This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2002. The Scriptures were Exodus 33: 12 -23, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 -10, and Matthew 22: 15 – 22.
Today is Laity Sunday in the United Methodist Church. This is both a unique and a historical day. It is unique in that our denomination is perhaps the only denomination that honors the laity of the church for the service that it does and has done. While laity may partake in the administration of a church service, very few denominations allow their laity to speak like the United Methodist Church does. And that is part of the historical nature of this denomination.
While historically the major denominations have been a part of the landscape of American history, only the United Methodist Church has allowed church services to be held and run by laity. This is because of the nature of the circuit rider, the traveling itinerant preacher unique to Methodism. If an Episcopal or a Lutheran church were established in an area, it was because there was an Episcopal or a Lutheran minister to lead and direct the church. But Methodism was established through societies, the meeting of laity, who relied on the traveling circuit rider to provide the pastoral leadership. And because the circuit rider had several churches under his charge, it was up to the laity to hold the church services on those Sundays when the rider was somewhere else.
Even today, we find many United Methodist churches across the country, even in our own church district, using lay speakers so that services can be held.
This relationship between clergy and laity is very unique to Methodism. Most denominations run with a top-down administration model that gives very little power to those outside the clergy. Even though the laity may participate in a particular Sunday service, it is a limited participation. And the administration of many churches holds the power very close to the vest, viewing the laity as truly lost sheep incapable of handling the complex issues of church administration.
For the United Methodist Church, it is slightly different. Though the administration of the overall United Methodist Church is through the bishops and the district superintendents, each local church has much to say regarding its own day-to-day operation. This was by design and has helped churches in those periods when there was no local pastor. And by design, this mode of operation leads to a sense of “creative tension,” a pulling between the overall church body and the local one.
Most of the time, such a tension is useful and productive. But there are times when it can be less useful, less productive, and even destructive. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians last week, we read of how the church in Philippi was in danger of tearing itself apart unless the people of the congregation worked together to meet the common goals of faith instead of working against each other. If we, individually and collectively, are to be a successful church, it will be because we work together and not against each other.
Paul wrote to Thessalonians about their faith and the results of their faith. He writes of their faith and how that faith led to true repentance. It was through their faith that they sought to bring the message of Jesus, the Gospel message of hope, peace, and righteousness to those around them. But it is important to note that he was writing to all the people of the church, not individual members.
And Paul gave a standard for the people to judge their work by. Paul first mentions their work for Christ in the midst of persecution, of pursuing the goals of the Gospel in spite of all that went on around them. Paul points out that the focus for all their activities is Jesus Christ. And that is the standard by which they, and we today, should measure our work. Does what we do glorify Christ?
The Gospel tells us that the Pharisees posed a questions to Jesus regarding taxes and obedience but there is more meaning behind the question. What are our priorities and what should they be?
The Pharisees come to Jesus, again seeking to trick him into make some type of false statement. This time, as we read in the Gospel, it was a question about taxes. Should the people of Israel pay taxes to the Roman government, something no self-respecting Jew wanted to do. It was one of those questions that can get a person into a lot of trouble. If Jesus were to say that it was proper and right to pay taxes, then He would lose the support of his followers. But, if he were to side with the Pharisees, then they would be able to say that he was working against the Roman government and he would be arrested for insurrection.
It is important that we see how Jesus answered the question. Instead of paying taxes, Jesus said that we should render unto Caesar that which was his. “Render” means to pay back and in using that word, Jesus says to pay back to the government that which was owed. As followers of Christ, we still have an obligation to the earthly government and that obligation is not removed until it becomes sinful to do so. There is no conflict between following Christ and living on earth, nor should there be.
What are our priorities? How shall we live? Shall we live in a world where Christ is a part of our lives only on Sunday, leaving the Gospel lesson behind when we leave the church building on Sunday afternoon?
Some two hundred and fifty years ago, the first circuit riders came to this area, bringing the message of the Gospel to all who would hear it. They sought to establish Methodist societies that quickly became Methodist churches. They left behind laity to carry on the work until the next time they would visit. They did not come alone for they brought the Holy Spirit with them.
As Moses stood in the cleft of the rock to observe the passage of God, he was not doing so for his own gain but rather for the assurance that God would be present in the adventure of faith that the people of Israel were to undertake. It was this assurance that told the Israelites and tells us today that God would be present throughout all our undertakings.
Today should be a renewal of our combined efforts to make the Gospel known to the world. Paul reminded us that there are many parts to the body of the church but there is only one church. And it is through the body that the work of the church is accomplished. Whether it was an ordained minister who preached at the early Methodist society meetings or a lay speaker, that was the message. It made no difference whether it was the minister or the laity who visited the sick, helped the homeless, or supported the downtrodden, the message of the Gospel was spread throughout early America. So too is that the case for today. In celebrating Laity Sunday, we are saying that we are all instruments of God’s message in this world today.