I am at Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY, tomorrow for the Sunday service at 11 am. You are welcome to attend if you are in the area. The message for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost is based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.
When I began working on this message, I envisioned the title as “A New Calling”. But my reviewer, after reading it, suggested that a better title was “Thinking Outside The Box.” And who am I to argue with my wife when it comes to such things? And the thinking that I am presenting today also matches some thinking and conversations that we are having at our church.
On a clear and cold January 20, 1961, John Kennedy stood on the steps of the United States Capitol and took the oath of office to become the President of the United States. He then spoke to the people gathered there, to the American people throughout the land, and to millions of people around the world.
He spoke of a torch being passed to a new generation, a generation tempered in the fires of war and guided by the principles set forth in the American Revolution. It was, I believe, a statement to all those who had said that he, John Kennedy, was too young and too inexperienced to be the President.
Let us ignore for the moment that John Kennedy was, at the time, older than many of the leaders of the American Revolution. Let us ignore the fact that John Kennedy was older than Jesus Christ when He began the ministry in the Galilee that would change the world.
John Kennedy’s words that day inspired a new generation to seek public service and to work for the ideals first expressed in the American Revolution. They were words that said that what you could do was determined by your ability, not by your age.
It was a time of inquiry and exploration. If you were in school at that time, you were part of the great changes taking place in the areas of science and mathematics, changes that would help us join those already beginning to explore the world beyond the skies.
It was a time when the promises of this country in terms of equality and opportunity seemed very close to fulfillment. There was a vision that we would reach beyond the stars before the next century began.
But something happened and that journey was never completed.
Today equality is measured by the balance in one’s bank account and opportunities exist for only a chosen few. From a society that saw its future in the stars we have become a society that wonders if there will ever be a future. Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, seem to be the daily litany of the news and far too commonplace.
Our educational system, instead of preparing thinkers and visionaries, produces individuals who can recite myriad reams of facts but have no clue what the facts mean, how they relate to the world, and how to use that information to solve the problems this country faces today and will face tomorrow.
People cling to battered and tired visions of the past, hoping to restore the “good old days”, even if they weren’t really that good. And because we have lost our vision, our ability to solve the problems that we faced today is limited. We seek solutions that based on the old ways and wonder why they don’t work.
The prophet Joel proclaimed,
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.
But it seems that the old no longer dream, the young no longer see visions, and our sons and daughters can no longer prophesy. We turn to others to tell us what to say and think, individuals who rely on our fears and our ignorance, our traditions and our bias.
And I think that it is time that we change and do so before it is too late. I am not a believer in the end of the world vision offered by so many people today, in part because such a vision is based on our fears and our ignorance. It is time, I think, that we hear the Call of God and respond to it.
This is about answering the same call that God gave to Jeremiah. I know that Jeremiah says that “he is only a boy” but that doesn’t stop God from calling upon him to take on a task. And if a young boy is to be called to take the call of God, who is to say that anyone of us cannot take the same call?
How many of the prophets willingly and quickly answered God’s call? How many of the prophets offered excuses and reasons why they could not do what God wanted them to do?
This is not about how young or old we are today. The call from God isn’t and never was age-related. How old was Abram when God said to pack everything he had and head to a new land? How old was Sarai when God informed her that she was going to be pregnant? How old was Moses when God came to him somewhere in the Negev Desert and told him to return to Egypt and free God’s people?
How many people do you know whose age has never limited what they can do? In other words, how many people can think “outside the box?”
Back in 1988, I was a young (relatively speaking) college instructor struggling to complete his doctorate and getting those all important research papers published when I met the Nobel Laureate, Dr. Herbert C. Brown. While I was still trying to get that first publication, Dr. Brown was routinely involved in the publication of 100 research papers a year. It was not pro-forma that his name was on the paper; he was in the laboratory, offering advice and suggestions on the conduct of the research involved.
And yet we have all met and know individuals far younger than us who have not had an original thought in years.
Bob Dylan wrote a song in which he noted that times were changing and that we best heed the call. I got the note about the 175th anniversary of Rowe the other day and I liked what it said at the top of the page, “1838 – 2013 . . . and still counting!” It says to the people of this area that this church plans to be here for a long time and to be a part of the community for at least another 175 years or so.
It is important to remember who we are and where we have come from, for it tells us much about where we can go. But we need to rekindle and revive the vision that brought people to this place, to each of the United Methodist Churches in this area and throughout the country. Too many people today focus on issues founded in ignorance and bigotry and that turn our attention away from the Gospel message of hope and deliverance. Too many people wish things were the way they have always been and not the way they could be.
It was a Sabbath morning some two thousand years ago and Jesus was doing what He probably did every Sabbath during His three year ministry and what He had done every Sabbath since he was twelve; He was in the synagogue listening to the rabbi teach a lesson from the Torah or, as was the case in today’s Gospel lesson, teaching the lesson Himself.
But this Sabbath was perhaps just a little bit different. There was a woman, bent over with the pain of arthritis, present in the building, probably over in the women’s section since she wasn’t allowed to be in the same part of the building as the men. And Jesus called her over to Him, laid His hands on her, and healed her.
Think about this very carefully. First, Jesus brought a women into a part of the building where she was not supposed to be. Surely, that upset many of the traditionalists, for whom appearance and tradition counted more than anything else. Second, He touched her. This wasn’t the first time that Jesus had touched a sick person and in the very act of touching that person, Jesus became ritually unclean. In the eyes of the traditionalists, Jesus should have left the building right then and there!
