What's the Plan?, John 20:21
First United Methodist Church, September 9, 2016
Pastor Toni Carmer
How would you define church?
Some of us would describe a physical place. We could say it's a brick and mortar building where we come to worship God. We might describe this downtown building of ours, or we might think of those beautiful little churches in the countryside or in the hills that we see in calendars—beautiful, pastoral scenes.
We might think of church as a gathering place…a place where we come together to be with friends, to learn more about our faith, to spend time with good people who care a lot for each other and for the world. We might think of church as a place where people work together in mission and outreach…caring for people out in the community, planning events, going on work teams, organizing meals, bringing people together in this setting so they might be more inclined to come worship, to get to know us better…
Perhaps church is a place where we find strength…courage…hope. We might think of it as a place where we can find "something more," something deeper…a greater purpose. Perhaps church is a place where we can find an answer to some of our questions…or find peace when there are no good answers…
Church means different things to each of us, and perhaps is important to us in different ways at different times of our lives. As a child, as a teenager, as a young adult, as a parent, as a middle adult, an older adult—our needs change and we hope in each of those times we can turn to the church and it will be here for us…
With these things in mind, it isn't so hard for us to think about what our desire is for our church. We want it to meet our needs, and the needs of others who gather here, and we feel sad or hurt when we think that perhaps the church has fallen short in doing that. We don't want anyone to go away feeling lost or disappointed. We want to be our best selves! But perhaps there is an even bigger question for us to consider: what is God's desire for our church? What do you suppose is on God's heart as God looks at us and sees our life together, our ministry, our community, our possibilities? Who might God see within our possible circle of influence that we don't? Who might be walking through this world…through life…alone—who we might begin to walk alongside?
What is God's desire for our church?
This Fall we're going to be spending some time considering who we are and who we're called to be as Christians and what we might need to do in order to be more effective as Christ's church here in Plymouth, Indiana. We're not doing this because I've noted some deficiencies we ought be dealing with, or because we've become ingrown and insensitive to the needs of the world. Not at all. This is a good place and we are good people. I love you and I'm so thankful for you and for all that you do and for the way you care for one another and for others in this community and beyond. You have a heart for the sick, the poor and the lonely. When I asked if you would serve communion each month to those who are shut in, in nursing homes, you took care of it. Many of you are actively engaged in Bible study, in mission and in outreach. You really do want to make a difference and I love being your pastor and serving alongside you. But I think it's important to take a look at ourselves in the mirror now and then, to make sure that we've not grown too comfortable in what we're doing now, and to make sure we're seeing all that is before us. The world is changing, and to me it can sometimes be a confusing and frustrating place. But that makes it even more important, I think, for the church to step up and to step out…to be an example, to be a witness for good…for God. I'm not willing to let go of my belief that the church is the hope of the world. There is no other Savior. And so we as the Church, as Christ's Body need to be courageous enough to look at ourselves and to consider what we might better do to reach a new generation for Christ.
In the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, we read of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds that his body is gone. She runs to Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, they investigate and return to the place where they were staying, with no real answers, no definitive understanding. Mary remains at the tomb, sees the angels and then Jesus, who she recognizes when he says her name.
That evening, Jesus appears to the disciples and stands among them. He offers the usual Hebrew greeting to them, "Peace be with you!", which is a word of grace to them, who most likely would have expected a scolding from him after having fallen asleep in the garden and then fleeing when the soldiers arrive to arrest him. Instead, Jesus shows them the nail holes in each of his hands and the wound on his side, in case they have any doubt that it is truly him. He again says to them, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." Then he breathes on them, giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Like those first disciples, you and I have been given a task: we are being sent out from this blessed place to do God's work, and we have been equipped—with the power of the Holy Spirit. God does not call us to do something beyond our ability to do as we embrace and claim this amazing gift.
Yes, the world has changed since that day. The world has changed since you and I first joined the church, no matter how recently or long ago that might have been. It's changing all the time…but the Word of God remains relevant, the power of God's Holy Spirit remains available, and people still need to hear the message of love and grace that Jesus has to offer/that we as the Church have to offer.
Are we willing to do that? To open our eyes a little wider? To step out a little further? To trust the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us? And then to live out and proclaim that Word and that call?
Just a couple of months before our church embarked on the journey of The Story, spending 32 weeks reading and studying and preaching our way through the Old and New Testaments, we were challenged by our conference leadership to read and study this book: Shaped by God's Heart: the Passion and Practices of Missional Churches by Milfred Minatrea. I knew it was a good book because I had read it as a part of Fruitful Congregation Journey, but it wasn't the time for us.
