This is the message that I am presenting at South Highlands United Methodist Church, 19 Snake Hill Road, Garrison, NY 10524 (Location of church); the service starts at 9:30 am. The Scriptures for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost are Genesis 45: 1 – 15, Romans 11: 1 – 2 and 29 – 32, and Matthew 15: 10 – 20 and 21 – 28.
During this summer, when I have preached at nine different churches over the past eight weeks and where I will preach at two more churches in the coming two weeks, I was reminded of something I wrote two years ago (“My Father’s House”).
At certain times during the year, I will be in certain places. And, one of those times, unless I am called to be somewhere else to do our Father’s business, will always be Easter Sunday and that place that I should be is my home church.
It was the Gospel reading for today and the cry of the Canaanite woman “that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” that reminded me of Easter in 1969. Then I was a precocious 18-year old college sophomore. In many ways, it had not been a good year. I was not doing well in school and the specter of the draft was looming over me.
Like so many individuals of that time, I was searching for a meaning to what was transpiring in my life. And because of the political currents of that particular time in our country’s history, I was also trying to figure out how we could live in a world of war and hatred, of poverty and ignorance when the Gospel message was a message of hope and freedom.
As I was preparing for spring break and my trip home, I could not help but think that I would be missing something important. While Memphis, TN was and is my home, my home church that year was in Kirksville and I did not want to miss the Easter services or communion at First United Methodist Church in Kirksville. I knew that there was the possibility of communion at Bartlett United Methodist Church, the church where my parents were members and which I attended while in high school. But it was not my home church and there was a feeling in me at the time that I needed to somehow take communion before I left for the break.
To that end, I approached Marvin Fortel, then the minister at First Church, about taking communion before leaving. He was a little taken back by the request, because most of the students who attended the services were members of churches in their hometown and only attended out of obligation to their parents. But he agreed to my request and we met in the chapel of the church before I left.
It was not a normal communion but rather a chance to talk about the process of communion and what it meant. And while I know I had been through the ritual of communion before, this was the first time that I had ever really looked at the words that were said during communion. The words that we spoke that day in 1969 then were not the words that begin on page 6 of our current hymnal but rather the words that begin on page 26 (we were using the old hymnal, not the present one).
And I, the worldly-wise college sophomore, remember proclaiming and wondering to the pastor, how could it be that I was not so worthy as to gather up the crumbs from under the Lord’s Table, the words of the Canaanite women. Didn’t Christ’s death on the cross give me the right to sit at God’s table with everyone else?
That is when I began to learn and understand about God’s grace. It was God’s grace that allows me to sit at His table and nothing that I do on my own would ever give me that seat. It was then I began to learn that I could not earn my way into heaven; that my standing up for the rights of others, while noble and just, did little to open the gates of heaven for me. But, because I have accepted Christ as my Savior, then it was expected that I would stand up and speak out and bring the Gospel message to its fruition.
When I left the chapel that day, I left with a better understanding of what communion meant and what it meant to be both a Methodist and a Christian. Communion took on a different meaning for me that day.
What I learned that day in the chapel and have come to understand over the years is that no matter who I am or what I am, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross opened the door to God’s House for me. No matter what the problems of the world may be or are, there is a place in which I can find shelter and solace. I came away from the church understanding that, having come to Christ and taken on the label of a Methodist, I needed to work for Christ so that others could have the same opportunity.
And that is probably the hardest thing we as Christians must ever do, help others to find the opportunity, the hope, the peace that comes in knowing Christ. We live in a time where the word “Christian” is viewed with contempt and derision. The meaning of the word has been transposed from one who follows Christ and brings people in to one who uses the name of Christ to exclude people and to deny people the very things that Christ brought to this world.
We live in a world where it seems that we must respond to every act of violence against us in kind. We live in a world where people quote the Bible and “say an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as a measure of revenge. We live in a world where logic dictates that violence is to be met with violence and one in which evil must be fought with evil. It is a logic that has created a world of laws designed to meet every contingency, every possibility but which has created a world in which hope has been lost and there is no promise for the future.
It is our relationship with others that first defined the laws by which we would live but our society has quickly become one where the laws define our relationships. It enables us to view individuals as enemies because they don’t follow our laws or our interpretations of the law. It enables us to use violence as a means to an end because logic demands that the only solution to violence is more violence. But Jesus refused to see any person as an enemy; he refused to believe that peaceful ends could be gained by violent means, and he refused to use violence to overthrow evil.
