(Acts 17: 16-34)
These days I am doing my best to keep a weeping cherry sapling alive in a three-gallon bucket in my backyard.
It isn’t just any sapling. Weeping cherry trees hold a special place in Lindsley family lore. Back in the 1940’s, or sometime around then, my grandfather planted a weeping cherry tree in the front yard of his home in Asheville. Over the years it grew, and it apparently made quite an impression on my Dad and his brother Don; because in 1967 on a return trip, Uncle Don acquired a sapling from that tree and took it home with him to Long Island. A couple of years later my Dad followed suit, and planted one of those saplings in our yard in Raleigh.
Fast forward to 2010, when my Dad informs me that he has some saplings from the now fully-grown weeping cherry tree in Raleigh and wants to give me one. So I plant it in the yard of our Mount Airy home, and it loved it there. And I hated, hated having to leave it behind when we moved three years later.
So it was somewhat providential that, a couple of months ago, I got an email from Uncle Don, sent to all the cousins; letting us know that his weeping cherry tree had now sprouted saplings, and asking if any of us would like him to mail us two or three each, with the hopes that at least one would survive the trip. I could not email him back fast enough.
And so, as promised, a week or so later a UPS poster cylinder arrived at the church containing three weeping cherry saplings. I took an early lunch that day and headed home, potting the three and following Don’s specific instructions – water immediately, keep out of direct sunlight for a week. Since then, two have bit the dust; but I’m happy to report that one – my favorite one, if I’m honest – is still alive and kicking. I’m trying not to get my hopes up, although I admit to tending to this plant’s every need, even talking to it, a daily dose of verbal encouragement. Why not.
And so in a few months, if all goes well, I’ve got a spot picked out in the front yard where I’ll plant it in the fall. Kinda crazy. A second third-generation Lindsley weeping cherry tree. This one, by way of Long Island.
It took quite the journey to get here. But you know what they say: bloom where you’re planted.
I imagine that’s along the lines of what Paul must’ve been thinking. We are, as you know, continuing our sermon series on the book of Acts, “The Early Church All Over Again,” taking cues from the church back then about how we might be church today. In today’s passage we find that the church has been growing – city by city, town by town, bit by bit it is growing. Paul has come on the scene – a former Pharisee hardliner and Jesus-follower persecutor, now their greatest proponent.
And as much as Paul loved a challenge, you have to wonder if he met his match. His mission journeys brought him to Athens, the intellectual and philosophical center of the world; and a whole different world from the one he knew. This was Greece, a nation formed by great thinkers like Plato, Socrates, Hippocrates, Cicero. This was a culture that believed not in one God, not in two or three, but hundreds. There was a god for everything – for sun and rain; war, peace; fire, agriculture. Even a God for poetry (Calliope, if you’re wondering).
This was where Paul found himself. And it must’ve been disorienting, to say the least. Like an Asheville-by-way-of-Long-Island weeping cherry sapling in south Charlotte.
We read that Paul was “deeply distressed” to see a city full of idols. Do ya think?! Maybe he was offended by the sight of it all. Or maybe he was thinking to himself, how in the world do I communicate with these people? It’s like we’re speaking two different languages. How will they even understand anything about Jesus, the one son of the one God?
No one would’ve blamed Paul if he’d turned around and cut town, right? No one would’ve faulted him if he had thrown in the towel. This was more than a challenge. This was impossible.
And then Paul spots something that catches his eye – an altar. One among hundreds, but one with a curious inscription that read: To An Unknown God. Which, by the way, is pretty clever on their part, right? Just in case they accidentally left one out.
Anyway, it gets Paul thinking. And then it leads him to act. Standing there surrounded by idols, Paul takes in a deep breath and says:
As I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an Unknown God.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
In other words, Paul uses that “unknown God” altar as a springboard to launch into a dialogue about Jesus, who they did not know. And Paul shares Jesus with them in a way that’s easy to understand, that’s respectful and authentic and genuine. And afterwards some think he’s full of it – some always do – but others tell him they want to hear more.
It’s ingenious what Paul did, in that moment, with that altar. Clever, inventive, resourceful. It’s the kind of “thinking-on-your-feet” that I’m always envious of when I see other people doing it. And it is, as our former Montreat speaker MaryAnn McKibben Dana might say, a “yes-and.”
If you went to that retreat a few years ago, you know what I’m talking about. In her new book God, Improv and the Art of Living, MaryAnn unpacks what a “yes-and” is. She draws on her time in, of all things, improv comedy; where one of the cardinal rules is to say yes. In other words, if you’re on stage for a sketch and the person next to you says, “Doctor, quick, we’re going to lose this patient!” it doesn’t matter that you wanted the sketch to be about hiking the Appalachian Trail. You’re now a doctor – and so you roll with it: “Well, let’s act quick, it’s my brother lying there!” You take what you’re given – you say “yes” to it – and then you build on it – you say “and.” Yes-And.
MaryAnn says she was originally drawn to improv and the art of saying yes-and because her default is to say the exact opposite. “I’m often tired or fearful of doing the new thing, she writes. And when I muster up the gumption for a Yes, I can be reluctant or tentative, wondering what the neighbors think, or wondering if I’m going to get it wrong.
MaryAnn is of the opinion that “yes-and” is precisely the kind of thinking and acting that the church needs to be engaging in today. Taking what it’s presented with, whatever that is, and instead of fighting it or complaining about it or ignoring it, choosing to see it as God’s doing, God’s Yes; so that our job is to come up with the “and.”
