On the Move: Drawing out Mission from the Mundane

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+ Matthew 4:13, 18-20 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea… As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

The sound woke me up at 5:30am.

At first I thought: why is someone mowing the lawn in January?

Reality began to set in as my dreams faded away: grass is not growing in 5 degree weather…

What was that sound?

I went from window to window, trying to find the source of that buzzing, rattling sound. Finally, as I looked outside at the white blizzard swirling around that frigid morning- I realized I was hearing the sound of a snow blower. An unidentifiable man diligently cleared our driveway, our front walk, and our porch steps.

Later that day, instead of being snowed in, I easily pulled out of my driveway on my way to my first hospital visit. The mysterious man created a path for ministry that morning- whether he knew it or not.

Moments of unexpected grace have seeped into my life every day in this transition to Northeastern Ohio.

I will never forget the chaos of moving to a new place. Hour after hour… counting tiny pieces of Ikea furniture hardware with Andrew and nearly going insane trying to hold microscopic screws in my fat fingers one afternoon- a neighbor showed up with a frozen dinner- just in case we needed it. No gift could have meant more to us that night. Our neighbor couldn’t have known that two chicken breasts in a pan would strengthen our souls. Just as we were about to crumple with exhaustion, frustration and doubt- that frozen dinner somehow whispered the assurance once more that God called us to this new place, this transition, this ministry- and we would be alright.

Sometimes the most extravagant sightings of God’s grace and mercy appear in the most mundane, ordinary moments.

CNN reminds us of this every year when it puts out a list of “CNN Heroes: Everyday People Changing the World” report. At the end of 2013, CNN recognized 24 individuals who have made a difference. So many of these stories traced back to one small, transformative moment that opened up an opportunity for impact.

At age 5, Nicholas Lowinger visited a homeless shelter with his mom. He was eager to show off his new sneakers that lit up when he walked. But when he met kids his own age who were homeless- without a pair of shoes to their name, his heart hurt. Seven years later, with this memory still in his mind- he started a non-profit called the “Gotta Have Sole Foundation”. He now provides over 10,000 pairs of new shoes to homeless kids each year.

One visit to a homeless shelter as a child, one small gesture of snow-blowing a neighbor’s driveway… any number of small nudges from the Holy Spirit to go out into ordinary places, to do every-day activities that can ignite a moment of ministry and grace.

But honestly, sometimes, I simply do not feel like going out anywhere these days.

Another shooting erupted in a public mall this weekend. Three people- shot dead. Safe, benign places turning into unexpected combat zones. Easy Saturday afternoons becoming newsworthy horror- stories…

The updates I hear from the world make me want to tune out, plug my ears, keep my head down and stay home.

The shooting outside Washington D.C. is only the latest tragedy of human brokenness to emerge. Athletes from around the world worried about participation in the Sochi Olympics this winter because of terrorist threats, rising violence and militant outbreaks in Russia.

Threats beyond human violence devastate the world as well. This week, Community Christian Church sold bowls full of spaghetti to raise money for the victims of the Typhoon in the Philippines this past November. Volunteers were motivated by images of piles of rubble that were once neighborhoods, mud rivers that used to be tree lined streets…

Watching the news and hearing about these devastating events tests my spirit and rattles my anchor of faith and hopefulness. I’m tempted to tune the news out and keep my head down…

But the scripture reading today describes Christ on the move. He invites others into action. He begins his nomadic ministry of weaving from one place to another, bringing new disciples along on this journey.

The scripture for today describes Jesus hitting his stride and settling in to his life of ministry, teaching, and preaching.

Five weeks ago we remembered Christ as a child born in a manger. We lingered in this moment of infant Jesus- wise men traveling far to bring gifts, shepherds sensing a shift in the order of things, two unwed parents beginning to understand the ways their lives would change forever.

Then… several weeks later, we remembered Christ’s baptism- equipping him and preparing him for his public ministry.

Last week, we paid close attention to Christ’s method for gathering followers and seekers: Come and see, he said. Come, explore, wonder, imagine, create, dream, be loved, be welcomed, be transformed… come and see.

