The Worshiping Community

October 28, 2018

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

The Good and Beautiful Community

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

The Worshiping Community

Psalm 84:1-12

          A few years back, our theme at Annual Conference at Lakeside, was “Planted in the Past, Rooted in the Future.” During our time there we were reminded who we are as Methodists and the traditions out of which we were born as a denomination when founded in America during the middle 1700’s.

As a church movement at that time, through our founder John Wesley, we had clarity about God’s purpose for this world, a discipline of Bible study, prayer, worship, and holy society gatherings, the flexibility to adapt to the changes happening in a newly created nation, and the ability to sacrifice whatever was needed to expand the church and to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

One of our speakers talked about a new church plant that allowed anyone to worship with them, but if anyone wanted to become a member of the church, then certain requirements had to be met. At the coffee talk with the pastor, the pastor would lay out three requirements for church membership that must be followed. See how you rate yourself against these requirements.

First, the new member was required to be at worship service every Sunday. If he couldn’t be, then he was to bring a bulletin from the church he attended while away. The pastor believed that it is in worship that the community can praise God, learn of God’s word, cultivate a relationship with God, and foster their spiritual life.

Secondly, the new member must be in two small groups. One in which she receives teaching and is held accountable to others, and one in which she gives back to the community in service. And the third and final requirement was that the new member tithe, that is, give 10% of his income to God to promote the kingdom work and to learn and experience the meaning of extravagant generosity.

How did you do? Could you become a contributing member of that United Methodist Church by your presence, your prayers, your gifts, your service, and your witness? Because that is what is in our vow when you become a member. After all, that is what the worshiping community is all about, isn’t it? Would you pray with me?

PRAYER

There are times that I worry about just how important community worship is to people in our society and culture today, especially when our churches are so sparsely populated on Sunday mornings. Only about 18% of the population in the United States actually attends church and out of that a regular attender is now considered one who comes to church at least one time a month instead of every Sunday. I am sure I am speaking to the choir here but those statistics are appalling. Almost anything else seems more important than worshiping our Creator.

We seem to have this false narrative that worship is a personal matter meant to inspire me. We have this idea that worship is private. Private worship can bring about some emotional sensations, but corporate worship is about the transformation of you and me within, by and for the community.

Bishop Schnase, the author of Five Practices of Fruitful Living, says this about passionate, corporate worship: “People who practice Passionate Worship attend worship frequently and consistently until it becomes a valued and sustaining pattern for them. Worship becomes a priority and they shift schedules to attend when conflicts arise. They love worship because they love God.”

The true narrative about community worship is really this: Worship is a communal activity meant to instruct a people. We go to church not to be entertained but to be trained. We go to church to worship not as an obligation we owe to God, but as an invitation given by God. You see, in truth, God does not need our worship. God is perfectly fine without it, but we need to worship. James Bryan Smith says this: “When we worship we are aligned with the truth, and our souls function well when immersed in the truth.”

Worship is our response to what God has done and is doing in our lives. Worship is an invitation from a gracious God who bids us to come and enjoy his beauty and goodness.

Our scripture passage today is a song of the sons of Korah. Korah and his sons were keepers of the tabernacle, especially the temple doors. They were of the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes from which Aaron and Moses were descended, who God had set aside to work and to be priests in the tabernacle. This psalm is a praise to the dwelling place of God. The Korahites certainly enjoyed God’s beauty and goodness. The temple was a source of delight for those who lived there.

How lovely are Your dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord; My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. You see, to the servants of God’s most holy place, the temple brought a joy of praise, worship, and adoration. It brought a joy of personal communion with God. It brought a joy of fellowship with God’s people. How blessed are those who dwell in Your house! the Psalmist writes, They are ever praising You. For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

Worship is meant to be done in community, not alone. In fact, the great writer and theologian C. S. Lewis wrote this: “When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to churches and Gospel Halls; …I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”

“But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nonetheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”

When God stepped in, he taught Lewis the invaluable worth of corporate worship. Worship is not about us. It is about God. Just like it was for the sons of Korah, worship is about our relationship with God and with each other. Smith writes: “We need each other, despite our differences. Worship is not about the quality of the performance but the heart of those who worship. Worship is not about ‘individual fulfillment’ but the ‘constitution of a people.’”

Without a doubt, worship has changed over the many centuries, but we are still a worshiping community. In the early church in the Book of Acts, we find the Christians devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. This brought thousands to Christ.

