I am preaching at 1st United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY, this morning. Here are my thoughts for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14.
(Additional note – the portion in italics was quoted in the United Methodist Nexus for 5 September 2007; the latter portion in bold was quoted in the United Methodist Nexus for 19 September 2007)
As part of my introduction this morning, I would add that I am the son of a United States Air Force officer and the grandson of a United States Army officer. To grow up as the child of a military officer in the 1950’s and the 1960’s often meant moving from one town to another, one air base to another almost every year. During that time I attended five different elementary schools, two junior high schools, and three high schools. While some may find this disconcerting and uncomfortable I think it gave me a view of the world that many do not often get to see. It did have its shortcomings though.
When I was a junior in high school, I felt that I was eligible for Mu Alpha Theta, the high school mathematics honor society. I was so certain of my eligibility that I started attending the meetings of the chapter in my high school. I was active in the society’s business and helped plan one of the regional meetings. Imagine how I felt when, at the end of the first semester that year, I was told that I was not eligible. Because I had transferred to the school, the school used a “formula” and, by this “formula”, I was not eligible.
Now, I don’t how you would feel about this. Many times honor societies are no more that social cliques and worthy of the Groucho Marx quote, “I would not be a member of any organization that would have me.” But I wanted to be a part of Mu Alpha Theta and I had been a part; to keep me out seemed rather ridiculous. So I made an offer to the faculty advisor. If I were to get a 98 on the Algebra II semester final, would they let me in? I supposed I could have picked 100 just to show that I had the abilities but I wanted a little bit of room. For the record, I scored a 99 (I still don’t know how I missed that one point) and I got my membership.
I tell this story because the Scriptures for today are about membership and the requirements for being a Christian. I want us to consider three questions today.
The first question is a very simple one, “Who can be a Christian?” It really doesn’t take much to be a Christian. You cannot make a deal with God to get into heaven or sit at His heavenly banquet. You must accept Jesus Christ as your Savior. The church is not an exclusive club with rigid rules that must be exactly and explicitly followed before you are allowed to join.
Yet, there are people today who will tell you that there are rules. Oh, they may not tell you exactly word for word what the rules are because the rules aren’t always written down. But they make it very clear that there are rules and you had better follow them if you wish to belong to their church.
Jesus lived in a society ordered by clear demarcations, sorting and separating people by an elaborate system of purity codes that stood as firmly as the Separation Wall that is being built in the Holy Land today and as some would like our borders to be today. These purity codes created no-trespassing zones of untouchability that had particular impact on the chronically ill, the disfigured or handicapped, on women, on foreigners and those of different ethnic groups and origins. Additionally, anyone with an unorthodox or questionable lifestyle was also on the wrong side of society’s boundary lines. This is the setting in which the parable of the banquet is told (1).
Yet Jesus frequently lifted up the faith and witness of those who had no legal standing in their own country. Samaritans were essentially persona non grata in the society of that time, yet it was a Samaritan woman from whom Jesus sought a drink and to whom He offered the well of living water (2). It was a Samaritan who helped the injured traveler after two outstanding members of society choose to walk on by (3). It is profoundly ironic that many contemporary followers of Jesus (or those who say that they are followers) hold to the very traditions of the law that Jesus so consistently broke in the name of a higher law (4).
Even today, some two thousand years later, we are still a community of believers whose thoughts about the laws of God threaten to divide and destroy the church.
At the last General Conference, delegates to the General Conference in Pittsburgh voted against a call to split the church. Conservative delegates to the General Conference brought a motion before the floor that would have split the United Methodist Church into two separate denominations, based on the views of the members on the issue of homosexuality. Though this motion was overwhelmingly defeated, those who brought the motion before the floor said that they will spend the next few years meeting with disaffected congregations and will probably seek to form a newer and more conservative branch of Methodism (5).
It almost seems as if we have forgotten Jesus’ own words that all are welcome at God’s table, not just the best or a select few. But this is one reason why people do not come to church. They see in the church an organization that excludes people, not welcome them.
The subdivisions that denominated society in Jesus’ time still dominate the church today. It seems that despite all we think and all we say, we are not always willing to accept other people’s ideas. This is not to say that we should accept clearly evil or wrong ideas but we should realize that other people have ideas as well. Many of today’s problems stem from an unwillingness of some to accept the notion that other people have ideas about God and Christ. Each of us has or will encounter Christ in a unique way. To say that my way or encounter is somehow better than yours or yours is somehow better than mine is as much a sin as murder or theft and, in the end, merely imposes rules that restrict one’s ability to find Christ.
