Francis Asbury United Methodist Church
Baton Rouge, LA
September 17, 2017
Reverend David Melville
Have you ever felt or been left behind? Have you in the past, or are you today leaving anyone behind? I’m afraid each of us has felt left behind at some time, and I bet each of us is guilty of leaving someone behind … perhaps in the past, perhaps today.
In his gospel, Dr. Luke told us about some people left behind in Jesus’ day: lepers. In Chapter 17 it is reported that ten lepers “stood at a distance, and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us.’” [Luke 17:13] Why were the lepers shouting for help from a distance? Because lepers and other sick people were kept at a distance lest they touch or breathe on and contaminate someone. But the lepers knew Jesus represented a new way of thinking. He would not leave them behind. He would not walk on by.
The gospel of Mark gave us “Blind Bartimaeus,” who was sitting on the road of life, begging. That’s all he could do each day: sit and beg. He had to initiate conversation and cry out to others, because others did not initiate a conversation with him. Others walked on by, with tunnel vision, eyes straight ahead. Mark 10:48 observes, “Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet.” Boy, was the blind man excited when Jesus acknowledged him! Bartimaeus no longer felt left behind.
In his gospel St. Matthew specifically remembered two demon-possessed men – – so different, so dangerous looking and sounding that “no one could pass that way.” [Matthew 8:28] Back in first century A.D., the description “demon-possessed” could mean any number of conditions and diseases, to which we ascribe much milder diagnoses today. But let’s assume these two men were, in President Trump’s words, “bad dudes,” and they were indeed dangerous to themselves and to others. For good or for bad, right or wrong, they were left behind. No one could or would pass their way and stop; but Jesus did.
It’s not fun being left behind. Joseph’s jealous brothers left him behind instead of taking him back with them to their father, Jacob. Though not as dramatic or history-making as Joseph’s plight, Melanie has a childhood memory of accidentally being left behind after her family had visited another family’s home. The host family discovered the sleeping Melanie, and drove her home. Honey, it was accidentally, right?
What are some modern-day feelings and experiences of being left behind? Anyone: __________________________ ______________________
Many feel left behind in the current computing revolution. It hasn’t always been the case when your “smart phone” is indeed smarter than you. No doubt there’s usually a foreboding sense or feeling of being left behind as we get older. It’s just a natural feeling that comes with the territory. We don’t lead or keep up like we used to. Younger people – even family – may pass us by.
Because of freedom, because of human nature, and because of caring, involved parents, we have created a hodge-podge system of education options in this country. We have a well-intentioned system in which those who can afford it, and those who have access, can place their child in a variety of education settings, from kindergarten to home schooling to higher ed … i.e., college. We have public schools, private schools, parochial schools, charter schools, and as I noted earlier, home schooling.
What has happened in this process is that a certain percentage of the student population is potentially being left behind in one school system … the public school system. The public school system seems to become the school system of last resort. And sometimes the public school system can feel left behind in terms of funding, attention and priority.
This morning we thank all staff and faculty at our public schools – including our neighbor, Riveroaks Elementary – for caring for and tending to their sheep. Because of you, your students will have just as much of a fighting chance in the world as those students in other settings. You and your students may have more to overcome in your setting, but you all are trying. If it weren’t for you, thousands of students would be left behind. Thank you!
Jesus came for those left behind, as well as those leading the parade. He made His point in the parable of the lost sheep. [Matthew 18: 10-14] Today, even though we can be self-satisfied that ninety-nine out of one hundred citizens in our community are progressing quite nicely, it is important that somebody goes back and looks for the one lost soul. If in Jesus’ story the shepherd had not gone back – perhaps even at some risk or cost to the ninety-nine, the sheep left behind would wind up farther and farther behind, and eventually lost forever.
21st Century America is, in general, showing signs of division in which many are progressing quite nicely, while others are falling farther and farther behind. It’s a by-product of freedom, genetics, discrimination, and yes, sometimes an inability or lack of desire on the part of those left behind to overcome their obstacles and to better themselves. Not only have they forgotten how; they have forgotten why.
For whatever reasons … and I realize the debate between nature and nurture is complex … the poor — and now even the middle class — is feeling left behind. As a preacher I can raise the issue without casting blame, while at the same time, suggest that we cannot ignore reality, and that we can and should do more to keep America a land of equal opportunity, in which no child or adult is left behind if he or she is doing their part and doing their best.
Each of us can do our part. Even such a simple gesture as donating school supplies can help bridge the gap. Serving as a tutor can help even more. Let us at Francis Asbury pledge to support Riveroaks Elementary, in addition to the schools where we have our children and grandchildren – where it is easier, and where we are more motivated to serve.
Just as Jesus went out of His way to help those not in the mainstream by not going out of His way to avoid them, we can be a friend to those who would otherwise be left to fend for themselves.
