Text of sermon preached by the Connexional President, Rev'd. Dr. George MacD. Mulrain, at the 2011 Connexional Council service held at the Wesley Methodist Church, Roatan, Republic of Honduras, on Sunday May 29, 2011
Methodism: Movement or Monument?
Scripture Readings: Exodus 32, 1 - 6; 2 Corinthians 5, 11 - 15; Matthew 24, 1 -` 12
The broad issue upon which I would like us to reflect today has to do with the present and future of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas. It is in the form of a question: "Methodism: Monument or Movement?" Are we like a monument or a structure that had been erected a few centuries ago, prominently placed for all and sundry to see, has meant something for the people at the time when it was created, gained the admiration of thousands, but over the years has dwindled in significance and is now standing still and hardly being noticed? Or are we a movement, a dynamic entity that is functional in the twenty-first century, actively involved in spreading scriptural holiness and reforming nations, and likely to continue making a contribution within the region in which we are placed?
I must confess that what inspired me along this line of thinking is the fact that we just celebrated in 2010 two hundred and fifty years of Methodist presence in the Caribbean region. It all began in 1760 in Antigua at the slave plantation of Nathaniel Gilbert. One of the highlights of the celebrations that took place last May was the unveiling of a monument that had been specially built for the occasion. A local craftsman did the work and the result was commendable. The monument stands as a reminder of the Methodist movement that was started on the same premises. So I wondered, with the emphasis that day upon the monument, should we not be thinking now about the movement. And should not this movement serve as a continual challenge that we of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas need to focus on how we continue to be a viable movement?
Let us go back to the account that was read from the Book of Exodus, chapter 32. The scenario was the one in which the people of Israel, having been freed from their years of slavery in Egypt, were now assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai and awaiting their leader, Moses, who had gone up the mountain to make contact with God. While Moses was receiving instructions as to how the people should relate to God and to one another in community, these same children of Israel were becoming increasingly restless and impatient. Where is Moses our leader? What's taking him so long up there? When is he coming back? So they decided to manufacture something that would represent God. They got busy, encouraged Aaron, the brother of Moses, that it was the right thing to do and relieved the women of their earrings. Now, from the narrative in Exodus it is not clear whether the women were in agreement or whether they had any choice in the matter. The men made the decision, for Aaron is quoted as saying: "Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." Suffice it to say they made a golden calf, a golden monument, a supposedly physical representation of God. They seemed quite satisfied with their handiwork and virtually worshipped this monument.
What the people of Israel did on that occasion was idolatrous but they did not seem aware of how misguided their actions were, that what they did would invoke the wrath of God. Had they the patience to wait for Moses' return, they would have received the Ten Commandments; they would have known that there was to be no other god but Yahweh; they would have been educated to acknowledge that there were to be no carved out images to represent God. The image they had made was a distraction that caused them to shift their focus away from God. No physical object can ever help you or me to appreciate the magnitude of God. No verbal symbol, be it simile or metaphor, can effectively communicate the whole truth about God - God's love, God's omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence. This is why God had to come to earth in the form of flesh, Jesus Christ, God incarnate, to assist us in our quest about who God is.
When we delve further into the history of the people of Israel we come across the Ark of the Covenant which also gave to people a limited understanding about God. In their thinking God was localized in that box, a god that could be moved from place to place. In times of war, as did in fact happen, when the Ark was captured it scared them. They reasoned that God had been divested of all power and that they as a people were in jeopardy. This is an outdated concept of God which you and I ought not to espouse today. God cannot be boxed in. God cannot be treated like you and I do our cell phones, those mobile devices that we take out of our pockets or bags when we want to use them and replace them when we are done. God cannot be limited, God cannot be restricted; the God of the entire universe cannot be confined in any way.
I think it is important though to establish that the making of a monument is not necessarily a negative thing. A monument may serve as a reminder of the past. It may put down a marker that something of historical significance happened at this particular place or point in time. There are many war memorials in towns and cities across the world serving as a reminder of those who gave their lives while fighting battles. These are monuments that contribute to our education. I remember as a boy going to school in Trinidad, there was a monument that I used to pass every day along Harris Promenade in San Fernando. It was a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Well, before seeing it I knew very little about Gandhi, but because of it, I did the research to the point where my knowledge of him increased. I then knew what a great Indian leader he was, who sought to inspire change through non-violent protests. I'm sure it was an educational experience for other boys and girls who, like me, were curious to learn about "the chap on that monument".
What I am pointing out concerning the danger about monuments is that we can get so caught up with the past that we neglect the present and the future issues requiring our attention. Hence my question: Methodism: Monument or Movement? Are we looking back and gloating over the past, or are we, even if doing that, still forging ahead and fulfilling our mission to make disciples of all nations?
Whenever I visit European cities, I see massive church buildings and cathedrals that are hardly used today except, it would seem, as museums. There they are, pointing to a glorious past, to a time when church attendance was "on a high", as compared to now with very little on which to report. I then find myself going back to the account in Matthew 24, verses 1 & 2, where Jesus warned about buildings because they, like monuments that have been made with human hands, do not last forever. The temple buildings had already been destroyed with the destruction of Jerusalem. Any building standing could have a similar fate. Churches that are virtual monuments, not being fully used by the people, with nothing of significance taking place within them, will crumble and fall, spiritually at any rate. Churches are meant to be places teeming with life, indicative of the living Christ in our midst. The Christian faith, the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be dynamic, not static. It must not be an historical relic. And it is you and I who have the task to ensure that it is not just a monument, but also a movement.
