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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Next Ten Years in the United Methodist Church

(This is part of a weekly email I send out to the St. Paul congregation.  Some of it is obviously specific to our context.  Much of it, however, may easily apply to your church and situation.)

As we talk about taking steps into the future as a congregation, you need to be aware of some trends taking place in society and how those will affect us in very tangible ways.  To be sure, there are drastic changes coming in the next 10-15 years in how we do ministry.  Those changes inevitable; my hope is that we as a church will figure out, proactively, what we want to do about it rather than simply let the change happen to us.  Again, these changes are inevitable; it your decision to either drive the changes needed to weather what is coming, or just let those changes happen to us.  Here are there factors I want you to consider.

1.       Rising costs.  The costs for overhead operating expenses for churches – health insurance for pastors, utilities, insurance have been rising sharply in recent years.  We expect these costs to continue to rise sharply into the future.

2.       Declining membership and revenue.  Most churches have felt a financial squeeze in recent years, particularly focused around the recession that began in 2008.  We should not expect this to simply “pick up” when the economy recovers.  Why?  Because as Dr. Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership in Washington, DC says, in warning us about a coming “Death Tsunami:” The U.S. death rate is currently in a stable period that began in 2003 and continues until 2018. But what follows this plateau is a death wave in which there will be more deaths and a higher death rate than at any time since the widespread introduction of antibiotics and other medical advances. The total number of deaths each year will go up until 2050, and the majority of these deaths will be older non-Hispanic whites and African Americans, the two largest constituencies of mainline churches.”

Think of the number of our members who are “older non-Hispanic whites.”  If we are not reaching more people, younger people, and more diverse people, our chances for long-term survival as a church are grim.

Weems calls for resetting the financial baseline in congregations ahead of the “death tsunami.”  He says, “As with any organization facing the future after 45 years of unabated decline in its constituency, there must be a stepping back to a new and lower baseline in order to move forward. Otherwise, all energy must go to maintaining the old unrealistic financial baseline. 
The purpose of resetting the financial baseline is to free the preoccupation from money to reaching people for Christ through vital congregations. The criteria that matter going forward must be around reaching people, and the whole system needs alignment toward that goal. Money is a lagging indicator. We reset in order to return to the basics on which all giving depends — changed lives and transformed communities. There is no future for churches that cannot reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people. 
The death tsunami is coming. If it sweeps over a church already stretched to its limits to survive financially year by year, the result could be catastrophic. However, if it comes to a church that has reset its baseline and demonstrated the ability to begin growing, then the losses will occur, but will not deter the "field of energy" already moving in the denomination. Such a church will not only survive but come out on the other side as a growing, missional, and spiritually alive instrument of God. The time to make choices is now — while there are still choices to be made. Otherwise, circumstances will make the choices for us in the future.

3.       Availability of Clergy.  To put it crudely, this is a supply and demand issue.  Right now in Western North Carolina, we have about as many clergy as we have appointments to fill.  This is not the case in all conferences; there are already a number of conferences that are experiencing a clergy shortage, meaning every year, there are churches who go without a pastor, often for years at a time.

However, before we breathe a big sigh of relief, we’re not too far away from that.  The average age of the active clergy currently serving in Western North Carolina is 54.  Meaning? Over the next 10-12 years, half of the ordained clergy in our conference will retire, meaning they are no longer available for appointment.

Someone asked, “Aren’t young people coming into ministry anymore?”  And, yes, they are.  Young clergy like me, those who are 35 or under, represent about 5% of the total clergy in the conference.  That figure is expected to remain about the same for the forseeable future.

So in the next 10 years:
·         50% of our clergy will retire
·         Another 5% will come in
·         Resulting in a net loss of 45% of our available clergy

So What?  Good question.  Put all those factors on the table at the same time, and in a few years we have this combination:
·         Exponential rise in costs
·       Decline in revenue
·         Decline in membership
·            Not enough pastors to go around

Gil Rendle, Senior Consultant with the Texas Methodist Foundation in Austin, TX and a leading voice on how these trends will play out, estimates that by 2030:
·         1/3 of existing United Methodist churches will close
·         1/3 of existing United Methodist churches will consolidate, merge, form a cooperative parish, or be joined in a charge (one or more churches sharing a pastor)
·         1/3 of existing United Methodist churches will continue to operate about how they currently are

In short, our largest and most-resourced congregations will be fine.  These also tend to be congregations that are growing and specifically reaching more, younger, and more diverse people.  Their focus is already on mission rather than money or maintenance. Our smallest and least-resourced congregations will have the hardest time.  Those who wait for change to happen rather than planning proactively will have the hardest time of all.  These congregations are already spending an inordinate amount of their focus on money and maintenance; mission is already secondary, and they will not survive.

