Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




The Messy, Mixed-up Church

Sunday, July 24, 2005



Romans 8: 26-39

Matthew 13: 47-53


Rev. Dean Snyder


There are 2.1 billion of us now – 2.1 billion Christians on the face of this earth, one-third of the world’s people. We are the largest religious group on the face of the earth, so more than anyone else we need to take responsibility for the way the world is. One-third of the world’s people call ourselves by the name of Christ and are part of the holy, catholic, universal church. We are organized into more than 33,000 different denominations. Last year when I talked about this, it was 32,000 denominations, and by this year it is actually 33,000 plus, and it has probably increased by 1 or 2 somewhere in the world during the time that we have been meeting here for worship.


Sometime, when you have time, visit the website called and you can read about the varieties of the world’s religions and also the variety of Christianity’s denominations. Everything from the Alpha and Omega Pentecostal Church headquartered in Baltimore with 9 congregations and 400 members to the Zaan Apostolic Church of God headquartered in Harare, Zimbabwe with 124 congregations and some 10,000 members. Just read through the names and the stories of some of these 33,000 plus denominations.


As Christians, we are part of something here covering the face of the earth that is almost beyond our ability, at least my ability, to comprehend. Starting from just a few dozen people who walked with Jesus during his lifetime, the church has grown to 2.1 billion people. It consists of people who it seems to me sometimes have almost nothing in common, except for two things: in one way or another, we all name the name of Jesus, and we all wrestle together to try in someway to understand the same book.


How do we live in community with 2.1 billion other people, some of whom follow a Jesus who seems to be the polar opposite of the Jesus I follow? I was talking a number of years ago to Gordon Cosby, whose brother was a pastor in Lynchburg, Virginia. It was about the time his brother had passed and Gordon was reflecting on the fact that his brother was pastor of a church in the same city (and not that large a city: Lynchburg, Virginia) where Jerry Falwell had his church. Gordon was trying to sort it out. How could his brother with his understanding of Jesus and his commitments pastor in the same city as Jerry Falwell with his understanding of Jesus. Gordon said finally, “It must be different Jesuses! Is Jesus schizophrenic?” Look at the world’s 2.1 billion Christians all trying to follow the same Jesus. There are Jews and Muslims and Buddhists with whom, it seems to me, I have more in common philosophically and spiritually than with some other followers of this same Jesus that I am seeking to follow. What does this mean?


Matthew, the writer of the first gospel that appears in our New Testament, began to see the way that things were going early on. Matthew had a hard time with this direction that the church seemed to be going. He wanted everyone to believe the same way, to think the same way, to live the same way if they were to be followers of Jesus. He wanted the Christian church to be pure and orderly and orthodox. But Matthew began to observe very quickly that the church was becoming not pure, but very diverse and mixed up, messy. It was becoming disorderly rather than ordered. It was becoming heterodox rather than orthodox.


He had to wrestle with this and he shares with us a story that Jesus had left behind, a story with a principle as to how to deal with this church that is not orderly but messy, not orthodox but mixed-up. The principle that Jesus left with Matthew was this: live with the mess and let God sort it out by and by. Live with the mix-up and let God straighten it out by and by. He left Matthew with the story about a fisher of people who went out and caught a bunch of fish in the net. Some of them were trout and bass, and some of them were carp. Some of them were food fish and some of them were trash fish. But leave the fish in the net.


The first time I went to Africa, as I was preparing for the trip, my bishop at the time who had been to Africa many times, was trying to orient me and prepare me for the experience. One of the things that he was trying to prepare me for was that the United Methodist Church in Africa can be a little different than our experience here some times. He was trying to explain to me that the United Methodist Church in Africa in some places and some settings can draw heavily on pre-Christian thinking and practices. He didn’t want me to be shocked by this. He quoted to me an African bishop who had once said to him: “I don’t know what goes on in some of my churches in the bush, and I am just as glad I don’t!” After he said this, the bishop paused for a minute, leaned back in his chair and sighed and said: “Well, I guess I don’t know what goes on in some of the churches in the bushes of the Baltimore Washington Conference, and perhaps I’m just as glad I don’t.”


