God Moves In

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“Before the creation of the world,” Ephesians tells us, God had a plan.

Before you made plans to join us here in worship at Immanuel.
Before the star in the sky led the Magi to Bethlehem.
Before the prophets first heard the voice of God.
Before the moon and the stars were set in the sky.
Before everything!
While “the earth was without shape or form” as the first words of the Bible tell us…
And while “the Word was with God and the Word was God” as John proclaims…
There. Was. A. Plan.

What kind of a plan was this?
If we look to the root of the word used here in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, oikonomia, we find that it describes the administration of a household or an estate.
It’s the same word we find at the root of ecology and economy.
It describes how something is held together… the rules that govern how it functions, what sustains it, how it thrives.
So Paul is telling us that from the very beginning, God had a plan for how all of creation, God’s household, was going to work.
God wanted to bring everything – from the highest heights of heaven to the deepest crevices of the earth – together and to make a home among us.
And God’s plan was made known to us in Jesus Christ.

In these weeks leading up to Christmas here at Immanuel, we have been exploring God’s love for all of creation.
When we open up our bibles to the very first chapters, we discover this plan of God’s was already set in motion.
For six days, God was building, creating, and giving life to all things in the heavens and on earth.
And God looked around and saw that it was all very good.
And then God rested.

Now, I have to admit to you. Typically, when I think about God resting, I imagine that God goes back to wherever God has come from… leaving earth to go and take a day off.
After all, that is how we treat Sabbath, isn’t it?
The day we get away from everything?
Turn off the work email… veg out in front of the television and watch Netflix… get away from everyone and go fishing or golfing?

But, what if we have it all wrong?
What if the Sabbath is part of God’s plan?
What if in that moment of rest, God is with us?

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes Sabbath as a time when God “begins to ‘experience’ the beings he has created… He adopts the community of creation… He allows them to exist in his presence. And he is present in their existence.” (God In Creation, page 279)
God-with-us. Immanuel.
God creates us and on the Sabbath day of rest and presence, heaven and earth are one.
That’s why we are called to honor the Sabbath and make it holy.
Because whenever we truly stop to rest and worship and simply be in God’s presence, we are participating in that amazing plan set in motion before the stars were put in the sky.
We remember that God has already moved into the neighborhood.

If we are honest with ourselves, however, we know that is not how we usually keep the Sabbath.
In fact, throughout human history, the people of God have often forgotten the presence of God in their midst.
We turn our backs on God.
We seek our own will.
We make mistakes and fail in our humble striving.
But God is not content to be driven out of our lives.
God refuses to be turned away.
God has a plan, remember, and so God acts over, and over again, in ways that bring heaven and earth together.
After all, as John’s gospel tells us, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” (John 1:5)
And so God heard the cries of the oppressed and rescued them and brought them into the land of milk and honey.
And so God called the people of faith over and over again through the words and actions of the prophets.
And then God acts by coming in really close… diving in deep to all of the mess and the struggle, the pain and sorrow of our human worldly lives.
As we moved away from God, God moves towards us.
The Word became flesh.

And it happened in a particular life, in a particular time, in a particular place.

Now… I don’t want to ruin the Christmas story for you… but I’ve come to realize that we’ve been telling it wrong.
And I think when we hear this story again, put back into its context and place, in many ways the story of Christmas becomes all the sweeter and more meaningful.

You see, as we read in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem to parents who really weren’t anyone important. And Mary “wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.”
When you look back to the original koine Greek, it says katalyma. This was a place where travelers spent a night… and while it could have referred to an inn, it was used to describe “the sleeping area in a single-room Palestinian peasant home” or a guest space in such a house.
The homes in Bethlehem would have had one large living space and if they were lucky, they might have had a smaller private room set aside for guests.
There would have been an area by the entrance where animals were brought in at night to keep them safe and warm.
And that large multi-purpose room would have not only had places to sit and eat and cook… but also mangers, built out of wood or hollowed out of the ground, where straw for those animals were kept.

