Sunday, September 05, 2010

A Member is a Member ... or not

Revelation 3:14-22
1 Corinthians 12:12-27
Luke 14:25-33


“Tell people where they are going and they may get there; inspire them with why they are going there and they will move mountains [to get there].”
~Christopher Novak

For the past several weeks I have shared with you only a few of the elements of the Church's call to mission which is not the "most" challenging aspect of church life: it is the lifeblood of the Church itself. It is the "Great Commission". Without a sense of mission, there is no Church. So if the Church is the Body of Christ, as St. Paul suggests to the Corinthians, it then stands to reason that the Body of Christ is the Heart of Christ and thus the Mission of Christ. So if all good things come from Christ and the Church is His Body, then for what we are called to do AS A CHURCH, all good things flow from Him THROUGH the Church. In this, then, we are compelled to ask: how can we profit on any level by consciously choosing NOT to be a part of the Body of Christ, the Holy Church?

The simple answer is: we cannot - and we can no longer afford to make excuses or exceptions for ourselves, our loved ones, our friends, or our neighbors. We can all agree that there is no profit in walking away from Christ; it is therefore reasonable that there is no profit in walking away from His Holy Church, His very Body. Yet many do. Why they do can be anyone's guess - and we do spend an awful lot of time guessing and speculating - but we do not typically spend a lot of time or expend a lot of energy trying to find out for ourselves firsthand exactly what set someone off to the point that they voluntarily remove themselves from the Church altogether - or move from one church to another.

It is reasonable that when we think in terms of "mission" we think in terms of reaching out to the unchurched; we think in terms of "making disciples" of those who have yet to discover for themselves the saving grace of the Lord through Christ. It is unfortunate that we can become so overwhelmed with such an awesome task that we often forget how important it is that we are also in mission to one another; not only "making" disciples but also "sustaining" and "nurturing" and "supporting" disciples. This is, in fact, the essential foundation of the Methodist movement altogether; it is why we have come to exist in the first place - to strengthen the Church, not tear it down. Part of the cohesiveness of the Church, which is each individual church's strength, is in recognizing that when ONE of us is in trouble - regardless of the nature of that trouble - then we are ALL in trouble. And when we are ALL in trouble, the CHURCH itself is in trouble.

Relationships within the Body of Christ are human relationships and are too often defined by human standards (our personal likes and dislikes); and as such, they are fragile and must be handled with care. There are some among us with extremely weak constitutions. Others constantly struggle with faith. Some are so sensitive to the point that they require special handling. Some, as I've been accused more than once, are a little more "direct" than may be necessary. And this is good to know so that I may make necessary corrections and issue apologies. I am the pastor and I should be held accountable - but no more or less so than any among us should be held accountable.

None of this makes a person of any lesser value than the most faithful among us; it only makes one unique, as we are all unique - and special - and of equally sacred worth. But because these relationships are so fragile, it takes very little to set someone off to the point that they up and walk out without a word, never to return. What's worse is that these often leave angry. It could be what the pastor says in a sermon, it could be the way someone looked at them, or it could be something really wrong in their lives that is interfering with everything else; but we won't know unless or until we ask.

Jesus, according to Luke's Gospel, makes no bones about what being His follower entails and what He actually expects and demands: TOTAL COMMITMENT. To be sure, there is a spiritual and often emotional element that evokes an initial response, but to commit to a life of service to the Lord requires consideration before commitment. To "count the cost" before such a commitment - to see the potential AS WELL AS the challenges - seems to be exactly what Jesus is referring to; in fact, the early Church had a preparatory period in which people were prepared for membership. No one was accepted on a whim. They could not just jump up, claim a Pentecostal moment, and be immediately received as members. It was a good discipline whose practice has been all but lost over the centuries. Now some might suggest that a refusal to receive a new member without question is a failure on the part of the Church or its pastor, but the truth is people need to know what will be expected of them. To accept them without question, to me, is the foundation for failure. It is like making a disciple but excusing that disciple from discipleship. It is like buying a new car but never putting gas in the tank. It's still a car, but it does not serve its purpose - which is the spiritual journey we all share - IF we are totally committed to Christ. And being committed to Christ is being committed to the Journey of Christ.

