Passing the Torch


I preached at Diamond Hill UMC in Cos Cob, CT, this morning. Their services are at 10 am and you are welcome to attend.

The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 4: 5 – 12, 1 John 3: 16 – 24, and John 10: 11 – 18.

On January 20, 1960, John Kennedy stood before the American people as the new American President and proclaimed that a torch had been passed to a new generation, my parent’s generation, your generation. In his inaugural address, President Kennedy opened by saying,

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. (http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres56.html)

I cannot help but think that his words were a rebuttal to his critics who said that he was too young to be President. But his address was more than simply a rebuke of his critics or a comment on how things had been and possibly could be; it was also a vision of the future for the next generation, my generation and perhaps your generation as well. It spoke of challenges that we as a country and a society faced.

It was a vision that equality was more than a concept envisioned during the American Revolution but a reality of life, time, place, and society. It was a vision that spoke of going beyond the boundaries of time and place, of going beyond the boundaries of the earth and reaching far out into space. It was the challenge to get things done.

It was, in some sense, a good time. The country seemed alive and intelligence and aptitude were demanded by all. The President spoke in complete sentences (in part because the sound bite hadn’t been invented yet) and he could references things that people understood.

Three years before, in 1957, the Soviet Union had launched its first Sputnik satellite. This launch created within the American public a view that there was a crisis in science and mathematics; that American children were under- or ill-equipped to deal with the vast Soviet menace that now threaten our skies from outer space. If nothing else, in what became known as the Space Race, the United States was a distant second in a two-country race to the Soviet Union.

Many who grew up during that era will recall that the beginnings of the U. S. space program were often marked by failure and disappointment. All we knew is that the Soviet Union launched satellite after satellite while our missiles and rockets seem to blow up on the launching pad every time we tried to launch one.

In retrospect, the crisis was a bit overstated. We were trying to develop a new technology while the Soviets used essentially brute force to launch their rockets. And while our failures were open and visible to the entire world, the veil of secrecy that the Soviet Union hid behind prevented us from knowing how many failures they had experienced.

But we rushed and stumbled into the space race and we created a myriad of science and mathematics programs that would help my generation become proficient scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. And it would, at least in the chemistry courses that were developed then, teach us how to think. The focus of these new science courses would not be the memorization of countless facts and figures but on methodologies that would enable us to explore and find the facts. It was a methodology that required going into the laboratory and actually do science, not simply reading a textbook and writing down what the instructor wrote on the blackboard. It meant analyzing information rather than simply regurgitating back on the test.

But over the years, teaching science has reverted back to the old ways of memorizing and regurgitation, though now instead of facts and figures, we memorize concepts and ideas. Our students only know that the important stuff to know is that which will be on the test and anything else is superfluous. If the answer to the question is not in the back of the book, it is not an important question to know and should not appear on the test. And teachers know that they should never ask questions that hasn’t been discussed in class or requires analysis and/or critical thinking.

Today, we face a new crisis. But there are no Soviet satellites beeping away while orbiting the earth every 90 minutes in this crisis. No, it is a crisis of complacency and expectation that permeates both the secular and sectarian aspects of society.

It is a society in which questioning is not encouraged because questioning only leads to change and change is not welcomed. We live in a world where what we did yesterday worked so that is what we will do today and what we will do tomorrow. And we have come to expect that there will be someone available to continue doing tomorrow what we do today.

It is, in part, a spiritual crisis. The evil that seems to be ever present in this world, the crime, the hatred, the violence, the war all seem to say that there is no God and if there is a God, why does it seem like he has turned away. We hear cynics tell us that religion has outlived its usefulness and that there is no role or place for the church in today’s society. In fact, when we turn to the church for such answers, it often seems as if the church is part of the cause and not part of the solution.

And so, when we look at so many churches today, we see physical emptiness. We hear of churches closing and wonder which church will be next. The demographics tell us that many churches are getting older and the youth and the young are walking away from the church, seeking their spiritual answers somewhere else.

Some will say that this all occurred because we no longer have a moral society. Their solution is to create a society with a series of purity laws, much in the vein of the laws of the Old Testament, that would dictate who could come into church and who could not. But it was these purity laws, laws that said women, children, the maimed, the lame, and the blind could not enter the temple that Jesus worked against.

It was the healing of someone on the Sabbath that got Jesus in trouble with the religious authorities; it was the situation that was in the first reading today that brought Peter and John before the religious authorities.

What we fail to realize today, perhaps because we only want the facts and care not to analyze what we read, is that every time Jesus healed someone or dealt with someone considered ritually unclean, He became unclean. If we were to impose those same set of purity laws today, would we allow Jesus to come into our church?

When we hear the words of the John the Evangelist telling us that Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd, we have to understand how revolutionary and world changing this statement was. In Jesus’ time the general populace considered shepherds to be generally untrustworthy and ceremonially unclean. This was because they were in daily contact with the carcasses of animals and came into contact with all sorts of unclean animals.

