On The Road Again


These are my thoughts for the 6th Sunday of Easter, 29 May 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 17: 22 – 31, 1 Peter 3: 13 – 22, and John 14: 15 – 21. This is also Memorial Day weekend and I will try to have something on that sometime this weekend.

As the title states, I am traveling this weekend, though not to a preaching assignment. Rather, with this being the 4th weekend in May, I am going to the U. S. B. C. Open. The tournament this year is again in Reno and this will be my 34th consecutive tournament.

My tournament participation history has been in several stages. I bowled in my first tournament in St. Louis way back in 1979 as a substitute. I was supposed to have bowled in the 1978 tournament in Oklahoma City but circumstances forced me to drop out. In the parlance of auto racing, “I lost my ride.” I regained my spot for the 1980 tournament in Tampa Bay and got my own spot for the 1981 tournament in Memphis.

Those early tournaments were always near the beginning of the tournament but we had the option to move to a later date and that is how we came to bowl the fourth weekend in May now. I use we when I speak of bowling because this is first, and foremost, a team event. Since 1981 I have bowled with Sam Howell and since 1982 Ken Baker has been a part of the team. This will be Sam’s 32nd tournament and Ken’s 28th. This year, I have four teams and we have a combined average of 9 tournaments per bowler.

As seasons go, this was not a good season. I struggled for most of the season as my swing mechanics went to pieces. But, with the help of Barry Winter, I got things back together. I turned things around at the end of the season and hope that this carries over into this weekend.

Now, what does this all have to do with church and my normally blogs? Well, as I pointed out in “Bowling and the Church” there is a relationship between connection between bowling and the church. But the connection between bowling and the church, at least this year, is more related to something I said last week in “Did I Miss Something?”

If nothing else, our lives are a journey, a travel down roads most often known but sometimes unknown. There are times when something distracts or pulls us away from the road we are supposed to be on. And when that happens, we need to have some support. Sometimes it is just being with friends whom you see each year (this year I renewed a friendship with Steve Weimer that has been almost as long as my friendship with Ken and Sam). Sometimes it is getting with your coach to work on the problems in one’s game.

But there are times when we have to move beyond our friends and those who can help us with the physical life. Sometimes we have to go beyond the physical world. What do we do when our lives are out of kilter or things just don’t seem right? In a world where the emphasis has been on the physical world and the spiritual world has been pushed aside or completely forgotten, what do you do?

And we hear Paul’s words to the Athenians about a monument to an unknown god. It made sense for the Athenians to have this “unknown” god. They had a god for practically everything else that was important in their life so it made sense to have an auxiliary god to handle the little things or things that no one thought of that might occur.

That’s what we do. We have moved God over into the “if-needed” category, trusting in our resources or physical things to supply the answers when the questions get to tough. The problem is that when we get lost, we have lost our bearings it becomes very difficult to remember where we put God.

But Paul was quick to point out that God isn’t over in the country but out in the world, if we were but to look for Him. But to see God in this way requires a radical change, a radical re-visioning of one’s life. This is something that we are sometimes not willing to do; other times we are incapable of doing it. It is not that we cannot do it but that we are so tied to the world around us that we cannot see the world as it is supposed to be.

How do you radically change your life? Two thousand years ago, Jesus began a walk. Along the way, as He walked down the road that would ultimately lead to the Cross, He stopped and asked twelve individuals to stop what they are doing and go with Him. Fisherman, farmers, a tax collector, revolutionaries and even a scholar each said yes and began the walk. And as this journey progressed others not named began to follow. How is this not an example of a radical change, to give up all that you had and begin a walk with no idea of where it may end?

The disciples and perhaps many of the others who were part of the journey had to have second thoughts about this journey when they gathered together in the days following the Resurrection. And at that moment of doubt and indecision, when each person wondered where the road would lead them, Jesus offered an assurance that He would be there and that He was sending the Holy Spirit to empower them.

This road we walk is not an easy one. Peter makes it very clear in his letter that we are more than likely to encounter difficulties than we are to encounter success. But that doesn’t mean that we should give it up. If Jesus had given up before he finished the journey, where would that have left us?

I will be honest. The journey that I have been on these past few years hasn’t been an easy one. It has been extremely frustrating but it has also been just as a rewarding. It has been frustrating developing a ministry that has not always been easily accepted. For some, the journey will end because of a lack of support. Perhaps we should end the ministry that we have been developing. But if we do stop our ministry, then a group of individuals will go without breakfast and they will see the local church as just another institution that cares only for the ones who are inside and not for the ones on the street.

We have been fortunate in that we do get some support and there are indications that others will get involved. All we can do is continue to show people that Jesus Christ is found on the road of life and not just inside a church sitting over in a corner somewhere to be pulled out in the case of an emergency.

So we continue the journey, going out onto the road, finding Christ and being the image of Christ in the world. What we know is that we will find Christ in the world and others will see in us that Christ is not hiding. So let us return to the road again.

 

Other pieces where bowling is a part of the blog:

For What Price?


This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 6th Sunday of Easter, 1 May 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 17: 22 – 31, 1 Peter 3: 13 – 22, and John 14: 15 – 21.

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It is interesting that the first lesson for today is Paul’s speaking to the people of Athens about their “unknown god.” I find this interesting because the God that is so prominent in the various forms of media today is one that I do not know. The Jesus of the Gospels is nothing like the Jesus that appears on television and radio and in the printed media. The Jesus that I grew up learning about and accepting as my Savior understood that ambiguity and doubt should not be feared but are simply facts of life that a great teacher uses to guide his followers on their own paths toward conviction and belief.

But this is not the Jesus that so pervades the mass marketing that churches engage in today. The Jesus of the mass market is the dead Jesus, the one found in movies like Mel Gibson’s “Passion of Christ”. In that movie, the Sermon on the Mount is just a few seconds. More time is spent on his death than on his resurrection and his living amongst us today.

But it makes sense to present Jesus in this manner. If Jesus is dead and not a part of our life, then we do not have to deal with the questions that He asks. We do not have to appreciate or ponder his ideas. Why in the debate over posting the Ten Commandments in public places do we not include a discussion of the Beatitudes? The Beatitudes are a natural extension of the Ten Commandments but no fundamentalist or politician is willing to put those words, the core of the Sermon on the Mount, alongside the Ten Commandments. Why, you might ask?

Because, we can understand the meaning and the context of the Ten Commandments; we struggle with the meaning and context of the Beatitudes. The Ten Commandments are very authoritarian; the last seven all start with “Thou shall not.” The Beatitudes require that we think and ponder their meaning. What did Jesus mean when He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are the poor in spirit.”?

What’s even worse is that Jesus did not leave us with the answers. He made us answer the questions when we look to Him to do that for us. Jesus presented religion in a new way; he challenged his followers to think for themselves. Why, when we hear modern day fundamentalists preaching, do we not hear them say what Jesus said? Why do we not hear them ask, as Jesus did when he taught, “what do you think?” (Adapted from “Jesus was no GOP Lobbyist” by Jack Hitt, The Los Angeles Times, 26 April 2005)

People are searching for an experience of the divine. It may be in reaching for the highest high, the biggest vehicle, the most extreme sport, the sordid confession on a reality show. Others search for the experience by looking to other religions and denominations.

This “experience” has even become a part of our worship experience. The importance of a “personal experience” often takes on religious overtones. Christians grope for God by cultivating mountaintop emotions, not unlike Peter’s decision to make an altar on the mountaintop when Christ was transfigured, in worship and prayer time. Preachers have reported that members of their congregation will remark that they feel they have worshipped that Sunday if the sermon made them laugh or cry. Shouldn’t it have made them think?

