Sermon – June 17, 2012

Posted on June 18, 2012


An interesting hymn to sing at this point in the church year…

We are in the first weeks of the Pentecost Season in which we think about the working of God’s Spirit among the people of God.

We think about the church – being the “Body of Christ” in worship and in the world of which each of us is a part.

God is transforming and bringing about growth… bringing life to where there is death, hope where there is despair, new possibility to where we might be stuck.

I found today’s first reading from the book of Ezekiel to be interesting.

It is a parable… an allegory… and it carries symbolism that connects with the people’s current situation of life: the Exile.

The word, Ezekiel, is comprised of two Hebrew words.

The latter part, El, is a generic word for God.

The first part, hazaq, is to be or become strong, hard, courageous… a word which might be spoken to soldiers for encouragement.

It is ALSO used in the Bible to indicate things hard or strong such as Egypt’s severe (strong) famine… or Pharoah’s hard heart.

Like most biblical characters the meaning of a person’s name indicates something of who they are, what they are, what they say.

Ezekiel addresses a “strong-famine” experience inIsrael’s history… the exile… in whichIsraellooses its strength… it’s very being.

Ezekiel’s words can be harshly condemning, as occurs in the previous chapter, or can be filled with profound hope that God is doing a new thing in the midst of the struggle and hard realities.

And so, we sing today a song of Lent… struggle… hard realities… threat… but God is bringing about new life.

Yes, life is bursting forth all around us in our gardens at this time in this northern hemisphere.

Of course, under the seen life are the roots and the complexities of forces that combine to burst forth in life and new possibility.

I know that many consider the flowers and leaves of our gardens to have a kind of beauty about them…

But the life of the ROOTS… that’s another matter.

The stuff in the dirt… the decay which contributed to the richness of soil… the teeming life of creatures and plants and bacteria…

It is so very complex and kind of ugly, especially compared with the beauty of the presentation above the ground.

I encountered a couple of articles this week, while pondering some of these things, and decided to provide copies for those who might wish to ponder these ideas beyond our time of worship.

Peter Steinke is a teacher, trainer, theologian, and more… I’ve been a student (disciple) of his for many years.

He briefly describes in his little essay, There Once Was a World, that our churches are currently living in a radically different set of environments and society forces from just a few years ago.

In his recent training series, like Ezekiel, he sees the kinds of forces that challenge the church and its life… and also sees the possibilities that God’s Spirit is working among God’s people in powerful ways: adapting… transforming… renewing… creating…

Our time, because of its challenges and complexities, is like a time that a “door is set open”.

All of us need to keep rethinking and being open to new developments in the church… God’s church.

Like Ezekiel’s message, we lift our eyes to what God might be doing… we pay attention to what God’s mission for us might be.

We find new strength… new strength and hardness to endure and persevere… new hope of possibility.

The second article I included today is an article by an Associated Press medical writer about a new report released just this week.

It describes the complexity/diversity of life in the bodies we inhabit…

“But, aren’t I just me?”

Well, like the root and soil systems of a plant our bodies contain innumerable life forms… bacteria, cells, awe-inspiring numbers of micro-organisms.

The study was about trying to number them.

Why would I bring up such information?

It might be a metaphor of God’s kingdom that we could consider.

The article implies that the kinds of information made available this week is humbling to our current understandings of what the body is and how it works.

It shows how much MORE work is needed to understand this world within us and all around us.

As one project leader states, “We are essentially blind to many of the services that our microbial ecosystems provide – and on which our health depends.”

Complexity, new knowledge, new challenges, new exile experiences…

We encourage one another to be strong, to find possibility, to be open to what God might be up to in our world, in our communities, in our lives, in our church.

Ezekiel’s message is for us as much as it was to those ofIsrael’s exile time… some 500 years or so before Jesus’ time.

Turning to Jesus’ time for a bit… the gospel reading is also about life springing forth from what seems small, insignificant, hopeless.

The parable about seeds and plants represents some of the scientific understanding of Jesus’ time.

(Do you suppose that Jesus knew what bacterial microbes are and the many thousands of different bacterial species within his own body?)

Like Ezekiel, Jesus offers a parable, symbolic of what God’s kingdom is like that is brought into being through the life of Jesus.

That which is very small, insignificant-seeming is the arena of God’s presence and work of God’s spirit in life.

