“Who Sits At Your Table?”


I was at the Bellvale United Methodist Church, 41 Iron Forge Road, Warwick, NY 10990 (service starts at 9:15 am) and Sugar Loaf United Methodist Church, 1387 Kings Highway, Chester, NY 10918 (service starts at 11 am) this morning.

Location of churches

The Scriptures for this Sunday, July 31, 2011, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, are Genesis 32: 22- 31; Romans 9: 1 – 5; and Matthew 14: 13 – 21

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I spent the better part of the week trying to come up with some humorous opening that would allow me to address what I read in the Scripture readings for today.  But the troubles of the world and the country would not let that happen.  There are some, I am sure, that would like it if the sermon were light-hearted and somehow allowed us to escape what is transpiring right now but I think that this is one of those times when we have to look at what is happening and ask ourselves “where is the church; where is God in all of this discussion?”

When you look at the Old Testament reading and you know that Jacob is struggling with God, you have to wonder if that is not where we are today.  Are we not struggling with the idea of who we are as a society and what our responsibilities are?  Last week I was told that Pastor Ernie had spent two weeks talking about the feeding of the 5,000 and that I needed to think about what I was going to say.  I would hope that one thing that you learned was that more than 5,000 were fed in that first group and more than 4,000 were fed in the second group.

The one thing that we need to be aware of is that only the adult men were counted; women and children were marginalized and placed on the edges of society.  Did not the disciples try to keep the children away from Jesus that one time only to be told that they should let the children come to Him?  How many times did a woman, outcast from society, seek to touch Jesus only to be pushed away by the disciples?

The one thing that annoyed the political and religious establishment more than anything else was the fact that Jesus associated Himself with the very aspects of society that they wanted no part of.  And what is the discussion in today’s society?

There are some who will not like what I am about to say for they will say that I am interjecting politics into religion.  But the root word for politics, I believe, comes from the same root as people.  And if the Bible is about nothing else, it is about people and the relationship between people.

If you read through the Bible and every time you encounter a passage that speaks about the poor, the disenfranchised, or the forgotten people and cut that passage out of the Bible, pretty soon you will have nothing left.  The Bible will fall apart.

The main theme of the Bible is the relationship between people and what we must do to ensure that each other is okay.  We have forgotten that particular point.

We have gotten so hung up on the finer points of the law that we have forgotten what the spirit of the law was meant to accomplish.  Paul speaks to the Romans of trying to heal the rift between the Jews and Christ, of being willing to give up his own salvation if it would mean that the Jews would be saved.  I am pretty sure that there are some who will take this passage to its extreme meaning but I trust that I am not one of them.

I think back to when Paul was Saul and it was his mission, his goal to prosecute and eliminate all of the early Christians.  He did so because he saw what they were doing as a violation of the law and strict obedience to the law was the standard for salvation in his day.  He remembered his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and being asked why he sought to persecute Christ.  I think (and this is only my thought) that he remembered that he was focused on the law and not the spirit when he lamented the loss of his compatriots.  If they were not so totally set on the law as the standard, perhaps they would be saved as well.

And I put that thought into the context of today.  There are so many people today who have a mindset that comes from those days in Israel some two thousand years ago.  Poverty, homelessness, illness – all are symptoms of sinful life.  Wealth and happiness are the signs of a good and righteous life.  If you were born to sinful parents, then you would lead a life of sin and despair; if your parents were rich and successful, then yours would be a life of wealth, success, and happiness as well.  And this attitude did not disappear after Christ was crucified.

It was the same attitude that drove John Wesley to seek a better way.  Wesley would begin to question the attitude of many in the established church, especially when it came to poverty and class distinction.  Both John and Charles Wesley struggled with the idea of what it took to be saved and what it meant to be saved. 

The catch is that we are all sinners, so wealth, success and happiness cannot be signs of a righteous life, no matter what some smooth talking television pastor may say. It wasn’t about who you were but who you would be.

We read the Old Testament reading for today and we marvel at the fact that the man who wrestled with Jacob had to resort to trickery to defeat Jacob.  Yet, somehow we know that this was God and God should not have to resort to trickery to win a wrestling match.  But what I think we have to realize is that there are times when we are the worthy opponent for God, because we are willing to do those tasks that He sets before us.

If we think we can beat God on our own, then I think we had better think again.  We cannot defeat God.  But if we are up to the tasks that God sets before us, then it will be a draw, just as it was for Jacob.  But we must also realize that, just like Jacob became Israel and a new nation began, we will not be the same person that we were when the struggle began.

John and Charles Wesley both struggled with the idea of what it meant to be saved.  All they did before what we call the Aldersgate moment was meaningless and it did nothing to change their lives or the lives of the people they met.  When the two brothers came back from Georgia, they returned in failure and despair.  I don’t think that many people today know that on that night when John Wesley went to the meeting at Aldersgate, his brother Charles was at home dying.  That is how devastated Charles felt because of their failure in Georgia.  And at that moment when John felt his heart strangely warmed and he gained the assurance that God did truly love him, so too did Charles begin to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit renewing his life as well.  It was that empowerment that provided the spark that would enable the Methodist Revival to take hold in England and in America.

