Note: The Rev. Baughman preached this sermon June 3, at opening worship of Annual Conference 2012 of the North Texas Conference.
Greetings beautiful people of the North Texas Annual Conference. I am so grateful to stand before you this day as we enter into this time of Holy Conferencing. I give thanks to Bishop Bledsoe for inviting me to preach today and for his leadership of this annual conference. I give thanks to the good people of Custer Road. It is good to see so many people whom I love in the congregation and the choir loft. It is indeed a humbling thing to stand before my peers and colleagues and dare to do something as humbling as preach the word of God.
I am not worthy. I am not able. But God will be good. I must admit that it adds to my nerves to preach before a homiletic hero of mine, the Rev. Dr. Zan W Holmes. Sir, if you say “amen” just one time during this sermon, I’ll die a happy man. You don’t even have to mean it.
Before we do something as bold as approach the word of God, I ask that you would bow your heads for the prayer of illumination. It’s one of my favorite prayers and comes out of our United Methodist Hymnal. Let us pray:
From the cowardice that dare not face new truth
From the laziness that is contented with half truth
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, Oh Lord, deliver us.
Acts 2:16-17, 25-27, 37-38
As the heat of summer began, I was watching the news. I had this sermon on my mind and heard a report about the symptoms of dehydration. Lets see if they sound familiar, body of Christ.
- Rapid Heart rate associated with stressful situations
- Skin that lacks elasticity
- The inability to expel waste and cleanse the body
- Aches and pains, especially in the head (Richard, you’re the lay leader…any aches and pains in the head?)
- Serious cases may result in delirium and body systems progressively shutting down.
Any of that sound like our churches?
Does that sound like society?
We serve thirsty churches in a thirsty world.
And in the midst of the world’s thirst, fewer are attending church.
I recently called my grandfather—a retired Methodist minister and District Superintendent. We were discussing the church and I asked him what his dreams were.
I want to see cooperative ministry where people are working for the kingdom of God not competing for numbers of dollars or people. We’re focusing on numbers instead of kingdom work. We need to be evangelistic, bringing people into the kingdom of God. When I see what’s happening in the UMC, we’re digging wells in Africa and universities in Zimbabwe and hospitals and schools but where are we bringing people into the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ?
Where? In Africa, of course. The place where we are meeting people’s needs, providing real water with the living water.
Once upon a time we were like that for the United States. The Methodists built hospitals, brought about child labour laws and invented Sunday school so that industrialized children could learn how to read in the days before public education. Every Great Awakening in U.S. history has been partnered with a significant expansion in the ways that we, the church, cared for the poor, advocated for social justice and were active in kingdom work.
While it is important to be at work in Africa and it is important to be at work in our local communities, we don’t have to go to Africa to be in mission. We don’t have to go to Joplin to offer relief. Mission is more than a trip! I’m here to say tonight that there are thirsty people in Plano—there are thirsty people in Dallas—there are thirsty people in Sulpher Springs and in Lone Oak and in Flower Mound and there are thirsty people in Paris—Texas that is. I’ll tell you that there are people in Highland Park who desperately thirst for righteousness. Oh they’ve got running water but they need wells of justice.
Domestic Violence does not know socio-economic status (1 in 4 girls will be a victim of partner violence by the time she graduates college). I think Paul has some things to say about what love is and so should the church, but domestic violence rates are the same in the church as outside. The victims and the abusers are thirsty.
Wealth does not prevent alcoholism and I believe the Methodist church has some things to say about that. The addicts we love are thirsty and we need to offer them something new to drink.
Abundance does not decrease bullying in our schools and I know my Jesus has some things to say about how we treat ‘the least of these.’
Schools in the United States—and in our communities—are now more segregated than they were before Brown versus Board of Education and I believe the Syro-Phonecian woman has some things to say about that. I believe the letter to Galatia has some things to say about that.
Immigration will surely rise to the forefront of debate in this election cycle and the refugee who we worship, in Jesus Christ, probably has a thing or two to say about that.
People are thirsty for the saving love of Jesus Christ, are thirsty for the power of prayer—they are thirsty for hope and I know, I know, I know that our Bible has something to say about that.