Others are like the Athenian philosophers that Paul was preaching to; they seek God as a concept. They are quite willing to learn about God as if He were lines in a textbook. They are like students who feel that answering the questions on a test will give them sufficient knowledge for understanding God. But this doesn’t make God a part of their lives and it does not yield action.

The problem today is that we cannot sense God as an emotion nor can we simply categorize God as something we have learned. Those who seek God as an emotion or an experience distrust those who find God through learning and those who seek God through learning distrust those who seek God through emotions. Yet, people of both types are apt to be sitting together in a sanctuary on a Sunday morning. So what are we to do?

First, we need to heed Paul’s call to repent, realizing that none of us has a corner on understanding God or living as Christ’s disciple. And since repentance involves concrete acts of turning away from the old and toward the new, we are to behave like a family, the family that God created through baptism. We are made in the image and likeness of God, not in the image of the other gods that so pervade our lives. We are obligated to listen to one another, and to discuss our differences across denominational lines, theological persuasions, and even across the center aisle of the sanctuary (where one side prefers Paul Tillich and the other the novels of Tim LeHaye). (Adapted from “Idol Behavior” by Jenny Williams in “Living by the word”, Christian Century, April 19, 2005)

Those who seek a church of absolutes do so because they fear the unknown. They want a god that is easily defined and easy to understand. They want a church where safety is measured in terms of the here and now, not in terms of tomorrow or later. But Peter writes that there is nothing to fear in the future, for the future has been secured. And in the Gospel reading for today, Jesus tells us that we will not be left behind, that our lives will not end if we believe in Him.

And those who seek a god through abstract learning find the concept too great to understand, unless something is done to make it a part of one’s life. Again, the call for repentance changes the nature of God from just words in a book to actions within one’s soul.

Whatever the basis for our searching, we are not always willing to pay the price that must be paid. We see Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and fear that we must make such sacrifices. But we are reminded that we do not have to pay the price the Christ paid so that we can come here today. Our searching for Christ should not be in terms of finding God. After all, God is not far from each one of us. It should be in terms of bringing people to God, not the God of some book or some emotion, but the God who cared enough that He sent His Son to die on the cross and be resurrected so that we could live free from sin and death.

Just as Christ redefined what God meant, not the arbitrator and developer of rules, but rather the source of hope and understanding, we have to understand what we are asked to do in a world where fear and doubt are so prevalent. Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who was murdered for standing up and facing oppression and evil, wrote,

This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are the workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. (From the May, 2005 issue of Context)

We need not worry about the price that we must pay for what price did Christ pay so that we might live? We need not worry about the price that we must pay if we know that Christ’s death and resurrection pay countless times. Be not worried nor afraid, Christ tells us. What price can we pay for the peace and salvation that comes from knowing Christ as our Savior?



The Family Business


This is the message that I presented at Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 6th Sunday of Easter, 9 May 1999.  This was also Mother’s Day.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 17: 22 – 31, 1 Peter 3: 13 – 22, and John 14: 15 – 21.

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Some years ago, I was at a family reunion where I presented the devotional on Saturday evening. At that time, I pointed out that Jesus was born at a family reunion.

In those days a decree was issued by the emperor Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Roman world. This was the first registration of its kin; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone made his way to his own town to be registered. Joseph went up to Judea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting her child. While they were there the time came for her to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn. (Luke 2: 1 – 7)

I think the most interesting part of Jesus’ ministry was its family orientation. The first four times we hear of Jesus – his birth, his baptism, the family’s flight to Egypt, and the trip to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve, He was with His family.

It is interesting to note how Mary and Joseph acted as they returned home from that trip to Jerusalem.

When the festive season was over and they set off for home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know of this; but supposing that he was with the party they travelled for a whole day, and only then did they begin looking for him among their friends and relations. (Luke 2: 43 – 44)

They did not worry about their son because they thought that he was among their friends or family.

True, there were times when it appeared that Jesus had forgotten his own family,

“His mother and his brothers arrived but could not get to him for the crowd. He was told, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, and want to see you.’

He replied, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act upon it.” (Luke 8: 18 – 21)

Some might say that Jesus was cruel to ignore His family in such a way; it was obvious that Jesus saw the entire world as potential members of His family. But though Jesus might have had difficulty with his own family, He still kept them in his mind. Even on the cross, at the point of near death, His own thoughts turned to His mother.

Seeing his mother, with the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, Jesus said to her, “Mother, there is your son”, and to the disciple, “There is your mother”; and from that moment the disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 26 – 27)

And while today is Mother’s Day and it is a celebration of our mothers, both present and past, it is also a celebration of our families. As I noted in the bulletin, today is an outgrowth of efforts by a Methodist some 90 years ago to honor her mother. So, if you will bear with me, I thought that I would take a few moments and talk about my mother and my father’s mother.

My mother, Virginia Hunt Mitchell, was born in Lexington, N. C. “several years ago.” It comes as a surprise to many people when they find out that not only is my mother a grandmother but a great-grandmother as well. That’s because she doesn’t look her age nor does she let her age dictate what she is going to do. That, by the way, was also a characteristic of my father’s mother, my paternal grandmother.

For all the things that I could say about my mother, I think the greatest thing she ever did for me was to lay the foundation for my spiritual growth. She saw to it that I was baptized on 24 December 1950 at the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington. And, as I mentioned last week, she took us to Sunday School every week. Even now, something isn’t right if I am not in church somewhere on a Sunday morning.

My grandmother, Elsa Schuessler Mitchell, was just as interesting a person. When I was going to school in Kirksville, MO, it was easier for me to visit her in St. Louis than to go home to Memphis. And when I would visit her, my parents would always tell me to help my grandmother with the housework and the yard work, especially during the hot humid Missouri summers. Yet, try as I might, I never could do so because she would get up early in the day and spend an hour or so working on the yard before the day got too hot or humid.

And though my grandmother died in 1985, her memory lives on. The flowers and shrubs that she so tenderly cared for were transplanted to my mother’s yard in Memphis and continue to grow to this day.

My grandfather served in the army from 1916 through 1943, often separated from his wife and two sons. The burden of raising my father and uncle thus fell to my grandmother. In all the memories of my grandmother, I remember her attending one church, a few blocks from her home in St. Louis. Though the church changed denominational affiliation at least twice, the core of the church were descendants of the German Lutherans who helped settled St. Louis and the surrounding area. The church was a central part of my grandmother’s life. And when my father died in 1993, I found out something about my grandmother and the church that was just as lasting a memory as the flowers, the shrubs, and the trees that were her avocation in life.

As the pastor who knew my father from the Boy Scouts was recounting that night just before my father died, he asked my father if he knew Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. My father acknowledged that yes, he did know Christ in his heart. And then they prayed. When they were done, the pastor, a Southern Baptist, said that my father gave the sign of the Cross. The way the pastor said it, you knew that he did not understand my father’s actions. But I knew that my father had been raised as a Lutheran and all I could think was how proud my grandmother, his mother, would be to know that my father was coming home.

Neither my mother nor my grandmother was “easy” and I have many memories, unpleasant they are, of what happened when I crossed them. But I know that both my grandmother loved me as her oldest grandchild and that my mother still loves me as her oldest son.

When I read the scriptures for today, I was struck by the caring and love that our Heavenly Father has for us. It is that same love that mothers have for their children. It is the same love that would have a daughter seek to honor her mother and all mothers. That we should honor our mother and celebrate our families today should not be surprising.

That the Heavenly Father loves us should not be a surprise. After all, as Paul spoke to the people of Athens, ”We are his offspring.”

As the children of God, we know that there is a place for us in heaven. Jesus pointed out to his disciples that he would not leave them as orphans. And just as we love our parents, as shown by the significance of today, so too do we love our Father in Heaven.

