I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorted, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to begin serving his very first church. He had taken all the appropriate classes in school, learned from the right professors, and had been prayed over by the bishop. With eager anticipation he had packed his bags and headed out to begin his first appointment to John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia. The young man was so anxious and filled with joy that he could hardly contain himself when he arrived that first day, so before he unpacked any of his belongings, he drove by the new church.
He got in the car and went to the listed address, but he saw no church. When he turned around he drove to the address again and realized why he had missed it the first time; there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the ground with roots exposed and the sign (plus the building) were mostly covered by its long branches. The young pastor sat in his car looking at the tree and he couldn’t believe a church would let something so ugly block the beauty of the building.
Before he knew it, he had gone back to the parsonage to unpack his chainsaw, and promptly cut down the tree that was blocking the church. With sweat on his brow, he took a step back and admired his work: the sign and building were now completely visible from the road, and he thought that perhaps a few extra people might be in church on Sunday morning.
A few days later, as the young pastor sat in the study of the parsonage preparing his first sermon, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you’re being reappointed.”
You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. John Wesley himself had planted that tree more than 200 years ago while he was in that community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who started a revolution, and that young pastor had chopped it down.
Stories are remarkably important. They contain and convey everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and remember the important elements of life.
Today, we live in a world of competing narratives. Every television station, and every website, are vying for out allegiance and attention. We are consistently bombarded with information attempting to tell us who we are, what we need, and where we are going.
We live during a time when more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live during a time when people spend more time arguing about where they can see the best fireworks on the Fourth of July than they worry about children in their community who have no food to eat. We live during a time when we would rather store up our treasures on earth, than give our gifts to the church.
Right now the world is telling us what is important, and our ears have a difficult time discerning between the world, and the Lord.
The apostle Paul wrote about the world to the church in Rome and convicted their hearts: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the people who try to define you and limit your abilities. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Read your bibles. Pray your prayers. Listen to the wisdom of the past. Open your eyes to the beauty of the future. Do not think you are better than anyone else, but give God thanks for placing you within your community.
We are all different and this is worth celebrating! God’s has blessed each of us with unique gifts worthy of use for the kingdom. Some are made for teaching, or preaching, others have the gift of prayer and presence, others have been blessed with financial resources, and still yet others have been given the gift of patience in discernment. Whatever your gift, use it for the kingdom so that we might bear fruit in the world.
Do not conform to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. When we gather together for worship we are retelling God’s great story so that our lives can be transformed. When we are in this place we reject conformity to the world’s expectations. When we proclaim the Word of God, our minds are being renewed again and again.
A few weekends ago thousands of Methodists throughout Virginia gathered together in Roanoke to discern God’s will for our denomination. We prayed over pertinent matters and voted accordingly, we honored those who had gone on to glory over the last year, and we ordained new pastors for the work of ministry. Annual Conference is a time of celebration, but it also a time of facts.
According to the ways of the world, the church is floundering. People are no longer regularly attending worship, tithing is starting to disappear, and many church buildings are being closed each year. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are largely absent from worship.
At Annual Conference this year we discussed a number of statistics affecting the church, but one really stood out to me:
The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years.
The world tells us that we are nearly defeated. That we’ve got to start pulling out all the stops to get people into our buildings. We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get people sitting in the pews. We need to cut down the trees that are blocking the church building from the street. We need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future.
I say thanks be to God that we don’t have to conform to the ways of the world but get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! While others might shrink and wail in fear regarding those types of statistics, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would our church start to look if we began creating our own vitality through a life-giving invitation to discover the Lord in community? What would it take to embrace the trees and traditions of church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?
For those of you with remarkably gifted memories, you will no doubt have noticed that everything we have done in worship today, from the opening greeting to the selection of hymns, from the scripture reading to the words of this sermon, is an almost exact replica of what we did two years ago during my first Sunday at St. John’s.
It brings me nothing but joy to look out from this pulpit and to see how much we have changed in our short time together. Our worship attendance has grown. Our weekly offering has grown. Our commitment to spiritual disciplines has grown. Our willingness to sacrifice for God’s kingdom has grown. Our faith and trust in the Lord has grown. St. John’s, through its prayers and practices, has begun to positively affect those kinds of statistics that frighten the world.
But we can do more.
We can do more because the words of worship today are just as relevant as they were two years ago. With a continued commitment to prayer our church can grow in its vitality. With a consistent connection to the Word our church can grow in its faith. With a calm composure compared to the world our church can grow in effectiveness.
When we retell the story we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. We don’t have worship just to catch up with our friends from the community, checking in on the events of life. Church isn’t just about making sure that we give one hour a week to God. Church is about transformation in our lives and in the lives of others.
When was the last time we invited someone to church? Has it been 38 years? And, as someone put it this week, if we don’t have anyone to invite to church, we are not spending time with the right people.
When was the last time we prayed about the money we give to church? Have we grown content with the same offering each week, or do we really recognize how much God has given to us, and how much more we can give back to God?
When was last time we felt transformed by the renewing of our minds? Are we so consumed by the ways of the world that we no longer trust the Lord?
The stories of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, help to shape the way we live. They are more than just facts and histories, they are the living Word of God’s actions with God’s people. The stories speak greater truths than any news program or TV bulletin, they convey more than any tweet could ever contain, and they provide transformation for the disciples of Jesus Christ.
If we neglect to embrace the stories for the power they contain, then we are cutting down the great trees of tradition in our midst.
As we embark on our third year together I have some goals for our church, both personal and communal:
1) We grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer. This does not mean that we have to start every morning with our hands twisted together and our heads bowed low, but that at least once a day we take a moment to thank God for our blessings. We can do it before a meal, or in our cars on our way to work. How we pray is not as important as praying in the first place. So, we grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer.
2) We grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God. This does not mean that we need to start knocking on doors and trying to convince people to come to St. John’s, but that we open our eyes to what God has done for us and embrace a culture of sharing that kind of love with others. We can do it by inviting our friends to try worship out with us on Sunday morning, or talking with them about what God has shared with us through this place. So, we grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God.
3) We grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord. This does not mean that we need to start a capital campaign or initiate a pledge drive, but that we see our lives as gifts and give back so that others can be blessed as well. We can do it by giving more when the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning, or by offering some of our God given talents for the betterment of this church in the kingdom. So, we grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord.
According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. We are told that we don’t have enough time to pray every day, we are reminded of the discomfort that comes with trying to invite others to worship, and we are bombarded with the fear about giving money and gifts back to God. But I’m not worried about any of that, and I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not in the ways of the world, but my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus Christ.
Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands, comforting, nurturing, and sustaining us in all we do.
We can believe in the future of our church, we can share the story of the Lord, we can pray with every fiber of our being, we can invite others to experience God’s love, and we can give with glad and generous hearts because our faith is in almighty God!
The Lord is reminding us today, and everyday, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Amen.