How Many Times Does Opportunity Knock?


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, 10 December 2000. The scriptures for this Sunday are Malachi 3: 1 – 4, Philippians 1: 3 – 11, and Luke 3: 1 – 6.

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Over the years, I have learned that many of the phrases that we routinely say have roots in the Bible, most notably in the Book of Proverbs. Even phrases such as "hither, thither, and yon" are found in the Bible (in a passage from 1 Kings dealing with Ezekiel and his famous "dry bones.")

The lyrics for the rock and roll songs "Along The Watchtower", written by Bob Dylan, "Crossroads" by Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce (aka Cream) and "O, Good Shepherd" by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane all have roots in Biblical phrases.

When I first read the scriptures for today, I thought about the age-old phrase of opportunity knocking once and how it might be a phrase from the Bible. There are a number of references to opportunity and several more about knocking, most notably, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" which is depicted in the window to my left. But there are no statements about opportunity knocking.

Maybe that is just as well for, if opportunity in the form of Christ only knocked once, then we would not really enjoy the results if we should miss that one opportunity. For if our opportunity to gain God’s grace is limited, then to say that God’s grace is limitless and that would be a contradiction of what is the truth, God’s grace is unlimited.

Since God’s grace is not limited, our opportunities for God’s grace are not limited, though in actuality, we only need one. It is not so much what we do with that one opportunity for ourselves but what we do with the countless opportunities that present themselves to us each day that Advent is about.

Both the prophet Malachi and Job the Baptist spoke of preparing the way for the coming messenger. For as we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth, we also help others to see what this event means to each and every one of us. What we do now should not stop after Christ is born but continue on throughout the year.

This, I think, is what Paul was writing the Philippians about. Paul had helped to found the church in Philippi but he wasn’t always there to help it through its daily struggles. When you read Paul’s letters to the various churches that he had started, you see that he spends a lot of his time working on problems and advising them as to how to solve the problems.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least in the reading for today. Paul uses "fellowship" to mean a joint partnership in a business venture in which all parties actively participate to ensure the success of the business. Obviously, this church was doing more than just meeting on Sunday. As you reread this passage, you can imagine that what Paul is commending them for is the manner in which they lead their lives.

Yes, the members of the church would have gotten together on a regular basis to talk about Christ and what His life meant. Remember that the Bible, as we know, didn’t exist and it was necessary to meet and pass down the oral traditions of what happened those years before in Israel and Jerusalem. It also gave them the opportunity to read and discuss the letters that Paul wrote, not only to the Philippians but the other churches in the area, as those letters were distributed among the various communities.

But I also think that it was how the Philippians lead their lives that Paul was talking about. When Paul wrote this letter, he was in prison for his missionary works. For the Philippians to boldly stand on the corner and preach the Good News of Jesus Christ would have clearly gotten them in trouble with the Roman and local authorities. I am sure that some of the members of those early churches did go to jail for preaching the Gospel but I also think that the majority of the church put the Gospel into action, through their daily lives and what they did.

The city of Philippi was one of the most diverse cities in the Roman empire and the ability of the people of that earlier church to work together clearly had an impact on what happened in that city. By the presence of the Holy Spirit, their lives had changed and the people in the city saw that change.

A note that I got this week concerning lay speaker school makes this point very clear. It points out that "Your life may be the only Bible some people ever read." It is what you do with your life, it is how you lead your life. The opportunities that present themselves are limitless.

Some may find the call to be a lay speaker the opportunity that they are looking for. There are new classes being scheduled that I believe are close by. Information about lay speaking school is available.

As we go to Charge Conference, there are a number of spots on the Administrative Council that are still open. Yes, each one of them takes a few moments of your time, sometimes on a monthly basis, sometimes on a weekly basis and sometimes it is just too much of a hassle. But the rewards of seeing Walker Valley grow should be worth the effort that you are asked to make.

As we go into the New Year, our major goal will be to reestablish contact with those members who haven’t been here in awhile. A few weeks ago, I asked you all to send cards to people whom you haven’t seen in awhile. Now is the time to follow up on those cards. Let these people know that you do care about their presence and that their presence is missed.

Personally, Advent is a chance for us to prepare for the birth of Christ. But Advent is also the opportunity to tell others what the Christmas story is about and to let them know what God’s love is all about. The opportunity to do so comes in many ways and many times. The question is one of taking the opportunity when it presents itself.

“How Can I?” – The meaning of Advent


Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2009. The scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16, 1 Thessalonians 3: 9 – 13, and Luke 21: 25 – 36.

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Advent is meant to be the season of preparation for the coming of Christ but as I look around, I can’t help but wonder if I can write about the meaning of Advent.

How do you speak or write of preparation for a day in December when there are so many people in the world today for whom getting through today is more important than anything else? What do you say to a person whose Thanksgiving dinner was, perhaps, nothing more than a bowl of soup and some crackers? What do you say to the person who wonders if they will find a warm place to spend the night, let alone the next few days? What do you say to the family whose son, daughter, father or mother has been told that they will be sent overseas to fight in a battle that doesn’t appear to have an ending? What do you say to the person or the person’s family when they have been informed that they need immediate medical care but the health insurance company refuses to pay for it?

How can you preach a message of preparation when the message of society is to live only for yourself and for today? How can you preach a message that speaks of hope and opportunity for all of God’s children when so many ministers and religious leaders say that only a few are chosen and the rest will be cast aside.

It is no wonder that so many have left the church and there are so many who see the hypocrisy in the words and actions of the church. It is no wonder that so many people view Christmas as a co-opted pagan holiday and Christianity (and probably all religion) as mythical in nature.

As long as the focus of the church, denominationally and individually, is on the members of the church and only on the members of the church, Advent will be nothing more than four weeks of marking time until the church decides to die.

The church, for the most part, has forgotten what the Gospel message is and to whom it was given. It wasn’t given to the rich and powerful; it was given to those that the rich and powerful hated and despised; it was given to those who the rich and powerful could not see. It was given to those that society had cast aside or thrown away. It was a message for the ones that society had forgotten.

The church, for the most part, has built walls to keep people out when they should have been opening the doors so that they can come in. We sing of the shepherds, the lowest social class at that time, visiting the babe in the manager but we will not let the lower classes into our sanctuary.

The church is leaving the places where it should be present. You can’t build a successful mega-church in the inner city because the people will not come. You have to build the mega-churches out in the rich suburbs where the money is. And there are more churches concerned with their own well-being than they are the well-being of the people. And if you are out in the suburbs, you don’t have to come into the city, so you can ignore the problems.

And most importantly, as the number of homeless and hungry and poor increases, the church has remained remarkably silent. The church should echo the message of Jesus who spoke of seeking the one lost sheep while our corporations and their supporters tell us that such a loss is acceptable.

The church should be more concerned with the number of people who are hungry and without shelter than worrying about a person’s sexuality and lifestyle. The church should be more concerned with banks and financial firms that reap excessive profits and charge unreasonable and high fees than they are with the music that is sung in church.

Because Jesus was tortured by the political authorities of His day, the church today should be more concerned and not so silent that our country has tacitly approved the torture of individuals simply because their skin is darker and their faith is different.

