Sunday, August 27, 2006

The circular church

Back to School Sunday 2006
Romans 12:1-5, Genesis 49

What a great time of year...for church and school!
Launching another new year,
a new beginning point.
You know, when the work gets hard or long,
it’s nice to have a few beginning points now and then.
Not that we start with a blank page.
This beginning is very much connected,
to the segment that just ended.
You could say, it’s a new link in the same chain.
Thank God for the new links we celebrate this morning,
new opportunities to grow and to learn.

In my sermon this morning,
I want to think for a few minutes about the significance
what we’ve celebrated this morning so far.
You might be tempted to think,
if you’re not a child or youth,
or a parent of one,
or a teacher of one,
that what we just did is all very well and good,
but doesn’t have a whole lot to do with you.

We have marked important milestones for the young people among us,
and dedicated a new curriculum for children and youth,
but how does this connect to college students, for instance—
who are just beginning classes; welcome back, by the way—
or other single adults,
or couples without children,
or empty-nesters, like us,
or retirees.

I want you to know this has everything to do, with everyone of us.
This is not just about turning a page on a calendar.
We don’t give these milestone gifts,
just to congratulate the children
on making it to age 2 and 5 and 12 and 15.
It’s way more than that.
This is to highlight a central task of the church,
that relates to everyone here.
It begins the day you are born,
and ends on the day you take your last breath.
It’s about formation—
being formed as a human being, in God, through Christ.
We never stop being formed.
And the church’s calling to form each other in Christ
never ends.
One of the marks of being human,
is that we spend our whole lifetime, or at least we should,
trying to discover more deeply who we are,
and trying to live well, out of that identity we are discovering.

This new curriculum for children and youth—Gather ’Round
points the way for all of us.
It’s a model for what church is all about.

When I hear the words “Gather ‘Round,”
the picture that comes to mind is people in a circle.
That’s what the Logo for this curriculum is trying to suggest,
as you see on the bulletin cover.
“Gather ’Round” is an invitation to form a circle
around something or someone.
That is the picture of the church.
We are a circular church!
A circle is defined by its center. You remember that from geometry.
The circular church is also defined by its center,
by what it gathers around.
And all the parts of that great circle are connected to each other,
they are members one of another,
as we just heard in the reading from Romans.
So what is it that we members of a circular church “gather around?”

I decided to look for places where the Bible talks about
gathering around something or someone.
Kind of an interesting study.

In one of Joseph’s dreams that he shared with his 11 big brothers,
their 11 sheaves of wheat
gathered around Joseph’s sheaf, and bowed down to it.
When Moses was slow coming down the mountain,
the people of Israel gathered around Aaron
and asked him to make a god for them to worship.
Then when Moses came back, and found them worshiping a gold calf,
he asked “Who is on the Lord’s side?”
and all the Levites came and gathered around Moses.
In 1 Kings, Israel’s adversary kings found nations
to gather around them and unite against God’s people.
In 2 Chronicles, Jeroboam rebelled against Solomon,
and it says, “worthless scoundrels gathered around him.”
In Jeremiah, when the people didn’t like what the prophet was saying,
they gathered around Jeremiah, and threatened to kill him.
And in the Gospels, all kinds of people gathered around Jesus.
They gathered for very different reasons.
Huge crowds gathered around Jesus
out of pure fascination and curiosity, I suppose.
Once it says “the whole city” gathered around Jesus.
Several times his adversaries gathered around him,
to question, or warn, or try to manipulate Jesus.
Disciples also gathered around, as they would with any rabbi,
to listen, to ask deeper questions,
to share concerns and doubts.
So gathering around can be for good or for ill.

But one biblical gathering around stood out to me, as unique,
and maybe the most helpful image,
of what it means to gather around as a church.
I found it in a rather unlikely place—Genesis 49—
a story you probably never heard preached about.
Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, was an old man by this time.
His 12 sons, and all their descendants were living in Egypt,
at Joseph’s invitation.
And now Jacob was near death,
and he wanted to share his last words with his sons.
Genesis 49:1 says, Then Jacob called his sons, and said:
“Gather around,
that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.”

