This was the last week that I was with the Elk Falls, Longton, and Elk City United Methodist Churches. They received a new pastor and he began the next week. I was asked to lead the Mulberry and Alma, Kansas, United Methodist Churches for three weeks starting on July 23, 1995.
It was during this five week assignment when I would leave my apartment at about 5:30 or so in the morning and drive across Kansas back roads to Elk Falls for the 8 am service, then drive to Longton for the 930 service, then drive to Elk City for the 11 service and then finally back home to Pittsburg (a total of 185 miles) that I began to think that maybe I could do something in the ministry.
As it turned out, it was not to the full-time ministry that I was called but rather to be something of a 21st century circuit rider, filling the pulpits of the various churches in this district during the summer. (see “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” and “On The Road Again” for summaries of 2008 and 2009.) I am in the midst of a five week series of assignments that began two weeks ago at the New Milford United Methodist Church (“What does It Take”) and continued on July 4th at a combined services of the Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church and the United Methodist Church of the Highlands (“The Problem With Change”). I will be at the Cornwall United Methodist Church this coming Sunday, July 11th (“Drawing A Straight Line”) and Hankins United Methodist Church (“Are We Watching The Same Game?” on July 18th and "To Build A New Community" on July 25th). On August 1st, I go back to Ridges/Roxbury United Methodist Church and The United Methodist Church of Springdale (“Time Has Come Today”).
After I originally posted this, I got the request to go to the Van Cortlandtville Community Church on August 8th (“The Answer To The Question”)
So I began working for the Lord back in 1995 and I continue to do so today. Here is the message that I presented to the Elk Falls, Longton, and Elk City United Methodist Churches for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 16 July 1995. The Scriptures for this Sunday (from the New Common Lectionary) were 2 Kings 2: 1, 6 – 14, Colossians 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 10: 25 – 37.
The title to my sermon last week was "Are You Working for God?" I think that best represented what I was trying to say. The title of today’s sermon, which I feel best expresses the ideas brought forth in the script, is "Who Will Work for the Lord?"
In the passage from 2 Kings, we have the transition from Elijah to Elisha as prophet to Israel. The dramatic story of Elijah’s ascension to heaven in a storm constitutes the climax of the narratives about this mysterious figure. Of all of the acts of power associated with him, this is the one that has most intrigued readers and fueled speculation about the prophet’s character and eventual return. By the end of the OT period he had already been connected with the coming of the "day of the Lord", while later Jewish and Christian traditions associated him with the Messiah.
As we read some weeks ago, there were people in Jesus’ time who thought that Jesus was only Elijah returned to earth. But these people were thinking of Jesus in terms of the old church. Jesus was offering a vision of a new church, one not bound by the tradition of law but one responsive to the needs of the people.
And, the passage from Luke deals not only with the question that we as Christians must answer but with the question of how the church interacts with and in society. In teaching the lawyer about whom his neighbor was Jesus provided guidelines for how the church should continue.
A lawyer, or as some translations give it, a teacher of the law, engages Jesus in a scholarly dialogue. But the course of the dialogue changes from reaching eternal life to a question which is still with us today, "Who is my neighbor?"
In the first part of the dialogue and in the traditional sense, a neighbor is one who receives kindness, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself (my emphasis) (Luke 10: 27)
This is what the law required. But the law often times never told how one meets the requirements. That may be why the lawyer then asks "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10: 29)
The parable of the Good Samaritan points out that simply following the law does not always meet the requirements of the law. For while the two individuals who passed by the injured traveler did nothing wrong according to law which stated they should avoid contact with a half-dead person, they did nothing to help the individual. But the Samaritan, the one person that Jewish society shunned more than any one, was this person’s neighbor because he went beyond the law in providing aid to this individual.
In effect, Jesus was asking who did the work of the church. This, in itself, may be considered a revolutionary thought. No one had thought of the church in terms of reaching out to help their neighbors. Yet, in his message and in his actions, that is what Jesus tried to do throughout his entire ministry.
These were same questions that John Wesley struggled with for many years. He could not sit idly by and watch his church ignore the plight and conditions of the lower classes.
