“Seeing The Trees For The Forest”


I got the call to preach on a Friday night (ah, the life of a lay speaker and a circuit rider).  I will be preaching at the Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY (location of church) at 9:30 and then traveling down the road to its partner, Red Hook United Methodist Church (Location of church) to preach at 11:00.  You all are invited to either service (or both).

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The Scriptures for this Sunday are Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4; 2: 1- 4; 2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 4, 11 – 12; and Luke 19: 1 – 10.

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In one of the first sermons I ever preached I pointed out that if John Wesley were alive today, he would be very confused as to what century he was in. (Yes, I know that he would also be very old). 

He would look around at cars and planes and marvel how easy it would be to get from place to place.  He would look at computers and cell phones and the various combinations of computers and cell phones and be thoroughly amazed.  But I think that he would see ways to utilize each of the technologies that did not exist in the mid-18th century to better spread the Gospel message.

But he would also look around and wonder if he was, in fact, even in the 21st century.  After all, he would still see countries building empires and using military might to maintain control in the world.  He would see corporations that still oppressed the working and lower classes.  He would see individuals denied educational opportunities and discrimination because of a person’s gender or race.  He would see drug abuse and alcoholism reminiscent of 18th century England.

He would see a church indifferent to the needs of the people, where the words spoken and read every Sunday have no meaning the rest of the week. He would people proclaim loudly and proudly how Christian they were but whose lifestyle was more like a Pharisee than a sinner. He would see a church where the word sanctuary implies protection from the outside world.  He would have to wonder what happened to these people who called themselves Methodist. 

When you consider the works that were done during the Methodist Revival of the mid-18th century (schools for children, health clinics for those who had no health care, credit unions for those who did not have access to the banks, efforts to give equality to women and children, work to end slavery and discrimination) and you look around at what we are doing today, I cannot help but think that John Wesley would be very confused.

He would wonder what happened to the health care initiatives that he pursued in London and also wonder why the poor, the lower and middle classes were still at the mercy of the rich and powerful.

And why shouldn’t he be confused.  Against the backdrop of today’s form of Christianity, with what we believe and think Christianity is and what it should be, we are see the world as a forest but we can’t see the trees and we dare not venture into the depths and darkness of the forest. We know that there are problems in there, problems that we ought to deal with but we would rather ignore them and stay in our own safe shelter. Or we would much rather someone else solve the problem and neither bother us or ask to help in any way, shape, or form. We have focused so much on the “big picture” that we no longer see the little parts of the same picture.

I think about what Habakkuk might think if he were alive today (and yes, I know, he would be really, really old).  We live in a world in which people declare that that the Bible is truth. They will also tell you that the truth of the Bible allows them to plunder the environment, espouse hate in all forms, to discriminate against someone if you don’t like something about them and allows them to gather wealth without thought of source or result. The attitudes and mindset of too many people today speak to an indifference and ignorance of God’s Word.

The message of the Bible speaks to the human condition and, many times, to society’s indifference to the suffering of others.  In that sense, I think that Habakkuk’s words, first spoken so many years ago, are still true today.

We have heard the words of the prophets but, like the people of Israel three thousand years ago, have ignored them.  We are more and more like the Pharisees and scribes who complained when Jesus told Zaccaheus that He would have dinner with him that night.  The church today seems more concerned with appearances than it is with its mission in the world.  The church today clearly sees the forest but cannot identify the trees.

There are people today, and I believe that the number increases with each passing hour, who are beginning to see that the ignorance and hatred, the indifference and discrimination, the violence and anger that is so much a part of this world today will not work. But they see a church that stands by passively and does nothing and wonder what can be done.

And I know that there are those in the church today who understand that the church must do something but cannot see a way for anything to be done inside a church trapped in a collective mindset of caution and unwillingness to do what they have been called to do.

There is, out in the Methodist world, a new report entitled “A Call to Action”.  It speaks to what some in the United Methodist Church feel the denomination should be doing.  I will not make any judgment at this time because I haven’t read the report.  But I was intrigued by John Meunier’s thoughts on this report (“Call to Action: A rope of sand”), especially in some words that John Wesley wrote in his letter “Plain account of the People called Methodists”.

There were those in 18th century England who basically saw the Methodist revival as creating a schism in the Church of England.  Those in the Church of England felt that those who were called themselves Methodists were separating from the church.  But Wesley argued that those who called themselves Methodist felt that they were not a part of the church nor did they feel that they had any sort of connection to the church.  Wesley wrote

If it be said, “But there are some true Christians in the parish, and you destroy the Christian fellowship between these and them;” I answer, That which never existed, cannot be destroyed. But the fellowship you speak of never existed. Therefore it cannot be destroyed. Which of those true Christians had any such fellowship with these? Who watched over them in love? Who marked their growth in grace? Who advised and exhorted them from time to time? Who prayed with them and for them, as they had need? This, and this alone, is Christian fellowship: But, alas! where is it to be found? Look east or west, nor or south; name what parish you please: Is this Christian fellowship there? Rather, are not the bulk of the parishioners a mere rope of sand? What Christian connexion is there between them? What intercourse in spiritual things? What watching over each other’s souls? What bearing of one another’s burdens? What a mere jest is it then, to talk so gravely of destroying what never was! The real truth is just the reverse of this: We introduce Christian fellowship where it was utterly destroyed. And the fruits have been peace, joy, love, and zeal for every good word and work.  (“Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” in The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 9:259).

I would agree with John that Wesley’s words, written in defense of Methodists and the beginning Methodist Revival,

“a much more stinging description of the state of too many of our United Methodist congregations? Are not many of us little more than ropes of sand – not fit for helping anyone climb to the higher reaches of Christian life and love?  (from “Call to Action: A rope of sand”)

So there we are, like Zaccaheus, desperately trying to find Jesus in a forest of people and wondering how it can be done.

We heard Habakkuk’s words of despair this morning, of describing a world of indifference and wondering how things could change. We also heard God tell Habakkuk that there would be a vision and that he, Habakkuk, would write it down for all to see. He was to describe that vision very clearly so that the people will see it and know what it is.  The role Habakkuk was to play was to make sure that people knew what that vision was.

Perhaps we should take a clue from Zaccaheus and find another way to see Jesus.  I know that it is an old cliché but we need some sort of alternative thinking, some outside-the-box type of thoughts.  If people cannot see Jesus, perhaps we need to find new ways of showing His presence in this world.

If we are to regain our vision of the mission of the church, we may very well have to climb the tree like Zaccaheus did and go out on a limb.  We need to leave the safety of the sanctuary and do things that reflect the message of the Gospel and, in our case, the history of the Methodist Revival.  It may mean that we look around our neighborhood and our community and see what God is calling us to do.

When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, one of the first things that he did was tell them how he describes what they were doing to others that he has met.  The words that we read today, the words that speak of the love of God, Christ, and community amongst the people of Thessalonica, are words that reflect what was transpiring in the early Methodists societies as well.  There was a community of faith being built, it was a community of faith that involved everyone and did not exclude anyone.

The United Methodist Church is at a point in time where its future is cloudy and uncertain.  It can continue as it has been doing and it will die.  Or it can find its soul in what it once was and be renewed.  And in its own renewal it can again be a force of change, of hope and promise in the world around it.

But it is a matter of seeing the trees instead of the forest, of seeing the opportunities that exist, even if we do not know that they exist.  It means doing things because we are called to do things instead of doing things because they are expected to be done.

If you will allow me a moment of personal privilege, I want to speak of such an opportunity that begins this Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church in Newburgh, New York.

