Who Shall Feed My Sheep?


Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 16 October 2011. The Scriptures this Sunday are Exodus 33: 12 – 23, 1 Thessalonians 1 – 10, and Matthew 22: 15 -22. . It is also Laity Sunday and I will be at Dover Plains UMC; the service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend. 

I have edited this since it was first posted. As I was preparing a report, I noticed that I had this piece listed as the 18th Sunday after Pentecost when it was actually the 19th Sunday.

Yes, I know the title of my message is more attuned to what transpires in the Gospel of John following the resurrection (John 21: 1 – 19) than any of the readings for today. But in one sense, what Jesus asks Peter to do in that passage very specifically relates to what this day, Laity Sunday, is and should be about. So bear with me as we look at the three readings for today.

Let us first begin by remembering what this part of the country looked like some two hundred and sixty years ago. Route 9 from New York northward was, if I am not mistaken, first called the Albany Post Road and so it would have been the major land route north out of New York City. I would suspect that Route 22 would have been here, though obviously not paved. It would have been a well-worn path coming up from New York City. And when you look at the churches between Cold Spring and Carmel along NY Route 301, you know that there had to be a path there as well.

Those who had come to the shores of this country came seeking a new life, hoping that their future here held more promise than their lives in the old world ever would. Perhaps they came escaping an unpleasant past and/or present and just wanted the chance to start over. Others perhaps just wanted to start anew and fresh. Settlers to this part of New York would have followed these early land routes as well as sailing up the Hudson to find a place to live and begin their new life in this wondrous new world.

But starting over and beginning anew is more than coming to a new country and building a home. No matter how you want to romanticize it, it was and still is hard work.

Those who came to this new world knew that there was nothing here; nothing, at least, in terms of what they left behind in the old country. There were no towns; there were no schools; there were no churches. All that was once part of their life was left behind in the search for a new life in the new world.

And within the framework of each individual is a desire to know more about the world around them and there is a desire to understand and know that God is a part of one’s life.

So this new life required that you find a place to build a home and as people came you began to build a town, a school, and a church (especially when you came to this country to escape religious persecution in the old country). You built the school for the future of your community, though I sometimes think that we have forgotten that. And in many towns, especially in the mid-west, you know that the town is dying when the school closes or consolidates with another school.

Churches were and are an integral part of any town’s community. It is about having a place where one’s soul can be refreshed; it was about having a place where their souls could be feed. You built a church to give one’s soul a chance to recharge (and I will say that I know we have forgotten that). There is a great sadness in many communities across this country, not necessarily in the rural areas, when a church has to close its doors.

In those early days of this country, it wasn’t just a matter of building the schools or the churches; it was also finding the teachers and the preachers. When you look at the history of higher education, you see that the first colleges and universities were directed towards the training of ministers (which might surprise many of the alumni of those institutions). But those who were in school were not going to be in the pulpit for some time and the people were, if you will, very hungry.

It was a hunger that John Wesley understood and one he struggled to fill. His problem was that the Church of England was not willing to send ministers from England to lead the congregations that had aligned themselves with Wesley’s Methodist Revival. And Wesley was reluctant to appoint/ordain anyone. Ultimately, John Wesley will appoint individuals to lead the new Methodist congregations in this country. But, “The rise of American Methodism is largely the story of self-motivated laypeople whose experience of God’s redeeming grace compelled them to preach and organize societies, which later were linked together to form the earliest connection…” (From “That Dear Man of God:” Edward Evans and the Origins of American Methodism as quoted on http://www.methodist-motion.org/id43.html)

From the laity came the first circuit riders, those individuals (not always men) who traveled from location to location bringing the Word to the people. When one looks at the churches in this region of the Hudson Valley where we live, we see the sites and locations where they visited and preached.

But it does not matter whether we are talking about America in the early 18th century or America in the present time. People still feel the need to feed the hunger in the soul; they still need a place where they may find rest and comfort from their labors. And perhaps more so today than 250 years ago, they need to know that there is a reason for what is happening in this world. In a world of anger, hatred, violence, and war, they need to hear that there is an answer and it is not the answer of more anger, more hatred, more violence or more war.

The people know that the answer to this hunger, the place where they can find the answers, the place they can find rest and comfort is the church. But it is hard to find the answers at times when the world demands we pay more homage to Caesar than we do God.

