A Sense of Reward


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2002.  The Scriptures were Exodus 16: 2 -15, Philippians 1: 21 –  30, and Matthew 20: 1 -16.

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It was, I believe the explorer Sir George Mallory, who was asked why someone would want to climb Mount Everest. His reply is the classic response for all great challenges, “Because it is there.” President John Kennedy, when laying down the challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade said, “We choose not to go because it is easy, but because it is difficult.” He said so knowing that we had yet to even orbit a man and that the equipment for completing the operation was not even on the drawing boards.

But it is very rare to see such an attitude today. For the most part, any new effort is met with skepticism and reluctance. Any challenge put forth to an individual today is often met with the response “What’s in it for me?” Were there still a sense of adventure in the world today, like there was in the early 60’s, mankind would have a presence on the moon and we would be well on our way to traveling to the planet Mars and perhaps beyond. The International Space Station would be have been completed and done so in a major effort of cooperation and collaboration worthy of its name, rather than piece meal and when ever it is possible.

Yes, there are challenges on this earth that need to be faced and priorities must be made so that those who are without have the basic needs. But when you take away adventure and the reason for going beyond the next curve in the road, you offer no hope to anyone.

The Israelites went out into the desert, not knowing what was before them, only that they were headed for the Promised Land. But the moment they became hungry, they began complaining. “Are we to die in the desert at the hands of the Lord when we could have had our fill at the dinner table in Egypt?” they cried, conveniently forgetting the life of slavery that went with that life.

The workers who worked the full day complained that they should have gotten more because they worked the most, forgetting that payment was made at the discretion of the landowner who paid them and it was the amount they had agreed to receive. You cannot complain when what you get is what you were told you would get.

It is hard to determine the reward that we should get for the work that we do. It has always amazed me to read about John Wesley and the early troubles he encountered in the development of the Methodist movement. We wear the badge of Methodist quite proudly, knowing that it was an epithet of slander and hatred.

Wesley openly opposed those who practiced what he called a lukewarm Christianity. He labored to bring every area of his own life into submission to Jesus Christ. His zeal, along with that of the other members of the fledgling Methodist revival, provoked ridicule. The name “Methodist” was given to this group because of their methodical devotion to daily rituals and the discipline they imposed on their lives.

Yet, even with a semi-monastic existence and a devotion to good works, each of these Oxford Methodists could claim the receipt of certainty found in God’s love. Their toil and labors, their strict self-examination, rigorous spiritual discipline, sacrificial good works left them far short of peace and joy promised in the Gospel. Later, Wesley would speak of these times as being in a “spiritual wilderness.”

The meaning that Wesley so desperately sought came only after that momentous night at Aldersgate when he welcomed the presence of the Holy Spirit into his life. It was this Presence which gave both John and Charles Wesley the sense of peace and comfort so often stated in the Gospel. It was the same for Paul; as we read in his letter to the Philippians, it was the presence of Christ in his life that gave the meaning to his (Paul’s) life.

Wesley never sought to create a new church; in fact, he remained a minister in the Church of England all his life. What he sought to do was to bring a sense of purpose to the stated mission of the church, to give meaning to the words of the Gospel. How should we measure the results of Wesley’s work? It can never be said that he understood what he had accomplished, but no less a source than the Cambridge Modern History stated that the most positive influence in eighteenth-century England was “John Wesley and the religious revival to which he gave his name and life.”

But what Wesley sought could not have been accomplished had he not accepted the Holy Spirit into his life that night at Aldersgate. There is no way we can ever seek to gain any rewards if our rewards are tied to earth. Perhaps my favorite Bible passage is Ecclesiastes 3 (“To every thing there is a season”). It speaks of our time under earth; but in chapter 2, the Preacher spoke of the futility of a life spent trying to gain everything there was, as if it would provide the meaning of life. Just as Wesley saw that nothing was possible without the presence of the Holy Spirit, so too did the Preacher point out that life without God was meaningless.

There is nothing wrong with seeking rewards for what we do; it is perhaps only natural. But it always amazes me when I read about some individual who no one knew and everyone ignored who gives a college or university a tremendous amount of money simply because it was the right thing to do. At least one church received the money to build a parsonage because, on one Sunday, the congregation was nice to a stranger passing through. Nothing was said but this stranger was made to feel welcome one particular Sunday. And many years later, a check from the estate was mailed to the church. The reward for simply doing what is right can never be measured in the present time.

Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church is faced with a challenge. If this congregation is to go beyond the present time, there are those who must step up, who must face the challenge without any sense of reward or entitlement. It is not a challenge to do everything by themselves, but rather pick an area of leadership and help the entire congregation move into the future. There are some that will say that it cannot be done and if no one picks up the challenge, that will be the case.

In those days prior to that wondrous encounter with the Holy Spirit at Aldersgate, John Wesley was near death. Because he saw his method as a failure, because he saw his missionary work in Georgia as a failure, Wesley came back to England prepared to die. Yet, he did not die but rather he surrendered his soul to the Holy Spirit. In turning over his life, he gained that which he sought. He may never have understood the reward that came with his work; such rewards are only measured through the pages of time. But he did gain a sense of peace that he had long sought.

So too is it for us. We may never gain a sense of reward for the work that we do now. But that is not why we do it; we do it so that others may gain the reward of having Christ as a presence in their lives. And that may be the best reward we can ever experience.

Parts of the Church


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2002.  The Scriptures were Exodus 33: 12 -23, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 -10, and Matthew 22: 15 – 22.

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Today is Laity Sunday in the United Methodist Church. This is both a unique and a historical day. It is unique in that our denomination is perhaps the only denomination that honors the laity of the church for the service that it does and has done. While laity may partake in the administration of a church service, very few denominations allow their laity to speak like the United Methodist Church does. And that is part of the historical nature of this denomination.

While historically the major denominations have been a part of the landscape of American history, only the United Methodist Church has allowed church services to be held and run by laity. This is because of the nature of the circuit rider, the traveling itinerant preacher unique to Methodism. If an Episcopal or a Lutheran church were established in an area, it was because there was an Episcopal or a Lutheran minister to lead and direct the church. But Methodism was established through societies, the meeting of laity, who relied on the traveling circuit rider to provide the pastoral leadership. And because the circuit rider had several churches under his charge, it was up to the laity to hold the church services on those Sundays when the rider was somewhere else.

Even today, we find many United Methodist churches across the country, even in our own church district, using lay speakers so that services can be held.

This relationship between clergy and laity is very unique to Methodism. Most denominations run with a top-down administration model that gives very little power to those outside the clergy. Even though the laity may participate in a particular Sunday service, it is a limited participation. And the administration of many churches holds the power very close to the vest, viewing the laity as truly lost sheep incapable of handling the complex issues of church administration.

For the United Methodist Church, it is slightly different. Though the administration of the overall United Methodist Church is through the bishops and the district superintendents, each local church has much to say regarding its own day-to-day operation. This was by design and has helped churches in those periods when there was no local pastor. And by design, this mode of operation leads to a sense of “creative tension,” a pulling between the overall church body and the local one.

