Before coming to be the senior minister of this church, I should probably let you know that I checked your references.
One reference said: “Since losing their beloved pastor John Mclemore, who retired in November and passed away last year on Valentine’s Day, things have been very difficult for the church. John could relate to his congregation like few pastors today can. And they loved him for it. They lost a good man. However, there are still some very good people still that church, and Central has all of the makings to rise back up.”
Another said: “Several people recently joined the church. So, I think Central Christian Church is on an upswing!”
Someone from the Disciples of Christ office in Indianapolis said: “I believe Central Christian Church has to potential to once more be an “up and coming” church in our denomination.
Now, I will be the first to admit that your references sounded pretty good. It sounded positive. Obviously it sounded like the type of church that I would like to be a part of: “A church on its way up”; “on an upswing”; “up and coming.”
Because that is how our society measures success. Success in our world means things are moving ‘upward.”
We are taught at a very early age that “up” is where it is at, and we spend the first twenty years of our lives trying to grow up. Then we go to college in order to move up a little higher. And after graduation we work hard to make sure we are still upward bound: up for a promotion so we can always move up the ladder.
Up, we are told, is where we will find our life, a life that is full, complete, and abundant. Up is where we are able rub elbows with others who also shaped up, grown up and moved up. They are what we call the “in” crowd. They are the “up” and the “in” as opposed to the “down and the out.”
So when I heard others describing this church as one that has the promise to move “up,” of course, I got excited.
And, I suppose, if you look at us on the surface, there are many things about us that are up. Attendance is up. Participation is up. People here seem to be upbeat, uplifted, you seem to have taken an upturn. And that sounds good, doesn’t it?
Being “up” sounds so good, that many churches have actually named their churches “Upward.” If you go on the Google, you will find an Upward Baptist Church, Upward Presbyterian, Upward Methodist, Upward Pentecostal, and yes, even an Upward Christian Church. There is also Christian sports program for young people, with basketball, flag football, soccer and cheerleading, called, you guessed it, “Upward Sports.”
The premise behind almost every Christian best-seller in the bookstore and the message of nearly every popular preacher in America is all about how to shape up and move up, get uplifted and be upbeat.
Thus, it sounds very positive when people say we are a church that is on its way up; that we are up and coming, that we are on an upswing, that we are a church with upward mobility.
However, as the pastor of this church, I would argue that, here at Central Christian Church, it can also be said that the exact opposite is true. It could be said that this church is actually on its way down.
In fact, as one really gets to know this church, gets to know its people, its passions, its love for God and for others, I believe it becomes very obvious that that there is far more here that is going downward than upward.
Now, I realize that sounds rather disconcerting. For nobody wants to go downward. For guess what happens when you go on the Google and look for churches with the name “Downward?” They’re not any. Just like there are no Christian or any sports leagues called “Downward Sports.”
As Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite pastors has said: “Downward mobility [in our society] is not only discouraged, but even considered unwise, unhealthy or downright stupid.”
Yet, that is exactly where I believe we as a church are heading. And guess what? On this First Sunday in Lent, this is actually some very good news.
For on this Sunday, we remember that at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, at the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus resisted the temptation to embrace any type of ministry that was not one with downward mobility.
Notice verse 5: “The devil led him up…”
And again in verse 11: The devil said that the hands of angels would bear Jesus “up.”
Jesus was Savior. But he was a different kind of savior. Jesus was King, but he refused to succumb to the temptation to rule from on high like the Kings of this world. Jesus was a King from another world, sent by a God who chose to reveal divine love through a life of downward mobility.
When God chose to reveal to the world God’s holy power over sin and evil, a power that is even victorious over death itself, God emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out, humbled God’s self and came down, down to meet us where we are, down to earth through a tiny baby, laid down in a manger, to be worshipped by down and out shepherds.
The scriptures do say that Jesus grew upward in stature; however, the gospel writers continually paint a portrait Jesus’ life as one of downward mobility. He is continually bending himself down to the ground, getting his hands dirty to touch the places in people that most need touching.
While his disciples seemed to always focus on privilege and honor and upward mobility, chastising little children who needed to shape up and grow up before they could come to Jesus, Jesus argued that the Kingdom of God actually belonged to such children.
While his disciples argued about who was going to be promoted to be first in the Kingdom, Jesus frustrated them (and if we are honest, frustrated us) by doing things like stooping down down to welcome small children, moving down to sit at the lowest seat at the table, bending down to wash their feet, crouching down to forgive a sinner, reaching down to serve the poor, lowering himself down to accept the outcast, touch the leper, heal the sick, and raise the dead.
And nearing the culmination of this downward life, Jesus, the savior and King of the world, made his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem to liberate God’s people, not on some white war stallion that made its way up the equestrian ladder, but on a borrowed donkey. And he rode into Jerusalem not with an elite army that had advanced up the ranks in some up-and-coming militia, but came in with an army of rag-tag students who had no idea what they were doing or where they were going.
The whole scene, in the words of Henri Nouwen, looks “downright stupid.”
While others exercised worldly power to move up, climb up, and advance, Jesus exercised a strange and peculiar power that always propelled him in the opposite direction. It is not a power that rules. It is a power that serves.
It is not a power that takes. It is a power that gives.
It is not a power that seizes. It is a power that suffers.
It is not a power that transforms stone into bread to feed his body. It is a power that transforms his body into living bread to feed the world.
It is not a power that commands angels to save himself. It is a power that gives himself away.
It is not a power that dominates from some high place in glory. It is a power that dies in a low place called Golgotha.
This is the narrow and seemingly foolish way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless–toward all who thirst and hunger justice and compassion.
What do they have to offer? Not success, not popularity, not riches, not worldly power, but the way to life, full, complete, abundant and eternal.[i]
And the good news is that as I look around this room, I see people who are committed to traveling this same downward path.
I see people who have chosen to be here this morning, not to move up to be with the “in” crowd. Not to get something here in worship that will make you more successful, more affluent, climb a little higher. You are not even here looking to be uplifted or to be more upbeat or for some kind of upstart to get your life headed on an upswing. I see people here who have chosen to move in the opposite direction.
I see a room full of people who are here not to get something, but to give something, not to be served by programs, but to serve on a mission.
Because you have heard, and you have believed Jesus when he said: “You know that among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them, and great men make their authority felt; among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).
May this always be who we are as a church. Although it may sound good to be a church that is “up and coming,” may we always be a church that is “down and going.”
May we always go down, humbly, sacrificially and selflessly. And then may we go out, bending ourselves down to the ground if we have to, to touch the places in people that most need touching. May we go out and stoop down to welcome all children. May we go out and reach down to serve the poor, lower ourselves down to accept the outcast. May we go out and get down on our knees to pray for and suffer with the sick and the despairing. And as I saw at the Civitan Dance this Friday night, may we always be a church that is ready to get down, drop it down, to get as low as we can go, with any in our community who have special needs.
So, the next time you hear someone say that your church is on the way up, that we are on an upswing, you need to correct them by saying, “No, Central Christian Church is where it is all going down.” And down, not up, is where we have found our life: a life that is complete, full, abundant and eternal.