Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Design for a Dream

Following is the sermon I preached on August 19. It is the final sermon in a series on "The Discipleship Adventure" and is based upon Acts 2:37-47 and Matthew 28:16-20. It is a sermon that instigated a tremendous amount of comments and feedback. As you will read, I continue to reflect on Tracy's death and all I have learned from it:

I received an email from a friend earlier in the week. It was filled with good news as a baby has been born. The baby is the first for the couple, and they are elated. The father of the child could hardly wait to share what had happened in their life. They have been given a child. He wanted to share the good news as soon as possible.

Craig calls often to tell me about certain sales or deals that come to his attention. We both love getting a deal or finding a good sale. There are times when he cannot wait to tell me about a deal, promotion, coupon or sale. He calls with the news of his discovery because he is so excited about it. He wants to share the news as soon as possible.

There are times when we cannot wait to tell people about good news. When I got engaged, I sent an email to many of my friends and family. When we have a child born in our lives, we send out birth announcements. If we get a new job, we often call people and tell them about it. If we buy a house, we send out pictures of the house on a change of address card. We like telling good news. We enjoy sharing with others the good things that happen in our lives.

It should come as no surprise to any of you that I spend a lot of my time thinking about how I can tell others the good news of Christ. Many of my thoughts are focused upon the future of this church and how we can best offer to new people an experience of the resurrected Lord. In my mind, I can picture a sanctuary filled with people of all ages, nationalities, economic backgrounds, beliefs, lifestyles and races. I can picture this congregation going out into the city often, serving people in a myriad of ways through its ministries and faithful service in this community. I can visualize us baptizing infants and adults, welcoming into our fold people who have always been a part of a church and people who are discovering the power of a personal relationship with God and the gift of being in an authentic Christian community for the first time. I can imagine a building filled with people at all hours of the day and night, giving people a place to belong, a place to serve, a place to grow, a place to exercise, a place to learn, and a place to enjoy the company of others. These are the details of my dream.

In 1960, there were over 4500 people on the membership roster of this church. In the 1940s and 50s, we filled the sanctuary to a capacity so large that it would make the Fire Marshall angry if he came to worship. Today, however, we can easily fit everyone into this space that seats 150. And, and a year ago we were thinking of having worship in the trailer on the front lawn of the church.

When I arrived here two years ago, many of you told me that you had voted. You had voted to spend whatever money was in the church coffers, and then you would hand the keys to the church over to the conference and say, “That’s it. We’re finished. We have done all that we could do.” You were tired. You felt as though you had done everything and still nothing seemed to bring new people into the church’s doors. At the rate of spending, we were forecasted to close two years from now. Rather than dedicating space in a beautiful office building in 2009, Mount Vernon Place would be slated for closure. Times have changed, however.

Something rather exciting and remarkable is happening here. While this area was once filled with crime and decay, we now sit on the edge of one of the most vibrant communities in the city. An advertisement for a new condominium development reads, “Move into Madrigal Lofts this year and be part of the emerging scene in one of DC’s most sought-after neighborhoods.” Madrigal Lofts is a few blocks down the street. The sought after neighborhood is right here.

There are condominiums and apartment buildings being created all around us. One development down the street will hold 441 condos and 244 apartments. Its advertisement reads, “Dine here. Shop here. Picnic here. Swim here. Work out here. Live here.” Well, my friends, I want the people living in this building to go to church here!

A colleague of mine who has done an extensive amount of research on this area claims that 60 to 80 percent of the 136,000 people who live in downtown Washington – are either dechurched or unchurched people. Approximately 92,000 individuals living around us are not currently involved in a worshipping community. My friend, Paul, writes, “If you have ever taken a stroll thru the café culture of Dupont Circle on a Sunday morning or seen half the world out walking their dogs in Capitol Hill, you are left wondering if anyone goes to church in this city.”[1] The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers are few.

