“In Defense of One’s Faith”


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 30 January 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 6: 1 – 8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, and Matthew 5: 1 – 12.

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In 2005, Lei Li sought political asylum in the United States because he felt he was being persecuted for being a Christian in his home country of China. However, the immigration judge who heard his case decided that Li did not answer certain questions about Christianity correctly. What is interesting is that while he was confused about certain items upon which he was quizzed, Li did say that Jesus did come to save people from sin, that he willingly died on the cross and that he rose from the dead on the third day and 40 days later ascended into heaven and that, in this way, he saves our lives.

I would think that, considering the situation in which he was living and attempting to be a Christian, to acknowledge what Jesus did for each one of us should have been sufficient reason to allow his request. Apparently the judge who heard the case in 2005 did not think so. Though it was denied in 2005 an appeals court has ruled that there is sufficient evidence to review this case and Li will receive a second hearing. (See http://www.courthousenews.com/2011/01/20/33481.htm for a discussion of this case and my thanks to John Meunier for bringing this to my attention – “Chinese Christian Grilled on Doctrine”.)

Now, the most obvious question that comes from all of this has to be, “how would you prove that you were a Christian?” And then, “how would you prove that you were a United Methodist?” Do you understand what it means to be a Christian? Do you understand what it means to be a member of the United Methodist Church?

I have come to the conclusion that many people may say that they are Christian but their understanding of what they say they are is limited. I know many who say that they are United Methodist but cannot give you a clear and concise statement of what it means to be a Methodist. This is especially true when it comes to the policies, rules, and regulations of the United Methodist Church.

There are also many today who say that unless you can quote the Bible specifically by chapter and verse, you are not a Christian. If that were the case, I would fail since memorization of Bible verses has never been one of my strong points. And while I marvel at those who are able to recite various verses of the Bible, I wonder if they understand what it is that they are saying.

From an educational standpoint, memorization is one of the lowliest skills in the learning process. You have to be able to analyze and interpret what you are reading to have a true understanding of what you have read.

The interesting thing in today’s society is the number of atheists who probably know the Bible and the basic tenets of Christianity far better than many average Christians. Now, it is only my opinion but it would seem to me that it isn’t their knowledge of the Bible and Christianity that causes them to denounce Christianity or to say there is no God but rather how they observe others who proclaim with no uncertainty that they know the truth found through Christ and God.

If my faith is determined by what others believe or tell me to believe, I am going to have a very, very hard time defending my faith. It has always struck me that when someone tries to tell me that I must believe in a certain way or that one translation of the Bible is the true translation, we are looking at a situation very comparable to the time of the Pharisees and Scribes before Jesus began His ministry.

When I am told that there is only one interpretation to the words of the Bible, when I am told that what I read is the way it happened, no matter how implausible or illogical that may be, I have to wonder if they know what they are saying. When you make faith an inflexible and unchangeable to object, to be repeated by rote and without understanding, you risk losing your faith, not defending it.

Faith comes from within and is unique to each person. It evolves and changes through time. The changes may be clearer understanding of a passage or they maybe radical restructuring of one’s view of the world.

Micah does two things at the beginning of the Old Testament reading for today. First, he tells the people that God is challenging them to defend their faith and He makes it very clear that they need to be prepared to defend their actions.

God points out that what the people are doing as a sign of their faith shows little respect for God. The sacrifices and offerings that the people are making are little more than bribes, attempts to curry favor with God when their own lives speak of disrespect and a lack of knowledge about what God had done for them.

Ask yourself the same questions, “Is God impressed with the gifts we bring or the sacrifices we make?” Or would God rather that we live a life that expresses His presence in our lives as the later verses in today’s reading point out.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians about the Gospel message, he points out that they have to see it in a new way. They cannot live the Gospel message in the way they used to live their lives because it wouldn’t work. The Gospel message wasn’t about one’s place in society or the air of authority that they presented; it was how the Gospel message changed their lives.

How are we to read the Gospel reading for today? If Jesus is teaching the people, if Jesus is teaching us, what exactly is He teaching? For some, the Beatitudes are a set of rules, perhaps difficult to understand and follow but a set of rules nonetheless and if one follows them, one gets into heaven. But as Clarence Jordan pointed out in his book Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God on earth is Jesus’ specific proposal to humanity. But it is the message of all four Gospels and not just the Sermon on the Mount that makes that proposal.

Time after time, in order to make His point, Jesus started His teaching with “You have heard it said but I say to you.” This was the challenge that He gave us so that we would be able to not only come to faith but grow in it as well.

There should only be one time in one’s life that they must defend their faith. Unfortunately there are those today who will demand that you defend it before that time comes. Can you, through not only your words but your thoughts, your deeds, and your actions provide the basis for a sound defense?

The interesting thing is that Jesus never asks you to defend your faith. He asks you to believe in Him and then follow Him. Your choice today is to decide if you shall do just that. If you do, then you will be able to the other. There, truly, is no option.

“What Is The Verdict?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 30 January 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 6: 1 – 8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, and Matthew 5: 1 – 12.

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The events of the past few months have lead me to conclude that there is a crisis within the church. It is a crisis that transcends the nature of Christianity, crosses across denominational boundaries, and filters down to the local churches.

Christianity today, I think, is seen more often in terms of exclusion and exclusivity. It is seen as intolerant and vindictive. How many gays and lesbians will seek solace in a church when the public view of Christianity is that Christians are homophobic? We may have laughed when the Roman Catholic Church admitted that perhaps the church was wrong in punishing Galileo for his views on the structure of the solar system. We may have laughed because we knew that Galileo was right and the church was wrong. But even today, some Christians are pushing to limit the pursuit of scientific knowledge by restricting the teaching of the theory of evolution in the high school classroom. In one sense, I side with creationists because I think that the theory of evolution is incorrectly taught. But creating and teaching an alternative theory that violates the mandates of scientific thought is not the answer.

For some, religion of any kind is bad. Seen in the context of history, religion is one of the most destructive forces in human life. But millions of lives have also been destroyed by political strife and by technology and science, yet few advocate getting rid of them. We may want to get rid of religion but we have to know what we seek to remove. If I think good is what benefits my friends and harms my enemies, then my religion may be dangerous. If, on the other hand, I come to think that good is what enables all intelligent and thinking beings to flourish, and the spiritual reality is supremely beautiful, wise, and compassionate, then my religion can be a tremendous force for human good. (From "The Good of Religion", published in Science and Theology News (November 2004) and reprinted in the February issue of Context.)

Somewhere along the line, the nature of the Gospel message has been removed from the nature of Christianity. No longer is a message of hope and promise for those in need; rather, it seems to be a message of greed and intolerance, of exclusivity and closed-mindedness. Jesus spoke of offering comfort and support to those with physical and spiritual needs; the churches of today, at least from the public perception of Christianity, no longer do that.

It is a problem that crosses denominational lines. We have heard the stories and the statistics about the decline in membership in mainline churches while at the same time there is growth and vitality in evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Tony Campolo, the noted evangelist, pointed out mainline denominational leaders did not pay enough attention to people who were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness and longed for a message of deliverance. These leaders often failed to give sufficient recognition to people’s need for something more than a religion that made sense in the face of scientific rationalism of modernity and addressed the painful social crisis of the times. Too often they overlooked the fact that people craved a feeling of connectedness with God that gave them the sense of being inwardly transformed. In the pews of mainline churches were men and women who wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being "filled with the Spirit," but mainline theology and preaching marginalized such dimensions of Christianity.

The growth of the more evangelical churches can be seen in light of those comments. People want the experience and they get it in these newer, younger churches. But that is because these newer churches place a greater emphasis on individuals making a personal decision for Christ. And such decisions require a high level of commitment to participating in the mission of the church. (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo)  For many young members of mainline churches, growing up in the church does not lead to such a commitment, so they leave seeking Christ elsewhere.

The problem for these newer churches is that they do not care what others may think of them. No church, mainline or new, conservative or liberal, fundamentalist or advanced in theology, should ever compromise what they believe in order to gain the approval of the secular community in which it serves. It should, first, make sure that they preach the Gospel message and know what the Gospel means in which they believe. Second, we should care that people in the secular community see Jesus in us. I think, and I have said, that these newer churches will encounter difficulties in the coming years because, as people grow in their faith, they will have difficulty reconciling the views of the church with the Gospel. And it is this difference which has lead to the public perception of Christianity about which I have already spoken.

