“Community: A Communion Of Unity” ~ May 17, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For May 17, 2015 ~ “Celebrating Community”

Romans 12 ( http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=298857033 )

“Community: A Communion Of Unity”

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

A video of this sermon can be found online at: https://youtu.be/gPtkc5ka-dY

IntrovertExtrovertHow many of you have ever heard of the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory? It is a pretty standard questionnaire that seeks to determine a person’s basic psychological and social type. The first of the four scales that it references is whether or not someone is more of an introvert or an extrovert, whether they are more comfortable alone or in groups. I have taken the assessment several times and every single time I fall right in the middle, only a notch or two one way or the other. This feels so true to my own experience, for I am both an introvert and an extrovert... and everything in-between! To look at this positively, it means that I am as comfortable in a crowded community, addressing large assemblies, as I am in speaking with someone one-on-one or even in being completely alone with myself. I attribute any success I may have had as a pastor to this ability to balance these two worlds.

Of course, those of you who are astute will have figured out already that the opposite can sometimes be true: there are moments I am painfully uncomfortable in crowds and times when my skin crawls when I am alone. At my most brazenly honest moments, I see myself as a painfully shy introvert trapped in a chronically exposed extrovert’s life. But, thankfully, these have been few and far between, or at least I have been able to adapt to the dilemma in a socially acceptable way. When I have failed to manage this well, I ask your forgiveness.

ChristInCommunityAnd while both skill sets are helpful, and needed, in being a fully functioning pastor, it is the ability to be comfortable in, to nurture and sustain, and to promote community that I think is the more important ability in the 21st century, and an especially-needed trait in the Church. I say this for all those reasons social commentators and church pundits have been exploring and explaining ad naseum these last few decades, but also because I believe the ability to create and celebrate community is at the core of the Judeo-Christian faith and the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Commentators and pundits have pointed out that due to a variety of reasons, modern American/western civilization’s social skills have become less and less actualized and we have become a far more individualized culture. Robert Putnam’s ground-breaking social commentary from 1997, Bowling Alone: The Collapse And Revival Of American Community, highlighted how our human capital has become more and more focused on private good rather than public good, and how our sense of membership has become more focused on online philanthropy and cyber-activism and less on joining civic-minded groups and long-term participation in them. Added to this is the social media phenomenon where groups of friends, colleagues, even family members are focused, sometimes exclusively, on the small screen in front of them, seemingly to the exclusion of the people physically gathered around them, all the while connecting to others near and far via posts and tweets.

S

Small Group of Franklin Circle Christian Church serving together at the Cleveland Christian Home.

Small Group of Franklin Circle Christian Church serving together at the Cleveland Christian Home.

o one of the places where community is still in vogue, is still de riguer, is still common is church. Our faith communities are just that, communities, and while drive-in worship services and sermons posted on YouTube get some press, the idea of showing up to church remains the norm, and when we don’t do it there is still a sense of guilt, even if only passing. So my premise has been these last fourteen years of this congregation’s 173-year history, to focus on building community, nurturing community, sustaining community, and celebrating community. And these last five weeks I have tried to share with you how I have been doing that.

We first considered honoring diversity and focused on Isaiah 56:1-8. We then explored what it meant to liberate laughter, and used 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 as our guide. Next we focused on ensuring justice, and heard Jesus’ speech in the synagogue from Luke 4:14-30 as our own clarion call. Last week we discussed the need to nurture love, with Paul’s case for God’s love in Romans 8:31-39 central to the conversation. These four facets of healthy group life make it possible to truly celebrate community, and I have chosen my favorite scripture from when I began to be a part of the church community as a teenager, Romans 12, as my text today. Let me remind you a little of what I said in these past few weeks.

Watch Night Fun at Franklin Circle Christian Church

Watch Night Fun at Franklin Circle Christian Church

Creation is naturally diverse, and God was richly creative in the way in which humanity has been shaped. But given our human inclinations, we gravitate toward the familiar, the comfortable, and the easy – those just like us. This is not what God wants. Period. God created us diverse for a reason, because we learn and grow best when we are around those who are different from us. When we are reminded, cajoled, and invited to look out for those who are most different from us – even when we are accused of being “politically correct” by doing so – then we are better for it. Franklin Circle Christian Church was diverse when I arrived, but no one can deny that we are far more integrated and empowered as a diverse community today, in not only those who come to our programs and sit in our pews, but those who sit on our church boards and teams and those who envision our future.

HolyHumorSunday

Holy Humor Sunday at Franklin Circle Christian Church

Humor and laughter provide the lubrication and release valve (to create a weirdly mixed metaphor) for community life… but not just any humor and not just any laughter. Jesus made it quite clear that the foolishness in which God engages is never at the expense of someone else and always looks for the joy that can only come in building people up. Holy humor is humor that understands the true absurdity of life – where amoebas and giraffes, long division and black holes, Laverne and Shirley, Ponce de Leon, and Queen Latifa can all exist in the same universe. God-made-real-in-Jesus knew that if the divine being shouldn’t take her/him/itself too seriously, then we ought not to, either. Franklin Circle Christian Church is such an incredibly important and necessary community of faith, on the Near West Side of Cleveland, in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and in the warp and woof of humanity that we simply must laugh at ourselves and enjoy the ride!

