Lessons after 26 Years of Planting Seeds
Lessons after 26 Years of Planting Seeds
Today is my final message as the senior pastor at New Life Fellowship. You'll hear other messages from me but not as senior pastor. I've been thinking about this message for months. How do you summarize the many final words I want to give to you? I brought it down to only four (if you could imagine!), four points. Four "seeds," I'm calling them.
I want to begin by reading a text which frames this whole transition that we have been in for the last four-and-a-half years at New Life. It comes out of 1 Corinthians 3. Paul writes:
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making things grow. So neither one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow … By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Watering the Seeds
First, Paul makes the point that the Lord has assigned to each his task. You have a task as you move through life, and so do I. We're servants. So my task for the last twenty-six years has been to plant the seeds of New Life Fellowship Church. Now Rich, along with Redd and other leaders, and you in the next generation are going to put water on those seeds. But it's very important we see the framework because for Paul he says, "Who's Apollos? And who's Paul?" They're just servants from whom you came to believe. Then he makes the point that neither he who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow. So in preparation for this sermon I went to Queens Farm Museum. There was one very interesting thing that the fellow who runs it told me. He said, "Every farmer knows this—that you plant seeds and you can water it and put fertilizer around it but only God can make it grow. You've got to believe this. Something mysterious outside of ourselves has to make that thing grow. That you know that you are dependent utterly on something outside of yourself for any crop that you plant." That is what Paul is saying here. I know I planted seeds here and we watered those seeds a little bit over these twenty-six years, but it has been God who's enabled us to grow.
Many seeds have been planted in New Life Fellowship over these years, and we've experienced a lot of fruit. These seeds are now going to be watered. New Life is going to look different as the years progress. I mean you're going to say "What is this place?" That kernel of corn is the cornstalk, and so New Life's DNA, who we are, is us. But God is taking it to a whole new place. That's what makes this succession so wonderful and so important because we are entering a whole new phase. But we are only starting and Paul makes the point that the foundation is Jesus. You can't build on any other foundation but Jesus Christ. The foundation of New Life Fellowship, is Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. But be careful how you build. We're not going to use genetically modified seeds. We are going organic all the way.
"But the Lord has assigned to each his task." Each one of you, you have a task right now. So actually our assigned tasks by God they change as we move through the seasons of life. Right now mine's moving, and yours is going to be moving. But the planting of those seeds is done now. Now Rich and Redd and all of you are going to come to water those seeds for a fruitful field.
Seed as a Signpost
Now, New Life Fellowship is, I like to call it, a sacrament with a small s. The word sacrament means something that makes visible the invisible God. There's something about the DNA of New Life that is a signpost. It is something very unique that God has made in those seeds springing up before us. As you came into New Life—and many of you have been here awhile—you think you see it. "Oh, I get New Life. It's multiracial, we're going monastic, with a little emotional health, I got it." But over time you realize that it's much deeper. Each of these things is deeper than you initially realize.
Lake Mohawk is in upstate New York. It looks small. But when surveyors first came to the Lake they put their line down to see how deep it was, and they couldn't find the bottom. Then they brought in the longest line they could find, and they put that down and they still couldn't find the bottom. What looked like a shallow lake turned out to be what's called a crevasse, or a deep, open crack into the earth. In the same way, at New Life Fellowship the longer you're here you realize the depths of what's going on. Actually for me the things we're going to talk about today I am still after thirty-five years, plumbing the depths of each of these things. So you want to take that view as we go into them.
I'm going to ask you to cherish these seeds, water these seeds, and prayerfully deepen your understanding of these seeds. My prayer is that we and you as a church and the young generation of the next ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, you're going to grow a big cornfield out of these seeds, like the world's not seen. But each one of these countercultural seeds must be experienced. You actually have to live them.
