Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 29, 2009

2009.03.29 “PoWeRSuRGe: “R” is for ‘Relationships’”

Central United Methodist Church

“PoWeRSuRGe: “R” is for ‘Relationships’”

Pastor David L. Haley

The 5th Sunday in Lent

March 29th, 2009

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2

Over the last twenty-five years, the numbers have come in to confirm what we likely already know: not only are our relationships not what they used to be, they are also not what we would like them to be.

Today I’m not talking about primary relationships, such as family and spouse, that’s another whole sermon. What I’m talking about today are our secondary relationships, our circles of friendship. If you’ve ever been stumped by that question on a form, “please list the name of a contact not related to you,” then this sermon is for you. 

Some of us remember a time when people actually visited each other. For those under 20, let me describe how that worked: instead of a Twitter or a text message or an email, you would get in the car or walk to another person’s house. You would sit at the kitchen table, or on their couch, perhaps with a cup of coffee not from Starbuck’s but actually made in a coffee pot in the kitchen.  And you would talk, face to face. 

Even those of us who may not remember that far back, may remember a more leisurely time in our lives, before responsibilities, before children, say, in college, when we would talk with friends for hours.” 

Sadly, as we remember such times, we may also remember and regret many of those same friendships, once significant to us, eroded by time or space, or worse, neglect on our part.  For, as we’ve likely all learned, for friendships to flourish, they must be cultivated.

So what happened?

In 2000, Robert D. Putnam published his groundbreaking book: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). In this book, backed by data, Putnam showed us what we already know: How we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, and neighbors.  How our stock of what he calls “social capital” – the fabric of our connections with each other – has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities. How we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. As for the title of the book: we’re even bowling alone. While more Americans are bowling than ever before, they are not doing it in leagues.  I think we understand – and have experienced – the implications and affects of this for churches.

Why is this the case?  Putnam put the blame on time and money pressures (10%), mobility and sprawl (10%), technology and mass media (especially TV) (25%), and generational change (50%). Thanks to such factors, people are living less involved, even isolated, lives. Even though the Internet and associated new forms of communication such as Facebook and Twitter hold great potential for instanteous social connection, still, they are solitary activities, lacking “face time.”

For the most part, women, you have done better at creating circles of relationship, both inside and outside the churches.   Churches are still full of circles and activities for women.  Although, as you will have noted, as more women have joined the full time work force, especially younger women, they do not participate. 

Men, not so much. For the most part, we men are still subscribers to the cult of rugged individualism. Look at our heroes: Clint Eastwood, James Bond, Jason Bourne. Great action heroes; but not so good at relationships. We may be bruised and bleeding, isolated and alone; but “Hey, I’m OK; it’s only a flesh wound.” As Garrison Keillor once observed, “Girls are brought up in the house playing with dolls; boys are brought up outside pretending sticks are guns; who’s better suited for domestic life?” 

However this may be, my point today is not just that relationships are good for us, which they are; not just that relationships are essential to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being, which they are; my point today is that for Christians relationships – especially relationships with other Christians – are essential, even sacramental, as we serve as “Christs” to each other.

This is the fifth sermon in my PoWeRSuRGe series, six essential disciplines for growth in spirituality and discipleship.  PoWeRSuRGe is an acronym which stands for: Prayer, Worship, Read the Bible, Serve, Relate, and Give. Today I focus on the importance of RELATIONSHIPS for our spiritual growth and Christian discipleship.

You might say that if the Bible is about any ONE thing, it is about relationships: our relationship with God and our relationships with each other.

Think, in the Old Testament, of the Ten Commandments. While the first five have to do with our relationship to God, the second five have to do with our relationships with others.

Think of the Hebrew prophets, who warned not only of Israel’s broken relationship with God, but their injustice and lack of compassion with each other.

Think, in the Gospels, and of Jesus’ answer to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 36 – 40)

Think of the predominant image of Jesus in the Gospels, not that of a rabbi officiating in a synagogue, not that of a teacher teaching in a classroom, not that of a healer in an office, but seated at table, with friends and enemies, disciples and detractors, the rich and the poor.

Such table fellowship was to become a defining feature of the new Christian religion. That fellowship, at its best, is described for us in Acts chapter 2:

      “And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.  They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God.”  – Acts 2: 44 – 46, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson.

From those things “held in common”, we got words we still use today: “Communion,” and later, “Fellowship.” It came to mean not just getting together, not just the sacramental meal that took place, but the new kind of relationship that occurred, Christians serving as “Christs” to each other, nurturing and encouraging each other in faith, keeping each other accountable.

