You Should Laugh

You Should Laugh

Genesis 18:1-15

Andrews United Methodist Church, what is God calling us to be?

If you’re a regular attender of Andrews UMC, I bet you know the answer:  “A welcoming congregation of grace and growth through Jesus Christ.”   Every Sunday we repeat that call and response to remind us of our mission.  We are radically welcoming, and we are uniquely Wesleyan in our community (Wesleyans being about an abundance of grace and a lifetime of spiritual growth).  That’s who God has called us to be!

But that clear mission is still open-ended.  We can be welcoming, full of grace, and intentional about growth in a lot of different ways.  How is God calling us to live into that mission?

I believe that God will tell us.  Our job is to listen, and listen we have.

Earlier this month we hosted 4 “Listening Sessions” at our church.  Each of these was attended by 15 or so church members who were prompted by questions to talk for 90 minutes about their loves and concerns and hopes for our church.  Meanwhile, I sat in the room and (mostly) resisted the urge to chime in.

If you’re keeping score, that’s 6 hours of material from about 60 different people in our church.  Throughout, some themes began to emerge around what we value most, what could threaten those values, and where we hope to be in 3-5 years.

What is God calling us to be?

Let’s listen, and find out.

What we value most: 

  1. Being a welcoming and caring community of faith. We’re a loving, friendly place for everyone – with a special place in our hearts for children and youth.
  2. Outreach and engagement in serving the community. We literally open our doors to the community, work with other denomination, and are known in the community for our generosity and service to others.
  3. The pastor’s preaching and leadership. Aw – thanks!  Andrews UMC has the only female pastor in our town – and that distinguishes us in a good way.  We also have dynamic worship services that many people contribute to.
  4. Taking risks. We’re goal-oriented and aren’t afraid to step out in faith to do something big.

What might threaten those values

  1. Our congregation is aging. There are fewer young families, children, and youth attending church; we miss them now, and also need their leadership into the future.
  2. Our community is facing huge challenges. Decline in population and job opportunities, increase in drugs, and also geographic barriers that can prohibit involvement (i.e., mountains!).
  3. Our building is beautiful… but old. This could become a financial vulnerability as it needs expensive repairs.
  4. Our pastor will one day change. There seems to be a lot of worries on this lately – I’ve heard rumors about myself!  And the truth is, I will move… eventually.  United Methodists have an itinerant system where the pastors are sent.  I thought it might help to know a little about how this works: 
    1. Our appointment year runs July 1 – June 30th unless something very strange happens (like an illness).
    2. In January our Staff Pastor Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) and I will fill out paperwork together, saying either that we want to stay or that we’d like a consultation about a change. That paperwork is not a guarantee, but it is a key consideration of the appointment process.
    3. The Bishop and DSes typically meet to make appointments between February and April.
    4. Each year, there’s a set “announcement Sunday” where all the moves (or lack thereof) are announced to the public. It’s often in late April.
    5. This system takes a little bit of faith, but I believe God works through it. Look – God sent me here, and I didn’t know where Andrews was before moving here!  Whenever another move happens, God will work through that, too.
  5. We might get complacent. What if we stop taking risks, going out into the community?  What if we put our feet up and stop working for new things?  That would keep us from being who God has made us to be.

Our hopes for the next 3-5 years:

  1. Strong, contagious, growing children, youth, and young adult programs. Things like after school tutoring, parents’ night out, family-oriented evening worship services, providing transportation…
  2. Even more outreach and engagement with the community. Addressing issues like homelessness and addiction; reaching out to impoverished neighborhoods; taking mission trips.
  3. To build on our foundation of welcoming and caring for others. Reaching out to new residents, providing programs that attract new people, adapting worship to reach young adults, taking care of our membership.

To sum all that up:

We’re old, but we’ve got big, welcoming hearts for others… and we’re not afraid to do something crazy for the right reasons.

Hey; we’re Abraham and Sarah!

