Monday, May 25, 2015

In defense of reaching Millennials (I can't believe I have to write this)

If I read one more poorly-argued blog post about how a focus on reaching Millennials is deeply unBiblical, I am going to scream.

To hear church leaders like David Watson talk, you'd think that those of us doing ministry with Millennials--particularly those of us who fall into the "open and affirming" camp--have replaced the Bible with Dianetics, call the Trinity by the name of "The Sun God, the Moon Goddess, and the Whatever-Makes-You-Happy," and care less about faithfulness to the Gospel as we do making sure our Facebook statuses are totally rad, dude.

The charge that really drives me crazy is that we are relativist: that we do not believe in Objective Truth, that we have carved the difficult stuff out of the Bible and replaced it with a selfie.

And this is a lie. It is a lie.

There are not relativists strategically placed throughout the United Methodist Church trying to replace God. While I certainly acknowledge that people sometimes say (and do, and believe) stupid things, to call those who advocate for church reform to better reach millennials "relativists" is completely unfair, in the same way that it is unfair for people who support full inclusion of LGBT people to call all those who disagree with that stance hateful.

And yet it seems to me that this charge--that moderate-to-progressives don't actually believe in objective truth--is becoming more and more common.

I read my Bible just like David Watson does, and it is simply a lie to suggest that the things I believe come from some relativist fantasy rather than the actual black-and-white-and-red in the Bible. For every Romans 1, there's an Ethiopian eunuch. For every Genesis 1, there's a Romans 8. We can go round and round about Biblical arguments all day long, but don't call me a relativist. My beliefs about God come from the Bible, too, and whether you agree with me or not--whether you agree with a wide swath of the church or not--at least give us enough credit as to not pretend we're making it up as we go.

This is all to say: I am tired of being accused of watering down the Gospel.

Would a watered-down Gospel compel a church to welcome all people in Christ's name?

Would a watered-down Gospel build a community of reconciliation that is acknowledging and crossing over barriers of race, and age, and class, and sexual orientation?

Would a watered-down Gospel bring people to accept the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ, particularly people who previously saw no need for religion at all, in a culture that does not value Christian faith?

Would a watered-down Gospel lead those who have left the church--who have declared it hypocritical, heterosexist, and concerned only with institutional preservation--to reaffirm their faith in Jesus Christ?

These are all dynamics I've experienced just in the last six months of being what some would call a relativist. I could keep going. I won't. But I likewise will not stand idly by while religious leaders pretend to place religious integrity over institutional preservation . . . and then turn around and lament the changing nature of the institution.

I cannot speak for all my Millennial sisters and brothers, though I was born in 1983 and fit most of the generational markers. I will say this: with God's help, I do want to reach a new generation for Jesus Christ, but the mission is not institutional preservation, but rather disciple-making and world-transformation. I will acknowledge having a wide enough ecclesiology to allow for diversity within that understanding. And I wish that we would quit pretending that those of us who are trying to include new people in God's church--particularly those who wave the "unity" flag--are only interested in preserving the United Methodist Church, Incorporated.

Look: I don't pretend that a changing church is easy. It's going to get worse before it gets better, folks; I've seen those trend-lines too. But I'm also not going to let a focus on Millennials (set to be the largest generation in the history of the United States) be blamed for the decline of the denomination. I'm only 32. That's giving me--and those my age--an awful lot of credit in terms of our ability to undo the Gospel.

(Edited 5/26/15 for clarity)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Untangle Your Committees. Unlock Your United Methodist Church.

What do you call a horse designed by committee? A camel.

What do you call a church run by committees? If you are not careful, you call it United Methodist.

One Size Fits All?

The United Methodist Church is structured to be lay-driven, and this is a very good thing. Unfortunately, in our zeal to include as many people as possible in church leadership and decision-making, we often hold the church back. Not only this, but the system we use for ordering our churches has, at times, actually prevented the laity from participating in our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

What if I told you that there is another way, and that it is actually already written into the Book of Discipline? There is, and it is. But let me first set the scene as to why exploring alternative governance is so important.

As clergy know, there's this interesting wrinkle in our polity as United Methodists that there are administrative committees, mandated by the Book of Discipline, with overlapping function. We try to make up for this fact with by including certain people on multiple committees, but frequently, rather than facilitating conversation, this structural principle means a certain number of people spend more nights than they should in the church parlor, sitting around a table, instead of caring for their families or making Disciples.

Let me share an example from the church I serve. During my first six months at North Decatur United Methodist Church, the church needed to undertake a major renovation project on our elevator. Basically, all the guts had to be replaced. Three groups in the church had oversight:

  • The trustees, because this was a facility issue.
  • The finance committee, because there was significant cost associated with the project.
  • The church council, as the governing body of the church.
The money we planned to use to renovate the elevator was sitting in a bank account, ready to be spent, and yet because of the logistical reality of working through three groups with overlapping authority, we spend six months talking about a project that everyone agreed we needed to do and for which we had already set aside the money! This isn't to say that our lay leaders  were doing anything wrong; it's to say that (as Andy Stanley says) our system was set up to produce exactly the results we were getting, which in this case were absolutely nothing.