GodBeforeGunsMarchAnd then there is justice, which just doesn’t happen, but must be ensured that it will happen. It takes hard work, sweat, and sometimes even tears to make sure that the compassion God had for humanity, the love Jesus had for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, is made real. We will be confident and unapologetic engaging in acts of charity and benevolence that cares for the least amongst us today, as we seek to empower people to be their own change agents and their own best advocates, AND as we seek to address the systemic causes of racism, poverty, ableism, disease, ageism, illiteracy, sexism, homophobia, and heterosexism. Franklin Circle Christian Church has long been on that arc of the moral universe focused on justice, but we must be vigilant lest we be torn apart by those who use false dichotomies and pit justice against compassion or advocacy against evangelism. We know that to do the will of God, follow Jesus, and build the Beloved Community requires doing justice AND loving kindness AND walking humbly with our God.

Ted & Mary Brogan celebrate their wedding anniversary

Ted & Mary Brogan celebrate their wedding anniversary

Fourthly, whatever we do, whether it be honoring diversity, liberating laughter, or ensuring justice… we must do it with love. Love is the very essence of God and is the ultimate charge Jesus has given to us, his followers. And this has been both the easiest task and the hardest challenge in this congregation. When one gathers folks together, particularly those who have been hurt by loved ones, disregarded by society, and ridiculed by the whims of the world, it is hard not to take out those injuries and offences on those closest to you, those who have opened their arms and hearts to you. But we cannot shoot the wounded! So communities like Franklin Circle Christian Church must love one another and the world around us all the more fully, passionately, even sacrificially. We must love those who are most unlovable, at least by the world’s standards, for that is what Jesus did. We must love humbly, knowing both the majesty of our place in creation and the minuteness of our place in the universe. Our love must be wrapped up with abundant forgiveness, of ourselves and one another, and we must ask for forgiveness as if our lives depend upon it… because they do.

Franklin Circle Christian Church Elders

Franklin Circle Christian Church Elders

And a community that is able to do these things, honor diversity, liberate laughter, ensure justice, and nurture love, as Franklin Circle Christian Church does and will continue to do, is a community that must be celebrated! This church is Good News to a world hell-bent on bad news. This church is a sign of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and will, if you let it, bring new life to those who are all but dead to themselves and to the world around them. This church is a city on a hill that cannot be hid, it is salt that brings flavor to a painfully boring existence for many, it is a candle that cannot, should not, will not be hidden. No! Proclaim it from the mountaintops! Run or roll or hobble or dance down the streets and avenues and proclaim God is alive and well and living in this community called Franklin Circle Christian Church to friend and neighbor and stranger alike! Celebrate Community, for you are a damn fine community to be celebrated!

Amen.

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“While Shepherds Watched: The Shepherd Abraham” ~ November 30, 2014 Sermon

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Sermon For November 30, 2014 ~ Advent 1

Genesis 15:1-6 & John 8:31-39

“While Shepherds Watched: The Shepherd Abraham”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

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

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

 

God Shows Abraham Stars, Julius Schnoor.

God Shows Abraham Stars, Julius Schnoor.

In whom do you trust? Today’s Advent word is “hope” and I would make the case that a fundamental quality of hope is trust. We cannot hope if we do not trust. The drama Kathy and Ken offered to us today showed us that to this shepherding matriarch and patriarch of the faith God provided both a hope and then a test of

Sarah and the Angels, Marc Chagall, 1960

Sarah and the Angels, Marc Chagall, 1960

their trust. The hope was that, though old and beyond childbearing years, they would parent a great legacy of peoples – as numerous as the stars. The test was the call for Abraham to sacrifice his and Sarah’s only born child, Isaac, to God. I tell you now, if every hope comes at this price – even if ultimately unredeemed – I’ll have nothing of it. I’d rather not hope if every time I do so I have to offer up that hope to God to be sacrificed.

 

John the Baptist also offered a hope: that the one who would come after him would redeem not only his people, but all people. But that hope required trust, and that trust would be put to

St John the Baptist Carravagio c. 1604 Oil on canvas, 172,5 x 104,5 cm Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

St John the Baptist
Carravagio
c. 1604
Oil on canvas, 172,5 x 104,5 cm
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

the test also. John makes an intricate argument that the very people who count Abraham as their “father” have become a slave to sin and intend to deal death to both God’s messenger, John himself, as well as to the one who would be God’s Message to the world, Jesus. But in this latter instance there is no ram in the bush to prevent this son from an ultimate and gruesome death. Again, I wonder if the hope is worth the cost of putting trust to the test.

 

The parallels with what has been happening within our lives this past week are not lost on me. In whom do we trust? Where do we put our hopes? Do we trust the culture of violence that allows toys to be made to look like guns, one of the most violent and final death devices known to humanity? Do we trust the police who, though they may or may not be well trained, are human nonetheless with prejudices and fears and reactions like the rest of us? I would say that for many of us our trust in hope has been put to the test in a horrific way. Both the culture of violence that pervades our lives and our children’s lives has come up tragically short and our trust in the justice system that time and time again seems stacked against those who are Black, Hispanic, and are immigrants fails too many.

 

Does hope really require sacrifice? My God, how many of our children have to be sacrificed before our hope in peace and justice is realized? Suddenly I feel shoved back into my dilemma in Lent as to why a God, who is called Love and offers grace so abundantly, ends up looking like a bloodthirsty maniac? Well I turn to a colleague of mine, the Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber, who I

Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber

Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber

have introduced you to before. She’s the pastor of The Church Of All Saints And Sinners in Denver, Colorado. She was interviewed on Krista Tippit’s National Public Radio program “On Being” that aired this fall, and she talked about this very dilemma.

