GCI Equipper

Focusing on Hope

Where do you turn when you are feeling hopeless?

There have been a number of times in my life when I felt hopeless. The first time I remember was when I was 12 and two of my sisters were killed in a car accident. My family and I were in New York, miles from home, when this tragedy struck. I was shocked and confused and didn’t know where to turn. It wasn’t until we returned home and went back to church that I started healing as friends and church members surrounded our family with love and support.

Over the years I’ve lost three other siblings and both parents—and some of those losses gave me a sense of hopelessness, angst, fear and even anger. Other members of my immediate family went through the same sense of grief, and I was doing my best to provide comfort to them. It was my church family that gave me comfort and support and helped me through those feelings of hopelessness. Recently I faced a rather intensive surgery. This time, right alongside my immediate family, my church family stepped up and helped provide just what I needed.

This is what a church family is for—to give hope to people by continually keeping the source of our hope—Jesus—the center of the center. All of us go through periods of feeling hopeless. It may be something we are going through on a personal level, a corporate level, or even a national level. I clearly remember the churches being crowded the weeks after the US was attacked on 9/11. People felt vulnerable and confused and they went to the one place they believed gave reasons for the hope that is in us. That place was the church; there many cried for comfort, encouragement, and to have their hope restored.

We refer to churches as places of worship. Who do we worship? The One who gives us hope—the hope of forgiveness, the hope of justification, the hope of being noticed, the hope of being included, the hope of something better than what we have right now. We also refer to churches as houses of prayer—where we seek relationship with Father, Son and Spirit, and with each other. Why do we seek that relationship? Because of hope. We hope that relationship provides answers to our deepest questions, provides peace that surpasses understanding, and provides love and acceptance.

In GCI, our emphasis is on healthy churches. Sadly, some churches don’t give a message of hope. You are hardly greeted when you come through the door. The music doesn’t lift or inspire because you’ve never even heard the songs. The sermon leaves you feeling a bit lost because you have no idea what it was about, or worse, you leave feeling guilty because the message made you feel you aren’t good enough. Little is said about Jesus, the offertory seems to be center stage, and the place clears out as soon as the service ends. This is not a church focused on hope.

Healthy GCI churches are hospitals for people looking for spiritual help. They are centers of hope where people can find relationship, understanding, compassion, and the truth of a God who loves you just the way you are. They are lights on a hill, illuminating paths to Jesus, where those without hope can find what they need most.

In a healthy church worship planning is intentional and always keeps guests in mind. Greeters (hosts) are looking to connect with visitors. Sermons are inspirational because they are focused on Jesus and the good news of the Gospel. Building relationship is central to a healthy church’s existence. In a healthy church hope is central and God is worshipped.

Diving deeper into the Hope Avenue (venue) will be one of two themes for Equipper in 2020. Our second theme is to bring focus and clarity to the GCI Worship Calendar, where we acknowledge, through worship, preaching, and living, that Jesus is the center of the center.

A healthy church is a church where hope is found. Let’s be healthy churches.

Rick Shallenberger

GCI Worship Calendar

In the last GCI Update letter, Clarity, President Greg Williams explains the importance of clear communication.  He emphasizes:

As we collectively move forward toward Healthy Church, let’s not allow miscommunication to be a roadblock. Please access the vast array of ministry tools designed to serve you where you are in the journey and please feel free to access your ministry supervisors as well. It is imperative that we contextualize what it means to be Team-Based and Pastor-Led in our multiple cultures around the world, and in the midst of our cultural nuances that we share the Christ-like principles of understanding, respect, collaboration, and love, which apply in all circumstances.

To create alignment across our international regions we have updated the GCI Worship Calendar to include language that will work in all of our GCI congregations. You can download the updated version here.

 

Welcoming Guests

By Heber Ticas, Superintendent of South America

Growing up in the church and after 20 years of pastoral ministry, I have often witnessed how church attendees tend to gravitate to those with whom they have an established relationship. This is natural; however, the downside is that guests who visit a church for the first or second time can easily feel out of place. They can feel there might not be a place for them in the established community. On the flipside, in our attempts to be welcoming in our smaller congregations, members sometimes swarm a guest, creating an awkward feeling for them.

For this reason, I believe a healthy church always seeks to create a healthy environment where both attendees and guests feel welcomed. This is not something that occurs accidentally—there must be some intentionality behind it. In fact, it is a vital ministry of the church. The hope avenue of a healthy church begins with such a ministry. Although we have been calling this an assimilation ministry, we are now pivoting a little bit and calling it “Integration Ministry.” In some cultures the word assimilation may be misunderstood and have a negative effect.

In any case, I would like to reiterate the importance of such a ministry. I recall the time when I asked a good friend of mine to come to the church I pastor as a secret guest. Kind of like the concept of a secret shopper at a supermarket. My desire was to evaluate our ministry from an outsider’s perspective. I was surprised by some of his observations and findings. The first time that I did this, it was clear that our integration ministry needed improvement. One of our observations was that we needed a more holistic approach to the ministry. An integration ministry is not just about welcoming guests. Intentional greeters are a key part of this ministry, but such a ministry needs to include an intentional process of integrating guests into the life of the body. Throughout the years I have learned the following elements that have helped me developed a robust integration ministry.

  • An integration ministry will create an inclusive and befriending environment where guests and members feel welcomed from the parking lot to their seat.
  • An integration ministry creates movement. The idea is to move a first-time guest to a second-time guest, to a regular attender and eventually to a member of the local body.
  • An intentional integration ministry will create an environment on Sunday morning where guests and regular attendees will engage worship and the word with much more ease.
  • An integration ministry creates needed pathways for disciple-making relationships to spark.

