Sermons & Blogs
Bethany Lutheran Church
Pastor Cheryl Walenta Gorvie
Sermon June 24, 2012
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Karl Wallenda was a member of the family of circus performers known as the Flying Wallendas, performing acts on the tightrope since he was six years old. Their stunts included riding a bicycle across a highwire and creating a seven-person chair pyramid formation while balancing on the tightrope. Karl Wallenda said that except for walking the tightrope, everything else in life was waiting. He had a gift for concentrating and balance, and he lived out his passion. In 1978, at the age of 73, Karl Wallenda attempted a tightrope walk between the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 10 stories up in the air. He was performing the aerial act without a safety net below. That day, he slipped and fell to his death, clutching the balancing pole. He had always warned his family never to drop the pole, since it could hurt spectators below. The wind was strong that day and may have contributed to Karl Wallenda’s fall, but after the accident, Karl’s wife reported that there had been a sudden shift in Karl’s approach to his work. Before that day, he had never personally supervised the attachment of the guide wires. But that time, he did. For the first time, she said, her husband had been focusing on falling, instead of on walking the tightrope.
Living a life of faith, following Jesus Christ, may require some of the same skills as tightrope walking. It takes coordination and balance, and absolute focus on the task at hand. For us, the task before us is to follow, to live the call of Jesus, who calls us to relationships of reconciliation, who calls us into mission in the world. This is God’s healing work, and we get to be a part of what God is doing in the world. It is real, and it is not without danger. We belong to a faith for which people have died to share the gospel; we follow a crucified Savior. Death is real, and the danger is real. Relationships are risky. Stepping out in faith is risky.
Sometimes the risks are too much for us to bear. It’s easy for us to lose our focus on God’s grace, to lose our focus on the tasks we are called to do. This happens in so many ways. We lose our focus when we believe that we have far to fall, when we are worried about our investments through money and time and resources. We lose our focus when we lose our balance, when we’re not able to listen to one another with compassion, when there are only a few people doing a lot of the work, when we neglect to thank one another or worse, when we criticize one another. We lose our focus when we get distracted by the amazing things that other people are doing, those who are walking tightropes higher or doing some entirely different daring stunt—this causes us to wonder whether what we’re doing is worth the time or effort, even if what we’re doing is following God’s call. It’s easy for us to lose our focus.
Jesus, however, never lost his focus. He trusted the people around him to take care of the work they were to take care of; Jesus had his own work to do. As we hear in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples that it’s time to cross to the other side of the lake, and this comes after a full day of preaching. Jesus wasn’t responsible for watching others’ work to captain the boat; Jesus’s responsibility was to sleep, to rest and prepare for the work that would come the next day. The disciples did not take this opportunity to follow Jesus’s leadership; they refuse to sleep. They are getting worried. They are not focused on their calling, they are not focused on following Jesus; instead, they disrupt Jesus’s work—his peaceful sleep—and inflict their concerns upon him. They are essentially saying, “We’re dying here! And now we want you to be worried, like us!” But Jesus does not respond in anger, he doesn’t join the disciples in their anxiety. He speaks words of calm directly into the storm, which obeys his words. Jesus keeps his focus. And then he probably goes back to sleep, back to preparing for the work ahead of him.
Jesus knew real danger. It’s not because he’s magical that he escapes harm; he speaks the truth, and that is what gets him crucified. We follow a crucified Savior—this is true—but this same Jesus is also the risen Savior. By faith in this risen Savior, by God’s grace, in baptism we also die and rise with Jesus Christ. We are redeemed, we are called children of God, and we are empowered. Living faithfully, out of gratefulness for all that God has given us, we share this good news because we live the good news.
This good news of Jesus Christ is what informs our purpose for ministry. As a congregation, as Bethany Lutheran Church, we are on a mission! Churches that grow are churches that have a clear sense that God is active and using them. One of the primary characteristics of growing churches is a strong sense of purpose, a collective sense of what God is calling us to do, considering God’s mission in the world and where we are a part of it. Discerning this sense of purpose is not a quick or an easy task, but it is essential.
