A Call to Simplicity | Mulberry Street UMC Inaugural Sermon

This is exciting!

We together have been waiting for this day for almost four months. The wait is over!

Last Sunday, I came into the office about 2:30 to get ahead on some work. In particular, I wanted to get to work on sermon prep. So, I piled my commentaries on my desk and got to work. But about five minutes in, I found myself overwhelmed, staring across the desk toward the bookshelves on the far wall. I was enraptured by this one thought: I can’t believe I’m here.

Mulberry has been a part of me in some ways for a long time. When we lived on Highland Terrace behind the Medical Center, we regularly walked down here with Jackson to walk the labyrinth or, as Jackson put it when he was four years old, to run through the maze. In my first appointment, none of the churches wanted to have Christmas Eve services, so we came here. I’ve long been impressed with this church’s history: founding the Georgia Conference, playing host to numerous Annual Conferences and Services of Ordination, living large in the memory and affection of many in the South Georgia Annual Conference. In some ways, even standing in this pulpit today, I still can’t believe I’m here.

But, here I am, ready to begin the work that is before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

So, let us begin this work together with a reading of two Psalms that used to be one: Psalms 42 and 43.

Scripture

I’m a modest runner, putting in around ten miles a week. It’s good for my body, it’s good for my soul, and it’s good for my mind.

In fact, running is thinking time. I always have music going, usually my running playlist that’s a mix of classic rock, 90’s alternative and punk, and a few other favorites. But sometimes, I use my worship playlist. On one particular day, not long after Mulberry was first discussed with me as a potential appointment, I heard Simple Gifts, our call to worship, come over my headphones. It’s not exactly running music, but I found myself captivated by the lyrics. I knew them; I’ve known them for a long time. I bet for many of you the lyrics are familiar.

They spoke to me in some way about Mulberry. I couldn’t help but think of this church as I heard those words. Let’s hear them again, as printed in your bulletin:

“’Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free, ’tis a gift to come down where you ought to be. And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ’twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed. To turn, turn, will be our delight, ‘till by turning, turning, we come ‘round right.”

And, since I first heard it all those months ago, I have continued to think of Mulberry. Even through moments where I thought I’d never be appointed here, when this appointment seemed destined for someone else and never for me, I still found God speaking to me about this church through those lyrics. And so, when I found out that, indeed, the longing of my heart would be fulfilled and I would be appointed here, I turned back to those lyrics, prayerfully asking God what message God sought to communicate to us today.

And here’s what I heard: practice simplicity as a church; meaning, focus on the mission, be authentic in doing so, and trust God with the rest.

Focus on the mission, be authentic in doing so, and trust God with the rest.

Sounds simple enough. Even sweet. Maybe even profound. And yet my brain, always thinking and active, would quickly say to itself after hearing that call to simplicity, but…

But, there’s great complexity! There are significant challenges facing this church and churches everywhere! We live in a complex time.

And indeed we as a church face a complex set of challenges.

We live in a world of great and growing complexity. All we need do is read the news, keeping abreast of developments in the world, in our country, and in our state, to know that. The church has a word to speak into that complexity, but it often seems drowned out by all the competing voices. And with diminishing numbers, it’s harder and harder to be heard.

Speaking of diminishing numbers, we face the decline of churches all across the country. The only denomination currently growing in the United States is the Catholic Church. The United Methodist Church is declining less rapidly than others, but we are still declining.

Then, our own denomination faces division. There’s great complexity and emotion around this issue, but suffice to say for now that many churches, like many people in secular politics, feeling caught in the middle, wishing that we could all just get along.

Then, there’s the recovery from the scourge of COVID. Some of us are still recovering physically from bouts with it, but every church is still struggling to recover in attendance and finance from COVID. Some are faring better than others, but it’s a rare church that’s doing as well or better than it was before early 2020.

We live in a complex world, in a complex time, facing complex challenges common to every church and to every United Methodist Church. It’s enough to make us turn, turn, as Simple Gifts says, and sometimes even to have to bow and to bend in humility, having been humbled by defeat in the face of these challenges. The song says we will come ‘round right, but what guarantee do we have of that? So often, it’s so hard to see in the middle of these complexities how we will find our way forward.

These challenges would be enough, and yet we as a congregation face still more challenges.

Consider that this inaugural sermon I’m preaching is the tenth inaugural sermon issued from this pulpit in the last fifteen years, or since the last long-term appointment. Counting interims who have filled in when the appointed senior pastor has left early for various reasons, that’s an inaugural sermon once every eighteen months on average. So much of this has been for reasons beyond Mulberry’s control, and yet that kind of leadership turnover is unsustainable and does harm.

