Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Different Transfer of Power

(This is the second message in a series, A Contagious Church.)

Ephesians 1:3-14

The inauguration last week was an amazing event. Whatever your political views, the pomp and ceremony and tradition and meaning of the day all said something great—not about any one man, but about the country. We sat down and watched the whole thing…then watched it again right afterwards. It was a complicated event. I printed off the media guide without checking how big it was—121 pages later I had everything I needed to know about the inaugurations of American presidents. What struck me was the high value placed on the continuity of these ceremonies going all the way back to George Washington.

Commentators kept referring to the peaceful transfer of power, and that really is one of the amazing things about these transitions, no matter who becomes president. The handing over of military power, economic influence and (if we’re honest) the coolest office in the world is something that Americans are proud of with good reason.

Today we continue our series on what it means to be a church that is alive and contagious. The key sentence for us over the next few weeks, and feel free to memorize it, is this:

A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.

Each one of those qualities or practices helps to shape us into the people that God calls us to be, and each one helps us share that life in a generous and contagious way with other people. Last week we talked about Fellowship, and today we continue with a look at Worship, what we do to celebrate the power and presence and work of God in our lives.

3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9And made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.

The city of Ephesus is in modern day Turkey, near the city of Izmir. The Ephesians were part of a network of early churches that were always under threat from persecution or heresy or both. The letter is a summary of Paul’s teaching, designed to unify these struggling churches. It may have been a message read for baptism services. This entire passage is actually one long sentence—a string of phrases where God is in control, where Christ is the link between God and his creation, and where we are the receivers of God’s blessings through Christ.

Take a look at our text.

The very first line is a Christian version of a traditional Jewish prayer called the berakhah. The function of the berakhah in Jewish worship is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessing. It’s traditionally said over a meal. This is a very Jewish way to begin the letter, and connects Paul and the early church to their Jewish origins.

In the fifth verse Paul talks about our adoption as children of God. This one is interesting because there was no real provision for adoption in Jewish law. The sort of adoption Paul is talking about here is a Roman concept, where an orphan would be taken into a family and given full inheritance rights. That’s important, because Paul’s ministry, and this letter, were to the whole world, not just the people of any one faith or ethnic group.

The passage ends with a confirmation of our own adoption, including the gift of an inheritance directly from God: ‘The promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.’

There is a natural flow in our text today, from God’s plan to the work of Christ to the impact of that work on each of our lives. Paul’s letter begins with a statement of God’s power, his presence through Jesus Christ, and his work in our lives. That’s an important thing to remember as we think about why we worship this morning.

In honor of the inauguration of a new president this week, I want us to think about worship in a new way. I want us to reflect on the practice of worship as a radical transfer of power from ourselves to God.

If you look at the dictionary definition of worship, you’ll see that it’s a verb first. We get into trouble when we start referring to worship as a noun. The danger is that it becomes about style, rather than substance. It becomes more about what worship looks and sounds like, rather than what it means. Worship is contagious when we remember to keep it active and meaningful—when we focus more on what it means than how we do it.

One of the major statements of Christian faith in the last 50 years was the Confession of 1967, one of the creeds of the Presbyterian denomination that I grew up in. Here’s what that confession says about worship in the church:

‘The church gathers to praise God, to hear his word for humankind, to baptize and join in the Lord’s Supper, to pray for and present the world to him in worship, to enjoy fellowship, to receive instruction, strength and comfort…[In worship we are] tested, renewed and reformed.’

Worship is when we acknowledge God’s sovereignty in our lives, our families, our church and our world. It’s when we transfer the power in our lives over the God every day. When we do that, we are tested, renewed and reformed.

How does that happen? Remember the natural flow in our text today, from God’s plan to the work of Christ to the impact of that work on each of our lives. We worship when we sing and pray and live in the shadow of God’s power, his presence, and his work in our lives.

The call to us as individuals and as a church family is to be intentional about what we do here. It’s not enough to have good quality music. It’s not enough to have the occasional interesting sermon. It’s not enough for any of us to go through the motions of being churchgoers.

We worship best when we’re intentional about practicing the presence of God—of trusting in faith that God is who he says he is, and that he’ll do what he promised to do.

We worship best when we understand the meaning of Christ’s ministry and sacrifice—when we live in the joy of the redemption and forgiveness we experience through our lives in Christ.

We worship best when we allow God’s Holy Spirit to work within in us and through us and to make us into instruments of his blessings to each other and the world around us.

