God Makes a People

It is good to be in your presence this morning, and I am both excited and a bit anxious to share my heart with you all. As I have been thinking about this message over the past few weeks, I am going to attempt to walk the line between challenging you all and hopefully not offending any of you. My worry however, is that I will be sharing nothing new with you, but perhaps I can call us all to see our family of faith in a new perspective this morning.

It should be no surprise to you if I share that our church family is not in the healthiest of places right now. And I want to talk about our state of health this morning. First of all, I am not aware of a family on this earth that is the picture of health. If we look back to the book of Genesis, it didn’t take long for Cain to rise up and take the life of his brother Abel, so we should not be totally caught off guard when our lives in the church are not all perfect and full of joy. But that is not to say that things cannot be improved upon, and some wounds healed moving forward.

One of my favorite authors right now is Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and I just finished his book entitled, New Monasticism. Since I began traveling to Uganda in 2009, one of the greatest things that I long for back here in my life is a sense of true community. Jonathan does a beautiful job addressing some of the struggles the American church is facing right now, and he adds to it centuries of wisdom and practices that the monastic community has lived out all over the world.

Jonathan and his wife currently live in the Rutba House community in a run-down part of Durham, North Carolina. In this diverse community, they are attempting to live out the principals that a life with Jesus calls them too. The name Rutba House came from a previous trip to Afghanistan that Jonathan took with a group of peacekeepers just after the most recent war in the Middle East began. During their time in Afghanistan, a vehicle in their convoy hit a road side land mine and was cut off from their group. The amazing thing is that when this happened outside of the town of Rutba, the Americans that were injured from the peacekeeping team were taken in and nursed back to health by what we would consider our enemies. It was a modern day version of the Good Samaritan.

So that is a very brief back ground on Jonathan and I respect him for his search of Christian community, as I was able to glean some important truths for my life from this book on community. The one theme that I took from this book more than anything was that God has and always will work through a people. If you will be so kind, I am going to ask you to humor me as I read a page from this book this morning. Just before this passage, Jonathan makes a comparison that we might be trying to play the game of church with a rule-book for an entire different game. His example was that you can’t get very far in your knowledge of basketball, if you are attempting to understand and play the game with a soccer manual. And so here is where we pick up.

“For much of the church, the game we try to play could be called, “Make Myself.” The Bible is a long and complicated collection of stories that we need to boil down to principles, this game says. When you get to the point of all those stories, they’re really about how to make myself. The Bible tells me how to make myself good, make myself rich, make myself kind, or make myself humble. We might argue about just what the Bible calls me to make myself. But most of the church agrees that this is the point of the game. Of course, I cannot make myself all alone. To be all that I can be, I need Jesus. But in this game called Make Myself, the Bible is all about what Jesus wants me to do to make myself what I ought to be.

There’s another version of this game that is very similar. It could be called “Make Yourself.” In this game I know that the Bible isn’t just for me. It also tells me how other people should live. So I say to my neighbor, “Make yourself loving.” And I say to my nation, “Make yourself just.” I say to the rich, “Make yourself compassionate.” And I say to the powerful, “Make yourself humble.” The great thing about Make Yourself is that you can play it while you’re planning Make Myself. People do both all the time.

The trouble is that the Bible doesn’t quite work as a manual for either of these games. Almost, but not quite. Sort of like trying to play basketball with a soccer manual. Lots of things seem to work out at first. Abraham seems like a pretty good example of someone who made himself faithful. The prophets give us pretty good ammunition for the next round of Make Yourself. But the more you try to get inside of the story of the Bible, the more it feels like it was written for a different game.

I think new monastic communities point to the fact that the Bible is really about a game called “God Makes a People.” This is the game the Bible was written to teach us to play – because it is the game we were made for. . . We’re living together as God’s people so see how the Bible worked as a manual for how to live together as God’s people.”

