“Simple Gifts”


This was the message that I gave at Grace UMC in St. Cloud, MN, for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 19 July 1992.  This was the 2nd time that I had been in the pulpit and I was still using the model of a specific verse rather than the lectionary.  The scriptures that I used were Matthew 25: 31 – 46 and 1 Peter 4: 10 -11.

Have you ever wondered why John Wesley, an ordained minister in the Church of England, wanted to change his church?  Can you imagine how his father Samuel, also an ordained minister in the Church of England, must have felt?  Here was his son, a good son no doubt, trying to change the Church of England.  It must have been very embarrassing for the senior Wesley to meet with other pastors who wondered what John was trying to do.  I have a fairly good idea what my father would say if I were to try and make radical changes at St. Cloud State but I cannot nor do I dare repeat those words in church. 

Now, it should be pointed out that Wesley never considered himself a Methodist nor was he interested in creating a new church.  All he wanted to do was reform the Church of England.  The development of the Methodist Church, later the United Methodist Church, came as a result of Wesley trying to answer two questions:  What was the nature of salvation and what was the role of the church in dealing with society’s problems.  It is that second question that I will address today.

England in Wesley’s time was undergoing a series of rapid changes brought about in part because of the Industrial Revolution.  We tend to think of the Industrial Revolution in a positive light because it enabled more people to work, earn more money, and, in general, improve their way of life.   At the beginning, however, that was not always the case.  For many workers, the pay was low and there were no retirement or health care plans.  Because there were no child labor laws, it was not surprising to find children as young as 10 working in the factories.  People worked from sunup to sundown six days a week and dare not take a day off for any reason because they were likely to get fired.  If they owed someone money, they were likely to be put in a debtor’s prison until their family could get the money to pay the debt.  Alcoholism was not uncommon.  Welfare was dependent on the whim of the rich and the patience of the poor.

Against that background was the belief that being poor was a fate given to you by God and there was very little you could do about it.  If you were poor, it was because you lead a sinful life and were to be pitied.  To this, Wesley responded

“Has poverty nothing worse in it that this, that it makes men liable to be laughed at?…Is not want of food something worse than this?  God pronounced it as a curse upon man, that he should earn it “by the sweat of his brow.”  But how many are there in this Christian country, that toil, and labor, and sweat, and have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together?  Is it not worse for one, after a hard day’s labor, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength?  You that live at ease in the earth, that want nothing but eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand how well God hath dealt with you, is it not worse to seek bread day by day, and find none?  Perhaps to find the comfort also of five or six children crying for what he has not to give!  Were it not that he is restrained by an unseen hand, would he not soon “curse God and die”?  O want of bread!  Want of bread!  Who can tell what this means, unless he hath felt it himself?  I am astonished it occasions no more than heaviness even in them that believe.” (From John Wesley’s sermon “Heaviness Through Manifold Temptations”)

Wesley asked “How should the church respond?”  There were those who felt that the troubles of society at that time – the terrible working conditions, the lack of care the upper classes showed for those less fortunate, the terrible health conditions, the alcoholism – were an indication that God had lost faith in the people on earth. The Shakers, whose hymn “Simple Gifts” was the basis for the title of my sermon, were a Christian group formed as a response to these social conditions.  For them, the only solution was to leave the present society behind and create a new one dedicated to the glory of God.  The Shakers may have had the right idea because the movement flourished here in America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  However, the Shaker movement did not last because the evils which caused the problems in the first place were never corrected. 

It was Wesley’s contention that society could be changed and that it was the church that could make that change.  It was through Wesley that the first Sunday school was started; not as we know it, but as a way of educating the populace (keep in mind that many children worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day when they could go to school).  It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse so prevalent in English society at that time.  Some argue that Wesley’s concerns and actions were one reason why there was no social unrest in England at that time. 

How would Wesley react if he were preaching today instead of the 1750’s? Historians are already calling the 1980’s the “Decade of Greed” or the “Me Decade”.  The prevalent attitude of these last few years has been that it is perfectly alright to earn as much money as you could and not worry about others because eventually the riches would reach them as well.  For some, Michael Milliken and Ivan Boesky are heroes.  Milliken is credited with finding a way to use what we call “junk bonds” to finance corporate takeovers.  For his work in 1985, Drexel Burnham, the company Milliken worked for, gave him some 550 million dollars as bonuses for his co-workers and himself.  He gave 50 million to his co-workers and kept the remaining 500 million dollars for himself.  Boesky was one of many who bought and sold companies using the bonds Milliken sold.  To earn this money Milliken and Boesky used a technique known as insider trading.  This procedure is illegal and both these gentleman went to jail and paid substantial fines.  The resulting legal problems also put Drexel, Burnham out of business even though many of the people who worked in the firm did nothing wrong.

