“If Not Now, When? If Not Me, Who?”


Here is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 28 January 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30.

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It has always amazed me how the consequences of one person’s actions can be far different from what the person intended. When Rosa Parks got on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, that day in 1957 (I think it was), she never intended on starting the civil rights revolution of the 1960’s. All she wanted to do was sit down because her feet hurt and she was tired from a long day of working as a maid and housekeeper. But she chose to sit in the whites-only section of the bus, instead of making her way to the back of the bus where she was supposed to, by law, sit. Since she wouldn’t move, she was arrested. The boycott of the Montgomery bus line began as a protest, which brought Martin Luther King, Jr. into the nation’s eye and the rest we know.

I am not sure that Martin Luther intended on starting a new church when he nailed his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. All he was interested in doing was making sure that people understood that what got one into heaven was not the purchase of religious tokens but their sincere belief and faith in Christ as their own personal Savior.

And I know that John Wesley never intended Methodism to become a denomination of its own. All Wesley wanted to do was revive the Church of England and bring it back to its stated mission, that of bringing hope to those without hope. Wesley never intended that what his brother, his friends and he did would eventually coalesce into an organized religion.

But the eighteenth-century church Wesley grew up in had fallen into decline because it had neglected the essential doctrines upon which it had been founded. To say that the young John Wesley was zealous in his belief would be quite easily an understatement. But he believed that a lukewarm Christianity was worse than open sin. Accordingly, he labored to bring every part of his life into submission to Jesus Christ. His zeal and that of his colleagues openly provoked ridicule and earned them the nickname "Methodists".

The problem with the approach that these early Methodists used, their semi-monastic existence and devotion to good works left them short of gaining the certainty of God’s love. For all their strict self-examinations, rigorous spiritual discipline, and sacrificial good works, the assurance of salvation eluded them.

Following the disaster of his American experience, Wesley began to realize that it was not what he could for God that would gain his salvation, it was what God could and had done for him. This realization came that night at the prayer meeting at the house on Aldersgate Street when John Wesley came to know that Jesus Christ was his own personal Savior. In sharing this with Charles and the others, he found that Charles had also found the presence of the Holy Spirit. It was this spiritual transformation that brought them from law to grace and changed them from legalists to evangelicals. Their own personal experience gave them spiritual peace, the impulse for evangelism, and a sustaining motivation for addressing the evils of society.

It wasn’t a new religion that Wesley sought but a church that was responsive to the needs of the society, who answered the call of Christ to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and needy."

So what may you ask has this to do with me? No matter what Paul may write about the skills and talents that we all have, I don’t have the skills or talents to be a preacher or an evangelist or a healer or a missionary.

The thing that we have to realize is that you and I are not the first to say that we cannot do it. Nehemiah, in the Old Testament reading for today, said much the same thing.

Noah must have laughed when God asked him to build that ark. Noah lived in an area that got about one inch of rain a year so what was he supposed to think when God told him that it was going to rain for forty days and nights?

Moses’ first response to God when God told him to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land was ask God to select someone else; "Who, me Lord? Can’t you find someone else?” (Exodus 4: 10 – 13) Moses argued that he couldn’t speak before the crowns but God told him to have his brother Aaron do all the public talking. Moses had to deal with the Pharaoh and with the communication between the people and God.

When first called by the Lord, Jonah chose to flee. And Jonah didn’t simply go to the next city or county to get away from God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God. It would be like trying to hide from the authorities in New York by going to Los Angeles. But it doesn’t matter where we hide, God can still find us. And, like Jonah, when our efforts to escape, until we come to the Lord trap us, He will not help us.

But God doesn’t call us to work without help. No one ever called by God to work for Him has done so alone. As God told Nehemiah, it will be by the spirit that the work can and will be accomplished.

It was by knowing that God loved him personally that John Wesley was able to transform the Methodists Societies from legalistic study groups into powerful agents of change. And it will be by the power of spirit and with the power of love as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians that what this church does will get accomplished. Paul closed that passage by pointing out that it was by faith that we came to God but it will be through love that we are able to imitate Him and show others what God is all about.

When you think about it, you understand why the people of Nazareth were so upset with Jesus. They saw Him in terms of what they expected and what they wanted, not for who He was and what He could do for them.

When what we do is for our own gain or for how we will feel, it will leave us short. But when we allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and guide and direct us, there is no limit to what we can do. We are not asked to lead a new revolution or change the course of history. Of course, if by our actions that does happen, so much the better.

But the task before us is much smaller and much easier. It is simply to be a part of this church and this community. And to that end, we need a few volunteers. As has been noted in some of the bulletins for the past few weeks, we are still looking for a lay leader and lay member to the annual conference. The latter is perhaps the more important part of the duty for it requires that you attend the annual conference and represent this church at that meeting. Since my work situation may preclude my attending, it becomes doubly important that someone attend.

We are also still looking for someone to head the ministries related to education. Again, this is not a single person doing all the work but someone who can organize the work of many and see that it gets done. We also need at least two individuals to fill slots on the Pastor-Parish Relation Committee and the Nominations & Personnel Committee. Each job does require some work but with the Holy Spirit as your primary helper it would be very easy work.

The title of my sermon was very deliberate because there does come a time when you have to ask when the work will get done and who will do the work. Many have been called by God to do His work; not all have answered the call.

Some have simply been called to be saved, to know the warmth in their heart that Wesley knew so many years ago. Others have been called to join this church, to be a part of the efforts of bringing the Gospel to the world. And for others the call is to serve, to lead and help this church in the coming years.

