Sermon:  Risky Business

Date:  September 29, 2013

     Ernest Henry Shackleton had a great dream.  Born in Ireland in 1874 but raised and educated in London, when he was just old enough he joined the merchant navy.   And in the merchant fleet he traveled to many places in the world.   But his great dream was to sail to the South Pole.   In 1914, at the age of 40, he got his chance.  He was offered command of the ship Endurance which was bound for the South Pole.  Others had tried such a voyage and most had ended in disaster.   But Shackleton set out to put together a crew and he placed this add in the London papers:

Men wanted for hazardous journey.  Small wages.  Bitter cold.  Long months of complete darkness.  Constant danger.  Safe return doubtful.  Honor and recognition in case of success.

He needed a crew of 27 and to his amazement, many more than that responded to the add.  And in December of 1914, he set out on the first of three successful journeys to the Antarctic.   

      This morning we are going to talk about mission and service in the church.   And most of us will be ok with that.   Few of us would dispute that the church needs to be about mission and service.  But here’s the thing.   Fruitful disciples aren’t just about mission and service – they are about risk taking mission and service.   Think for a moment about the want ad that Jesus runs every day in the scriptures.  

Followers wanted for hazardous journey.   Must be willing to take up a cross when called upon.   To leave behind family and friends if necessary.  To take up the sword against your brother.  To defy Jewish and Roman leaders.   To be stoned, shipwrecked, run out of towns all around the world.   Chances of success are limited.   Hostility towards you will be high and often irrational.   Rewards on this earth minimal.   But rewards in heaven will be eternal.

Dietrich Boenhoffer, the Lutheran pastor who who was put to death, because of his opposition to Nazi Germany, wrote in his book, The Cost of Discipleship,  when Christ calls a man, He calls him come and die’”.   Now that’s risky business.

     But is it really true.   Is Christ really calling us to be Risk Takers in our mission and service?  Is he really calling us to move from lives of strength to lives of risk and weakness?   Ken Carter writes:

As a teenager I listened to people share testimonies about their lives and the plot would go like this.  My life was a mess.  I was really in a low place.  Then I became a Christian and now everything is really great.  My life is completely turned around.  It was a journey from weakness to strength.  

    Life is hard, sometimes tragic.  We face many painful situations.   But when we meet Christ, He makes it all better.   That’s the way of it for Christians.   Right?   But then along comes that pesky Paul who says to the Philippians that the Christian journey is not always a journey from weakness to strength.   For him it was just the opposite.   Listen to what he says in this third chapter.

      Paul seemingly had it all.   He was well educated.  Had a good job as a tentmaker.  He was a Jew of Jews, he says.   Everything was going well.  And then he met Jesus, and he gave it all up.  He emptied himself to follow Christ.  And from that moment on his life was filled with hardship.  He was ship wrecked.  And beaten.  And stoned.  And run out of town.  Imprisoned.  Many of his letters which are marvelous testimonies to the love and grace of Christ.  The life saving power of faith.  Were written from dark, dank prison cells.    Discipleship is risky business.  And eventually the Romans had enough of his risk taking mission mission and service and put him to death.   All because of that encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus one day.   And he wrote that his journey would not be complete until there was nothing of him left,  only Jesus living in him. “I count it all as gain for Christ Jesus.” And if you think about it,  the story was pretty much the same for Peter and John and Matthew and the other disciples.  They gave up everything to be in mission and service to Christ, until finally there was no more of them, but Jesus living in them.   When mission and service causes us to empty ourselves so that Christ lives through us – that’s when faith becomes risky business.   Frederich Buechner noted that to sacrifice is to make something holy by giving it away in love.

       One of John Wesley’s most famous sermons is entitled “Almost Christians”.  It’s an amazing sermon, and in many ways a testimony by Wesley of his own faith journey, in which he says, essentially, that there are a lot of wonderful people in the world, people who are trying to do the right thing but whose lives have not been fully and completely captured by Jesus Christ.   And I got to thinking about that sermon in conjunction with the practice of risk taking mission and service, and the more I thought about it, the more apparent it was that the two are linked that the more captured we are by Jesus, the more we are willing to risk of ourselves in service and mission.  Disciples are those who are engaged in mission and service, but fruitful disciples are those who give their lives to mission and service.   And fruitful congregations are those that are filled with Disciples engaged in risky business for and in the name of Jesus.   And so this morning instead of telling you what I think risk taking service and mission is, I’m going to try and give you some pictures of what it looks like.

