On this 12th Sunday after Pentecost, I am once again at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church). The service starts at 11. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 32: 22 – 31, Romans 9: 1- 5, Matthew 14: 13 – 21. I have edited this since it was first posted on Saturday.
As I began working on this sermon my thoughts turned to a saying from the Talmud. It says that
“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.”
I first came across this passage when I read about John Kennedy’s quest to become president. It was an explanation of the thinking involved in why he, President Kennedy, sought the presidency in 1960. It would not surprise me that many of those who have sought that office, both before 1960 and since then, have had pretty much the same thought.
And, no matter what our own ambitions might be, we have probably all had that same thought; that we have been or are in a particular place and time because we were meant to be there. It is perhaps a continuation of Paul’s thoughts over the past few weeks that we are responding to God’s plan. But the problem is that while we may think that we are where God would like us to be, we may not, in fact, be in that time and place. But as I worked on this thought and things have progressed this week, I have come to a conclusion that there are two meanings to this thought of being in a particular place at a particular time.
There is that time when we personally encounter God through Christ. And there is that time when others will encounter Christ through us.
Consider what is happening to Jacob in the Old Testament reading for today. He is returning to his home after some fourteen years. He is returning with two wives, two maids, and eleven sons. He is wealthy and his life is far beyond what he might have expected. Yet, he is worried. He has heard a rumor that his brother Esau is sending some four hundred men to meet him. When he last saw Esau, Esau had threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright. And with this rumor of the four hundred men coming, Jacob is worried. No matter how much wealth Jacob gained, no matter how much he sends to his brother, he is struggling with the fact that his wealth and well-being is due in part to how he treated his brother.
This is a time of great struggle for Jacob. As the commentary notes, Jacob had struggled almost from birth. He was born clutching the heel of his brother Esau and then he struggled with Laban, his kinsman, concerning his marriage to Rachel. And now, he is truly afraid. In the preceding passages, Jacob is doing everything he can think of to appease Esau for the wrong that he did to him. Amidst all of his own personal struggles, he encounters God, even though he doesn’t know that it is God. This encounter comes because Jacob is trying to resolve the problems of his life through the ways and means of society’s rules. His encounter with God is to change his life and, in changing his life, change the future.
At one time or another in our life, we have experienced what Jacob is going through in this passage and the preceding ones. And just like Jacob, we may not even know that where we are is where we will encounter God.
We see the world around us and we wonder if we have done the right thing. In a world where faith has become abused, belittled, and limited, we struggle with our own faith because we are not certain if it is enough. We ask why we must struggle because we have been a person of faith, faithful to God and His work while others say the words of faith while their actions belie their faith. It is a personal struggle and it can be defeating; it causes many to question the very existence of God and the purpose that He has for each one of us.
The problem is that we often have no way of knowing or finding out what the Will of God is. We seek the answers to such questions from a society that cannot give us the answers. And our struggle is hard because society and the times we live in make faith so superficial. The answer will never be found in present-day society. Evelyn Underhill wrote,
I do not think that any general answer can be given to this. In clear moral or political issues, we must surely judge and act by the great truths and demands of Christianity; and if we have the pluck to do this, then, as we act, more and more we shall perceive the direction the Will. That choice, cause, or action, which is least tainted by self-interest, which makes for the increase of happiness — health – beauty — peace — cleanses and harmonizes life, must always be in accordance with the will of the Spirit which is drawing life towards perfection. The difficulty comes when there is a conflict of loyalties, or a choice between two apparent gods. At such points many people feel unaware of any guidance, unable to discern or understand the signals of God; not because the signals are not given, but because the mind is too troubled, clouded and hurried to receive them. “He who is in a hurry,” said St. Vincent de Paul, “delays the things of God.” But when those who are at least attempting to live the life of the Spirit, and have consequently become more or less sensitive to its movements to have no clear light, they will often become aware, if they will wait in quietness, of a subtle yet insistent pressure in favour of the path which they should take. The early Friends were accustomed to trust implicitly in indications of this kind, and were usually justified. When there is no such pressure, then our conduct should be decided by charity and common sense; qualities which are given to us by God in order that they may be used. (From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill)
But you will ask, and well you should ask, how can I do that? When or where will I find that moment when the problems and troubles of the world do not interfere with my desire to find God? How can I sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life when the world around me won’t let me? And the only answer that I can give, as I have asked this question more times than I care to admit, is I don’t know.
