Missionaries are Disciple Makers: State of the Church 2016

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Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem, in the province of Judea, at the time when King Herod reigned. Not long after Jesus was born, magi, wise men or seers from the East, made their way from the East to Jerusalem. These wise men made inquiries.

Wise Men: Where is this newborn, who is the King of the Jews? When we were far away in the East we saw His star, and we have followed its glisten and gleam all this way to worship Him.

King Herod began to hear rumors of the wise men’s quest, and he, and all of his followers in Jerusalem, were worried. So Herod called all of the leading Jewish teachers, the chief priests and head scribes, and he asked them where Hebrew tradition claimed the long-awaited Anointed One would be born.

Scribes and Priests: An ancient Hebrew prophet, Micah, said this:

    But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are no poor relation—
For from your people will come a Ruler
who will be the shepherd of My people Israel.[a]

Herod called the wise men to him, demanding to know the exact time the special star had appeared to them. Then Herod sent them to Bethlehem.

Herod: Go to Bethlehem and search high and low for this Savior child; and as soon as you know where He is, report it to me so that I may go and worship Him.

9-10 The wise men left Herod’s chambers and went on their way. The star they had first seen in the East reappeared—a miracle that, of course, overjoyed and enraptured the wise men. The star led them to the house where Jesus lay;

Matthew 2:1-10, The Voice Bible

In the Christian tradition today is the celebration of Epiphany, the celebration of the wise men visit to Jesus. Epiphany means “manifestation” for the wise men that came from the east became the first manifestation in the gospel according to Matthew of the identity of Jesus as the anointed one of God.

Amazing that early in Matthew’s account Jesus is acknowledged as Lord by strangers/gentiles/heathens from the east. These seekers recognized the star, a sign that had been ignored by those who should have known, by the educated people of power, the “wise men” from Jerusalem.

It almost reads as satire when the wise men from the east inform Herod of what they have seen. The ones that should have known scamper at the king’s call to find out more, the wise men of Jerusalem knew of the prophesy but did not seem to care about it, believe in it, nor feel like the king should know; the significance of the prophecy is not lost on Herod, who already has a knack for paranoia about his being in power, most puppet leaders do.

We gather today as a community of faith to remember the story again. We do so because we are thankful, because our encounter with God compels us to praise and thanksgiving. We do so because we do not want to forget, we want to make sure that we are not missing out on the ways that God continues to manifest in our lives, in our community, and in our world. We want to make sure that we are a community constantly looking at the forgotten places where the activity of God might be found, where salvation is needed, where we too can find our redemption.

Last year at this same time I gathered with you and reminded you of your commitment from long ago to be a generation of missionaries. I spoke about three movements that could manifest in our life together during 2015.

I called us to spiritual maturity, courageous conversations, and relational evangelism. In order to make that possible I said that we needed to better align our resources (people, money, and facility) to serve our vision. Alignment required us to become a lay driven congregation (staff led, yes, but lay DRIVEN), become more generous with our financial resources, and become a hub for community life.

As I sat in my office and reflected on 2015 in preparation for this time together I was pleasantly surprised at the many goals accomplished from our Generation of Missionaries blueprint:

  • Renewing of the Discovering Grace discipleship pathway
    • Discovering Community – An orientation on Grace Community’s history, identity, and connections.
    • Discovering Discipleship – An introduction to what it means to be a disciple, focused on our Wesleyan/Methodist roots.
    • Discovering Leadership – An incubator for disciple making servants leaders.
  • Creating spaces for conversation
    • #converse2015
    • Inside Out conversation with parents and children
  • Community Initiatives
    • Strengthening our Common Ground partnership
    • University Elementary Initiative
  • Other ways we have grown:
    • Social media presence
      • Facebook – Likes Increase:
        • May 2014 640 Likes
        • January 2016 1800 Likes
      • Live Stream
        • 2014 – 52 average per weekend
        • 2015 – 65 average per weekend (larger than most United Methodist congregations in our Annual Conference)
  • Buzz in the community – People that I encounter tell me that they have heard great things about our church. That there seems to be great things going on. Many of you are bringing your neighbors and friends.
  • New members & friends – We welcomed 49 new members to our community this year.

We celebrate the many ways that God has used us in the last year.

Called to be a Generation of Missionaries

Last year we recognized that we were being called to be a generation of missionaries. That we must live robustly into what it means to go from seekers to servants, that we must encourage our maturity as followers of Jesus. At the center of that maturity is our call to discipleship, to be followers who model the way of Jesus, and in so doing compel others to do the same.

Compelling others is at the cornerstone of how each of us is able to manifest the presence of God in the world. We as modern day wise ones, recognizing the star and calling upon others to come with us to see the Christ.

Yet I recognize the difficulty in all of this. Often we talk about discipleship in the church without spending the time making sure that we understand what we mean when we say disciple, discipleship, and following Jesus.

