“A Reasonable Threat”

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A Word About the Verdict of Michael Brelo and the Deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams

by the Rev. Allen V. Harris

May 24, 2015

[Note: the sections in brackets were not able to be read in worship due to time constraints.]


I cannot in good conscience preach today without also saying a word about the events that took place yesterday here in Cleveland in the announcement of the verdict of Michael Brelo in regards to the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in November of 2012. It is poignant that I came to you 14 years ago still with the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man shot 39 times by the police in New York City, on my heart. I leave you with Tamir Rice, Timothy Russell, and Malissa Williams on my heart, a black man, woman, and child shot collectively with 141 shots, here in my beloved Cleveland.


On the street yesterday I chatted with a lawyer friend of mine who said it was fairly well known in the legal community that there could have been no other verdict given, certainly one that would have withstood legal appeals, than the verdict given announcing Officer Brelo as not guilty on all counts. The ability to prove out of 139 gunshots to the car that the ones fired from Officer Brelo’s gun were the very ones that killed the victims would have been impossible. This observation came from an African American lawyer.


As a caring person who wishes to be engaged in the world around me, I have reflected deeply on what has happened, as I suspect have most of you. I am not a lawyer and I was not present for any of the testimony given thus I cannot and should not attempt to make a legal judgment on something I am not qualified to do so. What I have done is to take a step back and look at some of the larger, more societal issues that I believe led us to deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, and, I would add, Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo, and many others. Likewise I have on my heart and mind the many police officers who died in the line of duty, including Brian Moore, Rafael Ramos, and Wenjian Liu. I do think I have some wisdom to share from this perspective, particularly as a pastor of a diverse urban congregation.


As I listened to the entire hour of Judge O’Donnell’s verdict, several things went through my mind that I think we, as a country and as a culture, should consider seriously and certainly we, as people of faith, need to address more seriously. One of the things we need to consider is the conversation about what is a “reasonable threat” in moments that are tense and moments that are even dangerous. Clearly, this was a significant line of reasoning in the judge’s decision, insisting that there was a “reasonable threat” to Officer Brelo’s life, and to the life of the other police officers’ lives, which he believed therefore warranted their actions.


And this concern, that is what is a “reasonable threat,” runs through almost every story we have heard recentlly regarding the shooting of unarmed suspects and the accusations of police brutality that have occurred recently, and really for many years, even decades. “Reasonableness” is a hard point to argue because we understand instinctively that police officers are put, by the very nature of their job to fight crime and catch criminals, in the most tense and dangerous of spots. It is almost impossible to ask people to consider what constitutes a “reasonable threat” when we know we would never want to second guess what is dangerous or what might kill us were we in that position.


So my concern isn’t each individual officer’s decision-making, but, rather, how our society came to the place where the level of a “reasonable threat” seems both so incredibly elevated AND which seems so very different when we are approached by some people compared to other people. Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke a great truth when he said, in reference to war, the only thing we had to fear is fear itself. Fears, left unchecked, can rule our lives and reshape our society.


We must come to grips once and for all with what it is that engages our fear, fear to the point of killing someone. Here is one thing that has become absolutely clear to me: we have an inordinate fear of blackness. I can only speak of this country and the western culture in which I leave and breath, but it is obvious that somehow a mindset has been shaped within us that those whose skin colors are darker than our own are to be feared more than those who the same tone as ours or that are lighter than our own, and, consequently, we are primed to distrust more those who are blacker than we. And let us be clear, this disproportionate fear of people blacker than ourselves crosses racial lines, as the “brown bag” test of our African American sisters and brothers revealed in the earlier part of the last century.


This fear of darkness is not a new phenomenon, and perhaps even goes back to the dawn of humanity with things in the daylight being easier to see and things in the darkness being harder to see. But we have carried what may have been a generally useful fear for survival and magnified it, transferred it, and undergirded it in multiple and horrendous ways that have brought us to the place where we cannot but help ourselves in perceiving blackness as that which is to be feared more than lightness. A dark night is very different a black woman.


We live in a culture that reinforces this daily. Ever single time we dress our kids up at Halloween in “scary outfits” that are more black than white we reinforce this horrible idea. Every time we talk about frightful things, like zombies and vampires, coming from “the dark side,” we instill and strengthen this terrible image. When we use black to illustrate negative concepts – even “evil” – and white to portray positive concepts – even “sacred,” – we not-so-subtly emphasize this unhealthy way of thinking. Conversely, when we dress our children up to be christened in all white or our brides to be married in white, or go to Easter Sunday in white outfits or put our clergy in white albs we reinforce that white is the purer color and thus better, holier, more trusted color.


