Sunday, February 14, 2010

From Donald Miller's Blog: "Following God and Farming"

Donald Miller has a great post at his blog, and I'm really resonating with the themes he brings up, and found his words encouraging. The first year in ministry in a new setting is a year (for me at least) that is trying to find that tricky balance between just getting to know where you're at and being so full of ideas that you want to try out.


"Years ago, when Rick McKinley started the church plant Imago-Dei in Portland, he preached a sermon about his own experiences in the first year. At the time, the church may have only had a couple-hundred people attending. At the time, he said he thought things would be more exciting, that there would be fireworks all the time. But as he prayed about building the church, he realized that telling a great story is a lot like farming. He recalled hunting on some property in Eastern Oregon, sitting in a duck blind, watching a farmer a couple fields away just driving his tractor back and forth. Rick said that is what building a church looks like, it looks like farming. It figures, because, well, God invented farming. Now, Imago-Dei has a couple thousand people attending, and the ministry affects nearly every corner of Portland. But it happened slowly, with a farmer who kept driving his tractor back and forth in a small field.

So two questions I’m asking myself these days are what is my field to plow, and am I plowing it?"

Sermon for Transfiguration, "Beyond the Veil"

Sermon 2/14/10, Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36

Beyond the Veil

Can you think of times when someone’s face has seemed particularly radiant to you? Many people of course comment that pregnant women have a glow about them – something on their face that tells the precious thing they’re carrying with them. On this Valentine’s Day, maybe we can think of the look shared between two that are just about to be married at a wedding ceremony, while they are saying vows and exchanging rings and waiting for the pastor to announce them married. I think children’s faces can have a radiant glow, when they just throw back their heads and laugh at something that strikes them funny, with their eyes sparking with pure joy.

Have you ever encountered someone whose face was so radiant that it was hard to look at? Think of how we know that it can damage your vision to look directly into the sunlight. It’s simply too bright, too powerful for us to gaze at for any length of time, on a clear day. Yesterday I was driving west along Route 5 just at sunset, and the sun was so bright that people kept slowing down in traffic, because it was ironically so bright that it was hard to see.

If you keep these images in mind, you might have an easier time grasping today’s special day. Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It’s one of those strange Sundays that’s a special day on the Liturgical Calendar, but that no one really knows about or understands or gets excited about. It’s the last Sunday before the season of Lent begins, the last Sunday in-between season after Epiphany. And it marks the day when Jesus is ‘transfigured’ on the mountain, in the presence of Peter and John and James. Transfigured here means that Jesus’ appearance changes in a way that his glory, his divinity, becomes particularly transparent, easy for the disciples there to witness. Now why does this event get its own special Sunday in our calendar? I hope after we study our texts today we’ll see more clearly.

Our three scripture lessons weave together perfectly today. First, we read in Exodus a passage about how the people react to Moses after he comes down from the mountain, having encountered God. Moses has been spending time on Mount Sinai receiving commandments from God, which will be the law of the people. And mountains, throughout the scriptures, represent holy ground places where people can go to be close to God. We don’t find it so different today, perhaps – people often find mountain-tops to be awe-inspiring, if not holy places, and people often refer to encounters with the holy and spiritual highs as “mountain-top experiences.” So, when Moses comes down from the mountain, his face is shining, glowing, because of his encounter with God. But somehow, the people find Moses difficult to look at – his shining face makes them uncomfortable, fearful. And so Moses starts wearing a veil when he comes down the mountain, so that the people can listen to his message from God without having to be so frightened. The veil is a distancing device – Moses gets close to God, but the people seem too afraid to ever draw too close, even to Moses. The veil separates them from the reflection of God’s holiness in Moses’ face.

In our lesson from 2 Corinthians, Paul picks up on this very passage. Paul says through the Spirit, through Christ, we have hope, that allows us to act with boldness. He sees followers of Jesus in contrast with Moses and the Israelites. “When one turns to the Lord,” he says, “the veil is removed . . . and all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image.” In other words, when the veil is removed, God is allowed to shine through us, be reflected back at us, so that we are actually transformed by our encounter with God. Essentially, Paul sees that the Israelites seemed to remain at a distance from God. But in Christ, that distance is overcome, and not only to we experience closeness with God, but we, made in God’s image, can reflect God to others. He’s hitting on some themes that we might here about at Christmastime. Remember, Jesus is born as God-with-us, Emmanuel. Jesus’ birth is all about God eliminating any distance between us and God. God is with us, in us, when we move beyond the veil of separation.

