Think on These Things
Chatham UMC 160th Anniversary
October 12, 2014
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
160, 12, 1, 2, 73, 25, 1; “No,” I am not calling a play like a quarterback. Neither are the numbers for the Illinois State Lottery. Rather, they are numerical expressions of “A Celebration to Remember.” Chatham United Methodist Church is 160 years old. You don’t look your age. For 600 years of service, twelve disciples receive an honorable mention. Each member has been with Chatham UMC over 50 years. There is one pastor. You offer two services. Including supply pastors, 73 ministers have served this church since taking its first breath in 1854. Sara Isbell is the latest iteration. Has she not declared with prophetic imagination your identity; “We‘re a Matthew 25 Church?” Last but not least the number 1 represents God and community. Leading, we honor “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all;” following, we are at “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” Think on these things.
Also, think about the spirit and the word of Ph. 4: 8 as recorded in Eugene Peterson’s, The Message. “Summing it up friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful not the ugly; things to praise, not to curse.” Let’s turn our attention to some of the issues that Paul believes represent the best of what church is all about, namely knowing Christ, embracing mission and looking ahead.
When a Bishop visits a congregation, one question seems inevitable. Do you know the bishop? No. I know Bishop Woodie White but not him. Pastor knows him. Ok, I guess it’s alright. Is he a boring speaker? And does he talk long? I don’t really know. We’ll have to wait and see. Ok. I hope he is not long winded or boring. My schedule is full today.
The imagined narrative describes a key question for everyone on the Christian Journey. Do you know Christ? Will you follow him? Is he worth following? Can you handle self-denial and a cross laden ministry that discipleship requires? Is Chatham UMC, a body of Christ, who knows the word and does the Word? By joining this church, will pulpit and pew know Christ in word and deed, worship and witness, triumph and struggle? Individually and collectively, people reflect the hunger of the heart of which Paul acknowledges in comparing his Christian walk to running a race. “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” On another thought not focused on competition, the connections are the same. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Paul says. “I want to share in his suffering to become more like him.” That touches my heart. When people walk through our doors, going on to perfection should be primary foundation of their Christian walk. If our Lord “increases in wisdom and stature” from time spent in the synagogue on the Sabbath; why not expect the same spiritual growth and development from time spent in church on Sunday? Knowing God is fundamental to faith in Jesus Christ. Think on these things.
In 2013, our Annual Conference launched a million dollar Endowment Scholarship Initiative for Africa University. When we raise a million dollars, interest earned will educate 7 students annually and 90% of the cost for an 8th student for the life of the institution or until Christ comes. The United Methodist Church built Africa University 20 years ago. Did you know a native son of Moline, Illinois conceived that dream? As a delegate to the 1896 General Conference, Joseph Crane Hartzell begged General Conference to elect a black Bishop and send him to Africa. But God flipped the script. Instead of General Conference electing a black Bishop, they elected a white Bishop and sent him to Africa. Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell spent his entire episcopacy of 20 years in Africa, a cross cultural appointment. To serve in Africa for 1 year much less twenty with wife and family in tow, it took a deeper faith and knowledge to live out the call than it did for him to advocate for the election of a black Bishop on the floor of General Conference. His ministry, life and family were on the front lines. “O for a faith that will not shrink though pressed by every foe.”
Yours truly had a similar prayer challenge upon my election to the episcopacy in 1996. Difficult though it was running for the episcopacy, serving as a Bishop has demanded more work and prayer that I ever imagined. Six years as a D.S. and 18 years as a Bishop have obliterated my rose colored glasses. 95% of the job is dealing with the trials, tribulations and complaints from the people of God. But when I pray without ceasing and move forward with the eyes of faith, I can say with John Newton, “through many dangers toils and snares I have already, tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.” Do you know Him? Are you fully committed? If so, the church has to “increase in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and humankind.”
Based on your perception that Chatham UMC is a Mathew 25 church, the church at Philippi modeled that behavior as well. Paul needed a REACH FUND to provide food, transportation, lodging and other supplies to seed the quest to make new disciples just as the REACH FUND needs gifts of $1.2 million dollars to renovate the facility for the mission of Chatham UMC. Guess what? Only one church supported Paul. Who helped; the Philippians? Paul needed money to do evangelism in Thessalonica, not once but twice. Who responded; the Philippians? A church sent Epaphroditus to visit and support Paul in prison plus give him a gift. Who helped; the Philippians? Brother Paul thanked God and the Philippian Church for the timely reminder that God is good, all the time.
The Philippians experience as a Matthew 25 church demonstrates that ministry is a great thing. Helping the “least of these” ministers to God and does his will. And yet, Matthew 25 ministries are difficult to keep going. So much is required to maintain them especially if one is bereft of partners like Philippi. Better still, how does the church help the “least of these” when the naked are the immigrant, the stranger from Big Muddy prison, and the thirsty from the ranks of “haven’t had a job in ten years” or the familiar panhandlers who make regular stops at our churches, food and/or clothes pantries? How can we continue a ministry when our people resources suffer from compassion fatigue? Remember, we serve a God who changes water into wine and it is enough. We serve a Christ who takes five loaves of bread and two fish, bless them and feeds 5000. It is more than enough. 12 baskets of food are left over. We serve a God who feeds thousands of Israelites on the desert trek for forty long years. And they survive and thrive with quail on earth and bread from heaven. It’s more than enough. “Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.”
