GCI Equipper

Church = Hope

What is the first word that pops into your mind when you think of church? Fellowship? Potluck? Sermon? Worship? Communion? God? Hope?

I’ve been blessed to travel to many countries around the world and meet people from several cultures. I’ve rubbed shoulders with the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh and Nepal, and with people of status and wealth in several countries. Like most of us, I’ve seen people in their highest highs and their lowest lows. I’ve been with several family members and friends as they have faced horrendous trials and losses. One common theme I’ve encountered all over the world is the need for people to have hope.

Wherever you go, you see people without hope. The homeless population around the world is staggering. Whatever country you live in, people face trials they simply cannot bear on their own. Poverty, sickness, corrupt government, abuse is rampant. People struggle to make ends meet. Like Jesus, we can look around our neighborhoods and cities and see a great crowd of hurting people. Our hearts fill with compassion, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34 NRSV).

Where can people find real, tangible hope and assurance? The answer of course, is in relationship with Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:27; 1 Timothy 1:1). Where does that relationship have opportunity to be introduced, supported, and realized? In a healthy Christian church.

Our GCI theme is Healthy Church, and to work toward this goal we focus on the three venues of Faith, Hope, and Love, based on Paul’s words to the church in Corinth, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NRSV).

The last three issues of Equipper focused on Love—encouraging us to see people in their true identity as children of God, although many do not know their Father. This issue of Equipper begins a three-month period of opening conversations concerning the Hope Venue. We will be undergoing a deeper dive into the Hope Venue in Equipper throughout 2020.

Our vision—which we believe is Holy Spirit inspired—is for Grace Communion International to be a denomination filled with churches that provide hope.

We envision churches filled with members who reach out to their communities and neighborhoods because the love of Christ compels us to teach that Christ died for all. Because of this, we no longer regard anyone from a human point of view, but as God’s beloved (2 Corinthians 5:14-16).

We envision congregations willing to make whatever changes are necessary to make church accessible to others. This may mean changing the day of worship, location of worship, or time of worship. Healthy churches are more focused outward than inward.

Here are some key items healthy church leaders focus on:

  • Assimilation—making visitors and new members feel welcome.
  • Participation—finding ways newer members can participate in worship services, ministry and mission, as they are made to feel comfortable and vetted through the personal care of the members.
  • Intentional preparation—pastors, worship leaders, and teachers working together to provide meaningful and inspiring worship services.
  • Celebration—celebrating Jesus first and foremost, then taking time to celebrate key events in members’ lives as well as the fruit that comes from the missional events and activities of the church.
  • Inspirational preaching—staying in tune with the Christian Calendar and commemorating Christ events throughout the year. Using the RCL, which integrates worship and educating the congregation, and takes the congregation through most of the Bible every three years. giving the congregation a more holistic approach to Scripture.
  • Developing others—liberating leaders to be leaders and watching how ministries grow and multiply.

People need hope, and church is the place where they can find the answers to the questions they face daily.

May God continue to bless GCI as our worldwide congregations provide places of healing and hope.

Loving church,

Rick Shallenberger

Thinking About Skipping Church?

By Randy Bloom. US East Regional Director

Have you ever woken up on a Sunday morning and felt like staying home from church? I’m not keen on admitting it, but I have. Sometimes there were legitimate reasons such as illness or extreme exhaustion; but other times I was just being lazy. After getting up and moving around—even when I don’t feel like going—something compels me to head out. Why is this?

I credit the Spirit drawing me to rejoin my fellow believers in our weekly sojourn to worship God. I’m also sure there is a human sense of obligation; all my life I’ve been taught—and as a pastor I’ve taught—that we should go to church and I want to “walk my talk.” But more than an obligation, I feel the need to gather with others and join them in worship. This is part of the purpose of church and why the church has, since its inception, provided times and places for corporate worship. But why this need? Why should we participate in corporate worship? Can’t I worship at home with just God and me? What’s the big deal about Sunday worship services?

Joining Jesus in worship

While there are many scriptural references about corporate worship, the purpose of traditional Sunday worship services is to worship God! We have the indescribable privilege of being able to join in Jesus’s worship of “the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible” (to quote the Nicene Creed). We participate in Jesus’ worship of our Father—that’s amazing if you think about it. We are invited into God’s presence in a special way and there we experience his love and grace.

Worshipping in communion

We also have the privilege of worshipping God with other believers—joining them in a communion of worship. The Sunday worship service is a time to rejoin fellow believers in a community of faith, hope and love. Many of us live and work in isolation from other believers; the Sunday service is a weekly family reunion. It’s a time to be with people of like mind and heart (and some who are not quite of the same mind and heart). It’s a time for sharing the joys and challenges of life with each other and encouraging each other to stay focused on Jesus and to remain hopeful and faithful. In this way we are spiritually refreshed and nurtured.

Being transformed into God’s image

In worship we are also transformed, bit by bit, into the image of Christ. After all, how can we be in the presence of God and not be transformed? (We are always in the presence of God, but not always with others in a worshipful environment.) The Bible shares story after story of people who are transformed in the presence of God. In the Sunday worship service, we hear the gospel of Jesus, which is “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Hearing the gospel changes us. True, we may not “feel” transformed with any given worship experience, and the transformation may be imperceptible to us, but transformation is occurring.

