Sermon: Imagine A Church . . .Soaring To New Heights
Scripture: Mark 9: 2-9
When I was thinking about this series of messages, I thought a lot about the wording I wanted to use. And though I knew that I wanted to point us towards our Values and Goals, those words didn’t seem quite right. They felt too limiting to me. So instead I settled on imagination because I wanted to convey that we are talking about what God wants for His church. Values and Goals speak too much of people sitting around a meeting table and doing their best to discern what the church ought to be doing based upon a certain belief system. But imagination speaks of letting go of our worldly sensibilities and soaring to where God wants to take us. In the meeting room, these goals could easily be construed as too ambitious, perhaps even unreachable. But in the imagination of God, they become just the beginning. Just a glimpse really of what God has in mind for St. Luke United Methodist Church. Now in Biblical terms we talk a lot more about dreams then we do imagination. I think that John Kennedy really captured the spiritual essence of dreams when he said:
The problems of this world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.
God has always dreamed dreams for humanity of things that never were from the very moment of creation. So I thought that imagination was a bigger term that really captured the full scope of God’s dreams, His imaginings, for us. But as I studied the scriptures relating to dreams, the writers of scripture also talk about vision and prophecy when describing God’s view of humanity in relationship with Him. The Old Testament Prophet Joel says:
I will pour my spirit out on all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions.
God’s dreams, God’s visions, God’s prophesies are for all kinds of people. The challenge for us, particularly in the church, is to discern between those imaginings, those dreams, that are ones that God has placed in our heart and those that come from our own thoughts and experiences. And a major part of that discernment process, according to scripture is fruitfulness. All of these goals that we have been thinking about and have set for 2015 will be measured by how fruitful we are. If we are faithful and obedient, and if these truly are God’s imaginings or dreams or visions for St. Luke then we will be fruitful and we will soar to new heights in 2015. Today is all about soaring to new heights in the Kingdom of God.
It is so appropriate that we are having our celebration of what God is imagining for St. Luke on the same Sunday when we traditionally think about the transfiguration of Jesus. Now this word transfiguration is an interesting one. We don’t use it a lot in our everyday conversations – and when we do it is often used interchangeably with the word transformation. But in Biblical thought, the two terms have very different meanings. Transformation is all about change, usually as it relates to individuals. So if we say that Jesus is transformed on the mountaintop, we are implying that Jesus is somehow changed by this experience. But this story is not so much about a change that took place in Jesus, as much is it is about a change in the way that the Disciples understand who Jesus is. How they view Him. I think the transfiguration is more about the Disciples then it is about Jesus. Look again at the way that Mark tells the story. Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up to the mountaintop, leaving the others in the valley. It is six days after Peter’s Confession that he understands Jesus to be the Christ or Messiah. But it is clear that Peter is not really sure what that means. And so when they get to the Mountaintop, according to Mark, Jesus is transfigured. His clothes become pure white and suddenly the figures of Moses and Elijah appear before them and begin to converse with Jesus. And, as usual, it is Peter who breaks the silence. “Let’s build three tabernacles” he says, “one for Jesus and one for Elijah and one for Moses, so that we can remember this place and worship here. ” There are, it seems to me, two aspects to Peter’s response. First there is the tie in with the past. As we read and study the Old Testament, we see that often times when a significant happening took place as it related to the faith journey of Israel, no matter where they were, the first reaction was to build some kind of monument. Sometimes it’s a well, which was so cherished in the desert environment. Other times the instruction is given to build an altar. And then from that point on, that place in the geographical make up of the land would be identified according to that monument that had been built there. For instance, we know exactly where Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman took place because scripture identifies the well as Jacob’s well, and that it was located in the place that Jacob (now Israel) settled after wrestling with God and reconciling with his brother Esau. We’re told that he dug a well there and built an altar. So Peter is only expressing the long accepted Jewish custom of building a monument to remember that something important happened there. He is interpreting Jesus’s transfiguration through the lens of history. Jesus is the long awaited Messiah that the prophets had foretold, and his appearance with Elijah and Moses confirms that in Peter’s thought. And then Peter’s proposal exposes Peter’s desire to live on the mountaintop forever. Forget about those in the valley. Forget Jerusalem, which was their destination. It would be too dangerous to go there. Let’s just dwell here and spend all of our time in fellowship and worship. Just the four of us. Peter’s faith was in danger of getting stuck on the mountain. Let’s stay at this place in our faith journey forever. In a sense, the story of the transfiguration warns of two of the greatest enemies that eventually face every church, every community of Christ. One is getting stuck in the past, so that every ongoing ministry is almost like a monument to what has been done in the past. Churches that get stuck in the past talk and think a lot about how things used to be and many of their ministries aren’t done to advance the Kingdom but rather to remember and relive the Kingdom as it once was represented in that church. And then the second enemy is the enemy that causes us to get stuck where we are. On a plateau. Churches that are stuck in the present start asking what’s in it for me. What can the church do for me. This attitude is often expressed by persons who leave the church and when asked why, they say: “I wasn’t being fed.” or “the church just wasn’t meeting my needs”. In a sense, Peter wanted faith to stand still. But friends, the imaginings of God, the dreams of God, are never about the past or even the present. They are always about the future. Churches that are stuck in the past eventually become a part of the past. Churches that are stuck in the present, will not be able to remain on that plateau forever. They will eventually resign themselves to being monuments of the past or summon up the courage to step boldly into the future. What Peter did not initially understand was that the mountain top experience that day did not change Jesus but rather changed how those Disciples saw and understood Jesus. In their eyes, that day, Jesus was transfigured from the Messiah to the Savior. From King to Suffering Servant. Whose monument would not be tabernacles on the top of a mountain, but rather would be a Cross on a hill called Calvary and an empty tomb. The kind of church that God imagines is one that has its eyes on the future, transfigured by the vision of Jesus in their midst.