This past summer, my wife helped with the Vacation Bible School at Grace.  One of the things that she observed was the number of neighborhood kids who came to VBS hungry.  I don’t have the actual numbers before me but it would be safe to say that 75% of the students in the Newburgh elementary schools receive breakfast before school during the school year.  But these meals do not exist during the summer or when school is not in session.  What do they do on weekends and during the summer months?

Now, just as I hope my ministry is found in the Word and its presentation, my wife’s ministry is found in the gardens of the church and the kitchen.  It has been said that when she does coffee hour after the second service on Sunday, reservations are required.  :)

But her thoughts were about the children of the neighborhood and what she could do.  And out of those thoughts came what is now called “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.”  This will be a feeding ministry for the children of the neighborhood on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  It will not be a breakfast created by an institution but with love and care, as if Jesus were coming to eat with us. It will be a meal cooked with love and care because it is what is expected of us when we say we are Christians and Methodists.

I brought a few of the flyers with information about the program with me today.

I invite you to be a part of this program in whatever way you feel called to respond.  Perhaps you will come this Saturday and following Saturdays to help and possibly begin your own program.  Perhaps your presence will be in other ways.

This is not the only feeding ministry at Grace.  Our youth, along with the youth of several other local churches, have begun a feeding ministry of their own on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month.  This ministry was developed on their own initiative as well and speaks to the notion that we Methodists have been and are a part of the community.

There are times when the solution to a problem is easily seen and easily resolved. But other times the forest of humanity seems to block our vision and we have to climb a tree in order to find a solution.

It worked for Zaccaheus and he found salvation.  I think it is time that we see the trees in the forest and find the one that allows us to see our path, our salvation.

“Now What?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 7 November 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Haggai 1: 15 – 2: 9; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; Luke 20: 27 – 38.

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When I began thinking about this sermon last week I wasn’t sure where it was leading. But as I came home from the Church Conference a thought came to me and it allowed me to begin writing the sermon. I left the Conference with a feeling of hope, that things would begin turning around. And for some reason, I thought of a scene from the movie, "Hoosiers".

For those that need their memory refreshed, this movie, starring Gene Hackman, is about a small town high school in Indiana that, in 1952 (I believe), won the state basketball championship. Indiana is probably the only state that does not classify high schools by size for the end of the season basketball tournament. Thus, all the high schools in the state participate in the one tournament. This puts the smaller schools, with their limited enrollment, at a disadvantage when it comes to finding players. With the exception of 1952, no small school in Indiana has ever won the state championship.

Now you might think that the small schools would prefer a different type of tournament setup. Yet, year after year, as people seek equity among the high schools, the small schools say that they want the single chance of proving that their schools belong with the big schools in the premier state basketball tournament.

In the movie, Gene Hackman is hired as the coach and seeks to instill a new type of offense. It is an offense whose philosophy is counter to ones the kids have played before and it is not the type of game that the alumni and townspeople want. But it is an offense that is best suited for the school to play. So there is a struggle there.

Early in the season, there is a situation where one of the players fouls out of the game and Hackman, as the coach, decides not to replace him on the floor. This means that Hickory (the high school in the movie) will finish the game with only four players on the floor.

Naturally, the townspeople go crazy, screaming that the coach is breaking the rules by only playing four players. But, then as now, there is no rule that says you must have five players on the floor. The coach knows the rules better than the townspeople. This episode, coupled with the different style of play that the Coach is trying to teach, are the catalysts for the townspeople to meet at the local Methodist Church and call for his firing. It seems likely that this will be the case until other events cause a change in the situation. From that moment, the team slowly comes together and ultimately win the state championship.

Now, the episode with the four players is, to me, similar to what is transpiring in the Gospel reading today. Instead of focusing on the resurrection and life everlasting, the Sadducees are focusing on the law that requires a brother to marry his dead brother’s wife in order to keep the family line going. It seems to me that we worry more about the legality of things than we do the spirit of things.

The Sadducees and the Pharisees are seeking ways to trap Jesus. As the ones with political power, they saw Jesus as a direct threat to their power and well being. But they had to remove Him in such a way that would not turn the crowds following Him against them. In the passage prior to today’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees question Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. They wanted to get Jesus to say something that would make Him look like a political revolutionary so that they could then hand him over to Pilate. But Jesus responds that one should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God. Jesus is exalted and the Pharisees sulk as their attempt to trap Jesus fails.

In today’s Gospel reading, it is the Sadducees who seek to trap Jesus. The Sadducees reject the oral traditions that the Pharisees stringently obey. They base their teaching and thoughts on the first five books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses. Since these are the books that Jewish law is based on, the Sadducees are the lawyers of their day. To them, there cannot be a resurrection and they contrive this ludicrous example to suggest that the resurrection that Jesus is speaking of is impossible. In his summation of this issue, Jesus uses the law itself to make an impact on the Sadducees.

It has to be emphasized, since it seems to have been forgotten, that Jesus Himself said that He was the fulfillment of the law. Jesus constantly fought with those who used the law to further their own ambitions, instead of protecting those persecuted and abused by others. Jesus points in the passages following today’s Gospel how the scribes sought the best for themselves while allowing others to drive the poor and unfortunate from their homes.

I think that, if we are not careful, we are going to see this same legalistic view of the Gospel in the coming days. We saw evidence in the election that "moral values" were a dominant factor in the election of President Bush. What seems to have come from this election is a view of a legalistic view of the Gospel, one that allows others to tell you what to say, what to do, and what to think.

I don’t think that is what the Gospel is about. Yes, the Gospel tells me what to think and what to say and what to do. But it does not give me the power to tell you how to behave. As an evangelistic Christian, both in name and thought, I have the duty to present the Gospel to you but only you can decide what you will do. In presenting the Gospel, I will also point out the rewards that one can gain and what is likely to happen should you choose not to follow. But I cannot make you follow the Gospel nor should I try.

Now, the people of Thessalonika are faced with a quandary. Theirs is a quandary about the meaning of the Gospel. They are hearing many ideas about the Second Coming of Christ but most of them are false, contrary to the original teachings of Paul. They are coming from teachers who are twisting Paul’s own words in order to meet their own plans. As a result, many Thessalonians feel that now is the time of the Second Coming and there is no longer any reason to work for the church.

In this passage, Paul seeks to reinforce the ideas that he presented in his first letter. He encourages the people of the church to hold fast to the ideas that were first presented to them and to which they responded. It is their faith that will prevail, not their listening to the false teachings. And it is their faith that people are hearing about.

There is also a crisis in the Old Testament reading for today. Instead of the end of the society, as the people of Thessalonika fear, it is the rebuilding of the old society that is causing the crisis in Haggai.

When some of the Israelites returned from the Babylonian captivity in 538 BC, they were determined to restore the worship of God to its rightful place at the center of their lives. They planned to build a new temple in Jerusalem. Sadly, however, their resolve to do so vanished shortly after they returned to Jerusalem. They did build a new altar on the original temple site and later laid the foundation for a new temple. But when there was the first sign of trouble, construction halted. After the troubles passed and the people were free to return to their primary task, they did not do so. Though not idol worshippers like their ancestors, these Israelites had lost their passion for the worship of the living God.

When Haggai confronted the people, he addressed the problems of his day: the infertility of the land and the hard economic times. But he did not blame these problems on poor fiscal planning. Rather, he exhorted the people to focus on their spiritual condition. They were focusing on insignificant matters, like the decoration of their homes, while ignoring God’s temple that lay in ruins in front of them.

