Tom Lee is a member at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. For the past year he has been part of one of three pilot Covenant Discipleship groups. On Sunday, January 12, the congregation was invited to form new groups. Mr. Lee was the preacher for both worship services. The following is his sermon. I think you will find it to be a witness to the power of Covenant Discipleship groups to form persons as leaders in discipleship.
A sermon preached by Tom Lee:
“I Am A Witness”
I have been a member of West End United Methodist Church for 25 years. I’m a lawyer. I’m also a lobbyist. Read every Gospel reference to lawyers you can find. We come out on the losing end.
An old judge in Nashville used to scold witnesses who were tempted offer their opinions. “No, no,” he would say. “The jury is not interested in your opinions. You tell what you have perceived with your five senses. What you’ve seen, heard, tasted, smelled, touched. “You be a witness.”
That’s what I’m doing today. My task is to tell you what I’ve seen, heard, and touched. To be a witness.
It is not hard to talk your way through Christianity. The vocabulary quickly becomes familiar. Mix in rhythms and ritual, show up for a service or two, and you can very nearly sleepwalk your way to religious competency. Being competent at church is like being competent in dental care. A semi-annual checkup, some spiritual flossing, and before you know it, you can hold your own in any Sunday School class.
Now, if spiritual competence sounds remote, it should. For a long time, remote is exactly what I intended. We learn to value competence from our first spelling test. Competence is wealth, self-determination, and power. This is why spiritual competence is dangerous.
A few years ago, I sat next to a Methodist preacher at a dinner. He asked where I attended. I told him. “Ah, West End. A head church.” He may as well have said it: A competent church. He didn’t offend me. A competent church is what I wanted.
I certainly didn’t want a faith that asked God for anything. Because if you have to ask, it means you aren’t in control. It means you aren’t competent.
I wanted a stained-glass, church library Christianity. Multi-colored streams of ecumenism. Easy chairs and reading tables stacked with literature.
My test of any idea was neither scriptural nor spiritual, but rather, whether it was smart, articulate, in short, whether it appealed to me. Asking was for the unskilled, unprepared, and uneducated. So, I didn’t ask. Didn’t intercede on behalf of others in prayer. Hardly prayed at all unless there was food. Didn’t ask the Psalmist to carry my tears, or Paul to carry my heart. That would require reading the scriptures. Didn’t do that, either.
I certainly didn’t ask Jesus. Except perhaps to get me out of a ditch. I never called on the Spirit. I convinced myself my politics were a proxy for justice and a prayer card a proxy for compassion. Didn’t really develop relationships, didn’t build bridges. Didn’t offer a witness, or share fellowship.
Sunday mornings became gatherings of like minded, well dressed folk, a civic club meeting with better music. Political allies stopped in the hallways to talk elections. Sunday School classes began and ended in conversations about the game last night or the game this afternoon.
I never asked:
“How is it with your soul? “
“How is the Spirit moving in your life? “
“How can I help you?”
“How can Jesus help you—or me?”
Church was, indeed, like going to the dentist: attended out of obligation, participated in with some mild discomfort, departed in relief. And I thought I was one of the good ones, one whose monthly pledge and front-row seat said all that needed to be said.
I was half-right: it said all I had to say, which isn’t the same thing. A friend says idolatry is belief in a God who likes things the same as you. Well, that was me. Smug, certain, worked-out and checked-out. Looking for your own place in the Bible story? Mine was in Exodus among the people of Israel, impatient with Moses for spending all that time on Mt. Sinai. I may as well have been forging a golden calf.
And yet, God, not the icon in the library, but the God of Abraham, Jonah, Saul, and Mary; the God who never stops searching says to us, “I did not make you for the life you’re leading.” That life, the life our culture celebrates, our economy rewards, our academies teach, our politics honor, and our technology facilitates, that life is built on scarcity, competition, division, and selfishness. It’s built on competence and control. That life does not come from God. Scripture reminds us again and again it comes from the Other. And on it, not surprisingly, I found the emptiness and loss on which the Other feeds.
Joy has another source. Joy nourishes love: A love about which I had read volumes, but did not know. That love, that relentless, pursuing love, was at work on me.
Then came an invitation to read a book about a nearly 300-year-old small group experience invented by a guy a lot of United Methodists don’t know: John Wesley. I said yes to learning about covenant discipleship groups.
Next, I was invited to become part of a covenant discipleship group; to account, each week, in covenant relationship for acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion just as Mr. Wesley taught.
This goes well past sitting and reading. I said yes.
I’m in a group of five people, united only by our mutual availability on Wednesdays at 6:00 pm. After two months of discernment, we covenant with each other to live a life that resembles a disciple of Jesus Christ. We put promises in writing and read them to one another each week. Then we tell what we’ve done to keep those promises.
Most of the promises are new to me. Like regular prayer, reading the Bible, listening to others, giving without expectation of return. Some weeks, I keep the promises. Some weeks, I don’t. But even then, something is happening. In the accounting, in the admitting loss and setback, we’re becoming a community. And I find the community empowers me to come back, to keep the promises, and help others do the same.
I don’t understand how any of this is actually coming together for me until last July, when my wife, Laurie, and I decided to spend our vacation at Soulfeast, a United Methodist spiritual formation conference at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.
