We Gather Together

This was the second of three Sundays that I was at Mulberry (KS) and Arma (KS) United Methodist Churches.  As I will allude to in the message, this was the Sunday following the completion of Vacation Bible School.  It wasn’t part of the “assignment” but since the church did not have a regularly assigned pastor (which is why I was there for three weeks), I spent the mornings at the Arma church helping where I could and leading the daily devotions.

Now, it turned out that one tradition of VBS there was that the children picked the Scripture readings for the Sunday service.  The Scripture readings that were selected were 1 Kings 19: 11 – 13, Matthew 14: 13 – 21, and John 20: 24 – 29.  Not quite the regular lectionary and I suppose if I had had more experience, I might have picked one of the three and focused on that particular scripture.  However, I was just beginning and I thought that you needed to use all three readings, and this Sunday, with the children having picked the verses, it was especially important that I use all three.

So here is the message for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 30 July 1995.

(I would also add that I had the pleasure of meeting Rose Sims two years before while I was still living in Minnesota.  It turns out that we shared a common bond of having both gone to the University of Missouri and having John Voth as an teacher.)


I chose the title for this sermon, "We Gather Together", for three reasons. First, this particular hymn we sang as the prelude today has always been one of my favorites.

Second, it reminds us that Jesus will always be in our presence whenever two or more are gathered in his name.

And third, it helps us to answer the same question that God asked Elijah "What are you doing here, Elijah" (1 Kings 19: 11)

Today we celebrate the completion of a successful Vacation Bible School. Now to some, Vacation Bible School is simply a summer time activity the church puts on for its children and those in its community. But we should also realize that it is through Vacation Bible School that we honor in part the tradition of a bible-based education, one mark of the Methodist Church since its founding some two hundred and fifty years ago.

Jesus said "Let the children come to me; do not try to stop them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." (Mark 10: 14)

Throughout time, children have had little or no place in society. As we read in the last verse of the passage from Matthew, women and children weren’t counted. That makes the feeding of the multitude even more amazing because there may have been between 12,000 and 15,000 people feed. Jesus command to his disciples came because they, the disciples, still early in their own ministries, saw children as non-entities in society.

Even in the days of John Wesley and early 18th century England, children as young as 11 and 12 commonly put in 60-hour work weeks along side the parents and other adults in the mines and factories. For them to learn anything, it would have to take place on Sunday. John Wesley started the first Sunday School because it was the only way many children would get any education and to show them that God had not forgotten about them.

But the challenges facing children have changed much in today’s "enlightened " society. Consider the following report written in June, 1987 by Don McCrory for Eternity.

"In the next 30 minutes, 285 children will become victims of broken homes, 685 teenagers will take some form of narcotics and 57 kids will become runaways. The incident of divorce in the U. S. will likely remain the highest in the world (1986 Census Bureau Predictions). Of the 3.6 million U. S. children who began their formal school in the US last September (1986), 14% were born to unmarried parents’ 40% will live in broken homes before they reach the age of 18; as many as one-third are latchkey children with no one to greet them when they come home from school. Some 100,000 of America’s children are homeless on any given night, and that doesn’t include those who have run away from home or been kicked out by their parents. That National Academy of Sciences – not the church – called it a ‘national disgrace that must be treated with urgency that such a situation demands" (page 169, New Life For Dying Churches, Rose Sims)

When we hear facts like those, even some eight years later when the situation has not improved, we realize how important it is for us to have Jesus in our lives. This celebration of Vacation Bible School is not just for the children. It is also a celebration of Jesus’ presence in our own lives today as well. Remember that after summoning the children, He told the crowd and His disciples, "Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." (Mark 10: 15)

To the people of both Jesus and John Wesley’s times, it was almost as if God had forgotten them. The prophet Elijah was running from Queen Jezebel’s hired killers. Having defeated the priests of Baal, he was a marked man fearing for his life and on the run. He came to that cave after forty days of running, convinced that he was only believer of God left, convinced that God had left him.