She gives the example of an Episcopal church in Houston’s First Ward, an economically depressed area of town, wrestling with what to do with an adjacent exterior wall that had become a magnet for graffiti. For a while the church engaged in a back-and-forth with the graffiti creators – the church would paint over it; the graffiti would reappear. Eventually the church realized they needed to try something different. They decided to accept that the graffiti wasn’t going away – and, more importantly, that they needed to acknowledge it as an important form of expression from the area’s troubled youth. How could they honor that and avoid an unsightly visual at the same time?
So they hired a local artist to design a mural for the wall that incorporated, not painted over, the graffiti. After planning the design, the artist invited children from the church’s day camp to help with the painting. When the end product was finished, the graffiti was still visible, but it was part of something bigger than itself. It was the church’s way of saying to the graffiti creators, We see you, we see your struggle, and we choose to honor it and honor you.
Like Paul in Athens, the church improvised. They said “yes-and.” They chose to bloom where they was planted.
We’ve talked a lot already in this sermon series about how the church is trying to figure out how to be church in these days and times, because things have changed and we cannot keep just being church the way we’ve always. Which is a little weird, I get it. I mean, it’s not like we’re in a different physical location or anything – we are still right where the first brick was laid way back in the early 50’s. We haven’t moved an inch.
But the city around us – oh my gosh, has it moved, has it changed! I’ve heard many of you tell me stories about Providence Road being two-lanes, even gravel. In our Heritage Sunday video, Jim Christian recounts when all of this land that our church now sits on was open green space. Heck, SouthPark was once farmland!
How things have changed. You leave town for a week and come back to find a new condo building that wasn’t there when you left, or an older house that’s just gone. Back when this church was built, Charlotte claimed just under 135,000 residents. Now the metropolitan area counts nearly 2.5 million people, with 109 moving to the metro area every single day. 109!
And the population statistics don’t tell half the story. Currently African-American, Hispanic, Asian and other non-white people make up 51% of Mecklenburg’s population – a slim majority, but a majority nonetheless. The divide between rich and poor in our county is undeniable – the famed “crescent” of poverty that stretches through the northern and western sides of town, set against the southern “wedge” of wealth where our church is and where most of us live. Or how about this: from 2000 to 2013, the number of foreign-born people living in the Charlotte metro area grew by 114%. And most of us have heard by now of the shocking and depressing Harvard study that found Charlotte ranking dead-last out of fifty large US cities in upward mobility – meaning children born in poverty in Charlotte are more likely to stay in poverty than anywhere else in the country.
Friends, we cannot keep doing church like we did back in the 1950’s because this isn’t even the same place anymore! It is larger, it is more ethnically diverse, it is more racially divided, and it is more separated along lines of income and wealth. Truth be told, it’s a little like Paul standing in Athens and not recognizing a thing in sight.
And to that, sisters and brothers, I say: thanks be to God! Thanks be to God that we’re not in familiar territory anymore and cannot simply do things the way we’ve always done them. Thanks be to God that we have to work to look for an “in,” look for that “unknown altar;” to say “yes-and.” Because the city of Charlotte and the world does not need the church we once were. It needs the church we are becoming; the church God is compelling us to be.
This is where God wants us. In a growing, dynamic and changing Charlotte. In a state and country and world rife with political and theological divides. Right in the mess of racial tensions and economic disparity. And there’s no sense fighting it. No sense trying to turn the clock back. No sense sticking our head in the sand and pretending things are different. This is where we’ve been planted.
And you know what they say….
Bloom where we’re planted. Bloom by saying over and over again “yes-and” to what God is doing in us and among us. Truth be told, we’ve been doing a lot of it already.
We are a 500-member church in a 1500-member facility. We say “yes-and” when we put that space to good use by sharing it with our ministry partners – our Weekday School ministry, Philips Academy, Shepherds Center.
We have nine acres at the back of our property that we’re not using and won’t ever need. We say “yes-and” when we turn that land into resources to tend to both capital needs and missional and programmatic opportunities.
We say “yes-and” when we welcome guests on cold Wednesday nights to our Fellowship Hall and Youth Center for Room In The Inn. We say “yes-and” when twenty folks show up on a Saturday morning to do some grounds work in between Facility Managers. We say “yes-and” when we partner with an outside group to host Friday night food trucks.
Trinity, you are already experts at saying “yes-and” in the life of the church, because that’s what being church today requires us to do. So what new ways will we say “yes-and;” what new ways will we choose to bloom where we’re planted – in the coming year, in the coming decades?
After our lunch today, I’m heading home to tend to that weeping cherry sapling. I’ve got to make sure it survives a scorching hot Charlotte summer – so that when October rolls around, I’ll plant it in its permanent home. And next spring, God willing, it’ll bloom the beautiful white-pink flowers that will say to everyone who sees it, “I’m here. I’m right where I belong.”
You know this place, this time, is right where we belong, right? You know this is where God has put our church. Let us bloom in this place – bloom as God’s faithful and improvising church.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 MaryAnn McKibben Dana, God, Improv and The Art of Listening, pgs. 11-12.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte,_North_Carolina, visited on 5.28.2018. Also Charlotte: State of The City Report by For Charlotte Mission Network.
 Charlotte: State of The City Report by For Charlotte Mission Network.