DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
A Sermon on Mission & Vision for 8 March 2015 – 3rd Sunday during the Season of Lent
This is going to be a different kind of sermon. So hear these words first – a few parts of scripture that seem to give us a pretty good sense of what God wants from and for us as the Body of Christ in the world today. Matthew 4:17, from a version of the bible called The Message, comes right after the author attributes words from the prophet Isaiah to Jesus as the dawning light for those who had been in darkness. Listen for God’s word to us: “This Isaiah-prophesied sermon came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off (saying): ‘Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.’”
Likewise at the end of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus again speaks, Matthew 28:18-20 according to The Message. Listen: “Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: ’God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.’”
It’s always inspiring to hear what it looked like in the beginning. And Acts 2:44-47 captures the scene well, again from The Message, just so words we might have heard a lifetime stand out with new meaning. Listen: “All the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God.” (See: food together always has been an important part of being followers of Christ!) “People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.”
One more amazing vision for the Body of Christ in the world today is tucked away in Romans 15:20-21. This one, from the New Revised Standard Version, records Paul’s words for going about discipleship the way he was. Listen: “Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.’”
Thanks be to God, all over the New Testament, we’re asked to see our life together as God sees it. To be about what God desires for us to be about – not just as individuals, but as the Body of Christ together today.
A ruling elder of the church and I attended a workshop last week at our Presbytery’s leadership training event. Marks of Congregational Vitality was led by Deb Smith. She works for the United Methodist Church and they have been compiling information regarding the churches that really are clicking today – places where energy and satisfaction is high. If you’ve been following anything from the Vital Church series I’ve been leading these past couple months, then some of this might not be that surprising. What I love about the work Deb presented to us last week is not only is it a great summary, but it’s also tangible. Clear marks being seen today in churches that are firing on all cylinders to really have an impact on the lives of members and on their communities.
It reads a little bit like those late night top ten lists, so in reverse order #7: Shared Clergy and Lay Leadership – clear about responsibilities, committed, and accountable as a team. #6. Connectional Relationships that Facilitate Participating in God’s Mission of Global Transformation – connectional and cooperative with denominational and local community efforts. #5. Consistent Concern for Inviting People into Relationship with Jesus Christ, combined with Wise Practices for Initiating them into the Body of Christ. This one has to do with guests truly experiencing acceptance among churches. Welcome like they’re a long-last friend you are so very grateful to see! And because a congregation cares so much about new folks who might want to find belonging there, vital churches have an intentional process for newcomers to know the theology and practices of the church, and to keep on growing as disciples of Jesus Christ. . . . I realize that to really unpack them all, each one of these marks could be a sermon in itself. But for now, let’s keep going. . . . #4. Cultivation of Intentional & Mutual Relationships with the Most Vulnerable – in other words with those in and around the community who live in poverty, children, those imprisoned, and the powerless. This means not just tending to their needs, but learning from them about faithfulness in God’s family. True mutual connection. #3. Nurture of Growth in Discipleship through Mutual Support and Accountability. So that expectations of being a part of the church are clear to everyone – newcomer and long-time member alike. I wonder what those might be in this church: being present in worship or at least one other ministry of the church each week? Giving an additional hour or two of your time somehow every week? Praying for and financially supporting the work of the church? Kinda like the public profession vows of the church ask. From the PCUSA Book of Common Worship: “Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, share in its worship and ministry through your prayers and gifts, your study and service, and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?” (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, 1993, p. 451). Everyone always says I will to that question – whether they’re just asked before the session or in worship before us all. The real question is: how then can we see that in one another’s daily lives? . . . This mark of church vitality also is about everyone understanding that discipleship is a journey of growing deeper and deeper into Christ-like living – a journey we vow to undertake through our baptism and confirmation. A journey that doesn’t end with confirmation, but is just getting started. Someone mentioned it last week at the training: no R.O.D.’s allowed in Christianity. Which stands for: no Retired on Duty Christians. Which kinda leads to #2: Practice of Spiritual Disciplines both Corporately and Individually. In other words, churches that are clicking, together and alone do the things that grow us deeper in Christ-like behavior. Things like personal prayer, study, service, worship, and giving as faith-forming practices – not just as things we pointlessly do – but as practices that shape us more and more like Christ. With pastors and ruling elders as intentional guides on the journey, kinda like coaches of sports teams who create new drills for us to grow to the next level on the journey. O, and prayer and scripture reflection also are a part of every church gathering in vital congregations. Finally #1: a concluding mark of vitality in a church: Clarity around the Mission and Vision of the Congregation. Folks clearly know why a particular congregation exists and what it aims to accomplish for God in this world. We’re not just talking about some nice statement that might get on the church letterhead or t-shirt. We’re talking about a true guiding understanding that everyone knows and uses as the measuring stick for what and how a congregation undertakes ministries together. Vital churches today – those firing on all cylinders to make substantial differences in the spiritual lives of their members have some, if not all such characteristics. (Information from handout entitled: “Marks of Congregational Vitality” by Debra D. Smith, 2015.)
