I preached at Diamond Hill UMC in Cos Cob, CT, this morning. Their services are at 10 am and you are welcome to attend.
The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 4: 5 – 12, 1 John 3: 16 – 24, and John 10: 11 – 18.
On January 20, 1960, John Kennedy stood before the American people as the new American President and proclaimed that a torch had been passed to a new generation, my parent’s generation, your generation. In his inaugural address, President Kennedy opened by saying,
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. (http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres56.html)
I cannot help but think that his words were a rebuttal to his critics who said that he was too young to be President. But his address was more than simply a rebuke of his critics or a comment on how things had been and possibly could be; it was also a vision of the future for the next generation, my generation and perhaps your generation as well. It spoke of challenges that we as a country and a society faced.
It was a vision that equality was more than a concept envisioned during the American Revolution but a reality of life, time, place, and society. It was a vision that spoke of going beyond the boundaries of time and place, of going beyond the boundaries of the earth and reaching far out into space. It was the challenge to get things done.
It was, in some sense, a good time. The country seemed alive and intelligence and aptitude were demanded by all. The President spoke in complete sentences (in part because the sound bite hadn’t been invented yet) and he could references things that people understood.
Three years before, in 1957, the Soviet Union had launched its first Sputnik satellite. This launch created within the American public a view that there was a crisis in science and mathematics; that American children were under- or ill-equipped to deal with the vast Soviet menace that now threaten our skies from outer space. If nothing else, in what became known as the Space Race, the United States was a distant second in a two-country race to the Soviet Union.
Many who grew up during that era will recall that the beginnings of the U. S. space program were often marked by failure and disappointment. All we knew is that the Soviet Union launched satellite after satellite while our missiles and rockets seem to blow up on the launching pad every time we tried to launch one.
In retrospect, the crisis was a bit overstated. We were trying to develop a new technology while the Soviets used essentially brute force to launch their rockets. And while our failures were open and visible to the entire world, the veil of secrecy that the Soviet Union hid behind prevented us from knowing how many failures they had experienced.
But we rushed and stumbled into the space race and we created a myriad of science and mathematics programs that would help my generation become proficient scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. And it would, at least in the chemistry courses that were developed then, teach us how to think. The focus of these new science courses would not be the memorization of countless facts and figures but on methodologies that would enable us to explore and find the facts. It was a methodology that required going into the laboratory and actually do science, not simply reading a textbook and writing down what the instructor wrote on the blackboard. It meant analyzing information rather than simply regurgitating back on the test.
But over the years, teaching science has reverted back to the old ways of memorizing and regurgitation, though now instead of facts and figures, we memorize concepts and ideas. Our students only know that the important stuff to know is that which will be on the test and anything else is superfluous. If the answer to the question is not in the back of the book, it is not an important question to know and should not appear on the test. And teachers know that they should never ask questions that hasn’t been discussed in class or requires analysis and/or critical thinking.
Today, we face a new crisis. But there are no Soviet satellites beeping away while orbiting the earth every 90 minutes in this crisis. No, it is a crisis of complacency and expectation that permeates both the secular and sectarian aspects of society.
It is a society in which questioning is not encouraged because questioning only leads to change and change is not welcomed. We live in a world where what we did yesterday worked so that is what we will do today and what we will do tomorrow. And we have come to expect that there will be someone available to continue doing tomorrow what we do today.
It is, in part, a spiritual crisis. The evil that seems to be ever present in this world, the crime, the hatred, the violence, the war all seem to say that there is no God and if there is a God, why does it seem like he has turned away. We hear cynics tell us that religion has outlived its usefulness and that there is no role or place for the church in today’s society. In fact, when we turn to the church for such answers, it often seems as if the church is part of the cause and not part of the solution.
And so, when we look at so many churches today, we see physical emptiness. We hear of churches closing and wonder which church will be next. The demographics tell us that many churches are getting older and the youth and the young are walking away from the church, seeking their spiritual answers somewhere else.
Some will say that this all occurred because we no longer have a moral society. Their solution is to create a society with a series of purity laws, much in the vein of the laws of the Old Testament, that would dictate who could come into church and who could not. But it was these purity laws, laws that said women, children, the maimed, the lame, and the blind could not enter the temple that Jesus worked against.
It was the healing of someone on the Sabbath that got Jesus in trouble with the religious authorities; it was the situation that was in the first reading today that brought Peter and John before the religious authorities.