There is a mission field around us and within us. Our communities…our congregations are thirsty! Dehydration is all around us and we have access to the living water.
The world is thirsty. But sometimes, I think we don’t think we have the resources.
We’ve encountered a progressive decline and are overwhelmed with the drought. I wonder if we’ve been fooled by our baptismal sprinkling. After all, if the world needs water and all I’ve got is a sprinkling, how can I make a difference?
The thing is, if the church is dehydrated it isn’t because the well has run dry. God offers living, dynamic waters that will not dry up so if we are dehydrated it isn’t because God isn’t offering the water. It’s because we haven’t had a drink.
The lack of water is a pervasive one and it goes beyond our surrounding culture. Since I knew that I’d have the opportunity to preach at Annual Conference, I’ve been asking a lot of old people their dreams for the church and I’ve been asking a lot of young people to prophesy. One young disciple—both in age and in relationship with Jesus—gave me the following vision. His name is James. Pardon the switch in metaphors, but I had to go to the beach to test out the prophecy he offered.
It strikes a chord, doesn’t it?
James’ vision offers prophetic questions:
How have I walked away from real ministry to take a break from it all and set up camp on the beach, telling stories about how amazing discipleship is?
How have I tamed the lion of Judah and reduced the ocean of theology to a kiddy pool?
How have I sanitized the nuances of our theology and tradition so that it’s easily understood, transported, packaged and delivered?
Discipleship isn’t this easy, is it?
The reality is that we’re angry and afraid: which is a difficult place to be when we desperately need courage and creativity. I was so struck by the third verse of “And Are We Yet Alive” in the clergy session today. What troubles have we seen? What mighty conflicts past? Fightings without and fears within since we assembled last? We have had our fair share, haven’t we? Many of us are paralyzed by the progressive decline of our churches, afraid to take risks because our budgets and congregations continue to shrink. Many of us are, well, flat-out angry because of what General Conference was not able to accomplish and still others of us are afraid of what General Conference did accomplish. For some, it is far more intimidating to risk without the safety net of guaranteed appointments. Many of us are disillusioned by conflicts between the clergy and the cabinet.
We’ve been hurt by our senior pastor, hurt by SPRC, insulted by comments of congregation members and disenfranchised by failed efforts. The raging waters of God becomes less evident and we reduce the waters of our baptism by settling for more manageable ministries and mediocre goals. We get tossed around by the waves, we get pinched by a crab, we get thrown onto the sand and it makes sense to retreat to the beach. I get that. I’ve done it too.
When I’ve been bored with my faith it hasn’t been because the ocean went away. It’s been because I’ve been tanning on the beach!
When we are afraid…when we feel like everything is on the line and the whole business of following Jesus got a lot more risky—build up dams around our baptismal waters—brick by brick. Every decision we make based on its popularity is another brick. Every time we forget that Jesus called us to take up our cross—our cross- and follow him: another brick. Every time we pastors protect our congregations from Jesus and what he’s really calling us to preach—we put up a brick. Every time we say no to something that Jesus would say yes to. Every time we fail to read the word, get engrossed in prayer and offer ourselves to God, we put up a brick and we build nice, calm, predictable pools of water. But the difference between a still, calm pool and stagnant water is really just semantics isn’t it?
I’ll be dammed if I’m going to sit in the kiddie pools of faith while the waters of God roll behind me.
I’ll be dammed if I’m going to swim in bottled water when God is calling us to get our hands, feet, souls, hearts and selves dirty.
I can’t see the bishop right now. Does he look okay? I just want to make sure we’re tracking alright here. By “dam,” I mean a large, perhaps brick, structure used to block the flow of water.
I’ll be dammed if I let self-doubt, self-loathing or my own sin get in the way of believing that God still calls me to extraordinary things.
What do the bricks of your dam look like?
I’ll be dammed if I play it safe when God is calling me to work it dangerous
I’ll be dammed if I worry more about upsetting the apple cart than I do about upsetting God.
