A couple months ago my dad told me that my home church (First UMC of St. Petersburg, FL) would be hosting guest preachers this summer – ideally people with a previous connection to the church. “What Sunday should I put you down for?” he asked. I looked at my calendar and immediately felt stressed; it was going to be a busy summer. I told my dad, “That would be awesome, but I really can’t miss any more Sundays.”
To which my dad replied, “How about I call your bishop?”
I’m pretty sure Dad wasn’t kidding… so I figured it was just easier to come. 😉
That story is 100% true, but don’t let it give you the impression that I don’t want to be here. Once my husband helped me solve the calendaring puzzle (because I can’t seem to manage my own life details), I was super excited to come and preach. And I knew right away what I wanted to say to you, the people of St. Pete. FUMC:
This is my home church, after all. A lot of important things have happened in this very spot I’m preaching from: I was baptized; I was given my first Bible; I was confirmed; I preached my first sermon; I was married; I spoke at my mom’s funeral. You, the people of St. Pete. FUMC, have been a part of all of that (and a lot more).
Now – I know not all of you were literally present at those events. Some of you have been here since Christ himself was raised from the dead, but some of you are relative newcomers. But it doesn’t matter if you were actually there or not – you were a part of it. That’s how the body of Christ works – by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are strangely connected.
I’ve now grown up. I’ve evolved from “Mary Catherine” to “Mary Wood” to “Mary Brown” to “Pastor Mary.” I get to be the pastor of another “First UMC” – Sylva First United Methodist Church. Just so you don’t feel bad for me that I don’t get to live by the beach anymore, I thought I’d show you a picture:
I mean – someone’s gotta serve that church…
As a pastor, I think a lot about making disciples. It’s our mission, the one laid out for us in Matthew 28. When Jesus left he told us to get busy baptizing and making disciples and teaching people his ways. If that’s our most important work, then it’s worth asking: how do we make disciples most effectively? I’m especially wondering that now, after this year of pandemic when we couldn’t do anything the way we’ve normally done it. How do we, as a church, make disciples of Jesus Christ? As you look to a future with an interim pastor – a season of reflection as a church – it’s a good question to ponder. How do you make disciples of Jesus Christ, and how will you going into the future?
Well, perhaps I can be a little case study for both of our benefits. How did First UMC make *me* a disciple?
It started with baptism.
That’s a big part of this job that Jesus has given us: baptizing people in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You did that for me. I’ve got the pictures to prove it:
I was baptized by a new Associate Minister who had recently graduated from seminary – a guy named Rob Blackburn. When he held me in his arms and baptized me, he would have challenged you with words on the 43rd page of our hymnal: “I commend this person to your love and care. Do all in your power to increase her faith, confirm her hope, and perfect her in love.” And boy, did you hold up your end of the bargain.
You started by loving and accepting me. You showed me that church was a good place filled with good people – a place I wanted to be, a place that felt like home.
When I walked through the halls Dr. Hartsfield called me by name. Paul Hartsfield was the pastor here for like a million years while I was growing up (and that’s not much of an exaggeration). He seemed so big and important and (if I’m being honest) old, and it meant a lot to me that he knew my name.
When I sang in the children’s choir, Mr. Feges, the Choir Director, gave us “music makers” – which were really just Reece’s Pieces, it sounds a lot cooler if you say “music maker.”
When my brothers and I came to “big church” (that’s what we called it), we mostly squirmed around and played tic-tac-toe on the back of the attendance pads – but no one ever gave us the stink eye. People were kind to us even though we weren’t following the social rules. Like when I came down for the children’s sermon and wanted to show Dr. Hartsfield my respect by curtseying, and apparently what felt like a curtesy in my mind was really flashing my underwear to the congregation… I did plenty of things like that, but you loved me anyway.
Thank you. Thank you for showing me God’s unconditional love by loving me unconditionally.
But being a disciple of Jesus Christ goes beyond baptism and knowing God’s love. We have to learn how to build a life with Christ, how know and love God more every day.
One of the best ways you did that for me was by teaching me how to read the Bible.
You started by giving me a Bible in second grade. I still have it, want to see?
Giving me a Bible was a great start! That simple act told me that I was supposed to actually read this. Which, theoretically, was no problem for me. I’m a lifelong reader and an English major. If you’ve got a book, yo, I’ll read it.
Except – this one doesn’t work like that.
It’s complicated. It’s inspired – first when written, and then again when read. It’s grounded in a historical context but also alive and relevant to today. I needed help to really read the Bible. And, through St. Pete. FUMC, help is just what I got.