Finally, in our gospel lesson, we read about the event known as the transfiguration of Jesus. The passage opens with the words, “Now about eight days after these sayings,” and this lead in refers to Jesus teaching about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection, after Peter calls Jesus the Messiah in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” So eight days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. While there, his face changes and his clothes seem dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, appear with Jesus, speaking with him about what was soon to happen. We read that Peter and company had been sleepy, but “since they had stayed awake, they saw [Jesus’] glory.” As Moses and Elijah are leaving, Peter, not sure how to interpret the experience, offers to build dwellings on the mountain for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But instead, they are overshadowed by a cloud, a terrifying experience, and from inside the cloud they hear God’s voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And then they find that they are alone with Jesus. And at first, they tell no one about what had seen.

When we think about our passage from Exodus, we can see that looking at Moses’ face made the people afraid. Experiencing God, even second hand, seemed to be a frightening experience. I had a hard time understanding this, as I read the passage. Why would the people be frightened by seeing how Moses changed after being with God? Wouldn’t they want to experience this closeness to God for themselves? Why weren’t they clamoring to get up the mountain too? Why wasn’t everyone trying to race to the top to hear God’s voice for themselves.

But as I thought about the story of the Israelites, I remembered what a tumultuous relationship they had with God and with Moses, who tried to keep them in relationship with God. It’s a story of repeated disobedience, turning away from God, doing their own thing, and blaming God when there are negative consequences to what they do. I think, perhaps, the Israelites weren’t racing up the mountain because they didn’t actually want to get much closer to God than they always were. Although I think they appreciated being God’s people and all, sometimes I think they also resented God’s interference in their being able to live their lives any way they pleased. Are we any different? I’ve always disliked Bette Midler’s famous song, “From a Distance,” where the refrain says, “God is watching us from a distance.” My understanding of God isn’t a God who is far off in space looking down at us, but of a close God who wants to dwell with and in us. But I think maybe her song captures how we’d actually rather have God – looking on from a distance, not close enough to see when we’re doing what we know isn’t God’s will for us, when we’re treating one another so carelessly, when we’re going the opposite way from what we know is the right path. Maybe then we do wish God was watching only from a safe distance. Maybe we like a veil that separates us from God. Because if God gets too close to us – maybe we’re afraid being so close to God will make us change, really change, when we’re getting along fair enough just as we are.

Paul says though that getting along fair enough just as we are is a pretty week imitation of the kind of life God actually wants us to have. Paul argues that in Christ we find boldness to set aside the veil, and let God really see us, let us really see ourselves. With unveiled faces, Paul says, we see God’s glory – and instead of it being frightening, we find that it’s as easy as looking in the mirror, because with Christ in us, we actually reflect God to others. When we really see ourselves, Paul says, we can get rid of the things in our lives that we’ve been hiding, and we can be open in the sight of God and neighbor.

We see in the gospels that this is what Jesus’ ministry is about – pulling aside the veils that people had in place, separating them from God. Jesus did this first by example, and so we see him continually seeking out God, seeking closeness, and here today Jesus is going again up the mountain to pray. Peter and James and John – Jesus seeks to bring them right into God’s holy presence. They’re scared, just like the Israelites are scared. But even though they have no idea what to do, they stay. Even though they’re sleepy, they keep awake. They don’t want to miss out. Even though it will change them, they don’t want to pass up this experience.

In fact, the only problem becomes that they want to stay up on the mountain. Peter offers to build dwelling places for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Now that he’s finally drawn so close to the holy, he doesn’t want to leave. We can relate to this, I think. When we finally feel close to God, who hasn't wanted to stay in whatever the place is where God seems so close and available? Who hasn't wanted to extend a school vacation that seems so restful? Who hasn't wanted to slow the passing of time when things are fun and joy filled? We have a hard enough time finding God, or letting God find us, finally removing the veil – we certainly don't want to hurry off the mountain when we finally make the connection.

The things is, in God's wisdom, we're not meant to stay on the mountain, as comforting as it may be for us to be there. As Peter said to Jesus, it is indeed good for us to be close to God. But imagine, imagine if Jesus had shared Peter's sentiments, and decided to stay with Moses and Elijah on the mountain? There would be no Good Friday crucifixion, and no Easter resurrection. Imagine if Moses had not come down to the Israelites after talking with God. There would be no commandments brought down to the people who certainly needed structure. Imagine if you and I stayed on the mountain where we found God - there would be no spreading of the gospel that Christ commanded us to share. No one new would ever hear about God's love. And self-indulging, we would soon grow less appreciative of the way we were experiencing God. We’re called up the mountain, and into the holy, but we’re called back down too, so that we can help draw others closer to God and share our experience.

