I am at 1st United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY, this Sunday (location of church). The Scriptures for this 22nd Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 32: 1 – 14, Philippians 4: 1 – 9, and Matthew 22: 1 – 14.
Last Sunday I was at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (“The Basic Rules”) and as was the case the last time I visited there (“What Exactly Is Freedom?”), I had the opportunity to hear the mass from Fordham University (see “There Is A Choice”) on WFUV-FM radio. As I said before, to hear the mass, even though I am not Catholic, puts a wonderful ending to a morning of worship and service. In this case, I did not hear the entire homily but only the latter part in which Father Currie (I believe that was who was officiating) mentioned Chapters 3 – 5 of Isaiah (Isaiah 3 – Biblegateway.com (The Message translation)).
After I got home last Sunday, I went and read those passages. What I found interesting were verses 13 – 15 in Chapter 3 and verses 8-10 in Chapter 5
God enters the courtroom.
He takes his place at the bench to judge his people.
God calls for order in the court, hauls the leaders of his people into the dock: “You’ve played havoc with this country.
Your houses are stuffed with what you’ve stolen from the poor.
What is this anyway? Stomping on my people, grinding the faces of the poor into the dirt?”
That’s what the Master, God-of-the-Angel-Armies, says. (Isaiah 3: 13 – 15)
Doom to you who buy up all the houses and grab all the land for yourselves –evicting the old owners, posting no trespassing signs, taking over the country, leaving everyone homeless and landless.
I overheard God-of-the-Angel-Armies say: “Those mighty houses will end up empty. Those extravagant estates will be deserted.
A ten-acre vineyard will produce a pint of wine, a fifty-pound sack of seed, a quart of grain.” (Isaiah 5: 8 – 10)
Now, I don’t see these verses as prophecy for our time because they were written and spoken to address the problems of Israel at that time. But the passages ring true today when you read of the oppression of the poor and the taking of lands and houses by the rich from the poor. It also goes to the problems that this country is experiencing today, both in terms of what we are doing and what we are not doing. As the title of my sermon suggests, I think the values of this country are highly misplaced.
And whether or not we are rich, it is the actions of all the people which has lead this country to the crisis that it faces and will be facing for many years to come. Like the people in the desert, we have exchanged God for the golden calf of materialism. We are not willing to have a God whom we can’t see; like the people of Israel wandering in the desert, we seek a god we can hold and touch, a god that we have made that makes us feel good. And not only do we want a god that we can touch, hold, and control, we want the benefits of this god for ourselves; we flat out do not want to share in whatever we will gain.
Everything in the Bible, from the beginning in Genesis to the end of Revelations is about the relationship between God and the people and the relationship between people. What we remember and what those who have never heard or read the Bible seem to think is that God seems to be, at times, vindictive and mean. There are those today who push that very idea of a mean, vindictive, sour and dour old man, angry at His creation. But their reasons for doing so are not God’s reasons, even if they say they are.
Still, why shouldn’t He be angry at His creation? Read the words that God spoke to Moses that day some three thousand years ago. God had every right to be mad; He had every right to be angry and I can easily see why He would want to wipe the Israelites off the face of the earth. As soon as Moses left their company, the people literally reverted to their old ways, to the ways of the worship that they probably had observed and maybe even been involved with while they were in Egypt. Miracle after miracle had brought them to the foot of Mount Sinai and yet they reverted to the old ways.
Even in Jesus’ time, the people sought tangible evidence of God’s presence in their lives. They were unwilling to work for God, expecting God to come to them through a fulfillment of rules and regulations. And, in the opinion of those who made the rules and regulations, those who cannot meet the rules and regulations had no right to enter God’s House. We see that today. We see magnificent houses of worship that are virtually off-limits to the poor, the hungry, the down-trodden, and the oppressed. But it is more than churches that are no longer the house of God; it is the people who say that they are God’s children but refuse to acknowledge by their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their actions that God is their father.
Oh, they will say that Jesus is Lord; they will act Godly and Christian-like. But their bearing, their words, their deeds, and their actions do not speak of Christ in their lives. The actions of our leaders last week was not about saving the people of this country or this world; it was about saving their own skins. It was about protecting their savings and their homes and their jobs, not about saving the homes and the jobs of the people. I recall reading once that Christians could be political conservatives and I am still trying to figure that one out. Perhaps you can be politically conservative and a Christian but if you are unwilling to fight for the rights of others to enjoy the benefits that you claim for yourself, then I don’t think you can be conservative and Christian. This isn’t a statement about social programs or welfare or anything of that nature; this is a flat statement that if you say you are a Christian, if you say that you lead a Biblical life, then you must care for the others in this world without regard to their race, their creed, their lifestyle, or their economic or social status. And, quite frankly, in my mind, too many people say they are Christians on Sunday but something entirely different the rest of the week.
