It is hard to believe that in a few short weeks we will be greeted by the year 2020. Many of us are already thinking about the coming year and, perhaps, who should greet us into the year. I recently saw a photo shared on social media advocating for Barbara Walters to host the celebrations in Times Square. Why? So that she can announce at 12:01 a.m., “I’m Barbara Walters, and this is 2020.”
When I think of 2020, though, my mind goes to visionary concepts that focused on 2020 being the ideal year to set a long-term goal. I can remember hearing leaders talk, especially on infrastructure needs, about projects that needed to be in place by 2020. Now, at least in my hometown in Beckley, we are seeing some of those long-term visions lived out, as the city has opened up its long-desired bypass around the original bypass.
Today, though, is a good day to talk about vision – the picture that God paints for us of a near or distant future – and purpose – of how we live that out. We do so, though, realizing that preparing for the coming year may have us a little on edge. That is because we might feel some anxiety going into 2020. We will participate in an election, both on the state and federal level, that has the potential to further our partisan divisions, which is already tearing us apart from one another. As the United Methodist Church, we will approach General Conference in 2020 knowing that there will be major decisions made about the future of our denomination. There are other anxieties, as well, which we will all face.
It is easy to recognize this and wonder, “can I face this?” Within that comes a temptation to just stop and wait to see what will happen, especially as a community of faith. A temptation to hold ourselves where we are, wait for the dust to settle, and, then, live as the people of God. When faced with potential struggles and anxieties, we would rather ignore the situation, play it safe in our own mind, than take a chance on where God is leading us.
I say this, because I have experienced the church playing it safe throughout my life. We will talk about wanting to reach new people, but we are also stuck in a mentality that we have to wait for the timing to be right. We are waiting for a time to be free of conflict. We are waiting for the right amount of people. We are waiting for the right amount of funding in the offering plate. We are waiting, perhaps, for the right pastor, the right leader, and the right time. We keep waiting, and waiting, and yet the mission of loving God, growing in faith, and serving the people goes on in scant ideas. We’ll worship and conduct Bible Studies, but we’ll stop at the point of taking a risk and being bold. Why? Because we want to see if it will be worth it.
Friends, if we are followers of Christ then the kingdom of God is worth of our time and energy. God does not invite us into a church of “wait and see.” God invites us into the church of “come and see.” To go where God is leading us to be participants in the Lord’s redemptive work of new creation that exists all around us, even in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.
Every day, God is at work taking what seems broken and beyond hope and bringing about new life. This is the promise that we see in Isaiah 65:17-25. God looks at the people of Israel and tells them that what they know now will not be their future. God will bring about a new creation that will take what was and restore it to its original purpose. It is a work that God has been doing since the Fall, but has been graciously lived out through the power of the Resurrection. God’s living presence is all around us seeking to bring about a world of hope and grace. We, my friends, are called to participate in that great work.
For many of us, it may be hard to notice that God is working now in bringing hope and grace into the world. It is easy, and perhaps tempting, to only see places of struggle and difficulties that are all around us. Struggles and difficulties that you have shared with me, since I arrived in June, within our community and church. At the same time, we talk glowingly about the community that “was.” We talk a lot about the past and not a lot about the present or future.
What does our community look like? The community, and I am thinking of a 2-mile radius around our church, is not what you might have remembered growing up. Statistics from Mission Insite, an organization which does demographic analytical research for churches and mission agencies, tell us that 21 percent of our community is below the poverty level. Our community is one that is economically deprived and struggling to make ends meet on limited incomes.
Our community is also one that is, increasingly, turning away from the church. A growing number of people, 63 percent, do not attend worship in our community. In many ways, they represent groups of people who are leaving the church not because of worship style or Bible translations, but because they find the church to be judgmental and filled with conflict. At the same time, we are living in a time when the knowledge of Scripture is at an all-time low, both in the community and within the church.
We may, also, struggle to see the hope of God’s creative work, because we focus on the “what once was” within our own church. You have shared stories with me of how the church has experienced a steady decline in active worship and discipleship attendance over the last several years. That is painful. So, too, has been some of the conflict you have experienced, especially from those in pastoral leadership. You have remained faithful through one of the worst examples of pastoral abuses that is possible. And, at the same time, we worry if we can even survive to be the church God knows we can be and calls us to be.
Hear this good news: even with all of that going on, even within that reality, God is still at working bringing new hope into the world. God is working, even now, in the midst of the situations that we find ourselves to bring hope into the world. In fact, some of God’s deepest and most transformative work takes place in situations where we struggle to experience hope. In those moments, God takes what seems broken to us and brings about new life and hope.
