I am again at Hankins UMC this Sunday. (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road)) The service starts at 10:15 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, are Isaiah 6: 1- 8 (9 – 13), 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11, and Luke 5: 1 – 11.
As I mentioned in passing last week, I post my sermons and other thoughts on my blog. One of my top posts continues to be a collection of sayings that I have accumulated over time (“A Collection of Sayings”).
One of the first sayings that I ever wrote down was “In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.” (The Talmud) I have always attributed my keeping this saying to my reading of Making of the President – 1960 by Theodore White but I can’t find that quote in that book.
This particular quote came to me because of the events that transpired in the Gospel reading for this morning. The disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) had been fishing but without much luck. Jesus comes along and uses one of their fishing boats as a floating pulpit so that he can preach to the crowd that was following him. Following the lesson, Jesus instructs the four brothers to put their boats in a particular place and they catch more fish than they probably thought was possible.
Whatever knowledge one might have about fishing, Jesus put the fisherman in the right spot at the right time to get the catch of the lifetime. Now, Luke has the four brothers putting down their nets and walking away from the only means of work that they know in order to follow Jesus and become “fishers of men and women.” And there are those today who would wonder why? Could it be that this catch brought enough at the market to let them do this? Perhaps, but that would be speculation on our part. We do know that these four had already encountered Jesus before (see John 1: 40 – 42 and 2: 1 – 2); this event in the history of the disciples provided the basis by which they would later change history.
That is why I used the quote from the Talmud. There is a time and a place when we as individuals will be in a position to change the direction of the world. Now this, in and of itself, may seem to be too great a task for any one individual to accomplish. On the other hand, how are we to know what will happen if we do or don’t do a particular task?
On February 1, 1960, four young men sat at the lunch counter in the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was something that they had been planning for some time.
Now, for today’s reader, just as we find the four brothers walking away from their jobs in order to undertake a mission of unknown duration and an uncertain outcome, to hear the story of four young men sitting at a lunch counter in a department story is highly implausible. First, what is or was Woolworth’s? There are no Woolworth’s in business today in America, though for those who do know remember when they existed, some still exist in other countries. But in the 1960’s, Woolworth was the leader in what were called “five and dime stores”, essentially 20th century general stores were everything, including lunch, was sold. And while we have the third generation of such stores on the landscape today (Target, K-Mart, and Wal-Mart), the era of the general store has gone by the wayside.
And just as this idea of a general store has disappeared from society to be replaced by super stores and buy in bulk warehouses, so too has the idea of a lunch served on a plate in a store that wasn’t a restaurant also disappeared. So, to think of four young men planning on ordering lunch and sitting down to eat that lunch at a lunch counter in a store which doesn’t exist today is perhaps a difficult task.
But, there is more to this story. For the four young men in this story who planned this event were black. In Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 1960s, they were barred by law and custom from sitting at such a lunch counter and ordering something to eat and then being allowed to sit and eat their lunch at the lunch counter. White customers were allowed to sit; but if black customers wanted to eat lunch, they would have to stand. It should also be noted that the workers at the counter were white; the black employees were upstairs and out-of-sight.
And they will each tell you that this act of civil disobedience was not done lightly. Reprisals were common against those who spoke out against the rule and custom of segregation and each of the four truly expected such reprisals would be forthcoming, as would occur in other sit-ins that would follow. But to the credit of all the citizens of Greensboro, nothing happened.
The four were told that they would not be served and that they should leave the store. But they would not do so and when the store closed for the day, they went home but told the manager that they would return. They returned the next day and sat at the counter again. And again, they were not served. Nor were they served the next day or the next. But it was different on these following days, for each day others who supported their actions would come and take a seat. And it was not just the black students of Greensboro who sat at the counter in defiance of the law and custom; white students began to take part in the sit-ins, offering support through action against the custom and law.
It would take several weeks of patient sitting and waiting but in the end, not only did the store but the city of Greensboro as well agree to integrate (this story can be found at http://www.sitins.com/story.shtml).
And as the word of the sit-in spread across the South and the country, other sit-ins began. Most were peaceful but there were instances of confrontation and violence (images of these protests can be found at http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgcoll.htm). The four young men were in the right place and the right time and their actions changed history. And the world changed as well.
We might find it incomprehensible today that just a few years ago, there were places in this country where the color of one’s skin could and did determine what you could and could not do, where you could walk and talk and eat and where you would never dare to do such things. There are those who cannot understand how the election of one man can make a difference in this country or even in this world but if you grew up in the South and you saw what life was like, you would understand.
