Second in series: Things that have changed my life
Tell me about your church
We've just started a new series of talks here at BLV: Things that have changed my life - and in it we’re talking about… things that have changed our lives.
It's a totally shameless plug but, today, the thing I'm sharing about that has changed my life is: this church… Not even kidding, I have no shame about making that today’s topic.
In all seriousness, I mean this: what has changed my life is the approach behind this church. That's what I want to talk about today
And from time to time over the last years we've given talks that we hope help people talk about this church to other people in their lives. When people in my life hear that I am a praying person, a churchgoer, I not infrequently at all get asked "tell me about your church."
How to reply to such interest sometimes feels not very obvious or even a bit challenging Because, as we say every week here at the top of our services, "generally when people talk about faith, God, the deepest things in life, it divides people - along religious, cultural, or social lines." Obviously, if asked, any of us would want to say something sensible and helpful that represents this church well... and that explains why, perhaps contrary to popular belief, being involved in a church is awesome for us!
So today, in talking about the approach behind this church that has changed my life, part of my goal is to share how I personally have been telling people about our church of late -- my latest "elevator pitch" so to speak.
It comes back to a teaching of Jesus. You can follow in your program if you’d like from Matthew 13 in the Bible...
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
*Just a quick aside, this is one of the funniest Jesus lines to take out of context… I recommend this for use with family and roommates Vince, did you not tell me you cleaned up? Where did these dirty dishes come from? An enemy did this. OK… back to the passage...
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
So Jesus is saying: Let’s say life is like an in-between time - the time between seeds being sown and the wheat that grows being harvested (or cut down for use) In this in-between time, there’s good (the wheat sown by the owner) and there’s bad (the weeds sown by the owner’s enemy) And, evidently, there are some people, servants, who get the opportunity to help the land-owner tend his field during this in-between time The temptation for humans that Jesus is pointing to with this parable is found in the servants’ question: “We should pull up the weeds, right?” - We humans want to be the ones weeding… this is good, this is bad… this person is in, this person is out The message Jesus seems to be delivering though is: Humans can’t be trusted to weed well… He says no, because we will pull up wheat on accident… That job is “above our pay grade”… it’s not in our capacity The owner of the field, or God, is the one who takes on the responsibility of weeding And we can trust him to be just and good and wise come “the harvest” - say, at the end of a life, or at the end of time (Kyle offered some really helpful thoughts on this just last week) But, in this in-between time, if we wish to help God tend his field our job is to: 1) Trust weeding to God 2) Just keep watering the soil (because, regardless of the weeds, that wheat needs to grow!) Essentially, this is a parable about what to do when people want to step outside of themselves and have an impact on other people So you want to help God tend his field? Okay, here’s the great temptation you will face… you will want to weed that field, and you’ll think you’re capable of it
There’s another image that helps me think about this — perhaps some of you will have heard me or Kyle talk about it before. Imagine a piece of paper with a circle drawn on it. The thing about circles is that you’re either inside of them or you’re outside of them. So I grew up in the Chicago area. If you’re from another part of the world, sorry. You’re outside of my circle. I don’t mean to exclude you, but you just are. I’m a Bulls fans. If you support a different basketball team, sorry but you’re outside of that circle. And so on until the circle can go down to just me. Let’s call the circle a “bounded set.” Now imagine a second piece of paper with a big dot right in the middle of it. This shows a different kind of set. The dot in the middle represents what holds the set together, and, let’s say, on this piece of paper there are a million other smaller dots which represent everyone on earth. For each of those dots (us) it’s not about whether we’re inside of something or outside of something. It’s about motion. Are you moving towards whatever is the center of the set or veering in some other direction? We’ll call this a “centered set.” Both are ways to hold people together, BUT one is focused on what makes the group exclusive - boundary lines The other is focused on what makes being held together worth it in the first place - the thing at the center of the set
Now, I should say, even though bounded sets revolve around exclusion, they are not by definition bad. In lots of settings bounded-sets are important and great things Like, say, a recent immigrant or refugee, overwhelmed upon entrance into American society and culture, landing in Chicago and finding a small community of people from their home nation in Albany Park Albany Park has a legacy of this sort of thing… Did you know the zip code that includes Albany Park, 60625, is something like the third most diverse zip code in the country? That group of people from the same nation who speak the same language and share experiences and eat foods familiar to this recent immigrant or refugee would absolutely be a bounded-set… to the maximum power… And that’s good!… that’s exactly what someone would need in such a challenging time. And, anyway, we all have bounded-sets because we all have cultures and backgrounds and interests, so that would suck for us all if bounded-sets were bad by definition.