But how do we show that love? As Jesus also told his followers, our love for Jesus comes from following his commandments. But that is not always the easiest thing to do. In fact, it could very well be the hardest thing we can do. But what do we have to fear?

Peter wrote,

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who ask you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.

If we follow Jesus commandments, then what to we have to fear?

Over the past few weeks, we have seen the need for God’s love in this world. The tragedy in Colorado, the repeated scenes in Canada, and the cruel jokes that have even played on the students in Letcher County all show the need to bring God’s love back to the world. I think that people stopped showing God’s love because they were afraid of what others might say. And yes, in some areas, people have suffered for simply believing in God and His salvation.

But that should and cannot stop us. The challenge that we have before us today, this day when we celebrate our mothers and our families is to show the world that we are all part of God’s family. Remember, what Jesus told his mother that day some 2000 years ago when they found him in the Temple with the elders, “but didn’t you know that I had to go about my father’s business?”

The work of the church in the community today is the family business. From the beginning of Jesus ministry to its end, the focus was always on the family. Yes, it would seem that there were times when he forgot his family but Jesus knew that His family, with God as the Father, were all those who believed in him and followed him. It is a most difficult task to take care of our own family today, let alone the whole world. Every time Jesus told a parable about the lost sheep and the efforts of the shepherd to find that single lost sheep, He was telling us of the Love that the Father has for his children.

The God-who-is has always been searching for me. By his choice, his relationship with me is presence, as a call, as a guide; he is not satisfied with speaking to me, or showing things to me, or asking things of me. He does much more.

He is Life, and he knows his creature can do nothing without him; he knows his child would die of hunger without bread.

But our bread is God himself, and God gives himself to us as food.

Only eternal life can feed one who is destined for eternal life.

The bread of earth can nourish us only for this finite earth; it can sustain us only as far as the frontier of the Invisible. If we want to penetrate this frontier, the bread from our fields is not sufficient; if we want to march along the roads of the Invisible, we must feed on bread from heaven.

This bread from heaven is God himself. He becomes food to us walking in the Invisible. (From The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto.)

The work of the church today is the family business, not only in that Jesus Christ was God’s son and we are his children as well but also we must offer a place where the family can regain its place.

I have spoken the last two weeks of the vision that is held for this church in this community. John Wesley first expressed the vision of the church and its need to minister to the community in this interchange with Joseph Butler, Bishop of Bristol:

Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”

Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay.” (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal)

And when the church becomes a part of the community, its impact is wide. Bishop Earl Hunt, who served as President of the United Methodist Council of Bishops spoke of the impact of the church in a community.

“. . . whenever the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is turned loose in a community to help human beings and meet their needs and lift up the name of Jesus Christ, that church becomes indispensable in the community.”  (pages 173 – 174, New Life For Dying Churches!, Rose Sims)

There is a vision for the rebirth and growth of the United Methodist Church in the state of Kentucky. That vision extends to Neon and the Neon United Methodist Church. As we come closer to Pentecost and the day the followers received the Holy Spirit, I want us to think about how we can help that vision. Just as Wesley told Butler that here was where he needed to be, so to must we understand that here is where the church needs to be. And just as Jesus told his mother some 2000 years ago, so to must we say that we have to go about our Father’s business.

“Did I Miss Something?”


I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) and Red Hook (NY) United Methodist Church this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Easter were Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10, and John 14: 1 – 14.

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I must have missed something last night. I was under the impression that the world was coming to an end. It sure seemed like a lot of people thought that it was. And given the state of the news this morning, of floods, hurricanes, and tornados ravaging the land, wars and violence over much of the globe, of greed and selfishness (and our pre-occupation with those who are greedy and selfish), of a separation of the people by economic status, race and gender, it might not have been all that terrible if the world had come to an end last night. If nothing else, such news sort of makes you depressed and crawl back under the bed covers in hopes that it will all go away.

To hear many modern day prophets and doomsayers, such news is an indication that God has forsaken this land, this planet and the people who live on it. They went to sleep last night fully expecting that, this morning, they would find themselves swept up from this world and now safely in heaven while the rest of us are left to our devices and doomed to live in some sort of existential never-never land. I hope that they weren’t terribly disappointed when they woke up this morning. Perhaps I didn’t miss anything at all.

Others will tell you that such news simply means there is no God. And this group woke up quite happy this morning, even if the world still seems like a bad place to live. Because, for all the shouting and announcements to the contrary, nothing happened and it can only mean that there really isn’t a God and religions are a waste of time and superstitious hoo-ha. Sadly, it is such events as this that are the basis for the rejection of Christianity.

Bob Herring, in his blog for Saturday, noted that there are many Christians who don’t have clear understanding about what the Scriptures do say about the end of the world and this will leave them even more confused, perhaps to the point that they will leave the faith and belief in Jesus Christ and try to find some other source of hope in this day and age. (Adapted from “I’m Planning a “We’re Still Here Party” for Sunday”)

It is sad that the public opinion of Christianity and what we can do in this world is hampered by those whose proclamation and prophecy is faulty and illogical and not by the work of those who were actually doing the work of God on this planet.

Now, I have a confession to make. I know that the world will come to an end. There is more to the destruction of this planet, this solar system, and the universe than predictions somehow buried deep within the text of the Bible. Current theories about the life of stars tell us that one day our own Sun will start to expand and engulf this planet. Theories about the creation of the universe tell us that it is expanding but at sometime in the far, far future, it will stop expanding and perhaps even collapse. But both of these events will occur long after our existence has run its course and are, at best, speculation at this time. Whatever may happen, it will be an event that we will miss.

I think that there have been at least five and perhaps more predictions for the end of the world during my lifetime. Each has been expressed with an absolute sincerity and an equally absolute sense of certainty. There have been over 1000 such predictions for the end of the world as we know it made in the 2000 or so years of what is now called the Common Era. You would think that such intensive and exhaustive study of the same data and the same scriptures by so many individuals would eventually yield some sort of positive result.

God did give us wisdom and He did give us the ability to use this wisdom to both create and destroy. It would seem to me that we are more bent towards destruction than creativity. Let’s face the facts! God doesn’t need to destroy this planet; we are doing a good job of it ourselves!

There are many who do not have to be reminded of the unstated horrors of thermonuclear war that dominated our thoughts and lives during the 1950s and 1960s. We can easily visualize what might have happened if our squadrons of B-52 bombers, armed with thermonuclear weapons, had taken off on their missions of destruction in response to an attack by the former Soviet Union. We were constantly reminded during the 70s and 80s how many cities and targets could be destroyed with the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (or MIRV) on a single missile. I find it ironic that the more complicated the name we give for a nuclear weapon, the more destructive its capability.

Do we need to be reminded that the only thing that prevented a nuclear war in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s was the knowledge that such destruction was mutually assured (what better acronym is there for war than the one for “mutually assured destruction”, MAD)? We now know from the tapes made by President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, that we were perilously close to nuclear war and that one wrong move by either side would have triggered Armageddon.

All we have to do today is look around and see what we have done, from the development of more horrific weapons of mass destruction to what we have done to the environment (be it caused by global climate change or not), and how we treat other people and then we can wonder why it is we haven’t destroyed the world already.

What I suppose bothers me most is that people have seen these signs but ignored them. They are resigned to the destruction of the world and hope that somehow, because they are the true believers, they will be the ones that God saves.

They feel they are the ones that Peter called the chosen ones, and somehow this makes it acceptable to be blind to the world around them. They miss or forget the words that follow, that speak of being the instruments of God’s work, of having to speak out for God and telling others what it means to be a Christian, to speak of the difference Jesus Christ has made in their lives. They miss the words that Jesus spoke to Philip of continuing the work that Jesus began.