Seed One: Being precedes doing
The first one is this: Being precedes doing. Now some of the most important texts in the Bible for my life have been Matthew 3 & 4 and Luke 3 & 4 when Jesus is baptized and then immediately sent to the wilderness.
First, you see Jesus being. The Father speaks from heaven. "You are my Son whom I love. With you I'm well pleased." Tremendous. Jesus has done nothing at this point. He hasn't done any miracles. He hasn't healed anybody. He hasn't preached any sermons. But in being the Father loves him. He receives the Father's love. He has a sense of being. He's anchored. He's centered in the love of the Father. Then what immediately happens is the devil brings him to the wilderness and he's tempted in the desert, and the temptation is about doing.
You'll notice the temptation is "If you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread … " and " … worship me … " and " … jump down from the temple." In other words, do something! The temptation is around being and doing. In other words, do something to prove that you're loveable, you're the Son of God, you're really not a loser. Do something! Prove it! But Jesus resists that temptation and he remains being anchored in the love of the Father. Then out of that he does. Being precedes doing.
If you don't do it that way what happens is you end up doing all kinds of stuff, and for Jesus his being would have been dependent on his doing, and it would have been a false self. When you do things without having a centered being that's what we call a false self. You're being somebody you're not, because you don't know who you are. You're not anchored, because you're a human being. You're not a human doing machine. You're a being.
When I became a Christian in 1976, I probably could have preached this. I knew it in my head. I understood being before you do. Ah. I had it, but I didn't have it. Not until many years later do I think I'm beginning to get it. Most of us we are running around doing like crazy. Then when we have a few minutes, we be. But the kingdom is the opposite. We be out of which we do, and that order, friends, is life and death.
Our whole culture asks one question—what do you do? Listen to strangers who meet for the first time. Within a minute or two of the conversation the question will be asked, "What do you do?" Because our job, occupation, or accomplishments is our primary way of identity. "Oh, you're this. Okay. I got it. I know who you are now." It's so deep in the culture it's like the air we breathe.
Now, Jean Vanier, a former professor of philosophy, left all that about forty years ago to start a community for severely disabled adults called The Arche. He talks about and writes about the tension of doing and being. He tells the story of a woman named Francois who came to an Arche house. This woman was severely handicapped. She could not speak. She could not dress herself. She could not feed herself. So she had to be fed everything. And she was incontinent. So she was in diapers. Thirty years had passed since she had come into this community, and now she was blind. So somebody came to visit their community and said to the leader, "What's the point of keeping Francois alive?" The leader of the house said, "Well, madam, I love her." That was it. I love her. It's like your grandma or grandpa has Alzheimer's, and someone says to you, "Why keep your grandmother alive?" Your answer is "Because I love her." She doesn't have to do anything to merit being alive.
You know, Vanier talks about how in France in a few years there will not be any more children with Down's syndrome because they will all have been aborted, because there's no use for them. What are they going to do? What are they going to perform? What's their contribution to society? It says something about the world that we live in.
Now the first few years of our church, especially the first eight/nine years, we were a very busy church. God did a lot. We did a lot. We grew fast. We planted churches. We started ministries. We were harried and frenetic. I spent my early years as a leader trying to be somebody I wasn't. It was confusing for our church. I was like David putting on the armor that belonged to Saul. It wasn't mine. But in 1996, our whole journey of emotional healthy spirituality began, and all of a sudden I started to really understand that being really is first.
In my journal I have a poem by Lynn Ungar called Camas Lilies. There are two lines in the poem which I carry with me in my journal, "Gone to the fields to be lovely. Be back when I'm through blooming." I'm going to take care of myself and delight in life and I'm going to be first. I'll be back when I'm through, but being is going to come before doing. That poem and that picture actually is a reminder to me that this is Jesus' order, and don't ever get them mixed up, because it will wreck your life. It will wreck our church. One scholar wrote it this way, "The dominant form violence takes in modernity is speed." I think we do underestimate how speed does violence to our souls, crushes us, because there's no time to be. We're being run like crazy; we got so much on our plate.
