This is the message I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 16 January 2005. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 49: 1 – 7, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, and John 1: 29 – 42.
A while back someone made a comment to me that I found to be, at the least, intriguing. In conjunction with a discussion about church membership, this person said that the church had failed some of its members. Because of what was transpiring that day, I chose not to follow up on that comment. But now I wish I had.
What can a church do to fail its members? A number of years ago, the husband of one of the parishioners complained that I had not visited his wife while she was in the hospital. Now, whatever the limits are on my responsibilities, if asked, I will visit someone when they are sick and in the hospital. But in this case, I had not been advised, by anyone, that this person was in the hospital. How am I to visit anyone if I do not know that they want to be visited? Did either the church or I fail this family?
I have received a number of phone calls from people in the Peekskill area asking that I, as a representative of Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, help them with their rent. Of course, this is something that the church or I are not able to do. Still, I try my best to direct them to resources that might help them. What I have always found interesting is the response of these individuals who have called me. Generally speaking, it is not a polite request for assistance but almost a demand that the church or I somehow relieve them of this burden. One person became almost abusive when I said that I was not able to help them in the manner that they wanted.
Maybe somehow either the church or I fail these individuals but I think not. We all are supposed to help individuals in a time of need but those who make a living seeking out that assistance are not necessarily those that need our help. This is not to say that I will not help someone if I can.
On more than one occasion I have bought someone a meal when they asked me for money for food. I know that Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church in Buchanan has an arrangement with the diner just down the street from the church. If someone comes to the pastor asking for money for a meal, they are directed to the diner. The restaurant staff will provide them with a reasonable meal and set the bill aside for the pastor to pay later. In such cases, if the individual in question does not want to partake of this arrangement, that is their choice.
It is true that in one area, I cannot provide any help. That is the area of professional counseling. My background and my status as a lay pastor do not allow me to go into that area; it would be wrong ethically, morally, and professionally. If someone asks for help in that regard, I will do what I can to get such individuals the assistance that they need.
Those who seek help from the church should receive it, somehow and someway. If what the church can provide is not what they seek, then they need to consider their request. Only if the church refuses to provide the aid, assistance, and comfort that the individual needs can it be said that the church has failed its members.
But this brings up the question of what members can expect from their church. I really and truly cannot say what one should expect from being a member of a church. I know that I have to be a member of a local United Methodist Church in order to be in the pulpit this morning. When I joined Whitesburg UMC in Kentucky and then Fishkill UMC over in Fishkill, I told the pastors involved that it was because I needed the membership in order to contain my lay minister. To the credit of the Gordon Abbott, Bob Richmond, Arlene Beechert-Hood, and Peggy Ann Sauerhoff, they understood and supported me in this regard. You have to ask yourself why you are a member of this United Methodist Church and what you expect from such membership.
I do know that when you joined, you agreed to support the church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. I also know that there is nothing in those vows as to what one will get from the church in return. I know that some expect that being a member will allow their children to be baptized and married in the church and that when the time comes, their funeral will be held in the church. But as I have said in the past, I don’t think in those terms. If someone were to ask if he or she or their children could be baptized in the church, I would agree to it. Of course, I would also explain to them that I have to make arrangements for an ordained pastor to assist in the service; the same is essentially true for weddings. But here again, there is an assumption that those making the request will remember that their participation in the ceremony requires their participation after the ceremony is complete.
I am also discovering that there are those who feel that church membership somehow gets one out of spiritual trouble. I think this goes a long way to explain what has transpired over the past few months in terms of Christianity and the secular world.
People somehow think they can add Jesus Christ to their lives. They see Jesus as a rescue boat from the sea of sin or fire insurance to protect them from the flames of hell. Joining the church comforts them. They still go on living their lives according to their own standards, their own desires, and their own wishes.
But our salvation is not accomplished by simply adding Jesus to our lives; salvation is accomplished when we accept Jesus into our hearts and make Him the Lord of our Life. (Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner) In the words of one evangelist, "being a member of a church won’t necessarily make you a Christian anymore that being a member of the Lions Club will make you a Lion." (From A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins)
As we read the New Testament we will never find Jesus presenting Himself as something we add to our lives, like we do other things. Throughout the New Testament, He never tells people to accept Him and then do whatever they please. On the contrary, He tells them point blank, "Follow me!"
He does come as our Savior but He also comes as our Lord. The message is similar to the two sides of a coin. If you accept the coin, you get both sides of the coin. Jesus will be your Savior but He will also be your Lord.
But we tend to gloss over the first time we might have heard His call to discipleship. I am not sure that many of us have ever experienced the call that Peter, Andrew, James and John experienced. Jesus’ words to these fishermen were simply to "Follow me." And His guarantee of making them fishers of men wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of financial security.
Fishing was a very prominent part of the Israel economy back then. To leave their nets and follow Jesus was to give up everything that one could imagine in terms of financial provision, security, familiarity and identity. To leave their fishing business was to leave their families (which they had) without financial support. Peter later tells others that they gave up everything to follow Christ.
The disciple Matthew did the same when he was called to follow Jesus. In contrast to the lifestyle of the fishermen, who might be crude in manner, rough in speech, and in their treatment of others, one might expect Matthew to be accustomed to the good life. Remember that Matthew was a tax collector so he had financial security that was not dependent on nature like Peter and the others. He had a fixed and consistent livelihood as well as an identity (even if it made him one of the most despised men in town). But he gave up his earthly riches in return for heavenly rewards.
What can we understand from these calls to the first disciples? I think we need to understand that true discipleship does not mean heartless devotion and needless sacrifice. But it also doesn’t mean that all we have to do is claim Jesus as our Savior. Unfortunately, this is what a lot of people believe today and it is what many churches today push.
I think this is why some people think the church has failed them. They are looking for something that is not there. No verse in the Scriptures promises that we will receive abundant material blessings in return for giving up things in God’s name. We are promised that we will receive eternal life. We are not promised that life will be good if we follow Jesus. But in the end, what we will receive will be beyond the depths of our understanding. (Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner)
The words of the prophet Isaiah ring true today. Though the servant may feel that he has labored in vain, the rewards for his labor are innumerable, but those rewards are not immediately obvious (in fact, they do not come in the prophecy for four more chapters). But, as shown in verse 7 of today’s reading, in the end kings will bow down before the servant. The way of life will change. We cannot see ourselves as Jesus but as His disciples. The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of the pain and suffering that Jesus will undergo for our sake. The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of the humiliation that Jesus will suffer for our sake. But in the end, it will be shown that Jesus will be the Lord over all the earth. The rewards for all that follow him will be there at the end.
These are Paul’s words to the Corinthians. In light of what we know about how the church in Corinth was in so much trouble, it is surprising that Paul would offer such words of thanksgiving. But Paul is focusing his praise, not on the troubled Corinthians, but on the eternally faithful God. Paul is not praising the Corinthians for their good works as he did other churches, such as the Ephesians. Instead he praises God who works in them. When we focus on people’s faults, hope soon wanes and discouragement follows. But when we concentrate on the Lord, even the darkest hours can be filled with praise.
We have heard the words that Jesus spoke that day in Galilee. They have been a part of our life for as long as we can remember. We remember the words of Andrew telling his brother Simon that they have found the Messiah. But in the joy of hearing those words, did we forget that Jesus also told us to follow him?
I may not have answered my own questions about what one should expect from membership in a church. I still don’t know what it was that the church didn’t do to cause a former member to say that it had failed. But I hope that I have heard Jesus calling me and that I have done what He asked of me when He called. I would ask if you heard Him also.