In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus outlined some new rules, new commandments you might say. They are the marching orders for his disciples. They also make a great manifesto for a community of people who want to become disciples. They give us the broad brushstrokes of the rules of living together as members of the Blessed Community.
1. Refuse to keep unresolved anger in the community (Matthew 5:21-26). I sense that there is a lot of free-floating anger within the United Methodist Church. There is anger among clergy against abusive bishops and district superintendents, and against laypeople who have beaten them up, insulted them, underpaid and undervalued them for years. There is anger among laypeople who have suffered from poor preaching and weak leadership. There is liberal anger against conservative thought, and conservative anger against liberal thought.
We have gone to sleep angry for so many years that we don’t know how to get along anymore. The anger has seeped into our worship, our music, our preaching. And the bitterness is easily discernable by people who visit, or who sit in our pews to watch.
The only thing that keeps anger alive is holding it inside. When we keep it hidden and continue to nurse it, anger festers and grows into a hideous monster which ends up harming us in multitudinous ways. It’s time for us to spill our anger, be reconciled to our fellow United Methodists, and go to the altar of God’s forgiveness together.
I, for one, choose to be quickly reconciled when I sin against my United Methodist brother or sister, and not to entertain any anger which arises when I am sinned against.
2. Refuse to be distracted from following Jesus by the lust of the eyes (Matthew 5:27-30). When Jesus spoke about “looking at a woman with lust,” he wasn’t just talking about adultery or sexual sin. He was speaking about our spiritual tendency to be distracted from our identity and purpose as a child of God. The thrust of this passage is a warning that we can easily go astray from our relationship with God when we become enamored with other things, other attachments, other idols.
Ironically, the Call to Action report is one great example of a lustful distraction. In the report, a certain picture of the ideal church is held up for us to lust after – a church with multiple professions of faith, of growing membership, of multiple programs for children and youth and a pastor who is an effective leader. All of the so-called “drivers of vitality” are nothing but American cultural ideals dressed up in Christian language.
“Growing the church” sounds like an ideal worth aiming for. It sounds like the fulfillment of the Great Commission. But it’s not.
“Vital churches” does NOT equal “disciple-making.”
“Vitality” does NOT equal “discipleship.”
To paraphrase Jesus, “Every pastor who looks at a bigger, more vital, more exciting, more relevant, more creative, more powerful, more admired church with lust has already committed adultery in his/her heart.”
I refuse to be distracted from following Jesus by a lustful eye, even when turned in directions that seem to be “for the good of the church.”
3. Remain committed to your relationships (Matthew 5:31-32). Again, what Jesus says has wider ramifications than just divorce. But the marriage relationship is clearly intended by Jesus as a symbol for faithful, loving and just relationships between all of us.
Disciples do not discard relationships when it becomes convenient. This applies to husbands and wives, but also to members of a faith community.
This is the United Methodist Church’s divorce problem – our local churches are full of people who do not take their relationships with their community seriously. They are not really committed to the relationship; thus, they meet with the community only when it is convenient, or when they feel like it. They don’t listen to others in the community, but insist on being listened to. Sometimes they seek to control and dominate the relationship, and threaten to leave if they do not get their way. When they leave, they end up in a different United Methodist Church, where they reenact the same scenario.
I will remain committed to the core relationships in my life, including my wife, my children, my extended family, my faith community, and the United Methodist Church.
4. Use simple, direct, and honest words (Matthew 5:33). We live in a world which has mastered the art of double-speak, perfected the lie of advertising, and made “propaganda” respectable. It makes me particularly sad that the United Methodist Church has embraced this art.
In the name of relevancy, we created an entire marketing campaign which does nothing but projects an image of who we would like to be – “open heart, open minds, open doors.” (We are not, of course, a church that actually looks like that, but that’s beside the point.) I am shocked that we have allowed ourselves to become so deluded that we don’t blink when we spend millions of dollars to proclaim the name of “The United Methodist Church,” rather than the name of Jesus.
I admit that I was once deluded myself. Having worked in and around the field of communications, I previously thought that the church needed to “engage the culture” and “embrace new methods” to reach people for Christ. I liked the ads, the pictures, the hip feel of the campaign. I was “proud” to be a United Methodist again.
But it’s the same exact thing that Nike and Coke and Abercrombie & Fitch does. It’s crafting and selling a product. It’s marketing to a consumer.
Isn’t it time to say goodbye to that model? Haven’t we figured out that marketing is a faster way to lose one’s soul than irrelevancy?
In the same vein, the hierarchy of the United Methodist Church seems to have learned the skill of double-speak, from bishops to district superintendents to senior pastors. In the name of “confidentiality,” nobody seems willing or able to tell the truth simply. Everything has to be said carefully, in a roundabout way, with gaps and holes. Every bishop leads “the best Annual Conference”; every district superintendent has “the best district in the Annual Conference”; every senior pastor “faces challenges.”
