What If

I am preaching at Mt. Hope United Methodist Church in Mahopac, NY, this morning. The regular preacher, Will Porter, had surgery a couple of weeks ago and I got the call to cover for the next couple of weeks. Let us pray for Will’s recovery and return to the pulpit.

In the meantime, here are my thoughts for this the 8th Sunday after Pentecost. It is a lengthy post, I know, but some things have to be said.

A number of years ago I came across a book “What If Jesus Had Never Been Born” by James Kennedy. It was an interesting book that outlined a number of situations that would have changed had Jesus never been born. It is always an interesting exercise to consider the impact of various and sundry things.

I doubt that the young man who is the central focus of the New Testament reading for today (1) realized or understood the impact that his presence would have on the multitude gathered that day on the mountain side. But that is often times the way it works out. How many times do we see what is before us and fail to make a decision. Often times, it seems that what we do will not make much of a difference in the affairs of the world; but then, there are those singular times when one decision does make a difference.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, I had a lot of traffic on my blog concerning war. Two individuals have, it seems to me, argued for the inevitability of war, saying that no matter what one’s thoughts are, war is inevitable because there is evil in the world. One individual basically suggested that I would have allowed the Nazi war machine to roll over Europe.

There are those who will say that Israel has the right to respond as they have. Are the Israeli responses the responses of a nation seeking peace or just responding in kind? How long will it take before we realize that violence only leads to violence and unless someone makes a major break in the circle of violence, it will continue to grow? It is not just simple acquiescing to the wishes of the other side; it is by demonstrating that peace is possible. It can be done by feeding all who are hungry, not starving them; it can be done by building homes, not destroying them. It can be done but it takes a commitment to do what is not done, not simply wait on the other person.

The problem is that we should not even be in this mess in the Middle East. We knew in 1948 that there would be a bloody conflict but we, the rest of the world, stood aside and let it happen. What would have happened if world leaders had sought viable solutions that meet the needs of all the peoples of the Middle East?

What would have happened if the German pastors, instead of supporting the Nazis, had spoken out against the wrongs that the Nazi government was doing in the 1930’s. Would we have had World War II if these men of God had spoken out against war, violence, and evil then? Unfortunately, these men of God were more interested in their own well-being and establishing that they were just as nationalistic as everyone else in Germany.

It is hard to think that so many people died because the church turned a blind eye to the plight of the people. John Conway wrote,

It was the tragedy of the German churches that they were so inadequately prepared to oppose such strident heresies. They lacked safety valves against the challenge of the ‘radical right’ that offered a vision of church and state working hand in hand to renew the nation’s strength. The more perceptive churchmen realized too late the dangers of Nazi ambitions. The heresy of a nationalist pseudo-religion had gained too many adherents for effective defenses to be built or successful alternatives to be preached. Cut off from potential allies in the ecumenical movement abroad, only a handful of staunchly orthodox members of the Protestant Confessing Church were ready to take up arms to uphold Christian truths and to suffer for their faith. The lessons to be drawn from the churches’ behavior before and after the rise of National Socialism remain. (2)

I cringe at the thought that was written about Germany in the 1930’s is again happening in this country at this time. How long shall Christians allow people to kill other people in the name of their country because it is correct? These are days which challenge the very soul of the church; these are days which cry out for each church to speak out and think of their responsibilities to mankind, no matter how they pray to God. Yet, we have pastors argue for war when the One for whom they “work” is called the Prince of Peace? We walk a fine line indeed when we say that our actions are acceptable because they are in the best interests of the country but which go against the moral teachings we supposedly learned in Sunday School and church.

Our Old Testament reading for today (3) again offers a choice of seeing and doing. What would have happened if David had led the army into battle, as he should have done, instead of staying back in Jerusalem? There are no reasons given in any of the commentaries that I read for why David stayed back; but it does say that it was the time that kings took their armies into battle and David was the king but he did not lead the army.

And in retrospect, David himself would have agreed that probably he should have done so. Then he would not have seen Bathsheba on the roof top and he would never have had the affair with her.

But he didn’t do what he was probably supposed to do and, as a result, had to cover up his mistakes. He tried everything he could think of to get Uriah to spend one evening with his wife, Bathsheba. But Uriah was an honorable man and a loyal soldier and he would do nothing that his own men would not have the opportunity to do as well. In the end, David sends Uriah back into the battle zone with sealed orders that instruct Uriah’s commander to put him in the forefront of the most intense battle. In doing so, David deliberately ordered Uriah to his death. And in killing Uriah, David also killed an untold number of young men as well, for what battle ever has only one casualty.

If David had taken responsibility for what he had done, then he would not have conspired to kill Uriah in order to cover up his lies and mistakes. If David had taken responsibility for his actions, other young men would not have died needlessly. How long will it be before we determine that we cannot send young men and women off to war because of a leader’s lies or mistakes? How long will it take for us to realize that our actions have a profound impact on others, often in ways that we cannot foresee or imagine?

