Three Kings


This is the message that I gave on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 13 July 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12 – 19, Ephesians 1: 3 – 14, and Mark 6: 14 – 29

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One of my favorite hymns is “We Gather Together”. I am not sure what it is that causes me to like it, though it might just be the tune and the rhythm. But it expresses the thought of why we are here this morning and why we gather together each Sunday morning at 10 o’clock.

UMH #131

So I have to ask you this morning, “Why are you here this Sunday morning?” Is it because you are supposed to be here? Is there some requirement in your life that makes you be here? Or, is it out of habit that you are here? You know how it is, you get so used to doing something each day that it becomes a habit.

Or perhaps it is because you find those moments on Sunday morning in the sanctuary, singing the hymns, reading the Scriptures, and hearing the message to give you a chance to reconnect with God through Christ. Is it possible that on days like today when we celebrate Holy Communion, you join with Christ as others do and have done over the years since Calvary?

I hope and trust that your reasons for being here are more of the latter rather than because it is the thing to do or because it is a habit that you have picked up over the years. But I have observed over the years those for whom attendance in church was more of a social obligation rather than a call from the soul. I have seen churches where the decisions by the members have been dictated, not by the spiritual reasons, but rather by political and social reasons in the community. Those are not reasons for going to church.

But even if the reasons for coming to church are mundane and superficial, the people are in church, they are singing the hymns, they are hearing the scriptures and there remains the distinct possibility that the Holy Spirit will crack the shell protecting their soul and they will change. We have seen it work in the past and we know that it will work in the future.

But there are still those who do not come to church on Sunday. For some, especially those who are not members of any church or denomination, Sunday is a day to do the things that didn’t get done during the week. Sunday is a day to relax and get away from things. Sunday is a day to do things other than go to church. And unfortunately, society is quick to catch on to the fact that Sundays are days of freedom for many and things are scheduled to involve everyone. I would be remiss in saying that I don’t like that concept but I realize that it is another thing that churches must compete with in this highly secular society.

But among those who do not come to church are those who should be here. They have, by public profession of their faith at least once in their life, stated that they will support a church through their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their service. Yet, as soon as those words have been said, they have been quickly forgotten.

Now, before anyone or everyone gets all riled up, let me say that I am aware that not everyone who is a member of this church and is not here falls into this general category. There are those who simply cannot physically be here; their ailments and well being prevent them from coming. And, when I know about such individuals and such individuals let me know, I make sure that communion is a part of their life and that they are a part of this community. Those individuals are a part of the church community and should never be considered otherwise.

But there are members who live elsewhere in this country and cannot by the nature of where they live come here on Sunday mornings. For those, membership in this church is convenient, simply a way to meet the obligations of society without any responsibility and obligation.

Membership in a church is not a matter of convenience or an obligation; it is a commitment. When it becomes a convenience, when it becomes simply a social statement, it quickly loses all of its meaning.

We read that the Ark of the Covenant was placed on a new cart and brought out of the house of Abinadab. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab drove the cart and Ahio walked in front. (2 Samuel 6: 3)

But this, while a logical method of transport, was against the rules for transporting the Ark. The law, in Exodus 25: 14, Numbers 3: 30 & 31, specifically stated that the Ark was to be carried by the sons of Kohath, not by a cart or any other vehicle. The Philistines had transported the Ark this way when they had captured it in battle and so for the Israelites to do so showed both ignorance of their own laws and disrespect for God.

What is interesting about the Old Testament reading for today are not the verses that we read but rather the verses that were skipped. In verses 6 through 12a, we read,

And when they came to Nachon’s threshing floor, Uzzah put out his hand to the Ark of God and took hold of it, the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the Ark of God. And David became angry because of the Lord’s outbreak against Uzzah; and he called the name of the place Perez Uzzah to this day.

David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” So David would not move the Ark of the Lord with him into the City of David; but David took it aside into the house of Obed-Edom the Hittite. The Ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Hittite three months. And the Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his household.

The commentary for this section indicates that though Uzzah’s violation (touching the Ark) was unintentional, it cost him his life. God had warned the Israelites in Numbers 4: 15 that no one, not even the Levites, could touch the holy objects of the tabernacle and that death was the penalty for violation. Now David was angry at this death but his anger was directed at God rather than at the carelessness of Uzzah or himself for allowing it to happen. Because of this, it was necessary to store the Ark for a period of time before it could be moved to Jerusalem. The Ark of the Covenant was stored in the house of a Levite for three months and then, as we read, transported to Jerusalem in the proper manner.

I do not wish to suggest that those who let their membership become a matter of convenience will die like Uzzah. But when you let your membership slide, when you no longer work to keep it active, the church is ultimately forced to remove you from the list of members and then when you need the church it will not be there. In one sense, to not have the church there when you need it most is the same as dying.

Some of those who fall into this category live in other states or at a distance too far away to make coming here possible. For those, the options are to find a church closer and become members there. It is a choice that they must make, not the church and certainly not I.

But it is those who do live within a reasonable distance of this place but still do not come that bother me most. It is possible that they cannot come on Sunday mornings. I know personally that many of the people at Fishkill United Methodist Church do not fully comprehend the lack of my presence on Sundays. On more than one occasion, when someone has called, I have to point out that I work on Sundays and cannot attend. I, of course, then tell them where I am working and what I am doing.

But there are those who do not come to the church for other reasons. Either someone once said something to them and caused their feelings to be hurt or there is an atmosphere in the church that doesn’t seem quite holy. Worship must be a time when people sense God’s presence. If there are reasons for God’s presence to not be there, people should be worried.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is about unity, of being a community of believers, united in common belief. But though united in common belief, it is still a community of individuals and it is the diversity of members that provides the success of the community. But if the diversity of members is to be the measure of success, then there must also be respect among all members for the uniqueness and capabilities of all members. No one member has more than any other member and no member should ever feel less because his or her contribution doesn’t match someone else.

I think that is what we are to gain from the Gospel reading for today. Now, most commentaries point out that Mark put the story about the death of John the Baptist in his Gospel at this point to let everyone know that Jesus’ own ministry was not going to be easy and that Jesus was going to meet a violent death as well. But it is also a story about what happens when you start doing things solely for yourself.

Herod had spent most of his political life trying to please others. Since John the Baptist had publicly rebuked Herod for his present marriage, Herod was probably looking for ways to please his wife. In the Gospel for today we read how Herod threw a birthday party for himself. It was at this party that his daughter danced in such a way that everyone was pleased and Herod said that he would give her anything she wanted, even up to half the kingdom. When the daughter asked her mother what she should ask for, the mother suggested the head of John the Baptist. It was the daughter that added the part about having it on a platter.

But the key point is that Herod was forced through his own pride into doing something that he really didn’t want to do. But if he refused, he would have lost face and thus he could not refuse the request. As was noted in verse 26, the king was exceedingly sorry. It does not say what happened to Herod or how he dealt with the issue following the beheading but you know that he must have regretted that a man died because of his own pride.

Pride can be our downfall if we are not careful. It was David’s pride that prevented the Ark of the Covenant from being moved into Jerusalem. It was Herod’s pride that got John the Baptist killed. Now we can take pride in the fact that we are members of a particular church but we can never let that pride dictate how we feel or how we act. I will admit that I have seen people come to the table that I felt should not have come; people whose actions were more for their own self-interests rather than to benefit the church. But I also realize that whatever I think, it doesn’t count, let alone matter.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, especially the first part, is a celebration of the fact that all the members of the church are united in the belief. The last part of the Old Testament reading for today is also a celebration, a celebration of the establishment of God in our hearts.

And the Gospel reading for today serves as a reminder that the tasks that we, as members of this church, are asked to do are not always easy tasks. But we know also know that we do not do those tasks alone. As we come to the table this day, we are reminded that Jesus’ death was for us, so that we would be united together in belief and in purpose.

This table is open to all that confess their sins and accept Christ as their savior. We do not, in the United Methodist Church, qualify admission to the table. And when we leave this table having spent a few moments with Christ and reuniting with the presence of the Holy Spirit, we should also spend a few moments acknowledging to others that they are a part of this community of believers. This can mean that you simply say hello to someone whom you have spoken to or seen in some time; it may mean reaching out to the neighbor across the street or down the road and inviting them to come on Sunday morning. The challenge is to see that what you do tells others where the Holy Spirit is in your life.

