“Saying Thank You”


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 14 October 2001.  Because of how the church’s communion schedule was set up, this was also World Communion Sunday at Walker Valley.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 1: 1, 4 – 7; 2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15; Luke 17: 11 – 19.

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There were two comments that I wanted to make about this particular sermon and its scriptures. First, a number of years ago I made some notes about wondering if the Israelites ever said thank you. It wasn’t in conjunction with these scriptures but it was one of those events in the Bible where the Israelites had been given something by God but they never seemed to acknowledge that gift. That seemed to be the case with the Gospel reading for today. Ten lepers came to Christ asking that He healed them of one of the most devastating diseases of its time, yet only one, the Samaritan, returned to say thank you.

We might never know if the other nine were truly healed of the disease but we can assume that they were.

The other comment, especially in light of the nature of the Gospel reading, is to find a way to connect the Gospel reading to the other two readings. I have probably made note of the fact that many pastors typically picked one of the three scripture readings as the basis for their sermon and leave the other two. Since I never have taken any formal learning in sermon preparation, I started off trying to find the link between the three and to use that link in the sermon. Sometimes the link is easy to find; sometimes it is not.

For me, the link today between the three readings is faith and service. Jeremiah speaks of what the Israelites exiled in Babylon should do while there; Paul reminds Timothy about why he serves God; and Luke asks us to consider the consequence of our service.

The Israelites are in exile in Babylon when Jeremiah wrote this letter to them. He had gathered from some of those with whom he was in contact that other prophets were telling the exiles to hold to the faith, for they would soon return to Jerusalem. But Jeremiah, instead of speaking and writing about the future, speaks to the present.

The other prophets were telling the people to wait for the future, to wait for the return before getting on with their lives. There is a certain amount of agreement in that thought. After all, when you are thousands of miles from your home, you should focus on getting back. Nothing you do should deter you from that goal.

But apparently those offering that hope of the future forgot that you must live in the present in order to have the future. While we may want a better future, it is better sometimes to work for it rather than waiting for it to happen. That is what Jeremiah reminded the people of Israel. If they waited for the future to happen, then the future would be rather bleak. Now was the time to prepare for the future.

Faith is never constructed or built on dreams. Life with God is built on our understanding the circumstances in which we live. To have a future means that we must enact our faith in the present. Dreaming about what we could be will never get us to what we can do.

Neither can we see the future in terms of what we once were. Just as life can never be what we dream it to be, nor can it be what we were. For sometimes we confuse the future with the past and think of what we could be in terms of what we were.

Life is lived with an understanding that "I am." And it is through living now that we are able to live for the future. If we cannot relate to God in the present, it is not very likely that we will be able to do so tomorrow. If we do not serve God or love other persons where we are today, then it is unlikely that we will be able to do so tomorrow.

Paul reminds us that we cannot place limitations on the Gospel. Paul points out that even when the speaker is confined or limited in his or her ability, the Word is not. Some of the greatest messages Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote during the Civil Rights struggle of the 60’s came when he was confined to the Birmingham jail. We know from history that every time governments have tried to prevent the spread of the Gospel, they have failed. But we must understand, and Paul reminds us, that it must be the Gospel message of peace and love. If we choose to trivialize the message by arguing over the nature of the words, then we are likely to fail.

We are, whether we acknowledge it publicly or not, all servants of God. It does not matter how we serve God but we must realize our actions speak to the nature of our servanthood. The other day I saw someone passing around some materials intended to describe what would happen to Afghanistan. Perhaps it was meant to be funny, but it described an infliction of pain and anguish on the Afghan people, not just the Taliban government that has chosen to abuse its power through its clear misinterpretation of the Koran. But the irony of this was that the person who was passing around these pictures wore a shirt saying "God Loves You." How can you preach a message of peace when your actions speak of war?

Some might say that it is well and good to speak of peace but I don’t have the ability or time to do so. Others might say that it is all well and good that you speaking of serving God in this world but the world does not want to hear of God’s peace. But when we allow the nature of the world to dictate the nature of God’s word, we fail. When we don’t allow God to be our primary force of life, then our dreams of the future get lost in our thoughts of the past.

The courage we have today comes from our confidence in tomorrow, in knowing that the promises of Christ are true. We are asked to serve in many ways. And the manner in which we serve speaks to our beliefs and our trust. We may see the world in the terms of what it once was and hope that it will again be that way. But it never will be that way.

When Robert Kennedy ran for President in 1968, he was found of quoting George Bernard Shaw, ‘You see things; and say "why?" But I dream of things that never were and say "why not?"  We must see the world in terms of faith, in terms of God’s promise to us through His Son, Jesus Christ.

