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In order to expedite posting the worship services here on our website, we are reducing the transcript to just the scriptures used and the message. Union Grove UMC in partnership with Southland Books & Cafe, began holding Second Sunday Community Church in January 2023. Second Sunday Community Church takes place at 3 p.m. ET the second Sunday of every month, meets in-person at The Bird & The Book, and is also live-streamed on Facebook. Holy Communion is offered at every Second Sunday service. If you are worshipping on Second Sundays online whether during the live-cast or through on-demand viewing, you are encouraged to have bread and juice or wine available as you watch the service and to participate in communion just as if you are present with us.
God, open us to hear and receive your scriptures today as you would have us hear them, understand them as you would have us understand them, and to act upon them as you would have us act upon them.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
*Scriptures this morning are included in the message.
MESSAGE – Higher Love, Lonely People, and One More Reason
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer, and may you see fit to use me as a vessel from which you pour out your Divine Word.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. – Matthew 28:18-20”
Jenna Dewitt, editor, resource curator, and author of InvisibleCakeSociety.com, wrote, “There is no perfect church. There is no finished church. There is no easy fix for all that has been broken: the harm done, the doors slammed, the hate propagandized, the abuses covered up, the contracts violated, the legal and financial and spiritual divorces, the hearts aching and families ripped apart, the names called, lies spoken, the history we’d rather forget and the present we’re at war over and the future that looks a lot like grief.
But when I sing the hymns of my childhood, say the same communion liturgy I’ve had memorized all my life, see another baptism the way I was baptized at two months old and confirmations the way I was confirmed at 12, and welcome in new members across generations, I remember why this is home. The Advent wreath and Ash Wednesday cross. The cookouts and the choirs and the little tithes coming together to make a big tangible difference in the lives of real people we minister to. The hugs and handshakes that turn into dinners and hangouts where diverse ages, backgrounds, and orientations are met with honor and appreciation instead of hostile tension. The hearts that are fully engaged with putting their faith into action, whether that’s knitting prayer blankets or delivering supplies to the homeless or distributing free lunches or showing up to defend queer people at city council meetings or trans kids at school boards. The theology that never stops speaking grace, peace, and justice. The hope that doesn’t sugarcoat or promise what it can’t fulfill. The word love, love, love repeated in our sermons, curricula, songs, attitudes, and actions until all is made whole.”
In 2017 letter, the Bishops of the Western Jurisdiction wrote, “We dream of a United Methodist Church that is multicultural and inclusive, engaged in the life of its communities, with confident, effective lay and clergy leadership who, in diverse ministry settings, form disciples who live out the Good News of Jesus as global citizens.”
Those might seem like odd quotes to start this message, but … I came to Union Grove in July 2020 as its 40th pastor, walking into a church filled with the remnants of its 140+ year existence, and abandoned by the less than 20-member previous congregation who left because they could not abide the thought of possibly having to love and accept people they disapproved of. Collectively, unanimously, they decided to “leave the church.”
You may recall that mid-summer 2020, we were still in the first year of the pandemic and most churches were either still closed or in the early stages of finding ways to re-open. Because of the pandemic, Holston churches and their appointed pastors had moved their ministries online, a move that would, for Union Grove, be the source of a portion of its current congregation. The remainder of the congregation would be members who had left years earlier who decided to come back.
We re-opened Union Grove for in-person worship in May 2021, and the new congregation began to reimagine what Union Grove could be. Looking at its history which I have been working to piece together since my appointment here, what they reimagined is, in my opinion, a return to its original status as a congregation who advocated for social justice. In 1880 the congregation stood against the enslavement and oppression of African Americans. In 2021, the congregation made and continues to take a stand for a church that is inclusive and welcoming to all. A congregation that seeks and finds ways to serve its community, help one another wrestle with hard questions about God and their faith, and that continues to work to become better disciples and to extend the invitation to others. In other words, to carry out the mission of the United Methodist Church and then some.
