A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Epiphany 3, January 26, 2003, dedicated to my wife, Susan Sitler and my children, Luke, Daniel, and Sarah Ahrens, whom I love deeply and who have walked this faith journey with me and always to the glory of God!
Hebrews 11:1-3,17-30, 39:12-2; Mark 1:14-20
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
My fourth year among you as your Senior Minister quietly arrived on Thursday. Such occasions should draw no fanfare - especially on a staff in which Janet is beginning her eighth year, Dorinda her ninth and Dene is almost half way through his 30th year among us. But, for me, January 23 was a day for a little reflection -especially with the congregational meeting today.
I can remember unloading and unpacking boxes in January 2000 - also a cold month in a frigid winter! Some of those boxes are still packed! I remember my first staff meeting and trying to figure out who these people were and what motivated them to serve God in this place. I remember walking the halls and checking out the rooms in the building thinking - some of these rooms really need some paint! I remember looking at the fourteen Senior Ministers who had preceded me and asking what it was like for them arriving and later leaving. I remember asking, "how do pronounce Dr. Lichlyter's first name?" (Last October, Barbara Heer helped me with that one! She said, "In the Scottish, It's always, MacSomething!" I still call him "Dr. Lichlyter . . . "). So many thoughts, so many prayers, so many words - come and gone; so much faith to carry on.
After three years, I can tell you: I have grown in love with all of you and with this cathedral of grace. You and this beautiful, mysterious place have touched me in powerful ways. God has touched me in powerful ways through you and through this place called grace, called holy, called faith-full." When asked at the reception for Jubilee Singers to tell a visitor how this church came to be built, I answered: "This is place that justice built! I only pray that justice and a passionate, faithful people will continue to inspire this place to be a beacon of light and a witness for justice and peace in this city, state, nation, and world."
Today, we look out over our fourth year together, our 151st year of serving Christ in the heart of Columbus and wonder how and where God is calling us forward in faith. I have written in my 2002 staff report that I have five goals going into 2003.
First, I hope we continue to grow into our covenants as a congregation - the original 1852 covenant, our September 2002, Open and Affirming covenant, and (I add this morning) our long range planning covenant of January 2001.
Second, I hope we pray about and find answers to our needs for ever-developing lay leadership and new avenues of church fellowship. We need to train-up new leaders for this new millennium and find new ways to reach out and minister in Christ's name.
Third, we need to grow as Missionaries - meaning - we need to find ways to serve the needs of others in creative and substantive ways.
Fourth, we need to grow as Stewards.
Fifth, we need to grow as Evangelists, spreading the good news of what God is doing for us, through us, and in us at First Church!
These five goals are achievable only if we work together to attain them. Let me briefly reflect on the goals. First, we are a covenant people. Throughout scripture, God calls people of faith to be in covenant, living out the ways of God's faithfulness. Covenants are not contracts. They are faith statements. Covenants call us together and guide our way of faith walking and talking.
On page 6, under the words, "WELCOME," all can see our 1852 covenant. When you stand before this congregation and together, we say we will witness and serve, we have not rigidly tied you into community, but loosely bound you to the body of Christ. Now, if we are to be the United (Not the Un-tied) Church of Christ, we need to hold ourselves and our sisters and brothers in Christ accountable to the covenants around which our community is formed, shaped, and moves. If people never work, worship, or serve among us, beside us, within us, they and we have untied the covenant. When this happens, we need to make decisions about how to respond to the lack of ties that bind. I know some folks say, "cut them off the rolls." I don't live easily or well with such an approach, not because my obsession with numbers (that's another issue!), but because I have know from a lifetime in covenantal relationships in the church that once the tie is cut, it is rarely able to be reconnected. I think of the biblical story (portrayed on our tapestry to the east) in which Jacob steals from his Father Isaac the birthright of familial leadership which belongs to his brother Esau. Although the relationship between the brothers is severely damaged, many years later, they meet and reconcile. Always, God works in the messiness of covenant to create a new thing!