Most of the time, such a tension is useful and productive. But there are times when it can be less useful, less productive, and even destructive. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians last week, we read of how the church in Philippi was in danger of tearing itself apart unless the people of the congregation worked together to meet the common goals of faith instead of working against each other. If we, individually and collectively, are to be a successful church, it will be because we work together and not against each other.

Paul wrote to Thessalonians about their faith and the results of their faith. He writes of their faith and how that faith led to true repentance. It was through their faith that they sought to bring the message of Jesus, the Gospel message of hope, peace, and righteousness to those around them. But it is important to note that he was writing to all the people of the church, not individual members.

And Paul gave a standard for the people to judge their work by. Paul first mentions their work for Christ in the midst of persecution, of pursuing the goals of the Gospel in spite of all that went on around them. Paul points out that the focus for all their activities is Jesus Christ. And that is the standard by which they, and we today, should measure our work. Does what we do glorify Christ?

The Gospel tells us that the Pharisees posed a questions to Jesus regarding taxes and obedience but there is more meaning behind the question. What are our priorities and what should they be?

The Pharisees come to Jesus, again seeking to trick him into make some type of false statement. This time, as we read in the Gospel, it was a question about taxes. Should the people of Israel pay taxes to the Roman government, something no self-respecting Jew wanted to do. It was one of those questions that can get a person into a lot of trouble. If Jesus were to say that it was proper and right to pay taxes, then He would lose the support of his followers. But, if he were to side with the Pharisees, then they would be able to say that he was working against the Roman government and he would be arrested for insurrection.

It is important that we see how Jesus answered the question. Instead of paying taxes, Jesus said that we should render unto Caesar that which was his. “Render” means to pay back and in using that word, Jesus says to pay back to the government that which was owed. As followers of Christ, we still have an obligation to the earthly government and that obligation is not removed until it becomes sinful to do so. There is no conflict between following Christ and living on earth, nor should there be.

What are our priorities? How shall we live? Shall we live in a world where Christ is a part of our lives only on Sunday, leaving the Gospel lesson behind when we leave the church building on Sunday afternoon?

Some two hundred and fifty years ago, the first circuit riders came to this area, bringing the message of the Gospel to all who would hear it. They sought to establish Methodist societies that quickly became Methodist churches. They left behind laity to carry on the work until the next time they would visit. They did not come alone for they brought the Holy Spirit with them.

As Moses stood in the cleft of the rock to observe the passage of God, he was not doing so for his own gain but rather for the assurance that God would be present in the adventure of faith that the people of Israel were to undertake. It was this assurance that told the Israelites and tells us today that God would be present throughout all our undertakings.

Today should be a renewal of our combined efforts to make the Gospel known to the world. Paul reminded us that there are many parts to the body of the church but there is only one church. And it is through the body that the work of the church is accomplished. Whether it was an ordained minister who preached at the early Methodist society meetings or a lay speaker, that was the message. It made no difference whether it was the minister or the laity who visited the sick, helped the homeless, or supported the downtrodden, the message of the Gospel was spread throughout early America. So too is that the case for today. In celebrating Laity Sunday, we are saying that we are all instruments of God’s message in this world today.

 

The Order of Things


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 10, 1999.  The Scriptures were Exodus 33: 12 -23, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 -10, and Matthew 22: 15 – 22.

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Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The Gospel reading for today is a most interesting one in light of today’s society and whom we honor today. For answering the challenge put forth by the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus draws the line between church and state. Of course, later Jesus points out that this division is only in terms of how we live our secular lives since we cannot serve two masters.

Some see the world around us and wonder how the church will survive, especially if it is part of today’s society. There are some people who feel that we are in the midst of a great cultural battle and that if society is to be saved, it must be through a return to strong Christian values.

This is not a new thought. The Shakers, whose hymn “Simple Gifts” is a favorite of mine, were a Christian group formed as a response to the social conditions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and bend, we will not be ashamed.

To turn and to turn will be our delight

Till by turning, turning, we come round right.”

For them, the only solution was to leave the present society behind and create a new one dedicated to the glory of God. The Shakers may have had the right idea because the movement flourished here in America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, the Shaker movement did not last because the evils, which caused the problems in the first place, were never corrected. The lesson to be learned is simple. A church that ignores its responsibilities to society, a church that does not seek to be a positive force in its community, will likewise die.

Instead of running away and cloistering ourselves in religious communities, immune from the outside world, we can accept the Gospel message in our hearts and take the Gospel message to the people. Jesus knew that the Gospel message must be taken to the people. He sought a ministry outside the temple walls. In closing the Sermon on the Mount, he told the people

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 13 – 16)

To take the Gospel to the people is undoubtedly the toughest choice we can make. It is tough enough to accept the Gospel; it is even tougher to live the Gospel message. John Wesley understood the challenge. He knew that if English society was to change, its heart must change first and that could only be done through the Gospel. Forbidden by law to preach in the Church of England, Wesley and his followers, our forefathers in the United Methodist Church, took the message of the Gospel into the fields and the streets of England. On more than one occasion, crowds were encouraged to harass and physically abuse Wesley and the other Methodist preachers. Many an earlier Methodist preacher was put into jail for preaching the Gospel. But we cannot expect others to know the Gospel message if we do not let them know.

So perhaps we should look at what is happening today in another way. Christ, through his example, showed us that there is creativity in life released to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. If we hold to a strictly religious view of the world, we may not see this. An open society, while seemingly opposed to God and one that we would fear, should be seen as an opportunity for us to seek the presence of God in this world. The freedom of an open society should be seen as a gift of Christ, not as a sign against him. Our task in this society is find ways to keep this freedom, not fight for a return to an olden ways or a separation from society. Christ calls us to see that we have the opportunity to join Him in his continued struggle in history, as we are lead toward the goal that He revealed (see notes at the end of Thessalonians).

Today is about finding out how we can do this, find ways to see Christ in today’s society. Today is Laity Sunday, the Sunday in the United Methodist Church dedicated to the laity of the church. It is a rather unique day in that while other faiths allow the laity to participate and occasionally preach, only the United Methodists focus on the laity.

It is not necessarily for those who are called to ministry, be it simple lay speaking or those who seek ordination but it is for all members of the church. It is my hope and belief that each and every one of you will somehow be involved in the work of the church. You will be getting a call from the worship committee in the next few weeks asking that you and your family take part in the Advent series that will start the last Sunday in November. It is not on the calendar and I do not know all of the plans, for I am leaving that to the laity, for the decoration of the church as well. After Advent, as we prepare for Lent and the Easter Season, I would like volunteers to read the Old Testament and Epistle readings on a particular Sunday.

