Preaching to the Choir

This week I was at our annual clergy retreat over at Snow Mountain Ranch near Winter Park, CO. This is always a great week, not so much because of the program but because of the relationships that we build. For me, it’s a time to sit and talk about ministry, books we’re reading, theological stuff–all the things that we ministers love to talk about but rarely get to because of the demands of the job.

This year, I was asked to preach at the first service of the week. Now I have to say that while being asked to do that is quite a privilege, it is also very frightening. After all, there are no better critics of preachers than other preachers, each of whom is sitting there thinking, "I could do this better." I’ll confess that I can be just as critical.

But maybe that’s because our humanness has a tendency to catch us. We find ourselves in competition with each other, which is really quite ridiculous given that there are plenty of people out there who need to hear the gospel. None of us has the corner on communicating it, but we all want to be liked and recognized just like anyone else.

At some point, however, we have to get out of the way of our own preaching and let God do the work of giving us what we need–and then giving God the credit. If any of us are effective in communicating the gospel it’s only because God has taken our inadequate words and "clay jar" brokenness and done something amazing with them.

So I prayed about this a lot before offering the sermon, and when I stood up to preach for my peers I really felt a burden lifted from me. We were all there together, all dealing with the same stuff in our churches and in our own lives–the wrestling with God that so characterizes ministry. I decided to talk about that from my own perspective and it seemed to resonate. It didn’t feel like a clergy gathering but like a community where we were all in it together.

I have to say that it was a fun experience, just like it was fun last year to hear some of my friends preaching. It proved to me that all of us have something important to say…a word to share with each other from time to time. If we can get over ourselves and let God speak through us, we can all be blessed!

The Method in Methodism: Part IV – Compassion and Justice (10/15/06)

Scripture: Luke 10:25-37

           Who is my neighbor? It’s interesting to note that when the Pharisee asked Jesus this question, Luke tells us that it was as a means of “justifying himself.” In other words, the great commandment was something the Pharisees believed in, too, but only to the extent that it applied to people like them. The Pharisee who confronted Jesus was trying to legitimize this view—that people of faith should take care of their own. Jesus, however, responded with a scandalous parable.

            We miss the power of this parable if we don’t understand the context. To the people of first century Israel, there was no such thing as a “good Samaritan.” Samaritans were hated as half breeds—Jews who had intermarried with foreigners and who practiced a form of Judaism centered on Mt. Gerizim instead of Jerusalem . They were a rogue religious sect according to pious Jews and worthy only of contempt. This is not like the differences between Methodists and Baptists, mind you. Think Sunnis and Shiites here—people who were ostensibly of the same religion but practiced it differently and thus hated each other.                  

            So when Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of the story, the “good neighbor” instead of the priest or the Levite—both representing pure and pious Jews—the point was pretty clear. Who is my neighbor? Everyone is—including those who you now consider to be enemies.

            Jesus saw all people as being worthy of God’s love and grace and was not afraid to call the powers that be to recognize the inherent value of people created by God. Differentiations due to economic status, physical limitations, and ethnic origins were artificial to him. God’s kingdom, God’s reign, was for all. Everyone is our neighbor and we are to love them as we love ourselves.

            John Wesley took seriously this call of Christ. As we were saying last week, the Rule of Discipleship grew out of Wesley’s General Rules that balanced love and devotion for God with love and compassion for our neighbors. He called this balance “practical divinity” and “scriptural Christianity”—following Jesus meant more than just a personal spirituality. It was indeed an experience of grace in action and a recognition that God’s love always comes to us on its way to someone else.

            The problem is that many of our churches have failed to recognize that balance. Ron Sider, who is a Christian social activist, says that “Most churches today are one-sided disasters.” There are churches in the suburbs where “hundreds of people come to Jesus and praise God in brand-new buildings, but they seldom learn that their own faith has anything to do with the wrenching, inner-city poverty just a few miles away.” There are, on the other hand, churches where members “write their senators and lobby the mayor’s office” but “would be stunned if someone asked them personally to invite their neighbors to accept Christ.”

            The great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones put it another way: “An individual gospel without a social gospel is a soul without a body and a social gospel without an individual gospel is a body without a soul. One is a ghost and the other a corpse.”

            If we go back to our Jerusalem Cross diagram of the Rule of Discipleship, we might recognize that the “works of mercy” are every bit as important to living out our Christian faith as the “works of piety.” We’ll look at those works of piety next week, but this morning I want to focus on these top two quadrants. How do we love our neighbors?

