Sunday, September 22, 2002

What Are Our Patterns of Welcome?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

A. The Generosity of Divine Welcome
It is the generosity of the divine welcome that has placed us here this morning. The whole lesson today, and in fact much of the Gospel for everyday, can be stated as St. Matthew, at the end of this parable which he alone records, so states: “Do you begrudge me my generosity? Are you envious because I am generous?”

Only a sense of pure excitement, biblical or personal, will do to announce the outset and onslaught of this autumn, this year, this high moment in which, for the first time in its nearly 200 years of life, Asbury First may become, by God’s grace, a welcoming community.

A welcoming community is ready to receive divine joy, eager to accept divine help, hungry to be addressed by divine truth, prepared to accept divine discipline. A welcoming community is honestly committed to engage in divine service. We are boldly set to go where none has gone before.

I feel sorry for those who sit, but not in church; who hear music, but not of this choir; who receive news, but not Good News. On Sunday I feel what Sondheim placed on the lips of Bernstein’s Maria (before he had gone down the dark paths of Sunset Boulevard): “I pity any girl who isn’t me tonight!”

The Gospel according to Matthew, The Evangelist, by which we shall tour the Gospel this year, while not the earliest gospel (said honor belonging to Mark), and not the kindest gospel (said honor belonging to Luke), and not the oddest gospel (said honor belonging to two dozen documents which the church rightly left out of the Bible), and not the most spiritual gospel (said honor belonging to John), Matthew was the most popular Gospel. Hence its place first in the canon, its obvious presence in the earliest Christian writings, and its place of honor in church history. Matthew exudes confidence in divine grace: open, lively, and embracing.

God is generous. Liberally so. Or so this parable teaches. Agathos is the word - generous, giving, good, loving. God is generous, even past the point of our grudging, reluctant belief.

The churches use little bits of Bible, lectionary passages, like the one read earlier, on Sunday morning. There is much to commend this practice, which for a second year we are using too. But it has been the death of Methodist preaching, to some degree, because it focuses on the mouse and not the elephant in the room. So these weeks I have been interpreting Matthew, and his lectionary bits, from the bird’s eye view.

The main point is that Matthew has a passion: invitation. He invites you to share the divine generosity.

The main point is that Matthew is opening a gift wrapped package for this church, the relatively undiscovered passion for compassion, for sharing good news.

The main point is that Matthew, in this parable as in virtually all, celebrates the generosity of the divine welcome. So, this parable is about that generous welcome, made in the teeth of economic justice. But aren’t they all, all the parables, really about this same announcement? God is like a man who goes out and sows bushels of seed. God is like a fisherman who casts out a net, wide and open, and catches the kingdom of heaven. God is like a patient king who forgives. God is like pearl giving, treasure finding hunter. God is like a boss who appreciates talents. God is like a shepherd hunting for a lost sheep. All these in Matthew! And when we add a prodigal son, a good samaritan, a lost coin - a Lukan parable set to match, it is the same astounding word: generous, generous, generous to a fault is the gospel of divine welcome. If we read Matthew right, in the large, he would rather learn from one bird how to sing, than to teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.

Methodism is at a crossroad. What is our passion, our reigning desire? We were born out of two proverbs: “the world is my parish”, and “go on to perfection”. Breadth and depth. Wesley said them both. They both have biblical merit, and traditional root, and reasonable appeal. But, in shove and push, which matters more? Breadth or depth? We have many deep passions: history, liturgy, architecture, music, education, service, through which are going on to wholeness, that rounded wholeness that is a sign of the holy, the perfect. Is this the love we had at first? Is this the spirit that conquers flesh? Is this the work of which Wesley said: spend and be spent in it?

I asked Jane Amey, whose mother carted her around the creation of the unified Methodist Church in the 1930’s. Which is it, Jane, which is the more important? World or perfection? She thought a minute and, blessedly, said: “the world is my parish” is the more important, if you have that you may get the other.” So right, so good, so true

B. The Promise of Human Welcome

1. Welcome Space

Therefore, we do believe in God whose gracious love is open, lively, and embracing. Hence we want to become a welcoming community, and to take the next step toward making our church home as fully welcoming as possible - welcome space, gathering space, youth space, family space.

Let me pause to relate a short, possibly humorous story. Last winter an older man, a first time visitor, talked with a greeter and a pastor in the cloister. “Can you direct me to the rest room?” he asked. We started excitedly to speak to him about some future possibilities, including the hope that a new rest room might be located between where we stood and the parking lot. We began to describe the other welcoming characteristics of this new space: greeting area, places for coats, washrooms, space for fellowship and coffee, a library table, a movable altar for informal services, places for meeting and intimate conversation. He offered an elfin grin, complimented the plans, and said: “That sounds great. I’m impressed. But I really can’t wait that long - where is the men’s room?” To welcome the stranger is as central a joy, task, and calling as there is in the Christian life.