I think it starts by the recognition that Jesus calls us to be like him and he models that in his ministry of love, healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and restoration.

We see it in his miracles and we see it in his teaching, Jesus healing, reconciling, restoring, going where no one would go, living alongside everyday people, engaging especially those that were not wanted in the society of his day.

We see it in the beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-12:

Now when He saw the crowds, He went up on a mountain (as Moses had done before Him) and He sat down (as Jewish teachers of His day usually did). His disciples gathered around Him.

And He began to teach them.

Jesus: Blessed are the spiritually poor—the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
    Blessed are those who mourn—they will be comforted.
    Blessed are the meek and gentle—they will inherit the earth.
    Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—they will be filled.
    Blessed are the merciful—they will be shown mercy.
    Blessed are those who are pure in heart—they will see God.
    Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God.
10     Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness—the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

11 And blessed are you, blessed are all of you, when people persecute you or denigrate you or despise you or tell lies about you on My account. 12 But when this happens, rejoice. Be glad. Remember that God’s prophets have been persecuted in the past. And know that in heaven, you have a great reward.

Later the apostle Paul tells us the evidence, the fruit, of our following Jesus:

22 The Holy Spirit produces a different kind of fruit:
unconditional love,
joy,
peace,
patience,
kindheartedness,
goodness,
faithfulness,
23 gentleness,
and self-control. You won’t find any law opposed to fruit like this.

Galatians 5:22-23, The Voice Bible

Do you notice that it begins where Jesus begins, what Jesus called the greatest commandment, LOVE (love = 300+ OT & 200+ NT) with the ancient call of God to God’s people, love of God, neighbor, and self).

God is love so Jesus is love, so we are to love. There are no caveats or disclaimers, the command is simple: love.

It is through this community, the church, that we are called by Jesus to go into the world to “make disciples” to initiate them into the community through baptism and to teach them to be disciple makers themselves.

Love propels us into the world and makes possible healing, restoration, forgiveness, over and over again in visible ways.

So discipleship is doing what Jesus did loving the world and continually growing in that love.

Often we give ourselves excuses for not being loving in the world. Faith as private affair . . . is it enough for us to worship together, to be nice people, to even be disciples. But have you wondered if there is more . . .

Disciple making or Disciple maker making?

Missiologist Rodrick Gilbert from India ask a group of folks in Austin about the fruit of discipleship and reminds us that just like the fruit of mangoes is mango trees, the fruit of disciple makers is other disciple makers.

It is in disciple making that the church lives into its fullness as the body of Christ in the world. This has very important connotations for us today. So as I began to think about our call from last year to be a generation of missionaries, a missionary people, the mission is disciple making in the world. It is in our disciple making that we make a significant difference in people’s life and in the life of our communities.

Disciple making will root our work this year. Many of you have come because someone have invited you, many of you have come because you have heard that something is happening within this community, this is exciting and good and wonderful and I am thankful that the Holy Spirit has led you to this community.

Now that you are here, have you experienced the anointed one, have you seen Jesus? If so how is that encounter changing your life? How is that experience with love pushing you to be a more loving person in the world? Now though the real work begins for us to be disciple makers in this community.

Becoming Disciple makers Requires Us to Assess

One of the things I believe matters when we are having this conversation is to be faithful assessors of where we are, to take stalk of our current situation, to understand our current location and its connection to our past, present, and future.

As your pastor, as a student of your history, as a conversation partner with you, there has been a growing recognition that we have been here before.

In other words, we have been at this cross roads, we have been on the verge of this disciple making reality before. There have been some false starts, some failures to launch, some breakdown in reaching goals and along the way God has been faithful and lives have been transformed.

Just like in our story today, there are always distractions, detours, and a need for recalibration no matter what the journey. The wise men saw the star and yet, when they arrive in Jerusalem it seemed to disappear. They could have easily turned around when they had the struggles. It would have been easier to go back home, to the familiar when the star did not seem to be guiding them . . . they could have told themselves we can just go back and keep on looking at it, it is easier, more comfortable to do that.

It is harder to continue the journey, to ask questions (to ask for directions) so that Jesus’ identity can be manifested in our presence, in our journey.

At times like this it is very important that we ask the difficult question: If we have been here before what has kept us from reaching our goal? What are the stumbling blocks? Where are the potholes?

What has kept us from being a robust disciple maker making community? A community that is fueling such transformation among our neighbors that it’s absence would be impossible to imagine by our region.

There are four things that I think we must recognize as habits of our life together that I believe have kept us from living into our fullness as a kingdom community:

We have not communicated effectively about what it means to be a disciple maker. We might have created some systems, some might have found their way but it does not look like we have a common language for what it means to be a disciple and a disciple maker and that it is discipleship that is at the cornerstone of what it means to be a Christian. Not attending a church, or being a church member, or being a nice person, or having the “right” beliefs, but following and teaching the way of Jesus, the way of love and the avenues of empowerment to do just that.

