A New Emergence

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, June 10, 2021

A New Emergence

I grow petunias.

Or I should better say, God grows petunias in my flowerpots.

For years I transplanted seedlings I purchased in the garden center into the big pots in my front yard. Then one summer I decided not to plant petunias because we were going to be away for several weeks, and couldn’t tend them. To my amazement, the “empty” pots were full of petunias when we got home!

Petunias are annual plants. They don’t come back from year to year. Each fall I uproot them and discard them in the woods. Evidently, while in the pot they shed seeds that can germinate and generate new plants the following year. I never knew that, because each year I put new seedlings into the pots at the beginning of the growing season, and mistook the new little shoots for weeds and uprooted them.

I have discovered that the “volunteer” petunias that grow from these seeds are hardier and more luxuriant than those from the garden center seedlings that I potted.

Every year it happens again. I have not planted a petunia in years, but we still enjoy potsful of beautiful blooms. The chief disadvantage of waiting for petunias to grow from seeds shed by last year’s flowers is that the flowers finally appear only late in the Spring.

I thought of this little annual drama when reading this week’s lectionary text that includes the parable of the farmer, seeds, and soil (Mark 4:26-29). The farmer checks day and night to see whether the seeds have sprouted, but can do nothing to hurry them along. As long as the farmer assures that weeds do not take over beforehand, and that there is sufficient water in the soil, the seed will eventually do its work. It will take time. There will be a season of seeing nothing happen before growth is visible.

This, Jesus says, is how the God’s kingdom works. Its harvest is produced not because those who tend the field can make things grow. All they can do is assure that the conditions are favorable. The plants grow and bear fruit in their own time and in their own way. Farmers can’t grow crops; only God can do that.

We are in a season of a new emergence for the church following our pandemic shutdown. We don’t know what the new crop will look like or even when its shoots will fully emerge, but we can trust the seed of God’s Word to bear the good fruit that is inherent in it.

A few thoughts about how this analogy may apply to the emergence of the church from the pandemic:

  1. What gets sown (the church’s life before the pandemic) and what grows up from that seed (its life after the pandemic) are genetically identical. There is only one church of Jesus, whatever forms it may take. The newly emerging church cannot be reinvented from scratch. It must emerge in continuity with its past.
  2. What gets sown and what grows up from that seed look very different outwardly. The seed looks nothing like the flowering plant, which yields fruit that is still further different. The emerging church may look externally quite unlike the one that was sown pre-pandemic. Are we ready for that? Can we embrace it rather than resist it?
  3. The harvest is all that matters in the end. It’s the fruit that counts, not the flower. The grass withers, the flower fades, but God’s word stands forever. (Isaiah 40:8) How are we preparing for harvest, even as we tend new seedlings? To put it more bluntly, how are we keeping our focus on the church’s impact in the world, rather than just on getting church gatherings up and running once again?
  4. God does the work that produces a good harvest. We tend the container; we pull weeds and assure that the container is well watered. But the treasure in the container belongs entirely to God, who alone can cause it to germinate, grow, and bear good fruit. (2 Corinthians 4:7) The post-pandemic church will germinate and grow according to God’s design in God’s time. We can’t hurry it along. And, thankfully, we can’t kill it.

Am I concerned for the health of the church post-pandemic? Yes. I am always concerned. But am I anxious? No, because the church’s growth and ability to bear good fruit depend on the God who called us, the Savior who claims us, and the Spirit who empowers us. We get in on the action, for sure. But ultimately it all comes from God, and belongs to God.

The church will be fine, because it is God’s church. It is God’s instrument to accomplish God’s mission in God’s world. We get to be part of it – what a privilege!

Yours in shared calling,

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