This Sunday, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, I am at Red Hook United Methodist Church, Red Hook, NY (location). The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Kings 8: 22 – 30, 41 – 43; Ephesians 6: 10 – 20; and John 6: 56 – 69. They have a hymn sing at 9:15 with the service starting at 9:30; you are welcome and invited to attend.
(This has been edited since it was first posted)
And Peter replied, “Master, to whom would we go? It is a question that we have asked throughout our history. We seek leaders that will take us to our own versions of the Promised Land; we seek leaders who will offer us easy riches and wonderful rewards.
Everyone rejoiced when Jesus first proclaimed the Gospel and how it would bring new hope to the people. But the reality of the message, when the reality that this anticipated new hope would only come through their efforts caused many to quickly leave. We do the same thing today; we seek leaders who promise much but we balk when the implementation requires that we participate and become part of the solution. We want the fruits of the garden without having to do the gardening.
I could not help but think that our remembrances of what happened forty years ago this summer was an attempt to remember the good times, the times when promises made were promises kept. But when I look at what happened some forty years ago and what followed, I wonder if we truly remember what happened.
Some of us probably enjoyed the recent retrospective on what transpired across the river in Bethel some forty years ago. I know that many today still view that musical concert as a travesty and a disaster; others will tell you that it was the promise of a better tomorrow. Perhaps the Woodstock concert was the promise of a better tomorrow, of a beginning of love, peace and understanding.
But the next concert was held at Altamont; marked by violence and death, it was every thing that Woodstock wasn’t. And while those who planned Woodstock might have visions of easy riches, it took them literally the past forty years for that to take place. And every concert since 1969 that was touted as the next Woodstock has been held with an intent to make money, not music.
I will not condone the use of drugs in society that many say Woodstock created; I will say that many used Woodstock as an excuse for a life with no responsibility. If you want a life that is love, peace, and understanding, you have to also understand what is required; it does not come automatically.
We are tempted to say that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good. But it is what comes after good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines what actions we will take. Do we practice what we preach? Or do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And in advocating freedom, do we refuse to face the real threat to the security that our freedom affords us? If in advocating love, do we hate the haters more than they hate us? If we are to preach love, freedom, and peace, we must first love, be free, and be peaceful — or better yet, not preach at all but love, peace, and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (From my notes from Tim Zimmer in “This Is That Time”)
And just as Woodstock held the promise of something new, the landing on the moon a month earlier promised to be the first step in a new journey, a journey that would take humankind and civilization beyond the bounds of earth and open new vistas of exploration and knowledge. But too many people saw the moon landings of that summer as the completion of a race, a race to show that our way of life was better than communism. Walking on the moon wasn’t a scientific statement; it was a political statement and it was subject to the whims of political thought.
Yes, we sent other men to the moon but when the cost of the war in Viet Nam became too great, the moon missions were cut short. No one has walked on the moon since 1972 and while we have a presence in outer space with the International Space Station (which is a vestige of the former Soviet Union’s space program), I wonder how long we will keep that presence. Our space shuttles are due to be taken out of service in the next few years and we have nothing in the pipeline to replace them. There is a generation who has never seen humans walk on the moon and who, because of the differences in technology then and now, may truly believe that the grainy primitive images of those who did walk on the moon are faked. And if we do not quickly determine how to make regular space flight possible, we will have another generation who will never know that we once, as the poet wrote, “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”
We ended the moon missions because of the rising cost of a war in which the reason was lost in the rhetoric. We kept sending our young men to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia without a clear cut understanding of why, who and what we were fighting and, as we would discover later, lead by political administrations that would lie to us about what was transpiring there.
We cancelled the Apollo program because we couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t afford it because our military budget was taking away resources that could have been better spent on peace. It is always interesting that the first programs that are subject to budgetary cuts are programs that help people while those that will kill people keep growing.