This is why it is good to remind ourselves that worship is not primarily about us and our feelings; it’s about God and what he is doing in our lives. Worship is about coming before God, worshipping him, and within the context of worship, trusting the Spirit to relentlessly work in us in ways we do not understand or realize. Even when I enter into a worship service not feeling particularly worshipful, by the end of the service I often realize I have not only worshipped, I’ve been transformed (at least a bit). I’m sure you have had the same experiences.

Helping new believers experience God

In most cultures Sunday worship is the time when most people have contact with Jesus’ church and his people. It is where many non-Christians experience God’s presence for the first time. It is often the place and time they begin to realize who God is and recognize he is inviting them to participate in a spiritual journey with Jesus. The Sunday worship service is where they can experience the transformational power of the gospel as they hear it and as they see how it has had an impact on those around them. In addition, non-Christians need to see Christians worship God. You may not have thought of it before, but our worship has an evangelistic impact on people who are non-believers and perhaps even critics of Christianity. As Ed Stetzer writes, “The purpose of worship is also to allow unbelievers to observe the divine-human encounter and to yearn for their own personal relationship with God.” (Planting Missional Churches).

Joining Jesus in serving others

Worship, particularly corporate worship, has the effect of inspiring people to commit to service in Christ. This is expressed in Romans 12:1: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy [which we experience in worship], to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” Worship inspires us to commit ourselves afresh to Jesus, in acts of service. In so doing, our service, indeed our whole life, is worship. So much more goes on than we realize when we worship with others in the body of Christ.

As I complete this article and prepare to send it to editor Rick, I realize I have the urge to go to a worship service. But it’s Tuesday and I must wait. Oh, well. It will be good to be in God’s presence with sisters and brothers in Christ, even if I have to wait five more days. I hope you feel the same way.

People Come, People Go; Some Stay

How do we assimilate people into our healthy congregations?

By Randy Bloom, US East Regional Director

When a renowned church leader taught that pastors need to get used to the idea that more people will come and go from church than come and stay, I felt encouraged and a bit frustrated. I was encouraged because it helped me not feel inferior about myself or the church I was pastoring; I was frustrated because of the reality his statement expressed. He said this trend was true for almost every church. Why? Why don’t more people return to or stay with a church they visit? Over the years I’ve heard countless pastors ask the questions, reflecting in their facial expressions the same frustrations I felt.

There are many answers, some of which we can do little or nothing about, but there is one answer that we can do something about: people don’t return or stay after they visit our churches because they don’t feel needed, or are not provide opportunities to participate in the congregation. This is called assimilation.

Here is my working definition of assimilation: the process of helping people (at any point in their spiritual journey) become an active part of the life of a congregation. It entails their becoming whole-life stewards of their time (participating in the church mission), talents (using their gifts in service) and their treasure (being generous financial donors).

Why do we want to be concerned about assimilation? Assimilation is living out the theology we espouse. Our Triune God has “assimilated” us into his eternal life of love and missional living. The apostle Paul reminds us: “You are a member of God’s very own family…and you belong in God’s household with every other Christian” (Ephesians 2:19 TLB). God wants everyone to be “at home” with him. We want everyone to know they are included in the same family that we have been included in. We want to make room for others and not just fill seats or church coffers. We are here to participate with Jesus in helping other people know and enjoy the blessings of the life we have, and which is theirs as much as ours, in Christ.

How we can know when people are assimilated into a congregation? In The Pastor’s Manual for Effective Ministry, Charles Arn provides some characteristics of an assimilated person that can help us develop appropriate assimilation processes. When assimilated, people should:

  1. Be able to list at least seven new friends they made in church.
  2. Be able to identify their spiritual gifts
  3. Be involved in at least one role/ministry
  4. Be involved in a small group
  5. Be able to demonstrate regular financial commitment to the church
  6. Understand and personally identify with the mission and goals of the church
  7. Attend worship services regularly

As we see, assimilation takes time. Yet the way many churches function, the default expectation seems to be that people come and either “automatically” become followers of Jesus and members or they don’t (and we often judgmentally shake our heads in wonderment). Helping someone become an active member of a congregation takes time and attention.

We want to be deliberate in providing multiple ways for newcomers (this applies to everyone) to participate in the life of the church and we need to invite them (ask them) to participate. The assimilation process needs to be holistic. That is, everything a church does should be designed to make it easy for people to participate.

How did you become assimilated into your congregation? Most likely your story is like mine. When you started attending there were a multitude of activities provided to draw you into the life of the church: Weekly services, Bible studies, special days, social events and clubs. There was an intentional plan and process that enabled you to participate in and feel a part of the life of the congregation. Your assimilation into the church did not happen automatically.

Reflecting on this accentuates another important aspect of assimilation: it’s the responsibility (privilege) of church members to help people become assimilated. Are we making every possible effort to help people feel welcome, wanted and liked? Arn also informs us that the number one reason people select a church is that they felt accepted. Do your guests feel accepted? How do you know? This is not something we can take for granted.