It also isn't to say that the United Methodist committee system is irrevocably broken. I supposed it works for some churches. But I've rarely heard anybody praise our committee structure. I've also never seen a disciple made in a committee meeting.

The issue is this: not only is our structure built upon a premise of abundant meetings and overlapping responsibilities (a recipe for triangulation if there ever were one), but the structure simply was not built for a society that moves more quickly than ever. With instant communication, evolving demographics, and a rapidly changing culture, there comes a need to be able to make decisions quickly. As Jeff Brody says, "slow decision making means missed opportunities." We don't have to wait to gather in person in order to learn the results of a study or a bid. We can send it by email and everyone can instantly have all the data. The old way, while it does work for some churches, doesn't work for all of them. So why should we all have to be structured the exact same way?

The good news is that we don't.

A New Governance Model

The United Methodist Book of Discipline includes the following statement:
¶247.2: The charge conference, the district superintendent, and the pastor shall organize and administer the pastoral charge and churches according to the policies and plans herein set forth. When the membership size, program scope, mission resources, or other circumstances so require, the charge conference may, in consultation with and upon the approval of the district superintendent, modify the organizational plans, provided that the provisions of ¶ 243 are observed.

You will notice the broad scope of this paragraph. In consultation with and upon the approval of the district superintendent, a church can engage an alternative administrative structure for just about any reason, provided the provisions of ¶ 243 (which lays out the primary tasks of the church) are observed. Provided you have a district superintendent with imagination and guts (and, fortunately, I do), this may be the best path forward for you and the context you serve.

Paragraph 243, it should be noted, says nothing about how those tasks are to be carried out structurally. The matter of governing structure is a matter between the local church, the pastor, and the district superintendent, in accordance with relevant provisions in the Book of Discipline. There is wide latitude to convene a structure that:
  • has clear lines of authority, so that everyone knows who is in charge of what
  • privileges decision-making above simple reporting, so that God's people can move forward in ministry
  • empowers laity to do the work of making disciples rather than sitting in incessant meetings, and
  • empowers the pastor to attend to the work of Word, Order, Sacrament, and Service.
There are, of course, a number of ways that this alternative structure could function. Let me share how we do it at North Decatur UMC, and why we've found it to be helpful.

The Church Council at North Decatur UMC consists of 12 lay members, including the chair. The members serve three-year, staggered terms, and each member has responsibility to the council as a whole, in addition to any other responsibilities she or he may have coordinating a work area. The Council is structured as follows:

  • 1 Council chair
  • 1 member with SPRC/staffing coordination responsibility
  • 1 member with Trustees/facilities coordination responsibility
  • 1 member with Finance/budget coordination responsibility
  • 3 with ministry area responsibilities
  • 5 other members (including a recording secretary and those with positions required by the Discipline, namely the treasurer, lay leader, and annual conference delegate) 
The ministry areas are structured as follows:
  • Welcome and Worship
  • Nurture
  • Outreach
Each ministry of the church falls in one of these three ministry areas and has a designated leader within the congregation, so that responsibility filters up from the ministry leader through the chair of each area to the Council itself for purposes of coordination, budgeting, and calendaring. When needed, decisions related to ministries are made in the larger Church Council meeting, but usually the ministry teams are empowered to make those decisions themselves, in accordance with policies and procedures established by Church Council. Where coordination between teams is an issue, those matters can usually be worked out between the ministry chairs by email or phone.

Lay employees are accountable to the pastor (clear line of responsibility), and the pastor is accountable to the Council (another clear line). Hiring and firing decisions are made by the pastor, in consultation with the SPRC chair/coordinator; while the pastor consults with the whole council about staffing matters, the pastor is ultimately responsible for staffing, so that the staff understands lines of authority and so that the pastor may be properly evaluated on his or her entire portfolio, including management of the staff. This line of authority with lay staff, it should be noted, is in line with the Discipline's mandate that the pastor order the life of the church.

It is also important to note that while certain members of the council have coordination responsibilities, this model completely replaces the old SPRC / Trustees / Finance committee model. Rather than meeting in individual committees, Trustees matters are brought by the coordinator/chair and dealt with by the entire Council. SPRC matters are typically handled by the pastor (as head of staff) or in the Council as a whole. Major financial decisions are made not by a Finance committee, but by the Council as a whole. The purpose of the structure, after all, is to be clear about who has the authority to make decisions: it is the Council. When the budget is put together, the Finance chair works with the ministry chairs, the staff, and other council members as needed (typically the chair and the treasurer) to craft the proposed budget, which is then approved by the entire Council. Similarly, when a special Trustees project needs to be addressed, the Trustees coordinator/chair is free to put together an ad hoc advisory or implementation group; even then, the entire Council retains decision-making power

The only other administrative committee at the church is the Nominations/Lay Leadership committee, chaired by the pastor. We meet 2-3 times in the fall to prepare for charge conference and to propose new members for the Church Council. The new structure has made the job of the Nominations team so, so much easier. Rather than merely filling spots, we are able to focus on developing leaders, which is, of course, the charge of that committee. At the annual charge conference, we vote on the recommendation of the Nominations committee.