We have not been consistent in our desire to lead a lay led movement. This is important because in a church like ours it would be easy for us to consume the religious services provided to us by the staff and by the key lay leaders that are the “go to” people. We are used to this exchange of goods our services in our daily life so it makes sense that we have a tendency to approach the church in the same way. At the cornerstone of what it means to be the church is that all of us are part of Christ’s body and each of us has been given gifts by the Holy Spirit for the community’s mission in the world. The role of the leaders both paid and not paid is to empower all of you to be the best kingdom building community that we can be.

As the apostle Paul reminds us:

11 It was the risen One who handed down to us such gifted leaders—some emissaries,[a] some prophets, some evangelists, as well as some pastor-teachers— 12 so that God’s people would be thoroughly equipped to minister and build up the body of the Anointed One. 13 These ministries will continue until we are unified in faith and filled with the knowledge of the Son of God, until we stand mature in His teachings and fully formed in the likeness of the Anointed, our Liberating King.

Ephesians 4:11-13, The Voice Bible

This means that our vision of turning seekers to servant must become our shared vision and that I as your pastor am not the visionary instead I remind you of your shared vision (a vision that comes from the body by the power of the Holy Spirit) in scripture and history, I empower you by shining a light on your gifts, graces, and abilities, I lead the staff into their roles, and I walk side by side with you through the ups and downs of shared life.

We have not made clear the different roles that staff (including pastors) and lay leaders have in the building up of the body. At its best the lay leaders govern, led by our mission of making disciples and by creating structures and policies that constantly discern, assess, and implement our mission in this community. Staff members are here to coach, mentor, train/teach, and guide the lay leaders and other community members into our common and shared vision for the future. Pastors are here to bring these groups together around the common story, to provide strategic leadership, and to build up the staff and the key lay leaders for this shared work.

We have struggled to keep ourselves accountable to one another for our mission and for the difficult work of inculturation required in a growing body of disciples. Accountability begins with your pastors but it does not stop there for it is crucial in our life with God. Do we say what we mean and mean what say? Do we follow through with agreed next steps, do we have clear expectations of the pastor, staff, each other? Are our decisions made base solely on our mission and what builds the body best for that mission? In other words do we practice discernment or do we practice personal preference? When we make mistakes, when we disappoint, when we fail at our responsibilities do we practice confession, do we seek forgiveness? Are we transparent with one another?

Accountability requires our telling the truth to one another in love, clear expectations, and a commitment not to “be nice” but always to be kind and always to keep the health of the body and our common mission at the forefront of our decisions, actions, plans, and next steps.

Do these make sense?

These four patterns in our shared life are meant to awaken, to help us break the patterns that might keep us from experiencing the fullness of what God has for us or the potential that our community has to transform our neighborhoods and our city with the good news of God’s kin-dom.

We cannot change what we do not acknowledge my hope for this year is that we live into the promise and commitment that we have had from the beginning. So 2016 will be a continuation of our call and mission. So we must pause and give thanks for the many saints who have made this community possible, who have paved the way for our being here at this season of our shared life.

Welcome. Love. Serve

As I thought about the next steps and what God might be revealing to us for this new year, there were three words that I believe succinctly described our identity and could help us easily remember our mission. Three words that I believe express our guiding principles, our values, that we discerned long ago, that are contained in the acronym V.O.I.C.E: vision, openness, incarnation, community, and evangelism.

Those are key values, and I believe that these values are contained in three simple words: Welcome (vision, openness), Love (incarnation, community), Serve (evangelism).

These three words express the beauty of what it means for us to make Christ manifest in our community.

Welcome

This is a word that can easily be taken for granted. A word that might be considered over used. But I think it is a powerful word.

From the beginning we have been a community who envisioned itself as wide open, welcoming of all people. Bringing people together from across the city and beyond, bringing people together that have had a difficult relationship with the church, that have been shunned, disappointed at the church, that have struggled with God and have felt disappointment at God.

This kind of openness and welcome can be controversial in today’s church for it begs the question: How open are we going to be?

We are a people who take seriously Jesus’ call to welcome all people: the stranger, the sick, the struggling, the forgotten, the ignored, the hated, the minority, the untouchable, the foreigner, the thief, the hungry, the curious, the doubter . . . welcoming those who as Jesus himself said: “need a physician,” who acknowledge their brokenness and who do not fit the characteristics of the “holy ones,” the “powerful,” the “religious,” the “pure,” the “faithful.”

