A sermon preached April 3, 2016, based on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-21.
“Will you faithfully support the Christ’s church by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service? I will.
This is the question we ask everyone who joins this congregation. This question is asked of new members in every United Methodist church; it is our best take on clearly stating what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ, in any time or place. I wonder if you remember when you first said, “I will” to that question. I wonder if you remember where you said it? I was 12 years old, standing with my fellow sixth graders on the aging red carpet at the front of Aldersgate UMC, having just finished our confirmation class. By age 12, I had been to the front of the church loads of times to sing in the children’s choir, to take communion, and I vaguely remember that it felt like a very grown-up thing to do, but also boringly obvious one, to “officially” join the church in confirmation. Of course I would be join the church, hadn’t I been part of it for years already? Sometimes it’s the obvious choices that change our lives.
Maybe you, too, were a pre-teen in another place when you first joined Christ’s church. Maybe you didn’t say these specific words - prayer, presence, gifts, service - when you joined, but by some word or action you accepted that place God had made for you in His church. You experienced God’s call in some word that you read or heard, you felt God’s love in the welcome of a friend or in the care of an elder who made you like their adopted child. Maybe you stumbled into God’s grace that first time. You hadn’t thought very much about God before you had a child, but as you began to realize how mysterious and daunting it is to be a parent, you wanted to surround your kid with“good influences,” and somehow you decided that maybe you needed the good influence too. Maybe it was a girl or a boy that got you here. Or maybe it is a total “accident,” your life had pretty much been a drunken meander until one day you found yourself among a bunch of people who hadn’t figured everything out, but who at least seemed to have a compass to follow, and you joined this merry band of travelers on something called The Way.
Or, maybe, you’ve never answered this question. You’ve been hanging around here for a while, but you have never taken the step of making a commitment to this congregation or accepting our commitment to you. Maybe you’ve never even committed yourself to following Jesus.
Whether you have said it hundreds of time, or none, for these next five weeks, I want to invite you to say “I will” to God and to his church, and I want to help you see the power of a people who are committed to offering God our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service togethter. Four weeks from today we will have a chance to renew our commitment, or, if you wish, to join this church for the first time, and as we look forward to that day, it is good to remember what we are all about.
One thing that we are about is prayer. We cannot tell the story of this congregation without talking about prayer. Of course, whenever we worship, we pray. We pray the Psalms, and we pray the words of Jesus. We pray with one voice before we come to take communion, and we pray in moments of silent reflection. AndWhenever we get together worship, one of the first things that happens afterwards is that church prays. We take all the grace notes that come in, with all the gathered prayers that are offered on them, and we send them out first thing on Monday afternoon. For the rest of the week, that prayer list lives right here. You should be here on a Wednesday morning, when every one of those prayers gets remembered by name from our men’s and women’s prayer groups. Prayer is right at the heart of who we are.
And this will continue to be a part of who we are. Every year, we have a nominations committee that prayerfully discerns who God might be calling into various places of leadership in the congregation. And this year, one of the things that this team prayed over was “What new ministries is God inviting us to discover?” And so we asked four members of this church to help shape new ministries for women, and college and career aged young adults, and for an outreach to military families. And rather than giving these leaders a plan for how we can make that happen, we are doing something different. We are asking them to pray. We are asking them to set aside dedicated time over the next several months to pray over what God would have us do, and we’ve asked them to recruit prayer partners who will pray with them, and share the fruits of those prayer, and basically, we tried to make a statement at our most fundamental level that we will do anything for the Lord, but we won’t do anything without prayer.
But none of this history and none of this future are a substitute for the present stream of prayer flowing between you and God. In the scripture that we read today, Paul instructs the followers of God to “pray continually,” or as some translations say, “without ceasing.” Maybe you’ve heard this before and reconciled yourself to it a long time ago. You recognize that none of us are tremendous multitaskers, and so we can’t, really, pray through every single moment of the day. And so we settle for less that we are offered. And as usual, the reason we settle is because we interpret the scriptures as if they were written only for us. But Paul isn’t speaking to individuals in this letter, he is appealing to the whole church, and as a church it is absolutely possible that we might pray without ceasing. When you pray, you are not merely shouting into silence; you are joining the chorus of God’s people, and without you the song is incomplete.