So in 2003, when we had a contemplative sabbatical it was a turning point for me, a turning point for New Life Fellowship. We began to do silence, stillness, and delight. It was incredible to slow down. You know it says we have five values at New Life. The first value is what we call monastic. That is slowing down to be with God, and we realize there are two words we got to make sure we always add to that. Slowing down to be with God in community. In other words, I need you and you need me.
So that's why above all else we want to cultivate a relationship with God, ourselves, and others. We want to be.
I know it's hard and you are probably asking yourself, "How do I do this?" That's discipleship. That's learning—to learn to wait on the Lord, to be still before the Lord. That's my life. That's our life. How do I be silent? How do I not be distracted? How do I not have my mind racing a million miles an hour? This is the most, perhaps, radical spiritual discipline in the Western church. But remember we cannot bring the world where we have not gone. This is one of my favorite sayings of the Hassidic rabbis of old. As Rabbi Sucher said, "At the end of your life God will not ask 'Why were you not Moses?' He will ask 'Why were you not you? Why did you try to live someone else's life? Why didn't you slow down enough so that you could get the courage to uniquely embrace the life I've given you?'" "To live unfaithfully to yourself," says Rumi, "is to cause others great damage."
A great story which has helped me over the years, which I have to constantly remind myself of, goes like this. It was also said by a Hassidic rabbi.
When I was young I set out to change the world. When I grew a little older I perceived that this was too ambitious, so I set out to change my state. This too I realized was too ambitious, so I set out to change my town. When I realized I couldn't even do that, I tried to change my family. But now as an old man I realize I should have started by changing myself. If I had started with myself maybe I would have succeeded in changing my family, maybe the town, even the state, and who knows, maybe even the world.
The best gift that you can give your family, friends, workplace, our community, our city is for you to be first out of what you do.
For me it's meant a lot of things to try to be and again, it can be anything from Sabbath keeping as a revolutionary act, to silence, to solitude, to meditating on Scripture. But this is not part of the culture.
Seed Two: God is hidden in the marginalized
Let's go to number two, which is God is hidden in the marginalized. Now, by marginalized, I mean people outside the mainstream. The margins are people who are poor, un-strategic, unimpressive, orphans and widows, disabled, mentally challenged and mentally ill, children who can't speak for themselves, elderly people, addicts, criminals, the ones who are in the background. They're immigrants without papers. They're the people for whom basically the world has contempt or ignores. They don't fit on the paper.
Take a book for example. When you open a book you don't read the margin. You don't even look at the margin. You don't even notice the margin because all you care about is the words on the page. That's why you bought the book. That's the way life works. You go through life and you see the main people, but you don't see the people on the margins unless you make a big effort. But God is hidden in the marginalized. God's in the margins. The people on the margins are not on the cover of People magazine. They're not in Glamour, Vogue, or in Time's Persons of the Year. Funny thing is Jesus says when you have a banquet, he says to invite the people on the margins. Invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.
PBS had a special recently and they said, at least in the United States, more Americans are living in economically segregated communities or neighborhoods than thirty years before. In other words, we're putting more people in the margins, "Just put them over there." People have less and less contact with these folks and that goes for the church as well.
When I started New Life twenty-six years ago, I was offered a lot. I was offered money and a lot of resources to plant New Life in Manhattan because it's sustainable in Manhattan, they felt. And I would be a good fit for Manhattan. Little did they know, I saw this truth that God's hidden in the marginalized. I saw it. I didn't see it fully as I see it now, but I had a glimpse of it. So we came to Corona, but we came alone. There was very little money and nobody wanted to come because no one thought it could really work. I mean what's amazing, we were very new. We were very intentional about Corona, Elmhurst, and Queens. Geri and I spent a year in Costa Rica learning Spanish, and then we spent another year in Jamaica Queens volunteering in an all-Spanish congregation. We became a whole community with people who were fleeing death squads in El Salvador, war in Nicaragua, and the Columbian drug cartel, who were scrambling to get across the border, invisibly fighting for their lives to get somehow to Queens to start a life. But we found out that God is really hidden in the marginalized, and we met incredible people.
