Who Goes First?

I am preaching this morning at Poughquag United Methodist Church. Here is the text that I will use. Let me know what you think.


This was the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; the Scriptures were Exodus 17: 1 – 17, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, and Matthew 21: 23- 32.


Some of you might think that there is a connection between the title of my sermon and Abbott and Costello’s comedy routine, “Who’s on first?” There is something of a connection but it is more about how the routine is done rather than the routine itself. For those who do not remember or have never heard this classic routine, it is a dialogue between two individuals about the makeup of a baseball team. The problem is that one individual says “Who is on first” as a declarative statement while the other uses the same phrase as a question. There is much confusion as the two individuals work out the players and their positions.

But the reason for my title and the connection to this routine is the fact that it is something that challenges us to listen carefully to what is being said. I personally lament the loss of such comedy and feel that the comedy of today is too quick and visceral, as opposed to the thoughtful political satire that I first heard growing up. It was comedy that challenged us and made us think, something I fear is no longer prevalent in society today. In fact, our society seems a far cry from the society in which I grew up, one in which challenges were a part of our life.

In 1961, John Kennedy spoke before an audience in Houston, Texas, and declared that this country would go to the moon. After summarizing the recorded history of civilization, President Kennedy concluded,

If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. (http://www.jfklibrary.org/j091262.htm)

But I fear that the spirit of the challenges put forth that hot September day in 1962 is long gone. Those of that generation remember the energy and spirit that filled the days; those of my generation, just children, were the beneficiaries of that spirit. But that spirit and the challenges that were laid before us in those days seemed to have disappeared in the past forty years. Even though NASA announced plans to return to the moon in the coming years, it was done as almost an afterthought, “gee, we haven’t been there; maybe we should go and see if things have changed.” And now, as members of Congress began to discuss how to pay for the cleanup in Louisiana and the Gulf, cutting the return to the moon was mentioned as one way to pay for it. No discussion was mentioned about other ways to recover the cost if it would take away from the pet projects of Congress and the Administration.

That we do not seek a challenge today should not be surprising. In 1990, the noted entrepreneur Charles Handy noted,

“Later on, I came to realize that I learned nothing at school which I now remember except this — that all problems had already been solved by someone, and that the answer was around, in the back of the book or the teacher’s head. Learning seemed to mean transferring answers from them to me.

A few paragraphs later Mr. Handy quoted John Dewey,

“Learning is discovery but discovery doesn’t happen unless you are looking. Necessity may be the mother of invention but curiosity is the mother of discovery.” (From The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy, 1990)

If we have removed the nature of discovery and have made life without challenges, it should not be a surprise that life is the way it is today. It should not be a surprise that the change in how society views challenges has affected the modern church. Much has been made about the decline in church membership, especially in the United Methodist Church. Some have said that the decline in membership in the mainline churches has occurred because the church has failed to answer the basic questions of its members.

Members today are looking for answers and many churches are failing to provide them with the answers. Tony Campolo has suggested that many denominational leaders failed to give enough attention to people who were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness and longing for a message of deliverance. The reason that evangelical churches have experienced such phenomenal growth in the past few years is probably because they have responded to the calls of the people who wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit.”

But I fear that these new churches are going to quickly find that their brand of the Gospel is no better than what people criticize the United Methodist church for, a message that is designed to make the listener feel good and not worried about the world outside the church walls. Many of these new churches take away the symbols of the church, especially the Cross; for fear that it will scare away the people.

I will not deny that churches have failed in their primary mission. The mission of the church is and will always be to save souls. But I believe, as I believe John Wesley did, that you cannot save a person’s soul if they are hungry, if they are naked or homeless, or if they are oppressed. For the United Methodist Church, the problem is and will continue to be that we have failed to establish why we believe what we believe. We have forgotten that once we have accepted Christ as our personal Savior, we must work to help others find Christ in their lives. We no longer challenge people. But that is what Christ did; he challenged his listeners and followers. As we read the Gospel lesson for today, we need to see that Christ is challenging us to determine which of the two sons we might be.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus asks “which son are we? Are we the faithful or the unfaithful son?” Both of the sons lied to the father but one changed his mind and went to work while the other never followed through. Like the Pharisees, we know the answer to the question – the hero of this parable is the son who did what his father asked. But who among us has not been like the second son? We all know how hard is it to keep the promises that we have made. We would rather direct this parable to others. All of those right-wing Christians, the TV evangelists with their success-oriented gospels and mega-churches, they are the ones who should be the subjects of this parable. (Adapted from “Showing Up” by Roger Lovette, “Living by the word”, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

We should never see the Bible as closed and only an answer book. To do so would be a grave error on our part. If we do, we will continue to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and justify harm in God’s name. When this is done, we limit God.

