I was at the Bellvale United Methodist Church, 41 Iron Forge Road, Warwick, NY 10990 (service starts at 9:15 am) and Sugar Loaf United Methodist Church, 1387 Kings Highway, Chester, NY 10918 (service starts at 11 am) this morning.
The Scriptures for this Sunday, July 31, 2011, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, are Genesis 32: 22- 31; Romans 9: 1 – 5; and Matthew 14: 13 – 21
I spent the better part of the week trying to come up with some humorous opening that would allow me to address what I read in the Scripture readings for today. But the troubles of the world and the country would not let that happen. There are some, I am sure, that would like it if the sermon were light-hearted and somehow allowed us to escape what is transpiring right now but I think that this is one of those times when we have to look at what is happening and ask ourselves “where is the church; where is God in all of this discussion?”
When you look at the Old Testament reading and you know that Jacob is struggling with God, you have to wonder if that is not where we are today. Are we not struggling with the idea of who we are as a society and what our responsibilities are? Last week I was told that Pastor Ernie had spent two weeks talking about the feeding of the 5,000 and that I needed to think about what I was going to say. I would hope that one thing that you learned was that more than 5,000 were fed in that first group and more than 4,000 were fed in the second group.
The one thing that we need to be aware of is that only the adult men were counted; women and children were marginalized and placed on the edges of society. Did not the disciples try to keep the children away from Jesus that one time only to be told that they should let the children come to Him? How many times did a woman, outcast from society, seek to touch Jesus only to be pushed away by the disciples?
The one thing that annoyed the political and religious establishment more than anything else was the fact that Jesus associated Himself with the very aspects of society that they wanted no part of. And what is the discussion in today’s society?
There are some who will not like what I am about to say for they will say that I am interjecting politics into religion. But the root word for politics, I believe, comes from the same root as people. And if the Bible is about nothing else, it is about people and the relationship between people.
If you read through the Bible and every time you encounter a passage that speaks about the poor, the disenfranchised, or the forgotten people and cut that passage out of the Bible, pretty soon you will have nothing left. The Bible will fall apart.
The main theme of the Bible is the relationship between people and what we must do to ensure that each other is okay. We have forgotten that particular point.
We have gotten so hung up on the finer points of the law that we have forgotten what the spirit of the law was meant to accomplish. Paul speaks to the Romans of trying to heal the rift between the Jews and Christ, of being willing to give up his own salvation if it would mean that the Jews would be saved. I am pretty sure that there are some who will take this passage to its extreme meaning but I trust that I am not one of them.
I think back to when Paul was Saul and it was his mission, his goal to prosecute and eliminate all of the early Christians. He did so because he saw what they were doing as a violation of the law and strict obedience to the law was the standard for salvation in his day. He remembered his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and being asked why he sought to persecute Christ. I think (and this is only my thought) that he remembered that he was focused on the law and not the spirit when he lamented the loss of his compatriots. If they were not so totally set on the law as the standard, perhaps they would be saved as well.
And I put that thought into the context of today. There are so many people today who have a mindset that comes from those days in Israel some two thousand years ago. Poverty, homelessness, illness – all are symptoms of sinful life. Wealth and happiness are the signs of a good and righteous life. If you were born to sinful parents, then you would lead a life of sin and despair; if your parents were rich and successful, then yours would be a life of wealth, success, and happiness as well. And this attitude did not disappear after Christ was crucified.
It was the same attitude that drove John Wesley to seek a better way. Wesley would begin to question the attitude of many in the established church, especially when it came to poverty and class distinction. Both John and Charles Wesley struggled with the idea of what it took to be saved and what it meant to be saved.
The catch is that we are all sinners, so wealth, success and happiness cannot be signs of a righteous life, no matter what some smooth talking television pastor may say. It wasn’t about who you were but who you would be.
We read the Old Testament reading for today and we marvel at the fact that the man who wrestled with Jacob had to resort to trickery to defeat Jacob. Yet, somehow we know that this was God and God should not have to resort to trickery to win a wrestling match. But what I think we have to realize is that there are times when we are the worthy opponent for God, because we are willing to do those tasks that He sets before us.
If we think we can beat God on our own, then I think we had better think again. We cannot defeat God. But if we are up to the tasks that God sets before us, then it will be a draw, just as it was for Jacob. But we must also realize that, just like Jacob became Israel and a new nation began, we will not be the same person that we were when the struggle began.
John and Charles Wesley both struggled with the idea of what it meant to be saved. All they did before what we call the Aldersgate moment was meaningless and it did nothing to change their lives or the lives of the people they met. When the two brothers came back from Georgia, they returned in failure and despair. I don’t think that many people today know that on that night when John Wesley went to the meeting at Aldersgate, his brother Charles was at home dying. That is how devastated Charles felt because of their failure in Georgia. And at that moment when John felt his heart strangely warmed and he gained the assurance that God did truly love him, so too did Charles begin to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit renewing his life as well. It was that empowerment that provided the spark that would enable the Methodist Revival to take hold in England and in America.
We live in a world where there are those who insist on a life of laws and regulations. It defines their days; it allows them to define who may enter their world and who must stay out. It is a world that says that military might is the only way to insure peace; it is a world that says security must be maintained at all cost. In this world of laws and regulations, it is believed that people are unemployed because they want to be. And if I have plenty of food on my table, why should I worry about those who go hungry every night? And if I have a place to comfortably sleep each night, why should I worry about those who sleep outside or in a shelter if they are lucky? Those who do not have homes to sleep in or food to eat are too lazy to find housing or food. That is what it is like to live a life of laws and regulations.
The other day I stopped by my home church on an errand. And I was asked where it was in the Bible that Jesus spoke of doing something for the least of these. The answer is Matthew 25: 31 – 42. The person who asked was involved in the Methodist and Friends Build, an off-shoot of Habitat for Humanity. Someone had apparently asked why this group builds a home and one response comes from the passage from Matthew. When the day that Jesus returns does come, He is going to want to know what you have done for him. When you lead a life of laws and regulations, it becomes easy to marginalize the least of those in society so that you do not see them. And then, when Jesus asks, you can only reply, “when did we see you hungry or cold, naked or ill, lonely or oppressed?”
We are struggling with God right now. It is a struggle that causes Paul to cry out in pain and anguish that he would give up his salvation if it meant that the people who say they are God’s people would be saved. It is a struggle when we stop to think about the number of people who go hungry each day because funds for food banks are being cut; it is a struggle when we stop to think about the number of people who have no place to stay or are sick because society doesn’t feel that housing programs or medical care are important.
And the disciples came to Jesus and asked who was going to feed the multitudes? And he looked at them and basically said that you all are going to do it. See what you can find and we will go from there. At that time, the disciples still lived a life that was according to the law and regulations (though they were beginning to stretch those boundaries) and they could not see a solution other than to send the people away. But then they saw what happened when you lived in the Spirit and how much was left after everyone, not just the men but the women and the children, was feed.
This is the struggle we have today. The question I posed when I first began this message still holds, “Who sits at your table?” It would seem to me to be an easy choice. If no one sits at your table, how can Christ be a part of your life? When you allow Christ to be a part of your life, then you must be prepared to let everyone, those whom you know and those whom you do not know, to share your table, your life. If you are not willing to do that, I don’t think that you will win in the struggle with God. But if you let Christ into your life, then, like Jacob who became Israel, you will be a new person and many great things will come.
It is the question you must answer.