Are You Coming or Going?


Here are my thoughts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost.  (edited on 19 March 2008; reedited on 16 August 2009)
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Recently I posted two thoughts on war and the study of war. (“Study War No More” – 1 July 2006 and “Maybe We Should Study War More Often” – 11 July 2006 ) These two postings generated as many or more comments than any of the seventy-some postings that I have made since I began my blog.

Those comments finally led me to challenge “John the Methodist” and owner of the Locusts and Honey blog (now called the Zeray Gazette) to post his own thoughts about war and response. He did so and his posting (“On Christian Rhetoric and Christian Action” – 16 August 2006) generated more comments than I have ever seen on the Methodist Blog Roll. These comments seemed to be of two types; those who felt that pacifism was a natural outgrowth of Christianity and that pacifism was a viable alternative and those who felt that pacifism was a nice thought but in the end not a really workable idea.

These comments were interesting because, first of all, I never thought I was offering support for pacifism. I am not a pacifist by any stretch of the definition. But I am opposed to war, especially when the evidence of past wars shows us there have to be better alternatives than death and destruction.

I am not interested in discussing past wars and whether or not the solutions that others chose are appropriate. The wars have been fought and the results may or may not have been what we wanted them to be. What remains is that we know what causes wars (poverty, homelessness, sickness, disease, death, and oppression) and we still do not do enough to remove the causes of war.

I was also amazed at the number of postings in which pacifism was belittled or ridiculed. A number of persons felt that pacifism was a nice idea but it had no chance of working in a “real” world. It was as if the only solution to the problems that plague this world comes through victory in war. No matter what our political background, we as a society still agree with Chairman Mao who said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

There clearly was a gulf between those who felt that Christianity can work through peaceful means and those who felt that power must be the expression that ultimately conquers.

Now, pacifism is not the sole province of Christianity nor is Christianity necessarily the precursor to pacifism. But if one says that they are Christian, then one must be willing to see the world through the eyes of Jesus and that is the way of peace. Christianity is not, as many assume, some sort of weasely niceness.

Still, some see Christianity only in terms of this niceness. They see being a Christian in terms of a couple of hours on Sunday morning and simply being nice. And churches today, fearful that they will lose members quite willingly present a version of the Gospel that can be best identified as “Gospel-lite” or “Gospel-nice”. People like to hear it because it doesn’t challenge them; it does not challenge them to hear Jesus’ words and put them into action.

But being a Christian is more than that. It is about talking about real issues of pain, evil, or incompetence. It is about acknowledging that there are differences between individuals on matters of policy, polity, and theology. (Adapted from the September issue of Connections and commentary by Anne C. Ewing (“Church-going Doesn’t Make a Christian”) in the August issue of United Methodist Nexus.)

We are not always willing to do this, to see the world in a different light; we still willing view the world from a world view and not from the view of Christ. We may be willing to say we are Christians at heart but we are not always willing to say that we will walk the way we have been showed. Like many who heard Jesus, at the first sign of difficulty, at the first sign that the path that we will walk is going to be rough, we leave.

There are those who read today’s Epistle reading (Ephesians 6: 10 – 20) as a tacit support for war. After all, Paul uses military sounding language of armor and breast plates and the like. But let’s read Paul’s writing in a different translation.

Lastly, be strong and courageous men for Christ. Put on God’s uniform so as to be able to withstand all the Devil’s tricks. For we’re not fighting against ordinary human beings, but against the leaders, politicians, and heads of state of this dark world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. So, put on God’s uniform so you’ll be able to put up a fight on the day of battle and, having tended to every detail, to make your stand. Therefore, take your position when you have put on the pants of truth, the shirt of righteousness, and the shoes of the good news of peace. Above all, take the bulletproof vest of faith, with which you’ll be able to stop the tracer bullets of the evil one. Also, wear the helmet of salvation, and the pistol of the Spirit, which is God’s word.

When you offer a prayer or a petition on any occasion, let it be truly spiritual. Along this same line, be on your toes as you encourage and pray for all the members. Pray especially for me, that when I speak, the right words will be put in my mouth, and that I may boldly expound the gospel’s secret, for which I am now a delegate in the clink. Pray too that I may lay it on the line whenever I have a chance to speak. (“The Letter to the Christians in Birmingham,” 6: 10 – 20, The Cotton Patch Gospels, Clarence Jordan’s translation of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians)

This is Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch version of the letter to the Ephesians, written as “Letter to the Church in Birmingham.” It is not about armor or military bearing but about being in the uniform of God, of letting the world see you in a different light, wearing the clothes of God, not the armor. God’s clothes are our protection, our ability to face adversity when our own abilities may not be sufficient for the task.