In Sunday School I learned the books of the Bible. My mom, Margaret Wood, taught elementary school Sunday School for many years. And she taught the kids a books-of-the-Bible song that I still sing to myself to this day. (Don’t tell my church members I have to sing a kids’ song to find “Thessalonians”!)
In middle school I went to a Bible study with Jeremy Rassmussen. There I learned to carefully read Scripture, to unpack it thoughtfully and reverently. I also learned it was OK to ask questions. If I remember right, Jeremy taught us the book of Revelation. To middle schoolers! But by wrestling with it together, I learned not to be afraid of Scripture just because it’s complicated.
In high school my youth leaders – Pete Freeman and Kaylee Bennett – coached me to start reading the Bible every day. They suggested a chapter a day to start. So off I went, starting with Genesis… which went swimmingly until I got to Leviticus, and I got lost in all the laws and ‘begats.’ I told Pete and Kaylee about my struggle, and they suggested I tackle the New Testament first, and then wrap back around to the Old. Which I did – and to this day, that’s how I recommend anyone start reading the Bible. Also to this day, my most reliable spiritual discipline is to read the Bible every day – all because of Pete and Kaylee.
That’s some good disciple making right there.
But as Christians we’re called to do more than just nurture our own relationship with God. We’re also called to love each other, serve each other, witness to each other. You taught me to do that, too.
As a teenager I was obsessed with the youth group. From my very first youth event where Rob Hutchinson almost strangled me to death (true story), I loved it. I think I loved it because it expanded my social world. Sometimes I felt kind of popular at school, but most of the time I was that kid who dropped her books and got laughed at. It was awesome to know that my social life didn’t depend on school alone.
At school, I mostly stayed with my friend group. Like most students, we’d sit at the same table together in lunch every day; like attracts like, right? But in youth group I was thrown in with some kids that, well – that I didn’t like. And unlike school, I couldn’t seem to avoid them. (Our youth counselors made sure of that.)
We did lock ins and took trips and went backpacking together. Especially while we were backpacking at Wilderness Trail I learned a powerful lesson: over the course of 5 days, with nothing to do but hike and talk to each other, I discovered things I liked about the kids I thought I didn’t like. I learned that everyone is interesting – everyone – if you ask the right questions. (And if you hike in the rain together. That helps.) That experience made me a believer that this “body of Christ” thing really is possible. Sometimes it’s hard – and in youth group, do I even need to tell you that we often hurt each others’ feelings? But by the grace of God (and with a little bit of hiking in the rain) we really can love one another – all of us – if we’re willing to give one another a chance.
And that lesson has changed me life. It’s part of what called me into ministry – this opportunity to get to know and love God’s people better. It’s part of what keeps me committed to church – knowing that there’s something special about each person God brings to us. But it’s also a big part of what just makes life with Jesus better. Jesus calls us to see and love one another as God does, and life is frankly just better that way.
Well – I could tell 100 more stories, but we don’t have time for that. I have to catch a flight at 2:50… and these pews weren’t meant to sit in all day.
But I don’t want to stop before I tell you something new you’ve taught me. As I’ve prepared for today, thought about all these stories, I’ve noticed a pattern, a theme. What made me a disciple is something obvious… but also something that we can forget.
Or at least I can. As a pastor I love good theology – and I spend a lot of time reading and thinking and wanting to get it just right. As a Methodist pastor I think a lot about our United Methodist Church and how our denomination might be better. As the pastor of Sylva First I think a lot about committees, and about how we might respond to the big cultural issues of our day.
But none of those things are what made me a disciple of Jesus Christ. The theology went over my head; I didn’t care a bit about the rest of our denomination; I was barely aware of any committees or cultural issues.
No – what made me a disciple… was you. It was individual people taking the time to disciple me. It was Margaret LeCompte saving a seat for me at Church Council meetings. It was Lee Allen giving me a book to help me with my doubts. It was Kurt Ulrich encouraging me after my first sermon. It was Dr. Smalling graciously fielding my questions about seminary. It was you – the people of St. Pete. First, loving and mentoring a kid like me.
Well – now I have something else to thank you for.
Because of you, I’m going back to Sylva First recommitted to what’s really most important: making disciples of Jesus Christ, one person at a time. Thank you for that reminder. As you go forward into a new chapter as a church, I hope you’ll keep doing the same thing. Keep making disciples of Jesus Christ. I can tell you, first hand, it makes all the difference.