Instead of judging the worthiness of those who are different, should we not look at our own lives and the opportunities that are presented to us each day? Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was killed by those opposed to his work with the poor and underclass, said that the ongoing process of conversion is itself the meaning of the church: “One cannot be part of this church without being faithful to [Jesus’] manner of passing from death to life, without a sincere movement of conversion and of fidelity to the Lord.” Archbishop Romero found that he had to rethink his preconceived notions about what – and who – makes the church (6). Perhaps we need to do so as well.
This leads to the second question. It is a slightly more difficult question, “What does a Christian do?” How willing are you to tell someone else that you are a Christian? To say that you are a Christian is to say that you hold to certain ideas and that you will act in a certain way. But today, while Jesus is still described as “caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, and sympathetic”, today’s Christians are likely to be described as “bigot”, “homophobe, “male chauvinist”, or “reactionary” (7). We have to wonder if we are on the same page, let alone in the same book.
It is really interesting to contrast the public perception of Christians with that of some two thousand years ago. If we had lived in the eastern area of the Mediterranean Sea during the beginning of Christianity, we might have seen, hastily scrawled on the walls of buildings, a crude outline of a fish. No big deal, we might think since we were walking through a fishing village.
To be a Christian in those days was to invite persecution. To be identified as a Christian was to risk arrest and trial, to be thrown into the arena to fight for one’s life against lions or gladiators. It was to invite death for what you believed. You could not greet others openly and you could not use the sign of the cross, for that would immediately label you as a threat. So you used a fish, for the Greek letters for the word fish are also the first letters of the Greek words for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”
People risked their lives and well-being to become Christians because they had seen the power of the Good News in transforming lives. And people saw in them a tranquility, simplicity and cheerfulness that were encountered nowhere else in the world around them (8). These are the characteristics that are described in the reading from Hebrews for today (9).
Christianity today is not the Christianity that swept across the Mediterranean Sea. Then it was a force that changed lives, now it seems to be a force that allows people to seek their own life, not the life that is given to us through Christ. We are more like the people of Israel whom Jeremiah castigates in today’s Old Testament reading (10).
The prophet Jeremiah tells us that the people of Israel pursued other gods; they lost sight of their identity as God’s chosen people. While they may have spoken of following and serving God, they worshipped false prophets and listened to false gods. Whereas God could offer water from the living well, the people put their faith in broken cisterns, unable to store water and useless in sustaining life. They had forgotten who they were and who had brought them to Israel.
They forgot how God had delivered them from oppression in Egypt and had given them food, water, and protection during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Each person sought to gain what they could and put themselves above others rather than reflecting on the help they received. Jesus’ parable for today reflects what many people did, have done, and continue to do today.
The third question for today is one of challenge and identity. What does being a Methodist mean? For me, to be a Methodist is to recognize that we do not have the perfection of Christ nor are we ever going to find it. But having come to Christ, we will work to reach that perfection and we will work to bring others to Christ. It means putting the words that Jesus first expressed in His synagogue some two thousand years ago into action today. As the writer of Hebrews put it,
Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name. And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God. (11)
And the thing to note about this passage is that we are to do good after we have declared our belief. Doing good before declaring our belief is no guarantee that we will gain what we seek.
I don’t think there is a person today that doesn’t remember what happened two years ago this past week. How can you not know? We are reminded and have been reminded each day for the past few weeks about the tragedy of Katrina, Rita, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast. We say that we are a Christian nation yet we have let our brothers and sisters down. We seemed to be more concerned that the casinos on the Gulf Coast are rebuilt bigger and safer than we are that homes in the 9th ward of New Orleans are.
The sad thing about all this talk about Katrina and the slowness of the recovery is that it is only the tip of iceberg. The destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is only the latest event in a series of events that demonstrates the lack of concern we have for people in this country. How long will we be a country that speaks of “family values” yet does not value the family? How long will we be a country where wealth is the goal and poverty is considered sinful? How long will we be a church where the prosperity gospel of wealth and abundance and not the Heavenly Kingdom is preached in the pulpit?
I know that countless people have gone to Biloxi and I know that not everyone can go. But if we are who we say we are, then why have we not, as Christians, cried out in anger at how we have treated our own brothers and sisters!? Is it because we would rather not think about it; is it because we would rather not bring the lower classes, the outcasts, and the refuse of society to our dinner table? Are we to forget that England in the period of time following the American Revolution almost underwent a similar fate as did France? Are we to forget that were it not for John Wesley and the Methodist Revival speaking out against the injustice done to the poor and lower classes, England would have undergone a similar violent revolution as did the French?
