A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Altar

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Altar

I was asked by my former pastor, David Fugatt, to substitute for him at his new assignment, Walland United Methodist Church, Walland, Tennessee, on October 11, 2015.

I want you to know, I was bowled over. Floored.  David was the first person I approached about wanting to become a Licensed Local Pastor. His reaching out to me to substitute for him in his new church was … I was just … I said yes, of course, but … wow.

I decided I would share my portions of the service with you here:

Jump to Message – A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Alter

Opening Prayer:

Lord, you have called us here this day for healing, hope, and transformation. As we listen to the Scripture, as we pray our prayers and sing our hymns, as we hear the words of wisdom, please open our hearts to hear your claim on our lives; that we may fully and joyfully serve you. Amen

Call to Worship:

L: Peace be with you.
P: And also with you.
L: It was easy to come to worship this morning.
P: We feel welcome and look forward to the worship service.
L: How hard it is to enter God’s kingdom.
P: We have to be ready to let go of the things that tie us down.
L: Get ready. God is waiting for you.
P: Open our hearts and our spirits, Lord, to receive your word for us. AMEN.

Praises and Concerns:

With all our heart and mind let us pray to the Lord. Let us lay our requests before Him, saying
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

(For the needs of the Church)
Inspire all those who lead and serve in this church. May they know your guidance and direction. We lift up Pastor Fugatt, Beverly Dalton, Don Story, Pam Hammonds, and those members of our congregation that serve your presence here in so many ways.
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Help us to be understanding and forgiving of all those we encounter.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Show us how to serve one another, to offer love, care and support.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

(For the world)
Guide all those who are called to lead and advocate in the world, may they carry love with them always. We lift up the leaders of our nation, our state, our county, and our community.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Inspire our leaders, teachers, doctors, social workers and counsellors to be bringers of hope in all situations.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Protect all those who carry peace to other nations. Bless the food, care and shelter they provide.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

(For those in need)
Comfort those who live with grief. Help them see the light of heaven.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Come embrace those in pain and physical suffering. May they feel you close to them.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Watch over all those who feel isolated and alone. Calm their fears and lead them into peace and freedom.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

(For the local community)
Strengthen and encourage all those who seek to serve and protect the vulnerable.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Lead us to be generous with our time, possessions and money.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

For those who have lost loved ones recently, comfort them in their grief and heal the broken-hearted.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Finally, we bring to mind any in our community that we know to be in need. (Pause for a few seconds.) May love and goodness fill their lives.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

And now, in the words your son, our Lord and Savior taught us …

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

First reading Job 23:1-9, and 16-17, New International Version

Job 23:1 Then Job replied:
2 “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand[a] is heavy in spite of[b] my groaning.
3 If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling!
4 I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments.
5 I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me.
6 Would he vigorously oppose me? No, he would not press charges against me.
7 There the upright can establish their innocence before him, and there I would be delivered forever from my judge.
8 “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him.
9 When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.

16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.
17 Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.

Second reading Hebrews 4:12-16, International Children’s Bible

Hebrews 4:12 God’s word is alive and working. It is sharper than a sword sharpened on both sides. It cuts all the way into us, where the soul and the spirit are joined. It cuts to the center of our joints and our bones. And God’s word judges the thoughts and feelings in our hearts.
13 Nothing in all the world can be hidden from God. Everything is clear and lies open before him. And to him we must explain the way we have lived.
14 We have a great high priest who has gone into heaven. He is Jesus the Son of God. So let us hold on to the faith we have.
15 For our high priest is able to understand our weaknesses. He was tempted in every way that we are, but he did not sin.
16 Let us, then, feel free to come before God’s throne. Here there is grace. And we can receive mercy and grace to help us when we need it.

Third reading Mark 10:17-31, New International Version

Mark 10:17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.
19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[a]”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God!
25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel
30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.
31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Altar

May these words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, oh LORD, our Rock and our Redeemer.

It’s easier to take a camel through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Praise God! It’s okay, honey, we’re broke! We’re GOIN’ to heaven!!!