The question for us to consider is where St. Paul will fall in this.  Change is coming – costs will rise, people will die, resources will be stretched, pastors will be in short supply.  What happens to this congregation as a result of these changes is directly related to the decisions this congregation makes now.  We can make choices now while we still have options, or allow these factors to play themselves out until we have no options.

The time to prepare is now.  What changes and decisions do we need to make in order to weather the storm?  If we wait until all these things are taking place, it will already be too late.

My fear is that if we, and neighboring churches like us, wait until it’s too late, there will be no United Methodist Church in this part of Charlotte.  Whether or not that happens is up to you.  The choices and decisions necessary are yours to make.  The changes are coming, one way or the other.  My hope is that 10, 20, 50 years from now, there is at least one vibrant, healthy United Methodist Church in this part of Charlotte actively engaged in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

What will the future look like?  It will certainly be different.  But how well we live into it depends on the choices we make now.  May God give us the grace and guidance to choose wisely the path that best pleases and honors God.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Treasures of the Heart (Luke 12:15-34)

15 Then Jesus said to them, “ Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy. ” 16 Then he told them a parable: “ A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. 17 He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! 18 Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. 19 I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God. ”
22 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “ Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. You are worth so much more than birds! 25 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? f26 If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? 27 Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 28 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! 29 Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. 30 All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.
32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. 34 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.

“The church is only interested in my money.”  Have you ever heard someone say something like that?  Well, today is Commitment Sunday, so here we go.  May we pray.

When it comes to money, most congregations go through the same motions every year, with an embarrassed preacher half-heartedly mumbling an invitation for the congregation to open their wallets, who are squirming until it’s all over and they can get home before kickoff.  What a missed opportunity.  Jesus knew that money - how we use it and how we relate to it - was a leading indicator of what was going on in our hearts and where our priorities really were.

So no, the church isn’t only interested in your money.  We’re also interested in your time, and your talents, and your temperament.  We’re interested in your relationships, in your attitudes and actions, in your commitments and in your priorities.  In short, we’re interested in your heart, your whole life, even, because that’s what Jesus is interested in.

Maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “Wow, my church expects a lot from me.”  And you’d be right.  In fact, say that out loud: “My church expects a lot from me.”  Yes, your church expects a lot from you because God expects a lot from you - but here’s the really important part, so listen carefully - those expectations are within the context of your personal abilities and circumstances.  I know that circumstances are not easy for a lot of people right now.  Your church knows that.  God knows that.  You may be struggling right now because of a job or medical or family situation, you may be buried under debt and getting the Visa bill from hell every month - you may have circumstances in your life preventing you from living with the joy and generosity you earnestly desire and God intends.

If that’s where you are today, today’s message is that this church community is there for you, and will walk with you through your difficulty; that’s what the body of Christ does.

For the rest of us, God has clear expectations about what we do with money, and those expectations are for our own good as followers of Jesus Christ.

Things you never thought you'd hear a preacher say.
You see, the church doesn’t need your money.  Never thought you’d hear a preacher say that, now did you?  Members of the finance committee are having a heart attack right about now!  But, I stand by it: the church doesn’t need your money.  God doesn’t need your money.  If that’s true, why should any of us give?  Because, we are followers of Jesus, the One whose infinite grace led him to generously give himself for the sake of the world, and as his disciples, as those who are striving to become Christlike, we are called to the same kind of generosity.  That’s why we give.  The church doesn’t need your money; as disciples, we need to be generous.

Today’s Scripture is one of 25 places throughout the four Gospels where Jesus is clearly talking about money.  This particular sermon of his includes warnings against being anxious or greedy, about hoarding for ourselves and being stingy with what we give to God.  Instead, he tells us to seek first God’s kingdom, and then everything we need will be taken care of.

