(Ezekiel 1: 1, 4-5, 12-21; Luke 5: 1-11)
It has all the components of your typical sanctuary. It stretches 47 feet into the air; a steeple reaching for the heavens, Gothic arches as you walk in the front door. Inside there is pew space for roughly 60 worshippers. Up front there is a pulpit, an altar table, and off to the right an organ. The walls on either side are adorned with beautiful stained-glass windows. It is a fully-functioning church sanctuary that sees action every Sunday.
Oh, and one other thing – it’s inflatable.
That’s right, inflatable. As in “blow up” inflatable, “just add air” inflatable, “full-sized bouncy house for Jesus” inflatable. The Inflatable Church is the brain child of Englishman Michael Gill, and you can check it out at www.inflatablechurch.com. Please understand that I am not kidding about any of this! Gill created the Inflatable Church a number of years ago to, as he “tongue-in-cheek” puts it, “breathe new life into Christianity.” That, too, is on the website.
Now granted, you have to get past the polyvinyl pews and the pop-up pulpit. And it may take some getting used to the puffy plastic walls or the pseudo-stained glass windows. But hey, you can purchase one for a mere $35,000. Think about it – a luxury sedan in your garage or a house of worship in your backyard. Take your pick.
You can imagine the number of jokes that this inevitably generates. Bring your Bible; leave all sharp objects at home! Upon hearing about the Inflatable Church, my brother said he was relieved to know that it wasn’t just the preacher who was full of hot air. What a funny guy.
Truth is, for Mr. Gill, the Inflatable Church is no laughing matter. Whenever he’s asked the obvious question – why?? – Gill’s answer is surprisingly theological. There was a time, he says, when churches were the center of a community; where everyday life revolved around them. But not anymore. Not anymore. And because waiting for communities to revolve around the church again might prove to be a rather long wait, why not bring the church to the community? That, he says, is the reason he made the Inflatable Church – it goes wherever you go. All you need is air. And $35,000.
Now I want to be clear about something. We are, as you know, in our second Sunday of worshipping here in the Fellowship Hall while the HVAC system in the sanctuary and elsewhere is being replaced. In no way am I suggesting that we “go inflatable” this summer – if for no other reason I’m pretty sure air conditioning is not included. But here’s the thing: as followers of Jesus who have a vested interest in the church’s present and future, it may be wise for us to pay attention to folks like Michael Gill. Because he is shining the spotlight on the ever-increasing challenge that is proclaiming and living the gospel in and to the espresso society, the high-speed internet culture, the fast-food community we live in. There’s been a change – we’ve all felt it – and this change cannot help but affect how we live and operate and serve as the church. It’s something we have to pay attention to, whether we like it or not.
Jim Kitchens sure had to pay attention to it. As the former pastor at Second Presbyterian in Nashville, Jim recalls a Sunday morning service that happened to fall on a July 4th. Now, it was tradition in that community that a local civic club would sponsor a late morning Independence Day “kiddie parade” which culminated in a family celebration at the city park – the park that happened to be right next to the church. So as Kitchens stepped into the pulpit that morning to deliver his sermon, the local university band, standing practically outside the church window, launched into a rousing rendition of Eric Clapton’s, “Cocaine.” And no matter how loud he preached, Kitchens’ voice was drowned out by the song’s familiar refrain.
Community leaders would later confess it never occurred to them that there might be a conflict between their annual July 4 festivities and standard Sunday morning worship services. Nor did the university band ever consider the irony of playing a song about recreational drug use right outside the church walls during church! As Kitchens would later put it, “The community, which on the whole would be thought of as friendly toward its churches, didn’t even have us on its radar screen that day.” (Jim Kitchens, The Postmodern Parish: New Ministry for a New Era (The Alban Institute, 2003), 14-15)
Hmm. So what do we do with something like this? I mean, that’s the question, right? How do we respond, what is our reaction? Well, we have a few options. One is to get all offended and see it as one more frightening omen of a society spiraling to the depths of moral and religious depravity. But does that really do us any good to think like that? Another response is to view such events as a call to arms for a reinstitution of the “good old days” where everyone went to church, or at the very least had greater respect for those who did. But we have to ask ourselves if those “good old days” as we remember them actually happened.
So how do we respond? And what in the world does any of this have to do with an inflatable church?
Long ago in Old Testament times, there was a man sitting by a river. It was like any river he had ever sat by in his life – running water, sandy banks, refreshing air. But there was something very different about this particular river from all others. It was the river Chebar of Babylon, and it was not at all familiar to him. Four years before, the powerful Babylonian nation had descended on the capital city of Jerusalem with every ounce of military might. They literally set the town ablaze and displaced much of its population, dragging them back to Babylon to live as a conquered people.