 

But so if you look at Jesus, to me the greatest revelation of who God was was actually at the cross. Because to me that’s not God’s little boy, like God is some sort of divine child abuser sending his son — and he only had one, you know — like, come on, give me a break, right? You know, God’s little boy and he only had one, and as this sort of divine child abuser, or as this cigar-chomping loan shark demanding his pound of flesh, you know, he’s sending his little boy to the — what hogwash, right? That actually is God on the cross, that’s God saying, I would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business that you’ve put me in.

 

That from the cross, you know, there’s all this stuff about the final judgment. You know what the final judgment is to me? It’s God dying on the cross and saying: forgive them; they know not what they’re doing. That’s an eternally valid statement to me. That is God’s judgment upon us. And so, to me, if God could bear that kind of suffering and only respond in forgiveness and love, that’s the God who is present in a devastating hurricane, in that room with an abused child. So to me, God has come into the world and is bearing that [suffering], not causing it. (1)

 

So here’s the hope, and here’s the trust, and here’s the test: Yes, God promises us the world, everything, life to be lived beyond our wildest imagination. And, yes, we have to trust that that this ultimate goodness is the essence of creation and the plan of salvation. But the test is that this created order was designed to work on it’s own, that is, we human beings are in charge of the course of human history.

 

So our children will die and the justice system will fail us, and all manner of evil and pain and heartache will befall us. But here is the ultimate hope and the ultimate trust and the ultimate test all rolled into one: God is NOT the cause of that suffering but is bearing that suffering with us. Rather God is willing to die on the cross with us – and on the streets… and on the playgrounds… and at the border crossings… rather than be in the sin-accounting business that we so often put God into.

 

Community-treeYou see, what we fail to realize is that GOD ALSO has hopes and trusts and is put to the test. God hopes in us to be the loving and grace-filled creatures we were created to be! But God did not create us as dolls to be manipulated, so God has to trust us to do the right thing. But we put God to the test when we sin, when we follow our baser motives and appeal to violence, hatred, stereotypes, and despair.

 

BirthOfJesus KoreanSo God did the unthinkable: God entered our very complex and confusing and sin-filled and pain-filled lives and became one of us. God chose to bear our suffering in the hopes that one day we would rise above the pain, respond only with forgiveness and love, and see that just as God bears our suffering, so should we bear one another’s suffering. Somewhere in that common bond we find incarnation: God becoming flesh. Somewhere in this sharing of the pain and the possibility is Emmanuel: God with us. Somewhere in this willingness to give up the sin-accounting business in order to live forgiveness and to be love we will get to know one another’s hopes, learn to trust one another, and withstand each other’s testing and then on that day it will be Christmas… we will know God-with-us.

 

Amen.

 

(1) On Being with Krista Tippet, Interview With Nadia Bolz-Weber — Seeing The Underside And Seeing God: Tattoos, Tradition, And Grace, October 23, 2014. Found online at: http://www.onbeing.org/program/nadia-bolz-weber/transcript/6963#main_content

“A Child-Like Faith” ~ September 28, 2014 Sermon

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Sermon For Sunday, September 28, 2014

Matthew 18:1-5

“A Child-Like Faith”

This is the fourth in a series of sermons:

Following The Fundamentals Of The Faith (Without Being Fundamentalist!)

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

Dedication Of Jolee!

Dedication Of Jolee!

I’ve always been taken by the fact that in the story of God’s relationship with us as told in the Hebrew Scriptures, time after time God gets fed up with us and lets us have our way, even if it’s not the divine will nor particularly good for us. In the book of 1 Samuel 8, as translated in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, the climax of the story sounds like this:

When Samuel heard their demand – “Give us a king to rule us!” – he was crushed. How awful! Samuel prayed to God. God answered Samuel, “Go ahead and do what they’re asking. They are not rejecting you. They’ve rejected me as their King. From the day I brought them out of Egypt until this very day they’ve been behaving like this, leaving me for other gods. And now they’re doing it to you. So let them have their own way. But warn them of what they’re in for. Tell them the way kings operate, just what they’re likely to get from a king.”

I read a lot into the fact that God did not want us to have a sovereign nor monarch to rule over us. It is my belief that the original design of the twelve tribes and the judges who led them was to shape a way of understanding life that could have been, if allowed to work, more communal, consensual, and healthy. There is something inside us that pushes us to want hierarchy, and that urge is neither beneficial nor holy.

Then, as if to make the point imminently comprehensible, God became embodied in Jesus Christ and embodied divine love and sacred grace amongst us. Everything about Jesus, from his humbly birth in a borrowed stable, to his life lived out on the margins of society, to his death as a common criminal radiated solidarity, equality, and collaboration. Today’s scripture, part of a larger conversation Jesus was having with his disciples about leadership, focused on the image of a child as the symbol for greatness. And while the point is still well made in our society and era in history, the message would have been pointedly and painfully clear in an age where children and women were devalued in relationship to men. To become as a child would be to place oneself on the bottom rung of the ladder. God-in-Jesus calmly takes down the ladder and puts it away.

An absolute fundamental of a healthy, vibrant, and devout faith is to understand that mutuality, consensus, and shared leadership reflect the divine will for humanity. Our need for and use of hierarchy reveals more about our lesser and base motives than about God’s will. Systems and language that place one or a few persons over and above others should always be seen as a concession rather than an improvement in the way things should be.