But when we remove the veil between us and God, whether we’re on the mountain top or in the valleys, God goes with us. Sometimes we have to look harder, listen more carefully, risk more completely, but we can find God in the valley, on the plains, and in the people, as well as on the mountaintop.

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face, but with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God reflected as in a mirror, shining out from our souls. Amen.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, "Deep Waters"

Sermon 2/7/10, Luke 5:1-11, Isaiah 6:1-8

Deep Waters

Science was always my least favorite subject in school. I always got good grades in science, because I could memorize answers just fine, and I was good at math, so the formulas involved were no problem. But I never liked science because I could never really understand the why of something even if I knew the facts. You could explain to me why a light bulb works or a how a camera works, and I could memorize that description and tell it back to you, but I’d still never quite understand why it worked that way. But my dislike of science had a couple of exceptions, both of which I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been mulling over our gospel lesson for today.

First, I loved in Earth Science in high-school, and in Geology courses in college, when we’d talk about strata in rock formations. You’d have to look at a picture of all these different layers of igneous and metamorphic and sedimentary rock, and explain what happened in what order. I think I liked it because it was sort of like a logic puzzle, actually, but I also liked thinking about the history represented by those layers, and what must have been happening so long ago at those old, old, bottom layers, that somehow could get brought to the surface over time, through the shifting of the earth’s plates. And I also love learning about animal life, and occasionally get on a kick of watching shows on Animal Planet. I’m fascinated by occasional specials or news stories that report on hundreds of new species that are discovered, even now, even today. How can it be 2010 and we still don’t know all of the species of animals that exist? It’s humbling to remind ourselves of how much we don’t know, in the midst of all we’re sure we have figured out so fully. Last year, deep, deep in the ocean near Australia, a new, carnivorous sea squirt was discovered, that traps small sea creatures in this funnel-shaped mouth of sorts. It fascinates me to think that there is so much undiscovered and the ocean depths seem to be one of the places of yet-unknown mystery.

I had those images in mind this week as I was reading our gospel lesson, and thinking about deep things, deep waters, bringing to the surface what has been deep, deep down. In our gospel lesson today, we find a familiar scene – Jesus preaching and teaching, the crowd gathered, and the setting – the lake of Gennesaret, where many fishermen would be busy at work. When the scene opens, we read that Jesus is standing by the lake and the crowds are “pressing in on him to hear the word of God.” What an image! They’re impatient – anxious – hungry to hear God’s word – that’s how excited they are about what Jesus has to say. The want the words that he’s about to speak. I’ve heard some good preachers – and I like to think I have some preaching skills myself – but I can think of but a few times in my life when I’ve been so anxious, so in anticipation of hearing God’s word.

With the crowds pressing in, Jesus sees fishermen washing their nets and their boats nearby on the shore, and he gets in a boat and asks Simon Peter to put out a little way from the shore. This way, Jesus can comfortably teach the crowds from the boat without being smothered by them in their excitement. When he’s done teaching, he turns to Simon, and tells him, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Not a suggestion – not a questions – but a direction, an imperative. Peter responds in a way that I admire, since I think most of us wouldn’t respond so openly. Jesus tells them to go out into deep water and let their nets down for a catch. Well, Jesus wasn’t a fisherman; he was a carpenter, and now a teacher; Simon Peter was the fisherman. And Peter knew where to fish. And Peter knew that they had already been fishing all night without catching anything. But Simon Peter didn’t respond that he knew better than Jesus, or that they tried what he said already and it didn’t work, or that this new way wouldn’t work. He said instead, “Master, if you say we should try it, we’ll try it.”

They let down their nets, and begin to catch so many fish that their nets are breaking. They signal for help, and another boat comes, and still, there are so many fish that both boats are filled to the point that they can barely stay afloat. Peter, overwhelmed, falls on his knees before Jesus and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus responds, to Peter and James and John, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And with those strange words, these fishermen are inspired to leave their boats and nets and everything, and they begin to follow Jesus.