We have become a society in which the weekend has become an extension of the workweek and we fail to realize that our soul needs rest as much as our body does. The Biblical notion of a day of rest every six days has somehow become the idea that everything not done during the previous six days must be done on the seventh.

And the church is as guilty of this as any other societal institution. Instead of being the place where we can find rest and comfort, it is another societal institution demanding our time and energy. We have forgotten what the church is and was about.

There is a balance between what we do for the church and what we do for God. It has become more of a social thing where we worry about paying the bills or the color of the carpet or when to have the next fund-raiser. If we were more in terms of what the Thessalonian church was doing, then the societal issues would be easily resolved. If the church today were more focused on providing that which the people truly need, then many of the issues that so dominate this world would probably disappear.

The cynic and the skeptic will tell me that this is all well and good but the church has to pay the bills or it cannot do the work. But people don’t talk about the church that pays its bills; they talk and they visit the church that welcomes them as Christ welcomed us. They talk and visit churches where the spirit of the Lord is alive and present in the thoughts, words, deeds, and actions of the members of the church. And I, unfortunately, know from my own experience that visitors to the church don’t want to hear about the financial problems of the church or the need to get involved in the next big church project/fund raiser.

Most of those words were written this past Wednesday afternoon. That evening, I received Dan Dick’s post. Hear what Reverend Dick wrote about the United Methodist Church in general,

As I prepare for General Conference I am reminded again that there are two churches in today’s United Methodism: one that is concerned with its own survival and existence that will spend exorbitant amounts of money to justify its own existence and a much smaller church that wants to serve God and Jesus Christ in the world. One is concerned with numbers; the other is concerned with lives. One is concerned with image; the other is concerned with integrity. One is concerned with power and control, the other with justice and service. We stand at a crossroads. We need to make a choice. Will we sell out to a lesser vision of church as social institution or will we rise up to BE the body of Christ? It begins with discipleship — and if our leaders are going to make this rich and wonderful concept meaningless, we are in deep, deep trouble.

(http://doroteos2.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/discipleshi)

There are many challenges facing the church, be it the church in general, a specific denomination or a specific church. The competition between Caesar and God will not be won by condemning Caesar nor will it be accomplished by making God the new Caesar. It will not be accomplished by marketing the church or finding ways to make the church seem like it is part of society.

There was another reason why I entitled the sermon what I did. There is a song by Jefferson Airplane entitled “Good Shepherd” which is based on the words that Jesus spoke to Peter in John.

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the blood-stained bandit
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the long-tongue liar
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

Interlude

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the gun shot devil
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my life complete
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

I used that song as part of the basis for a sermon a couple of years ago (see “A Rock and Roll Revival”) and in preparing that sermon I found that the lyrics for a 60s rock and roll song came from an early 19th century Methodist preacher. More importantly, it was what Jorma Kaukonen, the lead singer for the Airplane on this song, said about singing passages from the Bible. For Kaukonen, such songs as this one have opened the door to the Scriptures for him.

And I truly believe that is what the church must do today in order to feed the sheep of the world. It must find avenues and doors in the world around us that will open the Scriptures to the people who have that hunger that only the church can feed.

We cannot feed the sheep with platitudes and good wishes nor will they eat when all they receive from the church is rejection and hostility. Right now, I fear that too many churches have taken the attitude that the world outside the church should be left behind, never to be seen again. But what will you do when people find God in the world of rock and roll songs? When Jesus told his questioners to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s and render unto God that which was God’s, he was telling them to put things in perspective and priority. God does come first, no matter how or where you find Him.

The question is a simple one, “who will feed my sheep?” Our task is to feed the sheep wherever they may be. The people did not come to the circuit rider; the circuit rider came to the people. So who shall we call upon?

Moses asked God who was going to lead the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land and God said that he, Moses, would. Not some highly trained preacher or minister but a simple shepherd. Of course there were no highly trained preachers or ministers back then; there was just a group of people leaving a life of slavery and toil to return to the land of their ancestors, to return to a land of hope and promise. Moses would have Aaron, his brother, to help him but all the work would be done by the people.

When the Methodist Church began in this country two hundred and seventy some years ago, there were no trained preachers but there were committed lay people, willing to undergo the trials and tribulations of traveling town to town on nights when, as the old saying goes, the only thing out were Methodist circuit riders and crows.