How does this play itself out? Well first and foremost in our language. While I am quite aware that the Bible is submerged in monarchial language and even Jesus refers to God as “king,” you will not, as a rule, hear me use it in reference to God or Jesus in what I write, pray, or preach. In part because we have no real parallels in contemporary culture and thus it is mostly incomprehensible to us, but primarily because it does not reflect the ultimate objective God has for humanity nor our spiritual lives. Likewise, we should avoid language that emphasizes oppressive and top-down imagery in place of communal, cooperative, and consensual communication.

But beyond language, this way of living also becomes manifest in how we shape our human social structures. I am part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) because we have a relentless commitment to non-hierarchical structures and ways of organizing our work in the world. Our three “manifestations of the church,” local – regional – general, all are equal and work with and inform one another; no one “level” is at the top or bottom. We do not have “bishops,” but Regional Ministers. Our clergy – who, by the way, were seen as completely expendable during a portion of our history, even at our church – are consider and Elder among Elders. One of the things the Official Church Board will hear from the New Visioning Team later today is a reminder that all too often folks coming from other religious traditions oftentimes expect me as pastor to act in more authoritarian ways or to have the power to make things happen, when in fact it is the Official Church Board that holds the administrative power in a congregationally-based church. This is why I am committed to this denomination and this church in particular.

And finally, a faithful understanding of what it means to “become like a child” and to “welcome a child” means our way of relating to one another must be consistent with Christ’s model. When we are autocratic and controlling we are less than God intended for us to be. When we communicate more with those around us, when we confer with others often, when we consider the least, the lost, the last, and the loneliest we are following Christ more fully. When we chafe at being put over and above others and relish being on the same level as others, we follow Christ more fully.

And this brings me to my ultimate guiding inspiration for this fundamental of the faith. It comes to us from Philippians 2:2, and enjoins us, “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.”

Amen.

Liturgy for the day, written by Rev. Allen V. Harris:

CALL TO WORSHIP

One:           The sparkle of success shimmers bright in our world, and the temptation to greatness based on power and status relentlessly grows stronger…

Many:        But it is here we are reminded our goal in life is faith like a child’s.

One            We revel in God language that mimics warriors and monarchs, and we find strange comfort in speaking of a savior who vanquishes and destroys our enemies…

Many:        But it is here we are reminded our goal in life is faith like a child’s.

One:           Our culture is saturated with images of people and things that are extraordinary, distinctive, one-of-a-kind, unrivaled…

Many:        But it is here we are reminded our goal in life is faith like a child’s.

INVOCATION, CONFESSION, & LORD’S PRAYER

Topsy-turvy God, you have a habit of turning our lives upside down, upsetting our apple carts, knocking over our fruit baskets. As we climb the ladder of success your point out the lilies of the field. As we rise to the top you sit down with the kids. As we idolize the successful you take your seat beside the sinners. Forgive us. You know well how difficult it is for us to walk in Jesus’ sandals. Be gentle with us as you lovingly remind us what is truly important in this world.

“The Church: A Place To Be Equipped & Empowered” ~ June 16, 2013 Sermon

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Sermon For Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ephesians 4:1-6

“The Church: A Place To Be Equipped & Empowered”

Today’s sermon is part of a series “The State Of The Church/The Fate Of The Church” in conjunction with the work of the New Visioning Team.

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

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

To hear a podcast of this sermon, click HERE: 

To see this sermon’s videocast, click HERE: http://youtu.be/zceDTkQwVB4

“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.” ― Aristotle

Ninety-four years ago today my mother was born Sara Vernon Traffenstedt.  I find it appropriate on father’s day to celebrate my mother, who was both mother and father to me.  So many of the attributes we assign to fathers were very much and very easily my mother’s way of life: strong, confident, commanding, protector, the family’s provider, financial planner, and head of household.  She also was the one who taught me most about life, even if rarely through words and mostly through her actions.

One of the things she taught me most was that through teaching others, one’s perspectives, strengths, and wisdom could be shared exponentially.  Yes, as a nurse both in a hospital and, later, as director of a nursing home, she was always fully present at the bedside of her patients caring for them individually and personally, one by one.  But she knew that she could never care for every patient at St. Mary’s Hospital or Casa Maria Nursing Home through her own efforts.  It would take training, equipping, and empowering others to do what she was so well trained in so that the most number of patients would get the care and attention they needed.

The Apostle Paul knew this instinctively, it seemed.  It is one of the wonders of human history, and Christianity in particular, that this man, who was so antagonistic to the church early on, would not simply convert to being a follower of The Way Of Christ, but who would really, deeply, fully get it, understand what Jesus’ mission and ministry was all about.  Yes, it was about justice and compassion, the healing and the welcoming, righteousness and commitment.  But from the start Jesus was teaching, equipping, and empowering disciples!  Almost as soon as he was doing miracles he was calling together a rag-tag band of misfits to follow him, learn from him, in order to be sent by him.  Jesus always kept in balance the mission statement of Luke 4, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me…” with the Mission Statement of Matthew 28, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”  Paul made it his mission to not only live as a follower of Christ, but “to help others to do the same!” (1)

Thus Paul, transformed Christian, becomes Paul, missionary-extraordinaire; Paul, church-planter; Paul, teacher-mentor; Paul, letter-writer; Paul-CreateYourOwnSeminarySyllabusFrom Scratch author!  Surely few could argue that while the disciples of Jesus who were trained by him while he was alive were certainly powerful in their own right, it was Paul, who though never having met the earthly form of Jesus, profoundly comprehended the need for equipping and empowering others who made Christianity a force to be reckoned with and a world-wide phenomenon.