Jesus and the church are not plan B, but we are a continuation of God’s story with Israel, where He was setting a people apart for His glory. The gospel of Matthew does a wonderful job of emphasizing this very theme, that we are a continuation of God’s story with His most beloved creations.  And just as we are connected to the people of Israel, we are also connected to one another. God’s answer to the pain and suffering of this world is the church. God’s answer to loneliness, greed, anger and hatred is the church. There is no plan B, we are the shining light that the world has to look to for peace, love and grace lived out in the flesh.

When we start to look at scripture more as a story about “us” instead of a story about “me” it takes on a whole new meaning. If we think about Jesus’ teaching about the salt and the light, we must acknowledge that we are forming that light together.

Matthew 5:13-16 states, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.“

What that means, is that people outside of God’s grace are looking toward us as the light of the world. They are asking themselves, “How does this community love one another? How do they care for one another? How do they forgive one another and show each other grace?” When the game is no longer about making ourselves, we discover a connectedness and a responsibility for one another that was not previously there. But here is the kicker, in order to love, serve and meet one another’s needs we first have to know what they are. In order to offer help, we as a family have to be vulnerable enough to share our hurts, our frustrations, and where we need God’s healing and peace.

I know that there has been a lot of hurt here at Central about our current worship schedule, and I am not denying that it is real, or that it hasn’t stung or caused a sense of division. But we are called to be a people together, so should one hour of our week cause that much of a ripple in our community? If we are called to care for one another and forgive one another, can one hour of worship in different spaces really break us? I certainly hope that we can rise above this to live as Jesus called us to live. To draw another quote from Jonathan’s book, he writes, “The church is called to be a people who love one another and make a life together, tending to a culture of grace in a world broken by sin. The truth is that when we fail to do that, we fail to be the church.”

I am afraid that we have begun down a path, where we have failed at being the church. We have begun to focus on the differences we share instead of the love, grace, and peace that we have been gifted through the cross. Spencer Perkins, son of the great John Perkins – a veteran of the civil rights movement and visionary on community development, once wrote, “I never understood until now that God intended for grace to be a way of life for his followers. . . But somehow it was easier to swallow the lofty untested notion of dying for each other than simply giving grace to brothers and sisters on a daily basis, the way God gives us grace.”

Grace is to be a way of life for the followers of Jesus, and it is going to be hard to love our enemies, if we can’t first start by loving one another in this place, during this year of transition.

I apologize to anyone that heard my message last week, as I will be referencing the same scripture. But this week I have altered the Sermon on the Mount to read more for us as a people, instead of speaking to the individual. Jonathan shared a story in this book about one of his language professors in seminary, and this professor made a reference that a lot of the” ye’s” found in the King James Version of scripture actually read as “y’alls” instead. So as we listen to Jesus’ words from the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, may we hear his words for us all, and may it drive us live in God’s peace and unity.

We’re blessed when we’re at the end of our rope. With less of us there is more of God and his rule.

We’re blessed when we feel we’ve lost what is most dear to us. Only then can we be embraced by the One most dear to us.

We’re blessed when we’re content with just who we are –no more, no less. That’s the moment we find ourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

We’re blessed when we’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal we’ll ever eat.

We’re blessed when we care. At the moment of being ‘care-full’, we find ourselves cared for.

We’re blessed when we get our inside world – our mind and heart –put right. Then we can see God in the outside world.

We’re blessed when we can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when we discover who we really are, and our place in God’s family.

We’re blessed when our commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives us even deeper into God’s kingdom.

Not only that – count ourselves blessed every time people put us down or throw us out or speak lies about us to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. We can be glad when that happens – give a cheer, even! – For though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that y’all are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

It is our job to tend to a culture of grace and love. The world is watching not just how we love those outside these walls, but also how well we love one another within these walls. My prayer today is that we could start a new chapter at Central this very day, that today unity could be restored to our hearts and our lives. The worst thing that any of us could do today, would be to wish that “he or she” should have heard this message, but instead may we let others know that “we” heard this message through the grace in which we offer one another, and may the healing begin with each and every one of us in this room.

Amen.

I closed our prayer time with this song by Andrew Peterson, “Faith to be Strong,” and want to include it on here as well.

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February 20, 2012 <> Michael Warneke

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