But as a people we have changed. The times have changed. God’s movement among his people has shaped worship as the Holy Spirit has increasingly inspired and brought hearts to a new understanding of God and his Son, Jesus Christ. Chants became hymns, and hymns became praise choruses, but it is all for the glory of God.

The psalmist writes: For the Lord God is a sun and shield (that is, guidance and protection). The Lord gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. (In other words, God blesses his people with favor and honor and so they prosper and succeed). O Lord of hosts, How blessed is the man [or woman] who trusts in You!

You see, when we prepare ourselves for corporate worship on Sunday mornings, our worship can become more meaningful; our relationship with God more personal; our devotion to a Savior more profound. Worship is structured today to bring us from the world into the very holy of holies of the tabernacle itself. We greet each other to acknowledge each other’s presence. You see, the world can be pretty cold and ruthless outside the kingdom of God. But when you come into God’s house, we are all Christians, nothing else, and it really feels good to be home.

We have a time through prayer and silence to experience resting in God and making a connection with God. We can confess our sins before God and hear the good news that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us. We learn that in the name of Jesus Christ we are forgiven.

In our creeds, commandments, and Lord ’s Prayer we come to realize the true Christian doctrine of the church in a very shortened form. Really listen to our beliefs in the Apostle’s Creed. It tells the whole Christian story. These creeds establish us as Christians and connect us to the body of Christ through the ages.

Your life has a story. My life has a story. When worshiping communities read the Bible in worship and hear the sermons preached, it is a way of telling our story into which you were baptized. When you became a member of this church, you pledged to raise each other in the Christian faith. It is the story that binds us all together through these many centuries.

It is in the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, that we are reminded of the death of Jesus and all of its blessed implications. It is through this blessed meal that we eat together that we are reminded that we are an eternal community, an unselfish and generous community, a unified community, and a reconciling community. Jesus said, This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” But most of all, Communion reminds us that we are a holy community; set apart to do good works.

And though many might not like it, it is in our singing that we can tell our story, offer praise, and experience the joy of God’s holiness that can only come through music. God designed us in such ways that sound and rhythms inspire and motivate us. Music can touch us at an emotional and bodily level, and when it is used to offer praise to God, it connects us to the Trinity and each other in ways that teaching and preaching cannot. Singing involves our whole bodies.

Also, our offering gifts are an act of worship in itself. You see, the world tells us to look out for ourselves. But offering our gifts helps us let go of the need to store up treasures for ourselves and truly brings us joy to advance the work of the kingdom.

And lastly, the benediction encourages us as we go back into the world from which we came to worship. Aaron said to the Israelites: The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. The benediction reminds us that we are to be light to a darkened world. Just as God summoned us to worship, he now sends us out to spread his word and to show the world through our deeds that we are truly his followers.

Folks, we are a worshiping community. Christian worship, whether it is traditional or contemporary, should be marked by joy and gratitude. When worship is not joyful – when it does not reflect our deep gratitude toward God –then it becomes primarily about us. What makes worship boring is not the style of the music or the flow of the service; worship is boring when it is no longer about the God who makes all things new, who transforms all of life.

An American diplomat was once visiting with a Brazilian Indian in the Amazon. Through the interpreter, he asked the Indian what he most liked to do. The Indian answered, “Being occupied with God.” What an excellent definition of true worship for us, “being occupied with God!”

Friends, what the church offers the world in worship every Sunday or throughout the week cannot be had anywhere else. Not by yourself, Not at the beach. Not on the golf course. And certainly not while hunting or fishing. The good news of Jesus makes all the difference in the world, and we believers need to offer ourselves wholly and completely to God in our community worship.

Bishop Schnase of the Missouri Conference writes this in his book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: “Passionate Worship connects people with God and with one another, opens lives to the experience of God’s grace and to the hearing and doing of God’s Word, and forms people into the Body of Christ.”

God is inviting you and me into a relationship with Him each and every week. Heed that invitation. As our psalmist sings: How blessed [are the people] whose strength is in You, [O, God], in whose heart are the highways to Zion!

