This Sunday I am returning to New Milford/Edenville United Methodist Church (Location of Church). I was there on October 23, 2005 (“What Is The Promise?”), October 8, 2006 (“What Do We Say?”), and October 22, 2006 (““What Will You Ask For?”)
The service starts at 10:30. The Scriptures for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, and Matthew 21: 23 – 32.
It has been said that the comedian W. C. Fields was once caught reading the Bible. When he was asked why he was doing so, he replied that he was looking for loopholes. And while the story in itself may be apocryphal, it speaks to our own thoughts about the Bible and its role in our lives.
When I began preparing this sermon, I saw the phrase in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that you should not look to your own interests but to the interests of others as well (verse 4). It doesn’t matter if you read it from a traditional translation, a more modern one, such as The Message (which states “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”), or even from the Cotton Patch Gospel (“Never act competitively or for self-praise, but with humbleness esteem others as above yourselves. Don’t confine yourselves to your own interests, but seek the welfare of others.”) The words tell us that if we call ourselves Christians then our interests cannot take precedence over the interests of others. Yet, that is how Christianity is often portrayed.
These are critical times for believers. This is not about family values, moral decay, or the ability to worship your faith openly and without repercussion. This is about a difference between one’s view of faith and its prophetic vision. This is about the differences between a religion which promises easy certainty with absolutes and “black-and-white” issues and a religion the prompts a deeper reflection and a call to action. Those who promise easy certainty externalize their anxieties, fears, and insecurities, who seek to control others through violence and restriction; those who seek a deeper reflection and a call to action speak of independent thought, personal reflection, self-criticism, renewal, reformation and revival.
We see this in the exchange between the chief priests and elders with Jesus in the Gospel reading for today. Throughout the Gospel the majority of priests, elders, scribes, and other members of the establishment constantly questioned Jesus about His authority. They, the appointed representatives of God on earth, constantly sought to undermine Jesus in whatever He sought to do.
Now, as God’s representatives on earth, perhaps they had a right to do so. As it so clearly states in the Gospel, we have to be on guard against those who would preach in the name of God but yet be representatives of the Evil One. But the Pharisees, the scribes and the elders who questioned Jesus weren’t interested in determining the validity of His ministry; they were only interested in preserving their own power and status.
Early in my own faith development, growing up in the Deep South during the 50’s and 60’s, I saw many who call themselves Children of God yet whose words and actions were like those whom John the Baptist called vipers and hypocrites. Even today, when so much is made of the religion or the lack thereof of our leaders, it isn’t about true belief but who shall be in control and who shall be in power when the shouting is done.
Let’s face it. The establishment was very uncomfortable with His ministry. They objected to the idea of bringing sinners into the temple, of His associating with prostitutes and tax collectors, of healing the sick on the Sabbath. Their view of religion focused on those who really had no need for religion. Everything Jesus did worked against everything they stood for and worked to maintain.
The Philippian church was a culturally diverse church. In his letter, Paul specifically mentions an Asian, a Greek, and a Roman citizen; three different individuals representing three different races, three different social ranks, and probably each with a different religious loyalty before they each encountered Christ. Just as Jesus did in Jerusalem where he gathered all the people that the establishment did not want in the Temple, the church in Philippi broke the rules of society and class.
Somewhere in the history of the church, however, we lost that notion. I doubt that many people today understand that the label of Methodist was once a pejorative. We got our name because of the methodical way that John and Charles Wesley and their college friends went about their devotions and lives. But it quickly became the label for a trouble-maker and a revolutionary.
Even today, there are too many people who hold onto the view that church is a time and a place on Sunday. To borrow a phrase that is often associated with Las Vegas, many people are quite happy if what is said in the pulpit stays in the pulpit. Don’t ever challenge the people to think of church as something more than a social gathering on Sunday morning.
While Wesley believed that the churches primary mission was to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land”, he also understood that those words were meaningless without action. The United Methodist Church began because it spoke out against the direction society was taken. The people of the early Methodist movement spoke out against the callousness of society in putting its own interests above the needs of all its members. And the people of the early Methodist movement did more than just speak out; they put their words into action.
The early Methodist societies began what we would call a credit union to help people from being thrown into debtor’s prison. Others started job training programs. They started schools for children on Sunday because that was the only day that children were not working. They set up free health clinics because the poor and lower classes had no health care system.
But many people of Wesley’s time balked at this call; they barred Wesley and those who followed him from preaching in the established churches. And when the movement started building its own churches, it banned the building of those churches. If you get a chance, go to John Street United Methodist Church and read its history; it began as a meeting house because the established church of New York refused to allow Methodists to have their own church. To do what Wesley preached was simply too much for many people to take. To risk what you have for others, to give so that others would not suffer was simply too much to ask. But their actions were nothing new.
Consider the Israelites in their passage from Egypt to the Promised Land. As they left Egypt, they complained that they were going to die at the hands of the Egyptian army in the desert by the Red Sea. Last week, they complained about the lack of bread and meat; this week they complained about the lack of drinking water. It is quite easy to understand these complaints.