Because Jesus fed the multitudes and healed the sick, the church today should be more concerned and not so silent that one in six today goes hungry and that the number of people without adequate healthcare increases everyday. But it seems that too many churches, individually and denominationally, feel that poverty and hunger are still signs of sin, not society. And too many churches today, individually and denominationally, feel that it is more important to tell someone who they can or cannot marry and what they can or can do with their body than insure their health and well-being.

There are many churches today making a difference in this world but there are as many churches where the words of Christ are said in a service on Sunday and forgotten before the person has even left the building. It is as if what a preacher says on Sunday has no meaning the rest of the week. Those who say that religion has no meaning or place in today’s society only need to point to what people see in churches today to prove that they are right. Unfortunately, those in church today can’t see the same thing because of the logs in their eyes.

It will take more than just remembering what Jesus said about taking the log out of our own eye before we take the splinter out of someone else’s eye.

And perhaps that is what Advent is about. Maybe now is the time for the wakeup call; maybe now is the time to begin preparing our hearts and minds and souls for Christ.

No matter the situation, we are reminded of a promise made to us through the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel that one would come who would execute righteousness and justice. We are reminded by Luke that no matter what may happen in this world, the words remain true.

Time and time again, it has been we who have reneged on our part of the covenant with God. Time and time again, we have walked away from God, turning to Him only when we needed Him. We see Christ not as our Lord but as our servant, to grant to us that which we want. But, time and time again, God has given us another chance.

And that is why we have Advent. We have to prepare for the coming of Christ, not on any particular day but in our hearts and in our minds. The promises are true and we who have heard those words must make sure that they are not forgotten and that the promises made are kept.

The Holy Child will not come to us; we must seek, as did the shepherds that night, the Holy Child. We must cast aside the trappings that society insists we bring with us; Christ will remove the burden of our lives from sin and death but only if we seek Him. Burdened by the trappings of society and unwilling to let go of them, we cannot make the journey.

This is not about doing good works in hopes that such works will get you into heaven. That is a debate for another time and for another place. What it is about is the fact that we are Christ’s representatives on this earth and we are the ones who by our acknowledgement that we are such must do his work. One time, many years ago, I saw the passage to heaven through the good works path. And my minister pointed out that it was still God’s grace, not anything that I could do, that would get me in. But because I had accepted Christ and because I proclaimed myself a Methodist, I had an obligation to work for Christ, to work in the way that Christ worked, and to do what Christ did.

If the birth of Christ is to have meaning in this world, it is because we have decided that Christmas is more than one day out of the year. And that is why we begin the season of Advent, not to prepare for one day but to prepare ourselves for a life in Christ, with Christ and for Christ. We can offer hope to those without hope, who have been forgotten in today’s society. But we must first cast aside the ways and trappings of a society that speaks of wealth and power as a sign of righteousness and pick up the mantle of the servant that Christ offers to us.

The promise of Advent lies in what we do these coming days, not what lies at the end. To speak of the promise is to speak of a new reality, the fulfillment of the Gospel. How can I speak of Advent as the promise of Christ? Because it is, it will be and because we must.

The Tree By The Side Of The Road


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2003. The scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16, 1 Thessalonians 3: 9 – 13, and Luke 21: 25 – 36.

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It has often been said that you know you are really in a rural part of this country if the directions given you so that you may find a particular person’s house or business includes trees, rocks, or old buildings. And invariably the tree, rock, or building that is a reference also includes the conditional phrase that "at least it used to be there."

We look for signs to help in our journeys, both through time and distance. A lot of times, we make reference to those signs. Understanding the signs is often the problem.

When I first moved to New York back in 1999 and was driving up I-84 through Pennsylvania, I kept thinking that the trip was shorter than it really was. You see the exits off Interstate highways in most of the mid-western states are numbered according to the mile marker closest to the exit. So if you are looking for exit 334 and you pass mile markers 330 and 331, then you know you are headed in the right direction and have only three miles to go. But if you are looking for exit 334 and the order of mile markers that you pass is 331 and then 330, you know you are going in the wrong direction.

In Pennsylvania back in 1999 and even today in New York, the exits are numerical but not related to the mile makers. I noticed last spring as we drove through Pennsylvania that they were in the process of changing the exit numbers to match the mile markers. But in 1999, as I drove north, I kept wondering how far I actually had to go because my knowledge of the mile marking system was not helping me with the signs that I was seeing.

It is not just on the highway that we look for signs. We use the Dow Jones and NASDAQ summaries as an indication of our economy (even if it is not always accurate). The temperature outside on a particular day of the year is, or should be, an indication of what the weather will be. The Farmer’s Almanac is full of the signs that we use to predict what the weather will be like many months in advance.

It is not just in our secular, daily living that we look for and seek signs. Many people use the number of people who attend a church on any given Sunday as an indicator of a church’s vitality. Somewhere in the vast reaches of my memory is a statement that a church can begin a second service when its sanctuary is 70% filled.

I cannot say what the other Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church do but in the New York Annual Conference the measure of a church’s vitality is in how it meets its annual apportionments and its mission activities. Our Annual Conference has already given a sign that it considers a church in trouble if it cannot meet its annual apportionments. It is going to be interesting to see what will happen when a particular congregation falls behind in its missionary obligations and is faced with the rather draconian measures imposed by the Conference. It will also be interesting to see what happens with those congregations who feel that their apportionments are too high or the money given is wasted in the bureaucracy of the United Methodist Church.

Back in September, we started the birthday collection. We haven’t collected much in the fund, since we haven’t celebrated many birthdays. I have proposed that we send any monies that we do collect to Habitat for Humanity, which does have a presence here in Putnam County. I have also suggested that the offerings collected on the four fifth Sundays of the year (of which this is one) should go to specific ministries in this area. To that end, I ask that you think about which organizations in this area should get those offerings. We have included additional mission support in our budget for the coming year; now, we must decide who shall receive the monies and we must decide if we are going to support them with more than words from the pulpit.

We need to be reminded of the people in the past that gave all that they had and how they received much more in return. In his book, A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins wrote about the church in North Carolina that he attended while pausing on his trip across America.

Jenkins decided after graduating from Alfred University in New York, that he needed to find America or at least signs that what America was in the history books was still present. So he embarked on a walk, first from Alfred to Washington, D. C., and then southward along the Appalachian Trail into Alabama. In North Carolina he had to stop and find some work so that he could continue his trip. He found work at a sawmill in western North Carolina; interesting work for a liberal arts graduate from Alfred University.

But more interesting was that he, a white boy raised in the confines of Greenwich, Connecticut, found a place to stay with a black family in Texana, North Carolina. And where he was used to loafing around on Sunday mornings, this family made it a practice, a habit, and perhaps a ritual to attend church. And if he, Peter, were to live with them, he too would have to go to church.

He describes in this book an event that only those who have lived or are living in the south can truly appreciate; i.e., the coming of a tornado and that aftermath of death and destruction. And this included the total destruction of the new Baptist Church in the area. So it was that the people of Mount Zion Baptist Church, an all black church in rural North Carolina, invited the members of the Ranger Baptist Church, an all white church, to worship with them on the Sunday following the destruction of their new church. And, in a part of the country where poverty was the norm, the members of Mount Zion gave their offering that Sunday to the members of this other church so that the rebuilding process could begin.