The Christ-Centered Community

October 21, 2018

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

The Good and Beautiful Community

22nd Sunday after Pentecost

The Christ-Centered Community

John 17:20-23; Galatians 3:26-29

            Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America. There are over thirty thousand recognized Protestant denominations, and many of them reject every other denomination but their own. Why? “Because we have adopted a false narrative,” James Bryan Smith writes, “that gives us permission to separate from those who are different from us in appearance or status or belief. It goes something like this: ‘If you do not look like us, act like us, worship like us or think like us, we are not obligated to have fellowship with you.’” Really? Is this what Jesus was about? Gordon Melton is a Methodist minister with an unusual hobby. His hobby is denomination hunting. He literally scours the country trying to count the number of major denominations in the United States. Here’s some that he found. “The Church of the Kennedy Worshippers.” It is a church which actually believes that it can pray to the late President John F. Kennedy and its people can be cured both of congenital defects as well as of terminal diseases. Then there’s the “The Church of the Ministry of Universal Wisdom.” They look for flying saucers to come. J. Gordon Melton has discovered more than 70 different denominations calling themselves Baptist: Seventh-Day Baptist, Two Seeds in the Spirit Predestinarian Baptist, General Baptist, Regular Baptist, American Baptist, and the list goes on and on. Is this really the kind of unity mentioned in the prayer from John 17?

Folks, here is the obvious and awful truth: the church of Jesus Christ has been split into many different factions who refuse to have fellowship with one another. For a people who claim one Lord, one faith and one baptism, we are not one church but exist in isolation, judgment, suspicion and condemnation. Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. Would you pray with me?

PRAYER

So, how do we overcome isolation, judgment, suspicion and condemnation of our brothers and sisters in Christ? Well, Stanley Hauerwas, theologian at the Duke Divinity School explains it this way: “This love that is characteristic of God’s kingdom is possible only for a forgiven people – a people who have learned not to fear one another…Only when my self – my character – has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other.”

I think Hauerwas pinpoints the problem for us, we fear each other. We fear that which we do not know. So much of that fear that separates us can be overcome by increasing our understanding of different races and cultures. But ultimately we overcome those fears by becoming people who know they are forgiven and are being formed by God’s love.

You see, here is what our true narrative in the kingdom of God should be: If you do not look, act, worship or believe as I do, but your heart beats in love for Jesus, then regardless of our differences, we can and must have fellowship with one another. We do not have to agree about style of worship or certain minor points of doctrine, but we can and must have fellowship if we hold to the central belief about Jesus. That is why all Christians can boldly proclaim: Jesus is Lord!

Paul said this in Galatians 3:26-29: You are all sons [and daughters] of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Jesus did not believe and certainly Paul did not believe that our differences should divide us. Our unity in the fellowship comes from a single source, and that source is Jesus. It is through Jesus that we can overcome our fears of other people, of other denominations, and of other church doctrines. As Christians, our promise from God is salvation through Jesus Christ and heirs to the kingdom of God.

Let’s look at that Galatians passage a little more closely. Paul said, There is neither Jew nor Greek. You have to realize that this was quite a bold statement for Paul, a devout Pharisee, to make. He had come a long way from his early “persecute all the Christian Jews” activist days. To the Jew, the only two classes of people were Jews and everybody else, who were called Gentiles or Greeks.

But after his Damascus Road experience, which you can read about in Acts 9, Paul, who was called Saul, had his whole life and perspective changed when Jesus appeared before him. Paul came to realize that God’s love and concern is not exhausted on one nation, but is lavished upon the whole world because his love is so immense.

Jesus wanted his disciples to reach outside of Judaism, even to the Greeks. In his Great Commission before he ascended into heaven, Jesus instructed his disciples: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). That Greek word for “nations,” “ethnos,” is where we get our word “ethnic.” Jesus commands his disciples to go and make disciples of people from all ethnic backgrounds. Jesus wants to unite people regardless of race, culture or creed, into one fellowship. Our unity is established in our baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. There is neither Jew nor Greek. All racial and ethnic discrimination is destroyed in Christ.

And then Paul said, there is neither…slave nor free. Class discrimination is destroyed in Christ. Jesus did not believe that our differences should divide us. Rich or poor, high or low, powerful or weak, we are all one in Christ. In the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 18, verses 9-14, it says, “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable”:

          “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

          “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

          “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

          We see here two men from very different levels of society, one a highly respected man, a Pharisee, the other, the lowest of the low, a tax collector, considered only slightly better than the lepers. But Jesus is only concerned with the attitude of our heart not with the altitude of our position. Only in the Church of Jesus Christ can a pauper stand beside a king and both be received as children of God.