I do know, as you probably know, of the anguish in John Newton’s soul when he wrote the words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” These are not just words of private guilt, individual salvation, or personal piety; they are the words of someone who was a wretch, whose income was derived from the sale and trading of human beings yet whose life was transformed by Jesus Christ one night on a storm-tossed ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
We know that Martin Luther King, Jr., was just a beginning pastor, fresh from seminary, when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. We know that he spoke of not entering the Promised Land of racial equality the night before he was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. But we probably are not aware that death threats against his family and he were a part of his life from the very beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956.
And despite all his training in philosophy and theology, despite growing up in the church, he had nothing that could not offer him comfort when confronted by the evil of segregation and the threats against his family and himself.
And as I read the description of what King himself called his “kitchen table relationship”, I saw in his life the lives of so many for whom the church was a life but a life in which they never strayed. But the comfort of the church cannot help if you do not have your own relationship with God, with Jesus, and with the Holy Spirit. As Dr. King noted, religion must be real to you, not simply something that you do in hopes of gaining salvation. That night in Montgomery, Alabama, some forty two years ago, he prayed. As he said,
Oh, yes, I prayed a prayer. I prayed out loud that night. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership. I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. I could hear an inner voice saying to me, Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for the truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world. I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. (Adapted from The Great Awakening by Jim Wallis)
I know that when I became Christ’s disciple, when I declared that I would follow Christ no matter what, I chose to follow a path that others don’t follow. I understand what Dr. King was saying because, while I have not led a national movement that would change the face of society, I have struggled with the idea that what I do is right but still seems hopeless. I have felt the emptiness that can only come from despair, the weakness that comes because you have nothing left. Yet, in those darkest moments of despair and failure, I have felt the presence of Holy Spirit guiding me, directing me, offering me comfort.
You hear the same tone in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Arrested for his participation in the anti-Nazi resistance movement during World War II, Bonhoeffer struggled with the very nature of what Christianity is, was, and will be. He struggled with the role Christianity was to play in the world around us. He came to the conclusion that while many people had felt the calming and supportive presence of the Holy Spirit, they had not accepted the Spirit into their lives.
Rather, they placed God on the edge of their lives, where they could call on Him whenever they were in danger. And when the problem is solved and the danger is gone, then they put God back on the shelf, ready to be used again when needed. The problem is that the danger or the threat never really disappeared. And each time we put God aside, we push Him further and further away, thus making it harder and harder to find Him when we really need Him.
The truth is that we must see Him as the Lord who is a part of our lives at all times, not just in our times of need but in our times of plenty, not just when we are weak but when we are strong. Our relationship with God is not a religious relationship with a Supreme Being, absolute in power and goodness but a new life for others, through our participation in the Being of God.
The people of Paul’s time did just that; they pushed God to the side and saved Him for the bad times. I think that too many people today have done the same thing. And that makes Paul’s words even more powerful. Listen to Paul’s words, especially as Clarence Jordan phrased the passage from Rome for today.
As a Christian who doesn’t lie and whose conscience is examined by the Holy Spirit, I’m telling you the honest truth: In my heart there is great grief and steady pain. I would be willing to sacrifice even my own life in Christ for the sake of my American Christian brethren. They are good folks; they are saved; they have prestige; they have worship services and Sunday schools; they have theological doctrines and are staunch supporters of Christ Himself. And God, who is over them all, is unceasingly magnified. So be it. (From Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, “Paul’s letter to the Christians in Washington”)
Paul is crying out because his people, the very people that God designated as His own, had everything going for them, yet they lost the opportunity that was given to them. They replaced the substance of the Spirit with the substance of things. And so busy were they protecting those things that they were blind to the call of the Spirit. That is why Paul was so angry with the people; they followed the book but didn’t talk the talk or walk the walk
Our lives should not be based on Jesus coming to us because we have done everything by the book but on our coming to Jesus and our walking with Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to the people, the people came to Jesus. They came to hear Him preach; the sick came to be healed. The people came because others had told them about Jesus. And like the multitudes that day, the people still seek Jesus today. And they seek Him for the same reasons. But they often do not find Him because no one can tell them where to look or where to go.