The elements that I have enumerated are crucial for the health of a congregation. I want to also make it clear that I am not suggesting that we view our guests as a project of sorts, on the contrary, I believe that such ministry is part of our participation of what Jesus is already doing in people’s lives. I am filled with joy whenever I am either approached by a guest or receive a note by text or a call by someone who felt welcomed, loved and inspired by their experience in one of our worship services. In order to establish a holistic integration ministry, I also believe that a church needs to consider the following:

  • Proper signage that has guests in mind
  • A good physical ambiance in the church facilities
  • Well-positioned greeters (from the parking lot to the chair)
  • An effective information table
  • Connection cards
  • Proper follow-up

When we consider all these elements, one can easily appreciate the intentionality and work behind a holistic integration ministry. Connections and relationship building should be the underlying theme in this ministry. For these connections to birth a deeper relationship that in turn can become a disciple-making participatory relationship, our integration ministries should include the following:

  • Retain information needed to connect back to guests (connection cards).
  • Give something to guests so they can connect back to the ministry (gift bag).
  • Have a what’s next strategy (Connecting points, such as small groups).

I have said a lot about integration, but these last three points are crucial for the overall goal of an integration ministry. If a deeper disciple-making relationship is to be birthed with those who visit our fellowship, we need to be intentional about it. In my opinion, these last three points provide a healthy strategy to achieve this goal.

I pray that the Spirit gives us the sensitivity to hear what he is saying and the clarity to see where he is leading us.

Church Hack – Call to Worship

In our constantly connected and fast-paced world, the call to worship is an opportunity to intentionally attune the hearts and minds of the congregation to our glorious God. It is powerful to remember that God is the one who calls to us and to corporately reflect on the same truth about his character and involvement in our lives. Click the link below to view and download this month’s Church Hack and learn more about leading a call to worship. Click here or on the image below to download this month’s Church Hack.

 

Worship: Putting Others First

What does a guest think when they experience your worship service?

By Randy Bloom, Regional Director, Northeast

“Honey, we have some new neighbors. Let’s invite them over for dinner.”

“That’s a great idea, let’s do it. What should we fix for dinner?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Let’s just have our leftovers from the other day. That meal was pretty good and I think there’s enough.”

“That sounds good. What do you want to do while they are here?”

“Well, you and I enjoy sitting around and watching TV or fiddling around in the yard. They could join us in what we do. But, actually, I’m really busy this week and don’t have the time to think about it. We can figure that out at the last minute. They can just fit in.”

Thankfully, this is not how we prepare for visits from friends and neighbors. Instead, we put a lot of thought into how we can help them feel welcome. We consider their needs and what they enjoy eating and doing. We try to be considerate of them. We plan and prepare what we will feed them and what we will do when they visit.

What if we planned every Sunday worship service with the same consideration as we would plan a dinner with our neighbors? What if we planned our worship services with others in mind, rather than just planning around ourselves and what we like? I wonder if more visitors would come, and if they would be more inclined to return.

I have had opportunity to visit countless worship services, GCI and non-GCI, over my life and sadly, too many of them come across like they were thrown together at the last minute and seem a bit self-centered. I realize this sounds harsh, but I don’t think the impressions were intentional. I believe people gather with a sincere desire to worship God, hear from God and to encourage each other. But over the years a certain culture, a certain way of doing things, has developed that members are accustomed to and we simply don’t think about how things look to a visitor. In most of the churches I visit, the people openly express how much they hope for and pray for new people. But if new people did show up, they are often stepping into an environment that is not particularly inviting and they find it difficult to participate.

With our GCI goal of healthy church, it behooves us to consider how visitors can feel warmly welcomed, comfortable and able to participate. Let’s look at some things we should do, and a few things we should avoid. For the purpose of this article, let’s concentrate on the musical portion of our worship services. Here are some things we can do:

Prepare every aspect of the worship service with guests and new members in mind.

My personal opinion: we have been doing what we want and what we like long enough. For everything we do we should ask, “What would a new person think of this?” This is a loving approach. It’s not about giving up everything we do and simply accommodating others at the expense of tradition. It’s about being willing to put aside stumbling blocks and barriers that would prevent others from encountering and worshipping Jesus. If our ways of doing things are a hindrance, we need to jettison them. And this means no sacred cows (idols in our minds). It’s about us meeting new people as Jesus brings them to us and together sharing a new path on our journey with Jesus.

Here are a few examples:

  • Let’s stop singing the same old songs over and over. We may like them. They may make us feel warm and fuzzy. But many songs I hear are dated. This makes us seem dated. This is not about disrespecting our age, maturity and customs. It’s about what helps others want to join in worship. Many of our songs don’t help.
  • Understanding we all have different tastes in music, some like meditative songs and some like lively songs, it’s important to make sure the songs are theologically correct.
  • Let’s not sing songs about us. Song’s that talk about us, how faithful we are, how we will follow Jesus, how we will overcome, how we…. You get the idea. Let’s sing songs that focus exclusively on Father, Son and Holy Spirit and their love, glory and grace.
  • While it’s good to keep our song repertoire fresh, we want to be careful not to introduce too many new songs. We want people to sing. They will be more inclined to sing if they are at least familiar with the songs and the members know them well. This helps new people because hearing members sing encourages them to sing.
  • Let’s have some uplifting music (not slow, funeral style music) playing as people enter the worship area. And let’s be sure our first couple of songs are lively and upbeat. We are calling people to worship a great God. Let’s be joyful. We can slow it down for the last song or two before we pray, receive the offering and hear the sermon. At the end of the service, let’s send people off with another upbeat, encouraging song.
  • Let’s not sing songs that even mention the devil. Yes, I hear them on occasion. He does not deserve the breath that goes into vocalizing his name, so let’s just not do it.
  • After we sing, let’s not sit down and bring the focus back onto us. We want the beginning musical portion of worship to help people “leave the streets behind.” That is, we want to help them shift their focus from their trials and burdens to Jesus and our Triune God. So often, even if we have an inspiring song service that gets our focus on God, we kill the worshipful environment by taking prayer requests (lasting 5-15 minutes, usually from the same people each week). This is a sure way to lead people away from their focus on God to focusing on themselves again. More and more GCI congregations are moving their intercessory prayer session to a small group setting before or after their worship services. And they like doing this!

