Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sunday Sermon

"The Center for Changing Lives"

Just a few days ago, I joined a tour group for part of an afternoon. It was not a tour to a museum or to a historical site or to a cultural center. And I did not go away to an exotic place, but in fact went to the heart of the city to join this tour. The building we toured together was even still under construction, so those of us who entered were required to wear hard hats, orange vests – and sign a waiver absolving our tour guides in case anything fell on us during the tour. So, in many ways, it was sort of an unusual tour experience. As we walked through the not yet completed building, we learned about a vision – a vision shared by different members of a neighborhood, and a vision shared by a congregation. We heard a vision for a place of worship and a place of service and a place of empowerment: a place where people could find help with housing, and with finances, where children could learn to read and play, where people could get food and clothing, where refugees could come as they learned their way around a strange new country.

This building will be called "The Center for Changing Lives." It is located in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, and when finished, it will host a whole array of services as well as serve as the worship space for XXX Lutheran Church. It’s a partnership with Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota and a whole host of community organizations that work and serve in this neighborhood. They have been meeting for a number of years, dreaming and planning for what this center could be and do – not just for themselves, but for the families who live here, the children who play and learn here, the people who work here. As I wandered through the building, listening to our tour guide, I must admit that I also remembered the years I spent working and studying as a part of the Messiah congregation, learning from their members and the people who lived in their neighborhood. I wondered how it would be for the people of that congregation to finally move from their building on XXX Avenue – where they have been for about 100 years – to their new location inside this Center. The tour guide kept saying that she was "proud of them", but I imagine it was a difficult decision, and probably not without some controversy, either.

"The Center for Changing Lives." Think of it as a kind of a vineyard, a field for planting and for tending and for harvesting. This building I talked about, all the bricks and mortar and beams and support – is really a field, where seeds are sown, where people are fed and nourished and sent out to bless the world. And if we think of this center that way, I think this will give us some insight into the beginning of this parable from Matthew: there is a landlord, and there are tenants, and in the middle of all this, there is a vineyard. And the vineyard is supposed to be "a center for changing lives." The tenants are busy growing vines and nurturing fruit to share with the world, to bless the world, to make a positive impact on people around them. But somehow that purpose got lost, and the tenants thought that they were in this vineyard business for some other purpose than blessing the world, and they rejected every emissary from the landowner who came – even his Son.

Jesus tells this story on his way to the cross. And he tells it, I think, for two reasons: the first is to remind his people of what their purpose is: to be a vineyard, a place where seeds are planted and tended and harvested – a center for changing lives. He tells this parable to remind his disciples that the vineyard does not exist for itself alone, but for the sake of the world. Every single church should have under its name and as its mission: a center for changing lives. That’s what we are, isn’t it? A center for changing lives. And it’s easy for us to forget that – just as the tenants in the parable did.We forget that we exist for a larger purpose in the world.That’s what we want to be: for the people who come here to learn to speak and read English, for the people who come to find shelter, for the people who come to pray, for the people who come to be healed.

We are a center for changing lives: for ourselves, and for others. And for those of us who for some reason or another return to this particular place, week by week, I have to believe that in part it is because we know that we need to be transformed, continually, daily, moment by moment. We need to open our hands, and be reminded to open our hearts. It starts with us, fed and forgiven and raised from the dead. But it doesn’t end with us. It continues as we go out into the world – whether that is to our backyards, to our schools, to our workplaces, to the flooded cities of Iowa. It continues as we go out into the world – across the city, across the state, serving and praying with one another. It continues as we go into the world.

One of the things our tour guide said last week struck me. She was speaking again about XXX church, the little congregation down the street, that will be a part of the center.She said that the pastor there again and again has been telling the people about the need for them "to give themselves away for the sake of the community." And that’s not a bad way for all of us to think of our ministry, whether as individuals, as families, or as a congregation – we are called to "give ourselves away" for the sake of the world.