Instead of doing the work of Christ, they spend all their time pointing out how others have failed to keep this rule or that, or how we have to keep the church clean and proper (and they are not talking about vacuuming the carpet or polishing the brass on the altar). They frown on laughter and applause in the sanctuary because that is not the proper way to worship the Lord. They are so busy working to keep the church that they miss seeing Jesus walk right on by.

They are the ones who encouraged the mob to stone Stephen because he proclaimed a vision of Christ but one they could not see. And since they could not see the vision that Stephen laid out before them, they felt that he was the blasphemer, not them.

I hope that you did not miss the significance of this day as far as being a United Methodist, though. Today is Aldersgate Sunday because it is the Sunday closest to May 24th, the day that John Wesley encountered the Holy Spirit. We should remember that once John and Charles Wesley were both such legalistic Christians. When we say that we are Methodists, and while I hope that we say it boldly and proudly, we are telling everyone that our heritage was once a very strict and legalistic one.

But John and Charles Wesley both knew that this approach wasn’t working. It is said that this same week, when John Wesley went to Aldersgate, Charles was lying on his bed convinced that he was going to die and die a failure. But when they both received the Holy Spirit things changed.

We have to come to believe that the word martyr means one who has died for a cause but it really means witness. Stephen was the first martyr, not only because he died for the cause but also because he spoke of what he saw and what he knew. We are not asked to die for the cause but we are asked to tell the world what we have seen and what we know.

Do we need to be reminded that when John Wesley and the early Methodists began, they were barred from preaching in their churches so they took to the fields? And the religious authorities, much like the authorities in the reading from Acts, encouraged the people to throw stones and rocks at these early Methodists.

I saw a note the other day that Wesley’s early ministry went against the social norm of his day.  He went into the prisons, he fed the hungry, he even found ways to heal the sick.  He did so because that is where he felt he would find Christ and that is where he felt he could show Christ.

People are going to through stones at us when we walk that same path; when we witness for Christ as we do so.

You have heard me speak before about Grannie Annie’s kitchen and the breakfast ministry that we have begun at Grace Church in Newburgh. Our philosophy is that each person who comes in on Saturday and Sunday will receive a breakfast. There is plaque that has hung in Ann’s kitchen for 40 years that says “let all guests be received as Christ.” How do we know that any one individual who comes to our table is not Jesus? Where does it say that Jesus will come either in a fabulously white robe or an elegant suit? Is it not better to feed all who are hungry than ignore the one? Is this not the same work that Christ empowered Philip and the other disciples and followers to do?

But like Thomas, we are uncertain about the direction we must take or even what it is we must do.

Several years ago, I drove from Memphis to St. Louis. I could have taken the easy route north by crossing the Mississippi River into Arkansas and heading north on Interstate 55. Under optimal conditions, one can make the trip in 4 hours. But I don’t like driving Interstate highways unless I absolutely have to.

I chose to take a route up the east side of the Mississippi, through Kentucky, across the Ohio River, and into Illinois. It was a little bit longer but more scenic and there were more options to stop. Now, on this particular trip, I was listening to a St. Louis radio station and paying attention to the traffic. What I was not doing was paying attention to the road signs and pretty soon I noticed that the countryside of Illinois that I was passing through bore no resemblance to what I remembered from previous trips. It would be easy to say that I was lost because I did not know where I was other than I was somewhere in southwest Illinois. Having a map was partially useful but also of no help without knowing exactly where on the map I was.

But, for the most part, country roads in Illinois run east-west and north-south; so it was just a matter of driving north on the road I was on and I would soon reach an east-west road that would allow me to go west and eventually run into the road I normally took. I had the basic knowledge and that knowledge would lead me back to the path I was supposed to be on.

In the same vein, Jesus is the basic knowledge, the truth, the life, the way. Peter’s challenge is not just be like babes but to grow and mature, to take the knowledge presented to us and use it in ways that Christ has taught us. We are to show the world who Christ is and what it means to be a Christian.

It is more than simply seeing the world. There is something missing when all we see is destruction and desolation; there is something missing when we see a world destroyed by and through greed and selfishness; there is something missing when people are abused or oppressed. There is something missing when a person is rejected by society because of their economic status, their race, their gender, or their lifestyle.

The one thing that is missing is the love of God and that is what we must provide.

The cynics in the world today want to see God, they want to see Jesus and they ridicule those who believe. It isn’t that they missed seeing either God or Jesus; they have never been shown either the Father or the Son.

Philip asked Jesus to show him the Father and Jesus replied that those who have seen Him have seen the Father. Jesus also told Philip that he, Philip would be called on to do the same work that Jesus had been doing. When we do the work of Jesus, when we feed the hungry or help the homeless find shelter or we heal the sick, people will see Christ in us.

On his blog this week, John Meunier asked who would miss us if we were not here tomorrow. If we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, quite a few people would miss us – those served by the food banks, those who come to the church for a meeting, those whose lives were helped by UMCOR offering or a VIM trip, those who brought their children to a pre-school during the week. (from “Who Would Miss Us?”) There is a new ministry beginning in the Newburgh area; it is called Family Promise and it offers hope to families where the parents may be out of work or have lost their home because of the economic times. This ministry, like the food bank and the day care center and the UMCOR projects and the VIM trips are not done with the expectation that such actions will open the doors of heaven; they are done because we love others as God has loved us. It is the love that God expressed to us when He sent His Son to die on the cross.

The call today is very simple. We are called to open our hearts and our minds so that we can see, feel, touch, and sense the presence of Christ. Through our words, our deeds, our thoughts, and our actions we are to lead a life that would allow others to know Christ. We are called to bring Christ to the world. We are called today to go out into this world and be the opportunity to show Christ to world. I do not know about you but that is something I do not want to miss.

“The New Cornerstone”


This is the message that I gave at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2 May 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10, and John 14: 1 – 14.

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"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

With those words, Jesus laid the cornerstone for his church.

In everyone’s life there must be a cornerstone; there must be a foundation upon which live can be built. Some years ago, as you know, I moved to St. Cloud, MN. The reason for the move was ostensibly to become an assistant professor of Chemistry at St. Cloud State University. But the more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that God wanted me there to be a part of Grace United Methodist Church.

When I first came to St. Cloud, I knew nothing about Grace Church, having only been told about the two other United Methodist Churches in St. Cloud. But one summer day, as I was wondering around the town, I discovered Grace. Later, when John Praetorius asked me on which committee I would serve, I told him that I would serve on any committee except stewardship. I just did not want to get involved in money raising. So John made me chair of the Finance committee and I was involved in the money raising anyway.

As chair of the Finance committee, I was asked to give the first testimonial when the Stewardship drive for 1992 began. In part, I said

I am a second-generation military brat. This means that both my grandfather and father served in the military and that much of my early life was spent traveling from air base to air base. As such, I do not have a home church; a church that I could say to others "This is the church where I grew up."

But having a home church is something that I never worried about. Having a church home has. What I have looked for, especially in the last few years when my life was taking a beating spiritually, was a church home.  (What Grace Church Means to Me – My Church Home, Stewardship Moment, October 18, 1992, Stewardship Sunday; I revised and adapted this piece for later use – “What does stewardship mean to me?”)

As the son of a career military office, I attended ten different schools during my pre-college education. Because of these early family travels and my own professional career, I have made over forty moves. Through all of these moves, it has been Jesus Christ and the church upon which I could base my life. As I look back, I realize that Jesus has always been a part of my life, protecting me as I sought what He wanted me to do. During periods of my live when I was going through some difficult personal troubles, my faith in Jesus Christ and the early foundation that provided comfort and strength. Were it not for this foundation, I do not believe I would have the success that I have had.

