This is the message that I gave at Lake Mahopac UMC Sunday, June 9th, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (C); the Scripture readings for today are 1 Kings 17: 8 – 24, Galatians 1: 11 – 24, and Luke 7: 11 – 17. Services start at 10 and you are welcome to attend.
Updated to correct link on 5 September 2020
This is about stories and change, of what is and what will be, of what we want and what we need. It is about where we have been and where we are going. Sometimes it seems as if the stories are improbable; sometimes it seems if we are asked to do the impossible. But if we understand what has happened, the stories don’t seem so improbable and what we are asked to do doesn’t seem so impossible.
I started planning this message with a thought about impossible things. But I quickly found out that such an idea was probably one of those three impossible things.
This thought about impossible things had its genesis in the knowledge that there are many people today who feel that the miracles described in the Old and New Testament are either impossible, improbable, or hallmarks of superstition and mythology.
Even today, there are those who say that Jesus is and was nothing more than a myth or legend.
But if Jesus is a myth or a legend, how is it that this story still resonates today? Did those who died during the Roman persecution two thousand years ago die for a myth? Have those who have defended the poor, the homeless, the oppressed countless times over the years done so in the name of a legend? I want to make note of a blog that I read the other day about a pastor in North Carolina who felt that his call to the ministry required that he take part in a civil disobidence protest (see my link to the post, “Why I Stayed”). How was it that he could be true to who he was if he did not speak out, in the name of Christ, for those who seem to have been forgotten by the rich and the powerful? How could he not speak out when that is what Christ did two thousand years ago?
I know that there are other myths and legends, every society has them. For the most part, we have identified them as such and they are no longer an integral part of our life. But we cannot for some reason seem to get rid of the notion that there is a God in our lives and He somehow plays a role.
And for all those who say that religion is some form of superstition or nothing more than mythology on a complex scale, what can you offer in return? What can you offer as a rationale for doing good in this world? What causes evil in this world? And be very careful how you answer this because you either have to have a god of some sort or it has to be a part of humankind. And I particularly don’t want to go down the path that says good and evil are integral parts of humankind’s makeup.
But is religion nothing more than some sort of advanced form of superstition? Is it nothing more than mythology on some complex scale?
The noted philosopher Joseph Campbell once pointed out that there is a bit of truth in every myth. Somewhere way back in time, something happened that ultimately lead to the myths and legends we have today. (“Understanding Mythology with Joseph Campbell” – original link no longer works – new link – “Understanding Mythology with Joseph Campbell”)
Christianity still resonates today because there is an element of truth to it and I would like to offer two reasons for why.
The first way that I know that there is an element of truth to the story of Christ and what transpired on those dusty backroads of the Galilee some two thousand years ago and even further back in time with the prophets and the beginnings of the Jewish people is that it was written down.
As some of you know that I am a chemist by training. One thing about chemistry is that you have to spend time in the laboratory, whether it was a teaching lab or a research lab. And that’s where the fun is! The basic rule of lab work is that if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. One could do world-class, Nobel Prize winning research but if you don’t write it down, it doesn’t mean a thing.
That Elijah’s encounter with the widow is in the 1st Book of Kings means that something happened and it was written as best as the writer could describe it. The same is true for the encounter of Jesus with the funeral process in today’s Gospel reading; someone told Luke about this and he felt it important enough to be included in his writings.
And what were the last words written in the Gospel of John,
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21: 25 – The Message)
So the stories were recorded and we can presume that there is some degree of truth to the stories. And we need to be telling the stories again and again. And therein, as Shakespeare might have written, lies the challenge.
We as a church and a denomination have truly failed to tell the story and when we do tell it, it is often in our own terms and not God’s. Remember what Paul told the Galatians,
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
We tell a very confusing story. We speak certain words that reflect the Bible but actions do not reflect those same words.
We hear that we are a Christian nation but when we look at this nation of ours, we often see a nation devoid of compassion and caring, a nation that divides the people instead of uniting them. We see a nation that pronounces that poverty, homelessness, sickness, and death are products of sin; that riches and wealth, good health and long life are the products of a righteous life. We argue for the order and law found in the Old Testament while claiming to be a New Testament people.
We read of the acceptance of Christ for all people, yet, often behind closed and locked doors, we are unwilling to share the Good News with those who are different in some way from us.
The reading from 1 Kings for today tells us two things. First, God’s grace is for all, not just a select few. The widow whom Elijah came to was a non-Israelite. While the nation of Israel was straying from God and suffering from an intolerable drought, God was supplying the daily necessities to a non-Israelite who gave comfort to one of His prophets.
