Monday, February 9, 2015

Feb 8 Sermon: "Conclusive Evidence that Jesus was an Introvert, and Other Things that Make the Pastor Feel Better About Himself"

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
I haven’t seen a lot of literature about this, so I don’t have statistics to back it up, but it is my experience that one of the biggest barriers the church has in reaching out to new people is that coming to church for the first time can be terrifying, especially for introverts. Some estimates suggest that up to half of the population in the United States identifies as introverted, which is to say that they get energy from being alone and can become quickly overwhelmed in crowds. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff lately about welcoming new people to church, and the number one thing that apparently turns people off is the passing of the peace, the time when we stand and greet one another. Especially for people who are more introverted, this time can be terrifying, and when I am in unfamiliar church worship services, I have been known to spend the first two-thirds of the worship service dreading the passing of the peace. I know that sounds ridiculous, at least to the extraverts in the room, but it is true. In fact, you will notice that we took it out this week; we aren’t doing the passing of the peace. I still think it is important to do, I still want to do it occasionally, but I also think it is important to switch things around a bit and give the introverts, which is half of us, a little bit of a break.
Just so we are clear: my name is Dalton and I am an introvert. I’ve mentioned this in the pulpit before, but I get my energy from being alone. Big crowds totally freak me out. If there is a Hell, it is going to look like a crowded room full of people, and it would be just my luck that I get there just in time for the passing of the peace. And so I am particularly grateful for this morning’s scripture lesson, in which Jesus goes off to the desert alone. He does this often, and in my mind, it is proof enough that Jesus was an introvert. As you will see in this morning’s sermon title, this fact certainly makes me feel better about myself, because it is the case that American culture privileges extraversion. The quiet kid is rarely the popular kid. The successful executive is the outgoing executive. And so to my fellow introverts, I say this: when the extraverts lay claim to the popular crowd and the successful crowd and the powerful crowd, you just remind them that they may have most of the powerful leaders in the world, but we have Jesus.
Now, I know that in a lot of ways that’s not helpful. The last thing we need is another label to divide us, and even this one only helps to a certain extent. But I do think this story has something to teach us. There is something to be said for going off alone every once in a while. Notice I didn’t say there is something to be said for sitting in the corner hunched over your smartphone like Quasimodo. Maybe that’s a survival mechanism when you’re stuck in a room full of people, but it isn’t productive. It doesn’t do what going off alone can do.
This story has something to teach us, because there’s something to be said for quiet, and if there is any currency that is especially rare, especially valuable these days, it is quiet. I mean, think about it. When is the last time you experienced real quiet, real stillness? When is the last time you found yourself in the wilderness, with no sounds but the birds overhead and the soft pad of your footsteps below?  I wish I were exaggerating, but most days it feels like I can’t go twelve seconds without looking at my phone. The crazy thing is that I am somebody who craves silence! It is not like I am afraid of it—I crave it! If I don’t get enough time by myself, I get especially cranky, which come to think of it explains a lot! And yet even as someone who need to balance time with people with time alone, I seem to be terrible at making time to be alone and quiet. There’s always something to be done, somebody to visit, a room to clean, an email to send, an appointment to make, a meal to cook, a child to care for. I remember reading about something that President Nixon said back in the mid-50’s when he and President Eisenhower were running for reelection, saying that if the country would just reelect Eisenhower for another term, we’d see a 32-hour work week in the not-too-distant-future. We’d be people of leisure, and we’d have so much free time we’d have to search for things to do!
And yet here we are in 2015, and your calendar probably looks like mine. Things on top of things on top of things. Work weeks that drag into family time. Personal responsibilities that bleed into the wee hours of the morning. Technology was supposed to male our lives easier, to give us a four day work week, and yet if I am honest, there are days I have a real temptation to roll down the window and throw my phone into the intersection of Church Street and North Decatur Road.
