given on Sunday, June 26, 2016
We need to talk. Look around you and think when was the last time the seats beside you were filled. Sadly, the pews only seem to fill up when there is a funeral. Why?
Now, think about the community itself. Look around in those memories and name what you see. What happened to the businesses on the main street? Why are so many houses empty? Where are the kids playing? How has the community changed over the past 50 years?
The picture we see before us is not pretty. We are facing a drought not only in the community, but also in the church. We can no longer afford to sit passively waiting for something to change. We must take action or the church will be nothing but an empty shell.
The Church, with a capital letter, is really the people, not the building. This Sunday we must have a private conversation about what we, sitting right here in the pews, can do or must allow to be done. I am not talking about just putting people in the pews but what we must do for our community.
During annual conference, the pastor from Cape Girardeau was one of the featured speakers. He is one of many who are credited with restarting churches or establishing new churches across Missouri. The Methodist Church is struggling here in the United States, but it continues to grow in Korea and Africa at unbelievable rates. The pastors who are filling the pews are the ones who are willing to try something or anything in an effort to share God’s word.
Rev. Ron Watts has a multi-sight church and I visited that church last year for Converge. Rev. Watts’s church continues to evolve. The sanctuary almost feels like a theater, and a smaller area used for other events and large meetings has many features found in almost all Fellowship Halls along with tables and chairs and audio-visual equipment.
One of the unique features in this church is a tremendous tree built into the hallway at the opening of the children’s ministry wing. This area is used all week long with the preschool it offers and the children’s ministry on Sunday. It is awe-inspiring and captures kids imagination.
For the adults in the building, there is even a coffee café not to mention the flexibility of WiFi available to guests of the church. The building reflects the broad range of activities that a church can provide all week long, not just on Sunday morning or during a summer’s vacation Bible school. This church has looked at the community and then decided what was needed to be in ministry to that community.
Rev. Watts took risks. He allowed his members to think a bit differently and the building grew to meet the needs. The building did not dictate to just one style of ministry. No church can continue God’s work if the building is the only reason for someone to walk in the open doors. It is the ministry of the church that opens the doors to others.
Let’s step back a bit, though, and look at our own community. Any church hoping to carry God’s word to others must put people first and the building second. This community is not the community in which the church opened; the 21st century community has an entirely different profile than it did. Yet, the models of the earliest Christian disciples can be studied and reframed for this century’s society.
Our church member has agreed to share her picture of the church within our lifetime. Stop and think how the church ministered to the members and to the community while you listen:
Insert our church member’s reflection. (no text available)
Return to sermon’s text:
The Community UMC that began its work in this community had a very, almost dramatically, different culture than today’s. Many attending were related. Many were brought up in the church and simply expected to attend Sunday school and worship because their parents and their grandparents followed this pattern.
The Christian faith with which many of us grew up began with the church as the method to practice faith. Families tended to see faith as simply part of American life—yes, here we see it as part of our American heritage. Everybody knew attending church was simply part of one’s faith practices. This has changed.
Today learning about faith is almost a complete opposite of what most of us have known. The unchurched individual who has not been raised in the church has no idea why they need to develop a relationship with God. The calling card for them is not finding a place to practice worship but rather to find a place where they are comfortable and accepted.
Once the relationship is established the previously unchurched learn what faith is and what a difference it makes in their lives. Professing one’s faith in God is not the first step into church for the previously unchurched rather it is last step.
What does this mean for us in our community? Our guest came to Chilhowee before I did and she has witnessed the change in the community’s profile. Our church member’s view is what most of us have experienced as life time residents in and around this town, but now it is time to consider what has happened since the end of the 20th century:
Insert our guest’s comments about the changes since 2000 and what she witnessed during her time with the homeless.
