I am preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY, this morning. Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.
Early in my lay preaching career, one of my cousins came to hear me preach. This was something special because this cousin, besides being the patriarch of our extended family, was also a Lutheran minister. Since I was just starting my lay speaking career, I wanted very much to hear his thoughts. Only after I began this journey that brings me here today did I found out that I am the fourteenth minister in the Schüessler family (my family through my paternal grandmother), a heritage that goes back to Martin Luther and Germany in the 16th Century.
After the service was over, we discussed a variety of things pertaining to family and preaching matters. Regarding the latter, my cousin thought my sermon was about the right length but he didn’t think that I should have said that Jesus was a revolutionary.
Those words are not in the printed sermon that I used that day but they fit into what I was saying that Sunday. What I know today is I said that Jesus was a revolutionary because I feel that much of what Jesus did in his ministry was of a revolutionary nature. I still think that is true today.
I have to smile when I think of that early conversation so many years ago. One year later, at our family reunion, my cousin spoke of Jesus as a revolutionary; that very thought he had cautioned me against using. When I mentioned this to him, he could only respond that people can change when it comes to matters of Jesus.
Why is it that I would say and think of Jesus as a revolutionary? When we think of revolutionaries, it is often in terms of armed rebels or groups of people storming the fortress. Loud protests and confrontations are often the hallmarks of revolutionaries for they want to make their statement known. Jesus was never one to make loud protests nor did He think in terms of storming the fortress or holding a protest rally. I doubt that Jesus ever raised his fist in the power salute that was the marker of 60’s protests.
But Jesus was a revolutionary, albeit a quiet one. As noted in the Gospel reading for today (1), in response to the disciples’ discussion of power and placement in the coming Kingdom, He simply put a young child in his lap. With that act, Jesus challenged the very assumptions upon which the society of that time was based.
Jesus made no comments about the justification for the disciples’ conversation but He pointed out that greatness and power in the new Kingdom will only come from being a servant of the people. This was a new way of thinking and not the way that the disciples were used to thinking.
This new way of thinking upset the apple cart of society. It brought into question the manner in which we are to live in God’s Kingdom. Throughout His ministry, Jesus counseled His disciples to live simply and without hypocrisy. He told them to trust God for their care and security rather than rely on the accumulation of possessions. Throughout His ministry, Jesus presented examples that revealed God’s will for us is completely different from our own inclinations and social training.
The Kingdom that Jesus talks of is a radical reversal for us. Everything that Jesus said and did presented an alternative to the normal ways of society. Money was and is the measure of respect; power is the path to success; competition is the character of many of our relationships; violence is regularly sanctioned by our culture as the final means for conflict resolution.
Yet, Jesus advised us to “be anxious for nothing”. He offered a way of life that is and was contrary to what we are accustomed. He overturned our assumptions of what is normal, reasonable, and responsible. Jesus was and is a revolutionary. Jesus upset the apple cart.
From the very early days of the church, it was clear that Christians saw the world in a different light and with a new way of thinking. Christians recognized that their notions of wisdom were in competition with other notions of wisdom. James’ discussion of wisdom in today’s Epistle reading (2) points out that our lives are different.
While there is nothing wrong with our desires for a better life in this world, James writes that we need to reorder our thinking about what we desire, the importance that we place on our desires and the motives that we have for pursuing them. It is a new way of thinking brought about by a new wisdom that can only be found in the Christ.
The Old Testament reading for today (3) points that out as well. The Book of Proverbs begins by outlining the goals for wisdom in general terms and, with the reading for today, concludes by giving a specific case. It is a case where the individual, a woman, has achieved her status by hard work, skill, and a fear of the Lord. Her wisdom comes from understanding of God. I think that it is important that we understand that this woman was independent and capable of making decisions on her own; in that regard, this reading from Proverbs offers an interesting commentary on the society of the time, when women were highly restricted in what they could do. The power and accomplishments of this woman come not from society, which would have sought to restrict her, but rather from what she has gained from God.
What comes about from the Scriptures today is that we see our lives in a different way. When we speak of the freedom that is offered through the Gospel, we have to understand what we have gained in our freedom. Through Jesus we are freed from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity that has imprisoned us. But we have to be aware that while we are free, it is a freedom that requires that we participate in His mission in this world. We find greatness in our freedom but it is because we are willing to be a servant to all. We are now free to meet the needs of society’s outcasts, the hopeless, and the helpless; we are able to deal with the smallness of vision that comes in today’s society.