God said to Elijah to go outside the cave and watch him pass by. But God was not in the "wind, earthquake, and "fire, the natural phenomena traditionally associated with God. It is that singular silence, the passage of the silence, "and after the fire a sound of sheer silence" (1 Kings 19: 13), that reminds us not to look for God in the wind or the earthquakes or the fire because He is always here with us.

Even in the worst times one can imagine, when one feels left all alone, there are still other believers. And that was the case in Israel at that time. If you read further on in that chapter you find out that about seven thousand believers left. Every time God struck down the people of Israel, he always left behind a core of true believers. And as long as the believers were there, so was God.

Today we look at the church and the impact it can have on a community. I believe that there were more children at VBS. this summer than every before and that many of the children were not from this church. In fact, that is one reason why we have Vacation Bible School, to reach out to those who do not know Jesus. Bishop Earl Hunt, who served as President of the United Methodist Council of Bishops spoke of the impact of the church in a community.

". . . whenever the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is turned loose in a community to help human beings and meet their needs and lift up the name of Jesus Christ, that church becomes indispensable in the community." (pages 173 – 174, New Life For Dying Churches, Rose Sims)

Can you imagine the impact the feeding of the multitudes, not once but twice, had on the community of Israel? The people of Israel were already hearing stories of the power of Jesus. And as more and more people heard, they came to hear him and be near him and be healed by him. The crowds had grown to the point that for Jesus to escape, He had to take to a boat and sail across the lake. It was to get away from the crowds that lead to the passage in Matthew that we read today. While very few people may have had a great understanding of who Jesus was or what his mission was, they did know that what he offered was far greater than anything they had received up to that time.

When Jesus died on the cross, some of his followers may have again felt like God had forsaken them once more. Many may have given up and gone home, convinced there was hope of being saved, of gaining the freedom they so long cherished. But just as Elijah was not alone, there were some who were not ready to stop believing. Those that believed in his resurrection kept the faith.

Still doubts remained. Thomas would not just accept the word of his friends as proof of the resurrection; he had to see the proof. Our world is much the same way today. There are those today who wonder if our society and country are headed in the right direction. We demand proof that Jesus is still here.

My friends, the proof is there. As Jesus told Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." (John 20: 29)

The effect of the first Bible School started by John Wesley can be seen in what happened to England at the time France was undergoing its bloody revolution. Changes occurred in England, changes which made society better without the cost of blood. We see it in the eyes of the children who came to Vacation Bible School every day; we see it in the eyes of people at Gentry House as the kids sang for them on Friday.

I believe because I have seen the Spirit of the Lord work to turn around a church from the point almost closing to closing the purchase of 5 acres of land for a newer and bigger church within three years of the ministry. The words that Bishop Hunt spoke were spoken at a small country church in Florida that a few years before it too was about to be closed. Hope for the presence of Christ in that community would have disappeared were it not for Rose Sims. She became the pastor of that church and with the assistance of the congregation turned it around and made it a force in that community.

The best description of her work with this church was written by a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, George Lane.

Once the rural church was the strength of America, and the Methodist Church in Trilby and hundreds of other towns like this are fertile soil for the church’s rebirth in Florida, America, and maybe the world. What is happening at the Trilby Methodist Church offers new hope. When the world is at its worst, that is when the church must be at its best." (New Life For Dying Churches, Dr. Rose Sims)

If you ask Dr. Sims how all of that was accomplished she will tell you it was because the work done at Trilby was done for Jesus. The secret behind the rebirth of the Trilby Church was that the preaching of the Gospel was accompanied by work in the community.

We gather here today to ask the Lord’s blessing because we know that through Jesus Christ, it becomes possible for us to answer God’s question to Elijah. And on that day when Jesus was uplifted into heaven, He told His disciples

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28: 19 – 20)

And while Vacation Bible School is through for the summer, our gathering here today in its celebration helps us to renew this great commission.

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