We are committed to this open, affirming, and inclusive ministry. These are truly NOT code words, there is no bait and switch here, this is not a partisan position nor meant to make a statement, we mean all people, as Gordon Brown, says in his litany “Welcome:”

No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here:
If you are young or old, you are welcome
If you have brown skin, black skin, white skin, or any color of skin, you are welcome
If you are married or single, you are welcome
If you are gay or straight, you are welcome
If you are transgender, you are welcome
If you are a man or a woman, you are welcome
If you cannot hear or see, you are welcome
If you are sick or well, you are welcome
If you are happy or sad, you are welcome
If you are Republican, Democrat, or Independent, you are welcome
If you are rich or poor, powerful or weak, you are welcome
If you believe in God some of the time or none of the time or all of the time, you are welcome

You are welcome here
Come with your gifts, your pain, your hope, your fears
Come with the traditions that have helped you and hurt you
Come with your experiences that have made you and broken you
Come with a mind, ready to engage, and a heart, open to discern
Come and listen for the Sacred Spirit that calls you to love your neighbor wholeheartedly, seek justice, create peace and practice compassion

You are welcome here!

adapted from “Welcome” by Gordon Brown, Shaping Sanctuary: Proclaiming God’s Grace in an Inclusive Church, Kelly Turney ed., 2000.

We continue to live in this reality and we continue to live into it without any apologies. I am thankful to be raising my children in such an open and affirming community; a community that follows Jesus’ example of loving all of creation. I am proud to serve a community that from the very beginning has been committed to this way of life and who has seen its future through the lenses of this openness and welcome in this city and beyond.

This means that it can get messy and complicated, it means that there will be seasons when we do not get each other, it means that at times we will have disagreements, but I would argue this is a key component of the beauty of Christian community, of being one people in Christ, of bringing who we are to our common life and to believe that together we can and are sanctified, set apart for God’s purposes of love in the world. The reality that together we are converted and grow into what spiritual writers call our “true selves,” human flourishing, holiness of heart and life.

So we are committed to continuing in relationship with each other in difference, and to continue in conversation.

Welcoming people as Christ would is key to our ministry in 2016. This means re-thinking our welcome ministry as a “hospitality ministry,” not just greeting or ushering our handing out bulletins but “welcoming people as Jesus would” a task for all of us but especially for those who have spiritual gifts for hospitality for loving companioning, for hearing other people’s stories.

Love

Love is a word that also is over used. Some might say that it continues to loose its meaning and impact. Yet we must continue to use it and redeem it for God is love and Jesus came to show us that love.

Listen, Israel! The Eternal is our True God—He alone. You should love Him, your True God, with all your heart and soul, with every ounce of your strength.[a] Make the things I’m commanding you today part of who you are. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you’re sitting together in your home and when you’re walking together down the road. Make them the last thing you talk about before you go to bed and the first thing you talk about the next morning. Do whatever it takes to remember them: tie a reminder on your hand and bind a reminder on your forehead where you’ll see it all the time, such as on the doorpost where you cross the threshold or on the city gate.

Deutoronomy 6:4-9, The Voice Bible

Loving God, neighbor, self – a willingness to live together in community in a way that nurtures mutual love – our capacity to see the other as God’s own as a fellow creation of God, no matter who they are . . . as Jesus tells us even our enemy.

So Jesus expands our understanding of what it means to love and calls us to make love the primary marker of our identity as followers of his way.

In baptism we reject anything that is not love and recognize our need for the holy spirit to transform us, so that God’s image of love in us can shine bright. Baptism grafts us to one another and to Christ, for the Christian faith is no solitary enterprise, for it’s fullness is found in leaving behind the isolation, self-centeredness, and pride of sin and death, and being born again into a new life, a communal life, a yoked life, a life that models that life of God who is community (father-son-spirit/creator-sustainer-redeemer).

Love requires, as Deuteronomy tells us, our learning it. So being disciple makers means that we are a people continually learning to love God, neighbor, self and continually passing on the way of love to our children and children’s children and to all that we encounter, especially to those who are new to the way of Jesus.

As my children get older there is a growing recognition that they have learned mostly by my modeling. This has been a gift to recognize and a course. Quickly my own patterns of behavior being shown to me by this other person . . . my language, my attitudes, my sarcasm . . . you get my drift. When it comes to a life of faith it is the same and when it comes to disciple making it requires us to be in contact with one another in worship, learning, and service. It also means that we live out our ministry in ways that facilitate our age groups colliding with one another, providing for ways that they can interact as they move about the building and as we gather in the community.

This will require our re-thinking of the use of our building. We built it for each age group to have their area this served us well but now we must imagine what it would look like for children, youth, and adults of all ages, to learn alongside each other.

This means that we all need to be patient with one another in worship for a new generation of parents want to have their children in the worship space so that their children learn what it means to worship and be in community. There will be times when the baby will be passed around down the row, that the child will cry, or as I know from my own children, that the child will get fidgety and not know how to use their “inside voice,” especially around silent moments like prayer and sermon.

The community learning and living the way of Jesus together across generations, personalities, and stories; all of our resources used in service to our mission of shaping disciple makers in this community.

Being a disciple maker means that we provide spaces where we model the love of Jesus in our community. We are committed to being a people of compassion, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Especially in a culture that is growingly polarized, that lacks nuance, and seems unwilling to create containers for a variety of points of view, containers for healthy, humanizing, and transformative conversation and shared life.

