This is the message I presented at Walker Valley on Christ the King Sunday, November 21, 1999. The Scriptures were Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1: 15- 23, and Matthew 25: 31-46.
The Scriptures for today had me thinking about what type of church we have and the type of church we would like it to be. Now, you must remember that I come from a part of the country where the church is a part of the social fabric of society and many people get uncomfortable when the church is called to work in society.
The church throughout its history has always been a society of people. But, for many people, this means that the church has taken on the form of a social club where like-minded people gather together and have fun and fellowship and generally support one another. Now, I see nothing wrong with those activities; they are essential parts of the life of a church. But I do see something wrong when people view themselves only in those terms and refuse to look beyond the boundaries of the church. I can remember the horror people had at one church when it was suggested that one week out of every fifteen the church house two or three homeless families and that the members of the church assist in the feeding of the families. Those things were just not done in polite society.
But that is the other side of the coin. Whatever breaks down in society, the church needs to be involved. In needs to stand up for what is right and good. Over the years, the church has stood for good education, equality among all peoples, civil rights, and stability in society. The church has often been seen as the one institution that stands ups for what is right. But the difficulty in this approach to the church’s work is that it is often seen as a means of achieving the goal of Christianity.
The difficulty for any church is finding the balance between what it does for its members and what it does for members of society.
Humanity has always wanted to help God. But it has always been done with the feeling that we could meet God halfway. Many people work hard in the church, serving on committees, helping out with any number of church projects. But if we are not careful, we begin thinking of our much God appreciates our work. When this happens, it is not very hard for the church, the body of Christ, to become a club or social organization where God is secondary.
John Wesley understood the importance of good works. The fruit of one’s good works are always and everywhere a response to what God has done. We respond to God through our appreciative works.
Is it possible to avoid good works? Jesus’ command, as hear in the Gospel reading for today, is simple. If you hear the message, live accordingly. By and of itself, the act of doing something good for someone is a meaningless act for us. It will help the other person, that is true, but it will do nothing to help us get into heaven. There is a living relationship established between God and us. That is what the message from the Old Testament tells us today. God went out looking for each of the lost sheep, be they the Israelites exiled in Babylon or elsewhere. He wanted to find each one of us; that is why He ultimately sent his Son to save us from our sins. It is by God’s grace that we are saved.
Because of this act of God’s grace exists, a relationship between God and us. It is living relationship with the Father through Christ who inspires our thoughts, words and deeds.
It follows then that we have a role in our relationship with God. We are the other party in the covenant established many years ago. We contribute to this living, dynamic fellowship. The question is, of course, how can we contribute to this relationship? How can we respond to God’s presence in our lives?
Each person in Christ has a specific calling. Each person has a unique personality and lives in relation to unique things. Each person draws together other persons, times, places, and events. The excitement of the Christian life is living out or doing good works within our own unique daily life. We are called to be a witness to what Christ has done for all humanity.
When I first began the preparation for this sermon, I thought of the church’s involvement in the political and social actions of the sixties. I thought about how the church was involved back then and is still today in the fight for human rights. Many churches were divided about the proper action of the church, its pastor, and its congregation in the fights that occurred back then. And even today, as I alluded to earlier, churches can be divided about what the role of the church in society should be.
As this decade ends and the new one begins, as we turn from the season of Pentecost to the season of Advent, what role will the church have in society? The United Methodist Church has, out of necessity and history, always been a social action church. There are those today who suggest that we need to review this tradition of the church. But such a change would take away the presence of this church in the world. As one who has looked at planning before, I know that what one church does is not necessarily the right thing for other churches to do. There is a role for every church, be they a very little one or one of immense size.
The question arises how. In my daily readings, I have had the opportunity to read the writings of Carlo Carretto, who wrote a biography of St. Francis of Assisi. One of those writings is especially true today.
When I, Francis, heard the call of the Gospel, I did not set about organizing a political pressure-group in Assisi. What I did, I remember very well, I did for love, without expecting anything in return; I did it for the Gospel, without placing myself at odds with the rich, without squabbling with those who preferred to remain rich. And I certainly did it without any class hatred.
I did not challenge the poor people who came with me to fight for their rights, or win salary increases. I only told them that we would be blessed – if also battered, persecuted, or killed. The Gospel taught me to place the emphasis on the mystery of the human being more than on the duty of the human being.
I did not understand duty very well. But how well I understood – precisely because I had come from a life of pleasure – that when a poor person, a suffering person, a sick person, could smile, that was the perfect sign that God existed, and that he was helping the poor person in his or her difficulties.
The social struggle in my day was very lively and intense, almost, I should say, as much so as in your own times. Everywhere there arose groups of men and women professing poverty and preaching poverty in the Church and the renewal of society. But nothing changed, because these people did not change hearts . . .
No, brothers and sisters, it is not enough to change laws. You have to change hearts. Otherwise, when you have completed the journey of your social labors you shall find yourselves right back at the beginning – only this time it is you who will be the arrogant, the rich, and the exploiters of the poor.
This is why I took the Gospel path. For me the Gospel pat was the sign of liberation, yes, but of true liberation, the liberation of hearts. That was the thrust that lifted me out of the middle-class spirit, which is present to every age, and is known as selfishness, arrogance, pride, sensuality, idolatry, and slavery.
I knew something about all that.
I knew what it meant to be rich, I knew the danger flowing from a life of easy pleasure, and when I heard the text in Luke, “Alas for you, who are rich” my flesh crept. I understood. I had run a mortal risk, by according a value to the idols that filled my house, for they would have cast me in irons had I not fled.
It is not that I did not understand the importance of the various tasks that keep a city running. I understood, but I sought to go beyond.
You can reproach me, go ahead. But I saw, in the Gospel, a road beyond, a path that beyond, a path that transcended all cultures, all human constructs, all civilization and convention.
I felt the Gospel to be eternal; I felt politics and culture, including Christian culture, to be in time.
I was made always to go beyond time. (From I, Francis by Carlo Carretto)
I struggled with this sermon because it calls for us to take actions. Fortunately, I can take comfort in the words Paul wrote to the Ephesians encouraging them and asking that God give them wisdom so that they could better know him and understand what it is that He would have us to do.
And while I struggle with how to do it, I am reminded by what was said back in the sixties when people were questioning the timing of much of what was going on. That challenge, the title of the sermon today, is as valid today as it was thirty years ago. There is work to be done; there are those in need who seek our help. If we do not do it, who will? If it is not done today, when will it get done?