Monday, October 28, 2013

October 27 Sermon: That Church is Full of a Bunch of Children

Matthew 19:13-14

13Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; 14but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
Inviting somebody to church is a lot like inviting them into your home for the first time. I mean, you obviously want them to have a good experience, or you wouldn’t have invited them in the first place.

So you want it to go well. You want them to like you, to think that this place—this church—has. It. Together. You want the old disagreements to go away, that silly argument we’ve been having for years to get stuffed under the pew just for this Sunday, you want the pastor to not screw up reading the prayer (again), you want everybody to act right so that after the service, you don’t hear the person you’ve invited utter those dreaded words: That Church is Just Full of a Bunch of Children.

Nobody wants to hear that. We want to be seen as proper adults! We want to show people that yes, the church has screwed up from time to time, and no, we’re not perfect, but this church—this church!—is not like the rest of those fundamentalist, gay-bashing, prosperity-Gospel-preaching, over-mascaraed, money-grubbing TV type of churches. We are adults, here. We do church like adults should do it.

And, you know, not so much in this church, thank goodness, but it is often the case that in other corners of the church, we can get so stuck on being adults, on being people who have. It. Together., that there’s a temptation to relegate the kids to being props in a very grown-up church that does very grown-up things in a very grown-up world. I mean, it is nice when they sing, and all of that, but you know, other than that, kids should be seen and not heard or whatever.

I don’t want to be too hard on the Christian church, because it comes by this kind of thing honestly. It is not a new dynamic. Why, two thousand years ago, in the scripture lesson we heard this morning, Jesus and the disciples were going on their way, and all of a sudden all of these parents forget their sense of decorum and start behaving like a bunch of, well, you know, and they start shoving their kids in front of Jesus like they might do nowadays when the Braves are signing autographs. And over the course of several days, the volume increases until it seems like all Jesus is doing is blessing children, all day long, and none of the rest of Jesus’s responsibilities are getting done because he is busy blessing children. I mean, you can’t keep your day job as the savior of the world AND moonlight as the prince of peace if all you are doing is blessing children all day. And besides, with Jesus spending so much time blessing kids, his Disciples didn’t feel like they were getting the attention they deserved! Here they had walked alongside Jesus for so long, and he was busy paying attention to children, children who couldn’t even do anything worthwhile to build up the kingdom of God.

So the disciples finally had enough of being neglected by Jesus, and they went out one morning to the parents and their kids and they said, “Enough.” Enough is enough. When you keep bringing children to Jesus, it keeps us from getting the attention we deserve. The work we are doing is too important. We need his undivided attention. This does not sound so crazy to me. The disciples were doing important work.

But Jesus, of course, responds that he could not care less about giving the disciples his attention. He didn’t come to release the already unbound, of course, or to give a fashionable new wardrobe to those who were no longer naked. He came to release the captive, to give clothing to the naked, to serve the least and the littlest among us. And so he reminded the disciples that the business of blessing children is probably the most important thing he could possibly be doing, because there is nothing easy about being a kid.

Now when Jesus says, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them,” he doesn’t mean that they should just hang around until they are old enough to put a lot of money in the offering plate. He means that the church is a central place where we are called to love children and recognize that the business of loving children serves no practical purpose at all beyond being a desperately needed source of love in a society that constantly tells kids they are not good enough.

And not only this, but it is truly the case that children are fully participating members of that great image of the church we see in the Bible: the Body of Christ. Children are part of the body; they have things to teach us just like we have things to teach them. They are not preparing to be a part of the body. They are not supposed to sit there quietly while we constitute the body. Children are a vital part of the body of Christ, and the longer I am in ministry the more I realize that we’ve got just about as much to learn from children as they have to learn from us.

So. North Decatur. Let me share something with you I’ve been thinking and praying about since I arrived in June. Here’s who I think God is calling us to be. I think God is calling us to be the Church That Loves Children. And what is more, I think we are being called to be the Church that Loves Children not for any practical reason, but simply because to follow Jesus means that you’ve got to love children.

