Sermon Archive

You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

New Blood for Old Families

New Blood for Old Families
Ruth 4
January 25, 2015
Jennifer Browne
UUMC

As many in our Gateway study groups have found, the Book of Ruth is a lovely story, universal in its appeal, simple enough for children, complex enough for adults.

But it’s also a mystery.  Its origins and historical background are not known.  The book ends with a genealogy connecting Naomi and Ruth to King David, which tells us that the story could not have been written any earlier than the reign of Israel’s greatest king, in the 10th C BC. 

But many scholars believe that the Book of Ruth was written long after that – even after the Exile, which took place a good 350 years after King David.  By the 6th C BC, Israel had declined in power and strength to such a degree that it was overrun by the Babylonians, its Temple was destroyed, and its citizens were carted off to live in exile.  They returned to Jerusalem 60 years later determined never to allow such a thing to happen again.  Many of them were convinced that the Exile was God’s punishment for their lack of faith.

Did you ever know someone like that?  Someone who thought that the suffering they were experiencing was God’s way of punishing them?  We human beings want explanations, we want to know the cause for what we are experiencing.  We wanted explanations hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.  And we want explanations now.  And when we can’t explain some particularly sad or tragic or difficult situation, we decide that God’s anger must be its cause and our bad behavior must be the reason. 

“It must be,” the Israelites reasoned, “that we were unfaithful.  We didn’t follow the commandments carefully enough.  We broke too many rules.  We failed to be the people God asks us to be. This is why Jerusalem fell; this is why the Temple was destroyed; this is why we live as captives in Babylon.”

So when Babylon itself fell to a yet more powerful world empire, and the captives were released and allowed to return to Jerusalem, they vowed to follow all the rules. They would rebuild the Temple; they would rebuild the wall around the city; they would worship exactly as they were supposed to; they would eat and dress and act exactly as they were supposed to; and they would never allow any outsider to change this.  For example, they would never allow their sons to marry foreign wives.

Do you know anyone like this?  Someone who believes that their own safety and happiness depends on exact adherence to certain rules; someone who fears what is new or different; someone who has drawn a line between “us” and “them” and will do everything within their power to maintain that line?

Lest you think that dragging God into this human resistance to change and new ideas is something that only happened in Old Testament times, remember the statement by the judge who sentenced Mildred and Richard Loving after they were convicted -- in 1958 -- for having married each other across the racial dividing line.  “Almighty God created the races…and he placed them on separate continents,” the judge said. “The fact he separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.”

55 years after the Loving case, in April of this year, the Supreme Court will take up another case about marriage.  It will hear arguments about whether, under the constitution, same-sex couples have a right to marry everywhere in the United States.  As you have no doubt heard, God’s name continues to be used as a weapon against change.   

It is quite possible, the biblical scholars say, that the Book of Ruth was included in the Bible as a voice for change.  In the face of the anti-foreigner sentiment of the newly-returned exiles, the story of Ruth speaks loudly and clearly: look, it says, even King David comes from foreign blood.  Ruth was a Moabite, not an Israelite.  But her courage, loyalty and faith – and her willingness to cross national lines and start a new family – made her the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest monarch. 

Beginning next week we’ll be looking at the Book of Jonah which, in a different way, makes the same point: Israel is not the only nation God loves; the world was not meant to be divided into “us” and “them”; new people, new ideas, new blood are not to be feared as threatening, but are important to the health and future life of any community.

Including the community of this church.

It’s one thing – isn’t it? – to explore Biblical stories of change and the inclusion of new people, or even to consider contemporary societal change and reflect upon its pros and cons.  But it’s another thing to consider what new things and new people need to come into our own lives.  Especially when you’re talking about the church. 

For so many people, the church is a place of tradition and stability, a close family of supportive friends who have formed strong bonds of trust and mutual dependence.  Worship includes music that brings back good memories, sermons that offer familiar messages, prayers that comfort and confirm. You might even sit in the same pew week after week, year after year.  Our church helps us feel grounded, sure of ourselves, reassured at least one day/week that some things never change.

Which cannot be true…and should not be true of the church.

The church, like any organism and any organization, must change if it is going to stay alive.  It must relate to the changing culture in which it lives – not conform, but relate.  It must always be looking for new ways to reach new people…and new ways to inspire old people to reach new people. 

  • So Jesus called his followers to reinterpret what the Kingdom of God was all about. 
  • The Apostle Paul opened the door to that kingdom to gentiles as well as Jews.
  • Martin Luther decided God’s Word should be read in everyday, secular language.
  • John Wesley prodded the church into working for social good as much as for spiritual good. 

So the church has grown and adapted and moved forward, continuing to share the good news of Jesus Christ in ever new, transformed and transforming ways.

Now it’s our turn.  Here, at University United Methodist Church.  It’s time for us to take an honest, thorough look at who we are and how others see us.  It’s time for us to consider where we’re headed if we continue on our current path, and where we want to be headed.  It’s time to explore together our identity as a part of the body of Christ and figure what should remain and what must change in order to live out that identity.

Who are we? What is our purpose? Where should we put our resources? What do we want to look like in 5 or 10 or 15 years? 