The temple was more than a building. It was the site of the people’s meeting with the living God, the symbol of the abiding presence of the Creator of the universe. If the people ignored the physical ruin of the temple, they were ignoring the spiritual wreckage in their souls as well.

The response to Haggai’s exhortation was quick and decisive. Three weeks after the message that we read today, they began to work on rebuilding the temple. Haggai noted that the Lord was with them, just as Moses had told the people in Exodus that God would be with them through their journey.

I am hoping that our response will be something similar. Right now, we are sending letters to the inactive members of the church asking them to indicate what they want to do. It is my hope that they will respond favorably to this particular request and challenge. I suppose that it is more than a coincidence that we are reading this passage today. For in three weeks, we began the celebration of Advent and I hope it will be a time of celebration and renewal.

We must focus on the one thing that will overcome all adversity and all trials, the faith that we were raised in and which, through the Holy Spirit, has led us to this day. There are times when life is at its darkest, through the death of a loved one or a setback in life. It is at those times that we are reminded that it is our faith, our belief in things unseen, that carries us through. It was the faith of the people of Thessalonika that went beyond the town limits and told people of the growth of the church.

It was the faith and desire of the people of Israel to rebuild their lives after the captivity that allowed them to rebuild the temple and again celebrate the presence of the living God in their lives. We are in a period of time when the old ways no longer seem to work. There are those who saw the results of last Tuesday’s election and asked, "Now, what?"There were those who left the meeting last Monday and asked, "Now, what?"

What we must do is to seek what we have lost. We must seek that which comes from within us and which has been there from the day we first came to know Jesus Christ as our personal Savior. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, points out that we seem to have lost something as simple as respect — for each other, for the environment in which we live, for the values that can bring us together. He argues that we have lost the common ground upon which we can meet.

But he also argues that we can find common ground but only if it is higher than where we are now. For me, this is found much in the same way that Paul encouraged the Thessalonians – in the faith in which they were raised and the faith by which they were known. There is a need for a vision of transformation and I firmly believe that it is found in the Gospel message. A new framework, a new language, a new vision can emerge from this day if we want it too, if we resurrect our own basic personal values. These are values that Paul speaks of in his words to the Thessalonians. These values bring us together

As we look to renew this church, let us remind ourselves that it will be through the Gospel that this is accomplished. As long as what we are doing is consistent with the Gospel message and United Methodist theology, we know that we will have God’s blessing. We may have been asking "Now, what?" last week but it is clear that today, with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the question will be, "Now, how?"

“Looking To The Future”


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 11 November2001.  This was also Veteran’s Day.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Haggai1: 15 – 2: 9; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; Luke 20: 27 – 38.

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Looking to the future has always proven to be a difficult task. No matter how hard we try, determining what the future holds is a very elusive thing. And more often than not, our vision of the future is a far cry from what it eventually becomes. Consider the following monumental prophecies about the world around us made many years ago:

  1. "This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." — Western Union internal memo, 1876
  2. "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." — Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895
  3. "Everything that can be invented has been invented." — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899
  4. "I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper." — Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in "Gone With The Wind"
  5. "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
  6. "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
  7. "I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year." — The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
  8. "We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962
  9. "But what … is it good for?" — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip
  10. "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. in 1977
  11. "The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible." — A Yale Univ. management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

As these statements show, predicting the future is fraught with danger and risk. And as the time between the prediction and the actual event increases, so too does the risk. Uncertainty arises when one is not sure. And with uncertainty comes frustration. For if we are not sure about what we are doing, then we can easily get frustrated by the work that we are doing today. This frustration shows in many ways.

The Sadducees who came to Jesus that day that we read about in the Gospel were certainly frustrated. Their frustration arose because they saw their religion and their future in terms of the law and obedience to the law, not the grace of God as Jesus preached.

Throughout the Gospel, in fact, throughout the whole New Testament, there is a tension between the law and grace. Even as Paul preached grace and salvation, those who would have people rigorously follow the law plagued him.

Jesus pointed out that the future was not in terms of how the law was applied or followed but rather by one’s faith and a belief in God’s grace. John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace" and many other hymns, understood that very clearly. When you know that he wrote the words to "Amazing Grace" after a mid-ocean encounter with God, when he realized that all he was doing to seek his future was built on a weak foundation, you come to understand what he wrought. Most importantly you understand, as he did, that it was grace that saved him, not adherence to the law and that it was grace that would bring him his future.

An adherence to the law brings a discipline but not a guarantee for the future. It is only through faith and a belief that Christ is our Savior that we are guaranteed the future. As Newton wrote, "it was grace that brought me safe thus far, it will be grace that brings me home."

Through our faith and our understanding of God’s presence in our lives, we will see the future and find a way to reach it.

In Haggai, we read about the frustration of the people of Israel. In the reading for today, the people are feeling frustrated as they struggle to rebuild the Temple. Excited as they were to have come out of exile and to be doing that which they had longed for so many years to do, they were frustrated with the task. Many felt that no matter what they did, the Temple they built would not match the splendor and glory of the old one.

Their frustrations arose because they did not look to the future but rather saw the past. And as their frustrations grew, so too did the feeling that God had abandoned them. If God had not abandoned them, then their work would produce a Temple of as a great grandeur as the old Temple.

But Haggai pointed out that the rebuilding process was the very symbol of encouragement that they wanted to have and that in rebuilding the Temple they would be reminded of God’s presence in their lives. Haggai called on the people to take courage and move forward because God had not forgotten them but was with them at that very moment. Our presence here today and in church on every Sunday is so that we can remember God’s grace, power, and presence in our lives.

The problem many times as we seek to move to the future is that we feel we must do it alone. We take on a task only in terms of what we can do, never thinking that God is a part of the process. We that happens, we are likely to be frustrated because we turn the task into something difficult. But when we allow God’s presence to be there, when we allow the Holy Spirit to provide the power that we need, then the task becomes easy.

Our service is not for the past but for the future. Haggai reminded the people that there would be a day when God will give them prosperity, a day when all their work would be justified. Our frustrations come because we cannot often see the results of what we do but we have to know and understand that what we do is never in vain. One reason why we celebrate Veteran’s Day in the fall and Memorial Day in the Spring is so that we can somehow communicate to those who have served that such service was not in vain.

Paul’s words to the Thessalonians also served to encourage. He reminded the members of that Church that though the present seemed bleak and that God had passed them by, there was still a hope for the future and promise of better days. At the time Paul wrote this letter, there was a feeling that the promised Second Coming of Christ had occurred and that they, the members of the church in Thessalonica, had been left behind.

Paul reminded them to remain steadfast in the faith and to remember that the signs of the Second Coming had not yet appeared, that what they had heard and had been told were false statements, made by insecure people seeking to justify their own thoughts and actions.

To look to the future is a difficult task, especially when what we see around us leads us to believe that the future does not hold much promise. When we let that around us guide us, our actions, our deeds seem futile and we become frustrated. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time, we try to find in the rules and regulations of life a basis for faith. It is no wonder that we become discouraged.

But, as Paul encouraged us to do, we hold on to the faith and understand that God’s presence in our live is not just some mystical statement but guaranteed by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we cannot be discouraged.

There are many challenges facing each one of us in the coming days and years. There will be times when the future looks bleak, when our hope for the future is not so bright or as clear as we would like. But, if our vision of the future comes through our faith, then we know that there is a hope and promise. We know that the future prosperity that Haggai said would come to the people as they rebuilt the Temple will come to us because of our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

“The Changing of Seasons”


I am at Dover United Methodist Church this morning (Location of church).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Joel 2: 23 – 32; 2 Timothy 4: 6 – 8, 16 – 18; and Luke 18: 9 – 14.  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.

