L. British Hyrams
(Genesis 12:1-3, Matthew 28:16-20)
Today wraps up a sermon series on “Signs of Community.” We have examined questions such as: what exactly makes a community a community, what are the things that make building community difficult, and how do we work through them and overcome them?
Together we have examined the following perspectives in the past few weeks.
We are created to be together. The church thrives as a community and the Spirit abounds when it focuses on a simple set of core values related to the good news of Jesus Christ: to teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.[i]
We are to “wear love”. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he tells them that there are some essential pieces of spiritual clothing they need to put on, ways of living to adopt. He rattles off five: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. But above all else, make sure that you “clothe yourself with love.” “Wear love.” Specifically wear agape love, when one’s love for God is reflected in and expressed by one’s love for the people; as one’s love for the people is reflected in and expressed by one’s love for God.[ii]
We also talked about peace and unity in Christ. Peace, an inner rest and assurance that prevails in the midst of storms. Security that is rooted in our faith and hope in Jesus Christ. Unity, by the power of the Spirit we share the love of Christ with others and inviting them to be themselves, to unite together with us as disciples, as followers of our risen Lord and Savior (in the richness of our differences). In Christ we find hope that depends not on what the eye beholds, but on the truth of the justice, mercy, and steadfast love of God in Jesus Christ.
Fearless Generosity. Steve introduced us to two words, charis which grace, generous undertaking, thanks to God, and generous act. And, compassion, caring that stirs you to action. To give back. To go all in. But fear can step in and blind us from seeing the overwhelming abundance and joy that is all around – and instead replaces it with the illusion of scarcity and limitation and failure. It can pull the rug right out from under our acts of generosity, care, and compassion.[iii]
These are some of the signs, components, and attributes of community. Our focus today centers on these questions: Why are we called to community? Specifically, why are Christians called together as a community of faith? In other words, what is the purpose of Christian community?
Scripture has much to offer in answering this question, but our texts for today represent significant turning points in biblical history where God articulates what we are called to do, our purpose.
The idea of being blessed or blessing someone else is most frequently understood in terms of the benefits conveyed by such an act: prosperity, power, fertility.[iv] This is clear in many OT stories, including this one in Genesis were Abram is promised to become a great nation and his name will be great. Bless/Blessing – to fill with great benefits.
While this is a significant sense of blessing and one that is desirable, there is another sense of blessing that is equally valid, more valid some scholars would say is blessing as a statement of relationship between parties. Blessing makes known the positive, the favorable relationship between God and individuals or God and groups of people. This sense of blessing is captured in both texts today
In the Genesis text, this endeavor that God has called Abram to is for a purpose beyond himself, beyond his family, beyond even what will become the Israelite people. God blesses Abram, “so that you will be a blessing.” Verse 3 says, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Shall be in relationship with God.
In Matthew, Jesus sends the disciples out to proclaim the good news and draw others into discipleship, into relationship. “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” This commission gives the disciples the purpose of inviting all nations into an informed and acknowledged relationship of faith in the triune God.
Our purpose as a community of faith is to be a blessing to others not only intangible benefits but also in relationship With God and one another
Both of these passages represent a challenge beyond measure; there is a tall order for Abram and the chosen people of God and a seemingly impossible task assigned to the disciples (which include you and me). In fact, because one might attach the word “evangelism” with these passages, the thought may have you quaking in your boots! Yet, despite our fears about what that looks like, how it plays out in what we say and do, there is comfort nestled in the midst of the call to the task of blessing all nations
In Genesis there is assurance to calm every fear: I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you. [I will] make your name great. While Abram is called to faith and obedience, God is with him and in fact God is doing the heavy lifting. As Abram attempts to follow God, God will always be with him and his descendants. That is the basis upon which Abram, you, and I have any hope. Now, many of you know that the story proceeds with what seems like more failures than successes by the family God chose, but along with that we know that God remained faithful.
