“One Life To Live”

This was the message I presented at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church (Bartlett, TN) for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (B), 31 August 1997. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Song of Songs 2: 8-13; James 1: 17-27; and Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23.  (This has been edited since it was first published.  Not sure why I had it listed as the 14th Sunday after Pentecost but my records suggest that it should be the 15th Sunday.)

There have been a number of reports in the news recently about drivers affected with what has become known as “road rage.” You can tell who these drivers are; they are the ones who rapidly change lanes, who come up behind you on the interstate driving faster than everyone else and flash their lights at you so that you will get out of your way. In the most extreme cases, they will even use their cars as battering rams or pull out a gun and shoot you. While these reports focus on towns such as Los Angeles where the car has become a part of daily life; we, as drivers in Memphis, know all too well that this “disease” is a part of the driving process here as well. And while I would like to think that going to work at 5 in the morning and coming home at 3 in the afternoon, supposedly non-peak driving times, would offer refuge from such drivers, I have seen too many examples of this phenomenon.

I really do not see nor do I understand why people want to drive this way. But I do know that this lack of civility is not limited to just the roads. I have seen people at the airport become irritated by delays in their flight and then blame the airlines, yet the reasons for the delay could not be controlled by the airlines. And I am sure that you have encountered people in your work who get angry if you do not take care of their request at that very moment. It is almost has if they have never heard the words of James,

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.

In our rush to gain a better life, I think we have forgotten how to live. One of my favorite passages from the old Testament is Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8

  • For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven:
  • a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
  • a time to kill, and a time to heal;
  • a time to break down, and a time to build up;
  • a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
  • a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
  • a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
  • a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
  • a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)This passage, along with the next verse “what gain have the workers for their toil?” (Ecclesiastes 3: 9), make even more sense when you know that the writer of Ecclesiastes, thought to be Solomon, wrote of the emptiness in his life even though his riches were seeming unlimited and he was widely acknowledged as the wisest man on earth.

Do we not feel the same way? We are seemingly forced by society into actions which leave us wanting but with no way to find solace in our long. With society’s demands on us, with the pressures of our peers to be like them, how can we continue being a Christian? This is perhaps the most difficult question facing Christians today. For as the church interacts with the secular world, it becomes more of the secular world and less of the spiritual world. What then, how can we exist in this world?

Do we pack up our bags and remove ourselves from society? Throughout history, there have been many cases of such decisions. Many monasteries were built as a means of providing the solitude and isolation from society the members of the community would need so that they could achieve a better spiritual life.

In our own American history, there are a number of instances where spiritual communities were built in an attempt to create an environment separate from contemporary society. The Amana colonies of Iowa are such an example.

Yet today, we know of the Amana colonies more for the quality of the appliances they built rather than the spiritual heritage that the colonies were built upon. While the appliances bearing the Amana name have longed been considered a good product, not many people know the history of the towns and the company that developed them. The same can be said for Shaker furniture. Shaker furniture is highly prized by antique dealers; yet the Shaker philosophy of simplicity is in direct contrast to the prices paid for the products of their work. So it is possible to be a Christian and gain wealth, but those who seek out Shaker furniture and Amana products probably know nothing of the Christian heritage that was behind those products. And that may be more of the problem than even we realize. We follow the ways of society without thinking about what society is demanding.

When the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples, they were not criticizing their culinary procedures but their failure to follow age-old traditions. Now, those age-old traditions came from what we would call common sense. It does make sense to prepare your food so that it is clean and safe to eat (and with all the news recently about food safety, that is even more the case today). But tradition practiced without an explanation soon loses its meaning. The culinary practices that the Pharisees demanded as tradition had come about from the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness many years before. And while the tradition of being clean had been kept, the reasons for the traditions had not.

As Jesus told the Pharisees,

“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
As James wrote,

If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

How are we to live our life? I entitled my sermon “One Life to Live” not because I am a soap opera fan but because we do have only one life to live. Jesus told his disciples, in response to the Pharisees’ criticism

“Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean'”.