I am not saying that we should not have a defense department or a military, to do so would be to deny my heritage. But when we say that we are a Christian nation and we spend more on death than we do on living, there is something wrong with our thinking. When we spend billions of dollars on weapons systems but only dollars on schools, we are going to reach a point where those recruited to fix the systems can’t read the directions.
What came out of that summer forty years ago was the beginning of a new day, but not the one that everyone hoped for. There were too many other things going on that spoke of a different direction.
What I remember of 1969 is that I saw a world in turmoil and disarray. It was still a time of inequality and inequity. That spring I stood side by side with my friends to protest the lack of off-campus housing for the black students who attended the university where I was a sophomore that year. It is fair to say that my parents were upset with my involvement in this protest. But that spring I had a revelation and my participation in that protest was the result of that revelation.
Prior to going to Memphis, my home town, for spring break that year, I met with Reverend Marvin Fortel, my pastor at First United Methodist Church. I have written about this meeting in the past (“Our Father’s House”) and will not do so today.
What I learned that day and have come to understand over the years is that no matter who I am or what I am, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross opened the door to God’s House for me. No matter what the problems of the world may be or are, there is a place in which I can find shelter and solace. I also came away from the church that day understanding that, having come to Christ, I needed to work for Christ so that others could have the same opportunity.
If the Gospel message is to bring hope to this world, if the Gospel message is to bring health to the sick, comfort to the dying and justice for the oppressed, I could not stand on the sidelines and be quiet. I had to, if nothing else, say to my friends that I was with them and so I stood by my friends as they occupied the administration building in protest. It is very difficult for me to judge or state the results of that effort; I do know that one of the leaders of that effort (and someone I once considered a close friend) later rose to a position of power and prominence in the last Bush administration. Like those who sought to make money from the Woodstock phenomena, my friend opted for the good life of money and power. I can’t say that I completely blame him for forgetting his roots and moving own. To think only of one’s self and not care for others is a hallmark of today’s society.
What the reflection of time tells me about 1969 is that it was replaced by the cynicism of the 1970’s and the “me first” attitude of the 1980’s. We have spent and continue to spend more money on ourselves and against people than we do for people. Our budgets speak of our love for war and violence, not hope and humanity. We seek to protect what we have, not allow others to share.
And sad to say, today’s church is guilty of this same attitude of protecting what it has. The church today is lost in the wilderness and dying of thirst and hunger because it has forgotten where it came from and where it should be going.
There are those who look at the church today and remember the good old days, when the pews were full, there were no budget problems, and the preacher offered short vignettes that bothered no one and did little to upset the apple cart. They remember when they had that wonderful youth program that met on Sunday evenings and how once a month the youth would sing in church. It was the church that they grew up in and it is the church in which they wish to live their lives.
They see the church as the last bastion of morality, of putting a stop to the sins that seemingly dominate this world, where everyone believes as they do (even if they themselves do not know what it is that they believe). They want the church to be their protection against an evil and god-forsaken world.
They look around and see other churches growing and prospering, pastors wearing thousand dollar suites, flying private jets on mission trips to Steamboat Springs, Maui and the Fiji Islands, or living in million dollar homes in gated communities and think that they should be able to do the same. They hear pastors speaking with a syrupy-sweet southern drawl promising them how to lead the good life.
And they wonder why their church is dying. They will tell you about the pastor who once preached a sermon on equality and wanted to start some sort of program to feed the hungry and maybe house a homeless family for a couple of nights in one of the Sunday school rooms. They will laugh when they tell you how the PPRC met that following week and literally ran that pastor out of town. They will tell you that she was a nice pastor but she didn’t understand the community.
They look around and wonder where the young people are. They will complain about how the local soccer program should never have begun playing on Sunday. But it isn’t the local sports programs that took the kids and the young people away; it only offered an excuse for them to not come to church.
The youth don’t come to church and the young people leave the church when they move away from home because the church doesn’t offer them anything that has meaning or a reason to stay and participate. The young have no ownership in the church, so they see no reason to stay.