That kind of leadership challenge creates other challenges, too, like challenges around vision and giving. Perhaps, knowing all this, it’s felt like this church has been turning, turning, for several years now, spinning, just hoping to land in a good spot.

As I read the history of Mulberry up to 1964 in a book by Bessie Lester Hart, I think the challenges we face are the most difficult and complex since this church almost split in 1890. I was tempted to say the most difficult and complex since the sanctuary fire not long after Ms. Hart finished her book, but as devastating as that was, recovering from a fire has a clear direction, a clear purpose, and insurance money to help. The clarity that comes from knowing the mission is to rebuild isn’t found in moments like in 1890. At that time, this church was split over whether or not to move the facility up to Coleman Hill and was grieving the loss of several key members to Vineville. Because of the division and corresponding discord, the church was shrinking, finances were struggling, and there was disagreement over future direction. According to Ms. Hart, only the nationwide financial panic of 1890 stopped the church from splitting as the money for a move evaporated.

So, here we are in 2022, facing perhaps the greatest challenge we’ve known in the last 130 years. This is very complex. What good does simplicity do for us? What meaning do the words of that tune hold for us? How is it a gift to be simple, where is there freedom in simplicity, how do we come down where we ought to be, especially knowing the complex set of challenges we face today?

Consider the author of our Psalm.

The Psalmist faces a complex set of challenges, too. Actually, the Psalmist speaks on behalf of the people. This is a communal Psalm, written on behalf of the people, crying out to God. They’re pursued by enemies who wish them dead. They need vindication, for their captors, the Babylonians who hold them in exile, look at their trouble and mockingly say, “where is your God?” The people of God do their best to remember when God had been faithful in the past, but it seems that’s all they can do because they don’t see much faithfulness at the present moment.

The Psalm starts nicely enough. As the deer longs for streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. You can imagine a nice tranquil stream where a nice doe is quenching her thirst. Maybe you, like me, have witnessed such a scene through your scope! But such a verdant scene isn’t the case at all: this is a dry stream, with a deer who cannot find water. The deer longs for the flowing stream, it’s not present. There’s draught, there’s a lack of the basic necessity of life, so much so that the psalmist says “my tears have been my food day and night.” Some translations say “My salt tears have been my bread day and night,” focusing on how even the most essential ingredient in life is in short supply.

The Psalmist faces a complex set of challenges.

Speaking on behalf of the Israelites, the psalmist shares how they’ve been turning, turning, spinning out of control while in exile in Babylon. Their complex set of challenges sometimes seem insurmountable. They have longings: to return to their land, to experience the presence of God again, to know the joy of being in the temple in worship. But all of that seems like a dream, not possible. Their challenges are to find shelter and food, to remain faithful themselves under a torrent of mocking, and to remain faithful to God when they wonder if God will remain faithful to them.

For they wonder if God has abandoned them. Life feels chaotic in this Psalm. And throughout the scripture, they beg and plead for God to show up, to provide as they once knew God’s provision, and to answer the doubters definitively, the ones who say, “Where is your God?”

Perhaps we can relate to that. Maybe we have said at times over these past years, “where is God?”

Where is God when trouble comes?

Where is God when the storms come?

Where is God when COVID comes?

Where is God as our churches decline?

Where is God in the midst of denominational uncertainty and division?

Where is God in the midst of the particular challenges facing us as a congregation?

Where is God?

What guarantee do we have that we will come round right? How is it a gift to be simple, where is there freedom in simplicity, how do we come down where we ought to be, especially knowing the complex set of challenges we face today? What hope do we have this morning for our church?

Note with me that the people of God in our Psalm always return to that word of hope. Three times, no matter the difficulties they face, they declare, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

How could they hope?

Near the end of the scripture, the Psalmist makes this request of God, “send out your light and your truth, let them lead me.” They ask to see God’s light and truth to inspire their hope, wanting to see where God is moving and active, so that they could know that God was with them. They find their hope in seeing the light and truth of God leading them.

Friends, I stand before you to testify today that I have hope, no matter the complex challenges we face, because I already see the light and truth of God leading this church.

I see God’s light and truth in Macon Outreach, whose strong ministry to our friends who face the challenges of homelessness has continued unabated despite COVID and despite the challenges we face. If you ask someone on the street about this church, the first thing they will probably tell you is about Macon Outreach. It is a tremendous witness to this community and does good for those who need it the most.