The money gave surely could have been used by the Mount Zion congregation but, as Peter Jenkins wrote, "they all knew how much they needed and depended on their own church for weekly recharging and cleansing, so they gave with begrudging the Ranger folks.” (A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins, page 162.)  He ended that chapter of his journey by noting that there was a feeling of peace and goodness that came with giving from the soul rather than the pocketbook.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that Peter Jenkins’ journey did not end in the hills of North Carolina. Shortly after the tornado story, he began his southward walk and ended up in Mobile, AL, where he encountered Christ much as Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. Then, after pausing to reflect on the fact that he had in fact come into contact with Him throughout his whole trip, including a stop with a black country church in North Carolina, he moved on to New Orleans and then through the western part of this country to Oregon. He has gone on to other things but with the knowledge that he found the signs that America was alive and doing fine.

And, though it may not seem like it, Advent is a sign. It is a sign of the coming of Christ. Advent is more than simply a reminder of Christ’s birth. Advent is more than the prophecy of Isaiah or the birth narrative of the Gospels; it is a reminder that God’s presence among us in the form of Christ is a world-altering event. (Adapted from "Be on Guard" from "Living the Word" by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners, November/December 2003)

As we read and heard the words of the Gospel today, Jesus was speaking in terms of the apocalypse that would precede the coming of "the Son of God." But the apocalypse can only be seen in terms of time being linear; that is, with a beginning and an end.

And if time is linear then we are either compelled to act out of fear or we become apathetic and resigned to our fate. For Jesus, the time is short. For it is a matter of time before He must face what must happen if His work on earth is to have any meaning. But the ending of Jesus’ ministry is not the end for us; rather, it is the beginning.

For Jesus not only speaks of the end of things, he speaks of the beginning as well. For he refers to the nearby fig tree and the renewal of life that the tree is showing. (adapted from "Pent-up Power" from "Living the Word" by Herbert O’Driscoll, Christian Century, November 15, 2003.)

My favorite verse, as I have said before is Ecclesiastes 3, “For every thing there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die." Time is not linear; it does not necessarily have a beginning and an end. Time is much more cyclical, with each beginning a renewal. Jesus speaks of that very renewal.

And Jesus tells us that we have to be on guard and not let things weigh us down. For if the things of life weigh us down, we cannot see the renewal that life brings. There must have been times when Paul thought that his work was not worth it. As many times as there was success, there was also rejection. Ultimately, of course, there was the prison sentence that took him to Rome. Yet, as he expressed in his words to the church of Thessalonika, there was a reason to rejoice, that there was a community that held the promise of good things to come. And at a time when there is otherwise disappointment and a sense of despair, the knowledge that there is such a community can give a sense of purpose and enthusiasm.

In speaking of Advent as a sign of things to come, we are speaking of that same sense of purpose and enthusiasm.

There is, in the pictures in my mind that I have collected throughout my journey, a picture of a tree. The tree is no longer there and I sometimes wonder if I can go back to the place where it once stood. It is a very singular tree, alone on the plains of north Missouri. But when I see that tree I know I am near Kirksville and where I went to school. I did not know it at the time when I first saw the tree what the future would hold; I just knew that being there would bring me something that I might not otherwise find.

Jeremiah speaks of a tree and of the branch that will spring from the root of that tree. That branch is Jesus and his coming will bring hope and promise to all of His people.

That is why we celebrate Advent. It gives us that very sense of hope and promise. It gives us a sense that something special is about to happen and that it is worth sticking around to find out what it is.

Somewhere in our life, we have stopped to find our directions. Advent is a lot like the tree by the side of the road that someone tells us to look for as we go to where we are headed.



The Hope of Promise, The Promise of Hope


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the 1st Sunday of Advent, 3 December 2000. The scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16, 1 Thessalonians 3: 9 – 13, and Luke 21: 25 – 36.

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I don’t know about you but I found that pairing of the prophecy of Jeremiah with the prophecy of the Second Coming of Jesus in Luke to be an interesting one. As this year began, there was much talk about the new millennium and Christ’s Second Coming. Just as Advent marks His First Coming, so too does the beginning of the third millennium renew interest in His Second Coming. But as this interest rises, we should make note of the fact that many modern day commentators feel that we never adequately dealt with his first one.

Second, it is important that we try not to nor should we get bogged down in schemes designed to locate the exact date and time of this occurrence. As Luke later wrote in Acts, Jesus told the disciples that it was not for them (or us) to know the time or the season when the Kingdom of God would be set up on earth.

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom of the Lord? And He said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.” (Acts 1: 6 – 7)

In this passage, times refers to the chronology or duration of time — “how long.” Seasons refer to the epochs or “events” that occur within time. The disciples, and thus us, were not to know how long it would be before Christ set up His Kingdom, nor were they to know what events would transpire before its establishment. Peter later pointed out, in 1 Peter 1: 11 that even the Old Testament prophets did not know the timing between the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.

Jesus continued in verse 8 by pointing out the disciples should not be worried about the date of Christ’s return but rather to carry the message of the Gospel throughout the world. The same is true today. Our task is not to convince people but to testify to the truth of the Gospel.

Christ’s coming should be one of celebration, not fear. The truth of the Gospel should not be one of fear and retribution but rather hope and celebration. That was one of the reasons that Paul wrote the letters to the Thessalonians.

The season of Advent reminds us that Christ came to offer hope, to change the relationship between God and His people. In a society where the system of laws, rites, and institutions were the norm, such as was Israel at that time, it was very easy to forget that God was a living and constant presence in the world.

A world that relies on laws, rites, and institutions tends to forget and not see that their faith is a dynamic and living faith. The prophets of old cried out because of the conservative reliance on institutional approaches. Laws, creeds, and institutions are important. They must however, by design, be subservient to an understanding of God’s purpose for man. Laws served a purpose but laws do not define who God is. Because God is the living Lord, he can change the institutions, he can restated the creed, and he can renew the law, calling the people again to go out like Abraham. In fact, this is what happened in Christ.

It was Christ who took upon himself the form of a servant. He was the one who broke free from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity that had imprisoned the faithful.

It was Christ who emptied himself of all claims to timelessness and freely delivered himself up for us all — opening himself to our needs — even though that very openness lead to his death on the cross.

When the scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus and wanted Him to rebuke the disciples for eating wheat on the Sabbath, in clear defiance of their interpretations of the rules of society, Jesus rebuked them. “You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel,” (Matthew 23: 23) he told them in no uncertain terms. In another instance, a woman accused of adultery was dragged before him. Again, it was clear that a law had been broken. Jesus could have easily won the scribes’ approval by upholding their sense of righteousness but, instead, he asked those who were without sin to cast the first stone.

When the trembling woman looked up at him, he said, “Where are your accusers?” She said, “They are gone.” He said, “Neither do I accuse you. Go in peace.” (John 8: 3 – 7, 11)  Tradition says that later this same woman sold everything to help support Jesus’ ministry.

By changing the nature of the law and the institution, Christ was able to meet the needs of the outcast, the hopeless, and the helpless. To these, Christ offered hope at a time when there was no hope of meaningful participation in the benefits of life. To those in despair, Christ offered acceptance when the world excluded them, dignity when it was denied them and spiritual guidance when the world around them cast them aside.