The scene reminds me a lot of Christmas celebrations among either sets of my grandparents. You see, my dad was one of five kids and my mom was one of seven kids and the holidays were always a big deal. Everyone would come back home and the grown-ups would get the bedrooms that they slept in as children, but the grandkids would all pile together in the living room with sleeping bags and pillows. If you had to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you had to take care not to step on one of your relatives!

If we peered back into Bethlehem on that night long ago, instead of a cold and lonely couple huddled in a shed, we probably would have discovered Mary and Jospeh surrounded by family… in fact, maybe a bit too crowded by family – remember, Luke says there wasn’t room in the guest room. Everyone had come to town to be registered in the census so aunties and uncles and cousins galore would have been packed into the room together.
And right there in the midst of it all – in a normal home, in an everyday life, in the midst of community and the animals, Christ was born.
God moved into the neighborhood.

I think the most powerful statement of the incarnation is the reminder that right here… on this earth, among all of creation, surrounded by our community, is where we are redeemed.
God’s plan is not that this earth will waste away and we will be whisked away to some far off heaven.
No… in Jesus Christ all things in heaven and on earth will be brought together.
Right here is where salvations shows up.

As we have been leading up to this day, this time of worship, when we remember the birth of Christ, we have also been looking ahead to a moment that is yet to come.
For, we are still waiting.
This morning, I prayed for two colleagues who lost their mothers yesterday.
This world is still filled with disease and struggle and this might be the last Christmas we celebrate with certain loved ones.
We even remember that places like Bethlehem are today places of conflict and strife.
God’s plan isn’t complete yet.

So as people of faith, we are also looking ahead to that day of new creation when the kingdom of God is made known.
John tells us that the light shines in the darkness and has not been overcome by it… and when we keep reading to the Revelation, we find hope in the words that “death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying or pain anymore… There will no longer be any curse… Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them.” (21:4, 22:3,5)
At the climax of all times, when the plan is fully complete, the heavens and earth will be brought together and God will make a home among us.

The Letter to the Ephesians may seem like a strange text to share together on Christmas Eve, but for me it is a reminder that the promises we hope for can already be experienced right now. Paul’s words here remind us that while the plan isn’t quite yet complete… it has already become a reality within the church.
You see, from the moment the heavens opened and the angels began to proclaim the birth of our Messiah, we have been invited to participate and respond to the kingdom of Glory.
Shepherds left their flocks to search out the baby in the manger.
Magi traveled great distances to greet the newborn King.
Fishermen would leave their boats to follow the Messiah.
Rich men like Zacchaeus gave away their wealth.
Scholars like Paul set aside everything they thought they knew about God to discover the message all over again and then carried it across the world.
The ripples from the birth of that one moment built the church, the Body of Christ alive in this world today.
Friends, you and I are that body of Christ right here and right now.
And as Ephesians 2 tells us, “we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.”
We have been adopted into God’s household, filled up with the Spirit of God, and called to imitate Christ wherever we go.
So fall on your knees in this time of worship.
Remember that God set the stars in the sky and the ground beneath our feet.
Imagine the birth of that child in Bethlehem.
And ask how God is inviting you today to love one another and to bring peace and joy to all who struggle.
Because it is through you… and you… and you… that the presence of God can be known in this neighborhood today, and tomorrow, and the day after that.
YOU are also God’s plan for this world.

The Gift of Joy

How many of you are happy all the time? Every waking minute of your lives? C’mon now… raise your hands! No one? No one at all?

How many of you are joyful? How many of you have the joy of the Lord in your heart every day? Maybe a few?

This morning – we have the blessed opportunity to remember the Spirit’s gift of JOY in our lives. This IS the day that the Lord has made, so let us rejoice and be glad in it… Let us pray.

The first question that comes to my mind when we think about this thing called joy is: What is it? In the scriptures, we read about joy all the time. We hear familiar scriptures about how we are supposed to rejoice always, about how the faithful break out into joyful song and shouting… but really… what is that allusive thing called joy… and how do we experience it?

Let’s take a journey back into time and revisit one of those familiar stories from our childhood. Shari has already reminded us of this tale of adventure and miracle, as Moses led the people through the waters of the Red Sea.

