1 Corinthians 12:12-26
Christianity 101:The Basics
There were four small churches in a small North Carolina town: The Presbyterian Church, the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church and the Catholic Church. Each church was overrun with pesky squirrels. One day, the Presbyterian Church called a meeting to decide what to do about the squirrels. After much prayer and consideration they determined that the squirrels were predestined to be there and they shouldn’t interfere with God’s divine will. In the Baptist Church the squirrels had taken up habitation in the baptistery. The deacons met and decided to put a large plywood cover on the baptistery and flood it. The squirrels escaped somehow and there were twice as many there the next week. The Catholic group got together and decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God’s creation. So, they humanely trapped the squirrels and set them free a few miles outside of town. Three days later, the squirrels were back. But — the Methodist Church came up with the best and most effective solution. They baptized the squirrels and registered them as members of the church. Now they only see them on Christmas and Easter.
Yes we laugh at that joke partly because it pokes fun of stereotypes and partly because if we don’t we will cry about the truth it contains. We United Methodists have a reputation. The reason I started this sermon series was because of our reputation. Jon Stewart said that we Methodists are the “University of Phoenix of religions.” He was referring to the fact that we as Methodists can believe whatever we want and we don’t demand too much from our members. Plus, our members really don’t know what it means to be United Methodist in the first place, it is simply the blind leading the blind.
I wanted to end this sermon series talking about our denomination and what makes us unique. I’m not going to compare us to other denominations but I’m going to attempt to only speak about who we are as a denomination and what characteristics set us apart from others. I’m also going to just come out and say that I don’t think that we United Methodists are perfect, although we are striving to be. We have a great system but there are a ton of problems too. It is a human system, a man made institution so we will have issues. Yet, I have given my life to this institution, this denomination because I believe in it. Although it is has its faults and problems, I believe it holds the best way to be Church in this world.
Now before we can jump in we do need to recognize and admit something. Andy Crouch was one of the speakers at Duke’s Convocation and Pastor’s School this year. He is an author, an editor, a musician and a great speaker. One of the things that have stuck with me over the months since his talk is the realization that “form matters.” The form of something is important to understand because it gives insight to why things are the way things. Let me give you a couple of examples that he gave us during his talk.
First of all do know why the average pop song is only 3-4 minutes long? Is it because that is how long it takes Taylor Swift to talk about her understanding of love? Is it because that is how long it takes Justin Bieber to describe his life experiences? Is it because that is how long we can really put up with a guitar rift or a drum beat? Actually this form goes back to the old 78-rpm records. Did anyone every own any 78s? These were the first records that were put out and they only had two songs on them; one song on side A and another on side B. 78s could only hold so much information on them and the songs could only last about 3 minutes. Since these records were the start of pop music, now our brains are tuned into a pop song for about the same time frame. Although there is great music that can last longer than 3 minutes. Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Free Bird” lasts 9:09 on their album and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” lasts 8:03. But let’s face it; we even get tired of singing a hymn if it lasts longer than 3 minutes. All of that because of the form music started with, a 78-rpm record.
Another thing to notice is where the hustle and bustle of our town has moved from. When our church started in 1922, where was the main focus of energy in Thomasville? It was downtown. But what form was downtown that drew people there? The railroad station. The railroad was the lifeline to this town and enabled material, products, and people to come and go. Around 1960 something new showed up in Thomasville and drew people and businesses to National Highway area. Does anyone know what that was? Interstate 85. Now if we look at where the most business and where the most hustle and bustle in our fair city is it is on Randolph Street which is a main exit off of the newer I85. In fact that is all I knew about Thomasville before I moved here. I had stopped here on my way from Charlotte to Durham a couple times to grab a bite to eat and get some gas. The interstate plays a huge role in the form of our city. Try to imagine Thomasville without the interstate…you think the city looks empty in places now!
Form matters and understanding the form of something brings to light why we do what we do. The United Methodist church has a form. There have been things that have formed us into what we are today. There is meaning and purpose behind them but if we forget it we will forget who we are as a denomination. So what are some of these forms that define us?
We have to start with our name, Methodists. It started as a put down while John and Charles Wesley were at Oxford. When they were in college they started a club to deepen people’s relationship with God. This club got the nickname “Holy Club” because of their fervent study of scripture and concentration on visiting the sick and imprisoned. This group was also well organized and because of that people also joked about how methodical this club was. We are still extremely methodical today and that is where the name Methodist came from. As Wesley’s movement started to grow in England John could not be everywhere he needed to be at the same time. So he set up classes and bans, basically what we call today ‘small groups’, which would follow certain guidelines and rules in their meetings. He eventually sent ministers out to different areas too to make sure people were doing things correctly and were following the guidelines. When the Methodist movement hit America this continued and circuit riders were born. These were ordained clergy who traveled around from church to church making sure things were being done the Methodist way by the laity in charge of those congregations.