There were three kings in the Scriptures this day. One king let his own pride and self-centeredness bring about his downfall. One king first found fault with God for what were his errors but eventually acknowledged his own errors and was able to celebrate the presence of God in his life. The third King died on a cross so that we could live today. My challenge to you today is to find the king in your life.



Getting What You Asked For


This is the message that I gave on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 16 July 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12 – 19, Ephesians 1: 3 – 14, and Mark 6: 14 – 29

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Earlier on in her life, my youngest daughter learned quickly not to ask her father, “Daddy, do you know what?” For as often as not, I would reply, “Yes, he plays second base for the Cubs.” Now, after the service last week several people told me that I said that Mark McGwire plays second base. Believe me, I know who’s on first.

If you are like me, you enjoy hearing the performance of Abbott and Costello’s routine of “Who’s On First?” which is surely one of the greatest comedy sketches ever created. For those that are not familiar, this piece revolves around the matter of understanding what the question was and what the answer is. If you are going to get the answer that you want, you have the right question.

For the people of Jesus’ time, the question was “Who was Jesus?” In the opening part of the Gospel reading for today, the people are saying that Jesus is really John the Baptist, raised from the dead. He might also have been Elijah or another prophet. The people don’t really know who Jesus is and it clearly shows that the expectations Israel had for its coming Messiah where in sharp contrast to the divine mission that Jesus was fulfilling.

And Herod is worried because he had ordered the execution of John by beheading because of a promise he had made to his wife’s daughter. Salome had danced to please Herod and his court and in return, as noted in Mark 6: 22 – 25., Herod promised anything that she might ask for. Because her mother, Herod’s wife, hated John the Baptist for publicly denouncing their marriage as sinful and a violation of Jewish law, Salome asked for John’s head on a platter. The nature of the way the promise was made meant that Herod could not refuse her. No wonder he was afraid when he heard of Jesus and what people were saying. He certainly must have thought that if it were John the Baptist who was preaching, it was a ghost and he would suffer for held to his promise.

Thought the Old Testament reading for today is mostly about celebration, there is also a hidden undercurrent of resentment present.

David has brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem and established that city as the capital of Israel. There is a great celebration, complete with dancing and shouting and music and good food. And David, in his celebration, extended that joy to all the people. In the last verse, after David had finished the burnt offering, he shared the offering with all the people who had shared in the celebration, something ordinarily not done.

But contrasted with this celebration is the anger of Michal, David’s wife and the daughter of the former king Saul. Michal felt that David’s actions and dress were inappropriate for a king. She was also angry that her father and brother had died in battle. To say that she despised David in her heart, as verse 16 indicates, was perhaps an understatement. If you read verse 20 of this same chapter, you see her anger in all its fury.

Against this anger, David reminded her that it was God who had chosen him to be king in place of her father and that he would gladly be more undignified and humble if that would honor God. David asked only to serve the Lord and he was rewarded. Unlike her brother Jonathan, who had accepted what God had given him, Michal could not accept what God was giving her and did not trust in God for future happiness. Instead, she became angry with both David and God and, as the last verse of chapter of chapter 6 notes, she died childless, the result of her estrangement from David and perhaps divine punishment because of her refusal to join in the celebration of God’s name.

If you ask for God’s help, you will receive it. The grace of God is open to all those who seek it. The people of Israel wanted a Messiah and God willingly sent His Son to fulfill that request. But what the people wanted was an earthly king, someone who would lift out of the bonds of slavery.

But the slavery that Jesus would lift the people out of was not the slavery to Rome or other earthly kings, it was the slavery of sin and death. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, God does not guarantee health, wealth, and prosperity to the New Testament believer. Rather, belief in Christ offers the promise of a life with Christ. Throughout this entire letter, Paul tries to explain what God’s grace means and what we must do in order to gain that grace.

Knowing what question to ask is sometimes the most difficult task. For if we do not know what we want, we cannot ask the right question. To many of the Ephesians, God’s grace was a mystery, a puzzle that only a few or the initiated could solve. But that was religion was viewed as a mystery. Paul told the Ephesians that God’s will, once hidden and obscure, was now revealed by the presence of Jesus Christ, the Savior.

As we come to the Communion Table today, remember that you are only asked one question. Do you come with a open heart, repenting of your sins, knowing that Christ died for you? If you have that question in your heart, then you will receive the promise of eternal life, you will get what you asked for.

The State of Faith


I will be at Mountainville United Methodist Church (Mountainville, NY) on Sunday, June 14th; the service starts at 10 and everyone is welcome. 

The Scriptures are 1 Samuel 17: 1, 17 – 27, 2 Corinthians 8: 7 – 15, and Mark 5: 21 – 43.

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I wrote the following a couple of years ago:

I have decided to start my own church. I am going to start on the Internet and after the contributions and donations start to roll in, I will begin televising the services. Maybe we will pull in enough to even buy an old auditorium or arena and turn into a worship center.

The name of my church is going to be the “1st Internet Worship Center of the Gospel of Prosperity.” We aren’t going to call it a church because that will scare away the customers (oops, sorry; I meant to say congregants). I probably will decorate the web site and the church with a dove and, since this will be a world-wide ministry, most definitely a globe. Don’t go looking for a cross or any references to Jesus; market research has indicated those things tend to make people uncomfortable.

Since it is an Internet site, you can come anytime; we will be open 24/7 and the attire is informal. That’s good because it seems that the dress code for preachers today is blue jeans and Hawaiian shirts. For right now, I will settle for t-shirts and sport shirts. Maybe when we start televising the services, I will have enough money to buy a few Armani suits.

Ours will be a Biblical ministry but each sermon will be decided by input from focus groups. People want their churches to be biblical in nature but they want their pastors to avoid mentioning the Bible. By using focus groups, we can accommodate the wishes of the people.

Most certainly, since this is a church of the gospel of prosperity, we are going to focus on how one can use God to become wealthy and prosperous. We believe that poverty is a product of sin and wealth is a sign of a righteous life.

Ours will be a church (oops, sorry – meant to say worship center) that celebrates life. Ours will be a celebration of family values, so if you are not part of a traditional family you will have to go some place else.

If by now you haven’t figured it out, the above paragraphs were written with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. They come from impressions of many of the churches that are on television and the Internet today. They are what people are looking for because it gives them what they are looking for. But is that what a church (and I mean church) is supposed to do? (From “What Are We Supposed To Do?”)

If the church today is more what the people want it to be than it is what it should be, then those who profess its demise will be prophets after the fact. For many people today, the church is a period of time on Sunday morning and only Sunday morning. It is a time that is protected from the outside world and the problems of the world can be ignored.

I have jokingly said but with some degree of seriousness that the measure of a United Methodist pastor in the Memphis, Tennessee area (my hometown) is his or her ability to get the service over in time for the congregation to get to the Shoney’s before the Baptists get out. And pity the pastor, no matter where they might be, who calls the congregation to task for their failure to lead a Christian life.

The church two thousand years ago was a community of believers, bound together in common belief and for a common goal. It was a community that was open to all. Somewhere along the line we stopped being such a community.

The Gospel reading for today is reminder of the problems that many people had with the church in Jesus’ time and the problem they have today. The woman in the passage has been bleeding for twelve years and none of the physicians she went to were able to help her. What you have to keep in mind is that in her condition, she was considered ritually unclean and thus denied access to the temple. And anyone who might come into contact with her would also be considered unclean and denied access to the temple until they could be “cleansed.” Even today, we find reasons to tell people that they are not welcome in our churches, deeming them to be “unclean” in the eyes of society.

And while we may speak of Jesus as welcoming all and denying no one, our history as a church, written and unwritten, suggests that we still use the Bible justify separation and repression.

In 2002, Susan Pace Hamill, a professor of law at the University of Alabama law school and a member of the Trinity United Methodist Church in Tuscaloosa, was on sabbatical at Samford University to complete her master’s degree in theology. Her thesis was entitled “An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics” and stated that the Alabama tax code placed an unfair burden on the poor while benefiting the middle- and upper-income taxpayers. For Dr. Hamill, to say one is Christian is to accept a moral obligation to support tax reform. Furthermore, as a Christian, one has a higher calling to seek justice for the poor and the oppressed. (http://www.ethicsdaily.com/news.php?viewStory=2424)

Yet, the loudest opposition to this interesting attempt at tax reform (and I use the term attempt because it failed) came from the Alabama Christian Coalition. First, they tried to say that it was not the responsibility of individuals to take care of the people in the state but that of the church. When that didn’t work, they tried to slander Dr. Hamill. (http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0404&article=040410) They made the argument that low taxes are good for families but when you see how much food and similar items are taxed you have to wonder whose families benefit from such low taxes.

