Square Pegs and Round Holes


I was at Dover United Methodist Church this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 2: 4 – 14; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14.  I will be at Dover again next week (Location of church).  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.

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I thought I knew where I was going with the Scriptures for today when I chose the title for this message. But, since the time that I made the decision and over the past few days, some things have transpired that made whatever reason I had disappear. Still, the meaning behind the title, of feeling like a square peg being forced into a round hole, is valid and I hope that it will help us understand how today’s Scriptures can help us respond to what is transpiring in the world today and in the coming days.

First, let me start off with a declaration. I chose a long time ago to be a Christian. I chose to do so because of what I was taught and what I learned. I did not need to be at Calvary, standing at the foot of the cross watching Him die for my sins. Nor did I have to be with the other disciples that First Easter morning to know that He had risen from the grave and conquered sin and death.

I have come to know in my own heart and my own mind what the truth of Christ is. It is a decision that at times makes me feel as if I were a square peg in a round hole. I know that Jesus offers each one of us the opportunity to follow Him and He left it up to each one of us to make the decision to do so. He did not lay out the path and say this is the only path; He did not say that we had to go this way or that way. All He said was “Follow me.”

I will admit that there were times when I didn’t follow Jesus, when I chose to walk on my own and because I did so I endured turmoil and distress. But, because of what I was taught and what I learned, I could remember the words of the writer of Hebrews telling me that God was always there and He would not let me down. And I knew that I could always come back to the right path.

It saddens me when other will tell me, with all sincerity, that the path that I have chosen to walk and the manner in which I have come to believe is wrong. It is not for others to judge my path or to tell me the path that I should walk

We, as a society, as a culture, as a people and as a world, have come to a crossroads on that path. It is a crossroads that we have come to time and time again in the history of this world. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Go stand at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the directions to the old road, the tried and true road. Then take it. Discover the right route for your souls. But the people said, ‘Nothing doing. We aren’t going that way.’” (Jeremiah 6: 16)

What we have to do today is help others find that right route, not simply tell them that there is only one right way or one right path. In the words of the traditional American song, “You got to walk that lonesome valley; you got to walk it by yourself. Ain’t nobody here can walk it for you; you got to walk it for yourself.”

In a time when churches and denominations are losing members and especially at a time when the public sees Christians as a legalistic, hypocritical collection of mean-spirited individuals, we have to find new ways to bring the Gospel message to the world.

Maybe it would help if our churches were a little more “hip” or “cool”. Maybe we wouldn’t have to worry about building our church numbers by counting all the people who log onto our webcasts or download the podcast of the sermon. There is a new kind of church out there in the real world today, a church where the pastor and congregation are hip, cool, media savvy, fashionable, artistic, culturally aware, and socially concerned. It is a place where tattoos, scruffy beards, and skinny jeans abound. I am definitely a square peg in a round hole in this case. I have to wonder how much of what these churches have is a natural expression of the presence of Christ in their lives and how much is a marketing ploy designed to bring people into the church. Even the author of a new book (Hipster Christianity: Where Church and Cool Collide) is not sure what is happening in these churches. I am not so certain that the individuals in the churches themselves know what is happening. Convinced in their own “coolness”, they may have lost the essence of the message. I am glad that they are socially concerned but I hope that means that they actually go outside the walls of the church and show the people the Gospel message through their actions and deeds. (Go to http://stillsearching.wordpress.com/2007/09/16/types-of-hipsters-part-one/; http://stillsearching.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/where-to-find-christian-hipsters-10-u-s-cities/; http://asceticpaige.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/hipster-christianity/ – this one leads you to a quiz that tells you how much of a hipster Christian you are; I have a low CHQ (Christian Hipster Quotient) and that is just find by me.)

I know that there are many congregations who would absolutely go apoplectic if any of these “hipster” Christians were to enter their sanctuaries. They would do so if there was anyone who even dared suggest a change in the routine of a Sunday morning. And that is, I believe, what the Gospel message is about. Any church which puts more emphasis on its own culture, what goes on inside the building, is not a church that embodies the Gospel message.

So, how does one reach out and include all those in the community? After all, that is what Jesus was saying in the Gospel message today.

One way is to involve the technology of today. There has been a discussion about the role of the Internet in the life of the church. There are many technologically savvy individuals in the world today; for any church to say that they are not going to be technologically oriented is to say to these individuals that they are not wanted in that particular church. I should point out that the United Methodist Church has set up a directory of all the churches in the country and you can find just about any church you want. When I looked for churches within a fifty-mile radius of Newburgh, I found that there were some 280 United Methodist Churches. Each church had a brief description of the church and where it was. But just about 10% of those listed either didn’t have an e-mail associated with the church or the e-mail listed was wrong. Similarly, there were a number of errors with web pages. If a church is going to have an e-mail address (and I believe that it should) and is going to have a web page (again, something that I believe they should), then they must also make every effort to insure that the address is correct and the site up-to-date. Someone who searches for a church and finds the wrong e-mail address or an incorrect web page address or an out-dated web page is going to think twice about visiting that church.

But the discussion this past week that took place was about moving the actual church on-line, of scheduling services that would be broadcast on-line and even holding communion in a virtual world.

Here I am definitely a square peg in a round whole (shoot, let’s face it; I am a 21st century Luddite)! I cannot even imagine a church service in a virtual or on-line environment. I can see where there are benefits to putting the church on-line but I see no benefit to say that the church is found only on-line. It runs counter to the very nature of what a church is to be, a gathering of individuals at a specific time and place. It also runs counter to what the IRS says that a church is; see “Church – What’s Your Definition?” If we cannot come together as a group of believers, then what is the use of coming together at all?

But we have to spread the word and blogging is part of that process. As you know, I blog and posting the sermons that I give is part of that process. I think that blogging is an important part of evangelical outreach. It doesn’t reach everyone, especially those without computers but it does reach or can reach many people.

Sometimes I get comments; most of the time I don’t. Comments are an important part of blogging because they give you a sense of what the blogging community is thinking. And I wonder why I don’t get a whole of lot of comments. Perhaps it is because I don’t blog the “right” way.

In her blog for August 21, 2010, Reverend Sonja Tobey posted a piece, “Thanks for Noticing”, in which she thanked Katie Z. Dawson for including her in a list of blogs in the article “Blogging for Pastors” in the current issue of the Circuit Rider. I was naturally disappointed that I wasn’t included in the list but since I am not a pastor I would probably have been excluded from consideration anyway.

Dawson did provide some pointers for those who are thinking about becoming bloggers. It is a good list to think about but it does have one point that I question. There seems to be an unwritten rule that says blogs have to be short and readable (somewhere between 500 and 750 words). It should be noted that I passed that limit a long time ago. J

This isn’t the first time that I have heard that a blog has to be short so that people will read it. Now I hope that my messages are understandable and readable; I know that they are not short by any stretch of the imagination. But I am not going to stop writing when I hit an arbitrary limit in words if I haven’t finished my thoughts. One of the problems today is that we want everything, including the sermon, to be short and not require too much thinking on our part; we want our religion like our news, in sound bites that we can quickly digest. So, if it came down to winning a popularity contest for bloggers or having a serious and lengthy discussion about the nature of the world, I will opt for the serious and lengthy discussion.

That’s because we need to have serious and lengthy discussions, especially when it comes to the meaning of religion in this country. The issue about the mosque in New York City jumps to mind. All I know is that what discussion has taken place has taken place with a shocking lack of knowledge about its location, Islam, and even about our own country’s history of religious tolerance and intolerance.

Let me remind everyone that to publically admit to being a Methodist, a follower of John Wesley, in the days before and after the American Revolution was to risk ostracism, rejection, and expulsion. We were viewed with suspicion because of our pacifist views (our refusal to fight in the Revolution was taken as a sign by many that we supported the King; some did but many did not. Pacifism is not necessarily a political idea.) We could not build churches or meet in established churches. It is almost as if we have forgotten what it meant to be a Christian in the early days of the church when we had to meet secretly or underground? Is it Christian to impose on others the same punishments that were once imposed on us?

Perhaps my concern is that I wish that the church today, or perhaps I should say that the people in the churches today, would step back and ask themselves where they are in the picture painted in the Gospel reading for today. Are they among those vying for the favored position at the table or are they sitting at the last place? Do they open their doors to all the people in the community or do they shut them at the first hint that there might be something different about them? Is it a church where square pegs fit into square holes and round pegs in round holes? Or is it a church that throws away such distinctions and says welcome to all and come inside and hear the word that brings peace and hope?

Is it a church that has forgotten from which it came and the God that brought them out of slavery and bondage? The words that Jeremiah spoke may have first been directed to the Israelites but they are words that we need to hear as well. Can we say that we have not destroyed the environment, polluted the land, the air, and the water? Can we say that we have not pushed aside God in favor of other, lesser gods simply because they are easier to pursue?

Look around and ask if the vessels that we use to hold water aren’t leaking? If there ever was a reason that I appreciate the translation of the Scriptures in The Message, it is today. God is asking us today why it is that we allow Sir Windbag and Lady Windbag, if you will, to preach their messages of hatred and ignorance. Free speech is one thing but to listen and give credence to such words is a matter of intelligence and choice. To accept their words as intelligent or truthful is neither. To say that they are the words of Christians is to deny the meaning of the Gospel in what I think is its truest sense.

The words in Hebrews speak of actions taken not for the self but for others. It is about how we relate to others; it is not about us. The words of the windbags are selfish words, words that hide greed, hatred, and ignorance; words hardly indicative of a Christian.

Jesus was crucified because He would not fit into the mold that society wanted Him to fit. It always struck me that Jesus was an outsider and when the establishment crucified Him, they took him outside the walls of the city. While we may desire to be an “insider” and sit at the honored place for the banquet, our place is with Jesus, on the outside and with those who have been excluded.

I do not ask that you be something you are not; what I ask today is that you consider if what you are is what you should be. What I ask is that you not think about where you fit in society but where Jesus fits in you. It is not a question fitting a square peg into a round hole but rather placing your life in Jesus’ hands and doing the work that He asks you to do. And then, it doesn’t matter whether you are hip or cool, whether you work on-line or not but rather what is it that you do to help others to find Christ in their lives. It’s hard being a square peg that others try to fit into round holes so it is a lot easier to let Christ fit into your life and go that route.