During this same period, many individual bought stock in various companies. In doing so, the price of the stock rises.  In this way, and it is perfectly legal, they would make a profit when the stock was sold. However, other individuals combined this idea with a threat to take over control of specific companies if those companies did not buy back the stock at much higher prices.  In order to get the money to pay this “greenmail”, companies had to let workers go or sell parts of the company.  While some may have made money in this way, many others found themselves out of work.

While some may say the 80’s were a successful time for America, there are some economists who wonder if the current amount of corporate debt is too much and if we are not going to see more and more companies go bankrupt. Also forgotten in the joys of people earning more money than ever before is the fact that the number of homeless has increased; that the number of unemployed continues to rise; and substance abuse, both alcohol and drugs, is increasing.  We read where the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company has been asked to stop using “Joe Camel”, the symbol for Camel cigarettes, because it gives the wrong message to young children.  I find it very frightening that we have to spend time in school teaching our children what not to do rather than focusing on more positive things. I truly wonder what John Wesley might think of our society today. Keep in mind that Wesley was not against the rich or becoming rich. On many occasions, he preached that we should “gain all we could” and “save all we could”.   But we should do so in a manner that does no harm to others and to be careful that our gains are not made at the expense of others.  

But we need not worry, because it is not our fault.  All last week, we listened to the Democrats tell us that society’s problems today are the fault of the Republicans.  I do not doubt for a moment that when the Republicans meet in Houston next month, they will tell us that these same problems are the fault of the Democrats.

Now I chose the idea and scriptures for this sermon before the conventions began.  I feel, as I am sure Wesley would, that the solution to these problems will not come from the government.  In preaching that we should gain and save, Wesley also told us to “give all we could”. 

It was his feeling that the only way that someone will ever know that the Holy Spirit is present in you is through your works.  Wesley sought a church which cared for society and which would make the world a better place.  After all, as I read from the Scripture, Jesus told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or take care of the needy, not the government.  Jesus also warned us what the penalties would be should we ignore the needy:

“‘There was a certain rich man,’ Jesus said, ‘who was splendidly clothed and lived each day in mirth and luxury.  One day Lazarus, a diseased beggar, was laid at his door.  As he lay there longing for scraps from the rich man’s table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores.  Finally the beggar died and was carried by the angels to be with Abraham in the place of the righteous dead.  The rich man also died and was buried, and his soul went into hell.  There, in torment, he saw Lazarus in the far distance with Abraham.'”

“‘Father Abraham,’ he shouted, ‘have some pity!  Send Lazarus over here if only to dip the tip of finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in these flames.”

“But Abraham said to him, ‘Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing.  So now he is here being comforted and you are anguish.  And besides, there is a great chasm separating us, and anyone wanting to come to you from here is stopped at its edge; and no one over there can cross to us.'”

“Then the rich man said, ‘O Father Abraham, then please send him to my father’s home — for I have five brothers — to warn them about this place of torment lest they come here when they die.'”

But Abraham said, ‘The Scriptures have warned them again and again.  Your brothers can read them any time they want to.'”

“The rich man replied, ‘No, Father Abraham, they won’t bother to read them.  But if someone is sent to them from the dead, they will turn from their sins.'”

But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even though someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19 – 31)

The message today is not about giving money to the church nor is it advice on how to vote this coming November.  Those are choices made individually and privately.  It is a message of action and using the gifts and talents that God has given us to bring the Holy Spirit, the same spirit behind Wesley’s words to “give all we can”, to St. Cloud today.  As Peter wrote

“God has given each of you some special abilities; be sure to use them to help each other, passing on to others God’s many kinds of blessings. Are you called to preach?  Then preach as though God himself were speaking through you.  Are you called to help others?  Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies, so that God will be glorified through Jesus Christ – to him be glory and power forever and ever.  Amen.” (I Peter 4:10 – 11)

There is no doubt in my mind and heart that Grace Church is alive and growing and that the Holy Spirit is present among us.  But for that growth to mean anything, we must go beyond ourselves.  A church which sits idly by will surely die.  E. Russell Praetorius, John’s father (the pastor of Grace UMC, St. Cloud, then and, as of this writing in 2012), wrote some twenty-seven years ago:

“Some churches die of self-centeredness because they never get beyond themselves.  They fail to recognize that the real purpose of Christ’s Church is not to enjoy itself but to save the world.  These lack a vision of world conquest for Christ and are satisfied with the status quo.” (A. B. Utzman and E. Russell Praetorius, 1965 Official Record of Minnesota Conference. Evangelical United Brethren Church.)

Jesus sought a church of action.  He was not content to sit in the temple, read the words of the Torah and wonder what they meant.  He was in the countryside ministering to the needs of the people.  As Wesley knew, the most difficult time any church faces is that moment when it decides to take its ministry outside the walls of the building and into the community.  By putting our beliefs into action, we earn the freedom from sin gained through Jesus’ sacrifice.  The question before us then is how do we use our talents?

