I am preaching at Long Ridge United Methodist Church (Danbury, CT) and Georgetown United Methodist Church (Wilton, CT) on Sunday, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Romans 12: 1 – 8, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20. The service at Long Ridge starts at 9:15; the service at Georgetown begins at 11. You are welcome to attend.
I began preparing this message a little over a month ago. When I began looking at the three Scripture readings for today, I came to the conclusion that the title of the message should be “Doing the Right Thing.” In the passage from Exodus that is part of the lectionary for this morning, we are told that the Pharaoh has commanded that all new born baby boys be killed. The mid-wives are more afraid of what God might say than they are what the Pharaoh could ever do, so they create a story that explains their failure to follow the Pharaoh’s orders.
Later in the same passage, we read of the birth of Moses and his adoption by the Pharaoh’s daughter. And thus begins the story of the return of the Israelites to the Promised Land. From a historical standpoint, the mid-wives did the right thing. But how do the actions of some mid-wives some three thousand or so years ago pertain to us today?
Paul, in writing to the Romans, writes of what it is we are to do as followers of Christ. And, at least for me, this is where it becomes interesting.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to the Henderson Settlement in Kentucky. I accompanied another adult and four of the youth from my home church for a week of volunteer work. Ours was one of three groups, one from the Ohio area and the other from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Each group worked on a number of assignments, generally fixing or repairing homes and buildings within the area of the Settlement. Some of the work was on the Settlement property; other assignments were in the surrounding countryside.
The Henderson Settlement is part of the Red Bird Missionary Conference. I would think that many people are aware of the Red Bird Mission, which is part of this unique conference of the United Methodist Church. I don’t have all the details with me but the work of the Missionary Conference is, I believe, supported in part by our apportionments. But much of the funding for the Conference, the Red Bird Mission itself, and the Henderson Settlement comes from individual gifts and tithes. In addition, much of the work done in and around the Settlement and elsewhere through the Conference is done by volunteer work.
The interesting thing is that some years ago I lived about two hours from Henderson and, while I knew of the Red Bird Mission, I knew nothing about the Red Bird Missionary Conference or even the existence of Henderson. But while I may not have been aware of either the Henderson Settlement, the Red Bird Mission, or the Red Bird Missionary Conference as they were, I was aware that the three counties of southeast Kentucky (Bell, Cumberland, and Letcher) are among some of the poorest counties in this country (the poverty line for a family of two adults and two children in Bell County where Henderson is located is $21,000 and the median income for the area is $22,000; you do the math.)
If for no other reason than to say to the individuals of that area of this country that they are not forgotten, there is a need for the presence of the United Methodist Church in that area of this country. Sometimes the way that you tell someone that they are not forgotten is to help them do things that they cannot always do on their own. And that is why I went to Henderson two weeks ago.
This was not a vacation trip nor was it done so that I could revisit a part of the country where I lived and served a lay minister. It was an opportunity to put into practice during the week the words said so many times on Sunday.
It was not a vacation by any means. If anything, it provided the opportunity for many individuals, both youth and adult, to experience what I have come to call “working Christianity”, of putting the words taught in church on Sunday into practice on Monday. And this was before I began to consider the words that I would put down for this message today.
While I was there in Henderson I had the opportunity to lead the morning devotions on Monday and Tuesday. Devotions at Henderson are held on the side of a hill overlooking a valley and three crosses (pictures of which are on the Henderson Settlement page on Facebook). On Monday, with those three crosses and the valley as a backdrop, I spoke of the 72 who were sent out on mission trips by Jesus and how they came back jubilant at what they had done.
I have seen that type of expression in the youth and adults who have gone on similar mission trips in the past few years. To go on a mission trip, to work for Christ and not get paid, to give up a week’s vacation time and know that it was not wasted has to have an impact on one’s life.