It is not that I am trying to get out of work but a church that is to grow must have active laity and the activities are not a limited number. There are countless other places and times when you can help the church; you will know when that it is. As we approach the new year and annual conference, it is also a time for nominations to the various committees and administrative council. The reason for those positions is to provide the leadership for the church.

I don’t know of a faith that doesn’t have the laity doesn’t have the laity participate in the service but I do feel that such participation occurs only after training or the examination of credentials. Some faiths allow lay members to preach but frown upon them doing so from the pulpit. Neither of these practices occurs in the United Methodist Church. Also, the United Methodist Church is the only faith that I am aware of that has a program for lay speakers. It was through that program that I am at this point in my career.

But dedicating this day to the laity is not just about lay speaking. On Laity Sunday in some churches, today is simply an excuse for the pastor to take the day off and let the lay speaker or lay leader preach. Today is as much about the heritage of the church through the Methodist Episcopal Church founded by Wesley, the United Brethren in Christ founded by Philip Otterbein and Martin Boehm, and the Evangelical Association founded by Jacob Albright. For, if it had not been for the laity of the church during the days of the circuit riders, there would not be a United Methodist Church today.

In the old days, and they are not that old because I know of a number of and have been a circuit rider myself, it was the laity that held the church together and ran the services on the Sundays when the preacher was somewhere else.

That is why Paul spends as much time lauding the people of Thessalonica, Corinth, Galatia, Colossus, and all the other cities where he started churches. It was the laity during the early days of the church that held the church together and helped it grow; it was the laity that help churches grow and prosper here in American; it will be the laity that leads the church into the coming decade and new century.

And it should be noted that the one mark of a strong and healthy church is when the members, not just a few, but all participate in the activities of the church. It is important to note that it is not the activities themselves or the type of activities that are done nor that all people do all of the tasks but that all are involved.

But it hasn’t always been easy to get people involved in the activities of the church. We could, when asked, be like Jonah. Remember what happened to him? When first called by the Lord, Jonah chose to flee. Jonah did not simply go to the next city or county to get away from God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God. It would be like trying to hide from the authorities in New York by going to Los Angeles. But it doesn’t matter where we hide, God can still find us. And, like Jonah, when our efforts to escape fail, until we come to the Lord, He will not help us.

Consider Moses. Here was the man God selected to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land but what did he do? He asked God to select someone else; “Who, me Lord? Can’t you find someone else?” And in today’s Old Testament reading, Moses is asking God who is going to send to help him.

In 1991, on Laity Sunday, I preached my very first sermon, basing it in part on the song “Amazing Grace”. I have always loved that song, in part because of its ties to Southern gospel singing and in part for the reasons that John Newton wrote the song in the first place.

John Newton was a slave ship owner, plying the triangle trade of rum, tobacco, and slaves. But one day, it is reported that he began to question the morality and purpose of this commerce and he gave it up; he turned his ship around and freed the slaves that he was transporting. He did this because the Holy Spirit came to him. Now I do not know if his experience was like that of Paul’s, who was blinded by the light on the road to Damascus, or if it was like that of Wesley’s, whose heart was warmed by the Holy Spirit. It might have been like that of Moses’ who was able to see God after he walked by him as Moses was hidden in the rock. What I know was that his experience changed his life. Everyone has an experience with the Holy Spirit. It is one thing that changes your life.

It does not matter how you encounter the Holy Spirit; it does matter is that you do. Many times, I have wondered when I truly came to know Christ. I have come to know that while I cannot pinpoint the day and time like others can, I know that He is a part of my life. I, like Wesley, know in my heart that I can trust Christ as my Savior; that my life is much different because I did so and let Him into my life. I can truly say in awe how amazed I was to know that Christ died on the cross for me, even when I was not yet a person on this earth.

Hymn 163 – “Ask Me What Great Things I Know.”

Paul lauded the members of the churches for the work that they did in his name. The founders of the three faiths that now comprise the United Methodist Church put a great faith in the work of the laity to insure the success of the church. That is what today is about.

This day is also about bringing Christ into the world; of letting others know who Christ was and what He means today. We do not have to give up our lives as much as we have to change the direction our lives take. In a world of chaos and confusion, knowing who Christ is brings an order to things.


But Who Will?


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2002.  The Scriptures were Exodus 32: 1 – 14, Philippians 4: 1 – 9, and Matthew 22: 1 – 14.

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There are a number of hymns that we sing that interest me. Some I like for what they say, some for the source of the hymn and others for the reason they were written or who wrote them.

For example, the most prolific hymn writer in our hymnal, besides the Wesley family, is probably Fanny Crosby. Over 1000 hymns Christians sing today were written by Fanny Crosby. She was born in 1820 and died in 1915, living most of her life in the New York area. And from the sixth week of her life, she was blind. The notes that accompany the United Methodist Hymnal point out that she spent most of her adult life working with other blind people and, of course, writing those wonderful hymns that we turn to in times of trouble and in times of joy. It was her faith in Jesus that gave Fanny Crosby the vision needed to write such powerful songs as “Blessed Assurance” (UMH 369). Through her songs, she showed the triumph of spirit over adversity.

My favorite writer, though, has to be John Newton. Newton’s signature hymn is “Amazing Grace”. It happens that I, like countless others, also like the hymn. I like it for the tune because the tune comes from Virginia Harmony and is representative of classical American folk hymns. I came to know this hymn before I knew the reasons why it was written and I appreciated it more after I knew why.

Like so many of his time, John Newton went to sea as a young man, serving in the English navy and then on commercial ships. Ultimately he rose through the ranks to become a ship’s captain and owner. And as the captain and owner of a ship when sea power was the source of wealth and power, he enjoyed the riches that such a position commanded. But his ship was a slave ship, running the triangle route of slaves to America, rum from America to England, and goods back to Africa to trade for slaves, and his wealth was tied to the slave trade of the early 18th century.

But one day, during a storm much like the one that tested John Wesley’s faith, John Newton faced the conflict and dilemma that existed between his work and his soul. We hear that crisis of life in the first words of his bibliographical hymn, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” (UMH 378)

When Arlo Guthrie sings this song, he dramatizes the event and suggests that Newton immediately changed the course of his boat and freed his cargo. I am not sure that it was all that dramatic but we do know that he changed his life and worked against the slave trade, choosing to follow and to work for God rather that collect the riches that society would have allowed him to gain.

When we speak of those who choose to follow God, we are reminded of the twelve disciples, each of whom was asked to follow Jesus without any knowledge of what the life would be like or what the gains would be.

We are like Newton or the disciples or any number of people given the opportunity to follow the path laid down before us by God. That is what the parable Jesus told in the Gospel reading for today is all about.

There is a great wedding, one so large and of so much importance that the invitations were sent out months in advance. And now with the time of the wedding present, the king sends out messengers to let the invitees know now is the time. But when the invitees receive this final notice they reply that they are too busy and don’t have the time to come to this important event in their lives. Rebuffed, the king sends out additional messengers to invite those who ordinarily would not receive invitations to such a prestigious ceremony.