With so much work to do, one may be concerned that meetings would take hours. I have not discovered this to be the case. It is almost unheard of that meetings of the Church Council exceed two hours; most are completed within ninety minutes (and with more to show for the time spent than six traditional committee meetings!). What is more, these meetings are open to anyone who wants to come, until and unless there are SPRC/staffing issues to be discussed. If so, near the end of our time together, the meeting is closed, and non-members leave so that the Council may have the requisite confidential staffing conversations.

Streamlining leadership is not simply something that small churches should consider. I have taught this model to over a hundred churches, and the churches run the gamut in terms of dynamics and demographics: from large to smaller-than-small, white to multicultural to "racial-ethnic," liberal to conservative and everything in between. North Decatur UMC currently sees an average of 200+ worshipers on a Sunday, but the genesis for this model came from Ginghamsburg Church, one of the largest UMCs in the world.

I believe in this model because I have seen it work. North Decatur UMC was a church ready to try something new, and because of that willingness, adopted this model. The model has allowed us to make swift decisions, freed up our evenings for ministry and family, and ultimately led us from an enormous budget deficit and dwindling attendance to a large budget surplus and a church that has nearly quadrupled in size in four years time. I cannot attribute all of these things to our structure--North Decatur UMC is a special place, for sure--but neither can I say that without this structure, we would be anywhere close to where we are. That said, this model isn't for everyone. It isn't for a church not yet ready for significant change, and it isn't for pastors who aren't ready to take on new--and clear--lines of authority.

Finally, let me stress that there is no compelling reason to structure your church exactly the way North Decatur UMC has. The purpose of this Disciplinary provision is to allow for contextual structure. Do what works in your context. The point here is to recognize that when you feel like you are spending all your time in committee meetings, there are options.

For more information, let me encourage you to check out Stephen Ross' book, Leadership and Organization for Fruitful Congregations and two books by Mike Slaughter, Unlearning Church and Spiritual Entrepreneurs. And feel free to contact me by email at if I can be further helpful.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.)

