A Chosen Generation


I Peter 2: 1-10
Sermon Preached by Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
190th Anniversary of Rochester UMC
May 18, 2014

Thanks for the invitation to preach at the 190th Anniversary of Rochester United Methodist Church.  That’s a long time.  You don’t look your age.  That’s because generation after generation of new disciples choose to cast their lot with this congregation.  Also, choice is writ large in several versions of your mission statement.  Following the merger in 1996, one of your mission statements expresses a cognitive understanding of the way forward namely “Reach, Unite and Minister for Christ.”  Another mission statement enriches the cognitive with more active language.  For example, RUMC is and has been “Reaching, Uniting and Ministering for Christ since 1824.”  Forget not that claim.  What one does for Christ is first.  Congregational needs are second.  If my understanding of your mission statement is correct; it fits nicely with 1 Peter 2: 1-10 especially verse 9.  “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Let’s talk about a few things related to A Chosen Generation.    
I Peter is a Pastoral Letter.  Jesus’ lead apostle composes it for Christians exiled in Roman provinces.  Hundreds of miles from Jerusalem, they form new churches.  They worship the living God.  They practice their faith publicly in a milieu dominated by Caesar.   Undaunted, these exiles raise up new generations of Christians in a strange land.  Captivity and religious persecution do not intimidate them.  At the same time, belonging to the body of Christ literally means   survival.  There is strength in unity.   A minority among Romans, the people of God, cling to one another for basic support.  Women help each other raise their children.  Exiles serve the needs of their captors oft times making unsavory compromises of their faith.  Nevertheless, dealing with Caesar worship is problematic.  Failure to worship Caesar results in persecution and/or death for many of them.  And so Peter writes to encourage and support exiled Christians in their quest to be faithful to God.          

Generally speaking, neither captivity nor religious persecutions drive us to join the church in North America.  Though different, our reasons are no less real.  Expectations of parents, friends or the job may      influence our decisions.  Sometimes it’s a major crisis, spiritual, physical, mental and/or relational.  As children, we learn that our parents want us to be Confirmed; educated in Sunday school and  participate in the life of the church especially if there is a comprehensive, well run program for every age group.  Perhaps the choir, the worship services and the mission outreach are second to none and that is the magnet.  There is a price to be paid for belonging to an active church.  Yet, that cost is radically different than the price tag for first century Christians.  In Peter’s language, “A chosen congregation” is not something we join.  Rather, God chooses or selects us to be a part of it.     
Centuries ago, God designated the Jews as his chosen people.  That decision upset a lot of nations and people.  It appeared Yahweh was biased and prejudiced.  He seemed to care more for the Jews than his other people or nations.  Because of this decision, some Jews lauded it over other nations.  They felt privileged and superior.  That position seemed contrary to his Son’s perspective as articulated in John 3:16. God so loved the world, i.e. everyone had equal access to God.  So God made it clear to his chosen that being God’s people meant they had been selected for a special assignment.  God chose the Jews to make God and God’s ways known to the world, nothing more; nothing less.    Yet, God never consulted with Israel before making his decision.  And Israel struggled with the consequences.    

Biblically speaking, God has a long and distinguished history of choosing humankind for his work and witness without consultation.  God did not consult Moses, Jeremiah, Jonah, Deborah, Esther, Sarah, Saul, David or Solomon before choosing them for special roles.  God decided.  And they had to deal with it.  In the New Testament, the story was repeated.  God selected Mary as the mother of God.  He called twelve disciples, transformed the life of the woman at the well, gave sight to the man born blind and transformed the hate filled behavior of Saul toward Christians on the Damascus Road, all without consultation.  Not only that, God chose them with the expectation that they would do what he said sooner or later.  In fact, God used the same strategy on his Son.  Asked to leave heaven to serve as the suffering servant in this world, God’s son complied.  He left the riches of heaven for the poverty and Hades on earth.  Our Lord was chosen for the job and accepted. 

Rochester United Methodist Church has been chosen under the same circumstances.  Persons in your past and present decided to build the ministry of RUMC on God’s will not human will.  Values in contemporary culture have often found top down actions repugnant.  We want to be consulted first, given a chance to mull it over, second and third then say yes or no.  God has functioned differently.  When God chooses us for something, we are expected to respond affirmatively. Reflecting on the seductive nature of fame in Hollywood, veteran actor Richard T. Jones had this to say, “God told me you are not living for you; you are living for me.”  Here is the essence of a chosen congregation.  “You are not living for you, you are living for me,” says God.  If RUMC is living for God, one ought find some sterling examples of the same in your past and present.  

I read Bud McCafferty’s 2014 version of your church history.  It supplied me with answers regarding your “chosen-ness.”  Three narratives jumped out at me.  First, excerpts the last two paragraphs of the 2014 history read:
“Rochester United Methodist Church has never worshipped its buildings.  They are built to facilitate the ministries and activities associated with serving God and proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord…Where do we go from here?  With the rapid expansion of technology, and the shifting winds of God’s Holy Spirit, it is impossible to predict absolute changes. We will go where God leads.” (p. 29)

Never worshipping your buildings, discerning where God leads and going where God leads are the marks of a chosen congregation.  For 190 years, RUMC has been called to represent God’s interests in the world in your locale.  Like the Christians in exile, you will be known by your love for God and neighbor.  However, denying yourself and taking up your cross and following Christ Jesus’ cross aren’t the kind of glitzy activities that draw hoards of people to church.  People want and need “radical hospitality, extravagant generosity and passionate worship.”  They want a break from the hassles of life when they come to church.         

