This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, September 29, 2002. The Scriptures were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, and Matthew 21: 23 – 32.
If you are like me, you have bought things for one reason and discovered an unexpected bonus in the purchase. Using a gift certificate my oldest daughter gave me for Christmas one year, I purchased a CD by the singer Phil Ochs. I wanted this particular collection because it had one song in which I had particular interest. The unexpected benefit was a song entitled “Ballad of the Carpenter.”
This song starts off with “Jesus was a working man and a hero you will hear”. It is an interesting folk song interpretation of the life of Jesus and brings out one point about His ministry that I have always considered the most important. Jesus was, in the truest sense of the word, a revolutionary. His associations with his culture’s outcasts, his advocacy for those forgotten by society caused him to be viewed with distrust by those in power, be they Roman or Jewish power.
This view of Jesus and the ministry he championed is not always encouraged or accepted. Many years ago, when I was just starting as a lay minister, I made this view a part of the sermon I was preaching. Now, it just happened that one of my cousins, Paul Schüessler, was there that Sunday. Paul is the patriarch of the Schüessler family and one of three brothers who served many years as a Lutheran minister. He was there at my church to hear me preach. He told me two things that Sunday. First, my sermons were just the right length and that he was not that crazy about me saying Jesus was a revolutionary. Yet, within a year, when I had a chance to hear him preach at our family reunion he, too, looked at Jesus as a revolutionary.
We see part of this revolutionary approach in the Gospel reading for today. The chief priests and the elders came to Jesus with the purpose of challenging His ministry. They were extremely uncomfortable with 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 were there, who really had no need for religion. To bring in those who did not meet their expectations was totally against everything they stood for and worked to maintain.
But Jesus could see what was in their minds and their hearts and challenged them about the nature of authority. You could almost see the puzzlement on their faces as you read the words of the Gospel this morning. For the elders and the priests knew that no matter which way they answered, they were going to be in trouble. For, as Jesus pointed out, they did not believe the words of John the Baptist when he warned them of what was to come; so how would they believe in him now.
The idea of the church being a source of social action is one idea most people have had a hard time accepting. For them church is just a time and place on Sunday, not something taken with them into the week. We are still a nation who feels that the main purpose of a church is to take care of our own members and keep them comfortable. We are still a nation where church membership is seen in societal terms, not in terms of service.
It was this concept of lukewarm Christianity that “bugged” John Wesley. John Wesley understood the need for the church to present a message the people understood but a church blind to the needs of its members or its community cannot do its work. You cannot preach of the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood that an individual, having accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior, had the responsibility to show that he had done so. This meant helping the community.
The United Methodist Church began, in part, because of the direction society was taking. Though the upper class may have benefited from the Industrial Revolution, the lower class was forgotten. It was only the members of the upper class that were immune to the problems of long hours working in intolerable conditions and with little or no health care that the working class and poor had to contend with every day. To cope with the stress that such conditions and the attitudes of society produced, many of the working class and poor turned to drugs and alcohol. I do not know for sure but I would not be surprised if the statistics on domestic violence then are similar to the statistics today.
Wesley contended and argued that society could be changed and that it was the church that could help to facilitate change. It was through Wesley that the first Sunday school was started; not as we know it, but as a way of educating the populace (keep in mind that many children worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day when they could go to school). It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse so prevalent in English society at that time. Historians today agree that it was primarily because of the work by Wesley and his followers that England did not undergo the violent revolution that France did at the same time.
The people of Philippi, who were the recipient of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, were a culturally diverse group. Paul’s letter specifically mentions an Asian, a Greek, and a Roman citizen. In these individuals we could see three different races, three different social ranks, and probably three different religious loyalties before encountering Christ. Yet, Paul encouraged them to work together, binding together in the love of Christ. As we read the words of this letter, we are reminded that this church broke the rules of class and society just as Jesus had done before in Jerusalem.
I entitled this sermon “How Did We Get This Far?” because of the Old Testament reading. It seems as we read the story of the Exodus, of the travels of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, we read of people grumbling and arguing about the purpose of the trip. Each step of the way they found some reason to be unhappy with Moses and Aaron, each step of the way they found some reason to find life as slaves in Egypt to be easier than a life of freedom. But for each problem that the Israelites came up against, God was there to meet their needs. Each time, they were shown the love that God held for them exceeded anything that they could come up against.
It always amazes me when I read these passages how they were able to get as far as they did. It always amazed me how quickly the children of Israel would forget who was behind their success.
But the question for us is not how we got this far but how will we go forward? How we will make this church the church that Wesley wanted, that can be a reminder of who Christ was and a place where people can find a safe haven in a world full of turmoil and trouble. We must remember that God calls each of us be they ordained or laity, older members or newer members, to some kind of ministry. And with that call we are given the ability and resources to make that call a possibility and not just a dream.
What Christ asked of society was to reach out to all, to insure that the mansion of many rooms was open to all those would believe in Him. We may not feel that we can make this kind of journey and we are reminded that, in the midst of the wilderness, God provided for the needs of everyone of His children.
No, my friends, it is not a matter of how we got this far but rather how we will go forward. And the answer is that we take time to let Christ into our hearts and, like the people of Philippi, remove the thoughts of differences between each other and become unified in and by Christ.