Where Everybody is Somebody

Do you know our mission statement?

We are a community of believers who seek to grow: in our faith and understanding as we live the Way of Jesus Christ.

What about our four core values?

Inclusion

Freedom of Faith

Service

Spiritual Growth

I’ll admit that I don’t often start with our mission statement when it comes to my preaching, or when it comes to inspiring you or challenging you or comforting you. When I make hospital visits or grab coffee with you, I don’t open our time with, “Now let’s hold hands and recite our mission statement.”

I really like our mission statement, and the longer I’m here the more the stories trickle down about what went into the process, how it was started, who led it and why, how long it took, and what deliberations were had about capitalization of words like the “Way” of Jesus Christ.

I don’t lead with it, in part because as Christians and as a church, there’s something even more fundamental to who we are and why we Woo like we do. The mission statement points to it, that we are living the Way of Jesus ,that often is revealed to us through our sacred Scriptures, but also through prayer and shared life and community together when we can hear from and experience God’s Spirit.

In our readings this morning, both from Isaiah and the first letter to the Corinthians, the word “calling” or “chosen” comes up a few times. God’s people are chosen or sanctified or set apart or called to something beyond themselves; in other words they have a purpose; we might even say for today’s conversation: there’s a mission statement out there for them.

In Isaiah, the language is around being a light to the nations, not just their own nation or people or religious community, but for everyone. If we had read the Gospel reading today from John’s Gospel, we would have once again heard reference to Jesus’ baptism, his own calling, and then the story of how he called Peter and Andrew to be his disciples — come and see. Then in our Epistle Reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul who is “called to be an apostle” to those “called to be saints” in whom the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you, and who will then strengthen them to be blameless, he goes on to say they are called into fellowship with Jesus Christ.

It’s not as succinct as “We are a community of believers who seek to grow in our faith and understanding as we live the Way of Jesus Christ,” but it has the same spirit. Or maybe more appropriately, our is inhabited by the same the Spirit within those stories and texts.

I mentioned this sermon series has been two years in the making, so let me explain that for a moment. I don’t mean I’ve been crafting these sermons for that long; rather, we’ve been leading up to this. Last year, we embarked on a yearlong theme; does anybody remember our theme from last year?

Story.

The concept was simple. We each have a story, or our lives are stories. But they don’t stand alone; they intertwine with each other’s stories. They are a part of God’s bigger story of love for us. For all.

And this year, we are focused on another yearlong theme, under which other smaller themes can rest. Do you know that one?

Transform.

It was born out of weeks of discernment and conversation, which we’ve done numerous times in my own tenure alone, where we tried to discern where God was leading us next. Or put another way: we wanted to grow in our faith and understanding of how we might live the Way of Jesus Christ today.

And that’s how our Elm Park initiative was born.

Some of my thinking began, the idea of story for sure, as I read a book last year called StoryBrand by Donald Miller.

It was a period when our growth was a little more apparent.

If I can take a moment of pastoral privilege to chase down a rabbit for a second, I think it will add context for us as we continue on this conversation.

You’ll hear me mention from time to time our active participants and attendees is upwards of 350 people with 200 new people among us in the past few years. You look around on a Sunday and that doesn’t seem to square. But part of that is because we don’t all come every Sunday, but if we did, it would be two or three times as full. Instead, we rotate in once a month or twice a month, or once every six weeks. I could redefine who is “active” to being those who come to worship at 10am in this sanctuary at least two or three times a month, but that feels judgmental and short-sighted, and I prefer the generosity of trusting people’s orbits are what they need to be right now, that people participate as they are able, either here or in our small groups or in get-togethers elsewhere. They consider us their church home.

Of course, this year some of this has been harder to see. I say this delicately, but seeing more than 20 members pass away within a six month window is a huge hit, obviously on numerous personal levels, but also on the organism that is the congregation; it begins to show up or become felt in other ways, like in terms of attendance and giving. That can affect our budget and sense of growth.

Even still, this year, we’ve still brought on more people — not officially as members, mind you — but we’ve still brought on more people than we’ve lost, and just about a month ago, I double-checked many of these new names who’ve come on board in the last year.

I should also say, we have seen an increase in pledges from you all to the tune of 15% and $50,000. I’m adding this sidebar as a way to say we are in a really good place. Because of you. And so many others who will be hear next Sunday or who were here last Sunday or who are listening online from home right now. It’s not a time to panic or be afraid. Instead, we look for evidence that God is still at work among us, guiding us, and even if the numbers don’t add up to what they were in the past couple years, losing loved ones will do that to you, I can see we’re still on the same trajectory as we were. We took some hits, experienced some adversity, and we’re pushing through. If we go back to that image of sledding when I first arrived. I suggested church life is like a series of sled rides in the winter. We climb up the hill and slide down. Sometimes we’re in the climb, and it’s hard and doesn’t seem worth. Other times, like when I first arrived, it seemed like we were on the precipice of something exhilarating, about to slide down, as it were. I think we’re only just beginning the joy of that ride, having seen such enthusiasm and partnership over these last four years. I don’t think we are careening off a cliff or even at the bottom of the hill. We’re only just getting started; we just hit a bump or two at the start. The sled is still moving, right side up, and our church is poised to begin the adventure of the ride.

