Sunday, January 11, 2004

Strolling the Green

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Strolling the Green: Praying with Joy Because of your Partnership in the Gospel
The Asbury First Leadership Staff

Text: Philippians 1:3-11
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away;
(And wait to watch the water clear I may):
I shan’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch a little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long.—You come too.

The experience of grace and freedom that is Jesus Christ finds us and holds us when the space is right.

Paul and his Philippians were so accosted, in a calamitous resurrection life, amid the very ordinary urban confusions of the ancient world. They were moved to “thanks”. They began to pray with “joy”. They were made “confident”. They held one another “in the heart”. Love they hoped would “overflow”. They gained something humans rarely do gain, “full insight”. I suspect that you suspect, and I suspect you are right, that any one of these terms, in the right or wrong hands, could become a sizable sermon in her own right. Look once more at our Holy passage, though.

There is real treasure here. Says Paul of his relationship with his companions in Christ, that their work and life together became “a partnership in the Gospel”. I love that little phrase. An older translation might be “fellowship in the Gospel”. A trendier one, “sharing”. Thanks for sharing. But the word, a truly great word is koinonia. It really has no exact English translation. You can only render it by befriending it in your own experience. It is the marrow, the daily meaning, of life together, in Christ. It is the partnership of the Gospel. The fellowship, partnership, sharing, mutual engagement of the Gospel.

The experience of grace and freedom that is Jesus Christ finds us and holds us when the space is right. How shall we ever proclaim a Gospel of grace and freedom if we do not have lives, lead lives, of grace and freedom? Grace takes space. Grace takes space. Freedom needs a medium. Freedom needs a medium.

Spiritually speaking, your soul needs some breathing room, gracious space, a freedom medium. A place to wonder, to love, to lollygag and meander, in safe and hallowed circumstance. It requires a physical space. A borrowed upper room and a candle lit table. A Philippian courtyard, use consented by the master. A series of spots along the Apian way. And then, very quickly, and for centuries, high space, broad space, cruciform space, open space. Running room. Breathing room.

Our mission here is to develop disciples in worship, education and care. More on this in a moment.

Our vision—space for grace, a medium for freedom. Call it a village green for the soul, a commons for the spirit, a park for the psyche. A safe, holy place to meet and greet (most of life) and watch children grow and older folks cure. Oh, I mean physical space, yes. Space to welcome and gather, at the heart of our campus, 12 months a year. Space to give access to those with special conditions. Space to accommodate our teenagers. Yes, physical welcoming space.

Great hearted people need great hearths around which to gather. Children raised in trailers have a certain disposition to life. We want the city, and county, children around us raised in God’s house, as big as all outdoors, as wide as the sky, as open as the plains, as free and graceful as a bird in flight.

Fly with me over our church home. Imagine the year is 2006 and the welcoming space is finished. Then we may deploy our ministries, one dwelling at a time, around our city block: an adult day care center, self-funding and tithing back, a local and continental Hispanic ministry, self-funded and tithing back, a Wesley Student Center inhabited by seminarians and graduate students, self-funding and tithing back, a theater ministry and a spiritual life center and a pastoral care house and a conference office and a hub of activity, grace and freedom in Christ, like no other in the Empire State.

You may say I am a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us.

(Two by two, our staff appears from the pastors’ study.)

DK: It has been startling to see Taize worship draw so many on Wednesday nights…
MJM: I think the labyrinth has helped…
DK: We had over 2500 people in worship this Christmas eve and day…what a wonderful time in worship!..Weldon Crossland hoped that 1000 people a week would enjoy this beautiful sanctuary in worship and prayer...
MJM: Perhaps we should think about a Thursday noon service of Holy Communion and organ music…
DK: That sounds great…It has been fun over these eight years to watch our ensembles develop (now 11), the number of people in musical ministry (now 400), and our average weekly worship (now 700)
MJM: And it would be even stronger without the summer dip!
DK: Maybe we do need air conditioning!

