I am preaching this Sunday at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church (8 Shady Lane, South Salem, NY 10590-1932 – Location of church); service is at 9. This is the eleventh church that I have been at in the past ten weeks; it has been a busy summer.
The Scriptures for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 3: 1 – 15, Romans 12: 9 – 21, and Matthew 16: 21 – 28.
And the man known as the Preacher wrote, “To every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Though the words of Ecclesiastes 3 do not say so, I think there are times when we are called to do things and there are times when we call upon others to do the same.
Sometimes the calls come from our children to tell us some piece of good news. They have been accepted into college or they have made the Dean’s list. And sometimes it is to tell us that they are about to become parents themselves.
We get calls from our children in the middle of the night as they struggle with a myriad of problems that all seem to be major problems but which we, as wise and learned parents, can solve with a few well-chosen words. Like the daughter who frantically called her mother one night and asked her to come over. They were moving to a new apartment and needed some help because the car had a flat tire and she also had a term paper due in two days. And all her mother could say was, “I can’t come tonight because you live in Scotland and it isn’t easy to get a ticket at the last minute to fly across the Atlantic.”
And we are called when there is sorrow in our lives, when loved ones become ill or we lose someone special in our lives. Perhaps the saddest words that we must ever speak to a friend or one we love are the words that come at a time of grief and loss. We are always at a loss at times like these and we fear the day when we will receive such a call. At times such as these, we look to our church family and our church friends to bring comfort and aid when we are in pain and grief.
The church and its people have always been the single source of comfort in the lives of so many people. From its very beginning, the church was a community of believers gathering together to share their belief, their resources, their support and comfort. Yet today, the people of the church cry out in pain and anguish. People whom we have grown up with and seen almost every Sunday tell us that they are leaving the church because the church no longer speaks to them or no longer seems relevant to the problems of the world.
And there are those individuals who perhaps grew up in the church but left at the first opportunity. Now they seek solace and comfort but are unable to find it. They cannot find it in the church of their youth because that church cast them aside as quickly as they left. They cannot find it in the church of the present time because the words spoken in such churches speak against their lifestyle, their race, their economic status or their friends. The church of their youth that taught them that Jesus loved all the children has become the church that excludes all but a select few.
It would be nice if I could say that these were only metaphors or bits and pieces of evidence that I have heard. But I have seen too many examples of the church being the private chapel for too many people, open only to those whom they wish to let in. I have seen too many cases of individuals trying to find a church home but being told to go elsewhere. And I have found that I am not alone.
From the days that I first moved to New York, I have subscribed to a monthly newsletter called Connections that is written by Barbara Wendland, a lay person in the United Methodist Church. This newsletter was her ministry, her effort to speak and write about the state and nature of the church today and where it is headed. But it was the very state of the church and where it was headed that has caused her to wonder if she cannot find what she once found in the church someplace else. In last month’s issue, this wonderment led her to believe that she needed to take a sabbatical and view her options. One of those options was to leave the church that had been the centerpiece of her life.
In this month’s issue, she printed notes from people, laity and clergy, who expressed her same thoughts. The church no longer speaks in the voice that it once spoke; the church is no longer relevant or capable of dealing with the problems of society. The church has turned the clock back two or three hundred years and proclaimed that it is the church of tomorrow.
The church that was founded two thousand years ago was founded as a community of believers brought together by a common belief in Christ, a belief that came from being told about Christ, not from reading about Him in a book. They had no rules or any idea of how a church was created; they developed the “rules” of the church as they went along.
We often forget that the early church did not have the Bible that we have. Books themselves were expensive and only the rich could afford to buy books. But even if books were available for the people, it would have meant nothing since most of the people of that time were illiterate.
What they had and what they shared was a collection of stories handed down from generation to generation, from those who were there at the first Easter. They had the letters from Paul and people who wrote letters in Paul’s name, which the literate members of the congregation would read to them.
Somewhere over the course of time, we have trivialized our past. We make assumptions about the early church that are more reflective of later times. The church of the early days bears little resemblance to the church of today.
We ignore how the Bible was developed. We are told that the Bible is God’s creation but then we read about books of the Bible that were not included and the discussions by men of what was to be included.
