Tim Bonner —
Here we are on this cold winter morning, which is not only the last Sunday, but the last day of the year. One year is ending and another is beginning. Every beginning is also an ending. This is a time of review and reflection. Like you, I have been struggling to deal with my Christmas post-partum exhaustion. We live in a time and a place of materialism – a culture of materialism with a consumer mentality.
What does that mean? It means that people believe their happiest times are when they are spending money. I am happy only if I am getting something. The more spent for the object or the event, the happier we are. Oh, the status that big spending can bring! Did you have a good Christmas?
However, I recently had a week-long learning experience in Cuba that turned that materialistic mindset upside down. … And, I also keep thinking about the question that a ten-year-old boy, with terminal cancer, demanded from his father figure. Ian said, “I want to know. What is the real meaning of Christmas?” “Out of the mouths of babes,” right?
What answer would you give to Ian?
Today, I expand his question by asking, “What does Christmas mean for us today and what does it mean for us every day?”
The gospel text from Luke read today covers the time right after Jesus’ birth. It mainly documents that he was born to a poor, devout Jewish, Hebrew family.
Now, let’s shift our focus to the Galatians text for today. In writing the letter to the Galatians (new Christians in modern day Turkey), the Apostle Paul was trying to clarify how Jesus had come for everyone, not just the Jews. Furthermore, the followers of Jesus were not bound by the laws of Moses. We learned last summer in our Bible study of Acts 10 through 15 that the early church leaders struggled with that issue and how they discerned the answer to that question. Back to the fourth chapter of Galatians where Paul boldly proclaims that even though God gave his son to be born in a devout Jewish family, God also opened the door, through Jesus, for all people by adopting them into his family, which Paul called the Kingdom of God.
Paul tells us that as Christians we are heirs. Furthermore, God fills our hearts with the Spirit of Christ. We are in God’s family. We are in the Kin-dom of God. You noticed that new, hyphenated word in the sermon title, didn’t you? The “Kin-dom of God.” Now, before you get upset over me changing things, let me say this. I do affirm that Jesus is the King of Kings. No argument. However, we otherwise don’t have kings anymore. At least not in the U.S. My image of a king is an authoritarian tyrant, if not an aggressive dictator. That’s why I prefer to call it the kin-dom of God in order to emphasize that we are part of God’s holy family.
So, now what? What should we, as members of God’s kin-dom, do? Should we just act all pious and arrogant – better than those outside the family – since we have arrived in the kingdom? I don’t think so.
Let’s go back to the gospel to find what Jesus said. I was recently impressed by the story of Martha, Mary and Jesus, Luke, chapter ten. You may have read it at the beginning of the bulletin today. Remember, Martha was working hard to try to make everything just right, and complaining about it, while Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus. Jesus, straightens Martha out by telling her there was only one thing that needed to be done there that day – that was to learn His teachings, just as Mary was doing as she clung to every word.
So, the main point for us today is to stay close to Jesus, focus on and discern His messages and when we do that, we will be acting as God’s adopted children whose hearts are filled with Christ’s Spirit.
My trip to Cuba, where we visited the Eastern Baptist Convention office and 13 of it’s churches in or around Santiago de Cuba, was an enlightening experience. Even though the Cuban economy has stabilized and there is no one starving there today, we witnessed that most people live in extreme poverty by American standards. Most people do not own nor have access to an automobile. Horse powered travel (literally) is very common throughout the provinces we visited. There were horse-drawn carts everywhere. More importantly, we witnessed that the entrepreneurial spirit God was thriving in the church there, as well as their work outside the church walls. Their pastors are paid $20 per month and their missionaries, who mainly are working to open new churches where there were none, get paid $10 per month. They said they are full time and do not have other jobs. Yet, in spite of the poverty and the resistance of the government, their church is rapidly growing in number of members, number of churches and number of missions (i.e., church plants). Talk about new beginnings – they reported that they had opened 40 new churches recently!
40 new churches there – new churches! We can’t even fill the pews we have. How did they do it? Five years ago, they prayed, discerned and developed a plan to grow by developing new churches. Each pastor recruited, supervised and mentored missionaries to start new churches. All the church leaders have intensive Bible study education. Every new member of their churches has to first complete a year of Bible study, along with prayer group weekly (after Baptism), before they are accepted into the church. The pastors told us over and over, “The Word of God changes lives!” They did it by taking the Word to the streets and roads of Cuba. My new friend, Pastor Joey, exclaimed, “I don’t want an office. Give me the streets!” He is a prime example of how they did it by reaching out to others and telling them about Jesus – person to person. They told us that their biggest problem is that they need more space as most churches have people turned away every Sunday because there is no room for them inside the building – not even standing room. They can’t see or hear the sermon so they go back home. Can you imagine that? This whole worship area so full of people that no one else could get in! Wow! Could we do that?
