Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost. I was at Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY this Sunday (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 22: 1 – 14, Romans 5: 12 – 23, and Matthew 10: 42 – 46.
How many of you have ever gone on a cross-country trip? Were you the driver in the front or the child in the back seat? Have you ever been both (obviously at different times in your life)? I suppose that the most often uttered words from the children in the back seat of a car, most often yelled, are "Are we there yet?" This question, of immense philosophical meaning, is often followed, especially if the length of the trip is really long (say across town) by the most memorable of lines uttered by one sibling to another, "Mom, he touched me!"
Each one of us probably has a story or two that we could tell about a road trip we took with our family, with assorted tales of who did what and where it all happened. We know that the Bible, especially the early chapters, is the story of families moving from this place to that place and perhaps returning home.
But I sometimes get the impression that I am not supposed to read the scripture passages with any sort of feeling or think about what I am reading. The words were written two thousand years ago and they are not to be messed with. But if the Bible is to be an expression of who we are and how we got to this place, how can we not read the scripture without feeling the anguish, the joy, the excitement or the bewilderment that comes with the words?
A lot of questions should be running through our mind when we read the story in Genesis for today. What must Abraham have taught when God told him to take Isaac to Mount Moriah? Would he have been thinking of those times when he took Isaac with him to work, teaching him everything he could because he feared that there was not enough time in the world to teach him everything possible. After all, Abraham was an old man and nature dictates that the young shall bury their parents rather than the parents burying their young. Were there not tears in his eyes when he told Isaac that God would provide the sheep for the burnt offering? Isaac was his son, the fulfillment of the covenant made with God so many years before. He had already cast his other son Ishmael out into the desert when Sarah thought he, showed more interest in Ishmael’s mother than her. He may not have been crying on the outside but surely his heart was crying; one son lost in the desert, another son about to be sacrificed just to prove his faithfulness and love for God. What type of God demands this type of faith? What type of God would promise that his, Abraham’s descendants, would be too numerous to count and yet take away the children that would begin those families?
And we must ponder the words of Isaac as well. Would Isaac have tagged along with his father everywhere they went, asking questions and learning things? Are not the words that Isaac said along the way, asking his father where is the sheep, words born of the same curiosity, the same desire for knowledge that we have expressed on our own journeys? And can we not completely understand what Abraham so wanted to say to his son as each step up the mountain brought Abraham closer and closer to the test that God had imposed on him. Was there a trembling in his words when he told the servants to wait for them while they attended to the sacrifice? The writer of Genesis uses the plural in saying we will come back to you. But Abraham, and only Abraham, knew or thought he knew that only he, Abraham, would be coming back. Surely, he must have trembled when he spoke those words.
The hard answer to all of these questions is, of course, it was part of the covenant between Abraham and God. A covenant is a contract between two parties, an agreement that states what one party will do in return for what the second party will do. Abraham agreed to follow God and God would give him descendants that far outnumbered the stars in the sky. God never said exactly how He would do that nor was it clear to what extent Abraham would have to follow God. In this story, we know what God expects.
The problem today is that not many people are willing to put themselves into the story, let alone even think of what such a story would mean if it were they who were asked to do something such as sacrifice their only child.
We don’t see God in those terms. We see God as one who answers our prayers and gets us out of the trouble that we made. We do not seek this demanding God; we don’t want this demanding God. We do not sing of an awesome God but an easy God. We only want a God whom we can call upon when we need Him, not a God who will call upon us at the most inconvenient and inopportune time.
We live in a society today where our affirmation of a faith is not published in the back of the hymnal but in how we lead our lives. It is an affirmation that
I am a Christian but I don’t think that everyone is entitled to health care;
I am a Christian but I don’t think we need to worry about the homeless or the poor;
I am a Christian but it is alright for me to proclaim that wealth is a sign of righteousness and the poor are to be blamed for their own poverty;
I am a Christian but it is not the church’s role to help the homeless, the poor, and the needy because they will only steal anything that isn’t tied down.
I am a Christian but it is alright for me to tell you how to live your life while I am free to do whatever I please;
I am a Christian but I cannot answer the question of what would Jesus do today;
I am a Christian but it is alright for my pastor to call for the death of national and international leaders from the pulpit.
(First published in "When Are We Going to Learn?")
I don’t think that we have truly understood the nature of the covenant with Abraham, the covenant made with Moses, the covenant made with David, or the one expressed in Jeremiah. If we had, I don’t think that many of us would be in church today. We see these covenants more as promises; promises that God made with us, not the other way around.
We understand what Paul is writing, how through Christ’s sacrifice we have been saved, and we think that is it. Somehow, we think that by coming to church on Sunday and going through the motions, that everything will be okay. In one sense, I suppose that would be true. For no matter what we do tomorrow or throughout the coming week that belies everything we said and did today, if we are in church next Sunday, then we will have the opportunity to make it all right again. But we don’t always have the guarantee that we will be here next Sunday.
But the covenant between God and us is not a one-way promise. It contains the expectation that there are things that we will do as well. We are called to be Christ’s disciples, Christ’s followers. Last week, the Gospel reading spoke of the Great Commission, to go out into the world and make disciples of all the people of the world.
Now, I must admit, from probably the very first time I ever heard that Scripture reading, I had problems with it. Not so much the actual words but how people implemented it.
It wasn’t the invitation that Jesus offered each of his disciples but a commandment. And it wasn’t so much a commandment but an order. Now, I grew up as a military brat and I have always had trouble taking orders from others, especially those whose attitude is and was one that "I know what you need to do".