Paul, in Chapter 2 of his first letter to the Thessalonians, commented on the way the Word of God transformed the people, offering them a better reality that any other god might. He noted that they, the Thessalonians, could also contrast the grace and love of God through the Gospel with the legalism and pride often produced by the Jewish religion of that day. Paul then reminded the Thessalonians, in the reading for today, that when Christ is a part of our lives, that love and grace of God would shine through. Their goal (and ours) should then be to work so that others can see that love as well.

It was written that you could find the living God in the pages of the Bible. But you will also find him where you are. Nothing in you life is so insignificant or so small that you cannot find God at its center. We think of God in the dramatic things, the glorious sunsets, the majestic mountains, the tempestuous seas, but he is the little things as well. He is in the smile of the passer-by, the yellow glint of a daisy in a field, the falling leaves of early autumn.

God may make himself known to you through the life of someone you know. It may be that there is someone who loves you so deeply that you dare to believe that you are worth loving and so you believe that God’s love for you could be possible after all.

The season of Advent offers us both a hope and a promise. There are no limits to the ways that God may make himself known. Today Christ asks us to make the First Coming more than just words in print. He says to each and every one of us, “I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who know my grace and formed by love. Now the hour has come for you to see the signs of new hope that are being given to all of the world and to join Me in interpreting that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know Me as their Lord and Savior.” The call is very clear that just as we celebrate this season of Advent and the coming of Christ, we should help others so that they too can know the promise and hope that know.

 


Creative Stewardship


We just completed our annual church conference and one of the decisions was to change the fiscal year of the church from a “January to December” basis to a “July to June” basis.This is 1) more in line with the operations of the church and 2) moves fund raising to perhaps a better part of the year.  If we had kept our budget cycle in line with the calendar then our stewardship activities would be right now and perhaps that is not the best idea at that the moment.

I sometimes wonder about stewardship because it is often stated in terms of the operation of the church itself instead of the mission of the church.  It is almost as if the mission of the church is its operation and what the church does comes secondary.  I have seen two different churches make the pledge to tithe the weekly offering (that is, take 10% of the offering) and set it aside for the apportionments.  In both cases, the churches were struggling financially.

In both cases, the apportionments were paid in full by the end of the year (in the first case, this was after not having paid any apportionments for six months; in the second case, it resulted in being one month ahead on the apportionments) and with no adverse effects on the operations of the church.  To the best of my knowledge, both churches have prospered and grown.  In a third case, the church was also declining but they rejected the idea and sadly continued the slow and painful decline of the church; it may very well close after next year’s Annual Conference.

It cannot be categorically stated that such an idea was the significant reason for the churches nor was this a creative use of the prosperity gospel theme.  It was a simple statement that this is what we are about, everything else is secondary.  If everything else has to be met before the apportionments are paid, I think it is clear that the people are not focusing on what a church is but rather what they want the church to be.

I feel the same way about fund raisers as the means to financial solvency.  Fund raisers are nice and I am going to propose one in a paragraph or two.  But fund raisers should, in my opinion, never be used to meet budget shortfalls or long-term needs.  Fund raisers are not the way to fund a church but I see too many churches that utilize various forms for just those reasons.

Once upon a time a church I was involved with decided to have a hog roast.  It was intended to be an event that would let the people in the area know that the church was there.  That first year, it didn’t do too well but that was because we didn’t check the schedule and the hog roast conflicted with another community event.  The next year, there was a discussion about having another hog roast.

The issue was raised that the first one didn’t raise much money (which was never the reason in the first place).  I pointed out that it did in fact turn a profit and that the second one would as well.  It wasn’t the same as Joe Namath guaranteeing that the Jets would be the Colts but it was close.

The second hog roast was a success, both monetarily (though, again, that wasn’t the reason for the event) and from a mission standpoint.  For in organizing the second hog roast, I got someone involved with the church in a way that utilized skills that he had.  If the purpose of the hog roast had been to make money, we may not have had the second one and we would not have brought someone new into the church.  But because the hog roast was put on to bring people in, it was a success.

There was a hog roast the next year and there were new people involved with it so it could be deemed a success.

The business of the church is the people and the people should be put first.  If you put the building that is called the church, then you have problems.

Now, having said all that, here is my idea for a fund raiser that has a nice outcome. It will require that you have one or two musicians who can write music.

They write an original piece and you show the musical manuscript to everyone.  Then you say, “if you want to know how this sounds, quarter notes cost so much, rests are a $.25 a piece, and a chord is $10.00” or something like that.  Full orchestration will probably raise enough money to fund the operations of the church for a year or so.  And in the end, you have a nice little piece of music that reminds you that people put it together.

How Will It End?


Here are my thoughts for Christ the King Sunday, 22 November 2009. The scriptures for this Sunday are 2 Samuel 23: 1- 7, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 18: 33 – 37.

On this day as we complete another cycle in the church calendar and prepare for the beginning of Advent and the church’s New Year, it is perhaps fitting that our scriptures today speak of a beginning and an end. But in light of the discussions taking place, some on the internet, some in churches, some in families and some in the minds of many, I want to put into words some of those thoughts and what I think they mean for the future of the church.

And God said to John the Seer, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” I have heard this translated as “I am the Beginning and the End”. For many people these words offer a vision of a violent end to the world. It is part of a discussion that that began some two hundred years or so ago and continues today about how we began.

There are those who speak of the beginning only in terms of the Creation written in Genesis while there are those who see the beginning only in terms of the “Big Bang”. It is almost as if you must accept one or the other of these two views and are required to see the other as sheer foolishness.

This isn’t a discussion of Creation, Creationism, Intelligent Design, and/or evolution. It is, however, a discussion about the end of the church.

For me, the beginning comes in three stages:

1) The beginning of the universe,

2) The beginning of mankind, and finally

3) The beginning of one’s own consciousness and awareness.

The physical data tells me that this world is several million years old, not some six thousand years. The evidence is there and if it has somehow been tampered with so as to make a six thousand year old rock seem like it is several million years old, I want no part of any god that would do such a thing. And those who would argue that the evidence is only probable evidence need to examine how it is that such evidence is gathered and checked.

God created us in His image and He gave us the skills and ability to reach out and seek these things beyond our earthly limits. I cannot conceive of a god that would create beings in His image and then turn around and limit what humans can and cannot do.

It is humankind’s ability to think and envision that allows us to find a way to explain things. If we did not have that ability, we would not have ventured far away from our homes to find lands across the sea; we would not have looked at the stars and asked how we could get there. We looked at the moon from far away and wondered how to get there. We see things and asked why.

That is part of our own individual consciousness; in asking why, we created gods to create, explain, and seek answers. That is our identity. But our ability to explain only applies to the physical world; we are still at a loss to explain good and evil as a facet of the world around us.

Our existence comes not just from our physical presence on this planet but from our ability to think and reason, to know what can be explained because of the physical evidence and what must be understood through faith and belief. Our own existence has allowed us to understand that good and evil are not parts of our physical being but parts of our soul.