Now, maybe you are saying, I’m not called to that. I don’t know how to deal with kids, never had any myself, or, my kids are grown, my grandkids are grown, I’m done with the business of raising kids. But the thing about children is that everybody in the whole world has had the opportunity to be one. Everybody who will ever be for the rest of time will spend time as a child. We have this in common, and whether or not your childhood was a happy one, you have the responsibility to help today’s children experience the love of God, because you cannot be a proper Christian without fundamentally understanding that when Jesus said “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” he meant it!

We are not called to be the church that loves kids because it is an effective marketing strategy, or because it will help with the budget, or because it makes us feel good about ourselvese. We are called to love children because the business of loving children is one of the most important things in the whole world.

After all, being a kid is hard work. We hear all the time about how kids don’t have the discipline they used to have, or they don’t work as hard, or whatever, and we use that as an excuse to say that we need not engage with children, because they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Only, the problem is that if children have less respect or discipline than they once did, this is not the fault of the children in question. It is our fault! It is our problem! It is easy to blame the kids, of course, but, my friends, that’s an abdication of the church’s ancient responsibility to raise kids together, to let the little children come to us, to recognize that when Jesus called the children to him, it wasn’t because they were cute: it was because they needed someone to love them. As the parent of a young child, I can tell you, for as much as we hear about “kids these days”—and I’m not immune from making that comment either—as much as we hear about that sort of thing, it is not easy to raise a child in an environment that cares way more about me and my success than it does about the needs of the family—and when I say family, I mean family in all its modern expressions. It is not easy to raise a child these days, and parents need all the help they can get. We have got to be present for the children in our community and all over the world, because if we do not, who will? It is easy to blame the kids, but they are just children after all. What are we doing? What can we do?

Friends, this is a critical issue for us! It is an issue for the church all over the world, and it is especially an issue for God’s church at the corner of North Decatur Road and Church Street, because, friends, the children are coming! I won’t bore you with the details of the demographic work I been doing, but suffice it to say that North Decatur United Methodist Church is about to have an opportunity other churches only dream about. The neighborhoods surrounding the church are trending younger, and they are growing! As older folks move out of their homes, it is young families who are moving in. There are days when I could stand the front yard of the parsonage on North Superior Avenue counting strollers and get to 50 within an hour. Did you know that the population of children within a five minute drive of the church is expected to nearly double in the next five years?! Double in five years! Those statistics are crazy! That means twice as many children to teach about Jesus, twice as many kids to help raise, scores more families to share love with.

We have an incredible opportunity! So, as I get towards the end of this sermon, let me very clear. Here are the things we will be doing.

Every decision we make as a church must first pass through this filter: how will this decision help us to be the church that loves children? If it doesn’t, we’re not going to do it. Everything we do must somehow relate to welcoming and teaching the next generation, because it is to such as these that the kingdom of Heaven belongs. Now, aligning ourselves around welcoming children means that we’ve got to align everything: our budget, our programs, our time, everything. We’re going to put time and money and resources into making sure our children are taught and cared for, and we’re going to be building for the church we want to be, not the church we’ve been so far.

That’s not to say that anybody’s going to get left out in the cold, of course, but it is to say that everybody affiliated with this fine congregation has a role to play. Even if all you can do is write cards to children who need an extra measure of love or pray every day for the children of the world, so be it! There is a job for you!

And it is important to remember that being the church that loves children means that we love children everywhere. I look forward to introducing you to the Interfaith Children’s Movement, an organization here in Atlanta that advocates for the well-being of children all over the world, but especially here in the state of Georgia. You’ll here a lot more about this in the coming months, as it is an organization I have been involved with for some time, and it is dear to my heart.

So. These are my thoughts. It is what is on my heart. I hope you’ll let me know what is on yours. As you have thoughts about how we can better be the church that loves children, I hope you’ll share those ideas with me. I don’t have a full picture yet of what this is going to look like, but then again, the responsibility is not on the pastor so much as it is on you!

The responsibility belongs to you, and so as we go forward, let me share with you just who I am looking for as partners, as we enter God’s future. I am looking for people who are less interested in getting stuck on what is than on working towards what could be. I am looking for people who understand that we have to build church structures that look like what we want to be rather than which are reflective of where we currently are. I am looking for people to do the hard and holy work of welcoming children in the name of God, not just by saying hello and smiling or whatever, but by helping to align our program and financial priorities, by taking the time to engage the community, to realizing that each of us has a responsibility to God’s children regardless of how old we are or how long the kids have been out of the house.

