The Future for the Methodist Church


This is not my regular posting for the weekend.

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Earlier this summer I posted “We Are Eating Our Seed Corn”.  I pointed out that a number of conferences were down-sizing their youth programs.  In it I wondered whether the United Methodist Church was more concerned about the present than it was concerned about the future.

Then the Study of Ministry Report to the 2008 General Conference was released (see “Thinking about the Future” for a link to that report).  The Commission is going to recommend changes in the ordination procedure and the possible elimination of the position of “local pastor” in the ministerial hierarchy.  But, instead of these changes being implemented following the 2008 General Conference, the Commission is suggesting further study and postponement of any decision until the 2012 General Conference.

In response to the Study on Ministry Report, Dr. Rebekah Miles (a member of the Commission) argued that changes are desperately and urgently needed.  To postpone any changes in the process will only cause more damage to an already damaged system.  She may be too late in her assessment of the problem.

Donald Hayes supported Dr. Miles’ assessment and pointed out that many of the individuals who serve on Board of Ordained Ministry committees do not have the same sense of commitment to the ministry as many of the newer candidates nor do they have a sense of the settings in which ministry takes place.  As Dr. Miles writes, many of the BOM members come from a time when the minister provided the only income and the pastor’s spouse stayed home.  Now, we live in a time when both spouses work and the minister is apt to be a woman.

The times are changing but the people controlling the clock aren’t.

When I began this path, my minister at the time jokingly (or so I thought), asked if I really wanted to walk the path toward the pulpit.  He understood my disdain for bureaucracy as well as the bureaucratic nature of the United Methodist Church organization.  Considering that he was a third-generation pastor and well aware of what he was warning me about and that being a minister was not his own first career church, I thought perhaps he was joking.  At best, I know he was warning about the problems and difficulties that I would encounter.  In retrospect, even if he was joking, he was speaking the truth.

A recent report by Benjamin Yosua-Davis outlined reasons why young people are not going into the ministry.  One quote that was highlighted was ““There was a sense that for many, The United Methodist Church is not looking for gifted Christian ministers; rather they are looking for by-the-book, work-within-the-system professionals who would pay their dues, innovate only within the system and not rock the boat.”

Yosua-Davis also noted that “nearly everyone can tell stories about horrendous difficulties moving through a system that doesn’t really seem to want them and makes their lives unnecessarily difficult — from lost paperwork, to contradictory information from different church agencies, to one conference requiring that all forms be completed on a typewriter and refusing to make them available in an electronic format. People spoke about how discouraging it is to go through a process that seems more concerned about bureaucracy and less concerned about discernment and preparation.”

The Yosua-Davis report is also on another site. This copy of the report included a comment from a student pastor who has decided to leave the ministry.  The reasons that this pastor gave match what others have said or reported on.

As I began to walk this path, I encountered a minister with whom I shared an educational heritage.  She was working on a doctorate at the University of Missouri while I was working on my master’s degree and her major professor was on my committee.  In her memoirs, she recounted the number of problems that she encountered along the way to becoming ordained.  The only difference between her situation and the situation others have described is her problems were thirty years ago!

For the record, I am no longer walking the path towards the ordained ministry.  Several years ago, when it became apparent that the bureaucratic responsibilities that accompanied the ministry that I was doing at the time would interact and conflict with my professional responsibilities, I made the decision to walk a different path.  I could not give up my professional responsibilities since they were the means by which I met my responsibilities to my family.  I continued in lay ministry because there was a church that needed my presence.  This was the path I walked up until 2005 when I needed to leave in order to remove the stresses and strains that I was undergoing.  It was not an easy decision to make but I could do no more for the church and the church needed other assistance (which it did not get).  Since then I have done what I could where I could and I will continue to answer the call (or the e-mail) that comes from a church that needs my presence for a few hours on Sunday.

Following the 2004 General Conference, the Certified Lay Minister position was created as a way of supplying pulpit coverage for many small and/or rural churches. I am interested in the position because it was a natural extension of what I have done and what I hope to do. My interest in the Study of Ministry Report centers on the future of the Certified Lay Ministry designation in the United Methodist Church. There are suggestions that this position will be removed from the Discipline after the 2008 General Conference.

While I cannot speak for other districts and/or conferences, I know that my district and conference are not moving forward with the rapidity of the times.  Other conferences have implemented the Certified Lay Ministry within in their boundaries; it appears that my own conference is not aware that there is such a classification in the Discipline.

After reading the Study on Ministry Report, I came away with the thought that the denomination is going to create a tiered system of ministry.  In areas where there are several small churches, an elder is going to be appointed to oversee and/or supervise all the churches.  The elder will administer the sacraments for all the churches in the charge.  The local pastors who might be serving those churches will continue to service those churches, except on Sundays when communion is scheduled or a baptism or a wedding is scheduled.  Then the assigned elder will preside and the local pastor will cover the elder’s church.  Certified Lay Ministers will not necessarily be needed.

It isn’t just beginning pastors and the problems that they encounter on the path to ordination but the problems that they encounter after being assigned to a church.  There is evidence that ministers are often put into assignments with little support for their own spiritual and physical well-being.  We cannot expect the United Methodist denomination to prepare young ministers for the future if the denomination’s administrative structure is stuck in the past somewhere and its concerns for the health and well-being of the ministers is minimal (See “A Cancer in the Church”).

How can we expect the United Methodist denomination to prepare for the future if we are stuck in the past or minimally in the past?  What direction will the church take?

The denomination and the church are faced with perhaps the greatest moral crisis of all times. The upcoming General Conference has the potential for being the most divisive and destructive General Conference since the 1844 General Conference and the arguments over slavery.  The denomination remained divided as the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South until the merger of the two branches along with the Methodist Protestant Church in 1939.

There are those who will go to the 2008 General Conference and attempt to force concrete measures to be imposed in regards to homosexuality. It is an issue that has plagued churches of all denominations and has dominated the conversations of the church for the past few years. I know there are verses in the Bible which condemn homosexual behavior but it appears to me that, many times, those verses are taken out of context.

It is certain that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and Paul’s words on the subject are confusing and misleading. It was Jesus who warned us about judging others for their actions when our own actions could also be judged. And we risk, as a church and as a denomination, more harm than good if we find that homosexuality is genetic and not a choice. More than once in our history, we have used the Bible to justify our actions. We have used Bible verses to justify the enslavement and murder of others because of their race or their religion. We may not be enslaving or murdering other races now but we are encouraging actions that may be the beginning of the slippery slope.