Paul picked up on it in 1 Corinthians 12. He's talking to the church. He says, "Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor." You see, those who are considered marginalized and are considered failures, you don't understand, they give balance to the world. They help us get our equilibrium about love, about what's important, like tenderness and gentleness. The marginalized ground us. Life is not about power, fame, money, or competition. It's not about getting to the best schools or another degree. The push of the world is to pretend that we're big. We're not! We're broken like everybody else. When we are with people on the margins, who are in deep weakness and deep vulnerabilities and they're really marginalized, we actually discover a lot about ourselves. We get in touch with our own brokenness and humanity. They're a gift. That's why so many people through history have understood Jesus' words when he says in Matthew 25 "I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was a stranger and you took me in."
If you know the story of Francis of Assisi, he hated lepers. He couldn't stand the sight of them, and they smelled horrible in the 1100s in Italy. But one day God had him on his horse, and he saw a leper that he saw was disgusting, and God had him go and kiss that leper. Now he didn't change his religion, but he was converted. Something happened inside of him. He saw God in the marginalized. His inner heart changed from fear and contempt, and he discovered the presence of God in a leper. And he was never the same.
In this room some of you are actually on the margins, and God has picked you up and brought you onto the page. The question is, do you even see the people on the margins anymore? Do we see God in the marginalized? I'm always tempted to forget. I've always been tempted to ignore it and avoid it. I get compassion fatigue, like the rest of you. I've got enough of my own problems. Just getting through life is a challenge, let alone the marginalized. It's easy to look at pictures on the internet, isn't it? All the needs of the world exhaust us and we get numb. The technology around us makes us numb to the marginalized.
New Life is a powerful church now. We have a lot of prestige, resources, and people. We have a lot of power and privilege. That seed that God put in us for the last twenty-six years is that we take that and we move to the marginalized. We're not building a kingdom here. If you have education you'll never be poor. So much has been given to us, and so we are to give it. It is an enormous privilege, more than you can imagine, being part of New Life Fellowship Church, to be incarnated in this part of New York City. It's a great, great gift.
Many of you don't know the story but we had an opportunity to move at one point. When we were trying to buy this building from the Elks Lodge, at one point a developer came and undercut us and made a side deal with the Elks. We got a letter in the mail. We were told we had six months to leave. They were breaking their contract, and so we were looking at being homeless as a church. We had conversations about breaking the church into four parts, because we were too many people. Where do you find a place to go? Everybody was crushed, because we felt like God wanted us here and all that giving, and people had sacrificed so much and all of a sudden we were looking at being homeless. Then about five or six months later all of a sudden the deal with the developer fell through, right before we were expecting to have to leave. They quit the deal, and all of a sudden we were able to buy the building. Two years later I was at the Queens Borough office and I was meeting with the economic development director, who is a Jewish fellow. He wasn't a believer in Jesus. I asked him why they landmarked the building. When the city of New York landmarked the building, the developer couldn't tear it down and build a big apartment building. So he left. I asked, "Why did you landmark the building? I thought it just happened." He said, "No. We landmarked the building so New Life Fellowship could buy that building." I said to him, "Why?" He said, "We have been following you for ten years, and you are good for that community, inviting services to the people who are not being serviced by the city of New York. We didn't need another apartment building. We needed you."
