We Belong to God
WE BELONG TO GOD
Romans 14: 1-12
September 25, 2011
First UMC: Mt. Pleasant
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
There is a picture in my office hanging on the bulletin board. It is from the 2011 session of West Michigan Annual Conference. Six people and the bishop are in the photo. Our differences are easily visible. Four women and three men comprise the group. We are five laity and two clergy. Five of the seven are single and/or widowed. Two are married. Of the married, one has a young son who is five years old. The men are African-American. With one exception, the women are Anglo-American. Mother of the young boy, she and/or her husband are probably in their forties and hail from Vietnam. To speak of hair and skin tone, color of eyes, height, and weight is to dramatize further the uniqueness of the people in the picture. Yet, the apostle Paul makes one thing crystal clear about the seven in picture, about the church and the world in Romans 14:8. In our living or dying, loving or struggling, believing and disbelieving, we belong to God.
Before Paul ever visited the church in Rome, he celebrated their achievements as if they were anniversary worthy. They had done a fantastic job organizing the people of God, growing the church and creating a religious citadel in a hostile environment. Remember, this church was in Rome, the so--called heart of pagan cults. There the name Caesar was revered. Caesar was God and the one to be worshiped in and outside every holy temple. Any attempt by Jews to establish Judaism and Yahweh as a major force or Christians to promote the Lordship of Christ was met with persecution, suffering, banishment and death. When Paul met Priscilla and Aquilla in Corinth, he learned that “Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.” See Acts 18:2. Somehow, our faith ancestors managed to build the church in such a way that they were not perceived as a threat to the government.
There seemed to be another reason for Paul’s laudatory comments regarding the church in Rome. Unlike the church at Philippi, Corinth, Ephesus, Galatians, the Romans started a church without his help. If anybody knew how to do a new church start, grow and maintain it; Paul did. Self-starters, initiators, risk takers, the Romans were. More importantly, the Charter members of this church had a way of “letting go and letting God.” Folk there seemed to be intimately connected with the Holy Spirit. Apparently, some of the members just happened to be in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. The Pentecost Spirit got a hold of them and they joined the throng of 3000. Spirit filled and spirit led, they returned home. They told the story. People listened. And the church started growing, by faith. The church in Rome must have really appreciated what the thirteenth apostle wrote in Romans 1:8. “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” To have built the church without the help of the great evangelist was one great achievement. To have won fame throughout the Roman Empire without Caesar coming down on them was even more miraculous.
I am here today to congratulate First United Methodist Church of Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. For 150 years, you have done great things for Christ. Worship and Sunday school, marrying and burying, contributing to the community, caring for the sick and shut-in, managing property and making friends, paying Ministry Shares and doing mission work have typified your commitment to “making disciples of Jesus Christ.” You’ve gone the second and third mile. Generation after generation, you’ve been at it. “You’ve kept the faith and the faith has kept you.” Oh, I give God thanks for what has been and what will be; Congratulations First Church.
Beyond Paul’s congratulations to Rome, he offers a spate of admonitions. I’ll mention two. Here’s the first. Welcome whomever God sends your way. Failure to do so will affect your future adversely. Can you imagine Jacob and Esau, David and Goliath, Elizabeth and Mary, Mary Magdalene and Pontius Pilate joining First church? How pleasant would that be? Better still, would Jack and Jill, Popeye and Pluto, little Orphant Annie, Jack Sprat and his wife as members? Don’t worry, they’re not coming. But if they were, it would be Christ’s desire that you welcome them, the good, the bad and the ugly. God welcomed us with our imperfections.
Leave the imaginary and think about these folk seeking membership at First Church; three homeless families, an ex-con and his sister a gang member, three millionaires, undocumented workers, persons from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan and Bozo the clown. Better still, could the Kardashian sisters find a home here? Could they serve on committees? How would they fit in? Would you welcome them? Don’t worry, they’re probably not coming. But if they did, would you welcome them? God welcomed us in all our imperfections. God has a way of sending some real characters to your church. That is why church is often a real challenge. God loves folk we like and dislike.