After I read the young pastor’s comments about leaving the church, I read the comments of another individual. This individual claimed that the reason the student minister left the ministry was because “today in many homes they are not brought up in the ways or word of the Lord. Second because The Lord Jesus said as the end times approach there would be a great falling away, which we are now witnessing throughout the world. This is just part of Gods plan and judgment of this wicked world.” (I have made some editorial corrections to clarify what was written).

This individual is correct in his assessment that we are in the end times but they are the end times for the church, not society or the world.  Individuals are quick to blame and slow to provide support.  The Epistle reading for the past few weeks has come from Paul’s letters to Timothy, letters of a veteran pastor to a young pastor.  The young man who has walked away from the ministry should not be criticized nor is he to be condemned.

God has lost one committed to God’s work, not because it is God’s plan, but because others have become too busy with other matters.  Is not the parable of the single lost sheep from a couple weeks past not applicable in this time and situation?  Shouldn’t those who are charged with the responsibility of watching over those coming into the field have stopped what they were doing and gone looking immediately?

We cannot expect the denomination or the church in general to prepare for the future if we hold to interpretations of the Bible that run counter to the message of the Gospel. Jesus came to us because God loved us and Jesus died on the Cross to save us from our sins. We cannot expect the denomination or the church in general to prepare for the future if we believe that God’s plan is for the destruction of the human soul.

The plans about changing the ministerial hierarchy probably need to be done and as quickly as possible. But it is clear that the current situation must be addressed or the changes that are encouraged will mean nothing whenever they are enacted.

And if the denomination shows little or no concern for those who have been entrusted with bringing the message of Christ to the people, then there will be no one left or available to see that the changes are made. And in the long run, if there is little or no concern for the shepherds of the flock, how can there be any concern for the flock itself?

Right now, I am just wondering right now if there will be a denomination for me to serve in any capacity after the General Conference next spring.

It’s A Journey, Not A Thought


Here are my thoughts for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.  I am preaching at Dover UMC (Dover Plains, NY) this weekend.

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As most people know, I have a Ph. D. in Science Education with an emphasis in chemical education. But many people are surprised when they find out I am also a lay minister.

Somehow the training that you receive to be a chemist is not appropriate for the ministry. In one sense, that is correct. In an ideal world, one receives the call to follow Christ at a young age and goes to college to get degrees with a theological orientation. In our society today, those who choose to walk a path that wanders through scientific laboratories automatically eliminate religion from their lives.

We live in an interesting society. It is one that encourages individuality but only when everyone else is doing the same thing. When you choose to walk a different path and find a different solution to the questions in your life, you are often labeled a heretic, a rebel, or sometimes something worse.

To follow Christ is to walk a different path, to take a different journey than the one society thinks you should walk. Being a minister does not mean that you spend all your time in cloistered seminaries, pondering the imponderable and asking great questions of life that are only answerable in the ethereal wonder of life. I have had the pleasure of knowing several individuals whose call to follow Christ came during a first career. One pastor was a lawyer before he heard the call from the Supreme Judge of Life; another was a printer before he began preaching the words of the prophets instead of putting them on paper; and a third was a nurse before she began her work as an assistant to the Great Healer. A good friend of mine is both a Catholic priest and an organic chemist. You can believe in science and God at the same time and suffer no ill effects.

But, at a time when our world is becoming more and more complex, at a time when the direction the world is taking it becomes even more confusing, we are not sure where we can turn for direction and guidance. Do we turn to science and hope that science and technology can build us a better path? Or do we turn to religion and hope that there is substance to something we cannot see or define?

But what we see when we turn to either area makes it even more confusing. Too many people in the church today tells us that science is lying (1) and too many people in science tell us that there is no God and all that churches do is offer some illusion to life.

We would like to find direction in the church today but we sense a dissonance there. We hear and see preachers whose message is one of prosperity through the Gospel. We think to ourselves that it must be working because these preachers command great fees for their appearances and lead lifestyles that reflect the wealth they say we all can gain. There seem to be great crowds wherever they go and we remember that Jesus Christ also had great crowds following Him. But we read in the Gospel that Jesus taught us to give up wealth, not seek it. And we remember that the crowds began to leave Jesus when He spoke of the commitments that one would have to make and the work that people would have to do in order for one soul to be saved.

We remember that Jesus welcomed all who sought Him, not just the rich and the powerful but the poor, the meek, the weak and the sick. We remember Jesus speaking of freeing the oppressed and then we see and hear preachers preach a litany of hatred, exclusion, and war.

We see and hear preachers give us sets of rules that will make our lives better but we see that they don’t follow the rules that they want to impose on us. We see and hear preachers who want to tell us what to believe and how to think. We see and hear preachers who want us to ignore the signs of the world around us because what we find in the real world conflicts with what the Bible tells us. Each day, as these contradictions become so much clearer, that feeling of dissonance comes over us.

Perhaps we can find a life through simple, rational thought. When mankind was just beginning to find its path in this world, it was easy to believe in gods. Gods provided the reason and the answer for why there was rain and wind, snow and cold, hot and dry. Gods provided the reason for why there was war and why we had to fight; gods provided the reason why people got sick and died or just suffered. As we grew in our ability to understand the world around us, these gods diminished in their importance in our lives.

Now we hear that there are no gods; that the God that we worship on Sunday is only a construct of our imagination and not the product of rationale thought. Everything that we seek or desire is found within us, not in a church on Sunday. Only in rational thought based on what we see and hear in the physical world will we find the path that we want to walk.

Proponents of rational thought cannot explain why every culture has some form of Supreme Being. They cannot explain why all cultures have stories that explain how mankind came into existence. The only way they can explain why there is evil in the world is to suggest that it is part of human nature. In a world based solely on empirical evidence, good and evil become part of us and determined by who we are and where we are. Our lives are then controlled by the real world and the concept of free will has no place in our lives. If we have no free will, we cannot choose; if we cannot choose, then there is no hope. And we find in the seemingly safe world of rational thought and empirical evidence the same dissonance that we find in the church.

The problem is that we are not going to find the answers we seek nor determine the direction that we are to go in a wholly scientific setting or in a wholly theological one. Science and religion speak two languages; science speaks the language of facts while religion speaks the language of values. Science attends to objective knowledge about objects in the present whereas religion attends to subjective knowledge about transcendent dimensions of ultimate concern. As Albert Einstein once noted, “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” Science works best when it explains what is happening and religion works best when it explains what it means to us (2).

If we try to live a life by rules imposed on us through science or religion, we will quickly find ourselves trapped in a prison of our making. Both scientific fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists want us to follow rules that have very little flexibility. They offer a philosophy but not a direction. They give answers but not to the questions that we face each day. Christianity is not a philosophy and Jesus Christ was not a philosopher.