I remember growing up with three younger siblings, and my mom would have one of those big desk calendars taped to the front of the refrigerator, and each of the four kids would be represented by a different color pen, so that she knew who to take to soccer practice and who to take to afterschool events and who to take to violin lessons. By the time she finished planning a month it would look like a pack of Crayola markers had thrown up on the calendar! And somehow now that all the kids are grown and out of the house, the calendar still looks that way. Just walking past that thing stresses me out.
Now, my calendar is electronic, but it is just as full as the one on my parents’ refrigerator! We’re all busy people, and so in response to this dynamic, the church council of this church said, “let’s add one more thing to everybody’s plates!” and so we started looking into creating Life Groups. There are churches, many of them, who encourage their folks to gather in small groups, and those churches have found this kind of ministry to be fruitful, and besides, this is the original model of church anyway, small groups of people who gather together, who are accountable to one another, who share joys and concerns and life with one another, and then who come together with other people in other groups to worship God together, as one body. And so, they decided, we ought to divide the church up geographically into smaller Life Groups, which is what we have done, and encourage them to meet monthly, which is what we are doing. Our first meeting will be right after church on February 22, and we’ll be contacting folks about their groups over the next couple of weeks. If you haven’t received a letter about this let me know and I will be sure to get you more information.
And if this feels like too much, like just one more thing, let us remember that the whole of Jesus’s public ministry was all crammed into all of three years, and somehow, with everything else he had to do, he somehow had enough time to go off on his own every now and again to pray. I don’t care how holy you are—if you constantly have people who need things from you, if you keep constantly busy, if you can never find time to slow down enough to examine your heart and listen for the voice of God—I don’t care how holy you are, you’re never going to get quiet enough to hear God’s call. Let me put it this way. If not even Jesus could sufficiently tend to his inner life without going away alone, you don’t stand a chance!
I have to tell you, I’ve been in the church long enough to be able to tell when somebody is avoiding dealing with their own stuff, their own baggage. I can tell because those people are always busy, always doing something, and that’s not to say they are doing bad things! I am sure it sounds strange that sometimes I can tell when something is wrong when people serve too much, but I have met plenty of people who hide behind serving others, who hide behind always working, always helping, and I mean, I know God wants us to serve! But if we are interested in following Jesus, in being like Jesus, then let’s actually be like Jesus and find time to go off alone, to find time to be present with your thoughts, and yes, to let your demons raise their hands every once in a while, because if I know anything about the demons that plague us, those voices that tell us that we aren’t good enough, or that everybody else has it together, you can’t bury those demons in a pile of work and expect them to go away! You can’t stay so busy that they go away! But you can learn to live with them, to domesticate them in a way, so that when they try to get your attention, you can pat them on the head and tell them to heel! You simply can’t expect to be faithful without intentionally tending to your heart, and maybe this is a crazy thing for the pastor of a church launching a major Life Group initiative to say, but you can’t tend to your heart without being alone! This is what Jesus tells us. This is what he shows us.
But then, you can’t spend all your time alone, either. You can’t spend all your time in your head, working out your own stuff, and somehow reach enlightenment or whatever. You can’t stay home by yourself all the time and be faithful. Left to my own devices, I’m liable to sit at home all the time, never see another soul, and yet the church pulls me out! I may be oriented to be introspective, maybe you are, too, but we shouldn’t stay introspective so that we can avoid other people any more than we should stay busy with other people to avoid our own thoughts. You must have balance. Balance.