I challenge all of us to organize ourselves this year in such a way that we find out through face-to-face, one-to-one conversations what has happened to our covenant with those who are missing among us. Like Jacob and Esau, I challenge us to wrestle spiritually with one another, the living out of our three covenants - the ones I mentioned earlier; primarily our 1852 covenant - but also our long range plan goals and our Open and Affirming Statement (found in your bulletin on page 6/7).
If you are a guest among us - either a close friend of First Church or a recent visitor and fellow journeyer - one who has worshiped with us, but has not stepped forward to speak words of covenant commitment, I invite you to join our church! Please, become a member. Make covenant with us. We want you to be a part of our fellowship as we move forward in faith! Don't be afraid, only those among us who are teething will bite - which is actually a rather substantive number of people - between 15-20.
If it's any help to you, you should know that in the past three years, we have welcomed over 280 new women, men, and children (some via the birthing process and baptism!) into our church family. Some have come through reaffirming their faith in Christ, in other words, speaking the words of our church's covenant. Some have come as newborns via the birth and baptismal route! At least 18 have come as teens or adults through baptism. I baptized seven adults in 2002 - three of whom came to us from families rooted in Buddhism.
Almost all of the folks sitting around you plunged into the joys of discipleship and covenant at First Church - some half a century ago - some a few months ago! All of us are trying to figure out how to live faithfully in God's love, in this world that often seems turned upside down! But, through covenant, we join with others and don't try to make the journey alone.
Clearly, living into covenant could keep us busy this year. But, my four other goals grow out of covenantal love. They are essentially, developing lay leadership, mission, stewardship and evangelism.
LAY LEADERSHIP - The writer of Hebrews tells us, "Now, Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). In the church, I have often found that we approach faith from an unfaithful perspective. Instead of the inspiring and mystical words from Hebrews which speak to the hope and the unseen nature of faith, we say, "Now guarantee the outcome and convince us by giving us results that we can see. Show us the end at the beginning." In other words, un-faith.
In the church, we too often want our new leaders to come with some sort of guarantee; that is, they are really good, they always follow through, they never stumble, they know what to do and they know how and when to do it - all without being fully trained. How do I know this? Because I do this at times and have had it happen to me! I have seen us resemble parents who sit and watch their baby, waiting for the little person to get up and walk.
We have many talented people here. We have many committed people here. And it is essential that we call new people into leadership and nurture and train them so that they can use their God-given gifts to move this congregation forward in faith. We have to help a new generation of leaders, recognize their spiritual gifts, and then to trust, respect and love them into their roles as our leaders. If a baby is not assisted in taking steps, he or she will willingly sit and watch. Gifted, talented, and capable leaders in this church are no different. Now, to those of you are sitting and watching, our Moderator, our church leaders, our staff need to know that you are ready to stand and walk! Otherwise, we may seem to be folks who are ignoring you when you are ready, or pushing you when you are not! Communication is the key to our success in this church! As Susan and I used to say to our children (and sometimes still do) - "Use your words!"
MISSIONARIES - I am excited to tell you that 28 adults and youth are headed west this summer to Native American Reservations in South Dakota and Wisconsin! They are missionaries! They carry the love of God to others and receive amazing gifts of love from those whom they serve among. All of us, need to be missionaries. We need to share the resources of our love with others. When the offering plate comes around each Sunday, we are challenged to be missionaries through our loose plate offering as well as our tithes and weekly commitments to the church. When we pick up our hammers and reconstruct the Gladden Community House Project on Meek Avenue every Saturday, we are missionaries. When we serve meals at Faith Mission, we are missionaries. When we organize mass meetings or research BREAD issues in areas of education, housing, and health care, we are missionaries. When we help with Take it to the Streets, or Sanctorum, or any one of the mission projects available to us as ways to serve through First Church, we are missionaries. When we go to Jamaica for CATALYST, or to distant lands on our mission trips, or heart surgery trips, or Habitat for Humanity home building trips, we are missionaries.
In each and every case it is not merely the going and doing that matters, but the return and sharing of information and mission vision that matters. In 2003, each of us needs to find ways to serve as missionaries - missionaries of education, of justice, of service to the poor, the alienated, and the forgotten or left behind.