Admittedly, none of us wishes to be a martyr for the faith. No one wakes up in the morning and says that they are willing to die for the faith. Those that do are only confusing themselves about the requirements of faith. But we are not always willing to let our faith be our guide; we are not always willing to take the path that faith shows us. We are not asked to die for the faith but to live the faith. If we should die because of the way we live, then we do so with the sure knowledge that our lives were not in vain.

Jesus puts that challenge before those who are following Him in the Gospel reading for today. (John 6: 56 – 69)  Shall we accept the cost of discipleship or shall we look for the easy way out? As Chris Roberts wrote,

Partial effort didn’t seem to exist in Jesus’ vocabulary. Partial faith was not an option. It is all or nothing for Jesus. (“Full Commitment to Jesus is Costly” by Chris Roberts)

Chris further writes

But Jesus just doesn’t seem to be satisfied with partial commitments. Jesus demands our all. It is all or nothing and there is no in-between. The fact of the matter is we are always moving closer to God or further away from God, there is not standing still. We can just settle down in the middle and say, “Well, I have faith and I do this or I do that. And that is good enough.” Or we can’t say, “I’ve paid my dues. I have served on this and that and done this and that. So I will just step back now.” It doesn’t work that way. We can’t stay in the middle because the spirit is always moving. If we stop and the Spirit keeps moving then we are falling behind. So we are either moving closer to God, by being in God’s presence, by praying for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, by getting involved in the church or other ministries, or we are not doing those things and falling behind. Commitment is key and commitment involves a steep price. (“Full Commitment to Jesus is Costly” by Chris Roberts)

We note in the Gospel reading for today that when Jesus gives the call to make the commitment, many of those who began the journey left. The commitment was too great, the cost far beyond reach. They were not willing, as Anne Ewing wrote, to acknowledge “that it is very hard to become a Christian”. But she also noted that when we accept the call from Jesus, when we decide that the cost is worth it and the effort is worth the commitment, then “the journey is our home” and we are likely to meet some very nice people along the way and we are going to have many wonderful times. (Adapted from the September issue of Connections and commentary by Anne C. Ewing (“Church-going Doesn’t Make a Christian”) in the August issue of United Methodist Nexus.)

The Old Testament reading for today (1 Kings 8: (1, 6, 10 – 11) 22 -30, 41 – 43)is about Solomon’s construction of the temple. It concludes by noting that many people, not just the Israelites, will hear the call and they will come because of the call. They will come because they know that what they hear brings hope and the promise of peace.

Now, my question today is very simple. Are you one that left and is going in the other direction? Or are you one who has heard the call and is coming?



What Have We Learned?


Here is my post for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost.
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What is it about wisdom that Paul would encourage the Ephesians to live wisely (1) and cause Solomon to ask God to grant him wisdom (2)?Could it be that through wisdom things such as wealth, power and understanding are better achieved?

What is wisdom?Wisdom can mean many things, ranging from the technical skills of artisans (3) to the art of simple government (4).  It also designates cleverness (5), especially the practical skill of coping with life (6) and the pursuit of a lifestyle of proper ethical conduct (7).  Wisdom is also seen as belonging properly to God (8), associated with creation (9), and even identified with the Torah or Law (10).

The origins of Israelite wisdom are presumed to lie in the oral and written insights of the family and clan and also the wise men who taught in schools.The teaching of wisdom in these ancient schools probably focused on the transmittance of lessons of life so that students could learn to cope with life.The teaching inculcated certain goals, such as self-control, honesty, and diligence.If one followed the counsel of wise men, wisdom brought life.But failure to follow such counsel brought the opposite of wisdom, folly, and with folly came destruction.

Wisdom was a very serious concern for Paul because he contrasted the world’s view of wisdom with the wisdom of the Cross.As he pointed out to the Corinthians, the wisdom of the Cross is seen as folly when viewed with the wisdom of the world.