I want you to hold that in your mind, this unceasing song of prayer, carrying our voice to God and falling into rhythm with his response back to us. What are the lyrics of our prayer? When it comes to this congregation there is only one prayer that matters, one prayer that covers and settles every need. Our prayer for this church is this: that we would unite, all the community of Crestview to the grace of Jesus Christ, through discipleship, worship, and service. I didn’t make this up; it’s our church’s mission statement. It came about last summer, in a weekend of prayer and conversation, where anyone was invited to come and seek God’s vision for this congregation. We said then that our prayer and desire is that this congregation would be a holy reflection of our community – if you have a place in this community, you have a place in this church. We believe we have a unique opportunity to be an intergenerational church, a church that crosses barriers that often divide us. And, of course, we didn’t dream up this vision ourselves. This is nothing more than what all Christians believe. This is why Christ came, this is why he called us, this is all that the Holy Spirit is urging us toward. We found our inspiration in Ephesians 2, which says that God’s gospel is tearing down that divide the creation. We are here for the sake of changing that: to see lives changed, and the world changed, to see the new creation and his kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. In the first sermon I ever preached here, I said the only mission of any church is to be a part of God’s kingdom here on earth and invite others in. We are the embassy of God’s new reality called heaven. We are here to unite all peoples into a new people called the people of God. We are a sign of the day when every knee shall bow and every tongues confess that Jesus is Lord.
This is not a small or indifferent mission, it is big and inexhaustible. And that is why we pray. To be a disciple is to follow Jesus, and we pray because we know that we cannot make people follow Jesus on our own, but we also know that following Jesus Christ is the only hope of the world. Beside the sick bed and the death bed, Jesus offers strength and resurrection. When we are in our own beds, wide awake in the darkness with fears for our family, with the dread of loneliness, with the question “What am I doing and will I ever get it right?” it is Jesus who offer peace, friendship, a future, and forgiveness. This offer is for all the world, but no one can receive what Christ offers unless they go where Christ is and where he is going. And so we believe the answer to the fundamental needs of life and the fundamental ills of humanity is not in how we vote, it is not to complain about how things should be, it is not to wall ourselves off from the problem people of this world. The only answer is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, starting with ourselves. And if we make disciples, how can we help but see the world transformed. If we are making disciples of Jesus, our town must then be less divided, less hopeless, less dysfunctional in its family life, less resigned to things as they are.
If our mission was easy, we wouldn’t need to pray. And if it wasn’t worth praying for, it wouldn’t be worth our time.
With that in mind, I’d like to ask three things of you this week. These three steps are the first practice for making a renewed commitment to Jesus and his church.
First, I ask you to pray for this church every day this week. Pray that we would live out our mission, to united all people of our community to the grace of Jesus Christ. You know me, I am digitally dependent, so I’ve set a reminder on my phone for 9AM every morning, to stop and pray. Maybe you want to go with sticky notes, or my other favorite, the mark on your hand. Whatever it takes, I want our whole prayerful chorus to be praying continually to God that our church keeps first things first and second things not at all.
Second, when you pray for our church, remember that the church is not only the church inside these walls. So pray that we would live out our mission when we go into the world - at work, at home, at school, at the diner and the football game. If it helps you to focus on a specific, pray for a certain place that you know the people of this church will go. Or pray for a specific person - a friend, or maye the person sitting in front of you today. Pray that they will not wait for a program to do our mission.
Lastly, watch for an opportunity to make prayer your own act of mission. How many times a month do you say to someone, “I’m praying for you.” Now think what it might mean to that someone if instead, we just stopped and did it. I’m not talking about a big production. I’m not talking about a prayer that tries to shove and squeeze God’s grace into a friend’s skull. But I believe there is power in taking a friends’ hand, or pausing in the midst of a phone call to say, in simple words, “God be with my friend.” That is just the sort of prayer that can change someone’s life all over again. And a changed life is a changed world. After all, if anyone is in Christ: we have seen the new creation.
That is a mission worth praying for: now, and always. Let’s never stop.