Sermon illustrations


Becoming Locals

“I got here as fast as I could.” This is my answer when people ask if I’m a Colorado native. This is a state where being born here gives you bragging rights. Drive around and you’ll see bumper stickers laying claim to the label. Even the term native doesn’t take into account the people who were truly native to this ground, long before the railroad put this city on the map.

I originally moved to Colorado for a “work vacation.” (I didn’t call it “seasonal work,” but I had no long-term plans to stay.) I moved here to consume what the mountains offered me. I wanted connection without commitment, like an emotional fling. Ten years after moving to this city, I can honestly say that, God willing, I’m staying. I can’t slap the “Native” bumper sticker on my car, but I’ve become a local. You can’t control whether you’re a native, but you can control whether you’re a local. Locals are known. Locals are committed. Locals have found home.

You find locals at cafés, at their kids’ elementary school, in civic organizations, in neighborhoods—all over the place, actually. A few weeks back I was drinking a good cup of fresh roasted coffee at a local café, waiting for a friend to arrive. I watched the folks at the bar, who obviously frequent the place. They were sharing about a friend having health problems, passing around a card for him. They were organizing meals and getting the word out to visit him. The folks who frequent that café have developed into a caring community. They’re locals.

Alan Briggs. Staying Is the New Going: Choosing to Love Where God Places You, NavPress. 

Brené Brown Struggling to Belong

Belonging can be such a fickle and painful process in life. As the popular researcher and writer Brené Brown describes in her book, Braving the Wilderness, she struggled to fit in after moving to New Orleans in the late 60s. In Brown’s case, her name created quite a bit of controversy itself, as she tried to understand the largely segregated world of the south that she found herself in as a young child:

Experiences of not belonging are the time markers of my life, and they started early. I attended pre-K and kindergarten at Paul Habans Elementary on the west bank of New Orleans. It was 1969, and as wonderful as the city was and still is, it was a place suffocated by racism. Schools had only become officially desegregated the year I started. I didn’t know or understand much about what was happening, I was too young; but I knew that my mom was outspoken and tenacious…

We had moved there from Texas, and that had been hard for me…Homeroom lists were used to determine everything—from attendance records to birthday party invitations. One day my mom’s room-mother partner waved the list in front of my mom’s face and said, “Look at all of the black kids on here! Look at these names! They’re all named Casandra!” Huh, my mom thought. Maybe this explained why I was being left out of so many of my white friends’ parties.

My mom goes by her middle name, but her first name is Casandra. My full name on that homeroom list? Casandra Brené Brown. If you’re African American and reading this, you know exactly why white families weren’t inviting me over. It’s the same reason a group of African American graduate students gave me a card at the end of the semester that said, “OK.

You really are Brené Brown.” They had signed up for my course on women’s issues and almost fell out of their chairs when I walked to my desk at the front of the classroom on the first day of class. One student said, “You are not Casandra Brené Brown?” Yes, ma’am…The black families were welcoming to me—but their shock was noticeable when I walked through the door. One of my friends told me I was the first white person who had ever been inside their house.

 Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Random House Publishing Group.

Community & Identity in the Himba People

There’s a brilliant family of people in Africa, called the Himba. When a Himba woman is expecting a child, she goes out into the wilderness with a few of her sisters, and together they wait till they hear in their hearts the song of the coming child. Himba women wait as long as they need to; they wait under stars; they wait until the dream of the child begins to beat like a singular rhythm under their hearts. Because these sisters know that every heart has its own unique beat—its own wild and blazing purpose. And when the Himba women attune to the song of the coming child, they circle around and together they sing the miraculous refrain of the expected child. Then they return to the gathering of their people and teach this child’s unique song to the waiting community.

When the anticipated child is finally born and taken into arms, the Himba family enfolds her with their presence, and their voices rise, singing the child’s own song to her breathing in first air of this earth. Later, when the child begins her schooling, the villagers gather and boldly chant the child’s song. And then when the child passes through the initiation to adulthood, the Himba again circle round and sing hopefully and bravely.