And if we do this—if we really commit to doing this—I am convinced—I am convinced!—that when people drive by here in five years, they’ll say, “Now, there’s a church that loves children.” And when someone walks into worship, engages a service, and talks about the church the next day over the water cooler or what have you, you’ll smile a wry smile when you hear them say, “That church is full of a bunch of children.” Dear God, let it be. Amen.

Monday, October 21, 2013

October 20 Sermon: Living Together

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.


Well, we are halfway through our stewardship series on the four distinctives of North Decatur United Methodist Church that are built into our DNA as a church and that will mark our time together for the coming years. Over the past couple of weeks, we have talked about the importance of evangelism and hospitality and the importance of reaching out in mission to our community. Next week, a number of preschool families will be here as we talk about ministry with children.

But this week. This week is the hardest of all, because there is nothing more difficult than sharing space and life with people who aren’t exactly like you. What’s the quote: Hell is other people? And that’s too cynical, because there are great gifts in life lived together, but anybody who has ever been in any kind of relationship with another person knows how hard it is to share life, and if you think it is hard sharing life with one person, try sharing it with a hundred or more. And I will be honest, there are some churches who say, you know, this is just too much, we’ll be a seeker church and focus on converting people, but there’s not much on the other side. Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World, which is of course the mission statement of the United Methodist church, means that you’ve got to actually make disciples, actually form them. It means that we’ve got to work alongside the God who is always forming and shaping us into something that looks more and more closely like the image of God. You don’t just invite them in the doors and assume that the hard work is over.

But some churches say, oh, it is too much, that it’s way easier to just invite people in and let them find their own way.

You see why this is hard, this business of living in community. Everything about our modern selves pushes against it, because we are programmed to rely only on ourselves, to be men and women who need nothing and nobody other than our own ingenuity and hardworking spirit. The world is full of stories of people who beat the odds, who came from nothing to reach such great heights. Who needs the church?

Only, if you talk to one of those people who have come from nothing to achieve so much, they’ll tell you that the key to success is precisely that you do NOT try to do everything on your own, that you need other people, that if you spend all your time looking at your own navel, you’ll walk in circles until you get so dizzy that you fall over.

There is no self-made person. We need each other, you and I, and what is more, you never outgrow your need for relationship, for love. Just because you have figured out how to bathe and eat doesn’t mean you’ve graduated to relying only on yourself. That’s a recipe for disaster!

This is, among other reasons, why we need the church. We are hard-wired to need relationship because we were created by God, because we came from God, because we all come from the same place and so we are all family. We need each other, and because each of us has within us a piece of the image of God, the more diverse the group of people we hang around with, the fuller the picture of the face of God.

Now, this is not easy. We may be hard-wired for relationship, but we sure do resist being around people who don’t see things just the way we do. I mean, I need not remind you that the blessed government of the United States of America ground to a halt this month because people just refused to talk. These are people we elect to talk to one another, and instead, they got stuck on themselves, they hung out with people who looked like themselves and talked like themselves and believed the same things, and look where it has gotten us.

It is much easier to create in our image rather than the other way around, to assume God is on our side because all the people we hang around see things the same way. But it is also the case, as the writer Anne Lamott has said, that you can safely assume that you have created God in your image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. And yet I assume that God likes the people I like and doesn’t so much like the people I don’t!

But what a miserable existence to fool yourself into thinking that everything is as you see it! What a miserable existence to eat the one thing on the menu that is comfortable and, at least, good enough to justify the eight dollars, at the expense of trying the buffet!

This is why we do church! Because community is hard but it is life-giving. It is vitally important to your spiritual well-being to be around people who disagree with you! And this is why Christian education is so important to who we are as the people of Christ. If you aren’t in Sunday school class, find a class! You are risking spiritual narcolepsy if you are not intentional about marrying your heart-faith with your head-faith, for the heart can only go on so long without a little help from the head! There is a reason, after all, that we have classes rather than independent study. Reading a book is one thing, but scripture was written to be read in community, theology and the life of faith are made to be lived in community, together, because the fuller the experience of God, the more nuanced the experience, the more likely it will be that when you experience a crisis in your faith—and nobody is immune from crisis—when you experience a crisis in your faith, you will have the grounding to weather the storm.

