Monday, September 21, 2009

Welcoming Jesus

Dear Friends. The following sermon, 9/20/09, initiates my Action Plan at Smith Chapel to become a more "Outwardly Focused" church, to lead our congregation to a love for the unchurched in response to School of Lay Ministry 2009 (see link). Please help me be accountable to "Welcoming Christ."
Welcoming Jesus
(Mark 9:30-37)
A. Introduction
1. Focus, Focus, Focus. In this passage, Jesus is focused on teaching his disciples on the way to Jerusalem. To set the stage, Jesus has been north of Galilee, in the region of Caesarea-Philippi. There, Peter has declared Jesus as Messiah (Who do you say that I am? “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the one coming into the world.”), and he has begun teaching them that he must go to Jerusalem, be handed over to men, killed, and on the third day rise again. They had no clue. Today’s lesson is the second time he’s told them this. Still no clue. While still in Caesarea-Philippi, Jesus took Peter, James, and John high up on the mountain and there he was transfigured before them, a glimpse of his future glory. God speaks to them saying, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” Still, the real thrust of Jesus’ ministry is a mystery to the disciples. Now he’s on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus has to teach them. Focus, Focus, Focus. He was teaching his disciples. If the disciples don’t get it now, the mission will be lost. Focus.

2. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands.” When we hear these words, we need to hear them from two perspectives: First, Mark is conveying what Jesus was telling his pre-Easter disciples. But second, he is writing to a post-Easter world. Mark is being clear that it is human hands, all of humanity who are responsible for the death of Jesus. Not just Judas, although he is there as Jesus teaches, not the Jews, not the Romans, although God allows them to be instruments, but Jesus is betrayed into human hands, Adam’s hands, Eve’s hands, Rick’s hands, Rosemary’s hands. What we did yesterday, what we will do tomorrow. Post-Easter people, Christ died for all of humanity. He died for you and me.
3. But for the pre-Easter disciples this had to be hard. To be killed! Hung from a cross. For the first century Jews, the cross, the cross was a scandal. Yet Jesus had already taught them, if any want to be my disciples, they must take up their cross and follow me. Sacrifice, submission, was necessary to be a follower of Christ. It was then, it is now.