And lastly, Paul said, there is neither…male nor female. Sexual discrimination is destroyed in Christ. James Bryan Smith writes: “Imagine you are a first-century man raised with the notion that women are inferior, and looking across the room at a woman who, by her graciousness, has paid for the home you are meeting in. The cross-centered community discovered a kind of equality unknown in the first century.” The New Testament draws a clear difference between the role and worth, between the function and position of men and women, but nowhere does it put men or women above each other.

And before some of you men begin to quote Ephesians 5 listen closely to this once again from The Message Bible: Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another.  Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ. The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing. So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands.

Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness. And that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favor—since they’re already “one” in marriage.

As men and women of God we are to be a source of provision, life, encouragement, empowerment, strength, and example to each other. Christ is in the Jew as well as in the Greek. Christ is in the slave as well as in the free. Christ is in the male as well as in the female. Christ is all in all. In Christ, we become a Christ-centered community.

St. Augustine is given credit for the quote “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” If in fact it came from Augustine, it was his way of dealing with the difficult matter of disagreement in the church. It is a helpful principle that offers us a way to think about how we can stay unified even when we disagree.

Our founder of Methodism, John Wesley, adopted Augustine’s comment in one of his sermons entitled “The Catholic Spirit” with “catholic” meaning “universal.” Wesley believed that the only way for the church to be unified was to learn how to distinguish between essentials and nonessentials. Wesley believed love and commitment to Jesus were essential. Everything else was simply nonessential.

Celebrating Holy Communion is an essential of the Church that was initiated by Christ himself. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he said. The cup that we bless is a sharing of the blood of Christ. The bread that we break is a sharing of the body of Christ. Paul wrote this in 1 Corinthians 10:17: Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. Communion is a visible demonstration of how we who are many become one by uniting in the body and blood of Jesus. We become a Christ-centered community.

During his last night with his disciples, Jesus prayed this prayer: My prayer is not for [the disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.

Notice in this prayer that Jesus is not only praying for his current disciples but for all those disciples down through the centuries who hear the word of God, the Good News, the Gospel, and are transformed by it. “I pray also for those who WILL believe in me…” “Jesus is here anticipating the future,” Smith says, “when people would become [Jesus’] apprentices through the witness of his disciples. [Jesus] is praying for unity within the ecclesia, [that is, the church body], the same kind of unity experienced in the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son.”

Listen as Jesus continues: I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. Jesus did not believe that our differences should divide us. Unity in the fellowship comes from a single source: Jesus. Jesus dwelling in us, and you and I dwelling in Jesus. At the end of the day all Christians should be able to declare that Jesus Christ is Lord!

In his sermon I mentioned earlier, John Wesley offered five ways that we can show our love to those with whom we disagree: We can treat them as companions. We are not to think or speak evil of them. We are to pray for them and encourage them to do good. And lastly, we are to collaborate with them in ministry if at all possible.

The actual word “community” means “with unity.” Community means unity in love. Community means keeping our eyes on Jesus. Community means losing ourselves in service. If we are to be a Christ-centered community, then we need to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith as it says in Hebrews 12.

Because in the end, it is not about our differences in gender, race, class, or ethnic origin, but about our belief as Christians in the one and only true Savior, Jesus Christ, who brings unity to the body, to the Church. If your heart beats in love for Jesus, then you will take my hand, you will take your neighbor’s hand, you will take that person’s hand who is different, and we will walk together in fellowship. Our primary focus is on Christ as Lord. And so in our unity we say, Jesus is Lord!

The Serving Community

October 14, 2018

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

The Good and Beautiful Community

21st Sunday after Pentecost

The Serving Community

Philippians 2:3-4

            In the Good and Beautiful Community, we, as the body of Christ, are to be a serving community. We need to be looking outward to see how we can serve others. But all too often, in our culture today, in the worldly kingdom of the Evil One, we see and hear the following narrative: my needs matter the most. That is a false narrative. It is a worldly narrative.

Not long ago, a young engineer fresh out of MIT was reaching the end of his job interview with the human resources person. The HR person asked the graduate what kind of salary he was looking for. “Somewhere in the neighborhood of $140,000 a year,” he replied, depending on the benefits package.”

The HR person responded, “Well, what would you say to a package of five weeks’ vacation, 14 paid holidays, full medical and dental, company matching retirement fund to 50% of salary, and a company car leased every two years…say a red Corvette?”