Do you remember the story in Mark 2: 1-4 about the paralytic who had to be lowered through the roof by his friends in order to meet Jesus? If his friends had not been so bold and helpful, Jesus may never have seen the man, and he would have remained on the outside, unseen and unchanged. This morning I thank all such friends who keep others from falling farther and farther behind. Sometimes you make all the difference. You help people see Jesus.
While serving on staff of First United Methodist church, Shreveport, back in the 90’s I directed our social services. One day we drove some poor children over the Red River to visit Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City … Shreveport’s sister city. I could sense excitement and the usual chatter when kids get to do something different or for the first time. I presumed they were behaving like all children who get to see the big planes and missiles for the first time at Barksdale. But I learned that for those students, the more exciting part of the field trip was leaving their neighborhood and crossing a big, concrete bridge into new territory. They didn’t know what was waiting for them on the other side of that bridge. For many it was the first time they would get to leave from where they were … in a way, left behind by those who moved to the suburbs to get away from downtown.
Again, thank any of you who have in the past, or who are today, escorting children over bridges in life. Barbara, Violet, Chris and Jimeka come to mind; perhaps others. In the case of the man lowered through the roof on his mat, without friends to step up and step in, the paralytic would not have left his space … would not have left his very small world. Thanks to those who teach, coach, mentor and otherwise befriend those left behind.
There can be good outcomes for those left behind. Each of those I have mentioned this morning – the lepers, Blind Bartimaeus, the two demon-possessed men, and the man lowered through the roof on his mat – had good outcomes. They met, talked with, and were helped by Jesus. Likewise there was much cause for celebration when the lost sheep was found, and when his brothers discovered that Joseph had become the Pharoah’s right hand man in Egypt, in charge of grain supplies for the hungry. No, Joseph didn’t do badly. But even he would hopefully admit that he had received help along the way.
To honor those who work on behalf of children as a professional or as a volunteer, or perhaps you are no longer able to do so now, but did so in the past, I want to close by sharing a true story about how the help you render now may pay off in the future. The following was shared by Craig Barnes in the April 26, 2017, issue of Christian Century magazine:
“My father was a preacher who believed it was important to memorize verses of the Bible. On Mondays he’d give my older brother and me a verse written out on a little white card. We were expected to recite it from memory by dinner at the end of the week, when our father would point to one of us and say something like, ‘Romans 8:28.’ If we didn’t start chirping away with ‘For all things work together for good for those who love God,’ we’d have to leave the table.
By the time I was a teenager I had memorized a lot of the Bible, not out of love for the sacred text, but because I didn’t want to be dismissed from Saturday evening dinner. I never paid attention to the words, but they were still in me.
When I was not quite 17, my parents’ marriage broke apart. My mother left our home on Long Island and went to live with her sister in Dallas. My father left the church he had started and just disappeared. My big brother dropped out of college, got a construction job, and helped me finish high school. I got an after-school job at a gas station. Together we got by.
Since we had lived in the church’s parsonage, it fell to us boys to move the family’s stuff out of the house. I don’t remember what happed to most of it; I just remember boxing up our family’s life.
Oddly, my brother and I didn’t talk about how our world had crumbled. This wasn’t just because we weren’t good at sharing our feelings. Mostly it was because we couldn’t afford emotion. We were too worried about the next meal and a place to stay.
The following Christmas my brother and I decided we would go to Dallas to visit my mothers. We didn’t have the money for a plane or bus ticket, so we did what young people sometimes do when they’re not thinking clearly: we decided to hitchhike from Long Island to Dallas.
By the end of the first day we were somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia on Interstate 81. It was snowing hard, the sun was long gone, and we stood on the entrance ramp with our thumbs sticking out. As the snow got heavier, there were fewer and fewer cars. After two hours we finally saw a pair of headlights pull over in front of us. It was a Virginia state trooper. We were expecting a lecture about how dangerous, not to mention illegal, it was to hitchhike. Instead, he told us that the highway had been closed for two hours and that after attending to an accident up the road he would come back for us and take us to a diner that was still open.
We stayed put on the side of the dark highway in the blizzard. After months of hustling out way through the immediate issues of making life work, my brother and I were finally forced to talk to each other. We took a stab at describing our situation, but it didn’t go very well after I mentioned that we were basically disposable to the people who were supposed to love us. We tried to pass the time by quizzing each other on sports statistics. Neither of us had ever been very good at that.
Then my brother pointed to me and said, ‘Romans 8:28.’ We spent much of that night asking each other to recite the verses of the Bible we had memorized but never truly heard. At one point I found myself saying the precious lines of Isaiah 4: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you … because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.’ By the time I finished reciting those words, I was crying. That night, when a passage about the sustaining love of God cast out fear that was too deep for me to even acknowledge, became the turning point in my life.”
As noted above, these words are from Craig Barnes, now President of Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s come a long way from that snowy interstate. Those left behind can catch up, and even get ahead, with the help of Jesus. Jesus, Himself, said, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” [Mark 10:31] That’s mighty good news for anyone whoever feels left behind.