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Sermon for March 30, 2008

The Best We Have to Offer
March 30, 2008
Philippians 4:6-8

You are God in a physical body. You are Spirit in the flesh. You are Eternal Life expressing itself as You. You are a cosmic being. You are all power. You are all wisdom. You are all intelligence. You are perfection. You are magnificence. You are the creator, and you are creating the creation of You on this planet. The earth turns on its orbit for You. The oceans ebb and flow for You. The birds sing for You. The sun rises and it sets for You. The stars come out for You. Every beautiful thing you see, every wondrous thing you experience, is all there for You. Take a look around. None of it can exist, without You. No matter who you thought you were, now you know the Truth of Who You Really Are. You are the perfection of Life. And now you know The Secret. At least that’s what author Rhoda Byre would want you to believe. Her bestselling book called The Secret finally reveals the hidden knowledge of the universe that we need in order to be happy, healthy, and prosperous. She calls it the law of attraction. It goes like this: Know what you want and ask the universe for it. Feel and behave as if the object of your desire is on its way. Be open to receiving it. Her book claims to give us everything we’ve ever wanted, just through the power of positive thinking. Your thoughts become things. You are the most powerful power in the universe simply because whatever you think about will come to be. You shape the world that exists around you. You shape your own life and destiny through the power of your mind.

Let’s put it to the test. Ms. Byrne makes the unbelievable claim that food can only make you fat if you think it can make you fat. If you determine that food is unable to make you gain weight, you can eat as much as you want and never gain wait or suffer any ill effects. And all this time, we’ve been told that the key to weight loss was exercise and calorie reduction.

You are what you think. Do you think that’s true? Some people claim that it was the core of what Jesus taught. Well, I think the Bible talks about positive thinking, but not in the way that the new age self-help gurus would want us to think. Today’s reading from Philippians is a case in point. Paul does not seem to be in a very good situation. We learn almost accidentally that he is in prison awaiting a trial that could result in his death. Yet in this little letter, the words joy and rejoice appear 14 times, concluding with the declaration, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” These verses bear the marks of Paul’s own personal experience with God. Even in a place of distress, he can be calm because the Lord is near.

Paul had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord Always.” He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “...with THANKSGIVING let your requests be known to God.” He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstance, but instead he wrote: “...whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable... if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

We are not always free to determine what happens to us, but we are relatively free to choose how we will respond to whatever happens. To me, this is the difference between optimisn and hope. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that things are going to be better. If you’ve ever watched Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, you may remember the scene at the end of the movie where Brian is crucified. Next to him hangs criminal who turns to Brian and sings, “Always look on the bright side of life.” That’s optimism!

Hope looks at the world around us and says, “It doesn’t look good at all but we will make a leap of faith.” Optimism always reframes bad situations as good. Hope wrestles with despair and creates new possibilities. Hope gives us visions in which we against the odds with no guarantee what so ever.” Paul does not drown in despair. He does not put on a happy face and sing, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Paul chooses to rejoice in hope. His attitude is a step of courageous action. Paul reminds me of Victor Frankel who said, “Everything can be taken from a man but ...the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” In an act of heroic defiance, Paul encourages others to think on that which brings out the best of who we can be.

Traditional organizational development begins with the assumption that something is not working. Something is broken, something is messed up, something is missing. I suspect you have been with groups that huddle around a set of discouraging facts: giving is down, loyalty is waning, morale is low. Something is not working. A consultant is called in to fix it. The traditional approach begins with the premise that our life together is a problem to solve. It’s not a very encouraging start; it’s not a very energizing beginning.

Well, in the midst of my study and reflection, I learned about a tool called Appreciative Inquiry. It begins with the assumption that something is working. More than that, something good is at work, even when we feel stuck – even in hard times – even when we think that there is no positive change around us. So, let’s pay attention to that good. As Paul would encourage us, “Whatever is good and excellent and praiseworthy, think on these things.” We are going to start using this approach here at Trumbull Congregational Church.

In Appreciative Inquiry, we tell stories about peak moments in our life together – moments when we felt most alive, moments when we felt most connected, moments when we felt deeply loved – and we excavate these moments for all their worth. Why? Because the stories are good news, because they are the Word of God dwelling among us. Our stories have the power to propel us into possibility. They invite us to participate in the new life already emerging in our midst.

In Appreciative Inquiry, we take time to think about how God delights in us. We remember the times when we experienced the abundance of God’s blessings.

Sometimes we forget that. We begin to tell different stories. Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard a dominant story told over and over again. It goes something like this: In order to be who God wants us to be, we need more members and more money. This story defines our reality here. It may have seemed true at one point in our life together, but let’s be honest – it’s not a life-giving story. When I hear those words, I don’t get excited about God’s future for us. These words do not inspire me to think on that which is beautiful and excellent. In fact, they sound like complaints to me.

And believe me, I know how easy it is to complain, -- to find dissatisfaction with a situation or circumstance. A monk joined a monastery and took a vow of silence. After the first 10 years his superior called him in and asked, “Do you have anything to say?” The monk replied, “Food bad.” After another 10 years the monk again had opportunity to voice his thoughts. He said, “Bed hard.” Another 10 years went by and again he was called in before his superior. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded, “I quit.” “It doesn’t surprise me a bit.” Replied the monk’s superior. “You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you got here.”

It is easy to go the way of our monk and take all our opportunities to complain. And sometimes I’m the monk in that story. On my better days, I try to live differently. I try to tell a different story.

I think we could all use to hear some new stories – not about blind optimism but about our hopes and dreams. Some stories about how God has used our church in the past. Some stories about our traditions can have a positive impact on our future. Some stories about what we think God is calling us to do and who God is calling us to be. We could use some new ways to talk about why our church is here and how we see ourselves fulfilling God’s aims for the world.

Today I’m inviting you to join us in the exciting discovery. I believe that God can work more powerfully in this congregation than we have seen in a long time. But we need your help. Not just the person next to you. We need you. In our congregational tradition, we believe that every single voice counts. Every person’s story is important. When more people participate, we get a fuller picture of who we are and who God calls us to be. So, here’s what I’m inviting you to do:

1. Attend the All-church Potluck Dinner on Saturday, April 5 at 6:00 PM. Everyone is invited. Long timer. Long-time friend of the church. Casual attendee, or first time visitor. We are going to begin the process of appreciative inquiry -- telling our life giving stories – thinking about who we are when we are at our best.

2. During the month of April, I urge you to attend our weekly Cottage Meetings led by a trained team of facilitators: Wendy Ferencz, Carolyn Kalahar, Kirsetn Nestro, Ruth Wakely, and Paul Buttress. These meetings will help us to listen to the stories about who we are as a church when we are at our best and give us an array of alternate ways to experience our church identity. All ages are welcome to attend. Childcare will be provided. Meetings will begin on Thursday, April 10 at 7:00 PM.

3. We will share our findings at a final congregational gathering on Saturday, May 3 at 6:30 PM. We will gather and ask ourselves, "What are some creative and caring behaviors that sustain who we are as a church when we are at our best?”

You are an important person in the life of our church. Please make the time to participate in this significant project for the future of TCC. Your input will have a direct and immediate impact on who we are and how we do things here.

Thanks ahead of time for your participation. Please feel free to contact me with questions. Call or Email me with questions.

There are plenty of stories in the world about pain and blame and deficit. Following the leading of Paul, it’s time for us to begin another conversation – a holy source of life. God has been present and continues to be active in the realms of truth, justice, goodness, and excellence. Join us as we tell our stories, and trust that God is not done with us yet. Join us as we think through the best we have to offer – to one another in our church, to our community, and to God.

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