The New Testament is silent about forms of worship. Our tradition emphasizes preaching, music and liturgy, and we are growing in our sacramental life.

But worship itself is not the whole of the Christian life. In a large especially, every one of our now 2278 adult members, as well as our preparatory members (about 400) needs the support and development of a smaller educational setting.

But listen for a minute to some folks who can really walk you through this…

MJM: It thrills me to see people who have really and genuinely discovered their own ministries. That is what makes discipleship and outreach. When I watch one of our lay members lead Disciple Bible Study, or see another leading in the Storehouse, or see another raising leadership gifts for the capital campaign, or another repairing the building in the Monday Morning Crew—that makes me happy.
SSS: How do people find their own sense of calling?
MJM: I think they are drawn to it, through the example of others, through the life of the church, and through the inner voice. We estimate that about half of our members currently have found a part of their ministry (and about the same half give regularly to the church—it’s an interesting correlation. Those who are involved, invest).

SSS: Just think of the future! If AFUMC grows to 3000 members, receiving 200 new members a year, and if 8 out of 10 of these truly find their ministry here—there will be a spiritual blaze across Monroe County…And what is more, we are becoming a teaching church, too. Our mission focuses on worship, education and care. We are moving toward a time when organ students from Eastman, future worship leaders, may be among us; we already have a history now of seminarians educating for ministry here; and some day we may have a place for a social work student, too. Can you think of anywhere we could use one?
MJM: I just might be able to imagine one or two places!!!

The New Testament, according to Paul Minear, offers almost 100 different images of the church. You can think quickly of many of them. The Body of Christ. A fellowship of faith working through love. The New Creation. The Household of faith. And many others.

At Asbury First there are almost 100 different littler fellowships within the larger church: choirs, adult classes, study groups, service ministries, age related fellowship groups, musical ensembles, committees and task forces.

Have you found your home within your church home? Your ecclesiola in ecclesia?

SSS: I hear voices now and then.
RO: You hear voices? Uh, do you want to talk about it?!?
SSS: No, listen. I hear voices of the church becoming the church.
RO: What do they sound like?
SSS: One sounds like a pastor…
CC: There are some 100 older, home-bound and shut-in people whom I visit…
RO: I get it. You mean voices of the church. Like the prophets, who gave voice to silent agony…
SSS: Yes, something like that. Here is another, a voice of the next generation…. The young people whom JODI works with in our musical ministries are really people of faith! They are willing to risk, to try, to be vulnerable, to explore their faith…
RO: Are there others?
SSS: Oh yes, just listen…
(lectern)Caroline: GOYA, “group of young adults” has 200 on its mailing list. We had our first lunch last week. And Joy of Life Mid-life Singles has another 50 regular participants. SSS: And listen again…
(lectern)S Staples: It takes over 200 volunteers to lead and teach in our Sunday School. We expect that our ministry with children will grow by 50% in the next few years.
RO: You had me worried when you talked about hearing voices, but now I understand.
SSS: You know. on the first Sunday of Lent every year, we gather our members in neighborhood homes, for a couple of hours, just so all of us can know who we live near, who we shop with, whose kids ride the same busses. Do you know that these groups are called koinonia? SSS: And one very important connectional voice…
(lectern) RE Hoyle: In 2004 you will share nearly $200,000 through apportioned and other giving in the global United Methodist Church. You support Africa University, new church starts, district and episcopal shepherding, international mission and relief, urban academies, and especially the Bishops’ emphasis on children and the poor.
RO: …ah, the partnership, fellowship, sharing of the Gospel..

Speaking of sharing, it is interesting to read the New Testament from a financial point of view. The parables of Jesus are heavily laden with teachings about money. The letters of Paul, particularly 2 Corinthian, center on this theme. And the book of Acts goes so far as to say that the earliest Christians “had all things in common”.