To the people on the Exodus, there was a certain degree of safety and security in their lives as slaves in Egypt. Their needs were met, that is certain. But their lives were controlled by others. In remembering the security and safety of their lives in Egypt, the Israelites forgot the harshness of that life. They forgot that they had called out to God to be saved. Each step on the journey, the people of Israel complained; each step of the way they forgot what God had done for them. They forgot how God defeated the Egyptian army in the mud and slop of the Red Sea. And while they cried out for food, they forgot that God had fed them with manna and quail. This week they will cry out for water, lamenting a life in slavery where water was plentiful. Yet God will provide the water they need.
Each passage in Exodus is going to mark how the Israelites put their own interests above all else, even in view of what God did for them. And yet, God never stopped. He protected them; He fed them; He gave them fresh water. And in the end, when they had left Him, He sent His Son to take on the life of a servant and rescue them once again.
If you are following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to a place you don’t even know exists, it is only natural that you will think of your own self-interests first. You want to make sure that your own basic needs are met and you want to feel safe and secure. To follow a cloud by day and fire by night and to only hear a voice calling out from the cloud doesn’t give one much piece of mind or security. But there is a problem when your interests take precedence over the interests of others. The church today is too much like the church of John Wesley’s time. It is more interested in its own survival than it is in the survival of God’s children.
John Wesley and others called this “lukewarm Christianity.” If the church is blind to the needs of the people outside the walls of the church, then it is not doing what it is supposed to be doing; it may be making disciples of the people but it is not living the Gospel message that Christ proclaimed.
The one hard lesson that Wesley learned was that you can’t put your interests above that of others. His failure as a missionary in Georgia followed his failures in England. His failures were not failures to reach out but failures to find peace and comfort in God. They were failures because he was putting his own interests before the interests of the Lord.
But when he accepted the Lord as his Savior, on that night that we have come to know as “Aldersgate”, his view changed. And when his view changed, the nature and the power of the Methodist movement changed.
The church today is failing, just as it was failing in Wesley’s day and just as it was failing in the days before Christ began His ministry. It is failing because it is putting its own interests before that of God. It is failing because it fears that what is happening outside the walls of the church will somehow creep inside the church and disturb or destroy the peace and tranquility they seek.
But as the church today builds walls to protect its sanctuary with its peace and quiet, it prevents those who seek that peace from coming in. As it builds the walls around the church, it seeks to trap God inside, preventing God from reaching out to the people who seek His touch and presence.
Tony Campolo has suggested that many denominational leaders failed to give enough attention to people who were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness and longing for a message of deliverance. The reason that evangelical churches have experienced such phenomenal growth in the past few years is probably because they have responded to the calls of the people who wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit.”
I will not deny that churches have failed in their primary mission. The mission of the church is and will always be to save souls. But trapped inside the walls of their churches, many people cannot see how to do this. They see their members leaving and they don’t understand why others are not coming to their church. So they have rewritten the Gospel message. They offer a message which speaks to an individual’s interests, not the interests of God. It is a message designed to make the listener feel good and not worried about the world outside the church walls. Many of these new churches take away the symbols of the church, especially the Cross; for fear that it will scare away the people.
But you cannot build a church around some numerical bottom line; it must be based on the spirit that infuses people. As Jim Wallis noted in his recent book, “The Great Awakening”, people are searching for something to be the engine that drives their passion for justice and a solid foundation for their lives. They want a faith that they can live, a faith that is committed to the Gospel message. It is interesting how the word “evangelical” has been transformed over the years. But it once meant to speak of the Good News, of the Gospel message of Christ.
If you have been saved, if you have proclaimed to the world that Jesus Christ is your personal Savior then you have the duty to go out into the world and show people what he has done. But people will not hear the words that you speak if they are hungry, homeless, sick, naked, or suppressed by an indifferent society.
Jesus asked the elders a question about two sons. When asked to go to work for their father, the older son say that he would but didn’t. The younger son refused but ended up working. Each son had his own interests but which one put the interests of God first?
We have a chance today to be that second son instead of continuing as the first. We have a chance to put the interests of others before our own. How will we make this church the church that Wesley wanted, how will we make the church of the 21st century emulate the first churches, the house churches of the 1st and 2nd century? How will we make this place a reminder of who Christ was and how will we make it a place where people can find a safe haven in a world full of turmoil and trouble?
We start by opening our hearts so that Christ can come in. Then we let the Holy Spirit come in. Then we begin doing what God asks us to do. The financial crisis that has dominated our lives for the past week affects more than a select few individuals on Wall Crisis. It is a financial crisis that has been affecting people for several years. Right now, there are no homeless shelters for homeless women and homeless families in Newburgh; the only shelter in Newburgh for homeless men operates during the winter months. Newburgh Ministries was created to find a solution to this problem. Perhaps He is asking you take part in the Newburgh Ministries. They can be reached through their web site – http://www.newburghministry.org/.
The food banks in this area are already pushed to the limit and I know that it is difficult to ask to contribute more. But often times, it is not asking you to contribute more but rather you asking your neighbors to contribute more.
It may not seem that the simple act of asking your neighbor to help with the food bank will end world-wide hungry. It probably won’t but in the simple act of involving someone else to act in faith will.
If you seek to solve problems on your own, the problems will not be solved. But if you open your heart to Christ and let the power of the Holy Spirit guide and direct you, you will not be alone and you will not be acting in your own interests but in the interests of God and the community that we live in. This is what it is all about; this is in our best interests.