Here are my thoughts for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost. This is also Laity Sunday and I am presenting the following as part of the message.
While I live in New York and consider it home, I still call Memphis, Tennessee my home. It is where we ended up after my father retired from the United States Air Force and where my mother still lives today. But if home is where your roots are or where they run deep and strong, then the state of Missouri is also on that list of places that I call home.
It isn’t just because I started college there or that I started a family there. When I was one year old, my family planted a Christmas tree in my grandmother’s garden. And to the best of my knowledge, that tree is still growing on the northern edge of the property in St. Louis that was for so many years the center of my life.
The north side yard at 3603 Union (taken in July, 1952). The young spruce tree was called “Tony’s Christmas Tree”.
Another view of the northern boundary of the property (looking at the northwest corner of the property.
For as long as I can remember, my grandmother’s house in St. Louis County was a place that we could always go. It was my grandparent’s home after my grandfather retired from the United States Army and it was the place that grandchildren and great-grandchildren could come and play. It was an anchor in our lives that enabled us to roam the country and yet never feel lost. The one thing that I remember most about that home was the garden that my grandmother started when they first moved in. This was not your typical flower box garden but an effort that spanned the perimeter of the 1/4 acre property. It was, I think, my grandmother’s statement that this is where we are going to live and this is where we are going to stay.
I learned many things over the years watching my grandmother work in her garden. But the greatest thing I learned was what love and care can do. Trees do not grow tall and straight nor will flowers survive generation after generation if there is no love present in the garden.
The north side of 3603 Union some 30 years later – that is my grandmother
Ann never met my grandmother but I am sure that if they had met they would have bonded immediately, sisters of the soil so to speak. And I can hear my grandmother today encouraging me to get out there and help Ann in the garden.
In his letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 3: 14 – 4: 5) Paul encouraged him to remember the love and care that surrounded him when he was growing up. Remember how you were raised as you bring the Gospel message, Paul wrote. He was also encouraged to “proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” (2 Timothy 4: 2 ) I would think those are almost the same words that John Wesley and Francis Asbury used when they sent out the first circuit riders some two hundred and sixty years ago.
Circuit riders were usually laymen who rode on horseback or in a carriage from town to town bringing the Gospel message to the various Methodist societies of the time. Today is Laity Sunday and we are celebrating that heritage of the United Methodist Church. The Hudson River Valley is home to some of the earliest and oldest circuits in the history of the Methodist Church.
Figure 4 – “Methodist Circuit Rider” – engraving, early 19th century (from 200 Years of United Methodism – An Illustrated History – http://oldwww.drew.edu/books/200Years/gallery/gal050.htm)
The early church and its circuit riders faced many problems helping this new church grow and survive. In the early days of this country, when we were still part of England, Methodists were considered part of the Anglican Church. They were able to receive communion in their local churches.
But, as the American Revolution began to separate colonies from the mother country, so too did Methodists separate from the Anglican Church. And, when many Anglican priests left for England because of the Revolution, there was no way for Methodists could receive the sacraments. As laymen, circuit riders had no authority to baptize or offer Holy Communion.
In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 18: 1 – 8), we heard the cries of one person for justice and the action of a judge to bring about justice, even if that is not what he wanted to do. That was the cry of the American people some two hundred and sixty years ago. Without the sacraments, there was a feeling of incompleteness and emptiness that no circuit rider, however good a preacher he might be, could fill.
It was a problem that John Wesley struggled with for a long time. Wesley was a firm believer in the rules of the Anglican Church. As such, he did not feel that he had the power or the authority to ordain ministers who could administer the Holy Sacraments. But the Anglican Church in England would not answer the cries of the American people, so Wesley took it upon himself to solve the problem by ordaining Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as bishops.
Thus the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in 1784. But even then there were still too few elders to offer the sacraments on a regular basis to the increasing number of Methodists in this country. During the decades of the circuit rider and laity led church services, communion was offered on, at best, a quarterly basis. Eventually most Methodist Churches were served by ordained elders. (Adapted from This Holy Mystery) But without the use of circuit riders and the laity, the Methodist Church would not have grown in those early years. And even today, there are many times when lay speakers are called upon to carry the Gospel message to the people of the church.
As we celebrate the past and the growth of the church through the years, so too do we look to the future. Today Grace Church is planting three gardens. Each of these gardens, in their own way, will have roots that run deep. Each of these gardens will be nourished by the love and care that comes from the members of the church. The first garden is in the corner of the parking lot and will be a place of memory and meditation. The second garden will be in the plot of land between Broadway and the parking lot. This will be a garden for the future, planted by our children. With love and care, these two gardens will have roots that run deep and strong and will last long after we are gone.
The third garden also has roots that run deep and strong. It is the garden found in our soul. It is the garden that grows when we bring the Holy Spirit into each of our lives. In today’s Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 31: 27 – 34), we heard Jeremiah announce to the people there was a new covenant, a new agreement between God and the people. Just as He watched the people tear things down and allow evil to be in the land, so too will He now watch people build and plant.
None of these gardens will grow if we do not tend to them with love and care. This is especially true when it comes to tending the garden of the spirit. For, if people hear false words or follow their own desires, they will quickly turn away. Paul warned Timothy about this and his words are prophetically true today. Words of false hope or selfishness will kill gardens but words of truth guided the Spirit will help the garden grow.
So, as we come to the Table this morning, we remember that night some two thousand years ago when the disciples gathered with Jesus in the Upper Room. We hear the words that have been spoken throughout the ages at gatherings such today; that is where our roots lie. As we celebrate our heritage as Methodists today and in the coming days, so do we also celebrate the presence of Christ in our lives.