We live in a world where there are those who insist on a life of laws and regulations.  It defines their days; it allows them to define who may enter their world and who must stay out.  It is a world that says that military might is the only way to insure peace; it is a world that says security must be maintained at all cost.  In this world of laws and regulations, it is believed that people are unemployed because they want to be.  And if I have plenty of food on my table, why should I worry about those who go hungry every night?  And if I have a place to comfortably sleep each night, why should I worry about those who sleep outside or in a shelter if they are lucky?  Those who do not have homes to sleep in or food to eat are too lazy to find housing or food.  That is what it is like to live a life of laws and regulations.

The other day I stopped by my home church on an errand.  And I was asked where it was in the Bible that Jesus spoke of doing something for the least of these.  The answer is Matthew 25: 31 – 42.  The person who asked was involved in the Methodist and Friends Build, an off-shoot of Habitat for Humanity.  Someone had apparently asked why this group builds a home and one response comes from the passage from Matthew.  When the day that Jesus returns does come, He is going to want to know what you have done for him.  When you lead a life of laws and regulations, it becomes easy to marginalize the least of those in society so that you do not see them.  And then, when Jesus asks, you can only reply, “when did we see you hungry or cold, naked or ill, lonely or oppressed?”

We are struggling with God right now.  It is a struggle that causes Paul to cry out in pain and anguish that he would give up his salvation if it meant that the people who say they are God’s people would be saved.  It is a struggle when we stop to think about the number of people who go hungry each day because funds for food banks are being cut; it is a struggle when we stop to think about the number of people who have no place to stay or are sick because society doesn’t feel that housing programs or medical care are important.

And the disciples came to Jesus and asked who was going to feed the multitudes?  And he looked at them and basically said that you all are going to do it.  See what you can find and we will go from there.  At that time, the disciples still lived a life that was according to the law and regulations (though they were beginning to stretch those boundaries) and they could not see a solution other than to send the people away.  But then they saw what happened when you lived in the Spirit and how much was left after everyone, not just the men but the women and the children, was feed.

This is the struggle we have today.  The question I posed when I first began this message still holds, “Who sits at your table?” It would seem to me to be an easy choice.  If no one sits at your table, how can Christ be a part of your life?  When you allow Christ to be a part of your life, then you must be prepared to let everyone, those whom you know and those whom you do not know, to share your table, your life.  If you are not willing to do that, I don’t think that you will win in the struggle with God.  But if you let Christ into your life, then, like Jacob who became Israel, you will be a new person and many great things will come.

It is the question you must answer.

“This Is the Place”


This is the message I presented at the Walker Valley United Methodist Church in Walker Valley, NY, for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 1, 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 32: 22 – 31, Romans 9: 1 – 5, and Matthew 14: 13 – 21.  The significance of this message is that this was the Sunday that I began serving this church.  I would lead this church until 2002.  It started off a little rough but I think that it was a good three years.

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When he first viewed the Great Salt Lake and the surrounding valley, Brigham Young was supposed to have said, “This is the place.” By this he meant the place where the Mormons could be safe from the persecution that had driven them from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.

There will always be places that we hold dear in our hearts; the place or places we grew up, the place where we got married, the place we wish to return to time and again. Perhaps privately we even give names to these places, much like the early Israelites gave names to the places where they encountered God. That is why Jacob named the place where he wrestled with God Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The Old Testament reading today is about a place, a place where Jacob struggled with who he was and what he was to be. I think there are times when we are a lot like Jacob, struggling to know God in our life and struggling to find out what we are to be. The thing that we know is that such struggles, no matter how much we may think they are ours alone, are common to the history of the church.

As much as places are important in our lives, so are times in which we live. While reading The Making of a President, 1960, I came across a statement from the Talmud

"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." (The Talmud)

Such a time and place was some one hundred years before the Mormons saw the Great Salt Lake when John Wesley and the Bishop of Bristol had the following conversation regarding where he, Wesley, would begin his ministry.

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)

There are a number of times and places that I will always cherish. The dates June 7, 1973 and July 7, 1976 are special because they are the birthdates of my daughters, Melanie and Meara. And July 17th is a special date for me as it is my wedding anniversary. I will always remember the summer of 1995 when I served as the chief supply pastor for the Parsons District of the Kansas East conference. It was that summer that I began to feel that I could be a preacher. And I will remember today, August 1st, 1999, as the day I began my ministry at Walker Valley.

Just as Jacob struggled with who he was, it may be said that Paul struggled with the idea of being the apostle to the Gentiles. It is possible that had he been given the choice, Paul would have chosen to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar.

In the Epistle for today, Paul is expressing the frustration in his soul that he would rather be cursed and cut off from Christ if it would save others. The notes for this passage say that the Greek word for cursed is anathema, which means delivered over to the wrath of God for eternal destruction. To the commentator, this was an indication of Paul’s love for his fellow Jews.

