Sunday, November 14, 2010

Small....But Included

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, "I am he!' and, "The time is near!' Do not go after them. "When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. "But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989

The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson wrote about an experience of a man and his eight year old son. They were driving through the dark night of Arkansas. As they looked up at all the vastness of the sky and millions of stars shining bright, there was silence, so the father asked the boy, "What are you feeling?" His young son responded, "I feel small but included."[1]

Included in God’s grand scheme; that is an awesome thought you would not expect from an third-grade boy. I think perhaps we’ve all felt the smallness of being just one little person amongst billions; so small in the eternal, unending universe…but, included? That is a VERY deep eight year old!

If you will, imagine another scene – Jesus and his disciples have been hanging-out at the Temple, the most venerated place in Hebrew culture, and Israel’s most central hub of identity as the people of God. To a Jew the Temple was everything; it marked the place of God – the place where the presence of Jehovah came to meet with them. It was the place where you could find forgiveness and hope. It was there they felt most “included” in God’s great plan for humankind.

Jesus’ followers were not city dwellers; they gawked at the hubbub of Jerusalem and the Temple like Gomer Pyle in New York City….Sha – zaam! Gol-leee! They asked Jesus, “What about all this? Isn’t the temple incredible? Jesus, did you see those stone walls and the altars; did you notice the architecture?”

But Jesus was not pleased! And with the seriousness of a friend, who was about to risk losing his best friends, Jesus warned the disciples that, soon…every stone holding that Temple together would crumble to the ground.

Catching the Wind
For the disciples, understanding Jesus was like “catching the wind”. If standing near the Temple they were like tourists at Disney World, just think how they must have looked at Jesus after he punctured their bubble; they thought he had lost his mind! Jesus told them they were in for a rough ride. The Temple would be destroyed and they would be persecuted outcasts – misfits in society and even betrayed by some in their own families. Following him would cost them everything; for some it meant they would be executed, martyred for bearing the name of Christ. Had I been Jesus’ campaign manager I think I would have advised him to go easy on the “Black Friday” predictions. His image was beginning to slip!

In our day we can see the rest of the story through the eyes of perspective. We know that Jesus didn’t have the earthly Temple in mind, but rather a New Jerusalem that would be far superior to anything we can imagine.

The disciples had no PhD’s, but neither were they stupid; Jesus was merely re-directing their focus; he told them to get their eyes off the Temple – it was in the process of crumbling. He discussed the end of time, but that wasn’t even his main focus.

Instead, Luke tells us[2], Jesus focused his attention and teaching on a widow who brought her tiny offering to the temple. Remember the widow’s two “mites”? What could be so interesting or noteworthy of one insignificant little woman dropping a nickel in the offering plate? Why did Jesus make such a big deal of it?

That’s the hard question here, isn’t it? Consider the proportions – a widow’s tithe, less than a blip on the radar screen of high finance, but highlighted and underlined in red by the Savior. Consider that against the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple and the national survival of Israel itself? Jesus…where is your sense of history, of priority…what are you thinking? Here’s what he was thinking:

The widow was small…but included; the Temple – was huge…but excluded!

This is the re-direction we often find as a Christ-follower. Jesus was trying to get his disciples to get their mind’s-eye off the padded pews of the Temple and look at the genuinely-sacrificial discipleship of this woman, who probably went unnoticed every day of her life. Forget the magnificent Temple walls; they’re only a frame for this woman’s love of God.

Our Re-Direction

Sometimes, in all the busyness of what we do around here, I get caught-up short with the Temple syndrome…programs, attendance, staff issues, meetings and the like. Then…along comes the tinkling sound of a widow’s mite in the offering plate; it wakes me – no – it startles me! Sometimes it shakes me (as it should) from my gaze at the pews, programs and budgets, and makes me focus on the mission…instead of all the things that are frames for the mission.
The tinkling – or rattling – this time was our Bishop’s call in this year’s Charge Conference for us to do something revitalizing. (I do hope Bishop Goodpaster will forgive my comparison of his leadership to a widow’s nickel! But that is how “small” things wind up including you). Our Administrative Council kicked it around for a whole meeting several weeks ago, exactly how we are going to work on allowing God to revitalize us. We had to meet a second time (and get some outside help) to focus on what to do. After hours of deliberation and weeks of prayer we settled on using a five-week process for helping us re-focus. It’s called, The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.

Importantly, this process meets the criteria for goal-setting – it is do-able for everyone, comprehensive, measurable and sustainable. In short – we can do this! And, if we cooperate, it will have lasting positive effects on us, which can have a transforming effect on our community.

Although we will begin this emphasis just after the first of the year, I want to give you a brief “thumb-nail” sketch[3] of what this renewal focus is all about, so each of us can begin to focus our thinking in these directions. This outline is like an appetizer before a five course meal…a foretaste of great things to come:
1. Radical Hospitality
Congregations that practice Radical Hospitality demonstrate an active desire to invite, welcome, receive, and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ. Radical describes that which is drastically different from ordinary practices, outside the normal, that which exceeds expectations and goes the second mile. We can do this!

2. Passionate Worship
The word passionate expresses an intense desire, an ardent spirit, strong feelings, and the sense of heightened importance. Congregations who practice Passionate Worship offer their utmost and highest; they expect worship to be the most important hour of the week. We can do this!