The level of cleanliness that we are talking about in this case goes beyond the cleanliness that we are dealing with right now. The division between clean and unclean was a fundamental part of Jewish life. They were commanded by the Law to be physically clean, ritually and ceremonially clean, as well as morally clean. And when you became unclean, you had to wash yourself until the religious authorities deemed you clean again. It was a process that we have encountered time and time again in the Gospel readings. (Adapted from http://holyordinary.blogspot.com/2007/12/shepherds-of-sheep-and-lamb-advent.html)

In some circles today is commonly called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the Gospel reading and use of the 23rd Psalm as the psalter. (See notes about this at http://bobherring2009.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/good-shepherd-sunday-thoughts.)

While shepherds held an esteemed status in the time of David, it was a status that was quickly lost in the time between David and Jesus. As the people settled into Palestine and acquired more farmland, pasturing and the shepherd lifestyle of the ancient Hebrews decreased. Shepherding became a menial vocation for the labor class.

And while shepherds were the symbol of judgment and social desolation in the days of the Prophets, shepherds in the days of Jesus were despised and mistrusted. People were told not to buy wool, milk, or a baby goat from a shepherd because it was most likely stolen. Legal documents show that shepherds were deprived of all civil rights, could not hold judicial office, or be admitted to courts as witnesses. And for someone who grew up in the segregated south, that sounds all too familiar.

In the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, rabbis would ask with amazement how, in light of David’s words of Psalm 23, God could be called the shepherd of His people. (Adapted from http://www.epm.org/artman2/publish/holidays/Shepherd_s_Status.shtml)

It must have been that way when Jesus told the crowds “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary.” These were words that did not fit the image of a shepherd in that society. They were words that challenged the people to think in a new and different way; they were words that suggested a new order to life.

In the same way, Jesus proclaimed a new life and a new way. To a people who saw a life of rules and regulation as the only way to Heaven, Jesus offered an alternative. He rejected ceremonial and external observances of religion to stress that religion was an inward matter of the heart, of a direct encounter with the Father through Jesus Himself.

What does it say about us then when we say that so-and-so cannot come into our church because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even economic status? Are we not all created in God’s image? Are we not somehow saying that such persons are not children of God? How then can we even think to say that any person is to be denied access to the God because they do not meet society’s image of what is right and righteous?

It must bother those who seek the imposition of Old Testament purity laws that Jesus would speak of others outside the fold who He was going to bring in.

Of course, there are those who would really like to know who those missing sheep that were mentioned in the Gospel reading for today are? The more people that can be brought in, the better things will be. In this way, they can show others the numbers that say theirs is a vital and active church. I have no desire to get into a numbers game, even if my minor was in statistics.

The church is in the people business and, to be exact, in the saving of souls. It is not about how many people are there but how many souls are saved and I have no clue or idea how that will ever be measured. To be honest, the only way that anyone is going to know how successful, how vital their church was will happen long after they are dead and buried and they are standing outside the gates of Heaven, hoping to be among the sheep and not the goats (referring to closing verses of Matthew 25).

But we live in a world driven by the bottom line so we create other measures of vitality. We look at the size of the church, its average attendance and membership.

It looks nice when you have say 1000 members in a church but I also know that programs that work for mega-churches will not necessarily work for churches with, say, only 100 members. So I am not interested in the size of the church.

It is important to know how many new members a church receives but it says something about the church. Notice, I said new members, because members received by transfer mean another church lost someone.

The number of individuals baptized or confirmed is an important number to know. But how many of these individuals continue in the church after they were baptized or confirmed? How many couples have been married in the church with great ceremony but never step foot inside the sanctuary again? I remember an situation several years ago where a mother proudly announced that her son was going to be married in the church and coming home that night and getting an e-mail from the son telling me that he was leaving the church.

I am not saying that we should not baptize infants, children, or adults. But we do need to remember that when that happens, we, the congregation, join in the vow to raise the child in Christ. If they do not come to church, we cannot say that it is their entire fault.

And we still live in a world where we think that our children will be members of the church where they were confirmed. But children leave the home and go away, to school and to work, so to expect them to be members of the same church as their parents is a little presumptuous on our part.

And a church that focuses totally on the bottom line, the numbers and the dollars, cannot see that it is losing people who seek answers to the questions that the church is supposed

I have heard the argument that the church has to pay its bills and I agree that the bills must be paid; it is a part of good stewardship. But when that is the church’s focus, it drives away the people who are more interested in finding out who God is and what God means.

It means that measuring the vitality, the life of the church is far harder than we think. How do you measure the heart of the church? How do you measure the care and concern that the church has for its community? What is the impact of the church on the community? Do the people of the community hear the Shepherd through the efforts of the people of the church? Or do the people of the church even know there is a community outside the church?

How does one practice real love? Answering that question will be how one determines the measure of vitality and life in a church today.

An alive and vital church would be one that reaches out beyond the walls of the sanctuary. It is one that knows what talents lie within the members of the church and finds ways to utilize those talents. What was it that Paul said? Some teach; some preach; others heal; others exhort. Some will lift up others in prayer; others will offer comfort. How are the talents of the church used for the church and for the community? Are they doing it because they want to do it or do they think that it somehow enhances their standing in the church?