Notice that none of that had anything to do with forms or style or what kind of music we use here. Here’s the point: anything that helps us grow in our understanding of God’s plan, that helps to remind us of the sacrifice Christ made to accomplish that plan, and that gets us into a place where the Holy Spirit can empower us for service—anything that pushes us in that direction is a part of our worship. When we live and love and serve like that, we’ll know we’re truly worshipping.

The best part of that is that it’ll be contagious. If we have a story to tell and transformed lives to back it up, our worship—our active expression of faith and trust in God—will spread to people we meet and to others that we don’t even know.

My prayer for us this year is not that we’ll make some radical changes to our style of worship.

My prayer for us is that whatever we do here, it will become a joyful noise—a reckless love song that melts our hearts—and an authentic act of praise to the one who made us and redeemed us and gives us strength for this long hard journey.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

(Sunday's sermon is just below this post.)

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve always loved this quote from Dr. King. Maybe I’m cranky from having been in church and Christian non-profit work for too long. It could be that I’m drawn to the sharpness of the comment and the nice turn of phrase. For whatever reason, though, this is a quote that sticks with me as we celebrate the anniversary of his birth, and prepare to inaugurate our first president of African descent.

King’s line is a good one to parse carefully. The world is a dangerous place, as we all know, with wars and terrorism and national conflicts and ancient hatreds. The world is an enormous ball of risk, and yet we live and work and serve in it every day. King takes that shared knowledge and experience of danger and announces that he’s found something that trumps it all.

In church culture—and I suppose this is true in other voluntary organizations as well—we tend to overvalue sincerity and conscientiousness. I say overvalue because I believe those qualities to be extremely important; I would never say they were trivial or uneccesary. The world needs more people who live their lives and do their jobs and raise their families with integrity…with sincerity. We’re also in near-desperate need of people who are willing to stick to their tasks—to stay at their posts—without being swayed by the temptations of the easy way out. Surely our present economic crisis will teach us that there is a better way to acquire what we need than through unmanageable debt. But still, we can be blinded by the heat of these qualities while missing the simple point that they generate very little light.

With that in mind it’s important to recognize sincerity and conscientiousness as secondary or supporting qualities—like the auxiliary verbs we learned in school: they point to something more important…more crucial to the point. King’s point is to jar us into seeing a very important truth, not only about grammar of even the Civil Rights movement, but about life.

Nouns are more important than adjectives.

Now you need both, to be sure. English without the ability to describe things would be a boring, colorless language, doomed to being about as interesting as a packing list or an ISBN number. But it’s the nouns that provide the meat, and that’s why I appreciate what King is saying in this brief line.

In other words: No amount of passion or diligence can overcome the damage done by wrongheaded thinking.

I’m sure that the people who bought houses on interest-only loans with no money down were filled with sincere excitement about being homeowners. That doesn’t mean it was a smart thing to do.

I’m equally sure that the bankers who packaged those flimsy loans into investment vehicles for other banks were working hard to make a profit for themselves and their employers—in a way they were being conscientious. But that doesn’t mean it demonstrated a wise or realistic understanding of how the market works.

These are just a few contemporary examples. The genius of King’s quote is that it applies to an unlimited range of human enterprise and experience.

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

No amount of passion or diligence can overcome the damage done by wrongheaded thinking.

As we move into this new year and this new presidency, forced to see both our culture and our economy in dramatically different ways, it would be wise for us to keep Dr. King’s advice in mind. We’ve just barely survived an era marked more by shallow sincerity and misguided conscientiousness than anything else. I think we’ve all been invited—kicking and screaming at times—to think a bit deeper, to study a lot more, and to reflect more carefully on the choices we make for our families, our nation and our world. In the end that will be our only defense against the ignorance and stupidity Dr. King warned us about.

With blessings to you as we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Unlimited Partnership

(This is the first in a series of messages titled 'A Contagious Church'.)

Luke 5:1-10

I’ve been reviewing my Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms lately. I used this a lot when I was a fund raiser—mostly so I could understand what some of my high-powered donors were talking about, but also so I could cut down on the times I would embarrass myself by asking dumb questions or saying the wrong thing.

I’ve had this out a lot more over the last few months. It’s hand to have it nearby when I’m watching the news or reading articles in the paper. It’s important for me to know these things in a church –and a city—with so many business people. I noticed, for example, the definition of a limited partnership: It’s an organization ‘made up of a general partner who manages a project, and limited partners, who invest money but have limited liability, and are not involved in day-to-day management.’ Hold that thought.