Monday, May 18, 2015

May 17 Sermon: In Defense of the North Decatur Experiment

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

John 17:6-23
”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
As today is Homecoming, I want to center my remarks this morning on this theme: “In Defense of the North Decatur Experiment.” In defense of the North Decatur experiment.
When clergy, when pastors get together to talk, we’re just like everybody else. We talk about our work, the dynamics at the churches we serve, how things are going, worship attendance and giving and that sort of thing. And when we have these conversations, my friends have just about quit asking me how things are going at North Decatur, because they are tired of listening to me gush about what an incredible church this is. I don’t mean to suggest we have it all together, of course. We have our issues just like everybody, but it is the case that there is something happening here at North Decatur United Methodist Church that is not easy to quantify, nor easy to explain. You can’t explain it just by looking at our worship attendance numbers, though they have risen significantly. You can’t explain it just by making a list of all the people who have joined in the last year-and-a-half, though we were one of the top ten growing churches in the North Georgia Conference in 2014. You can’t explain it just by looking at our financial situation, though it has improved enough that we continue to increase the footprint of North Decatur’s ministry. You can’t even explain it just by looking at the number of mission projects we’ve done, the number of meals we’ve served, the money we’ve given away, though this is, of course, the lifeblood and of North Decatur United Methodist Church. What is happening is not easy to explain.
There is an energy around this place. I hope you feel it. I feel it. A hope. A spirit. And I think using theological language is important, here, not just because we’re talking about church, but because you can’t separate what is happening here from the workings of God, because the minute any of us, myself included, take credit for what God is doing in this place, we’ve created an idol of ourselves, for, we learn in this morning’s scripture lesson, any glory we experience, any truth we discern, any protection we receive: it all comes from God.
Listen to this prayer of Jesus, as he speaks to God the Father.
God, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.”
All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I have been glorified in them. He is talking about us here. This is the message of Jesus, that we are God’s children, and it is all well and good to talk about glory and honor when things are going well. But when things get rough, it gets a little tougher. Even in the face of the incredible growth we’ve seen here at North Decatur, all is not well in the world. We’ve had some difficult diagnoses within the congregation, some tough news. And I am thinking today about the state of the larger church, our beloved denomination, certainly, but most the state of the church in the United States, and the state of the global church.
I suppose part of the reason I am thinking about all of this is that a new study is out this week—you may have seen it—that says that children who grow up in the mainline Protestant tradition—that is our tradition, for better or worse—only 45% of these children identify with that branch of faith when they grow up. Less than half. What is more, more than a quarter of people who grow up in this tradition leave faith behind entirely, become part of what we call the “nones,” who check “none” when they are asked which religion they are affiliated with. One quarter of the people we’ve raised will go on to become functional atheists. If this continues, we’ll be wiped out. Dead. An empty sanctuary. A forgotten movement.
This is something we’ve got to deal with! We’ve got to figure out how to stem this tide, not because God is in love with any one particular form of institutional Christianity, but because God calls us to share our faith with others, and if we believe in the graciousness we discover here, in this place, we need to share it! But it is not only those outside the church we need to worry about, for there is a challenge inside, as well. The church in the United States, such as it is, would not make it through a physical without a serious conversation from the doctor! There are those inside the church who are trying to make it into some sort of legalistic fortress, a bootcamp for militant rule-followers rather than a hospital for sinners, a community of love. For better or worse, this is how many non-Christians see us. They think that we’re legalistic, we’re just about keeping pure, but the problem is that the church has never been pure. It isn’t supposed to be. It is supposed to help people grow, so that it welcomes everybody. Yes, it ought to refuse to leave them where they are. But it isn’t supposed to be perfect. It is supposed to point people in the direction of Christian perfection, but the business of welcoming people in Christ’s name isn’t about being pure. It’s about getting your hands in the dirt!
I think about this a lot when I think about Jesus’s prayer, his final prayer for his disciples, that they may be one as God as one. It’s a lofty goal, I think, but a meaningful one, something to think about and work for, and while it’s good, I think it’s misunderstood. Those who want to turn the church into some rigid bootcamp think that what it means to be one is to require strict agreement, to say that if you are not with me on every minute detail, every iota of my belief system, you are my enemy.
That’s not Christian. And it isn’t what Jesus means here. Jesus didn’t pray that “my disciples may be one in agreement about every single little thing.” He prayed that we may be one, that we may be united as God is united.
And here’s the thing. God is certainly united, but have you ever stopped to think what that looks like? I mean, part of what we hold together is a belief in the Holy Trinity, Three-in-One, Father Son and Holy Spirit, or Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost, or as one pastor I know jokingly calls it, the True, the Double True, and Whoa-ho-ho. Yes, God is three-in-one, but God is three-in-one! There is diversity within God’s own self! There are relationships between different members of God’s own self! This is a mystery, of course, and I cannot tell you with complete certainty what it all means, but I can tell you this: those who say that to be one is to agree about everything seem to have forgotten that the model we have for oneness is God, and while we believe in One God just as we are One body, together, being one is not the same thing as being identical!
