Mission Possible sermon series – #1 Connecting People to God and Each Other

This week, I’m starting a sermon series on our new Vision and Mission Statements. I’m very excited to preach these sermons and I hope they help articulate the meaning behind our statements. I also hope they help ground our sermons in the love of Jesus and our desire to follow him more fully. I believe God has great things in store for Crestwood!

SCRIPTURE – John 1:35-51 – The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed. He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

SERMON
Mission Possible sermon series
#1 – Connecting People to God and Each Other
Sept. 7, 2014

Who ARE you? If someone who didn’t know you asked you that question, how would you answer? You’d give them your name, for sure, but then what else would you say about yourself to help them begin to understand who you are? Would you tell them where you live? What kind of work you do or did? Would you tell them about your hobbies, your family, maybe even your church? How do YOU know who you are?

Last week in our congregational meeting we approved adopting our new Vision and Mission statements, which you can find on the front of your bulletin. I think they are excellent statements, but they are only words on the page until we decide to live them out in our lives and in the life of this church. So starting today we’re going to explore those statements in much more depth, beginning with the Vision Statement: Connecting people to God and each other.

Who are you? Jesus asked those kinds of provocative questions, didn’t he? Do you want to be well? Why are you afraid? Who do you say that I am? Jesus had a way of skipping the small talk about the weather and cutting to a person’s soul. In our scripture reading today, Jesus asks a similarly striking question to a couple of John’s disciples. John had been preaching and baptizing, and was popular enough to attract a crowd of followers. But he was quick to point out that he was only the opening act. The main attraction, the Lamb of God, was on his way. When Jesus arrives, John points him out and two of John’s disciples began following him. Jesus turned to them and said, “What are you looking for?” They answered, “Where are you staying?” and Jesus said, “Come and see.”

What are you looking for? I believe the disciples were looking for much more than a place to sleep or a quick cup of coffee with Jesus.  I believe what the two disciples were truly looking for was themselves. They were looking for a new understanding of who they were apart from the way their society defined them – lower class, blue-collar, manual laborers, riff raff. They wanted to know themselves in a deeper, more existential way and they believed Jesus could show them the way.

I believe the question “Who am I?” has been the driving force behind the human condition for centuries. Our search to know ourselves, to find our place in this world by naming and claiming our identity, has been a struggle for us ever since we were created. We are told in the beginning of the Bible that we are created in the image of God, and yet we can think and do such depraved, destructive things. So who are we? Are we gods? Are we devils? Are we a little bit of both?

You know, for a long time, this question didn’t really matter. For centuries before and after Jesus, a person’s individual identity was really of no consequence. You were defined in predetermined ways – what tribe you belonged to, the town in which you lived, your family connections. That’s why when Nathanael hears about Jesus he responds, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Jesus was defined by where he lived, a backwater town with a bad reputation. All people from Nazareth were no good. There was no sense of individualism.

This continued on into the Middle Ages, when people were often defined by their connections to other things, like jobs and family. My last name, Wilcoxson, means that I am the son of Will Cox. Now, that will surprise the heck out of my dad because his name isn’t Will Cox. But somewhere in my history, an ancestor of mine was known as the son of Will Cox. Many other names are connected to jobs – Carpenter, Bailey, Smith – or family – Johnson, Richardson, etc.

Well, all that changed when we got to the Enlightenment. The wealth of knowledge made available through new discoveries in science, medicine, and engineering also stirred up curiosity about the Self. Probably the most famous proclamation of the time came from French philosopher Rene Descartes, who asserted, “I think, therefore I am.” Suddenly, none of your external connections mattered. Regardless of your job, your family, or your social status, because you had a brain, you were your own person, no longer restricted by societal boundaries. According to Descartes, because he has a brain, Mr. Nobody can become Mr. Somebody.

Oh boy, here we go! Did we take this idea and run with it or what? Once we realized we had a say in who we were, we’ve never stopped talking. I believe our sense of identity has slowly transformed as our ability to define ourselves individually, apart from a particular community, has grown. Leigh and I were lamenting the other day that our girls don’t know their cousins as well as we wished they did, whereas Leigh and I grew up with very close relationships to our extended family. With the ability to move fluidly around the country and around the world, we are no longer geographically tied to a certain place we can call home or a group of people who are with us our whole lives. Without those anchors to ground us, how do we answer the question, “Who am I?”

