“God’s Surprising Wonders”
Bible Text: “God’s miracles are staggering, God’s wonders are surprising. God’s kingdom lasts and lasts, God’s sovereign rule goes on forever.” Daniel 4:3 (The Message)
May the peace of Christ be with you. I am so happy to be here. I feel so honored to be here these days and participating in this mountaintop event where we hope our faith will be strengthened and we will bring the burning coals from this collective fire we experienced here back into our communities. For you cannot leave this place without being burnt by the wonders of the Holy Spirit!
I love the connection between Christian education and God’s wonders! For I believe that we need to learn how to see, perceive and receive God’s wonders. God’s wonders come to us God’s in unexpected places, unattended people and surprising situations, as well as in the hard, lonely work of our daily life, and in the lingering there in very difficult places until God’s wonders comes to us and transform us.
See, the work of a philosopher comes from being in awe with the world and we all, as theologians, must also live our lives in a constant state of wonder before God, before God’s creation and the everlasting springing miracle of life. For as the prophet says: “God’s miracles are staggering, God’s wonders are surprising. God’s kingdom lasts and lasts, God’s sovereign rule goes on forever.”
If God’s miracles are not staggering to us anymore, if God’s wonders do not surprise us, and if God’s kingdom is not a promise of a new life and world, we must look back and see when was it that our eyes lost the wondrous light of God. Here is when you come into the picture. The work of an educator is to teach people to live in constant state of awe with this God of wonders.
Let me tell you right away why I am dressed up all in gold. This is not one of the strategies I teach my students to do if they can’t get people’s attention during their sermon. The reason I am dressed up in gold comes from an image, an art piece created by the Bulgarian and French artists Christo and Jean-Claude. Christo and Jean Claude are known for their environmental works and they are the ones who created the free-hanging saffron gates at Central Park in New York in 2005.
Back in 1976, they had a majestic idea. They wanted to wrap up an entire bridge in Paris, the oldest in France called Pont Neuf. After 9 yeas of negotiations with the mayors of Paris, on September 22, 1985, a group of 300 professional workers completed the temporary work of art called The Pont Neuf Wrapped. They had deployed almost 41.000 meters of woven polyamide fabric, silky in appearance and golden sandstone in color, covering the sides and vaults of the twelve arches, without hindering river traffic, the sidewalks and curbs (pedestrians walked on the fabric) and all the street lamps on both sides of the bridge. The fabric was restrained by 8 miles of rope and secured by 12.1 tons of steel chains.
Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t this a wonder-ful thing? For them to do it, they had to imagine a wonder, a thing beyond measures, beyond what was known and seen. And they needed the means and the work of hundreds of people to make this happen. It took 9 years for this to happen and then the work stayed there only for 2 weeks. Ann Bogart, a theater professor at Columbia University commented on it saying that when people were walking on the bridge, it was as if they were awakened from a long sleep. People opened their eyes, and all of sudden they were seeing something new! They were in awe, they were playing, they were laughing, they were so much taken by it, they were transformed. And the wrapping up of the bridge transformed the life of that city not only for couple weeks but forever. Here we are still talking about this work of art.
Can you see the parallels of this work of art with your work as Christian educators? The work of the educator takes time, it is often not perceived by anyone and sometimes it shines just for couple minutes when we are honored in our services. If we are ever honored. But more than that, this work is only possible because we had people who dreamed dreams and saw what nobody else could see. Christo and Jean Claude had a vision and by faith they kept going. That is the same for the educator, we must have a vision, work patiently on this vision and believe on to this vision of a new church with transformed people. We must believe that we all can change the church of Jesus Christ and can transform the world. It is as if we go to bed every night saying: “God’s miracles are staggering, God’s wonders are surprising…” And next day we wake up with new dreams in our hearts and we go work on each one of them.
See, most of what we educators do cannot be seen or measured properly. Because what we do goes into the hearts and lives of our people and from them our world is shaped and transformed. The same way that Jesus, when breaking bread with his disciples in the road of Emaus disappeared and went inside of their hearts, that is also the nature of what we do. We teach, we sing, we break bread together and where all of these things go? Inside of us! Shaping, forming and transforming us, the church and the world. The fruits of your work brother and sisters are in the hearts and bodies of people everywhere. As educators, it is as if the wonders of God are in your hands and you go around showing these wonders to people and helping them to see it.
It is as if we dress ourselves in gold so people can see things differently, so people can gain shining eyes once again, so the entire world will be dressed up in gold for a fraction of time and people will walk around as if they were awaken from a big sleep, so people can be in awe and wonder once again and gain the ability to believe that things can change, that we can be once again transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Look back at your life. Remember those who have given their time and care and love to educate you. Remember those who in their ways dressed up in gold so you could gain a new life in Jesus Christ. Who are they? Sunday school teachers who prepared their classes for you and gave their best to help you know Jesus. The wonders of God that today live in your hearts were once in their hands. And it was the work of their hands that prepared the way for you and for me to learn and experience this wonder-full God.