I see God’s light and truth in the Children’s Center, whose operation continues and which enjoys a strong reputation in our community. We are making a difference for the children of our community.

I see God’s light and truth in our worship. We have a strong, beautiful, traditional service. That has continued despite the challenges we face. And that includes the amazing music we enjoy on a regular basis. When I was at Candler attending chapel, I thought I might never serve a church that could match the music I enjoyed twice a week there. I was wrong. Worship is central to our identity as a people, and this church continues its strong tradition of worship.

I see God’s light and truth in the laity of this church. I continue to be in awe not only of the dedication and time given by many of you to this church but in the sheer number of you who are giving of your time and resources to support the life and ministry of this church. You love Mulberry and it shows.

I see God’s light and truth in the external focus of this church. When churches face challenges and find themselves anxious or concerned, the instinct is to turn inward; it’s natural to focus inward to try and fix things. But churches who do that forget that we are called to mission and thereby hurt themselves in the long run. This church has not forgotten its mission. As I have interacted with you, the questions and comments I receive are rarely “How are we going to address our challenges” but rather “how can we help those suffering on our streets downtown, what can do we do to provide housing for those facing homelessness, how can we become a more vital part of the downtown community, how can we better support Macon, how can we better provide for the children and youth of our community?” Those are the right questions because they relate to our mission: to share the heart of God from the heart of downtown Macon.

And so we can hope for our future because there is already light and truth to be seen in this church.

To be sure, we definitely face a complex set of challenges. There will be difficulties ahead. Sometimes, they will feel insurmountable. That’s when we turn, looking for where God is calling us afresh and anew into mission. Sometimes, we will have to bow and bend in humility, accepting defeat or understanding that God needs to humble us. But, complexity is no match for God. Complexity is no match for a church on mission. And we are a church on mission!

There’s difficult work ahead, but God is with us. When we practice simplicity, when we focus on the mission, be authentic, and trust God with the rest, our complex challenges find their resolution because God goes before us, paving the way. We have that guarantee, which means that we do indeed have a guarantee that by turning, turning, we will come ‘round right.

And let me say, I’m aware that my work in particular will be challenging, will be stressful, will sometimes seem overwhelming, but I mean to be here for the long haul, working hand in hand with you to meet those challenges head on, to seek God’s face, and to further the mission of this church to share the heart of God from the heart of downtown Macon. Together, we’ll face the challenges of the future, building upon the good work that is already here, the firm foundation left to us by our forebears.

This is what it means to practice simplicity, as God is calling us to do. It means focusing on the mission, being authentic in doing so, and trusting God with the rest.

So let’s practice simplicity together. That means, first, seeing everything through the lens of our mission. It sets our vision, it helps chart our course. There’ll be turning, there’ll be bowing and bending, but we will come ‘round right. Practicing sharing the heart of God from the heart of downtown Macon, letting it set our course, is a key to simplicity.

Second, practicing simplicity means believing in ourselves as a congregation. Churches aren’t monoliths; like individuals, God has gifted different churches differently to be an expression of part of who God is. We are gifted in traditional worship, gifted in service to the community, gifted in a strong tradition of the laity, and gifted by the generosity and hard work of our forebears. We will build upon that, never seeking to be something we are not. Authenticity is a key to simplicity.

Third, practicing simplicity means we will trust God with the rest. There will be times where we will have to make decisions based on faith alone, not sure of how it will all work out. But if God has called us to it, God will pave the way. Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse. Let us practice that kind of faith, for it is a key to simplicity.

And let me add, practicing simplicity means encouraging each other by sharing with each other where we see the light and truth of God in this church. God is here. God is always with the church. Sometimes, we have to bow and bend, be humbled, sometimes we have to turn and turn, finding our way, in order to see God, but God is here, God is already doing a great work among us. Helping each other see and celebrate God’s work in our midst is a key to simplicity.

Together, let’s practice simplicity, let’s focus on our mission, be authentic to who we are, and trust God with the rest, as we encourage each other to see God’s light and truth among us at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church.

In coming weeks, I’ll be sharing more about simplicity, reminding us that it means focusing on the mission, being authentic to who we are, and trusting God with the rest. But for today, let us say this: we face a complex set of challenges. But we’ll meet them, head on; we’ll turn, we’ll have to bow and bend but we won’t be ashamed, for to turn, turn, will be our delight, because by turning, turning, we, together, will come ‘round right.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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