Now, this is not to say that we are so diverse as to not be rooted in some common things. We’re big on Jesus around here, and on the Bible, and we have a common set of practices we share together, washing in the waters of grace at baptism, drinking from the cup of grace at communion, eating the fried chicken of grace at Homecoming. But it is likewise not to pretend that being rooted in the same place means we are all identical. I was playing out in the yard with my kid the other day, and the wind started to pick up, and it was coming from the south, and yet it wasn’t as if all the leaves blew the exact same way. That’s not how wind works, not how the wind of the spirit works. But when we are rooted together, even if we flutter and flicker in different directions when the spirit blows, we remain rooted.
And isn’t this the job of the church, to root us? To take all of this heady theology and confusing scripture and pull it down to earth so that we can engage it in our real lives, in real ways, not in some theoretical way, but in a real way, in the messiness of life. I have always thought that if the church were to have a smell, it ought to smell like dirt, like fresh dirt, so that people who needed a chance to plant and be nourished could do so and be warmed and grow in the light of God.
This is the purpose of the church: to grow toward God, not to kick out everybody who disagrees. There is a reason that you often hear me say that we’re stronger when we are together: it may not seem like a big thing, but when you are not here, yes, you, when you are not here, we are missing the unique image of God you present every time you enter the sanctuary. There is a reason I believe that the more diverse the congregation, the fuller the picture of the face of God: Because it is true! Because it is made manifest in the Trinity. Because this is how we do justice to Jesus’s prayer that we may be one: we grow together.
Yes, to be rooted is to grow toward God, and it is a happy coincidence that one of the side effects of growth is growth! Spiritual growth, of course, but numerical growth, as well. Getting bigger as a congregation isn’t the only way in which we measure how we’re doing, and bigger doesn’t necessarily mean more faithful, but then neither does smaller. If we are doing what God has called us to do, then we’ve got a responsibility to share God’s love with everybody! I mean, have you experienced love here? Have you experienced grace? Have you experienced acceptance? Then tell somebody! Tell somebody. It is by welcoming new people into relationship with Jesus Christ that we see new dimensions of the face of God, and even if it takes them a while to get used to this church thing—it took me a while to get used to it, too—those folks are also part of God’s prayer, that they may move toward joining with us in our common mission, that they may be one with us, that we might all be one together, as God is one.
It is by welcoming new people into the community that we are reminded, as scripture tells us, that God is constantly doing a new thing, and that just when you thought you had God figured out, the Holy Spirit comes and messes you up. Every time this happens, each time I see God at work in somebody new, especially somebody who doesn’t fit your typical definition of Christian, whatever that means anymore, every time that happens I am reminded that I am not the center of the universe, that none of us is, and I can’t think of many more important messages in this day and age. This is why diversity is so important, diversity of all stripes, because it reminds me that just because I believe something to be a certain way doesn’t make it so. Listen: I am a person of strong beliefs, and I won’t apologize for that. The thing is, it’s not that I am right about everything: it is that I often think I am! And being among all different kinds of people, rooted in the same place, that kind of thing reminds me that I am not right about everything, which is good, because I am not God.
It’s scary, you know, to say, “l may be wrong about some things,” and it is especially scary when I find myself in church, this safe place, this sanctuary, and I discover that I’m not just wrong about some things in general; I’m wrong about some things about God. And yet the longer I’m a part of this community, the longer I’m a part of the North Decatur experiment, the more I realize that this acknowledgement is not one of weakness, but of strength! To worship God among all kinds of people is to recognize that God is the God not just of people who look like me, who think like me, who are the exact same amount of upwardly mobile as me, but the God of all people, and thanks be to God for that.
North Decatur, you understand this! You have opened the doors, welcomed all kinds of people, and look what has happened! We have seen incredible things. There is a new energy, a new breeze blowing in this place. We stand on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before and we reach out in love. We experience church in a place that has people who are so conservative that they are angry about almost everything and so liberal that they barely believe anything. This is what it means, my friends, to be the body of Christ.
This is not to say that being a part of such a diverse community is easy. Pastoring such a diverse community certainly isn’t. But when Jesus gave the great commission, when he told the disciples to go into all the world and baptize in the name of the Father and the son and the holy spirit, and I don’t read anything in the Bible about only baptizing people who look like me, believe like me, act like me, think like me, and so on. It says to go into all the world, and my friends, have I got a deal for you, because it is the case that on this corner, in Decatur, Georgia that all the world is within walking distance of the church.
It is we who are called to go, called to be the body of Christ, and, today’s passage reminds us, it is through us that people come to faith in God. Jesus prays, at the end of this passage, that we may be one, as God is one, that we may be so completely one, that when the world looks at us, they can see the truth of Jesus, that Jesus loves us, that all people are God’s children. This is great, but it is a lot of pressure! This is how the passage ends: Jesus says that the way people will know of the love of God is by looking at the church! Looking at the church, of all places. I don’t know about you, but since I am a part of the very church that Jesus is talking about, it makes me want to pull myself together a little bit. It’s making me think a little more seriously this morning about the ways I act, the resources I give, the time I spend here, the things I say. I am reminded that what we are doing here is not a game. It is quite deadly serious, for it is up to us—to us!—to live in such a way that the world knows of the all-encompassing love of Jesus Christ for all people. Not just people who look like me, think like me, act like me, but for all people.