Albert Edward Day, in his book The Captivating Presence, wrote
I came to a new understanding why Jesus passed up the religious establishment of his day, the economically secure, the socially prestigious, and sought the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the broken, the sick, the lonely. He felt, as we often do not feel, their sorrow. He was acquainted, as we too seldom are, their grief. On Calvary he died of a broken heart. But that heart was broken long before Black Friday, by the desolation of the common people. “In all afflictions he was afflicted.”
Most of the time we are not. We seem to have quite a different conception of life. We avoid as much as possible the unpleasant. We shun the suffering of others. We shrink from any burdens except those which life itself inescapably thrusts upon us. We seek arduously the wealth and power that will enable us to secure ourselves against that possibility of being involved with another’s affliction. Lazarus sometimes makes his way to our door step. We toss him a coin and go our own way. We give our charities but we do not give our selves. We build our charitable institutions but we do not build ourselves into other’s lives.
You cannot be a follower of God through Christ or otherwise if you are not willing to give up your claim to everything you own in your life. This is not to say that Christians must be homeless or without but if your basic view of life is that the more stuff you have the closer to heaven you get, then you had better think again.
This isn’t solely about materialism but rather the accumulation and the seeking of such. Sadly, what people often seek are the trappings and the looks of the rich and the powerful. To paraphrase Spike Lee, it has to be the shoes that make you rich and famous. Let’s not forget, though, that the particular person wearing those shoes was 6’ 6” and remarkably talented and that he worked to keep his talent above the level of all the other players. And for the record, look at Michael Jordan’s high school record; he wasn’t all that good. So what do we do?
Jesus told the disciples to take only what they needed and nothing more. He told the rich young ruler to sell everything and follow me. The rich young ruler couldn’t get past the first part that he had to sell everything. By the same token, there are those today who think that because they are poor, homeless, or somehow disenfranchised, they are entitled to certain perks and benefits.
Jesus threw the beggars out of the wedding feast, not because they were poor but because they were not willing to put on the new clothes that a wedding required. This passage seems to run counter to the idea that all are welcome in God’s house. But entrance into God’s House requires a change of heart and mind; you cannot continue to lead the same life that you were before you came to God through Christ. If you are unwilling to change, no matter who you are, you will not be welcome. The good news is that those who are willing to change their heart, their soul, and their mind will find this place quicker that those who are unwilling to give up what they have. It isn’t about what you have or don’t have; it isn’t about what you think you need or what you think you are owed. It is whether or not you want to find a better life.
Here the words of David in Psalm 15
God, who gets invited to dinner at your place? How do we get on your guest list?
“Walk straight, act right, tell the truth.
“Don’t hurt your friend, don’t blame your neighbor; despise the despicable.
“Keep your word even when it costs you, make an honest living, never take a bribe.
“You’ll never get blacklisted if you live like this.”
If wouldn’t hurt us to hear the words of Paul once again.
Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.
Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.
There are those today who say that these are the end times, that God will invoke His wrath and destroy the world. The words of God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai seem to echo in the words of these modern day prophets. These modern day prophets say that those who have faithfully followed God will be taken up and those who have led a life of sin will be left behind. But their definition of a faithful follower often sounds to me like a description of the establishment that Jesus worked against.
But we don’t need God to destroy the world; we are doing a pretty good job of it ourselves. If you say that you are a follower of Christ but do little to improve the condition of this world, if you ignore your neighbors, if you plunder the environment or gather up riches for yourselves and say that you do in the name of God, you will be among those left behind.
Yes, we are a hard-headed and stubborn people. Yes, we have been given signs and there have been times when God has let our enemies be victorious. But each time, He has given His people the chance to redeem themselves and start anew. God sent His Son, not to destroy this world, but to save it.
If we are who we say we are, both as Christians and as United Methodists, then we have the responsibility to take the Gospel message out into the world and work to make this a better place, not just for ourselves but for all. It will require that we begin anew, that we cast off the clothes of our old life and put on new clothes.
When Moses was leading the privileged life, he saw his kinsman being persecuted and abused. His actions to protect a kinsman led to his exile in the wilderness and his encounter with God. And even when his kinsman turned against God and the covenant made at Mount Sinai, he fought for them. We are in the same position today.
There is time for this society, this country, and this world. While there are those who will tell you that these are the end times and that there is no hope; we are reminded that there is hope but we cannot gain this hope through the values that have lead us to this time and place. We have to cast away our old values, like old clothes, and put on the new clothes that come through Christ. Then we will be invited into His House and to the great wedding. If we hold onto our misplaced values, we will cry in pain. If we regain the values that are ours through Christ, we will cry out in joy and celebration. But we must first hear the call of Christ; we must open our hearts and our minds to His Call.