The purpose of our weekly worship services is to help people enter into the eternal worship of Jesus. We want to help them enter this worship with joy. We want them to retain the worship experience throughout the service and we want to send them home with a strong sense of having encountered Jesus, anticipating his active presence in their lives. And we want people to return and encounter Jesus the following week.

Keep asking yourself, “What would a new person think about what we do and what can we do to help them worship?” Let’s be as inviting as we can enabling others to enter and enjoy the life we share with Jesus.

Sermon for February 2, 2020

Micah6:1-8 · Psalm 15:1-5 · 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 · Matthew 5:1-12

The theme for this week is the “foolish” wisdom of God; his ways are not our ways. Micah 6:1-8 narrows down all the complexity of ritual and theology to acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Psalm 15 tells about the humble, plain-speaking person, not the sophisticated or proud, who enters God’s presence. In 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Paul cuts through the fad-addiction of that community to tell them that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” The sermon is based on this passage. Finally, in Matthew 5:1-12, Jesus lays out the counter-intuitive heroes of the kingdom: the meek, the mourning, and the poor in Spirit.

Jesus Plays the Fool

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Open with a trend you remember from growing up. Whether it was bell bottoms, oat bran, heavy metal music, or hot yoga, we’ve all taken part in trends. Tell stories and use pictures—the funnier, the better.

Fads. We’ve all taken part in them. We’ve all seen them come and go. Some are embarrassing and superficial (nose-piercing) and some are more far-reaching (political movements, meditation practices). Fads appeal to the universal urge to be “in the know” or part of the “it crowd,” or simply to do something fresh and new.

There are sometimes good motivation behind fads—trying to find some new idea or new spin on an old thing. But there’s one sure thing about fads—they pass. Andy Warhol’s famous statement about “fifteen minutes of fame” is a generously long estimation of our appetite for fashion, health trends, music, gadgets and any number of things.

Paul faced this as he addressed believers in Corinth. The Corinthians were enslaved to trends. New philosophers and religious and cults came through town every week there, and everybody was trying to be the “in crowd” and follow the “new thing.”

To fully understand Paul’s letter, you have to understand Corinth. If you’re from the US, you may remember only one reference to Corinth in modern culture. Thirty years ago, Ricardo Montalban sat next to an elegant couch in a Chrysler commercial and said, “Everyone asks—Corinthian leather?”

For many of us, that was the first time we heard the word Corinthian outside of church! On the commercial, it meant upper-class quality, in the ancient world, “Corinthian” was hardly a compliment.

So today let’s look at the first part of Paul’s letter to this fledgling church. We will look at three things:

  • The cliques—we’ll look a little more at what Corinth was known for. Hint: it’s not bespoke leather.
  • The cross—how does the baffling news of the gospel fit into this Uber-sophisticated city?
  • The community—we’ll see Paul’s vision of the solution to the universal problem of being a Corinthian.

At this point, either read or have someone read I Corinthians 1:18-31.

The cliques

Corinth was a city not far from Athens and on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike its stately urban neighbor, Corinth was a young city at the time of Paul’s writing. It had been built on smoking ruins just a few generations before, so the wealth was new, the culture was new, and the people didn’t have much of a heritage.

Corinth was a port city, and tradesmen from all over the known world would come through bringing their goods and wares, as well as their philosophies and religious ideas. You could find almost anything you wanted, and you could get into all kinds of different discussions and/or arguments.

You could make and lose money very quickly in Corinth. There was no such thing as a landed aristocracy of old money in this young city. Your status wasn’t determined by your heritage, but by your wealth. With money you could buy your way in and out of different points of view, whatever appealed to you at the time.

So, you have a young city, a busy city, a wealthy city, and a transient city. Let’s just say their moral choices were a little progressive. Promiscuity, drunkenness, and general license were part of life in Corinth. In the ancient world, the slur for wild, reckless partying was to “Corinthianize.” What happened in Corinth, stayed in Corinth. The Corinth lifestyle was wild, irresponsible—fun for a night, but in the morning came the hangover and the squabbling and backbiting.

So, the fads we talked about earlier were alive and well in Corinth. The latest everything came there—the good, the bad, the tired, the new. This translated into religion as well. In the midst of all of this, Paul planted a church. The church seemed to become obsessed with a “wisdom” that Paul keeps talking about. They’ve started to split off into different cliques—each trying to be more exclusive than the next.

Paul addresses this:

What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12-13)

You follow Apollos? We follow the real guy, Paul! You follow Paul—that’s nothing, we follow Jesus. The cliques are cropping all over the place. The Corinthian people are treating the gospel like any other fad/trend/get-rich-quick-scheme that came through town.

The good news of the gospel is being chewed up and digested like every other new philosophy that appeared. They’re all trying to get to this great “wisdom,” whatever it is, and get a seat at the insider’s table.

These divisions and cliques constantly plague the human race, and we are no exception on the current day. Watch advertisements for five minutes. You’ll hear about being “first to do…” or “wear the latest…” or “we know you’re not like the others, come here…” If a copywriter really wants to really beef up a product they call it “exclusive” or “limited edition.”

Paul’s having none of it, and neither should we. He sees this one-upmanship for what it is—a symptom of sin. What’s his answer to everyone’s insider knowledge and exclusive wisdom and refined sophistication?

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (I Corinthians 1:21)

The cross

Let’s back up a few verses:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19)

The cross was a shameful way to die. In that society, it was reserved for runaway slaves and political insurrectionists. These were not just people the authorities wanted dead; these were people they wanted on display. Don’t pull any of this stuff, or you’ll be next…

The idea of the cross being a piece of jewelry or a tattoo like it is today was laughable. That’s like wearing an electric chair or a rope noose as an accessory!

