Sunday, February 18, 2007

Renewing our Vision: The Practicing Church

Creating Openings for God
John 15:1-17

The vine and the branches. John 15.
What a wonderful image of the full and fruitful Christian life.
We heard these words a few minutes ago.
“I am the vine, you are the branches.
Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit,
because apart from me you can do nothing.”

That image is a good reminder for us,
especially those of us who sometimes get hung up
trying to earn God’s love and life,
by simply trying harder.
It’s comforting, it’s reassuring, it’s hopeful,
to think on Jesus as the Vine, as we as the branches,
and to realize that whatever fruitful life we have
it’s because of our attachment to the Vine.
Any joy and peace and love and life we are blessed with
is a gift of God’s abundant grace,
not something we need to manufacture.
That is something we can rest in.
To take a deep breath, and say “yes!”
Thank you, Jesus, for the gift of life.

But right there is also a place to trip,
a potential stumbling block.
Whenever we rest in God’s grace,
it’s tempting to become a passive recipient of it.
To just stay where we are, and wait for God’s grace to come to us,
to just sit around and expect that
through no special effort of our own,
fruit will suddenly appear on the vine.

God is, indeed, the gracious and generous giver of life.
Jesus Christ is the vine.
Without a secure attachment to that vine, we wither.
Whatever fullness of life we experience,
whatever fruit our life might bear,
is thanks alone to Jesus Christ the Vine.
But look at the rest of Jesus’ teachings,
elsewhere in John, and the other three gospels.
It’s obvious Jesus doesn’t expect us
only to bask in God’s goodness and grace,
and just enjoy the ride.
It’s not like anything we choose to do or not to do,
is covered by a gracious God
who will keep pumping that life into our branches.

Let no one think that all it takes for a fruitful life,
is to desire it,
and to ask God for it.
It’s tempting to think that. And some Christians do.

No, even within this vine image
is the expectation that we have something crucial to do,
something absolutely essential for a fruitful life.
Jesus spoke in the imperative.
He said, “Abide.”
Abide in me. Stay. Cling. Abide.
Do this, and you will live.
I am the source of your life and salvation.
Without me you will wither and die.
But you must practice life on the vine.
It’s not a given. It’s not automatic.

And that’s what we are focusing on this morning.
The practices of life on the vine.
Practices that grow out of our identity,
practices we engage in because we are attached to the vine,
and want to stay attached.

A lot has been written on the concept of practices.
Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre,
had this to say:
(using vocabulary suitable to his profession)
A practice is, “any coherent and complex form
of socially established cooperative human activity...
through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized
in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve

Got that? Good, so we can go on.
No, put simply, MacIntyre says
a practice is not something I just go and do,
because I decided to do it.
A practice is “socially established.”
It is an action established by the group one is part of,
not an individual invention.
Furthermore, a practice is “coherent”—
it holds together.
It is not contradictory.
It makes sense, because the “good” it is trying to achieve,
is realized in the practice itself.
And, MacIntyre says, it is “complex.”
There are multiple layers to it.
Partly because it is a “cooperative human activity,”
it takes a group to pull it off.
And don’t we know, things get complex,
when a group tries to do something together.

Others have written about practices
from a specifically Christian point of view.
The Valparaiso Project, funded by Lilly Foundation,
identified some core Christian practices,
and provide resources for churches
to nurture those practices.
I highly recommend their website:
Some excellent resources on it.
Craig Dykstra is part of that project.
This is what he had this to say about practices:
“Practices of the Christian faith...are not...activities we do
to make something spiritual happen in our lives.
Nor are they duties we undertake to be obedient to God.
Rather, they are patterns of communal action
that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy,
and presence of God may be made known to us.
They are places where the power of God is experienced.
In the end, these are not ultimately our practices
but forms of participation in the practice of God.”