It is our ability to reason and think tells us that there is a something “out there” that we need to know more about. It has been a part of our being from the day we began to reason. It is the part of our being, our ability to reason and think that we ask “why?” Why did God give us the reason to think and reason? Why did He give us free will?

One day, some three thousand years ago, a young person had the audacity and the temerity to ask an elder to explain who we were and why we are here. It is a story that had been told many times in many places. One such story took place in what we have come to call Israel and it is the story of our being and our souls. Instead of rebuffing this young child, the elder gathered the young of the community together and began to explain those questions. And that is how we arrive at the third beginning.

I was raised in the church, though I would think that mine was a pragmatic upbringing. We went to the church that was closest to where we lived. But wherever we were, we went and it would have an impact on my life.

When I was twelve, I made a choice to seek a better understanding of who Christ was and where I fit into things by earning the God and Country award in Boy Scouts. This would thus lead to my membership in the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now the 1st United Methodist Church) in Aurora, Colorado. There may be some who saw this as a culmination of a journey; perhaps even I saw it that way as well.

But over the years, I have found myself in many situations where my background and knowledge has not prepared me as some would say it should have. I have found myself questioning my beliefs, sometimes because of what has happened in my life, sometimes because of what others have said. I have seen others questioned their beliefs and leave their faith because they could not answer the questions or they did not like the answers.

I have seen others leave their faith because they were not allowed to question their beliefs. And by the same measure, I have seen others who will not allow their faith, their beliefs to be questioned. And unfortunately, I see too many people today who are in this latter category, not allowing others to question their beliefs and themselves refusing to question them as well.

But questioning is, to me, the hallmark of belief. For, if we do not question our beliefs, if we do not seek to find the answers, then we risk having a faith that is rigid, inflexible, and incapable of truly being alive.

And that is what has happened to most denominations today. The elders of the church today say things that sound very similar to what the elders said when Jesus walked on this earth. Like the elders of the church then, they are bewildered and amazed when a child speaks words of wisdom and creativity. That is, of course, if there are any children in their church today and if they allow them to say anything.

The church today attempts to dominate the thought processes and daily lives of the people, some just in the local church, others nationally.

Instead of fostering thought about who Jesus was and what His message means to the people today, they hold onto old and often incorrect ideas, they argue points that don’t even exist in the Bible, and they make policy that has no relationship to the way Jesus worked with those who followed Him, both in Galilee and then throughout the Mediterranean after His death and resurrection.

It was evident in the amazement of the elders when the boy of twelve challenged them in the Temple during that Holy Week. It was evident in how the establishment condemned Jesus and his followers, calling them rebels and heretics, rebels against the policies of the lands and rebels against the leaders whose only interest was in their own self-preservation. It is the same today.

There are those who would stifle thought and creativity in order to make their story of civilization factual. There are those who would seek to impose religious law in ways that it was never intended.

I have been reading Robin Meyers’ new book, “Saving Jesus from the Church”. He offers some interesting thoughts about the state of the church today and I anticipate adding more comments over the next few months. But his comments and his thought reflect and echo some other things going on, some which are close to home, and some which are far away.

They are reflection of David’s last words and Jesus’ words to Pilate and what those words mean to each one of us. They are a reflection of reports of the people leaving the ministry because the denomination is more interested in the letter of the law to be the spirit of the law, because the denomination insists that typewriter is better than the word processor as the means to prepare sermons and reports and because the denomination doesn’t even see, let alone understand or use, what social networking is about.

And there are those in society today that say that the church is not only outmoded but the whole concept of religion is as well. It is a society that seems to place faith and reason into separate spheres of thought and which will not allow them to interact. And it is not just one side of the spectrum or the other that will not allow this to take place; it is both sides. Those whose life is faith and faith only seem to feel that there is no room for reason in their lives; and those whose life is reason and reason only have the same disdain for faith.

These are not the End Times that so many fundamentalists would have you believe but they very well could be the end of the church, in form and denomination. I don’t think that religion as a means of expressing faith will end but it will, if has not already, become a very difficult time to express one’s faith openly.

The problem at this point is that Jesus pointed out that His Kingdom was not of this world. To understand what Jesus is saying requires a new way of thinking, of thinking perhaps outside the box that the world and society seeks to place each one of us in. That is why it is so difficult for those who live lives in faith alone or reason alone have difficulty with the other concept; they have locked themselves into one box and they cannot escape.

The Gospel message hasn’t changed over the years; hope exists beyond the boundaries of time. It isn’t the translation that offers the message; when someone tells me that the King James Version of the Bible is the one true translation, I have to wonder how it was that Jesus, the disciples, Paul, and their contemporaries spoke in Elizabethan English while everyone else was speaking Aramaic. If the words that one says are true to the message, then the translation is trivial. And the words speak of a Christ that offers hope, not rejection. The works speak of a promise for all, not just a select few. The words speak of redemption and a release, not limits and imprisonment.

The one thing that I have discovered in my own personal journey with Christ, from those days in Montgomery, Alabama, when I made the choice to seek Jesus and God in my own mind and soul to these days is that the Jesus in the Bible is not the Jesus spoken of today. The God of today bears no resemblance to the God of the Bible. And the time has come to turn the church back, not in time, but to its roots and its original and true thoughts. We do not need to discover new writings; the ones that we have tell us what is going on. All we have to do is look at what we are saying and how that compares; then the change will take place.

There are going to be those who hear what I am saying and read what I have written here and they are going to call me a heretic and an unbeliever. But I know in my heart what I believe and I know in my heart that I have been called to say these words.

There are those who will hear these words and read these words and echo agreements, for these thoughts are their thoughts as well. The question for these individuals is “are you called to seek the new church, the church that John the Seer really envisioned?” How will the church end? The decision is not in the literature or the words of individuals, it is in your heart and your mind.

Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch


The stories about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, at least as far as I am concerned, are an integral part of Southern folklore. Unfortunately, in this day of political correctness, telling such stories has fallen by the wayside.

But, like all folk stories, these stories give us an insight into the human character. And so, with no apologies for the lack of political correctness and with no intent of offending anyone, here is the story of Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch.

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby!

Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch by Uncle Remus

“For a mighty long time” Brer Fox had tried to catch Brer Rabbit and Brer Rabbit had outwitted him. The closest Brer Fox ever came was this:

He built a contraption of molasses and tar that he called a “Tar Baby” and put it where Brer Rabbit was sure to find it. When Brer Rabbit came across the Tar Baby he tried, fruitlessly, to converse with it. In anger, Brer Rabbit punched at the Tar Baby until he became completely stuck.

Brer Fox, overjoyed at finally capturing his nemesis, mused aloud over what to do with him. With every idea (barbecuing, hanging, etc.) Brer Rabbit pleaded, “Do what you want but please don’t throw me into the Briar Patch!” Brer Fox, wanting to hurt the rabbit as badly as possible, flung him into the briar patch. Brer Fox realized his mistake when, instead of crying in agony, Brer Rabbit smiled smugly at the fox and sang that he was “Born and bred in the briar patch!” and Brer Fox knew that Brer Rabbit had once again outwitted him.

Now, if Brer Rabbit had not been so full of himself, he never would have gotten entangled with the "tar baby". But he could not stand it that someone would ignore him and that is what got him into trouble. And the more he struggled with that sticky concoction, the worse the situation got.