But let me press this even further: we don’t just fear blackness, we fear black rage. And, more pointedly, black men represent to us white Americans the epitome of black rage. And while Judge O’Donnell couldn’t mention “American’s Original Sin,” slavery and the racism born of it, I will. I believe every single one of us, whether we admit to it or not, understands on some conscious or unconscious level that because most of the people in our midst whose skin is brown have ancestors who were enslaved in this country they have a certain inalienable right to be angry about that horrendous fact. Our African American citizens, many sitting within these pews, have ancestors, who can be traced back only a generation or two on their family trees, who were transported to this country against their will, in unspeakable conditions, treated as chattel and property to be branded and sold, and who may or may not have been the lucky ones to survive. We therefore know our African American sisters and brothers have every right to have a burning coal of rage red hot within them. This possibility and probability of this rage is inescapable.


And then to add to it the unconscionable history of Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynching, “urban renewal,” unequal criminal sentencing laws, and mass incarceration, we walk the streets wondering why on earth there isn’t complete (perhaps even rightful) chaos all of the time!!! The last series of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement agents has simply become the straw that broke the camel’s back.   And we question why this rage has turned into protests, violent and non-violent? It should be of no surprise to any of us.


So of course when a police chase ensues a car for 12 miles and suspects are ramming police cruisers, then the “reasonable threat” becomes, I believe, even more intense, more volatile, when the suspects are black than if they were white, and at least one of them was a man. And one has to wonder whether or not the erratic behavior of the suspects themselves was also a result of their own understanding that their blackness represented a heightened sense of “reasonable threat” in this society that would most likely cause them more harm and more repercussions if they were caught. Who knows, and again I cannot second guess this particular case, but I do know that there is a systemic cultural fear of blackness and black rage that makes wise and thoughtful instantaneous decisions about what is a “reasonable threat” almost impossible.


[And on top of this concern about racism, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that we also live in a heightened militarized culture. I am the first to tell you how proud I am of my father, a career army man, for risking his life in World War 2 and in the Korean Conflict in order to make this nation more secure and stronger. But we have allowed our respect for the military to get so out of hand that everything from the budget of the United States government to the way our police react on our city streets is completely out of proportion and focused more on exacerbating our fears than calming them, and then demand us as a society to pay mightily to respond to those heightened fears. Living in a post-9-11 world has only intensified exponentially!


Because, you see, as proud of my father, the Army Lt. Colonel, as I am, I am also equally proud of my mother, the nurse. I think my mother did as much to make our world safe and the nation secure as did my father, when she gave her all in the Operating Room, the Emergency Room, or the nursing home. As proud of my father as I am, I am equally as proud of my sister, the teacher. I think my sister did as much to make our world safe and our nation secure as did my father, when she gave her all in the classroom, especially on the dangerous and poverty stricken part of town where she served most of her career.


But if we have an understanding that the highest calling, the most noble career, is always the military, and we spend a huge amount of our nation’s and city’s resources for undergirding the military and the police, and many of our police officers come from military backgrounds, then are we not also setting ourselves up to be a war-oriented society? A warrior is taught to kill the enemy, no questions asked. A police-officer is charged to keep the peace, with discernment and negotiation always an option. Can we truly see those as separate in America? I don’t think so, and the anger at the decision yesterday is a sad result of the mixing of those two very different philosophies of life.]


So, as a pastor, I always ask: “what can we do to be the change we wish to see in the world?” Let me offer a few possibilities, and these are just a beginning:

  1. Change your language and retrain your viewpoint away from the dichotomy of white and black, good and evil. Stop dressing your kids in black on Halloween. Dress them up as characters from history or literature. Buy a beautiful yellow dress for your niece for her christening or a fun green outfit for your nephew for his baptism. Imagine brides with colorful dresses and pastor’s with non-traditionally colored albs!
  2. Get to know someone of a different race on a deeper, more personal level and for the long term. And not just one person, several persons, for we are all diverse. Invite a co-worker who has a darker skin color than yours out for coffee or tea this week and talk about the Brelo verdict. Go out for dinner with people from church of a different race and ask them if they have relatives who were slaves and what the family history is about that.

[3. Stop glamorizing war. Don’t ever, ever, ever buy a toy gun for your child. Make sure you and your children have conversations, if not training, in gun safety. Celebrate Teachers Day and Nurses Day and Artists Day and, and… as much as you do Veteran’s Day. Give money to organizations that work to help integrate our veteran’s back into culture and write to congress to make sure money is available for veteran’s health care, especially counseling and therapy.

  1. Honor mediation, conflict reduction and resolution, discernment, dialogue, as well as being at peace with ambiguity and uncertainty. Give money to organizations that do mediation and those that celebrate peace and justice.]


These are just a few thoughts on what happened in Cleveland yesterday, as well as a few positive suggestions for trying to reshape our culture so that what happened to Tamir and Timothy and Malissa never happen again. I welcome your responses after worship, but also this week, via e-mail or a phone call.