If not know, when you will answer the call? And if you don’t answer the call, who will?


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2 thoughts on ““If Not Now, When? If Not Me, Who?”

  1. I’ve read your message above, as well as your other writings on this website, that invoke the myth of Rosa Parks: the bedraggled seamstress and maid who was tired… oh, so tired. This representation of Mrs. Parks doesn’t do her justice. She was not an old, tired woman with sore feet who fell into a seat out of exhaustion and was too worn out to move, therefore unwittingly becoming the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks was a civil rights advocate who became a martyr for the revolution BY CHOICE. Mrs. Parks says in her biography, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” She knew, when she refused to give up her seat in 1955, that her actions would indeed spur the fight for civil rights in Montgomery, and beyond.

    The real credit for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Civil Rights Movement (to a large degree) should be given to E.D. Nixon. He was the President of the NAACP, where Rosa volunteered as a secretary. She knew that he was looking for the ideal candidate to use to rally the blacks of Montgomery into taking action. The first woman arrested for not giving up her seat was not viewed by Mr. Nixon as being strong enough to withstand the fight that would come her way if he backed her in the courts and press, so her case was not used. Nine months before Mrs. Parks’ actions, teenager Claudette Colvin got on the exact same bus at the exact same stop Rosa did and refused to give a white woman her seat. E.D. Nixon began raising money for her defense and spreading the news about her arrest because he thought she would be a good representative on which he, and other black leaders, could base their boycott and civil rights lawsuits. Unfortunately, Miss Colvin was dark-skinned, poor, and from a bad part of town, and this worried the mostly middle-class black leaders. When it turned out that she was pregnant, they dropped their defense of her, altogether. (In fact, the black community that had rallied behind her suddenly turned their back on her and didn’t acknowledge the poor, pregnant teenager again.) Mrs. Parks said of Miss Colvin, “If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have had a field day. They’d call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn’t have a chance. So the decision was made to wait until we had a plaintiff who was more upstanding before we went ahead and invested any more time, effort, and money.” Mrs. Parks was working in the NAACP office when all of this was going on and knew that E.D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson (head of the Women’s Political Council) were searching for a more perfect representative of the injustice forced upon blacks by segregation. This was no tired, old woman with sore feet; this was a fighter and an advocate of equal rights who put herself on the line knowing exactly what was in store for her and her family.

    As for her act bringing “Martin Luther King, Jr. into the nation’s eye,” you can thank E.D. Nixon for that, too. At the time, Rev. King was a 25-year-old man finishing his doctoral degree who had become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church only the year before. He was not interested in getting involved in politics, nor did he seek any kind of leadership role in civil rights organizations around Montgomery. His only involvement was serving on a committee that looked into the Claudette Colvin case, and we know how that turned out. After Mrs. Parks’ arrest, Mr. Nixon (and Ms. Robinson) organized a one-day boycott of the bus system and approached Rev. King to ask if the areas’ black clergy and civil leaders could use his church as a meeting place to organize an official, long-term boycott. Mr. Nixon picked Rev. King because he was new to town and hadn’t yet been intimidated by Montgomery’s white civic leaders. Rev. King was hesitant and said he’d have to think about it. Later, when he gave Mr. Nixon his approval to use his church, Nixon replied that it was a good thing he agreed because he had already told everyone to meet there. When a meeting was later held to determine leadership of the boycott and the Montgomery Improvement Association (which was formed at that initial meeting,) King didn’t volunteer; it was Nixon who pushed for King to be the president to the leaders gathered there. Nixon envisioned a media-fueled, full-on, righteous protest and boycott of the bus lines but Ralph Abernathy and E.N. French, among other clergy at that meeting, wanted a softer, gentler, quieter boycott of the bus system out of fear of retaliation, and they pressured King to back their version. When an exasperated Nixon said that he would reveal their cowardice to their congregants later that evening, King stood up and proclaimed that he was no coward. By the end of that meeting, Nixon convinced him to become president of the MIA and King gave his first speech to the full meeting that night.

    I don’t want you to get the impression that I think Mr. King was a patsy who was conscripted into the Civil Rights Movement against his will. A few days before Mrs. Park’s arrest, Mr. King had hosted T.R.M. Howard at his church where Mr. Howard spoke about the successful boycott of service stations where blacks could not use the restroom. The seed of being a part of a political boycott had already been planted by Mr. Howard, however, without Mr. Nixon’s tending, Mr. King’s leadership of the Civil Rights movement might never have flourished.

    E.D. Nixon was the chief architect of the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery who, with Jo Ann Robinson, created the opportunities for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. to stand at the front lines. If you must use Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. as an examples of what one person can do, be sure to include the fact that they had a whole slew of behind-the-scenes, organized leaders at her disposal to back them up. Maybe knowing this would inspire somebody to volunteer for a service position more than a myth about martyrdom.

    For more information, I urge you to view the following websites, as well as googling any of the people mentioned above.

    http://www.holtlaborlibrary.org/BusBoycott.htm
    http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/448.html
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2000/dec/16/weekend7.weekend12
    http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/jo-ann-gibson-robinson-was-unsung-activist

  2. Shelley,
    I want to thank you for providing the information about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the role that Rosa Parks. It is important that we understand what transpired then and what it means for each of us today.

    I thank you for providing the correct information and the links so that what was done is not lost.

    In peace and with Christ,
    Dr. Tony

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