Trevor Hudson was the featured teacher. As the event opened, he told us there are a lot of Christians—maybe even us—who have no idea when or how to ask for the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. His answer? Anytime. Doing anything. Find ways. Seek them out. Try them. But ask. And see what happens.
Monday and Tuesday morning, more of it: The Spirit is about celebration. The Spirit is about repentance. The Spirit is about fellowship, a koinonia sharing of all we have with one another, and with God. The Spirit is about life. But it starts, all of it, with asking. Not with books. Or debates. But asking God for the ability, the power, the joy, the integrity, the mystery, the love, to become Tom as God created, not the derivative work I have devised.
And so I try it. During every worship service my heart is in my throat, my palms sweat. I can’t move. But I am at last asking, something new.
Not me, God. You. Not my will, God. Yours.
In return, I get a nudging, a movement. Others sense it, too. A friend asks me Tuesday afternoon if anyone has ever told me there might be a call on my life.
That night, Laurie and I sit by the lake for an hour, watching the sunlight shift and fade across water and sky. We talk very little. Dogs and their owners stroll by. I ask: God, what have you got for me?
I awake the next morning, and write this is my journal:
It is not a skill to master. It is a truth to live.
As the conference closes Trevor is no longer offering or suggesting. He is preaching when he described the phenomenon of the summer mission trip, and its power with youth. He tells us adults the most important mission trip we can make is the commute from home to work.
If you’re a doctor, find the brokenness in the health care system and heal it. If you’re a lawyer, find the brokenness in the legal system and fix it. That’s your mission trip.”
A friend leans in. “You know he’s preaching to you, don’t you?” I do. I’m no longer beside my pool of tears. I’m knee-deep in it. Not a skill to master. A truth to live. I’m converted. There is no other word for it.
Six months later, writing this down, I can’t help but think how much and how long God truly has been at work on me.
First, it was my family: raising me in church, confirmation class, youth choir.
Then, others: Prophets who challenged me, friends who came to me, spiritual experiences in creation, at an open table, in losses, personal and painful; in a journey to a miracle daughter, and in the faith of a miraculous spouse.
And, finally, in this church, where we have married, baptized a daughter, and buried a son. Where you have been welcomed, encouraged, laughed, prayed, and forgiven.
It hasn’t been one thing. But we lawyers love a Latin phrase and this is time for one:
sine qua non.
It means “that without which.” And I can tell you without that weekly, accountable hour of covenant discipleship, without Laurie, Jim, Bobby, and Revell in the collaborative presence of God, I would not be on—or stay on—the path.
Covenant discipleship is my sine qua non; without that, nothing else.
It’s where, for the first time, I have been reminded, in discipline and in love, who I am and who I may yet be. It’s where I’m reminded that heart and life make us who we are as Christians, and who we might yet be.
I told you when I left Lake Junaluska, I knew what the call was about. Here it is: to become a disciple. To live into the Baptismal Covenant. The truth revealed in Jesus’ baptism, in that breaking through of God into the world is this: There is no other way to know and share God’s love, but to live the life in which God is well pleased.
And if voices from heaven weren’t enough to persuade you, we know the first thing Jesus does when he’s baptized. He heads for the wilderness. While there he’s offered, wealth, self-determination, and power. The Other offers Jesus the same temptation I once took. Be competent, Tom. It’s cool. It pays off. It’s smart. It’s enough.
Jesus is honest: discipleship is not for everyone. It is hard, and it involves a cross. But the kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven, requires it if we’re to make it through the wilderness.
I no longer believe I was baptized into competence. I was baptized into a life.
These are the baptisms we remember today. “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” “This is my daughter in whom I am well pleased.” To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
That last part is John Wesley. Here is how I describe my path:
Compassion. I’m called to give, without expectation of return, and to seek out opportunities to listen to others. Oh, I can still talk. But that’s not always what God wants me to do.
Devotion. I’m called to read Scripture and pray for the Holy Spirit’s presence in all I do. The more I do it, the more I need it, and the more I receive from it. My new daily prayer is this: God, open me up, empty me out, fill me up.
Worship. I’m called to be here, with you, every week, in worship. Some of you know I wasn’t doing that not so long ago. I’m also called to give to this church. Our group says we will give proportionately with a tithe as our goal. I’m not there, but that is the goal toward which I’m working.
Finally, justice: As for brokenness in the legal system, not long after we came home from Lake Junaluska, I got another call. Would I consider joining the board of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty? I know of nothing more broken. I said yes.
So here, I confess: I don’t know if any of this has meaning for you. But if it does, perhaps God has been working on you, too. Perhaps your path is now before you. If so, the prophet Isaiah described it for you:
“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness. I have taken you by the hand and kept you. I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in the darkness.”
If you choose to join a covenant discipleship group, here’s what awaits:
God’s presence. Real. Available. For the asking. In community. In covenant with each other. In discipleship. Not another skill to master, but a life to live.
And how do I know these things? I have seen. I have heard. Most of all, I have been touched. That makes me a witness. Maybe, today, you will be a witness…too.
West End United Methodist Church
January 12, 2013