Proper 8a, Sunday, June 29, 2014

June 30, 2014

Hospitable New Year!
Matthew 10:40-42

10:40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

As most of you know, our annual meeting of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church concluded last Sunday afternoon in Rogers. We began meeting on the previous Thursday and for about 3 days I had no idea what day it was. Our Annual Conference usually begins meeting on a Sunday afternoon and concludes on a Wednesday afternoon, and this shift was totally disorienting to me. I had a conversation with Sharla on that Saturday morning about taking care of some business that clearly couldn’t have happened on a Saturday – but I was totally oblivious as to what day it was!

And of course Annual Conference isn’t like anything normal. You come together in a room with about 2000 of your United Methodist cousins – most of whom you don’t know, but you know you’ve seen them somewhere before. You follow very specific protocols in regard to speaking and voting, in a room without windows or anything else to remind you of what time it is or where you are. It’s honestly a very disorienting experience.

But the last thing that always happens is the reading of the clergy appointments. It’s become more abbreviated in the last few years. Each District Superintendent only reads the names of the people who are going to new appointments, but this is a very orienting event for me. Because at that moment – after all is said and done, my job becomes very clear to me.

Life as a United Methodist Pastor is far more predictable these days than it was a few decades ago. It used to be that pastors and families often found out where they were going when appointments were read at the end of Annual Conference. I’m sure there was better attendance at the final event of those conferences than there is at our final reading ritual. I’ve never seen anyone burst in to tears or praise when their name and appointment was read, but I’m guessing that was a regular feature of that event in earlier days.

There are no surprises for us, but I try not to miss this concluding event. It reminds me of what I am to be about for the next twelve months. And the truth is that all United Methodist ministers who are under appointment are only provided with annual contracts – which aren’t even that solid. The language in the Book of Discipline is that we are appointed at the pleasure of the Bishop. The Bishop generally leaves pastors alone when the relationship is working, but the pleasure of the Bishop has been known to change mid-year.

I feel that what’s going on here is relatively pleasing to the Bishop. We aren’t knocking the ball out of the park, but we’re getting better. Our stats are improving, and we’re playing well with each other.

Today’s scripture reading speaks to the importance of being nice to each other. There’s a little mystery involved in this short passage in regard to the distinctions between the rewards of prophets as opposed to the rewards of righteous people, but I don’t think many people read these verses and come away wondering what they mean. There may have been some specific protocols for welcoming prophets that we don’t quite understand, and there may have been some people who were labeled as officially righteous people that felt particularly good to have around, but what I hear Jesus saying in this passage is not esoteric theology. What Jesus is talking about here is how valuable it is to be nice to whoever it is that comes our way.

You don’t have to have a degree in theology to understand what this is about. In fact what I hear Jesus saying is that we need to forget about our degrees and our positions in society if we want to be people who make room for God in our lives. This business of following Jesus isn’t rocket science – it’s more like home economics. It’s the practice of hospitality – which in some ways is harder than complex mathematics. It shouldn’t be that hard, but it gets hard when we forget that we are all human beings who deserve to be loved and we begin to think that there are distinctions between us that make some people more valuable than other people.

This isn’t news to any of you, and frankly it pretty intimidating to extract a sermon from a passage that’s so easily understood. These three verses don’t provide me with an easy opportunity to dazzle you with my keen grasp of systematic theology. You probably won’t have to take notes this morning.

In fact it may be that you’re going to have to make an effort to forget what I’m about to say. Because what I want you to know is not so much about how you are to treat the people you come across who need some special attention – I think you all know you need to be nice to people who need special care. It’s not always easy and it’s not easy to know how to help people who are in dire circumstances, but certainly we all need to pay attention to the various voices of need that we encounter in life. We need to take note of the fact that it very well may be Christ himself who comes to us and asks for help with the necessities of life.

I hope you won’t forget this, but what I primarily want you to hear is that this very church is a little one who is in need of a cool drink of water. This church needs your personal and financial support.

