I am preaching at New Milford/Edenville United Methodist Church this morning. The service is at 9:30 am and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) are 2 Samuel 18: 5 – 9, 15, 31 – 33; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2; and John 6: 35, 41 – 51.
From the time I took a long-term assignment as a lay speaker way back in 1995 (the Chattaqua Parish in Kansas – see “Hide and Seek”) I have followed the lectionary as the source for my Scripture readings. For those who are not familiar with this term, the lectionary is a set of three readings, generally one from the Old Testament, one from the Letters of the New Testament and one from the Gospel readings. If one follows the lectionary, one can, in a three-year period, cover the entire Bible. We happen to be in Year B of the three-year cycle.
And while we are familiar with the lectionary readings for a particular Sunday, it is my understanding that these readings also encompass the rest of the week and Sunday school as well (which is nice because many of our favorite stories are not in the selections for Sunday services).
Some lay speakers will use certain Scriptures that they are comfortable with but when I found it necessary to prepare a message for a series of weeks that method didn’t work well for me. Now, as it happens, the lectionary that I followed back in 1995 was the Common Lectionary; the scriptures for today are from the Revised Common Lectionary.
Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem but in addition to preparing this message I am also working on a message for next Sunday at the Fishkill United Methodist Church and a message for the Vespers in the Garden series on Sunday evening at Grace UMC in Newburgh. The Vespers message is special because we are also dedicating a cross that was given to the church back in September in memory of 9/11. I hope that you will be able to come up to Grace for this important moment in church and town history.
For the Vespers series, we have always used the Common Lectionary and there are subtle differences in the Common and Revised Common Lectionary. One is that part of the Old Testament reading for next Sunday is the concluding part of the Old Testament reading for today. And that leads me to the title for today’s message.
In theory one can travel back in time and in writing these three sermons I am traveling, at least in thought from next Sunday evening to next Sunday morning to today. So, if by chance, I sound like I don’t know if I am coming or going, at least you will know why. But I hope that you can come up to Newburgh next Sunday, knowing that in part what I say Sunday night comes from what I am saying today.
There are some who believe that the Bible is a fixed and unchanging document; one that we should just leave alone. But such a document quickly becomes something that we read when we have time and interest. But if you feel, as I do, that the Bible is a living document then one can find one’s own passions, desires, thoughts, and feelings in the passages.
That would, I think, be the case in reading the Old Testament passage for today. There are very few people today who cannot relate to David’s cry of anguish when informed that his son Absalom had died. And David’s cry is even more painful when we know that David had specifically told his troops that they were not to harm Absalom, even though Absalom had instigated the rebellion against David. We are not told in the reading for today but it was Joab, one of David’s commanders, who killed Absalom and that he did so because he was sometimes at odds with what David wanted to do.
The death of Absalom effectively ends the rebellion and peace, as it were, is restored to the kingdom. But one has to ask how there can there be peace in a country recently divided. It is a question that has haunted this country for over one hundred years and one for which the Bible doesn’t always provide a clear answer. Or does it?
We are a nation that is still split, not just along racial lines but economic lines and cultural lines. We see war as the penultimate solution and are unwilling to do that which will prevent future wars. We lead lives that are counter to the examples that are given in the Bible for us to follow.
Paul writes to the Ephesians and speaks of changing the way one lives. Paul says that it is perfectly acceptable to be angry but don’t let that anger serve as fuel for revenge. And yet, when we are attacked, when we are slighted or wrong, our thoughts are to seek revenge. Paul speaks of getting an honest job so that we can help others who can’t work; yet we often express the thought that everyone is on their own when it comes to work and success. When President Kennedy spoke before the press following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, he spoke of victory and success having a thousand fathers but failure was an orphan. We have taken that statement and made success the product of individualism and those who do not succeed as failures.
We have taken the very notion of Christ’s love, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, as unconditional and made it conditional. We expect something, much if one listens to many of the television preachers, in return for our acknowledgment of God’s love.