Something that can help us assess how accepting we are is to understand the difference between being a friendly church and being a befriending church. I don’t know of any church that does not think it is friendly (even the unfriendly churches I’ve visited told me they were a friendly church). But befriending entails more than giving a warm welcome and a cup of coffee to guests. It involves getting to know them, spending time with them, listening to them and sharing with them. It entails putting the New Commandment to practice—loving others as Jesus loves. This includes making time in our busy schedules, overriding any exclusivistic tendencies we may have and taking some minimal risks to engage newcomers, especially outside the walls of our weekly worship services. It is entering into their lives and walking with them. If we have activities during the week (small groups, outreach events and social events) we have ready made opportunities to draw them into regular fellowship.

People will always come and go more than they come and stay, but practicing assimilation increases the possibility they will stay. In future articles we will explore various ways to help us focus on assimilation. In the meantime, know that people who walk through the doors of your churches are there by a series of miracles that have occurred in their lives. I’m sure you want to do everything possible to be another miracle for them.

Sunday Celebration First Impressions

First impressions can bridge someone into the life of a faith community; it can also become a stumbling block.

By Heber Ticas, pastor and Superintendent of Latin America.

Maria had lived in isolation for about 13 years before encountering our spiritual family. She had fallen into a deep depression and a sense of emptiness after her husband died. Previously disillusioned with church, she didn’t know where to go to find support, and did not feel she had a sense of belonging anywhere. Rosa, Maria’s neighbor, had sometimes observed Maria watering her plants and always wondered why she was so secluded. Bolstered with faith and hope, one day Rosa overcame her fear of rejection and knocked on her neighbor Maria’s door and invited her to dinner and to participate in the small faith group she was hosting at her house.

She was pleasantly surprised when Maria agreed to come. Maria was quickly assimilated to the environment of the small group, which proved to be a safe zone that afforded her an opportunity to open up and engage. It wasn’t long before these newfound friends invited Maria to the Sunday celebration. Although she enjoyed the relationships she was now forging, she was hesitant to take this next step. Her fear and previous negative experiences with churches dominated her thought process. Her friends were able to work with her fears and she was able to take the plunge into a church environment. Fortunately, the church had an assimilation team and plan in place.

It has been often said that it is difficult for an unchurched person to darken the doors of a congregation. There are many factors that make this statement true. In the church culture in America, Maria’s experience cuts across generations and ethnic backgrounds. In GCI, we believe that our Sunday celebration is the hope venue of a healthy ministry. Our Sunday celebrations are intentional environments where regular attendees and guests can both experience a place of belonging, inspiring worship and inspiring preaching. Our desire is for our congregations to be the healthiest expression of the church of Jesus Christ that they can be. It is vital for us to consider the reception we provide for our guests in our Sunday celebrations.

It has also been said that a first impression can either bridge someone into the life of a faith community or it can become a stumbling block. I strongly believe that our approach to our guests on Sunday morning needs to be a tangible expression of the relationship that is shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These expressions can be tangible in the following manner:

  • The way we welcome guests into our fellowship
  • The visibility of God’s love shared amongst each other
  • The overall worship experience

An intentional assimilation team’s function is to make guests feel welcome, safe, and appreciated. Church experts tell us the first two minutes guests experience will shape their overall impression of a church. If someone is received with warmth, attention and value, most likely their approach to the rest of their experience will be with a positive mindset. This mindset is shaped by the flow of what occurs from the parking lot to the pew/chair. If the joy of receiving a guest was expressed with attention in the parking lot, in the front door and by the one ushering the guest to their seats, any tension a guest possesses can be greatly diminished.

After the first two minutes, a guest will begin determining whether to consider a return visit based on their overall impressions. I regard the physical ambiance of a church facility an important part of a first impression of a visitor, but there is nothing more powerful than observing the love of our Triune God displayed in the way we relate to each other. A common thread in the feedback that I have received from first time guests, is the way we relate to each other and the familial nature of our church. When the body of Christ expresses love and unity, it makes a powerful statement.

What is going through the mind of a first-time guest on their way back home? I pray that as our guests take inventory of their experience in our Sunday celebration, they will feel a burning desire to return and engage further. I pray their overall first impression was one of a healthy environment, in which they can express their faith in community with others, and where they and their children can forge new relationships as they encounter the incarnational love of the Father, Son and Spirit.

Maria is still with us. By the grace of our Lord, and our intentional efforts to create such environments, she was able to relieve her tension and engage with us. I recall Maria inviting my wife and me to her home for dinner some three months after she had been consistently attending our services. I felt as if she had been a church member for ten years. Her love and attentiveness were so vivid that I could clearly see the love of Christ expressed through her. I asked Maria, how was it that she was able to connect to the life of our church with such ease? She shared her story, explaining the fear and tension that she carried into our church service that day, but she concluded by stating; “I have now found a spiritual family with whom I can continue the journey of life.”

I pray that all our GCI churches would consider taking a deeper look at our hope venue and contemplate ways in which we can become more intentional in facilitating these most important bridges for all our guests.

“We Believe” Workbook

The first half of our We Believe discipleship resource is now available in a workbook format. The workbook is developed to the spark conversation and make these resources more applicable for small groups and discipleship classes.