Especially when we are dealing with the difficult issues affecting our neighbors, systemic racism, systemic multi-generational poverty, high rates of addiction and divorce, spousal abuse, unhealthiness (high obesity rates, alongside diabetes, high cholesterol and blood pressure), and the growing sex trade.

All of these issues are at the cornerstone of the ministry of Jesus as he healed, freed, and reconciled.

What would it look like to make those spaces?

 

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Dr. Elaine Heath

In a few weeks we will have Dr. Elaine Heath from Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology and the Missional Wisdom Foundation leading our weekend worship. She is an author of numerous books, one of which The Mystic Way of Evangelism truly changed the way that I approach evangelism to this day.

 

I am honored that we will host her and she will help us begin to imagine those spaces. Alongside her time with us will come an opportunity to practice this space making by gathering around table on Saturdays around 6:30 pm.

Imagine Grace Community folks eating, drinking, and talking together in public spaces around our community. In restaurants, coffee shops and bars, in community meals at the Common Ground Community and with Muslim and Jewish friends and neighbors?

Together sharing life, sharing faith, sharing common dreams of a better future for us, for our city, for the world?

All of this because we are a people of love . . . because we are followers of love made flesh!

Service

At the cornerstone of our identity as a called people is the “giving of our lives.” We might not think of this as the most exciting aspect of our discipleship but it is pivotal. Giving of ourselves, the surrendering of our lives, is most frequently expressed through a life of service to God and neighbor.

In the church of the last 75 years this meant that you gave your tithe and offerings, that you went to church, and that you served on a committee. Many of you might remember those days.

All of those things are good things. Giving of our financial resources is what allows us to be in this mission, attending worship is still a key discipline that connects us to one another and witnesses to the world our Christ-centered affections, and we still need disciples who hear a call to lead within and through this gathered community called the church.

But truly, service is about the ways that we respond to the Samaritan on the road, to the sick, the hungry, and the needy. This is Matthew 25 type of stuff and how we empower one another to be a Matthew 25 people. In fact I would say that in service we are the best manifestation of Jesus in the world.

31 When the Son of Man comes in all His majesty accompanied by throngs of heavenly messengers, His throne will be wondrous. 32 All the nations will assemble before Him, and He will judge them, distinguishing them from one another as a shepherd isolates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put some, the sheep, at His right hand and some, the goats, at His left. 34 Then the King will say to those to His right,

King: Come here, you beloved, you people whom My Father has blessed. Claim your inheritance, the Kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of creation. 35 You shall be richly rewarded, for when I was hungry, you fed Me. And when I was thirsty, you gave Me something to drink. I was alone as a stranger, and you welcomed Me into your homes and into your lives. 36 I was naked, and you gave Me clothes to wear; I was sick, and you tended to My needs; I was in prison, and you comforted Me. 37 Even then the righteous will not have achieved perfect understanding and will not recall these things.

Righteous: Master, when did we find You hungry and give You food? When did we find You thirsty and slake Your thirst? 38 When did we find You a stranger and welcome You in, or find You naked and clothe You? 39 When did we find You sickand nurse You to health? When did we visit You when You were in prison?

King: 40 I tell you this: whenever you saw a brother or sister hungry or cold, whatever you did to the least of these, so you did to Me.

41 At that He will turn to those on His left hand.

King: Get away from Me, you despised people whom My Father has cursed. Claim your inheritance—the pits of flaming hell where the devil and his minions suffer.42 For I was starving, and you left Me with no food. When I was dry and thirsty, you left Me to struggle with nothing to drink. 43 When I was alone as a stranger, you turned away from Me. When I was pitifully naked, you left Me unclothed. When I was sick, you gave Me no care. When I was in prison, you did not comfort Me.

Unrighteous: 44 Master, when did we see You hungry and thirsty? When did we see You friendless or homeless or excluded? When did we see You without clothes? When did we see You sick or in jail? When did we see You in distress and fail to respond?

King: 45 I tell you this: whenever you saw a brother hungry or cold, when you saw a sister weak and without friends, when you saw the least of these and ignored their suffering, so you ignored Me.

46 So these, the goats, will go off to everlasting punishment. But the beloved, the sheep(the righteous), will go into everlasting life.

Matthew 25:31-46, The Voice Bible

Serving one another by sharing out of our gifts and by mobilizing all of our resources to the transformation of the world is the fruit of our encounter with Jesus. Is not an extra curricular activity, is not a matter of personal preference, and is certainly not just about putting a check in the plate so that others can do it. Again and again we are reminded that it is our task to get in the messiness of life (what God did in Jesus) and work together for the common good. In that work, in that service, we are best witnessing to God’s love.

This year it is my prayer that we grow as a community of servants. What are your gifts, passions, affinities, and where do you see the need for good news?

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All of us are called to be ministers, how are each of you being called to be ministers to one another?

