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Sermons

3 Rs: A Prayer for Action

May 20, 2012

Bible Reading

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” (I Kings 17:17-24)

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:11-17)

Sermon

This spring, Hannah Court, the street on which I live, is undergoing a complete rebuilding. The city of Midland has some sort of plan for keeping streets usable for many decades through a variety of patching and pothole-filling measures, but there is a point past which the patches outnumber the sections of original pavement, and the patches are regularly chewed up and spit out by the street cleaner when it visits. Hannah Court, a cul-de-sac that is home to ten houses, has reached the point of needing a complete renovation.

While I’m certain that there’s a great metaphor in what right now is pretty much a mess, what actually exists is a lot of dirt, dust, and mud, as well as the pounding and noise of large machinery being run by people who are highly skilled and who really are trying not to take too many branches out of the lovely old trees on this court as they wield their BobCats, cement trucks, and other large vehicles. We who live on Hannah Court have made friends with people two blocks away so that we have somewhere to park our cars, since our driveways are all missing aprons or blocked for various reasons. One might call this “outreach driven by reality” if one were still searching for that metaphor…

And what of the timeline for this project? The city simply told us that it would begin in May and end in June. While that’s a little open-ended—something I think about occasionally as I walk the two blocks to and from where my car is parked—I think I’m glad there isn’t a specific date, because I, obsessive about such things, would be watching every single day to see if things would be done by the promised end date. Somehow it seems appropriate that I’m preparing a sermon focused on renewal and revitalization as I’m surrounded by the ongoing mechanical “purring” of heavy equipment. The purring is occasionally interrupted by thumps and bangs, but overall, it reminds me that renovation works best when carefully planned and when the process is undertaken with care for what already exists.

Today’s lessons from the Word are about the restoration of life. We can’t help but be happy for the two widows whose sons were resurrected. Our theology teaches us that in restoring life to these two sons, the Lord was also restoring completeness in the lives of the widows who were their mothers. The widows represent good without truth; through their sons, who represent truths, the desire for truth on the part of the widows is fulfilled. Swedenborg tells us that truth protects good, so, with the loss of their sons, the widows were left in a precarious state. The joining, or, in this case, the rejoining, of mother with son brings the possibility for new life through the conjunction of good and truth.

Both readings point out the need to bring both good and truth to the process of revitalization. Both stories point out that faith in the Lord—remember Ezekiel’s prayers in our Old Testament reading and the faith in Jesus shown by the widow of Nain in our New Testament reading—is basic to the Lord’s leading in the process of revitalization.

I’ve done a fair amount of reading in the areas of church renewal, learning at what points renewal should take place in the life of a church and by what means. Recently, I read a book entitled The Hidden Lives of Congregations by Israel Galindo. He identifies eight stages of congregational life, naming stages three and four, which he calls Adolescence and Prime, as the stages in which he believes a congregation can remain for many decades. The Adolescence-stage congregation is vitally interested in creating programs and carries a sense of excitement into everything it does. As it becomes fully formed organizationally, it moves into the Prime stage—the top of the growth continuum—and continues to be fueled by a mature excitement surrounding the mission, goals, and programs of the church. The Prime stage is a fairly balanced state in the lifecycle of the congregation and can last for a long time.

A congregation in the Prime stage has a confident maturity, a strong identity, and yet it remains open and welcoming to new members. Its life is balanced as far as vision, goals, and programs are concerned. By the time a congregation has reached this level, it has dropped programs that seem not to be particularly useful—and, although well balanced, it has begun to lose a bit of the vitality and energy that fueled its earlier excitement in creating new ways of being. At this stage a congregation can begin to presume that it no longer needs to work at renewal, vision, assessment, and evaluation because it is coming to believe that how things are currently will last forever. It is critical at this point that congregation leaders and members fight the forces that will lead to becoming too comfortable and settled—which, in turn, can lead to atrophy and resistance to change. It is important to engage the creative process while also reviewing and celebrating current programs in order to retool them to keep them fresh.

The process of renewal is central to our doctrines about the ongoing potential for spiritual growth. Regeneration is the great essential to heavenly life. It is the goal, the process, and also a step in the process that as a child I thought of as the “three R’s:” repentance, reformation, and regeneration. The Lord’s gift is that each of us has a choice every step of the way to choose regeneration. We have the choice to notice the need to move toward the good, to live in such a way as to support the good—even if we’re not yet doing it without careful thought—and finally to have it become such a part of us that we no longer need to will it consciously. The regeneration process is lifelong, spiraling along as we grow spiritually.

On a broader level, this same concept can be applied to institutional change. All institutions regularly need to review and evaluate the work they are doing. In a book written by Alice Mann called Can Our Church Live?, the author outlines a process for church life that also could be called “the three Rs.” In this case, they’d be the three Rs of rejuvenation for a church: Renewal, Revitalization, and Redevelopment.