            A couple of weeks ago we talked about Wesley’s concept of God’s grace—that humans were created for relationship with God—a relationship characterized by love. God chose us in love and we respond by choosing to love God in return. Sin is the reversal of that love, or love turned inward. To love God means that our love is outwardly focused on God and on others created by God (which includes everyone). E. Stanley Jones again: “The most miserable people in the world are the people who are self-centered, who won’t do anything for anybody except themselves.” By contrast, said Jones, “the happiest people are the people who deliberately take on themselves the sorrows and troubles of others. Their hearts sing with a strange wild joy.”

            Through his Wesleyan heritage, Jones realized that serving others and particularly serving those who were poor and marginalized was the real evidence of faith in action. He spent much of his life in India, serving and bringing hope to the poorest of the poor. If you read his works you can’t help but be struck by his vision—a Christ-like vision—for healing the brokenness of others.

            As we have been saying, the early Methodist movement really took root among the poor—not only because the message of God’s grace being available to all was so compelling, but because that message was backed up by action. The early Methodists were prolific at developing ad hoc social service agencies in a time when governments were not at all concerned with the plight of the poor. They established schools to help educate poor families, dispensed natural medications and remedies for the sick, visited prisoners, and gave their finances to ministries that engaged those needs.

            John Wesley himself sought not only to help the poor but to identify with them. In an age where educated clergy wore powdered wigs as a sign of wealth (and to keep the lice away), Wesley refused to do so. Most of his personal finances gleaned from teaching and publishing his sermons and works went toward ministry to the poor while he himself lived very simply. If you visit his home in London, for example, you see that most of his personal possessions were books and simple furniture. It was not the comfortable life that most Oxford dons would aspire to!

            Our Methodist heritage is focused on works of compassion as an outgrowth of faith, but often this is difficult for church folk particularly those who are affluent. This was true in Wesley’s day as well. He once wrote: “One great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that…one part of the world does not know that the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it—then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart.”

            Harsh words, but spoken from one who knew. For Wesley, compassion meant more than writing a check…it meant being there in person, reflecting the love of God to those in need.

            The question for us as a Methodist congregation is how well we’re doing in engaging in works of compassion. We have a missions team that is very motivated in this direction and you’ll hear from them in a moment about how you can be involved in not only giving your money but your time. The bottom line is that we are, indeed, responsible for caring for our neighbors as a foundational act of faith.

            But that care extends more broadly as well. Wesley was also one who saw the stewardship of creation as being a Christian responsibility. We all live on this planet together, therefore when we care for the environment we care for each other. Environmental issues are stewardship issues. When we recycle, drive our cars and SUVs only when necessary, conserve water, cut down on our power usage, and do a host of other “green” practices we are not just being economically efficient, we are carrying out God’s charge to humanity at creation.

            But the Rule of Discipleship doesn’t stop there. Not only do we engage in those works of compassion for our neighbors and our environment, we also engage in works of justice at the broader level as a means of creating conditions for compassion to happen on a general scale. It’s often been said that you shouldn’t mix religion and politics, which in a sense is true. We shouldn’t allow government to define religion, nor religion government to the extent that religion becomes it’s own power broker. At the same time, however, we do recognize that there is a political dimension to faith.

            Early Christianity found itself in conflict with the Roman Empire because it claimed that it was Jesus Christ who is Lord and not Caesar. This doesn’t mean they revolted against the government, just that they viewed their participation in society through the lens of being disciples of Christ. The early church was not part of the political power structure, yet it wielded the power of love by caring for the poor and calling attention to oppression through their quiet suffering.

            Wesley recognized that part of Christian discipleship was not simply turning a blind eye to political and social conditions that perpetuated poverty and oppression. Case in point: Wesley called for the abolition of slavery in England, which would happen after his death in part because of his influence. He recognized that the Bible talks a lot more about systemic evil in economic injustice and social oppression than it does about things like, say, sexuality. Christians have become way more focused on personal sins, however, than the larger systemic sins that drive people into bad conditions. I’m sure that he would find it curious that his spiritual ancestors spend more time arguing about issues of sexuality than they spend working toward justice in things like health care for all. It’s not that issues like human sexuality aren’t important, it’s just that biblically speaking the weight of God’s instruction lies in caring about justice.