What would happen if, in this country today, businesses saw their employees as people and not just as some sort of commodity on the profit/loss sheet? What if our major employers were to treat people with the same compassion as Jesus felt for those on the mountain side?

Of course, when you read or listen to the news today, you have to wonder if people are paying attention to this lesson. The Chicago city council voted the other day to require Wal-Mart and other similar stores to pay their employees a living wage of $10.00 per hour with $3.00 per hour in benefits by the year 2010. Wal-Mart has suggested that if this ordinance is passed, they will pull out of the Chicago market. Other business leaders have suggested that paying such salaries will do more harm than achieve any good. But right now, workers at Wal-Mart make somewhere on the order of $16,000 per year. This is an interesting statistic since anyone earning under $8.20 an hour or just over $16,000 per year is considered under the federally defined poverty level. (4)  And we have the wonderful disclosure that Exxon had record profits during the second quarter (but we are not to find any correlation between the price we pay for gasoline and those profits).

The House of Representatives did pass legislation this week that will raise the Federal minimum wage for the first time in almost ten years. But they put in a rider that will give another tax break (the elimination of inheritance taxes) that will benefit only the richest of the rich. How long before we learn that we cannot treat the poor, the lower and middle classes with disrespect? This is not what the Gospel said.

In the 1950’s the laws of many Southern states forced minorities to sit in the back of the bus, even when there were seats in the front. What would have happened if Rosa Parks had obeyed the law and gone to the back of the bus instead of taking the first available seat in the front? She knew full well what the consequences of her actions that day would be but I doubt that she understood how far those actions would reach. If nothing else, her action brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to the forefront of the beginning Civil Rights movement. So, if Mrs. Parks had decided not to fight the system, it is most likely that Reverend King would not have risen to the prominence he did.

Then maybe he wouldn’t have come to Memphis, Tennessee, in the spring of 1968 and he would not have died by an assassin’s bullet. Maybe he wouldn’t have come to Memphis anyway. The sanitation worker’s strike was a small one and it didn’t have much coverage; after all, who cares about a bunch of garbage men other than the people who need their garbage picked up. It should be noted that not many people outside of Memphis were even aware of this strike when it began. A similar strike by sanitation workers in New York City had just ended and the media of the day did not consider a similar strike in a town of just 500,000 people newsworthy. The city of Memphis was able to keep the problem below “crisis-level” and out of the public’s eye.

And weren’t the sanitation workers way out of line asking for a raise from $1.70 to $2.35 per hour? The city’s offer of 8-½ cents per hour seemed reasonable enough. But, there was more to this strike than just wages; it was about working conditions and respect given for doing the job that others would not do.

This strike began on February 1, 1968 when two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. In a separate incident on the same day, 22 black sewer workers were sent home without pay when it began to rain while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay.

On February 12th, 1375 workers (mostly sanitation workers but with other Department of Public Works employees) went out on strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. (5) 

Dr. King was invited to Memphis to aid in the effort to bring about reconciliation between the workers and the city as well as bring attention to the disparity between classes.

Dr. King came because the worth of someone’s soul is not determined by the job they perform each day or the color of their skin. Dr. King came to Memphis because the importance of a person comes from who they are, not where they live. Even though he initially did not want to come, even though he didn’t have to come, Dr. King came to Memphis, even though he didn’t have to. And as history points out, maybe he shouldn’t have come. But would our respect for other people have gotten better if he hadn’t?

He came because Jesus taught us to care about other people as much as we care about ourselves. What is the central point of the New Testament reading for today, if it is not that we should care for others as we would care for ourselves?

What would have happened if the people had been sent home to get something to eat? What would have happened if Philip’s argument that they didn’t have enough money to buy food to feed all of the people. Remember that though the Bible says that there were five thousand present that day, the actual total was probably much, much larger because they only counted the men that were there that day. With the women and children that were there, the crowd may have been about fifteen or twenty thousand.

Are we to even think that the disciples had any other option available to them there on the mountain side some two thousand years ago? It states clearly that Jesus knew he was going to feed the multitude so there never was another option. Why do we think that there is an option today; why do we think we can keep cutting the costs for taking care of people while raising the amount of money spent on war and other forms of legalized killing?

What if we, the people, were to cry out and proclaim that poverty is not simply the consequences of sin but rather a marker of society’s lack of concern for people? If nothing else, it would make us what we say this morning, Methodists.

It was the issue of poverty and the lack of concern for the lower classes by the church and English society that made John Wesley seek a better way.

John Wesley preached a lot about money. And with probably the highest earned income in England, he had the opportunities to put his ideas into practice. What did he say about money? And what did he do with his own?