Now it is, and I'd like to invite you if you'd like, to read the book along with me as we talk about it on Sunday mornings. You can get the book on Amazon or Cokesbury, and if you'd like us to order it through the church office we can do that. Just let me know. There's a reading/preaching schedule for September in this month's newsletter, and once you start, you'll see that we're reading one chapter a week in succession and highlighting some parts that are particularly relevant to us on Sunday mornings. If you want to be involved in a conversation about the book and don't already attend Sunday School, the Good Samaritan Class in the lower level is working through the book together. They meet at 9:30. If you'd rather not read the book, that's fine, too. You'll still find Sunday morning's to be worshipful and important as we consider our mission as the church in our world today.
So, there are several options available for you.
The first 2 chapters that we’ve been talking about this morning in a general way differentiate a “missional” church from one that supports missions. A “missional” church according to Minatrea is a “reproducing community of authentic disciples, being equipped as missionaries sent by God, to live and proclaim His Kingdom in their world.” It has less to do with what we’re doing “in here”/inside the walls of the church, and has more to do with what we’re doing out in the world. It’s about coming into this place for worship, for learning and community-building, but that’s not where it ends; in a missional church the primary task isn’t to serve the faithful who are already a part of the church’s membership, but it is turning outward into the community and reaching those who don’t know Jesus yet. It’s loving, witnessing, inviting and including; it’s making new disciples, mentoring/discipling/growing together in faith, and then serving alongside one another, again turning outward, and doing it all over again…
It’s easy for us to get “mission-minded” and “missional” confused. If we were asked if our church is “missional” we would say yes, of course we are! Missions are an important part of what we do here. Members of our congregation pray and give so that others can go and serve. We know that not everyone can travel to Henderson Settlement, to Mission Guatemala or to the Midwest Distribution Center. Many would like to go but can’t, and so our members pray, give, take part in fundraisers so others can go, representing our church…that’s a good thing! And it is.
In a missional church, people pray and give so others can go and serve, as well…but for them, missions is more centered in “being and doing” than “sending and supporting.” Although some may be supported and sent to other places, every member of the church is “sent out” from these walls. Every member is seen as a missionary, who shares the love of Christ—being a witness to his love and grace, accepting the opportunity when it’s offered to tell others about Jesus in whatever situation we find ourselves.
Missions isn’t one part of a church’s DNA, but it is it’s DNA…
Here’s a summary of the differences between a mission-minded church and a missional church:
The mission-minded church emphasizes sending and supporting; the missional church emphasizes being and doing.
The mission-minded church is representative; the missional church is participative.
The mission-minded church perceives mission as one expression of its ministry; the missional church perceives mission as the essence of its existence.
Its more than about us, it’s about others: it’s reaching out…it’s turning outward…its seeing our neighbors…it’s inviting our neighbors in…it’s welcoming them, loving them, mentoring them, and sharing ministry alongside them…and doing this will ultimately transform our world.
The March 28, 2018 Christian Century includes this submission by Joel F. Huntington from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He writes:
Fifty years ago our small city was thriving and growing, and our church's front doors welcomed 500 people each Sunday. When I arrived 28 years ago, the city was in decline and people were leaving. The congregation had a solid, faithful core, but weekly attendance had diminished to about 70. Questions about the church's viability have persisted ever since.
At the same time something fascinating has been happening. It's now the rear door of the church that welcomes 500 people each week—to our large pantry. Adding to this total are dozens of volunteers from assorted walks of life, mixing in with our lay leaders.
Along with being the pastor of the church, I am now chaplain to this new, different kind of congregation. Communion is administered in a host of ways by those who sense they are doing something tender and deep. The word of faith is expressed in countless human connections—connections warm and kind, as well as complicated and confusing at times, as lines of difference are crossed again and again. To be in this space with the eyes of faith is to be in a kind of bright light that disorients and reorients, where the hum of many voices sounds like the constant murmur of prayer.
The door at the right side of the church, unused for many decades, has been upgraded and now receives 10,000 pounds of food each week. A hearty team of volunteers, some of whom have walked through the doors of prison and recovery many times, roll heavy laden carts through this refurbished doorway.
The door on the left side, where many community groups enter the building now also welcomes those trying to change the conditions that cause so much pain and struggle. Our countywide interfaith community organizing effort works together to find more resources for food, improve public transportation, deepen support for immigrants, and strengthen our faith communities.
Fifty years ago everybody seemed to understand what a church was, and most entered through the front doors. Today the risen Christ seems to be beckoning us to go outside, into the bright sunlight. Many of us stand in this new light trying to see more clearly what is in front of us, balancing a bit unsteadily between the old and the new. The church I serve is leaning through a doorway, gradually dying to the past, and in hope, deepening its identity in Christ.
Our world has changed. But God's word has remained relevant and true.
We've been given a task…a mission: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." The Holy Spirit empowers us.
May we be courageous as we do his work in this time and place.