In essence, this sermon from Jesus asks us to decide who is Lord of our lives: Almighty God, or Almighty Dollar.  Jesus’ sermon reaches its conclusion in the last verse we’ve read, when he says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.”

A few weeks ago, Ashley and I stopped by the drive-thru ATM.  I was trying to be as quick as possible, because there were a few cars in line behind us.  I had several transactions to make, and while I was punching in numbers, I just handed Ashley my wallet, receipts, and cash.  As we drove down the street, she said, “Wow, I’ve never had your wallet before,” to which I replied, “Sweetie, you’ve had my wallet for three years, now.”

Any parent knows when you have kids, that’s where the money goes.  Whoever or whatever you love, that’s where you’re going to spend your money.  It would just make sense, then, that if we love God, we’d give our money to God.

Jesus' teaching on money is the
opposite of conventional wisdom.
Conventional wisdom sounds like this: “If we can just get people’s hearts right, then the money will follow.”  But, that’s not it at all.  Jesus teaches the opposite of conventional wisdom.  Jesus says that if you put your money someplace, your heart is going to go with it.  Your practice shapes your heart.  Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.

You’ve heard the saying, “Put your money where your mouth is.”  The message from Jesus goes one further: Put your money where you want your heart to be.  Where do you want your heart to be?  Put your money there.  Where your treasure is, there your heart will be, too. As goes your wallet, so goes your heart.  If you want your heart to grow closer to God, put more of your treasure in God’s hands.

How much of our treasure?  Over and over again, the Bible teaches us to tithe - to give 10% of our income to God through our local church.  Those who do will confirm that God blesses us abundantly when we tithe.

2 Corinthians 9:6-7 tells us, “the one who sows a small number of seeds will also reap a small crop, and the one who sows a generous amount of seeds will also reap a generous crop.  7 Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart. They shouldn’t give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver.”

What we give are like seeds of blessing.  Sometimes people ask, “Am I supposed to give 10% gross or 10% net?” and my response is always the same: it depends how big a blessing you want - a gross-sized blessing, or a net-sized blessing!  We cheerfully give everything we can, because we know that God blesses generous giving.

And really, God is the one who gave it to us in the first place.  Our relationships, our health, our resources, our skills, our talents, our ability to make a living and earn an income in the first place - all of that is free gift from God.  God simply asks us to give a portion of that back to God, as a way of expressing our gratitude.  Makes it easy to give generously and cheerfully!

Further, the Bible teaches us to give God our first-fruits (Proverbs 3:9).  We intentionally set aside God’s portion first, before we spend anything else.  We give God what’s best, not just what’s left.

How have you divided your income?
The way we do this in our house is to follow the 10-10-80 rule.  The first 10% of our income goes to God through the church, the second 10% goes into savings, and then we live off the remaining 80%.  We do it right off the top; we don’t even think about the first 10% as our money; that’s God’s money!  That’s one of the reasons we give electronically - not only is it convenient, but every week, God gets paid first.  I’m not asking you to commit to anything we don’t do ourselves.  We have experienced abundant blessing in our lives as a result of generous giving, and we invite you to do the same, because we want you to experience that level of blessing, as well.

In Jesus Math, notice what's gone and what's still going.
And there’s something more.  I call it “Jesus Math.”  Here’s how it works.  That 80% that we’ve kept to live off of - most of that is gone.  It’s gone to pay for a lot of stuff we don’t have any more: cars and clothes that have worn out, gadgets and gizmos we’ve broken or lost, golf balls I’ve shanked into the woods, haircuts that are less and less necessary, movies we can’t remember.  But that 10% we’ve given to God, it still lives on, in the adults, youth, and children whose lives have been changed because the church shared the love of God with them.  That’s how Jesus Math works - the part we kept for ourselves is now gone, but the part we gave away is still going.

Now, you may be looking at that figure of 10%, and thinking, “I’d like to, but pastor, there’s no way I can do that.”  Growing in generosity is sorta like training for a marathon; you don’t wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to run 26.2 miles today.”  The way to do that is to train, stretching yourself over time until finally you reach that goal and are ready to run the marathon.

