I am at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany. The Scriptures are 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, 1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 27, and Mark 1: 40 – 45; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.
A couple of years ago I posted a piece on my blog entitled “A Rock and Roll Revival”. In it I suggested several pieces of music from my high school and college days that could serve as the backdrop for scripture readings (“Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds and “Good Shepherd” by Jefferson Airplane among others). Each of these pieces has some basis in scripture, though I believe that “Turn, Turn, Turn” was the only one knowingly written with the scripture in mind. This merger of modern music continues today as the group U2 does allow its music used in a particular type of service.
Now, my purpose in posting “A Rock and Roll Revival” and its follow-up pieces (“The Rock And Roll Revival Continued” and “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited” was to show that one could have a “modern” worship service with music that provides meaning and inspiration. When I listen to so much of what passes as Christian music today, I hear nothing that moves my soul or inspires me to seek a higher plain. Too much of today’s Christian music is of the “7-11” type, that is seven words repeated 11 times.
Now, it has been pointed out that some of the Psalms contain this type of repetition and the repetition adds meaning to the Psalm. But there are other times when the repetition offers no support or meaning to the song and is merely a substitute for substance. If we are to have modern music in our worship services today, then we have to have music that engages us and challenges us, not simply fills a portion of time in the service (adapted from “7-11 Songs and the Use of Repetition”).
I bring this up because I think the church today is at a crossroads. It is a crossroads much like the one that mentioned in Jeremiah 6: 16
Go stand at the crossroads and look around. Ask for directions to the old road, the tried-and-true road. Then take it. Discover the right route for your souls.
But they said, ‘Nothing doing. We aren’t going that way.’
I even provided watchmen for them to warn them, to set off the alarm. But the people said, ‘It’s a false alarm. It doesn’t concern us.’
And so I’m calling in the nations as witnesses: ‘Watch, witnesses, what happens to them!’ And, ‘Pay attention, Earth! Don’t miss these bulletins.’
I’m visiting catastrophe on this people, the end result of the games they’ve been playing with me. They’ve ignored everything I’ve said, had nothing but contempt for my teaching. What would I want with incense brought in from Sheba, rare spices from exotic places? Your burnt sacrifices in worship give me no pleasure. Your religious rituals mean nothing to me.”
Now, I am not offering an apocalyptic view of these times but I do see a warning in these times that we, the people who call ourselves Christians, are ignoring. And while there are those today who would argue that these are in fact the End Times and that God is going to destroy the world, these same people seem to me to be cheering for the destruction of the world in hopes that they will be the first ones taken from this earth when it happens.
But when I hear these people cheering for the destruction of the world because they believe that they will be taken up, I am reminded of the words of Christ from Matthew 25:
“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’
“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’
“Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—
I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, sick and in prison, and you never visited.’
“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’
“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’
“Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”
The church must decide in which direction it wants to go and the decision must be made quickly. It is a decision by the institutional church; it is a decision by individual churches; and it is a decision that must be made by each individual member.
The church as it is today is based almost entirely on the past, that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected. To put the church in a modern setting requires more than just concessions to the times; you cannot say that the church has modernized itself just because it has replaced organ music with guitar music.
And while it must look backwards in time to the life, death, and resurrection, it must also look forward in time. It must be prepared to anticipate where the footsteps of Christ are and where it is leading the church and its people.
The church must respond to the needs of the people, no matter whom they are or where they may be. It is a challenge that many churches are not well-prepared to face, let alone meet.
The problem may be in that the church has created an attitude that its way, whatever it may be, is the best way. The church and its members has projected their self-interests unto the view of history.
If we read many of the sermons of pastors in England at the time of the Wesleyan Revival, we see a real and genuine concern for the lower and working classes. But this concern is tempered with a feeling that the only way they, the poor and working class, are going to obtain salvation is by taking on the culture of the upper classes. What John Wesley did was not to make people feel that they had to be like their betters but help them to find Christ in their own worlds and lives.
When we re-read the story of Naaman, we see that same replacement of God’s will with our own. Naaman is afflicted with some sort of skin disease, often translated as leprosy. We now know that leprosy (or Hansen’s disease) is caused by a bacterium and, when identified, not very contagious. But the very nature of the disease and its affects on the body in its extreme (it can cause the loss of fingers and toes and the disfigurement of the face) lead to those infected with the disease becoming outcasts in society. Rightly or wrongly, people feared contact with an infected person. When Jesus told the leper to see the priest, it was as much to mark his re-entry into society as it was to proclaim the healing power of the Holy Spirit.
As we read the Old Testament reading for today, we can sense a degree in Naaman that a cure must be found for his illness, for the consequences of the illness will drive him from society. He is told that there is someone in Israel who can offer a cure. We can see in his efforts to obtain this cure the ethos of power; he is powerful in his own right so he will only deal with the powerful people in Israel. Thus, he sends a letter of introduction to the king of Israel asking for help in this matter.