“For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'”

Our actions in the world today reflect that which is in us.

Do not merely listed to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what is says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what he says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. but the man who looks intently into perfect law that gives freedom, and he has heard, but doing it — he will be blessed in what he does

This sermon should not be seen as an indictment of society even though both the Epistle and Gospel readings for today seemed to have a list of don’ts in them. There is a way to leave our lives that does lead to satisfaction. James started by telling us that.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

And I close with this thought

And you, too, youthful reader, will realize the Vision (not the idle wish) of your heart, be it base or beautiful, or a mixture of both, for you will always gravitate toward that which you, secretly, most love. Into your hands will be placed the exact results of your own thoughts; you will receive that which you earn; no more, no less. Whatever your present environment may be, you will fall, remain, or rise with your thoughts , your Vision, your Ideal. You will become as small as your controlling desire; a s great as your dominant aspiration . . .

In all human affairs there are “efforts”, and there are “results”, and the strength of the effort is the measure of the result. Chance is not. “Gifts”, powers, material, intellectual, and spiritual possessions are the fruits of efforts; they are thought completed, objects accomplished, visions realized.

The Vision that you glorify in your mind, the Ideal that you enthrone in your heart — this you will build your life by, this you will become. “As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen.

What will you become? What life will you live? As James said, we have been given a special gift, the gift of Jesus Christ. All we have to do to accept that gift is open our hears and allow Christ to reside within us.

“To Boldly Go”

This was the message I gave at my mother’s church in Memphis (actually Bartlett), TN, for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A), August 25, 1996. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Romans 11: 33 – 36, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20,

We have all heard the lines “These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise” and its closing refrain “to boldly go when no one has gone before.” We know these lines because they touch a part of us which likes to explore, to out there. It is the same spirit which lets mountain climbers to climb mountains “because it is there”. It is the same spirit which let President Kennedy to make the decision to go to the moon and land before the end of the 60’s.

Exploration is exciting; there can be no doubt about that. It offers challenges we do not encounter in everyday life and it takes us into areas where we have never ventured. With new knowledge, new horizons open, our abilities to do things expand. In research, we are often reminded that “the answer to one question often poses two more questions”. The announcement the other week that there may have been life on Mars is an example of what exploration offers. What this discovery mean; what effect it will have on our view of the universe, both physically and spiritually; these are questions only further exploration can answer.

But exploration is a two-edge sword. Even as we celebrate the prospect of exploration, we also sense a certain degree of uncertainty and possibly fear. Do we really want to know if there was life on Mars or if there is life somewhere else in the universe. What if the movie “Independence Day” is not just a science fiction thriller but a prelude of things to come?

Venturing into the unknown frighten us because it requires that we go beyond the comfort of what we know and into areas we have never been. It is very easy to see why people in the past feared the unknown.

Columbus chose to find India by a path never before tried, a bold move in light of the capabilities of the ships of the day. But because it was a different approach, we know that he had to “fudge the data” in the journal his sailors read so that they would not be afraid of this venture into the unknown.

Our own country’s growth was accomplished by bold strokes. Thomas Jefferson took a bold move, both in political and geographical terms, when he made the Louisiana Purchase. No one knew if the Constitution allowed the President to make such a purchase and no one knew what exactly was being bought. And while many looked at this opportunity as a wonderful time for exploration, there were those who questioned such a venture into the unknown.

Exploration can take place in our daily lives as well. We do not need to go to new places to venture into the unknown. The way we conduct our lives, the things we do every day, these are products of our own exploration.

What were the disciples thinking that day outside Caesarea Philippi. How did they view what they had been doing, following Jesus? It is hard to tell from the nature of the text if the disciples knew Jesus would ask them, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 15: 13 – 14)

These were answers based on familiarity, based on the world the people knew. People were not willing to take the bold step, to look at what might be and say that Jesus was the Christ. No one was willing to be the first and say that Jesus was who they knew him to be. Better to take the easy route than try something new.

