Sunday, March 29, 2009

Faith Focus -- Unbinding Your Heart

Matthew 14:22-33

When I was a kid, I went on a boat ride around Klamath Lake, which is probably the size of the Sea of Galilee. On the way home a storm kicked up and it bounced that boat around pretty good. Now, it wouldn’t compare to one of those big Great Lakes storms, the kind that would sink the Edmund Fitzgerald, but for a kid it was a bit unnerving. Back in the 1st century, storms, even on relatively small lakes, could be terrifying. Water was symbolic of life, but it was also symbolic of chaos. Remember those opening lines of Genesis, where the Spirit of God hovers over the “face of the waters,” and ultimately brings order out of chaos (Gen.1: 1-2).

This morning’s text raises the question of faith – how much faith do I have, do we have, as we set out on an adventure with God? Sometimes our faith journeys are a bit like a boat tossed about on a stormy lake. We’re not sure where and how things will end, and our faith in God gets tested. This six-week adventure centered around the Unbinding Your Heart book is designed to help us prepare for a new adventure.

1. What’s Next?

By the end of this week we will have finished this “E-Vent.” Our last group meets Thursday evening, and as Felicia’s group already knows, we’ve prepared a survey to get your feedback. And later in this sermon you’ll hear from a couple of participants in this “E-Vent,” so you can hear how their hearts have been unbound. One of the questions that is already emerging from our Lenten emphasis is: “What’s Next?” That is the question we will be wrestling with as a congregation, and as individuals, as we sit listening together for God’s voice.

In this morning’s text, Matthew invites us to consider what it means to walk by faith. This is an important question for us as Disciples, because we’re a fairly rational people. We like to know where we’re going before we head out. We like our maps and our blue prints, but as Matthew reminds us, it’s quite possible that we’ll set out on a nice calm evening only to run into a storm. As Michiganders we understand that weather is unpredictable, so sometimes you have to roll with the punches. And so as we look to the future, my hope and my prayer is that our time together these past six weeks has prepared us for the journey ahead, which could run into dangerous waters on occasion.

2. Growing Pains, Conflict, and Distractions.

One of the reasons why we took on this venture is because we need to prepare for growth, and growth can bring with it growing pains, conflict, and distractions, three important items that Gay Reese discusses in the final chapter of Unbinding Your Heart. Gay describes “growing pains” as those outer waves that are challenging, but manageable. It’s a bit like a child growing up – you know they’re going to out grow those clothes sooner than later. Because we expect these challenges, we’re able to adapt to them.

I know that some of you have gotten used to our smaller size. You’ve let go of the past, when we were a big church, which is important if we’re going to walk faithfully into the future. But letting go of that past doesn’t mean that we should be content with our current lot. If we’re hearing God’s call to be a missional congregation that is witnessing and accepting, then I expect that this calling to go into our community will lead to growth, and growth will lead to growing pains. That’s because growth leads to change and even inconvenience!

While we can expect to experience growing pains, sometimes we experience conflict. These are the “inner waves,” those bigger waves that hit closer in and test our faith, and tempt us to let go of our vision. In response, to the inner waves of conflict, we must be both flexible and resilient, so that we may stay on target even as we navigate dangerous waters.

As for those distractions, a strong wind can terrify even a veteran fisherman, especially when he finds himself trying to walk on water. Peter decided to step out on faith and take a walk to Jesus – who was himself, taking a stroll across the stormy sea, early the next morning. I’m not sure why Peter would want to leave the relative safety of the boat to walk on the water, but before too long he got distracted, lost his faith, and began to sink.

As we head out from here, we will face distractions. There will be stormy seas. It could be the pace of change or the cost of supporting our ministries. It could be theological or political. I don’t know what they might be, but they have a tendency of cropping up when least expected, causing us to lose focus on our mission.

3. Finding Hope in Jesus

As Peter sinks into the waves, he cries out to Jesus: Save me! At that, Jesus pulls Peter up and into the boat, and then upbraids him: “Where’s your faith? Why the doubt?” That sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? As we hear this word of Jesus, perhaps this response by Ron Allen and Clark Williamson would be helpful.