“Wow! Are you kidding?” the engineer asked. “Yeah,” the HR person replied, “but you started it.” Folks, most people in our world are interested in what they can get out of life, not what they can give. They are more interested in gaining than giving, more interested in being loved than demonstrating love.

But Scripture has a different narrative on this. Scripture says that others’ needs matter most. Paul writes in Philippians, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). More about this in a moment, but first, would you pray with me?

PRAYER

During my seminary work at Ashland Theological Seminary a few years back, I took a class called “Leading the Church in the 21st Century.” It was taught by Dr. Terry Wardle, a leading authority in personal and church transformation through the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. One of the tasks we completed was the writing of our personal ministry statement. That statement needed four parts: upward – my relationship with God, inward – my personal growth toward holiness, outward – my relationship with other people, and forward – my Christian purpose as I move into the world. This was no easy task as I played around with words, rewrote, ruminated, and then rewrote the personal ministry statement over a period of a couple of weeks.

Here is what I accomplished, my personal ministry statement from a less than perfect, repentant sinner: I desire a passionate and intimate relationship with God and his Son, Jesus Christ, in which God’s will for my life is manifested through the Holy Spirit that is within and around me (that is the upward). That love relationship will transform me into the likeness of Christ (that is the inward), a godly man capable of loving every human being created in God’s image no matter how unlovable (that is the outward). It is through God’s love and through God’s Holy Word that I serve this frightfully broken and sinful world (that is the forward).

Do you know how hard it is to fulfill that part of my personal ministry statement that deals with the outward? Listen to that part again. I want to be “a godly man capable of loving every human being created in God’s image no matter how unlovable.” That statement continues to haunt me, to convict me, and I wrote it! I could change it, but I need it to remind me of what God has called me to do even though I fall woefully short. There are days I think following it is impossible and yet Paul is telling us today to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

If you read on in that Philippians passage, verse 5 says this: Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus. Christ humbled himself in service and loving others even to his death.

No matter how unlovable some people are, God has called us, as the body of Christ, a community of believers, to be a serving community. You see, the good and beautiful community of Jesus finds its life and power in Jesus himself, who is not only our teacher but also our source of strength. James Bryan Smith says that “as Jesus is, so are his followers. Jesus was a servant. He lived for the good of others…His example becomes our example…Being a servant of others is the highest way to live. Wanting and needing to be served by others is not life-producing but soul-destroying…[Jesus] lives to serve. This is because he was and is moved by one thing: love. He told his disciples that the greatest expression of love is to give of yourself for the good of others.”

In fact, the greatest service and act of love you can do for another person, and I am not recommending this, unless you somehow find yourself in that position to do so, would be to offer your life in exchange for the well-being of another. Jesus said in John 15:13: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Jesus taught this, but more importantly for us, he lived this. He gave his life for the good of others, including you and me. If we are to follow Jesus as our teacher, then we need to do the same, to shift our focus away from ourselves and onto others.

A lady said, “I was standing in the grocery line in somewhat of a daze and I noticed the guy being checked out had to put back his Ramen noodles because he didn’t have enough money. It really melted my heart, I guess, because my kids dearly love Ramen noodles. I had a loose quarter so I said, ‘hey, let him have his noodles.'”

“At that point, the lady behind me said she would pay for some of his groceries, too. I hadn’t notice but he had a big pile of groceries that he couldn’t pay for. The lady behind me paid for about $8 worth of groceries. The guy was wiping tears from his eyes and the clerk was too. The clerk said that she hadn’t had that happen before.” The lady continued, “It was neat how the kindness became contagious and everyone in the line was saying sweet things. For a brief moment we weren’t strangers but in service to someone in need.”

What would you have done in that situation? It’s not often that something like that happens, but what would you have done? Instead of helping, most people would have been disgusted because they were in a hurry to get through the line and get home. Paul says, Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

          When you and I are living in the kingdom of God our basic needs are met – get this, even if it takes other Christians to provide them. James Bryan Smith, in his book The Good and Beautiful Community writes this: “In the kingdom we are given the material provision we need (even if we do not have shelter, food and clothing, there are organizations that can provide them – they are usually organizations that serve as outposts of the kingdom and are run predominantly by apprentices of Jesus).”