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Right now, the schedule has me at Dover again on November 21st, December 26th, and January 2nd.

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It seemed to me that the Old Testament reading for today was out of place in the calendar. It seemed more logical, with the promise of new growth and rebirth, to read this passage in the spring. This passage just seems out of place right now, with the days getting shorter, the weather getting colder instead of warmer, and the colors of the trees, once ablaze with color but now beginning to fade. But perhaps that is more the reason to be reading the passage from Joel for today for it offers a promise of hope and a new birth at a time when such thoughts may very well be disappearing.

And at a time when darkness seems to be such a part of our lives as well as the season, perhaps we need such words of hope and promise. For just as the promise of a new spring brings the promise of rebirth and a renewal of life, so too do Joel’s words offer a promise of rebirth and renewal.

Now, when I first started working on this sermon and I saw the theme about the changing of the seasons, a line from a 1970s song, “No Time”, sung by the group The Guess Who, “seasons change and so did I, you need not wonder why.” I also recalled a 1966 song by Simon and Garfunkel, “A Hazy Shade of Winter”, with its line, “seasons change with the scenery”. But this second line didn’t seem to fit the thoughts that were developing with the first.

I suppose that the reason for even thinking about the changing of seasons and the changes it brings into our lives is that we are the only species on this planet that wonders why the seasons change. Other species know that the seasons change and that they must hibernate or migrate with the change. But we are the only ones that look around at the world and marvel at the changes and then wonder why there are such changes.

And we understand that against the framework of time and the universe, such changes cannot be stopped. Still, for all our wondering and pondering about the mysteries of change, we still have some fear of what the change might bring. I am almost certain that when mankind first came up with an explanation for the changes in the seasons there was a cynic amongst them who proclaimed that yesterday was a better day than tomorrow will ever be.

And while I am sure that no one ever said such a thing, it should come as no surprise that, when the ideas about why there were seasons were developed from the ideas about the earth and universe, there was much opposition. If you are like me, you have this ancient image of Galileo being tried by the Catholic Church for heresy for believing and then suggesting that the Sun was the center of the Solar System and that the earth moved around the Sun. It is an image which dominates our thought about science and faith to this day.

And while Galileo was tried by the Catholic Church some four hundred years ago, the opposition to his ideas and the ideas of Copernicus and Kepler did not originate with the church. Rather, the opposition came from individuals within the academic establishment of that time. There were opposed to these new ideas because their reputation, status, and power were built on maintaining the Aristotelian view of an earth-centered universe. The church was brought into the argument because the academic establishment convinced members of the church establishment that the changes proposed by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo would harm the church and threaten their status, reputation, and power.

The darkness that I see creeping slowly over the face of the earth today is not because it is becoming winter and the days grow short. Rather, it is a darkness of the minds because there are those in both the secular and sectarian worlds who see any sort of change as a threat rather than a promise.

Now, let me make one point. There are times when changes should be opposed; there are times when change is necessary. But offer reasons why you make the proposal. Not argue that the status quo is the best that it will ever be without providing an explanation; similarly, don’t argue that change is necessary simply because change is necessary. Offer a plan of change and a way to change and show what you think the outcome will be. Change requires more than words; change requires action. And change requires that you see that the present may not be the best idea.

The tax collector in the Gospel reading for today understood this; the Pharisee didn’t. The Pharisee held up his life in the present for everyone to see and marvel at. He pointed out that he did what was required of him and that he need not do anything else. On the other hand, the tax collector knew that he had fallen short in life and he sought God’s mercy. The tax collector did not seek the mercy or the approval of the people like the Pharisee did; he sought out God.

Forty-one years ago, in the spring of 1969, I had a conversation with my pastor, Reverend Marvin Fortel. It was just before spring break and I was getting ready to go home to Memphis. To be honest, life wasn’t going well then. And while I knew that I would have the opportunity to take communion when I went to the Easter Service at the church in Memphis where we attended, it didn’t seem right not to be at what was my home church, First United Methodist Church in Kirksville.

And as I have said and written before, I went and asked Reverend Fortel if I could take communion before I left. To my knowledge, he had never had such a request as this. Most of the college students who attended First UMC came from towns in the area around Kirksville and were members of churches in their home towns. But he agreed to the idea and we meet in the chapel with the bread and the juice and two hymnals. (I first published my account of this conversation and what happened on that spring break trip home in “That First Baptism”; the details of the conversation itself were first published in “Our Father’s House”.)

It wasn’t a communion like we normally have where the words are read and the elements are blessed. It was more of a conversation about the words and what they really meant. Now, this was just after the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist Churches and we were using the old hymnal rather than the one that we currently use. So the ritual of communion was not the one found on page 12 in the present hymnal. Rather, it was the ritual that begins on page 26 in our present hymnal.

And what I remember most about that time in the chapel forty-one years ago was reading what is called the “Prayer of Humble Access”,

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.

But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.

Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into His likeness, and may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. AMEN

Now, those words, especially the ones that said “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table,” bothered me. I thought I was saved. I had done all “the right things”; I said the right words when I was asked, I had been baptized and I had been confirmed. I was working for justice and good. I was like the Pharisee, proud of what I had done and expecting great things as a result. Didn’t all of this mean that I had earned the right to sit at God’s Table any time I wanted to?

But Reverend Fortel calmly pointed out that it was God’s grace and mercy that allowed me to sit at the table with Him; nothing I did could compare. I was like the tax collector, who needed to acknowledge that I had failed and that I needed a new life.

And then it became a little clearer. My acceptance of Christ as my Savior opened the door for me so that I could receive God’s grace. And once I passed through that opening, things changed. My life could never be the same again. As Methodists, we understand that our lives can never quite reach the level of perfection that it should be at; but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying.

I work for justice, freedom, and good not because it will get me into heaven but because it is what is expected of me because I am a citizen of the New Kingdom. I left the chapel that day with a newer understanding of who I was and what path I had chosen to walk. Reverend Fortel also gave me some books to read, books I have kept with me over these past forty years. They show the signs of age and one has almost completely fallen apart from my constant use of it in my writings.

I have told this story many times before but it bears repeating. Reverend Fortel died this past week at the age of 93 and I wanted to celebrate his life and that conversation that changed my life. One small conversation forty-one years ago may not seem like such a big deal but it changed things. It gave hope at a time when hope didn’t seem possible; it provided opportunities when none seemed open. I can’t say that either of us anticipated what I would do in the coming years then nor do we know how this will all play out in the years to come. That is the nature of change and what happens in our lives.

Paul writes to Timothy at the end of his missionary life. But instead of thinking about his life, Paul is encouraging Timothy to take up the ministry and continue it. But it is not Paul’s work that Timothy is to continue; it is God’s work that will continue. Even in change is continuity.

And now Joel’s words become not just words but the actual promise of hope, renewal, and rebirth. They speak of what is to come through God and the Holy Spirit. They speak of a radical new world where the old can dream again and the youth will have visions.

Those who argue against change and speak of doom with the coming of change have no dreams; they have no visions. They live in the present and long for the past. They do not want to work for tomorrow. They are like the ones who said they supported Paul in his ministry but weren’t there when Paul was in court.

But God was there with Paul and gave him the support that he needed at a most difficult time. We may fear change because we are uncertain about what is to come but the certainty of the presence of God in our lives can remove that fear.

It begins when our lives change. It begins when we open our hearts and our minds to the presence of Jesus Christ. It is more than just saying that you accept Christ, it is the actual acceptance of Christ. It may not come immediately but it will happen if you let it. And then you let the Holy Spirit empower you and things begin to change.

