Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sermon for September 7, 2008

Our Core Values: A Vision for TCC
Micah 4:1-5, 1 John 4:21

In the course of history, big people with big ideas make a big impact on world history. Sometimes, people of little notoriety with big ideas make a small ripple on the lake of history. The ripple expands, slowly spreading out, gaining momentum, and reaching many over time. Micah is one of these people. Micah prefers the simplicity of the country to the commotion of city life. The capitol city Jerusalem offers nothing that he can’t get at home or just do without. And like many people who live in forgotten rural areas, Micah is a patriot. He sees what the national leaders do to his country and he is outraged. Greedy leaders kill others for money and power. The King of Judah raises taxes to build luxurious fortresses and palaces for himself while the common people in the country suffer. Nobles fleece the poor, judges accept bribes, and religious leaders are more interested in wealth than truth. And Micah is mad (see Micah 3:11; 7:1-7).

Micah knows history. He knows that God entered into a mutual covenant with Abraham. He knows that God promised to make Abraham’s future generations prosper if Abraham made every effort to worship and follow God alone. Micah knows history. He knows God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and used the prophet Moses and the priest Aaron to lead them to the promised land. Micah remembers that in return for their salvation, the people promised to worship the God of Israel alone and to take care of each other. Micah knows history, but it seems like no one else does. In every sector of public life, the leaders don’t seem to remember God’s promises and their commitments. They don’t remember that God is reluctant to punish, and that there is sorrow in God’s anger. But Micah knows history, and the knowledge torments him. Micah not only knows where his people have been, he also clearly sees where they are.

The power of God comes upon Micah to declare his people’s sins to them (3:8). Micah hurls bitter words at his leaders:
Listen, you leaders of Israel! You are supposed to know right from wrong, but you are the very ones who hate good and love evil. You skin my people alive and tear the flesh off their bones. (3:1-2, NLT).
He relentlessly predicts disaster and disgrace for the leaders and the nation. And he stands utterly alone. Micah’s standards are too high, his stature is too small, and his concern is too intense. You wouldn’t invite Micah to a dinner party. He ruins gatherings with his doom and gloom. He never encourages people. He’s so negative. But Micah won’t back down. He knows that those who live selfish and luxurious lives on the backs of the poor, even though they offer costly sacrifices, suck the lifeblood of the nation.

Imagine Micah’s anguished frustration. He knows that severe punishment is at hand. He knows where Israel has been and where they are. He also plainly understands where they are going. And while it seems that Israel is facing some tough times, Micah sees the bigger picture. He knows that God has great things planned for Israel. Micah reminds them that one day a promised ruler from Bethlehem will come and lead Israel with justice–a true shepherd who will bring peace. He tells everyone that a religious and political revival like no one has ever imagined is coming. Jerusalem will become the most important place on earth. People from all nations will stream into Jerusalem to be in God’s presence. God alone will speak and settle international disputes. Poor farmers will no longer have to support a military state while their families starve, for all wars will stop and military training will come to an end. Swords shall be beaten into plowshares. True lasting peace and prosperity will reign. And Micah can put forth this awesome vision because he understands where they have come from, where they are, and where they are going.

Micah inspires me. I’m no prophet for sure, but in the big picture I am a little guy with big dreams who is ready to make a little impact with a big wake. It’s funny, though, how one’s perspective changes overtime. Especially with religious experiences. I’ve been baptized three times – my mother baptized me Catholic, then promptly left the Catholic church to join the Congregationalists. I was baptized a second time in the UCC. In my teen years, I walked away from the congregational church and became a born-again Baptist, complete with a third baptism. I’ve spent time worshiping with the Christian and Missionary Alliance in a YMCA, attended an evangelical liberal arts school with a degree in biblical studies, and was ordained in a very conservative Presbyterian church near Boston. I used to hand out biblical literature in shopping malls and preach the gospel from city park benches. I only listened to worship music, and I pledged that I would never let me love for God grow cold. I would drop by acquaintances houses unannounced and try to convert them to my brand of Christianity. For a while, it was a happy world. I knew what I believed. I knew where I stood. Today I stand in a different place.

I don’t know if I can pinpoint the exact date the change happened. When I look back at who I was and what I believed four years ago, I realize that I have redefined by beliefs since coming to TCC. I no longer believe what I preached and taught in the past. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure it out – what I believe and what I don’t, reconciling my views with my understanding of Scripture. I’ve come to think of life as a journey. We never arrive at the final destination of our faith while we are alive. As we travel closer to the heart of God, we get rid of heavy baggage that we don’t need. We pick up a few helpful items along the way. We try new things. We also continue to use the tried and true articles that have been helpful in the past. We look back where from where we’ve come, we take stock of the present moment with its challenges and blessings. But we also keep moving on. In that process, I have become that which I used to dread and fear the most. I’ve been trying to hide it with phrases like progressive evangelical, but the truth is, I’ve become a liberal (Some of you may hear this little confession of mine and become disgusted. You will hear the word liberal and fill it with your assumptions. It’s OK! I used to be in the same place as you. I still do it, too. We tend to think in terms of absolutes and categories).