“Ham Sandwiches, Hashtags, And Handshakes” ~ May 3, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For May 3, 2015 ~ “Engaging Justice”

Luke 4:14-30 ( http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=297508523 )

“Ham Sandwiches, Hashtags, And Handshakes”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

More and more in my life I have become extremely suspicious of dichotomies.  A dichotomy is a contrast between two things that are or are being portrayed as being One waycompletely different from one another.  Melanie Morrison, United Church of Christ minister, in her wonderful book, The Grace Of Coming Home, uses the phrase “mutually exclusive opposites” to capture this.  Classic dichotomies are: black and white, rich and poor, man and woman, body and soul.  I am not just hesitant to use them, but am downright cynical of them because quite often they are presented as undeniable fact or unquestionable truth when they are in fact thinly veiled attempts to promote a particular political, theological, or social position.  Sadly, quite often folks who make a habit of using such polarities condemn honest intellectual inquiry and ridicule anyone who might have an opinion or state a truth different from their perspective or that doesn’t fit one or the other opposing position or contrasting label.

OnlyOneWayConversations around justice, righteousness, and equality are rife with dichotomies, and they are perpetuated by people on all sides of the issues.  I have committed my life not only to casting doubt on the trustworthiness of mutually exclusive opposites, but to work diligently empowering others to think critically about important issues.  My call is for us all to disregard the many voices trying to convince us that it is this way or that way, that it is all or nothing, up or down, red or blue, right or wrong, my way or the highway.  I believe this not because of some innate rebel spirit – although I do have a bit of that blood in me – but because it is how I see God works, especially God made real in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  My life is committed to helping folks see that ambiguity, mystery, exploration, evolution, and change are all grace-filled possibilities, and that the Divine actually specializes in leading us through such non-hierarchical, non-dichotomous places.

There are two misunderstandings and two particular false dichotomies that are perpetuated about justice issues that I think are extremely harmful to living life fully and which put our faith in danger.  One misunderstanding is seeing benevolence as the same thing as justice AND the corollary false dichotomy is thinking that you can have one without the other.  The second misunderstanding is that justice is purely political and not faithful, and the offshoot false polarity is to see work and advocacy for justice as being antithetical to evangelism and witness for the gospel.  Let me take these one at a time.

GoodDeedFirst, the misperception that benevolence and justice are the same thing.  Benevolence, also known as charity, philanthropy, and compassion, are the acts of kindness and service that help a person in the moment.  We have many such programs here at Franklin Circle Christian Church, from our Benevolence Fund to our Disciples Clothing Closet, weekend Community Youth Program, our Third Sunday Community Meal, and our end of the month Food Bag Ministry.  All of these are powerful and wonderful programs that help real people in real need.  But we must not confuse them with justice.  Justice asks the questions behind the service: why are so many people in need of clothing, a hot meal, groceries, something for kids to do on the weekend?  It’s running up the river to find out why there are so many babies falling into the river, to reference an old and much used story.

Senior Minister Dr. Jacqueline Lewis at a special service for Trayvon Martin at Middle Collegiate Church, New York City

Senior Minister Dr. Jacqueline Lewis at a special service for Trayvon Martin at Middle Collegiate Church, New York City

But the tendency is for people, and many congregations do this, to pit one of these against the other.  Some congregations, like ours, focus on benevolence and meeting the human needs of the moment.  Others focus on advocacy, learning about the larger issues of poverty, violence, sustainability, food-scarcity and waste, racism, sexism, homophobia and heterosexism, especially by talking with, working alongside, and empowering those who are most affected by the injustices and exploitation.  These congregations translate what they learn into letter-writing, lobbying, marching for justice, and even non-violent protest.  Our Anti-Racism Team does some of this important work.  What would it mean for a congregation to be comfortable with both service and advocacy, benevolence and justice?

The shame is that we – for reasons of ego and hubris or just plain limitations on time, energy, and vision – pit benevolence and justice against one another, rather than celebrate both of them.  A classic false dichotomy is perpetuated in the old saw, “give a person a fish and she can eat for a day, teach a person to fish and she can eat for a lifetime!”  I like to say, “Well, if you haven’t fed them for today they’ll never live long enough learn to fish!  You have to do both: give and teach!  Plus, if they don’t have access to a fishing pole or the water isn’t clean enough for the fish to live in it, teaching them to fish is pointless!  So it’s gotta be give, teach, advocate!”

bothandWe need to have a Benevolence Fund to get people in great need through the day, but we also have to be asking tough questions about the predatory tactics of Payday Lending companies, or what are the policies and fee-scales of local banks that might keep our low-income neighbors from ever having the chance to save up money, or why there are so few living-wage jobs in our city.  We need to have a healthy hot meal and bags of “lovingly prepared groceries” so that families don’t go hungry night after night, but we also have to ask what city laws and regulations say about having gardens in our front or backyards or that make it harder for smaller, ethnic grocery stores to easily open near the people they might serve, or why there are so few living-wage jobs in our city.  We need to have a place where our young people can come and be safe, and have a professional basketball coach teach them skills in the sport and in life and to get good food and loving guidance, but we also have to be asking the tough questions about whether or not all of our children are equally getting a quality education, about why we live in a society where our young Black and Hispanic youth feel celebrated when they look to a future in sports but ignored when they look to a future in science, or business, or health care, or about whether all of our youth, no matter what tone of color there skin is, are equally safe on our streets.  And we should ask why there aren’t more living-wage jobs available.