Now, in the 21st century, when the people of the world cry out in anguish and pain because they sense that they have been forgotten and abandoned, when the bodies of the people and the souls of the people cry out in hunger, both sustenance for the body and sustenance for the soul, we hear Jesus again calling to us, “who will feed my sheep?”

On this Laity Sunday, there can only be one answer. Are you prepared this day to answer?

A New Beginning


Here are my thoughts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2011. I will be at Dover Plains UMC; the service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures are Exodus 12: 1 – 14, Romans 13: 8 – 14, and Matthew 18: 15 – 20.

I will also be at Grace UMC in Newburgh for the final Sunday of the Vespers in the Garden series. We will start at 7 pm and you are welcome to attend as well.

There is something intriguing about this particular Sunday. There is in the Old Testament reading for today a celebration, a celebration that we understand in the context of an organized religious practice but, as we read today, began as a family gathering. And the calendar tells us that we are or should be celebrating the American worker and his or her role in the building of this country. There is also the looming shadow of next week before us as well.

I say that it is a looming shadow because I am certain that while speaker after speaker, preacher and politician alike, will speak of the honor, courage and sacrifice of countless individuals, there will also be those who call for more sacrifice. But I fear that the call for sacrifice will be from those who have already sacrificed while others who have gained and profited from the ten years of war will continue to contribute nothing to the effort. And with countless families being threatened with home foreclosures and the loss of work, with countless workers being told they must take pay cuts and a reduction in benefits for the sake of the company, all the time while company after company reports record profits and jobs are exported overseas I am not entirely sure that we need to hear those words this time.

There seems to be a mentality in today’s society that runs completely counter to the words spoken by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. We are more than willing to confront those who oppose us but not in the style and manner that Jesus said; we want the confrontation, we want the chance to strike at our enemies and banish them from this world. We are not comfortable with the notion that maybe there is a solution in ways other than violence and war. There are alternatives to violence and war and yet we are not willing to look for them.

And if what is said between two individuals is eternal, be it a yes or a no, then we must choose our words carefully. When Patrick Henry rose before the Virginia House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, he began the speech, for which he is best known by first saying,

We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

Yes, Patrick Henry would argue for war but his argument for war came from the evidence that was before him.

Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! 

But we entered a war ten years ago on our own. We have elected to walk a path that was fed by lies and deceit, not truth. We had a chance to do it right but we did not. And now we are paying the price. We have bought into the rhetoric of those who see power in the same way that the Egyptians and Romans controlled the Israelites, through slavery and oppression.

Countless individuals have accepted the argument espoused by corporation and political bigwigs that union rules work against them. History tells us what it was like for the American worker before there were unions. History also tells us that corporations have always used the notion that unionization would work against the best interests of the worker. Excuse me if I sound a bit cynical but I get the impression that we are going to bring back the good old days when twelve-year olds worked in the mills and the mines. And let us not forget that one of the reasons for the Passover Feast was to remind the people of the life they had lead in Egypt before the exodus; a life as slaves.

It is not that I have anything against corporations. After all, there has to be some sort of organization in order for individuals to have jobs. But, when the interests of the corporation overshadow the interests of the workers who toil for the corporation then there is something severely wrong in this country. I am reminded that John Wesley had nothing against anyone earning as much as they possibly could but it was not to be earned through the oppression of the worker. And John Wesley made it abundantly clear that though one could earn as much as they could, they were to save as much as they could and then give away as much as they could.

But we have bought into the words of the hucksters and the scammers, politician and preacher alike that the best possible outcome is to have it all. And then once we have it all, we are to keep it for ourselves. In our efforts to earn as much as we can, we somehow have forgotten those two other conditions.

I am not enough of a Wesleyan scholar to know the basis for Wesley’s financial statement but I am sure part of it comes from Paul’s words to the Romans, especially the part about not running up debts and then making sure that you are not absorbed and exhausted by day-to-day obligations. When the focus becomes such that we are more concerned with the day-to-day stuff, it is quite possible that we lose track of things far more important, such as family and home.

So maybe we should think again about that time when families gathered together and prepared a feast to remember. Let us remember that it was the Methodist Church, following John Wesley’s example that brought about a revolution that saved England and brought about true social reform. This will come as a shock to many who see the church in terms of a fortress with iron gates and a moat that will protect them from the evil of the world around them.