The sermon ended with “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” (The Faith We Sing 2112)

“Let Us Finish What We Started”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 5 September 2004.  The Scriptures were Jeremiah 18: 1 – 11, Philemon 1 – 21, and Luke 14: 25 – 33.

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I subscribe to a magazine called Christian Century. It is an interesting magazine in that it provides commentary on a number of topics, religious and secular and sometimes where the two overlap. It has a section called “brief notes”, little snippets of information that may or may not impact on one’s life. And it provides some of the ideas that I use in my sermons.

One of those recent brief notes was about Will Campbell, a maverick Baptist preacher known for his civil rights activism. In August 1998, Sam Bowers, a former Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted of a crime committed in 1966. Then, Bowers and some fellow Klansmen torched the house of Vernon Dahmer. The fire killed Dahmer and injured one of his three children. Dahmer’s offense was that he had allowed blacks to pay their poll taxes (that insidious little device that kept poor people, black and white, from freely voting in some Southern states) at his grocery store. The case was retried in 1998 and reporters were surprised to see that Pastor Campbell had befriended not only Dahmer’s widow but also Bowers himself. In asking why he would befriend both a murderer and the victim’s widow, he replied, “Because I am Christian, damn it! (I have edited his actual remarks)” (From Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian and noted Century Marks in Christian Century, 7 September 2004)

This is the essence of Christianity, to love the sinner as much as we love all others. It is unfortunate that many Christians today are unwilling to express this same thought. We may be reluctant and unwilling to forgive the sinner but if we are to model Christ on earth, it is the one task that we have to undertake.

These are troublesome times if you are a Christian. These are times when the true meaning of the Gospel message is co-opted for a softer sell, in hopes of bringing people to Christ. These are times when people change the Gospel message to meet their own political agendas. These are times when the message of Jesus to love others, help others, to seek peace is forgotten and replaced by hatred, envy, rage, and war. These are times when we are called to think and act in different ways.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is predicated on that very thought. Under Roman law, Philemon can put Onesimus to death for stealing from him and for running away. But Paul wants Philemon to think in an entirely different manner, to think of Onesimus in terms of brotherhood and as a fellow follower of Christ. It is for Philemon a difficult choice. He is free to follow the law; he is free to follow his conscience. Which decision will he make?

Paul asks Philemon to stop and consider what he will do. Paul is not necessarily asking Philemon to free Onesimus or any other slaves that he might own. Quite the contrary, he wants Philemon to see that Onesimus, having come to Christ, is now more of a brother than a slave. It is this relationship that Paul wants Philemon to consider because it is similar to the relationship between Paul and Philemon.

Paul wrote that God was in a position to demand much of us. But he chose instead to send His Son. And His Son emptied himself of all His power to become a servant to us all. The glory of God is disclosed on a cross where, while we were yet sinners, disobedient to Authority, Christ died for us. Love that cannot be commanded is evoked by love. God is not the cosmic bully who demands our compliance with divine directives but rather one who risked unconditional love in perfect freedom, knowing that it might not be returned. The summons to a holy life comes not as a blunt statement from heaven but rather is evoked through the stark reality of the empty cross.

Paul’s notes to Philemon indicate that Philemon was free to do whatever he chose to do. But, if he were truly living in Christ, he would accept Onesimus as Christ would have accepted him.

Like Philemon then, there are times when what we as Christians are called to do can be easily done. But other times, the call is very difficult. We willingly accept the easy calls but hesitate when it comes to the difficult ones. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose voice and life showed us what it was like to be a Christian under Hitler’s regime, once said, “when Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” (“Jesus Creed” – What is the focus of spiritual life? By Scot McKnight in Christian Century, 7 September 2004)  Such calls are the ones we would prefer not to answer; yet such is the call that is the very essence of today’s Gospel message.

The Gospel message for today tells us that large crowds were traveling with Jesus. After a rather shaky beginning in his hometown synagogue, Jesus’ message was beginning to catch on with people. Crowds were following and the crowds were getting larger every day. You can imagine how the disciples must have felt, seeing the large crowds and figuring that something was right. You can almost hear any one of the disciples saying, “Master, take a look at that crowd! We must be doing something right!”

But then Jesus stops and speaks of brother turning against brother, child against parent. He speaks of dying in order to live. He speaks of the cost that one must pay in order to be considered a true disciple. Can you imagine what would happen if any politician, Republican, Democrat, or Independent, were to tell the real truth and nothing but the real truth? As one commentator put it, they would never have to worry about an election campaign.

And that is exactly what happened in the Gospel message. As soon as Jesus spoke, in the very next verse, the crowds began to leave. To hear that families would split and that there was a great cost involved in following Christ was too great for many to hear. And unfortunate as it may seem, it is still true today.

I mentioned last week two grumpy old men who sought to keep Grace Church in St. Cloud in their image, rather than the image of Christ. I sought to counter some of their work, because I thought that the Gospel required we mirror the activities of Christ. One of these two men, Joe, was also president of the trustees and was the holder of the church’s safety deposit box.

While consolidating our church bank accounts, we had come to find out that the church’s safety deposit box was a personal rather than corporate safety deposit box and that Joe’s signature was the only one on the documentation. That meant that he could keep the church officials from accessing important church documents. Because we were moving all of our banking business to another bank, he had been asked to surrender the contents of the safety deposit box.

When he had not done so in a timely manner, a meeting of the Administrative Council was held following church one Sunday at the altar of the church. At that time, Greg, the Chair of the Administrative Council, told Joe that he needed to sign a document surrendering control of the safety deposit box so that the church could open the new account. Joe’s response was to physically attack Greg, choking him with his hands.

I jumped in between the two men and pulled Joe away from Greg. Greg was really in no danger from the attack as he was 6′ 2″ tall and a guard at the state penitentiary in St. Cloud. As such, he was trained to respond to such situations, and I feared that he would respond as he was trained. So, even though Joe and I did not agree, I sought to protect him. I was pulled off of Joe by one of his friends, told to keep out of the way and that anyway I was the cause of the fight. I have never really figured out how that claim could be made, other than it was I, as the chair of the Finance Committee who had discovered this problem with the safety deposit box.

That this took place was shocking, to say the least. But you also have to know that Greg was Joe’s son-in-law and after that Sunday, the family was irrevocably split. Joe, his wife and son left the church, and for perhaps five years they did not speak to Greg or his wife who was Joe’s daughter, leaving the grandchildren without grandparents. So, unfortunately, I know that the Gospel message is true.

I think that is why we do not like hearing the Gospel message for today. We are afraid of the consequences of what we will happen if we follow Jesus. And, I think this fear pervades how we advertise and reach out to people who need to know that Jesus is real and there is hope in this world of desolation, fear, and division.

William H. Willimon, formerly at Duke University and now one of the new bishops of the United Methodist Church, wrote about a pastor of a very large church who had removed the cross from the sanctuary of his church. He had done so because, in the pastor’s words, “We find that the cross is an impediment, a turn off, that it gets in the way of our attempt to reach people with the gospel.”

What on earth is the gospel that this pastor is attempting to preach? If this is true, and I have reason to believe that it is, then it is a good example of our dangerous willingness to reach the world at any cost. The trouble is that if the world ever gives the church a real hearing, we, as the church, will find that without the cross, we have nothing significant to say in return. Why bother offering a “salvation” that any other helpful social service agency can provide?

Social agencies provide the services that we sometimes need. It is clear, when you read the Gospel message that Jesus has no interest in meeting our material needs. Rather, he appears intent upon giving us needs we would not have had, had we not met him. He speaks of severance from some of our most cherished values so that we may gain what we do not have. But we rebel at this message for it means that we give up what we truly cherish, motherhood, family and self-fulfillment.

You have to wonder why, after thinking about what Jesus has to say, why more people do not stay away from church. He wasn’t saying that His was the way for nine out of ten who heard His words. He wasn’t saying that His was the truth we think we wanted or His discipleship was the life we seek. Clearly, Jesus spoke words that go against the desires and needs of the crowds.

We would rather hear words that make life easier, put a little lilt in our voice, a bit more sunshine in our lives. We like the blandness found in much of today’s spirituality because it does not call for us to do anything. It is no wonder that in the next verse from Luke for today, we read that the crowds began to get smaller. Even then, the path that Jesus gave was not a popular one. (Adapted from William Willimon’s notes for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost)  We are not always prepared to hate our family or give up our material possessions to follow Christ. We are not always prepared to follow Christ, no matter what the cost.

But people came to hear Jesus back then because what He said was the truth. Not everyone left because they knew that in Christ there was a hope and a promise not found on earth or in earthly possession. People were willing to pay the price that would ensure them what they truly desired.

It is the cost of things that Paul is writing Philemon about. It is the same for us. If we are truly living in Christ, then we will do that which, under other circumstances, would seem unreasonable or unattainable. Like Philemon, we are free to hold on to all that we have but we cannot be true servants of Christ if we do. While people may be tempted to seek an easier path, they must know that there is no such path; there is no wide and easy path that one can walk.

It is hard enough to understand the message of the Gospel or the love for others that Paul writes about today under ordinary circumstances.

What will happen when people, seeking Christ, find out the true cost? We already know the answer to that question, for we have the reaction of the people in the Gospel. They will leave just as quickly as they came. And what will they do when they see the hypocrisy in the words of those who have preached exclusion, division, and hatred. I fear that they will never come back.

It occurred to me while I was working on this sermon that only those left behind when the crowds begin to leave would truly understand the cost of discipleship. They are the ones, who by their loyal and timeless service to Christ, see beyond the present. I also recognize that this is a highly ironic statement because there are some who say the ones left behind are the losers in the battle for the kingdom of God.

Just as Jesus spoke of discipleship in new terms, perhaps we need to look at this time in our lives in another way as well. In the Old Testament reading for today, we are reminded of the potter sitting at his wheel, shaping the clay for a new pot. . In one particular video that I use in my science education classes, there is a discussion of techniques of Japanese potters. The value of these vases that these artisans produce is never determined until after the firing of the pots. Only after the heat of the furnace has burned away the excess materials and hardened the clay is it possible to determine what it’s true value will be. It is that moment in the artistic process where the pot is put into the fire and hardened that determines what it will be.