helder_camaraWhich leads me to the second misconception and false dichotomy.  The misconception is the accusation that justice is not faithful, but political.  Bishop Hélder Câmara is famously quoted as saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”  The moment that a preacher like me starts to ask the “why?” question, we get labeled a “radical” or a “trouble maker.”  The moment we start talking about gender issues we are labeled a “feminazi.”  When we describe people as Black, Brown, White, Hispanic, Asian we are told we’re playing the “race card.”  And God forbid we talk about realtime real life economics, for then we are promulgating “class warfare!”  I maintain that if I do so, then I stand in the grand tradition of most of scripture and the essence of who Jesus of Nazareth was!

There are two Hebrew words that are used to describe what it means to “do justice.”  One is mishpat and occurs over 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably.  It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty.  But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means giving people their rights.  Author and pastor Tim Keller notes, “Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.  This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the [Hebrew Scriptures,] several classes of persons continually come up.  Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called ‘the quartet of the vulnerable.’” (1)

But the second word used in the Hebrew Scriptures for justice fills this out even better.  Keller says it well, “The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of right relationships.  When most modern people see the word ‘righteousness’ in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study.  But in the Bible, tzadeqah refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity.  It is not surprising, then, to discover that tzadeqah and mishpat are brought together scores of times in the Bible.  These two words roughly correspond to what some have called ‘primary’ and ‘rectifying justice.’  Rectifying justice is mishpat.  It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment.  Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else.  Therefore, though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social.” (2)  That’s justice!

Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community and magazine, often tells the story that he once took two old Bibles and in the first one he cut out all the verses that dealt with the “sins” on which most churches of our day spend their time, energy, and money: homosexuality, abortion, etc.  He said you could flip through it and never notice the missing passages.  He took the other old Bible and cut out all the texts dealing with the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant… and said it barely held together so many verses were applicable!

Jesus began his ministry making it crystal clear that justice, in all it’s forms, was going to be fundamental to his work of salvation.  Today’s text of Jesus’ proclamation in the synagogue, only days after his wilderness sojourn which began his ministry, is almost exclusively about justice:  good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the acceptable year of God’s favor!  His words should sound familiar, in that Mary’s magnificat, sung upon learning of her pregnancy with him, speaks also of justice for the oppressed and a righting of wronged relationships.

And note, Jesus has little time for exploring what people did to get into the condition in which he found them.  When he found the woman caught in adultery about to be stoned, he spent no time examining her past, but pointed her to the future.  When people discussed who had sinned to cause the man to be born blind, Jesus ignored their finger-pointing, healed him, and sent him off into a new future of possibility!  Oh that we would spend less time blaming victims for their situation and more time righting the wrongs that got them there and empowering them to new life!

revolutionary-jesus2So the second false dichotomy is that we ought not be about the work of justice because it works against the primary call of the gospel to “go and make disciples.”  I cannot tell you how many times the work of justice and the work of evangelism are pitted against each other in mortal combat.  I tell you now this is a lie and no such conflict nor schism exists.  In fact, I believe with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength – and  is illustrated by everything that I’ve done in this congregation for the past 14 years –  the belief that a community of faith that is serious about benevolence and justice is a congregation that will grow and, more importantly, will “empower disciples to serve and glorify God!”  I don’t want to “make disciples of all nations” if those disciples don’t have a heart and a spine and a voice!  I don’t want to grow the church if it means the sanctuary is filled with a bunch of “know-nothings” who have no interest in their faith transforming the way they live in the world nor in taking their faith to the streets and changing the lives of those around them, even if they never darken the door of the church!

It blows my mind that anyone would think this radical and revolutionary Jesus, who called both everyday laborers and tax collectors into his inner circle, who treated women as equals, who acknowledged the faithfulness of eunuchs in the community, who listened to and healed foreigners, who refused to treat children as property, and who saw that God was calling all of creation to faithfulness and not just those who were the “in crowd…” it blows my mind that anyone would think this Jesus I follow would insist we never talk about changing the systems that keep people in subjugation and instead portray the faith as simply a personal, private, spiritual activity.

No!  Jesus wants us to make the ham sandwiches and feed the people!!!  Jesus wants us to Tweet the hashtags and get people out on the street in an uprising against injustices!!!  Jesus wants us to offer the seeker our hand in Christian companionship!!!  And justice means all of the above!  Ham sandwiches, hashtags, and handshakes!  May it be so!  Make it so.  Amen.