In the localized world of this century, another religious development is urgently needed — one that takes into full account the moral and scientific advances in the world since the 16th century, when the scientific revolution began. Religions that take this step will be self-critical, recognizing the uncertainty of all human knowledge and accepting that criticism is the most secure path to the truth. This does not mean that they must give up their central distinctive doctrines; there will always be diverse religious beliefs, and believers will have firm commitments to their centrally revealed or authoritatively defined truths. But even firm practical commitment can be allied with humility, with an admission that there are many things one does knot know and many things that are incompletely understood. Self-criticism is openness to learn from others, not a practical hesitancy about one’s own deepest commitments.1

The last crisis is at the local level and, I am not talking just about Tompkins Corners in this regard. It is a crisis which affects all small and rural churches, churches within the United Methodist Church under the "Town and Country" banner.

As Dennis Winkleblack pointed out in a message to the Town and Country Breakfast at last summer’s Annual Conference, the focus of too many churches in the New York Annual Conference is gone. He noted first "that we are confusing a tool for ministry – namely the church building – with Jesus’ call to be the church." He also noted that a few people in far too many churches are choking their church to death.

These individuals mean well but they insist on getting their own way. As he said in his remarks printed in The Vision, no one in history has lived long enough to see what happens if they are crossed, there is a great unspoken fear that these individuals will stop giving or leading or doing all the work. Or, worse, they will explode in anger as they have in the past.

The third crisis facing the churches of the New York Annual Conference is a crisis in the pastoral ministry. Too many of the pastors are staying in the ministry when their hearts are not. This is a question that not only the pastors of this conference need to look at but the people of the many churches that make us the conference. For what reason do we seek the ministry of the church? Is it for the money that is provided? (An interesting thought considering the salary and benefits for many of the full-time pastors in this conference.) Or is it because it is an expression of our faith?

The fourth point that Dennis pointed out was that there is a crisis of imagination. Be it the local church with all of its differences and problems or the Annual Conference with its own collection of differences and problems or the General Conference, where the differences and problems make national headlines, Dennis noted that we are so caught up in fixing our problems and managing our finances that there is little energy left to imagine a whole new way of life.

With all these crisis and with all that is going on in the world, is there hope for the world? I think there is. The job of the church is to tell the truth; this is not an exceptional nation and we do not live in exceptional times, at least as the world describes it. Everything did not change on September 11th; everything changed on the day Christ was born more than 200o years ago. When the Word of God became incarnate in human history, when Christ was tortured to death by the powers of this world, and when he rosefrom the dead to give us new life — it was then that everything changed. Christ is the exception that becomes the rule of history. We are made capable of loving our enemies, of treating the other as a member of our own body, the body of Christ. The time that Christ inaugurates is not a time of exceptions to the limits on violence, but a time when the kingdoms of this world will pass away before the unbreaking kingdom of God.

The "holy nation" of which the scriptures speak, Exodus 19: 6 (– And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a ‘holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.) and 1 Peter 2: 9 (– But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,), is not the United States or any other nation-state, but the church, the universal body that transcends national boundaries. If the church narrates history faithfully, it will resist the idolatry of the state and resist the politics of fear that makes torture unthinkable (the writer was speaking to the issue of the nomination and confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General of the United States). In concrete terms, this means refusing to fight in unjust wars, refusing to use unjust means, and refusing to be silent when the country drifts toward the institutionalization of "exceptional measures." (From "Taking Exception" by William T. Cavanaugh in the 25 January 2005 issue of Christian Century)

While the writer of those words was thinking of the atrocities in Iraq and the apparent callousness of the present administration towards our treatment of prisoners there and in Cuba, I think that his words are also applicable to the role and duty of the church in this country in terms of everyday life. We cannot, if we are Christians, stand by and let evil, in what ever form it may take rise up and take the place of good. Rather, we must stand firm, grounded in our faith and knowing that what we have been taught from birth and what we have come to believe is the truth – the Christ is the Lord and Savior.

Paul writes to the Corinthians about the nature of wisdom, of who is wise and who is foolish. He writes about who is called to be the representatives of Christ. It is important that we understand that God’s plan of salvation does not confrom to the world’s priorities. To many it seems foolish. But God used what one might consider foolish and despised in this world to reveal His truth, so that He alone would receive the glory. Otherwise the powerful would boast that they had found the truth. Instead, God sent His Son to become a humble carpenter and to die in the most despicable way, on a cross. Jesus’ life and death reveal God and God’s wisdom.

The Beatitudes place our lives in the context of the whole realm and scope and community of God’s love and justice. More description than instruction, more report than directive, they compose a litany in which all promises point to the same reality. Speaking of those who have already "crossed over," those who even now inhabit the kingdom of God, the first part of each beatitude identifies who is blessed and the second part names the group’s relationship to God. And the Beatitudes turn the world upside down with their shocking promise of hope to the hopeless, comfort to the bereaved, power to the powerless. A powerful antidote to the contrived happiness of consumerism and mindless entertainment of our day, they are good news to God’s people, the humble of the earth, the strong of heart, those who take refuge in God alone. Yet, this is the way it should be.

The prophet Micah said something quite similar using different words: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (From "Be happy" by Patricia Farris in "Living the Word" in the 25 January 2005 issue of Christian Century)

The passage from Micah can be seen as a courtroom scene in which the Lord lodges a legal complaint against Israel. The first two verses are where the Lord summons the people to listen to his accusation and to prepare their defense against the charges that will follow in verses 9 through 16. The Lord speaks in verses 3 through 5 poignantly reminding the people of his gracious acts in their behalf. In verses 6 and 7 Israel speaks and in verse 8 Micah responds directly to the nation, answering the questions of verses 6 and 7.

So, here we are, in God’s courtroom, facing the charges before us. Whether we care to admit it or not, the crisis of the church are our crisis. And how we respond will determine the outcome of the case. We can be like some who seek the glory for themselves. Such a choice will not gain us what we need.

But we can do what is asked of us, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God? The jury will now begin its deliberations and the verdict will be known soon.



“The Trial We Have to Face”


This is the message that I presented at the Neon United Methodist Church (Neon, KY) for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 6: 1 – 8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, and Matthew 5: 1 – 12.

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I thought that I would be able to avoid talking about trials and the legal process but after reading the passage from Micah for today, I don’t think that is possible. But it is not the trial and impeachment of President Clinton that is of importance to us today, but rather how we, the people have reacted.

It would seem that for all the hyperbole that has surrounded this event, the majority of American people really don’t care about the trial or the underlying issues that are accompanying the trial. In part, because the economy is doing well and we are at peace in the world, the people are content. It has always been said that when we are at peace or when the economy is sound, the people don’t really care much about what happens in Washington or with politicians in general. Yet, if either of the two should go bad, then we turn to the leaders and demand that they lead.

It is as if we really don’t care. Now, it should be said that I do think that President Clinton has done a great wrong but the judgement of his actions are not for us to decide. I also think that those in opposition to President Clinton long ago turned a noble legal process into a partisan political battle that can only hurt us in the long run. After all, it has long been noted that we cannot legislate morality, which is what President Clinton’s opposition is wanting.

So against this backdrop, I ask how should we live our lives? What will happen to us when some critical issue, something that truly affects us and our place in the world comes about? It is typical human nature to think that we can solve our problems with the skills and abilities that we naturally have. But in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul points out that man’s wisdom, his intellect is nothing more than foolishness.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of the God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

Though our temptation is to always think that we can solve any problem that we might encounter through our own efforts, those efforts are to be doomed because of our own foolishness. And what are we to do when we encounter a problem that we cannot solve or overcome. A gentleman by the name of James Finley wrote

Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said: “How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.” A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy besides its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us. (From Merton’s Place of Nowhere by James Finley)

In the Old Testament reading for today, Micah asks God, on the behalf of the people of Israel, what can we do? Remember that in this passage, God has essentially put the people of Israel and us on trial for having forgotten him, for having felt that it is possible to solve the problems they face without Him.

Listen to what the Lord says: “Stand up, plead your case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say,

Hear, O mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundation of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.

“My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me.

I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.

My people, remember what Balak king of Moab counseled and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

So what are we to do? We certainly don’t have the capability of sacrificing thousands of rams and we certainly cannot buy the amount of oil that would be necessary to be considered a worthy sacrifice. But that is the point, you see. We don’t have to make any sacrifices because the sacrifice was made for us. When Christ died on the cross, he died for our sins; Christ was the sacrifice. The think that our human wisdom cannot comprehend is that this is truly possible; tat the Messiah would be like us. In 1 Corinthians 1: 22, Paul writes “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. If you are expecting the Messiah as a worldly king to lead you, then someone who is hanged as a common criminal cannot be that person. And certainly from a logical standpoint, the true Messiah would have the power to prevent such a crucifixion from every happening.

But that is the hardest thing for us to realize; that Christ’s crucifixion changes the way we look at lives.

