Sometimes people think my preaching is for the birds. Maybe this week it really was! We considered Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 22 and Matthew 28:16-20 as we thought about ways in which we can grow in our faith.
This, as I’m sure you all know, is a Common Loon. It’s a large diving bird native to the far north of our country as well as Canada. This Common Loon, though, is in an uncommon place – I took this photo on Wednesday evening outside PNC Park on the Allegheny River. Why was this quiet, shy creature, native to the remote clear lakes of Canada, swimming around the Gateway Clipper, jet skis, and knuckleheads like me?
Because we are at the tail end of the spring migration. All over the planet, creatures are taking incredible journeys in search of food or opportunities to breed. The Bar-Tailed Godwits, for instance, are arriving in Alaska, having left their winter homes in New Zealand and traveling more than 8,000 miles without stopping for food, drink, or rest.
You know some of this stuff. It’s a staple in National Geographic and on Animal Planet. And we see these images and think, “Isn’t that cool? These animals know how and where to go; they are willing to congregate in large flocks just to spend a few days somewhere else… Migration – what an amazing concept. How strange, how remote, how foreign to us as human beings…
Of course, we migrate, too. Earlier this week, my friend John told me of his plans for the summer. “Jersey Shore”, he said, as if there was no further need to define one’s July activity. Ask Bonnie Schrenker about her plans for next month, and you’ll learn about the annual migration from Sheraden to Conneaut.
And when we look at that, and we think about our own lives – where do you ‘do’ Christmas every year? Whose turn is it to host Thanksgiving? – we remember that our lives have a pattern and a rhythm to them…and we think that’s a GOOD THING. It is. It’s biblical. You heard it right there in Ecclesiastes. We experience the passage of time and we mark it with certain rituals and experiences and we are blessed because of it. Amen.
But this Spring I have been reflecting on the nature of migration, and the more I think about it, the more concerned I am about the fact that we, as human beings, tend to be migratory in matters of faith and practice. What I mean by that is that we are willing to accept as truth the notion that certain people are going to do certain things no matter what, and it doesn’t make any sense to talk about it or try to change it. “You know that she’s gonna do that, just as sure as the geese fly south in the winter…”
Growing up in the church, for instance, it was accepted as a fact in my community that when people reached the age of 16 or 18, they would stop coming to church. Church leaders would say, “Oh, sure, they think that there’s nothing really here for them now…but they’ll be back, once it’s time to get married and they want those babies baptized.” As if the habits of the American teenager were as predictable and unchangeable as those of the robins who seem to disappear in the winter, only to reappear like clockwork every March. That kind of thinking cost the church a generation – there are a millions of my peers who decided that if the church wasn’t interested in them when they were 17, well, there wasn’t much use in them talking with the church when matters of love, marriage, or children came up.
More recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the tremendous number of people who I know and love who have apparently experienced the Christian faith and practice as a seasonal affair. I am not talking about people who show up regularly for Christmas and Easter, and then who absent themselves. I’m thinking of people who will be active and participating, present and growing for a time…and then there will be a nosedive into some sort of destructive behavior – gossip, substance abuse, backbiting, lying…and it will appear as though the Good News of Christ has had no deep or meaningful impact on a person’s life. Then, all of a sudden, we’re back to being present and attentive for six or eight months, only to lapse into destruction at that time.
So with that in mind, beloved, I’d like to challenge you to think with me for a few moments this morning about what it would mean for you to become “Resident” Christians. In the birding world, for instance, a “migrant” is a flashy beauty who pops in for a few weeks a year while on the endless cycle between point A and point B. The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that visited Don Weaver’s feeders a few weeks ago, for instance, have long since departed for their Canadian breeding grounds.
But a “resident” species is one that is here all the time – one that knows how to survive here year in and year out, and who is able to grow in understanding of this particular environment so that life can continue and deepen.
