I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) on Sunday. The Scripture readings for this Sunday (the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) were 1 Samuel 8: 4 – 20 (11: 14 – 15), 2 Corinthians 4: 13 – 5: 1, Mark 3: 20 – 35. Services start at 9:30 a.m. and you are welcome to attend.
And then His mother and brothers sent Jesus a message that they wanted to talk with Him. And Jesus responded to the messenger, “Who do you think are my mother and brothers?” Looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, He said, “Right here, right in front of you – my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
There are some who said Jesus rejected His family in this exchange that we read this morning. But it is more likely that Jesus expanded the concept of family and brought a new meaning to the definition of a community.
Now, Jesus said that those who obeyed God’s will would be His brothers and sisters. What does it meant to obey God’s will? Is it how we live or are we to create a separate community apart from the world? This nation is dotted with towns, some which still exist today, where people gathered as a community to follow God’s will. Or is it how we live our lives?
The meaning of community and our obligations within a community are ideas/concepts that have perplexed us from the day Cain asked God if he were his brother’s keeper. It is a thought echoed in the question asked by the lawyer in Luke when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Who is my neighbor?” It is also the question that John Wesley looked at his world in 18th century England. How we respond today will say a lot about our future as a society and as a church.
I had the opportunity two years ago to go to Annual Conference and hear Kwasi Kena, Director of Evangelism for the General Board of Discipleship. I thought that it was an interesting seminar because the ideas that Dr. Kena expressed ran counter to the current thoughts on the subject of evangelism and it gave me hope that the church as an institution, as a denomination, and individually can be saved.
Now, for too many people today, evangelism is getting people to proclaim Christ as their Savior and it is almost a forced process; either you follow Christ as we have described Him or you are doomed to a life outside the gates of Heaven. But as Dr. Kena pointed out, evangelism is more than just getting people to follow Christ; it is also teaching people about Christ and living the life that you preach and that Christ taught us to live.
But if the church (be it the institution in general, the denomination, or any individual church group) operates more on the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the Law, as long as the church today reflects the behavior and attitudes of the church authorities of two thousand years ago, when Jesus walked the back roads of the Galilee, then it will and is a dying church. (Adapted from “The State of Faith“)
Paul offers us, through his words to the Corinthian church, hope. One response to the need to live a biblical based life, one that illustrated and lifted up Christ’s teaching is the Koinonia Farm in Georgia, found by Clarence Jordan in the years following World War II. Clarence Jordan was a Southern Baptist preacher and Greek scholar. Dr. Jordan began the farm as a way of showing God’s love for all and an illustration of Jesus’ teaching. The farm was integrated and pacifist, ideas that were not well received in Georgia during the 50s and 60s. To say that Dr. Jordan and those who helped on the farm rattled the cages of the political and religious establishment of the time would be an understatement.
As a Greek scholar, Dr. Jordan took time to write the Cotton Patch Gospels, a translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into English, using as best as he could locations in Georgia to make the reading more relevant. So Paul’s letters to the Corinthians become letters to Atlanta Christians.
In his translation of 2 Corinthians, Dr. Jordan writes “I acted, then I talked” where the palmist wrote “I believed it, so I said it.” In 2 Corinthians 5: 1, Dr. Jordan wrote “For example, we are sure that if our external framework of God’s dwelling is pulled down, we still have a house built by God, a house that’s not man-made but spiritual and eternal.” In his notes for 2 Corinthians 5: 1, he noted that “dwelling” or “house” seems to refer to Christian fellowship and not to the individual body. Our community is wherever it may be in whatever form it may be; if we limit the form, we may find ourselves limiting ourselves as well.
What did the church authorities two thousand years ago do when Jesus was healing the sick and offering Good News to the people? They pronounced Him to be an agent of Satan. Many times, what Jesus did was in direct opposition to the rules and laws set down by the religious authorities but well within the scope of the Holy Scriptures. They could not counter His teachings with better examples of their own so they resorted to discredit him by saying He worked for Satan.
But as Jesus said, how could he be working for the Satan when what he did worked against Satan? I also have to imagine what the people, especially the people who were healed, who found hope in what Jesus taught, must have felt. Remember, sickness and disease were thought to be signs of sin and here Jesus was removing sin so how could he have been Satan?
There are too many people today who hold to that idea, that disease and poverty are sinful and those who are sick, homeless, and unemployed are somehow not worthy of God’s grace and should not be allowed in a church. But who did Jesus associate with and who found Jesus’ actions unacceptable? And we wonder why our churches are dying.
The Old Testament reading for today begins a story of what happened to the people of Israel when they decided not to follow God and obey His will. The history of Israel, as told in the history and writings of the Old Testament, tells us that the when the people followed God, things went well. But when they choose to go their own way, to be like the rest of the world as it where, then bad things happen.
