I am preaching at the combined service for the Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church (US 9W South, Fort Montgomery, NY 10922) and the United Methodist Church of the Highlands (341 Main Street, Highland Falls, NY 10928). The service is in Highland Falls at 9:30 and you are welcome to be a part of the worship. The Scriptures for this 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 4 July 2010, are 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, Galatians 6: 1 – 16, and Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20.
If I were to say that the church today, be it an individual church of any denomination, the United Methodist Church as a whole, or the church in general, was in trouble, I doubt very seriously that anyone would disagree with me. While some individual churches are doing well, the general state of the church in this country is not very good.
For a while earlier this summer I was reading summaries of the Annual Conferences as they appeared on the United Methodist News Service link on the Methoblog. I discovered that three Annual Conferences in this area were ceasing operation and either forming a new combined Annual Conference or merging with neighboring Annual Conferences. I gathered from my reading of the various reports that there is still a decline in the membership of the United Methodist Church though I got the impression that the decline was slowing down. That data will take a couple of years to determine; data on church membership can be found at http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.6072819/k.2327/Membership.htm#decline.
But it is the view of the church outside the walls of the church that also speaks to the troubles of the church. There are those outside the church who see religion as just another superstition; they see wars fought by mankind in the name of God as evidence that God is an angry and a violent God. They hear the pronouncement of tired old men and conclude that the church today is sexist, repressive, and autocratic. They see a church seeking to control the minds of the people through ideology and ignorance. They see a church out of touch with reality.
And you know what? Many times, they are right. What was it that Paul wrote to the Galatians in today’s Epistle reading? Watch out for those who would impose a legal structure on you as a justification for what they did to Christ. See how they insist that you follow the law while they are free to do whatever they please.
When I look at the church in general, I see a church that is monolithic in structure, many times dedicated to the continuance of that structure. And it is not always a corporate mentality; it is the mindset and desire of the people in many individual churches to maintain the status quo, even in the face of impending doom. It is almost as if such churches are defiantly saying, “we have done it this way for two hundred years and we are not about to change now.” The only problem is that today, the sanctuary is barely full, there are virtually no young people in the congregation and Sunday school is often times a fond memory. There are a number of such churches in this district and, unless something is done immediately, many of these churches will be closing their doors in the next five years.
And yet there is evidence to suggest that the population of this area is increasing. I cannot speak to this side of the Hudson River and its population growth but I know that there is steady increase in population on “my side” of the river and it is in areas where there are United Methodist Churches. If there was ever a situation that mirrored the Gospel reading for today, it is now but to make the Gospel reading a reality will require change, change on the part of the denomination and change on the part of the churches in the area.
Now, I know what people will say when they hear the word “change.” If they don’t run out of the sanctuary screaming in panic, they say that they cannot change because and any number of excuses is given. I am reminded of the United Methodist version of a modern classic joke.
“How many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?”
“What! My grandmother knew Thomas Edison personally and she gave this church that light bulb and you want to change it!!”
If there is something that we fear more than fear, it is change. We have created a comfort zone in our churches today. When we come to church, we are insulated from the problems of the world and get a brief respite from them.
We have created a religion where God is our servant and is supposed to do what we ask rather than one where we are the servants doing what is expected of us because we are God’s children. We are like Naaman, who when Elisha told him to go wash seven times in the Jordan River, got angry and threw a temper tantrum and said, “I thought that he’d personally come out and meet me, call on the name of God, wave his hand on the diseased spot, and get rid of the disease.”
Naaman wanted a cure that reflected his stature and power, not a cure that was based on the person. He wanted God to be his servant instead of being the servant of God.
But when we do that, when we make God our servant, we become blind to the many ways that God can be working in the world. Putting God inside the church walls and keeping Him there makes Him exclusive, available only for the so-called chosen ones. And keeping him there provides a relief for those who fear radical change.
As some of you know I grew up in the South and I saw the effects of segregation. Now, I will admit that I don’t recall what many of the pastors preached back then but I do know that I went to the same Methodist church as George Wallace did when he was governor of Alabama in 1962. In retrospect, I never did understand how it was that any minister could, in good conscience, oppose the Civil Rights movement at that time. But many, both in the North and in the South did, and they still maintain those same conservative, exclusionary, repressive attitudes today. When you read about Jesus eating with sinners and you see ministers and congregants proclaiming that sinners are not welcome in their church today, you have to begin wondering what is going on.
I will say that I was fortunate because I was given opportunities to explore my faith and come to my own conclusions about the church, the denomination, my faith and my relationship with Christ. It is an exploration that has continued on to this day. Not everyone has been given the same and in so many churches where things are “fixed”, we see the people leaving.