There are a couple of dangers to Migratory Christianity that I’d like to discuss. For instance, those who migrate are forced to remember. Every year thousands of birds die because when they fly from the tropics to the poles, they stop at a place that they’ve known to be safe and reliable for years, only to discover that it’s now a freeway or a shopping mall. In May of 2011, two hundred Blue Herons lost their nest when a tornado destroyed the island in Minnesota that has served as a rookery for generations. Birds that remembered those cottonwood trees this spring were sorely disappointed to find a level, treeless island incapable of supporting a single nest. Because one of the hard things about being a migrant is that you can base decisions – life-affecting decisions – on things that you remember which are, in fact, no longer there…
It’s the same way for human beings. Every day, our realities change somewhat. Babies are born and friends die. New skills are learned. Friendships evolve. Are we in the church able to deal with the fact that the world – and our own personal worlds – is changing? If we cannot continually grow in our ability to engage what is, we will find ourselves remembering a world that no longer exists – and then being frustrated when the things we’ve always done don’t work any more.
To a degree, I’m talking about programs here. In another time, this neighborhood was filled with women who stayed home to care for homes and children all day – and who flocked to sewing circles and mid-day service projects. But if we were to expect the same participation from our young parents today, we’d find different results.
But more than programs, I’m talking about people here. Listen: I showed up here thirty years ago. Some of the best leaders in the church of 1982 are dead now. Some of the best leaders in the church of 2013 were in diapers then. If I were to act as if there was no difference in the stations of either Dorothy Larimer or little Joey Knouff in the last thirty years, the church would be the poorer for it and I’d be a fool. That person sitting near you has a past that includes drug abuse. That woman over there has been known to run her mouth all day long. And this guy? Well, let’s just say his wife never trusted him with his own paycheck.
But if I continue to treat them as addicted, or gossipy, or prodigal – then I am saying that I expect that the gospel will make no change in their lives.
But you see where I’m going with this, don’t you? As long as I treat them as addicted, or gossipy, or prodigal – then it’s safe for me. No decisions, no hard questions, no awkward conversations. But if I dare to hope and believe that the Gospel has empowered them for growth and change…then when I notice that they’ve apparently revisited a destructive behavior, I need to mention it to them with grace and humility. I need to ask them if I’m interpreting their actions correctly. I need to be true and honest with them. I need to be resident with their current reality – not my projections of their past.
And in addition to this danger about how I treat others, I need to beware a practice that migrants everywhere participate in. The bird books talk about species that are neophobic when it comes to food sources. That means that if Don Weaver puts out a new kind of bird seed, the resident birds will explore and accept it more readily than the migrants. Migrants, who are really not here to stay, are going to look for what they’ve always eaten; if Weaver doesn’t have it, they’ll hope that Salinetro does. But the birds that live in Weaver’s back yard will try something new, because they know and they trust that place, even if they haven’t tried that food yet.
If I want to be a “resident” Christian, then it means that I’m going to be open to new ways of growing and nurturing the life that God has given me. When is the last time you went on a retreat? Or read a book? Or attended a small group Bible study?
Oh, pastor, I hate those things. I haven’t been for decades because they are just not my cup of tea.
Maybe. All we know is that at one point, they weren’t your cup of tea. Fortunately, that you isn’t here anymore. And fortunately, there are new experiences to be found. Are you neophobic? Or can you try something new in the diet of faith?
You see, if we are moving towards a resident Christianity, then we understand that it is not a question of geography. You know me – I wander all over the map. But rooting myself in the faith means that I must settle into the changes that the Gospel produces in my life. I have to treat other people as though they can change – and will grow. I need to be looking for ways that I can adapt to the world that is here – not the one that existed when I was in High School.
Here’s your homework. Take your current age and divide it by 4. Hopefully, that’s not too tough. Now, compare your current self to your self as you existed a quarter of a lifetime ago. If you are 32 years old now, think of yourself at 24. If you are sixty, think of yourself at 45. Do you see what I mean?
What about you is the same?
Where have you changed?
How have you grown?
Is there any place now that brings you new spiritual growth or joy that did not exist a quarter of a lifetime ago?
If you could get a message to your former self, what would you say? That might be helpful as you think about relating to a future self…
If you have not experienced any spiritual growth in the last quarter of a lifetime, shame on me for not jazzing up the buffet a little bit…or shame on you for not trying any of the spicy stuff…or maybe we just throw the shame out the window and commit to looking for ways to join together in planning for a future filled with growth and possibility.
Take your trips this summer. As the airline says, “You are now free to move about the country”. Just make sure that you remember where you live, in whom you live, and where you are going. And remember that you can be resident in your faith – and growing all the time. Thanks be to God. Amen.