I don’t see this as a condemnation of the Jews or any other group of people, but an expression of the frustration that he must have felt. While he, Paul, was to preach to the Gentiles, there were others whom he could not reach. That is why Wesley’s statement was so profound and powerful. He was supposed to be somewhere else but Bristol was where God wanted him to be.

As I was working on this particular passage, I could not help but remember a pastor with whom I served who didn’t want to be a pastor like his father and grandfather before him. Rather he chose to be a lawyer. Yet when he was done with law school and had begun a successful career as a prosecuting attorney, he still found that life would not be complete until he answered the call of God.

Prior to the time of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus had heard the news that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been executed. As was his custom, he wanted to withdraw from the people for a few moments of private mediation and privacy. But this time, the people followed him. And while he may have wanted to be alone in his grief, as the scripture said, “he had compassion on them and healed the sick.”

And so it was that it got late in the day. Like a lot of us might today, the disciples saw only a remote place far away from food and drink. So it should not be surprising that the disciples inclination was to send the people away. But the opportunity to meet God is never a planned moment in time or place. Nor is it determined by convenience or by us being in the right place at the right time.

Jesus told his disciples to give the people something to eat. I think we can all imagine how the disciples must have felt when they heard their teacher telling them to do this. And you have to realize that the crowd Jesus was telling the disciple to feed was closer to 15,000 people than the 5,000 that only represented the men presented.

We may look around at where we are and wonder if this is the time or place for us. Too often, we struggle like Jacob, trying to understand what our life is to be. Many times we are like Paul, frustrated and afraid that the task before us is too great and impossible for us to complete.

Many times we, like the disciples, insist that there is nothing we can do and that we are in the wrong place. But all that changes when we give our lives over to Christ, when we let Christ be our guide.

Before John Wesley came to Bristol, he had come to America with his brother Charles to be missionaries in Georgia. Their experiences there were such that when they returned to England in 1738, they were convinced that their lives were failures. Prepared as they were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither man felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley could say that they trusted the Lord. But at the place known as Aldersgate, John Wesley came to know Christ as his own personal Savior.

When Wesley accepted Christ, he began to understand the direction his life would take. When Wesley accepted Christ as his Savior, he gained the confidence and courage that he would need to insure the success of the Methodist revival. For Jacob, the blessing God gave him after they wrestled enabled him to become Israel, the father of a mighty nation. In trusting Jesus, the disciples were able to feed the multitude. And such was their trust in Jesus that there were enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets.

When we come to trust Christ as our own personal Savior, when we accept Him in our hearts, we come to know the blessing that God has given us, to see beyond the frustrations of the day and know that we can accomplish great things.

And on this day, in this place, you are invited to come to Christ’s Table, to join in the celebration of Christ’s victory of death, of our being a part of Christ’s Holy Church.

“Playing the End Game”


I was at the Bellvale United Methodist Church, 41 Iron Forge Road, Warwick, NY 10990 (service starts at 9:15 am) and Sugar Loaf United Methodist Church, 1387 Kings Highway, Chester, NY 10918 (service starts at 11 am) this morning.  I will be there next week as well.

Location of churches

The Scriptures for this Sunday, July 24, 2011, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, are Genesis 29: 15 – 28; Romans 8: 26 – 39; and Matthew 13: 31 – 33,44 – 52.

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I had a couple of thoughts about the readings for this Sunday and where they may take me. First, it might have been interesting to know what happened to Jacob on his wedding night such that he wasn’t able to recognize who he actually married.

Second, I would like to have had Paul explain to me what he, Paul, meant when he wrote that God knew from the beginning what He, God, was doing. I have no doubt about the omnipotence of God but it seems to me that something is missing in the logic that Paul presents. If God knew the outcome, He might have saved Himself a lot of trouble by just skipping right to the end. And if God does truly know how it all turns out, don’t you think it would be nice if every now and then, He lets us in on the secret about what He is planning?

Now, by the same token, I don’t see God as some sort of supernatural deity who designed and built the universe, turned it on, and then walked away leaving us to figure it all out. But then again, maybe that is what God did. When God laid the groundwork for the Garden of Eden, he planted the Tree of Knowledge, the tree whose fruit would lead to our downfall. Creating us in His image means that we got part of His creativity and intelligence. He had to know that we would use that creativity and that intelligence. The question must be – that knowing that we have this creativity, knowing that we have this intelligence, – what are we going to do with them?

Ours is a history of following God and then rejecting Him; of being destroyed by our rejection and being reborn by our renewal of the covenant. The Bible tells of those times when the people followed God, kept the commandments and upheld the covenants; the Bible also tells us of the times when the people strayed from God, did not keep the commandments and forgot the covenants. When the people did the former, times were good; when the people did the latter, the times were bad. Invariably, when the times were good, many people began to think that it was their efforts and their work and that is when the bad times began to arrive. And when you read the Bible, you note that many times the bad times were worse than the good times were good.