Just as the tiny mustard seed produces a significant plant that has all kinds of benefits to other life, so God’s kingdom looks and acts like that.

Just as a seed, which when sown seems to whither and decay,  springs forth with abundant new life (even though we do not really know all of the HOW).

So too, God’s kingdom transforms, adapts, holds foundational substance, and can create new life.

Consider taking the time later in the week to read through the scripture readings of today together with the couple articles I included in the bulletin.

Ponder how God speaks to YOU in these words.

How might you be touched by the word from “Ezekiel” (which means strengthened by God or God’s strength)?

How might you be touched by the word from “Jesus” (which means saved by God or God’s salvation)?

I close with a quick synopsis of one more thing I read this week, a brief introduction to a workshop on transformation and mission.

The writer is a bit like the Ezekiel writer in suggesting that trouble experienced in today’s church is not so much about growing secularization or privatization of faith as much as “church leaders who have opted for chaplaincy roles instead of being bold, visionary leaders in mission… choosing to be care-givers for a church in hospice, rather than equipping God’s people to be front-line missionaries of the gospel to a hurting world.

He, like Peter Steinke, is calling contemporary church leaders to consider how they/we are called to mission…

  • keeping mission and visions of mission as foundational,
  • focusing outward over focusing inward (toward mission),
  • adapting to modern challenges with creative vision inspired by God’s Spirit,
  • collaborating with one another for health and vitality of life and mission (reflecting the second article?),
  • being a transforming agent, empowered by God’s spirit to change, grow, become, develop, carry out God’s mission in us.

All of the scripture passages of today lift up God’s preferred and promised future possibilities.

We are empowered to continue offering good news of God’s grace to the world around us.

We continue telling an old, old, story in new ways to our emerging world.

There Once Was a World by Peter L. Steinke

There once was a world where the church functioned according to what some have called the “attractional” model (others have named it the participatory model). People come to a place, consume the spiritual goods, and serve as patrons to “meet the budget.” But a shift has happened. North American culture has taken new turns.

Christendom refers to a period of time when the Christian faith profoundly informed the culture. And, in turn, the culture carried the traditions, symbols, and rituals of the Christian faith. Another often-used term—post-Christian era—captures the reality that the importance and influence of Christianity in North American society has been in decline for at least three decades. In a “post-Christian” world, the church cannot expect favorable treatment or higher visibility.

One could say that a gathering storm—a confluence of factors—has assailed the church and its dominant perch on the societal ladder. None of this has to do with the church’s internal functioning. The sea change is external or contextual. There once was a world that was eager to be hospitable to Christian churches and supported “blue laws,” soccerless Sundays, eating fish rather than meat on Friday, public prayer in schools and at nodal events, deferring to clergy by way of discounts, weekly religion sections in urban newspapers, and greeting others with “Merry Christmas.” Now, suddenly, with steep changes happening in our society, congregations have to ask themselves whether they are responding to a world that no longer exists.

The loss of members, influence, and a sense of mission—the church’s misfortune of the moment—resembles the experience ofIsrael’s exile. The lesson of the present dislocation is clear, if still not learned. The era of Christendom is gone. No longer is culture subsidizing and supporting churches.

Today’s rapidly changing world is pressing the church to respond to a shift of paradigms—but not for the first time. In previous shifts, the church has both responded slowly and responded imaginatively. More than once, much of what people have thought and done has had to be reworked.

Each shift carried both danger and opportunity. In today’s context, the church is challenged by the astonishing pace of change in the world. We are in some ways ill prepared to act rapidly, since the church is as an entity made up of people who are creatures of nature, subject to seasons, rhythms, and stages. We cannot be mechanically geared for shifting quickly.

Regardless of the nature of change, the church affirms that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God who has been active in history and who will be active in the future. Faced with a strange new world, the church is challenged to be true to its purpose and attuned to its context. I believe the paradigm shift of rapid change constitutes a rich opportunity for the church. God has set the door open to the future. But the new day is as perplexing as it is promising. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains, “It is abundantly and unmistakably clear that we are in a deep dislocation in our society that touches every aspect of our lives.” We are living in a new context where old certainties are disappearing, old institutions are less dependable, old assumptions are questionable, and old neighborhoods are less cohesive. Logically, if not spiritually, we may even have to allow for the possibility that these dislocations could be part of God’s new creation. It may be God working through the unknown that contributes to the destabilization of the world. God is no stranger toEden’s deportation,Babel’s scattering, the exodus, the exile, and crucifixion. God can be surprising, mysterious, taking history into unexpected turns.