The seasons change and as the days grow shorter and darker, it is perhaps hard to see what lies ahead. But in Christ, we have the promise of hope and rebirth, of renewal and new beginnings. The preacher once wrote, “To everything there is a season, a time and purpose under heaven.” This is the season in which the change comes in our lives and what we will do in the new kingdom.

A New Vision


This is the message that I gave on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 31 October 2004, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4, 2: 1 – 4; 2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 4, 11 – 12; and Luke 19: 1 – 10.

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It is always interesting when I post an sermon that I wrote before I began this blog back in 2005.  In this particular case, I made reference to Joseph Priestley, chemist and Dissenter.  But I apparently forgot that I had written this when I posted my piece, “A Dialogue of Science and Faith.”  It would have been nice to have remember that because I could have used the reference that I refer to in this message.  Nonetheless, what I present here offers some evidence that science and faith can work and live together.  And the vision that one has for the future is not limited by one’s background or life.

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I had the opportunity the other day to read a story about Joseph Priestley in Today’s Chemist at Work. Now, most of you probably do not know who Joseph Priestley is or why I would be reading a story about him. But the title of the magazine tells you that Priestley was somehow connected to chemistry, which he was.

Priestley is considered one of the two discoverers of oxygen. Now, that I knew since the history of chemistry is supposed to be one of my specialties. But what I did not know and what I found most interesting is that, in addition to being a chemist, Joseph Priestley was also a minister. And as much as he was known for his scientific work, he was also known for his orthodox religious and political views.

Priestley grew up as a Dissenter. In 18th century England, Dissenters were those who belonged to a church other than the established Church of England. His home was a center for Dissenters where they would gather to discuss politics and religion. It is clear that the religious and political discussions that took place in his home as he grew influenced his life and decisions that he made. Unfortunately, his views were so opposite the established views of his day and society (not only were his religious views in opposition to the Church of England, he supported both the American and French Revolutions) that he was forced by violence to move to America. He lived the last ten years of his life in America outside Northumberland, PA, and never returned to England.

If nothing else, it is nice to know that one can be a chemist and a minister, though many might wonder about the dissenting part and the consequences of expressing one’s thought openly. Still, there is one aspect of science illustrated by both Priestley’s life and the Old Testament reading for today.

Joseph Priestley first isolated oxygen experimentally on August 1, 1774. Later that year, he met with Antoine Lavoisier and discussed his work. Based on this discussion and his own work, Lavoisier named the new element "oxygen." Lavoisier and Priestley are both given credit for the discovery but the first to isolate and characterize oxygen as an element was Carl Wilhelm Scheele. Scheele completed his work in 1773 but did not publish his results until 1777. (Adapted from "Chemistry Chronicles", Today’s Chemist at Work, October 2004)  In the world of science then, as now, if you don’t write it down when you do it, it never happened.

Habakkuk is told by God to write down his vision first. Write it down so that people will know that it is true. Now, God’s command to write down the vision first is unusual. Normally, God’s prophets spoke of the prophecy before writing it down. But this time, God wanted to make sure that the prophecy was known.

But what is the vision that Habakkuk sees? The prophet says that he will stand in the watchtower and look for what is to come. But he is expecting to see the Babylonians coming. And with their arrival, he expects to see the destruction of Israel. And Habakkuk wonders why God is using the Babylonians to accomplish His work. Much of this book will deal with the questions that Habakkuk asks God.

In this Habakkuk is different from the other prophets. The other prophets will tell people to listen for the word of God. But Habakkuk asks questions of God. He asks how long will God let the violence of the world persist. He will ask God why He, God, would even think of using a nation such as Babylon as an instrument of His peace. Habakkuk wanted to know, just as we do what God was doing and why. Why is there so much evil among the righteous and why is there so much power among the wicked?

God does not strike Habakkuk for challenging Him; rather He answers him. He tells Habakkuk that He, the Lord, will establish His Kingdom. He will hold all people and nations accountable. The present may be filled with wickedness and chaos, but the future will belong to the righteous – the truly righteous. God will bring in His Kingdom; He will give rest and salvation to His children; and He will judge His people’s adversaries.

We see the world today much like Habakkuk did back then. We see the entire world and wonder why there are so many problems. And for us as Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, the vision that we see is very frightening. By now you know that our future is not a good one and unless things change, there will be no tomorrow.

But it is how we see the world that determines the vision that we see. And so how we see the future of this church will be determined by how we see the world around us. The thing is that new visions come by renewal more than they come by reaction. The deepest changes come from a revolution of the spirit rather than by a revolution by people. New visions more often come from the margins and the bottom rather than the center and the top.

Hope has always been a more powerful force for change than despair. The renewal of our best values and moral sensibilities has the best chance of forging a new covenant. People and societies are lifted to new and higher ground by engaging the best that is within them and their traditions.

But new visions cannot come from old structures, new values cannot be created from old assumptions, new leadership does not often emerge from the ranks of the old elite, those most imprisoned by old systems and options. New visions require new places, new places in all of us.

Distinguishable signs, signs of expressed commitment that demonstrates the values of the old and an encompassing of the new, mark such visions. Such signs are rooted in the human image of God and are a powerful counterpoint to the worst of our social and cultural instincts and behavior. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

As we approach Election Day, we are being bombarded by references to the war on terror. Yet, in all the rhetoric, I have yet to hear any politician at any level offer a new vision, a new alternative to winning this war. All with something to say repeat the same words but do little to remove the primary causes of terror. Jesus asked us what we were going to do about the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed. And as long as we live in a world where the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed are given second class status, there will always be the causes for terror. But what politician in which party is saying that we should correct that which causes brother to turn against brother, nation against nation, and mankind against itself?

It is that fight between what God would have us do and what society would have us do that is the central point to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. The church in Thessalonika is fighting a battle against persecution and problems within the church.

Just as Habakkuk worried about the violence in the world around him, so too did the people in Thessalonika worry that the persecution of Christians was a sign of the Second Coming of Christ. And many people were twisting Paul’s words to fit their own view of what the Second Coming was all about. But the ability of the people of the church to hold on to the true faith exceeds the doubts and fears of those around them and the church is growing.

The vision of the future that the Thessalonians held was a vision of Christ, not the vision of others. Even though Habakkuk could not understand what he saw, he did come to know what God intended to be the outcome of the Babylonian army destroying Israel. It was the vision that God held, not what others saw.

The story of Zacchaeus is a familiar one. We learned in Sunday School that Zacchaeus was short and, in order to see Christ walking by, he had to climb a tree. But perhaps we also need to realize that in order to have a vision of Christ, Zacchaeus found it necessary to change his viewpoint.

To have a new vision requires a new viewpoint. It also requires that we change the way we, individually and collectively, do things. Finally, we must also seek Christ. We are not going to find Christ unless we go out of our way, as Zacchaeus did. We are not going to find Christ unless we change the way we see the world.

Laurie Beth Jones, in the prologue to her third book, Jesus in Blue Jeans, wrote the following:

Many years ago I dreamed that I was standing in a meadow. Suddenly I saw a man approaching me. As he got nearer I gasped to realize that it was Jesus in Blue Jeans. When he saw the expression on my face he said, "Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you wear blue jeans." (From Jesus in Blue Jeans by Laurie Beth Jones)

The success of the Methodist Revival only came about when John Wesley realized that it was not his revival but God’s. The success only came about when Wesley changed the view of his life and placed his trust in God and God alone. John Wesley had a vision of what the world could be but it only came to pass when he saw it through God first.