Today the Church is in such a state that people typically raise an eyebrow if the pastor does not offer an invitation at the end of every service, but my experience - and the experiences of others before and with me - has been that it is never a good idea to receive a new member on the spur of the moment. There must necessarily be a preparatory period in which the potential new member is introduced to life in the Church - AND all it entails. And yes, dear friends, that includes committee assignments as called upon especially in smaller churches with limited personnel options. Not only that, but membership calls for a commitment through which a committee may call upon an individual or a group of persons for help and be reasonably assured of a positive, if eager, and willing response. Hearing "No" and with only the explanation that "I just don't want to" does not speak well of one's commitment to the Body of Christ. And after so many "no's", it just becomes tiresome and cumbersome - and often down-right degrading - to have to virtually beg a disciple - a church member - to help where help is needed. But then - it is in this moment when discipleship and membership are more clearly defined.

The Bible and the United Methodist Book of Discipline are not unambiguous about what commitment to Christ means, but both references also acknowledge that many among us need a little extra help, a little more encouragement, a little more face time with someone other than the pastor who is more often perceived of as "only doing the job" for which he or she is paid. Most appreciate the efforts, of course, but there is an element of loneliness when fellow members do not bother to inquire, when others feel "forgotten" or worse; dumped on when no one else will step up. There is no care, there is no concern, there is no fellowship; there is only the pastor whose primary concern is "numbers". The "body" of Christ, such as it is, ceases to exist when its own members do not hold one another accountable or even care for one another.

We like being members of a church. We like that we "belong" to something but when our sense of belonging is reduced only to what we can get out of it for ourselves or only what we feel like doing as it personally pleases us, something gets lost; that something is "sacrifice" which is the bedrock of the Church, our faith. It is the very essence of the Lord Jesus who calls upon us and reminds us that He already took care of the really hard part. He corrects us, He enlightens us, He feeds us, and He even chastises us - ominously - as in the Revelation. Yet even with all that is written for our edification, we still bristle at the notion that our membership calls for more than we are willing to put forth - even and especially when there is no apparent or immediate reward for our trouble.

These are all very generalized statements, of course. It would be utterly unfair to consider such things to be universal or equally applicable because you know and I know there are some who will work their fingers to the bone for the sake and the life of the Holy Church until the Lord calls them home. We are also aware that more couples both work outside the home and thus have little extra time to devote to the life of the Church, what with soccer, baseball, football, dance lessons, and so forth, up to and including Sunday tournaments. And they do all this without question, without hesitation, and without reservation, but they typically do not give the Church the same attention and devotion. And the reason is simple: there are few who truly care enough to hold us accountable - because there is no sense of urgency about what is really at stake.

We are overtaxed from almost every angle and it often seems that the more we give, the more they want, regardless of who "they" is! In all this confusion and conflict, however, what we also fail to appreciate is that there are never enough bodies to do the work that needs to be done because we have done very little to bring our missing brothers and sisters back into the fold. The idiot pastor keeps pushing and challenging for stupid things like evangelism and outreach and keeps asking more and more of the fewer and fewer to reach out to the unchurched, and yet we as a Church fail to realize the substantial number of unchurched there are among even our own "members". They have excuses, we give them a free pass to use those excuses, but we never really challenge them. So we fail them and thus fail the Church - and ultimately the Lord.

We are United Methodists - and regardless of what you think or of what you've perhaps heard, being a United Methodist means something. It means we believe in the one God and Lord of all creation. It means we believe in the redemptive love of the Lord our God through Christ Jesus. It means we believe in the Holy Spirit who teaches us, strengthens us, and corrects us when we need to be corrected - He cares enough to hold us accountable. He has NEVER offered us a "free pass". But being a United Methodist also means that we believe enough in our heritage and what we are called to do that we would care enough for one another to hold each other accountable to and for the faith - for the sake of the Holy Church AND their eternal souls.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation - more commonly referred to as Confession - in the Roman Catholic Church was the single most difficult thing I ever did, and there was never a time when I was comfortable with the idea of "coming clean" to a priest. One priest, however, sat me down, had me close my eyes, and imagine Jesus sitting across from me. "But", he said, "imagine our Lord with a single tear streaming down His face not only because our failures have offended Him but also because He KNOWS every ounce of pain we have endured. He wants to help, but we won't let Him in." And this, my dear friends, is what is at stake whether or not we choose to hold one another accountable for our vows of membership.

When we are willing to go beyond ourselves for the sake of another, it is an unmistakable sign that we care; clear evidence that the love of God exists within us. We are United Methodist Christians and we trust in the Lord our God - BUT - we also believe in one another. It is or it isn't. We do or we don't - but there is no in-between. We are members of the Body of Christ - or we are not.

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