     So the first thing I think we need to know is that risk taking mission and service will take us out of our comfort zones.   Risky business often takes us to places that we don’t want to go.  Prisons for many of us are a risky mission field.  But Bobby’s testimony appeared in the last issue of The Gideon.   He wrote: 

I remember when I was a young kid in Jeffersonville, Indiana.  I lived two houses down from the liquor store and had seen it robbed many times.  Once, a man gave me $20 not say anything after I watched him go in and out.  As I began running around with the older kids, I would stay out all night stealing whatever they wanted me to.

The cycle eventually landed me in jail for the first time in 1998.  I stayed for three days, and was high the whole time.  When I got out, I continued robbing homes to get money to support my habit until I finally ended up in prison.

Once in prison, a couple buddies and I broke out and took off in a stolen vehicle.  We hurt some workers on the way out, and then we stole anything and everything we could to get money and buy guns.  Once we crossed the state line into Kentucky, our case became Federal.  We were finally caught.

While I was in the Fayette County Detention Center, I started talking to a man who came there on his own time to minister to the inmates.  The first time I saw Harry, I knew somehow I needed to speak with him.  We talked for 10-15 minutes and he asked me if I was saved.  I told him no, and for the first time I felt ashamed.  He asked if he could pray with me, and I was happy to let him do that.  After that prayer, he gave me a New Testament, and together we went through scripture verses.

After I prayed, I felt a tingling throughout my body, and I knew something had happened to me but I wasnt sure exactly what it was.  I felt better than I had in a long time, and my mind was more at ease.  I felt like a new person.  For weeks after that, Harry came by the jail often and talked with me.  We prayed together and I asked him any questions I had.

I was transferred to Frankfort, Kentucky, and I thought I was forgotten until one day during mail call.  I couldnt believe Harry had written to me.  I couldnt understand why someone would go to all the trouble to write to me.  I realized that if a perfect stranger could write to me and pray for me, and have faith and believe in me, why couldnt I?  That thought caused me to break down in tears.  This was something I never had someone willing to help me find the Lord.

In 2010 I was transferred to the Federal Prison in Tucson, Arizona, and I will be here for another 6 years.  That will be followed by 15 years in an Indiana State prison.  I am hoping to be out by the time I am fifty years old.

In November 2011, I was baptized here in prison.  After I was baptized, I finally felt that I had a clean slate.  I had never felt that before.

Editors note:  Harry Taylor continues to encourage Bobby through correspondence.  God is using Bobbys witness for Him in the lives of other inmates.

And now He is using his witness in our lives.   That’s Risky business.

      And risk taking mission and service opens us to the immensity of human need around us and causes us to dream big when trying to meet those needs.

