Archive for March 2012

Wesley Memorial: a vital congregation???

March 7, 2012

What is a good measure of success? Most people would say numbers. Numbers seem not to lie. They are facts, right? Numbers are a quantitative, objective way to measure growth, decline, success or loss. But I am a firm believer that numbers do not tell the whole story; in a way numbers can and do lie.

Right now the United Methodist Church is calling churches to hand over their numbers. This church-wide data collection is called a “Call to Action” meant to help churches assess their vitality and grow into more vital congregations. Our church, Wesley Memorial, had already begun a visioning process when the UMC Vital Congregation initiative was introduced. We have had many conversations, looking at and studying numbers, numbers, numbers over the last two years. We do want to grow and we know some changes must be made in order for us to have a more sustainable congregation. Otherwise, as the UM Vital Congregation graph predicts (see below), we will be dead within a decade. Most churches and pastors, however, are treating this call for numbers as just more paperwork outside the usual Tables I, II, III and Charge Conference forms that are both filled out every calendar year. Most churches know their numbers inside and out, and most churches are always looking to grow. But can studying and focusing on our numbers really help us become more vital congregations? In some ways, yes. But do numbers tell the whole story? Can numbers truly say if a church is vital or not?

I would argue that Wesley Memorial is a vital congregation in many ways. We do need some growth to financially sustain us over the next decade, but if we ceased to exist today I think the community would feel the effects of our doors shutting. For a small church, we do an enormous amount of outreach in many areas of our community. Over the course of 12 months we serve, support and provide financial assistance to over 15 local non-profits, charities or ministries. When there is a need in our community, our church is quick to respond. We average 50-60 on Sunday mornings, which in the South is considered a “small” congregation. But of the 50 to 60 members and regular attendees, 100% of them are involved in outreach, evangelism and small groups. I’d rather have a small church with only 50-60 congregants and 100% participation than a mega church with less than 10% participation. The generosity and compassion of my church never ceases to amaze me. God has been able to use something small, like Wesley Memorial, to do great things for our neighbors and the Kingdom of God, and I believe God will continue to use our church in mighty ways as long as we continue to seek God, love our neighbors and invite people to join our discipleship community at Wesley Memorial. According to the vital congregation graph, Wesley Memorial is not vital; we are a dying church. Numbers do not tell the whole truth, and thank goodness we worship a God in the business of miracles and resurrection! The goals for our church attest to our belief that God can and will nurture our church in growth and vitality in areas where we need growth and vitality. With God, we have the power to change our predicted future. With God, nothing is impossible. With God, numbers never mattered much. Time and time again in the Bible, God is able to take the few, the small, the seemingly non-vital people and things and make great things happen–Moses’ rod, David’s sling, the widow’s pots, twelve rag-tag disciples, a boy’s lunch. Nothing is impossible for God.

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Speaking the Truth: 2 Chronicles 34:20-33

March 5, 2012

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Sipes on Sunday, March 4, 2012 at Wesley Memorial UMC

This Sunday we continue our Lenten Disciple-2-Disciple sermon series where we are learning from the great cloud of witnesses of scripture how to be better disciples. Last week we learned from Deborah and Barak two very important lessons for our Lenten journey and our lives as disciples in our world today. Deborah and Barak taught us in Judges 4 that 1.) We need God, and 2.) We need each other. Today we learn from two more Old Testament disciples, another woman and another man. We learn from the prophetess Huldah and King Josiah. Hear the Word of God in 2 Chronicles 34:20-33.

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If you have spent any time reading about the prophets in the Bible you might have seen that prophets aren’t always well-liked people. They are respected, but not liked because prophets for the most part did not always have good news for God’s people. Prophets were spokespeople for God, and God uses prophets to lead his people back to him and often that road back to God, as many of us know, is not an easy journey to make. In our scripture lesson for today God used Huldah, a wife, a mother and a prophetess to lead God’s people back to God because once again, like we saw in our scripture lesson last week, God’s people have strayed. They have turned their backs on God. They have forsaken their covenant. They are worshipping other gods.

