Judges 10:10-16 Matthew 28:18-20
You have heard it more than once…probably heard it from your grandparents… and they probably heard it from theirs. There are only two sure things in this life…death and taxes. Sure…we’ve all heard it.
Today…I want to suggest to you that there are indeed two sure things…but they aren’t death and taxes.
You only have to turn to the gospels to learn that death is not a sure thing for those who believe. John said it best in that verse that everyone knows…the New Living Translation puts it this way…”For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
When we attend a funeral or memorial service…the final celebration of a person’s earthly life…it’s the celebration of that part of their life we have known on earth…and a sendoff to the next leg on their life journey…their eternal life journey.
Death is not a sure thing…not the real end.
There is reference to taxes in the Bible…but nothing that says taxes are or are not a sure thing. In fact every tax is created by a group of people who have the ability to change their minds…and repeal those taxes…each and every one of them. Now…I’m not going to bet the farm that I will see a day when there are no taxes…but I will say that taxes are not a sure thing.
But…history…and our own experiences tell us there are two sure things in our lives on earth…God’s presence always and everywhere… and the other is change. Our Old Testament lesson from Judges should make that clear. The entire book is about a time of change in the lives of God’s people. It also tells us that God was always there…always there with them.
Judges is the story of God’s people and those men and women whom God sent to lead them because the people asked for human guidance. The people said they weren’t certain they could live the old way…following God’s guidance without an earthly leader. The words we heard from the book of Judges this morning came at a time that the Bronze Age was ending in the Middle East…a time of significant change in the way that people lived and worked.
Throughout the book of Judges there are stories of God’s people being conquered and made captive by a number of foreign peoples. God listed some of them in his conversation with the distressed Israelites…Egyptians…Amorites… Ammonites…Philistines…Sidonians…Amalekites… and Maonites. You can bet that under each of them the rules of the game changed for the Israelites…and if you accept God’s word…you know that he was there with them.
Stop and think for a moment…throughout your life there has been change…some gradual…some minor…some rapid and some radical. And…God has been there with you. If he hadn’t been there with you would you even consider being here today?
For me…there’s more than logic…there’s proof…proof through God’s revelation to me. If it hadn’t been for God’s revelation and his presence I wouldn’t be here today. Now, it wasn’t a burning bush experience like that of Moses…or a Damascus Road experience like Paul’s….or a conversation on the road to Emmaus like Cleopas and his companion. It was people that God placed in my path.
I was an only and lonely child in a single-parent household… lived with my dad…who had very little education and worked two jobs just to be able to pay the rent and put food on the table and clothes on our backs. I seldom saw him and in that part of my life I knew of God in only two ways…as the first word of a two word curse…or as a vengeful…powerful being who would get me if I did something wrong.
I was 14 when I met God in a different way. I worked part time at a restaurant with a man whose name was Richard O’Brien. Richard had been raised in a Roman Catholic family…and told stories of a loving God. Richard and his life partner… Patrick… also taught me how to love Shakespeare and his works. They also told me how they had been made outcasts by the people in their church. I started to question how a God whom they told me loved all of His creation could tolerate people who didn’t love all of God’s creation.
I have since learned it wasn’t God who abandoned Richard and Patrick. It was people claiming to be God’s people who had abandoned Richard and Patrick.
A couple years later…working in a different restaurant…I met a man who was known to me only as Ace. He was a Black man…who had learned to read at his mother’s side as she read Scripture to him from their family Bible. He…too…spoke of a God of love. He…too…spoke of being an outcast from the large church not far from his home…this time because of his race. My questioning continued.
I have since learned it was not God who abandoned Ace. It was people claiming to be God’s people who had abandoned Ace.
People who called themselves God’s people while demonstrating something other than love…helped my skepticism grow through my years in college to the point that I became a practicing agnostic…even though I attended a church affiliated university. If someone had told me when I graduated from college that I’d be attending a church worship service…much less leading one…I would have laughed loudly at them.