Ten lepers came to Christ seeking a cure. But only one came back to say thank you. It was the faith of that individual that saved him. Nothing was ever said about the other nine but I think that they were also cured. But their lives were probably never quite complete; they never had an assurance that the disease would not return.

Faith is very much a circle. And from time to time we must come back to the beginning. As we prepare today for Holy Communion we must understand that we are both coming to the table to remember the promise given to us and to say thank you for all that has been given to us. It is by our faith that we are able to come to this table today; it is through our faith that we say thank you.

What Do You Know? For some, apparently not much!


How is your religious literacy?  Did you see the report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life?  The interesting thing about this survey is that atheists and agnostics scored better than any other group.  It is interesting because it reinforces other surveys that show that many Christians haven’t got a clue about Christianity.

I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad but this survey points out that only 45% of the respondents know that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the four Gospels.  And here is the frightening part about this survey.  I know it is only one question and you cannot nor should you even try to make a generalization on the basis on one piece of evidence but this questions seems to stump people every year that it is asked.

In his book, Saving Jesus From The Church (written in 2009), Robin Meyers points out that only one-half of those surveyed in a recent study could cite any of the four authors of the Gospels.  If the results of this question haven’t fundamentally changed, what does it say about what it we do on Sundays, let alone the rest of the week? 

And if we are not doing well on the basics, what does that say for what we are trying to do with the message we try to communicate?

What Is Going to Happen?


Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 26 September 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 32: 1 – 3, 6 – 15; 1 Timothy 6: 6 – 19; and Luke 16: 19 – 31.

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I will tell you up front that there is a great deal of politics in this particular piece. The more I hear from the political circus that so dominates our lives today, the more I would just as soon go somewhere up into the hills and hide. I mean there is some precedent for that. The First Battle of Bull Run (as you Yankees called it) was fought on Wilmer McLean’s farm just outside Manassas, Virginia. For a number of reasons, including a desire to keep his family safe, McLean moved to Appomattox. And those that remember their history know that it was at his house that General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, thus ending the Civil War (or depending on your history books, the “War of the Rebellion”). So, maybe that’s not a good idea. (I have heard a similar story about someone who moved from France to Guadalcanal but can’t find a reference to it.)

But then again, maybe that’s what I should do. After all, consider what Jeremiah did. He bought some land in anticipation of the restoration of the people, despite the fact that the people had rebuked him and even thrown him in jail for daring to even suggest that they might be wrong.

I hear God’s name evoked at practically every political event and I hear how so many of the candidates running for office are devout, possibly born-again Christians. But I hear what they are saying and what they desire and I have to wonder if they even know what it means to be a Christian. Now, it is entirely possible that I do not know what it means to be a Christian but I hope that I am working on that.

If this nation was truly a Christian nation or one that held to Christian values (which seem to be the “buzz words” for many politicians today), then there would be no hunger in this nation, there would be adequate and proper healthcare for all, there would be adequate housing for all, there would be a living wage instead of a minimum wage, and each person would have equal standing in society. Yet, when I look at the values of this country, it seems that we want to keep all that we earn for ourselves, we have no desire to help others in need (except when we think it will validate our ticket into heaven), and we seek to justify making some people lower-class citizens because of their race, their sexuality, their culture, their religion, or origin. We have tried very hard to make sure that war was justifiable in all cases and no matter what the case. Our politicians, no matter what party, always seem to end their speeches and campaign rhetoric with a resounding “God Bless America!” But how can God bless this country or any country or the people of this planet when more money is spent on weapons and destruction or on selfish interests than on insuring that all the people, no matter who they are, have enough resources to make a living (not just survive but live).

What is Paul telling Timothy in the portion of that first letter that is the second lesson for today, “If we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough?” How are we to respond to this/ How are to respond when it is our pursuit of the good life for one instead of for all that is leading us to a path of total destruction?

When the rich man dies in the Gospel reading for today, he has the opportunity to see what he missed. He also finds out that all that he had is meaningless because he ignored the one man by his door. And he also found out that he cannot warn others of his fate. He had the opportunity to change his life and he missed it; he had the opportunity to help others and he missed it. And now he pays the price.

I hear all these people today who speak out loudly and proudly that they are good Christians; yet there actions speak of other beliefs, of other gods. I hear all these people who speak of wanting it all for themselves and it doesn’t matter if they are rich or poor. The poor want what the rich have because society has told them that is what they should have; the rich don’t want to give it away.