And yet, the One who loves us, Christ Jesus himself, begs his followers to exhaust themselves for the “least and the lost.”  For instance, how does the church respond to young girls kidnapped in Nigeria, the disappearance of MH370, violence in schools or tornados wreaking havoc across the south and west?  Do they concern you?  How is Rochester UMC helping people address the feverish push for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  In the olden days, we know it as “keeping up with the Joneses.”  Is this congregation engaging in risk–taking mission like the apostle Paul?  Paul serves his entire ministry in cross-cultural appointments.  Do you show all God’s people the lifestyle of the One who came that we might have life and that more abundantly?  Following Christ means experiencing the thrill of Palm Sunday, the terror of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter.  Do you still want to go where God leads?        

This year, The Ministry of the Laity is the theme of Annual Conference.  We are highlighting God’s call upon the lives of all persons not set aside as chaplains, pastors, bishops, deacons, etc.  In fact, your historical record takes pains to name numerous laity who helped this church go forward.  A list of family names remind us that laity love the Lord - that laity respond to God’s call to serve - that laity want their church to be a force in the world for good.  Your history mentions the faithfulness of gifted saints like the Babcocks, the Cassidys, the Millers, the Thorntons, the St. Clairs, the Fairchilds, the James, the Flings, the Neers, the Twists, the Poffenbergers and the McCoys.  On and on the list goes until 50 plus families are recognized for their servant ministries.  These named and unnamed laity “exerted great moral influence” in this church and “made the world a safer place,” your history said.    

Then, the writer focuses on what he believes is the work of this local church.  This passionate concern is listed in a historical section entitled The Formation of the Rochester Circuit 1858.    

“And now we build for future generations, a silent testimonial of God’s grace to mankind, and it is hoped that our children will build a better structure morally than we have built…”

Isn’t this 1858 concern a relevant statement for 2014?  Do we not hope that our children will build a better structure than we have built?  And yet questions about our children or the world’s children keep many of us awake at night.  What has happened to some of our children here and around the world?  Have we equipped our children to build a better structure morally than we have built?”  In the struggle to become mature adults; are we seeing our true selves through a glass darkly cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13?  On that point, we might have a hung jury.  What I saw and heard in a Children’s Sermon years ago gave me hope.  Concluding her Children’s Sermon, the pastor taught the children a simple but profound lesson about God.  She asked that the kids repeat after her this mantra.  “We are the St. Luke children,” (repeat) “and we can do anything” (repeat) with God’s help.” (repeat)             

Two of your former pastors demonstrated how they tried to live for God.  Rev. Charles R. Matheny served here in 1805.  He lost the Rochester pulpit because of his love of money.  Rev. James Simms was appointed later.  But he was discontinued at the end of his first year.  He was not successful.  Eventually former pastors Matheny and Simms became prominent public officials in the county.   Simms served as County representative in the state legislature. And Matheny was elected Sangamon County Clerk.  As laity, both men helped the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Apparently Pastor John Glanville desired to set up a preaching point in Springfield, Illinois.  “Through the influence of James Simms, Pastor Glanville set up his Springfield preaching in the office of Charles R. Matheny, County Clerk.  One might say God chose those two former pastors to help Pastor Glanville spread the gospel of Jesus Christ on behalf of the very congregation where they had failed in their ministry. 

The story I just told about two of your former pastors caused me to praise God immediately after writing it.  Why? Because God is a God of second chances.  God is a redeeming God, a God of amazing grace.  If anyone ought to know that after 190 years of life; Rochester United Methodist Church ought to know it.  It’s part and parcel of being chosen.  Have you forgotten the second half of today’s scripture?  I Peter 2: 9 says, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”  Why conduct a 190th Anniversary if there is no celebration, no public thanksgiving for what God has done?  Too many church folks shout, stomp and scream if the Cardinals or Cubs win.  But they won’t venture a public word about the goodness of the Lord.  Psalm 150 verse 6 is right, “Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord.”

The sports world had no such fear or silence last week.  Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player shortly before an OKC newspaper called him Mr. UNRELIABLE.  His televised acceptance speech was unusually long.  Without prepared notes, Kevin took 26 minutes thanking his teammates, his coaches and staff, the owner, his family and especially his mother.  One by one Kevin praised them for their help, prayers and/or support.  But the 25 year old Durant reserved his highest praise for God.  “First off, I’d like to thank God for changing my life.”  Thus, he began his speech. “Lastly, I want to thank God for saving my life.” Thus, he ended his speech.  In essence, Kevin Durant reserved his highest praise for a God who had brought him “out of darkness into His marvelous light.” 

If RUMC can’t think of anything to publicly thank God for, let me help you. 
A) You are a chosen generation-chosen not to laud it over others but to represent God’s interests in the world. 
B) You are alive after 190 years.  Many churches have come and gone since 1824.  
C) You have come this far as a congregation with God’s help.  You ought to thank him for keeping you a vital congregation. 
D) You ought to celebrate and embrace the seven last words President John Fitzgerald Kennedy delivered at the end of his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961.     

“Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world; ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.  With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” 

Happy Anniversary RUMC!!  May you have many more!!  Amen.