Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Strange New Ways of God Sending the Seventy

Leaving Baggage Behind

    A number of elements need to be explored for us to understand what is happening in this passage. In the first place, the number of disciples Jesus sends gives us clues about Luke’s intention. In Jewish tradition it is seventy elders who are commissioned to translate the law and the prophets from Hebrew to Greek; in Luke’s hands this is an allusion to the mission of God to the whole world. In other Jewish texts, such as Genesis 10, the number of nations in the world is seventy. So the setting of the sending is the anticipated mission of the gospel to the whole world (in the book of Acts).

    Jesus’s instructions (Luke 10:3–4) to his disciples strike readers as weird. He says, “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road”. They were not to take a lot of baggage with them on their journey. In essence they were not to depend on their own resources. In the context of the first century, these followers were sent out on their mission as strangers who would be in need of hospitality from people of the towns and villages. Luke is suggesting that the mission of God moves forward in the world when disciples of Jesus choose to become like strangers in their communities so they will be dependent on their hosts.

    The story of this sending, then, is not only to illustrate the mission of God to the whole world but also to show the manner in which this mission is to be carried out. It is radically different from the conceptions of mission that characterize the churches of our time. In the ancient Middle East, strangers were an important part of the overall cultural mix. They were the outsiders who, for one reason or another, were dependent on the hospitality of others for their survival, and there were strict laws about how the stranger was to be treated. But this was a two-way street. In such a culture, the village people took in the stranger because they knew that at any time in the future they or their children might become strangers themselves and need to be taken in. There was a deep sympathy in this relationship to the stranger. It is important to understand what lies behind the suggestion here if we are to have any idea of God’s intention. It appears there is a connection, a link between being in the place of the stranger in need and being able to discern God’s working in the world. This story is suggesting that the one is a forerunner of the other.

    In the Old Testament story of Elijah, this dynamic is at work (see 1 Kings 17). After Ahab and his Baalist wife, Jezebel, kill the prophets of Israel, Elijah flees to the Kerith ravine where he is fed for a time by ravens …note the connections ….that of being in the place of a stranger in need and finding the place where food is given…these are also connected in Luke’s story. …Elijah must move on because there is no water in that part of the desert…he is genuinely a man outside his own context (Surroundings) and in need of help from someone. ..The Lord directs him to the city of Zerepath (a Gentile city of Baal worshipers-Jezebel’s very own people), where he meets a widow who provides hospitality to this Jew. ….Elijah, with nothing, dwells in the house of the widow and in that context, discovers again, anew, what God is calling him to do. …Elijah must dwell with the other to discern God’s purposes. It meant that this Gentile woman could not be seen as the “enemy,” as the outsider who has nothing to give, but as the one who will provide the table around which Elijah might reimagine his calling. This is boundary breaking!

    This is the way in which Luke frames Jesus’ sending of the seventy. The fascinating characteristic of Elijah’s story is that he finds himself pushed outside his own community. He becomes a stranger because the world of Israel has been taken from him. In this new and dangerous place, Elijah is forced to ask difficult questions about God and about the relationship between God and Israel.

   This….was also the situation of the Gentile Christians to whom Luke was writing. The parallel can be made in this way. ….Elijah’s world was fundamentally confused when the assumptions he had about what God was doing were challenged….. This also happened to the Gentile communities to whom Luke was writing. ….Elijah found answers to these questions of confusion as he was forced outside his established world and placed in situations where he became dependent on the hospitality of those who should have been in need of his ministry…. Is it the case that the boundary-breaking Spirit is placing these Gentile Christians in similar setting? I think so.
 So,…. bridging the context to our time, in our city, in our communities, is He, the Spirit of God doing a similar thing with us?

 Will the church discover answers to our crisis of identity as we become willing to enter a similar experience of becoming like strangers who, without baggage, must enter the towns and villages to receive hospitality from the other?

Leaving baggage behind is a key part of what Luke is saying. This leaving baggage behind is about a radical reorientation of how to answer the question of what God is doing in our world. This is unfamiliar to and far from the ways in which most churches “send” people into the communities in which we live.

Take the way we evangelize as an example. Our current ways of evangelizing calls for many different ways of engaging people. Usually we develop categories that we put people of our community into then we make plans based on what “seeker” type of events and programs we think, “outsiders”, we call them “they” would be interested in joining or attending. We ask, what needs do people have that a program we can institute might address? …

  …. the church sends people into the neighborhood fully loaded, fully armed with research, and methods for assessing someone’s readiness for the next step, and with nice programs to offer. In other words, churches send out people with plenty of prepacked baggage.

   We go with a huge amount of baggage. All of this baggage will continually blind us to what God is doing in the communities where we live, because when we take baggage, we assume we already know who the people are and what they need. All the questions of what God might be doing are we have already answered, compiled and turned into sellable programs and strategies.

    When we send people out with baggage, we lose two things-the ability to see people and their needs as they really are and an openness to what God is doing.

     So, first we objectify people. We put them into our categories. They are not the other who we must dwell among and be present to, but they are a category, for which we have plans. When this is our focus, we can’t listen to the person who stands before us as a human being…he or she is the object of our plans. And that, I believe, is baggage of the worst kind.