Jesus tells Simon Peter to put the nets into deep water, and let them down there for a catch. I’m struck by the phrase, and all the meaning this biblical image holds for us. If we think of our spiritual lives, our souls, as this water, we can find many ways to think about this text. Shallows waters are safe places in our lives and in our hearts, where we can put our feet on the ground and keep our heads well above water, and where everything that is there is easily visible to the eyes. The deep waters – there is so much there that you might never see or know it all, and you can’t touch bottom, and you have to work harder to stay afloat, but some of the most fascinating things are found in the deep water, and you have to be a strong swimmer, or a strong boater, or with someone who is strong enough for both of you, to spend a lot of time in the deep waters. You can spend all of your time in shallow water, but most swimmers aren’t satisfied with that, are they? You could theoretically do all of your boating right along the shore, but most serious boaters would laugh at such an idea. So if we’re thinking about our souls as the waters of this passage, what is Jesus saying to us? Go to the deep water. Go again. Go deeper. Simon Peter makes it clear they’ve spent all day out on the lake, fishing, without catching anything. But Jesus won’t let them give up, call it quits, move to another spot, or bring the boats back to shore. There are more fish than the disciples will know what to do with in that lake, and Jesus will help them find them, if they trust him and do what he commands.

Where are we spending our time in the waters of our soul? I think it is astonishingly easy to spend all of our time, all of our lives, in what God would consider the shallow waters. Not taking risks. Not digging deep. Not exploring the unknown. Keeping our feet firmly planted, never heading out to the deep where we’d have to rely on having Jesus in the boat with us in order to make it through. I can tell you that I’m generally not a risk-taker. I don’t like roller coasters. As you know, I don’t even like statistically safe airplanes. When it comes to physical safety, I will always take care of myself. Spiritually, I wonder if I have any more sense of adventure. How easy it is to do the bare minimum instead of giving heart and soul to God. It is easy, sometimes, for me to understand exactly what the scripture is saying, what Jesus is asking, and somehow easier to make a list of reasons why I can’t quite do what is required.

God calls us to go deeper and deeper. I hope Derek won’t mind me using him as an example today, but I have to tell you, as much as I wish we could keep Derek here, with the wonderful way he’s clicked with our youth and ignited our youth ministry, I can’t really encourage him to do other than exactly what he’s doing. No doubt Derek has already seen his life as an attempt to respond to God’s calling – he’s served at church camp for years, worked now in youth ministry, and gone to school to try to strengthen his gifts and talents. But God always calls us to go deeper. And Derek is trying to respond to that call – and so he’s starting seminary, which requires a new home, a new town, new financial situations, new schedules, new ministry challenges, a whole new day-to-day life – and Derek is diving in, and heading for the deep waters, just where God is calling him. Of course, what’s in my deep waters, and in Derek’s, and in yours isn’t the same – but that God calls us to go deeper, bring more to the surface, give what’s in the depths of our hearts – that is a call that excludes none.

We can talk about going deep and staying shallow as a congregation too. Last week, in my annual report, I talked about where we’ve been in the last year and where I hope to see us going. I know many of us are full of dreams and visions for the church. But I also know that it can be easy to be discouraged, and I have those moments too, where it seems like our dreams for the future are more like impossible fantasies. When we talk about our finances, for example, and trying to overcome a deficit that will let us just pay the bills, it can be a challenge to think about increasing our mission, or strengthening our understanding of stewardship, or extending the reach of our ministry. When we dream about a church that is full of people and excitement and energy, we can grow skeptical when it is a challenge even to draw our own members to worship. When we think about our youth program, it can be easy to get discouraged when we know we face another transition, even as we send Derek off with our support and encouragement. But I’m drawn back to Peter’s faithful response to Jesus’ call: “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” The deep waters are full of abundance that God means for us to discover, and in the life of the church, even when it means letting down our nets for what seems like the millionth time in the same waters, I believe that God promises us a catch of fish that is beyond our imagining.

“When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.” Let us go and do likewise.


Thursday, February 04, 2010

Sermon: Report of the Pastor

Sermon 1/31/10, Jeremiah 1:4-10, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

Report of the Pastor

In my preparations for our Annual Meeting today, I decided I would combine my report into my sermon. For practical reasons, it allows me to reflect with all of you about our first six months together, as we plan for the year ahead, even if you can’t stay for our meeting today. But I also want us to understand that there’s no separation between the ‘business matters’ of the church and our mission, ministry, and worship. Everything we do together in the life of the church is meant to be in service to God, who calls us. So where have we been, and where do we go from here?