At the time of marriage, the young woman again hears the assuring notes of her very own song, carrying her forward to meet her hopes. But there is one more occasion upon which the Himba sing. If at any time during her life the sister loses her way, falls short, forgets who she really is, or lets anything steal the dream of who she is meant to be, she is gently beckoned to the center of the village. And there she stands, her people forming a safe, ringing circle around her, like her own galaxy of stars. Then the villagers sing, letting the beat of her drum, the rhythm of her own being rouse her to wake to the dream of her soul again. They sing her own soul song to her because Himba sisters believe that change happens most when we remember who we are and whose we are.

Ann Voskamp, quoted in Jo Saxton, The Dream of You, The Crown Publishing Group.

The Construction of Utopias

One of the seductions that continues to bedevil Christian obedience is the construction of utopias, whether in fact or fantasy, ideal places where we can live the good and blessed and righteous life without inhibition or interference. The imagining and attempted construction of utopias is an old habit of our kind.

Sometimes we attempt it politically in communities, sometimes socially in communes, sometimes religiously in churches. It never comes to anything but grief. Meanwhile that place we actually are is dismissed or demeaned as inadequate for serious living to the glory of God. But utopia is literally “no-place.” We can only live our lives in actual place, not imagined or fantasized or artificially fashioned places.

A favorite story of mine, one that has held me fast to my place several times, is of Gregory of Nyssa who lived in Cappadocia (a region in modern Turkey) in the fourth century. His older brother, a bishop, arranged for him to be appointed bishop of the small and obscure and unimportant town of Nyssa (a.d. 371) Gregory objected; he didn’t want to be stuck in such an out-of-the-way place. But his brother told him that he didn’t want Gregory to obtain distinction from his church but rather to confer distinction upon it. Gregory went to where he was placed and stayed there. His lifetime of work in that place, a backwater community, continues to be a major invigorating influence in the Christian church worldwide.

Eugene Peterson, Introduction to Eric O Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith.

Getting Sorted

As people seek out the social settings they prefer—as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable—the nation grows more politically segregated—and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.

We all live with the results: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life.

Bill Bishop, The Big Sort, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Hitchhiking and Trust

In his introduction to Scott Sauls’ Book, Irresistable Faith, Bob Goff tells a story about a summer adventure hitchhiking across New England:

When I was in college, I took a few months and hitchhiked around New England. I met some really interesting people along the way, and a few creepy ones too. In truth, I suppose I was looking a little creepy myself as a barefoot nineteen-year-old with flaming red hair down to my shoulders, torn jeans, and a stained T-shirt.

I didn’t need much, just a ride and a pair of shoes. When people pulled over to give me a ride, I tried to size them up before I got in the car, and they were no doubt trying figure out whether I was safe before they picked me up. I suppose the same thing happens in our faith communities every day. We want to know who we can trust and who we ought to pass by; who we ought to go with and who we should avoid. In short, we’re all trying to figure out how to live out our faith and who to do it with.

Bob Goff, taken from Scott Sauls, Irresistible Faith, Thomas Nelson.

John Perkins’ Journey from Segregation to Reconciliation

In 1970 John Perkins, an African American pastor and community organizer who lived on “the black side” of rural Mendenhall, Mississippi, was nearly beaten to death by white state police officers. The Christianity that Perkins and the police officers shared did nothing to challenge the wall that racism had built between them. Indeed, in the aftermath of a brutal assault, Perkins could only hope that division would protect him from further violence. In the turmoil of 1970, he had good reason to want nothing to do with white people. As John Perkins recovered from the beating that had almost killed him, he had time to think. Lying on that hospital bed, he believed he was done with white people. But God interrupted his thoughts with a vision of an interracial community in the heart of Mississippi.

Over the next four decades, defying the refrain that Sunday is America’s most segregated hour, the Voice of Calvary congregation and community development organization Perkins planted maintained a vibrant interracial life across economic boundaries. Inspired by this vision, many others started similar beloved communities in America’s inner cities, with thousands joining in a movement called the Christian Community Development Association.