In the verses before our scripture for today: Christ is tempted in the wilderness. His integrity tested, his spirit on trial, his anchor rattled and shaken…

So today, we finally begin the steady sequence of Christ’s ministry: healing and preaching and teaching and calling disciples. But Christ’s ministry is anything but steady and anything but settled. Instead, Christ is on the move: gathering disciples, drawing them into community, collaboration, relationship, and partnership in the Gospel.

Instead of standing on the steps of the temple in Jerusalem, instead of holding court in the center of urban areas and public arenas… Jesus travels to Capernaum- a fringe town of no more than 1,500 residents- minding their own business, tuning the world out around them, keeping their heads down. Jesus slips in to this sleepy community and begins to associate with a group of fishermen.

This is the fourth home for Jesus. He was born in Bethlehem. He fled King Herod and moved to Egypt as a child. He returned to Israel and settled in Nazareth. Now, Capernaum. And-he seeks the company of fishermen who work with their hands and stay out of the influential, public, political sphere.

As many teachers and preachers like to point out about this passage: In Capernaum, Jesus found ordinary people and called them to do extraordinary ministry with him in the world.

Jesus called his disciples into the work of reaching for other people, of drawing them in. He invites Peter and Andrew to drop their isolated practices of fishing on the lake shoes alone and instead, he calls them into the work of ministry: going out into the world and touching the lives of their neighbors.

Today, so many of us are tempted to believe we are not called to make a difference. The world is too broken and we are too small to actually influence change and impact our community.

We stick to our routines, we keep our heads down, and we invest in our work but ignore the call on our hearts to connect, to reach out, to draw near to one another. But just as Christ called from the lake shore to Peter and Andrew 2000 years ago… Christ calls your name in the very same way today.

If we listen carefully, we will know: Community Christian Church is full of Fishers for People- those with the gift and the call to cast a wide net of love and mercy throughout Northeastern Ohio and beyond.

The last few weeks have reminded me that God calls all of us to courageously step out into the world and live the gospel of grace. Through bowls full of spaghetti for Typhoon victims, plowed driveways for neighbors we haven’t met yet, frozen chicken breasts that can reaffirm God’s call, and more…

If the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us anything, it’s that God can work through sleepy fishing towns and draw out apostles, God can draw order out of any chaos- including a world filled with random acts of gun violence and terrorist threats and devastating storms.

But most of all, God has called you- beloved, made in the image of holiness, to transform the world on earth as it is in heaven. So put down your fishing rod, or your cynicism or your fear- and answer this call from Christ: Go, reach the unreachable and reel them in, cast your net of compassion widely, and watch as healing and redeeming ministries spring up. May this be true for all of us at Community Christian Church in the days ahead. Amen.

*NOTE: This sermon was intended for Community Christian Church in North Canton, Ohio for January 26th, 2014. However, due to extreme temperatures and snow, we did not worship together.

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Spaghetti for Compassion: Turning Meatballs into Mission Money for the Victims of the Typhoon

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A miracle unfolded at Community Christian Church tonight. Instead of loaves and fishes, we shared bowls full of spaghetti and meatballs- but with the same unbelievable results.

Despite schools closing throughout the area today due to sub-zero temperatures- over one hundred people showed up to our feast. Dozens more ordered boxes of food for delivery after the tables were cleared. Between those who gathered, and the money we raised: we too, might have fed 5,000… and Christ showed up all over again at Community Christian Church.

Christ showed up in the hands that prepared the food. Faithful servants at CCC worked for months on this event. Last week, boxes of dry noodles lined our foyer for families to take home and cook for the dinner. The local newspaper ran a story about our gathering to raise money for the Typhoon victims in the Philippines. CCC lived into the abundance of the gospel.

Christ seemed to show up in the Community Room tonight, too. Congregants spanning different generations worked side by side to serve our guests- and with each heaping plate of spaghetti- we proclaimed the gospel of abundance: that we have enough to offer our neighbors in need- even across the ocean. We would break bread in North Canton, Ohio so that our brothers and sisters in Tacloban would not be broken forever under the crushing weight of destroyed neighborhoods and ongoing loss in the months after the devastating and deadly typhoon.