But as much as Brer Rabbit’s struggle reminds us what happens when our pride prevents us from solving problems or how it can get us into a deeper mess, so too does Brer Fox’s reaction tell us something about ourselves. Like we might have, he saw the thorns of the briar patch as a problem and not as a solution.

We don’t like thorns. Thorns hurt. We want simple problems to solve in life, ones that will quickly go away. Problems that are hard to solve or take too long are often called "thorny". We don’t want them in our lives. NIMBY, or not in my backyard, has quickly become the acronym for those problems that we don’t want in our lives. Our solution to such "thorny" issues is to give them to someone else.

The reference to thorns is not new. Paul referred to "the thorn in his flesh." (2 Corinthians 12: 7)  It has never really been established just what this thorn was. It could have been a real ailment or the reference to some temptation in Paul’s life. Or it could have just have been a metaphorical statement that served as a reminder of what Paul should focus on.

The writer of Proverbs also referred to thorns as an indication of laziness. "I went by the field of the lazy man, and the vineyard of the man devoid of understanding, and there it was, all overgrown with thorns; its surface was covered with nettles; its stone wall was broken down. (Proverbs 24: 30 – 31)  If we are lazy, our work becomes harder because we have to overcome the thorns that grow in the place of good work.

Even Jesus used the idea of thorns to show the difficulty of life. In the parable of the sower, some of the seeds were thrown on rocky ground and did not grow because it was impossible to do so. Some were thrown into a patch of thorns but the thorns grew more rapidly and prevented the growth of the seeds. It was only the seeds that were sown in the fertile soil that had a chance to grow properly. (Matthew 13: 3 – 9)  Later, Jesus explained to the disciples that "he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes untruthful." (Matthew 13: 22)

Just as the writer of Proverbs and Jesus both place the presence of thorns in one’s life in a negative sense, so too is David’s reference to thorns in today’s reading one of contempt. His use of the phrase "sons of rebellion" is one of contempt and scorn. It is the same phrase that was hurled at David as he had fled from Jerusalem and the rebellion incited by his son Absalom. David’s comments are in anticipation of God’s judgment on the ungodly, which like thorns are fit only to be burned.

But, in the case of Brer Rabbit, he knew what good come out of thorns. For him, they were the solution to the problem, not another problem. In today’s world, such thinking is often called "outside the box" or the result of a new paradigm.

Our reading from Revelations this morning gives us insight into such a new paradigm. For many, this passage is a description of the Second Coming. But I see it in an entirely different manner. The coming of Christ in one’s life is more likely to occur as it did for John Wesley, one of quiet assurance and comfort, than it is described in Revelation. But however it comes, it brings with it a sense of assurance and comfort.

Bringing Christ into our lives is the simplest and easiest way we have for empowerment. Contrary to what people may think, having Christ in one’s life does not insure that their problems will be solved. But there will be a confidence in their lives that will enable them to face the problem and solve it.

Pilate was faced with a dilemma that evening in Jerusalem. How should he resolve the problem with Jesus? The simplest solution was not the easiest by any means and that was the solution that Pilate wanted. Pilate could not find fault with Jesus but was forced by the desires of the crowd to take an action that he did not want to.

In the end, Jesus was given a crown of thorns. This crown of thorns was in mockery of a kingly crown and meant to embarrass or ridicule Jesus. But this crown of thorns is an expression of Christ’s suffering for us. And through Christ’s suffering, we find our freedom.

There will be times when we are trapped, struggling to find a solution. In such times we need to think in a new way, much as Brer Rabbit did when he was trapped with the tar baby. Brer Rabbit knew that the thorns of the briar patch were not a source of pain but rather a path to his freedom.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is a day when we are reminded that Christ is king, not of this earth but rather of heaven. He is our king and his crown is made of thorns. And in the pain and suffering that those thorns inflicted on Jesus, we find our freedom from sin and death, just as Brer Rabbit found his freedom in the briar patch.



 

Is This The Beginning or The End?


This is a sermon that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY, on Christ The King Sunday (26 November 2000).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 2 Samuel: 23: 1 – 7, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 18: 33 – 37.

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When I started teaching several years ago, I showed a movie about how we kept and marked time. The story of the movie was that a country was trying to determine what time it was. Since no one knew what a clock or calendars were, it was necessary to study the history of time keeping and calendar making.

The setting of time, both in terms of the clock and the calendar, has always been an arbitrary decision. Until railroads spanned the country and there was a need for a universal time system, every town and country in this country set its own time. While we can say for sure that it is 1030 a.m. on Sunday, November 26th, the telling of time has not always been so precise. In John Wesley’s time, clocks were bulky and highly unreliable. For the people of Jesus’ time, time was measured by the hourglass and by noting certain events. By noting the events around them and the passing of the seasons, calendars could be developed.

Certain events tend to dominate the calendar, both the yearly calendar of daily life and the church calendar. The reason we celebrate the beginning of the New Year on January 1st is our celebration of Easter. When problems arose about the timing of Easter and the coming of spring, Pope Gregory changed the existing Julian Calendar. The resulting calendar, known as the Gregorian calendar, is essentially the calendar we used today. With the new calendar, several countries decided that it was better to celebrate the New Year on January 1st rather than with the changing of the seasons around April 1st as has been the custom under the Julian Calendar.

Even the schedule for Easter, perhaps the single most important celebration in history, is tied to guidelines that tend to confuse most people. Easter changes each year because it is dependent on the phases of the moon and the vernal equinox. As a result, the seasons of Lent and Easter, and the celebration of Pentecost Sunday change from year to year.

Fortunately, Christmas and Advent are a different situation. Because Christmas is fixed to December 25th, the four Sundays of Advent are easy to anticipate and that makes the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent, today, very easy to determine.

Today, in the Christian year, is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the yearly cycle that begins with Advent and the celebration of Christmas. In a system of time keeping subject to mankind’s own whims and desires, it is nice to know that some things are fixed and certain.

That is what John wrote to the seven churches when he began the Book of Revelation. God is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega, one who was, is, and always will be. In a time when that which is made by man crumbles and disappears, God is always present.

Jesus expressed the same idea when He told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world. In that way, Jesus was showing that His kingdom went beyond the time frame of any earthly kingdom.

But Jesus was put to trial because the Jewish leaders saw Him as a threat to their earthly kingdoms. Even Pilate may have first thought the same thing. That is the reason why Jesus asked Pilate if he was asking about the kingdom or if the Jewish leaders put the question to Pilate.

If Pilate was asking the question, then Jesus could be considered a threat to Pilate’s own rule; but if the question was given to Pilate by the Jewish leaders, then it could be considered a matter of theology and thus no threat to Roman power.

Pilate knew that Jesus had done no wrong and was more that willing to let him go. In the Greek text, when Pilate asked Jesus if he were the "King of the Jews?" the emphasis placed on the word "you" indicates that Pilate did not see Jesus as was the defiant rebel to the Roman throne that the Jewish leaders made Him out to be. Much as been done to make Pilate the villain in this trial but he was trapped between the need to keep the Emperor in Rome happy and the need to keep peace among the Jews and Romans in Israel. There is no doubt that Pilate could have chosen his own path but when you are tied to earthly rules and constraints, as he was, it is very difficult to do so. But because the Jewish leaders saw Jesus as a threat to their earthly power, Pilate’s hand was forced.