All of this organization, all of this methodical protocol, follows us here to the United Methodist Church. Another joke is that we are organized to beat the devil. Each United Methodist Church has to have at least four committees, Finance, Trustees, Pastor Parish Relations Committee and Church Council. Without these committees, there is no UMC. Each UMC is part of a District run by a District Superintendent and each District is in a Conference which is run by a Bishop. The Church Council is the decision making body of the local church and the Annual Conference is the decision making body of the Conference. The General Conference, in turn, is the decision making body for the denomination. I could go on and on and on about our organization but what is the reason behind it?
This form, our intense organization, does serve a purpose. John Wesley was quoted saying, “solitary religion is invalid.” This means that religion practiced alone isn’t real. Christianity is a communal religion and we United Methodist are reminded of that through our organization. Through our committees, districts, and conferences we are held accountable as a church. We cannot run off and do our own thing here at Trinity because of the United Methodist part of our name. Because we are a United Methodist congregation we have to follow what is in the Discipline and we have to live up to the expectations of our system. This is a constant reminder that we are a part of something bigger but also a vital and integral part of it too. Like Paul said to the churches of Corinth, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” This holds true in our United Methodist organization.
A very Methodist word for the feeling of accountability and organization is “Connectionalism”. We are a connectional system which means that every United Methodist Church is tied together in our denomination. No one congregation stands alone, we are all united. This is comes out in different forms also. As one of the books I read through this week said, “Life in the United Methodist Church belongs to all of us and not to any one of us.” To give you one place where this is lived out is in the Trust Clause. The Trust Clause is something that is put into every deed of property the church owns, so this means church property and parsonage property. What this Trust Clause states is that the ownership of the property belongs to the denomination, not the local church. The local church is entrusted with this property and is asked to take care of it. That is why we have Trustees. But if we were to close the doors of our church the property would go to the denomination not the members. We are a part of something bigger.
Another way this comes out is with another very Methodist word, Itinerancy. We have an itinerant system with our clergy. This means that clergy are appointed by the Cabinet, the DSs and Bishop. We are only appointed one year at a time, which means every year, at this time, I don’t answer my phone when I see it is the DS. There is no official length of time a UM Clergy can serve a church. Some serve for one year and then move, others have served congregations for over twenty years. When I became a minister I had to promise to be faithful to the itinerant system and go where I was sent. This form does something wonderful though. In an ideal world it sets up clergy with specific talents and gifts with congregations that could use those talents and gifts to grow the church.
This also enables freedom from behind to pulpit. Because I am appointed by the bishop and not hired through the local church I can say what God lays on my heart without fear that I’ll have to move on Monday. This means we can stay faithful to God’s Word and not pander to the congregations we serve. (not saying this doesn’t still happen)
What itinerancy and connectionalism does is once again remind us we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are a part of The Body. Each UM Church, like Paul describes, is a part of the body, an arm, a leg, a heart, a kidney and we all serve a purpose for the Body. My hope is that we are not at least the appendix. Because we are a part of something bigger it gives us a farther reach. As the Book of Discipline states we are “multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust.” Linda and Saundra are getting on a plane today and flying to Kenya where they will encounter United Methodist Congregations. When we pay apportionments we are funding ministry that stays here locally and goes around the world. Our system really shows that we are a part of something more, something larger than ourselves.
There are other forms in the United Methodist system that also point beyond us. Theologically we are in the middle of the road or as one author put it, we hold down the extreme center. On the outside this may look like we don’t believe anything because we run the gambit. You can’t say that the United Methodist Church is too liberal or too conservative because both would be true. We may consider ourselves here at Trinity to be of moderate theology but then two UM churches away they may consider themselves more conservative and next to them another UMC that is more liberal. “Wesleyan theology stands at a unique cross-roads between evangelical and sacramental, between liturgical and charismatic, and between Anglo-Catholic and Reformed theology and practice.” If we went around the sanctuary today we would find that even our members vary in their theological stance and beliefs. But that is why I love the UMC because I also think that is what the Kingdom of God best looks like.
This can be seen clearly as we poke fun of ourselves too. How many United Methodists does it take to screw in a light bulb? The answer…”Undetermined. Whether your light is bright, dull, or completely out, you are loved –you can be a light bulb, turnip bulb, or tulip bulb. Church wide lighting service is planned for Sunday. Bring bulb of your choice and a covered dish.” Sure it’s funny and pokes fun of us but this is the perception one can get when trying to walk in the middle of the road and to hold down the extreme center.
John and Charles Wesley’s vision was to build a system that held people accountable and gave enough structure to people’s lives in order that they grew into a deeper relationship with God. This is lived out in our church today and as we strive to understand God better and how to be God’s people for this world. Because of the form that makes up the UMC I think that is the best way to live out what Paul expresses here in 1 Corinthians. We all are the Body of Christ and we all have certain gifts, talents and perspectives. If we can learn to journey in the conversation, listen to one another with respect, and realize that we are a part of something larger than ourselves we will gain glimpses into what the Kingdom of God is really like.
And all God’s children said…Amen.