And so we look to scripture, and in this morning’s passage we find Jesus in a variety of settings. He starts in the synagogue, in the house of worship, with all the faithful in the town, and from there, he goes off with a small group, four of his trusted disciples, and heals Peter’s mother-in-law, because you need those close relationships, that support. And then he heads off to a large group of people in need of healing before he goes off by himself into the deserted place to pray.
I find this to be such a helpful example of balance. Like Jesus in the synagogue, we need to be in worship together. And we need to do mission together, to go out into the larger world to serve. But so do we need to be in small groups together, so do we need to make sure to have time alone to pray, to read the Bible, to meditate on the presence of God in our lives. And listen, if you are new to this whole church thing, if you aren’t sure how to pray, just do this. Just find some time, set an alarm for two minutes—five minutes!—and be quiet. Then take some time and share the desires of your heart with God. Think them, say them out loud, write them down, whatever. Ask for forgiveness. Say amen, and congratulations, you have prayed. That’s all there is to it. And yet it is so very important.
We need to be involved in all of these ways, in solitude, in small groups, in corporate worship, in mission out in the larger world. To put it another way, the life of faith looks like this: we start with ourselves and our own relationship with God and expand our influence, so I start with me, and then I expand to my small group, those relationships that keep me accountable and who love and care for me, and then I expand to my church community, the people I love and worship with, and then I expand beyond the doors of the church in mission to all the world, for the mission of the church isn’t just to have great worship, but to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world! Each of these pieces is important, and I’ll be honest, here at North Decatur United Methodist Church, we are pretty great at two of them. We’re pretty good at worship—the young folks who have led us this morning are proof of that. And we’re great at mission—wonderful at reaching out in love, wonderful at advocating that everyone has a place to sleep and a spot at God’s table.
But we have room for improvement on the small group front, which is why we’re taking so much time to push these Life Groups. They are vital—vital!—parts of what it means to be a part of the family of God. It is so important to gather with people who live near you, who understand your neighborhood and who can provide care for you where you are, and who knows, maybe these groups become ways to welcome new people into the fold of this great congregation, as you look to a neighbor and say, hey, don’t bring a thing, but come eat with us. Come fellowship with us. We’re not all the same—we’re of all ages and races and we fall on a wide spectrum of belief—but we are united in our devotion to Jesus Christ. This is why a small group is so important.
And, I think, many of us, many of us could use a little work on being quiet enough to share the desires and pains of our own hearts with God, taking time to slow down enough to hear the gentle drumming of your heart, so that the very rhythm that orders your life doesn’t get lost among the noise. I’ll just speak for myself here. The whole idea of this passage making me feel better about myself is a joke, of course, because while I am an introvert, I’m awful about sitting with my thoughts, awful about making time to be alone with God. It’s a joke, because I ought to be worrying less about finding ways that Jesus is like me and worrying more about finding ways that I can be more like Jesus. I doubt I’m alone, and so I think each of us would do well to take time to tend to our own personal relationships with Jesus, to listen for the whisper of the Holy Spirit, the call of God on your life that is like nobody else’s calling, because it is for you.
The good news is this. Every time I make time for God in my life, every time I intentionally carve out time to gather with others and balance it with time to be alone, I find myself blessed. I find myself in the presence of God, more attuned to God’s hopes for my life and more at peace. And when I don’t make time, I’m miserable, and it seems that I get less done. I try to squeeze it in here and there, but the quote from Philip Stanhope is true: there is time enough for everything, in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once; but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time. The same is true for your faith. There’s enough time, if you will take time for it. But if you don’t, well . . . don’t be surprised if you find yourself standing at your calendar with a crowbar and some WD-40, trying to wedge in one more thing.