That’s the problem with being an officer’s son and grandson; there is a clear demarcation of authority and unless you can show me that you have that authority, then we are going to have problems with you telling me what to do. I also grew up in the South, so hearing that one had to follow Christ or expect to die was an essential part of the Sunday message.
But, as one who moved about and saw this country during the turbulent post-World War II times, and studying the message of Christ in Sunday School, I also saw a contradiction. How is that you can tell me what I must do when you don’t do it yourself? For every clergy who was for civil rights during that time, there were two or more who were opposed to civil rights and used the Bible to justify their opposition.
I could have left the church back then. After I graduated from high school in Tennessee, I went to college in Missouri, following a path that I had set before we moved back to the south. It would have been very easy for me to have left the church. The decision to go was now mine and I didn’t have my mother yelling at me to get ready so I could drive her and my siblings to Sunday School. But I continue to go because there were something else driving me, not what my mother said or what my peers might have been doing (as if that were ever a reason).
I came to Christ, not because I was ordered to do so, but because I sought Him out. I sought Him out because I wanted to know how, in a world that sought to resolve its problems through hatred, exclusion, and violence, a God could exist. And I did what I hope that you do; I studied and explored. And I will admit that I have done more of this exploration and study in the past few years than I did when I was in confirmation class. I suppose that it goes with the territory when you decide to be a lay speaker in the United Methodist church.
I discovered that the word disciple does not automatically mean follower and that my role is not to force you to follow Christ. When I discovered the Cotton Patch Gospels, a wonderful translation of the New Testament from the original Greek by Dr. Clarence Jordan, I found another meaning. The Cotton Patch Gospels are not your typical translation of the Bible but one in which the places became towns in Georgia and the people were people of the South. Jesus’ parables became the stories of a Southern preacher.
From Clarence Jordan’s translations, I learned that to be a disciple was to be a student as much as a follower. To be a disciple is to show others what it means to follow Christ, by thought, word and deed.
And you cannot show others what it means to follow Christ if you are not willing to lead that life yourself. Clarence Jordan was raised as a Baptist in rural Georgia during the early 20th century. Like perhaps so many others, he began to question the nature of a church where one could sing songs that "Jesus loves the little children; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight" on Sunday yet which supported the discrimination and harassment of blacks and other non-whites outside the church walls.
Dr. Jordan would follow his faith and establish the Koinonia Farm in the late 1940s. Naturally, the establishment of an integrated farm in the Deep South did not go over well with other residents of the county, some of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their disagreement with Dr. Jordan was neither social nor civil. But it speaks to the nature of faith that the Klan has virtually died while the Koinonia Farm is still going strong today.
That’s not to say it was an easy going. To combat some of the early attacks on the farm Clarence Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some civil actions against the Klan. His brother, a rising star in the Georgia political scene (he would later become a Georgia state senator and justice on the State Supreme Court) refused, claiming it would harm his political aspirations. He said such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.
Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence (though I don’t see how).
Clarence Jordan then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.
Robert replied that he followed Jesus up to a point. Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross. Robert replied that he would go to the cross but (ah, another one of those "buts") that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but an admirer and he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.
Robert replied that if everyone who felt like he did were to do what Clarence suggested, there wouldn’t be much of a church. Clarence asked if Robert even had a church to which he could go. Later, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society. (First published in "The Gifts We Received")
This is the covenant that we have today. We no longer live in the law, as the people who first encountered Christ did in the Galilee. We live in the fulfillment of the law. We, wretched as we may be, have been saved by God’s grace.
I hope that each one of you knows that moment when you understood what it meant to be saved. For John Wesley, it was that moment of assurance that we have come to call the Aldersgate moment. For Paul, it was that encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus when his life was changed from Saul to Paul. For John Newton, it was on a storm-tossed boat in the Atlantic when God called him to account for his life and what he had done with it. Each of us has that moment; some have encountered it, others will. Perhaps I came to that understanding in the chapel at 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville, Missouri, during the spring of 1969.
I sat with Reverend Marvin Fortel that day and reviewed the communion ritual. There is a line in the old ritual that reminds us that we are not worthy of gathering the crumbs from God’s table. It is by God’s grace and God’s grace alone that we can even think to sit at His table. Naturally to a world-wise and immensely smart 18-year old college sophomore, this revelation was quite shocking. I was doing good things, I was working to end racial discrimination in this country, and I was fighting against the war in Viet Nam. How did this all not open the door to heaven for me?
What you do means nothing if you have not accepted Jesus Christ; nothing you do means a thing if you are without Christ. You can do all the good things (and I hope you don’t stop) but don’t expect the rewards of heaven. It doesn’t work that way.
And when you say that you are a Methodist, expect more to follow. To say that you are Methodist is to say that you know your life is not perfect and that you will now begin to work towards that perfection. Now you begin the work, the work that shows the world that you are a disciple of Christ.
Understand that you are never called to do something that you are incapable of doing. Understand that what you are called to do may be something that you don’t even know yet. We are not called to be martyrs for Christ; we are called to be witnesses (funny how the word martyr actually means witness). We are called to the Cross and then beyond.
And sooner or later, you have to respond to the call. If the people are hungry, what will you do to feed them? If the people are sick, what will you do to help them find healthcare? If the people are homeless, will you be there to build the houses? If the people are oppressed and imprisoned, will you find a way to free them? It is not that hard to give a thirsty person a drink; it is hard to say find the water yourself.
God reminds us that He gave His Only Son so that we would have this opportunity today. What are you willing to give in return?