This is the sermon I preached today in my last official act as the pastor of the Antioch United Methodist Church. Next Sunday, I will begin my tenure as the Senior Pastor of the Old Hickory United Methodist Church. The text for today’s sermon was Ephesians 4:1-16.
Three million, six hundred and eighty nine thousand, and two hundred and eighty minutes ago, I walked into this pulpit to share my understanding of God with you for the first time. I was following a beloved pastor (“Fluffy” to many of you) and had no clue what would be in store for me, so I thought it would be good to spend a few minutes reflecting on the nature of change. Little did I know that I would stand here seven years later still confounded by the nature of change, but also still convinced of God’s presence in the midst of it.
This move is a tough one for us, although in fact it’s really not that unusual for my life. Over the past almost 50 years I have lived in 25 different houses, apartments, or dorm rooms, including the one that’s been our home for the past seven. I suppose one could say that I have been in training for being a Methodist minister all my life. Yet, I confess, when I started realizing that house number 26 was in my future, my stomach began to churn and my blood pressure went up. Of course, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about it in the midst of our flood work, but when I would come home to the task of packing, I would find myself sluggish, not quite able to face the mad search for boxes, the hoarding of newspaper, and the thought of trying to discern what needs to be moved, and what must go to Goodwill.
My body signals to me that although I have often been on the move (and have taken vows saying that I will go where sent), I still long for stability, for security, to have my roots planted in a single place that is home. Change is uncomfortable. It brings anxiety and uncertainty.
Honestly, I like it where I am. I know the folks around me and have come to love them. I know all of the places to eat, the places to shop, and which garage to trust with my car. I have a place in this community . . . people know who I am. To stay where I am is to know my footing, to be grounded in a place, in a people, in a way of life.
To move on is to move boldly into the unknown, to face new frontiers and strange new worlds. But unlike Captain Kirk or Jean Luc Picard, I don’t have the resources of a starship to help predict what will happen. I wonder about what life will be like in the new place. How will life be different? Will my life continue on the same path, or will I be knocked off course like a sailboat encountering a fierce storm? And of course, I’m concerned about the most important issues facing a parent – how are the schools, and how far away is the closest Kroger and Walmart?
Most of all, I wonder about the new people I will encounter. Will they be like me? Will they talk funny? Will we have the same values? Do they like to go to lunch?
To use the words of a 1960’s era soul classic, I’m “standing on shaky ground.” Like a surfer trying to navigate a roaring wave, I’m holding on for dear life, hoping and praying that I won’t wipe out and drown in the undertow.
While we haven’t physically moved our church during the past seven years, we have experienced enough change and transition that we might as well have. We have moved from focused on life “on the hill” to become a people that recognizes our place in the community. We have seen our building change, with the addition of a new Welcome Center which keeps the task of hospitality ever before us. Most of all we have seen folks come and go, both staff and lay persons. As I stand here this morning I see faces that I didn’t see on my first Sunday, and several faces that were so familiar are gone. We too find ourselves struggling for roots, for stability, and wanting to avoid change at all costs. After all, our world is changing, our families are changing, our community is changing. The last place we want to experience change is our church . . .right?
And now we are facing another round of changes. I will be moving on, and next week Charles will be coming to take my place. We have said see you later to a beloved office manager, and are embracing a new way of being with Teresa, our new office manager. Life is gonna be different around here – new faces, new ways of doing things, and maybe even folks who talk funny!
It’s in the light of all of this transition that we consider Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus today. Frankly, we don’t know much about the church at Ephesus, nor why this letter was written. What we can discern is that it was a community struggling with diversity and change. There were old faces and new faces. There were folks that worshiped God via the old time religion of Judaism, and others who had taken their Greek traditions and transformed them into acts of devotion (not unlike the arguments today between those who argue for traditional worship against those who would only offer contemporary worship). The times were a changing, and the people of Ephesus were trying to figure out how to hold it all together. So Paul, the missionary pastor to the Greek churches, wrote them a letter from a prison cell to help them think about what it means to be the community of God. And in a very real sense, Paul has written us this letter as well, to help us think about where we go from here in our life together.
“Okay,” Paul tells us in Chapter 4, “here’s what I want you to do. I want you to be the people God created you to be, to live the life that God created you to live, to walk the paths that God put you on. This life, this walk, isn’t a solo affair. No, this walk is done with everyone else in the church, so you need to love one another with all patience and humility and gentleness.”