Our official congregational mission statement says that our purpose is “Growing together in our knowledge and love of God through Jesus Christ and sharing this with others.” I shared with you in the last newsletter that Connie McEvers said that she could remember the core of the statement by its key words: growing, loving, and sharing. Her shortcut has been sticking with me, and I’ve been trying to incorporate those three words into what we do here, to give you an easier way to connect with a plan to deepen your faith. So, I also want to use these words to frame my report to you this morning. How are we growing, loving, and sharing?

Our mission as a congregation is to grow. We can say this in many ways. We want to grow numerically – I know I would certainly love to see this sanctuary filled to capacity each week. I’d love to continue to see growth in our youth program. I would love to see us grow in our giving. But in this context, when we’re talking about growing in love and knowledge of God, I think we’re talking about spiritual growth, discipleship. How are you growing spiritually? What are you doing to nurture your soul and how can this congregation encourage that growth in you?

Our Old Testament lesson today is from the prophet Jeremiah. At the start of the book, we hear about Jeremiah’s call by God. Jeremiah begins, as many of our biblical characters do, sure that he is unqualified for God to use him. He claims that he doesn’t know how to speak, and is only a boy. But God basically replies that no excuses are acceptable. “Do not say, “I am only a boy,”” God says, “for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” Jeremiah’s story is like so many of ours – we’re sure we’re not wise enough, or gifted enough, or special enough for God to be using us. But God promises to be with us, to give us words, and promises that we shall do what God commands. Jeremiah becomes one of the great prophets of Israel, without any special qualifications that we know of, except the ability to listen to God’s voice.

To me, that’s what spiritual growth is about – learning to practice a way of life that helps us to listen and respond to God’s voice. Our lives are so full of things that compete for our attention and energy. We have to learn, to practice, to be disciplined in our spiritual lives, so that God’s voice has a chance of finding us. So how are we working to grow spiritually? One way is through offering small-group study experiences. In the fall, the Parish Council completed a Healthy Church Checklist, in which we committed to increasing participation in small group studies by our leadership. To that end, you will notice that we have and will continue to have several options for spiritual study. I encourage you to make it a priority to find one of these groups to be part of.

The season of Lent is fast-approaching, and I urge you to consider it to be a time of spiritual reflection, rededication, and renewal. We’ll be having a midweek communion service during Lent that will focus on a deeper understanding of the meaning of communion. I will also be surveying the congregation to find out which small-group study topics would interest you and which times would best suit you. If a group study isn’t your thing, please, speak to me about ways you can work toward spiritual growth, and I will help you find something that stretches and challenges you.

Our mission as a congregation is to love. Love is a word we toss around pretty lightly in our culture except, when it comes to people. We love TV shows and movies, we love pets, we love a song. But we’re a little stingier with our love for one another. After a time of transition in this congregation, I feel like this is probably the most critical area of focus for us. We need to work on loving one another. Our reading from Corinthians this week is one of the most famous passages in all of Paul’s writing – the love chapter. You’ve probably heard this passage a million times, because it is the passage most frequently chosen for weddings. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Paul’s language is beautiful, but he’s actually not writing about romantic relationships. As I mentioned last week, Paul is in fact writing to a congregation in Corinth that has been struggling with conflict and disunity. It’s in that context that he’s talking about what love is. It is patient. It doesn’t demand its own way. It rejoices in truth, bears all things, and doesn’t end. Paul says that without this love, we can have all the gifts and graces imaginable and still be just a noisy gong.

We’ve experienced some brokenness within the congregation. But we’re called to an ethic of love that, if we follow it, will help us journey beyond our brokenness. As we talked about last week, we are all members of the body of Christ, and all valuable parts of the community. For the body to work, we have to work together, and we don’t get to cut each other off, or decide we’re going to go it on our own. That’s just not how the body works. We have over one hundred regular worshippers and many more members and constituents in this part of the body. Sometimes we will seriously disagree with one another. Sometimes we will have a hard time getting along. But do you love one another? Can we work on loving one another?

Now we need, first, to experience some forgiveness within the congregation. Healing doesn’t happen overnight, I know. But we begin with forgiveness. Each Sunday we pray to be forgiven as we forgive others. Are you forgiving? I’m asking you today, if you’ve experienced hurt and conflict, to begin forgiving, to let go of the past, and to move on. We cannot go forward as a congregation if we always holding on to what is behind us, because it will hold us there, and keep us from looking down the road where God is leading us. To that end, I encourage you, if you are experiencing disagreements or conflicts, to always speak directly with one another. It’s easy to let hurts fester and multiply when we talk about and around someone instead of to them. And if you are having trouble talking to someone about a disagreement, please seek me out, and I can help you.