So the waters of Chebar that flowed before him served, more than anything, as a painful reminder of where he was not. He and his people were not in their beloved Jerusalem, and this made them more than a little homesick. So intertwined was their sense of God and homeland that to be apart from that land – that Promised Land – meant to be apart from their God. And so now, they weren’t just strangers in a strange land – they were nomads without a spiritual home.
I have to think all of this was running through Ezekiel’s mind as he sat by that river in our scripture today. I have to think he was mulling this over, even as God’s spirit descended on him in the form of a wild vision – a stormy wind, flashing fire; winged creatures with human and animal faces, a dome and a throne. It’s not the kind of stuff one typically encounters by the riverside.
And while I’m certain all of this more than got Ezekiel’s attention, I imagine what came next really jumped out at him. He writes:
I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures…, their appearance being something like a wheel within a wheel. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them. When they moved, the others moved; when they stopped, the others stopped; and when they rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels…”
Wheels. Can you imagine what a strange sight that must’ve been – “God on wheels?” Strange, yes; until we think about it for a minute. Think about what this vision must have meant to that nomad by the riverside; to all the nomads by the riverside? To realize beyond your wildest dreams that God is not tied to any one place; that God is not restricted to the Holy Land hundreds of miles away, but that God is in fact right here, right now, with you and every one of the exiles? They may have been in the strangest of places, the circumstances around them unfamiliar and unsettling, but they still knew who they were and whose they were. That’s why Ezekiel’s astounding vision is a vision of many things, but perhaps most importantly it is a vision to the people that God is with them, wherever they are.
Fast forward a half-millennium to another man alongside the waters, teaching the crowds from a boat owned by a salty fisherman. Nothing Jesus does is ever by chance. He finishes his sermon and asks the boat’s owner to push out to water and cast the nets. Simon has no interest in entertaining the whims of a religious teacher. It’s already been a long day, and an unproductive one at that. But for whatever reason he does as he is asked. And as he and the others begin to pull the nets in, much to their shock, they find them full of the fish that had eluded them all day. So full are the nets, in fact, that they start to break. Jesus has their attention now. Come with me, he tells them, and you will be catching people.
Have you ever wondered why Simon, James and John immediately dropped those nets, left their livelihoods and families, to follow this man whom they had just met? Surely it couldn’t have been just the fish. No, they had to have known that there was something special about this Jesus, something that transcended their lives as they had lived them. Could it be, quite simply, that they followed Jesus because he was the one who came to them? They didn’t have to go down to the synagogue to hear him teach. They didn’t have to seek him out. He sought them out. He came to them. He came to them on their turf, got in their boat, and chose to reveal himself through something they knew – fishing. And when it was time to extend the invitation, Jesus didn’t say, “I’ll teach you to get a bunch of converts” or “I’ll help you save some souls.” No, he spoke to fishermen in a way they would understand: From now on you’ll be catching people.
You want to know why we need the inflatable church? Not the actual one but the concept of it? Like those Israelites long ago, we, too, are in a strange land of sorts. We live in a society that for the most part no longer embraces the church-at-large and the convictions we hold so dear. And to be perfectly honest, my friends, that is not such a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing because it forces us to be the church, not just show up for it. When the band is playing right outside our walls, it reminds us that building God’s kingdom on earth is not a passive thing. It is always active, and it involves all of us. So our job is not to “bring God back.” God is already here! God is on wheels, catching people wherever they are.
God is catching our high school and university seniors, as they celebrate their graduation on this Graduation Sunday. It is a strange and foreign land are preparing to enter! It’s unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before. And yet, God is on wheels! God is meeting them where they are, like the inflatable church, as much of a presence there as here. And as our seniors go into this amazing, unsettling newness, they know this unequivocal truth: God goes with them. We go with them. This church never stops loving them, never stops thinking of them, never stops praying for them. They never cease to be a child of this church or a child of God. And that is a great thing!
So God goes with our seniors – but what about us? What about those who are left behind, and this strange and foreign land we’re living in? What does the inflatable church teach us? If anything, my friends, I have to think it teaches us this: that while there may have been a time when we could stay right here inside our comfortable worship space, waiting for people to come to us, that time is no more. That ship has sailed! Now, more than ever, we are being called by Jesus to follow his lead, going outside our church doors and greeting people where they are.
For Jesus it was at the fishing docks; for us it’s Room In The Inn or Loaves and Fishes. For Jesus it was meeting three ordinary fishermen; for us it might be a single mom with no job or health avodart online insurance, a family of five whose house burned down, an elderly couple with an empty pantry. Or perhaps it’s even people like you and me – people who struggle keeping up with things in this fast-paced world, people who need to experience the transforming love of Jesus Christ. Those are the kinds of people God calls us to meet out there and bring back here.
That’s the kind of church God calls us to be. Faithful. Mobile. Grace-filled. Welcoming. Compassionate. Mission-driven. Inflatable. Full of the very breath of God, breathing new life into this family of faith, leading us out into the strange and foreign land we live in; confident that God is with us wherever we go. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.