    Secondly, we have already determined what God is up to and, so, what needs to happen. But, in the boundary-breaking work of the Spirit, this is precisely where we need a different approach. We cannot ask the question of what God is up to in our neighborhoods and communities when we think we already know. And it seems to me that Luke is trying to tell us something of critical importance in these brief instructions. That in a time of boundary-breaking, when established assumptions about how it is all supposed to turn out are no longer practical, then we must take a radically different road. We must leave our baggage behind and be willing to become like a stranger in need of the welcome and care of the other…. if we stand any chance of answering the question, what is God up to in our world today.

    Most of us are trying to figure out all the best, seeker-friendly ways to get someone to come to something we are offering. And, “our” plans and what “we” want to achieve are what’s most important. But these are huge pieces of baggage, which prevents our listening to and receiving from the other.

But, Luke points us in a different direction. …This is a text that helps sketch a new map of the road ahead. The thoughts and imaginations of the past cannot provide when the boundary-breaking Spirit of God breaks through with a new meaning for what being God’s people means in our world today.

I believe that this is exactly what is happening in our time….I believe Luke is trying to help us understand just that. Ridgecrest, we need to release our baggage. God want us to listen and receive from the “others” in our neighborhoods and communities. Luke is trying to point us in a direction. He is providing for us a map, a blueprint of the road ahead. An old way of thinking and imagining will not provide when God’s Holy Spirit is breaking through as He is in our city and community and neighborhoods with an understanding of what it means to be God’s people in our world today. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Strange New Ways of God Sending the Seventy—a Guide for Our Times Part 1 Luke 10:1-12

A Proposal for Understanding Our Time of Crisis

   As I have said often, the Spirit of God breaks boundaries, a work that can be for us confusing and disturbing and well, painful. The well-worn patterns and traditions of Christian life that shaped once dominant churches are eroding as our whole world enters a new and as yet undefined time. The patterns of Christian life that shaped and gave meaning to Christian life in America for much of the twentieth century, especially convictions about the place of the church,… are breaking apart. How do we figure out what God is doing in the world? …It is only as we focus attention on this primary question that we can ever ask what it means to be the church in this new time—but honestly this is a secondary question at this point. Luke may not have had just these questions in mind when he wrote his Gospel. He did, however, write with an eye toward Gentile communities in crisis that needed help in reorienting their thoughts and imaginations with the times they found themselves in. Together,… we will imagine what Luke’s response would have been to these questions as he tells the story of the sending of the seventy to all the places Jesus intended to go as he set his eyes toward Jerusalem and his suffering. Luke’s readers already knew the outcome of this journey with its rising opposition toward Jesus and then the post-Pentecost communities.

    What I propose is that in retelling this story, Luke is shaping for these Gentiles the question of what God is doing in the world and, therefore, how to be the church. The proposal to be offered in the sermons to follow is that Luke 10:1–12 describes a way of breaking the “church” conversation and opening up to us a radically different way of being God’s people. …Stated very simply… It is about becoming cross-cultural missionaries in our own culture. …Such a missionary steps out of the conversation about church. …. He or she isn’t preoccupied with themselves. …When entering a different culture, this missionary knows that he or she can’t begin the conversation with church questions.
    As a missionary who has gone into the international mission field with all the educational training and culture of university and Seminary life, I realized I would be of no good to the kingdom unless I learned to enter the culture and dwell among the people to whom I had come. … I made a practice of living with and sitting among the people in the towns and villages to which I had been sent. This sitting in their midst was one of the ways I sought to be present to them and attend to their stories, because I knew that until I did this, I would not be able to understand the gospel in this new place God had sent me. In the midst of these listening dialogues, I learned to be present to the other, to hear, read, and perform the gospel in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined.

Dwell in the Story

Luke 10:1–12 speaks into our crisis in a similar way. It’s important to read this Scripture, because we might assume we already know it. I invite you to read this text as often as possible, over and over again, until it starts to live inside you. Dwell in this story, seeking to hear what the Spirit of God might be saying to us through the text.

I assure you that the ways this text shapes our responses to the questions of what God is up to in the world and what it means to be the church will surprise us. This narrative asks us to turn away from deeply held patterns of response (Our Traditions); ways of doing things a certain way simply because it is the way we have always done it. And so I’m asking you to listen to the Spirit, and not to respond out of custom, comfort or tradition but as a Disciple, as a follower of Jesus Christ. 

Radical Discipleship
      Now, the narrative begins in the setting of discipleship. In other places in Scripture, we read of numbers of people coming up to Jesus and asking what they need to do to become disciples. His responses were so counterintuitive (not customary, not comfortable, not traditional) to their expectations and desires that they turned away from Jesus. (For example, he tells a rich, young ruler to go and sell all he has and then come back and follow him. He tells a Pharisee that he must be born again, to die to his life as he knows it) this discipleship is more radical than anything anyone has imagined. Hear me, it is not about fixing something or adjusting some small area of one’s life. This discipleship requires a very different kind of response and it will probably not align with our expectations or fit with the categories of meaning that have shaped many of us to this point in our lives.