We have experienced God’s lavish, uncritical, personal love for us, in the passion and presence of Jesus Christ, and we want to share that love as regularly and warmly as possible. The church leaders who have been assigned to address space issues for the future think that the time may have come to prepare our campus for the 21st century, especially in accessible welcoming, gathering, youth and fellowship space. In other words, it may be time for Asbury First United Methodist Church to add a welcoming area, a “family room” to our church home. Our house already has a “formal parlor” (sanctuary), a “dining room and kitchen” (Fellowship Hall) and “bedrooms” for individual groups (adult classes, Sunday School, choirs, campus based ministries, staff, denominational offices). We lack what is essential for welcoming, fellowship and family life: ample, gracious, open, lively, embracing space in which to welcome the stranger.

People come to church with many needs and questions. Two are regular and primary. 1. “Can you help me find meaning in life?” 2. “Can you help me raise my kids?”

Regarding our current plans, it seems to me that the welcoming space addresses the first of the above questions, and the youth space addresses the second.

The gathering or welcoming area, in particular, allows the church space to “be”, to live together, to discover meaning in the simple and direct way of sharing one another’s life journey’s and life stories. Guided by the Holy Spirit and focused on the Lord Jesus Christ, we can help one another find meaning in life: in fellowship time on Sundays, in gatherings after and before services, in receptions occasioned by particular life moments, in smaller group sessions, in some devotional moments, in the interstitial connections that occur coming and going as a church, in enjoyment of art work, in the powerful experiencing of meeting another soul in the confines of a beautiful space. The new welcoming space would meet these needs.

2. Gathering Space

Our mission at AFUMC is to develop disciples through worship, education and care. This plan is designed squarely to address that mission as so stated. In worship, for instance, potential advances in the Sunday morning experience of worship as it is intertwined with fellowship are addressed in this plan: simply put, we would not build a church today without connecting the sanctuary with ample gathering space, so that vertical expression of God’s transcendence and horizontal trust in God’s immanence are both affirmed. Whether or not this plan meets that dual need, the congregation will need to say. Whether the need so met is worth the price, the congregation will also have to say. But the plan is directly aimed at the mission of the church at this worship/fellowship point. Likewise education, particularly youth discipleship, is addressed here, downstairs. Likewise care, especially in the full use of accessible spaces, certainly the gathering space for funerals, weddings, meals, small groups, is addressed here. In short, the whole plan was consciously and systematically created around the clearly stated mission of the church. Said one leader, “I think the basic issue is whether as a church family we want to add a family room or not. The last two places we have lived, as a family, one parsonage, and one our own house, we have done so. We have been glad we did, though we would not have ever gone into debt to add them.”

Some general, further thoughts about our campus master plan (most of this most have heard before, or many times before):

a. The building serves the mission of the church (see above), and supports the ministry of the congregation. We want a ministry-centered building, not a building-centered ministry. “A mighty fortress is our God”, not “our God is this mighty fortress”. Hence, any physical property issue is always a level B issue, not a level A issue.
b. Our first priority is people: their health, nurture, safety, forgiveness, growth, discipleship, salvation, and eternal rest. Within this, our first priority is new people, those who are starting their course in faith, and beginning their walk as disciples.
c. Further, as this plan comes forward, it is clear that we “could” do this. The question is, when and how does the needle move toward, “we should do this”. It is not a must. It is a may. When does it become a should?
d. This plan is a high B. It touches the heels of level A issues like generosity, stewardship, welcoming, fellowship, evangelism. To enact it, we would have to become a tithing church. This is good. To desire it, would have to become an inviting church. This is good. To construct it, we would have to become a united church. This is good. All good, and all hard.
e. On stewardship. For this plan to work well into the future discipleship of AFUMC, we would need to model good stewardship: no debt, every home committed, carefully planned, 50% of the money in hand before the full appeal to the congregation. At a minimum, this plan would cost the average giver 6 times the gift made for the roof.
f. Then we could live the dream: We would walk in peace and joy along the Village Green of life. Here, take a lantern. It is nightime. We leave the sanctuary. We walk through the spacious, open welcome area. Then (for this is only a start), we tour the expanded grounds of our ministry. At every turn, in this dream, there is a lamp lit. Look: just here is a new United Methodist conference office, for a combined upstate conference. Look: just here is a pastoral counseling center which specializes in the needs of women, created and guided by a retired pastor. Look: just here you find a lamp lit on the porch of an Urban Retreat Center, spiritually led by a spirited minister committed to this cause. (And each of these projects tithes from their own budget back to the mother church that created them, thus providing the possibility of further growth. They learned to do so, over time, from the Storehouse, Dining Center, Nursery School, Daycare and others) Look: just here there is the lamp of the porch of the county wide Wesley Foundation, a center for student ministry. Look: just here a lamp is lit over the door of a Hemispheric Hispanic ministry Center, from Emmanuel to Amor Fe y Vida. Our lamp leads us further: just here you find a religious drama center, K-12, and an elder care program, and…..Behold Asbury First United Methodist Church, The Lamp of the Poor!

