by Ellen Sims
texts: Lamentations 3:19-26; Luke 17:5-6
On World Communion Sunday, we celebrate a God who has been faithful at all times to all the world. Even during a time of exile and despair, the writer of Lamentations could express to God, “Great is your faithfulness” (3:23) and resolve to have “hope in God” (3: 24). If we recall elsewhere in scripture that God “so loved the world” (John 3:16), we can affirm that God’s faithfulness is extravagantly offered to the entire world even if we often lack the patient faithfulness to perceive it.
Yes, our faithfulness to a life of faith is another matter. Jesus’ first followers begged him to give them more faith. “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5) they demanded, as if they’d time traveled to our century and ordered Fast Faith, like Fast Food, at a Spiritual Drive-Through and God’s static-y voice replied, “Would you like fries with that?” Unfortunately, faith isn’t so easy to order. Fortunately, as Jesus explained, our faith doesn’t have to be biggie-sized. Even a little bit of faith—the size of a mustard seed—can accomplish seemingly impossible things. Just a little faith can be enough to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea—which is one of the Bible’s strangest metaphors.
Just a little faith in God’s loving purposes can unite diverse people across the world’s cultures and times.
Just a little faith can plant new faith communities and projects of peace in our world.
On this World Communion Sunday, we can appreciate the Church Universal while also celebrating a tiny sample of the Church: our recently “planted” faith community, which represents many of the changes going on in the larger world communion of churches.
The metaphor of planting a tiny seed of faith is especially appealing to church planters like myself and perhaps to you. In many ways Open Table is just a sprouting seedling. Tending this vulnerable seedling requires patience and faithfulness. And in the case of a mulberry tree or a congregation, its full potential won’t be reached for many, many, many years. If we have mustard seed faith, we won’t be discouraged. For you, for Open Table, so much more is yet to come.
Sure, some of us know of churches that sprang up almost overnight with hundreds or thousands of members. Wistfully, we might envy their sheer numbers, so we pray, “Increase our numbers.” Worriedly, we might imagine that the key to a sudden influx of new members and financial resources is just a tweak to our marketing or one additional activity. These musings can be constructive if each of us is asking “What can I do?” rather than “What should others in the church be doing?”—and if we remain focused on following in the ways of Jesus. And if we’re not just flailing about in some misplaced belief that spirituality is a commodity we produce to fit consumer expectations. Because our mission is not to serve up the spiritual equivalent of “Happy Meals”—even if that’s what sells.
What sells is not necessarily what fills. A “happy meal” church may not strengthen you for the difficult times in life, may not satisfy you for very long, and may not address the hungers of those around us we are here to love and serve.
Open Table offers a Gospel that is demanding. And the demands of the Gospel don’t sit well with consumers who want to place an order and have God delivered to them when and where and how they wish. The good news we preach and teach is about actively following in the difficult Way of Jesus: loving even our enemies, hearing other perspective without being defensive, losing our lives in order to find them, dying to the old ego-driven self while truly believing in our own belovedness and God’s grace, living in grateful connectedness to one another and all creation. The good news we teach and preach does not promise that if we do X, God will respond with Y. The good news we celebrate has nothing to do with believing certain doctrine in order to go to heaven but has everything to do with falling trustfully into the arms of Love and working selflessly to usher in God’s ways of peace and justice right here and now. The Gospel as we understand it is not about bolstering the faith you walked in with but challenging you to hear God’s voice unsettle your convictions. The Gospel you hear at OT is not about providing pat answers but about living the questions. How many people in this city or in this world do you think will really think that’s “good news”? It may be tempting for us to sell a gospel that most people want to buy. But our mission is about following in Jesus’s way.
Not only is the Gospel we live demanding, but the community we create around this Gospel is diverse, which enriches us but sometimes makes it more challenging for us to forge community. We come from many different walks of life and church backgrounds. Our personal histories and abilities and politics vary. Our taste in music and habits and hobbies differ. We are unabashedly “out” as an open and affirming church, but we’re not “the gay church” and our progressive label means, to us, something broader than being open and affirming or social justice-oriented. Our diversity may make it challenging for some to feel instantaneous connection if they are used to making connections with people who share the same opinions and backgrounds.