As he was dying, David expressed God’s expectations for rulers. Bringing blessing like the light dawn after the rain, like a clear morning, like tender grass — each of these similes spoke of new life, purity, and refreshment. The function of the king was not to impoverish a nation but rather to ennoble them as he presented them the refreshing will of the God.

We might contrast this with how the rulers of Israel reacted to Jesus. It is probable that those who had Jesus arrested and brought before Pilate knew exactly what the message of the Gospel that Jesus had been preaching meant. But, to them, it was not a promise of hope but a promise to end that which they had developed over the years. Jesus was not a threat to Pilate, as the Gospel reading points out, but he was a threat to those who were empowered to served as God’s servants and had sought to misuse that power.

David’s concern (as we read in the Old Testament reading today) was that God’s covenant with his people would continue. In Verse 5, David speaks of the covenant that God made with him and asks if it will not increase. This somewhat rhetorical question expresses David’s faith that God would carry out His promise, a covenant based on God’s sovereign, unchangeable will.

What makes God’s Kingdom special is that despite its timelessness, it is opened to us through Christ. No longer is our relationship with God one of a religious relationship to a Supreme Being, absolute in power and goodness, but rather one of new life for others, through participation in the Being of God.

The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote that there was a time for every season. Seasons come and things change but the timelessness of God remains. Because God never changes, because there is no beginning or end, the message of hope and salvation remains the same. The Gospel and its message of hope go beyond all that we know and can ever hope for. The Gospel is a road beyond, a path that transcends all cultures, all human constructs, all civilizations and conventions. When we accept Christ as our Savior, it changes our relationship from one of time that ends to one that never ends.

As this day ends and we complete another year in the life of the church, we have to realize that it is not the end. Rather another year, one of hope and promise, begins.

What Is Truth?


This is a sermon that I presented at Alexander Chapel United Methodist Church, Mason, TN, on Christ The King Sunday (23 November 1997).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 2 Samuel: 23: 1 – 7, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 18: 33 – 37.

Alexander Chapel was part of a two-point charge (with Pleasant Grove UMC the other church) that I and three others helped cover.  When Robert Clark, the assigned pastor, was at one of the churches, one of the four of us was at the other church.  This Sunday it was my turn to be at Alexander Chapel.

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At the entrance to CIA Headquarters in Washington, D. C., there is a sign with a quote “Seek the truth and the truth will set you free.” Now, considering the object of the CIA is to gather intelligence and determine the truth from those facts, I find this to be a very appropriate quote for them to having, even if it seems a little unreal for a spy agency to quote from the Bible.

The gathering of knowledge so that we may better understand who we are has always been the nature of mankind. But the truth that is determined from this study and knowledge is of this world and often does little to help us to understand who we are. There will come a time though when, even with all the information at our disposal and with all the modern methods of information gathering, we will be faced with the question that Pilate could not answer.

In the next verse after the Gospel reading, John 18: 38, Pilate asks “What is the truth?” Sooner or later, we must answer this question. For even as we gather more information about the world around us, we find that we cannot use that information to help us understand our place in this world or what our relationship with God is or could be.

David, as he lay dying, spoke of his relationship with God. In 2 Samuel 23, verse 2, he said “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me, his word was on my tongue.” Later, in verse 5, “Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant arranged and secured in every part?” As he lay dying, David understood what it had been that guided his life. Yes, David had strayed from the path that God wished he would have followed, but he always came back. To some extent, it is that way for us. As we gather more knowledge and power in whatever we do and seek, will we remember from which we came?

Consider Francis of Assisi.

When I, Francis, heard the call of the Gospel, I did not set about organizing a political pressure-group in Assisi. What I did, I remember very well, I did for love, without expecting anything in return; I did it for the Gospel, without placing myself at odds with the rich, without squabbling with those who preferred to remain rich. And I certainly did it without any class hatred.

I did not challenge the poor people who came with me to fight for their rights, or win salary increases. I only told them that we would be blessed — if also battered, persecuted, or killed. The Gospel taught me to place the emphasis on the mystery of the human being more than on the duty of the human being.

I did not understand duty very well. But how well I understood — precisely because I had come from a life of pleasure — that when a poor person, a suffering person, a sick person, could smile, that was the perfect sign that God existed, and that he was helping the poor person in his or her difficulties.

The social struggle in my day was very lively and intense, almost, I should say, as much so as in your own times. Everywhere there arose groups of men and women professing poverty and preaching poverty in the Church and the renewal of society. But nothing changed, because these people did not change hearts. . .

No, brothers and sisters, it is not enough to change laws. You have to change hearts. Otherwise, when you have completed the journey of your social labors you shall yourselves right back at the beginning – only this time it is you who will be the arrogant, the rich, and the exploiters of the poor.

This is why I took the Gospel path. For me the Gospel was the sign of liberation, yes, but of true liberation, the liberation of hearts. This was the thrust that lifted me out of the middle-class spirit, which is present to every age, and is known as selfishness, arrogance, pride, sensuality, idolatry, and slavery.

I knew something about all this.

I knew what it meant be rich, I knew the danger flowing from a life of easy pleasure, and when I heard the text in Luke, “Alas for you, who are rich” my flesh crept. I understood, I had run a mortal risk, by according a value to the idols that filled my house, for they would have cast me in irons had I not fled.

It is not that I did not understand the importance of the various tasks that keep a city running. I understood but I sought to go beyond.

You can reproach me, go ahead. But I saw, in the Gospel, a road beyond, a path that beyond, a path that transcended all cultures, all human constructs, all civilization and conventions.

I felt the Gospel to be eternal. I felt politics and culture, including Christian culture, to be in time.

I was made always to go beyond time.

Are we not like that? Has the accumulation of power, knowledge, and other worldly goods taken us away from God? And yet, isn’t it the Gospel that provides the means for us to come back.

In Revelation, John saw Christ coming again, saying “I am the Alpha and the Omega, that who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Go back to Pilate question to Jesus in the Gospel reading for today, “Are you the king of the Jews?” This question had two meanings. Pilate could have been asking Jesus if he was a rebel, intent on establishing an earthly kingdom and overthrowing Pilate.

If this was the case, Pilate knew what he could and would have to do.

But, as Jesus noted, his kingdom was not of this world. The difficult thing for us is that we must understand this answer;’ that we must go beyond a worldly kingdom and see God’s kingdom and Jesus’ ministry as it really is.

On this day that we call Christ the King Sunday, when we celebrate Christ’s presence in this Kingdom, we must also consider Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wrote

But if is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is utile; you are still in yours sins.

To Paul, the truth was very simple. Christ died and was resurrected, all to save us from our sins. To St. Francis, the Gospel had no meaning until it was in his heart. To John Wesley, the power of the Gospel was useless until he accepted Christ wholly and unconditionally.

For us today, the same is true. Christ is and will be King forever as long as our hearts are open. Christ told his followers to seek the truth; Christ told Pilate what the truth was.

