My youngest son recently graduated from pre-school. You get a cap and gown for about every grade completed these days. But… he was cute and the ceremony was sweet. As a part of the festivities, his teacher, Ms. Janiene, said a few brief words about each student as she handed them their diplomas. One piece of information was the student’s response to the age old question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Ms. Janiene is a big nature person so the class employed lots of rocks and animals throughout the course of the school year. It’s no wonder many of the students wanted to be geologists or veterinarians. Not my son. I was waiting for a response of “Dinosaur Wrestler” or “Neverland Pirate” but lo and behold, when Hayes grows up, he wants to be an (drum roll please): “Airplane Driver.” You might call them pilots, but airplane driver works for Hayes. I love the dreaming and aspirations but also wonder sometimes if we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” we should ask questions like, “What do you love? What lights up your spirit? What can you do for hours without concern for time? What do you care about regardless of any rewards?” Maybe the life progression then becomes less picking and choosing and more following your innate passion but that’s just something my minds is kicking around these days.
Life has a trajectory. We don’t foresee all of the twists and turns nor can we fully see into the future. Even so, we have certain expectations of a life that grows, matures, and culminates in some measure of wisdom. We have expectations of toddlerhood, teenage angst, young adult optimism, mid-life questioning, and late-life legacy. We should have some expectations for our spirit-life as well. There should be growth and challenge and maturing. Growing fully in, and into, Christ requires effort and some group nudging along the way. And this is where we live this morning as we close this series we’ve called, “Nudge.” I’ve been extra nudgy during this series for which I’ve appreciated your good nature about it all. As I say often, a preacher should always preach first to him or herself so know that I’ve been nudging myself these four weeks too. Paul’s word to the Christians in Ephesus is, “We must grow in Christ.” It’s not a, “Hey it might be a good idea,” or “It would be nice if we grew in our faith.” We must grow. Baptism isn’t a culmination moment, it’s a beginning. Church membership isn’t a culmination moment, it’s just the beginning. Paul was a pusher more than a nudger perhaps. He just puts it out there: “No prolonged infancies among us, please. God wants us to grow up.” There is some truth to the idea of Osmosis when it comes to faith – just show up and a spiritual infusion over time will occur – but my gym membership will prove that just showing up won’t get your body’s health where it needs to be. You’ve got to put in the work.
There was a bank in Chicago that was trying to fill a position and came across a candidate from Boston. They wanted to know more about the guy so the bank asked for a reference letter from the investment firm the man worked for in Boston. The firm couldn’t say enough about the guy’s family tree. “His father,” they wrote, “was a Cabot; his mother a Lowell.” His lineage also had a great blend of Saltonstalls, Peabody’s, and other prestigious names in Boston’s prolific history. Several days later, the Chicago bank sent a note saying the information supplied was altogether inadequate. It read: “We are not interested in using the young man for breeding purposes. Just for work. Who is he?”1
This is a pivotal distinction for any organization as well, say the church for example. We can rest on our laurels. We can say, “We always used to…” but a good nudge moves us forward from stagnant complacency or “always did it that way” to something much more alive. The Apostle Paul has his pen out again and is writing from prison, we suppose, to the church at Ephesus. At this point, the Christian movement has gone heavily Gentile in its make-up but there is still ongoing tension between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. Just before our passage for today, nudging us to grow in our faith, he says in verses 4-6, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” The word “one” is repeated seven times in three verses. Jesus is eternally and tirelessly working toward this effort of oneness – everyone is needed and valued. Everyone participates. Paul says, “God handed out gifts to everyone…” with this sense that people had an eagerness to receive.
I went to Mrs. Morris’ classroom at Key Elementary on the last day of school this week as they invited me back to celebrate a goal they had accomplished and told me about earlier in the year. It was a privilege. I brought them some fruit snacks in the shape of Scooby Doo characters because, well, awesome. Who doesn’t love fruit snacks. And as quick as I could hand them out their hands were reaching to receive. This is the enthusiasm I’m seeing with these spiritual gifts Jesus is rolling out. The followers wanted them, needed them, and were eager to use them because the world needed God’s love and because… awesome. We were created to participate! That’s what I long for our church… I think we see good glimpses of it. But it is a daily choice… and a choice I can’t make for us… it’s a choice we make together. It’s as simple as this little difference I found this week put out by the folks at World Day of Interconnectedness. Simple but powerful. Seeing it is easier than hearing it. Take a look: I–llness vs. WE–llness.
