Looks like a very big church—perhaps a city church. Definitely not us! I can tell you many things about this church—youth have gone out to sleep on the street and were interviewed by the local news to raise awareness about the homelessness in their part of town. The choir is great—they have a pianist who really gets into the music and kind of bobs her head up and down.
The pastor is a dynamic woman who speaks with great joy and passion about the love of God, and yet has the heartache of living with a husband who has Alzheimer’s at a fairly young age. They have a vibrant Steven’s ministry, where members are trained to be grief counselors with other members in confidential, life giving settings. This, friends is your presence as a United Methodist on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood—the neighborhood around UCLA where Lara and I used to attend before we came to know the Methodists here in this neck of the woods.
You have a real and living connection with Westwood UMC—and it is not just through Lara, who transferred her membership from this church to Waldron and then here. It is through a system that connects our local churches together to minister to the world in ways which might be impossible by ourselves. It was the faith and genius of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, to adopt such a structure for his renewal movement in eighteenth century England – a connectional system. For Wesley, that meant individual Christians involved in a small fellowship group, designed for faith-sharing and holding one another accountable to a life of discipleship. Those small groups were joined into congregations, which were joined into the larger connection of the whole of the Methodist movement.
Even closer to our church in connection is the body of United Methodists within the “connection” of the Oklahoma Conference. This church is literally a “charge” of the Methodist connection in this community. You may have noticed that I never took vows of membership within this particular church, because my membership is with the whole “connection” of United Methodism within the Oklahoma Conference. Of course, we do great ministry right here, through Morris United Methodist Church. But we do even greater things through our worldwide connection. This is who we are and what we support through our generous apportionment and mission giving.
Through our apportionment, that sum of money that our church sends to the conference and district and combined with the money collected by every other charge, we are able to provide for ministries in needed areas which are decided on by representatives of each charge at the “Annual Conference.” The apportionment is the “lifeblood” of the connectional system. It grounds the churches in the reality of their connection to the rest of the churches in the conference.
Our Book of Discipline, which is basically the constitution of the church, states that “Connectionalism in the UM tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust. Our connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.
All this is not for its own sake. As the retired Bishop Kenneth Carder of Mississippi once said, “Polity is Ecclesiology”, or in simpler terms, the way we structure the church gives us insight on what we believe the church represents in the world. The connectional ideal is grounded in the very scriptures that we read today. We hear that Jesus wishes us to be “One, as the Father and I are one.” We also are familiar with Paul’s referral to the church as a body, and that as he says in Ephesians, “We are members, one of another.”
Paul speaks about the unified ideal of the church, and it is obvious that through a healthy and vibrant connection, we are more capable of reaching the goals of this earthly representation of the Body of Christ, in which we aspire to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
In my own experience, the connectional church has indeed promoted the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Most of you know that as a minister in his first three years of ministry, I am in what is called he “probationary process.” This is administered by the Oklahoma conference to assure the people of its churches that it is served by a competent clergy. In this process, I have been involved in a group with other probationers and two retired clergy who are our mentors which meets about once a quarter. It has been very helpful for me to have these mentors and peers to talk with about my struggles, joys, and new insights as I am called to be the best pastor I can be. This kind of process would not be in place if we didn’t belong to a connectional church, where the pastors of UM churches in Mounds and Muskogee and Talequah and Muldrow all care very deeply and pray for my blooming ministry right here in Morris.
Perhaps one of the most visible and impacting aspects of the “connectional church” is the iteneracy. Though it may sometimes be a reason you lament being a United Methodist, you are served by an “itinerant” clergy. One who comes and lives in and serves this community along side you, but who remains a person “assigned” to this charge, and at the discretion of the Bishop and his cabinet may be reassigned to another “charge” within the Conference.
This method of organizing church leads to a very real sense of connection between the Methodist churches in one area because you are all served by the same clergy, and because we all contribute to one purpose—making disciples for Jesus Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul speaks of this same structure within the church. He writes, “Using the gift God gave me as a good architect, I designed blueprints; Apollos is putting up the walls. Let each carpenter who comes on the job take care to build on the foundation!11 Remember, there is only one foundation, the one already laid: Jesus Christ. 12 Take particular care in picking out your building materials. 13 Eventually there is going to be an inspection. If you use cheap or inferior materials, you'll be found out. The inspection will be thorough and rigorous. You won't get by with a thing. 14 If your work passes inspection, fine; 15 if it doesn't, your part of the building will be torn out and started over. But you won't be torn out; you'll survive - but just barely. 16 You realize, don't you, that you are the temple of God, and God himself is present in you? 17 No one will get by with vandalizing God's temple, you can be sure of that. God's temple is sacred - and you, remember, are the temple.”
When I started parish ministry, I had a dream that I was a kind of “traveling architect” who came upon a group of people building a house. In my dream, you—the church were the people working on the house, and the house was something very special, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on a particular style. The house was a unique kind of place, windows sticking out here and there, winding staircases and turrets, a large, welcoming front door, and a couple back doors. As I came up to the house and made my suggestions for other additions to the house, you scratched your head and surveyed the plans, you shared your tools with me and we began building.
It became clear to me that you, the church, had been welcoming other “traveling architects” like me for quite some time, which was why this place was so unique. After reading this passage from Corinthians the other day, it struck me that the building that we are working on is literally God’s Temple—Not a physical structure, but the wonderful temple which is YOU according to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
With an itinerant clergy, you may sometimes feel like a watering hole for clergy to pass through and offer their “two cents.” But if we pay attention to Paul’s metaphor, we see that we are indeed building a very unique and beautiful house—one that God can live in. A house that has welcoming doors and lots of windows. We should pay attention to the building materials that we use, because we want this house to stand the test of time—and it will endure some trials. However, with our connection, with the input of all those traveling architects, the Spirit will lead us to build on solid foundations.
One thing I really love are the great cathedrals of Europe . Some of us have been privileged to have stood under their great lofty domes and felt our spirits soar to the heights. Imagine the work of the first builders, learning how to keep those domes aloft. It was trial and error.
Did you know that the great dome of the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople collapsed twice before the builders learned how to do it right? But the cathedral builders gradually learned about arches and flying buttresses. They learned that the more structural connections you make, the stronger the building, the more structural connections, the larger and more expansive the dome. Just as for our greatest cathedrals, the same is true for the living body of the church as well. The more structural connections there are, the stronger the mission. The more connections there are, the larger and more expansive the witness.
And another thing about the great cathedral builders: they labored and labored on a project that would take longer to construct than they had to live. The cathedral builders were willing to give their lives to something that they would never see completed. This is the meaning of doing something “for the glory of God.” When we are committed to beauty and goodness truly for the sake of God, we commit ourselves to the fruition of that endeavor even when we are very confident that we won’t taste the fruit of our labors. This is what it means to struggle for the kingdom of God. Our training in this “instant gratification” culture may dissuade us from committing ourselves to such things, but we have faith in Christ that someday our efforts on behalf of the Kingdom of God will bear fruit. By connecting ourselves with others engaged in that task, we build bigger and grander Temples for God. When we join our voices with others, our witness echoes longer into the future.