This is our calling, and it is holy, and while it is deadly serious, it is possible, for this is Jesus’s prayer: "I ask not only on behalf of these, on behalf of the ones with me now, but also on behalf of the ones who will believe in me through their word.” This means that Jesus’s prayer is for everyone, for everyone who has walked through the doors of this church, the great saints who have passed on into the church triumphant and the newest baby, waiting to be born. And that means, of course, that Jesus is praying for you. What a thought. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, May 11, 2015

May 10 Sermon: To Be a Friend of God

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Judging from the religious kitsch and the ridiculous music I sometimes hear, it seems that everybody wants to be friends with God, sort of in the same way that in high school, everybody wants to be friends with the good-looking, popular kid with the fast car and the parents who are frequently out of town.
But even more than that, we long to maintain a close relationship with God. It’s one of our core convictions that God is with us personally, not just some distant figure in the sky, but right here, among all of us. And maybe it says something about the state of our own friendships that there is so many poorly written books and songs about Jesus being your friend, as if what we really want is not just a closer friendship with God, but closer friendships with our friends, because there is so much that gets in the way of close friendships.
My friend Anjie texted me one afternoon this week and said, hey, I’m in the neighborhood, do you have a few minutes? And there aren’t a lot of people I am willing to drop what I’m doing and go see, but Anjie is one of them, and since she and her family live in Rome, Georgia, we don’t get to see them as much as we would like, so I closed my laptop, got in the car, and drove to meet her.
And it’s always good to be with the kind of friend you deeply trust and can share important things with, and Anjie is that kind of person, and I walked away refreshed, like I always do when I have time with a friend.
But the thing that gets me is that we spent the first ten minutes of the conversation talking about how silly it was that we hadn’t had a chance to talk in a long time. I mean, she lives in Rome, Georgia, not Rome, Italy, and I have a phone and so does she. But we just hadn’t kept up with one another’s lives like we should so we spent some time doing that.
In some ways, that’s ridiculous. Do you know what I mean? You hear a lot that “oh, we’re the kind of best friends who can not talk for a year and then pick up the conversation right where we left off,” and that’s great, except for the fact that this person who you claim is your best friend has not talked with you for a year! And I get it, I get that life gets in the way, that raising a family and dealing with health problems and generally trying to survive as a human being on planet earth is enough in and of itself, but it is not enough, and if we want to learn more about what it means to be friends, we don’t have to look any further than this morning’s Gospel passage. As usual, Jesus has some helpful words for us.
In this passage from the Gospel of John that we read just a few minutes ago, I think it is notable that these are sort of Jesus’s last words, his farewell speech to the disciples as he prepares to walk that difficult road that will lead to his crucifixion, and that they are words about friendship of all things. And this is what he says: love one another, as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay one’s life down for one’s friends. You are my friends, he says, if you do what I have commanded you to do, which, of course, is love one another.
Love one another. This is the key to friendship. And of course it is, this isn’t exactly rocket science, but just because it is obvious doesn’t make it easy. In some ways, I’m more able to take seriously Jesus’s command to love your enemies than I am to take his command to love my friends, because I can look at my enemies and say, oh, bless their hearts. They had a tough time coming up, look at the state of their family, I can understand why someone who grew up like that is such a pill.
But when my friends drive me crazy, I just want to smack ‘em! I want to say, “You ought to know better than that!” Friendship is messy. It is not easy, because it involves humans, with all of our baggage, and idiosyncrasies, and hidden agendas. And for as much as it is hard to stay friends with someone who does something dumb, it’s even harder when they do something good, because jealousy is a powerful thing. Let me tell you, if I were to rank the seven deadly sins in terms of their impact on my own life, envy would be at the top of the list, and it’s just poison for friendships. Absolute poison. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to my friends, even though this is a person I love, this is a person who I want to be successful, I find myself jealous when he, when she succeeds, and I have been thinking a lot about this dynamic this week, and I think I have figured out why it is so insidious, and why it happens the way it does.
The thing is, when I am honest with myself, I think I have this weird need for people to look up to me. I want to be just a little bit higher than they are. I want to be just a liiiitle bit more successful, a little bit more popular. I want them to look up to me. This kind of pride is natural—everybody shares it a little bit—and it is present even in friendships. And when the shoe is on the other foot, when I find myself in a situation where my friend has accomplished something quicker or better or more popular, I don’t like that, because I am the one he’s supposed to look up to! I am the one who she’s supposed to ask for advice.
I don’t think I’m just sharing my own dirty laundry up here, except to say that if these are the clothes I tend to wear, you probably wear them, too. This is what it means to be human, and I see it again and again: friends who are driven apart because one of them gets successful and it’s not the successful one that blows up the friendship: it’s the one who didn’t make it quite as far. Jealousy is an incredibly powerful force, and nobody, nobody is immune to it!
