"That Church"

Our Vision Beyond Our Doors

Scripture: Matthew 28:18-20
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
January 31, 2016

Today we conclude our four week sermon series on the RUCC Vision Statement.  The first week we talked about the meaning of God – God is mentioned four times in our Vision Statement.  God is a loaded word.  I spent the first week unpacking the word God.  Personally, I am not interested in a theistic God, reigning down judgment from the clouds.  I am very interested in the God who is the Divine Energy, the Cosmic Vitality, the Ruach moving through the universe. This One who is with us, for us, ahead of us – moving us forward, evolving us into a new way of being.  

The second week we talked about what it means to follow the life and teachings of Jesus.  Unlike the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and other creedal faith statements that people need to make to be a part of a particular church, Jesus is not defined in our Vision Statement.  We have many, different understandings of who Jesus is in this congregation.  For some, he may be a prophet, a wise teacher. For others — a personal Lord and Savior, the one and only Son of God.   The writers of the Vision Statement did not define Jesus for us.  But rather what is of utmost importance in this congregation is that we follow the life and teachings of Jesus.

Last week, the third week, we shared our Vision of what it means to be an “Open and Affirming” Congregation. “We are an Open and Affirming Community of Faith who value all people as the Family of God.”  All means all here.  Community in this congregation is not based on status, accomplishment, orientation, gender, gender identity, or even religious perspective, but community in this congregation is based on the belief that everyone matters, everyone is welcome, everyone is loved, no conditions and no exceptions.  

Back in August when I first came to serve as your pastor, I invited you to meet with me and share your spiritual journey.  These are comments I heard: “RUCC is the kind of church I never thought existed, but I always hoped it had”; “I swore that I would never step foot into another church again, but that was before I discovered RUCC.  Now I can’t seem to stay away.  I love this place” and “RUCC is the kind of church I think Jesus would attend.”  And I know that I am more than I am because of your love and support of me – both when I was a teenager growing up in this church and now serving as the Pastor of this congregation.  I believe that one of the biggest strengths of this congregation is that it walks the talk.  We are truly an Open and Affirming congregation – through and through.  We place high value on community – as our Vision Statement says — We love, nurture, support and give hope to one another on the journey of faith.   How often I have heard the words, “I do not know what I would do without my church family.”

There is one more aspect of our Vision Statement, however, that is equally as important.  And it is this:  

Led by the Holy Spirit, we reach out to
Serve, and to help heal the hurts of
Humanity and the world with caring
And justice to the Glory of God.

Ken Callahan, a church consultant, tells a story about St. John’s.  The church had nearly thirty-seven losing seasons.  That is, four decades of slowly declining and dying.  The church became preoccupied with the decline.  They thought of themselves as a losing team.  They had closed in upon themselves.  They could see no way forward.

“They had tried this and that. With good intentions, they had tried every gimmick and gadget, trick and triviality, data and demographic, program and pleasantry that had come down the track.  They could not seem to draw people into their church.  Their focus had been on how to get people inside their church.  After all, they were getting older.  There were more funerals each year.  The church was dying off.  More pews were empty.  Fewer givers were giving.

“An anxious spirit had settled over the congregation.  Mary was gone.  Harold was gone.  Wilbur’s pew was empty.  Sue no longer sang in the choir.  Walter was not there as an usher.  The names went on and on…of who was missing.  They were nervous and anxious.  They were unsettled.  There was no peace.

“At the center of the chancel, right above the altar, there was a remarkable stained glass window of Christ standing at the door and knocking.  The Church understood that the picture that window, that Biblical image to mean, ‘Christ standing at the door, knocking, hoping that someone will hear the knock, and come to the door, and open the door and invite Christ IN to their lives.’  

It dawned on Ken Callahan, the consultant, as they were praying in the sanctuary that perhaps, “Christ stands at the door, knocking, hoping that someone will hear the knock, and come to the door, and open the door so Christ can invite them OUT to his life, serving in the world.

“Christ invites us OUT to his life.  Where is Christ?  Serving the world.  Where does Christ live and die and is risen again and again?  Among the human hurts and hopes God has planted all around us.  Christ is in the world.  When we are in the world, we are with Christ.  Our (St. John’s) focus has been on how to get people IN the church.  Christ’s focus has been on how to get us (them) OUT, serving in God’s world.”