Paul wrote,” The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”  Did you hear that?  In his description of calling in Ephesians 4, which I believe is not simply “calling” as it pertains to individuals, but “calling” as it applies to the church, the community of Christ, the Beloved Community, is all about discipleship?  Apostles?  Discipleship!  Prophets?  Discipleship!  Evangelists?  Discipleship!  Pastors?  Discipleship!  Teachers?  Discipleship, absolutely!

What this means is that as we look this summer at the state of our C/church (and I write that as both capital “C” and lowercase “c”) and the fate of the C/church, we begin by understanding this thing called faith, which IS so intensely personal, spiritual, transforming of our individual lives, is always, and Paul would write that in italics, bold, and all-caps, ALWAYS meant to be shared, taught, mentored, and spread out to the ends of our streets, our neighborhoods, our cities, states, countries, and across the world.  The moment we are baptized into Christ, we are ordained into Christ’s ministry of discipleship.  The learner becomes the teacher.  The listener becomes the preacher.  The one mentored becomes the one mentoring another.

My sister, Lynda, retired a few years back as a public school teacher, and a darn good one at that.  Being 21 years older than me, she was like a father to me, also.  Only her fatherly gifts were more in terms of creativity, recreation, fun, community, and exploration.  She’s the one who would take my nephews and me to museums, parks, and movies.  I saw all of the old Disney movies at the old Capital Theater on Main Street in downtown Roswell because of my sis.  Quite often at the end of the school year she would have me come with her and help her pack up her classroom, then again before the start of the year we would unpack the supplies and books and put up her bulletin boards.  Little did I know it, she was teaching me, even if her official classroom duties had ended.

The first line of our congregation’s Mission Statement, and the line I want us to learn by heart, captures the essence of what I believe Jesus had in mind as well as Paul and all the great leaders of our faith, “Our mission is to empower disciples to serve and glorify God.”  Should we be nurturing, supporting, resourcing, and caring for each individual’s spiritual growth and faith?  Absolutely?  But always with the understanding that faith must be shared and spiritual growth is as communal as it is individual.  Does this mean we need to have our stuff together, continually deepen our own faith?  Darn tootin’ right it does?  Can this discipleship, this equipping, this empowering be done in a moment?  Categorically not!  It takes a lifetime of learning and teaching, teaching and learning.

David Kinnaman, in his book Unchristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… And Why It Matters,” writes “Most people in America, when they are exposed to the Christian faith, are not being transformed. They take one step into the door, and the journey ends. They are not being allowed, encouraged, or equipped to love or to think like Christ. Yet in many ways a focus on spiritual formation fits what a new generation is really seeking. Transformation is a process, a journey, not a one-time decision.” (2)

It is our job, as church and as followers of Christ, to not just invite each new generation through the door, but to be prepared to disciple them, equip them, empower them – as we were and still are – so that together, we and they will be transformed.

Amen.

(1) From my personal mission statement, which sits beside my bed.  (2) Baker Books, 2007

“Why Wait? Rehearsing The Beloved Community”~ April 28, 2013 Sermon

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Sermon For Sunday, April 28, 2013

Revelation 21:1-6

“Why Wait? Rehearsing The Beloved Community”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ)

www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, pastor & preacher

To watch this sermon videocast, go to: http://youtu.be/zlKyKy-OTQ0

As the New Visioning Team gets deeper and deeper into looking at the current state of our congregation and the community around it, we have been doing a lot of reading as to the nature, purpose, and viability of the church in the 21st century, as well as what it means to be community.  So when today’s scripture was presented to the worship planning group as one of the options of the lectionary, I jumped on it.  Well… that’s not being honest.  I actually threw up my hands in bewilderment and Richard jumped on it.

The Vision of Saint John, Dyson Perrins Apocalypse, Unknown English, 1255. Getty Museum.

The Vision of Saint John, Dyson Perrins Apocalypse, Unknown English, 1255. Getty Museum.

But once he lifted up Revelation 21 I began to see in it a great image of what we are ultimately seeking in our long-range, strategic planning process.  It’s like looking at the last page of a very long novel and reading how it ends.  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… and I saw the holy city… coming down out of heaven from God… And I heard a… voice.. saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. [God] will dwell with them, they will be [God’s} peoples, and [God’s very self] will be with them… See, I am making all things new.’”

WOW!!! What an incredible image of how things turn out!!!  It really presents us with a reassuring and empowering understanding of the goal of human existence.  And there are several facets of this vision that, knowing a bit about the circumstances of it’s writing, help to make it even more amazing for us today.

The first thing to note is that in this final and decisive picture of the end of times we must acknowledge the directional preferences of the divine.  Much has been made since “millennialism” burst onto the theological scene in the late 19th century about the rapture, that is, those who are faithful being “taken up” into heaven.(1)  And there is solid biblical ground for some of this directional preference.  But clearly, unmistakably, and thankfully (in my humble opinion) this description of paradise has it “coming down out of heaven.”  There is a crucial decision at this end-point for God to come down and dwell with us, be present with us.  This one scripture radically transforms my understanding of heaven.