Knowing how the first question was answered, we also have to wonder if the disciples were ready for the next question, “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 15: 15). Here Jesus was asking the disciples to take a step into the unknown. What would you say, what will you say when Jesus comes to you and asks you that same question? It should not be surprising then that the disciples hesitated answer the question which Jesus put to them.

Peter’s response , “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16: 16) to Jesus’ question changed the way we view the world. No longer was the word “church” used to describe an assembly of people. Now, it would describe a gathering of believers.

In giving Peter the keys to this new church, Jesus gave us the keys as well. All we have to do, all Jesus asks of us today, is to make the same bold commitment to a life in Him that Peter made.

Yes, accepting Christ as one’s Savior is a bold thing to do. It seems that everywhere we look in today’s society we see a world and environment that works against the very idea of Christ. There can be no tougher task than accepting Jesus Christ in your heart.

It would even seem that the world is going to get worse in the coming years. There are those today who paint the future in bleak and dark tones. What good will it do us if the future is not worth.

Exploration, taking that bold step into the unknown, requires trust. As we read from the Old Testament, every time the Israelites faced a crisis, they questioned Moses and they questioned God. First, it was the Egyptian army chasing them down; then it was the lack of food; then it was, as we read in today’s reading, the lack of water. With each crisis, God showed them that they had nothing to fear. Yet, they seemingly could not trust God. It is no wonder that Moses seemed frustrated by his efforts to lead the children of God to their Promised Land.

As the time came closer for Jesus to go to the cross, his disciples began to fear the future. But Jesus said,

Set your troubled hearts at rest. Trust in God always; trust also in me. There are many dwelling-places in my Father’s house; if it were not so, I should have told you; for I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I shall come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also; and you know the way I am taking.”

Thomas said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me.” (John 14: 1 – 6)

Is it possible that it is that simple? Should we be afraid to take such a bold step?

“One thing we owe to Our Lord is never to be afraid. To be afraid is doubly an injury to him. Firstly, it means that we forget him; we forget he is with us and is all powerful; secondly, it means that we are not conformed to his will; for since all that happens is willed or permitted by him, we ought to rejoice in all that happens to us and feel neither anxiety nor fear. Let us then have the faith that banishes fear. Our Lord is at our side, with us, upholding us.” From Meditations of a Hermit by Charles de Foucauld

When John and Charles Wesley returned to England in 1738 after their missionary service in Georgia, they both did so feeling as if they were failures. Prepared as he and his brother were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither man felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley was willing to say they trusted the Lord. Only after that moment in his life, which we have come to call the Aldersgate moment, could Wesley write with assurance,

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. And an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Only by accepting Christ as his personal Savior was John Wesley able to understand what direction his life was to take. Only by trusting Christ was Wesley able to gain the confidence necessary to insure the success of the Methodist revival.

Paul’s words of thanksgiving and praise now take on a deeper meaning. Through Jesus Christ, God grants us the necessary wisdom to see into the future and know that we need not fear it. It is not a guarantee that we will know every thing. No exploration ever answers all the questions. Even the Israelites still had to make the journey to the Promised Land.

The keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, given first to Peter so many years ago, have now been handed to us. All we need is accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior. It seems surprisingly simple that such a simple step can be so bold. But, when we accept Jesus Christ as our personal savior, we can then go boldly where few have gone before.

“Visions or Dreams?”

This is one of the first messages I ever gave in my lay speaking career. I had come down to Tennessee for a seminar and conference at Vanderbilt University so I arranged my flights so I could spend the weekend in Memphis with my family. (Besides, flying down over the weekend was cheaper than flying straight to Nashville for a Monday and Tuesday meeting.)

This was the 1st Sunday in Lent but I was still “picking and choosing my scriptures instead of using the lectionary as I do now (I don’t think that I was even aware of the lectionary readings at that time). So my starting scriptures for this message were 1 Samuel 17: 46 and Luke 23: 39 – 43.