And you are hearing this from a person who has always had a problem with preachers who find a way to turn every passage of scripture in to an appeal for money. I don’t recall Jesus ever taking up a collection after making one of his memorable public appearances. Jesus didn’t consider the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth to be dependent upon the strength of his movement’s treasury. Money was not that important to Jesus. If anything, he saw the abundance of money as more of an impediment to spiritual development than as a powerful resource for ministry.

I’m very conscious of Jesus’ suspicion of money, but I don’t think Jesus was just talking about water when he referred to the importance of helping the little ones. He pointed out earlier in his ministry that a person can’t live by bread alone – you certainly can’t live by water alone either. It takes a full compliment of goods to keep a body alive, and it takes a lot of money to keep this particular body of Christ alive.

The truth is that the level of giving to this church is better this year than it was last year. It’s been a lot more fun to be on our Finance Committee this year than it was last year, but we are far from being financially solvent. We aren’t close to paying what we call our apportionments – the amount we are assessed from the Annual Conference. And we have some rising needs in regard to our regular operations. I won’t belabor you with the particulars, but if you want to know more about our financial pressures let me know. I’ll be happy to provide you with details.

I have no shame in letting you know that we need more money because I consider this church to be in the position of one these little ones who Christ lifted up as being particularly rewarding to support. I’m not on the same page as the preachers who propose that your contributions to this church will come back to you with tremendous financial dividends. I never knew Jesus to indicate in any way that our rewards would come in financial means. So don’t expect your financial gifts to this church to pay financial dividends, but it’s not wrong to expect some reward for your giving.

I can tell you that this church is a very special place. I believe this church is one of those little ones that Jesus wanted his followers to watch out for. We’ve created an identify for ourselves that is very unique in our United Methodist church family, and the Arkansas Conference needs us to be strong and viable. We don’t just need more money, but money is one of the things we need more of.

I never make any assumptions about what people are able to give or not give. It may well be that everyone here is already giving everything they are able to give. It’s not for me to be the judge of such things, but it is my job to remind you of how important it is to provide for this corporate child of God who is on the forefront of the struggle for justice for people who are not fully accepted.

In our work to advocate for the removal of the disciplinary restrictions against non-heterosexual people we are providing cool water to those who have been told that they aren’t fully deserving of a place at the United Methodist table. And so it is without any hesitation that I’m asking you to be as financially generous as you can be to this church, and don’t hesitate to tell your affluent friends of our needs. We are in a position of needing to make some difficult decisions and those decisions would be a lot easier if we had some more money.

Anne and I have had our contracts renewed by the Bishop for another year, and I want this to be our most fruitful year ever. I’m hoping this church will become overwhelmed with the kind of fruit God provides as reward for faithfulness. I’m trusting this can happen regardless of how much money we are able to collect, but I’m also trusting that you will hear what I’m saying and do what you can to help this church out.

You may not like hearing me be so blunt about equating Christian discipleship with giving money to this church. But let me remind you that what I often hear Jesus asking for is far more costly than our dollars. The truth is that I’m letting you off easy this week. It’s so much easier to write checks than it is to do what I so often hear him asking us to do. But hey, it’s the first Sunday of our new year together – I thought it would be good to start out with an easy appeal.

And I’m not saying that I can be bought, but if this church would step up it’s giving it will put me in such a good mood it’ll be hard for me to dredge up any of that hell-fire type of preaching. You may not think I can go there, but you probably didn’t think I could spend 10 minutes begging for money either. I’m not threatening – I’m just saying I care a lot about how things go here, and I’ll do whatever I feel I need to do to nourish this sacred body.

Let me remind you – I’m the guy who recently rode his bicycle to the Atlantic Ocean. I can get wacky. I can go to extreme places. In fact I have every intention of becoming even more wacky and extreme in my work with you. I want us all to get so caught up in the loving spirit of Christ that they will do a story on us in the AR United Methodist entitled Local Church Has Lost It’s Mind – But It’s Heart Is Well Intact.

We’ve got a new year before us – let’s live it well. Let’s give it all we’ve got!



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