We forget that Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. Jesus does more than simply deny the spiritual validity of an eye for an eye; he removes the right to engage in violent self-defense when an “evildoer” violates your humanity. Because someone wrongs you, you do not have the right to wrong your assailant. You may have the power to get even, but God does not give you the right to do so. Nor do you have the right to imitate the evil that led to the assault upon you. Again, you may have the power, but Jesus reminds us of what Amos said in calling us away from the imitation of evil:
“Seek good and not evil, that you may live . . . Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” (Amos 5: 14 – 15)
We are faced with a dilemma when it comes to fighting anger, violence, and hatred. One’s concept of “rights” easily conflicts with one’s concept or feeling of moral duty. If I am wronged, it is my “right” to do wrong against him who has wronged me. If I am wronged, it is my moral duty to behave not as instinctive reaction would dictate, but only as reason and good sense show — for two wrongs do not make a right, and fire added to fire will surely burn the house down. (Adapted from Letters of a C. O. in Prison by Timothy W. L. Zimmer, page 25)
We are tempted to say that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good. But it is what comes after good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines what actions we will take. Do we practice what we preach? Or do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And in advocating freedom, do we refuse to face the real threat to the security that our freedom affords us? If in advocating love, do we hate the haters more than they hate us? If we are to preach love, freedom, and peace, we must first love, be free, and be peaceful — or better yet, not preach at all but let love, peace, and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (Adapted from Letters of a C. O. in Prison by Timothy W. L. Zimmer, page 37)
It would seem that it is our human nature to strike back, to seek revenge for the wrongs that others have done for us. Let us consider the scene in today’s reading for the Old Testament. Joseph has gathered his brothers together and it is altogether possible that the brothers fear for their lives. Remember, as this passage begins, they do not know that this is their brother to whom they are speaking and that he has arranged things so it would appear that they have stolen money from him. Joseph is the 2nd most powerful man in Egypt and they are at his mercy. Their thoughts that day must have been that they are about to die.
And what would you expect Joseph to do? After all, the rules of society then, as now, demanded revenge for injustice and no one, not even his brothers, would have said that he was wrong for not seeing revenge. They had sold him into slavery and told their father that he was dead. Revenge, no matter the form it took, would only have seemed right. The Count of Monte Cristo is but one example of such revenge.
But Joseph doesn’t seek revenge; he doesn’t seek justice. For whatever reasons, Joseph had an understanding of God’s purpose first told to him in the dreams of his youth and then in the dreams that he interpreted. His relationship with God would not allow him to seek what society said he could seek. Rather, he was to seek what God wanted and that was reconciliation and renewal.
If the hardest thing for us to do is help others come to know Christ, then the second hardest thing is to understand our purpose and place in God’s plan. Society tells us one thing and it tells us so loud and so convincingly that we can never hear what God is saying.
Paul wrote the Romans and told them that even though there were those who had rejected Christ and were persecuting the Christians, God’s mercy also applied to them. We still have a hard time with that statement for we try to measure God’s grace in our own terms. It is not up to us to decide what God will do.
There are many today who seek God through paths that don’t require Christ. It is not up to me to say to such a person that they are barred from heaven; if they truthfully and faithfully follow the tenets of what they believe, salvation shall be theirs. If they twist and corrupt the essentials of that religion, then salvation shall be lost. Nor can you create a religion out of the best parts of other religions and hope to achieve a good result.
It is not up to us to say to those who walk another path but believe in the same God that our rules apply to you when they don’t. But it is just as true that if you say you are a Christian but your life and thoughts do not reflect the life and thoughts of Christ, then you risk the same result.
We live in a world where many people have taken it upon themselves to decide who gets to sit at God’s table. And when we set the rules that only God has the power to set, we risk our expulsion from that table. We see so many people today who have rejected the words of Christ because of the hypocrisy of the people who twist the words. The theologian Henri Nouwen wrote
The Gospel doesn’t just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition. The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables. Doctrines are not alien formulations which we must adhere to but the documentation of the most profound human experiences which, transcending time and place, are handed over from generation to generation as a light in our darkness. (From Reaching Out by Henri J. M. Nouwen)
Joseph, after so many years, invited his brothers to sit at his table, even though we might think that they did not deserve such privileges. Jesus opened the doors of heaven to everyone who would but express their faith. And Paul reminds us that all are worthy of God’s grace, even when they have seemingly turned away or sought to work against Him.
As we go out into the world, we are asked to be Christ’s disciples, to live the life as Christ led His. We go out into the world as Methodists, to live a life as John Wesley would. It has been said that John Wesley was not a systematic theologian but, rather, a theologian of the road. He did not see theology as something to be observed from a distance but rather as a part of one’s life. Systematic theologians see the world as an exercise of thought, cold, and authoritarian, removed from life. Theologians of the road share fully in the hustle and bustle of the streets, giving themselves to the dust, the sweat, and tediousness of travel, and who work out their answers as they walk along in company with others, sharing the burdens.
The core precept here is not about passivity or flight. It is about fighting back with different weapons. It is about resisting evil without showing enmity. It is about responding as Jesus taught us to respond, not how we think we should respond. (Adapted from “Higher Ground: The Nonviolence Imperative” by James M. Lawson, Jr. in Getting on Message – challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel, Rev. Peter Laarman, editor)
One way of being a Methodist today is to survey human needs and bring to bear on them any resources of the Christian faith that can help, even if this requires new syntheses, new emphases, and the rediscovery of neglected truth. When John Wesley began his work, it was to rescue the poor and forgotten. It brought hope and a promise to a world that was convinced that there was no hope and no promise. (Adapted from Economic Policies and Judicial Oppression as Formative Influences on the Theology of John Wesley, Wesley D. Tracy – http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyan_theology/theojrnl/26-30/27.2.htm)
For many people today, it is the same. And so it is that we who proclaim to be Christ’s disciples in this world, we who hold the banner of Methodism in our hearts and in our minds should begin again those things which John Wesley did. Let us proclaim the Gospel message of healing the sick, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, freeing the oppressed in spirit and mind, and feeding the hungry. Let us begin by asking who will sit at our table.