Wrestling with Church- Got Questions? Week 4

got questions

October 27: Questions about the Church: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

  1. Why is there so much arrogance in religion?  Why do people who claim they are Christian judge others?
  2. What is the best way to serve the church?
  3. How can we bring in more young families?
  4. How can we be in dialogue with each other?
  5. What makes UMC distinctive?  When was the UMC founded?

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.  But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

One of my favorite people is Shane Claiborne- an author, speaker, pastor, and teacher who lives in a communal living area in Philadelphia and does amazing work with the poor, homeless, and marginalized of society.  He also served with Mother Teresa when she was alive.  He tells a wonderful story about a time he went to a speaking engagement at a church.  The pastor came up to him and said, “Shane, there are two men sitting in the front row of the sanctuary holding hands, and I’m about to go ask them to leave.”  Shane took one look at him and said, “Well in that case, you need to ask those who are divorced, those who are re-married, those who are wealthy, those who wearing this kind of clothing, those who have tattoos, those who are etc etc” He went on and on, listing all of kinds of people, and the pastor finally responded, “Well, then there would be no one left, including me!”

I have unfortunately heard too many stories like this about church or about Christians, even within our own community- churches and Christians who clearly go against everything that Jesus teaches and shows us about love and hospitality and that all persons are valuable in the sight of God.  I hear too often that someone did not “fit” the image or description of a church attendee, and they were judge, ridiculed, and sometimes just asked to leave.  I hear stories all the time where someone who has come to church has been ignored, talked about behind their back, betrayed, and given the cold shoulder to the point where they are not even asked to leave- it’s just implied that they will leave.  I’ve heard stories about people of a different color being asked to worship elsewhere.  I’ve seen on the news church groups that condemn groups of people straight to hell for any number of reasons.  When this happens, I just wish I could stand on top of the world and shout “I’M SORRY!  FORGIVE US FOR THE HATEFUL, EMBARASSING THINGS WE HAVE DONE IN THE NAME OF GOD AND THE CHURCH!”  Sometimes, as a pastor, it feels as if I am fighting an uphill battle when it comes to defending the church, because if that’s all people hear about the church- that it’s judgmental, hypocritical, intolerant, or hateful, then why in the world would anyone want to attend?

Just the other day, out of curiosity, I started to google the phrase, “Why are Christians…” to see what would pop up.  The top responses were: “Why are Christians so annoying?”  “Why are Christians so mean?”  “Why are Christians so self-righteous, so arrogant?”  This was especially interesting since two of your questions were: Why are many people who claim to be Christians arrogant?  Why do they judge others?  My only response to this is that we are human beings.  And as human beings, we are broken.  As human beings, we are in need of grace and a healthy dose of humility.  Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he is at odds with the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees.  He is constantly getting into it with them about a number of things, but most of the time it is about the way they are living out their faith.  A great example of this is in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath.  The Pharisees, determined to trap Jesus, asks him if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath.  Jesus’ responds with a question, “Who among you has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath and will not take hold of it and pull it out?  How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!  So the Law allows a person to do good on the Sabbath.”  Then Jesus heals the man with the withered hand.  But what did the Pharisees do?  They went out and met in order to find a way to destroy Jesus, the man that “broke the law” by healing someone on the Sabbath.

