This is the message I gave on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 12 October 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY. The Scriptures are Job 23: 1 – 9, 16 – 17; Hebrews 4: 12 – 16; and Mark 10: 17 – 31.
“Fair and balanced” seems to the phrase of the day. It certainly seems to be what gets people’s attention. But I will state categorically that the one thing this sermon probably will not be is fair or balanced.
In all honesty, I do not see how any preacher can be fair and balanced when preparing a sermon. When we look at those factors that give us concern in today’s society, it is very difficult to be fair. Poverty, homelessness, sickness, discrimination cannot be treated fairly. To speak out against injustice or war cannot be balanced against a case for injustice or war. Jesus made it very clear that our responsibilities were towards the homeless, the sick, the needy, those in prison.
“…for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25: 34 – 46)
Yet against the demands and the very nature of the Gospel, we find that many congregations do not want to hear what their responsibilities are; they do not want to be reminded that the fulfillment of the Gospel comes through what they do. I came of age, as it were, in the late 60’s.
Though each of these ministers was of a different denomination, they all showed the same concerns for justice and peace. It wouldn’t seem so important to note that today but I don’t see the same concerns in many of today’s preachers. It would seem that people today want church to be the one time when they are reminded about the problems of the world. But a church cannot be a successful church if there is no outreach, if the people of the church do not take the Gospel with them from the sanctuary into the outside world.
Yet against the demands and the very nature of the Gospel, many congregations today do want to hear what their responsibilities are. They do not want to be reminded that the Gospel is only true because of what they themselves do. A few weeks ago, I quoted the Baptist minister Tony Campolo, and I again remind you what he said,
… the last place where I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies.’ (Tony Campolo, quoted in Christian Week magazine (reported in SojoMail for 9/10/03)
It would seem that people want churches to be a safe place, a place where they are not reminded about the problems of the world. But a church cannot be successful if it has no outreached, if the Gospel message isn’t taken past the boundaries of the local community.
One reason for this is that technology has brought the outside world in closer to our own daily lives. Yet, the church as not adapted; for many, the church is till remembered as the place where they grew up. It gives them a sense of order to remember the days past in a world seemingly full of chaos. In the past, one knew who needed help, one knew who were the “outcasts” and problem people in society. Society only reached the limits of the community. It was easy for the church of old to reach these people and draw them directly within the ministry of the congregation. But in today’s society, those with needs no longer have names. Life has become too complex and local congregations no longer “see” their responsibilities as clearly as they once did.
This change in society makes many people uncomfortable, if not down right frightened. And people do not want to be uncomfortable or frightened. Our whole political system is based not on developing progressive ideas but on frightening people. Campaign slogans today are more “vote for me because the other candidate will take away everything you have” that “vote for me because my ideas or plans are better.” And churches seem to be the same way.
We have retreated to the Old Testament mentality that the ill fortunes of one’s life are because one has sinned or done something terribly wrong. Churches denounce the sin and then denounce the sinner, casting them out from the church body rather than bringing them in. People flock to churches because it makes them safe, but only because the world outside is locked outside and cannot come in. Inside the safety of the sanctuary, they cannot see the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the needy. “Lord, when did we see you?” is never asked in the safe, fair and balanced churches of today.
It seems that as the world changes, the church seems to be holding back, not easily adapting to the needs of society. And at a time when people need the church the most, the church seems to be closing its doors to them. The people of today’s churches do not want to go out into the world where there this trouble and chaos nor do they want to let it in to their safe world. For to do so would bring the wilderness into their lives.
In this wilderness, they would be like Job was in the Old Testament reading, wandering and looking for God. But Job was wandering and looking for God for a reason. People today are afraid to look for God. People today do not have the trust in God that Job did. Job knew that he had done nothing wrong nor had he done anything to cause the discomfort, pain, and misery that had been brought into his life. He simply wanted to present his case to God because he trusted in God to do what was right. We are not willing to trust in God as Job did because we are not willing to take the extra step.
We are like the rich young ruler; we expect to be rewarded for what we are expected to do. Anything beyond that is beyond our rationale belief because it requires risk and stepping out of our comfort zone. But as people close the doors of the church to the outside, they are also forgetting what the promise of the Gospel is.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we have in Jesus the one person who can take away the fears that come with being in the wilderness. In Jesus, we have someone who has experienced life as we have and can take our case directly to God. We do not need to find God as Job sought God because Jesus is that single connection to Him. No longer do we need fear the wilderness because Jesus has been there before us and can take us through it.
It is clear that life is neither fair nor is it balanced. Even Peter recognized the inequity of serving Christ. He, like the others, gave up everything to follow Christ and had done so without any hint of what they would get. The disciples even fought over their own place in the kingdom, expecting that their views of society would be the views that would set the rules for the heavenly kingdom. But Jesus pointed out that though they may not see it on earth, in the end, there would be a reward for all that they had done.
And we are reminded today, as we come to the table this morning, that no matter how scared or frightened by the prospects of what the world has to offer, no matter how reluctant we are to let the world come into our safe sanctuary of quiet and rest, it is nothing when it is compared to what Jesus was about to go through.
If things had been fair, Jesus would not have died on the cross but would have lead a long, healthy, prosperous, and successful life as a teacher. But then His ministry would have failed. His sacrifice on the cross, remembered by our communion today, was so that we could live.
In a fair and balanced world, there would be no need for a church. But the world outside is neither fair nor balanced. It is a world that brings despair and exclusion; it is a world that strips those without the dignity it gives to those who have; it is a world that says the word of God is only for a select few.
But as we open the table to all who come, we also open our church and our hearts to all, saying that there is hope for those in despair, there is no longer an exclusion from the world, there is dignity, and there is a world in which all are welcome. Life in the world may not be fair or balanced, but a life in Christ surely is.