I know that there is a lot being said today that because we live in a democracy, we can earn as much as we can. No one, not even John Wesley would argue against that idea. But, to paraphrase what John Wesley say, don’t earn your money on the backs of the labor class. And having earned all you can, save all you can and then give all you can. There is a responsibility that comes with being a Christian to care for each other and what I see happening is that people today do not want that responsibility. They want to earn as much as they can, they do not want to pay for quality products so that they can keep all they can, and then they complain when they have to pay for the responsibilities that come with the privileges.

Politically, I would say that we truly and seriously need to think about a living wage, not the minimum wage as the standard for employment. I know that there are some who are going to say that you can’t do that. But who are the loudest to complain? Are they not the ones who earn more in one year than their workers earn in a lifetime? I know that there are those who will seek to scam the system; if I read Acts correctly, there were people who tried to do the same thing 2000 years ago. And in the Book of Acts, we read that they kicked out of the community, a community of believers who banded together for the common good.

It would be nice to run away, to run off into the hills and hide. But that won’t prevent the destruction that is coming. Jeremiah prophesized and was jailed for his words and actions. But in the end, his words and actions were shown to be true. And he bought the property because he knew that God would redeem His people, even for all that they had done.

It is the same for us. We have the opportunity, we see the signs and we can make a change. We can still be known as Christians if we first repent of our past life and accept Christ. Hear the words that Christ spoke to us two thousand years ago; heed the warning and repent. Begin anew to build the world that will be the world for all people.

What is going to happen in the coming days? I wish I knew. What I see is not what I want.

What I know today is that the solution is not found in the present system. It is not found in a system which allows us to keep all that we have and not take care of the others. It will not be found if all we say is that we are Christians; those words ring so hollow these days.

But it can be done if the words that said are turned into actions. It is all about what we do with the words that we say; if we just say the words and do nothing; then nothing will happen. But all through our history, those who have acted on the words in this world have made a change. We have that opportunity today, we have the opportunity to ensure that this world goes on. The question still remains, what is going to happen?

“Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 3 October 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Lamentations 1: 1 -  6, 2 Timothy 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 17: 5 – 10.

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There are two questions that I wish you would consider this morning. First, why are you a United Methodist? Second, why are you here this morning?

The fact that you are here this morning suggests that you would say to someone that you are a United Methodist and, just as that someone might ask, so too do I ask, "Why are you a United Methodist?"

I would hope that you say that you are a United Methodist because you respect diversity in theology. You feel that as long as the differences in belief between you and others are rooted in the essentials of Christian faith, then those differences enhance one’s understanding of God and challenge you to grow in faith. I would hope that you would say that you rely on God’s grace for salvation – grace that brings you to faith, grace that forgives your sin and renews us, grace that continues to nurture you and draw you on toward perfect love.

You know that one’s conversion and new birth in Christ, whether sudden or gradual occurs under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And finally, you believe that faith in Christ is expressed in outward works of love – that personal salvation leads to a mission of evangelical witness, caring service, and social action for human liberation, reconciliation, justice, and peace.

As a United Methodist, you understand that God calls one to clarify and communicate one’s faith – to put beliefs into words – for us and for others. We do this by using four different sources, scripture, church tradition, Christian experience, and reason. Each of these sources, while making distinctive contributions, work together to guide our quest as United Methodists for a vital and appropriate Christian witness. (Adapted from "Distinctive Emphasis of United Methodists" in The United Methodist Way by Branson L. Thurston)

But I also know that many people attend church for primarily non-theological reasons. Hopefully, when someone decides to become a member of a particular church, it is because they were a member of a similar church somewhere else and they wish to hold to the ideas they have heard before. But, for many, they attend a particular church because it is the closest church to where they live. Or they attend a church because it was the church where their parents and perhaps their grandparents attended.

Now, there is nothing wrong with either of those reasons. They are probably the main reasons why someone goes to a particular church. In fact, theological reasons for attending a particular church probably rank lower on any given list of reasons. I would not be surprised if childcare and parking rank higher and are more important in the reasons for going to church.

But, in a world where people are searching for meaning in their lives, most mainline churches, including the United Methodist Church hold to the church building models that are based on 19th century assumptions.

Churches in the 19th and early 20th centuries prospered because the children raised in the church stayed with that particular church. But as our society has changed, children have moved away from the places they were raised. They no longer attend the church of their childhood and are just as likely not to attend church at all. So the basic assumption that many churches have used for growth has failed, because there is no internal growth in the church.