I venture to say to you that many religious leaders today look a lot like the Pharisees.  A lot of people who call themselves “Christian” today are looking more and more like the Pharisees- those who do not see the bigger picture and hold so tightly to the so- called laws and rules that they miss the entire point of the Gospel message that God is love beyond all else- beyond our prejudices, our judgments, our pride, our egos, our intolerance, and our agendas.  Why are some Christians arrogant?  Why do they judge others?  Because we think we know what is best for ourselves and for the human race.  We think we know what or who God wants in the church.  But I’ve got news for you- most of the time, we as human beings, are wrong on this, because it seems to me that the message of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ wants ALL in his church, especially the imperfect, especially those who are different, especially the sinner, especially the corrupted, the wounded, the addict, the adulterer, the liar, those who have made more than their fair share of mistakes in life- because if we actually read the stories of Jesus, we see that his interactions, his healings, his miracles, his invitations are all to those who are considered outcasts of the day.  In fact, the Pharisees are the ones that give Jesus the label, “the man who eats with sinners.”  To Jesus, these so-called “sinners” were not, in fact, sinners to him- they were simply his friends.  The Pharisees look upon him and say, “Who is this man that eats with sinners and spends his time with the unwanted, the intolerable, the poor, the lame?”  It is Jesus, our Lord and Savior, who loves all, accepts all, and calls all to his feet to be humbled before him, setting aside our pride.  He calls us friends.  He calls all to worship in his church, to come to a safe place where it feels like home, to meet him in the midst of it all.  If church is to be home, a place where we are accepted and loved, and God calls us all home, then we, as Christians, are to be an extension of that hospitality.  How are we as a church doing?  How are we doing?

Look around you.  I think we are doing pretty well.  We seem to have a diverse group of people here- all kinds of vocations, opinions, theologies, all kinds of families and couples, backgrounds, education levels, stages in life.  We are a bit of an aging church, but we also have younger families, a good group of teens and youth.  We do a pretty good job of welcoming all people- but I will always say that I think we can do better.  One of the questions today is, “What is the best way to serve the church?”  I think that the number 1 way to serve is to practice radical hospitality.  The danger that we can easily get ourselves into is when we simply see church as a social club and not a place that is friendly and welcoming to all.  The church is open to all, but that doesn’t get us anywhere unless we openly welcome and receive people who are new to the community and the church.  The key is this: on Sunday morning, come to church with the idea that you will 1- focus on experiencing God in some way that morning.  And 2- that you will see each person as a valuable gift and essential member of the body of Christ that is the church- whether they have been attending here since birth or whether it is their very first time walking through the door.  Each and every person has the right and privilege to feel welcomed and accepted in this place, and it is our job as a congregation to welcome that person with open arms and ask how we can help them experience the love and grace of Jesus Christ- and not just saying hello and introducing yourself and walking away, but taking the time to get to know that person and what their needs, passions, and gifts are- maybe introducing them to someone in the church who has similar interests- getting them connected and involved in the life of the congregation.  That is the best gift we can offer this church, and the best way we can serve it, grow it, and make it the shining light and haven that it is and can be in this community.  Radical hospitality also includes invitation.  I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again.  The number one reason that people attend church is that someone they know has invited them.  Radical hospitality- extending a warm welcome, but also an invitation.

The second thing I will mention on this question is a reminder of our membership vows as United Methodists.  When we come into membership, we pledge to serve the church in these ways: through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.  These ways of serving are rather self-explanatory, but it is always a good reminder of what we as members of this church are asked to do- pray, show up, give financially, get involved in outreach to our community and our neighbors and beyond, and to witness- to tell others of our experiences of Jesus Christ through our thoughts, words, and actions.  If each and every one of us took our membership vows seriously each and every time we stepped foot in this church and when we step outside of these walls, just imagine what our congregation could be like.  We would have more involvement, more opportunities for ministries, programs, and services.  And it takes each and every one of us- not just a select few, not just the pastor, not just the leaders of committees, but all of us play a vital role in the life of the congregation.  Find your passions and gifts, and volunteer yourself to serve in that area.  Don’t wait to be asked- just jump right in! That is the best way to serve.

Along these same lines, another question of this congregation that I hear a lot is, “How can we bring in more young people and families?”  And trust me, there are thousands of churches asking the very same question, so we are not alone.  My first response is that we need to make sure we are providing activities for youth and children, which we currently are, but we could probably be doing more if we had more people willing to step in and volunteer.  If we are serious about wanting more young families, then it needs to be a priority of each and every one of you, the people of this church.  It’s helping with Wee Believe, offering a youth Sunday school, continuing our monthly youth group program, providing child care during church events, classes, or meetings that might require it.  Again, this issue also goes back to radical hospitality, asking ourselves, what are things we could do to welcome people of all ages?  And sometimes this question about how we can bring in young people isn’t really the right question- I believe that if we focus on ministering to people of all ages and extending the invitation, that people will be met where they are and we can do ministry of all kinds together.  If we obsess over this one question and issue that is so prominent right now in church culture, then we might miss ministry and service opportunities right in front of us that speak to who we are as a church here and now.