Rev. Michael Beck, a Florida pastor and part of the Fresh Expressions team wrote about that mission earlier this summer: “The Risen Jesus, with all authority invested in him, leaves his followers a final mandate… “go make disciples.” This is the climax of Matthew’s Gospel. If the story ends with Resurrection and ascension, we have no mission, no church, and no healed world. If we are left only with an empty tomb, we are left with a historical event that is inaccessible to us now.
The charge of the church is to be a community that embodies the way, truth, and life of Jesus. It is not a book or a set of propositions, but a community. The community itself is an expression of the Trinitarian life of God. People are invited into the life of God through baptism and learning the way of Jesus through a relationship with his glorious and risen self.
The Methodist movement was primarily driven by laity, who preached, taught, worked against injustice, and led small groups. The small groups, society, class, and band meetings were disciple-making and multiplying engines for the movement.
The mission statement of The United Methodist Church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Implicit in the statement is a twofold assumption: discipleship and social transformation. We could think of it as a formula: if we “make disciples,” people who think, act, and love as Jesus did, we will get a better, more compassionate, more just society; making disciples = a transformed world. More people living in union with Jesus will make families, communities, and civilization as a whole, better.
The current form of the mission statement was revised at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. It is drawn from the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).
At first glance, the United Methodist mission statement seems to line up quite nicely with the commission of Christ. But did you notice an important word is omitted? Yep, you caught it, “go.” More specifically, the Greek “that which has already begun” or “to continue on the journey.” So, Jesus says, “Go out” or “As you go along the journey… make disciples.”
Omitting that single word from the mission statement creates a collapsed and incapacitated version of the mission. It warps and even misrepresents what Jesus actually said. With no “go,” we assume that discipleship involves “you come to us” and on our terms, at a time that we have decided, in a language we speak, and we will make you into a disciple. All the directional arrows are pointing inward. So, discipleship becomes programmatic, taking place in church buildings. How do we “make disciples” in this paradigm? Worship services, Bible studies, Sunday school, and serving on committees, apparently. If we complete the right discipleship curriculum, we get a shingle we can hang on a wall, “I’m a graduate-level disciple of Jesus.””
The article goes on to ask some questions:
- Does this really work?
- Has this approach really formed people to live, love, think, and act as Jesus did?
- Has it made people less racist or homophobic?
- Has it made them more generous?
- Has it made people less addicted, less isolated, less depressed, and less divorced?
- Has it really changed how people live and interact with others during the rest of the week?
- And if forming people in Jesus will “transform the world,” have we succeeded?
- Is society less politically divided, or has there been a decrease in poverty?
- Has our approach minimized gun violence and mass shootings?
- Has it curtailed the largest overdose epidemic in the history of the nation?
Many statisticians and sociologists would say the surface-level answer to these questions is overwhelmingly “no.” People who attend church regularly are not as a whole any less racist, homophobic, stingy, addicted, or divorced than people who don’t. Some of the most racist and mean people I’ve ever known in my life were sitting in my pews every Sunday. Many churches could completely disappear, and it would make no noticeable difference to the social fabric of the community. For people not currently connected to the church, the church has already disappeared for them.”
There is much truth in what those statisticians and sociologists say. To the local community who have chosen to disconnect from Union Grove, Union Grove has already disappeared … or possibly been shut out of their collective vision.
Keep in mind that Beck has written the article during a time when the “universal church” is experiencing a noticeable and notable decline in membership and many … especially smaller and smallest … churches are indeed closing their doors permanently; a period the deniers and detractors have declared a great falling away because the youth, young adults, and even some older members are walking out the doors with absolutely no intention of walking back in them after waking up to the toxic nature of all they’ve been taught by the churches they’re leaving.
On the other hand, many of us, especially those of us considered progressives see this time as a great emergence, a falling to what is, in my own opinion, the birth of the next version of what is known as Christianity and, also in my opinion and like the rebirth of Union Grove, a falling back to the original premise and purpose of Followers of the Way, Followers of Jesus.