He continues, “In the kingdom of God we are safe and secure. Not even death can separate us from the love of God. In the kingdom of God we discover that we are loved, forever, and without condition. In the kingdom of God we also learn that we are valuable and precious, worth dying for.” As the author Eugene Peterson says, we are “splendid, never-to-be-duplicated stories of grace.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, material possessions come and go, people come and go, churches come and go, but the message of Christ and the kingdom of God is eternal. When we do what we do with God’s kingdom foremost in our minds and on our hearts, then our community becomes an outpost of the kingdom of God, a place where grace is spoken and lived for as long as it is needed. Please remember this: the value of a church is not in its longevity but in its love. The success of a church is not in its size but in its service to the people and the community. Jesus never established a church or built a building or led a finance campaign to build impressive buildings. He just came and served and then died for the good of others. Imagine a mission statement for a church like this: “We exist to serve others and to die, just like our Founder.”

Folks, here is the bottom line to being a serving community, we must treasure our treasures. For example, my children are sacred and wonderful treasurers. Sometimes I forget that and find caring for them a chore. Then I remember them as treasurers and suddenly caring for them is less a duty and more of a privilege. You and I have to change our way of seeing our spouse, our children, our mothers or fathers, our friends and our neighbors. Jesus wants us to see the beauty and worth of a person who was created in the image of God and that will in turn increase our desire to serve. We need to treasure our treasures.

But please remember this; we need to have a balance when it comes to the issue of serving others and taking care of ourselves. Please don’t run the risk of overserving or being too concerned with the needs of others that you neglect your own needs or the needs of your family.

Smith says this: “I encourage balance when it comes to serving others. We need to be aware of the condition of our own souls and bodies, and to take care of that first, without feeling any guilt about it. We can only give when we are grounded and rested.” When you and I consider others better than ourselves, it doesn’t lower our self-esteem but raises both the server and the receiver of your gift to new levels of grace and godliness.

Eugene Peterson wrote our Philippians passage this way in his Message Bible: If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

As I close today, listen to these words of a taxicab driver who was part of God’s serving community: Because I drive the night shift, my cab often becomes a moving confessional. Passengers climb in, sit behind me in total anonymity, and tell me about their lives. I encounter people whose lives amaze me, ennoble me, make me laugh, and sometimes weep. But none touched me more than a woman I picked up late one August night.

Responding to a call from a small brick fourplex in a quiet part of town, I assumed I was being sent to pick up some partiers, or someone who had just had a fight with a lover, or a worker heading to an early shift at some factory in the industrial part of town.

When I arrived at 2:30 a.m., the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window. Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, then drive away. But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself. So I walked to the door and knocked.

“Just a minute,” answered a frail, elderly voice. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie.

The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware. “Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she asked. I took the bag and then turned to assist her. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. “It’s nothing,” I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.” “Oh, you’re such a good boy,” she said.

When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, then asked, “Could you drive through downtown?” “It’s not the shortest way,” I answered quickly. “Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.”

I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were glistening. “I don’t have any family left,” she continued. “The doctor says I don’t have very long.” I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. “What route would you like me to take?” I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.” We drove in silence to the address she had given me. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were caring and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

“How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching into her purse. “Nothing,” I said. “You have to make a living,” she answered. “There are other passengers,” I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” she said. “Thank you.”

I squeezed her hand, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life. I then drove aimlessly, lost in thought. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away? I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life.

As the serving community of God, treasuring our treasures is one of our most important jobs. Paul said, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Amen.

 

The Peculiar Community

October 7, 2018

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

The Good and Beautiful Community

20th Sunday after Pentecost

The Peculiar Community

1 Peter 2:9-10 KJV; 1 John 4:7-12

          A guy had been feeling down for so long that he finally decided to seek the aid of a psychiatrist. He went there, lay on the couch, spilled his guts, and then waited for the profound wisdom of the psychiatrist to make him feel better. The psychiatrist asked a few questions, took some notes, and then sat thinking in silence for a few minutes with a puzzled look on his face.

Suddenly, he looked up with an expression of delight and said, “Um, I think your problem is low self-esteem. It is very common among losers.” Peculiar?

A very homely person made an appointment with a psychiatrist. The homely person walked into the doctor’s office and said, “Doctor, I’m so depressed and lonely. I don’t have any friends, no one will come near me, and everybody laughs at me. Can you help me accept my ugliness?”

“I’m sure I can,” the psychiatrist replied. “Just go over and lie face down on that couch.” Peculiar?