When you think of England in the 18th century, you might not be too sure that it is not America today. I have always wondered if Wesley were to come to America today if he might not thing it was England of his time. It was a time when more and more people were getting wealthy every day. Poverty in Wesley’s time was thought to be a reflection of one’s sinful life. If you were rich, it was because you had lead a good life. If you were poor, it was because you did not live the right kind of life. It wasn’t the church’s fault that people were hungry and homeless; that medical care for the lower classes was almost non-existent; that only the rich could afford to go to school. The conditions of the last few years have made me think that were Wesley to come back to America in the 1990’s, he would not see many differences. On the subject of poverty and one’s neighbors, Wesley said
"Has poverty nothing worse in it that this, that it makes men liable to be laughed at? … Is not want of food something worse than this? God pronounced it as a curse upon man, that he should earn it" by the sweat of his brow." But how many are there in this Christian country that toil, and labor, and sweat, and have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together? Is it not worse for one, after a hard day’s labor, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength? You that live at ease in the earth, that want nothing but eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand how well God hath dealt with you, is it not worse to seek bread day by day, and find none? Perhaps to find the comfort also of five or six children crying for what he has not to give! Were it not that he is restrained by an unseen hand, would he not soon "curse God and die"? O want of bread! Want of bread! Who can tell what this means, unless he hath felt it himself? I am astonished it occasions no more than heaviness even in them that believe." (From John Wesley’s sermon "Heaviness through Manifold Temptations")
John Wesley understood that a church and a nation which ignores members of its society could never expect to reach 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, both in thought, word, and deed, out into the world.
It was through the Methodist Societies that Wesley and his followers that the first Sunday Schools were created. These schools, which became the foundation for our public school education, were offered on Sundays because it was the only time many children had the opportunity to come to school as they were working in the factories and mines the other six days. Here the Societies taught the Gospel and preached the Salvation of Jesus Christ.
What I have always found interesting in reading and following the development of the early Methodist Church is the reaction of the organized church, the Church of England. Instead of supporting the work of Wesley and his followers, the authorities barred them from using existing churches. This did not stop the Methodist Revival. Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers simply began preaching wherever they could find the space. If that meant preaching in the fields, they preached in the fields.
When we look at the world today, I sometimes think that we see much the same as Wesley did some two hundred and fifty years ago. The world is crying for a spiritual revolution. The actions of many people simply speak to a loss of direction.
Paul did not start the church in Colossians as he had other churches that he wrote to, but showed a great interest in what happened there.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians shows this personal interest in the people and is meant to warn them against falling back to their previous life style. He wrote that he and others were praying " that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God" (Colossians 1: 10)
William Barclay, the writer of many commentaries, wrote
"As Paul grew older, he came more and more to see that what matters is individual people. The church is people. The church is not a kind of vague abstract entity; it is individual men and women and children and as the years went on Paul began to think less and less of the church as a whole, and more and more of the church as individual women."
Today, people no longer see the church in those terms but one which no longer cares about people and is indifferent to society. If the church is to have an impact on today’s society in more positive terms, it must respond in the manner that Jesus showed us. Elton Trueblood wrote
Because we cannot reasonably expect to erect a constantly expanding structure of social activism upon a constantly diminishing foundation of faith, attention to the cultivation of the inner life is our first order of business, even in a period of rapid social change. The church, if it is to affect the world, must become a center from which new spiritual power emanates. While the church must be secular in the sense that it operates in the world, if it is only secular it will not have the desired effect upon the secular order which it is called to penetrate. With no diminution of concern for people, we can and must give new attention to the production of a trustworthy religious experience. (From The New Man for Our Time, Elton Trueblood)
The people of Jesus’ time no longer heard a message of a Loving Father who cared for His children. Many people at that time probably did not even know that their God cared for them. The rules and regulations of the church made it impossible for them to do so. It wasn’t that they had left their religion but that their religion had left them. The message they did hear held no promise or hope.
But with Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross, the church began anew. As Paul wrote in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians:
"He (speaking of Jesus) is the one who has helped us tell others about his new agreement to save them. We do not tell them that they must obey every law of God or die; but we tell them there is life for them for the Holy Spirit. The old way, trying to be saved by keeping the Ten Commandments, ends in death; in the new way, the Holy Spirit gives them life. (2 Corinthians 3: 6)
The problem that one gets into by simply following the law is that you start putting limits to your actions. It would be the same as going through life with your fists clenched, unwilling to grab new opportunities as they pass by. As I close today, I want us to consider that statement from Paul. Can we live up to this standard; are we working for the Lord?