No wonder our sermons are so bland, our theology so open for criticism. John Wesley was known for speaking “simple truth to simple people.” His sermons, models of practical theology, were blunt at times, always direct and to the point.
I will use simple, direct and honest words in all my dealings – in my personal relationships, in my work for the United Methodist Church, and in my preaching and teaching.
5. Do not repay evil for evil, nor attempt any sort of retaliation when wronged (Matthew 5:33-37). Recent Biblical scholarship has shed great light on the infamous words of Jesus about “not resisting evil.” We know now that, when Jesus asked us to turn the other cheek when struck on the right side, this was a call to civil disobedience – a direct challenge to one who is an oppressive authority-figure. Jesus was not commanding passivity or calm acceptance, but a new kind of resistance to the Powers That Be. Jesus makes it clear that this resistance is not a form of retaliation, nor does it use the weapons or techniques of the oppressor. A nonviolent response, an act of radical love, is required.
I’m not primarily speaking about nonviolence/violence here. I’m talking about the tendency toward retaliation. The United Methodist Church is a system that is ripe for abuse by vengeance-minded persons. In my experience working in the church, I have been the victim of retaliatory actions by superiors, and have seen those who have suffered in even worse ways. Methodist retaliation usually manifests itself in appointments, boards and committee nominations, and General Conference delegation voting.
While I am convinced that such actions taken against me were wrong, I must not seek revenge, in explicit acts of condemnation, nor in covert passive-aggressive behavior. Both are simply forms of retaliation.
I repent of my desire for retaliation, and resolve not to repay evil for evil.
6. Love your enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). Here is the commandment with which we struggle the most as a church. We have clearly divided ourselves into various camps and factions. We are members of Good News, Confessing Movement, and the Institute of Religion and Democracy, while at the same time we are Red-Letter Christians, members of Sojourners and Institute for Progressive Christianity. We hold vastly different political positions. And, modeling the partisanship of our national politics, we regard each other as “enemies.” This may be the fundamental problem. As members of the same church, we do not have the luxury of holding other members in our minds as “enemies.” And we do not have Jesus’ permission to hate our “enemies.”
This is the fundamental plank of the life of discipleship. We are to love as Jesus loved. This means simply that we are to act toward the “other” the way we would want to be treated. And we are to act in the interest of the “other,” even if it infringes on our own interest.
Some in the past in our church have recommended that we find our fellowship around a common table, that we unite ourselves around the common story of Jesus at table, offering himself in bread and wine. This is a good start. The various competing factions of the church will have to determine to love each other, even if it means sacrificing their firm convictions about doctrine and practice. Love always trumps orthodoxy.
I will love my enemies in the church, in deeds, not just words.
7. Give to others in private (Matthew 6:1-4). This is a commandment about humility. We don’t trumpet our piety before others, Jesus says, for that would show that our piety is empty. How many of our United Methodist Churches, their buildings or their rooms, are named after people or families who gave the money for the building or room to be constructed? How many plaques are on the backs of pews, on organs or pianos, inside hymnals, on walls or on other pieces of furniture in local United Methodist Churches with the name(s) of their donor(s)?
Speaking from experience, many of our churches are nothing but large pagan temples, built in someone’s name, with that same person’s money, in the hopes of being remembered, adored, and appreciated.
I don’t think Jesus had this in mind when he advised us to give our alms in secret. Money that is given with the purpose of doing good should never have a name attached to it.
But humility is not the only point of this commandment. It’s also about repressing the need to control. Again I speak from experience, when I attest to the fact that the person who gives money to the church has undue control over, and power in, the church. We must break the strings that lead from giver to receiver, from donor to recipient, from master to slave. This must be done, not only for the sake of the church, but for the health of the soul of the giver.
In the meantime, woe be to the pastor who tries to move the pew with a plaque on it, or tries to move the plaque itself!
I will give money in private, without seeking recognition or appreciation.
8. Pray like Jesus – simply and privately (Matthew 6:5-15). Jesus assumes that we pray. His instructions about prayer begin with the phrase, “And whenever you pray….” This means that we should be a praying people.
The specific instruction which follows addresses our posture and attitude in prayer, which of course, ought to be a daily, regular, simple and private discipline.
When our relationship with God is vibrant and “vital” (to use a word from the Call to Action report), then we feel no need to display or showcase it. Nor will we feel a desire to force others into our own pious mold. We will be at peace with ourselves and with our God, and will not feel the pressure to make carbon copies of ourselves. We will not need to package up our “secrets” into a sermon series, or a formula, or a set of books or DVDs.
Each of us in the United Methodist Church needs to deepen and nurture our spiritual life. These are the kinds of things, if any, we need to put on our conference dashboards and scorecards – how many hours per day do our clergy pray, how many times per month do our clergy fast, how many spiritual retreats do our clergy and laypeople attend, how many people in a church participate in a prayer vigil? And yet, as this commandment so clearly points out, putting this kind of information into a dashboard invalidates it!