Mary was having a tough day and had stretched herself out on the couch to do a bit of what she thought to be well-deserved complaining and self-pitying. She moaned to her mom and brother, “Nobody loves me…the whole world hates me!”

Her brother, occupied playing a game, hardly looked up at her and passed on this encouraging word, “That’s not true, Mary. Some people don’t even know you.” Peculiar?

Are there not times, brothers and sisters, when you and I have felt like one of these people? Our self-esteem is low, there is something about our bodies or personalities that seem to affect us and the people around us, or we just want to have our own fifteen minutes of a personal pity-party? Does that make us peculiar? Does that make us different from anyone else in the world? I kind of think not.

But the rock, the Apostle Peter, the foundation of the Christian church says this: [You] are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, [a] holy nation, a peculiar people. What’d he say? A peculiar people? You and me peculiar? “Peculiar” is a wonderful word from the King James Version of the Bible.

Dictionaries define it as “distinctive,” “odd,” “strange” and “weird.” In a word, peculiar means different. Different from the ordinary, the common, from everyone else. Christians are peculiar in that they are different from everyone else. Or are they? The true narrative is this: Christians are not always different, but they ought to be, and often are. More about these peculiar Christians in a moment, but first, would you pray with me?

PRAYER

During this month of October, you and I will be taking a journey through “The Good and Beautiful Community.” That is the title of the book by James Bryan Smith, “The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love.” We are going to take a peek at how God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit work in the peculiar, the serving, the Christ-centered, and the worshiping community. You see, your soul and my soul were designed by God to experience a good and beautiful community. Just like God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit live in perfect fellowship, you and I were meant to be in fellowship with one another and with the one who created us. It is this fellowship, this togetherness, this unity in our diversity that makes us peculiar.

As Christians, believe it or not, we are sometimes seen as the peculiar community by those outside the Christian faith. The difference is in how and why we live the way we do. James Bryan Smith says “we do so because we are following the example of Jesus, our teacher, and are being led by the Holy Spirit, our strength and comforter. And we are living in the strong and sustaining kingdom of God. We have from the very beginning.”

Around 150 A.D. in the Roman Empire, accusations had been spreading about a peculiar people called Christians. People were spreading false rumors saying that they were a dangerous, secret society filled with bizarre behavior. People were saying slanderous things about Christians, such as they practiced cannibalism (because during Communion they ate the “body and the blood of Jesus”).

But one author at the time, Athenagoras, wrote this important document about how the Christians were like other people, but also, how they were different. Listen to this excerpt.

“The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, or language, or customs. Christians do not live in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life…They pass their lives in whatever township – Greek or foreign – each man’s lot has determined; and conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits. Nevertheless, the organization of their community does exhibit some features that are remarkable, and even surprising. For instance, though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior there is more like transients…Though destiny has placed them here in the flesh, they do not live after the flesh; their days are passed on earth, but their citizenship is above in the heavens. They obey the prescribed laws, but in their own private lives they transcend the laws. They show love to all men – and all men persecute them. They are misunderstood, and condemned; yet by suffering death they are quickened into life. They are poor, yet making many rich; lacking all things, yet having all things in abundance…They repay [curses] with blessings, and abuse with courtesy. For the good they do, they suffer stripes as evildoers.

Smith says that “in outward ways they were no different from anyone else in the Roman Empire. They lived in the same homes, wore the same clothes and ate the same food as the average Roman citizen. They obeyed the laws – no one accused them of being thieves, of not paying their taxes or of harming others.”

“And yet,” Smith continues, “They were different. They obeyed earthly laws but lived by higher laws. They were members of the Roman Empire, but this world was not their home; their citizenship was in heaven. They endured suffering well and even blessed those who cursed them, as their teacher taught them to do – and as [Christ] himself did.”

And notice what Athenagoras said, “for the good they do.” Folks, it is no small thing to do good. Especially in a world in which there is so much wrongdoing. You see, it was, and is even now, peculiar to do good things for no good reason. When we do, people get suspicious. Despite all the false accusations against Christians and all the persecutions, Christianity survived and actually flourished. In 40 A.D. there were approximately 1,000 Christians. By 250 A.D. there were over 1.1 million Christians. And by 350 A.D. there were almost 34 million Christians in the world which represented almost 60% of the population.