And this second group of individuals come and come prepared, as one would expect. All that is but one individual. And though he knew of the invitation and the reason for the invitation, he chooses not to prepare. So he was thrown out of the wedding.

Read if you will this story again but make the people of Israel and those who know God as the first group of invitees. They knew God was planning a great event, yet they turned their back on Him. The second group would be the Gentiles, who in the early mission of the church would only get second consideration to such events. But having been on the outside of society so long, they welcomed the opportunity to be invited and took advantage. All but one, for even those who get a second chance must still show respect to God.

More than once the people of Israel heard the call of God and more than once they have ignored it. We read in the Old Testament reading how they Israelites quickly returned to their old ways when Moses went to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Though they should have been preparing for Moses’ return, they quickly fell back into the routines of a life without God, seeking comfort in that which could not provide comfort.

It is only because Moses goes before God and pleads for God to forgive His chosen people that God recants on his vow to destroy his people. How many times do we read in the Old Testament of the people leaving the protection of God only to have a prophet ask God to forgive them? And how many times do we read that God did just that?

Not always, of course, for there are countless time when God has been content to let the people suffer the consequences of their own actions. But no matter what happens, God never forgets his people and they come back better.

Perhaps that is how we should see the world around us today. We hear some religious leaders talk of America being punished by God for their wayward actions, though I don’t think that is the case. That which has been wrought on us today is as much a fault of our own arrogance and ignorance of others as it is the anger and hatred that has been built against us by those in envy of what freedom is all about.

But our fight against such evil is not evil but the use of good works. If we choose to fight evil in kind, we can never expect to win; for all it will do is breed more evil. But if we choose to follow and present a message of peace, justice, and righteousness; if we choose to follow Jesus, then we can truly expect the triumph of good over evil, of peace and freedom over slavery and death.

And like the Israelites before us, we are given the choice of what we shall do. We are asked, like Paul asked the people of the church in Philippi, to work together. We do not know what is going on but from the way Paul writes the letter, whatever the problem is, the problem is set to bring down that church. Paul reminds and encourages those there to rejoice. This joy is not based on agreeable circumstances but rather on their relationship with God. We are going to face troubles in this world but we can rejoice because God is using those troubles to improve our character, to strengthen us.

But it also requires, as Paul encouraged that congregation to do, that we work together. We cannot work against each other and expect to triumph. God will not work in a situation where people work against each other but God will be there through the Holy Spirit to see the final triumph.

There is one other hymn that I like, “Here I Am” (UMH 593). I like it for a number of reasons, partially because it strikes so close to home. In Isaiah 6: 8 the prophet wrote,

I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?”

Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” (Isaiah 6: 8)

We have been called to the great feast, the great wedding of the Gospel story today. We come to the communion table this morning knowing that Jesus was sent to this world to stand before God and plead our case for us. We come to the communion table this morning knowing that through Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven and we are empowered to go forth. We have been given the keys to final victory, to see the triumph of peace, justice, and righteousness over evil and the oppression of the poor. The call is very clear but the question asked to day is who will answer the call.

 


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[4] Isaiah 6: 8

Are We Impatient or Just Waiting?


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 10, 1999.  The Scriptures were Exodus 32: 1 – 14, Philippians 4: 1 – 9, and Matthew 22: 1 – 14.

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It is now just over 82 days until January 1, 2000 and the time when we will see if all the Y2K bug fixes work. In the meantime, what are we going to do? Quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot that we can do at this point. Those of us who own computers have already made the appropriate checks and those of us who work where traditional main-frame computers are involved are undergoing the last checks to make sure that everything is working okay. Of course, it could be that we have done nothing to this point, preferring to wait until next January to see what will happen.

Whatever our own personal actions are, the one thing that we have to realize is that we have to wait until January to see if everyone’s fix is going to work in accord with all the other fixes. I think the one thing that most people fear is not what will happen to one computer but what will happen to a group of computers that are working together? It could be that a problem with one computer would cause unforeseen problems that cannot be imagined.

The situation that we have in the Old and New Testament readings for today is about waiting, waiting for God. In the Old Testament reading, the people of Israel are waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain after having given them the Ten Commandments. The people of Israel during Jesus’ time are waiting for the Messiah to return and deliver them from the oppression of the Roman empire.

It is interesting to note that the Israelites knew that they were not to worship other gods, yet their first instinct when Moses was not there was to build the golden calf, reminiscent of their days in Egypt. I think that our society is like that today, looking for tangible proof of the existence of God, not willing to go by the statement that He exists.

I think that the people that Jesus spoke of being invited to the wedding feast, also the people of Israel, knew of the existence of God. But, while not needing any proof of His existence, they were not ready or willing to come when called, preferring to come on their own accord.

It is easy to see both of these viewpoints around us today. In today’s technological society, we tend to view life in terms of what we are capable of doing. This in turn drives God from the center of our life, putting on the edges when the only time we need him is when we are in trouble. If we do not have something tangible in front of us, then we are apt not to think about it. To the Israelites in the wilderness, having come from a society where the worship of gods required idols, it was difficult to worship a God who demanded no idols.

But such a one-to-one relationship, a relationship between you and God, is possible. That is the one change that Jesus brought into the picture. No longer was God some strange entity, existing only as fire, smoke, and thunder but as someone we could come to know. But it is a relationship that cannot wait for a given time; it is one that must happen know. Yes, the invitation is always there and we can accept it any time but we can never be sure if we will be to accept the invitation at another time.

That invitation is given to all that hear it. Those who knew God in Jesus’ time were not ready to hear the message of salvation and grace that Jesus was telling. But others were and they were the ones invited. I was personally bothered for a while about the line in the Gospel passage for today about the invitee to the wedding thrown out because he did not have his wedding clothes on. Does this mean that not everyone will get into heaven? This is in direct contradiction to everything else.

One assumption made about this parable is that it was the custom for the host to provide the guests with the appropriate wedding garments. Since, in this case, the people were coming directly off the street, this would have been especially true. So the failure of the man to take advantage of the new garments would have been an insult to the person providing the garments. I think that it is a subtle reminder that having come to Christ, having been invited to join Him, that there has to be a change in what we do and how we act.

Paul writes to the Philippians today, in part to settle a dispute between members of the church in Philippia but more directly to continue provide the direction that the leaders and members of the church are looking for.

Paul speaks of the peace of God. This is not merely some psychological state of mind but is the true peace and inner tranquility that comes when you know that your sins have been forgiven; when all your cares are given over to God. He also encourages us, through this passage, to keep in mind those things that come from knowing Christ as our Savior. It is by keeping those things in mind that one is enabled to put them into practice. If everything listed in verses 8 – 9 from the passage from Philippians

whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

are held in one’s heart, then a life of moral and spiritual excellence will result.

Paul’s exhortation to “think about such things” is followed by the exhortation to “put into practice.” I have always said that Wesley encourages us, having coming to Christ, to work towards a more perfect life. We can never be expected to have a perfect life but we can seek to have a life that is more like Christ each day and which shows the world who Christ was.

