Authentically United Methodist: When We’re Kingdom Building

Authentically United Methodist: When We’re Kingdom Building

July 12, 2015

Rev. Michael F. Bailey

Isaiah 58:6-12

Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of injustice,
  to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
  and to break every yoke? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
  and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
  and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
  and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
  the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
  you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you,
  the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
if you offer your food to the hungry
  and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
  and your gloom be like the noonday. 
The Lord will guide you continually,
  and satisfy your needs in parched places,
  and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
  like a spring of water,
  whose waters never fail. 
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
  you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
  the restorer of streets to live in. 

Let me begin by again expressing a word of thanks to this loving congregation of Christians for all of the expressions of kindness, cards, calls, prayers and support around last Sunday’s memorial service for my mother-in-law. Lauralee and I were moved that so many of you attended the service. You’re truly a great, loving church, and I trust and pray you extend such support to all in the church, not just the pastoral staff.       

We continue today a sermon series on what makes us different as United Methodists from other branches of the Christian family tree. Let me share the standard disclaimer of the series: Each emphasis we have exists in about every other part of Christianity, but the combination of our emphases, where we put our accent marks, is what makes us different. We started with our emphasis on how we experience God as a graceful, loving, seeking God, as opposed to some groups who portray God as “vengeful and out to get” humans. God is loving in that God doesn’t want God’s children to live in doubt of Divine Love and gives us the gift of assurance of our salvation. Then, last week, under Rev. Kjorlaug’s leadership, we looked at the Wesleyan call to live a disciplined spiritual life that leads to grace flowing into and from us. This grace influences our way of viewing self and others. Today, we consider our Wesleyan distinctive of being activist, kingdom-building Christians. When we are being authentically United Methodist, we are those who partner with God in fulfilling the Lord’s Prayer of God’s will being “done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are those who seek fairness and justice and compassion for all. We are those who celebrate that we have a personal relationship with Christ but that relationship is never private; it affects how we shape our society.

Also, each week we’ve been looking at our “distinctive” through the “plumb-line” of all we do, the Holy Writ, and a quote from Wesley. Here’s this week’s rather pungent quote from Wesley:

“Directly opposite this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is NOT to be found there. Holy solitaries is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers! The gospel of Christ knows no holiness but social holiness.”

Given Wesley’s choice of word, one gets the feeling he felt pretty strongly that our personal relationship with Christ has salient social dimensions.

Here’s our approach today: we’ll quickly look at the “times” when Isaiah and Wesley wrote and see if we can capture how their words speak to our time.

Isaiah is a wonderful book written over 3 major epochs in the history of Israel. The first portion of the book was written in the times before the people of Israel were exiled into Babylon. The second part of the book was written during the exile. It dreams of the return to Israel and the temple where God’s society of justice would be extant, the beautiful temple restored and worship pure and wonderful. The third portion of Isaiah was written after the return had occurred. It’s content is one of abject disappointment. You see, when the exiles returned the temple wasn’t beautiful but rather was rubbished up. While they had dreamed of a united society that followed God’s heart of care and acceptance for all, they found a fractured society—one that didn’t accept the exiles; was marked by arguments and disagreements; one that ignored God’s special concern and laws regarding caring for the orphans and widows.

There were those around when they returned who were keeping some of the worship traditions of the Temple. However, they were doing so for all the wrong reasons. The first six verses of chapter 58 reveal this. You see, their worship life, their fasting, was all for themselves! They had a kind of “coke machine” theology at play; I’ll put in the “coinage” of fasting and God will give me “such and such.” In other words “I fast because God will then be required to do something for me.” That’s why our passage picks up with Isaiah, speaking for God, stating the kind of fast God wants – in a sentence, God desired then and now for worship that leads to caring for the oppressed, hungry, homeless and vulnerable.

Wesley’s day had some parallels to Isaiah’s: just as there was a huge population movement in Isaiah as the exiles returned, in Wesley’s day there was a huge population movement toward the cities. The industrial revolution had just kicked off and manufacturing had started. People flocked to the cities from the agrarian areas of England. The cities in many ways were overwhelmed and unable to handle these near refugees like masses. London had no safe sanitation or drinking water. Prostitution was rampant. Poverty, homelessness marked the lives of masses of people. The “crack cocaine” of the day – a type of poisonous gin – flowed; imprisonment occurred for entire families, children included, for small debts; the factories were dangerous, frequently mangling, injuring and killing workers; 72-hour-plus, 6-day-a-week hours were common; wages were low and there was no job security if you could find work; there were practically no schools for the public.

And yet, against such a dire social quagmire, the established church was doing little to connect with the poor and make the world a more fair and compassionate place. And this is the big picture context of Wesley’s quote; from the bottom of his heart Wesley wanted the people called Methodists to have a personal relationship with Christ and an affect socially and in society for the poor. One of his favorite verses came from Isaiah and our passage; Wesley was committed to not hide himself “from his own flesh,” the poor and the marginalized. As he traveled tens of thousands of miles preaching, he most often stayed in the houses of the poor. As the movement grew, there were wealthy Methodists and he could have stayed in comfort, but instead he stayed with the poor. Wesley felt that the root of the problem of the church neglecting the poor was that most in the church had no relationship with the poor and had never been in the home of a poor person – to experience their burdens, hopes, dreams, and humanity. All the while the established church had a place in the House of Lords and the Royal Court. The established church had beautiful buildings which some of you who have visited England have seen. The church had splendid vestments and magnificent worship services. And the church had this huge disconnect with her mission of caring for the least and lost.