    It is after these kind of encounters with would-be disciples that Jesus sends out seventy followers ahead of him to all the towns and villages where he intends to go in Galilee of the Gentiles. This story is set in the midst of Jesus’s journey down to Jerusalem where he will lose his life. Almost the entire Gospel from this point forward is built around the journey south, its results, and the resurrection. While we now know the story well, for those listening to its first readings, it was filled with huge surprises and turns that no one could have imagined. The events that were foreseen in the story were unexpected; nothing seemed to fit their established ways of thinking.
    For Luke this had to do with the why and the way these seventy are sent out. For the second-generation Gentile Christians spread across the empire who were reading the Gospel, what must it have meant for them, as they were reading about their Lord’s journey to Jerusalem and death, to come upon this story? What would it have been saying to their questions about the crisis of identity and meaning they faced?
    In Luke 9:51–56 Jesus and the disciples encounter opposition from a Samaritan village. They were not welcomed because “he was heading for Jerusalem.” Old hostilities between these two people who hated each other flare up. The disciples respond with the same old formula from a thought process and imagination that instinctually reacts to Samaritans: “Call down fire on the village and blot out these no good Samaritans! Teach them a lesson of power and authority; show them who’s in charge once and for all.” And, Jesus will have none of it; he will not get involved in the fight despite the Samaritans hard opposition and lack of recognition of who He is.
    See, Luke is helping his readers understand that opposition is the norm, it is normal when the Spirit of God breaks the boundaries of expectations and predictable ways of relating to people. At each turn of this story, Luke is providing these second-generation Gentile Christians with a radically different way of thinking from which to reframe their imagination about the promises of God and their place in the movement of Jesus.

    Following this encounter with the Samaritan town, which is a foretaste of Jerusalem—it’s not just Samaritans who don’t get it and resist—Jesus talks to the disciples about the cost of discipleship (vv. 57–62). There are going to be lots of people who want to follow the Jesus movement as long as it fits in with their expectations of how things should turn out. …. But when the directions Jesus takes, deviate from peoples “expectations” of what God is doing in the world, resistance is prompt and fierce. Luke does not hold back in orienting these Christians as they look back over half a century of the church’s young life and wonder why it’s no longer working the way it did for the first generations. This is the setting in which he sets the story of the sending of the seventy. A setting not so different from where we find ourselves in 2014.

    At the conclusion of this story, immediately following their return from the towns and villages, Luke tells a very different story about Samaritans. This story, that of the Good Samaritan, asks questions about welcoming the stranger and who is my neighbor. Luke is pointing to and anticipating that, in regard to the new experience of the seventy, the Spirit of God is working even among the Gentiles; and for us, it means we have to be open to the strange new ways of God as boundaries are broken and expectations have to be reoriented.

    Luke writes these stories of the sending of the seventy and the Samaritan on the road to suggest that what God is doing in the world has a lot more to do with being the stranger and receiving hospitality than being in control of the resources and having all the answers. Here expectations are turned upside down as it turns out that the strangers who need to be welcomed are those being sent. What could this mean for those of us asking confusing questions about what God is up to in the world and what it means to be the church? We must and will unwrap the story further.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Strange New Ways of God Sending the Seventy—a Guide for Our Times

Luke 10:1-12

In Acts and then in his Gospel, Luke is writing a narrative about God’s actions in the world to fulfill hopes that had energized Israel and, then, the young Christian church. He is shaping an account of God’s redemptive purposes for the entire world in a way that shows the faithfulness of God. This is intended to invite Gentile communities facing a crisis of identity to trust the actions of God in the face of what appears to be a failure of expectation. Luke will show that the issue is not God’s faithfulness but the narrow ways in which the gospel had been understood. In Acts he does this by emphasizing the boundary-breaking actions of the Spirit in the midst of resistance and conflict from religious and civil authorities as well as from within the young Christian community.

The backdrop within which Luke writes, then, is one of conflict. From the birth accounts to Jesus’s struggles with the Jewish leadership to his arrest and crucifixion, this theme of struggle and conflict shapes Luke’s work. The young Christian community also struggles. Too quickly it is propelled into similar conflicts that run through Acts; in the final chapters the outcome is far from clear and nothing is wrapped up and tied with a neat bow. And so outside of Luke, Acts and the Epistles we know very little about the early Christian community and its ability to adapt to and follow the leadings of the Spirit. 

In both Luke and Acts the conflict continues and the uncertainty about the outcome is not removed, but through it all Luke’s story line shows that God is at work shaping a whole new world. Some of the conflicts internal to the young Christian community in Acts were born of expectations and assumptions of how and where God was going to work, especially the taken-for-granted conviction that the Jesus movement, as a completion of Judaism, was an essentially Jewish movement. In describing the work of the Holy Spirit as the boundary-breaking presence of God who will not permit these Christians to define, settle, and manage the little boxes into which they placed the movement of Jesus, Luke is inviting his Gentile audience to embrace an alternative narrative of thought and imagination to the one they had been given in terms of their hopes.

I want to suggest this same pattern of events is at work among American Christians today, and the Spirit has continued to be boundary-breaking. The churches formed from the European religious reformations of the sixteenth century established forms of church practice and theologies that have been assumed foundational not just for European–North American cultures in a specific time but for all cultures in all times and places.

This sense that the important questions about the church and its relationships with the cultures have all been addressed in the reformations of that period created a situation that assumed the importance of “the church” to the point that, all else, (the gospel and our cultures even people, for example) are about the development of tactics to adjust and engage changing circumstances. This is the thought and imagination in which churches continue to live.

We will be looking at Luke-Acts as a means of assessing how we might find fresh ways to understand our own situation. We can understand our own time as one in which the Spirit of God is breaking the boundaries within which the Christian movement has operated in the Western context. Not only is this boundary-breaking about a preoccupation with the church as the central idea we have to get right (the so-called “essence” or “form” of the church issue), but it is also about the tradition of theologizing that came out of the sixteenth-century reformations in Europe. In a rapidly globalizing West, now characterized by new and massive people movements from many other parts of the world, this “Reformation” boundary may also be one the Spirit is breaking.

