Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 18 January 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 62: 1 – 5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11, and John 2: 1 – 11.
By now you know that I got my doctorate for the University of Iowa and that my undergraduate degree was from Truman State University. To fill in the blanks, I would add that I hold a Masters in Education from the University of Missouri and that I graduated from Nicholas Blackwell High School in 1968.
Now, I am not sure that even my classmates would immediately identify the name of their high school alma mater. For the most part, we said we went to Bartlett High School and today that is the name on the building. In the papers, especially the sports section, we were identified as Memphis Bartlett, even though we were not part of Memphis or the Memphis City School system. But we were from Memphis, even if we did not want to admit it.
Your senior year in high school is supposed to be the greatest year of your life. It is the last year of innocence and freedom, just before you step into the world of work or go off to college. It is supposed to be a year of celebration. I say that because it seemed that there were no celebrations for the class of 1968. Yes, the football team had a winning season, going 5 and 4 after a dismal 1 and 8 performance the year before. But Bartlett wasn’t a football school; it was a basketball school and with a front line of 7′ 0", 6’6", and 6’4 and an all-state guard, we were looking to a banner year. The sports writers felt we were the best because they voted us the number 1 team in the state. But we lost in the regional tournament and two years of success were washed down the drain by loses before we even got to state. (It should be noted that in 2000, the Bartlett Panthers won the Tennessee State Basketball Championship, but that is of little consolation to those of us who saw glory in 68). Even the band had an off year. The year before the band accomplished a feat that no other Bartlett band had ever done; we won a band contest. In an environment where our forty-eight member marching band had to compete against bands with ninety-six and one hundred and twenty members, we actually won. But they changed the rules of the competition in our senior year and we returned to the ranks of also performing. The evening of our graduation was to be a night of dancing and celebration on the Mississippi River but it rained and the traditional senior party never really developed as it had for countless other Memphis high school graduating classes.
And there was another event in 1968 that tempered the celebration of a senior year. It was the same event for all the graduating classes, be they in Shelby County, Tennessee or here in Putnam County, New York. But it was a little different because it happened in Memphis and we lived in Memphis. Martin Luther King was shot to death in Memphis.
Dr. King came to Memphis to aid the sanitation workers in the fight for better working conditions. It is my understanding today that he initially didn’t want to come to Memphis; he was working on something bigger and he did not want to be taken away from those plans. But it was pointed out to him that you could not work on the grander and much broader plans if you ignored the small details. So he came; perhaps reluctantly, but he came.
Now I will admit that back then the situation involving the sanitation workers was not one of my priorities. My mind and heart were some 700 miles away in Kirksville; all I could think about during my two years at Bartlett was the return each summer to Kirksville and the college career that was developing for me there. I can also say that I have no idea what any of my white classmates were thinking in those days prior to Dr. King’s death. Some, I am sure, were totally unaware of what was going on; others, perhaps in the majority, thought Dr. King had no business coming to Memphis and "meddling" in a Memphis matter.
I do know that ours was a society split by race. The divisions were evident in everything we did in school. It was not just that we were the number one basketball team in the state; we were the best white team in the state (even if we had one black player on the team and whose presence was, I have always felt, arranged in defiance of eligibility rules). At that time, no Memphis area basketball team had won the state championship; in our junior year, they paired us against Carver High School with the winner going to the State Championship tournament. We could have both gone and improved the chances of a Memphis team winning. But the "powers that be" deemed that Bartlett should play Carver before the state tournament in order to prove a long forgotten point of pride. We lost that game, ending our season. It wasn’t all that bad a defeat; the nucleus of the Carver High School team went to the University of Memphis and in 1972 lost to UCLA in the finals of the NCAA tournament in St. Louis. But it was still a defeat and it ended a good season on a sour note.
In sports and society Memphis was a divided city then and it is not much better now. Race, culture, creed, and economic status divided this country in 1968; and today, we are not much better off. We still see people oppressed because of who they are, what they believe, or where they live. The problems of the world make the words of Isaiah that much more prophetic. We cannot stand silent and stand by when others persecute or victimize someone else.
If we are who we say we are, then we can never lose sight of the fact that what Jesus preached, that his kingdom was open to all, his kingdom of spirit and truth was the mortal enemy of systems built on power, greed, oppression, and falsehood.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stood before the people and listed the Beatitudes. He said, "the merciful are partaking of the divine, for they shall receive mercy." We often see mercy as what one in power might extend to a victim in return for gratitude or service. We want our expressions of mercy to make us feel good; we want the recipient to be beholden to us. But that makes mercy cold and condescending.
Jesus made mercy warm and compassionate. As He expressed it, mercy was given but never bartered, never exchanged for something else. Mercy no longer was the act of pitching a coin to a beggar on the street but rather a new attitude towards life. The merciful will no longer see the beggar as a victim but as a brother or sister with whom life is to be shared.
But the sharing of physical resources will always be limited. And the merciful know this. They know that the physical things that they can give will eventually be used up. But the hunger and the thirst will never go away until the soul is fed and its thirst is quenched. Those who have expressed the hunger and thirsting of the soul know this best and they know that they, having been filled and given the water from the well of life to drink, have greater and truer riches.
But if they keep this spiritual richness hidden; in other words, if they see the beggar as the victim to give things to, then they will ultimately lose the riches they tried so long to find. John the Evangelist wrote, "Whoever has the physical necessities of life and sees his brother standing in need and locks the door of his heart against him, how can the love of God stay in him?" (1 John 3: 17)
You will note that today I have changed the order of the worship service around a bit. The order that we follow each Sunday follows what the order of worship that I grew up and have used ever since I started preaching. It puts the offering first and allows the preacher to open the altar rail following the sermon. But the outline of the basic service given in our hymnal on page 4 puts the offering after the sermon, as a response to word.
If we see the offering as solely a financial thing, then perhaps it is better if we do not even have an offering. Those offerings do not give of our selves. Some may only be able to give financially and we cannot ignore that; but there are other expressions, other ways of responding to the Word and we have to explore those ways. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul pointed out that while there was only one Spirit, there were many ways in which the Spirit could manifest itself. The gifts that we receive and the ways in which we use those gifts are not decided by someone else, but by how we individually react to the presence of the Spirit in our lives. Some may give of their talents and gifts through the proclamation of the Word, others through teaching; still others by working with others.
But the fact is that we cannot wait until some great and unseen sign appears before us to use those gifts. Jesus went with his mother to a wedding. Weddings then were multi-day affairs. How the wedding was catered was an expression of the financial status of the bride and groom; to run out of wine early in the celebration, as was indicated in the Gospel story, was a major social faux pax.
It may have been that Martin Luther King did not want to go to Memphis; but the situation and the cause demanded his presence. It may be that my mind was elsewhere when I was a senior in high school; but the Lord has asked me to do his work now. Jesus did not want to do as His mother wanted him, saying that it wasn’t time. Maybe He felt that being among friends and relatives were neither the time and place; but he did as his mother asked and the water was changed to wine. He was not being selfish or showing off; the people didn’t even know what he had done. But the work of the Lord, the presence of the Lord is never dictated by time or place. The presence of the Kingdom of Heaven was first expressed among friends and family.
God’s call will come to you in much the same manner. God will not ask you to do great things on the world stage; He may simply want you to make a phone call to friend you haven’t seen in a long time. He may want you to write to a few people who haven’t been to church in quite some time. The call will come in a way that can never be expected. It is clear from the reading of the Gospel that the steward overseeing the wedding feast did not expect such a good wine.
So God is calling you and today is your chance to answer the call.