This will be the back page for tomorrow’s bulletin (9 July 2017, 5th Sunday after Pentecost – Year A) for Fishkill UMC. It is based on the Gospel reading (Matthew 7: 24 – 27). The other readings are from Isaiah 26: 1 – 7 and 1 Peter 2: 1 – 10.
Meditation for July 13, 2014, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)
Genesis 25: 19 – 34, Romans 8: 1- 11, and Matthew 13: 1 – 9
For some, the Old Testament reading today gives proof of the fixed outcome of life. After all, it will be Jacob who becomes Israel and fathers the twelve sons who will be the foundation of that nation. So there has to be a reason for Jacob trying to get Esau’s birthright; for without it, Jacob will never have the means and resources to become the one to father the nation.
But what if Esau hadn’t been hungry, what then? And what if Jacob had just given his older brother the stew without question or cost? Would the story still have turned out the same?
In cosmology, the study of the universe, a idea that says that this present universe is just one of many universes, one of many possible outcomes. And in this scheme of multiple universes (or multiverses), this present one, the one in which we live, is just an accident of time and place?
I have a hard time with that idea, if for no other reason than I believe that God did create the universe in a particularly unique way. But the story of life is a matter of choices, good and bad, right and wrong. It is entirely possible that the story of how we would have gotten here would have come out the same even if Esau hadn’t been hungry or Jacob had been kind enough to give his brother a meal.
The one thing we know at this point in the story is that Jacob’s future may be very bleak. As the second son, he doesn’t get a whole lot in the way of an inheritance. And his encounter with God, the encounter that results in his name becoming Israel, is still in the future.
And how much of the family history do he and Esau know? They are the second generation of Abraham’s family and they may not have a viable understanding of the covenant their grandfather made with God so many years before. As I was growing up, we knew very little about the history of our family before either of my parents’ grandparents. It wasn’t until some twenty years ago that I discovered my family lineage traces back to Martin Luther and that my calling to the pulpit, which I answered before I discovered my family’s history, was part of a long line of ministers. So we might want to know what Esau and Isaac knew about their family. Did they know that their father had a brother?
For me, it would seem that they didn’t know much of the history and Jacob was more concerned with his own life at this moment that he was with the future of his family. Because as the second son, his future wasn’t that bright. And Esau comes home one day very hungry. And Jacob has the opportunity to gain what he might not otherwise have, the birthright of the oldest son.
I know I am reading a whole lot into this story but why else would Jacob do what he did? His priority at this point is himself and only himself; he has no idea that in a few years he is going to encounter God and his life is going to change. While I am sure and certain that we know when we encountered God and made the decision that changed our lives, up until that moment, did you know that in the next moment that you would encounter God?
Now, we might know when it is that we will encounter God but we certainly need to be in a situation where that encounter can occur. And at this point, I want to jump from being the one who encounters God to the one who prepares the moment.
Do we, in the way we live our life each day, show people the presence of God in our lives? One of the points Paul makes in his letter to the Romans is that the way we live our life has a lot to do with this. After all, if we are only interested in ourselves, we are not likely to find God at all. And if we are not preparing the ground in the right way, it is not very likely that our efforts will produce anything.
Preparing the way is more than just telling people about Christ. Of course, if you don’t tell people about Christ, they will never know that He existed but you have to show people, especially in today’s world, that He does exist. Look around and tell me what you see in the morning. The peace and calm of the rising sun is disturbed by news of fighting and violence around the world. Even our own denomination is dominated by hatred and exclusion and talk of schism.
Is it any wonder that people don’t believe there is a God or that He even cares for us? If the people who claim to be God’s children are fighting among themselves, what hope is there for others who think that they have been cast aside?
So we must prepare the ground so that our efforts to help others find Christ are not wasted. It will take more than simply opening our hearts or our minds or our souls. It will take learning who we are and what we are called to do.
It means getting beyond the law because the law only restricts us, it does not help us grow. It means looking beyond the moment and seeing what the future holds. Esau cared very little for the future because he felt he was dying at the present.