I am not sure if convenience is a viable model either. But that is today’s model. Churches today are encouraged to offer programs for everyone. When a visitor comes, the greeters are to find out what the visitor is interested in and direct them to a group with the same interests. Coming home the other night, I saw a poster for one of the major old-line denomination churches in New York City. I counted at least fifteen different program areas offered by the church. There was something for everyone; there were five different choirs, ranging from traditional church music to Gospel music; there was a gay and lesbian support group; there was a mother’s group with childcare; there was a major Bible study, with the church’s in-house Biblical expert. Each program offered each group something. Yet, as I read the brief descriptions, I wondered if I wasn’t just reading descriptions for social groups. Yes, there were references to growth in faith but it seemed like socialization was more important.

And with all this information occupying the major part of the poster, it took some doing to find out if this church even offered Sunday morning worship. It was there but in an inconvenient and visually inaccessible part of the poster. In fact, the church’s three radio shows got more attention than did the worship service.

The problem is that when convenience takes precedence over worship, the church risks transforming itself into nothing more than a rather ornate 7-11 store, open at all times and for the convenience of the customer.

I am not opposed to having groups in church; the church has and always been an important place for the community to come together. But I wonder if the emphasis on the groups of a church hides the real reason for why churches exist.

Have we forgotten that the reason that we are here this morning is because we are supposed to be here? Have we forgotten that we are here to worship God and to thank Him for what He has done for us? Do we not remember that our presence here today completes the covenant established between God and His people on the Mount when Moses brought down the Ten Commandments?

We are here today because it is an expression of our faith. Perhaps, like Timothy, it is the faith in which we were raised. That is how Paul sees it, the family connection that only then can be said to "live in you." Yet, faith is never a mere family hand-me-down but a "gift of God that is within you" and "a good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us." Faith is an incarnate reality that, while a gift from God, is one that comes embodied in our human, including family, relationships.

There are no easy analogies to explain how one comes to faith. But we must know that faith is always God’s gift and never a human accomplishment. Faith is ever and only a response empowered by an amazing grace originating from outside our efforts that enables us to entrust ourselves willingly to the One we have found trustworthy. As United Methodists, we find that it is through the Scripture, tradition, experience and reason that we are able to gain faith and find our faith growing.

The Gospel for today addresses another issue regarding faith that is still very much with us. Are the degree and depth of our faith adequate for life’s circumstances? The concern here is voiced by Jesus’ own followers whom He sternly commanded to beware of causing little ones to stumble, but also to be generous in extending forgiveness even to chronic sinners who continue to repent. For once, "the apostles," as Luke calls them, seem to have grasped the difficulty of what Jesus is teaching and plead with Him, "Increase our faith!" Jesus replies rather obliquely,"If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you." Apparently faith isn’t about capacity; it is an orientation. Faith is beyond measurement. You’ve got it or you don’t, Jesus goes on to suggest. Having it is like being the slave who simply does what is commanded, who knows his or her place and does what needs doing.

Archbishop William Temple once remarked, "It is a great mistake to think that God is chiefly concerned with our being religious." Jesus would probably agree, since He pricked the balloon of his followers’ own religious pretensions about faith. Faith is not a matter of pious exertion or heroic will power. It is more the miracle of God-given trust, that willingness beyond willingness that crawls into the lap of a trustworthy God, encouraging one to conclude in the face of all of life’s questions and circumstances that one is nothing more than God’s own. (Adapted from "Measure of Faith" by John Rollefson, Christian Century, September 21, 2004)

We did not read from the Book of Jeremiah this week but we did read Jeremiah’s words. Jeremiah is credited with writing the Book of Lamentations and the words of this somber book are Jeremiah’s cries at the destruction of his country. But Jeremiah does not cry because Israel has been defeated militarily but rather because the people of Israel have lost their faith in God.

When the people of Israel trusted in God, when the people of Israel put their faith in the covenant with God, they prospered, succeeded and survived. But when they ignored the covenant, when they put their faith in other gods or other means, they failed, were conquered and enslaved.

We are faced with hard questions and hard choices this day. We cannot ask for or demand an increase in our faith; to do so would be folly. But we can and should look at what we are doing and ask if these actions that we take, the words that we speak are true and outward expressions of our faith.

Paul’s words to Timothy were simply to keep the faith, hold on to the values that define his faith. Paul’s words were encouragement to Timothy in a time of dismay. Paul knew that his time was at an end and it was time for Timothy to take the lead. Rather than lament the loss of Paul as a leader, it was up to Timothy to lead by the faith that had brought him to this point in time and would lead the church into tomorrow.

Paul knew that if the churches that he had worked so hard to establish were to continue, they could not hold on to the ways or thoughts of the past. The same is true today; churches that hold on to the past will find it difficult to move into tomorrow. Those that cater to the needs of today will also find it hard to be there tomorrow, for what they offer is for today only.