We hear that the words of the Bible are the way and the truth and that is the way it is and will be. Yet those very truthful words are sometimes contradictory and incomplete. Those who proclaim its inerrancy and validity today fail to appreciate that it is stated in the Bible that men could have more than one wife, that parents could stone a rebellious son or daughter, and those who have visual problems cannot serve as clergy (I guess that pretty well kills my career plans).
We read the words of Paul that he wrote to the Romans and how he applauded the efforts of the women to build the church; yet we later read other words that people say he wrote which clearly deny women a place of authority in the church. We have transformed Paul from the first missionary and door-opener to the first of those who would close the door in the face of those who need the church.
They speak of a moral purity that is more a reflection of their own values than the values written in the Bible.
“In our era of techno-savvy megachurches and postmodern emerging churches, holiness (when it is discussed at all) is often associated with moral behavior such as sexual purity, financial honesty, and commitment to private prayer. While we’ve cast off old, legalistic notions of holiness, we’ve merely replaced them with private, moralistic notions. We act as if holiness were either outdated or something that characterizes only a small (if important) part of our lives.”
“To be sure, biblical terms translated ‘holy’ or ‘holiness’ (qadosh, hagios) carry a strong secondary connotation of moral purity. But moral purity is not, first and foremost, what scripture is talking about. Instead the most basic meaning of the words is to be ‘set apart’ or ‘dedicated’ to God—to belong to God. ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people,’ says Yahweh (Lev. 26:12; Heb. 8:10). Thus, prior to any consideration of morality, biblical holiness describes a unique relationship that God has established and desires with his people. This relationship has moral ramifications, but it precedes moral behavior. Before we are ever called to be good, we are called to be holy. Unless we rightly understand and affirm the primacy of this relationship, we fall into the inevitable trap of reducing holiness to mere morality.” (From Christianity Today, May 9, 2007 issue reprinted in August, 2007, issue of Context
The idea of Biblical inerrancy is a relatively new concept. It was developed in the 19th century and championed by literalistic, biblically ignorant, self-appointed leaders so that they could control their congregations. But those who proclaim its inerrancy and truth want to lock the truth away, much like the church of the “Middle Ages” prevented people from translating it from the Latin into modern tongues.
We are told that we cannot question the words of the Bible because to question those words is to question our faith. We are told that the moment we begin to question our faith, our faith will have no value. In part, that is true because if the basis for our faith is weak and incomplete, the act of questioning it will destroy it. But if our faith is strong and you understand from where your faith comes, questioning it can only make it stronger.
Over the years the Bible has been transformed from a story of who we are into some sort of factual history book, a book in which we seek to find out who did what, where and when. It wasn’t written that way and it wasn’t intended to be read that way. It was a story that told the people why; why God created the earth and why God spoke to Abram and Isaac and Moses. It was a story to explain our purpose in life and on this planet. It was meant to be a living and breathing document that one could turn to at all times, even in the midst of the turmoil and strife of today. (Adapted from The Phoenix Affirmations by Eric Elnes)
The people today are like the Israelites in Egypt who called out in pain and agony. In slavery, they feared that God had forgotten them and was going to leave them to die far from the lands of their birth.
People today call for a church that is responsive to the needs of the people, for a church that once again stands up for righteousness and justice. They want a church that shows them that God loves them rather than casts them out.
They want the church that was formed two thousand years ago as a community of believers that bound together for the benefit of all and were a threat to the status quo. Yet people find a church today that is institutionalized and rigid and seeks to maintain the status quo.
But where is the Moses of today who will lead the people out of slavery and back to the Promised Land? There are those today who proclaim that they are such leaders and that they know the words of God, even before God has spoken them. Yet today, these modern-day leaders will tell the people that they have only themselves to blame for the pain and agony that they are experiencing; that death and destruction are signs of God’s wrath and anger against a sinful community.
These leaders build walls that keep people out instead of tearing them down so that people can come in. They offer solutions that sound Biblical but yet are not found in the Bible.
People read the words of Paul that he wrote to the Romans but they don’t hear them from many people in the church. They read the words of Paul to feed your enemies when they are hungry or give them drink when they are thirsty, words that echo the words of Jesus who spoke of going the extra mile and giving the cloak off your back. Instead they hear a church that calls for the destruction of people or tells them that others who have never heard of Jesus are automatically condemned to a life in Sheol.