I will constantly deepen and nurture my relationship with God, but will not attempt to share the details with others.
9. Fast like Jesus – simply and privately (Matthew 6:16-18). Jesus assumes that we fast. His instructions about fasting begin with the phrase, “And whenever you fast.” That means we should be fasting.
This is one spiritual discipline that United Methodists in America fail to exercise on a consistent basis. It’s probably because we are programmed to consume. We don’t comprehend how to go without, and therefore, don’t correlate “going without” with spiritual growth.
I believe that fasting is the one thing that we United Methodists in America need the most. We have to develop this practice, and learn the discipline of abstaining from things, from prosperity, from greed, from acquisition, from capitalism.
I will learn to fast.
10. Refuse to serve the idol of wealth (Matthew 6:19-24). And here is the most important commandment of them all. Jesus tackles the problem of wealth in two ways: first, he urges us to store up treasure in heaven, rather than earth, because heavenly treasure is more secure and long-lasting (6:19-21). It’s a better value to be rich in spiritual matters, than in material things.
But then Jesus wades into deeper water. He claims that wealth can be a “master” which vies for our loyalty and attention. This “master” even attempts to dethrone God in the center of our hearts (6:24).
As I read through the Call to Action report, I was struck by a subtle, underlying anxiety about this master. I read of “growing financial burdens accompanied by decreasing revenues” (p. 8); the Steering Team even admitted that “the world-wide economic crisis was an important impetus in igniting the CTA effort,” though certainly not the only one (p. 10). At one point, the Steering Point explicitly states that vitality can be stimulated in local congregations when “we join together to consistently cultivate incremental increases in financial giving …” (p. 15).
In other words, the report manages to find giving patterns to be, at the same time, both a symptom of our malaise, as well as a solution to our problems! We’ll know we’re vital again when our offering plates begin to fill up again!
There could be nothing more antithetical to Jesus’ good news than this assertion. Jesus himself said, “You can’t serve God and wealth. It’s one or the other. So stop letting wealth have its tiny foothold.”
It would be a healthy exercise to slash the budgets of every board, agency, conference, and church of the United Methodist Church, not in a Tea Party-like revolt against institutional waste or bureaucratic mismanagement, but as a move toward freeing up as much money as possible for mission and outreach. Every dollar spent on keeping a posh office in New York City is a dollar not spent on a mosquito net in Africa, or a dollar not spent on essential medicine in Southeast Asia, or a dollar not spent on paying for a young person’s pastoral education in South America. We simply spend too much money keeping the institution propped up.
Furthermore, we pay too many professionals to do the work of ministry for us. We have outsourced the work of God to denominational agencies and para-church organizations. We think that we can write a check to someone else and thereby absolve our consciences for having done a good turn.
I would suggest that financial overhaul begins with the clergy — in other words, with me. For one, clergy salaries need to be standardized and equalized. I believe it is scandalous that some pastors in my conference, for example, make over $200,000 per year, while others make the conference minimum, which hovers around $43,000. There is undoubtedly a clergy salary ladder, which creates all sorts of appointment problems – it means that pastors are sent to churches, not always for mission reasons, but for reasons related to their place on said ladder. Standardizing salaries would free pastors from the inevitable temptation to dream and scheme about making the next step up the ladder.
But this would be only the first step in reducing our idolatry of wealth. A second essential step would be to eventually require pastors to be bivocational. The apostle Paul found his ministry flourishing when he was able to support himself in his trade as tentmaker, and did not need to beg his congregations for financial means. Today’s pastors receive a comfortable paycheck, yet find themselves increasingly isolated from the world outside by the pressures and tasks of the church office. The paycheck we receive from the church has strings attached – we are bound to respond to practically every whim of the congregation, no matter how petty or absurd. We end up caretakers to the apathetic few insiders, rather than as evangelists and apostles to those who are still outside the church walls.
A third important step toward following this commandment faithfully will be made when we finally shed our addiction to big buildings. An argument could be made that, at certain periods in history, large church buildings played a vital civic and social role. But that time has passed. Buildings are expensive, wasteful, and risky propositions.
Look at your own church budget. Try to calculate how much of the budget is spent on “in-house,” or maintenance, items. How much of the budget is spent on upkeep of the building and property? And how much is spent on staff, including the clergy? Then try to calculate how much of the budget is spent on mission and outreach. How much actually goes into real, tangible, everyday ministries that impact real persons’ lives? How much goes into social justice, evangelism, or community social programs? What would be a reasonable split between maintenance and mission items? 50-50? I’d like to see the United Methodist Church in America today that spends half of its money outside of itself. Because you won’t find it. Why isn’t anybody trying? Are we trying to serve two masters?
I resist the temptation to serve the idol of wealth. I will not be concerned with “climbing the career leader” or salary increases when moved, but will instead begin to pursue the goal of bivocational ministry.