When we speak of wise men (not necessarily the wise men who visited Jesus at his birth) we find them in three areas: the tribe, the court, and the schools.In each case, the wisdom shared was generally practical, concerned with knowledge about the principles governing the world and the life of the individual.Wisdom was based on reason rather than revelation.But it was reason enlightened by piety, for “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (11) Schools were developed so that transmittance of wisdom could be accomplished. (12)

So why are we so afraid of wisdom today?Is it because it is not so easily gained?Is it because it takes time and effort on our part?Is it because it takes us places we may not necessarily want to go?Why, when faced with the unknown, why do we often respond in fear or with ridicule or contempt?When faced with something unknown, why do we erect barriers that keep the unknown away?

Are we not like those who saw Jesus perform miracles and think that they were the actions of some sort of magician or sorcerer?

Wisdom requires time and effort; wisdom only grows.It is a process that must be encouraged with situations that focus on growth.The Book of Ecclesiastes, said to have been written by Solomon, focuses much on wisdom.It speaks of the process by which wisdom is discerned and developed.

We certainly don’t respect wisdom.Wisdom comes through education but we certainly don’t take care of our educational systems.Our schools are chronically underfunded and many localities refuse to pass bond issues that would support education.There may be some justification for refusing to support local school systems, especially when a proportionally larger amount of money is spent within the administrative units than is spent in the classroom.

But in a world where technology so dominates our lives, why are our schools not equipped to teach and use the technology?I can recall a situation where a school system was able to purchase a large quantity of computers to be placed in every classroom in the elementary school.But when hot weather came and the air conditioners were turned on, there was not sufficient electrical power to run the computers.Though the community had made the decision to update the technology used in the classroom, they failed to upgrade the electrical circuits.As a result, certain choices had to be made; choices which adversely affected the children in the classroom.

We may think that our children are computer savvy but when advertisements for computers speak in terms of using computers to show movies or store music, are our children really that muchbetter off?From my view, college students still have trouble writing coherent sentences and have a difficult time recognizing that statements that they liberally lift off the Internet are false or incomplete.Wisdom comes from the proper use of the process.

The disrespect for education and wisdom is easily seen in our society’s values.We willing pay large sums of money so that movie stars and professional athletes can earn millions of dollars.Yet those who taught these individuals the skills that they use earn only a fraction of that amount.

Is the content of today’s popular television shows the reflection of a highly educated populace?Or is it simply “mind candy” for the masses?Why does society deem news about which celebrity married which celebrity or who is pregnant and who is not more important than understanding the cause of the global conflicts we seem to be embroiled in?Why does it seem that most people have no clue what other cultures believe?

Why is it that most of today’s main stream media not only tell us the news but tell us what to think about the news?Could it be that we do not want to be forced to think about what is going on?Could it be that we willingly seek war today because we have forgotten that war is bloody and messy?Could it be that we do not understand what poverty is because we are so focused on the rich and famous?

Oh, we have tried to fix our educational processes.Congress passed a law called the “No Child Left Behind” Act.It was supposed to fix what was wrong with the educational system.But many states are dropping out of the program because Congress offered no funding and because it does not work.

How can it work when it teaches for the moment?No provision that I am aware of in this Act encourages thinking or the application of knowledge.All it does is require that we teach our students to take tests at the end of the school year.The scores on this test determine the effectiveness of the teaching process.But, if we were to test the students six months later, we would probably see significant drops in the test scores because material studied for the moment is quickly forgotten.

Those who saw Jesus perform the many miracles or heard Him speak in terms of flesh and blood were confused.Many were not willing to see alternatives; they only saw Joseph the carpenter’s son, not the Son of God, the one and true Messiah.They were not willing to open their hearts and minds to the message of the Gospel; they were not willing to change their thought process. (13)

If we do not open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, then the wisdom that is Jesus Christ will not be a part of our lives.We will be stuck as those in the Gospel reading, unable to comprehend the power of the Gospel and unable to discern the basis for our failures in this world.

We need to remember that John and Charles Wesley felt that they were more than prepared to lead a new movement when they first came to America some 250 years ago.Yet, they left as failures because their minds were closed.

Only when the Holy Spirit came into their lives was their understanding complete.Only when the Holy Spirit was a part of their lives did they understand what they could do.Only when the Holy Spirit came into their lives were they able to make the Methodist Revival the transforming ministry that it became.

