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.

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