Thirty eight years ago, St. Luke became a part of God’s dream for the future of this community. It started with just a few people meeting in a store front in the Woodhill shopping center. But because the imagination of God was alive for them, St. Luke has grown from 50 faithful people to a church with a membership of 1800 persons. And those 50 faithful dreamers have grown into a worshipping congregation of 600 people worshipping every week in multiple services. And that handful of servants has transformed into a community of servants that touches the lives of nearly 900 men, women and children with the love of Christ every week through a variety of outreach programs. And the store front that was originally rented for $450 a week has become a nearly $7 million facility for worship and study and fellowship and outreach. I’m not sure we realize just how amazing St. Luke’s story is. But in the imagination of God, it is not nearly complete. In fact it is just beginning. This Church was not built to be a monument to the past, or a refuge from present reality. This church was built, from the very beginning as God’s promise for the future. Those original members built this church for us. And not only for us. But for our children and grandchildren and for our community. Eventually came this sanctuary, where generations have come and will come, to worship. And just a few years ago, the Life Center, as an affirmation that the imagination of God, the dream of God, is still alive in the hearts of the disciples of St. Luke, propelling us into an often uncertain future, that is made certain only by God’s presence. On that day of transfiguration, those three Disciples didn’t really know where they would go, or what would happen after they made their way down from the mountain. But they knew that wherever they went and whatever they did, they would do with Jesus, the Savior and Lord, present in their lives. His Holy Spirit walking with them every uncertain step of the way. These goals, in a way, are calling us to an uncertain future. We have chosen a balloon as the symbol for our celebration because you never know where a balloon will go when it is released, but what you do know is that it’s going to soar to new heights. Who knows where we will go with 300 new persons integrated into ministry, and 400 first time guests in worship. But we do know that the imagination of God does not call us back to where we’ve been. God’s Spirit calls us to soar where we have not been. Imagine the excitement of that group that gathered for the first time in that storefront 38 years ago for the first worship service. A few are still here. They didn’t know where God was going to take them. They only knew that He would go with them wherever He wanted them to go. And again when they outgrew the store front and realized God’s dream of a church on this spot – really out in the middle of nowhere – You couldn’t get here very easily from anywhere in Lexington in those days – But God imagined a church here. And because of their faithfulness and obedience, God has blessed St. Luke to be a blessing. Because of them, we can soar today because these goals build on that tradition, that record of faithfulness. This is not a vision of transformation. It is a vision of transfiguration. These goals should challenge us to look at everything we do in new ways. In some cases to reimagine the church. We are a church that has always placed great emphasis on mission and outreach. Increasing participation in the ministries of the church by 20% will not change our emphasis on mission and outreach, but rather challenge us to look at new areas for mission and outreach. St. Luke has always been a church that has placed great value in missional communities. We may not have called them that. But every Sunday School Class, every ministry team, every small group Bible Study, the multi cultural community that meets on Sunday afternoons. All of the mission teams that have gone out from this church. All of these function at times as missional communities. We will not be changed but rather strengthened by a transfiguration of our understanding of missional communities and their importance in reaching new persons for Jesus Christ. God never intended for the Kingdom to be contained inside the walls of this church. God intended for this building to be a tool to be used to engage people where they are. And that’s how we will realize the goal of 300 additional people serving in the life of the church. Not just being served, but serving. The realization of this goal will not change us as a church on a mission, as Nora talked about a couple of weeks ago. But it will cause us to look at mission not just as reaching out to but also embracing those we serve. As long as we continue to seek to live in the imagination of God then these goals are not calling us to transformation, but rather transfiguration. To be constantly searching for new and exciting and needed ways to worship and serve. We have a wonderful vision of Jesus Christ in EVERY Life, not just some lives, or even most lives. For the most part we do a great job of introducing Jesus Christ to Every Life that comes our way. But we don’t always do a great job of inviting persons into a saving relationship with Jesus. If nothing else, these goals call on us not to be content simply to introduce Jesus to any who come but rather to be intentionally invitational – inviting everyone into new life in Christ. And often times that is going to mean going beyond the walls of the church. I believe that at their core these goals call on everyone of us, no matter what we do in the church, to be intentionally invitational. They challenge every ministry, every area of service, every worship service, every Sunday School class, every ministry team to be invitational in the way we go about our work in the church. And not just inviting persons into the church, but inviting persons into relationship with Jesus Christ.