Taken from Reconciling All Things by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice. ©2008 by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

Loneliness Answered

In 1964, in Trosly-Breuil, France, two men with mental disabilities woke up in an isolated institution, shut off from a world that had little time for them. Useless to the economy that determines success for most of us, these men were destined to be little more than the recipients of mental health services. Meanwhile, in the same French town, a former naval officer and promising young academic named Jean Vanier had just finished his doctoral dissertation.

Although to all appearances successful, Vanier was lonely. Like the men in the mental institution, he was isolated and unsure whether anyone loved him for who he was. Vanier had no idea that he shared anything in common with men in a mental institution. Nothing had taught him to question society’s division between “normal” people and the disabled…In the small French town where the mentally disabled men and the lonely academic lived, a parish priest offered a bit of pastoral guidance to Jean Vanier. Vanier asked the priest what he should do with his life.

The priest said, “Invite these two disabled men to live with you.” This small act of trust and hospitality birthed the first L’Arche (the Ark) community. Today in some 130 L’Arche communities throughout the world, thousands of people with disabilities and long-term assistants share daily life in family-like homes within neighborhoods and towns. While L’Arche certainly works to help disabled people reach their full potential in society, Vanier maintains that the heart of their vocation is “communion” between the disabled and “temporarily-abled,” across their mutual isolation, as they eat together and transform one another in the process.

Taken from Reconciling All Things by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice. ©2008 by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com


Longing for More than a Suburban Life

In the fall of 1986, just out of college, I set out to hitchhike across the northwestern part of the United States. I’d hardly ever been west of the Hudson River, and in my mind what waited for me out in Dakota and Wyoming and Montana was not only the real America but the real me as well. I’d grown up in a Boston suburb where people’s homes were set behind deep hedges or protected by huge yards and neighbors hardly knew each other.

And they didn’t need to: nothing ever happened in my town that required anything close to a collective effort. Anything bad that happened was taken care of by the police or the fire department, or at the very least the town maintenance crews. (I worked for them one summer. I remember shoveling a little too hard one day and the foreman telling me to slow down because, as he said, “Some of us have to get through a lifetime of this.”)

The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb left me hoping—somewhat irresponsibly—for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us to all band together to survive. Something that would make us feel like a tribe. What I wanted wasn’t destruction and mayhem but the opposite: solidarity.

Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Twelve Publishing.

The Porcupine’s Dilemma

The North American Common Porcupine is a member of the rodent family that has around 30,000 quills attached to his body.  Each quill can be driven into an enemy, and the enemy’s body heat will cause the microscopic barb to expand and become more firmly embedded.  The wounds can fester; the more dangerous ones, affecting vital organs, can be fatal.

…Porcupines don’t always want to be alone.  In the late autumn, a young porcupine’s thoughts turn to love. … Fear and anger make them dangerous little creatures to be around.  This is the Porcupine’s Dilemma: How do you get close without getting hurt?  This is our dilemma, too.

John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, Zondervan, 2003, pp.21-22.

Practicing Presence at L’Arche

The L’Arche communities—founded in 1964 by Jean Vanier as places where “people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers” are a good example of faith communities in which all members are learning to be mutually present to one another. Often the core members of L’Arche communities (those who have a disability) are not able to communicate with words but instead speak through motions or emotions.

Noncore members have to be present and attentive over time in order to learn to communicate with core members. Communication cannot be taken for granted; it is hard work that is cultivated day-by-day as all members of a L’Arche community live together and care for one another. Journalist Kristin Lin spent some time with L’Arche communities and articulates this work well: I’ve come of age in the world of words; I believe in their power to connect, even redeem, us. I take faith—comfort—in their ability to frame, account, order, justify. But I think I’ve forgotten (or never knew) the value of not knowing what to say, or even what to think, or do—the value of simply being—and being accepted for just that. . . .

Presence is difficult, and L’Arche members seemed acutely aware of the uncertainty and awkwardness and hurt that comes with it. The gifts of presence are not always found in the comforts of getting along with each other, but rather in sitting with messiness and complexity. Both core and noncore L’Arche members regularly find that they are being transformed by their mutual presence with one another. Vanier tells the story of a woman who came to a L’Arche community in her early forties.

