This is the message that I gave on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 13 July 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY. The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12 – 19, Ephesians 1: 3 – 14, and Mark 6: 14 – 29
One of my favorite hymns is “We Gather Together”. I am not sure what it is that causes me to like it, though it might just be the tune and the rhythm. But it expresses the thought of why we are here this morning and why we gather together each Sunday morning at 10 o’clock.
So I have to ask you this morning, “Why are you here this Sunday morning?” Is it because you are supposed to be here? Is there some requirement in your life that makes you be here? Or, is it out of habit that you are here? You know how it is, you get so used to doing something each day that it becomes a habit.
Or perhaps it is because you find those moments on Sunday morning in the sanctuary, singing the hymns, reading the Scriptures, and hearing the message to give you a chance to reconnect with God through Christ. Is it possible that on days like today when we celebrate Holy Communion, you join with Christ as others do and have done over the years since Calvary?
I hope and trust that your reasons for being here are more of the latter rather than because it is the thing to do or because it is a habit that you have picked up over the years. But I have observed over the years those for whom attendance in church was more of a social obligation rather than a call from the soul. I have seen churches where the decisions by the members have been dictated, not by the spiritual reasons, but rather by political and social reasons in the community. Those are not reasons for going to church.
But even if the reasons for coming to church are mundane and superficial, the people are in church, they are singing the hymns, they are hearing the scriptures and there remains the distinct possibility that the Holy Spirit will crack the shell protecting their soul and they will change. We have seen it work in the past and we know that it will work in the future.
But there are still those who do not come to church on Sunday. For some, especially those who are not members of any church or denomination, Sunday is a day to do the things that didn’t get done during the week. Sunday is a day to relax and get away from things. Sunday is a day to do things other than go to church. And unfortunately, society is quick to catch on to the fact that Sundays are days of freedom for many and things are scheduled to involve everyone. I would be remiss in saying that I don’t like that concept but I realize that it is another thing that churches must compete with in this highly secular society.
But among those who do not come to church are those who should be here. They have, by public profession of their faith at least once in their life, stated that they will support a church through their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their service. Yet, as soon as those words have been said, they have been quickly forgotten.
Now, before anyone or everyone gets all riled up, let me say that I am aware that not everyone who is a member of this church and is not here falls into this general category. There are those who simply cannot physically be here; their ailments and well being prevent them from coming. And, when I know about such individuals and such individuals let me know, I make sure that communion is a part of their life and that they are a part of this community. Those individuals are a part of the church community and should never be considered otherwise.
But there are members who live elsewhere in this country and cannot by the nature of where they live come here on Sunday mornings. For those, membership in this church is convenient, simply a way to meet the obligations of society without any responsibility and obligation.
Membership in a church is not a matter of convenience or an obligation; it is a commitment. When it becomes a convenience, when it becomes simply a social statement, it quickly loses all of its meaning.
We read that the Ark of the Covenant was placed on a new cart and brought out of the house of Abinadab. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab drove the cart and Ahio walked in front. (2 Samuel 6: 3)
But this, while a logical method of transport, was against the rules for transporting the Ark. The law, in Exodus 25: 14, Numbers 3: 30 & 31, specifically stated that the Ark was to be carried by the sons of Kohath, not by a cart or any other vehicle. The Philistines had transported the Ark this way when they had captured it in battle and so for the Israelites to do so showed both ignorance of their own laws and disrespect for God.
What is interesting about the Old Testament reading for today are not the verses that we read but rather the verses that were skipped. In verses 6 through 12a, we read,
And when they came to Nachon’s threshing floor, Uzzah put out his hand to the Ark of God and took hold of it, the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the Ark of God. And David became angry because of the Lord’s outbreak against Uzzah; and he called the name of the place Perez Uzzah to this day.
David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” So David would not move the Ark of the Lord with him into the City of David; but David took it aside into the house of Obed-Edom the Hittite. The Ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Hittite three months. And the Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his household.
The commentary for this section indicates that though Uzzah’s violation (touching the Ark) was unintentional, it cost him his life. God had warned the Israelites in Numbers 4: 15 that no one, not even the Levites, could touch the holy objects of the tabernacle and that death was the penalty for violation. Now David was angry at this death but his anger was directed at God rather than at the carelessness of Uzzah or himself for allowing it to happen. Because of this, it was necessary to store the Ark for a period of time before it could be moved to Jerusalem. The Ark of the Covenant was stored in the house of a Levite for three months and then, as we read, transported to Jerusalem in the proper manner.
