Friday, June 14, 2024

Alive and Kicking...


Alive and Kicking…


Psalm 20
20:1 The LORD answer you in the day of trouble! The name of the God of Jacob protect you!

20:2 May the Lord send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.

20:3 May the Lord remember all your offerings, and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices. Selah

20:4 May the Lord grant you your heart's desire, and fulfill all your plans.

20:5 May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners. May the LORD fulfill all your petitions.

20:6 Now I know that the LORD will help the anointed; the Lord will answer them from God’s holy heaven with mighty victories by God’s right hand.

20:7 Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.

20:8 They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.

20:9 Give victory to the king, O LORD; answer us when we call.



Have you noticed that people keep trying to kill off the church? Despite the statement of Jesus that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” the church IS somewhat an endangered species today, but mostly from within. Sure, the apathy of so many in our society who were not “raised” in the life of the church does not bode well for it, but there ARE still a lot of folk who did grow up around the church, who may populate its ministries for the future. There are myriad churches that seem bent on their own demise by refusing to be inclusive, staying anchored in 1962, and/or who insist on enforcing doctrines and “orthodoxy” over preaching, modeling, and manifesting the love of God. And the fault is not solely on the clergy and religious leaders; there are just as many “pew-sitting Christians” who are quite comfortable preserving their church as a “private club” that caters to THEIR views and needs. Honestly, I have heard for myself with my own ears actual church members say that their main goal is to see that “their church” survives until it hosts their funeral, and then they don’t care what happens to it. Didn’t someone write, “Without a VISION, the people perish”? As a contemporary author once pointed out, you can swap out “perish” for “parish,” and this indictment still holds true. Then, there are the schisms that have occurred in the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, and now the United Methodist denominations over inclusion of persons in the LGBTQ community; these, too, have added fodder to the prediction that the church is “on its way out.” But, here we are, and the gates of hell are still nowhere in sight.


One of the reasons the church is still alive is due to the dedicated, committed Christ followers who refuse to bow to the threats, or be derailed by change. They are “adapters” who understand that meeting needs, loving God’s people, and designing new ministries that address what is happening in the community around them, is what the church has done since instituted by Jesus. Maybe even earlier! Take a look at this Psalm.


This Psalm couches God’s “work” among God’s people WITHIN the language of the worshiping community! “May the Lord send you help from the sanctuary…” is a timeless reminder that God DOES move from the temple (or church), outward. “May the Lord remember your offerings…” is a reminder that God meets us in worship, encouraging us, comforting us, pardoning us, and “recharging” us, both for what we may face in life in the coming week, AND for empowering us for what God may call us to tackle in the way of ministry in the days ahead, as well. A word about offerings, here: God is “pleased” when we give offerings, but probably not because God is needing them, be they monetary gifts or “sacrifices” designed to appease the Almighty. In the Hebrew experience, God called the people to offer “meat” sacrifices on the altar, and in the Christian church, we are told “God loves a cheerful giver,” in terms of what we plot into the plate. Might it be true that God is ”blessed” by these offerings, not because of God’s—or the church’s—need, but by our willingness to GIVE them? Being willing to part with things that are considered highly valuable to us (animals in the Hebrew Bible and money in the New Testament) on God’s behalf might be the thing that God gets off on. God “counts” in our psyche when we are willing to give generously from a grateful heart, not just because the church “pesters” us to make a pledge so they can pay their pastors and their light bill. I know I’ve told this story a few times in past sermons, but when I would preach my “stewardship” sermons in the churches I served, I would emphasize that God doesn’t need our money any more than God needs our ideas about how to run the universe. However, WE need to give of our time, talent, and treasures, both to keep us from hoarding them, selfishly, thereby allowing them to become excessively controlling influences in our lives, AND to support and empower our Community of Faith to collectively conduct ministries that serve others and offer opportunities to share the Good News with their potential constituency. In my earlier parishes, I would say something like this about this “need” on our part to give: “Even if tomorrow someone would give this church several million dollars, such that by investing it, the return could pay our ENTIRE budget for the years ahead, WE would still need to give, because GIVING is an essential part of our discipleship.” This was a new concept for so many of the folk I served, and they told me so. I backed it up with scripture, which is not hard. It was the perspective of Jesus, and is greatly amplified and heralded by the Apostle Paul in his writings. 