In my life, it was the work of Ms. Maria, Eloisa, Eny, Mercia, Ana, Eliana, Claudete, Ivone, Marcos, Lauro, Jair, Eber, José, Esther, Waldemar, and many others who gave their best to teach me about Jesus. Their hands were filed with the wonders of God and you know what? When I look back they are all dressed up in shinning gold! And yet, they know just a little of the tremendous impact they had on me. But I tell you, I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you today if it was not for them.
I was born and raised in São Paulo in a poor family. At age 8 I was a shoe shining boy on the streets of Cambuci and Mooca. At age 13 I started to work full time. My father studied up to 4th grade and my mother up to 2nd grade. Nobody in my father and mother families had ever gone to college. My older sister was the first one to go to college. And I am the first one in generations to get a masters and a PhD. How did I get here? I am here today because of these Christian educators in this small Presbyterian Church in this neighborhood in São Paulo. Some of them are very old now. They were the wonders of God to me. My mother, my father, my brother and sisters along with my church family, they were the first golden signs of the wonders of God in my life. They trusted me, they prepared the way for me and today, I stand on their shoulders. That is why I came from this (show shoe shining box) to where I am today.
Who were the first wonders of God in your life? I challenge you to go home and make contact with all of those you have access this coming week and tell them: You are God’s wonder in my life. You don’t know but in my heart you are all dressed up in gold!!
It hasn’t been easy years for us Christians in mainline protestant churches to shine God’s wonders has it? We have become, in the words of Hunter Farrell to me, sideline protestant churches. We are not at the center of our culture anymore. However, we act as if we are. We live as if we are a church of the past and we hold so tight to it. Teaching in a seminary, I have seen students who carry in them this longing and pain of their parents who are afraid of losing the church they once knew. Some of them are hoping to get back to the church of the 1940 and 50’s when our sanctuaries were crowded. The rationale is this: if we could only do what we did back them we will again be a big church. Unfortunately, brothers and sisters, we cannot go back anymore. And we shouldn’t! It was a beautiful church but that church would not survive today! Our task is to create a new church. God is showing us a new present and a new future!
I have collected a pile of statistics about the Reformed churches in US, numbers that say who we are, the average of our members, rates of growth but mostly decline, difficulties, etc. But then, I decided not to use any of it. I am actually tired of hearing it.
You know what really get me depressed? It is the annual report of membership. Since I arrived here in 1997, this is the one piece of news I can’t hide myself from. For the last 20 years, we are losing members, more than 60% of our churches have less than 100 members, we don’t have enough churches for seminarians, churches are struggling, etc etc etc. Oh see, these numbers are so much ingrained in me that I can’t help myself…
Numbers, it seems like that numbers is the only critical analysis the church knows how to do. Numbers and money! You want to find out who we are? Get our numbers and how much money we have and we will know who we are.
No brothers and sisters! No!!! We need to dream a new dream. We need to be bold and create a new church doing what we are not expecting, even if we need to wrap all of our churches in gold!!
We are not the money we have, we are not a financial institution. We are a movement of Jesus Christ who work for the bodies and souls of people all around the world. We don’t count ourselves by the numbers of members. Rather we count ourselves by the number of seeds we plant in each other’s garden, we define ourselves by the quantities of hugs we offer to our friends and to strangers, by the amount of hours we listen to each other, by the meals we distribute in our soup kitchens, by the visits we make to our friends houses and to hospitals beds blessing the sick.
We count ourselves by the forgiveness we embrace, by the second chances we offer, by the number of songs we sing every day, by the healing we offer in our worship services, by the countless hours of preparation for classes, by the patience and love we treat our children, by the drawings of Noah’s ark we paint with them and others year after year.
We count ourselves by the time of prayer we spend asking God for healing of our friends and our world, by the performances we do of the great battle between Goliath and David, by how many times we dress our kids as Samuel listening to God’s voice, or as a donkey in the nativity scene at Christmas. We are more than money and numbers brothers and sisters…
Wonders of God, this is the wonder-full stuff we are made of. We are living in difficult times and I bet we are all tired of not knowing what to do to make our churches grow, broken hearted with the news of break ups and the hardships we are seeing in our midst. However, we must continue to plow ahead, expand and continue to do what we have received in new ways.
The wonders of God are still shining in our hands and there is hope and possibilities for us all. We need to let ourselves open for God’s wonders to appear to us in different ways so that we can see a new church coming wrapped up not only in gold but in many colors, in many different people, many forms of religious experiences, many liturgical practices and songs, and many ways of knowing God. The staggering wonders of God come from a plurality of possibilities, places and people. If we stay under the short breath of experiences of just one generation or the religious experiences of male leaders we will continue to fear. No! Let us expand our tent and see that the wonders of God are also pulsing somewhere else.