Who feels called to be a minister (a servant of) hospitality?
A minister of mutual care (shepherd – one who cares for others, especially during times of illness, life transition, or struggle)?
A minister of the arts?
A minister of technology?
A minister of formation to children, youth, adults?
A minister of building usage (one who opens and closes the church’s doors)?
A minister of music?
A minister of baby care (you know rocking babies in the nursery, changing their diapers, and holding them in worship when parent is tired)?

These are just within the community/the assembly called the church?What am I missing?

A Word about the Ministry of Justice

Now a word about our ministry of justice: It is a ministry that we are all called to and in fact it is a ministry that is at the heart of the saving/healing ministry of Jesus. The ministry of justice is the ministry of freeing from bondage, it is this freeing ministry that made the presence of Jesus so dangerous for the powerful of his time and for the powerful of our time, it is this ministry that causes Herod to want to destroy the infant Jesus.

At the center of our ministry of justice, restoration, and healing must be freedom. This means that we must ask the questions about outcomes, how does what I am doing/giving helping the person be freed from the cycle that they find themselves in? How am I empowering the person and community to find self-determination and new life? How am I changing my own patterns and the patterns of my community so that others can find healing? How am I using my voice so that those in power can make a difference in the systemic issues of our time?

In his book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton reminds us that every community has assets and that if we develop relationships, and help disadvantaged communities use their assets and see themselves and their neighbors as worthy of investing in each other and in themselves that we begin to make a real difference. We must focus our efforts and energies in that effort.

This year we have made huge strides in our partnership with the Common Ground Community. How can we continue to provide an anchor for that community, how can we engage in ways that empower, bring out the gifts of the community, in ways that truly lower the poverty level found there? How can the table gatherings that will take place in the spring help “spring forth” a renewed commitment to address the systemic issues of poverty and racism in our community? What are we willing to sacrifice in order for the gifts, graces, and contributions of systemically poor people can lead us into new life?

HOW CAN WE BE SHAPED IN A COMMON GRACE?

A Disciple-making Imagination

Last year I called us to be a generation of missionaries, a generation of a people sharply focused on God’s mission for our city and beyond. I reminded us that this has been our call from the very beginning and I have hopefully shown that we have been on the verge of reaching our “sweet spot” many times in the last 23 years.

My prayer for this year is that we use these three words: Welcome, Love, Serve as guides to help us remember our guiding principles and to help us discern and assess, and live into God’s promise for our life together.

When your leaders met for a planning retreat, this past November, we engaged in a exercise for the imagination. We closed our eyes and imagined that there was no limit to what we could be, that each of us had a blank slate. asked for the group to let themselves see some ways that we could be in ministry together.

We imagined a more obvious system for people to more quickly find entry points into our shared life, into their own formation and service. How does our signage, space, and worship allow for those initial entry points? How do we let the body know when new people make covenant as members of this community?

To this end I have empowered our staff to begin conversations with some of you about a “Navigator” community. A community of people who are called to help new people and people who are now ready to connect more deeply with this community in mission and ministry. This, like all other ministries, will be a lay led and lay run ministry that can only happen if you feel called to be a companion to folks hungering for more.

We imagined establishing another worship site during high holidays (Christmas Eve, Easter, Ash Wednesday) – What would a second site for worship look like for Easter of this year? Where can we begin to plan seeds for that gathering?

We imagined a return to a worship/learning-community/worship schedule for Sunday mornings, a schedule that allows room for folks to come to worship then Sunday school (for Adult, Children, and Youth) or Sunday school then worship; a middle hour provides room for connection between the two worshipping congregations and allow room for people to visit with one another. What does this look like for us? Does it allow us to be more welcoming, more room to grow in love? Does it give us more room to serve one another and the community?

We imagined more partners for conversation, service, and growth.

To that end we want to continue in conversations with the leadership of University Elementary here in Shreveport, their principal Kaisie Mainiero is a long-term member and servant here at Grace Community.
We are thankful to have many educators in our congregation and especially educators in the public school sector. We believe that focusing on one school will help us put all of our efforts into ways that a local congregation can effect change in a local public school.

Who are the other partners for continued conversation that we might be missing?

We imagined an official partnership with the Common Ground Community. This partnership can be guided by the phrase “Common Grace” and it should center on the alleviation of poverty and racism through conversation, advocacy, and community. Our disciple makers in conversation that is transformative, sanctifying, kingdom building.

Conclusion

Being a disciple making community requires our commitment and sacrifice. It requires a willingness to not make the same mistakes of the past. It requires us to be clear that this is who we seek to be and that all of our resources are aligned to this task. This requires our rethinking us to “unpack our gifts” and present them before Christ. It also requires us to stay attentive to our dreams for in those God manifests God self again and again and again.

A disciple making community is willing to get into the messiness of life. Willing to go on long journeys to new places, knowing that salvation is always near. It requires us to re-evaluate our values of what it means to be a community constantly centered on the mission, knowing that even our mutual care and our being “family” is to fuel our missionary movement.