And as a church, we have a lot to offer, but again, it takes each and every one of us.  One of the beautiful things about this congregation is the diversity of opinions and understandings of different issues that affect our lives and the way in which we think about things.  A role of church is that we are to be advocates in the advancement for issues of justice and equality in our community and beyond- we are to be a voice that proclaims the love of Jesus for all.  But often we get bogged down into discussions that result in partisan differences.  So how can we talk to each other without getting stuck?  I think this issue is best solved when we open ourselves up to healthy dialogue with one another out of respect and honor.  We come to church to have a safe place to engage in healthy dialogue, to learn from one another, and to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.  If we can’t do that, then we are not the Body of Christ.  Being the Body of Christ means that we acknowledge that we have different opinions and ways of looking at things, but we as Christ followers must rise above our petty differences for the good of the church as a whole and unify our voices to say that we as a church are here to love and serve.  When we get bogged down in our differences, we easily lose sight of the bigger goal of what the church should be about, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, the stated mission of the United Methodist Church.

And finally, today we sit in a United Methodist Church.  Our denomination has a rich history and theology that is carried on today and is constantly being written and re-written as we continue to evolve throughout the world.  The Methodist movement began with an Anglican clergyman, John Wesley, who became passionate about taking the message of the church out into the world- he was tired of the church being too self-indulgent from the inside and felt the need to serve rather than be served.  So he set out into the fields to preach, developing classes and groups that held each other accountable, and these groups became known as the Methodists- not known as a denomination, but a movement within the Church of England. The Methodist movement experienced growth in America thanks to the circuit riders who went from place to place, church to church, to preach the gospel and provide sacraments to the people.  After a series of divisions over issues of theology, pastoral authority, and slavery over a period of a few hundred years, the United Methodist Church was formed after a series of mergers involving: the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church South, Methodist Protestant Church, the Evangelical Association, and the United Brethren in Christ- the final 1968 merger was between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, resulting in the UMC.  Today, the United Methodists are the largest mainline denomination in the United States.

How are we as a UM church distinctive?  We believe in different kinds of grace throughout our life of faith (addressed a few weeks ago)- prevenient grace that goes before us before we even acknowledge it ourselves, justifying grace when we acknowledge God’s saving power in our lives, and sanctifying grace which leads us to perfection and Christian holiness through the way in which we live out our lives for God.  We hold fast to the rules of do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.  We see the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion as ordinary means of grace.  We see our faith as being lived out and understood through Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.  United Methodists are asked to live out faith through personal holiness, social holiness, and to be advocates for social justice. Just a very brief history and picture of United Methodism- if you would like to know more, plan on attending the Altruist class in November! J

The bottom line- church should be a place that practices Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors, that invites people to be in community, to experience the love of Jesus Christ, and that sends people forth into the world to love, serve, and share that message of grace, mercy, and hope.  The church is not a social club.  It’s not for entertainment.  It’s not just a place where good food is to be had.  It’s not just a place where we go when someone has died or is getting married.  The church is a community of people committed to serving God, to learning about God, and committed to the great commission of making disciples.  It is a place to grow, to be challenged, to be loved and cared for, it is a place for all persons to come and experience firsthand what it means to be loved as a child of God.  It is the Body of Christ, with each one of us playing a vital role as members and parts of it, because we cannot do it alone.

I have really enjoyed these past few weeks of wrestling with these questions that you, the congregation has asked.  I hope it has been as good of an experience for you as it has been for me.  I hope we can keep asking and wrestling with these important questions together as a church in order to seek understanding of God and what this thing called faith is really all about.  It is only by asking the tough questions do we really learn and grow in our knowledge of God and the extreme gift of grace that is offered to each one of us.  Go forth and be the church.  Amen.

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