In Acts, Luke is reorienting the hope and expectation of Gentile believers. In the midst of confusion and a crisis of identity, it is possible to read the circumstances in a very different manner. The established thought for understanding their hope in terms of Jerusalem, temple, Jewishness, and the empire’s embrace was too small a box in which to place the radical announcement of good news in Jesus and the birth of the Jesus community. The good news is that God is doing something far bigger and more imaginative than can be placed in these small, narrow categories. The crisis of identity is not a crisis concerning God’s purposes but comes as a result of the narrow ways in which early Christians experienced and structured God’s purposes after Pentecost. Luke is inviting his Gentile readers into a different way of thinking. While it opens up a new space for hope and a radically new context for theologizing and practicing the gospel in towns and villages, it also raised a whole new set of questions.

Raising New Questions

Within the old understanding of expectation, certain questions could be easily answered in terms of the Jerusalem/temple/empire narratives. But in this different economy of God’s actions that the Spirit has burst open for the first-century Christians, how does one know what God is doing in the world? How does one decide what it means to be the church in this new way of thinking—where the old explanations of how things work no longer cohere? These were questions that needed answers if the Gentile churches were to address their crisis of identity. They are also the questions we have to answer in our day.

If it is the case that God’s Spirit is breaking the boundaries of church life in the Western churches because they can no longer contain the ways in which the Spirit is at work in the world, then these non-church questions of what God is doing must be addressed. If the church-centeredness of our conversations is now, in fact, a barrier and boundary the Spirit is in the process of breaking apart, then it is urgent that we answer these other questions.

The boundary-breaking Spirit is making it clear to a growing number of people that church-centeredness has little future. The hope in this difficult discovery is that there are also new, strange questions we haven’t needed to think about before. When the church lay at the center of the conversation, it was relatively simple to name what God was up to, and we had endless books that defined and described what it meant to be the church. In this new space, where the church is not the central focus or question, how do we go about addressing these new questions? How will we know what God is doing when the answers can’t be taken for granted? How do we know what it means to be the church when the church is no longer the central preoccupation?

My next several sermons will propose that we can discover answers to these questions in Luke’s Gospel. Rather than engage the whole Gospel, we will initially focus on Luke 10:1–12. The proposal is that in these sermons we can discern a way in which Luke continued to frame a response to Gentile Christians faced with their own crisis of identity, and it can, therefore, offer us a way of understanding how to be faithful to the gospel in our time.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Lighting Up the Darkness; Becoming a City on a Hill

Cultivating Missional Living
Lighting Up the Darkness; Becoming a City on a Hill
Matthew 5:14-16

Lighting Up The Darkness

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

It takes a community to reach a community. Communities of faith, sustained by a collective vision for reaching their culture, are a vital means to the Gospel going into the entire world. As we have, I pray, learned in previous sermons, God doesn’t have a mission for His church. He has a church for His mission. Hear me, our relationship with each other is the measure the world uses to judge whether our message is true….Christian community is the ultimate defense. So, the best proof of the Gospel of the kingdom of God, is a people who are living out that Gospel.

The first Christians embraced their new birth from the perspective of being born into a new family. Jesus interlaced the idea of family into His crafting of the early community of Christ followers. In fact on one occasion things were getting somewhat dicey for Him, Jesus’ mother and brothers came to intervene and bring Him home. When they arrived outside the house He was in, someone told Jesus they were calling for Him. In response he pointed to His disciples and said “Here are my mother and my brothers.” Matt. 12:47-49. …Early Christians understood they had passed from death to life, from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of God’s dear Son, and that…they were not bringing their old life into His. That life was dead. They were not bringing their old sense of cultural entitlement into this new life. Those rights had passed away. This was a new society, a new culture, and a new community. To be in this new family meant you were no longer an individual but a member.

These believers did not have to think up ways to attract people to join them, the faithful community of believers was attractive enough.

In the New Testament, repentance means renouncing our old self-centered life and adopting the new lifestyle of love (Agape) demonstrated by Jesus. This same community, which exists, by grace through faith, is also the community of witness….it has the character of a movement always remaining in and for the world. Jesus described it as “a city set on a hill,” whose light beckons and guides the weary and lost traveler to the security and fellowship of a civilized society. In this city there was safety from the bandits who took advantage of the darkness to rob and kill. In a friendly city foreigners could find protection and hospitality. So, Jesus used the city as a symbol of the saving community, whose light shines in the gathering darkness, inviting the traveler to find salvation.

God created the family to care for one another. A functional family will not allow suffering to take place without breaking out all means to relieve and heal it. But today, most of our families, including our spiritual families are dysfunctional. In the weeks and years to come, we are going to see in the book of Acts, Christians who were ‘one another’ people, they called each other brother and sister because they considered one another to be family. The early Christians’ love for one another was a huge part of the collective light that was emitted throughout their cities and neighborhoods, causing Christianity to flourish.

Missional Habits
Getting into a rhythm is extremely important for missional communities. Committing to a common set of habits is one of the best ways to get started and to persist in mission. It is a way for each member to live out the apostolic commandment in Heb. 10:24 to “to stir up one another to love and good works”

As we read already in the most famous sermon ever preached, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told His followers:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

Back in the second sermon in this series I used an acrostic for the word Bless, to help us bless people in our community. Today I want to close this first half of this series with another. An acrostic for the word light, to help you develop a set of habits and practices for our community.

