I am preaching at Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church (275 Church Street, Buchanan, NY 10511 – Location of church) this Sunday, August 24th. Service starts at 9 am. The Scriptures for the the 15th Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10; Romans 12: 1 – 8, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20.
When I first began preparing this sermon and saw the Gospel message for today, my first thoughts were how often I had used that passage or its variants in Mark and Luke to describe my growing up in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. But those thoughts are for another day and time. But, in thinking of Memphis and reading Paul’s words in the 2nd lesson for today, I thought about pyramids; which is why there is a picture of a pyramid on the cover of the bulletin for this morning.
I cannot tell you why or how Memphis came to be called what it is. Perhaps it is the same distance down river from Cairo, Illinois, that Cairo, Egypt is up river from Memphis, Egypt. But for whatever reason that Memphis received its name, there is a modern day pyramid sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River today. And in this modern day pyramid the University of Memphis Tigers play basketball.
But the connection that I saw in Paul’s words comes neither from this pyramid nor from the pyramids that are so much the picture of Egypt today. Rather, it was another pyramid, somewhat related to the University of Memphis and its rise as a basketball power today. While the University of Memphis basketball program is one of the more successful programs in the country today (at least in terms of winning), when you say success and basketball you cannot help but think of UCLA and its coach from 1948 to 1975, John Wooden. And if you think of success and John Wooden, you think of his “Pyramid of Success.”
Much has been said about Coach Wooden and his Pyramid of Success. But just like the success of the UCLA basketball program did not come overnight, neither was this Pyramid created overnight. When you think of the UCLA basketball team, you think of the ten championships won between 1964 and 1975, But it was sixteen years between the time UCLA first hired him as the basketball coach in 1948 and the first national championship team in 1964. It took much effort and change on the part of Coach Wooden; the pyramid of success is a reflection of what it took to achieve success. And while Coach Wooden adapted the play of his teams over his career and he listened to his players, he never changed the core values that were the foundation of his coaching and his life. This core values are identified in the pyramid.
And if you asked any of his players, be they star or role-player, they will tell you that they thought this “pyramid of success” idea and Coach Wooden’s philosophy was a bunch of nonsense or corny at best. But each player will also tell you it wasn’t until later that they understood what he was teaching them. As Bill Walton said, “he didn’t teach us the answers; he taught us how to find the answers.” In a world where success is demanded immediately, true success takes time.
And while the capstone of this pyramid is success, the pyramid is more than success alone. It is built on industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm. There are eight other blocks that sit on these five blocks before you can achieve success and success is supported by faith and patience. It is interesting to note that Coach Wooden’s players all noted that he never equated success with winning. Yet in today’s society, the only measure of success is how many times we win and, very often, by the size of the victory. The same is true for many churches today; success is measured by how big it is when, in fact, the true measure of success can never be determined in our own or anyone’s lifetime. And when we don’t win, it can make life very hard.
To a certain extent, the church of today is much like the Israelites of the Old Testament reading. Our lives have been made hard and bitter by the demands of society; it seems that we are being asked to make bricks without straw. Our churches have lost their vision; no longer do old men dream dreams. Our youth no longer prophesy or see visions. For many churches today, there are no youth upon whom the future can be built and all the churches today can do is think of days long past.
And the sad news is that there is no Moses floating down the Nile, the Mississippi, or even the Hudson on whom the future can rely. But there need not be one, if we recognize what it is that we can do. It took John Wooden almost forty years to develop his Pyramid of Success, but like the other pyramids, it stands today because of what it is built upon.
The church of today is seen as a decaying old relic of days long past, using words that once meant something but are meaningless in today’s culture and society. People see a church that presents an image in contrast with what they studied in Sunday school and confirmation class. And they want no part of it. It isn’t the words that are said that are causing the death of the church; it is the manner in which the words are spoken, it is the way the words are used.