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

God used that which would expect cannot be used in order to save us from our sins. And we have to understand that such an accomplishment goes beyond what our own intellectual ability is capable of doing.

Is this to say that we forgo intelligence and wisdom? I do not think so, for after all, if we do not use our wisdom and skills that God has given us, we would be like the third person in the story of the talents who hid the one talent that he had been given by his master.

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here it what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25: 24 – 30)

So if we forsake our intelligence, our skills, our abilities, we will lose that which we have and we will actually be worse off that before we started. So how then do we live? How is it that we can use our skills, our talents?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laid out the guidelines for living. Now, each of the Beatitudes is not so much what we have to do but how we face life.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus started each of these lines with the word “blessed” because the word referred to the ultimate well being and distinctive joy we would share in the salvation of the kingdom of God. We are poor in spirit as contrasted with those are spiritually proud and self-centered. The kingdom of Heaven is our gift from God rather than something we could have ever earned.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Being meek means that we are humble before God.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

The heart is the center of our being and includes our mind, our will, and our emotions. If we allow things to cloud them, then we are unable to see God

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

In becoming a peacemaker, as far as we can, we reflect the character and nature of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is our goal, both as a present reality and for our future.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

If we allow Christ into our lives, the nature of our living changes. As it was noted, if our heart is pure, we can see God and we can talk with him.

We need loving communication, we need the presence of the Spirit.

That is why I do not believe in theologians who do not pray, who are not in humble communication of love with God.

Neither do I believe in the existence of any human power to pass on authentic knowledge of God.

Only God can speak about himself, and only the Holy Spirit, who is love, can communicate this knowledge to us.

When there is a crisis in the Church, it is always here; a crisis of contemplation.

The Church wants to feel able to explain about here spouse even when she has lost sight of him; even when, although she has not been divorced, she no longer knows his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for other people and other things.

The revelation of a triune God in the unity of a single nature, the revelation of a divine Holy Spirit present in us, is not on the human level; it does not belong to the realm of reason. It is a personal communication which God alone can give, and the task of giving it belongs to the Holy Spirit, who is the same love which unites the Father and the Son.

The Holy Spirit is the fullness and the joy of God.

It is so difficult to speak of these things. We have to babble like children, but at least, like children, we can say over and over again, tirelessly, “Spirit of God, reveal yourself to me, your child.”

And we can avoid pretending that knowledge of God could be the fruit of our gray matter.

Then, and only then, shall we be capable of prayer; borne to the frontier of our radical incapacity, which love has made the beatitude of poverty, we shall be able to invoke God’s coming to us, “Come, creator Spirit!” (From the God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto)

Communicating with God begins with prayer. In the monthly conference newsletter, there was an article about John Wesley and the role prayer played in his live. To Wesley, prayer was the central means to being near God on a daily basis. He felt, as I am sure you would agree, that neglecting daily prayer would leave us, in Wesley’s words, in a “wilderness state”, comprised of dryness and aimlessness.

At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the following parable:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against the house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7: 24 – 27)

Like Hymn #368 tells us, our hope for the present and the future is built on nothing less that Jesus Christ’s righteousness. It is the rock of our foundation and though there may be storms all around us, we cannot be hurt. That foundation gets stronger every day when we live a life that is God-centered; one like Wesley that starts each day with prayer.

My friends, it is we who are on trial this day. And we may worry about what the verdict will be. As long as a person is self-centered and thinks that they alone can solve the problem, their lives are going to be devoid of any wellbeing, no matter how happy they appear to be. And when some crisis comes that extends beyond their capabilities, they will fall. But when we allow Christ to come into our live, when we allow God to be the center of our soul, such fears are gone because our wisdom and intelligence become tools for God to use in this world.

Are you prepared to receive the verdict of the court?

“A New Way of Thinking”


I was at Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church in Buchanan, NY, yesterday (location of the church).  The Scriptures for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany were Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 – 23.  Their services start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.

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Four things happened this past week that influenced this message. Now, it should be noted that I created the title for this message first, as is my custom. But these events helped guide the writing of this message.

Two of the four things that happened were merely remembrances of things that took place some fifty years ago. The interesting thing is that when we listen to those words some fifty years later, we marvel at how prophetic they were.

But we have to be careful when it comes to visions. For we often make the visions that we see what we want them to be and not what they are meant to be or should be.

And that is the case with the two other things that happened this past week. They speak of what transpired and offer of a vision of what may be to come. But then again, it maybe a vision that we would want to avoid and thus allows us to seek an alternative vision.

Fifty years ago, President John Kennedy stood on the steps of the Capital Building and offered what many saw as a vision for the future, a vision that matched the brightness of the sunlight on that day. It was a speech of hope and promise, of a new direction, of a new path. It was offered to all the people, not just a select few, it was spoken to friends and foes, old and young; it transcended national boundaries and traditional barriers. The words spoken that cold January day gave a new generation hope that the words and thoughts that have echoed throughout this land had meaning.

Earlier that week, President Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, gave his farewell address to the people. In his speech to the nation, President Eisenhower warned us of the danger of a military-industrial complex being created in this country. Much has been said about this and how his own life, both as a soldier and a politician, was deeply entwined in the very thing that he was warning us about.

Now, at the time that President Eisenhower spoke those words, I was living in San Antonio, Texas, where my father was stationed. As the son of an Air Force Officer and the grandson of an Army Officer, I was raised in that same environment. Now, growing up in that environment, I could have easily accepted the notion that the very thing that President Eisenhower was warning us about was normal and that there was nothing to worry about. (The text of President Eisenhower’s speech can be found at (http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/indust.html.)

But my education encompassed five different states and I encountered many different things. And my parents allowed me the opportunity to develop my own thinking, to not be encumbered by society’s norms. But it should also be noted that they made it clear that I was responsible for what I did and if I did wrong, then I had to accept the consequences as well. My faith journey was part of that and perhaps I saw things differently. Still, I am proud of how I grew up and I would not change it for a moment.

But I was not trapped, if you will, by the environment in which I was raised. I was allowed to develop my own thinking and see beyond the present.

What President Eisenhower was warning us about was not just an entanglement of military and industrial interests but such an entanglement that would threaten to devour the resources of this nation. On at least one prior occasion, President Eisenhower lamented the fact that a single jet fighter cost more than most of the workers would built the plane would ever earn in a lifetime.

And in that same speech, he also cautioned against the incursion of Federal funds into academic research. But it would be research used to support weapons research and not necessarily peaceful uses. And we have to remember that the first major Federal legislation for education in the fifties, at a time when the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik and this country was still struggling to get a rocket off the launch pad, was entitled the National Defense Education Act. The funding to improve science and mathematics education came through this act, not because it would improve the education of our children but because it was seen as a part of the national security of this country.

In the words of that farewell address, President Eisenhower saw a need for education. It was a sentiment that would be echoed by President Kennedy a few days later and throughout the Kennedy administration. But the rhetoric of this nation’s politicians, including President Eisenhower and President Kennedy, was still the rhetoric of fear. And people who live in a world of fear can only see the power of the gun, not the power of the book.

Sadly, I believe the same is true today. Our rhetoric continues to border to be based on fear and lies. And our responses are based on hatred and violence, not reason. Instead of seeking the removal of violence from our lives, it is almost as if we are being fed of diet of violence and we have begun to enjoy it. Instead of the hope and promise that was so prominent in our lives fifty years ago, we now are faced with an ever deepening cynicism amongst the young and old alike.

Last week, at one of the three services I did, a father stood up and asked that we pray for his son, a recent graduate of a nationally known fundamentalist religious institution. It seems that his son told his father that he was renouncing Christianity because Christians were some of the most hypocritical people he knew. I received the impression that the father wanted his son to attend that university. So I suppose that this son had waited until after graduation to make this announcement out of fear that he would have been cut off from funds to get his education. Now, to be honest, I would have to agree with the son in his assessment of Christians but as I was a guest in that church, I was not in a position to say much. I have heard too many youth express the same thoughts as this young man and I know that these thoughts are based on the words of their elders and their parents, for I have heard the words of hatred and exclusion that far too many elders in the church speak.

But when I led the prayers that day, I not only prayed for the son but the father as well. And while I would hope that the son will return to the church, I also hope and pray that the father will begin to understand what caused his son to leave the church.

Our churches are dying and many blame society, saying that what is needed is a stricter world, one in which the Bible is the law. But such a world stifles creativity and independence; and it is also stifles faith. If you cannot think about your faith, if your faith is to remain unquestioned and unchallenged, it will die. We need to be able to think about our faith and find ways in which it can grow and develop.

