I am preaching at Dover UMC (Dover Plains, NY) again this Sunday. Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday of Easter. This was also Native American Awareness Sunday.
Every Sunday that I drive up to Dover, I am reminded of a goal that I once set for myself many years ago. Interestingly enough, it came at the same time when I was living in Montgomery, Alabama, and thinking about earning my God and Country award. Unfortunately, my family moved from Alabama to Colorado and, while I was able to complete the goal of earning the God and Country award, I was not able to even begin to work on my goal of walking the Appalachian Trail. So it is that every Sunday, as I drive up Route 22 to Dover Plains and I cross the Trail, I am reminded that walking the trail from Maine to Georgia was something I once wanted to do.
That is not to say that I haven’t walked the trail. Back in 1988, when I drove from Ohio to Jacksonville, Florida, to bowl in the ABC National Tournament I planned my return trip back so that I could drive through Smoky Mountain National Park and pass through Newfound Gap and visit Cades Cove (another long-term goal).
The Appalachian Trail crosses the highway from North Carolina into Tennessee at this gap in the Appalachian Mountains. Since it was early spring and early in the morning, the tourists that normally crowd this passage were not there so I was able to park my car, stroll northward on the trail beyond one bend, turn around and walk back to my car and then stroll southward beyond a bend and then return to my car and resume my trip. So I have walked a part of the trail but I don’t think that is the fulfillment of the goal I set some forty years ago. Perhaps one day, I will have the time and walk the portion of the trail which transverses Dutchess County from Connecticut to the Bear Mountain Bridge.
I do not know how many people have actually walked the entire trail or even just parts of the entire trail; I know that I am not nor will I be the last to think about walking the Appalachian Trail. But I do know of one person whose journey down the trail from New York to North Carolina was more than just a walk through the woods.
Peter Jenkins was a young college graduate in the early 70’s. It was a time that many young people saw the world around them as a world headed towards self-destruction. The America that Peter Jenkins had known growing up and of which he learned in school didn’t seem to be the America that he saw. The opportunity presented itself for him to search for the real America and so he proceeded to walk across America, from Alfred University in New York down to Mobile, Alabama, and then to New Orleans. From New Orleans, he walked across Texas, New Mexico, Colorado on to Oregon and the Pacific Ocean.
Along that walk, he came to experience God in the form of a lower-class working family in North Carolina and he came to know Christ on a turmoil-filled night in Mobile, Alabama. And when National Geographic asked him to write a story about his journey through the eastern United States, it was the story of his encounter with Christ that he fought to keep through the editing process.
We all have at one time or another had such a walk. We may never have gone anywhere; we may have been around the world. But at some time in our lives we have gone searching for God. It is a journey that mankind has been making since we first became aware of the world around us and our own status as human beings.
Many of us have found what we searched for. Others have not yet begun the search. Still, there are many today who are still searching because, like Peter Jenkins, they see a world around them that doesn’t match the world they have been taught in school.
The problem is that, today, there is the distinct likelihood that those who seek Christ will not find him, especially in the churches of today. Too many churches today have forgotten from where they came and why they were formed. While many young people and other searchers of Christ may say the words and know the works of Christ, they do not necessarily know those are His words because they do not see those words and works in the churches of today.
During this Easter season, we are reminded that Christianity began as a journey, of two men telling the story of Jesus to a stranger as they walked together on the road to Emmaus. Christianity began as a way of life, as a reaction to a religion narrowly defined by law, ritual, and an angry God.
It was a way of life, not a set of creeds and doctrines that required total obedience. It found its strength in inclusion, not exclusion. It was the fulfillment and the embodiment of what Jesus taught us to do and the life to which we are called. It was about sharing the life of Christ with others.
In its beginning the early church was relational, not dogmatic. It was about risking one’s life to worship a God whose unconditional love was revealed to people by a man they could not forget. It was a community of believers who cared about each other and their community as a whole; it was a community that showed respect for those outside the community, even when those outside sought to persecute them. It was a community that was characterized by the love that each member had for each other, “see how they love each other” was often said about the members of the early church.
