This is the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (26 August 2001). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.
Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to think about my family. Not just my mother, brothers, sister and my family here in New York but rather my extended family of Schüessler cousins. Besides the thirteen or so ministers that are an integral part of the history of the family, we have a number of actors, musicians, and artists; enough so that I have thought we could form our own production company. Following the 1998 reunion, I began to think of how easy it might be to make a commercial of some sort, seeing how it was that we had all that available talent.
I thought it might be nice to make a commercial about coming to church especially the country church in Neon where I served in a similar capacity to what I do here in Walker Valley. Recently the announcement that the United Methodist Church was itself going to run a series of television commercials aimed at the 25 – 29 age group, the one group of people that seems so conspicuously absent from church membership today. I have no idea what these ads are going to be like; all that I have received is that there are going to be a number of them.
But I have to wonder if they are going to be some slick commercial designed to meet some marketing scheme. Or rather, are they going to be genuine attempts to get this age group to come back to church, be it the church they grew up in or some other church close by. It may be the latter but I have also found out that we may not get the opportunity to find out. Apparently only CBS will be carrying these ads in any of their prime time programming. NBC, ABC and FOX have all stated that it is against their policy to run religious advertisements on the air.
This is a time when many people see the world around them and look to find some meaning in the world. How else can you explain the proliferation of ads for psychic hotlines? In a desire for peace and security infomercials, someone’s wonderful invention of the thirty-minute commercial, about how to make money without breaking a sweat dominates the airways. And these commercials are often followed by other commercials extolling the virtues of some wonderful exercise machine designed to make it easy for you to stay in shape. Never mind that you will be told by the next exercise advertisement that this method doesn’t work and that you need to use the other method.
My point is this. We are at a point where people are seeking security. The problem is that many times they see security in terms of financial well being or stability in their lives. But sooner or later, they find that these do not provide the security and comfort that they seek. And they begin to look for the answers to their questions of why and why me.
The sad thing to say is that American churches are always there when some one needs to here the answer and many more times than not, American churches are the reason why people seek answers in other things. As you look at the commercials that dominate the airways, notice how many religious broadcasts are on the air (though maybe not on the major networks). Notice how these broadcasts all seem to be a reflection of the Old Testament version of God, of thunder and lightning, of fire and brimstone.
Verses 18 through 21 of the reading from Hebrews today remind us of Israel at Mount Sinai hearing Yahweh thundering out his commands. It was a setting that evoked a paralyzing fear of God in the people. They wanted no communication with from God of that mountain and they also realized that they could bear the demanding standards of holiness.
This picture of worship lacks a relationship between creation and the Creator. The fear of people results from a lack of knowledge about the God of the mountain. We cannot know someone with whom we have no relationship.
The Pharisees and Sadducees of Christ’s time helped to accentuate this picture of humanity’s relationship with God. While the Pharisees and Sadducees taught and expected a devotion to legalistic and unbearable regulations, Jesus taught the disciples to pray openly, addressing God as "Father."
The incident reported in the Gospel reading from Luke today points that out. The synagogue official didn’t feel that it was right for Jesus to perform a healing miracle on the Sabbath. As the official said in Luke 13: 14, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured." (Luke 13: 14) The main concern for this ruler was not the healing of the individual but rather the maintenance of the rules. Jesus was more interested in healing the woman and restoring her relationship with God than He was in the order of how things were done.
The tearing of the veil in the Temple during the crucifixion was a vivid symbol of the open access to the Father, which Christ procured for humanity. Christ restored the relationship between the people and God.
I also feel that many churches in this country today do not present a message of compassion and love, the very essence of Christ’s message on earth. There is a lot of things wrong with this world but the church should be a unifying force, not one of the reasons for its division. Too many churches today preach a message of exclusion, not inclusion. And too many churches today do little to offer hope for anyone seeking to find shelter from the problems of today’ world.
If I were making a commercial today, I would say to those that listen that this was a place where they could feel safe. They may not find the answers to the problems that are plaguing them, they might not be able to resolve all the financial problems or medical problems that they have to fight. But they will find peace and comfort. They will have the opportunity to reestablish their relationship with God.; to be reminded as Jeremiah was, that God has always known who they were and how special they are to Him. As it said in the reading from Hebrews, they will get a chance to hear from God. This can come from either worship or it can come from quietly sitting in the sanctuary. The opportunity to do so is what we give them.
But until I get the family production group up and running and figure out how to get them all here to Walker Valley, I need to think about another type of commercial. And that is the commercial we produce every day of our lives. Each day that we go about our business is our chance to witness for Christ. I don’t mean to browbeat someone over the head with scripture but rather through our own unconscious actions show people what Christ’s love and sacrifice means for us.
Some might think this is the most difficult task every asked of them. Jeremiah said as much when God called him to be a prophet among his people. But again, think about what God told Jeremiah, just as He told all the prophets before and after him, "I will give you the strength and the ability necessary to meet the task at hand."
In all that you do, God will provide you with the strength and the ability to meet the tasks that you have to do. The hardest task may be simply to walk through life showing the spirit of Christ in your life. But it is the easiest way you can show someone that God is a God of love and that a relationship with Him is possible.
As this day ends and the new workweek begins, I want you to think about ways that you can serve, think about ways that you can quietly produce your own commercial about how Christ is a part of your life. Perhaps you will find the answer to serve some part of this church. Perhaps it will be to say something quiet and peaceful as way to offer strength and hope to someone else this week. I know that is scary thinking that some time this week you will be called to do something in Christ’s name but remember that the promise of God is that he will be with you in whatever you do and that whatever you do will be a success.