God's hidden in the marginalized, but the reality of being involved with people on the margins is very painful. It is not a lot of fun. It's a mess. Now, our health center downstairs, they give showers to homeless people twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They line up, if you're ever here. We've given now our thousandth shower to a homeless person as of yesterday, since January. They have actually the nicest bathroom, it's got to be tiptop to be a health center. What they do is they clean it spotless after each shower. They give the person a towel, a clean towel. They go in and shower. You can imagine, not going to look so pretty when it's done. Then a volunteer from New Life goes in there and cleans that place and makes it spotless, and then the next homeless person comes. And they do it again after that. Clean it spotless again. Give a towel. Next homeless person. So it looks beautiful when they walk in that bathroom.
So I want to invite you to get involved. This means that you have to shift your life, orient your life differently. To listen to stories of people who are on the margins that nobody's listening to. We need to orient our lives towards that. We'll think we're giving there, but we're actually receiving—because we're meeting Jesus in the margins in ways that we never imagined.
Seed Three: Race Matters
Which leads me to my third seed, which is this: race matters. Now you're probably saying, Why is this white Italian up there saying race matters? I come from a family and a culture that's quite ethnocentric and racist. We don't even like our own people, if you come from the wrong part of Italy. So I joke around sometimes. I said, "Rich, if you even drove through the old neighborhood you'd get a beating. Okay? For parking the car, if you'd even come out alive for walking through the neighborhood." That's the level of hatred. Martin Luther King was asked once, "How can one group despise another group so much?" He said, "We will continue to despise people until we have loved and accepted what is despicable in ourselves."
So my background has enough denial that we project it on everybody else. It happened all through human history. I became a Christian in college, and I was taught about Scripture and the Book of Acts and Ephesians. One of the first campuses they sent me to, to establish Christian fellowship, was at Rutgers University. It was a campus called Livingston that was eighty percent Latino and African-American. I walked on this campus, and they put me up in the cafeteria to start speaking. So I got up and started preaching. People started cursing me and throwing things at me. I said, "Wow. These people don't like me." I was very fortunate because I got a tremendous education in my own culture, and it got me outside of my own skin to enter other people's skins and to begin to hear stories of their lives, which were so different than mine. So I have been thinking, praying, learning, and wrestling about race for thirty-five years.
Now this is one extremely complicated topic, to say the least. But let me just say at the outset that behind hatreds, prejudices, and racism are demonic powers and principalities that are so incredible that you'd rather just avoid the whole topic in the first place. But skin color, racism, and prejudice has been the cause of division all through world history. It's not just the United States. It's a worldwide issue, as many of you know in your own countries. But of course in the United States we've got the genocide of Native Americans. But slavery has marked the country in such a significant way the last three hundred fifty years, and it's a deep scar and wound, and you can't understand U.S. history apart from that. The church you still hear talk of you have a white church, you got a church for rich people, you got a Chinese church, you got an Indonesian church, we got a Black church. We divide churches still by races. We have lots of hatred flowing around. Not just for Native Americans or African Americans or Koreans or Chinese or Eastern Europeans. The list is endless. But the racism goes on between ethnic groups, and we have enough of a complexity here at New Life that we know in your countries what's going on. But there's racism of Chinese with Filipinos and Filipinos with Filipinos, depending on your religion, and Indonesians with Indonesians, and Asians on Asians, people of color with people of color.
You know the story of Latin America, because there's so much to learn at New Life Fellowship, because it gets a lot more complicated than simply Black and white very quick here. I was pastoring in Spanish. I pastored in Spanish for five years at New Life Fellowship, and we had a split that was a bloody split. I remember in the middle here this white Italian guy trying to pastor all this complexity. I found out later it was partially race driven, because Latin America has got its own complexity of European countries, based countries like Argentina and Chile. Skin color is really a big factor in Latin America history towards those in the Caribbean. We had different groups in the church, and I had no idea all this stuff was going on until the thing blew apart and they guys said, "Pete, you're clueless." They handed me a book called The Americas. And he goes, "Read this book!" It had the history of every country of Latin America, and then I said, "Oh my god." I sat down, and I remember talking to people from different countries and trying to get the handle on it.