But this freedom does not come easily. Do we not see the resistance that comes when we ask people to think of things in a new way? Do we not know the panic that sets in when a new way of thinking is presented? From the very moment that he started His ministry, there were those who were critical and unbelieving. From the moment that the impact of His words were understood, the chief priests and scribes, the holders of wealth and power, plotted against Jesus, mocked Him, and sought to destroy Him. Jesus’ teachings and behavior created conflict with the ruling authorities wherever He went. The Kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming undermined their whole system. (4)
When I was a college sophomore, I was at a point of crisis. I saw a future of chaos and despair, both in my own life and in the world around me. I was asking how it was that there could be a God that would allow death and destruction. How was I to profit from my life if it seemed there would be no world in which to peacefully live? I did not get all the answers back then but I was shown that through Jesus, I could make a difference in what the future might bring. It wasn’t just that I was saved through my acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; it was that I had a responsibility to work for Christ in this world to bring the Gospel message to fruition. If we are not willing to show Christ at work in our lives, then we practice a false evangelism, a religion that does not meet Christ’s demands. (5)
We cannot meet Christ’s demands if we are insensitive to the world around us, if we exclude people from the church and our church community. Some ten years later, while in the midst of a more personal crisis, I found myself in another Christian Community. This was a megachurch before megachurch was a popular term in church growth; it was a program-oriented church before churches saw programs as the way of growth; it was a church with a television ministry before there was cable TV.
It was one of the larger churches in town and it could offer everyone who came to church something in line with their interests and desires. The broadcast of the Sunday morning services reached out to a large portion of the surrounding metropolitan area.
And while I initially thought I had found what I needed at that time, I quickly came to realize that my unemployment status and slightly worn clothing did not fit into the accepted pattern of life in that church. For a long time, I could not figure out why this church started its Sunday morning services (which were televised live) by taking the offering. But one Sunday, when I was at home, I was able to turn on the television and my question was answered. By having the offering at the beginning of the service, it could be deleted from what the television viewers saw. Clearly, this church wanted to market its message without scaring away people with a request for money.
But when the church decided to spend several million dollars on its TV ministry because the other “megachurch” in town had decided to increase its television ministry, I found myself looking again for a new church. I had to seriously question how any church could spend money on marketing tools when there were people in that town without food and shelter. Does the Gospel command us to take care of those who are less fortunate than us? Is not Jesus’ message about taking care of and respecting the people around us?
The early Christian church was known by its particular pattern of life. The faith of the early Christians produced a discernible lifestyle, a process of growth visible to all. It was a lifestyle based on Jesus’ ministry and teachings. Christians were known to be a caring, sharing, and open community, sensitive to the needs of the poor and the outcast. Their love for God, for one another, and for the oppressed were central to their reputation. Their refusals to kill, to recognize racial distinctions, and to bow down before imperial deities were also a matter of public knowledge. Yet, how are our churches, our Christian communities viewed today?
I have been involved in the turn-around of four churches in the past twenty years. Each church, at the time that I entered the picture, was either on a downward spiral to death and closure or was at the bottom waiting to see would happen next. I do not and will not claim that anything I did changed the outcomes of each church. But I would hope that I was part of the group that sought to reverse the fortunes of each church.
All of these churches were really too small to think in terms of programs but they were not too small to think about communities. In the first church, this was done by making new Sunday school classes. As new members came into the church, they would find themselves in one of the current classes but when there were ten or so new members, they would form a new class. The common bond between the people was that they were new members of the church. It gave a sense of purpose for each group as they were part of the church and part of something growing.
In the next church, growth was hampered by location and finances. But a new location could not be considered until the finances were stabilized. The year that I joined, his particular church had not paid its apportionments in six months. It was said that administrative council meetings were angry, derisive, and confrontational as the church leaders decided the priority of the bills that needed to be paid.
I joined this church two months after a new pastor had been appointed. One of his first decisions was that ten percent of the church’s Sunday offering would go to the payment of the apportionments. Now, you may disagree with this statement; I know that the payment of apportionments is one area where there is a large disagreement in the church. But when has it not been? How many times did Paul mention the need for the churches that he dealt with to help the other churches in the Middle East?