“We are the disciples in the boat – of ‘little faith,’ but some faith – and it will suffice.”
Even a bit of faith, in the midst of great doubt, is sufficient, because our relationship with God and the effectiveness of our service is rooted not in our faith, but in God’s grace. Allen and Williamson add:
“That we have our weaknesses, in no way cancels the unconditional, unfathomable character of God’s gracious love.”
Or, as Paul puts it:

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
In the months and years to come, as we follow Jesus into the world, we will fall short in our efforts. But even when we sail into dangerous waters, not even knowing at times that storms are brewing, we can take comfort knowing that the one who walked on the waters, walks with us in our seasons of change. When we know that God, and not our habits, is the source of our safety, then we can embrace the changes that come our way. As Gay Reese points out, God, not the church is our polar start, our fixed point that gives us hope.

As we begin to ponder where God will lead us next, perhaps it is wise to stop and consider where we’ve been these past several weeks. Considering that we’ve been hearing testimonies of faith during this “event,” I’ve asked a couple of people from the church to share in a few sentences what this journey has meant to them. So, I invite Kathy Potter and Gabe Fournier to come up and share their stories of transformation. [testimonies]

As Kathy reminded us, prayer is at the heart of our journey, and Jesus offers us a good example. Having just finished feeding the 5000, after he sends off the twelve in the boat and dismisses the crowd, he goes up to the mountain and prays. On that mountain, in conversation with God, Jesus experienced God’s restorative love and grace, which prepared him to take that next step in his ministry. May we do the same as we embrace God’s call to be ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Healing Hospitality

Mark 2:1-12

If you’re a stickler for making sure that there’s “a place for everything,” and that “everything should be in its place,” then you might not want Jesus to stop by for a visit. From everything I’ve read, chaos usually follows in his wake. And as we’ve seen from today’s text, even houses get damaged when Jesus comes to town, though it would appear that in this case, it’s Jesus’ own house that gets damaged when he opens it up to the community.

As the story goes, Jesus had just returned home to Capernaum from his sojourn in the desert. When word gets out that the preacher boy is ready to make his local debut everyone in town stops by to hear a word of wisdom or argue a fine point of theology. The house got so crowded that no one else could get in, which was unfortunate, since there was a disabled man in town who needed to see Jesus for some healing. But, this man’s friends had a lot of faith and they weren’t deterred by a full house. They simply climbed to the roof and began to dig through so that they could lower the man down to Jesus, hoping that Jesus would heal this friend of theirs. Jesus seems to have been greatly impressed by their faith and their compassion, and he responds to their request.

Now, the title of this sermon is “Healing Hospitality.” This morning I’d like us to consider how these two words go together, especially as they relate to evangelism and prayer, which is the focus of our Unbinding Your Heart Lenten emphasis.

1. Hospitality

Diana Butler Bass writes that hospitality was the primary virtue of the early church. Everything that the church did was rooted in this core value, and as she puts it: “Hospitality is the practice that keeps the church from becoming a club, a members-only society.”* Not only that, but hospitality, which is more than being friendly and offering coffee and cookies to people, was the primary “motivator for conversions.” Those early Christians created a community that was inclusive and loving, where the helpless and the outcast were welcomed.

In this passage Jesus shows us what it means to be hospitable. He opened up his own home to the crowd so that they might hear the good news, and he didn’t seem all that concerned when this group of men dig a hole in his roof or when dirt fell on him and on his floor. He understood that hospitality means putting one’s possessions and one’s life at the disposal of another, which serves as a good reminder to us, that while we should take good care of our resources – including our building – as followers of Jesus we’re called to make our church available for others – even if it causes a bit of damage to the furniture or the walls. Too often we treat our churches and our homes, as if they were museums. You know: Look, but don’t touch!

2. An Offer of Healing

Jesus not only offers hospitality, but he also offers a word of healing. When he saw this man lying in front of him, he commended the faith of the four friends, and then said to the disabled man: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” You might have been expecting a word of healing, but first he offers forgiveness, and this offer upsets some of the legal experts in the room – how dare he grant this man forgiveness, who does he think he is? God?

Now, many of us probably hear this statement a bit differently. We might be wondering what does forgiveness have to do with healing? Is Mark implying that sin has something to do with illness or disability? Well, back then people did make that equation, and there is some truth to the equation – even today. The reality is that we all carry with us spiritual and emotional baggage, and that baggage often has physical consequences. We carry with us guilt and anger and frustration, which affects how we live physically, as well as spiritually and emotionally. By offering this man, and us, forgiveness, Jesus removes an internal barrier that hinders us from sharing our lives and our faith with others.

