Growing in Love

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 14, 1999


Readings

Isaiah 61 The Lord has sent me to bring good news to the poor

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion--to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs.

For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.


John 13:34, 35 You are my disciples if you love one another

I give you a new commandment: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.


Matthew 28:16-20 Go and make disciples of all nations

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."


Arcana Coelestia #9925.2 Proclaiming the good news

Proclaiming the good news means spreading the truth about the Lord, his coming, and the things that come from him--which relate to salvation and eternal life.


Sermon

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. (Isaiah 61:1)

As all of you know by now, next week is Invite A Friend Sunday. And it couldn't come at a better time for our church. Let's put the facts right out on the table: attendance at our services is down this year. In fact, even though our level of programming and outreach activity has steadily increased, our average Sunday morning attendance has been gradually decreasing each year since I came here as pastor in September of 1996. There--I've said it!

Of course, there are various reasons that we have lost people from our services: some of our members have died; some have moved away; some have family or work situations that make it difficult for them to attend. In other words, we have had the usual attrition that every church experiences due to the natural changes that are a part of human life.

There were also good reasons for the higher attendance in 1996. After a devastating fire, this congregation had pulled together to rebuild, and received wonderful support from the larger community. Disasters have a way of bringing people together to support one another in getting through and beyond them. And when we nearly lose something we care about--such as this church--it gives us a greater appreciation for it, and a greater dedication to it. When the initial rebuilding was complete, and the first pastor after the fire arrived, it was a wonderful high point for this congregation. Appreciation, dedication, and commitment were strong. This was reflected in our Sunday morning attendance.

However, rebuilding the church was a lot of work! A congregation--especially a small congregation such as ours--can't sustain that level of effort forever. To draw an analogy with the human body, when we are faced with a dangerous, life-threatening situation, the adrenaline kicks in and we go into overdrive. We expend tremendous amounts of energy and effort dealing with the threat--much more than we would in any normal period of time. We have to do so in order to preserve our life or the lives of those we love. When the threat is over and everyone is safe, what do we do? We collapse. After our overexertion, we need a break to rest and recuperate before we go back to our normal activities.

Of course, different people in this church may be at different phases of the cycle. Some may just now be reaching the limits of their energy and are ready to step back for a while. Others may have rested up, and are ready to start pitching in again. And, of course, we have new faces here that were not a part of this congregation at the time of the fire, and therefore will be on a whole different cycle. This is all part of the natural dynamics of a congregation that has suffered and come back from a disaster. For that matter, these ups and downs are part of the life of every congregation, disaster or no.

The stubborn fact remains that as far as our Sunday attendance is concerned, we are definitely on the down part of the cycle. What do we need in order to start it back upwards again? Another disaster? I certainly hope not! Is there anything that could pull us together the way the fire did, without having to damage and destroy something?

A year or two ago, one of you remarked, "What every church needs is a fire without having to have a fire." Fortunately, the Lord has provided us with a type of fire that builds and strengthens instead of damaging and destroying. It is the fire of God's love. Divine love is an infinitely powerful force. It powered the creation of the entire universe, material and spiritual; it continues to power everything that goes on in the world of nature, in the human world, and in the world within us. It is the same power that can give us the will and the strength as a congregation to reach out and invite others into our circle.

It's really very simple. Welcoming people into our church starts with that deceptively simple, yet truly radical statement of Jesus:

I give you a new commandment: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

This is the membership requirement of the Christian Church, given from the Lord's own mouth. There is no mention of affirming a particular set of doctrines or signing a book. We are the Lord's disciples, he tells us, when we have love for one another.

And doesn't our membership in this church start and end with love? Not a single one of us would be here if there were not some things that we loved about this church. Perhaps we love the warmth of our church family; perhaps we love the inspiration and comfort of our church's teachings; perhaps we find here a place to engage in the joy of service. I believe that most of all, we love our church because it helps us to love one another--and the Lord--more fully, deeply, and joyfully. As extensive and expansive as the teachings of our church are, they all boil down to God's love in our hearts, guided by the light of God's wisdom in our minds, so that we can truly and happily serve one another.

You may be thinking to yourself, "Yes, of course, Lee. You say that every Sunday! Love and wisdom; goodness and truth; usefulness and service. . . ." Those of us who are blessed with these beautiful teachings can easily take them for granted. They become the natural pathways of our minds and our lives. And like a well-worn path, at times we don't even notice the underlying presence of these spiritual pathways, keeping our lives flowing along through the inevitable struggles, pains, and disappointments of life.

And yet, for so many people in our world today, there is no such open pathway for God's love and wisdom to flow into their hearts, minds, and lives. So many people are moving through life day by day, struggling against the very same personal disasters, frustrations, and disappointments as we do, yet without the deep comfort and inspiration that comes from having a living faith in the Lord, and a supportive church family. So many people that we see around us every day are spiritually poor, emotionally brokenhearted prisoners of the secular worldview that prevails in our society and in our media. So many people do not have the wonderful power of God's love and guidance that we all too often take for granted.

This is where the power of God's love can have a wonderful effect in growing our church. Our goal in building up the church is not--or at least should not be--simply to enlarge our membership base and ensure the survival of our church. No! The Lord calls us to a much more powerful mission. It is a mission of the spirit, which calls us to grow in love. It is the same call that the prophet Isaiah felt when he wrote these deeply moving words:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion--to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Yes, our church and our Lord call us to reach out from pure love and compassion to those who are going through life without the healing balm of a living faith in God and a loving church community. We are called to guide them toward the same path of love and faith that has meant so much to us, toward the sense of satisfaction, comfort, and joy that binds us to this church so that we keep coming back over and over again.

Further, we are called to love our neighbor so much that we are willing to overcome our shyness, our awkwardness, our feelings of inadequacy, our sense that we will somehow be bothering them or imposing something on them. We are called to overcome anything that blocks us from carrying out the powerful work of reaching out to others as the Lord has commanded us. We are called to break down the mental and emotional walls that separate us from others, and to share with them what has the deepest meaning for us about our faith and our church.

Yes, it is a risky thing to do. What if they say no? What if we give them the wrong impression? What if we open our hearts and tell them how much our church means to us, only to have them pass it off as something insignificant? What if . . . ?

There is always a risk in doing anything worthwhile. And since there is nothing that is worth more than giving someone the gift of a living faith in God, it makes sense that we might have to take some even greater risks than usual in offering people that faith. And of course, some of the people we ask will not be prepared to receive that gift.

Yet if even one person does accept the gift we offer, what we have accomplished for that person and for the Lord's kingdom is worth all the risk, and all the resistance we may have had to get through in order to give that gift. In the words of Jesus:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Amen.


 

Music: Heart and Soul
1999 Bruce DeBoer

Floating Leaf Script
Courtesy of