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Transforming Church

Sermon - 1/25/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 58:6-12

Rather than read the text for you this morning from Isaiah 58, what I'd actually like to do is play it for you.  From the National Cathedral, where the National Prayer Service was held Wednesday morning after the inauguration.  The Reverend Cynthia Hale, pastor of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ in Decatur, Georgia (one of our largest congregations with about 5,000 members) was the one who read the scripture at that service Wednesday morning.


[The reading from Isaiah takes place at the 17-minute mark of the above video clip.  Dr. Sharon Watkins sermon begins at 39 minutes and 37 seconds]

Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday.
11The Lord will guide you continually,
   and satisfy your needs in parched places,
   and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
   like a spring of water,
   whose waters never fail.
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
   the restorer of streets to live in.


Of course, in the front pew at that worship service was President Obama and the First Lady, Vice-President Biden and Dr. Biden (his wife), Secretary of State Clinton and her husband . . . what's-his-name J.  And I love that, just think of the power of that, of reading that scripture at that service with that audience:


This is the morning after the inauguration, the first full day of the new administration.  And as my son noted, who was in the National Mall with the Sheldon choir, led by our own Nancy Anderson and a few others from our church were there (Patty, Kelsi, Hannah), they and about 2,000,000 other friends, but as my son said to me:  "Dad, separation of church and state?".  There wasn't any evidence of that, even in the inauguration -- it began and concluded with pastors, references to God, scripture throughout.

I was captivated, as many of you were, watching history unfold, the first African-American President -- hooey.  I thought the real history was made that evening at the Neighborhood Ball, when live on T.V. the President of the United States did the 'hustle'!  Bumping rear-ends with other dancers.  I mean, who'da thunk it?!

As gifted of an orator President Obama may be, actually I did not think that the address he gave was the best of the festivities, I really thought that the one given at the National Prayer Service was even better.  The sermon is online, that sermon of course delivered by the Reverend Dr. Sharon Watkins who is the General Minister and President of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ.  It's quite an honor for us to see her in that role.

Dr. Watkins comes from Oklahoma, and so she began her sermon with a story from the Cherokee Commission (the Cherokee Nation is based in Oklahoma).  The story is a Grandfather teaching his grandson about the battles that each of us face, that go on within us.  And he said:

“There are two wolves struggling inside each of us,” the old man said.

“One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, fear . . .

“The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love . . .”

The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: “Which wolf wins, Grandfather?”

His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”


And then Dr. Watkins, I think in a brilliant move of rhetoric, likened that story of those two wolves to the account in Isaiah of the two fasts.  The first fast, a fast of self-righteousness and self-interest that leads only to quarrels and strikes of the fist, the prophet says.  The second fast, the one you heard read by Dr. Hale, the fast to loose the bonds of injustice and to feed the hungry.

And then drawing on those two images, she put forth this challenge to the President of the United States:

In the days immediately before us, there will be much to draw us away from the grand work of loving God and the hard work of loving neighbor. In crisis times, a basic instinct seeks to take us over—a fight/flight instinct that leans us toward the fearful wolf, orients us toward the self-interested fast . . .

In international hard times, our instinct is to fight—to pick up the sword, to seek out enemies, to build walls against the other—and why not? They just might be out to get us. We’ve got plenty of evidence to that effect. Someone has to keep watch and be ready to defend, and Mr. President—Tag! You’re it!

But on the way to those tough decisions, which American promises will frame those decisions? Will you continue to reason from your ethical center, from the bedrock values of our best shared hopes? Which wolf will you feed?

In financial hard times, our instinct is flight—to hunker down, to turn inward, to hoard what little we can get our hands on, to be fearful of others who may take the resources we need. In hard financial times, which fast do we choose? The fast that placates our hunkered-down soul—or the fast that reaches out to our sister and our brother?

In times, such as these, we the people need you, the leaders of this nation, to be guided by the counsel that Isaiah gave so long ago, to work for the common good, for the public happiness, the well-being of the nation and the world, knowing that our individual wellbeing depends upon a world in which liberty and justice prevail.

This is the biblical way. It is also the American way—to believe in something bigger than ourselves, to reach out to neighbor to build communities of possibility, of liberty and justice for all.


What a message for the first day of the administration.

That image of which wolf to feed, which fast to choose, is a great one not just for the leaders of our nation as they go about repairing the breach in the economy and restoring the streets of Baghdad and Gaza, it is also a great image for us as we seek to be a transforming church which feeds the good wolf in each of us.  That we may in turn do God's work, to break every yoke, to satisfy the needs of the afflicted, and thereby become, as the prophet says, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.  Or as Amos says, let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Such is the vision that the prophets give to us for how to be God's people in this world. 