The same can be said for us; we are shaped by the master potter and tempered by the fire. Our value is never determined until we have been tempered and hardened by the all-consuming fire that God puts into our lives. It is a long process, one filled with uncertainty. We have no way of knowing what will come about from our efforts, for only those who follow us later will fully appreciate our efforts.

What we do today is a continuation of what others started. What we do today is not for us but rather for those who come after us. Our journey, admittedly at times rough and complicated when we would have rather had it soft and smooth, began some two thousand years ago when Christ carried the cross to Calvary. Should we not finish what those before us started? Should we not finish what we have started so that others will have the same chance?

“Under Construction”


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 9 September 2001.  The Scriptures were Jeremiah 18: 1 – 11, Philemon 1 – 21, and Luke 14: 25 – 33.

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When I first read the scriptures for this week, especially the passage from Jeremiah, I could not help but think of the irony of having these scriptures during the week that school started. I also thought of that T-shirt that grandparents give their grandchildren that has the caption, "Be patient with me; God isn’t finished with me yet."

As we begin this year, I can’t help but note how people will expect great things from the educational system yet expect it to be done at a minimum of costs. Over the past few years, I have found it amazing that people will cry out that our schools are failing, both in general education terms and in terms of the moral education of children, yet they are not willing to pay what it costs for education to be valuable. It reminds of the other T-shirt which points out that "it will be a great day for society when schools have the money they need and it is the defense department that has to have a bake sale to get the money for the new bomber it wants.

And when people call for an increased emphasis on morals in the schools today, I have to ask, "Where are the parents? Where is the church?" Speaking from the classroom side of the fence, it is very difficult to teach moral values acceptable to all parents when someone is likely to find a problem with what you teach. I have found over time that while many parents criticize the way things in turn demand that nothing be done to change the way their own children are taught. Teachers have enough to deal with and it is time in this society that the church and parents take part of the burden in seeing that our nation’s children are raised in the proper environment.

While Jesus was speaking of the cost of following him, he used the analogies of completing the construction of a tower or the fighting of a battle. When we look at the education of our children, we must look at it from the same viewpoint. What cost are we willing to pay so that our children’s education is complete. And that education cannot be completed on a Monday through Friday basis. Education occurs everyday, even when our children are not in school.

In a sense, Paul spoke of education when he wrote to Philemon. He spoke of the traits and characteristics we should have because of our faith.

Paul pointed out that he had heard great things about Philemon’s faith. Christian character is shaped by our faith in God and our love for people. These, as Paul repeatedly emphasized, are the basic building blocks of a Christian life. Love is a natural result of true faith in God. In making these two characteristics the foundation of our life, we find corresponding traits of motive, attitude, and activity.

Our best example of motivation comes from Paul’s appeal in verses 8 and 9. Paul appeals to Philemon to be merciful to Onesimus, solely on the basis of love. Paul admits that he has the right to demand that Philemon do the "right" thing but he wishes that Philemon would be motivated to do so by the right stimulus.

"Rights" are not important considerations in the New Testament teachings about the Kingdom of God. In fact, as Paul wrote, as Christians we have lost certain rights of retaliation and are expected to forgive. We are the stewards of God’s grace and blessings. Our response to situations should be motivated more by Christian love than a desire for retaliation.

We may say that we love our neighbor but it will be our attitude that shows whether or not we are truly motivated to do so. Our actions are clearly derived from both our motivation and our attitude. How we act will say more about who we are than any words we might say.

Thomas Steagald wrote that whenever he heard or sang the hymn "Have Thine Own Way, Lord", it reminded him of the little Baptist Church in Milton, TN, where he grew up. It was the type of chapel that I remember seeing many times when I would visit my grandparents in North Caroline, the type that was on the side of a dusty road that bisected the old white frame sanctuary and the cemetery where the old-timers of the community were buried. Like many churches of that period, it had two front doors that, from a distance looked like sad, spaniel eyes. Each door was for an aisle, and the women and children would go through one door, the men through the other. In the old (really old) days, it was said that you count determine the number of men who attended on any given Sunday by counting the cigarette butts on the ground outside the men’s door and divide by seven.

Steagald was, and perhaps so were you, reminded that through the singing of hymns like "On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand," "Onward Christian Soldiers," "Rock of Ages," "I Will Sing the Wondrous Story," that we gained our understanding of what it means to be a Christians. The images in that hymn, of the potter and the clay, come from the reading from Jeremiah that we read today. God told Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house to hear God’s further word. When Jeremiah gets to the potter’s house, he sees the potter working on a lump of clay. But while making the pot, the clay gets spoiled and the pot is ruined. But with skill and perseverance the potter makes another pot. The former intent becomes an actuality. The life we live is like that; instead of having others do the work, it is necessary for us to see things through. Instead of criticizing others for their inability to complete the task, we need to complete the task before us.

We are like the potter fashioning a pot on the potter’s wheel. I had a friend who was a potter and he pointed out that until the pot was fired, there was no way to tell what it would be like. Working with the pot on the wheel was the only time you had to make sure that it would turn out all right. Once it went into the oven and was fired, it was through.

Our actions, however minor we might think they are, are what the children see. It is by those actions that they learn. When a child is baptized in this church, we as a congregation agree to live in such a way that they will see whom Christ is and what Christ means. When someone joins this church, we are reminded that we are asked to work for the church, by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. When our actions, our motivations come from Christian love, then our children will grow in Christian love.

That is why we have communion. That is why the table is an open table. Because God loved us enough to send his son, we are to share in his blessings. Because that love is for all, the blessings are for all. Each day, we go through live reminding others of what Christ means to us. The challenge before us continues to be to live a life in which others see Christ.

But Where Does It Start?


Here are my thoughts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 August 2010. The Scriptures are Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.

I will be at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY, this coming Sunday (Location of church). The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.

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If you have been following my blog for any length of time, then you know that I have served as a lay minister in the past. At first, it was simply to “hold down the fort” while the district found a regular pastor. Then it changed into part of a strategy to rebuild or renew the church. I would like to think I was successful in those assignments but that will only be determined some time in the future.

As the assignments changed from simply preparing a single sermon for a single Sunday every once in a while to a sermon every week for 50 weeks at a time, I found myself looking at the materials a little differently. While the education of lay speakers, both local and certified, in my own district does involve an examination of the Scripture and the preparation for a particular Sunday, I don’t recall receiving that information when I first began lay speaking.

That’s not to say that my own education as a lay speaker was lacking. I had more than enough opportunities to watch, listen and learn from numerous pastors about the development of a sermon and a series of sermons. The manner in which one of lay speaking courses is run gives me the opportunity to continue learning and to continually update my knowledge and my skills. (I wouldn’t have created the “role” of Nathaniel Bartholomew if it hadn’t been for presentations that two individuals gave during our Lay Speaking schools).

But somewhere along the line, as I sought to get the churches that I lead and directed to focus on the issues of rebirth, renewal, and rebuilding, I found that my success came from preaching the Gospel. I don’t know how much of this comes from training, from experience, from my background, or just simply the sheer act of standing in a pulpit Sunday after Sunday.

I also know that it is more than looking at the words written some 1900 years ago and repeating them to the congregation and saying “now, do likewise.” It means really getting into what was happening and perhaps saying the words with 21st century English rather than an old and stilted translation. You all know how much I love to use or read “The Cotton Patch Gospels” by Clarence Jordan. It isn’t just the fun of reading Bible stories with a Southern twist; it is seeing the words come alive.

We have to see the words; we have to hear the words in terms of what is happening to us today if the meaning of the words is to have any validity. If we see the words and actions of the Bible only in terms of thoughts, words, and deeds of some two thousand years ago, they become fixed, rigid, and dead. Dead words have no meaning; dead words can offer no life or hope.

I cannot offer you a specific date and time when I began to see that life and that hope that comes from the Bible. I know that when I read passages like today’s passage, where Jesus challenged the religious authorities on matters of their law and their regulations, I began to see Jesus as a revolutionary. I grew up in an environment that said that the rules were made to be followed and no questions were to be asked about those rules.

But I also grew up in a variety of places. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense when the rules of one place were not the same as the rules for another place. And that is what Jesus is saying to the religious authorities in the Gospel reading today. Explain the sense of laws and regulations that say it is alright to treat a work animal but not a human being on the Sabbath. If a person is sick, they need to see a doctor.

Yes, there is a reason why we are encouraged to keep the Sabbath holy (a reason that seems to have been lost in the culture of today); however, when a person is sick, that person needs attention and there can be no rules that should prevent that from happening. But the religious authorities over the years, in order to enforce that commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, created a myriad of rules and regulations to do just that. Each time a rule was created, someone found a need for a loophole, and doesn’t that sound just like today?

When I hear or read of someone who seeks to bring into play a world of Biblical law, I think of those times when Jesus spoke out against the establishment and wonder what those others are thinking. I cannot help but think that they have forgotten the Gospel message; they have forgotten how the words and thoughts of the Bible are to be read. They want that dead Bible with its fixed and meaningless words.

And when I hear of those who criticize Christianity and say that they will never be part of the Christian church, I also think that they haven’t read the Gospel message. They do not know the meaning of what is inside the Bible. And how can they know? The only voices that they hear are the ones who call for Biblical law and condemnation of life styles that they, the earth-bound judges, deem unsuitable for inclusion in society.

They are the ones who shunned the women who had been sick for so long yet whom Jesus cured with a single command. They are the ones who criticized Jesus for violating their laws. Those who have turned away from the church have turned away because of those who feel their laws, their regulations are more important that what God wants us to do.

When you create a world of countless laws and regulations, fixed in time and meaning, you create a world when it is impossible to touch God. The writer of Hebrews reminds us how the Israelites feared Mount Sinai. God was meant to be respected, not feared. We are welcomed into His Holy City by the words and deeds of Jesus.

There are many today who seek those words; something inside them tells them that there is hope in the Gospel message. But they don’t know where to find those words; they don’t know who is speaking to them in a world that seems so rigid and fixed.

