It’s a joy to be with you this morning to talk about God’s vision for us, God’s disciples at Washington Street United Methodist. In his book, Celebration of Discipline. Richard Foster talks about a variety of spiritual disciplines in which faithful disciples should be engaged. There are individual and personal disciplines, and then there are corporate, or community-based disciplines.
One of the corporate disciplines Foster identifies, he calls the discipline of guidance. While he articulates the meaning of this discipline well, I think there is a better name for this discipline. In considering Foster’s thoughts on the topic, and discerning from scripture what the discipline of guidance is all about, I would prefer to identify today’s message as, The Discipline of Mutual Discernment.
There is, in our Western, American society a focus on individualism. There is a desire, if not a perceived need, to be successful in and of yourself.
Let me draw on the Olympics for an example. My wife and I love to watch the Olympics; both the winter and summer Olympics. The last Summer Olympics in 2012, I remember having been somewhat surprised at the lack of emphasis placed on the gold medals that were won in team competitions.
It’s not that those who won gold in team competitions were considered less important or received less praise. But there was an over-emphasis placed on the need for individuals to win their own medals. For example, the Fab 5, our stellar female gymnasts won the team gold. But, while Bob Costas and the rest of the NBC crew praised them – there seemed to be a lack of enthusiasm at the inability for the individuals to win gold in the individual events. It was as if the team gold was not sufficient enough to identify the girls as true champions.
I remember seeing a similar theme in the track and field and swimming events. There was an importance placed on individual races that seemed to be lacking when it came to the overall team competition. I even remember hearing the language a few times when athletes were preparing for their individual heats. It went something like this, “Let’s see if this person can finally claim their first individual gold.” The phrase carried this demeaning undertone, as if the person was only good enough to win as part of a team – they weren’t successful as an individual.
There is little debate that we pride ourselves on individual successes. In our school systems, we teach self-reliance. In the work place, we reward independence. And throughout our nation, we lift up individual authority.
It is this emphasis on individualism that leads me away from the title, “The discipline of guidance.” Too often we are satisfied in seeking guidance on our own. Too often we settle for our own understanding of scripture and God’s will, without considering the impact our understanding may have on the belief and thoughts of others.
But that is not what the discipline of guidance is about – at least not according to Foster, and certainly not considering our scripture readings today. So let us look at our passages today, with the topic in mind, “The Discipline of Mutual Discernment.”
Our passage in Matthew is one we often lift up in worship to define the importance of gathering together as a unified body and for claiming the presence of Christ among us. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” says Christ, “I am there among them.” But what about the verse prior, and what about the story leading up to these two short verses? Context matters.
Verse 19 says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” We sing the old hymn, Seek Ye First, and we claim God’s willingness to give what it is we ask. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” we sing, “and all these things shall be added unto you.” But our scripture today emphasizes the need for there to be more than one who is asking. It de-emphasizes the importance of individual requests, and places a strong necessity on seeking God as a corporate body.
These two verses flow out of an instruction guide in the preceding verses in the 18th chapter of Matthew, in which Jesus offers teachings around how to deal with sin within the community. How do we handle disagreements with one another? After attempting to resolve a disagreement by following the instructions prior, Jesus comes to this final retort – what do you do when no one can agree on what is right and what is wrong?
Christ offers this simple instruction, ‘come together.’ Seek God’s will as a corporate body. In these two verses, 19 and 20, Christ is emphasizing the need for mutual discernment.
Mitchell Reddish, Professor of Christian Studies at Stetson University, asks the question – Is it simply stated in verse 19 that God will acquiesce and grant the wish of any who ask in conjunction with another?[i] Is it really that clear that God will give us what we ask for, so long as we ask from a corporate mindset? Or, is it that those who have spent time together, gathered in careful prayer and discernment with one another, have already come to a decision in earnest response to God? And therefore, in asking God for anything, it is already discerned that what they are asking is the will of God?