But so many things in our world are defined by race. Where you live, where you can live, what community you choose to be part of, what school you let your kids go to, how far you can go up in your jobs, who you can be friends with, who your kids can be friends with. But racism, my friends, is a horror, and it doesn't belong in the body of Christ. It's a sin issue. It's a discipleship issue. As it says in Ephesians, Jesus, through his blood, has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. He's created a new human race, a new people, a new society. It's called Christians. He broke that dividing wall through his blood. I was fortunate to get a vision of Scripture out of Acts and Ephesians. The first Christians understood. They saw themselves as part of a worldwide, multiracial, multicultural family that transcended all nationalities, social, racial, and economic barriers. Because, as you know, the issue of class may be even bigger than the issue of color. But the gospel is so powerful in the early centuries, it brought those barriers down. But one of the central tasks of the early church in bringing the gospel to the world was bringing those barriers down in the name of Jesus. You find that when we enter the world of someone different than us. Whether it's race of culture, ethnicity, economics, or gender, we find God there. It says in Revelation that we're going to gather before a throne, people of every tribe, nation, and language before the throne of God and cry out praises to Jesus. But rather than division every culture and race brings a gift, brings something that a God-given distinction to the whole package, and it's going to be celebrated in the Book of Revelation.
God has sown into thousands of cultures, races, and nations in history aspects of his image, and God takes what is useful in every culture and he transforms it into an instrument for the praise of his glory. We are invited here on earth to taste it and to offer a gift to a world filled with genocides and hatreds deep in the human hearts and say Jesus is alive. There's a power able to take hatreds and transform them, even though that hatred may go back thousands of years. So when we enter the world of someone different than us, we find God is there too. I have been blessed, everybody. I've been here twenty-six years. I've been hearing stories of people from seventy-three countries, if not more over these years. We've got seventy-three countries now. New Life Fellowship, make no mistake about it, an emotionally healthy spirituality was born out of the crucible of racism. Trying to be a family here at New Life Fellowship we realized that you're not going to change hearts by law and force and government decrees. It's going to be a change of heart. A transformation from the inside is going to come from Jesus alone. So emotionally healthy spirituality came out of that. We used to joke around and ask the question, you wonder how racist you are? Ask yourself that question Who can your child not marry? And then we know if you believe the gospel.
Last summer we were in Australia. As many of you know, Geri and I we were doing a speaking tour. We kept meeting thousands and thousands of white South Africans who had fled South Africa. Nine percent of the population of South Africa is white. Ninety-one percent is black. They've been fleeing in large numbers, apparently, the last five years. So we were shocked. A hundred thousand in Perth. Another couple hundred thousand in Brisbane. We were like, "What's going on here?" Because I knew the story of South Africa, as many of you. I'm thinking Nelson Mandela, he was a hero, phenomenal guy. I read his autobiography. They told me about the incredible racial tension there right now, and how it's a mess and that whites are leaving in large numbers. They told me very personal stories and how they were saddened they had to leave for their lives. I said, "Are you telling me that Nelson Mandela was basically all show for the rest of the world but it really wasn't true in terms of him being a bridge builder?" And every one of them gave me the same answer. They said, "No, no, no. Nelson Mandela was magnificent. He was president, as you know, from 1994-1999. And if he had been a younger man and could have been president for twenty years we would not be where we are today." They said, "He was extraordinary. But he had a character and integrity that nobody had after him. To hold this thing together you had a hundred years of pent up resentments and hatreds, and once he exited from the scene all hell broke loose."
I say that because we need to be Nelson Mandelas, everyone of us in this room, whatever culture you come from, whether it's Italian-American or African-American or Chinese or Indonesian or white, wherever you come from. To be a bridge builder. To have the kind of character, stature, calmness, steadiness, and depth in God. Because other crises will come. You can be rest assured of that. So my invitation is for you to listen to people's stories who are different than you. You're going to learn a lot.