The other night someone asked me what the difference between being a United Methodist and any other Protestant religion was. After all, if the only requirement for being saved is that you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior what difference is there between being a Methodist and being a Baptist or a Lutheran? Another difference is the manner in which we do communion.

The United Methodist Church celebrates an open communion, one in which all are invited to partake. We do not check your credentials to see if you are eligible for your decision to partake is one that you make with God and Christ. Some churches hold a closed communion, offering it only to you if you are of that faith or that particular church community. That is their right, but it is not something that we, as United Methodists, feel is appropriate. The invitation to the banquet in the Gospel reading today was for all those there, not just for the original invitees.

All that is asked is that you come to the table with an open heart, having allowed Christ to come in. And having come to Christ, will you be wearing the new clothes of the wedding feast? Will others see in you, through your thoughts, words, and deeds, the existence of the Christ in your life? As Paul exhorts the Philippians so also does he exhort us to live a life as an example of Christ.

The writer of Hebrews in chapter 8, verses 7 through 11, speaks of the relationship that we can have with Christ.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.

It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.

This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people.

No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.

For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8: 7 – 12)

Are you waiting for Christ to come? Are you like the invitees to the wedding banquet expecting the invitation to come at another time? The invitation to Christ does not have a timetable nor should one turn down the invitation when it is offered. It is always been said that you will get many invitations but can you be sure that you can turn down the one being made today?

Are you impatient, wanting to see proof of Christ in today’s world? If you are impatient, then now is the time to come to Christ. If you are waiting for Christ to return, He is here for you today.

Rules For Living


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 6, 2002.  The Scriptures were Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Philippians 3: 4-14, and Matthew 21: 33 – 46.

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Many years ago, I was a football official. It was something I enjoyed doing and, up until the proverbial career ending knee injury, one with a promising future of college games.

Like all football officials I started off with the Saturday morning elementary and junior high games. As my Dad, a veteran official in his own right, once told me, “You do these games to see things and make calls that you will never make at the high school and college level.” It was also at that level that the four most common words spoken by an official were “This isn’t Sunday, Coach!”

You see, most coaches at the lower levels try to use what they see the pros doing on Sunday when they are coaching their kids to play on Saturday. They ignore the fact that the kids they coach are not at the same physical level as the pros and that the rules for play on Sunday are dramatically different from the rules on Friday night and Saturday morning. And many times, the coaches try to coach as they were coached many years ago without trying to find out what is now legal and proper technique.

What people, coaches, fans and parents alike, forget is that the rules of the game are there for a purpose. And when you attempt to circumvent the rules or not even bother to learn the rules, problems arise.

Be it football, baseball, or just daily living, we have to have a set of rules by which we can live and be successful. We must remember that we have rules not to prevent life but rather to help life.

When the Israelites first left Egypt and began the long journey through the wilderness, they were simply a collection of people. That all changed when they came to Mt. Sinai. At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites changed from a collection of people into a nation established with God as King and a covenant or treaty to govern their lives by. The Ten Commandments represent the covenant entered into by the people of Israel with God and represent a set of rules that reflect the relationship between God and themselves.

We see this relationship clearly defined when we look at the Ten Commandments. The first three commandments define the relationship the people will have with God. By extension this is a statement of the relationship each of us has with God as well. The last seven commandments define our relationship with others. What we must understand clearly is that our relationship with God comes before our relationship with others but that neither relationship works without the other. If we fail to realize this or if we try to reverse the order of the commandments, if we put our interests before our relationship with God, then there will be trouble.

The parable from the Gospel reading for today is an example of that outcome. The owner of the vineyard first sends his representative and then his son to check on the status and well being of his vineyard. The workers of the vineyard ignored the representatives and killed the son, thinking that in doing so they would gain the vineyard for themselves. But the ownership of the property doesn’t go to someone who gains it by illegal or immoral means and trouble comes to those who seek action in such a manner.

Jesus told this parable as He was preparing for His own death on the cross. It was a story to remind the disciples that the vineyard owner was God and that the vineyard was this earth. Killing the Son of God would in no way give the workers rights to the property.

Jesus simply pointed out that you could not forget one’s relationship with God, which the people of that time had done.

In Paul’s letter, we hear Paul boasting that if anyone could claim sufficiency through the law it was he. For he was raised in the law and he knew the law and he did everything in his power to uphold and keep the law. But the law that Paul tried to keep was the law of man designed to enforce the rules of living. And such law will always be written or made in such a way as to favor the one making the law. As Paul points out, simply holding to the law, a man-made instrument, cannot and will not guarantee everlasting life.

More than once Paul reminds us of this point, of the need to have accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, of holding to the relationship with God first. We are also reminded that the Covenant established on the mountain in the Sinai desert also included a relationship with others.

The rules for living have been laid out before us. They are not meant to be complex but rather a simple statement of the priorities of daily lives. When we put ourselves and how we view the relationships we have with others before our relationship with God, we cannot find a balance in our lives.

In a day when we seek to find a balance in our lives, when we seek to find a peace in daily living and a way to get through each day, it is nice to know that a set of rules, rules for living, does exist.

The Rules We Play By


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 3, 1999.  The Scriptures were Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Philippians 3: 4-14, and Matthew 21: 33 – 46.

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I used to be a football official but had to give it up when I suffered a knee injury back in 1986. It was a fun time, working games that ranged from the Saturday morning Pee-Wee and little league games through Friday night high school games. In fact, had it not been for the injury that one Friday night in 1986, I would have even gotten to do some college games that season.

And like any activity that one participates in, there are moments to remember. Such as the time when we called holding on number “00” only to be told that his number was “88”. It was hard for us to tell because half of the jersey was stuck inside his pants. Oh yes, did I mention that it was one of those Saturday morning Pee-Wee games?

Perhaps the greatest moment in my officiating career came one Saturday night in 1983 during two games at Southhaven, MS. It was a routine to give the announcer a card with the officials and their positions listed on it so that it could be read over the PA system. We always felt that if you were going to boo the officials, you should at least use the right names. For the two games that night the game card read: Robert Mitchell, referee; Tim Mitchell, head linesman; Terry Mitchell, field judge for game 1 and clock operator for game 2; and Tony Mitchell, clock operator for game 1 and field judge for game 2. This was the only time in our family history that the four of us worked as a game crew. And, to be honest, we never did find out how the coaches reacted when they found out that the game crew was a father and his three sons.

Though there were little hearted moments, such as that night, the business of officiating was a serious one and it bothered me that many coaches, and for that matter, many parents did not know the rules of the games. Too many times during a Saturday game, a coach or parent would complain about a call we made or one we missed or why we wouldn’t let them do certain things that everyone saw happening on Sunday afternoon. To these complaints, the response was “this is Saturday, coach; not Sunday.”