3. Youth Space

There is no one who appreciates and needs welcome and welcoming space more than a new teenager. Listen to the following testimony from one of our former youth group members:

“Good Morning. Hopefully you have noticed so far that the theme of this service is the concept of a journey. If you haven’t, I’m telling you now. A journey can take on many forms: A journey is taking a trip, or finishing a novel. A journey is running in a cross-country race. For any of you that have run cross-country, you know that it is physically painful, and emotionally straining. Similarly, a journey is staying awake through an entire sermon on an early Sunday morning. Everyone encounters opportunity to journey every day. In thinking about this topic, I came to the conclusion that my life is basically a series: some good, some not so good, but all with something to offer. I want you all to look back about four years to the summer of 95. Ben Hill as a pre-freshman 14-year old. It may astonish some of you to know that I was not the robust man you see before you. I was about 5 feet tall with big glasses and a baseball cap. It was at the beginning of that summer that my parents told me that I was to go on a mission trip with 25 of the youth from our soon to be new church. Now, it’s not to say I wasn’t grateful for the invitation, but the idea of spending a week with 25 kids, mostly older than me that I had never met before, was not exactly appealing. Nonetheless, my parents insisted, and comforted me by saying “Everything will turn out all right”. Well I was glad that they believed that, because I sure didn’t. I remember arriving, and having an awkward conversation with Chris Zimbelman, who is now a close friend, while carrying boxes that I thought were pretty heavy, down to the youth room. I remember being embraced by one of the parents of a youth on the trip. For the sake of confidentiality, we will call her R. Barrett. The week that followed was one of the most interesting weeks of my life. For me it was like going to summer camp for a week, except that everyone else there had known each other for years. I couldn’t tell you who the first friend I made was on that trip, I don’t remember. It was as if I had been absorbed into the group through osmosis. I cannot begin to describe to you the importance of that journey. It increased my comfort in a new place, and allowed me to know someone in the hallway at school. When I look back, I can’t think about my start in Rochester, without thinking about that trip.” (For the sake of confidentiality, we will call the author Ben Hill)

4. Family Space

It may be that the time has come for Asbury First United Methodist Church to add a family room to our church home. As we said earlier, our house already has a “formal parlor” (sanctuary), a “dining room and kitchen” (Fellowship Hall) and “bedrooms” for individual groups (adult classes, Sunday School, choirs, campus based ministries, staff, denominational offices). We lack what is essential for fellowship and family life: gracious, open space, welcoming and inviting space, a space to meet and greet and watch our children grow, a place where men younger and older, women newer and more veteran, people single and married, children and grandchildren and great grandchildren can get to know each other, and where, before and after and outside worship, the people of God can justly welcome newcomers. Is it time to add on a welcoming, family room?

5. Supporting Advantages of the Project
a. The project advances our mission of developing disciples through worship, education and care. Our worship of the transcendent God can occur in tandem with devoted intimacy with one another. Our education of youth can receive needed new space. Our care of one another finds a place where we can, as a full congregation, “watch over one another in love”.

b. The project enhances our vision of becoming a spiritual village green, the religious epicenter of the county.

c. The project teaches good stewardship to another generation by encouraging tithing, rejecting debt, requiring 100% involvement, and perhaps using up to 10% for missions or for a missions endowment.

d. The project is unifying for a broad and diverse congregation that needs more unity.

e. The project helps us continue to grow, as churches across the country testify.

f. The project expands our youth space.

g. The project is difficult, and will cause us to stretch and use new muscles, and to get in good shape.

h. The project builds on the care and maintenance of the last 7 years (new roofs, parking lot paved twice, Campus Care Coordinator hired, new sidewalks, Teak Room, new porch 1050, improved entrances to 1010 and 1050, upgrades in education wing, Dining/Caring Center expansion, refurbishment of 1010 and 1050 interiors, computer network installation and upgrades, 1010 apartment rehab, sound system twice, organ enhancements, carillon replacement, landscaping work, youth room improvement, etc.).

i. The project meets three primary needs as identified by the congregation: accessibility, expanded youth area, and welcoming space.

