Last week I had the privilege of preaching at United Methodist-related Clark Retirement Community in Grand Rapids, where many of my early mentors in ministry currently live. What follows is an adaption of that sermon.
I recently came across a little poster that a seminary friend named Hondi Brasco made for me over thirty years ago. She’s also an artist, so she drew a picture of a woman playing a trumpet and kicking up one of her legs. The quote on the poster comes from Gordon Cosby, founder of the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C., who died on March 20 at the age of 95.
The quote comes from a sermon by Gordon Cosby titled The Calling Forth of Charisma. There’s one pertinent line that comes right before this quote. “The charismatic person is one who, by her very being, will be God’s instrument in calling forth gifts.” Now the rest of the paragraph. “The person who is having the time of her life doing what she is doing has a way of calling forth the deeps of another. Such a person is good news…. She is the embodiment of the freedom of the new humanity.”
Gordon Cosby was arguably the most influential Christian activist of the mid-twentieth century. He called forth the deeps of a social conscience that pre-dated by decades the missional and emergent church movement today. Based in Washington D.C., Cosby’s church initiated dozens of pioneering outreach ministries. Cosby himself died at Christ House, a Church of the Savior ministry to Washington’s homeless men that was started in 1947.
I invite you to hold that image while we look at our scripture, Matthew 21:28-32. I’ve never preached on the parable of the two sons and discovered that it’s not especially difficult to understand, but it’s almost impossible to live. Matthew places this scripture during the last week of Jesus’ life as he spends his days teaching in the temple and challenging the chief priests and elders.
In this story, the religious authorities question Jesus as soon as he enters the temple, inquiring about the source of his authority. “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?” Jesus toys with them by asking whether the baptism of John came from heaven or whether it was human authority.
They’re trapped. The Jewish leaders huddle together, “If we say John’s authority is from heaven, Jesus will ask why we didn’t believe in him. But if we say his authority is of human origin, the crowd will be angry because they regard John as a prophet.” So they answer, “We don’t know.” “Okay,” Jesus says. “Then I’m not going to tell you by what authority I do these things.”
Then Jesus tells a story. A man has two sons who are expected to work in their father’s vineyard. He says to son #1, “It’s time for work.” The son says, “Nope, I’m not going today.” But later he changes his mind and goes. The father then goes to son #2 and says, “It’s time for you to get to work, too.” The second son says, “Sure, Dad,” but then he doesn’t go.
Jesus turns to the chief priests and elders and asks, “Which of the sons did the will of the father?” “The first son.” “You’re right,” Jesus says. “Unfortunately, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going to enter the kingdom before you. John the Baptist came to show you the way of righteousness, but you, who claim to have faith, didn’t respond to the new thing God was doing through John. By contrast, the tax collectors and prostitutes, who were sinners and didn’t follow the law, did believe in John. They heard John’s pronouncement of judgment, repented of their sins, and changed their lives.”
What ultimately matters? It’s not what we believe about our faith, it’s what we do about our faith. It’s all about discipleship. What I want to say to you tonight is “Thank you.” Almost every one of you here tonight is part of the generation that preceded me. I am now around the age that you were when I first entered ministry here in the West Michigan Conference. Whether you are lay or clergy, you modeled for me the truth that Christianity is much more than words. Christianity is transformed lives in action. Even though as United Methodists we believe that we are saved by God’s grace alone, God expects, even requires, us to put our faith in action. Otherwise the faith means nothing.
For those of you who are retired clergy and clergy spouses, the bishop said more than once to you, “You’re appointed here,” and “You’re appointed there,” and you went. You pastored every church to which you were appointed by following the way of righteousness with the very best ministry you could offer. By your very being you became God’s instrument calling forth gifts. I know that to be true because I was watching you. I learned from you, and I modeled my ministry after yours.
You made disciples by sharing the good news and giving yourself away in sacrificial ministry. You sometimes went where you didn’t want to be appointed, but you didn’t throw a fit about it. You didn’t always like the parsonage, but you made do. You didn’t earn a lot of money, but you earned the respect and love of your parishioners as well as people like me who followed in your footsteps.
