It's Fine: One view of disciples' rejections
A few weeks ago, someone on social media shared a quote from Stanley Hauerwas (Matthew commentary):
"The disciples must, like Jesus, remain on the move. If they are rejected they must, as Paul does in Acts, move to the next house or town. The kingdom, it seems, grows through rejection. Success is not a sign of faithfulness."
We know this. But do we *know* it?
So much of what is wise bears fruit upon reexamination. The cyclical nature of our Church year is no accident. We tell the same stories over and over for a reason. And that reason is not mere indoctrination. It is to allow us to pick up the pearls we passed over the first few times around.
Failure does not always equal success for God's Kingdom. Nor does success always equal spiritual failure. We must look deeper. Beyond the black and white.
We do this well, but a guide is always helpful. Likewise, a community. Let's examine (reexamine!) what success and failure might look like in a shrinking congregation in a rapidly changing culture with financial problems on the horizon.
First, let's look at failure. How did the disciples fail? Or, in Hauerwas' words, be rejected. Which is a slightly different thing, I admit.
Do the disciples keep on preaching to those who reject them? Absolutely not. They are respectful, to an extent. Someone doesn't want to hear the good news? Fine. Not a passive-aggressive "fine" like what I say to my husband sometimes when he asks how I like his vacuuming. A respectful and honest "fine." A "fine" that says,
"I've offered you something, and you would rather not accept it. I honor your choice, and I respect you enough to abide by your wishes. I disagree, but that's my prerogative, as well as my responsibility. I won't make you suffer because you disagree with me."
Fine. But there may be some dust they kick off their shoes.
There is a mountain more to say about failure and rejection. I want to talk more about being realistic with our finances as struggling churches and adjusting our concept of "success," but that will have to wait for another time. Right now, let's dig a little deeper on the point of sharing the gospel within our communities.
Let's bring in some cultural context. The disciples were from all over, but most were from places not ordinarily associated with the elite. They spoke with accents. They weren't terribly educated, most of them. They didn't have respectable jobs - or at least jobs that upwardly mobile people would aspire to.
The disciples could have been rejected because of themselves, not so much the message. People who can see beyond appearances to the message are fairly rare - in the days of the disciples and today. Human beings haven't changed very much in 2000 years.
We smaller churches, struggling and maybe financially failing churches, are seen with a message others may look at because of who and what we are. The world's standards of success might judge us. Our leadership might judge us by the world's standards of success. We may not even have a full-time pastor and must share the message ourselves without the benefit of title or education or ordination.
And you know what? That's fine! It's exactly what the disciples were and did. And that was absolutely fine.
Digging a wee bit deeper, let's look at the message. Let's think of the message as a seed. If it was a good enough metaphor for Jesus, it's good enough for us.
Seeds take time to germinate. Some lay fallow for long periods. Others sprout within 24 hours. They are all excellent seeds full of the good news.
How many of those who rejected the disciples returned later? Maybe a long time later? How many of us have returned to our faith after a time away? How many of our parishioners have we welcomed over the years as they return?
They are our brothers and sisters. It just took a little time for that seed to spring into life. And it's fine. It's always fine. There is no need to punish them. We open our arms and welcome them home.
It's fine. More than fine. It's beautiful.
And then there are soil conditions. We don't all work in the same industries. We come from all over, and we live all over. That's what Jesus has in mind.
I have worshiped with people experiencing homelessness, gang members, CPAs, priests, trans people, and everyone of every sexuality and ethnicity under the sun... and sometimes in other languages. When these people leave church on a Sunday morning, they go to their soil conditions. And they become fertile ground there.
All sorts and conditions heard the disciples' message. It took time for that good news to germinate and for it spread everywhere. I have this theory (I collect theories; it's a hobby) that the main reason the elite tried to eliminate the early Christians was that the good news had taken root in their ranks. Expelling dangerous thinking is something people do in organizations, and they do it with violence. It's an unsubstantiated theory. Take it for what it's worth.
This brings us to success. Success finds us. We don't find it. We plant the seeds and keep on keeping on.
We don't fail on purpose or become people who might be easily rejected. At least, most of the time, we don't. We merely share our joy, open our hearts, love with our lives, and point in the direction we're moving. That's it. That's our job. That's the job of lay people, and it's the job of clergy. It's the job of everyone in between. And for most people who disagree with "church," it's their job too. Most will freely admit it.
Success is not the flashy miracles or the numbers of believers. It's the love and loving (and healthy!) relationship rooted in Christ who is rooted in God.
Let the seed do what it needs to do with the soil it has. We can do a lot about changing the soil around us, but we can't do much about the seed itself or where it lands.
And it's fine. Really. Jesus said so in so many ways.
Is your church shrinking? Are the realities of our shared life on this planet getting the best of us? Fear not. Tend your garden, share your seeds, love, and respect and back off when you're rejected. Take down as many walls to your garden as you can while keeping it safe and secure. Bridgeable boundaries are good!
You are fine. You have been fine. You will be fine.
Rejected? Failed? You are still fine. And Grow+Small is here to make sure we stay that way. Not for "success," but for those seeds looking for a place to plant themselves. Those seeds only God can germinate in His own time.
Stay fine, my friends.