But Jesus wasn’t finished, just yet. He turned to his critics and asked: which is easier to do? Offer forgiveness of sins or heal the body? Having asked this question, he turns to the man and tells him to get up, take his bed, and walk. And that’s what the did – all because these four friends had faith.

By making his house available to the crowd, he removed a barrier to faith. In digging through the roof, these four friends remove another barrier to faith. Both Jesus and the four men offer us examples to follow. Through their examples, we’re invited to take down the barriers that keep the people of our community from experiencing God’s healing grace.

3. Issuing the Invitation

When the people saw the man get up and walk, everyone in that house and on the roof was awestruck and began to praise God. It would appear that even the legal experts, who had been questioning Jesus’ credentials, joined in this time of worship.

As we reflect on this story, I’d like for us to hear in it an invitation to remove the barriers that exist in our lives and in our church, that keep us and our neighbors from experiencing God’s healing grace. In the spirit of this text and its invitation, I’d like us to spend a moment in guided prayer and reflection. These past several weeks, as we’ve studied, talked, prayed, listened to testimonies of faith, we’ve been asking that God would unbind our hearts so that God might transform us, our church, and our community. I want us to reflect on what we’ve been hearing and experiencing during these several weeks, asking God to reveal to us how we might put what we’ve learned into practice.

To begin this time of prayer, I’d like you to close your eyes and try to visualize in your mind:

  • First of all, your own self being lowered down on that mat, and as you do, I would like for you to ask God to reveal any baggage that keeps you from enjoying God’s presence. In what area of your life do you need to experience forgiveness and healing? As you pray, ask God to remove this baggage so that you might experience healing of your body or of your spirit.
  • Second, I’d like you to put yourself in Jesus’s place, and look around at the people gathered to hear the word of God, and as you do this, try to visualize this community in which we live. Consider the needs that are present. Consider the barriers that exist that might keep people from experiencing God’s healing grace, and ask God to help you show true hospitality to the stranger – even as Jesus did that day.
  • Finally, I’d like you to visualize these four friends who go to such lengths to bring their friend to Jesus. Put yourself in their place, and pray that God would reveal to you a person or persons you might invite to church – maybe to the Good Friday Service or the Easter Sunday or to the Unbinding Your Heart luncheon on Sunday, April 26th. On that Sunday the Unbinding Your Heart team is throwing a party, to which we can all invite someone who is seeking a place to worship and experience God’s grace. I’d like for you to pray for wisdom and guidance in inviting that person to worship with you and perhaps share lunch with us on the 26th.

As we conclude this time of guided prayer, I invite you to open your eyes, stand together, and join in glorifying the God who dwells in our midst, bringing to us healing of body, mind, and spirit, with a song of praise.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Converted Community

Acts 2:14, 32-39

We’ve reached the half way point in our Lenten journey, and I believe that God is doing something important in our midst. With Gay Reese as our guide, we have opened ourselves up to being transformed as individuals and as a congregation. I do think it is appropriate to say that we’re becoming a converted community. That is, God is unbinding our hearts and minds so that we might be open both to the future and to the community that lies just beyond our doors.1

There’s a new spirit and purpose in this congregation. Not so long ago our congregation was wracked by conflict and division. We were broken and many were angry. Over the past few years God has been healing those wounds and preparing the congregation for something new. That new thing is beginning to happen. Oh, you may only see the first shoots sticking out of the ground, but it’s happening right before our eyes. As this new thing grows and develops, it will move us beyond these walls and out into the community.

These past few weeks we’ve been hearing testimonies about what God is doing in the lives of our people. We’ve heard from Elmer, from Tamela, from John and now from Rial. Each one told a different story of faith, and each of them invited us to consider our own story.

This morning’s text takes us back to the very birth of the church. It invites us to consider what it means to be church, not just for ourselves, but for those who might come into our midst. If someone were to wander into this place, seeking a church home, what might they find?

1. Called to be a Converted Community

On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell upon that group of believers in such a powerful way that the walls couldn’t contain the joy and the celebration. The people in the city gathered and they listened and they asked: What does this mean? Then they asked: How can we be saved? That is, we want to experience what you have. And Peter said to them: Repent, be baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then you will be part of this converted community.

