This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 10, 1999. The Scriptures were Exodus 33: 12 -23, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 -10, and Matthew 22: 15 – 22.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
The Gospel reading for today is a most interesting one in light of today’s society and whom we honor today. For answering the challenge put forth by the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus draws the line between church and state. Of course, later Jesus points out that this division is only in terms of how we live our secular lives since we cannot serve two masters.
Some see the world around us and wonder how the church will survive, especially if it is part of today’s society. There are some people who feel that we are in the midst of a great cultural battle and that if society is to be saved, it must be through a return to strong Christian values.
This is not a new thought. The Shakers, whose hymn “Simple Gifts” is a favorite of mine, were a Christian group formed as a response to the social conditions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and bend, we will not be ashamed.
To turn and to turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning, we come round right.”
For them, the only solution was to leave the present society behind and create a new one dedicated to the glory of God. The Shakers may have had the right idea because the movement flourished here in America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, the Shaker movement did not last because the evils, which caused the problems in the first place, were never corrected. The lesson to be learned is simple. A church that ignores its responsibilities to society, a church that does not seek to be a positive force in its community, will likewise die.
Instead of running away and cloistering ourselves in religious communities, immune from the outside world, we can accept the Gospel message in our hearts and take the Gospel message to the people. Jesus knew that the Gospel message must be taken to the people. He sought a ministry outside the temple walls. In closing the Sermon on the Mount, he told the people
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 13 – 16)
To take the Gospel to the people is undoubtedly the toughest choice we can make. It is tough enough to accept the Gospel; it is even tougher to live the Gospel message. John Wesley understood the challenge. He knew that if English society was to change, its heart must change first and that could only be done through the Gospel. Forbidden by law to preach in the Church of England, Wesley and his followers, our forefathers in the United Methodist Church, took the message of the Gospel into the fields and the streets of England. On more than one occasion, crowds were encouraged to harass and physically abuse Wesley and the other Methodist preachers. Many an earlier Methodist preacher was put into jail for preaching the Gospel. But we cannot expect others to know the Gospel message if we do not let them know.
So perhaps we should look at what is happening today in another way. Christ, through his example, showed us that there is creativity in life released to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. If we hold to a strictly religious view of the world, we may not see this. An open society, while seemingly opposed to God and one that we would fear, should be seen as an opportunity for us to seek the presence of God in this world. The freedom of an open society should be seen as a gift of Christ, not as a sign against him. Our task in this society is find ways to keep this freedom, not fight for a return to an olden ways or a separation from society. Christ calls us to see that we have the opportunity to join Him in his continued struggle in history, as we are lead toward the goal that He revealed (see notes at the end of Thessalonians).
Today is about finding out how we can do this, find ways to see Christ in today’s society. Today is Laity Sunday, the Sunday in the United Methodist Church dedicated to the laity of the church. It is a rather unique day in that while other faiths allow the laity to participate and occasionally preach, only the United Methodists focus on the laity.
It is not necessarily for those who are called to ministry, be it simple lay speaking or those who seek ordination but it is for all members of the church. It is my hope and belief that each and every one of you will somehow be involved in the work of the church. You will be getting a call from the worship committee in the next few weeks asking that you and your family take part in the Advent series that will start the last Sunday in November. It is not on the calendar and I do not know all of the plans, for I am leaving that to the laity, for the decoration of the church as well. After Advent, as we prepare for Lent and the Easter Season, I would like volunteers to read the Old Testament and Epistle readings on a particular Sunday.
It is not that I am trying to get out of work but a church that is to grow must have active laity and the activities are not a limited number. There are countless other places and times when you can help the church; you will know when that it is. As we approach the new year and annual conference, it is also a time for nominations to the various committees and administrative council. The reason for those positions is to provide the leadership for the church.
I don’t know of a faith that doesn’t have the laity doesn’t have the laity participate in the service but I do feel that such participation occurs only after training or the examination of credentials. Some faiths allow lay members to preach but frown upon them doing so from the pulpit. Neither of these practices occurs in the United Methodist Church. Also, the United Methodist Church is the only faith that I am aware of that has a program for lay speakers. It was through that program that I am at this point in my career.
But dedicating this day to the laity is not just about lay speaking. On Laity Sunday in some churches, today is simply an excuse for the pastor to take the day off and let the lay speaker or lay leader preach. Today is as much about the heritage of the church through the Methodist Episcopal Church founded by Wesley, the United Brethren in Christ founded by Philip Otterbein and Martin Boehm, and the Evangelical Association founded by Jacob Albright. For, if it had not been for the laity of the church during the days of the circuit riders, there would not be a United Methodist Church today.
In the old days, and they are not that old because I know of a number of and have been a circuit rider myself, it was the laity that held the church together and ran the services on the Sundays when the preacher was somewhere else.
That is why Paul spends as much time lauding the people of Thessalonica, Corinth, Galatia, Colossus, and all the other cities where he started churches. It was the laity during the early days of the church that held the church together and helped it grow; it was the laity that help churches grow and prosper here in American; it will be the laity that leads the church into the coming decade and new century.
And it should be noted that the one mark of a strong and healthy church is when the members, not just a few, but all participate in the activities of the church. It is important to note that it is not the activities themselves or the type of activities that are done nor that all people do all of the tasks but that all are involved.
But it hasn’t always been easy to get people involved in the activities of the church. We could, when asked, be like Jonah. Remember what happened to him? When first called by the Lord, Jonah chose to flee. Jonah did not simply go to the next city or county to get away from God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God. It would be like trying to hide from the authorities in New York by going to Los Angeles. But it doesn’t matter where we hide, God can still find us. And, like Jonah, when our efforts to escape fail, until we come to the Lord, He will not help us.
Consider Moses. Here was the man God selected to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land but what did he do? He asked God to select someone else; “Who, me Lord? Can’t you find someone else?” And in today’s Old Testament reading, Moses is asking God who is going to send to help him.
In 1991, on Laity Sunday, I preached my very first sermon, basing it in part on the song “Amazing Grace”. I have always loved that song, in part because of its ties to Southern gospel singing and in part for the reasons that John Newton wrote the song in the first place.
John Newton was a slave ship owner, plying the triangle trade of rum, tobacco, and slaves. But one day, it is reported that he began to question the morality and purpose of this commerce and he gave it up; he turned his ship around and freed the slaves that he was transporting. He did this because the Holy Spirit came to him. Now I do not know if his experience was like that of Paul’s, who was blinded by the light on the road to Damascus, or if it was like that of Wesley’s, whose heart was warmed by the Holy Spirit. It might have been like that of Moses’ who was able to see God after he walked by him as Moses was hidden in the rock. What I know was that his experience changed his life. Everyone has an experience with the Holy Spirit. It is one thing that changes your life.
It does not matter how you encounter the Holy Spirit; it does matter is that you do. Many times, I have wondered when I truly came to know Christ. I have come to know that while I cannot pinpoint the day and time like others can, I know that He is a part of my life. I, like Wesley, know in my heart that I can trust Christ as my Savior; that my life is much different because I did so and let Him into my life. I can truly say in awe how amazed I was to know that Christ died on the cross for me, even when I was not yet a person on this earth.
Hymn 163 – “Ask Me What Great Things I Know.”
Paul lauded the members of the churches for the work that they did in his name. The founders of the three faiths that now comprise the United Methodist Church put a great faith in the work of the laity to insure the success of the church. That is what today is about.
This day is also about bringing Christ into the world; of letting others know who Christ was and what He means today. We do not have to give up our lives as much as we have to change the direction our lives take. In a world of chaos and confusion, knowing who Christ is brings an order to things.