A Matter of Life and Death
(Luke 19: 1-10)
I just finished reading a book entitled: A Methodist Requiem, Words of Hope and Resurrection for the Church. It’s written by William B. Lawrence who is a professor of American Church History at the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. As I did not go to seminary and all I know about church I learned in the cheap seats, I try and read as much as I can to at least give the appearance that I might know what I’m doing.
Professor Lawrence paints a pretty stark picture about the future of the United Methodist Church and organized religion in general. He starts out by saying that our faith is a matter of death and life. What I think he is saying that our faith is based upon the death of Jesus Christ, his resurrection and the life he promises to those who choose to accept his free gift of salvation and eternal life. John Wesley, he points out, founded Methodism to bring a renewal of life into the established Church of England. In my opinion, it appears that the Church of England was much like the church during the time of Jesus’ ministry. The church hierarchy was more interested in their own self-preservation and ignored the plight of God’s people. In 1744 Wesley told his preachers that the mission of Methodism was to “reform the nation and more particularly the church, spreading scriptural holiness.” In 1784, in their founding conference, North American Methodists declared that the mission was to “reform the continent and spread scriptural holiness over these lands.” Professor Lawrence concludes that the mission of Methodism clearly addresses the social systems in the world as well as the spiritual souls of the world.
This is what we can take away from our scripture reading today as Jesus’ continues his journey to the cross. We learn the story of Jesus bringing salvation to Zacchaeus’s house. Jesus has just entered Jericho and was working his way through the crowd when Zacchaeus, who was short in stature, climbed up in a tree to get a look at Jesus. When Jesus reached the spot near where Zacchaeus was perched he called for him to come down and that he would go to his house and spend the day. The people were shocked. Of all the people Jesus could have spent the day with he chose to spend it with a tax collector who was much despised for his dealings with the Jews he collected taxes from. Zacchaeus was so overcome at being accepted by Jesus he promised to immediately give half of his possessions to the poor, and if he had previously cheated anybody out of anything he would pay it back at four times the amount. Jesus said to him, Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost. Again, Jesus confounds those who are watching him closely. Is this any way for a Messiah to act? Would a king lower himself to associate with the lowest of the low? I think the point Jesus is trying to make is that in every society, certain groups of people are considered “untouchables” because of their political views, their immoral behavior, or their lifestyle. In spite of this, we should not give in to social pressure to avoid these people. Jesus loves them and they need to hear the Good News.
Easter expresses the biblical foundation of our faith and is the center of the story that we Christians share. It acknowledges that we do indeed see our religion as a response to the fear of death. We proclaim that God’s Holy Spirit lives and dwells with us in the church of Jesus Christ, that we are people of the resurrection. This is where Professor Lawrence sees a paradox. He points out that while there are fears that Methodism is dying there should also be faith that Methodism will live if we acknowledge that the current existing forms of the faith are neither essential to, nor permanent features of, Methodism. I believe he is talking about being flexible and ready to adapt and adjust to changing circumstances.
According to Professor Lawrence, Methodists have a diminished footprint in the major public issues affecting society. He says there are virtually no big questions for which the denomination speaks with a unified voice offering vital answers. There are nearly no topics on which the denomination has a recognizable, unequivocal position. There is no sign that society looks to the UMC for solutions to problems. He quotes historian Kenneth Rowe who observed that one of the biggest challenges affecting Methodism occurred as it moved from the back streets to Main Street. We abandoned our mission of tending to the last, the least and the lost and began focusing on our public image. UMC became “upper middle class” as opposed to United Methodist Church.
One of our problems lies in trusting that the things we measure are things that matter. It presumes that quantitative information indirectly relates to qualitative discipleship. Do increases in membership and money necessarily imply that the church is focused on its theological mission and on the members’ spiritual disciplines? We are data driven and are constantly preparing reports that report our worship attendance, membership and money. I’ve even caught myself comparing where we are compared to years prior as if that is some sort of reliable marker on how I’m doing. What the professor is saying is that when you start focusing on your statistics you become inwardly focused and lose sight of what’s going on around you. He points out that a church in the Wesleyan tradition cannot and should not separate itself from the culture or the community that it serves. He reminds us that the church is always in the midst of its living missionary journey. People of faith, he says, do not define the mission on which they are sent. The mission defines us. We discover what the mission requires of us through responding in faith as it calls. Trusting the promises of God becomes our mission. We discern as a community what has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. Our mission defines who we are. It delivers us from whoever we were, and it directs us to whatever we will be.
Professor Lawrence says that in order to be recognized and respected as a leader in the world, a church must know its sense of mission, have a strong sense of identity, and demonstrate a clearly differentiated sense of integrity. I believe the same concept applies to us as a local church. We must know our sense of mission, have a strong sense of who we are, and demonstrate with integrity who we are and what we stand for. The professor goes on to say that to be specific, for religious organizations rather than individuals, a church that is a leader has clarity about its life and its goals. A church that leads is one that will not be anxious about its vitality or stability. A church that leads is one that knows its missional purpose in the world and can articulate how fulfilling its purpose will make a difference in the world. That church can exercise leadership in transforming the world. Again, I believe firmly that the same applies to us as we think about our place in our community as we strive to be relevant and make a difference where it counts. Community United Methodist Church must have clarity about its life and goals. We must not be anxious about our vitality or our stability. We must bravely go forward and serve. We must know our missional purpose in our community and be able to articulate how we are fulfilling our mission and making a difference.
To do this, we must engage in a process of letting a new identity shape and develop us. We need to discover who we are by embracing a sense of mission given to us by God, whom we can trust to provide a differentiating identity that is bigger than any institutional form ever will be or ever will need to be. We must trust God to make us the church we need to be to serve his people here in our midst and then allow us to expand our reach as we grow into our new self and seek to expand our reach.
Methodists became a people through a sense of mission that was directed outwardly to wherever God’s children were struggling, suffering, afraid, and dying. Methodism became a people through delivering a message in words and in action from the Lord to all people. It is still a universal message of death and life. We Methodists are a body of Christians who insist that this message of salvation applies as fully to this life as it does to the life to come.
One who trusts will not panic. We need boldly to engage in a mission that is broader than our eyes can see or bigger than our calculations can count. Our very lives depend upon it.
Please pray with me.
Most gracious and loving God, thank you for loving us, even when we fail you or let you down. How grateful we are to call ourselves your children and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the example of your son, Jesus Christ, we have the privilege of doing your work here in an imperfect and hurting world. Keep us mindful that the work we do in this world is a matter of death and life, a life spent in eternity with you. The task is daunting and the risks are great but as we trust you, we will not panic and we will boldly go into a mission field that is crying out for a life they don’t know based upon a love they can’t imagine. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, who died so we could live, we pray, Amen.