I am not sure where we lie in that cycle of good times and bad times but I have seen enough that leads me to conclude that many see these not as bad times but rather as the beginning of the “End Times.” The sad thing is that there is enough evidence to suggest that many people today go out of their way to find evidence that would support this conclusion so that they can feel as if they will be one of the select few who shall be saved.

The view of Christianity today almost seems to be totally focused on the first few pages at the beginning of the Old Testament (Genesis) and the last few pages of the New Testament (Revelations). It is like reading a murder mystery where we don’t want to be burdened with literary devices such as a cast of characters or a plot. We know that something went wrong in the beginning so we just jump to the end to find out how it all turns out.

If we do bother reading the Old and New Testament, it is read so fast as to forget what it is that we read. Our knowledge of the Bible is shockingly limited and often wrong. We have a limited understanding of how the Bible came into being and why. And I think that what’s worse is that we have virtually no understanding of how we became Christians or even Methodists or why we are who we say we are.

I know that this may be difficult for many to accept but consider this. Look at what is happening in our schools today. My experience is that students are not interested in how we got the answer to a question, only what the answer might be and if that particular question will be on the test.

When I began teaching a number of years ago, I was introduced to the idea/thought of “wait time.” “Wait time” is the time that the instructor needs to wait after asking a question.

In most classrooms, students are typically given less than one second to respond to a question posed by a teacher. Research shows that under these conditions students generally give short, recall responses or no answer at all rather than giving answers that involve higher-level thinking. Studies beginning in the early 1970s and continuing through the 1980s show that if teachers pause between three and seven seconds after asking higher-level questions, students respond with more thoughtful answers and that science achievement is increased. This finding is consistent at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels and across the science disciplines.

However, some research studies have suggested that the benefits of increasing wait time may depend on factors such as student expectations and the cognitive level of the questions. In a study of increased wait time in a high school physics class, students became more apathetic in classes where the wait time was increased. This might have occurred because this strategy did not match students’ expectations of how a high school physics course should be conducted. In a study at the elementary level, a decrease in achievement was attributed to waiting too long for responses to low-level questions. (From http://www.agpa.uakron.edu/p16/btp.php?id=wait-time)

What is surprising about these results is that forty years ago, we wanted teachers to wait for the answers. Now, we have become a nation that expects results immediately if not sooner and we do not want to work for the results. And we think that if we get good scores on the test at the end of the year, we have an understanding of the subject.

There can be no doubt that one of the greatest love stories in the Bible is that of the relationship between Jacob and Rachel. That he worked for her father for seven years in anticipation of marrying her speaks to Jacob’s love for Rachel. But how could he work and live with that family for seven years and not know that Rachel was not going to be allowed to marry until her sister, Leah, was married? Was he so focused on the end that he missed the story?

Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, once said that “You must collect things for reasons you don’t yet understand.” You hear this statement practically every time that Jesus told a story or a parable. He is giving insight into what will come but because people want the answers now, they are having a hard time learning what He is teaching. And when they see how hard it was to learn what Jesus was teaching, they quit following Him. They weren’t interested in what Jesus was saying; they were interested in how all of this turns out and where they were going to be when the Kingdom of God became a reality. Could it be that those who began the journey but quit early did in fact understand that it would be a difficult and arduous task to follow Jesus and they didn’t want any part of it?

We know, I hope and trust, that this walk with Jesus will never be an easy one. We do have Paul’s words that tell us that the Holy Spirit will be right there with us, supporting us in our efforts and struggles. But how do we get to the end? What do we do when it may seem like these are the “End Times?”

If you are like me, you were shocked and appalled by the bombing and the mass shooting in Norway on Friday. For my family, it was more than a story on the television. My wife and two of her children lived in Norway for three years; they still have friends in the country. Their friends are okay but friends have friends and in a country as small as Norway, only 4 million people, all of those deaths will reach deep into those friendships.

There is a tendency by many to demand retribution for these acts of violence. And I think that you could hear those calls for retribution when it was felt that these acts of violence came from outside Norway. But it is becoming more and more apparent that the one who did this was a Norwegian, one of their own. But amidst those thoughts came the words of the Norwegian Prime Minister that the people of Norway would respond to this attack on their democracy with more democracy and this attack on their society with more humanity. This is totally in character with the Norwegian people. It is part of their national psyche.

We live in a world where we need to spend more time doing that, responding to acts of violence and hatred with humanity and love, not with more violence and hatred. What we need to do right now is not play the end game and say that nothing can be done. Rather, we have to take that which we have been taught and put it into practice. We have to make the teachings that we were taught in Sunday school more than something to pass the time away. We have to look around and see where we can put them into practice. How are we to feed the homeless? How are we to find homes for the homeless? How do we heal and take care of those who are sick and injured? How are we to remove the injustice and oppression that is so often present in this world?