I want you to imagine yourself for just a second as one person among the masses of people waiting there on the edge of the water. You are tired, you are completely out of your element, and suddenly you realize that the very people you are escaping from are about to over take you. You can see the dust from their chariots rising up into the sky and they are coming closer… and closer… and you are camped by the water and there is no where to run.

Are you experiencing joy? Do you have any sense of happiness pouring through your veins? Probably not.

But then, something amazing happens. Behind you, there on the edge of the water, Moses raises up his arms and the winds start to blow. And though you can hardly believe your eyes, the waters are pushed to the side by this blustery breeze and a path of dry ground begins to appear in the midst of the sea.

The people around you begin to shout and Moses commands you to move through the water and fearfully at first, but then in absolute wonder you pick up your pack and move. It is a long journey across, but something propels you. There were signs and wonders done back in Egypt, but this is something else. These walls of water that surround you and threaten to fold in any minute is proof – is a witness – to the fact the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is with you!

Tired you reach the other shore and turn yourself around to see how far you have come. Your people are still making their way across, but they are making it! And that is when you realize the Egyptians have reached the other shore and are about to come through that same miraculous path that was just your salvation.

But then it happens. That strange pillar of cloud and fire that has been traveling before you and behind you descends upon the Egyptians and their chariots get stuck in the mud. They fearfully turn to make a retreat, but the last of your people have reached the shore and Moses steps up to the waters and in an instant, the sea covers the Egyptians and leaves you safely on the other side.

What do you feel now? Standing there in the awesome presence of God’s mighty works… what comes to your heart… go ahead – shout out the first thing that comes to your mind!

As Shari helped us to remember, the first thing the Israelites did was sing… they sang a song to the Lord saying: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation”

This song of praise is but the outpouring of joy in the lives of these people. They have witnessed first hand “God-with-them” and like the hymn we just sang… Joy to the World… in the presence of our God, joy fills our hearts.

In Greek – the word for joy is chara which comes from the word “charis” which means grace. Joy is not a state of emotional happiness… joy does not come from within or from other people or from things… joy is the experience of the presence of our God.

That’s not so hard to believe, is it? As King David pours out his heart in the scriptures, he reminds us that he is filled with joy in God’s presence (Psalm 16). As Paul writes to the Philippians from a prison cell – he knows he is surrounded by God’s presence and so he is able to say “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)

The joy that comes into our lives by the grace and presence of God is not the happiness of this world. For in the midst of some of our most painful and trying and difficult times – in the midst of times of grief and sorrow and tears… sometimes that is when joy surrounds us.

Joy comes to us in those dark times when we recognize that the Spirit of the Lord is still with us. Standing on the edge of the Red Sea, looking back and recognizing their salvation… the Israelites sang for joy. Standing at the graveside of a loved one and yet feeling the comfort of God’s presence – we find the strength we need to sing out of joy a song like How Great Thou Art. In the midst of a battle for health, when all else seems dim, we know that we are surrounded by prayer and by God’s spirit and so a smile does come to our face and laugher does echo across the room.

William Wordsworth wrote about being “surprised by joy”–when the grief and pain from his daughter’s death vanished and for a moment he forgot she was no longer with him. He experienced this amazing feeling of joy and it so overwhelmed him that he turned around to share it with his beloved daughter – only to remember again that she was gone. While the poem is about the grief that he feels nearly constantly… even that dark grief and longing is broken into and light could pour into his heart – even if for a moment – because of joy.

C.S. Lewis took that phrase from Wordsworth and he wrote a book describing his conversion to Christianity called Surprised by Joy – in which he pointed to his “accidental discovery and consequent search for the phenomenon” that he came to know as “JOY.” In Lewis’ mind – joy was something akin to the idea of longing… an experience of something so good and so unattainable that it could not be explained.

Joy is what we experience when we know we are in the presence of God. And joy is also our longing to know that presence of God more fully – each and every moment of our day.

So maybe the question that remains is: why aren’t we joyful every minute of every day?

Let’s go back to that familiar story of Moses and the Israelites and the Red Sea. Because, it’s easy to end the story there and have it all wrap up nicely and neatly. God saved the day and the people rejoiced! YAY!