Our diverse community is trying not only to live into the demanding Gospel but to do that through a deep spirituality. We try to honor silence and simplicity so that God can talk to us more than we talk to God—but silence frightens many in our noisy culture. We offer surprise and elicit participation—which might feel uncomfortable to some. We let music and art and poetry touch us deeply when we gather, but we respectfully avoid emotionally manipulative worship practices. There are no quick and easy lessons for spiritual maturity. Because sometimes that growth is not up to us. Sometimes it’s a matter of waiting patiently. As the darkness teaches. And time heals. And our roots go down deeper even as our spirits reach upward toward the Light. Spiritual maturation is hard.
Especially because life is not on hold while your pastor is rearranging the theological furniture. Death may rob you of a dear loved one just as you’re questioning what heaven means to you. Or you may lose your job or your health at the same time you’re losing your ability to read the Bible literally but before you’ve acquired a confidence in reading it any other way.
Meanwhile, in roughly the seven years since Open Table started, the number of Americans who identified themselves as Christian has dropped nearly 8%–and that trend continues. Those who say they have no religious affiliation—called the “Nones”– increased from 19 million to 57 million. This rapid change in the religious landscape is unprecedented in modern times, and many believe the majority of churches will not survive for long—or will not survive without major changes. Into this unfavorable soil at this inauspicious time our new church was planted.
But something has taken root and shows every sign of life and health.
Today’s passage from Luke assures that with faith, even just a little faith, you can be transplanted from familiar soil into a salty sea and grow even there. Even on the salty seacoast of Mobile, Alabama. Maybe even a progressive church in a conservative culture can grow and thrive. With just a little faith. Just a very little. The faithfulness you’ve shown has allowed the tiny seed planted here to produce good fruit—like Free2Be, our focal ministry, right here in Mobile.
Writer Parker Palmer in a recent interview spoke of faith and of a faithfulness to one’s own gifts, to the “points at which [one’s] gifts intersect the world’s needs in some life-giving way.” He predicted that when he takes his last breath, he won’t ask, “Did I sell enough books? Did I get enough reviews?” Instead, he said, “I’m going to be asking, given my limitations, given my fallabilities, cutting myself a lot of slack for my failure to do so, ‘Did I use my limited lifetime to show up fully as I knew how with what I’ve got?’ That’s what I call faithfulness. And I think it’s a matter of framing what we’re doing as well as [developing spiritual] practices like walking in the woods, like silence, like reading poetry, that can bring us back to those points that you might call true north.” That’s faithfulness.
Faith needed for planting a church, I can tell you, doesn’t have to be extraordinary. I had a vision of a church for our times and a modicum of ordinary faith.
If you began this journey with Open Table thinking we’d be doing church as usual and drawing in hundreds of worshipers by now, let’s be clear about our purpose and realistic about where we are planted and what we’ll need to do:
We are offering a progressive theology (not just a progressive social/political outlook) to a conservative culture.
We are planting a church at a time when church membership is in a steady decline across all denominations.
We are part of a fast food/consumerist mentality that teaches us we can be nourished in fast, convenient ways.
We are reaching out to people whom some churches have abused or disregarded–or whose worldview was not understood and appreciated.
Meanwhile we have hopeful expectations for a longer timeline—which requires a commitment to engage in the hard slow work of church planting. A mulberry tree does not grow overnight.
We are preparing now our budget for 2017 and marshaling together our leadership team for the new year. Now is the time for each of us to count the cost of participating in the hard but rewarding work to nurture the steady growth of a new church, a new kind of church, the kind of church that I believe is the very kind of church that will thrive in the coming years. Your time, your talents, your ideas, your leadership, your financial gifts are needed if Open Table is to continue serving our community’s LGBT youth with Free2Be, if we are to offer a public witness to God’s love, if we are to provide spiritual education for children and adults that will form us into more loving neighbors and parents and community members, if we are to share transformative and inspiring worship, if we are to be light and salt in our larger world.
The Church Universal began as a mustard seed. It has sometimes grown like a weed. It has sometimes, sad to say, grown like an invasive weed that has harmed people. But it has often become the sturdy mulberry tree that offers shade and fruitful bounty in the unlikeliest of places. In faith, we planted and plan to be a mulberry tree.