This sermon was written and delivered in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Bethel Murdoch Presbyterian Church in Loveland, OH on Sunday, September 14, 2014. The texts were Hebrews 4: 1-11 and Mark 6: 30-44.
The Church is dying. Statistics from the Presbyterian Church (USA) alone say that we decreased by 224 churches and our membership declined by 89,296 people.
Look anywhere on the Internet and you will find articles about how and why the Church is dying. Congregations that have trouble letting go of tradition to allow for new voices to be heard, buildings that become overwhelming financial burdens and leave little money for mission (or anything else, really!), churches that are welcoming only as long as people are willing to do things the way they have always been done. Faith communities struggling to compete with the countless non-profit organizations fighting for money from the same people that are sitting in our pews. Congregations that long for the days when an individual’s faith was a given and a denominational name meant something, but today we have to work ten times harder to carve a place out in people’s busy lives. And disagreements…well, don’t even get me started on those.
Keep on searching and you will find articles suggesting any number of solutions. I’ve read ones about how Sunday school is killing the Church, but also how strong Sunday school programs can revive us. There are countless articles about youth and young adults, who they are, what they want, why they are not in our pews, and what we can or should do about it. And don’t forget about the most recent census statistics that focus on the growing diversity in our country, bringing a call to arms for multicultural/ intercultural, multiethnic, communities before we miss the boat.
But take a look outside of our sanctuary walls and things look bleak, too: Ferguson. Gaza. Syria. Iraq. Ukraine. Children crossing the US border because their families believe it is the best chance they have for a future. Fighting over power and authority all across the world. Struggle with depression, materialism, abuse, aging, overworking or underemployment right here at home.
At times, the challenges facing the Church seem impossible and leave us feeling completely uncertain about what a person of faith is to do about it!
Immediately before today’s reading about the miraculous feeding of the five thousand in Mark’s gospel, John the Baptist was killed. The message from John’s death was loud and clear: there will be consequences for those who live out their faith to its fullest. John had crossed the line in his relationship with Herod, cautioning the king that he should not marry his sister-in-law. So in an act of defiance, Herodias asks for him to be killed and his head placed on a platter before her.
Standing and speaking up as a person of faith has its consequences.
Sadness and mourning must have shaken everyone up as the Messiah and his followers sought peace in the middle of their maddening ministry schedule. As our reading says for this afternoon, the apostles were still busy teaching and building a faith community. Maybe, like so many of us, they found it easier to keep moving forward and doing instead of allowing the wave of mourning to wash over them. The busyness stops them from tending to their own long overdue self-care after John’s death. And so, Jesus offers them the safe space they need: “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
Rest. It’s not something that we often hear when we think about working in our congregations. We think that the doing and adding will be what keeps us afloat. Dare I say that we might even believe that this is what God wants us to do; live as busy worker bees in a hive that never rests?
The risk is that we become so busy with the work of our own hands that we forget to lift them up to God who made all of these things possible in the first place.
Jesus offers the gift of rest through the cooling breeze from the boat ride and the shifting waters moving their vessel forward. As the land that once was below their feet fades into the background and they breathe in the fresh air they are reminded that hitting the pause button will help them to place their feet on solid ground and, step by step, face the road ahead.
I have no doubts that Jesus and the disciples might have hoped for a longer respite that that boat ride. But as they docked, the crowds that followed them to the other side were waiting. Jesus, the ever-patient leader and teacher, looked out at them as if they were sheep without a shepherd. Restless though they were, the Messiah took his few moments of peace and gave them up to be with his sheep.
The rest that the people were seeking and received when Jesus taught them was anything but rest to the disciples. We can tell when they want Jesus to just send the crowds away from the distant area to their own homes where they could eat and rest. Asking them to feed the thousands was probably the icing on the cake.
But here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t rebuke them or solve the problem himself. He asked the disciples what they have. He took those ordinary loaves and fish, the meager amount, and blessed it…then he gave that same offering back to them and told them to feed the crowd of thousands. Something had changed. The loaves and fish before them that grew into twelve baskets of leftovers, they would never be the same to those men again.
That’s the rest area that they needed: to rest in their trust in Christ right there next to them. Their eyes were opened from their impossible to what is only possible with God.
As I have learned about your congregation’s 200-year story, it’s clear to me that this community is fearless. You know what it means to take whatever you have and lift it up to God!
I’ve read the story about your movement through three different presbyteries which, no doubt, meant learning about different leadership styles and living as an outsider of a new community until you were fully involved in each regional body.
Not long after the birth of this congregation, “… a group of sixty-five Bethel members, including five elders and six deacons, was dismissed…to organize the Presbyterian Church of Goshen…..[the congregation] was reduced to a little more than half of its former membership.” You are unabashedly missional.
In the late 1940s when more space was needed, the men of the church decided, “Let’s just dig a basement by hand.” And they did…
Faithfully responding to the challenge of raising money so that ground could be broken on the fellowship hall, classrooms, kitchen and office space next door, you hit the ground running and made it possible so that you can enjoy the space today!
You’ve navigated pastoral changes and church financial struggles but still managed to dream of new partnership with other congregations and innovative ways to reach out to your community.
And you wouldn’t be Presbyterian if you didn’t know how to break bread together, sharing meals across tables and building relationships as all are nourished not only in body, but also in mind and spirit.
You are a faithful, fearless people.
All of those things that I listed at the beginning of my sermon? They are real numbers, statistics, articles and current events. You cannot deny that there are challenges and struggles of day-to-day life that you will have to face outside of these walls…maybe even inside, too. These needs crowd around you, finding you in your places of rest, and push in seeking rest of their own. And there will always be more needs to address, that we know for certain.
So friends, rest on this day. Soak up these moments and the holy pauses that grace your life.
Because on this day of rest, Jesus is still asking you what you have. And as you rededicate this house of worship, he’s going to offer a blessing for it…and then he’s going to give it back to you. You could look at it as the same thing or it could be transformed to something new, feeding thousands more in mind, body and spirit through the work of your hands in the next 200 years. Just don’t forget take those same hands and, over and over again, lift them up to the heavens thanking God for making everything possible.