This is the message that I gave on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 14 September 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY. The Scriptures for that Sunday were Proverbs 1: 20 – 33, James 3: 1 – 12, and Mark 8: 27 – 38.
The answer to the question is “42.” If you are a fan of the Douglas Adams novels, based on his first book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, then you know that the question relates to “Life, the Universe, and Everything Else.” Unfortunately, the actual question is “What is 6 * 9?”
Now, this means one of two things. Either the universe and life itself are highly irrational or whoever wrote the question was very, very confused. But in the end, since it is a work of fiction, it really doesn’t matter.
But there are times in our own lives when we are faced with questions that do in fact deal with life, the universe and just about everything else. And such questions require real answers. And often times, the questions don’t seem to make any sense and the answers we get are equally confusing or irrational.
There are times in our lives when the questions we ask or the answers that we seek determine just what we will do. I am a chemist because in June of 1966, Dr. Wray Rieger asked me what my major at Truman, then NE Missouri State Teachers College, was going to be. I replied chemistry only because it was the only course in my, then, short high school career where I had averaged straight A’s. I didn’t find out until five years later that Dr. Rieger was also a chemist and that he would be the person who would teach me Organic Chemistry. I learned then that sometimes we don’t comprehend or understand the impact of the questions we ask until much later in life.
My sophomore year at NEMO was a trying one for me. With the Viet Nam war threatening to define my future for me, I was struggling to answer many personal questions. It was a time when one’s beliefs were being challenged by the lessons learned both inside and outside the classroom. It was a time when the politics of war threatened to widen a gap between individuals that had begun with differences over race and economics. And in midst of all this change and confusion, I was trying to identify who I was and what I was to become.
That spring, the question I asked was, “Reverend Fortel, can I take communion before I leave for Spring break?” I was headed back to Memphis for the Easter/Spring break and I felt that I would be missing something in my own Easter celebration that year if I did not take communion at First Church in Kirksville.
I knew that I would take communion with my mother, brothers, and sister in the Bartlett church, since that was where they went. But my membership from the first Sunday I lived in Kirksville was with First Church and I wanted that connection.
For Reverend Fortel, it was a surprising question since no other student ever asked him anything remotely the same. It was probably because those students were members of the Methodist church in their hometown and never thought of asking.
So he agreed and we met in the chapel of the church just before I left. Instead of a formal ceremony, we read the ritual together. It was the same ritual that we will use this morning. And when we got to the passage on page 30 of our hymnal,
“We do not presume to come to this they table, O merciful Lord,, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.”
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under they table.”
“How,” I asked, “can it be that we are worthy to gather up the crumbs? Did not the fact that we have been saved give us the right to sit at God’s table?”
Remember that this was a time when the rights of individuals within society were being defined. The critical question of the time was who had the right to determine the path another might walk. In a time when there were protests against the war in Viet Nam, I was protesting the draft. Here I was, confident in all that I knew, being told I did not have the right or honor to sit at God’s table.
But, as Reverend Fortel pointed out, it was only by God’s grace that I was allowed to sit at the table. And it was because I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and could be considered saved that such grace could be offered to me. Our discussion continued along the line of what being saved meant. I don’t recall what exactly was said but I came away knowing that whatever good in the world that I might do was not what saved me.
Until that day I felt that it was the good, along with the personal conviction of Christ as my Savior, that saved me. But I was reminded that spring day some thirty-four years ago that it was my faith in Christ and my faith alone that saved me. But, as was noted in the portion of James’ letter that we read last week, it was my works that help keep my faith alive. As James pointed out, if we do not put our faith to work, it can easily die.
I came away from that time in the chapel more aware of whom I was and, more importantly who Christ was and what He meant to me. I can’t help but think about all those who have asked similar questions but turned away because they didn’t like the answers they received.
We are reminded today that wisdom, as described in the Old Testament reading for today, mocks those who do not seek it. But despite all we might say, ours is a society in which wisdom is not sought or desired.
Ours is a society where the sound bite rules; where quick snippets of short, witty sayings count more than detailed or thoughtful discussions. James warns us against those who speak with a quick tongue, for it leads to and causes nothing but trouble. Our lack of wisdom, our desire for the quick and simple answer also leads us away from the church.