We also made one change to the original document. To better reflect our praxis on infant baptism and for greater clarity, we have adjusted the language of 8.6 in We Believe. The updated downloadable files for We Believe are available on our resources site. The change affects the adult version, the youth We Believe did not include the topic of infant baptism.

Sermon for August 4, 2019

Readings: Hosea 11:1-11 • Psalm 107:1-9, 43 • Colossians 3:1-11 • Luke 12:13-21

This week’s theme is We belong to God. The prophet Hosea reminds Israel that God was always with them—even when they are in captivity or exile. They are his people and he will return them to their homes. Paul reminds believers in Colossae of their true identity. They are in Christ, therefore live in that life—putting off anything that is not Christlike. This is part of the renewal offered to all, regardless of their background. In Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man who thought his identity was in what he had, rather than in God, who is our real treasure. The sermon focuses on Psalm 107, and reminds us that God hears our cries. We are his redeemed and his love for us is steadfast.

Steadfast Love

Introduction: Have Psalm 107 read prior to giving the message.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. (Psalm 107:1-3 NRSV)

When things are going well, it’s easy to sing songs of worship and praise. “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,” “Everlasting God,” I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” and many others. These are the times when worship overflows easily and effortlessly from a heart full of gratitude and praise. This happens when we are aware of God’s rescue and redemption. These are the times it is easy to say his steadfast loves endures forever.

But what about the other times—times when we feel we have nothing left to offer? Times when we believe we are on our last rope? Times when we are in the midst of a storm and don’t see a way out?

Bart Millard, who is best known for writing the song “I Can Only Imagine” after his dad died, wrote another song that describes this time of feeling we have nothing left to offer. The song, “Even If” was written on a day when Bart had hit bottom. He and his wife have a son with Diabetes 2 and though there are a number of good days, Bart said, “there are bad days, very bad days, and very, very bad days.” After a “very, very bad day,” the last thing Bart wanted to do was go to work and sing worship songs to others. It was during one of these times that he wrote the song “Even If.”

Here’s what he said about the song:

Even If” is a reminder to people in difficult situations that don’t seem to go away. God is worthy long before any of those circumstances even showed up. This song is a declaration to God that even if He went silent and never said another word, He’s still worthy to be praised and that He’s our greatest hope in the midst of the trial. (Bart Millard, MercyMe)

Suggestion: You may want to play “Even If” with the lyrics. Another good song you may want to play with lyrics is Casting Crown’s “Praise you in this storm.” This would be good to play near the end of the message.

All of us face times when God seems far away, and we feel we have nothing left to offer. We are done. It’s too much. We are tired, or thirsty, or imprisoned—often in a cell of our own making. We can be bound in our own chains through our own choices or caught in the waves of a stormy and turbulent sea.

Even in these times God is faithful in his steadfast love. Sometimes it is difficult to see initially, but when we look back, we can see he was there. Often it is in the dark moments—when we feel the most alone or the most abandoned—that we see his love shine brighter and push through more powerfully to us than ever.

When I cry out, “Where are you, Lord?” I’m reminded of Psalm 107.

Let’s read the first few verses again:

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. (Psalm 107:1-3 NRSV)

This beautiful Psalm depicts people going through the ups and downs of life—times of exaltation and times of hardship. These are hardships not necessarily brought on by us, but simply rough seasons of life and happenstance.

After calling up a gathering of people from all over the place—north, south, east and west (the four corners of the earth)—the Psalmist encourages all to speak out in praise of God who has redeemed them.

Four times in this psalm he refers to those who have cried out in their trouble or distress, and the Lord delivers them.

The four distresses include:

  • Those who are wandering in the desert (verses 4-9).
  • Those who are imprisoned or in bondage (verses 10-16).
  • Those who are suffering from sickness and disease (verses 17-22).
  • Those who are in a storm at sea (verses 23-30).

Let’s take a brief look at each of these distresses:

Wandering in the desert

Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things. (Psalm 107:4-9 NRSV)

Today, this refers to those times you feel lost and you are trying to find your way back home. A good biblical example of this is the prodigal son. There are many modern-day examples—you most likely know some wanderers. Perhaps you have been a prodigal child searching for meaning, longing for acceptance, and desiring to come home. Our current world scene is marked by the cries and pleas of hundreds of different groups, thousands of people, seeking help and homeland, refuge and asylum, but often not finding it. The world is filled with those who aren’t sure where their home is, and/or fear they might not be welcomed.

The Psalmist doesn’t point to the sins of the wanderers, just to their need. Their need inspires them to turn to a merciful God for help. The Psalmist reminds us that Jesus is our home—he welcomes us and fills the longing we sometimes feel; he satisfies when nothing else can.

Imprisoned or in bondage

Some sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High. Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor; they fell down, with no one to help. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. For he shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron. (Psalm 107:10-16 NRSV)

In this case, the Psalmist does refer to sin that keeps us in bondage. It may also refer to spiritual captivity. Jesus said he came to bring liberty from all forms of bondage. Whether or not you have rebelled against God, those who find themselves in prison or bondage cry out to the Lord in their distress.