(1) Tim Keller, “What Is Biblical Justice,” in Relevant magazine, http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/what-biblical-justice  (2) Ibid———-


“The Gifts Of The City, The Gifts Of God” ~ June 8, 2014 Sermon Slides

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“The Gifts Of The City, The Gifts Of God” ~ June 8, 2014 Sermon Slides

Acts 2:1-21

To watch a video of the sermon that goes with these slides, please go online to:http://youtu.be/9hXTToSwmas



“Content For Ourselves, Restless For Others” ~ September 29, 2013 Sermon

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Sermon For Sunday, September 29, 2013

1 Timothy 6:6-19

“Content For Ourselves, Restless For Others”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)


Twitter: @FranklinCircle – Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To see a video of this sermon, go online to: http://youtu.be/75qKavWV5UQ

I have frequently said – and I am sure to the chagrin of many a congregant – that in this work of diversity the easier challenges are those of which the most observance is made and of which much of our success has already come: diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.  Just last Sunday we took a moment to really dive deeper into one of those areas: race.  “Well if those are easier,” you whisper to each other, “I sure as heck hate to think what are the harder tasks of diversity, inclusiveness, and hospitality!!!”

One of the harder challenges is, in fact, around philosophical diversity, such as theological and political ideology.  We live in such a toxic environment when it comes to civil conversation and genuine dialogue and debate around the rich complexity of theological perspectives and political commitments.  That is why we try to model civil conversation here at Franklin Circle Christian Church through our Widening The Circle Forums and in hosting community meetings by our Councilman and neighborhood development corporation.

Well, today’s scripture reminds us in no uncertain terms of one of the other huge challenges to diversity: class, economics, and money.  In the lectionary – which is the cycle of readings from the Bible that we ministers use for preaching schedules – in the lectionary the other scriptures paired with 1 Timothy are equally stark in their assessment of those who are rich.  Amos 6 decries,

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!  Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Psalm 146 reminds us, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.  When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”  And the Gospel reading for today, from Luke 16, is the famous story of the rich man and Lazarus which tells the haunting tale of the rich man who, having received “good things” throughout his earthly life, was sent to the fiery pit of hell and poor Lazarus, who had endured “all manner of evil things” in his lifetime, was comforted in eternity.  It describes the great chasm of justice that seems to exist between the haves and the have nots, the rich and the poor in both this world and the next.

There is a pretty clear charge throughout scripture to avoid becoming infatuated with what we have, the material resources of our world, or risk losing our way in life, our soul, or even our faith.  As is frequently pointed out, the biblical phrase is not “Money is the root of all evil,” but, rather, “the love of money is the root of all evil.”  As helpful as this distinction is, it is a fine, fine line because having money leads so quickly to a reliance upon it, a comfort that comes from it, and a powerful need to protect what you do have of it.  However, the Bible is pretty consistent in its warnings about wealth.  What is so maniacal about this is that even those who do not have money get caught up in the whirlwind of wanting it.  That is why, I believe, the super wealthy and wastefully rich are rarely called out on their over-the-top behaviors because we have made them the hallmark of what we all should aspire to be!  The lure of the lottery, the appeal of winning a million dollars in a minute on television, or the worshipping of movie, music, and sports mega-millionaires is so appealing to those with the least to lose.

I am reminded by professor Christian Eberhart that is also helpful to remember the association of material wealth and politics within the context of the Roman Empire during the first century CE that, for the most part, riches could only be acquired through continuous cooperation with the Roman government.  “Collusion” in the term scholar Marcus Borg so often uses.  Those who were rich, therefore, usually supported a system that oppressed the vast majority of the population for the benefit of only few at the center of the Empire.  Being a counter-cultural movement, early Christians opposed this system and envisioned a more equal distribution of material resources.  This is, for instance, conveyed in the story of how believers shared their possessions in Acts 4:32-37. (1)

On the other hand, wealthy people were appreciated as “benefactors” in early Christianity.  Luke mentions that many women who accompanied Jesus and his twelve disciples “provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:3).  Likewise, the apostle Paul drew on the financial support of benefactors for his travels and missionary activities.  It is, therefore, inappropriate to affirm completely that early Christians criticized material wealth.  Instead, of crucial importance is the attitude of the person owning it.  Material wealth can get in the way of putting one’s trust in God, and it can be a hindrance to following Jesus (Mark 10:17-22).  Yet many of the church ministries and services depend on financial resources of those who are willing to share them. (2)

I find the answer to our dilemma in the very first sentence of today’s reading: “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.”  “Godliness” translates the Greek word eusebeia and can also mean “religion,” “piety,” or “devotion.” Godliness has already been recommended to Timothy in 4:7-8: “Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (3)

It appears that whatever our level of material or financial wealth might be, the key is where our hearts lie.  To put it another way, in what or whom do we place our trust.  Contentment in whatever circumstance in life has far less to do with the amount of money in our wallets, flat screen TV’s on our walls, or steaks in our refrigerator than it does with being grounded in something larger than ourselves, whether it be community, the church, or God-in-Christ.  That is why we gather here, because we believe that contentment lies is something greater than ourselves as individuals.