There is health when the “we” is in pursuit and we’re desperately unhealthy when the “I” is trying to go it alone. Check out the difference as one anonymous writer describes a church on the move and a church high-centered.
Some churches have parking problems, some other churches don’t.
Some churches have kids running around making a lot of noise, other churches tend to be very quiet.
Some churches usually have more expenses than money, some other churches don’t need to spend much money because not much is going on.
Some churches are growing so fast you don’t always know everybody’s name; in some other churches everybody has known everybody’s name for years.
Some churches enthusiastically and generously support missions; other churches keep it all at home.
Some churches are filled with tithers; some other churches are filled with tippers.
Some churches evangelize, some other churches fossilize.
Some churches are always planning for the future; some other churches live in the past.
Some churches seek new ministries and new methods; some other churches don’t want to.
And then this line… If you are active in some church, why don’t you take a moment and pray for it today. Some people pray for their church, and some others never quite get around to it.2
To grow in Christ is to appreciate our foundation but to keep pressing forward. A pianist should never neglect the basics of knowing the scales but she longs to use the fundamentals of the scales to create music that moves and inspires. Your Ministry Leadership Team at HACC, which is our governing body, met this week to go over program and policy matters of the church and our Connections Pastor always presents a question to the team to consider when it comes to their ministry responsibilities. The question this time was about ‘wild ideas,’ dreams if you will, for those particular areas that we had never done before. We were coming off of Pentecost… a time when we were reminded of the Holy Spirit that empowers the church to dream dreams and cast vision. And I was inspired by the team you elected to represent you as leaders of our movement. Genuine dreams to see us grow into Christ from the desire to strengthen marriages, reach out to the religious ‘nones’ and those burned by the church, create new worship opportunities that connect people to God in new ways, see every person in our church go to Nicaragua to connect with our global partnership to experience how it changes the world and changes us, to imagine a level of stewardship where each of us are investing in outside the box ways to see the kingdom of God flourish, for the church to be an airport where the true work of the church is in your life and mine wherever we are – not just when we’re sitting here at the gate – but when take flight. Why not? Why can’t we capture the Pentecost energy, believing that when we speak Jesus’ name, and reach out a hand, and take a step to grow in Christ that incredible things can take place?
Paul says, “Hey—these gifts are implanted in you. You’ve just got to employ them.” Now, you see the short list in this passage: “He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to equip the church…” We may be inclined to say, “That ain’t me. Those are for the churchy types.” It’s just a list and we do engage in those gifts – you look into the future direction of your life or your company or your Monday schedule – you employ the gifts of prophecy. You invite someone else to a Spin Class or to try a remedy for a sore throat or to a Watch party, you’re employing the gifts of evangelism. You take a moment to care for someone other than yourself – you’re engaging the shepherding gifts of a pastor. You teach a child to tie their shoes, you’re teaching. Integrate your faith, growing into Christ, and you’re doing these things naturally. But… we tend to fear that we don’t understand the mysteries of God so we set it aside as a realm left for someone else to engage. It’s a matter of intrigue. Tell someone that they can read the signs of the stock market and in that way become rich and people will do it in a heartbeat. Tell someone that they can read the signs of the Spirit and become spiritually rich, and they yawn and walk away. But don’t you feel it… some place inside… you may not ever verbalize it to someone else… but you wonder about the universe and eternity and this place inside of you that longs for transcendence? The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said, “To be a real agent of God, to connect with the neighbor… each of us needs to know the truth about himself or herself.” And so we ask about ourselves. “What are my gifts?” If you don’t buy that this abbreviated list in Ephesians includes your gift, then what? Maybe it’s found in Paul’s opening line in chapter four that reads: “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
This opens new doors – lead a life worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called – and we’ll be diving into this more in our Faith@Work series that will start in June, but this says – “Wherever you are living your days, spending your time, do it with these characteristics and you’ll make an impact for the kingdom.” And when you do word begins to spread – “Have you noticed Julie?” “Have you seen Randy’s countenance shift?” You go through something difficult, a tough time, a rough patch and you handle it with grace. People say, “Huh, where does that strength come from?” You may even crumble in the process but you ask forgiveness, you grow and people wonder, “What’s happening there?” And if those things are being said about you and about me… then our collective witness of Christ expands. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen in a uniformed way. There can be disciplines and tracks of consistency that help but our unity grows as something we choose to do… we pick up each other, we participate, we all grow. I heard someone use the verb “togethering” this week. We are togethering as a church. We are saying, “Differences aside, maturing in faith at different rates, in weakened moments and moments of strength – we’re in this together and are, in fact, invested in the commitment of togethering.”