We must listen and read passages such as these very carefully and honor the questions and tensions that they raise in us. If we listen with “new ears” we always will hear something different from what we expect. (Adapted from The Interpreter’s Bible – a commentary in twelve volumes, Volume 7 – Abingdon Press, 1951)  To take the Bible seriously, to assume that they say what they mean and mean what they say is the beginning of our troubles. Those who would argue that the Bible is unerring and unquestionable do not deal with the contradictions that it contains. Some of Jesus’ instructions are burdensome not because they involve contradictions but because they are so demanding. The proposition that love, forgiveness and peaceableness are the only neighborly relationships acceptable to God is difficult for us weak and violent humans to understand, though it would not be to literalists. (Adapted from “The Burden of the Gospels” by Windell Berry, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

We have to remind ourselves is what we do that makes the difference. In 1969 I began to look very seriously at what it meant to be a Methodist. I thought it was what I did that counted the most, not what I believed. But I was reminded that if I did not believe in Christ as my savior, then it really didn’t matter what I did. But, on the other hand, if I believed as John Wesley did, then I needed to put my thoughts into action. It is a reliance on words and words alone that have brought the United Methodist Church to the brink; it will be the words that many evangelists speak today that will drive away those who are searching for meaning in this dark and gloomy world.

It is our actions of which Paul writes “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” (Philippians 2: 4 – 6)

The first people of God complained loudly and long that God had forsaken them in the desert of the Sinai. They had complained when the Egyptian army was bearing down on them while they stood on the edge of the Red Sea. They had complained when there was no food to eat and they felt that they would die of hunger. And in today’s reading, they are complaining about a lack of water. It is almost as if the people of Israel do not want the challenge of reaching the Promised Land. Each week we have heard how the people of Israel felt that their times in Egypt were better times than were their travels through the Wilderness. To hear them say it, it would be better to have died in slavery, content with living in oppression than it would have been to reach the Promised Land, the home of their forefathers. But not everyone criticized Moses. God tells Moses to take with him selected elders and then He will provide the water.

William Willimon, formerly the Chaplain at Duke University and now the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference recently told the following story,

On one of my worst days, a grueling eight-hour marathon of appointments, I was about ready to go home when I was informed I had one more appointment. Two older women walked into my office.

“We’ve come to Birmingham from Cullman to tell you about our ministry,” one said. “Gladys’s grandson was busted, DUI. We went over to the youth prison camp to visit him. Sad to say, we had never been there before. We were appalled by the conditions, those young men packed in there like animals. We got to know them. Are you aware that only 10 percent of them can read? An illiterate 19-year-old and we wonder why he’s in prison!”

“Well, we began reading classes,” the other one said, “Sarah taught school before she retired. Then that led to a Bible study group in the evening. We’re up to three Bible study groups a week. Two friends of ours who can’t get out bake cookies for the boys. We’ve also enlisted wonderful nurses who help with the VD. Some of them said that those cookies were the first gift they have received.”

“And you want the conference to take responsibility for this ministry?” I asked with bureaucratic indifference.

“No, we don’t want to mess it up,” Sarah responded.

“You need me to come up with some money for you?”

“Don’t need any money. If we need something, we get it from our little church,” she said.

“Then why have you come down here to tell me about this?” I asked.

“Well, we know that being a bishop must be one of the most depressing jobs in the church — too many things that we are not doing that Jesus expects us to do. So Gladys thought it would be nice if we came down here to tell you to take heart. Something’s going right, that is, up in Cullman. (From “First-year bishop” by William H. Willimon, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

Bishop Willimon said that he took heart that with all the troubles that he saw, in a world of darkness there was a glimmer of hope by the people of God in a small town in northern Alabama.

So too is it for us. There are those who relish the challenge; there are those who see God’s glory rather than God’s wrath. There are the ones who, when faced with poverty, sickness, or oppression, react and seek resolution. There are those who avoid challenge. There are the ones who seek to blame or say that person’s sorrow is a reflection of their sin and whatever happens is because they have fallen from God’s favor. We need to be more of the former than the latter; we need to hear God calling us to work in the vineyard and we need to answer that call.

It is no longer a question of who will go first but rather what will be done first. We are faced with two questions today. For some, it is the same question as the disciples were given so many years ago in the hills of Galilee, “Who do you say that I am?” And there are others who are hearing the question that Mary Magdalene heard that first Easter morning some two thousand years ago, “Who do you seek?” Those seeking the answer will find that answer in the words we say and the things that we do.

This is the day that the challenge is placed before us. You are challenged to answer the questions that have been posed before you and you are challenged to help others find the answers as well. How will you respond?

4 thoughts on “Who Goes First?

  1. For those that follow this sort of thing, this “blog” was chosen as “Best of the Methodist Blogsphere” for the week of September 26, 2005.

  2. Pingback: Will The Future Be Any Different Than The Past? « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  3. Pingback: To Finish the Journey « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  4. Pingback: A Different Sense of Community « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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