So, let me tell you where my faith is going. I still listen for call of Micah and Jesus: to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the oppressed, and the favor of God (Lk. 4:18-19). What defines me as a Christian is the quality of my love. For me, that means making faith a matter of community responsibility, not just personal commitments. It means remembering that being a Christian is more than personal piety–it has everything to do with how we work for justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). It means that I am no longer willing to prescribe what someone else’s Christian journey has to look like–not judging and condemning but learning the power of forgiveness and of being forgiven (Lk. 6:37-38). I want to walk with you on your path of discovery -- to help you find your own way as you seek to learn about what experiencing God’s favor means to you and those around you.

I believe that the possibility of a new way of life is the gift of God, whose beloved Son died for sin and rose to conquer it. My deepest conviction is that we are called to pour out our lives for one another as Christ Jesus did on our behalf. I believe that a world for God is a world transformed.
· It is a world where we are free to pursue the common good without becoming the enemy of a sullen, hostile, and suspicious government.
· A world in which the poor are fed.
· A world in which the homeless are sheltered.
· A world in which the prisoners are treated humanely.
· A world in which economic opportunity is shared by all, for the good of all.
· A world in which race is no barrier.
· A world in which love and fidelity is rewarded.
· A world in which soldiers' sacrifice is not wasted on vanity and greed.
· A world in which swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
· A world where we are united in our commonalities instead of excluded by our differences.
· A world in which neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us one from the love God has for us and that we show to one another.

That is my goal. That is my desire. That is the challenge I present to the status quo. That is where I am going. And I invite others to share their journeys with me as we seek to do God’s work and understand God’s plan together.

Let me tell you about a group of people I know. They live in a beautiful and vital town that seems to remain very stable, even when the world around them is falling apart. Their town was one of Money magazine’s best 100 places to live in the USA in 2007. These give money to their church and other ministries in the community. They have had some disappointments, some fights and struggles. They have also experienced great joys and successes. The people I have in mind do not primarily go to their church because they are drawn to congregational church government. They come because they want to be encouraged, and supported. They want to connect with God and one another. They want to raise their kids and grand-kids with strong morals and traditional faith.

If you haven’t figured it our yet, I’m talking about you. I think you are great. You keep things going, even in tough times. Money keeps coming. Sunday School continues. Volunteers step up. And despite ups and downs, you have made it clear that this church has an important place in your lives and in the community–that life would be poorer if there was no longer a congregational church on the corner of White Plains Rd. and Reservoir Ave.

But I need to ask, like Micah asked his people, and like I asked myself: where are you going? What do you stand for, and where will it take you? We are starting to get a glimpse of our future possibilities. After last Spring’s cottage meetings, the facilitators and I drafted a document called “Sustaining TCC at Our Best; A statement of Vision." I hope you have had a chance to look at this statement of the core values that the members and friends of this church expressed. Listen to what we affirm:

As members of the Trumbull Congregational Church, our common life is rooted in Christ’s greatest commandment – to love God and to love one another. In light of this shared value, we aspire:
· To see a deeper relationship with God through prayer, study and service.
· To honor our cherished traditions as life-giving witnesses to us and to future generations.
· To encourage hospitality, extending a generous welcome to all our members, friends, and visitors. No one is a stranger here.
· To grow a church family that embraces diversity within a safe, positive, and nurturing environment.
· To move beyond simple tolerance toward genuine understanding. We recognize that all people are free to make choices regarding their own personal and spiritual journeys.
· To listen attentively, seek others’ opinions, and understand that differing values do exist within our church family.
· To deal with disagreements constructively, communicating with others in a direct, caring, and responsible manner.
· To recognize that children and youth are a vital part of our church family and to welcome them into all aspects of church life.
· To express gratitude and support for the staff, church members and friends who volunteer their time and talents in support of the programs and governance of the church.
· To extend God’s love, through service and outreach, to t hose in the community and the world, as best as we are able.

Trumbull Congregational Church, you know where you’ve been. You know where you are. We are a mixed bunch here: liberals open to pluralism and free thought; Evangelicals with fervor and determination to follow Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture; traditionalists and iconoclasts. But do you know where you’re going? Our vision for the future affirms that love covers differences and unites strangers. It is a high and hard calling because it is nothing less becoming a beacon to a world that rarely finds wider unity in sustained ways. It’s a vision of what it means for us to be followers of Christ. Do you know where we are going? The path is ahead, the path of Christ’s love ready for us to travel together. May God give us a new vision, and the courage to listen and follow together.

· Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 1 (New York: Harper:1962), 98-102.
· George Robinson, The 12 Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker,1926), 94-105
· http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2007/moneymag/0707/gallery.BPTL_top_100.moneymag/68.html
· Life Together: An Agenda For Progressive Religion by Dan Schultz http://www.progressivechristianwitness.org/pcw/pdf/Expl_SchulzLifeTogether.pdf
· When Narrative Identities Clash: Liberals versus Evangelicals by Wesley J. Wildman, http://www.progressivechristianwitness.org/pcw/pdf/Expl_WildmanNarrative.pdf

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