This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 4th Sunday of Easter, 2 May 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 9: 36 – 43, Revelation 7: 9 – 17 and John 10: 22 – 30.
This is, as the cliché goes, an interesting time. We are well into the third great industrial revolution of this civilization’s history. (From a speech by Mary L. Good, past president of the American Chemical Society, to the Minnesota Section of the American Chemical Society on 18 September 1991 at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN.) The first industrial revolution was one in which man-made production was replaced by machine-based production. The second revolution of our society was the manner in which we think. (Look at www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/modsbook2.html) Our view of the world changed from one of gods and myths to one of rational thought and self-enlightenment.
This third great revolution is one of technology and information rather than machines or methods. As our society becomes more technology-oriented, we gain more and more information. Our resources for processing this information become strained and more and more of what we gain becomes nothing but "noise." We simply are not in a position where we can process all the information in front of us.
These changes in how we work and, possibly even think forced changes in how we live. We first lived in small tribes, where our contacts with others were limited to our family and immediate relatives. We then progressed to small towns, places where friendships and relationships went beyond kinship but were still limited by provincial boundaries and family loyalties.
We are now in the period of the great city or technopolis. This is a society in which people come together for functional reasons rather than traditional ones. These type of societies should be open, free of tribal or racial, class or caste boundaries and allow people to associate freely solely on the basis of the functions they perform in society.
The problem with this evolution in society, both in terms of the way we work, the way we think, and the way we live, is that there is a movement away from God. As the emphasis in the Scientific Revolution forced a change in our thinking, forced us to think things through, the presence of God became less and less important. Now, with the machines being developed that can think faster than we can or even independently, there is a thought that mankind is becoming less and less important. More and more of what we call information is perceived as noise to be filtered out and removed as extraneous.
But at the same time, as the importance of God is diminished by increasing reliance on thought and logic and as the importance of man is diminished in a world growing increasingly complex, the rationale for having God in our lives increases.
Some would say that this is a perfect time for the Second Coming, a time for the Messiah. Those who preach His Second Coming see a world devoid of God, a world in which God has disappeared. For those, this is a good time for the end of the world, for Armageddon.
But I would say that God has not disappeared. Rather, mankind has pushed God aside hoping to save Him for when He is truly needed, when the ground shakes and the sky opens wide, when the graphic dreams of John become reality. But God is, was, and will always be. If anything, now is a chance for liberation and greater freedom. It is a time when mankind can increase the range of freedom and responsibility, deepening the maturation of civilization.
This time gives us more opportunities to see God at work, to hear Him calling us to respond to new possibilities, calling for a new open society of persons. But we must also be careful that we do not become prisoners of our own making, imprisoned by the very technology that we developed, limited by the very thought processes that allowed us to developed the technology that threatens to imprison us. We must see where God is at work and we must be open to myriad possibilities that arise from this time. Literally we must be ready to respond to God’s call; we must hear God’s voice calling to us.
There are those today who see the church as a refuge from the noise and trouble that dominates the world around us. That is a role that the church has long played and a role that it should continue to play. But these people want to shut out the world; they want to leave the noise, the distraction, the troubles behind and escape inside the walls of the church. But if that is all a church does, then nothing will happen. There will be no response, we will become prisoners of our own technology, of our own thought processes.
Yes, there must be places where people can hear God’s call; there must be places where people can hear the voice of the shepherd bringing them home. But such places must also be places from which people can go out into the world, working to remove the noise and the distraction.
The Gospel passage from John that we read this morning is pleasant enough. It is Hanukkah and Jesus is enjoying the feast. But his opponents challenge him to declare whether He is or is not the Messiah. This is not an innocent question for his challengers will shortly attempt to kill him. But his answer shows that those who follow him and believe in Him know that the work that He is doing is the manifestation of God, not an usurping of God. The followers know that there is protection in being the sheep of the fold where Christ is the Shepherd.
The image of sheep is also written in the passage from Revelations for today. But in both cases, the sheep are not the meek and timid creatures that we imagine. Rather, they are images juxtaposed with darker realities. They are images intended to show the trust one finds in God when confronted with terror, enmity and death. (From "Sheepish?" by Mary Schertz – "Living the Word", Christian Century, April 20, 2004)
The sheep of these passages are not mindless or timid. Rather, they are protected, able to go out into the world and minister to the people of the world. I have said before and I believe that the one thing missing in many churches today, especially in those churches who emphasize the caring only for their own members, is the fulfillment of the Gospel, of taking the Gospel message out into the world. It is right and necessary to take care of the members of the flock. But you cannot enclose them in one pasture. It will soon be overgrazed and die; and then the flock will die. The flock must go out to other pastures and then come back to a place where they can hear God’s voice.
Peter is ministering in the area north of Jerusalem that we now call Jaffa. While in the area, one of the early disciples Tabitha (or Dorcas as it can be translated) becomes ill and apparently dies. Her friends, knowing that Peter is in the area, send a messenger to him and ask that he come to their aid. It does not say in any of my resources but I would suppose that Peter’s response was quick and decisive, for that was his nature. As we read, through his prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit, he is able to literally raise Tabitha from the dead. His actions, along with the faith of those who called him, brought others to know Christ.
In the midst of gloom and sadness, those who believed in Christ were able to show others the power of Christ. But it does not have to be at such times that the miracle of Christ be shown. In part that is why we are here today. We are celebrating the baptism of an infant. In the midst of all that may be gloom and death and destruction, there is a hope and joy in the birth of a young child.
The baptism of the child is not a solitary event. It is a community event as well. It is not an event in which the parents and immediate family take place with the community only watching. The community also has a stake in the raising of this child. We, as a congregation, will make a vow to raise this child, to see that amidst all the noise and distractions of this world this child will see and know who Christ is.
Despite all that we have tried to, we have allowed the noise and distractions of the world to dominate the church. Instead of doing the work of God, instead of taking the Gospel message into the world, we have allowed the noise and distractions to come into the church. We could find ways to shut out the noise and take away the distractions. But then we would be like the monasteries of old, shut off from the world, protecting what was but not knowing what will be. And if we were to do that, then the vows that we take to shepherd this child and other children like her, to welcome new members into this community of believers will be a false vow. For we have said that we would take the Gospel out into the world, to let people hear God’s call through us.
The church of today must be a place where the noise and distraction of the world is shut out so that people can hear the word of God, so that people can hear God calling to them. But it must be a place where they also hear God telling them to go into the world, acting in accordance with the scripture and message of the Gospel. The people will hear the word because they see the Gospel in our lives.