What are some ways we give ourselves away?
– one is by being in relationship with others who might be different than us, with different languages, or different points of view, or different political viewpoints.
– those of us who are involved in the partnership with our Hispanic congregation give ourselves away as we listen to them, learn from them, and learn what it means to be partners with them in sharing the Gospel.
– We give ourselves away by making time to do something that might be difficult, but important, whether that is going all the way to Iowa to help with flood relief, whether it is joining a small group for a Bible study, whether it is visiting someone in a nursing home and praying for them.
– We give ourselves away when we make time in our busy lives for prayer, in listening for God and in sharing what is on our hearts
– We give ourselves away when we take time from a busy schedule to build relationships with people in other faith communities, and of different racial backgrounds, learning what is important to them, what is hard for them.
– And sometimes these relationships can be painful for us as well, because they reveal our own brokenness.

For myself, one of the most painful moments in ministry for me came when I was still a seminary student, when I worked for this church – XXX – for their summer program. I was eager to give myself away then.I was idealistic. I wanted to change the world, or at least one little corner of it.I discovered that it was harder than I thought.I didn’t know what I was doing – in so many ways.I worked with a multi-racial team of young people, and had to deal with my own prejudices.I worked with children who were angry, who were lonely, who were hungry,and then went home exhausted, to sleep for twelve hours.To be honest, I sometimes felt like a failure.

This gets to the heart of the other reason Jesus told this story to his disciples. He knew that following him would not be easy. He knew that the call to give themselves away would sometimes be painful.He was on the way to the cross, where he himself would be rejected, and he knew that his followers would also experience rejection, failure, and suffering if they followed him.He knew that giving themselves away would be difficult – but that it was, and is still, the path to life.

Some of us are getting on a bus next Sunday afternoon to go to an event called Time to Believe. This event is billed as a time for Christians to share their commitment to transforming the world: building healthy communities, respecting all people, helping all children succeed.
But it’s also an event that will focus on the transformation of our hearts.I don’t know about you, but this is why I’m going –
– I’m going because I still want to transform the world, but I know I can’t do it alone.
– I’m going because I want to be part of something larger than myself.
– I’m going because I believe this is one way God is at work in the world
– I’m going because, just like that building I saw last week, I’m still under construction, but I know, I believe, I trust that God is building something, in me, in us.

So last week I walked around with my hard hat and my orange vest, in a building not yet finished.
And I thought about our own Center for Changing Lives, right here among us, and in us. The Center is not really a place, is it? It’s not this building, or any building– but it’s Jesus himself, the one who gave himself away, yet rose to live for us. When we follow him, we learn that our lives were never ours to begin with.We learn that we are still under construction, and yet God works in us and through us.And we trust him to change our lives, day by day, moment by moment, through the death and resurrection of his Son.
AMEN

11 comments:

Border Explorer said...

Diane, the vision in this sermon speaks to me so strongly. We as Church are all about changing lives, and, before all else: our own conversion of heart.

I especially seized on this piece: We can't transform the world alone. We must be part of a movement. We need each other.

Profound thanks for sharing this sermon.

Songbird said...

Amen!

Paul said...

Center for Changing Lives - what a great way to encapsulate the transforming grace we try to serve!

Rev SS said...

Another great sermon! Thanks for sharing.

Barbara B. said...

yes, thanks for sharing! great!

LawAndGospel said...

Thanks for this inspiring word!

Jiff said...

Oh! I will carry these images with me.
What a great sermon!
Thanks!

Diane Vogel Ferri said...

Thanks Diane - I needed to read this today.

mompriest said...

oh my sigh...I only wish people understood the thrill and power of this kind of change, or transformation....it does take a certain kind of person, or at least one at a certain point in their faith journey...

good sermon!

Singing Owl said...

Excellent!

LET'S TALK said...

What a wonderful Sermon. I recently started back to blog and this just makes me think that we can arise everyday and not be selfish about ourselves but ask God to help and strengthen us to help others and be somewhat of a blessing for them.

I truly believe that we are all here to love and help one another and what you have written here makes me think that in some ways some people really get what we are here to do. Thanks so very much for sharing.