This woman was epileptic and paralyzed on one side of her body. When she arrived, she was prone to frequent violent outbursts, but as she continued for months and years as part of L’Arche, being cared for and accepted for who she was, she slowly began to be transformed and the violence began to ebb. Similarly, noncore members of L’Arche have reported being transformed by their presence with core members, learning patience, tenderness, and unconditional love.

C. Christopher Smith, How the Body of Christ Talks, Brazos Press.

Preparing a Table

In his excellent study of the famous Biblical passage on shepherds, (The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament), scholar Ken Bailey provides helpful context to “preparing a table before my enemies” in Psalm 23:

In traditional Middle Eastern culture, when you want the community to know that you have acquired wealth, you do not buy an expensive car or a large house with acres of grass around it. Rather, you host meals with three times as much food on the table as the numerous guests can eat. The modern Western way of showing off possessions assumes isolation and distance from the community. It is enough that you drive by, note my palatial house and see my expensive car parked beside it.

The psalmist’s imagery(Psalm 23) has to do with community life that is strengthened and solidified by shared meals. But there is more. To “prepare a table” means to “prepare a meal” (Ps 78:19; Prov 9:2; Is 21:5; 65:11; Ezek 23:41). This phrase cannot mean “set the table,” because in traditional Middle Eastern society people eat without using individual plates or eating utensils. Eating is carried out by tearing off a small piece of flat bread and using it to lift food from the common dish to the mouth. Each bite starts with a fresh piece of bread. There is nothing to do to “set the table” except perhaps “spread the rugs” (Is 21:5). As regards the food, servants and women prepare it. The master of the house provides the food, he does not prepare it.

Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.50, 54-55 by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Pursuing the Common Good in Community

In 2017 Rebekah Morris was teaching English and journalism at Cross Keys High School, a public high school in Atlanta. Noticing that her students had really important, insightful things to say about their community, Rebekah created a group assignment for her ninth-grade students to research and write about how to pursue the common good in their community. Even though most of these students had only fifth- and sixth-grade reading levels, they wound up compiling a list of powerful insights, knowledge, and observations. They were, it turned out, experts on their own neighborhood.

Because their neighborhood is mostly composed of a series of apartments along Buford Highway on the north side of Atlanta, many of their insights centered on how to promote the well-being of those living in the apartments. The final class assignment was to present their ideas to the city council, mayor, community members, and stakeholders. And they did just that, presenting practical, wise ideas for improving affordable housing, pedestrian walkways, and more.

Their ideas were so spot-on that their presentation drew the attention of the local press: these ninth graders made people rethink what gifts were already planted all along Buford Highway. Rebekah and the students were so encouraged and empowered that they formed a club to keep the project going even after the class ended. Soon they were holding dinners in apartments to tap into the gifts and insights of those living in the various apartment complexes.

Neighbors shared their wisdom, leadership gifts began to blossom, residents got more connected to local agencies and government offices. As tangible improvements to the neighborhood mounted, an association, Los Vecinos (The Neighbors), was born and is now active in more than twenty apartment complexes. Rebekah and her students (and now hundreds of people living in their community) were simply doing what Genesis and Peter tell us we’re created and called to do: use every gift that God has given us and our neighbors. By tapping into the gifts God had already placed in the neighborhood the common good along Buford Highway has improved.

Taken from The Hopeful Neighborhood: What Happens When Christians Pursue the Common Good by Don Everts Copyright (c) 2020 by Don Everts. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


The Secret to Sardinia’s Healthy Centenarians

Susan Pinker, the social science columnist for the Wall Street Journal, gave a TED talk in 2017 titled, “The Secret to Living Longer May Be Your Social Life.” In her research she discovered that the Italian island of Sardinia had ten times as many centenarians as North America. Why? It wasn’t the olive oil. It wasn’t the sunny climate. It wasn’t the gluten-free diet or personality types. It was the quality of close personal relationships and face-to-face interactions. She concluded her talk this way:

Building in-person interaction into our cities, into our workplaces, into our agendas . . . sends feel-good hormones surging through the bloodstream and brain and helps us live longer. I call this building your village, and building it and sustaining it is a matter of life and death. It’s good for your health, it turns out, to be in rich communal relations with others.