Are they the hired hand mentioned in the Gospel reading for today, who does a job because it is a job? Or are they doing it because they have experienced the Love of Christ and wish to share that love with others? It is this difference that will tell others if a church is alive, vital and thriving, or simply existing in the present waiting for the final toll of the bell.

If we view our role as that of the hired hand, it is probable that we would not give our best. But we are not willing to give our best, where then, as John wrote in the letter that we read for today, where would we be?

We are faced with a crisis. But it is a crisis that can be faced, perhaps not with traditional solutions. Jesus saw life for the people outside a structure that had chosen to exclude people, not bring them in. Any solution that an individual church proposes has to 1) be related to their community, their surroundings, and their environment and 2) reflective of what Christ did and what John Wesley did. I know that it is a worn out cliché but one must occasionally think outside the box.

John Wesley saw a church dying because it would not see beyond the walls of sanctuary. How many times did people in churches throughout England in John Wesley’s time hear those same verses of the first letter from John that were read today but ignored the moment that the people left the church? How many times have people today read those words that say that we should just talk about God’s love but practice it? If I am interested in knowing if a church is alive, I am going to look for the evidence that the church has, in some way, responded to the needs, not just of its own members, but of those in the community around.

On Saturday mornings at my home church, we operate “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.” Part of the feeding ministry of my home church, we offer a breakfast to all, no matter their circumstances.

What separates this ministry from other similar ministries is that we serve the breakfast on plates and use silverware instead paper plates and plastic utensils. The food prepared is prepared fresh and while it may be bought in bulk, it is of good quality and, wherever and whenever possible, bought from local producers.

While some may say that this is a waste it is good stewardship. Using plates and silverware instead of plastic utensils and paper plates is more environmentally friendly since you are not generating bags and bags of trash that must be hauled away. And when you buy from local producers, you support the local economy.

But more importantly, if you believe that Jesus will be one of those who served at breakfast, on what would you serve Him and what would you serve Him? If we use the finest plates and utensils, the freshest food for Our Lord, what do we use for the least of these?

But too many churches today see serving the homeless, the street people, and those less fortunate in the manner that we do is a waste of resources. If they have a church feeding ministry (not a food bank), they are apt to serve lower quality food and do so in the manner of a soup kitchen. It is the attitude of the hired hand and not the child of God.

I began by noting that the torch of leadership had been passed from one generation to the next when John Kennedy was elected.

But I was thinking of another torch, the one that has been handed down from generation to generation from the very first days that Christians gathered together, sometimes openly but many times secretly.

At the beginning of the every service, we light the candles on the altar to represent the presence of the Holy Spirit. When I began my journey to and with Christ, I was taught that as I took the light from the altar at the end of the service, I was taking it out into the world as a symbol of each one of us entering the world as Christ’s representative.

The torch of the Spirit, the presence of the Holy Spirit, has been handed to us from generations of believers before us. Our challenge today is to place Christ in our heart so that the torch can continue to glow and then to accept the Holy Spirit so that we can others to come to know Christ.

The torch has been passed; will you continue to pass it on?

Something’s Happening


This was the message that I gave at Alexander Chapel United Methodist Church, Brighton, TN, for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, 13 April 1997. The scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 3: 12 – 19, 1 John 3: 1 – 7, and Luke 24: 36 – 48. This was the beginning of my work with the two Mason, TN, area United Methodist Churches.

As I was thinking about this sermon and as I began reading the scripture for this Sunday, I thought of the song from the late 60’s by Buffalo Springfield entitled “Something’s Happening.” The first line begins something like “Something’s happening over here; what it is ain’t exactly clear”. This song refers to the anti-war demonstrations of the late 60’s but it could just as easily apply to what we see around us today (actually, it refers to demonstration that were occurring in Los Angeles and it was not an anti-war song. But it became associated with the anti-war movement – see “What Are You Afraid Of?” for a link to the story about the song.)

Too often, we see the world around us in negative terms. We see the crime, the hatred, the poverty, the injustice in the world and we often ask why God would do this to the world. As David wrote in the opening psalter and like the prophet Habakkuk, we want to cry out

How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflicts abounds. (Habakkuk 1: 2 – 3)

But God told Habakkuk, “Look at the nations and watch – and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”(Habakkuk 1: 5)

Now in the reading from Acts, the people saw Peter and John heal a crippled man. In the reading from Luke, Jesus appears to the disciples in a sealed room following the crucifixion. Both of these acts the people believed were impossible. As Peter said, “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? (Acts 3: 11)

The problem was that the people who saw that miracle, for the most part, were not ready to believe that such acts were possible. The common belief at that time was that such illnesses were a result of one’s sins and thus beyond hope of redemption. But as Peter also pointed out, “By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.” (Acts 3: 16)

The people who watched Peter and John heal the cripple were not prepared to believe what they had seen. Even though the disciples had been told by Jesus that He would return after the crucifixion, at first they did not understand and when He did return they were not completely able to understand what they were seeing.