            Working for acts of justice means that we don’t simply turn the pages of the newspaper or change the channel when issues of injustice arise. We are called to speak God’s truth to power. When we vote, when we pay attention to what our government is doing, when we seek peace, when we lobby on behalf of the powerless, we are engaging in the ministry of justice. Our faith does inform our politics.

            Granted, we may not all agree on how certain issues should be handled, even within our own church. It’s possible that Christians of good conscience can disagree on how to approach certain topics. You may have noticed that I don’t preach much on social issues by themselves. That’s because I want us to focus on the kingdom of God first, to begin to discern God’s heart for people and for his creation, to search for ourselves where it is that God is calling us to live and work. If we can catch God’s vision of justice, then our positions on any issue will be driven by that vision.

            So, as a Methodist preacher, I feel confident in saying to you that you should vote for the candidates and issues of your choice, but do so with God’s kingdom in mind. Is what I am supporting promoting or abolishing oppression? Is my political view self-serving or does it make conditions better for others? We all have a responsibility to promote God’s justice, God’s kingdom in this world.

(A helpful source for this sermon was Henry Knight III’s little book Eight Life-Enriching Practices of United Methodists. It’s a great, concise look at some of the details of the Rule of Discipleship.

Coming This Sunday – 10/15/06

This Sunday we continue our sermon series "The Method in Methodism" with part IV, focusing on the compassion and justice quadrants of the Rule of Discipleship. Our praise band will be playing and you can check out our new coffee makers, too! (Very important stuff). I hope to see you at 9:00 or 10:30AM as we worship together. If you are out of town traveling for the UEA weekend, you can listen to the sermon online in MP3 at our website or check for the text here. Blessings for a great weekend!

The Method in Methodism: Part III – The Rule of Discipleship (Sermon for 10/8/06)

The Method in Methodism: Part III

The Rule of Discipleship

            As we continue our series on “The Method in Methodism” I’d like for us to review where we’ve been so far. In week one, we talked about the history of the Methodist movement and John Wesley’s idea that God’s grace was available to all. It was this move of grace that caused the movement to grow both in England and here in America, especially among the poor and others who had been long excluded from the full ministry of the Church.

            Last week we worked at defining that grace. Wesley said that God’s grace comes to us as a call to relationship with God and that it comes to us within the same processes as relationships occur. He said that God’s grace comes to us in three movements: prevenient grace (the grace that is offered to everyone, the grace that calls us into relationship with God), justifying grace (the grace that cleanses us from sin and brings us into that new relationship with God and sanctifying grace (the grace that enables us to grow more and more into the image of Christ, the image of God we were created to be in the first place).

            We can conceive how this works, we said, by envisioning the metaphor of a house. Prevenient grace is the porch, where we meet God. Justifying grace is the door, where we enter into a new relationship with God made possible by his forgiving and redeeming love, and sanctifying grace is the rest of the house, where we are made at home and grow more and more into members of God’s household by following Christ’s example.

            As with any house, however, there are house rules…not prohibitive rules so much as rules to guide the conduct of those who live in the house…rules that define who we are as a family.

            John Wesley was big on rules—maybe a little too much, according to some of his biographers. He had rules for nearly everything in his life from maintaining health to how one prays and studies the scriptures. Throughout his life he maintained the discipline of getting up at 4:00AM to pray and read the scriptures, and then held worship at 5:00. When he lived in London later in his life, he lived in a house next to the Methodist chapel at City Road with several other Methodist preachers whom he called his “family.” Morning worship was scheduled for 5:00AM each day, but the other younger Methodist preachers tended to want to sleep in a bit. One morning, Wesley woke, came down at 5:00AM and no one was there…so he preached his sermon anyway to an empty room. That’s dedication! The next day, he established a new house rule that anyone living under that roof would be at 5:00AM worship. To Wesley, being “Methodist” meant living by a strict method!

            The very nature of the word “Methodist” implies living by a method or rule of life. The book that orders our church life, for example, is called “The Book of Discipline” – a book of order and method for thinking about and doing the work of the church. Early Methodists understood that being part of the movement meant adhering to a disciplined life of prayer, study, worship, and meeting together. These rules were not established for control. Rather, given the nature of God’s grace we have been talking about, these rules were all about responding to God’s grace through transformed lives. They are a recognition that without a rule or guide for life we humans have tendency to drift into unhealthy patterns. If we want to be different, to reflect God’s image through transformed lives, said Wesley, we need to pay attention to a rule for living.