I might add that this foundation was actually laid before I was born. In records going back to 1650, the family history notes 13 members of the family who have served as ministers in the Lutheran Church. While I have chosen to follow the path set by Wesley, Otterbein, Asbury, and the many Methodist and EUB preachers rather than that of Luther, I consider the tradition and honor of my family to be an important part of my life. I would also add that I did not know this history until after I had begun to think about the lay ministry.

My mother saw to it that the foundation was laid early. She saw to it that I and my two brothers and sister were baptized as infants. I was baptized on 24 December 1950 at the First Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington, North Carolina. As I, my brothers, and sister grew up, and though we made many moves, we always attended Sunday School and church. Though later in life, when I found myself straying from the fold, I would sense something was missing on those Sundays when I missed church.

The way we live, the paths that we follow is often decided early in life. As Jesus told his disciples as noted in the Gospel reading today,

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

But we can be like Thomas, who had said “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To some extent we are like Thomas. We can get confused and not know where Jesus is going so it is impossible for us to know the way. And to some extent we are like Philip as well. Simply put the proof in front of us and it will be easy for us to believe.

Belief in the Father requires belief in Jesus. For each of us, having come to Christ, such belief is possible. But what of others who have not come to Christ? How do these people come to know Christ, so that they too can know the Father?

The first reading today is an interesting reading in the context of stones and building the foundation of the church. Stephen professed a belief in Jesus and God that many devout Jews felt bordered on being blasphemous. When I read the passage where they covered their ears and yelled at the top of their lungs, I could not help of thinking of how little children act when they don’t want to hear something.

To some people, the next sentence in that passage, “the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul,” suggests that Saul was the person who organized the stoning of Stephen. But others simply state that Saul’s presence was simply there so that Luke, the author of Acts, could introduce him. Whatever the reason, Saul saw the power of the Holy Spirit and the comfort that it gave Stephen. Saul may have at first felt that the stoning of Stephen was the proper thing to do but I would like to think that it gave him pause to consider just what he himself thought. We all know that shortly after that episode, Saul came to know Christ personally as Paul, became the missionary of the first church.

Peter spoke of “living stones”.

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

This spiritual house that Peter spoke of is the church. Two noted church builders of today, Herb Miller and Tony Campolo, have both said that it was the church that is the ultimate instrument by which Christ has chosen to save the world. The church today, as in the past, must be the rock upon which people can build their lives. If you know the history of the United Methodist Church and John Wesley, you know that Wesley saw the church as such an instrument.

The United Methodist Church began, in part, because of the direction that society was taking. Though the upper class may have benefited from the Industrial Revolution, the lower classes were often forgotten. Only those in the upper class were immune to the problems of long hours working in intolerable condition and with limited health care that the working class and poor had to deal with every day. To cope with the stress that such conditions and society produced, many people turned to drugs and alcohol. There are times that I think that if John Wesley were to come back today, he would not believe that it was almost the 21st century and not 1799.

It was Wesley’s contention that society could be changed and that it was the church that was the instrument of change. Through Wesley, Sunday school was started. It was not school, as we know it but a way that the populace could be educated. Remember that in Wesley’s time, many children, as well as adults, worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day they could go to school. It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse prevalent in English society at that time. Historians today agree that because of what Wesley and the Methodist Revival did, England did not undergo the violent revolution that France went through at much the same time.

John Wesley understood that it was the primary purpose of the church to present the message of Salvation through Jesus Christ but a church blind to the needs of its members or the community that it was in could not do its work. You cannot preach the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood and preached that it was the responsibility of each individual having accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior, had to go out into the community.

About 5 years ago, I heard Dr. Rose Sims preach at the Red Rock Camp in Minnesota. It turned out that we shared a common bond. While I was working on my Master’s degree at the University of Missouri, she was working on her doctorate. As it turns out, her major advisor served on my graduate committee. She was asked to take over a church in south Florida that had 7 members, all over 70 years of age. It was in the part of Florida that some have described as part of the Third World. For all practical purposes, the district considered the church closed and she was there to perform the funeral. Yet when she came to Red Rock that summer in 1994, the church had grown to over 350 members and had become the central strength of a small town. George Lane, a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, wrote the best description of her work. He wrote

“Once the rural church was the strength of America, and the Methodist Church in Trilby and hundreds of other towns like this are fertile soil for the church’s rebirth in Florida, America, and maybe the world. What is happening at the Trilby Methodist Church offers new hope. When the world is at its worst, that is when the church must be at its best. (New Life for Dying Churches, Dr. Rose Sims)

The secret of the rebirth of the Trilby Church was that the preaching of the Gospel was accompanied by the work of the church in the community.

Each day we are reminded of the need for the church and the presence of Jesus Christ in our daily lives. We shake our heads when we hear of children who threaten others because they feel left out. We wonder why it is that children resort to violence to respond to the taunts and behavior of their classmates. To kill someone because they taunted you is wrong, there is no doubt about that. But it is also wrong for someone to make fun of someone for whatever reason. How then do we deal with the problems of society?

I firmly believe that the answer lies in the church. The church’s presence in the community can offer the cornerstone, the foundation that is needed for a life in Christ. Without that foundation, it is impossible to have a stable life. We have a hymn (UMH 529) that speaks of this foundation, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word! What more can he say than to you he hath said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”

As I said last week, there is a vision for this church in the community. It does not matter what the size of the church is, for if Christ is among you and I am sure that it is, the power of the Holy Spirit transcends size. It was the power of the Holy Spirit that transformed the Trilby Church, it was the Holy Spirit that transformed St. Cloud Grace.

As we approach May 23rd and Pentecost, I am asking you to think of someone who needs that foundation in the Lord, that person who lacks the rock upon which they can build their life. Between now and the 23rd, we need to be praying for those individuals. And we need to be thinking about who we can invite to church, not just on the 23rd but next week and the week after that. Just as Saul saw the power of the Holy Spirit in Stephen, so too will people see the power of the Holy Spirit present in the Neon United Methodist Church.

There is someone in this community who needs to rebuild their life. Through the presence of the Neon Church, they can find that new cornerstone in life.



A Door That Swings Both Ways


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Easter, 15 May 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 42 – 47, 1 Peter 2: 19 – 25, and John 10: 1- 10. Next Sunday, May 22nd, unless something really dramatic happens on the 21st, I will be preaching at Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY (location of church) at 9:30 and then traveling down the road to its partner, Red Hook United Methodist Church (Location of church) to preach at 11:00.  You all are invited to either service (or both). The title for my message is “Did I Miss Something?”

The other day Andrew Conrad posted a question on his blog concerning the Gospel passage for today (John 10: 1 – 10) – from “Scripture Monday: John 10:9″

I was stumped with this question. If Jesus is the gate . . .

  • What does it mean to come in and go out?
  • Where is the pasture found?

I replied by saying

Can we assume that we are free to enter into a relationship with Christ and just as free to leave the relationship? The pasture would then be the world outside the sanctuary of God’s kingdom. The challenge, of course, is that we can stay within the sanctuary of God’s Kingdom but nothing would ever get done. When we venture outside the Kingdom’s walls, we risk the chance that we will be sidetracked by the voices of others. We can easily be lead astray by those voices.

Andrew’s response was

The freedom to enter and leave (the) relationship with God makes good sense. Perhaps it is related to the encouragement to be in the world but not of the world.

Now, as I thought about this, I thought about how one develops a relationship with God. Our own relationship is, by nature, a private one but we live it in a public way (or at least we should). How many people in this world today want Jesus to be a true gatekeeper, letting only certain ones into the safety of the sanctuary? These individuals want the gate closed and locked so that all those inside can be safe and secure.

