Sunday, July 30, 2017

Canoeing the Mountains (7/30/17)

Charles Marion Russel, Corps of Discovery Meet Chinooks on the Lower Columbia, October 1805 

The title of my sermon comes from a book that I’m reading, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted TerritoryThe guiding metaphor for this book is the Lewis and Clark expedition. Lewis and Clark were looking for a water route to the Pacific Ocean. They paddled canoes upstream along the Missouri River. When they got to the Rocky Mountains, they found that they were not equipped for the rest of their journey. Read on, to find out how this relates to Jesus' parables about the kingdom of heaven.
Canoeing the Mountains (7/30/17)

          Good morning. Last Sunday we examined the parable of the wheat and the weeds. In my sermon, I said that we’re not always able to tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds and it’s not our job to sort them—we’re called to tend to all the plants in the field, so that they are ready for the harvest, in God’s time. That is our mission: we are called to get out of the church and care for all of God’s people, all of creation. In fact, I’ve said this in a lot of my sermons. I’ve also noted how the world has changed, and we have to change, too.
          Last week, I put all of that in a larger historical context: the shift to a post-Christendom world. For those of you who weren’t here last Sunday, Christendom is defined as the period from the time in which the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion until just recently; Christendom lasted about 1,700 years. During that time, the Church enjoyed a place of prominence within Western societies. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz after worship. This is a quick review. The problem that we face now, in the Church, is that all of our church leaders were trained to function in the structures of Christendom, structures that are crumbling away. Our challenge is to adapt to this new, post-Christendom reality.
          After worship last Sunday, as I was shaking hands with everyone, someone said to me, “Are you going to be teaching us how to do this?” That is, how to adapt to the new reality. The short answer is, yes, but it’s not that simple. There’s no easy way to do this. Sure, you might be able to go to and find a book called 10 Easy Steps to Church Revitalization, but if the steps are really easy, it’s probably not going to work.
          The title of my sermon comes from a book that I’m reading, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. It’s a great book; I can’t put it down. The author, Tod Bolsinger, was the senior pastor of a large congregation in Orange County, in Southern California, and he now serves as an administrator at Fuller Seminary.
          The guiding metaphor for this book is the Lewis and Clark expedition. Now I know that a lot of you already know what I’m talking about, but let me do a quick review, to make sure we’re all on the same page. In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. This purchase nearly doubled the land area of the United States; it includes all of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, large portions of Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming, and small sections of Minnesota, New Mexico, and Texas. It was huge!
If you were born in the 1970s, you probably learned this piece of history from Schoolhouse Rock.
          In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned an expedition to explore this territory. The explorers were called the Corps of Discovery and they were led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Jefferson wanted to map this new territory and find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. This would secure the United States’ claim on the Louisiana Territory and also give America claim to lands on the Pacific coast that weren’t part of the land purchased from France.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
          Lewis and Clark began this expedition just north of St. Louis. They built boats and paddled upstream along the Missouri River. They figured, quite simply, that they would find the origin of that river, carry their boats over dry land a short way, and then find another river, perhaps the Columbia River, and float all the way to the Pacific. They were wrong! Lewis and Clark believed, “like everyone else before them, that the unexplored west was exactly the same geography as the familiar east.”[1]
          Lewis and Clark expected to find rolling hills, or maybe low mountains like the Alleghenies; they found themselves face-to-face with the Rocky Mountains. They had canoes. They had never seen anything like the Rockies before. Bolsinger believes that this is the same challenge that the Church faces in the post-Christendom world. We are in uncharted territory and we don’t know how to function as the Church when our familiar solutions are no longer effective.
          Right now, you’re probably thinking, “that’s really interesting, Pastor Alan, but what does this have to do with this morning’s Gospel lesson?”
          Jesus is the in breaking of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, come to Earth. God enters the world in the person of Jesus to remake and recreate the world. To do this, the structures of the world must be subverted. The might of the Roman Empire was not met with a sword, it was met with a savior.
          A savior who calls the people to repent.
          A savior who challenges established religious leaders and practices.
          A savior who leads through personal relationships.
