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Reflecting on our Mission: Inviting People into the Story of Jesus

Reflecting on our Mission: Inviting People into the Story of Jesus

Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Feb 7, 2016 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor

 

Preamble

Good morning and welcome to the Vineyard!

We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your first time or 100th, we are honored that you are here today in our community. Whether you arrived here this morning because of an Internet search, because you were invited, or because you already knew the way, we are grateful for your presence. Our simple prayer for you is that you would experience peace, welcome, and acceptance. We also pray that you would find space to encounter the loving presence of the living God during your time with us this morning!

 

Introduction

We just concluded our four-week sermon series, Following God in an Unstable World, this was a series that focused on the call that the Prophet Micah places on God’s people that we learn how to act justly, love mercy, and walk in humility and peace with our God. Overall this series was challenging, impactful, and fruitful for us as a congregation.  As we journeyed together, it blessed me, the sermon readers, and the leadership team to hear how you were wrestling, catching God’s heart, and experiencing the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit during the series. Together, we learned a great deal about God’s heart and passion for justice and his invitation for us to let our hearts break with what breaks God’s heart. We really appreciated all of the feedback we received throughout the series. Thanks for trying the practical tips and letting us know as well.

 

A Look Back

As I reflect on the past year, I’m struck by gratitude. One of the early practical tips we focused on as a church community was trying to encourage us to increase space in our lives for gratitude to take root. Joy often surprises us. And the “root of joy is gratefulness…it is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.

 

When things around us don’t seem to be going as we want them to, there’s a reframe in the Black church that I find helpful, it goes something like, “This joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me, so the world can’t take it away.” We worship a loving Father who is ready to bless us in so many different ways, and when we are open to Him, waiting in a posture of openness and surrender, it is so much easier for Him to work in our lives, to transform our hearts, to surprise us with joy.

 

So, can I just take a moment and express my thanks and gratitude for each of you. I am grateful to God for each of you, for our church, for our community, and for the love and support that our community has experienced at your hands. You’ve been an incredible congregation, helping us heal, rebuild, strengthen, and grow our local church. I’m grateful that I am able to grow, lead, and raise my family alongside each of you. I see the results of all of your prayers, your intercession, your fasting, and your service.

 

Because of you, we have been able to manage our leadership transition with integrity and most importantly, with love. I’m not sure if you notice “the love” as much as I do, but there is so much love in the house. I see “the love” in the lobby as folks are warmly greeted and welcomed. I see “the love” in prayer station as the kingdom breaks-in with healing, wholeness, and peace. I see “the love” in the smilies of our children who are greeted by name and welcomed. I see “the love” in the congregation as we continue to grow in our connectedness and make sure there’s space for everyone. I see “the love” in the delight that our guests experience when they excitedly say things like, “I’ve never been so welcomed in my life” or “I’ve never encountered such a diverse and welcoming community.”

 

Embedded in this gratitude is over 300 stories. Stories that are still being told that originate within every ethnic group, family type, age, and demographic. Your commitment to be the people of God has done one of the most important things that we all need, in spite of us having different stories, we all have found space for belonging here at the Vineyard.

 

Friends, this is the real work of the church, creating a welcoming, diverse, inclusive, and loving community that reveals what the Gospel writer, Luke calls the “great joy for all people” that God sent his one and only son not to judge the world, but to save the world by revealing the Good and Beautiful God in their midst. A God who invites us to follow him through the narrow gate into life.

 

So, well done church!

 

Looking Forward: Inviting People into the Story of Jesus

This month, I will enter my 16th year on staff here at the Vineyard, and I couldn’t be more excited about what we have been doing as a church. Every day that I come into the church building to work, I’m excited to continue to help shape and tell the story of a community that’s welcoming, diverse, inclusive, and committed to making sure that our friends and neighbors know that the story of Jesus is Good News for them in every way.

 

All of this has been catalyzed for me into a simple sentence: Inviting People into the Story of Jesus. I shared this vision statement with our leadership team and ask them to help expand and explain what this sentence meant to them. I’ll like to share what they said.


