Living in Harmony – Sermon on Romans 12.9-18

We tried something different in church this week. Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the church up into 6 groups (each bulletin contained a number between 1-6) and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.

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Living in Harmony

Directions for Group Leaders:

Thank you for agreeing to help facilitate conversation during worship. Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your willingness to help lead I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with your group: Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where everyone sits in the sanctuary. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than getting to answer all of them without really soaking up the answers.

  1. Reread the following scripture to set up the activity:
    1. Romans 12.9-18
    2. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 
  2. Ask everyone to share their name.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes we will be speaking casually with one another about our interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “the last time you experienced God’s presence” or “sharing moments of great sinfulness from your lives.” Instead it will be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and let it move on to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in our church and in our community.
  4. Below are a list of questions to ask of the group. You may read one aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random (the choice is yours). I have written more questions than you will probably be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know what questions are working and which ones need to be left behind. Emphasis should be placed on giving everyone ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response to an answer please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone becomes long-winded please ask them to conclude so that we can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you saw (on TV or in the Theaters) and why?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Staunton, and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents? How did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one super-power what would it be, and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt pure joy and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the summer and why?
    9. If they made a movie of your life, which actor would you want to play you?
    10. If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?
    11. Who is your hero (a parent, celebrity, writer, etc.) and why?
    12. What is one thing that you are extremely proud of?
    13. If you had a time machine, where and when would you travel?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you go and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. At 11:50 we need everyone back in the sanctuary. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary:
      1. Prayer: “Almighty God, you know us and have called us by name. In the midst of this community, we give you thanks for everyone in this group. We praise you for providing interests, opinions, and observations. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of community. Give us the strength to live in harmony with one another, and allow us to be people who can extend hospitality toward strangers. Amen. 

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Homily:

I have wanted to do this activity since I arrived at St. John’s. We do such a good job at welcoming and connecting with one another on Sunday mornings, and during other church activities, but I’m not sure how well we really know one another.

I once knew a man who said the loneliest times in his life occurred at 11am every Sunday morning when he was sitting in our packed sanctuary. For years he was a regular worshipper, and for year no one bothered to reach out; no one knew his name, where he was from, or what was going on in his life. Ever since I was appointed here I thought about breaking us into groups to combat the exact type of loneliness that man described.

I waited and waited and then last week something happened that made me realize how desperately we needed to do what we just did.

Our secretary discovered a man standing in our parking lot in the middle of the afternoon and approached to ask if there was anything she could help with. Without intending to, the man began to cry. He said, “I lost my wife a few months ago and today would have been our 49th wedding anniversary. 49 years ago we were standing in this church with hope for the future. These last few months have been the loneliest in my life.

I don’t want to be part of a church that does not know about a man’s 49th wedding anniversary. I don’t want our sanctuary to be the loneliest place on Sunday mornings. We did not ask and answer the questions today to just learn superficial facts about one another; we did so with the hope that these facts would spark new and lasting relationships. This church should be the place where we combat the terrible forces of loneliness. Amen.

 

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Actions > Words – Sermon on Mark 1.14-20

Mark 1.14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fisherman. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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When did I last share my faith with someone?” The paper with the question stretched across my lap in the parlor. I had been meeting with a discipleship circle once a month for a year. Our typical routine is to gather, celebrate communion together, engage in a short devotional, and then ask some of the traditional Wesleyan questions as a group. For instance one of the questions is: “Do I pray about the money I spend?” We would then take turns going around in a circle and answering the question honestly, and practice being vulnerable as we seek to grow in love of God and neighbor.

The evening began with a simpler question: “Did the bible live in me today?” Some of the answers were beautiful, some were simple, and others stretched the definition of living out God’s Word. But then it was my turn to draw one of the random questions from the bag, and I read the words out slowly and deliberately: “When did I last share my faith with someone?” All eyes in the room fell on me to answer the question.

To be honest: I hate that question. I hate how Christians have overemphasized the importance of evangelism to the point of events such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. I hate how sharing faith has been boiled down into trying to make other people into Christians. I hate the flyers I find in public bathrooms, and the desperate pleas for people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior or face eternal damnation. Yet, there I sat and it was my turn to respond.

I began: “I last shared my faith on Sunday when I was speaking from the pulpit. We had a number of people here in worship and as I preached, I shared my faith.” The room was silent, and it was clear my answer did not satisfy the group. “That doesn’t count” one of them muttered, “answer it truthfully.

I shivered and felt ashamed because I realized that I could not remember the last time I shared my faith outside the context of serving as a pastor.

Following Jesus means sacrifice and bringing others to him. Simon and Andrew were in the middle of fishing, participating in their careers, when Jesus called them to fish for people. They left their nets, which is to say they left their ways of life, to follow this strange and compelling man. So too, James and John were mending their nets when Jesus called them to follow and they left it all behind. The life of discipleship for them, and for us, is not easy; it requires a commitment unlike anything else, and it will cost us our very lives. 

As I sat before my friends and peers with the question weighing heavily upon me, I began to wonder: If I believe Jesus is the light of the world, that God is the author of salvation, that the Holy Spirit gives me life, then why am I so afraid to share that with others?

I left the meeting that night with a heavy heart. The conversation had moved to a new direction but I kept replaying the question in my head over and over again. Had I grown content with just assuming that people will keep showing up to church on Sunday mornings? Or am I willing to be a fisher for people?

I made a promise to myself in the car that night: For the next two weeks I was going to take nothing for granted and I was going to explore fishing for people; I was going to share my faith with others.