Rules are the way we live each day in a civilized society. Without rules and laws, life would be chaos. In giving the Israelites the Ten Commandments early in the Exodus, God was giving them the rules of basic morality and relationships.

The Ten Commandments are often divided into two parts, our relationship with God and our relationship with others. The first four commandments deal with our relationship with God:

  1. Put God first in everything.
  2. Reject ideas about God that He himself has not revealed.
  3. Never speak or act as if God is not real or present.
  4. Set aside a day to rest and remember God.

The remaining six commandments deal with our relationship with others:

  1. Show respect for your parents.
  2. Do nothing with an intent to harm another person.
  3. Be faithful in your commitment to your spouse.
  4. Respect the rights of others.
  5. Respect others reputation as well as their lives and property.
  6. Care about others, not about their possessions.

Robert Schuller wrote “ God gave us these ten laws to protect us from an alluring, tempting path which would ultimately lead only to sickness, sin, and sorrow.”

It is also important to note that God gave the commandments to the Israelites after, not before He chose them. He did not say to a group of people wandering in the desert to keep these commandments and you would become my people. Rather, people will want to live the kind of life described by the commandments because God saved them.

God also did not force the Israelites to accept his laws. He did say that this was what was expected of them and what would happen should they choose not to follow the laws. But God also promised blessings upon the Israelites if they obeyed the commandments. This was the foundation for what is called the Law Covenant. Unlike God’s covenant with Abraham, this was an agreement between two parties, God and Israel.

In any society, there is a need for laws and rules but it must be understood that laws themselves cannot be so constructed as to harm others. When I was growing up in the South, I saw the consequences of laws designed to continue the effects of segregation, even after segregation was illegal. In Alabama, students had to buy their own books rather than have them provided by the school system. If your parents could afford the books, then you had the books. If your parents couldn’t; well, you just suffered the consequences. In Tennessee, all music programs got the same amount of money each year but what was given was barely enough to buy the sheet music for one song. If you wanted more, or if you need instruments for the band, then it was up to the Band Boosters to get the money. So schools where the parents had the resources got the better instruments and the better uniforms. If the parents didn’t have the resources, then the band didn’t get the better stuff. Laws should be made to prevent injustice, not cause it.

In Israel, during Jesus’ time, the laws and the interpretation of laws based on the Ten Commandments had become so restrictive has to make it impossible to live. In that society, salvation was seen only in terms of following the law.

But if the laws of society were so restrictive, salvation was hopeless. When the laws are this way, you spend all your time trying to avoid doing wrong and not doing right. Remember how aghast the Pharisees and scribes were when Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, a direct violation of the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

Somewhere through the passage of time, the Israelites forgot that the covenant with God given to them with the Ten Commandments was a two-party agreement. The parable from Matthew in the Gospel for today is a reminder of that covenant. As it said in verse 45, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”

The Pharisees and leaders of Israel had created a society that demanded perfection in following the law as the only means of achieving salvation. But God gave the laws to the Israelites after he saved them, not before. Following the law is not a requirement for salvation; believing in God is.

Paul, in the portion of his letter to the Philippians that we read today, makes it clear that he knows the law.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eight day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

But he, Paul, points out that righteousness cannot come from the law but rather from Christ and his salvation. In verse 9 we read,

Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Paul pointed out that, though he had everything in terms of the law, he lost it all to Christ on the road to Damascus.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Can we have a life without laws? Of course not. Laws are the rules by which society is able to keep together. The trouble is that we often see laws themselves, be they spiritual ones or political ones, as the means to achieving success. But when that happens, when we see the nature of laws as the means of success, when we believe that our path to heaven is set by how we obey the laws, then success can never be accomplished.

We are called Methodists for a particular reason. When John and Charles Wesley began the movement that would become the church, they felt that they had to do certain things in order to be successful. Among these were daily prayer and regular Bible studies. But the Wesley brothers, raised in the church, quickly found that this model would not work. Only after coming to Christ, only after knowing that Christ was their Savior, that He had died for them, did the structure of their own personal lives take on meaning.

The same is true for us today. If we try to live a life in terms of secular rules, derived though they may be from the Ten Commandments, we will quickly find that life is a difficult task. But when we come to Christ, when we as individuals make Christ the center of our live, it is much easier to live.

Paul wrote to Timothy about living life each day. In 2 Timothy 2: 11 – 16 we read,

If we died with him, we will also live with him;

If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us;

If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.

A Workman Appointed by God

Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.

The rules that we live each day by are easy ones to understand but we must remember when we got those rules and they were given to us. Paul concluded the portion of the letter to the Philippians by noting that he continued to press on with the goal being the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

That is the same for us today. By which rules will you play the game?

Our Best Interests


This Sunday I am returning to New Milford/Edenville United Methodist Church (Location of Church).  I was there on October 23, 2005 (“What Is The Promise?”), October 8, 2006 (“What Do We Say?”), and October 22, 2006 (““What Will You Ask For?”)

The service starts at 10:30.  The Scriptures for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, and Matthew 21: 23 – 32.

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It has been said that the comedian W. C. Fields was once caught reading the Bible. When he was asked why he was doing so, he replied that he was looking for loopholes. And while the story in itself may be apocryphal, it speaks to our own thoughts about the Bible and its role in our lives.

When I began preparing this sermon, I saw the phrase in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that you should not look to your own interests but to the interests of others as well (verse 4). It doesn’t matter if you read it from a traditional translation, a more modern one, such as The Message (which states “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”), or even from the Cotton Patch Gospel (“Never act competitively or for self-praise, but with humbleness esteem others as above yourselves. Don’t confine yourselves to your own interests, but seek the welfare of others.”) The words tell us that if we call ourselves Christians then our interests cannot take precedence over the interests of others. Yet, that is how Christianity is often portrayed.

These are critical times for believers. This is not about family values, moral decay, or the ability to worship your faith openly and without repercussion. This is about a difference between one’s view of faith and its prophetic vision. This is about the differences between a religion which promises easy certainty with absolutes and “black-and-white” issues and a religion the prompts a deeper reflection and a call to action. Those who promise easy certainty externalize their anxieties, fears, and insecurities, who seek to control others through violence and restriction; those who seek a deeper reflection and a call to action speak of independent thought, personal reflection, self-criticism, renewal, reformation and revival.

We see this in the exchange between the chief priests and elders with Jesus in the Gospel reading for today. Throughout the Gospel the majority of priests, elders, scribes, and other members of the establishment constantly questioned Jesus about His authority. They, the appointed representatives of God on earth, constantly sought to undermine Jesus in whatever He sought to do.

Now, as God’s representatives on earth, perhaps they had a right to do so. As it so clearly states in the Gospel, we have to be on guard against those who would preach in the name of God but yet be representatives of the Evil One. But the Pharisees, the scribes and the elders who questioned Jesus weren’t interested in determining the validity of His ministry; they were only interested in preserving their own power and status.