As I was preparing this sermon, I was also preparing a chemical education seminar for presentation to the Chemistry Department at Vanderbilt University tomorrow and another talk dealing with computers, communication, and education for presentation on Wednesday. I hope to keep them straight, but if you learn anything about chemistry or computers today, count it as a bonus.

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry rose before the Virginia Convention and gave a speech that we may have read and perhaps even memorized. He closed that speech with these lines:

Gentlemen may cry peace, peace –– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it the gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me … give me liberty or give me death! (Patrick Henry, A Biography, Richard R. Beeman, 1974

With these words, Patrick Henry provided the spark that brought Virginia into the Revolutionary War. What was Patrick Henry thinking of as he spoke these inspiring words? What vision was before him that might have given him the power to speak them? From the available evidence, it appears that Patrick Henry’s wife was very mentally ill. While we have a somewhat enlightened attitude about mental illness today, the same was not true in the late 1700’s, when those who were mentally ill were locked away as criminals. Henry could have placed his wife in a mental institution but he chose to keep her at home, though locked away in the basement. This image of his beloved wife locked away in the basement of their plantation was probably the inspiration and vision that allowed him to speak the words “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”

Similarly, on another continent, another vision of freedom led to the following interchange between Joseph Butler, Bishop of Bristol, and John Wesley:

Butler – You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.

Wesley – My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever, therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay. (Frank Baker, John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript, August, 1739)

With these words, John Wesley began the preaching which eventually would lead to the formation of what is now the United Methodist Church. The vision that inspired Wesley to begin his ministry related to what was happening to the people of England during the Industrial Revolution, and what the Church of England, his church, was doing about it. Or rather what it was not doing.

At that time, only those who were members of the upper class were immune to the problems of long hours, limited health care, and the lack of education that the working class and poor had to contend with every day. Like Henry’s wife, these people were locked in the basement of society and not even the Church had an interest in feeding their souls.

For Wesley, the inaction and lack of compassion shown by the Church of England toward the poor was not what the Gospel was about. To him, the Gospel was more than a collection of words one read on Sunday and then forgot the next day. Nor was it reserved for one class of society. Rather, the Gospel was alive and something you lived every day. And it was available for all people. To Wesley and his early followers, if you had accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then your life and behavior reflected that acceptance. One way that was done was in how you treated individuals; even those of a lower class than your own. Were it not for the work of Wesley and the Methodist Revival in seeking to correct the many social problems of that period and the changing of many hearts by the Gospel message he (and others) preached, England would have undergone a far more violent social change than it.

Visions have long been a part of our heritage. We are all familiar with the story of Joseph in Egypt. The Pharaoh had a series of dreams which neither he nor his advisors were able to understand. Only Joseph was able to transform those dreams into a vision of the future and take action.

On more than one occasion Jesus Himself gave us a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God on earth was to be like. We find one such vision in John 1:42 where we read, “He [Andrew] brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephus (which means Peter – in Aramaic & Greek the rock.” In renaming Simon Peter, Jesus showed us the volatile, wishy–washy fellow who was to become the rock upon which He would build the Church.

What is our vision for the church today? Is our church built, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, on love? Is the mission of our church the one given to Peter? From Acts 1:3 – 18, we read

“…saying ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ But Peter began and explained to them in order: I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance, I saw a vision, something descending, like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came down to me. Looking at it closely I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter, kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘No, Lord: for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up to heaven. At that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brethren also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we first believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God? When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God.

Then so to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life. (Acts 10:3 – 1)

In this vision, Peter was shown that the Gospel is for everyone. Yet today, in a society split by race, creed, and economic status, is our church a beacon of hope and love for all those who seek Jesus? Does our church today reflect the concern for society and the well–being of its members that was expressed by both Jesus and John Wesley? We may have answers to these difficult questions but unless action is taken, these answers may only be our dreams. But today’s problems, generated by fear and hatred, will not go away by dreaming or even if we just ignore them.

Robert Kennedy, during that fateful presidential campaign in 1968, often quoted George Bernard Shaw, “You see things and say ‘why?’ I see things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’ We must transform our dreams about what the church is into a vision of what the church should be and can do.