The phrase “behind doors of bronze and bars of iron” depicts a place of no escape. This can be literal but is primarily metaphorical. People often talk of sins they just can’t stop, habits they cannot break, things that keep them in a state of spiritual bondage. God hears our lament and says he will bring us out of the darkness and the gloom—releasing us from the shackles and cuffs we believe are keeping us in bondage. Our sins and mistakes may land us in jail, but even there, God is with us. No matter if troubles are the result of sin, choice or circumstance, God stands ready to hear and deliver. For this, we thank the Lord for his steadfast love.

Sickness and disease

Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy. (Psalm 107:17-22 NRSV)

The application for us can apply to illnesses of the body, mind, or heart. Sickness was often thought to be a consequence of one’s sin and misdeeds, and sometimes it is. All sickness is the result of the fall of humanity. Like those afflicted in Jesus’ day, we are to bring all our afflictions to him. He is the healer and the deliverer—he heals the mind and heart as well as the body. For this, we praise God for his steadfast love with songs of joy.

Storms at sea

Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders. (Psalm 107:23-32 NRSV)

The fierce storm in this passage can remind us of the warnings given to us by the Apostle Paul: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). We face many different kinds of storms throughout our lives, but God controls the storms. His love will endure through any storm we face.

The group Casting Crowns wrote a song called “Praise You in the Storm.” Let me share some of the lyrics:

I was sure by now God you would have reached down
And wiped our tears away,
Stepped in and saved the day.
But once again, I say amen
That it’s still raining
As the thunder rolls
I barely hear your whisper through the rain
I’m with you
And as your mercy falls
I raise my hands and praise
The God who gives and takes away

And I’ll praise you in this storm
And I will lift my hands
That you are who you are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise you in this storm

We can praise God in the wilderness, in bondage, in sickness and in the storm because we know the One we praise – Jesus, the Son of the Father.

Let’s note how Psalm 107 ends and be encouraged by these words, which speak of Jesus and his steadfast love:

As you read this passage, insert the name of Jesus and emphasize it where you see the pronoun.

He turns rivers into a desert, springs of water into thirsty ground, a fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.

He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there he lets the hungry live, and they establish a town to live in; they sow fields, and plant vineyards, and get a fruitful yield. By his blessing they multiply greatly, and he does not let their cattle decrease.

When they are diminished and brought low through oppression, trouble, and sorrow, he pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes; but he raises up the needy out of distress, and makes their families like flocks.

The upright see it and are glad; and all wickedness stops its mouth. Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.

Jesus restores, he redeems, he heals, he frees, he delivers. It’s because of his steadfast love.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Share a time you experienced the steadfast love of God.
  • Share a time when you questioned God’s steadfast love.
  • We get the sense in Psalm 107 that God’s love is evident and available in all circumstances. How would you explain this to someone who is questioning God’s love?
  • Read Colossians 3:1-11 and discuss what it means to be in Christ. How do you explain this to someone else? To someone who believes they are defined by something else?

Sermon for August 11, 2019

Readings: Genesis 15:1-6 • Psalm 33:12-22 • Hebrew 11:1-3 • Luke 12:32-40

This week’s theme is Trust in God’s plan, not our own. Abraham tried to fulfill God’s promises his own way—through Ishmael—but God’s plan was different. Abraham came to believe and was counted righteous. The Psalmist reminds us that God sees it all and has a plan—he is the one who works things out. In Hebrews we are reminded that even when we cannot see, our assurance is that God has things under control. The sermon focuses on Jesus telling his disciples to not fear—we don’t need to have all the answers because we know the One who does.

Do Not Be Afraid

Introduction: Have this passage read just prior to the message.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:32-34 NRSV)

Jesus had been assuring his disciples that God had things under control. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus told the disciples that if God willingly takes care of birds, they can certainly trust him to take care of them. He tells them to not worry because our Father knows what they need. He follows this up with today’s passage. Notice the passage does not begin with a suggestion, platitude or nice idea but a direct command of “Do not be afraid!”

This may sound naïve and simplistic to us today, as we are accustomed to having our fears stoked and inflamed by the many messages around us. We hear fear-stoked messages in the news, in what we read on social media, and even in the church. We are constantly reminded we have good reason to be afraid, and we better take extreme measures to avoid whatever it is that we fear. Usually those “measures” are packaged as the latest product that will keep us safe, a political stance that needs to be defended, or an ideal that must be protected. Shouldn’t Jesus give us a thick “How To…” book on all the ways to settle our fears? Surely, he can’t just say “Do not be afraid”?But there it stands in the text for today. How do we keep such a command in a world as frightening as ours?

Jesus addresses his disciples by affectionately calling them his “little flock”—which by extension is the church today. Jesus’ command is not grounded on the size or strength of the “little flock,” but is grounded on the reality that the flock belongs to the Father. This is the assurance we have—we know who the Father is, and that he is for us. Why should we fear when we know this truth? The passage reminds us that the Father—whom we belong to—is “pleased to give you the kingdom.” This simple, yet profound statement helps us come to know a few things about the Father that can chase away our fears. Let’s look at three:

The Father is pleased to give.

What does that say to you, “Pleased to give?” It tells us the Father doesn’t give out of a sense of duty, or because of promises he made in the past. Nor is he a begrudging giver who deep down would rather not be bothered by his children. Our Father gives out of the enjoyment of giving. It is his pleasure to give himself to us.

