I am preaching at Lake Mahopac UMC (Mahopac, NY) this Sunday morning, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for today are Genesis 18: 1 – 15, Romans 5: 1- 8, and Matthew 9: 35 – 10:8.
This summer promises to be an interesting period of time. First, with the heat wave that we had last week, it would appear that summer has arrived even though the calendar tells us that it won’t actually be summer for another week or so. And while the calendar says that it is just June, the political campaigns have all the hallmarks of late September or early October. The airwaves are filled with attacks and counter-attacks, accusations and denials, mud-slinging and more mud-slinging. The only thing that is not taking place is a serious discussion of the issues that mankind faces in these early days of the 21st century.
The one nice thing about the political campaigns of today is that religion has been pushed to the back when compared to previous campaigns. That is not to say that it is entirely gone but only that it is being pushed back. It might have been nice if it hadn’t because we definitely need a serious discussion of religion in our lives but not within the framework of politics.
We need to understand what people believe when it comes to the Bible and the message of Christ. We need to understand what exactly the message of Islam is and how, like so many other religions including Christianity, it has been twisted and transformed into something entirely different. We need to understand what are the heart and soul of our life and how a belief in Jesus Christ as a Savior has been transformed into a corporate-based philosophy where big is better and individuals are shunned.
We need to understand what the Bible is and what it is not. We have to understand that a thing like the Rapture, so often mentioned in today’s popular religion, is not in the Bible but is in the writings of a 19th century preacher, John Darby.
We need to see that the Gospel message is more than just the saving of souls but a transformation of society. It is not a transformation of society into one bound by religions laws and principles but one guided and directed by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The words that we hear from politicians and preachers alike are words of hate and fear. The words of Jesus were words of promise and hope. When will we begin to ask or demand that those who wish to lead us socially or spiritually offer what was offered some two thousand years ago. When is the time for us to respond?
I would say that now is that time. We can start by thinking about what we read in the Bible. You cannot simply read it and say “that’s nice” or “that’s interesting.” You have to put some thought into what you read. And that is the problem we have today. Too many people want to take what is written in this book at face value. How many times did someone, a Pharisee or a Scribe, come up to Jesus and ask Him a question about the Scriptures or law that was intended to trap Jesus but ultimately showed the ignorance of the questioner?
When you take the Bible at face value, one of two things is apt to happen. You either develop a view of the world that is fixed and two thousand years old or you get confused by the contradictions and contrary actions that are described in the chapters of both the Old and New Testament. Either way, you miss the message and misunderstand the words. You look at the world around you and try to fit the world into the Bible; to use a quote by George Bernard Shaw that was often used by Robert Kennedy, “instead of seeing things as they could be and asking why not, you see things as they are and ask why.”
For me, the Bible is not a history book, a science book, or a novel. It is an explanation of the presence of God in our lives. It is about the relationship we have with God and others; it is not meant to be a restrictive set of rules. (See Jim Wallis’ comments about the Bible at “The Bible Is Neither Conservative or Liberal”.)
Yet there are those today who believe that the Bible should be nothing more than a restrictive set of rules governing our every action and thought. They would have us live in a world of laws and rules that govern our daily lives, literally telling us what to say and think, and even literally telling us when to breath. It is no wonder that so many people rebel against the church!
But against this perception, we have to remember that Christ Himself told us that He was the embodiment of the law and that the law was superseded by the Spirit. Two thousand years ago, Israel was a society of religious laws.
Now, the basis for laws in Israel in Jesus’ time was the Ten Commandments. But, because the people were so afraid of breaking the Ten Commandments, 613 additional laws were created. Now, of these 613 laws, 365 began with “thou shalt not” and were, thus, negative in nature (the other 248 were positive in nature, beginning with “thou shall”; from “The Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner, page 37). Like the Pharisees of old, we make rules and regulations that create, control, and curb personal holiness. In the name of freedom, we create laws that take away our freedom. Jesus tried to get us to see beyond the rules and regulations of society and into the spirit that was behind the law.
We are reminded that the primary emphasis of both the Old and New Testaments is how we care for people, old and young, rich and poor, those who have and those who don’t. We are reminded that if we took our Bibles and removed every reference to poverty, the poor, or the needy then it would fall apart. The Bible and Christianity are not about the rich getting richer or the healthy staying healthy or the free remaining free. It is about the poor being given opportunities, the sick being healed and the imprisoned and down-trodden being offered hope and freedom.