Christianity is a pathway, a way of life. It is not a set of creeds and doctrines that require total obedience. Christianity was, in fact, a reaction to a religion narrowly defined by law and ritual. The people of “The Way” swept through the Mediterranean world like a “mighty wind” of radical freedom. (3)

Instead of a society where the rules focused on what you did within society, a society was created where everyone was free and your concern was for the others as much as it was for yourself. This was an idea first expressed in the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments do not begin with “Here are the Ten Commandments, learn them by rote,” or, “Here are the Ten Commandments, obey them.” Rather, they begin with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

The Ten Commandments are not rules that confine people but set them free. As Joe Roos noted, the Ten Commandments set you free from using the ways of society to get ahead. (4) You need not covet what your neighbor has or steal their belongings to establish who you are. Yes, they are rules but they are rules to live by, not confine us. They offer direction, not imprisonment. It is a freedom that extends to all and it is a freedom that we must seek for all.

The words of Jeremiah this morning (5) apply today as much as they did some three thousand years ago. Jeremiah speaks of the words of the Lord who warns the people about limiting their understanding to simply following a set of rules. From Jeremiah 4: 22 we read, “My people are foolish and do not know me. They are stupid children who have no understanding. They are clever enough at doing wrong, but they have no idea how to do right!” (6) The terms “foolish” and “silly” that are used in this passage from Jeremiah are contrary to the terms “knowledge” and “understanding”. Understanding means going beyond the basic information. The Lord, through Jeremiah, is warning the people that they are walking the wrong path; they are headed in the wrong direction. Instead of sustaining the world, they are destroying it; all because they have not taken the time to understand what the world is about and what it means.

Paul, in referring to his own career as a prosecutor of Christians (7), says the same thing. He recognizes that his life before his encounter with Christ was one fixed in the law, unchanging in its nature, and essentially doomed to failure and defeat.

The journey with Christ goes beyond the limits of society’s rules. The journey with Christ goes beyond how one thinks of themselves but rather how one thinks of others. If you accept Christ as your savior, you make a commitment to walk a new path and find a new way. If you accept Christ as your Savior, then you go beyond just posting the Ten Commandments on courtroom walls. You seek to put “blessed are the merciful” on the same walls; you seek to put “blessed are the peacemakers” on the walls of the Pentagon. As Jesus pointed out in the parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep (8), you are more concerned for the one who is lost more than the ones who are saved.

If you accept Christ as your savior, you have said that you will not be limited in your belief to just the things around you or things somewhat ethereal. Rather, your world becomes a world of great possibilities, of understanding the world in which we live and the one which was provided by our divine creator.

We are called today to begin this journey. It is a journey that began some two thousand years ago when a group of people gathered in a room to celebrate a journey from slavery and death to freedom. Those in that room that night did not understand that their journey was just beginning; they did not understand that the words of freedom and victory that their teacher and our Lord spoke were not just thoughts but steps. They did not understand then but would in a few days understand what the words of freedom truly meant. We know today what the words of freedom and victory over sin and death mean. Thus we are called to continue the journey that was begun so many years ago. Let us begin that journey.

(1) See “Why the Creation-Evolution Controversy Is Important”

(2) http://www.elca.org/faithandscience/covalence/story/content/06-06-15-peters-1.asp

(3) Adapted from “Why The Christian Right Is Wrong” by Robin Meyers, page 68

(4) Adapted from “The Foolishness of the Cross” by Joe Roos in Sojourners, August 2007

(5) Jeremiah 4: 11 – 22; 22 – 28

(6) Jeremiah 4: 22

(7) 1 Timothy 1: 12 – 17

(8) Luke 15: 1- 10

Defining Excellence


Back in March of this year HBO ran a documentary about the UCLA  basketball program and the ten NCAA Basketball titles that the program won from 1964 to 1975.  As much as the film was about the basketball program, it was also about John Wooden and his concept of success.

Those who speak of UCLA basketball speak in terms of the ten titles won and the 88-game winning streak.  Very little attention is given to the means by which those games were won.  Nowadays teams are expected to win and losing is never an acceptable option.

Most everyone knows that UCLA won 10 titles, seven of them in a row.  Most people, I think, don’t realize that each group of players were uniquely different and the style of play reflected those differences.  Yet, the manner in which team prepared for the games was the same and the basic, fundamental principles of basketball were continually stressed.  What intrigues me is, as was mentioned in the film and by many of his former players, he never equated winning with success. 

Coach Wooden gave a different definition of success and excellence was a long term process, not a short-term gain.  He defined success as “Peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

Now much has been written about Coach Wooden and his “Pyramid of Success” so I am not going to say much about that.  Rather, At the end of the film, player after player notes how much Coach Wooden taught them about being successful in life and seeking excellence.  And that stands to reason because John Wooden was first and foremost a teacher. 

And teaching is part of a life-long process, not something quickly done and forgotten.  Yet, in our desires for success and excellence, we see teaching as something for this moment; we see success in the grades our children receive at the end of the school year and we equate excellence with the overall grade point average of the school.  We give no thought to what will happen the next year or how well our students are able to use the knowledge presented to them in school when they are on their own.

I would suggest that every classroom teacher and teacher-in-preparation as well as every administrator watch this film and study the pyramid.  Maybe, just maybe, we can achieve the state of excellence we say we want.

What Is The True Cost?


Here are my thoughts for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost.  I will be preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY, next week (service is at 11:00).

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I could not help but think how ironic this week’s Gospel reading is. (1) Jesus speaks of people building something and how proper planning requires a consideration for the total cost of the project. At a time when we are talking about the cost of rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast this is a highly appropriate reading.

If one considers the extent of damage that occurred when Katrina came ashore two years ago, it would seem logical that one should rebuild the homes and buildings so that the next time there is a storm such as Katrina there won’t be as much damage. The lessons learned when Hurricane Andrew destroyed, demolished, and devastated south Florida in 1992 told us that. Now, as rebuilding takes place, it seems that some have learned the lesson while others have apparently not.

When the state of Mississippi legalized gambling, it was stipulated that the casinos would be on riverboats. It only made sense to do this because when there was gambling in the state before, it was on the riverboats that traveled up and down the Mississippi River from St. Louis and Cincinnati to New Orleans. But, the riverboats that they built the casinos on bore little resemblance to the 19th century palatial palaces of the river. In fact, they were nothing more than glorified johnboats, flat bottom shallow draft boats on which a structure could be built and transformed into a casino. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, these modern riverboats were wrecked beyond repair or recognition.