As far as political movements go, Jesus was a failure like all the other rebels before him. As far as becoming a pop culture figure or some kind of philosopher star, he was a joke. As far as the messianic hope for a military genius that would free his people, he was a total loss.

By any of our measures, the cross was a disaster. The message of the cross was foolishness—and that’s exactly why it worked.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25)

God played the fool in Christ. He chose the way of humiliation and love rather than exclusivism and one-upmanship. Instead of trying to be the smartest guy in the room, he took the place of what the world considers the fool.

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are. (1 Corinthians 1:27-28)

Here’s a group of people looking for the most sophisticated, complex answer they can find, and Paul says the low and despised answer is the one. Rather than a flashy fad coming through town, rather than some conquering philosophy or god, this is the God who was conquered on the cross.

Even the substance of the answer of the gospel seems foolish. This isn’t some castle of philosophical inferences or abstract chain of logic; this is a bizarre story of state execution and a body that somehow came back from the dead. This also isn’t some wild, brain-numbing ceremony to curry favor with the far-off gods. The gospel is a transformative message that presses you into life rather than giving you an escape from it.

Translate that to our own time where fashions, trends and philosophies go by even faster because of technology and social media. The gospel is not another vague, sentimental feel-good philosophy that doesn’t demand anything. This isn’t Dr. Phil’s latest take-it-or-leave-it advice. Nor is the gospel a math formula you can put on a spreadsheet. It’s a weird story based on weirder circumstances that simply won’t go away.

The answer isn’t power, or secret knowledge, or sudden wealth. It’s the oldest answer in the book: love. Or as Paul said, “Now I will show you the most excellent way…”

Community

The cliques appear because everyone is trying to be further in the in-crowd than everyone else. The cross and resurrection breaks these ancient rules of human selfishness so much so that it broke the rules of life and death and time and space.

The answer to this fractured group is community.

Just as breaking off in factions is the symptom of sin and selfishness, so community is the indicator that God is present and in charge.

I think we see this only in moments in this life: when everyone in the room is celebrated and loved, when no one is trying to win or be the center of attention. How sweet it is though, to be free of our ego’s demands for a while and enjoy others the way God enjoys them.

One great example of this is the life of Henri Nouwen—a priest, writer and professor. He wrote some modern spiritual classics and taught at the most sophisticated institutions in America: Harvard, Yale, etc. But he finally found home at the L’arche community—a residential facility for those with mental and developmental disabilities. He lived and worked there for the last ten years of his life, where he found the community of love he’d sought for decades.

He said of the bonds there:

I also realized that handicapped people didn’t love or care for me because I write books or take trips. They don’t know that. If they express love, it comes from God. When I came to L’Arche, my whole life was tired. But God said, “I love you. I want you to hold you.” Finally God had the chance to really hug me and lay divine hands onto my heart through this community. (Nouwen—The Road to Peace)

Nouwen had been on the inside of the in-crowd, the most sophisticated people on earth. He was internationally famous and had spoken before thousands. And where he finally found peace and found Jesus again was in the company of folks without the mental capacity to appreciate that. People who would have been called “fools” a hundred years ago. They didn’t care about Henri’s amazing career, they just loved him.

So here’s true community, one of the major signs that God is present. This is the community of the One who, in his crowning moment, washed feet. This is the community of the One whose kingdom wasn’t up on the latest trends and whose crown was made of thorns.

When he’s here, all are celebrated and no one is excluded from some special crowd. When Jesus is here, everyone is blessed.

  • The cliques—Paul’s letter was to a church dividing up into factions following certain leaders. Their sinful behavior came out in a religious guise. Does our worldliness ever hide behind our godliness? It loves to.
  • The cross—have you ever been scandalized by the cross? Has Jesus used the people we least suspect, the circumstances that least make sense to deliver us and draw us deeper into Himself? Verse 29: … the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.
  • The community—look around you. Would you have chosen this “family” if the Spirit hadn’t brought you together? Through all the splitting and fighting in the centuries of church history, one of the enduring miracles is that the church still stands.

By way of benediction, let’s read Paul’s discussion of “the most excellent way” in 1 Corinthians 13. As much as these words are read at weddings, they actually describe God and help us see the what true community can look like—and will look like when Jesus is in the room.

Read 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. The way you do this depends on your church community. The pastor could read it, or you could read it “in the round”—one verse per reader until you’re done. A more ambitious possibility is to chose a few readers. If possible, in the spirit of Paul’s words, have a diverse group of ages, races, disabilities, men/women.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life:

  • What went through your mind when you heard Greg referred to the Bible as literature? What other genres are in the Bible?
  • Some have used “The Sermon on the Mount” and “The Sermon on the Plain” to show the Bible contradicts itself. How would you explain these two sermons?
  • Greg said Jesus speaks words of forgiveness and words of hope. Is there a time when you wonder if this is true? Share what he meant when he asked if we were listening to Jesus’ words.

From the Sermon:

  • Do you remember any embarrassing, short-term trends from your lifetime? Whether it was a trendy juice cleanse, stonewashed jeans, or political movements, we have all taken part in trends. Share one that impacted you.
  • Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. The Corinthian community is eaten up by trend-following and that’s what Paul is confronting. As you read Paul’s words, what do think he’s dealing with? How do you think this affects the church?
  • Have you seen this kind of issue affect you in your own life and the church?
  • 1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. What do you think Paul means by the message of the cross being “foolishness”?
  • Have you experienced “true community” before in which everyone is appreciated, and no one is vying for center stage? What brought you there?
  • How can you be part of bringing in God’s kingdom of unity and harmony this week?