But, this is not an episode of Veggie Tales Tthis is not some isolated story. . Chapter 15 in Exodus goes on with verse 22: Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went for three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. (which is Hebrew for bitter) 24And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’

Three days. Just three days of walking into the desert and already the Israelites have forgotten what God did at the Red Sea. Just three days in the wilderness and they forgot that God was with them. They forgot that God was on their side. The songs of joy in their hearts drifted into songs of despair.

Now, I don’t know about you… but if I learn a new song – it gets stuck with me for quite some time. I think I’ll be singing those VBS songs about God being my hero for weeks to come. In just three days, could they really forget the presence of God?

Apparently they could. And I must acknowledge, apparently we can, too. No matter how beautiful the sunrise is in the morning – sometimes I forget the joy of the Lord by lunchtime. Other things of this world crowd into my mind and my heart and I let the presence of God go unnoticed in my life.

The Israelites began thinking of their calloused feet and their dry lips and the weight of their packs and they thought less and less about how God traveled with them. And so when they reached a place of water and it was bitter, it was the last straw. They sat down and threw a temper tantrum. What are we going to drink?!?!

And in the midst of their despair, they were reminded again of the presence of God. Moses cried out and God showed him a piece of wood, and when Moses threw the wood into the water, the water became not only drinkable… but sweet.

When we believe that God has left us… and when we forget his presence, then joy is not our friend. As Jesus prepares his disciples for his death, that is his reminder. In John, chapter 16, Jesus tells them very plainly that when he is gone from their sight at his time of death – they will weep and mourn. There will be no comfort for them… because everything they think they know about him will have vanished… But that pain would turn into joy for very shortly they would see him again.

In the presence of God, we experience joy. Our hearts are filled with the knowledge that the one who made us is with us… that the one who saved us stands beside us… that the one who loves us leads us on to perfection.

We may not always see God. We may not always recognize God’s presence. But open up your hearts and mind… sit still for just a moment and you will know that God is with you – and you will rejoice.

Amen and Amen.

Becoming Discples through: Presence

This week I planted my first ever vegetable garden. Now, I have helped my parents and grandparents in the garden many times, but this is the first time that these beautiful plants are all my responsibility.

I’ve prepared the ground. I dug little holes and planted the seeds and the seedlings. I have watered my garden and I’m waiting anxiously for sprouts to appear. And more than anything – I’m waiting for the fruits of my labor, the work of my very own hands – carrots and tomatoes and cucumbers and all of the other wonderful things that I planted.

I guess with all of this blood, sweat and tears… yes, I have the blisters on my hands to prove it… it might come as no surprise that I’m resonating a little bit with the vinedresser from our mornings gospel reading.

But can I also say that I am terrified that I am going to make a mistake? What if I don’t water the plants often enough? Or water them too often? What if I get busy and forget about weeding for a few days and pull up the sprouts with the weeds? As I begin to think about all of the ways that I could possibly fail in this gardening task, any bit of that pride starts to slip away as I realize how human I am, and how not like God the vinedresser.

As I thought about that garden in my backyard this week, I also got to thinking about another garden that I’m a part of – another garden that I am tending.

A pastoral theologian named Margaret Kornfeld talks about the congregation, the church, as a garden that needs to be tended. In her book, Cultivating Wholeness, she shares how we are all grounded in communities of care – or in the case of this church, a particular community of care. Using the work of theologian Marin Buber, she says “we can live together… because of our relationship to God who is at our Center. Through this relationship, community is formed… because of our relationship to God at the Center, we are connected to each other. However, it is not the community members’ connection to each other that comes first, but the quality of relation with the Center.”

In other words… our church – this Body of Christ is a garden. And we are all connected to one another not because we live in the same place, or attend the same church, or even like the same things… but we are all connected to one another because of our relationships with God. Christ is the vine, we are the branches.

In some ways, I help to tend this garden. I am here to love and care for you. I’m here to nurture you and help organize you into rows and to lead the tendrils of this particular vine up a stake so that it can grow better – to give the vine direction and guidance.

