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.

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