When it comes to giving, moving toward tithing takes the same sort of intentional planning and determination.  So wherever you are, take a step that is reachable.  Here’s how to start.  Ask yourself, “What percentage of my income is God calling me to give?”  If you’re not thinking about giving in terms of a percentage of your income, start thinking about it.  Think about what you give now, and challenge yourself to give 1% more next year, and 1% more the year after that, until you reach that goal of 10%.  If you’re already giving 10%, consider how you will remember your church in your estate planning.  Wherever you are, take the next step in faith.  Generosity is good for the soul; as we grow in giving, we grow closer to God.  God will bless the step you take in faith.

Here’s another cool thing about Jesus Math: the person who makes $10 a week and gives $1 has given the same amount as a person who makes $1000 a week and gives $100.  The means of these two people are very different, but their generosity is equal, their gift is the same, and God is equally pleased with both.

This week, you will receive a mailing asking you to prayerfully consider your financial commitment to the church in 2013.  Read it.  Go to God in prayer, considering God’s goodness and faithfulness and the blessings in your life.  Honestly ask yourself, “What percentage of my income is God calling me to give?”  Fill out your card and bring it to worship next week, where will all put our commitments together, and dedicate them to God.

For today, I invite you to respond by writing three things in your bulletin and spending some time in prayer and reflection over them:
1.   Thank God for God’s goodness, God’s faithfulness, and the blessings in your life.
2.   In response, ask yourself, “What percentage of my income is God calling me to give?”
3.   What changes in my lifestyle need to occur to grow in my generosity?

Maybe you’re going to wait another year before you buy that new car, maybe you’re going to eat out one time less each week, maybe you’re going to scale back on how much you spend on that family vacation, maybe you’re going to cut down your cable package, or spend a little less at Christmas, maybe you’ve got some personal debts to tackle.  As our musicians play, spend the next few minutes in prayer over these three things, at your seat or at the altar rail, and seek God’s guidance for how you are to respond.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.  The church doesn’t need your money; that’s not it, at all.  The more of your treasure you give to God, the more of your heart you’re going to give as well.  Whoever is Lord of our pocket is certainly going to be Lord of our life.  May we grow in generosity; may we grow closer to God.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Living as People of Faith in an Election Season

An election, particularly a national election as tight as this year’s promises to be, highlights the deep partisan divisions inherent in our particular two-party political system.  We are confronted with the reality that we live as a deeply polarized people, often divided clearly into two camps of political opinion.

This reality of division is particularly troublesome for people of Christian faith, who are called to unity despite difference, allegiance to God over any nation, loyalty to Christ over any candidate, commitment to the body of Christ over any political party, hope in the resurrection of Christ over that promised or provided by any temporal power or person.

Easier said than done.  This election season, you will see many Christians from both the right and left use religious faith and conviction to push you toward a particular candidate, a particular political party, a particular platform.  Don’t fall for it.  You’re smarter than that, and as a follower of Jesus, you’re called to something better.

You are a member of the body of Christ – that means your ultimate allegiance, hope, and identity rest in Christ.  The Scriptures tell us that kings and kingdoms (powers, principalities, nations, rulers, politicians, and parties, if you will) will all pass away, but the name of the Lord endures forever.  No nation, candidate, form of government, or political party is the hope of the world – that position is already taken by Jesus.  And as a member of his body, you are already joined together as One – whether you want to admit it or not – with all other members of the body, even if they live in a different place, even if they voted for the other guy.

This election season, I encourage you to get involved.  Study the issues.  Get to know the candidates and what they stand for.  Vote your choice freely and with a clear conscience.  But on November 6 and after, regardless of the result, know that Jesus is still Lord, and you are still joined with others in the body whose preferences may be different than your own.  Nevertheless, they are not your enemy.  They are your brother or sister in Christ.

The world will know that we are Christians by our love, not by our voting record.

On election day, many Christians around the country are joining together to show their unity in Christ trumps their political preferences.  Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Protestant mainliners and Evangelicals, will come together, shed their difference of opinion, and participate in Election Day Communion, remembering that their first allegiance is to Christ and the other members of Christ’s body.  I find this to be a beautiful expression of the body of Christ coming together to celebrate who we are and WHOSE we are.

