Risk and Challenge

A message given Sunday, February 17, 2008
by Rev. Scott Summerville

How many of you are recent college graduates or are currently enrolled in college? And how many of you are or ever have been the parent of a college student? A most amazing thing happened in this very place on May 8, 2005. It was a Sunday morning. At nine o’clock in that side door walked twenty undergraduates, their hair combed, their teeth brushed, neatly dressed in black, and they all appeared to be awake. Those of you who are or have recently been college students or who have been the parent of a college student will appreciate the miraculous nature of this event. When our son was in college, I learned it was best on Sundays to call after 2 p.m., to be sure that I was not disturbing his sleep.

On the occasion of which I speak in the year 2005, the assembled college students dressed in black were students at Sarah Lawrence College here to perform the world premiere of Nehemiah’s Secular Mass. That made quite an impression upon many of us. We were honored by the presence of that choir of students and honored that our own Nehemiah was such a talented composer, but I was even more impressed by the fact that he got that choir out here on a Sunday morning. Today the miracle is repeated. Once again I am impressed and most grateful, this time to Nehemiah and the Sarah Lawrence gospel choir.

Some people have the capacity to motivate others to do extraordinary things. Nehemiah is one of them. There are always cynics among us; there are rumors that Nehemiah, manager of a Starbucks when he is not making music, offers a free month of Starbucks super lattés to any one who will get up early on a Sunday morning to sing in his choir. I can tell you for a fact that is not true.

What is it that motivates people to do great things – what is it that motivates people to get up early and do things that are creative and challenging and that bless the world?

What motivates people to take risks?

What motivates people to want to learn more and to probe beneath the surface conventions of life?

What motivates human beings to give deeply of themselves
in service to others?

Money of course is the great motivator. Every one of us is motivated
in our life decisions in significant ways by money.

In the 21st century the whole world has embraced capitalism. The profit motive has proven to be the great engine of productivity, invention and economic expansion. For many people it stops there; we are creatures of the marketplace, and it is all too easy to slip into patterns of life dominated by financial considerations.

Often it is our artists – our struggling artists – who point us to a more profound source of motivation, a motivation more powerful than money. In this world of make-a-buck, artists remind us that human beings possess the capacity for self-transcendence and remind us that the deepest longings of the human heart are not satisfied by material things.

In a world that craves hard cold cash and the things that hard cold cash will buy, musicians, and visual artists, actors, dancers and writers offer us sounds, colors, words, movement – they offer us those intangible things that feed the soul.

What is it that motivates people? This is a very sacred question. It is also a very immediate and practical question in all of our lives. How do we motivate our children to live productively and wisely? How do we motivate others in the workplace? How do we motivate people to support our projects in our passions? And maybe the hardest question of all: how do we motivate ourselves to do the things that we know we need to do, in order to be the people we want to be?

What motivates people to do good and great things?

We heard today the opening paragraph of the long story of Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis. As the story begins Abraham is still called Abram and Sarah called Sarai – later their names will be changed to Sarah and Abraham, and I will call them now by those more familiar names.

Sarah at Abraham are in their old age – he is seventy-five, she a bit younger; they have lived well beyond the normal life span people at the time; they are city dwellers living in the city of Ur.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him….

Think of what that meant: go from your country; go from sisters, brothers, friends, all those you love and depend upon. Abraham does not protest – the Lord speaks, and he goes. One thing it is not clear in this story is why Abraham agreed without complaint to set off on this journey.

There are three possible answers:

He was motivated by pure obedience; God said, “Go,” so he went.

The second possibility is that Abraham is in it for glory: God says, “ I will make your name great.” He was in it to make a name for himself.

The third possibility is that he embraced the hope that the world might be blessed; hearing those words, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” he was seized by a vision of universal reconciliation, universal peace, a blessing for all people.

The Bible does not take us inside Abraham’s head; we cannot say know what moved him to go forth from his city and his secure life to live in obedience to God. So I’ll chose option three today – I see Abraham as a human being seized by a vision of something greater than himself, something more compelling than having a cushy retirement – he was seized by a global vision, a vision of a blessed earth, a blessing for the human family in all its diversity.

Some of you may not be familiar with Methodist history or with the history of this congregation. Asbury church is named for Francis Asbury, who has a few things in common with the biblical Abraham.

In 1771 something motivated him to abandon the comforts of civilization in England, to take the dangerous journey across the Atlantic, and to preach the gospel in America. He arrived in America in October 1771 in Philadelphia. After a short stay there he headed north on horseback along Indian trails to New Jersey and then to New York. After ten days stay in New York City in November he rode his horse north, and in the December of 1771 he preached in the town of Eastchester. That month he also preached in New Rochelle, in Rye, in Mamaroneck, and on December 10, 1771 he preached in the home of Peter Bonnett – not far from here, which was the beginning of the Methodist society that would become Asbury Methodist Church.

When Francis Asbury was on the ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1771, he wrote in his journal, “Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honor? No, if I know my own heart. To get the money? No: I am going to live to God, and to bring others so to do.”

We are here today because a guy in 18th century England was motivated to get in a boat and cross and ocean, and then to mount a horse and ride through the woods hundreds of miles in December to get here in order that he might “live to God.”

The very fact that we are sitting here today goes back to some invisible thing in the heart of a man 237 years ago, who knew that honor and money are not enough to live for. For Francis Asbury the invisible thing – the things that drove him so many thousands of long hard miles on horseback was a love for people and love for God.

Oh, did I mention what year Francis Asbury was born? 1745 – yes, 1745 – which means that the day he showed up in Tuckahoe and started this church he was twenty-six years old.

There are churches that stress pure obedience. “Do this, this, and this, and don’t ask questions.”

There are churches that offer to make you rich or famous: “God wants you to be rich! Forget that stuff about taking up the cross and following Jesus; God wants you to expand your bank account, and we’ll show you how.”

The Methodist church is rooted the democratic spirit of early America, and a basic love for God and for people. We stress the love of God and love of neighbor, service to humanity, and an open heart to people of different persuasions.

The Scripture says that in Abraham and Sarah all the families of the earth will bless themselves.

The gospel says, ‘ God so loved the world”

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, the man who sent Asbury over to the American colonies, said, “The world is my parish.”

Humanity is a momentous crossroad – before us lies the possibility of global ecological disaster and catastrophic conflict or a new age of humanity where we are joined across old boundaries in a creative web of culture and technological and peaceful pursuits. It is not enough to see the choices before us – the question is what will motivate us to chose health over sickness for ourselves personally and for our planet.

A friend of this church, Ashvin Shah, who is a Jain by religious faith, spoke here a couple years ago on earth day. Ashvin is an engineer dedicated to using science and technology to address the world’s great problems. But he told us that science alone is not going to solve the problem of humanity. We have the technology, he said, to provide adequately for the needs of all people on earth, to end global poverty, and to control global warming – what is lacking is the spiritual energy, the motivation, the will to do what must be done.

It is a matter of motivation – it is a spiritual challenge we face.

What makes college students get out of bed early on a Sunday morning? What made Abraham and Sarah give up the good life and their golden years? They wandered the world on a weird promise that they would bless all the families of the earth. What makes people invest their hearts and their minds and their money in things that serve humanity?

Francis Asbury asked himself, “Where am I going? And what am it doing? At the ripe young age of twenty-six he was real clear about his purpose – he was going to serve God and humanity in a new world.

Where are you going and what are you doing in this strange new world of today? How are you using your gifts and talents to serve God?

In the name of the living God,
I challenge you to take the risk of faith,
and let your life be used by God for the blessing of the earth.

Shalom,
Salaam,
Grace and peace to you.

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