Spring is coming, the urge to play in the dirt again is bubbling up inside of me. And yet every year about this time I realize that my houseplants are a mess.
My worst offense is always against my lemon tree – I have had this lemon tree for 10 years. Each summer it resides outside on the porch, the leaves lush and green and the blossoms are so fragrant. Then, it must come inside for the winter – and somewhere along the line the aphids come – they come every year. Everything gets sticky – I walk around the house looking for lady bugs to put on the lemon tree to eat the aphids – I think they even get overwhelmed by the sheer number of the little critters. Eventually the leaves start to drop, and even tho I wipe down the branches of the invaders I never seem to get them all. Right now my lemon tree looks very puny, and sad.
We have been in this cycle for 10 years now – my lemon tree and I. I could just give up and put it on the curb, but – about twice a year it is loaded with the most beautiful and fragrant blossoms and we have even had a lemon or two – I guess that's why I keep it alive.
Does this cycle of growth and decline remind anyone else of anything? I don’t know about you – but it sort of sounds like the situation our Churches are in…
For the past 30-40 years the mainline church has been in a cycle of decline. There are many reasons for this; families are smaller, the institutional mainline church has lost its authority in our culture, folks are better educated and asking more questions that put the relevance of what seems to many as a watered down religion in question. But perhaps, the main reason is because we are more concerned about saving the institution of the church (our denominational structures, our buildings, our traditions – and good old ways) rather than focus on what the church is here for in the first place: love God, love one another. Simple as that.
I’d like to read from the Gospel of John – chapter 13
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
“I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’ “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am. Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.”
After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”
His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.” Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”
Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.
So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.
When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
A meal with friends, the master washing the feet of his students…the betrayal… and the new command – love one another – as I have loved you, so you must love one another – by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another…
It couldn’t be more clear – or more simple – but how are we doing in this department? Are we more concerned about who goes to which church – or who has the latest greatest thing going on at their house of worship – or are we using the gifts and graces that we have been given to pull together and love one another – and serve those who are the least and the lost – the ones who are most vulnerable and in need in out community?
I ask us this today – because we don’t gather together very often in a faith based setting – and while this is lovely and important – we need to be challenged to do so even more…
Not to add to our worship attendance numbers, not to increase our offerings or anything like that – but to do as Jesus commanded us to do – to do as Jesus modeled for us - love one another…in radical ways – if he said it, and did it in real life, he must have meant it!
These Lenten meals should be the starting point – not the destination – we have a number of opportunities to reach out to our community in the coming year – for instance – with school letting out at 2pm each Wednesday starting this fall – are we going to be able to pull together as a faith community and do a community wide after school program – OR are we going to be in competition with one another to see who can pull of the best, most attractional program?
How are we growing our food and feeding ministries that have a great beginning with the Monday night community meals – but could do so much more if we had a way to transport folks to St Pauls? What about the other 26 days of the month when people are looking at their bare cupboards? Or even more important – when folks are eating meals all alone – and praying for a Christian friend?
Are we going to just pull off the aphids on our lemon tree and continue as we have been doing for the past decades - or are we going to look for a systemic transformation that will set us on the path to loving God and loving one another as Christ loves us – in radical new ways?
As we sort out how to be meaningful and relevant in our community – Christ’s message will always win out – God’s love will win in the long run – I personally want to be a part of it – and I hope you do too. So let's not wait any longer!
In the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.