Stewards of the Gospel
March 13, 2005
A sermon presented by Dr. Bob McKibben at Pine Forest United Methodist Church
Adapted From: “More than Hatch, Match, and Dispatch” By: Rev. Joseph Smith, Takoma Park Baptist Church, November 2000
Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version
Many years ago, I did a wedding in Atlanta in an old log church. The grounds surrounding the church were breath-taking. The church itself was very rustic on the outside, but the sanctuary was unbelievably beautiful. It was the perfect setting for a wedding. I learned that funerals were also held there and many young families would also bring their babies to be baptized. But there were no regularly scheduled worship services. No spiritual nurturing goes on there. It is for ceremonial use only – for weddings, for funerals, for baptisms. People come to the Little Log Chapel for rituals, but there is no community there to love it, to cherish it, to make it alive with the sound of children’s laughter or the weeping of souls in anguish. It’s just a place of ritual. Otherwise, it’s dead. Dry and dead.
Unfortunately, many folks think of all churches in those same terms – ceremonial and ritualistic. In fact, we have a little joke about it in ministerial circles. Pastors speak of their ministry as hatching, matching, and dispatching – baptisms, weddings, and funerals. These are the great ritual moments of life. People expect the church to be ready when they hatch, match, or dispatch. I believe, however, that those rituals are empty of power if they are celebrated outside the vital community of God’s people. These are empty ceremonies unless they are set in the midst of a people who are about the Lord’s business, and who can see the power of the Lord at work bringing new life.
There was no more empty and traumatic time in the history of God’s people than the sixth century before Christ. 2600 years ago the nation of Israel had been destroyed, its leaders taken into exile. It looked as though their humiliation was complete, and that their nation would never thrive again. They felt no hope. They were ready to give up. But into their midst came one of the strangest personalities of all history, the prophet Ezekiel. Through this unusual man, God spoke a word of hope to a dry and weary land. And I believe God can speak that same word of hope to His church today.
Ezekiel saw in his vision a valley. The valley was one where a tremendous battle had been fought. Obviously the battle had exacted a tremendous toll. The valley was now strewn with the bodies of the slaughtered. Nothing was left but dry bones. They had been there so long, rotting in that valley, that their flesh was gone and there was nothing left but sun bleached bones. Can you imagine anything more hopeless? Can you think of anything more lifeless than dry bones rattling around in the desert wind?
But our God gives life! Where there is doubt, God gives confidence. Where there is anxiety, God gives peace. Where there is despair, God gives hope. And where there is death, God gives life! Even to dry bones. Even to a church that is only ritual, hatch, match, and dispatch. God gives life!
I. First, when God gives life to His people, He does it thoroughly? He does it completely. When God gives life to dry bones, as Ezekiel saw it, He will put everything in place. He will leave nothing out.
Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
When God gives life to His church, it is not in a puny, timid way. It is in a great and powerful way. A full-bodied way. God wants His church to be complete. God wants His church to be more than bare bones. God wants His people to have a full and wonderful life.
Some churches – most churches – have narrow visions. Often they are about one thing and one thing only. I know of a United Methodist Church whose passion was foreign missions. The leaders so profoundly believed in foreign missions that they led that church to give more than half of the church budget to missions. That’s passion! Passion is good – but the church failed because it couldn’t pay its bills.
I know of another United Methodist congregation led by a pastor who wanted to make his church a “Community Life Center.” This is a great vision – to open wide the doors of the church to the whole community. The pastor raised the money to build a nice facility then gave it to the community. Again, sounds great! Now the church can only use the building on Wednesday and Sunday. They are also not allowed to remove the newest sponsor’s sign advertising a major beer company. The church is more than just a ritual house, or a collection agency for overseas missions, and certainly more than just a “civic center.” The church needs flesh and sinew on its bare bones.
As your pastor, I have never been able to simplify the vision of what Pine Forest United Methodist Church ought to be. I see evangelism just as important as education, and worship just as significant as pastoral care, and missions and fellowship as indispensable. I think we have to do it all. I believe that the way God gives life to His church is to give us completeness. God gives life thoroughly. If we are faithful stewards of the Gospel that leads to new life, we must be more and do more.
- More in evangelism, as long as there are lost sinners around us.
- More in discipleship, as long as there are people who need spiritual maturity.
- More in skill training, as long as there are those with gifts not yet being used.
- More in ministry, as long as there are hurting people.
