This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on Christ the King Sunday, November 24, 2002. The Scriptures were Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1: 15- 23, and Matthew 25: 31-46.
When you listen to the “Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keilor, there is always that moment when he speaks about what has transpired in Lake Woebegone during the last week. It is always nice to listen, especially when he gives the report about what the pastor of the Lutheran Church said during his sermon. Lake Woebegone only has the one Lutheran Church so I can only imagine what the Methodists in town, if there are any, might have heard that week. It seems that this was one of those weeks or times when I could use that type of approach.
First, there was the report of the ossuary that is supposed to contain the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. This revelation has the potential of striking at the central core of the Christianity, especially if one is a Roman Catholic. It seems that the one of the tenets of Catholicism is that Mary was always a virgin and therefore could not have any more children so Jesus could not have had any more natural brothers or sisters. The Orthodox churches get around this by saying that any other children mentioned in the bible were Joseph’s by a prior marriage.
But no matter whether one develops a theory within the context of a scientific or religious context, the rules are the same. And the rules say that when a theory must be stretched or twisted in order to explain an idea, then it might be a good idea to look at the theory again. So maybe we should just take the words of the bible as they are written and accept the idea that Jesus did have brothers and sisters and that James was his brother and that James became one of the leaders of the church upon his death.
With James comes another thought about Christianity, especially at this time of the year. In the letter attributed to James, one gets the idea that service and works can precede faith and allow for salvation, an idea that does not get along well with Paul’s view of faith alone as the source of salvation. How then do resolve this disparity between works and faith.
What first caused John Wesley to question the nature of his church, to label it a “lukewarm” Christianity was its lack of concern for the downtrodden, the poor, and the homeless, those whom the Industrial Revolution had left behind. It was a belief then, and perhaps today, that poverty was a result of sin; that your sins determined your success. If you were successful, then it was because you had led a godly and righteous life.
Wesley questioned those who would forget those who did not or could not benefit from the riches of society. He challenged people by his words and his actions to take the Gospel into the street. It is not a message you are likely to hear from evangelists today.
The message given today is about the one, a “me-first” theology as one writer put it, and when you look at many of the evangelists today, the one they are talking about is themselves. There seems to be no compassion, any caring about others in their message. It seems that people want to find salvation and peace but are not willing to take the steps that make it possible.
Having faith is the first step but remember what Jesus told the rich young ruler, that if he wanted to enter into the kingdom, he had to give up all his riches. And Jesus told the story of the man who was condemned to hell because, though he had led a godly and righteous life, he had ignored the beggar outside his door. Life is not found in the riches one has but rather what does with the riches one have, no matter how many they are.
But that was the message Ezekiel gave to the people of Israel; it was the central point of Jesus’ ministry. It was of little concern to Ezekiel where the lost sheep were or who the lost sheep were; what mattered was that they were lost; and, if they were lost, they must be found. Judgement about who was lost and why they were lost was left to the Shepherd, not to others.
Jesus spoke of the homeless, the sick, the poor, the downtrodden and oppressed as if He were one of them. He challenged his disciples to find His presence among them. Of course, the reply was that they did not see Jesus there. If we do not feed the hungry, help the downtrodden, visit the sick and needy, how then can we ever expect to find Christ. The condemnation came not to those who suffered but to those who would not help.
Wesley knew, as we must today, that works alone cannot bring the peace found in Christ. All we have to do is read of the struggles that Wesley went through, of all the pain and agony that he brought upon himself as he struggled with the issue of what Christ meant, to understand that you must have faith first before you can find peace. Only by trusting in Jesus and allowing faith to be the central part of your life can peace be found.
The one tenet that we have in the Methodism is that having come to Christ, then we must help others.
As I read the notes about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I have to ask ourselves how it was that Paul heard of the Ephesians faith and the love that they had for each other. The central theme to this letter is the transformation that the community underwent after the people had accepted the Gospel. But how do you hear of faith and love? How do you hear about the sharing that takes place in a community? If a person is transformed, it is through the actions that he or she makes after the change. And that comes back to the works that we do. That makes the Gospel reading for today so relevant and meaningful for today.
We are in the midst of a stewardship campaign. I want to emphasize that it is a stewardship campaign and not simply a financial drive. Stewardship is more than money. Yes, we need the money in order to maintain the presence of this church in this community but we need to look beyond simply keeping the church in the community. Stewardship means taking the message of Christ beyond the boundaries of our own lives.
Later this week, we shall stop and take time to be thankful. It is a time long fixed in the memories of our country, to pause and remember the difficult start many people had. It was a time of remembrance and thanksgiving to the Lord for His presence in their lives. So too should it be for us. We will gather as families to feast on the turkey and all the fixings that go with it. We hopefully will pause a few moments to thank the cook and the helpers.
As you go through this week I trust that you will give thanks to the Lord for the blessings of family and home that have been given to you. But I also hope that you find other ways to say thanks, that you find ways to take the faith that has brought you safe thus far (to borrow from my favorite hymn) and help others to be thankful as well. We are reminded that others only know of our faith and love through what we do and how we live. As we live and show the presence of Christ in our lives, that is how we best say thanks.