j. The project provides for a gathering space envisioned in the 1950’s, approached in the 1980’s and imagined again in the later 1990’s to be used for: welcoming newcomers on Sunday morning, deepening fellowship across generations,interests, and groups on Sunday and during the week, settings for informal fellowship weekend and weekday, place for alternative worship space for non-Sunday services, and in general open space like that provided by a village green in a small town.

k. The project comes at a time of significant growth in worship attendance, membership, and ministry.

l. The project honors and enhances the architecture of the past while addressing the emerging needs of the future.

m. The four primary risks of the project are debt, discord, deflection, and decay. Debt can be avoided by raising the money before spending it. Discord can be avoided through laborious, careful and lengthy processes of discourse. Deflection from our mission can avoided by keeping the project in perspective. Decay in our future ministry will be avoided depending on the kind of leadership, primarily clergy leadership, in the next generation, which this kind of forward thinking project may rightly inspire.

6. Thoughts on the Process Moving Forward

a. As a subcommittee of the Board of Trustees, who corporately bear responsibility for our physical plant and invested funds, the proposed plan from the Master Plan Implementation Committee (MPIC) goes first to them for their consideration, rejection, approval, or emendation. It goes without saying that they may do what they want, as and when they want, with our work. I believe they both need and deserve to take ample time to analyze this plan that is fifty years in coming and will have 50 years of effect. (Completed 2001)

b. Ad Cab next needs to see whatever report, in any shape they desire, that the Trustees would like to provide. Ad Cab too, from a broader programmatic and ministerial perspective, will want and need time to pray and think through the plan, as proposed to them. (Completed 2001).

c. At the direction of the Ad Cab, an Advisory Council meeting could then perhaps be convened, for full church advice and counsel. Such a meeting could either initiate or culminate a traveling presentation of the plan, for consideration, comment and alteration, throughout the adult classes and group life of the church. The full leadership staff would provide one of these settings. (Completed 2002)

d. At this point, a time of prayer, personal and congregational, well-developed and well-practiced, is crucial. Perhaps our Spiritual Life Committee could help guide us here. I have in mind a congregational letter, seasonal prayer vigils, and active work by the Intercessory Prayer Group, so that the whole process will continue to be immersed in serious prayer. The ‘MPIC’ devotions, so well crafted over these months, might at this point be compiled, printed and distributed for fuller use. (Informally addressed)

e. If consensus seems to be building after steps 1-4, then a feasibility study (approximately 2 months, and $8,000) would be appropriate to test what real, measurable financial support, from the inside the existing congregation, is present and has developed. For a campaign of this size, scope and moment, I would not personally choose to proceed without a professional, experienced, autonomous feasibility study (a kind of ‘future audit’). The recent Sunday reading from Luke 14, on counting the costs and resources for projects, seemed to be oddly appropriate for us. (In process, Autumn 2002)

f. Our District Committee, and the District Superintendent and Bishop, would need to review and approve, modify or reject the plan (assuming the cost of the work exceeds 10% of the current property value). I do not see this as a lengthy or difficult step, but it is an important one to keep in mind. (tbd)

g. If at this point, the questions of “if”, “what”, “when”, and “how” have responses that carry solid consensual congregational support, then a plan, including a plan for funding, and a plan for building, would rightly come before a Church/Charge Conference, heavily communicated, and perhaps further prepared by another Advisory Council meeting, and other smaller group sessions. Such a conference would be at the request of the Pastor-in-Charge, and at the direction or discretion of the District Superintendent. There may be still other process issues (Preservation Board, etc), and some of these suggestions noted above may prove to be inappropriate, once we are underway. (tbd)

h. In the end, whatever we do or do not do, may those looking back from 2010 or 2020 on our process marvel together: “See how they loved one another through it all, and see how the project further enhanced the church’s growth”.

7. A Personal Word

I believe that our plans, to the best of our ability to judge this sort of matter, are the right thing in the right way, and close to the right time. I support, personally and pastorally and publicly, the plan to add this welcoming space. Now it may take us a while to get finished. After all, in some sense this plan has been on the map for 60 years. So we shall have to gauge the time as we go. But let us make our start. As you well know, I cannot do this for you and I will not do it to you. Here is what I mean. I can think of a church that built a great building, but relied on their pastor to raise the money. He did. He did it for them. They missed the chance to learn to tithe, and went forward with generations of weakened stewardship. It will not help to do it for you. I also can think of a church whose minister made peremptory choices about symbols, choices that may have been right. He did. He did it to them. They continued for generations to harbor a resentment about and a distrust of pastoral leadership. It will not do to do it to you. But I am eager, and I believe we are eager, to do it with you. We can do it. We should do it. So let us begin. Let us this week, individually and in our groups, set apart times for discerning prayer about this question: “What are our patterns of welcome?”

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