Here’s what troubles me: I suspect that there are more congregations in Greensboro than there are filling stations. They gather on their Sabbaths and worship, they do some good through giving a portion of their offerings to charity – but there is still a disconnect with real change. We are the top city in the United States for food insecurity; how can this be in a city so “templed and churched”? Does it break your heart church that tonight in a home with no air-conditioning a baby won’t be able to sleep because of the hunger pains in her tummy? And of course there are a myriad of other “wicked” problems: a divide between East and West Greensboro; racial mistrust; inequities in education – some of our young people are in programs in public high schools that grant them university credit at Duke, others graduate functionally illiterate. We’ve not been in the homes of the poor, I suspect, and can’t imagine them. I was speaking with a physician friend of mine that has a ministry among the poor and asked her what was the most prevalent health issue she encountered among impoverished children. Her answer was asthma from the roach droppings in their homes. Some among us can’t find work and if found it doesn’t pay enough to be called a living wage. Wouldn’t Jesus want us to do something, or to just turn a blind eye?

It seems to me that Greensboro needs the people called Methodists to be true to their heritage of social holiness now, more than ever!

From Wesley’s quote and our Isaiah passage let me share some initial thoughts I have. I hope this isn’t the close of conversation. I hope you’ll contemplate and discern as well; I hope we’ll have conversation about how we can influence this city to be what God wants it to be for all her citizens.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about as a starting point of such discernment:

Realize we’re all in this together – as a congregation and as a city. Wesley railed against notion of “solitary religion.” He called us to practice a holiness that recognizes we’re all in this together. In the church it means that we journey in the faith together, not in isolation. We’re authentically United Methodist when we “watch over one another in love,” pray for each other, encourage each other and support each other. That’s one dimension of “social holiness.”

We’re also all in this together as a city. Our relationship with Christ affects our relationship with others and how we believe God wants our city to be – a place of justice and compassion for all. Here’s a start: Let’s repent and seek forgiveness for any “us” and “them” attitudes in our hearts and then and call our city to the same! Isaiah remind us regarding, the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, the naked – they are our own flesh, our family – that young woman walking the streets, she is a daddy’s little girl, she is our sister. That homeless man on the corner, he is a mother’s dream and he is our brother. We’re all in this together and what we do with that and about that is another dimension of Wesleyan social holiness.

And then, our quote and text lead me to think we need to recognize a distraction when we encounter one. There is so much fluff that distracts us from our primary tasks as Wesleyan Christians: to be both evangelical and social justice drum majors. Much of the distracting fluff is that which passes for entertainment, nowadays. I heard on a TED talk radio show recently about someone saying they didn’t have enough time to do anything. They were then asked a rather probing question: You mean you watch absolutely no television? You see, the average person watches 30 hours a week.

We have time; it’s just a matter of how we are Christian stewards over this resource.

Isaiah though, shares an even deeper level of distraction – the speaking of wickedness and pointing of fingers. We’ve probably all heard about how this can derail a congregation from saving souls and feeding the hungry. A congregation gets caught up in gossip, or starts choosing sides, causing them to not feed souls or bodies.

And it seems that we live in a civic atmosphere filled with distractions. Politicians seem to be able to stir up the pot of the electorate in their zero-sum, no-compromise, winner-take-all ways. This kind of venomous atmosphere gets even Christians accusing one another, pointing fingers about lesser issues while other issues of life and death, go un-noticed. Ask God’s help in recognizing a distraction when you encounter one.

Last, realize the need for the people called Methodists – individually, congregationally and even denominationally – to, in Isaiah’s words, “pour yourself out for the hungry. Yourself, you…yourself, you Christ Church…yourself, you United Methodism.

Think how disruptive pouring is! Imagine a stable bucket filled with water. That’s status quo; the way things are. Then the bucket tilts, the equilibrium is disturbed, the water splashes and sloshes out; a resource is emptied and not reserved. I seem to recall one that “poured and emptied himself out, taking the form of a servant,” Jesus. If we are to claim the name Christian, those on Jesus’ way, our past as United Methodists pouring themselves all out for the poor, the hungry and the marginalized must be our future. After all, that’s why so many of us love this tradition – it is one that believes God has changed our lives individually in order to make a difference in our society.

And then our ever faithful God will cause “our light to break forth like the dawn,
  and our healing to spring up quickly;
Then we shall call, and the Lord will answer;
  we shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 
then our light shall rise in the darkness
  and our gloom be like the noonday. 
The Lord will guide us continually,
  and satisfy our needs in parched places,
and we shall be like a watered garden,
  like a spring of water,
  whose waters never fail.”

There are a lot of church renewal pundits – I believe this is the way God will renew the United Methodist Church, IF we are authentically United Methodists, building the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.