But what does this mean? I find part of the answer to this question in a statement being used by our broader Disciples church. It might not be as memorable as that of the UCC’s – “God is still speaking” – but I think it helps answer this question. That motto is this: “A movement of wholeness in a fractured world.” I like this statement because it reminds us that even though our world is broken, there’s hope of finding healing and wholeness. Of course, even as we make this proclamation, we must remember that we’re broken as well, and therefore in need of God’s continuous work of healing.

It’s as Paul put it: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” And by and through the Spirit, we get to participate in this work of reconciliation. As Paul writes: “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20). That’s what Peter was doing that Pentecost day, when the Spirit fell and the church was born. As members of this converted community of Christ, we do the same thing, for the Spirit is present with us as well.

2. The Verdict is in: New Members, seekers, are looking for:

We are bearers of good news, but how might we carry this word into the world? Or to put it another way, how might the seeker after God hear this word? Now it would be great if we could read minds and hearts, and know what everyone was looking for before they ever darkened our doors. Of course, it’s not as if we haven’t tried – but more often than not, when we talk about this topic, we usually focus on programming and style. That is the human side of the equation, but there is another side that we need to consider.

When we focus on the human side, we’re tempted to compete with the spectacles that the world offers. The other day I was reading an essay by Jason Byassee entitled “God Does Not Entertain.” Now his focus was on film and whether God speaks to us through film, but in that essay he also raised the question about our tendency to try to compete with the spectacles that the world offers – it can be high culture or pop culture, but too often we think about our work in such terms. It doesn’t matter if we’re trying to replicate the rock concert or the opera house, if the message of God’s grace gets lost in translation, if all that we do is provide a “cleaner” form of entertainment, will lives get changed?2

Entertainment may work for a while, but ultimately that’s not what people are looking for. Gay Reese suggests that the people who are seeking out the church sense that something is missing in their lives. They’re looking for meaning and purpose. Music and programming have their place, but that’s not what we’re about. The key to our “success” is living out our faith with authenticity. People are tired of hypocrisy, and so they’re looking for a converted community – a community of faith that lives out that faith not just for an hour on Sunday, but throughout the week.

3. What Kind of Community is God Looking For?

If the seekers are looking for authenticity, what is God looking for? Now, I hate to say this, but I don’t think that God is interested in the quality of our music or even the quality of the preaching. What God is interested in; what God requires of us, can be found in these words from the prophet Micah.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).

Justice, mercy, humility, these are the qualities that God is looking for in a church. It’s not about burnt offerings or even non-burnt offerings – its about living faithfully in the world as God’s people.

When we think about the kind of community that God would want us to be, it might be helpful to consider what Gay Reese calls a trinity of relationships. Using the doctrine of the Trinity as her starting point, she suggests that a congregation is healthy when our relationships with God, with the people in the church and with the people outside the church are healthy. If any one of those relationships isn’t healthy, then the church isn’t healthy.

As we think about our calling to be a converted community of faith, we need to understand that more and more people are walking away from institutional forms of religion. The fastest growing segment of the population defines itself as nonreligious. Now many of these people consider themselves spiritual, just not religious. And young people are the most likely ones of all to describe themselves in this way. Now, there are lots of reasons why this is happening, but part of the reason why so many people are walking away or not even paying attention is that they’re tired of negative, judgmental, anti-intellectual, and coercive religion. I understand their feelings, but I also believe that it’s possible to find places that aren’t like that – places that have experienced true conversion. These places offer a different sense of faith. They give people room to figure out who they are in relationship to God. They welcome doubt and questioning. This is what I believe God is calling us to become – knowing that we must be converted again and again – each new day – as the Spirit falls upon us once again.

1. Martha Grace Reese, Unbinding Your Heart, (Chalice Press, 2008), esp. chapters 3-4.

2. Jason Byassee, “God Does Not Entertain,” in God Does Not . . ., D. Brent Laytham, ed., (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), p. 128.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Third Sunday of Lent
March 15, 2009

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Catalytic Conversations

John 4:7-10, 16-29

We’ve all had life-altering conversations. John has already told you his story about how he came into the church. I want to follow up with a couple of my own, even though I’ve essentially been in the church all my life. There have been moments, nonetheless, that have helped change the course of my life. I could mention Brent Smith’s invitation to join in a bible study while in high school, or Dennis Helsabeck’s invitation to go to Twin Oaks Christian Church, but of the many conversations that helped form the direction of my life, I’d like to mention two.