Locally, Election Day Communion will be celebrated at Renovatus Church in Charlotte and Covenant United Methodist Church in Gastonia (where my good friend, Paul Brown is the pastor).  If you would like to participate in Election Day Communion, contact either congregation to find out the details of the event.

To read more about Election Day Communion, including links to articles and background on the movement, go to

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Put on Christ (Galatians 3:26-28)

You are all God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ.  All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

I’d like to commend those of you who remembered to participate in today’s Team Colors Sunday by wearing the colors of your favorite team.  Which teams are represented today?

Growing up in Western New York, I have worn lots of blue and red to show my support for the Buffalo Bills.  There was a lot of red and gray from 1994 - 1998 to show my support for the Niagara Falls High School Powercats.  What is a Powercat, you ask?  To this day, I still don’t know; we think it was something like a tiger on Red Bull.  There was black and red to show my support for the Roberts Wesleyan College Raiders during undergrad days, and then blue and white for my beloved Duke Blue Devils while I was working on my master’s.  When I moved to Boone, I found lots of black and gold sneaking into my wardrobe as an honorary supporter of App State.

And that’s just the sports teams.  Think about all the things we put on that show our support, or allegiance, or our identity.  Things that tell people about our nationality, our political affiliation, our marital status, our fraternity or sorority, our job, our socio-economic status, the causes we believe in. We wear these identifying badges as jewelry or pins, we put them on our clothes, on our lawns, on our Facebook page, and we plaster them across the back of our cars so that everyone sitting behind us at the red light will know our favorite vacation spot, how many people and pets are in our stick-person family, the radio station we listen to, the candidate we’re voting for, and whether our kid is the honor student or the one beating up the honor students.

So many places where we declare our support, our allegiance, and our identity; so many ways that we put on our support for so many causes, which makes me wonder - have we put on Christ with the same visibility and enthusiasm?  Or, is that message somehow lost or covered up by all the other things we’ve put on?  May we pray.

Who are you wearing?
If you are watching an awards show, you know that there’s all that preliminary activity taking place on the red carpet as the celebrities arrive, greet each other, and are barraged by photographers and interviewers the entire length of the carpet.  One of the questions they will typically ask, particularly of the women, is “Who are you wearing?”  By this they mean, “Who made this dress, what designer, what label are you wearing?”  There will be follow up on television and in the magazines and around the blogosphere about who wore it best.

This morning, think about the label or labels you are wearing.  I really want you to think about the things that identify and define you.  What is your defining label?  If you were to say, “My name is so-and-so, and the most important thing you need to know about me is . . .,” what would that thing be?   One way to think about it is the thing about yourself which you are most proud, or perhaps the thing about which you are the most ashamed.

What labels got stuck on you that you never asked for?  What labels have defined your life?  Who are you wearing?

Our Scripture reading for today tells us that all who have been baptized into Christ have “put on Christ” or are “clothed with Christ” (v. 27).  This is an Old Testament expression for adopting a person’s character, values, or outlook, which is exactly what we do when we put on Christ.  We talk about the goal of the Christian life being Christlike character, such that our attitudes and behavior perfectly resemble those of Christ.  When people say, “Who are you wearing?  What label is on you?”  the response of the faithful should always be, “I am wearing Jesus.  I have put on Christ.”

In the early church and in many places still today, when a new believer was baptized, they were presented with a brand new, clean, gleaming white robe to symbolize that in baptism, they had put on Christ and were now a brand new person.  New life in Christ came with a new identity, and Jesus gives us a new label to define our identity – child of God.  The white garment was a way of saying, “This is who you are, now.”  In the kingdom of God, it’s the only label you need. 

The tension comes when we try to keep our old labels.  In fact, often trying to keep our old labels – our old loyalties and ways of defining ourselves, are in direct conflict with being a disciple of Jesus.  There’s something you should know about Jesus - when it comes to your heart, Jesus doesn’t share space.  He doesn’t want part of your heart, part of your loyalty, part of your life - he wants the whole thing.  You know how they say that when people have loved each other for a long time, they start to look like each other?  Jesus wants us to love him so much that we start to look like him.

