You’ve probably heard the story about how, when the U.S. Constitution was being hammered out, which was done behind closed doors, a group of curious and anxious citizens gathered outside Independence Hall and caught Benjamin Franklin as he was coming out and asked him, “Dr. Franklin, what form of government are you going to give us?” to which he replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” There’s a certain sense in which you could say the same thing about the Church.
On the one hand, there is the kingdom of God, which is the sum total of all people who live under the merciful, kind, and righteous guidance of the Holy Spirit. There’s something mysterious and miraculous about the kingdom. It is not a human creation, but is given by God. It transcends nations and centuries and even time, as those who are part of it receive eternal life as a gift from God in Christ. It even goes beyond the human race, as when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper and offer our praise, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”. When someone is baptized, it is a way that God confirms that person’s welcome into the kingdom, which is why no one is ever baptized United Methodist or Roman Catholic or Presbyterian or Syrian Orthodox. All are baptized simply as Christian. That’s why we do not rebaptize anybody. That would be like taking someone and saying we need to reattach the umbilical cord and then cut it off again.
On the other hand, as human beings who live in a specific time and a specific place, we live with particular details to our lives. All humans need food, but last night I had a salad and a slice of meatloaf. We all dream, but we dream about different things. Everyone has different abilities and talents and interests, but we are all bring something to the whole. In that sense, although the kingdom of God is general and the result of the action of God through Jesus’ ministry and the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church as we know it is the way that kingdom shows up in concrete and specific ways in our world in our day in our setting through our choices and activities.
That’s where this parable about two sons comes into the picture. Jesus said this:
“‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.’” [Matthew 21:28-32]
Jesus told this story to put the religious people of his day on the spot. I believe that it still does. It doesn’t call into question anybody’s place in the kingdom. Both sons in the story remain sons of their father. It does, however, highlight the way that we live as part of the Church.
Let me be blunt. There are a lot of things that need to be done and only get done when somebody does them. “What form of government are you going to give us?” “A republic, if you can keep it.” “What kind of Church are you going to give us?” “Good question. It’s up to you.”
There are many ways of organizing a local church. Some of them are, in my eyes, better than others. There are some churches where the people expect the pastor to make all the decisions and to give orders and he -- because this kind of church rarely allows women to hold office -- he expects his orders to be carried out. For example, an Amish bishop declares how long a man’s hair should be and what color dress a woman may wear, and everybody goes along with it. Aside from that degree of micromanagement, that is not the United Methodist way, nor that of most mainline Protestant groups. I do not say, “Go and work in the soup kitchen,” and someone says, “I go, sir!” What we do is have set groups that are responsible for various areas of ministry and I go to people and say, “Would you be willing to chair the Missions Committee?” or “Would you consider serving on the Trustees?” or “We need some new blood on the Administrative Council and the Finance Committee,” and then wait for an answer.
The problem that I have, that we have, is that a lot of people give the second son’s answer: “I will not,” and really mean it, and don’t ever reconsider like he did. That is not to say there aren’t good reasons for saying, “No, I cannot do that right now.” If that’s the answer, that’s fine. I especially appreciate a direct “no” when it comes from someone who has at least considered things and either has a full plate or knows that they just are not cut out for a specific task. The apostle James [3:1] pointed out that “ and he was right. A bad teacher can do a lot of damage. But if someone is a good teacher, they should be teaching. The same is true of all other areas of service.
So here’s the deal. In the bulletin is an insert that lists a lot of the positions that we are going to need people to serve in the coming year. Think back to the spiritual gifts inventory that we did at this time last year, and consider what God has equipped you for. Please look it over and pray it over, and see where your name should appear.
Jesus pointed out to the people of his day that when the expected people didn’t always step forward, God would raise up people from beyond the religious community, people that Matthew identifies as “the tax-collectors and the prostitutes.” I really don’t think we’re at that point, but I do trust that if we were, the Lord would find the right people. It would just be sad for the ones who had the first opportunity and missed out on it. We’ve been given a Church and it’s up to us to keep it.
In back of the church, in the narthex, are the pictures of all sorts of people who served in all sorts of different ways. There is Richard Allen, who was born into slavery in Delaware and worked as a free laborer in Philadelphia, who became a great preacher and an advocate for social justice and for thirty-four years was part of the Underground Railroad. There is Susanna Wesley, the wife of an Anglican priest and the mother of a large family, who was a tremendous teacher of the Bible and led classes in her kitchen that sometimes were better attended than her husband’s worship services. There is Thomas Webb, who was a captain in the British army and whose gifts of both preaching and administration helped to start a church in New York that survived the American Revolution and the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. There is Jane Addams, who helped immigrants find their place in a new country, and Martin Luther, who thought he was just being a good New Testament professor when he started up a reform movement that has been stirring up the Church for about five centuries now.
In the same place you will find a box where I invite you to place one of these service offering slips, today or next Sunday. On the side are the words, “I go.”