So, when the rebuilding began, the gambling industry (I refuse to use the politically-correct term “gaming”) petitioned the Mississippi legislature to change the legislation prohibiting them from building their casinos on land. Because of the money that the casinos generate, the legislature obliged. Now the new casinos on the Mississippi Gulf Coast are bigger, brighter, and more extravagant than before and on land. They will probably withstand most of what the next hurricane may bring.

I just wish that the same could be said for the rebuilding of homes and lives in the towns surrounding the casinos and over in Louisiana. There was a time when the best and the brightest sought to serve this country. Now it seems as if only the worst and the dimmest work in the government. The federal agency directing the rebuilding efforts is FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. All one has to do is look at how FEMA handled the aftermath of Katrina two years ago and how they are managing the rebuilding effort today.

This agency, in its efforts to prevent corruption and a waste of money, has decided that any federal money can only be used to replace what was destroyed, not correct any deficiencies in the design. Things haven’t gotten done because it is more important to adhere to federal regulations than it is to do things right. Somewhere along the line, thinking about tomorrow was removed from the process. This is not new; there have been countless instances where laws were passed and regulations created to solve an immediate problem but compounded the problem over the long term.

But it isn’t just the government where thinking processes are limited. This past week Mattel announced that they were again recalling toys made in China because there was lead in the paint on the toys. We have known about the effects of lead, especially when it comes to our young, for many years ago. We have gone to great lengths to remove lead from the environment; yet we don’t seem to insist that countries where things we buy follow the same rules. All that seems to matter is that the companies that sell what we buy don’t have to spend a lot of money; that way, the profit margin remains high.

As long as our concern is on the short term; if we do not think about the long-term consequences of our actions, we will find out what this past week has told us. Our constant concern for the present will only bring increased misery in the future.

The Gospel reading also speaks of planning for war. Jesus asks, “What king would go to war against another king without first sitting down with his counselors to discuss whether his army of 10,000 could defeat the 20,000 soldiers marching against him?”(2) Considering this statement in the context of the previous statement about the cost of building something, are we ready to assume that the present conflict was carefully thought out? While we may have had a numerical superiority in terms of troop numbers and it was clear that our weapons and abilities clearly were better than the opposition we faced, we need to be reminded that there were other assumptions made.

We were told that our troops would be welcomed as liberators. Now we are treated more as invaders. We were told that our troops were properly equipped. But then we were told that we would fight the fight with what we had. Then we found out that the troops did not have the right type of armor or the armor they did have offered insufficient protection for the type of weapons the opposition would fight with. Time and time again, we hear of local groups having fund raisers in order to send basic supplies to troops because they do not have such supplies.

It isn’t so much that the reasons for this war were so transparently lies. It isn’t so much the fact that persons who attacked this country six years ago were in no way connected to Saddam Hussein and Iraq or those they haven’t been caught and brought to justice. It isn’t so much the fact that drums of war are still being beat and each day the beat gets louder. And it isn’t the fact that war is a part of our culture. It is the fact that we seem to enjoy the war and we cannot imagine the cost that war brings.

We send our troops off to fight with shouts of joy and acclamation. We bring them home with parades and celebration. But the wounded come home and are forgotten (see “Supporting Our Troops – The Tragedy of Building 18”); the dead come home in the middle of the night and many times their families are not allowed to receive them with the honor they so deserve. We easily sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” in celebration but we forget the darker side to this song.

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When Johnny comes marching home again

When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah!

We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah! Hurrah!

The men will cheer, the boys will shout, the ladies they will all turn out, and we’ll all feel gay

When Johnny comes marching home.

Let love and friendship on that day, Hurrah! Hurrah!

Their choicest treasures then display, Hurrah! Hurrah!

And let each one perform some part to fill with joy the warrior’s heart, and we’ll all feel gay

When Johnny comes marching home.

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The writer of this traditional celebratory song took the tune from an Irish folk tune, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye”, a tune with a much darker side.

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Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye

With your drums and guns and guns and drums, hurroo, hurroo

With your drums and guns and guns and drums, hurroo, hurroo

With your drums and guns and guns and drums,

The enemy nearly slew ye

Oh my darling dear, Ye look so queer

Johnny I hardly knew ye

Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo?

Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo?

Where are your eyes that were so mild, when my heart you so beguiled

Why did ye run from me and the child?

Johnny I hardly knew ye

Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo?

Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo?

Where are your legs that used to run, when you went for to carry a gun?

Indeed your dancing days are done

Johnny I hardly knew ye

Ye haven’t an arm; ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo

Ye haven’t an arm; ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo

Ye haven’t an arm, he haven’t a leg,

Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg

Ye’ll have to put with a bowl out to beg

Johnny I hardly knew ye

They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo

They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo

They’re rolling out the guns again, but they never will take our sons again

No they never will take our sons again

Johnny I hardly knew ye

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It is not just the cost of wars and their aftermath that bother me. It is not our failure to put the needs of people above corporate interests when it comes to rebuilding homes and lives. It is the cost we pay for own selfishness and greed.

Greed is not necessarily the accumulation of wealth and “things”. It can also be the unwillingness to pay for quality or to pay workers the proper wage. It is the unwillingness to think about what you are doing and how what you are doing will affect others.

Greed is not necessarily the accumulation of wealth and “things”. It can also be the unwillingness to pay for quality or to pay workers the proper wage. It is the unwillingness to think about what you are doing and how what you are doing will affect others.

Paul, in his letter to Philemon (3), doesn’t say it but I think he implies that Philemon should do the right thing. Now, some might say that Paul should never have sent Onesimus back. After all, Onesimus was a slave and slavery is one of those things where our own greed and attempts to lower our costs matters more than anyone’s concerns. But, no matter what our thoughts about slavery are today, when Paul wrote that letter to Philemon slavery was legal and Paul was not about to engage in civil disobedience. But Paul admonishes Philemon to do the right thing. We can only assume that this meant giving Onesimus his freedom. I think it is time that the church again needs to be the voice of the right thing; I think that it is time that we, as a church, do as Paul did and speak of doing the right thing.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the church has lost its voice. The church has been co-opted by society and will only say those things that people want to hear and which enables them to pursue what they want to pursue. The message has become more “what’s in it for me?” than it has “how I can be Christ’s servant?”

I know that there are churches, pastors and congregations, individual people who hear the Gospel and take it to heart. I know there are people who have measured the cost of carrying the Cross and accepted that cost. I know that there are people who let the Gospel lead their lives. Yet, when you look around, you do not see those people.