The period of history that precedes the Old Testament reading is the period of judges, individuals (men and women) who offer counsel and leadership for the nation. The plan worked when the judges and the people followed God; it failed when they did not.
Now, there are some who would have us return to a Biblical style of government. Do they want us to follow the style as described in Judges and the beginning of Samuel? Or would they have us follow the style of the kings that follow in the history of the nation?
The one thing that a government by a king does offer is the opportunity for individuals to not do anything. The king listens to no one who does not agree with them and makes all the decisions himself. There are a lot of people today who wouldn’t mind it if someone made all the decisions for them. It is very interesting to hear Samuel’s warning to the people, especially in the context of today’s political climate.
Israel will get their king and they will try to be like all the countries around them. But they will lose the essence of their existence. Yes, Saul will give the bold leadership; David will give the nation of Israel credibility and Solomon will offer a new meaning for wisdom and build the First Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. But each will succumb to the temptation of power and glory and their reigns will end in essentially failure. Each king that follows will lead the nation of Israel farther and farther from God, into despair, desolation, and ultimately into the Babylonian exile.
I am sure that that is not the direction that we want to head, nor do I think we need a government or a community that is based on a strict interpretation of the laws that others might suggest. To repeat the past in hopes of improving the future seems rather futile. But that does leave us in a quandary, doesn’t it? How shall we build our community? Who will be a part of our community?
We remember that John Wesley saw people who were disenfranchised by the church but who needed to hear the Word of God. So he went into the factories, the mines, and the prisons. He not only took the Word but the help that was needed. It came in the form of health clinics and credit unions, schools and other forms of assistance. Wesley and those helped begin the Methodist Revival of the 18th century understood that no one will understand or even appreciate the meaning of God’s Word if they were hungry or sick or faced with prison because of their financial problems. So they built schools and credit unions and health clinics and then they preached the Word.
In a sermon I gave several years ago I spoke of the members of the Clifton Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, who felt the need to respond to the issue of homelessness in their local community. From the simple beginning of offering a few homeless individuals a place to stay for the night, it has become a shelter and home where some 30 individuals at a time find a way out of their homeless and back into society. The interesting thing was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church no longer exists; the congregation voted to disband and become parts of other Presbyterian churches in the area. But the ministry of the homeless stayed in the building that once was the church, continuing the ministry that was begun by the congregation.
There was also the story of the woman who wanted to help local high school students and during a high school assembly gave the students the church’s phone number. If the student wanted to talk with someone about a problem they might be having, all they had to do was call the church and someone would be there to listen. The next day, the church had over 300 calls from local students. (Adapted from “What Do We Need?” – The link to the story about the Clifton Presbyterian Church in my post is no longer working but you can go to “Clifton Sanctuary Ministries” to find out more about this ministry.)
Bishop Will Willimon told the story about two ladies who started a prison minister in North Alabama that began when two ladies went to visit one of the ladies’ grandsons. From a single visit came reading classes, Bible studies, and health care. Some of the ladies from this United Methodist Church in North Alabama aren’t able to visit the youth prison so they bake cookies for the others to take. (Adapted from “Who Goes First?”)
At this point, I mentioned Project VIVID, an community-based undertaking at Old Hickory UMC – I didn’t have a chance to put the details about the project into the manuscript I normally follow but here is a link to a description of the project – “Project VIVID”
You have heard me speak of Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. Today, Grace UMC begins another ministry, Family Promise. It is a ministry that allows up to five homeless families shelter during the week while the parents work and the children go to school. When we speak of the homeless, it is often in terms of individuals. Yet the number of families without homes is growing every day. The families that will come to Grace Church tonight are working families who have lost their homes. The process by which they enter the program is very rigorous. At the end of the week, these families will go to the next church in the network. While in the network, they will receive counseling and aid so that they can get back to a place of their own. And the children will remain in their own school.
Each church in the network provides volunteers to prepare a dinner meal each day. Other volunteers will spend the night in the church. This will be the second time that I have been involved with this ministry and I am still amazed by the number of people who are fearful of what this means. I am not certain if they do not trust strangers or if it is that they do not want to see certain aspects of society.
The stories that one could tell abound but they all center on the fact that each individual or group of individuals had a different sense of community. It wasn’t about the building or the property but the people. And it wasn’t just the people of the church; it was the people of the community around the church.
The past few months, with the Arab Spring of 2011, have shown that we can no longer see ourselves as a community, small and isolated from the world. But then again, we were never supposed to be isolated from the world. Jesus looked at those who were with him that day and said that these are my brothers and sisters.
Churches today need not ask who are the brothers and sisters but rather how it, the church, can reach out. It is not about the resources but where the Spirit moves the church to respond. What some churches can do, others cannot. But in the manner of Paul, each church has its own unique set of gifts and from those gifts will come the means by which to reach out to the community.
The community was defined for us many years ago. How we reach out was defined as well. We are charged this day reaching out to the community so that all we encounter will know who Christ was and is and will be.