I know what I can do to answer these questions and I know what I can and am presently doing to answer those questions? These are difficult questions and often times we may not be able to answer them. But then we hear the words that Paul wrote to the Romans, in those times when we struggle, the Holy Spirit is there with us. And we know this, there was a promise made two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem that said that we will never struggle alone. To play the end game requires that we play the whole game.

That means accepting Jesus as our Savior and then letting the Holy Spirit empower you. Are you ready to play the whole game and not just take a peak at the ending?

This Day in History


I will be honest; I don’t know where I was on this day (July 20) in 1969. I think I was at my momma’s parent’s house in North Carolina but we might have still been at our house in Memphis. What I do know is that I did watch Neal Armstrong descend the ladder of the “Eagle” and take that first step on the moon.

What I find interesting about today, July 20, 2011, is that on the anniversary of our first landing on the moon we are effectively ending our presence in space. The last space shuttle is landing in a couple of days and it will be a long, long time before we ever go back into space on our own. Oh, I know that we will still send people into space but it will be in Soyuz spacecraft to rendezvous with the International Space Station. But it will not be the same.

The Soyuz seems to be a reliable spacecraft and it will do the job that it is required to do but it cannot take large loads into space. And if we cannot take large loads into space I personally don’t see how we can do much of anything in space. The International Space Station will continue to fly for a few years but, like all machines, it wears out and parts break and need to be fixed. Sooner or later (hopefully much later), the ISS will return to Earth in a blaze of fire and light. And mankind’s presence in outer space will be no more.

Society seems to have marginalized science, technology, and exploration. When the cost of the Viet Nam War got too great, we cut back on the missions to the moon. And now we are doing the same thing. Other costs, the war in Afghanistan, the fight over the budget and the country’s debt, are draining this country’s resources. The replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope has apparently been cancelled. There is a plan to go to the moon but it is a long time away and it will probably be cancelled. I read somewhere that we have lost our ability to use the information we gained from our only trips to the moon back in 1969, 1970, and 1971.

I wouldn’t mind it if the argument was caring for people at home and exploring space but we balance the cost of exploration against our military expenditures and I don’t think those should be our priorities. People and the protection of people, not their destruction, must be our priority. As long as we have the mentality that we must spend money on weapons and destruction and feel that this brings us a better life, we will never have a better life.

I look at the attitude towards science today and wonder if we even care what’s out there in space. There is a generation who has never watched someone walk on the moon. We are on the verge of creating a generation that will never know what it means to live and work in space. We have lost our sense of curiosity, we no longer ask questions. We live in the present and fear what tomorrow brings.

But what’s worse is that we don’t have any plan to eliminate that fear. We spend our money on destruction and fear, not on hope and promise. When we cut funds, we cut the support for people. We have turned our schools into factories that turn out mindless robots, incapable of independent thought, instead of curious students, seeking to find answers to new questions, questions that expand our horizon. And why should students even thing about looking beyond the horizon.

We stand at the edge of the great unknown. We have effectively taken away our ability to even peer into that area. Forty some years from today, will we see earth from outer space as we did forty years ago? Will be reaching out beyond the solar system? Or will we even wonder what might be out there?

It is something to think about on this day in history.

The Road Taken


I once said that my last sermon would be entitled “Volunteer Just Once”.  I also think that everyone’s first sermon as a lay speaker, especially if they are certified and at a church other than their own, should be entitled “To Boldly Go” (with the appropriate sub-comments and soundtrack).

Now, I also know that many lay speakers do not travel as I have done, both in the church and in my own life.  If the statistics I quoted in one of my earlier sermons ( “Journey to the Promised Land”), most lay speakers stay at one church most of their life.  Granted, I have been at Grace UMC in Newburgh for going on five years now but I served three churches between 1998 and 2005 as well as being part of a team that served two churches in 1997 and 1998.  So there have been times when I had to say good-bye.

This particular sermon is one such sermon.  Given on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 30 June 2002, this was my last Sunday at Walker Valley UMC.  The scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 22: 1 – 14, Romans 6: 12 – 23, and Matthew 10: 40 – 42.  You will not that the first two readings were included in the actual sermon.  I don’t remember why I did it that way but I might try it again.

Like Pleasant Grove, Alexander Chapel (“The Road We Travel” – Pleasant Grove UMC, Brighton, TN), and Neon (“The Time Has Come” – Neon UMC, Neon, KY), Walker Valley was special, , not just because I had a part in that church’s life but because of what each of those churches gave me and what they allowed me to do.  I would return to Walker Valley a year later as part of a ceremony celebrating the history of the church.

It should also be noted that I did not give a good-bye sermon when I left Tompkins Corners UMC in July, 2005.  Sometimes the pastor has to leave (in my case, it was my choice to leave) and not say good-bye.  I wish it had been the other way but it wasn’t meant to be that way.

