This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2002. The Scriptures were Exodus 16: 2 -15, Philippians 1: 21 – 30, and Matthew 20: 1 -16.
It was, I believe the explorer Sir George Mallory, who was asked why someone would want to climb Mount Everest. His reply is the classic response for all great challenges, “Because it is there.” President John Kennedy, when laying down the challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade said, “We choose not to go because it is easy, but because it is difficult.” He said so knowing that we had yet to even orbit a man and that the equipment for completing the operation was not even on the drawing boards.
But it is very rare to see such an attitude today. For the most part, any new effort is met with skepticism and reluctance. Any challenge put forth to an individual today is often met with the response “What’s in it for me?” Were there still a sense of adventure in the world today, like there was in the early 60’s, mankind would have a presence on the moon and we would be well on our way to traveling to the planet Mars and perhaps beyond. The International Space Station would be have been completed and done so in a major effort of cooperation and collaboration worthy of its name, rather than piece meal and when ever it is possible.
Yes, there are challenges on this earth that need to be faced and priorities must be made so that those who are without have the basic needs. But when you take away adventure and the reason for going beyond the next curve in the road, you offer no hope to anyone.
The Israelites went out into the desert, not knowing what was before them, only that they were headed for the Promised Land. But the moment they became hungry, they began complaining. “Are we to die in the desert at the hands of the Lord when we could have had our fill at the dinner table in Egypt?” they cried, conveniently forgetting the life of slavery that went with that life.
The workers who worked the full day complained that they should have gotten more because they worked the most, forgetting that payment was made at the discretion of the landowner who paid them and it was the amount they had agreed to receive. You cannot complain when what you get is what you were told you would get.
It is hard to determine the reward that we should get for the work that we do. It has always amazed me to read about John Wesley and the early troubles he encountered in the development of the Methodist movement. We wear the badge of Methodist quite proudly, knowing that it was an epithet of slander and hatred.
Wesley openly opposed those who practiced what he called a lukewarm Christianity. He labored to bring every area of his own life into submission to Jesus Christ. His zeal, along with that of the other members of the fledgling Methodist revival, provoked ridicule. The name “Methodist” was given to this group because of their methodical devotion to daily rituals and the discipline they imposed on their lives.
Yet, even with a semi-monastic existence and a devotion to good works, each of these Oxford Methodists could claim the receipt of certainty found in God’s love. Their toil and labors, their strict self-examination, rigorous spiritual discipline, sacrificial good works left them far short of peace and joy promised in the Gospel. Later, Wesley would speak of these times as being in a “spiritual wilderness.”
The meaning that Wesley so desperately sought came only after that momentous night at Aldersgate when he welcomed the presence of the Holy Spirit into his life. It was this Presence which gave both John and Charles Wesley the sense of peace and comfort so often stated in the Gospel. It was the same for Paul; as we read in his letter to the Philippians, it was the presence of Christ in his life that gave the meaning to his (Paul’s) life.
Wesley never sought to create a new church; in fact, he remained a minister in the Church of England all his life. What he sought to do was to bring a sense of purpose to the stated mission of the church, to give meaning to the words of the Gospel. How should we measure the results of Wesley’s work? It can never be said that he understood what he had accomplished, but no less a source than the Cambridge Modern History stated that the most positive influence in eighteenth-century England was “John Wesley and the religious revival to which he gave his name and life.”
But what Wesley sought could not have been accomplished had he not accepted the Holy Spirit into his life that night at Aldersgate. There is no way we can ever seek to gain any rewards if our rewards are tied to earth. Perhaps my favorite Bible passage is Ecclesiastes 3 (“To every thing there is a season”). It speaks of our time under earth; but in chapter 2, the Preacher spoke of the futility of a life spent trying to gain everything there was, as if it would provide the meaning of life. Just as Wesley saw that nothing was possible without the presence of the Holy Spirit, so too did the Preacher point out that life without God was meaningless.
There is nothing wrong with seeking rewards for what we do; it is perhaps only natural. But it always amazes me when I read about some individual who no one knew and everyone ignored who gives a college or university a tremendous amount of money simply because it was the right thing to do. At least one church received the money to build a parsonage because, on one Sunday, the congregation was nice to a stranger passing through. Nothing was said but this stranger was made to feel welcome one particular Sunday. And many years later, a check from the estate was mailed to the church. The reward for simply doing what is right can never be measured in the present time.
Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church is faced with a challenge. If this congregation is to go beyond the present time, there are those who must step up, who must face the challenge without any sense of reward or entitlement. It is not a challenge to do everything by themselves, but rather pick an area of leadership and help the entire congregation move into the future. There are some that will say that it cannot be done and if no one picks up the challenge, that will be the case.
In those days prior to that wondrous encounter with the Holy Spirit at Aldersgate, John Wesley was near death. Because he saw his method as a failure, because he saw his missionary work in Georgia as a failure, Wesley came back to England prepared to die. Yet, he did not die but rather he surrendered his soul to the Holy Spirit. In turning over his life, he gained that which he sought. He may never have understood the reward that came with his work; such rewards are only measured through the pages of time. But he did gain a sense of peace that he had long sought.
So too is it for us. We may never gain a sense of reward for the work that we do now. But that is not why we do it; we do it so that others may gain the reward of having Christ as a presence in their lives. And that may be the best reward we can ever experience.