I am preaching at Zion’s Hill UMC (Wilton, CT) this morning. The scriptures for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 July 2012, are 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 14, Ephesians 2: 11 – 22, and Mark 6: 30 – 34, 53 – 56. The services starts at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend. (This has been edited since it was first posted.)
In the e-mail that Pastor Steve received telling him that I would be the lay speaker for today, I was described as a well-seasoned lay speaker. Now, I don’t know if this referred to my cooking abilities or my predilection for Lexington, NC, style barbeque or something entirely different. I suspect, of course, that it has more to do with the fact that I have been a lay speaker for over twenty years and have said that I will go just about anywhere I am needed. At least, I wasn’t described as “half-baked”.
To be honest, I never imagined that when I heard the call from God (or rather felt the call from God) some forty-seven years ago to begin working on the God and Country award that I would be a certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church or that I would have done or be doing anything similar today. Of course, forty-seven years ago there was no United Methodist Church but the Evangelical United Brethren Church (I was a member of the First Evangelical United Brethren Church, now the First United Methodist Church, of Aurora when I earned my God and Country award) and the Methodist Church, and the merger of the two denominations was just beginning to take place. But when you answer God’s call the only thing that limits what you do is a lack of imagination.
And even when I began a series of assignments in 1995 for the Parsons District of the then Kansas East District and could see the possibilities of being a pastor in the United Methodist Church I could not imagine that someday I would be the 21st century equivalent of a circuit rider traveling the same paths that Francis Asbury, Jesse Lee, and many other circuit riders rode some 250 years ago. I will admit that I have troubling imagining how long it took for them to travel on horseback from church to church, charge to charge when I can get to most of the churches in the New York/Connecticut District from my home in Beacon in an hour or so.
I cannot begin to imagine the troubles and turmoil that the early circuit riders went through. Often times, a stormy night was described as so bad that only crows and Methodist preachers were out. As noted on one web site, life on the trail in 18th century America was so rugged and exacting that half of the early church’s circuit riders died before the age of 33. But their devotion to God and America kept them going. It was a demanding life, as one early preacher wrote,
Every day I travel, I have to swim through creeks or swamps, and I am wet from head to feet, and some days from morning to night I am dripping with water. My horse’s legs are now skinned and rough to his hock joints, and I have rheumatism in all my joints. . . what I have suffered in body and mind my pen is not able to communicate to you.
As the preacher continued, he tells why he suffered as he did,
But this I can tell say, while my body is wet with water and chilled with cold, my soul is filled with heavenly fire, and I can say with Saint Paul, ‘But none of these things shall move me. Neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy. (“Nothing But Crows and Methodist Preachers”)
But I have experienced the joy and celebration that those early riders must have experienced when they came to a church but that was only because the church changed the starting time without telling me and I arrived thirty minutes late.
Still, when I see all the Methodist Churches throughout this district and conference I can only begin to imagine and appreciate the sense of purpose and dedication that each circuit rider had when they brought the Gospel message to the people.
It had to have been similar to the sense of purpose that Jesus had when he saw the people coming to him in the Galilean countryside. It had to have been the same sense of purpose that John Wesley had when he saw how the Church of England, his church, the church in which he had been raised, ignored and neglected the lower and working class people of England. There will be some, I know, who might not like the following statement and there will be some, I know, who will be uncomfortable but I fear that one of the problems with the Methodist Church today is that we no longer have that same sense of purpose, that same sense of hurt when we see others hurting in both body, mind, and spirit.
Through both my own upbringing and study, I have a sense of the history of the Methodist denomination and its parallels to the history of this country. One of the first thing that struck me when I began visiting churches in this district as a lay speaker were the numbers stamped or carved into the ends of the pews. Now, from my studies, I knew what those numbers meant but I never had actually experienced such a setting. I know that such numbers were a way of recording which families had rented or paid for that pew (and when someone says that you are sitting in their pew, they are not necessarily joking). I also know that if you could not afford the price of the pew, you and your family stood in the back of the church or in the balcony. It was a very subtle reminder that, in a country dedicated to the notion that all men were free and equal, some men were more free and equal than others.
In that period of time when I was beginning to discern the call God gave to me I taught at a community college in Illinois. A colleague of mine at this community college happened to belong to the Free Methodist Church. I do not recall if we ever discussed just exactly what it was about his church that made it free or why the United Methodist Church that I attended was not free. I would later discover that the Free Methodist Church began as a protest against the purchasing or rental of church pews as well as the unwillingness of the Methodist Episcopal Church to speak out against slavery.
As it happens, the particular United Methodist Church that plays such a prominent part in my life, especially at a time when I was struggling with the very nature of being a Christian, not just the call from God, has carved in stone above the side entrance to the church its original title, “First Methodist Episcopal Church, South”. Since I am a Southern boy, this should not be surprising but this particular church is in Kirksville, Missouri, and is about thirty miles south of the Iowa state line.