The challenge of change for a congregation on a steady downward slope is precisely to redefine and redirect its mission. They have to realize that decline is not an end to mission. Yes, they are mere shadows of their past. Yes, rethinking mission is difficult, for congregations are burdened by big or deteriorating buildings, smaller staffs, a paucity of young families, and a shortage of hope. But expansion is not the sole gauge of mission orientation. One problem with this thinking is the belief that, for congregations, all things are equal. But congregations are not in the same place, same stage, or same circumstance. That’s not reality.

Congregations may hanker for a technique that will bring about results they want to achieve; they want to replicate what has been discovered by someone else: “Give me a copy of the wonderful plans.” Seeing what those plans have done for others, they want the same result—but without going through the process that got the others to that point. The shortcut of imitation certainly bypasses a lot of pain. How churches hunger for precisely this situation.

Meaningful, lasting outcomes are the result of the journey and the learning that takes place. Maybe a word of caution should be stamped on all programs: “Not transferable.” Transition time is life’s curriculum. Being on the path opens new insight; being on the path, not the steps one takes, is the very condition necessary for learning.

The Bible is replete with stories of transition and exile. Jacob, who was always a wimpy character, is on his way to meet the brother he tricked and fooled. He struggles with an angel on the wet banks of the JabbokRiver, and out of the struggle finds strength to meet his brother. Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness—alone, hungry, numb—and the devil tempts him three times. The process of thinking, testing, and exploring contains the lessons. Churches need to remember that no handbook is available on freelancing mission. Only by going out, being there, and seeing from a fresh angle will the process lead to learning. Discovering how to respond to shifts and changes is the learning. Self-confidence is a byproduct. But growth is in the struggle, the push, and the journey.

A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope by Peter L. Steinke
We resist change less when we associate it with mission and fortify it with hope. So argues longtime congregational consultant Peter Steinke in his fourth book, A Door Set Open, as he explores the relationship between the challenges of change and our own responses to new ideas and experiences.

The Once and Future Church Collection by Loren B. Mead
In 1991 The Once and Future Church by Alban Institute founder and former director Loren B. Mead created an instant sensation in congregational circles with its prophetic insights into the life of the church in a post-Christendom era. Still quoted often and in demand, the book stands as Alban’s all-time best seller. Two subsequent titles, Transforming Congregations for the Future and Five Challenges for the Once and Future Church, extended Mead’s original vision with similar success.

Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman
Sacred Strategies is about eight synagogues that reached out and helped people connect to Jewish life in a new way—congregations that had gone from commonplace to extraordinary. The researchers of this book write for synagogue leaders eager to transform their congregations, federations and foundations interested in encouraging and supporting this transformation, and researchers in congregational studies who will want to explore further.

The Postmodern Parish: New Ministry for a New Era by Jim Kitchens
Congregational leaders will appreciate Kitchens’ pointed and realistic analysis of fundamental shifts in ministry that have taken place in our postmodern, post-Christian, and postdenominational world. The Postmodern Parish shows leaders how to help their congregations be the body of Christ in ways that will be both faithful to the gospel and responsive to our emerging cultural context.

Human Microbiome Project: 10,000 Species Of Microbes In And On Our Bodies


WASHINGTON — They live on your skin, up your nose, in your gut – enough bacteria, fungi and other microbes that collected together could weigh, amazingly, a few pounds.

Now scientists have mapped just which critters normally live in or on us and where, calculating that healthy people can share their bodies with more than 10,000 species of microbes.

Don’t say “eeew” just yet. Many of these organisms work to keep humans healthy, and results reported Wednesday from the government’s Human Microbiome Project define what’s normal in this mysterious netherworld.

One surprise: It turns out that nearly everybody harbors low levels of some harmful types of bacteria, pathogens that are known for causing specific infections. But when a person is healthy – like the 242U.S.adults who volunteered to be tested for the project – those bugs simply quietly coexist with benign or helpful microbes, perhaps kept in check by them.

