I am again preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY. Here are my thoughts for this 1st Sunday after Christmas.
There is something about today’s readings from the Old Testament (1) and Gospel (2) that strikes a personal chord in my life.
In the Old Testament reading, we read of the twelve-year old Samuel attending to his yearly priestly duties. We must remember that Hannah, Samuel’s mother, had promised God that Samuel would be a servant of the Lord if she would be allowed to become pregnant. Our reading today shows that the prayer was answered and the loan of Samuel to Hannah and Elkanah by God was repaid.
In the Gospel reading for today, we read of the twelve-year old Jesus sitting in the Temple, discussing the Torah and the Law with the elders of the Temple. We remember that when his parents questioned Him about His absence from the family on its return to Nazareth, Jesus responds that He was only going about His Father’s business. At the age of twelve, Jesus is becoming aware of who He is and what He is to do.
I don’t know if either the writer of the two books of Samuel or Luke chose the age of twelve deliberately but somewhere around the age of twelve, a child begins to become aware of his or her surroundings and begins to formulate thinking about their own identity. While the exact age of transition varies from child to child, the world view of the child begins to change around the age of twelve. At that age, most children begin to change from thinking about things concretely or in terms of physical and real things to thinking about things abstractly or in terms of ideas and concepts.
For me, that was certainly the case. We lived in Montgomery, Alabama, when I was twelve. It was there that I made the conscious choice to pursue the God and Country Award in Boy Scouts. I wanted this award because it is one of the few awards in Boy Scouts that is not rank dependent. In other words, you do not have to be a certain rank before you can earn it. And it is an award, which calls upon the individual to make decisions about themselves that will have an impact on their lives far beyond the time of study and work towards the award. If you are going to earn this award, you must make a commitment to Christ.
It was also during those years that we lived in Montgomery (1962 – 63) that I began to become aware of how racism and segregation were intertwined in everyone’s daily life. My brothers and I had already encountered the effects of segregation while visiting our maternal grandparents in Lexington, North Carolina (3). Those effects were transitory because we lived elsewhere in the country, where segregation was present but not as obvious.
But when we moved to Montgomery in 1962, the rules and effects of segregation became a true part of my life. This was the year that George Wallace ran on a platform of states’ rights and segregation and was elected the Governor of Alabama.
I would later have peripheral encounters with Governor Wallace but it was the political ideas that he espoused that were the prevalent thoughts of the day that would begin the changes in my life. Because the law required that all schools be funded equally, no public school received much in the way of funding. Families had to buy the needed textbooks, no matter what grade they were in. If the schools gave the books to the students, the black students would be on the same plane as the white students. And that was just not acceptable policy in Alabama at that time. And if you could not afford the books, new or used, that was your problem, not the schools.
We would move to Colorado in 1963 as we followed my father across the country during his Air Force career but we would come back to Tennessee in 1966 and find that the situation had not changed very much. Money for education was always controlled so that no school received more money than any other school but schools in high income areas always seemed to be better off in terms of support and equipment.
If I cringe when I hear of someone speaking about a 21st century version of states’ rights or if I speak out against inequality, it is because I have experienced first hand what those words truly mean. And I see those attitudes still present today.
Though Governor Wallace later recanted his segregationist beliefs, there are still those in Alabama who hold to the concept of states’ rights and the oppression of some for the betterment of others. Income taxes begin at $4,600 and top out at 5% on income levels as low as $12,000. This makes the Alabama income tax a flat tax and the only ones that benefit from this are those with higher incomes. Alabama also allows its citizens to take a full deduction for federal taxes, again a benefit for only those with higher incomes.
