Here are my thoughts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 August 2010. The Scriptures are Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.
I will be at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY, this coming Sunday (Location of church). The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.
If you have been following my blog for any length of time, then you know that I have served as a lay minister in the past. At first, it was simply to “hold down the fort” while the district found a regular pastor. Then it changed into part of a strategy to rebuild or renew the church. I would like to think I was successful in those assignments but that will only be determined some time in the future.
As the assignments changed from simply preparing a single sermon for a single Sunday every once in a while to a sermon every week for 50 weeks at a time, I found myself looking at the materials a little differently. While the education of lay speakers, both local and certified, in my own district does involve an examination of the Scripture and the preparation for a particular Sunday, I don’t recall receiving that information when I first began lay speaking.
That’s not to say that my own education as a lay speaker was lacking. I had more than enough opportunities to watch, listen and learn from numerous pastors about the development of a sermon and a series of sermons. The manner in which one of lay speaking courses is run gives me the opportunity to continue learning and to continually update my knowledge and my skills. (I wouldn’t have created the “role” of Nathaniel Bartholomew if it hadn’t been for presentations that two individuals gave during our Lay Speaking schools).
But somewhere along the line, as I sought to get the churches that I lead and directed to focus on the issues of rebirth, renewal, and rebuilding, I found that my success came from preaching the Gospel. I don’t know how much of this comes from training, from experience, from my background, or just simply the sheer act of standing in a pulpit Sunday after Sunday.
I also know that it is more than looking at the words written some 1900 years ago and repeating them to the congregation and saying “now, do likewise.” It means really getting into what was happening and perhaps saying the words with 21st century English rather than an old and stilted translation. You all know how much I love to use or read “The Cotton Patch Gospels” by Clarence Jordan. It isn’t just the fun of reading Bible stories with a Southern twist; it is seeing the words come alive.
We have to see the words; we have to hear the words in terms of what is happening to us today if the meaning of the words is to have any validity. If we see the words and actions of the Bible only in terms of thoughts, words, and deeds of some two thousand years ago, they become fixed, rigid, and dead. Dead words have no meaning; dead words can offer no life or hope.
I cannot offer you a specific date and time when I began to see that life and that hope that comes from the Bible. I know that when I read passages like today’s passage, where Jesus challenged the religious authorities on matters of their law and their regulations, I began to see Jesus as a revolutionary. I grew up in an environment that said that the rules were made to be followed and no questions were to be asked about those rules.
But I also grew up in a variety of places. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense when the rules of one place were not the same as the rules for another place. And that is what Jesus is saying to the religious authorities in the Gospel reading today. Explain the sense of laws and regulations that say it is alright to treat a work animal but not a human being on the Sabbath. If a person is sick, they need to see a doctor.
Yes, there is a reason why we are encouraged to keep the Sabbath holy (a reason that seems to have been lost in the culture of today); however, when a person is sick, that person needs attention and there can be no rules that should prevent that from happening. But the religious authorities over the years, in order to enforce that commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, created a myriad of rules and regulations to do just that. Each time a rule was created, someone found a need for a loophole, and doesn’t that sound just like today?
When I hear or read of someone who seeks to bring into play a world of Biblical law, I think of those times when Jesus spoke out against the establishment and wonder what those others are thinking. I cannot help but think that they have forgotten the Gospel message; they have forgotten how the words and thoughts of the Bible are to be read. They want that dead Bible with its fixed and meaningless words.
And when I hear of those who criticize Christianity and say that they will never be part of the Christian church, I also think that they haven’t read the Gospel message. They do not know the meaning of what is inside the Bible. And how can they know? The only voices that they hear are the ones who call for Biblical law and condemnation of life styles that they, the earth-bound judges, deem unsuitable for inclusion in society.
They are the ones who shunned the women who had been sick for so long yet whom Jesus cured with a single command. They are the ones who criticized Jesus for violating their laws. Those who have turned away from the church have turned away because of those who feel their laws, their regulations are more important that what God wants us to do.
When you create a world of countless laws and regulations, fixed in time and meaning, you create a world when it is impossible to touch God. The writer of Hebrews reminds us how the Israelites feared Mount Sinai. God was meant to be respected, not feared. We are welcomed into His Holy City by the words and deeds of Jesus.
There are many today who seek those words; something inside them tells them that there is hope in the Gospel message. But they don’t know where to find those words; they don’t know who is speaking to them in a world that seems so rigid and fixed.
Part of my growing up, part of my beginning to see that the words of the Bible were alive and held meaning and hope came when I was in college. When I began, the college I attended was known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College; now it is known as Truman State University and is named after the former President, Harry S. Truman. President Truman is said to have placed on his desk in the oval office a plaque that read “the buck stops here.”
It emphasized the responsibilities that the office of the President held. Somewhere along the line, we have to ask ourselves not where the responsibilities stop but where do they begin. Who is responsible for telling others through their thoughts, words, deeds and actions that the words of the Bible are alive and have meaning in the world today? Who is responsible to see that the Gospel message of hope and renewal is a true message for today?
That responsibility lies with each one of us. When God chose Jeremiah to be the prophet to His people, Jeremiah tried very hard to get out of the task. But God said that He had chosen Jeremiah. When Jeremiah said that he could not speak, God told him, as He told Moses and all the other prophets, He would give him the words to speak.
When we accept Christ as our Savior, our lives change. When we allow the Holy Spirit into our lives, we become empowered to help others change their lives. That is what happened to Jeremiah; that is what happened to every prophet, every disciple and every follower.
So where does it start today? Where does the preaching of the Good News, the Gospel start? It starts here today with each one of us.