Biblical Scholar Barbara Rossing reminds us that,

“Belief in a heavenly Jerusalem was widespread in biblical times (see Galatians 4:26, “Jerusalem above . . . is our mother”).  What is so striking in Revelation — unlike any other Jewish apocalypse — is that this heavenly city descends from heaven down to earth.” (2)

There is a new direction to God’s gift of presence and grace. (See also 3)

Cleveland Skyline by Allen V. Harris

Cleveland Skyline by Allen V. Harris

The second thing to notice is that the final place for God to dwell with us is in a city.  Now, if you know me at all you know me to have a penchant for all things urban.  I acknowledge – and gladly so – that the city does not have a corner on all things divine.  God is as present in rural locales as much as suburban, exurban, and urban settings.  Period.  End of discussion.  But we also note that biblically there is an ongoing dialogue about rural and urban spirituality.  Some say that here, in Revelation 21, there is a final resolution to the conflict first noted in the tower of Babel in Genesis 11, seen as the earliest city gone bad, with a sense of relief and grace being offered to urban dwellers in the “Holy City” come down in Revelation.

Again, Rossing brings a wondrous historical context to this:

The vision of the city with the gleaming golden streets and pearly gates, where death and tears are no more, has given form and voice to the dreams of God’s people through the ages.  African-American spirituals and gospel songs invoke imagery of the golden holy city and its river of life.  From Augustine’s “City of God” through William Blake’s “Jerusalem” and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” Revelation’s holy city has promised life and healing, reconciliation and justice. (4)

The Augustus of Prima Porta (early 1st century AD)

The Augustus of Prima Porta (early 1st century AD)

The third thing to notice is that there is a new and very different way we mortals will interact with one another here, but not just on an interpersonal level, but systemically.  One of the most critical facets of the book of Revelation that gets lost in the vast majority of commentaries, novels, and movies that are made about this vision is the direct and scathing rebuttal it makes to the Roman Empire, and thus to all the empires of this world.  Revelation is far more about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely (to quote Lord Acton) than it is about a hyper-individualistic sense of sin and immorality that is so often touted.

Rossing notes this exceptionally well:

The repeated phrase “no more” (ouk eti) in Revelation 21:1 and 21:4 underscores all the ways God’s mystical city of beauty is the very opposite of the toxic city of Babylon/Rome (Revelation 17-18).  Mourning, pain and death — all found in Babylon — come to an end in God’s holy city.  John’s declaration that “the sea was no more” in 21:1 does not mean he is anti-ocean.  The Mediterranean Sea was the location of Rome’s unjust trade, including slave trade condemned in the cargo list of Revelation 18:12-13.  In the political economy of God’s New Jerusalem there will be no more sea-trade. (5)

My favorite scholar, Walter Brueggemann, makes the point that the entirety of scripture is a stinging criticism of the injustice all empires end up generating and the complacency to which almost all the citizens of those empires end up submitting.

So if we are willing to allow that Revelation 21 offers a new direction (God coming down to dwell with us), a new location (God redeeming the city from chaos to peace), as well as a new way of interaction (God demanding justice) then what does this really mean for us, for, after all, isn’t this a long, long way off?  Aren’t we talking about the ultimate end of existence and not just our own personal demise?

Well, this is where our New Visioning Team efforts come in.  What if we didn’t have to wait until the end of time to live in the “holy city?”  What if the reason this vision was given to John on the Isle of Patmos wasn’t so that we could spend our lives trashing this earth and treating each other like the enemy, but rather to give us the model upon which we should be basing our lives in the here and now!

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis

Dr. Jacqui Lewis is Senior Minister of Middle Collegiate Church, a multicultural, multiracial congregation in New York City’s East Village where I spent part of my sabbatical time five years ago.  She talks about this in theatrical terms, of us “rehearsing the reign of God.”  She talks about it in terms of the hard work it takes to be a multiracial and multicultural congregation, but I think she would easily transfer that to the demanding effort it takes to be an Open & Affirming, accessible, and economically diverse congregation, also.  She preaches,

“It is work!  But, if the church does not rehearse the Reign of God in our congregations, who will?  If those of us who say we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength do not celebrate God’s creation in all of its diversity, who will?” (6)

This, then, is our job as individual people of faith in a world in need of a new way of doing things, and this is our job as Franklin Circle Christian Church as we envision a renewed future for this historic and faithful church on Cleveland’s Near West Side.  We are to rehearse the reign of God as envisioned in Revelation 21 as if it were here now!  We are to rehearse like God has taken up residence right here, right now!  We are to rehearse like this city is the very city of God where every tear is wiped from our eyes and death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more right here, right now!  We are to rehearse like the powers and principalities and empires of this world have no say and every child is a child of God and treated as such right here, right now!

And I will conclude as Dr. Lewis concludes,

“If not us, who?  If not now, when?  Every time we embrace the other, every time we join together in our differences, we witness to God’s goodness… The Reign of God breaks in as we rehearse it, one relationship at a time, one church at a time, one community at a time.”

May It Be So!  Amen!