We ignore Jesus’ words about who is in charge and expect that we, mere mortals, are capable of discerning what God is thinking. And we will not allow others to have any thoughts about Jesus, God, Christianity, or religion unless they are exact carbon copies of our own thoughts and beliefs.
We are at a point in time, a place in history, where we must make a choice. We know the numbers, we know the prediction that tell us that unless something is done and done soon, the United Methodist Church will be, quite literally, extinct within twenty-five years. There are those today who believe that religion will die out in that time frame as well.
Yet, those who predict the demise of religion offer nothing better as an alternative. At least the prophets in the Old Testament offered an alternative, even if the people often times ignored them. I would agree that any religion which speaks with more of a human voice or which offers alternatives that are different from the scriptures that they claim to derive their authority from probably deserves to die.
Jesus pointed out that the religious authorities of His day were not the one’s in charge, even if that was what they told the people. Christ came to this world, not to follow His own will or do what we would have Him do, but to do God’s will..
We cannot begin to discern God’s will if we are bickering amongst ourselves or relying on others to direct our path. The one problem that I have with current thoughts in the United Methodist Church is that those who lead the church have an absolute and true understanding of what must be done to revitalize the denomination.
I also know that one statement will get me into more hot water than anything else I may say. I can hear the voices of my mother in one ear and my father in the other saying, “Tony, don’t rock the boat. Go with the flow and don’t cause trouble.” But if Jesus had not rocked the boat some two thousand years ago; if Jesus had not challenged common opinion about the poor, the sick, the forgotten people, and the oppressed, where would we be today.
If John Wesley had merely taken the assignment as an Anglican priest and just did his parish work, would we even have a Methodist Church today? I wrote a piece the other day that I hope gets published. In it, I used the quote that Edward Kennedy used when he eulogized his brother Robert, “he saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
I am reminded that John Wesley’s answer to the lack of health care in 18th century England was the establishment of a health clinic and the publication of a book of medical cures. He saw people in debtors’ prisons because they could not pay their debts (something which is returning to this country today) and he established the first credit union. He saw the need for children to be educated and he helped begin the first Sunday School. And when there was a cry for people to bring the Word of God to the colonies, he sent men over to lead the ministry.
The answer to the crisis before us lies, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, not in the stars but in us. We must look around and where we are today and ask what it is that we can do, no matter how many or how few we may be, to bring the Word of God to the people of this community. We must look around and ask what are the needs of this community and how can we, individually or collectively, as one group or with others, provide the solution.
I heard a quote the other day that intrigued me: “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” Part of the intrigue was that I misunderstood who said it. I thought it was Arthur C. Clarke but I determined, with the aid of modern technology, that is was an individual named Joel A. Barker. I have never heard of this individual but I discovered that his claim to fame is that he took the notion of the paradigm shift, first proposed by Thomas Kuhn in relation to the idea of scientific ideas, and applied it to business models.
While I find that idea interesting, I also know that many individuals use the term “paradigm shift” without knowing what it means or involves. What I do know is that Jesus Christ offers a radical new idea, a paradigm shift if you will, to those who are willing to follow Him.
He speaks of the Bread of Life, of the sustenance that leads to eternal life. He offers each and everyone who takes of this Bread the opportunity for eternal life. This is the penultimate paradigm shift; it transforms our lives from a mere day-to-day existence to one that can change the world.
Some will hear this offer and ignore it. Some will hear this offer and say that one person can never change the world. But Jesus was one person and he did in fact change the world. That we are here this morning is proof of that. There is a proverb that basically states that life is a journey that begins with a single step. What shall your next step be? You can choose not to follow Jesus today. It is the safe bet because you know that the world will not change and what was out there when you came here this morning will be there when you leave.
Accepting Christ, choosing to follow Him down whatever road it may lead, does not meant that world outside changes. But you will have changed, changed in a way that others will see. In your words, your thoughts, your deeds, and your actions, people will see that Christ is a part of your life. They will see the love that God has for each one of us and they will want to be a part of that. When you care for someone because they are in trouble or need and not for your own gain, the world will begin to change. So we begin with a step; what is your next step?