Passage: Romans 11:1-2a, 13-24
Date: February 25, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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If you have never been to the Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens in Woodland, Washington, I urge you to go, especially in late April or early May when the flowers are in their most fragrant bloom. After reading a book about hybridizing plants, Mrs. Klager tried her hand, first with apples, and then with lilacs. She developed over 250 varieties of lilacs, and the gardens in Washington are now comprised of over 90 different varieties.(www.lilacgardens.com)
What compels someone like Hulda Klager or Luther Burbank (who wrote the book she had read) or Rudolph Boysen (of boysenberry fame) to try to create a new thing out of old things? This week I wonder if any of them read Paul’s letter to the Romans, and considered wild and cultivated olive trees, and were inspired. To hybridize something or to graft one thing onto another is often to take two unlike things to make a new beautiful thing or a stronger thing.
Now if we think of God as a gardener – which is not a bad metaphor for God – we could wonder about God’s creation of a new thing in the work of Jesus and the birth of his church. We borrow this image from the apostle Paul, who creates this metaphor of the olive tree which was so prevalent in that part of the world.
If you were to read most of Paul’s writings or the entire letter to the Romans, you would see that one of his biggest concerns was the creation of the church, what we today call Christianity. Paul didn’t call it that – he understood Jesus to be the messiah of the Jews, and so those who chose to follow Jesus, and who gathered to worship God-in-Jesus, were Jews. Early on Paul had high hopes that Jews would understand the way of Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism, not as a new religion.
Over the course of his ministry, Paul lost that hope. He understood that some of his fellow Jews would continue to worship in the synagogue. Some Gentiles, too, would worship in the synagogue. But some Jews and some Gentiles did choose to follow the way of Jesus; they did congregate in homes to share meals and to hear Paul’s letters about this new thing.
In the reading we heard today, Paul is arguing for inclusion in this new community of Jesus followers. He is writing to a group of people whom he’s never met; he’s writing to a group of Jesus followers in the great city of Rome, where all the power of the emperor resides, and when the followers of Jesus are most resisted. But the Letter to the Romans hardly sounds like an encouragement to these Roman Christians. It is rather a sophisticated and deep teaching about faith, about what God does, and about what God’s followers are called to do.
One of the things they are called to do is not think so highly of themselves that they think less of others. Paul was trying to build a church, and it would be a church of equals, with no regard for wealth, social status, nationality, or religious background.
Fast forward two thousand years and we are still working to build that church, and by “we” I mean Christians throughout the world, and by “church” I mean a community of believers who follow Jesus. Even today we are still trying to build a church of equals with no regard for wealth, social status, nationality, or religious background.
Christianity around the world does not look much like Christianity in the United States. The church in South America and in Africa is vibrant and its worship would probably be unrecognizable to us. But even in the U.S., a church can look unfamiliar.
A few years ago I was asked to preach at Genesis Community Fellowship, one of our ministry partners, on the occasion of an ordination anniversary of their pastor, Don Frazier. Genesis has been renting out space to a Congolese congregation, and they were also part of that service. Most of the service felt very unfamiliar to me, but I did recognize that it was the worship rooted in the love of God.
The service began with a half hour of music led by a band, but it included some Congolese songs. Most of the Congolese women were dressed in brightly colored African dresses and headwear, and many of the men were too. When we sang the Congolese songs, all the members of the Congolese congregation stood up and began dancing around the sanctuary, blowing little pipe whistles, shouting and singing and clapping their hands in joy for all that God had done for them. I remember that every time we hesitate to applaud some of the beautiful music here. We are bit more staid in our worship.
Last year when I attended the Next Church Conference, I was struck by an address by Dr. Soong-chan Rah, assistant professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Seminary in Chicago. He woke us up to the reality of what Christianity looks like in the world, which is not much like us. And he spoke about starting a multiethnic church in Boston. In a later interview, he was reflecting on the church in the U.S. and its core nature. Here’s part of what he said.
“I was a pastor for 15 years — 10 of those in one church — and that deeply shaped the way I view how people change.