When Ken Callahan shared his reflections about Christ at the door inviting the people of St. John’s OUT, a gentle calm came over the congregation.  A spirit of contentment, a quiet peace descended over the people.

When worried about filling the pews, the church was nervous and anxious.  No one is drawn to a group that is nervous and anxious.  “People are nervous and anxious enough.  They do not need the mixed blessing of a group that makes them more nervous and anxious.  They are looking for a group that is living in grace and peace.”

St. John’s discovered a mission with children and a mission with grandparents.  The children thrive.  The grandparents thrive.  “They no longer worried about filling the pews.  They focused on filling people’s lives with grace and peace” (Ken Callahan, Living in Peace, p. 43 -46).  

I share this story because our Vision Statement invites us OUT into the world, beyond our doors, to serve and help heal the hurts of humanity and the world with caring and justice.  Along those same lines, Matthew 28, the Great Commission, declares, “Go out into all the world.” The door of the church is not just for us to stand at and welcome people in, it is also for us to go out to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Canon Ernest Southcott said it best, “The holiest moment of the church service is the moment when God’s people – strengthened by preaching and sacrament – go out of the church door into the world to be the church.  We don’t just go to church; we are the church!”

How do we help heal the hurts of humanity and the world with caring and justice?  From the beginning, we have been a tithing church – giving 10 percent of our operating budget to support the larger community.  This is huge!  (UCC experience). I was delighted to learn that we give 10% away. So many congregations are just trying to make ends meet and keep their doors open, but this congregation gives 10% to the wider community. Our money goes to support the Christian Counseling Service, Redlands Family Service, Share Today/Shape Tomorrow, RAIC, Guide Dogs of the Desert, Bread for the World, the list goes on and on.  In 2015 we had a financial surplus and the Board voted on donating $2000 to Arrowhead United Way, along with the entire Christmas Eve offering, to help those affected by the San Bernardino shootings.  In addition, we are a five for five congregation – in addition to the four special offerings we support we give to Basic Mission.  I believe that we are one of the top ranking UCC congregations in the SCNC for outreach.  This is a generous congregation and the financial resources that we give are wisely distributed to make a difference in this world.

Over the years, we have been involved in various missions – local missions like our Food Donation Drive, ministry to Parolees, Get on the Bus, Fair Trade and we have been involved in wider missions such as rebuilding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and building homes in Mexico.  Our youth group has been involved in various mission trips as well.

Moreover, we have a congregation that is very social-justice oriented that cares deeply about bringing liberation to the oppressed.  Salvation in this congregation is not just some individualistic afterlife party.  Salvation is not about who is going to heaven and who is going to hell.  Interestingly, the word salvation is found 500 times in the Bible.  It does not refer to the afterlife, but to the here and now.  Salvation comes from the root word “salve”.  Salve is a healing ointment.  Our vision is to bring healing to the hurts of humanity and the world with caring and justice.  We have two primary social justice foci that we’ve identified for this year:  racial justice and environmental stewardship (more specifically, climate change).  Given the rise of Islamophobia, we will be addressing ways to bring healing and build bridges of understanding in our interfaith world.

Yes, we are a congregation that cares about what is happening outside our doors.  We are a generous congregation; we are a social justice congregation; my hope is that we will continue to explore ways of tangibly being the hands and feet of Jesus who is always beckoning us out into the world.

I imagine that when those 11 disciples first heard Jesus’ words of the Great Commission, “To go out into the world, to make disciples of all nations” – that is, to share the good news of God’s love with all the world – from their doorsteps to the ends of the earth, it must have seemed like a ludicrous idea to that tiny band of men.  Only 11 of them hearing such words.  Such a huge task – they were so small and the world so huge.  Yet, there was one phrase that prevented them from collapsing into fear.  And that phrase was Jesus’ final words in the Gospel of Matthew.  Jesus said, “And remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

And so it is for us.  We are not alone in living out our Vision Statement.  Christ is with us every step of the way.  Will you join me one more time in proclaiming our vision…

As the Redlands United Church of Christ,
We are called by God to follow the
Life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

We are an Open and Affirming community
Of faith, who value all people as the
Family of God.

We love, nurture, support and give hope
To one another on the journey of faith,
Seeking God’s will for our lives.

Led by the Holy Spirit, we reach out to
Serve, and to help heal the hurts of
Humanity and the world with caring
And justice to the glory of God.

We welcome all into the full life and
Ministry of this church.