I am preaching at the United Methodist Church of the Highlands (341 Main Street, Highland Falls, NY 10928) this morning, the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, 20 February 2011. The service starts at 11 am and you are welcome to be a part of the worship. The Scriptures for Sunday are Leviticus 19: 1 – 2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3: 10 – 11, 16 – 23; and Matthew 5: 38 -48.
I am beginning what I hope is a new path in my ministry. It comes amidst what some see as great changes in the ministry of the church.
Now, for some, any change in ministry, be it at the denominational level, the local level, or one’s own ministry, can be a traumatic event. Any change in one’s life, for that matter, will have consequences that may not be immediately evident. All we have to do is look at what is transpiring in the Middle East to understand what the threat of change and actual change can do to a country and to its people. There are those, of course, who will resist change. Such resistance can be, as we have also seen, violent and repressive. But it can also be done in soft and subtle ways.
But what I find interesting is the role that the church, be it an entire denomination, a single church, or individuals from a single church, can be as an agent for change. Of course, it can also be an instrument that prevents change.
Dan Dick started one of his recent blogs with a note about a conversation he had recently.
I was talking with a small group of young adults about the potential of the church to transform the world. My argument was simple: if we would strive to find a meaningful way to engage 7 million plus United Methodists in the United States in some form of life-affirming missional service, we could impact the very roots of a wide variety of social ills. Snorting coffee, one young woman barked derisively, “Are you serious?” I confirmed that I was, and she replied, “The churches I have been to are some of the most inward-focused, uninvolved, cautious, conservative, and apathetic groups I have ever known. Sure, there are a few individuals in the churches who get their hands dirty, but very few. (Adapted from http://doroteos2.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/are-you-serious/)
Dr. Dick was looking at another issue but what this conversation shows is that unless we are willing to make some changes in our own lives, we will not be able to make the church viable and relevant to the needs of society.
When the church began, it met in secret in people’s homes, mostly out of fear of arrest and persecution. It was a gathering of people who opposed the status quo, both the religious status quo and the status quo of the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome enforced by military might.
And the Methodist Church began in response to the changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution. As machines began doing the work of humans and humans became part of the process, the people called Methodists stood in opposition. This was not a Luddite movement where people rebelled against machines taking away their livelihoods but rather concern that people, no matter their place in society or where they were born or what they did, still have status in society.
What I find interesting is that the establishment, be it the religious establishment or the political establishment, did not take kindly to either the new church some two thousand years ago or the Methodist revival of the 18th century. But the changes that came from that opposition still echo throughout the years. It has noted on a number of occasions that the interaction of the people called Methodists in the 18th century allowed England to escape the bloody revolution that marked the French revolution of that same time period. Can a church change the world? It would appear that it can.
And now, as we are well into what some call the third great industrial revolution (see “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”) we find the role of the church changing. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians (and I will use the translation as written in The Message), “Don’t fool yourself. Don’t think that you can be wise merely by being up-to-date with the times.”
But this new revolution, or rather the adaptation of the technology of the revolution, shows us how easy it is to reach people. But you must do more than reach people. The Egyptian government tried to quell the rebellion in the country by shutting down Internet access. But once contact had been made between people and they had met, such an act was a futile gesture.
It is one thing to say that the church has a website or a Facebook page. That is not where the ministry lies. You do not meet people on a computer screen; you meet them somewhere. The failure of the Mubarak government to keep the people from gathering together is what brought about the change in Egypt, not the fact that they were using Facebook and other forms of social networking. The same is true when it comes to churches.
Will Cotton, the pastor whose words and actions were instrumental in my beginning this journey, wrote that he sees a different ministry for the church in the coming years.
The 21st century (for at least the rest of our lifetimes) in ministry will not be primarily about the local church. Churches and denominations will be wise to train people for ministry in secular situations. The gospel is returning to the streets, the marketplace, the classrooms, the chat rooms, the homes and even the bars. My job description (he is currently Senior Pastor at St. Barnabas UMC in Arlington, Texas) has shifted in response to the leading of the Spirit. I am not just a performer of ministry; I am a leverage person, equipping people for ministry in places I will never be able to go. I used to lead Bible Studies with up to 80 people in them and they were enjoyed. But two years ago, I moved to more intensive studies that prepare leaders who then start classes, small groups, and even lead “in the marketplace” studies and support groups. My favorite book on this shift is Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal. My two CLMs came out of those classes. If I train 15-20 people (which I do at near seminary level with some texts actually from Course of Study for local pastors) and they lead groups of even 10 people, then the yield is three times what I was doing in the large studies before. The Church you and I are a part of will be so different in just 20 years from now, and the truth is, no one knows what it will look like (nearly every Bishop worth his or her consecration will tell you that). But the shift form church-centered ministry to community-centered ministry is part of it.