Early in my own faith development, growing up in the Deep South during the 50’s and 60’s, I saw many who call themselves Children of God yet whose words and actions were like those whom John the Baptist called vipers and hypocrites. Even today, when so much is made of the religion or the lack thereof of our leaders, it isn’t about true belief but who shall be in control and who shall be in power when the shouting is done.

Let’s face it. The establishment was very uncomfortable with His ministry. They objected to the idea of bringing sinners into the temple, of His associating with prostitutes and tax collectors, of healing the sick on the Sabbath. Their view of religion focused on those who really had no need for religion. Everything Jesus did worked against everything they stood for and worked to maintain.

The Philippian church was a culturally diverse church. In his letter, Paul specifically mentions an Asian, a Greek, and a Roman citizen; three different individuals representing three different races, three different social ranks, and probably each with a different religious loyalty before they each encountered Christ. Just as Jesus did in Jerusalem where he gathered all the people that the establishment did not want in the Temple, the church in Philippi broke the rules of society and class.

Somewhere in the history of the church, however, we lost that notion. I doubt that many people today understand that the label of Methodist was once a pejorative. We got our name because of the methodical way that John and Charles Wesley and their college friends went about their devotions and lives. But it quickly became the label for a trouble-maker and a revolutionary.

Even today, there are too many people who hold onto the view that church is a time and a place on Sunday. To borrow a phrase that is often associated with Las Vegas, many people are quite happy if what is said in the pulpit stays in the pulpit. Don’t ever challenge the people to think of church as something more than a social gathering on Sunday morning.

While Wesley believed that the churches primary mission was to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land”, he also understood that those words were meaningless without action. The United Methodist Church began because it spoke out against the direction society was taken. The people of the early Methodist movement spoke out against the callousness of society in putting its own interests above the needs of all its members. And the people of the early Methodist movement did more than just speak out; they put their words into action.

The early Methodist societies began what we would call a credit union to help people from being thrown into debtor’s prison. Others started job training programs. They started schools for children on Sunday because that was the only day that children were not working. They set up free health clinics because the poor and lower classes had no health care system.

But many people of Wesley’s time balked at this call; they barred Wesley and those who followed him from preaching in the established churches. And when the movement started building its own churches, it banned the building of those churches. If you get a chance, go to John Street United Methodist Church and read its history; it began as a meeting house because the established church of New York refused to allow Methodists to have their own church. To do what Wesley preached was simply too much for many people to take. To risk what you have for others, to give so that others would not suffer was simply too much to ask. But their actions were nothing new.

Consider the Israelites in their passage from Egypt to the Promised Land. As they left Egypt, they complained that they were going to die at the hands of the Egyptian army in the desert by the Red Sea. Last week, they complained about the lack of bread and meat; this week they complained about the lack of drinking water. It is quite easy to understand these complaints.

To the people on the Exodus, there was a certain degree of safety and security in their lives as slaves in Egypt. Their needs were met, that is certain. But their lives were controlled by others. In remembering the security and safety of their lives in Egypt, the Israelites forgot the harshness of that life. They forgot that they had called out to God to be saved. Each step on the journey, the people of Israel complained; each step of the way they forgot what God had done for them. They forgot how God defeated the Egyptian army in the mud and slop of the Red Sea. And while they cried out for food, they forgot that God had fed them with manna and quail. This week they will cry out for water, lamenting a life in slavery where water was plentiful. Yet God will provide the water they need.

Each passage in Exodus is going to mark how the Israelites put their own interests above all else, even in view of what God did for them. And yet, God never stopped. He protected them; He fed them; He gave them fresh water. And in the end, when they had left Him, He sent His Son to take on the life of a servant and rescue them once again.

If you are following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to a place you don’t even know exists, it is only natural that you will think of your own self-interests first. You want to make sure that your own basic needs are met and you want to feel safe and secure. To follow a cloud by day and fire by night and to only hear a voice calling out from the cloud doesn’t give one much piece of mind or security. But there is a problem when your interests take precedence over the interests of others. The church today is too much like the church of John Wesley’s time. It is more interested in its own survival than it is in the survival of God’s children.

John Wesley and others called this “lukewarm Christianity.” If the church is blind to the needs of the people outside the walls of the church, then it is not doing what it is supposed to be doing; it may be making disciples of the people but it is not living the Gospel message that Christ proclaimed.

The one hard lesson that Wesley learned was that you can’t put your interests above that of others. His failure as a missionary in Georgia followed his failures in England. His failures were not failures to reach out but failures to find peace and comfort in God. They were failures because he was putting his own interests before the interests of the Lord.

But when he accepted the Lord as his Savior, on that night that we have come to know as “Aldersgate”, his view changed. And when his view changed, the nature and the power of the Methodist movement changed.

The church today is failing, just as it was failing in Wesley’s day and just as it was failing in the days before Christ began His ministry. It is failing because it is putting its own interests before that of God. It is failing because it fears that what is happening outside the walls of the church will somehow creep inside the church and disturb or destroy the peace and tranquility they seek.

But as the church today builds walls to protect its sanctuary with its peace and quiet, it prevents those who seek that peace from coming in. As it builds the walls around the church, it seeks to trap God inside, preventing God from reaching out to the people who seek His touch and presence.

Tony Campolo has suggested that many denominational leaders failed to give enough attention to people who were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness and longing for a message of deliverance. The reason that evangelical churches have experienced such phenomenal growth in the past few years is probably because they have responded to the calls of the people who wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit.”

I will not deny that churches have failed in their primary mission. The mission of the church is and will always be to save souls. But trapped inside the walls of their churches, many people cannot see how to do this. They see their members leaving and they don’t understand why others are not coming to their church. So they have rewritten the Gospel message. They offer a message which speaks to an individual’s interests, not the interests of God. It is a message designed to make the listener feel good and not worried about the world outside the church walls. Many of these new churches take away the symbols of the church, especially the Cross; for fear that it will scare away the people.

But you cannot build a church around some numerical bottom line; it must be based on the spirit that infuses people. As Jim Wallis noted in his recent book, “The Great Awakening”, people are searching for something to be the engine that drives their passion for justice and a solid foundation for their lives. They want a faith that they can live, a faith that is committed to the Gospel message. It is interesting how the word “evangelical” has been transformed over the years. But it once meant to speak of the Good News, of the Gospel message of Christ.

If you have been saved, if you have proclaimed to the world that Jesus Christ is your personal Savior then you have the duty to go out into the world and show people what he has done. But people will not hear the words that you speak if they are hungry, homeless, sick, naked, or suppressed by an indifferent society.

Jesus asked the elders a question about two sons. When asked to go to work for their father, the older son say that he would but didn’t. The younger son refused but ended up working. Each son had his own interests but which one put the interests of God first?

We have a chance today to be that second son instead of continuing as the first. We have a chance to put the interests of others before our own. How will we make this church the church that Wesley wanted, how will we make the church of the 21st century emulate the first churches, the house churches of the 1st and 2nd century? How will we make this place a reminder of who Christ was and how will we make it a place where people can find a safe haven in a world full of turmoil and trouble?

