I got the call to preach on a Friday night (ah, the life of a lay speaker and a circuit rider). I will be preaching at the Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY (location of church) at 9:30 and then traveling down the road to its partner, Red Hook United Methodist Church (Location of church) to preach at 11:00. You all are invited to either service (or both).
The Scriptures for this Sunday are Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4; 2: 1- 4; 2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 4, 11 – 12; and Luke 19: 1 – 10.
In one of the first sermons I ever preached I pointed out that if John Wesley were alive today, he would be very confused as to what century he was in. (Yes, I know that he would also be very old).
He would look around at cars and planes and marvel how easy it would be to get from place to place. He would look at computers and cell phones and the various combinations of computers and cell phones and be thoroughly amazed. But I think that he would see ways to utilize each of the technologies that did not exist in the mid-18th century to better spread the Gospel message.
But he would also look around and wonder if he was, in fact, even in the 21st century. After all, he would still see countries building empires and using military might to maintain control in the world. He would see corporations that still oppressed the working and lower classes. He would see individuals denied educational opportunities and discrimination because of a person’s gender or race. He would see drug abuse and alcoholism reminiscent of 18th century England.
He would see a church indifferent to the needs of the people, where the words spoken and read every Sunday have no meaning the rest of the week. He would people proclaim loudly and proudly how Christian they were but whose lifestyle was more like a Pharisee than a sinner. He would see a church where the word sanctuary implies protection from the outside world. He would have to wonder what happened to these people who called themselves Methodist.
When you consider the works that were done during the Methodist Revival of the mid-18th century (schools for children, health clinics for those who had no health care, credit unions for those who did not have access to the banks, efforts to give equality to women and children, work to end slavery and discrimination) and you look around at what we are doing today, I cannot help but think that John Wesley would be very confused.
He would wonder what happened to the health care initiatives that he pursued in London and also wonder why the poor, the lower and middle classes were still at the mercy of the rich and powerful.
And why shouldn’t he be confused. Against the backdrop of today’s form of Christianity, with what we believe and think Christianity is and what it should be, we are see the world as a forest but we can’t see the trees and we dare not venture into the depths and darkness of the forest. We know that there are problems in there, problems that we ought to deal with but we would rather ignore them and stay in our own safe shelter. Or we would much rather someone else solve the problem and neither bother us or ask to help in any way, shape, or form. We have focused so much on the “big picture” that we no longer see the little parts of the same picture.
I think about what Habakkuk might think if he were alive today (and yes, I know, he would be really, really old). We live in a world in which people declare that that the Bible is truth. They will also tell you that the truth of the Bible allows them to plunder the environment, espouse hate in all forms, to discriminate against someone if you don’t like something about them and allows them to gather wealth without thought of source or result. The attitudes and mindset of too many people today speak to an indifference and ignorance of God’s Word.
The message of the Bible speaks to the human condition and, many times, to society’s indifference to the suffering of others. In that sense, I think that Habakkuk’s words, first spoken so many years ago, are still true today.
We have heard the words of the prophets but, like the people of Israel three thousand years ago, have ignored them. We are more and more like the Pharisees and scribes who complained when Jesus told Zaccaheus that He would have dinner with him that night. The church today seems more concerned with appearances than it is with its mission in the world. The church today clearly sees the forest but cannot identify the trees.
There are people today, and I believe that the number increases with each passing hour, who are beginning to see that the ignorance and hatred, the indifference and discrimination, the violence and anger that is so much a part of this world today will not work. But they see a church that stands by passively and does nothing and wonder what can be done.
And I know that there are those in the church today who understand that the church must do something but cannot see a way for anything to be done inside a church trapped in a collective mindset of caution and unwillingness to do what they have been called to do.
There is, out in the Methodist world, a new report entitled “A Call to Action”. It speaks to what some in the United Methodist Church feel the denomination should be doing. I will not make any judgment at this time because I haven’t read the report. But I was intrigued by John Meunier’s thoughts on this report (“Call to Action: A rope of sand”), especially in some words that John Wesley wrote in his letter “Plain account of the People called Methodists”.