I am a firm believer in the power of stories to convey information in a more effective way than numbers can, so let me tell you a few stories about who I think we are….

1.     Just last Sunday, as I took our New Member class on a tour of the facility, we bumped into Keeley Davenport, one of the MSU Wesley student leaders.  Keeley is often here on Sunday mornings and has spoken about Wesley’s mission activities during our Faith in Action time, so you might recognize her.  Keeley came out of the Wesley office as we were headed toward the Copper Chimney Lounge.  “Pastor Jennie,” she said in front of the group of new members, “you have a kick-ass congregation.”  While I might not use exactly the same vocabulary, I completely agree with her.  “Keeley,” I said, “why do you say…that?”  She told us that some of the Wesley students had been encouraged to personally thank UUMC members who had made donations to Wesley by seeking them out on Sunday morning.  When they did so, several of them also received invitations to dinner.  We are a generous, inviting congregation that truly cares about the students in our midst.

2.     On the other hand, you might remember more than a year ago when we used the One-Stop Sign Up sheet to recruit new participants for a variety of different work groups and committees in the church.  Of all the groups we advertised – and there were many – the only one that got no response during the several week stretch was the Communications Committee.  The group that seeks to reach new people via our website, Facebook page, and print advertising.  We are an inviting congregation to those who take the first step and walk in the door…but we need to put greater efforts behind our attempts to reach those who have yet to walk in the door.

3.     I consistently hear wonderful compliments from visitors about being warmly greeted in the sanctuary and Asbury Hall. 

4.     But have you ever driven down Harrison Road and wondered how a visitor would know how to find our front entrance?

5.     Many folks share with me their appreciation for our worship services, especially the excellent music.  The Holy Spirit is here on Sunday mornings in a variety of powerful ways.

6.     But our average worship attendance is on a downward slide and has been for several years.  In 2013 our average worship attendance was 260; in 2014 it was 247.

7.     You gamely supported the decision to purchase the Wesley side of our building, even though it means adding to our mortgage and extending the time it takes to pay it off. 

8.     But now we have to decide what to do with that new space.  What is the best way to use it for our mission?  How does it fit in with the rest of our vision?  

We are not the only ones asking those “big picture” questions about our congregation and its future.  Churches all over the country are asking similar questions, and have similar concerns.  United Methodist churches in our West Michigan Conference are also asking those questions. 

To help us answer them, we have embarked on a 3-year journey called Vital Church Initiative – VCI.  Conference-run program modeled on a highly successful program in the Missouri Conference.

1st year - Involves a group of about 8-10 leaders who meet together one Saturday/month for a year of shared learning and spiritual deepening.

  • Long reading list of books about a variety of aspects of church life.
  • Meet with several other churches of our size.

2nd year – if we decide to go on – intensive self-study. 

  • Demographics, history, neighborhood survey => congregational “personality.”
  • With coaching for pastors and lay leaders alike, we come up with 3-5 “prescriptions” – actions that we believe will move us into a strong, healthy future. 
  • At the end of the 2nd year, the entire church membership votes on those prescriptions.

3rd year – put them into action.

Examples of other churches’ prescriptions:

  • new worship service targeted at the unchurched;
  • new governance structure that allows members more freedom to do ministry without committee meetings;
  • specific plans for communicating with the neighborhood in which the church is located.

In our case, I hope and expect that our prescriptions will include action plans for the use of our facility.  We have a prime location. How are we using it in service to God?

If you’ve been part of a church for more than a few years you know that Vision Plans come and Vision Plans go.  Unless the entire congregation is part of the process of shaping the Vision, it will not be translated into reality.  It’s one thing to put words on a page; it’s another to live them out together.

Obviously, then, each one of you needs to be involved in some way in our VCI process.  It is not possible, nor advisable, for all 494 members of UUMC to meet for 5 hours one Saturday/month or to read one book/month – which is what the VCI team members will be doing. Let’s call that team the “Travel Team,” since we travel for those monthly meetings. 

Our plan is to offer you the opportunity to be part of a “Home Team,” that will also meet once/month, for a much shorter length of time, to hear what the Travel Team learned and did, to experience some of the spiritual and practical exercises that we experienced, to read some of our assigned reading if you’re interested, and to discuss together who we are and where we’re headed.

First Home Team gathering – Sunday, February 8, after worship.  Pete Marvin, Travel Team member, will be leading it.  One-Stop Sign-up sheet!

“Where you go, I will go.  Where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your God will be my God, and your people my people.”  We can read those words as if they were just words on a page.  But when Ruth spoke them to Naomi they were much more. 

  • They were willingness… to move into a new future.
  • They were courage…to face the unknown.
  • They were opportunity…to incorporate new blood into an old family.
  • They were vision…of a people dedicated to God, blessed to be a blessing, a light to the nations. 

We are heirs to Ruth’s vision.  Now it’s our turn to step out in faith together.

 

 

 

 

References

Bill of Rights Institute.  “Loving vs. Virginia (1967)”

http://billofrightsinstitute.org/resources/educator-resources/lessons-plans/landmark-cases-and-the-constitution/loving-v-virginia-1967/

Gay Marriage Pros and Cons. “Should Gay Marriage Be Legal?” http://gaymarriage.procon.org/#Background