This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 17, 2002. The Scriptures were Joshua 24: 1 -3a, 14 – 25, 1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18, and Matthew 15: 1 – 13.
It was the great Western philosopher and former Yankee catcher Yogi Berra who once said “when you get to a fork in the road, take it.” After all the laughter has died down, it is interesting to note that Yogi was merely restating what Isaiah said in Isaiah 30:21, “Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying this is the way, walk in it, whenever you turn to the right hand or whenever you turn to the left.”
The idea of having to make a decision; of having to choose which path one will take is not new. Even Jeremiah wrote
This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient path, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.'(Jeremiah 6: 16)
But it is, with some confidence, that I hope this congregation has not answered the Lord as the Israelites answered Jeremiah, “But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.”
This congregation has elected a new church council and with its election set a path for the future. It is a statement that the moving towards the future is more important than dwelling on the past. We appreciate what those who have served this congregation faithfully over the years have done, but there is also an understanding that a continuation of the past would never allow this congregation to move forward.
We have made a choice and we have asked a number of people to serve, to lead this congregation into the coming year. As much as the Gospel reading for this morning is about stewardship in its simplest monetary terms, it is also about service and which each person can give.
Many preachers typically use the parable of the talents in its simplest monetary terms to encourage the congregation to develop a successful stewardship campaign. The parable of the talents goes far beyond money. It speaks of the skills and the abilities each of us have.
A church has to be more than just dollars and cents; it must be a presence in the community and the congregation must find ways to make that presence known. It does not matter if we have one skill or many skills, it is only when we use those skills and abilities do they prosper and grow. If we have but one skill or ability and choose not to use it, then it will wither and die.
It is not easy to define what one’s talents or abilities are; some spend many years before finding out the answer to that question. But if one does not strive to find that one thing that can be called their own, if they say that they have no unique abilities; then they will be like the person who took the one talent and hid it away. They will end up having the talent they do have taken from them and they will lead a sad and lonely life.
Deborah’s selection as judge points out that leadership is not decided by the person one is but rather by the abilities and talents of that person. She did not become a judge out of some need for political correctness but rather because those who might have been judges did not have the leadership qualities that she had. Judges in those times were the leaders of the nation of Israel, chosen for their ability to understand what God wanted done, chosen because they were prophets in their own time.
Barak, the general mentioned in the Old Testament reading today, hesitated before going into battle. It was this hesitation that forced Deborah to lead the armies and along with Jael receive the honor and glory that came with the victory. The commentary makes a very pointed remark that Israel’s leadership at that time was bankrupt. These are not politically correct statements but rather statements indicating that those who served their self-interest before they served God were doomed to defeat, even when the enemy was against God.
Deborah’s leadership abilities came from her being with God, of understanding where God was in her life. With God in her life, she had the wisdom and understanding to make the decisions to lead the nation. Those who lead must understand that leadership does not mean doing everything themselves. Nor does it mean simply telling others what must be done.
Paul reminds us that our actions are done both in the name of God and with God’s presence in our lives. We cannot bear the breastplate of righteousness if God is not with us. But more importantly, we cannot do things alone. Paul also writes that we work together as one for the community, not as a community of individuals.
So it is that we come to this place. It is all right to look over our shoulder and see where we have been. Perhaps it is all right to think about what might have been down the other path. But we have chosen to walk this path and we have chosen to walk it with and in the company of the Lord.
John Kennedy was fond of quoting a statement about service, one that speaks to the present time and place.
“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.” (The Talmud)
This is such a time and this is such a place. This is a call for each of us to take on a new meaning of service, for we do things not for ourselves and ourselves alone but because we are a part of a renewed community of Christ, seeking to show the light of Christ to the world. To all that serve and who have served, we say thank you.
Perhaps we have not yet figured out what it is that we can do; then the call is to accept Jesus Christ into one’s heart and allow him through the Holy Spirit to guide and direct your life. Perhaps you know what it is that you want to do but are afraid; again, the call is to accept Jesus Christ into your heart and allow him through the Holy Spirit to guide and direct your life. And others will find that the call this day is to renew your covenant with the Lord, taking on the tasks present before you, accompanied by the Holy Spirit.