given on Sunday, June 14, 2009
Beginning today’s message with a set of encouraging words or some phrase from conference would be easy, unfortunately, the phrase would have to be “somewhere out there” and I have listened to that over and over and over last weekend. I need new words. You see, the Bishop set the theme for annual conference as “somewhere out there” and every speaker used that phrase, it was on each page in our book—or so it seemed—plastered around the building, and on the tip of everybody’s tongue. I need new words, but I guess only Pat would agree with me, so let’s look forward and think about what the Bishop’s theme means right here in our community.
Over the past year, I have repeated my share of phrases: look at the world through God’s eyes, love one another, God is love, to serve is to love, and I expect you could add a few more. There is absolutely nothing more critical to understanding our faith than to know God is love and we are to love one another. This is the new covenant; this is why Jesus came to join us on this earth; this is why Jesus died on the cross for us; and this is why Christianity grew to a faith that wraps around the world, not just along the Mediterranean coastline.
“Somewhere out there” is the Bishop’s way to explain that the world, today’s global world, is the target location for our ministry. We are to make disciples for Christ in an effort to transform the world, anywhere in the world, even in our own neighborhoods. We have received the grace of God upon our birth without any questions or requirements to meet. We simply were born with God’s love surrounding us. Then life hit.
In Psalms 72, the definition of God’s grace seems to be woven into the words:
12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight.
These words seem to match the testimonies heard over and over from the platform at the conference. We, who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday, know that God listens. We are quite sure how God acts in our lives. We have tried our best to follow or to live out our faith day after day. But somewhere out there are the people identified in the psalm: the needy, the sick, the impoverished, the homeless, and the lost (lost from God’s family).
I know you could create a list of individuals you know right here in this community who fit the descriptions in Psalms. I know that if we put our lists together, we would see common needs, common fears, common stories, but I suspect we would also realize that knowing these names does not mean we have reached out to them.
Throughout the conference, various church leaders shared their story—yes, that is another phrase, share your story, I have used this past year and it was repeated during conference, too. In our changing church, we are now seeing more individuals who were previously un-churched or who were in church as children but then stepped away and only now are returning, 20, 30, even 40 years later. For these individuals, the church did not hold anything for them as young adults. Then as the years went along, the journey was filled with the highs and lows we all know exist. They lost their way. They were unhappy. They were at the lowest point in their lives. They tried to fill the void with other means—alcohol, drugs, work, recreation—but it did not provide them with peace.
The theme, somewhere out there, is about how there is some one not too far away from the church or from you that needs God. As Pat and I sat there listening to the business of the church, we put our heads together and tried to consider just who is out there that needs God. We created list after list of different needs that we could possibly include in our focus. Our faith is personal, but when we move our faith into action, the returns are immeasurable.
While leading the Purpose Driven Campaign, I found that the key to my faith is knowing my purpose. My purpose is how I serve others, and serving others is loving others. My purpose turns me away from an inward thinking lifestyle—you know, the me first principle—to an outward thinking lifestyle.
Outward thinking—another phrase the Bishop used repeatedly during the conference. In the Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, the emphasis is knowing your purpose in life, fulfilling that purpose and therefore transforming your life as a Christian. During the conference, the question was expanded to whether or not your church is outwardly focused. Does the church focus on getting the members actively involved in ministry whether it is collecting food for the food pantry or cleaning up after a football game in a stadium or creating a playground for the community or joining in Habitat for Humanity or going on mission trips?
One of the speakers was Bishop Hope Ward, from Mississippi. She was appointed to Mississippi the year Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. She spoke to the clergy and the lay members of the various faith stories, the testimonies to God’s grace. She walked among the ruins of the communities, but watched as the churches brought people together and fed them, housed them, even clothed them. She shared one story of how the freezers of the schools were thawing and so the church started cooking because people were hungry and the food would go bad. They had no idea that when they began, they would continue to cook and serve around 3,000 meals daily.
When the day came when the little food that remained was not nearly enough to feed 3,000, the members simply said start cooking and see what they could do. As they began cooking with no idea how to meet the demand, a company similar to Tyson’s, drove up in a semi-truck filled with chicken. The company had heard about how the church was feeding all these people in the community. On outwardly focused church saw a need, worked to meet the need, and God provided.
Right here in Missouri, we see this happening, too. It does not take a hurricane, but other disasters do occur. A tornado, a flood, a drought, and now even an economic recession brings a need for immediate action. Churches have frequently been there to provide aid. The Methodist Church is now creating disaster response teams who drive right into the devastated communities and start the recovery process.
Now, if I am doing my job, you should be sitting there in your seats saying what does this mean for us right here in our community? Then you should begin brainstorming all kinds of ideas in your head. It is hard. At least that is what Pat and I discovered. Just what do we need to do? What person is out there who needs us? For what program or group could we provide support or service? These are tough questions because we get so comfortable in our own little world that we do not always see what needs there are right next door.
Still, we are filled with God’s love; it is his gift to us. How we use the gift is how we live out our Christian faith. Remember how I have tied it together: God is love. To love is to serve. To serve is to love. The Holy Spirit is how we take God’s love into action. Remember a few weeks ago the scripture notes from the Life Application Bible:
“Empowered by the Holy Spirit, this courageous band (of disciples) preached, taught, healed, and demonstrated love in synagogues, schools, homes, marketplaces, and courtrooms, and on streets, hills, ships, and desert roads—wherever God sent them…(p.1940)
Our time is now. We are now the band of disciples preaching, teaching, healing and demonstrating love right here in our homes, along the roads and streets, in our work places,
The challenge is on. Can we take our faith and put it into action outside of these walls? Can we demonstrate God’s love in a manner that lets others meet Christ? We must operate on faith knowing that our actions, our demonstrations of God’s love, plants the seeds of faith. In Mark 4, the parable of the growing seed reminds us this:
26He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
In Matthew 17:20, we are reminded that even the tiniest seed, the mustard seed, can move mountains:
20He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
This compares to Mark’s mustard seed parable in a slightly different way, but the idea is similar:
31It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.
Mark’s version takes the idea that the seed represents the kingdom of God, but we can just imagine that providing a tiny seed of faith can move mountains and provide the richest gift of all—the kingdom of God.
Back to the challenge, can we demonstrate God’s love in a way to plant a seed of faith in others? I believe we can. In fact, I know we can. I have the faith, maybe even a little more than the size of a mustard seed, that God’s love can move mountains and that we are God’s love in action. I believe we can be an outwardly focused congregation in which the Holy Spirit is alive and well. We see now there is a reason to look for some one out there who needs to know God.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We are ready to take the challenge. We want to look through your eyes to find ways of serving others. We want to look out our open doors to the community and find the need we can fulfill. We want to open our minds to any task we can do and to any person who needs you.
We know we will have to begin with small steps, but somewhere out there someone needs you. Give us the strength to do all things in your name as we work to transform the world. –Amen