There are some who will tell you that the Devil is a real person and that he may even be walking on this planet today. Whether or not that is true is the subject of another debate, by those more versed in determining the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin? (Nowadays only four angels can dance there. Formerly there was no limit, but OSHA passed the Angel Safety Law recently, which also requires that the pin must be inspected twice each year for structural defects.) But the presence of the “evil one” in whatever form he may take is clearly present.
When Jesus spoke of his impending death at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes, Peter rebuked Him. But Peter’s response was the response of the community, of a thinking that was as ancient and fixed as those who sought to control the lives of the people who followed Jesus. To follow Jesus, to answer the call requires that we see the world in a different light, that we respond to the world in a different way. These are the words that Paul wrote to the Romans, words that we heard again today.
We live in a culture where much that is unholy, superficial and self-indulgent is glorified. As a society, we have become more and more cynical. Our leaders present themselves as idealists and they talk of great things but then they are exposed as charlatans or liars. And even if one amongst us were not like the others, our cynicism says that they too will change.
But there are those who answered the call; whose response was to seek a change. Karl Barth, Martin Niemöller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were mortified by the rallying of the German churches behind Hitler; Martin Luther King and Clarence Jordan were grieved by the church’s shrill defense of segregation. Isaac Watts was bored in church and our own John Wesley and George Whitefield had to preach outside the church because laws would not permit them to preach inside.
Each of these individuals is a testimony to the power of God to call forth heroes from an un-heroic church. There are those today who feel that you can be a Christian without the church or perhaps a better Christian without the hypocrisy of church life. But it is only in church, engaged with other Christians in prayer, worship, and service that we can gain the power to move mountains. Without the church, we would never hear God’s witness. St. Augustine said that “really great things, when discussed by little people, can usually make such people grow big.” In today’s world, it is often difficult to hear God calling you. The noise of the world can drown out His soft and quiet voice. It is why we come together on Sundays, to hear His voice in our songs and our words. We have been called together as a community of believers to show that God is present in this world and His presence is one of good. (Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell)
What does it mean to be called today? What does it mean to hear God calling to you through Christ over the tumult of life? What does it mean when God calls you to go out into the world and be Christ’s disciple?
It does not mean that we accept sin and evil in our lives but that we oppose sin and evil. We are not called to be martyrs to the faith, at least as we understand the word. But the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word that means “witness” and that is what we are called to do, be witnesses for Christ.
What we have done is turn the remembrance of martyrs into a special cult of saints that can be observed from a safe distance. Martyrs can teach us much about the immense worth of our faith and at the same time the worthlessness of much that others give high value to. We need to see that it is the cause for which a martyr died that is right, not the penalty. Martin Luther King’s words on the higher value of truth, spoken in 1965 at the time of the march from Selma to Montgomery, a march that would be marked by violence, echo the words spoken by St. Augustine and Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten. I can’t promise you that it won’t get your home bombed. I can’t promise you won’t get scarred up a bit – but we must stand up for what is right. If you haven’t discovered something that is worth dying for, you haven’t found anything worth living for.” (From Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell)
It will require that we change our thinking, that we see the church as it was in the beginning, a community of believers bound together for the common good. It will require that we change the church from a monolithic and ancient relic of times long past back into the living, breathing embodiment of Christ on earth. It will take time and effort. In a world that expects things now, where our food is fast and our news comes in short sound-bites, it is going to be a difficult task.
It means extending the love of Christ to all, not just a few, just as Christ Himself extended the Love of Our Father to all. It means living in peace with all, not condemning those who live a life of good but do not necessarily believe as we do.
It means studying the Bible as it was meant to be studied and it means living the life as it was meant to be lived, not just three hours on a Sunday morning but 168 hours throughout the week. It means rebuilding the community that first came together so many years ago and reaffirming the relationship that brought us together.
What does it mean to be called today? It means we are called to build the church; it means that we are called to be Christ’s disciple in a world that may reject what Christ did; it means that we are to do what Christ taught us to do. And while we may feel that we cannot do it by ourselves, we remember the words of God that day some three thousand years ago when he called Moses and told him that He would be with him step by step on the journey.
We are called to begin that journey again today.