This has been our call for 23 years and I believe that we are being called now to renew our passion for the many seekers in this community that are desperate to see the star so that they can go and see the one who has come to save them, to encounter grace, who are desperate to become servants of the kingdom of God. Amen!


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/150617846″>2016 State of the Church Address</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/gracecommunityumc”>Grace Community UMC</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Peace. With Us.

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Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Charles Wesley in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

We’ve been waiting and now peace has come visiting!

It might not seem that way. There is still so much enmity, violence, oppression, and evil in the world. The list of injustices, fears, and hatreds too long to list here, the ways that we harm one another, ourselves, and God, too numerous.

But then we remember!

The people who had been living in darkness
have seen a great light.
The light of life has shined on those who dwelt
in the shadowy darkness of death.

Isaiah 9:2 (The Voice Bible)

In remembering, we are, as theologian James K.A. Smith tells us “catapulted in the future.” A future of salvation, consummation, healing, wholeness, and new life. A future filled with possibility, a future rooted in God’s creative and re-creative intention for all the created order. A future of promise because the light of Christ has come.

With all that is happening around us, it is easy to be discouraged, easy to be afraid. It is easy to believe the voices that tell us to build more walls, to fear the stranger, to be suspicious of neighbor. Easy to want to exclude, demonize, and answer violence with more violence.

It is at these moments that we remind ourselves that the one of peace has come. That the good news of salvation has come in the flesh. God becoming one of us, God brought low so that all humanity could live, could flourish, could be raised, and could experience a new birth, a new life, a whole life!

This Christmas Eve we’ll gather and celebrate that a savior has been born. Because God became one of us we no longer have to live in darkness, we no longer have to live in brokenness, we no longer have to live in strife with ourselves, each other, and creation.

15 He is the exact image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation, the eternal. 16 It was by Him that everything was created: the heavens, the earth, all things within and upon them, all things seen and unseen, thrones and dominions, spiritual powers and authorities. Every detail was crafted through His design, by His own hands, and for His purposes.17 He has always been! It is His hand that holds everything together. 18 He is the head of this body, the church. He is the beginning, the first of those to be reborn from the dead, so that in every aspect, at every view, in everything—He is first. 19 God was pleased that all His fullness should forever dwell in the Son 20 who, as predetermined by God, bled peace into the world by His death on the cross as God’s means of reconciling to Himself the whole creation—all things in heaven and all things on earth.

Colossians 1:15-20 (The Voice Bible)

Peace. With Us. Peace. With All Creation. Thanks be to God!!

Reversal

51     God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds.
        The proud in mind and heart,
        God has sent away in disarray.
52     The rulers from their high positions of power,
        God has brought down low.
    And those who were humble and lowly,
        God has elevated with dignity.
53     The hungry—God has filled with fine food.
        The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in their hands.

Luke 1:51-53 (The Voice Bible)

It’s hard to imagine the kind of reversal called by Mary the mother of Jesus. Her prophetic utterance a blue print for a salvation that brings about change to the social order of things. This salvation turns the status quo upside down and calls all who hear to work together against the way things are.

This is an uncomfortable gospel!

In some ways it faces us with the question: Do we really want salvation?

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It is much easier to say yes if salvation means to “accept Jesus,” “allow Jesus into our hearts,” or “going to church.” Intellectual ascent, emotional response, or societal duty are easy and really do not change anything. It does not require anything from us and often our Christianity seems to underscore our already made up minds, positions, and opinions. Often unquestioningly supporting our place in the social order as providence.

This season what are we to do with a savior that according to scripture calls the mighty to fall, the rich to walk away empty, the stranger to be welcomed, the poor lifted, the hungry fed, the first to be last, the uncleaned touched, the enemy loved?

This week we meet Mary once again. We meet a young unmarried peasant woman who is bearing an illegitimate child. A woman who says yes in spite of her own life being on the line. A woman who sees the cosmic effects of her yes to God!

We too have an opportunity this season to experience the reversal that salvation brings. A reversal that initiates the peace that we and the world so desperately need. A reversal that makes us participants in God’s work of redemption for the life of the world. Our own hearts transformed, our own lives changed, our own perspectives altered, our brokenness made whole, our alienation from our true selves, each other, and all of creation healed.

So friends are we ready for salvation? Are we ready for the redemption that Christ promises? Are we ready to allow our life, our families, our community, our world to be reversed? Are we ready to be last, hungry, blind, take risks, be servants to the least of these? Are we ready to join the risky, dangerous, and revolutionary work of the one of peace?

Hopeful Imagination

 

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It has been a difficult set of weeks. We have faced sin and death in our lives, in our community, and in our world. Fear has come calling, terror has visited, and despair wants to settle in. It is normal to want to build walls, lock doors, and hit back.