Sadly, that may not be possible. A report was released last week that stated many of our college students are incapable of thinking creatively and independently (http://www.sacbee.com/2011/01/17/3330387/study-many-college-students-not.html); they are unable to see the solution to a problem that is presented to them. And if they cannot solve the problems before them, how shall they solve problems that haven’t even developed yet?

A world that lacks creativity and independent thought is a dark world; it is a sad world; and it is a limited world. But that is not the world that we were promised with the birth of Christ. What was it that Isaiah said some three thousand years ago — a light has been given to the people, a path out of the darkness.

But if we are to receive that light, we must see life in a different way; we must find a new way of thinking. How many of us would put down whatever we were doing if Jesus were to come up to us and say, “Come and follow me.” The answer for many is too often the same answer that so many people gave when Jesus walked the roads of the Galilee.

Some will say that they have to take care of their family; others will say that they don’t have the time or the money; others are too busy with whatever they are doing at the moment to think about doing something different. Others would ask what would they gain from this and weigh the outcome against the status and power they have today.

But Peter, Andrew, James, and John put down their nets and immediately followed Jesus. There is no record of what James and John told their father or what Peter said to his wife. But there had to be something about being told that they would become fishers of men that spoke to their hearts and souls. Perhaps it was the words of Jesus that their lives would change. In a world where what one did was almost certainly determined at birth, such words would bring hope.

And as each day passed and they heard the words and saw the deeds, they need that something special was happening. But it required that they find a new way to think, for the old ways no longer worked.

Being Christian means thinking for one’s self, not as other would have you to think. Being Christian means seeing the world differently, not as society would have you see things.

We have allowed others to dictate what we will say and think. We are told that the care and feeding of the military industrial complex is necessary for our security but people will need to go hungry or sick or homeless. And we are told this, not only by our politicians, but by many pastors and ministers as well.

The issue for the Corinthians when Paul wrote that portion of the letter we read today was baptism. It was dividing the church because people were seeing that one method was better than another. That is what people in the church have been doing for the better part of the church’s history – telling others that they way they see things is the only way to see things and not the way the Gospel was written.

We have pastors today who tell us that Jesus was wealthy and we can be too, but only if we send them an offering of, say, $100. We are told that if you are in poverty, hungry, or homeless, you have only yourself to blame. Poverty is the sign of a sinful life; that wealth and riches are signs of a righteous life and that poverty is the sign of a failed and sinful life. It wouldn’t be so bad if these were just the words of Pharisee speaking with Jesus or a 19th century pastor, which they have been. They were the thoughts that drove John Wesley to rebel against his church and find a better way to express the Gospel message.

The problem is that they are the words of too many Christians, clergy and laity, today, who refused to be in the same room with a homeless person or who would prefer that the church’s doors be closed to the hungry and cold.

In the world in which we live, we desperately want some good news; we want someway to make this a better world for all and not just some.

If we but listen we can hear the good news. Isaiah spoke a child being born, of the people receiving a great gift. The people would finally walk in light after having been in darkness for so long. He spoke of the oppressor being defeated but he spoke of a child doing it.

But this was a child without an army, only the truth of the Gospel message. The Good News is that Jesus came to heal the sick, feed the hungry, help the homeless find shelter and free the oppressed. The Good News is found in the light that was turned on when Jesus was born.

It would be very easy to see what is transpiring in the world today as hopeless and beyond redemption. But that is a vision trapped in the old way of thinking. Jesus offers each one us, just as he did the disciples, a new way of thought and thinking. He offers us the opportunity, if we would but just follow him.

I leave you today with this thought. You need not do anything; you do not have to change a thing. But then the world tomorrow will be the same as the world today. But if you should choose to follow Jesus, to accept his challenge to be a fisher of men and women and not perch and bass, if you choose to see the world around you as those early disciples who walked with Jesus did, then the world tomorrow will be different; it will be brighter and there will be hope and a promise for all.

2010 in review


The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A helper monkey made this abstract painting, inspired by your stats.

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 17,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 4 fully loaded ships.

In 2010, there were 189 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 787 posts. There were 36 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 4mb. That’s about 3 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was March 28th with 240 views. The most popular post that day was Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday?.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were methoblog.com, blogsurfer.us, arbevere.blogspot.com, en.wordpress.com, and search.aol.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for what does palm sunday mean, modern christianity, a scout is reverent, why do we celebrate palm sunday, and collection of sayings.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday? March 2008
4 comments

2

The Chemistry of Bowling: A Short History of Bowling Balls, Lanes, Coatings, and Conditioners July 2008
4 comments

3

John Wooden – A review of “A Game Plan for Life – the power of mentoring” by John Wooden and Don Yaeger October 2009
10 comments

4

Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch November 2009
2 comments

5

A Collection of Sayings January 2008
5 comments

“What Time Is It?”


This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany (23 January 2005).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 –23.

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There are times when I read Paul’s letters to the various churches that he established and I get a sense of frustration. I don’t know if it is because he is not there while the churches are struggling with the issues that all churches must sometimes go through or whether it is because the churches are struggling.

Anyone who has ever begun a project knows that it cannot be completed overnight. Yes, you get the groundwork in but it still takes a couple of years before it is fully operational and self-sustaining. The operation of the Billy Graham Crusades can tell you that. The planning for a visit, such as the one that is coming to New York in the next few months, is an example. The people associated with the Crusade don’t just rent an auditorium and then let people know. There are planning meetings with local individuals, groups and churches so that people know what is happening and what to do when it happens. The Billy Graham Crusades are an epitome of planning and organization in addition to being one a classic evangelical event.

So too were Paul’s visits. He probably didn’t come to Corinth uninvited. His successes elsewhere probably cause the Corinthians to send a note inviting him to come. And his stay in any of the towns where he established a new church was never short. So, the preparation and effort to insure the success of the church were there.

But then you have the letter to the Corinthians that we read last week, today, and will read next week as well. Here is the frustration of Paul. He had left Corinth to continue his ministry at Ephesus when he received two letters from Corinth.

One of the two letters was a set of questions about marriage and singleness and Christian liberty. The second portion of 1 Corinthians provided answers to these questions and offered additional instruction in the areas of worship, the solemnity of the Lord’s Supper and the place of spiritual gifts.

The second letter was a disturbing report from the house of Chloe (mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1: 11) about divisions and immortality in the church. It is noted that the young Corinthian church had failed to protect itself from the culture of the city. Religious and sectarian events were mixed and the result was confusion. As we read today, the believers in the church were identifying themselves as followers of specific leaders (including Paul) rather than as followers of Christ.

There were four different factions in the church; each aligned with a prominent Christian leader. One group identified itself with Paul; this group may have been attracted to the church because of Paul’s emphasis on a ministry to the Gentiles. A second group identified itself with one of Paul’s fellow missionaries, Apollos. As noted in Acts 18: 24 – 28, he was an eloquent speaker and this allowed him to attract a following. A third group was identified with Peter. They were probably of Jewish background.

The final group associated itself directly with Jesus. Now, in the context of what Paul writes, we might consider this group the "godly" group but this was probably not the case. Paul commends none of the factions, pointing out that their professed allegiances were causing division and discord.

Paul’s response in the letter was to pose three rhetorical questions:

  1. Is Christ divided?
  2. Was Paul crucified for you?
  3. Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Each of these questions would be answered with a negative answer. In doing so, he hoped that the people of Corinth would seek the absurdity of their divisions. Paul pointed out that in the act of baptism, a person identifies himself or herself with Christ, period. Baptism does not align the believer with any human leader or with any faction of Christianity, but with the Lord Himself. The Corinthians, who prided themselves on their wisdom and understanding, had misconstrued the truth. They had begun to identify themselves with the ones who had performed the baptisms rather than with Jesus Himself.

The commentary (The Nelson Study Bible) that I use notes that we might be tempted to write off this problem, attributing it to "those silly, immature Corinthians," if it were not for the fact that the tendency to exalt dynamic leaders is still prevalent today. Witty, engaging, Christian speakers and vibrant, charismatic spiritual leaders still have the power to mesmerize and motivate believers today. And there is nothing inherently wrong with such power. The danger comes when the speaker or leader, and not the message, becomes the focus of attention.

Christian speakers and leaders (and that includes all of us, not just a select one or two) are merely vessels through whom God’s Word is communicated. Exalting them for the message they proclaim is a misunderstanding of their purpose. We must guard ourselves against identifying too closely with human leaders or placing too much emphasis on them. Our loyalty and identification belong only to Jesus Christ and His message

If we take our focus away from the Gospel message, then we run into problems. And if we allow the problems that we run into, then we are apt to lose our focus. The one thing that I think dominates modern church thinking, at least from the standpoint of the person seeking a church home, is that focus on the Gospel message. If they do not find that focus in one church, they will go to another church until they find it. The problem for many churches is providing the true message of the Gospel.