Quote to ponder:

There is a place for everyone – a unique, special place. Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart. —Henri Nouwen

 

Sermon for February 9, 2020

Isaiah 58:1-12 • Psalm 112:1-9 • I Cor. 2:1-12 • Matthew 5:13-20

The theme this week is our generosity to others brings glory to God. The Psalmist points out the blessings of being generous and gracious to others; it helps us grow stronger in our relationship with God. The prophet Isaiah uses the illustration of fasting to remind us the reason we fast (humble ourselves) is not for our glory, but to grow closer to God and see opportunity to love and serve others. Matthew reminds us this is why we are the salt of the earth, and a light on a hill, so others see our good works and give glory to God. Paul tells the church in Corinth that manifestations of the Spirit—spiritual gifts—are given for the common good, to be a blessing to others.

Not-So-Random Acts of Kindness

Matthew 5:13-16, Isaiah 58:1-12

Start the sermon by sharing a random act of kindness someone did for you, or you were inspired to do for someone else. Ask the members to share when they’ve experienced a random act of kindness.

Random Acts of Kindness Day is February 17th in the US, and its origins are said to have been at a California restaurant in 1982. Writer Anne Herbert supposedly wrote the sentence “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” on a restaurant place mat in 1982. Later, Herbert wrote a children’s book titled Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty, which was published posthumously in 2016.

The nonprofit foundation Random Acts of Kindness was established in 1995 through a private endowment with the mission to inspire others to make spreading kindness a priority. They fulfill their mission by offering free online resources to encourage and educate about the power of kindness to change our world. The foundation coined the term “RAKtivist,” which means “a Random Acts of Kindness activist,” and from the stories shared at the beginning, some of you may have experienced the work of a RAKtivist.

Research has documented that when we show kindness, it sets off positive physical reactions in our bodies. The love hormone oxytocin and natural painkillers endorphins are released, and people have more confidence and energy. The stress hormone cortisol and blood pressure are reduced, and those who show kindness have less depression and anxiety. They may even live longer.

Having a day to recognize the power of kindness is great, but if showing kindness can produce so many positive benefits, why are we thinking about it only one day out of the year? Could it be that God knew the benefits of acts of kindness? Could it be that we’ve looked at some of his words and seen rules, when he was really giving us means to living better lives?

For example, when we read Matthew 5, what comes to mind, burden or blessing? In other words, is righteous living simply a requirement for Christians, or does it have another purpose?

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16 NRSV)

Note the reason we let our light shine: So others can see our good works and praise God for them. They see that our works are not to bring glory to the self, but to help them have a clearer picture of who God is. Our good works illuminate God’s goodness.

When Paul tells the church at Corinth about spiritual gifts, he makes it clear why we are given these gifts. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NRSV). God gives us gifts so we can be a blessing to others.

It’s easy for believers to think of kindness as a lesser gift, or to give kindness a lower priority than other spiritual practices, like prayer, Bible study, or church attendance. In this, we’re not alone. Even the ancient people of Judah struggled to understand what constitutes righteousness. Let’s look at Isaiah 58, verses 1-12.

Read the passage or select verses from passage.

Notice that the people of Judah were fasting from food, but then they were fighting with each other. The prophet reminds them the purpose of fasting–to show kindness and relieve the burdens that others carry. The passage from Isaiah also shows that kindness positively impacts you, those you are kind to, and the world, much like the scientific research about kindness has revealed.

What can we learn about righteous living from today’s passages?

  • Righteous living isn’t about bringing attention to ourselves, it is to bring attention to the goodness of God. Many suffer from misguided and misinformed views of who God is. Many see God as a stern judge who is looking for reasons to condemn and sentence. Righteous living gives a different view of God. We show that we love him because he first loved us. Our lives demonstrate peace that surpasses understanding. We follow the new commandment of loving others as he loves us.
  • Righteous living has more to do with how we love others than how holy or moral we are. It’s not that God is opposed to fasting or humbling oneself or any other spiritual disciplines. It’s just that loving others by showing kindness at every opportunity has a far greater reach in changing the world for the better. We could invest all our energies in a personal, self-improvement project, or we could watch for opportunities to show kindness to others and find ourselves changed for the better in the process. Since God is all about relationships, it makes sense that the most growth would happen in the context of relationship.
  • Real righteous living satisfies others’ needs as well as our own. When we are attentive to opportunities to show kindness to others, we end up nourishing our own health and well-being. Rather than feeling like we can grow spiritually only with activities requiring solitude, we begin to see that community and solitude are both necessary components of a balanced life.

Application:

  • Ask God to help you see opportunities to share love and kindness with others. Sometimes we get so busy with life, we don’t see the needs right in front of us. It’s good to ask God to help us see others as he sees them, and then to help us love them just as they are. Show kindness, even when it is least expected.
  • Build a margin of time into your life. Far too often, we time our lives down to the minute as we move through our daily activities, and when we do that, we don’t have time to help anyone. Worse yet, as we are so busy we don’t even notice opportunities to help. By building in a few extra minutes whenever we are going someplace, we have the time to work random acts of kindness into our daily routine.
  • Make sure your kindness helps another retain his or her dignity. While sometimes giving money or buying something for someone is appropriate, it could also diminish their self-respect, so it’s important to be sensitive to that. In one story shared on the Random Acts of Kindness website, one person shared that as an elementary school student, her family was poor, and while the school offered a free lunch program, they didn’t handle it very tactfully. When the teacher was collecting the lunch money for the day, anyone who couldn’t pay had to call out “Free.” This embarrassed her, so she would skip lunch. The bus driver must have heard about her situation, but instead of simply giving her money, he told her he needed help opening the doors when kids got on the bus in the morning and making sure all the kids got off the bus once they arrived at school. She was the last person off the bus, after she made sure all the other kids had exited, and the bus driver paid her a quarter each day. She never had to skip lunch again after that.

