This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 July 2001. The Scriptures are Amos 8: 1 – 12, Colossians 1: 15 – 28, and Luke 10: 38 – 42.
Word on a Wire
This week’s readings deal with the theme of justice, with a specific focus on wealth; as disciples, our source of hope and life must be God alone. Through Amos, a shepherd turned prophet, God calls those "who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land" to account for their greed. The consequences of such idolatry will not be fire and brimstone, but "a famine upon the land, not…of bread or thirst for water but for hearing the word of the Lord." For a people formed and nourished on God’s Word, this was a bleak prospect indeed. And for Christians, for whom the Word is now flesh, the threat of famine is utterly unthinkable.
The cover story in last week’s issue of Fortune was entitled "GOD and Business — The Surprising Quest for Spiritual Renewal in the American Workplace" (Marc Gunther, Fortune, July 16, 2001). This was quite ironic when you consider the passages from Amos that was this week’s reading from the Old Testament and Luke that was this week’s Gospel reading.
The story speaks of how people have found that goals based on material success are not always the goals that will guarantee true happiness and success. Like Jesus reminding Martha, spending all your time working does not necessarily give you the opportunity for spiritual success. Jesus’ comment to Martha indicates that Martha was spending too much time worrying about ordinary matters while Mary was right in devoting all of her time to Jesus’ teaching.
Amos pointed out that many of the people who heard his prophecy were more interested in profit and gain in the material world than they were in doing what was right and just.
One of the points that was made in the Fortune article was that we spent much of our time in the 60’s trying to find freedom. What many found was that freedom comes with a price and responsibilities; that the concept of total freedom was in actuality total slavery because, at some time, one would be called to pay for all that one had done.
The time of the late 70’s and the 80’s brought about a time of trying to find that which would you give the stability and the structure needed for gaining the freedoms brought about from the 60’s. And now, people are finding out that stability, that structure cannot come from material gains.
To that end, many churches are trying to find ways of providing that stability. But I believe that they are doing it wrong. At a time when people should be finding Jesus and being given the opportunity to bring Him into their hearts, churches are presenting a world in which one set of secular rules are changed for another set of secular based rules.
Many churches today try to provide an insight into Christ through an adaptation of today’s technology. In one of the many e-mail newsletters that I receive each week was this little article,
Lord’s Prayer for cellular believers
The Lord’s Prayer has been translated into the language of the text message as part of a new plan to send church services to worshippers on their mobile phones. "Our Father, who art in heaven" has become dad@hvn while "forgive us our trespasses" is rendered as "4give r sins."
Other prayers, readings, and meditations are also to be translated to give worshippers an entire service in text message format. The idea is to bring Christianity to a generation that is "too busy to go to church." The Muslim community has already seen the benefits of text-messaging believers with their five daily "calls to prayer."
The mobile phone church services will be launched at the Greenbelt arts and music festival in Cheltenham, UK, in August. When their messages arrive, it is hoped the young people will stop what they are doing and read them aloud to friends around them, creating a new form of simultaneous virtual worship.
The idea came from a religious service conducted by text messages in Germany. The Lord’s Prayer was conceived after an on-line competition to find the best version, cutting it from 372 characters to 160 or fewer. A history student at York University came up with the accepted version. (SOJO Mail, July 20, 2001)SOJO Mail, July 20, 2001)
The only problem that I have with something like this is that it trivializes the Lord’s Prayer. Nor does it place the idea of church and worship in the context that it needs to be in. After all, if the people receiving such text messages are too busy to go to church, how is abbreviating the text to a short sound byte going to make it easier for them to understand what the words of the prayer mean.
I have spoken before about the new "virtual" churches that are springing up almost daily on the World Wide Web. For me, one crucial aspect of worship and renewing my connection with Christ comes from the time I spend here on Sunday morning among people. Also, as we were constantly reminded throughout the Old Testament, there were always people around Jesus; to be in a situation where I am not among people makes it very difficult to achieve what worship is about. To go to church on the web does not give me the satisfaction that I have found being in the sanctuary on Sunday morning.
I am not opposed to technology but technology is not always the answer. In the same issue of the newsletter that told me about the new version of the Lord’s Prayer was an article about a church in England that had bought a karaoke machine because the organist had moved away.
Religion & Society
Vicar in tune with karaoke hymn-singing
By Maurice Weaver
A vicar has improved the singing of hymns in his church by installing a karaoke machine. The Rev. Brian Duckworth’s congregation failed to make the heavens ring after their organist moved away. But the karaoke machine has made all the difference to services at St. John the Evangelist’s Church in Hucknall, Notts.
Rev. Duckworth can control the karaoke machine from his pulpit and even take it with him for outside services. "After the organist departed, one of our worshippers stepped in with a guitar but then she left, too," said Duckworth. "Our services were getting very dull. I’m afraid singing unaccompanied just wasn’t the same," he added.
