In The Beginning


This Sunday, Trinity Sunday, I am  at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures are Isaiah 6: 1 – 8, Romans 8: 12 – 17, and John 3: 1- 17.

I am tentatively scheduled to be at Gaylordsville United Methodist Church (Gaylordsville, CT) July 5, 12, and 19.  The services there start at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend.

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“Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Henry II spoke these words, or words to that effect, in expressing his dissatisfaction with Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomas Beckett was royal chancellor to King Henry II. In 1162, following the death of the archbishop of Canterbury, Henry appointed him to be the new archbishop. Henry must have thought that, with their friendship, he could more easily control the church and get the church to more easily support the crown’s policies. But Beckett did not go along with this plan. The man who was a layperson one day, an ordained priest the next, and the most powerful clergyman, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the third day took his job very seriously.

Beckett would not allow the king and crown to engulf the church. Henry’s plan to gain authority that properly belonged to the church failed because Beckett would not allow such an uncontrolled usurpation of power.

Those who knew Beckett before his appointment found it amazing that he, Beckett, would come even close to being a man of God. But he grew into the job and the position. He understood what he had been called by God to do and refused to do what Henry wished that he would do. In exasperation, Henry made a passing remark that he wished someone would dispose of this headache.

Now, it cannot be said with any degree of certainty that Henry wanted his friend killed or whether he spoke his words out of frustration and/or anger. Nor can it be said that Thomas, who clearly sought power through his friendship with Henry, wanted the power of the church for himself.

But four young knights, William de Tracy, Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, and Richard le Bret, all who hoped to rise in favor with Henry, heard the words as a command. So they rode off to Canterbury and assassinated Beckett on the high altar of the cathedral. The four knights were disgraced and Henry found himself seeking repentance for his thoughts and actions. (See http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/becket.htm; also Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.)

The theme of this Sunday is “Peace with Justice.” It comes some two weeks after four young men from this area were arrested for conspiring to bomb two synagogues in New York City in the misguided notion that they would be rewarded by Allah. And it comes one week after a physician was killed in the narthex of his church by someone who was angered that he, the doctor, was involved in abortions. It is neither the time nor the place to discuss whether what Dr. William Tiller did was right or wrong.

But it is interesting to note how many individuals, using the banner of God and the church, have literally endorsed Dr. Tiller’s murder. The message of far-right secular and sectarian groups and individuals is often filled with hatred and suggestions of violence. It should not be surprising that some individuals, be they Christian, Muslim, or any faith, would read those words and feel that it was acceptable, proper, and appropriate to take the actions that were planned for New York City and carried out in Wichita, Kansas.

I agree with the editorial staff of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette wrote

. . .“the shouts of those who care only about ending abortion drown out all others. The shouting makes it impossible for people to work toward reducing the need for abortion and improving life for everyone.” (“Where is the outrage?”)

When I first began lay speaking, I used a reference to Patrick Henry’s famous speech (“give me liberty or give me death”) in one of my sermons. A colleague of mine, after seeing an early draft of that sermon, commented that I was one of the most conservative Methodists that he knew. This came as a shock to me because, first of all, I never have considered myself a conservative Methodist, and second, I knew several other Methodist preachers who were far more conservative that me. He also said that what I had written could serve as a justification for actions such as the bombing of an abortion clinic. Since I did not feel that way then (nor do I feel that way today) I immediately went back and rewrote that portion of the sermon.

But it still remains that there are those today who would and do use such words as a call for action. But if there is to be Peace and Justice in this world today, it cannot come with the methods that are used to take away peace and deny justice to the people of the world. And that is what the church today must face.

The words of too many people, portraying themselves as spokespersons of the church, are words of hate, anger, and exclusion that would take away peace, justice, and freedom. But the words of the church, from its very beginning, have been words of peace, justice, and freedom.

We recall the words in Deuteronomy that spoke of the care that each individual was to show for their neighbor,

When you happen on someone who’s in trouble or needs help among your people with whom you live in this land that God, your God, is giving you, don’t look the other way pretending you don’t see him. Don’t keep a tight grip on your purse. No. Look at him, open your purse, lend whatever and as much as he needs. Don’t count the cost. Don’t listen to that selfish voice saying, “It’s almost the seventh year, the year of All-Debts-Are-Canceled,” and turn aside and leave your needy neighbor in the lurch, refusing to help him. He’ll call God’s attention to you and your blatant sin. (The Message – Deuteronomy 15: 7 – 8)

We recall the words of Acts in which the people gathered together as a community, sharing all that they had for the benefit of all. There are also other writings outside the Bible that tell us that people gathered together in the name of Christ and lived in what we would today call communes. It may have been that these early Christians gathered together for protection as much as for worship. The people of that early church were persecuted for their refusal to fit into the social system of that day, which included publically acknowledging the emperor as god.