But she also believed that it was her sins that caused the death of her son. No matter that her flour bin was never empty and her oil supply never ran dry, her belief in God was only confirmed at the time of her greatest despair.
The truth of this story can be found in the fact that it reflects our life in so many ways. We often fail to see God’s hand in what we do each day and only turn to Him in times of our greatest despair. And when someone gives thanks to God for their success, we often ridicule them. We expect God to be there for the bad times so why shouldn’t we expect God to be there in the good times as well.
The importance of the reading from 1 Kings today is to point out the value of personal trust in God, even in the hardest of times, that God will be there and provide. The widow could only see the “value” of God in her anguish but not in her good times.
This is very much what is happening today. As a people and as a society, we are faced first and foremost was a drought of spirit. There is no spirit in our lives, there is no vision of the future. We are unwilling to put our trust in God.
There is, within our modern theology, a notion from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that we have come to call “cheap grace.” It is the grace that we feel is ours but it is not the grace that God offers us. We want God’s grace but are unwilling to pay for it with more than a few moments in church once a week. Others feel that they have a right to ask for anything from a church and it will be given to them (and they often get very angry when we ask that they make a commitment in return).
But the grace that we truly need comes with a price, the price of the cross and that simply is a price we are not often willing to pay. Christ gave His life so that we would be free, so that sin and death could never encumber and entangle us. Our freedom is found not in simply listening to the words of Christ but understanding that what Christ taught is what we must do.
The price that we have to pay is that we are called to follow Christ, to walk with Him to the Cross and go beyond it. Those that saw Jesus bring the young man back to life did not just sit there and say “wow!” They went out and told others. It was what drove Paul to go beyond the boundaries of his life and into new worlds. It was what drove the twelve beyond their homeland and into new and uncharged worlds.
It is what we need to be doing in our churches today. We need to be building the community that our church is a part of, not closing the doors to the church and letting the world go by.
If Jesus had not been a part of the world, at least in the Gospel reading for today, he would not have brought the young man back from the dead. We can do little if we stay inside the walls of the church.
It is, I know, very difficult to put your trust in God that things will work out. It is very difficult to put your trust in God and go into places that you would never have gone before. It is very difficult to take on tasks that others say are impossible. The circuit rider, the Methodist clergy and laity who rode from town to town, often never knew what they might find on the road or in the next town. They hoped that there would be a warm bed and a place out of the rain; they hoped that there would be a gathering of believers eager to hear the Word.
But they still went on trusting in the Lord and empowered by the life-changing nature of the Holy Spirit.
And we must do the same; we must go out into the world and tell the people we meet about the stories. And not just tell the stories but show how those stories are a part of our lives and how our lives have been changed by the stories as well. Words by themselves mean nothing if our actions do not speak the same words.
And that is the second piece of the evidence that there is a truth to the story enters. We know the power of the Holy Spirit, its presence in our lives, and its ability to change lives. Throughout our history, we have recorded instances of the Holy Spirit impacting on the lives of individuals and changing the direction that they were headed. We know of Saul from Tarsus encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus and becoming Paul. We read in the Epistle reading for today Paul’s own words about this tranformation.
We know that John Wesley’s own life and the life of the Methodist Church was turned around when his heart was strangely warmed in the Aldersgate Chapel some two hundred and fifty years ago.
Perhaps you have experienced something similar at some point in your life. Perhaps it was as subtle as the heart-warming experience of John Wesley, perhaps it was as dramatic as Paul’s encounter with Christ. But, most certainly, at sometime in your life, you, as I, have had, experienced the knowledge that Holy Spirit is a part of your life.
Perhaps you are not aware that you have had this experience, perhaps it was not nothing more than a fleeting moment in time but it was there and it was enough to bring you here today, seeking answers to questions deep within your soul.
The answers for those questions that lie deep within your soul can be found if one opens one’s heart and soul to Christ. It need not be as dramatic as Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus, an encounter that left him blind but gave him a new life and a new name. It may very well be a subtle one such as the heart-warming experience that John Wesley had but the impact of that experience was enough to empower the first great Methodist revival.
Part of the story that has been told over the years is that there were those who heard the story and yet did nothing and told no one. But enough people did hear the story and it changed their lives and they told others and the story continued.
I cannot say what will happen to your life if you accept Christ other than to say that it will change. I do not know what world-changing things will happen when you open your heart and soul to Christ and let the Holy Spirit to empower your life.
But I do know that your life will change and you will tell others about the story that changed your life. And that my friends is not an impossible thing!