W. David O. Taylor, The Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, Thomas Nelson, 2020.

Togetherness & The Genius of the Gold-Saddle Goatfish

The gold-saddle goatfish is a small fish native to Hawaiian reefs with a distinctive coloring. In the past few years, divers in Hawaii have come across a fascinating phenomenon. During their regular dives, they’ve begun to notice a large fish with the same brilliant colors as the gold-saddle goatfish. Upon closer inspection, the divers realized this wasn’t one large fish, but in fact a school of gold saddle fish swimming together in such impressive unity and in such a perfect fish-shaped pattern as to appear like one imposingly large fish, not to be trifled with. It turns out, when the gold-saddle fish feels threatened, they join together, unified in fish formation to appear much larger.

The gold saddle goatfish provides an important lesson for those facing threats. Do we turn inward, trusting only ourselves? Or do we “huddle up” with our neighbors, our friends, or even our churches to face the oncoming storm, be it a global pandemic or something of a local variety?

Stuart Strachan Jr.

You Are the Tree

In the film Of Gods and Men, director Xavier Beauvois tells the story of a small group of mostly French monks living in Algeria during a time of civil unrest. These monks live a life of quiet fidelity dedicated to prayer and work in the rural part of the country near a small village. As part of their work, the monks run a small health clinic and also provide necessary physical supplies like clothing and shoes to the people in the village.

Early in the film, word reaches the monks that a group of Muslim radicals is on the move and will soon be in the town adjacent to the monastery. The monks will be in danger as soon as the radicals take the town. However, they are given a choice. Because the radicals have not yet arrived, there is time for the monks to leave the monastery and move to a more secure place. In a pivotal scene, the monks speak with members of the village, most of whom are Muslim, about the decision.

One monk says that they are all like birds on the branch of a tree, uncertain as to whether or not they will fly away or stay. A woman from the village corrects him. “You are the tree. We are the birds. If you leave, we will lose our footing.” I am reminded of the words of Psalm 1, which liken the righteous to a tree with deep roots. The life of the Christian community and the life of the commonwealth, a word traditionally favored by Christians to describe the sum total of communal life in a given place, are knitted together. And so the monks make the brave choice to stay. They cannot turn their backs on the people they have been called to.

Taken from: In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador Copyright (c) 2019 by Jake Meador. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

What is Fellowship?

What is meant by fellowship in this verse? Gossip? Cups of tea? Tours? No. What is being referred to is something of a quite different order and on a quite different level. “They met constantly to hear the apostles teach, and to share the common life, and break bread and to pray. A sense of awe was everywhere. All whose faith had drawn them together held everything in common. With one mind they kept up their daily attendance at the temple, and, breaking bread in private houses, shared their meals with unaffected joy as they praised God” (Acts 2:42-47, New English Bible). That is fellowship as the new Testament understands it, and there is clearly a world of difference between that and mere social activities.

The Greek word for fellowship comes from a root meaning common or shared. So fellowship means common participation in something either by giving what you have to the other person or receiving what he or she has. Give and take is the essence of fellowship, and give and take must be the way of fellowship in the common life of the body of Christ.

Christian fellowship is two-dimensional, and it has to be vertical before it can be horizontal…The person who is not in fellowship with the Father and the Son is no Christian at all, and so cannot share with Christians the realities of their fellowship.

James Packer, Your Father Loves You.

Why Starbucks is so Successful

Starbucks exploded by not just offering customers a cup of coffee but by giving them a comfortable, sophisticated environment in which to relax. Customers felt good about themselves when they walked into a Starbucks. Starbucks was delivering more value than just coffee; they were delivering a sense of sophistication and enthusiasm about life.

They were also offering a place for people to meet in which they could experience affiliation and belonging. Starbucks changed American culture from hanging out in diners and bars to hanging out in a local, Italian-style coffee shop…Starbucks took a product that Americans were used to paying fifty cents for.. and were able to charge three or four dollars per cup. Starbucks customers are willing to pay more for their coffee because they sense greater value with each cup.

Donald Miller. Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen, Harper Collins.



See also Illustrations on BelongingFellowshipFriendshipHospitality, Loneliness, Presence, Relationships

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