I am again at the New Milford (NY)/Edenville United Methodist Church in Warwick, NY, this morning. Their services start at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this morning, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, are 1 Kings 8: (1, 6, 10 – 11), 22 – 30, 41 – 43; Ephesians 6: 10 – 20; and John 6: 56 – 69.
In 1924 someone asked George Mallory why he continued trying to climb Mount Everest after having failed in two previous attempts. It has been said that his reply was “because it is there.” Mallory and a climbing companion would disappear on what was to have been the third attempt and their bodies would not be found until some 75 years later. Even today, it is not clear whether they had been successful in making the summit of Everest. In 1953 Edmund Hillary (now Sir Edmund Hillary) and Tenzing Norgay would be the first to successfully reach the summit and return to base camp.
Mallory’s comment about doing something because of the challenge it presented has been used numerous times since he first made that remark not quite 100 years ago. It was the allusion that President Kennedy sought to invoke when he spoke before a crowd at Rice University in 1961 and laid out the rationale for a manned space program and the goal of reaching the moon before 1970.
He spoke of the challenges and the dangers that were inherent in such a task. He also asked a question often either overlooked in rememberances of that speech. President Kennedy asked, “Why does Rice play Texas?” Those assembled that day in Houston knew that Rice played Texas every year in football and did so because it was a conference game and with the knowledge that, at that time, Texas would probably win. Still Rice played Texas each year with the hope that success would be theirs one year. If one were to face only those challenges that one could overcome, they would not be challenges; they would be commonplace occurrences.
It is ironic that I choose to use President Kennedy’s remarks on the same weekend that we learned that Neil Armstrong, the first to walk on the moon, died. Mr. Armstrong was a test pilot, chosen for the Gemini and Apollo missions because he had the ability to see the challenges and make the right decisions at the right times.
You may recall his Gemini 8 mission where a thruster rocket misfired and caused his spacecraft to wildly gyrate in space, at rates that threatened the safety of the crew. This mission was the first time this country learned of the dangers and hazards of space. Somewhere along the line, space travel became routine and blasé instead of challenging with risks of danger. The Challenger and Columbia disasters would remind us that space travel is neither routine nor blasé.
It would seem to me that we as a society today no longer seek the challenges before us. We are quite content with the present, hoping and preparing for tomorrow as if tomorrow will be no different than today. One report indicates that our children can expect a life no better than the present; that despite the fact that their parents’ incomes were substantially better than their grand-parents, their incomes will be no better than their parents. It is as if the Red Queen’s comment to Alice, “My dear, here we must run twice as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that” in “Alice in Wonderland” has become a reality of life instead of a line in a fictional story.
Faced with that sort of outcome, we hold onto very tightly to the present, so much so that we cannot even begin to wonder how it was that we got here in the first place and how we will get anywhere in the future. And if we cannot get anywhere, no matter where that may be, then we have to begin wondering what our purpose is for life.
And, of course, that is the reason and the rationale for the title of this message. What is the purpose? Why have we gathered here this morning? What is it that we hope to gain? One could answer with the words from the hymn, “We Gather Together” (Hymn #131). We have gathered here to ask the Lord’s blessing on us; we have gathered here to worship Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
But I am afraid that many, while agreeing with those ideas, may also have forgotten what was the rationale for the beginning of the church and what the mission of the church was and should be. They forget that those who formed the early church, the church before the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity acceptable and legal, often times gathered in fear, fear that their neighbors would turn them into the Roman authorities as enemies of the state. We forget that the symbol of the fish that we sometimes use to symbolize Christ and Christianity is an acroynm derived from the Greek letters ΙχθΥΣ, which meant “Jesus Christ, God’s Savior, Son” and was used so that Christians could identify each other.
We see the church today in a completely different light, one that does not shine well on what it is supposed to be and what it should be. Instead of being the place of refuge for the weak and the needy, it has become a sanctuary for those who wish to escape the fear and turmoil of the world.
We hear the words of Solomon dedicating the temple and announcing that people will come from far and away because they have heard about the God, the One True God, who is now a part of the lives of the Israelite community. And yet today, when our churches are to be open to the community, in honor of this pledge made so many years ago, our churches are often closed to those who are in need, both spiritually and physically..
Just as the early disciples did, we hear the words of Jesus. And it is quite apparent that many of those today who have heard those words today have also chosen not to follow them, choosing instead to build a church that is a temple to themselves more often than it is a place of worship for God.
I have said it before and probably from this pulpit but it is always interesting going from town to town, village to village, in this part of the country and seeing all the Methodist churchs. One can begin to imagine the 18th century circuit rider going from church to church bringing the Good News of Christ to the people. Sometimes he rode to a place and called upon those gathered together but most of the time the circuit rider came to places where believers had gathered. For some Jesse Lee is the name of two churches in Connecticut but I would hope that for others he is one of the circuit riders who along with Francis Asbury and Freeborn Garrettson, brought the Gospel message to these parts. This church, along with so many others in the Hudson Valley, has its roots in the efforts of the circuit riders and the early American Methodist movement to bring the Good News to a thirsty and hungry population, a population that could not necessarily meet in the established Anglican churches of 18th century America. We sometimes forget that being a Methodist at that time made one an outcast in society.
Several years ago, there was a church that was quite known for its support of the Native American community and of its many social activities. It was one of those churches formed from the efforts of the early settlers and the circuit riders. But it had a history that often was forgotten in the course of the church’s day to day existence.
People would come from miles around to be a part of these activities. And while the people would gather on the grounds of the church in friendship and fellowship, very seldom did anyone ever ventured into the church. And no one asked if the church was ever open. The people came for the food and the fellowship but not to worship. And the people who belonged to the church saw the events, not as part of the worship of the church, but as a means of keeping the building open. No invitations were ever made to those who came to the events to return for worship on Sunday and ultimately the church closed. And now, as it sits on the side of the road and cars roar by, it is a monument to days past.
It is a daunting challenge to keep a church open; it is an even more daunting challenge to meet the purpose of the church, the purpose first formed some two thousand years ago when people gathered in secret and in fear in order that they might worship Christ. And even after they were able to meet openly, there was still a fear. I can be like some and read the words of Paul to the Ephesians for today as a call to arms and war; it would only be natural to do so when Paul tells the people of Ephesus to put on the armor of God. And there are those who see daily life as a battle between good and evil, between God and Satan. I am not saying that life should not be seen in those terms but if we say that Christ is the Prince of Peace, how can we use warfare to defeat evil, in whatever form it may take? On the other hand, if as Paul wrote, our weapons are truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation, then God’s armor gives us that single added dimension that will allow us to prevail.
We have gathered here today, in part to be refreshed, in part to be inspired. We are like those who have gathered at this spot so many times in the past. We have to wonder what purpose there is jn our gathering. We have to wonder, as so many others did, two thousand years ago, what path we will take when we leave here. We can be like many, hearing the words of Jesus and realizing that the challenge is too great, that what Jesus is asking us to do is to great a task. Or we can also hear the words of Peter that we are committed to the task that Jesus sets before us, knowing that the purpose of our life comes in that commitment. And we know that from Christ will come that which we need to meet the challenges, whatever they may be, wherever they may lead, in the coming days.