Christian education—studying theology and the Bible—is not about learning facts. It is about building a connection between your head and your heart, about digging such deep channels between your faith and learning that when you experience crisis, the rivers of woe will not overflow the banks! If we are to live into God’s future, we’ve got to get back to the place where we are engaging religious learning, where we are having tough and life-giving discussions in Sunday school and other gatherings about matters of faith, where we are intentional about picking deep, meaty curriculum rather than just pulling books out of the resource room because they are there! We have a rich heritage as United Methodists, as North Decatur United Methodists! Let’s get back to that deep-seated faith that passes on cotton-candy theology that may satisfy your sweet tooth but which offers you nothing but empty calories and an empty stomach.

And let me add this. If you are in a Sunday school class, what would you do if somebody showed up at your door on Sunday morning and wanted to join your class? How easy would it be for them to do so? There’s a tension in community between supporting those many of us have known for a long time and welcoming the stranger. But for as important as community is, when it ceases to invite in new people, I mean really invite them in, rather than just giving lip service, it ceases to be community and becomes a clique. There’s no room for that in the church, and if we’re going to get back to that rich faith, we’ve got to always err towards welcome, always be flexible enough to invite in new people to facilitate and experience new experiences of the risen Lord.

Let’s get back to that robust faith, that well-seasoned faith, those experiences that you and I have had of the risen Jesus Christ, the one who found us dead, nothing but dust, and breathed into us the breath of life! Let us share it with the fervor of John the Baptist, who the writer of the Gospel of John says came to testify to the light so that all . . . may . . . believe . . . through that light!

Now, sometimes, I will admit, the light can seem a little dim. Sometimes our disagreements keep us from properly reflecting the light of Christ, and maybe that happens more than we would like to admit. The church isn’t immune from this sort of thing, and in fact, the church is especially susceptible to disagreement, and to be honest, it ought to be. We’re dealing with important stuff here, and if it is what we say it is, we’re dealing with the most important stuff in the whole world. Disagreement is normal. And that is all well and good UNTIL our disagreements keep us from reflecting the light we see in one another. Living together isn’t about all believing the same thing. It is about living in such a way that others lights are reflected in your own eyes, whether you agree about the color of the carpet or the salary package for the pastor. And if I know anything about the light of Christ, it is that whether or not we agree on this or that, my light needs yours, we need everybody’s together if we’re going to go light the world, for the more light we take in, the more light we reflect. And yet sometimes, we let disagreement get in the way of shining that light.

Sometimes, it is our own stubbornness that keeps us from reflecting the light we happen upon in the life of faith. Oh, you know, we’ve never done it this way, and we’ve got to keep this program because we’ve done it forever, and that sure doesn’t seem like church, why would the church get involved in that sort of thing? But it is funny, as I read the Bible, *especially* the times in which Jesus talks about the church, I don’t see anything about a building, or about what is and isn’t church. That’s not the Bible talking—that’s my own stubbornness talking, my own unwillingness to see the things that God is up to in a . . . new . . . light.

And sometimes, sometimes I get in my own way. In the interest of being faithful on my own, of stepping out in faith as I understand it, in feeling as if I know the right answer and could get everything done if people would just get out of the way, I find myself somehow, mystically, standing between myself and the light, blocking it and leaving a shadow perfectly aligned with the contours of my own body.

There are plenty of reasons for the light of Christ to seem dim, but when I read the Gospel of John, I hear these immortal words ringing in my ears: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That light, of course, is Christ, and when we get past our petty disagreements and our entrenched stubbornness and our stuck-ness on ourselves, the light of Christ is not bound by history, by the thirty-three years that Jesus walked the earth, and instead, that which began at the beginning with the creation of Heaven and earth continues even now, shining in my eyes and in yours, and you can barely open the back doors without bathing Church Street and what is left of Suburban Plaza in pools of light.

