Monday, July 1, 2013

The Prophet Margin

Here is my sermon from Sunday, my first at Mesa View United Methodist Church.  The text was 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14:

Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home, swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.  That famous song comes from the passage that we just heard from 2 Kings, in which the prophet Elijah is taken up into heaven in a flaming chariot.  And with Elijah’s departure, Elisha becomes the leading prophetic voice in Israel.  This story representations a transitional point in the life of Israel and in God’s proclamation to God’s people, just as today also represents a transitional point in the life of this congregation with the ending of one pastorate last week and the beginning of another one today.  It has been said that every minister is guaranteed to make everyone in the congregation happy at least once, some when they come and some when they go.  Or as Casey Stengle, the Hall of Fame manager of the New York Yankees, my team by the way said, the secret to being a good leader is to keep those who don’t like you away from those who are undecided.  The simple truth though is that no minister is as ever as good as some people think they are, nor as they as bad as others think they are, and we can certainly see this represented in scripture as well.

I’m sure there were plenty of people who were quite thrilled to see Elijah go away, in particular Ahab and his wife Jezebel who were the subject of Elijah’s proclamations, and they looked forward to seeing what Elisha could do, and there were others who mourned Elijah going and did not look forward to Elisha’s leadership and never found him as good as what had come before.  I have no pretensions that I will make everyone here happy.  There are going to be times when we get along, and there are going to be times in which we are at loggerheads with each other, and that’s okay.  You don’t have to agree with everything I have to say, nor do I have to agree with everything you have to say, and to be honest if there is not a time at least once a year in which I don’t push you beyond your comfort zone, and leave you thinking about different things, which may lead you to being mad with me, then I am not doing my job.  There are plenty of churches which will tell you that you have to agree and subscribe to everything that the minister has to say, and if you don’t then you are welcome to go somewhere else.  That is not who the United Methodist Church is, nor is it who I am.

Ten years ago today, my wife and I were in our own chariot, except it looked like this, making our way into Albany, New York.  Linda had moved to Albuquerque when she was 7, and I moved here in 1994, spending five years in Santa Fe, before moving down here.  We met on a blind date that was set up by my brother and Linda’s twin sister, and next Saturday we will celebrate our 11th anniversary.  But back to the story, we had left Albuquerque three days before making our way to Boston, and Albany was our last stop before entering into the city.  We were moving to Boston so that I could attend seminary at Boston University, which is one of the 13 United Methodist seminaries, and we chose to go there because we were young, without children and the time, and so we thought this would be a great opportunity to be able to live in a big city.  Now we had lived in big cities, as I’m from Phoenix, and Linda had lived in Dallas and Houston at different points, but those aren’t big cities like Boston or New York are big cities.  It was our intention to only be in Boston for three years, but like the cast-aways on the SS Minnow whose three hour tour ended up lasting a lot longer. 

Eight years and two children later we were still living in Massachusetts. I served as an intern at Christ Church United Methodist in Wellesley, Massachusetts, for three years, and then was appointed to Sudbury United Methodist Church in Sudbury, Massachusetts.  Both of those are sort of suburbs of Boston, although Sudbury was founded in 1638, so Boston grew out to meet it.  As we entered into our fourth year in Sudbury, I was told by the district superintendent that I would likely be up for reappointment, and the way the pattern went that would probably mean that we were going to be sent to Northern Maine, and my lovely wife said “I don’t want to go to Maine, it’s time to go back home,” and as a good husband I wisely said, “yes dear,” and so we made plans to come back to New Mexico, where I was appointed to serve the churches in Melrose and House.

Now if you were like me when I was told that’s where I was going, had probably never even heard of those towns let alone have any idea where they are.  Melrose, which is the town where we lived, in 30 miles west of Clovis, and has a population of 651 people.  So we went from a major metropolitan area, to a town that didn’t even have a stoplight, and House is an even smaller community 30 miles northwest of Melrose.

Now I know there has been a lots of speculation, rumors and gossip that the conference is going to close this church down, and sooner or later someone is going to discover that I did close the church in House, and that might stir so more fires.  So let me make this very clear right from the start.  I was sent to hospice the church there to its closer, but it was a very specific situation about viability.  If you took the church in House and drew a circle five miles wide around it, you would find all of 72 people.  It simply was no longer a viable congregation the way it was constituted.  That is not the case here, and I have not been sent here to close this church.  I have been sent here to help us all hear God’s call for this congregation, to help us to live it out and to get our finances in order.

And yes that does mean that we are going to have to talk about finances, and I know that makes many people uncomfortable and unhappy because no one really likes to be told how they should be giving more to the church, and most people like to keep their finances quite private.  But even if we were in the best possible financial shape, you would still hear me preach a lot about money and possessions because the Bible has a lot to say about those things.  In fact, Jesus talks more about money then he does just about anything else, and even if you were to be tithing to the church, that is giving ten percent which is the Biblical witness, there would still be 90% of your money with which you have to deal, and scripture has something to say to us about that, and so we will talk about all of it.  But the way to begin with any financial conversation, and the only way to turn finances around is to be completely open and honest, and so that is where we will begin.  I promise to be as open about the issues facing this congregation as possible, and communicate them with all of you.