The problem in reading the passage from 2nd Corinthians for today is that we read only part of the story. There are those within the Corinthian church who are challenging Paul’s personal integrity and his authority as an apostle. They have accused him of taking the money raised for the church in Jerusalem for his own benefit. The collection for the Jerusalem church had begun the year before and it was intended not only to address the economic problems of the Jerusalem church but also to stress the unity of the believers that formed the early church.

Paul advocates the ideals of self-sufficiency and fair balance, of having enough for one’s own needs while sharing the excess with others. And it should be noted that those who have received are obligated to reciprocate when the time and opportunity present themselves. The last part of what we read this morning reminds us of the people during the Exodus where the aged and weak might have collected less manna while others collected more, yet there was an equal distribution so that the excess of some ministered to the deficiency of others.

In today’s society, such words are revolutionary, radical, and to some, down right dangerous. That we should share the wealth that we worked so hard to get is, if nothing else, a dangerous thought. But, as I pointed out, this distribution came with the codicil that the recipients would some day be the donor and the donors would be the recipients. What was happening was happening to a community but the sense of community that is present in these writings and in what was the early church is missing in today’s discussion.

Now, I am not calling, as some might say, for a redistribution of wealth. But I am saying that we need to consider the growing differences in wealth, a long documented statistics. And it should be remembered that John Wesley had no qualms with persons earning a large salary; he was, of course, one of the highest paid people in England. But he had also determined what it would take to live in his world and society and everything above that amount was given away.

John Wesley encouraged people to earn as much as they could but not to do it on the backs of the working class. And having earned all one could, he encouraged everyone to save as much as they could (something society in America is loathe to do) and to give as much as they could. It is interesting to note that on a per capita basis, those with incomes below $20,000 give a higher percentage of their earnings than any other income group (http://www.portfolio.com/news-markets/national-news/portfolio/2008/02/19/Poor-Give-More-to-Charity and http://www.mcclatchydc.com/328/story/68456.html). Is it because it is an expression of how a community bands together, a reflection of what we once were?

We no longer have the concept of community that Paul was writing to the Corinthians about and any discussion of community often evolves into an “us versus them” mentality and there is very little discussion about equal opportunities. And unless we begin thinking about the community that we say we belong to, the community of Christians, we are headed for trouble.

The Old Testament reading for today is David’s lament on the loss of Saul and Jonathan. It is not only a personal loss of a friend, but a loss for the community. It also contains a warning; David tells the nation of Israel not to give Israel’s enemies reason to rejoice. We have been given a warning as well. We see it in the health of the church and there are many today who see the church in the same state as the young daughter of Jairus. They said that she was dead and there was no hope. Yet Jesus told him to believe and have faith.

Too many people today, both in the church and outside the church, will laugh at such a pronouncement. There is no hope in this world and even if it is there, it cannot be found in the church of today. Perhaps such skeptics are correct but I see a church that once spoke for all the people that bandied together so that all would have the opportunity to live and succeed and can do so again.

I had an opportunity two weeks ago to attend our Annual Conference and a seminar on Evangelism led by Kwasi Kena, Director of Evangelism for the General Board of Discipleship. It was an interesting seminar in that it ran counter to the current thoughts on the subject of evangelism and it gave me hope that the church as an institution, as a denomination, and individually can be saved.

Now, for too many people today, evangelism is getting people to proclaim Christ as their Savior and it is almost a forced process; either you follow Christ as we have described Him or you are doomed to a life outside the gates of Heaven. But as Dr. Kena pointed out, evangelism is more than just getting people to follow Christ; it is also teaching people about Christ and living the life that you preach and that Christ taught us to live. If the church (be it the institution, the denomination, or any particular individual church) continues as it has been for the past few years, believing more in the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the law; as long as the church today reflects the behavior of the church two thousand years ago when Jesus walked the back roads of the Galilee, then this will be a dying church.

But, if we begin doing what was done some two thousand years ago, as members of a community of the local level and expanding outwards, then there can be and will be hope. Individually and collectively, we must say that now is the time to rise up from the dead and to begin once again to speak and act the word of God.

It is not enough to get people to follow Christ if they do not know who Christ is; they must be shown by word, thought, deed and action that Christ is alive and living in each of us. The question for you today is very simple, “What state is your faith in? Are you sleeping like the young girl? Or are you seeking Christ?”

You Came — Now What Will You Do?


This is the first in the Friday Night in the Garden Vespers series.

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“I Come To The Garden”

The theme for tonight’s vesper service is “The Cost of Servanthood.” But what does a garden have to do with servanthood or the cost of being a servant for God?

A garden is not supposed to be a place where one even thinks about servanthood or what it means to be a servant for Christ. A garden is a place of memory and contemplation, a place to pause during a busy day and to be able to hide from the problems of the world. The last place we want to see or hear the world is when we are in the garden.

Too many times, people want their gardens to be closed off from the world. There were many people who wondered if these two gardens would not somehow be filled with trash. Surprisingly, for those people, that hasn’t happened. There are no signs around but the word is out that these are places of prayer and peace, of remembrance and contemplation. You are invited to come and sit, to enjoy the flowers and the smells and sounds. Sometimes in the morning, when the dew is still on the roses and the birds are singing, it is quite clear that God is in this place.

We need our time in the garden. What Paul wrote to the Corinthians still holds true today. We must constantly check on ourselves to see if we are still Christians; we have to take an inventory to see if who we are and what we do are evidence that Christ is within us. We cannot do that unless we have a place apart from the world around us. We need our gardens and we need the time we spend in them.

Even Christ found it necessary to seek time away from the world. On more than one occasion, the writers of the Gospels noted that He went away to pray. So He had to have gone to a garden or somewhere secluded to pray and recharge spiritually. But we are reminded that it was in the garden that Christ was arrested and, no matter how secluded the garden may have been, there was still a real world outside its boundaries.

And the time will come, when all is said and done, for us to return to the world outside the boundaries of the garden, to the problems of the world. We cannot stay in the garden forever, for we came to be with Christ and now that He is with us, we need to take Him back into the world. Having come to this place and recharged our batteries, we know have the strength that is needed to work for peace and justice, for hope and possibility in this world.

If we do not come to garden every now and then, then the cost of being Christ’s follower, of being His servant, is that we will become like the people of Christ’s time, unable to feel the Spirit or truly be God’s people. But, as Christ did so many times when the pressure of the world began to burden Him, we can come to the garden and become recharged and renewed, able to face the tests that the world places in front of us.

So we have come to the garden; now we leave, refreshed and recharged, able to be Christ’s disciple and servant.

Family Values


Now, this isn’t a blog about Governor Sanford and his problems, though we are reminded that when one “preaches” about one set of values and then lives and entirely different set of values, it is very difficult for people to hear the truth.

And while I am saddened by the death of Michael Jackson, it isn’t that high on my list of concerns. But, depending on what the autopsy finds and what that means for each one of us, I think that Farrah Fawcett’s death was more important (even if it did get pushed back because of Michael Jackson’s death). I say that her death was more important because she died of cancer.

But instead of hearing about research on cancer treatment and what needs to be done, we are going to be (and are being bombarded) with reports about Michael Jackson and his problems. It makes me wonder what our values truly are.

Why are we not more concerned about the state of health care in this country today? Why are we not pushing for active research in curing disease and removing the curse and scourge of cancer from our lives? Why are we not fighting for a more equitable health care program that reduces the cost of healthcare?

Now, I know one of the arguments being made today about healthcare and the efforts of the present administration to reform healthcare is that we don’t want the government telling us who we can see and what can be done? I agree with the concept of not having some bureaucrat telling me how my healthcare should be managed but tell me how having a bureaucratic insurance company is better than the government? Besides, Medicare is a government-run program and a very successful one at that.

To tell me that insurance companies, which are only interested in profits for themselves, is a better alternative than the government is really stretching the point. Insurance companies in the healthcare business are getting rich at the expense of individuals and I would not be surprised if the number of uninsured individuals in this country is not on the rise.

I always find it interesting how we bandy about the term “Christian nation”, especially when it is used by individuals who are not willing to lead Christian lives. It is no wonder that the Christianity is threatened today but the threat comes from those who use the label without using its meaning.