There are things being taught in the United Methodist churches around America (not to mention the world) that would appall some of us. There are Methodists who would be appalled by some of the things we say and teach here. As a matter of fact, from time to time, we have had visitors who have come here to Foundry Church from Methodist churches in other parts of the country who have got up and walked out right in the middle of my sermon because what I was saying didn’t sound to them like what they expected to hear in a Methodist church, given their experience.


Well, what do we do about this mess, this mix-up within the church? Jesus’ answer to Matthew was: Nothing. We do nothing about it. We rub fins with one another. We hang out in the same net. We let God by and by sort out the mess. Let God straighten out the mix-up. And let me add this: Matthew’s imagery of this parable, this story, is that someday God is going to open the net and God is going to take some fish and put them into a basket to save, and God is going to take some other fish and burn them in a fire. I don’t think that’s exactly the right image. I don’t think it’s an “us – them” thing. I think that within each of us there is some richness and some goodness. Within each of us there is also some resistance and some sin. What will be burned will not be them as opposed to us, but the “them” that is inside and a part of all of us. We will all be purified.


When we try to figure out what God is doing in our world, I am convinced that God is at work in the church.  But I am convinced that God does not draw with straight lines. I am convinced that God’s paths are much more intricate than we can understand most of the time. I am convinced that the rationality of God is so intricate that in terms of our human ability to understand what God is doing doesn’t make sense to us. But God is at work through this church that appears to us to be messy and mixed-up. God is doing something important and profound. From time to time, if we are alert, we can see a sign of it.

Last Sunday, Jane and I were worshipping in a church in Liberia. The service was actually being held in a classroom at the United Methodist University in Monrovia. There were two congregations that were worshipping together. One was a congregation whose building was actually two hours outside of Monrovia, but during the civil war so many of the members of the church had moved to Monrovia and had not figured out how to move back to their homes yet, that the church met three Sundays a month with other churches inside the city of Monrovia. Once a month they would rent a bus and go to worship at their old building two hours outside of the city. The other church was a United Methodist congregation that met on the outskirts of Monrovia. They had come together and they were worshipping in a classroom at the University on this particular Sunday in a combined service.


As is the case in Liberia, all pastors have to come up and sit in front of the congregation. They won’t let you worship in peace in the pews. So they moved me up front, and I was sitting up front. The pastor of the church that has a building two hours outside of the city wanted to introduce me to the congregation. He asked me my name and my church. So, I wrote down “Dean Snyder, Foundry United Methodist Church.” He looked at me strangely. Then he got up and he walked over to the choir and asked one of the choir members for her hymnal. She gave him the hymnal and he brought it back to show to me. It was the Methodist Hymnal and on gold in the front was stamped “Foundry Methodist Church.” This congregation two hours outside of Monrovia, Liberia for the last decade had been using our old hymnals in their worship service. Every Sunday they had looked down and they had seen the name “Foundry Methodist Church.” Finally, they had somebody to connect it to. They were very excited.


Then, a little later in the service, as the worship was continuing, Jane got out of her seat in the congregation and walked up to me to show me her hymnal. Her hymnal on the front page, the hymnal that the other congregation was using, said “Arch Street United Methodist Church,” which was the last church that I had served in Philadelphia. So we were meeting with two congregations. One of them was using Foundry Church’s old hymnals. The other was using the hymnals of the last church where I had been a pastor. I sort of said, “Oh, is someone trying to tell me something? What is it?”


There are times in our journey, in this messy, mixed-up church that is larger than we comprehend where there are signs of the presence of the movement of God in our midst. Our task is not so much to figure it out or to steer it, as to make ourselves available to the Spirit of God as God moves this church in ways and directions that we will not fully understand, but that we will celebrate together with all God’s people when we understand it better in the by and by.