L-isten to the Holy Spirit
Commit to at least one hour per week of listening and prompting of the Holy Spirit. Some may choose to take a prayer walk or carve out a time of solitude and listening to God for an hour once a week. Others may break up the hour into daily segments of maybe ten minutes per day. The point is to have a specific time of just listening in silence, not speaking or asking for anything just letting the Lord speak to you. (We will certainly talk more about this as we break down Luke 10:1-12 the next few weeks.)

I-nvite others to share a meal.
Share meals each week with others. Think both in terms of people who are part of our faith community and who are not yet. Don’t just spend this valuable time with people you know to already be followers of Christ. The idea is that around the table, good things happen.

G-ive a blessing.
Seek to do several acts of blessing a week. Again this can be within our community of faith, but make an emphasis to bless those outside our community. This might be a gift, a card, a help in some way. The idea is to be a blessing.

H-ear from the Gospel.
Commit to read from the Gospels every week in order to specifically learn more about Jesus, His ways, and His means. The Gospels are always included in the weekly routine in order to constantly stay Jesus’ focused and Jesus centered. It is vital to read from other books of the Bible as part of our spiritual formation while including Gospel reading as part of our regular habits.

T-ake inventory of the day
Why, because when we do, it is a consistent reminder that we are God’s sent people. As a community we want to stay mindful of opportunities to engage in mission on our day to day journey. To do this, maybe keep a journal of how you worked with Jesus during the day. Ask yourself how you responded to his promptings. Reflect on whether there were any missed opportunities or instances when you resisted Jesus during the day.

The Lord is the Creator and He lives in each of us. So, there is no lack of creativity in any of us. We should actually ooze with imagination and ideas for missional living as believers and the community of faith. A sanctified imagination is a powerful missional tool because the fundamental job of the imagination in life is to produce out of the society we have to live in a vision of the society we want to live in. If…we can just keep ourselves awake to the fact that we are God’s good news people, life takes on renewed significance every single day. Much of what we call mundane and routine can spark to life if we will allow our imaginations to come alive in a missional orientation.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Engaging Community

Cultivating Missional Living
Engaging Community

Luke 10:1-12

The Importance of Public Spaces
Isolation is a word that describes the kind of lives many people are living today. More and more people are spending less and less time with others. There is less time given to civic participation, connections in the workplace, involvement in any type of faith based activity, and neighborhood relationships than ever before. The fact is that more people are spending time alone than ever before. One possible solution involves identifying and engaging what I’m going to call, “Third places” in our communities. Third places are represented by public places of common ground where people enjoy the company of others.

A couple of questions might be, what examples of isolation do we see or have we experienced in the lives of people around us? Are things different than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago? And what are some third places in our community.

Very soon, in just 2 weeks, we will begin a journey. We will make our way through the twin texts of Luke-Acts. Very soon Luke 10:1-12 will become a foundational passage for the future of Ridgecrest. One of the reasons I say this is that I believe that Luke the writer of both books, is suggesting the way to understand the church in relationship to our community.

Luke, I believe is suggesting a radically different location for being the church when the Spirit is breaking our boundaries. Which if you have paid attention to me at all, you have heard is what I’m suggesting God is doing at Ridgecrest, in our communities and in our City. ?... What if one of the most important locations for the church isn’t so much being centered “in here” as much as it is being located “out there” ? What if an element of what God is saying to us in this passage is that our nature, our meaning, our role, and our function will be rediscovered only to the extent we learn to discern what God is up to in the interactions in our relationships with people in the homes and public spaces of our neighborhoods and communities. We should ask, why did Jesus send out the Seventy-two? Where did they go? How does the concept of hospitality, which we looked at last week, play out in this passage? What can we learn in our interacting “out there” that we might not be able to discern “in here?”

? What thoughts are you beginning to have when I tell you that our relevance might only be rediscovered as we interact in our neighborhood or community? I pray, with only one week left in the first half of this series that huge questions are rising up within our minds.

Where Everybody Knows You Name

In the late 1980’s and early 90s one of the most popular TV shows on US television was a show called Cheers. It was set in a bar in the heart of Boston. A very popular scene was when a particular “regular” would bust through the front door of the bar and everyone would shout his name in unison, “Norm!” The tagline for the show was, “Where everybody knows your name.”

A man named TJ Palmer took this concept of a place people could call their own and developed the most successful restaurant chain in the world, Applebee’s, whose restaurants were originally designed around the cheers set.

The environment within the world of cheers and that desired in Applebee’s provides a perfect picture of a cultural phenomenon referred to as a “third place” by sociologist. Places like Starbucks and others have used this trend to build large chains of Cafes, Coffee Shops, and other Hangouts. Many of us frequent a form of these third places.

So, what exactly is a third place? Well, a first place is our home and the people whom we live with. A second place is where we work or go to school and spend the majority of our waking hours. A third place is a public setting that host regular, voluntary, and informal gatherings of people. It is a place to relax and have the opportunity to know and be known by others. It is a place people like to “hang out.”

So, ?, why is it so important for Jesus followers to understand the concept of third places? …Because the vast majority of people in the US are living isolated, relationally impoverished lives, and third places offer an opportunity for missionally minded people to do life in very close proximity to others.