When you look around and listen, you hear and see preachers telling you how God will make you rich. But the Bible warns us against accumulating wealth. You hear and see preachers speak of an exclusive church where only those with the correct lifestyle and appropriate economic status are welcome. But Jesus was always among the outcasts of society, much to the displeasure of society’s political and religious leaders. They see and hear preachers who preach hatred and war when Jesus is called the Prince of Peace.

You hear preachers speak of the inviolability of the Bible yet you can read any number versions of Bibles from the same period of time and detect seeming inconsistency within any particular Bible. You hear of preachers who speak out against science because it contradicts the Bible and you have to wonder we are still living the 17th century when the church sought to ban the formation of the heliocentric theory of the universe because it contradicts the Bible.

Many people today see the church as close-minded. It was bad enough when the church of the 17th century penalized Galileo for his stand as to the nature of the universe. For many people, the church’s attitude is still the same; the church either ignores or rejects science. And many in science have rejected the church. This division of faith and reason is again an example of one’s not using all the gifts that one has been given by God.

When you look around, you see young people turned off to church because of its hypocrisy of life style or teaching. Can you blame them for doing so? What do they see when they see a church? Is it no wonder that the current younger generation looks for solace in comfort in other venues.

You cannot blame the youth of today for turning away from the church; you cannot blame many on the left for turning away from the church. The church itself is to blame for many of the problems that it faces because it has created them.

The church was once a powerful force in the drive for equality in this country. From its very beginning, the church demonstrated that empowerment through the Holy Spirit could bring about change. It was true at the beginning when Christians were persecuted for refusing to acknowledge the Roman Caesar as a god. It was true when early settlers of this country refused to worship in a church not of their own choosing. It was true in the 1960’s when it was the church that led the drive for equality and called out against the inequity of the Viet Nam war.

But along the way, the church got tired and it got confused. There were those who felt that the church had no business getting involved in the secular world. The church is not of this world and should not get involved. So be it if others are in pain, in suffering or oppressed. To relieve the pain, end the suffering and free the oppressed is not the business of the church. There were those who thought that such efforts went against the nature of the Gospel. All that was and is important is that we make all the people Christ’s disciples. Many times this was done at the point of the sword or the barrel of the gun. Many times it was done to people who had genuine and viable faith in God through their own religion. How many of those identified as Christian leaders today spoke out against the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s? How many Christian leaders today say or suggest that those in poverty have only themselves to blame?

The time has come for the church to heed the words of Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament reading (4). The time has come for the church to look at itself and remake itself, again in the image of Christ on earth. The time has come for the church to be the servant of Christ and the representative of God on earth. Some will have a hard time doing this; their form is like the pot that has been put into the kiln and fired. The only way to change the pot is to break and start over again with fresh clay.

But many of us are like the clay that is on the potter’s wheel. Our form is not complete and we have not been put in the kiln to be fired; we can change.

Change does not mean responding to society’s pressure and becoming what society wants us to be. Change means returning to an understanding of what the Bible says. This means delving into the word and learning the word, not merely repeating words that someone wrote down. We were created in the image of God so we have the ability to think and create. We are not created as God so our abilities are limited.

This change is not merely in making the worship service more “user-friendly”. That is part of the problem today. This change is in the very nature of the church, to seek the Spirit which empowers us and gives us the ability to move beyond our own boundaries. Some will not accept this change for they have been hardened by the fire of life and are unwilling to be broken. But there are those who can change; there are those who have yet to be formed by the potter.

This change will not be easily and it will not be cheap. Some will say that we cannot afford it; it is too expensive and too time-consuming to make the change. They are unwilling to pay any cost. But the price of everlasting life, the price for victory over sin and death has already been paid. The true cost will be in terms of how willing you are to take up the Cross and complete the mission of Christ on earth.

(1) Luke 14: 25 – 31

(2) Luke 14: 31

(3) Philemon 1 – 21

(4) Jeremiah 18: 1 – 11

Back to school


Since it is time to go back to school, we need some insight into what is going on.

The Philosophy Exam (said to be a true story)

A college student in a philosophy class was taking his first examination.

On the paper there was a single line which simply said: “Is this a question?” – Discuss.

After a short time he wrote: “If that is a question, then this is an answer.”

The student received an “A” on the exam.

The difference between freshman and seniors

Freshman: Is never in bed past noon.
Senior: Is never out of bed before noon.

Freshman: Reads the syllabus to find out what classes he can cut.
Senior: Reads the syllabus to find out what classes he needs to attend.

Freshman: Brings a can of soda into a lecture hall.
Senior: Brings a jumbo hoagie and six-pack of Mountain Dew into a recitation class.

Freshman: Calls the professor “Teacher.”
Senior: Calls the professor “Bob.”

Freshman: Would walk ten miles to get to class.
Senior: Drives to class if it’s more than three blocks away.

Freshman: Memorizes the course material to get a good grade.
Senior: Memorizes the professor’s habits to get a good grade.

Freshman: Knows a book-full of useless trivia about the university.
Senior: Knows where the next class is. Usually.

Freshman: Shows up at a morning exam clean, perky, and fed.
Senior: Shows up at a morning exam in sweats with a cap on and a box of pop tarts in hand.

Freshman: Has to ask where the computer labs are.
Senior: Has own personal workstation.

Freshman: Lines up for an hour to buy his textbooks in the first week.
Senior: Starts to think about buying textbooks in October… maybe.

Freshman: Looks forward to first classes of the year.
Senior: Looks forward to first beer garden of the year.

Freshman: Is proud of his A+ on Calculus I midterm
Senior: Is proud of not quite failing his Complex Analysis midterm

Freshman: Calls his girlfriend back home every other night
Senior: Calls Domino’s every other night

Freshman: Is appalled at the class size and callousness of professors
Senior: Is appalled that the campus ‘Subway’ burned down over the summer

Freshman: Conscientiously completes all homework, including optional questions
Senior: Homework? I knew I forgot to do something last night

Freshman: Goes on grocery-shopping trip with Mom before moving onto campus
Senior: Has a beer with Mom before moving into group house

Freshman: Is excited about the world of possibilities that awaits him, the unlimited vista of educational opportunities, the chance to expand one’s horizons and really make a contribution to society
Senior: Is excited about new dryers in laundry room

Freshman: Takes meticulous four-color notes in class
Senior: Occasionally stays awake for all of class

Since one of our grandchildren starts his educational process this week (he starts kindergarten), the following are useful

A little girl had just finished her first week of school. “I’m wasting my time,” she said to her mother.
“I can’t read, I can’t write – and they won’t let me talk!”