Huldah dared to speak a word of judgment and reproof to God’s people which they needed to hear. Huldah’s message from God surely wasn’t easy to deliver, and I am sure it wasn’t easy to hear. Sometimes as God’s people we need a little tough loving when we stray from God. Sometimes as disciples we have to speak the hard truth to our brothers and sisters in Christ and to the world around us. As disciples we are called to practice this tough love on the people we love most, knowing that such love is for their best interest and growth. Remember last week we learned that we need one another, and part of needing one another is needing an honest accountability partner who will challenge us to see our mistakes and learn from them so that we can grow more and more into the image of God which we were all created.

Two weeks ago in our Sunday afternoon bible study, one of the presenters on a video clip we watched said that there aren’t too many people willing to “risk community” today.[1] Risk community. Think about that for a moment. What does it mean to risk community? What I think he meant was that being a part of a community, or in our case a church, doesn’t mean just gathering together once a week or for an hour here and there, but being community means involving ourselves in each others’ lives though all the good and bad, through all the easy and tough times and through all the clear and chaotic moments. The presenter went on to say that being a part of the community of God is “obligating” ourselves in the lives of our brothers and sisters at church just as Jesus so intimately involved or obligated himself in the lives of his disciples. As disciples of Jesus Christ or as baptized people who have been initiated into the family of God, we are called or obligated to keep one another accountable to the Word of God; part of discipleship is keeping one another accountable, and that is exactly what Huldah is doing in our verses today.

She isn’t just blindly making up rules for the sake of being hard on God’s people; her message isn’t one rooted in jealousy, revenge, vengeance or anger. She isn’t out to make other people look bad, so she herself will look good. Sometimes that’s how we are as humans. We like to point out faults in others so we feel better about ourselves. But that is not what Huldah is doing. Huldah is a true spokeswoman for God. She is attuned to God and committed to God’s Word even when everyone else around her was not. We have to know God’s Word to speak the truth to God’s people. Because Huldah knows God’s Word, she is able to speak the truth. Huldah lives by the Word of God and because of that she is able to help the Israelites see that they have turned their backs on God—that they have failed to let the Word of God shape their lives.

We have all been where the Israelites have been, right? I know I have. I have strayed from God and done my own thing without listening or caring if it is what God wants. I have been distracted, too busy and sometimes too lazy to immerse myself in the Word of God, or to make the Word of God the foundation or center of my life. A life in Christ, life as a disciple, takes work and sometimes it is just too hard and I am just too tired and too busy with all I have to do to make time for God. Have you been there?

I bet I can venture to guess that we have all been there. That is where the Israelites were, and Huldah spoke her message of tough love to all of Israel—even to the king. The thing I love about Huldah is that she doesn’t compromise her message for anyone. She calls it how it is no matter if you’re a peasant, priest, merchant or king.[2] Huldah’s message is the same message whether you’re rich or poor, young or old, educated or not educated, black or white. Huldah’s message of judgment and call to return to God is a timeless message for disciples of all ages and cultures. Huldah begins her message by saying, “Tell the man who sent you to me.” Now, Huldah knows very well that it is King Josiah, the great King of Judah, who is asking for her advice. But at first Huldah doesn’t even acknowledge Josiah as a king; she simply calls him a man—a man who in his very humanness has turned from God, a man who has sinned, a man who has not kept God’s people accountable to the Word of God.

All men and women, girls and boys—all people great and small as our verses in 2 Chronicles tell us—are prone to wander from God—as that old hymn says. It is also as Paul says in Romans 7, “I do not do what I want or should do, but do the very things I know I should not do.” From time to time, as disciples of Christ, we slip back into our old selves and forget that we have been made new and clothed in righteousness and holiness as our verses Ephesians 4 said this morning. Huldah was not impressed by positions or power; she told the King of Judah and his whole kingdom to get right with the Lord, to return to God, to renew their covenant with God.[3] God is also not impressed with positions or power. From time to time we all need renewal; we all need to have these return-to-the-Lord moments where someone we love speaks the hard-to-hear truth to us with love and compassion the way Huldah did to King Josiah and the Israelites. As disciples today, we need to be reminded that an important part of discipleship is keeping one another accountable to God’s Word. As disciples we all need a Huldah in our lives to keep us accountable. Who is your Huldah? Who is keeping you accountable? If you do not have such a person in your life, find one.