When we see the work of God through Christ, how do we respond?Do we ridicule it?Do we condemn it?Do we ignore it?Or do we understand that with the Holy Spirit, it is true that all things are possible?

Solomon asked for wisdom because he understood that nothing else could be gained without it.Paul encouraged the Ephesians to live wisely because wisdom gives a clearer view of the world.

Like Solomon, we need wisdom in our lives.Like the Ephesians, we need to live more wisely.Like Solomon and Paul, the wisdom will come when we open our hearts and our minds and allow the Holy Spirit into our lives.And when we let the Holy Spirit into our lives, we will be surprised by what we have learned.


(1)

 

Ephesians 5: 15 – 20

(2) 1 Kings 2: 10 – 12, 3: 3 – 14

(3) Exodus 36: 8

(4) 1 Kings 3: 12, 28

(5) 2 Samuel 14: 2

(6) Proverbs 1; 5; 11; 14

(7) Proverbs 2: 9- 11 and throughout

(8) Job 28

(9) Proverbs 8; 22 – 31

(10) Ecclesiasticus 24: 23

(11) Proverbs 9: 10

(12) The opening paragraphs were adapted from Harper’s Bible Dictionary

(13) John 6: 51 – 58

The Vision of Hope


This Sunday, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, I am preaching this morning at my home church, Grace United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY.
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(1) When I saw the Old Testament reading for today (2), I, as a Southern boy, could not help but think of William Faulkner and his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Absalom, Absalom.”

Now, I am not a Faulkner devotee by any definition. Faulkner is often difficult to read because his writing is often dense and filled with intricate prose; not to mention some of the names he invented for the places in Mississippi of which he wrote. The only one of his novels that I was ever interested in was “The Reivers” and that was because it centered on a trip to my home town of Memphis.

Faulkner used his own Southern roots and the settings of northern Mississippi to tell his stories. And in “Absalom, Absalom”, Faulkner connects us to the story of David in today’s Old Testament reading.

The novel focuses on Thomas Sutpen, a poor man born in Virginia, who finds respectability and wealth in pre-Civil War Mississippi. His ambitions, desires, and need for control ultimately bring about his own ruin and the ruin of his family. And when you think about it, that is essentially the story of David and his family in 2nd Samuel – a story of family ambition, destruction, and ruin.

Absalom was David’s third son and, by all accounts, considered the handsomest man in the kingdom. Earlier in the story of David and his family, David’s oldest son, Amnon violated their sister. Tamar. Angered that his father did nothing, Absalom conspired to have Amnon killed.

Whatever feelings David might have had concerning Amnon and his actions, Absalom’s actions really angered him. As a result, Absalom was driven into exile for about three years. But as the time passed, the two apparently reconciled their differences. At the beginning of the passage we read today, Absalom is presumptive heir to the throne.

But Absalom is concerned that he will be passed over for the throne, probably for Solomon. This leads him to launch an abortive coup against David. While Absalom and his forces are able to drive David and his forces from Jerusalem, it is only a temporary victory and Absalom is driven back and defeated. While seeking to escape, Absalom’s long flowing hair gets entangled in the boughs of an oak tree. Even though David gave explicit orders that Absalom was not to be killed, he is killed while hanging from the tree. When David calls for a report on the progress of the battle and the status of his son, he is first told that both are well. When David is told that his son has been killed, we hear the anguished cry of a parent who has lost a beloved child.

We should expect such a cry from any parent but there is another reason for David’s anguished cry. It comes about because David was seeking two mutually exclusive outcomes. He wanted to defeat those, including his own son, who would have removed him from the throne but he wanted no harm to come to his son. In hearing that Absalom was dead, he knew that he had won the war but lost that which mattered most. But, in retrospect, it would have been impossible to accomplish the two goals of keeping Absalom alive and defeating his armies.

Trying to meet two mutually exclusive goals is not unusual. Many of us are faced with the very situation. Michael Lerner, in his book “The Left Hand of God”, points out that we are constantly in conflict with what we perceive to be the values of society and our own values. At times, the two seem mutually exclusive and we do not know how we can be successful in society while at the same time maintaining our own core values. We seek a solution that will allow us to succeed in today’s society while holding onto our own values; we desperately want someone to show us a way to achieve success without sacrificing our souls.

