Sunday, October 08, 2006

Oct. 8 Sermon--Growth and Mutuality

Sermon texts
Psalm 25
Romans 12:1-8

I titled the “Pastor’s perspective” this month “Forgotten Members” They are forgotten because they have become inactive and we no longer enjoy their presence here in the church. We are called by our vows of membership to re-member them here among us. We are called to seek them out, to inquire about their lack of participation, and to usher them into renewed activity and presence here among us.
At the end of this month, we will celebrate the lives of those who have made the journey into the next life. In the act of re-membrance, we bring them close in our minds and hearts and rejoice in the fellowship that exists even after they have left us in this life.
In my article, I told you that we would focus on discipleship and the meaning of membership, and I see no better day to begin this endeavor than today—when we prepare ourselves as a church to meet this afternoon with our District Superintendent and report on the efforts we have made together in the past year to truly be the church and uphold our covenant of membership. This is the purpose of a charge conference.
In my article, I told you that we’d be presenting a list of people that we haven’t seen here in worship or in any other facet of church life in quite a while. This list isn’t generated to point out people who should be scolded or snubbed. Instead it is a list of people we should pray for, a list of people we should welcome and do our best to engage and invite so that they may be re-membered with this body of people!
Let’s take a look at what our collective church has to say about membership—The insert in your bulletin is from the Book of Discipline. I was present in Pittsburg as an observer while this book was being formed two years ago. This is the constitution of United Methodism—and you have as much authority in determining its content as I do as a clergy person. I don’t know too many people who read it though—so it is probably helpful for us to reflect on it together from time to time.
We’ll come back to this from next week—but I want to concentrate especially today on the first two paragraphs you have there on your bulletin.
The first is paragraph 218—Growth in Faithful Discipleship. It reads, “Faithful membership in the local church is essential for personal growth and for developing a deeper commitment to the will and grace of God. As members involve themselves in private and public prayer, worship, the sacraments, study, Christian action, systematic giving, and holy discipline, they grow in their appreciation of Christ, understanding of God at work in history and the natural order, and an understanding of themselves.”
What is the key word of this paragraph? I think one key phrase is “growth.” Growth in a church is not always about growing in number or in sanctuary size or in church budget. Growth also has to do with how each of you, individually, are growing personally. Are you developing a deeper commitment to the will and grace of God?
The Psalm we heard today equates reverence for the Lord with guidance on a path that we should follow. A “commitment to the will and grace of God” involves “private and public prayer, worship, the sacraments, study, Christian action, systematic giving, and holy discipline.” These disciplines make the path clearer. As we progress along the walk of faith, we grow spiritually through these practices. Speaking of growth, I noticed this book at Cokesbury and picked it up, it’s called Growing Spiritual Redwoods. The truth is, I haven’t read the book yet, but I love the title and the picture on the front, so I bought it! Hey it was only a few dollars! I had seen it before at a workshop I attended on the subject of church revitalization and new church starts, so I trust it is good. Just judging by a cursory glance at the book, I can tell that one theme is the idea that strong, visionary Christians don’t just appear out of no-where. They are grown through the nurture and vitality of a vibrant faith community.
When we live up to the vision for church membership set forth in the book of Discipline, we have good foundations for being the kind of nurturing and vibrant faith community that can raise spiritual redwoods. Look around you---who are those people who you see as “spiritual redwoods?” Who has risen above the forest to provide a vision that sees off into the distance? Who has made an impact that will be felt in the lives of this church for years to come? Who has weathered the fires and the storms that have threatened to devastate our community? We should celebrate these people.
Mutual Responsibility—Faithful discipleship includes the obligation to participate in the corporate life of the congregation with fellow members of the body of Christ. A member is bound in sacred covenant to shoulder the burdens, share the risks, and celebrate the joys of fellow members. A Christian is called to speak the truth in love, always ready to confront conflict in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Here is another aspect of membership that reminds me of redwood trees. Lara and I enjoyed going to the south Sierra Nevada’s and camping among the ancient, giant Sequoyah trees at about 6000 feet. The General Sherman, located in the national park there, is the largest tree in the world. At 275 feet high and 103 feet in circumference at the base, It is awe inspiring to be in that tree’s presence. It is wonderous to contemplate the age of the tree and all that has happened in human history in the 2150 years that Sherman has been alive. When our Christ walked the earth, the General Sherman was already a mature tree of 150 years.
