This is the message for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 15 October 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY. The Scriptures are Job 23: 1- 9, 16 – 17; Hebrews 4: 12 – 16; and Mark 10: 17 – 31.
A young man comes to Jesus and asks what it will take to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds that to inherit eternal life he must obey the commandments and then he lists seventh, sixth, eighth, ninth, and fifth commandments. “Of course I have kept these commandments,” the young man replies. “Then,” Jesus said, “sell all that you have and give your money to the poor.” The young man leaves, grieving, for he cannot or would not do that which he was asked to do.
As much as this Gospel reading is about money, I think that it is about much more. For the commandments that Jesus listed dealt with the ethical and fair treatment of people. To paraphrase another saying of Jesus, what good are the things that you own if they cannot be used to help others. What Jesus was saying, at least to me, in this Gospel reading, is that you must reorder your priorities and that when you do so, the rewards, that which you gain, will be multiplied.
Albert Edward Day wrote,
I came to a new understanding why Jesus passed up the religious establishment of his day, the economically secure, the socially prestigious, and sought out the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the broken, the sick, the lonely. He felt, as we so often do not feel, their sorrow. He was acquainted, as we too seldom are, with their grief. On Calvary he died of a broken heart. But that heart was broken long before Black Friday, by the desolation of the common people. “In all their afflictions, he was afflicted.”
Most of the time we are not. We seem to have quite a different conception of life. We avoid as much as possible the unpleasant. We shun the suffering of others. We shrink from any burdens except those which life itself inescapably thrusts upon us. We seek arduously the wealth and power that will enable us to secure ourselves against the possibility of being involved with another’s affliction. Lazarus sometimes makes his way to our door step. We toss him a coin and go on our way. We give our charities but we do not give ourselves. We build our charitable institutions but we do not build ourselves into other’s lives. (From The Captivating Presence by Albert Edward Day)
There has probably been no greater act of defiance in the history of the Christian church than when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg. In making his complaints with the Catholic Church known publicly, Luther knew that he was putting his career in the church on the line. But Luther also felt that the direction of the church at that time was not the direction it should, that it did not put the people first, and that people were in danger if no action was taken.
Similarly, John Wesley’s declaration to the Bishop of Bristol represented a major decision about his faith and his career:
Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”
Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay” (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal.)
Such actions require that you have an understanding of what is needed at that time and place in history. It also means that you be willing to accept what comes. The young man in the Gospel was not willing to accept that the idea that to keep the commandments required deeper action than simple lip service to the commandments.
John Wesley understood that a church and a nation that ignores members of its society could never expect worldly success, let alone success in Heaven. Having accepted Christ as one’s personal Savior, you could not sit back and wait for the Glory of the Lord to come to you. You had to take the message of the Gospel out into the world, both in thought, word and deed. John Wesley understood that the church must present a message people understand. But the message must be accompanied by actions. To Wesley, preaching the Gospel was more than a Sunday experience; it was a daily occurrence. Preaching the Gospel alone is not enough when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society; you must help people overcome such barriers. If people are hungry, they must be feed; if people are sick, they must be healed; if the people seek to improve their lives through education, there need to be schools. If the church is to be a vital and living part of the community today, it must offer the hope and promise of the Gospel message to all that seek it.
And when you take actions like Luther and Wesley did, you have to be prepared to face the consequences. For Luther, it was excommunication; for Wesley and the other preachers, who choose to follow him, it meant being barred from preaching in the churches.
To the elders of the Church of England, Wesley’s call for action was unconscionable. How dare a pastor call for such radical action. Yet, instead of supporting the work of Wesley and his followers, people in the Church of England barred them from preaching in the churches. Yet this did not stop the Methodist Revival. Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers simply began to preach wherever they could find the space. Forbidden by law to preach in the Church of England, Wesley and his followers, our forefathers in the United Methodist Church, took the message of the Gospel into the fields and the streets of England. On more than one occasion, crowds were encouraged to harass and physically abuse Wesley and the other Methodist preachers. Many an earlier Methodist preacher was put into jail for preaching the Gospel. But we cannot expect others to know the Gospel message if we do not let them know.
In the Old Testament reading today, Job asks where God is. Job’s “comforters” try to tell him that what is happening to him is because he has sinned and lost favor with God. All Job wants is to hear directly from God why things were happening to him. It was not a complaint because Job knows that he hasn’t done anything wrong; all Job wants is quite literally a fair shake in life.
The same cry of where is God is heard today. But the cry today is that is one of loss and despair. In a world where violence is quickly becoming the norm, where the concern for others quickly gives way to concern only for oneself, it is easy to ask where God is in the world.
In Wesley’s time poverty was thought to be a reflection of one’s sinful life. If you were rich, it was because you led a good life. If you were poor, it was because you were not living the right kind of life. This was a time when more and more people were getting wealthy every day so it was permissible to ignore those few who were not quite so fortunate. It wasn’t the church’s fault that people were homeless and hungry; that medical care for the lower classes was almost non-existent; that only the rich could afford to go to school. Wesley would have felt right at home in the United States these last few years when concern for one’s own well-being was more important than a concern for members of society.
The arguments given for poverty were a lot like those that Job’s “comforters” used. Job must have sinned because one is not afflicted with all that he faced if he had not sinned. It is far too easy to talk about sin and to cast doubt about a person’s own righteousness than it is to take action in this world.
We can study all we want to about God and what Christianity is. But until we take action, we are like the young man who kept all the commandments but kept his money as well. Nothing has been gained. Until such time as we allow Christ to come into our hearts and allow Him to guide and direct us, we will never come to really know Christ.
The theme of the Book of Hebrews is a simple one. Jesus came to be with us so that we may know God firsthand. No longer would we have to search for the priest in order to make our thoughts known to God. With Jesus in our life, the doorway to God is always open.
Today is Laity Sunday. It is the one Sunday in the year where the efforts of the Laity are recognized. But each Sunday should be considered Laity Sunday because it falls to each and every one of us to take the message from the safety of the sanctuary out into the world.
Our actions do not have to be dramatic ones. To many times, people try to emulate the success of others, only to fail. The failure of a program to be successful is not because people didn’t undertake it but rather because it was the wrong idea for a given time and place.
Our challenge today is the single most difficult task we will ever face. We may not do much, just a simple smile. But such a smile, when it comes from the heart, is a sign that God is still here.
The call today is a very simple one. On this day when we honor those in the laity who serve God, who shall serve Him?