We look for a final time today at the church found in Acts 2. It is the first church, the beginning church. The people who have gathered have heard a powerful message proclaimed about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. They respond by repenting of their sin and being baptized. They turn away from the ways of the world and turn towards the teaching of Christ. They devote themselves to learning as much as they can about Jesus, fellowshipping and breaking bread with the people who can teach them more about their faith. They radically hold in common all that they own, making sure that everyone is taken care of in their community – that there is not a needy person among them. They praise God with all that they have and all that they are. And something happens in the midst of these actions and reactions. When others see this community – a community that celebrates God’s presence, grows in faith, welcomes everyone into its midst, and serves everyone around them – especially those who do not have their basic needs being met – when people see the extraordinary, rare qualities of this community, other people want to be part of it. We are told that “day by day the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved.”[2]

The church does not grow because of a mass marketing campaign, a new building or expensive programs. The church grows because its members are being like Jesus. The church grows because its members are embodying simple practices that Jesus taught them. They are doing the things Jesus showed them how to do – loving the Lord their God with all their heart, soul and mind and loving their neighbors as themselves. The church grows because its members have formed an alternative community with practices that stand in stark contrast to the rest of Rome, and people in the community are hungry for something different.

The Gospel lesson read this morning is often labeled “The Great Commission.” Jesus has been crucified and resurrected from the dead. He comes back, appearing to his disciples and offers them a final message. The message is rather simple.

“Go.” Go out from this place. Don’t stay here and expect people to come to you, but go out.

“Make disciples of all nations.” Don’t look for people who are from the same place as you or even the people who have the same background, values or lifestyle. But go and make disciples of all people.

“Teach them to obey what I have commanded you.” Teach them to put God first in their lives and to love their neighbors as much as they love themselves. Teach them to serve the poor, to give release of the captives and recovery of site to the blind. Teach them to be a radical community that stands in stark contrast to the ways of this world. But don’t always use words. In fact, preach and teach the Gospel with your lives, using words only when necessary.

“And remember that I will be with you.” Christ will remain with you and never leave you.
Go. Make disciples of all nations. Teach them everything. Remember I am with you.

As many of you know, we experienced a tragic death in our congregation nearly three weeks ago when a young woman chose to end her own life. Since Tracy’s death, I have done a tremendous amount of soul searching, thinking, praying and writing. My identity as a pastor has been shaped and reshaped as I have been asked to do things that I never imagined I would do. For the first time in my life, I have wished I owned a clerical collar because the work that was before me was so daunting – work that I could never have done without the understanding that I not only could go as a pastor but that I had to go. So many of the spaces where I have walked these weeks have been holy – ground that I am not worthy of walking on – but ground on which I have been called to walk, held up by the loving arms of God who has promised me time and again that God is with me.

But I have also learned a tremendous amount about the role and the responsibility of the church in the last three weeks. We live in a city that breeds success, beauty, perfectionism and wealth. In this city, people are called to be the very best – the very best attorney, the very best Senate staffer, the very best lobbyist, the very best staff assistant, the very best of whatever it is that we spend our days doing. As Beth Ludlum taught me a long time ago, “in this city, you are whoever you say you are.” We are directors of non-profits. We are Capitol Hill staffers. We are accountants. We are lobbyists working to change legislation. We are front desk managers. We are physicians.

Rarely, however, do we get a chance to say who we really are – people who are somewhat uncertain about tomorrow. Individuals who would like to do a variety of things in our lives including having children but have no idea how we can afford to do them. We are people who appear to have it all together even in the times when we are filled with doubt and despair on the inside. We are men and women who surround ourselves with people, gathering some twenty people for happy hour on Thursday while feeling all alone on Friday. Yet, we cannot tell people who we really are. We are afraid to tell others how we really feel. We choose to hide the messes in our lives from the people around us. What people want to hear about is our job title, our pedigree, and our successes – not our shortcomings, fears or our failures.