But when I have read the passage in the past from Mark about the 72, I always thought that the 12 disciples were part of that group. That meant that there were some 60 individuals who went on a mission trip, came back with the glow of success but were never heard from again. What did they do between that passage in Mark and the Resurrection? Did they continue the work that they did in their home town and region? I pointed out to the fifty or so adults and youth that were there on Monday morning that they too would go home and I hoped that they would continue the mission work that they began in the hills of Kentucky during a week in August (“Thoughts for a week in August”).
On Tuesday, I offered a story that I have told many times before. It was a story that caused me to think about who I was when I was a college student, what I was doing at that time and what it meant to say that I was a Christian.
When I was a college sophomore, I was active in the anti-war and civil rights movements on campus. I participated because I thought that it was the right thing to do. But I also thought that my participation in these activities, which I felt were for the common good of the people, would be the key to my getting into heaven. Marvin Fortel, my pastor at that time, pointed out doing good things, in whatever form they may take, will not guarantee my entry into heaven.
Only a true and honest acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior will allow the doors of heaven to open up. Now, I suppose this is why we have so many individuals who profess to be Christian but whose actions, words, thoughts, and deeds belie that very idea. They have professed an acceptance of Jesus Christ and therefore expect that the doors of heaven will swing wide open upon their arrival. But the manner in which they have made this profession, often times very publically, belie their actions. They are the ones that John the Baptist and Jesus Himself would call hypocrites. Their actions do not speak of the act of repentance that must also come. You cannot profess Jesus Christ on Sunday and then go out into the world on Monday and forget what you said the day before.
My trip to Henderson also confirmed something that I had long suspected was true. When I was 12, I lived in Montgomery, Alabama. One Sunday, my grandmother, who had come down from St. Louis to visit with us, went to church with us. We attended St. James Methodist Church (this was in 1963 before the merger). Somehow, as we were leaving the church that Sunday morning, Grandma Mitchell got separated from us. When we found her outside the church, we asked her how she got out and she pointed over to a gentleman and said, “That nice young man over there helped me.”
Our response was that that particular young man was the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. For those who do not know, George Wallace was elected the Governor of Alabama as a staunch and defiant segregationist, and as I found out while in Henderson, a member of St. James Methodist Church. At that time, he had proudly and defiantly announced what the policies of the state of Alabama would be with regards to civil rights and equality in the state. If you did not understand where he stood politically then, I suppose you could say that he was a nice young man. But it was very hard for me, even at the age of 12, to see him as nice.
I will say this; to his credit, Governor Wallace repented of his words and actions and sought to make right the wrongs he once so proudly supported.
I will also say this; it was at that time that I made one of several decisions that would lead me to this particular place and time. I did not know what it meant to be a Christian in 1963; I had very little understanding of what the Methodist Church stood for. But I began a walk that year that I still continue to this day, learning and working about Christ and what it means to say that I am a Christian and a United Methodist.
But it didn’t sit right in my twelve-year heart then to hear a Methodist Governor preach hatred and exclusion, to say, in public, words that run counter to the very expression of what it means to be a United Methodist. There is no doubt that those words, along with the actions of the political establishment of that time, did a lot to push me in the direction I would walk a few years later.
To say that you were a Methodist back then or a member of the United Methodist church today means that you have accepted Christ as your Savior. You have acknowledged, along with Simon Peter, that Christ is your Messiah. And when you make the decision to follow Christ; when you acknowledge Him as your own Savior and you make that commitment to follow Him, your life changes. Your name may not change as it did for Peter or as is it did for Paul on the road to Damascus but your life will change.
And like I learned that spring day in Kirksville, Missouri, some forty-two years ago, when you make the announcement that you are a Christian and a Methodist, you are making the announcement that you understand that you fall short of the perfection of Christ. But, even in falling short, you are willing to work to reach the perfection of Christ, to go out and do as Paul suggests to the Romans:
Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.
It is admittedly a very difficult task, to do something for others when you want so much to take all the credit for it. Our whole society is predicated on the notion that we do things for ourselves and that we seek wealth, fame, riches, and glory because those are the way we will be measured in this world. We live in a world where the words that we say are more important that what we do.