There was a time when I thought Mount Moriah was a street in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. And I never could quite figure out how Paul could be writing to a church in Corinth, Mississippi. And Shiloh was the place of the first bloody battle in the Civil War (surpassed later by Antietam and Chickamauga), not a place of peace or that the battle of Shiloh was named after the Methodist Church on the battlefield.
I grew up, as many of you did, with the King James Version of the Bible as the only available translation. But over the years, as I have heard many proclaim it to be the true Word of God, I have to wonder. What happened to the Aramaic and Greek translations of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? If the Word of the Lord is fixed, why then have there been arguments about what books should be placed in the Bible?
If the Bible is to be the Living Word of God, then it has to be expressed as such. To hold to a 17th century translation with its archaic language is to say that the Bible cannot change. As I mentioned when I read the Gospel reading for this morning, I have been using a translation called The Message. I believe that it is a true translation of what Luke wrote but it is expressed in words that are easier to understand. In the for what it is worth category, someone came up to me after the service where I was preaching last week and asked me about some questions about that translation. She said that she was going to get a copy because it sounded easy to read and understand. Now, as a good old Southern boy, I would use Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels when I could. But the problem with that particular translation is that you have to be familiar with the geography of Georgia.
Our problem is that we do not understand what Christianity is about. Our understanding is based on a structure that came into play some three hundred years after Paul began his mission work. We see the church as more of a corporate entity, a business, than it was some two thousand years ago.
Then Christians were quite content to gather for worship, witness, and service wherever the world would give them the opportunity to do so. The church was designed to fit the conditions of the place. Church organizational structures were very ad hoc and the people were quite willing to take whatever space the world was prepared to give them.
When Paul wrote of the church (as he did in his letter to the Colossians) as being “in every place”, he did not mean that every village had a congregation. Rather, he meant that throughout the Roman world signs of witness to Christ as the Lord of the world had been raised.
If we are to bring life back to the church, if we are to bring the church back to life in society, then we must change things. We must change the way we see the church and that will require that we change what we know about the church, about Jesus, about religion and Methodism, about the world around us and the people who share this world with us. The church cannot be separate from the world if it expects to be a part of the world.
Why did Jesus send the seventy out into the Galilean countryside? Well, in part it was to prepare the countryside for the later work that He would do. But it was, I believe, also a sign to those who followed Jesus that they were expected to to do the work as well. And it is very important that we see that Jesus did not give the authority to continue the work until after they returned and only after He warned them not to let their success go to their heads. As Clarence Jordan translated that passage from Luke, “do not get all hepped up just because the devilish guys gave into you; you should be happy that you’re enrolled in a spiritual cause.” (From the Cotton Patch Gospels translation of Luke)
The church today is expressed in terms of a theology of glory, not a theology of the Cross. We must see our ministry as being one who promotes and tries to practice the compassion, justice, and non-violence that Jesus taught and demonstrated. (From the July issue of Connections) We must free ourselves from the world’s self-assertive ways and be more open to the surprising claims of God that press upon us through our neighbors and the world outside the walls of the church.
And don’t think that it can’t be done. Hear again the words of Paul written to the Galatians, “live creatively” and
Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.
Don’t tell me that you can’t do it; that you can’t be creative. The fact that two churches are meeting together speaks of a desire to move beyond the routine of traditional worship. But also know that you cannot stop with one new idea. The curse of change is complacency, where one new idea quickly becomes the norm and a radical idea becomes the traditional way of doing things. Yes, that’s hard work and not all ideas are going to be good ones and not all good ideas are going to work.
But think boldly! If you don’t seek new ideas then you will quickly find yourself trapped inside perceived self-boundaries. Change is part of the journey, from where you were to where you are to where you are going. To stop seeking change is to stop the journey.
Consider this – where would we be today if fifty-six men had not gathered in Philadelphia at the end of June and the beginning of July some two hundred and thirty four years ago. Out of that meeting came a document stating that this collection of British colonies was going to try something new and radical. Those fifty-six men, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, fully understood that what they signed would either be a seminal document for the governing of people by themselves or it would be their death warrant.
Their signatures committed them to the process of independence. Without those commitments, the process would have failed.
We are called today to make a change in our lives. The problem with this change is that we are called to commit our lives to Christ and then open our hearts and minds to the power of the Holy Spirit. We are not required to do so but that is the problem. To not answer the call is to say that you wish your life to remain where it is and as it is; it is tantamount to saying that you wish your journey to end.
To answer the call is to begin a new journey with Christ, a journey of freedom and life.