We’re working on it. In a workshop after worship we’ll be proposing that the mission of this highly relational, servant-minded church is to: Connect People to Christ and One Another. And because of where we find ourselves at this time in this congregation’s history, the proposed vision for future ministry is: To be a Vibrant Community of Worship. We still have a few details to flesh out regarding both, but think about how crucial it is for churches to be clear about who we are and what we believe God is calling us to become in the future. It comes down to matters of identity, which lead to future purpose.
The prophet Jeremiah springs to mind. God’s people were in exile. The world around them had changed dramatically. Snatched out of Israel and plopped down hundreds of miles east in Babylon, life as they knew it was over – never to be the same again. We might be able to identify with that as we look out at the world and see such changes. Families aren’t what they used to be – they look and interact in such different ways as they face so many pressures today. Communities have changed. The ways of those all around us are different. We might find that what others value, how they choose to live their lives, and how they spend their time is quite different from us. The language some use and the ways they connect with each other and with the Great Beyond, which we call God, is not like it’s always been for us raised in the church. . . . It was a joy to read what some of you wrote last month when we were celebrating this church’s history. The overarching message recorded by you and by homebound members who were interviewed was one of love. This church has been a people of deep care for one another and for those in need in the community for a very long time. Abiding friendships and even a sense of family is the norm for many of you as you consider your experience of this church – which might be why half of you drive long distances to be a part of this communion. Those values need to continue here not just because so many of you want them, but also because they can be a mighty light in a world that tends to split us apart rather than bringing all sorts of people together. The prophet Jeremiah gave God’s great message of hope to those finding themselves in foreign territory. Listen to Jeremiah 29:4 and following:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7, NRSV) . . . The prophet is going to go on with those wonderful words that God surely knows the plans God has for them. For their welfare and not demise. To ensure a wonderfully hopeful future! (Jeremiah 29:11). But first, the command about investing ourselves deeply into the place in which we find ourselves. Seeking the welfare of those around us – not just the members of our own tribe, but those not here with us. As it always has been for the people of God, the more we discover the gifts we have to share with them, the greater our hope-filled future.
Which leads to a few questions for today. What would our worship time in fellowship hall be if not some questions to pull you into the sermon right here and now? A few on our Vision for Ministry. And you don’t have to talk with each other about this today. Instead, we are going to take some time now to listen deeply for each of our answers to these questions. We have to. The wisdom from God is to invest ourselves in the place where we find ourselves: looking around the community around this church building to see what breaks your heart in the lives you see out there? If you think you don’t know this community enough, feel free to generalize what you see in your own neighborhood because from what the demographic studies of this five or so mile patch of land tell us, it’s all probably right here too. . . . Next, do any bible stories come to mind regarding that? Write them down. After you spend some time in individual reflection upon that, what do you see in this church that can address that? Experiences, abilities, talents to fit right into that need like a square peg fitting perfectly into the same-sized square hole. . . . One final question, because we have to be honest with ourselves in such reflection. Sometimes there is stuff in us that gets in the way of us actively addressing the things we see that break our hearts. Maybe we’re afraid. Maybe we’re too busy. Maybe we don’t really know how to begin. Maybe we just don’t want to. Whatever it might be, write it down. Honest reflection is the first step to being able to do anything about what might get in the way. . . . One last thing before we all get quiet for this personal time of reflection. You see in #1 to write on the sheet what breaks your heart in this community and then summarize that same thing in a few words on one of the notecards you will find on the table. After you do that, I’m going to pass around a basket to collect those notecards. While you continue with the other questions, I’ll get those community heart-breaks together for the prayers of the people that will follow this time together. . . . This one isn’t a talking exercise, just personal reflection right now. You can talk about it during coffee time in a few minutes if you like. So, let us begin.
(Silence for individual reflection.)
Now let us turn our hearts and minds to a time of prayer together . . .
During this sermon, those present wrote down what in the community breaks their heart. The overwhelming response included three things: homelessness – as close as one mile away in a motel where many stay because they do not have homes. Senior adults – as close as across the street from the church’s facility – who are lonely or do not have the loving support of family and friends. Children who are living in poverty or going to bed hungry in homes in the community. The pressures of young families in general also was mentioned. We concluded our service with a prayer naming each of these concerns aloud before God and one another.
May God continue to work in each of our hearts and minds to find a way not just to lift up our concerns but to move our emotions into tangible actions for the betterment of those in the community who are homeless, senior adults, and children and families in need. Amen!
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