We educators must learn not to live with fear. Enough of being afraid of women, of gay people, of immigrants, of Muslims, of church death and whoever or whatever we fear. God has called us to love not to fear. Look around! Peoples and communities everywhere are doing wonders in God’s name and we need to pay attention.
So I am asking you to dream about wrapping our churches in gold, and in pluralities of colors. As an exercise on dreaming, here are few things to begin with this new church:
- From now on we are forbidden to plan the future of the church based on money and numbers. From now on any future plan of the church will tap into our common faith and dreams and imagination. No more reports on church membership or any other report based on statistics, numbers, average-age, drop-out rates ad so on. That also means that we will not evaluate “New Church Development” and mission strategies with number and money.
- We will do mission not by waiting for people to come to our churches but we will go out and about our neighborhoods where people are and make friendships. Worship comes later. And mission is a two way street. You teach but you learn! I change and you change too!
- We will engage into different liturgical practices and will not use the same worship service all the time. We will cherish our worship books and we will use it along with other resources. However, cut-and-past liturgies without local context are now forbidden. Every worship service will be created by at least 1/3 of the community every week. Lazy pastors and educators will have to be placed in quarantine!
- Each local church will need to provide local experiments of solidarities, hospitality, forgiveness and new social imaginaries connecting their worship services and their daily life. THIS will be the very stuff for our reports.
- We will not separate our church worship services into traditional and contemporary ones. No! Instead we will learn how to love each other’s ways of worshiping and we will worship together with pipe organs and electric guitar. Some how, some way.
- We are forbidden to segregate our children from our worship services and send them away after the kids message under the rubric “this is better for them.” NO! Instead, we will create worship services where they will participate in various parts and we will not complain if they cry, laugh or make noise.
- We will not pay high salaries to steeple church pastors, seminary presidents, seminary professors and people in the national, synods and presbytery offices. Everybody will get the same salary! Differences will only be related to local rate of cost of living.
- We decide that we will hire more women, people of color and/or other backgrounds of faith, people with different experiences with God and walks of life to lead the church to the leadership of the church. Males will have to learn how to follow and not only to lead.
- We decide not to live in fear anymore and help each other to do that. Love, trust AND a plurality of religious experiences are exactly what are going to unite us.
- We decide that we like facebook and twitter but facebook and twitter will NOT EVER replace the incarnated community of believers, face to face encounters, rubbing each other shoulders, kissing each other’s cheek with the peace of Christ, serving each other’s bread and wine and anointing/annoying each other with our grumpy moods and staunch beliefs;
- We will trust the Holy Spirit more than ever, even if it is too scary (remember that we decided not to live in fear anymore). The Spirit will help us not to control every minute of our worship services. The Spirit will help us engage our bodies more fully and we might even dance sometimes in a 1 hour and 15 minutes worship service!!
- We decide to be and build a hybrid multiple complex ethnic church. We will build be a sexually, gender, social, ethnic, economic, culturally mixed church. To be reformed is more than to be only reformed. To be reformed is to learn how to expand this reformation into other quarters of life and become something else ALONG WITH our reformed faith in our local communities and global world.
- Every Sunday we will promise that we will love each other for the next thousand years! We have deep relational connections, commitments and responsibilities with one another. We will honor each other until we die! In other words, we will create a third space for all of us to live in as a testimony to the world.
- We decide that Passion is our new vortex of inspiration and not knowledge. Under this vortex of passion we will work and live and love! We will work to be more passionate about our faith and God than our sense of being right. Feeling rather than thinking, passion, rather than order and decency.
- And from now on we are forbidden to say our church is dying! We have already died. This church we see now is another church with different challenges and hopes and a new future. Now it is time to mourn our death, learn from it and begin preparing the time to resurrect!
- And for all that, we decide that we will serve our Lord and savior Jesus Christ from who all blessing flow and we will do it with what we know and also from what we don’t know!
Now you add your own…
Brothers and sisters, we are each other’s wonders. That is why you have an angel going around painting some of your hands, to remind you that you are a wonder of God. The angel walking around us might be God awakening us and sometimes we don’t perceive it. Sometimes we are even annoyed by the angel of God and we don’t even notice it. The angels of God are walking around us every day brothers and sisters and we cannot see them. But we can name the wonders we see, we can say here is where God is doing a new thing, here is where God will change us, here is another wonder of God. And we will keep pointing to wrapped up golden bridges along the way.
Let us wrap up the church of Christ and each human being in gold so we can walk in awe, as if we are awaken from this life of fear and anxiety. I hope we will be renewed again, I hope we will all walk out of here with our hearts shining in gold, and we will be once again ready to be in awe with God’s wonders.
For “God’s miracles are staggering, God’s wonders are surprising. God’s kingdom lasts and lasts, God’s sovereign rule goes on forever.”