Eugene Peterson wrote a pithy introduction to Second Corinthians in The Message. A modern version of Second Corinthians, one excerpt read thusly.
“The Corinthian Christians gave their founding pastor Paul more trouble than al churches put together. No sooner did Paul get one problem straightened out in Corinth three more appeared. For anyone operating under the naïve presumption that joining a Christian church is a good way to meet all the best people and cultivate smooth social relations a reading of Paul’s Corinthian correspondence is the prescribed cure. But however much trouble the Corinthians were to each other and to Paul, they prove to be a cornucopia of blessings to us, they triggered some of Paul’s most profound and vigorous writing.”
“We do not lose heart” is one such phrase. To capture the essence of the phrase, consider the following. Recipients of God’s mercy and ministry ought not lose heart. It’s a great antidote for people of faith who grow weary of fights, differences and struggles in the church.
WE HAVE A MINISTRY TO PERFORM
The church in Corinth is growing. But, trouble is robbing the Corinthians of their courage, vision and hope. Paul dashes off a letter to the church stating his concerns and a few joys. Instead of a beam like focus on their mission, rival groups are dividing the church. When newcomers join, factions dedicated to Chloe’s people, Paul, Apollos, Cephas and Christ vie for their allegiance. Add turning a blind eye to such problems such as an illicit marriage affair, lawsuits, conflicts over marriage and celibacy, dress in worship and the desecration of Holy Communion, the apostle Paul concludes the church has lost its way. The struggle for the unity of the church is not new. It has a two thousand year history. If the church at Corinth is to survive, a stern “straighten up and fly right” cannot inspire cooperation. Quite frankly, they have a ministry to perform. So do we! Nothing ought stop us from a lifetime of faithfulness.
Commitment to commitments made, do make a difference. The fight, flight and freeze are overcome because disciples “deny themselves, take up the cross and follow Christ” come what may. The Great Commission compels others to focus on preaching Christ not themselves. Diverse invitations to Christian discipleship come forth with the assurance that “the fields are always ripe for harvest.” Others like Paul embrace a mission so clear that nothing separates them from the pursuit of God’s mission. Mission: “Walk by faith not by sight.” (II Cor. 5:7) Mission: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Ph. 4:13) Mission: “Now unto him who is able to do far more than we can ask or think.” (Eph. 3:20) These are some of the ways Paul does not lose heart in a tough, rancorous series of cross-cultural appointments that he founded. It’s simple. Like Martin King, Jr., Paul just wanted to do God’s will. He had a ministry to perform.
Every time your Bishop sees Church Growth Awards, my heart is encouraged. Making disciples of Jesus Christ tops the priority chart. Imbibe these representations of our desire to serve the other, be they family, friend, for or stranger. Canton: South Park and Willow Hills took in 8 professions of faith respectively; membership of congregations 1-50. Quest UMC doubled that total; membership of congregation 51-100. Rossville had 32 professions of faith; membership of congregation 101-250. Carlinville saw 23 added to their number; membership of congregation 251-500. Geneseo, Crossroads and Fairview Heights Christ led the way with professions of faith 41, 43 and 137 persons respectively. Linda Vonck and Chris Ritter received awards titled “One Matters.” Awarded by the General Board of Discipleship, each pastor and local church has the Big Mo going with respect to yearly professions of faith and baptisms. The IGRC Evangelistic Committee labeled their efforts “evangelistic excellence.” A staffer from the General Board of Discipleship offered the following; “Making disciples is more than statistics; it’s about changed lives by God’s grace.” Last but not least, Fairview Christ was feted as the third fastest growing church in Methodism. Hallelujah!
Having said Hallelujah, do we possess an audacity of hope in the face of statistics not many like to hear? If we believe a recent report by the Pew Research Center Report, what does that do to our hope and so-called audacity? Fact 1, the number of Christians in America is declining. While it’s true that the United States of America is home for more Christians than in any part of the world, adult Christians who identified themselves as followers of the Way dropped 7 percentage points from 2007 till now, 70.6% from 78.4%. Fact 2, mainline membership in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches has fallen. Evangelical Protestantism has experienced a loss in membership as well but the loss is less than mainline churches. Fact 3, the Pew Report found that factors contributing to the losses included lack of generational replacement i.e. age groups gaps, older folk losing heart, church hopping, more whites than blacks, more men than women leaving the church. In the face of such statistics, how are you doing with your audacity of hope? How is your church remaining hope filled when statistics sound so hopeless?