Part of my growing up, part of my beginning to see that the words of the Bible were alive and held meaning and hope came when I was in college. When I began, the college I attended was known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College; now it is known as Truman State University and is named after the former President, Harry S. Truman. President Truman is said to have placed on his desk in the oval office a plaque that read “the buck stops here.”

It emphasized the responsibilities that the office of the President held. Somewhere along the line, we have to ask ourselves not where the responsibilities stop but where do they begin. Who is responsible for telling others through their thoughts, words, deeds and actions that the words of the Bible are alive and have meaning in the world today? Who is responsible to see that the Gospel message of hope and renewal is a true message for today?

That responsibility lies with each one of us. When God chose Jeremiah to be the prophet to His people, Jeremiah tried very hard to get out of the task. But God said that He had chosen Jeremiah. When Jeremiah said that he could not speak, God told him, as He told Moses and all the other prophets, He would give him the words to speak.

When we accept Christ as our Savior, our lives change. When we allow the Holy Spirit into our lives, we become empowered to help others change their lives. That is what happened to Jeremiah; that is what happened to every prophet, every disciple and every follower.

So where does it start today? Where does the preaching of the Good News, the Gospel start? It starts here today with each one of us.

How Do I Get To Twin Valley?


This was the last of the summer series I did for the Kansas East Conference in 1995.  The Scriptures for this 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 27 August 1995, were Jeremiah 28: 1 – 9, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 22 – 30.

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We are fast approaching the next century. And it is being done with a certain degree of fear. Last year, U. S. News and World Report reported that only 26% of Americans feel that the world will be a better place in the coming century. Forty-two percent (42%) felt that the world would be worse than it is today. (11 July 1994)

There are always unknowns to tomorrow but with the new century, these unknowns seem to have a greater impact. But the fear only comes because we do not know what the future holds. It is our lack of knowledge about the future that brings this fear.

The opening verses of the passage from Hebrews describe the initial contact between the people of Israel and God:

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that another word be spoken to them.

To the Israelites, God was someone to fear. Their fear came from their lack of knowledge about God.

Should we fear what comes with the new century? Historians tell us that people back in the year 999 truly feared the coming of the year 1000. In the area of computer technology, there is a certain fear about what will happen to all of our computer files when the year 2000 because the numbers 00 are associated with 1900, not 2000.

Now that may seem like a trivial reason but it does indicate that there are unknowns to this coming time. It does lead to some simple questions. Who do we turn to; which direction do we take?

I entitled this sermon "How Do I Get to Twin Valley?" because I needed to know the directions for getting here today. But what happens when the map falls apart or when our destination is a time and not a place? For us to accomplish all we want to do in life; to know where we are going and to do so with confidence and without fear, requires more than directions on a map. (When I gave the sermon I showed the map of Kansas that I had been using that summer; it was almost totally in shreds from all the folding and unfolding.)

To meet the challenges of the coming years, to face the unknown we must acknowledge that God must be a major part of our life.

The passage from Jeremiah illustrates that very point. This particular passage is the beginning of a narrative between two prophets claiming to speak for God.

Hananiah utters an oracle of salvation: the yoke of Babylon has been broken and within two years God will bring back to Jerusalem King Jehoiakim, the exiles of 597 BCE, and the sacred vessels stolen from the temple. Jeremiah, wearing a yoke to symbolize submission to Babylon, opposes Hananiah and his hopeful word. Indeed, he announces an oracle of judgment against Hananiah, a prophecy that comes to pass in his death that same year.

Can you imagine how the people of the court felt and what they said when Jeremiah issued his prophecy? "How dare Jeremiah! The good life is coming back, the exile will soon be over and we can return to Jerusalem with our king and our possessions and he has the audacity to say that Hananiah is going to die." But Jeremiah looked at the past and who was involved in this prophecy.

King Jeconiah was the king responsible for getting Israel taken over by Babylon in the first place. Jeconiah, as some of the kings before him, turned away from God. How could anyone expect things to get better if those responsible for the troubles in the first place were still running the kingdom? Still, Jeremiah did not abandon hope for the future. In the last verse of today’s passage,

As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of the prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

Just as we worry about the coming century, the people gathered around Jesus as he is walking towards Jerusalem were worrying about their future. But their concern was more self-centered; they worried about who was going to be saved. Had they done all the "right" things? To some extent these people were still trapped in the old view, that eternal salvation could be gained by following a set of established rules. Yet, it was those rules that had made salvation impossible. Society at that time was so riddled with legalistic and unbearable regulations that it was impossible to have a loving relationship with God. If you view God with fear and try to follow rules in order to keep God from getting angry, you quickly find yourselves lost and confused.

The problem that one gets into by simply following the law is that you start limiting your actions and abilities. It would be the same as going through life with your fists clenched, unwilling to grab new opportunities as they pass by.

The people of Jesus’ time no longer heard a message of a Loving Father who cared for His children. The rules and regulations of the church at that time made it impossible for them to do so. Many people at that time probably didn’t even know that their God cared for them. It wasn’t that they had left their religion but that their religion had left them. No longer did they hear a message of hope or promise. The people with Jesus that day knew that He offered something special and different but they were not ready to open their hearts and mind as He was asking.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray, addressing God as "Father." In doing so Jesus turned our relationship with our Father from one of fear to one of grace. When Jesus was crucified, the veil in the Temple was torn open, showing that there was now open access to the Father through Christ. No longer would it be necessary to follow the law in order for salvation to be gained.

"Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law."

The message Jesus offered to the people of Israel, the message that He offers to us today is one of hope and promise. It is a message that removes the fear from our hearts. Turn to hymn #58 in your hymnal. These are the words to the hymn written by Charles Wesley in celebration of his coming to Christ in 1739. As you read these words, you can begin to understand what the acceptance of Jesus Christ into one’s own heart can do. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, we take ourselves away from the earthly rules that hinder and bind us.

From my prayer devotion guide comes the following:

When we turn over our lives to Jesus, we are certain about the outcome of life. "Lord Jesus, I believe that thou art able and willing to deliver me from all the care and unrest and bondage of my Christian life. I believe thou didst die to set me free, not only in the future, but now and here. I believe thou art stronger than sin, and that thou canst keep me, even me, in my extreme of weakness, from falling into its snares or yielding obedience to its commands. And, Lord, I am going to trust thee to keep me. I have tried keeping myself, and have failed, and failed, most grievously. I am absolutely helpless. So now I will trust thee. I give myself to thee. I keep back no reserves. Body, soul, and spirit, I present myself to thee as a piece of clay, to be fashioned into anything thy love and thy wisdom shall choose. And now I am thine. I believe thou dost accept that which present to thee; I believe that this poor, weak, foolish heart has been taken possession of by thee, and that thou hast even at this very moment begun to work in me to will and to do of thy good pleasure. I trust thee utterly, and I trust thee now. (The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith).

Faith simply means trust. It begins with the knowledge that our own righteous does not God’s standard and we cannot ever get God to lower that standard. Faith is also not blind. It is based on fact, not mere speculation. We stake our lives on the outcome. We trust in Christ to prove His promise.

There are many things to fear as we come closer to the beginning of the next century. In the closing verse from today’s reading from Hebrews we gain a certainty about our future that no one on earth can offer.

See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven."

This phrase, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of what is shaken — that is, created things — so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12: 25 – 29)

The future can be frightening; it can cause us to be afraid. But the

One thing we owe to Our Lord is never to be afraid. To be afraid is doubly an injury to him. Firstly, it means that we forget him; we forget he is with us and is all powerful; secondly, it means that we are not conformed to his will; for since all that happens is willed or permitted by him, we ought to rejoice in all that happens to us and feel neither anxiety nor fear. Let us then have the faith that banishes fear. Our Lord is at our side, with us, upholding us." (Meditations of a Hermit by Charles de Foucauld)

With nothing to fear, we can see the directions to the Promised Land. We know the direction we need to take. As Jesus once commanded the fisherman so many years ago, so to today does he tell us "Follow me."

“Who Will You Invite?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 13th Sunday of Pentecost, 26 August 2007.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14.

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First of all, some things about this sermon must be stated up front. If anything so far has made you uncomfortable or if you think that I have deliberately picked the readings for today, you are mistaken. The scripture readings for today are part of the common lectionary and were probably picked over ten years ago. The title for today’s sermon was determined about six weeks ago, when I began looking at the month’s worship schedule. It is the coincidence of these events that confirms for me the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit to effect change in this world.

You have heard me speak about Grace United Methodist Church in St. Cloud, Minnesota on a number of occasions in the past. Grace is the church where I started the journey that has lead me to this place and time as a lay speaker in the United Methodist Church. In thinking of Minnesota, one often thinks of Scandinavians, Lutherans and "Grumpy Old Men."

But the area around St. Cloud is primarily German and Roman Catholic. I was attracted to Grace Church for a number of reasons. It was small in physical size, the minister seemed friendly and we had a sense that it was a lot like the church we left behind in Odessa, Texas. And the Germanic heritage of this area was found in Grace Church, the former Evangelical United Brethren Church in St. Cloud, which as you know are where my own roots lie. So, for those reasons, we decided to make Grace Church our church home in St. Cloud.

I felt that the movies starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were more serious tragedies than they were comedies. It seemed to me that during the three years that I lived in Minnesota, most of the "native" men were always grumpy.

On that first Sunday, only one person besides the pastor greeted my family and me. Were the decisions about joining not based on other factors, this might have driven us away. In those first few weeks of attending I noticed that there were always two gentlemen sitting by the door between the church entryway and the sanctuary. These two gentlemen were the epitome of grumpy old men with the stated goal, I later found out, of driving away visitors. I do not know now, nor did I know then or even understand why they would want to do this.

For at that time, Grace Church was a dying church with members leaving for other churches and attendance rapidly falling off. To drive off people seemed hardly the best tactic to undertake. I suppose I should have taken the hint and looked elsewhere for a church. Or perhaps I should have done what others had done and just let them do their thing.