In fact, you know, I don’t know if you were aware of this, but at the end of every worship service, when the acolytes come and extinguish the candles and walk down the aisle, that’s exactly what they are doing. They are symbolically taking the light of Christ out into the world, they are bathing the outside world in light. And, of course, when we walk down the aisle to exit worship, we’re following, we’re walking out behind that light to share it with the world, not as a hundred-some-odd separate vessels, but as kindling! You can’t light a fire with a stick. But get a bunch of them together, and you’re off to the races.

And so here in a few minutes, when we follow the light of Christ out the door and into the world, let’s live up to that which is expected of us. Let’s live not as people who say we’ve so got it together that we don’t need anybody else, but as people who say we’ve so got it together that we know better than to try to face life alone, for the more light you take in, the more you reflect. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 14, 2013

October 13 Sermon: Serve Somebody

Jeremiah 29:7

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

There is a verse, just a few lines down from the one that was read this morning, that is far more popular a verse than “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have sent you, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.” And they don’t keep statistics on this kind of thing, I don’t think, but if they did, I would wager that it would be in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most popular verse to grace the back of junior high youth retreat t-shirts. The verse, of course, is Jeremiah 29:11, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

Isn’t that lovely! The God of the Israelites has a plan for you, for me, for us. Nobody is left out, for God has a plan. It is just lovely, especially when you take it totally out of context, which we usually do, for the verse is actually not about us, but about the Israelites, and not the Israelites all the time, but in a very specific time.

Here is the context. Jeremiah is writing to people whose very lives have been ravaged by the Babylonians.  Jeremiah is not writing to just anybody.  These are people who have lost everything—their homes, their families, their livelihoods—and they have lost them to the people on whose lands they now wither in exile.  Praying for your enemies is one thing, but praying for those who torment you to thrive is something else entirely!

We forget, when we talk about God’s plans for our lives, that this whole business about a future with hope is about being sent into exile, about doing the work of taking your community out into a hostile world. God’s plan for you isn’t all cupcakes and unicorns. A future with hope is good, but it doesn’t mean you get to bypass the hard bits. It is hard work, planting, pulling up, building and serving.

We forget that the Israelites have been sent into exile, and in the midst of such heartbreak, the message from Jeremiah is not so much “be more faithful” as it is “get used to it,” and it stings a little, you know?  Only a couple of verses after the one read this morning, before we reach anything about any kind of plan to prosper and not harm, God says not to even bother trying to get out of exile, because it’s going to last seventy years, which is like forty days or forgiving seventy times seven in that what it really means is that nobody is going home for the foreseeable future, so you might as well get comfortable.  If anybody tells you different, they are false prophets, thus says the Lord.

In the midst of all that heartbreak, we look for a word of hope: any kind of out that means the exile will end, the suffering will end.

We are looking for hope, and instead, we get this: seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

So we try. We think, wouldn’t it be lovely to do the pumpkin patch again this year, to have folks onto our campus, to invite them to church, to share a smile with them, and besides, the proceeds go to pay our mission giving and will help support the preschool that the pastor keeps talking about. Wouldn’t it be lovely?

And then there’s a tragedy, or a storm, or both, and you know what they say about the best-laid plans. Here you are, just trying to be faithful, and you get sent into exile.

A few years ago, I went on a mission trip to Henderson Settlement up in Kentucky. It’s a home repair ministry in Appalachia that helps folks who desperately need it. You know, we think about poverty a lot of times as an urban issue, but rural Appalachia is probably the closest thing to the developing world I’ve been to in the United States. Folks just don’t have anything, in some of these places, other than rotting homes, black lung from working the mines, and the church.

And so we went up there to help, a big group of my minister friends, actually, and we climbed on top of the roof and got to work. The roof over double wide that served as the woman’s home was leaking like a sieve, and the considerable number of people living inside were just getting soaked. So our plan was to screw a tin roof on top of her shingled roof, just to keep out the water and so as to not have to replace it down the road.

We spent a couple of days baking on the roof, cutting the furring strips and doing the repair, until I was standing with several of the rest of us on top of the part of the roof that covered the porch and wouldn’t you know that we heard a crack and then we rode that roof all the way to the ground.