            Our culture has a tendency to flaunt the rules, however. Having no rules is considered to be a good thing, even used in advertising. How about Outback Steakhouse? No Rules, just right. One of the recent bestselling business books by Marcus Buckingham is entitled, “Break All the Rules.” You can probably think of other examples. Postmodernism has made it cool to break the rules or, more correctly, to make up rules that benefit the individual according to his or her own tastes and preferences. Morality and truth have become relative in this culture—what matters is what I think. But what we have seen in reality, however, is what my friend Timothy Merrill calls “a moral nihilism wrapped up in the fabric of freedom and authenticity.”

            The irony is that without rules there is no freedom and without discipline there is no growth.

            Think about it—we only really accomplish anything in our lives if we do so according to a vision or pattern or rule for living. Who among you works out at the gym or exercises regularly? Why do you do it? It’s because you want to be healthy. You follow a regimen, a rule in order to strengthen your body—to discipline it, if you will. Wesley believed that the same was true for our spiritual lives—we need a plan, a pattern, a discipline, a rule for living according to God’s grace.

            When the early Methodist societies were being established, they were formed around Wesley’s General Rules for the United Societies. Interestingly, these three rules are still found in our Book of Discipline. They function as a mission statement, a “prime directive” (to borrow from Star Trek) for Methodists. Every successful organization has such directives, rules, orders.

            When I read them, I am always reminded of a similar rule that I learned in the Army—the three General Orders. These things were drilled into us as recruits—so much so that I still remember them almost 25 years later. I won’t recite them all, but the first one is “I will guard everything in the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved.” The General Orders were such that a young private, alone in a hostile environment, would always know what was expected of him.

            The same is true for the General Rules. Wesley stated them in this way (I’m paraphrasing):

            1. First, do no harm. Avoid evil of every kind.

            2. Second, do all the good you can to the bodies and souls of people.

            3. Third, attend to the private and public ordinances of God (acts of devotion).

            These rules are simple and reflect the rule of Jesus. Remember when he was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (the public and private ordinances of God) and love your neighbor as yourself (by avoiding evil and by doing good).

            In recent years, some Methodist scholars have taken these General Rules and graphically represented them in the form of a Jerusalem Cross (a cross with four equal sides). There’s a graphic of it on the insert in your bulletin. I really like this model because it captures the spirit of what both Jesus and John Wesley were calling people to be about.

            We call this model more broadly “The Rule of Discipleship.” The overall mission of the UM church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ.” Disciple means follower, but the word also forms the root of the word “discipline.” If you are going to be a disciple, you need to follow a discipline!

            There are four points on this cross, representing four poles of Christian faith. On one axis we recognize that faith is worked out both privately and publicly. On the other axis we recognize that faith involves both piety (love for God) and mercy (love for our neighbor).

            What we see now is a cross with four equal quadrants that interact with one another. Within these four quadrants we see a holistic view of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

            In this lower left quadrant, for example, we see the intersection of our private lives and the call to piety (love for God). Within this quadrant, the disciple of Christ lives out a life of private devotion to God through things like daily prayer, Bible study, meditation, reading, and reflection—things that bring us face to face with God when no one else is present. It is here that God speaks to our hearts individually, where we cultivate our personal relationship with Christ and are formed through a daily discipline of being in God’s presence.

            In the lower right, then, we see how these acts of piety also take place in public in the form of acts of worship. Here we recognize that disciples are not merely individual actors, but are part of a larger community that worships God through weekly worship, through the sacraments, and through the preaching and hearing of God’s Word. It’s a recognition that the Christian life is always lived out by individuals within a community called the church where we are called to spur one another on toward maturity in faith.

            Moving to the upper left, we see the intersection of our private lives and works of mercy toward our neighbor—what we call “acts of compassion.” This is a recognition that loving God often happens through loving those around us. Acts of Compassion are those simple, basic things we do out of kindness to our neighbor; and our neighbor is anyone who is in need, anywhere in the world. To the extent that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned, we minister to Christ in our

midst.

            But there is also a public dimension to acts of mercy, which we find in the upper right quadrant. These are Acts of Justice. God’s justice was announced through the prophets, who spoke truth to the powers of their day, calling governments and other power structures to promote God’s justice for all. In this quadrant, we recognize that we are to not only minister to those who are poor or marginalized by society, but also to engage the forces that make injustice possible. To work in this quadrant means that we recognize that the world is not right and we seek to change it. Every time we vote, write a letter to someone in power, work for economic justice or peace, or work toward changing the world we are engaging in acts of justice.