But I didn’t think that was right, and no matter what others may have said, I began to greet people at the doorway to the church, giving anyone a slightly better image that they would have gotten a few feet later. I did not consult with anyone or ask permission from the pastor or the church council; I just started saying hello. As time went by, the two old men gave up their task and sought other ways to undermine the efforts of those seeking to turn the church around. Others began to help me in my greetings and a formal greeter program was developed. When I left Grace in 1994, it was said that a visitor could not get out of the church without having to say hello to everyone in the church. When I left Grace Church, the membership decline had stopped and attendance was increasing. The changes in the church allowed them to take on the task of building a new and bigger church.

I will not claim credit for any of the success that came to Grace Church. In fact, I don’t think I did all that much. My wife at that time, a Minnesota native, told me that doing what I wanted to do would not work. Minnesotans may be friendly to strangers but they do not always willingly let newcomers in their midst do new things. Still I thought something needed to be done to welcome people, visitors and members alike, each Sunday. Quite honestly, I wasn’t even aware of the passage from Hebrews that we read today. But something inside me said that I had to do something, something in line with what I had been taught all the years that I had gone to church. So without asking I began greeting people.

One can never estimate the consequences of meeting people. Though they may have forgotten what kindness meant to the church when I came there, Grace Church knew what kindness to strangers meant.

Some fifty years earlier a visitor came to Grace church. In the events that transpired, no one could ever remember who the visitor was or what had been said. But the visitor did; he remembered the warmness of the reception he received and the kindness of the members. So comforted was this stranger that he left a gift in his will to the church when he died. The money was sufficient to completely build a new parsonage.

Remember Abraham and Sarah? They welcomed three strangers into their household and for their kindness were rewarded with a family.

I think that the writer of Hebrews remembered the kindness of Abraham. In the second lesson today we are told to be kind to strangers and welcome them in. If we are Christians, then we are to give comfort to those who are in pain or lonely. It is easy to let strangers remain strangers and thus avoid any potential claim they might have on us. But this won’t work for those of us called to a Christ-mirroring vulnerability, one that regards the other as brother or sister and a claimant on our concern. The text from Hebrews challenges us to redefine strangers as angels, or as "friends we’ve yet to meet." (From "Living by the Word" by Bruce Wollenberg, Christian Century, 24 August 2004)

Hymn 408 (verses 1 and 2)

I mention this for one specific reason. I was hoping that today we would spend most of the day outside the front part of the church greeting and visiting with the bicyclists that rode by the church. I don’t mind it when some of my ideas get shot down (and believe me, I have had many shot down). I certainly don’t mind it when my ideas don’t work. Remember that Thomas Edison tried over 100 combinations of materials and setups before he was able to develop the working light bulb. But instead of lamenting on the many failures, he pointed out that he knew 100 ways that it would not work. So, like Edison, I keep trying ideas, looking for the ones that work. What I do not like is when an idea of mine is shot down for the wrong reasons, such as people believing that it was someone else’s idea.

I saw the sign advertising the "Tour de Putnam Valley" on Wednesday the 18th when I came into Putnam Valley to mail the August announcements. I made a phone call to one person whose expertise and skills in planning I considered up to the task. Before church last Sunday, there were several other conversations before church dealing with other matters. An offer to facilitate the process related to the food stop was made because of those other conversations. Unfortunately, there were some that presumed things that were not true. And, based on what I was told, the reasons given for not being able to help were totally unfounded and based on incorrect evidence and without factual basis.

I have been the pastor of this church for just over two years. In those two years, I have tried to effect a change in the attitudes of people. It has not been easy and I suppose that I could have asked for another assignment. But it is not my style or my temperament to do so. It was clear from the very first day that I came here that there are conflicts within the church and within the Putnam Valley community that were going to be difficult to resolve. The greatest difficulty arose from the fact that neither side in any argument was completely in the right. In many cases, I came away with the thought that both sides in the argument were wrong.

As I said at the beginning, I did not pick the scriptures for today; they were decided several years back. But the Gospel for today is most appropriate. If anything, my experiences over the past two years and culminating last Monday tell me that very few members of this church are willing to give up their honored seat at the banquet table.

Those are harsh words, I know. But God’s words to the people of Israel were harsh and angry and meant to show the people where they were headed. What has transpired over the past few months and years is nothing more than a squabble between people unwilling to get along and allow the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts. My decision to invite people to stop by was based on something inside me that says we need to say to people that this church is alive and well, not merely a place that every few months puts on an event to bring people together. Invite in the stranger and make him or her welcome. But it is hard to do when the people at the front of the door don’t want them to come in.

Remember that this building was built so that people could worship God. They accepted the notion of Methodism and its social gospel. This is part of the covenant that we will treat strangers as friends. It was built with the same covenant with God that the children of Israel made with God in the desert of the wilderness. But the children of God forgot the covenant that they had made; the children of God forgot who they were supposed to worship and what they were supposed to represent. There is a lot of anger in the words God spoke through Jeremiah but it is the anger of God who is reminding His chosen people what they have failed to do.

The words of Jeremiah in the coming days are going to be words of promise and hope, words of a new covenant and the birth of a Savior. But right now, the words of Jeremiah are angry words, words calling people to look at their lives and take the steps that are necessary to atone for their mistakes and their sins.

I had hoped that we would be offering water to thirsty riders right now; I had hoped that we would also be able to offer the water from the fountain of living water that God spoke of through Jeremiah. But I have to wonder if the closing words of the passage for today are not also true. People today are no longer capable of holding that water.

The writer of Hebrews closed with an admonition to not neglect to do good and to share in what you have. Praise God so that what comes out of one’s month is pleasing to all. Jesus told those gathered around him that day that they would be blessed when they brought in others to share in the bounty of God’s blessings. It may not be a repayment today but it was guaranteed at the resurrection.

So consider this today. The words of the Gospel are Jesus’ invitation to us; come and share the bounty of the heavenly kingdom. What we are on this earth does not matter with this invitation. All who seek God through Christ are welcome at God’s table. The invitation was given to us through the cross on Calvary; we are reminded that each time we see the cross that we are invited to be a part of God’s kingdom. We are told that much awaits us if we serve the Lord and offer praise and thanksgiving in His name.

Now, it is our turn. The early Christians squabbled over just about everything, arguing about what was correct and incorrect. They even argued about what food was proper, what was clean and what was unclean. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, suggested that they put away their differences, stop judging and despising one another so that they could work together in witness to the reconciling purpose of God.

"Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual understanding. Do not for the sake of food destroy the work of God." There were sharp moral differences between the Roman Christians, serious questions about what God required. So too are there serious differences between members of this church, serious enough to have driven members away and keep visitors from coming back.

Just like the early church, the stakes are quite high. Failure to resolve differences will cause this church to die. Paul would not be dragged into the power struggle of the Roman church and I have tried to do the same here.

But now I must ask what the next step will be. What shall we do? Like Paul, I would say "Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." And remember that we are called to serve a Lord who taught his followers to turn the other check when attacked and love one’s enemies. We should also recall that Paul encouraged all to not be overcome with evil but rather overcome evil with good. (Adapted from "A season of repentance" by Richard B. Hays, Christian Century, 24 August 2004)

We have also been called to be peacemakers. These are times when to be other could prove disastrous. I would much rather have spoken this Sunday on global terms and the need for a renewed spirit in the world; the times require it. But I also know that global changes start at the local level. There lies before us a great opportunity. But we cannot expect change of any kind unless we are willing to change ourselves. Saint Francis of Assisi once said, "When you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart."

We cannot preach peace or the love of Christ unless it is in our own hearts. So we must change, we must allow the presence of Christ to redefine our views and our thoughts. If we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our old systems, old options, and old values, then we cannot even begin to think in new terms. New visions cannot come from old structures; new values will not be created from old assumptions. Visions come when people are renewed, not by their reactions. If we allow our reactions to guide the paths we walk, we will never be able to see as we should and as we can. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

And so we are called, called to repent and become new. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Today, we have the greatest opportunity that we could imagine. We have a chance to invite Jesus into our hearts and experience the warmth and trust found only through Him. We have the chance to invite the Holy Spirit to once again come into our lives and renew that flame that leads and guides us, just as it did for the Israelites in the wilderness, to Christ. We have that chance to invite God into our lives and to renew the covenant made countless times that leads us out of the wilderness.

How will we answer the invitation that has been given to us? The doors of this church are open and they are open to all that seek God through Christ. How open are the doors of your heart and soul? Who will you invite to come into your life?

Hymn 408 (verse 3)



“Choose Wisely”


This is the message that I presented for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 2 September 2001, at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Hebrews 13: 1 – 9, 15 – 16, and Luke14: 1, 7 – 14.

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It was that great existentialist philosopher, Yogi Berra, who reportedly said that "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." There are times when we are faced with a decision when that seems to be the best solution. The scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share." For we as Christians, discipleship itself is a something that must transcend the confines of time and space, so that the love of Christ is always made tangible in a busy and often cruel world. Individually we are invited to live our lives in such a way that we resist the clutter of things and money that so easily can skew our perspective of what is right and good according to God.

Over the next eight weeks, as we conclude the season of the church known as ordinary time and prepare for the season of Advent, we will be reminded by Jeremiah and the Psalms, by Paul in his letter to Timothy and the writer of Hebrews, and by Luke that our most important work is to magnify the presence of God wherever and whenever possible in the world. As I said last week, to be a witness doesn’t require that we hit people over the head with scripture but rather that we show others, our family, our friends, our co-workers and strangers that we worship the one true God.

It is possible and most likely probable that we are not up to the task, even though, as the Psalms say in Psalm 139: 14, we "are fearfully and wonderfully made" by a generous and loving God. We are assured that to be a true disciple all we have to do is care for the world as God does. With both persistent prayer (Luke 18: 6 – 7) and a steadfast faith (2 Timothy 3: 14), we can find the ways to love the prisoner, welcome the stranger (Hebrews 13: 1- 3), give to others abundantly, and rejoice when they cannot repay us. (Luke 14: 14)

We will also be reminded that the commitment to the gospel is an absolute one; only those free of possession can accept it. (Luke 14: 33) The best way to resist the pull of possessions is by sharing all that we have, and doing so with joy; in the words of the Mother Teresa, "It is not how much you give, but with how much love you give it." Our ability to give, and to do so with joy and love, will sufficiently betray our allegiance, not to any worldly leader or thing, but to the Holy One who has called us into being.

