I am preaching at Pine Plains UMC again this Sunday. Here are my thoughts for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost.
I have edited this since it was first posted.
In the prologue to her book, “Jesus In Blue Jeans”, Laurie Beth Jones writes of a dream she once had. In this dream she was standing in a meadow when a man approached her. As the man came closer she realized that it was Jesus. But His appearance confused her, for he was wearing blue jeans. As she wrote, Jesus asked “Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you are wearing blue jeans.” (Laurie Beth Jones, “Jesus in Blue Jeans”)
It is the same for us. Jesus will come to us as we are, no matter who we might be. Because, as John wrote in the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus was, is and will always be, how He comes to us depends on the time and place of our encounter. For many people today, the problem is that they want to set that time and place and they want to place Jesus in the context of their own lives rather than allowing the encounter to take place.
Instead of listening, people would rather do the speaking. This leads to people hearing many different messages about how this encounter will take place. There are so many voices telling us many different thing, and often, contradictory things that we don’t know who we should listen to.
Do we listen to those who say there is no god and that all the events of mankind are independent of some supreme being? If that is the case, then how does one account for good and evil, right and wrong? Are we somehow imprinted at birth with the outcome of our life? I don’t even want to think of this possibility because it is a possibility that is open to abuse and one that, in the end, has no hope. If who we are is established long before we have a chance to be who we will be, then hope has been removed from the realm of possibility. Those who say there is no god do not offer anything that brings hope into the world.
But why should they not listen to those who say there is no god? Because they see a world without hope. They see a world in which churches and ministers preach hatred, exclusion, and persecution. They hear of the Prince of Peace but see a god of war dominating their lives. They hear preachers speak of the riches of the heavenly kingdom that are available here on earth yet they see poverty at home and abroad.
They see a church fixed in time past. Such churches view Jesus as the man who walked among the hills of Galilee, wearing robes and talking to his disciples and followers. Because Jesus is the same today as He was yesterday and the way He will be tomorrow, there is no need for change and there is no need for a vision of the future.
It is a church that offers nothing in relevance to today’s society; it is a church that longs for the good old days. It speaks of a society ruled by church law, forgetting that the society that Jesus lived in was such a society and it was a society without hope. A society must have a framework of laws but the laws themselves cannot transcend the spirit with which they were written and one has to be careful that the laws do not contradict each other.
The lawyers of the society took Jesus to task for healing a sick person on the Sabbath because it was against the law. But it was perfectly all right for one to heal a sick animal. Jesus pointed out the inconsistency of that law.
Why do people listen to people who say there is no god and there is no hope? Because the only churches they see in the world also offer no hope.
There are churches today trying desperately to break the bonds to the past. They recognize that a church tied to the past cannot move forward easily. There are times when we should celebrate our past but our celebrations must also focus on what the future has to offer.
But it is how we see the future that enables us to move forward. Many churches today offer contemporary or modern services. There is even talk of church on the Internet as a way of reaching countless souls. While I have my doubts about the adaptation of modern technology to church services, I am more concerned with the adaptation of modern marketing techniques to the presentation of the message.
No longer do preachers speak of the meaning of the Gospel as it applies to us. Rather they speak of the Gospel as we think it applies to us. And it is a message that we quite easily accept. The modern day preacher, technologically savvy, is quite welling to preach a gospel message that offers what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear. In that regard, people are no different from Naaman, the focus of the Old Testament reading for today. (2 Kings 5: 1 – 14)
Naaman seeks a cure for his leprosy. He is directed to go to Israel where he will find what he seeks. But he seeks his cure from the King of Israel who, of course, cannot provide it. The king panics because he cannot provide what Naaman requests. Elisha hears of the king’s problem and offers to help. Naaman then gets angry because he feels that the simple cure that Elisha offers is beneath his stature and position in life. But Naaman’s servants point out that it is not one’s position in life that determines the outcome but one’s faith that determines the outcome.
Unfortunately, we didn’t learn the lesson that saved Naaman. Rather, we have fallen into the trap that Paul warns the Galatians about in today’s second lesson. (Galatians 6: 7 – 16) Much of the dissatisfaction with today’s churches is that many pastors offer words that they themselves do not live by. They are the preachers that Paul warns about; they are the ones who put themselves above the law while they condemn you when you break the law.
And because we want to see the church in our eyes, we have done exactly what Paul warned us about. We have reaped what we have sown. We willing hear the message of the false prophets of today because their message fits within the framework of our lives. Many people today approach church with the feeling and attitude that who they are and what they are is more important than their faith itself. We willingly allow others to proclaim that they alone speak for God and that their words are the true words.
But the only words that count and the words that we should listen to are the ones spoken by Jesus. The only words that we should speak are the words that Jesus gives us to speak. It’s just that today’s society has made it very difficult to know which words come from Jesus and which words we should speak.
So how do we understand what words are the true words? In sending out the seventy, Jesus anticipated what difficulties they would encounter. He turned the source of anxiety, the threats and trials that each would endure, as opportunities to testify. (Luke 21: 13) And when faced with the anxiety that comes when one does not know what to say, Jesus promises that He will give us the words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. (Luke 21: 15) He does not promise that the words will come to you or that you will think of something but rather He himself will give you the words you need.
His instructions are simple and explicit; take no bag, no purse, and no sandals. Enter each house with the greeting of “Peace to this house” and “the Kingdom of God has come near to you.” These words are performative; they do what they say; the Kingdom of God is near. These are noteworthy words in a world where each word is measured for its reaction. We are so easily tempted to select other words and tailor our message to bring people into the church that we often forget that the simplest words of truth will give the best results.
Yes, the very words that we use are often accompanied by rejection and dismissal. Jesus even told His messengers that often they will find themselves in places that will not receive the message. The message of “Peace to this house” is not always easily received and regularly takes a beating.
But that doesn’t shrink its scope or diminish the truth. It has endured war, famine, betrayal, torture, indifference and crucifixion yet it endures all of these and responds to a place in people’s hearts. (Adapted from “What to Say” by Patrick J. Willson, Christian Century, June 26, 2007)
Who shall we listen to in this day of mixed messages and false messengers? We should listen to our heart for our heart will know the truth? I am reminded that Jesus said to seek the truth and the truth will set you free. If our hearts are closed to Jesus, then we cannot seek the truth. And if we cannot seek the truth, we will never be free.
If we are set free, we are freed from the limitations and restrictions that are placed upon us by the world. The power of evangelism is restored and the Gospel again becomes a message that turns things around. We are free to speak of a Savior who broke free from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity in order to bring the Good News to the outcast, the hopeless and the helpless. If we are set free, we are set free to be one of those who are sent out into the world, telling everyone through our voice, our heart, and our soul of the Good News.
So, who do we listen to? We listen to Christ speaking to us each day, calling us to be his servant, his disciple, his messenger to the world. And when we hear our names called, how will we respond?