            The Rule of Discipleship is all about balance. It reminds us that being a disciple of Christ involves more than just attending worship or serving at a soup kitchen once in awhile. It is a call to a whole life of discipleship, paying attention to all four of these quadrants. We cannot emphasize one over the others and call ourselves disciples! We need to evaluate our devotion to God and to others based on this model.

            We talked about this a lot when I was in England and I have to tell you that though I had seen this model before, it was then that I realized how vital it is to the renewal and revival of Christian faith. Much of the pathology in Christianity is about a lack of balance between the public and the private, between to love for God and love for our neighbors.

            If, for example, I only focus on the public piety of worship, I miss the fact that following Christ is more than just occupying a pew. By contrast, if I only focus on my personal “spirituality,” I miss out on the call to be in community with others. To take it a step further, so much Christianity is focused on piety and being “right” that it disregards responsibility for loving our neighbors and winds up condemning them instead.

             If I only focus on compassion without love for God, then my motivation might be skewed toward making myself feel good by serving others rather than doing it as a natural outgrowth of my relationship with God. Or if I simply call for justice, write letters, complain about the way things are in the world without acting with compassion toward the people next door, I’m not living out the whole message of Christ.

            Looking at the Rule of Discipleship, I can’t think of a better way to illustrate what it means to be a true disciple of Christ. To be a disciple means to live in balance of love for God and neighbor and of living out faith both privately and publicly. That’s the best response to God’s grace—to embrace the wholeness and transformational power that God offers us by following him into all four quadrants of our lives. This is “practical divinity” and “scriptural Christianity” (Wesley’s terms) all rolled into one model.

            If we were to focus our lives and the life of our church on this model, what would happen? How would you live differently? How would you characterize your faith? Where would you need to grow in order to live in balance? What quadrants do we emphasize as a church? What would need to change in order for us to be in balance? These are the questions that confront me when I consider the Rule of Discipleship.

            Of course, some are already following this model of compassion and devotion. If you were following the news this week you know that there was another tragic school shooting in Pennsylvania, where a man with a 20 year-old grudge walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse and shot several children, killing 5 of them. It’s hard to imagine a more horrific crime, especially when it was perpetrated against people who were so innocent and devoted to peace.

            But what is most shocking about this story to me was the reaction of the Amish community. Hours after the shooting, an Amish neighbor went to the home where the killer, Charles Carl Roberts, had lived with his family before committing this horrific crime. The Amish neighbor, however, did not go to camp out on the family’s lawn, scream at them and pronounce hatred, but instead offered the family forgiveness. “I hope they stay around here and they’ll have lots of friends and support, “ said Daniel Esh, an Amish artist and woodworker whose three grandnephews were inside the school during the attack.

            Columnist Terry Mattingly observes, "To grasp the Amish point of view, it’s crucial to understand that they truly believe God desires justice, but also shows mercy and they believe that these are not contradictory things," said Johann Christoph Arnold, senior elder of the Bruderhof communes. "They know that God said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ The Amish certainly believe that this killer will not go without punishment, but they also believe that his punishment is in God’s hands."

            “They know the hurt is very great,” said Gertrude Huntington, an expert on Amish society. “But they don’t balance that hurt with hate.”

            I would argue that that worldview is only possible if one lives a life of balance—knowing God’s justice, God’s love not just for us but for our neighbors, too. The Amish have practiced this for a long time. Maybe it’s time we started paying attention ourselves.

            How are you living out the Rule of Discipleship? We’ll focus on each of these quadrants in more detail over the next couple of weeks, but I hope that you won’t lose sight of the whole. God calls us to live in balance. Rules are good when they call us to a better way of life!

Jerusalem_cross_logo_1

Coming This Sunday (10/8/06)

Jerusalem_cross_logo This Sunday, we will continue the sermon series on "The Method in Methodism" as we look at the "rules" that John Wesley saw as essential to understanding and living out Christian faith. While we often chafe at rules that seem prohibitive, the "rule of discipleship" is designed to help us live a balanced and healthy spiritual life. Join us at 9:00 or 10:30AM for worship or check in to the sermon audio when it is posted by Monday (sorry about last week…due to an oversight the sermon didn’t get recorded, but the text is listed below as a blog post).

On another note, our missions team is conducting a free winter clothing drive this Saturday so if you have any clean and serviceable clothes to donate, please bring them by the church by Friday afternoon. It’s one way that we can serve our community.