This tells us that God’s heart is a heart that enjoys and relishes giving to his children. Let that sink in. Giving is the desire of his heart.

Illustration: Share a time you gave a gift to someone because you were told to give, or out of a sense of obligation. How was the response? You may want to use an example of giving tithes and offerings out of a sense of duty rather than a spirit of generosity.

Have you ever been forced to give something to someone? You can go through the motions, but your heart is not in it. Usually, the receiver can pick this up—making the giving a less than pleasant experience for the giver and the receiver. Jesus is telling us the Father does not give like that. His gifts come wrapped with his pleasure over us.

One reason we enjoy receiving a gift from someone is because it tells us that person takes pleasure in us. When God gives to his children, it is pleasurable because he is pleased to be our Father. Maybe we can, in a small way, understand God’s pleasure in giving as we also can find joy in giving to others. For the Father that pleasure is never tainted in any way. He is pleased to give.

The Father is a giver by nature.

Our Father is not a contractual God who must be bought or appeased. It is his very nature to give. The Father is not obligated to give to us because of our qualifications—and we can certainly praise him for that. He does not need to be conditioned or coerced into giving. We do not need to fear that any strings are attached to God’s good gifts. He is not a conspiring God who only gives to manipulate us onto some agenda.

Illustration: Share a time you were offered or given a gift with strings attached. You may even use advertising as an example. “Get your free TV… if you purchase this long-term contract. Ask for examples from the members.

Have you ever been given a gift that you knew demanded a reciprocation? Or maybe someone did you a favor, and you knew you would have to return in kind. God doesn’t give like that. He’s not demanding anything in return. This doesn’t mean there’s not an appropriate response to his gifts, but even that response is part of the enjoyment of the gift.

God doesn’t need our response, but we are the better for giving a generous response. We experience the joy of giving. Knowing the Father is a giver in his very being lets us know that we can enjoy his gifts without fear or the need to pay up in the future.

The Father is a generous giver.

He does not hold back or give in small portions. In giving us the kingdom, he has given us everything. Ultimately his giving of the kingdom is the gift of Jesus. Jesus is the kingdom that we have been brought into.

In this gift we see that God has given us the gift of participating in communion with Father, Son and Spirit, and with each other. He has given us everything by giving us his very life through Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This gift of communion with the Father enables us to participate in the kingdom—experiencing joy and peace and hope—and inspires our response of loving him and loving others.

We respond by receiving the gift, not out of fear but out of trust in the perfect love of the Father. Our identity and worth is grounded in our belonging to the Father who loves us with a perfect love casting out all fear.

Verse 33 gives us a picture of what does not belong to the kingdom. If it wears out, it’s not kingdom treasure. If it runs out, it’s not kingdom treasure. If it can be carried out, it’s not kingdom treasure. If it can be snuffed out, it’s not kingdom treasure.

We let temporal things go as we receive the kingdom life we have been given. In doing so our treasure and hearts are aligned to the Father just as the Father’s heart is for his children in whom he treasures.

Have you asked yourself lately where your treasure lies? Do you recognize that your treasure is in Jesus? If so, you don’t need to fear.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • How does knowing the Father is pleased to give generously to his children help us obey Jesus’ command to not be afraid?
  • Share how knowing God is “pleased to give” affects your experience of receiving from him.
  • What are ways we sometimes view God as being not a giver? What are some common misunderstandings of God’s reasons for giving?
  • How do we understand the truth that God is a generous giver in our world of “haves and have nots”?
  • Share a time you tried to take things in your own hands—like Abraham did with Ishmael—only to realize God’s way was much better.
  • Read Hebrews 1:3 and describe faith—in terms of God being a giver—as you would to a new Christian.

Sermon for August 18, 2019

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7 • Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 • Hebrews 11:29-12:2 • Luke 12:49-56

This week’s theme is Stay Connected to the Vine. The prophet Isaiah reminds Israel—through the example of a vineyard—how God carefully planted and cared for them. He did everything for them, but they rebelled against him, and he had to clear the vineyard. The Psalmist tells a similar story—using a vine as an example—asking God to restore them. Hebrews 11 shares the stories of many who were faithful—who stayed connected to God. These faithful are our “great cloud of witnesses,” reminding us to run with perseverance and to stay focused on Jesus. Luke shares Jesus’ statement that he didn’t come to bring peace—he came to draw people to himself. This would result in much division as people choose their own way. We can interpret the weather, but we fail to see that our problems are the result of not being connected to the vine. The sermon begins with the passage in Isaiah 5, and ends with Hebrews 12.

Stay Connected to the Vine

Introduction: Show some pictures of vineyards.

Vines. Vineyards. Grapes. Wild Grapes. Wine. We could be talking about a beautiful scene in Napa, CA, Tuscany, Italy, Burgundy or Bordeaux, France, Germany, Australia, Israel or numerous other places around the world.

These words, however, are found throughout the Bible. There are approximately 60 verses talking about vineyards, more than 30 mentioning grapes, and more than 200 references to wine. Interestingly, Israel was a land of vineyards. So it’s no surprise that the vine and vineyard are characteristic of this country’s agricultural abundance, and they serve as vivid images for the land itself. Isaiah used the vineyard as a metaphor describing the relationship between God and Israel.