Consider what happened to Jesus. At the end of the 3rd chapter of Mark, Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters came looking for him.

Just then his mother and brothers showed up. Standing outside, they relayed a message that they wanted a word with him. He was surrounded by the crowd when he was given the message, “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside looking for you.”

Jesus responded, “Who do you think are my mother and brothers?” Looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, he said, “Right here, right in front of you—my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3: 31 – 35)

Jesus redefined the family; if we are part of that family, then isn’t time that we started caring for the family. Isn’t time we put some value to the term “family values”?

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This is cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

Leading Into The Future


This is the message that I presented on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost (6 July 2003) at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 5: 1- 9, 9 – 10, 2 Corinthians 12: 2 – 10, and Mark 6: 1- 13.

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What exactly is freedom? What do we expect when we seek freedom? Freedom is one of the most elusive concepts we have today; for how we think of freedom today in no way matches what it really is.

Ask any fifteen-year-old what freedom means and they might reply that it means they can have a car. But ask the same individual some two years later how they are enjoying their new found freedom and they may very well complain about the cost of insurance and what it takes to keep the car they so long desired running.

We want freedom because we think it will take away our responsibilities and that there will be no problems. But freedom brings with it increased responsibilities and with these responsibilities come new problems. Freedom doesn’t release us from anything; it merely redefines our limitations.

It is clear today, as we look backward through the lens of time, that our founding fathers really had no clue what would be the outcome of their efforts of the summer of 1776. But we do know that they knew what the price of their efforts would be. Should the war for independence and freedom have failed, the Declaration of Independence would be their death warrant. Putting their names on this document meant that they were also willing to pay the price that came with freedom.

Sin can be that way; it can seemingly offer us freedom because it offers no responsibilities and promises no problems. But no matter how it is stated, sin’s promise of freedom is simply a cover for slavery and ultimately death.

True freedom comes when we are able to throw away the shackles of slavery and death. Even with the threat of death hanging over their heads, the founding fathers of this country choose freedom rather than slavery imposed by British colonial government. Paul also speaks of freedom, the freedom that could only be found through Christ. It was a freedom that one could have, as Paul reminded us, boasted of countless times.

Paul had every reason and every right to boast. His life before Christ was one of vindictiveness and hatred, of seeking glory through personal triumph and the defeat of others. His actions as Saul were those of someone who thought in the old ways, of thought of power on earth as the only possible solution. To bring the rebel Christians back into line with established religion was his goal for it would bring him power and glory. But he found it to be a hopeless task and one that ultimately brought him face to face with Jesus on the road to Damascus. He is the one of whom he writes in today’s second lesson.

But Paul also knows that boasting about his past triumphs will not help him with the present task and those tasks still to be done. But boasting doesn’t get the job done and boasting takes away from the task. There is some question about what the thorn in his flesh was, that little thing that he referred to on a number of occasions but never fully explained. But it was clear that whatever it was, it was a reminder that his job was not to boast about the successes that he had but to continue working to the end.

Still, he found that as he worked, he grew stronger. And that no matter the pains or agonies he was to endure, the rewards he gained would be greater than whatever he might gain otherwise. And as he did the work of Christ in this world, he would get stronger.

That is the nice thing about freedom. It gives us the chance to boast. But it also reminds that there is still plenty of work to be done. We can boast about the successes of the past but our past successes are no guarantee for the future. They only serve as a reminder of what we must do for the future to be successful.

Because we have to work to hold on to our freedom, because the pain and suffering seem at time too much to bear, we do not want freedom. We are like those who would seek accommodation simply because it would reduce the burden on us. We would much rather have others do the work than have to do the work ourselves.

This, like so many other things, is nothing new. Today’s Old Testament reading is the culmination of years of struggle by the Hebrew people and the unwillingness of a people to hold onto the freedom that was given to them. As we look at the Old Testament, we can see the history of Israel in its early stages. The first five books are the traditions and the laws of the country. They show a nation governed by wise men and women, people who sought the counsel of God when facing perplexing decisions.

But the people of Israel saw the nations around them with kings and they felt that they needed a king as well, even though they had sworn allegiance to God as their only King. Now, it is apparent from the various prophecies that God did not mind the Israelites having a king but the Israelites wanted a king for the wrong reasons. The King that God wanted for Israel was one who would provide and show them the path of righteousness. The king the people of Israel wanted would be like the kings of other nations and would lead them into battle. And whatever the reasons for wanting a king, they amounted to a rejection of God as their one and true king.

As we progress through the book of Judges and Ruth, we see a nation that quickly forgot how it had agreed to be governed and how it transformed itself into just another nation in the Middle East. With the two books of Samuel, we see God responding to the clamor of the people for a king and the appointment of Samuel as the prophet who would anoint Saul as the duly appointed king of Israel. Samuel comes into the picture because the current leaders, including the sons of prophets, have been corrupted by the position and the power.

Saul is the first of God’s anointed King but his was a reign much like the leaders that preceded him. God’s choice for a king was someone who would walk in the ways of God and that is why David was chosen. But as we shall see over the next few weeks, David was susceptible to the trappings and power that came with the office and Israel would again stray from God.

The people of Israel wanted a king for all the wrong reasons. The most important was that they did not want to take on the responsibilities that came with the freedom that they had gained. And a people that is unwilling to take on the responsibilities of freedom is unprepared when the time comes for them to lead or when leadership fails.

I say this, having experienced it first hand. I developed a pretty decent junior bowling program back in middle 70’s but when circumstances forced a change in my own life, I found it necessary to turn the organization over to others. And because I had failed to prepare others to do the work that I had been doing, the organization ultimately collapsed.

If nothing else, that is why I put so much emphasis on reaching out to those who are members of this church but are not presently attending. In order to be a positive and active leadership, those in leadership must be willing to transfer their power to others and others must be available to take over the leadership positions. There is nothing wrong with people providing expertise wherever it is needed but there is also a definite need for others to be involved as well.

That is what Jesus was doing in the Gospel reading for today. Though the disciples were still not getting the idea that they were ultimately going to take over the work that Jesus was doing, Jesus knew that they had to be doing it before He left. And that is why he sent them out, two by two. If they did not start doing the mission work that Jesus was doing, they were not going to be ready when the time came and they would be unable to do the work.

As we celebrate the independence and the founding of this country, we should remember that freedom comes with a cost. John Kennedy, in his inauguration speech, said “that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” But he also added, and I think that most people forget this, that it will be the American people who must do the work. “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”

But this call was not, as some might say, for a continuation of the old ways. It was a call to seek new solutions to old problems. “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year, out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

Through Christ, we have gained freedom as well. It is the freedom from sin and death. And it gives us, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the power and the ability to find new solutions to the old problems. Just as Jesus empowered the twelve before he sent them on that first mission trip, so too does the Holy Spirit empower us to help the sick, the impoverished, the downtrodden.

We are able to walk the path of freedom today because of the efforts of others. We walk a path of freedom from sin and death because Jesus died on the cross for us. We are asked today to insure that freedom continues. And we know that this path is a rough one. But because we have accepted Christ as our Savior, we have the guarantee that it will be a road that we can walk and one that does lead into the future.

Playing In The All-Star Game


This is the message that I gave on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, 9 July 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 5: 1- 9, 9 – 10, 2 Corinthians 12: 2 – 10, and Mark 6: 1- 13

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Playing in an All-Star game is an interesting proposition. On the one hand, we consider each member of the All-Star team, be it in baseball, football, basketball or any other sport, to be the among the best in that particular sport. Yet, there are times when, even with the combined talents of all the superstars present, the All-Star team is not the best team in the sport. This is especially true when you look at all the professional teams who tried to put all the “superstars” on one team. Having the best players in the sport is not a guarantee of success unless they are all working to one common goal. The problem is that we consider All-Stars in terms of individual accomplishments, not necessarily their team accomplishments.

That’s the contrast that I saw in the Old Testament and Epistle readings for today. The people of Israel applaud David for his military exploits and victories and accept him as their king, completing the task that had been started several years before.

Paul, on the other hand, laments the fact that he has many weaknesses and that these weaknesses are holding him back from doing his ministry. But it should be noted that neither David’s nor Paul’s success was accomplished by themselves. It was the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives that made the difference.