We celebrate many gifts in stewardship this year. We honor the work Art Cappacio and his team have done in our campaign this fall. We are grateful for the creative leadership brought us by Doug Himes. We are thankful for the work our Investment Committee and also for the work of the Area Foundation, and the leadership Richard Ten Haken gives to both. We are so pleased with the efforts of our Endowment Giving Committee, lead by Bob Schuman…

RO: So you are the youth pastor here?
BO: You bet…It’s great…You ought to try it sometime!
RO: Thanks for the offer!
BO: We have 150 kids in grades 9-12 who are some of the nicest, funniest, most energetic, most creative people around. They went to Boston last summer, on the train, and turned the place upside down.
RO: Those mission trips must be exhausting
BO: You can’t imagine…
RO: Well, you would be surprised…But I also have been amazed at what you do with our Stewardship, Bryant.
BO: Our hope has been to develop three annual streams of revenue, pledges and endowment and special campaigns, each reaching toward $1M a year.
RO: How are you coming?
BO: I am glad you asked! This year we will crossed the $1M line in annual giving, crossed the made about 2/3 of the goal in endowment interest, and have received over $1M already in the leadership phase of our capital campaign.
RO: 2 and ½ out of three—that’s great!

The women and men who built our church had moved spiritually, moved from entitlement to generosity, moved from giving to generosity, moved from loneliness to fellowship, partnership, sharing—the koinonia of the gospel. Yet we have not found a way, yet, to engage the creative giving of several hundred of our members.

BO: Hey old timer…
D Himes: Watch it kid…
BO: Who are you anyway…
DH: I’m a Christian, a teacher, a development worker, an Episcoplian, and someone who cares very deeply about the ministry of Christ.
BO: You are going to work with us on the capital campaign.
DH: That’s right young fella, it’s almost time to saddle up and move out.
BO: How do you mean?
DH: I mean, the leadership of this church is called to an exciting time of growth, giving, change and fun!
BO: That sounds great but pretty broad, old timer…
DH: OK, let me be real specific: we hope all the leaders of the church will be together for spiritual training on January 19, at 7pm in 1010
BO: Wow! You came prepared!
DH: That’s the way we Episcopalians are!

Friends, it is the start of a new year. We are people who trust, as John Wesley said, that “the best of all is, God is with us”. We have nothing to fear and everything to share, nothing to defend and everything to offer, nothing to hide and everything to expect!

That is, we are a people happy in God and we are a people hopeful in God. Happy and hopeful.

We are going to ask you something. We are strolling the green, walking the spiritual village green together, and eager to develop disciples in worship, education, and care. Have you heard something you would like to engage in the next year? Speak to one of us today. Have you seen somebody whose ministry intrigues you and with whom you would like to labor? Speak to one of us today. In many ways we have spent 2003 assembling the strongest staff leadership we could imagine and obtain. 2004 is the year of the laity.

Last Tuesday morning at 6am, a dozen men came together from all over the county, for our weekly Men’s Fellowship. We stood around the piano and sang several hymns. A man waiting for breakfast at the dining center came in from the cold and joined us. We then sat in a circle, in the warmth and light indoors, watching the snow fall outside in the dark. One of our members led us in a probing study and conversation about fathers and sons. He is a tenderhearted physician, and with his gentle, but insightful, guidance, we were able to be honest about some of our hurts, and some of our hopes. All around us, far more than we knew that morning, our lives were being influenced by the calamities of life. Job loss, care of parents and children, physical health, relational struggle. In one case, the following days included unforeseeable tragedy.

I realize looking back a few days that there was something moving among us. There was an interpersonal, intertextual, interpsychic something among us. It was almost as if, out from underneath the cold and snow and anonymity and fear and uncertainty of life, some gracious Hand was enfolding us and trying to mold us, and use us.

I never want to take for granted the saving power of a safe place, a church home, a church family. One by one, and hour by hour, this is God’s way of healing us, in the person of Jesus Christ, who gives us fellowship, partnership, the sharing of the good news of love.

It is time, a time to build.

A time to move from membership to ministry.

What is your ministry among us to be?