Let me repeat what I think is the key phrase,
“patterns of communal action that create openings in our lives
where the grace, mercy, and presence of God
may be made known to us.”
That is another way of saying “Abiding in the Vine.”
When we together engage in Christian practices,
we are “creating openings for God.”
We are opening up the valve, so to speak,
so that life source may flow freely,
from the Vine into the branch.
Our gracious Lord, Jesus the Vine,
does not force-feed us that life.
He waits for our opening.
It is our practices that create the opening.

We have spent the last two Sundays in this series talking about
identity and vision—
about who we are called to be,
as a communal church,
and as a missional church.
The communal church is one that enters deeply
into each other’s lives,
so that we are formed as individuals in community.
The missional church is one that is not primarily concerned
about itself as an institution,
but one that is sent by God,
to participate in the mission of God in this world.

And I made the point in those sermons,
that this vision of a communal and missional church,
forms the practices we engage in.
And conversely,
the missional and communal practices we engage in,
form our vision, help us see more clearly who we are.
Vision and practices shape each other.

So now, I want to get even more specific.
What does a communal and missional church look like?
What does a community of Christ do
that shapes it into a communal and missional church?

I’m going to list some specifics.
Unfortunately, I have to be very sketchy.
Each one of these deserve a whole morning to reflect on.
But for now, I’m going to give them each a few sentences.
Think of them as appetizers,
as conversation starters.
Because every one of these practices needs to be fleshed out
in a particular community in a particular context.
And the ways they get fleshed out will look different.
But the thing they all share in common,
is that they “create openings for God.”
They create a space in which God will move,
in which God’s grace, presence, and power
will flow into and through us, and form us as a people.

I’m going to make it easy to follow along,
because they’re all listed on the blue insert in your bulletin.
And we’ll work with them during Sunday School hour today.
So literally, they are conversation starters.
I hope you can participate in congregational conversation today.
I’ll say more about that later.

Now to the practices of the communal and missional church.
And let me say, this is not a comprehensive list.
These are just the ones I decided to highlight,
and would fit on one side of a piece of paper.
I’m sure you can think of others.
And secondly, they are not in order of priority,
except maybe the first one.
Actually, I consider all of them essential.

First, the practice of public worship.
And this one, I can honestly say, rises to the top
as perhaps the most essential practice
of the communal and missional church.
In fact, many of the other practices rise out of our worship,
or happen within our worship.
Worship is one opportunity we all have, and we all need,
to step into God’s great narrative that defines who we are.
It is the time to come into God’s presence as a community,
and do the very thing that we were created to do—
to honor and glorify God.
Worship reminds us of our truest identity and purpose.
It is one of precious few times during our weekly routine,
that we are brought back to reality, so to speak.
When the false narrative that our culture uses to define us,
is challenged directly by God’s narrative.
When we are reminded of who we are in Christ.
Worship is an essential life sustaining practice.
Coming to worship, dear friends, is not about
fulfilling your duty as a good Christian.
Any more than breathing,
is simply fulfilling our duty as a good human being.
If corporate worship with the people of God,
is not a regular part of our life practices,
we are depriving ourselves of the breath necessary
for fruitful life.
We are being spiritually asphyxiated.

Now, I’ll have to be quicker with the rest of these.
or I won’t get through the list.

The practice of authentic witness.
If we claim to be in Christ,
if we claim to have been gripped by the gospel of Jesus,
and transformed in our inward being,
we are witnesses.
An authentic witness is one who gives witness to Jesus,
the Source of one’s life,
and whose witness is authentic, that is, true to the original.
And that witness is, of necessity, both in word and deed.
Proclaiming the gospel is an essential practice of the church,
and all who claim to be part of the church.

The practice of hospitality.
Welcoming and being willing to be welcomed by the stranger.
That is a practice that takes practice.
Especially in a culture that values privacy so highly.
That values self-determination.
Being receptive to the “other,” being truly hospitable,
will always be an imposition on the self.
Hospitality is the only way to be free from the tyranny of the self.