Like my sermon at Pleasant Grove, this sermon contains a reference to the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken.  I do not know if there is some deep, hidden meaning in this poem.  I just know that there have been times in my past and undoubtedly there will be moments in the future where I will stand at point and have to make a decision about the path I must walk.  That is something we all must do at some point in time.

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There comes a time when we are asked to walk on separate paths; when we come to points in life where decisions must be made. So it is that today the path that we have walked together for these past three years comes to a point where it splits apart.

The decision I had to make was not an easy one and it wasn’t made without deep thought and prayer. But as I look back to where this church was three years ago, I feel that I have done what was asked of me and the time was right to bring someone in to take Walker Valley in its journey, along its own path.

Bill Gates, in his book "The Road Ahead," looked at the nature of computers and technology in our future. Of course, as we know and as he points out, trying to determine the future is not an easy task. The best that we can do is simply to be prepared for whatever might come around the next turn. As I walk down the path that I have chosen, I hope that my experiences here have in some way prepared me for the future and that what I have done has prepared this church for the future as well.

A decision such as this one is never an easy one but then following Jesus, being a disciple of Christ in this day, has never been easy either. Consider Abraham and what he was asked to do. In the Old Testament Reading for today, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son.

The First Lesson – Genesis 22: 1 – 14

I wonder what went through Abraham’s mind when this happened. God has promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations and now he is being asked to sacrifice his only son after his oldest son is sent into exile. How does God plan to keep his part of the covenant that was made with Abraham so many years before?

Surely Abraham asked God what was going to happen. How could the future be what it was to be if God was going to take away his children? Surely, if nowhere else but in his mind, Abraham had to question if following God from his home in Ur to the Promised Land of Israel was the right decision.

But there was no indication nor has there ever been any indication that Abraham neither questioned God about this decision nor even questioned his own decision about keeping his faith. It was his faith in God that allowed him to reach this point; surely, it was his faith that kept him going in this moment of crisis.

There are times when we are tested; there are times when are faith is tested. But the only way we find out what God wants us to do is to do what God asks of us. At no time will God ever ask us to do something that we are not capable of doing.

It was certainly made clear to me in reading about the various servants of God that God asked each one of them to do what was in their ability to do.

And in those moments of crisis when we are tempted to chuck it all and take the easy path, we are reminded of what Paul told the Romans:

The Second Lesson – Romans 6: 12 – 23

The temptation to return to the old ways of life, to walk what seems to be the easy path means that we return to the slavery of sin and death. In God, through Christ, we have gained our freedom. It may not be the easiest path to walk but it is the one that we know has the rewards; it is the one which insures that we will reach the goal that we seek. That is the point Paul tried to make. If the path that we walk is the path of sin, then the result is death. But if the path that we chose to walk is with Christ, then the path on which we tread takes us to eternal life.

Jesus told us in the Gospel reading for today that there were rewards for what we do. And He commanded us to make sure that what was done for us, we do for others.

As we look to the future, we are not certain about what is ahead, what is around the bend in the road. But the only way that we are going to find out what is there is head down the road and find out. I doubt that anyone who has served Christ has known what the future held. But the uncertainty is only in the manner in which the future is reached, not in what the future holds.

Certainly none of the twelve understood what was asked of them when Christ asked them to follow him. Paul certainly had no idea of the journeys he would take after that moment on the road to Damascus. So it is today.. I don’t know where my path will lead; I do know that after a few months, I am probably going to find myself missing the routine that I have followed on Sunday morning these past few years and I will get back into lay ministry. I will watch from afar as this church continues to grow and be a presence in the community.

We come to a fork in the road. We have come to that point where our paths diverge. But the roads that we take as we continue on our journeys will always be with the knowledge and presence of Christ in our lives and with the assurance of the rewards that following Him, as He promised, will be there when the paths end.

“Journey to the Promised Land”


This is the message that I gave at Grace UMC, St. Cloud, MN for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 31 July 1994. The Scriptures that I used for this message were Exodus 13: 17 – 22 and 2 Timothy 1: 6 – 7.

This is (was) the 11th sermon I ever wrote. I am not sure what Sunday in the church calendar this particular Sunday represented nor what the regular lectionary readings were. I was still developing as a lay speaker and followed the pattern used my pastor of one reading and a selected verse that may or not have come from the reading. My own style would begin to develop the following summer when my role as a certified lay speaker would change from an occasional Sunday or two to a weekly service and message to three churches in Kansas (see “Hide and Seek”).

The significance of this message, at least for me, is this is the first time that I had to say good-bye to a church where I had been more than just a member. Grace was a church that had given me an opportunity, and a church where I may have helped change it’s direction.

An interesting note – after the service was over and I was greeting everyone (and saying good-bye) a visitor came up and said that she wasn’t sure about coming to a Methodist church. She had been at the other Methodist church in town and the pastor there was leaving. She came to Grace and I was saying good-bye. I pointed out that I was not the pastor and that he would be back next week and she should come again. Of course, since I was gone, I never found out what she did.

This has been edited since it was first published.

