Sermon for Sunday, September 16, 2012

Philippians 2:1-8

“The Rich Returns Of Investing In Others”

Kick-Off Sermon for our 40 Days Of Community

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To download and view the digital presentation (in PowerPoint format – change the slide at each *) click HERE:  120916Presentation40Days

To see the video of this sermon, click HERE:

There is no podcast of this sermon.  We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

One of my favorite newer musicals, *Avenue Q, is sometimes a bit coarse and lewd, but it has such a wealth of deeper meanings that I am able to overlook most of the bawdy humor to see the universal human truths within.  And one of these truths is the need for individuals to “find themselves” and, more pointedly, find their purpose in life!  Princeton, the lead character in Avenue Q, is fresh from college and has moved into his first apartment.  He involves his neighbors on the street and in his apartment building in his epic quest to find his purpose in life.  (x)

What I take great delight in is that he spends almost all of his time trying to find his individual purpose in life… in the midst of community.  Nothing he does is done completely apart from the people around him, and everything he does affects someone else – in spite of the fact that he doesn’t recognize that fact.  Even at the end of the show Princeton still doesn’t have a clue how his search for his own reason for existence is wrapped up around the lives of Kate Monster, Rod & Nicky, Brian, Lucy, Trekkie Monster, and even Gary Coleman!  Luckily, they don’t seem to mind, nor does the audience, and we all love Princeton and his quest all the same.

From the classic expedition of Homer in The Odyssey to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, to the lives of everyday people like you and like me, we are all on a search to find ourselves, as if somehow we could be lost, and to find our purpose in life, as if somehow living life wasn’t enough of a purpose.  And one of the great divides in our thinking, and I daresay it is a divide, is whether or not we build our lives as solitary and heroic pioneers, driven by such a deep sense of personhood and self that we ferociously struggle to create our world alone, or as deeply enmeshed beings embedded in a fabric of persons, places, and things long gone, present still, and even yet to be.

Just this past month *David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, reflected on the differences between the National Conventions of the two political parties at the helm of American politics. (x)  He wrote that the one voice in the first convention that seemed to bridge the great gulf between what he called the “hyperindividualistic mentality” and “this ferocious commercial energy” and the alternative view that relies more on government support and “creaky, middle aged” American institutions, was *Condoleeza Rice, former Secretary of State.  Brooks celebrated her speech  because, in his words, “The powerful words in her speech were not ‘I’ and ‘me’ – the heroic individual.  They were ‘we’ and ‘us’ – citizens who emerge out of and exist as participants in a great national project.”

Brooks went on to say that he took delight in Rice’s speech because, “She subtley emphasized how our individual destinies are dependent upon the social fabric and upon public institutions like schools, just laws and our mission in the world.  She put less emphasis on commerce and more on citizenship.”  What the former Secretary of State was supporting, and what the writer Brooks was celebrating, was *community.

Community is not only a concept that is imbued in our nation’s story, but it is integral to our faith tradition’s story.  From the first moments of creation, God sought community.

*And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’

And if that wasn’t enough,

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.

And they did.  The second telling of the creation story has ‘adam, the earth creature, in need of company.  God declared “It is not good for ’adam to be alone, and thus God created from one, two: *ishshah and iysh.  But the craving for community did not end there.  From the *twelve sons of Jacob his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and by their female slaves Bilhah and Zilpah twelve tribes of the Hebrews were formed.  The enslaved Israelites in the land of Egypt wandered in the desert dependent upon their tribal identities and support systems.  Judges and kings were called to service to lead the peoples.  Jesus, unlike John the Baptist, was not content as a lone voice in the wilderness and gathered a band of rag-tag disciples around him to guide the faith into a blossoming universal and eternal church.

And the apostles who followed, such as Peter, Paul, Timothy, Lydia, Dorca, Phoebe, and Barnabas called us to live in community and live out community in order for the Good News of God, the Gospel of Christ, might spread “to the ends of the earth,” so that more and more people might give thanksgiving to the glory of God!

But this *community isn’t just any old gathering of people.  The community about which all creation is gathered, around which the entirety of scripture is shaped, upon which Jesus’ ministry was built and the apostle’s message was formed is community that is intentional, sacrificial, and complete.  This is what the writer of Philippians 2 is trying to get through to us.

Philippians 2:1-8

*If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

*who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

This kind of community is *intentional because it takes our full intention to make it happen.  I believe that we human beings do have the instinctive need to be in community, but I believe there are so many factors from society and the world around us that we cannot hear our own communal hearts beating.  So creating, finding, and sustaining community takes all those things that we tend to resist: time, effort, patience, and the willingness to go at it again and again.

The apostle gives us imperatives, which is to say, commands on how to be intentional about community:  “be of the same mind…”  “be in full accord…”  “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit…”  “regard others as better than yourselves…”  “let the same mind be in you.”

