Recycling Our Faith: A Sustainable Church for the 21st Century

Foothills Christian Church, Sunday, July 31st, 2011
Scriptures: Ecclesiastes 1:4,9-11; Galatians 3:23-28
Hymns: “Blessed Be Your Name”, “Everlasting God”, “God of This City”, “Gather Your People”, “To God Be the Glory”
Anthem: “All Are Welcome”

Twenty-four hours ago right now, I was in New York City. Specifically, I stood at the intersection of Trinity Place and Liberty Street in lower Manhattan. Now, unless you’ve spent a good amount of time in New York, you probably don’t know where that is. But I guarantee that you’ve SEEN that intersection at some point.
You see, that intersection is the southeast corner of a large piece of property owned by the New York/New Jersey Port Authority – a piece of property on which a certain financial complex known as the World Trade Center is today being rebuilt.
Now, let me clear something up right here. Yes, I know the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is but six weeks away. But in spite of the imagery I just evoked, I am not here to deliver a patriotic, God Bless America type of sermon. Of course, I’m pretty sure y’all know me better than that anyway.
No, instead, I’m here to talk about recycling. Yes, that’s right, recycling, and what better way to begin a sermon on recycling than talking about one of the BIGGEST recycling projects in the country. Yes indeed, recycling is exactly what is going on at that enormous piece of property in lower Manhattan – the site of a destroyed building is being recycled to utilize the precious little space that exists on Manhattan Island, and the site of destruction and terrorism is being recycled as a symbol of persistence and hope.
I’m sure recycling might seem a strange topic for a sermon. But trust me, it’ll make sense. Especially when I tell you about how recycling tied in to the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – or, rather, how it didn’t.
Three weeks ago right now, I was at lunch at a Subway in downtown Nashville, with Katie Sexton, Stephanie Siegwald, and Lindsey Jacobs. We were all there, attending the General Assembly, and we all had menial jobs that paid very little, but without which the General Assembly could not have possibly happened.
My job was that of an usher, and part of my job as an usher involved passing out things like flyers, ballots, and worship bulletins to the 5,000-plus Disciples who headed into the main hall at the Nashville Convention Center anywhere from once to three times every day during the Assembly.
I started thinking about all that paper that was being handed out, and I started doing some calculations. Yes, it’s true, those two years I spent as a hotel controller in Glendale have permanently corrupted me – I look at almost EVERYTHING from an accounting standpoint these days, and sometimes, it drives me crazy. But in this case… well, in this case, it was a perfect piece of imagery for a sermon.
You see, by my calculations, between all those different pieces of paper I just mentioned, as well as Assembly guides, reports, resolutions, and so forth, I would estimate that well over 100,000 sheets of paper were used in the course of this year’s General Assembly. And yet, do you know what I saw not one of around the Nashville Convention Center?
Paper recycling bins. Sure, they had them for plastic bottles and aluminum cans, but NOTHING for paper. The City of Nashville didn’t provide anything, and for whatever reason, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) did not see fit to correct this oversight.
And unfortunately, this sort of oversight is highly indicative of the church today. In her State of the Church address, Disciples General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins reported that a full eighty percent of congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are considered to be in decline.
Now, yes, we here can all take a moment of pride in the fact that after two decades of struggle, Foothills is part of the twenty percent of Disciples congregations that are considered to be thriving. However, we must be very careful with that pride, lest we find ourselves right back on the declining side of the ledger.
One of THE biggest reasons for declining congregations is that they got too comfortable, and refused to change. Far too many churches in America – and not just those of the Disciples of Christ, but of EVERY mainline Protestant denomination – have this idea that it’s still okay to be the First Christian Church of Mayberry. And in case I’m not clear on what I mean by that, I mean they think it’s okay to be a church that would fit right in on The Andy Griffith Show, with Barney Fife as the head deacon.
I hate to say it, but the homogeneous white middle-class church of the 1960s is long gone. Many churches have not accepted that fact. We have, but at the same time, we have to be very careful that we’re not still trying to be a 2010 church in 2060.