Several of you have said to me as we have moved through the last few weeks: “The goals are great, but is there a plan to get us there.” I think the plan to be fruitful in reaching these goals will be constantly evolving but initially I think there are two key components. The first is transfiguring the way we worship. To see worship as more than what we do here on Sunday morning. I talked last week about the wide diversity of needs and attitudes that people bring to worship. We can’t possibly design one Sunday morning service that will meet all of those needs. And so we must look for ways to worship that both acknowledges and embraces the diversity of our community. And I don’t think that means transformation or change in the ways we are currently worshipping as much as I think it means transfiguration, looking at worshipping in new ways. Offering different styles of worship, perhaps in different venues. A couple of months ago, coming out of the missional communities, Jeremy and Will offered a worship service downtown in a venue called the Livery. It was on a weeknight. The style was more contemporary then we offer here. They didn’t advertise it a lot. Mostly word of mouth coming out of our young adult missional communities. And they stopped counting the number of people who came at 150. Many of those were not persons who were worshipping at St. Luke or anywhere else. And for the last few months we’ve been offering a more contemporary service in conjunction with a meal on the first Sunday of the month in the Fellowship Hall, starting at 12. And I look at that group and see persons who have never come on Sunday morning and others who have stopped coming on Sunday morning. We are tapping into needs and desires that aren’t being met in other ways. So we need to be constantly looking at and supporting worship opportunities that will engage the growing number of persons who have turned away from the more traditional church and yet still have that desire and need to worship God. We need to see that we invite people in relationship with God when we worship.
An invitational church is a church that is leading persons into a relationship with Jesus Christ. And that invitation is most effective when it is issued out of a personal relationship. Now that may sound a bit confusing but if we break it down, all it means is that 9 out of 10 people who respond that they have a saving relationship with Christ, indicate that they first came to know Jesus because they were invited by a friend or co worker or family member – someone they have a relationship with, into a community of faith. If you stop and think about it, we have a lot of ministries that we engage in invite persons to the church. Hundreds of people come through the doors of St. Luke every week. The building of the Life Center has been a wonderful portal for people coming to the church. God’s Pantry, Kid’s Cafe, Upwards Basketball and Cheerleading, support groups, Silver Sneakers, Open Gyms, and on and on. But sometimes we get frustrated because we have so many people who come to the church for these ministries, but who don’t really connect. If you asked many of them what they consider to be their church, they would respond St. Luke. Because this is where they come when they need help. These goals don’t envision that we transform these ministries, but rather that we transfigure our understanding of them, that we take a new look, so that we seek ways to be in relationship with those who come and invite them into a relationship with Jesus Christ through them. And it’s not just forming relationships with those who come to the church but also reaching out and forming relationships with those in other places in life. And so the second key component of the plan is the development of Missional Communities. Because the best place to form relationships is in the context of those communities. One of the definitions of Missional Communities that I recently read that I really like was: A group of people with like interests coming together to do life together. Now initially the emphasis of our missional communities has been young adults and that is wonderful. Strong relationships are being formed in those communities. And in general that is the generation that is missing from the traditional church. But we need to see Missional Communities with the potential to embrace all generations and form relationships that will ultimately fulfill our vision of Jesus Christ in every life. In essence, Jesus formed the first Missional Community when He called persons from all walks of life, spent three years building relationships and then sent them out as disciples into the world. The Book of Acts is all about the transfiguration of the church that was brought about by that first community. And really that first group of people that came together 38 years ago and started meeting in a store front a couple of miles up the road was a Missional Community and we are the fruits of their labors. You see, that’s the kind of community we envision when we envision Jesus Christ in every life.
Transfiguration tells us that God’s imagination for us is not controlled by the past or limited by present realities, but rather invites us all to come and soar to new heights on the wings of His Spirit. These goals, if we reach for them with everything we have, will not fundamentally transform or change St. Luke. But they will transfigure us. They will cause us to look in new ways at all that we do for Jesus Christ. We are not talking about making a dying church healthy again. Because St. Luke is a wonderful, vital church. No what we will be about in reaching for these goals is building on the wonderful foundation and with God’s help, soaring to new heights in our ministry and service. It will take all of us being willing to give our all – our time, our talents, our service, our witness and our gifts – our best to almighty God. God’s gifts to us are unlimited, and he deserves our lives in return – without limits. I am so excited about what God is imagining for St. Luke UMC. And what He is doing here. And we need to be celebrating that today and every day. So won’t you come and let’s soar together on the wings of the Holy Spirit of God.