From her notes:
Our community has changed. When I came here is was all about neighbors, kids, helping one another, having a built in neighborhood watch, so to speak. Today, Chilhowee is transient. We don’t know many people, we don’t great new people, we see drugs and alcohol at work and witness poor parenting. This leads to judgment on our part, unfortunately. My friends, this ought not to be so. These that need us should be the ones we great, pay the most attention to and show Christ’s love. NO JUDGEMENT. We ourselves are a very long way from perfect. Be genuine; and be genuine in love.
Paul told the Galatians:
“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in ANY trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
Return to sermon’s text:
This community is no different than the small towns across the state even the country. The economic changes fuel most of the changes in the small communities. Sadly, just like the inner cities who are fighting to renew their value in urban centers, the smallest communities buried in the farmlands must honestly face the same issues that the inner cities have: poverty, split families, drugs and alcohol, no or at least limited commerce.
This community cannot grow if its history and a resistance to change trap it. Rev. Watts spoke to this problem at annual conference:
Are you willing to set aside your preferences so the younger or next generations can feel comfortable here and continue coming to church? [Can you] put up with other stuff so other generations can be reached. . . . for it is you, not your culture that reaches younger [people and it is] not to save institutions but to share something with them.”
These thoughts are painful to hear. No one wants to change what he/she finds safety and comfort in. It is much like how one decorates her/his home. The same pictures hang In the same spots for decades. The big recliner sits in the same place year after year. Opening the door to family and friends brings a familiar whiff and sometimes even a sound or two that is recognized as native to the setting.
Is it possible to make the changes that may open the doors to those who are not comfortable with the century old traditions that have long identified this community’s Methodist church or does the church remain as it is?
Our guest’s thoughts from Matthew’s reading.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven;”
And I thought to myself, ‘What does this mean?’ Let me look at this portion again because I’m getting a new and deeper meaning in this scripture.
“bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father”
I’m looking at these words “that you may be sons of your Father” and seeing into the spirit. We ignore God often, don’t we? We use Him when it’s convenient, don’t we…praying when we are in trouble. We pray when we have time. We serve Him when we can fit it into our otherwise busy schedule. But does He stop loving us? Of course not. And what about those that don’t live a Christian life? Those that make fun of God or don’t believe in Him at all? What about those who do not pursue a life with Him? Does He give up on them? Will He ignore them? Will He say ‘No’ should they come to Him and want to change their lives? Of course not.
We are to be sons (or daughters) of God. Neither should we be turning our backs on those who need us the most. Neither should we be judging or choosing, but serving lovingly to ALL.
“that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect just as your father in heaven is perfect.”
There it is in Jesus own words. ‘The Word’. Reach out to the lost, the sick, the addicted, the lonely or mourning, those in prison, those in the streets. That’s the name of the game, right there. What game? Christianity. And it’s no game. It’s our calling. It’s our duty. It’s what Christ came here to show us how to do. We hurt God’s feelings all the time. We forget and get lost in earthy cares. We are ALL sinners and we must ALL ban together and hold those up who need us the most. Do we really believe we’re better than any of these?
Return to the sermon’s text:
Paul was worried about the church in Galatia. The struggles from daily living caused the new Christians to begin sliding backward in their practices. His letter reminded them that the Holy Spirit would guide them and help them manage the challenges. He shares:
22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!
24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. 25 Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. 26 Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another.
Today’s private conversation is much like Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We are tasked with sharing the value of a relationship with God in as many ways as we can. As we develop the open doors, the open hearts, and the open minds that our denomination declares we have, then we will help all those who are unchurched or who turned away from God and/or the church at some point in their lives.
May we use Paul’s words, the guiding words from all of the Bible, and the Holy Spirit’s whisper to support our next few months of change. Allow the freedom to try something different with your prayers and all that you feel you can do. The months ahead will be filled with trials and errors, but with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the efforts of the weary, God’s word will go into action in an effort to transform our little corner of the world.
Closing prayer: The Serenity Prayer
[Accessed on June 25, 2016 at http://www.lords-prayer-words.com/famous_prayers/god_grant_me_the_serenity.html#ixzz4CaoGGItJ]
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.