But what did the Israelites put on their door to protect them from the Angel of Death, sent by God, the night of that First Passover? It was the blood of the sacrificed lamb. We don’t need to mark our doors as they did because Jesus died on the cross for that very same reason. The blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, will protect us if we are willing to accept Him as our Savior.

But we must be willing to put aside our worldly concerns and live for Christ. This is what Paul wrote to the Romans; this is what John Wesley discovered that night in the chapel on Aldersgate Street. It is that opportunity for a new beginning that we are offered at this moment, this time, and this place. Three thousand years ago, the Israelite nation began its journey from slavery to independence. It was a new beginning for them. Today, through Christ, we are offered the same opportunity to escape slavery, slavery from sin and death, and have a new beginning, a new life. That is something worth celebrating.

Beginning a New Life


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Our Focus?


I was at Dover Plains UMC this past Sunday (Location of church) this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, are Isaiah 58: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 2: 1 – 12, and Matthew 5: 13 – 20.

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In 1966, following their 51 – 0 loss to the University of Notre Dame, John McKay, the coach of the University of Southern California football team told his team “that it didn’t really matter. There are 750 million people in China who don’t even know that this game was played. The next day, a guy called me from China and asked, ‘What happened, Coach?’’’

A few months later, the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in what was billed as the “NFL – AFL World Championship Game.” The term “Super Bowl” didn’t get attached to the game until the 1970 game, when the Chiefs met the Minnesota Vikings and beat them. And while Super Bowls are a virtual sell-out once the game site is announced, there were plenty of empty seats in the Los Angeles Coliseum for that first championship game. By the way, tickets for that game costs upwards of $12.00; that might get you a parking place at today’s game.

Interestingly enough, there are no video tapes of that first game as the tapes were reused because no one thought that the game would have the status that it does today. Clearly, that didn’t happen. The game is no longer just a game between league champions on a Sunday afternoon; it has evolved into a multi-hour spectacular with companies spending millions and millions of dollars for a few moments of advertising time (even when research suggests that the return for that moment is miniscule at best). Half-time at a Super Bowl has taken on a life of its own, with entertainment superstars vying for the right to headline the half-time.

Today’s Super Bowl game will be broadcast to practically every country on the globe that has a radio or television station and probably in most of the languages that people speak. It will almost certainly be broadcast on the Armed Forces radio and television networks so that serviceman abroad can have a taste of home. But it will also be broadcast to countries where football is played by kicking a round ball; it will almost certainly be viewed as curiosity to many of those viewers.

I have nothing against football but I no longer care about professional football. I have, on occasion, noted that the most common words uttered by a football official at an elementary, junior-high or high school game is “this isn’t Sunday, coach.” Too many coaches spend all their time watching the professional games in hopes of finding a play that will bring their team success instead of focusing on the fundamentals of the game.

Against the backdrop of glitz and hype and the possibility that a football game might be played, some youth will gather cans of soup in the “Souper Bowl of Caring.” Last year, some 14,000 organizations collected over $10 million through this organization (see www.souperbowl.org). I am appreciative of the fact that the Dover Church has decided to participate in this project this year.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t have the Super Bowl; I am just saying that the focus, the effort, and the energy that is put into it all are in stark contrast to what else is happening in this country. Our focus is on a game when it should be on the problems of this country.

How much more could be done if all the money and energy that were put into producing the Super Bowl were directed towards the problems of hunger, homelessness, and health care in this country? How ironic that Isaiah’s words, written some three thousand years ago, are that the bottom line is profit. How ironic that we are spending so much money on a game that has turned into a business.

This is not one of those statements that so dominated our society in the first years of the game where we would say, “well, if we can put a man on the moon, we can do such and such!” This is a statement about where our focus as a society, as a culture, as individual beings lies.

When we say something like if we can go to the moon, we can solve other problems, we make it easy to ignore the problem or think that sufficient funds could resolve the problem. But you cannot cure the problem by simply giving those without food or shelter or clothing food to feed them, shelter to house them, and clothing so that they will be warm.

You have to change the attitudes and mindsets of people who are more interested in the football game than the condition of their fellow human beings. We are reminded of the ancient proverb that states that when you give someone a fish, you feed them for the moment but when you teach them how to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.

It is one thing to say that we are a Christian nation. It would be an entirely different thing if we lived as if we were Christians. Go back and read the passage from Isaiah again; how ironic that words written some three thousand years ago can speak so loudly in the 21st century.