4. But this passage tells us again that they didn’t get it. Jesus says, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They were arguing about who was the greatest among them! Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all. If we are to have ambition, a normal human trait, that ambition must be focused on serving others.
B. Body
1. Then Jesus, the master story teller, the master user of props, takes a child and puts it among them, then puts his arm around the child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” Welcoming Jesus, welcoming God!
a. Understand, that in the first century, children had little or no social status. They fell somewhere between slaves who had none and women who had but some. Children got no respect. In fact, the regard we provide our children today is probably a Christian teaching that flows from this very passage. But in that day, no status.
b. Jesus says, “One who welcomes a person of no status, welcomes me.” Where have we heard that before? Recall Matthew 25, the story of Christ the King, also called the parable of the sheep and the goats? The people say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you drink? And when was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave your clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the King will answer them, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” The least of these, welcoming one like a child. Welcoming Jesus.
2. Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all, whoever welcomes one like a child in my name welcomes me. Jesus, destroying the hierarchy of the day (and today) and placing us all in the same circle. Gathering us around Jesus. Then Jesus asking that we make the circle wider and wider. Go, make disciples. Be my witnesses. Welcome one like a child in my name. All of us in the same ever widening circle.
3. I’d like to pause here and talk about us, our circle. Our ever widening. Us welcoming Jesus. How I see Smith Chapel in three to five years.
a. Last week in our meeting after church we introduced two new ministry concepts: Small groups, circles; and an annual or bi-annual neighborhood food drive, serving others. You also received a letter describing the small group series. Now I’d like to give you my vision, how I see this playing out.
b. Let me leap forward to the fall of 2010, a year from now. You’re in the third cycle of small groups. You’re starting to fall into the pattern. In fact, most of you look forward to your weekly meetings. I recall my first Disciple Bible Study: 34 weeks, 2 ½ hours a week, yet I couldn’t wait to get back to my group.
c. The groups include church members, family that may not attend weekly, friends from other churches, neighbors that may or may not attend anywhere, new people that you may want to get to know. All advantages of meeting away from the church. You meet in homes or possibly corner of a restaurant or a meeting room. People will accept an invitation to a home who may not accept an invitation to church.
d. You gather. After greeting, you begin with prayer, maybe recite a Psalm or the words to a hymn. You find the adoration and worship in this setting even greater than you might experience on Sunday morning.
e. You welcome those that are new, who have been invited this week and who have responded, widening your circle. You break bread together as you fellowship and study. In your discussion you hear a new insight, even from one of the new people who may have no background on the topic, but the insight is life changing.
f. Over the course of time you share your lives together, you laugh together, and there are times you cry together and pray together. This is real life and faith.
g. As you close the meeting, you discuss who might be invited to a following meeting. There is always an open chair, always a widening circle. Always an expectation to welcome Christ.
h. You depart, even reluctantly, looking forward to studying and meeting again next week.
4. The seven week session ends. Some of the groups may decide to continue to meet once a month or bi-weekly in the interim between studies. Some may find service projects, nursing homes, food pantry, Festival of sharing, that they want to continue in between. In fact, in getting to know friends and neighbors, new needs of theirs and the community become apparent. You have always been the best at helping your neighbor and you respond.
5. Another session begins the following spring and another the following fall. It may be that the groups have grown and the plan always was to start another group at another time and place to widen the circle and welcome Christ again. A seed group of two couples leaves on group and invites others and another group of six to eight is begun. In five years, what started as 3 or 4 groups is now 6 or 8. Most of the people will never attend Smith Chapel, a few may. They’ll attend other churches, but for some the small group may become the only church they know.
6. In parallel to this, our neighborhood food drive is happening once or twice a year. “When did we see thee hungry and feed thee?” We begin small, dropping off bags and telling folks we’ll be back in two weeks to pick them up. “Oh by the way, we’re a small church and we’re looking for ways to expand our drive, would you like to give a hand?” And we assign a section of road for them and give out them some bags and pick them up. We give them a church brochure to put in each bag and a form to collect names of our neighbors as we go, a name to pray for, a person that we might invite at some future time. All the time we are feeding the hungry, we are welcoming Christ. Each succeeding food drive gets easier and larger as we have developed a call list and assigned roads that we can repeat. The circle gets wider. Smith Chapel becomes important to the neighborhood.
7. Over the course of time a few may extend their faith journey and join us in church, either from the food drives or the small groups.
a. Imagine in 2010, as a result of prayer and study, we ourselves become more faithful and instead of 19 each week, we average 20; and as a result of invitation, one more person
joins—21. Ten percent growth.
b. And in 2011, a net of two more. Now 23.
c. In 2012 and 2013, two families join. And by 2014, five years from now, we’re approaching 30 in worship.
8. We can see ourselves becoming an Acts 2 church (46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (v46-47)).
a. You see, we’re not in this for us, although we may be one of the beneficiaries. We are doing it because we are called to.
b. Through prayer and study, we have gained a vital relationship with Jesus Christ, one that is outwardly focused, one that seeks to ever widen the circle, one that welcomes one like a child, that welcomes Jesus.
c. We’ve become a church that looks at every ministry opportunity as a means of invitation. Because we’ve been sharing our stories together, we’ve more comfortable sharing our faith story with others We seek to welcome Jesus.
d. By the way, small groups and ministries like food drives and others are the very best way to integrate someone into a congregation. Should somebody arrive on a Sunday, and there’s no apparent way for them to participate, to join in, they will probably be gone in week or two. But if instead, we invite them to participate in one our small groups, we expand our circle for them, we will welcome Jesus.
9. That’s 2014. Now back to 2009. I don’t expect that this will happen without some resistance. Even Moses had people grumbling in the desert. It only took 45 days and the Children of Israel were saying, “If only you had left us in Egypt instead of bringing us out into the desert to die.” If Moses had to put up with grumbling I guess I can. But no golden calves. We’ll skip over the golden calves and get to the Ten Commandments, and without breaking the tablets too. Serendipity that we’re starting by studying The Ten Commandments from the Backside.
C. Close.
1. What I’d like to do is keep the vision in front of you. We need to change. Our communities have changed and we need to find a way to ever widen our circle to include them.

2. People of God, the church in America is dying. We’ve missed an entire generation of children. In our denomination, our weekly attendance in America is decreasing 73,000 a year. That’s like closing every church in Kansas and an additional 150 in Nebraska each year. Why, because we’ve been doing church wrong for the past 100 years.
3. Think about this. In the first 300 years of Christianity there were no churches. Christianity was in the midst of the culture. They met in homes and the worshippers increased by 40 percent every decade for those 300 years.
4. In the 18th century the Wesleys looked at the church constrained by the church walls and the church moved to the fields. In America, the great awakening swept across America in homes, in class meetings just like our church began.
5. Since western expansion ended we locked ourselves back in our churches. The depression and the war revived us a little. But by 1960 we’d reach our peak.
6. We need a vision of a church transformed, a vision of a church doing things differently, a vision of a church doing ministry in the midst of our communities.
7. I know the Holy Spirit is moving us to this place. It has been gnawing on me, nudging me for some time. And after I finished up this sermon on Thursday, I found a link to a new survey of the best churches in America published in “USA Today” on Wednesday. Listen to what it says: “The best churches in America are aggressively evangelistic and evangelical, and the very best churches have very intentional systems to move people from sitting in rows to sitting in circles (in small groups).” Hear that word circles, ever widening circles. It continues, “to going out and making a difference in the world.”
8. We need a vision of a church doing ministry differently, of placing ourselves in ever widening circles, and in doing so, of a church that is being servants of all.
9. And a church welcoming one like a child. A church welcoming Jesus. So may it be in your life and in the life of this congregation. Amen.