This is the message that I gave on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, 24 August 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY. The Scriptures for that Sunday were 1 Kings 8: 22 – 30, 41 – 43; Ephesians 6: 10 – 20; and John 6: 56 – 69.
The most striking line in any of the three readings for today most certainly comes from the Gospel reading, “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” (John 6: 66) It tells us that there were more than twelve who were considered Jesus’ disciples. We think solely of the twelve simply because they were named and were picked by Jesus personally.
But there were more than the twelve. We often don’t think of these other disciples because they and what they did are only mentioned in Luke. In Luke 10:1 we read of Jesus sending out the seventy, two by two, into the mission field and coming back successfully in Luke 10: 17. But, today in John, we read that some of these other disciples are now leaving him.
These disciples had been following Jesus almost from the beginning of His ministry. They came because they heard of His miracles, His teachings. They saw and, as reported in Luke, participated in the miracles themselves. Here was the answer to their problems; here was the Messiah that they had so long prayed for. But now, this Messiah, this Savior was asking them to make sacrifices in order to continue the work. And with all the promises fulfilled, all the certainty of success that they themselves had participated in, the call of sacrifice was too much and they turned away. It is a phenomenon that continues even today. We seek solutions to problems but we are unwilling to make the sacrifices that might be needed.
Last Thursday, I was listening to part of a talk show on the local NPR station. The subject was the blackout and its political ramifications. One caller stated the rather obvious fact that we needed to build more local generating plans in order to reduce local dependence on the national power grid. But when the moderator asked the caller what he would do about the Indian Point nuclear plant, the caller said, “Shut it down.” Now, there are alternatives to the power problem that we face in the country today and most clearly defined by last Thursday’s blackout but none of them will work unless we, both individually and collectively, rethink how we are going to live.
This is going to be the problem, because we are unwilling to undertake the steps or make the sacrifices that will be needed. Our common philosophy is that someone else should do it. If it requires something be built, the common belief is that it should be built elsewhere. NIMBY (not in my backyard) has quickly become an acceptable acronym.
It is not just in the building of power plants, be they coal-fired, nuclear, or alternative, that we are unwilling to take action but in almost all activities in our lives. We want to lead our lives without interference and we want to do so without having to get involved in other things. We tell people that we have enough to do with our own lives so we do not have time to think about others. The rich young ruler came to Jesus seeking to follow him but left disappointed when told that he had to give up all of his wealth. Another came to Jesus prepared to follow but left because Jesus wouldn’t give him time away to bury his father. And Jesus told us of others who gave only a pittance of their wealth for the benefit of others while a widow searched her entire house to find the small coin that represented everything she had to give. We want solutions to the problems of the world but we do not want to be involved in the solution.
And we wonder why this world is going in the direction it is going in. We wonder when it will all stop; when the promise of the American dream will become a reality and there will be no distrust in the world, no violence, no war.
I think that is why conservatives are so dominant today. They are willing to put in the work to do what is required to achieve their goals. But their agenda is at best repressive, vindictive, and only for their own benefit. People have accepted what is happening because they are unwilling to do the work themselves and they have accepted the idea that government takes things away from them and gives to those less deserving or ill-equipped to probably use what is given to them.
There is a solution but it can happen only if we, individually and collectively, are willing to take on the tasks that need to be done and to do so without thinking about what it is going to cost us in the short-term.
The author and activist Jim Wallis wrote,
“It is possible to evoke in people a genuine desire to transcend our more selfish interests and respond to a larger vision that gives us a sense of purpose, direction, meaning, and even community. Real political leadership provides that very thing; it offers to lead people to where, in their best selves, they really want to go.
We must expand our definition of political leaders to include more than elected officials. Those who could and should help shape a new political direction include teachers, farmers, poets, scientists, workers, entrepreneurs, union organizers, religious leaders, human rights activists, children’s advocates, and representative of grassroots movements and communities.
A new framework, new language, and new visions could emerge from resurrecting our most basic personal and social values. Many of those values derive from the cores of our best religious traditions and are common to people who have long politically and culturally separated from one another. Central to any new politics will be a new spirituality — indeed, a renewal of some of our oldest spirituality — creating a moral sensitivity that refuses to separate political ideas from their consequences for human beings and for the rest of the creation. (The Soul of Politics, Jim Wallis, page xix)
My focus for today is not on national or even local politics. The pulpit is supposedly off-limits to politics, though it never is. But instead of speaking about candidates or platforms or political agendas, I will only encourage you to participate in that most basic of human rights, the electoral process. But, if there are to be changes in the national landscape, they will come from the grassroots. They will come from the small towns and the people who understand better than many people realize what is the nature of the human condition and they will seek answers to the many problems that trouble us.
There is a call for a spiritual enlightenment in this country. But, at times, it is a call that is more dividing than it is reconciling; it is a call for a system that returns us to the ways of the Old Testament when we should be living the ways of the New Testament. It is because those making the call see the people as meek and willing to follow, incapable of independent thinking.
Against that backdrop, we must see Jesus not as an authority figure imposed from above, though there are those who present that image. Jesus did not come to this world as a revealer of an ideological system to be superimposed on society but rather as one who first and foremost affirmed the needed for human freedom and decision. He came prepared to risk his truth and life within the openness of the secular world.