And then, He healed her of an eighteen year ailment. At that point, the leader of the congregation had had enough and denounced Jesus for working on the Sabbath. And all Jesus did was point out the hypocrisy of the law that said it was proper to take care of one’s farm animals but not heal a sick person.
It also says something about the nature of that group of people that day that they were delighted that the Jesus had responded to the leader has He had. It makes you wonder how the leader treated the other members of the congregation.
And how many times have we seen that in our lives? Where tradition and honor take precedence over what is right and proper? How many times have we questioned the right of an individual to be a part of the church because they don’t fit into our preconceived notion of tradition and honor? How many times have we said “that’s just not the way things are done around here”?
John Wesley was not the first person of his time to show concern for the poor and impoverished people of England. In many sermons of that age, there is a real concern for the lower classes; but it is assumed that if they, the poor and working classes are to be saved and to enter into Christ’s purpose for them, they must take on the culture of their betters who stand as a living sign to the Grace of God. In other words, it was assumed (and I think it is still assumed today) that the will of God was to make “them” more like “us.”
The writer of Hebrews points out that those who follow Christ have been given a new way of life. Tradition told the people not to touch, in fact I think in some translations they were to never go near, Mount Sinai. To do so was to die. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we are in a new world, working under a new covenant, a fresh charter.
This new covenant, this new charter comes with a thorough house cleaning, a removal of all the historical and religious junk that has gotten in the way of entering God’s Kingdom. God is no longer on some mountain far away and untouchable; He is right here, right now, with us.
Because John Wesley followed the example of Jesus and went to the people, not to make them like their betters but to enable to find the way of Christ in their own world, he was bitterly attacked. The missionary work of John Wesley and all of the early Methodists, including those who founded this church 175 years ago, made a statement about the ideological assumptions of the privileged and threatened the security of their prejudices which they assumed to be the will and purpose of God.
The call that we have is to make sure that all the people have that opportunity. Jeremiah was to pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish, and then start over, building and planting. For me, that means looking at how we do church, where we do church and what church members can offer not only to and for each other but to and for those with whom they come into contact every day.
Will Cotton, the Senior Pastor at St. Barnabas UMC in Arlington, Texas, and the pastor whose words and actions were instrumental in my beginning this part of my own personal journey with Christ, wrote that he sees a different ministry for the church in the coming years.
The 21st century (for at least the rest of our lifetimes) in ministry will not be primarily about the local church. Churches and denominations will be wise to train people for ministry in secular situations. The gospel is returning to the streets, the marketplace, the classrooms, the chat rooms, the homes and even the bars. My job description has shifted in response to the leading of the Spirit. I am not just a performer of ministry; I am a leverage person, equipping people for ministry in places I will never be able to go. I used to lead Bible Studies with up to 80 people in them and they were enjoyed. But two years ago, I moved to more intensive studies that prepare leaders who then start classes, small groups, and even lead “in the marketplace” studies and support groups. My favorite book on this shift is Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal. My two CLMs came out of those classes. If I train 15-20 people (which I do at near seminary level with some texts actually from Course of Study for local pastors) and they lead groups of even 10 people, then the yield is three times what I was doing in the large studies before. The Church you and I are a part of will be so different in just 20 years from now, and the truth is, no one knows what it will look like (nearly every Bishop worth his or her consecration will tell you that). But the shift from church-centered ministry to community-centered ministry is part of it.
We must ask ourselves today how we can be witnesses to the crucified servant Lord. Our answer must be rooted in knowing that we are to be with him in the midst of the world’s needs, by His grace seeking to be the signs of his ultimate fulfillment and not the bringers of that fulfillment. In doing so we free ourselves from the conformity of the world’s self-assertive way and transformed into the way and manner Christ assumed in his ministry for us.
The church today, wherever it may be located, on a country road somewhere, in the suburbs of a city, or even on a street corner in the city, can no longer just be a Sunday only operation. It has to be, quite literally, a 24/7 operation. It can no longer be the repository of holy relics; it has to be the source for all who seek answers. It has to be a fulfillment of the Gospel message to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, lift up the downtrodden, and bring hope to the lost and weary.
Some will say that it is not possible for them or their church to answer that call. But the call that God makes is based on the skills and abilities of the people. Moses told God that he was incapable of speaking to the people (tradition says that he was a stutterer) so called Moses’ brother, Aaron, to do the speaking.
It may be that one does not know what can do; but there is a course offered in this district called “Knowing One’s Spiritual Gifts”. It is a very interesting course because it gives one insight into what one’s own gifts are. Knowing what one’s gifts are can tell you how to answer God’s call and to think outside the box.
We have two choices this Sunday morning. Time and time again we have allowed the methods of past generations to dictate what the next generation will do. But we end up finding ourselves asking and thinking that if we can only find the right and relevant method we will be as successful as they were.
It may strike some as quite out-of-place but it is not very important whether the number of Christians at a particular place and time is large or small. What is more important is to ask whether the large or small numbers of Christians know that they are representatives for all and that they are called to participate in the mission of the reconciliation of the universe.
We must leave it to God whether and when He wants to use our worship and witness in order to add to or cut down the number of His militant church on earth. In the end, it is not a question whether the church exists for itself but rather it exists as part of the whole world.
We have a new calling today, one to reach out to the world, first in this corner of the world that we call home and then to the rest of the world. We may say, as so many have done before, that we are small band and that we cannot do anything but God has always shown that He will give those who answer His call the skills, the abilities and the power to do so.
Will you answer the call of God, the New Calling, today? Do you dare to think outside the box?