Right now, the future doesn’t seem to good and I think that is because we are more worried about the present. What will it take to bring people to Christ? It will be a group of people who show the presence of Christ in their lives through their words, their deeds, and their actions. They will be the ones who help the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the needy, and the oppressed. They will not worry about the color of the person’s skin, the state of their bank account, or the lifestyle. They will say that all are welcome.
They will know that those who were called Methodists have been doing this for over two hundred years. It is the call that they have received and the call they have answered.
I truly believe that too many people, Methodists included, have forgotten what their priorities are and have gone back to the old days. I think it is a matter of priority that we 1) remember who we are and have been and 2) get back to doing what it is that we are supposed to be doing.
There are some who are not going to like that, who feel that adherence to the law is far more important that welcoming all who seek Christ. The law cannot save us but it can keep us from being saved.
I stare at the words Paul wrote to the Romans and I envision him writing the same letter to each one of us. What is our priority?
This was my Father’s Day message for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 23 June 2002, at Walker Valley (NY) UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 21: 8 – 21, Romans 6: 1 – 11, and Matthew 10: 24 – 39.
It would be highly appropriate for me, on this Father’s Day, to speak in glowing and favorable words about my own father. But to do so would gloss over his relationship with me and with his family. Though he was a man of vision and many of his ideas had a great impact, he was like many fathers we have heard about, aloof and distant from his family. Immensely proud of his children’s accomplishments, he often failed to let us know of his pride in us.
Still, at the end of his life, I knew how proud he was that I had received my doctorate and how proud he was of my then fledging career in the ministry of the United Methodist Church. I also knew that, despite his initial objections to this choice, he had come to understand that it was a choice made in my heart. It was a choice that he accepted and endorsed. For he knew that the path in ministry that I was beginning to walk was a path shared by others in our extended family, the Schüessler family from whom my grandmother and his mother came. He was proud of that choice and was working to make my path a little bit easier.
I also knew that at the end of his life, he had come back to that same foundation and faith in which he was raised.
That is the way it is for each of us here today. We walk a path of our own choosing, guided by our wisdom and made in our heart. But it is a path made easier by our fathers and their fathers before them, our mothers and their mothers before them, by all those in our family, both close and extended who have traveled this path before us.
The challenge for us then is to move forward, to expand the path so that those that follow us have the same and perhaps greater opportunities than we did. But I see in today’s society people unwilling to move forward. I see in today’s society people who feel that the good days are the ones behind us; that there is no hope for the future and what we have today is the best that it will ever be. We have become a society unwilling or unable to go beyond the bend in the path before us, fearful of what might lie there.
We are a society that has accepted the here and now as the norm; we don’t look to the future; we are afraid to take risks. If our own political founding fathers had been unwilling to move into the unknown, then we might still be a colony of Great Britain today. But there were those in the small towns and villages of this country who saw the road to Independence for what it was, the only path to take, and so we moved forward. Beginning with the visionary and radical document we know as the “Declaration of Independence”, this nation has moved into the future. The question is whether we can continue to do so.
I am not sure that the spirit that led us to cheer when we heard that all men were created equal still exists today. I am not sure that we are a nation willing to put the values expressed then into practice today. We are not interested in long-term solutions any more. We want an answer now, no matter what might happen tomorrow. We react immediately and without thought. I will not minimize what happened on September 11, 2001. It was an act that defies belief and can only be explained in seemingly irrational terms.
But have our responses since that day solved the problems that caused the attack. Have the forces of evil that feed on ignorance, hatred, and injustice been removed from today’s society? Or, have each of our own violent responses been met with more violence? We must seek justice in this world but it must be within the boundaries of what we believe. We have repeatedly told the world that we are a Christian nation, so we hold to the Gospel message presented in the New Testament. Yet, we have stated that we are a people of the New Testament; as such, our responses seem to be more a rephrasing of the old Mosaic Law of an eye for an eye. The fact is that when violence is answered by more violence, there will never be peace.
The roots of hatred and violence run deep in this world. And in a world where self-interests seemingly come first, such roots are not easily removed. But if we would simply stop and think for a few moments about how we should respond, we could create a peace-based, non-aggressive response that would meet our goal while not portraying us as weak or inept. This is difficult to do, especially in a time when society demands violent responses and victory at all costs and belittles all those who do seek alternatives. But, in light of the Gospel before us today, we should not be surprised. For the Gospel message for today tells us that society is not often open to the liberating thoughts alternative solutions might possess.
