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Whose Are You?
February 7, 1999


In one of my former churches, a woman said about a former pastor, "He will always be my pastor." The one she named was not my predecessor, nor his predecessor, but even further back. Thursday, we received a newsletter from a church I served in Minnesota. It included a letter from a couple who spend their winters in Arizona. Regarding the church they attend in Arizona, they wrote, "They got a new Pastor last year. He clowns around a lot like Rev. Norris." We moved from that church 33 years ago!! I pray their fond memories of me are just memories, and that they are not divisive or disloyal to their present pastor. 33 years!

The Corinthian church was having difficulty with misplaced loyalty. There were fan clubs, factions; and they were quarreling. Imagine that! Some said, "I belong to Paul." Some said, "I belong to Apollos." Some said, "I belong to Cephas." Paul, disturbed that some were promoting a fan club for him, asked, "Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?"

A Christ-centered church is where the members look to Jesus as being in charge, where Jesus is the ultimate authority, where Jesus is the recipient of our loyalty; not the pastor, or a former pastor, or "the woman who runs the church"! Jesus is in charge. When a congregation is centered in a pastor, that congregation is in serious trouble. The second commandment is, "You shall not worship idols." When the idol moves, the congregation, losing its focus, flounders and sometimes never recovers.

In a Christ-centered church, pastors come and go without leaving fan clubs. You may appreciate and love former pastors, but don't turn them into idols!

In a Christ-centered church, the worship and work go on regardless of who is pastor.

In a Christ-centered church, members and pastors are faithful, not to themselves or their own ideas or their own agendas, but faithful to Jesus Christ.

In a Christ-centered church, members and pastors work together discerning the will of God, and when a decision is made, wholeheartedly supporting it.

We are not called to be, or expected to be perfect, but we are called to be faithful. Sometimes we forget that we are imperfect sinners. Sometimes we think pettiness is our gift to the congregation. Sometimes we think we are in charge, instead of trusting in Jesus, leaning on Jesus, and walking with Jesus into an uncertain future. Our mission in life as individual Christians, and our mission as a congregation is to be faithful to the God who made us, redeems us through Jesus, and powers us with the Holy Spirit; to be faithful to the God who loves us in spite of our imperfections, pettiness, and squabbles.

The passage from Corinthians also speaks to our denomination. The unity of our denomination is being threatened. There are those who have confiscated the term "evangelical". I personally resent their claiming the label because I consider myself evangelical. I preach salvation through Christ, and every Sunday invite you to become his disciple, but I cannot support the so-called "evangelical" movement. The "evangelicals" within our denomination have long been about the work of dividing us. They have their own seminary, their own Sunday School and Confirmation curriculum, their own Board of Missions and missionaries, their own magazine, their own campgrounds and camping programs, and their own doctrine of beliefs.

As part of the process of receiving a new pastor, our Staff-Parish Relations Committee prepared a Church Profile for the District Superintendent based on the survey that was distributed to the congregation. It is a well-written profile. Let me read how the committee describes our church theologically.

We would define ourselves as a "moderate", not conservative church. Yet many are conservative. By comparison to the community, we are probably more liberal in our Theology than most. We are Methodists who can disagree without being disagreeable. We embrace the ability to be different, yet worship one God.

The current controversy in our denomination over homosexuality may well be the straw that breaks the camel's back. The irony and further complication is that the "evangelical" position on homosexuality is the official position of our denomination: that the practice of homosexuality is not condoned, that homosexuals may not be ordained, and that couples of the same sex may not be blessed by a United Methodist pastor. In direct and public opposition, an act of ecclesiastical disobedience in the spirit of the civil rights revolution was performed by 90 United Methodist pastors last month when they blessed the union of two lesbians, who also happen to be active, committed United Methodists; in fact, Jeanne is the Lay Leader of our Annual Conference. You are invited to meet with me Tuesday evening at 7:00 for a thorough discussion.

Our denomination is now in crisis. William McKinney, President of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, and a United Church of Christ minister, described the crisis in an article published in the San Francisco Chronicle. Let me quote a few excerpts.

Like most Bay Area residents, I am not and never have been a United Methodist. Nonetheless, I am worried about what is happening to what some have called the most American of American denominations. With more than 8 million members in 35,000 churches, the United Methodist Church is a model of diversity and inclusiveness.

Chances are there is a United Methodist congregation in the neighborhood, town or village where you live. What you might not realize is that it is also the current battleground in what some call our nations' "culture war," a seemingly never-ending struggle between conflicting visions of morality and justice.

...There is more at stake here than one church's harmony. As they wrestle with this tough issue, United Methodists will reveal a lot about America's future. Methodism split into northern and southern branches over slavery in 1845 and took nearly a century to come back together. In a time when we desperately need examples of ways people of diverse backgrounds and views can find common ground and work together, another social institution seems on the verge of schism.

Will there be a schism in the United Methodist Church? Will we divide? Would God rather have us divide than compromise principle for the sake of unity? Or, can dialog continue without dividing? How do we best handle controversy? A recent newsletter from one of my former congregations, Modesto First United Methodist, quoted Jody (she's famous!) who quoted author Kathleen Norris who wrote about a convent that was threatened by controversy. Some of the nuns wanted to march in a political protest. Other nuns were opposed. After prayer and discussion, they reached a decision: those who felt passionately about the issue would march; those who were not sure that marching was appropriate would prepare food for the marchers; and those who opposed would be in prayer for everyone! They remained a community!

Please pray for our denomination. Please pray for our District Superintendent and Bishop as they select and appoint your new pastor. Please pray for our congregation that we may truly be Christ-centered.

© 1999 Douglas I. Norris