Just as the President laid out his vision for our nation in his inaugural address, on this Annual-Meeting Sunday I want to lay out for you not just my vision, but I hope what we believe to be God's vision for us that emerged in the Vision Process led by Dick Hamm (insiders will remember is the predecessor of Sharon Watkins as our General Minister and President -- though I don't know that he ever got to preach to a President).  Dick led that process, and you'll recall that in that process we engaged in a 10-week prayer, in 27 triads (groups of 3 members).  And then we further refined the vision that emerged through the prayer triads of this past summer, reading the book by Diana Butler-Bass "Christianity for the Rest of Us".  And they provided input to our Vision Team, and our Communications Task Force, and our task force for Spiritual Direction.  And those groups are still hard at work refining that vision and implementing it through our strategic plan.

To use the Cherokee image, this then is our plan for feeding the good wolf.  Or in Isaiah's words, the fast that will cause our light to break forth like the dawn, to be a transforming church:  transforming lives, Christianity, and our world. 

In that strategic plan, we have set forth 6 goals:

The first goal:


Our Vision Team has developed that in a statement that we put out at Christmas, and is being refined, that we strive to transform lives:





These statements describing who we seek to be, the type of church we are, is still a work in progress -- if you have input, suggestions, or comments, we welcome those.

The second goal:


In that sermon Dr. Watkins gave Wednesday morning, she said to the President and to the nation, she called on the President to stay true to his ethical center, and she said the values that have guided us in the past are values that empowered us to move through the perils of earlier times and can guide us now into a future of renewed promises.

And so our Vision Team described our core values in this way:  we are a community that believes that our continuing vitality is dependent on investing our resources in issues of social justice for our community and our world, while also investing our resources in the spiritual lives of our members and friends, and the spiritual life of our church.

That means:



The third goal:


If you saw our Future Story video (and we have copies if you missed it), you will recall the scene in the park when Nancy and Sarah, talking over the noise of a lawn-mower in the background, talked about all the groups in the church.  And Nancy then invited Sarah (they were playing characters by the way, don't take this literally) to join her in forming this new group called "Walking the Talk Group" in their neighborhood.  The idea being that our ministry is not contained in these walls.  That we are a church that intentionally seeks to be out in the community, visible. 

Already we have three of our morning groups that meet in a local coffee house, Theos. 

The fourth goal:


This is the goal that gave birth to our life-changing ministry guide.  By the way, this is not one of those tired "time and talent" surveys used in the past that many of you filled out, but rather a whole process of study and reflection leading to a discovery session with a trained Elder of the church to help every member discover the ways in which God may be calling you to use your unique gifts to further the work of God given to us.

So we encourage everyone to make use of that guide, and if you did not receive one this past Fall, or you lost yours, let us know, we would be glad to provide you with one.  And when you have completed that booklet, please call Dick Busic or call the Office to schedule your discovery session with an Elder.

The fifth goal:


To this end, we are offering two new opportunities during Lent, and "Introduction to the Bible" class in two sessions.  The first session during the six weeks of Lent, on how to read scripture using a wonderful new resource written by Dr. Sharon Warner, Phyllis' daughter, Marilyn's sister.  And then the second session, after Easter, a 10-week overview of the entire Bible using Marcus Borg's book "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time".

These classes are especially good for anyone new to the faith, new to the church, or who just wants to learn more about our approach to scripture.

The second opportunity will be a small group experience in the way of prayer, which will explore a wide array of methods prayer including praying by heart, praying with music, praying by (I love this one) gazing -- if you think that person is daydreaming, perhaps they're engaged in prayer.  Praying with our bodies, praying using scripture in contemplation.

And so for anyone who struggles with the meaning of prayer, how to pray, or would just like to deepen their prayer lives, we will have this opportunity.

Both of these will begin on Shrove Tuesday, also known as the Mardi Gras, February 24th, when we'll have our own little Mardi Gras with a pancake dinner here at the church.

The sixth goal (by the way, this is the result of all the other stuff that we are doing):


To do that, the Strategic Plan calls us to shift from a "Pastor-Centered" congregation as we are now, to a "Program-Centered" church.  And so we will be adding a second, full-time Minister to our staff this summer to make that possible.  You'll hear more about those plans this afternoon at our Annual Meeting.

Isaiah laid forth a vision for rebuilding not just a city or a nation but a people.  At a time when war had consumed critical resources and the economy was in a shambles -- sound familiar?  The tendency in such times, as Sharon Watkins said, is to think of 'me first'.  To take care of our own, shore up our defenses, protect ourselves against any and all threats at all costs.

Isaiah comes forth to show us that the way forward, the way of God, is not to retreat into our protective shells, and it's not to feed the vengeful wolf. 

The way that God wants us to live, the way that Jesus showed us how to live, is to be the good wolf.  To believe in something bigger than ourselves, as Dr. Watkins told the President and the nation, to reach out to neighbor and build communities of possibility of liberty and justice for all.

In her poem that was written for the inauguration, I think lost in all of the excitement afterward, Elizabeth Alexander asked:  "What if the mightiest word is 'love'?  Love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light".

What if, indeed.

Which wolf will we feed?

To be a transforming church is to make that "what if?", those communities of possibility, here and now.

May it be.


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