Today we start our annual four week look at the church—at what it means to be the church—to gather as a community of faith. Some of this is about what we should be, and other parts are about what we’re called to do.

Over the last two weeks we talked about what it means to say ‘Happy New Year,’ and really mean it. That true happiness comes from building our lives on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and helping others to do the same. We also talked about being contagious—like the flu—and developing a life of faith that makes an impact on people that we might never actually meet.

The key sentence for us over the next four weeks is this: A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission. Each one of those helps to shape us into the people that God calls us to be, and each one helps us share that life with other people.

Today we begin with Fellowship, the partnership that forms the start of everything for us as a community of people trying to grow in a shared direction.

Our text this morning is from Luke’s Gospel 5:1-10

1One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, 2he saw at the water's edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch."
5Simon answered, "Master, we've worked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets."
6When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
8When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus' knees and said, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" 9For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon's partners.

Our passage today comes very early in Jesus’ ministry. He’s already teaching and healing people, but where we pick up the story he’s beginning to call the disciples who will follow him and support him and aggravate him over the next three years.

These first three disciples—Peter, James and John—are partners in a business together. They catch fish, sell them in the marketplace, and split the earnings. Jesus uses the fact that they already work together to offer them a completely new set of jobs.

The term for partnership in this passage is an important one for us today. The word is koinonia, and it gets translated most often as ‘fellowship.’ Now when we think of fellowship we tend to think of social events, and that’s a good thing. I believe that the social life of the church is crucial to the rest of what it does.

But what I like in this text is that koinonia also represents a business partnership—something we invest in and work at and that we hope produces something important. Jesus takes their koinonia—their partnership—and says that he can help them catch something more important than fish.

It’s important to notice, as Jesus calls these partners into partnership with him, that he didn’t say: ‘Come and follow me, and I’ll let you watch while I do all the work.’ This is not a limited partnership, with a bunch of silent partners who only invest money.

He said: ‘Come with me, and I will teach you to do as I do—together, as a team, as a community.’ In other words, ‘come with me, and I’ll make you partners in my work.’

So what is Fellowship for us? At one level, fellowship is about being good company to each other—showing hospitality and being gracious in the way we interact with each other. We were made for this kind of community—this kind of fellowship. But it can be hard to find sometimes. Bruce Larson described the local bar as a substitute version of the fellowship we crave.

‘The bar flourishes,’ Larson wrote, ‘not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers.’

At another level, just as important, fellowship describes how we work and worship and serve together. So many parts of our lives take place in isolation—sitting alone in an office or cubicle—commuting or traveling, even when we’re in a crowd. One of the functions of the church is to remind us that we were made to be together, and also to serve together. The images of the church in the Bible are of the body—many parts working together to accomplish a shared task. The other image is the word the bible uses for the church, which describes an army or a group of people drafted or called up into active service. The church is a place where we’re called up to be together, and also where we’re called to do something together.

There are two parts of this for us to take away from this morning.

First, we’re called to be welcoming people—a community that shows hospitality to guests and longtime members and to everyone in-between. From the welcome at the door, to the picnics and talent shows and quiz nights, to the Bible studies and deep friendships that we build together in this place. All of that represents our ministry of fellowship, the koinonia we share with each other, our growing sense of partnership in the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The second thing is to work at developing that partnership in ministry. Doing this work together—drawing new people into the community through the relationships that we build, is part of the point, too. That’s what we’re seeing among the volunteers in the Cold Weather Shelter. The ability and willingness and enjoyment of working together are marks of a church that is alive and thriving and contagious. The task in front of us is enormous, but the cliché that we are stronger and better than simply the sum of our parts is true. We’re called to work and serve and worship and pray as a community—to do it together, combining our gifts and talents and energy.

So back to my Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms. It describes a partnership as ‘a contract between two or more people in a joint business who agree to pool their funds and talent and share in the profits and losses of the enterprise.’

In our fellowship we pool our talents and funds—in church-speak we call that ‘time, talent and treasure’—to accomplish a task, but it’s more than that. We’re not just doing a job here—we’re not just making a product—we’re living our lives in a different way because of what God has done for each one of us…often times through each other. Business partnerships share in ‘profits and losses,’ and we do the same here as well. We celebrate when the ministries we plan actually work out—we share in the joys of getting new jobs, bringing new brothers and sisters in Christ into this community—of baptisms and marriages and the joys that come from serving our community faithfully.

But we also share in each others’ losses—in the struggles and illnesses and sad times that eventually come to all of us. The message of true Christian fellowship isn’t that problems or tragedies or hard times won’t happen anymore. The message is that we don’t have to go through those rough times alone anymore.

