This is the message I presented at Walker Valley on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 7, 1999. The Scriptures were Joshua 24: 1 -3a, 14 – 25, 1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18, and Matthew 15: 1 – 13.
When I was looking at the scriptures for this month and thinking about what I would entitle each of my sermons, I saw a theme of service and commitment. Granted, I was also working with the nominations and personnel committee and there is a connection between what that committee does and how I interpreted the scriptures,
Congregations tend to get leery when they hear that their preacher is planning on preaching about service to the church because that means, as often as not, that the preacher is going to preach about money. For many people today equate service to the church to mean how much money they should give to the church.
But that is not what this sermon is about. The time is not right for me to preach, if I were so inclined, to do so. Maybe, just maybe, after we had determined the budget for the coming year, I will preach on the subject of money and one’s giving to the church but I seriously doubt that I will.
There are a number of reasons why I will not do so. First, of all, solely preaching about money ignores the fact that it is only one part of the commitment, you made to the church when you first joined and which you reaffirm each time some else joins the church or, as last week, when someone is baptized. At that time we affirm that we will “faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.”
Second, one of the reasons given by visitors as to why they did not come back to a church or join it after visiting it is that they almost always asked to contribute financially to the church. It should be expected that all members and regular attendees contribute to the church, either through tithing or reasonable giving, but the financial committee should never be the first group that a church member, new or old, meets.
And, given the opportunity, most congregations would rather that their pastor preach on evangelism before preaching about giving, but it is always with the proviso to go easy on the topic.
Service to the church is much more than simply attending on Sundays and giving something when the offering is passed. It is about giving of one’s self and one’s time. Throughout this month, the nominations and personnel committee will be contacting people to fill vacancies in the administrative council and various committees of the church. The administration of the church is as much the work of the church, and even more so for Walker Valley.
One other thing that successful churches do is they make sure that someone other than the pastor greets any visitors to the church. For visitors to return, they must feel welcome and that can only occur when other members of the church make them feel welcome.
I am not limiting the role of the pastor. For it is up to the pastor to make that second call. It is just that in our case, the congregation must help make that first call. And I would add that when I have the visitor’s name and address (and cards for that purpose are in the back), I make sure that a letter from the church is sent to them.
Service to the church is perhaps the most important part of a church’s growth. Service is what the Old Testament reading is about. Joshua tells the assembled people of Israel
But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River on the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Exodus 24: 15)
As I read that passage, I could not help but think of another call to service made in 1775. On March 23rd of that year, Patrick Henry stood before Virginia’s House of Burgesses and gave a speech, the concluding paragraph many of know and perhaps had to memorize while in high school. But the speech is more than that concluding paragraph.
It is a challenge to the men sitting there to think about what was going on in that country at that time and to determine what it was they were going to do. Should the people of Virginia join in the fight for liberty and freedom or should they sit back and hope for a settlement of the issues that divided England from its colonies and even the people of the colonies themselves?
The questing before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.
One could ask why we, safe in the freedom earned by the victory some two hundred and twenty-three years ago, care what Patrick Henry said. Because his call for action, just like the challenge brought forth by Joshua on the backs of the river Jordan holds true today.
Shall we sit back and watch as the winds of change sweep through our society, hoping that we will be able to survive them? Patrick Henry said,
Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.
Joshua asked the people of Israel to choose between their past and their future; Patrick Henry asked the people of Virginia to do the same. And as we come to the end of this year, so to must we choose. As you know from the children’s sermon, I got a mailing from the District Superintendent the other day. His letter to the pastors and congregations of the district was about thinking about the role of the church in tomorrow’s society and how each individual church can fill that role. Rev. Winkleblack’s words were to “think outside the box”, to think of ways that service can be accomplished outside the traditional means. This is a challenge that many are uncomfortable with. They like their church the way it is.
But in a society that moves forward, it is very difficult for a church that remains in the past, both secularly and spiritually, to survive, let alone grow. I wondered how I was going to fit the reading from the Epistle with the Old Testament and Gospel readings for today. But as I read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, I felt that he was telling those people that as we go forward, we cannot forget the past, we cannot forget those who worked so hard to insure that there would be a church for those in the future. For in going forward to the future, we insure that our past is more than just memories.
But we cannot operate a church based entirely on a fact of the past, namely, the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is proclaimed on the basis of the witness of the apostles as the salvation of men and the source of hope? A church that does so has no vision of the future, only of the past.
The church of the future does not ignore the death and resurrection of Jesus. After all, that is the cornerstone of our faith. But we need to see Jesus as the coming Christ who offers us hope for the future. Just as we can look back to the death and resurrection, so to should we look forward to the time when He will fulfill His promise to make the world a new Heaven and a new earth. We need to provide the means by which others can come to Christ.
Perhaps many years ago, churches could be successful by operating only on Sundays. But that is no longer the case. Churches need to reach out in society. When John Wesley began his ministry, there were others who cried out from the pulpit with concerns for the lower classes and the poor. But it was done with the assumption that the only way for them to be saved was to emulate the upper classes. But Wesley believed that it was not necessary for the working class to be like the upper classes; that to be saved was not simply a matter of a better life style. It was and should be the role of the church to enable all people to find their way to Christ.
So today, we must choose. Who shall you serve? And who shall serve the church? The difficult part about making such a decision is that you have no time to think about it. The meaning of the Gospel reading for today is very clear; one cannot foretell the time of Christ’s coming so it is one’s best interest to be ready. To wait and see what might happen is not an option.
Yes, it can be frightening. After all, think of what must have been going on in Patrick Henry’s mind when he so emphatically proclaimed,
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
To stand there and say those words was tantamount to a death sentence if the revolution failed. The people of Israel told Joshua
Far be it for us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
But Joshua warned them what would happen if they failed to serve God
“You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgression or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”
So the people affirmed what they had said, that they would serve God.
“No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”
Think about the affirmation that you made last week. Will you serve God with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service? Are you willing to serve if asked. If you are not a member, are you prepared to join? The church of the future is one in which all members work for the common goal. When asked “who shall serve?” are you capable of saying, as did Joshua, “As for me, I choose to serve God.”