Let me share some interesting statistics and changes in the US in regard to social interaction. Did you know that in the past twenty years the number of people who bowl has increased dramatically? But, the number of people who bowl in a league is very small. In the past a bowling alley was a very popular third place. Most people who bowled there bowled in a league. And it is estimated that as much as a third of adults bowled in a league.

Another third place of the past was the 1950 and 60 phenomena of the game of bridge. It is estimated that by 1958 one-third of all adults, men and women, at that time, gathered once a week for club games. This spread through dorm rooms and student unions in the 60s and 70s and millions of college students spent millions of hours in seemingly endless games of bridge. On college campuses mixed double clubs developed and it became a very important way for men and women to gather informally. The very rules of the game, limiting talk among partners about their cards, encouraged conversation about topics other than the game itself.

Now people play card games and numerous other games alone on their phone or tablets. The problem, when we play games alone, we obviously do not participate in the social interaction and community that occurs in leagues or teams or club environments.

Now, let this sink in, just a few decades ago, once a week, the majority of our population, was in a bowling alley, living room or college student union or dorm room spending the evening with other families or friends. Today we have substituted things like television and computers and tablets. The reality is that we usually engage them all alone. 

What I’m saying is that this deterioration of social connections in our communities should drive us to action. As followers of Jesus we know we were created as relational beings. We know that God designed us to be in deep, abiding relationship with Him. But we also understand that we were created to be in life-giving relationships with one-another. The idea of millions of lonely people sitting at home, remote control, tablet, mouse, phone in hand, dying relationally from the lack of basic human connection should inspire us to bring about change. But, what can we do? Let me say some things in regard to third places.

Third Places

Identify and Enter

First, we must take the time to identify the third places in our neighborhood. Where do people gather to spend time with others? Where are the typical places, the cafes and coffee shops and other hangouts? And where are some atypical places where people come together. Maybe libraries, parks, workout places. We may need to think outside the box when identifying where people gather. But then once we identify them, we must then seek to engage these places. As we discussed way back in the second message in this series, this will involve embedding our lives incarnationally into third places. Listening and learning where God is at work, and asking how we can participate in what God is doing!

Create Environments

This is one that is often talked about. Churches attempt to open coffee shops or libraries. We plant community gardens hoping to encourage people to work together. But when we do these things they often become more about members rather than reaching our community. Coffee shops for members, libraries for members to study the Bible, gardens that members use….Good things, but we must keep our minds set on ways to be creative in the way we think about common space in our neighborhoods, and how they may enhance relational connections.

Support and Defend

Now this one may sound unusual. But in some ways we may need to become urban planning advocates. If we are committed to the importance of relationships for the health and vitality of our communities. We should involve ourselves in anything,. parks, bike trails, and anything else that would enhance the opportunity for a richer public life.

So, our engagement with third places should first flow out of our desire to see those who are relationally disconnected drawn into life-giving relationships with others, and ultimately with the giver of life. And, secondly, it should flow out of the recognition that as an increasing number of people are less interested in the activities of the church, it is we, as the missionary people of God, who have to engage others on common ground, or third places. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Welcoming the Stranger; Recovering Biblical Hospitality

Cultivating Missional Living Sermon 10
Mi Casa, Es Su Casa!
Welcoming the Stranger; Recovering Biblical Hospitality
Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 14:12-14, Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:3, 1 Peter 4:9

Welcoming the Stranger

Matthew 25:31-46

I do not often talk about Greek words in the context of Sunday Morning sermons, but I want to point a word out to you. It is the Greek word we translate hospitality. It is made up of two Greek words. The words for love and for stranger. The word literally means “love of stranger.” You might recall that Philadelphia, is two Greek words put together, one meaning love, the other brother, to mean brotherly love. Well the word here is philoxenia, joining the words for love and stranger together. 

So some ?s, What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word “hospitality?”
Does the definition of hospitality as “love of stranger” surprise you in any way?
How would you define a stranger? Do strangers include more than those we simply do not know?

When people hear the word “hospitality, we typically picture entertaining around meals, or inviting family and friends into their homes for a night of fun and games. Some may think of the hospitality industry, which includes hotels and restaurants and cruise ships that work to create an atmosphere of friendliness and welcome. Or,….perhaps Church “hospitality” comes to mind, greeters, ushers, and those who set up coffee and snacks for the Sunday Morning gathering. In any case most understandings of hospitality have a very minimal moral component them…hospitality is a nice extra if we have the time or the resources, but we rarely view it as a spiritual obligation or as a dynamic expression of vibrant Christianity. The fact is that over time the Christian Community has very much lost touch with the amazing transformative realities of true biblical hospitality.

Understanding Biblical Hospitality

In order to love the stranger and open our homes effectively, we need to expand our view of hospitality. Jesus commands us to extend the circle of hospitality beyond friends and relatives to include those in need:
Luke 14:12-14 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

And just to be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with sharing a meal with friends and family. In fact, shared meal times play an essential role in cultivating healthy family relationships and are an essential element of biblical community. But, the practice of genuine, biblical hospitality is distinctive from the conventional view because it reaches out to undesired, neglected people who cannot pay us back.

And, to be clear, strangers are not simply those we do not know. …In the strict sense, strangers are those who are disconnected from basic relationships. Making space for hospitality is not only about creating physical environments that are welcoming to others, but it is also about the posture or position we take toward human relationships in general. It is about turning our lives toward those who are isolated. It is about listening well to those who rarely have a voice.