As the concluding verse in the Old Testament reading for today notes, “David went on and became great, and the Lord God of hosts was with him.” (2 Samuel 5: 16)

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he had asked God many times to help him overcome the weaknesses, the thorn in his flesh, that he felt was holding back his ministry. Yet, God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12: 9)

In this passage Paul points out that he does not boast of his success in the ministry because people will not understand where the success comes from. And whatever the reason for the “thorn in his flesh” (and what this was has been one of the great historical questions of the church), Paul sees it as reminder of his own weaknesses, a painful and humiliating experience that prevents his own pride from taking credit for the work that Christ has done in his life.

Paul does point out that because of his weaknesses, Christ’s power is magnified and more apparent to others. As Paul notes at the end of the Epistle reading for today, if in my own weakness others see Christ, then I will be content with that.

Similarly, in the Gospel reading for today, we see that the focus of the people is on Jesus himself and not on His ministry and message. In Mark 6: 2 the people readily acknowledge Jesus’ wisdom and mighty works but because they still saw him as the local boy who did good, they were not truly open to the message. It may have been that others were jealous that it was Jesus was getting all the glory and adulation of the people. It was this envy that lead others to literally through Jesus out of Nazareth, as described in Luke 4: 28 – 30.

So all those in the synagogue, when they heard all these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way. (Luke 4: 28 – 30)

It has often been noted that Jesus did not pick twelve scholars or teachers or those who might have considered themselves future leaders in the kingdom of God when he picked His disciples. I know that it may be a cliché to say so but it does fit within the context of this sermon to say that Jesus did not pick the local Jewish superstars for his All-Star team. Rather, he picked twelve ordinary guys, people who no one would have imagined capable of great doing great things.

And it would be safe to say that left to their own powers, skills and abilities, they would not have accomplished much. But when Jesus sent them out on that first mission described in today’s Gospel reading he did not send them out alone. He paired them together so that they could work together as a team and he gave the power over unclean spirits. The success of the mission, as indicated in Mark 6: 13, only came about because the Holy Spirit was with the twelve and because they had the faith that was needed.

The success of the church today will be because, like the church of old, we do not rely on the talents or skills of a single superstar. Rather, like the church of old, it will be the skills and talents of all the members of the church working together for a single goal. Yes, there will be times when the success is not evident. Even Jesus’ disciples could not get it right the first time. And it is true that even when the disciples and others who were sent out on these first missions came back with stories of success, there were those who came back with stories of how they just didn’t quite get it.

Some might argue that the success of the church lies in everyone doing the same thing. But success requires that a variety of tasks be done and that can only be accomplished through teamwork. What is important is that we have a single goal in mind and that we are of one accord when it comes to that goal.

This can be accomplished when we let the Holy Spirit into our hearts. When that happens, whatever we desire will come to pass. Paul could never have accomplished what he did had he not accepted Christ as his personal savior. David’s triumphs quickly disappeared, as we shall see in the coming weeks, when he left God behind.

And Jesus’ own brothers, who were among those who scoffed at his miracles and wisdom, came to the faith after the resurrection, when they understood what Jesus message was really about. Jesus’ brothers, James and Judas, came to power, not because they were his brothers but because of their faith in Christ.

We may want to play in the All-Star Game yet feel that it is out of our reach because we don’t have the skills or talents necessary. Yet, if we accept Christ as our personal Savior, if we let the Holy Spirit guide and direct us in our daily life, we quickly will find that we can do more than our own skills and talents alone will ever do.

That’s the challenge for us this day. It is not our skills and talents but rather what is in our heart that brings us success. Is Christ a part of your life? Can you play in the all-star game?

The Storms In Our Lives


I am preaching at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (map) this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost  (21 June 2009).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are

1 Samuel 17: (1, 4 – 11, 19 – 23) 32 – 49; 2 Corinthians 6: 1 – 13 and Mark 4: 35 – 41.  Services are 10 am and you are welcome to attend.

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As I was reading the Gospel passage for this morning, I recalled reading something about the weather on the Sea of Galilee and how it was marked by rapid and severe changes, the type of changes that occurred in the passage. And, if you were in one of the boats typical of that era, you were likely to be like the disciples, very scared.

Now, as you may or may not know I grew up in the Midwest and the South and while I have never spent much time on the water I am used to rapid changes in the weather, especially in the spring and summer. A good portion of my life has been spent in what is called “tornado alley”, a portion of the country spanning Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri. On spring and summer days, when hot, humid air moves up from the Gulf Coast and meets dry, cool area coming down from Canada, tornadoes are likely to occur and you spend your time watching the sky and paying attention to what is happening.

I would also add that growing up in Texas and the South made me also aware of hurricanes. Even though I have never experienced first-hand the consequences of a hurricane, I have lived through the aftermath and rain that accompanies a hurricane after it has made landfall and downgrades to ultimately a very large thunderstorm. Even in that state, it is important to watch the weather and see what is going on.

The one advantage that we have today that our counterparts some two thousand years ago did not have is that we can “see” the weather developing hours and days away. We see hurricanes developing off the coast of Africa and can track them day-by-day in order to determine where and when they may land. We know enough about the conditions under which tornadoes develop and our technology has and continues to develop so that we can issue watches and warnings.

Even so, there are times when the watches and the warnings are issued too late and towns and other locations are hard hit by tornadoes late in the evening. Still, if people heed the watches and the warnings, we can reduce the damage and the number of fatalities that accompany Mother Nature’s fury, be it tornadoes in the Midwest and South or hurricanes along the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. But if the watches and the warnings are not heeded or if they are ignored entirely, then disaster truly strikes.

There are signs that storm clouds are threatening the church of today, both in denominational terms and for individual churches. The problem is that while many churches today do see the warning signs, their responses are inappropriate, ineffectual, or ineffective. It is somewhat comparable to Saul outfitting David in a suit of armor that was too large for him. David was both uncomfortable in the armor and unable to move. And while it may have protected him from the Philistine, it did little to help him fight him. David took off the armor and went into battle prepared in the way that he knew best.

The greatest threat to the church today, both at the denominational level and at the local level, is the loss of membership. It is finally hitting home for many people that the church in which they grew up in is a dying church and they are beginning to wonder what can be done to revive it. Some churches think that they can save their church by putting armor around the church and call for a return to traditional values. They feel that if they do so, the people will respond and every thing will be alright.

But too many people outside the church do not know what those “traditional” values are. They are either unchurched (that is to say, they have no idea of the language or history of the church) or de-churched (they used to come but something happened and they have left the church). Those who do understand the history and language of the church see a church which says one thing but does another.

Some churches respond with modern-day marketing techniques. They surveyed the market and decide to give the people what they want. This has led, in some cases, to modern worship services, services with guitars and drums and songs of praise, all designed to show the modern day churchgoer how “hip” the church is. But these packaged services, in my mind, have no feeling; there is no spirit in the worship. And if there is no feeling, if there is no spirit, and especially if the message doesn’t change, then the people will still not come; for they have seen and heard it before and they aren’t buying it.

Now, some ministers and some churches have changed the message. They have made the service “seeker-friendly”. They have taken away the trappings of the church (look at many of today’s television ministries and see if you can find a cross or an altar; they aren’t there) because it might frighten the people away.

Services were made shorter, fewer hymns were sung and the music sung was simplified, preaching time was cut down and the message made easier to grasp. The idea was to get nonbelievers interested in going to church because it would not take up too much of their time and wouldn’t challenge them too much. But what happened is that a lot of people who had been believers for some time suddenly found that the sermons were like milk instead of meat. They were so simplistic. Many were finding that what they were getting was pabulum.

The message in such churches is no longer the message of Christ who called for people to leave behind everything and follow him in service. It is no longer a message of hope for the downtrodden, healing for the sick, relief for the downtrodden and freedom for the oppressed.

It is now a message that Christ will give you everything you ask for. And the problems of this world are somebody else’s problems or the result of a sinful life on the part of the poor, the sick, the destitute, and the oppressed. The message of hope and promise has become a message of greed and self-interest. And while there may be many people who are a part of such churches, there are even more who are quickly finding out that such a message is a hollow message and that it will not quiet or calm the storms that rage in their lives.

The young who grew up in the church (and on whom the elders of the church counted on to keep the church going) are either leaving for another church or just plain leaving. And there are also quite a few individuals who have been in the church for most of their lives but they are also leaving. They are leaving because the message of the church no longer has any meaning for them (see http://www.rutherford.org/oldspeak/Articles/Interviews/Duin.html).