I know that we’re busy people. I know that. Believe me, I get that suggesting we find time for this stuff—for small groups and for alone time—I know that it, too, may sound like one big joke as you consider the calendar that is your life. But I also know this. At the end of the day, the problem isn’t that we don’t have time to gather and time to be alone. The problem is that, this being the most important stuff in the whole world, we don’t have time not to.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

February 1 Sermon

Acts 2:38-47
Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
A Methodist minister, a Baptist minister, and a Presbyterian minister were having lunch together one Monday. 

The Methodist minister said, "We had a great Sunday! We gained four new people." 

The Baptist preacher said, "We did better than that! We gained six new people." 

The Presbyterian pastor said, "Well, we did even better than that! We got rid of our 10 biggest trouble makers!"

Well, we are going to talk today about what it means to be a part of a church community.
We have a particularly great one here, and a lot of you are new in the past few months, so I want to do something pretty basic, which is to spend my time this morning talking about what it means to be church, and in particular what it means to be a part of this church. If you are new, I hope this is helpful to you, and if you have been here for sixty years, well, I think we could all use a refresher.
And one big reason I want to talk about what it means to be a part of a church community is that the church council and I are unveiling a pretty big project this month that we think will bear dividends for North Decatur United Methodist Church well into the future. I am more excited about this initiative than just about anything we’ve done her so far. And I will get to that, I promise. But I want to talk first about what it means to be a part of a church, and as I do I want to confess something. I have not done a great job of talking about what it means to be church because though I didn’t really grow up in church, I have been in church long enough that I just sort of assume that everybody knows what it means to be a part of the church. But that’s simply not the case.
In fact, if I asked twenty people off the street what it meant to be part of a church community, I would probably get twenty different answers. Even inside the church, as I have said, I haven’t done a great job of talking about what it means, so when I talk about being a member of the church, you might not even really know what that means. You might not even think it’s important, to join a church, and why should you? Everybody’s welcome here, after all, so why bother joining? Why bother making a public commitment to be loyal to Jesus Christ through this congregation and uphold it with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness for Jesus Christ?
The answer, of course, is found in scripture, and in particular, the book of Acts, which is the story of the early church, the first Christians. You will notice that in this morning’s scripture lesson, the early disciples—all who believe, we are told—were together and had all things in common. That is to say that they sold everything they owned and held a common purse. I want to make sure you understand that I am not suggesting we go this far! But what I am suggesting is that commitment matters. You could say oh, I’m a Christian, and hop around churches like you are flipping channels, but you are missing commitment, you are missing what the writer and theologian Eugene Peterson calls a long obedience in the same direction.
There’s something to be said, after all, for putting everything in a common pot. You can’t really weasel out of that kind of arrangement. There’s a reason that we use the phrase “all in” when we talk about commitment. You can’t hold all things in common without really being committed. And the problem is that now we’re sort of past that, now that we’re all separate in our own homes and with our own bank accounts and what have you, we sometimes forget the importance of commitment, the importance of a long obedience in the same direction. This isn’t to say that your commitment can’t change; maybe you’ll get transferred, or something will happen and you’ll have to move, but it is to say that there are a thousand excuses not to commit, and yet commitment is about now, about what you agree to now, and how you seek to live into those things you profess to believe.
This, I think, is one of the lessons of Acts. That in order to be properly faithful, you’ve got to commit to God and to a group of people, and say, here is where I am now. I am with you now. I am committed: to care for you, to be with you, to learn with you, to argue and stretch and change the world with you. This is why we have church membership. Not so that you have a card to carry around in your wallet, but because commitment matters. Because being faithful requires being committed, and the way God has called us to be committed to God is through being committed with a group of people. This is why scripture tells us that when two or three is gathered, God is present. You can’t live a proper life of faith alone. You just can’t do it.
But commitment is only half the answer, because commitment is empty if you aren’t living it out, and here, too, the first Christians show us how to be faithful. Acts 2 tells us that the first disciples, the first church, devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. That’s not such a bad place to start. This is what it means to be a member of the body of Christ: that you devote yourself to learning, that you agree to be a part of a faith community, to care for one another, to celebrate when one is born and mourn when one dies: to share meals and lives with one another.
I wish I could tell you that I have always had this figured out but, I have to say that I didn’t really start to get it until the days after our daughter Emmaline was born. This may surprise you, but in some ways, my wife Stacey and I are pretty private people. And particularly because we are clergy, we are always hesitant to be in positions where we need help, because we are supposed to be the helpers! When Stacey was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2011, we didn’t tell a soul at the church we were serving. We didn’t even mention that Stacey was having surgery until the day before she had it, because we just didn’t want all of that attention. And we got through it, but we couldn’t have if some dear friends who are also clergy saw that we were trying to do it all ourselves and instead called me the day before and said, “Dalton, we think you are being ridiculous! So we are going to come and sit in the waiting room with you whether you like it or not. If you want us to sit on the far side and you turn your back to us, that is fine, but we are coming.” And it was what I needed, of course, to have them there distracting me and caring for me during what was very successful surgery but which was a nightmare to sit through.