Now, thank God nobody was underneath at the time, or this story would have a different ending, and we climbed off that roof and just stared at for what seemed like an hour, nothing to say but to silently mourn the fact that here we’d come to help this poor woman stay dry and we’d ended up giving her one heck of a skylight.

You set out to change the world, and you find yourself in exile. And, you know, when I find myself in exile, when I am so full of sorrow that I can do nothing but let my cries crawl up my throat and escape my mouth, that is when I need escape from suffering.  To this, God does not say, “be healed,” but rather, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

It may not seem terribly helpful, but it is there in the Bible in Jeremiah when I am having good days, when the nice lady in the church class brings me a pie, it is there on the bad days, when everyone is still reeling from the suicide that’s just tearing one family apart, it is there when I forget my brain and when I remember to bring it with me.  No matter what we face, no matter where, God says, through Jeremiah, seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

We know this already, of course, as a church whose reputation is built on serving others. We serve because God calls us to do it. But what I would say to you this day—and what I think Jeremiah would say as well, to speak nothing of the Lord God—is that we don’t serve others merely because we should help the less fortunate, or because it looks good, or because we feel guilt about our stations in life. We serve others because when we do this, when we serve even those whose lives look very different from our own, when we serve those who are difficult to get along with, we find our own welfare.

I don’t know what good will come of this pumpkin business, although I know that whenever a group of people gets together to pray, good will come. But I do know that it is through serving, even serving through disappointment, that you will find your welfare, that we will find it together.

I spent three years working for United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, the short-term mission agency of the United Methodist Church. As part of my time there, I wrote the team leader handbook, the book that we used to train people to lead their own mission trips. And so I have had the occasion to train a lot of mission team leaders. And at these trainings, I would share the two traits of a potential mission team member that, just about above all others, guaranteed whether the trip would be smooth sailing. The more trips I have led, the more sure I am about these traits.

The first trait was a well-developed sense of humor. Mission trips are funny. Cultural faux pas are part of the deal, and you end up talking about personal habits you wouldn’t otherwise. If you can’t laugh at your silly mistakes, you aren’t going to get along well in the mission field.

The second trait is related, and it is probably even more important. The best, most well-adjusted mission team members with whom I have ever served are really good at failing. They fail well. They realize—and this is my experience—it is incredibly rare to set out on a mission trip and accomplish everything you set out to accomplish. I’ve been involved with plenty of these kinds of experiences, and never once have I done all I set out to do. In a way, each of these trips was an utter failure.

I think back on that mission trip to Kentucky, and how it was a colossal failure. But, of course, we did not leave the roof laying on the ground. We got out the reciprocating saw and we cut the roof over the porch into manageable chunks, we carried it out piece by piece, and we built a new roof, stronger, with no leaks.

And not only did we build that woman a new roof: we gave her hope, we modeled the kingdom of God, we met people who blessed us and though the week did not go as we planned, we found our welfare.

It has been this way on every mission trip, on every service project I’ve ever been involved with. I have NEVER ended up doing everything I set out to do. I have never served and felt like I accomplished everything that needed to be done, but of course, the business of serving is not about me so much as it about others, about God, and it is helpful to be reminded now and again that God accepts our offerings of service, even when they seem like utter failures.

It is this way for those who are serving today at Trinity Table. They will not solve the problem of homelessness today. They will see familiar faces, those who were there months before, the last time they shared a sandwich and a smile with that group of folks. But we do not serve in order to fix, for in the final analysis it is God that does the fixing. We serve to share a deep part of ourselves with others, and with God.

And In serving others, we discover something deep within ourselves that springs from God’s own self, and we are reminded that we are here on earth for a purpose, that our existence is not an accident, that to know Christ is to serve others, for truly, God has a plan for us, a plan to prosper and not to harm, to give us a future with hope. On days when the exile almost seems to be too much, let us hold on to this great hope, for even if it doesn’t seem like it, people are watching us, all around, people see us walk out the doors of this church and want to know if we are who we say we are.