There are many, perhaps more, who do not want to come it. Oh, they seek the safety that being inside brings but they also know that they those who are inside will not welcome them. They are not welcome because there is something about them that the people inside don’t like.

But it isn’t just who comes in and who stays. If the gate is closed so that no one comes in and no one goes out, how does the business of the church get done? How is a relationship with God developed if no one can come in or go out? Remember, if you lock the door so that no one can come in, you have prevented yourself from getting out.

Kary Oberbrunner, in his book The Journey Towards Relevance, speaks of three kinds of Christians today. There are the separatists, individuals who live a life separate from society. For these individuals, if it is not clothed in Christ, it is not part of their lives. They will be at Christian groceries, eat at Christian restaurants, shop only at Christian stores, and listen to Christian music. It is a life separate from others.

A religious separatist is one who separates their religious life from their secular life. They wear their faith as if it was pure and they will not allow anyone or anything to disturb that purity. But they turn off people to the true faith because they, the separatists, cannot relate their faith to the world around them. And when you ask them to integrate their faith into the culture around them, they panic.

There are conformists, individuals who adapt their thoughts to the world, making sure that no one knows that they might actually go to church on Sundays. And it is quite easy to see that many of their friends would be surprised to know that they are Christians because there is no evidence to suggest. Religious conformists use religion when it is convenient for them. Christianity is something done on Sundays; Mondays through Fridays, one must be a realist and you cannot be a realist if one is a Christian.

Fortunately there is a third type of individual, the transformist. Such individuals seek to make faith a part of the prevailing culture; they use their faith to change the culture, not for the purpose of a self-proclaimed religion but for society. John and Charles Wesley could easily be seen as transformists. Transformists understand that you cannot categorize faith, love for God, and love for people into separate and independent categories. Their faith is integrated with their live and their love for God is shown by their love for people. (Adapted from “the Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner)

Now, when one reads the passage from Acts for today, one might get the opinion that the members of that early church were separatists. But separatists would have nothing to do with the world outside the church and it is very difficult to grow when you cut yourself off from the world. An examination of Christian communities in this country would tell us that if you are not constantly recruiting members, then your community will slowly die. And the history of the early church tells us that the way that they lived (why is the early church was called “The Way”?) brought people in and did not keep them away.

For the church of today to grow, it must go out into the world. But it must be careful that it doesn’t become a part of that world. Rather, it must find ways to transform the world, utilizing the teachings of Christ.

Yes, it will be difficult. Not only does the world not want to be transformed, too many Christians do not want to be the transformers. There are times with our feeding ministry that it is easy to get depressed. But then when you see lives transformed, when someone whom society has cast aside says to you, “Thank you for a wonderful breakfast”, then you know that a change has occurred.

You have to ask yourself where you are in this process. Is your church like the early church, filled with celebration and harmony? Is every meal a celebration of life and God’s presence in the world? Or is your church worried about the bills that have to be paid? Is every meal that the church offers seen as a means of getting extra income so that a particular bill can be paid?

Is the door to the church closed so that those inside are protected and safe? And while it may keep people safe and secure, when the door was closed, was Jesus left outside, unable to get in?

Or is the door to the church open so that people can come in to find God and people can go out to take God into the world? The door to the church, like the door to the soul can swing shut or it can swing open? Which is it to be? The door swings both ways and you have to make a decision about the direction you want it to go.

“Why Do It?”


This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 4th Sunday of Easter, 17 April 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 42 – 47, 1 Peter 2: 19 – 25, and John 10: 1- 10.

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Why do it? Of course, the question should then be “do what?” In light of the Scripture readings for today and what is going on in the world, why would anyone want to be a Christian? Well, if current research is correct, regular weekly attendance at a religious service will result in increased survival and a boosted immune system. It is not clear just exactly how this works but it does seem as if something in religious attendance, be it the group interaction, the worldview or just getting out of the house, is beneficial to the health of many, especially the elderly. (From “Hit the pew and live longer” in Context, May 2005)

Of course, this could explain in part why Peter writes about the pain and suffering that early Christians had to endure. It does seem ironic though that while there may be a correlation between attendance and health, we are not always willing to let people know that we attend church and consider ourselves Christian. Even today, the mere act of professing to be Christian is apt to cause one to be ridiculed and possibly persecuted.

For many, I guess, the secret is not to publicly profess one’s faith. That way, you can keep your health. But it is sad that many Christians today, especially those that believe in the power of the Gospel as a message of hope and promise, don’t speak out. This means that the only words that those seeking Christ are likely to hear are from the spectrum of life which come from individuals who preach hatred, division, and exclusion.

It was interesting to hear Jane Fonda speak of becoming a Christian but being afraid to tell her husband, Ted Turner, for fear that he would talk her out of it. She made note of the fact that he did not care for Christianity. But like many who seem to have a strong appearance on the outside, the demands of life wreck havoc with the inside. And we are often shocked when someone so strong on the outside collapses under the pressures of life. So despite what she knew would be pressure from others, she made the journey to Christ.

Similarly, one of the most influential items in the journey of our own John Wesley was his trip to and from America. He could not endure the trip across the Atlantic, despite the public appearance of a strong faith. Even he could not understand how the Moravians, through simple prayer, were able to endure the hardships of the crossing. It is that seeking of peace that brings people to church. But why do they not stay?

They find churches such as the Baptist Church in Florida, that ask members, such as the judge in the Terri Schiavo case, to leave simply because they did something that the congregation disapproved of, in this case it was because they did not like his ruling on the issue of the feeding tube. Each day we hear of other Christians who claim that the only solution to the problems of the world is a return to an Old Testament life. While the laws of this land may have been derived from the laws of the Old Testament, we must also realize that Jesus came as a fulfillment of the law, not the enforcer of it. Jesus came as an embodiment of the law because of those who were more concerned about the law than they were about the lives of those who must live under the law. It was this dichotomy between what was preached and what was lived that led John Wesley to break away from the structure of the Anglican Church and begin the Methodist movement.

Those seeking a church home find that all churches and denominations profess the same belief but say that the other churches are not true believers. It seems that as the number of churches in a given area multiply, the weaker each individual church’s ministry and witness becomes. One pastor noted that the more he and members of the congregation visited homes in the area where the church was located, the more resistant to evangelism people became because another evangelism team from another church had visited with them not more than ten minutes before.

What should be a great opportunity for the presentation of the Gospel has quickly become nothing more than marketing for the masses. Each visitor to the church does not want to hear the message of the Gospel in terms of how they can help others but rather how the church can help them? It turns pastors from preachers of the Gospel message to peddlers of the Gospel. Like Jacob, who found ways to trick his uncle Laban out of his sheep, pastors today have to resort to a variety of marketing techniques in order to entice people into the church.

It should be noted that Jesus warned us that the road would be difficult. The little flock that formed when they heard His voice in the wilderness would be frequently assaulted by thieves and misled by hirelings. He even prepared us for the likelihood that there would be a few goats mixed in with the sheep. (Adapted from “Flocking together” by Edgardo Antonio Colón-Emeric in Living the Word, Christian Century, April 5, 2005) But because the road is difficult, we sometimes do not want to walk it. We do not want to hear the truth that accepting Christ as our Savior is sometimes a hard choice to make; we do not want to hear the truth that the road we must walk is not one paved with gold (in fact, it is likely to have more potholes than anything else); we do not want to hear the truth.

Think about it. What were we asked to do after September 11, 2001? We were asked to go shopping? Shouldn’t Christians have said, “That seems awful silly to me.” We have spent the last three and one-half years telling everyone that the world changed on 9/11/2001. But the world changed that first Easter Sunday back in 33 A. D. Our lives as Christians should be focused on the changes in the world in the light of that Sunday morning some two thousand years ago, not vice versa.

