I want you to take a journey with me. If it helps you can close your eyes. I want to imagine yourself as an astronaut in orbit around the earth. You are free-floating in space tied only by a cord to the shuttle. As you look toward the Earth, you see nothing but blackness. Then suddenly a flood of sunlight comes tearing across the globe below you filling the Earth with color and amazement. In orbit you are travelling 16 times the speed of the rotation of the earth so sunrise happens at 16 times the speed it does when you’re on the ground. So in less than a minute the earth is lit. As you gaze down you can see everything, all of the good and all of the bad that is our planet. Astronauts often refer to this perspective as all encompassing and life changing. As you picture yourself looking down on this little blue ball, you might wonder, “Why are we here?”
Now I want you to picture zooming in. The Earth becomes closer and closer until all you can see is North America. Then it becomes even closer until all that you can see is California and the surrounding states. Closer still until you are in the Northern part. You see where I am going. Closer still until you are right above Walnut Creek, until you are right above the steeple of this church. Now zoom in closer and be right where you are. Sitting in this chair listening. And I want to ask that same question. Why are we here? Why are we here? Let me clarify. I don’t mean here in general like here on the Earth, but why are we here at Shell Ridge Community Church this morning? Why do we come to church at all?
You might answer that it is for community. And that would be a very good answer. Community is important. Community sustains us and strengthens us. But we do not need to come to church to find community. We can find community at the gym, at a yoga studio, in a book club, with family and friends, with our neighbors, at a bar. We do not NEED church to have community. So why are we here?
Perhaps you feel that church is the vehicle for doing good works: for helping the poor, feeding the hungry, fighting for peace and justice in the world. I think these are wonderful things, and I think that they are also essential in creating a world we can live in. But they also do not require church. You do not have to be a Christian to do good works. Thousands of non-profits have proven that. So I come back to the question, why are we here?
What separates church from the social clubs? Or the social justice groups? What makes church, church? To answer simply, our faith. What separates us from all of the people doing similar work is the foundational beliefs we develop, the stories of believers that we share, the inspiration we gain from our scriptures and teachings. Church is a place where these things can be cultivated.
For those of you who do not know, we are in the middle of a series of exploring the Five practices of Fruitful Congregations. We have covered being radically hospitable and having passionate worship, and today we speak of Intentional Faith Development. Those are three big loaded words. Tackling them is like trying to move a heavy dresser. It is too difficult to do all at once, so let’s do it piece by piece, one word at a time.
As I wrote in the Ridge Runner this week, intentional is often used in the negative. For example how many of you have ever broken something in your parent’s house, or been a parent that has come home to a smashed lamp or vase? Inevitably the defense is, “But I didn’t mean to. We were just playing baseball/tackle football/Olympic wrestling in the living room. I didn’t mean to break the vase.” Or sometimes a partner or spouse can feel hurt because of the neglect of another. The defense there is often, “It was never my intention to hurt you.” In both cases the defense of intention comes of short. Not having bad intentions does not take the place of having good intentions. Not having bad intentions does not fix the vase or heal the hurt. The only way that this can be prevented is by being active, by taking the time to shape good intentions. And it is no different at church. Not intending for members to be neglected, not intending for worship to be lacking, not intending for visitors to feel unwelcome is not the same as being actively intentional. Church should be is a welcoming place that actively nurtures growth. Growth in both its membership and in faith.
It is like playing basketball. Hanging back without intention is like playing defense. You might maintain the points that you have, you might prevent further trouble, but you are certainly not going to score. In order to do that you have to play offense. You have to take the ball and run with it. For a church to make gains, it has to play a little offense. It has to be intentional.
What does that mean? The author of the Fruitful Practices, Robert Schnase says “Intentional refers to the deliberate effort, purposeful action toward an end, and high prioritization.” He highlights small group work, Christian education and formation, and Bible study. I would add to that developing a sense of calling and purpose. The passage that _______ read from Philippians highlights some more intentions. Intentional development means dwelling on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, anything that is excellent and worthy of praise. Are we starting to see intention? This all means so much more than kicking back and having a cup of coffee (although that is certainly part of it). This implies goal-setting. Forward thinking. Planning. It takes more than just the seed. It takes the whole branch.
Speaking of trees, I want to share why I chose oranges as our fruit today. Growing up I had an orange tree in my front yard. When my father moved from Maryland to California he thought that everyone out here had a swimming pool, and orange tree and a palm tree. It was the 70’s. So when he got out here, guess what he got first. Yep, a pool, and orange tree and a palm tree. Every year I would watch the first orange blossoms begin to bloom in the spring. You can see them on the cover of your bulletin. Then out of these beautiful flowers would emerge a tiny green orb about the size of a marble. Then over the summer I would watch these orbs grow and grow until finally they were the size of a baseball. Then their green hue would turn to yellow. And then around Christmas time, they would ripen into a wonderful orange. This is why my father dubbed it the self-trimming Christmas tree.