I do not wish to suggest that those who let their membership become a matter of convenience will die like Uzzah. But when you let your membership slide, when you no longer work to keep it active, the church is ultimately forced to remove you from the list of members and then when you need the church it will not be there. In one sense, to not have the church there when you need it most is the same as dying.
Some of those who fall into this category live in other states or at a distance too far away to make coming here possible. For those, the options are to find a church closer and become members there. It is a choice that they must make, not the church and certainly not I.
But it is those who do live within a reasonable distance of this place but still do not come that bother me most. It is possible that they cannot come on Sunday mornings. I know personally that many of the people at Fishkill United Methodist Church do not fully comprehend the lack of my presence on Sundays. On more than one occasion, when someone has called, I have to point out that I work on Sundays and cannot attend. I, of course, then tell them where I am working and what I am doing.
But there are those who do not come to the church for other reasons. Either someone once said something to them and caused their feelings to be hurt or there is an atmosphere in the church that doesn’t seem quite holy. Worship must be a time when people sense God’s presence. If there are reasons for God’s presence to not be there, people should be worried.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is about unity, of being a community of believers, united in common belief. But though united in common belief, it is still a community of individuals and it is the diversity of members that provides the success of the community. But if the diversity of members is to be the measure of success, then there must also be respect among all members for the uniqueness and capabilities of all members. No one member has more than any other member and no member should ever feel less because his or her contribution doesn’t match someone else.
I think that is what we are to gain from the Gospel reading for today. Now, most commentaries point out that Mark put the story about the death of John the Baptist in his Gospel at this point to let everyone know that Jesus’ own ministry was not going to be easy and that Jesus was going to meet a violent death as well. But it is also a story about what happens when you start doing things solely for yourself.
Herod had spent most of his political life trying to please others. Since John the Baptist had publicly rebuked Herod for his present marriage, Herod was probably looking for ways to please his wife. In the Gospel for today we read how Herod threw a birthday party for himself. It was at this party that his daughter danced in such a way that everyone was pleased and Herod said that he would give her anything she wanted, even up to half the kingdom. When the daughter asked her mother what she should ask for, the mother suggested the head of John the Baptist. It was the daughter that added the part about having it on a platter.
But the key point is that Herod was forced through his own pride into doing something that he really didn’t want to do. But if he refused, he would have lost face and thus he could not refuse the request. As was noted in verse 26, the king was exceedingly sorry. It does not say what happened to Herod or how he dealt with the issue following the beheading but you know that he must have regretted that a man died because of his own pride.
Pride can be our downfall if we are not careful. It was David’s pride that prevented the Ark of the Covenant from being moved into Jerusalem. It was Herod’s pride that got John the Baptist killed. Now we can take pride in the fact that we are members of a particular church but we can never let that pride dictate how we feel or how we act. I will admit that I have seen people come to the table that I felt should not have come; people whose actions were more for their own self-interests rather than to benefit the church. But I also realize that whatever I think, it doesn’t count, let alone matter.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, especially the first part, is a celebration of the fact that all the members of the church are united in the belief. The last part of the Old Testament reading for today is also a celebration, a celebration of the establishment of God in our hearts.
And the Gospel reading for today serves as a reminder that the tasks that we, as members of this church, are asked to do are not always easy tasks. But we know also know that we do not do those tasks alone. As we come to the table this day, we are reminded that Jesus’ death was for us, so that we would be united together in belief and in purpose.
This table is open to all that confess their sins and accept Christ as their savior. We do not, in the United Methodist Church, qualify admission to the table. And when we leave this table having spent a few moments with Christ and reuniting with the presence of the Holy Spirit, we should also spend a few moments acknowledging to others that they are a part of this community of believers. This can mean that you simply say hello to someone whom you have spoken to or seen in some time; it may mean reaching out to the neighbor across the street or down the road and inviting them to come on Sunday morning. The challenge is to see that what you do tells others where the Holy Spirit is in your life.
There were three kings in the Scriptures this day. One king let his own pride and self-centeredness bring about his downfall. One king first found fault with God for what were his errors but eventually acknowledged his own errors and was able to celebrate the presence of God in his life. The third King died on a cross so that we could live today. My challenge to you today is to find the king in your life.