Seek ye first does not imply that we will have everything we want given to us – it says, if we seek God’s Kingdom first, then anything we ask for will be, by the nature of God’s Kingdom, in accordance with God’s will. How much more true is this when the discernment is shared among the larger body of Christ?
Our passage in Acts gives us a good example of what this looks like in practice:
The church in Antioch was comprised of some well known patriarchal leaders. Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Saul. They had gathered together to worship – to corporately respond to God’s invitation to relationship. They were fasting, engaged in the spiritual disciplines. Together, as a gathered body, they were focused on discerning the will of God. In their midst, the Spirit says to them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Again, after further prayer and fasting, they laid hands on Barnabas and Saul, and sent them off.
To be honest, I do not know what they were expecting from worship that day. It is unclear if they had gathered for the purpose of identifying someone to go evangelize in the surrounding communities. But, in the midst of their corporate gathering, where all who were present were in tune to the will of God, they were able to hear and respond to the Spirit of God.
Foster says that where the will of God is present, and the people of God are gathered in unity, the authority given by God will always be discerned.
This passage, and the focus on mutual discernment, challenges us to live out the body of Christ in a new way – to defy the individualism of our society, and to focus on seeking the will of God as the unified guidance for life. We have become accustomed to a majority rule, where each of our individual wants and desires can play a part in the decision making process. But the church has not always lived in this 50% + 1 mentality.
When our Israelite ancestors of the faith were led from captivity, they were always referred to as a corporate body – named Israel. The discernment of God’s will was a unified vision. When the people sought more guidance, prophets were identified to help relay the will of God. Moses was the first, followed by a long line of prophets to follow. But even as the individual prophet helped relay the will of God, the body still acted as a whole in accepting or denying God’s will, and choosing to respond to God’s will. But kings replaced prophets; the cohesive mindset was replaced by individuality; and the unified identity of the church became unglued.
For centuries now, the church has been split. We have divided into nearly 40,000 different Christian denominations. We are unable to agree on even the slightest of differences at times. And what about in the midst of even this church – the United Methodist Church, and specifically Washington Street United Methodist? How often do we disagree with one another on decisions that should be guided by the will of God? We often refuse to hear the voice of others; we block out the presence of others; and we often forget the needs of others – for our own desires block our view, cover the window, and disallow the Spirit to be discerned in the body.
It’s time we turn back to mindset of inclusivity. It’s time we heed the Word of God, to seek first the Kingdom and to gather as a corporate body – engaged in the disciplines of our faith. For the church is not a body that gathers to exalt any one among us, save the rightful head of our Church, God the Creator, the Almighty.
Sue Nilson Kibbey, author of the book Ultimate Responsibility, says creating a ministry to be faithful to God and to be a part of God’s change in the world is not about individuals getting their own way; it’s not about listening to who has been at the church the longest, or who has put in the most volunteer hours; instead, she says, the focus must be on how to accomplish the work of Jesus. When a church embodies this mentality – how can we be Christ for the world – they will become a church that can change the world.
While God does lead individuals in profound ways – God uses the body – the Church – to discern the will of God in the world today. For when we, as Paul says, the many parts that make up the body, are bound together in mutual discernment and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we become a community that embodies the love and the life of Christ. We become obedient, not to worldly desires, but to the will and the Kingdom of God. We become the embodiment of Christ – the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood – for this hurting and broken world.
Over the past month and half we have engaged well in this discipline of mutual discernment. Both in the Listening Tour meetings, in other conversations, and in the fellowship that has taken place, I have witnessed the movement of God in the midst of this faith community. We have listened to one another. We have been open to hear one another’s passions, gifts, and desires. We have spoken out of our own conviction of God’s will for this congregation. Across many meetings and shared conversations, what I have found is that there are some common threads that I believe articulate well the mutual discernment of this body.
The passion of the congregation for this church, and what I would name in response to all I’ve heard and witnessed is God’s will for this church, centers around three areas – vital worship, effective small group ministry, and on-going community involvement.
