Sunday, July 25, 2004

A Prayer for the Body of Christ

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Colossians 2:6-15

Your life is becoming a prayer for the Body of Christ. To say it quickly and simply, the church is the Body of Christ and your life is a prayerful, daily rebuilding of this body. In that way, every time is a time to build.

Dan Solomon told us of two chickens, talking about laying an egg in the middle of a highway. One advised the other, “You can do it, as long as you do it fast and lay it on the line!” Good advice for a summer sermon.

Colossians 2 moves fast and lays the gospel on the line. Its writer is eager to encourage those who have been laboring long. The writer offers a choice perception of baptism. The Christ in whom we are baptized is the head of his own body, and the ruler of all things. This is an expansive, beautiful, broad vision. You are baptized to death, not just death of sin, death and the law, but of all the elements of the world that seek to make and keep human life inhumane.


You love the Body of Christ.

All things lastingly good in our experience have come, almost without exception, through the grace of God as ministered through our beloved church…

Your name and identity in baptism, and mine: “Allan” from a Boston homiletics teacher, “Hill” from this upstate region of hills, lakes, valleys, like the region of Galilee, upstate not downstate. Baptism is such a grace!

The gift of faith in confirmation: youth today hunger for this gift, and not for the pandering with which we too often treat them. Our youth want serious talk about spirituality, sexuality, spending, and especially the call to ministry, which two dozen from Asbury First, Rochester have heeded in the last generation. This year my son-in-law is going to Garrett. This summer my son, a first year Ohio State law student, is doing mission work in Honduras. (Here is a young man who played guitar in a rock band named “The Masters of Seduction”, now in ministry in Central America!). For 15 years I have taught at Lemoyne College. The 18 year olds there have taught me how hungry youth are for real faith. Confirmation is such a grace!

Community, global communion, in eucharist: the spray of the Jet d’Eau in Geneva Switzerland and there the voices of Paolo Freire and George Todd of the East Harlem Protestant Parish; the buzz of excitement of Union Seminary back in the day—Cone, Forbes, Coffin, Harrison, Guttierrez, Koyama and RM Brown who said “You can always tell the Union people”; the grit of a dirt floor hut in Tegucigalpa; the French cuisine and music of St Laurent in Montreal; the singing of seven rebuilt congregations, kneeling humbly at the rail. Your personal greeting and responsive encouragement last Sunday will stay with us all of our days. For your sincere love and communal kindness Jan and I are deeply grateful. Communion is such a grace!

Deepest friendship in marriage: Jan and I met at age 16 in the MYF—sledding, skating, camping, kissing. I believe in youth ministry. And from friendship to family, including my mother in law. She will tell you, “Behind every great man is a surprised mother-in-law”. Marriage is such a grace!

Calling to service. Methodism is still the best expression of Christianity on offer today—catholic tradition, reformation Gospel, Anglican sacraments, puritan discipline, pietistic feeling; you can be Joan of Arc, Katie von Bora, Queen Victoria, Abigail Adams and Susanna Wesley all at once! Jan and I both grew up in parsonages and with hers\mine\ours have lived in 13 all together. Ordination is such a grace! Forgiveness in pastoral care, day by day: we stumble, like children at a piano recital, and pardon helps us start again. Kindness is such a grace!

You have Hope, for today and Tomorrow, in Jesus Christ! He is the transcript in time of who God is in eternity. I have learned to rely on Him in trouble: at age 12, on a parsonage stoop, hearing my mother’s voice: “appointment…conference…Bishop…new house…move…it will be all right…I will be with you”; at age 20 learning of a mentor’s hunting death at a Methodist campground and sensing then a nudge to ministry; at age 25, the third year of seminary, with my wife nearly dying, at St Luke’s in NYC, carrying our first child—both daughter and mother surviving; at age 38 seeing my first Jurisdictional conference and sensing the denominational trouble we are in---through it all, able to bear witness that my mother was right, “all will be well”. Hope is such a grace! How shall we enter heaven except by the grace of God?

What is lastingly good in life has come through this church which we love.


Your life is offered as a prayer for the Body of Christ. Rooted. Built. Established. In thanksgiving. You want to rebuild.

We know as well that life in the Body of Christ brings bruises and blisters. Paul Tillich said, “the church is always both a representation and a distortion of the divine”.

When the direction of your beloved church seems contrary to your own best insight you become deeply saddened. When processes for decision seem to lack quality, care, communication, concern, you may become angry. When the basic ministry of the church in your part of the Body seem neglected, and your own investment minimized, you confess to personal hurt. Because our expectations for the Body of Christ are (rightly) so high, our experience of disappointment can hurt so much. Here is just the moment in which to hear again the sage counsel of the writer of Colossians: be rooted, built up, established, thankful. Christ is alive and goes before us.

Let your life become a prayer for the Body of Christ. Why?

For the sake of a starving world. For the sake of your grandchildren and mine. For the sake of those nearby who, as Harry Denman, would remind us, have not had a first helping of faith, when we are on our seventh course, who do not know a single hymn, have not memorized a favorite Psalm, have no special Scripture, no church family to love and no church home to enjoy. We cannot serve faith with 150 year old buildings, inadequate plumbing, hymnals full of dead flies, indifferent adequate child care, parking in snow banks, lack of heat, light, sound, and accessibility, and services that are havens of mediocrity. Independent churches, with a third rate theology, have left us for dead by Jericho road, not because they teach well but because they have changing tables, winter parking and youth centers: they have not forgotten Colossians 2, or a similar verse “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers”. (Eph 3:10). Beloved, this welcoming work is the heart of the important project in which we are all now engaged. We have so embraced the mind, spirit, truth of Christ that we have neglected the Body of Christ!

Our greatest need is resurrection from the dead. A generation ago our church in the northeast was growing toward 2.5 million members. Today we number 1.4M. Half a generation ago (1987) my home conference, NCNY, had 125,000 members, today 75,000. We have a cottage on our lake that has beautiful furniture on the second floor, but its foundation has crumbled and it is toppling into the water. It is time to rebuild the foundation.

L Schaller said “most church organizations will accept 2% decline a year in exchange for the tacit agreement that there will be no significant change.”

But I am truly confident that you long to rebuild the church, too. You just want the chance and the leadership. Like Churchill, you cry, “give us the tools and we will finish the job.” I think 80% of us here eagerly want a chance to act responsibly, to start to rebuild, to move us from illness to health, from decay to growth, from death to resurrection.

If we rebuild, we shall have over time most of the other interests and values we hold dear. A rebuilt church will have long arms to embrace full inclusion. A rebuilt church will have patient ears to listen in discernment. A rebuilt church will have solid muscle for mission. A rebuilt church will have a strong voice for justice. A rebuilt church will have keen eyes for transitions. A rebuilt church will have the heart for conflict resolution.


You can lead the church to rebuild.


In partnership with the one another.

In proven experience.

In teaching.

In prophetic witness. In Pittsburgh I stood in my seat in affirmation of gay people. As a Bishop I would do the same. To resolve conflict a lay leader needs to be crystal clear about the mission, crystal clear about what she or he thinks, and crystal clear in a desire for resolution. All my ministry has been across difference: rural and urban, rich and poor, male and female, black and white, conservative and liberal, donkey and elephant, gay and straight, progressive and orthodox. Like Peter and Paul we can agree to disagree agreeably about something as awkward and difficult as male circumcision in their case, or homosexuality in ours, because both conservatives and liberals want to rebuild the church. Let’s do that well together for the next generation!

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