Similarly, this kind of community is *sacrificial.  Community requires something from us.  In order to get, we must give.  That great cycle of life.  If there’s no such thing as a free meal, there is definitely no such thing as free community.  The very first gathering that we can call “church” in the New Testament is in the book of Acts, and there they gave everything they had, so that none would be in need.  But it’s not just material things and good will that we have to give up.  We have to give up our very lives to be in community the way in which Christ was in community and Christ calls us to be in community.

Christ “emptied himself.”  Christ “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”  And we are expected to do no less.

Finally, this kind of community is *complete.  It isn’t simply sustained until we get out of the walls of the church, or, if you listen to Pastor Allen at all, beyond the confines of the church parking lot.  This kind of community has to be something you are and you do and you believe passionately in 24/7.  The apostle invites us simply to “make my joy complete.”

And this is why we are engaging in this program called 40 Days Of Community.  I believe that for the very first time since I arrived at this congregation 11 ½ year ago that there is a general understanding of community in our church.  Not that there weren’t times in this church’s 170 year history that there was a comprehensive and deep understanding of community – the evidence is that it most certainly did.  Not that it didn’t exist at times in partial ways and in certain people and in broader glimpses since I’ve been here – for it most certainly did.  But for the first time my heart has a sense that most all of us “get it” in a way we haven’t before.  Perhaps there are simply fewer “Princetons” among us who can’t see the loving, caring, community that is beyond our highly individualized noses.

So if we “get it,” in some way, shape, or form, why do we need to talk about it more?  I am highly aware of the temptation referenced in Bruno Bettelheim’s words when he wrote:

“Community is viable if it is the outgrowth of a deep involvement in a purpose which is other than, or above, that of being a community.”

Which is to say you cannot make community, it has to be formed authentically and organically or it won’t happen at all!

So the seven weeks I am inviting you all to be a part of is really a celebration of what is already happening in you and me, as individuals, in this congregation, and in the community around us known as Ohio City, the Near West Side, and even the community known as Cleveland.  What I hope we will get from this is a recognition of all the places that community is happening, and, more to the point, the “connecting of the dots” of community.  40 Days of Community will, I believe, if you invest in it as much as I am asking you too, will do three things:

*1.    It will awaken those instincts of community with which you already have been gifted by the Holy Spirit and inspire you to nurture those communal instincts all the more.

*2.    It will help this congregation be more intentional about creating, nurturing, and sustaining community within this congregation, especially through small group spiritual growth and fellowship.

*3.    It will allow the amazing things that are happening in the hearts and minds of those present at Franklin Circle Christian Church to connect to and, if necessary, help shape and inspire the burgeoning community happening in our neighborhood and our city.

So here is what I am asking you to commit to.

*First, as you remember, there are the weekly sermons that I am going to preach. And how we fulfill each of God’s purposes for our lives better together. We are actually more effective together than we are as individuals.  But I don’t just want you to hear my sermons, although I’m glad they will be on YouTube.  I want you to hear them as often as you can in community.  There is a different way of hearing things when you are together with others listening.

*Second, there are six small group videos that you are watching or going to watch. You can use them in small group or, we hope, to have them posted on the web.  I have six small groups ready for you to write your name on the sheet to join as you leave the sanctuary today.  They are posted on our website and will be e-mailed to the entire congregation this week.  You can call, e-mail, text, Facebook message, or Twitter your choice for a small group.  No group will be too big for we are designed to grow.  Small groups will begin to meet next week, with the first group meeting on Sunday, September 23.  I am only asking you for six weeks of your life to help transform you, our church, and our world.  Can you give me that?

*Third, there is the devotional guide called, What on Earth are We Here For?

which is a small guide which contains 40 daily devotional readings based on the 40 “one anothers” of scripture. And it contains 40 days of guided journaling and all of the study guide material that you’re going to need for your weekly small group. So this is important. Make sure you bring this devotional booklet with you to each of your small group meetings.  You can pick up your book as you leave the sanctuary today.  Caroline Rubin will give you one.  We have these through the generosity of a sister congregation, Richard Hinkelman’s previous church in Pittsburgh, PA.

Another key component is going to be a local outreach project that I want to ask your small group to do, because love is something you do. You don’t just talk about it and discuss it and feel it, you do it.  Each small group will be doing their own service project and at the Celebration on Sunday, November 4 each group will report back on their project.  At that dinner we will also announce and initiate one big communal service project in which our church will go out into the community and show Cleveland, Ohio and Northeast Ohio exactly how much Franklin Circle Christian Church loves this community, and always has.

And that would be a great word to end on.  Love.  Love is why Christ called us into community and why Christ lived community intentionally, sacrificially, and completely.  Love is why this congregation exists, and why we come each week or each month, and why we attend Youth Group or Adult Sunday School, it is why we serve in Third Sunday Meal Programs and bring food to memorial service receptions and Advent or Lenten organ concerts.  Love is why we sing in the choir and sing in the pews.  Love is why we gather in community.  Let us be sure to let that love shine, like a light in the darkness, like a city on a hill, like a savior on a cross.