In our struggle, we hear a voice calling to us. It is a voice that focuses on our fears. We readily listen to this voice of fear because, even though it contradicts everything we have been taught, it seems so peaceful and sensible.

This voice of fear tells us that it is perfectly reasonable to seek wealth. It was given to you by God and you need not feel guilty about being wealthy. This voice of fear tells us that poverty is a state of mind and those who are poor deserve their fate. It is not our responsibility to take care of the poor; giving money to the poor and social programs only wastes our money.

This voice of fear tells us that others are to blame for the troubles of society. It is those who have different economic status, different lifestyles, or different skin colors that are to blame for society’s troubles. This voice of fear tells us to cast aside those who are not like us; this voice of fear tells us to build walls, physical or otherwise, that keep them away.

This voice of fear tells us to fight those who would teach new theories or bring about change in society. New thoughts run counter to tradition and when you challenge tradition, society falls apart. New knowledge can only destroy the values of society.

This voice of fear tells us that only military power will defeat evil. This voice of fear says that the only thing evil understands is raw power and those who say that you can counter evil with love are extremely naïve. But violence only generates more violence and those exposed to violence see violence as the only solution to their problems. Terrorism and hatred grow out of violence and when violence is used to combat terror, it can only breed more.

We may be angry with the world but responding in anger will not solve the problems. As Paul reminds us today (3), we should never let the sun set on our anger. He counsels the Ephesians not to use their wrath as a means to respond to sin and injustice. Rather than speaking out in anger and hatred, Paul encourages us, as he did the Ephesians, to seek opportunities to express Christ’s love to everyone.

Paul suggests that we should share with others so that there is no need to anyone to steal or cheat. This passage from Ephesians is much more than a call to stop stealing or being greedy; it is a call to be generous.

It is difficult to accept Paul’s words to be generous, to share what you have with others because it goes so much against the grain of society and what society tells us to do. We are at times like those who heard Jesus speak and saw Him feed the hungry and heal the sick. All they saw was the carpenter’s son and they could not believe or accept that Jesus was the Messiah. (4)

Those who speak with the voice of fear have no vision for the future. Those who speak with the voice of fear only speak of what was; they never offer hope for tomorrow or what could be. Those who speak with the voice of fear seek to imprison us inside our fears, using our fears to limit and restrict the dimensions of life. Those who speak with the voice of fear say they are speaking for God, yet they ignore what God is saying. Those who speak with the voice of fear prevent us from seeing what God is doing in the events of the present time; they want to keep us from hearing and responding to God’s call.

But there is a second voice speaking to us, a voice of hope instead of fear. It is a quiet voice and we sometimes have to strain to hear it speaking to us. But it has been speaking to us and calling to us for a long, long time.

It began when the prophet Isaiah spoke of a child being born, a child who would bring peace to this world. It continued with Micah saying

He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war no more. (5)

It was the voice of hope that told the shepherds to leave their flocks and seek the baby lying in the manger in Bethlehem. The voice of hope was heard clearly that day in Nazareth when Jesus stood up in the synagogue and said,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (6)

The voice of hope was heard when Jesus told all who were tired or weak and heavy laden to come to Him. Those excluded by society, be it by economic status, lifestyle, race, or gender heard those words of hope and promise.

The voice of hope calls for us to think about wealth and responsibility differently. Throughout the New Testament, the rich are held responsible for the sufferings of the poor and God is the deliverer of the oppressed. The voice of hope does not just say sell what you have and give it to the poor; the voice of hope also said to use what you have and follow Christ.

John Wesley echoed the voice of hope in thought, word, and deed. When John Wesley was preaching he was earning up to 1400 pounds a year, giving him one of the highest incomes in England at the time. Yet, having determined that he could live on 28 pounds a year, he gave away the balance of his income. He encouraged others to earn as much as they could but not to do it on the backs of others. And like he did, he encouraged everyone to save as much as they could and then give as much as they could. John Wesley sought to embody the words of Christ in his faith and in his action.

The voice of hope was spoken in parables, challenging us to think about what was said and not to simply hear the words. The voice of hope challenged society to be more than what it had been; it challenged society to do more than adhere to the law by living the spirit of the law.