What makes this church thrive isn’t what happens up in front. The life of this church is what happens when we get to know each other—when we build relationships here that meet needs and offer true community to our neighbors. When someone in this church goes through a hard time, and they find themselves comforted and helped and loved by someone else from this place, watch out. Because that will be the sign that our church is about to experience an amazing burst of growth.

And the great part is that it will be contagious. People are looking for true koinonia. We’re looking for an authentic experience of partnership and fellowship—people in this city, whether they’re aware of it or not, are starving for an experience of true community, of tangible relationships that remind them they’re not alone. We’re made to want to laugh together, and work together, and cry and hope and grieve together. If word gets out that that’s what we’re doing here, it’ll be contagious—people who experience it here will share it with their friends and families and neighbors and strangers on the street. And then there’s no telling what might happen.

What we have here is an opportunity for unlimited partnership. An opportunity to gather as a church family—to know and be known—to love and be loved.

The sentence we should commit to memory is this: A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.

The point today is that it all begins with Fellowship. My prayer for us over this new year is that our life together will grow in depth and meaning and enjoyment. That we’ll make the effort to grow in our relationships with Christ and each other. My invitation to you is to take that risk—to make that first step toward building this community into the place Christ designed it to be. Come and see what we can do together. Amen.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ericka's Visit

Some of you know that I surprised Julie this Christmas with a visit from our daughter Ericka. Julie had been moping for weeks about not having Christmas with Ericka, while I was scheming on the side to bring her to London. In the end we managed to keep the secret, and on Christmas Day I gave Julie a copy of the plane ticket while Ericka and her husband Neil watched on Skype.

It was very cool, to say the least.

Here, with little comment, are some pictures from Ericka's visit.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Making True Happiness Contagious

1 Peter 2:9-12

There’s a nasty cold and flu going around. Between the viruses and these temperatures, a lot of people are sick, missing school and work, and generally feeling lousy. There’s a poster on the Tube that makes Ian laugh—it’s a guy sneezing…a real messy one. It’s a sign about how to keep from spreading the flu to other people.

The worst kinds of flu spread through the air—germs that we cough or sneeze get breathed in by other people. The worst outbreak in history was the Spanish Flu Epidemic, right at the end of the First World War. It killed far more people than the war—estimates are anywhere from 50 million to 100 million people between 1918 and 1920. William Randolph Hearst’s mother died from it. So did the president of Brazil at the time. One of the most famous victims was Max Weber—the father of modern sociology. Franklin Roosevelt survived the flu and lived to be president of the US. Woodrow Wilson survived it while he was president. Mary Pickford and Walt Disney survived the flu and became stars in entertainment. Can you imagine the last century without Walt Disney?

The Spanish flu was one of the most contagious diseases in history. People caught it from other people that they didn’t even know—one carrier could infect an entire urban neighborhood or small town.

9But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
11Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

This letter was written to Christians in modern day Turkey. At that time they were in danger of being persecuted for their faith, and so this letter was designed to be an encouragement to them during hard times. The focus of the letter is to comfort Christians who are realizing they aren’t welcome in their own culture anymore—Christians who feel like strangers in places that used to feel familiar.

Last week we talked about topic sentences and I shared the statement that I want to place at the very beginning of this new year: True happiness begins with an acknowledgment of Christ’s Lordship in our lives and in our church. That’s it. That’s our ‘single, controlling idea’ for the year. We read the opening sentence of Mark’s gospel last week: ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ That’s what I hope will become the foundation for what we believe and do in this place. That’s the true source of happiness for our lives. It’s what we mean—or ought to mean—when we say Happy New Year.

I mentioned Dennis Prager here last week. In his book Happiness is a Serious Problem he said this:

As important as happiness is, if you make it your most important value, you can never attain it. Happiness is only achievable when it is a by-product of something else, and you must hold that other something to be more important than happiness.

Does that make sense? You can worry about being happy, or you can build your life on a foundation of important things like faith, family, friendships and service. The point here is that shifting our focus to more important things has the potential not only to make ourselves happy, but also to become contagious—having an impact on people we come into contact with whether we know them or not.

There was a study published at the end of last year in the British Medical Journal. The research showed that happiness spreads pretty quickly through social networks of family members, friends and even neighbors. The co-author of the study said this:

‘Your emotional state depends not just on actions and choices that you make, but also on actions and choices of other people, many of which you don’t even know.’

