I am at Dover United Methodist Church this morning (Location of church). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 18: 1 – 11, Philemon 1 – 21, and Luke 14: 14: 25 – 33. The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.
When I first read the Gospel message for today I could not help but think about what the people who first heard those words might have thought and might have said. This is not the first time that Jesus challenges us to think about our priorities nor will it be the last. But, more importantly, if the words of the Bible and especially the Gospel message are to have any meaning in our lives today, we should not think about what they said two thousands years ago but rather what we would say today.
That is the secret if you will to the understanding the Gospel. It is not to see or think about the words that were said some two thousand years ago and see them only as words written in some history book. No, rather, it is important that we see them in the light of our own lives and our own thoughts.
And that is why the sermon is entitled what it is; because that’s how many of us would respond to the challenge placed before us this day. Just as so many others have said before us, we would say to Jesus that we have to take care of our children or our parents or our siblings. We have only so much time in the week and we have to ration it for everyone.
And we certainly would object to the idea that we have to give everything up. We worked hard to get our car and our home and all the stuff that we have in the house and now Jesus is asking us to give it all up or give it away. Those are radical and revolutionary ideas and not the kind of talk we want to hear today.
We don’t mind Christianity; it is a pretty good idea but you have to be realistic about it. These are dangerous times right now and to give up our possessions, to turn away from our families are just not the things that one does. It is alright to love your neighbor, just as long as he or she loves you as well. But, let’s face, when your neighbor doesn’t like you, loving them doesn’t work.
But I think that the time has come to truly think about what it means to hold on to the present, to say that right now is better than anything that might happen tomorrow, and to say that yesterday we understood what was right and wrong and now today we don’t. It comes down to this; how can you say you are a Christian, a follower of Christ, when you advocate violence and war. How can you say that you have a right to keep all that you earn for yourselves when there are those in this world who have nothing?
The Gospel message speaks to all people, not just a select few. It comes at a price, a price too many people are not often willing to pay. Such are willing to say they are Christians and the bet is that you will find them in church on Sunday morning, nodding appreciatively at the words the pastor speaks. But that is only as long as he (and they most definitely want a male pastor) speaks in gentle platitudes that speak of the rewards of being a Christian and not the cost. Let the pastor be a female and you are almost certain to hear a rush of cars peeling out of the parking lot as the people leave to find a more appropriate church. Let the pastor challenge the people to do the right thing, to get out and work in the community or even worse, invite the community into the church and it is almost certain that the entire Staff-parish committee membership will be on the phone to the District Superintendent to demand that a new pastor be assigned to their church.
And then, when the changes are made and everyone in the pews is satisfied that the church has returned to normal, there is a realization that something is missing. Oh, yes, there are a few people missing but they were never happy and it is just as well that they left. But the people look around and they wonder why there haven’t been many visitors to the church or why there have been more funerals than baptisms. Some churches look around and think that maybe they can change the setting a little bit; let the kids play their guitars every now and then. Perhaps they shouldn’t get so uptight when the pastor wears sandals or blue jeans in the office instead of a coat and tie. And you know, they think to themselves, there are some female pastors that aren’t that bad; maybe we should think about that again.
But no matter how hard such churches seek to change, they hold on harder to what they have and they still miss the point. It isn’t the stuff on the surface that counts; it is the stuff underneath, the stuff in the soul that matters the most.
When I started preparing to enter the teaching profession, I watched a movie about a sculptor carving a statue. When asked what was being carved, the sculptor essentially responded that she didn’t know yet; the stone would tell her what to carve. The problem is that if one misreads the story in the stone, the stone is wasted. Now, I see and hear too many people today who have that attitude when it comes to Christianity. It is literally carved in stone and it cannot be changed.
But if we use the analogy of the clay, as described in Jeremiah, we know that until the clay is fired in the kiln, you can work the clay over and over again until you get it the way it is supposed to come out. When Paul writes to his friend Philemon with regard to Onesimus, it is not to challenge the system. In fact, Paul is working well within the system but he is also pushing the boundaries of the system.
In effect Paul is challenging Philemon to find a way to create a better solution than the one in place. It is to take the clay and make a better pot out of the clay than what is being considered. It is to see beyond the moment, to see what might be, not what is.
We are reminded that when the church was in its earliest stages, it was thought that one had to be Jewish before one could be Christian. Now, in part, this makes sense. Those who began the early church were Jewish and they were raised within the framework of Judaism and Jewish law. The Scriptures were clear and there were to be no questions; if you want to follow Christ, you must first be a Jew.
But such laws, such ideas would have effectively barred many Gentiles from ever becoming Christians. If the early disciples had not seen beyond the words of the Scripture and the years and years of tradition to see what God wanted from us, then it was most likely that we would not be Christians today. God called on the members of the early church to move beyond their comfort zone, to move beyond the moment and stop saying “hold on now” and welcome those whom God had already embraced.
You have heard me speak of Clarence Jordan and his Cotton Patch Gospels, his translation of the New Testament from Greek into words of the South. But before he even started on that project, he was involved in a greater application of the Gospel and its meaning for life today, the Koinonia Farm in Georgia.
The story in Acts 2: 43 – 47 and Acts 4: 32 – 37 of the communal life of the early disciples, where the members of the early church shared all that they owned with everyone else, became Jordan’s sounding board for an expression of Christian love and sharing. The Farm began as a fellowship that sought to imitate the early Christian community of “holding all things in common.” (From the introduction to The Cotton Patch Version of the Hebrews and the General Epistles by Edward A. McDowell, Jr.)
Koinonia, founded in the late 1940s, was one of the first attempts at integration in the Deep South. As such, it was the target of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. Clarence Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some of the civil actions against the Klan.
The conversation between the two brothers speaks of the conversation that must have followed Jesus’ words in the Gospel.
Robert Jordan refused to help his brother claiming that it would hurt his political aspirations (he would later become a Georgia state senator and then justice on the State Supreme Court) and that to represent an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and that he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.
Clarence noted that he, too, would lose everything. To which Robert said that it was different for Clarence.
Clarence then challenged his brother. He reminded him that they both joined the church on the same day and that when the preacher asked if they had accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different in their situations.
Robert’s response was to say that he followed Jesus up to a point. And was that point the foot of the Cross, asked Clarence. Robert said that he would go to the cross but that he would not be crucified. Clarence said that Robert should go back to his church and tell them that he was only an admirer of Jesus, not a disciple.
I don’t have what Robert’s exact words were but they surely included “hold on, now. If everyone who felt like I do were to do what you suggest, then we would not have much of a church.” Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church to go to. In the end, Robert Jordan would become a disciple and work for the betterment of society. (Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs – Saints and their stories by James C. Howell)
So, here we are, hearing Jesus’ words once again to cast off all that we are and begin anew. And we hear so many people say that we should hold on to what we have right now, to stand and admire what Jesus has done but not do anything which threatens what we have.
But if we hold on to what we have today, what will we have tomorrow? And how will the Gospel have any meaning if we do not work for tomorrow? How will the Gospel have any meaning if we stay where we are, holding on to what we have? To hold on to what we have is the sensible thing, the practical thing.
But God’s grace offers us a better opportunity than whatever we have. It is the potter remolding the clay so that the new pot is better than the old. It is the freedom that comes when one goes beyond the artificial boundaries that society seeks to impose.
The opportunity to begin anew is before us. Yes, the road is long, hard, and often dusty. Yes, it will cost more than we are perhaps prepared to spend. But, what lies at the end of the road, beyond the Cross, is far better than anything we have right now. Shall we hold on to what we have now or shall we let go and reach for the Hand of God stretched out for us? The choice is yours today.