There were those in 18th century England who basically saw the Methodist revival as creating a schism in the Church of England. Those in the Church of England felt that those who were called themselves Methodists were separating from the church. But Wesley argued that those who called themselves Methodist felt that they were not a part of the church nor did they feel that they had any sort of connection to the church. Wesley wrote
If it be said, “But there are some true Christians in the parish, and you destroy the Christian fellowship between these and them;” I answer, That which never existed, cannot be destroyed. But the fellowship you speak of never existed. Therefore it cannot be destroyed. Which of those true Christians had any such fellowship with these? Who watched over them in love? Who marked their growth in grace? Who advised and exhorted them from time to time? Who prayed with them and for them, as they had need? This, and this alone, is Christian fellowship: But, alas! where is it to be found? Look east or west, nor or south; name what parish you please: Is this Christian fellowship there? Rather, are not the bulk of the parishioners a mere rope of sand? What Christian connexion is there between them? What intercourse in spiritual things? What watching over each other’s souls? What bearing of one another’s burdens? What a mere jest is it then, to talk so gravely of destroying what never was! The real truth is just the reverse of this: We introduce Christian fellowship where it was utterly destroyed. And the fruits have been peace, joy, love, and zeal for every good word and work. (“Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” in The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 9:259).
I would agree with John that Wesley’s words, written in defense of Methodists and the beginning Methodist Revival,
“a much more stinging description of the state of too many of our United Methodist congregations? Are not many of us little more than ropes of sand – not fit for helping anyone climb to the higher reaches of Christian life and love? (from “Call to Action: A rope of sand”)
So there we are, like Zaccaheus, desperately trying to find Jesus in a forest of people and wondering how it can be done.
We heard Habakkuk’s words of despair this morning, of describing a world of indifference and wondering how things could change. We also heard God tell Habakkuk that there would be a vision and that he, Habakkuk, would write it down for all to see. He was to describe that vision very clearly so that the people will see it and know what it is. The role Habakkuk was to play was to make sure that people knew what that vision was.
Perhaps we should take a clue from Zaccaheus and find another way to see Jesus. I know that it is an old cliché but we need some sort of alternative thinking, some outside-the-box type of thoughts. If people cannot see Jesus, perhaps we need to find new ways of showing His presence in this world.
If we are to regain our vision of the mission of the church, we may very well have to climb the tree like Zaccaheus did and go out on a limb. We need to leave the safety of the sanctuary and do things that reflect the message of the Gospel and, in our case, the history of the Methodist Revival. It may mean that we look around our neighborhood and our community and see what God is calling us to do.
When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, one of the first things that he did was tell them how he describes what they were doing to others that he has met. The words that we read today, the words that speak of the love of God, Christ, and community amongst the people of Thessalonica, are words that reflect what was transpiring in the early Methodists societies as well. There was a community of faith being built, it was a community of faith that involved everyone and did not exclude anyone.
The United Methodist Church is at a point in time where its future is cloudy and uncertain. It can continue as it has been doing and it will die. Or it can find its soul in what it once was and be renewed. And in its own renewal it can again be a force of change, of hope and promise in the world around it.
But it is a matter of seeing the trees instead of the forest, of seeing the opportunities that exist, even if we do not know that they exist. It means doing things because we are called to do things instead of doing things because they are expected to be done.
If you will allow me a moment of personal privilege, I want to speak of such an opportunity that begins this Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church in Newburgh, New York.
This past summer, my wife helped with the Vacation Bible School at Grace. One of the things that she observed was the number of neighborhood kids who came to VBS hungry. I don’t have the actual numbers before me but it would be safe to say that 75% of the students in the Newburgh elementary schools receive breakfast before school during the school year. But these meals do not exist during the summer or when school is not in session. What do they do on weekends and during the summer months?
Now, just as I hope my ministry is found in the Word and its presentation, my wife’s ministry is found in the gardens of the church and the kitchen. It has been said that when she does coffee hour after the second service on Sunday, reservations are required.
But her thoughts were about the children of the neighborhood and what she could do. And out of those thoughts came what is now called “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.” This will be a feeding ministry for the children of the neighborhood on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It will not be a breakfast created by an institution but with love and care, as if Jesus were coming to eat with us. It will be a meal cooked with love and care because it is what is expected of us when we say we are Christians and Methodists.
I brought a few of the flyers with information about the program with me today.
I invite you to be a part of this program in whatever way you feel called to respond. Perhaps you will come this Saturday and following Saturdays to help and possibly begin your own program. Perhaps your presence will be in other ways.
This is not the only feeding ministry at Grace. Our youth, along with the youth of several other local churches, have begun a feeding ministry of their own on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month. This ministry was developed on their own initiative as well and speaks to the notion that we Methodists have been and are a part of the community.
There are times when the solution to a problem is easily seen and easily resolved. But other times the forest of humanity seems to block our vision and we have to climb a tree in order to find a solution.
It worked for Zaccaheus and he found salvation. I think it is time that we see the trees in the forest and find the one that allows us to see our path, our salvation.