How does our church interpret Christianity?

Sermon given on Sunday, November 12, 2017:  We lost one of our members at the age of 97 this week, and while preparing for the funeral, I could not get rid of the lessons that she taught our community.  Please understand that the audience knew Ms. Bonnie very well, but any reader may insert those people in your own lives who you know are true Christian models.

 

Spending the week reminiscing about Ms. Bonnie lead me to thinking about her model of Christianity, and that lead me to thinking about how our congregation models or interprets Christianity. Using the term ‘interpret’ may not seem appropriate, but our lives reflect what we believe. Our actions are stronger than our words.

All week long, Ms. Bonnie’s life has been reviewed by most all of us in the church and the community. The fact that she had not lived among us for the past few years did not matter. Ms. Bonnie is entwined with those who make up the Chilhowee community.

The adjectives/descriptions shared about Ms. Bonnie included words that create pictures in our minds of this incredible woman: pioneer spirit, servant, worker, gardener, country, leader, teacher, mother, grandmother, friend, neighbor, selfless, giving, and the list continues to grow. These words are filled with compliments and are worthy qualities for any of us to work towards.

For our congregation, we can add to the list of qualities that she was a 71-year member of our church family. She never missed church unless she was sick or away from home. She was a tireless worker for all the activities in the church, and the only time we witnessed her unhappy was when we tried to surprise her for her birthday—you don’t fool Ms. Bonnie!

Ms. Bonnie lived Christianity boldly, and we were fortunate to have witnessed her demonstration. What better time than today to reflect on how our church models or interprets Christianity too. What stories would others tell of our church? What adjectives, titles or descriptions would others use to tell about our church?

At first I thought maybe we could describe the church as a Mary-style or a Martha-style, but then that might not be too clear. The scripture tells us that Mary was an eager listener to Jesus and would put aside any traditional, female roles in order to sit at his feet and listen to his words. Her sister Martha was more traditional and was concerned with all the appropriate tasks involved in providing for a visitor’s needs whether it was food, rest, comfort, and maybe even overnight arrangements.

[Luke 10:38 As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. 40 But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

41 But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! 42 There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” The NLT]

Defining our church as a ‘Mary’ or a ‘Martha’ really is not possible. We are a church and not a person. Therefore, I stopped and considered what other way could the church be identified, and I turned to John Wesley. He grouped certain behaviors into two categories: acts of mercy and acts of piety. I mulled over those two terms and considered whether that would be a reasonable way to evaluate the church.

First, does the church demonstrate acts of mercy. To answer that one has to know what acts of mercy are. The list that Wesley outlined includes:

  • Individual Practices– doing good works, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, and giving generously to the needs of others
  • Communal Practices– seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination (for instance Wesley challenged Methodists to end slavery), and addressing the needs of the poor [Accessed on November 10, 2017, at http://www.umc.org/how-we-serve/the-wesleyan-means-of-grace]

This list covers a great deal and has given United Methodist a reputation of being active for social justice.

            Ms. Bonnie certainly did demonstrate acts of mercy. How many in the community learned how to cook and to sew as she taught these skills through 4-H? How many families received the gifts of fresh food from her gardens? How many times did Ms. Bonnie step up to fix clothes or a meal or reach out to others in need?

            Does our church demonstrate grace to others through acts of mercy? Individually is not the question, but as a community do we seek justice, work to end oppression or discrimination, or address the needs of the poor?

            This is a tough question to answer. One way we can answer in the affirmative is that we have diligently paid the district and state apportionments. The United Methodist Church has a connectional approach to working with other congregations to affect change in a range of different areas. Paying the apportionments does demonstrate the church’s efforts to address the needs of others beyond our immediate community. Sadly, the financial health of our church may limit the extent of our connectional works of piety for the first time in the past decade or longer.

The second group of behaviors that Wesley identified was the acts of piety. These behaviors are more closely aligned to the ‘Mary’ style of Christian practices than the ‘Martha’ style. These behaviors are identified on the UMC’s website, too:

Individual Practices – reading, meditating and studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting, regularly attending worship, healthy living, and sharing our faith with others

Communal Practices – regularly share in the sacraments, Christian conferencing (accountability to one another), and Bible study. [Ibid.]

            Again, Ms. Bonnie demonstrated an understanding of the individual practices of piety, but does the church do so. On the surface(pardon the cliché) , the answer is yes. The sacrament of communion is available on a regular basis, and baptism is offered upon request. But no one inside or outside the church’s congregation can judge whether the church as a group fully incorporate the acts of piety honestly. Only God, Jesus his son, and the Holy Spirit—the Triune God—can judge the integrity of the church’s acts of piety.

            The individual acts of piety include a personal list of practices that may be available through Sunday School and Ladies Aid, but is that adequate. Should the church provide more opportunities or assistance for the practices of these acts of piety? A ‘Mary’ style church would place the priority on these acts of piety, often referred to as discipleship when in district or conference meetings.

The church year is winding down, so considering how our church interprets Christianity is a timely task. Review what the mission is for the church and the goals for the upcoming year. Maybe we should ask ourselves “What would Ms. Bonnie do?” We can honor her by exemplifying the stewardship and the acts of mercy and piety she modeled.

[Titus 3:Once we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other. But—

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.[a] He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior.Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life.

This is a trustworthy saying, and I want you to insist on these teachings so that all who trust in God will devote themselves to doing good. These teachings are good and beneficial for everyone.

Do not get involved in foolish discussions about spiritual pedigrees[b] or in quarrels and fights about obedience to Jewish laws. These things are useless and a waste of time. 10 If people are causing divisions among you, give a first and second warning. After that, have nothing more to do with them. 11 For people like that have turned away from the truth, and their own sins condemn them. The NLT]

Closing prayer

Dear God, Father Almighty,

 

We mourn the loss of one of our family,

But let us remember her

By following the model of faith

She exhibited in all that she did.

 

Help us to demonstrate

The Christian qualities

That Paul listed in his letters

To the early churches and disciples.

 

Help us to follow Wesley’s practices

Both the acts of piety

and the acts of mercy

as we work together in your name.

 

May we recognize your presence

Through the power of the Holy Spirit

As we make decisions individually

And communally to love one another.

 

In your name, the Father, the Son,

And the Holy Spirit, amen.

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