We left Cuba with more questions than we had when we arrived. We were mystified by what we saw and experienced there. Not only the hospitality, but moreover the love that we saw the people in the Cuban churches had for God and for each other. The commitment they had to the church that had resulted in amazing church growth. I could tell you much more about Cuba, but we don’t have time today. If you want more information, you can come to my new Sunday morning gathering during the Sunday School hour to further discuss this and other things. I do have pictures. I will be in the Judson Room during the Sunday School hour – just drop in any time – we are close to the coffee pot.
After I got back here in the U.S., I met a young man who said he is in an Acts 29 church. He explained that his church members are continuing the work of Jesus, just as the Apostles did. You may already know that there are only 28 chapters in the Bible that report that work. Thus, the Acts 29 church. It is up to us to continue the spreading of the gospel. He told me that they do not rely on the pastor to tell them what the Bible says. They read and interpret it themselves (Sounds pretty Baptist, doesn’t it?). My friend reads four chapters every day. Also, their pastor tells them to not just do work in the church because it is isolating, but to mostly work to spread the gospel outside the church. We do some of that here. We at times take action to intentionally share the love of Christ without expectation of anything in return.
This is Incarnational Theology, some call it Trinitarian. I think Teresa of Avila explains it best:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
I love this church. You must too, since you came on a day like this. Are we the best? Are we doing all we could do or should do? We are active in social justice and service work with our food pantry and Deacons’ Ministries. We also are partners in Family Promise and LINK meals for the homeless, as well as the Justice Matters interdenominational organization. FBC-Lawrence provides spiritual formation with our educational programs for all ages, our ABY youth group, our intergenerational and women’s retreats. We also work toward holistic health with a yoga class (Thursdays at 5 in the DNA room) and partnering with Heartland Community Health Center. We also have a number of life groups that address our social, recreational and intellectual needs. Can we do more?
This church can be an active participant in progressive changes in our community. However, it does require an open mind and willingness to experiment, collaborate and focus on ways to be innovative. In current jargon, that is called “adaptive change (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009).” Gilbert R. Rendle (1998) wrote that there are two barriers to congregational growth: fear of too much change and fear of too little change. Both are barriers that must be courageously challenged. L. Gregory Jones (2016) calls for “traditioned innovation” where we do not ignore or forego our Christian traditions, but we are also open to making changes – traditioned innovation.
Are there innovations that are needed to grow this church, FBC Lawrence? We already have two alternative worship opportunities – the more informal 8:30 a.m. service with piano music and the Emerging Worship service, with keyboard and guitars, at 6:00 on the 27th of most months. We are experimenting with having it in various parts of the building. But the challenge remains, how can we get more people involved, especially more young people? I’m not sure. We welcome your ideas as we continue our work.
What I do know is that God’s love offers humanity a future not bounded by the brokenness of the past when it takes the form of forgiveness in the wake of sin. When we are in the family of God, we have a new perspective or as our stained glass window tells us, “We are a new creation.” We are no longer trapped in cycles of cynicism, despair or vengeance. Instead we are granted the creative, holy, entrepreneurial spirit and freed for learning and innovation, for new life, new lifestyles and positive changes that affect not only ourselves, but also families, institutions and communities. With the perspective of an open mind and the study of scripture with imagination, we become more able to see the world not from the material perspective, but from God’s perspective – through the lenses of blessing, hope, spiritual friendship, holy fellowship, forgiveness with possibilities of flourishing in positive outcomes through traditioned, innovative actions. When we place our trust in God and are willing to take risks to experiment and collaborate with hopeful, creative solutions and take action in faith, it improves the world in which we live in accordance with the will of God.
Perhaps we just need to focus on Jesus as the answer. To be closer to Jesus and discern His teachings. To be the hands, the feet, the mouths of Christ. We have Christ in our hearts, if we allow it. Just imagine, what if Jesus had kept God’s message to himself and not shared it? Imagine – what if we turn all things over to the triune God and focus on God’s will, not my will. The renown Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” Jesus said there is only need for one thing (paraphrased), “Stay close to me and learn by doing in a loving way.” What if we make sure that all ten-year-olds know the real meaning of Christmas? That Christmas is all about the caring, the giving, the loving. Its not about receiving material gifts. Its all about the human relationships. Its all about what is in your heart. We all can be God’s apostles, filled with the spirit of God, if we open ourselves to it and let Jesus in. Jesus welcomes us with open arms. Welcome to the Kin-dom of God … and have a happy, holy new year.