Today’s church, in a desperate attempt to answer the questions of the people who come, is not always willing to demand that the people show some wisdom. Many churches today are willing to be ruled by the ways of society. William Willimon recently wrote that he preached in a United Methodist Church where many of the historic Christian metaphors and images were no longer a part of the church or the service. (“It’s Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive When You Work for Jesus”, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003.) The service was designed to be more “seeker-sensitive” and anything that would remind the congregation of Christ’s suffering or death would make them feel uncomfortable.
The noted Baptist minister, Tony Campolo, noted that
… 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)
Our society has turned everything into a commodity. So churches have turned the Gospel into one as well. To make church more palatable we have reduced the Gospel to a minimalist set of slogans and techniques. We have pared the Gospel message down to a short message that can fit onto a bumper sticker, letting the consumer be the judge of what can be demanded, said, and expected in the name of Jesus.
Too late, we have discovered that rather than the Gospel message transforming the world, the medium has transformed the message. Evangelism is now measured by the feelings of good engendered in the congregation. In a society where everything is a commodity, the value of a church service is measured by what is gained from spending one or two hours in church every Sunday?
But if we do not put in the cross, if we do not mention the pain Christ will endure, then the Gospel is meaningless. In today’s Gospel reading we hear Peter proudly and boldly proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the One that they had been seeking for so long. But in that same time period, as Jesus begins to describe the pain and suffering that He will shortly undergo, Peter tries to shut him up.
How ironic that in the very first proclamation of Christ’s presence as the Messiah, a member of the congregation didn’t want to hear the Gospel story? Peter might be right at home in today’s modern, seeker-sensitive churches where the message is simple and easy to take. We live in a world today where people want to be told that Jesus can fix anything. They do not want to hear that following Christ may mean suffering and death on our part as well as that of Christ.
The Gospel message requires understanding, not a reduction to a short sound bite. We need to be reminded that Jesus suffered and died on the cross. We need to be reminded that Christ’s death was necessary for us to live. And we need to be reminded that life in Christ is not easy and that we cannot seek Christ as a short-term simple answer to a complicated question.
That is why we have communion. We do not come to the altar rail to partake of the bread and drink the wine because our bodies cry out for sustenance. We come because our souls do. Communion is the time when Christ’s death and suffering come home to us and when we are reminded what it is to be a Christian; it is our reminder of what life is really all about.
St. Francis of Assisi challenged the notion of what a servant of Christ could and should do. Like so many others, he became a mirror of Christ on earth; we may not meet Jesus but we will certainly meet those like St. Francis of Assisi who sought to be like Christ. In preparing his book, “Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs”, James Howell spent a night Assisi after doing some research on St. Francis. He wrote
For me, that night proved to be like the one Jacob spent by the river, when he wrestled all night with a stranger, perhaps an angel. Intellectually, I had learned much about Francis — but his memory shook me by the shoulders that night. In the face of his oddness, his extravagance, his utter devotion to Christ, I sensed how bland my own faith had become, how comfortably I managed to “fit in” to our culture, risking next to nothing; I was hardly a fool for Christ. (James C. Howell, “Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs”, page 23.)
He came away knowing that the bland, take no risks, be less passionate religion that allowed him to fit into today’s society would no longer work. He understood that you could not be like Christ without understanding.
We will always encounter those who have come to understand what it is to be a Christian; in doing so we will encounter Jesus. May be our encounter will be like that of James Howell whose soul was renewed through his search and encounter for St. Francis. It may be like Saint Francis’ own encounter when he heard Jesus speaking to him through the crucifix of a crumbling old church in San Damiano. Or may be it will be like Saul on the road to Damascus who met Jesus in a bright flash of light.
Laura Beth Jones wrote as the prologue of her book “Jesus in Blue Jeans”
Many years ago I dreamed that I was standing in a meadow. Suddenly I saw a man approaching me. As he got nearer I gasped to realize that is was Jesus in Blue Jeans. When he saw the expression on my face he said, “Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you wear blue jeans.” (Prologue to “Jesus in Blue Jeans” by Laura Beth Jones)
However you meet Christ, however your faith is challenged, there will be time when it will happen. And on that day, Jesus will ask you, just as He asked the disciples that day on the road in Galilee, “Who do you say that I am?”
That’s the question. What’s your answer?