I am again preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY. Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke in passing of my experience with one of the early mega-churches in this country.(1) I began attending that particular church because of its single adult program. Ultimately two aspects of that church drove me away from that church.
The first was the discomfort that I felt. I was unemployed and my clothes were not of the highest quality. It was never stated but you could sense the differences between my life and the other members of the Sunday School class. This was that period of time when the term “yuppie” first appeared. The others in the class were among the first of this group and I clearly was not. There were other signs in that church who you were in your life and where you lived in the town were more important that where you stood in the eyes of Christ. Church is not supposed to be about one’s lifestyle; but in that church and at that time, it clearly was. I am not sure that church has changed much in the intervening years.
The other thing that drove me from that church was its desire to compete with the other mega-church in town. It was a defining moment when the church elected to spend several million dollars on its television ministry. It was a decision driven by market share and was as far from the Gospel as anyone could imagine. The thoughts and actions of the church’s leadership focused more on the body of the church rather than the soul of the church. I left because I could not comprehend how a church could spend money on its image when there were people in the city that were homeless, sick, and in desperate need of some sign of hope. Like many of those who quit following Jesus because they did not like the message they were hearing, I left the church because I did not like the message it was presenting.
But unlike those who left Jesus because they didn’t like His message that said to leave everything behind and follow Him, I wanted very much to be a part of His message. This church was very much like the rich, young man in today’s Gospel reading (2), willing to listen to Christ but unwilling to give up his earthly possessions and follow Christ.
I was faced with a dilemma. Where could I go so that I could find God? Where could I go so that I would feel welcomed?
During this particular period of time, I was still a member of a United Methodist Church, even though I had not attended the one where my membership was held or any other United Methodist Church for some time. I had attended this particular church because of the programs that it offered, not because of its message or denomination (it was not a United Methodist church). I could see that perhaps I needed to look where the traditional message and programs were closer to my heart and not just select a church for the amenities that it could offer.
So, I started looking at the various United Methodist Churches in the area. I found myself at one of the “larger” churches in town. It was large in number but there was something about it that didn’t make it seem large (especially when you compared it to the coldness and aloofness of the mega-church that I had recently experienced). And one Sunday, when the pastor made the invitation for others to join the church, I wanted to go up there. But since it had been several years since I had transferred my membership from one church to another, I wasn’t sure I should do it right then. At the end of the service, I asked one of the ushers what I needed to do. Now, I had filled out a visitor’s card indicating that I was interested in joining and this particular usher was actually looking for me. I knew that I had found a place where I could find God and I joined that church the very next week.
But how many people are looking for a church today and feel like Job, lost in the wilderness and unable to find their way? How many people today are wandering in this modern wilderness asking the questions that Job is asking today (3) We call those who seek God today “seekers”. These “seekers” of today are very much like Job. Job’s questions of three thousand years ago are the questions that so many people are asking today.
They go through a daily routine but have come to a realization that the answer to what they seek cannot be answered in what they do or what they have acquired. Though Job is seeking to find God in order to ask why he has lost everything, today’s “seekers” are asking why everything they have gained is not sufficient to fill the void in their souls. Why is it that the accumulation of possessions, the busyness of their lives, or the work that they do is not enough to answer the questions of their lives. They speak of not having a sense of purpose in their lives, a narrative that gives meaning to their lives. And against the backdrop of society, they feel lost.
In a life wherever minute is filled with activity and people, these “seekers” feel lonely. In a society where “things” bring security, they feel insecure. No matter how hard they look for love, they still need an assurance that someone “out there” cares for them. They seek others so as not to be alone, but they still feel alone.
In a recent speech, Barack Obama (Senator from Illinois) noted that when he worked as a community organizer, he came into contact with many Christians and a variety of churches. Yet, even though he understood what they were saying and he believed the same things that they believed, he still felt removed and detached from them. He was there but only in body. There was no spirit in his work with Christians. Slowly, he came to realize that what was missing, that sense of loneliness and lack of attachment in his life was that he had no outlet for his beliefs.
Without a firm commitment to a particular community of faith, he knew that he would always remain alone and apart. So, as his work with church progressed, he also sought a church that he could join. It wasn’t just that he wanted to join a church to be a member; he wanted to join a church in order to fulfill his own commitment to be a follower of Christ. It was a commitment to discover God and to finish the journey of seeking.(4)
But what kind of church will other seekers find? I found my church because of my own desire and because the members of the church were looking for me. Senator Obama found his church through the work that he was doing? How will others find their church?
Jesus told the parable of the sower in which the seeds ended up in the rocks, in the weeds, and in fertile soil. Each of these situations describes a church setting in today’s society.