Read the Gospel message for today (Matthew 9: 35 – 10: 8), especially the first two verses, again.
Then Jesus made a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke.
It does not matter what translation of the Bible you read the Gospel message from. In all cases, Jesus has compassion for the people as they come to him because they were confused and lost, helpless and sick, and without hope.
In 1960, when he was running for President of the United States, John Kennedy came face to face with what may have been one of the best-kept secrets of this country, the poverty of our rural areas. It changed his view of this country and it probably made him a better person.
And it changed his brother Robert as well. The other day, on the anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death, I wrote
He was a politician who challenged the people to act and not simply accept the status quo. He pushed people to get involved. He was angry at a society that would allow people to go hungry in the rural areas of this country and not protect the workers who harvested the food that the middle and upper classes of this country ate. He was angry at a society that would fight a war that appeared to have no end and would sacrifice a generation of children. But he did not simply voice his anger. He offered solutions that were solutions; he challenged people to act; he challenged people to do what was right, not what was necessarily the popular thing. (“Forty Years Ago”)
As David Ulm wrote,
Stumping in South Dakota, he spent one of his two days in the state on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In Indiana, during a lunch sponsored by the Vincennes Civitan Club, he assailed a group of businessmen on the subject of hunger, offering what Tom Congdon Jr. of the Saturday Evening Post would characterize as “reverse demagoguery — he was telling them precisely the opposite of what they wanted to hear.” Later, at Indiana University’s School of Medicine, he chided the doctors in training for failing to make “decent medical care something more than a luxury of the affluent” and spoke against draft deferments as unfair to the poor. (http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/la-bk-ulin1-2008jun01,0,4884048.story)
Politics is about people but politics today is a far cry from a concern about people. At a time when the gap between rich and poor grows larger with every minute, I do not see or hear any leader stepping forth to proclaim that we need to be caring for the less fortunate and the forgotten. Rather, I see and hear too many leaders listening to the rich and want-to-be-powerful while the poor and less fortunate are pushed aside and quickly forgotten. They are unwilling to take the time to see the world around them and work, as Jesus proclaimed that first day of his ministry in the Nazareth synagogue, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and bring the Good News to the oppressed.
Our politics today, no matter what some may say, are not politics of hope and promise for tomorrow; they are the politics of fear, offering words that encourage hatred and division. They are words that say that it is perfectly reasonable to seek wealth. It was given to you by God and you need not feel guilty about being wealthy. Poverty is a state of mind and those who are poor deserve their fate. It is not our responsibility to take care of the poor; giving money to the poor and social programs only wastes our money.
And what is perhaps worse is that too many people who are affected by this dichotomy in political and social policy are quite willing to accept this way of thinking because they think that they will somehow move up in the world. They are quite willing to place the blame for society’s ills and problems on others, somehow hoping that those who have will remember those who do not have.
The politics of today tell us to fight those who would teach new theories or bring about change in society. New thoughts run counter to tradition and when you challenge tradition, society falls apart. New knowledge can only destroy the values of society.
The politics of today tell us that only military power will defeat evil. We hear that the only thing evil understands is raw power and those who say that you can counter evil with love are extremely naïve. But violence only generates more violence and those exposed to violence see violence as the only solution to their problems. Terrorism and hatred grow out of violence and when violence is used to combat terror, it can only breed more.
The politics of today tells us that others are to blame for the troubles of society. It is those who have different economic status, different lifestyles, or different skin colors that are to blame for society’s troubles. We are told to cast aside those who are not like us; we are told to build walls, physical or otherwise, that keep them strangers away (adapted from “The Vision of Hope”).
We are told that our problems are caused because illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans. Let us ignore for a moment that many of the jobs that immigrants fill are jobs that Americans will not take and let us forget that many immigrants work for wages below what many Americans feel are acceptable. And let us forget about punishing companies and corporations who hire illegal immigrants. Let us try and remember that we, or some member of our family, were once strangers in a strange land and we were once welcomed.
But how do we react to visitors to our church, our city, or our country? Right now, our country wants to build a wall along our Southern border to keep out the illegal immigrants. It is a physical wall today; it has been a legal wall in the past. But, yet, people still come to this country.
We claim that our history and our heritage is based on the Bible. What was the first thing that Abraham did in today’s Old Testament reading when the three visitors came to his camp site? He welcomed them with food and drink and he washed their feet; he made them feel welcome.