Where those who cling to exclusivity see the current times as an assurance that “the end times and the second coming are upon us,” I and others see it as God simply winnowing the harvest of the Great Awakening. It’s as if God has ordered the angels to the threshing floor to free the grain from the chaff.
Those who cling to “how we’ve always done it” and continue to imagine God in their own image – hating all the people they hate, judging people the way they judge, gatekeeping the church doors to keep all the undesirables out believe they are the grain God is harvesting, and they are doing their utmost to plant their seeds of fear, shame, guilt, and exclusion, going so far as to orchestrate and coordinate a marriage at least and takeover at most of the government here and in other countries around the world.
I believe they’re wrong. Dead wrong. Dangerously wrong, and I pray their eyes, ears, and hearts are opened. I believe they are blinded by and have fallen victim to the very temptations the devil offered Jesus in the wilderness. I believe that and the new congregation here at Union Grove reinforces that belief.
What makes me believe that? I pay attention to what I see as the grain on the threshing room floor. I listen. I ask questions. I extend my peace, the peace Christ has left for me and for you and, because that peace is offered without coercion, without proselytizing, without condition, it is almost always accepted. And when I offer that same peace to those clinging to their exclusivity, their gatekeeping, their inerrant, infallible self-righteousness … it is always … let me repeat that always … declined.
NT Wright once said, “People often get upset when you teach them what is in the Bible rather than what they presume is in the Bible.” Lizz Ens Petters said, “Sometimes we get so caught up in certain theologies that we forget to love people.” And Kurt Vonnegut said, “You meet saints everywhere. They can be anywhere. They are people behaving decently in an indecent society.”
I watch and observe and listen and ask questions, and I see who is behaving decently in an indecent society based on what God admonishes repeatedly throughout the scriptures and what Christ spelled out in His gospel. I look to see who is standing in the gap, standing up for the marginalized, the oppressed, the outcast, who is working to free the prisoners of the culture wars. I look to see who is serving the least of these.
And it is those that I see as the grain of the harvest, the grain that I seek to gather from the threshing room floor, much to the chagrin and disapproval of the chaff of Imperial Christianity.
In his book, Into the Abyss: Discover Your True Identity in the Infinite Depths of Christ, author Mo Thomas tells a story about Michaelangelo. He writes, “The story goes that someone came upon Michelangelo staring intently at a block of marble, weighing well over six tons, and asked what he was doing. After a long pause, the artist replied that he was envisioning the sculpture that lay hidden within the stone, and was seeing all that was not part of the finished piece that he would need to chip away.
Two years later, the masterpiece was unveiled for the world to see—David, one of the most iconic pieces in all of art history. How? In simple terms, Michelangelo removed all the stone that was NOT David, so that the true image could emerge to match what had always been in his vision.
The work of the artist was to “release” David from its stone prison.
This is much like what God does with us.
The Artist comes to release us from the prison of our False Self identity, and free our true self to emerge. The stone prison is mainly unknown to us, lying deep within our subconscious mind, but God will never lose sight of Their vision of who we’ve been created to be.
This is our “un-becoming.”
But God does not come with hammer and chisel. Instead, They come to us disguised as our own lives, using our own experiences (whether good, disastrous, ugly, painful, or glorious) as the means by which They can release our Real Self from our mind-prison.
We are in process of becoming who we already are. Perhaps it’s better to say that we are un-becoming all we are not.
We are not known by our birth certificate, our childhood memories and photos, our current job, our family situation, or the image that stares back at us in the mirror.
I am more than my name, my stuff, my thoughts, experiences, sensations, beliefs, or feelings. Maybe most importantly, I am not a dirty, rotten sinner who is separated from a holy God because of my sin.
Who I truly am was established before any of these things, and will outlast all of them into the ages to come…”
Jesus spoke to the crowds knowing that most would not follow. He never demanded they follow. He never did things to try to force them to follow. He simply nurtured the few that did follow. He planted them as seeds and from them new crops sprang into life.
I believe strongly that those who are walking away are truly the grains of wheat on the threshing room floor, the “David” Michaelangelo released from the stone that held it captive.
