I am preaching at Mountainville United Methodist Church this morning. Here is what I will be saying.
When asked why he planned to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory replied “Because it is there.” It was a challenge before him and it was a challenge to be answered. Mallory also knew that it was a challenge that was dangerous and history records that he died on the slopes of Everest trying to complete an ascent.
When John Kennedy proposed that this nation go into space, it was in the form of the challenge. He also acknowledged that there was danger in this challenge but he also stated that without the danger, there would be no challenge. And if we failed to face the danger, we would not respond to the challenge. And as history will undoubtedly note, the disasters that have befallen the space program in the recent years have come because we have become complacent about the risks that are involved. It almost seems as if we are trying to avoid failure more than we are trying to move outward.
Our own forefathers knew that it would be a challenge to take this country down the road to independence. They knew that any failure to meet this challenge would probably result in their own deaths. But to ignore the challenge because of the dangers that would come from failure would mean a life that was no better.
And our own John Wesley saw his ministry as a challenge, both in terms of place and the way that it would be conducted. On August 18, 1739, Wesley recorded the following dialogue between Joseph Butler, the Anglican Bishop of Bristol, and himself.
Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”
Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay. “( Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal (also noted in http://frterry.org/History/Chapter_15/Chap.15%20Handout_205.htm)
Because of the Anglican Church’s opposition to the Methodism Revival lead by John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield, John Wesley preached in open fields in the community. Used to the traditional approach of formally written sermons preached from the pulpit, John Wesley was initially reticent to utilize this new form of evangelism. But the challenge to present the Gospel message was greater than a reverence to tradition and Wesley moved out into the fields. In the fields, those who opposed the Wesleyan revival were encouraged to throw stones. Wesley wore the bruises that came with the stones as a badge of pride for he knew that if he did not go out into the fields then his ministry would come to an end.
It is really interesting how this unwillingness to venture forward has affected our lives. There is a certain understanding to keep fear at bay and to feel safe in this world. But, in the process of trying to do so, we have made fear of the unknown an even greater fear. Some of the older generation may remember what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said to the 77th Congress on January 6, 1941:
In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression –everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way– everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor –anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called “new order” of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. (http://www.libertynet.org/~edcivic/fdr.html)
We have forgotten these words, especially about a world free of fear. Now we live in a world where fear is an almost commonplace topic. We know live in a world where fear is the basis for all our decisions; we have left behind the other side of the human decision, the urge to be daring, and the urge to go out into the unknown.
We no longer take chances that will lead to positive change; in all that we do, we seek to keep the bad from getting worse, not letting the good become dominant. (Adapted from http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=26377) We see danger in the unknown and we dare not venture into the unknown because there is danger. We want to live in the security of the now and we dare not look to tomorrow.
This same fear has reached out and taken hold of the church. The message of the modern church is more one of self-righteousness and exclusiveness than it is one of welcome, hope and promise. It is a message that presents a “feel-good” version of the Gospel, designed to make you feel comfortable with where you are but without the challenge of the Gospel. In some quarters it is known as “Gospel-lite”; it sounds great but is less filling. The signs of Christ are missing; there is no reminder that Christ died on the cross for our sins for the Cross is no longer there. It makes too many people uncomfortable. The music sung in today’s modern church is almost devoid of feeling and more what critics call “7-11” songs, 7 words repeated 11 times.
The message of many churches today is one of comfort within the walls. It is a message more of fear for the unknown than it is a presentation of the Gospel message. It is more about being safe by keeping others out than it is welcoming others in; for we do not know what will happen when we let others in.
Several churches in the Memphis area serve as temporary homes for homeless families. The families, and they must be families, have been made homeless for any number of reasons, mostly economic. But the parents are working and trying to make it in this world. They need the support of others in order to do that. Now, understand that these families have to go through a rather rigorous process in order to get into this program and they are put under a lot of strain. It is not easy moving from church to church each week but it is a great deal easier than the alternatives. But what I find interesting is the number of churches with the resources to be a part of the program that will not join because they have to let homeless men, women, and children stay in the church for a week at a time. We fear homelessness and we do not want such a fear to enter our church. But you cannot defeat fear with ignorance and when you are ignorant of the truth, you will be fearful. It seems that we are more like the people of Israel in the desert wilderness, afraid of what lies beyond the horizon, afraid to venture out alone.