By the way, it’s okay to say amen if you’re in the same boat I am.

OK, time to get serious. The first thing I want you to do is take out a pencil or pen and change the name of today’s message. It isn’t a typo … you’ll (hopefully) understand in a bit. Please change “A Funny Thing HappeneD …” to “A Funny Thing HappenS …”

All done? Good. Now let’s talk for a minute about our scriptures. – By the way, you probably couldn’t see it, but my family just rolled their eyes in unison. I never talk “for a minute” about anything, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Our first reading was about Job, a very good man who always did what was right and always obeyed God’s commandments. Job had been a rich man with many animals and servants. He had a wife and ten children. God had given him many blessings and he understood – he knew – that those blessings came from God and no one else.

God knew Job was righteous, but Satan argued with God. Satan said Job was only righteous because God had blessed Job so abundantly. God knew better, so he told Satan to go ahead and take everything from Job, but not to harm Job himself.

So Satan caused all Job’s servants to die, burned his sheep, stole all his camels, destroyed his crops, and then Satan caused a storm to knock down his son’s house, killing everyone inside including all of Job’s children who had gathered there for a feast.

Despite all these things and without knowing why all this misfortune had befallen him, Job remained faithful to God.

So Satan again argued to God. This time he argued Job was only faithful because he still had his health. God knew better, but he told Satan to go ahead and take Job’s health, but that Satan couldn’t kill Job. And boy-oh-boy, Satan did just that with a vengeance. Job got extremely sick with sores all over his body. Things were so bad, Job’s wife told him he should just commit suicide and his closest friends told him he must have sinned greatly against God and that he needed to repent as soon as possible.

In the part of the story we read this morning, Job was in pain, frustrated, longing for some kind of sign from God that acknowledged his complaint, but couldn’t find God no matter which direction he looked. He literally wanted to find God’s house, plead his case, and hear God’s judgment of his innocence.

That’s how much Job trusted and loved God. He was certain God would find him innocent.

Now consider our passage from Mark. Jesus and his disciples are walking along in “a region of Judea beyond Jordan,” most likely east of Jericho when a “rich young ruler” comes up to them, throws himself down in front of Jesus, and asks what he needs to do to be granted eternal life.

First Jesus told him that he must obey the commandments.

STOP … We have to obey all of the commandments? From childhood? Ummm … honey? About those tickets I mentioned earlier? I might have to take a later flight. But, I’ll meet you there! Wait for me! K?

Oops, sorry. I got sidetracked just then. Back to the rich young ruler guy.

Well, the young ruler declared he had obeyed all the commandments since he was a small child. And then Christ told him there was one thing the young prince hadn’t done. He was to sell all his possessions and give all his wealth to the poor, and then to “come and follow me.” And, we know from the scripture that the young ruler was immediately heart-broken, turned, and walked away because had so much to give up.

Note to self: About that commandment issue earlier … may have slight opportunity for redemption. Scratch yard sale idea. Just bag and box for charity.

Moving on …

We also know that it was a teaching moment for Christ to the disciples. When that young ruler turned away, Christ said to them, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God! Dear children, it is VERY hard to enter the Kingdom of God.” And then he said that part about the “GREAT BIG CAMEL and the iiiiitty bitty needle eye.”

Now, this declaration from Christ pretty much rocked the disciples to their core. “Who then can be saved?!?!” they asked. Christ went on to explain to them that it was not humanly possible to get to heaven, but that, “With God, all things are possible.”

While the disciples may have breathed a small sigh of relief, they were only slightly reassured. After all, we’re talking the most important thing in …in … everything to them: Getting. Into. Heaven. They quickly pointed out that they had already given up literally everything to follow Christ.

“Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up his house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.”

OK, so far we have two rich guys. Job goes through some pretty horrendous stuff, loses all his stuff and – what we don’t see in today’s passage – eventually gets his stuff back plus. The rich young ruler guy seems to be forsaking the most important stuff – his ticket to heaven and eternal life – just to keep all his earthly stuff.