STEWARDS AND EVANGELISTS - two words and callings that have lost significance for many in recent years. In stewardship, most of us need to reassess how and where we spend our resources. Jesus says, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be." We put our money where our heart is. It's true. I am thankful for the treasure that many of you share, from the heart. I am aware that we, as individuals are as a congregation, have a long way to go in investing our treasures in the mission and ministry of First Church. Truth be told, if the membership of this congregation gave even 1% of income to the life and ministry of this church, I estimate that our church's budget would easily be in excess of $3 million. As it is, we head into 2003 with $463,000 in pledges. Imagine for a moment that we ran the church on the current amount - give or take $40,000. The rest would be for mission. Imagine giving $2.5 million dollars away to others through the church! What a joy divine!
On Martin Luther King, Jr.'s actual birthday (January 15), Susan, Sarah and I worshiped in a small, apostolic church on East Oak Street. Bishop Jamison presided over 20 people. The stained-glass windows were duct-taped in places. Several of the children showed signs of down-syndrome or mental disabilities. We were with economically poor people who were struggling to make ends meet. But, it was a place of joy. It was a community of hope. We were embraced and loved. When the offering was collected, the plate was overflowing with cash gifts and was carried forward for dedication by a boy no older than five. I was truly moved and humbled by the faith and witness of my sisters and brothers in faith. They said they would pray for us and they will. We would do well to learn the joy of giving and living as faithful stewards from Bishop Jamison's members.
FINALLY, EVANGELISM - Charles Bayer, a Disciples of Christ pastor writes:
The church does not exist for its own sake. Its purpose is not defined by survival. The care and feeding of itself is not its central mission. It exists to give itself away! It never puts its own needs ahead of the needs of the world - of the least, of the last, of the lost. It exists to serve, even at the cost of its own life. That self-giving mission in the world is also called - "Evangelism."
Evangelism means "Spreading Good News." In the case of Christians, the good news is that Jesus Christ is "God With Us!" We need to be evangelists as though our lives depended on it. As we experience the good news of God's love in our lives, we need to share that good news with others. Whether through First Church or elsewhere, how is God speaking to you? How are you being changed by God's love? It's funny how we have no trouble telling others about a good movie, a good book, or a good restaurant. Yet, we mightily struggle to share with others our feelings about church and about God in our lives.
This year, I encourage you to live into our birthright as Christians - the birthright of evangelism. I often feel that if the only message about Christian faith is shared by fundamentalists or extremely conservative theological persons of faith, then our families, neighbors, co-workers, and friends are diminished and deprived and the breath and depth of the Christian message is watered down and lost.
Once I told a colleague that he had to speak out in support of gay and lesbian Christians, and those who were left out and left behind by our society because of their struggles with race, mental, physical, or emotional challenges. I said he had to speak out because if he didn't, the only voices heard in the pulpits of his community would be ones crushing and destroying the lives and spirits of gay persons and their families and friends and so many others. Our silence is not simply a problem. Our silence can kill. Our prayers can give life. Our words and actions of grace, faith, hope, and love can bring new life!
DO you know anyone who needs a church home, or a new, open, accepting, and affirming community of faith? Do you know anyone who you think would embrace our covenant of faith? Do you know anyone who you can invite to church? Do you know anyone who would flourish and come to life in our community of faith? Do not be silent. Invite them. Welcome them. Pick them up. Bring them to church! God is at work in First Church, creating and renewing faithful people of all ages, tongues and races! Pass the word! Spread the good news! Share the joy!
With the Holy Spirit as our power source and inspiration, we will achieve these five goals in 2003. We must all work together and remember that EVERY MEMBER MATTERS!
The Holy Spirit has, through the ages, called men and women, youth and children of faith to be and do amazing things for God! Empowered not by egos and good-works agendas, but empowered by the Holy Spirit, who is the one always calling the church in every generation out of itself and into the world in mission to others, nothing is impossible!
How will we know if the Holy Spirit is leading us? One measure with five dimensions: Did we come to the place of action in prayer, in grace, in faith, in hope, in love - all together - in Christ?
1. PRAYER 2. GRACE 3. FAITH 4. HOPE 5. LOVE.
With these five dimensions in JESUS CHRIST, all things that are possible. And all those things that are possible become probable. And the probable becomes reality! Amen.
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