We can use our talents in many ways.  Now, the work of the church is never easy but it is made easier when we work together.  And as Jesus promised, the rewards for doing his work are much greater.  Look at what is ahead for Grace Church and ask yourself “What can I do?” Our greeter program starts again in two weeks.  Will you be there when it is your turn to greet friends and visitors to Grace Church and make everyone feel like they have friends here?  Irene stills need Sunday School teachers, both as regular teachers and as substitutes.  Perhaps that is where you can help.  Will you be helping with the painting of the church this week?  Will you be here on October 11th to hear Ken Krueger preaching?  Will you help to see that each of one of these pews is filled for the services on the 11th, 12th, and 13th?

The UMW Bazaar, scheduled for October 3rd, promises to be the best Grace Church has ever had but that promise can only be met if you take part.  Today, the UMW starts “Operation Schoolroom”. This mission project provides students in Sierra Leone and Liberia the school supplies they need for the coming year.  You can help this project either by buying the supplies indicated on the insert in your bulletin or by helping put the kits together on September 12th.

Our Hog
Roast is also set for September 12th as a way to mark the beginning of our Stewardship Campaign and the beginning of Sunday School.  It has not been decided what we shall do with the money we raise from this event but with your help that will be a substantial amount.  There are many ways to help with this and I trust that when you are called to help you will do so.

(I will add some comments about the hog roast at the completion of this message.)

Are you a member of one of the work areas of Grace Church?  Do you participate when there is a meeting?  As chair of the Finance Committee, I am asking each of the work areas to consider how we can best serve the needs of the church and the community.  Can we find ways for Grace Church to answer Jesus’ call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and help the homeless?  These need not be big steps nor will we have to do it all by ourselves.  But what we give must be, as Wesley asked, all that we can give. 

Through your help, by participation or pray, the mission work of Grace Church, both in St. Cloud and elsewhere, can be accomplished.  As Peter wrote, our talents are gifts from God.  We have also been given a far more important and far more simpler gift.  In John 3:16 we read

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believed in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

I close by asking what will you do with that gift?

Some thoughts about the 1992 Hog Roast –

The year before, in 1991, we came up with the idea of a hog roast, even though no one in the church had any clue how to roast a whole hog. But everyone thought it sounded like a great idea and we went to work.  At that point in the discussion, I wasn’t involved.  Came the day of the hog roast, a Saturday, and we found out that it was also the day practice for the hockey season began (remember this was Minnesota).  So the turnout wasn’t that great and there was about 200 pounds of roast pork left.  What were we going to do with all that pork?

This is where I came in.  At the church in Odessa, Texas, where we had been members, each of the Sunday School classes was responsible for a meal each week during our mid-week services.  So my wife and I said that we would make sandwiches and sell them after church on Sunday. 

Sandra spent the better part of Saturday night preparing baked beans, chopping the pork while I went out and got the other materials we needed.  Following service on Sunday, the congregation gathered in the community room for a wonderful lunch of BBQ sandwiches.  When all was said and done and the expenses were paid for both Saturday and Sunday, we netted a profit of $4.50.

Now, let’s fast forward to the summer of 1992 and the plans for the next Hog Roast.  There were some on the administrative council who felt that the 1991 Hog Roast had been a failure and something not worth repeating.  I rose to defend the work and proclaimed that we had made a profit.  I did not mention how much of a profit it was; only that it was a profit.  And I took on the big step of organizing the 1992 Hog Roast.

We had learned from the previous year that the date was critical so we made sure that it did not conflict with other things, such as hockey games.  This allowed us to invite local college students.

Obtaining the hog was no problem; a member of the church was a hog farmer and all we had to do was give him a letter thanking him for the donation of the hog.  I came home from the administrative council meeting and told my wife to work on getting people to donate beans, salads, and deserts.  Then I had to focus on getting the cook since we had found out that no one really knew how to roast a hog.

But there was one member of the church who did but he didn’t come to church all that often.  So I went and asked if he would help roast the hog and he agreed.

The 1992 Hog Roast was a success.  I don’t recall how much money was raised though I am sure we did make a profit.  But then again this was never intended to be a fund-raiser.  It was designed to bring people to the church and in that regard it was very successful.  Not only did quite a few college kids come to the dinner and come back to church but the individual who I asked to roast the hog found his niche in the church and he became a big part of the church and the revival of the United Methodist Men.  I was able to turn the 1993 Hog Roast over to the UMM and go onto other things.

When I hear people talk about fund raisers as a way of balancing the budget and things like that, I cringe.  I don’t like fund raisers and I have said so.  In my sermon/message for today (“To Honor The Future”) I pointed out that there are many individuals who focus on paying the bills so that there is a church; for many such individuals, fund-raisers are a part of the process. But if we focus on the people first, then fund-raisers become superfluous.  In Grace’s case, the 1992 Hog Roast was part of the turn-around of a dying church and its rebirth.

All I will take credit for is getting the cook.  The rest took care of itself.

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