Challenge yourself to watch for not-so-random acts of kindness, and make kindness the language of love you speak to your family and to the world! In so doing, you bring glory to God.

Other helpful links:

http://www.ifcj.org/assets/pdfs/IS58-ATrueFast-Devotionals-A.pdf

https://www.thelehrhaus.com/timely-thoughts/yom-kippur-fasting-and-the-poor-considering-the-message-of-isaiah-58/

 


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Reading this selection from Isaiah, it sounds like God is responding harshly to those who focus on their personal holiness to the exclusion of their relationships with others. While contemplative practices like prayer, Bible study, and meditation are important and discussed in other parts of Scripture, why do you think the passage highlights the way the people of Judah were interacting with others? In other words, how should spiritual disciplines like prayer, study, and meditation influence our relationships?
  • Isaiah 58 is often read as part of the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, an annual day of fasting. Hebrew scholars notice that the passage uses puns or wordplay to contradict a personal fast with the practice of feeding the hungry or wearing sackcloth (as a gesture of humility) with the practice of clothing those who are naked. By using literary techniques contrasting the limitations of personal practice with the far-reaching impact of replacing others’ affliction by a personal response, readers can see that the passage is helping readers move beyond legalistic ideas and toward greater understanding of community.
    • How can our own experiences of hunger, disappointment, grief, and loss make us more compassionate toward those in our community?
    • How do these experiences help us become more aware of others’ suffering?
  • Random Acts of Kindness Day is February 17th each year in the US. Does anyone have a story about how someone showed you kindness on Feb. 17th or another day of the year?
  • Showing kindness to others does not always mean a financial donation. What are ways we can be kind to others that don’t cost anything?

Sermon for February 16, 2020

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 • Psalm 119:1-8 • 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 • Matthew 5:21-37

The theme this week is the community of God. Each passage discusses the ideals and vision of what it means to be part of God’s family. Deuteronomy 30:15-20 discusses the giving of the law as the path of true life—truly being the community of God. Psalm 119:1-8 talks about walking in the way of the Lord and the joy of the community that does. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Paul encourages the church community that they are God’s building, God’s field, united by love and kingdom purpose. The sermon this week is on Matthew 5:21-37, in which Jesus lays out the connection between broken relationships with others and a broken relationship with God.

Take a Deep Breath

Matthew 5:21-37 NRSV

Carbon monoxide is often called the silent killer. It’s odorless, invisible and non-irritating to your throat. You don’t even notice it’s there, while it is wreaking havoc inside of you. The symptoms, when they do come, look like other things. You might think you have the flu, or you’re just fatigued. If the levels are high enough, the exposure can be fatal. Carbon monoxide attaches itself to your blood cells and crowds them so that oxygen can’t bond to them and support your organs. In the end, it’s not because there’s bad stuff attacking your body. It’s just that the good stuff—life-giving oxygen—can’t get in.

The symptoms are an outward sign of a deeper poisoning going on inside you. Carbon monoxide poisoning provides a good illustration of what Jesus was presenting in what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus is sharing what the kingdom looks like and how people act when God is fully in charge. He talks about not just the symptoms of sin, but the root causes—the deeper work of sin in each of us.

In this passage Jesus points out that the obvious sins—like murder and adultery—are just outward symptoms of a deeper poisoning going on. He tells us the symptoms aren’t what needs to go—the sickness needs to cured.

So let’s look at Jesus’ most famous sermon and see what we can learn about the cure. The carbon monoxide poison of sin—insidious, invisible—can only be cleansed by putting the good stuff in.

Let’s frame the scene here. Jesus speaks to the people on a mountain, which is highly significant for Matthew. In his Gospel, his emphasis is on Jesus as the new Moses. Moses received the ways of God, the Ten Commandments, on a mountain. See the parallel?

There’s a verse just before our passage here that helps us understand details like Matthew’s mountain setting and the way Jesus talks in this passage.

Jesus says in verse 17:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. (Matthew 5:17 NRSV)

Jesus didn’t come to abolish the laws of God, given by Moses and worked out in the Old Testament, but to complete them, to fulfill them, to bring that final dimension to the picture. Jesus never once says to disregard or cast off the law, but that he came to show us what the law was about.

And so Jesus talks here not just about these symptoms that the laws addressed, but about the poisoning below the surface, the infection that’s been there for a long time.

“You have heard it said…but I say to you…”is a formula he uses over and over. Jesus was using a rhetorical practice of the time that would lay out a one-dimensional interpretation of a passage and then follow it with a more substantial reading.

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22, NRSV)

Here he addresses murder. All of us might be listening and think, “Ah, wake me up when this part’s over, I’ve never killed anyone!” But Jesus takes us deeper to look at where murder comes from—hate and sin and rage.

We might think: lighten up, Jesus! Everybody’s harbored some resentments here and there. You can’t make it very far through life without being at least tempted to hate someone.

But Jesus is talking about the carbon monoxide here—the stealthy poison of hate and rage that ruins us inside.

Here’s an example: On a summer day a few years ago, Dylan Roof walked into a church during a prayer meeting and killed nine people. The act was brutal, senseless, and took all of a few minutes.

In the investigation that followed, police found pages and pages of racist rhetoric on Dylan’s private websites. They found pictures of him with Nazi flags and racist slogans. Dylan didn’t just decide to kill people one day, it started with hate and rage. The poisoning started in a subtle, insidious way and eventually the oxygen went out of him.

An old bit of wisdom rings true here: “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”

and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

This is translated directly as “You nothing” or “You empty.” This is thinking we are so wise and so all-seeing that can call someone “nothing.” It is saying that a person, whom God created and dearly loves, amounts to nothing.

Jesus says it’s great that you’ve never murdered anyone, congratulations. However, hating and hurting others leads us to that slow death, the slow and torturous murder of sin. We put ourselves over others and write them off as “nothing,” and that’s where poisoning starts.