It is the loss of focus that Isaiah speaks to in the passage that we read today. At the conclusion of chapter 8, Isaiah spoke of the coming darkness that would surround Israel. Though the term "darkness" has come to mean a moral and spiritual blight over the land, it also referred to the invasion of Israel by other nations. In this case, the darkness came from the armies of Assyria that would take away liberty and bring oppression. This invasion comes because the people have lost their focus. No longer are they focusing on God but rather on other gods and idols.

The first line of today’s reading completes the thought of the last verse of the previous chapter. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were to be the first to bear the brunt of the invading Assyrian armies. But against this gloom, this darkness Isaiah promises that a new light would come to illuminate the world. In a world of darkness and oppression, there would be a King to set the people free, to bring light into the darkness. Of course, in the light of history we know that Isaiah is speaking of Jesus.

We have to see those few days of Jesus’ ministry, those days when he calls the disciples to follow Him in the same light. We have to see that Jesus has a focus to His ministry that is communicated to the disciples from the very beginning.

That focus is evident in the response of the disciples. When called, they followed. But as Mark Ralls pointed out, not everyone followed. Are we to assume that when Jesus came to James and John and make the commandment to follow Him, he was only speaking to them? Matthew points out that the two "sons of thunder" were working with their father that day and we have to presume that the invitation to follow was given to him as well. But he chose not to follow.

The problem, perhaps, is one of focus. When Christ calls, He offers us abundant life. But with this offer comes a certain measure of risk. There cannot be change in the world unless we are willing to move beyond the safety of our known existence. For many, change is hard. We tend to think in terms of that which is familiar, that which is safe. But holding on to that which makes us feel safe makes it difficult for us to move forward. Our souls remained tethered to something other than the love of God. We hold ourselves back from what we were meant to become. We choose to stay where we are, safe and secure, even when the Son of God appears before us.

We cannot say what happen to James and John’s father Zebedee. We know that despite their intial enthusiasm Peter, James, and John were far from perfect followers. When the chips were down, Peter denied Christ. James and John fought over who would sit where by the throne of God instead of concentrating on what Jesus was trying to teach them.

There are going to be times when Jesus calls us. Sometimes we are up to task; sometimes we are not. When He does calls us, he beckons us beyond the point of familiarity, asking us to risk us doing something we don’t know how to do, to become someone we’re not yet sure we know how to be. It is a risk to do this but then again Christ is taking that same risk when he calls us. (Adapted from "What about Zebedee?" by Mark Ralls, from "Living by the Word" in Christian Century, January 11, 2005)

The title of today’s sermon is "What Time Is It?" And that is exactly what we have to ask ourselves. It is noted that in the final lines of the Gospel message for today, Matthew said that Jesus took the disciples and went through Galilee preaching the good news, the Gospel message.

For unbelievers, Jesus had but one word: "Repent!" It’s a tremendous word and one worth examining. We think of it mostly in terms of repenting our sins but the Greek word from which it is translated means "to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins." So when Jesus called on people to repent, He really demanded that they change their way of thinking, abandon their false concepts, forsake their wrong methods, and enter upon a new way of life.

This must have come as a great shock to many people who heard him preach. The Pharisees, for example, who felt that because of their "good behavior" and "trust in the Lord’ assured them of divine favor must have really been disturbed. They felt they were already saved and just about the best people God had on earth. Jesus also felt that the wealthy, aristocratic, unscrupulous Sadducees needed to change their way of living. He called on the reliqious Zealots to change their attitudes.

Now, no one has a right to call on others to change their ways unless he or she has a more excellent way to offer. Forsaking the wrong way is only half of repentance; accepting the right way is the other half. So the call for repentance is accompanied by the announcement that kingdom of God is here. For Christ, it was the way, the only way, for people to live. (Adapted from "The Sermon on the Mount" by Clarence Jordan)

So what time is it? It is time to repent, to change our way of thinking, to change our attitudes, to change how we view others and ourselves. Gordon Atkinson, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio and host of the website RealLivePreacher.com writes:

I keep getting e-mails from people who say, "Your church sounds nice. I wish I could find one like that." So Atkinson responds: "Let me guess. You’re looking for a cool church, filled with authentic Christians who aren’t judgmental but also have convictions, and are hip and classic in just the right mixture. A church where people forgive each other, love children, and worship in meaningful ways. A church with a swingin’ preacher who makes the Bible come alive, tells great stories, is a wonderful inspiration — plays, too. A church that isn’t liberal or conservative, but seems to transcend weak-ass categories like those. A church where the hunger for truth is honored, and people can disagree but still love each other and share a plate of tacos.

That’s what you’re looking for? I got ya. I understand. Here are some tips to help you in your search:

  • You won’t find that church.
  • Surely, I don’t need to say anything about churches that have billboards and commercials featuring preachers with $200 haircuts.
  • Let’s talk about my first point again. As I said, you won’t find the church you’re looking for. Go ahead and grieve. You’ll have to make do with a silly bunch of dreamers and children prone to mistakes, blunders, and misjudgments. (Printed in the February issue of Context (originally from Christian Century, 11/16/2004)

The people looking for a church must change their way of thinking. But, by the same token, the churches these people are finding must make sure that they are focusing on the Gospel message. Too many churches today try to offer something for everyone but not offering the Gospel.

And, as Dennis Winkleblack pointed out in a message to the Town and Country Breakfast at last summer’s Annual Conference, the focus of too many churches in the New York Annual Conference is gone. He noted first "that we are confusing a tool for ministry – namely the church building – with Jesus’ call to be the church." He also noted that a few people in far too many churches are choking their church to death.

These individuals mean well but they insist on getting their own way. As he said in his remarks printed in The Vision, no one in history has lived long enough to see what happens if they are crossed, there is a great unspoken fear that these individuals will stop giving or leading or doing all the work. Or, worse, they will explode in anger as they have in the past.

The third crisis facing the churches of the New York Annual Conference is a crisis in the pastoral ministry. Too many of the pastors are staying in the ministry when their hearts are not. This is a question that not only the pastors of this conference need to look at but the people of the many churches that make us the conference. For what reason do we seek the ministry of the church? Is it for the money that is provided? (An interesting thought considering the salary and benefits for many of the full-time pastors in this conference.) Or is it because it is an expression of our faith?

The fourth point that Dennis pointed out was that there is a crisis of imagination. Be it the local church with all of its differences and problems or the Annual Conference with its own collection of differences and problems or the General Conference, where the differences and problems make national headlines, Dennis noted that we so caught up in fixing our problems and managing our finances that there is little energy left to imagine a whole new way of life.

When you read Dennis’ comments and you think of what you know is happening, you have to wonder if there is any hope. There are those who say that all that has transpired in the past few weeks, the earthquakes, the tsunamis, the floods, are signs of the coming apolycapse. But, if God really wanted to wipe this destroy this planet, we would certainly welcome earthquakes and floods. Perhaps we, once again, being given a sign that there is time to do what is right.

Jesus brings forth a message of hope and peace. But he begins that message with a call for repentance, a call to change one’s thinking, one’s attitude, and one’s behavior. What time is it, you ask? It is time to repent.



“The Call We Have To Answer”


This is the message that I gave at the Neon United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany (24 January 1999).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 –23.

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It has been said that we are in the third great industrial revolution, one involving computers and communication. It seems like everyone today has e-mail and voice mail and a cell phone as well as a regular phone. Communications in the coming years will take place, as it already does, over the computer. It would seem that if you were not in the know where it comes to the new means of communication, you would be left out in the cold.

But these new methods of communication also come with problems. First of all, note everyone has access to such tools. When I was in Austin two weeks ago, one person kept reminding the conference organizers that the party line was still the basic means of communication in his region of southwest Missouri. So that meant that all discussion about the new Internet could not take place until up-to-date means of communication were put into place.

Second, a lot of people don’t know how to use these new communication tools. My brother often points out that one purpose of e-mail is to cut down on the use of paper in the office; yet, when most people get a e-mail the first thing they do is print it out. Certainly not the goal of the paperless office.

Another time, I was asked to submit an abstract on the use of e-mail in the classroom for an upcoming conference. So I wrote it up and sent it to the organizer by e-mail. After the conference was over, the organizer asked me why I had not submitted the abstract. She never read her e-mail.

All this suggests that as we move into the coming century, be it next year or the year 2001, and our society becomes more and more technologically complex, it is going to become more and more important that we know how to communicate. For as the means to communicate become easier, the harder it will become to make our ideas clearly.

