Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Wesleyan mDNA

“What if the church is not about attracting people into a building but living as God’s people in the public space of their own community and neighborhood?”[1]

This quote, and the book where I encountered it, have awakened me to a clearer perception of my work and ministry. To use a much over used phrase, I have experienced a paradigm shift. I think I now see more clearly the nature and purpose of the church as it is revealed in Scripture. And, I now see why the United Methodist Church in North America is dying.

We have forgotten our Wesleyan DNA. Or, to use Alan Hirsch’s term, mDNA (missional DNA). We have turned the church into an institution. We have encumbered it with structure, bureaucracy and real estate. Consequently, we talk about the church as a static edifice. It is the place we go on Sunday morning and Wednesday night. We go there to be blessed and to grow in our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Church is what we do between 9:00 am and 12:00 pm on Sunday. It’s where we know we can go to receive religious goods and services. In other words, we have turned the church into a religious version of Wal-Mart.

In the vast majority of United Methodist congregations membership has very little meaning because there is very little expected. Church membership has been reduced to something akin to membership in Sam’s Club. You pay your nominal dues and then you are entitled to all the benefits of discounted goods and services. This is particularly true when most congregations reduce membership vows to “will you faithfully participate in [the local congregation’s] ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service.” Nothing is asked about rejecting the evil powers of this world and repenting of sin, accepting the freedom and power God gives to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, or confessing Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

When we reduce membership to “prayers, presence, gifts and service” we put ourselves and the local congregation on center stage. Christ and his mission for the world is relegated to the margins. The church’s ministry is focused upon attracting as many people as possible to itself. Discipleship becomes an optional program. Mission is relegated to sending money and prayers to missionaries in foreign countries. And if the people who come happen to meet Jesus sometime along the way, well that’s a special blessing. What really matters is that people come to the church. To that end, the governing principle of most congregations is the General Rule of Pastoral Prudence: “The absolute minimum in obligations in order to keep the maximum number of people.”

I am convinced that one of the reasons the North American United Methodist is dying is that more and more people today are looking for meaning and purpose. They are drawn to communities that are missional. They yearn to give of themselves to something bigger than themselves. They want to make a difference in the world.

The Wesleyan movement was essentially missional in character. It attracted people to it because of the mission to “proclaim scriptural holiness and to reform the Church.” The Wesleys and Methodism were all about participating in Christ’s mission for the world: to prepare Earth for the coming reign of God. They were a people on a mission. And the mission was centered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in, with, and for the world. The Wesleys understood that the church does not exist for itself, it exists for the world. People are drawn to it when it is like salt of the earth and light for the world.

We need to reawaken this latent Wesleyan mDNA present in the North American United Methodist Church. God’s reign will come with or without the United Methodist Church. Our task is to become the church that God can use; the kind of church that is like salt and light.

[1] Alan J. Roxburgh & Fred Romanuk, The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 170

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Salt & Light

"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

"You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way , let you light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:13-16, NRSV).

As we come to the end of another liturgical year its good to take time for some the church to do some self examination. How is it with our covenantal relationships with God and with one another? How are we living Christ’s vision for his church to be salt of the earth and light of the world? Are we striving to become what God created the church to become: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic?

To be “one” is the first mark of the church. Are we one with each other? Are we a community that is united in faith, hope, and love? This one-ness is expressed most powerfully by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

“… make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Paul also makes clear the necessity of diversity within this unity. There is a diversity of gifts and callings and personalities, all of which work together to compose the church as the “body of Christ.”

Holiness is the second mark of the church. To be holy is to be set apart; to be in but not of the world. To be holy is to be different, to be a community that reflects the reign of God and not the values and character of the culture of the world. John Wesley had a very simple and straightforward definition of holiness: It is loving the Lord your God with all the heart, all the soul, all the mind, and all the strength, and loving the neighbor. And the neighbor is anyone, near or far, who is in need; especially the poor. In other words a church that is holy is a community that directs all of itself in loving God. Its love for God is lived out in the world through loving all in the world that God loves, including the enemy. Also, loving God is expressed through loving one another. Holiness is seen through the ways we care for, encourage, and admonish one another. Do we watch over one another in love? Do we welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, and care for the sick? Do we seek reconciliation with those who hate and persecute us?