Methodism's founder, John Wesley, once expressed a fear of the movement that he started being reduced to a monument:
"I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out."
The fact is that Methodism was a pioneer movement for so many things in the eighteenth century. It had a concern for justice. It was the voice for the poor and voiceless. It addressed the social ills of the day. It was not just a club with holy people huddled and cloistered together, but it was a movement, a dynamic movement, that was taken throughout the length and breath of England. Perhaps this is one of the things that itinerancy means, namely that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not stuck in one place, rather it takes root, yes, and keeps on moving, gathering people along the way just as it did during the time of the apostle Paul.
As we today wrestle with the numbers of Methodists, that have dropped off from our registers, we wonder if we are a dying cause. If dying, then we have nobody but ourselves to blame. I venture to suggest that there are signs that we as a church are "on the move" or at least we have been trying for the past so many years to do just that. We are moving on, hopefully not stagnating. It is a sign of life when, in one congregation in Antigua I am privileged to confirm nine persons into membership, in another thirteen, and in another more than seventy. As a church we have become increasingly aware of the benefits to be derived from the technological age, from Information Technology, the Internet. During the past year, several of our connexional meetings have taken place "on line". In this we try to be economical about how we run the church's affairs. Cutting costs is one thing. And we are good at cutting costs. But what needs to accompany the cost cutting exercise, namely generating income now needs to be seriously addressed.
If people are educated about what their church is doing there would be more persons who would actively contribute to the church's coffers. We are using many means, including the Internet, to educate people about the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas. Our website www.mccalive.org constitutes a potential and with God's help will yield positive results.
One definite move that we have made has been to provide Sunday School material that is relevant to our Caribbean culture. Growing in Fullness makes a bold theological statement that the word of God must always be fleshed out in terms that are recognizable and relevant to the Caribbean. Let it be known that I am speaking of the work, not of foreigners, but of Caribbean Christians from across the Methodist Districts who, with our Publications Officer, spent time together in work sessions to put this material together and to get the job done. Later this year we hope, literally, to be singing similar happy tunes when Voices in Praise, the new MCCA hymnal comes on the scene, and we will be making use of compositions by Caribbean musicians and poets alongside others from across the world.
As a church, we must continue to educate people about what it means to be Christian and Caribbean. I daresay that because we continue to be influenced by North America and Europe, there is always some confusion with regard to what we must stand for. Must we be part of the gun toting crowd as obtains in the USA where there is the occasional killing by a lone gunman of dozens of innocent people? On the issue of human sexuality, must we go along with what the masses of folk in those countries are saying?. Is it okay to be gay, to be lesbian? Is the phenomenon of "same sex marriages" acceptable in the sight of God? Ought we not to be listening to what the churches in those countries are saying? The Methodist Church in Britain and the United Methodist Church that is strongly represented in the United States have both affirmed in their Conferences that homosexuality is incompatible with biblical teaching, and that passing on leadership within the Church to gays and lesbians should be avoided for the time being at any rate. They have advised against rejecting the witness and ministry of homosexuals who, like straight people, are children of God. An ongoing issue is how to facilitate meaningful and honest reflection on what it means to be human in today's world.
Sisters and brothers, there is much still to be achieved. But it cannot be accomplished if we are rooted to one spot. As Methodists we have the challenge of evangelizing new housing areas and reaching the un-churched. We have the challenge of ministering to those who have been thrown on the fringes of society and consider themselves as outcasts. We have a lot of work to do in addressing street crime and domestic violence. With so many murders being committed we need to emphasize the sanctity of life. We must continue to fight the battle against gambling because of the type of mentality it encourages, namely that life is a game of chance and that you may strike it lucky and become rich at the expense of others. We have a tough fight against human trafficking and the accompanying phenomenon of sex slavery. We have a formidable battle against the drug trade. We have to fight against those vices that are being paraded as virtues. We have to continually assess today's society to determine whether we do have the remedies for these social ills. In our work of mission, we must as a priority pay attention to children and youth and introduce them to Jesus Christ. The earlier the individual commits his or her life to Jesus, the more likelihood that our churches will be reflective of a dynamic movement instead of a dying cause.
The late Rev. JB Broomes who once ministered in Trinidad & Tobago used to share his thoughts about the hymn "God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform." He said that we so often emphasize the mystery and the wonder that we forget the basic truth that God moves. Since we serve a God who moves, we the people of God must be on the move as well. We are moving - because the love of Christ urges us on (2 Cor. 5, 14) so that we live no longer for ourselves but for Christ - and his people.
God moved in John Wesley and in the early Methodists and the resulting movement spread across the Atlantic. It touched us in the Caribbean because of Nathaniel Gilbert, his wife, slave women and free. We cannot ignore the contribution of women to the movement that spread from Antigua and stretched across the region - Mary Wilkinson in Jamaica, Sara Ann Gill in Barbados, just to mention a couple. We all - men, women, boys, girls - have inherited a noble tradition. It is up to us, in our congregations, circuits and districts to do what lies in our power to develop it, and to be involved in spreading scriptural holiness throughout these lands of the Caribbean and the Americas and to reform these nations.
May God help us to have the zeal, the energy, the vision of what needs to be accomplished as we, with this movement of Methodists forge ahead, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.