(1) For a really helpful article on “The Rapture,” go online to: http://christianity.about.com/od/faqhelpdesk/a/whatisrapture.htm

(2) Commentary, Revelation 21:1-6, Barbara Rossing, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013. Online at:

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1696

(3) Please read also a marvelous reflection on this text, “Heaven is Descent” by Clint Schnekloth, The Hardest Question, 2013. “It condescends by descending to us.”  At http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/easter5cnt/

(4) Rossing

(5) Ibid

(6) On Earth as It is in Heaven: Rehearsing the Reign of God 
by Jacqui Lewis, Program 5116
First air date February 3, 2008.  Found online at

http://www.csec.org/index.php/archives/23-member-archives/148-jacqui-lewis-program-5116

May 2013 ~ “From The Pastor”

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“To Thine Own Self Be True!”

Polonius’s words to his son, Laertes, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet may have come from a bit of a verbose and self-important character, but the truth that lies in them still ring throughout the ages.  A deeper and honest understanding of oneself and one’s abilities, assets, weaknesses, and needs can provide a sound foundation to furthering one’s own future, not to mention a stable base from which one can help others.  The same can be said for organizations as well as for individuals.

MAGNIFY_10196CThe New Vision Team is hard at work in Phase 1 of our visioning process.  This phase is devoted to “what is'” that is, taking a long hard look at what our congregation’s and community’s strengths and weaknesses, assets and liabilities, gifts and needs are.  What may seem to some as a lot of work that isn’t “future-oriented” and therefore pointless to some, is, in fact, the necessary foundation for any planning we may do.  If we aren’t “true to our own selves,'” that is honest about who we are and what we are capable of doing/being/becoming, we may either grossly overreach our capabilities, or vastly underestimate ourselves.

What does this mean in practical terms?  Well let me tell you by looking at each of the tasks of the first phase of our visioning process.  By doing video interviews with longtime members we will be grounding ourselves in the faithful work, witness, and wisdom of our forbearers.  A frequent mistake of “transforming” congregations is to assume that all truth for leading relevant and growing communities of faith comes from those who are new or younger.  Enormous wisdom does come from those who have not been steeped in the traditions and patterns of the past.  But, in fact a lot of leaning can come from those who have done much of this before, and often!

We will be gathering a great deal of data from which we will make projections and determine our future capacity.  Financial and membership statistics will be compiled so that we can be honest about who we really are and what our assets honestly are.   A spiritual gifts and talent inventory (and possible workshop or retreat) will help us know what members of our congregation are capable of and passionate about.  Neighborhood demographics will also help us determine the needs, interests, possibilities, and assets of our neighborhood (as well as other neighborhoods from which we might draw upon for members or programming!)

During this first phase we will also be doing “focus groups” with key stakeholders in the community in order to find out exactly what others think about our church, what they understand is the direction they can best tell the community is going, and how they might imagine our church might be most helpful in being a partner in the growth and restoration of the community.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we will be working with leaders of the congregation to take assessment of the programs of the church as well as those who use our facilities.  If we are going to be a responsive and responsible community of faith, then we need to be honest about what we are doing well and what we aren’t doing so great.

We will need to talk about those core tasks of a church and evaluate whether or not we are doing them as well as God calls us.  We might need to ask ourselves if we are doing some things that are redundant, far outside our mission, gifts, or calling, or that are just not as excellent as they ought to be done (see Philippians 4:8ff).

In all of this exploration and data gathering, we are seeking first and foremost to be true to ourselves – honestly examining, naming, and claiming our assets and liabilities, our gifts and our weaknesses, in order to dream bigger dreams based on a real and truthful foundation.  If we know how deep and wide our roots grow, we will better be able to reach our branches out to the sky.

 

Faithfully Your Pastor,

Allen

“Growing Together: Creating, Nurturing, & Sustaining Relationships” ~ October 14, 2012 Sermon

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Sermon for Sunday, October 14, 2012

Philippians 2:14-30

Growing Together: Creating, Nurturing, & Sustaining Relationships”

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 & Preacher

To download the digital presentation of this sermon, click HERE: 12101440Days5

To hear the podcast of this sermon, click HERE:  121014SermonPodcast

To watch the video of this sermon, click HERE:

*We were meant to be in relationship!  If there is anything that I hope for you to get out of this 40 Days of Community series is that you and I, all of us, were designed, created, meant to be in community.  We were created in God’s image, and God yearned from the dawn of creation, through the incarnation of Jesus, to be in relationship.

*A writer and professor of Process Theology who I respect a great deal, Marjorie Hewitt Shuchocki, in her marvelous book The Whispered Word: A Theology Of Preaching, makes the case that we were created by God to be communal beings, that this must be a core facet of our theology.  She writes:

“It’s as if God has created us not as individuals unto ourselves, but as participants in a world; we are created for one another.  To this end, God works creatively deep within each one of us, but in such a way that our responsiveness to God is precisely to the extent that we act responsibly in the world toward our common good.  It’s as if God creates within the depths of each one of us, and also on the surface through each one of us…”

*And then goes on to quote one of the English reformers of the faith, John Wesley, a forbearer of Methodism, who preached:

“One of the principal rules of religion is to lose no occasion of serving God.  And since [God] is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve God in our neighbor, which [God] receives as if done to [God]self in person, standing visibly before us.”