Last week, the prophet Joel spoke to us and told us that in the coming days the old shall dream dreams and the young shall see visions. The young will see visions and the old will dream dreams if there is hope and promise in the future? We, as Habakkuk did, stand on the watchtower and see the future before us. Is it one of hope and promise or is it one of gloom?

But standing in the watchtower also gives us the opportunity to be like Zacchaeus and see Jesus as He walks by, calling to us and telling us that He wants to be a part of our life. In answering Jesus’ call to come down from the tree, Zacchaeus’ life changed. That will be the case for each one of us.

It was a time of gloom and persecution. People were afraid of and for the future. But Paul spoke of how others saw the church in Thessalonika. Others saw a church where the hope and promise was fulfilled through faith.

What vision will we see? Will it be a gloomy one, drawn by the world around us? Or will it be a new vision, empowered and clarified by the presence of Christ as our Savior? There is a call today to see a new vision. What vision do you see?



“What Would You Preach?”


This morning John Meunier posted a thought on his blog the question “What Would You Preach?” 

Now, as it happens this morning (10/18/2010) my wife had just completed her monthly notes for the church newsletter.  As I wrote to John, if we had known what he was posting, we might have used the picture of Wesley in the monthly report.

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Some background –

As background, about five years ago, she took a corner of the church parking lot and turned it into a flower garden that was designated the "Memorial Garden".  It is now a place where people can sit during the day for prayer and contemplation.

About four years ago, we took a plot of land that belongs to the church but that no one knew was the church’s property and began the Children’s garden.  We also use part of this plot for growing vegetables to be included in the Food Pantry ministry.

Two summers ago, we began the Friday Night Vespers during the summer.  These are held in the Children’s Garden on Friday evenings; it is a time of word and music.  I have invited a number of local lay speakers to present the message and local musicians to provide the music.  This summer we added a time for healing.  It has grown over the past two years and we hope that it continues next summer. 

Here are some pictures from last summer of the gardens – Friday Night Vespers in the Garden

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Here is my wife’s report –

Report of the Flower Ministry

"Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there." (Matthew 18: 20 – The Message)

As 2010 (where has it gone?) winds down, Tony and I are reflecting on the wonderful year we have had at Grace UMC. So much has gone on at Grace this year that it’s difficult to keep up with everything that has happened. The first highlight was watching a great bunch of our youngsters be confirmed. What an awesome day that was!

Second was the Children’s Garden as the setting for a 4th of July barbeque and then a chicken barbeque in August. It was a fantastic sight to see so many people from our church and our community sit down and “break bread together.” I think that these two events along with Carol Nelson’s Outreach Fair prove just how important Grace UMC is to this community. The people of Grace UMC are an integral part of the Newburgh community.

Sadly, we also had to say good bye to some of our dear friends as they went home to our Father in Heaven. They will be missed but their presence will always remain.

As I sit and write this report, I want to digress from actually reporting because I have been thinking about what a “church” means. Being somewhat of a history buff I remember how John Wesley started the Methodist Church. An Anglican minister, John Wesley saw the conflict between the message of the Gospel and the message of the Anglican Church which ignored the poor and less fortunate. What he saw drove him to find ways to make the Gospel message alive and meaningful to all people in all places, not just a few on Sunday morning.

At one point his Bishop assigned him a pastorate which he chose not to take; instead he went to Bristol, England where he started to do more than just preach. When he went to Bristol he was already in trouble with the Anglican Church for his ministerial activities. Going to Bristol took him from the hot water into the fire.

The opposition of the established Church forced Wesley and his followers to adapt new forms of worship and ministry. The Church denied Wesley, ministers who followed Wesley and those in the beginning Wesleyan movement (what became known as the Methodist Church) access to Church buildings and property. This ban also included churches and church property in the American Colonies. The oldest United Methodist Church in the United States (John Street Church in New York City) began as a “house” because Anglican law prevented it from being a church.

This forced Wesley and his followers to resort to “open-air preaching.” Even this did not stop church authorities from encouraging “mob mentality” as people disrupted his preaching and even tried to stone him and his followers. “They were denounced as promulgators of strange doctrines, fomenters of religious disturbances; as blind fanatics, leading people astray, claiming miraculous gifts, attacking the clergy of the Church of England, and trying to re-establish Catholicism…Seeing that he and the few clergymen cooperating with him could not do the work that needed to be done, he was led, as early as 1739, to approve local preachers…This expansion of lay preachers was one of the keys of the growth of Methodism.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wesley)

A little history note: It has been documented that the work of John Wesley and the Wesleyan Revival prevented a revolution in England such as occurred in France at that time.

The movement from the pulpit inside a church to free-form speaking in a field bothered John Wesley. He was used to formal, written sermons and preaching in the field called for more of an extemporaneous approach. But the Gospel message and the need to reach the people were more powerful and John Wesley adapted the message to the medium.

The connection I have with John Wesley is our Children’s Garden where we celebrate Friday Evening Vespers during the summer. I have this vision of John Wesley standing out in the middle of a field preaching the Gospel to the people. When we come together with our lay speakers it takes me back to a time when there was no physical church building and I realize it isn’t the building that makes us a Church but the people who come together. (Happily, we do not have to contend with the possibility of being stoned, only the din of the traffic on Broadway.)

John Wesley didn’t need a building to answer God’s call. His Church was in the fields with the people of God. It was the people, his followers, who constituted the Church. The building would come later as the denomination grew and became a part of the community.

For me the Church is the people not the building. The Church is where we gather, be it a building, a home, a garden or a street corner.

Many, many thanks to all those people who have made this ministry so successful, and especially to Pastor Evelyn who has been not only an inspiration but made me think about my vision and brought me to a new level of passionate spirituality.

Tony and I wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving and a Blessed and Happy Christmas.

In peace,

Ann Mitchell

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As Dan Lower wrote on his blog in response to John’s question, I also invite you to make your own response, either on this blog or on John’s (and if you post on John’s, let me know as well).

“Who Will Teach The Children?”


Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 17 October 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 31: 27 – 34, 2 Timothy 3: 14 – 4: 5, and Luke 18: 1 – 18.

This is also Laity Sunday and I will be taking part in the message at my home church, Grace UMC. I hope to have a video of this message posted and when I do, I will let you all know.

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I had thought of writing this from the perspective of three different people (a disciple, a parent, and a circuit rider) but it wasn’t flowing like I wanted it to. So it will be from a individual perspective. Still, I am a parent (and a grandparent), I am a circuit rider, and I hope that I am a disciple.

The key thing about the Scriptures for today, especially in light of this being Laity Sunday, is the need for people to learn what is in the Bible and how that that learning is going to be accomplished. Actually, the title of this blog should be “How will the children learn?” because we have “taught” our children already. Unfortunately, we haven’t taught them well.

I would be willing to bet that if someone were to take a survey of Biblical knowledge at this time next year, the results would be viewed as appalling. But why should that be a surprise? After all, most of us viewed the results of the recent Pew Survey with alarm and amazement. (See “What Do You Know? For some, apparently not much!”) How is it that we still, after years of teaching people about the Bible, have people who cannot name the four Gospels? Why, after all these years of teaching, do the majority of Christians still not understand what it is that they believe? And when you look inside the Methodist denomination, you still see a woeful lack of understanding about who we are as a denomination and what we believe.

We think we have taught our children but we taught them what we knew and since we do not know much, there is no way that they can know much either. Paul tells Timothy to remember what it was that his mother and grandmother taught him and to take those teachings to heart. And perhaps that is where we are missing the point. We see the words, we memorize the words, but we do not take them to heart. We do not make the words of the Gospel more than words in our minds; we leave them out of our heart and soul and thus we have not learned them.

