At the beginning of each year, I have often found it important to spend some time focusing on where we are going in the coming year. To set the table, if you will, for where we believe God is leading us as a people and congregation as we enter into, yes, this third decade of the century.
This allows us an opportunity to refocus our energy around our vision and mission as a people who seek to follow Christ. One of the things that I have learned in ministry is that our mission often gets put on screens, bulletins, and newsletters, but can easily be forgotten and ignored throughout the year. We think that is enough, but we should always be teaching, leading, and focusing in on who we are and our identity in Christ as a congregation, because otherwise we are susceptible of being led by false ideas and promises in the world.
I want to define out what those two words – vision and mission – mean. The vision is the goal and what we are seeking to build towards. As a people of faith, our vision for transformed communities and people to rise up through the love of Christ. Imagine what it would look like if that vision became a reality? We wouldn’t be talking about an opioid crisis in Huntington, because our city and her people would be transformed through the love of Christ. We wouldn’t be talking about a lot of the things that cripple us, because they would have been transformed and raised up to new potential through the love of Christ.
Our mission, then, is how we seek to work towards the vision. Vision doesn’t just happen. We have to partner with God and the people to see it come alive. That is where our mission comes in. Mission is the work of the church does to live towards its vision. We, as a United Methodist Church, have said we are about the work of making disciples. We have longed believed, and Scripture supports this, that we are to make disciples who are transformed in the image of Christ. We’re not in the work of making a church member. We’re here to make disciples who worship God, grow in faith, and seek to love the Lord.
We need that reminder, because it is easy to forget who we are and what we are about when issues and concerns creep up as we live out our connection together. We might give lip service to our mission, but when we are focused on issues and concerns our mission gets replaced by other things that can take us away from who we are to be in the life of Christ. One of the things that can creep in is worry. When worry creeps into our shared life together in Christ, fear is often not too far behind.
That has been the case this week. When news about the proposed settlement made its round, I am sure many were faced with the similar fears of will it cause chaos and disruption in the church. We allowed it to consume us, perhaps, as we worried about what it would mean for the church, our mission, and the future.
Worry is not something that has entered our congregation simply because The Associated Press wrote a story about the United Methodist Church. Since I have been your pastor, one of the things that I have recognized is we are a church that is consumed with worry. It doesn’t always pop up, but when it does it comes about as worries for our future, what it would mean if we stepped out into the community, and do we have enough.
When a church is consumed with worry, we are no longer focused on the vision and mission. We are focused in on ourselves and own desire to control the future. Perhaps, this is why Jesus said as much as he did about worry and not to allow it to consume us.
In the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus shared with his followers a command for them not to worry about their lives. We talk a lot about how Jesus calls us to be a counter-cultural reality, but this was the true essence of that call for his followers. Many were likely consumed with worries about their lives. They had just left everything to follow Jesus. Where were they going to get provisions for their families? How would they come up with food? Many were living in deep poverty and had felt the sting of oppression. To live a life of not worrying was to abandon, likely, what they were feeling in that moment as they listened to Jesus.
Jesus gives them, and us, that call, because when we are consumed with worry, fear, and thoughts about the unknown we are unable to see the promises of God before us. Worry prevents us from seeing where God is at work in our midst, because we become consumed with our own thoughts about the way the world should be, or not having enough, or everything else but God Our mission becomes not about making disciples, then, but to live into the worry.
What does this look like? When we are consumed with worry as a people of faith, we are anxious about anything that is unfamiliar. We’re more focused on keeping everything the same, because it is comforting and gives us a sense of control. We are less likely to take risks, because we have been led to believe that playing it safe is the best way to keep everyone happy so no one will leave. When we are consumed with worry, we become negative, focused on rumors, and allow the smallest disagreement to become a major conflict. Worry kills missional energy in the life of the church.
Worry is unhelpful. Yes, we will plan and make the proper preparations as acts of faith. Yet, we will not make one disciple, share one bit of love, or share the good news of Jesus in any effective manner if our heart is set to worrying.
Worrying in the life of the church needs to be replaced, this year, by a life of peace. If we are going to maintain our focus on our vision and mission, then as we approach a year that will test and try us, we will need to replace our bent towards worrying with a life of shalom of deep connection in the presence of God.
What does this peace look like? It looks like knowing that God is always with us. Jesus gives us this promise at the Ascension. Matthew records these words by quoting Jesus saying, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” It is peaceful to know that we are not alone. God is present. We might believe that we can remove God from things, but we cannot. God is everywhere. There is never a struggle, a question, a conversation, or difficulty we will face that God’s presence is not there before we get there. God is always present.
I don’t know about you, but that gives me a sense of peace. It gives me a sense of peace as I think about how to fund Noah’s care and his educational needs. It gives me a sense of peace as I lead you into this new year and into the unknown of where God is leading us. It gives me a sense of peace as I think about my own calling as a pastor. God is there, even as I face difficult questions and propositions. God is there in those moments for you, and God is there for us now and into the future.
We have peace, as well, in knowing that we are not alone in wrestling with the primary question before us of how do we seek to be the church today. Every church is wrestling with that question and every church is struggling to do that. We might look from the outside and think the grass is greener, but every church is dealing with an increasingly secular community, a younger generation that does not feel the need to be part of a church in order to worship God, and how to be relevant and faithful to God at the same time. In facing these questions, however, we join our brothers and sisters from the early church, the scholastic period, middle ages, reformation, and today in answering the same question of what does it mean to be faithful.
That gives me a sense of peace of knowing we have a long history to serve as a guide for us. We’ve faced them before and we’ll face them again. That gives us peace to know we have made it through difficult times before, as a global body, and God has been faithful and present in those discussions and conversations.
We also need a peace to know that it is perfectly acceptable to fail. We have allowed ourselves to believe that failure is not an option. When that is our focus, it can prevent us from taking risks or challenging ourselves into new ministries or possibilities. We’ll play it safe, before we take a leap of faith.
Think about the disciples Jesus had around him. By our standards, we would call them failures. They couldn’t understand what Jesus was teaching. They could not do the work Jesus asked them do. They fought among themselves. And, yet, Jesus said to this group, that failed and failed, to build his church. They were the ones, the risk takers who left everything and risked everything to follow Jesus, who Christ called to be the ongoing witness of his mission. The same is true for us today.
When we are defined by peace instead of worry, then, we are able to walk into the future unafraid and confident to go wherever God leads us. We are able to keep our focus on the vision of transformed communities in Christ and mission of making disciples set before us. We become, truly, kingdom focused and kingdom building people who are empowered, strengthened, and led by God to do what seems impossible.
Perhaps just like the Magi of Matthew’s gospel. They had a vision to share what they learned about the stars with people. They had a mission to go where the star was leading them, especially as they believed it would lead them to the Messiah. They were willing to go, unafraid, wherever the vision and mission took them. It took them awhile. It nearly cost them their lives. Yet, they saw the Christ child, worshiped at his feet, and gave him the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The Magi walked boldly with confidence, because they had peace knowing that their focus was on the mission and vision before them to go and see the Messiah. As long as I am your pastor, that is going to be our focus. We’re going to keep our eye upon what is most important and that is being kingdom people. We’re going to live with the vision and mission always before us. We’re not going to be consumed by worry, but we are going to live as a people with purpose to experience transformed communities in Christ by making disciples.
It begins today around the table as we remember whose we are and who we are. It continues into tomorrow and the weeks to come as we will live our faith out together. We will not live by fear. We will not let worry and negativity consume us. We will be a people of peace who live out our vision and mission.
If we can do that, the possibilities are endless for what God will do in us and through us.