Like Rome today, Rome then was a cosmopolitan city. Like America today, first century Rome was a melting pot. The message the church preached reached everybody. And some of everybody started coming. Inviting so many different people into their church and making them feel welcome had to be a difficult if not impossible task. For example, the apostle admonished the Romans to welcome the “weak in faith.” Whatever the church wanted to do, tried to do, thought of or dreamed of, perhaps they said, “we can’t.” Taint possible. Others in the church who believed all things were possible with God felt held back. Why coddle the “weak in faith” in the church? Thomas doubted but Jesus made a place for him.
Others in the church felt favored eating bacon, eggs, pork sausage, pork chops, pickled pig feet, steak etc. Another group thought everybody ought to eat vegetables. If neither group could find a way to live with their preferences, we might have seen First Church Vegetarian and First Church Carnivore emerge in the first century. But Jesus believed the body of Christ could hold unique folk together. Worship and membership made a spirit of welcome hard to achieve as well. Although the church worshiped on the first day of the week, a major group in the church had formerly worshipped on the Sabbath day and kept it holy. What a powerful spirit of welcome our Lord possessed. Folks, who differed over the day of the week to worship, worshiped together.
Last but not least, the church in Rome had members who still believed that circumcision was required for membership. The decision to circumcision as a requirement for membership in Acts 15 never sat well with them. But they couldn’t resist the galvanizing power Jesus Christ. One songwriter has it right, “what a wonderful change in my life has been wrought since Jesus came into my heart. Paul kept reminding the Romans of Jesus’ core values. All are welcome in this place. All belong. John 3:16 is not happenstance value. “God so loved (Jerusalem, Rome, America) the world that he gave… nay. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” God welcomes the world into First Church. Isn’t that the reason the following words appear on your bulletin: “Our Hearts, Our Minds, Our doors are Open.” Ever the challenge is to prove it.
Do you remember the picture that I talked about in my office? Six of the people were from Faith Church in Lansing. Faith church Lansing is a small, multi-racial church working daily at its welcoming skills. All the normal tensions of life lie beneath the service as they do in any church or organization. One lay woman in the group is blind. Every Sunday, she sits up front and accompanies the piano and organ with her guitar. Not only is Carlene welcome, Carlene is expected to use her gifts and graces with the people and not just sit in the pew.
The congregation had enjoyed the gifts and talents of the young woman and her family. She has served as a wonderful greeter and liturgist. She has allowed her son to be involved. Her son has helped take up the offering, greeted folks and talked with any adults who will talk with him. More importantly, he has formed a relationship with Carlene. After every church service, he helps Carlene put the guitar in its case, mount it on rollers, and takes it out of the sanctuary per Carlene’s request. But it was her husband’s testimony on Veterans’ Day that tested their welcome at Faith. The husband said they had come from a country that defeated Uncle Sam in the fifties and sixties, namely Vietnam. He rejoiced over their welcome and inclusion in the life of Faith Church. As his testimony stirred up a wealth of bad memories abut Uncle Sam’s fiasco in Vietnam, I wondered if their welcome would be worn out. It was not. Members of the congregation got up and let the Vietnamese family know they still belonged to Faith Church. What they had learned about the family did not mean the Vietnamese family was no longer accepted at Faith Church. In fact, one or two of the members who offered that powerful welcome were military veterans decked out in their old uniforms. Nobody told me. I saw it with my own eyes.
With his second admonition, Paul is prophetic, some would say meddlesome. He sets the stage for the Romans not to like him before he arrives. Why? How? On one hand, he critiques the Romans for judging one another. On the other, he urges them to abstain from judging one another. Such abstinence from judging contributes to the unity of the church. Paul is a perfect example. When we first meet Paul aka Saul in Acts 9, he is a learned Rabbi who hates and despises Christians. His hate is so deep that he secures letters from the high priest in Damascus to arrest and bind them for imprisonment in Jerusalem. However, Jesus confronts Paul on the road and questions his behavior. Later, a blinded Saul receives his sight and a call to ministry. Saul learns that God has chosen him to bring his name before a race of people not his own namely the gentiles. Why? Because they like Paul and his people belong to God. That is a very difficult lesson to learn. Ethnocentrism, religious affinity, class etc. may be natural inclinations born of familiarity. The familiar makes us comfortable. If members in the church can write upon their hearts that the church is not about us, satisfying us-that it is about doing what God wants; the roadmap to our ministry would remain crystal clear but no less challenging.