Estimating the Sequoias impressiveness and importance by their age and size is one thing. It is certainly a hopeful sign for us to grow and develop as a member of the body of Christ in the same manner as the Sequoias. But another thing that is impressive about the Sequoias can’t even be seen when you walk among them in the park. It is under your feet.
You see, the Sequoias live only at a particular altitude and climate. At this particular altitude, the soil they grow in is only about six feet deep. Now, have you ever tried to dig a six inch hole for a six foot pole? You know what is going to happen! It will fall over. But the Sequoias have developed a way of life that allows them to exist in this depth of soil and still be the largest trees in the world. The roots, spread out along the rocky surface beneath the soil and grasp on to the roots of the neighboring trees. The trees grow in groves for their own survival. In order for the trees to stand upright and grow to such massive greatness, they must be connected, rooted to each other and mutually supportive.
These trees have learned this kind of behavior to survive in such shallow soil. Isn’t that a miracle? Now—can we learn from the Sequoyahs? Our vows of membership in this church call us toward a vow of mutual responsibility among one another. We are to “shoulder the burdens, share the risks, and celebrate the joys of fellow members.”
We are called to give each other support, to sink our roots into the shallow soil of a culture which no longer values church life, and we are to grasp on to one another at the root level! That’s what these things are that we are asked to share—roots! What is more fundamental to us than our hopes, our joys, our burdens, our risks? In order to share these things, we must be willing to divulge these things to one another. This is why ministries within the church like Griefshare and youth group and UMW and Bible study are so important. These are venues when we are invited to stretch out our roots and grasp ahold of one another.
On another level—it is also why we are asked to share our stories with one another. A church is group of people who know and are invested in each other’s spiritual stories. As a matter of record, our recent General Conference added the record of the Christian Journey into the required records that a church is asked to keep of its members.
Our hope is that as individuals within a community, there is a balance between the two ways of being. If I am in the midst of a crisis of faith—I should not be the only person in my church who knows about it. If I am joyful about a new beginning in my life—this house should know my joy. We are invested in each other. As Paul says to the Romans, “So we who are many are one body, and individually we are members of one another.”
Yet the church is not a place where we strive for conformity. In our unity, we celebrate the uniqueness and special gifts given to each individual, and we seek to foster that.
Finally, take a look at this cone. It’s not the largest cone you’ve ever seen, is it? It is not that impressive really. But, this kind of cone grows into these impressive trees that we have been speaking about. This is what you have to give as a part of the forest. Things that you say and do to give new life to this body are not always memorable or noticeable to you. But like this insignificant little cone—the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. We can be kingdom bearing people!
It doesn’t take gargantuan seeds to raise people with Sequoyah like faith—it simply requires persistence. It may be the contributions that you make in the life of the church that give birth to the kind of ministry that really changes lives of those around you. You have no idea what kind of power is manifested when we live with the faith that our actions make a difference in the world.
Another thing—for these little cones to do what they are intended to do, there is a key ingredient: fire. Forest fires cause these little cones to burst, and that is what leads to new life in the ground. The Sequoyah trees have fire resistant bark, and you notice that they don’t put off much foliage until the crown at the top of the tree. This is so fire can’t catch the crown on fire and harm the tree. For new life to emerge in our forest, we must allow the fire of renewal to burn among us! Many look at a the fires of renewal and are fearful. “Things are going to change!” they say. “My beloved church won’t be the same!” Changes may come and people run away. But if we are to be the forest that God wants us to be. If we are to be a vibrant, living church, we must allow for the fires to renew the forest and make way for new life to take hold.
Have faith! Trust that God will bring the Vision of the Kingdom to our hearts and that the Body of Christ among us will bring that Kingdom into being. We have a part to play! Have faith! Amen.

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