If we are who we say we are, of course, we’ll find ourselves working for the welfare of all those around us, working for the good of the place in which we find ourselves in exile, for in working for the good of all those around us, we’ll find ourselves blessed. That is a promise I can get behind. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 7, 2013

October 6 Sermon: Wecome Home (World Communion Sunday)

Matthew 25:31-46

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


To start the sermon, I want to do something that I don’t usually do. I hope you will indulge me.  Here in just a second, when I give the go ahead, I want you to think about the first time you walked into this building for worship. Maybe it was sixty years ago, maybe it was this morning, but whenever it was, I want you to remember that feeling, what it felt like, and—most importantly—why it happened.  (. . .) Ok, when I say go, now I want you find somebody nearby, turn to a neighbor and tell them how it was that you came into worship for the first time. Look around and if there is somebody you don’t know nearby, make sure you ask them OK, GO.

. . .

Now, I am not going to have you report back to the group, but what I do want to do is this. If you first came to church at North Decatur United Methodist Church because somebody invited you here, I want you to raise your hand. Even if it was a parent who invited you, or a friend, or a neighbor—anybody. If you were invited to church, and that is why you are here, raise your hand. Leave them up—everybody look around a little bit.

I know this is less fun to talk about than money, but the fact remains that the single biggest reason people come to church is that someone they know invited them. This is actually why most of US are here, because somebody invited us.

I know, of course, that it is not as easy as it sounds to invite somebody to church. First off, it can be embarrassing if they say no, or if they aren’t interested or whatever. As far as that goes, you know, I just have to think that we’re going to have to largely get over it. I get it. I have told you before that I am an introvert. I am really quite shy. Inviting somebody to church, even a wonderful church like North Decatur, is not something I come to naturally. I have to work at it, to practice it, to look in the mirror and invite MYSELF to church before I have the guts to go out and invite somebody. And you know what I have discovered? While it can be embarrassing, people say yes more than they say no. If you are excited about what is happening at church—and I hope you are—it shows! And people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And I have heard people say, oh, you know, I shouldn’t be the one to invite young families here, because I’m old and I don’t want them to get the wrong idea. To that I say, “Baloney!” I will remind you that your pastor is part of a young family, and I think I’d actually rather get an invitation from someone who is older and who knows a good church when they see it than a younger person who wants to tell me about their cool church. I am much more interested in authenticity than cool.

We’ve just got to get over the embarrassment thing, but that isn’t the only thing. Maybe you’re worried that you’ll invite somebody to church and they will be disappointed. I hope you don’t think they will be disappointed in the preaching! We who have been here a long time can put up with the siliness that sometimes happens in church, but we are wary of welcoming other folks into that silliness, for fear that we will disappoint them. And so let me just let you know that if you are waiting for the perfect moment when everything at the church will be settled and we will be perfectly ready to start inviting people, you’re going to wait a long time. We have been at this business for two thousand years and we still haven’t figured it all out. So go invite somebody to church, go welcome somebody into God’s house.

To help, because I really do understand that this sort of thing isn’t easy, the church has created some pretty good-looking cards that we handed out to you today. You should have three, which will give you one for the refrigerator and two to give to friends and neighbors. I started to give you five, but I thought that three is more manageable. Just find a couple of people—you do know a couple of people, don’t you?—and invite them to church. Give them a card. We’ll be giving one of these to each person who buys a pumpkin from this church, and if you hand it to somebody who already has a church home, so what? Tell them to pass it along to somebody who doesn’t. I look forward to finding out who the first person is that comes back to the church looking for more cards because they’ve already given out all of theirs. I don’t care if you give them to the mailman, or the neighbor, or the cashier at the Kroger. Just make sure you invite somebody, because if I have learned anything about the kingdom of God from today’s scripture lesson, it is that unless you are welcoming the stranger, you’re not welcoming Jesus into your life.

Now, I know, evangelism can be a dirty word. I will share something personal with you and let you know that there was a time when the word evangelism was a word I refused to use. The problem is that the word 'evangelism' has collected so much grime from those who have rolled it around in the dirt, so abused it that some of us want to toss it out entirely, lest we get lumped in with the practitioners of the dark art of proselytism. It is high time we took the business of sharing the good news back from those who make the gift of the Gospel look like punishment rather than life-giving freedom!