Ants are a togethering species. Just ask kitchen pantries across the Tulsa area this season – they know this to be true. They have learned to survive by togethering. With all of the extra rain, particularly in Texas this spring, ants are teaching researchers something about this. Fire ants, in particular, have developed a stunning way to survive huge rains that flood their colonies. They’ll link together and assemble their bodies into a flat waterproof raft that floats on top of the flood waters. How does this work? The raft they form with their bodies is actually water-repellent due to the interlocking pattern between the ants. Some of the ants remain under the water’s surface but the structure they make creates air bubbles that those ants use to breath. Other ants surf along the top until the colony washes onto dry ground. When they are linked together in this way, an ant raft can float for up to two months! Engineers are taking notice to link this method to technologies for waterproofing materials to strengthen lifeboats.
The key to this whole thing is the strength of their interconnection to one another. The whole raft is held together as the ants clutch to one another with jaws and claws. By measuring the force required to break these links, scientists have determined that the ant’s grip force is on par with that of a human being able to suspend six elephants off the ground — or on par with the clutch strength you have if someone tries to take away your coffee before eight in the morning. A couple of fascinating things – one, some grad students got their school paid for by trying to drown ants – never squelch your kids curiosity – might pay for their college some day. But here’s the deeper truth that may speak to the church. Drop one ant in the water, and it’s dead. Drop in a tablespoon of ants, and they live through interconnection.3 They know instinctively what Benjamin Franklin reminded his fellow patriots who were about to sign The Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” This ant raft of a church at HACC is strong because we hold each other together. You bring your gift, I bring mine, and the Spirit of Christ is the glue. Each of us lives to help others. What then appears to be personal sacrifice is actually service. Your service has true meaning only when others use it, accept it, or grow from it. Nobody can survive and thrive without the help of others.
What Paul writes to the Ephesians is just as true for us. There is plenty in the world that attempts to pull us apart. But our strength lies in our togethering. We can transform the world, starting with this community we love called Tulsa, by bringing out the best in each other. I nudge you and you nudge me and together we overcome the trials and we become stronger because of them. Sometimes we’re the ants submerged under water to carry the raft. Sometimes we’re the ants surfing on top because we need a break or we’re grieving or need to be carried – but we stick with it. We commit to God and each other that “I’m gonna grow!” It might help you to say it out loud. Say, “I’m gonna grow!” “How?” you ask? You get started. The decisions you make today determine the stories you’ll tell tomorrow. I’m not going to ask what you want to be when you grow up. Instead, I’m going to ask: “What do you love? What lights up your spirit? What can you do for hours without concern for time? What do you care about regardless of any rewards?” We’re excited to roll out a new Spiritual Inventory tool on our website yet this week that will not only suggest what gifts you may have based on your interests but also connect you to actual opportunities to serve within and outside of our church. You can do this from your home through our website or have help with a live tutorial in Peake Commons the first two Sundays of June. Let’s grow! May we all consider ourselves nudged.
1 This story is adapted from a story told in several different places. I discovered its original form on homileticsonline – animating illustrations.
2 The source of this written piece is unknown but has been shared in various places on the internet.
3 The fire ant raft information offered by Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer for homileticsonline who shared insights in his work, “Ant Raft, or Body-surfing Re-imagined.”