In today’s world, we often don’t answer that question, but let our culture answer it for us. As Diana Butler Bass says, “We have lost any real sense of self in a world of broken memories, entertaining technologies, and frenzied materialism. We are reconstructing our sense of self through nostalgia or consumerism.” In other words, in a world that presents a myriad of competing images about who we should be – a certain kind of dresser, eater, shopper, etc. – we build a persona from the buffet of choices we’re given. But with so many options of who to be, how in the world do we figure out who we really ARE? Who ARE you?

That is where our Vision Statement comes in. I believe the only way to truly answer that question can be found in what theologian Paul Tillich called “the ground of our being,” that which anchors us in the midst of life’s swirling storms. We are created in the image of God, the God who came to Moses and told him to go to Egypt and free the Israelites. Moses hemmed and hawed and stuttered and stammered, asking, “But who do I say sent me to do this?” And God says, “Tell them I AM sent you.” Do you see the answer to our question? All the wanderings to find our Self – “Who am I?” – should lead us to the one who is named “I AM.”As Butler Bass says, “God’s being and human beings are intimately related.”

Church should be the place where that interconnectedness is rediscovered. That’s what happened for me. When I was in college, searching for myself, struggling to forge my identity, my mom said, “I think you’d like our church. Come and see.” She didn’t beg or bribe or threaten to ground me. “Come and see.” So I went. I found people like Rick Burch and Joanne Robbins and Don and Joan Allen who accepted me and helped me take the next step in my faith journey. I found a God who loved me for who I was but called me to be something greater. And ultimately, I found myself.

Our world, as it pulls us in a hundred different directions, unravels our core identity, causing us to forget who we are and Whose we are. Butler Bass says we need to be stitched back together into a new whole, fundamentally defining our identity by providing a new answer the question, “Who am I?” that is informed and transformed by the experience of being in a community of faith. What are people out there looking for? They are looking for themselves. And they will find it here.

But the question really isn’t just “Who am I?” The question really is “Who am I in Christ?” How does the fact that I’m created by God change my self-understanding? And then, if we’re brave enough, the next question to ask is, “Who is Christ in me?” What does Jesus look like to others when I live out my faith in this world? Our identity cannot be confined to or determined solely by us, because we’ll screw that up in a heartbeat. Our identity is inextricably linked to the One who created us. That’s who we are, that’s how we are connected to God. We just need to be reminded of that every so often, every Sunday, or even every day.

But we can’t stop there, because there’s this little monkey wrench called “other people” that we have to throw into the mix. We can’t just be in relationship with God. We still have to buy groceries and call customer service and pass the communion trays. So not only should the church connect people to God, but it must also foster connections between and among people. Ah, now it starts to get tricky, because those connections don’t always work, do they? I mean, I love being in relationship with other people, at least until they do or say something that really honks me off, which happens about every day. Then it’s a lot easier to sever that connection and go back inside, to forgo the hard work of being connected to others.

But here’s the thing. To live out this vision, to welcome people into the church, means connecting them with this beautiful looking but imperfect community. It means being willing to let the image of God in us bump up against the image of God in someone else. It means pooling our collective gifts and resources, binding them together, and then figuring out what we can do to make this world a little more like Heaven it can be and a little less like Hell it is.

Butler Bass says, “The church is not an institution, an organization, or a building, but a community of relationships where people’s selves are with God and with one another, bound by love.” If God is love, as the Bible tells us, and we are made in the image of God, then we are made to show that Godly love. And, as theologian Emil Brunner says, “Love can only operate in community, and only in loving can people be truly human.” In other words, it’s only when we act out the image of Godly love inside of us that we can truly know who we are.

Who are you? I don’t mean to imply that you can ever fully answer that question. We are so much more than we’ll ever know. But by grounding ourselves in the context of our creator and our fellow creatures, we are taking the steps toward discovering who we were created to be and what we’re supposed to do about it. Our vision is to connect people to God and to each other. That means we have to trust that we can work through the doubts and the messiness and the hurt feelings and the hard questions to forge a relationship with each other and with the living God we have come to know through Jesus Christ. There is a world out there that is desperately looking for something, searching for the answer to the question, “Who AM I?” Let’s introduce them to the great I AM, who made us in God’s image to be in life-giving relationships with each other. It doesn’t matter how tarnished that image is within you. It doesn’t matter how many relationships have failed. You belong to God and have the power of God’s love and grace within you. Now, live like you believe that. That’s who we are and who we are called to be.

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