Today’s “seekers” grew up hearing about redemption and sacrifice but saw those who pushed the message living lives of greed, self-righteousness, and arrogance. They are asking basic gut level questions such as “Do you know God; do you live in 2008; do you have a story?” They do not want our answers to be that we know a lot about God but cannot say whether we actually know God personally. They don’t want to know that while it is 2008 outside the church it is 1952 inside the church on Sunday morning. And they don’t want to hear the story of how the church has been chartered since 1968 and that the budget is $256,000 or that we have had ten pastors and thirteen organists during that period.
They do not want to be a part of that church anymore. They want to know what it means to be a Christian today. They do not want to be a part of a church that works on the assumption that because it is there people will come. They would rather converse with their friends at a Starbucks on Sunday morning than drink coffee in a styrofoam cup during fellowship time after service on Sunday.
And the church often doesn’t know how to respond. It adds new music that sounds like the music of the age and it lets its preachers dress casually so that they appear to be hip. The church has so embraced the ways of society that it is no longer what it once was or what it should and could be. And it still holds to a worldview that is out of touch with the realities of the world.
There are many churches that are examining their processes and trying to figure out how the church can be more relevant in today’s work. And from these efforts, a new model for church growth, known coincidentally as the “emerging church matrix” is emerging. The proposed goal of many in this movement is to provide an alternative to the “seeker-driven, big church” model that blankets the evangelical countryside like kudzu on a southern hillside.
For those of you who have never encountered this ubiquitous southern weed, kudzu is not a native plant. It was introduced to the southern states as a way to cover hillsides and prevent erosion. But after it was planted, it was found that it grows anywhere and everywhere under almost any kind of condition. (Pictures of kudzu) It has been said that if you parked your car on the roadside next to a hill where kudzu was growing, it would be enveloped by the kudzu within twenty-four hours. Kudzu was thought to be a good idea when it was first introduced into this country. But it is clear that its ability was limited to a specific place and climate, neither of which were the southern states. There are good models for church growth available but we have to be very careful that the model that we pick is the model that is applicable to our setting, time, and place.
One advocate of the emerging church model, Sally Morgenthaler, suggested that seekers want to know what it meant to be a Christian 2000 years ago. But more importantly, they want to know how the Gospel and its life changing attributes will affect them and apply to them today. They want to know who Wesley is and why he is so important to the United Methodist Church. They want to know why it is we recite the various creeds. (Adapted from “Worship Transitions: The Road Less Traveled” by Sally Morgenthaler)
Now, I understand where Ms. Morgenthaler is coming from. Many churches do exhibit a time warp, turning back the clock to days long ago and holding services that have not changed one word since the day many members of the congregation were confirmed. Some of have said that we need to “modernize” our worship service, bringing in the new songs and new styles but keeping the same old attitudes. (Adapted from “Where Are You Going?”) And there is nothing more frightening to me than a relatively young person with the same attitude about church that their parents and grandparents had; I am now the leader of the church and we are going to do things my way.
If “seeker services” were considered contemporary worship and looked more like a Christian version of a rock concert, then emerging church worship could be considered more like a Christian version of Starbucks with its small spaces, comfortable seating (preferably couches) and interactivity. The things that have been stripped from the contemporary worship services of the seeker service (the cross, candles, bread and wine, altars) are very much a part of the scene in this new style of worship. In addition, just as in the contemporary worship service, there is a heavy emphasis on modern technology.
What I found most interesting in this discussion of the emerging church is the use of words such as post-conservative and post-liberal. There seems to be a discussion of the relevance of the church in a world that has been divided by the church and its adherents, both liberal and conservative. This discussion focuses on using the methods of today in conjunction with the traditions of the past to bring about a more relevant relationship with God. But for all its new style and return of old traditions, the emerging church model will fail as an alternative if it does little more than offer a newer, more hip version of the current culture. (Adapted from “What Comes Next”)
The “emerging church” or “emergent church” movement is more than the location of the worship or the style of worship. It is the message of the church that differentiates it from other churches, old or modern.
I came across two articles (“John Wesley and the Emerging Church” by Hal Knight and “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” by Scot McKnight) that point out that Methodism, from its inception, was essentially an emerging church. This is interesting because emerging churches are considered a relatively new phenomenon and Methodist churches are considered traditional.