To make up for lost revenue, local governments are allowed to add to the state’s 4% sales tax. In some of the poorer counties of Alabama, sales taxes run to almost 10% (and we hear complaints about the sales taxes up here in New York). The sales tax in Alabama is the highest in the nation and does not exempt even the most basic necessities such as food. Property taxes in Alabama are the lowest in the nation and are generally one-third the national average. Timber acreage is taxed at less than a dollar an acre. With seventy-one percent of Alabama covered in timber, the timber industry has a powerful say in the state government. Though the income tax and property tax are among of the lowest in the country, there is a tax on just about everything else. Put together, taxes in Alabama put an unfair burden on the lowest income groups and allow the richest in the state to avoid paying any taxes at all. People who own 71 percent of the property pay less than 2 percent of the property tax in the state of Alabama. And if you are paying for schools or healthcare from your property tax revenue, where is the money coming from?
Yet, when reform of the tax structure in Alabama was proposed in 2003, it was the modern day Pharisees and Sadducees of Alabama, the Christian Coalition of Alabama that opposed the reform. While these modern day Pharisees fought to keep the Ten Commandments on the walls of the courthouses of Alabama, they fought to keep the principles of Christ, of caring about the poor and the needy from being the policy of the state of Alabama. It may be 2006 but everything I read made it seem like it was still 1962 or even earlier.
I see today, as we prepare for the coming New Year, a nation that consistently fails to learn from its past. I find a nation and a people who have stopped learning. Oh, we still go to school but the support for our schools seems to be declining each year. While some schools may have up-to-date equipment and pay some of the highest salaries in their area, there are other schools which do not have even the basic equipment and struggle to find qualified teachers. We speak of learning when we are really speaking of testing. We are more interested in trivial facts than we are in the analysis of ideas.
One of my Christmas presents was a book that discussed President John Kennedy’s speeches. I found most interesting the assertion by the authors of this book that there probably will never be another President like President Kennedy. It wasn’t so much that we would not allow his personal flaws and medical problems to be covered up as there were some forty-six years ago but rather that he was the last President to speak in literate paragraphs with references to history. He expected those who heard his speeches to understand those references and to understand what he was saying. He did not expect people to always agree with what he said but he did think that those who heard his words should understand them. President Kennedy’s words could not be reduced to sound bites or jingoism; his thoughts were not simple statements easily forgotten but ones that dwelt in our minds and challenged us to think before acting.
Ours is a society where the sound bite rules; where quick snippets of short, witty sayings count more than detailed or thoughtful discussions. James warned us in his letter to beware of those who speak with a quick tongue, for it leads to and causes nothing but trouble. Our lack of wisdom, our desire for the quick and simple answer also leads us away from the church.
Today’s church, in a desperate attempt to answer the questions of the people who come, is not always willing to demand that the people show some wisdom. Many churches today are willing to be ruled by the ways of society. Our society has turned everything into a commodity. So churches have turned the Gospel into one as well. To make church more palatable we have reduced the Gospel to a minimalist set of slogans and techniques. We have pared the Gospel message down to a short message that can fit onto a bumper sticker, letting the consumer be the judge of what can be demanded, said, and expected in the name of Jesus.
We are a nation which has forgotten that for a society to move forward, it must learn. Jesus understood that He must go about His Father’s business if He was to fulfill His own mission some twenty years later. It is noted at the end of the Old Testament reading that Samuel continued to grow in stature and favor with the Lord. In a few verses, Samuel will hear the voice of God but will not understand who it is that is calling. It will be his mentor, Eli, who will teach Samuel to listen to the words and understand that it is God that is calling.
Barbara Wendland is a United Methodist lay person from Texas who publishes a monthly newsletter of her thoughts. In her January newsletter, she has several comments about the traditions of the church. She is not opposed to the traditions of the church; they are what make the church. But she points out that many people today still cling to those traditions, especially in light of a need for new traditions and new ways to express the Word of God in today’s society.
The problem today is that the ways that some people say are the new ways are not the result of thinking and analysis but rather a measure of mass marketing. The words of many pastors today are not a reasoned analysis of the Gospel or Jesus’ actions but rather an attempt to transform Jesus’ words of service and sacrifice into words that put individuals before others.
It is clear, when you read the Gospel message that Jesus has no interest in meeting our material needs. Rather, He appears intent upon giving us needs we would not have had, had we not met Him. He speaks of severance from some of our most cherished values so that we may gain what we do not have. But we rebel at this message for it means that we give up what we truly cherish, motherhood, family and self-fulfillment.