I think that there will be a place for the local church in this ministry. There must be a place where things can happen; there must be a place where one can, if you will, recharge one’s soul. But the local church and those who are part of it must understand that they are a part of this process.
One might say, as the title of this message implies, that we need a new set of guidelines for living. Actually, we don’t need a new set; we just have to understand the set that we are supposed to be working under.
First, we have to understand the other thing that Paul was telling the Corinthians; we are the builders of the house where people will meet. If this house that we are building is up to God’s standards, if we use cheap or inferior materials and slip-shod methods, we will quickly find out what many people already know. As Paul wrote, if the building that we build doesn’t pass inspection, then it will be torn down. We may survive but it will be only barely. And that’s not the life we would like to be living.
We have to do more than simply insist that others follow the teachings of Christ. We must also live the teachings. It is why so many people look at the church and then leave it, or as I mentioned earlier, cannot see how the church, the very organization that changed the world two thousand years ago and was instrumental in preventing a bloody revolution in England yet was able to make major changes in social policy, can even begin to think about making changing today.
But we don’t want to live by Christ’s teachings. We have no desire to have our lives be a mirror of Christ. It isn’t that we can’t live that way; it is that we don’t want to make the effort to do so.
We have forgotten that the saying “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is not about retaliation but rather the measure of punishment. And then Jesus comes along and says that we should turn the other cheek when we are hit. In this world where we see peace enforced by military might, this is a totally unacceptable action. When we are asked to take someone an extra mile, we complain about having to even go the first mile. And we certainly aren’t going to give someone our best coat when they are suing us. We are not even crazy about Old Testament rules that tell us to leave something for the poor and the widows.
It just isn’t right that we should share our wealth with others; we earned it and we should keep it. We can still follow Jesus, even when He said otherwise. And we can forget that part about loving our enemies as we do our friends. Let’s face it, there is a part of us that finds joy when our enemies suffer and we often take great joy in spreading rumors and gossip about them.
We have succeeded in somehow transforming the Gospel into a description of the world when we were supposed to change the world into a description of the Gospel. When we view the Gospel in light of the world, we will find it difficult, if not impossible to make changes in the world. We have to see the world in light of the Gospel.
Christ did not come into this world as the revealer of an ideological system that was to be superimposed on society but as one who, in the manner in which He gave of Himself, affirmed the need for human freedom and decision. Jesus came as one prepared to risk His truth and life within in the openness of a secular world. We have to be able to do likewise; we cannot claim that we have no established right over other views but in which we accept responsibility to witness for Christ by seeking to point to his presence as He works within history. But this also requires a certain degree of readiness on our part to recognize both the creative and destructive forces surging in history. And, while we would much rather focus on the creative forces; we also have to realize that destructive forces lie close at hand. This means that while we may readily accept the responsibility to witness, we must also be ready for the struggle against the forces that always gather in opposition to Christ (adapted from “Faith in a Secular Age” by Colin Williamson).
I have somewhere in my notes a story about Clarence Jordan and his daughter. It seems that there was a young man in school who had taken to giving Clarence Jordan’s daughter a hard time. Now, despite his aversion to violence (he sought non-violent means of opposing the Ku Klux Klan), Clarence Jordan was prepared to face this young man in a manner that was decidedly not non-violent. But his daughter said that she would take care of it in her own way; which is what she did.
When he asked her how she resolved the issue, she said that every time this young man came close to her, she simply began gushing with an over-abundance of adolescent love. Pretty soon, he was getting ribbed by his friends about his friendship and that was enough to keep him away from her. As she told her father, I simply did what Jesus would have done and loved my enemy.
For each one of us, there comes a moment when the words that we studied in Sunday School and committed to our hearts and minds through confirmation and membership class must become more than simply words. They must be the core of our lives, our new guidelines for living in this world. As Jesus puts it bluntly in the Gospel reading for today, it is time that we grow up.
His call from the very first day of His ministry was to repent and begin anew. He echoes that today when He tells us to live out our God-created identity, to live generously and graciously towards others, the way that God lives towards us.
We are called this day to a new life, to a new set of guidelines. To ignore them, to continue in our present live is to say that we desire no better future. To cast aside our present life and seek a new life in Christ is to say that we seek a better future. We have been given the guidelines for that new life; shouldn’t we seek that better future?