I can't tell you the joy it is for me when I sit there and I'm watching. For example, Harvey Carey was here a few weeks ago, the African-American pastor from Detroit. I'm looking at some of you folks from Indonesia, Bhutan, or Sri Lanka and I'm thinking Where would they ever get exposed to African-American culture from the inner city of Detroit except for here. Then I watched Greg Howe talk about being Chinese and talking about the railroads and the gold rush and all the idiosyncrasies of Chinese culture. I watch faces of African-Americans, Latinos, and I'm thinking Where would they ever get exposed to the richness and the kind of culture and nuances in a place like New Life? Or I see Rich as a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. I mean, Brooklyn, my gosh. His whole life as a Puerto Rican and bringing that richness out of his messages. I think of Rosie, an Indian American. When she's talking about the wedding at Cana, she's got the people she's drawing and they're all in Indian dress. Or she's bringing out issues that only a female would bring out that we men would miss all the time. The beauty of the tapestry of what's in this room here.
But make no mistake about it. And I pray you'll hear this seed for the next twenty years. You'll die for this that race matters. We'll die on this hill to be what Jesus died for. It cost him his blood. But this is not about paternalism. This is not a great idea. We do this because the reason the Son of God came was to destroy the works of the devil, and racism is demonic. This is a vision that's biblical. It's glorious. It's one of the greatest gifts New Life Fellowship can give to the world—a hope of what could be and what heaven is going to be like. What a taste and the power of the gospel.
Seed Four: God's ways are little and slow
Let me close with this last one here. Fourth is that God's ways are little and slow. There's a parable Jesus told called the mustard seed parable. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, and though it's the smallest of all seeds, the kingdom is like that, it grows to be the largest. You see, you're going to be tempted in the years to come as a church to be polished, to be big, and to be impressive. You'll be tempted to compare yourself to other people, and you'll think to yourself I'm a loser. I haven't done what they've done. We forget the kingdom of God is a mustard seed. It's little, and it's small. You see, in the ancient Near East it was extremely small. Jesus is saying that it looks insignificant what God is doing. It looks powerless. It looks defeated. But actually God's plan is advancing. See, nothing can stop it. So I know for us like having a small group in our basement year after year after year it's so small, it looks so insignificant. Only fifteen/eighteen people in a small group. What good is this? No. The kingdom of God is advancing. What good is mentoring someone at the local high school over here or the elementary school and the person's falling asleep? The kingdom of God is advancing.
When I was a staff worker in colleges I always wanted "big." I had a campus fellowship. I said, "O God, bring somebody who's cool. Bring some cool people here. Cool people are going to attract other cool people. Beautiful. Give me some beautiful people." Then when New Life Fellowship started I asked, "God, can't you bring some professional athlete? Mariano Rivera, somebody? Some basketball. Any sport. I'll take soccer. Somebody famous that they'll think we're big shots. They'll think we're a church worth coming to."
But you know, we forget the context. Jesus didn't look very powerful. Herod had built massive temples. Rome had a glorious city. Athens had Plato and Aristotle teaching brilliant philosophy. Here is Jesus teaching in Galilee in parables to unlearned farmers. It didn't look very good. It looked defeated, powerless, and weak. It wasn't the Manhattan skyline. Our building, our location has tremendous limits, doesn't it? But Jesus didn't overwhelm people with his intellect, wisdom or size. We don't need to buy up the Queens boulevard to show that we're somebody. We don't have to do some things to get the mayor to pay attention to us and maybe write about us in The New York Times or something. We don't have to do some signs and wonders here. May God heal lots of people and do signs and wonders. But we don't have to have signs and wonders so people say Oh man, that church is powerful! I want to go there!