But those churches, no matter how old the building or the people, no matter if it is an established traditional denomination or a new upstart denomination, who hold on to the faith that brought them to this time will find themselves as good as yesterday. And those churches that hold on to the faith of yesterday and live today in way that fosters and encourages the growth of that faith will find their doors open tomorrow.



Meeting the Challenge


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 7 October 21.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Lamentations 1: 1 –  6, 2 Timothy 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 17: 5 – 10.

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The three readings for today all deal with faith. Paul writes to Timothy as an older colleague encouraging a younger one experiencing difficulty. In the Gospel reading the disciples are crying out for help because they feel that the demands being placed on them exceed what they feel they can do.

And at a time when hope seems lost, when it appears that God has left us behind, the reading from Lamentations speaks to us of God’s presence in our daily lives. I have to agree with the commentaries that said it is very difficult to preach from Lamentations.

The name is certainly appropriate. Written by the prophet Jeremiah, this plaintive outcry reveals the prophet’s broken heart. Lamentations was written at a time when Jerusalem has fallen to the Babylonians. Jeremiah’s grief comes from not from the loss of the city but rather because the people of Israel had forsaken God.

Yet while the title of the book speaks of sorrow, grief, sadness and misfortune, there is within it a statement of faith. We find in the passage for today a statement of God’s involvement in our lives, especially when we think that He has forgotten about us.

The lament of the people was for a God they felt was gone; a God who had left the people to suffer. Yet the problem was that God had not forgotten the people of Israel but rather that the people of Israel had forgotten God. When we forget God, then our lives tumble out of control. When God is a part of our lives, our lives are in control. The call of Lamentations is not one of complaining and grieving but rather how we can regain the presence of God in our lives.

There are certainly times when things look hopeless or beyond anything that we can do. I am certain that many people feel that way right now. We see everything the world today and wonder how it is that God could allow such things to happen.

And when what happens seems to only happen to us, then the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness becomes even stronger. Our ability to survive becomes less and less when we feel that we are alone in the world and that no one appreciates that which we do.

I think that is the point that Jesus made with the disciples. This passage is also mentioned in Matthew and it comes after the disciples have been challenged to do the good works of the Gospel message. Failing to drive out some demons, the disciples call for Jesus to give them faith. Yet Jesus points out that by faith alone they could move mountains (in Matthew) or uproot the mulberry tree and its complicated root system.

A Christian must always be prepared to endure the demands of the kingdom, even when it seems impossible to do so or even when it seems that one has done enough. In the second part of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus pointed out that the servants of that time did not have the opportunity to forgo doing another task. Yet in crying for Jesus to teach them faith that is what the disciples did.

Jesus’ message of love, hope and peace was a radical new view of service. It is perhaps the hardest part of the message. It says that even when you have done what you were asked to do, more is expected. And when you expect payment for what you have done, you find that there is no extra payment for the extra work.

If we focus our lives on the present world, it is very difficult to see how the Gospel works. We expect that we only need to do the minimum in order to reap the maximum rewards. We are used to solving monumental tasks in terms of monumental solutions. It never occurs to us that the solution can be in expressed in the simplest or smallest terms.

Jesus chose the mustard seed because it is one of the smallest seeds we know; yet the benefits of that seed exceed its initial size. When one in our community is faced with monumental struggles, it is imperative that they know the solution comes not from within but rather from the community of support that they have.

It is not clear why Paul wrote that second letter to Timothy but it certainly was written as a means of encouraging Timothy to hold to the course that he had started. One other reason Paul wrote Timothy was to remind him that he was not alone in the work that he was doing. That he was a part of a community of faith, that despite all the troubles that he was encountering and the feeling that he was not being successful there were those in his community who supported him and sought to help him in any way possible.

So to is it with us. We build courage in others to remain steadfast in their faith by helping them reconnect with God in life-affirming ways. Paul shared with Timothy the gospel of Jesus Christ, the salvation, grace, victory over death, the light of life eternal, and the power of those truths even today. Paul understood that true courage, the ability to stay the course comes from looking to Christ, not looking within us.

And when we are asked to take on one additional task; when we are asked to one more thing for the community or the church, we need to know that the solution comes not from within but rather from God. There is a need to see that solution in the church today. Not just the Methodist Church in general but Walker Valley UMC specifically.