I planned to share a prayer with our guests before the feast- but between the joyful screeches and laughter of our children echoing through the fellowship hall, and the eager patrons filling their mouths full of meatballs and garlic bread all evening- we didn’t pause the affair for a prayer- instead, our prayer was in motion, spilling out of our members in the form of grace, hospitality, love, and welcome. Our prayers moved throughout the room as strangers shared conversations at our church tables and families invested their Friday nights in a mission dinner.

We raised over $1000 for Week of Compassion tonight. This money will be designated for Typhoon relief efforts. Christ showed up in the form of generosity.

As I wandered table to table, even without a spoken blessing, this prayer was on my breath for all of us as we gathered:

Loving God, we have come to break bread tonight in remembrance of those who scour trash littered streets to find food in the Philippines.  We gather in this warm community room to remember those who crouch under overturned boats or freight containers flung ashore by that Tsunami.

We share embraces with our friends and neighbors in this night of fellowship so that we can send donations to our neighbors and friends we have never met across the ocean who suffer tonight in Tacloban and other cities affected by this storm.

Tonight, we feast for a mission. Empower us and strengthen us to continue the good work of the gospel: to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to offer resources to the destitute, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. May tonight be filled with awareness and compassion for those we seek to serve. May it be so… Amen.

Different Faces, Same Souls: Thoughts From Month 1

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“I met my Canton Mae,” I said.

On one of our evening talks spanning 3 states and two time zones, I shared updates with my husband Andrew on my 13th day of ministry in this new place. That morning, I visited an area nursing home to meet several of our home-bound members.

I called the night before to tell them I was coming.

As I walked in to meet my first home-bound congregant, I saw her there- beautifully dressed in a blue floral blouse and navy cardigan that I knew she picked out for our visit. She welcomed me with a huge smile.

During our visit, she invited me to the window of her past- sharing stories of adventure and loss. She trusted me as a witness to her life, a listener to her history. I felt honored. No, more than that, I loved her immediately.

The sacred moments we shared reminded me of so many afternoons I spent with one of my Memphis congregants, Miss Mae. I remembered the intimacy and urgency of opening up and confiding in one another.

This is the privilege of ministry.

Last week, I met my Canton Mae.  But I also met dozens of people who will be partners with me here as we continue to draw out God’s vision for Community Christian Church. I’ve met faithful prayer warriors, humble servants, prophetic voices, and compassionate elders already.

Someone baked me banana bread. Another congregant took my call the morning a stranger wandered in my house- uninvited. Others have offered names of Dentists, dinners for the freezer when the days get long, and directions to the closest car-wash. New friends welcome me into their homes and into their families.

My cup overflows.

These thoughtful acts of grace sustain me in the inevitable chaos of being new.

Even in this new city, new climate, new time zone, and new congregation: I am among so many bright lights, so many generous hearts, so many kindred spirits. I have the honor of joining in with this great group to break bread and build relationships.

I still have people to meet and names to remember here in North Canton, Ohio. And yet, I already know something deeper and truer about this new community: they love well, they serve with joyfulness, and they continue to make a place at the table- even for me, their new pastor.

What a gift.

 

 

When the Pipes Burst at Church

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+ Matthew 3:13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized … And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

A pipe burst in the foyer above the ceiling tiles at my new church last Wednesday. Water rushed into our entrance hallway and soaked the church guest book. An inch of water covered the church foyer floor. Streams of water flowed down to the church basement and soaked the floor of our children’s library. At first, I panicked.

No working toilets in the church.

No clear understanding of the damage done, the repairs needed, or the source of the water from this broken pipe… It all seemed like a set-back, or a warning, or an unnecessary stress.

Last Sunday in the lectionary text, we see Jesus on the banks of the Jordan River. And he is baptized.

The Jordan River is a powerful symbol throughout the Bible.

It’s often portrayed as the bridge between the broken and the redeemed, between the lost and the found, between the ordinary to the extraordinary.

The Israelites had to cross the Jordan River to reach the Promised Land.

Elijah had to cross the Jordan River before ascending to heaven.

