I am at Sloatsburg United Methodist Church again this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany. Services there start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures (as somewhat noted in the message) are Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21. I also gave part of this message on Saturday at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. I was also there last week; unfortunately I had a problem with my hard drive and the flash drive where I store my files. As a result, I lost the electronic copy of last week’s sermon (still got the hard copy though) and was unable to post it to the blog.
When I began thinking about this message, I was specifically looking at the Epistle reading for today (1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31) and Paul’s thoughts on the gifts and talents of the people in the Corinthian congregation. And because of something one of my cousins, Paul Schuëssler, a Lutheran minister, gave me several years ago about the structure of church membership (see “The Structure of Church Membership”), I thought that was the path this message was going to take.
But then some other things happened and I began to wonder if there wasn’t another path that my mind and thoughts should take.
One of those things that changed the direction was the Old Testament reading for today (Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10). As I read it and thought about it, it occurred to me that thinking about the part of the church inside the church walls might be a little limiting.
You see, the passage from Nehemiah is probably the first time that women and children are specifically mentioned as being part of the gathering. Most of the time, when you read about a gathering of people in either the Old or New Testament, any discussion of numbers is always in terms of the men present; women and children are assumed to be present but only as an after-thought.
When the writer of Matthew refers to the feeding of the multitudes, first the 5000 and then the 4000, he is referring to the men that are there. In actuality, there may have been close to 20,000 men, women, and children present each time.
Now, how can you think about the people inside the church as being the only one who are parts of the church? Those individuals may be, as my cousin Paul described, the visionaries, the resources, the learners and the activists that guide and direct the nature of the church but there are many, many more people who are a part of the church, especially if you move, and one has to move, beyond the walls of the church.
And that is what brings me to the other thoughts that changed what I was thinking before I began writing these words.
I had the chance the other day to view the documentary “Ripple of Hope.” It is about the night of April 4, 1968 and what transpired in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Senator Robert Kennedy had come to Indianapolis to participate in a campaign rally in his bid to obtain the Democratic Party nomination for President. But as word spread across the nation about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that day, violence and anger seemed to erupt almost simultaneously. Many individuals, both city officials and Kennedy campaign staffers, felt that the threat of danger was too great and that for his own security, Senator Kennedy should cancel the rally.
But Senator Kennedy chose to attend the rally, perhaps fully knowing the risks involved and perhaps equally aware that individuals would seek to use the rally as a provocation for hatred, anger, and violence. But he was also aware that many individuals were already gathering at the campaign rally sight and were probably unaware of what was transpiring in Memphis and across the nation.
After telling the crowd that had gathered what had occurred in Memphis that afternoon, Senator spoke from his heart and soul as much as from his mind that he understood how people felt at that moment and how their natural instincts were to strike out in vengeance and retribution. But he also said that violence could never replace justice and to seek a violent solution would vindicate those who opposed Dr. King’s work, not honor it.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. (from Wikipedia)
Senator Kennedy concluded by reiterating his belief that the country needed and wanted unity between blacks and whites and encouraged the country to
“dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.”
When he was finished, he asked the people gathered there to go home and pray for the people and the country. It is remarkable to note, that on a night marked by violence in every major city in this country, there were no riots or acts of destruction in Indianapolis, such were the power of the words that Robert Kennedy spoke that night.
At the end of the film is a scene at Senator Kennedy’s grave in Arlington Nation Cemetery. Carved in the granite wall memorial are words that he spoke in Cape Town, South Africa on June 6, 1966 for the University of Durbin’s “Affirmation Day” celebration.
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. (from http://rfksafilm.org/html/speeches/unicape.php)
Where are the ripples of hope in today’s society? It is a question that pertains very much to why we are here today (both at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen and at Sloatsburg United Methodist Church).
This is, as you well know, a United Methodist Church. I will not spend time on why it is a United Methodist Church but on why it is that we are those people called Methodists.
John Wesley never sought to create a new denomination; all he sought to do was reform the Church of England. He saw a church that failed to meet the spiritual needs of the people and a society that failed to meet the physical and social needs of the people as well. He saw a church community that built walls around the church in order to keep those outside the church from ever entering the church and he saw people who made sure that anyone from the outside would be very unwelcome should they ever find a way around the walls and barriers erected to keep them out.
He also had questions about his own salvation and what it would take for his soul to find peace. He saw the path to salvation as a strict obedience to the perceived laws of God.
In 1729, his brother Charles, along with a number of other students at Oxford University, found the Holy Club. They would gather on a regular basis and began to develop a systematic way of life that would enable them to answer the same set of questions that perplexed John Wesley; how does one truly achieve salvation? Because of this regular and systematic approach, other students derided them by calling them “Methodists.” This approach not only included regular prayer and worship but the beginnings of a prison ministry, a credit union to help the poor and indigent, a community health organization, and a Sunday School for the education of children. As a result, two things happened.
First, the early Methodist ministers, both in England and here in America, were barred from preaching in the pulpit of the Church of England. Wesley would go into the fields, the mines and the factories and preach because that was were the people were. He once said that it was easier to preach the Gospel there than in a church because the people in the fields would listen. And the people in the fields, factories, and mines were unable to come to the church, then perhaps the church should come to them.
The other thing that happened was something that actually did not happen. England in the 1700s was on the verge of a political and social revolution, the same revolutionary spirit that swept across America and created this country. Many historians will tell you that the only thing that prevented England from undergoing the same violent revolution that swept France a few years after the American Revolution was the efforts of those associated with the Methodist Revival and John Wesley.
Why did John Wesley seek to change the way his church worked? Why did John Wesley and those that formed the early Methodist groups and societies seek to reach out to others, others that the church ignored?
I think that the answer and our response today can be found in an earlier part of the speech that Robert Kennedy gave to the students at the University of Durbin. He said
We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because (of) the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.
What are the right things that we must do? It seems to me that John Wesley and the early Methodists understood that it was imperative to treat all people the same if for no other reason that what Robert Kennedy would say later, it is the right thing to do.
When Jesus stood before the people in his home synagogue in Nazareth, he took the scroll and read,
God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”
Jesus would then begin his ministry, not there in the synagogue, but in the countryside, moving from town to town, healing people and offering words of hope. His call to the people was an open call, even to those who, because of some rule or regulation or perhaps because of where they were born, were barred from access to the Temple.
We know that there were many who did not like this ministry. Comfortable inside their own synagogues, they did not like to hear that Jesus and his followers would preach.
But those outside the walls of the church rejoiced in the message, for it was the first time anyone had ever paid attention to them because of who they were and not because those who came wanted to use them for their own selfish purposes. And the world changed.
The same was true when John Wesley and other early Methodists, fueled by the Holy Spirit, went into the fields, the factories, and the mines. This may have been the first time that the people there had ever heard the Gospel or known that other people truly cared about them. And the world changed.
It may seem, especially today, that one individual can do very little in the world. But Robert Kennedy spoke words of love and peace to people filled with anger and hatred and it changed the world.
Jesus preached the same message and told us to go out into the world, to preach the message of good news and announce the pardon of prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and to set the burdened and battered free. If we do as John Wesley did, seek to follow Christ and open our hearts, our minds, and our souls as so many others have done before us, then the world will change.
If we let the Holy Spirit come to us, as it came to Saul on the road to Damascus when he became Paul or as it came to John Wesley that night that we call Aldersgate, then we can create that ripple of hope that Robert Kennedy spoke of that will begin the wave that sweeps down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
We can begin to do that when we make our part of the world part of the church.