But because they had been told and were both willing and able to accept that they did in fact see Jesus with them in that room, they understood that the miracle of the resurrection was true. Thus they were able to accept, as it was stated in the conclusion of the passage from Luke, “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” the Holy Spirit and they could begin to understand the scriptures, They then could go out into the world to preach the Gospel.

For us today, it is the same. Habakkuk was told by God to watch and be prepared to be amazed. Will we be like the poeple who saw the miracles or will we be like the disciples? Are we ready to say to others we have seen the Holy Spirit in action?

I stand before you today as a witness to the power of the Holy Spirit. I know of church which six years ago was on the verge of closing. This church saw its membership drop from 200 to just over 100; its average attendance dropped to 70; the administrative council meetings were “battle grounds” when it come to paying the bills. Yet, some three years later, attendance had risen to 110 and the decision was not what bills to pay but whether to buy five acres of land for a new church building. I have watched that church over the past few years. What was a tentative decision to purchase the land then became a concern about meeting the terms of the loan. But now, that concern is no longer there and the only concern the congregation has at this time is how to celebrate when the loan is paid off almost a year ahead of the bank’s schedule. The success, the rebirth of this church cannot be attributed to anyone person nor would it be proper for any one person to accept credit. The credit for such an accomplishment can only be due to the fact that this congregation was willing and able, like the disciples, to accept the Holy Spirit into its midst.

When Wesley returned to England after his missionary work in America, he felt disillusioned and that his work was a failure for he did not have Christ in his life. But once he came to understand that Christ was his own personal Savior, that Christ died for his sins, his life and work turned around. He wrote

After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and he “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, in not often, conquered; now, I was always the conqueror. (John Wesley)

The problems of the world are not going to disappear overnight. Jesus told his disciples it would be a long and hard journey for them but, as long as they kept their faith, He would be with them.

The same is true for us. Our view of the world will continue to be a negative one if we do not, if we are not willing to put Christ first in our lives. The strength, the ability to solve the problems we faces comes from the same place it did for the disciples. It was not Peter or John who healed the crippled man; it was not John Wesley who gave the impetus to the Wesleyan Revival. It was the Holy Spirit

Today we must make a decision. John, in his letter to us today, tells us of the consequences.

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous keeps on sinning.

John is not asserting sinless perfection (see 1: 8 – 10; 2: 1), but explaining that the believer’s life is characterized not by sin but by doing what is right

Shall we stand amazed at the power of the Holy Spirit, as those who watched Peter and John heal the crippled man?

Are we willing to let the Holy Spirit come into our presence like it did for the disciples after the resurrection and for John Wesley at that moment we call Aldersgate? Peter offered the group assembled that day when they watched that miracle the chance that Christ made possible by His sacrifice on the cross.

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord. (Acts 3: 19)

If we let the Holy Spirit into our lives, it creates a fire which cannot be put out.

And as others receive the Joy brought about by the Salvation offered by Jesus Christ, this fire gets hotter, brighter and larger.

To paraphrase the song I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon this morning, “Something will happen here and, what it is, is exactly clear.”

Some Serious Thoughts


As I mentioned in my other post for today (“Things to Ponder”) I heard some interesting things the other day. The ones I posted first generated, I hope, a few smiles. But this one didn’t and as the title indicates, requires some serious thoughts.

It was on NPR (I listen to WAMC) and dealt with the number of homeless veterans in this country – see “A Push to Help U. S. Veterans Fight Homelessness”). Homelessness in this country is a problem that we don’t seemingly want to discuss.

We tend to think of the homeless in less than favorable terms and often as individuals not worth helping. But we ignore the fact that more and more families with children are becoming homeless. When a family loses their home through foreclosure, they often times cannot find housing, even though both parents are working. There is a partial solution called “Family Promise” and I will probably put some things up in a month or so. My home church is part of the Dutchess/Orange network and we will be one of the host churches.

But the fact that there are homeless veterans speaks to a more serious problem. Look at the proposed budget before the House of Representatives and tell me that we are not encouraging a culture of war in this country (I first thought about this four years ago – “An On-going Culture of War”). We went to war in Iraq (how many years ago?) and we are still in Afghanistan. We keep pouring money into a seemingly endless pit called the military-industrial complex but we won’t spend money to take care of our veterans when they come home!

We cut our support for the veterans; we cut our support for women and children and tell them they are on their own. And apparently this is what it says in the Bible (my inference from another NPR story –“Christians Debate: Was Jesus for Small Government?”). I would just like to know where. When I read the Bible, I am reminded that the single over-riding theme is the relationship between people and God. We are supposed to take care of people, not throw them away.

And yet that is what we seem to be doing. We keep spending money on wars but not on the people who fight them. We keep finding ways to let the rich keep their money but we aren’t willing to spend money on healthcare or housing or food. We keep cutting spending on education and research so sooner or later we are going to be in a position where we aren’t able to help anyone and we won’t be able to think of ways to do it anyway. Just something to think about.

