What is the promise?


As a way of introduction, I would say that I am from Memphis, Tennessee, and that I graduated from a Memphis area high school in 1968. So it should not be a surprise that anytime I have a mountaintop passage such as the one from the Old Testament, my attention turns to the spring of 1968 and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. It was that strike that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis that fateful spring.

During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. (http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/memphis-v-mlk/)

On February 12th, 1375 workers (mostly sanitation workers but with other Department of Public Works employees) went out on strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. At the time of the strike, workers were paid $1.70 per hour and were asking for $2.35 per hour; the city’s offer was a 5% (or 8-1/2 cents).

Dr. King was invited to Memphis to aid in the effort to bring about reconciliation between the workers and the city as well as bring attention to the disparity between classes. It should be noted that not many people outside of Memphis were aware of this strike. When this strike began a similar strike by sanitation workers in New York City had just ended. Even the respected New York Times did not consider a similar strike in a town of just 500,000 people to be newsworthy. The city of Memphis was able to keep the problem below “crisis-level” and out of the public’s eye.

So it was that on April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a gathering of strikers and supporters at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee and gave what has become known as his “Mountaintop” speech. This speech, which in part outlined the history of the civil rights struggle, concluded with

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (http://www.afscme.org/about/memphist.htm)

I cannot say, nor do I want to speculate, as to whether or not Dr. King knew that he was going to die the next day. Dr. King was well aware that threats had been made on his life. He had seen and experienced the violence that accompanied the civil rights struggle in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. I do not believe that he thought he was going to die by an assassin’s bullet the next day but I also think that he did not think that this struggle was going to end anytime soon. The tragedies of Katrina and Rita (and hopefully not Wilma) remind us that we still have a long, long way to go before everyone has the same opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

There were people back then in 1968 and there are still people today who think that Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox was only a temporary setback in the fight for states’ rights. There were those then and I am sure there are those today who feel that maintaining the status quo is the best for all concerned. It is not a new attitude.

Look again at the Gospel reading for today. For once, Jesus is the one asking the questions, trying to elicit a response from the Pharisees and Sadducees. But it was a question that challenged the manner in which they thought and acted with the people; it was a question that they were unable to answer. So, from that day on, the Pharisees and Sadducees did not ask Jesus any more questions. They were uncomfortable with the challenges Jesus put before them; they were uncomfortable justifying what was often unjustifiable. It was also at this time that these respectable religious leaders who claimed to be men of God began to think of ways of eliminating Jesus, the Son of God.

The church today is a lot like the church back then. We are uncomfortable with what Jesus challenges us to do. We would much rather learn about Jesus than learn the teachings of Jesus. We would much rather focus on what Jesus did for us than follow what He preached, taught and commanded us to do in His name. We would rather not be reminded that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. (Adapted from “The Jesus We Haven’t Followed” – http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/AlvinAlexsiCurrier.htm) We would rather not be reminded that Christ died for us so that we could live free from sin and death. It is almost as if we have taken Jesus out of the church.

The modern church is aware that there are individuals who are looking for answers in a complicated world. These are the ones sociologists call “seekers”. This is the generation that has been brought up with the notion of slick marketing tools and the use of sound-bites, short easy answers to the questions of the day. There is no doubt that these are the ones that the church today must reach out to but I wonder if the church is doing it in the right way. Slick marketing tools and slick sound bites will sell a lot of things but you cannot sell Christ. Rather, we must constantly remember that what people are seeking is Christ and if we take Christ out of the picture, they cannot find what they are seeking. In the Gospel of John we read, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4: 23 – 24) Later John wrote, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8: 31 – 32)

The churches we build are built to make newcomers feel comfortable. The seats are not the traditional pews but rather theater seats that recline. In many churches, the symbols that so often remind us of Christ’s suffering are no longer there because it scares away the people.

William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, a major author in Methodism and now Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, noted that he preached at a church that had tried to make its service “seeker-sensitive”. But in doing so, many of the historic Christian metaphors and images have been removed. (“It’s Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive When You Work for Jesus”, William H. Willimon, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003)

When I was working on my God and Country award in the Boy Scouts, I put together the services for my Boy Scout troop in Colorado. My father made a cross that I could carry in my backpack; it enabled me to provide a sense that the service that we had in the mountains of Colorado was a celebration of Christ’s presence in our lives and not just a spiritual moment in the wilderness. The cross is, at least for me, the centerpiece of Christian worship. It is the cross that reminds us that Christ’s sacrifice had meaning. It is the cross that holds meaning for all that we say and do. But in these new, “seeker-sensitive” services, there is no cross; there is no reminder that the Gospel is more than words.