Jesus was the one who broke free from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity, in which the faith of that time was so imprisoned. In doing so, He made it possible for the outcast, the hopeless, and the helpless to have opportunity. Jesus also warned those who He called to share in this mission that they must be free for the unexpected, such as the person by the wayside. Our response to the voice of hope is not dictated by the world’s expectations (as the voices of fear would require) but rather by our answer to Christ’s calling.

Those who have heard the voice of hope calling to follow and serve have created communities where all are welcome and all is shared. God’s call, the voice of hope, is for a truly open and free society. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they have sought to make the teachings of Christ real. The voice of hope calls on us today to respond to the possibilities of a new community centered and revealed in Christ.

There is a vision of hope to accompany the voice of hope. The vision of hope is created by the words of Christ for today that all who eat the Bread of Life and believe in Christ will have eternal live. (3)

It is the sight of the empty cross and the empty tomb; a sign that sin and death can be conquered.

We hear the voice of hope calling us today. It is calling us to be the vision of hope in this world. Those who are without hope will see in us the presence of Christ and will know that there is hope. By our thoughts, our beliefs, our words, and our actions, we allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and others will see that the vision of hope is real and true today.


(1)

I used material/thoughts from Michael Lerner’s book “The Left Hand of God”, Jim Wallis’ book “The Call to Conversion”, and Colin Williams’ book “Faith in a Secular Age” to prepare this sermon.

(2) 2 Samuel 18: 5 – 9, 15, 31 – 33

(3) Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2

(4) John 6: 35, 41 – 51

(5) Micah 4: 3

(6) Luke 4: 18 – 21

The Life We Lead


Here are my thoughts for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost. I am again preaching at Mt. Hope.
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We were “dog-sitting” for a family friend this past week. This is an experience that most people would really enjoy. Daisy, like the two dogs that we have owned, is very susceptible to thunderstorms. Daisy gets very nervous and paces back and forth when the thunderstorms start rolling in; this is whole lot better than having Sammie (our late 90-pound Labrador/boxer mix) jump on us in bed when the thunder started.

People have been forecasting the weather for centuries. In most cases, they would do so by looking at the behavior of the animals around them.

If you think about it, six weeks after February 2nd is March 16th. And the season of spring starts on or about March 21st. So, whether or not the groundhog sees its shadow or not, we will still have six weeks or so of winter after February 2nd.

But there are times when what we see in nature does help us forecast the weather. It was noted that, in many cases, when it was about to rain ants moved to higher ground, cows lay down, pine cones opened up, and sheep’s’ wool uncurled. Of course, not all animal behavior does a good job of weather forecasting.

And as time passed many proverbs were created to help forecast the weather. We all have probably heard “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” This statement, which compares to Matthew 16: 1 – 3 (“When evening comes you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy for the sky is red and overcast.’), does have some validity. As the sun is setting in the west, the light passes through more of the atmosphere than it does when the sun is at its zenith.

Various particles, such as dust, smoke, or pollution, will cause the shorter wavelengths of sun light (the violets and blues) to scatter, leaving the longer wavelengths (the reds and oranges) behind. Hence, our sunsets are redder.

High pressure is associated with good weather. When the weather in the west is fair, high pressure is approaching and the dust particles are lower to the earth, causing the light to appear even redder than normal; hence the phrase, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” When the high pressure has passed, then what follows must be low pressure. And low pressure generally means clouds, rain or storms. So if the sky is red in the morning, that is where the high pressure is and that means that we can expect some sort of “bad” weather.

Of course, for some of us, we don’t need the sky to tell us when there is low pressure approaching; our knees and shoulders tell us. A drop in barometric pressure often affects people with arthritis or even corns and bunions. And as I mentioned earlier, animals are affected by the drop in pressure as well. There are countless other signs of nature that tell us what the weather will be, if we only look at the signs. (1)

Some years ago, when I was living in Missouri, I heard that a green sky meant the presence of a tornado. Now I am red-green color-blind; that means that I cannot distinguish certain shades of red and green. And a green sky looks like a gray sky to me, so that saying didn’t mean a whole lot to me. One day someone said that the sky was really green and I said that it still didn’t mean anything. To prove my point, I opened the door and looked out to the east. There framed in the doorway, fortunately moving away from the house, was this rather nasty looking funnel cloud. I learned that day not to ignore the signs of nature that are around us.