Things to Ponder


There were a couple of news items over the past couple of days that I thought were interesting. Some were humorous; at least one was sobering in nature. These are the ones I found humorous.

First was the election of Jim Yong Kim as the new president of the World Bank. Now, that is not humorous and probably a very good selection. As a physician with expertise in the development of the 3rd world, he appears to be a good pick to lead an organization whose primary goal is development in the 3rd world. But what I found even more interesting, especially in terms of the Internet, was the nomination of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian Finance Minister.

My first thought when I heard this (and remember to think in terms of the Internet) was that someone has nominated a Nigerian to head a bank. Do they understand what that means?

The second thing that was the report of a physicist uses the laws of physics to beat a traffic ticket. This was reported on a number of stations (I heard on my NPR station – WAMC) but I like this link (“Physicist Uses Math to Beat Traffic Ticket”) because it has a link to the proof used to convince the court to throughout the ticket.

A couple of conclusions from this

  • The law is always on your side; in this case, it was the laws of physics.
  • You can’t beat Mother Nature.
  • And always remember that the speed limit in this universe is 3 x 108 m/sec.

For those enthralled by the quantum nature of life, we have this apparently true story (it has to be true because it is on more than one website). It took place just outside of Munich, Germany. Werner Heisenberg went for a drive and got stopped by a traffic cop. The cop asked, “Do you know how fast you were going?” Heisenberg replied, “No, but I know where I am.”

“How Will They Know?”


I am at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) this morning and next Sunday. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 2nd Sunday of Easter are Acts 4: 32 – 35, 1 John 1: 1 – 2:2, and John 20: 19 – 31. I will have my notes for the 2nd Sunday of Easter posted later tonight.

I cannot tell you the numbers but I know that the Bible is one of the most published books in the world. Undoubtedly it is printed in every language spoken or read on this planet. And because of a thought that I want to explore this morning, I did a quick search through the vastness of the Internet and discovered that there is an effort in place to translate the Bible into Klingon, the language of the warrior race on the planet Klingon in Star Trek (Klingon Bible Translation Project – this link as a 2010 date – and “Why a Klingon Bible?”).

Now, clearly, translating the Bible into the language of a race that only exists in terms of a fictional television and movie series is limited but it does show us and gives us hints as to what we need to be doing with the Bible.

And it is how you see the Bible and what you do with it that goes a long way in defining how you see the church, both in general, denominational and local terms, in today’s society.

Some see the Bible as a fixed and unchanging document that presents the Word of God written some two thousand years ago. And as I have written before, when it is presented that way, it is very difficult to relate what is in the Bible to what is transpiring today. There are inconsistencies and contradictions that one has to work around in order to accept what is written as the absolute truth. And when you present such a view, you limit what can be done; you don’t allow the freedom to question and doubt, to explore and see what can be done.

Seen as a fixed and unchanging document, it quickly becomes a dead book. And if we are basing our hopes and dreams, the very essence perhaps of Christianity, on something dead, then we don’t have much hope and it is impossible to dream. And as it was written in the Bible, without a vision, without a dream, the people die.

On the other hand, if we understand that the Bible is a story of relationships, relationships between people and relationships between people and God, it can become alive and viable even in today’s technological society. It does not matter if it was written with quill and ink on papyrus scrolls or typed on a keyboard on a laptop computer, alive it carries meaning.

Yes, it is far more difficult to read when something has a deeper meaning than simply the words put down. It opens challenges that must be faced; questions that must be answered. Sometimes we can meet the challenge; sometimes we can answer the questions.

The greatest challenge facing the church today is the exodus of individuals leaving the church. Interestingly enough, they are not leaving God, just the church. And they are leaving the church, in part because they see it dying. It is dying because it holds on to a view that is fixed and unchanging. They see a church that holds onto rigid doctrinal views and rigid organization structures. It is not just the young who are leaving the church but all age groups. But they are not leaving God, just the church.

Seventy-five percent (75%) of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 no consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Study after study has shown this same essential statistic. The people know who Jesus was and what he did; they just don’t see such words and actions represented in the church of today (http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-clayton-emergingchurch-20120325,0,3793097.story)

They want the opportunity to doubt and question, an action that has been repressed, resisted or absent in the church for almost 300 years. They want a church that is responsive to the public; that has an improved scientific understanding and recognition of changing social norms. They do not want a church that tells them how to live; they want a church that can give them ideas about what to do with their lives.

The two greatest comments I have heard in the past few months are that 1) the major Christian denominations, including the United Methodist church, may very well be dead within the next twenty-five years and 2) there is no need for organized religion anymore anyway. I am not so certain. There will always be a need for a gathering of the believers on a regular basis. But if it is a gathering meant to maintain that which has been done time and time again, then the predicated outcome will not change.

If we stop and think about what it is that we are doing and what it is that we should be doing, perhaps we can change that outcome. It starts by understanding the questions that are being asked today about the church.