We have arrived at church looking for hope and it has been hard to find! There we have been reminded of what we have been living through phone notifications, website updates, and the daily news. The texts of the season made incarnate and thus difficult to hear. We come looking for hope, for a word of the Lord, for the promises of Christmas and instead we are reminded that we must experience the disorientation of exile in order to be able to experience the reorientation of salvation.

Exile is being a stranger in a strange land. Exile forces us to look at our shaping – assumptions, presuppositions, and worldview -with suspicion. We must be suspicious because exile shapes us in the ethos of the false self that serves the purposes of a self-centered and self-serving dominant narrative – a narrative of fear, exclusion, and enmity.

Hopeful imagination reorients us and shows us the pathway for our return home. The pathway is paved by repentance, by the change of our hearts and minds, from the dominant narrative into the alternative narrative of God’s kin-dom. A narrative rooted in love, healing, and justice; a narrative of safety, embrace, and reconciliation. This narrative is centered in the person of Jesus Christ.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann reminds us that we develop a hopeful imagination by studying the:

themes, metaphors, and dynamics which give new life to the tradition, which summon to faith in a fresh way, and which create hope for a community so deeply in crisis, that it might have abandoned the entire enterprise of faith. This literature of realism and candor referred the loss to God and thereby released energy, courage, and passion in the community.

from Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile, 3

For the last few weeks we have struggled together realistically and with much candor. We have faced the realities of our current needs for salvation. We have heard the groans of creation and of our participation in structures of sin and death.

We have also been called to prepare the way. The hindrances to salvation have been lifted. The community does not have to live in denial, fear, and anxiety. Instead we are to allow for the Spirit to change our hearts and life. In very real ways we have rehearsed what it means to refer all of our struggles, insecurities, fears, prejudices, and injustices to God.

Now that we have turned over our sin-full practices as individuals and as a community our hearts are open to the coming of the Christ. Our souls ready to receive the gift of grace, the soil for God’s kingdom in us and in the world bursting with possibility!

So this weekend we begin rehearsing the story of a God who becomes one of us. A God who chose not to abandon us and creation choosing instead to come to our rescue. This weekend we begin to rehearse the hope for a peace-full world. We come recognizing that peace requires sacrifice, requires practice, requires our participation in life with God.

As we sing songs of praise this weekend and as we hear the story told again may we develop a hopeful imagination for the promised future. May we allow our reality check to fill us with energy, courage, and passion. May we come together as a community of believers to be peace makers in the world!

 

Pastor as Prophet

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John brought this divine message to all those who came to the Jordan River. He preached that people should be ritually cleansed through baptism as an expression of changed lives for the forgiveness of sins.

Luke 3:3, The Voice Bible

This week we encounter a prophet. One that calls people, especially the mighty and powerful, to pay attention to the ways that the created order does not reflect God’s peace-full reign. To the ways that the people have walked away from one another, from themselves as a people of the promise, and from God. From the ways that they continue to perpetuate injustice and oppression.

Often the people have become comfortable. So comfortable that they no longer see how their life and their behavior towards one another no longer mimics God’s call to a deeper love of God and neighbor. Soon the people begin to confuse their apathy, prejudices, attitudes, and worldview to God’s intention for them and for those around them. No longer seeing the plight of neighbor, making exceptions of themselves, making a god who thinks, feels, and acts like them.

The prophet’s message is hard because the people need to be woken up! It’s hard because most of us find it difficult to be confronted about our failures, mistakes, and wrongdoing. Hard because acknowledgment of our sin means letting go of our power and control.

In the end, the prophets were not extremely successful. We do have a record of their prophetic utterances and we do recognize how they have inspired their communities in retrospect. But in their time most of them were killed by those in power. Their message too dangerous, too real, too on point for the mighty to ignore. The prophetic message is always a threat to those in power, to the majority, to the comfortable, and to the prosperous. A threat to those with the most to lose!

One of the roles that I believe that the pastor plays in a community is that of prophet. Truthtelling for the sake of transformation, for the sake of a change of heart and life. Proclamation that reminds the community again and again of its call to be agents of God’s kingdom — agents of peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, and love. Proclamation that wakes up our hearts to the least, last, and lost.

The prophetic role should come with warning labels. It is easy to come across preachy, arrogant, and self-righteous. It is easy to offend to the point that one is no longer heard. It is easy to leave little room for conversation and for nuance. At the same time, it is easy to tell God’s people only that which is comfortable, safe, and that which will not cost you anything. It is easier not to push, challenge, or question. Easier not to meddle . . .

This week I invite you to read Luke 3:1-18. Hear the voice of the prophet: How is it challenging you? What are the demands of the kingdom according to John the Baptizer? Where are you feeling pushed, made uncomfortable, or bothered?

This weekend come prepared to hear what I pray is a loving yet challenging word as we continue preparing for the coming of Christ.

He preached with many other provocative figures of speech and so conveyed God’s message to the people—the time had come to rethink everything.

Luke 3:18, The Voice Bible