“Two variables are helpful, and you have to have both. One is a place of safety, a place where you feel safe enough to ask stupid questions, make mistakes and feel affirmed in your basic identity. That, by the way, is often why people go to single-ethnic churches — because they’re safe. We feel safer with people who are like us and who understand us.
“But we also need the flip side of that, which is a place of discomfort. Most of us don’t grow unless there’s a reason to grow, unless discomfort is introduced — and usually that is introduced by people who are different.
“That’s why it’s hard to establish multiethnic churches, because you’ve got to have both. You’ve got to have places of safety, but you also need a place of challenge, where people will say, ‘Hey, maybe you need to think about that a little more.’”
And he concludes, “Safety and challenge are things I hope the church could offer. That would be a great church, wouldn’t it? A place where people can say, ‘I’m affirmed here. God accepts me as I am. But at the same time, the community has challenged me to grow in areas that I would not have thought of unless I’d been part of this community.’”
Creating a diverse church reminds me of what Paul was doing, and all those hybridists: making a new thing out of unlike things.
We Christians were once the wild olives grafted onto the cultivated tree that was Israel. Two thousand years later, that grafting is complete. But I suspect God is still grafting wild branches onto the tree.
Do you remember the first time you came to Westminster for worship? Do you remember looking at the bulletin and thinking, “this isn’t anything like my last church”?Or maybe you remember thinking, “I have no idea what is going on or what I’m supposed to do, but I feel drawn here and I think I’ll stick with it.”Or maybe you looked around and saw familiar faces or people who more or less looked like you and thought you’d be fine here. Or maybe someone was here and saw no one like them and didn’t come back.
Often when we have gatherings of leaders here at the church, Gregg and I hear people express the desire for our congregation to be more diverse. I’m not always sure what they mean by that. We’re a pretty white group, on the whole, but then, Portland is a pretty white city. More of our folks tend to lean more to the left of center politically speaking than right of center but we do have everything. On the whole, we’ve got a lot of folks with graduate degrees. Most of our members are straight but we do have some gay, lesbian, and transgender members. Few of our members were born in a country other than the United States. Few in our church community are homeless.
Having a more diverse Westminster could be a great thing, depending on the motivation behind it. If we want people different from us to be here so that we feel good about ourselves and so that “they” become like “us” – that’s not good. If we want people different from us to be here because that would challenge our comfort, and maybe we would all grow – well, that could be a good thing. And a hard thing.
We wild olive branches have grown tame over the years and it’s hard to tell the difference between what was once the cultivated branch and what was the wild one. Both survived and thrived – not of their own accord but because they shared a common root.
The same holds true for us here at Westminster – if we remain rooted in God. If we remember that we are beloved and so is everyone else, whatever branch we are grafted onto or whatever branch is grafted onto us will survive, and thrive, not of our own accord but because we are all rooted in God.
I’m really struck with the challenge that Professor Rah put out there when he said, “Safety and challenge are things I hope the church could offer. That would be a great church, wouldn’t it? A place where people can say, ‘I’m affirmed here. God accepts me as I am. But at the same time, the community has challenged me to grow in areas that I would not have thought of unless I’d been part of this community.’”
That would be a church that had been grafted with some fine wild olives. What might that look like for Westminster?
I think we’re only at the beginning of some pencil sketches for what it would look like. Our study on Jim Wallis’ book America’s Original Sin is a good start, as is our work with hosting dramas about the African American experience in Portland. Our two Abrahamic Thanksgiving services have begun relationships with Muslim and Jewish neighbors.
Often in church we find the comfort of the same. If we want to find people different from ourselves, if we want to know and understand people different from ourselves, we’re going to have to leave the safety and comfort of these walls. If we want this church to be more diverse, our own circles will need to be more diverse. That means taking risks, and being uncomfortable, and being humble enough to learn from people who are not like us.
If we are going to grow from being a pencil sketch to a full-out masterpiece, we have work to do. I think it’s worth it.