But when I joined 1st UMC in 1966, I was not aware of that particular part of the history of the church or the denomination. In fact, I would not discover that particular stone carving until many years later (always remember that you have to live with the words you carve in stone). Truth be told, I would rather have gone to Faith Evangelical United Brethren Church but it was a few miles further away and when you had to walk to church, such things are important. (I had the opportunity to preach at that church, now Faith UMC, a few years ago and told the congregation about my decision; a member of the congregation came up to me afterward and said, “You could have called. We would have come and gotten you.”)
Were it not for my own experiences growing up in the South, I cannot begin to imagine how a church, which began as a ministry to the least of society, could ever be divided and be so against the words that we heard Paul write to the Ephesians today. And it is equally difficult for me today to imagine that words so similar to that which divided the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1840s into the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Episcopal Church are again being spoken in this day and age. You may disagree with me but the words that I hear being spoken today about who can and cannot be a member of this denomination bear a striking resemblance to the words that divided this church in 1840 and so dominated our society in the 1960s. We are a denomination that placed reason and experience as cornerstones, along with scripture and tradition, in arriving at theological conclusions, yet we are willing to be willfully ignorant about humanity.
Were it not for the fact that I cannot even begin to imagine not being a Methodist, let alone a lay speaker, I might have quit the church a long time ago over similar issues, notably civil rights and the war in Viet Nam. When I was a sophomore at Truman State (then known as NE Missouri State College) in 1969 I saw a world in turmoil. I had grown up in a church that used the Bible to justify segregation and glorified war, where poverty, homelessness, and healthcare issues were non-issues, where one’s decision to follow Christ was literally an order to follow made by church elders and where, if you chose to dissent from their orders, you were ostracized and cast out. Perhaps it was the college environment but it was as much my parents who allowed and gave me the opportunity to think for myself and I had to wonder if I even needed to be in church.
Now, I have said it before but when I began going to college, it was an opportunity to sleep in late on a Sunday morning. But no matter how much I wanted to sleep in late, I couldn’t do it; I had to be in church on Sunday morning. And so it was that I went. And as much as I learned in my classes during the week, I also learned much in church. Not book learning per se but learning nonetheless. I learned that one could do good but that it wasn’t what would open the doors to heaven for you; it was only Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and my acceptance of Christ as my Savior that would do that. But I also learned that, having accepted Christ as my Savior, I had to work for Christ so that others could have the same opportunity as well.
What I remember is that forty years ago I saw a world in disarray and without hope and no means to bring hope. But through my experiences in the small chapel at First United Methodist Church some forty years ago I learned that hope did exist and I could have that hope if I followed Christ with all my heart, all my mind, and all my being. It was a lesson taught to me some forty years ago and a lesson that I have kept in my heart all these years.
I was lucky. There were churches where I could find the answers to my questions. I had pastors like George Eddy at 1st EUB and Marvin Fortel at 1st UMC who taught me and guided me. Without their teaching and guidance I may never have understood the nature of God’s call or realize that one day some years later I needed to do more that simply say that I am a Christian and a Methodist.
Others of my generation may have had the same questions but could not find the answers. And in today’s world marked by more violence, where wars are waging and poverty, homelessness, and sickness are more and more part of our lives, there are more people asking the same questions. Can you imagine where they will find these answers?
The call that I received from God that day in Montgomery, Alabama, that led to my receiving my God and Country Award in 1965 continues to this day, whether it is by traveling to wherever I am needed or just staying at my own church helping run the Saturday morning breakfast ministry or Vespers in the Garden program. I don’t have to get up at 3 in the morning on Saturdays and struggle with a gym that has no air conditioning but if I don’t some people might not get a decent meal. I don’t have to deal with those individuals who suggest that it is alright to serve the hungry low or poor quality food on paper plates and have them eat with plastic utensils. But how would I feel if Christ were one of those who came to our breakfast and he didn’t get the best I had to offer.
I was lucky to have a pastors who helped me to see what the future might be, even if I could not imagine it then. I can only imagine what might happen if I did not answer the call to go somewhere and preach or if we found it necessary to shut down Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.
And so it is that I ask you, can you imagine what your life would be like if you had not accepted Christ as your Savior? And what if you haven’t done so at this time? Wouldn’t it be better to accept Christ as your Savior than to imagine the alternatives that not doing so offers? Wouldn’t it be better to let the Holy Spirit empower your life and let you do things that your imagination can only tap into? Or would you rather imagine the alternatives?
This is an important time in the life of the United Methodist Church. It is an important time for each one of us as well. Can you imagine what will come if we don’t put Christ into our lives?