If anything is going to change this decline, it will be when the people look at what the church is and what it isn’t, what it can be and what it should not be. The people who are leaving or not coming at all are looking for something that no longer seems prevalent in the church today, decent preaching, a feel of community, and a feeding of the soul. They are seeking content to the message and a spirituality that is missing in their life; they want to find the truth to the life they live and answers to the questions that cause storms in their lives.

There is one constant in our life and it is the search for truth. The problem is that we often times do not know what the truth is and the messages that we get confuse us. So how do we find the truth and how do we know that it is the truth?

As I have read and re-read the passage from Corinthians for today, I went to a number of translations. Clarence Jordan, in his Cotton Patch Gospel translation, wrote “to keep people from making accusations against our cause, we are mighty careful to give them no openings. Under all circumstances, we conduct ourselves as God’s helpers.” In the New International Version, those verses are “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.” In other words, if what we say and do is reflective of the way God is in our lives, our message will be true. It allows people to make up their own minds about what is the truth and what isn’t the truth.

If we speak of God, God’s message, or the truth in an absolutely finality; if we impose our version of the truth on others without exception, then they will not listen. I have come across two examples of how people have come to understand the presence of God in their lives. The first is from Cardinal Avery Dulles. Now, that name should sound familiar to many who grew up in the 50’s for Cardinal Dulles was the son of former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Cardinal Dulles converted to Catholicism after being raised in the Episcopal Church; it was a move that was not made without some controversy in his own family. But it was a move that was made by an examination of the information available. As Cardinal Avery put it,

The move toward philosophy was for me the presupposition of religious faith. I don’t know that it always has to go that way, but that is the way it went with me.

The first stage was Aristotle convincing me that the mind was a faculty that penetrated reality, so that when one was thinking correctly one was entering more deeply into reality itself. He helped me see that our ideas are not merely subjective but that they reflect the structure of the world and the universe. The so-called metaphysical realism of Aristotle was a first stage for me, and it gave me a confidence in human reason.

The second stage was Plato, who basically said that there was a transcendent order of what is morally right and wrong and that one has an unconditional obligation to do that which is right, even when it seems to be against one’s self-interest. That set me thinking about where that obligation comes from. It seemed to come from something higher than humanity. We don’t impose it on ourselves. And no other human being can impose it on us or exempt us from it. So there is an absolute order to which we are subject. This seemed to imply an absolute Being—and a personal being to whom we are accountable. And this set me thinking that there is a God who is a law-giver and a judge, who knows everything that we do and who will punish or reward us duly. In this way I found a basis in natural theology.

Then after that I read the Gospels, and it seemed to me that they taught all of this, and more. The revelation given in Jesus Christ was a reaffirmation of all these principles I had learned in Greek philosophy—but the Gospels added the idea that God was loving and merciful and had redeemed us in Christ, offering us an opportunity to get back on board when we had slipped and fallen overboard. That’s a very brief sketch of what I tried to lay out in greater detail in my Testimonial to Grace. (From http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=1851)

And a second such testimony is offered by Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project. Dr. Collins grew up agnostic but became a committed atheist while getting his Ph. D. in Chemistry. While in medical school he witnessed the true power of religious faith among his patients and his worldview began to change. In a recent interview, he noted that

As I sat at the bedside of individuals who were facing death and saw in many instances how their faith was such a strong rock in the storm for them, I couldn’t help but wonder about that. I couldn’t help but wonder how I would handle that situation if it were me lying in that bed, and I was pretty sure I would not be at peace the way these folks were.

And he continued

So it seemed like a time to perhaps look at the question a little more deeply because I realized my atheism had been arrived at as the convenient answer, the answer I wanted, not on the basis of considering the evidence. I assumed there probably wasn’t any evidence for the idea that God exists, but I figured it was probably time to look.

Later in the same interview Dr. Collins noted

So all of that information, I guess, really began to sink in as arguments that made the plausibility of God actually pretty compelling. Then I had to figure out, what is God like? That meant going and looking at the world’s religions and trying to understand what they stood for, and finding that they’re actually a lot alike in many ways as far as their principles, but they’re also quite different in terms of their specifics.

Never having really known much about Jesus and discovering that he was not a myth because the historical evidence for Jesus was actually much better than I had realized – some would say better than the evidence for Julius Caesar – I began to realize he was a person to take seriously. I encountered this particular verse, which I thought was interesting. Jesus is asked, What is the greatest commandment in the law? He replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” With all your mind! Boy, that doesn’t sound like faith and reason are disconnected. If you go back to Deuteronomy, which is where this verse is coming from, the quote is, “With all your heart and all your strength and all your soul.” But Jesus adds the word “mind,” which I think we were supposed to notice.

So I became a Christian on that basis. That was at the age of 27. Now, 32 years later, I find this to be an enormously satisfying way to be able to answer questions that science can’t answer – things like, is there a God, and what happens after we die, and why am I here anyway, which are questions that science basically says, not on the table for us. But they’re on the table, I think, for most of us as human beings. (Francis Collins in “Religion and Science: Conflict or Harmony?” – http://pewforum.org/events/?EventID=217)

The storms that rage in many of us are like the storm that raged within Dr. Collins. And, for many people, the answer that they seek, the calming presence that they desire is nowhere to be found because they do not know where to look. For Dr. Collins, his search began with a reading of C. S. Lewis’ works. But, for many, that is not a logical answer if for no other reason than C. S. Lewis can be very difficult to read. But more important to Dr. Collins’ search was that there was someone there to help him as he sought the truth.

And that is where each one of us comes in. We do not need to know the truth that others seek; we only need to know how to help them. And we begin to help them by offering them a place where they might find Christ.

When Wesley began the Methodist movement, he emphasized four things:

  1. A faith that was both informed and warmly experienced;
  2. A religion that was intensely personal but also shared with others;
  3. A concern for the spiritual, physical, and social condition of all persons;
  4. An affirmation of belief in one God as revealed through Jesus Christ, but with an appreciation for a variety of ways in which that affirmation can be expressed.

The Methodist revival was one of the first movements to bring education to all people. This was because Wesley and the early founders of the church felt and understood that one could not understand the Bible unless one was able to read it.

One of the things that I heard at Annual Conference last week was a redefinition of evangelism. To many people today, evangelism is literally forcing people to become disciples of Jesus. I have had a hard time with that approach. I cannot make you follow Jesus; you must want to follow Jesus and you will not want to do so unless you understand who Jesus was and is and will be and what Christianity is all about.

One of the early doctrinal battles of the church dealt with free will and the implications that it had for belief. If there is such a thing as free will, then it is our responsibility for understanding the message of the Bible and ours alone. If we allow others to tell us what the Bible means and we accept their interpretation without question, then we cannot find the truth that we seek and the storms that torment our soul will continue.

Methodism is historically an evangelical religion and it is time that we get back to that approach. It is about telling people about Christ and it is about teaching them about Christ and it is about letting them make their own decisions about Christ, without fear of condemnation or ridicule.

For each church today and for countless individuals, there are storms raging about them. The church today can do a lot to calm those storms. But they must ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Regarding the people you are trying to reach, what do we want to see happen as a result of their coming within the sphere of influence of our ministry?
  2. What are we offering, from their point of view that would make it worth their while to get involved with us?
  3. (And what I think is the most challenging question of all) What price are we willing to pay in order to be able to reach others?

There are storms in our lives; there are storms in the lives of our friends, our neighbors and the people that we come into contact each day. These storms come about because there are questions in our lives and the answers that we are given by society aren’t satisfactory. But we know that there are answers, we know that there are solutions. How shall we find them? How shall we help others find them? Who shall calm the storms in our lives?

Saturday at Annual Conference


Here are my thoughts concerning last Saturday at Annual Conference.   My thoughts on Friday’s events are here.

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If there was a theme to Saturday at Annual Conference, it was “move.” It was a day of motion and spirit-led movement.

It started with Dr. Safiyah Fosua (Director of Preaching Ministries for the General Board of Discipleship) leading the delegates and guest lay speakers in a study of the book of Esther. This was identified as a Bible Study but I thought it more of a seminar. The hard part about attending this one day is that it was the third day of a three-day seminar and without the first two days or the information presented at those times, it was not easy to pick up the thoughts being presented.

But still Dr. Fosua made points that fit within the framework of what I had heard in the Evangelism workshop/seminar the day before that was lead by her husband, Dr. Kena Kwasi. How can we utilize what we know about the situation described in Esther to better map out responses for our own congregations today?