Jesus commands his disciples to fulfill a purpose that is a challenge to say the least, especially given the imperfect faith that has been on display throughout the story as told by Matthew. Yet this command is couched between two VERY important assertions. Before issuing the commission to the disciples Jesus designates himself as the ultimate source: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” After the commission, Jesus affirms for the disciples once again, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Beloved, we are in community for the purpose of blessing others in the name of the Lord. We can do it only because God is right here with us as we attempt to fulfill it on a daily basis despite our faults. I’d like to leave you with a true story about a community of faith that embodied many of the signs of community proclaimed from this pulpit over the last few weeks.
The Mosque Across the Street[v]
For 19 years Steve Stone pastored Heartsong Church, the United Methodist congregation he started in Cordova, Tennessee, a suburb of Memphis. Heartsong, a music-‐themed congregation was designed as a place for people who don’t like going to church. The interior is modern and welcoming, with inspirational wall art and a large water fountain. Congregants were lovingly described as a “grateful, recovering, Jesus-following tribe of knot heads, hotheads, potheads, sots and assorted nuts.”
Pastor Stone Read on the front page of the paper one morning that the Memphis Islamic Center was planning to build a mosque and “a sprawling community center” directly across the street from his church.
Not knowing that there were that many Muslims in the community, and the pain from 9/11 that still permeated the country he prayed, Lord, what are we supposed to do? His answer, based on scripture, came to him – We’ve got to find a way to love them.
Two days later, he fixed a 6 foot wide, bright red vinyl banner on the main road, in full view of every passing vehicle: ‘Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.’
The leaders of the booming Muslim community wanted a spacious place where they could gather not just to worship – but to host weddings and throw parties, to gather on holidays and relax on weekends, to house a day care center for children and activities for the elderly. “A place to pray and play”.
Their offers on other properties in the Bible belt city of Memphis had been turned down on other occasions. They were not hopeful When they finally found what seemed like the perfect plot across the street from Heartsong because you see The land bordered that main Road, which many in the town dubbed “church road” because of the number of Christian houses of worship that line it. The leaders wished more of their fellow Americans would see beyond the stereotypes of Muslim Americans and know them as the doctors and lawyers, business owners and students that they were.
The fear that dissipated among the Muslims congregation when they saw the sign of welcome traveled across the street, to some members of Heartsong. As Pastor Stone met with members about the decision to support the building of the Mosque he explained that his Christian faith – not a deep study of Islam -‐ was at the root of his decision to welcome their new neighbors. Although he individually counseled everyone who was upset, members wound up leaving the church, including some in key leadership positions.
The following year, leaders of the Islamic center found themselves racing the calendar. They weren’t sure the mosque would be completed by the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast during daylight hours and mosques hold special nighttime prayers.
They approached Heartsong, “We were wondering if we could use a small room in your building for our prayers, “Just for a few nights until our building is done. We’ll be glad to pay you.” The only room big enough to hold them all was the main sanctuary, where a large cross, encircled by a heart, adorns the wall. They were told could use it. “But there’s just one thing, “You can’t pay us. We’re not going to accept any money. We’re neighbors.”
Members of the Islamic center spent the entire month of Ramadan at Heartsong. And, Heartsong members came to their church every night at 7 p.m. to greet their Muslim neighbors. “On the last night of Ramadan, the Muslim prayer leader said this to the congregation “I know you have heard bad things about Christian people, just like Christian people have heard bad things about Muslim people,” “But these are what real Christians are like, and they’ve gotten to see what real Muslims are like.”
That Ramadan cemented an enduring friendship. Since then, the two congregations have fed the homeless together and undertaken other joint community service projects. They hold interfaith discussions. Every year around the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, they hold a joint blood drive. They celebrate Thanksgiving together at Heartsong. Each spring, the Islamic center hosts a lively picnic.
When asked if anyone from Heartsong has converted to Islam, or anyone from the Memphis Islamic Center has become a Christian they say “No, “But we’ve all become stronger in our own faith.”
Beloved, in a few minutes we will confess together what it means to be the church, a community faith. I pray that we will do so recognizing the presence of God and being willing to share the gifts of God, time, talent and treasure, in order to be a blessing to all families of the earth.
Thanks be to God.
[iv] Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 1, p754