It is to this dynamic that Jesus says: stop! Stop! This is not what it means to be friends at all. There is no room for power dynamics in friendships. Oh, they are there, but you can’t get stuck on them, because when one person has power over the other, that’s not a friendship at all! Friendship requires a level playing field.
When Jesus talks about friendship, of course, he says, this most incredible thing. I mean, when you think about the fact that Jesus is God incarnate, it is just the most incredible thing for God to say: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father.
And what a revolutionary idea, to be friends with God! And do you understand why it is possible? It is possible because God has humbled God’s own self, laid down God’s own life, so that the dynamic of I am up here and you are down here—it’s blown to smithereens! God has chosen us and brought us up here so that we may be in true relationship with him, not in some jealous way, but in a truly loving way.
It is revolutionary, to be called a friend of God, and it is helpful, for it helps us understand how we can maintain friendships with one another, and I don’t mean that like Facebook means it, I mean truly friends in the way God intended, which is to say you are here and I am here and there is nothing: not success, not failure, not money, not fame, nothing that can make one of us above the other because in the final analysis, when you set all these things next to love, they are dwarfed. They are so small as to disappear when you step back to take in the totality of love.
I do not call you servants any longer, Jesus says, but friends, for friendship requires a level playing field, not that both of you have the same amount of money, or the same amount of success, or even, in this case, the same amount of divinity. But love stands in the gap. It is as the apostle Paul says, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This is why it is obvious that the best friendship advice we could get is “love one another,” but why it is still so absolutely necessary to hear that advice again and again, for the power of that love is real. It is real.
Of course, Jesus isn’t just talking about what it means to be friends with one another. He is talking about what it means to be friends with God, again, not in a flippant way, but in a real, true way. And the truth is that because Jesus has leveled the playing field, because he became human, because he became love so that those barriers melted away, so that to have a relationship with Jesus Christ is not just an empty platitude, not just something that street preachers put on their poster boards, but it is a real possibility, a real friendship, a real connection point with the heart of God.
And like in any friendship, there is responsibility. It takes work. It takes intentional work to stay friends with God, to do the things God calls us to do, to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God, so that we aren’t the kind of people who say, of our friendship with God, “oh, we’re the kind of friends who can not talk for a year and it’s like no time has passed at all.” No! To be friends with God is to truly put effort into that friendship.
Jesus says, in this passage of the Gospel of John, that to be friends with God is to recognize the great gift we have been given and not just to leave it there, not just to roll around in it, but to go bear fruit! Last week we talked about what it means to be in relationship with God, as Jesus says that he is the vine, that God is the vinegrower, and that we are the branches, and that the vinegrower prunes the branches so that they may bear more fruit. So don’t be the kind of branch that needs pruning! Be the kind of branch that bears fruit, that bears the fruit of the spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Be the kind of branch that says, I have been given an incredible gift, an incredible love, and rather than trying to keep it for myself, I am going to sow love everywhere I go! I am going to tend to my relationship with God, I am going to go out into the world to be a vessel for the love I have received, so that I may share it with everyone I meet.
This is what it means to be friends with God! That we are so moved by the incredible gift of love we have received in the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ that we go out into the world to share it, to be friends, in the truest sense, with people not just of our age and station and income level, but all people, for by no longer calling us servants but friends, Christ has undone everything that could possibly separate us, if we will just abide in that love.
I will end with this. Friendship can make you do crazy things. My friend Anjie, who I had coffee with this week, is married to Andy; they are also United Methodist pastors, both of them, and they are the kinds of friends that are family more than anything else. And when each couple had kids, the other couple would collect letters from loved ones, to be presented to each child upon the occasion of his or her baptism, welcoming them to the world and the family of God. This book is one of our most prized family possessions.
And maybe because it’s Mother’s Day, I don’t know, but I found myself looking through it this week, moved to tears by the way that our friends and family were talking about Emmaline, who wasn’t three months old at that point, and you could feel those barriers of age and time and station in life just melt away in the presence of love. Again and again, they called her “friend,”—friend!—this three month old who didn’t even yet know the power of that kind of love.
I won’t read this morning from the letters that people wrote—these are Emmaline’s friendships, not mine—but I do want to say this. Included in this book are letters from people who have since passed on into Heaven. By the time Emmaline is old enough to understand the promises of friendship made to her in this book, by the time she is old enough to understand God’s promises, it is inevitable that several more of the authors of these letters will have passed into God’s hands. Eventually, we all will. And yet because of the love that has been made manifest in this book, she can always remember that even the barrier to friendship that is created by death is dwarfed in the presence of love. Because of the love that has been made manifest in the Bible, the book we hold sacred together, we can all remember.

