Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

Listening and Believing

Sunday, March 12, 2006

 

 

Romans 10: 12-17

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

The primal experience of the early church, even before they had studied much of the teachings of Jesus, was that the new community that emerged after the death and resurrection of Jesus was a community where everyone was included.  This was the surprising thing that happened that no one had planned.  No theologian had figured out that it was going to happen.  It wasn’t calculated in advance.  It just happened that the community that formed around Jesus after Jesus’ death and resurrection was a community that included those who had been excluded in the past. 

 

Like many of us do when we are surprised by God, the early Christians then went back to their Jewish Bibles, to their Jewish scriptures, to try to figure out how what God was doing in the here and now was possible, given what they used to think the Bible said.  They came upon a verse in the writings in the Old Testament of the prophet Job that said, “All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  All who call on the name of the Lord will be included. 

 

So they found a biblical basis for what God was already doing in their midst and they loved to quote this verse of scripture: John 2:32.  When someone would criticize them for being the kind of movement they were, the kind of church they were, they would pull out their Bibles and point to John 2:32 and say, but it says right here anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be included. Even though there were other verses they might have found that may have been interpreted as saying something different, they had found their golden verse and they used it.

 

So Paul quotes this in his writings in the book of Romans.  “There is no distinction,” he writes, “between Jew and Gentile, no distinction between peoples.  The same Lord is Lord of all.  The same Lord is generous to all.  All who call upon the name of the Lord will be included.” 

 

But then the apostle Paul goes on to talk about another issue.  This is the question he raises.  Yes, all who call upon the Lord will be included.  But how can people call on the Lord if they don’t know they are invited to do so?  And how can they know that they’re invited to do so if no one tells them?  How can people believe in something they have never heard about? 

 

I got to this particular passage from Romans this morning because the theme of our Lenten booklet this year is “Listen and Believe.” So, several months ago when I was thinking about themes for Lent, I decided to focus on passages of scriptures that had to do with listening and hearing.  I found this particular passage and sitting with it these past weeks has been challenging for me. 

 

How can people believe in something they never heard about? Everyone is included. How many people don’t know they’re included because they haven’t heard it? We haven’t told them.  I think there are whole groups of people who do not know that they are included because no one tells them. One of the reasons we don’t tell them, I think, is because we suppose that they’re not interested.  I wonder if there are other people in our lives to whom we never speak about our spiritual and religious and theological values and commitments because we assume that they would not be interested.  In fact, we might worry that they would think less of us if they knew we took such things seriously, so we don’t talk about them. 

 

The special gift of Methodism – what I think the Methodist movement more than anything else has to contribute to the universal ecumenical church – is that, from the very beginning, we were the movement that told people whom others assumed weren’t interested that they were and are included.  In John Wesley’s day, everybody assumed that the coal miners and the other working people of the lower classes just weren’t interested in spiritual things or in the Bible.  Everyone just knew that those people would not be interested in the Bible.

 

There was a group of Presbyterians who had begun trying to do preaching and teaching among the coal miners especially in Bristol, England.  But they tended to talk to the coal miners as though they where children in simplistic terms. They tried to make everything oh so easy to understand.  Against his better judgment, John Wesley responded to an invitation from one of the Presbyterians to come preach and teach to the coal miners of Bristol.  John Wesley didn’t speak down to them – not so much that he didn’t want to, but because he didn’t know how to.  He was this over educated Anglican priest and he just didn’t know how to make things simplistic.  And to everyone’s amazement, the coal miners responded to the challenge of the depth and the profundity of his message and teaching in a way that they had not responded to anyone else.  They began to want to study the Bible in depth for themselves and the Methodist movement was born.

 

This is what we do when we are faithful to who we are and to our heritage.  In the secular world, I suppose, this would be called “reaching an untapped market.”  I read a book once that talked about two shoe salesmen that were both sent to islands in the Pacific Ocean.  One salesman sent a telegram back to headquarters saying: “I’m returning immediately. No prospect here. Nobody wears shoes on this island.” The other shoe salesmen sent a telegram back to headquarters, saying: “I have found the perfect market. No one has shoes here yet.” 