On the cover of the bulletin there is this phrase that has been there for a few years: “Making a place for everyone.” This phrase sums up well the desire of the congregation for all three areas of ministry – worship, small groups, and community involvement. There is a desire by the body to see this church continue its evolution – we are “making a place” … making is a word that describes an ongoing action. We must continually seek to be more welcoming and hospitable to all persons. This means designing small group and worship opportunities that are engaging to adults, children and youth. It means creating a space where people feel welcome regardless if they are new to Alexandria or if they have been here for their entire life. Making a place for everyone means finding ways to be engaged with all subsets of the local community – moving beyond the walls of our church to be in community with those who have never crossed the threshold of this building – and to be in relationship with those who have no desire to cross the threshold of any church building.
Knowing that a continued evolution is needed to be faithful to the passions and gifts of this congregation, I want to identify a few places where we will start to respond to the will of God as identified in the moving of the Spirit among us. These are places we will begin to engage – not the final things we will do by any means.
First, as you have heard noted over the past couple weeks, and hopefully seen in the bulletin and in the eStreet News – the church will be opening its doors to the community the weekend of the Alexandria Arts Festival – September 19th and 20th. Representatives will be here from Rising Hope United Methodist Church, Alive, the Carpenter’s Shelter, and the Washington Street Preschool to share what kind of work they are providing in the community. Visitors and locals alike to Alexandria will be invited into the church building off the sidewalk to learn about these ministries and the ministry of our church. There will be a bake sale, with the proceeds going to the Open Table breakfast. There will be water and lemonade available as well. And there will be a children’s art craft offered to invite families in to participate in the arts festival weekend. The children of the preschool will be creating some colorful stained glass pictures that will be put on display for the arts festival, and children will be invited on Saturday to make their own stained glass pictures to take home. On Sunday of that weekend, the booths will continue to be set-up in the Fellowship Hall so that if you are unable on Saturday, you can be here on Sunday to learn about these important partnerships in ministry in Alexandria and how you can be involved by serving in the local community. We will have a fellowship gathering after worship on Sunday, September 20 with finger foods and drinks as we celebrate the work of God through Washington Street UMC and offer thanks to our local partner organizations in the community.
Another thing we will begin in September are dinner groups. Perhaps I should say we will resurrect the dinner groups, similar to what the church has offered in years past. You will find in the eStreet News tomorrow morning a link to an online survey asking for your input to help form these dinner groups. It is my hope that the groups will meet at least once a month in September and October – though of course any group wishing to meet more often is welcome to!
The groups will have a two-fold focus. They will be fellowship groups. It is my hope that you will connect with each other, pray for one another, and enjoy your time with one another around the dinner table. But the groups will also be discipleship groups. Each group will receive some leading questions to facilitate conversation around the table focusing on a social issue in our community, asking the question, what is the most faithful response on our part as a community of faith to this issue.
The topic for this fall to discuss in these groups will be education. Again, stemming from the passions I have heard named by the corporate body that is Washington Street United Methodist, there is a collective passion and unified desire to be present in the lives of the children of this community. I don’t know if there is a better way to be engaged in the lives of children than to be engaged in the life of the education system. Following our dinner groups in September and October, we will have a town hall conversation in November to listen and seek how we – as a church – may be involved in the life of the schools and children in our own community.
Along with the Alexandria Arts Festival and the Dinner Groups, we will continue to offer vital worship and find ways to collectively name our appreciation for the work of God in our lives and in our world.
I appreciate how you have been willing to share your discernment that together we may seek God’s will for our church and our community. I look forward to participating in these small groups with you, and to find new ways to be engaged in our local community. May God continue to use our collective voice and our mutual discernment to guide us to be faithful to the work God has willed for our church. And may we be faithful to God’s call, that we – as individuals and as a faith community – may be a witness to the love of God in and for the world.
[i] Mitchell Reddish. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).