It continues as a lifelong process
And as of yet, that process is incomplete.  We are beautiful works in progress, masterpieces in the making, and we usually look more the part of a holy mess than a finished product.  But I think it’s supposed to be like that.  Part of developing Christlike character is the honest recognition of how far we still have to go.  Maybe you’ve heard the law of spiritual relativity: “the closer you get to Christ, the more you realize just how far from him you truly are.”

The more we grow in our faith, the more we realize how much more growing we still have to do, and the more we know, the more we realize how much we have yet to know.  Becoming a Christlike person remains this idealized goal that always seems just beyond our reach.  The closer we get, the more we realize just big the label “Christlike” is.

We simply ask for God’s help filling out that label.  Every day we should be on our knees saying, “God, help me be the person you want me to be.  Fill me with your Holy Spirit, and help me look a little more like Jesus today than I did yesterday.” It’s an ideal that will be reached by very few of us on this side of eternity, but it’s a God-given goal nonetheless; and we keep reaching, we keep striving, we keep growing - beautiful works in progress, a holy mess, masterpieces in the making.

There’s a song we used to sing growing up in church - “Let the Beauty of Jesus Be Seen in Me:”
Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me
all his wonderful passion and purity
O, Thou Spirit Divine,
all my nature refine,
‘til the beauty of Jesus is seen in me.

Friends, that’s what it’s all about.  That’s what the Christian life is supposed to look like.  That’s what we should be spending our time and effort and energy on.  Rather than glorifying ourselves, rather than glorifying our old labels, we are called to follow Jesus so closely that people don’t see us.  They shouldn’t have to say, “Who are you wearing?” because it will be evident that we’re wearing Christ.

One way or another, who we truly are has a way of making itself known.  If Christ is living within us, it’ll show.

We do this because it’s not about us; it’s about Jesus.  The goal is that when people look at us, they don’t see us but see Jesus living in and through us.  As the apostle Paul said earlier in this very same letter: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:21).  When people look at us, we should disappear and they should only see Jesus - his compassion, his priorities, his mission in the world, his heart, his love, his mercy, his grace shining out of you and radiating in every possible direction and nothing else -  and so I want you to ask yourself, when people look at you, is that what they see?

If you answered yes, then pray the image is even clearer tomorrow than it was today.

If you answered no, start by putting on Christ today, and again tomorrow.  Repeat as necessary.

Paradise Glimpsed
Paul goes on in our text to say that when we are clothed with Christ, a beautiful label-free vision of the kingdom of God emerges in our midst: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28).  You can think of these as two separate lists, a ranking of those things which were preferable back in the day, and those things which were less-than-desirable.  These lists outlined a social system where there was a certain hierarchy, ranking, pecking order that was neatly and clearly defined.  Good news for you if happened to be on the preferable side; too bad, so sad if you ended up on the wrong side.

No doubt, we could construct similar lists in our time, and come up with ways to label people into categories of greater than/less than, in/out, better/worse.  No doubt, we could come up with our own lists, and truth be told, we probably carry such lists in our heads all the time - lists that focus on rank, hierarchy, tenure, or status that tell us where we are on the social ladder, and even more importantly, where others are in relation to us.

And then, this beautiful vision of the kingdom of God, where people are neither in nor out, neither greater than nor less than, neither better nor worse, for in Christ, all are one.  Compared to new life in Christ and being active participants in the kingdom of God as members of the body of Christ, the labels just don’t matter.

Even the earliest disciples of Jesus got caught up in this game.  Having spent three years in close fellowship with Jesus, listening to his teaching, following him whole-heartedly, we find them bickering with each other the very night Jesus would give himself for us, about who among them was the greatest, and who would the best seat, the best view, the best title, the most honor, the best parking spot in God’s kingdom, to which Jesus responded, “Guys, why are you so caught up in this jockeying for position and labeling yourselves and others?  You just don’t get it!”

Jesus rips off the labels that separate us.  Honestly, what’s the point spending our lives climbing the social ladder when Jesus turns the ladder on its side and announces that no one is any better than anyone else in God’s eyes?  Sure, there will still be people who want to play by those old, worldly, godless rules, but honestly, why get so worked up over a whole lot of things that just don’t matter in the kingdom of God?