 

Methodism, at our best, has been like this. We have managed to reach those whom others have assumed would just not be interested.  In the United States, Methodism grew by sharing with the urban poor, rural subsistence farmers, and slaves. Methodism shared with them that they are included.  I wonder who in our lives as individuals and as a congregation does not know they are included because they have not heard it, because we have not told them, because we have assumed that they would just not be interested. 

 

George Hunter, a professor at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, tells a story about a woman named Mary and a small dying Methodist church in a town, as I recall hearing him tell the story, which was in Alabama.  Mary was not a member of a church.  She was the most popular bartender in this particular town in Alabama.  No one had ever invited Mary to church because they assumed that she would not be interested. Until one day Mary’s hairdresser, who was a member of this little dying Methodist congregation in town with only a couple dozen people in the pews, happened to be having a conversation while she was doing Mary’s hair.  Mary was talking about a friend of hers who was sick and about whom she was very worried.  The hairdresser said she would ask her church to pray for Mary’s friend. Mary was so touched by this and so receptive that the hairdresser said: “Well, would you like to come and attend service with me on Sunday as we do our prayers?” 

 

So Mary began attending this little dying Methodist church, Sunday after Sunday.  She finally decided to join and because she has never been baptized, the pastor scheduled a Sunday to baptize her when she would join the church.  The Sunday of Mary’s baptism, that little Methodist church with usually just a couple dozen of people in it was packed.  It was standing room only because Mary had invited everyone who frequented the bar where she was a bartender to attend her baptism.  Because she was so popular, many of them came and applauded her baptism. At the end of the service, as is often the custom in the South, the pastor invited those who wanted to join the church to come forward. Dozens of Mary’s friends came forward and the active membership of the church more than doubled in one Sunday. 

 

Professor Hunter says that, because the people who joined had not hung around churches before, they didn’t know that there were things you weren’t supposed to do that way because we’ve never done them that way. So, it became a very creative and innovative church and one of the fastest growing churches in the region.  According to Professor Hunter, he says that the pastor of that church is the Methodist pastor in Alabama whom you are often likely to hear pray the words: “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed are you and the fruit of your womb.”

 

Who in our lives has no idea that they are included because they’ve never heard it from us, because we’ve never told them, because we just assumed that they wouldn’t be interested? 

 

Do you know how the United Methodist’s “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” TV ad campaign began?  It began with a commercial that, when I was working on the conference staff, I talked the conference into giving me money to play it over TV stations all over this area.  The first “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” ad campaign was based on a true story. I know it’s true because I know one of the people personally who was involved.

 

It’s a story of a little church in northern New Jersey. There were two boys in that town who figured out how to jimmy open the door of that church without anybody being able to tell that they had done it.  So, when the church was dark weekdays after school, they would jimmy the doors and get inside. There was a pool table in the basement, and they would play pool after school.  One day, as they where playing pool, a shadow from the window in the basement, where light came in, fell over the table. They looked up. There was the pastor, standing there, looking at them. They were very nervous.  What the pastor did was to reach into his pocket. He pulled out a key and said to the boys: “There is no one in this town trying to get in this church harder than you are. Here is a key. Come anytime you want.”

 

Three years later, those boys’ father was Treasurer of that church and their mother was Chair of the United Methodist Women. One of those two boys went to college. Then the church helped put him through seminary.  A few years ago, he retired from a long career in ministry. His last assignment was as Director of Evangelism for the United Methodist Church.  One of things he told me was that he was grateful for many things.  He was most grateful as a father for the fact that that pastor giving two teenage boys the key to the church was responsible for ending a five generation history of alcoholism in his family. 

 

I have often wondered if the church trustees knew what the pastor had done. I wonder if there are people in our lives who do not know that they are included because we haven’t told them, because we have just assumed that they would not be interested.

 

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