Led by the Holy Spirit, we begin by having conversations—first, our conversation is with God, through prayer and Bible study. This has been going on for a while now, in a direct way. Several months ago, we began a process of studying the book of Acts. (Raise your hand if you participated in one of these studies!) The reason we started with Acts is because Acts tells the story of the early church, before there was any institutional structure or organization—simply people believing in God and sharing the news of Jesus with their neighbors. It might be the most mission-oriented book in the Bible, as much as the faithful believers were traveling, supporting one another through letters and visits and sending money.
So with Acts as our starting place, we met weekly, in small groups of two or three people. Each week, we looked at two chapters from the book of Acts, until we studied the whole book. Some of us have finished every chapter in the book of Acts, some have moved on to studying other books of the Bible, some are still working at finishing Acts, and some only met a few times. All of this work has been valuable because the focus was not simply on studying the words of the Bible, but noticing what God was doing, what people were doing, and noticing what any church can learn from these things. These small groups also spent time in prayer, which is necessary. Fifteen minutes of prayer, to be exact! Some of us thought that felt like a long time! But with practice, it became more comfortable, more possible, and we grew more open to hearing God’s voice.
After several weeks of this, we re-gathered at a mini-retreat, back at the beginning of May. This was part of the second conversation, with each other. We shared what we had learned, we studied Acts in depth, and we began considering what this was teaching us about where God is calling us as a congregation. In three groups, we created purpose statements and guiding principles. The purpose statement is meant to help us focus on what is God’s purpose for our church. The guiding principles are a short set of action statements to help us remember our core values as a congregation. We were instructed that for any church that attempts this process of discernment, the very first guiding principle is always the same: Jesus is Lord! It sounds obvious, perhaps so obvious that it doesn’t need to be said. But we need to be reminded that Jesus is Lord. Our opinions are not the Lord. We serve Jesus, not the will of the majority.
So we have one guiding principle written for us. But what about the rest? Out of the mini-retreat, out of the prayers of all of these small groups, and led by the Holy Spirit, a few wordsmiths put all of this information together and fashioned a purpose statement and set of guiding principles which will help Bethany Lutheran Church discern where God is calling us to work in the world. You may have seen the scratch work, written on large pads of paper hanging in the Friendship Room, behind the sanctuary. These wordsmiths considered many words, drew on the Spirit’s inspiration, and we collaborated. We didn’t want to create simply a list of things to do. We sought out words and phrases which will help us to keep our focus on where God calls us. We started with the work of the small groups from the mini-retreat, and it was interesting that, without even really trying, we managed to use all of the words and concepts which were common to all of them. One of our goals was to create short phrases which would be memorable and meaningful as guiding principles.
Over the next few months, these will be presented in various ways to the congregation. Our hope is to continue the conversation with everyone in the congregation—this effort needs the input of everyone! The plan is to give everyone a chance to respond to the guiding principles and purpose statement. This is part of our discernment process, determining if we are together moving in the same direction, guided by God. At the end of the summer, when we celebrate Rally Day on September 9th, we will vote to affirm these guiding principles and purpose statement, and we’ll begin to use them!
So how do we use these, and what are these things for? These principles will be used by the church council and by committees in doing their work, to help discern where God is leading us to focus our efforts. These principles will also be used by everyone in daily life, helping us to consider how we approach our own decision-making, seeking God’s wisdom and guidance. None of these are difficult to learn—the words are simple enough for any child to understand. And there are six guiding principles, because five or six is about all we can remember, anyway. This helps us to keep things simple.
The proposed guiding principles are these: first, Jesus is Lord. This is always the first principle!
Second, everything we do is worship. As much as worship is central to the heart of any congregation, our understanding of worship extends beyond the actions and words that happen here in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Worshiping God is a way of life—praying, singing and praising happen everywhere. We worship God by loving others, by sharing with others. Meetings, fellowship, serving the poor—all of these are ways we worship God. Everything we do is worship.
The third guiding principle is this: We are rooted in God’s Word. The Word of God, what we know from the Bible and from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us our starting place and foundation. We are always returning to God’s Word and letting that inform our decisions, shaping our understanding, forming us for mission. We are rooted in God’s Word.