But here is the really simple truth: it’s not ultimately about the money. Dan Hotchkiss has said, “If souls are not transformed and the world is not healed, the congregation fails no matter what the treasurer reports.”  Let me say that again.  “If souls are not transformed and the world is not healed, the congregation fails no matter what the treasurer reports.”  As United Methodists we are called to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.  Now I have seen it written and heard several people say that the current financial position of this congregation is limiting your ability to do ministry, and that is a position I firmly reject.  How much does it cost to go work at one of the homeless shelters, or food pantries in the city?  How much does it cost to go read at or work with the kids in the local schools?  How much does it cost to go to a nursing home and spend time with the residents?  How much does it cost to teach someone how to read?  How much does it cost to volunteer for the special Olympics or with hospice?  How much does it cost to run a blood drive, or coat drive, or a food drive?  How much does it cost to go over to the fire station right next door and tell them how much you appreciate them, and maybe take them some cookies?  How much does it cost to tell someone how your life has been transformed because of your relationship with Christ and then invite them to church?  Except for the cookies, the only thing those things take is time, the time to say, as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism did, that the only appropriate response to accepting God’s saving action on our behalf is to act on that in the world, to be the hands of God to the world.  There are thousands of ways that we can be transforming souls and healing the world that don’t cost us a dime.

But here is the most important point: it is not about me. Now I know that some of you want to say, help us pastor John, you’re our only hope.  I can help you see things differently, to imagine a new future, to give you new hope, but  I am not your savior.  I hope you have a savior, after all that is why we are here, but I am not him. Philippians 4:13 does not say I can do all things through Pastor John, who strengthens me.  It doesn’t say I can do all things through the annual conference, or the church, even through the band.  It says I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.

The membership vows of the Methodist church ask us to support the congregation with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, and we will spend time talking about all of those things in our time together, but you know what we need the most?  We need people who are sold out for Christ, and if you are totally sold out for Christ, you won’t be able to stop praying for the church, you won’t be able not to attend worship, you won’t be able to not give of your time, talents and dollars, and you won’t be able to stop proclaiming the kingdom of God to the world and inviting others to become a part of this congregation.  John Wesley was asked what he did that made Methodsim spread, what made it such a powerful movement, and he said that he simply set himself on fire and others came out to watch him burn, and of course his burning set others on fire as well.  When we are sold out for Jesus Christ we can’t stop doing all the things that need to be done, and when we are faithful God is always faithful in return.

Ted Pollock, who was known as Christ’s Globetrotter for the 91 building projects he over saw in 12 countries during his lifetime, was also known for his aphorism that “God’s work done God’s way never lacks for funds.”  But, to receive God’s funds, to receive God’s blessings, to receive God’s grace, we must be ready, willing and open to receive those things.  And unfortunately when things are going badly, especially when it comes to finances, we get scared and we try and hold on tight to everything we have, and we close our fist, and when our fist is closed we are unable to receive God’s blessings, we are unable to receive God’s grace, and we are unable to receive God’s funds. Instead we must open our hands and present ourselves as being willing to receive and being willing to give.

We must also remember that God is not a God of the past.  When Moses asks God for God’s name, Moses is told, I am who I am, or I will be who I will be.  God is a God of the present and the future.  God does not look backward.  Faithfulness in the past does not mean faithfulness in the present, and when we only look back to some mythical golden age, then we are bound not to be following God because God is moving forward not backward.  Now I say all this as someone who has a degree in church history from Harvard, yes that Harvard.  I love studying history, but there are several things I have found to be true.  The first is that the golden eras that people remember or imagine, never actually existed because we tend to overemphasize and highlight the good and overlook the bad.  The second is that many of the things that we consider to be so crucial to what we do and who we are often just flukes or accidents rather than well thought out planning at the time.  And the final thing is that we can learn from the past, but only if we are willing to look back to learn things, rather than looking back in order to try and live there.  We cannot live in the past, we can only live in the present and look forward and plan for the future, and as I already said, the good news is that is where God lives, works and moves as well.

Which leads us all back to Elijah.  Although Elijah passes on his mantle to Elisha, Elijah remains as one of the most important transitional figures for us as Christians because it was said that Elijah will come back to earth before the messiah would come.  Malachi, the last book in the Protestant list of the Old testament, ends with a promise of the return of Elijah, and then of course we move directly into the New Testament and see the promise fulfilled, and that it why Elijah plays a significant role in many of the stories of Jesus, from those who said that John the Baptist was Elijah, to Elijah’s appearance along with Moses at the transfiguration, to some saying that Jesus was crying out to Elijah when he was on the cross.

Elijah is a transitional figure and the harbinger of Christ, but what the story of Elijah and Elisha also tells us is that although they are significant, they are not ultimately what it is all about.  Elijah goes off, and Elisha comes on the scene, but eventually Elisha is replaced, and on and on, but what it the constant in this?  It’s God.  Leaders come and go, pastor’s come and go, but God remains constant.  Often pastors are referred to as the shepherd of the congregation.  That is I am the shepherd and you are the sheep.  That is an analogy I reject, because scripture is very clear that God is the shepherd, I am merely a sheepdog, but that’s for another sermon at another time.

The church is not about me, it’s not about the district superintendent, it’s not about the bishop, the church is about all of us together doing the work that God has called us to do, listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and proclaiming the kingdom of God and making disciples for the transformation of the world.  After ten years wandering in the wilderness Linda and I are happy to be back in the city we consider home, and I am excited to be here as we begin to engage and boldly pray and plan for the future that God has prepared for us.  May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.   

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