As I have said, Huldah’s message couldn’t have been an easy one to deliver. For me, I know it is hard to tell my own friends and family when I think they are doing something they should not be doing. I’m too afraid of what they will think or how they will react, and I don’t feel like I have any responsibility or right to call their attention to some obvious wrongs in their lives. But Huldah doesn’t seem to think about all that; she seems to be so brave and confident delivering her message of judgment and call for repentance and renewal. Nothing, not even standing before a king and a whole nation, stops Huldah from sharing the Word of God. But God shows us through Huldah that one person can make a difference in a thousand lives.[4] Huldah’s decision to speak the truth about the Word of God led to changes for a whole nation. Sometimes as disciples it is easy to get discouraged; it is easy to think of ourselves as the alone one or the very few, but as our Columbia DS, Rev. Tim McClendon, likes to remind me: “Do not fear to sow on account of the birds.” We cannot fear sharing the Word of God or speaking the truth in difficult situations just because we think no one is listening or no one cares. Sometimes we just don’t know what kind of difference our words make in the lives of others; we are all called to be spokespeople or witnesses for God in all we say and do.

But we’re not always the one called to speak the truth; sometimes we’re the ones receiving the message of judgment like King Josiah and the Israelites—such a message is never easy to hear. It is not easy to receive criticism, to be told we’re in the wrong, to be told that we need to change. King Josiah could have had Huldah killed for her message of judgment and call for repentance. He could have been defensive and called Huldah a liar. He could have ignored her and kept on living away from the Word of God. He could have consulted another prophet who would give him a better, happier message. But King Josiah was a man of God. When he heard Huldah’s words, he was upset and ashamed, but most of all he knew Huldah was right; he knew she was speaking the truth from the Word of God. He knew he needed to make some changes in his own life and the life of his nation. King Josiah was led to repentance and covenant renewal, and he could receive Huldah’s message because he knew that with God there is always forgiveness. Huldah’s message was one of judgment, but it was also one of compassion and mercy because the God we worship is a God of compassion, mercy, and love who offers forgiveness if we but come to God.

King Josiah knew that though we are still held responsible and accountable for our sins and even though there are consequences to the bad decisions we make in our lives. With God we live in a state of grace and forgiveness. God offers us second and third and fourth chances. How many times have we heard stories this year alone about the Israelites or God’s people turning from God? God did not give up on them, and God does not give up on us, but with forgiveness we must confront our sins, seek repentance and change. Like King Josiah, we have a choice to how we respond when we are found in the wrong. We can choose to ignore those voices of truth in our lives; those voices that speak hard-to-hear words of truth out love for us, or we can be like King Josiah and choose to make changes in our lives with the help of God and others. King Josiah’s decision to listen to Huldah, the decision of this one man, one leader and king, again the is decision of one led to changes in thousands of lives.

We are told in chapter 33 that throughout the rest of King Josiah’s days, the Israelites did not turn away from God. That would not have been the case if Huldah hadn’t had the courage to speak up to a king and at a time when speaking the truth was very difficult. Huldah’s decision to speak the truth from the Word of God transformed their world, and King Josiah’s decision to listen to Huldah and make changes in his life transformed the world as well. We learn from Huldah and King Josiah that as disciples we are called to know the Word of God so that we can speak the truth even in difficult situations, but also as disciples we are called to be held accountable by others; as disciples we need the truth spoken to us from time to time because we never know if we are the one that will be the transformation the world needs. Huldah and King Josiah were open and available to hearing the truth God had for their lives and the world, and they allowed themselves to be changed when they heard the truth. Are you, as Christ’s disciples today, open and available to hearing God and the changes and transformations he is calling you to make in your life? Are you open and available for being the one to speak the trust in a world that has turned their backs on God? Huldah and King Josiah teach us that God uses his disciples—God uses us—in mighty ways that can transform the world around us. How are you making yourself available to God? Amen.


[1] David A. deSilva in Invitation to the New Testament: a short term Disciple Bible Study (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), Session 4, part I.

[4] http://hyphenbird.hubpages.com/hub/Huldah-Israels-Prophetess-and-Professor

 

March 4 Sermon Notes (click to see the WordDoc with all Rev. Sipes’ sermon notes and works referenced)

Lenten Sermon Series

March 2, 2012