Which brings me back briefly to this book I read. In it, the author proposes the use of storytelling as a way to focus an organization’s purpose. He is writing to businesses about how they can brand themselves effectively, so this isn’t written for churches.

He says that throughout human history, stories have been “sense-making devices.”[1]He then goes on to explain how he has discovered that almost every story, when broken down to broad themes, ends up moving with the same arc or in the same familiar pattern. He even goes so far to say that because he knows this, which for most of us is intuitive as well, it has ruined movies for him forever. Or, he’ll predict what will happen and ruin movies for his spouse. With apologies to our literature folks here this morning, let me read how he breaks this down:

“Here is nearly every story you see or hear in a nutshell: A CHARACTER who wants something encounters a PROBLEM before they can get it. At the peak of their despair, a GUIDE steps into their lives, gives them a PLAN, and CALLS THEM TO ACTION. That action helps them avoid FAILURE and ends in a SUCCESS.[2]

The course of his book unpacks each of these seven markers, and he encourages the reader/business owner/dare-I-say-Pastor to sketch out a map of these seven key areas of story for themselves and their organization.

Two years ago I did that.

And it’s stuck with me ever since.

I’ve shared it with staff, and I’ve introduced it to our core leadership. At one of our Council retreats I started to open this up for them.

It’s stuck with me because it was an exercise in listening and observing and applying what I know about each of you towards the same purpose, the “why” of what we are doing as a church.

He says that organizations often fail not because they aren’t good enough, not because they are corrupt, not because they offer inferior products, but because they don’t know how to communicate what they are about with clarity. Using the concept of story, he says too often, the organization positions themselves as the protagonist in the stories of their customers. They don’t stop to think about what their customers are really needing or searching for. The big shift needs to occur in where the organizations are positioned in the story. In a customer’s story, Apple isn’t the main character, the individual customer is. They are the ones looking for something, or as he says, with a problem that needs solving. Apple has recognized that they aren’t the protagonist, but they are instead, the guide who helps the protagonist, the Yoda or the Gandalf or the Dumbledore. The wise guru or sage or Ferris Bueller’s best friend. They have solutions for the protagonist’s problem. And they’re willing to do it together with them.

We aren’t a business, but I can’t help thinking we need to approach our mission in the same way. As First Baptist, we aren’t the protagonist in people’s stories. We are the guide that point people in another direction that offers solutions, as challenging as they may be, that imagines a better Way, capital W. Naturally, I say we are the guide, but rooted in our faith in the Risen Christ, the Spirit of God who is within us.

When I think about your stories, as the protagonists of your own stories, as the main characters of your own lives, I ask myself often, nearly every week when I’m preaching: what do you need? What are you looking for? What are the problems you are trying to overcome?

And there are myriad answers to those questions. But as I dig deeper, and I collect your stories and your concerns and your hopes and your dreams and I pull back the husk on each, I keep looking for the kernel at the center of them all, and this is where I landed.

Whether you’re battling cancer or you’ve survived it. Whether you’ve lost a loved one or they’re declining, whether you’re having the time of your life or you’re up to your ears in debt — whatever is going on in your world, I think you worship God, believe in God, come to church, because deep down you want to know, you need to know, you wrestle with humanity’s inherited existential angst: do you matter?

It might not be the most conscious thought you have, but how you live and move in this world is toward that understanding, toward knowing that you matter, toward finding or making meaning in your lives. If story is a sense-making device, then it’s only because our lives are constantly yearning for meaning. Church, theology, faith can be about sense-making, sometimes, though not most of the time. We don’t have answers to all the things that don’t make sense. But we are about meaning-making. Grounding ourselves in the God who loves us, who sings over us, who is with us and within us.

So, what I want to do over the next five weeks, with a notable break as we welcome the Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings in two weeks, but next week and the remaining weeks of February or Epiphanytide, I want us to unpack what this looks like for us.

If we are each yearning to know that we matter, what can that mean for our church?

Working through his book, I constructed a phrase I’ve started using when I think about us.

It doesn’t replace our mission statement. In fact, I think it’s just a way of reframing the same “why” of what we are doing as a church. Something that makes sense to us but also to people beyond ourselves. My hope is that this phrase is a way to focus our conversation together over these coming weeks.

We all want to know that we matter, that our lives have meaning, that we are not alone in this. That God is in this with us, hearing our prayers, answering them sometimes, that we can make a difference in our world and our community, that we can be transformed by the love of others and by loving others…all of this, in a phrase I’ve held onto for two years now.

We are a space where everybody is somebody, to God and to us.

As we seek to grow in our faith and understanding, as we live the Way of Jesus Christ, let’s explore what it means to be called — as a light, as people following Jesus — called to be a space where everybody is somebody.

To God.

And to us.

[1]StoryBrand, Donald Miller, 9.

[2]Miller, Donald. Building a StoryBrand (p. 20). HarperCollins Leadership. Kindle Edition.

Sermon preached at FBC Worcester, MA on Jan 19, 2020. The Second Sunday after the Epiphany.

Isaiah 49:1–7; 1 Cor 1:1–9

I'm a writer, and I enjoy dabbling in photography. I'm also a progressive minister, enneagram 4w3, ramen enthusiast, and human to my best dog Zooey Deschanel