John Wesley knew grinding poverty as a child. His father, Samuel Wesley, was the Anglican priest in one of England’s lowest-paying parishes. He had nine children to support and was rarely out of debt. Once John saw his father . . . marched off to debtors’ prison. So when John followed his father into the ministry, he had no illusions about the financial rewards.

It probably came as a surprise to John Wesley that while God had called him to follow his father’s vocation, he had not also called him to be poor like his father. Instead of being a parish priest, John felt God’s direction to teach at Oxford University. There he was elected a fellow of Lincoln College, and his financial status changed dramatically. His position usually paid him at least thirty pounds a year, more than enough money for a single man to live on. John seems to have enjoyed his relative prosperity. He spent his money on playing cards, tobacco, and brandy.

While at Oxford, an incident changed his perspective on money. He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. he reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. Immediately, the thought struck him that the Lord was not pleased with the way he had spent his money. He asked himself, Will the Master say, “Well done, good and faithful steward”? Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid? (6)

It is clear that this single incident changed the way Wesley viewed his life and what he was to do in his ministry. His income rose from 30 pounds a year to 120 pounds in four years, yet he learned to live on 28 pounds a year. Now, 30 pounds a year may not seem like a lot to us today in 2006 but in 1731, it was a major income. It is noted that Wesley had one of the highest earned incomes in England, making one year on the order of 1400 pounds. But he continued to live as if he were earning 30 pounds and gave away the excess. This lifestyle even got him in trouble with the English tax authorities who felt that he was hiding his wealth somewhere or somehow. They figured that anyone with income such as his who did not have the trappings of a rich lifestyle must surely be hiding their money somewhere. Wesley told the tax people that he had given away most of his wealth and that he had sufficient income to live on even though he was wealthy. I only wish that Wesley’s modern day colleagues, the ones with the thousand dollar suites and smiles to match, could say and do the same.

Another way Wesley limited expenses was to identify with the poor and needy. He had preached that Christians should consider themselves members of the poor, whom God had given them money to aid. So he lived and ate with the poor. Under Wesley’s leadership, the London Methodists established two homes for widows in the city. They were supported by offerings taken at the band meetings and the Lord’s Supper. In 1748, nine widows, one blind woman, and two children lived there. With them lived John Wesley and any other Methodist preacher who happened to be in town. Wesley rejoiced in eating the same food at the same table, looking forward to the heavenly banquet all Christians will share.

We live in a world where respect for other individuals is limited; we do not care where the bombs fall when we are engaged in a war against terrorism. In a world where the “bottom line” is more important, we do not care that people cannot live on the wages they earn. What if we lived as the Christians did some two thousand years ago, sharing and caring for others as much as we cared for ourselves?

So if we respond as we should, we can begin seeing a change. After all, when the people finished eating, there was more in the baskets than when they started. Surely others not mentioned in the Gospel reading for today were fed as well.

What if the Ephesians had not responded to Paul’s encouragement? (7)  What if they had not allowed Christ to dwell in their hearts?Then where would we be today?

We are here today because those who came before us heard the word of God and took it into their own hearts. We are here today because others before us allowed the Holy Spirit to enter into their lives and the work of one became the work of many? As Paul noted, together we are able to accomplish far more as a group than we could do as separate individuals.

We are asked to change a system that seemingly dwarfs our ability to do so. Even within a singular community of faith, the task seems too daunting to even consider. But what if we invested our energy into retelling the Bible stories we grew up listening to and reading. Did not those stories we enjoyed have many of the same issues that we deal with today? Did they not overcome those issues back then? When simple stories begin to crystallize our imagination, history shows that they are more powerful agents of change than we can imagine.

Whether God does it or we do it ourselves, when the social system fails and we leave people without hope, when the religious establishment becomes part of the problem instead of the solution, the stories that we grow up listening to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that it is time for those with “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” to stand with Jesus. It is time to tell and retell our stories, driving them as deeply as possible into the popular imagination, letting our stories of faith and faithfulness inform our action.

So we are asked today if we will open our hearts and allow Christ to come in. We are asked today if we will open our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to use us to do things that we could not possible do otherwise.

(1) John 6: 1 – 21

(2) http://www.bonhoeffer.com/bak2.htm

(5) http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/memphis-v-mlk/

(6) http://rescomp.stanford.edu/~georgie/money.html – An article written by Charles Edward White, assistant professor, Christian thought and history Spring Arbor (Michigan) College

(7) Ephesians 3: 14 – 21

3 thoughts on “What If

  1. This is wonderful. There were a few times I almost cried because I have given up on anyone else in the world thinking similar to me about war and the Jesus would see it and you almost took the words right out of my mouth a few times! I’m glad to know I’m not as alone as I thought.

  2. Pingback: What is it about the good stuff? « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  3. Pingback: Happy New Year! « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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