An experience with the North Central College of Bishops put fresh eyes on this business of abstinence from judgment. We served dinner to the homeless in a shelter, a stone’s throw from downtown, Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is located in a United Methodist Church named Simpson UMC. Over the years, hundreds of members left. A handful of folks have remained to carry on. In 1982, the church opened its huge facility to house a homeless ministry temporarily. The ministry has continued to this very day. Every night, churches of all denominations and civic groups serve dinner gratis to the homeless and put them up overnight.
Abstaining from judging the people of God is easier said than done. In passing, some of you might be saying to yourself “I thought the Bishop could preach!! He doesn’t walk like a Bishop, talk like a Bishop, is he really a Bishop?” That’s another matter for another time. While descriptive, uttering the term homeless can be seen as judgmental. The homeless have names. They have families, health problems and faith struggles, Children, spouses and jobs are on their minds and yes retirement. Some couldn’t get a job if they begged for it.
Life on the street does not always picture our brothers and sisters accurately. How can streets do justice to personal hygiene, storage for clothes, refrigerator for food, or safety at night if there is no room in the inn? How can the so-called homeless not cause a spurt of fear if you and I meet them on the street and they beg for a dollar or a dime? What is the best way for Bill and Sally; Dexter and Delores and single Sue to raise their children in the homeless condition? Finally, how do our brothers and sisters who find themselves homeless address the indignity of folk not asking or wanting to know their name? Must they only answer to the name homeless when they belong to God and us? Who is my neighbor?
Pictures of those we served challenged preconceived notions that no one dared address. As our brothers and sisters waited on dinner, my mind’s eye snapped these revealing portraits. Some of my homeless brothers and sisters watched television, talked and laughed loudly. Others talked outside or sat in complete silence. Some sat at table impatiently waiting for us to serve them. Some of our neighbors got their floor mats ready for the night. Others read the paper, the Bible or studied from a textbook as if readying themselves for an exam. Still others dozed off, seemingly spent from surviving one more day without a home. The next morning around seven, they would have to leave the shelter. And the quest to find a place to stay would begin again.
Although the leaders of the homeless shelter encouraged nine bishops to talk with the overnight residents, it didn’t happen. They worked us like Hebrew slaves. From 5:30 to 8:30 pm, we worked non-stop. We cooked, prepared the table, poured the juice, milk and water and served the meals. Afterwards, we bagged the leftovers, mopped up spills, cleaned the table, washed the dishes and put them away. At the same time, we held on to our billfolds, pocketbooks and cell phones. But the joy of serving our brothers and sisters re-kindled the spirit of God within the bishops. In the final analysis, “We went to Simpson UMC to serve a meal to our homeless brothers and sisters not to judge them.” September 21, 2011, I texted Bishop Lyght of West Virginia the following message; “Highlight of the meeting was serving a meal to 100 homeless persons at a local church. My body is tired “but my soul is happy.”
A few weeks ago, the news media helped us remember where we were on 9/11. I was stuck in LA. In La, New York, D.C. and all over America and the world, the crises of the day dramatized that we belonged to one another. Random acts of kindness broke among folk divided by race, class, economic situation, age, religion, education, marital status, handicapping conditions ad. Infinitum. Prayer circles formed in churches, mosques and synagogues. People prayed at home for the police, the firemen, for the trapped, the rescued and the missing. We prayed for the Savior to save. In crises, America and the world demonstrated what Paul articulated to the Romans. We belong to God-a God that makes a way out of no way. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a similar declaration the night before died. Yes, he wanted to live a long life, watch his kids grow up, advance civil and human rights. Bottom line King declared, “I just want to do God’s will.” What is Paul’s bottom line for us? Abstain from harsh judgments of our brothers and sisters. Welcome whoever walks through your doors. Why; because we want to do God’s will; because we belong to God and the ministry of the church is not solely about us.
Take heart First UMC. God is not through with you yet. You belong to a God who brought you through 150 years of ministry. Love God and your neighbor. Let your light so shine that the world “sees and honors” the God in you. As I go to my seat, the words and melody of a Hispanic hymn writer stir my soul. “When we are living, it is in Christ Jesus, and when we’re dying, it is in the Lord. Both in our living, and in our dying, we belong to God, we belong to God. 4. Across this wide world, we shall always find those who are crying with no peace of mind, but when we help them, or when we feed them, we belong to God, we belong to God.” Amen.