The scriptures this week specifically speak of how we live our lives. The Christian faith is not simply a decision we can give only passing notice. In being Christian, we become open to the possibilities of God’s power in our lives. The call to be a disciple of Christ is not done solely to agree with some theological point but to transform our life through new relationships and new priorities. The passages from Hebrew deal with how faith can impact on specific areas of our lives.

The most important relationship, of course, is the one between the Redeemer and the redeemed. The relationship with Christ overflows into our relationship with others. In the first three verses of Hebrews 13, the writer notes that our relationships with others are of ultimate significance.

We are to love one another as brothers. True love of others involves affirmation as well as confrontation. As Christ said, when we love each other in Christian love, the world will know that we are His disciples. And Christian love extends beyond those with whom we share the same faith. The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the countless times where the stranger was an angel. How we treat strangers is a mark of our faith as well.

Verse 3 in the passage from Hebrews today notes that we are to treat the imprisoned as fellow prisoners and the mistreated as fellow sufferers. This means that we are to identify with the bondage and suffering of those around us. Christ’s ministry was set forth in Luke 4: 18 as a fulfillment of the prophecy to set the captive free and heal the broken hearted. His purpose is the purpose of his followers, and it has not changed; we are still to be setting people free and healing their suffering. This passage should also remind us that the first mission of the John Wesley was to minister to those imprisoned in England.

The treatment of strangers and those less fortunate than us was the topic of the Gospel reading for today. Jesus had come as a guest for dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees. It should be noted that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were not as bad as one might think. They were highly respected merchants with a heart for God. In some regards, Jesus was most readily identified with them, rather than with the Sadducees.

It is clear from the words of Jesus that he had never studied under Dale Carnegie. He was not there to win friends or influence people. At the dinner, Jesus noticed how subtly but surely people made their way to the places of honor in the home. They were good people and they wanted to be recognized for their good work.

But Jesus saw it differently. More is at stake in this passage than a lesson in etiquette. This is, after all, a parable.

People’s actions reveal their hearts. The Pharisees saw themselves as more important than others. In the eyes of the Son of Man, that is a serious charge. Jesus calls for humility among religious leaders, not blowing their own horns and announcing their own importance.

I am sure that some of the people who were there must have looked at their friends and their host and wondered, "Who invited this guy?" It was one of those awkward moments that we have all encountered in a meeting or at a dinner. One of those moments that we hope will go away quickly.

But Jesus continued by questioning the motives of his host. This is clearly not something you would do if you wish to eat at this place again. Jesus asked, "Why did you invite only the beautiful people of the town? Where are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind? Why are they not considered important enough to invite for dinner?"

Those are clearly, at least to those at that dinner and perhaps to many today, silly questions. Good upstanding people know that there are standards to be upheld, reputations to consider. Besides this was a Sabbath dinner.

And that was the point that Jesus wanted to make. Because this was a Sabbath dinner, it was the perfect time to invite all of God’s children — the poor, those who were not able to invite you back; the crippled and the lame, those who may have to be carried into the room; the blind, those who have to be led.

Luke makes increasingly clear that those who were religious may be the blind ones. They can’t see nor can they hear what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of God and how one enters into it. They assume that it is the powerful who will inherit the earth, not the meek and that the meek must be stepped on in the process. Jesus reminded the religious leaders, as he reminds us today, that they should see themselves more as servants than as rulers.

It was Jeremiah who told us that "You are what you worship." While we may confess one faith, the object of our true devotion will be revealed in our everyday actions and in the things that we devote most of our time and energy. And when our hearts are devoted to anything but God, we betray not only God but also ourselves.

Jeremiah was not the first to remind the Israelites why their kingdom would fall. As in the narrative in 2 Kings 17, verse 15 of today’s reading states, "They went after false idols and became false." It is as if to say worship well, acknowledging God and God’s will, and you will grow in faith and knowledge and love of God and god’s children; worship and serve other gods — whether they be gods of gold, positions of power, or lusts of the flesh — worship falsely, and you will become false.

One writer noted that though more than 2,000 years have passed this passage was first read, little had changed; if anything, we now have more access to a greater variety of useless things. The idols are different in name and shape, but their effect is still the same. Lifeless objects bring only death, never life.

God’s lament is also a statement of God’s love. "What did I do so wrong," God asks in verse 4, "that you would act so wrongly." Interestingly enough, it was God’s grace that was the occasion for sin. We make the choice as to the God’s we worship. In the end, we are always given the freedom to choose between God and not-God.

In the Psalms we read that the one who "fears the Lord and greatly delights in commands" rejoices, for "his posterity shall be mighty upon the earth." (Psalm 112: 1 – 2) The choice to "fear" (which can also be translated as "revere") the Lord has never been easy one to make nor is it an easy one to maintain. But God promises that "I will never forsake you nor abandon you." (Hebrews 13: 5)

The decision to be a Christian, the decision to walk with Jesus, is not one taken lightly. Clearly, there are other paths that one can take. Each day we stand at the crossroads, like Jeremiah in Jeremiah 6: 16

Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk it in, and you will find rest for your souls.

The Israelites who heard Jeremiah choose to walk other paths. Jesus reaffirms the rewards of choosing the goodness that God asks of us. When our generosity and mercy have no bounds towards "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind … blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you." (Luke 14: 13 – 14)  We are most pleased when our generosity (like God’s) is not repayable.

We stand today at the crossroads. Perhaps it is not a crossroad or intersection on a road somewhere but it is a crossroads in our own path of life. The question must be which way to go; what road shall we take? The invitation is made to choose the path of Christ.



Rocking the Boat


I am preaching again at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY.  Here are my thoughts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost.

This was first published on August 25, 2007.

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I have probably told this story before but it is worth telling again. We can trace my family lineage through my grandmother back to Germany in the 16th century. It is all together possible that my ancestors knew Martin Luther personally. I actually did not know this until a few years back and after I had begun my lay speaking career.

As I was beginning this path that I have walked, I discovered that one of my cousins was a minister in the Lutheran Church. As it turned out, his father and two of his brothers were also ministers. Through Paul’s efforts to plant the family tree, I discovered that I am the fourteenth member of our extended family to be in active ministry. It may be that being a minister is genetic in nature but I had made my decision and began my walk long before I even knew I had an extended family.

It is entirely possible that my call to the ministry today began like the prophet Jeremiah’s (Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10). I was twelve when I first heard the call and it has been a part of my life ever since, even though at times I ignored it. As I have worked on being a lay speaker, I have gained a clearer understanding of whom Christ is, who God is, and what their presence in my life means. This understanding is echoed in the passage from Jeremiah that says God knows us in the womb; it is echoed in the passage from the Psalms that we spoke today that it has been God who has been there and guided our lives when we have answered His call.

Faith is not something that you can easily quantify. There are those today who would like to do that, for then it becomes easier to justify it. Since faith cannot be quantified, they easily turn away from the church and seek solace elsewhere. They have the freedom to go anywhere they desire but they have no direction to guide them.

Others find faith quite easily but fear losing it. So they put their faith inside a rigid structure of laws and regulations. They have their faith but they are imprisoned in a cage of their own making and unable to move forward in life.

I can only suggest that there is a certainty in my life that can only come through having come to know Christ and to trust in Him.

And in this day, where God’s call continues to get louder and louder, there are many who hear the call but are unwilling to answer it. They quite easily say that they are too young or too old; they wouldn’t know what to write or what to say. And in a society that glorifies “following the crowd” and punishes the person “who colors outside the lines”, people are afraid to speak out. They are unwilling to speak out because they don’t trust the Lord in times when trust in the Lord is necessary.

In Meditations of a Hermit, Charles de Foucauld writes (From A Guide to Prayer by Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck – 1983)

One thing we owe to Our Lord is never to be afraid. To be afraid is doubly an injury to Him. Firstly, it means that we forget him; we forget He is with us and is all powerful; secondly, it means that we are not conformed to his will; for since all that happens is willed or permitted by him, we ought to rejoice in all that happens to us and feel neither anxiety or fear. Let us then have the faith that banishes fear. Our Lord is at our side, with us, upholding us.

Charles MacDonald, in Creation in Christ, writes (From A Guide to Prayer by Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck – 1983)

But let us note this, that the dwelling of Jesus in us is the power of the Spirit of God upon us; for “the Lord is the Spirit,” and “this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” When we think Christ, Christ comes; when we receive his image into our spiritual mirror, he enters with it.

When our hearts turn to him, that is opening the door to him, that is holding up our mirror to him; then He comes in, not by our thought only, not in our idea only, but He comes Himself, and of His own will. Thus the Lord, the Spirit, becomes the soul of our souls, becomes spiritually what He always was creatively; and as our spirit informs, gives shape to our bodies, in like manner his soul informs, gives shape to our souls.

In this there is nothing unnatural, nothing at conflict with our being. It is but the deeper soul that willed and wills our souls, rises up, the infinite Life, into the Self and himself more and more ours; until at length the glory of our existence flashes upon us, we face full to the sun that enlightens what is sent forth, and know ourselves alive with an infinite life, even the life of the Father. Then indeed we are; then indeed we have life; the life of Jesus Has, through light, become life in us; the glory of god in the face of Jesus, mirrored in our hearts, has made us alive; we are one with God for ever and ever.

The words that we speak should not always be our words; our thoughts should not always be our thoughts; and our service should always be for God and not for ourselves.

When we do that, we might be surprised as to the outcome. One Sunday early in my lay speaking career, my cousin Paul came up to hear me preach at my home church. Afterwards, we had lunch and discussed what I had done this morning. Paul said that he felt that my message was just about the right length but he didn’t think that I should have identified Jesus Christ as a revolutionary.

To this day I do not remember how I came to say those words. They are not part of the sermon I wrote and I only said them because they were what I believed and felt. I doubt that I would have said them in a normal conversation because such radical words would not have been easily accepted in that community. I can only think that there was a greater force in my life that day pushing me to say what I felt and believed. I have used that comment many times since then and I will continue to do use it in the years to come because it is what I feel and believe.

And the next year, during the Sunday service that was part of the triennial family reunion, my cousin Paul in his sermon spoke of Jesus being a revolutionary. I could only smile and, afterwards, I kidded him about what he had said. He could only comment that as we learn, we change.