I believe the religions people are leaving are the chaff that blows away as the grain is threshed and the chips of stone lying about the base of a statue their eyes failed to see.
As Marcus Borg wrote, “The point is not that Jesus was a good guy who accepted everybody, and thus we should do the same (though that would be good). Rather his teachings and behavior reflect an alternative social vision. Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system. He was a critic of the domination system itself.”
And as Beck writes in his article, ““So, our mission statement is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, right? So how do we ‘make disciples’?” Almost every time, there is a long pregnant pause. Crickets. Uncomfortable silence. The people in the room suspect they should know the answer. But they don’t. After a while, we bumble around and figure something out, but you would think if making disciples is the core purpose of an organization, the crystal clear why of our existence, we would have a clear process for how.
Can we put the “go” back in the Great Commission? Can we be the kind of church where the Holy Spirit can make disciples who transform the world again? Indeed, we can, we will, we are—right now…
“All over the world, tens of thousands of everyday Christians, mostly laypersons, are forming new Christian communities with people currently neglected or harmed by the church. These communities ordain people in the waters of their baptisms and form them to plant contextual churches in every nook and cranny of life. This is not a pipedream; it’s been happening, slowly building momentum since the Mission-Shaped Church report was released in 2004. On the twentieth anniversary of this work, we are seeing kingdom fruit and a reorganization of ecclesiology centered on the compassion of Jesus.
This motivation … flows from the life and ministry of Jesus himself, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36, italics mine). The Greek word for compassion, splanchnizomai, means to “be moved as to one’s bowels”; hence, to be moved with compassion. The bowels were thought to be the seat of love and mercy. So, Jesus has a gut-wrenching love that inspires him to act.
The why is simple… there are millions of people who are not connected to any church and never will be in its current form. They are not going to walk into Sunday morning worship no matter how we do it. These are people that we know and love, friends, colleagues, coworkers, family, children, and grandchildren, who will never know the precious gift of communal life in Jesus if we don’t go embody it with them.
The key to fulfilling this purpose is discipleship … For many, being a Christian can feel like playing soccer with no goalposts or basketball without a hoop. We run around for a while; it’s exciting and new, then we start to feel a growing sense that there must be more. We merge back into the crowd and get discipled by the world or our echo chamber news network. If the high points of our Christian life are going through a membership class, reading studies, and serving on committees, there are better things we can do.
Emerging generations have rejected this version of the Christian faith. We want to make a difference in people’s lives. We want to see our friends and loved ones well. We want to see communities healed. The “spiritual but not religious” new Protestant movement is a push against secularism that has edged God out of the picture (what Charles Taylor called the “imminent frame”), but it’s also a push against the mainline iteration of the church that seems more concerned with institutional preservation than living as Jesus did.
[We need to] “release discipleship from the “as you go along the journey make disciples” variety [and bridge] the gap between the church as a service you attend and a community that you belong to…
“It’s a compassionate way of being the church with people who will never come to church. The people involved in these communities find healing and grow as disciples of Jesus, offering that healing to others.
Beck advocates for the Fresh Expressions US movement within the United Methodist Church. He writes, “This is why Fresh Expressions UM exists. It is a distinctly Wesleyan Spirit-led movement of new Christian communities that serve the present age. Why do we need a unique Methodist expression of this movement? Because frankly, Fresh Expressions is the most Methodist thing in the world, since, well… Methodism! The movement is a recapitulation of the early Wesleyan revival that swept across the globe. As I wrote back in 2018, the Fresh Expressions movement is allowing Methodists to become vile again. It is enabling us to return to our roots as a renewal movement and awaken us from apostolic amnesia, to put the “go” back in the United Methodist mission.
If your heart aches for the people in your life who have no connection with a church—friends, coworkers, family, who have never experienced the precious gift that is communal life in Jesus— we invite you to join this grassroots revolution of a Methodism that “serves the present age.”
