January 20, 2008, Ephiphany 2
Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42, 01/20/08
Spiritual Formation 1: Small Groups
Some sermons are public proclamations, but this sermon is what I call pastoral speech. It’s for this particular congregation right now. I need to guide you into something outward and then into something inward. Going out and coming in. Like breathing. First, the outward.
We have two big days ahead of us. Three big things in just two days. Martin Luther King, the Home Team homeless fair, and the Jim Wallis book event. Boom, boom, boom. I’m still looking for a few more volunteers for each of them. You have the chance for doing real service in the name of God. If you can’t volunteer, then please come anyway and participate.
These three events are excellent expressions of our outreach, and they bear witness to what we believe the Kingdom of God is like. These events express our Mission Statement, specifically Missions number Three and Four. Our Third Mission is sanctuary for anyone seeking spirituality and hope. Our Fourth Mission is hospitality to community groups and the arts.
A church is called to be God’s servant in the world, to be a light to the nations. You heard those words in the reading from Isaiah. "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
Well, how does that apply to us? We’re not Israel, we’re the church. But look at the Isaiah reading, and see that the servant is double: first, the whole nation of Israel, and second, the Messiah. The Messiah is needed because Israel had failed in its mission. Israel laments that it labored in vain, and spent itself in nothingness and vanity. The Messiah is the servant who restores Israel to its mission to be a light to the nations, that God’s salvation might reach the ends of the earth.
The Messiah, the servant who would do all that, was introduced by John the Baptist. And we, the church, are in the Messiah’s fellowship, according to First Corinthians. That means we share his servanthood, and we let Isaiah speak to us. We repeat the words of Psalm 40, "Here I am, in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God." I hope that you can say this too, and that tomorrow and Tuesday you can delight to do God’s will.
Tuesday evening we’re partnering with the Community Bookstore and hosting Jim Wallis, with his new book, The Great Awakening. We’re the second stop in the national tour. Jim Wallis proposes a positive relationship of faith and politics for a secular nation, appropriate to the separation of church and state. He’s talking about the Kingdom of God in real live terms. I need two more volunteers to be ushers and helpers. If you could show up at 6:30, that would be nice.
Tuesday morning we’re partnering with city’s Department of Homeless Services and the Common Ground agency for the "Home Team" event. It’s like a farmer’s market of services for the homeless. We’ll have breakfast and medicine and health care and house-keys and room-keys. Our goal is twenty-five homeless people walking out of our sanctuary with keys to housing in their hands, and it’s a wonderful thing. This is what the Kingdom of God is like.
It can be scary for the homeless folks, so we need volunteers to act as their buddies and their guides. We still need some volunteers. Plan to say two hours. If you could show up at 7:00, that would be great, but you can come later, and we need a couple to help clean up from noon to 1:00 pm.
Tomorrow we’re partnering with Spoke the Hub to host all kinds of peacemaking activities in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This building will be full of groups and classes doing all sorts of things. I’ll be leading a group in the morning and so will Jenny Burrill. Then, in the afternoon, in the sanctuary, we’ll have six different chapels for six religions, for silent prayer, all of us praying quietly for peace. We’re still looking for some volunteers to help serve the meal at 6 pm and to do dishes afterwards. I also need some volunteers to come and pray.
Don’t think of yourselves as volunteers. Think of yourselves as servants. It’s paradoxical how that might help. For this is what the servants hear God telling them: "I will send you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." Only we’re bringing the nations into our building, so you don’t have to go to very far.
Now let me address the inward, and our souls, our congregation, breathing in.
The consistory has been working a program we call NCD, for Natural Church Development. NCD offers us tools to improve our congregation’s health, and the healthier we are, the better we grow. We got started with a diagnostic test last June. The test revealed that one of our weaknesses is the area of holistic small groups. Not just any groups, not just any small groups, but holistic small groups.
So our consistory has made this our priority this coming year. You’ll be hearing more about it. A committee called the Church Health Team bas been working on it. One of the Church Health Team’s decisions has been to focus the terminology on Spiritual Formation Groups. Spiritual Formation Groups. And the next seven sermons, I will ask our scripture lessons about Spiritual Formation Groups, and we’ll listen to what our scripture lessons tell us.
Today it’s rather obvious. According to John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ baptism, the first thing he does is gather a small group. Four guys. They spend the evening at his house with him, and drink their tea, and talk. Jesus is beginning to work on their spiritual formation.
This is basic to Christianity, especially when you compare it to its sister religions. In Judaism the basic group is the family. Not a group of individuals. In Islam the basic group is the whole public, the whole population. But if you look at both the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, it’s almost always small groups of voluntary individuals. As Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
This small group emphasis is not just pragmatic. It’s the inevitable implication of the Incarnation of God for us in Jesus Christ. Because in Jesus God comes very close, very close indeed, even uncomfortably close. Religions prefer to keep God at some distance, up in heaven, which lets us keep our space. But if God really gets so close, that means personal interaction, and that means transformation.
When those first two disciples started to follow Jesus, he turned around and said, "What are you looking for?" Well, that’s rather direct. They back off a bit. They don’t reveal what they are looking for, that they’re looking for the Messiah, they parry with a question of their own. "Rabbi, where are you staying." Calling him Rabbi means they're holding back their cards.
There is reason to be hesitant. Look what happened to Simon. When they brought him close to Jesus, Jesus gave him a new name. I’ll bet that shook him up a bit, altering his identity. "What’s wrong with what my mother called me?" That’s not what Simon bargained for.
You see, if you get this close, you get more than you bargained for, and there are costs and benefits. When you get involved in spiritual formation, that also means transformation. Transformation can be scary.
On Tuesday morning, you might get close to a homeless person as they get some help. Janet Phillips volunteered for this last time, and she told us she found it a little scary, but she wants very much to do it again. Tomorrow, you might get close to a Hindu or a Buddhist as they pray. If you find it a little uncomfortable you’ll also find it transformational. You’ll be doing this as God’s servant. The servant is called to do God’s will. And the servant can expect God’s faithfulness and God’s love. You will discover the depths of God’s faithfulness and love only when you test them and require them.
I can promise you all of this. And I invite you to this all, in the Spiritual Formation Groups in the months ahead, and in the outreach activities in the next two days. You will recover the truth of the old morning prayer, that the service of God is perfect freedom.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.