Diana Butler Bass (Notes from “A Resurrected Christianity” – Diana Butler Bass with a HT to Becca Clark – “Now What?”) noted that we used to ask three questions:

  1. What do I believe? But this was more what does the church say I should think about God?
  2. How should I behave? What are the rules my church asks me to follow?
  3. Who am I? What does it meant to be a faithful church member?

But now the questions have changed and I would think rightly so; it is no longer a matter of what to believe but how to believe. It is no longer a question of rules for living but what do I do with my life. And it is quite apparent that it is no longer about church membership but rather in whose company I find myself. The questions have become:

  1. How do I believe? How do I understand a faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?
  2. What should I do? How do my actions make a difference in this world?
  3. Whose am I? How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?

Andrew Conrad is part of the pastoral team at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and soon to be the pastor of the 1st United Methodist Church in El Dorado, Kansas. As he prepares to leave the one church and begin at his new church, he posted some questions about what was happening at 1st UMC, El Dorado.

Not all the questions are pertinent but some are questions that ever church, no matter where they are located, no matter how big or small the church may be (Resurrection is a mega-church and 1st UMC is decidedly smaller), needs to be asking. And it goes back to the question of how will people know about Jesus Christ?

Reverend Conrad asks:

  1. What is the vision and purpose of the church?
  2. In what ways do the vision and purpose guide what the church does?
  3. How is church engaging the community?
  4. What is the church’s favorite way of learning? Is through teaching, book study, etc.?
  5. What efforts are made to close the back door? How do you keep those who might otherwise leave engaged?
  6. What are the biggest barriers to people coming in the door?

There are other questions but they were more related, in my mind, to the role of the pastor. Interestingly enough, Reverend Conrad did ask, “what die-hard principle or practice that I might change would get me tarred and feathered?

If we (and I speak in the broadest sense of Christianity and the narrowest sense of any particular church) are to reverse the trend and bring people back into the fold, we obviously have to do something different. Simply offering a stricter adherence to creeds or demanding a return to an Old Testament style of living or even just better marketing plans will note work. Why should it? We have been trying that for some time now and it is not only not working, it is probably causing to stay away or leave in the first place! Rather, we need to focus on that which represents the church.

In his first letter, John speaks of how the followers had experienced the love of Christ. He also wrote about how they in turn told others about what they had experienced. But he also wrote that if someone claimed to have shared the experience but did not live that life, then they were lying.

There are too many people today who lead such a life; they claim to be followers of Christ but they will not share with others, as members of the early church described in Acts did. The problem facing the church today, be it Christianity in general, the United Methodist Church or any other denomination, or an individual church in particular is that there is a proclamation of following Christ but it is not backed up by the thoughts, words, deeds, or actions of those who make the proclamation. And they are the ones who cause individuals to leave the church; that is not a blanket statement on my part.

I have experienced the hypocrisy that John refers to, both in the past and even now in today’s society. My commitment to Christ through my work in the United Methodist Church keeps me in the church. You cannot change something from the outside; you must be in place to affect change.

The dilemma that we are faced with today, the challenge that we are given today is the very dilemma that Jesus presented to Thomas that day in the locked and protected room. Thomas would only believe that Jesus Christ had arisen from the dead when he, Thomas, could place his hands in the wounds of Christ and feel the body. But Jesus pointed out that there would be many others who would believe based on faith alone and not on the physical evidence.

If others are to believe without the physical evidence of the Risen Christ, how will they come to believe? As I stated in the title of my message, “how will they know?”

They will know because we will tell them. We may not necessarily tell me with our words but we will tell them through our actions, our thoughts, and our deeds. It is how we respond to others that will tell them about our relationship with Christ.

If you will allow me a moment of personal privilege, this past week my wife’s oldest niece became critically ill. She had not been well for the past year but it was one of those illnesses that seem to baffle modern medicine. This past week her condition became critical and required hospitalization and surgery. In the way of the world, this came at a time of great personal stress for her mother, my wife’s youngest sister. There was no question that Ann needed to be in Chicago with her sister and her niece.

Now, the dilemma for Ann and I was what to do about Grannie Annie’s Kitchen? You have heard me speak of this ministry before. This is Ann’s ministry and I am there to help. But I focus on the dining room and not the kitchen. So, with Ann’s absence, do we shut down the kitchen for the one or two weekends that she might be in Chicago? Or do we find a way to make it work and make it work at the level at which it has been done in the past? As I lifted up in thanksgiving during our prayers this morning, we have had some individuals helping us and Mo, Marisa, Hannah, and Amiel were able to be there yesterday to help with the cooking and the ministry. They, along with Tom and Jackie, our regular helpers, understood what Ann was doing with this kitchen/feeding ministry and were able to help me feed the 45 individuals who came yesterday without missing a beat. It was because they not only cared about Ann but the ministry (or perhaps the ministry and then Ann) that this was a positive day. It also allows the ministry to grow because we now have a team that can do the work.

There was a third possibility but it would have been a temporary solution and temporary solutions tend to not work against future plans.