Knowing someone who is happy makes you 15.3% more likely to be happy yourself. When one of your friends has a happy friend, your odds for happiness go up 9.8%. Even your neighbor’s sister’s friend can boost your happiness by 5.6%.

Now none of this means you should cut off ties with your friends who might be unhappy—we know that’s not what we should do. But I think it’s important to be aware that how we’re feeling can be caught from someone else, and that our own emotional state can impact others—maybe even people we don’t even know.

I’ve been seeing posters all over town about the Darwin exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Next month is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and he’s getting the sort of attention he deserves as one of the truly original thinkers of the last few centuries. Christians have been arguing about Darwin since the Origin of Species was published in 1859, but the important issue at stake there isn’t really whether Darwin’s observations about natural selection and evolution are true. The issue is whether they’re the complete truth. I’ve said this before here: If God made everything in six days, then who are we to be surprised by that? If he made the world and everything in it over millions of years, who are we to say that those processes aren’t an example of his amazing creativity and power?

It’s important for all of us to remember, every once in a while, that if God really is who he says he is—and who we say we believe him to be—that he might be able to do something that we can’t fully grasp or understand. Let me put that another way: If we could understand all there is to know about the God we worship, he wouldn’t be worth our time.

The argument about evolution over the last 150 years or so has clouded the really important belief that whatever happened, the God of the universe was in control—the God who came in the form of Jesus, who lived and served and died and rose and reigns in heaven right now—that same God is in control.

I say all of that because the advertisement for the Darwin explanation says this:

‘If you had an idea that would outrage society, would you keep it to yourself?’

Have you seen that? It’s a great example of confrontational marketing. But it’s also an important question for us as followers of Jesus Christ. ‘If you had an idea that would outrage society, would you keep it to yourself?’

There’s plenty in the gospel of Jesus Christ to outrage just about anyone. To people who believe in an eye for an eye, Jesus said to turn the other cheek and allow yourself to be weak in the face of oppression. There’s a happy thought. You can find that in Matthew’s gospel, right at the start of the New Testament.

To people who have received an extra measure of material and financial blessings in this world, God says ‘whatever you do for the lowest or the least of the people around you, you do to me.’ Great. That’s also in Matthew.

To a world that says do whatever makes you feel good—everything’s OK as long you really want to do it, God says not so fast. ‘For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.’ That’s in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

To a church that might want to turn their noses up at other people’s behavior and take on God’s role as judge, God says: ‘You have no excuse…because you who pass judgment do the same things.’ That’s in Romans, too.

Mostly, though, in a world that thinks that this life is all there is—that Darwin’s brilliant discoveries are the only explanation for all of this—and that no one really cares about what happens here, we’ve been reminded again this Christmas that the God who created the heavens and the earth actually loves us and wants us to live forever in his presence.

There’s plenty in the gospel of Jesus Christ to outrage just about anyone.

And so I’ll ask the question from the billboard one more time: ‘If you had an idea that would outrage society, would you keep it to yourself?’ Hold that thought. Think on the line from our text today: ‘Live such good lives that you outrage your society, and it sees that God is behind the whole thing.’ OK, that’s my translation.

There are a handful of reasons why the church exists. To worship God, to gather in Christ’s name, to teach and shape character, to provide community. There are dozens of identifiable reasons that the church exists.

But the most important, the one that really defines who we are and why we’re here, is this: The church—the gathered body of people who are seeking to follow Christ—the church exists to make the gospel of Jesus Christ contagious—to spread it around and get it on everything. We exist to reverse everything we’ve learned about keeping our faith to ourselves, to doing our best not to offend anyone by sharing our belief with them, to hiding what God has done and is doing in each of our lives so that we don’t outrage anyone around us.

The Church exists to play its part in making the gospel of Jesus Christ as contagious as the flu. You want to outrage people in a good way? Get some of the gospel on them. Sharing the gospel of Jesus, with all its grace and love and mystery and even doubt—sharing that good news is the way to really mean it when we say ‘Happy New Year’ to each other. It’s a way of making the blessings of our lives of faith contagious to the people around us—exactly as God intended them to be.

Over the next four weeks we’re going to take our annual trip through what it means to be the church—what it means to be a contagious community of faith. I’ll skip ahead and tell you what I’m going to say: The contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and is expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.

Let this be the first sentence you memorize in 2009:

The contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and is expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Topic Sentence for 2009

Mark 1:1

I’ve been getting emails from my friends and family in Southern California this week. Mostly it’s to gloat about the weather. My hometown of Burbank has been staying in the mid-60s over the holidays—that’s about 20 Centigrade.