      Last week I talked about the importance of small groups in faith development.   There are risks involved in committing to be a part of a group like that.  As I was preparing this message I was reminded of a church that had completely transformed themselves,  going from decline to growth and vitality, by taking the risk and committing themselves to a small group model in the church.  They started out with just a few groups,   and they asked that every staff member and every elected leader of the church participate in one of the groups.   Each group was to meet on a regular basis.  And each group was to be actively engaged in mission and service in the community and each  member of the group was required to participate in those.  Well after several months the pastor became aware that the chair person of the administrative board was not fully participating in the group that he had joined.   He had refused to participate in any of the service opportunities.  He said he was a very busy man and did not have time for that.  So the pastor went to see him in his office and the man had become defensive and he said,  “So, you’ve come to tell me I can’t chair the Administrative Board any more because I haven’t done any of the service projects?”   And the pastor said, “that’s exactly what I’ve come to tell you.  You chair the body that approved this ministry and established the guidelines.  How can you expect others to participate if you don’t?”   Well the man agreed to give it some thought and then a few days later he showed up in the pastor’s office and he said, “I’ve thought a lot about what you said and my wife and I have discussed it and we want to fully participate.  We plan to serve meals at the soup kitchen near the church on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.”   And so that’s what they did.   And after they had finished their shift in giving out meals, they fixed themselves a plate and they went and sat at a table with a family (a mom and dad and two little children)  And as they talked, the man learned that the homeless father had been an executive in a company that went bankrupt and they had lost everything.   It was a moment of awakening for that church leader because he didn’t realize that there were whole families living on the streets, victims of the bad economy.  He had just assumed that homeless people were drunks and addicts.   That the government took care of people like this family.    And as they were finishing the meal the Board Chair said to the homeless father, “It’s going to be cold and rainy tonight.   Where are you going to stay.”   And the homeless dad said, “Well they won’t take a family at the shelters, so when the weather has been bad, we’ve been sleeping under the loading dock of the empty department store down the street.”   And the Board Chair was moved by their story, and he looked at his wife, and then he said:  “We’ve got lots of room at our house, and our kids aren’t going to make it home for Thanksgiving.  Why don’t you come stay with us tonight and have Thanksgiving dinner with us tomorrow?”   Well they did, and they stayed a couple of more nights until he could find a place that they could move in.   It wasn’t much of a place, but it beat living on the streets.   And then he helped the father find another job and get back on his feet.   Well the board chair shared that with his group the next time they met and they got so excited about it that they adopted it as the group mission outreach.   And then they realized they could touch more families if they opened it up as a ministry of the entire church.  And for the first time the whole church became aware of the homeless population in the area around the church.    Others tried to warn them about the risks of taking the homeless into their homes, but they were undeterred.   And then several months later, the board chair showed up in the pastors office and he said:  Pastor, that apartment building a couple of blocks from the church is for sale.   There are about  twenty apartments in there and though it’s empty, it’s still in pretty good shape.   Our group wants to buy it and use it as transitional housing for the homeless.   It will be a safe place to live while they learn job skills in the classes that we offer here at the church.  Our goal will be to transition them in and out in under six months.  Just think how many we will be able to help each year.   I’ve talked to the owner of the building and he’s willing to give us a reduced price and then write off the rest as a donation to the church.  We don’t want the church to buy it.   Our group is going to buy it for the church but we need to know if the church is willing to assume the risk.  We just need your ok to move forward on this.Well the ministry that group began through that apartment building became the prototype for other programs in the city addressing the homeless population,  and that reluctant and then fruitful disciple  became  key in transforming  that church into a fruitful congregation.  That’s Risk taking mission and service.

 And then finally Risk Taking Mission and Service drives our vision of Jesus Christ in every life.  We build the Kingdom, make disciples, for Jesus Christ, through risk taking mission and service.