Quite naturally, the king of Israel panics when he receives this letter. After all, he doesn’t know the answer nor does he know who might know the answer and he fears what might happen if he does not provide Naaman with the response Naaman wants. Perhaps Naaman does not have that inclination; then again, the fear of what might happen if he doesn’t find a cure may suggest to him that he keep an open mind. As we read, the word gets to Elisha, and Elisha sends word to Naaman as to what he must do in order to be healed.
And while Naaman is obviously open to suggestions as to what he needs to do, the suggestion that Elisha provides does in fact offend Naaman and his sense of power and position. What I read in Naaman’s response to Elisha telling him to bathe in the waters of the River Jordan seven times is that powerful and wealthy people require elegant and sophisticated solutions. Naaman saw his life in terms of his position and his power, not as an individual; he saw his problem as a reflection of his position and that any solution would require an appreciation for that position and the power that comes with the position.
Yet, as one of Naaman’s own servants commented, if the task had been difficult to accomplish, he would have easily undertaken it. How much more difficult would it have been to do something easy? In other words, because of his position and power, Naaman was looking for a complicated solution when a simple solution was right in front of him.
We have transformed the church today into our own image. Granted, it is a transformation that has taken place over time and one that most people are not aware. They grew up in the church and are comfortable knowing that it is the same today as it was yesterday and that it will be the same tomorrow. They do not care that the membership of the church is aging and that fewer and fewer younger people are coming to church. They are not worried that there are youth out there who would like to come to church but know that they will feel unwelcome because of the way they dress or the lifestyle that they have adopted. They are not worried that too many young people today see the message of the church as exclusive and hateful, contrary to the very words of Christ that they were taught in Sunday School and confirmation class.
Some have begun to worry about the church and so they have created newer and alternative worship services. But many of the services were created in rebellion to the old ways and the intransigence of the older members to change. Their worship service is simply a newer version of the old and soon it will have the same effect on the membership that the old worship service did. You cannot expect better results by changing the appearance but keeping the same message.
Whether they worship in a traditional or a modern setting, too many Christians today are comfortable in their safe and protected sanctuary; they believe that attendance on Sunday will enable them to enter heaven with trumpets sounding and angels singing. The problems of the world are outside the door of the church and that is where they will stay.
But there are those, both old and young, who see the problems of the church today and wonder what they must do to bring the community back into the church. In the portion of the letter to the Corinthians that we read today, Paul offers a hint to the solution. First, he points out that when we watch a race, we think in terms of who wins and who loses. That is the nature of competition but it is not what we should be doing.
Too many times I hear pastor’s speak of competing for the people on Sunday morning. Let us forget competition but let us also offer an alternative; an alternative with Spirit and substance. It will take some doing; as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, it takes hard work to prepare for the race and it will take hard work to offer the alternative. It will take reaching deep into the soul to find the ways that you can offer the alternative but it can be done.
When Jesus cured the leper, He told him to go to the priest and receive the appropriate blessing for returning to society. He also told the man not to tell others about what had happened; but like so many other times, the person who Jesus cured could not keep silent and they told their friends and their friends told their friends. No matter how hard the establishment worked against the mission of Jesus, it grew.
When John Wesley spoke out against the establishment and its view of the church in society, the establishment barred him from preaching in the churches of England. But he kept on preaching and the movement grew (otherwise, we might not be here today as we are).
Our task is not to fight the intransigence of those who oppose the growth of the church, those who say the church is dead or outmoded; our task is to engage in a dialogue with those around us and frame the mission of the church with the needs of the neighborhood. It is inevitable that we will be impatient or worry that we cannot accomplish this task. It is inevitable that we will worry more how shall we accomplish this task that we will the task itself? How shall we organize our efforts when there are so few of us? These are good and proper questions but they have to be framed within the context of discovering the ways Christ calls us from the world and into the world.
Questions of how we will accomplish the tasks before us are too often associated with the standards of today’s society. Time and time again, as we face the need to replace the old methods with newer ones, we find ourselves thinking that if we could only find the right and relevant method then we will soon be successful. We must change our view of the world from who wins but who competes; we must not worry about whether or not there are enough of us to complete the task before us but whether or not we understand what we have been called by God to do.
When Paul speaks of preparing for the competition, he is just as much speaking about preparing for the tasks ahead. We must understand the world around us as much as we seek to understand what Christ is calling us to do. And as Paul speaks of the joy in what he is doing, he is speaking of the opportunities that have been presented, not the success of his ministry.
So we begin, just as the single individual, be they the leper, the woman at the well or any of the countless others who came to Christ one day and asked to be healed, did. After each was healed, they went out into the world and told all those who would listen what happened. One by one, the Word was passed and one by one the church grew. So it will be today; as each one of us goes out into the world today, we will pass the Word to the next person and one by one the church will grow.