What do the bricks of your dam look like? How have we as individuals limited God’s power to work through us? How have we, as congregations sanitized the gospel with bottled water? How have we, as a conference, pulled disciples way from the ocean and taught them how to inflate kiddie pools?
Adam Hamilton says that the United Methodist Church has cancer and it’s terminal, but I beg to differ. I think we’re dehydrated and dehydration is not a terminal condition—unless we refuse to drink…unless we are not willing to get our insides wet.
I have hope for the United Methodist Church. I believe that General Conference marked our first tenuous steps out of Egypt. Lord knows that plenty of legislative blood was splattered on the doorposts and to some the ten days felt like the ten plagues, but I saw a different picture. I saw the heart of men and women who love this church so deeply that they devoted themselves to its reform. Egypt had been a prosperous place—under Joseph, the Israelites had the best land, resources and opportunities. The Methodist Church used to be like that. But we’ve now realized that things are not going to get better as it is. We’ve come to realize that the game has changed and that realization gives me hope because you’ve got to know that Egypt isn’t going to get better before you take steps to leave it.
I have hope for the United Methodist Church because I believe that God is building up a generation of leaders to bring us to the promised land. Young people to offer visions and prophecies just as Joel predicted and Peter commands. I look at our Lydia Patterson interns and believe that Moses is among them—she may not talk all that much but God is stirring something in side of her as she learns to live across multiple cultures. Miriam is singing songs of the promised land in the choir and Aaron is that PT intern who talks way too much. I think the next John and Charles Wesley are in our youth groups, right now and next weekend they’ll be giving each other wet willies in the back of the church van to six flags. I have hope because you, North Texas Conference, are called to equip them for the journey.
I have hope for the United Methodist Church because I believe there are seasoned disciples in the church to raise up a new generation of leaders. I believe that God is calling the cabinet…I believe that God is calling Churches who will welcome young pastors into ministry: you have been called to be Shiprah and Puah—midwives to ensure that entrepreneurial pastors are not crushed by the Pharoah of “the way we have always done it.” I believe that there are Jethros in our conference who will support Moses while he tries to figure out what the heck God is calling him to do. I believe that there are members of this annual conference who are called to help young disiples navigate the reeds of ordination and Susannah Wesleys who are called to teach the compelling stories of faith. Are you called to be Shiprah, Puah, Jethro or Susanna?
I have hope for the United Methodist Church because this is a time, yes, for young visionaries and yes for young prophets, but this is also a time for old dreamers. We need the dreams of those who are wise to hold us firm to the story of God and God’s people. Without dreams, we will not find the promised land and may succumb to the temptations of the wilderness.
I have hope for the United Methodist Church because no matter how bad things get, we have the eternal promise from God in this scripture: “I will not let my holy one see decay!” Even if a congregation dies, if a pastor is ‘deemed ineffective’ even if our denomination as a whole collapses the body will not see decay. We follow a resurrection God for whom death is never the end!
I have hope for the United Methodist Church because all of the warning signs that give others despair give me hope upon hope. That’s the way God works! This is the God of the great reversal where the last are first, Alpha is Omega, the high are brought low, the low are brought high and a child shall lead them. The ground may remain fallow for a time but only to prepare for the great harvest of God.
We are a thirsty church in a thirsty world, but look to the wisdom on Peter in our text for Annual Conference. “When the crowd heard Peter they were cut to the heart and said to Peter ‘what shall we do?’ ‘Repent and be baptized.’ Peter’s prescription is water.
It is time to stop storing up resources for a rainy day. I’m talking relationship capital, I’m talking financial capital. It’s time to stop storing up resources for a rainy day because it’s already raining and God wants us to join in the downpour.
The downpour of justice
The downpour of God’s spirit
The downpour to end evil, oppression and injustice in whatever form they present themselves
The downpour of new ministries and new faith communities
The downpour to free the oppressed, welcome the immigrant and work towards economic justice
The downpour of salvation being offered to those who do not know Christ
Are you ready for the downpour?
The church is a mess right now and that gives me hope because the banks for the red sea are muddy, because Pentecost looks a lot like Pente-Chaos and I can’t wait to see what adventures lie ahead.