So, what does all that have to do with recycling, you might ask. If we’re trying to CHANGE, to be RELEVANT, shouldn’t we be trying for something NEW?
Ah, but as we are told by the wise writer of Ecclesiastes – some say Solomon, but most Old Testament scholars really don’t have the first clue – there is nothing new under the sun. We can come up with ideas that we think are new, but are they really?
Let’s look, for example, at today’s message in song – “God of This City”. This is a song that I think we would all agree is contemporary in every sense of the word. It fits right into the genre of the rock anthem meant to be sung by an arena full of 20,000 people, it was written by an indie Christian rock band from restless Northern Ireland, and to top it all off, it was written AND performed for the first time in the bar of a Bangkok brothel. A song really doesn’t get more contemporary “cred” than that.
And yet, let’s think about the actual words of the song:
You’re the God of this city,
You’re the King of these people,
You’re the Lord of this nation
You’re the light in the darkness,
You’re the hope to the hopeless,
You’re the peace to the restless.
There is no one like our God,
Greater things have yet to come, and greater things are still to be done in this city.
Sure, it sounds contemporary, but how original is it? Let’s take a look at this:
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.
Very similar message, wouldn’t you say? And yet… written in 1674. Or, how about:
O God of every nation, of every race and land,
Redeem the whole creation, with your almighty hand;
Where hate and fear divide us, and bitter threats are hurled,
In love and mercy guide us and heal our strife-torn world.
I think that could pretty easily be interpreted as “Greater things are yet to come,” don’t you? And sure, that song is a little bit newer. It was written when the United States existed, after all. At least, 96% of it. 1958, a year before Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union.
So you see my point – our church in the future is not going to be made up of all “new” ideas so much as those ideas from the past which we have successfully recycled and repurposed. But let me be clear – no matter how much we try to keep those recycled ideas looking like the old, there’s going to be inevitable change.
I’d like you all to take a look at these two sheets of paper. The one in my right hand is your run-of-the-mill office paper. The one in my left is recycled office paper.
At first glance, they don’t appear to look any different. Paper is paper, just like the church is the church. But when you look at them up close… ah, that’s when the differences come out to play.
As you look at the recycled paper, you see that it’s not really white. It’s more of a shade of gray, with little bits of recycled stuff throughout. It’s got imperfections, and it’s really quite different. And yet… it works just as well as the other one.
For the church to be sustainable, it must be recycled, and the recycled church will NOT look like that First Christian Church of Mayberry. There will be no longer be a sustainable homogeneous white middle-class church.
The recycled church will be a place for those born in America, and those not born in America.
The recycled church will be a place for those who speak English, y será un lugar para las personas qué hablan una otra idioma – those people who don’t speak English.
The recycled church will be a place for the young, and for the old.
The recycled church will be a place for people of every shade and color, dark, light, and in-between.
The recycled church will be a place for the members of the Disciples Peace Fellowship, and for those Disciples who serve in uniform.
The recycled church will be a place for people of every sexual orientation.
The recycled church will be a place for people of every political persuasion, liberal, conservative, or somewhere in the middle.
The recycled church will be a place not just for those who agree with us one hundred percent, but for all those who claim Christ as their Savior.
If there’s one thing that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) ABSOLUTELY does right, it’s that table behind me. The Eucharist, celebrated every Sunday; the table, open to all Christians. It’s not my table, not Erin Wathen’s table, not Foothills Christian Church’s table, not the Disciples’ table. It is the table of Jesus Christ, and all are welcome.
For as the apostle Paul says in Galatians 3, “There is no longer Jew or Greek. There is no longer slave or free. There is no longer male or female. ALL are one in Christ Jesus.”
So when you leave today, I would urge you – whether here or at home – to drop your bulletin into a recycling bin. Let that be your first step toward ensuring that we are a recycled church.
Amen.

Note: the text seen here is not exactly identical as what I presented at Foothills today, as I did improvise slightly throughout the course of the sermon; however, it is largely the same.

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