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On the way home from the first day of school, the father asked his son, “What did you do at school today?”

The little boy shrugged his shoulders and said, “Nothing”.

Hoping to draw his son into conversation, the father persisted and said, “Well, did you learn about any numbers, study certain letters, or maybe a particular color?”

The perplexed child looked at his father and said, “Daddy, didn’t you go to school when you were a little boy?”

How to take an exam:

A statistics major was completely exhausted the day of his final exam. It was a true/false test, so he decided to flip a coin for the answers. The professor watched the student the entire two hours as he was flipping the coin…writing the answer…flipping the coin…writing the answer. At the end of the two hours, everyone else had left the final except for the one student. The professor walks up to his desk and interrupts the student, saying: “Listen, I can see that you did not study for this test. You didn’t even open the exam. If you are just flipping a coin for your answer, what is taking you so long?”
The student replies bitterly, as he is still flipping the coin: “Shhh! I am checking my answers!”

The FINAL EXAM

Ultimate Final Exam

Instructions: Read each question thoroughly. Answer all questions. Time limit – four hours. Begin immediately.

History
Describe the history of the Papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrate specifically but not exclusively, on the social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, America and Africa. Be brief, concise and specific.
Literature
Compose an epic poem based on the events of your own life in which you see and footnote allusions from T.S. Eliot, Keats, Chaucer, Dante, Norse mythology and the Marx brothers. Critique your poem with a full discussion of its metrics.

Music
Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate it and perform it with flute and drum. You will find a piano under your seat.
Art
Explain the Mona Lisa’s smile.  Relate all interpretations associated with it.
Religion
Assuming the Judeo-Christian moral structure, take the stand for Adam and Eve, and the eating of the forbidden fruit. Explain your position fully to a Chassidic Rabbi, and answer his arguments. An Anglican bishop will moderate this debate.
Logic
Using accepted methodology prove all four of the following: the universe is infinite; truth is beauty; there is not a little person who turns off the light in the refrigerator when you close the door, and that you are the person taking this exam. Now disprove all of the above. Be specific; show all work.
Philosophy
Sketch the development of human thought; estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.
Epistemology
Take a position for or against truth. Prove the validity of your position.
Medicine
You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze, and a bottle of Scotch. Remove your own appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes.
Biology
Create life. Estimate the differences in subsequent human culture if this form of life had developed five hundred years earlier, with special attention to the probable effects on the English Parliamentary system. Prove your thesis.
Psychology
Employing principles from the major schools of psychoanalytic thought, successfully subject yourself to analysis. Make appropriate personality changes, bill yourself and fill out all medical insurance forms. Now do the same to the person seated to your immediate left. Also, based on your degree of knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment, and repressed frustrations of each of the following Alexander of Aphrodisias, Rameses II, Gregory of Nicea, Hammurabi. Support your evaluations with quotations from each man’s work, making appropriate references. It is not necessary to translate.
Sociology
Estimate the sociological problems that might accompany the end of the world. Construct and experiment to test your theory.
Economics
Develop a realistic plan for refinancing the national debt. Trace the possible effects of you plan in the following areas Cubism, the Donatist controversy, the wave theory of light. Outline a method from all points of view. Point out deficiencies in your argument as demonstrated in your answer to the last question.
Computer Science
Define computer. Define Science. How do they relate? Why? Create a generalized algorithm to optimize all computer decisions. Assuming an 1130 CPU supporting 50 terminals, each terminal to activate your algorithm, design the communications to interface and all the necessary control programs.
Management Science
Define Management. Define Science. How do they relate? Why? Create a generalized algorithm to optimize all managerial decisions. Assuming an 1130 CPU supporting 50 terminals, each terminal to activate your algorithm; design the communications interface and all necessary control programs.
Public Speaking
2,500 riot-crazed students are storming the classroom. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin or Greek.
Physics
Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on science.
Modern Physics
Disprove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Construct an experiment to prove your position.
Engineering
The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed in a box on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In ten minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. Take whatever action you feel is appropriate. Prove your assertions, and be prepared to cost- and motion- justify your decision.
Agricultural Science
Outline the steps involved in breeding your own super high yield, all weather hybrid strain of wheat. Describe its chemical and physical properties and estimate its impact on world food supplies. Construct a model for dealing with world-wide surpluses. Write your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Comprehension
Three minute time test. Read everything before doing anything. Put your name in the upper right hand corner of this page. Circle the word name in sentence three. Sign your name under the title of this paper, after the title write yes, yes, yes. Put an X in the lower left hand corner of this paper. Draw a triangle around the X you just put down. On the back of this paper multiply 703×668. Loudly call out your name when you get to this point. If you think you have followed directions carefully to this point call out “I have.” Punch three small holes in the top of this paper. If you are the first person to get this far, call out “I am the first person to this point, I am leading in following directions.” On the reverse side of this paper add 8950 and 9850. Put a circle around your answer and put a square around the circle. Now that you have finished reading carefully, do only sentence two.
Political Science
There is a red telephone on the desk behind you. Start World War III. Report at length on its socio-political effects, if any.
Jurisprudence
In Part 2 of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI”, Jack Cade, the leader of the Populist revolt, proposes that the first order of business following a successful coup d’e’tat could be to “kill all the lawyers”. In light of the present populist mood in the United States, assess the utility and any potential impact of such a policy today.
Foreign Affairs
It has recently been suggested (especially after Black Monday) that only a foreign war can restore America’s lost national consensus. Propose the ideal opponent(s) for the US in such a war, and how the conflict might be engineered so that US would seem not to be the aggressor in the situation. Discuss the pros and cons.
Mathematics
Give today’s date, in metric.
Chemistry
Transform lead into gold. You will find a tripod and three logs under your seat. Show all work including Feynman diagrams and quantum functions for all steps. You have fifteen minutes.
General Knowledge
Describe in detail. Be objective and specific.
Extra Credit
Define the Universe. Give two examples.
 

For students, have a good year.  For teachers, may this be the year the future Nobel Prize winner or winners pass through your class.  For all, may this be a safe year and may you learn not what is in the books but what the next book contains.

Who Shall Be Invited?


I am preaching at 1st United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY, this morning.  Here are my thoughts for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14.

(Additional note – the portion in italics was quoted in the United Methodist Nexus for 5 September 2007; the latter portion in bold was quoted in the United Methodist Nexus  for 19 September 2007)

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As part of my introduction this morning, I would add that I am the son of a United States Air Force officer and the grandson of a United States Army officer. To grow up as the child of a military officer in the 1950’s and the 1960’s often meant moving from one town to another, one air base to another almost every year. During that time I attended five different elementary schools, two junior high schools, and three high schools. While some may find this disconcerting and uncomfortable I think it gave me a view of the world that many do not often get to see. It did have its shortcomings though.

