Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Laborer's In The Vineyards

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13:

In 1937 the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published a book, titled in English, The Cost of Discipleship.  Written against the rise of the Nazis, and Bonhoeffer’s observations of the German church capitulating to the Nazis, the book is an exposition on what discipleship looks like.  One of the most talked about aspects of the work was Bonhoeffer’s distinction between cheap grace and costly grace.  “Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer said, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.  Communion without confession.  Cheap grace is grace with discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”  Bonhoeffer said that it was not enough to ask and receive forgiveness but then to go on living your life exactly as you did before, that was cheap grace.  Instead, he said, “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus; it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and contrite heart.  It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden light.’”

As Methodists we understand this through John Wesley’s means of grace, which are prevenient grace, the grace that goes before, God’s grace which is extended to us before we even know of its presence or even of our need, followed by justifying grace, which is when we except Jesus grace and savings acts on our behalf, but then we are moving on to sanctifying grace, we are moving on to perfection.  It’s not enough to simply accept Christ’s actions, and ask for forgiveness, but then never seek to change anything in our lives, to never seek to pick up our cross, how often?  Daily, and move on to perfection.

For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the membership vows of the United Methodist Church, and the expectations that we should have for each other.  We vow to support this congregation with what?  Our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.  You’re getting pretty good at that, and if you get nothing else out of this at least you’ll be able to remember that.  We started with prayer, and the expectation that we will all be praying every day, and that will include praying for this church, for its leaders and for its mission.  Last week we talked about presence and I said that it is my expectation that we will be present for worship every week unless we are out of town, sick or are scheduled to work, and presence will also include attendance in Christian formation activities including small groups and education classes, which we will be working on and talking about in the spring.  We should also have expectations for worship.  We should expect that we will all be here, that we will be giving our best to God; we should expect that we will encounter God and we should expect that we will be transformed by our worship experience together.

That leaves us today looking at two, that is gifts and service, which are separate items and yet also deal with the same things, or at least in some ways the same attitude.  We are to support this congregation through our financial gifts and we are to support it through the gifts of our gifts of time and talent, which is also through service.  Since we are just a few weeks removed from our stewardship campaign and our concluding message on why we need to give, I don’t want to rehash all of that, except to give a very brief synopsis.  We give for several reasons.  One is that giving changes us, because to give takes us out of and beyond ourselves.  Giving opens us up because it’s impossible to give with your fists closed, and when we open our hands to give we also open our hands to receive.  In addition, we don’t give to the church.  Instead we give through the church in order to accomplish what God is calling us to be and to do.  And finally we give because we are made in the image of God, and God is a giver, and we know that because God so loved the world that God gave his only son to us.  And so we give, and it is the expectation that we will give proportionally of our income with the tithe being the goal, that we are going to move towards being a tithing community, both individually but that we as a congregation will also tithe of the gifts we receive.

And so on that note, and before we get into service, I did want to give an update on our stewardship campaign.  I could not be happier from our current results.  Rather than setting a dollar goal, we instead made it our goal that we would have 100% participation.  We haven’t reached that goal yet, and so if you are one of those who haven’t yet turned in your estimate of giving card, it’s not too late and we will be following up with you.  But to give you something to compare against, last year we received 35 estimates for $141,200.  This year, to date, we have received 61 estimates of giving for $183,378.  Of those, 18 are people or families who are tithing, 14 increased their giving this year, and 5 are first time givers, and it’s possible that some of those numbers are underrepresented.  I cannot thank you enough for your participation in this process.  Now this does not mean that all our financial problems are solved, but these numbers represent a change, a very positive change, in the right direction.  As I said to several people in conversations this week, we didn’t get to where we are now in a year, and we won’t get out of it in a year either, but we are moving in the right direction, so thank you for giving to this congregation.

In 1730, William Morgan joined a small group at Lincoln College, Oxford, called the Holiness Club. The students met three times a day to read scripture and pray, attended the sacrament of communion as often as possible, fasted two times a week, and sought to hold one another accountable to leading an upright Christian life. The group was under the direction of another student and his brother who was a member of the faculty. Those two were, of course, John and Charles Wesley, and this was the beginning of what was to become the Methodist movement. But, William Morgan did not think that what they were doing was enough to lead a Christian life; he said they should be going out into the city to help the poor and the needy.

On August 24, 1730, John, Charles and William went to Castle Prison in Oxford for the first time, but it was not to be their last. The group was so struck by what they found there and the conditions that the prisoners live in that they began making weekly visits bringing food, clothing, blankets and medicine, as well as preaching and providing communion. This outreach to those in need was to become an integral part of who and what Methodism was to become, leading Wesley and the Methodists to found free hospitals and clinics, schools, homes for widows and orphans and other social organizations.

John Calvin celebrated, or at least would have celebrated, his 500th birthday four years ago which saw a distinct increase in interest about Calvin as well as more people claiming to be Calvinists.  We as Methodists are not Calvinists, and in fact are part of a theology known as Arminianism, named after the theologian Jacob Arminius, not the country of Armenia, which came about in contrast to Calvinist theology.  We don’t have the time this morning to discuss all these differences, although we already covered a portion of them because we talked about a Wesleyan means of grace which is that God’s grace is open to everyone, it is unlimited atonement, versus Calvinism which has limited atonement, or only some people are saved.  If a church has reformed in its name they are more than likely Calvinist, as are Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and most Baptist churches also preach Calvinism to a large degree although they usually aren’t aware of it and don’t name it as such, but it’s one other point that applies to today and that is what is sometimes called preservation of the saints, or once saved always saved.  That is a Calvinist belief, and it is one that John Wesley and Methodists reject.