We might find it incomprehensible to know that we could, in this country, divide schools, restaurants, bus stations, rest rooms and churches and still say there was equality in this land. But, as one who grew up in the south and felt the impact of segregation in his life, let me assure that it did happen (see "Lexington, North Carolina"), And what I find frightening is that there is evidence today that some would seek to impose the economic and social structures of segregation once again in this country.
When I hear a politician, Northern or Southern, speak of state’s rights or suggests that literacy tests are necessary requirements for voting in this country, I hear the calls and cries of Southern politicians from the 1870s through the 1970s. I hear the voices of those who would control the lives of others by using fear and ignorance.
A politician will only call for literacy tests as a requirement for voting in this country because they want to frighten those who would listen and are ignorant of the past. Ministers who say that natural disasters are the signs of God’s wrath and anger against people or a nation are ignorant of the world around them. A minister who calls for a government based on Christian principles but includes murder, violence, discrimination, and hatred can only be speaking out of their own fear of the unknown and an ignorance of Christian principles.
Fear has been a tool from the days of Christ and the disciples. The Romans used crucifixion as a tool of fear, to control the populace by saying “this can happen to you if you don’t stay in line.” The religious authorities used fear to extract obedience from the people by saying “we know the proper way to do things and you don’t”. Time and time again, dictators have used the fear of the people to control them and direct them to the dictators’ own selfish purposes.
We are at a point in time when the future is in peril. Our ignorance of the world around us threatens our health and our safety. Our ignorance of other cultures threatens our security. Our fear of the unknown, of what lies “out there” keeps us from learning and keeps us ignorant. The four brothers only knew what Jesus was saying; they had no idea of what was to come when they walked away from the nets and their boats. But still they left.
In Paul’s letter today, he reminds the Corinthians of how they got to this point in their life. Paul lays the basis for faith in these verses and the verses that follow (verses 12 – 34). When a person speaks of Christianity or any religion being only a myth, I believe they are speaking out of ignorance. Faith cannot grow in fear, yet too many people try to use fear as the means to faith. Faith can only grow through knowledge, knowledge found both in the physical world and, for the lack of a better term, the metaphysical world.
To bring the Gospel message into the world is a challenging task, to say the least; and it is a task that many people are unwilling to undertake.
I did not, when I began writing this sermon, intend to be a prophet of doom. The passage from Isaiah has two parts, the second being the consequences of the first. Isaiah is called by God to give a message to the people; it is a message that will harden the hearts and close their minds, it will bring doom to the nation.
And God said to the people through Isaiah, “You aren’t going to get this the first time. You will listen but not comprehend; you will look but not understand. You will become dull and shut your ears and close your eyes. And in doing so, you will become dumb and ignorant and you will die.”
That is not the message that we want to deliver. But we should not see it in those terms, unless we desire to have history repeat itself. All those “out there” who call these the End Times say that there is no hope in this world; that the world shall come to an end and there is not one thing we can do to stop God’s plan. But I never accepted this notion that God’s plan was for the destruction of this world, the world that He created. Why else did He send His Son to be the Hope and Savior of the World?
What I have believed is that we have been warned as to what would happen if we choose to walk a different path, if we choose to let ignorance, fear, and hatred control our lives. God sent His Son, not to condemn us, but to save us. He gave us the tools and the abilities to use those tools for the betterment of all mankind, not just a select few. He put us in this place and at this time to do just that.
We are like Isaiah, presented with a monumental task, a task far beyond our own perceived abilities. Yet God provided Isaiah with the words, the skills, and the strength to undertake the task. Every prophet, every messenger of God, has reacted in the same manner as Isaiah and every prophet, every messenger has received the same message.
In a world where cynics decry the meaning of faith and say that there is nothing a single individual can do, it is hard to be that single individual who takes the first step. In a world where faith is ridiculed or compromised, it is hard to say to someone “come with me on Sunday; I want you to find Jesus.”
We can be like so many who heard the message to come and follow me and say, “No, not today.” And we have many reasons for doing so, “I am too old; I am too young; I have too many things to do; I can’t walk away from the life that I have worked so hard to gain.” Yet, Isaiah went, even though the prospects were not good. And the four brothers put down their nets and walked away from their boats, to follow Jesus for three years, to follow Jesus to a place and time where history would change.
We have that opportunity today; we are in the right place and the right time to follow Christ, to change history. What shall we do?