Jesus is passing through the town and area of Gerasa. There He encounters a man possessed by seven demons. Because of this possession, this man has been driven from his home and forced to live among the tombs of the town cemetery. Society’s actions and condemnation have declared him dead and unfit to be in the real world.
He recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and his Savior. He begs to be healed and saved from that which is tormenting him. Not only does Jesus heal him, he elevates him to a status above those how who have scorned and condemned him. But what do the townspeople do?
Instead of rejoicing in this man’s healing and literal return from the dead, they are angry with Jesus. As we read in the Gospel for today, Jesus placed the demons that had tormented the man in a herd of pigs nearby, causing the pigs to jump over a cliff and fall to their death in the sea. The people were angry with Jesus for doing this.
It is very interesting that this was their response. For as devout Jews, the townspeople could not eat pork. So these pigs were not for local consumption. Rather, the people raised the pigs to feed the Roman soldiers garrisoned nearby. The anger comes from the fact that Jesus, in saving one person, has disrupted the ways of society; Jesus has disrupted the status quo.
Yet, the status quo served to keep the people of the area enslaved. Jesus comes as a liberator, offering an alternative. But He was rejected and cast aside by the very people that He came to free because His solution was not acceptable to them. Those caught up in the ways of the secular world are often not willing to accept liberation, especially if it interferes with the easy life of the status quo.
But you cannot liberate an enslaved people using the methods that enslaved them in the first place. There must be alternatives. Jesus offered an alternative then and today. Are we willing to look at the alternatives or shall we continue with the status quo?
John Wesley saw people trapped by poverty and societal indifference. English society in his day believed, as some in today’s society still believe, that poverty was a direct result of a sinful life. If you were poor, it was because you were a sinner. If you were rich and prosperous, then God must have smiled on you and granted the blessings of life. It did not matter if your riches came from the enslavement, abuse, and oppression of others; if you were rich, God was on your side.
Historians tell us that the England of John Wesley’s time was ripe for the same violent and bloody revolution that swept through France some fifty years later. They also tell us that one of the reasons why England did not have such a bloody revolution was because of the work of John Wesley and the early Methodists.
The early Methodists fought to improve the conditions that condoned child abuse and sent children as young as twelve into England’s mines and factories. The fought against the drug and alcohol abuse prevalent in society and, which for some was the only escape available. The early Methodists tried to change a society that found it convenient to throw people in jail for owing others money and keeping them in jail until the debt was paid. People in proverty were made to feel ashamed because they were poor; people were made to feel that God had forgotten them.
Instead of repression and humiliation, instead of making it impossible to better ones life, the early Methodists show people that they had not been forgotten, that God loved them as much as anyone else. More importantly, the poor and lower classes were given hope, the same hope promised in the Gospel message. And slowly but surely, the early Methodists changed the minds that looked inward first and caused to look around them and see what the world really was.
Do you remember the story of John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace” and a number of other powerful Methodist hymns? His life changed when he saw that the source of his wealth was the enslavement of others. Faced with the irony that by selling people into slavery was the cause of his own spiritual enslavement, he chose to walk away and seek a new life. Through his hymns and ministry, he helped bring about the quiet revolution in England.
This is the power of the Gospel; that is the power of faith in Christ. Jesus gave new life to a man condemned by society. John Wesley gave hope to people forgotten by society.
It is the same for us. Through Christ, we have been given the opportunity of life without slavery to sin and death. Salvation is ours through the power of the Gospel. And like the man in the Gospel message today, we are challenged by Jesus to take the Gospel message into the world, bringing others to Jesus.
But it requires that we change. It requires that we have that life-changing experience that the man in tombs underwent. It requires a change in one’s thinking and direction of life, as it was for John Newton.
We cannot simply rearrange the present in hopes of making the future better. The Galatians were one of the first Christian churches but like some many others, they were reluctant to change their thinking. They still saw themselves in terms of the old ways of life, using the law as a way of exclusion. Paul reminded them it was their faith that united them in a radical equality. Paul told them to cast away the old identities of Greek and Jew, slave and free and see themselves in the light of Christ and their faith in Christ.
You will tell me that this is all well and good but it will not work in today’s world. To live and preach the Gospel message will only bring ridicule and embarrassment. You will tell me that you cannot take on the world’s problems by yourself. What would you have done if faced with thousands of refugees who will die if you do not take action?
At the last P. A. P. A. (Peekskill Area Pastor’s Association) it was resolved that we would remember Aristides de Sousa Mendes this week. You may not have ever heard of this gentleman and he probably would have liked it this way. He was the General Consul of Portugal in Bordeaux, France during the spring of 1940.
At that time, the Nazi blitzkrieg had breached the French armies’ defenses and refugees of different nationalities, including thousands of Jews, were coming to Bordeaux in hopes of avoiding death by obtaining a transit visa to Portugal and from there to ports in South America. The Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, was a Fascist and supported Adolf Hitler personally even though Portugal remained neutral throughout World War II. Premier Salazar gave orders to all Portuguese diplomats forbidding them from extending visas to refuges and to Jews who had been expelled from their country of origin.
In spite of this, Sousa Mendes issued thousands of transit permits to refugees in Bordeaux, Bayonne, and Hendaye (a town on the Spanish border with France). It is believed that because of his actions 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews, were saved from death in the Third Reich’s death camps.
On June 16, 1940, Sousa Mendes faced the crowd and said,
“I cannot allow you to die. Most of you are Jewish and our Constitution established that neither religion nor political beliefs can be used as an excuse to reject the staying in Portugal.”
“I will give a visa to whoever needs it, either he/she can pay for it or not. I will act according to what my Christian conscience tells me to do,” he used to say.
For his defiance of his country’s leader he was expelled from the Portuguese Foreign Service and lost all benefits. The utterance of his name was prohibited for decades and he lived the rest of his life as an outcast, homeless and in poverty until his death in 1954. In 1987, President Mario Soares posthumously awarded him the Order of Liberty and publicly asked his relatives for forgiveness for the injustices that had taken place.
In a letter sent to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (another individual whose conscience dictated actions that were counter to public sentiment and who paid the ultimate price for his action), Francisco Sousa Mendes, the consul’s grandson, wrote “Aristides de Sousa Mendes was a diplomat. As such, he knew that he was a public official, somebody who should serve the people and, in no way could he take advantage of his position for personal benefit. But, even more important, more than a public official, my grandfather was loyal to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, particularly the one that prescribes us to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
When faced with the choice of doing what was right in the eyes of his people and what was right in the eyes of the Lord, Aristides de Sousa Mendes choose to follow the Lord, no matter what the cost it would be to him.
The prophet Elijah could relate to what happened to Sousa Mendes. Elijah took on the establishment, challenging the prophets of Baal and in direct confrontation with Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. In showing these prophets to be fools and charlatans, Elijah embarrassed and enraged Jezebel, to the point that she put a bounty on his life.
In the wilderness, Elijah is convinced that he is alone, that there is no one who believes in God as he does. He believes that he will die in the wilderness, alone as the last of God’s witnesses. He is also convinced that God has forgotten him. Yet, God showed that he was neither forgotten nor alone. God showed Elijah that there are others and that there will always be others who believe in God and act in the same manner as Elijah.
You may see yourself alone in the battle but look around you. There are others whose presence today tells you their paths have crossed yours and the faith of their fathers is still present, as is yours.
Today, we are reminded that our fathers, like their fathers before them, worked to make our paths a little easier to tread. We are reminded that Jesus came to liberate and save us from sin and death. We are reminded, as our fathers before us and their fathers before them that the Gospel message is to be taken from this place and into the world. We are reminded again, in the words of the old Methodist hymn that the faith of our fathers lives on today.
UMH #710 – FAITH OF OUR FATHERS
Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 17 July 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 28: 10 – 19, Romans 8: 12 – 25, and Matthew 13: 24 – 30.
If you were expecting something related to Led Zeppelin, you will be sadly disappointed. As much as I like that band, “Stairway to Heaven” was never one of my favorites. I think that may have something to do with when the song came out and the transition in music at the time. But that’s another story for another time.
No, the stairway to heaven in this case comes from Jacob’s dream in Genesis that was the Old Testament reading for today. How should we interpret this dream? Do we see it as a means of escape and, if so, an escape from what? This is a pertinent question, especially in light of what we read in the Gospel reading from Matthew for today.
Some of the notes that accompany the Matthew passage put the reading into an apocalyptic tone, of the sorting of the good from evil and the resulting destruction of evil. I have no problem with the destruction of evil. What I have a problem with is those who have created a version of the end times in which the good do nothing and yet survive. The attitude that I perceive among many who proclaim an acceptance of the current “end times” scenario is that they, the good and righteous, will survive while others, obviously evil and sinful, will be destroyed.
The problem is that in a few chapters Matthew will record Jesus as challenging the good and righteous about what they did to end the cause of evil, i.e., poverty, homelessness, hunger, and rejection by society. If the good are to survive, then they must do more than simply say to the evil that they are doomed. Sinners know they are doomed; the question is one of how to do we change the outcome?
Second thought – there are times, especially when I am watching a show on the development and history of the Bible that I begin to think that I am a gnostic when it comes to belief. Now, I am still struggling with the nature of Gnosticism as it was two thousand years ago. There is something about the way it is presented that I cannot get a handle on. But if Gnosticism requires that you think about your belief then I wonder whose belief system is not partially gnostic in nature. Our belief may be private but our journey is public.
As I looked at the three readings for today, I saw the struggle that Jacob was undergoing as one in his own mind as to where he was going and what he was to do. This is a struggle that each and every one of us goes through. Perhaps this is a better way to read the verses from Matthew; our own private attempt to separate the good from the bad in our lives, to gather the wheat while getting rid of the chafe and the weeds.
Paul’s words come into play. How are we, individually and personally, going to make that change? It comes when we make the conscious and definite choice to follow Christ, to accept Christ in our lives, our heart, our mind, our soul. What Paul tells the Romans is that there is a distinct difference between the life you lead before you chose Christ and the life you will have after you have made that choice.
But you see, it has to be your choice. And when we make that choice, we see the stairway that Jacob saw. What Jacob was more than a vision of angels; it was way out of his present live and into a new life, a life in the presence of God. It was a renewal of the covenant that Abraham had made. It may very well be that this renewal, coming as it does before Jacob’s encounter with God and his reunion with his brother Esau, is what he (Jacob) needed in order to handle those two major events in his life.
That is what we need if we are to escape the life we have. And this is where I differ from those who see the “end times” as a final ending. We cannot get out of life and we cannot say to others that they are doomed if we do nothing to offer an alternative. When I look around and I see self-proclaimed Christians who see poverty, homelessness, suffering and illness and say that is the way it is too be; when I see self-proclaimed Christians telling me that God intended for them to be wealthy and that anyone can do it, I have to wonder when they encountered Christ.
There may be an “evil one” in this world. I am not prepared to say one way or the other on that point. I will say, though, that there is evil in this world. And I will say that it is very easy to get trapped by that evil. I will also say that the only way that we will overcome evil is to not get trapped in it and that will require a stairway, a way to climb out. But that stairway will not magically appear, allowing us to escape without looking back. That stairway is Jesus Christ and as we climb that stairway, we are making a commitment to help others climb it as well. Those that climb it by themselves will find that they are going nowhere. Those that help others to escape the evil and despair of this world through working to destroy poverty, homelessness, hunger, and repression will find a stairway that leads to a grander place than we could ever imagine.
And for those expecting Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven”
I am preaching at Lake Mahopac UMC (Mahopac, NY) this Sunday morning, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for today are Genesis 18: 1 – 15, Romans 5: 1- 8, and Matthew 9: 35 – 10:8.
This summer promises to be an interesting period of time. First, with the heat wave that we had last week, it would appear that summer has arrived even though the calendar tells us that it won’t actually be summer for another week or so. And while the calendar says that it is just June, the political campaigns have all the hallmarks of late September or early October. The airwaves are filled with attacks and counter-attacks, accusations and denials, mud-slinging and more mud-slinging. The only thing that is not taking place is a serious discussion of the issues that mankind faces in these early days of the 21st century.
The one nice thing about the political campaigns of today is that religion has been pushed to the back when compared to previous campaigns. That is not to say that it is entirely gone but only that it is being pushed back. It might have been nice if it hadn’t because we definitely need a serious discussion of religion in our lives but not within the framework of politics.
We need to understand what people believe when it comes to the Bible and the message of Christ. We need to understand what exactly the message of Islam is and how, like so many other religions including Christianity, it has been twisted and transformed into something entirely different. We need to understand what are the heart and soul of our life and how a belief in Jesus Christ as a Savior has been transformed into a corporate-based philosophy where big is better and individuals are shunned.
We need to understand what the Bible is and what it is not. We have to understand that a thing like the Rapture, so often mentioned in today’s popular religion, is not in the Bible but is in the writings of a 19th century preacher, John Darby.
We need to see that the Gospel message is more than just the saving of souls but a transformation of society. It is not a transformation of society into one bound by religions laws and principles but one guided and directed by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The words that we hear from politicians and preachers alike are words of hate and fear. The words of Jesus were words of promise and hope. When will we begin to ask or demand that those who wish to lead us socially or spiritually offer what was offered some two thousand years ago. When is the time for us to respond?
I would say that now is that time. We can start by thinking about what we read in the Bible. You cannot simply read it and say “that’s nice” or “that’s interesting.” You have to put some thought into what you read. And that is the problem we have today. Too many people want to take what is written in this book at face value. How many times did someone, a Pharisee or a Scribe, come up to Jesus and ask Him a question about the Scriptures or law that was intended to trap Jesus but ultimately showed the ignorance of the questioner?
When you take the Bible at face value, one of two things is apt to happen. You either develop a view of the world that is fixed and two thousand years old or you get confused by the contradictions and contrary actions that are described in the chapters of both the Old and New Testament. Either way, you miss the message and misunderstand the words. You look at the world around you and try to fit the world into the Bible; to use a quote by George Bernard Shaw that was often used by Robert Kennedy, “instead of seeing things as they could be and asking why not, you see things as they are and ask why.”
For me, the Bible is not a history book, a science book, or a novel. It is an explanation of the presence of God in our lives. It is about the relationship we have with God and others; it is not meant to be a restrictive set of rules. (See Jim Wallis’ comments about the Bible at “The Bible Is Neither Conservative or Liberal”.)
Yet there are those today who believe that the Bible should be nothing more than a restrictive set of rules governing our every action and thought. They would have us live in a world of laws and rules that govern our daily lives, literally telling us what to say and think, and even literally telling us when to breath. It is no wonder that so many people rebel against the church!
But against this perception, we have to remember that Christ Himself told us that He was the embodiment of the law and that the law was superseded by the Spirit. Two thousand years ago, Israel was a society of religious laws.
Now, the basis for laws in Israel in Jesus’ time was the Ten Commandments. But, because the people were so afraid of breaking the Ten Commandments, 613 additional laws were created. Now, of these 613 laws, 365 began with “thou shalt not” and were, thus, negative in nature (the other 248 were positive in nature, beginning with “thou shall”; from “The Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner, page 37). Like the Pharisees of old, we make rules and regulations that create, control, and curb personal holiness. In the name of freedom, we create laws that take away our freedom. Jesus tried to get us to see beyond the rules and regulations of society and into the spirit that was behind the law.
We are reminded that the primary emphasis of both the Old and New Testaments is how we care for people, old and young, rich and poor, those who have and those who don’t. We are reminded that if we took our Bibles and removed every reference to poverty, the poor, or the needy then it would fall apart. The Bible and Christianity are not about the rich getting richer or the healthy staying healthy or the free remaining free. It is about the poor being given opportunities, the sick being healed and the imprisoned and down-trodden being offered hope and freedom.
Read the Gospel message for today (Matthew 9: 35 – 10: 8), especially the first two verses, again.
Then Jesus made a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke.
It does not matter what translation of the Bible you read the Gospel message from. In all cases, Jesus has compassion for the people as they come to him because they were confused and lost, helpless and sick, and without hope.
In 1960, when he was running for President of the United States, John Kennedy came face to face with what may have been one of the best-kept secrets of this country, the poverty of our rural areas. It changed his view of this country and it probably made him a better person.
And it changed his brother Robert as well. The other day, on the anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death, I wrote
He was a politician who challenged the people to act and not simply accept the status quo. He pushed people to get involved. He was angry at a society that would allow people to go hungry in the rural areas of this country and not protect the workers who harvested the food that the middle and upper classes of this country ate. He was angry at a society that would fight a war that appeared to have no end and would sacrifice a generation of children. But he did not simply voice his anger. He offered solutions that were solutions; he challenged people to act; he challenged people to do what was right, not what was necessarily the popular thing. (“Forty Years Ago”)
As David Ulm wrote,
Stumping in South Dakota, he spent one of his two days in the state on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In Indiana, during a lunch sponsored by the Vincennes Civitan Club, he assailed a group of businessmen on the subject of hunger, offering what Tom Congdon Jr. of the Saturday Evening Post would characterize as “reverse demagoguery — he was telling them precisely the opposite of what they wanted to hear.” Later, at Indiana University’s School of Medicine, he chided the doctors in training for failing to make “decent medical care something more than a luxury of the affluent” and spoke against draft deferments as unfair to the poor. (http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/la-bk-ulin1-2008jun01,0,4884048.story)
Politics is about people but politics today is a far cry from a concern about people. At a time when the gap between rich and poor grows larger with every minute, I do not see or hear any leader stepping forth to proclaim that we need to be caring for the less fortunate and the forgotten. Rather, I see and hear too many leaders listening to the rich and want-to-be-powerful while the poor and less fortunate are pushed aside and quickly forgotten. They are unwilling to take the time to see the world around them and work, as Jesus proclaimed that first day of his ministry in the Nazareth synagogue, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and bring the Good News to the oppressed.
Our politics today, no matter what some may say, are not politics of hope and promise for tomorrow; they are the politics of fear, offering words that encourage hatred and division. They are words that say that it is perfectly reasonable to seek wealth. It was given to you by God and you need not feel guilty about being wealthy. Poverty is a state of mind and those who are poor deserve their fate. It is not our responsibility to take care of the poor; giving money to the poor and social programs only wastes our money.
And what is perhaps worse is that too many people who are affected by this dichotomy in political and social policy are quite willing to accept this way of thinking because they think that they will somehow move up in the world. They are quite willing to place the blame for society’s ills and problems on others, somehow hoping that those who have will remember those who do not have.
The politics of today tell us to fight those who would teach new theories or bring about change in society. New thoughts run counter to tradition and when you challenge tradition, society falls apart. New knowledge can only destroy the values of society.
The politics of today tell us that only military power will defeat evil. We hear that the only thing evil understands is raw power and those who say that you can counter evil with love are extremely naïve. But violence only generates more violence and those exposed to violence see violence as the only solution to their problems. Terrorism and hatred grow out of violence and when violence is used to combat terror, it can only breed more.
The politics of today tells us that others are to blame for the troubles of society. It is those who have different economic status, different lifestyles, or different skin colors that are to blame for society’s troubles. We are told to cast aside those who are not like us; we are told to build walls, physical or otherwise, that keep them strangers away (adapted from “The Vision of Hope”).
We are told that our problems are caused because illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans. Let us ignore for a moment that many of the jobs that immigrants fill are jobs that Americans will not take and let us forget that many immigrants work for wages below what many Americans feel are acceptable. And let us forget about punishing companies and corporations who hire illegal immigrants. Let us try and remember that we, or some member of our family, were once strangers in a strange land and we were once welcomed.
But how do we react to visitors to our church, our city, or our country? Right now, our country wants to build a wall along our Southern border to keep out the illegal immigrants. It is a physical wall today; it has been a legal wall in the past. But, yet, people still come to this country.
We claim that our history and our heritage is based on the Bible. What was the first thing that Abraham did in today’s Old Testament reading when the three visitors came to his camp site? He welcomed them with food and drink and he washed their feet; he made them feel welcome.
Many years ago a visitor came to a church. I was a member of that church but this visitor came many years before I did. And though his stay was a brief one, it was one that he remembered, for the people of the church made him feel welcome and a part of the community. And as a result of the efforts of the church community to make a stranger feel welcome and comfortable, when he died, his estate sent the church a check that enabled the church to build a new parsonage and turn the old one into an educational building.
But when I came to that church, only one person other than the minister and his wife said hello to my family and me. And it was a dying church. Somehow, that church had forgotten what had happened when they welcomed visitors. Fortunately, that situation of ignoring visitors changed and the church recovered and grew.
Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten what it is that we are supposed to do. Somewhere along the line, we began putting up walls and barriers that keep others out. And we forgot that when we do that, when we put up walls to keep others out, we trap ourselves in a prison of our own making. We need to see the world differently; we need for our actions to be different.
The economic situation today, the politics of the world and the nation all seem to say that there is nothing the little person, the common person can do. We hear the words of the Gospel to do the seeming impossible. We can barely make it ourselves and here today Jesus is telling us to go out into the world and do his work. When are we going to find the time? When are we going to find the wherewithal that will enable us to do it?
Some forty years ago, Martin Luther King came to my home town of Memphis. He came because there was a labor problem and he had been asked to help. And one night he got up before the workers, their supporters, and their leadership and gave a speech. We remember him telling us that there would be difficult times ahead and that he probably would not be with us at the end of the journey. This speech on April 3, 1968 was prophetic, not because Dr. King would die the next day but because of the other things he said that night.
He also spoke of God asking him what age of civilization he might want to live in. His answer to that most interesting question was
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion is all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”
And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it is nonviolence or nonexistence.
That is where we are today. And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.
It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” (which I take to mean angels rather than something more Southern in nature) in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do. (from I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” – Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968)
When is the time to begin the work of the Gospel? The time is now. Before he spoke of being on the mountain top and seeing the Promised Land, before he spoke prophetically of his own death and the likelihood that he would not reach the Promised Land, he spoke of the Good Samaritan and the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the path taken by the injured man, the rabbi, the Levite, and the Good Samaritan.
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administering first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meetings—an ecclesiastical gathering—and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Forty years later, these are still difficult times, especially if we are to bring the Gospel into reality. The road that we have chosen to walk will not be an easy one to walk. And quite frankly, we don’t always want to have to walk the hard road; we would like to sometimes walk the easy path or the soft path.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul points out that 1) no road that we walk will ever be has hard as the one Christ had to walk and that 2) we know what truly lies at the end of our walk. And while it is uneasy to hear Martin Luther King’s words predicting his own death and while we do not want to hear Paul say that there are people for whom we should be willing to die, we also hear Paul tell us that we need not seek death. In fact, we are not asked to see death for Christ because Christ died for us; rather, we are asked to work for Christ in this world.
Too often we see the Gospel in terms of what we need. We see the need for the Gospel, especially as it pertains to the sick, the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the oppressed, and we wonder what we can do that we haven’t already done. But perhaps now, more than ever, is the time that we see the Gospel as the Good Samaritan saw it and as Dr. King expressed it. A phrase that resonated throughout my high school and college years was “if not now, when; if not me, who?” We are asked to fulfill the Gospel message; we are asked to do it today. And we have the capabilities to do so.
When God first spoke to Abram, He said that He would make Abram the father of many nations. But Abram was seventy-five and had no children. In today’s Old Testament reading, he is now Abraham and almost ninety. Sarah, his wife, is also close to ninety and, it would appear, no longer fertile. But God says that he will return within the year and when He does, Sarah will be pregnant. And when she hears this, Sarah does what we might do if that were the case with us, she laughed.
Much can be made about what happens next in this story, as it has for some two thousand years. I don’t know if Sarah was really ninety years old when she was told that she would be pregnant within the year or if the writer of the story set it up so that it would be more dramatic. That is not the point of the story.
It was, as Paul and others would write, by faith that Abram left his home and took Sarai to lands that God would show him. It was by faith that Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah. It was by faith that Abraham took God’s word that he would be the father of many nations.
It is that story of faith that continues today with each one of us. By our presence, our prayers and our declaration this morning of our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior, we continue this story that has come down through the ages. And because we have chosen to continue the story, we must be willing and prepared to take on the tasks that Christ asks us to take on.
Who will go out and harvest? Who will go out and proclaim the Gospel? Who will proclaim the Gospel message of healing, comfort, hope and promise to the world. We will be the ones to proclaim the Gospel message and we know that now is the time to do so.