My former colleagues at Fuller Seminary wrote to ask if I missed working the annual fund raising events this year. Fuller is in Pasadena, which hosts a famous Rose Parade and also the Rose Bowl college football game. We brought our major donors from around the country to visit the campus, hear some lectures and meet students. At the end we took them to the Parade and the football game. It was a great event, but I don’t miss having to work it.

And so we come to the first Sunday in 2009. Happy New Year! I keep saying that and hearing that, but it doesn’t sound very convincing this time. 2008 ended looking like the last person to finish a marathon. You know the guy—the world class runners have all finished hours before, but one straggler makes his way into the stadium and wobbles over the finish line spent, completely exhausted and barely alive.

The end of the last year felt a little like that, didn’t it?

The news about the economy was awful. The conflict in the Middle East hit the spin cycle again, and who knows how this round will end? Happy New Year? It’s going to take a bit of work to say that without sounding sarcastic or cruel or ironic. This past year wobbled to the finish line spent—completely exhausted and barely alive.

But it’s still important that we say wish and pray for a truly happy new year—and that we mean it when we say it, right down to our bones.

Our text is just one verse, the very first line of Mark’s gospel.

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark’s gospel is one fast-paced piece of writing. He doesn’t even cover the birth of Jesus—he just gets right into his life and ministry, and then the events of Good Friday and Easter. Mark’s Jesus moves from place to place and event to event, usually ‘immediately’, a word that shows up about 40 times. But no matter how Mark chose to tell the story of Jesus, the key is found in the first sentence: ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’

I have freely admitted before here that I’m an English nerd. I’m the son of two English teachers, I majored in English myself, and I have a love for writing and speaking correctly. One of the most important parts of writing clearly and persuasively is the use of topic sentences. Now don’t go to sleep here. A topic sentence is like the steering wheel for a paragraph—it helps you go in the right direction. One online writer’s workshop posted this definition:

A well-organized paragraph supports or develops a single controlling idea, which is expressed in a sentence called the topic sentence. A topic sentence has several important functions: it substantiates or supports an essay’s thesis statement; it unifies the content of a paragraph and directs the order of the sentences; and it advises the reader of the subject to be discussed and how the paragraph will discuss it.

I can hear some of you groaning… But think about that for a moment. The topic sentence points us toward a passage that develops a single controlling idea.

The topic sentence for Mark’s gospel was simple: The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Making that the topic sentence—the controlling idea—for our lives a big part of what it means to have a truly happy new year. Believing the good news of God’s Messiah—of Jesus Christ—is the key to understanding what real happiness means, and to living truly happy lives. That’s why that first sentence of Mark’s gospel is so important.

And so here’s a truth that I want to place at the very beginning of this new year: True happiness begins with an acknowledgment of Christ’s Lordship in our lives and in our church. That’s it. That’s our ‘single, controlling idea’ for the year. Think back on the opening sentence of Mark’s gospel: The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That’s what I hope will become the foundation for what we believe and do in this place. That’s the true source of happiness for our lives.

How does that happen? How do we say Happy New Year and mean it? How do we say Happy New Year and practice it in our own lives?

I’ve mentioned Dennis Prager here before. He’s a radio talk show host in the States who wrote a book a few years ago called Happiness is a Serious Problem. In the book he said this:

As important as happiness is, if you make it your most important value, you can never attain it. Happiness is only achievable when it is a by-product of something else, and you must hold that other something to be more important than happiness.

Does that make sense? You can worry about being happy, or you can build your life on a foundation of important things like faith, family, friendships and service.

We’re going to talk about that a little next week. But the question for us today, on the first Sunday of the year, is this: How will you take the lead in your homes and workplaces and families—in making the good news of Jesus Christ your topic sentence—your controlling idea—for the coming year?

What we learn from the way Mark starts his gospel is this: It’s crucially important to make sure that whatever else we do or try to do in the coming year, that it’s all built on our commitment to wrestle with what it means to believe that Jesus Christ, God’s own son, is the Lord and Savior of everything.

Let that be our collective New Year’s resolution. When we say Happy New Year to each other, let it be an invitation to a year of growth in faith, maturing of our character, and a renewal of our sense of purpose as brothers and sisters in Christ.

As we come to the Table this morning, we begin a new year in the walk of faith—a new year in the journey of growing as disciples of Jesus Christ. I invite you, no matter where you are in your journey, to share in this celebration of faith and wonder and service.