But I don’t think that this focus on individual contentment or piety is the complete answer, because I don’t see scripture leaving it on such an individualistic level.  We must be content for ourselves, yes, but always restless for the well being of others.  This is why I have committed my entire ministry to weaving a deeper personal spirituality with a passion for justice for others.  It is not simply a false dichotomy to pit evangelism and spirituality against social justice and work for equality: it is unbiblical.  In fact, this is where diversity becomes almost mystical, magical: When you gather a group of folks together who are content in their own lives with what they have and who they are, and yet fiercely discontent with the way things are in the world for their sisters and brothers.  In the words of 1 Timothy, “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

I would invite us to continue this conversation around class, economics, and money at the Widening The Circle Forum on Monday, October 21 at 7 p.m. in the Chapel where the good folks from Mental Health Services, who lead the successful forum on hospitality and homelessness last spring, will guide us through a conversation entitled, “A Culture Of Class.”


(1)         Commentary, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Christian A. Eberhart, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.  Found online at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1770

(2)         Ibid

(3)         Ibid

“Why Wait? Healing & Abundance At The Center” ~ May 5, 2013 Sermon

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Sermon for Sunday, May 4, 2015

Revelation 21:10; 22-22:5

“Why Wait? Healing & Abundance At The Center”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

To watch a videocast of this sermon, go to: http://youtu.be/2YzJlER0mw8

To listen to a podcast of this sermon, click HERE: TBA


God in Jesus Christ is the totality of my life.

River Of Life & Trees Of Healing by Allen V. Harris

River Of Life & Trees Of Healing by Allen V. Harris

That statement, along with this piece of artwork, is the entirety of my sermon today.

But let me take a moment to illuminate both my statement and the artwork I have created.

Last week we looked at the description of the end of time in God’s mind through the vision of John on the Isle of Patmos near the end of his long and faithful life.  In this revelation we saw the powerful image of the city of God – on earth – where God has come down and “dwelt among mortals.”  I declared then that if this representation of the ultimate end of our existence was so wonderful, why wait for it?  What if we “rehearsed the reign of God” and acted as if God had already come down to earth to walk amongst us?

Today’s scripture is quite obviously an extension of that imagery.  It is a splendid portrayal of the details of this awe-inspiring city.  Verses 11-21 in chapter 21 (not read today) are simply a cornucopia of facets of this city of God meant to bedazzle us.  But in verse 22 we begin to get to the heart of what this definitive understanding of God’s reign might be.  I have chosen to sum it up in one statement of faith and one creative image: God in Jesus Christ is the totality of life… and this (point to art on the communion table).

Let’s talk about my statement of faith first.  In verse 22 John explains that “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”  This single sentence should shake the foundations of the Church both because it threatens as well as reinforces our existence.  In the final scene of life there is no need for temple or church or any other religious structure humanity can come up with!  Everything in existence is so saturated with the divine that to create a separate space for “holy things” would be absurd.  Terms like “sacred” and “secular” mean nothing!  This makes the Church of Jesus Christ on earth to be both irrelevant as well as fruitful at the very same time!  We should always keep in mind that our ultimate goal as church is to work ourselves out of a job; to be so successful that we are not needed anymore.  Rather than spinning our wheels trying to figure out how to “survive” and “maintain” our existence, we should be focused entirely upon how to make our mission so incredibly effective that we aren’t needed anymore!

Two other things to notice about this city that I try to capture in my simple statement of faith.  There is no need for an outside light source because Jesus, who proclaimed boldly “I am the light of the world,” is all the light we need.  Again, rather than spending time, money, and resources seeking professionals to give us the light, we should ultimately be trying to find that light source which shines directly upon us!  And we are told that the “gates will never be shut.”  This is such a direct reference to the history of humanity’s wall-building obsession, not just in Israel or the United State’s southern border but every single place that a fence, wall, or a gate has been built, and that eventually and most certainly all the walls we build will be negated when the City of God is made real among us with gates that will never ever be shut.

IMG_3309Now let me turn to the artwork I have created.  In Revelation Chapter 22 we are presented with a stunning visual: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life…”  This is my attempt to recreate such an image of the core of the City of God.  In it I wanted to present the heart of what Jesus Christ means to me and how I understand that for this church.  It had to be at the center of the church.  For our tradition, and I believe for the church universal, the Communion table is at the center of our life.  I did not use the table carelessly.  I understand the power it has for many, if not most of us.  That is why it had to be where the river of the water of life flowed.  I have it coming from the cross as the cross symbolizes Christ.  But it doesn’t have to be a gold-plated triumphant cross, it can be any cross at all!  In fact, if we understand the selfless love and suffering servanthood that both the communion table and the cross represent, we will want a variety of crosses to be the “throne” from whence the river of the water of life flows.  And I remind you that all of this takes place not high above us in heaven, but in the City of God come down onto earth.  This is not an exalted kingly Jesus sitting on a lofty throne looking down at all of us peons, but, rather, this is a walk about the city streets, get your hands dirty kind of Jesus.