The first story takes place in the summer of 1981. It was the final week of my brief tenure as a youth minister. I spent that week serving as one of three teachers at a high school church camp. At that point I didn’t really know what I would do next. I’d thought about seminary, but I wasn’t sure that I was either called to ministry or something else. That week I met Gary Railsback, the new recruiter from Northwest Christian College. Gary had just graduated from Fuller Seminary, and as a result of those conversations I realized that my lack of “success” as a youth minister didn’t preclude a call to ministry. I also decided, based on those conversations, to continue my education at Fuller, rather than at the seminary I’d been considering – one that a number of my friends were attending. That choice had major ramifications, one of which affected Cheryl’s life as well. Had I gone somewhere else, she might be married to an attorney instead of a preacher! But, it’s also possible that I might not have become a Disciple either.

The second conversation is related. Having gone to Fuller, I had to figure out where I belonged. One day, I was talking to my friend Steve Knox – the same Steve Knox, whose wife set me up with Cheryl – about the future. Cheryl and I had been attending the Covenant Church, but I wasn’t sure that was where I belonged. In the course of our conversation one day – out in front the seminary – Steve suggested that maybe I should think about being a Disciple. He knew me pretty well and he thought that Disciples might be a good fit, considering my views and my background.

Two conversations influenced the direction of my life. What conversations have defined the direction of your life? And, what conversations have you had that helped define the direction of someone else’s life? Those are the questions for today.

1. A Water Cooler Conversation that Changed a Life

Jesus’ conversation at Jacob’s Well seems very similar to the kind of conversations that happen around the water cooler. You know, the kinds of conversations that begin when we go looking to quench our physical thirst, but end up quenching another thirst along with it. That thirst may have to do with our quest for knowledge – though often water cooler conversations have more to do with gossip than useful knowledge.

In this case Jesus was heading north, back to Galilee, through Samaria. Although it was a more direct route, it took him through “enemy territory.” As the group reached Sychar Jesus got a bit thirsty and asked this woman who had come to the well for a drink. That request ended up in a theological discussion. According to John, they talked about the proper forms and places for worship. You see the Jews and the Samaritans disagreed as to the proper place for worship. Sounds familiar – arguing about the proper worship forms, places, and times! Jesus’s answer was this: It really doesn’t matter where you worship – whether it’s a cathedral or a storefront – the important thing is that you worship God in “spirit and in truth.”

That conversation about worship, of course, was a diversion. The real issue had to do with this woman’s heart and place in society. We don’t know the whole story, but apparently she had some family troubles and was living on the margins of society. Simply going to get water at high noon suggests that she was probably an outcast. And yet, Jesus took her seriously and lifted her up, so that at the end of the conversation she was a new person. Not only that, she went back to the village with a sense of confidence and purpose that allowed her to tell everyone she could find, that the Messiah had come and that he knew her heart. That was a life changing conversation that led to more life-changing conversations.

2. Crossing the Borders with Jesus

Jesus’ conversation with this woman was what Gary Nelson might call a border crossing. In his book Borderland Churches Nelson talks about being invested in God’s work in the world, an investment that requires us to break through the borders that keep us from engaging in ministry that transforms lives and communities. In this story we see Jesus not only reaching out, but crossing a border. And so, the question is: What boundaries is God calling us to cross?

As we think on this question, perhaps we should return to the conversations we had at the retreat. At that retreat we discerned that God is calling us to be an “accepting” church. The question is: What does that mean? To push farther, what does it mean to welcome someone? To respect someone, especially someone who is different from me? The very fact that Jesus talked to this woman is significant. First men didn’t talk theology with women. Second, she probably didn’t have a good reputation. And finally, she was, after all, a Samaritan. She had three strikes against her, and yet Jesus embraced her as an equal partner in this conversation.

In the coming months we need to ask the question: What are the boundaries that exist in our lives? Are they generational? Cultural? Theological? I could go on, but the point is, when we cross the borders and begin living life with others, then God can use us to help others experience God’s transforming presence.