And so when we had Emmaline a couple of years later, and the United Methodist Women at that church wanted to put together a meal schedule for us, we reluctantly agreed. I think Stacey felt pity for me as I am usually the cook and she knew I’d be an emotional basket-case as soon as we brought Emmaline home, which was a correct assumption. And for days, we had casseroles. Days! I started having dreams about chicken spaghetti. But, you know, though we are private, though we like to think we have it all together, though I am enough of an introvert that sometimes I feel like locking the front door and throwing away the key, that kind of care was exactly what we needed. And the food was nice, but it wasn’t even the food. It was the love, the care, by people who knew we needed church. They were church for us when we couldn’t be at church.
This is what it means to be part of a church community. The pastor is not responsible for caring for everybody. Janet, who is our wonderful minister of visitation, is not responsible. The rest of the church staff is not responsible. We do care, and we visit and check on you when you are sick because we love you, but the ultimate responsibility for caring for one another is yours!
This brings me to the big announcement. We sent letters out Friday that you may have already gotten, so you may know about this already. North Decatur United Methodist Church is gearing up to launch a program that has the potential to change this church and your faith for a long time to come. The program is called Life Groups, and here is how it will work.
The pastoral staff has taken all the households in the church and plotted them on a map based on where you live. (show map) And what we have done is put every member and regular attender of the church into intergenerational Life Groups of 12-15 people based on where you live, which means that families who live together will be in the same group and all the people in your group will live nearby. We are going to ask each Life Group to meet together once a month for four months in the spring (February-May) and four months in the fall (August-November), and then we’ll reevaluate and see how things are going.
Life Groups will be very simple: you will be invited to gather in someone’s home for a short time of prayer and then share a meal. There is no advance work, no study book, and no expectation that you do anything but show up, eat, and share Life together. The pastoral residents have developed a resource guide so you don’t even have to pray off the cuff. If you have kids, they’ll come with you, as this is truly an inter-generational initiative. We’ll officially kick this off in three weeks, on February 22, the last Sunday in February. We’ll let you know what your group will look like beforehand, but on that day, we will gather for a potluck luncheon in the fellowship hall immediately after church and sit at tables with our new Life Groups. Then, beginning in March, you’ll be able to schedule a mutually convenient time for your group to gather, to pray, to eat.
The purpose of these Life Groups is not to segment the church, or to create cliques, or anything like that. The purposes of these groups is simply to be faithful, to share life together the way God intended, and, gracious, to get to know one another. There are so many wonderful new folks here at North Decatur, and so many wonderful folks who have been here for years. We have much to teach each other. And the purposes of these groups is not just to create one more thing to fit into your busy life. If you have been around the church for a little while you will know that a little over a year ago, we decided to get rid of most of our committees so that we could free up time for people to serve God. I hope you will consider these groups a priority—one of the primary ways you seek to grow in your faith, because these kinds of relationships are foundational to what it means to follow Jesus.
In fact, if the plan for these Life Groups reminds you of this morning’s scripture lesson, know that this is not an accident.  It was the custom of the early disciples to care for one another in groups, to devote themselves to teaching, and fellowship, and breaking bread together, and praying for one another. This is the model of scripture, and it is the model of the Methodist movement, all the way back to John Wesley. It may be a new way of doing church for some of us, but truly, it is the oldest way of doing church. And so we’re going to try it for a few months. This is new for us so there is naturally some trepidation. I get that. I just ask that you go into this with a spirit of willingness, and understand that because this is new, we’ll have some kinks to work out. I ask, as well, that you pray for this program, that God would use it to help all of us grow and to help us reach out to new people who need to hear God’s warm welcome.
And let me just say this. If you are new here, and not yet really sure about all this church stuff, that’s really fine. Going forward, the church council has agreed that participating in a Life Group should be an expectation for joining the church, but it is certainly not a requirement for coming to church. I have to tell you that I have struggled with how to talk about all of this stuff in a hospitable way, because I know that not all of us are ready. Maybe you will be one day, but you aren’t there yet. That’s fine. Please, please hear me say this. Keep coming to worship. Come back. Learn more. Hear more. Be welcomed. Be loved. Because while church membership has its expectations, being a child of God happens all on its own.

This is why, while actually joining the church has expectations, while it involves membership vows and all the rest, our theology of Holy Communion is the same as the theology we’ve been sharing on the church sign: everybody is welcome. This isn’t our table. It’s God’s table. This isn’t our church. It’s God’s church. And you—prostitute or politician, screaming baby or sullen teenager, sinner or saint—you are welcome here. Thanks be to God. Amen.