The reason for the rapid growth in the Christian population was that the lives Christians were living were so attractive that others simply wanted to have what they had. Time and time again, I hear from people who want to confess their belief in Christ that they want to have the life that their Christian friends and neighbors have. A life of love, a life of mercy, a life of grace, a life of justice, and a life of joy in Christ.

Christians are peculiar because our God is peculiar. The god we love and serve is extraordinarily different than the gods humans design. When the Greeks and Romans created their pantheon of gods and goddesses, they looked remarkably like humans – often at their worst. Their gods lied and cheated and murdered. They committed adultery and punished each other out of anger and jealousy.

The God that Jesus reveals is peculiar. This God loves humans so much that he became one of them and died for them. This God forgives when it is not deserved. This God is generous, never vengeful. If the God of Jesus displays wrath, it is only because this God is good and loving, and is rightly against sin because it hurts his beloved children. No one could have made this story up. That is because in all of the other religions there is no God like the one Jesus revealed.

God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. God’s values are different. Jesus revealed a God who was like no other god the world had ever heard of. This God was indeed peculiar.

John said this in 1 John 4: 7–10My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God. 11–12My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other.

What a peculiar God. Our peculiar God transforms us into peculiar people, people who love others, even if they do not love us in return. As Christians, our doctrine is simple: as God is, so should his people be. If we do not love, we must not know God. God’s love was revealed among us in the person of Jesus. As Christians, we do what we do because Jesus is living in and through us.

Galatians 2:20 says this: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. As a peculiar people we ought to give love even before we get it in return. God did this for each one of us. Therefore, I think we could be considered maladjusted. That would actually be a compliment for you and me as Christians. “Look,” people will say, “there goes that peculiar, maladjusted preacher!”

Professor Cornel West put it well this way, “There have always been Christians who are well-adjusted to greed, well-adjusted to fear, well-adjusted to bigotry. There have always been Christians who are maladjusted to greed, maladjusted to fear, and maladjusted to bigotry.” I don’t know about you, but I am striving to be one of those Christians who is maladjusted.

Not all Christians are, but all Christians ought to be maladjusted to things like injustice, greed, materialism and racism. Too often we easily become well-adjusted to these things. It is easy to become well-adjusted to the culture we live in, the one that uses hate and violence to gain control, the one that treats people as objects for personal gain, the one that winks at immorality.

But you and I as Christians need to be a peculiar people, like our God is a peculiar God. We need to be maladjusted to things of this world and adjusted to the things of God. And we can only do that if we practice being a peculiar people.

So here is what I would suggest for you to do this week and in the weeks to come. Work hard to be a peculiar, maladjusted Christian. As they use to say on Mission Impossible: Here is your assignment if you choose to accept it. And I hope you choose to accept it.

First spend time with God. I would like for you to spend two hours with God this week. It doesn’t have to be all at once. Take ten minutes here and ten minutes there and spread it out over the week. Everyone can find ten minutes in their schedule once or twice a day to be with God. Even our corporate worship here can count for some of that time.

Find a quiet, restful place to be alone. Breathe deeply for a few seconds. Say a prayer like the Lord’s Prayer. Praise God. Take some time to write out your blessings. Maybe open your Bible to a favorite passage and read and reflect. And then don’t be afraid to speak to God directly. Ask God any questions you have and then listen for that still, small voice of God. Now God is probably not going to boom from the nearest hill with thunder and smoke, but he will speak in a quiet inner voice or through some of the thoughts you may have. Learn to listen.

And then secondly, I want you to do a peculiar act. Being peculiar is not only having a relationship with God but then acting out Godly things. I want you to try to do one unselfish and unexpected act of kindness or generosity each day.

Here are some suggestions for acts of maladjustment, but I’m sure you can think of your own. Ask for someone’s car keys and take the car to a car wash, or wash it by hand. Sweep the neighbors’ driveway. Clean up some part of the house, especially if you are not the one to always clean. Pay for the person behind you in the drive-thru. Let others go ahead of you in line. Engage with people by saying, “Hi, how are you today?” and then wait for an answer – don’t just walk on. I am sure you can think of many, many more.

I guarantee you, that if you do one random act of kindness each day, people will come to think of you as peculiar and maladjusted. What a joy that will be! Praise God! And maybe, just maybe, if they are unbelievers, like the early people in the Roman Empire, they will want to have what you have, a relationship with Christ. You are a peculiar people and God loves you that way!