The practice of identifying with Jesus,
is explicitly and intentionally choosing Jesus
as the touchstone for all of life:
naming Jesus savior, redeemer, Lord, teacher, and example.
Acknowledging that there is no realm of life,
visible or secret, that is not profoundly shaped by the fact
that we have identified ourselves with Jesus.

The practice of submitting to scripture,
is allowing scripture to “read us” and form us.
It is granting authority to, bowing to,
the Living Word revealed in scripture.
And engaging actively in the communal practice
of reading, listening, and interpreting.

The practice of prayer,
forms us as a communal and missional church,
as we intercede on behalf of God’s purposes in the world,
and God’s purposes in the lives of individuals,
practicing the prayer that Jesus taught us,
“may your kingdom come, may your will be done.”

The practice of discernment,
in a world of so many confusing options and competing voices,
that clamor for our attention and loyalty,
practicing communal discernment helps us rightly recognize
and then participate in the activity of God in concrete situations;
it empowers us to say “yes” to that which is life-giving,
and “no” to that which diminishes life.

The practice of prophetic engagement with culture.
Culture is certainly not all depraved.
And I hope no one misinterprets me to be saying that.
But the fact is, we human beings are steeped in sin.
We need a Savior.
Human culture is formed by broken and sinful human beings.
Therefore, the gospel has something important to say
not only to us individual sinners,
but to the culture we create and inhabit.
The missional and communal church practices
holding culture up to the light of the gospel of Christ,
helping us to see it clearly,
and then resist those cultural values
which deny or diminish the gospel.

The practice of keeping Sabbath,
is communally honoring the Creator,
by resting and allowing others to rest from work,
and taking time enjoy God and God’s gifts

The practice of disciplined contemplation,
regular and disciplined time of attending to God,
through prayer, reading, and thoughtful meditation.
It’s a way of replicating, on a smaller more personal level,
what happens in our gathered worship.
We listen for an alternate narrative of our lives,
God’s narrative that defines who we really are.

The practice of mutual accountability
is humble submission to Christ’s body, the church,
as it seeks to form all its members into the way of Jesus.
It’s the practice of trusting God’s Spirit to be present in the church,
to the extent we are willing to trust its discernment,
and willing to submit our own ideas, and desires, and behavior,
to the wisdom of the body of Christ.

The practice of sharing resources,
is to, with generosity and compassion,
consider our resources as not our own,
but gifts from God that we offer back to God,
as vehicles for God’s blessing on others and the world.

The practice of nurturing common life,
entering more deeply into each other’s lives.
Sounds so good, and it’s so hard to do in a culture
of over-activity, over-achievement and over-commitment.
It’s spending significant time with members of our church family,
more time than what we generally do now.
And more time than we have,
if we don’t give up something that is less important.

The practice of peacebuilding and justice-seeking
in the name of Christ,
working for the repair of human relationships,
seeking the transformation made possible
through personal and collective submission to Christ.

And closely related, the practice of healing and forgiving
in the name of Christ,
participating in the saving and reconciling activity of God
to heal all sin and brokenness of this world,
personal and systemic.
It’s the practice that grows out of our trust in God as Savior.
And the recognition that we need salvation,
of body, mind, spirit, and relationships.

The practice of being with the poor.
This is a deliberate choice to go beyond being do-gooders.
We do very well with helping the poor.
We are model helpers of the poor.
But do we know how to be with them?
Are we willing to accept them as our neighbors,
with gifts to offer us?
and be willing to know them deeply enough
to call them our brothers and sisters?

The practice of learning,
becoming a “disciple community,”
recognizing Jesus as master teacher,
and seeking deeper knowledge of life in the kingdom of God.

The practice of creation care,
recognizing that God’s love extends to all creation,
and exercising our spiritual mandate
be God’s stewards, and care for all of life.

Now you’ll notice, I suppose,
that I did not identify which of these practices are communal
and which are missional.
That’s because I can’t really separate them.
A communal Christian practice
will make us more authentically missional.
And a missional practice
will make us more authentically communal.