The challenge we have to find the leaders for the coming year. The challenge is to make Walker Valley UMC a stronger part of the community so that it is there when people need for it to be there. One might see the passage from Lamentations in a very dismal sense, that of a deserted and lonely community with people needing help but not finding it. But it can be seen as a promise of hope. As you leave today, think of the mustard seed. Faith, like the mustard seed, can be strong enough to move mountains. Faith can give you the opportunity to the see the future in terms of hope, not despair. There is a challenge before us this day. Through faith, we will find the ways to meet it.

The Good Life


Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 30 September 2007.

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This has been edited since it was first posted on 29 September 2007.

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The other day I attended a meeting about a financial program. I did so to help a friend in the program meet a goal. In order for me to help my friend I had to attend this meeting which was essentially designed to get me interested in the program. This was somewhat defeating because I had already been exposed to the information.

The premise of the financial program is that financial success comes from planning and the establishment of financial goals. A second premise is that meeting these goals comes through time and cannot be accomplished overnight. As far as that goes, it was an example of good stewardship.

But the presentation itself bothered me. It was a presentation that said there was no hope in what we do. There were three presenters at this meeting and all three presumed that those who were attending the meeting were in jobs that offered little financial reward, no hopes for advancement, and very little overall job satisfaction. The only reason that they offered for going to work was because one needs a paycheck.

But they suggested that with each payday comes the possibility of job loss as well. You got the impression that though there were other options that one could take, the only true option for job satisfaction, advancement, and financial reward was their program and its offers of riches and security.

I don’t deny that there is some truth to what they said about work. There are many individuals who are truly stuck in a job with no hope for advancement and which provide no satisfaction. There are many people for whom each payday does bring the possibility of job loss or reduction. The recent UAW strike against General Motors pointed this out very vividly.

We too often equate job security with hope for the future. The future is often unknown, a dark and fearsome place in which we dare not tread. We seek security as a means of anchoring our lives so that we can make tentative steps into the future. But when we anchor our lives in the present it becomes very difficult to move forward.

We also equate the size of our paycheck with job satisfaction and security as well. With enough financial resources we can get whatever it is we need to find security, happiness, and enjoyment in life. We live in a consumer-oriented society that says that the “one with the most toys wins!” Maybe, just maybe, we tell ourselves that if we get enough of the right things, then everything will turn out right.

I have also noticed that there is an increase in the number of casinos in this country. Once, many years ago, gambling and casinos were limited to Nevada but now it seems as if there are casinos is every state in the Union. Similarly, the lottery was almost non-existent or limited. Now, it seems that almost every state has a lottery of some sort. People flock to casinos because there is the lure of immediate riches and lotteries promise fantastic sums of money to the winners.

I don’t deny that it is fun to go to casinos and enjoy the entertainment and perhaps partake of some of the games that are offered. I don’t deny that there is a thrill in putting down a dollar or two in hopes of multiplying the returns by thousands or perhaps millions. But you do so with the understanding that you don’t gamble with money that you can’t afford to lose; you don’t gamble with the grocery money or the mortgage payment. And you had better understand that the odds of winning millions in a lottery so that your future is insured are incalculable or improbable. The people who win consistently at the casino work at the game they play and the casino is not always happy that they come. Casinos want the person who does not understand the game, not the student. And the casinos do not help when it turns out that a player is addicted to gambling; they take the money and leave the person to deal with the consequences.

And while the United Methodist Church has voiced its disapproval with gambling, it has not been a loud voice. I would have thought that the United Methodist churches in Mississippi would have voiced a concern about the building of the bigger and more structurally-stable casinos on the Gulf Coast following the destruction of the gambling industry after Hurricane Katrina two years ago. But I guess the desire for an economic base was stronger than concern for the destruction of family and life.

That is the problem with the quick fix theory of economic riches. People accept casinos because there is the promise of jobs, even if the jobs are service sector type jobs. People accept the lottery in their state because it comes with a promise that other areas, such as education, are supported. There seems to be enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that the promises made with regards to the profits from casinos and lotteries are not always met. In cases where money was promised for educational support, it has been diverted to pay other state bills. There was a promise of hope but it was not delivered.

I suppose that it wouldn’t be so bad but we hear the same message in too many churches on Sunday and on multiple cable channels throughout the week. The message of the prosperity gospel tells us that our own satisfaction and rewards come when we plant a seed in the minister’s garden. Unfortunately, the only ones who seem to enjoy the harvest from those gardens are the ones who encouraged the planting of the seeds and sowed the false gospel.

Why do people insist on giving money when it seems so obvious that the only ones asking for the money are charlatans and fools? Why do people jump into business ventures that promise enormous riches with little effort? Is it because they see no hope in what they are doing at the present time or in the future?