When Jesus stood in His home synagogue some two thousand years ago, he announced the Gospel, the Good News.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (12)
It was that Gospel that saved England; it will be that Gospel that defines where this country goes in the coming years. It will be through the Good News that the poor will be lifted out of poverty, the homeless will have shelter, the sick will be healed and the oppressed will find justice. This Gospel does not exclude and deny the right of people to be a part of God’s Kingdom because of their race, their income status, or their lifestyle.
The church today is in crisis today. We have probably lost one generation and are in danger of losing the generation after that. These young people see the hypocrisy of those who proclaimed Jesus as Savior but then shut the doors to the very people that Jesus ate with. Many churches today, even in the United Methodist Church, are more interested in a business-oriented line rather than a spiritual-oriented bottom line. They will tell you that the business of the church is to win disciples to Christ, and I will not argue with that point. But, if the homeless are not given shelter, if the poor are not given a chance to find work at wages so that they can feed their families; if the sick are not given adequate medical treatment, if the oppressed are never given an opportunity to see freedom, what good does it do to be a disciple of Christ?
I have asked three questions today. They are questions that have perplexed the church from its very beginnings. They are questions that continue to perplex the church and its various denominations even today. It is no wonder that churches are struggling. Each question gets more difficult to ask and equally more difficult to answer. No one wants to ask the hard questions; no one wants to answer the hard questions.
Tony Campolo, wrote that
… the last place where I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies.’ (13)
In 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King wrote his proclaimed “Letter from the Birmingham jail.” His comments then are strangely prophetic today. In this letter he wrote of his disappointment in the churches of the south remaining quiet while the political leaders spoke of hatred, defiance and opposition to equality. He wondered where were the people who said they were Christian but kept silent as persecution and oppression dominated life. And then he wrote,
Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably linked to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners for the struggle for freedom.
I hope that the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour (14).
It is far easier to ask simple questions and give simple answers. It is far easier to put the blame for sickness, poverty, hunger, and oppression on others than it is to do God’s work on this earth. It is far easier to say that we will be accepted in Heaven because we act righteous when Jesus Himself told us those that ignore the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed will be the ones left behind.
When you ask easy questions, you get the easy answers. But nothing gets done. We are not always willing to ask the hard questions; we are not always willing to hear the hard answers. But know this today, the hardest part of being a Christian has already been done for us. Jesus’ death on the Cross and His Resurrection means that the hardest part has already been done. All we have to do is complete the task.
You have an opportunity today. You have the opportunity to do nothing. There is no rule or regulation that says you have to do anything at this time.
You have the opportunity, if you want to and if you haven’t already done so, to invite Christ into your heart and into your life. You have the opportunity to gain that honored seat at the heavenly banquet that is promised to all those who open their heart. And you don’t have to do anything else.
You came to church this morning; you heard the preacher preach and now you can go home. You can go home and not worry about the person on the street or in the hospital bed or in the jail cell. You do not have to worry about the individual whose soul is lost in the wilderness of society. They are not your concerns now; someone else will take care of those problems.
There is a third opportunity this morning. Having accepted Christ as your Savior, you can invite the Holy Spirit to come into your life and change your life. But know this, when you invite the Holy Spirit into your life, your life changes. As Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus, when the Holy Spirit enters your life, you will find that your life changes.
You will find the path that you walk is not an easy one; you will find that the path you now walk is often lonely. Not too many people want to give up the honored seat so that someone else may be seated. You will find that you cannot go back to who or what you once were. You will find that you cannot turn your back on those whom society has cast off and would just as soon forget. Now, when you can go out into the world, your thoughts, your words, your deeds, and your actions will tell others that you have chosen to follow Jesus Christ. You can say to the world that I am Christian and that all are welcome in my house.
So, now the question asked today is a very simple one, “Who shall be invited into your house?”
(1) Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14
(2) John 4: 1 – 26
(3) Luke 10: 25 – 37
(4) Adapted from “Strangers in a strange land” by Heidi Neumark, in “Getting on message – challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel (Rev. Peter Laarman, editor)
(5) The New York Times, May 8, 2004
(6) Adapted from “Living the Word”, Sojourners, May 2004
(7) Adapted from Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo
(8) Adapted from “Reasons for Joy” by Huston Smith, Christian Century, 5 October 2005
(9) Hebrews 13: 1 – 8
(10) Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13
(11) Hebrews 13: 15 – 16
(12) Luke 4: 16 – 21
(13) Tony Campolo as quoted in Christian Week magazine and reported in SojoMail for 9/10/03