For a number of years I went my merry…somewhat devilish way…through marriage and divorce…work that was glamorous but unrewarding…financial challenges…and some drunken Saturday nights…showing up in a place of worship only for a friend’s wedding or for a funeral…never considering that God was real…much less there with me.
At a birthday party for the husband of a co-worker I met Bob Miller. I was 30 years old. Bob and I talked about many things including our mutual love for racquetball. We ended up playing racquetball at the local YMCA two or three times a week…then going to a pizza place for food, beer and more conversation. After about six months of talking about many things except our work I asked Bob what his profession was. He was the minister at the downtown Congregational church. He invited me to visit.
I didn’t take Bob up on his invitation until the next Christmas Eve. One of Bob’s parishioners had also invited me to the Christmas Eve service. She was one of the three women I knew attended that church that I wanted to date. I went to the service…and sat alone in a pew in the back of the church…my real hope was that one of the three women would show up and sit next to me.
The lights went down until it was entirely dark. I heard a beautiful baritone voice singing “O Holy Night”…then a single candle appeared moving at the front of the sanctuary…toward the pulpit. It was Bob who was holding the candle and singing. As John Wesley put it in his journal…”My heart was strangely warmed.” I began to attend Bob’s church regularly. By the way…I never dated any one of the three women.
When it came time to leave that community in Iowa to move to Greenville…Bob suggested I check out a United Methodist Church. I did…three months later…on the first Easter morning I was in Greenville. I found a sign that pointed me to Aldersgate United Methodist. I attended and was mesmerized by the preacher… Sinclair Lewis. He was one of the finest orators I had ever heard.
I attended his church for several months…when one Sunday he announced that lay speaking classes would be held. At the end of the worship service…as we were all leaving the sanctuary…I asked Sinclair to tell me more…four times I asked him. Each time he would say only two words…”Just go.” I finally realized I was holding up the line of those waiting to leave the church…and moved on…never knowing whether Sinclair was telling me he was sure the classes were the right thing for me…or he wanted to let others leave the church so they…and he could go to lunch.
I attended that training session and many more. For fifteen years I served as a lay speaker…when in the spring of 2002 I was invited to speak to the men’s group at Buncombe Street United Methodist Church. After speaking…the senior minister at the church…Doug Bowling…said “We’ve got to get you a church.” After much protest…Doug convinced me to follow the process for becoming a local pastor…and here I am today.
Like the Israelites…I didn’t know it then…but God was with me on that rather circuitous path to where I am today…and there may have been moments when I even denied that possibility But…now the truth is known…has been revealed
Look at your life. I’m sure that you will also be able to say that God was with you…even when it seemed he might not have been…when the changes were rough.
Today marks another change in our collective lives. After today you will have a new minister in your pulpit. She will begin the process of learning many new names and hearing many new life stories. Just like I have been…she will be given the opportunity to serve you and your families…and the opportunity to make new friendships. Know this…though there may be stumbles along the way… God will be with you and her all the way…through times of joy and the times of sorrow.
I thank God for being with you and me through our changes and thank you for allowing me into your lives.
If history and experience alone are not enough…hear once again the words of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…as Matthew has reported them…”I am with you always…to the end of the age.”
When Jesus gave the disciples that reassurance he also gave them instructions… instructions that are so important today. “Go…make disciples.”
It is by following those instructions that you will assure God’s kingdom becomes reality…in this church…in our community…in our state…and in our nation. You see…there are those who for their own misguided reasons…will attempt to thwart God… with complacency…with tolerance of injustice…with discrimination…with hate…with bigotry…with hurtful words…with violence.
A man of our lifetimes to whom all of that happened…Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it so well when he said, “Hate doesn’t overcome hate. Only love can do that.”
And another…who suffered a similar fate…on our behalf…Jesus Christ…showed us how to love. It’s up to each of us to GO! Make disciples every day as you walk with God.
Just as he was with Richard O’Brien…with Ace…with Bob Miller…with Sinclair Lewis…with Doug Bowling and with me…Jesus will be with you and with Reverend Brenda Curtis every day… through all that changes.