And in the middle of those two stories, we have that scripture from Hebrews that, at first reading, almost seems out-of-place with the other two. I mean, good grief! God allows Satan to take everything from Job including his health. Jesus tells a rich guy he has to sell everything to get into heaven. And now, in a message to a group of Hebrew believers who are beginning to doubt and question the gospel they’ve been told, Paul or one of Paul’s followers is talking about God cutting us up with a super sharp sword and then that confusing part about high priests. For Pete’s sake, we’re Methodists! We don’t even have priests! What’s that all about?

Our passage from Hebrews this morning is about God’s ability to look into our very core and know what we truly believe, think, know … to know what we try to hide or avoid or ignore … or justify.

The author tells the Hebrew believers there is no place inside of them into which God cannot see, no place within or without where they can hide anything from God. They are totally naked and exposed in His sight. He goes on to assert that the high priest living in Jerusalem at that time was not the high priest at all. He urges the Hebrews to pay attention to and heed the gospel, and to accept Christ as the ultimate and only Apostle and High Priest of the Jewish nation.

He tells them Christ understands their weaknesses because Christ faced all the same tests and temptations we do, but that Christ managed not to cave in to those temptations. He tells them they need to hang on tightly to their belief in Christ in order to be able to go before God, receive God’s mercy, and find God’s grace when they most need it.

Right. We now understand what those readings were all about, but … again … what do a rich guy that loses everything, a rich guy that keeps everything, and a warning to some First Century Hebrews have to do with each other, and where was the part about some altar? More importantly, what does any of that have to do with any of us?

Well, here’s the thing. To me, this altar is a critical key to our relationship with Christ, with God, with getting what we all hope for – that golden ticket – where we end up living an eternal life in Heaven.

To me, this altar represents the foot of the Cross. It’s that important. After all, it’s the Lord’s Table at communion. It’s where we bring the symbolic Light of the World when we’re here worshiping together. We place our collective offerings on it. We stand before it for baptisms, weddings and funerals. We kneel at it for special prayers and petitions. It’s where we, as the body of Christ, as the Church, reinforce, reaffirm, and very often declare and testify to our faith in Christ, in God, and in the Gospel.

And, to me, this is where we should run – without hesitation – when that light bulb finally clicks on and we are moved by the Spirit to give ourselves to Christ, and to claim him as our Lord and Savior.

This altar. Right here.

And yet … for a host of reasons … we very often hesitate to do what it takes to get from out there or from where you are sitting or … yes … even from here where I’m standing … to here.

So what stops us? What do we have to do? Is the only option to repent, give up everything we have, and live the rest of our lives in total poverty? Especially in a country where homelessness and vagrancy are often against the law of the land?

How can we do that? You can’t give what you don’t have, can you?

Well, maybe you can. Maybe … just maybe … the answer lies in how we define “have”, and how we define, view and prioritize what we don’t have.

Why don’t I have any money? I have bills, that’s why. And a mortgage. I have livestock to feed. AND … I have a teenager, a twenty year old, and grandchildren!

(Okay, I’m sure I heard at least one muttered amen, and the rest of you were definitely thinking Amen.)

I have insurance payments, creditors, utilities, Netflix … wait! I can dump Netflix! Maybe not. Aidan just gave me a threatening look.

The roof needs to be fixed, I like to eat fairly regularly … And some weeks, it’s hard or downright impossible just to scrape together an offering.

A simple nod is totally acceptable if you’re in that same boat with me, and don’t be shy. It’s a big boat.

I also have plans. I have ideas. I have wants and desires for things I don’t have or can’t do yet. And, trust me, I have things to do. I really want to go see that movie about that prayer room. And I want to be able to quit my job and go back to farming full-time and Butch wants a tractor, and I need new glasses and so does Aidan and … andAndAND

Am I getting any new nods out there that didn’t nod before? Y’all don’t need to be afraid to admit you’re in it with me. Like I said, it’s a big boat. The Ark would have been small in comparison.