I went to Henderson really not knowing what I would be doing. I found myself doing things and using skills that I hadn’t used in some thirty years. I came back to the dormitory for lunch and dinner with my tee-shirts soaked to the point that they were still not dry the next day. And yet, it didn’t bother me. I was asked to go down and I expected to work, so I did. And I think that is the same feeling that all that came down from Newburgh and those who came from Ohio and New Jersey also felt.
But more importantly, there was something about being there, in the hills of Kentucky that allowed me to remember who I am and what I am. Over the past few months I have seen my ministry evolve from simply pulpit supply to one of caring. It has been a challenge as a small group of people have gone from strangers to part of a Christian community in Newburgh. Many of those in this community are perhaps not Christian but, then again, many of those in the first Christian communities two thousand years ago did not know who Christ was either. But those who did know Christ let them in and supported them in the ways that they had been taught.
As I said to those on the hillside that Monday morning now two weeks ago, I hoped that those who had come to Henderson that week would, like the 60, go home after that first mission trip and continue working for Christ. It is very easy to go home after a mission trip like Henderson, Red Bird, Biloxi, or Haiti and tell everyone about it and then do nothing until next year’s trip. Please excuse me if I sound blunt but when you do that, when you engage in mission work for a week and then rest for 51 weeks, you are doing it for yourself, not Christ. And that is not the right thing to do.
There are many challenges in this area. In response, my wife and I offer a worship ministry on Fridays and Sundays called “Vespers in the Garden”. It is a simple worship service but I have had the opportunity this summer to watch an individual grow in Christ and take on tasks that a few months ago he was only dreaming about. It also gives some individuals the opportunity to hear the Word of God and sing songs of praises in a peaceful setting that offers protection from the world outside. It is often the only worship they get because many of the churches in Newburgh have found a way to shut their doors to them because they are homeless and unemployed.
Our food banks are stressed to the limit and each week more and more people come looking for assistance. On Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings my wife and I host “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen”, which is sponsored by our church. We open the doors of the fellowship hall and offer a breakfast to those who might be hungry. We don’t ask what their situation might be; we do have some guidelines in place so that all may share of the limited bounty that we have. I wish it weren’t the case; I wish that there was a way to do this more often and for more people. We do not do it for glory or honor; we do it because Christ came to feed the hungry and heal the sick and find homes for the homeless. We do what we can with what we have and we praise God that we are able to do a small part. This is not a “feel-good” ministry; it is hard and sometimes burdensome. But it is, I think you will agree, the right thing to do. If you are up to it, I invite you to be a part of this ministry.
There is, in Orange County, a project called “Methodist and Friends Build” which works with Habitat for Humanity to build affordable housing for families that cannot, even in the best of times, afford to buy a home. There is also a project, called “Family Promise”, which is trying to help families who are homeless. You would be surprised how many families there are in this area, this state, and across the country who cannot afford housing, even though both parents are working. These programs offer opportunities and alternatives.
And yet there are those who profess Christ as their Savior on Sunday and then wonder why we allow the homeless, the hungry, the sick, to come to our church. There are those who would say that the hungry, the homeless, the sick or the destitute have no business being in the church at all. They brought their problems on themselves; let them fix them themselves.
And when Jesus ate with the sinners, the religious and political establishment questioned his ministry. What is the right thing to do?
I would encourage you to consider what you might do. Each community is different; each community has different things it can offer. You may not be able to go to Henderson or Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique but you can do something. It may be that you can help fund a youth trip or something similar. You may wish to support the Red Bird Missionary Conference or parts of it in addition to your regular tithing and support here in the New York Annual Conference. But don’t say that you can’t do something; my mother went on a Volunteer in Mission trip to the Caribbean when she was in her mid-sixties.
But don’t go or give expecting some great reward for your effort. God doesn’t want that nor do the people who you would be helping. And I don’t think you would gain much either. No longer do you work for yourself, expecting riches, fame, and glory for your efforts. You, having proclaimed Christ as your Savior, now do the right thing and work for God.