As Gordon Cosby wrote, by having the time of your life doing what you were called to do, you called forth the deeps of me and many others. You are all good news, for you are the embodiment of the freedom of a new humanity. And what is that freedom? It’s the freedom to give ourselves away. It’s the freedom to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. It’s the freedom to shine like stars in the world as you give off light and love and hope to all.
You are good news because good news is more than saying the right things or engaging in the proper rituals. Good news is living the right reality. Good news is embodied by the one who acts to bring in God’s kingdom. Every time you call forth the deeps of another person, you are good news. I do need to point out, however, that embodying good news and calling forth the deeps in others is a bit more challenging than it used to be.
- Whether we like it or not, the church is no longer the center of most people’s lives.
Unlike fifty, forty, or thirty years ago, many Christians today who claim to be active come to church maybe once a month. They can’t even imagine being in worship every single Sunday. After all, there are kids’ sports, travel to visit parents or grandchildren, the coffee shop, or just relaxing at home. In order to embody good news we have to think creatively about planting new faith communities in other locations, worshipping at times other than Sunday morning, and offering Bible studies and classes in places we never dreamed of before.
- The church building is no longer our primary mission station.
In today’s world we have to go to where the people are. We have to stop idolizing our buildings and move outside the church if we’re going to have any impact on our communities and do the will of God. But when we reach out in mission beyond our walls, we must act out of a pure heart that embraces all people because non-Christians are always looking at us, checking to see if we’re son #1 or son #2.
- We have to return to fundamentals because many of our congregations have become complacent and lazy.
What does Jesus ask us to do? Go and make disciples. Tell the story. Live the story. Embody the good news and call out the divine in others. The church is not a social club, and our purpose is not to spend all our time making pancakes, barbequing chicken, playing bridge, or going to movies together. Prayer, Bible study, meaningful worship that connects people with God, empowering and equipping lay leadership, reaching out to our neighbors with grace and compassion, and seeking justice for all creation – that’s what will grow Christ’s church today.
- We have to be flexible and savvy, adapting our ministry to our specific context.
There is no longer one-size-fits-all ministry. What works in one place doesn’t always work in another. If pastors try to come into a church with our own “dog and pony show” rather than listen to, walk beside, and work with our lay leaders, we won’t be able to call out the deeps of others.
- Finally, to have the time of our life building the kingdom of God means that we are going to be different than the rest of the word.
The percentage of the American population that self-identifies as Christian is getting smaller and smaller, and that trend will continue. And among Christians, the truly faithful who say “yes” to the radical discipleship Jesus calls for will likely continue to shrink as well.
Jesus doesn’t just want part of us and our lives. Jesus demands all of us. Jesus needs us to be “all in.” God can do immeasurably more than we can even imagine, so we need to expect and ask for more of others who follow Christ. That’s why Gordon Cosby was such an influential Christian in our country for seventy years.
Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine wrote a few weeks ago in a tribute, “Gordon Cosby never needed or wanted to be out front or become a famous public figure… He instead decided that his own vocation was to stay with a relatively small group of people trying to ‘be the church’ in Washington, D.C.: the Church of the Savior, which has produced more missions and ministries, especially with the poor, than any church I know of anywhere in the country – even the huge mega-churches who capture all the fame.”
Wallis continued, “He never wrote a book, went on television, talked to presidents, planted more churches, built national movements, or traveled around the world. He just inspired everybody else to do all those things and much more. And the world came to him.” As one person said to Wallis that night, “You knew Gordon loved like Christ, and he made you want to love like Christ too.”
My friend, Hondi, wrote on the back of this poster, “To Laurie, May God bless your ministry and fill the days to come with great joy.”
Because each one of you loved and still loves like Christ, you make me want to love like Christ, too. You don’t just say the right words, you do the right things. Your actions still call forth the deeps from others, including me, and give me great joy. You are good news. I can only hope that someday the next generation will say the same of me and my generation. God bless you all.