This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 3 October 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Lamentations 1: 1 - 6, 2 Timothy 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 17: 5 – 10.
There are two questions that I wish you would consider this morning. First, why are you a United Methodist? Second, why are you here this morning?
The fact that you are here this morning suggests that you would say to someone that you are a United Methodist and, just as that someone might ask, so too do I ask, "Why are you a United Methodist?"
I would hope that you say that you are a United Methodist because you respect diversity in theology. You feel that as long as the differences in belief between you and others are rooted in the essentials of Christian faith, then those differences enhance one’s understanding of God and challenge you to grow in faith. I would hope that you would say that you rely on God’s grace for salvation – grace that brings you to faith, grace that forgives your sin and renews us, grace that continues to nurture you and draw you on toward perfect love.
You know that one’s conversion and new birth in Christ, whether sudden or gradual occurs under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And finally, you believe that faith in Christ is expressed in outward works of love – that personal salvation leads to a mission of evangelical witness, caring service, and social action for human liberation, reconciliation, justice, and peace.
As a United Methodist, you understand that God calls one to clarify and communicate one’s faith – to put beliefs into words – for us and for others. We do this by using four different sources, scripture, church tradition, Christian experience, and reason. Each of these sources, while making distinctive contributions, work together to guide our quest as United Methodists for a vital and appropriate Christian witness. (Adapted from "Distinctive Emphasis of United Methodists" in The United Methodist Way by Branson L. Thurston)
But I also know that many people attend church for primarily non-theological reasons. Hopefully, when someone decides to become a member of a particular church, it is because they were a member of a similar church somewhere else and they wish to hold to the ideas they have heard before. But, for many, they attend a particular church because it is the closest church to where they live. Or they attend a church because it was the church where their parents and perhaps their grandparents attended.
Now, there is nothing wrong with either of those reasons. They are probably the main reasons why someone goes to a particular church. In fact, theological reasons for attending a particular church probably rank lower on any given list of reasons. I would not be surprised if childcare and parking rank higher and are more important in the reasons for going to church.
But, in a world where people are searching for meaning in their lives, most mainline churches, including the United Methodist Church hold to the church building models that are based on 19th century assumptions.
Churches in the 19th and early 20th centuries prospered because the children raised in the church stayed with that particular church. But as our society has changed, children have moved away from the places they were raised. They no longer attend the church of their childhood and are just as likely not to attend church at all. So the basic assumption that many churches have used for growth has failed, because there is no internal growth in the church.
I am not sure if convenience is a viable model either. But that is today’s model. Churches today are encouraged to offer programs for everyone. When a visitor comes, the greeters are to find out what the visitor is interested in and direct them to a group with the same interests. Coming home the other night, I saw a poster for one of the major old-line denomination churches in New York City. I counted at least fifteen different program areas offered by the church. There was something for everyone; there were five different choirs, ranging from traditional church music to Gospel music; there was a gay and lesbian support group; there was a mother’s group with childcare; there was a major Bible study, with the church’s in-house Biblical expert. Each program offered each group something. Yet, as I read the brief descriptions, I wondered if I wasn’t just reading descriptions for social groups. Yes, there were references to growth in faith but it seemed like socialization was more important.
And with all this information occupying the major part of the poster, it took some doing to find out if this church even offered Sunday morning worship. It was there but in an inconvenient and visually inaccessible part of the poster. In fact, the church’s three radio shows got more attention than did the worship service.
The problem is that when convenience takes precedence over worship, the church risks transforming itself into nothing more than a rather ornate 7-11 store, open at all times and for the convenience of the customer.
I am not opposed to having groups in church; the church has and always been an important place for the community to come together. But I wonder if the emphasis on the groups of a church hides the real reason for why churches exist.
Have we forgotten that the reason that we are here this morning is because we are supposed to be here? Have we forgotten that we are here to worship God and to thank Him for what He has done for us? Do we not remember that our presence here today completes the covenant established between God and His people on the Mount when Moses brought down the Ten Commandments?
We are here today because it is an expression of our faith. Perhaps, like Timothy, it is the faith in which we were raised. That is how Paul sees it, the family connection that only then can be said to "live in you." Yet, faith is never a mere family hand-me-down but a "gift of God that is within you" and "a good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us." Faith is an incarnate reality that, while a gift from God, is one that comes embodied in our human, including family, relationships.
There are no easy analogies to explain how one comes to faith. But we must know that faith is always God’s gift and never a human accomplishment. Faith is ever and only a response empowered by an amazing grace originating from outside our efforts that enables us to entrust ourselves willingly to the One we have found trustworthy. As United Methodists, we find that it is through the Scripture, tradition, experience and reason that we are able to gain faith and find our faith growing.
The Gospel for today addresses another issue regarding faith that is still very much with us. Are the degree and depth of our faith adequate for life’s circumstances? The concern here is voiced by Jesus’ own followers whom He sternly commanded to beware of causing little ones to stumble, but also to be generous in extending forgiveness even to chronic sinners who continue to repent. For once, "the apostles," as Luke calls them, seem to have grasped the difficulty of what Jesus is teaching and plead with Him, "Increase our faith!" Jesus replies rather obliquely,"If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you." Apparently faith isn’t about capacity; it is an orientation. Faith is beyond measurement. You’ve got it or you don’t, Jesus goes on to suggest. Having it is like being the slave who simply does what is commanded, who knows his or her place and does what needs doing.
Archbishop William Temple once remarked, "It is a great mistake to think that God is chiefly concerned with our being religious." Jesus would probably agree, since He pricked the balloon of his followers’ own religious pretensions about faith. Faith is not a matter of pious exertion or heroic will power. It is more the miracle of God-given trust, that willingness beyond willingness that crawls into the lap of a trustworthy God, encouraging one to conclude in the face of all of life’s questions and circumstances that one is nothing more than God’s own. (Adapted from "Measure of Faith" by John Rollefson, Christian Century, September 21, 2004)
We did not read from the Book of Jeremiah this week but we did read Jeremiah’s words. Jeremiah is credited with writing the Book of Lamentations and the words of this somber book are Jeremiah’s cries at the destruction of his country. But Jeremiah does not cry because Israel has been defeated militarily but rather because the people of Israel have lost their faith in God.
When the people of Israel trusted in God, when the people of Israel put their faith in the covenant with God, they prospered, succeeded and survived. But when they ignored the covenant, when they put their faith in other gods or other means, they failed, were conquered and enslaved.
We are faced with hard questions and hard choices this day. We cannot ask for or demand an increase in our faith; to do so would be folly. But we can and should look at what we are doing and ask if these actions that we take, the words that we speak are true and outward expressions of our faith.
Paul’s words to Timothy were simply to keep the faith, hold on to the values that define his faith. Paul’s words were encouragement to Timothy in a time of dismay. Paul knew that his time was at an end and it was time for Timothy to take the lead. Rather than lament the loss of Paul as a leader, it was up to Timothy to lead by the faith that had brought him to this point in time and would lead the church into tomorrow.
Paul knew that if the churches that he had worked so hard to establish were to continue, they could not hold on to the ways or thoughts of the past. The same is true today; churches that hold on to the past will find it difficult to move into tomorrow. Those that cater to the needs of today will also find it hard to be there tomorrow, for what they offer is for today only.
But those churches, no matter how old the building or the people, no matter if it is an established traditional denomination or a new upstart denomination, who hold on to the faith that brought them to this time will find themselves as good as yesterday. And those churches that hold on to the faith of yesterday and live today in way that fosters and encourages the growth of that faith will find their doors open tomorrow.