We have lived with death as a common part of life for three and one-half years and as a result, we are a nation living in fear. We do not want to think about death or the prospect of death. The last few weeks have reinforced that.

We did not stop to think about what happened on September 11th or what was happening in Florida. We saw the attack on the twin towers as war, when it was simply murder. If we had treated Osama Bin Laden as a murderer rather than the commander of an army, we would have ended this thing three years ago. Instead, we have allowed a war against terrorism to expand into a war in Afghanistan and then a war in Iraq. Now, the dead are coming home and we are afraid.

A young woman lies dying in a hospice in Florida and because her family could not agree, we as a nation are now afraid to die, for fear that we will not be allowed to or because we might be forced to die. And the politicians and the preachers with the loudest voices are saying that it is all because we are not a Christian nation.

Is it no wonder that those who seek Christ cannot find Him? Another recent study that was mentioned in my reading noted that while the majority of teenagers in American consider themselves religious and believe in God, they cannot explain the basic tenets of their faith. While there is an absolute historical centrality to the belief of salvation by God’s grace in Protestant churches, including the United Methodist Church, many conservative Protestant teens show no understanding of that concept. It also appears that other historical doctrines about the nature of God and revelation are unknown to teenagers.

Teenagers also feel that nobody is actually required to be religious. They can do whatever they want. Religion is presumed to be something that individuals choose and must reaffirm for themselves based on their present and ongoing personal felt needs and preferences. Religion becomes something interpreted from the view of modern culture; it is something that is quickly becoming a vision of “divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness.” God is not needed in this approach to life.

Such a formation of a belief comes because people do not know where to look or who to ask for information about God. They do not know where to look, and like the disciples who could not understand Jesus when he talked of the shepherd and the flock, they do not understand how there can be one church but many denominations.

But if we go back to the beginning, we see that we are called to follow Christ, not out of fear of bandits or from frustration with His hirelings, but rather out of love. This church was founded by the love of t he shepherd for His ship and it is held together by the love of the sheep for the shepherd and for each other.

It is understandable that the way of love, as expressed by Christ, is hard, especially since it does not appear to be enough. This is particularly true when the word is bandied a bout so carelessly and in such a way that it has no value. Sayings of the Bible become trite and banal. We cannot see love in the church because we are convinced that there is no love in the church. But the church was founded on the simple fact that God loved us and our love is based on that one simple fact.

We also are convinced that it is not possible to find love in the world, let alone the church, because it is a long process. It is easier for the thief to climb over the wall than it is to walk around and open the gate. Getting to know and love Jesus, to hear His voice, takes time.

This process is also hard. Peter’s commission to become the shepherd was contingent on his three fold declaration of His love for Jesus. It was a love that would ultimately require that He be willing to lay down his own life. (Adapted from “Flocking together” by Edgardo Antonio Colón-Emeric in Living the Word, Christian Century, April 5, 2005)

So why do it? Why should we seek to find those who are seeking Christ? Why should we even think about publicly professing our faith more often? Why should we spend time this week saying hello to strangers and inviting them to be a part of this community? Because, as Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who was murdered for standing up and facing oppression and evil, wrote,

This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are the workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. (From the May, 2005 issue of Context)

So why do it? Because it is the calling of Christ to bring the good news of the Gospel to the world so that others may hear it as well.

“Why Are We Here?”


This is the message that I presented at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 4th Sunday of Easter, 25 April 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 42 – 47, 1 Peter 2: 19 – 25, and John 10: 1- 10.

At this point, I had served Neon for six months but the situation required a change in my life and a move to New York at the end of May.  As I wrote and spoke in this message, I was trying over the course of the next five weeks to prepare for the change and pastor and a possible renewal of the church.

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Two weeks ago, after I learned that Pam Ison would be my replacement, I had an opportunity to call her and talk about a number of things that I could do to help her. And I was flying to New York later that week, I began to think about how the next five sermons would go. From one standpoint, I have to look at the sermons almost as one item because, with everything that is going on, I almost have to work on the last three sermons together.

The vision that Pam has for Neon United Methodist is one that I have and one that I am sure that every one of you has as well. And I found out yesterday that this vision of building the church in Neon is one shared by both the District Superintendent, and Bishop.

So it was that I as flew to New York last weekend, I was thinking about what I could say to make that vision clearer. Then when I came home from school Tuesday evening I found out about the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado.

I suppose that these shootings were a little closer to home because I was a freshman in high school in Colorado at a school probably about 30 miles from Columbine. And as a teenager, the son of a career Air Force officer, I knew some of the loneliness that the shooters felt.

In my case, I moved from school to school each year. That made it very hard to develop friendships that would last. And because friendships are a central part of the high school experience, not having them makes one very lonely.

Why those two students decided to take such violent action is something that I don’t think we will every truly understand. But I think it is important that we know what we can do, even here in Neon, so that no one, child, youth, or adult feels the need to take such drastic action.

In the Epistle reading for today, Peter speaks of the persecution that Christ endured and asked us how we would respond?

“For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.

If we are aware of God, then we can endure all that others do to us. What those students did was wrong and anyone who feels that the only way to get attention is to do something violent is also wrong. Doing something wrong just because others do you wrong is never a justification for actions.

So what are we to do? There are those who decry society’s impact on students saying that it is because society has allowed violence to be such a part of our day to day life that violence is seen as the only alternative. Yet, in condemning society, these critics fail to realize that we are society. It is the easiest thing in the world to criticize. Now is not the time for criticism; now is the time for action.

I keep meeting people who say that the problem with schools today is that we took prayer out of the school. But I wonder about that. Schools are continually being asked to do that which the parents should be doing. I also question how valid a prayer in school can be, especially in today’s diverse society. After all, with all the denominations, can we agree on a prayer? And with the possibility of Jews and Muslims, how can one prayer be from the heart? The problem is not within the schools but within each of us.

Keep in mind that every time a sinner came to Jesus for forgiveness, Jesus asked them to change their lives. Be it Nicodemus, the tax collector, the Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman about to be stoned, after meeting Jesus, they changed their life. Jesus did not criticize; He asked that they sin no more.

In the Gospel reading today, John writes “that sheep follow him because they know this voice.” In this parable, the sheep “will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not the voice of strangers.” But in today’s society, how do we hear the voice of Jesus? How do we come to know Jesus?

Last night, Ann and I spoke about our growing up and we both agreed that it was because we knew God as a loving father that we were able to endure the loneliness that came from being “different” from our classmates. Back in February, I told you that I came to Christ as a freshman in high school and I know that it was that single decision that provided the strength and foundation that I needed later in life.

When I started college in 1966, the first decision I made was to have my church membership at First United Methodist Church in Kirksville. That was because I knew that I need Christ in my life, especially at times when I would be alone. As I look back on my life and the wandering through the wilderness my soul endured, I know that it was Christ’s presence that made the difference.

The responsive reading for today, the 23rd Psalm, was very much appropriate for today. David wrote of the comfort that the shepherd provided to the lambs, “he makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” And in a time when many dangers existed, David knew that God would protect him, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and staff comfort me.”

Why is Neon Church here? What are we to do? In the reading from Acts today, the new Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The reading speaks of them being together and having all things in common.

The saving of souls, as described in Acts, was a result of the people of Christ coming together for the common good. There are two questions that kept coming up as I thought, prayed, and prepared for this sermon. How can those who felt left out hear in the din of today’s society the voice of Jesus calling them home? Society is loud and as hymn #348 tells us, Jesus is softly and tenderly calling. There must be a place where people can hear that call. This is the place. There must be an alternative to feeling alone and left out. This is the place.