When we know and understand this truth, we will be free from the shackles of sin. If we cannot accept this, if we are not willing to accept this, then the only kingdom we can have is an earthly one and we will have no freedom.

But if we accept Christ, if we understand the truth of Christ’s kingdom, than freedom is truly ours. Today He asks you “What is the truth in your hearts?”

“Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude”


Here are my thoughts for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Samuel 1: 4 – 20; Hebrews 10: 11 – 14 (15 – 18) 19 – 25; and Mark 13: 1- 8.

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I had several things cross my desk this week as I was preparing these thoughts. First, my wife sent me some pictures of a church that had been converted into a personal home. (http://forwardon.com/view.php?e=Id12473ba76d0865e8&type=latest&time=all)

Then I read the report that the Connectional table of the United Methodist Church is going forward with a plan to study the national and regional agencies of the denomination in order to reinvigorate the denomination. (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=7658283)

Finally, I read Donald Haynes column about ways to think about the small membership church. (http://www.umportal.org/main/article.asp?id=6081),

The first of these “notes” was somewhat humorous in that it reminded me of the setting for “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie. But it also struck a chord about how we see God’s House, our church.

There is no doubt that the United Methodist Church is dying physically, if not spiritually. Dr. Haynes notes that the United Methodist Church is 19 years older than the general population. The other numbers that he mentions don’t bode well for the church as well.

It takes an average attendance of 150 to support a church in today’s economy. He doesn’t go into the details but one can see that what he is saying is that many of the churches in the denomination do not have these kinds of numbers. From my own experience as a lay speaker in this district, I know of no church, including my own, that has that type of attendance. With the costs of health insurance and pensions rising, the crisis of the dying church is also fiscal.

He does offer a variety of options that, in part, match some of my thoughts about what we can and cannot do. My thoughts came from the experiences as a lay speaker in a variety of places and settings; Dr. Haynes pointed out that many of the models for smaller churches have been studied in the past.

But these models have been cast aside because the current leadership of the denomination is not familiar with small churches. How could they? To get to a point of leadership, pastors have to rise through the ranks. Though they may have started at a small church once a long time ago, they moved up to medium-sized and larger churches in order to take on the administrative roles they now have. Second, most pastors probably don’t like the small church. It is hard working at a church far away from the excitement of the ministry, dealing with personalities and situations that are never covered in the academic world. The only hope that many small church pastors have is that they can do a reasonably decent job and then get moved up to a bigger church so that they can get a pay raise.

Finally, the parishioners of the small churches don’t like the models because the models require that they share their pastor with another church, a church with whom the members haven’t spoken civilly with the members from the other church in years. Besides, there is glamour to having one’s own pastor. He or she is “our” pastor and he or she will do what we want them to do; yea, right!

This makes the announcement of a new study to reinvigorate the denomination, in my mind, questionable. We have studied the problem from a variety of angles and multiple solutions have been offered. The denomination has made an honest effort to let society know that it is alive when the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” advertisements were first run, they ran at 2 in the morning. How many people watched those ads? How many people would have responded to an ad about open doors at a time when the doors were really shut?

I think that the Gospel reading for today, a reading in which Mark has recorded Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple, is highly appropriate in light of the Council report and Dr. Haynes comments. Now, we know that Mark wrote this Gospel after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A. D. but we cannot be certain whether Mark recorded Jesus’ words or if he simply modified the story to fit the situation. Actually, I don’t think it matters.

The destruction of the Temple, prophesized or not, changed the nature of Judaism. The Jews could no longer see the Temple as God’s House/Home and it must have devastated them. It forced a radical rethinking of the nature of the religion. The same can be said for the early Christian church.

I am not enough of a theologian or a historian to understand how the destruction of the Temple affected the early Christian church. I do know that they had a hard beginning. Jewish authorities didn’t like them; Roman authorities didn’t like them. There were even arguments between Christians as to whether one had to be a Jew before they could be a follower of Christ or whether anyone could follow Christ. And there was the argument developing, if I understand the chronology of the writings of the New Testament, about which was more important, faith or good works.

But when we hear about the pending demise of the church and the denomination, for which we do not need some expensive survey to tell us as we see it every Sunday in our church, we are hearing the words of Jesus to his disciples along the road to Jerusalem, prophesying our own doom.

When we hear discussions about big churches and small churches, of churches that can carry the load and churches that are too weak to do so, we are hearing the Old Testament reading for today. Elkanah had two wives, Penninah and Hannah. Penninah was the “good” wife, able to give Elkanah the sons that society demanded; Hannah was barren and, in society’s eyes, a “bad” wife.

The good churches are those which can give the conference the resources needed to survive; the bad churches don’t have the resources or perhaps the capability to provide the resources. But there the story changes; in today’s story, the denomination elders seem to want to get rid of the unproductive churches. In the Old Testament, Elkanah gave Hannah a double portion of his love. And Hannah prayed to God that she would be able to return the blessing. And from this story came Samuel and a new ministry in Israel.

We do not need another study. First, it is a waste of money; second, it won’t tell us anything that we don’t already know. We don’t need to change our worship services by offering new music or having preachers who are “hip”. Those are superficial changes. The message of the Gospel is a powerful message of hope and renewal; amidst the ruin of the Temple, people heard a message of hope. But it required a new thinking.

When I started thinking about this piece, I had a different title in mind. But, as many things go, the title didn’t seem to fit. And as I was writing, I was reminded of a phrase from a Jimmy Buffet song, “changes in attitude, changes in latitude.” I don’t know if we need a change in latitude as much as we need a change in attitude.

So hear the words of the writer of Hebrews telling us that the sacrifices of the priests were of no value and that what was needed was faith offered by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The writer of Hebrews speaks to me of a new way of thinking.

We will not find this new way of thinking in a message that threatens people with doom and destruction for they already know that. We will not find this new way of thinking in a message that excludes and casts out people; we seem to think that we are the only ones who can read the Gospel message. Those whom we cast aside and exclude from the church can read the Gospel and they see the hypocrisy in our message. That’s why they are leaving the church; that’s why they aren’t coming to church.

We don’t need new forms of music that will show the youth of this country how modern the church is. If the music doesn’t move you, it doesn’t matter how it is played. And the music won’t move you unless it echoes the message of hope and promise.

What is needed in today’s church is not marketing skills but story-telling skills. We need to tell the story, the true story. We need to put the story out there for the people. And if that means supporting the small church because that is where the people are, so be it. The bottom line for any church will always be the souls that are saved and come to Christ and that is a number that can never be determined in the present time. When you look at a financial bottom line as a measure of success, you miss the point.

We need a change in attitude. I have seen it occur. I have seen churches that were down and about to die change their attitude and put the work of the church before the finances of the church. And guess what, those churches grew. I have seen churches put the finances of the church before the work of the church and those churches died. It is and will always be about the attitude of the people.

We need a change in latitude, a change in attitude. And it is possible. It is that change that occurs when you come to the altar rail and kneel there and open your heart to the Grace offered to you by Christ. It is that change that occurs when you say to God that you will accept the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and you will work to see that God is present in this world, even when you leave God’s House.

Changes in latitude, changes in attitude should be more than a phrase in a song; it should be the mantra of a church, be it local or denominational, that plans on living into the next century.