Inviting:  Our dream is to offer a vision of Jesus and His Way that is accessible to those living in a progressive, urban/suburban center like Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. This includes removing barriers to particular cultures and subcultures, racial and ethnic backgrounds, politics, economic status, etc. This inherently includes a "come as you are" invitation to everyone and anyone. The invitation involves a personal relationship with a living God who doesn't leave us where we are, but transforms into his likeness and image and invites us to begin living in His kingdom now.

 

People: Created in the image of God, every person we encounter is an experience with the Divine. As the People of God, our aim is to live as a community that reflects his beauty, mercy, and welcome to any and every person that we come into contact with. This allows us to enfold the broken, the exiled, the young, the marginalized into the the family of God.

 

Into: We aim to orient and guide people of different backgrounds, as well as different stages of faith, into a continuing journey towards Jesus. We want to be a community that nurtures transformation, inward, communal, and outwards all with a goal of learning to cultivate a deeper experience of the Living God.

 

Story: We are living in the captivating and unfinished Story of God – a story of God pursuing his beloved children and restoring his creation. We embody this story as individuals in our respective fields of work. We embody this story as a loving community that bears the suffering, healing, and restoration won for us through Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. We bear witness that Jesus is King and partner with the Spirit to breathe new life into narratives of despair.

 

Jesus: Jesus is our shared treasure, the destination and path of our pilgrimage. Our spirituality is the one he forged in communion with the Father through the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, Jesus offers intimacy with God to all people, and we are eager to make safe spaces for this to occur. We believe that all of life is spiritual, and that our brokenness can be restored and made whole through Him. We celebrate God’s presence, love, and truth, pursuing lives of faith, hope, gratitude, and worship. God invites everyone everywhere into this way of life, and we believe it is the best possible way to live.

 

Better. People.

We prayed that God would make our church a welcoming space, and in the past year over 2500 people accepted our invitations, some joined us for our Sunday celebrations, others showed up for our free community events like our Fall Festival and Easter Egg Hunt, others came to help raise money for the homeless, and to provide resources for those suffering HIV/AIDS.

 

We prayed that God would make our church a prayerful place. Brad Wathen gathered a team of folks to commit to intercede and pray and often share words of knowledge, prophecies, and other prophetic insights which have impacted us all. We have received over 1000 blue prayer cards and every week our staff intercede and pray over those cards. We are also seeing God’s hand of healing, transformation and love impact those who join us in the prayer station. Each year we empty the Answered prayer wall and you can see it’s almost full.

 

We prayed that God would make our church a place of refuge, a place of community,  where we are known to God and each other. We have been learning each other’s names, and lingering over cookies and coffee at the monthly coffee hour. After the celebration this morning about 50 of you will leave and have lunch together because you are participating in Let’s Do Lunch. We have had over 75 people participate in our Slice of Life as we listen to and share our common stories.

 

Our hope is to be a church where God can be discovered and rediscovered, again and again. We want to do the things that mattered to Jesus like following him through the narrow gate into life, like caring for the poor, join God’s heart for justice, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. We want to grow, so that we have more to give. We want to be a blessing to our friends, neighbors, city, county, and ultimately our world.

 

If God calls us to anything, he surely calls us to love. Then asks us to love more. And then to love beyond that. We believe that God loves us and our community and is inviting us to grow together. We want to respond to that and welcome others to do the same, so that we may be better friends, better families, better workers, better students, better stewards. Better. People.

 

The Start of Lent

That’s my update and a bit about where we are going. Now, I want to transition to Lent.

 

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent. Lent is the season in the liturgical calendar where Christians all over the world prepare themselves for the celebration of Easter.

 

A part of the Ash Wednesday ritual is to receive ashes imposed on our foreheads in the shape of the cross, reminding us that

 

For dust you are

and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19c)

 

The ashes we received on our foreheads are the burned fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations. This is a serious and somber reminder of our mortality, our fragility, our sin, and our need for forgiveness.

 

"Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Luke 11:4

 

It is also a reminder that all that we are, all we hope to be, is held in the loving hands of a Father who sees us.