Many years ago a visitor came to a church. I was a member of that church but this visitor came many years before I did. And though his stay was a brief one, it was one that he remembered, for the people of the church made him feel welcome and a part of the community. And as a result of the efforts of the church community to make a stranger feel welcome and comfortable, when he died, his estate sent the church a check that enabled the church to build a new parsonage and turn the old one into an educational building.
But when I came to that church, only one person other than the minister and his wife said hello to my family and me. And it was a dying church. Somehow, that church had forgotten what had happened when they welcomed visitors. Fortunately, that situation of ignoring visitors changed and the church recovered and grew.
Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten what it is that we are supposed to do. Somewhere along the line, we began putting up walls and barriers that keep others out. And we forgot that when we do that, when we put up walls to keep others out, we trap ourselves in a prison of our own making. We need to see the world differently; we need for our actions to be different.
The economic situation today, the politics of the world and the nation all seem to say that there is nothing the little person, the common person can do. We hear the words of the Gospel to do the seeming impossible. We can barely make it ourselves and here today Jesus is telling us to go out into the world and do his work. When are we going to find the time? When are we going to find the wherewithal that will enable us to do it?
Some forty years ago, Martin Luther King came to my home town of Memphis. He came because there was a labor problem and he had been asked to help. And one night he got up before the workers, their supporters, and their leadership and gave a speech. We remember him telling us that there would be difficult times ahead and that he probably would not be with us at the end of the journey. This speech on April 3, 1968 was prophetic, not because Dr. King would die the next day but because of the other things he said that night.
He also spoke of God asking him what age of civilization he might want to live in. His answer to that most interesting question was
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion is all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”
And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it is nonviolence or nonexistence.
That is where we are today. And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.
It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” (which I take to mean angels rather than something more Southern in nature) in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do. (from I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” – Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968)
When is the time to begin the work of the Gospel? The time is now. Before he spoke of being on the mountain top and seeing the Promised Land, before he spoke prophetically of his own death and the likelihood that he would not reach the Promised Land, he spoke of the Good Samaritan and the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the path taken by the injured man, the rabbi, the Levite, and the Good Samaritan.
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administering first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meetings—an ecclesiastical gathering—and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Forty years later, these are still difficult times, especially if we are to bring the Gospel into reality. The road that we have chosen to walk will not be an easy one to walk. And quite frankly, we don’t always want to have to walk the hard road; we would like to sometimes walk the easy path or the soft path.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul points out that 1) no road that we walk will ever be has hard as the one Christ had to walk and that 2) we know what truly lies at the end of our walk. And while it is uneasy to hear Martin Luther King’s words predicting his own death and while we do not want to hear Paul say that there are people for whom we should be willing to die, we also hear Paul tell us that we need not seek death. In fact, we are not asked to see death for Christ because Christ died for us; rather, we are asked to work for Christ in this world.
Too often we see the Gospel in terms of what we need. We see the need for the Gospel, especially as it pertains to the sick, the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the oppressed, and we wonder what we can do that we haven’t already done. But perhaps now, more than ever, is the time that we see the Gospel as the Good Samaritan saw it and as Dr. King expressed it. A phrase that resonated throughout my high school and college years was “if not now, when; if not me, who?” We are asked to fulfill the Gospel message; we are asked to do it today. And we have the capabilities to do so.
When God first spoke to Abram, He said that He would make Abram the father of many nations. But Abram was seventy-five and had no children. In today’s Old Testament reading, he is now Abraham and almost ninety. Sarah, his wife, is also close to ninety and, it would appear, no longer fertile. But God says that he will return within the year and when He does, Sarah will be pregnant. And when she hears this, Sarah does what we might do if that were the case with us, she laughed.
Much can be made about what happens next in this story, as it has for some two thousand years. I don’t know if Sarah was really ninety years old when she was told that she would be pregnant within the year or if the writer of the story set it up so that it would be more dramatic. That is not the point of the story.
It was, as Paul and others would write, by faith that Abram left his home and took Sarai to lands that God would show him. It was by faith that Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah. It was by faith that Abraham took God’s word that he would be the father of many nations.
It is that story of faith that continues today with each one of us. By our presence, our prayers and our declaration this morning of our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior, we continue this story that has come down through the ages. And because we have chosen to continue the story, we must be willing and prepared to take on the tasks that Christ asks us to take on.
Who will go out and harvest? Who will go out and proclaim the Gospel? Who will proclaim the Gospel message of healing, comfort, hope and promise to the world. We will be the ones to proclaim the Gospel message and we know that now is the time to do so.