The music, as Dr. Willimon reported, was “me, my and mine.” The music that we sing must life us up, not simply make us feel good. The hymns that John and Charles Wesley wrote gave hope and joy to the poor and socially disadvantaged. The same hope and joy must be in the modern songs as well and I am not sure that it is there. Many of the so-called “experts” will say that you need newer music or a more varied instrumentation to bring in the “seekers”. The argument is that people don’t relate easily to the traditional songs and such songs are not always easily sung.

I think that is the wrong idea. While it never hurts to learn more songs, if for no other reason that to give better expression to the worship experience we cannot forget what the “old” songs say. We cannot simply change the songs we sing or the way they are sung simply because people don’t know the words or because the words hurt too much. Perhaps the traditional church hasn’t done enough to teach the meaning of the songs that we sing. It simply means that we need to do more. We need to remember that the old songs remind us of the sacrifice and repentance required of us; we cannot simply sing songs of joy and happiness but which have no substance. We should not be ashamed to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” simply because we do not want to be reminded that it is a symbol of suffering and shame.

“The Old Rugged Cross” – United Methodist Hymnal #504

When we sing such songs of power, such songs that offer us and show us the promise that God has for us, we are reminded why we are Christians.

It is become painfully clear that traditional church has failed to provide what individuals are looking for, a message of deliverance. These people want to hear a message that does not makes them feel guilty. They tell the pastor that they don’t want to hear about the outside world on Sunday, they get enough every other day. In a world with complicated problems, today’s church-going public want simple solutions; they want the problems of the world to disappear for a few hours on Sunday.

The traditional church has failed to give recognition to a person’s need for something more than a religion that made sense in the face of scientific rationalism and did more than address the painful social crises of the times. Too often, such churches overlooked the fact that people crave a connection with God that gives them a sense of being inwardly transformed. People want to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit,” but they have not found it in traditional churches. (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo) But today’s churches, whether they are modern day “growth” churches or traditional churches struggling to stay alive, have failed to deliver this message, so much the centerpiece of the Gospel message.

The churches in this country that are growing today give the seekers exactly what they want. They are giving them a sense of “being filled with the Spirit”; they are giving them a sense that their sins have been cleansed. And they are certainly giving them messages that bring purpose to their lives without making them feel guilty about what they have done. They hear that the poverty of this world, the death and desolation that come to this world are only signs of God’s return, of Christ’s Second Coming. They find in these new churches comfort and sanctuary.

But this is not the Gospel message. The Gospel message is not meant to make you feel good; it is meant for you to hear and then act. Barbara Wendland, an United Methodist layperson in Texas, points out that many of the things that make us comfortable in church often times make us less effective as a church. Patriotism is effective if it reminds us of our nation’s commitment to justice for all people, yet flags and martial hymns in worship tend to glorify war rather than remind us that we have been called to be peacemakers. We may find that tradition provides a sense of continuity but it can also make it difficult to bring about change. Emotion can inspire us to do God’s work in the world, but wrapping one’s self in a blanket of emotions can often block critical reasoning. The church can only be effective if it keeps reminding us how far we have to go before God’s will is done on this earth. An effective sermon on poverty and disease in our own community should leave us feeling rightly uneasy about not doing more to help and it should inspire us to do that little bit extra. (From Connections, April 2005)

The Gospel message cannot be pared down to something that fits on a bumper sticker. The Gospel is meant to transform us, not protect us. Unfortunately, this is not the message of many of these big churches. Without the cross, without the reason, the message presented is sugar coated and self-serving. People come to these services because they are not required to do much more than that.

The Gospel message is to be shared, not hoarded, and we must work to find ways to share it. This is something we are often unwilling to do. We hesitate to respond as Jesus would have us respond because it is so radical a notion. We would much rather focus on a quiet, private, personal relationship with the Lord rather than follow the teachings that call for a public, prophetic witness. We like being on the mountain, we do not want to come down and have to work in the valley. We can live with reports of poverty, sickness, and oppression; we just would rather not have to deal with it.

But as Katrina reminds us, the church needs to be very much a part of everyday life. Not as some would have it, the arbitrators of morality and justice, but as an agent of affirmation that all people are worthy in the eyes of God. It has been said that money should be put into areas where growth and self-sufficiency are more likely. It makes economic sense to do so but this isn’t what Jesus called His disciples to do, it is not what He calls us to do.

Even within the United Methodist Church we are forgetting our roots. No longer are the poor, rural and urban ministries emphasized. But the Wesleyan movement is rooted in the working class and poor. Perhaps it is a natural sign of growth but as we have transitioned into a middle- and upper-class denomination we seem to have left the poor and lower-classes behind. Instead of being a part of the church, we see such ministry as a social service, important in itself but not critical to the life of the church. (http://homepage.mac.com/larryhol/iblog/C2050680009/E20051007090723/

We are a lot like the people of Israel. We refuse to trust God; we refuse to be his people. We might love the person next to us in the pew today; we might even love our next door neighbor. But we are often times not willing to love someone in New Orleans or Houston because we believe that they are not worthy of our love. But the teachings of Jesus tell us that we need to reach out beyond the boundaries of little community. We have to come down from the mountaintop and into the valley; we have to go where the people are, no matter who they might be. (Adapted from “The Jesus We Haven’t Followed” – http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/AlvinAlexsiCurrier.htm) We have to trust in God and know that, in doing so, the promise given to us will be fulfilled.

