This is the message that I gave at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2 May 1999. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10, and John 14: 1 – 14.
"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
With those words, Jesus laid the cornerstone for his church.
In everyone’s life there must be a cornerstone; there must be a foundation upon which live can be built. Some years ago, as you know, I moved to St. Cloud, MN. The reason for the move was ostensibly to become an assistant professor of Chemistry at St. Cloud State University. But the more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that God wanted me there to be a part of Grace United Methodist Church.
When I first came to St. Cloud, I knew nothing about Grace Church, having only been told about the two other United Methodist Churches in St. Cloud. But one summer day, as I was wondering around the town, I discovered Grace. Later, when John Praetorius asked me on which committee I would serve, I told him that I would serve on any committee except stewardship. I just did not want to get involved in money raising. So John made me chair of the Finance committee and I was involved in the money raising anyway.
As chair of the Finance committee, I was asked to give the first testimonial when the Stewardship drive for 1992 began. In part, I said
I am a second-generation military brat. This means that both my grandfather and father served in the military and that much of my early life was spent traveling from air base to air base. As such, I do not have a home church; a church that I could say to others "This is the church where I grew up."
But having a home church is something that I never worried about. Having a church home has. What I have looked for, especially in the last few years when my life was taking a beating spiritually, was a church home. (What Grace Church Means to Me – My Church Home, Stewardship Moment, October 18, 1992, Stewardship Sunday; I revised and adapted this piece for later use – “What does stewardship mean to me?”)
As the son of a career military office, I attended ten different schools during my pre-college education. Because of these early family travels and my own professional career, I have made over forty moves. Through all of these moves, it has been Jesus Christ and the church upon which I could base my life. As I look back, I realize that Jesus has always been a part of my life, protecting me as I sought what He wanted me to do. During periods of my live when I was going through some difficult personal troubles, my faith in Jesus Christ and the early foundation that provided comfort and strength. Were it not for this foundation, I do not believe I would have the success that I have had.
I might add that this foundation was actually laid before I was born. In records going back to 1650, the family history notes 13 members of the family who have served as ministers in the Lutheran Church. While I have chosen to follow the path set by Wesley, Otterbein, Asbury, and the many Methodist and EUB preachers rather than that of Luther, I consider the tradition and honor of my family to be an important part of my life. I would also add that I did not know this history until after I had begun to think about the lay ministry.
My mother saw to it that the foundation was laid early. She saw to it that I and my two brothers and sister were baptized as infants. I was baptized on 24 December 1950 at the First Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington, North Carolina. As I, my brothers, and sister grew up, and though we made many moves, we always attended Sunday School and church. Though later in life, when I found myself straying from the fold, I would sense something was missing on those Sundays when I missed church.
The way we live, the paths that we follow is often decided early in life. As Jesus told his disciples as noted in the Gospel reading today,
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.
But we can be like Thomas, who had said “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To some extent we are like Thomas. We can get confused and not know where Jesus is going so it is impossible for us to know the way. And to some extent we are like Philip as well. Simply put the proof in front of us and it will be easy for us to believe.
Belief in the Father requires belief in Jesus. For each of us, having come to Christ, such belief is possible. But what of others who have not come to Christ? How do these people come to know Christ, so that they too can know the Father?
The first reading today is an interesting reading in the context of stones and building the foundation of the church. Stephen professed a belief in Jesus and God that many devout Jews felt bordered on being blasphemous. When I read the passage where they covered their ears and yelled at the top of their lungs, I could not help of thinking of how little children act when they don’t want to hear something.
To some people, the next sentence in that passage, “the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul,” suggests that Saul was the person who organized the stoning of Stephen. But others simply state that Saul’s presence was simply there so that Luke, the author of Acts, could introduce him. Whatever the reason, Saul saw the power of the Holy Spirit and the comfort that it gave Stephen. Saul may have at first felt that the stoning of Stephen was the proper thing to do but I would like to think that it gave him pause to consider just what he himself thought. We all know that shortly after that episode, Saul came to know Christ personally as Paul, became the missionary of the first church.
