May 28 2023 “Regenerative Church”
Let me ask you something. When was the last time you really engaged in something, so that you were an active participant in whatever it was, and you ended the time with more than you had when you started? More energized, more inspired, or with a feeling of satisfaction and peace even if you put all your energy into it and were really tired? Let me ask you to take a minute and really think about that. There is a reason, I promise. We are going to take maybe 30 seconds or so for you to think about it.
Some of the experiences I’ve had along these lines are running an especially great half marathon, or really deeply connecting with someone in crisis, or running my daughter’s teenage D&D group. And recently, I left the vestry retreat profoundly energized which really surprised me because I put so much energy and care into it. But the insights that arose out of that retreat were inspired and greater than the sum of their parts and spoke of a future and hope and energy and power.
Let’s go back to your experiences of doing something that left you with more energy or more inspiration or peace than when you started. Please just popcorn out the name of the event, whether it’s a half marathon or playing a game with your friends or solving a work puzzle. What was it that filled you with more than you expected or put into it?
There is a word that captures these kinds of experiences, and it is regenerative. Regenerative is sort of like the word sustainable, but it goes further than that. For example, regenerative farming is a practice that intentionally cares for the animals and plants and soil in a way that leaves the soil with more nutrients at the end of the season than at the beginning, that increases biodiversity and does not deplete the resources of the earth. If you remember Mother Kerri Meyer from Good Courage Farm who preached here several weeks ago, she practices regenerative farming. Regenerative may seem like the latest buzzword in the progressive world, but actually it is ancient. As a matter of fact, it is the way our scriptures begin. I once studied with a Jewish Rabbi who was teaching the first chapter of Genesis, where God is creating the world and calls everything “good,” the Hebrew word “tov.” The Rabbi said that the word “tov” basically means generative. The earth produced vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees that produced fruit, fruit which by definition has the seed for future life in it. The animals were created to be fruitful and give birth to future life. Everything was made to give birth to future life, whether literally and biologically or in other creative ways.
Why am I talking about this?
Today is Pentecost. It is the day the Church celebrates the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples of Jesus fifty days after his resurrection. When the Holy Spirit descended on them with a noise like a tornado, they all begin speaking in different languages, and the effect was so dramatic that onlookers thought they were drunk. But what changed in them is that they became generative, they became fruitful. The church began to grow by leaps and bounds. After Pentecost, the disciples were truly empowered. They lost their fear.
They shared everything in common. They did miracles. The community became the body of Christ—the continued presence of Jesus in this world, which was always intended as a force for restoration and healing and renewal. And the thing that made this all possible was the Holy Spirit who filled them.
Where is the Holy Spirit today? Is there any possibility of us expecting the raw beauty and regenerative power described in that first Pentecost? In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says something astonishing. He tells the disciples that those who believe in him will do works even greater than those he has done. Do any of us feel that we as a church might do even greater works than Jesus did, that we have a future and a hope? Does that feel possible or even faithful? I once heard someone joking and saying that the church so de-emphasizes the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, that we really only have a Binity, the Creator and Christ.
And yet here we are at Pentecost. The sacred stories of our tradition insist that the Holy Spirit is an essential part of following Jesus’ Way of Love. The Spirit of God is all over the Hebrew scriptures too, in creation and inspiration of the prophets and renewing the face of the earth.
These stories should not be dead relics in a museum to us, but living conveyors of power and change. We can breathe, we can receive the Holy Spirit ourselves in order to renew the face of the earth, to renew the face of the church, to join God’s work to heal the world through love. We should not be afraid to use our imagination. In fact the only sin would be to limit our imagination, to refuse to accept the Holy Spirit, which is like refusing to breathe.
You all know that St. John’s has embarked on a two-year process of discerning our way toward sustainable mission. If things stay exactly the same and trends that currently exist continue, our current model of church—caring for this beautiful building and employing full time clergy and staff—will not be sustainable at some point between 2 and 10 years from now . But this is not cause for anxiety. It is cause for asking God’s Spirit to blow like the wind through our community and to become open to following the Spirit’s energy wherever She leads.
Let me give you an example of how the Spirit is working just a few miles away at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Richfield. Twenty percent of Richfield is Hispanic, so St. Nicholas began a Saturday night Spanish-speaking service for them about ten years ago. When the pandemic hit, some of the Spanish speaking members lost so much work that they began going hungry. So the Rector of St. Nicholas started driving food to their homes as well as to some of the local neighbors. It snowballed and pretty soon they had a food shelf and a clothing swap on Saturdays in their parish hall. The AA group who meets in their basement began contributing expertise through the people they knew so that the Rector could keep the project going. Our own Caron and Peter Stebinger and Mike and Stacy Walters often go to pick up and deliver food to St. Nicholas on Saturday mornings, and our Youth Group did a food drive for them during lent and volunteered there. Any of you are welcome to volunteer there on Saturdays also.
This thing which started as just a simple effort to feed hungry people has grown and blossomed and it all just happened. It is regenerative; it is bearing fruit, and as we all know, fruit by definition contains within it the seeds for future life. Now there are not just Hispanic folks but also people from Cameroon and other parts of Africa and Muslim women wearing hijabs and a kaleidoscope of diverse human beings who are fed by this ministry. Some of them have become members of St. Nicholas.
The Rector Julie Luna spoke with Rena and I last week, and she said what is happening there is so vibrant it can only be considered the work of the Holy Spirit. It is full of life and growth and vitality. It is also scrappy and messy. Julie said it is a Pentecost story.
Perhaps rather than seeking to be sustainable, we ought to seek to be regenerative. To be producing not “outcomes” but fruit—produce that contains within it the seeds of future life. Just as Mother Kerri Meyer at Good Courage Farm practices regenerative farming, perhaps we can practice regenerative churching. We can engage in practices that don’t deplete resources but replenish them, in which things are restored not to their original state but to a state better than before. To come and be involved in activity that leaves you energized, not depleted, and that feeds and nourishes the world around us.
This is not only possible. It is the way of the Holy Spirit. It is our birthright as those who have breathed the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of love and healing and compassion and restoration, the Spirit who gives everything away and yet possesses everything.
In the coming months, you will all be invited to a process of creatively looking at how St. John’s is now, then imagining how to rearrange ourselves in a way increases the power and love and regenerative flow. You will be asked to breathe, and imagine, and play.
But don’t wait for formal organized invitations of the church. Think outside the box. Follow the pulse of that which gives energy and do more of that. Let things die that are at the end of their natural life cycle, and allow them to dissipate and nourish other growing things just as happens in the natural world when something dies. Let us not be sustainable, but regenerative. Let new life emerge among us.
It is Pentecost. The Spirit of God is renewing the face of the earth, and you and me. Breathe. Receive the Holy Spirit. Amen.