explained #911c.17 The kingdom of God
"The kingdom of God" means the Lord's church in heaven and on earth. This passage describes God's kingdom being planted in all people who receive true and good things from the Lord, and not from themselves. Every detail corresponds to and symbolizes something spiritual.... "Seed" symbolizes the divine truth, and "scattering seed on the ground" means the work we humans do. "Rising day and night" and finally "putting in the sickle" symbolizes all the changes we go through. When we "rest" it means that the Lord is working, and the "harvest" means planting the church in people, both as a group and as individuals.
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. (Mark 4:26, 27)
One of the things I love about the teachings of our church is that everything is related to everything else, and things mirror each other from the tiniest particle up through every level, even to the entire universe. Ours is a holistic religion, in which we view everything as connected. This, of course, is because everything in the universe comes from God and is an expression of some aspect of God. And since God is completely unified and at one, everything else in the universe is tied to every other thing in the universe through this connection with God's oneness.
This means that no matter what topic we may choose, and no matter what we are facing, it relates to God; it also relates to the universe; it relates to the entire world and the human population on it; it relates to a nation or a city or a town or a neighborhood or an individual person. It also relates to one of the organs or cells in our body--and to a fleeting thought or feeling that make up a moment of our day.
Today's sermon topic is an example of this law of the universal and specific relevance of all things. Because we had our Annual Meeting last week, and we have a Church Committee meeting this week, church growth has been on my mind--and that is what I want to talk about today. But this week we also celebrate Earth Day, and, lo and behold, plants, which grow from the earth, are a symbol not only of nature, but of human growth, both as individuals and as groups such as churches. So when we talk about "Growing the Church," on another level we are talking about growing plants, and on another level we are also talking about our own individual spiritual growth.
This is fortunate, since while some of us may be in a state of mind where we are concerned with this (or another) church's growth as a body and as a community of faith, others may be more concerned at this moment with issues of inner, personal growth, or of interpersonal growth in a relationship or family. Or we may be concerned with the way our world is going, and wondering how human society can grow into something closer to our ideals of human peace, harmony, and mutual love and service.
If we get into the spirit of our church's teachings, then whatever level I or anyone else is speaking on, we can put those thoughts or ideas through our mental "transformer" and come out with something that is helpful for the level on which we are at this moment. I hope each of you will be able to do this transforming with my thoughts today.
To get into the topic of growing the church, let's first take a brief look at where we are as a church at this moment. I have now been through almost two church years with you as your pastor, and we have accomplished many good things together. We have improved the quality of our service with music, printed service bulletins, and other enhancements, and have held many special services, attracting up to 100 people. We have also made a start on outreach into the community, especially with our Angels workshop, which has provided us with a continuing theme for a number of special events this year. We have received a great deal of publicity for the planned rebuilding of our steeple. And now we are launching a Wedding Ministry. We have done a lot more than this, but if I listed them all I wouldn't have any time left to finish the sermon! This is the positive side of things.
And yet the other side of the coin is that after nearly two years, instead of growing, we have actually dropped off a bit in numbers, both in our church membership and in our church attendance. Of course, we know that some of this is due to members who have died or who are no longer able to attend services with us. Still, it feels as if we are headed in the wrong direction. All the effort we've been putting out should be bearing some fruit!
I've thought about this a lot lately, and I am helped by the image found in our reading from Mark's Gospel:
Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-29)
This reminds me of a story in one of my favorite series of children's books. In the Frog and Toad stories, written by Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad are best buddies. They do everything together. Sometimes one of them (usually Toad), gets a funny idea in his head, and the other tries to talk some sense into him. I want to read you the story, "A Garden," found in the book Frog and Toad Together.
Frog was in his garden. Toad came walking by. "What a fine garden you have, Frog," He said.
"Yes, said Frog. "It is very nice, but it is hard work."
"I wish I had a garden," said Toad.
