John 10 :11-18
Pastor Wesley White
Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church
323 Fifth Avenue, West Bend, WI
262.334.2059 - faumc.org
Listen again to these words of Jesus: "I have power to lay my life down; I have power to take it up again. No one takes my life from me. I have received this gift from GOD." John goes on to report that these words divided the hearers. Let's reflect on this gift and divisions among us.
This gift is a gift that is given to each of us. In the church however we struggle with issues of self-differentiation and the tension between an individual and the gathered community. Where do we stand up for ourself because that is what we must do. All the traditionalists of the church have had to come to a resolution about this tension. Where do we allow the community to take precedence over our own sensibilities. All the reformers of the church have had to come to resolution about this tension.
You and I have the same questions put to us that Jesus had put to him about how much of the old is still applicable and how much of the old needs to be updated. You may remember him affirming the basics of loving GOD with all you being and your neighbor as yourself. You may remember him indicating some things were going to have to change: "You have heard it said, but now I say to you"
We have before us choices to be made. As prelude to some of them let me reflect on two places where people have had to make decisions about what is theirs and what is someone elses.
First - Symbolically we have this in many weddings since the unity candle became popular in weddings. You may remember the setting is three candles. The two outer candles are lit to represent the two people and/or the two families involved in this marriage. At some point in the service the two candles are lifted up and used to simultaneously light the candle in the middle representing the joining of these two people in matrimony. Occasionally the couple will extinguish their individual candles, leaving only the common one lit.
In these two pictures of only two candles or only one candle we find the poles of self-differentiation: self and community. Are these two people going to live together in complete independence? Are these two going to lose their individual identities in some enmeshed relationship where it is hard to tell one from the other?
The ideal has three candles lit. Now choices can be made about individual lives and the common life of the couple. There are decisions to be made which are appropriate to both levels. I can now claim my needs and identity. I can now claim the needs and identity of our common relationship.
It is healthiest when, like Jesus, we can say, "I have the power to chose to lay down my individual life for the good of the group and I can choose to lay down the comfort of the community for the good of my own needs." This is part of our spiritual maturing or self-differentiation, to know when to honor self and when to simply be part of the group.
Second - Here is an example of good self-differentiation when the pressure is on to just do what the group wants. According to our Book of Discipline I chair the Lay Leadership Team of our congregation. This is the group that recruits leadership for our congregation. I was given someone to recruit as one of our chairpersons. I went to their home to do so. In the midst of describing what was being asked of them by the church, they said, "No." They did, also, go on to say that they saw themselves on a different team. Both of these are important self-differentiations. The ability to say "Yes" or "No," and the ability to know your own strengths and weaknesses, even if everyone around you is telling you something else about yourself.
In the recent and past we have had some people who have left this congregation for one reason or another. They have said, "No, I no longer belong here." When this can be said without blame or shame it is a very good position to be in.
There are problems when self-differentiation doesn't happen. There are others who have left who have said, "No, its so-and-so's fault I'm not able to continue here." or "No, I staked out a position and now it would be embarrassing to change so I won't come back."
We have also had people who will never leave, no matter what happens. If they are called on to make a decision it will always be for whatever causes the least disruption in the present and seldom are they willing to risk making thing better in the future if it means losing something now.
In between we have people who are caught in decision-making. It is very similar to making choices after there has been a divorce. Will you continue to interact with both parties? Will you choose one over the other. This next year will find people continuing to make decisions about their own participation here at Fifth Avenue. Should they stay and make new friends? Should they go to join their old friends. I trust we will honor people's decisions and their reasons, even if they choose differently than we would have.
Just as we rejoice that we are able to follow Jesus and lay down parts of our life and pick up parts of our life again, so we rejoice in others being able to do the same. This issue Jesus raises with his being clear that he can lay down his life or pick it up is one that challenges us to this day.
There are additional issues on the horizon that will cause us all to again and again raise significant questions about where we stand as individuals and where we stand as loyal members of the congregation.
We have people joining the church today. One or more of them may have a wonderful idea about how to improve things. It might mean changing some part of what we have been doing. Will we be able to hear their idea or will their idea be dead in the water until they have been here for more than 50 years? If one of them has a new idea and it doesn't get picked up on the first try, will they give up and not try again or decide to move on? We have real life issues about relationships going on right here in our midst.
The ability to know where we stand and the ability to allow others to know where they stand and the ability to work together on clarifying what is best for us now and what will be best for us in days to come is crucial to our well-being.
I've heard some beginning conversation about looking toward a different Sunday morning schedule in the Fall. That conversation, so far, seems to be about how to improve the Christian Education of our children and our adults. Perhaps going to a Worship - Christian Education/Sunday School - Worship time would gain us more participation than we currently have and participation is another name for church growth.
I don't know where this conversation will end up. It may fizzle. It may come to something. My hope, though, is that we will be able to talk openly and honestly about the implications of staying the same and the implications of returning to a model that has worked well in the past. I am more interested in a good decision-making process than which decision we come to. I believe good process will lead to good decisions
My fear is that we will get into a contest of biases, prejudices, habits, and the like that will reflect a vote of individual preference over the benefits to the whole group. I can already hear some say, "If the time changes even 15 minutes, I'm out of here." I can also hear others saying, "It makes me a little uncomfortable but I can see how it will bring more people to church and that's more important than my time preference."
There will be other issues, too. No group stays the same forever. We are either dying or growing. I hope you will always feel you have a choice as you participate in the life of this congregation - that you will be able to chose to lay down your bias for the well-being of the whole congregation and that you will be able to pick up your wisdom and assert it for the well-being of the whole congregation.
May the spirit of Jesus lead you to know when to lay down and when to pick up, to know where you begin and end and where the congregation begins and ends.
When these matters are clear our morale is elevated, decisions
are clearer and cleaner, and GOD's Spirit grows larger and larger
in our midst. When we are strongly self-differentiated [strongly
clear about our own lives and strongly connected to the group]
all sorts of good things happen. Let's continue talking together
and not setting out positions and conditions. I believe Jesus
intends for us to live well in the tension between our individual
lives and our congregational interaction.