This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 13th Sunday of Pentecost, 29 August 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14.
First of all, some things about this sermon must be stated up front. If anything so far has made you uncomfortable or if you think that I have deliberately picked the readings for today, you are mistaken. The scripture readings for today are part of the common lectionary and were probably picked over ten years ago. The title for today’s sermon was determined about six weeks ago, when I began looking at the month’s worship schedule. It is the coincidence of these events that confirms for me the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit to effect change in this world.
You have heard me speak about Grace United Methodist Church in St. Cloud, Minnesota on a number of occasions in the past. Grace is the church where I started the journey that has lead me to this place and time as a lay speaker in the United Methodist Church. In thinking of Minnesota, one often thinks of Scandinavians, Lutherans and “Grumpy Old Men.”
But the area around St. Cloud is primarily German and Roman Catholic. I was attracted to Grace Church for a number of reasons. It was small in physical size, the minister seemed friendly and we had a sense that it was a lot like the church we left behind in Odessa, Texas. And the Germanic heritage of this area was found in Grace Church, the former Evangelical United Brethren Church in St. Cloud, which as you know are where my own roots lie. So, for those reasons, we decided to make Grace Church our church home in St. Cloud.
I felt that the movies starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were more serious tragedies than they were comedies. It seemed to me that during the three years that I lived in Minnesota, most of the “native” men were always grumpy.
On that first Sunday, only one person besides the pastor greeted my family and me. Were the decisions about joining not based on other factors, this might have driven us away. In those first few weeks of attending I noticed that there were always two gentlemen sitting by the door between the church entryway and the sanctuary. These two gentlemen were the epitome of grumpy old men with the stated goal, I later found out, of driving away visitors. I do not know now, nor did I know then or even understand why they would want to do this.
For at that time, Grace Church was a dying church with members leaving for other churches and attendance rapidly falling off. To drive off people seemed hardly the best tactic to undertake. I suppose I should have taken the hint and looked elsewhere for a church. Or perhaps I should have done what others had done and just let them do their thing.
But I didn’t think that was right, and no matter what others may have said, I began to greet people at the doorway to the church, giving anyone a slightly better image that they would have gotten a few feet later. I did not consult with anyone or ask permission from the pastor or the church council; I just started saying hello. As time went by, the two old men gave up their task and sought other ways to undermine the efforts of those seeking to turn the church around. Others began to help me in my greetings and a formal greeter program was developed. When I left Grace in 1994, it was said that a visitor could not get out of the church without having to say hello to everyone in the church. When I left Grace Church, the membership decline had stopped and attendance was increasing. The changes in the church allowed them to take on the task of building a new and bigger church.
I will not claim credit for any of the success that came to Grace Church. In fact, I don’t think I did all that much. My wife at that time, a Minnesota native, told me that doing what I wanted to do would not work. Minnesotans may be friendly to strangers but they do not always willingly let newcomers in their midst do new things. Still I thought something needed to be done to welcome people, visitors and members alike, each Sunday. Quite honestly, I wasn’t even aware of the passage from Hebrews that we read today. But something inside me said that I had to do something, something in line with what I had been taught all the years that I had gone to church. So without asking I began greeting people.
One can never estimate the consequences of meeting people. Though they may have forgotten what kindness meant to the church when I came there, Grace Church knew what kindness to strangers meant.
Some fifty years earlier a visitor came to Grace church. In the events that transpired, no one could ever remember who the visitor was or what had been said. But the visitor did; he remembered the warmness of the reception he received and the kindness of the members. So comforted was this stranger that he left a gift in his will to the church when he died. The money was sufficient to completely build a new parsonage.
Remember Abraham and Sarah? They welcomed three strangers into their household and for their kindness were rewarded with a family.
I think that the writer of Hebrews remembered the kindness of Abraham. In the second lesson today we are told to be kind to strangers and welcome them in. If we are Christians, then we are to give comfort to those who are in pain or lonely. It is easy to let strangers remain strangers and thus avoid any potential claim they might have on us. But this won’t work for those of us called to a Christ-mirroring vulnerability, one that regards the other as brother or sister and a claimant on our concern. The text from Hebrews challenges us to redefine strangers as angels, or as “friends we’ve yet to meet.” (From “Living by the Word” by Bruce Wollenberg, Christian Century, 24 August 2004)
Hymn 408 (verses 1 and 2)
I mention this for one specific reason. I was hoping that today we would spend most of the day outside the front part of the church greeting and visiting with the bicyclists that rode by the church. I don’t mind it when some of my ideas get shot down (and believe me, I have had many shot down). I certainly don’t mind it when my ideas don’t work. Remember that Thomas Edison tried over 100 combinations of materials and setups before he was able to develop the working light bulb. But instead of lamenting on the many failures, he pointed out that he knew 100 ways that it would not work. So, like Edison, I keep trying ideas, looking for the ones that work. What I do not like is when an idea of mine is shot down for the wrong reasons, such as people believing that it was someone else’s idea.
I saw the sign advertising the “Tour de Putnam Valley” on Wednesday the 18th when I came into Putnam Valley to mail the August announcements. I made a phone call to one person whose expertise and skills in planning I considered up to the task. Before church last Sunday, there were several other conversations before church dealing with other matters. An offer to facilitate the process related to the food stop was made because of those other conversations. Unfortunately, there were some that presumed things that were not true. And, based on what I was told, the reasons given for not being able to help were totally unfounded and based on incorrect evidence and without factual basis.