Peter spoke of “living stones”.
As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
This spiritual house that Peter spoke of is the church. Two noted church builders of today, Herb Miller and Tony Campolo, have both said that it was the church that is the ultimate instrument by which Christ has chosen to save the world. The church today, as in the past, must be the rock upon which people can build their lives. If you know the history of the United Methodist Church and John Wesley, you know that Wesley saw the church as such an instrument.
The United Methodist Church began, in part, because of the direction that society was taking. Though the upper class may have benefited from the Industrial Revolution, the lower classes were often forgotten. Only those in the upper class were immune to the problems of long hours working in intolerable condition and with limited health care that the working class and poor had to deal with every day. To cope with the stress that such conditions and society produced, many people turned to drugs and alcohol. There are times that I think that if John Wesley were to come back today, he would not believe that it was almost the 21st century and not 1799.
It was Wesley’s contention that society could be changed and that it was the church that was the instrument of change. Through Wesley, Sunday school was started. It was not school, as we know it but a way that the populace could be educated. Remember that in Wesley’s time, many children, as well as adults, worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day they could go to school. It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse prevalent in English society at that time. Historians today agree that because of what Wesley and the Methodist Revival did, England did not undergo the violent revolution that France went through at much the same time.
John Wesley understood that it was the primary purpose of the church to present the message of Salvation through Jesus Christ but a church blind to the needs of its members or the community that it was in could not do its work. You cannot preach the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood and preached that it was the responsibility of each individual having accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior, had to go out into the community.
About 5 years ago, I heard Dr. Rose Sims preach at the Red Rock Camp in Minnesota. It turned out that we shared a common bond. While I was working on my Master’s degree at the University of Missouri, she was working on her doctorate. As it turns out, her major advisor served on my graduate committee. She was asked to take over a church in south Florida that had 7 members, all over 70 years of age. It was in the part of Florida that some have described as part of the Third World. For all practical purposes, the district considered the church closed and she was there to perform the funeral. Yet when she came to Red Rock that summer in 1994, the church had grown to over 350 members and had become the central strength of a small town. George Lane, a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, wrote the best description of her work. He wrote
“Once the rural church was the strength of America, and the Methodist Church in Trilby and hundreds of other towns like this are fertile soil for the church’s rebirth in Florida, America, and maybe the world. What is happening at the Trilby Methodist Church offers new hope. When the world is at its worst, that is when the church must be at its best. (New Life for Dying Churches, Dr. Rose Sims)
The secret of the rebirth of the Trilby Church was that the preaching of the Gospel was accompanied by the work of the church in the community.
Each day we are reminded of the need for the church and the presence of Jesus Christ in our daily lives. We shake our heads when we hear of children who threaten others because they feel left out. We wonder why it is that children resort to violence to respond to the taunts and behavior of their classmates. To kill someone because they taunted you is wrong, there is no doubt about that. But it is also wrong for someone to make fun of someone for whatever reason. How then do we deal with the problems of society?
I firmly believe that the answer lies in the church. The church’s presence in the community can offer the cornerstone, the foundation that is needed for a life in Christ. Without that foundation, it is impossible to have a stable life. We have a hymn (UMH 529) that speaks of this foundation, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word! What more can he say than to you he hath said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”
As I said last week, there is a vision for this church in the community. It does not matter what the size of the church is, for if Christ is among you and I am sure that it is, the power of the Holy Spirit transcends size. It was the power of the Holy Spirit that transformed the Trilby Church, it was the Holy Spirit that transformed St. Cloud Grace.
As we approach May 23rd and Pentecost, I am asking you to think of someone who needs that foundation in the Lord, that person who lacks the rock upon which they can build their life. Between now and the 23rd, we need to be praying for those individuals. And we need to be thinking about who we can invite to church, not just on the 23rd but next week and the week after that. Just as Saul saw the power of the Holy Spirit in Stephen, so too will people see the power of the Holy Spirit present in the Neon United Methodist Church.
There is someone in this community who needs to rebuild their life. Through the presence of the Neon Church, they can find that new cornerstone in life.