I am at Sloatsburg United Methodist Church again this Sunday, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost. Services there start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Kings 19: 1 – 15, Galatians 3: 23 – 29, and Luke 8: 26 – 39.
Maybe I should have entitled this message “What are you doing here?” because that’s the question God asks Elijah. But I am, personally perhaps, more interested in the question implied in God’s question but not recorded, “Elijah, where are you going?” There is also another question implied, “And what are you going to do when you get there?”
When I look at the world around us today; when I read of the changes taking place all over the globe, and how people are reacting to those changes, I cannot help but think of what Elijah did.
Review the past few weeks – Elijah has challenged and brought to shame the authority of the leadership of Israel. For his efforts, proper and done in the name of God, he is now on the run for his life and wanting to die. I always get the feeling when I read this passage that Elijah is absolutely convinced that he has been abandoned, that there are no other believers left in the nation of Israel and no matter how good his work or how true to God he might be, it is all in vain.
And how much does that resonate in today’s world? Now, it is probable that the title of my message is more rhetorical than physical. I presume that you will be going home after church and to school or work tomorrow. But I also wonder and worry about where you might be going with your life.
I do not wish the following statement to be hyperbole nor do I wish to make it sound like a tired, worn-out cliché but this civilization, this society, collectively and individually may very well be headed in the wrong direction. And I fear that, under the present conditions, there is nothing that can truly change that direction.
Our direction is based on what we perceive to be the state of the world and the state of the world is a question for the soul, not the body. I have become convinced that politics, the expression of the body, can no longer provide an acceptable answer.
And if the body politic cannot provide an acceptable answer, then the answer must come from the soul. I have no direct evidence but I think that number of people who seek such answers, answers to question that come from the soul, is increasing. A portion of the population is appropriately named “the seekers” because they are seeking answers and they are, in my opinion, not finding them or not finding adequate answers.
And it does not help that the one place, the one location where such questions can be answered is the church and yet the numbers tell us that each year, churches die. We are staring at a situation where the United Methodist Church as a denomination will be dead within the next twenty-five years.
Now, I do not know about you but I am neither prepared for that nor do I wish to see it happen. What the United Methodist Church means to me is more than just a few hours on a Sunday and an opportunity to stand in various pulpits throughout the New York/Connecticut District of the New York Annual Conference. I like doing that but I do it because it is part of an unstated commitment I made many years ago. If the United Methodist Church had not been a part of my life when I was 18, when I was seeking answers to the question of the soul, the odds are very good that I would not be in this pulpit today and my soul would not have the certainty of Christ. I cannot speak to my physical presence but my spiritual presence would almost certainly have been lost.
So where will those today who seek answers to the same sorts of questions that I had some forty-five years ago find their answers, where will they find Christ in their future if there is no church, if there is no gathered group of believers?
How can I not work to make sure that there is a United Methodist Church beyond 2040, even if I am no longer a part of this world? And perhaps the rebel in me says that I have to do what I think God has called me to do and not what others may say or suggest?
To see the future, to know where, in those terms, one is going, we may very well need to remember where we have been. It is not so much, as the philosopher George Santayana once said, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it but rather if we remember where we were headed perhaps we can determine how it is that we lost our way.
When I was in high school from 1963 to 1968, this country and this whole world were focused on going to the moon. Granted, most people saw this effort as a political race between the United States and the Soviet Union and it was as much as measure of the relative nature/worth of each form of government but it was also a scientific endeavor based on our own human nature to explore the boundaries of our world.
And while we were pushing the limits of knowledge from here on earth to beyond the moon and towards the stars, we were also pushing and refining the meaning of equality among people. We began to see the world and our relationship with others in a new way.
There are many who say that is when we lost our direction and began to move away from God. But was it not God who gave us the ability and the insight to find a path to the moon and beyond? Was it not God from Whom we got our sense of wonder and creativity and ability to ask questions and find answers?
Where did our sense of equality come from, if not from God?
But as the Viet Nam war took more and more of our resources, both in material and human terms, we moved further and further away from exploration.
And today, as we are engaged in another war in a faraway land, a war which continues to drain our resources and takes away the young, we are seeing the efforts to build equality fifty years ago stripped away by those who are happy with a status quo not unlike society was when Jesus walked the back roads of the Galilee.
There are those who seek the status quo, who proclaim poverty as the sign of sin and wealth a sign of righteousness, who seek to enact laws that tell us what to think and what to do and what to say, all in the name of God and security.
They would and are gladly turning our schools in factories where students graduate with only the ability to complete mindless tasks without question but are incapable of seeing into the future and questioning the state of things today. And sadly too many people today are quite willing to accept that type of society and the notion that it represents freedom.
When you accept that sort of society, when you allow others to tell you what to say and what to think and how to act each day, it does not matter whether it is today or two thousand years ago for it is slavery no matter how you look at it.
Paul told the Galatians that they were no longer children protected by their tutors and the law but adults free to move beyond the the boundaries of the law. I read Paul saying that there are great opportunities for the people of Galatia because they have found Christ. As Christ pointed out, he had come to fulfill the law and that gives us great opportunities.