          A savior who teaches through strange stories; through parables that are not always straightforward or easy to understand:
The parables… rouse our creativity from the patterns imposed by normal expectations, especially religious ones. Jesus’ parables make us consider life and our place in it differently. They make us dream of outcasts getting seats at lavish banquets, and the trouble this can cause.[2]
          We certainly have some curious parables in this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew. I find the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast are both rather stunning, even subversive. The mustard seed, as the parable tells us, is a tiny seed that can grow into a big plant. In fact, that plant is an invasive species. It will take over a productive field and make it unproductive.
          Think about that for a moment. Jesus is preaching to people whose lives are tied to the land. If you don’t grow enough food, you don’t eat. It’s that simple. So, Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is like an invasive plant that will take over a productive field and render it unfit to grow the crops that sustain life. Wait! What?!? What is Jesus talking about?
Parable of the Mustard Seed
          And when we think of yeast, we think of an ingredient that makes bread rise; we think of it as something that makes the finished product better. We’re missing some of the meaning. The Greek word for mixed actually suggests that the woman hid the yeast in the flour. The yeast actually corrupts the flour—it’s no longer kosher. Also, three measures of flour are about fifty pounds, but it only takes a little bit of yeast to corrupt all that flour. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. How is that good?
          By Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire was the greatest power the world had ever seen; its dominance was unquestionable. The religious authorities in Jerusalem decided it was best to cooperate with the Romans, even if the Jewish people suffered, at least the Romans wouldn’t crush them with the might of the legions. Instead of leading a revolt, Jesus calls for people to repent—to change their ways—and he tells them these stories of subversion.
          The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, an invasive plant.
          The kingdom of heaven is like a little bit of yeast, hidden away inside of fifty pounds of flour.
          These are images of corruption and subversion. The kingdom of heaven is so great that it will subvert the mightiest structures in the world; it will change the reality and bring down structures that most people think are indestructible. And yet, if we look at the history of the Church, this is exactly what happened. Christianity began as a movement within Judaism. Then it became a distinct religion and it was officially persecuted by the Roman Empire. And then it became the official religion of the Empire. And Christendom became the thing that nobody thought would ever change.
          In his earthly ministry, Jesus came to God’s chosen people, Israel. Jesus came with a message of repentance, a message of change. Through that change, the world could be remade into the world as God would have it—even though it seemed like the powers of the world were too great to overcome.
          It seems to me that this is our challenge, too. The world around us changed. As I pointed out last Sunday, none of us have been trained to operate in this new, post-Christendom reality. This wasn’t what any of us expected; we’re like Lewis and Clark, confronted with the reality of the Rocky Mountains, and we’re busy carrying our canoes.
          When Lewis and Clark saw the Rockies, they had three options. First, they could stay there on the western edge of the great plains, wring their hands, and say, “we’re not prepared for this new challenge!” But that wasn’t really an option. Realistically, they could have turned around and said to Jefferson, “the mountains were too tall and we weren’t equipped to cross them,” and perhaps another expedition would have been sent out, one that was prepared for a different reality. Instead, the expedition continued moving westward. The men of the Corps of Discovery adapted to their new environment and moved on.
          To adapt in our post-Christendom reality, we need to commit to learning new skills and trying new tasks. This will include easy tasks, like learning new hymns, but it will also require us to face our fears and work together in new ways. New leaders must step forward and we must all look for ways to become more missional and relational.
          Now it’s probably not fair for me to uncork two big buzzwords like missional and relational toward the end of my sermon. But I think they’re good words and I bet you already have a sense of what they mean. To be missional is to get outside of these walls and live as the Body of Christ in the world. To be relational is to enter into partnerships with the people whom we serve. That is, instead of being a charitable organization that does things for other people, we must be a missional congregation that does things with the people outside of the church, as partners in God’s work of recreating the world and building the Kingdom of God. May the Holy Spirit guide us as we enter into this new space. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Go forth and gather in fish of every kind. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books (2015), p. 13.
[2] Matthew L. Skinner, “The Parables: Understanding Jesus’ Strange Good News,” retrieved from:

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