For this is what it means to be friends, to love one another, no matter the circumstance, as God first loved us, as God has always loved us. And thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, May 4, 2015

May 3 Sermon: "What is to prevent me from being baptized?"

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
John 15:1-8
”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
This has not been an easy week to be a citizen of the world. An earthquake in Nepal. Race riots in Baltimore. The United States and its adversaries on the brink of war, always, it seems, on the brink of war. Complicated questions about love and marriage and what it means to be a society that respects all people, affords rights to all people.
Come to think of it, while it’s been a complicated, difficult week, it’s not just this week. Things are changing, around this place, of course, but everywhere, really, sometimes for the better, depending on your point of view, sometimes for the worse.
And in the midst of this great change, thank God for the church. Thank God we can continue to come here, meet in this room, as we have done every single Sunday for the sixty years since this sanctuary was built, three thousand, one hundred and thirty Sundays including today. When we feel so overwhelmed by the state of the world that we can barely move, church connects us, stills us, holds us accountable to one another and to God, and roots us in a common community, a common understanding of life and faith.
And so I am thinking God this week for the traditions of the church. They root us. They connect us, year after year, so that when we worship with our friends across the street on Good Friday, or when we share a covered dish dinner after Homecoming, or when we sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve, we can quit worrying just for a moment about all that has become unfamiliar in the world and rest in the familiar, in these well-worn pews, in this holy place.
Thank God for the traditions of the church. A church needs traditions, needs rootedness, even as it looks forward. Why, just this week, here at the church, we discovered that due to some of the updating and renovating we’ve been doing around here, the frames holding the pictures of all the former pastors of this church, our sort of Wall of Fame, had been put in a cabinet and nearly forgotten about. Well, do I think that the pastors are the most important part of the church? Of course not. But there’s history there, there’s rootedness. And so we’re talking about how to honor that history: where to hang those pictures so that people see them regularly, not so that we can get stuck on how things were, but so that we can remember—even those of us new to this place can remember that we do not come to faith alone, nor are we the first ones to do so. We are connected, we are rooted, we have a particular history.
But what happens when the traditions of the church become the most important thing? I have seen churches unwilling to bend on anything, unwilling to recognize that love of tradition is not the same thing as love of Jesus. In other words, what happens when the way we’ve always done it gets in the way of the mission of God?
That’s not to say that just because something doesn’t work anymore means it’s bad. Oh, that’s not the case at all. There are plenty of things we don’t do that we once did that are deeply good! Listen, I am a person who collects vinyl records. I am not a throw-it-all-away-and-start-over kind of guy. Do I want to go back to the days when all music is on records, where I’d have to lug crates of music around just to have half as many songs as I have on my phone? No! But that doesn’t mean vinyl is bad. Not at all.
Just because something doesn’t work anymore doesn’t mean it’s bad. But neither does it mean that we ought to keep everything as it always was forever and ever just because it once was good. I may collect vinyl, because of the superior sound, but I do not bother with 8-tracks! The faith I had as a child was good, but I have outgrown it. I hope you have outgrown the things you believed when you were five, six, seven years old, or at least, I hope you have a more nuanced view of the world.
Don’t take my word for it. Take Jesus’s. In the Gospel passage Mary Gene read this morning, the word of the day is pruning, cutting away that which was once viable growth so that the faster-growing parts can thrive. This is what it means to be part of God’s family, of the Body of Christ, for, we learn in scripture, that Christ is the vine and we are the branches, and God prunes the branches so that they will bear more fruit.
This sounds all right, I suppose, but pruning is not exactly fun stuff. In the yard of the house where we used to live, we had a number of beautiful crepe myrtle trees, and every year, to keep them from getting so large as to be unmanageable, we had to go out in the yard with a long chainsaw thing on a pole and commit what we called crepe murder. It is a good thing that plants can’t scream! And yet it was for the best, so that they kept their shape, kept putting out leaves, kept from growing so large they split in two.
Pruning was important, and I think we can agree on that, at least as long as it’s plants we’re talking about pruning and not us. It’s not so easy when it is me that needs pruning, that needs to cut some things away so that new growth can happen. Put another way, everybody’s fine with change as long as they are left alone. And yet the mission of God is bigger than me, bigger than us, bigger than the way we do church and the things we like. And I can’t get out of my head the idea that if the mission of God really is the most important thing, then it is more important than our methods of conveying it. If the mission of God really is the most important thing, are there things about my faith, or about our shared faith, that we need to prune?
And if you need an example of what this means, practically, look no further than the story we read this morning from the Book of Acts, which is the story of the creation of the church in the days after Jesus. The apostle Philip is on a journey in the wilderness, and he comes across a chariot, in which sat an Ethiopian Eunuch, a man who had been cruelly castrated against his will and forced into slavery. Philip walks up to him and hears him reading scripture, of all things! He’s reading the Bible.
Philip is impressed and so he gets into the chariot and they ride off together in the chariot for a while, talking about the Bible and what it means to be a person of faith, and they come to some water, a lake or a stream running alongside the road, and the Ethiopian eunuch points at the water and says, “Look! There is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he asks. And the answer is that it depends on who you’re talking to. If you’re talking to the kind of person who, in the course of cleaning out the church basement, says, oh, you can’t throw that away, what if a situation comes up where we need a broken television, or whatever, if you you’re talking to that person, there’s a lot to keep the Ethiopian eunuch from being baptized. For one thing, there’s Deuteronomy chapter twenty-three, verse two, which says, and forgive me, this is a quote, “no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord,” and I mean, I don’t think that could be any clearer. I wish it weren’t so clear, it would make it less awkward to read it from the pulpit of the church! But if you’re somebody that says, no, we can’t dispense with that, it’s one of our traditions, the answer is that there is a lot to keep the Ethiopian eunuch from being baptized.
And yet, even though there’s this clear verse, even though it is part of the Bible and it is in yours and it is in mine, Philip says, “Stop! Stop the chariot!” And they get out of the chariot, the two of them, they go down into the water, and he baptizes him.
Because Philip was willing to let grace lead the way, the man goes down into the water as an Ethiopian eunuch and comes back up as God’s beloved child, part of the family of God.
Friends, when we allow God to prune our hearts and our lives so that we may attend to the mission of God, amazing things happen. It’s not that we’re casting judgment on things, on traditions, on parts of God’s church that don’t work anymore. It’s that we’re honoring the past, giving thanks that these things helped us to attend to the mission of God, but acknowledging that there are parts of church, parts of our own personal histories that are no longer viable parts of the vine. If we choose to focus on the nonviable parts, we lose out on the new growth, which is of course, the only thing that keeps the vine growing, all the way from the tips of the leaves to the roots in the ground.
Let me bring this down to earth. I shared an article with the Church council this week by an author who says that if you want a church to grow, there are literally only three options. Only three.
The first is to have enough babies that it increases your total worship attendance. And while I appreciate those of you who have been helping in this effort, obviously, it’s not enough.
The second option is to take people from other churches. Now, I want to acknowledge, that if you are looking for an authentic church home, you could do worse than North Decatur UMC. I think everybody ought to be part of this church. But even while we keep the doors open to whoever wants to make this their church home, I have to say, only relying on people who were already members of other churches doesn’t seem to me to feel right. Does it to you? Do you think that what God wants us to do, what God really wants us to do is to only reach out to people who are already in other churches, only those who have already experienced the grace that comes through a life lived with Jesus? No, of course not. We welcome those folks, particularly those who need the North Decatur message of grace and unconditional love, those who will help us reach out in love, but it is not enough in and of itself.
And so the third option is this: reach out to people who are part of no church, who need to hear, to experience that great love, that great hope for the first time. People who don’t know Christ, who have not experienced the kind of radical forgiveness, the radical love that we have experienced.
That’s it. There are three options. And I just have to wonder: are there things that stand in the way of our reaching out to these folks? Are there things that are diverting our attention from attending to the mission of God, which is to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor? Because if there are things that once bore fruit but now distract us, I think you know what needs to happen.
I’m just saying. I hear the story of the beloved child of God who was once known only as the Ethiopian eunuch, I see hopelessness in the streets of Baltimore, I see millions of people displaced by natural disaster, people who have lost everything, I see people who crave legal recognition and protection for their families, and it’s not hard to figure out where God would have us focus our efforts. And I get the sneaking suspicion that anything that gets in the way, whether it has been fruitful in the past or not—anything that gets in the way has got to go.

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he asked. And in the kingdom of God, the answer is, the answer must be, “Nothing.” Nothing.