From a United Methodist layman and economist came an ominous prophecy couched in the language of an eighth century prophet. Don House predicts “that the United Methodist Church has only 15 years to reverse its decline if it is to have a sustainable future.” Couple House’s prophecy with the statistics cited earlier, people might feel or believe that such doom and gloom is predestined to happen. Don’t jump off the ship. I heard Jesus say as he opined about the once and future church, thou art Peter and upon this Rock (albeit imperfect) I’ll build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. In my humble opinion, neither will membership decline, losing heart, jumping off the ship prevail against God’s church. I heard him say in Matthew 9: 35-38 the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. The prevailing prophecy for God’s church is premature. Only God knows. With regard to statistics and human prophecy, statistics are good. Statistics are of human hands and mind. But statistics do not bind God; control the future or determine what the church believes. Yes, Methodism has a lot of work to do. Yet, an encouraging fact remains, while membership growth in Europe and America is ebbing; Methodism is growing around the world.
With all this push on church growth, someone might suggest the Bishop is looking at our challenges through rose colored glasses. Are hard questions of decline being avoided? Haven’t we flunked the course on Church growth in the past fifty years? Haven’t no professions of faith become the new normal is too many of our local congregations. Doesn’t the 2015 conference legislation listing the discontinuation of 5 to 10 churches concern the Bishop? Yes it does but I’m not called to give up, put-up, shut up, lay up or pin up statistics of non-growth in the face of the never changing Great Commission. On my dying day, may I be blessed to sound the charge of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!! Let no discouraging word about our membership decline make this bishop throw in the towel or raise the white flag of surrender. If in a weak moment, I ask the Lord to remove this cup called the Great Commission from my plate, may my utterings be “not my will Lord, but thine be done.” Ministry with our Lord is for better or worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish Jesus Christ unto death do us part not losing heart over trials and tribulations in the body of Christ.
PEOPLE ARE RECIPIENTS OF GOD’S MERCY
Last year, Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference completed its campaign for Imagine No Malaria. Exceeding our adjusted $2.5 million goal, we raised over $2.6 million dollars. Using a portion $2.6 million dollars that Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference raised for Imagine No Malaria, we shared in a $9.6 million dollar grant to help the world. April 22, 2015 Bishop Tom Bickerton presented a $9.6 million check to the Geneva based Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and malaria. According to the Global Fund, the United Methodist Church gave the “single largest ever made by a faith based organization.” We have supported transforming the world by improving health globally with our “green stuff” meant for others. In John Wesley’s book, this is an act of mercy.
In our missional work in Liberia, death and the Ebola virus put us on hold for a number of months. But we prayed, sent financial support via UMCOR and stayed in contact. This December if not sooner, IGRC is committed to resuming our work in Liberia.
Also, I’m excited about our Offering of Pledges today and the completing of our million dollar campaign in 2016. Today, we’re going to get a sense of our start, learn how far we have to go and pray that we can finish ahead of schedule. When we raise $1 million dollars for the Africa University Endowment Fund; eight students will be educated annually for the life of the institution or till Jesus comes. God blessed the Bishop and the Cabinet to appoint one of the graduates of Africa University to one of our local churches effective July 1, 2015. Her name is the Rev. Melly Momo. Imagine No Malaria, Liberia and the AU Endowment Fund are works of mercy.
Mention our devotion to social witness on issues like immigration, the Acts of Repentance for Indigenous peoples, racism, sexism, fracking, gun control, steering the ship called United Methodism remains discouraging even when these persons are beneficiaries of God’s mercies. Who should be a recipient of God’s mercy? Should it be those who belong to Paul or Apollos or Cephas or Christ? Should mercy be available to all?
Look at divine mercy this way. When we respond to the quip “God is good all the time with the response “all the time, God is good, we embrace the belief that God never gets so disgusted with humankind’s sin and sinfulness that God turns off the spigot of divine goodness, turns off the spigot of amazing grace, turns off the claim of the psalmist “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Because God’s supply of mercy is inexhaustible, we do lose heart or give up on the ministry that saved our souls and promised us abundant life in this world and the next. Lord have mercy!!
Our failure to consistently practice spiritual disciplines of Prayer, Bible Study, Meditation and Fasting blind us to divine mercies coming our way. St. Basil, a desert father of centuries past, implies that our losing heart has its genesis in limited vision not on any issue. Consider fasting. “Beware,” says St. Basil, “of limiting the good of fasting to mere abstinence from meat. Real fasting is abstinence from evil.” For St. Basil, fasting involves social and personal holiness. I repeat. “Beware of limiting fasting to mere abstinence from meat. Real fasting is abstinence from evil.” Do we not face that reality in the world and in ourselves when we pray “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil?” A sadness and then spectacle of losing heart comes from the lives of persons closest to Jesus, the disciples. When the going gets tough, some people scatter. For example, when Judas betrays Jesus, Mark’s gospel tattles on the disciples “they forsook him and fled.” (KJV Mark 14:50) In one moment in time, the disciples lost courage and ministry at a critical juncture.