When you ask youth of today why they do not go to church, they will say it is because the church is hypocritical in its words and actions. The church proclaims that it has the power to decide how one is to live one’s live and if your sins are to be forgiven. The church preaches love and forgiveness but condemns those whose lives are somewhat different. These young people have friends who are gay but are afraid to tell their parents because they are afraid of what their parents will and have said. They see parents who proclaim that they are servants of God but disown their children because they are gay. They see a church silent on issues of gender and racial equality, silent on the issue of peace but willing to cheer on war.
The church is dying because it is unwilling to do that what it was supposed to be doing. Like so many of those who walked with Jesus on those dry, dusty roads of the Galilee but went home when it got a bit too hot or dusty, when it became clear that Jesus was calling them to do the work, the church today has quit walking with Him. The church is dying because it no longer adheres to the words of Christ. It no longer calls for the things that Christ called for; instead it calls for its own version of the Gospel, one in which Christ is the servant of humankind who does our bidding.
They wonder why the church is dying because they don’t remember what the church once was. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, that the church once was a community of believers who gathered together for the benefit and support of all the community. They have forgotten that it was John Wesley who spoke out against the inequities of a society that would cast aside the lower classes and who would not offer healthcare for anyone but the wealthy and upper-class. They have forgotten that it was the Methodist Church that started the first schools because no one else would teach children how to read; you cannot understand the word of God if you cannot read it. And if you cannot read, you cannot have access to power. They have forgotten that it was the Methodist Church that started the first local health care programs, programs for the poor and lower class.
What I remember is that the church forty years ago was the moral voice in the protest against the Viet Nam war. Now, pastors and congregations alike speak of how we are fighting God’s war in the Middle East.
What I remember is that the church forty years ago was the moral voice in the fight for civil rights. Now, pastors and congregations alike seek ways to close the door to the church to all those who don’t meet the congregations self-imposed code of conduct. They have forgotten that Solomon opened the doors to the New Temple to all who sought God, not to just a select few as would be the case when Jesus walked the land.
And there are the words that Paul wrote to the Ephesians some two thousand years ago, “Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life.” The church only lives when it is working, when it puts the words of Christ into action.
You cannot carry out the words of Christ if you do not accept Christ as your Savior. What I remember is that I would have left the church forty years ago because I saw a world in disarray and without hope and no means to bring hope. But I learned forty years ago, in the small chapel at First United Methodist Church that hope did exist and I could have that hope if I followed Christ with all my heart, all my mind, and all my being. It was a lesson taught to me some forty years ago and a lesson that I have kept in my heart all these years.
We are headed for disaster and we will get there soon if we don’t make a dramatic change in our lives and our thoughts. The problem is that we, like the disciples, must be committed to Christ and to the path that Christ walked.
We must first remember that we have proclaimed that we are Christ’s disciples. We have committed our lives and our souls to following Christ. Clarence Jordan is best known as the founder of the Koinonia farm in Georgia. Founded in the late 1940’s, it was one of the first attempts at integration in the Deep South.
As such, it was the target of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some of the civil actions against the Klan. His brother refused, claiming that it would hurt his political aspirations (he was to become a Georgia state senator and later a justice on the State Supreme Court). He said that such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.
Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. To this, Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence.
Clarence then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.
Robert could only say that he followed Jesus, up to a point. Continuing the challenging, Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross.
Robert replied that he would go to the cross but that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but rather an admirer. He also said that he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.
Robert’s comments were interesting. He said, in effect, that if everyone who felt like I do did what you suggest, we would not have much of a church. Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church that he could go to. Later on, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society (From my notes on Clarence Jordan’s brother, Robert, in “What Do We Say”).
In one version of the Epistle reading for today, Paul points out that our struggle in this world is not against the enemies of blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. When you let Christ into your heart, you take on the light of Christ and you illuminate the world. It allows you to see where you are headed; it allows you to reach your goal.
Where you go from here and how you get there is up to you. You can just go home, not sure of what happens next. Or you can make the decision to follow Christ, commit your heart, your mind, your soul to following Him. It is up to you where you go and how you get there.