The third mark of the church is to be “catholic.” This is not to be confused with being “Roman Catholic.” When we say we are a “catholic” church we say we are ecumenical. In other words, we affirm the doctrines and creeds of historic Christianity. We affirm the distinctives of our own tradition while also affirming and accepting other traditions. To be catholic is to acknowledge and celebrate all that we hold in common:

  • Faith in God who is one and triune; whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • Faith in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
  • Trust in the saving power of God active in the world in the Holy Spirit
  • The forgiveness of sins
  • The resurrection of the body
  • and life in the world to come, the coming reign of God

A church that is catholic sees itself and lives in the world as an outpost, an embassy, of the reign of God. It understands itself to be not an independent community but part and representative of the universal Church of Jesus Christ.

Finally the church is apostolic. To be apostolic means we are sent by God into the world as agents of love and justice; as ambassadors of the coming reign of God. This simply means that the church exists for the world. It does not exist to serve itself. The mission and ministry of an apostolic church is directed outward with Jesus in, with, and for the world. An apostolic church is a pilgrim people of God moving toward the coming reign of God. The members are formed and equipped to be missionaries in the world to be witnesses to Jesus Christ and follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In the lesson we just read from the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus gives us his vision for the community of disciples; the community we know today as the church. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” and “You are the light of the world.” When he says “You” here he means “y’all” or “all y’all”. He’s referring to the community of disciples. We, together, are salt and light for the world. Jesus is telling us here that his community exists for the world, not for itself.

Salt and light are common and essential elements of life. They are “down-to-earth,” ordinary, and everywhere. Which is to say the church is to be “down-to-earth”, ordinary, and everywhere. In other words, the church is not to be so heavenly minded that it is no earthly good. It must connect the lives of real people with the real, living God who has become one with us in Jesus Christ.

Let’s think a little about what it means to be salt and light for the world. Salt and light bring out the best in all they touch. Jesus knew that salt makes food taste better. It brings out the flavors and helps us to savor its goodness. Light brings out the colors and beauty of creation. Light allows us to see the world and to see the faces of our neighbors.

The church that is salt and light reveals to the world all that life can be, and will be when the reign of God comes. It seasons the world with the flavor of God’s reign that we can know and experience now in the person of Jesus Christ: who is good news for the poor, who gives recovery of sight for the blind, who gives release to the captives, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt. 11:5).

When the church is “light of the world” it gives a glimpse of the reign of God present now and awakens us to the reign of love and justice that is coming. The apostle Paul describes this in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And the prophet Isaiah: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoner from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:6b-7). Light means hope and faith. Light means we have a future.

Salt and light do not derive their character from themselves. Nor do they exist for themselves. The purpose of salt is to season and preserve. Its character comes from the combining of its elements, sodium and chloride. Its important for the church to always remember it, like salt, does not exist for its own benefit. The church of Jesus Christ exists for the world—to season the world with the love and justice of God. Its “salt” character does not come from itself. It comes from God. Salty churches are those congregations that intentionally center their lives and ministry on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They strive to attend to all of the historic marks of the church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

The church that seeks to be “light of the world” must always remember the source of the light, and that they are not it. The love of God is the light of the world. The church is to be the window through which the light of God shines. Part of the church’s task is to keep the window clean and free of debris and distractions that may diffuse or distort the light of God.

The church is salt and light when it keeps its eyes, ears, and heart on Jesus Christ. The church is salt and light when it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. We do this when all that we do and say witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world. We do this when we follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

As you prepare for Advent and Christmas I invite you to re-commit yourself to the mission Christ has given you. Do all in your power to be one in Christ and one in mission for the world. Do all in your power to be holy as you are good news for the poor and channels of God’s love for the world revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son. Do all in your power to be catholic as you reach out in mission and ministry with your many and diverse sisters and brothers in Christ. Do all in your power to be apostolic as you witness and serve with Christ in the world to be good news to the poor, release to captives, open the eyes of the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. Watch over one another in love and do all in your power to increase faith, confirm hope, and perfect one another in love. Live in the world as Christ’s ambassadors of the good news of his coming kingdom of love, righteousness and justice.

"Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

"Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a lamp stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand--shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God,k this generous Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:13-16, The Message by Eugene Peterson).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Prayers for Veterans/Remembrance Day

Almighty God, from whose love in Christ
we cannot be parted, by death or by life:
hear our prayers and thanksgivings
for those whom we remember this day.
Fulfil in them the purpose of your love;
and bring us, with them, to your eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We give thanks this day, O Lord of hosts,
for all that makes our common life secure;
for the peace and freedom we enjoy;
and for the opportunity that is ours
of building a better order of society
for the generation to come.