What we fail to realize today, perhaps because we only want the facts and care not to analyze what we read, is that every time Jesus healed someone or dealt with someone considered ritually unclean, He became unclean. If we were to impose those same set of purity laws today, would we allow Jesus to come into our church?
When we hear the words of the John the Evangelist telling us that Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd, we have to understand how revolutionary and world changing this statement was. In Jesus’ time the general populace considered shepherds to be generally untrustworthy and ceremonially unclean. This was because they were in daily contact with the carcasses of animals and came into contact with all sorts of unclean animals.
The level of cleanliness that we are talking about in this case goes beyond the cleanliness that we are dealing with right now. The division between clean and unclean was a fundamental part of Jewish life. They were commanded by the Law to be physically clean, ritually and ceremonially clean, as well as morally clean. And when you became unclean, you had to wash yourself until the religious authorities deemed you clean again. It was a process that we have encountered time and time again in the Gospel readings. (Adapted from http://holyordinary.blogspot.com/2007/12/shepherds-of-sheep-and-lamb-advent.html)
In some circles today is commonly called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the Gospel reading and use of the 23rd Psalm as the psalter. (See notes about this at http://bobherring2009.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/good-shepherd-sunday-thoughts.)
While shepherds held an esteemed status in the time of David, it was a status that was quickly lost in the time between David and Jesus. As the people settled into Palestine and acquired more farmland, pasturing and the shepherd lifestyle of the ancient Hebrews decreased. Shepherding became a menial vocation for the labor class.
And while shepherds were the symbol of judgment and social desolation in the days of the Prophets, shepherds in the days of Jesus were despised and mistrusted. People were told not to buy wool, milk, or a baby goat from a shepherd because it was most likely stolen. Legal documents show that shepherds were deprived of all civil rights, could not hold judicial office, or be admitted to courts as witnesses. And for someone who grew up in the segregated south, that sounds all too familiar.
In the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, rabbis would ask with amazement how, in light of David’s words of Psalm 23, God could be called the shepherd of His people. (Adapted from http://www.epm.org/artman2/publish/holidays/Shepherd_s_Status.shtml)
It must have been that way when Jesus told the crowds “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary.” These were words that did not fit the image of a shepherd in that society. They were words that challenged the people to think in a new and different way; they were words that suggested a new order to life.
In the same way, Jesus proclaimed a new life and a new way. To a people who saw a life of rules and regulation as the only way to Heaven, Jesus offered an alternative. He rejected ceremonial and external observances of religion to stress that religion was an inward matter of the heart, of a direct encounter with the Father through Jesus Himself.
What does it say about us then when we say that so-and-so cannot come into our church because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even economic status? Are we not all created in God’s image? Are we not somehow saying that such persons are not children of God? How then can we even think to say that any person is to be denied access to the God because they do not meet society’s image of what is right and righteous?
It must bother those who seek the imposition of Old Testament purity laws that Jesus would speak of others outside the fold who He was going to bring in.
Of course, there are those who would really like to know who those missing sheep that were mentioned in the Gospel reading for today are? The more people that can be brought in, the better things will be. In this way, they can show others the numbers that say theirs is a vital and active church. I have no desire to get into a numbers game, even if my minor was in statistics.
The church is in the people business and, to be exact, in the saving of souls. It is not about how many people are there but how many souls are saved and I have no clue or idea how that will ever be measured. To be honest, the only way that anyone is going to know how successful, how vital their church was will happen long after they are dead and buried and they are standing outside the gates of Heaven, hoping to be among the sheep and not the goats (referring to closing verses of Matthew 25).
But we live in a world driven by the bottom line so we create other measures of vitality. We look at the size of the church, its average attendance and membership.
It looks nice when you have say 1000 members in a church but I also know that programs that work for mega-churches will not necessarily work for churches with, say, only 100 members. So I am not interested in the size of the church.
It is important to know how many new members a church receives but it says something about the church. Notice, I said new members, because members received by transfer mean another church lost someone.
The number of individuals baptized or confirmed is an important number to know. But how many of these individuals continue in the church after they were baptized or confirmed? How many couples have been married in the church with great ceremony but never step foot inside the sanctuary again? I remember an situation several years ago where a mother proudly announced that her son was going to be married in the church and coming home that night and getting an e-mail from the son telling me that he was leaving the church.
I am not saying that we should not baptize infants, children, or adults. But we do need to remember that when that happens, we, the congregation, join in the vow to raise the child in Christ. If they do not come to church, we cannot say that it is their entire fault.