Consider what has transpired in the Old Testament readings over the past few weeks. The people of Israel, who witnessed the great miracles of God in convincing the Egyptian Pharaoh to let them out of bondage, have also witnessed the great miracles of the destruction of the Egyptian army and being fed and given water. They have seen the foundation of society with the Ten Commandments. Yet they remain afraid, because God comes to them in thunder and lightening, in a dark cloud. They would rather let Moses speak to God than deal with God by themselves. And the moment that Moses leaves them to speak with God, they are crying out for a false god, one that they can see and touch. And they willingly give of themselves in order to have their request fulfilled. “Give us a god that we can see and touch and we will not be afraid,” cried the Israelites on the plain of the Sinai. They did not trust in the God who had brought them out of bondage, destroyed the Egyptian army and fed and watered them throughout their days in the desert. The minute all signs of God were gone, they panicked.
Look again at the words of Paul to the Philippians. “Always be glad you are Christians” Paul told the Philippians. “Since the Lord is close by, so don’t fret over anything. Rather, as you thankfully pray, let God in on all your needs. Then God’s peace, which is beyond anything you have experienced, will stand watch over your mind and emotions in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4: 4 – 7 (Cotton Patch Gospels, translated by Clarence Jordan)
“My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep From Singing) – In The Faith We Sing, #2212
If our fears are relieved by the presence of the Lord in our lives and we can keep on singing, then why should we not move forward? Our lives should focus on reaching out, going beyond the minimum. Yes, it is true that if we do not push ourselves beyond the status quo, we cannot lose what we have. But there are risks in simply holding on to what we have at and in the present. Consider the one who accepted the invitation to the party but then was kicked out because he was not dress properly. The invitation that God gives us requires that we go beyond where we are; it means that we must go beyond what we are today and look to a new life and a new beginning.
We are called, as Paul writes, to use our skills and talents to reach beyond ourselves and help others, not merely enjoy what we have for its own sake. When we use what God gives to us to enhance our own position in the world, we are circumventing the purpose of the Gospel. We live in a world where the name of God is invoked almost regularly. We live in a world that often makes light of the Gospel, sometimes using Christian rhetoric while pandering to the rich and powerful but ignoring the poor and the oppressed. Those who do this will be among those who are not invited to the party.
When we trivialize our commitment to God’s realm and try to fit into a secular culture, we are creating the same false gods that the Israelites made on the plains of the Sinai so many years ago. Instead of being the light of the world, we often make light of our own responsibilities to the world in the name of God. We fail to bring that Christ-like touch that we have gained into the dark places of the world. And when we do this, we become like the one who was invited to the party but did not prepare for the party and was then kicked out.
If we are Christians in name only or if we adopt a stance that overlooks justice and hospitality towards others, we deprive the world of Christ’s influence through us. We are also depriving ourselves of the rigor that changes lives; we deprive ourselves of the challenge that being called to Christ presents.
If we choose to follow the false gods of this world, we choose to live in a culture of cynicism and emphasis on form rather than substance. This encourages us to make light gestures more suitable for fifteen-minute sound bites rather than strong commitments. Jesus did not make light of the people with whom He interacted. He poured out His life, totally and completely as He listened, taught, and loved people, both friends and strangers. (Adapted from “An invitation” by Judith Johnson-Siebold in Christian Century, October 4, 2005)
There are three types of people involved in the parable of the wedding feast. The first are those who are to0 busy holding onto the false gods that give them security in the present but offer nothing for the future. How can they let go of what they have now in exchange for what they do not know about tomorrow? Such individuals cannot see the promise, the hope that is the Gospel message. The second type of person accepts the invitation but is unwilling to do more than is asked of them. They come but they leave the party early because they are also unwilling to commit to the future. The third type of person is the one who understands that God’s invitation is a fulfillment of the Gospel message.
In those darkest moments of personal despair, when our own fears and uncertainty seem to have driven away any hope, any promise of a better world, there is this invitation. Alone in the desert, we hear God calling to us to fear not, for I have sent my Son to save you. Do we not hear the words of His Son, our Lord and Savior, speaking out, “if you are tired from carrying heavy burdens, come to me and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28)
How can we not go into the future when we know that God will be with us throughout the journey? How can we not keep from singing and rejoicing in God’s presence in our lives?
There is no challenge in the invitation to the party that God is giving. That invitation was made long ago. Rather, the challenge that we face is to accept the invitation, to cast aside our fears, to cast aside the false gods that have confused our lives and go to the party.