Planning for the future is the centerpiece of today’s Old Testament reading. (Jeremiah 32: 1 – 3a, 6 – 15)  The people of Jeremiah’s time were more concerned with the impending doom of Israel. Jeremiah was imprisoned for telling the truth and warning Israel about the troubles that were to come. But while Jeremiah is sitting in the jail cell, he arranges to buy some property. His act of investing is a statement that he trusts God and that he, Jeremiah, knows that good things are about to happen. We will learn in a few weeks that Jeremiah is set to announce a new covenant between God and the people of Israel. It will be a covenant that foretells the coming of the Messiah. It is an announcement that brings the people hope and that is what we should be considering as well.

Can we find hope in what we do and the money that we earn? We probably have all heard that “money is the root of all evil.” Thus, we might be surprised that it is not money but the “love of money” that is the root cause. (1 Timothy 6: 9) So what is the outcome of life if we pursue a job for money only or if we accept that premise of the prosperity gospel that it is proper and acceptable to seek riches for riches sake? If we are so eager to seek riches and riches alone, will we not be like those who Paul characterizes as wandering away from the faith and piercing themselves with many pains? (1 Timothy 6: 10)  Can we conclude that our search for riches that drives our lives and which Paul so wants to discourage us from doing blinds us from what we should be doing?

In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 16: 19 – 31), Jesus speaks to that point. Each day a rich man walked by a poor man named Lazarus and each day the rich man ignored him. Now, this rich man would privately tell you that he kept the commandments, paid his tithe at the temple, and was a righteous man. But each day he still ignored Lazarus and when he died, he found out what his ignorance meant.

It is important to first note that we live in a society where the rich and powerful have names and the poor and helpless are unknown. Yet, in this parable, it is a rich man who is unnamed and it is the poor man who is named. As with so many other examples, Jesus turns the rules of society backwards.

When this unnamed rich man dies, he finds himself condemned to the fires of Sheol and tormented by unimaginable pain. Only then does he become aware of Lazarus. Only then does he see Lazarus, who each day lived in unimaginable suffering, being welcomed and comforted by the angels of heaven. It was a scene that the rich man never imagined and it could only have added to the pain from the fires that he was feeling. And when he begged Abraham to send a message to his brothers not to make the same mistake that he had made and Abraham told him that the message had been sent but his brothers would not listen, the pain grew even more severe.

What then should we do? C. S. Lewis portrayed hell, not as a flaming inferno, but as a dark, shady, chilly, and above all boring place. Its proud citizenry could actually choose to leave whenever they wanted to do so. But, just as they did on earth, they choose separation from God, misery over joy, and hollowness over reality. Now, one might ask, “if they can choose, why do they not choose heaven?”

Because, in spite of the misery that comes with the choice, they always insist on choosing to keep something. There is always something they prefer to joy. It comes down to two things.

Either you say to God, “Thy will be done” or God will say to you, “thy will be done.” If God speaks to you first, then you will be like the rich man caught in a hell longing for a comforting drink of water.

The rich man’s hope was right outside his door. Lazarus was his neighbor, figuratively and literally. His own salvation was as close as the other side of the door yet the separation was wide as a canyon. The rich man could not go the few inches that separated them in the real world so he could not cross the massive chasm that separated them in the afterlife. He chose not to cross when he could and it prevented him from crossing when he wanted to cross.

Could the rich man have saved his soul by tossing a nugget of gold to Lazarus? What if every now and then he had told his servants to give a few leftovers to Lazarus? Would that have been sufficient for God to proclaim “well done, good and faithful servant!” Hardly, for the opposite of poverty is not wealth but rather community. Those in poverty are often shut out or shunted aside by society. A community cannot go forward if there are any left behind.

And as we learn from the case of the rich man and his treatment of Lazarus during his life, it is impossible to change the results after you died. We often see Christianity in single terms, in terms of what it means to us alone. But even though we choose to follow Christ individually, we are part of a community and a community that leaves some out or ignores them will not grow.

Good stewardship is more than good planning of one’s resources. It is about using one’s resources, however limited they may be, so that others may benefit as well. Paul’s advice to Timothy this day is not about money nor is it about avoiding those who seek only money. I think Paul’s advice is about the quality of life one leads. Is it a life that enables not only the individual but those in whom he or she comes into contact to have a good quality of life as well? Is it a life in which the qualities of Christ are evident?

Stewardship is more than just financial planning; it is about a quality of life that brings security and happiness. Jeremiah planned for the future that would come with the Messiah; we know that the Messiah is here and our lives reflect that presence. If we are to have the good life, are we to do it in a way that offers no hope and very little security? Or are we to have the good life in Christ with the promise of victory over sin and death? The good life is truly ours for the choosing.