Understand that Paul’s vision of unity was not simply about having folks gather in the same room and tolerate one another. The vision that Paul is painting is of a unified whole, not a union of two things joined together. There can, after all, be union without unity. Just tie a couple of cats together by the tail and you’ll quickly find out that even though they are joined, they aren’t necessarily unified. There has to be a larger purpose, a guiding vision, a force bigger than ourselves for us to truly be unified.
Paul shares that purpose in his next few sentences. “There is only one church,” Paul says, “one body, one spirit, one Lord Jesus, one faith, one baptism, one creator and parent to us all.” Paul goes on, “This is the center of everything we do. Yes, we may have differences. Yes, there may be change. But in the midst of all of this we have a constant – one God and father of all.
You may remember the study from Columbia University on how members of the different sections of 11 major symphony orchestras perceived each other. The percussionists were viewed as insensitive, unintelligent, and hard-of-hearing, yet fun loving. String players were seen as arrogant, and stuffy. Brass players were seen as “loud.” Woodwind players were held in the highest esteem among those surveyed, described as quiet and meticulous, though a bit egotistical. With all these different personalities and perceptions, how is it that an orchestra could ever come together to make such wonderful music. The answer is simple – no matter how these musicians view each other, they put those differences aside to follow the conductor. The conductor is the reference which allows different instruments, different persons, with different egos to become a single orchestra which moves our souls with beautiful music.
You see, Paul understands that we are not all cookie cutter Christians. “There are many gifts,” Paul says. God has put us on different paths, with different callings, and different duties. We won’t all look the same. We won’t have the same priorities. But we worship the same God! We have participated in the same Baptism! We are empowered by the same Spirit. We have one conductor which leads us, and when we keep our focus on that leader, then we too create beauty and reveal God’s wonderful love to the world.
We know this in our hearts, because we have experienced here at Antioch United Methodist Church again and again. We are a community of men and women, of adults and children, of persons of all ages and races and backgrounds. Some of us have been life-long Methodists. Others of us have been on a winding journey of faith that has taken us to many places. We are diverse in our dress and divergent in our theology, an eclectic assembly of persons with our individuals joys and our individual hurts. We are, in short, the body of Christ, with our own unique calling and purpose. But, for all of our diversity, for all of our difference, we gather for the same purpose – to worship the same God, to learn from the same Christ, to be filled with the same Spirit!
It is this reality that allows very different types of people with all sorts of beliefs to worship in the same building. It is our faith in the same God that moves busy men and women to give their time and energy hand out flood buckets to people who speak different languages from us. It is through our experience of one baptism that young couples and experienced elders become friends and get together for prayer and support. It is through keeping our eyes focused on one Christ that a group of persons shows up Community Care Fellowship to feed those who often go without. It is through our one faith that a bunch of youth will head over to one of our patriarch’s house to clean out the yard and make things blood again.
Yes we are a different people, with all our unique quirks and individual limitations. But we worship the same God, the same Lord, the same Christ who showed us what love is all about.
Change is going to come, whether we like it or not. There will be new faces in our church. Things will be different. We will have new leaders . . . as we have regularly since this church was founded.
Likewise, there are a group of folks over in Old Hickory who are thinking the same things. They don’t want their old preacher to move on. Who is this new preacher we’re getting? Is he going to have new ideas?
Throughout the world, in churches all over the globe, similar questions are being asked. New people are being added. Old people are moving on. Uncertainty is certain.
The good news for us ALL, all the believers in Jesus Christ, is found in the words of the Apostle Paul, who reminds us that we are the unified body of Christ, one body, filled with the same spirit, worshiping one God.
Moving from this place is not an easy task. I love you all dearly. As I said the other night, you have welcomed me into your hearts and lives. You have helped me and Kay raise our children. You have put up with my failings and entrusted me with your needs. You are a part of my family, and I will miss you.
At the same time, I am excited for your future, knowing that God has great things in store for you. Great days are ahead for this church, and I look forward to seeing how God is going to work among you.
So, as I leave this place today, as I move to a foreign land and become part of a new family, I think it’s appropriate to hear Paul’s word to us again. Hear now the Word of God from The Message translation:
In light of all this, here’s what I want you to do. While I’m locked up here, a prisoner for the Master, I want you to get out there and walk—better yet, run!—on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.
You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.
But that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift. The text for this is:
He climbed the high mountain,
He captured the enemy and seized the booty,
He handed it all out in gifts to the people.
Is it not true that the One who climbed up also climbed down, down to the valley of earth? And the One who climbed down is the One who climbed back up, up to highest heaven. He handed out gifts above and below, filled heaven with his gifts, filled earth with his gifts. He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christ’s followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.
No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.
This IS the Word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.