At some point in school you probably learned the structural outline of a short story using a diagram that looked like an inverted letter V. There were little names attached to this upside-down V shape. The lowest left-hand end of the line was called “Introduction” or something like that. From that point, the upward diagonal line was called “rising action.” The point at the very tip of the inverted V was identified as the “climax.” The downward diagonal was called “falling action,” and the lowest right-hand point of the inverted V was called the “conclusion” (or, if you wanted to sound highbrow, the “denouement.”) Alice Mann creates a similar image to depict the life of a church. There is a beginning (birth), there is growth (formation), there is the high point in the life of the group (stability), and then there is a downward journey (decline) until the institution ends its useful life (death). It’s on the “past the peak” journey that Renewal, Revitalization, and Redevelopment can occur.

Renewal

If a congregation is aware in the early stages of its decline that change is needed in the life of the church and then investigates and begins methods of renewal, it’s like a line coming from near the top of the “falling action” side that swings back over to the “rising action” diagonal. The need for change is diagnosed and stepped into early, and renewal can take place.

Revitalization

If a congregation waits a little longer to notice the need for change, then, when it decides to implement new processes, the line swinging back to the “rising” side connects about halfway up the diagonal. This is “revitalization,” and there’s a longer climb to move up to the peak.

Redevelopment

Finally, if a congregation waits until nearly the end of its useful life so that many programs and practices have already fallen by the wayside, research shows that the only way to infuse new life into the organization is to find new ways of practice as well as revitalizing the community. In this case, the lifeline swinging back to the “rising side” connects at nearly at the bottom of that diagonal line and will become a nearly brand new path on the “rising action” side of the inverted V. It’s a long journey back to the top, requiring patience, knowledge, and new practices. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and of a later monograph that applied his business-restructuring techniques to the social sector, says that “greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness … is largely a matter of choice and discipline.”

Regeneration asks us to choose a path and follow the actions it dictates. The period of reformation is a period of self-discipline that leads ultimately to the incorporation of something new. Choosing to work on change and following the discipline of the practice resulting from that change is the connection between spiritual regeneration and the revival or rejuvenation of the church.

George Dole, in A Thoughtful Soul, identifies congregations as “communities of the spirit” and reminds us that the goal of creation is the formation of a heaven from the human race. Thus, he states, we should be alerted to the importance of community in the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg. The church exists solely to support the processes that nurture heavenly community. The value of worship is that it strengthens the understanding of and the will to heavenly community. Church, then, as a community and a center for worshiping the Lord and giving us training in spiritual growth, is essential to our development toward the Lord’s design and wish for us. The church is the Lord’s heaven on earth.

Life is restored to balance with the Lord’s help. The Lord allows us each to choose regeneration as an ongoing spiritual growth process throughout our lives, and when we do make the choice, we need to actively work at it. Likewise, congregations need to recognize when the organization begins to decline and, with discernment, choose the corrective actions that should be taken to revitalize it—to restore it to new life. My early reference to all of the work being done on my street reminds us that occasionally things need to be taken back to their origins in order to be revitalized through redevelopment.

Today is a call to action. It is a call to bring prayerful consideration to the life of the church. It is a call to listen for guidance from the Lord to review, refresh, and renew the programs and community life of the church. It is a reminder that good and truth are both needed to make the process of revival work. Renewal, revitalization, revival—none of these things occurs in a vacuum.

Each of us is asked to act to reinvigorate the life of the church as well as to renew and grow our own spiritual selves. Each morning at the Almont New Church Assembly, there is a flag ceremony in which first the American flag and then the red-and-white Almont flag are raised. At the close of this flag raising, the following words are spoken: “I give my heart, my head, and my hands to my church; one God, one church, and our flag, love and wisdom.” We will succeed as a church when we bring these three aspects of our being—our hearts (our love), our heads (our wisdom), and our hands (our use and service) together.

And so we pray:

Lord, hear us as we ask your guidance to discern the forward path of renewal and revival, not only for our own spiritual regeneration but also for the vitality of our church. Let us feel your leading and then step out boldly to act with love and wisdom through our service and use. Amen.

Prayer

   O God the King of glory,
You are exalted in your heavenly kingdom.
Leave us not comfortless, we pray, but send your
Holy Spirit to strengthen us.
God of eternal truth,
Whose life-quickening love, revealed in the
suffering, dying, and rising of your Son, ascends
above all human frailty,
In your mercy, fill us with that same love,
That our resurrected lives may reflect the glory of
the love that conquers sin and death;
In and through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
   - Frank Topping (adapted)

Christine Laitner