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to Mary at a workshop I attended.  Mary was 60 years of age and had been a member of the same Methodist Church all her life.  It was a neighborhood church but years ago the area of town where it was  located had undergone a dramatic change.   It became a dangerous area of town and the church membership had all left the neighborhood.  The streets where Mary had played as a child  had been taken over by drug dealers and prostitutes.   The houses had become run down.   And the church began a steady decline.   And Mary recalled going to yet another of those meetings where the members of the church lamented their decline and talked of revitalization,  and she  had listened to it all and then she said,  “I’ve been around here a long time, through the good times and now the bad times.   I’ve seen a lot of people come and go.   And I have listened to all of you tonight.    It really doesn’t seem to be that complicated to me.   If we want our church to grow again then each one of us needs to go out there in the streets and start inviting people to come to church.   And then when they come we better be ready to welcome them with open arms.   I can’t remember the last time I invited anyone to come to church with me, but that’s going to change.”   Well, when the meeting adjourned, Mary left to go get in her car and drive home.   But as she got to the parking lot she noticed a young woman leaning against the trunk of her car.   And this young woman was singing in a very loud voice.   Because of the way she was dressed, Mary assumed that she was one of the prostitutes that worked the neighborhood around the church.  And because of the singing she assumed that she was on drugs or drunk.   At first Mary was angry that this young woman was leaning on her car in the parking lot of the church  and then as she started across the parking lot she started to get a little afraid of the young woman.   There was no telling what she might do.   And then she remembered what she had just said to the church council about inviting persons to church.    And so she summoned up all of her courage and went over and began to talk with the young lady.   And after a few minutes of conversation she said she felt the Lord encouraging her to invite this young woman to church, but she had no idea how to do that.   And so she said to her,  “you know I couldn’t help but notice that you have a very nice singing voice.  We have a choir that meets on Thursday afternoons and we’d love to have you come sing with us.   I could meet you right here and we could go in together.”    She said she did not really think that the young woman would accept the invitation or that she would be welcomed if she did,  but at least she invited her.   Well Thursday came, and Mary said that she was relieved that when she came to choir, the young lady was not there.   But when she came out of choir and headed for her car, there she was again, leaning against it and singing.   Mary talked with her some more and then once more invited her to join them the next Thursday.   Well this went on for several weeks and then one Thursday Mary arrived for practice and the young lady was there to meet her.   And so Mary took her hand and they went into practice together.   When they first went in, the others saw how the girl was dressed and were caught off guard, but they reached out to her and made her feel welcome.   Her name was Christy and she started to come every week to choir practice.   And then one Thursday she said to Mary that she would like to try singing with the choir on Sunday morning.    Mary looked at her clothes, thanked the Lord for choir robes and said that would be great.   And then the strangest thing happened.  Christy began to bring some of her friends to choir on Thursday.     And that started the  Administrative Council to begin to think about ways that they could effectively minister to Christy and her friends.   They knew that some of them were addicted to drugs and alcohol and so they offered a Celebrate Recovery group for the neighborhood.   They worked with other agencies to offer job training and help in finding decent, affordable housing.   And then they noticed that there were others who were living on the streets and so they opened a food kitchen and clothing bank and food pantry.   They started using the fellowship hall as an emergency shelter on the coldest winter nights.   And they began to organize work teams from the churches all around town to go in and repair the houses that had fallen into such disrepair.   And in the process that community and that church were completely transformed.  People began to move back into that neighborhood and the church that was once in decline, is now growing and thriving.  And it all began with Mary’s risky business. Fruitful disciples are risk takers.   And fruitful congregations are constantly seeking new ways to reach their communities for Jesus Christ.  And so what would that look like in a church.  We need only look at St. Luke to see that.

Risky business is not just collecting for a food bank in the community.  Risky business is dedicating a significant portion of your facility for a food bank and staffing it with volunteers every Monday through Friday for people to come and receive.  And then recognizing that there was too much need to be met in a couple of hours in the middle of the day, let’s partner with other churches and have the pantry open in the evenings also.  God’s Pantry is risky business.

And risky business is dreaming about an after school program that will give kids a safe place to come and do their homework and play and have a meal.   And let’s not do it just for our kids, let’s do it for the kids in the neighborhood.  Kid’s Cafe is risky business. 

And risky business is building a multimillion dollar facility whose primary purpose is out reach and fill it up with a food pantry, and AA groups, and young adults who come for worship and children’s ministries and youth ministries and study groups, and community groups.  That’s risky business.

And risky business is looking at the church and noting that young adults are leaving in droves.  So you go out and find a young adult pastor who is surrounded by a dedicated core that build a dynamic ministry that includes worship and fellowship and discipleship groups and service opportunities. 

And risky business is looking at all of the people coming into Lexington from other nations and recognizing the need for a place where they can worship.  And so you partner with the Kentucky Conference and Refugee Ministries and establish a multi cultural ministry and offer worship and language classes and outreach and a place to belong.

St. Luke is the church it is today because you have always engaged in risk taking mission and service.  But there is so much more to be done.

Fruitful Congregations are filled with risk takers. Disciples who see a need and step out in faith to fill it.  And sometimes we will fail.  But that’s okay.  We get back up, evaluate where we’ve been and jump right back in.   Jesus never said that His call would be safe.  But He is still calling you and I and His church to risk taking mission and service. The call has not changed.  He still needs disciples who are willing to go into all the world in His name.  It’s sometimes  risky business but it’s fruitful business.  I know that He has placed His call on your life and my life.  We may be running from it but He is calling you and I today.  And the question is, Are we willing to take the risk for one who was willing to risk it all, even death on the Cross for us?

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