It’s not that you can simply pray some prayer, as if the words have magic in them, and instantly be saved once and for all.  Instead, Wesley argued and we still believe today, that faith is like a sliding scale.  Some days we are doing well and we’re moving on to perfection, seeking to live more like Christ every day, and other days we slide back and aren’t doing so well on our faith journey, and that because God’s grace is rejectable, that we can in fact to move outside of the faith life all together.  And so Wesley argued that practicing our faith life was something we needed to be doing every single day, and it was more than just about internal activities, like prayer and scripture reading, but also included worship and also getting out and being active in the world, being of service.  Wesley said that the only appropriate response to accepting God’s saving actions on our behalf was to work on that in the world.  This always gets Calvinists upset because they say that if we are saved by faith alone, which is the Protestant belief, and one we accept as Methodists, then we don’t have to do any works and to say that we have to work seems to emphasize a works righteousness, that is that our works have some impact on our salvation.  We are Methodists have been fighting this battle for more than 200 years and keep fighting it.

We are saved by faith alone, but the appropriate response is to act on that faith, and that means involvement in the world, or as we read in James, “faith without works is dead.”  We are called to be transformed by accepting Christ into our lives, and as a result of that transformation we are called to go out and transform the world, which is exactly what our mission statement says for this congregation.  And we look no further than Jesus himself to see this working itself out.  Jesus says that he came not to be served, but instead to what?  To serve. (Mark 10:45)  At the last supper, Jesus gets down on his hands and knees and washes the feet of the disciples.  Because this is not something we do, we’ve lost the understanding of how demeaning of an activity this was, and yet that is what Jesus does and then he says “For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.”  And perhaps the best example of what we are called to do comes from the 25th chapter of Matthew in the story commonly known as the parable of the sheep and the goats.

Jesus says that “when the son of man comes in glory” that all the nations will gather before him and he will separate them into two groups, like a shepherd  separates sheep and goats, and to one group, “come inherit the kingdom, for when I was hungry you gave me food, and when I was thirsty you have me something to drink, and when I was a stranger you welcomed me, and when I was naked you gave me clothing, and when I was sick you took care of me, and when I was in prison you visited me.”  And to the other group he will say the opposite, and they will not inherit the kingdom, and both groups will ask when they did these things, and he will say “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  We are called to be in service to the world.

There is an emphasis right now in the Methodist church to occasionally not hold worship service and instead to have everyone go out in mission projects, claiming that the church has left the building.  I understand the thinking behind this, but it’s an idea that I fundamentally reject, because to me it says that worship is not important, that we are making a mistake by gathering for worship.  Which, as we covered last week, is simply not the case.  Worship is fundamental to what we do and who we are as individuals and as the gathered body of Christ.  Now when all we do is worship, then we are wrong, just as if all we do is service, then we are also wrong.  Service comes out as a result of our worship experience, but service does not replace worship.  When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment he says that we are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, strength, mind, and souls, that is to worship, and the second he says is just like it and that is that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, and that is service.  Worship comes first and that leads to service, service comes out of our worship in aligning ourselves with God’s will for ourselves and for the world.

So what does all this mean for us?  We vow that we are going to support this congregation with our gifts and our service, and so it is my expectation that all of us will give a  minimum of ten hours of service to this congregation and ten hours of service to the community every single year.  I know that many of you will give a lot more than that, and I am grateful for that, so don’t think of ten hours as the maximum, but instead think of this as the minimum, the floor, and we will move up from there, and there are myriad ways that this can be accomplished.  Listening to people can be just as much of a service as going out and cleaning someone’s yard, right?  I have already begun talks with our mission group that it is my hope that one day every month we will have a service activity going on, or perhaps several, that we can gather together to participate in, and so your expectation should be that we will follow through and help us to do that.

There are lots of ways to give to the congregation, and I’d be happy to give you areas of need, but in your bulletin you will find a card that seeks volunteers for our worship time together.  Not to say that these tasks are more important but that since this is the area where we have the most impact on the most people, as well as our face to those who might be seeking out a new church, that is where I am going to focus for the moment.  There will be plenty of opportunities to volunteer for other activities as we move forward together.  But we need greets, readers, ushers, musicians,  communion servers, people to help with the projection, people to help count the offering, people to help plan worship, people who are artistically gifted to help decorate the sanctuary.  There are lots of things that need to be done.  And so I ask you to fill this out and put it into the offering plate when they come around, because this is another offering a way that we give to the work of God in this congregation and the community.

We vow that we will support this congregation first with our prayers, and so we expect that we will all be praying every day, including praying for this church.  We vow that we will support this congregation with our presence, and so we expect that we will all be present at worship, and that we will participate in Christian formation activities.  We vow that we will support this congregation with our gifts, and so we will give as a proportion of our income with a tithe being the goal, and that we will give through our time and talent in service to this congregation and to the community with 10 hours for each every year.  As a congregation our mission is to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the Taylor Ranch community, the west mesa and the world, and we do that first by becoming disciples of Christ ourselves, being transformed into the image of Christ, so that we can go out and transform the world and that includes bringing others into relationship with Christ which is where we will conclude next week when we celebrate the final Sunday of the Christian year with Chris the King Sunday and talking about our vows to support this congregation with our witness.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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