My premise when I began this message was the Bible challenges us in so many ways but, as people of the New Testament as well as of the Old Testament, our challenge is find ways to tell people about Jesus Christ. And that makes us evangelicals. Now, I have to admit that I have been an evangelical all my life. I was baptized as an evangelical, I was confirmed as an evangelical and as a Methodist, I have accepted that idea that evangelism is part of the mission I undertook when I joined the church.

But evangelism is not browbeating someone into accepting Christ; that is an individual decision and one that can only be made if they truly understand what it means. It is not about offering someone a meal in return for them professing Christ. The doors to Grannie Annie’s Kitchen are open to all, no matter if they are believers or not.

As an evangelical, I am not interested in the creation of some sort of Christian-based theocracy nor am I interested in the imposition of some moral code on the lives of others. What I am interested in doing is making sure that the mission of Christ, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to clothe the naked, give comfort to those in need, and to free the oppressed. I see evangelism in an entirely different light than many but in the same way early disciples were empowered and John Wesley and those who joined him in the Methodist Revival of the 18th century saw evangelism. (http://www.religiondispatches.org/books/rd10q/5800/evangelicals_struggle_with_the_role_of_churches_in_society)

The challenge of the Bible, in fact, the challenge of Christianity today is for each one of us to understand what our relationship with others and what our relationship with God is. When we understand those relationships, which in turn will make the Bible alive, then we will be able to help others find Christ.

How will others find Christ? By our thoughts, words, deeds and actions, we will tell them! It is what we as the church have done in the past and it is what we will do to insure that there is a future.

A Matter of Faith


This was the 9th message that I ever presented (yes, I keep a record of them). It was the first time that I stepped outside the boundaries of my home church (Grace UMC in St. Cloud, MN) or my mother’s church (and a former home church for me, Good Shepherd UMC in Bartlett, TN). I suppose that if I had read the Discipline a little more carefully, I would have known that I wasn’t supposed to seek opportunities as a lay speaker but rather wait for them to come.

As it was, I was going to be in Kirksville the weekend of April 15, 16, and 17, 1994 and I wanted to preach at 1st UMC because that was my church when I was in college. But the schedule for 1st had been fixed and it was neither practical nor possible for me to do so. I am still hoping that one day before I hang it up to preach at 1st UMC.

So I sent a letter to the pastor at Faith UMC and he wrote my pastor to make sure that I was who I said I was and I got to preach at Faith UMC in Kirksville, MO, on 17 April 1994. I used Ecclesiastes 2: 1 – 11 and Luke 24: 1 – 12 as the basis for this message.

I first want to thank Reverend Williams for allowing me the opportunity to come here today and present this message. As I mentioned to him, when I first came to Kirksville in 1966, I saw the signs about Faith Church but, because of the distance from the campus to the church, was unable to attend. Today, because I am a member of Grace Church, I am able to come to Faith Church.

Faith UMC was Faith Evangelical United Brethren Church when I first began attending Truman State University, then known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College. Because I had been a member of the 1st EUB church in Aurora, CO, before the move to Missouri in 1965, I naturally wanted to go to Faith Church, even though I had transferred my membership to the Wright City United Methodist Church.

At the end of the service that morning, one of the women of the church said to me, “You know, if you had called us, we would have come and gotten you.”

How does one measure success? How do we know if we are successful? One thing that has always amazed me in teaching science and studying how science is done is the number of discoveries made because others have misread the signs. Wilhelm Roentgen was one such scientist. He interpreted what others had seen and determined that a new ray, which he called X-rays, caused the “fogging” of the photographic plates in his laboratory. Others had seen this same fogging but ignored it or blamed on faulty equipment. Roentgen went beyond the simple explanations and made the discovery. Similarly, in 1962, Neil Bartlett synthesized xenon tetrafluoride. The uniqueness of this synthesis was that, according to the chemistry textbooks of the time, it impossible to do. Xenon is one of a group of elements called the Noble Gases because they appeared to be chemically inert and thus could not form chemical compounds. Dr. Bartlett looked at the properties of xenon and determined that, in fact, such compounds could be made. The result of his work was the pinnacle of success in science, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

While winning the Nobel Prize may seem unrealistic for most of us, the message about success isn’t. Louis Pasteur once said that “Luck favors the prepared mind.” The signs leading to discovery are always visible to those who look. So it is with us. The path we need to follow is before us today. If we wish to be successful, we must see that path and be willing to change our view of the world. If we wish to be successful and have peace and security in today’s society we must examine how we seek to gain that success. “Systems are designed for the results they are getting. If you want different results, you will have to redesign the system.” (Jones, Quest for Quality in the Church: A New Paradigm)

The problem today is how we view success. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, we come to believe that success comes through material things and power. We measure our success in terms of how much material wealth we have amassed. And if our material goods are not enough, then we need more.

The rapid growth of gambling in this country today is an example of this attempt to find comfort and protection. Whatever form it takes, be it on a riverboat or through the lottery, people turn to gambling because of the promises of quick riches and long-time security. Proponents of gambling speak only of the positive things that gambling brings; how it will bring in jobs and money; how it will help fund state projects. There is no doubt that gambling brings jobs and income into the state, be it Missouri or Minnesota. It is interesting that you never hear any discussion of the long-term problem of gambling addictions or other social ills that accompany gambling.