River of Life & Trees of Healing by Allen V. Harris

River of Life & Trees of Healing by Allen V. Harris

So what I wanted to portray was the river of the water of life and the trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations at the center of my life, this church’s life, and – ultimately – creation’s life.  And the center of life that is presented in Revelation 22 is abundant!  It isn’t a drip or a trickle.  The leaves are not spiny nor tiny.  The water is the water of life, crystal clear and flowing abundantly!  The trees are rich with fruit and filled with healing powers.  I am reminded of Jesus words in John 10:10: “I have come that they might have life, and life abundant!”

Which begged the question, “What is at the core of my life right now?”  What is it that gives you abundant life, and is it at the center of your life?  I maintain that if you find your place of abundance, that is where Christ is!  All too often we have allowed the church or religious figures to say “THIS IS CHRIST” and tell you from where your abundant life should flow.  NO!  There is no need for a temple to tell you what your abundance is!  The gates are open so you are invited inside!  YOU, and only you, can determine what gives you abundant life, and you will know deep inside you what that abundant life is, and THAT is where Christ is in your life!

One of the reasons I came into this sanctuary on a beautiful Saturday in May to put this piece of art together is because for me, beauty and creativity give me abundant life!  I necessarily live in a world where words and thoughts are preeminent, especially the religious world, and I understand and have accepted that.  I am fine with writing newsletter articles and preaching sermons.  I get more bogged down when it comes to writing letters, or engaging in arguments and debates, at which I don’t do well at all.  But if you want to find the Christ in me, let me find a way to visually and creatively portray it!  It is there that I thrive!!!!  Whether through drama, photographs, music, sanctuary aesthetics, poetry, color, light, sound, or a million jillion other ways… there I am at home.  There is Christ.

But your center, your abundant place, your Christ is your own.  You know where it is because there are always times in your life when you have tasted it… touched it… seen it… known it.  It was when your heart leapt, your blood pumped, your mind raced, your joy swelled… It was your passion and you knew it!

River Of Life & Trees Of Healing by Allen V. Harris

River Of Life & Trees Of Healing by Allen V. Harris

Today I want you to find that place of abundance in your life and make it the center of your life.  If you already have and you do, then thanks be to God, Hallelujah!  You can help others find their river of the water of life, their trees with healing leaves.

And if you are worried that your passion, your abundant place, will be considered unclean, an abomination, false, or accursed… remember that it is not for humanity to judge that, but God, and God alone. The gates of the City of God are always open.  The water of the river of life is bright as crystal. And the leaves of the tree are for healing.  The shame is that the church has spent far too much of its history trying to close those gates rather spending that valuable time trying to find the center of abundance that gives life and healing!  Our primary task is not to prevent ourselves and others from entering the gates, but to find that abundance, and come.  Come bath in the river of the water of life.  Come eat of the fruit of the trees of healing.  Simply come.  And there… And there… THERE is Christ.


“We’re Called To Serve Together: Sharing In One Another’s Distress” ~ October 21, 2012

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Sermon For Sunday, October 21, 2012

Philippians 4:10-20 

 “We’re Called To Serve Together: Sharing In One Another’s Distress”

Today’s sermon is part of our congregation’s 40 Days Of Community emphasis.

Sermon For Sunday, October 21, 2012

Philippians 4:10-20 

 “We’re Called To Serve Together: Sharing In One Another’s Distress”

Today’s sermon is part of our congregation’s 40 Days Of Community emphasis.

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, pastor and preacher

To hear a podcast of this sermon, click HERE:  121021SermonPodcast

To download the digital presentation of this sermon, click HERE:  12102140Days5

To watch a video of this sermon, click HERE:  http://youtu.be/NOw_UMzhzeo

Today we will look at one of the underlying purposes for the Apostle Paul’s letter, or letters depending upon which scholar you to whom you might give credence, to the church gathered at Philippi.  *Paul, as you have heard me say, is in Prison.  It is unclear as to which imprisonment this is, as the apostle was seen by civil authorities in several cities as a rabble-rouser and unsympathetic to the ruling regime in Rome.  It is generally assumed this was penned from his jail cell in Rome, but in any case, Paul writes to express his deepest appreciation to the young Christian community in Philippi for their care for him while he was in prison.  They had both prayed passionately for his release, but also had worked to raise money to help him with his daily necessities while behind bars.  Their envoy, Epaphroitus, had become ill while delivering the prayers and money, but improved enough to go back home and take Pauls’ letter of gratitude with him.

So Paul writes (*Philippians 4:10-20):

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.


You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.


To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

I just love the Apostle Paul.  That is, when I’m not angry as all get out at him.  But for the most part, I appreciate his honesty and candor, and the way in which his understanding of the Christian faith acknowledges and works in and through the human condition.  *In this particular text, I am impressed at how Paul’s theology shows the need to balance two of the most difficult human traits: the need for self-sufficiency and the need for interdependence.  How do we both “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” while at the same time conceding that “no one is an island unto himself or herself?”  So, on one hand Paul offers what is no less than a poem to self-reliance when he declares

*I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.

