This is the message that I gave on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 7 September 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY. The Scriptures for that Sunday were Proverbs 22: 1 – 2, 8 – 9, 22 – 23; James 2: 1 – 10, 14 – 17; and Mark 7: 24 – 37.
I hope that when you read the title for today’s sermon you had the same thought that Ann did when she first read it, “You can’t bake a cake without baking powder.”
Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda, corn starch, sodium aluminum sulfate (or alum), calcium sulfate, and monocalcium phosphate. It is simple enough to say that when you add water to this mixture of solids, you get carbon dioxide and the dough is able to rise. Without baking powder, the cake is going to be extremely flat.
It is that combination of materials that produces the reaction needed to bake a cake. It is a combination of things that make a church what it is. The world, of course, is the ultimate combination of people, places, and things. But often times a church tries to choose the parts of the world that will make up it’s identity..
Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been many attempts to define how the church should be a part of society and how society and the church should interact. Some of those attempts removed the church from society.
Many of the great utopian experiments of the 19th century were of this type. The Shakers, who we know today for their expensive and elegant but simple furniture, were one such group. The group flourished just before the Civil War because there was a growing sense that the coming war was a harbinger of the Second Coming of Christ. There was a need to pull away from society so that you could better prepare for Christ’s coming.
But the problem with the Shakers was that they had no way of continuing the movement and thus ultimately died out, leaving only memories of a simple life and basic furniture. In fact, it is ironic that the simple furniture that marked the Shaker lifestyle now sells for prices that only the rich and famous can pay.
Another, earlier attempt at communal, utopian living was made at the Amana colonies in Iowa. We associate the name Amana with dishwashers and stoves and the Amana Radarange. But most people do not know that this company has its heritage in same millennial roots that later formed the Shaker movement.
The Amana colonies were found by a group of German and Swiss colonists who came to the United States in the fall of 1842. Persecuted and faced with a religious intolerance, these German and Swiss colonists came to America seeking a place where they could worship, work, and live in peace. These colonists first settled in the Buffalo, New York area but moved to Iowa because the area around Buffalo was becoming rapidly urbanized.
For over 100 years, the Amana colonies proved that communal living was possible. The difference in their style of communal living and other similar attempts was not found in philosophy or social concepts but rather in their belief that it was the best way to worship in peace.
The people of the colonies pooled their resources in order to market their agricultural and manufactured products. In return, their food, shelter, and clothing needs were met. But in what became known as “The Great Change”, the colonies decided to separate their religious and economic interests, thus ending a long period of isolationism and beginning a new period of community openness. Unfortunately, it would seem that while we remember their works, we do not remember why they worked.
The problem is that when you define your church without society, it ultimately dies. A church must be a part of society if it is to survive and grow. But, by the same token, if the church becomes too tied to society and the ways of society, it will lose its identity.
It is the very nature of society that makes us want to pick the best parts as those that define who we are. We do not want that which we consider the worst or unseemly parts to be even known. And that is exactly what James is warning is about.
If we show partiality about whom we shall love or who we will be with, then we would be considered sinners and convicted by the law as transgressor. We cannot ignore that we are part of society but we have to be careful that we do not become so ingrained in it that we lose our identity as a representative of Christ on earth. We have a unique opportunity to proclaim the kingdom of God but if we are not careful, it can also be an opportunity for what one author (Colin Williamson, Faith In a Secular Age) calls atheistic self-assertion, claiming and keeping what is truly God’s for ourselves.
A woman comes to Jesus. We do not know who she is for she is never named, either in Mark’s description of the encounter or Matthew’s similar description. But we do know that she was not a Jew, for she was of Syro-Phoenician origin. At first, Jesus wants nothing to do with her, proclaiming that His mission was only to the lost sheep of the kingdom, a reference to the Jews of that time who had become hung up on the rules of society without the use of faith.