A month ago, the Bishop and the Cabinet visited Cobden UMC, a Hispanic Church by name of Jesus es El Senor. Cobden has earned a reputation for Bible Study in various homes, dynamic worship, an active food and clothes pantry and providing shelter for the homeless. Work teams from across the country have helped to upgrade their facilities and learned about the life and work of their Hispanic brothers and sisters. Regardless of race, creed or color, Cobden has ministered to all God’s people. Economically speaking, they are a small congregation with limited resources.
On site, we met the Senior Pastor, his wife and a male associate. They began to tell us stories. As the trio talked, they kept mentioning God. God helped them build a larger facility. God supplied every need of the homeless, the hungry, the naked, the migrant worker and the stranger with aid and support from other local churches. Every time, their supplies of food, clothes, shelter and money ran low or out, some church, individual or group arrived with new supplies and/or money to pay bills with some leftover. So, I asked them why they kept talking about God. In paraphrase, they said, “We’re amazed; God keeps supplying every need in our ministry, not us.”
At one point, a member of the Cabinet put a $20 dollar bill in my hand for them. His gesture moved the Bishop and the Cabinet to give likewise. Before my eyes, I saw the “bread of heaven” fall on the Cobden ministry - supplying its needs. That’s the way God helps ministries that pour themselves out for the “least of these.” Make one step and God makes two.
A long time ago, the bread of heaven fell upon Chatham UMC. From one of your historical pamphlets I learned about a special gift. “The land upon which the church is situated was given to you by the Presbyterian Church and Mr. and Mrs. Thayer for $225.” Look at what that gift has encouraged 160 years later. Because the Presbyterians embraced God’s mission to the world and worried little about aiding a future competitor, Chatham UMC sits here on this spot. We thank God for the Presbyterians for modeling this biblical lesson. Every mission of effort is a letting go of the notion that we do church just to take care of ourselves. Embracing mission is fundamental to serving Jesus Christ.
When I began the sermon, I forgot to tell you that Paul was in prison, i.e., an evangelist in a biblical Alcatraz. Paul’s enemies, Jews, gentiles and probably a few women had put him there. They despised and rejected Paul. Why, because he had sold out his life to Christ, completely. Single minded Paul focused his energy on promoting the cause of Christ to gentiles, kings and his own people. If his enemies had anything to do with it, Paul would never return to Philippi or any of his other churches. Facing that reality, Paul wrote his letter to help the congregation look ahead or look to the future keeping in mind the pressing question, where do we go from here? That is the question for Chatham UMC in year 160; where does she go from here?
Coursing through Paul’s letters are many important concerns. I offer some of these concerns as recommendations to ponder. First, continue to preach the gospel and live it. “The world is hungry for the living bread,” goes one song. On the other hand, the soft cynic within opines, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day. I’d rather have you walk with me than merely point the way…example is always clear.” Second, welcome all God’s children. To the chagrin of his enemies, Paul did not insist on circumcision as a requirement for church membership. Faith in Jesus Christ and renunciation of the forces of wickedness were enough. Today, our struggles are not few but many. Depending on how we dress, look, social status, identity ad infinitum and entry into a given body of Christ can be a minefield. “Having the same mind in us as there is in Christ Jesus,” is easier said than done. Third, focus on leadership development. Our denomination has drawn a line in the sand, over developing principled Christian leaders. Good things happen with good leaders. Paul included women in his understanding of good leadership despite a 2000 year reputation to the contrary. If Euodia, Syntyche and Lydia could speak, they’d confirm my assertion. Fourth, be a servant church. Paul celebrated the fact that Christ laid aside his robe of divinity and took on the form of servant so that the world might be saved. The route to greatness for Chatham UMC is to be a servant church. Fifth, keep your eyes on the prize. Forty–seven years ago, my late grandmother wrote me a letter echoing the same theme. When I left her home for college in my junior year, we wrote letters to one another. One time, Mama (our name for grandmother) sent me $5 for college expenses. It was $5 she could not afford to give. So I wrote and thanked her. Mama responded with words I still think about.
Witness excerpts from her letter dated January 18, 1967, “I am glad the sum I sent…helped you when you needed it most. I wish I could do more. I am not like some looking for it back in dollars and cents but I am looking for it in your success and the good you may do to uplift others. I have faith to believe it will be that way…May the Lord bless you and keep you inspired…lovingly Mama.”
Chatham UMC, I am looking forward to your continued success and the good you may do as a Matthew 25 Church. I have faith to believe it will be that way…May the Lord bless you and keep you inspired for many more birthdays!! Happy Anniversary Chatham UMC!!! Do me a favor? Think on these things!!!