I believe that there are many people out there in our communities who are looking for a church that would take them seriously and welcome them and their questions and concerns. We may not have all the answers, but have we not had life-changing experiences with God? Might this not be a place where people can find a sense of peace and hope?

3. We Have a Story to Tell

I’m participating in an on-line discussion about theology, church, and transformation. In the course of this conversation, theologian Philip Clayton speaks of confidence in the truth of one’s position, while at the same time being open to the other. I think that we often lack confidence in our faith. We know it works for us, but we’re not sure it would work for others, so we keep quiet. But, is that necessary? Can we enter conversations, not knowing exactly where they’ll lead, but going into them with a sense of confidence that our faith in God has something to offer someone else? In another video clip Clayton speaks of having a passion for God. Is our passion such that we would risk embarrassment to share our faith?

The old song speaks of having a story to tell to the nations. I believe that we have a story that can change lives and communities, but we must be open to the conversation if the kind of transformation John experienced and I experienced is going to happen.

I know that for many mainline Protestants the word evangelism seems odd and off-putting. It’s why Gay Reese refers to it as the “E-Word.” But it’s really a great word. It comes from the Greek word for good news. To do evangelism is to share the good news of what God is doing in our lives and in our church and in our community. We have good news to share, and there is a world waiting anxiously to have a conversation about it.

The woman Jesus met at the well left that conversation a different person. She went away full of joy and carrying with her good news that she shared without embarrassment with everyone she encountered. If we have had a conversation with God that has changed our lives, can we do any less than share in equally transforming conversations with others?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Prayer Plunge

Luke 5:1-11

Ice fishing came up during a conversation after our Ash Wednesday service. I’ve never gone ice fishing, and from what I’ve heard, I don’t know if I ever will go ice fishing. I did learn something, however. Apparently, you have to move around the ice, searching for just the right spot – or you’ll sit there all day in the cold and not catch a thing. Indeed, it may be necessary to go out into deeper waters, where those elusive fish might just be hiding.

This morning’s scripture text offers us another fish story. In fact, this one might sound a bit familiar, because just a few weeks ago we heard Mark’s version of the story of Jesus inviting Peter, Andrew, James and John, to join him in a fishing venture. Luke’s version is a bit different, because in this one, Jesus goes out onto the lake to do some fishing with his new group of assistants. Despite their apparent differences, both texts offer us an invitation to join Jesus in the work of evangelism – that is, sharing the good news of God’s kingdom.

We hear this text on the second Sunday of our six-week Unbinding your Heart journey. For the past week, in sermons and small groups, we have talked about evangelism – both our hopes and our fears, our understandings and possible misunderstandings. That conversation continues today and throughout this Lenten journey, but the focus isn’t simply on evangelism. We are learning that evangelism without prayer will make little difference in our lives, in our church, or in our community. Although we’re talking about prayer, we’re doing more than talk – we’re doing some serious praying. We’re praying in our groups, in our homes, and during prayer vigils. We’re praying for each other, for ourselves, our church, and our community. For some of us this is a scary venture – especially the public sort of prayer. But this is important because our efforts at evangelism will make little difference without prayer – without prayer we’re simply trying to do God’s work on our own. Gay Reese writes that it is clear to her that the only way to lead a church or simply to live life in our world requires us to “pray deeply.

We must hand ourselves over to God in clear-headed, accountable, non-naive prayer. We need to rely as much on God for pragmatic guidance as we can stand! Without God vividly in the mix, we drift, life declines.1

1. Listening for God’s voice

I have heard this call to prayer. I affirm its importance in my life and in the life of this congregation. I must also confess that prayer is difficult for me. As some of you have already discovered, I’m a very analytical person. When I pray, my mind tends to wander. I have a difficult time sitting still and listening for that still small voice that is God’s. Like Elijah, I’m not prepared to listen for God’s voice in the midst of quietness. I’d much prefer that God use the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Those would be tangible, attention grabbing, signs of God’s presence. But instead, God has chosen to speak to us out the silence (1 Kings 19:11-13). And so sometimes it’s difficult to know when and how God is speaking to us. Prayer involves much faith.