And we still live in a world where we think that our children will be members of the church where they were confirmed. But children leave the home and go away, to school and to work, so to expect them to be members of the same church as their parents is a little presumptuous on our part.
And a church that focuses totally on the bottom line, the numbers and the dollars, cannot see that it is losing people who seek answers to the questions that the church is supposed
I have heard the argument that the church has to pay its bills and I agree that the bills must be paid; it is a part of good stewardship. But when that is the church’s focus, it drives away the people who are more interested in finding out who God is and what God means.
It means that measuring the vitality, the life of the church is far harder than we think. How do you measure the heart of the church? How do you measure the care and concern that the church has for its community? What is the impact of the church on the community? Do the people of the community hear the Shepherd through the efforts of the people of the church? Or do the people of the church even know there is a community outside the church?
How does one practice real love? Answering that question will be how one determines the measure of vitality and life in a church today.
An alive and vital church would be one that reaches out beyond the walls of the sanctuary. It is one that knows what talents lie within the members of the church and finds ways to utilize those talents. What was it that Paul said? Some teach; some preach; others heal; others exhort. Some will lift up others in prayer; others will offer comfort. How are the talents of the church used for the church and for the community? Are they doing it because they want to do it or do they think that it somehow enhances their standing in the church?
Are they the hired hand mentioned in the Gospel reading for today, who does a job because it is a job? Or are they doing it because they have experienced the Love of Christ and wish to share that love with others? It is this difference that will tell others if a church is alive, vital and thriving, or simply existing in the present waiting for the final toll of the bell.
If we view our role as that of the hired hand, it is probable that we would not give our best. But we are not willing to give our best, where then, as John wrote in the letter that we read for today, where would we be?
We are faced with a crisis. But it is a crisis that can be faced, perhaps not with traditional solutions. Jesus saw life for the people outside a structure that had chosen to exclude people, not bring them in. Any solution that an individual church proposes has to 1) be related to their community, their surroundings, and their environment and 2) reflective of what Christ did and what John Wesley did. I know that it is a worn out cliché but one must occasionally think outside the box.
John Wesley saw a church dying because it would not see beyond the walls of sanctuary. How many times did people in churches throughout England in John Wesley’s time hear those same verses of the first letter from John that were read today but ignored the moment that the people left the church? How many times have people today read those words that say that we should just talk about God’s love but practice it? If I am interested in knowing if a church is alive, I am going to look for the evidence that the church has, in some way, responded to the needs, not just of its own members, but of those in the community around.
On Saturday mornings at my home church, we operate “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.” Part of the feeding ministry of my home church, we offer a breakfast to all, no matter their circumstances.
What separates this ministry from other similar ministries is that we serve the breakfast on plates and use silverware instead paper plates and plastic utensils. The food prepared is prepared fresh and while it may be bought in bulk, it is of good quality and, wherever and whenever possible, bought from local producers.
While some may say that this is a waste it is good stewardship. Using plates and silverware instead of plastic utensils and paper plates is more environmentally friendly since you are not generating bags and bags of trash that must be hauled away. And when you buy from local producers, you support the local economy.
But more importantly, if you believe that Jesus will be one of those who served at breakfast, on what would you serve Him and what would you serve Him? If we use the finest plates and utensils, the freshest food for Our Lord, what do we use for the least of these?
But too many churches today see serving the homeless, the street people, and those less fortunate in the manner that we do is a waste of resources. If they have a church feeding ministry (not a food bank), they are apt to serve lower quality food and do so in the manner of a soup kitchen. It is the attitude of the hired hand and not the child of God.
I began by noting that the torch of leadership had been passed from one generation to the next when John Kennedy was elected.
But I was thinking of another torch, the one that has been handed down from generation to generation from the very first days that Christians gathered together, sometimes openly but many times secretly.
At the beginning of the every service, we light the candles on the altar to represent the presence of the Holy Spirit. When I began my journey to and with Christ, I was taught that as I took the light from the altar at the end of the service, I was taking it out into the world as a symbol of each one of us entering the world as Christ’s representative.
The torch of the Spirit, the presence of the Holy Spirit, has been handed to us from generations of believers before us. Our challenge today is to place Christ in our heart so that the torch can continue to glow and then to accept the Holy Spirit so that we can others to come to know Christ.
The torch has been passed; will you continue to pass it on?