But there is one part of my job that is a little harder to understand and talk about… what to do about dead and dying branches.

Today, as we think about what it means to be a member of this body of Christ, we look at the second of our vows: we vow to support the ministries of the church through our presence.

As we think about how important our presence is in the community, let me tell you a parable about a gardener who had a plot of cucumbers.

This gardener had been very careful to select the best seeds, and plant each one at its proper depth. He fertilized and watered the plants, he worked the soil faithfully each week to prevent weeds from encroaching and he sprayed to prevent bugs and blights from afflicting the young plants.

The season was a good one – just the right amount of rain and sunshine, and on the vines appeared broad green leaves and in due course the blooms. It looked magnificent.

One day he noticed that here and there certain leaves were dying, certain blooms fading. Most of the leaves remained a healthy glossy green, but scattered among them were those turning brown. Why, he wondered, would some die in the midst of all the living? So he investigated.

Stepping carefully among the tangled mass of vines he traced the ones on which the leaves and blooms were dying, until he found that they were all connected to a single stem. There, just above the ground, cut-worms had severed the stalk. The entire vine above that point was dying because it was no longer attached to the roots and the stem that had produced it.

As I thought about this topic of presence, I realized that in many ways I would be preaching to the choir this morning… Most of us who would be here in the church today are already people who are connected to the congregation and to one another in one way or another. You are the healthy, glossy green leaves.

So in some ways, this message is a reminder about why we need to be present, why we need to abide in Christ, why we need to remain connected to the vine.

That parable of the cucumber plant reminds us that we will die spiritually, that we are incapable of producing fruit, when we are not attached to the vine, or when we are not connected to the roots which nourish us. And the vine that we need to be connected to is Christ – the Christ we meet in worship, the Christ we meet in fellowship, the Christ we meet in God’s Word, the Christ we meet in the face of the stranger.

It also reminds us that when we are attached we will naturally produce fruit. I did some reading and found out that the best grapes closest to the vine, “where the nutrients are the most concentrated.” (Nancy Blakely) In fact, growers of grapes know the importance of pruning, because the farther away from the vine the grapes are, the more bitter and the smaller they are. But close in, close to the heart of the vine, abiding near the heart, they find the nourishment they need and produce bountifully.

This is what the abiding we read about in John and 1 John is all about. “Here, up close to the vine, immersed in [God’s love and peace], we find not only nourishment but also hope and joy, and we let God’s word ‘find a home in us through faithful devotion…. ‘When we remain that close to Jesus, we attuned to him and he to us, the remarkable result is that what we want will be what God wants, and it will surely come to pass.’” (Kate Huey’s lectionary reflection with Nancy Blakely)

In some ways, this is a deeply personal process, as we grow closer to God in our private prayers and devotional life. But it is also deeply communal. Because Christ is not a million little vines that each of us find a place to connect to – but one true vine, one true body – and abiding in Jesus means that we also need to be in deep relationship with one another. Perhaps this is why the image of the grapevine is so powerful… grapes do not grow as solitary fruits, but in bunches.

While our gospel reading focuses on the fruit that God will produce in us, if we remain connected to the vine, our epistle from this morning tells us what that fruit looks like: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

You know that old hymn, they will know that we are Christians by our love? This is in part where it comes from. Our love for one another, our presence with one another, and the WAY that we are present with one another, is a strong witness to the world that something different is going on in the church. We aren’t meant to go it alone.

No… Abiding in Christ is about loving our brothers and sisters… ALL of our brothers and sisters. If we are abiding in Christ, then we have the strength to love those in the church who we disagree with. If we are abiding in Christ, then we have the strength to reach out to those who have wronged us. If we are abiding in Christ, then we have the strength to love without fear even those who society might turn away.

We are called to be present – to be connected to the vine and because of the vine to one another. And when we are really connected, when we are abiding in God, the fruit of love will show forth.

Which leads me back to the dead and dying branches. Those leaves and blossom on the vine that are fading and turning brown.

My least favorite part of being a pastor, of being the church, is figuring out what to do about the dead and dying branches. Those people in our midst who are connected and present in name only – or perhaps who show up every so often but are not deeply abiding in the vine… who aren’t close enough to the vine to be filled with the spirit and with nourishment and with Christ’s love.