The Old Testament reading for today (2) reminds us what happens when we ignore the signs around us. Nathan comes to David with a story, a story of the rich and powerful taking from the weak and helpless. David is quite rightly outraged by the behavior of the rich and powerful man who would steal from the weak and helpless man. David misses the point that his behavior is the basis for the story and he is the one who must be judged for his behavior in the same manner that David judged the man in the story. David missed the point that the signs around him were signs of his own actions.

The same can be said for those who followed Jesus that afternoon in Galilee. (3)  They are like the wine steward in the wedding at Cana who wondered where the wine came from or the woman at the well who asked where was the living water that Jesus kept telling her about. These people want to know more about Jesus; they need to know more about him. Their question is not limited to temporal time and place; it is a question about ultimate origins.

But it is also a question that hides ulterior motives. And Jesus’ answer is one that would not set well in today’s “seeker-sensitive” churches, where one is not supposed to be tested by the Gospel or the requirements that come from being a follower of Christ. Jesus points out that they are more interested in a “free lunch” than anything else. He tells the crowd that “you came after me because of what happened yesterday (when He feed the multitude). You ate your fill and now you’ve come to see if you can get some more. You really aren’t interested in knowing who I am.”

The people that day were following Jesus but for the wrong reasons. Too many people do the same thing today. Our culture and our society have made an art form out of it. We use Jesus to garner votes for those whose views and goals clash with His clear and simple teachings. We invoke the name of Christ to cover injustice; we invoke the name of Christ to justify immoral policies both at home and on the international stage. (4)

David was also blind to the meaning of the story Nathan told him; his own actions had led to the death of more than one man and he will now have to face the consequence with the loss of his family through public humiliation.

The story about David and the response of the people to Jesus’ miracle reminds us that “we can interpret the appearance of the sky but we cannot interpret the signs of the times.” The signs of these times are especially troubling. People remember Jesus saying “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” (5)  But they also seem to forget that we should not panic and we should be aware of false prophets who proclaim the Second Coming with the outcome of war.

Are the signs of war, poverty, homelessness, and injustice signs of the impending Second Coming? Are we to just stand back and let these things happen in hopes that God will welcome us into his house with open arms and joy? Or are we to do as Jesus commended those who stood on the shores of the Galilee and work for the bread?

This is not work in the sense of employment, gaining food for what we do but rather work carrying forth the gift that the bread represents. It is not the bread (with a lower case “b”) that will sustain our physical life that we seek but the Bread (with a capital “B”) that will sustain our spiritual life. It is the gift of this Bread that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Ephesians.

It is the gift that enables us to be apostles, prophets, evangelist, pastors, and teachers. It is the gift that enables us to do the work of the ministry in whatever form we can do.

It is the life we lead, it is the work that we do in the name of Christ that we will let others know who we are. What we do, how we live our lives is a reflector of what we believe. It is a continuation of those who came before us.

Early Christians were simply referred to as people of “the Way.” They were associated with a particular pattern of life, one that produced a discernible lifestyle. This lifestyle grew out of their faith and their testimony to that faith. To all who saw them, there was no mistaken them for any other group; Christian belief became identified with a certain behavior. Unlike today, it was one that was recognized by believers and non-believers alike.

They became known as a caring, sharing, and open community that was especially sensitive to the needs of the poor and the outcast. Their love for God, for one another, and for the oppressed was central to their reputation. Their refusal to kill, practice racial discrimination, or bow down before imperial deities was a matter of public knowledge.

It is also important that we recognize that they were a community as well as individuals. The first thing that Jesus did when he began His ministry was form a community. To follow Jesus meant sharing in His life and sharing it with others. From the beginning, it was clear that the Kingdom would manifest itself through a common life. (6)

It was as a community that they all gathered there that last night before Calvary. It was as a community in the Upper Room that they came together to share in that Last Supper. It is as a community that we gather together today to share in the bread and juice this day. And though this service will end with each of us going our own way, we leave knowing that we are a community as others have been in the past. And the life that we live as a part of a community will be the sign to others that this community is open to all.

(1) Adapted from http://www.wxdude.com/proverb.html

(2) 2 Samuel 11: 26 – 12: 13

(3) John 6: 24 – 35

(4) Adapted from “Wonder Bread” by Charles Hoffman, The Christian Century, 25 July, 2006

(5) Matthew 24: 6 – 8

(6) Adapted from The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis (2005)