When I was a junior in high school, I felt that I was eligible for Mu Alpha Theta, the high school mathematics honor society. I was so certain of my eligibility that I started attending the meetings of the chapter in my high school. I was active in the society’s business and helped plan one of the regional meetings. Imagine how I felt when, at the end of the first semester that year, I was told that I was not eligible. Because I had transferred to the school, the school used a “formula” and, by this “formula”, I was not eligible.

Now, I don’t how you would feel about this. Many times honor societies are no more that social cliques and worthy of the Groucho Marx quote, “I would not be a member of any organization that would have me.” But I wanted to be a part of Mu Alpha Theta and I had been a part; to keep me out seemed rather ridiculous. So I made an offer to the faculty advisor. If I were to get a 98 on the Algebra II semester final, would they let me in? I supposed I could have picked 100 just to show that I had the abilities but I wanted a little bit of room. For the record, I scored a 99 (I still don’t know how I missed that one point) and I got my membership.

I tell this story because the Scriptures for today are about membership and the requirements for being a Christian. I want us to consider three questions today.

The first question is a very simple one, “Who can be a Christian?” It really doesn’t take much to be a Christian. You cannot make a deal with God to get into heaven or sit at His heavenly banquet. You must accept Jesus Christ as your Savior. The church is not an exclusive club with rigid rules that must be exactly and explicitly followed before you are allowed to join.

Yet, there are people today who will tell you that there are rules. Oh, they may not tell you exactly word for word what the rules are because the rules aren’t always written down. But they make it very clear that there are rules and you had better follow them if you wish to belong to their church.

Jesus lived in a society ordered by clear demarcations, sorting and separating people by an elaborate system of purity codes that stood as firmly as the Separation Wall that is being built in the Holy Land today and as some would like our borders to be today. These purity codes created no-trespassing zones of untouchability that had particular impact on the chronically ill, the disfigured or handicapped, on women, on foreigners and those of different ethnic groups and origins. Additionally, anyone with an unorthodox or questionable lifestyle was also on the wrong side of society’s boundary lines. This is the setting in which the parable of the banquet is told (1).

Yet Jesus frequently lifted up the faith and witness of those who had no legal standing in their own country. Samaritans were essentially persona non grata in the society of that time, yet it was a Samaritan woman from whom Jesus sought a drink and to whom He offered the well of living water (2). It was a Samaritan who helped the injured traveler after two outstanding members of society choose to walk on by (3). It is profoundly ironic that many contemporary followers of Jesus (or those who say that they are followers) hold to the very traditions of the law that Jesus so consistently broke in the name of a higher law (4).

Even today, some two thousand years later, we are still a community of believers whose thoughts about the laws of God threaten to divide and destroy the church.

At the last General Conference, delegates to the General Conference in Pittsburgh voted against a call to split the church. Conservative delegates to the General Conference brought a motion before the floor that would have split the United Methodist Church into two separate denominations, based on the views of the members on the issue of homosexuality. Though this motion was overwhelmingly defeated, those who brought the motion before the floor said that they will spend the next few years meeting with disaffected congregations and will probably seek to form a newer and more conservative branch of Methodism (5).

It almost seems as if we have forgotten Jesus’ own words that all are welcome at God’s table, not just the best or a select few. But this is one reason why people do not come to church. They see in the church an organization that excludes people, not welcome them.

The subdivisions that denominated society in Jesus’ time still dominate the church today. It seems that despite all we think and all we say, we are not always willing to accept other people’s ideas. This is not to say that we should accept clearly evil or wrong ideas but we should realize that other people have ideas as well. Many of today’s problems stem from an unwillingness of some to accept the notion that other people have ideas about God and Christ. Each of us has or will encounter Christ in a unique way. To say that my way or encounter is somehow better than yours or yours is somehow better than mine is as much a sin as murder or theft and, in the end, merely imposes rules that restrict one’s ability to find Christ.

Instead of judging the worthiness of those who are different, should we not look at our own lives and the opportunities that are presented to us each day? Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was killed by those opposed to his work with the poor and underclass, said that the ongoing process of conversion is itself the meaning of the church: “One cannot be part of this church without being faithful to [Jesus'] manner of passing from death to life, without a sincere movement of conversion and of fidelity to the Lord.” Archbishop Romero found that he had to rethink his preconceived notions about what – and who – makes the church (6). Perhaps we need to do so as well.

This leads to the second question. It is a slightly more difficult question, “What does a Christian do?” How willing are you to tell someone else that you are a Christian? To say that you are a Christian is to say that you hold to certain ideas and that you will act in a certain way. But today, while Jesus is still described as “caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, and sympathetic”, today’s Christians are likely to be described as “bigot”, “homophobe, “male chauvinist”, or “reactionary” (7). We have to wonder if we are on the same page, let alone in the same book.

It is really interesting to contrast the public perception of Christians with that of some two thousand years ago. If we had lived in the eastern area of the Mediterranean Sea during the beginning of Christianity, we might have seen, hastily scrawled on the walls of buildings, a crude outline of a fish. No big deal, we might think since we were walking through a fishing village.

To be a Christian in those days was to invite persecution. To be identified as a Christian was to risk arrest and trial, to be thrown into the arena to fight for one’s life against lions or gladiators. It was to invite death for what you believed. You could not greet others openly and you could not use the sign of the cross, for that would immediately label you as a threat. So you used a fish, for the Greek letters for the word fish are also the first letters of the Greek words for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

People risked their lives and well-being to become Christians because they had seen the power of the Good News in transforming lives. And people saw in them a tranquility, simplicity and cheerfulness that were encountered nowhere else in the world around them (8). These are the characteristics that are described in the reading from Hebrews for today (9).

Christianity today is not the Christianity that swept across the Mediterranean Sea. Then it was a force that changed lives, now it seems to be a force that allows people to seek their own life, not the life that is given to us through Christ. We are more like the people of Israel whom Jeremiah castigates in today’s Old Testament reading (10).

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that the people of Israel pursued other gods; they lost sight of their identity as God’s chosen people. While they may have spoken of following and serving God, they worshipped false prophets and listened to false gods. Whereas God could offer water from the living well, the people put their faith in broken cisterns, unable to store water and useless in sustaining life. They had forgotten who they were and who had brought them to Israel.

They forgot how God had delivered them from oppression in Egypt and had given them food, water, and protection during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Each person sought to gain what they could and put themselves above others rather than reflecting on the help they received. Jesus’ parable for today reflects what many people did, have done, and continue to do today.