To a certain extent, that is what Paul is telling the people of Corinth. In the Epistle reading for today, the people of Corinth are arguing about who baptized them and whose follower’s they are.

I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “ I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ”.

Lost in all this discussion was the meaning of Christ’s presence in their lives. Paul then reminded them that the issue was not baptism but rather the preaching of the Gospel, the good news of Christ.

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

The Gospel message that Paul was called to preach, the message of the good news brought to us by Christ came at a time when the people thought that God had stopped talking to them. But, as is often the case, it was not God who had stopped talking to the people, it was the people who had stopped talking to God.

We look around us each day and we see the horrors and injustice of the world; each day we hear of new horrors in Kosovo and we wonder how a man such as Saddam Hussein could still be in power. We look at our own country and we conclude that God has forgotten us. We see the world in darkness and conclude that God has forgotten us. But the prophet Isaiah told the people of Israel that a light would shine in the darkness.

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan —

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.

For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.

To bring light into the world of darkness, God chose to communicate with us in the most direct way possible, through his Son. By sending his Son to this world, God was giving us a hope for the future. But we, with our human nature, see this hope with a certain degree of fear.

We don’t know what the future holds. We see all the changes around us and we can only think or wonder if we will ever be able to handle them. How can we hold out hope for a better tomorrow when we don’t understand what is happening today. And there is the matter of God’s calling to us.

In this day and age, how can we follow Christ? When Jesus started his ministry, as we read in the Gospel this morning, he asked his disciples to follow him. As was written, they stopped what they were doing and followed him immediately. We say to Christ today, “How can we follow you today? We have so much that has to be done?”

Following Christ is the most difficult task that we have each day. Being in obedience with God takes all of our skills and our courage. We are not the first to grumble about following the path of righteousness. From the day the Israelites were lead out of Egypt, they grumbled about the path God lead them. And whenever the going got tough, the Israelites were ready to throw in the towel and go back into slavery. That is same today.

We know in our hearts that what God has to offer is the one true path of life. Yet our minds wonder if we can make that sacrifice. Are we ready, like Peter and Andrew, to leave our nets and become “fishers of men?” Could we do so immediately or would we hesitate?

Obedience is indispensable. Not a static code, however helpful it may be at times. But obedience to God, who is present with us in every situation and is speaking to us all the time. Every obedience, however small (if any obedience is small) quickens our sensitivity to him and our capacity to understand him and so makes more real our sense of his presence. (From The Captivating Presence by Albert Edward Day)

We live in a world that seems so dark but yet there is a light. That light is Jesus Christ our Savior. To those that followed him, he offered a vision of the future that was greater than anything that they had ever known. So too is it for us this morning. There is a light in the darkness; it is the presence of Christ in our lives. The challenges we face, the difficulties we must overcome become easier when He is the centerpiece of our life. Yet, we often don’t want to accept Christ, to turn over our lives to him fearing that the obedience that He demands will take away our freedom. But this freedom that we don’t want to give up is cast in the darkness of sin and is not really freedom but death. As Paul told the Corinthians,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Christ offers us the promise of eternal salvation if we would only accept His call. You can hear his call today, as clear as any phone call you might receive at home. It is truly the one call that we have to answer.



Where Do We Go From Here?


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany.  I am preaching at Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY, Sunday. (I have edited this since it was first posted on Saturday.)  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 10: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 – 23.

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This has been edited since it was posted on 26 January 2008.

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The original title for this sermon was “The Beginning and The End” because of the nature of the Gospel reading for today. (Matthew 4: 12 – 23 ) The beginning part was easy because today’s Gospel reading was about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. But I could not figure out where the ending was.

If you are like me, you have a few books that you read over and over again. You read them because you like the author or you like the plot or even the characters that the author has created. You know how each story ends but you keep reading them anyway, looking for something you might have missed or trying to understand a passage that didn’t seem clear.  We know our stories so well that we can pick up a story at any time and know where we are in the progress of the story.

But, where is the ending in the story for today? Where do we fit into this collection of readings from the Old Testament and New Testament? Or is it possible that we find ourselves in the middle of a story and the ending hasn’t been written yet?

We read from the beginning of the ninth chapter of Isaiah for today. (Isaiah 9: 1 – 4) But though it is the beginning of the ninth chapter, to understand it you have to read the end of the eighth chapter. The ending of chapter eight is very gloomy; it is the prophet speaking of the end, the end of the nation and the end of the people as they are taken away into captivity. But then the prophet begins chapter nine with a statement of hope. Amidst the tragedy of exile and captivity, Isaiah promises hope to the very people to whom he has just spoken doom and despair.

It is that same promise of hope that Matthew is writing about. The Babylonian exile may have been a long time past when Matthew wrote his Gospel. But the feeling of doom was still present. Instead of the Babylonian captivity, it was the Roman occupation of Israel. It was the capitulation of the political and spiritual leaders who cooperated with Rome to ensure the continuation of the enslavement of many and enrichment for a few. It was a system that produced rules and regulations over all aspects of life, both spiritual and secular, and offered no hope. If there was one thing that the people of Israel needed at this time, it was hope and there was none.

But in last week’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist essentially tells his disciples to follow Jesus because of who Jesus is. Andrew told his brother Simon that they had found the Messiah. Suddenly there is a sense of hope. Today the call to Andrew and Peter is renewed and the call is given to James and John. The ministry begins with the preaching of the Good News and the healing of the sick throughout Galilee.

We know where this story ends. We know what will happen to Jesus and the disciples that He called. As the little group travels throughout the hills of Galilee, many will hear the Word proclaimed and hope will be renewed. Countless individuals will be healed. But divisions will arise between those in the system and those who follow Jesus. The authorities will begin to find fault with everything Jesus says and does and will begin to plot his arrest and conviction. The authorities want this story to end with Jesus crucified and this little band of disciples scattered to the winds.

But the story doesn’t end the way the authorities would like it to end. Though Jesus dies on the Cross, He rises from the dead on Easter morning. Instead of scattering the disciples to the winds and destroying the movement, the disciples take the Gospel message with them to the four corners of them to the four corners of the world and the movement grows. 

But somewhere along the line, the Gospel message has disappeared from the church. Somewhere along the line, the church has forgotten what it is and what it is supposed to be. Somewhere along the line, the story changed and doom has returned.

It seems to me that we have lost the focus of what Christianity is about. I have been told that war is inevitable and that violence is an inherent part of life. I have been told that evil is so much a part of our life that there is nothing we can do but wait for Christ to return.

But if war is inevitable, then why bother with this story? If there is nothing we can do about evil, then why even study what Jesus did? If the end of the world is death and destruction, then why even suggest, let alone offer, the simplest glimmer of hope? If there is no hope, then Isaiah would have ended with Chapter 8 and there would have been no one to say that there would be a new light.

I have been told more times that I can count that all we are to do is make disciples of all the nations. I cannot accept that we are to ignore the feeding of the hungry, cloth the naked, or heal the sick. I cannot accept the idea that those without deserve what they get and those who have are blessed by God.

Most translations of Matthew 28: 19 have Jesus telling the disciples to go out into the world and make disciples of all the nations. But not every translation says disciples, and I am not sure that disciples are the proper word. In preparing his Cotton Patch translation of the Gospel of Matthew, Clarence Jordan went to the original Greek and came up with “As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you.” (Matthew 28: 19 – 20 as translated by Clarence Jordan in his Cotton Patch Gospel. )

John G. Stackhouse, Jr. writes

Jesus called us to be his witnesses, not his experts in comparative religion. We cannot prove that Jesus is the world’s one Savior and Lord, or that the Bible is alone the Word of God written. Only the Holy Spirit of God can do that. What we can and must do is what Christians can uniquely do: Testify to our erience and conviction that Jesus is indeed Savior and Lord and that the Bible is the Word of god written, and invite men and women to consider those startling propositions for themselves on the way to encountering Jesus Himself. (From “Books and Culture” (Christianitytoday.com/books), September/October 2007 – in Context, February 2008, Part A)

In affect, Stackhouse writes, we are to do what the disciples did. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the world of life.” (1 John 1: 1)

Yes, it is difficult to follow Jesus, especially when we know where this story is going to go. Kyungsig Samuel Lee, writing in Korean Family Devotions, writes

The ultimate challenge of Jesus’ ministry was to go to the city, the city of Jerusalem. This city, which was the center of education, religion, and politics, was also the place where corruption and crimes abounded. Yet, Jesus went there anyway. Following Jesus to the city was a risky business. Many would-be followers dropped out when they saw this ultimate danger. What will it require of us to move to the city? I ask this question whenever I find myself wanting to settle down in the comfort of material well-being. God may not ask us to physically move to the city, but God does require that we reach out to hurting people with the gospel, wherever they might be. (Kyungsig Samuel Lee (Korean Family Devotions) – from Verse and Voice, 25 January 2008 )

But it is not us, per se, who must continue this mission. It is who we are to become when we hear and heed Jesus’ call. Jesus began his ministry with a call to repent. Repent is a tremendous word and one worth examining. Repentance is more than simply saying you are sorry; it is the singular act of changing your life.