        Eighteen centuries later, to his credit, none of this was lost on the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Based upon his experience in the Holy Club while a student at Oxford, and upon what he had learned about the importance of “accountability groups” (the church within the church) through his experience with the German Moravians, Wesley organized his followers into societies, bands, and classes. When other prominent evangelists of the time, such as George Whitfield, did not do this, their followers dwindled. But precisely because Wesley did it, his followers became a movement, of which we are still a part today.

Here are John Wesley’s Rules for the “Band Societies” (1738)

“The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, ‘Confess your faults one to another, and pray for another – that you may be healed’” (James 5:16).

“To this end we intend:

1. To meet once a week, at the least.

2. To come punctually at the hour appointed, without some

extraordinary reason.

3. To begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour with

singing or prayer.

4. To speak, each of us in order, freely and plainly the true state of our

souls without the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt since our last meeting.

5. To end every meeting with prayer, suited to the state of each

person present.”

In other words, John Wesley had learned as a part of his own experience, and made it a part of the Methodist DNA, that community is an essential discipline for spiritual growth and Christian discipleship.”  Christians grow best in groups.

So, what can we do to nurture our relationships within the congregation?

        Some churches divide into smaller groups, and appoint Lay Pastors over those groups, within the congregation. We group you, either geographically or generationally, and appoint over you at lay pastor, a more realistic means of providing pastoral care.  Because one way to keep congregations small, is to believe that everybody can know everybody, or that any one person can care for everybody.  People who study churches have pointed out that when that is the case, a church grows to the point of discomfort – where people don’t know each other – and then factors come into play to “keep it that way.”  The number most often mentioned is 150 in worship attendance:  as a church reaches 150, it has to move from one group to multiple groups to foster relationships.

        Apart from dividing up the congregation and appointing “Lay Pastors,” we can nurture small groups. Churches have traditionally been good at this, those, as I said, better for women than for men. 

        In a healthy church, there are always on-going groups, Bible Study groups, prayer groups, Women’s groups, Youth groups, and Men’s groups (Men, we have more work to do on this).

        In the immediate future, for example, we are starting “Central Suppers” – table fellowship – as a new way of helping people get to know, and care for each other.

Currently, our group closest in form to an accountability group is “Companions in Christ,” a group that meets weekly, not only to study together, but to pray together and support each other.  We are going to see whether we might make “Companions in Christ” (or something like it) an ongoing accountability group within the life of our church.

Another thing we could do is to make our church building more conducive to “face to face” relationships.  Think about the rooms we have in our church.  We bought in to the “educational model”, and we have classrooms.  We bought into the corporate model, and we have offices and meeting rooms. But what about the “living room” model?  We need some rooms with couches and chairs where people can sit and visit.

Why do you think Starbuck’s is so successful?  (It’s not because of the coffee . . .) I think Starbuck’s is successful because it provides a comfortable “third space”, apart from home and work, where people can visit and spend “face time.” What would happen if you went there, and all the chairs and tables were lined up to face one wall? What if they only had one big table, around which everybody was supposed to sit? You’d find someplace else to meet with your friends, which is exactly what younger generations have done with the church.

It was very interesting a few years ago to visit United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City.  As they have grown, they’ve built successive sanctuaries, so when they moved to a new one they took an old one and turned it into a student center.  Here is the worship space in the student center: what do you notice?  Yes, they worship seated around tables.  Because to the younger generations, relationship to each other is as important as relationship to God, community as important as spirituality.

Finally, my brothers and sisters in Christ, you know that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”  While we might provide opportunities and make the church conducive to it, we can’t make you do it.  You have to take the initiative, and commit yourself to it.  Not only for you, but for the sake of your fellow Christians. I challenge you to consider your relationship – especially with other Christians – as an essential and indispensable part of your spiritual growth and Christian discipleship.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, best known for the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, tells this story:

“I was sitting on a beach one summer day, watching two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the sand.  They were hard at work building an elaborate sandcastle by the water’s edge, with gates and towers and moats and internal passages.  Just when they had nearly finished their project, a big wave came along and knocked it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand. I expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all their hard work.  But they surprised me.  Instead, they ran up the shore away from the water, laughing and holding hands, and sat down to build another castle.  I realized that they had taught me an important lesson.  All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand.  Only our relationships to other people endure.  Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up.  When that happens, only the person who has somebody’s hand to hold will be able to laugh.” (Rabbi Harold Kushner, “The Power of Holding Hands” in Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul, p.106.)

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