We remember with pride and gratitude
those who fought and died to make this possible;
and we pray that the memory of their sacrifice
may inspire in us the resolve to seek your kingdom
and to do your will for the world of our day;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Source unknown)

Almighty God,
we commend to your gracious care and keeping
all the men and women of our armed forces
at home and abroad.
Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace;
strengthen them in their trials and temptations;
give them courage to face the perils which beset them;
and grant them a sense of your abiding presence
wherever they may be;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer)

One Thing I Hope Will Emerge from “The United Methodist Way” Event

The Council of Bishops and extended cabinets have been meeting at Lake Junaluska this weekend. They’ve been learning and discussing “The United Methodist Way.” You can check out the documents they’ve been using to guide their conversations here:

I’m very encouraged that this event is happening and that the Council of Bishops is leading the way for a conversation on the United Methodist Way. This is a conversation that we need to have. What does it mean to be a Christian today in The United Methodist Church? How can we get beyond all that divides us and begin to work together in mission guided by what unites us? I believe that when we put all the idolatrous ideologies aside we will find that we have much around with to unite.

One thing I hope will emerge from the event is a renewed emphasis upon teaching and putting into practices the General Rules. This simple document is the heart of the “method” of Methodism. We see this in the few sentences that preface the “rules:”

“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.

It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, …”

The rules that follow are intended to provide guidance for how the people called Methodists can live out their desire for salvation. Wesley clearly states that belief in the saving power of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not enough. If you want to be a Christian you must show it by what you do, by how you live your life in the world. Belief leads to faith. Faith leads to practice.

These lines also reveal that while “desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from … sins” is all that is required to enter the society, the society will love you enough to help you turn that desire into reality. The mission of the society is to provide a community of nurture, support and accountability that will equip you to grow from one desiring salvation to one who can know that you are “saved by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). And you will be helped to “work out your salvation” (Philippians 2:12b) through obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ summarized by him in the “Great Commandments:”

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mark 12:30-31).

The General Rules provide a simple and practical guide, a “rule of life,” to equip a congregation to lead its people into a life of obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is, after all, how people have historically been formed as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. It is how people live out the requirement of discipleship given by Jesus in Luke 9:23, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Obedience to the commands to love is the “cross” Jesus teaches his disciples to take up daily. Christian life is a “cross-shaped” life of obedience that leads to freedom and healing. The General Rules are the Methodist rule of life that equips a community to lead people into the life of discipleship as witnesses to Jesus Christ and followers of his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I pray that the Extended Cabinet event will be a first step toward re-claiming the method of Methodism. That it will inspire and equip bishops and superintendents to encourage not only teaching and training in discipleship guided by the General Rules but also a renewed emphasis upon the importance of practicing the means of grace, the works of piety (acts of worship and devotion) and works of mercy (acts of justice and compassion) through which people of faith have historically made themselves available to God by meeting God in the places where God promises to always meet us.

I also pray that we do not receive yet another program from the UMPH. If the “United Methodist Way” is reduced to yet another program it is almost guaranteed to have no lasting impact upon the church. We do not need any more programs! We have all the programs we need. In fact, we have right now the very best programs (Disciple Bible study, Walk to Emmaus, Companions in Christ, Christian Believer, etc., etc.) of any church in the history of Christianity. And look where they have gotten us. We are more polarized, shrinking in membership, and more illiterate of our own tradition and practices than ever before. Programs will not renew the church.

What we need is a renewed emphasis upon the historic practices of United Methodism, which includes the General Rules and the system of small groups that support learning and putting the Rules into practice. What we need is, therefore, a renewed emphasis upon the grace of God experienced through acceptance, repentance, faith, and sanctification. We need to not only teach people about grace and the means of grace, but to expect United Methodists to practice the works of piety and works of mercy in their daily lives. We need to help the people of the church form those holy habits through which they become channels of grace for the world and the church will once again become salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16).

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Who me? A Saint?

A sermon for All Saints based upon Luke 6:20-31.

What comes to your mind when you hear the word "saint?" Many of you probably think of a statue of some famous Christian of the distant past like St. Patrick or St. Francis of Assisi. When we call someone a "saint," they often have a reputation for being exceptionally good, decent, righteous people. We think of a "saint" as being someone who always does the right thing. But, of course, you could never be a "saint."

Or could you?