There are churches that are like the rocks and the hard ground. They hold onto the traditions of the church and insist on following the law. Things must be done in a certain way or they will not be done at all. The law must be upheld so as to keep the church the way it has always been. It is the type of church where yesterday’s Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes would feel right at home. The message of this church is a hard message and its doors are often closed to many. Like the seeds of the sower that fell on the hard ground and died, the hardness of the people of this church will cause the church to die.
The second type of church is like the part of the ground where the weeds grow. The message of these churches is the message of society. Anything that comes in the name of God should affect me and influence the way that we think about Him. These churches present an image of God who is accommodating, a God who wants to be your buddy. (5) These churches promise everything for everyone. If you need something to do, they will find a way to offer it. If you want music, these churches offer Christian music. If you desire a coffeehouse, then they will build a Christian coffeehouse. They will have a Christian bookstore in which to buy anything you want to read.
But all of these activities are like the weeds in a garden plot; weeds take away the nutrients that should go to the plants of the garden and ultimately the plants that are meant to grow die out from starvation. This is the church that the rich, young man wanted to join; it was one that would have let him keep his wealth and power. But it is not the church that Jesus was describing.
The church that Jesus was describing; the one that results from the seeds landing in the good soil is one like the church the writer of Hebrews describes in today’s reading. (6) It is a church where the Gospel is alive and well; it is a church where the presence of God through the Holy Spirit is alive and active. The true children of God are those who carry with them the nature of God. If we are looking for God, we are looking for the essentials of life that we are supposed to show others.
This is hard to even think about, let alone accomplish. We would rather change the Good News than change our own lives. As Mark tells us in today’s Gospel, there will be persecution and opposition to the Gospel long after Jesus’ death. We are not always willing to give up everything with the promise that what we give up will be returned. That is why the rich, young man turned away. It is the question expressed by Peter in today’s reading. He is saying that all of the disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus; how will they know that everything will be returned? But Jesus also assured Peter that following Him was better than whatever option Peter might have come up with.
Of course, the answer then is that they don’t know; they follow in faith. But Paul will write to the Corinthians and point out that Peter, the other apostles, and Jesus’ own family still had everything they had left behind twenty-five years later. (7)
Seekers want a place where their questions have real answers, not answers defined by society’s values. They seek a church where God lives and is present in the lives and actions of the church members. Such a church must be able to answer these questions, not through tradition or adherence to the law or various social activities and community activities, but rather through how they act, how they let the Holy Spirit move in their lives.
Let us remember that when John Wesley started his reformation of the church, he was like the church of the hard rocks. He saw a church in terms of strict adherence to a way of life (why do you think we are called “Methodists?). But the hardness of that life failed to bring about what he and the other members of the early Methodist group sought, peace in God.
Only when Wesley opened his heart and allowed the Holy Spirit to warm his heart did the vitality of the Methodist revival occur. That is what will be the defining moment of any church in today’s society. Are they willing to open up the hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit?
Those who seek Christ must be willing to truly seek Him. To resolve the crisis in his life, Job went seeking God. We know that our search is easier because we have Christ to help us. This is the word of encouragement that the writer of Hebrews gives us today. We have in Christ the One who understands who we are. Christ has been tested so we need not be. But we must approach the Throne of God; we cannot expect God to come to us. Those seeking God must take the risk that the rich, young man was not willing to take.
The same is true for the churches of today; they must be willing to take the risk that comes when you choose to follow Christ. It wasn’t so much that I sought to join that one church because it enabled me to answer some questions in my life; it was because that church was looking for me and was willing to help me find the answers. Churches today must be willing to invite others in, not keep them away. Churches today must be willing to take risks; they must be willing to live their lives as Christ lived His.
There are risks involved. The risk comes when one chooses to follow Christ; the risk comes when one chooses to put aside priorities defined by society and self and simply follow Christ. The risk comes when one opens their heart and allows the Holy Spirit to transform their lives. For churches, it is a risk to say that they will go against the ways of society and instead of offering society’s answer, will offer Christ through their lives.
Finding God can be difficult, especially if you don’t know where to look. Finding God can be risky when you are asked to change the way you see the world and yourself. But when you do take the risk, when you do put Christ into your life and you find that God has been there right by your side, you find that you have gained all those things that you thought you would never have.
(1) https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2006/09/24/upsetting-the-apple-cart/, 24 September 2006 (Dover Plains, NY)
(2) Mark 10: 17 – 31
(3) Job 23: 1 – 9, 16 – 17
(4) Adapted from “One Nation. . . Under God?” by Senator Barack Obama, Sojourners, November, 2006
(5) Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner
(6) Hebrews 4: 12 – 16
(7)See the reference in 1 Corinthians 9: 5