Friends, we live in a world that wants us to get all worked up over those things, that wants those divisions to remain and is working very hard to keep them in place.  And you know what?  Let the world have them.  They just have no place here.  Any continued attempts to label one another in the church, or put down one another based on those labels just means that someone missed the point.  You can’t live by those old broken labels if you’ve truly put on Christ and caught a glimpse of life in God’s kingdom.

Jesus not only rips off the labels, he breaks the label-maker.

Those labels simply divide.  That’s all they’re good for.  And they don’t belong in the church.  Leave them out there in the world where they belong, because we are called to something more than that.  We’re called to put on Christ.

We’re called to put on Christ in a world with too many labels.  We’re called to put on Christ, the one who rips off our carefully-worded labels so this beautiful vision of the kingdom of God is realized in our midst: “where there is neither Jew nor Greek; where there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, where we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We’re not there yet, but by the grace of God, we can be.  Don’t put on labels.  Put on Christ.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Keep the Feast (I Corinthians 5:7-8)

Clean out the old yeast so you can be a new batch of dough, given that you’re supposed to be unleavened bread.  Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed, so let’s celebrate the feast with the unleavened bread of honesty and truth, not with old yeast or with the yeast of evil and wickedness.

This morning, I’d like to start out by doing something incredibly risky.  Each Sunday, I ask you to give your full attention to worship and the message because my hope and prayer is that God is speaking to the people gathered in this place.

And so today, I run the inherent risk of losing everyone’s attention right here at the beginning and never getting it back in what I’m about to ask you to do, but here goes: I want you to think about food. Dangerous thing to do late in the morning when our tummies are grumbling with the promise of lunch after worship!  But, go ahead.  Think about food.  Think about what you’re going to eat after worship.  Are you going home, to someone else’s home, or out to a restaurant?  Are you going to pick up something quick on your way to somewhere else?  What are you looking forward to having a second or third helping of, what one thing are you going to scrape the bowl and lick the spoon and then look up hopefully and ask, “Do we have any more?”

Mmmmmmm-mmmmmmm.  Think about food.  Is your stomach starting to grumble yet?  Too bad, because I want you to keep thinking about food.  Think about the last milestone you or your family celebrated - a birthday, an anniversary, a graduation, a retirement.  Was food part of the celebration? Think about holidays.  Whether a family feast at Thanksgiving or a cookout in the backyard on the 4th of July, isn’t food always a central part of the party?  Think about the food that was at your last family reunion - you knew who had made what just by watching the cars pull in off the road, because whichever aunt had made that lemon meringue pie was holding it on her lap for the car ride, and you can watch the car slow down well in advance and make a slow gentle turn off the road so the meringue wouldn’t go sliding off the top of the pie.

How are we doing, is your mind completely focused on food yet?  Hang on, because we’re not done yet.  When we go to a wedding, there’s always food.  Ashley and I will celebrate our one-year anniversary tomorrow, and the top tier of our wedding cake is defrosting in our fridge right now so we can enjoy it together tomorrow, which breaks all the rules of the eating plan we’ve been on since May, but who cares - we’re going to celebrate!

How many of the great celebrations in life involve a feast of some sort or another?  And it seems the greater the cause for celebration, the greater the feast. In the life of a Christian, is there any greater a cause for celebration than redemption and new life experienced in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?  The greater the cause for celebration, the greater the feast, and I suggest that there are two key features that distinguish a feast from just a meal: celebration and company.  Let’s consider company first.

The Company
If you were to get in your car and start driving, simply being on the highway opens you up to interaction with others who are also on the road, and how well you cooperate and relate to each other will largely determine how successful each of you are in making your respective journeys.

The Christian journey is no different.  We make our spiritual journey in relationship with other people who are also on the journey, and how well we cooperate and relate to each other will largely determine how successful we are in making the Christian journey.  It’s not gonna be easy, either.  We live in a world where there’s a lot to argue about, and a lot of people who love to argue.