But from where will the power come to make our vision reality? Where can we turn to find the power to deal with today’s problems? The Gospel still has the power to meet the problems we now face. But the Gospel alone will not make today’s problems go away. The only way we can solve these problems and transform ourselves and our church into the vision shown to us by Jesus is through action. Not just any action, but action powered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Consider David as he prepared for battle with Goliath:

“Then Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a helmet of bronze on his head, and clothed him with a coat of mail. And David girded his sword over his armor, and he tried in vain to go, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these; for I am not used to them.’ And David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near the Philistine.

And the Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield–bearer in front of him. And when the Philistine looked, and saw David, he disdained him; for he was but a youth, ruddy and comely in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, ‘am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.’

Then David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand. (Samuel 17:38 – 47)

David, armed only with a slingshot and his faith in God, could stand before Goliath while all the armies of Israel ran away. But it wasn’t David who defeated Goliath; it was the Holy Spirit. You can take all the armies in the world and they will still be defeated by the Holy Spirit.

It was the Holy Spirit which gave Jesus the wisdom to answer the questions in the temple when he was just a boy of twelve.

After three days they [Joseph and Mary] found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:41 – 52)

Today is the First Sunday in Lent. This is our time of preparation for the walk to Calvary; a time to reflect on how we live. It also that time when we can allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives.

The Pharisees sought to get rid of Jesus because they were not prepared for the Holy Spirit nor were they ready for the new church. The disciples were instructed to wait in Jerusalem until they received the power of the Holy Spirit, and then they were to go out and preach. A dream or vision not supported by the Holy Spirit is doomed to failure. How powerful is the Holy Spirit? It continually offers hope to all, even on the cross.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying,

‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man had done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.’

And He said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:39 – 43)

Wesley’s spirit was ignited by the flame of the Holy Spirit and with the Holy Spirit came the power to preach the Gospel and revitalize the people, the church and the nation.

So too can it be for us. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Holy Savior in our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to fill our lives, the dreams we have become visions, and we gain the power to turn those visions into reality.

Another One

This was the message that I gave at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Bartlett, TN, on 29 August 1993. This was the 12th Sunday after Pentecost but I used Mark 8: 27 – 37 as my Scripture reading and the basis for my message. This was the 7th message I gave in my career and I was still exploring how I was going to do things. I would begin following the common lectionary two years later when I served the churches of the Chattaqua Parish in Kansas (see “Hide and Seek”) and begin using the revised common lectionary when I moved onto Memphis in 1996.

Also, this was still early in the adaptation of technology to preaching, so you will find references to scripture readings instead of the reading itself. The pulpit was very crowded that Sunday as I had my printed notes and my Bible marked with pages to turn to when I needed to read the passage.

Good Shepherd was my mother’s church (hence the references within) and it would become my church when I moved from Kansas to Memphis.

When you read the text upon which this sermon is based, Mark 8: 27 – 28, you begin to wonder how the disciples phrased their answer. I don’t think that the disciples were surprised when people said that Jesus was another of the prophets. Now people are often surprised when they find out that I am Jenny LeBouef’s oldest son.

Now they know of her son Terry, who often plays guitar here at Good Shepherd, and possibly of Tim, a fireman here in Memphis and they know of Tracey, her daughter. But when they find out that she has an third, older son, their response is often “You mean there’s another one!”

I don’t think that the people used the term “another one” in disgust either. The story is often told about an early Methodist circuit rider named Nolley who

“. . . approached a settler unloading his wagon at a new homestead in Mississippi. When Nolley told the settler who he was, the settler exclaimed, ‘Another Methodist preacher! I left Virginia for Georgia to get clear of them. There they got my wife and daughter and I came here and here’s one before I got my wagon unloaded.’