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Two days later I was sitting in a McDonalds in Orange, VA. I had wandered around in the cold while Lindsey was busy with a visit and decided to warm myself up under the glow of the golden arches. The place was packed. Friends and families took up the majority of the seating, and though I wanted to just grab my soda and sit alone with a book, I remembered the promise I made and began searching the joint. Near a television that was showing reports on CNN I discovered a middle aged man sitting all alone with a Big Mac, fries, and an extra large Coke. I sat down beside him, and though I felt the Holy Spirit pushing me to speak with him, I couldn’t figure out where to start. A few awkward moments passed until I blurted out, “How’s your dinner?” The man slowly looked up from his food and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s McDonalds” he said, as if returning my question with a question. Again, I was at a loss for what to do next, but he decided to pick up the conversation. He motioned toward the television:

“What do you make of all these terrorist attacks in Europe?”

“I think it’s terrible, and I will never understand how people believe that death can accomplish what they want.”

“If we catch them, how do you think they should be punished?”

“I guess they should be charged, and put in prison if found guilty. Maybe they’ll even turn their lives around.”

“If I had it my way, I’d string ‘em up in the center of town for everyone to see while they suffer and are killed for what they’ve done.”

At this point I should have just stopped talking and gone back to my book, but I couldn’t help myself. I should have at least thought about what I was about to say, before I said it:

“You know, a group of people once hung a man on a tree to die for a crime that he did not commit, just so everyone could witness his suffering.”

“Oh really? Who was that?”

His name was Jesus.

The rest of our time together at McDonalds was filled with silence. Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes people aren’t in a place to hear it and respond.

This is the view from an airplane.

Later that night I was in line to board an airplane with Lindsey as we were preparing to make our way to visit her parents in Florida. Due to an oversight with the airline, they overbooked our flight and bumped one of us to first class. I pleaded with my wife to take the ticket, to enjoy the flight from the comfort of high society, but (like the true disciple she is) she insisted that I take the upgrade and stretch out my legs.

I had never been in first class before and was excited and nervous about the experience. When I found my seat I discovered that I would be sitting next to a man who was already watching an episode of South Park on the screen in front of him, jovially chuckling to himself. I got comfortable, and while the rest of the common people were entering the plane, a stewardess came by to take our drink order. I said that I was fine and went back to my book when my seat-mate looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Son, getting a drink is the best part of flying first class!” and proceeded to order a Jack-and-Coke.

Four Jack-and-Cokes later we were in the air and I had my laptop open and my bible in my lap when the man leaned over to talk. I thought, “this time the person is coming to me” and I quickly prayed that God might give me something to say.

“What are you working on?”

“It’s a sermon for Sunday; I’m a pastor.”

“Well then, what are you reading?”

“It’s the Bible?”

“What do you think of it? Any good?” (Like he was asking about a John Grisham novel)

It’s the living Word of God for the people of God.

He paused and looked as if he was trying to figure out if I was serious or not, and slowly brought his headphones back to his ear, and drink to his mouth.

Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes people aren’t in a place to hear it and respond.

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Lindsey wasn’t feeling well when we returned from Florida so we decided to hit the Minute-Clinic at Walmart to find out if she needed a prescription or not. Remembering that she so graciously volunteered for me to ride in First Class, I thought it only appropriate that I drive and stay with her during the appointment. The waiting area was rather crowded, so I saw Lindsey to her seat and decided to sit on a bench outside of the room. I had a book with me and was looking forward to some light reading when I noticed a very disheveled man sitting on the bench all alone.

His mullet was knotted and unkempt. His smell was palpable from a few paces away. His clothes were stained and ill-fitting. His skin was blotchy and unhealthy. And I knew that I needed to share my faith with him. 

Unlike the previous two attempts I did not feel the pressure of the Spirit nagging me to do something, and I did not have a bible with me to spark a conversation, so instead I just decided to be myself, rather than someone else.

I introduced myself and sat down. He kept staring off into the distance, clearly focused on other things and remained unfazed by my presence.

Do you mind if I ask you a question?

He shrugged as if to say “I don’t care”

How are you doing?

He slowly turned his head to look at the stranger sitting next to him and he began to answer the question. I learned about how he and his wife had fallen on hard times and could no longer purchase anything other than food. He shared with me his own personal frustrations with not being able to provide for his family. He talked about how people are so blind to the needs of others in our community because they just assume that everyone is fine. He vented about employment opportunities and the lack of fairness in the hiring process because businesses are only looking to hire people who think and look just like themselves. And he told me that he was at Walmart so that his wife could walk around the store and feel like she was shopping even though they would be going home empty handed.

The conversation went on and on and I let the man speak, I let him go wherever he needed, and I just sat there and listened. When the time came his wife found us sitting on the bench and he told me that it was time to go. I could tell that he was in a better place than he was before the conversation, perhaps because he was finally able to get some of his worries off his chest, and before he left he turned around to shake my hand and said, “Thanks for listening -nobody else does.

Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes our actions speak louder than our words.

I don’t know for sure what compelled the first four disciples to drop their nets and follow Jesus, but I imagine it had a lot to do with his actions. Jesus loved to eat among the poor and the outcast, he loved to seek out the last and the lost, and he was known for listening to people in the midst of their trials and tribulations.

Sharing our faith is a difficult task because it requires us to be vulnerable and step into situations that might blow up in our faces. It implies a willingness to believe that faith is something so important and life-giving that it is worth sharing no matter what. Sharing our faith means we have to start acting like Jesus outside the walls of church to meet people where they are and listen.

When was the last time you shared your faith with someone? Amen