But somewhere during this journey, we stopped walking. We built a building and we decided to stay awhile while the world moved on by. The early Christians defied the culture of the time and tried not to fit in. The church of today seems to be doing everything it can to be a part of society; and if it cannot do that, then it is trying to make society fit into a rigid and inflexible structure characteristic of the church that Jesus sought to change. Today many churches say that you must either fit within their defined culture or they are apt to try something “modern”, especially if they think that it will appeal to people.
And this has changed the nature of Christianity. Many people, if you asked them privately, would tell you that to be a Christian today only requires a little water at birth, a little rice at weddings and a little earth at death. Lost in the transition from a journey to a permanent stay is need for appropriating the faith and becoming aware of its demands. Lost is the demand for learning to die with Christ to the old life of world in order to rise with Christ to the new life in the kingdom of God.
The movement and way of life that Christianity was has somehow turned into a concern for buildings and programs. No longer is a church a community of inclusion but rather one of exclusion. Jesus walked with the outcasts of society; he constantly and consistently violated acceptable rules of societal behavior (by being seen with prostitutes, tax collectors, people with various illnesses and diseases and criticizing the authorities for their behavior). Yet, many churches today would not let the modern day equivalents of those outcasts sit in the pews of their sanctuaries. And while many churches today have food banks and other programs to help the needy, many in those churches probably are appalled that the poor and needy come to the church. And they will not seek to remedy the problem or work to remove the causes of hunger and the lack of medical care. It is as if we still believe that we can work our way into heaven with a minimalist approach. We have changed the Bible from what it was meant to be into something that we want it to be.
We speak time and time again of involving our youth and new members in the activities of the church; yet time and time again, we tell the youth and new members to wait their turn before getting involved. And then we wonder why the young people who grew up in the church leave and never return. And we wonder why many visitors never return.
The church today faces a major crisis. How are we to address the concerns and problems of the world? First, there must be a rather dramatic restatement of the Gospel message. Second, there must be a major realignment of the forms of church life. And third, we must fashion a new Christian style of life. But we must be careful that we respond to the crisis only in terms of Christ.
If we restate the Gospel to answer the questions we have or to solve the problems as we see them, then we will fail. Our response to the world’s agenda cannot be made or dictated by the world’s expectations.
Christianity has two emphases. One is social, the other personal. It is the responsibility of Christians to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society – to relieve the suffering of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. But it is also has the responsibility to help bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ so that they can feel the joy and love of God in their lives.
It cannot do either if it is not a part of the community. But it also cannot allow the community to dictate its survival. For to do so would be to forget its faith, but if faith is protected at all costs, then the church cannot be a part of the community. Faith must be presented to the community, not hidden within the walls of the church.
The success of many mega-churches today is that they are really a collection of many small or mini-churches. When you come to a mega-church, they find out what you are interested in and get you in a group with similar interests. And if they can’t find a group for you, they will make a group for you.
The success of these churches is found in the fact that new members and visitors feel accepted and wanted and they find things to do in the church. But creating a group of individuals with the same interests is not the same thing as having a community of individuals who take care of each other and others in the community.
We can modify our worship but we have to be careful that we do not change the message in the process. William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and a major author in Methodism, noted that he preached at a church that tried to make its service seeker sensitive. Such services remove most of the historic Christian metaphors and images. The music, as Dr. Willimon reports, was “me, my and mine.” Seekers are the generation that we need to reach out to in this day and age but if we do it with slick marketing techniques, we will fail. We must constantly remember that what people are seeking is Christ and if we take Christ out of the picture, we cannot find what we are seeking.
Many churches today make heavy use of the various forms of media and various forms of worship services because many of the post 1950 baby boomers and their children are more accustomed to projected visual imagery. We must also be aware that we can use the various forms of technology that are available but we must also be aware that the technology can only present the message; the message cannot be driven by the technology.
It is time to hear the words that Peter spoke to the people in today’s reading from Acts. Those words are not just words spoken to a crowd some two thousand years ago but a reminder that we also need to change our life. Peter said,
“Change your life. Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is targeted to you and your children, but also to all who are far away—whomever, in fact, our Master God invites.”
He went on in this vein for a long time, urging them over and over, “Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture!”
Some might see what Peter is saying, especially in terms of translation that is offered in The Message to withdraw from society and create a community insulated from the outside world. But could it be that Peter is saying that we have transformed our lives and we have quit the journey that we should be walking?
If we live in a world that is insulated from the outside world, we are protected. But the insulation that protects you from the outside world also keeps you from finding out what is going on in that world. We are not commanded to leave this world but to go out into the world.
But the journey that we make when we go out into the world cannot be a continuation of the one we were making. As Peter reminds us in his first letter, when we begin our journey with Christ, we change the direction and nature of our journey.
We do not live in Christendom, where the Christian tradition is assumed to be true and where the most people believe themselves to be Christians. We live in a world that is faced with enormous and powerful changes; changes that we are oft unable to accept or address. We live in a time where the individual has gotten lost in the maze of society and cannot find their way. Too many people see that world and do not want to go out into it.
We must be prepared to move out into the secular world, seeing it not as an enemy but as an ally. Instead of seeing the secular world and its accompanying thinking as an enemy which biblical faith requires us to fight we should see it as an opportunity for us to learn to read the story of the Bible with new eyes of understanding; to take the spectacles of the past which provide for categories of misunderstanding and change them for eyes that see the world around us. This new vision will enable us to understand that the word “truth” in Hebrew means that which is dependable and reliable rather than that which can be rationally placed in any system of thought. God is true because God does what He says He will do. He becomes known as God not because we organize Him into a total system of understanding but because of what He has done and what He will do.
That is the challenge that we as individuals and as the church community face. How do we keep our walk in and with Christ in a world that wants us to walk in the same tried-and-true path as everyone else? If we, as Christians are to have any impact at all on the earth, we must realize that it is the world that is the true addressee of Christ’s concern, the true object and stage of God’s active love, and the place where He is at work. If we are not in the world, then we cannot be the active agents of change in the world. How are we to become active agents of change in this world?
Ben Campbell Johnson, of Columbia Theological Seminary, suggests that we begin by asking people outside church “When has God seemed near to you?” There is nothing judgmental about this approach; it starts with where people are and it takes their experience seriously. This can be quite a challenge for many people. But this is the starting point for the conversation like the one between Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
It is a conversation that tells people the Gospel, the Good News. It tells people of the Gospel that justifies so that we don’t need to earn our status before God or vie for position with others. It is the Gospel that gives shape and purpose to life, making us other-directed rather than self-centered. It is the Gospel of peace that can reconcile broken relationships and build communities. It is the Gospel of justice that advocates for the poor and the marginalized. It is a Gospel of good news and how can one keep from sharing the good news?
What are we called to do? We are called to do exactly what the two disciples on the road to Emmaus did. We are called to tell those whom we encounter in our daily lives the changes that Jesus has made in our lives. We are called to show others that Christ is alive. We are called to continue the walk that began that day on the road to Emmaus.
Portions of this sermon were taken from
1) Faith In A Secular Age, Colin Williams, 1966
2) “Small-Church Turnaround” by Shane E. Mize, from Net Results, December 1998.
3) “The Messiah Is Than A Song”, Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, 8 December 2002
4) “What Should Be the Norm?” Lyle Schaller, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003
5) “It’s Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive When You Work for Jesus”, William H. Willimon, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003
6) “Two Choices”, Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, 16 November 2003
7) “Signs of Things To Come”, Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, 14 November 2004
8) Why the Christian Right Is Wrong, Robin Meyers, 2006