I also know that any monies paid to our own United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) are given out dollar for dollar. The reason for that is UMCOR has no overhead; the overhead is carried through a portion of our apportionments. To not pay or limit payment of our apportionments is to limit the ability of UMCOR to accomplish its mission.
Apportionments are one of the ways in which we are connected to the other churches in the United Methodist community. While it may be that there are more equitable ways of determining a church’s apportionment, the decision of a church to withhold or not pay its apportionment is a decision to withdraw from the community. A church which finds itself outside the community will be very much like an individual struggling to find their way in this world. The consequences of being outside the community, especially when one makes it themselves, can be very disconcerting. Consider, for the moment, the story of the prodigal son.
The prodigal son chose to go it alone in the world, feeling it was possible to accomplish whatever he wanted. But in the end, he found himself cast off, discarded and alone. It was then that he realized that being a part of the community was a necessary part of his life. I think those churches who cut themselves off from the community of believers find themselves in the same situation.
This decision in the second church to tithe was not initially well-accepted but the decision was implemented and by the end of that year, the apportionments for that year had been paid in full. I encouraged the next two churches that I was associated with to adopt the same approach. That third church did so and was able to pay its apportionments in full and then began paying the next year’s apportionments in advance. This church was able to make the turn-around and move upward and onward.
The fourth church could not make the turn around. It was not willing to tithe its offering to meet the needs of the apportionment and it saw its events and programs as fund-raisers and not people events. People who came to the events never knew that there was a church sponsoring the event and they never saw the church as what it was. This church was unwilling to take on mission work for fear that success in mission work would result in an increase in apportionments. This church, I am afraid, is going to die within in the next two years. Its unwillingness to see life outside its own walls prevents it from growing.
If you will, the success of the three other churches was not in its abilities to start new Sunday school classes or meet its financial obligations. The success came from a focus on the people of the church as a community and of the church itself being a part of the community. The first church made the new members part of the community and that helped the community to grow; the other two churches saw their community as part of a bigger community. Now some might say that by giving to God through the apportionments, God was returning to them the riches of the kingdom. While this may be a popular theology today, I don’t think that is the case. The focus was no longer on the finances of the church but on the mission of the church. By refocusing the vision of the church, it became possible to see what Jesus was saying that day in Galilee.
Too many times we see greatness in terms of power and wealth. We see churches in the same way; we do not see churches that welcome the children of God in the same terms. Too many churches are better known for their exclusion of the children of God than they are for the welcome they give to God’s children. James reminds us that our desire for greatness can blind us to the need for a new wisdom that will bring about what we seek. Our desire for greatness without the appropriate wisdom can only lead to failure and disagreement. Disagreement robs us of the ability to resolve our disputes peaceably. And if we are fighting within, we cannot welcome others and we cannot welcome God into our lives. (6)
Jesus changed the way society worked; He upset the apple cart. We are not asked to pick up the apples and restore society to the way it was; we are asked to pick up the apples and begin a new society. It is not an easy process and we are likely to fail more times that we succeed as we try to be faithful disciples. But it is a process that we must try. Now ordinarily I would close by asking those who have not accepted Christ to open their hearts and let Him into their lives; I would then ask those who have accepted Christ into their hearts to open their hearts again to the Holy Spirit and let their lives be empowered.
But today, I am changing my normal closing. The world in which we live is a world of fear; it is a world where countless people are without hope or the promise of a better life. It is a world that builds walls and excludes people. It is a society in which power and greatness are accomplished by oppression and selfishness. It is a world of individuals without community. To build a community where no one is turned away requires that the apple cart be upset; to build a community where walls are torn down requires a new way of thinking. It is a world that comes through answering the call to come to Christ.
So, instead of my asking you to open your hearts to Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, I am asking that you go out into this world and make the invitation to someone else. Invite someone you know to be a part of this community of God; invite someone you know to accept Christ into their lives. It will be hard to do this, I know; but in the end the community of Christ will be that much bigger and that much better. And maybe we won’t have to upset the apple cart too many more times.
(1) Mark 9: 30 – 37
(2) James 3: 13 – 4: 3, 7 – 8a
(3) Proverbs 31: 10 – 31
(4) Adapted from “The Call” in The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis
(5) Adapted from Faith in the Secular World by Colin Williamson
(6) Adapted from “Wisdom Works” by Stephen Fowl, Christian Century, September 19, 2006