The analogy that Jesus used that the children’s food should not be thrown to the dogs was a fair one because anyone not of the faith was considered an equal to the dogs. But, as the women pointed out, even the dogs gathered up the crumbs under the table of the children. And because she was so determined to overcome every barrier that society would put in her place, Jesus granted her wish that her own child be cured.
But it is equally important that we look at how the disciples reacted. In Matthew 15: 21 – 28, we see that the disciples would have rather this woman left them alone. Send her away was their cry. But Jesus doesn’t send her away. Rather he watches the disciples to see how they will react.
The disciples don’t want that woman in their life right now. They want her to go away. She is their enemy and inferior, and she is making a pest of herself. She challenged Jesus and took away time that they felt belonged to them.
But she would not give up. And because she does not give up, Jesus does what no one else would do. He commends her faith, “O woman, great is your faith.”
We have said that we are going to be like Jesus. We have to be careful that we are not like his disciples in those early days of the ministry. The poor and needy are as much a part of our life as the rich and well off. A church cannot survive without either. There are churches in this country built with the largess of their members but they are more country clubs than they are houses of worship. There are churches today where pastors preach individual repentance but never ask that the money that is spent on the upkeep of the building be spent on the upkeep of the people.
One person whom I have come to admire is a Georgian by the name of Clarence Jordan. As a young man growing up in the segregated south of the 1930′s and 1940′s, he saw the hypocrisy of the church in its fullness.
A pastor of one of the more gilded cathedrals in Atlanta once asked Mr. Jordan for some advice. It seems that the custodian for the church had eight children and worked seven days a week for eighty dollars a week. The minister had tried to get him a raise but without success. Jordan suggested that he, the pastor, swap his salary with that of the janitor. It would cause no hardship for the budget since no extra money would be needed.. It is not noted what the pastor’s response was.
Another time, Jordan spoke of a church that wanted to establish a fabulous fountain on its front lawn while its neighbors had no running water. “As long as God is God and not man, we know how to handle him — we can build him a fountain on the lawn. But as soon as we see God as man, then we have to give him a cup of water. (Lee, Cotton Patch Evidence, 11. — from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs.)
A church that ignores a part of society is a church that will die. It will not be a quick or easy death. There are still Shakers living in this country but their days are numbered, if not already completed. The last ones saw that the church could not survive and they decided a number of years ago to stop taking in new members.
As we prepare for the coming year, as we look to what will be Tompkins Corners UMC we have to think about what defines this church. It is not the size of the church that will define this church; it is what this church does.
And if this church does nothing more that what it has to do, it will do nothing at all. I have mentioned over the past two weeks that we need to develop our own unique outreach program. All that we have to do is decide that a portion of our offering, perhaps the total offering of the fifth Sunday of a month, will go to particular missionary or outreach activities either in this area or in a place of our choosing. It is a small step but one that will reap great rewards.
We must also make a concerted effort to reach out to those who are members of this church but who have decided for whatever reason to not attend on a regular basis. I have made a copy of the church membership roll for people to look at. It is broken down into four parts: active members, homebound members, inactive members, and unknown members.
The inactive ones are that way in part because they do not come to church nor have they returned the information sheets or responded to any of the mailings that have been sent out. They may be active but in such a way that very few people know who they are. The ones considered unknown are that way because we have no current address for them. If we knew their address, then we would reach out to them.
Some have expressed concern that the conference will close the church if we take too many people off the membership list. Personally, I don’t think so. But I do know that if we do not make a concerted effort to be a more active church, then what some fear will happen will in fact happen. It is one thing to have faith but if the faith does no work, what good is it?
Jesus may have ordered those who saw him perform the miracles to keep silent until it was time to tell the world. Well, that time is now and we can no longer keep silent. You cannot bake a cake without baking powder; you cannot have a church that ignores part of society or fails to reach out to all parts of society. The charge before us this day is the charge that James gave so many years ago, take care of those who are in need or face the fact that your faith will die.