All Saints is the day we remember all the people who have touched our lives, inspired and helped to form our faith.

Saints, according to Scripture, are people God has made holy. Saints are people whose lives were lived in harmony with the life of Jesus Christ. Saints are people whose lives were directed and committed to the cause of Jesus Christ in the world. Their lives were good news to the poor, the broken, the hungry, the oppressed and the prisoner. A saint is a person whose life became, by grace, an extension of Jesus' life in the world. They were Jesus' hands, feet, arms, and voice to the people of their world.

The Bible is filled with stories of saints: Abraham and Sarah believed God and, at nearly 100 years of age, gave birth to a son named Isaac. Because of their faith, God made them the ancestors of many nations. Moses and Miriam believed God and led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. Joshua and Deborah lead the new nation of Israel in times of crisis. Ruth and David were examples of faithfulness. Mary and Joseph trusted God and gave birth to God's son, Jesus. They raised him and taught him the trade of a carpenter. Because of them, Jesus became a builder in a world that wears down. Jesus' disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Martha, Mary, Mary Magdalene and others are all examples of the people we call saints.

When you read the stories about these people you see what they have in common. First, they all have faith in God. Second, they are willing to struggle with the world and with God to be faithful. Third, they are imperfect, ordinary folk who make mistakes just like you and me. Finally, they are saints because they were willing to become who God made them to be. In other words, it's God's love, God's justice, God's righteousness, and God's grace that made them saints. They are people who surrendered themselves to God; who allowed God's love, justice, righteousness, and grace to flow through them. They are God's lights against the darkness of sin, injustice, poverty, oppression, hate and selfishness that fill the world. They are beacons of hope in a world that often seems hopeless.

In Luke 6:20-31, Jesus gives us a description of a saint.
He begins:

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man."

Jesus is saying saints live among the poor, the hungry, and those who weep now for the victims of the violence and the oppression of poverty and hunger. The saints are those who stand with Jesus. When you stand with Jesus, you stand with the poor, the hungry, the prisoner, the sick, the outcast and the despised people of the world. Often, when you stand with and for these people, you become a target of hatred and slander.

Jesus says a saint is one who loves his or her enemies. A saint is one who refuses to respond to violence with violence. A saint is generous and merciful.

A saint is an ordinary person who is willing to walk faithfully with Jesus.

Saints are found in every age. Can you think of some modern day saints? I can think of several famous saints of the 20th century: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and teacher who stood against Hitler and the Nazis. Ellie Wiesel, the Jewish writer and poet, who survived the Holocaust and devotes his life to helping others resist evil and hatred. Mahatma Ghandi, the Indian leader who gave his life to the cause of justice and non-violence for his people and all the world. Rosa Parks, the African American woman who resisted the forces of racism and helped to make justice accessible to all people in the U.S. And Mother Theresa who served Jesus as she served the sick and dieing poor of Calcutta, India.

But there are many more anonymous saints among us today. One that comes to my mind is my grandfather, John Henry Tallakson. His love for me helped me to understand God's love. He taught me to fish and showed me that being a man means being patient, compassionate and kind. I'm sure that all of you can think of saints in your lives.

A saint is a person whose faith in God is lived out through their love for others.

A saint is anyone who does their best to live out their faith in God through acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion. A saint is anyone who serves and gives of themselves for others. A saint is a person whose life is good news to their world; especially those who are poor, broken, and outcast.

There are saints among us today. I invite you to look around you at the faces in you meet on the street, in your workplace, school, church, and home. What makes y’all saints is your faith in God and willingness to act on God's call to live out your faith through loving, self-giving service; to be good news to the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the despised people of the world.

In baptism, Christ chooses and calls us to be saints. In baptism, we are incorporated into the communion of saints. As we live and grow and mature in the faith Christ gives, as the community of the church nurtures and teaches us, we are empowered by Christ's spirit to become saints. Whenever the community gathers around the Lord’s table to break bread and share the cup, we gather with all the saints who have gone before us, all those who are among us now and all those who are yet to come.

The celebration of All Saints is meant to remind us that we are not alone, we come from a long line of saints who have lived, served, struggled, suffered, rejoiced, and died as people chosen and called by God to be good news for the world and light shining in the darkness. We stand on their shoulders. Let us remember and celebrate the saints who have touched and inspired our lives. Let us give thanks and praise to God for all God has given us through their lives. And, let us re-commit our lives to becoming the saints Christ calls us to become. Amen.