The third question for today is one of challenge and identity. What does being a Methodist mean? For me, to be a Methodist is to recognize that we do not have the perfection of Christ nor are we ever going to find it. But having come to Christ, we will work to reach that perfection and we will work to bring others to Christ. It means putting the words that Jesus first expressed in His synagogue some two thousand years ago into action today. As the writer of Hebrews put it,

Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name. And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God. (11)

And the thing to note about this passage is that we are to do good after we have declared our belief. Doing good before declaring our belief is no guarantee that we will gain what we seek.

I don’t think there is a person today that doesn’t remember what happened two years ago this past week. How can you not know? We are reminded and have been reminded each day for the past few weeks about the tragedy of Katrina, Rita, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast. We say that we are a Christian nation yet we have let our brothers and sisters down. We seemed to be more concerned that the casinos on the Gulf Coast are rebuilt bigger and safer than we are that homes in the 9th ward of New Orleans are.


The sad thing about all this talk about Katrina and the slowness of the recovery is that it is only the tip of iceberg. The destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is only the latest event in a series of events that demonstrates the lack of concern we have for people in this country. How long will we be a country that speaks of “family values” yet does not value the family? How long will we be a country where wealth is the goal and poverty is considered sinful? How long will we be a church where the prosperity gospel of wealth and abundance and not the Heavenly Kingdom is preached in the pulpit?

I know that countless people have gone to Biloxi and I know that not everyone can go. But if we are who we say we are, then why have we not, as Christians, cried out in anger at how we have treated our own brothers and sisters!? Is it because we would rather not think about it; is it because we would rather not bring the lower classes, the outcasts, and the refuse of society to our dinner table? Are we to forget that England in the period of time following the American Revolution almost underwent a similar fate as did France? Are we to forget that were it not for John Wesley and the Methodist Revival speaking out against the injustice done to the poor and lower classes, England would have undergone a similar violent revolution as did the French?

When Jesus stood in His home synagogue some two thousand years ago, he announced the Gospel, the Good News.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (12)

It was that Gospel that saved England; it will be that Gospel that defines where this country goes in the coming years. It will be through the Good News that the poor will be lifted out of poverty, the homeless will have shelter, the sick will be healed and the oppressed will find justice. This Gospel does not exclude and deny the right of people to be a part of God’s Kingdom because of their race, their income status, or their lifestyle.

The church today is in crisis today. We have probably lost one generation and are in danger of losing the generation after that. These young people see the hypocrisy of those who proclaimed Jesus as Savior but then shut the doors to the very people that Jesus ate with. Many churches today, even in the United Methodist Church, are more interested in a business-oriented line rather than a spiritual-oriented bottom line. They will tell you that the business of the church is to win disciples to Christ, and I will not argue with that point. But, if the homeless are not given shelter, if the poor are not given a chance to find work at wages so that they can feed their families; if the sick are not given adequate medical treatment, if the oppressed are never given an opportunity to see freedom, what good does it do to be a disciple of Christ?

I have asked three questions today. They are questions that have perplexed the church from its very beginnings. They are questions that continue to perplex the church and its various denominations even today. It is no wonder that churches are struggling. Each question gets more difficult to ask and equally more difficult to answer. No one wants to ask the hard questions; no one wants to answer the hard questions.

Tony Campolo, wrote that

… the last place where I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies.’ (13)

In 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King wrote his proclaimed “Letter from the Birmingham jail.” His comments then are strangely prophetic today. In this letter he wrote of his disappointment in the churches of the south remaining quiet while the political leaders spoke of hatred, defiance and opposition to equality. He wondered where were the people who said they were Christian but kept silent as persecution and oppression dominated life. And then he wrote,

Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably linked to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners for the struggle for freedom.

I hope that the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour (14).

It is far easier to ask simple questions and give simple answers. It is far easier to put the blame for sickness, poverty, hunger, and oppression on others than it is to do God’s work on this earth. It is far easier to say that we will be accepted in Heaven because we act righteous when Jesus Himself told us those that ignore the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed will be the ones left behind.

When you ask easy questions, you get the easy answers. But nothing gets done. We are not always willing to ask the hard questions; we are not always willing to hear the hard answers. But know this today, the hardest part of being a Christian has already been done for us. Jesus’ death on the Cross and His Resurrection means that the hardest part has already been done. All we have to do is complete the task.

You have an opportunity today. You have the opportunity to do nothing. There is no rule or regulation that says you have to do anything at this time.

You have the opportunity, if you want to and if you haven’t already done so, to invite Christ into your heart and into your life. You have the opportunity to gain that honored seat at the heavenly banquet that is promised to all those who open their heart. And you don’t have to do anything else.

You came to church this morning; you heard the preacher preach and now you can go home. You can go home and not worry about the person on the street or in the hospital bed or in the jail cell. You do not have to worry about the individual whose soul is lost in the wilderness of society. They are not your concerns now; someone else will take care of those problems.

There is a third opportunity this morning. Having accepted Christ as your Savior, you can invite the Holy Spirit to come into your life and change your life. But know this, when you invite the Holy Spirit into your life, your life changes. As Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus, when the Holy Spirit enters your life, you will find that your life changes.

You will find the path that you walk is not an easy one; you will find that the path you now walk is often lonely. Not too many people want to give up the honored seat so that someone else may be seated. You will find that you cannot go back to who or what you once were. You will find that you cannot turn your back on those whom society has cast off and would just as soon forget. Now, when you can go out into the world, your thoughts, your words, your deeds, and your actions will tell others that you have chosen to follow Jesus Christ. You can say to the world that I am Christian and that all are welcome in my house.

So, now the question asked today is a very simple one, “Who shall be invited into your house?”

(1) Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

(2) John 4: 1 – 26

(3) Luke 10: 25 – 37

(4) Adapted from “Strangers in a strange land” by Heidi Neumark, in “Getting on message – challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel (Rev. Peter Laarman, editor)

(5) The New York Times, May 8, 2004

(6) Adapted from “Living the Word”, Sojourners, May 2004

(7) Adapted from Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo

(8) Adapted from “Reasons for Joy” by Huston Smith, Christian Century, 5 October 2005

(9) Hebrews 13: 1 – 8

(10) Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13

(11) Hebrews 13: 15 – 16

(12) Luke 4: 16 – 21

(13) Tony Campolo as quoted in Christian Week magazine and reported in SojoMail for 9/10/03

(14) http://www.nobelprizes.com/nobel/peace/MLK-jail.html