I have been the pastor of this church for just over two years. In those two years, I have tried to effect a change in the attitudes of people. It has not been easy and I suppose that I could have asked for another assignment. But it is not my style or my temperament to do so. It was clear from the very first day that I came here that there are conflicts within the church and within the Putnam Valley community that were going to be difficult to resolve. The greatest difficulty arose from the fact that neither side in any argument was completely in the right. In many cases, I came away with the thought that both sides in the argument were wrong.
As I said at the beginning, I did not pick the scriptures for today; they were decided several years back. But the Gospel for today is most appropriate. If anything, my experiences over the past two years and culminating last Monday tell me that very few members of this church are willing to give up their honored seat at the banquet table.
Those are harsh words, I know. But God’s words to the people of Israel were harsh and angry and meant to show the people where they were headed. What has transpired over the past few months and years is nothing more than a squabble between people unwilling to get along and allow the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts. My decision to invite people to stop by was based on something inside me that says we need to say to people that this church is alive and well, not merely a place that every few months puts on an event to bring people together. Invite in the stranger and make him or her welcome. But it is hard to do when the people at the front of the door don’t want them to come in.
Remember that this building was built so that people could worship God. They accepted the notion of Methodism and its social gospel. This is part of the covenant that we will treat strangers as friends. It was built with the same covenant with God that the children of Israel made with God in the desert of the wilderness. But the children of God forgot the covenant that they had made; the children of God forgot who they were supposed to worship and what they were supposed to represent. There is a lot of anger in the words God spoke through Jeremiah but it is the anger of God who is reminding His chosen people what they have failed to do.
The words of Jeremiah in the coming days are going to be words of promise and hope, words of a new covenant and the birth of a Savior. But right now, the words of Jeremiah are angry words, words calling people to look at their lives and take the steps that are necessary to atone for their mistakes and their sins.
I had hoped that we would be offering water to thirsty riders right now; I had hoped that we would also be able to offer the water from the fountain of living water that God spoke of through Jeremiah. But I have to wonder if the closing words of the passage for today are not also true. People today are no longer capable of holding that water.
The writer of Hebrews closed with an admonition to not neglect to do good and to share in what you have. Praise God so that what comes out of one’s month is pleasing to all. Jesus told those gathered around him that day that they would be blessed when they brought in others to share in the bounty of God’s blessings. It may not be a repayment today but it was guaranteed at the resurrection.
So consider this today. The words of the Gospel are Jesus’ invitation to us; come and share the bounty of the heavenly kingdom. What we are on this earth does not matter with this invitation. All who seek God through Christ are welcome at God’s table. The invitation was given to us through the cross on Calvary; we are reminded that each time we see the cross that we are invited to be a part of God’s kingdom. We are told that much awaits us if we serve the Lord and offer praise and thanksgiving in His name.
Now, it is our turn. The early Christians squabbled over just about everything, arguing about what was correct and incorrect. They even argued about what food was proper, what was clean and what was unclean. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, suggested that they put away their differences, stop judging and despising one another so that they could work together in witness to the reconciling purpose of God.
“Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual understanding. Do not for the sake of food destroy the work of God.” There were sharp moral differences between the Roman Christians, serious questions about what God required. So too are there serious differences between members of this church, serious enough to have driven members away and keep visitors from coming back.
Just like the early church, the stakes are quite high. Failure to resolve differences will cause this church to die. Paul would not be dragged into the power struggle of the Roman church and I have tried to do the same here.
But now I must ask what the next step will be. What shall we do? Like Paul, I would say “Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” And remember that we are called to serve a Lord who taught his followers to turn the other check when attacked and love one’s enemies. We should also recall that Paul encouraged all to not be overcome with evil but rather overcome evil with good. (Adapted from “A season of repentance” by Richard B. Hays, Christian Century, 24 August 2004)
We have also been called to be peacemakers. These are times when to be other could prove disastrous. I would much rather have spoken this Sunday on global terms and the need for a renewed spirit in the world; the times require it. But I also know that global changes start at the local level. There lies before us a great opportunity. But we cannot expect change of any kind unless we are willing to change ourselves. Saint Francis of Assisi once said, “When you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.”
We cannot preach peace or the love of Christ unless it is in our own hearts. So we must change, we must allow the presence of Christ to redefine our views and our thoughts. If we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our old systems, old options, and old values, then we cannot even begin to think in new terms. New visions cannot come from old structures; new values will not be created from old assumptions. Visions come when people are renewed, not by their reactions. If we allow our reactions to guide the paths we walk, we will never be able to see as we should and as we can. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)
And so we are called, called to repent and become new. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Today, we have the greatest opportunity that we could imagine. We have a chance to invite Jesus into our hearts and experience the warmth and trust found only through Him. We have the chance to invite the Holy Spirit to once again come into our lives and renew that flame that leads and guides us, just as it did for the Israelites in the wilderness, to Christ. We have that chance to invite God into our lives and to renew the covenant made countless times that leads us out of the wilderness.
How will we answer the invitation that has been given to us? The doors of this church are open and they are open to all that seek God through Christ. How open are the doors of your heart and soul? Who will you invite to come into your life?
Hymn 408 (verse 3)