And, now, we see Jesus seeking baptism in the Jordan River.

Up to this moment in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has never spoken. We have never heard one gospel truth or one encouraging word from Jesus until this passage. We have never seen Jesus ministry or good works. Jesus has not started teaching or preaching or healing or saving anyone up to this point.

The gospel of Matthew says that Jesus traveled from Galilee to the Jordan River on the same day that crowds of people were to be baptized on the banks of the Jordan.

For Jesus, baptism was In the Beginning.

It was the beginning of his public ministry.

On that beautiful day, Jesus slipped under the surface of the Jordan, and with that, Jesus began the work of comforting and healing us through full immersion into our shattered and broken lives.

On that day, when Jesus was raised up from the Jordan River, the heavens opened up and God declared: You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.

Baptism is that powerful moment when all of us are affirmed in our identity.

Baptism is the promise that we are beloved children of God.

When I think back to what happened to us on Wednesday morning at Community Christian Church- a little copper pipe broke open, and waters began covering our foyer… It would be easy to assume that this was a set-back or a threat- at the very least, an unnecessary stress.

But then I put on my lens of faith.

And I believe that when the little pipe opened and poured water into the church foyer- God was baptizing this church once more, in this new beginning. God was pouring out holiness and promise and light to this beautiful community of faithful followers of Christ.

That cleansing water was a new promise of God’s care and God’s living spirit moving in this place, equipping us for the work and ministry and service ahead. This was a commissioning. This marked the beginning of our new chapter of ministry.

If I listen carefully, I can hear a whisper in our church foyer, echoing into the sanctuary here at Community Christian: You are my Beloved Church, and with you I am well pleased.

In the Beginning

ImageThe gospel of John opens up with this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (+ John 1:1-4)

No manger, no shepherds watching their flock by night, no little town of Bethlehem.

Instead, the Gospel of John opens with this: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

This gospel echoes the scriptures from the very beginning in Genesis that says: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 

The author of the Gospel of John wants us to see this parallel. The author wants us to remember that the words “In the Beginning” indicate a creation story taking shape. God’s work of animating and shaping the world starts in the beginning.

In Genesis, God created the world. Through Christ, God recreated the world and defined all of us as children of God and Children of light.

And in the last two weeks, I began my new ministry as Senior Minister at Community Christian Church in North Canton, Ohio. At my new church, we are all at a beginning. A creation story for the future of our church is taking shape.

I have so much excitement for our future together. I want us to grow in spiritual depth and in mission. I want us to meet Christ in new ways and mimic Christ to our neighbors with new energy. I want us to get to know one another and share our stories over the next few months.

But on my first week at the church, I showed up on a Saturday afternoon to practice my sermon. I wandered out into the hallway to find a drink of water and turn the lights on… and the office door slammed behind me.

I was locked out.

In that moment, I realized a few things as the sun began to set and the building became dark:

1) In the beginning, you don’t know where the light switches are

2) in the beginning, you don’t know anyone’s phone number yet

3) in the beginning, you don’t even know where the phones are in the building.

I finally stumbled down to the nursery area and I found a phone on the wall. I managed to get a-hold of the church janitor. 45 minutes later, after waiting in the dark hallway, Rick came and let me back into the office.

Through that experience, I was reminded- that in the beginning- it’s always a little bit messy.

In the beginning, God hovered in a void of absolute darkness to create light.

In the beginning, God reached into dust and dirt and mud to create human beings.

In the beginning, God showed up in a filthy, stinky manger as a tiny, helpless, screaming infant.

In the beginning, sometimes you lock yourself out of your office without a phone or a coat… And I’m remembering that there will be messiness yet in the beginning of our journey together.

But the good news for all of us in this beginning is that God is with us, as a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome the light.

The good news for us in this beginning- as we take time to get to know one another, as we navigate the future together- is that God is participating and guiding the creation of our future.

Where there is a beginning, there is God. Where there is a gospel mission, there is God. Where there is Community Christian Church and all our faithful members, there is God.

In this beginning, in this re-creation story at Community Christian Church, I know our future is bright, our foundation is strong, and God is with us.

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