I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.  He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. (Isaiah 5:1)

Illustration: If you’ve ever prepared a garden, share some of the steps. Or ask someone in the congregation who loves to garden, to share the steps in preparing and planting the garden. The point is to show it takes a lot of work and the ground needs a lot of care.

Isaiah is showing God’s love for his vineyard—Israel—and their response. God painstakingly cleared the rocks, turned over the soil, and planted only the best vines. Isaiah is showing the purposeful and powerful way that God prepared a place for his people. In this way the parable describes God’s election of Israel as a nation. As with any vineyard, the vinedresser does all the work with the expectation of a fruitful and bountiful harvest. God wanted the best for Israel. He wanted them to trust him and rely on him. God wants the best for us, too. He will go to great lengths to make it so.

He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. (Isaiah 5:2)

God is also the protector; which Isaiah points out. But something happened; Israel lost their way. They spurned God and went their own way. Isaiah compared the result to bad fruit—wild grapes; the vineyard had lost its value.

Notice then, the prophecy:

Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it. (Isaiah 5:5-6)

Whoa! Is God being vindictive here? That is not his nature, so why this reaction from God? Why make Israel a wasteland? Why command the clouds not to rain on it? Because things can’t continue the way they are. It’s easy to put the focus on God’s reaction, rather than on the reason behind that reaction.

God had done everything for Israel. He brought them out of slavery. He blessed their crops and their livestock. He poured out his love on them and protected them, and they turned their back on it all.

What do you do with plants that don’t produce fruit? You pluck them from the garden, so they don’t rob healthy plants of nutrients. You trim dead limbs off a tree, so the tree becomes healthy. You cut dead branches off a vine so the vine can produce better fruit.

Should God continue to provide protection and blessings to those who now live in contradiction to who he is? What example does this state? You can do anything, and God will still pour out his blessings on you. What lesson does this give to those who don’t yet know God? If God blesses, protects and provides for those who defy him, why bother following him? What message would others be hearing? God’s “reaction” could be referred to as tough love.

Israel rejected the very one who made them a nation. They turned their back on the one who gave them land and livestock. Rather than care for the vineyard God gave them—weeding it, trimming it, pruning the branches—they allowed weeds to overflow and take over the grapes. The result was bad fruit—nothing but useless wild grapes.

All because they didn’t stay attached to the vine. This prophecy was for Israel, and it’s for us today. When we stay attached to the vine, we can experience God’s love, protection and provision. His desire is to hold us up as his beloved, to let the world see what it means when one walks with him—lives in communion with Father, Son, Spirit and each other. This does not mean a charmed life where nothing bad ever happens to us. Rather, it means a life of faith, hope and love even when bad things do happen.

He loves to share the stories of those who stay connected to the vine. Hebrews 11 is filled with stories of the faithful. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses are all mentioned. There are many more; let’s read Hebrews 11:

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:32-38)

Notice something here? God doesn’t promise us life without difficulty. We face challenges, trials, persecution, even death. There was a lot of conflict in the lives of those mentioned here in Isaiah. Some he delivered outright; some were not delivered, but all those who stayed connected to the vine are listed among the faithful.

Let’s continue:

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 11:39-12:2)

Jesus is the vine; you are one of the branches on that vine. As long as you stay connected to the vine—not allowing weeds (the world) to choke the life out of you—you will be counted among the faithful.

This world will always have trouble—that’s the way of humanity. But Jesus overcame the world and planted a new vineyard—the kingdom of God. Fix your eyes on him, the perfecter of your faith.

As you go through this week, face every negative story with praise for God’s redemption. Look at every trial as an opportunity to be a light to someone else. Take opportunity to see Jesus moments as you interact with your kids, your grandkids, your fellow employees. Face each day knowing you are connected to the greatest, strongest, most fruit-producing vine that ever was. Fix your eyes on him and share in his joy.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think the imagery of vines and vineyards is used so much in the Bible? (Isaiah 5, Psalm 80, Genesis 49, Jeremiah 2, 5 & 6, Hosea 10, Ezekiel 17, Isaiah 16, Micah 1, Zephaniah 1, Deuteronomy 32, Amos 5, Song of Solomon, Matthew 20 & 21, John 15, Revelation 14.)
  • How do you think the kingdom is like a “vineyard?”
  • What do you think it Jesus means when he said he came to bring division? What does it have to do with staying connected to the vine?
  • What does it look like in your life to “remain” in Jesus?
  • Jesus says he is the “true vine.” Does that mean there are “false vines”?
  • Share a time you felt disconnected from the vine, and how God brought you back.

Sermon for August 25, 2019

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10 • Psalm 71:1-6 • Hebrews 12:18-29 • Luke 13:10-17

This week’s theme is God our deliverer. God told Jeremiah he had formed him from the womb to be a prophet and there was nothing to fear. God would provide the words he needed. The Psalm reminds us that God is our refuge when we cry out for deliverance; he is our hope and confidence. The author of Hebrews tells us we’ve not come to the burning mountain like the Israelites, but to Mt. Zion—the city of the living God. In Jesus we receive a new kingdom that cannot be shaken. The sermon focuses on the passage in Luke. Here we learn that Jesus frees us from whatever prevents us from standing tall in him.