For example,
Hospitality builds community,
while it gives opportunity for witness.
Proclaiming the good news gives witness,
while it draws people into community.

As we engage in these practices,
we will become the church God wants us to be.

I want to end by reading some words of Gordon Cosby.
Gordon and his wife Mary
founded Church of the Savior 60 years ago, in D.C.
I mentioned the church last Sunday,
when I quoted from their membership covenant.
The church is still going. Gordon Cosby is still there.
And, believe it or not,
he is still preaching, nearly every Sunday.
He turns 90 this year.
And he still preaches like a visionary.

I just came across these words a couple days ago, and they inspired me.
They were in one of his sermons, I believe, back in November.
They capture what I deeply believe
about the communal and missional church,
and the practices that shape it.
Gordon didn’t use the words communal and missional,
but it’s precisely what he’s talking about.

I quote,

“For me, in the context of my life and era, I am finding that there are two ‘givens’ - necessary components - for a true embodiment of God’s community.

“First, I will be part of a small family group of extreme ‘opposites’ - people who represent diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, economics, education, personality and temperament, in all ways - for the express purpose of letting our inner lives be known by one another. This means I will listen to the pain of unhealed wounds, really taking it in to my own inner being and bearing it with others, not shaking it off as soon as I’m able to forget it. This small group becomes for me my primary family. We represent all whom Jesus loves and is seeking to reconcile, bringing us together in deep intimacy.

“In this small family, we not only hear each other’s pain and hurt but we also seek to lessen that pain in concrete ways. Together we lift the extreme heaviness of one another’s burdens, and in this way participate in lifting the misery of the ages. We also talk with each other about the pain brought on by the disparity of wealth and privilege and poverty among us, the wounds we’ve experienced through racial hatred and our inability to forgive and ask to be forgiven. We share our resources of money and wisdom and time to ease the pressure of carrying our burdens alone. As we face ourselves and each other in all our rawness and yet don’t run away, we move beyond the ‘principle of reconciliation’ and find a way to be family.

“Second, I will be a witness of this good news of reconciliation - telling others of Jesus, who IS the good news. I find that most of us talk more freely of justice, peace, righteousness, being enemies of Empire and lovers of the poor than we do of being lovers and followers of Jesus. We easily ask each other, “How are you doing these days?” but the more important question, “How are you and Jesus doing?” goes unsaid.

“Embodying and talking about Jesus is our primary work. If we do a number of good works but never learn to introduce someone to a genuine relationship with Jesus and ways to nurture and deepen that relationship, we have failed to witness to the Source of Life itself. Witnessing to the Source is not one of the many things we are to do while passing through life. It is the main thing.”

May it be so for us.

I invite us now into prayer, with eyes opened,
and participating in the prayer with our bodies.
Stand if you are able.
This is a prayer written by Lani Wright,
and it’s a physical prayer,
for our own bodies, and the gathered body.
Follow my gestures, if you will.
And let us pray.

God of nimble fingers,
at the flowering of creation
you took a mess of mud and shaped it
into your image:
male and female.

So take this ball of heaving, resisting clay -
this messy clay of all of us together,
and fashion of it a living table
where all may gather, be fed, and tell stories.

Craft it for long wear more than beauty.
Mold it for health more than power.

Set this table with space enough for elbow room
space for talent
space for guests.

Shape our feet of clay
into dance;
Shape our knees
into bending;
Shape our hands
into clasping;
Shape our water-logged lungs
into chorus;
Shape our chins
into upthrust resolve;
Shape our lips
into smile.

Take this ball of clay,
and fashion of it a living table
to which the dinner bell calls, we eat, and tell how things are.

Craft it for sturdiness more than smoothness.

Mold it for hosting more than for herding.

Set this table with just enough space for brushing skins
space for accepting gifts
space for Jesus the Guest.

—Phil Kniss, February 18, 2007

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