With the 1st Sunday of Lent comes the opening of the Lenten School. I serve as the coordinator for the school, getting the courses and instructors, sending out the notices, and keeping the records. I took on this role a few years ago when no one else wanted to do it and I hope that someone will step up to take the leadership roles for next year’s school as I plan on stepping down at the end of this year.
This year, we have a basic course in lay speaking (taught by Jim Schoonmaker, a lay speaker, and Reverend Kent Jackson), a course in sermon planning (Reverend Bob Milsom), a course in prayer (Peg Van Siclen, lay speaker), a course in the history of Christianity (Robert Buice, lay speaker), a course in Christian Education (Lauriston Avery, lay speaker) and the Safe Sanctuary course (Cassandra Negri, lay speaker); my thanks to each one of them for leading these courses.
We changed the order of the school this year. In the past, we had some soup, salad, and sandwiches followed by a short worship service and then the classes. This year, the soup, salad, and sandwiches are still offered though in a little different manner with an opening worship service and then the classes. For the next four weeks, the classes will follow the meal and on the final Sunday of the school (April 1), we will have a closing worship service lead by the District Superintendent at which time those who complete the basic course will be commissioned as lay speakers.
Because we began with the meal before the worship service, instead of using the lectionary readings for this Sunday, I choose as my scripture lesson Matthew 15: 29 – 39, what I call “the forgotten meal.” As I was reading this passage, I displayed on the wall the mural that is painted on the back wall of the Dover Plains United Methodist Church (see “What I See”).
A meditation on the reading from Matthew – “To feed the spirit as well as the body”
By now, I am sure you have heard of the United Methodist Call to Action and that conversation that it has generated concerning the hopes, dreams and future of the United Methodist Church. From the initial study of the church has come the Vital Congregations initiative, an effort to translate what was gathered in the Call to Action study into measurable, quantitative practices.
But there are some who see what is transpiring as lacking, as being well-intentioned but falling short of defining the mission of the church. From these concerns has come “A Missional Manifesto for the People Called United Methodists“, a response and an answer to the call that speaks to who we are when we say we are United Methodists.
Now, I do not if your heritage and roots lie in the Methodist Church or if they lie, as mine does, in the Evangelical United Brethren Church or if you have always been a United Methodist and perhaps wondered why we are United Methodists. (We have a class for that by the way.)
But our unique and combined heritage is more than simply meeting in a church somewhere on a Sunday; it is a heritage of being in the field, of being involved with the people, of being God’s representative here on earth at this time and place. As United Methodists we believe that we are saved by grace alone through faith, and we are saved so that we can do good works. All that we do follows as a response to the radical grace of God.
Some come to the school today to begin a journey as a lay speaker, others continue on by learning how to plan a message or perhaps be better equipped to pray and help others to pray. Some have come to learn more about whom we are when we say we are Christians. Others have come to learn how to make their church a safe haven for those seeking shelter from the ravages of a hostile world and others will come later in the school to learn how to teach children about Christ.
We have all come to this place because our spirit is hungry and we seek to have that hunger fed.
But our responsibility cannot end when the school ends. We cannot simply take the certificate that we receive and place it with our other certificates on a shelf or a wall, to dust them off for the occasional visitor.
For to do so is to ignore the heritage that we claim, to do so is to ignore the others out in the world who are also hungry and seeking Christ. Whereas we know where to find Christ, they do not. Whereas we have found Christ, since they do not know where to find Him, they cannot.
Ours is a heritage of evangelism, not the evangelism of today which seeks to control the human spirit and tell others the right and wrong way to do things. Ours is an evangelism based on what Jesus did and what John Wesley did. Ours is the evangelism that brings the Good News to the people so that they can find Jesus for themselves.
I am a Southern boy and the evangelical tradition of the Methodist, EUB, and United Methodist Church is almost second nature to me. It has led me to find ways that are perhaps not in the mainstream of the church. As I mentioned when I read from Matthew earlier, I used the word student instead of disciple. That’s because the translation of the word “disciple” means more than a follower; it also means to be a student. And to be a student means to put what you learned in class into practice.
Early in my lay speaking I encountered Clarence Jordan, a Southern Baptist preacher from Georgia, who went against the grain of society in leading the fight for integration in the South in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
In terms of evangelism, he saw that the most important feature of Jesus’ ministry was His ability to communicate directly with other men. This led him to write the “Cotton Patch Gospels”, an effort to put the words of the New Testament into the language and nuances of the South. He wanted people to be “participants in the faith, not merely spectators.” It is a thought that is echoed by John Wesley, that having been saved we need to be out “there” working.
It is up to us to bring the Good News to the people whom we meet. It isn’t about the order of worship that we use; it isn’t about the music that we sing. It is about telling people what Christ means to us. And using what we have been taught in many ways so that our faith is our life and our life is our faith.
Once many years ago, I suggested using the song “Good Shepherd” by Jefferson Airplane in a worship service. No one ever said I couldn’t do it but I know some people thought I was a little crazy for even suggesting. But the words of the song, to feed my sheep, always intrigued me.
And at a time when I was perhaps away from the church, the words of this song sounded strangely Biblical. And then when I had the opportunity, I looked at the history of the song.
Jorma Kaukonen, the guitarist for Jefferson Airplane who wrote the arrangement that Jefferson Airplane sings, was introduced to a variant of the song in the late 1960s. It had evolved from a 19th century Gospel hymn into a mid-20th century blues-based folk song. But what was interesting, at least for me, was that the roots of this song come from an early 1800s hymn written by John Adam Grande, a Methodist preacher from Tennessee.
Now, I cannot speak to what others hear when the song is played or if they even see the connection to the Gospel passage that it is based on. But Kaukonen and others continue to find a meaning in the song and other such songs where religion is celebrated in one context or another without preaching. Kaukonen has said this material has given him a doorway into the scripture: “I guess you could say I loved the Bible without even knowing it. The spiritual message is always uplifting.” (Adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Shepherd_(song); see http://mtdalton2.blogspot.com/2008/02/good-shepherd-jefferson-airplane.html for additional thoughts on this song.)
That is the task that lies before us. To take what we learn in the next few weeks and take that knowledge out into the world. When we leave this place, we will I hope seek to find ways to help others feed their souls. It has long been documented that many in today’s society are spiritually hungry.
Some of you may have recognized the mural that I used as a backdrop to the reading from Matthew this evening.
For those who did not, it is the mural on the back wall of the sanctuary at the Dover Plains United Methodist Church. It should serve as a reminder that people came to Jesus that day because they were searching for cures for their illnesses, for answers to the questions that lay on their souls. And when Jesus had cured them and feed their spirits, he feed their bodies.
Now, we have feed our bodies and it is time to feed our souls. Let us enter this Lenten School seeking to find the answers that we seek. And then, when we leave this place, let us help others to find the answers that they seek.
And just in case you need to be reminded this is what the people of Dover see as reminder of the goal that we all seek