Freedom to Straighten Up

Luke 13:10-17 (NRSV)

Introduction: Read or have someone read Luke 13:10-17 NRSV.

This story in Luke takes place in a synagogue on the Sabbath. Although Jesus is teaching, it is his healing of a crippled woman that takes center stage. The woman who appears on the scene serves as a picture of creation and humanity in need of straightening out. Luke articulates the typical Jewish mindset in making her condition connected with Satan. Although this woman is not demon-possessed, Luke’s audience would automatically bring a spiritual dimension to her crippled condition. The ancient Jewish mindset would not have separated all that’s wrong in the world from the influence of evil in the world. Satan and sin are connected to the brokenness of all creation and humanity. Luke’s telling of this story is more than just the healing of one woman. It is Jesus’ proclamation of victory over Satan and sin and the straightening out of all that is crooked and bent.

If the “Speaking of Life” video is played, this is a good place to reference it.

Some theologians in the Middle Ages coined the term “cor curvum in se” meaning “curved in on ourselves” as a description of the fall. C.S. Lewis used the word “bent” to articulate the same thing. Sin essentially is like the crippled state of this woman. We are bent over in on ourselves, navel-gazing and unable to do anything about it.

Created in the image of God, we were designed to be outward focused in sharing life with God and one another. Being created in God’s image, humans were made to be lovers of God and lovers of one another; this is what Jesus taught as the first and greatest commandment. After the fall, humans did not cease being lovers, but being turned in on themselves, they became lovers of themselves. Or as Paul describes, “lovers of themselves, lovers of money… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:2-4). This is the dire situation and distortion that Jesus came to straighten out.

Jesus sees us

Jesus is the only one 1n this narrative who is not curved in on himself. His words and actions are outward focused, seeing the woman and calling her forward. Notice how Jesus didn’t heal her in some impersonal way; he first saw her. When we are turned in on ourselves it’s easy to believe no one sees us, and in our self-absorbed world, we do not see the gaze of others turned our way. Thus, our condition worsens. But Jesus see us and does not turn away. He calls us to himself like he called the crippled woman. His voice cuts through our twisted and gnarled existence and speaks an invitation of love. You may be hearing his voice right now. As Jesus called her over, he wasted no time in healing her. He heals her with his words and his touch.

Jesus reaches out to us

Jesus’ actions in this story reveal to us the nature of the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit are outward focused. They live in a face-to-face relationship, seeing one another and giving themselves to each other. This is the life we are created to belong to. This is the life Jesus invites us into. As Jesus touches and heals the woman, we see his touch extends out to all creation and humanity—healing and straightening us back to live outwardly in face-to-face relationships. Whatever state of “cor curvum in se” you may find yourself in today, Jesus is calling you to himself. He doesn’t point a finger with harsh words and tell you to straighten up. He proclaims the truth that “you are set free from your ailment.” In his hands we find ourselves “stood up straight.” The woman’s immediate response was praise. Here we get a picture of a woman who has been restored to being a daughter created in the image of God. She was seeing God face-to-face and enjoying him. God does not intend to leave us turned in on ourselves. Our truest joy and wholeness in life is to live in a face-to-face relationship with the Father, through the Son in the Spirit. It is here we rise to the full stature of what it means to be human.

Jesus teaches us

This healing on the Sabbath angers the synagogue ruler. Instead of addressing Jesus, he turns and gives the people a basic do-and-don’t-do sermon. This message is spoken in anger and aims to control. Jesus’ message in contrast is spoken in love and aims to release. This release comes from the proclamation on Jesus’ lips that “you are set free from your infirmity.” Jesus exposes the synagogue ruler’s hypocrisy by stating the practice of untying an ox or donkey on the Sabbath so it can get water. If this untying is permissible for an animal, his argument goes, then how much more is it proper to release a “daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years.” This argument humiliates the synagogue ruler, but the people “were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.”

We find here that the woman was not the only one who was crippled. It is proper to look up to our spiritual leaders, but it is not proper to let them look down on you. Jesus has harsh words for the synagogue ruler; he too needed to be straightened out.

We are not told what happened to the synagogue ruler or the future life of this particular synagogue. But let us conclude with this thought. After this event, we could expect the people of this synagogue, and especially the woman who was healed, to return to the synagogue with an outward focus of praise and worship. This outward focus may in time serve to restore the synagogue ruler. We can’t say for certain, but we can see in this story a picture of all creation and humanity with an end goal of restoration and straightening up to share in the outward focused life of Father, Son and Spirit.

As we participate in that life, we can help one another receive the healing touch of Jesus and be reminded of his proclamation that we “are set free” from our “cor curvum in se” condition. As we receive this good news, we are straightened up to respond in praise. Hallelujah!

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • How does the understanding of “cor curvum in se” inform you view of sin?
  • Have you ever felt like the crippled woman who couldn’t straighten up? Does her experience with Jesus give you hope? Discuss.
  • How has this story informed your understanding of God as Trinity? Do we see God as a self-focused God or as an outgoing God of love? What difference does this make in our daily lives?
  • Why do you think the synagogue ruler was angry for healing on the Sabbath? Are there times we get angry with Jesus when his works of healing interrupt our religious routines?