For the past couple of weeks, I’ve had this strange sensation in my neck. To me, it feels like my pulse is a bit off of rhythm, like occasionally it skips a few beats, or does a few too many in a row. It isn’t a constant thing, and it was pretty random until Thursday. On Thursday afternoon, this thing, whatever it was, happened multiple times all afternoon long. It doesn’t hurt, but it was kind of freaking me out so I got in to my doctor later that day.
They took my blood pressure, we did an EKG, and ran some blood tests. Everything came back perfectly normal and my physician isn’t concerned… aside that I need to exercise more.
While on the one hand, I’m comforted by the knowledge of what it isn’t, I also don’t necessarily have an answer either. I found myself yesterday second guessing the way I even described the problem. Maybe it’s not my pulse I’m feeling, but a twitch in my neck. Maybe it’s all in my head and I’ve just had too much caffeine.
As we enter this season of Lent, we are going to be exploring some of the ways that both the United Methodist Church and our congregation have found ourselves searching for explanations and diagnosis. And we are going to be honest about some of the symptoms that we see, the realities of our lives together.
In the larger denomination, we are in the midst of a time of disunity that really reflects the culture we find ourselves in. And the UMC is also numerically declining… we have lost a million members since 2006! But simply looking at those symptoms, like the strange feeling in my neck, doesn’t automatically tell us what the problem is. Is it that our older generations are dying out? Are we having less children? Is there too much competition? Are we irrelevant? Theologians and church leaders keep offering their explanations and no one seems to be able to put their finger on “the answer” to the problem.
Bishop Thomas Bickerton wrote the book that is the backbone of not only our worship series this Lent, but also our life group conversations we’ll be having. (Quick plug: if you haven’t signed up for one yet, you can join this morning’s classes at 9:45, go to Java Joes on Monday nights, or join the one here at the church on Wednesday evenings!) He thinks in many ways that we are like the church in Ephesus who had forgotten who they were called to be.
Our scripture this morning comes from a letter Paul wrote to this church and at this time, the church was just on fire for God. They had started as a small group of committed people and when Paul showed up and ministered among them, the Holy Spirit started working. God did amazing things through them… impacting the entire city. Temple prostitution, idolatry, magic, all of these things ended because people instead turned to Jesus. When the Ephesians experienced the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, God accomplished abundantly more than what those first twelve disciples in Ephesus could have asked or imagined!
Kind of like the United Methodist Church. We started with a small group of people at Oxford University who wanted to know God better. They were committed to the gospel and to Jesus and their faith took them across an ocean to start a church. John and Charles Wesley could never had imagined the way that God would use them, but their little bands started healing the sick, taking care of the poor, preaching to those who would never have set foot inside the church, and before you know it, the UMC was a world-wide denomination!
You would think that kind of energy can be sustained forever, but it takes work. We can get ourselves in ruts and we forget the power that got us started in the first place. In the letters to the churches of Revelation, one of them is written to the people of Ephesus and God praises the work and the labor and endurance of the people, but God also says that they have let go of the love they had at first. They are urged to remember the high point from which they had fallen.
Maybe the United Methodist Church, maybe our church, has let go of the love we had at first. Maybe, like the Ephesians, we have a spiritual problem.
Bishop Bickerton points to what he calls the “Five I’s” to help us discern a bit about our spiritual reality and where we might be lacking the love of God.
He notes that the church is a bit low on our INSPIRATION – that we tend to grumble and complain more than we focus on hope. We need to remember where God is leading us and get excited about it again!
He sense a lack of INTEGRATION between what we say and what we do. I actually have been fairly proud of Immanuel in this sense, because not only are we willing to talk about things that are happening in the world, but so many of you are out there caring for the homeless, visiting the sick, and living your faith.
Bickerton also points to the dangers of ISOLATION. Once you disconnect from a community, it is hard to find ways to become part of the group again. On the back table as you leave, you’ll notice some names and some cards. We want to reach out to folks whom we haven’t seen for a little while with a phone call or a card… and if you recognize a name out there and are willing to make a connection, take a card and put your name down!
The fourth I is INDEPENENCE. This world tells us that we have to do it ourselves, but the church reminds us that we are better together. We don’t have to do it alone because we all can do our part.
Finally, INVITATON. This is actually one of the goals of our church today. When we are excited and transformed by the work of God happening here, then we are going to want to pass it on, to reach out and bring people along with us.
At Immanuel, we have had a vision that has sustained us for the last four or five years. Say it with me: In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.
But one thing our leadership has realized is that we are called to not just be and exist and look to our past, but to continue actively working towards our future. What are we fighting for? also means What are we fighting to accomplish? What will be different because we have loved, served, and prayed? What is inspiring us to move forward? What is going to challenge us in a way that we simply can’t do it alone and need to invite others to join us?
As our leadership has discerned, we are feeling God pull is in a new direction and we are excited to share it with you over the coming weeks and months.
But the heart of the matter, the deep question that faces not just us, but the UMC, and the Ephesians, is whether or not we really want to tap in to the power of God. The love so strong, so wide, so long, so high, so deep, that God is going to do abundantly more than what we believe in our hearts is possible… if we know where we are going. If we know what we are fighting to accomplish.