Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Fishing with the United Methodist Pole

Mark 1: 14-20

What a wonderful image we have today- Jesus fishing for people, enabling others to do the same. Jesus by the lakeshore, walking in the sand. Jesus crooking his finger and the disciples come running.

But fishing not the greatest vision, if you are a fish. You either get hooked by discovering that the shiny little pretty or the tantalizing bit of food turns out to be nothing but a hook in your mouth and a bit of rubber and feather, or you do get a little bit of food, but you still get the hook. And the hook hauls you to a place where you can’t breathe, and you either die there, or some large being takes the hook out of your mouth and throws you back.

If you are lucky enough to be thrown back, you hope that you never bite into a piece of food that hurts you ever again. It would be enough to put you off eating.

What you have just read is an over-analyzed metaphor. Jesus’ metaphor was clever, and it gave his mission very quickly, it is also our mission as a church- we are called to fish for people, which is half of the two interpretations of making disciples for Jesus Christ.

What I would like to do today is to think big picture. It’s January, the time when a lot of pastors think or talk out loud about the direction of their church. January preacheritis. I have succumbed to the disease, and i'm going to do that today. I am going to think about the denomination as a whole- The United Methodist Church. And I want to think about the kind of fishers of people that we are.

Who are we as a denomination?

Are we the church that allows pastors to bar people from becoming members for various reasons? Are we a church that demands that people who join us agree and sign a paper that says they believe certain things about God, Jesus the Bible and heaven?

Or are we the church that loves everyone, that allows people to freely come and go, as they see fit, because God works in each person’s life, and we are there to shepherd them as they come to us, and expect no support in exchange for the good we do?

Or are we the church that stands as an institution? Are we a bulwark in American society strong enough to be able to say that I am Methodist, I stand for something?

We are all of these things. We are also a lot more. We are also a lot less.

The truth is, in this time in American History, in World history, it is not easy to say anything about who we are. The terrain has changed. We are not the middle class American, anti-Communist, church any more. As we have grown out of the 1950’s, we have sprouted aspects of what used to be the characteristics of Baptists only. We also carry aspects of what used to be called Episcopalian. As a denomination, we have always bridged that gap, but now it has seeped far deeper into our character.

The world has changed. Church has changed. What makes us unique, as Methodists, now?

I believe that the thing that makes us unique isn’t our style of music. You go to energetic, vital United Methodist churches around the world, and you will hear fantastic organs and chorus of voices that sound as perfect and angelic as anything you’d hear in Westminster Abbey. You’d also hear the sounds of African a capella voices. You’d hear the quiet contemplative singing of acoustic guitar and voices, and the sharp electric guitars and thump of drums. And all of it is beautiful, and United Methodist.

Maybe you can tell who Methodists are by the way the clergy dress. Nope, sorry. White albs, black academic robes, suits, dresses, denim shirts and khaki pants, saris.

How about the way the laypeople dress? Nope. The people in the pews are more varied in their dress than the people behind the pulpit are.

To say that as United Methodists, we are all Christian is not enough. We have a unique flavor that you should be able to find in every Methodist church, Shavertown to Seattle, Montrose to Mozambique. Here is what I think that is.

First, we understand that God works in the world not to divide, but to unify. God sent Jesus into the world not to separate the sheep from the goats, but to get God’s people to believe that they are all sheep. We are all worthy of the love of God and the promise of heaven. Jesus came to make the all world understand that we are “we.”

Second, if you believe in God, and seek earnestly after his wisdom in your life and actions, you will go to heaven. No strings attached. Blessed Assurance, indeed!

If these sound obvious to you and perhaps a little disappointing, let me say to you that there are a lot of churches that do not believe one or the other.

Those things being said, here are the things that, I believe, we are not, or shouldn’t be:
The Republican party at prayer.
The Democratic party at prayer
Middle class, white, self centered seekers of our own salvations.
Absolved of any responsibility to take care of our fellow humans in the world.

The stated goal of the United Methodist church is to make Disciples of Jesus Christ. The best thing about that mission statement is that it is pretty universal. It can mean both that we are called to evangelize the world, or that we are called to Christian formation of those who have already been baptized. And I believe that our call is to both.

We are called to do both. God loves the world, and wants the world to live closer to what God had planned. We, as his adopted children, are the people to act on his behalf.

We are not called to make the whole world Methodist. We are not called to force the whole world to become Christian. We are called to understand Wesley’s phrase “the World is our parish” as a guideline for our own lives in Christ.

When Jesus walked along the beach and called James and Andrew, and went to all of those other places and called all of those other people, he started a chain that has led to the people of our denomination. It is called, as are all others, to serve Christ, and we are called to serve Christ from our unique understanding of how God works in the world. We are called to serve from our Wesleyan understanding.

We are called to fish with a Wesleyan pole, as it were.

We are called to lead with grace, with acceptance, and with love. There are no people who are outside our message of the Gospel, our welcome to God’s love, or eligibility for membership in our churches. Or at least there shouldn’t be. Where we have made less than loving choices, we have fallen short of the glory of God. We have switched the bait for the pain of the hook.

We are an international church, who seeks to welcome those of all nations into our churches. And this is the right thing to do. Let us continue to seek God’s grace and guidance to remain this way, and let us seek God’s forgiveness when we have fallen short of his plan for the world. And I pray, serving this church in this place, that we do our part to make sure that God’s universal love in known to all who hear of us. and when I see the best of the church, I see that it is very possible.