We would rather hear words that make life easier, put a little lilt in our voice, a bit more sunshine in our lives. We like the blandness found in much of today’s spirituality because it does not call for us to do anything.
William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and a major author in Methodism, once preached at a church that tried to make its services “seeker sensitive”. Such churches often remove the historic Christian metaphors and images, such as the cross. The music, as Dr. Willimon reports, is “me, my and mine.” (4)
The cross is often removed from such services or seeker-sensitive oriented churches because it reminds the congregation of Christ’s suffering or death and it makes them feel uncomfortable. The cross is often seen as an impediment, a turn off or it gets in the way of our attempt to reach people with the Gospel.
The noted Baptist minister, Tony Campolo, noted that
… the last place where I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies.’ (5)
It appears that Christianity in America is a different sort of religion from what it was meant to be. It is one in which people can live their own lives, not one in which they seek the one given to us by Christ.
While we need to reach out to the seekers and younger generations, we will fail if we do it with slick marketing techniques. We must constantly remember that what people seeking is Christ and if we take Christ out of the picture, people cannot find what they seek.
If we do not put in the cross, if we do not mention the pain Christ will endure, then the Gospel becomes meaningless. It is an example of our dangerous willingness to reach the world at any cost. The trouble is that if the world ever gives the church a real hearing, we, as the church, will find that without the cross, we have nothing significant to say in return.
Of course, in this day of quick learning and minimal thought, you have to wonder why more people do not stay away from church. Jesus didn’t say that His was the way for nine out of ten who heard His words. He wasn’t saying that His was the truth we think we wanted or His discipleship was the life we seek. Clearly, Jesus spoke words that often went against the desires and needs of the crowds.
People came to hear Jesus back then because what He said was the truth. Those who could not stand to hear the truth left; those who sought easy answers or quick riches left. But those that stayed knew that in Christ there was a hope and a promise not found on earth or in earthly possession. People were willing to pay the price that would ensure them what they truly desired.
We are reminded today that wisdom, as described in Proverbs 1: 20 – 33, mocks those who do not seek it. But despite all we might say, ours is a society in which wisdom is not sought or desired. Too late, we have discovered that rather than the Gospel message transforming the world, the medium has transformed the message. Evangelism is now measured by the feelings of good engendered in the congregation. In a society where everything is a commodity, the value of a church service is measured by what is gained from spending one or two hours in church every Sunday.
The Gospel message requires understanding, not a reduction to a short sound bite. It requires study and thought; it cannot be done by simply writing down what the pastor says. I would have a hard time being one of the modern day preachers that you see on television today. I would have a cross on my altar, not a world globe or a dove. I would demand that people listen to the words being spoken, not just simply write them down.
I would be like Paul, encouraging the people of the various churches that he founded and helped to grow. I would remind them about Christ and the role of Christ in their lives. I would remind them that they, those who have chosen to follow Christ, were the examples for others to learn from. I would remind them of what the Cross meant two thousand years ago and what it means today.
It is important that we remember Paul’s words to the people of Colosse (6). It is important that we continue to treat each other as Christ treated each one of us. It is important that we lead lives that speak of the peace of Christ that is in our lives. We must also remember that Paul included the word “teach”, not in passing but in the way we are to live.
As the old year ends and the new year begins, as we look forward to the new while we remember the past, we must look to the wisdom of the ages and use that wisdom to insure that we have ages to come. We are reminded today of the words of the classic Isaac Watts hymn, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”. Though the title and first stanza speak of the past, the second stanza speaks of God being our help for years to come. We are challenged, as was Samuel and no matter how old we are, to continue learning and growing in the eyes of the Lord.
(1) 1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20, 26
(2) Luke 2: 41 – 52
(3) “Lexington, North Carolina”
(4) “It’s Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive When You Work for Jesus”, William H. Willimon, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003
(5) Tony Campolo as quoted in Christian Week magazine and reported in SojoMail for 9/10/03
(6) Colossians 3: 12 – 17