You know, we get so hung up on hanging on to the little bit we think we have, and on figuring out how to go about getting what we don’t have but believe we need, that we don’t even realize our “have/don’t have” worries push us off the path to eternal life and onto the path of that Rich Young Ruler.

OK. Pause for just a second. Some of you are starting to make that, “Oh boy, here we go … another guilt trip about giving more money to the church” face.

Let me reassure you. This message is not about how much you give to the church. It’s not really even about money. I noticed as I was preparing my parts of today’s service that you folks take your offering up after the sermon. Most Methodist churches I’ve been to don’t. They take it up before the sermon and I personally think there are two reasons they do it before.

One – the preacher doesn’t have to feel bad or get to gloat based on the fullness of the plate.

Two – you folks get a whole week to get over any unintentional guilt I may have accidentally laid on you through my message. I promise you – this is not about monetary offerings to the church.

So, when we do get to the offering this morning, please refer to last week’s sermon for appropriate levels of guilt and approval ratings! Thank you. Now to conclude …

MY message is about getting you to recognize and rid yourselves of those things you hold on to that prevent you finding your way here.

Our “riches” are what we have, even when all that we have is just our self. If we refuse to humble ourselves and share … willingly … what we do have, then we are that rich young ruler. If we refuse to humble ourselves and share … willingly … what we know to be true through the gospel – the Word of God – we are hoarding that knowledge, and we are that rich young ruler.

I don’t have money, but I do have a home that I can open to someone without a home. I can make time to use my physical energy and strength to do something that helps someone in need. I can do more than just nod at the disabled veteran asking for help outside Wal-Mart. I can actually walk up and speak to and smile at him or her. I can let him know he’s loved and appreciated, and I can even give up that $5 bill in my wallet – you know … the one I was saving to buy a sausage biscuit on the way to work in the morning? – just to help him a little bit. And I can do that without standing there imagining or believing or assuming he’s just going to use it to buy beer.

I can organize a fund collection for the daughter of my neighbor that passed away. I can grow a garden to feed a needy family. I can forego the yard sale and donate my excess to charity. I can stop letting my prejudices, my preconceived notions, my proclivity to judge by sight, my personal politics, my fears and my phobias prevent me from being the hands and feet of Christ or sharing the good news or loving my neighbor and my enemy as I love myself and as He loves me.

When I see my neighbor or UMW sister or that stranger sitting four rows up on the other side come to this altar in tears, I can join them and comfort them and pray with them. I can make my “I cans” bigger, better than my I haves. I can set aside my pride and humble myself.

I can pray, fervently, that I have the faith of Job, that I trust God, and that I be as obedient to God as humanly possible; that I can accept the storms right along with the rainbows, and accept His conviction when I hesitate or let my “haves/don’t haves” win out over my “I cans” … and they do win out more often than they should.

I can do all that because I know that I am forgiven – not through my works, but through Christ’s sacrifice for me and through God’s grace. Because, with God, all things are possible – even little old me finding a way to turn “I have” into “I can”.

I want to share something with you briefly before I wrap this up. The night I stayed late at the office to finish writing this morning’s message the fax machine rang. Yes. It was God. He wanted to make sure I read the Aish HaTorah, a Jewish newsletter from Rabbi Packouz in Miami Beach, Florida that my boss gets. There were two midrashim, or stories, in it that I’m pretty sure He wanted me to pass along to you.

Rabbi Packouz, writes, “A person poured out his heart to me. “I would like to believe in God, but it is so hard. How do I know that God created the world? Why can’t God just show Himself and make it easier for me to believe?” Whatever words of wisdom, insight and erudition I shared were like water off the back of a duck. It occurred to me that oftentimes people would rather be bothered by the problem than bothered by the answer.

The next day in synagogue, I picked up a Midrash – a collection of stories and commentaries dating back a couple of thousand years. I opened it and came across the following two midrashim.”

First Midrash: A disbeliever once asked Rabbi Akiva, “Who created the world?” “The Almighty,” replied Rabbi Akiva. “Prove it!” demanded the disbeliever. Rabbi Akiva replied, “Come back tomorrow.”