The Plan


Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 19 September 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9: 1; 1 Timothy 2: 1 – 7; and Luke 16: 1 – 13.

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My apologies for not posting this on Sunday – things are in flux right now.

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As I have written before, when I look at the three basic scriptures in the Lectionary, I try to formulate a title that expresses my thoughts about the scriptures. In other words, I formulate a plan that will guide me in my thoughts and thinking as I write the message, sermon and/or blog for the week.

That’s the basis for the title this week. I see in the scriptures some thoughts about having a plan; unfortunately, as I reviewed the information that would be the basis for my plan, I discovered some flaws that have caused me to think about what I wanted to write. Still, the basis for my ideas is still true and it is worth putting down those ideas.

I recall back in 1968 the talk about Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the Viet Nam War. As I discovered in research, he really never had such a plan but he also wasn’t going to be very open about how he was going to resolve that little conflict in Asia. It was important for me back then to understand what the President of the United States had planned because certain aspects of my life, namely the draft, dictated that I would be an instrument in the implementation of that plan. And it wasn’t something that I was too crazy about.

First, the idea of the draft was an abhorrent one to me. It also struck me that I had absolutely no say in the matter, whatsoever. I wasn’t twenty-one so I couldn’t vote back then and there was a certain degree of unfairness to the idea that I could be chosen to go over to a land far, far away and be engaged in a conflict that might cost me my life and I would have absolutely no say in the matter. Now, as I have written before, I had and have no problem with military service. I am the son and grandson of military officers and, all things being equal, I would have probably joined the Air Force when I graduated from college. But I wanted that to be my choice, free and clear; not one determined by other factors that I had no say in.

It strikes me that some of the voices we hear today echo that same sentiment; that decisions are being made by authoritarian figures of all types that affect each person’s life and that the person has no say in the matter. Sometimes those authoritarian figures are one’s parents and, as a child, there is a certain understanding that you will do what your parents want you to do. But as the child gets older and begins to see the world through their own eyes, their input and their responsibility (nasty little word, that one, but it had to be included) increases as well.

And perhaps that is part of the problem. People today want the input but not the responsibility. They may not like paying taxes but taxes are part of the responsibility one pays for being a citizen and what grant them the right and privileges of citizenship. The other responsibility of a citizen is to be involved in the political process (that’s sometimes known as voting). If you do not participate in the political process, you really don’t have any means by which to complain. By the same token, those who are elected have a duty to respond and listen to all those to whom they are responsible. And I am one of many these days who sees the majority of politicians beholden only to those who contribute to their campaign and to the lobbyists who “sweeten the pot” in many ways.

The same is true with regards to the church. There are too many people in too many churches who want what the church has to offer but have no desire to commit their time, their talents, their presence, or their service. They are willing to be there for baptisms, weddings, and funerals but they will not help with Sunday School or financial support and if there is a time conflict between church and society, society generally gets the nod.

Many in the church today are alarmed by this shift in priorities. But why should they be? After all, we have softened the message to the point of it being almost watered down. Or we have hardened the message but made sure that it wasn’t applicable to all people, only the ones the congregation don’t want in their church.

The young in society today see a church that preaches one word but lives another; sometimes the wise are young and they have chosen not to come to church. You hear the cries of the elders that there are no youth in their church but why should there be? The elders by their own actions have driven the youth away, either by refusing to listen to the youth or making a mockery of the words said on Sunday morning.

It is no wonder that the words of Jeremiah resonated for today. The church has deserted God and the people have found other gods. And while there are those who would rejoice in the words of Paul to Timothy to pray for the government that would yield a simple life, they want a government that would reflect the times and attitudes before Christ. They would rather pray for the damnation of others than pray that we find a solution to hunger, homelessness, illnesses, and violence.

The solution is not an easy one. If you read the Gospel message for today as translated in The Message, you read Jesus saying,

If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things.

If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things.

If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?

No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second.

Or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank. (Luke 16: 10 -13)

You can’t have it both ways. You cannot put God off until the last minute and think that will work. It will but the problem is that you can’t know when that last minute is. It might come tomorrow and you will not be prepared for it.

If you lead your life with the presumption that there is this last-minute reprieve, you will be mistaken. On the other hand, if you live your life with the full knowledge of Christ and what Christ did and what that means for you, you have the beginnings of a plan.

It is a plan that says that I will follow Christ in my heart, in my mind, and in my life. It is a plan that says that all those I meet in a given day will know that there is a God and that He loves us. They will know because they will see it; you will know because you will feel it in your heart.

It is not an easy plan, to say the least. But it offers far more than any easy plan can.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian