Sermon for Sunday, September 25, 2011

Acts 17:22-34 & Luke 19:1-10

“Caring For A Diverse Community With Creativity”

~ Today is the second of a four part sermon series on Living Up To And Into Our Mission: Why We Are Franklin Circle Christian Church! ~

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris

To hear this sermon as a Podcast, click HERE:  110925SermonPodcast

What is community?  More to the point, what are our communities?  A community is a group of people with common interests, especially when living together.  A community is also a shared ownership or participation or a shared activity not necessarily done with those who live near you.  (1)

The concept of community was very much on our hearts and minds yesterday as we listened to the Rev. Verity Jones, former editor of Disciplesworld magazine and current Project Director for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary.  (2) Elders and pastors from across the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Ohio came together to explore the social media revolution and its impact on the Church, generally, and how Elders in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), specifically should appreciate the impact social media is having on our world.

At times, it seemed the question kept coming down to: “Can you give a hug virtually over the internet, or do you have to be present to win?”  Part of this starkness was do to the fact that most of those gathered were over 50 and had less familiarity with technology.  Many concerns were expressed as to whether or not, and how, social media such as Facebook, Blogs, and instant messaging were adequate substitutes for the living, breathing, hugging community we know and love as “church.”  The verdict definitely was out.  Yet, Rev. Jones pressed us pretty hard to understand that the virtual community, while unfamiliar and mysterious to many of us, was already an established part of the world, and even the church community, and that we do not have to understand the dilemma as an “either/or” but a “both/and” possibility.

Let me help us get into the spirit of yesterday’s conversation by asking, with a show of hands, how many of us have:

1.         Ever sent or read an e-mail message?

2.         Ever created and used a Facebook account?

3.         Ever sent or received a text message from your phone?

4.         Ever sent or received a Twitter Tweet?

5.         Ever been to FCCC’s webpage? (3)

We are looking these four weeks this fall at the mission statement of Franklin Circle Christian Church.  Last week I made the pitch that we must all necessarily be disciples and that means we must all be growing and learning in an intentional, regular, and communal way.  Communal means “being done in community with others.”  Does that necessarily mean in person?  Does being in community require the fact that I see the whites of your eyes, feel the heat of your body, smell the fragrance you sprayed on this morning, or touch your hand?  Does “communal” mean that I look just like you, think just like you, or am committed to the same causes as you?

The Apostle Paul, our intrepid evangelist, has been on a preaching mission through Asia Minor prior to our scripture reading today.  He’s said a few things that have gotten the locals in Thessalonica and Beroea (Middle East, that is, not Ohio) upset, so he stops by Athens (Greece, that is, not Ohio) to cool off.

But Paul, being Paul, can’t really leave well enough alone.  He’s noticed all the statuary around Athens to the various deities of Greek culture.  He ends up in the plaza in front of the Areopagus where the intellectuals gathered to debate.  Showing himself to be an intellectual, Paul, while quoting some Greek poets, takes note of a particular statue dedicated to “an unknown god.”  Surmising that this was an attempt to placate all the other gods which the other statuary might have missed, Paul makes the case that one of these is in fact the God who created humanity, the God that populated the world, and the God who came to us in none other than Jesus Christ who was resurrected from the dead and will come to save us.

And Paul also does it with a bit of humor as the writer of Acts describes the scene by saying, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”  Social commentary New Testament style!

Paul almost effortlessly is able to move into a community not his own, acknowledge and be conversant in the language in which that community speaks, honor that community’s traditions, and invite them to consider his community’s faith, passion, and possibilities.  Some scoffed, yes, but they did not ride him out on a rail as they had in other places.  And, in fact, some wanted to hear more.  There were even converts in this wildly different community of Athens: “Dionysius, the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”

Let me ask, by a show of hands, how many of us:

1.         Have ever lived on the Near West Side, or Ohio City, now or in your lifetime?

2.         Travel more than one mile to get to this church?

3.         Have attended a community meeting in this neighborhood, such as a safety summit, Ohio City Inc. meeting, or a Block Club meeting?

4.         Have a grasp of the primary concerns of the residents of this community?

Our mission statement says “We care for the spiritual needs of a culturally diverse community [and] encourage creativity.”  What does it mean for a church community, which is made up of people from all across Northeast Ohio – literally from Warren and Euclid to Avon and Parma Heights, to be nestled in this culturally complex and richly historic neighborhood and care for its spiritual needs?  What does it mean for a church community which seeks to “widen the circle for all God’s children” to “encourage creativity” in a neighborhood which is home to the offices of the Cleveland International Film Festival and Cleveland Public Art, as well as being home to the Cleveland Public Theater, the Near West Theater, and for the first time in history a west side location of the Cleveland Museum of Art within blocks of this church? (4)

If we take Paul’s model from Athens, which was built on Jesus’ model for how he “lived and breathed and had his being” – exemplified in Jesus’ interaction with the tax-collector cum philanthropist, Zacchaeus – then we will be very intentional about several things:

1.         We will take the time to know our communities, whether they are virtual, on-line communities, or brick and mortar/blood and sweat communities.

2.         We will spend less time judging those who live in communities different from our own, and more time loving them and sharing the gospel with them. “Judge not, lest ye be judged!” Jesus said! (Matthew 7:1)

3.         We will seek to be in community with good humor, deep humility, and profound respect, understanding that God-in-Jesus took great pains to cross the boundaries that separate and divide us from the divine in order to be a living, breathing, loving part of our community, the human community.

This isn’t easy!  Just look to the communities of the Farmers and the Cowmen in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma, to see exactly how hard crossing the age-old lines of communal identity is! *

To care for the spiritual needs of a culturally diverse community means that we cannot afford, and it is not the way of the gospel, to simply write off, ignore, and certainly never mock a community that is different from our own.  And by community, I mean to imply communities that are digital and virtual as well as those that are flesh and blood, brick and mortar.

This means that, while we do not have to completely embrace social media like Facebook/LinkedIn/WordPress/Twitter/Foursquare/Blogger/Yelp/Google+/Digg/Wikipedia/TypePad/YouTube we cannot do justice to those who find very real community there until we at least know what they are and hear the very real transforming stories of people whose lives are deeply invested in creating community online.

This means that, while we do not have to completely embrace the Hispanic, or Catholic Worker, or Palestinian, or artisan, or gay and lesbian, or local food, or techno-geek, or entrepreneurial, or anti-war, or sustainable communities that are around us, we cannot do justice to those who find very real community there until we at least know who they are and hear the very real transforming stories of people whose lives are deeply invested in creating community in these ways!

I believe that after a few less-than-successful tries as spreading the gospel, Paul learned a new and different way of bringing the good news to a community: Jesus’ way.  And Jesus’ way, which is the way Franklin Circle Christian Church tries to follow, is a way of understanding, a way of loving and not judging, and a way of humbly and humorously honoring and respecting the communities around us.  In this way, and really only this way, will we ever “live, and breath, and have our being” in that great and most Beloved Community of God.

Amen!

(1) Found online at Mirriam-Webster online: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/community

(2) The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a two-year research oriented project involving six research fellows who are conducting case studies; interviewing experts in social media, congregational ministry, theology, and journalism; collecting and sharing research online; and commenting on it regularly via blog posts. The project is generously supported by a grant from Lilly Endowment.  Found online at:  http://blog.newmediaprojectatunion.org/

(3) For an incredible article on what exactly social media is, go online to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_media

(4) “One of the city’s most revered cultural institutions, the Cleveland Museum of Art is building a bridge across the Cuyahoga River to embrace and energize the west side’s diverse and lively arts community.  For the first time in its history, the art museum is establishing dedicated space for exhibitions and programming outside of the institution’s walls in University Circle.  Called “The Transformer Station,” the new contemporary art showcase will be built out of a transformer station that used to supply power to the Detroit Avenue streetcar line. The main hall of the building at 1460 West 29th St. features intricate brick detailing and soaring twenty two foot ceilings.”

For the rest of this news story on this, and a video, go online to: http://www.newsnet5.com/dpp/news/local_news/cleveland_metro/Cleveland-Museum-of-Art-crosses-the-Cuyahoga-with-new-space-in-Ohio-CIty-for-contemporary-art

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