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A recent report on CNBC stated that the average American makes eleven moves during their lifetime. This is an interesting piece of information. First it tells us that our society is a very mobile society. This mobility is also increasing because a few years ago the average number of moves an individual made was three. We have become a society seeking a direction.

This report also tells you something about me; something that my mother has known for some time, that I am definitely not average. Because my father was a career military officer, a job that required that my family move often and the other moves I have made professionally, the move I will make at the end of August will be something on the order of my fortieth move.

Now, moving from one place to another can be a traumatic event. The same report that gave us the statistics about moving also reported that moving is the third leading cause of stress, behind death and divorce, in families today. It is not easy to move from familiar surroundings to strange or new ones. All you have to do is ask Sandra about our first move to Odessa, Texas, back in 1989. Even the Israelites would have rather stayed in slavery in Egypt than move to the new and yet unknown Promised Land. In Exodus 14: 10 – 14 we read

“When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were in great fear. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord; and they said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.”(Exodus 14: 10 – 14)

But even if you were never to move from your place of birth (and there must be three people who have never moved in order for the statistics to work out), the journey through life can still be frightening and uncertain.

Consider two individuals, both young men in their mid-twenties. The first young man, fresh from college, was uncertain about what the future held and was also uncertain as to what was in the world. He was not ready to venture out into the world. The second young man, also just out of college, was certain that he knew the secret to life and the promises it held. With this confidence, he set forth in his life to make the world better.

The first young man was Peter Jenkins, whose travel across America I have discussed before. When he graduated from college in the mid 1970’s, he felt lost and unsure of his future. In an effort to answer these unsettling questions, to find out who he was, he decided to walk across America. That walk led him to Mobile, Alabama, one early spring night in 1975.

After finishing dinner and promising to meet a friend at a party, Peter saw a sign advertising a revival meeting in downtown Mobile. More curious than anything else, he went to that revival. After all, he had been to parties before. And besides, as many young people have come to find out, the thrill of alcohol and drugs quickly wears off. At the call of the evangelist, Peter began to feel like

“I was going to die. The deepest corners of my being were lit with thousand-watt light bulbs. It was as if God himself were looking into my soul, through all my excuses, my dark secrets. All of me was exposed in God’s searchlight.

When the question ended its roaring echo, I decided for the first time to admit I needed God. This must be the God I had been searching for, and the same One they worshiped back in Murphy (N.C.) at Mount Zion.” (Peter Jenkins, A Walk Across America, page 261)

With the revelation and knowledge that Jesus Christ had died for him, Peter Jenkins accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior. He then could appreciate how the Holy Spirit could guide him and how it can guide us today.

In the dark in downtown Mobile as I walked home, I felt the smile on my face and the glow of heaven around me. My soul had been like a wavering compass needle, but now it finally pointed to true north. I had found my lifetime direction. (A Walk Across America, page 261)

Even the Israelites were afraid of the trip from the certain and safe surroundings of Egypt into the unknown wilderness they called the Promised Land. Yet they still knew that it was God who guiding them.

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13: 17 – 22)

The other young man in my story was John Wesley. Some two hundred years before Peter Jenkins began his walk across America, John Wesley came to America. While Peter Jenkins may have not been certain as to what he was going to do, there was no uncertainty in the purpose of John Wesley. Having recently graduated from Oxford, Wesley was ready to put into practice the methods that he, his brother Charles, and their friends had worked out during their studies at Oxford. It was tehse methods which he felt were the key to achieving Salvation.

John Wesley came to Georgia with a great deal of joy and expectation. But he left in a cloud of fear and failure. Prepared as he and his brother, Charles, were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley was willing to say they trusted the Lord. John Wesley returned from Georgia feeling that he was a failure because he had not fully accepted the Holy Spirit.

The symbol for the United Methodist Church, as we see in the tapestry to my left, is the Cross and the Flame. It is by the Cross that we have the promise of Salvation through Jesus Christ and it is the Flame of the Holy Spirit which guides and illuminates us.

Only at that moment we have come to call the Aldersgate moment when Wesley accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior did the movement that became the Methodist Church become successful. Only when he accepted Christ as his personal Savior did John Wesley understand the direction his life was to take. By turning his life over to Christ completely and fully, did Wesley gain the confidence needed to make the Methodist revival possible and successful.

Neither the success of Grace Church these past few years nor the success of Grace Church in the future will be because one person did great things. No single person present today has the power or the capability to accomplish what Grace Church has done. Just as Paul wrote to Timothy

“That is why I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God which is yours through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1: 6 – 7)

The success of Grace Church today is because we have allowed the Holy Spirit to become the empowering force in our lives. When Sandra, the kids, and I first came to Grace Church some three years ago, only one member of this church other than Pastor John and his family said hello. Now, visitors often say they cannot leave without everyone in the church saying hello. Three years ago the average attendance was around 70 and the discussion of each Administrative Council meeting was which bills to pay. Today, the average attendance is over 110 and tonight we are having a special Ad Council meeting to discuss the purchase of land for the new Grace Church.