The fourth principle goes like this: Our integrity depends on speaking the Truth. For us to be strong as a community and as a congregation, we are called upon to speak the truth. This means being honest in our dealings with one another, keeping our communication clear and above-board, not participating in secrets or in gossip. Speaking the truth is also bigger than us—sometimes we will be called upon to speak Truth, with a capital T. This means speaking Truth to power, advocating for people who don’t have a voice, speaking up for the oppressed and the poor. This is Truth which relates to justice, and it is vital. Our integrity depends on speaking the Truth.
Fifth, we encourage and welcome all. Many people experience this congregation as welcoming, and offering welcome and hospitality is part of our call. We welcome those who are new, getting to know who they are and who God has created them to be, and we encourage people. We encourage even people we have known for a long time, supporting one another in faith and in following Jesus, because it isn’t always easy to follow Jesus! We benefit from words of encouragement, words of thanks and gratefulness, and this strengthens us for the work that God calls us to. We encourage and welcome all.
And sixth, we share with others what God has given us. This speaks to our understanding of stewardship. Everything we have is a gift from God! We don’t claim to earn or deserve what we have, but God gives us everything we need. We share out of our abundance. We don’t hoard our wealth or fear for the future. We are free to share so that others may live and experience God’s blessings, too. We share with others what God has given us.
Finally, we have a purpose statement. What we have discerned is that God’s purpose for Bethany Lutheran Church in Dallas, Texas is for us to share God’s gifts with love—God gives, we share. God gives us life, talents, love, faith, intelligence, affection, possessions, food, joy…and we share all of these with others. We share through offerings, through sharing our gifts and talents, through service in the community. God is generous, so we are generous. God gives, we share.
All of these principles and our purpose statement are here to help us remain focused. Because we trust that God IS leading us, God IS guiding us in mission. The more we use these principles, the more we remember our purpose, the more we will stay focused on mission, the more we will be a part of God’s mission in the world. There will be challenges, and there will be threats to this vision. Following Jesus and living the life of faith means taking risks. But we trust that God is at work, that God is up to something here. David trusted in God enough to face the giant Goliath in battle; David was anointed by God, and he was anointed as king, but that didn’t mean he didn’t still face dangers. We, too, are anointed as God’s children when we are baptized, but that doesn’t prevent us from experiencing danger or death. It is because we confess faith in the risen Christ that we are redeemed, that we are set free from sin and death, that we can walk with confidence, trusting in God’s guidance.
30 years after Karl Wallenda fell to his death from a tightrope in Puerto Rico, his great-grandson, Nik Wallenda, successfully completed that same walk. The gift of focus passed on from generation to generation, and even though the family of Flying Wallendas experienced accidents while performing that killed or disabled members of their family, they are not remembered because of the tragedies they’ve experienced. They are remembered for the great things they have attempted and accomplished. Their name, the Flying Wallendas, was given to them by a reporter the day after witnessing an accident where the family fell off a tightrope. “The Wallendas fell so gracefully that it seemed as if they were flying.”
Nik Wallenda said he started walking a wire when he was two years old, and it was a dream of his to walk in his great-grandfather’s footsteps. Most recently, last Saturday, he crossed the widest part of the river directly over Niagara Falls. He crossed the 1800-foot cable in just under 30 minutes, holding a forty pound pole to keep his balance. The crossing was broadcast on live television, and people watching could hear Nik describing his fatigue. "I'm strained. I'm drained. This is so physical. Fighting that wind isn't easy. My hands actually at this point feel like they're going numb," he said. As he reached the last few feet of wire, he sprinted toward the goal, reaching Canada and presenting his passport to customs officials. After over 100 years during which daredevil stunts were banned at Niagara Falls, Nik Wallenda was glad to join the ranks of the famous who had accomplished amazing things there at the waterfall. He said, “It’s as real as it gets now, isn’t it? There’s no turning back. It’s done. It’s official. It’s in the history books.” But Nik Wallenda isn’t content to rest on his accomplishments. He has already secured permits to become the first person to walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon.
What amazing things will God call us to do? What feats of great faith? What opportunities to trust God will be provided? Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” Come wind, come rain, come calm and come faith, that is exactly what they did. Trusting in God, and keeping our focus on following Jesus, we will do the same. Amen.
 Steinke, Peter. Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach. 110.
|Sermon Pentecost 2011||