I watched this process happen every year and every year it amazed me. Imagine telling a little kid that had never seen an orange tree before that this flower was going to turn into this fruit. It is an amazing and beautiful work of God and nature that cannot be overstated. And that is why I have chosen it today to represent faith.
In looking at the development of the orange we can see how faith works. It starts with belief. Based on what we believe about plants, the sun, the weather, and so forth, we believe we know what should happen. We believe that an orange seed will grow an orange tree. We believe in the science behind the gestation of fruit. The other part is confidence. It takes more that just knowledge to have faith, it takes confidence. How do we have confidence in the orange tree? By taking care of it. By watering it, feeding it, pruning it, making sure that it gets plenty of sunshine and nutrients. Then we can have the confidence in its production. Belief plus confidence equals faith.
The same is true for us as spiritual beings. It starts with belief. We all have beliefs. In fact we have a multitude of beliefs and we are presented with more every day. Beliefs about God, the world, the nature of humanity, the nature of Jesus, what is all means. Church should be a place where we can sort out our beliefs, talk with one another about them in a safe and open space. Share testimonies of life changing experiences, question each other and by extension question ourselves. If church becomes such a place, our beliefs can be shaped, molded, revisited and questioned. All of this will go toward them being strengthened.
We talk a lot about having faith. Just have faith, God will provide. Have faith, oranges will grow out of flowers. Have faith, the 49ers will win the Super Bowl this year. Just have faith. But to have faith, we have to have more than just belief. We have to have confidence, and like the orange tree, our spirituality needs care to have confidence. Faith I would argue is not something one can just have. It must be developed.
Development is what gives our beliefs the confidence that they need to be called faith. As an example of a faith developing community we look today to the second chapter of Acts. The passage that ______ read happened just after Pentecost. Pentecost as you might remember is the time when wind and fire of the Spirit enveloped the room of the disciples. They were so moved by this flood of the Spirit that they took to the streets and began preaching. On one day alone they converted 3000 people. But not every day is Pentecost. Bursts of fire and inspiration can only happen so often. What do you do in the meantime? Let’s take a look at the scripture. Acts reads, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Truly a sustaining and growing community.
What is the message of development that we can take from this passage today? I think it simply comes down to sharing. It says firstly that they shared their possessions and goods giving to those in need. Now I could preach a whole other sermon on the necessity of sharing in this me-first greed-based culture, but I will spare you, for now. What I want to lift up is the priority of the community. Because they put the community first, above their own stuff, they were able to foster a real sense of togetherness. Energy that could have been spent hoarding and maintaining wealth went instead to their faith development.
They also shared their time, time spent together in the temple as well as in their homes. I imagine they prayed together, told stories about this character Jesus that so recently left them, and helped each other make sense of all that they had seen. They were there for one another and they relied on each other.
Lastly, it says that they broke bread together. This is a perfect symbol of the community that they were fostering. What is more essential for life than food? By sharing their food together, they were sharing their lives. Just as Jesus had done before them. Just as we do today in communion.
This is how we develop, by sharing ourselves with each other - not just our bread, not just the cup, and not even just our money, but our lives, our beliefs, our faith. Through reading scripture, through lively discussion, through prayer. The task of developing our faith might be hard and daunting work, but with many hands the work is made lighter.
There is a saying you hear in movies sometimes when they are trying to act all Hollywood. “Let’s do lunch.” Doing lunch is very big in LA. Well, I would charge us with the task, “Let’s do Church.”
Let’s do Church in a way that moves us past Sunday morning and into the rest of the week.
Let’s do Church so that there is a sense of belonging and purpose.
Let’s do Church in a way that makes us unafraid becoming changed, and unashamed of admitting it.
Let’s do Church in such as way that gives us excitement about who we are and who we are to become.
Let’s do Church intentionally, developing our faith through sharing with each other. And the people said, Amen.
As we prepare for communion today we remember the disciples of 1st Century Palestine. We remember the covenants that they set up with each other. We also remember the covenant that Jesus made with His Apostles. When Jesus broke bread He did it to show how his life would be taken from him. He was trying to share this part of him with His followers. When the Disciples did it in their homes they were trying to show how their lives were to be shared in every way. When we do it today we do it as an act of welcome and of sharing. This table is open to all and you are invited to come as you are and share with one another the bread and the cup.
Let us pray. God, we know that you have called us here today as your followers. We come to you in many ways. We bring to you our regrets, our sorrow, our struggles, our joy, and our praise. We bring them all to this table and share them with you. Please let this time be one of receiving. Not just bread and a cup, but of a renewed sense of purpose, a new confidence in your grace and a new sense of togetherness. We pray in the name of He who gave us this practice, in Jesus’ name. Amen