As we go out into the world today, I want you to think about what Neon United Methodist Church can do. I want you to think about the question that this sermon is about, “Why are we here?” And I want you to spend time in prayer each day, asking for God’s support for this church. Lastly, you know someone who has been searching for a calmness in their live, you know someone who should be coming to Neon United Methodist Church. I would like you to invite your friends to join us on May 23rd, as we gather together on the Day of Pentecost like the early church did some two thousand years ago.

Beginning a New Life


This is the message that I gave this morning at Dover Plains UMC (Location of church) this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, were Acts 2: 14a, 36 – 41; 1 Peter 1: 17 – 23; and Luke 24: 13 – 35.  This was Mother’s Day and Native American Awareness Sunday.

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If you will allow me the privilege, this sermon is for my mother as much as it for you all and those who read it on the blog. But the problem is that a Mother’s Day Sermon doesn’t really fit with the lectionary for this Sunday or with the events of the world. Or perhaps it does.

Peter makes two telling comments in the readings today. In his letter, he speaks of God as our Father, as our Parent. And when we call out to God for help, He responds as a Parent would. But, as Peter also notes, God is a responsible Father and He won’t let you get by with sloppy living. And that is one aspect I trust we can say about our own parents.

As I prepare for the next step in my own ministry, I am reminded that it was my mother who prepared the foundation for this journey in Christ that I have followed for so many years. She saw to it that we were baptized as infants but it did not stop there.

Now, there are many families who make sure that their children are baptized but I fear that not too many families maintain the vows that were established when the children were baptized.

My mother made sure that the vows of baptism were kept.Wherever my father was stationed as an officer in the United States Air Force, she made sure that we found a church close by and that we attended Sunday School and church every Sunday. Vacation Bible School was a part of our lives as well, even when we may not have been home that week.

As I have said in the past, there were times when I would sense something missing when I wasn’t in church on Sunday and I can only attribute that to my mother insisting that we be in church on Sunday.

Because my father served in the Air Force during the 1950s and 60s, I saw more of the world than many of my contemporaries. My parents gave my brothers, my sisters and me the opportunity to explore the world, both the physical world through Scouts and the intellectual world. Through that exploration I earned my God and Country award and began my college experience.

My parents and especially my mother made it very clear that I was responsible for my actions; that I would have to take the consequences as well as the rewards. I know that neither of my parents were pleased that I participated in the sit-in of the Administration building at what was then called Northeast Missouri State College (now Truman State University) to protest the inequalities of off-campus housing. And I know that they were uncomfortable with my anti-war stand, though later on my mother would express, in an interview with one of her grandchildren for high school, a relief that neither of her sons were drafted and sent to Viet Nam.

It can be summed up this way. For Mother’s Day, 1969, I sent my mother a medallion that stated “War is not healthy for children and other living things”. It came from an organization known as Another Mother for Peace (which, by the way, is still active; their web site is http://www.anothermother.org/). I may still have the note from my mother that said she disagreed with the idea but that she would accept because it came from her son.

So when I read Peter’s comments about God and how he acts as a responsible parent that will not let us get away from sloppy living, I think of my mother and her love for my brothers, my sister, and me and know that I have seen the love of God so many times in the expression of love that my mother has given.

And Peter’s comment about God not letting us get away with sloppy living leads me to the other comment, about the need to change our lives, “Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture!” You may disagree with me on what I am about to say but this country assassinated someone last week. I will not judge the rightness or wrongness of this action but I have to wonder and worry when the death of someone many called a terrorist, a criminal or a mass murderer was cheered as if the home team had won a football game. I worry when an act of violence is celebrated and called justifiable, if for no other reason that it blinds us to what is happening in the world. It blinds us to the death and destruction that is so much a part of this world today. And it allows us to accept that death and destruction as a normal part of this world.

I worry when the death of any individual is celebrated by a noted Christian writer who wrote a poem celebrating death and violence. And this may not have been a singular moment. Dan Dick, on his blog for Thursday, May 6th, noted that he listened to a

a young, self-proclaimed evangelical preacher talking about the Bin Laden situation on a Wisconsin radio station yesterday, and the gist of his argument is this:  as Christians, we should have poured out into the streets singing and dancing Sunday evening when the news was announced, and anyone who felt differently is both a questionable Christian and an unpatriotic American.  Real Christian-Americans hate what God hates and should rejoice at destroying any and all evil.  He explained that Jesus taught us that it is not only okay to hate, but that unless we hate we cannot be disciples (see Luke 14:25-35).  True holiness, the young reverend explains, requires an all-out assault on all evil, and he proceeded to list what constitutes evil and what God hates: terrorism, liberals, gays/lesbians/bi-sexuals/transgender (all lumped under the lovely soubriquet "faggots"), pornographers and their audience, democrats, the college-educated, scientists, women who think too highly of themselves, Lady Gaga (why her specifically, I am not sure — he didn’t say), the "liberal media," other faiths, foreigners who are jacking our gas prices up so high, credit card companies that offer you a ‘pre-approved’ card but deny your application, and all who make fun of devout Christians.  There were more things in his rant, but I couldn’t jot them all down.  It became quickly apparent that anything and everything that disagreed with this young preacher’s sense of values is evil, and God wants him to hate these things — not merely avoid them or judge them; his instruction to his listening audience is that God put us here on earth to destroy these things.  We should do everything in our power to wipe these things out, "so that the world might one day truly experience God’s love." (“Hate Exhaustion”)

These are words of hatred and ignorance, words that celebrate anger and make violence acceptable. To hate is to cut off someone, to cast them aside or renounce them. It allows us to trivialize an individual. Teach someone to hate and you make it easy to kill and wage war. And in doing so, no matter what reason we offer, no matter how we say that it was justified, we make it that much easier to do it again. Whether it is the death of one person or three thousand people, we have made it much easier to justify war and violence as the solution to war and violence.

My mother may have disapproved of what I did with regards to civil rights and the anti-war movement but her love for me never stopped. Jesus may have hated those who hung Him on the cross but He never stopped loving them and He offered forgiveness, even in the agony of His own death.

I have said it before, war can never be the answer to violence and it would appear that I am not the only one who feels that way. There is a quote moving across the internet that is said to have come from Martin Luther King, Jr., but appears to have been started by Jessica Dovey. Ms. Dovey wrote “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” She then added thoughts from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Returning hate for hate multiples hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Two men were walking on the road to Emmaus. Their friend and teacher had been killed, killed in an act of hatred, revenge, and as a statement of power. As so many of their friends were doing, they were going over all that had transpired that week and for the last three years. I have always thought that this conversation took on an aspect of reflection of how good things had been but with little thought to what might come next.

And then Jesus appears, though they do not know that it is Jesus. And again that is something that I think we can each easily understand. Living in this world, we could walk by Jesus and not know that it is Him. We have posted a prayer in the kitchen at Grace Church that reminds us that one of those whom we feed might be Jesus so it is best that we treat each person accordingly.

And we are often faced with the same dilemma that the two individuals were faced with; Jesus will walk on if we do not invite Him into our life. It is not the life that we led this morning when we awoke; it is the new life that begins when Christ is a part of our life.

In his first letter, Peter speaks of the old life, a life that is short and whose beauty, like the beauty of wild flowers is short-lived. The new life, the life found in God’s word, is a life that goes on and on.

It is the life spoken of at the conclusion of the reading of Acts this morning, of a commitment to the teaching of the Apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. You cannot live the life together if you live a life of hatred and retribution. You cannot grow in love if you cut off the world.

Time has come, in the words of Peter, to cast aside the old ways and begin the new life found in Christ. Time has come to do what the two on the road to Emmaus did, to tell the story to one and all, that Jesus is alive and that He has come to this world to heal the sick, help the lame to walk, help the blind to see and bring hope and justice to the oppressed. He has come so that we could begin a new life. So let us begin.