The church body has a process for “pruning” these dead and dying branches on the vine. Our Book of Discipline clearly states that it is the pastor’s responsibility for ensuring that each member of the congregation is living up to their vows to be loyal to Christ through the church and to faithfully participate by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service and their witness.

Now – of that whole list of things, the one that is the easiest to see people are not living up to is their presence. We don’t take attendance in church, at least we don’t check off names to see who is here and who isn’t – but we could. My clergy mentor told me that her congregation has a process where if you haven’t shown up for a month, you get a postcard in the mail. If you haven’t shown up for two months, you get a phone call. If you haven’t show up to any event in the church (and I’m not talking just about worship either) for three months, then you get a visit from the pastor.

Now, we don’t have a process like that here at the church, so I was interested to know how this was working out. What Pastor Karen also told me was that by the time they got to that first three month mark, she had so many people to visit that she didn’t know what to do!

Now, we could act like God the vinedresser and simple snip those dead and wilted branches off the vine, throw them in the fire and forget about them – just like I did with all of the dead hostas as I cleared out room for the new ones to grow this spring.

But I have to believe that a God who also talks about grafting might have a little bit more grace for some of our dead and dying branches.

Grafting is a process where a branch can be attached to the trunk and roots of another tree – in many cases, different types of trees and plants are connected together for hybridization and for strength and growth.

In the scriptures, Paul talks about the Gentiles being grafted on to the tree and the roots of Israel after some of the branches were broken off – the unfaithful among the people of Israel. And Paul writes to his gentile audience… “they were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith.… And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.”

None of us are perfect. All of us let things besides God into the center of our lives at one time or another. And there are many people in our congregation right now who are not connected to the vine, or who are being disconnected by the cut-worms of work or family or doubt.

I know that some of you have expressed concerns about how low attendance has been on some Sundays, or the fact that it seems like the same group of people are the ones who always show up for events or bible studies. I hear that. But what I hear from Paul in Romans is a word of hope. It is a reminder that even those branches that appear to be dead and dying have the ability to be restored by God’s grace.

What I have realized though, is that we can’t sit like a planted vine in a pot and wait for God’s grace to reconnect others to us. That is perhaps the limitation of the vine metaphor – it makes us think that we are supposed to be rooted and fixed in place.

But when we read our passage from John in context, we notice that right before our gospel reading for today, Jesus has finished dinner with his disciples and is getting ready to move. “Rise” he says, “Let us be on our way.” And then he starts into a long goodbye speech to his disciples, reminding them of everything that they need to know to continue on without him. This vine is not meant to be planted firmly in the ground, but is meant to move and be engaged in the world! (Kate Huey’s reflection, Charles Cousar)

Just as we take fellowship and God’s word to our homebound members who are unable to physically be present with us on Sunday mornings – or to our members who are residents at Rose Haven or those in the hospital, so too do we need to take the vine with us to those who are in danger of being cut off.

I want to challenge us as a church to go as the hands and feet of Christ and perhaps be the reconnection point for someone that you know. It might be your own son or daughter. It might be a friend. It might be a neighbor who hasn’t been in a very long time. With God’s grace and strength flowing through us, simply sit with them for a while. Have a cup of coffee together. Ask how they are doing. And as a first step in this process of grafting, simply be present. Let the love of God that abides in you overflow into your love for them.

A few conversations down the road, maybe invite them to come to church with you one Sunday, or to a small group gathering. But for now, I want to challenge you to simply be present – to carry God’s abiding love and grace to those who you know are disconnected.

AND – I want you to tell me about it. Invite me to come along for a cup of coffee if you want. Help me to be a part of the process of tending and pruning and let me hold you accountable to continue in that relationship of simply being present.

Because we don’t do this whole faith thing alone. It takes all of us, living together in love to be the body of Christ in the world. We are not alone. Amen and Amen.

making members, making disciples

At my church, we have a pretty significant number of people who are “constituents” of our church and not official members. For various reasons, these people want to be an active part of our congregation but do not want to take the vows of membership and officially become United Methodist. And yet, many of those individuals are just as, if not more, active than the “members” of our church.