And then, practically in the same breath, he recognizes that he simply could not do his ministry alone when he sings of his dependence upon Christ and his interdependence with the Philippians:

*I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

*There is no shame, nor any particular glory, in either self-suffiency nor interdependence.  They are both necessary and good, as are all the wondrous levels in-between.  What Paul makes clear is that in our Christian faith, there is a natural and healthy interaction between growing in the use of our gifts and graces as full functioning humans and people of faith, and an honest recognition that no one of us can do either life nor faith alone.  This is an essential truth of healthy community, and why we are looking at it in the midst of our 40 Days Of Community.

I think to illustrate this I will turn to a 16thcentury saint, St. Teresa of Avila.

*Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) was born in Spain, and entered a Carmelite convent when she was eighteen.  She later earned a reputation as a mystic, reformer, and writer who experienced divine visions. She founded a convent, and wrote the book The Way of Perfection for her nuns. Other important books by her include her Autobiography and The Interior Castle.  Most of us today, however, know her by a prayer or poem she wrote titled “Christ Has No Body.”  *First let me read it to you:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours. (1)

But I don’t think just reading this poem does justice to what the Apostle Paul and I are trying to get across this day.  So let me offer Teresa’s prayer in a visual form:

*(2) [VIDEO]

The dance between self-sufficiency and interdependence is played out in many ways, but in the church it is played out in the service to our sisters and brothers in need, or in the word Paul uses, in “distress.”  We offer gifts of service when we are feeling more self-sufficient and can help those in distress.  We receive gifts of service when we are in distress and understand ourselves to be more interdependent.

*Service comes in many forms.  For those of us here at Franklin Circle Christian Church we have many ways of both offering and receiving gifts of service.  Right now downstairs volunteers are preparing to serve our community and us a warm, nutritious meal as part of our Third Sunday Meal Program.  We will also serve meals on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.  We also have other traditional service opportunities here in our facilities: the Disciples Closet clothing room open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 1-3; a Food Bag Ministry offered on the last Sunday of the month to participants in our congregation in need.  We have a Community Youth Program on Saturdays and Sundays from 2-5 p.m. offered in partnership with the Children & Family Services, Art House, and A Cultural Exchange.

*There are service projects that are innovative and responsive to community needs, such as our summer sprouts program done in partnership with the Ohio State University Extension office.  This is an attempt to bring both gardening skills and healthy food into urban communities that might not otherwise have access to such important sources of nourishment and nutrition, both for the soul and the body.  Our children and youth participate, as well as the women of the Women’s outreach center.  And often the food we grow is served in our own Third Sunday Meal Program.  Throughout the history of this church we have partnered with other agencies and organizations to capitalize on our mutual strengths to serve God’s people more fully.

*But we also offer other less “classic” forms of service but nonetheless important.  There is the service that comes from sharing in planning, administering, and leading the programs and facilities of the church.  There are all the teams, boards, and individual events, activities, groups, and work projects that need both participants and leaders.

*But we don’t stop at the walls of our church or the boundaries of our perspectives.  Service also involves going out into the world and living our faith, such as when we take what we learn from our Bible Studies and Widening The Circle Forums, our fellowship groups, our service within the church and utilize it as wisdom for living life in our civic duties, our places of employment, our neighborhoods, and our recreation.

*Service in all its forms is at the heart of our 40 Days of Community.  This ebb and flow between understanding ourselves as working towards self-sufficiency, while always knowing that we are dependent upon God as known to us in Jesus Christ and interdependent with our neighbors, is at the heart of the Gospel of Christ and our faith.  It is now time in out 40 Days of Community to begin to decide in our small groups what service project you are going to do, and then begin to do them.  As a congregation, we need to get more ideas for our Big Congregational Community Service Project.  Here are some specific things you can do:

1.    Write down your joys and celebrations of community on the special paper provided and put it in the wishing well up front.

2.    We have begun collecting ideas for a big communal service project.  In the chapel you will find post-it notes and sharpie markers to write your ideas down and post them on the newsprint pad.


Today is Day 29 in our Daily Devotions.  This week we will look at the theme: “We’re Called To Serve Together.  Those of you who are in Small Groups we begin session #5 and our topic is: “Serving Together” looking at Ephesians 4:16 as well as continuing to explore 1 Corinthians 13.  The Memory Verse for all of us is Galatians 6:2 “By helping each other with your troubles, you truly obey the law of Christ”

Beloved, we were designed to be in community and our faith compels us to be in service.  Jesus, and the Apostle Paul, remind us that this service is sometimes given to us and sometimes given by us, but always is a gift from God above, within, and around us.


(1) From: http://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Teresa_Of_Avila_Christ_Has_No_Body.shtml

(2) Purchased from The Work Of The People

“The Rich Returns Of Investing In Others” ~ September 16, 2012 Sermon

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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 ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ytPZCsAe6c&feature=share&list=UUwvkAvkp6Ru5pgPu1kUpgqQ

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.


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