This is the gift of what it means to be associated with North Decatur United Methodist Church, to have good theology, to bring good news to people! Not news that they must turn or burn, or news that God is mad at them, or any of that kind of street preacher stuff, but good news, that God gives us life, that all people are children of God, that we love everybody and that Jesus does too.

Believe me, I understand the need for sharing our theology, our understanding of grace. I did not grow up in the United Methodist Church. I grew up in a very strict, overbearing, tradition. We didn’t talk much about grace, and you’d never see a sign out front that told everybody that they were welcomed by the God who welcomes us all. But this is who we are! I don’t know about you, but I came to the UMC in college on purpose. I chose it! I don’t mean to suggest that we are perfect—we’re not, we have a ways to go—but we have really great theology! I don’t know of anything the world needs more nowadays than GRACE! And we have it to spare!

We have really great theology, and you’d think that we’d want to stand on the street corners and tell everybody, but of course, that’s not who we are. And besides, great theology is wonderful, but let’s be honest and say that evangelism was easier when it was about going to hell or not. It is a lot easier to convince somebody that they need to go be a witness for Jesus Christ when we talked all about how coming to church saved you from Hell!

Now, I am glad we don’t talk about Hell all that much, because honestly, besides the fact that that kind of talk doesn’t do justice to the power of God’s love for all humanity, it is not just that helpful. But moving towards a more loving view of what it means to follow Jesus does not mean you can get away from inviting people to church, to inviting them into a life of faith. I mean, don’t you think we have something WONDERFUL here? Don’t you think everybody ought to experience it?

They aren’t going to get here unless YOU invite them! That’s the deal! If this is something you think others need, then you’ve got to tell them. Some of them will say no, some of they will think about it, but some of them will say yes, and what a gift it is to welcome the stranger in the name of Jesus, for when we welcome the stranger into the house of God, we are welcoming Jesus himself!

This must be the foundation of everything we do. I say pretty frequently, that if as a pastor I am ultimately in the sales business, my clientele is not inside the sanctuary this morning. My clientele—our clientele, because we are all in this together, is at the grocery store right now! They are in the mall, at breakfast, caring for their kids, and maybe wondering if there might really be something to this business of following Jesus Christ!
The pastor Cary Nieuwopf has said this: “Wanting people to attend and creating a church unchurched people love to attend are two very different things. If you haven’t made radical changes to how you do church, don’t expect radically different results.”
This is quite a challenge, and we’re going to live into it together, but Jesus calls us to nothing less.
Welcoming the stranger, extending hospitality, must be the foundation of everything we do, and the good news is that while this is not the easiest thing about being a Christian, it is not a new thing. Let me share just two ways that this focus on reaching out and welcoming the stranger is already embedded into the life of North Decatur United Methodist Church.
First, as you have said this morning, the reason this church is so full of wonderful people is that you were invited in. I’ve heard the names over and over as I’ve met with you all, as you’ve talked about the saints who have influenced your lives and who invited you into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ through God’s church at the corner of North Decatur Road and Church street. We’ve got to reclaim that mantle, go back to who were have been. Giving out cards won’t solve the issue—it takes relationships, it takes time, it takes heart-work—but it is a start. We’ve got something great here. Let’s tell everybody we can about it.
Second, and finally, we have this theology already built into who we are as United Methodists. One of the reasons I chose to become a United Methodist Christian is that we believe that all people are children of God. We don’t restrict who walks in the door, and we don’t restrict who can become a member. White, black, brown, young, old, male, female, gay, straight, just curious about Christ or lifelong Christian. If you are here, you are welcome, and if you are welcoming, you are serving Jesus.
This is our theology, and on this World Communion Sunday, it is how we understand the holy mystery of the Lord’s Supper, of Communion with God, of Eucharist, thanksgiving for all God has done for us.
This is not my table, it is not your table, just like it is not my chuch. It is God’s church, God’s table. God has set a feast before us, a life rich with colorful people, a vibrant church, a good savior. Let us not keep this incredible gift to ourselves.