Take one argument I waded into unsuspectingly: the proper use of the term “barbeque.”  My guess is that some of you have strong feelings on the subject.  Up north, “barbeque” was a verb, such as, “Come over to our house on Saturday and we will barbeque in the back yard.”  By that we meant we were going to fire up the grill and eat hamburgers and hot dogs.  Then I moved South and found out that “barbeque” is a noun, referencing a particular kind of food.  No sooner had my mind adjusted to this reality when I found out there are different types of barbeque, and great debates as to which is the true and real stuff.  Now, I know there are people who get really fired up about this - whether it is pulled pork or chopped pork, whether your sauce should be vinegar-based or tomato-based or mustard-based or whether there should be any sauce at all.  The debate gets bigger when you bring Texas or Memphis or Kansas City into it, because now all of a sudden it can be beef instead of pork.  And then, what about ribs?  And if you allow ribs to count, are we talking pork ribs or beef ribs or both?

On and on it goes.  Personally, I identify with Bob Bumgarner, in my last church, who said, “There are only two kinds of barbeque - good and better.”  Sure, if you want, you can have an argument about what constitutes true barbeque and what doesn’t - or you can just enjoy the diverse bounty of delicious food all around that, though different in many ways, is still barbeque and is still delicious.

Likewise, Christians can have arguments about who is right and who is wrong, or we can enjoy each other’s fellowship, recognizing that we may not all think or act alike, but the same Holy Spirit nonetheless indwells all of us, and we are united in the cause of Christ in the world.

Holy Communion highlights the reality that we are in this together.  In fact, pull out your hymnals and take a look at page 14 - this familiar liturgy we use every time we come to the Lord’s table.  About 2/3 of the way down the page, right there in our liturgy we pray to God, “By your Spirit, make us one with Christ, one with each other, and on in ministry to all the world” for the next 20 minutes, right?  Not quite - “until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.”  In other words, until the very end of the age, as long as humans have breath to breathe, we are praying for unity, and we are expecting unity to be experienced and made real at the Lord’s table.

As grain once scattered on the hillsides are gathered and transformed into one loaf, so too are we gathered and transformed into the one body of Christ. At Communion, we are made one with Christ, and one with each other, and that’s good company to keep.

The Celebration
As we’ve seen, good company is one part of transforming a meal into a feast.  The other part is an atmosphere and attitude of celebration.

Earlier we said that the greater the cause for celebration, the greater the feast.  Make no mistake - Communion is a celebration, for it makes us active participants in God’s redemption story, remembering all that God has done up to now, and anticipating all that God is yet to do.

There is nothing somber about celebrating the gracious goodness of God, the unconditional love of Jesus, and the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.  Rather, it is something that should fill us with an indescribable and infectious joy, such that the light and love of God radiates out of us in every direction.

The Communion celebration fills us with joy, one of the reasons we refer to it as a means of grace.  There have been times when I have approached the Lord’s table feeling sad, or discouraged, or angry, or upset, or any number of feelings that were anything but joy.  But, in those times when I focused and opened my heart to God, inviting God to reach into me and touch me and transform me, sure enough I found all that negative stuff melting away and replaced by the love, and grace, and joy of Jesus.  I talk about Communion as one of the greatest gifts of God’s grace because I’ve experienced it as one of the greatest gifts of God’s grace, and my hope for all who gather at the table is that they might experience the same thing.  Those who have experienced the goodness of God in Communion will be easy to pick out; you’ll have to look no further than their faces to see the joy they’ve experienced in the presence of Christ.  They’ll be the ones celebrating.

So Communion is a feast - both because of the company we keep and the spirit of celebration that permeates it.  One last thing I want to say about this feast: it’s so beautifully ordinary.  There’s nothing fancy about it - just ordinary bread and ordinary wine.  Nothing all that special, except in the hands of Jesus, the ordinary is transformed into something extraordinary.

Here’s what I want you to consider this morning: where are the ordinary places in your life that need to be placed into the hands of Jesus to be transformed and given back to you as something extraordinary?  God is in the business of turning the ordinary into the extraordinary; it’s happened before, and it can surely happen with the ordinary things in your life.

In the hands of Jesus, an ordinary loaf and ordinary wine are given back to us as the bread of life and the cup of salvation.  Come, let us keep the feast!