We cannot be Christians alone. Jesus calls us into the community of faith that follows the way of life he taught and lived. Last week we talked about how conforming our lives to the image of Christ for others is subversive of our consumerist me first culture. Jesus calls us to feed the poor, care for the widow and orphan, heal the sick, welcome everyone with open hospitality, forgive even our enemies and those who have hurt us, embrace self-sacrificing love. As we said last Sunday, we don’t conform ourselves to the image of Christ for others, rather it is God’s grace working in us and through us that can transform us into followers of the way of Jesus. And part of God’s grace working in us and through us is becoming part of the community faith, where we covenant to prayer with and for each other. The grace of God works through prayer, our prayers and the prayers of others. If the divine spark within us is to grow, we must take time each day to pray.

But here is a secret, when we ask other people to pray for us, and we covenant with others to pray for them, something miraculous happens. We become the Body of Christ in the world, and the power of our prayers is multiplied. As Jesus said, “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

When we gather together as the community of faith and find common agreement through the core values of Jesus, miracles can begin to happen. The hungry can be fed. Strangers can be welcomed. The sick can be healed. The elderly, the mentally ill and the lonely can be cared for. When we come together in agreement on the core values of Jesus – love happens.

But how do we embrace the core values of Jesus in community? We use communal spiritual formation. There are many forums of communal spiritual formation: Sunday School, Prayer Meetings, Retreats, Worship, Small Groups, Bible Study, Communion. These are all familiar forms of Spiritual Formation. This morning I want to talk about an old form of communal spiritual formation that comes from the Quakers – “Listening Circles.”

Allow me to describe this form of community discernment. A small group of eight to ten people gathers. The session begins with ten to twenty minutes of silent listening to God. This prayer time is important, because we need to open the community up to God’s presence and God’s direction. Otherwise we’re just tempted to talk about what we want in our church, rather than where God may be leading us in our life together as a community. Then the “newest” member of the community is invited to offer his/her perception of the values he/she believes God is calling the community to embrace. Next people who have no official position within the community are invited to offer their perception of the values they perceive God is calling the community to embrace. Finally, everyone else is invited to share. The pastor doesn’t say anything, because he talks enough as it is.

The reason for beginning with the “newest” members and those who do not hold official positions is that God often speaks most clearly through the least likely members of the community. In all of this process the group does not discuss or comment until everyone has had an opportunity to share. We need to make sure that we listen attentively to everyone. As discussion unfolds we may discover misunderstandings or conflicts that need special attention in resolving. There will be time enough to discuss any areas of disagreement after everyone has been heard.

“Listening Circles” can help a community of people clarify their purpose and direction based upon the shared core values of the group. We use silent prayer as part of the process to insure that we remain open to God’s promptings, because we are a God centered Community of Faith. The core values of our church need to be aligned with the way of Jesus, rather than just what we want.

If we pray together and listen we might be able to sense the promptings of God calling us to more faithful life together in community. Of course we will encounter obstacles in our process of discerning God’s will. Our egos will get in the way. Many of us will be absolutely sure God wants us to embrace exactly what we want the church to look like. Some people will want to go back to the 1950’s, when life seemed to be better. Other people will have a particular project they want everyone else to embrace.

Ego and church remind me of a story. Captain Jones was finally given command of the biggest , fastest, grandest battle ships in the fleet. He took his new vessel out on a shakedown cruise. One night on the bridge he noticed a light to his starboard side that seemed to be closing fast with his ship, so he asked the signal man to send a message to the light alter your course 10 degrees starboard. The answer came back, alter your course 10 degrees to port. Captain Jones told the signal man to send the message again, and again the message came back alter your course 10 degrees to port.

Furious Captain Jones took the signal lamp and sent the message this is Captain Jones, and I order you to alter your course 10 degrees to starboard. The answer came back, this is seaman second class Smith alter your course 10 degrees to port. Captain Jones signaled back, “I am a battle ship.” The answer came back, “I am a light house.”

Sometimes in the life of the church we need to be quiet center down and seek God who is a light house, so we can discern our need to alter our course.

Before I close, let me point out how important communion is to our group spiritual formation. The bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ are the symbols of the life of self-sacrificing love to which God is calling us. As we share these symbols together we pray that God’s grace will work a miracle within each of us and within our community of faith to help us to embrace the way of self-sacrificing love.

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