Nolley replied, ‘My friend, if you get to Heaven, you will find Methodist preachers there, and if you go to Hell, I am afraid you will find some there; and you see how it is on earth, so you had better make terms with us and be at peace.'” (E. G. Watts, We Are United Methodists, Graded Press, 1987, page 31)

No, I don’t think it was with disgust either. On the whole, I think that, if you were to have asked people of that time who Jesus was, they probably would have answered “Oh, he’s just another prophet; we’ve heard them before.”

But Jesus wasn’t another prophet. The message he gave was far different from anything the prophets might have said or done. It was also a message never given in the synagogue and it was accompanied by actions which showed there was a power behind the words. Instead of gloom, it was a message of hope and joy and a vision for the future.

That this was an entirely different message is shown by the size of the crowds who came to hear Jesus, as we can read in Matthew 4:23 to 5:1. That this was a different message is also shown by the fact that people broke down age old differences and prejudices to seek out Jesus.

The Canaanite women        –    Matthew 15: 21 – 28

The women in the crowd        –    Mark 5: 25 – 34

Zaccaheus, the tax collector    –    Luke 19: 1 – 5

Today, our church faces a similar challenge. It must find ways to take the Gospel message outside the church walls; it must help those who have turned away to come back to Jesus.

I am speaking primarily of that generation we call the “baby boomers”, adults who during the 60’s turned away from the church and who are now seeking to return. I am also speaking of the children of this generation, known as the “baby busters”, who are now just making their own spiritual decisions. And close behind is another generation, the “baby boomlets”, whose spiritual well-being the church must concern itself with.

We hear and read that, in order to bring these groups into the church fold, the church must change. But too often churches change the message when it is the approach which must change.

The message Jesus gave us is still valid today but it cannot be presented in a language no one understands. The actions supporting the message must also reflect the message. “Boomers” left the church in the early 60’s in larger numbers than any other generation before in part because they no longer trusted the church. The message given by the church offered no hope or peace at a time when the country was torn apart.

The “boomers” went looking for a spiritual home but found a church whose message was as slick and superficial as the society they lived in. If we are not careful, the church today will lose the “busters” and the “boomlets” for the same reasons.

John Wesley understood the need for the church to present a message the people understood. A church blind to the needs of its members or its community cannot do its work. You cannot preach of the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood that an individual, having accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior, had the responsibility to show that he had done so. This meant helping the community

Now, English law prevented Wesley and the other early Methodist preachers from preaching in established churches and the law also made it difficult for their followers to build their own churches. This forced the Methodist Revival into the countryside. While this may have been intended to hold the movement down, it had the opposite effect because it took the Gospel message to the people. In taking the Gospel to the people, it became possible to put the Gospel into action.

A church which seeks to grow today, a church which feels the need to do more than exist from Sunday to Sunday must do two things. First, it must offer to all who seek it a chance to enter into that loving relationship with Jesus. Second, it must take its activities beyond the church walls.

Jesus never turned away anyone who sought His ministry. His disciples might have wished that he had ignored the Canaanite women but Jesus told her to come to Him. The scribes and Pharisees surely spoke ill of this man who would dare to eat with Zaccaheus, the tax collector and sinner. But Jesus’ ministry was not limited to a select few; it was open to all.

The Church of England in John Wesley’s time may have turned its back on the poor and lower classes but John Wesley knew that he could not do so.

Those who seek a spiritual home, those who are making that most important spiritual decision are all looking for that loving relationship that the church can provide. Will they find it?

The answer lies not with the pastor but with the people. The same studies that tell the church it must change if it is to grow also tell us that an individual returns to a church a second time if someone other than the pastor greeted them the first time they visited them.

We tell each other that Jesus loves us but do we show that love to others? Do we allow the Grace of Jesus Christ that is in our hearts, that warming of our souls, to be felt by others?

Today Jesus asks us the same questions he asked the disciples on the road to Caesarea Philippi: “But who do YOU say that I am?”
(Mark 8: 29)

Are we prepared to follow Christ as He asked in verses 34 – 38 of Mark 8?

When John the Baptist was in jail, he became concerned over the stories his followers told of this man from Galilee. – a reading from Matthew 11: 2 – 6

Could we respond the same way today?