In other words, we know that the decimation of the Jewish nation is the initial goal in Esther but because of Esther’s actions, the Jewish nation is saved. When we see our own churches, perhaps dying, perhaps sick, can we sit back and do nothing? Or do we move forward, taking the initiative to bring our churches back to life? It set the tone for two of the events to come.

One was recognition of the Volunteers in Mission who have gone literally around the world in the name of the United Methodist Church. I was impressed by the amount of support, both in terms of the number of people who went on the missions and the amount of money that was donated for on-going mission work.

But it also brought forth, for me anyway, a disturbing question. Where is the money for the small churches in this country that are themselves literally mission churches? I know that we have money available for start-up churches (two such churches were recognized during the Saturday events) but that seems to be where the money is going. I am wondering why some of our time, money, and energy is not spent on churches in areas of this country where growth is taking place. When the appointments were announced on Saturday morning, the more experienced ministers went to the larger churches and the rookies and beginning pastors went to the smaller churches.

I know that the path in the ministry is to work your way up from the small to the larger and the smaller churches don’t have the resources to support experienced pastors. But I think that we are putting the wrong people in the wrong areas. If a small church already exists in an area where people are moving to, then we need ministers in those churches who can build the church. It is unfair to a student pastor or to a part-time local pastor to expect them to work on building up their church while they must also work at another job or their school work at the same time. It was this conflict between the secular and sectarian world that lead to my own decision to withdraw from the ministerial path; you cannot serve two masters but that is what we often ask our youngest ministers to do in order to survive.

We, as a church and as a denomination, need to seriously think about how we can build up churches that are in areas of growth. We know where those areas are and we know what we have to do; the question is whether or not we are going to be willing to do what is needed. (And if such procedures are in place, please let me know because I am not aware of them.)

The final event on Saturday morning was a wonderful sermon by Dr. Kwasi Kena. He chose the passage from Acts where Paul received the vision of a man in Macedonia asking Paul to come and preach to the people there. As Dr. Kena explained it, the key word in the passage was “move”. Paul was to move from where he was to where he was needed, and we, as lay speakers, must also be ready to move as well.

We as lay speakers must be willing, able, and ready to move. I heard in what Dr. Kena was saying some of the same thoughts that I have had concerning the future of the United Methodist Church. For whatever reason, it will be the lay speakers, not the pastors and ministers, on whom the future of the church will rest. It will be the ministries that the lay speakers develop, be it pulpit supply, music ministry, garden ministries, or whatever that will reach out to the people. And I know and have tried to point out that it is the laity that must reach out to the newcomers and the visitors, not the pastor. When it is the pastor who makes the first contact with newcomers or visitors, it is a sign of a church in trouble and perhaps dying. It is a message that tells the visitor or newcomer that the people of the church really don’t care about them.

Dr. Kena’s Saturday morning sermon was inspirational and gave lay speakers reason to be lay speakers. But it was more than simply inspirational; it was also moving. Now, in this case, move was more than just a verb; it was also a description of his preaching as well as that of his wife’s earlier that morning.

He was moved by the Spirit and you could sense how many in the audience felt that way. And Saturday was the first time that I had experienced the power and presence of Bishop Park. He, too, was Spirit filled and was not limited to presenting his message and words from behind the pulpit.

Now, I grew up in the South and I have experienced the “force” of a black minister preaching. It is one thing that cannot be faked nor can it be imitated; it only comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit. And unfortunately, too many of our pastors, no matter how much experience or education they have, do not have The Spirit. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. But each person who stands in the pulpit, be they laity or clergy, has to determine if they are presenting the message that is found in the meaning and the spirit of the words they have read and prayed over in preparation for the message.

We are faced with a situation much like in classic times. When Cicero had finished speaking, the people would say “how well he spoke.” But when Demosthenes finished speaking, the people cried out, “let us march!” Christianity was, is, and will always be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led; we did not become the church until Pentecost when the Spirit became a part of who we are as a people and as a church. But now we speak of things that were and wish that they were that way now when we should be speaking of what can be and asking how to achieve it (and yes, I know, I changed the Bobby Kennedy quote of a George Bernard Shaw quote).

When I left Annual Conference on Saturday, I understood what it was to be a lay speaker, to go out into the world and bring the Gospel message to the people. I understood what it meant to be filled with the Spirit and to lead by the Spirit. I have heard the call before and I have answered it. I hope that others did and will as well.

The Tasks We Must Do


This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 29 June 2003.  The Scriptures are 1 Samuel 17: 1, 17 – 27, 2 Corinthians 8: 7 – 15, and Mark 5: 21 – 43.

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I will be the first to admit that I am not a prophet. I do not possess the ability to see the future clearly or even have an idea of what might be the future. But, as we meet here today I fear that at this time next year we may well be seeing the end of the United Methodist Church. Next spring’s General Conference promises to be one of, if not, the most divisive conferences in the history of the church. The church that comes out of General Conference next spring will not be the church that went in. There will be a United Methodist Church, I am sure, but it will no longer be united and it will be only be a struggling remnant of what it once was with only a dim hope of being what it could be.

There are in the United Methodist Church a number of people who feel that the only way to revitalize the church is by returning to the original thoughts and desires of John Wesley. But many of these reformers use Wesley’s words to enact their own version of a Bible-based denomination. I believe that in their zeal to revitalize the church and with their desire to return to a more fundamental interpretation of church doctrine, their efforts will result in an irreversible split in the church.

But I am sadden and frightened, not by what might next year, but what is happening and has already happened. The United Methodist Reporter reports that more than 70 members of this church have decided to leave the Grove, KS, United Methodist Church and are being sued by the Kansas West Annual Conference. There is a restraining order on the front door of the church barring some from even worshipping there. The court hearing to decide the fate of the church was last Thursday and I am waiting to hear the outcome. This group has drafted a position statement saying that they support “original specified doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church,” but believe that the annual conference and national leaders have violated these standards.

From what I read, the group’s actions were in response to the removal of the pastor by the Bishop. The district filed a court petition against the group claiming that the conference will suffer further irreparable harm without court intervention. The results of the court action are to determine who owns the church building and who can use the name “Methodist” in its name.

Now, there will be those in attendance at next spring’s General Conference who will seek compromise. When it comes to setting policy in the church, the United Methodist Church as a political body is second to none in compromise. All one has to do is read the minutes of past General Conferences and the policies printed in the Book of Discipline to know that on every issue that this church has dealt with, compromise has ruled and no effective statement of belief has resulted. True to its history, this church takes stands but they are always tempered with caution or fear of offending those who do not hold the same view.

But I do not believe that compromise will work this year. Those seeking reform are not willing to work for a common ground and hold those in opposition to their views with contempt and distrust. And in seeking change and reform, or more to the point, a return to traditional policies, those seeking change have caused others to view them with the same contempt and distrust. That is why I fear the outcome of next year’s General Conference.

Now, this is not the first time the Methodist Church has split apart. At the beginning of the 19th century, a group of Methodists split from the church in protest over the issue of lay leadership. Concerned that the episcopal form of governance and leadership ignored the wishes and desires of the laity, the Methodist Protestant Church was found. Though a serious question for church leadership, it was only a minor issue in the scope of things.

By the 1840’s, slavery was the foremost political and social issue in American society. And like other individuals and groups in the country, the Methodist church was forced to deal with the issue. Following his experiences in Georgia, John Wesley had come out strongly against slavery. He encouraged others to speak out and act in opposition to the traffic in human souls. Many of the early abolitionists, both in America and England, were Methodists and followed Wesley’s lead, denouncing participation in the slave trade and slave holding. But as the topic divided the nation, as economic and political pressures increased, the church sought ways to be against slavery while allowing members and church leaders to own slaves.

The issue came to the forefront in the 1844 General Conference. Bishop James O. Andrew of Georgia had inherited his deceased wife’s young female slave. Though forbidden by Georgian law, he sought ways to give this woman her freedom. But at the General Conference, the majority of delegates (mostly northern) voted to relieve him of his duties as bishop. Claiming that this action was against church law, the southern delegates essentially walked out. To settle the impasse, a Plan of Separation was enacted and two Methodist Episcopal churches, one North and one South, were created.

This schism in the church lasted until 1939 when the two branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Protestant Church reunited to form the Methodist Church. But the heritage of the split is still seen today over the doorways of the church. Even the church where I was a member in college, the 1st United Methodist Church of Kirksville, still has “Methodist Episcopal, South” carved in stone above the doorway.

