The Church in the World Window: Somewhere a Place for Us (Romans 10: 13-15)

We are now in our fourth week of looking at and reflecting on the stained-glass windows in our sanctuary. So far, we have looked at the three windows across the front of the sanctuary. First, the chancel window which tells the story of Jesus Christ. This is the central story to our life and identity as a Christian church. The next window we looked at was the window representing our congregation’s membership in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Last week, we spoke about the Ecumenical Window, which reminds us of the importance of Christian Unity to our church, as it is one of the founding principles and primary goals of the Disciples of Christ denomination. This week we move on to our fourth sanctuary window. This lovely stained-glass window is located in the back corner of the sanctuary. The northeast corner, there above the fire exit to the front of the building. This window is called The Church in the World window and was donated by the Edna Edwards group. It was created to express the idea that the church has a mission in the world.

In a sense, by looking at the windows in this order, we have been slowly zooming out, from the ground level view to the 30,000-foot overview. We started with the story of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, which makes up the primary story and forms the core beliefs of our religious faith. Then we zoomed out a little more, seeing our congregations place in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and what it means to be part of that denomination, which is just one part of the larger story and the larger body of Christ. Which then leads us to zoom out a little more to look at the ecumenical movement, and how we as part of the Disciples of Christ are called to find unity within the larger institutional Christian church, including people in other denominations and with slightly different beliefs.

Now, this week we have zoomed all the way out. We have gone from one room in one dwelling place, to now looking down from above at the whole planet. We are taking in the full, big picture by looking at this one stained-glass window. What we are looking at now is the church’s place in the world. How the church can fit into the larger story of 8 billion people, the majority of whom, are not Christian. If you are interested, according to a quick Google search, there are 2.4 billion Christians in the world. This accounts for about 32% of the world’s population. So, start with this group, gathered in this sanctuary this morning. Then zoom out to see all the people gathering in churches like ours, with red chalices on their signs and their websites. Then we zoom out further to see all the Christians and Christian churches that are trying to work for connection and unity with other Christians. And finally, zoom out to see all the Christians, of every kind, everywhere. Anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus.

It is a pressing question for many, however, about where those of us who are believers in the divinity of Jesus fit in to the societal and cultural landscape these days. As mentioned last week, these are increasingly divided times, and part of that may come from the rise of secularism in western culture, and a rejection of faith and organized religion. Sociologists and political scientists who do polling on this sort of thing and make charts about demographic breakdowns in our society might call this phenomenon the “Rise of the Nones.” As in those people who check the box that says ‘none’ next to the question about religious affiliation. The story of the Nones deserves more time than I can give it here, but let’s just say these changing demographics leave many people wondering (especially people in organized religion); What place the church have in this changing world? Where do we fit in?

There are a couple of ways to look at this bigger picture about how the church fits into the world. I think the window in our sanctuary is looking at the church in its institutional form, and all the things the capital ‘C’ church can achieve. It is this institutional vision of the church that I think feels most in crisis these days. The images on the window are a spire, representing the church, a person reading a book – this represents education. There are images of brick laying, representing community development, and a building that represents construction. Finally, there is a barn that represents agriculture. These things represent the work that the church is doing in the world (more on that next week). In fact, the money we give in offering to the church often goes mission work of the kind being depicted in the stained-glass window. For instance, there are many schools that are affiliated and financially supported by the church. Each year at Thanksgiving, we in the Disciples of Christ, give a special offering and that money goes to support Disciples colleges, seminaries, and divinity schools. I am a graduate of a college and a seminary founded by the Disciples, Culver-Stockton College, and Christian Theological Seminary.

Also, in a show of the importance of unity, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) partners with the United Church of Christ to run the organization known as Global Ministries. This organization does mission work around the world. Rather than evangelizing groups, it forms partnerships with local agencies so that they can best meet the needs of the people, because no one knows their needs better than the people that live in a place. There is a good chance that some of the money we give in offering on a Sunday morning goes on to assist the work of Global Ministries. Similarly, each year the churches in the Disciples of Christ give a special offering that goes to the organization known as Week of Compassion. Week of Compassion is the disaster relief arm of the Disciples of Christ. For instance, even now there are no doubt Week of Compassion volunteers and Week of Compassion financial resources at work in Nebraska and Kansas and Oklahoma, helping them to recover from the Tornadoes that tore through there a couple weeks ago. Like Global Ministries, the money we give Week of Compassion is not used directly by that organization, but instead is directed to more local, more specific organizations that are already doing good work, and are more aware of the needs of the community.