Well, we’re not quite that old.  Abraham and Sarah were 99 and 90 (respectively) when three strange men came to visit him.  Those ages make even the oldest among us look young!  But you can’t deny that many of us at Andrews UMC are older.  About 65% of our congregation are either Baby Boomers or part of the “Silent Generation” (i.e., born before 1964).  Abraham and Sarah were old – and the reality is, so are we.

But that’s not all we have in common with Abraham and Sarah.  Did you notice how Abraham welcomes in the three strangers in Genesis 18?  When he sees them, he doesn’t even ask for their names; it’s just all “Come on in!” and “Don’t keep going!” and “Don’t you want some water and food and rest?”

Andrews UMC treats strangers much like that.

During one of the listening sessions, our facilitator stopped taking notes to make an observation:  “So you guys built a $1.6 million facility… and then gave it to the community to mess it up?”  Yes; that’s exactly what you did.  All sorts of people come through those doors.  Many are well-behaved but some don’t know how to behave.  Without even asking for their names, you say, “Come on in!  Make yourselves at home!”

That’s insane!  It makes no sense!

But God’s work seldom does.

The three strangers that visit Abraham deliver news:  “By the time we come back, you and Sarah are going to have a son!”  Overhearing this, Sarah can’t contain her response.  No, it’s not tears of joy; it’s laughter.  Sarah is ninety years old, 9-0.  She stopped keeping feminine hygiene products under her bathroom sink like 40 years ago.  I imagine her in a fit of giggles – the way you laugh when something is SO RIDICULOUS that you get tickled every time you think of it, and you’re trying not to laugh because you don’t want to insult these strangers your husband just brought in but then you remember what they said and start laughing all over again.  They think YOU are going to have a BABY!

That’s insane!

It’d be like if three strangers showed up at a small church in a small town and said, “By the time we come back, you’ll have a multiuse facility to make churches five times your size jealous!

Laughable, right?

If you were here when this church first started dreaming of our “Family Life Center,” you may have laughed – and that’s OK.  So did Sarah, right?  But we’re all laughing together now, and it’s a different kind of laughter.  It’s like when you wake up on Christmas morning and you got the gift you wanted but didn’t think was possible.  It’s like when you get accepted to your “reach” college or land your dream job.  What can you do but laugh, because it’s beyond-your-wildest-dreams good?

That is how God worked for Abraham and Sarah, bringing them a child in old age

And that is how God works here, at Andrews UMC, where we are old but have big, welcoming hearts and we’re not afraid to do something crazy if that’s what God wants to us to do.

So:  What is that something crazy?  What is God calling us to do and be in the near future?

Well, I’m not quite sure yet.  Not exactly.  But I know that a big dream of ours is very similar to Abraham and Sarah:

We want little people, and lots of them.

We want the literal kind:  kids.  We want a worship service full of noisy, disruptive children.  We want Sunday nights where our Family Life Center is jammed full of teenagers.  We want a place where young adults can support each other in the good but hard things of life like jobs and parenting and making friends outside of school.  We want it for us, because that youth makes our church better.  But we want it for them, because we want to offer them a life of discipleship in Christ.  And we want it for our community, because more young people in church means less young people in the cycle of addiction.

We also want little people in the figurative sense.  We can see that there are people struggling in our community.  So many people fighting addiction – people we know and love, people we see on the streets every day.  Our heart hurts for them, the least and the lost.

We dream of being a church full of children and youth.  We dream of being a church that can help address – somehow – the complicated issues of addiction and homelessness.  From where we stand now, well, we aren’t quite sure how all that would come together.  These are big dreams, a little out of our reach.  If three strangers were to visit and say, “By the time we come back, you’ll have more young people than you know what to do with!  By the time we come back, people will be finding life-changing healing here!”

Well, news like that just might make us… laugh.

But that’s how God works, is it not?

Andrews UMC is a congregation of (mostly) older folks with big, welcoming hearts who aren’t afraid to do something crazy for God.

So let’s do it.  Let’s live into our dream.  Let’s believe – really believe! – that the God who made an elderly couple into parents – and the God who led a small congregation like this to build a huge facility like that – that God, our God, is going to make us laugh in disbelief again.

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