The difference between teaching and learning, at least to me, is that learning is a two-way process. Teaching is the transmission of knowledge from one person to another. That’s all we are doing in our schools (both on Sunday and the rest of the week) right now. We teach our children and expect them to memorize the answers and then “spit” them back on the test.

But what do they learn? Six months after the test, how much of the knowledge that they so laboriously studied do they remember? How much of the confirmation class that many of our youth and young adults is still a part of their lives? If the truth were told, I don’t remember much, if any, of what I was taught in confirmation class back in 1964 and 1965.

There is a certain degree of responsibility when it comes to learning something. And what we do as teachers goes a long way to insuring that our students learn the material, instead of just knowing it. What good does it do to speak of God’s love for all mankind when the actions of a congregation do not reflect that love? What good does it do to speak of missions to the world when the people of the congregation are more concerned about the building?

I do not expect the laity of the church to totally understand the nuances of a Greek translation. But I do think that they should be able to understand what’s in a Bible and why there are different translations. I expect the laity of the church to have a basic understanding of what the church is about and what is expected of them.

God spoke to Jeremiah of a new covenant, not one given to the leaders who will share it with the people, but one written on the hearts and in the minds of each individual. Jeremiah writes of there being no need for schools where we teach others about God because the teachings will be written on our hearts.

That may remove the schools from the picture but that will not remove the learning. In fact, it will make what we do on Sunday (or whenever we might worship) even more important. It will become a time when there is meaning to the words that are said and feeling to the songs we sing. It will be a place where the Holy Spirit is alive again.

I am not sure where the church is headed in the coming days. I see so many churches who offer a muddled, escapist type of religion. They are so much like the judge in the Gospel reading who doesn’t want to hear the cry of the widow.

But the world outside the church walls is crying out and it would seem that many are not listening. They aren’t looking either. They wonder why their church is dying, or perhaps just lifeless. They wonder why there are no youth in the church anymore. The youth were taught in the church but they saw that the words spoken had no meaning and the songs had no feeling. So they left looking for meaning and feeling somewhere else.

Laity Sunday holds a special place in the United Methodist Church. We are the only denomination that puts an emphasis on the laity’s role in its operation. In the early days of the denomination in this country, it was the laity that spread the word from place to place. So, the answer to the question that frames this message is that it will be the laity that teaches the children. And if the laity does not know the answer, then it would be best that they seek it out themselves.

There is a new covenant found in Christ. It was promised by God through Jeremiah and it was lifted up by the disciples and the early teachers. Some were parents, some were leaders, but all were disciples. Our call today is to accept Jesus Christ in our hearts so that we can renew that covenant; our call today is to accept the Holy Spirit into our hearts, minds, and lives so that we can go forth into the world and teach the world and show the world the power of Christ. If we live the words that we speak then the children will not only be taught but they will learn as well.

“How Shall We Be Judged?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 24 October 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Joel 2: 23 – 32; 2 Timothy 4: 6 – 8, 16 – 18; and Luke 18: 9 – 14.

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It has to be hard being a Christian in today’s society. This is a society where there is a contradiction between the expression and the practice of one’s faith. On the one hand, we cherish religion along with all matters of private conscience. This is partially why we justly celebrate a strong tradition against state interference with private religious choice. But, at the same time, many are coming to the view that the interjection of religion into the public moral discourse is a tool of the radical right for reshaping American society. The result seems to be that while trying to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religious faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately, as though their faith does not matter to them. (Adapted from The Culture of Disbelief by Stephen L. Carter)

And if you should happen to express publicly your religious beliefs, you are looked upon as some type of aberration or weirdo. And if you happen to express the thought that you are evangelical in your outlook about Christianity, you are apt to be labeled a conservative and perhaps Neanderthal in your outlook.

With many conservative Christians expressing their views openly and actively, we see a contradiction between what they are saying and the teachings of the Bible they say they support. It is hard to say you are a Christian when people think that Christians want to dictate all factors of other people’s lives while being free to do whatever they please. It is hard to say that you are Christian in today’s society when people think that Christians feel that wars in the name of God are the solutions to the problems of the world. How is that we can say that Jesus is the Prince of Peace but so vividly celebrate war?

We live in a society today where Christians appear to be more like the Pharisees in the New Testament rather than the disciples. We live in a world where the actions of Christians are to persecute or at least ignore the least deserving of society, not bring them up in stature and thought.

There is clearly a contradiction between the Jesus, His words and His actions and the words and actions of today’s public Christians. The problem is, of course, that those who might understand this contradiction too often are silent, not willing to point out the contradiction. And this leads those seeking to find an answer in this world with very little choice.

The primary issues for Christianity in today’s society were birthed when Jesus spoke the profoundly prophetic words found in Matthew 25: 32 – 46. These scriptures reveal God’s heart for the poor, the sick, the needy, and the oppressed, not just in the days two thousand years ago but today.

I have always said that I saw Jesus as one of the world’s first revolutionaries. The religious and social structure of his day hated and crucified Him because of His actions, words, and deeds. He rebuked the religious leaders of His day because they embraced the letter of the law instead of the Spirit. He saw the hypocrisy of their lives and rebuked them. They saw in His life everything that they opposed. He challenged the religious orthodoxy of His day. He aligned Himself with the poor and the oppressed. He liberated women and minorities. He healed on the Sabbath and forgave adulterers and prostitutes. He associated with drunks and other social outcasts. He loved sinners and called them to be with Him. For all that Jesus did, He was hated. (From a note the Buzz Flash website by Gary Vance of Loretto, TN – "Wasn’t Jesus a Liberal?")

This is the Jesus that I learned about growing up and through my own experiences. Yet, this is not the Jesus that I see through the many conservative Christians today.

And I think that is where we have a problem. We live in a society where many feel that it is the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading who should be rewarded, not the repenting tax collector. We see those who follow the rules and do the right things as the ones who should be rewarded. We cannot understand how it is that the tax collector, one of the dregs of society, who is openly contrite and seeks God’s forgiveness for his sins, receives the rewards of God’s heaven.

But the problem with this is that the Pharisee expects a reward because of what he has done. The tax collector expects nothing because he knows that he is unworthy of any reward. Second, the Pharisee’s expectations are self-centered. All of his actions are based on that expectation that he will gain something. All of his actions are done for his benefit, not for the benefit of God.

The letters that Paul wrote to Timothy were among the last of his letters to anyone. Paul knows that his time has come and that shortly he will get his reward. The difference between Paul and the Pharisee in today’s Gospel is that Paul has, first, worked constantly for the benefit of God and, second, any rewards that he might receive only come at the end of his life, when his work is done. Contrast that to the Pharisee who is expecting his reward now. In today’s vernacular, the Pharisee is seeking instant gratification for something that will only come at the end of one’s life.

On the other hand, the tax collector knows that his actions have done damage to others. He knows that because of his actions, harm has come to others. He knows that there are no rewards for him, now or later, unless he repents of what he has done.

The prophet Joel is speaking of the rewards that the people of Israel receive. But they are rewards received because of repentance. As with most of the prophets, the people of Israel have rebelled against God, going against the direction that He has set for them. The people of Israel feel that they have a better understanding of what God wants than God does Himself.

And we know through history that any one individual or group who deems themselves worthy enough to know the mind of God probably knows nothing. And the results of actions that are based on nothing generally result in nothing being accomplished. That is the case with the people of Israel prior to this passage. They have presumed to know God’s will and have gotten into trouble.