We start by opening our hearts so that Christ can come in. Then we let the Holy Spirit come in. Then we begin doing what God asks us to do. The financial crisis that has dominated our lives for the past week affects more than a select few individuals on Wall Crisis. It is a financial crisis that has been affecting people for several years. Right now, there are no homeless shelters for homeless women and homeless families in Newburgh; the only shelter in Newburgh for homeless men operates during the winter months. Newburgh Ministries was created to find a solution to this problem. Perhaps He is asking you take part in the Newburgh Ministries. They can be reached through their web site – http://www.newburghministry.org/.

The food banks in this area are already pushed to the limit and I know that it is difficult to ask to contribute more. But often times, it is not asking you to contribute more but rather you asking your neighbors to contribute more.

It may not seem that the simple act of asking your neighbor to help with the food bank will end world-wide hungry. It probably won’t but in the simple act of involving someone else to act in faith will.

It Only Takes A Spark

If you seek to solve problems on your own, the problems will not be solved. But if you open your heart to Christ and let the power of the Holy Spirit guide and direct you, you will not be alone and you will not be acting in your own interests but in the interests of God and the community that we live in. This is what it is all about; this is in our best interests.

The Final Exam


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, September 26, 1999.  The Scriptures were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, and Matthew 21: 23 – 32.

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At some point in time when you were in school, there came a day when you had to take a test that you would have just as soon not taken. Maybe it wasn’t the test itself but rather a few questions that you weren’t prepared to answer.

I have a cartoon that I often gave my students at the time of the final exam (see “Final Exam”; added on 23 May 2010). In it a student reads the exam and interprets what he is reading as the first questions.

“Name”

The student responds, “Name? What name? Name who? Name what?!?! Oh, my name.”

Obviously, this student is well prepared for the exam in question.

Taking tests is something we quickly learn to do, especially when we realize that our success in the course or whatever is causing us to take the exam is dependent on our passing that exam. Some tests we, in fact, want to pass. Many of us can remember the elation we felt, or that our children did, when we or they passed the driver’s test and got our driver’s license.

Of course, not all our exams bring such joy. Need you be reminded about that geometry test you took several years ago?

Testing is what the scriptures today are about. In the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites are again testing Moses, Aaron, and in the end, God. As we heard in the reading, the Israelites are complaining about the lack of water and saying how much better life was in the old days back in Egypt. It seems like every time the Israelites faced a crisis, they tested the patience of Moses and the patience of God. First, it was the Egyptian army chasing them; then it was the lack of food; then as we heard in today’s reading, it was the lack of water. But with each crisis, God showed them that they, the Israelites, had nothing to fear. Yet, they seemingly could not trust God and were continually testing him with their demands. No wonder, Moses seemed so frustrated.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this is how patient God is. There are times, I am sure, that we think is God is testing us. Surely, there were those Israelites who felt God was testing them on the plains of the wilderness.

But it is we who test God by our pushing him to do more than He plans on doing. We are not privy to His plans and it is presumptions of us to think we can understand it. When we test God, such as the Israelites were doing, or as the Pharisees tried to test Jesus in the New Testament reading, we are trying to redefine our relationship with God in our own terms, a task that is always doomed to fail.

In the New Testament reading, the Pharisees are beginning the campaign of getting Jesus to say that He is the Son of God. If they can do this, they can then have him arrested for blasphemy. But Jesus was well aware of their plans and is not about to play their game. But He does say that He will answer one of their questions if they can answer one of his.

Since the Pharisees are incapable of answering his question, Jesus will not answer their question. My friend and former pastor, John Praetorius, was a lawyer before he was a pastor. He once noted that a good lawyer never asks a question that he doesn’t already know the answer to. It would seem that the Pharisees and scribes didn’t remember that particular piece of knowledge.

The final exam that I refer to in the title of this sermon is a two-part question. Question one is the one that the parable Jesus told the Pharisees about. Who shall get into heaven? It doesn’t matter how much you know or how “good” you have been. What matters is whether or not you will follow Jesus.

The second part of the exam is really interesting. Because without the first part, the second part is meaningless but answering the second part is no guarantee of getting into heaven. But the second part of this exam question is just as important for life here on earth. And more importantly, it has a lot to do with why we are United Methodists. In the second part of this “final” exam, you have to answer a very simple question. Having coming to Christ, what are you going to do then?

What being an United Methodist is all about is something a lot of people don’t understand. It is accepted that no matter how hard we try, we must realize that we are not perfect. But, having coming to Christ, we must do everything we can to improve our life. The order in which this is done is very important because trying to do good works does nothing if we don’t first have Christ in our hearts.

This distinction about what the church is and what the church should do is not a new one but one that we will be hearing about during the political campaigns of the coming year. Some insist that the role of the church is solely to save souls while others say that the church is called to work in order that God’s kingdom comes here to earth. Those who hold to the first view feel that problems of the economy, social strife, and political differences will take care of themselves once individuals know Christ. But those of the second view feel that the problems of economy and society are much greater and cannot be solved simply by individuals and that the church must take a much larger role. For the United Methodist Church and its predecessors, there is truth in both arguments.

Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again if he was to get into heaven. The Lord’s Prayer included petitions for both an earthly kingdom of righteousness and individual forgiving hearts and lives. But Jesus also repeatedly said that God had called him, just as Isaiah had been called, to bring relief to the poor, release to the prisoners, and liberty to the oppressed.

Just as Jesus commissioned his disciples to share the gospels with individuals and baptize them, He also identified his mission on earth with the great reforming prophets such as Jeremiah, Amos, and Isaiah –

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed. (Luke 4: 18)

But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come not come to call the righteous but sinners. (Matthew 9: 13)

Wesley, in beginning the Methodist Revival, was concerned not only about bringing people to Christ. After all, his charge to Methodist preachers in America was “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” But he also felt that individuals alone could not meet the needs of society’s poor and oppressed. It was through the early Methodist societies in 1740 that the first job training programs were started. In 1746, Methodists, through Wesley, created a health care facility for the poor and working class in London. Wesley also started what we would call a credit union to help keep people from being thrown into debtor’s prison.

The General Rules that Wesley wrote are very much like what Paul wrote in the Epistle reading for today and elsewhere.

  1. Doing no harm, avoiding evil, especially that which is most generally practiced.
  2. Doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men.
  3. Attending upon all the ordinances of God.

There are two questions on one’s final exam. Jesus said to his disciples, he says to us today, “Come, follow me.” This is an easy question to answer and can be done at any time. But if we wait, there is no guarantee that we will get the chance to give any type of answer. It is better to answer that question now, in the affirmative.

The second question comes from God. It is the same question that God asked Isaiah in a time of Israel’s past when it seemed that society had forgotten who God was. Having coming to Christ, what shall you do next? God is asking who can he send to do his work in this world.