Perhaps it is not correct to think of Jesus as a revolutionary. The term, at least in our times, is more often than not associated with political and violent change. Even though the majority of His disciples were Galilean and probably identified as activists and potential trouble makers by the Roman authorities, it was clear that Jesus was not interested in political change and, more often than not, definitely violent in nature. While Jesus may have exhibited a temper and used violence to clean the temple (See Matthew 21: 12 – 13, Mark 11: 15 – 17, Luke 19: 45 – 46, and John 2: 13 – 22), the message that He presented was a non-violent one. It should be noted that on the night when He was arrested and one of His disciples, probably Peter, cut off the ear of one of the Pharisee’s servants, Jesus stopped Peter and healed the servant (See Matthew 26:47-56, Mark 14:43-52, Luke 22:47-53, and John 18:2-12).

In that context, Jesus was most definitely not a revolutionary. But if one considers social change and how we view life, then Jesus was a revolutionary. It is also because of his concern about the nature of the church in England during the 18th century and how it related to the various parts of society that one could think of John Wesley as a revolutionary. It has been clearly demonstrated that because of the Wesleyan revival and the shift in the concern of the church to a more Gospel orientation that England was spared the violent revolution that occurred in France shortly after our own American Revolution. Perhaps we need to reconsider exactly what it is that Jesus did in His time and what John Wesley did in his time and how that applies to us today, in our time.

Jesus may not have been a revolutionary in the way that we think of that term but it was clear that He was rocking the boat and upsetting the ways of society. And that is the point that we need to consider.

The people of Jesus’ time had become locked into a singular way of life. Their faith was dictated by the laws derived from the Torah. The rigidity of the laws prevented them from adapting or being flexible in their thinking.

In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 13: 10 – 17), Jesus heals a sick woman on the Sabbath. To the lawyers in the crowd, this is a clear violation of the law. But as Jesus points out, if it was permissible to take an animal to the vet on the Sabbath, why was it not permissible to heal a sick person? We see too many situations even today where adherence to the law is more important than adherence to the spirit of the law.

When I was growing up, much of my education was in segregated or recently integrated schools. The law of the land was that no child should be treated unequally. So laws were passed and school boards made rules to ensure that equality was insured. But it was equality at a price. Instead of the schools providing text books, parents had to buy them. Of course, if a family did not have sufficient funds for new books, then they had to buy used books. Instead of schools having sufficient funds for extra-curricular activities, school boards gave each group a small amount of money and had the groups rely on outside sources (again, most often parent groups) to provide the additional funds.

From a legal standpoint, these were acceptable ways of meeting the requirements of equal opportunity and treatment. But despite it being legal, it simply meant that schools in high income areas had better equipment, better instruments for the bands, and better books for the students. Schools in lower income areas had to make do with whatever they could get whenever they could afford the purchase. Equality under the law does not always insure equality.

Jesus constantly challenged the authorities to meet the spirit of the Law, not the letter of the law. And because these challenges threatened their power, authorities reacted and sought ways to nullify what Jesus was doing.

The challenge of the letter and spirit of the Law are still present today. We hear in the political arena a call for a return to “state’s rights” as a way of controlling the federal government and restoring power to the people. As one who grew up in an era and a place where “state’s rights” was a way to limit the power of the people, I shudder at its implications for today. Similarly, I shudder at those in the religious arena who argue for a return to Biblical law.

These individuals contend that the laws outlined in the Bible are the basis for the laws of this country. They also argue that the word of God, as outlined in the Bible, is always and ever the truth. But this leads to any number of questions. Which version of the Bible do we use? Which modern translation of the Bible do we use? Are we to use the King James Version, with its decidedly political kingdom overtones? In what language should we be reading the Scriptures each Sunday?

Whatever the answers to those questions might be, the central question must be “Are we to consider the Bible as a fixed, immutable document? Are we to consider the Spirit of the Law more than we consider the letter of the Law?” For no matter what version of the Bible we read or what language we read it in, if we view it as fixed and immutable, then we limit God and we limit ourselves.

To see the Bible as closed and only an answer book is a grave error on our part. It allows us to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and justify harm in God’s name. We must listen and read passages such as these very carefully and honor the questions and tensions that they raise in us. If we listen with “new ears” we always will hear something different from what we expect. But we cannot do so if our lives are restricted by fixed or unchangeable laws.

In today’s Epistle reading (Hebrews 12: 18 – 29), the writer of Hebrews noted that the people were afraid to touch Mt. Sinai. The lightning, the thunder, the smoke, and the fire put fear into their hearts and they were afraid to come close to the mountain or even touch it because they would die. But the writer of Hebrews encouraged his readers to come to Mt. Zion, to touch and hear and envision Jesus Christ. Those who treat the Bible as fixed, unchanging, and immutable treat the Bible as if it were Mt. Sinai; the earth will shake, the skies will rumble and they will die if anything is done to the law. Those who hear the message of the Bible and how we are to treat people treat the Bible as Mt. Zion. The earth remains solid, heaven rejoices, and the people have life.

This, to me, is what Jesus was constantly doing. He understood what the law was; he also understood the limitations of the law. He sought to implement the spirit of the law. In doing so, he shook the foundations of power and authority.

This is the dilemma that we face today. How are we to “rock the boat?” In stating that we are Christians, we are openly stating that we shall seek justice for the oppressed; we shall seek and find ways to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. In a society where power is equated with wealth and where wealth is equated with righteousness, to speak out against either is surely to rock the boat. And that is something that we often do not want to do.

We can relate to Jeremiah. We have the luxury of knowing that Jeremiah is going to be rejected by his own people for his words and his actions. But, we also have the luxury of hearing God say to Jeremiah that He will empower Jeremiah; He will give Jeremiah the words to say; He will protect Jeremiah in times of danger.

The same is true for each one of us. By ourselves, we cannot say much that will change the world. By ourselves, we cannot do those things that will stop violence, end hunger and disease or clothe the naked. But, in our acceptance of Jesus Christ, we open the door for the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and bring that one thing that allows us to do what we have been asked to do.

When the Lord calls, will you hesitate? Will you be like those who find comfort and solace in an unchanging and unbending set of laws? If you do, you will find yourself locked in a prison of your own making, unable to escape and condemned to die. But if you are willing to rock the boat and create waves, you will find the Lord standing by your side, calming the waves and allowing you to proclaim the glory of God through Christ. We are called by God today? What will be your answer?

What Will Be The Outcome Of All Of This?


Here are my thoughts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, 15 August 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 5: 1 – 7, Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2, and Luke 12: 49- 56.

There is something about the Gospel reading for today that has always bothered me. I can’t remember exactly where I read the comment but I seem to recall someone using this passage as a justification for war. And while most of the translations of these verses from Luke use the word division, I can see how people might see such justification.

But even with Jesus saying that he has come to bring fire to this world, that doesn’t necessarily mean complete and total destruction. For those who heard those words two thousand years ago, the words would have meant referring to refining, the separation of the good metal from the ore.

But, for many, especially those who live in the western states of this country, fire is a necessary part of life; it is the thing which causes many plants to germinate. To bring fire to the prairie was to insure that life would go on, refreshed and renewed.

But I suppose that there is a portion of the population today that would have a problem with that analogy. We are, in this country today, divided when it comes to the Bible and what is written in the Bible.

There are those who will tell you that it is a complete work of fiction, with no truth or merit to it that those who believe in the Bible are fools and misguided, ignorant individuals who fantasize about a world that doesn’t exist. Then there are those who see the Bible as a fixed and unchanging document, a perfect description of the world around us and one that is not open to debate. It is, to these individuals, a book handed to them by God and the one true source of knowledge. It is, of course, interesting to note that other religions say the same thing about their Holy Scriptures as well. It speaks to our ability to think that we can say that about one set of writings and yet not accept the notion that someone else might have the same thought when it comes to their particular writings.

If Jesus did anything in creating a division, it was to create a division between those who found their place and the future in the status quo and those for whom the status quo was a barrier that denied them health, jobs, housing, and true freedom. I don’t know how one can find their future in the present or why one would want to keep in place a situation that divides people by race, gender, economic status, or creed but there are those who think that it is possible.

And what further confounds and confuses me is that many who call for the maintenance of the status quo or a return to better days of yesterday are those oppressed or denied opportunities by the status quo. It is almost as if they say we will support those who oppress us because there is a slim chance that they will set us free. We have been denied so much for so long that even the slimmest of hopes that we might get a slight taste of the “good life” is enough for us to support them.

I have never understood how one can say that they need to work inside the rules when those rules are designed to prevent them from succeeding. Such individuals are either among those who Jesus pointed out can interpret the earth and sky but are unable to interpret the present time. They see the future and would like to be a part of the future but they also are unable to see that in the present, they are unable to obtain the future.

When I read the Old Testament reading for today, I wondered who are the “wild grapes” in the passage today. Would they be the young, rebellious youth who do not see that the church has the answers to their problems? Or would they be the authorities, those that seek the maintenance of the status quo?

Some of the commentaries point out that this passage is an indictment against the people for failing to follow God. And those that hold that the Bible is fixed and infallible would probably say that this passage is speaking about me. But I would argue that the wild grapes are those who created laws and regulations that basically prevented people from finding God.

To me the wild grapes in the passage from Isaiah are those who would choke off the good growth, the creativity that is needed to reach the future. Those who hold to a fixed, unchanging view of the Bible don’t want the people to see the world around them except as they, the authorities, decide it should be viewed.

Who is it today that is preventing many people from finding God? Is it those who have truly followed God and lived by His Words? Or is it those who have created rules which choke and stifle individuals and said that the only way to God’s Kingdom is through the door they will open?

Who is to blame when God expects justice but blood is shed instead? Who is to blame when God demanded righteousness but only heard the cry of the forgotten?

The passage from Hebrews for today speaks to those who held to the faith, who walked with God in spite of the troubles that it would bring. There is no doubt that in choosing to hold onto the faith, to walk with God, that they were separated from their friends and their family. It may be that our choice to walk in faith will also cause such divisions.