If we let the Holy Spirit into our lives, it creates a fire which cannot be put out. It is like magnesium burning, hot and intensely bright. Magnesium was the metal used in the first flash bulbs (remember Christmas past when someone took your picture and you had a dot in front of your eyes?). It is that flame, the flame of the Holy Spirit burning inside each one of us which provides Grace Church with its power and strength. And as others receive the Joy brought about by the Salvation offered by Jesus Christ, this fire gets hotter, brighter and larger.

We are at a time when many people have lost their direction and are looking for guidance. Just as the Holy Spirit guided the Israelites through the wilderness with the cloud by day and the flame by night, so too does it guide Grace Church today. And it is the Holy Spirit which can let Grace Church be the guiding light to St. Cloud and Minnesota. As Jesus said

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14- 16)

But the choice is yours. Will you today accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior? Will you let the Holy Spirit light the fire that warms your soul and provide direction to your life? Without Him, we wander through the wilderness. With Him, we can complete that journey to the promised land.

Stairway to Heaven


Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 17 July 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 28: 10 – 19, Romans 8: 12 – 25, and Matthew 13: 24 – 30.

If you were expecting something related to Led Zeppelin, you will be sadly disappointed. As much as I like that band, “Stairway to Heaven” was never one of my favorites. I think that may have something to do with when the song came out and the transition in music at the time. But that’s another story for another time.

No, the stairway to heaven in this case comes from Jacob’s dream in Genesis that was the Old Testament reading for today. How should we interpret this dream? Do we see it as a means of escape and, if so, an escape from what? This is a pertinent question, especially in light of what we read in the Gospel reading from Matthew for today.

Some of the notes that accompany the Matthew passage put the reading into an apocalyptic tone, of the sorting of the good from evil and the resulting destruction of evil. I have no problem with the destruction of evil. What I have a problem with is those who have created a version of the end times in which the good do nothing and yet survive. The attitude that I perceive among many who proclaim an acceptance of the current “end times” scenario is that they, the good and righteous, will survive while others, obviously evil and sinful, will be destroyed.

The problem is that in a few chapters Matthew will record Jesus as challenging the good and righteous about what they did to end the cause of evil, i.e., poverty, homelessness, hunger, and rejection by society. If the good are to survive, then they must do more than simply say to the evil that they are doomed. Sinners know they are doomed; the question is one of how to do we change the outcome?

Second thought – there are times, especially when I am watching a show on the development and history of the Bible that I begin to think that I am a gnostic when it comes to belief. Now, I am still struggling with the nature of Gnosticism as it was two thousand years ago. There is something about the way it is presented that I cannot get a handle on. But if Gnosticism requires that you think about your belief then I wonder whose belief system is not partially gnostic in nature. Our belief may be private but our journey is public.

As I looked at the three readings for today, I saw the struggle that Jacob was undergoing as one in his own mind as to where he was going and what he was to do. This is a struggle that each and every one of us goes through. Perhaps this is a better way to read the verses from Matthew; our own private attempt to separate the good from the bad in our lives, to gather the wheat while getting rid of the chafe and the weeds.

Paul’s words come into play. How are we, individually and personally, going to make that change? It comes when we make the conscious and definite choice to follow Christ, to accept Christ in our lives, our heart, our mind, our soul. What Paul tells the Romans is that there is a distinct difference between the life you lead before you chose Christ and the life you will have after you have made that choice.

But you see, it has to be your choice. And when we make that choice, we see the stairway that Jacob saw. What Jacob was more than a vision of angels; it was way out of his present live and into a new life, a life in the presence of God. It was a renewal of the covenant that Abraham had made. It may very well be that this renewal, coming as it does before Jacob’s encounter with God and his reunion with his brother Esau, is what he (Jacob) needed in order to handle those two major events in his life.

That is what we need if we are to escape the life we have. And this is where I differ from those who see the “end times” as a final ending. We cannot get out of life and we cannot say to others that they are doomed if we do nothing to offer an alternative. When I look around and I see self-proclaimed Christians who see poverty, homelessness, suffering and illness and say that is the way it is too be; when I see self-proclaimed Christians telling me that God intended for them to be wealthy and that anyone can do it, I have to wonder when they encountered Christ.

There may be an “evil one” in this world. I am not prepared to say one way or the other on that point. I will say, though, that there is evil in this world. And I will say that it is very easy to get trapped by that evil. I will also say that the only way that we will overcome evil is to not get trapped in it and that will require a stairway, a way to climb out. But that stairway will not magically appear, allowing us to escape without looking back. That stairway is Jesus Christ and as we climb that stairway, we are making a commitment to help others climb it as well. Those that climb it by themselves will find that they are going nowhere. Those that help others to escape the evil and despair of this world through working to destroy poverty, homelessness, hunger, and repression will find a stairway that leads to a grander place than we could ever imagine.

And for those expecting Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven”