This is the message that I gave for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 26 June 2005, at Fishkill (NY) UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 22: 1 – 14, Romans 6: 12 – 23, and Matthew 10: 40 – 42.
Technically, Fishkill was my home church and had been since I moved up to New York in 1999.
But from 1999 to 2002, I was the lay pastor at Walker Valley (NY) UMC and from 2002 to 2005 I was the lay pastor at Tompkins Corners (NY) UMC. But I had resigned my position at Tompkins Corners a month before in order to effect some needed changes in the structure (which, as you now from reading some of the posts I have put about, didn’t work and the church closed two years ago). So I was available to preach and the call came to come to Fishkill.
It was that noted Eastern philospher and Hall of Fame catcher, Yogi Berra, who once noted that when you come to a fork in the road you should choose it (note added in publishing this piece – check out http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/6285 for a picture of a fork in the road – it is at the intersection of NY 199 and NY 308; when the churches in Milan and Red Hook were yoked together, you passed this in going from Milan to Red Hook). We are at a point in time where we have come to that fork in the road and we must choose which way to go. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” In other words, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Unfortunately, the people to whom Jeremiah directed these roads answered “we will not walk in the ways of the Lord.” Theirs was not a good choice.
We are continually faced with choices and, sooner or later, we must make a choice. Sometimes the choices are mundane, should we use paper or plastic? Other times, they are deep and insightful. Unfortunately it seems like many of the choices that we make today are made out of fear or misunderstanding.
Ever since September 11th (a date we can say without a year), we have been bombarded with ideas and thoughts that are based on fear or misunderstanding. Travel across the electromagnetic spectrum and listen, if you can, to the myriad talk shows on television today and all you hear is fear. Many preachers, claiming to be “the true voice of God”, and other talk show hosts pour invective on those who disagree with them about abortion, homosexuality, war, evolution, gun control, and the role of government. Such preachers and talk show hosts call out the troops, marshaling them to swamp their elected representatives with phone calls and letter on this and that issue on which we are told our faith and freedom hinge.
It is possible that some will say that I am trying to strike fear in your hearts today. As loud and vocal are the commentators on the right, so too are the commentators on the left just as equally vocal in their pronouncements that those on the right are trying to take away our basic freedoms of thought and choice. We are at a point in time and society where if you publicly state that you are a Christian you are labeled a fundamentalist and conservative. And if you claim to be a liberal in today’s environment (and are willing to pubicly state such), then you are labeled a secular humanist who does not believe in God, Christ, or the power of the resurrection and the Gospel.
But this dialogue, by both sides, blinds us to the work of faith activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Clarence Jordan, and Dorothy Day whose work in the name of Jesus Christ and the Gospel is now considered to be “progressive”. And the arguments of both sides blinds them so that they cannot see the rigidity of their own ideological demands. It is almost as if we have turned the clock back in time to the days of Jesus and we hear the voices of the Pharisees and Sadducees seeking ways to discredit Jesus because they are blind to the message of hope, promise and justice that Jesus gave.
It has been said that the most common command in the Bible is “fear not.” It is a command that Jesus repeatedly gave to his disciples and followers; it is the command of the angel at the annunciation when Mary was told that she would be the mother of the Messiah. When God’s presence with humanity is palpable, it takes away fear – fear of enemies, fear of the future. Yes, there is sin in this world and it must be named and resisted. But we cannot move into the future if we are afraid or fearful. (Adapted from “Fear Not”, Christian Century, June 14, 2005)
In this day of division, hatred, and destruction, there are those who have made a choice, have decided to walk a different path. As John Danforth, former senator from Missouri and an Episcopal minister, recently wrote in the New York Times, these are the moderates of Christianity. Instead of claiming to possess God’s truth, moderate Christians only claim to be imperfect seekers of the truth. Instead of dividing society, religion is to be inclusive, seeking to bridge the divisions between people.
Rather than arguing with those with whom we disagree, we must practice humility and tolerance. In a world based on fear and hatred, in a world of division and exclusion, we must follow the Lord who sat at the table with the tax collectors and sinners and welcome all into our midst. We must replace an agenda based on hatred with the one we were taught as children, that we are loved by God and that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. (“Onward, Moderate Christian Soldiers” by John C. Danforth, New York Times, June 17, 2005)
Against this background, it is clear that we must make a choice. It has to be a choice based on trust and understanding, not fear or blind obedience. Such an example of trust comes from the Old Testament reading for today.
Abraham was commanded to take his son Isaac to the mountains of Moriah where he is to sacrifice Isaac. From the very beginning of the story, it is clear that Abraham did not do this out of simple obedience to God, for he repeatedly says “Trust in the Lord.” I am sure that Abraham, given the choice, might have asked God about the wisdom of such a command. After all, God formed a covenant with Abraham in which he, Abraham, would be the father of many nations because he chosen to follow God. Abraham had already lost one son, Ishmael, and I am sure that he did not want to lose another one. But he does not question God, choosing rather to trust in Him.
At the end of the story God decides that his faith is worthy and provides a worthy and appropriate sacrifice to replace Isaac on the altar. Abraham’s faith and trust are rewarded. I do not think that we will ever see our lives tested in that same way, for we have already been given that worthy and appropriate sacrifice, Jesus Christ. But that does not mean that we don’t have to make a choice anymore; Rather, it means that the choices that we make take on an even greater importance.
Paul notes that we are free to choose the path we wish to walk but we have to be careful which one we choose. For if we choose the path and life that makes us a slave to sin, the reward is death. But if we choose to walk the path set before us through Christ, even if some would say that it is a slavery no different from other forms of slavery, our rewards are righteousness and everlasting life. When we choose to follow God, we reap the benefit of holiness which are eternal life.
This narrative that Paul offers us can be a very confusing one to follow. How can one who is a slave ever gain anything? Does not the slave-owner keep everything? Paul notes that if we are slaves to righteousness, we gain everything. If we are slaves to sin, then we gain nothing. We are asked to see beyond the limits of our world and the limits of our own understanding. If we do not do so, then we are trapped in the limits of this world, unable to see the freedom offered by Christ.
So we must make a choice. In fact, we must make two choices. First, we must find a way to let Christ into our lives and then we must find a way to take Christ’s message out into the world. For if we cannot take the message out into the world, we will be trapped in a world of darkness and fear, unable to see the hope and promise of the Gospel message. If we really wish to respond to the fear, the violence, the oppression, the hatred that seem so ever present in this world today we must do so in such a way that does not simply use the same approaches. For violence only begets more violence, hatred breeds only hatred, and injustice will only lead to injustice. We must begin to think more in terms of witness and less in terms of worldly solutions. (Adapted from “Mine Wars”, Scott Williams, Christian Century, May 31, 2005)
We again hear the words of Christ spoken so many years ago. As we welcome Christ in our hearts so too do we welcome God into our lives. We offer the cup of water or aid someone less than us not because we think it will get us into heaven or wipe the slate clean of our own transgressions but because we are Christ’s disciples. And in doing so, we do not lose the reward that we gain through righteousness.
We must be willing to teach and learn about Jesus, the Prince of Peace. We must come to a place in our lives where we make a thoughtful decision to apprentice ourselves to Him, being willing to rearrange our thinkg and living according to His teachings and example. Out of our apprenticeship to Jesus we will find a way to remove the darkness and fear from the world.
It will be this commitment to Jesus that will direct our interaction with people. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us that we should avoid treating our enemies with contempt or anger. It is very easy for us to become sinfully contemptuous of those with whom we disagree, no matter what the issue. But it is then we begin to lose the argument, no matter how logical, because we have abandoned the high ground and begun to disregard the teaching and example of Jesus.
(This was one of the times when I was confident enough to sing a solo as part of the sermon.)
Our words, our thoughts, our actions must be a reflection of our choice to follow Christ. That is how we will be able to stand up against the powers of war and destruction. That is how we will be able to silence the voices of evil and hatred that seek to divide this world. In opening our hearts to Christ, we will be to gain that which we do not have alone. Remember that he told us “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Don’t let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” If we ask Him, He will teach us. By His actions and words, we will be able to display gentleness, joy, and kindness in the midst of heated debate that will allow us to keep our heads while those around us are losing theirs. (Adapted from “What is Wrong With the World?” by Jim Hardenbrook, On Earth Peace, Summer, 2005) Our witness comes because of our response to Jesus and the way in which He came into this world.
Jesus came into this world humbly, not as an authority from above but as a humble servant. He came not to reveal an ideological system to be imposed on society but as the one who, in the way in which he gave himself, affirmed the need for human freedom and decision. He came as the one prepared to risk His truth and life within the openness of the secular world. When He was asked to identify Himself, either by displaying his authority or by giving a sign that would convince man of his supernatural powers, He refused. He had to be found and needs to be found within the openness of the secular world or not at all. This means that those who follow Him should not seek to impose our faith as a metaphysical form or as a religious or institutional means to provide society with stability and unity. Rather, we should seek to maintain an open secular world in which we claim no established rights over other views. In doing so, we accept the responsibility to witness for Christ by seeking to point to his presence as He works within history and this world. It will be our words, our deeds, our actions and our thoughts which serve as the basis for our witness. Yes, there is some uncertainity in what we do. But as we accept this responsibility we must be willing to expect the unexpected; we cannot fear the future if our future is tied that of Christ. As Abraham journeyed from his home to Mount Moriah without fear but trusting in the Lord, so do we journey into the world and society of today trusting in the Lord and not fearing the future. (Adapted from Faith in a Secular Age by Colin Williamson)
Now, you might say that this is all well and good but I am not prepared to make a choice at this time. I don’t even know what choice to make. So, as we prepare to sing our closing hymn this morning and close this service, I would like you to think about John Newton, the author of the hymn. John Newton was the captain of a slave ship plying the triangle trade between Africa, America and England. Ships would load up with guns, ammunition and manufactured goods in Britain and France, then sail for four months to West Africa where the cargo was exchanged for captured slaves. The ships would then make the middle passage across the Atlantic where the slaves were sold to individuals in the Caribbean and in the North American colonies. Finally, the ships loaded up with the sugar, tobacco and cotton produced in the colonies and sailed back to England and France where the raw produce was refined and re-exported to other countries. (http://www.nald.ca/fulltext/caribb/page12.htm)
But one day, during an extremely powerful Atlantic storm, Newton decided to accept Christ into his life. Contrary to common thought, he did not turn the ship around and return his human cargo to Africa; but he did change the way in which he treated his unwilling passengers and slowly but surely turned against the enterprise that made him a wealthy man. Eventually, he left shipping and began a study that would lead to his ordination in the Church of England. He also became an outspoken anti-slavery advocate. It was then that he began to write so many of the hymns that we sing today.
The words “that saved a wretch like me” are not metaphorical but a true biographical statement by a man who before he chose to follow Christ was a wretch. But in choosing to follow Christ, his life change and he was able to make changes in the world around him. He first made a choice to change his life and then to change the world.
So too are we faced with two choices. The first is to answer the call from Christ, no matter how it may come. The second is to take by our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions the Gospel message of Christ into the world.
These are our choices today. We do not have to make a choice today. But if we do not, then the world remains cloaked in darkness, fear and doubt. But, by making the choice to follow Christ and take His message out into the world, we bring light and hope into a world of darkness of fear, doubt and despair