Hospitality is really about inclusion. It is about including others into our lives and our network of relationships. The opposite of inclusion is exclusion, which involves the actions of dismissal and rejection. The lack of a welcome can be deeply hurtful. Do you remember a time in your life when you were excluded? Stop and think for a moment. How did being excluded from the lives and activities of others make you feel? Many people live a life of constant exclusion. Biblical hospitality, when rightly understood and pursued, has the power to break the bonds of exclusion and isolation.

And, when considering the idea of hospitality as more than welcoming the stranger into a physical place, it is worth noting that Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35, “I was a stranger and you invited me in,” do not refer to a particular physical location for hospitality. Instead, the verse challenges us to examine our practices of welcome to strangers in every setting. Jesus’ words are more closely associated with relationships than with location…I was a stranger and you received me into your group.

Hospitality involves living our life in a way that places a higher value on relationships and community than on consumption and productivity. But, this is counter to the prevailing philosophy of our American Culture.

Barriers to Hospitality

When did we lose the capacity to give and receive hospitality? Why has it virtually disappeared from the life of the church and from those of us who make up the church? The reasons are no doubt very complex, but much of the move away from biblical hospitality can be seen in the changing view of the family. We have moved from family as an extended web of relationships that included aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends to a very individualized, insulated, and in most cases, small ”nuclear family unit.”

The picture then, within most single family homes today is one of both parents pursuing careers and working hard to take hold of the American Dream. The endless pursuit of this type of life leads to a lack of flexibility in several areas of life…..Like, there is no money left over at the end of the month. There is no physical energy left over at the end of the week. There is no time for relationships left over at the end of the day. So the lack of flexibility in our lives becomes an enormous barrier to opening our homes to others. And until we are willing to make hard decisions to create it, there will be little time and space to welcome others into our lives.

However, maybe the greatest barrier flowing out of our changing view of the family has to do with the perceived relationship between family and culture. Over the past few decades, the family has increasingly become a place to achieve safety and security from the dangers of secular society. You know, the home has become a fortress to protect the family from the evils of the world, rather than a place of welcome. We think this is our space and those we chose to welcome are very carefully chosen. So visitors, especially strange ones, stress us out. And while this in some sense is understandable, the negative result in terms of our spirituality is that family has effectively become an idol…a place where the Shema is no longer applied to the whole of our life. So once again, our culture, has undermined our responsibility.

And it is not hard at all to see how this is absolutely disastrous from a missional perspective. Our families and our homes should be places where people can experience a foretaste of heaven, where the church is rightly viewed as a community of the redeemed from all walks of life. Instead, our fears restrict us from letting go of the control and safety we have spent years cultivating.

This view of the family leads to a very high level of skepticism and fear of strangers. We are fearful that the stranger is not like us. They may think differently. They may have different values. They may make us uncomfortable. And stemming from the fear of the unknown is a heightened desire for our safety and security. What do we do?....We add extra locks on our doors, install security systems, and construct higher fences. You know when I grew up here in the metroplex…people had 4’ chain link fences. These were mainly to keep our dogs in…but you could see right through them to your neighbor’s yard. Then I saw how we moved to 6 then 8 and now we have 10’ privacy fences. And we even put overlapping boards so that there won’t be any chance of anybody seeing into a neighbor’s life.

The problem is that people are created as relational beings. God made us to be in a relationship with him, but also with each other. However, because most people have never experienced genuine biblical hospitality, and do not know how to offer it to those around them, they continue to live isolated, sometimes very lonely lives. As followers of Jesus, we must set the example and illustrate for others the transformative power of hospitality.

Pursuing Biblical Hospitality

Romans 12:13, Paul’s says we are to contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. I think the word translated seek, we are to seek hospitality is great. Because Christians are not to simply practice hospitality, but instead are to seek out opportunities to welcome strangers into their homes and lives.

1 Peter 4: 8-9 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.

You know in most areas of life we fall short of God’s best by what we do… infidelity, lying, stealing, jealousy, anger, and so on. These are all examples of sins of “commission” Sins we commit. Not so with hospitality. Here our sin comes through what we fail to do. It is a sin of omission. And it is not just because we fail to lessen or alleviate hurt of others, or that someone is forced to go without food or lives on the streets, but rather because of what is left undone in our own lives. See, every time we turn away from another, our heart becomes a little colder. The doors to our homes close a little bit tighter. And, the worse part…our vision for what God is doing in the lives of those around us becomes a little less clear.

The real question is not how dangerous the stranger is…but how dangerous will we become if we don’t learn to be more open?

Biblical hospitality is an obligation. It is a spiritual discipline and a missional practice. It is simply…the way of Jesus. It is a gift to others and to ourselves. Both the blessing and difficulties of biblical hospitality are most deeply discovered only as it is pursued.

And I know, I acknowledge that pursuing hospitality, along with all the blessings and difficulties that come with it, is at times scary and radical. But it is worth the risk. Because unless we find a way to open ourselves up to others, we will be the ones to grow more isolated and frightened. And if we do not find and practice ways of hospitality we will grow increasingly hostile. Hospitality is the answer to hostility. Jesus said to love your neighbor…hospitality is how!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Like a Good Neighbor; Knowing and Loving Your Neighborhood

Cultivating Missional Living Sermon 9
Like a Good Neighbor; Knowing and Loving Your Neighborhood
Jeremiah 29:4-7, Matthew 5:14

Good News for Our City
Though chance or circumstance may appear to be what brought us to the place we live, as followers of Christ we can be assured that God sent us on an assignment as a participant in His mission to the world. Our location in this world is no accident. The people in our immediate neighborhood and the community that surrounds us are the ones to whom the Lord has sent us and for whom He has raised up our church. As individuals and as the collective body of Christ, we are called to seek the welfare of the very people we are living among.

