This was the message that I gave on 24 October 1993 at Grace UMC in St. Cloud, MN as part of Laity Sunday. While this was the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, it was still early in my lay speaking career and I was still “picking and choosing” my Scripture readings instead of following the lectionary as I do today.
I wasn’t supposed to give the message this year. Though it was only October, I knew that I would be moving to Kansas after the current school year was completed and I wanted to begin a transition from “leader” to “observer”. I had organized the previous two Laity Sunday services and felt that others should begin getting involved. But on the Saturday afternoon before this Sunday, the person scheduled to give the message called and told me he was unable to be in church on Sunday and I would need to fill in. As this was early in my career, I wasn’t quite ready to do so but when you are a lay speaker you have said that you would answer the call when it is made and that is what I did. Because of the time frame of preparation, I liberally borrowed from messages I had given elsewhere figuring that no one present at Grace had been present at the places in Missouri and Tennessee where I had preached earlier. Unfortunately I forgot that one of those messages had been videotaped and I had shared that tape with some of the congregation. J
I based my thoughts for this message on 2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6 and Matthew 15: 24 – 25.
One of the churches where I have been a member is large enough to have a senior pastor and an associate pastor. During the Sunday worship, the associate pastor takes care of the lectionary readings, the prayers of the congregation, and the offering. There is also a youth minister to take care of the “Children’s Moment”. This leaves the senior pastor to concentrate on the sermon. At this church it is the custom for the children, following the “Children’s Moment”, to go to another area of the church where they have a Children’s service. One Sunday, as one young girl walked by the pulpit, she looked at the senior pastor and asked “What do you do?” For you see, every Sunday this child saw the associate pastor lead the congregation in prayer and other activities. She would go up to the altar to be with the Youth Minister for the “Children’s Moment”. But all she saw the other man do was sit in his chair because she, along with the other children, left before he preached. In answer to her question, the senior pastor did the “Children’s Moment” the next week.
“What do you do” has been a question for the church for a number of years. As we look at the world around us today, we have to ask ourselves “What do we do to change the direction of the world from its path of sin and desolation?” What do we do when society around us is intolerant of poverty and shows no concern for its less fortunate members? These questions are not unique to our generation; they have been with us since Jesus began His ministry.
John Wesley struggled with these questions for many years. He could not sit idly by and watch his church ignore the plight and conditions of the lower classes. In an exchange with Joseph Butler, the Bishop of Bristol, Wesley made it clear what he felt he must do.
Bishop Butler — “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”
John Wesley — “My lord, my business on earth is to do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do the most good here. Therefore here I stay.” (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal”, 16th to 24th August, 1739.)
John Wesley understood that a church and a nation which ignores members of its society can never expect worldly success, let alone success in Heaven. Having accepted Christ as one’s personal Savior, you could not sit back and wait for the Glory of the Lord to come to you. You had to take the message of the Gospel out into the world, both in thought, word and deed. To the elders of the Church of England, this call for action was unconscionable. How dare a pastor call for such radical action. This was a time when more and more people were getting wealthy every day so it was permissible to ignore those few who were not quite so fortunate. Remember poverty in Wesley’s time was thought to be a reflection of one’s sinful life. If you were rich, it was because you had lead a good life. If you were poor, it was because you were not living the right kind of life. It wasn’t the church’s fault that people were homeless and hungry; that medical care for the lower classes was almost non-existent; that only the rich could afford to go to school. Wesley would have felt right at home in the United States these last few years when concern for one’s own well-being was more important than a concern for members of society.
John Wesley understood that the church must present a message people understand. But the message must also be accompanied by actions. To Wesley, preaching the Gospel was more than a Sunday experience; it was a daily occurrence. Preaching the Gospel alone is not enough when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society; you must help people overcome such barriers. If people are hungry, they must be feed; if people are sick, they must be healed; if the people seek to improve their lives through education, there need to be schools. If the church is to be a vital and living part of the community today, it must offer the hope and promise of the Gospel message to all who seek it.
Yet, instead of supporting the work of Wesley and his followers, people in the Church of England barred them from preaching in the churches. Yet this did not stop the Methodist Revival. Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers simply began to preach wherever they could find the space. If that meant preaching in fields, then they preached in the fields.