As our small groups begin to plan and carry out their service projects, and as our entire congregation imagines what we will do as an all-church service project out in and for our community, this quote from Wesley should guide us well.  But Suchocki is building on the point Wesley makes in that there really is no way to truly serve, and therefore love, God than to love and serve our neighbor.  *She goes on to write:

“So the word from God does not necessarily direct us toward God; by God’s own design it directs us toward the world.  This being the case, we can also say that while God’s word is given to each of us individually, there is an inevitable communal dimension to that word.  The word given to us takes into account the multiple words given to our contemporaries; there is an interwovenness in this process…”

And then, as if to tie off the big, comfortable afghan she has knitted, Suchoki turns the discussion around to make the point that not only should we not look at God except through our neighbors, but that God does not look at us except in relation to our neighbors:

“We are never addressed by God as if we were the only creatures in the universe.  We are addressed by God as a living participant in the fullness of God’s creative work… The word is at once individual and communal.”

That “word” that Suchocki is referring to is at once the word God whispers into the hearts of every creature created, but also the word of God make manifest in Jesus Christ, the one whom the Gospel of John sings: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

The Apostle Paul knew this very well.  The very fact that Paul did not write tomes of theological treatises, but wrote letters to churches and referenced individuals over and over again in his letters shows us in no uncertain terms that Paul understood relationships were at the heart of the Gospel, its very essence.  Paul founded churches by building relationships with people.

Not all of Paul’s letters are as nice and kind to their recipients as Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, but this one is practically a love fest… at least towards those in the church.  The entire book, but certainly the scripture I selected for today, is a snapshot of how important relationships were to the Apostle Paul, and, by extension, to the health and well-being of the early church.  The Philippians loved their “founding pastor” and he continued to be appreciated, respected, and even cherished years after his work in the community had been completed.

“And just as the Philippians loved Paul, he felt strong affection for them, as well. He loved them for their commitment to [Christ,] and for the way they had been his partners in gospel ministry.  They were his close friends, people whose fellowship he enjoyed and whose presence he missed. *Listen to the way he spoke to them in Philippians chapter 1 verses 4 through 8:

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now … I have you in my heart … I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:4-8)

In fact, in Philippians chapter 2 verse 12 and chapter 4 verse 1, Paul referred to the Philippians as his “dear friends,” using the *Greek word agapetos. Agapetos is the term Paul commonly used to described his closest coworkers and beloved friends, such as Tychicus, Epaphras, Philemon, Onesimus and Luke.  Paul’s love for the Philippian church appears to have been more particular and specific than his love for many other churches, and it was manifested not only in feelings of belonging and familiarity, but also in a continuing vibrant friendship.  [*It is variously translated beloved, esteemed, dear, favorite, worthy of love.”]

And this should not be surprising. After all, it isn’t hard to imagine that there would be a close bond between Paul and Lydia, his hostess; or between Paul and the jailor, whose life he saved; and perhaps even between Paul and the slave girl whom he rescued from demon possession. In all events, Paul had grown to love the believers in Philippi. And they had the same feelings toward him.” (1)

And not only did he create, nurture, and sustain relationships with communities, he understood that relationships with individuals were necessary also.  And so he mentored some young Christians, he related to some who were hosts for the communities of faith he founded, and he related with those who were funders and supporters of the work he and the churches did.

Paul was a mentor to Timothy…

Timothy: Acts 16:1-4

Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. 2He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. 3Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.

And to Phoebe…

“Phoebe was another faithful woman associated with the Apostle Paul. She was a deaconess from Cenchrae (the port of Corinth) whom Paul sent to the church in Rome with his Epistle to the Romans. In it he writes of her support for the work of the early Church (Rom 16:1).”

Phoebe: Romans 16:1-2

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

He partnered with Barnabas in several of his earliest missions, and then with Silas in some of his later missionary journies…

Barnabas: Acts 13:1-3, 42-43

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ 3Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

42 As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath. 43When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

He relied upon the generosity and wealth of Lydia, a business woman…

Lydia: Acts 16: 11-15 & 40

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

40After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.

And he celebrated his relationship with many who hosted him and the communities of faith he founded, such as Aquila and Priscilla…

Aquila & Priscilla

Acts 18:1-4 & Romans 16:3-5

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers. 4Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks.

3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5Greet also the church in their house.

*And then there are the frequent salutations in his letters asking for his greetings to be passed on, such as this one in Romans 16.  It is literally a cacophony of relationships!

How did Paul develop, nurture, and sustain such vital relationships?  *He recognized first and foremost it began with himself.  All good relationships begin with ME!  *This is certainly what we’ve been looking at in 1 Corinthians 13 as it explores what true love is.  It’s premise, that love must be made real in the way in which we relate, reminds us that *Love is not something done in isolation.  Love’s essence, its definition, is relational.  Love means nothing if it is only directed at self.  Love is always communal.  But this premise that healthy relationships begin with looking inward is also in one of the scriptures we will be looking at in our small groups this week (and made famous in the musical Godspell), Matthew 7:3-5:

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

~ Matthew 7:3-5

*We like to spend a lot of time finger pointing, as if somehow the path to a great relationship begins with telling everybody else how to do it.  In fact, the path to a great relationship begins with me, with us, and doing the hard but necessary work of *Growing Together by Creating, Nurturing, & Sustaining Relationships.  Let us commit ourselves, and I include myself first and foremost, this week to focusing on the logs in our own eyes when it comes to healthy relationships, and not worry so much about the specks in others’ eyes.

So, our work is cut out for us.  Here’s a plan:

Daily Devotions: “We’re Connected To Grow Together”  Today is Day 21 FYI

Our Small Groups Session 5 Topic is: “Growing Together” – Matthew 7:3-5,

And our Memory Verse 1 Thessalonians 5:11 “Encourage one another and build each other up.”

Amen.

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