This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (22 August 2004). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.
What would you have said last week to that person at the Corn and Hamburger Roast when they expressed surprise and amazement that Tompkins Corners was still an active United Methodist Church? Did you invite them to come and worship with us, enjoying in the wonderful talents of our keyboardist? Did you happen to get their name and address so that I could write to them and invite them to be a part of our church community? The answers to these questions vary with each of us and there is no shame if you wouldn’t have responded as others did or as I would have.
We live in a time and a society where speaking about our faith is not socially correct. Those that do so risk being labeled as kooky, weird, or with some other unkind adjective. We view those who openly practice evangelism with the proverbial grain of salt; we question their motives and we wonder about their agenda.
The problem is that evangelism in the 20th and 21st centuries has become rigidly associated with fundamentalism. It is no longer an invitation to hear the Gospel. Rather, it seems to be almost a reversal of the Gospel message, offering exclusivity when it should be open, condemnation and intimidation instead of hope and peace, and hatred and fear when there should be love. Theirs is not a world open to all but only to those who they, not God, decide are worthy. And what is even more interesting is the question of fundamentalism is not limited to just Christianity or the United States but is seen in Judaism and Islam as well, with the same familiar results.
As Karen Armstrong in her recent book, "The Battle for God", notes that fundamentalists have gunned down worshippers in a mosque, killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, and toppled governments. (From NewsScan Daily, 17 August 2004; Worth Thinking About: Fundamentalism) Within the framework of Christian fundamentalism, we see the views of some being expressed politically. Jerry Falwell has said that true evangelical Christians can only vote for the Republican ticket this fall. (Quoted in the New York Times, 16 July 2004.) Pat Robertson has said that President Bush will win in a landslide because God has picked him to be the President, no matter how good or bad he is. (Quoted on AP/Fox News, 2 January 2004) Such views are the extremes and I doubt that God has expressed to anyone, let alone the major Christian fundamentalist preachers who He wants to win in November.
But against this backdrop of the role of religion in today’s society is the remarkable acquiescence of the American people to allow a few to define what they are supposed to believe. We live in an era of great personal freedom, a freedom defined by politics and thought; yet the American people seem willing to go along and let others more vocal define what is acceptable thought and behavior.
Ours is, at the basic level, a freedom defined by politics. It is the freedom gained through the struggle of the American Revolution, defined by our own bloody Civil War and refined during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Upon this level, we can build the second level of freedom, one defined by our own sense of moral responsibility.
This is the freedom that gives us the ability and authority to engage in such complex acts as political governance. It is this freedom that says we, as individuals, are responsible for our own acts. It is also a freedom that we too often surrender in the name of the "common good." But this second freedom also gives us the opportunity to move upwards, to seek a third level, one where we are free to live with God. ("Bound To Be Free", Reinhard Hütter, Christian Century, 10 August 2004)
As society has developed over the ages, it has evolved in the direction of this third level of freedom. As we have become more and more aware of the nature of our universe, our view of God and His role in our lives has changed. This development of a secular worldview pushes God to the side, where He remains until, in times of crisis, we can call upon him. (Colin Williams, Faith in a Secular Age, pg. 41)
There is a close relationship between those who cling to a world in which the church and state are seen as one institution, a world that this country was in not so long ago, and political views that work vehemently against any change in the racial, caste, class and political structure of the past. (Williams, pg. 63) Is it no wonder that fundamentalists view such development with alarm? Is it no wonder that fundamentalists seek to control thought and action in a world where individuals are supposed to control their own thoughts and actions? Look at the Pharisees’ response to Jesus healing the women in today’s Gospel reading.
Their response was not one of joy and celebration, that this woman long suffering was now free of pain. No, their response was to complain that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, in direct violation of church laws. But Jesus put the freedom of the individual over the structure of the church and in doing so took the control of the individual from the Pharisees and gave it to the woman. The Pharisees were angry because their role in the lives of others was removed.
In a world where people were marginalized because of who they were, where they lived, or their heritage, Jesus said that did not need to be the case. In a world where the status quo determined your future, Jesus sought to change the status quo. Jesus offered freedom to the individual and allowed the path to God to be direct and not necessarily through the Pharisees. In a world where the door to heaven was controlled by the religious establishment, Jesus tore down the wall and said that anyone could come in. No wonder that the Pharisees plotted against Jesus, everything He said and did threatened their very existence.
I do not know about you but I see many of the responses of today’s fundamentalists (and this is not necessarily limited to those who say they are Christian) similar to the Pharisees today. Fundamentalists today would seek to limit those who can come to God and marginalize the less than well off, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed. It seems to me that the thinking about God in personal terms is not acceptable to many fundamentalists today, because to do so might allow you to see through their own hypocrisy. And I see in the responses of today’s fundamentalists the same fears and worries that plagued yesterday’s Pharisees.