Then one by one, beginning with the oldest,
Jacob proceeded to tell them who they were.
Their nature. Their character. Their destiny.
V. 28 says that Jacob “blessed each one of them
with a suitable blessing.”
Some of them don’t sound much like a blessing:
Simeon and Levi would be divided and scattered.
Gad would be raided.
But in every case, Jacob first and foremost told them who they were.
He gave them an identity.
Judah, you are a young lion, strong and mighty.
Zebulun, you are a haven for ships.
And he goes on, naming
Issachar, a strong donkey, lying down between sheep,
Dan, a snake by the roadside,
Naphtali, a doe let loose, bearing lovely fawns,
Joseph, a fruitful bough,
Benjamin, a ravenous wolf.

He says much more than that, of course,
going into great length with some,
about what he means by that image.
But what they receive, as they gather around their father Jacob,
is the gift of knowing who they are.
They are named.
They are located in the family system.
They are described in relation to people around them.
Their future is revealed.
Especially in that ancient culture,
the father had the power to determine, to a great extent,
who his offspring would be.
His word to them, especially his last word, was powerful.
It was formational, in a very real sense.

Jacob was the center of that circle,
and when his sons gathered around that center,
they discovered who they were.

That’s what we’re talking about this morning.
That’s what this Sunday School curriculum aims to do.
But more than that,
this is what the church is all about.
Sunday School is just one part of the picture.
In all we do,
the circular church gathers around our center,
the God we know in Jesus Christ,
and we are told who we are,
we are named,
our character and destiny is described,
we are told how to live in relation to each other,
and in relation to the world beyond us.

When the church gathers ‘round, like we have gathered today,
we gather around the only one who has the authority to name us,
and to declare who we are and who we will be.
We gather around the one true God,
who we come to know in Jesus Christ,
the Savior and Lord revealed in scripture.

Whenever the church gathers—
in sanctuaries, classrooms, or living rooms,
on sidewalks, in a marketplace, at a table—
we gather around God revealed in Jesus,
present in the Holy Spirit.
But with God at the very center,
there are some other specific things, close around that center,
that we could also say we gather around as a church.

We gather around a common task.
We, God’s people, have a task, a calling, an obligation
to love and serve God with all our heart,
and with all our soul, and with all our might,
and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
It is this great commandment to love God and neighbor,
found in the Hebrew scriptures, which we read this morning,
and reaffirmed by Jesus in the Gospels,
that becomes the reason to gather.
So when we gather, we remind each other of this task,
this calling that defines who we are.
We are lovers of God, and lovers of neighbor—
and of course, “neighbor” includes stranger and enemy,
as well as friend and family member.
It’s not the world around us that defines us,
it’s our identity as lovers of God and neighbor.
Every time we gather, we are formed by this center.

Another specific thing we gather around, is scripture.
The Bible shapes us.
It forms us as we gather.
That’s what we were saying to the kids this morning,
as we gave them Bibles, or Bible storybooks.
We were saying, this is our book.
This is what tells us who we are,
and who we belong to.
This is what shapes our lives,
not the many other words and images we are exposed to
in the dominant culture around us.
This book, as we gather around it,
will help to form us, counter-culturally.
It is not to be taken lightly.
It is not to be taken only as private words of inspiration.
It is to be opened,
and placed in the center of our life as a church,
and then we gather around it,
and with the help of the Holy Spirit,
try to understand and interpret it rightly,
and then by God’s grace, repent and obey.

Let me read a few lines
from a statement issued by the Mennonite Church in 1977
to outline what we believed about the Bible in the Church.
It was almost thirty years ago, but still very much to the point.

“The Bible is at home in the believing community.
The community gave the Bible its shape,
and the Bible in turn shapes the people of God.
The Bible must be interpreted and applied to today’s world,
from the perspective of the faith and life
of this community of God’s people.”

“It is the task of each member to participate
in the interpretation of the Bible.
We believe that God gives special insight to individuals
as they read and study the Bible.
These insights are to be tested in the community.”

“The failure of the community in relation to interpretation
is not so much that we have had the wrong methods or conclusions,
but that repentance and obedience often do not follow.
Knowledge without obedience is twisted and distorted...
knowledge without love is blind and dark...
Obedience and love open the door to interpretive insight.”

Let us, with a will to obey and to love,
gather around the God we know in Jesus,
revealed to us in these scriptures.
Let us gather around the open book,
in which we meet the Living Word,
ready to formed, re-formed, and transformed by that Living Word.
Remember Romans 12?
“Do not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,
so that you may discern what is the will of God—
what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

And once it is rightly discerned, may that will of God be done.
Let’s sing #57 in Sing the Journey.
“Your will be done on earth, O Lord!”

—Phil Kniss, August 27, 2006

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