At this point, you might think: okay, where’s the good news? And that’s the million-dollar question. Most of us haven’t murdered anyone or committed adultery, but all of us have disliked or insulted someone or had lustful thoughts. If you say you never have, then that’s lying and that’s no good either!

The good news is Jesus. All of us have been trapped in a battle with sin nature and cannot save ourselves. Jesus is reminding us of this, not to discourage us, but to point to himself as the answer.

Jesus’ message over and over is that he is the Savior and that we NEED one. The Law of Moses was a guide and helper, but in the end it showed us in vivid terms how badly we need a Savior. As soon as Moses came down the mountain and presented the commandments to us, we started breaking them.

Now Jesus tells us the heart and mind behind those infractions is where the real problem lies. Who’s safe? Who’s sinless? No one! No one who has lived in history except Jesus has hit the mark. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! We have a Savior!

Like the carbon monoxide that crowds your blood cells and chokes you, the only solution is life-giving oxygen. The only solution is to bring something good in—to breathe in the Spirit of God. We can’t heal ourselves by our own positive thinking or determination, we need something—in this case someone—new to come in.

Let’s look back at our passage. Jesus continues:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24 NRSV)

Jesus takes faith out of the realm of some private thing you do in your spare time. In the surrounding culture in Jesus’ day, religion was a matter of buying off the many gods with gifts and festivals. In the Jewish culture, it could become a private matter of traditions and theologizing. In our day, faith can become our inner prayer life and our therapeutic relationship with God.

And Jesus says, if your faith isn’t reflected in your relationship with others, I’m not interested. If your vertical relationship with God doesn’t shake out in your horizontal relationship with others, neither direction is working.

Leave your gift at the altar. Leave right in the middle of your worship and go and make peace. Jesus is connecting the two realities he said sum up at the law and the prophets: love the Lord your God and love your neighbor.

He goes on:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30 NRSV)

Here Jesus is addressing another of the obvious symptom sins—adultery. This is a life-wrecker that’s been around since marriage has been around. So much so that it’s an eye-rolling cliché in the movies.

Again, the temptation here is to pat ourselves on the back and say: “Been faithful for twenty years!” But Jesus goes deeper to show the root cause behind the symptom of adultery—the lustful thoughts of the mind and heart.

Let’s look at the context again. In that society at the time, adultery was only a problem with the husband of the woman involved. A husband could have something on the side with an unmarried woman, but if his paramour was married, the problem he faced was with her husband. Essentially, she was property and the problem was he was using someone else’s property. It was a matter of the offended husband’s honor.

Into this sickened system Jesus speaks a radically feminist idea. Honor doesn’t enter into it. If you lust after a woman, your problem is with God and with her. That was revolutionary for the time.

Jesus essentially says that your honor or anyone else’s honor isn’t the issue here, the issue is your relationship with God and others. When you exploit someone made in God’s image—even mentally—you break those relationships.

Jesus uses hyperbole to say that it would be better to lose your right eye if it gets you into trouble. In that society, it was dishonoring to have lost your right eye. This was used as punishment to dishonor a defeated enemy (see 1 Samuel 11:2). Jesus says that your relationship with God and others matters more than your honor. It’s better for you to be disgraced and embarrassed than to lose that.

Again, Jesus exposes that carbon monoxide. This odorless, colorless poison of sin that gets into our system long before the obvious symptoms appear.

So how do we get the poison out? We bring the good stuff in. Jesus breathes his life into us. He breathes his Spirit into us and continues to do so through the church community, his Word, and serving his kingdom.

Breathe deeply today of God’s grace and love for you. Breathe deeply of the truths of Scripture and the encouragement of your community. The poison of sin is always waiting and can enter and choke us, but the divine resuscitation of God is more powerful than you can ever imagine.

Suggestion: use the song Breathe Deep by the Lost Dogs as a closing meditation https://youtu.be/JSZoDqZ2LEE

 

 


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life:
  • What is a modern-day version of “I belong to Paul or I belong to Apollos”?
  • Share an example of “one-up-man-ship” you were a part of, or victim of.
  • Explain what Greg means by “refreshing voices.”
From the Sermon: Read: Matt. 5:21-37
  • Can you imagine what it was like to be at the Sermon on the Mount? Would you be confused? Excited? What do you think the crowd was like?
  • The sermon compares the deeper levels of sin, which Jesus addresses in this passage, as carbon monoxide poisoning. Why is it that internal poisoning behind the obvious sin is so hard to detect?
  • The sermon talks about how our horizontal relationship with others affects our vertical relationship with God. Has this been your experience? Why and how does one affect the other? (See verses 23-25)
  • In vv. 27-30, Jesus makes the radical suggestion that adultery and lust are an offense against a woman and God, not just the offended husband. Jesus stood up for vulnerable people constantly—women, Samaritans, poor people, prostitutes. Why do you think he did? How can we take a stance like this in our day? Who can we stand up for?
  • The poison of sin can be driven out only by the Spirit if God, yet we live in a world that believes our own human goodness is enough to get us through. How is the Christian answer different than the world’s answer?
Quote to ponder: “The basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works, but rather who God is.” —Stanley Hauerwas, Christian ethicist and philosopher

Sermon for February 23, 2020 Transfiguration Sunday

Ex.24:12-18 • Psalm 99:1-9 • 2 Peter 1:16-21 • Matthew 17:1-9

The theme this week is the Lordship of Jesus. Throughout Scripture, we see the power and majesty of the Son of God. In Exodus 24, we read of Moses returning to the mountain to receive the tablets of stone upon which God had written the law and the commandments. There “the glory of the Lord settled,” and it was “like a devouring fire.” The Psalmist writes about the Lord being king and sitting among the cherubim. Moses, Aaron and Samuel called upon him and he answers—speaking to them in the “pillar of cloud.” In Peter’s letter, he talks about being an eyewitness of Jesus’ majesty and the Father acknowledging Jesus as the “Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew shares the story of the Transfiguration, showing Jesus is the one to be listened over Moses and Elijah.