Jeremiah 29:4-7
In this passage God says to make a good life for ourselves but also to seek the welfare of the city He has sent us to. ? In what ways do we “seek” our cities welfare?....This passage also contains God’s instructions to pray for the city He sends us to. Have you given this serious consideration? (We spent time on this passage a few weeks ago. How does the thought of beginning to pray for your neighborhood and city enliven you?

Matthew 5:14-16
In this verse Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” Wow, lets imagine that for a moment…Do you look at yourself this way?...Are there currently any ways that your light is somewhat hidden under a basket? Does the idea of “good works” excite you or turn you off?

Knowing and Loving Our Neighborhoods and Cities

Most of us view our neighborhoods and cities as little more than places where we live. We live out our lives and simply hope for the best….for a safe, peaceful, crime free community with good schools and nice parks and good job opportunities, and maybe even some good arts and entertainment venues. But a missional person sees his or her neighborhood differently. A missional church views its community differently too.

A missional church is a fellowship made up of people who individually and collectively own the responsibility for the welfare of their particular community as a whole. And if our hopes of becoming a missional church are to ever be realized, we must open our eyes to be missional people in the very places we live and frequent. This begins with the street we live on, which is our most immediate mission field. These pathways then stretch out to our neighborhoods.

Seeking the Best for Our City

So, and here is what God is saying, when we make conscious and committed decisions-on a daily basis-to seek the best for our neighborhoods and cities, life flourishes not only for us but also for those whose lives we touch. No matter how we reach out, even if it seems small to us, our collective actions become proportionately significant. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

Knowing People, Meeting Needs

As God’s missionary people, sent ones, it is unavoidable that we constantly ask missionary questions. So, what are some of the questions we should be asking regarding our neighborhoods? Well:
How would a missionary live on my street?
What would he or she notice is missing here?
Who are the poor, marginalized, and hurting in my neighborhood? (Oh, and don’t think they are not there!)
In what ways would my neighborhood be different if God’s Kingdom came here as it is in heaven?
What would good news be for my neighbors right here, right now?

Kim and I in Mexico

The Simple agenda of Jesus for winning the whole world is to make each person he touches magnetic enough with His love to draw others. Jesus’ followers and faithful churches are cities on hills and lights in the midst of darkness. Even though people in our surrounding neighborhoods may or may never join our church, they will have no choice but to see Christians and churches as essential components of the health and hope of our community. (Matthew 5:14-16)

But and this is important, we can quickly react to needs while unintentionally communicating that solving the problem is more important than knowing the person with the problem. Any agency or government can do that. What agencies and governments cannot do is something only a human can do-building relationships with the people in need. When missionaries start with need, hoping they will one day get to know people personally, they will most likely be found years later, still addressing the same need.

On the other hand, when we start with people in empowering relationships, we are still likely to get to the problems they have, but then work together, with them, on the problems. The work, so to speak may start slower and look less impressive when relationships are the priority before attention to need, but it is more likely to be owned and reproduced by the people themselves and, as a result, have a much longer lifespan.

Building a Community

The church is not the kingdom of God. It is an instrument, or an entity, within the kingdom. It is then mandatory for us, that we understand who we are and assume the role of servant for the kingdom of God. We are God’s tangible expression of how He feels about the world. Most Christians today are overwhelmed by what they believe to be their own lack of talents, giftings or expertise to help others. The good news is that none of us must have all the answers, resources, or solutions. That is one of the things that makes community so diverse, colorful and creative.

So as we begin building community, we begin to see that our neighborhood is a treasure chest. By opening the chest and putting all the gifts together in many different ways, we then multiply the power of its riches. ….Think of the street you live on. Consider the homes on either side of you in both directions. Think of those across from you. It would amaze us all if we really knew of all the gifts and talents of the people living in those houses-not to mention the resources contained in them.

A community builds on the gifts of its people. It knows that a gift is not a gift until it is given. Before it is given, it is only a beautifully wrapped box. Gifts need to be named and exchanged, not only to create a capable community, but also to create a functioning family. A church is a family that has discovered its capacity to produce for itself, together with a capable community, all that is required for a truly good life, a satisfying life. The tragedy of a dysfunctional family or neighborhood is that the potential gifts of its members are never given away.

The road to loving our neighborhoods and cities can begin as a treasure hunt, then by our prayerfully opening our eyes and ears, taking some risks to get to know others, and giving ourselves as servants, we can play a significant role in the future welfare of our cities.

So, In Response:
Begin this week, to take some time to use whatever media, newspapers, magazines, the internet….watch the evening local news to learn more about our community. Then follow that up with prayer for the welfare of our city in light of what you know about its needs, asking God to bring His kingdom to bear upon the situations as well as ones you don’t know about.

Then, begin this week to pray for people on your street. Specifically pray for them by name if you know them. Pray for their spiritual and physical needs. Pray not only for them in difficult situations but also that they prosper and are well.