Bounded-sets become troublesome when they try to step outside of themselves and have an impact on other people, on a wider world Because then you’re getting into the territory of pronouncing judgments on people and laying requirements on people not already in your set -- again the boundary lines are everything That's exactly the message of the Parable of the weeds What does Jesus indicate is the great temptation when you want to step out beyond yourself and be a servant for the landowner? You’re going to think you’re capable of weeding this vast new field of people you’re entering into… you’re going to think that if you ask God “we should pull up the weeds, right?” he’s going to say: Yes. You know the boundaries, you know what’s wheat and what’s a weed, get down to it. But he’s not saying that! He’s saying: you don’t know! you can’t know! Leave that to me.
It's worth noting for us, Brown Line Vineyard, that this is a real danger for churches in particular Churches often have very huge mission statements about stepping out and changing people and culture and the world BUT churches are also often very clearly-defined bounded-sets. Whether explicitly or implicitly, it’s clear who’s in and who’s out. Usually churches don’t realize this. And it can come as a shock to them that their good intentions to change the world might sometimes be received by some as insensitive or harmful. In the worst cases, conversion tactics are disguised as open conversation… and people are condescended and shamed I wonder if that describes any of your past religious experiences in this room?
All of this is why we acknowledge at the top of every service here at BLV that: We get it that usually when people talk about faith or church, it leads to division. The fact is: anytime any of us might be responding to “tell me about your church” from some lovely person in our lives… It is likely we will have one more uninvited invisible conversation partner in addition to that lovely person asking us It’s the checkered history of bounded-set churches that step out to engage the wider world and, predictably, end up causing harm
But, the alternative: a centered-set church with a mission to step out and change the world That is something that, I think, would be welcomed and embraced as something any wider community very much wants and needs Because, in such a church, the focus would not be on whether people are in or out, wheat or weeds But rather on helping people move toward the center (Jesus), on watering the soil so wheat can grow This is what we are trying to be here at Brown Line Vineyard I want to give some examples of how...
And in doing so, I want to leave you all with my latest elevator pitch for our church, when I respond to the question "tell me about your church” It’s basically two things I try to communicate: First, that we are a centered-set Second, what being centered on Jesus means in terms of what we do Here’s how those two things sound: To communicate that we are a centered-set I sometimes literally explain the two sets to people like I did for you all today, But I’m also a nerd and I went to school for education and this is how I talk, so that works for me… That’s not at all required to talk about our church Telling a story or just talking about your personal experience is often the best way to communicate centered-set I sometimes tell people about the small group I was a part of through this church that read together materials on racial reconciliation, and then created space for each of us to share our different stories of racial and social identity That group changed me. As a white man, I do not know what it's like to live as an immigrant, or as a black woman, or as a white woman for that matter, and now I have more appreciation for my lack of knowing, and a glimpse into the worlds of others different from me. Or I sometimes tell people about how, even though I’m now a pastor and I have been a committed churchgoer for nearly half my life, I often feel out of place in church settings because I didn’t grow up a churchgoer (and there’s so much culture in church — the things people find funny, the movies and tv shows they reference, the books they’ve read)… BUT I never feel that at BLV… at BLV I’m not left in the dark on jokes or considered a second-class citizen because of my lack of churchgoing background Do you hear centered-set behind those? Or here’s some stories I’ve picked up from people in the community that communicate centered-set: BLV welcomed my family even though my spouse and I are in different places spiritually BLV teaches me about spirituality from diverse perspectives within the Jesus tradition — Catholic & Protestant, East & West, recent & ancient voices One person wrote: In some past church experiences I felt reserved about inviting friends, that they'd feel judged or imposed on, but with BLV I don't feel that - it's about community, not recruitment Another told me: I had preconceived notions about churches upon my first visit to BLV. I expected to be bombarded with questions like a salesperson following you around a store. I was certainly welcomed but given space to be myself and open up at my own pace. So what personal experience could you pass on if someone wants to hear more about our church that would communicate: this is a centered-set? And then, second, I try to communicate what I think being a centered-set with Jesus as our center means in terms of what we do I tell people that we are not a community that tries to get people following a set of rules, but a community that tries to get people following a person -- Jesus… A big part of that is learning about the life of Jesus in the Bible And the other big part of that is our church’s spiritual and mystical side We are a church that is struck not just by Jesus as a historical figure we can read about in a book, We are struck by Jesus’ Holy Spirit -- we are struck by the experiences we’ve had of a God who is interactive and in real time with us A God we can actually experience in prayer, a God we can get feedback from as we go, Following Jesus is not just aligning with some ancient ethic that can be outlined on a page, it is following a person, And just like any person we might be following, we have to be continuously watching them -- for what they do next, where they turn next… Following is about an ongoing relationship with the person you’re following And so, because following Jesus is an alive, ongoing, constantly-evolving relationship, not a static thing... I tend to just tell people I’m in conversation with about our church what I feel Jesus has had us pursuing lately Lately I’ve been saying that we are a community trying to engage our wider community by pursuing the compassion and justice and personal growth work of Jesus Compassion, justice, and personal growth… I like what those three say: kindness and goodness toward others… but not only being kind and good… also being active in pursuing the change our world needs - that's the justice piece and all on a foundation of pursuing personal growth — none of this happens in an ongoing way without that passion might do well carrying someone for a year… But maturity, wisdom, self-leadership, humility and the ability to admit limitations and mistakes — these are the things that Jesus embodied and taught that can carry people for lifetimes of being engaged in the suffering of the world, not hiding from it, Tapping into a source of life beyond will power or grim driveness or obligation People who grow up not just grow old are those that change the world
So "tell you about my church?"… We are a centered-set community, and We follow Jesus, the person, not just the ideal… Right now he has pursuing compassion, justice, and personal growth Perhaps that helps you as you think about how you might tell the lovely people in your life about Brown Line
Alright I want to pray for us, and two things strike me as helpful to pray about this morning First, for those of us who notice (in our conversations about faith or this church) that uninvited invisible conversation partner: the ugly history of bounded-set churches overstepping their bounds and hurting people And then, second, for the communication that goes out of our church about our church. I want to pray for that, that it would be centered-set through and through… that it would heed Jesus’ words from the parable of the weeds The church actually has a big advertising campaign going out in a month, that a group of BLV stakeholders have crafted themselves It’s a multi-media campaign - video, website, print We’re very excited about it… so let’s pray for over it!
After I pray, Keziah is going to help us stay in a space of prayer by leading us in song Engage in whatever way feels best to you: Singing along or just sitting back letting the music hit you.
And then I want to invite you to be prayed for by someone on our prayer team, Especially if what I’m praying is hitting you in particular, or if you came in today feeling some kind of weight -- emotional, physical, circumstantial, whatever… Our prayer team are trained, safe folks, who are here to help you have an interaction with Jesus and receive help from him. They’ll be in the middle section of the theater with a lanyard that says prayer team. No one is going to make you feel uncomfortable or give you unasked for advice, and everything you share is confidential.
Stand with me and I’ll pray