Then, God played a little “trick” on me—God sent me to a church that HAD been gifted with millions of dollars by past benefactors, and COULD have paid their entire budget from the return, if they so chose. But, thanks to a long history of good pastoral leadership, strong lay leaders, and a healthy understanding of the spiritual nature of financial stewardship, the people of that church were some of the most generous givers of ANY of the churches I served! They didn’t give to the NEED, because it had been met, but they give because of THEIR need to give, as a response to God for what God had done for them. This meant that that church could generously give hundreds of thousands of dollars to support a wide variety of global and local needs and ministries. They paid the annual salary of a family counselor for the county Family Services agency; they paid the wages of a cook who made meals for the “soup kitchen” ministering to the unhoused residents of the community (which was a ministry of a local PRESBYTERIAN church!); they heavily supported a local Christian “Coffee House” that was just getting off the ground to reach youth; and they supported many other kinds of missions. Those folk NEVER gave begrudgingly, and were proud of what their generosity had wrought. I say all of this to illustrate how important “the offerings” are to this Psalm’s assertions about how God works in us, and in the world. God DOES “remember” our offerings, and God is somehow “motivated” by them, especially when they are given out of our gratitude, and “cheerfully.” 


Even though the “current” of Psalm 20 flows toward the individual, it is clear that the community is the larger beneficiary, and that the Community of Faith is central to the workings of God. From the earliest days of the Hebrew Bible to the end of the Revelation in the New Testament, God desires to work IN and THROUGH the Community of Faith. Regardless of the fact that many today eschew the church (we now call them the “nones,” by the way), GOD does not. 


It's important to point out a modern reality about the church. While there was a time when weekend worship was the “fulcrum” or the backbone of the church, that time may have passed. Worship is still an important element of the church, for it is typically the largest “ingathering” of God’s people on any regular basis, but my experience is that the church is now made up of MANY different bodies of people with different needs and gifts. Some engage through small-group ministries, study groups, youth and children’s programing, community ministries, feeding programs, or Volunteers in Mission opportunities. We may not see many of these folk in Sunday worship, partly because of societal changes, especially in myriad jobs that now may only afford workers one day off in seven, and that is often Sunday, unless you’re in retail or the food business. The time has come to NOT “persecute” those whose connection with the church is through its teaching or ministering/serving programs. One of the most pejorative things we can say to a church member is, “Hey, I haven’t seen you in CHURCH for a while”—basically accusing them of delinquency in their duties as a member, when they may be VERY “plugged in” via some other vital avenue. Instead, we would do well to expand the ways someone may find community in our church without trying to “funnel” everyone into a worship service. 


Two additional themes I pick up from this Psalm about what it means to be a believer, and to live our lives as growing disciples: 


-There are “burnt offerings” encountered along the way; of course the Psalm is referencing the altar practices of the Jewish temple in that day, but one could stretch the meaning a bit to talk about what psychologists now call “burn out” that happens when persons stretch themselves almost to beyond the breaking point in their jobs—or in ministry. When someone is “burned out,” they lose not just energy, but creativity, and their ability to analyze a situation and apply logic to solve problems may even take a serious hit. Burned out individuals require a respite, and possibly clinical therapies to recover. When I was on our Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, I was often saddened by how many of our pastors experienced “burnout,” and how limited our resources were to help them. On top of this, they were often “shelved” by those in authority because of their temporarily limited ability to function. This Psalm is promising that God—THROUGH the faith community—will “be our strength” and healer. When the faith community doesn’t prioritize “helping our own” who are struggling, are we not disobeying God’s command, here? Someone has said that Christians are the only ones who “kill their own wounded.” I have seen that happen when church leaders shun rather than treat victims of burnout. 


-The “some trust in chariots” section is there to remind us that war and violence is a last resort, and should only be resorted to as a last line of defense, not a “strategy.” We are called upon to trust the living God, and we do this by eschewing our “Lone Ranger-ness” and banding together as the People of God—in our case, the CHURCH. God’s goal, as we stated last week, is to build a Beloved Community on earth, a place of peace and respect for all people. The church is to orient itself to be the “model” of what this might look like in the wider society. Right now, our model is incomplete at best, broken at worst. Our “chariots and horsemen” with which we are fighting are the doctrines and dogmas we bash each other with, and defend even to the schisms we have wrought. What we need to see is that in beating each other up, we are telling whole groups of persons—God’s people—outside the church that THEY don’t matter, even that God CAN’T love them, because of who they are. As a United Methodist pastor, I must take responsibility for moving on from the schism that has rocked my denomination, turn the swords we rattled against each other into plowshares, and get planting the seeds of reconciliation. And no, I’m not talking about reconciling with those who have abandoned United Methodism (that may happen someday?), but those who have been cast aside by the church because they had officially been deemed “persona non grata” by the written rules of our church. Reconciling with these folk will take time, as they have little reason to trust us, especially the ones who had not yet even tried to enter the enclave we had turned the church into.


The GOOD NEWS is, as this Psalm says, God will grant our heart’s desire, raise us up, and fulfill our plans! We look forward to the day when this prophetic verse of Psalm 20 is fulfilled: “May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners.” Now, these banners may include the Rainbow of Welcome for all people! The “So What” of this Psalm is that we will give the “victory” to whom it belongs—the Lord God—and will stand ready to “answer when God calls.” Are you ready? Believe me, friends, the church IS alive and kicking! And the renewing United Methodist Church is ready to enter the loving, hopeful fray! Come join us! Amen.


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