The smallness of the kingdom has always been a scandal and it will continue to be. God has stopped me and us in the leadership every time I tried to go big and fast. Things are not as they appear. Judas did not sign up for a mustard seed. So what did he do? He quit and went to another church, killed himself. He didn't like the mustard seed thing. Too slow and too little. If God had answered all my prayers that I had prayed for New Life Fellowship in the early years, we would not be sitting in this room today. I would have wrecked the church. I wanted big and fast. I wasn't ready. We weren't ready in character, maturity, marriages. When I thought we were going backwards we were going forward. When I thought we were going forward we were actually going backwards. It's very slow. Learning emotionally healthy skills is very slow. You know, giving money each week. I give you five in the offering. Slow. Year after year. Plugging. Slow. Little bit by little bit. Breaking generational patterns of parenting and the way your family did. They need to go back three/four generations and learn to do things differently in the new family of Jesus. That's incredibly slow, painful. I have gone ahead of God more times than I can even record, but I can tell you this. God will not be rushed. You can rush all you want, but he will not be rushed. God's ways are little and they are slow.
It's when you're sleeping that God is working. The greatest lessons that have come out of New Life Fellowship have come out of failure and suffering. So don't be discouraged by small beginnings, and don't be discouraged when you feel like God is hidden and you can't find him. It's the way he works. He's a mustard seed. Don't be afraid.
So here's my invitation. Remain with Jesus even when you want to quit. Abide. Stay with him even when you see nothing. The kingdom has always been a mustard seed, but then all of a sudden it becomes a massive tree.
Now, you may not think your life is worth much. You may not feel like you've accomplished much. You may not feel like God's given you much. You may feel like you got one talent, everybody else has five. But I want to tell you something. Your life is greater than you think. God has assigned to you tasks that only have your name on them for what he's doing in the world. Not only that, New Life Fellowship is greater than you think. Deuteronomy 32 says, "One of you will cause a thousand to flee; two, ten thousand." Do you understand? We formed a community of the church twenty-six years ago, because we knew that we could individually do these four seeds. We could do them, but the impact's going to be so minimal. But by being a community the power and effect of your piece exponentially explodes.
Remember this in the beginning of the sermon? New Life Fellowship is a seed. Now, it took me twenty-six years to plant all these seeds. Took a long time. But they're organic not chemically modified. But you have to see New Life Fellowship Church in this perspective. We've only just begun. Paul says, "I planted the seed. Now Apollos is going to water, but it's God who gives the increase."
So right now I put seeds down. There's been some watering, but now we're going to really water. New Life is going to look different. Rich is going to start watering along with Redd and the larger team. But this is what's coming. You're going to say, "It doesn't look like this anymore!" You're right, but it's still going to be the same because it came from the same kernel. You understand? It's the same DNA. It's the same four seeds. That's why this has been such a fabulous four-and-a-half years. This is why we're celebrating this whole process. It's been tremendous. But I've done my task as a senior pastor, and I have planted those seeds, and it's over.
I have a different role to play. I'm going to remain on staff, as is Geri. We'll have a new role, and my title will be Teaching Pastor and Pastor at Large. I'll bring the seeds of New Life around the world, but I'm staying in New Life Fellowship. I'll be on staff here. I'll take my place. But my number one job, as of next Sunday, as of Rich's installation, is to be his number one champion. I'm so thrilled by where we are. I'm thrilled about the field that's coming. I'm thrilled about the gifts that so many of you in the next generation are bringing to the table. But all of you are going to be watering that seed. I'm going to be joining in the watering as well.
I would like to say my final two words to you. Now it's not the last words you're going to hear from me, but it's the last words you're going to hear from me as the senior pastor at New Life Fellowship. I mean them sincerely, with all of my heart to all of you in this room. It's been such a privilege.
Here are my two words: Thank you.
Pete Scazzero is Pastor at Large at New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York.
Peter Scazzero is Teaching Pastor/Pastor-at-Large at New Life Fellowship in Queens, New York and the author of The Emotionally Healthy Leader. Follow him on Twitter @petescazzero.