When he was asked to define Himself through the exercise of supernatural powers, He refused. He had to be found freely, within the openness of the world around us or not be found at all. This means that those who follow him should not impose the Christian faith in any form, be it as a metaphysical formula or as a religious or institutional means for providing stability and security within society. It is an enlightenment by which we accept the responsibility to witness for Christ by actively showing his presence in this world. And as we accept this responsibility, we must also accept the responsibility to struggle against the forces that always gather in opposition.
The church has been and will always be the one force behind positive social change. It was that way when Jesus first began his ministry; it will be that way as long as the Holy Spirit is a presence in the lives of believers.
So while I encourage you to participate in the political process of this country, I also encourage you to participate in the work of the church. November 13th is the date of our Charge Conference; that is the date of the annual meeting to decide the work of the church. It is the one time when all members of the church should be present. But, like many other activities, many of the members will not be here. Some, because of where they live, cannot be here, and that is understandable.
But others can be here and they should be. I have spoken on this subject before and I suppose that I will speak on it in the future. But the fact of the matter is that unless many of those who claim to be members begin to take part in the work of the church, the church is not going to be a part of their lives much longer. In part, this is because we will be listing members on the inactive list, the beginning of a three-year process to remove their names from the role.
But I also fear that this church may not be here in three years. Oh, there will be a building but I cannot say for certain that there will be a church. One of the complaints heard in the meeting with Dennis last year was that the same people were holding the offices of the church year after year. We decided to bring new people in to fill the offices for the present year and now we need to find people to serve the church in the coming year.
But where will we find the people? Who will serve the church? How will this church avoid the problems that have plagued it in the past? It will be up to the members of the church to reach out to the forty-four inactive members in this area and bring them back into the fold. Some will say that it is my job, as the pastor, to prod and coax people into serving. I will try, on that you can be sure. But the people who are asked must have a feeling that their service will be appreciated and, more importantly, that they will be welcomed in this church. And this will come only if it is the active members of the church who reach out to them and invite them back.
I have been told that there are some willing to come back to the church but do not because they feel excluded. It is a feeling that was dominant last year and has diminished over the past few months. But, unfortunately, it has not gone away. And it is not just a feeling that has gathered over the recent past but one that has roots deep within the history of this church. There can be pride about one’s church but when one’s pride takes precedence over that of the Holy Spirit, the church will decay rather quickly.
The Old Testament reading for today is about the completion of the Temple and its placement in the lives of the Israelites as the one place where God could be found. We know that Solomon understood that his reign as king was dependent on God. The prayer that we read today at the dedication of the temple was recognition that there was a continuing need for God in his life and in the lives of the Israelites. We are reminded that God is faithful to us and there needs to be a similar faithfulness on our part, if all of God’s blessings are to be realized.
In Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple that was built, he included foreigners. Since only the Israelites were God’s chosen people, all others would have no particular claim to the ear of God. But by the worship of God’s people, others would be drawn to Him. If the Spirit is not found in God’s house, then it can be expected that those who truly need God’s presence will not find it there.
I feel that the Spirit of God is in this place. It is very hard to drive it out. But if petty politics or self-interests come before the Gospel, the Spirit will leave. That makes our work hard and sometimes so hard that we want to quit. The decline of the modern denominations in Christianity comes from the fact that we fail to realize how tough a task it is.
At the close of the Gospel reading for today, as many of the disciples turned away, Jesus asked the remaining if they were going to leave as well. Peter pointed out that they had nowhere else to go. The twelve had come to believe that Jesus was the Holy One of God and that what he said about eternal life was true. They were willing to pay the price for their belief.
The people of Ephesus were encountering many difficulties. Paul himself notes that he had endured much hardship in the spreading of the Gospel. It was noted that this letter was probably written while Paul was under house arrest in Rome, hence his request for prayer for his well being.
Paul’s words for today are words of encouragement, meant to show that our efforts are not in vain. Paul recognized that we could not do the work alone and that the Holy Spirit was a vital part of one’s life. His words of encouragement and support ring true today, whether we are working on the tasks of day-to-day living or more complicated tasks like the work of the church. The work of the Gospel requires the presence of the church and the presence of the church requires the work of the people.
Twelve men heard the call of Jesus to follow him and become fishers of men. Others soon followed. It was not an easy call to answer, for it required leaving the safety and security of what they had. Many times those who followed would find themselves not wanted, persecuted, or ignored. But the rewards of the call, of what was promised at the end of the journey were tangible and real goals. But many of those who started on the journey left because they did not believe that it was worth the time and effort.
Today we hear the same call. And we are asked if we will answer. Shall we be like those who, when faced with the need for a strong commitment of faith, time, and energy, turn away? Or, shall we be like Peter and the others who remained, trusting in Jesus and secure that faith will prevail?
Shall we take up the call and, quite literally, call the ones not here today, inviting them to once again be a part of this church and this faith, to be a part of the presence of Christ in this world. The call for duty is not an easy one answer but it is one that must be answered.