When the sense of discouragement becomes so deep and abiding that it diverts the church and its leadership from doing God given ministry, “we do not lose heart” is an apt admonition. What if the United Methodist Church becomes so inward focused that it loses its concern for “the least of these?” God forbid. Would God not be upset if his church declared “I’m tired of the poor being with us always? We don’t have enough time to visit the sick and imprisoned. We don’t know enough Spanish, Swahili or Korean to welcome the stranger or give them something to drink. We don’t have the money to care for the homeless and feed the hungry?” None of these so-called missional realities or predicaments ought to make the church lose heart. Five loaves and two fish in the hands of a praying Lord have always yielded more than enough. A little faith calms the wind and the rain. A little faith makes the lame walk and the blind see. A little faith can help the church grow. As long as the church is the church of Jesus Christ, loving God and neighbor must always overcome despondent tendencies causing weariness in well doing. WE ought not lose heart.
WE OUGHT NOT LOSE HEART
Three brief narratives that follow illustrate a truth everyone is free to reject or ignore. God did not give up on you. You cannot give up on God or Christ and his church. That may be the greatest truths gleaned from II Corinthians 4:1. Let me speak it in your hearing. “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Losing heart or giving up on the church can have a sweet innocence or plausible rationale about it that we must guard against.
Three or four years ago, I almost decided to retire. It seemed like a good time to do so. A reasonable portion of health and strength was with me. It was the right time, I thought. So, I consulted one of my episcopal mentors, namely Bishop Charles Wesley Jordan, indicating that I was going to retire. Before the sound of my last word died, Bishop Jordan responded with the speed of light. “You can’t retire.” I was shocked. Though he had no real power to stop me, Jordan’s rapid fire response was totally out of character. Always slow and deliberate expressing anything he wanted to say, I wondered if God used his admonition to speak to me. After weeks of reflection and prayer, I concluded that his word was God’s message to me. God was not through with me yet. How could I give up on God for so-called flowery beds of ease when God had never given up on me? Maybe that experience spurred some unplanned advice I shared with seven teenagers graduating from Chaddock High School.
Thursday, May 28th, I preached and/or spoke at the Graduation Ceremonies for Chaddock, a Child Care agency related to the United Methodist Church. Chaddock has a fantastic reputation to helping children flourish as they wrestle with “abuse, neglect or trauma” during their childhood years. Seven students graduated from Chaddock’s high school. Graduates were presented with a diploma or GED. We celebrated how the gift of another chance, if not multiple chances, transformed their lives. They made it because parents, a United Methodist related childcare agency with devoted and skilled teachers, counselors and chaplains never gave up on them, never lost heart in their ability to overcome what had bedeviled them. Then, the spirit led me off script. I admonished those graduates to make disciples for Chaddock in this wise. If you see some of your peers going through struggles like you have gone through talk to them and tell them, “I know a place that can help you with your problems. I know a place that has teachers, counselors and other personnel ready to give you a second chance. How do I know? I am a living witness. Here where I was. And now here I am. See if they can help you at Chaddock.” What Chaddock has done for you, you’ve got to do for others!!
Out of his life experience, Paul spoke these words. God changed him. God transformed his life. He was brash, arrogant and angry. He was the epitome of a hater and a terrorist. And he backed it up with nasty words and violence against Christians. He broke into folks houses and carted them off to prison because they believed in Jesus the Christ. Incredibly, this same Jesus arrested Paul on the Damascus Road eventually appointing Paul to be the chief missional strategist for the making disciples of Jesus Christ in parts of Europe and Asia. Eugene Peterson’s the Message made a telling comment.
The Corinthians “bucked his (Paul’s) authority---accused him of inconsistencies, impugned his motives and questioned his credentials. They didn’t argue with what he had written; they simply denied his right to tell them what to do.”
None of this suffering made Paul lose heart. God did not give up on Paul; Paul did not give up on God.
Thirty-six years ago, my then seven year old son taught me something about this sermon topic. The Bishop had an appointment, a cross cultural appointment for me and I did not want to go. To my chagrin, the introduction to the committee went well. And we were going to a church in Rockford after completing my dissertation and final exam. As we drove back to Evanston at night, Jon-Jon broke the silence with a few sniffles as if ready to cry. I asked him what was wrong. And he said, “I’m losing my heart.” Then, his tears broke loose like the waters of Niagara Falls. He wept outwardly and I wept inwardly. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, Jon said “Mom and Dad, I’m getting my heart back again.” My minds said, “If my little boy can deal with a major shift in his life in 15 to 20 minutes, surely I can do it given this so-called God knowledge at my disposal.” To do so, I had to walk by faith not by sight. From that day to this one, if I get discouraged or lose heart my son’s words continually refresh and embolden my heart.
May the obligation to perform God’s ministry, knowing that we are recipients of God’s mercy or amazing grace and the commitment not to lose heart be so for the present and future church. As I go to my seat, I’m reminded of my foremothers and forefathers singing “sometimes I fell discouraged and think my work in vain but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead…”