At School For Ministry last week, we talked a lot about making disciples, and very little about making church members. And at one point in the conversation, we actually admitted that we don’t really expect people to uphold their baptismal vows. If we did, we would have a structure for responding or holding people accountable to their choices. But we don’t. We baptize them, hold them in our prayers and pray to God that a seed we might have planted would take root.

Contrast that with early Christianity. Baptism was a process you only went through after years of formational training. I’m not sure that “membership” was ever the term used in that time, but certainly one could be excluded from the body for offenses until penance had been made. Confession of faith was extremely important.

Now, our church has very good reasons for upholding infant baptism. It says that baptism is a sign that God’s grace goes before us – even before we are able to respond. But… BUT… baptism is also supposed to be an act of the congregation as we together promise, covenant, commit ourselves to nurturing that baby in the Christian faith.

Perhaps it was because for such a long time, Christianity was just the norm that we lost touch of those promises. The congregation didn’t take seriously their role, because after all, this was a Christian nation and anyone who was raised simply by the culture would be brought up Christian. But that was a false presumption and it has led to whole generations of people who have been formed by the culture’s view of Christianity, rather than God’s view of culture.

So we make members. We ask people to join our club. And we count our success in ministry by the number of people we have on the rolls.

And there is nothing in there about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The big question for me is how do we start? How do I help my confirmation kids, or the baby who will be baptized this next Sunday – but whose parents do not even attend my church (her grandparents do), or the members of my congregation who think that simply by showing up once a month they are living out their commitments… how do I begin to show each of those groups of people that ideally, membership is a process of discipleship?

Let’s look first at the process of membership.

1) we ask people to renounce sin and profess their faith
2) the congregation promises to nurture one another in the faith
3) if someone has not been baptized, we do so
4) if it is someone who was baptized before and is now reaffirming their faith (new members or confirmands) we have a blessing over them.
5) we recieve people into the church with the following vow:
as members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its
ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness?
I will.

In our tradition, being a member means taking on those five responsibilities.

And to be honest – I think that they are good commitments to make. I believe that they can be disciple making activities. But the big disconnect is the part where it says “its ministries.” We expect that all of this disciple making will happen in the congregation, or in some way connected to a ministry of the congregation. And it might not. It may be in a bible study at work, or in helping a neighbor, or partnering with community agencies to share your gifts. Our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness will be evidence of our growth as disciples… but we can’t let ourselves be limited to the church. We have to be disciples for the transformation of the world.

Maybe that is my starting place. As we baptise an infant next week, I need to uplift that it is our responsibility to help nurture her wherever in the world she may be. As we get ready to confirm our youth, I need to encourage them to be disciples wherever they may be. And as we go over these membership vows in teaching and preaching in the next five weeks – I need to remind people that this is their responsibility and commitment… and that we need to hold one another accountable to doing so in EVERY facet of our lives.


in college I took at least one class where I learned about Buddhism. and then in seminary, one of my favorite and most fulfilling classes was on Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

Even after my short entre into Buddhism, I’m not prepared to say if it is a religion or a philosophy like some will debate. I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching about it without a good resource to guide me.

But what I do know is that there are many parallels between what I learned and practiced in those experiences about the present moment and letting go of oneself that have kept coming back to me in the past weeks and months.

There is a Christian author Caussade (I believe) that I really want to read. He talks about living in the present moment and sees it as the only way to live fully into God’s providence. We cannot control the past and the future, we must trust that they are in God’s hands… but we can look to the ways in the ordinary and mundane that God is revealed to us.

As I sat down to type this, my cat hopped up onto my lap and curled into a ball and instantly began purring. Purring for cats is a way of expressing the need for or love of companionship. They will purr when scared or giving birth because those are moments that they need comfort, as much as they will purr when content. I think one of the points was that a cat who is alone will never purr out of happiness. It is an expression of the need for another.

How true is that of our lives as well. We need one another and we need God and even in the little ordinary things like a cat curled up in a lap, God’s will is revealed.