Stephen Langford, assistant secretary of the Southwell Diocese, which approved the vicar’s music-making idea, said: "This machine is making its mark on St. John’s in a way the original organ probably did 100 years ago." The congregation raised £2,850 to pay for the Digital Hymnal, an American-made ecclesiastical version of the Japanese sing-a-long device. It plays 2,400 hymns. (SOJO Mail, July 20, 2001)
Also I also think that many churches today are wrong in their notion that in order to come to know Christ, you must follow a particular path or set of steps. Giving a set of rules does give structure and discipline to one’s life and that is what many people are seeking in order to gain the peace and security that they crave. But a reading of the Bible tells us that the Israelites let the rules and order of their life take them away from the connection with God. One of the primary reasons that Jesus came was because the Israelites spent more time dealing with the structure of daily life and making sure that they followed the rules than they did in fellowship with God.
Amos warned the people that a time would come when there would be a famine, not of food, but of God’s word. There would be a time when people would seek God and His word but not be able to find it. The story in Fortune struck a chord with me. How can we give people to the opportunity to find God’s word in this society?
Over the next four months, we are going to have four church brunches. These brunches are the beginning of many opportunities for this church to reach out to those seeking to find a connection with Christ or renew their connection.
One of those brunches, scheduled for November 4th, is associated with our annual charge conference and will be essentially for church members and family. It will not be a closed meeting, for I don’t think that would be right. But it is the one meeting that is devoted to the work of the church for the coming year and thus would not be a good Sunday for others to come.
The other three meetings are ones were we have the opportunity to bring the community to Walker Valley United Methodist Church. The Sunday after Labor Day brings back our traditional "Rally Day" and the resumption of Sunday School. This year we will have a class for the older students seeking to be confirmed in the church. If you know of any student in junior high, high school, or who has just finished high school, have them get in contact with me so that we can begin making plans for that class. Also, we need at least one person and I would like to get several people to help with the middle Sunday School class. Some might say that it was requires a special person with special training but I know from my own experience that you must simply be willing to work with kids in order to be successful. It does require some training but that is easy if you are willing to work with the children of this church. Even if you don’t think that is how you will serve, make sure that you let everyone know that our Sunday School is starting and that all children are welcome.
The brunches in October and December are paired with special services and are our opportunities to have the community come to Walker Valley. Each of these services will require work and planning on the part of the congregation.
There are a number of vacancies in the church administrative structure that need to be filled most notably that of Lay Member to Annual Conference and Lay Leader. The Lay Member to Annual Conference is this church’s representative at Annual Conference. Walker Valley has not been represented at either of the last two Annual Conferences and, if this congregation is to have any input into the work of the United Methodist Church in New York and the country, this position must be filled.
The Lay Leader position also has been vacant for the past two years. While the Lay Member position takes up about four days in June plus some administrative work (this person is on the administrative council, the finance committee, and the PPRC), the Lay Leader is more of an active participant in the day-to-day operations of the church. The primary role of the Lay Leader is to serve as chief representative of the laity of the church and provide an awareness of how the laity, i.e., the congregation can make the ministry a part of their life, both in the church and in the community. This is a tough position to fill because of the demands that it places on the person. The Lay Leader is not the chair of the Administrative Council, though in some churches the same person fills both positions. Similarly, the Lay Leader is more than just a liturgist, sitting in the other seat and reading the lessons each Sunday, though that is something many Lay Leaders do. In fact, in many churches, that is all the Lay Leader does.
Lastly, I want us to think about opening the church on a couple of nights each week. I don’t want anything special to happen, at least in the sanctuary. I don’t want special music playing in the background, I don’t want the sanctuary lit up with candles to create a special mood. I simply want the church open so that someone coming by can come in and pray. To the person lost in the world seeking comfort and solace that may be all that is needed.
Now, I am also a realist. Someone needs to be here, simply as a guardian. But they can be in the education wing, quietly working on other things. Perhaps, it will be a Bible Study, not a Bible Study designed to provide an entrance into heaven but rather an active discussion of what the writers were trying to tell the people about God and the impact it has on daily living.
One night a week we should have set aside for the youth, especially the high school youth. Perhaps it will be nothing more than a time of studying and preparing for their classes. Perhaps it will be a social time. If nothing else, it will be a time where they can gather.
Some might say that these are times to present the Gospel and have times of pray. But I would say, and I hope that you agree, that these are also times that we simply have to let people know that Christ is a part of this community and that He is here today. I do not want these times to be overburden with the trappings of a spiritual world that drives people away. I want these times, and I hope that you all do too, to be a time for people to come to Christ, just as He wanted people to come to Him.
All of this requires people willing to do the work. It turns out that being a Christian is not as easy as people think it is. It does require work; that is why Paul’s words to the Colossians are so important today. A struggle to do Christ’s work in this world is tough and the rewards are not always immediate but the rewards go beyond simple material pleasure.
The opportunity that we have today is not a fleeting one. It will always be here; after all, that is one of the things Paul stressed about God, that He was always here.
How often do we miss out on the voice and presence of God? One of the themes throughout the Bible is to hear the word of God. To stop, to sit still, like Mary in the Gospel lesson and pay attention to the Divine in our presence. For God is always seeking to speak to us, if we will listen. Sure, God can be heard in the temple, in worship. Our texts today challenge us to pay attention to the myriad ways God comes to us and speaks to us. It is also a challenge for us to find ways so that others can do the same.
But the longer we wait to take advantage of these opportunities, the harder it will be to make them actualities of life. Our challenge this day is to make those opportunities come true so that others may come to know what we already know and what we sing about in our closing hymn, that the victory of life is a victory in Jesus.