I would add the following to Beck’s article. If you are among those who have no connection with a church, who have left the church, who are still struggling to shed the toxic version of Christianity you may have been taught, who have been tossed out of the church because of who you are … I invite you … we invite you to try our “fresh expression” being built through the church at Union Grove, to be part of the revolution we have started by doing our own work to shed the dark clouds of less than loving Christianity, to answer a higher call, and seek a higher love.
We are reminded by Jayson D. Bradley that, “Love is not some small minded ideal that we bypass on the way to weightier theological principles. LOVE IS PhD-LEVEL CHRISTIANITY.
In our pursuit of Jesus, we will spend the rest of our lives learning to love more passionately, intimately, intentionally, and transformationally.
THERE IS NO HIGHER CALL.”
I think it is Bradley who best captures what I’ve been thinking and praying on this week that, with her usual bluntness, Spirit delivered musically with three earworms: Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason,” America’s “Lonely People,” and Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.”
In Give Me One Reason, Chapman sings, “Give me one reason to stay here
And I’ll turn right back around
Give me one reason to stay here
And I’ll turn right back around
Because I don’t want leave you lonely
But you got to make me change my mind.”
In today’s world, we have three or more generations that have looked at the church, asked, even begged the church to give them a reason to stay, and too much of the church has either failed to answer or has doubled down on all the reasons those generations are leaving.
Winwood’s lyrics which were originally written not as a love song, but as a spiritual song, echo what so many of those leaving or outside the church seem to be seeking, something they were taught about in the churches they left, but didn’t see realized. Winwood wrote the words, “Think about it, there must be a higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, and I’ll look inside mine
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Falling behind in what could be,
Worlds are turning, and we’re just hanging on
Facing our fear, and standing out there alone
A yearning, yeah, and it’s real to me
There must be One who’s feeling for me
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair
We walk the line and try to see
Falling behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love …
Where’s that higher love I keep thinking of?
People leaving the churches today are crying out “Give me one reason,” and … when the church fails to provide the reason or worse, looks at them and says, “you’re not worthy to be here, love you, hate your sin, you need to find Jesus, and so on and so on ad nauseum?” … they leave and join others outside the church to do just that … to find Jesus and that higher love.
“The biblical call to Christians to love your enemies, to bless those who curse you, and to exhibit the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – does not represent a set of tactics to be abandoned when times are tough but rather a set of eternal moral principles to be applied even in the face of extreme adversity. ~(David French)”
And yet, too many in the churches experiencing the falling away are doing just that … abandoning the set of God given eternal moral principles, and pushing to establish a different set of morals of their own invention that supports their fears, their phobias, their hate. And they are left sitting lonely in their houses of worship, growing more and more bitter.
I think that’s why Spirit gave me America’s “Lonely People,” this week. Lonely people so sure their truth is the only truth, worshipping their vengeful, wrathful, finger-shaking god-created-in-their-own-image, certain that they’ve speculated correctly “what Jesus would do.”
I think they should have paid more attention to Dan Peek’s lyrics … the real ones, not the pop love song version … the ones that said, “This is for all the lonely people
Thinkin’ that life has passed them by
Don’t give up until you
Drink from the silver cup
And give your heart to Jesus Christ
This is for all the single people
Thinkin’ that love has left them dry
Don’t give up until you
Drink from the silver cup
And give your heart to Jesus Christ
Well, He’s on His way
He’s coming back some day
He’s coming back to take us home
This is for all the lonely people
Thinkin’ that life has passed them by
Don’t give up until you
Drink from the silver cup
He’ll never take you down, no
He’ll never give you up
But you’ll never know until you try…”
And so, today I pray and ask you to pray with me that …
As population numbers grow
As diverse people groups increasingly interact
As competition for resources escalates
As those used to cultural prominence lose influence
As mass people migrations sweep through our communities
We need big-spirited, big-hearted, mature leadership, with the good of all God’s children as their goal
Free those caught in the temptations of Imperial Christianity.
Cleanse them of the hate, the fear, the efforts to exclude and marginalize so many of your children.
O Lord, help your children love you and each other more than we love even our ideas about how this world should work and remind us who is really in charge and all powerful, and it ain’t any of us.
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