But the interesting thing to note is this time; the people of Israel repent. They come back to God and seek repentance. God will always grant repentance and with repentance comes rewards. Repentance comes with humility. You cannot simply ask God to forgive you if your heart does not hold the same thoughts as your mind. Humility is necessary.

The tax collector is clearly humble in his actions as reported in the Gospel; the Pharisee is not. This is not made clear to the people of today; too many people feel that there is no need for repentance, there is no need to act humbly before God.

They have done what it is right, even if they have ignored those around them less fortunate in mind, body, and spirit. They have come to expect that their adherence to the letter of the law transcends their need to adhere to the Spirit. They have allowed their pride and arrogance to allow them to demand things from God.

But we have to stop and think for a minute. Why exactly did God send His Son, our Lord and Savior, to this world? Why exactly is the centerpiece of our being Christian a wooden cross? In the times of Christ, to die on the cross was the most shameful way to die; yet, we hold that one death in glory. In the times of Christ, those who held to the views that they knew best for their people were put to shame by an itinerant preacher from Galilee who served the people first rather than expected the people to serve Him. As we go through this day, as we go through this week, as we prepare to think of the future of this church, perhaps we should each ask ourselves which of the two men on the corner is the best representation of our lives to date? Which of the two would we rather be? Today is not about judging others, it is about considering how we shall be judged.



“Our Visions, Our Future”


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 28 October 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Joel 2: 23 – 32; 2 Timothy 4: 6 – 8, 16 – 18; and Luke 18: 9 – 14.

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Before John Kennedy went before the United States Congress in May of 1961 and present his plan for the greatest scientific challenge of my generation’s lifetime, he spoke at Rice University in Houston about the reasons for going to the moon. I have always wanted to find a copy of that particular speech, in part to see if he quoted George Mallory and to find out if what I have in mind about that speech is correct. In giving reasons why we should go to the moon, we are reminded of what George Mallory said about climbing Mt. Everest.

When asked why he wanted to and continued to attempt climbing Mt. Everest, Mallory gave a very simple answer, “Because it is there.” And when we think about going to the moon, we wanted to go because it was there. But President Kennedy also asked, in regards to wanting to go to the moon, “Why does Rice play Texas in football?”

One reason why Rice played Texas in football back then is that they were both members of the Southwest Athletic Conference and it was a requirement that they play each year in order to determine the champion of the league. Of course, back then Texas was a regular powerhouse and the game with Rice, be it in Austin or Houston, was generally a victory for Texas. But Rice continued playing each year because it knew that sometime in the future it would beat Texas.

Having a vision of the future, knowing that there is hope is what life is about. Life in and of itself means nothing if we have no vision of the future. Was it not Isaiah who wrote that a people without a vision of the future have no future?

That is why we are holding our Charge Conference next week. One reason is to see the future as the United Methodist Church sees it. Another is set the future for this church through the election of the Administrative Council officers and members of the various committees.

The work of the Trustees over the past two years has done a lot towards insuring that there will be a Walker Valley Church building. We are still looking for two or three people to serve for the next three-year term. Those who serve on the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee will be charged with meeting with the District Superintendent over the next few months to decide on who will replace me as the pastoral leader. This committee will be looking to you for input on this most critical decision. Again we are looking for two or three people to serve on this committee for the next three years. Finally the Committee on Lay Leadership will continue to ask, as they have done these past few years, for people to serve in the areas of the church.

We need to understand that a vision of the future is not a mission statement. A vision of the future is about where we are going and how we intend to get there. A vision statement is more about where we want to be rather and how we intend to get there than anything else. It is a statement about what one thinks the future will be.

When I first read the passage from Joel for today, I didn’t know what I would do with it. While it speaks of the future, it also speaks of death and destruction and it makes it seem like God will vent his wrath on his people. But I believe that God will not do that and I struggled with what Joel was trying to say.

But as I read the passage again and studied some commentary, I came to understand that what Joel was speaking about was how faith comes to help us view the future. The time in which Joel wrote his prophecy was a time of fading glory for Israel. It was one of those times when the people of Israel had forgotten who God was and what their relationship with him was.

When we hold onto our faith, there is a bright and promising future. But if we let our faith slide, if we let other things distract us, then things are not so promising. That is what Paul was saying to Timothy.

When you read the words Paul wrote in this passage of the second letter, you can almost feel the pain that Paul must have been suffering, especially when he was first arrested and all those whom he had encouraged and supported neglected him. But Paul had kept his eye towards the future, towards the vision he had received on the road to Damascus. Paul knew where his future lie and he knew that as long as he kept his focus on that vision, he would reach that future.

Paul’s vision of the future was based on faith. Joel knew that a future of hope and promise came from a faithful life. But we have to be careful that we don’t get so burdened by our faithful life that we forget what faith is about. That is why Jesus made such a point about the Pharisee in the Gospel reading today.

The Pharisee was more concerned about his faith than he was his relationship with God. It isn’t one’s acts that determine one’s faith but rather how one’s faith determines one’s acts. The Pharisee was quite content to list what he had done as evidence of his faith but those things that he had done showed that he had no concern for anyone else. The tax collector was aware that he was not worthy of God’s mercy; he was aware of who he was and that it was necessary for him to have God in his life. Jesus pointed out that it was the tax collector’s prayer that was answered because he made sure that God was first in his life.

The vision that we have for the future must come from our faith. And it is from that faith that our actions will come. Next week, as we meet for Annual Conference, we will begin taking steps towards establishing a vision of the future, the vision of our future. It is a vision based on faith, a vision that comes from our heart.

What Are They Thinking?


Chrysler

Have you noticed the recent Chrysler commercial for their mini-van?  You know the one where three young boys at elementary school challenging another much younger boy to a race?  I suppose that when they created this commercial they didn’t think about it but every time I see it now, I see that one young man basically running for his life.  Maybe I am putting too much into it but with the discussion and comments about the amount of bullying in the schools today, I wonder if Chrysler shouldn’t take down that ad.

Alternet

I used to subscribe to the Alternet news along with Truthout and Mother Jones.  I still subscribe to Truthout and Mother Jones but I stopped receiving Alternet.  It had nothing to do with what they were reporting (though it did tend to be a repeat of Truthout.  In light of what many news organizations do today, I appreciate these alternative views.

No, I dropped them over a matter of advertising.  I know that you have to advertise in order to survive, especially if you are non-profit organization.  I would support these organizations if I could but I am not in a position, like so many others, to that right now.  So they are in a position of having to advertise to get some revenue to keep the news coming.  But Alternet accepted Google Ads and it seemed like every time I opened up the Alternet web site, I was looking at a political ad for a Republican or a Tea Party candidate, the very people that Alternet philosophically opposes.

What does that say about the people at Alternet?  I know when the Methoblog first started taking ads, it ran the Google ads for a while.  That is, until it was pointed out that one of the ads was for “ordination by mail”, something totally antithetical to the United Methodist philosophy.

Should any organization runs ads for their opposition?  According to the person who wrote me when I asked, they have to accept all ads, no matter who they are from or they will lose their non-profit status.  Fair enough, but is money that important that it will override the philosophy of the organization?  Given the nature of this world, I will argue that Alternet sold out.  And when they sold out,  I dropped out.

Our Thinking Today

Our thinking today seems at times superficial, at times, ridiculous.  We will gladly sell out our principles for a few coins of silver and think that it doesn’t make any difference in the outcome of life.  The Pharisees and the Scribes laughed at Judas – what are they thinking today about us?

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian