Back at the end of the first week of March, I attended the spring meeting of the Conference of Bishops which was held out in Itasca. I was there with a delegation of pastors and lay people to observe their conversations about how to implement the new policies regarding clergy in same gender relationships and to be a resource person for their deliberations. While I was there though, I got to listen in on a wide range of conversations between the bishops.
One in particular stands out. The bishops are all very aware of the statistics that paint the picture of a mainline Protestant church in decline. We’ve heard it before – the mainline church has lost about 25% of its members in the last twenty years across the board. It doesn’t matter if you talk about Lutherans or Methodists, liberals or conservatives, the number of Americans identifying as affiliation with any mainline Protestant denomination has been shrinking for decades. In light of that trend, the culture of our denominations is changing. Where we once assumed a large, centralized church structure with vast resources and expansive local and global mission, we are now living in an age of cutbacks and layoffs. The church, like the rest of the world, is trying to figure out how to do more with less.
So each morning, as the bishops would prepare to start their day, one of them would give a presentation on his or her vision of the future of the church – and another would give a response to that presentation. My favorite presentation came from the bishop of the Oregon Synod, Bp. David Brauer-Rieke. In his remarks he compared the beautiful sweeping wheat fields of the Midwest to the immensely bio-diverse rainforest of the Pacific Northwest saying,
The forests of the Pacific Northwest, especially the rainforests of the coastal regions, are what the earth wants to be…The rain forests of the Pacific Northwest are among the most diverse, complex, inter-dependent, flexible, adaptive and productive bio-regions on the face of the globe. When I say that this is what the rest of the earth wants to become I am not engaging in regional snobbery. Rather, this is simply scientific observation. In the dryer regions of Eastern Oregon lichens and weather break down rocks, which in time becomes a poor top soil, giving life to a little plant life – which in turn dies, decays and begins to build a somewhat richer humus, which in turn welcomes more life, more diversity, dying and building richer top soil, welcoming larger plants, animal life and more…until eventually they become a wonderfully complex, wet, green, abundant world where life grows upon life, and young and old celebrate the wonders of God together. This is what the earth does in response to God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.”
The earth in its natural state moves from arid rock to lush rainforest, moves from absence of organic life to innumerably diverse forms of plant and animal life. But this natural cycle is interrupted by human beings, who insert themselves into this circle of life in order to harness nature’s bounty for food and the raw materials with which we supply ourselves. Bp. Brauer-Rieke continues,
The ELCA – and American Lutherans historically – have been a wheat field church. This is both a metaphor and a reality. As such we have been productive and beautiful. But what this also means is that we distinguish between grain and chaff, wheat and weeds. What it means is that we do not trust diversity, we want a consistent crop. What this means is that we believe the kingdom of God is a new and improved matrix for life, and that it makes sense for us to go to war with Roundup and Rototiller to defeat the old and make room for the new.
In a…world like the one in which I live none of this makes sense. There are no weeds in the rain forest. The chaff is never wasted. Diversity is not only trusted, but understood to be a sign of health and wholeness. A [wheat field] church which sees itself as a new matrix replacing the glories of God’s creation is not only pointless, but an active evil in the eyes of [people where I live].
He concludes, “out of love and respect my children may come to my church, but they will not cultivate it. It doesn’t make sense to them.”
This question of the wheat field church versus the rain forest church is very much alive and at play – even here in Chicago, even here in Logan Square. We Lutherans may be the descendents of European farmers come to the United States over the last one-hundred and fifty years (or we may not), bringing a kind of monoculture with us into the sanctuary, but the city and the neighborhood in which we live is much more like an urban rainforest. Neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, the city of Chicago displays the kind of diversity generally reserved for rainforests and tropical reef – except that in our case it is not plant and animal life, it is human cultures.
I saw this most clearly just over a week ago when St. Luke’s hosted the memorial service for our friend, Sally Levin. Sally, who had been raised Christian and who had raised her children as Jews, grew away from affiliating herself with what she called “organized religion” and embraced a religious identity that respected questions more than answers and process over outcome. She practiced yoga and built community with people from a wide cross-section of backgrounds.
That was evident as people lined up on our sidewalk, almost two-hundred of them, to attend her service. There in that assembly we saw Jews and Christians, a few Muslims and then a variety of people who might have used the words atheist, agnostic, humanist or “spiritual, not religious” to identify themselves on the spectrum of spirituality. We began the service by naming all of those identities and welcoming everyone into the space for this occasion. Afterward those of us from St. Luke’s who were at the service heard over and over again from the guests who were with us that day how welcome they felt at our church and how, sadly, that was not always – or even usually – the case when they entered Christian churches.
Many of these people are like Bp. Brauer-Rieke’s children. They may occasionally attend a worship service in one of the massive, though declining, mainline Protestant churches in their community – but they will not be affiliating with one in any significant way.
Bp. Brauer-Rieke describes them like this,
They do not trust uniformity and they don’t want a mono-culture of faith with a flat, single dimensional spirituality. They get enough of that in their daily lives – and it doesn’t seem to be working so well.
He concludes, “I love bread – but I thirst for justice. There is a cultural divide here that we are not addressing very well, and I do not believe this is just in my part of
the church… The ELCA of tomorrow will be global in scope and creation centered; will both value and trust diversity as integral to the very essence of the Gospel; and, while global in scope, will be intensely local in focus.”
That is a bold vision for the church, and one that challenges the essence of our human nature as we hear in the lesson from Genesis this morning. There, in a portion of scripture sometimes referred to as “primeval history” – meaning that it tells stories from before the time of history, pieces of myth attempting to explain questions like, “where do we come from,” or “why are there so many different languages and cultures?” – we hear a story about a time when everyone spoke one language and how God scattered the people across the face of the earth confusing their language and creating diversity where there had been uniformity.
The way I was taught to understand this story growing up it was about human pride and divine wrath. Human beings gathered together to build a tower reaching into the heavens, and God (sounding somewhat insecure) sees this as a threat to God’s sovereignty and so decides to throw a wrench in their plans by giving them all different languages to speak and scattering them from that place, where the tower remains unfinished. That way of understanding the story confused me – why was God so mean and insecure?
Recently I’ve read, and shared with some of you, a different interpretation of the story that both makes more sense and explains God’s behavior in a way that seems more consistent with images of God in the rest of the bible, and with how I experience God in my own life.
In this interpretation God is not offended by the tower of Babel, but God is concerned that the people have all huddled together, speaking one language, building a city and a tower and fortifying their position on the earth. Although God had created the earth, and everything in it in all its marvelous, extravagant diversity, and had sent humans beings out with the command to be like the earth, fruitful and multiplicitous – already here they were beginning to focus on rationing and stagnation.
So God comes down and gifts them – not punishes them – with different languages, different cultures. They cannot stay huddled in their city, speaking only to those who know their language, they must leave and develop new communities. They must be fruitful and multiply.
Leaving the primeval history of Genesis behind and entering into the realm of recorded history and the story of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring on the first Pentecost, we notice that the world is now teeming with human diversity, overflowing with so many languages, and very confused. God’s miracle in the church on that day is instructive for us today – at the birth of the church, the people of God were given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in “other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Representatives of the known world are there at that moment, and each hears the apostles speaking in their own native language.
In the language of the church, when we talk about accompaniment we mean finding ways to come alongside those we do not already know and building new relationships by being with them where they are. Accompaniment is the language of mission, it is the method for evangelization – but too often it is misused as bait for luring people into an experience of church, only to then try and get them to speak our language and adopt our culture. We may throw a Boulevard Bash filled with alternative music and beer during the summer – but come fall we hope folks will come learn our songs and eat our kind of food.
Here we are not so different from the early church either. Even those apostles who were used by the Holy Spirit to proclaim good news to all the known earth in all of its many languages, go on from that point in story after story about what to do with all the outsiders they keep meeting. The rest of the book of Acts after this moment, much of which we’ve been reading this Easter season, is devoted to showing us that we humans keep trying to build our city, but that God is determined to send us out of our safe places to encounter the spectacular, wild diversity God has made and called good.
What new languages would we need to learn if we were to step more boldly outside our doors? I ask this question both actually and metaphorically. What languages would we need to learn in order to be understood by those with whom we share this urban rainforest? Perhaps Spanish, perhaps Polish. Maybe also Catholic, or Jewish, or “spiritual, not religious.” What new words would we have to use in worship to be understood by those who don’t come into this building with three generations of Lutheranism behind them? What new songs would we have to sing to be welcoming to the people who live on our block? What symbols or signs would we hang on our doors, on our walls, in our sanctuaries and in our halls if we wanted to meet people where they are?
It seems like we’ve been in festival season forever. There was just barely a break between the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle and the Lent-Easter-Pentecost cycle. But next week we move into the long summer season called “Time after Pentecost” or “ordinary time.” We strip out some of the pieces of the liturgy – not just because it’s hot outside and we want to get done a little earlier – but so that we can focus a little more on other elements of our worship.
In the past few years we’ve used these summer months to hear the creeds and other affirmations of faith used by our full communion partner churches, listening to the slightly different language they use to describe their encounter with God. This summer you’ll get an opportunity to take a step back from the worship life at St. Luke’s and ask some deeper questions about what we do when we gather: how do our words, our songs, our proclamation, and even our building reflect a desire to accompany the people who live outside these walls?
When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit” we invite the presence of a God who wants to push us outside the walls and towers we would build for ourselves. When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit” we call upon a God who would teach us new languages, new words, new songs, new stories, new ways of being with those who fill the world in all its wonderful diversity. It is a prayer that threatens every security, challenges every norm. It is calling on the God who made this world, who recreates us in Christ, and who is empowering us by the Holy Spirit to leave our towers behind to encounter the rest of God’s wild creation.