There is also another problem. Whenever we get what we are seeking, we find we need more. The gods of wealth and fame never provide the answers we seek. It seems like every time we gain what we are seeking in the material world, we are left with the feeling that it is not enough.

The writer of Ecclesiastes put it clearly. What use are wealth, fame and power when it is all lost in the end? The death of Kurt Cobain, the admittance of Darryl Strawberry into a drug abuse clinic (and for some from earlier generations, the confession by Mickey Mantle that he is an alcoholic and the demise of Sid Caesar’s comic career because of his addiction to pills and alcohol) are also evidence that fame and wealth are no guarantees for success. In fact, these examples, and those for the countless number of people who are never known, show that the pressures to reach success can demand a very high price. And if life is hopeless, how will we ever achieve a successful life? How do we achieve the peace and security in life that we so desperately seek? Where is the path we need to follow, the direction we need to take?

Even John Wesley struggled with this idea. When he, along with his brother Charles, was sent to Georgia as a missionary, he did so with a great amount of joy and expectation. For now he had the opportunity to show that what he had been saying along would work. No longer would he have to put up with his detractors making fun of his Methodism. You know how it is. How many times have we heard someone say “it won’t work because we’ve never done that sort of thing” or “we tried that once but it didn’t work.” We stand on the side watching others make changes, hoping that they will fail so we can say “we told you so” but when they succeed, don’t we stumble over each other to catch up.

Yet when he returned to England in 1738 he did so with a feeling that he had failed. Prepared as he and his brother 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 was willing to say they trusted the Lord.

Only when he let Jesus into his life, that moment know to us as the Aldersgate moment, could Wesley write

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

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, Wesley gained the confidence needed to make the Methodist revival possible.

Solomon was considered the wisest and richest man of his time; he certainly was one of the most powerful. How was he was able to obtain that wisdom, those riches, and the power. You know those commercials where one person is discussing their financial state and the other person, “Yes, I know. My broker took care of that problem several years ago.” The first person always says “How did your broker know?” “Because he or she asked.” Solomon gained all that he had because he asked.

“And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people; able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern these, your great people?”

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before your and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statues and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.” (I Kings 3: 7 – 14)

Solomon saw the path to a long and prosperous life could be reached by following the Lord. If we stop reading Ecclesiastes after we hear cry about the futility of achieving fame and fortune we failed to read that the Preacher points out that everything we received is from God and that all that we do must reflect that gift. Putting your hope in the material world will not solve your problem. The modern Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, phrases it this way.

Scripture and tradition habitually put the joys of Heaven into the scale against the sufferings of earth, and no solution of the problem of pain which does not do so can be called a Christian one. We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning Heaven. We are afraid of the jeer about “pie in the sky,” and of being told that we are trying to “escape” from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. But either there is “pie in the sky” or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced, whether it is useful at political meetings or no. Again, we are afraid that Heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives. (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)

When the women came to the empty tomb that first Easter Sunday, their thoughts were still of the material world. They came, not in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, but in sorrow for the loss of the last great hope and promise for the world.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” They remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stopping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. (Luke 24: 1 – 12)

X-rays had been seen by others before Roentgen, others had made xenon tetrafluoride before Bartlett described its synthesis. Only because Roentgen and Bartlett see the new path were they successful. Jesus told the disciples what was coming; yet, they were not prepared to see that path. Even in those first days after his death, the empty tomb meant disaster and death, not joy and eternal life.

The message of the empty tomb today is very simple. If we follow the path of material things, if we seek to find peace and security in things which cannot last, our lives will be as empty as the tomb and we will be forever lost. If we see the path that leads through the tomb; if we believe that Jesus does offer us an answer that cannot be obtained through material success, then we will receive riches and rewards greater than anything Solomon ever received. The message of faith in Jesus is not new. Every great leader of our Christian heritage has trusted in God completely and followed Him faithfully. Turning to Hebrews 11: 33 – 35, we read

“These people all trusted God and as a result won battles, overthrew kingdoms, ruled their people well, and received what God had promised them; they were kept from harm in a den of lions, and in a fiery furnace. Some, through their faith, escaped death by the sword. Some were made strong again after they had been weak or sick. Others were given great power in battle; they made whole armies turn and run away. And some women, through faith, received their loved ones back again from death. But others trusted God and were beaten to death, preferring to die rather than turn from God and be free – trusting that they would rise to a better life afterwards.” (Hebrews 11: 33 – 35)

The longest journey begins with a single step. The hardest step we ever have to take, the hardest choice we ever have to make is the one where we allow Jesus to enter our hearts and become the direction to our lives. You are invited to make that step today. When we allow Jesus to enter our hearts, the troubles of world no longer become important. Knowing that Jesus will be there when we need him, by placing our lives in His control, we find the direction in our lives and find the solutions to the problems we wish to solve. We find our success in Him. You can say that “it’s a matter of faith”.