"Here are some flower seeds. Plant them in the ground," said Frog, "and soon you will have a garden."
"How soon?" asked Toad.
"Quite soon," said Frog.
Toad ran home. He planted the flower seeds. "Now seeds, said Toad, "start growing." Toad walked up and down a few times. The seeds did not start to grow. Toad put his head close to the ground and said loudly, "Now seeds, start growing!" Toad looked at the ground again. The seeds did not start to grow. Toad put his head very close to the ground and shouted, "NOW SEEDS, START GROWING!"
Frog came running up the path. "What is all this noise?" he asked.
"My seeds will not grow," said Toad.
"You are shouting too much," said Frog. "These poor seeds are afraid to grow."
"My seeds are afraid to grow?" asked Toad.
"Of course," said Frog. "Leave them alone for a few days. Let the sun shine on them, let the rain fall on them. Soon your seeds will start to grow."
That night Toad looked out of his window. "Drat!" said Toad. "My seeds have not started to grow. They must be afraid of the dark."
Toad went out to his garden with some candles. "I will read the seeds a story," said Toad. "Then they will not be afraid." Toad read a long story to his seeds. All the next day Toad sang songs to his seeds. And all the next day Toad read poems to his seeds. And all the next day Toad played music for his seeds. Toad looked at the ground. The seeds still did not start to grow. "What shall I do?" cried Toad. "These must be the most frightened seeds in the whole world!" Then Toad felt very tired, and he fell asleep.
"Toad, Toad, wake up," said Frog. "Look at your garden!"
Toad looked at his garden. Little green plants were coming up out of the ground. "At last," shouted Toad, "my seeds have stopped being afraid to grow!"
"And now you will have a nice garden too," said Frog.
"Yes," said Toad, "but you were right, Frog. It was very hard work."
I think we all know just how Toad feels. Whether it's seeds we're growing, or children, or our own selves, or a church, we want those seeds to start growing right away! And we are convinced that if we can just get the right formula, and do it in the right way, they will indeed start growing, and we can enjoy that nice garden we see in our minds.
But that is not how it works. Of course, the efforts we make are important--even if some of them may be a tad off the mark. Despite Frog's self-assurance in his own wisdom, Toad's seeds were not really afraid to grow; it simply wasn't their time yet. And though there is intriguing evidence that plants do respond to our emotional states, Frog really hit the nail on the head when he said, "Leave them alone for a few days. Let the sun shine on them, let the rain fall on them. Soon your seeds will start to grow."
For behind all of our efforts, as important as they are, there lies the real doer of all the work--the one who really causes the seeds to grow. That doer, of course, is the Lord. Frog and Toad agree with the Bible and with Swedenborg: when we rest and sleep, that is when the Lord is especially active, working to bring about the fruits of our labor; working to cause the seeds that we have planted to grow. We think we are the ones who do the hard work, but really, we simply plant the seeds and water them, and the Lord does all the rest.
Our church is planting seeds. We are planting seeds within our church when we look at our Sunday worship service, at our Sunday School, and at our other activities to see where we can make them more effective in carrying out the goals of our church; how they can serve the spiritual needs of newcomers while continuing to serve our own spiritual needs. We are planting seeds when we consider how we as people can be more welcoming to those who visit our church. We are planting seeds when we reach out into our community, offering programs that speak to people and give them inspiration, while scattering abroad the seed of our church's teachings. We are planting seeds when we talk to friends, neighbors, and acquaintances about the things that are going on at our church.
As I said in the closing words of my Pastor's Report to our Annual Meeting last Tuesday, I am convinced that if we commit ourselves to planting these seeds of growth in a sustained and long-term way, as the years go by we will see those seeds sprout and grow, not in a quick mushrooming of growth--which tends to die off just as quickly as it originally mushroomed--but in a long term, organic, and well-rooted type of growth. And so the Lord speaks to us through the prophet Zechariah:
There shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. . . . Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.