There are clearly differences between emerging churches and the typical Methodist church of today. First, as Knight pointed out, the emerging church tends to be diverse and decentralized and averse to static structures and fixed ideas. It is also driven by an increasing dissatisfaction with the assumption and practices of many churches.
But they also understand that discipleship is meant to closely follow and emulate the person and ministry of Jesus. And while many people express Christianity as being a handful of water at birth, a handful of rice at weddings, and a handful of dirt at funerals, most emerging churches know that there is more to the mission of the church.
Emerging churches also reject many of the dualisms that dominate the traditional churches. They tend to see all of life as potentially sacred and all culture subject to transformation and renewal by the Kingdom of God. Emerging churches are alternative communities, communities who participate in the mission of God in the world. No longer do people go to church; they are the church.
While emerging churches hold to the authority and primacy of the Scriptures, it is more of a narrative than a reading. With a narrative reading, the church is able to draw upon a broad scheme of things and offer more diverse forms of worship. Finally, there is a sense of what some call a generous orthodoxy. By this, truth is not something that is captured and mounted on a wall like a stuffed trophy but rather exemplified by the community of believers.
Each point in this description of the emerging church has a Methodist counterpoint, a point developed by John Wesley almost two hundred and fifty years ago. Wesley developed the Methodist Church of his time in response to the needs and demands of society and the lack of response by the church of that time. (Adapted from “Reinventing the Wheel”)
Charles Handy, the noted philosopher, noted Jesus changed the thinking of the time by teaching that the meek should inherit the earth, the poor would be blessed and the first would be last in the ultimate scheme of things. (Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason, pg 23) In doing so, Jesus challenged the system and caused people to think in an entirely different manner. You cannot be a true Christian unless you are willing to change your thinking and see things in a new way. You cannot do this in a solely rational manner; you must have a vision based on faith. By the same token, you cannot see new things in a new way based on faith alone; you must be able to act in a rational manner.
It seems to me that the United Methodist Church was an emerging church when it was created and it can be the emerging church of today. But it will require that we remember who we are and we need to see things, not through the lens of history, but through the lens of today.
We are reminded by today’s Old Testament lesson that the Egyptians had forgotten how it was that the Israelites had come to Egypt (as perhaps the Israelites themselves had forgotten). The Egyptians had forgotten that it was one of the Israelites, Joseph, who had saved them and their country from almost certain death by his foresight and leadership in the years of feast and famine. And while the Israelites would proclaim the story of the first Passover each year, many of them had forgotten who God was and what God had done for them to bring them out of Egypt by the time Jesus began His ministry.
And if we forget how we came to our faith, we will surely die. There were two men on the crosses next to Jesus that first Easter Sunday. One gained his faith that day and was rewarded with paradise; the other lived in the present and died that day.
We need to say that we are the people we say we are. It is more than simply trying to do things which favor the bottom line of the organization. It is about stating what faith is and who Jesus Christ is in ways that are relevant to today’s world. It is what Jesus did when He was on this earth and it is what He expects us to do today and tomorrow. (Adapted from “A New Order of Things”)
We have the foundation for our own pyramid. The basis upon which we build our church is the faith that we have. In the Gospel reading for today, Simon proclaims that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and because of his faith, Jesus renames him Peter, the rock upon which the church would be built. But faith is a thing which grows, or at least it should grow.
As Paul pointed out in the New Testament reading for today, we all have gifts that we bring to bear in the building of our church. Be they gifts of prophecy, ministering to the people, teaching the people, exhortation, generosity or compassion, we have the things upon which we build our church.
It is important that we remember what we once were, but not because they were the “good old days” to be remembered fondly. Rather, if we remember what we once were, we have the ability to build the church. The church of two thousand years ago was a community of believers, acting together to bring the Gospel message into the world.
Our church today can be that same living and breathing church, one whose foundation was first expressed some two thousand years ago. It will be anchored in faith and it will be built with the stones of teaching, preaching, caring, and ministry. It will not be a stone monument but rather the living and breathing members of the church who go out into the world, taking the Gospel message as a part of their lives each day.