There is no doubt that when Jesus spoke of the divisions, those that heard His words that day totally understood what He was saying. They had left everything to follow Him for an uncertain future. They had watched many people begin the journey but stopped when the pressure from home and society to maintain the status quo became too great. It is the same today; there are those who say that the status quo is the best that it is ever going to get and we should not even bother trying to change things.

But we see the world around us and we know in our hearts and minds that we cannot continue to live in this world as it is today. The division that comes about is not the division of parent and child or sibling and sibling; it is the division that comes between God and each one of us. We know that those who let Christ into their lives began to change the world. Perhaps the change was seen as quickly as people would have liked but the world did change.

And when we leave this place today, we have to decide what we are going to do. Is the outcome of this all to be that the status quo remains and nothing changes? Or is the outcome to be that we will make the commitment to follow Christ and make a change in the world. If we choose the former, the division between God and man will grow larger; if we choose the latter, the division will close. We must make a decision today, in this place and in this time.

What Shall You Say?


This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (22 August 2004).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.

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What would you have said last week to that person at the Corn and Hamburger Roast when they expressed surprise and amazement that Tompkins Corners was still an active United Methodist Church? Did you invite them to come and worship with us, enjoying in the wonderful talents of our keyboardist? Did you happen to get their name and address so that I could write to them and invite them to be a part of our church community? The answers to these questions vary with each of us and there is no shame if you wouldn’t have responded as others did or as I would have.

We live in a time and a society where speaking about our faith is not socially correct. Those that do so risk being labeled as kooky, weird, or with some other unkind adjective. We view those who openly practice evangelism with the proverbial grain of salt; we question their motives and we wonder about their agenda.

The problem is that evangelism in the 20th and 21st centuries has become rigidly associated with fundamentalism. It is no longer an invitation to hear the Gospel. Rather, it seems to be almost a reversal of the Gospel message, offering exclusivity when it should be open, condemnation and intimidation instead of hope and peace, and hatred and fear when there should be love. Theirs is not a world open to all but only to those who they, not God, decide are worthy. And what is even more interesting is the question of fundamentalism is not limited to just Christianity or the United States but is seen in Judaism and Islam as well, with the same familiar results.

As Karen Armstrong in her recent book, "The Battle for God", notes that fundamentalists have gunned down worshippers in a mosque, killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, and toppled governments. (From NewsScan Daily, 17 August 2004; Worth Thinking About: Fundamentalism)  Within the framework of Christian fundamentalism, we see the views of some being expressed politically. Jerry Falwell has said that true evangelical Christians can only vote for the Republican ticket this fall. (Quoted in the New York Times, 16 July 2004.)  Pat Robertson has said that President Bush will win in a landslide because God has picked him to be the President, no matter how good or bad he is. (Quoted on AP/Fox News, 2 January 2004)  Such views are the extremes and I doubt that God has expressed to anyone, let alone the major Christian fundamentalist preachers who He wants to win in November.

But against this backdrop of the role of religion in today’s society is the remarkable acquiescence of the American people to allow a few to define what they are supposed to believe. We live in an era of great personal freedom, a freedom defined by politics and thought; yet the American people seem willing to go along and let others more vocal define what is acceptable thought and behavior.

Ours is, at the basic level, a freedom defined by politics. It is the freedom gained through the struggle of the American Revolution, defined by our own bloody Civil War and refined during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960′s. Upon this level, we can build the second level of freedom, one defined by our own sense of moral responsibility.

This is the freedom that gives us the ability and authority to engage in such complex acts as political governance. It is this freedom that says we, as individuals, are responsible for our own acts. It is also a freedom that we too often surrender in the name of the "common good." But this second freedom also gives us the opportunity to move upwards, to seek a third level, one where we are free to live with God. ("Bound To Be Free", Reinhard Hütter, Christian Century, 10 August 2004)

As society has developed over the ages, it has evolved in the direction of this third level of freedom. As we have become more and more aware of the nature of our universe, our view of God and His role in our lives has changed. This development of a secular worldview pushes God to the side, where He remains until, in times of crisis, we can call upon him. (Colin Williams, Faith in a Secular Age, pg. 41)

There is a close relationship between those who cling to a world in which the church and state are seen as one institution, a world that this country was in not so long ago, and political views that work vehemently against any change in the racial, caste, class and political structure of the past. (Williams, pg. 63)  Is it no wonder that fundamentalists view such development with alarm? Is it no wonder that fundamentalists seek to control thought and action in a world where individuals are supposed to control their own thoughts and actions? Look at the Pharisees’ response to Jesus healing the women in today’s Gospel reading.

Their response was not one of joy and celebration, that this woman long suffering was now free of pain. No, their response was to complain that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, in direct violation of church laws. But Jesus put the freedom of the individual over the structure of the church and in doing so took the control of the individual from the Pharisees and gave it to the woman. The Pharisees were angry because their role in the lives of others was removed.

In a world where people were marginalized because of who they were, where they lived, or their heritage, Jesus said that did not need to be the case. In a world where the status quo determined your future, Jesus sought to change the status quo. Jesus offered freedom to the individual and allowed the path to God to be direct and not necessarily through the Pharisees. In a world where the door to heaven was controlled by the religious establishment, Jesus tore down the wall and said that anyone could come in. No wonder that the Pharisees plotted against Jesus, everything He said and did threatened their very existence.

I do not know about you but I see many of the responses of today’s fundamentalists (and this is not necessarily limited to those who say they are Christian) similar to the Pharisees today. Fundamentalists today would seek to limit those who can come to God and marginalize the less than well off, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed. It seems to me that the thinking about God in personal terms is not acceptable to many fundamentalists today, because to do so might allow you to see through their own hypocrisy. And I see in the responses of today’s fundamentalists the same fears and worries that plagued yesterday’s Pharisees.

But it does not have to be this way. We should not fear the future just because God and man are moving apart. This is a time when that very separation offers the best chance in the world to find God. To some, the secularization of the world is the banishment of God from the world. But it can also be a chance for us to see that the God who shown Himself in Christ to be true free for mankind is also the God who desires that we seek his presence in the changing scene of history – in the openness of the secular world rather than in the static timeless world of the religious. (Williams, pg. 72)

Colin Williams in his book, "Faith In A Secular Age", expressed the same concerns as did Karen Armstrong. But he did so some forty years ago. And what he saw was not a precursor to moral collapse as do fundamentalists and conservatives but rather as one of the greatest opportunities of all times.

Colin Williams wrote some forty years ago, "it is true that when we read the agenda of the world, we can interpret it correctly only in the light of Christ. But, in turn, we are learning that this light of Christ comes to us only when we are ready to move out into the midst of the world – only when we leave the safe boundaries of the temple and the law where we so often try to keep God imprisoned, and are open for the light of Christ coming to us from the strange worlds of our neighbors. So often it is this unexpected light from Christ which enables us to read the world’s agenda: ‘When did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee?’

And it is as this unexpected light of Christ comes to us through the world’s agenda, that we are offered freedom from the smallness of vision and the limited obedience that continually threaten to strangle the church’s mission. And it is this freedom that we need – the freedom for Christ as He comes to us from the world of which He is Lord; freedom to be with Christ as He moves on in His missionary pilgrimage toward the goal of history. But, as the Gospel readings for the past weeks have emphasized, we are free to be his witnesses only if there is in us a constant readiness for surprise: ‘Watch therefore, you never know when He will appear.’" (William’s, pg. 109 – 110)

Now is the time to tell the people that caring for the poor and the vulnerable is what Christianity is about (Matthew 25: 35 – 40 and Isaiah 10: 1 – 2). Now is the time to tell the people that caring for God’s earth is what Christianity is about (Genesis 2: 15 and Psalm 24: 1). We need to remind people that truth will set us free, not simply saying what must be said to justify one’s actions (John 8: 32). We must show that human rights, respecting the image of God in every person, are central to being a Christian (Genesis 1: 27). We must remind people that a consistent ethic of human life is to obey the biblical injunction to choose life (Deuteronomy 30: 19). Now is the time to remind people that God calls us to be peacemakers, not makers of war (Matthew 5: 9). We must remind people that God no longer crowns kings and that wars in God’s name are not consistent with the basic Gospel message (Matthew 6: 33 and Proverbs 8: 12 – 13). (From www.takebackourfaith.org)  Our struggle should not be to fight for a return to Christendom; rather it should be a struggle to maintain the freedom that God has given us. (Williams, pg. 72)

It is not a decision as to how we should respond or what we should say. Nor can we ask others to do it for us. The opportunity that presents itself today is like the opportunities presented to the recipients of the letters to the Hebrews. They heard the words of the prophets and ignored them; they heard the words of Jesus and were set to ignore them as well. Shall we, in a like manner, ignore all that we know is true, simply because it is too much of a bother? Sooner or later, we must respond to God.

Just as God said to Jeremiah, God says to you today, "I knew you before you were born; I chose you." What will you say to God today when that is what He is saying to you? What will you say when you are reminded that Christ died on the cross so that you could have freedom today?

Genuine freedom comes only when it is received by faith. There is no other source. Genuine freedom grows out of the restored and redeemed relationship with the One whom, as Luther so memorably put it, "has created me together with all that exists." The very heartbeat and life of this relationship and thus of true freedom is love, created by the Holy Spirit in the human heart.

There is an intrinsic relationship between true freedom and true love. In trusting in God, we are set free from bondage to fear and repression. Propelled by God’s love for us, true freedom unfolds. ("Bound To Be Free", Reinhard Hütter, Christian Century, 10 August 2004)

As we look to the coming weeks and the upcoming revival, we have a chance to express that freedom and that love. We have the opportunity to renew our faith and help others to do likewise. For some, this may be the opportunity they have been searching for. There will come a day in the next few weeks where you might have an encounter like that of Philip with the Ethiopian. How will you respond? Will you be able to, if nothing else invite that person to be your guest next week?

Countless riders will go by this place next week, enjoying the scenery of Putnam County. Will you help to provide water and snacks and then invite the riders to come back and drink from the fountain of living water, as did the Samaritan woman at the well?

Evangelism is not preaching or condemnation; evangelism is simply inviting someone. The call today comes not from the pulpit but rather from within your heart. It is a call from God; what will you say?