But somewhere along the timeline of history, perhaps after Constantine made Christianity acceptable, the church moved away from its beginnings and began to evolve into what it is today. The church today is more a reflection of what mankind wants the church to be, not what God intended.

I have written about what I see as the transition of the church from what it once was (though I perhaps didn’t always know that) into what it has become. But it is clear to me today that the church today is more a reflection of today’s society than it should be. I am not alone in this thought.

Gretta Vosper, pastor and author of the book “With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe”, suggests the church of today is no longer appropriate for today’s society. While I may disagree with some of her ideas, I do agree with her question, “Can the church slough off the encrustations of two millennia of ecclesial doctrine and theology in order to address the world’s most urgent needs?”

She continues with the idea that the core message of Christianity carries its own authority. It does not need a doctrine to validate it nor an external expert or supernatural authority to tell us it is right. A church which focuses on the core message need not fear the disciplines of science, history, archeology, psychology or literature; it will only be enhanced by such disciplines. It will also be a church open and enhanced by critical thinking for such thinking will enhance the message.

The problem is that this core message is too often expressed in terms of today’s society. And the result is that many people have turned the message into their version of the truth and they condemn those who refuse to accept their version. It isn’t just the far right of the spectrum; it is those who speak in terms of “this is the way that we have always done it”, even when they themselves don’t understand what it is that they are doing.

It is a concern that has been a part of the United Methodist Church almost from its very beginning. John Wesley once said

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. (“Thoughts upon Methodism” – 1786)

The title of this sermon, “In The Beginning”, came about because I am concerned about the church and its role in society. The church, from its very beginning has been concerned with peace and justice. But if there is to be peace with justice today, then we must remember how this church began.

Perhaps it is appropriate that today is also Trinity Sunday. I saw a statement the other day that basically stated that if you cannot imagine the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as One, then you would have difficulty with the message of Christianity. And if your view of Christianity is tied to the present worldview, where what the church, its mission and its words are determined by what others say, then it will be very difficult to accept the Triune God.

This was the problem that Nicodemus had. He was locked into a worldview that could not imagine being reborn; he could not imagine the changing power of the Holy Spirit as Paul described it to the Romans. But if your heart is open to Jesus Christ, then your mind can be open to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah had a vision of God sitting on his throne, much like the painting that you all see each Sunday (“What I See”). I am sure that the words that we heard this morning in our first reading (Isaiah 6: 1 – 8) adequately express the fear that filled Isaiah’s heart and mind. John Wesley also had a vision of the world; he saw a world in which the church was called to its original vision but from which it had turned away in favor of societal acceptance.

But I don’t think that we were ever supposed to be seen in terms of societal acceptance. From almost the very beginning of our history, we have been told to do what is right, not necessarily what is socially acceptable.

“Don’t pass on malicious gossip. “Don’t link up with a wicked person and give corrupt testimony. Don’t go along with the crowd in doing evil and don’t fudge your testimony in a case just to please the crowd. And just because someone is poor, don’t show favoritism in a dispute. (The Message – Exodus 23: 2)

There are two visions of the church today. One is that of an antiquated and dying institution that ignores the world around it in favor of days long past. It is a church in which things are done for reasons long forgotten.

The other is a vision of the church as it was two thousand years ago, of a community that opened its hearts and minds to all those who sought peace, of a community that cared for everyone regardless of background. It is a vision that says that when we gather together at the communion table, we gather in fellowship and remembrance as those who began the church did, remembering the words of Christ to the disciples and the others gathered together in the Upper Room but celebrating the fellowship of the presence.

It is the vision of the church that Wesley had some two hundred and fifty years ago when he saw a church more interested in its own well-being and self-preservation than it was in the well-being of the people. Wesley believed that God had raised the people called Methodists to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land. The institutions and practices of the Methodist movement were designed to enable Methodists to participate in God’s mission in the world. (From John Wesley and the Emerging Church by Hal Knight – http://www.umerging.org/uploads/media/John_Wesley_and_the_Emerging_Church.pdf)

And today, we are the messengers for this vision. As we come to the table this morning, we are called to bring forth the vision, not only of John Wesley, but of those who gathered two thousand years ago in fellowship and remembrance. We have the chance today to continue what began two thousand years ago, a chance to begin again the mission of the church. Just as God asked Isaiah who will carry forth the vision, so too does God ask us. And just as Isaiah answered, so must we answer the same. This can be the end of the church but it can also be the beginning. How shall you respond?

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2 thoughts on “In The Beginning

  1. Pingback: On The Road Again « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  2. Pingback: Notes for Trinity Sunday « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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