- More than bare bones – sinew and flesh and skin.
The story is told of a tour group going through Westminster Abbey in London. They were shown all the symbols of Britain’s history. They saw the place where the monarchs are crowned. They visited the tombs and the memorials to the nation’s greatness. It was a wonderful trip backwards in time. But one member of the tour group piped up and asked the guide a searching question. Said she, “Sir, has anybody been saved here lately?” I suggest that that is always the right question for anybody’s church. “Has anybody been saved here lately?” We are so much more than ceremonial, so much more than narrow vision, so much more than hatch, match, and dispatch. We are stewards of the gospel that leads to new life.
II. Next, I want you to notice that when God’s spirit gives new life to His people, He gives a rich variety of gifts. He gives gifts that go beyond what we expect. I believe that God wants His church to draw on all of the gifts that He gives. Ezekiel’s imagery is very striking. I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
The “four winds” represents the wonderful diversity from which our God gives us life. The text says that the Lord put flesh and sinews and skin on, but there still wasn’t any life. No life until He breathed from the four winds.
Pine Forest United Methodist Church has long prided itself on being an open and welcoming church. At least that’s what we say we are. But I suggest to you that until we truly reach out, understand, and embrace people who are different – with different personalities and different skills, we will be far less than what God wants us to be. We need to draw life from the four winds. We need to draw on all the gifts that a life-giving God has given us. God has brought to our congregation gifts from the four winds, from many places and from all sorts of backgrounds.
Until we use those gifts, however, we can have all the church programs we want, all the activities we want, all the busyness we can handle. But if it is done by the same leaders who have been doing it for lo these many years, it will not bring the life the Lord wants us to have. If the work is done by the staff, then the game is over. We have lost. Life comes when we draw from the four winds and let the full range of God’s gifts blow through us. I know just about everybody in this sanctuary, and I don’t know anyone that doesn’t have some gift that can be used for the church and the Kingdom.
We are blessed. We have much. We are diverse. It’s all here for a purpose. It’s here to make a difference in people’s lives. We are here not just to be spectators. We are stewards of the gospel that gives new life. We are so much more than hatch, match, and dispatch.
III. I am persuaded beyond all doubt that God is at work here. The issue is always whether you and I will see Him at work, or will we see only the dry bones of a lifeless church. The issue is always whether we see possibilities, or whether we find ourselves mired down in quicksand, sinking fast. If you only look at what’s on the surface, you might feel disappointment and despair. But if you see what God sees, you’ll see more. O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.
If you only look on the surface of this church, maybe all you see is dry bones. You may see discouraged leaders, aging facilities, and some committees that don’t do much. But I don’t think that’s all the Lord sees.
- The Lord sees new people coming to Christ and asking for help in gaining new life.
- The Lord sees more children showing up for our children’s activities.
- The Lord sees several people who have declared they feel His call into ministry.
- The Lord sees an emerging family life program.
- The Lord sees a complex of buildings and fields that could be used for Kingdom work.
- The Lord sees people who are waking up to deeper yearning for learning.
- The Lord sees a church jam packed with potential. And all it takes is the vision to understand what God wants to do.
We are on the edge of a new day in our congregation’s life – new people, new ideas, new energies, and new vision. God-given vision. I urge you to give yourself to this emerging vision.
- I know no better place than here for the dry bones of my spirit to find new life.
- I know no better place than here for my heart to find genuine fellowship.
- I know no better place than here for my spiritual gifts to be invested.
- I know no better place than here for my tithe to be used for the Kingdom.
You say, but pastor, what about me? Will I get my needs met in all of this? Will I be spiritually fed? Feed me too. Feed me first. To that I respond that the only people I know who have to be fed by others are either infants, who haven’t learned to feed themselves; or couples getting married, who stuff cake into one another’s mouths; or dying people, too weak to help themselves any longer.
Everybody else can feed from the bounty spread on the Lord’s Table. The church is a whole lot more than hatch, match, and dispatch. The church is the steward of the gospel that leads to new life.
Dr. Bob McKibben is pastor of Pine Forest United Methodist Church. He has a degree in Music Education from Florida State University and Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Emory University. He has served as a guest speaker at Camp Meetings, Revivals and other events throughout the southeast. Dr. McKibben has been designated a Growth Plus consultant and is a faculty member of the Faith-Sharing Initiative, both sponsored by the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship. He is a former Community Spiritual Director and board member for the Walk to Emmaus.