Sunday, June 11, 2006

God at Noon

Asbury First United Methodist Church
Valedictory Series #3

Text: Romans 8: 22-27

Along the Genesee River, our fellow Christians at the Abbey of the Genesee offer prayers at 2am, 6am, 11am and 6pm. They pray to God at night, at dawn, at noon, and at dusk. We do too, in our own ways, trying to receive the grace to leave aside the troubles of accumulation for the fairer fields of the sacred. We live to face sacred moments. To cling to faith and face the dark is to face a sacred moment, at night. To discern a calling and face the future is to face a sacred moment, at dawn. To work steadily and face the heat of the midday sun is to face a sacred moment, at noon. To sing a vesper song, at dusk, and to face partial parting is to face a sacred moment, at dusk.

Midday is one such moment. At the Abbey these prayers are known as sext prayers, that is, sixth hour prayers. Six hours after dawn. In the heat of the day. In the full sunlight of work.

With all creation they, and we, as the Apostle teaches, await redemption. Here Paul is offering his mature thought about life, work, groaning, struggle, hope, patience, weakness, sighs, and Spirit.

He wrote earlier, “When I was a child I thought like a child, I acted like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man I gave up childish ways.” What a remarkable verse! Mr. justication by faith himself, Mr. God is not mocked himself, Mr. by grace ye are saved himself, Mr. I have been crucified with Christ himself—Paul, right here in the Bible, plain as noonday sun indicates that he may just now and then, here and there, once in a while, he may have learned from his experience. He grew. He changed. He matured. He learned. What he thought at dawn, he rethought at noon. Go figure. Wouldn’t you love to know what he thought as a child that he gave up as an adult?

At the midday we pause to pray and rest. Here are six midday thoughts and prayers for Asbury First into the future.

A. Asbury First United Methodist Church is a wonderful, gracious and loving church, truly a delightful community in which to serve.

Architecture, Music, Pulpit, Missions, Adult Classes, Local Outreach, Pastoral Care, Endowment, Worship, Organ, Teak Room, Office…and People! Asbury First includes features that compare favorably to the best anywhere in American Methodism…

Its pulpit and preaching…Its nave and organs…Its music…Its liturgy and pastoral care…Its local missions…Its teak room and pastor’s office…Its endowment…Its Christmas and Easter services…Its campus…Its spiritual liberality…Its people!

B.Our theology of preaching and practice begins in grace and ends in freedom.

For over a decade you have listened for, and so given birth to, the announcement of good news of grace and freedom.

Said Gospel has been spoken in a traditional sermon of 22 minutes.

Its interpretation has scoured the several continents of the whole Bible: the gospels, Paul, John, the Apocalypse, the Prophets, some stories of the Law, some proverbs and ways of wisdom.

Your preached gospel, born in the longsuffering of presence and listening, has scoured the Scripture. We name its good: freedom and grace. A Methodist freedom to resist a purpose driven life. A Wesleyan grace to resist the certainties of an atheistic scientism. Saving grace, healthy freedom, both of which allow you to be confident even when you cannot be certain. Who needs faith if you already know all? Who needs faith if you are already that certain? If you are, already that certain that is, who needs the life of faith? Or prayer? Or friends? Or community? Or others? Or memory? Or hope?

No, you affirm that older, thinner, more Biblical inkling of glory, that confidence that is faith. Not arrogance, confidence. Not blind faith, confidence. Not bullheadedness, confidence. Not certainty, confidence. The confidence born of obedience, “the obedience of faith” of which Paul writes in Romans (as tasty an oxymoron as one can chew).

C. The bright sunlight of opportunity for the next decade here shines out on an open meadow of robust stewardship, focused on tithing.

How do people learn stewardship? I wish I could say that the 26 stewardship Sunday sermons I have preached since 1979 have changed the world of giving. They have not. These practical guides only work when your heart is in it. When your heart is in it. How does that happen? That only happens when your heart is changed, warmed, healed. How does that happen? Usually it happens in a very humble way. It happens when you are ready to let it happen, and it happens then when you hear something. A word. Oh I do not discount the example that others set that makes us think and act, but we only come in earshot of such examples when our heart is changed. And that change comes, whenever it does, when we wake up to how much we have been given. As in this story from my friend Doug Mullins:

Belinda was a single parent, trying to take care of herself and raise five-year old Ryan. She was single because her husband had left her. One evening Belinda tucked Ryan into bed and was reading a book to him. He interrupted her to ask if she had bought that book for him. “Yes” she said. He then inquired if she had also bought the bed in which he slept. Again the answer was “yes”. Had she the bought the house they called home? Yes, she had. And what about the new sweater he liked so much? “Yes”, she said, she had bought that too. He thought about how good she had been to him, supplying his needs, and he finally said, “Mommy, get my piggy bank. There are seven pennies in it. Take them and get something you really want for you.” As is so often the case, we have much to learn from our children. Ryan realized that everything he had was a gift from his mother. His response was to offer her his seven cents, everything he had. Our relationship to God is just like Ryan’s relationship to his mother. Everything we have is a gift from God. Ryan offered his mother seven cents. It was not much, but it was all he had.

D. Now we need to suspend our efforts at reconstructive engagement with our beloved denomination, and aim rather at peaceful coexistence.

The Troy Conference (Albany) lost 17% of its worshipping attendance in one year, last year. This was the largest loss in the denomination for that year.

The Wyoming Conference (Binghamton) lost 5% of its actual membership in one year, two years ago. This was the largest loss in the denomination for that year.

The North Central Conference (Syracuse) had a membership of 150,000 when I was ordained there in 1979. Today its membership is under 75,000.

The Western New York Conference (Buffalo) has a membership of 55,000, a membership smaller than many single districts in the rest of the United Methodist Church.

The New Jersey Conference had a membership of more than 200,000 in 1970. Today its membership is under 100,000.

What kind of organization accepts this sort of collapse with no accountability admitted by or demanded from its leadership?

E. In short, ministry is preaching the gospel and loving the people (especially the least—children, the last—the poor, the lost—the isolated).

1. The interruptions are the work.

2. The nominations report is the most important thing you do each year.

3. It is the one-on-one conversations that matter most.

4. No secrets, no surprises, no subversion.

5. When you put your gift on the altar, don’t look back.

6. What you do speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you say.

7. You only have what you can give away.

8. The rubber band only stretches so far before it breaks.

9. Preach what you know.

10. Don’t inhale. (That is, remember that ministry is service).

F. Asbury First, by the way, has grown 25% in the last decade, and is poised to do the same in the next.

Membership has moved from 2009 to 2315, endowment from $2M to $6M, worship services and attendance from 2/558 to 4/731, lay participation from 40% to 60%, assessed building values to (with new build) $25M+; program development (musical ensembles, adult classes, educational offerings, mission offerings, church program offerings, and other) has had similar increases as has total revenue: calendar 2005 (endowment income, capital campaign income, annual plan income, special giving income) is approximately 3x that of 1995 ($1M, $3M).

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