Sunday, October 04, 2009

A Place of Acceptance -- Core Values Sermon 3


Jonah 4:1-11

If you want to insult a chef or cook, tell them that the dinner was “fine.” Why? Because the word “fine” means: “it was edible, but I’ve had better.” Yes, the word “fine” means “tolerable” or “acceptable.” It could have been worse, but it also could have been better.

When you hear the words accept or accepting, do you hear the words “fine” or “tolerable”? Do you hear a sigh of resignation in these words? If you do, hopefully that’s not what you hear in the core value that we focus on today. Hopefully, what you hear in these words is something positive and dynamic. Instead of resignation and toleration, I hope you hear words like including, welcoming, and embracing.

1. What a Day to think about being an Accepting Missional Congregation:

It may be fortuitous that today is both World Communion Sunday and Reconciliation Sunday. To top it off, we will also be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address, a document that launched a movement of Christian unity, by participating this afternoon in the celebration of the Great Communion. In this service, we will be sharing at the table with brothers and sisters not only from other Disciples churches, but also brothers and sisters from the Churches of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches. The message of Thomas Campbell is that not only is the church one, but we should embrace each other as Christ has embraced us, and not let anything divide us from one another. Certainly this message is something to lift up and celebrate.

World Communion Sunday carries a similar message, but it points, beyond our own movement to the breadth of the Christian community around the world. As we gather at the table, we remember that whether we’re meeting in mud huts or grand cathedrals, homes or store fronts, when we gather at the Lord’s Table, we share together in the oneness that Jesus proclaimed in the Garden – that even as he and the Father are one, so are we (John 17).

As we take the Reconciliation offering today, we remember that as Disciples, we have been called to be an “anti-racist, pro-reconciling” church. As we consider acceptance as a core congregational value, let us reflect on the theme of this year’s offering: “Many Members, One Table.” And the text for this year’s offering speaks directly to our conversation today about being an accepting, welcoming, embracing, inclusive community of faith. Hear the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 12:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12-13)

What Paul is saying here is that it doesn’t matter what your ethnicity or your economic status, in Christ, there is but one body. And although Paul only lists two pairs of relationships, we could add some more – male and female, young and old, gay or straight – in Christ we are one body.

2. God’s Way or Jonah’s

As we consider what it means to be an “accepting” church, in the light of the confluence of this day’s observances, there is another story to consider – the story of Jonah and his “ministry” in Nineveh. I expect that most of us know at least part of this story about God sending Jonah to Nineveh to preach. As you may know, Jonah didn’t want to go, and so he got on a ship and headed off in the opposite direction. But, God kept after him, and when a storm came up the crew of his ship threw him overboard, he got swallowed by a big fish, and ended up in Nineveh anyway. Knowing he couldn’t evade God’s call, he, quite reluctantly, called on the Ninevites to repent, which they did, and then God relented from punishing them. This is exactly why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. He didn’t like the Ninevites and he wanted God to destroy them, but he knew that God is gracious and merciful, and that if they repented, God would spare them. In the final chapter of the story, we find Jonah sitting glumly looking at the city, upset that God didn’t destroy Nineveh.

So what does Jonah have to say to us? In this story, I hear two ways of looking at the world. One is narrow and the other is open and inclusive. Jonah took on his job reluctantly, because, unlike God, he wasn’t willing to embrace the Ninevites as his brothers and sisters. He ran away, though, because he understood that God saw things differently. As Jonah says to God:

“I knew you were a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).
I knew you were a welcoming, gracious, and loving God – but that’s just not me. So, as we look into the future, the question is: which of these models will be our guide? Jonah or God? Jonah represents a world view that is focused on one’s self, while God seems concerned about the welfare of the other – like the ones in Nineveh, that great city where the residents didn’t know right from left.

3. Being a welcoming church

The Disciples identity statement suggests that we are a “movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.” It also suggests that the Table of the Lord is the place at which this wholeness will be experienced – we who are hurting, divided, estranged, separated, can become one in Christ.

The story of Jonah is a parable about ethnic and religious superiority. It speaks to a view of the world that wants to build walls rather than bridges. And too often, the church gets caught up in wall building, rather than bridge building. The story of Jonah reminds us that God is in the bridge building business. As Paul writes, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and God is calling us to be agents of that reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).

Therefore, as a missional church, I believe God would have us build bridges to a world that is broken and crying out for healing. As a missional church, I believe that God is calling us to embrace new people and new ideas. It is a call to put out the welcome mat so that the world might come to the Table and experience the oneness that is Christ.

In order for us to take up this calling, we have to be comfortable with differences. It requires that we recognize that we live in a very pluralistic world. And so, in order to live out this call to be a place of acceptance, then we must become what Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner call – “liberal evangelicals.” We are evangelical because our faith is centered in Christ, who reveals to us the fullness of God’s love for the world. It is liberal, because it is “radically inclusive.” Whatever our differences or disagreements, they become secondary to the message of God’s love and grace. (See Wildman and Garner, Found in the Middle!, Alban, 2009).

This is, of course a Disciple message, for we are called to visible unity, even if we don’t all agree. Rather than coming together to judge or to impose our views on others, we concern ourselves with the welfare and good of the other.

As we consider our calling to be a missional community that is intentionally inclusive and welcoming, perhaps we can find encouragement in the words of Rusty Edwards’ hymn “We are all one in mission.” This hymn may not be in our hymnal, but surely it speaks to who we are as a “place of acceptance”:

We all are one in mission; We all are one in call,
Our varied gifts united by Christ the Lord of all.
A single great commission compels us from above
To plan and work together that all may know Christ’s love.

We all are called to service, to witness in God’s name.
Our ministries are different; our purpose is the same:
To touch the lives of others with God’s surprising grace,
So every folk and nation may feel God’s warm embrace.

Now let us be united, and let our songs be heard;
Now let us be a vessel for God’s redeeming Word.
We all are one in mission; we all are one in call,
Our varied gifts united by Christ, the Lord of all.
Rusty Edwards, Hope Publishing, 1986


Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
World Communion Sunday
October 4, 2009

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