3. Intentional Faith Development
Intentional Faith Development refers to all the ministries that help us grow in faith outside of weekly worship, such as bible studies, Sunday School classes, support groups, and prayer teams. Congregations who practice Intentional Faith Development offer opportunities for people to learn in community for people at all stages of faith. They offer ministries that help people grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God. Intentional refers to deliberate effort, purposeful action, and high priority. We can do this!

4. Risk-Taking Mission & Service
Mission and Service refers to the projects, efforts, and work people do to make a positive difference in the lives of others for the purposes of Christ, whether or not they will ever become part of the community of faith. Risk-taking pushes us out of our comfort zone, stretching us beyond service to people we already know, exposing us to people, situations, and needs that we would never ordinarily encounter apart from our deliberate intention to serve Christ. We can do this!

5. Extravagant Generosity
Generosity describes the Christian’s unselfish willingness to give in order to make a positive difference for the purposes of Christ. Congregations that practice Extravagant Generosity provide ministries that address our spiritual need to give in ways that exceed all expectations and extend to unexpected measures. Fruitful congregations thrive because of extraordinary sharing, willing sacrifice, and joyous giving out of love for God and neighbor. We can do this!
For the disciples there was one up-side to the whole bleak picture – Jesus told them it would be OK…even though they would go through a rough patch, and life would get dicey and hard, he would be with them, and it would come out better than they could imagine. And then he gave them the punch-line: there was a purpose to it all! All the bad stuff, obstacles, opposition, sacrifices and frustrations were going to have a payoff; notice verse 13…This will give you an opportunity to testify.
I know they didn’t say it out loud, but can’t you just imagine what Peter, John and Bartholomew were thinking: “Sure, easy for you to say, Jesus; we’re gonna get creamed, busted and maybe killed, and you’re saying we’re gonna have an opportunity to get the executioner saved before he brings the axe down on our necks; we feel so much better now.”
And that’s what it’s like when you’ve got your eye on the Temple instead of the kingdom; you forget that the kingdom is all about the small klink of widow’s mites faithfully hitting the offering plate week after week. It isn’t the spectacular – it’s the small that Jesus includes; it’s what our Bishop called “God-Sightings” – traces of the hand of God in individual lives, transformed to become faithful disciples, when congregations, made up of people acting in radical hospitality because of passionate worship and intentional development of their faith, take risks to do mission and service with extravagant generosity! That is what a FRUITFUL congregation looks like!
I want to finish with an encouragement to you all about what our Administrative Council has mapped-out for us in choosing the Five Practices.
This past Monday I was in a meeting with other pastors and our District Superintendent. One of the pastors was Sonny Reavis, pastor of Ward Street UMC. Our church took part in a “God-sighting” there earlier this year as men from our church helped in the renovation of their mission house. Sonny shared with the gathered pastors how when he and his bride were first married they lived in an apartment. They wanted a pet, but knew an apartment pet would have to be different than for a house or farm. They went to several different pet stores to ask about apartment pets. They got a consistent recommendation….so they got a skunk! It was de-scented, of course, but not everyone knew it.
Skunks are nocturnal, so this one slept in the bathroom all day and came out after dark to haunt the apartment. One evening, just before dark, an uninvited door-to-door salesman knocked at the door. He was pushy! Sonny and spouse are nice people so they let the man in. After an hour or so of presenting what he wanted to sell, he asked to use the bathroom. Sonny didn’t tell their visitor about the bathroom also being a nest. It only took a few seconds after the salesman went in – he came OUT, picked up his stuff and left without a word!
A God-sighting is the evidence that God is on the scene, working to save, heal, educate, love, and to challenge his children to do the same. The difficulties we face in doing ministry and what we might fear in this world are the same things people have always feared, and they are exactly what Jesus said would give us the opportunity to testify of His great love and grace and mercy.
We have a big job ahead, and, frankly, the world with all its troubles, poverty, sickness, racism, sexism and perversion smells a little like it’s full of skunks hiding everywhere….but it’s just our invitation and opportunity to testify!
We are small…but included in God’s great plan. We are especially included in Franklinville. A child who hasn’t eaten in six days isn’t particularly concerned with where that next meal is coming from; she is worried that it won’t come! She isn’t concerned about replacing her wardrobe for this fall; she’s thinking about keeping warm tonight. She probably wouldn’t care what kind of music we played here today, inside these walls; but she just might consider coming inside these walls if it meant a warm, safe place to sleep. She feels so small….she wonders if even she is included in God’s plan. Is there someone here who will tell her…you are!
These walls are not the church; they are but the frame for the church. You are the church. Each of us is small…but included. All of what we did forty years ago to minister to this community and world are reminders of what we must do now; they are frames for how we will respond to the need of this community.
We talk of God-sightings….may it be that God HAS sightings of us, radically-hosting our community, passionately worshipping Him, intentionally seeking out ways of developing our faith, undertaking mission and service no matter the risks, with the most extravagant generosity.
Like the woman who rushed to the feet of Jesus…may our pathway be strewn with broken alabaster boxes, anointing the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ, by serving and loving as He came to love us…the small…but included!

In the name of the Father
Because of the Son
Cooperating with the Spirit

[1] The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson,, Promise and Paradise
[2] Note verses 1-4
[3] This outline list is from Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Bishop Robert Schnase, Abingdon Press, 2007

No comments:

Post a Comment