But it does not have to be this way. We should not fear the future just because God and man are moving apart. This is a time when that very separation offers the best chance in the world to find God. To some, the secularization of the world is the banishment of God from the world. But it can also be a chance for us to see that the God who shown Himself in Christ to be true free for mankind is also the God who desires that we seek his presence in the changing scene of history – in the openness of the secular world rather than in the static timeless world of the religious. (Williams, pg. 72)
Colin Williams in his book, "Faith In A Secular Age", expressed the same concerns as did Karen Armstrong. But he did so some forty years ago. And what he saw was not a precursor to moral collapse as do fundamentalists and conservatives but rather as one of the greatest opportunities of all times.
Colin Williams wrote some forty years ago, "it is true that when we read the agenda of the world, we can interpret it correctly only in the light of Christ. But, in turn, we are learning that this light of Christ comes to us only when we are ready to move out into the midst of the world – only when we leave the safe boundaries of the temple and the law where we so often try to keep God imprisoned, and are open for the light of Christ coming to us from the strange worlds of our neighbors. So often it is this unexpected light from Christ which enables us to read the world’s agenda: ‘When did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee?’
And it is as this unexpected light of Christ comes to us through the world’s agenda, that we are offered freedom from the smallness of vision and the limited obedience that continually threaten to strangle the church’s mission. And it is this freedom that we need – the freedom for Christ as He comes to us from the world of which He is Lord; freedom to be with Christ as He moves on in His missionary pilgrimage toward the goal of history. But, as the Gospel readings for the past weeks have emphasized, we are free to be his witnesses only if there is in us a constant readiness for surprise: ‘Watch therefore, you never know when He will appear.’" (William’s, pg. 109 – 110)
Now is the time to tell the people that caring for the poor and the vulnerable is what Christianity is about (Matthew 25: 35 – 40 and Isaiah 10: 1 – 2). Now is the time to tell the people that caring for God’s earth is what Christianity is about (Genesis 2: 15 and Psalm 24: 1). We need to remind people that truth will set us free, not simply saying what must be said to justify one’s actions (John 8: 32). We must show that human rights, respecting the image of God in every person, are central to being a Christian (Genesis 1: 27). We must remind people that a consistent ethic of human life is to obey the biblical injunction to choose life (Deuteronomy 30: 19). Now is the time to remind people that God calls us to be peacemakers, not makers of war (Matthew 5: 9). We must remind people that God no longer crowns kings and that wars in God’s name are not consistent with the basic Gospel message (Matthew 6: 33 and Proverbs 8: 12 – 13). (From www.takebackourfaith.org) Our struggle should not be to fight for a return to Christendom; rather it should be a struggle to maintain the freedom that God has given us. (Williams, pg. 72)
It is not a decision as to how we should respond or what we should say. Nor can we ask others to do it for us. The opportunity that presents itself today is like the opportunities presented to the recipients of the letters to the Hebrews. They heard the words of the prophets and ignored them; they heard the words of Jesus and were set to ignore them as well. Shall we, in a like manner, ignore all that we know is true, simply because it is too much of a bother? Sooner or later, we must respond to God.
Just as God said to Jeremiah, God says to you today, "I knew you before you were born; I chose you." What will you say to God today when that is what He is saying to you? What will you say when you are reminded that Christ died on the cross so that you could have freedom today?
Genuine freedom comes only when it is received by faith. There is no other source. Genuine freedom grows out of the restored and redeemed relationship with the One whom, as Luther so memorably put it, "has created me together with all that exists." The very heartbeat and life of this relationship and thus of true freedom is love, created by the Holy Spirit in the human heart.
There is an intrinsic relationship between true freedom and true love. In trusting in God, we are set free from bondage to fear and repression. Propelled by God’s love for us, true freedom unfolds. ("Bound To Be Free", Reinhard Hütter, Christian Century, 10 August 2004)
As we look to the coming weeks and the upcoming revival, we have a chance to express that freedom and that love. We have the opportunity to renew our faith and help others to do likewise. For some, this may be the opportunity they have been searching for. There will come a day in the next few weeks where you might have an encounter like that of Philip with the Ethiopian. How will you respond? Will you be able to, if nothing else invite that person to be your guest next week?
Countless riders will go by this place next week, enjoying the scenery of Putnam County. Will you help to provide water and snacks and then invite the riders to come back and drink from the fountain of living water, as did the Samaritan woman at the well?
Evangelism is not preaching or condemnation; evangelism is simply inviting someone. The call today comes not from the pulpit but rather from within your heart. It is a call from God; what will you say?