Paul will write later in this chapter that God’s people are not those who give the appearance of the Spirit but those whose lives are rooted in God’s promise. Evelyn Underhill also wrote,
We are the agents of the Creative Spirit in this world. Real advance in the spiritual life, then, means accepting this vocation with all it involves. Not merely turning over the pages of an engineering magazine and enjoying the pictures, but putting on overalls and getting on with the job. The real spiritual life must be horizontal as well as vertical; spread more and more as well as aspire more and more. (From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill)
Each one of us knows the hardships of life; the news each day tells us that life is not easy for most people. A colleague of mine on the Methoblog, Josh Tinley, recently posted the following comment that he had heard more than one commentator suggest that
“The key to surviving the sluggish economy is putting more money in savings. One pundit advised having enough money in savings to cover 9–12 months of living expenses (as opposed to the six-month reserve that financial advisers often advocate). When asked where these savings-account deposits might come from, the commentator in question advised selling stocks or investing less in stocks. Again, the people who are being hurt most by recent economic woes may not have more than 9–12 days of living expenses tucked away. They probably aren’t investing in many stocks, either. Telling them to save more isn’t terribly helpful.” (“A Fundamental Misunderstanding of the Problem”)
And I will say this; the time will come when a modern day Paul will say the same thing about those who proclaim themselves to be God’s chosen people and Christ’s disciples that Jesus proclaimed some two thousand years ago. When the time does come, those who proclaim the Gospel message but do nothing to fulfill the Gospel message will find that the place they have gained is not the one they thought would be theirs. It does little good for the few to seek wealth and well-being when so many are struggling, are sick, hungry, homeless, or oppressed. It does little good to tell someone to be of good cheer when they are cold, hungry, sick, or in jail. Yet that is what so many people do today. The answer is not found in society but through Christ.
There are two times when we will be at a particular time and place in our lives. The first is when we encounter God through Christ; the second is when we are called upon to be God’s representative and Christ’s disciple.
I wish that the first encounter were an easy one and perhaps for some it is. But for most, it is not and the struggles of the world make it very difficult to see Christ’s presence in our lives. I can certainly attest to that.
The question will always be “what will our response to the struggle be?” I do not believe that we are supposed to just accept our lot in life and live in misery because that is the way life is. I wish that no one had to struggle and I especially wish, hope, and pray that no one has to struggle while watching others in this world seemingly get everything while others have nothing. I can only say that we must continue, trying to find God in our lives and trying to be His representative hear on earth.
In his encounter with God, Jacob refused to give up, even when he was in pain. In the end, because he would not give up, he was granted God’s blessing and given a new name. And from that day, Jacob’s life had changed. The same is true for each one of us.
We cannot name the time and place where we will meet God. But there will be come such a time and there will be a place and we must be ready for that moment. Just as he never anticipated encountering God on his road to his ancient homeland, Jacob did not know that he would wrestle with God that night so many years ago. Jacob named the place where he encountered God after he had met God face to face, not before.
We might be like those who were on the hillside in Galilee that one day. We seek Jesus because we know that is where the answer lies. Amidst all the problems of the world, the people still sought Jesus. And we must do so as well.
And like Jacob, who encountered God in a place that came to be known as Peniel, our lives will change for the better because we encountered God through Christ.
And after we have encountered God through Christ some time in our lives, we will find ourselves in a particular time and place like the disciples did on that hillside in Galilee two thousand years ago. At some time and some place, we will be like Saul whose encounter with Christ changed his life and made him Paul, not the prosecutor of Christians but the missionary to the world.
The time will come and we will be in the place where we will hear God calling to us. We will hear God’s call if we but listen for it and not to society’s call. And then there will the time and the place when others will hear that same call. It will be by our example and being that others will know that there is hope and there is a promise for tomorrow. My friends, the time is now, the place is here.