This was the message I presented at Grace Memorial United Methodist Church (Independence, KS) and Sycamore (KS) United Methodist Church for Laity Sunday, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 25 September 1995. Grace Memorial was my home church at the time and it was a joint charge, so I gave the message at both services that morning. I used Jeremiah 8: 18 – 19: 1 and Luke 16: 1 – 13 as the basis for the message.
We are a nation about to enter a new century. But while this should be a time of great adventure and promise, it almost seems like we are afraid to enter into that new century. Now, it is only natural to look at the future with uncertainty because, while we can make estimates, we have no means of really knowing what is actually going to happen. But today, the fear of tomorrow seems greater than ever before. And I would hazard a guess that this fear arises from our own insecurity, our own inability to cope with the problems of today.
It is almost like we see the future in front of us but slipping away from our grasp. Our country is becoming divided by politics, economy, and location. Each region, each group of people cry that they are being shut out and ignored. I sense in the political rhetoric today that some groups want to turn the clock back, feeling that will return the better times.
Instead of boldly going into the new century, it is almost as if we are being dragged there, kicking and screaming, by the slow march of time. The future offers us a wonderful present but instead of anticipating the day we get to open this present, we actually fear what is inside the wrapping.
The prophet Jeremiah saw the future for his country and cried out because he knew there would be destruction. The passage read earlier speaks of the heartbreak Jeremiah felt on the destruction and exile of the Israelites from the Promised Land. Jeremiah was moved to mourning and tears because of the certain destruction of Jerusalem. What God had intended for the people of Israel, what God had willed for Jerusalem and the Temple — all of it was about to fall before Nebuchadnezzar’s swords and torches. Later on, the people of Israel would also cry because they knew the pain of exile and that it had been foretold but they had not listened.
The Israelites were beset on account of their sins. Whatever hope there was in the bright days of summer had ended; there was no hope of salvation, nothing to save them from their certain end. The Lord was not in Zion; the king was not in her. The people cried to God, but it was too late. There was no balm in Gilead, no salve equal to the wound; no doctor, even to heal what ailed them. The poor people suffered and no one could help. (Thomas R. Steagald, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, 1995 Edition, page 317 – 318)
In telling the tale of the dishonest foreman, Jesus made one simple point. When you seek rewards by less than your best effort or through unethical means, the rewards you receive reflect what you put in. The people listening to Jesus that day must have asked themselves "How could the foreman expect his "friends" to help him when he had cheated his boss? What person is going to hire this person, knowing he cheated his previous employer? The last line in the story made it very clear, when you serve someone other than God, your rewards are limited to the present time.
And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters’ for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." (Luke 16: 10 – 13)
The same is true today. We clamor for things to be done right, we seek a return to a righteous status, we want what is right but we are not willing to pay the price. It seems like our solutions for today’s problems are like the foreman’s solutions in the Gospel reading today. Just like the foreman, we would rather cut our losses and hope that things come out for the better. Rather than trying to better our lives through our own actions and the use of our abilities, we seek to blame others for our difficulties.
We choose not to act like Solomon but like the other kings of Israel who sought power. Solomon, when faced with the immensity of tasks in front of him went to God and asked for wisdom.
Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, though I am a mere child, unskilled in leadership. Here I am in the midst of your people, the people of your choice, too many to be numbered or counted. Grant your servant, therefore, a heart with skill to listen, so that he may govern your people justly and distinguish good from evil. Otherwise who is equal to the task of governing this great people of yours?
The Lord was well pleased that this was what Solomon had asked for, and God said, "Because you have asked for this, and not for long life, or for wealth, or for the lives of your enemies, but have asked for discernment in administering justice, I grant your request; I give you a heart so wise and so understanding that there has been none like you before your time, nor will there be after you. What is more, I give you those things for which you did not ask, such wealth and glory as no king of your time can match. If you conform to my ways and observe my ordinances and commandments, as your father David did, I will also give you long life." (1 Kings 3: 7 – 14)
We know these words of Solomon and God’s reply to his request. But we have chosen not to listen but rather to take what seems the easy path. Our children have been told that they will never be successful unless they wear certain clothes. Television shows today sell an idea about success that is far from reality. We have come to the point where mediocrity is acceptable. Many political candidates, in an effort to get elected, use fear and intimidation as their primary means for getting votes. It seems that politicians prefer to blame the past rather than offer hopes for the future. And, in this environment, where critics cry about the moral decay of the country and blame the government and the media, let me point out that we have allowed this to occur.
There was another time in this nation’s past when the nation was split apart. But this split was more physical than spiritual. It too was a time of adventure. The west was opening up and the opportunities were countless. People saw the way west as a means to new hope and opportunities. The country had also grown faster than the technology of its time. There was no way for the people in the east to easily communicate with the people in California. There was a solution but it was one which required the utmost effort from all those involved, the Pony Express.
The Pony Express was created as a means of getting the mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. It worked until it was replaced by a new technology, the telegraph. Potential riders of the Pony Express needed to be young, good horsemen, accustomed to outdoor life, able to endure severe hardship and fatigue, and fearless. The ideal age was set at twenty, but a number considerably younger actually were employed. Only those of good moral character, not addicted to drink, were eligible. Upon employment, each rider signed an oath of loyalty to the company and was given a Bible. (Saddles and Spurs – The Pony Express Saga, Raymond W. Settle and Mary Lund Settle, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1972, page 42)
There are voices crying out in the wilderness even today. We hear them every day. Jeremiah cried out in the wilderness for salvation. Jeremiah cried out for someone to heal the country. But he knew there was no one. Our country is split apart again. But the split in the country today is a spiritual one and riders are again needed.
Now, if you did not know better, you might have thought that what I just read was a description of Methodist circuit riders one hundred years earlier. Circuit riders, I believe, are unique to the history of this country and were the response by the churches in England to the cries of a people seeking the word of God.
From the Minutes of the Bristol Conference, 1771, we read
Our brethren in America call aloud for help. Who are willing to go over and help them?
Five were willing. The two appointed were Francis Asbury & Richard Wright.
We have been given the ultimate in gifts, the promise of everlasting life. We know that the future does offer hope. We know the promise God made to us is still true. Our life has been laid out in terms of what we must do. Paul wrote to Timothy of the great promise God holds for all humanity.
For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human who gave himself a ransom for all. Our prayers during worship please God because He desires all humanity to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth. In our acts of worshipful prayer, we truly become salt of the earth and light of the world. We become agents of God’s plan for reconciliation. (1 Timothy 2: 4)
It falls upon us, as it did Paul, to provide the leadership necessary for the coming times. We must at this time decide what we are going to do. Shall we seek to be the workers that God wants or shall we sit by and watch the world go its own way? The Gospel message today is very clear. Do we work to our ability, gaining the rewards that come or do we seek to just get by, hoping that in doing so, we will get enough to insure our survival?
We are not asked to be circuit riders; just workers for Christ. Today the song "There is a Balm in Gilead" is not the painful wail of Jeremiah but the cry of triumphant hope. In the verses of this hymn, we hear the answer to our prayers, what our role is to be. We do not have to preach like Peter, we do not have to pray like Paul; all we have to do is tell the love of Jesus and be witnesses to the fact that He died for us all. The advertisement may say "Riders Wanted" but the only qualifications for this position are that you hear Jesus calling you today and that you be willing to be a servant of the Lord.