The Unified Opposites of Wholeness

Matthew 17:1-9

How many of you like chocolate-covered pretzels? Why do you like them? That’s right—it’s the combination of sweet and salty that makes them so tasty. Or you might like the softness of the chocolate over the crunchiness of the pretzel. You find the same pairing of opposites with a good margarita—sweet with a salty rim—or with salted caramels. Many like sweet and sour sauce that comes with some Asian dishes.

There are also words that can mean opposite ideas. Consider the noun “dust” and the verb “dust.” In one case, we’re talking about dirt lying around and in the other we mean the removal of that dirt. “Left” can mean leaving or it can mean remaining, like this sentence: I left to go shopping, and my husband was left behind. In these words, two opposite ideas are held, and depending on the context or situation, we define them accordingly.

Even commonly held ideas have a truthful opposite. For example, in any relationship, communication or talking is important. But at the same time, we yearn for the comfort of a relationship where we can just sit together in silence and not feel like we always have to talk.

Likewise, we might pride ourselves on our willingness and ability to help others as a sign of our strength, but we can consider that it is also a sign of strength to reach out and ask for help when we need it or to be a willing recipient when someone wants to help us.

In our Christian walk, we feel weak in our brokenness, but it is that very brokenness that leads us to finding strength in Christ. Jesus tells us in order to find him, we need to deny ourselves. To gain life, we need to take up the symbol of death—the cross. In order to save our lives, we need to lose our lives. When we lose our lives for Christ, we find our lives.

Six days after making these points to his disciples, Matthew tells us the story of the Transfiguration. I believe God uses this to reveal how humanity, with all its brokenness and weaknesses, is made whole and complete in Jesus. This is symbolized by the appearance of Moses and Elijah in this vision. Let’s read the story:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (NRSV)

What does this vision mean for us?

  • We see more clearly that our wholeness is found in Jesus, not in our own efforts. In the first three verses of the passage, the main point is the word “transfigured,” which is the Greek word metamorphoo (pronounced—meta-mor-phaw-o—and the root of our word “metamorphosis”). This same word is used by Paul in Romans 12:1-2, where we are told to “be transformed by the renewing” of our minds. The word indicates a great change, and in Jesus’s case, the Transfiguration showed his glory as part of the Triune God. In the same way that Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the Law and the hope of the prophets by revealing his glory as God the Son, so he also instills confidence in his ability to transform broken humanity. We are not saved or transformed by the law or the prophets (Moses and Elijah)—we are saved and transformed in Jesus. We are to listen to him; follow him; be transformed by his presence.
  • The transfiguration shows us that death has no powerit has no power over Jesus, and if it has no power over Jesus, then it has no power over us. The Transfiguration revealed Jesus’s true nature, the Son of God. By Moses and Elijah being present, it also showed they were not bound by the power of death. This had to have given the disciples some measure of comfort when they later watched Jesus go through the crucifixion. At the very least, they could reflect on the experience after Jesus’s resurrection and put the pieces together. We can view this experience as a glimpse of the hope of glory we share in Jesus where death has no power over us.

Application:

  • We don’t beat ourselves up when negative emotions or habits raise their ugly heads. While we don’t want to excuse behaviors that hurt ourselves or others, and we acknowledge that such patterns sometimes require professional help or counseling, it does us good to see that in Jesus, any dichotomies we experience are brought together and transformed. As Paul tells us in his letter to Corinth, in Christ we are new—a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.
  • Our lives are hidden in Christ. We can communicate his unconditional love and acceptance by the way we do not hold grudges against others when they offend us. While we do not subject ourselves to abusive treatment from others, we operate from the perspective that people are a mix of strengths and weaknesses and that extending grace is always the best option.
  • We are quick to comfort and encourage when others fear they are too broken. Jesus comforted the disciples with his words and his touch when they were overcome with fear at God’s voice from the cloud (v. 7). We, too, can comfort one another when we and others are overwhelmed by life’s struggles and constant changes and face-to-face with our limited ability to cope. We can use our own experiences and shortcomings to show others they are not alone in their troubles, and we can point them to the Comforter who resides in their hearts, the Holy Spirit.

The Transfiguration is a revelation of wholeness that is only found through Jesus, who transforms us by taking our brokenness and our strengths into himself and making a new creation. Opposites are brought together in Jesus, and just as he fulfilled the expectations of the Law and the laments of the Prophets, he takes pieces of our lives and repurposes them in glory.


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life
  • When you hear the phrase “opposites attract,” what comes to mind?
  • Explain the phrase in terms of your spiritual life. (Think Paul’s words, “What I want to do, I don’t do. What I don’t want to do, that is what I do.”
From the Sermon
  • In your own life, can you think of a situation where a commonly held idea also has a truthful opposite? For example, saving money is usually a commendable practice, but so is generosity. How does it look to approach such opposites with a unified wholeness?
  • In verse 4, Peter offered to create dwellings for Moses, Jesus, and Elijah. Though we don’t know his motivation, we could assume that he wanted to honor Moses, Jesus, and Elijah, and maybe he thought this vision was going to stick around for a while. Yet in the blink of an eye, a voice came from the bright cloud, and the vision was gone. Can you think of a time when you thought God wanted you to follow a particular path and then it changed? How did you handle your shock and/or disappointment?
  • How does Jesus’s glorified state (v. 2) give us confidence in his ability to unify and transform us? How does remembering the Transfiguration help us encourage one another when we stumble?
  • Sometimes we find it difficult to extend grace to others. What ideas do you have to help work through hurt feelings and other negative emotions so that you can extend grace to others?