Organizations like these offer a new way of looking at the place of the church in the wider world. For many centuries the Church took it upon itself to bring the Christian religion to the world through the work of missionaries. Sometimes these missionaries believed that they were called to go into unknown places like Africa or the Americas, and other places in the Southern Hemisphere, and convert the native people of those continents. They were bringing the Word of God to people who, they believed, desperately needed it. Unfortunately, the church often saw itself as having a lofty place in the world, and so believed that these native peoples were primitive, lost souls that could only be saved through conversion. Certainly, some of this work was genuine and well intentioned. Unfortunately, it was misguided, and too often led to these societies and their cultures being demonized and degraded. It also aided in the colonization of these places and, usually, the oppression of their people.

Luckily that is not quite how it works anymore. Certainly not as much. There are now more missionary organizations like the ones I mentioned above, the ones we contribute to as part of the Disciples of Christ denomination. Organizations like this focus first on meeting the needs of the people where and how they are. They do this by building relationships and forming partnerships with groups that know more about people than an outsider or foreigner could. In this way they are not focused on converting people, as such. They are not focused on bringing people to Christ or, even Christianity itself. Instead, their mission is to bring the love of Christ to the people. And maybe some of those people in need will find their way to becoming Christians. It they do, it will not be because they were coerced or intimidated, or because they blindly accepted some evangelist’s creed. Probably some good preaching and Bible study played a part, but mostly, I think it will be because they met Jesus in the form of those missionaries that came to work side by side with them, and help them, and heard their stories. It will happen because of relationships. That is the church’s place in the world – meeting people where they are and sharing the love of Christ with them, not just the doctrine of Christ. Then maybe people will come to Christ because they have experienced him and his love for the world through their interactions with those who have come alongside them to help the suffering (and strengthen the faint-hearted and support the weak, of course).

This is one of the ways in which Paul hoped his ministry would have an effect. He hoped that his fellow Jews would hear his words, but also see the way he and his communities lived, and that by seeing this, it might bring them to Christ. He has a Christian message to share, and he hopes it will be accepted by all who are touched by it so they can know Jesus and join him in the coming Kingdom of God. All this according to his apocalyptic worldview and theology.

Though he hopes for these things, he does not believe those who are Jewish been rejected by God, nor does Paul believe they are unworthy of inclusion in God’s desires for the world, now or in the future.

Like Paul, the church in the world today is trying to get people’s attention. Trying to the show the world the difference Jesus can make in their lives. Trying to share the good news by being church and living the Good News. The words we say are important, as Paul tells us in this scripture. But we must also live in accordance with those words. We are messengers who strive to live out the message. The church could carve out for itself a similar place in the world to what Paul carved out for himself. Paul believed the Realm of God was coming soon. So, he set out to do the work of preparing people for that new reality, by bringing themselves into new and right relationship with God and with one another. This is the place for the church in the world. The church is a place for people who believe better things are possible, where the realm of God is imminent, perhaps even currently present. There are so many places in the world for voices of panic, despair, hate, and fear. The place for the church in the world is outside of that. The church can be the place in the world for those who have hope.

This past week I was on a retreat with other clergy people, early in their careers. Part of these retreats is taking time one evening to get out of the retreat center or conference room and go into the world and visit a ministry site, so that we can get a look at what the ministry experience looks like in different places. This week we went to a Baptist church located on Indy’s near eastside, about a mile or two from downtown. The church is located in a rough neighborhood, a poor neighborhood. Besides the church, one of the most prominent features of this neighborhood was an abandoned prison complex. Fenced off and overgrown. The church, on the other hand, is very much alive and active. They are a growing congregation doing a lot of work in the neighborhood.

One of the congregants we spoke with was the man who runs their youth group. The group meets once a week on Fridays and brings in kids from around the area, not just church members. The youth group provides space for young people who, due to the difficult circumstances of their lives, and their environment, might not feel as if they have a place in this world. The group leader was a very upbeat guy and he really liked slogans and catch phrases. For instance, at the request of one of the kids, they say “Boo-yah” instead of amen. The young man thought saying amen was…for the older members of the congregation. His favorite call and response, though, was asking the kids, “Who are you?” and they would respond “The One Jesus Loves.”

The place of the church in the world, is in creating a place for the One’s Jesus Loves. In fact, the church only has a place in the world if it is doing that work. This means letting people know that they are the One Jesus Loves, and that being the One Jesus Loves makes better things possible, in their life and in the world. What a gift it is to be a messenger that can bring this word to the world. Amen…I’m sorry – Boo Yah.

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