We are faced with a dilemma. Whether it was the issue of slavery in the 19th century or some other issue in the 20th and 21st centuries, there are verses in the Bible that can be used to support our viewpoints. The supporters of slavery could use “Slaves, be obedient to your masters” while abolitionists would use the story of Exodus and the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt as a mandate to free the American slaves. So too does it seem that all reformers today use the Bible to justify their actions and desire to return to a more fundamental approach to religion.

We must first understand what the traditions of the United Methodist Church are. When Wesley began the Methodist movement, he emphasized four things:

  1. A faith that was both informed and warmly experienced;
  2. A religion that was intensely personal but also shared with others;
  3. A concern for the spiritual, physical, and social condition of all persons;
  4. An affirmation of belief in one God as revealed through Jesus Christ, but with an appreciation for a variety of ways in which that affirmation can be expressed.

The Methodist revival was one of the first movements to bring education to all people. This was because Wesley and the early founders of the church felt and understood that one could not understand the Bible unless one was able to read it. One of the early doctrinal battles of the church dealt with free will and the implications that it had for belief.

If there is free will, then it is our responsibility to understand what the message of the Bible is and not have someone else tell us. Somewhere along the line, this point has disappeared. The problem is that the Bible is full of contradictions and we must be careful how we apply the rules of the Bible because of that. And that I think is the fly in the ointment, as it were. Those who seek Biblical justification for their actions do not see the whole picture and take much of what they want done out of context.

If we are to say that we are Christian, then we must include both the Old and New Testament in our lives. Most of those who seek a fundamentalist approach to live only use the Old Testament. But in the Old Testament is the promise of a New Covenant and it is in the New Testament that the New Covenant is enacted. Christ’s death and resurrection give us a new life with a new set of rules. To use only the rules and regulations of the Old Testament is to ignore this very tenet of our religion.

If Jesus had lived according to the rules of the Old Testament, he would never have allowed the woman in today’s Gospel reading to come close to him, let alone touch him. She was considered “unclean” by society and those who came in contact with her were also considered “unclean”. And until such time that you were purified, if you were “unclean” you were barred from social contact with anyone. Normally, such periods of time were limited but this woman had been barred from social contact for over twelve years. One could only imagine the loneliness and isolation she must have felt.

But Jesus did not scold her, berate her, or enact any of the punishments that society would have imposed. He did not shun her or push her aside. Rather, he commended her for her faith and for her actions. Now, we would not have shunned this woman today, for we have a better understanding of what her problem was. But we do shun or ignore people whose own illnesses were acquired through behaviors or lifestyles that we do not approve. How is our judgement of others today in line with what Jesus was doing then?

I am reminded of the case of Ryan White, the young man in Indiana who got AIDS through a blood transfusion. He was only eleven or twelve when he contracted the disease. He was a hemophiliac and got the virus because one of the units of blood that he needed for survival turned out to be infected. At that time, we were still learning about the disease and were not aware that it could be transmitted in that manner. But he became infected and was treated by Indiana society as a pariah, as someone to be feared. But you cannot get AIDS by being in the same room with someone who has it. I have always found it curious that each healthy individual who might have met this young man was more a threat to his health, because of his diminished immune system, than he was a threat to their health. But he was still treated with fear and treated much like the lepers of Jesus’ day.

We are commanded in the Bible and as Methodists to be literate and understand what the world is about. Our fear of the world comes from our ignorance of the world and we cannot overcome that fear by condemning that which we do not understand.

I know that there are those who find fault with Paul. I am sure that one could find better role models. But no matter what he believed personally, he was always challenging the members of the churches with whom he was associated to find a path more in terms with the one Christ walked. All we have to do is realize that he was asking each reader to come to Christ individually, just as he did. As I mentioned earlier, it is the personal relationship with Christ that dominates our belief; it is not the imposition of how we came to believe but rather the simple fact that we came to believe in Christ that we should share. And that was what Paul did time and time again, challenge people to find Christ and to share that finding with others.

Now, each time you read one of Paul’s letters you find that he is trying to settle some issue threatening to divide the church. His solutions always challenge the reader to find the path that Christ would have walked, not the paths others would have walked. The letters to the Corinthians are prime examples of this. Paul was continually settling arguments amongst the members of the church, whether they were about the conduct of members towards each other or what the church was all about. And in many of his solutions, he pointed out that neither side was totally in the right.

Today, Paul has been forced to remind the members of the Corinthian church that they had promised to help the church in Jerusalem through a collection. At the time of the writing, they had not forwarded the money. What Paul was doing was reminding them that other churches in the area, churches that were not as financially viable as the Corinthian church, had already met their obligation. I think Paul was very subtlety suggesting that it was the pride of the church members that was stopping their efforts.

There was no doubt that the church has the resources. But it was also clear that they felt that such actions were beneath them, even if it was the right thing to do. Paul used the example of the Hebrews wandering in the desert to illustrate that all were a part of the same community. Each Hebrew, no matter how old or young they were, no matter if they were healthy or sick, was required to collect their daily share of manna. But one was not shut out from the sharing of the manna simply because they could not collect enough. All got their share, even if those stronger or healthier had to do a little more work.

I began this morning by expressing my fear that the denomination is in trouble. We cannot have churches closed by court order because of splits about how one believes. But we also must face the reality that, as a denomination, the United Methodist Church is dying. Each year the membership goes down and each year there are congregations that must face the reality that this will be the last year in their history.

And to some extent, it is the church’s fault that this is happening. Whether it is collectively or individually, each church has failed to meet the needs of those who most need the church. People come to church seeking the Christ that they have heard about or read about. The Christ they seek is one of peace. But if they come to a church where there is division or strife, caused by local differences or national issues, they will not find it. And if they do not find peace in the church, they cannot find peace in their own lives.

In the same newsletter that brought me the news about the church in Kansas was also a story about a United Methodist Church in Iowa. This is another church beset by internal strife and division. The district superintendent had attended a meeting of the church and heard differing views about the pastor. The district superintendent wrote a letter to all the members of the congregation in which he said, “When will you stop the blaming, negative and unhappy persons among you from tearing down the spirit of Jesus Christ among you?” He also wrote the members to acknowledge that there was “the spirit of Satan” at work in that church. The persons to whom those actions were attributed have filed a defamation suit against the church and district.

People will not come to that church because if there are fights among the members, there can be no peace. The growth of the more fundamentalist based churches comes more from the structure that people find in those churches. With structure comes a certain kind of peace but it is not a peace built from within. That peace can only come from Christ.

In the selection from the Old Testament for today, David speaks of the love that Jonathan held for him. It was a love based on loyalty and devotion and came because Jonathan knew that David was God’s chosen heir to the throne that Saul, Jonathan’s father, held. In today’s society, and perhaps even back then, Jonathan should have been bitter and angry that what should have been his was going to someone else. But that was not the way he lived and that was not the way he acted. And David wanted the people of Israel to know this and act accordingly.

We are not in a position to settle issues in churches elsewhere. All we can do in regards to the General Conference next spring is to let our delegates know what we feel and trust that they will act in a manner befitting the actions of Christ. (I would also add that I believe that our own Dennis Winkleblack is an alternate to the General Conference but I do not know who the others are or how one communicates with them.)

But in the meantime, there are things we can do. Those that came to the tomb that first Easter morning came expecting to find the body of Jesus for they still believed and lived according to the Old Covenant. But Jesus was not there and was in fact alive.

Today, Christ is found in the hearts and actions of all whom have accepted him as their personal savior. If there is to be a future for this church then it will be because we have taken the challenge of Paul to find that path of Christ. Certainly, there is no doubt that the path that each of us walk is different from the rest; it is not the path we walk that matters, it is the destination.

It is a path that is guided and directed by the Holy Spirit and shown to us in the actions of Jesus Christ so long ago. We are faced with many tasks, some of which we do not want to undertake. But it is those tasks that we must do if we are to reach our common destination. Like Christ, we should seek out those on the fringe and bring them in, not shun them just because they are different or because we disagree. Like Christ, we should find ways to help all people, not just the ones we happen to agree with at the time or who happen to disagree with the same people we disagree with.

And like Christ, we need to love all that we meet and work with, not just a select few. The tasks before us are great, it is true but the rewards for the completion of those tasks is so much greater.