What has happened since Tracy’s death is a renewed awareness of the pain people carry. I have had conversations with people in the last two weeks who have told me about their wounds and their bruises – revealing more to me about the person than I ever knew before. I have had people send me emails about similar losses in their family and the scars that have been left. I have learned more about clinical depression and mental illness, struggling with why we can talk about any other part of our body that is sick but if our mind is sick, we cannot talk about it – we try to hide it. So much pain has been unearthed to me as the masks have been removed. And, I have started to take off my own mask. Instead of lying to people who ask, “How are you?” with a response like, “fine, thank you.” I have said, “I am really struggling.” When you give people this response, you can then discover who is ready to listen and who does not give a damn about how you are doing.

And, I have discovered again what I have known all along – that our first and deepest identity is as children of God, made in the image of God, beloved in God’s eyes. We are people who God knows so well that God even knows the number of hairs on our heads. We are the reason God’s heart beats and sometimes skips a beat. We are all beloved – even when the people in our life do not call us beloved.

And, an encounter with this God who knows me so well has changed my life. A journey with the crucified and risen Savior gives me hope for today and strength for tomorrow. The promise of eternal life is why I can get through the loss of Tracy or anyone else because I believe that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – including death itself. This book has reminded me time and again that there is something more to this life than trying to be the best – but what this life is about is being in relationship with God and with others – humbly serving others – giving what I have away so that others can experience a better life. And if we believe that this news is good news, then why do we keep it to ourselves? If we believe that the Gospel still has the power to transform lives, then why would we keep this transformation from others? How is it that we can keep such good news – news that is better than a birth, a new job, a sale, or a marriage – to ourselves?

The Krewsons gave me a subscription to a magazine called Charisma. The most recent issue focuses on finding God on a college campus. Several different students are highlighted in the issue, and I was struck by many of their comments. One young woman writes, “The absence of college students in America’s churches is overwhelming. And it’s not because students don’t love God. It’s because they don’t have a place to connect. Students are searching for an authentic spiritual experience with depth and relevance…I don’t really want to become a carbon copy of my parents. I have different perspectives and different cultural influences than they do. I want to be me. I have dreams, ambitions, and hang-ups just like everyone else, but I need a place where I am loved and accepted anyway. For many college students, church is not that place. Churches are trying so hard to be relevant bastions of spiritual depth that they are missing the integral element of Christianity: love. After all, Jesus commanded us to love God and love people. If the church could really focus on this gospel, and actually live it out, the missing college students might start turning up.”[3]

Her desire is for a place where all people are loved and accepted regardless of who they are or where they have been, and a place whose first priority is to love the Lord our God with our hearts, souls, strengths and minds while going out and loving our neighbor as ourselves while also loving the person in front of us by asking how they are and not being satisfied with “fine, thank you” as a response.

And still, few churches are living this dream. So many churches are grasping to keep doing what they have always done, spending money on things that do not matter – things that do not change lives. Too many churches spend time arguing about parliamentary procedure instead of how best we are going to serve the people in this city. Too many churches spend time thinking about how to care for the people inside the church, forgetting that the people Christ calls us to encounter and serve are outside the church.

This place is the only place I have discovered in Washington where people who are twenty or thirty-something can develop a beautiful friendship with an eighty or ninety-something. This is the only place I have discovered in Washington where a person who has a mental illness and is known by many of the police in the neighborhood is just as valued as a visiting judge who was appointed to the bench by a United States President. This place is one of the few places where people ask me, “How can I pray for you this week or what is really happening in your life?” and then wait to hear the answer. We have so much to offer to the people living around us.

There are thousands of books that have been written on church growth. You and I could fly around the country this year, attending a seminar every single week of the year on how to bring people inside our doors. Still, the design for the dream of having a church filled with people was discovered 2000 years ago.

The members of the early church celebrated God’s presence in their lives, especially when they gathered as a community. They connected with others, providing places where people could come just as they are. They grew in their faith, trying to learn as much as they could about scriptures and God’s teaching. They went out and served the community, making sure that everyone’s needs were taken care of. And, day by day, the Lord added to the number those being saved.
[1] I am indebted to research completed by Paul Nixon for these statistics.
[2] Acts 2:47.
[3] “God on Campus” in Charisma, September 2007, 27 – 35, 32.

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