This is from where we begin, perhaps again, to share and be a part of God’s creative work in our community. Perhaps there is no better voice than those of us who have lived through chaos, who have experienced struggles, and have come through on the other side to say, “God is at work. We may not always see it, but God is there bringing life in the midst of brokenness.”
Perhaps our participation in God’s creative work in our church and community begins by being a people of hope. Hope is the opposite of fear and negativity, because it finds it strength in the presence of Christ. When we are defined by hope, we do not allow the situations that face us to overwhelm us. Instead, we seek to find the possibilities in the midst of what seems impossible. That comes by trusting in God through whatever brokenness and negativity might exist. It comes in finding the places where God is at work.
Because, friends, there are a lot of places where we can find hope when it might seem hard to find. There is hope in your commitment to this community of faith through your gifts, presence, prayers, service, and witness. This is our covenant with God and one another, and I want to thank you for how you lived that out in ways that are noticed and, sometimes, unnoticed. There is hope, as well, in our Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry, which tomorrow will feed dozes of families and provide a Thanksgiving meal to them. There are so many others.
When all we do is focus on what is wrong, or what is not good enough, we stunt the potential of the hope to burst through the cracks and change lives. We stunt the work of God in us. Hope brings about life and hope must be our focus today, in the coming year, and beyond.
We, also, participate in God’s creative work by living out the purpose of the church. We are called to be the ongoing mission of Jesus Christ. Our purpose is to “go and make disciples of all people and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them all that I have commanded you” and to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is lived out as we seek to make disciples and not church members. We do this by sharing God’s love and coming together as a community to worship, grow in our faith, and serve the Lord in our community. Our purpose is not to survive. When survival is our purpose, we can forget the mission of God and focus only on business-metrics that play it safe. Our purpose is to share the love of Christ and to lead people to a deeper awareness of God’s presence in their life. Our purpose is to be servants of the living God who live as disciples and who make disciples.
We do this by making a commitment to grow in faith. When we accept Christ, we commitment ourselves to being a part of the life of the church and being connected to it through societies, classes, and bands. A society – that is the church – exists for worship, prayer, and communion. We commit ourselves to being part of a class – a small group discipleship class – for prayer, connection, and the studying of Scripture. We commit ourselves, as well, to being part of a band – a group of a few people – for accountability and prayer. This is how Jesus patterned his disciples and, as well, it is our call as we seek to worship God, grow in faith, and serve the Lord. These are not optional expressions of faith. This is how we live out our purpose of making disciples.
Yet, we do it all through prayer. We participate in God’s creative work by being people who are empowered and defined by our prayer life, both as individuals and as a community of faith. Nothing happens in the life of faith apart from prayer. In prayer, we don’t simply speak our requests to God. We take time to listen to God’s guidance, direction, and equipment in our lives, so that we might live as the people of God. Prayer is not passive. It is an active communication between us and our Father in heaven.
Thus, we pray for God to be at work in our lives. Our prayer, as a community of faith, is missional in focus. We are praying for God to empower us to be about the work of the Lord. We pray for God to lead us into the vision of the church that God desires. We pray, as well, for God to shock us in such a way that we know that the work can only be done with God’s help and not on our own power.
This is how we are called to live as the people called Beverly Hills United Methodist Church. We are called to be about hope, purpose, and prayer as a part of God’s redemptive and creative work in our lives. It is a work that is beginning and continuing now as we gather, and it will begin and continue as we leave this place and go out into a community that needs to know God loves them, and so do we.
It begins, as well, with this calling. Too often, we will hear the sermon and go “now what?” This sermon cannot be that. I firmly believe that apart from prayer we can do nothing. A part from prayer no amount of work or mission that we can do within the church will truly change lives or bring forth hope. On Saturday at 9 am, and subsequently on the first Saturday of every month, I will be in the sanctuary to pray. To pray for our church, to pray for our people, to pray for our community, to pray for God to lead us into the future. I want to invite you to come and be part of this time of prayer. If we are going to live into the purposes of God here, it has to begin with us coming together to pray for God’s direction as a community.
Friends, no matter what church I serve I do not buy into the narrative that good days have long passed. God is never finished with us as a people or as a church. In many ways, God is just getting started doing a work of creating in us deeper hearts for the mission of God. I want you to be a part of this work. I want to be a part of this work. Because it this work, of hope, purpose, and prayer, that will change lives, make disciples, and shock the world.
Let this be what we are about today, in the coming year, and beyond.