We do not need to stand on the street corner and proclaim that God is coming at the top of our voice. In today’s society, we simply would be competing with other noises and distractions. No, we need to go into the communities where we live and simply lead the life that Christ would have us lead. We need to show others what Christ is about, not teach who Christ is.

It is not easy following God, being a disciple of Christ. As Paul begins this letter, he writes of the trouble that he left behind in Philippi. But it was because he and his co-workers trusted in God that they were successful. He also points out that their mission; their ministry comes from being with God and not for some ulterior or selfish motive. Paul writes that we need to live our lives differently, showing Christ rather than talking about Him. John Chrysostom took Paul’s words to heart when he instructed his congregation to astound people by the way you live. Words are great but they do not match the power of actions. Win the people by your life, not your words is what he encouraged the people to do. (Adapted from “Childish Behavior” by James Howell, Christian Century, October 18, 2005)

It is not easy following God, being a disciple of Christ. Just ask John Wesley. Barred from preaching in the churches he grew up in, he turned to preaching in the field. Every bone in his body ached figuratively and actually at having to do this. John Wesley was a firm believer in fixed prepared sermons but preaching in the field lead him to extemporaneous speaking. But the “powers that be” encouraged the people to heckle Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers. It has been reported that on a number of occasions, Wesley was even stoned by the people heckling him. Yet he kept on preaching and wrote of the badges of honor that the stones left on him. He kept on preaching the Gospel message of salvation for all and freedom from sin and death; he kept the promise that had been some two thousand years ago.

The promise of the Gospel is that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, the homeless given places to stay, and the oppressed will be set free. The promise of the Gospel is that we who open our hearts to Christ and accept Him as our Savior will receive in the end, eternal life free from sin. And though our body may die, our soul will live on in heaven. As we sing in “The Old Rugged Cross”, “I will cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it some day for a crown.”

We all have a mountaintop; we all have a place from which to see the Promised Land. Up on the mountaintop, it is often quiet and peaceful. There is a calmness that we cannot find anywhere else. And we know we are close to God. But God is not with us on the mountaintop. He is down in the valleys below and He is asking why are we not there, doing His work.

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Looking west from Pine Mountain, KY, near Whitesburg, KY (Promised Land State Park is about 10 miles south of this position)

Maybe we should remember why it is that Moses went to the mountaintop. This was not the first time that he or the people of Israel had seen the Promised Land. In Numbers 13 and 14, we read of the people of Israel sending spies into the Promised Land to find out what was there. Twelve men, each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel, were chosen to find out what lie before them. While two of the spies reported that it was indeed a land of milk and honey, the other ten reported on the troubles that they, the Israelites, would encounter. And to make matters worse, the people plotted against Moses and Aaron and attempted to select someone who would lead them back to Egypt.

Only Joshua and Caleb held to the idea that God would protect them and enable them to enter the land of their forefathers. But the people were not willing to listen, believing the stories of the other ten. The story of the first Exodus is an interesting story. Time after time, the people complain that God has left them to die in the desert and time after time God responds to the cries of the people and provides protection and nourishment. Now, standing on the River Jordan, almost on the verge of reaching their goal, the Promised Land, the people again turn against God.

And God responded almost in kind. God was prepared to destroy all the Israelites, even those who stood by him. But Moses again reminded God that He had shown mercy before and mercy was needed at this time. So God choose to punish the people, causing them to wander in the desert for forty years, one year for each of the forty days that the spies were in the Promised Land. Those over the age of twenty would die in the wilderness, never to reach what had been theirs had they been faithful. Only Joshua and Caleb, the ones who told the truth and remained to God’s plan, would be allowed to live and enter the land. The other ten died almost immediately, as punishment for their sins.

Because Moses picked the men who would enter the Promised Land, he had to suffer the same fate as those he chose. And so it was that Moses stood on that mountaintop, looking into the Promised Land, and knowing that He would never enter it. But, as we stand on our own mountaintop and look down on the Promised Land, we know that we can enter that wonderful and beautiful place. That is the promise that was given to us, if only we would accept the call.

God is calling to each of us today, “I sent my Son so that you might live; come down from the mountaintop and welcome Him into your life”. Many have heard that call and God is now asking, “when will you do what my Son has shown you what must be done?” When will you fulfill the promise?