The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent” originally meant “return.” To repent is to return to where we came from. We are God’s children and we have gone astray; if we repent, we return to God. The Greek word from which we get “repent” means “to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.” So when Jesus called on the people to repent, He was really saying that one needed to stop what they were doing and return to the way of life that was first in God.

No one has the right to call on others to change their ways unless they have a better alternative. Getting people to stop doing wrong is only half of repentance; heading in a new direction is the other half. The call to repentance is accompanied by the announcement that the Kingdom of God is here. For Christ, it was the way, the only way for people to live. (Adapted from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Clarence Jordan )

It is no wonder that people are turned off or driven away from the church. How can we ask people to be Christ’s disciples if they cannot see Christ at work in this world? How can we call men and women to conversion without seeing that Christ calls all of us to repent of our prejudices and be open to the fullness of life? We cannot practice Christianity and be a false witness; we cannot be evangelists while escaping from Christ’s demands for ourselves.

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

We have to ask ourselves what it means to call people to Christ. The church’s sole purpose is to show the world, through word, deed, action and thought that God’s will is the best alternative to a materialistic or secular world.

Still, there is a vision of hope and promise. Just as John Wesley began the Methodist Revival when it appeared that the words and actions of the church were counter to the goals and outcomes of the Gospel, so too can we embark on a new revival. If there was ever a time for a church to embark on a course of evangelism and outreach, it is now. As Jesus said, there is no time to wait; the hour of His coming is unknown and lost to those who wait.

And that is where the problem lies for us today. We do not want to hear the message of repentance and salvation. We do not want to take the actions that Christ took. We are quite happy with a Christianity that tells us that we need not do anything since Christ died for our sins.

We see those who hear Jesus’ call as one that requires that they be persecuted. But this response leads to a martyr-complex, the basis of which is self-pity. But Jesus would have said that this doesn’t pay any dividends and is a sign of spiritual decay. Ultimately people will persecute themselves if they can’t get anyone to do it for them. They might sleep on a bed of spikes, or walk on hot coals, or in a more civilized country, they might wear a “shirt of hurt feelings.” It doesn’t matter what hurts them, just so they’re hurt and therefore have a legitimate reason to feel sorry for themselves. Those who do this, those who see Christ’s call as an inward call will never understand that it was a call for action and a call to move outward.

But Christ did call for action. He may not have wanted everyone to be a martyr but He did expect those who say they believe to do something. (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan ) Only in rare cases have Christian communities ever been hidden from the view of the public. In most cases, they have been situated where people could see them, where they could be eternal witnesses to the way people should live.

And that is the problem. We may want to hide; we may want to enjoy Christ by and for ourselves. As much as we despise overt acts of Christianity, we also no do not want to be the one who God calls on to do His work.

But it can never be that way. The Christian community is God’s light, lit with the Glory of his own Son and He has no intention of hiding it. When we come into that fellowship, we become a part of God’s light. Our actions will determine how bright that light will shine but it is a light that, for better or for worse, we cannot escape.

Some may see a crisis in the church; others may see a crisis in the world and wonder why the church is not doing more. If we are called to evangelism — calling people to knowledge that Christ is Savior and Lord — we must understand what God is doing in our history and how He is calling us to join Christ in his action in the world. Evangelism, in other words, must point to the presence of Christ as Lord in the affairs of the world and to the call of Christ as Savior of each of us. In this way, we see Christ calling us to abandon our worldly ways — our petty tribalism, our limiting sectionalism, and our own personal selfishness — and accept his grace in such a way that we, as forgiven sinners, can work as servants of His kingdom within the kingdoms of this world.

There is the temptation to forget that the need to see Christ working within the variety of struggles in our time also carries with it the need to see Christ as the one calling us to repent, to die to our selfish ways, and be converted, rising again to a new life with Him, as we learn to be free to serve our neighbor. If we are not careful, we soon forget that the evangelistic task of the church is the framework by which we see our service to the world.

These are undoubtedly different words from what you usually hear; they are most certainly difficult words to hear. In today’s world, a call from God to go out into the world and show what God can truly do for the people is a frightening thought. But what can be more frightening than watching the light of the world slowly disappear into a sea of gloom and despair? We stand at the edge of a new journey. We do not know what lies at the end of that journey. But if we fear the journey that we are called today to make, then we fear the Cross. The message of the Cross is simple foolishness to those who cannot imagine anything beyond the present world. That is what Paul said to the Corinthians two thousand years ago. (1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18) But for those who believe, it is something more; it is the very power of God.

It is the one thing that will enable us to begin that journey that we are called today to begin. We are in the midst of a great and powerful story, a story which changed the world and will continue to change the world if we tell it and witness to it. We can, of course, do nothing. We may hold on to what we believe and trust in what we see and hear. But we will go nowhere and the darkness will continue to grow. Or we can go where we are called, trusting in the Lord and we will see the darkness disappear.

So where do we go from here?

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By What Name Shall You Be Called?


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany (20 January 2008).  The scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 49: 1 – 7, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, and John 1: 29 – 42.

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This has been edited since it was first published on 19 January 2008.

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Sometime long ago (and probably in a galaxy far, far away) I started collecting sayings that interested me. (Some of them are listed at “A Collection of Sayings”.) One that causes me to smile is “time is nature’s way of keeping everything happening at once.” Of course, with our new granddaughter, I am reminded that “a child with a hammer thinks everything is a nail.”

When I looked at my collection as I was preparing this piece, I noticed that I had also recorded a saying by Nehru. Nehru, who with Mahatma Gandhi successfully freed India and the Indian sub-continent from British colonial rule, once said,

“A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the sound of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

It seems to me that I recorded this statement because it was very similar in nature to the first saying that I ever wrote down. From the Talmud, we read,

“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.”

John Kennedy used this saying as a way of expressing why he ran for President in 1960.

There have been times when I have felt that I was at a time and in a place where I was supposed to be and I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. To me, this is a feeling that comes when you are called by God.

Now, I have to be honest. I have never had the life-changing experience that transformed Saul into Paul on the road to Damascus. There are those who have said that you are not a true Christian if you do not have such a born-again experience.

But I don’t think that you have to have a public life-changing experience in order to understand that you have been called by God. To be born again is to understand that your life has a greater meaning through Christ than it does otherwise. It is to understand that there is a time when you are called to do things that only you can do. It will change your life because you will not walk the path you were walking; you will go a different way and you will be a different person to the people you meet.

I began my walk in 1963 when I was living in Montgomery, Alabama. Then I made the decision to seek the Boy Scout God and Country award. I am not sure how many individuals earn this award each year but I would hazard a guess that it is a substantially smaller number than the number of Scouts who earn the rank of Eagle. That is because the Eagle award can be earned by the successful completion of a number of tasks, whereas completion of the God and Country award requires a number of personal decisions that cannot be measured through completion of tasks.

Throughout the period of time between 1965 and 1991, when I gave my first sermon, there were times when I had a feeling that something was missing from my life. There were times in this period of life when I felt that I was lost in the wilderness and each time when that feeling of being lost was perhaps the greatest, I could feel God pulling me back.

It is a feeling that I think Isaiah is trying to express in today’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 49: 1 – 7). Isaiah knows that God called for him to be a prophet long before he was born. He also expresses the frustration that comes with being a prophet at that time and, in his own frustration probably expresses what will happen to the Messiah when the Messiah begins His own ministry. But Isaiah’s understanding of his situation should be something that is very familiar to each and every one of us.

It could be that your minister or a friend asked you to do something for the church. It might have been a voice in your mind was telling you that you had to do something, that you couldn’t stand by and let the people go hungry or without a home. So you started volunteering to work for a food cabinet or at a soup kitchen. You read about Habitat for Humanity and began using the skills you were taught in shop class so many years ago.

It was a call that wasn’t a shout but rather a murmur. It was like John the Baptist pointing out Jesus to his friends (See the Gospel lesson for today – John 1: 29 – 42). It is out of curiosity that you seek, as did Andrew and Peter, to find out who Jesus was.

You might find that you are torn by this call that you hear. Society says that we are to be paid for our time and effort; society turns a deaf ear on those who call out for help and it chastises those who try to help. We often find ourselves wondering what we will gain if we answer the call and we often do not answer the call because we would much rather have the riches of the world than the riches of the kingdom.