The next step is to explore what doctors really want to know: Why do the bad bugs harm some people and not others? What changes a person’s microbial zoo that puts them at risk for diseases ranging from infections to irritable bowel syndrome to psoriasis?

Already the findings are reshaping scientists’ views of how people stay healthy, or not.

“This is a whole new way of looking at human biology and human disease, and it’s awe-inspiring,” said Dr. Phillip Tarr of Washington University at St. Louis, one of the lead researchers in the $173 million project, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“These bacteria are not passengers,” Tarr stressed. “They are metabolically active. As a community, we now have to reckon with them like we have to reckon with the ecosystem in a forest or a body of water.”

And like environmental ecosystems, your microbial makeup varies widely by body part. Your skin could be like a rainforest, your intestines teeming with different species like an ocean.,microbiome,project%3A,10,000,species,of,microbes,in,and,on,our,bodies,healthy,living Scientists have long known that the human body coexists with trillions of individual germs, what they call the microbiome. Until now, they’ve mostly studied those that cause disease: You may recall health officials saying about a third of the population carries Staphylococcus aureus harmlessly in their noses or on their skin but can infect others.

But no one knew all the types of microbes that live in healthy people or where, and what they do. Some 200 scientists from nearly 80 research institutions worked together for five years on this first-ever census to begin answering those questions by unraveling the DNA of these microbes, with some of the same methods used to decode human genetics. The results were published Wednesday in a series of reports in the journals Nature and the Public Library of Science.

First, the researchers had to collect tissue samples from more than a dozen body sites – the mouth, nose, different spots of skin, the vagina in women, and from feces. Then they teased apart the bacterial DNA from the human DNA, and started analyzing organisms with some daunting names: Lactobacillus crispatus, Streptococcus mitis, Corynebacterium accolens.

Our bodies are thought to be home to about 10 bacterial cells for every human cell, but they’re so small that together microbes make up about 1 percent to 3 percent of someone’s body mass, explained Dr. Eric Green, director of NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. That means a 200-pound person could harbor as much as 6 pounds of bacteria.

There are about 22,000 human genes. But the microbes add to our bodies the power of many, many more – about 8 million genes, the new project estimated.

Those bacterial genes produce substances that perform specific jobs, some of which play critical roles in the health and development of their human hosts, said Dr. Bruce Birren of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, another of the project’s investigators. Genes from gut bacteria, for example, lead to digestion of certain proteins and fats. They also produce certain beneficial compounds, like inflammation-fighting chemicals.

Another surprise: There isn’t one core set of bacteria that perform those functions. A wide variety can do the same jobs, the researchers found.

That’s fortunate considering people carry a customized set of microbes, one that varies dramatically depending on where you live, your diet and a host of other factors. Your microbial zoos also can change, such as when taking antibiotics that kill infection-causing germs as well as good intestinal bacteria that may be replaced with different but equally effective bugs.

“We don’t all have the same bacteria although they all seem to have been organized to do the same things,” Birren said. It may be that our lifestyle and environment “induces each of us to have arrived at a solution that works for us.”

With this first snapshot of what normal looks like, studies now are under way to see how the microbes differ in people with certain diseases, in hopes of learning how to prevent or treat the illnesses.

Consider the intestinal superbug named C. difficile that people all too often catch while they’re in the hospital, and that sometimes kills.WashingtonUniversity’s Tarr wants to know what mixture of gut bacteria can fend off the diarrhea-causing germ or make it more likely to infect – so that doctors might one day know who’s more vulnerable before they enter a hospital.

Also, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine reported Wednesday that the kind of bacteria living in the vagina changes during pregnancy, perhaps to give the fetus as healthy a passage as possible. Previous research has found differences in what first bacteria babies absorb depending on whether they’re born vaginally or by C-section, a possible explanation for why cesareans raise the risk for certain infections.

All new information in some ways is humbling, because it shows how much more work is needed to understand this world within us, noted infectious disease specialist Dr. David Relman ofStanfordUniversity, who wrote a review of the project’s findings for the journal Nature.

For example, the project included mostly white volunteers who live aroundHoustonandSt. Louis. Relman said more work is needed to define a normal microbiome in people with different racial, ethnic and geographic backgrounds.

And there are many remaining questions about how these microbes interact with human genetics.

“We are essentially blind to many of the services that our microbial ecosystems provide – and on which our health depends,” Relman wrote.

Posted in: Sermons