When the man returned on the following day, Rabbi Akiva asked him, “What are you wearing?” “A robe,” replied the man. “Who made it?” asked Rabbi Akiva. “The weaver,” said the man. “I don’t believe you! Prove it!” demanded Rabbi Akiva.

“That’s ridiculous. Can you not tell from the fabric and design that a weaver made this garment?” the man answered. Rabbi Akiva then responded, “And you … can you not clearly tell that God made the world?”

After the disbeliever left, Rabbi Akiva explained to his students, “Just as a house was obviously built by a builder and a garment obviously sewn by a tailor, so was the world (which follows a natural order) obviously made by a Creator!”

Second Midrash: The Emperor Hadrian asked Rabbi Yehoshua, “Does the world have a master?” “Certainly,” replied Rabbi Yehoshua. “Did you think the world exists without an owner?”

“Who then is the master?” asked Hadrian. “The Almighty is the Creator of heaven and earth,” responded Rabbi Yehoshua. Hadrian persisted. “If this is true, why doesn’t He reveal Himself a few times a year so that people should fear Him?”

“That would be impossible,” replied Rabbi Yehoshua, “for it says … No man can see Me and live.” “I don’t believe that!” responded Hadrian angrily. “No one can be so great that it is impossible even to look at him.” Rabbi Yehoshua left.

Later, at noontime, Rabbi Yehoshua returned and asked the Emperor to step outside. “I am ready to show you the Almighty!” he announced. Curious, Hadrian followed him to the palace garden.

“Look straight up into the sun. There you will discover God!” exclaimed Rabbi Yehoshua. “What?” retorted Hadrian, bewildered. “Do you know what you’re saying? Everyone knows that it is impossible to look directly into the sun at noon!”

Rabbi Yehoshua smiled. “Note your own statement! You admit that no one can gaze at the sun’s full strength when it is at its zenith. The sun is only one of the Almighty’s servants, and its glory is only one millionth of a fraction of God’s splendor. How then do you expect people to be able to look at Him? Yet, He promised that the day will come when He alone will be exalted and His greatness be accepted by all.”

It’s fascinating finding thousands of years old eternal answers to eternal questions. It’s also fascinating to note that in the first midrash it says, “After the disbeliever left …” We note from this that in spite of the compelling answer, the man still left a disbeliever.

Winston Churchill once said something to the effect of “Many people have stumbled across truth … and then picked themselves up as if nothing happened.”

It’s hard to get past our preconceived notions and prejudices, no matter how intellectually honest we claim to be.

OK … You thought I forgot that “Funny Thing,” didn’t you? You’re not getting off that easy, folks.

The “funny thing” I hinted about in the title of my message is us … ourselves. It’s me. And it’s you. And you and you and you … it’s each of us. We are each our own worst obstacle. We stop ourselves from completing the journey to this altar.

Don’t let you get in the way of yourself anymore. Diligently work to have the faith of Job. Make your “haves” into “cans” to share with your fellow man. Do whatever it takes to make your naked soul worthy of inspection by God the Father. Crawl, walk, run … as fast as you can … to this altar and pour yourself out to Him. Come often. Come willingly. Come and give yourself to God.

And all God’s people said … Amen.

Offertory Prayer

Father, we have heard your words and received your wisdom. Let us now give from our hearts what we can from what we do have.

Heavenly Father, You are the Creator and Source of all things good. You have showered us with greatness and love even on the days we turn against You. Look into our hearts and receive this heartfelt thanksgiving we offer to you. Thank You for all the gifts and blessings You have showered upon me and my family. You are the rock of our spirit and without You, we will be nothing. Amen


– modification of Go In Peace lyrics by Sam Baker and Numbers 6:24-26
Go in peace.
Go in kindness.
Go in love.
Go in faith.
We leave the past behind us.
The past is done.
Go in grace.
Let us go into the world, not afraid, not alone.
Let us hope by some good measure, safely to arrive at home.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.