John Kennedy, speaking in 1959, said that “when written in Chinese, the word crisis has two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” There are many great opportunities and yet when we look to the future, when we see change, we see danger and refuse to go.
A few years ago, in preparation for using today’s Gospel reading, I read about the contradiction included in it. Jesus healed the man and drove the demons out of him and into some hogs, which then stampeded over a cliff. The people, instead of rejoicing that one of the friends had been cured were angry that the hogs had been destroyed and their income lost.
Why would they be angry at the lost of some hogs? Now, as a graduate of the University of Iowa and having grown up in the Midwest, I know several farmers who would be that way. But Jews do not eat pork, so why were they angry? Because, evidence suggests that the buyers of the hogs were the soldiers in the Roman garrison located in that town. And the main job of those soldiers was to enforce the Pax Romana by military power and the suppression of the people. I cannot speak for others but it boggles my mind that the Jews of this town would sell stuff to the very people charged with keeping them in slavery. Oh, I know some will tell me that those who raised the hogs were probably making a very good profit and that countered the oppression that they lived under.
I am also reminded of the time when Curt Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. According to the baseball rules of the time, he had to either accept the trade or retire; there were no other options available. Flood was making, I believe, something on the order of $90,000 per year, an exceptionally good salary in 1969 But he did not have the opportunity to negotiate his salary or decide on his place of employment. In one sense, he was a slave to the owners of the ball club. Most sportswriters at the time attacked his assertion that the reserve clause made him feel like a slave. When Howard Cosell asked him how someone earning $90,000 a year, one of the top salaries in the game at the time, could feel like a slave, he responded, “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave.” (http://money.cnn.com/2006/11/20/commentary/sportsbiz/)
The people in the town may have been well compensated for feeding the Roman troops but that did not give them their freedom. And we have too many people today who are quite willing to accept that same sort of situation because they believe it gives them their freedom. But look around and tell me if what is transpiring in this world is truly freedom, or merely a maintenance of the status quo and an enrichment of the ruling classes.
There is presently a discussion, perhaps an academic one, about the nature of Christianity and the seeming lack of a liberal Christian viewpoint. Now, if you haven’t figured out yet, I do not see how one can say that one is a Christian and a conservative. I have yet to meet a conservative Christian who would be willing to give up everything they have, including their life, for Christ. Their answers to an problem are to let someone else do it or that the people who are seeking help do not deserve the help or just looking for a handout.
I know that there are those who seek the handout but if that was true for all the poor, the homeless, the economically distressed, and the oppressed, why did Paul say to the Galatians that there was no difference between people in God’s eyes? Why did Jesus take pity on so many individuals that had been cast aside and thrown away by the society of his day, the man in today’s Gospel reading being a prime example.
I know that it is not fashionable to use the liberal word today but that is because it is so abused. And those who call themselves liberals are often no better than than those who call themselves conservative. But one thing is clear, a Gospel message that speaks of helping the homeless, the poor, the sick, the downtrodden, and the oppressed can hardly be conservative. A Gospel message that speaks of reaching out to all people and bringing them to the Kingdom of God cannot be called conservative.
I know that this is not a popular idea; as a society, we still cling to our 17th century belief about poverty. At least we don’t throw our mentally ill people into prisons for the criminally insane. But to preach the Gospel message that Jesus came for all and all who come to Jesus are saved is not a popular message. When one challenges the status quo, as Elijah did and as Jesus did, one risks running for one’s life as Elijah did or dying as Jesus did.
There are many who are not willing to go down that path. How about you? Shall we take the path that says that by following Christ, we can change the world? That is what we, the people called Methodists, have done and it is what we, the people called Methodists should be doing today.
I will conclude with idea presented by Dr. David Watson of the United Theological Seminary,
To be clear, as a Wesleyan, I am thoroughly committed to the Church’s role in transforming society. . . . Our work in society, however, must be grounded in a full-bodied conception of the nature and work of the Holy Trinity.” (“Issues-based Christianity”)
Three thousands years ago, Elijah was headed in the wrong direction, truly believing that there was no hope in the world. In a world that believed in the mighty and powerful, he found God in the small and the quiet things. And he turned around, went to Damascus, found a group of souls who hadn’t surrended to the world and changed the order of life.
Forty-five years ago, I was probably headed in the wrong direction, truly believing that what I was doing would get me into heaven. But my concerns for good works probably blinded me to the true path. Fortunately, I had a minister who cared enough about where I was headed and he helped me change the direction I was headed.
We have the opportunity and the challenge to change the direction that this society, this civilization, and this denomination are headed provided we listed to the directions from God, provided that we are grounded in the full-bodied concept of the nature and work of the Holy Trinity. It begins when we recognize that Christ is our Savior; it begins when we open our heart and our mind to the Power of the Holy Spirit and it begins today.
We may be headed home today; I will be going back to Grace UMC, Newburgh, to say good bye to our pastor Frank Windom (I will also be doing so at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen with the message “Two Roads”) but, if we have heard the call from God, we will go where He calls us and we will engage in the work that He calls us to do.