We had some wonderful times of fellowship in the last six months, including a spaghetti dinner and cookie walk. I encourage you to take part in activities like that that just give us time to spend with one another. My own goals this first year focus heavily on building relationships. I’ve appreciated spending hours with you at Panera Bread or in your homes. My goal in the year ahead is to visit every member and constituent of the church. You can help me with that project by signing up for a time or contacting me to set one up. I’m interested in hearing about your hopes and dreams for this congregation, and I’m interested in knowing who you are and why you are here. I encourage you to also seek time with one another – with whom do you need to rebuild a relationship? Take a step towards healing in the months ahead.

Finally, our mission as a congregation is to share. In fact, we’re called to share it all, share in everyway: what we have, who we are, what we know – all of this is meant to be shared and given in love to those who so desperately are seeking purpose and hope in their lives. Our gospel reading today picks up again where we left off last week in Luke, when Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah and read from it in his hometown synagogue. When he is finished reading, he sits down and tell the listeners that the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing. And we read, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words” he spoke. That might seem like a positive reaction, but Jesus doesn’t seem happy with their response. He certainly stirs them up with his reply: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town . . . there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’”

The people are filled with rage at his words, and try to drive him off a cliff, and we as 21st century readers are left wondering what we missed. Why did his words upset them? Well, what Jesus points out to the people is that God sent these prophets to work through non-Jews. Though the people saw themselves as God’s chosen, revered prophets of Israel Elijah and Elisha did God’s work not through Gentiles. God chose to use those who were outside the community, rather than those who were inside. The people of Nazareth don’t want to hear it. They want to wonder at Jesus, all grown up, and reading the scripture so beautifully, but they don’t want to be transformed by the scripture they hear, and they don’t want to hear that it’s actually all about someone else, not them, after all. Jesus read about good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, not good news for the middle class, release for the independent, sight for those who just won’t open their eyes, freedom for the comfortable.

As a church body, it’s very easy to slip into thinking that what we do here is about us, and making sure that we are happy. But the church is exists not for itself, but for those outside of it. When Jesus gave his great commission to the twelve, he told them “Go and make disciples.” That’s why the official mission of both our denominations is other-focused, not self-focused. Our primary purpose is outward-reaching, sharing God with others. That’s the primary reason for the church to exist. So if we aren’t doing that, we’re in trouble. So sharing is a key word in our mission statement. Churches that are vital and healthy are churches that are outward-looking, serving others, rather than making sure members’ needs are met.

How have we been sharing? We’ve been working to re-people and re-energize our Evangelism Team. The world “evangelism” means “good message,” and that’s our purpose: sharing the good message with others. Our Nominations Team has worked hard to find more people willing to help, who will soon be joining our currently small team. Karen Dunn, our chair, is very faithful in following up with any visitors who worship here. We also attended a training session this fall called “ReThink Church,” along with some of our Missions Team, and I think we all felt inspired with new ideas. Our Missions Team has worked hard to engage the congregation in mission work. We’ve had mission moments, collected blankets, food, scarves and health kits, we’ve sent kids to camp, we’ve supported local and global missions, we’ve CROP-walked together, and we’ve had an ongoing presence at The Crossings.

But we want to do more. We’re talking about sharing ourselves. I mentioned last week that our young people are already gifted at inviting others to attend church activities with them. But we can’t leave this work up to them. If we want to see the church grow and thrive we have a direct responsibility to act by sharing what we’re about, about this God we serve, and about God’s love, freely offered to us. I challenge you, this year, to focus on inviting someone to worship with you. More than any program or advertising campaign we might do, people come to church because someone invites them. We’re also developing our relationship with the Rescue Mission in the year ahead. We have so many gifts, and we excel at sharing donations and financial help with a number of organizations. But we are called to share our hearts. We’ve committed to pay special attention this year to hands-on mission – mission that involves building relationships with the people that we serve, so that we might understand how much they in turn are serving us. This year, I challenge you to spend more of your time in hands-on mission work.

I believe that we are blessed with wonderful people, gifts, talents, and resources here at First United. God has blessed us with such abundance, and such potential. I have dreams and visions about what we might be, and where God might lead us, if we’re ready to take the risk of following a God who is known for leading people to turn their whole lives around and upside down. I’m ready – ready for you to help me take those risks – ready to help you take those risks. The people of the First United Church of East Syracuse are called to grow in our knowledge and love of God through Jesus Christ and to share this with others. So let’s grow. Let’s love. Let’s share. And let’s go together. Amen.