January 3, 2016
Romans 12:1-26 from The Message by Eugene Petersen
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life — your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around life — and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God beings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.
In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we’re not.
If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.
Paul wrote many letters like this one to the various churches he founded and pastored - probably far more than were passed down to us. In them he laid out his theology, got on their cases when they were behaving badly, and praised and encouraged them to grow in their faith and relationship to one another and God. In all of them he focused on what it means to be the church, the body of Christ in the world.
This fall I was charged with writing down my goals for the year. In doing that I went back to the statement on ministry I wrote for my profile three years ago when I was beginning my search for a new church to pastor. In a way, it was my letter to churches, including Eliot, about what I think it means to be the Body of Christ, the church.
It was an important reminder for me, and I thought it would be good to share some of it with you this morning as we begin a new year together, looking at who we are and who we might become. As you listen, think about Eliot. In what ways is this who we are today?
My Dream Church is open minded and theologically progressive, where questioning and doubt is embraced in our search for greater understanding and truth. It’s an Open and Affirming Church where all are welcome, and the makeup of the congregation reflects that. It’s a church that inspires and equips it’s congregation to be ministers, to each other and to those outside the church doors. It’s a place where our spirituality and faith is molded and enriched from youth to later years through prayer, study, worship and service. It’s a community that is so filled with the Spirit we want to spread the good news and invite others to join us.
People walk into our churches looking for a place to be inspired, challenged and stimulated. They come to find hope and meaning in their lives. They come to be touched by the Holy. They come to be transformed. It is all of our responsibilities to be a vehicle for that to happen. We are all ministers. And as a pastor I am called to help my congregation discover their gifts and equip them for the ministry Jesus has called us to.
My passions are worship, spirituality and faith formation, social justice, and, believe it or not, evangelism, the fearsome “E” word. I consider all of these to be pastoral care in one form or another.
I’m passionate about worship because it allows me to unleash all the creative juices I brought to ministry from my past careers as an actress and artist. Several years ago I was presenting a worship workshop for a conference vitality event. At the start of worship I asked, “In how many of your churches is worship pretty much the same every week?” Every hand went up. That sent up red flags. I then asked them, “If you owned a business and were running it the same way you did in 1950, what would happen?” They all agreed they’d be out of business.
We are here to be multi-generational, multi-cultural churches. One size fits some, not all. Our worship styles and music should be as varied as the people sitting in our pews, and those who haven’t found their way into our doors.
Worship is at the heart of what we do. It’s a visitors introduction to our spiritual life in community. It has to move us from our heads to our hearts. Good preaching is crucial, but it takes many forms today. It’s no longer just an intellectual exercise to learn about God. We come to experience God and that happens through all of our senses. We connect, each of us, in different ways.
Another of my passions is spirituality and faith formation. There is a hungering I find, especially among the unchurched, and people who are coming back after a long absence, for practices that will deepen their relationship to the Divine. I see how regular prayer and meditation practices not only transform peoples’ lives, they can help transform and grow churches. These practices make our church family different than the secular groups to which many us belong. One of my congregants once marveled how meditating in our Spirituality Group was more powerful than praying alone.
People are also yearning for a safe place to explore their faith in a small group. I witness such excitement when people move beyond what they were taught as a child into a more mature understanding of their faith as adults. One person told those in a book study, “I always spoke of my faith in terms of what I didn’t believe. Now I have a language for what I do believe.” This kind of sharing takes relationships to a much deeper level. Friendships are formed. It can change the dynamic of a church.
I am passionate about social justice, which was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. Several years ago I was asked to officiate a memorial service in a local park for a man who was homeless. Several days later I found myself kneeling in a prayer circle on the grass, clasping the hands of those on either side of me, singing Amazing Grace at the top of our lungs. A dozen people had come from their tent homes under the bridge near the river to sing, pray, cry, hug, grieve, share stories and remember their friend Matt. This was one of the most profound experiences in ministry I have ever had.
I have served in soup kitchens, walked in CROP walks, built houses for Habitat, and a myriad of other socially responsible activities, but this was different. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling incredible sadness for those people living out there in the elements, people we try to ignore and pretend don’t exist - people whose faces and names I now knew. It came crashing in on me in a very personal way that this is what Jesus was calling us to do, and it isn’t easy.
Jesus did hands-on, face to face ministry with persons who were homeless, sick, oppressed, imprisoned, and rejected by society. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt.11:28) “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matt.23:11-12) I felt very humbled that day.
For several years my former church supported a program called Get On the Bus. It brings children from all over the state to visit their dads in prison for an afternoon around Father’s Day. With other churches and synagogues we donated money to pay for their transportation, provide meals, teddy bears, stay-in-touch bags, and host a debriefing reception with the children and their moms after their visit.
I had the privilege of visiting the fathers at the prison a few days later. One young man asked me to thank my congregation from the bottom of his heart. “I’ve made mistakes,” he told me. “I did things that were wrong. But despite what I’ve done, your church has affirmed my humanity by enabling my children to visit me. It means everything. When I get out of here I never want to come back. I want to be a good father.” I believe that Jesus calls me and the congregation I serve to create the kin-dom in the here and now, transforming lives, one at a time.
Institutional church in the 21st century is facing enormous challenges. Some say we are going through a new reformation. Like our culture and the world around us, everything is changing at an unprecedented speed. We don’t know what Christianity will look like in the future, but I firmly believe it will not only survive, but thrive. It has after each reformation. The future is filled with infinite possibilities. It will require creativity, flexibility and a willingness to change and make mistakes, to fail, and try, try again.
But for this to happen we have to reach out to those for whom organized religion has lost meaning in their lives, to those who have felt ostracized by the church, and to those who have no experience of church at all. They are now the majority in our communities. We have something of great value to share with them. We are called to find new, creative ways to share it.
Years ago a couple came to our church. They hadn’t been inside the walls of a church since they were teenagers. John and Janice had been married for 25 years, and recently John had undergone surgery to become Joanne. All those years she thought God rejected her because of who she knew she was.
Months later, newly baptized, they stood by the baptismal font, bathed in tears, as the congregation, one by one, placed a rose petal into the water to signify their commitment to nurture, love and support them as members of our beloved community. Sometime later, in response to a question I asked during a service, a man in his mid-80’s recalled that day as one in which the sanctuary was filled with love.
That day I knew why I was in ministry. What greater gift can you give another than to bring them into the loving arms of God through the love and affirmation of a community of faith!
This is my dream church. Is it yours? Is it Eliot? I believe it is, in so many ways. I’m excited as we embark on a new year. There are so many plans in the making: our new solar panels on the roof; our outreach to homeless families; service projects for MLK weekend that you can sign up for today; a Sacred Conversation on Race next Sunday after worship, facilitated by our Associated Conference Minister Don Remick; opportunities to explore Racial Justice in America throughout January.
As we begin this new year, let’s each of us look into our hearts to ask: What are my gifts in ministry? How will I use them to serve those at Eliot and those in our community? How will I play a part in creating my Dream Church?