 

I will be co-leading the annual ecumenical Taizé Ash Wednesday service at First Presbyterian. I really want you to make every effort to come out to this service, especially, if you don’t come from a liturgical background. Julius Buzzard & LaTricia Mitchell will also be participating in the service. After the service Nigel Berry will host folks at the Pizza House or at Bubble Tea. There’s limited childcare, so we need to know if you are coming with your children.

 

So for most Christians, Lent serves as a time of deep self-reflection and internal inspection. It’s a time to look at what has been getting in the way of our relationship with God, and to actively seek renewal and intimacy with God and each other. For some, it can be a time to strip away bad habits, clear our minds, rid ourselves of excess baggage, and to examine all the ways we “miss the mark” as we acknowledge our regret. We have lots of tools to help us with this process: prayer, fasting, service, and the simplification of our lives in the presence of a loving Father.

 

In the ancient church, Lent primarily served not only as a period of deep reflection of the sins that break community (adultery, lying, stealing) and a time for public penitence for sinners, but also served to prepare recent converts to Christianity for baptism. We will join this tradition by hosting baptisms on Easter Sunday here at the Vineyard. If you are here and would like to get baptized, you can sign-up in the lobby and someone from the leadership team will get in touch with you.

 

Our Lenten journey together will take 40 days. Technically Lent is 46 days before Easter, since most faith traditions skip the Sundays, that’s how we get to 40 days.

 

Next week we will launch our cleverly titled Lenten sermon series, Jesus is Really Good. I’m excited to partner with the rest of the speaking team (Julius, Lindsay, & Nigel) for this series and to hear their voices during Lent as we make our way to Easter.

 

It is astonishingly easy for us to forget that through all the suffering, loss, and daily challenges we encounter in life, God is ultimately, reliably, and refreshingly good. Jesus reveals this goodness in a human form. He has entered our frailty and pain in order that we may encounter his goodness in our own humanity.

 

We have prepared some material for our Lenten journey together, so I want to walk you through it now.

 

  1. My Bold Request
    Identify one thing you’d like to ask God to do for you and then ask daily. Isaiah 62 instructs us to “remind” the Lord, and to “give him no rest” as we bring our longings to him. Jesus tells us the story of a persistent widow who receives justice from an unjust judge simply because she will not stop asking. And Jesus says to us, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” So we are inviting each of us to make one bold, deeply person request this Lent. Take some time to prayerfully choose a deep need, a powerful longing that has been gripping your heart.
  2. The Answered Prayer Wall
    If you receive an answer to prayer during Lent, we invite you to write it on a sticky-note and stick it on the ANSWERED PRAYER WALL in the sanctuary. This is both a tangible reminder to us all that our prayers are heard by a powerful and active God and an act of worshipful gratitude. We can watch together as we visibly see the Holy Spirit at work in our midst.
  3. Identify and Pray for Your Six
    Prayerfully select six people in your world to pray for each day through the six weeks of Lent.  I suggest  people just beyond your primary relationship circle. Maybe not family and friends, but people around you—neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances— whoever you bump up against regularly in your day to day life. Especially those who might benefit from more experience of the Good God. It can be helpful to reflect on the ways you have been impacted by the prayers of others for your life.
  4. Bless Your Six
    This moves us to our next Lenten practice. Consider some extravagant care for one of your six. We not only wish to pray for God’s love and goodness in their lives, but we also want to become for those around us a reflection of the good God we serve. Ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to highlight a way that you can tangibly bless one of the people you’re praying for, a way that you can become for them a tangible encounter with God’s goodness. Now do it. Really. Even if it feels awkward or challenging. Ask God not only to meet the other person with love and care, but also to transform your heart through the act of sacrificial giving. To deepen this practice, consider engaging this act privately. When you give, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). Intentionally avoid recognition or praise for your act. Pray through how it feels to do this.
  5. Experiment with a daily devotional
    We have a daily devotional for the book of Mark available on the church website as a PDF that you can download and print out yourself.
 
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