When conditions cry for revolution, there will be a revolution. Many historians have looked at the conditions in England, both economic and social, and wondered why England did not undergo a violent revolution like that of France at much the same time. The difference between the revolution in England and the revolution in France can be attributed to the nature of the Methodist revival. Wesley and the early members of the Methodist Revival, by working to bring the Gospel to the people of England and changing the conditions of society, removed the threat of a violent revolution.
It was the same for Jesus. There was a need for a revolution in his country. Not the political revolution many people sought but a spiritual revolution. For people no longer heard a message of a Loving Father who cared for His children. Many people at that time probably did not even know that their God cared for them. The rules and regulations of the church made it impossible for them to do so. It wasn’t that they had left their religion but that their religion had left them. The message they did hear held no promise or hope. As Paul wrote in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians,
“He (speaking of Jesus) is the one who has helped us tell others about his new agreement to save them. We do not tell them that they must obey every law of God or die; but we tell them there is life for them for the Holy Spirit. The old way, trying to be saved by keeping the Ten Commandments, ends in death; in the new way, the Holy Spirit gives them life. (2 Corinthians 3: 6)
In his message and in his actions, Jesus sought to bring people back to God; to show them that their Father in Heaven did care for them and did truly love them.
The same thing is true today. The world is crying for a spiritual revolution. People are leaving the church today because they see a church which no longer cares about them and is indifferent to the needs of society. Today churches are seeking ways to bring back that generation we call the “baby boomers”. And, whatever actions are taken, they must be taken quickly because we could lose the next two generations, the “baby busters” and the children of the baby boomers. The church’s actions must reflect its mission. Such actions must also reflect the genuine compassion that Jesus felt for those who sought Him. Elton Trueblood offers the following thought:
“Because we cannot reasonably expect to erect a constantly expanding structure of social activism upon a constantly diminishing foundation of faith, attention to the cultivation of the inner life is our first order of business, even in a period of rapid social change. The Church, if it is to affect the world, must become a center from which new spiritual power emanates. While the Church must be secular in the sense that it operates in the world, if it is only secular it will not have the desired effect upon the secular order which it is called upon to penetrate. With no diminution of concern for people, we can and must give new attention to the production of a trustworthy religious experience.” (From The New Man for Our Time by Elton Trueblood)
When Jesus began to preach the Gospel, the message He gave was for everyone, not just a select few. Jesus never turned away anyone who sought His ministry. His ministry was open to all who sought Him. Jesus took his ministry to the people so that the people could come to Him.
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” And he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Sending her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me”. And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”. She said, “Yes, Lord: yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” An her daughter was healed instantly. And Jesus went on from there and passed along the Sea of Galilee. and he went up on the mountain, and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the throng wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.” (Matthew 15: 21 – 31)
The salvation we gain by accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior is not a two-way path. There is no way for us to gain salvation without going to Jesus Christ. But, if people are to come to Jesus, there must be a path available. Consider the desire of people who truly want to come to Jesus. In Mark 2 we read
“And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay.” (Mark 2: 1 – 4)
This man and his friends did what it took to get to Jesus. But not all people have such capability. If the path to Jesus is blocked, the people will turn away.
Every time we look around today, we see more reasons why the Church should be a part of society. Today, numerous studies tell churches how to revitalize their congregations, how to bring life back into dying congregations. Every time, the same answer comes through back. It is the members of the congregation which must do the work. That is what today is about. Laity Sunday honors the work of all those who do the work of the church. It also points out the role the laity has in bringing the Gospel message to the world.
Today Jesus is calling you. He is asking you to be a part of His community; to do His work. What will you do? Samuel heard God calling him and answered “Here I am Lord.” The disciples dropped what they were doing when asked by Jesus to follow Him. Paul did not want to become the missionary to the world; he wanted to put a stop to the mission of Jesus. As Saul, he saw Jesus and his followers as a threat to a way of life. Yet, after encountering the Holy Spirit on the road to Damascus, Paul understood what a life in Jesus Christ meant.
“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of god. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world (meaning Satan) has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of god. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”. (2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6)
Today, Jesus asks us the same question the little girl asked the senior pastor, “What do you do?” How will you answer him?