If you look at Elijah’s conversation with God at Horeb you’ll find God asking him a question, one that God might be posing to us as we come here to worship and to pray. “What are you doing here?” Indeed, why are we here? In this place and this time? What difference does it make for us to be here? In answering God, Elijah does a good bit of complaining and confesses that he’s feeling just a bit abandoned. As far as he knows, he’s the only one left who is following after God – so why bother any more? Maybe you’ve felt that way yourself.

Whatever Elijah’s situation may have been, the point I take from Elijah’s conversation with God is this – if we’re going to hear God’s voice, then we must listen closely. It’s quite likely that God isn’t going to use a burning bush to get our attention. But, God is inviting us into a conversation that can transform our lives.

2. Going Deep With Jesus

We have been called by God to bear witness to God’s work of grace and mercy in this world we call home. Wherever brokenness is found, God is offering a word of healing and wholeness through us. In this story from Luke, Jesus calls on four men to use their gifts to bring a broken people back into relationship with God.

God has gifted us for this work, but the call to prayer that we are hearing today, is a reminder that we can’t do this work on our own. We may be concerned about declining numbers, the small numbers of children and youth, the aging of our congregation. We wonder, even worry, about the future. Indeed, at times we may feel uncertain about where the future will take us - -there are, after all, risks involved. Things may not turn out exactly as we had planned. It’s possible that the fish aren’t biting!

In this case, Jesus told Peter to take the boat out into the deep waters and let down the nets. Being a veteran fisherman, Peter told this amateur that they’d already tried that and it didn’t work. So why bother? Jesus may have been an amateur fisherman, but he was persistent, and eventually Peter gave in, let down the nets, and to his utter amazement, brought in a huge catch. In fact, it seems like those fish were almost jumping into the boat.

The underlying message here is this: if we will trust in God, and listen for God’s voice, then we can go deep with Jesus and find the strength and the wisdom to fulfill our calling. But, we’ll have to stay in touch with God through prayer. Indeed, without a vital and life-changing relationship with God, we will have little to share. When we share our faith, people are less interested in whether we have all the answers. They’re more interested in whether we love God. Gay Reese writes:

Prayer is the way to stay in love with God. Prayer is the way individuals, small groups and congregations grow and become vivid. It is a habit, a discipline, but not discipline with a clenched jaw. Prayer is more about receiving from God than it is about asking God for things or working hard at intercession.2

Of course, there isn’t just one way to pray. For some it may involve meditation, for others walking a labyrinth. Maybe it’s singing a psalm or a hymn. Although I’ve gotten kind of rusty in my guitar playing, I often find that strumming my guitar while singing a song of praise, draws me deeper into the presence of God.

3. Taking Time to Pray

I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but during this forty-day journey, there is a prayer team lifting up the congregation in prayer. Anne McCauslin has formed this prayer team, and given each one an assignment. A team member has been assigned to pray while each of our small groups is meeting. The team is also praying for the elders, the staff, the organ task force, the E-Vent planning team, the Council, the Deacons, and the members of this congregation. Indeed, the prayers of the people are lifting up this congregation and its ministries.

This morning I would like to invite each of you to join in this season of prayer, so that together we might go deeper with Jesus. My hope is that along the way we will become more comfortable praying with and for one another. As we reach out to God in prayer, both listening and sharing, we will, I believe, begin to experience God’s love for the world.

Like I said, there are many ways to pray and to share our prayer concerns. The banner hanging in the chancel reminds us that prayer is the foundation of our sharing of faith stories with our neighbors. On the wall to my right is another tool that invites us to engage in prayer. Lance and Diana Payton designed and constructed this prayer wall, which we’ll be using during this Lenten journey. Tamela Wilks is going to come and share with us her own story of prayer and tell us the meaning of the prayer wall and how to use it.

4. Time to go Fishing with Jesus

I want to thank Tamela for helping us understand this tool that will help us hear Jesus’ invitation to come and fish with him . As we head out on this fishing venture, Jesus reminds us that we don’t go alone, but that the Spirit is with us. It is that presence of God in our lives that enables us to share our faith with others. So, will you join me on a little fishing venture that begins and ends in prayer?

1. Martha Grace Reese, Unbinding Your Heart, (Chalice Press, 2008), p. 28.

2. Reese, Unbinding Your Heart, p. 37.

Preached by:

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
March 1, 2009
First Sunday of Lent