Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Sermon for Visioning Day

And God said to Noah, "Make yourself an ark.” . . . 
God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters gradually receded from the earth. At the end of one hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared.
At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more. . . . Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
                                                                                                ~ Genesis 6:13a, 14a; 8:1-12, 9:8-1
Do we feel, sometimes, in the church, as if we have been hit by a deluge?  Trampled by a tumultuous storm? Submerged in the depths?
Everything has changed.
Our culture used to be a culture in which, for Christians, church was front and center. Stores closed and it seemed that everyone went to church on Sunday.
Our city used to be a booming little city in which people all had jobs during the week, whether in industry or at home, and thronged to places of worship on Sunday mornings.
Our congregation used to be a lively home for hundreds of people, where children learned about faith and adults sang in the choir and all enjoyed regular fellowship.
Our numbers used to be high: 1,000 people in worship on Sunday, two services, filled classrooms.
Our funding used to be a given. Run a stewardship campaign and the pledges poured in.   
Did we even ask questions about what and who we are as a church?  Not so much, I think.  Our successes were obvious; our future, assured.  
And then the skies darkened.  The wind blew. And the rains came pouring down. 
The culture changed.  The congregation changed and dwindled in number.  The money began to dry up. 
Does it feel as if a storm has hit?  As if we are rocking back and forth and side to side in a leaky ark?
And yet: God offers us a rainbow, a sign of promise.  God calls us out of the ark and into a new world, a world longing for God’s promises of life and love.

Conversation Question: What does God promise us when the storms come?
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
                                                                                                            ~ Luke 24:1-5
At the core of Christian faith is a great mystery: out of death comes life. After a flood, a rainbow forms in the sky. After all seems lost on a cross, light shines forth from a cave. 
We usually hear this story, about the first day of the week at early dawn, on Easter Sunday itself.  And then we kind of forget about it.  We get busy with our meetings and our meals, with our finances and our food, and we forget.
So let’s remember for a moment.  The heartbroken women at the tomb, as we are heartbroken when we ponder what seems to be the death of the church.  The women perplexed by the rolled-away stone and the vanished body, as we are often perplexed by the church: What happened?  Where did everyone go? The arrival of the unexpected: two men in dazzling clothes, who terrify the women.  How do we respond when it seems that we are confronted by the unexpected?  Are we anxious, afraid?  Terrified, even?
And then the question: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen.
We forget, when we are busy with our meetings and our meals and our finances and our food, that we are called to live resurrection lives.  We forget to look for the living not among the dead, but among the living.  We are so accustomed to being hobbled by loss and dismay that we forget that we have been set free by love.
If we feel discouraged and disoriented by changes in our church, then we are right at the heart of Christian transformation.  And at the heart of Christian transformation we are called to peel off the trappings of death and turn toward the light of new life. 
Conversation Question:  What would a resurrected church look like to you?
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’
                                                                                                                                ~ John 21:15-18
Do you know what the word ‘mission’ means?
We tend to think of a mission as a plan, or an assignment: something we are supposed to DO. 
But the word mission comes from the Latin mittere: to send.  To be on mission is to be sent.
The Bible is one long story of mission, of sending.  God is always sending people out to serve others.  The Hebrew Bible is filled with narratives of people called and sent.  The prophets, sent to call the people back to God’s justice.  Moses, sent to lead his people to freedom.  Noah, sent to build an ark and prepare for a new world.
And then: God sends Jesus, to love God’s people and to trounce death.  And God and Jesus send their Spirit, to energize the people to proclaim the God news: The Kingdom of God has come among you!  And God keeps sending: the apostle Paul, the other disciples, other people across the centuries, and yes, even: us.
Our final passage today is about sending.  About Jesus sending, starting with Peter.  Jesus is with his disciples on the beach, in one of his many appearances to them after his resurrection. And what does he say? Feed my lambs, Jesus tells Peter.  Tend my sheep; feed my sheep.
Rainbow-covenant life and resurrection life are not only about us.  We are not called to mind only our own business, tend only our own field, mind only our own sheep.  This might mean some radical changes for us as a church.  To Noah, God did not say: Build and ark and then live there. To Peter, a fisherman, Jesus did not say: Build a new warehouse and a shop on the beach, buy a new boat and some new nets, and get back out there to do what you did before.  To us, Jesus is not saying: Save the building, buy some curriculum, and invite people to come in and do with you what you’ve always done.  Jesus says: Feed my sheep.  Get out there and look for my people – that would be all people – and care for them.  Be a people in mission!
Conversation Question: What sort of service to others excites you?
Today we are all about: a storm, an ark, a rainbow ~ a grave and a resurrection ~ and a sending forth.  As we continue with today’s gathering, think about what we have before us:
You all have animals on your table, who represent the storm, and the ark, and hope for the future.  We have a rainbow, which represents God’s promise of new life.  We have an empty cross, which represents resurrection life. And we have a question: how do we respond?   Take your animals home with you and remember to ask: How are we going to feed God’s sheep?  Amen.

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