But Paul’s words to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9) somehow echo in your mind as well. We find that the work that we do will strengthen us and that we grow each day that we answer the call. Once, we were afraid to answer God’s call because of the ridicule that it would bring. We were also worried that we would turn into some mindless automaton following some tyrannical church leader.

But we find that as we work and as we study, we grow. Our lives slowly change and we become different. People say that we look the same but that we are somehow not the same. We are not sure how to answer them but we explain that a call from God is not a life-ending change but rather a life-changing beginning. A life in Christ has not restricted us but rather allowed us to grow.

And one day, someone came up to you and say thank you for what you did.

The call to be a follower of Christ is neither as dramatic as some make it out to be nor so subtle as to not even be noticed. Rather, it is a part of your life. The life change will come after you are called, not before. The likelihood is that you are being called right now, by the name that your parents gave you when you were born. All you have to do is stop for a moment and listen, for the call is there and it is up to you to answer. You are called by your name because God knows your name and He wishes you to be a part of His Kingdom.

“Did You Hear?”


This is the message I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 16 January 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 49: 1 – 7, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, and John 1: 29 – 42.

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A while back someone made a comment to me that I found to be, at the least, intriguing. In conjunction with a discussion about church membership, this person said that the church had failed some of its members. Because of what was transpiring that day, I chose not to follow up on that comment. But now I wish I had.

What can a church do to fail its members? A number of years ago, the husband of one of the parishioners complained that I had not visited his wife while she was in the hospital. Now, whatever the limits are on my responsibilities, if asked, I will visit someone when they are sick and in the hospital. But in this case, I had not been advised, by anyone, that this person was in the hospital. How am I to visit anyone if I do not know that they want to be visited? Did either the church or I fail this family?

I have received a number of phone calls from people in the Peekskill area asking that I, as a representative of Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, help them with their rent. Of course, this is something that the church or I are not able to do. Still, I try my best to direct them to resources that might help them. What I have always found interesting is the response of these individuals who have called me. Generally speaking, it is not a polite request for assistance but almost a demand that the church or I somehow relieve them of this burden. One person became almost abusive when I said that I was not able to help them in the manner that they wanted.

Maybe somehow either the church or I fail these individuals but I think not. We all are supposed to help individuals in a time of need but those who make a living seeking out that assistance are not necessarily those that need our help. This is not to say that I will not help someone if I can.

On more than one occasion I have bought someone a meal when they asked me for money for food. I know that Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church in Buchanan has an arrangement with the diner just down the street from the church. If someone comes to the pastor asking for money for a meal, they are directed to the diner. The restaurant staff will provide them with a reasonable meal and set the bill aside for the pastor to pay later. In such cases, if the individual in question does not want to partake of this arrangement, that is their choice.

It is true that in one area, I cannot provide any help. That is the area of professional counseling. My background and my status as a lay pastor do not allow me to go into that area; it would be wrong ethically, morally, and professionally. If someone asks for help in that regard, I will do what I can to get such individuals the assistance that they need.

Those who seek help from the church should receive it, somehow and someway. If what the church can provide is not what they seek, then they need to consider their request. Only if the church refuses to provide the aid, assistance, and comfort that the individual needs can it be said that the church has failed its members.

But this brings up the question of what members can expect from their church. I really and truly cannot say what one should expect from being a member of a church. I know that I have to be a member of a local United Methodist Church in order to be in the pulpit this morning. When I joined Whitesburg UMC in Kentucky and then Fishkill UMC over in Fishkill, I told the pastors involved that it was because I needed the membership in order to contain my lay minister. To the credit of the Gordon Abbott, Bob Richmond, Arlene Beechert-Hood, and Peggy Ann Sauerhoff, they understood and supported me in this regard. You have to ask yourself why you are a member of this United Methodist Church and what you expect from such membership.

I do know that when you joined, you agreed to support the church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. I also know that there is nothing in those vows as to what one will get from the church in return. I know that some expect that being a member will allow their children to be baptized and married in the church and that when the time comes, their funeral will be held in the church. But as I have said in the past, I don’t think in those terms. If someone were to ask if he or she or their children could be baptized in the church, I would agree to it. Of course, I would also explain to them that I have to make arrangements for an ordained pastor to assist in the service; the same is essentially true for weddings. But here again, there is an assumption that those making the request will remember that their participation in the ceremony requires their participation after the ceremony is complete.

I am also discovering that there are those who feel that church membership somehow gets one out of spiritual trouble. I think this goes a long way to explain what has transpired over the past few months in terms of Christianity and the secular world.

People somehow think they can add Jesus Christ to their lives. They see Jesus as a rescue boat from the sea of sin or fire insurance to protect them from the flames of hell. Joining the church comforts them. They still go on living their lives according to their own standards, their own desires, and their own wishes.

But our salvation is not accomplished by simply adding Jesus to our lives; salvation is accomplished when we accept Jesus into our hearts and make Him the Lord of our Life. (Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner)  In the words of one evangelist, "being a member of a church won’t necessarily make you a Christian anymore that being a member of the Lions Club will make you a Lion." (From A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins)

As we read the New Testament we will never find Jesus presenting Himself as something we add to our lives, like we do other things. Throughout the New Testament, He never tells people to accept Him and then do whatever they please. On the contrary, He tells them point blank, "Follow me!"

He does come as our Savior but He also comes as our Lord. The message is similar to the two sides of a coin. If you accept the coin, you get both sides of the coin. Jesus will be your Savior but He will also be your Lord.

But we tend to gloss over the first time we might have heard His call to discipleship. I am not sure that many of us have ever experienced the call that Peter, Andrew, James and John experienced. Jesus’ words to these fishermen were simply to "Follow me." And His guarantee of making them fishers of men wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of financial security.

Fishing was a very prominent part of the Israel economy back then. To leave their nets and follow Jesus was to give up everything that one could imagine in terms of financial provision, security, familiarity and identity. To leave their fishing business was to leave their families (which they had) without financial support. Peter later tells others that they gave up everything to follow Christ.

The disciple Matthew did the same when he was called to follow Jesus. In contrast to the lifestyle of the fishermen, who might be crude in manner, rough in speech, and in their treatment of others, one might expect Matthew to be accustomed to the good life. Remember that Matthew was a tax collector so he had financial security that was not dependent on nature like Peter and the others. He had a fixed and consistent livelihood as well as an identity (even if it made him one of the most despised men in town). But he gave up his earthly riches in return for heavenly rewards.

What can we understand from these calls to the first disciples? I think we need to understand that true discipleship does not mean heartless devotion and needless sacrifice. But it also doesn’t mean that all we have to do is claim Jesus as our Savior. Unfortunately, this is what a lot of people believe today and it is what many churches today push.

I think this is why some people think the church has failed them. They are looking for something that is not there. No verse in the Scriptures promises that we will receive abundant material blessings in return for giving up things in God’s name. We are promised that we will receive eternal life. We are not promised that life will be good if we follow Jesus. But in the end, what we will receive will be beyond the depths of our understanding. (Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner)

The words of the prophet Isaiah ring true today. Though the servant may feel that he has labored in vain, the rewards for his labor are innumerable, but those rewards are not immediately obvious (in fact, they do not come in the prophecy for four more chapters). But, as shown in verse 7 of today’s reading, in the end kings will bow down before the servant. The way of life will change. We cannot see ourselves as Jesus but as His disciples. The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of the pain and suffering that Jesus will undergo for our sake. The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of the humiliation that Jesus will suffer for our sake. But in the end, it will be shown that Jesus will be the Lord over all the earth. The rewards for all that follow him will be there at the end.

These are Paul’s words to the Corinthians. In light of what we know about how the church in Corinth was in so much trouble, it is surprising that Paul would offer such words of thanksgiving. But Paul is focusing his praise, not on the troubled Corinthians, but on the eternally faithful God. Paul is not praising the Corinthians for their good works as he did other churches, such as the Ephesians. Instead he praises God who works in them. When we focus on people’s faults, hope soon wanes and discouragement follows. But when we concentrate on the Lord, even the darkest hours can be filled with praise.

We have heard the words that Jesus spoke that day in Galilee. They have been a part of our life for as long as we can remember. We remember the words of Andrew telling his brother Simon that they have found the Messiah. But in the joy of hearing those words, did we forget that Jesus also told us to follow him?

I may not have answered my own questions about what one should expect from membership in a church. I still don’t know what it was that the church didn’t do to cause a former member to say that it had failed. But I hope that I have heard Jesus calling me and that I have done what He asked of me when He called. I would ask if you heard Him also.