God, through Isaiah, called the people’s bluff; He pointed out that their attempts at fasting were charades. The people of Israel were absolutely convinced that if they said the right words and acted appropriately in the temple, then God would find favor with them. But such acts are hypocrisy when the world outside the temple walls doesn’t change.

What did God want from the people of Israel? What does God want from each one of us today? Share your food, invite the homeless into your house, put clothes on the ill-clad, and be available to your own families. Break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed and cancel debts. Those were the words of God three thousand years ago; do we not think that those are His same words today?

Ah, do we not think? You can almost hear Paul writing to the Corinthians about the new wisdom found through Christ. Didn’t Paul point out that the message of Christ is still true today while the words and thoughts of experts disappear over the years? Didn’t Christ point out that God’s words will last long after the stars burn out and the earth wears away?

Again, we hear Paul pointed out the fallacy of the so-called experts being able to offer a solution. Isn’t the current mantra of society to cut government spending and things will get better? Aren’t there those who espouse that attitude also telling you that spending money of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and bringing healthcare to the sick is some sort of socialism? I agree that our government is spending far too much money but I think that the areas that need to be examined are in what we might as well call the military-industrial complex.

Listen to the experts who will tell you that the poor get more than they deserve and that many stay on unemployment because they make more money that way. Since what one receives in unemployment benefits is based upon what one earned, I don’t see how that logic prevails. I can only imagine what Paul would say today in response to what the experts in society and in the church are saying today.

But, there is that light. It was a light that began to shine when Isaiah wrote his words. It was a light that became brighter when Jesus spoke to the multitudes and offering not only a vision of hope but a means of achieving that hope. It was a light than began to get much brighter when the message was carried by Paul and the disciples to lands beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and Israel.

It is a light that begins to burn bright when a small church sends messages to soldiers overseas to let them know that they haven’t been forgotten. It is a light that begins to shine brighter when a small church takes part in a nationwide gathering to remind us what our focus should be.

When the light is burning bright, it is hard to not focus on it. As Paul also wrote, your life of faith is a response to God’s power, not what others would have you to do. If you have allowed the Spirit to be a part of life, it will shine through all that you do.

Our society, our culture has focused too long on the superficial. We put great stock in what happens in the moment called now. We tend to ignore or not even care what might happen tomorrow. The words of Isaiah, the words of Paul, and the words of Christ all call us to shift, to not focus on the superficial or the self but to focus on all the people.

It begins when we take that first step of opening our hearts to Christ and then allowing the Holy Spirit to enter into our lives. It begins at the table that was set for us that one night in the Upper Room some two thousand years ago. It begins that night when the authorities tried to extinguish the light that shone through Christ. We have the opportunity to change the world, small and remote though we may be. We have that opportunity because it was given to us at that supper in the Upper Room. We have allowed our focus to shift from that time and place. We have that opportunity to regain that focus.

My friends, what is our focus this day.

“To Return Home Another Way”


I am at Dover Plains UMC this morning (Location of church) this morning.  The service starts at 11 and you are always welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, Epiphany Sunday, are Isaiah 60: 1 – 6, Ephesians 3: 1 – 12, and Matthew 2: 1 -  12.

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I suppose that I have some sort of kinship with the Magi in today’s Gospel reading. After all, they were considered the scientists of their time and my training and professional career have been areas of science. And at some point in each of our lives, we have encountered Christ and it was and continues to be an encounter that changed our lives.

Now, to be sure, we would call the Magi astrologers today but we often fail to realize that they were the ones who made the observations and asked the questions that allowed astronomy, chemistry, and physics to develop. Our view of what the Magi did back then is very much linked to our view of the world today. In fact, our view of the great scientists of the past, such as Isaac Newton, is predicated on our thoughts today and not on what they were doing back then. We see Isaac Newton as the developer of calculus and classical physics but either forget or don’t know that he was also an alchemist of the highest order. And many are not aware that much of Newton’s writings were actually religious in nature. But, by the same token, Newton’s beliefs as a Christian ran counter to the orthodox view of his day, so it is most likely that this information wasn’t easily passed down from one generation to the next (see “A Dialogue of Science and Faith” for further information on 18th and 19th century scientists and their beliefs).

But, to the point of the Magi, while we understand that there is no relationship between the movement of the planets and stars and our daily lives and we have to wonder about those who perhaps still do, we also have to understand that the Magi sought to find relationships between what they saw in the evening skies and what was transpiring in the world around them. And what they saw and what they knew could only allow them to conclude that something special and unique somewhere in a country to the west of their homeland was occurring.

And, just as their scientific worldview was tied to the times in which they lived, so too was their political worldview. And logic dictated that if a new king was born in a land to the west, this child must be have been born in a royal setting. And protocol demanded that any visitors seeking this new king must first call upon the old or present king and congratulate them. In this case, that meant visiting with Herod.

Those verses in Matthew that describe the encounter of the Magi with Herod and his court suggest that the political and religious authorities were not prepared for this moment. And it begs the question, “Did they not see the same signs?”

They clearly knew the prophecies because they were able to tell the Magi that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem. But why were they surprised? Could it be that the status for each one of them was so linked to Herod that they were afraid to say anything? Was their own personal status so dependent on the status quo that they were blind to the changes occurring around them?

True revolutions occur when the powerful are blind to what is happening to the people and are more concerned with their own position and status than they are with the people. And a revolution began that day. We would not see the outcome of this revolution for some thirty years or so but it is clear that it began the moment the Magi told Herod that a new king had been born.

It began when the Magi returned home. It began when the angels told them to return home by another route. When you look at a map of the Middle East, you can see that there are alternate routes from Israel to Babylon. The same is true for Dover. When I look at a map of the area, I can see at least four different ways to get to this church every Sunday; the only difficulty is that I haven’t figured out the best and most logical way to get here or go home in case of bad weather.

But that may not have been the case with the Magi. It may be that they took the same route home that they followed when they sought out the Christ Child, though they clearly avoided contact with Herod on the return journey. But their return was a far cry different than they may have thought it was going to be because of that encounter with Jesus.

I have come to the conclusion that they would not have traveled as far as they did to worship a newborn child and then gone home and said nothing. How could they have not said something! This child that was before them was, according to all the signs, to be the new king and yet He was born in less than a noble setting. The angels sang to this child and shepherds were the first to be told; what king on earth could say that?

These were individuals who spent all their lives studying the skies, analyzing what they saw, and then made conclusions. When the angel warned them about returning to Herod, it could only have confirmed what they saw. So how could they keep quiet?

There is that passage in the Old Testament reading for today where Isaiah speaks of the people smiling on their return to Israel after years of exile in Babylon. Interestingly enough, we presume that the Magi returned to Babylon after traveling to Israel. Clearly, the people of Israel were smiling upon their return. Could it not be said that the Magi were smiling as well when they returned home?

And why should they not have been smiling? Their lives would have changed just as much as the Israelites’ changed? In a world of trouble and strife, the Magi and those they encountered would have known that their lives had been changed by the encounter with the Christ Child in Bethlehem.

To return home and do nothing would be to have written off the trip as a waste of time. And I really don’t see how they could have done that. Unfortunately, in today’s society, there are a lot of people who do just that; they come to church on Sunday morning, sit passively for the hour or so that the worship takes, and then they go home. And if you were to ask them, they would tell you that it was probably a waste of time but they didn’t have anything better to do so they came anyway.

But we came here today, I hope, just as the Magi did so many years ago seeking the Christ Child. It is that encounter that will change our lives and change the lives of the people we meet, if we let it. Paul writes to the Ephesians about how his encounter with Christ changed his life and how he was doing things that he never thought possible.

He speaks of the mystery of Christ and how it is explained to all those who are open to the ideas. Everyone gets the same message but not everyone is open. But he also points out that everyone who does hear and does receive the message is given the opportunity, in a manner perhaps unknown, to tell others about what has happened.

And that is where we are at today. We may very well go home by the same route that we came to church; we may very well do the same thing tomorrow that we have always done on Monday. But this time, this time, maybe we will encounter someone who needs a little encouraging or is searching for something and this time, you will have the answer to give them. This morning, you are given the opportunity to return home another way, not as who you were when you walked in the door this morning but as one who has encountered the Christ Child and has allowed the Holy Spirit to transform and change your life. It is a decision that you have to make.

The Magi had to return home but they did not have to return home silently and quietly. We have to return home as well; we can try it by another way as well.

“The True Gift of Christmas”


I am preaching at the Dover Plains UMC (Location of church) this 1st Sunday after Christmas (26 December 2010); service starts at 11 and all are welcome.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 63: 7 – 9, Hebrews 2: 10 – 18, and Matthew 2: 13 – 23.

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Merry Christmas!

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Several years ago at one of the churches that I am associated with, someone took home their Christmas poinsettia after the Christmas week services. Now, in and of itself that would not be a big deal; after all, if you paid for it and you hadn’t made prior arrangements to have it delivered to a shut-in or to one of the nursing homes or hospitals in the area, it is yours to take.

Now, as it happened, this individual came to us a couple of weeks later and told us how great their poinsettia was doing. It had been a month after Christmas and it was still in bloom and none of the flowers had wilted or turned brown or anything like that. And suddenly, one of the great Christmas mysteries was cleared up.

You see, as we shifted from the Advent and Christmas season to the season after Christmas and Epiphany and began to put things away, we had discovered that someone had taken one of our “fake” plants and that we had some extra live plants. It became clear to us that this individual had taken one of the fake plants and thought it was a real one.

For almost a month, this individual had carefully watered and cared for a plant that needed no care. And sadly, all of the live ones had been given away so we had no real one to give in exchange.

Sadly, as well, is the fact that too many people today seek gifts and materials like that fake plant. They want the appearance of something good without having to take care of it. And Christmas, instead of being a season or a time of thought, is reduced to a single day with few references to what actually took place and why we even pause so briefly to mark it on our calendar.

Our society tells us that gift-giving is important but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of having some meaning in our lives or expressing some thought of thanks and joy, our giving gifts is meant to show our patriotism and economic good-sense. That we gave gifts means that we bought something and that we went somewhere and spent money to support the economy. I would hate to think what the political and economic commentators might say about someone who made all of their own gifts instead of buying them.

And the Spirit of Christmas as an economic force now seems spread over most of the fall, starting long before Halloween and the one day when we are supposed to think of our loved ones. It zipped through Thanksgiving in the blink of an eye with barely a pause to give thanks before we rushed blindly to the malls on “Black Friday” and sat at our computer keyboards on “Cyber Monday.” Did we even remember that there were things to give thanks for this year?

And then we zoomed right into our real Christmas shopping. Advent, it would seem, was more a preparation for the madness of the parking lot and finding last minute bargains than it was for preparing to welcome the Christ Child into the world. It is a good thing that we are a Biblically illiterate society or we might find a way to merchandise and market the days between Christmas and the Epiphany (the day that the Magi are said to have come and visited the Holy Family) into twelve purposeful days of shopping and economic indulgence.

Now, Epiphany Sunday is next Sunday and we will properly and correctly examine that visit at that time (no sense getting ahead of ourselves more than we are going to do). On this Sunday, we look at the Holy Family, of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, as they have been told that there is a threat on the baby’s life. Gifts, no matter how big or small were hardly on their minds that night when the angel came and told them to leave immediately for Egypt.

It had to be hard enough to make the travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, even harder when they got there and found no room in the inn. A birth in those days was hard enough; under the conditions that Mary and Joseph traveled and stayed, it had to be even harder.

And now, as they pondered the events of that night, of the visit by the shepherds and the Magi, the angel comes to tell them that they must flee for their lives. The gifts that the Magi brought, the gold, the frankincense and myrrh hardly seemed important under those circumstances. But the tradition of the church from probably its creation is that the gifts that the Magi brought, the gold, the frankincense, and myrrh were used to finance the trip to Egypt and the family’s stay there until it was safe to return.

What is interesting is that the Magi brought their gifts out of a societal obligation. They had seen the signs, they knew the prophecies, they knew that somewhere to the East of their homeland a person was being born and that person was going to have an impact on the future of the world. They saw this person as a king and they brought gifts for a king. They will not understand until they too are visited by an angel that the child they had come to see was more than a child who would be king; He would be God Incarnate in human form.

We give gifts in much the same way as the Magi did so many years ago; we give them out of obligation or expectation, a quid pro quo so to speak. But we were given a gift that night in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago and it was given without obligation or expectation.

God’s gifts to us were given in love and purpose. They were given in person, not in proxy. They were given, as the writer of Hebrews noted, for the people, not the angels.

When Joseph, Mary and Jesus left for Egypt that night, they left behind a world of hatred, anger, and violence. Sad to say, when we woke up this morning, it was to a world filled with hatred, anger, and violence. The people of Israel some two thousands years ago had let their own selfish nature compromise their relationship with God and it is probably no different today.

We do not have the luxury of escaping to Egypt or some faraway land. Nor, do we have the luxury of hiding within the walls of the church sanctuary and hoping that God will protect us from what’s outside those walls. We have allowed our own selfish interests to dictate what gifts we have been given from God.

So it is now that Christmas has passed and so many people want to focus on the “real” world that we look at what we have been given. God has given us a vision for the future and more importantly, he has given us the wisdom and the ability to make that vision a reality.

Christmas represents more than a single day in a year of single days. It is a day that reminds us that we have been given a new hope and a promise for tomorrows. But we have to break free of the world in which we live, in which gifts are given out of expectation and obligation and give to the world our gifts, our talents, our presence and to do so in love and with Christ.

Christ did not have to come to Bethlehem and be born as a child. He did not have to grow up in this world. But He did, so that He would know what our lives were like. And so we would know how much we were loved.

The True Gift of Christmas is the love, hope, and promise found in that Bethlehem manager. Our gift has to be that we make sure that the love, hope, and promise is given to the world.

How Do We Get There?


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (16 December 2007).  I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY this weekend.

(First published on 15 December 2007; that night we had a major winter storm and we cancelled the services.)

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With the words of Isaiah for today (Isaiah 35: 1 – 10) and what Jesus said about John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 11: 2 – 11 ), I could not help but think about the first time I came to preach at Dover.

Like many computer/Internet savvy users, I pulled up one of the map and direction websites and put in the address for the church. The advantage for the modern day circuit rider is that you can get a map with directions from anywhere to everywhere. The disadvantage is that the way that is determined the best way may not always be the best; it may be the most direct but it is likely to be a route that takes you over hills and through the woods. What many computer map systems do not have is a sense of what is actually there. Because I have come back to this church on a number of other occasions, I have come up with a route that gets me here quickly and safely.

The one thing about finding your way to someplace new is that you have to be able to read a map and you have to be able to determine if the information that you have been given is correct. There have been a number of occasions when the information given does not match the actual situation or you have to modify the directions because your knowledge of the roads tells you to find another direction.

There are times, of course, when you just want to follow your own thoughts about where a road might take you. When I lived in Kansas a number of years ago, I noticed something slightly odd or perhaps just quirky about the U. S. highways in the area where I lived. In the southeast corner of Kansas is the small town of Oswego. If you take U. S. Highway 59 south out of Oswego, you eventually run into U. S. Highway 60. Driving eastward on U. S. 60 will get you to U. S. Highway 61. If you are careful, you will eventually drive on U. S. Highways 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, and 67. For reasons known only to the highway builders, U. S. Highway 68 runs through Ohio. But from Highway 67, you can get to U. S. Highway 70 which will take you to U. S. Highway 69. And when all is said and done, you are in Columbus, KS and 16 miles from where you started.

Based on this little journey through Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, I thought it might be possible to go up to Maine and follow Highway 1 to where it intersected Highway 2 and continue all the way across the country. It turns out that you cannot do that because the number of the highways was not done in such a logical manner. What this little trip through the Ozarks does show is that you can take a journey and end up where you started.

Our lives are sometimes like that. We go through life headed in a particular direction because we think it is the right direction to take and we make the changes when it is appropriate but when the time comes to evaluate what we have done and where we have been, we find that we are where we started and no better off. It is at such times as these that we wonder where we are going to find any meaning to life and how we are ever going to find our way in this world.

It is human nature to seek meaning in life and we desperately want to know that what we do has meaning. Many times, we simply want someone to point out where to go or give us the right direction in which to head. But other times, we simply want someone to get us where we need to be or give us the things that we seem to be lacking.

In one sense, the question that John the Baptist had his disciples ask Jesus is a question that we often ask ourselves. Is Jesus the One who has come or is there someone else for whom we should wait?

John the Baptist is in prison for having questioned the legitimacy of King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s widow. The Baptist knows that his life is about to end and his work is over; all he wants to know is whether or not all the work that he had done was in vain. He sends his disciples to Jesus and has them ask if Jesus is the One who is to come. Is Jesus the One whom John the Baptist prepared the people for? Even though Jesus is his cousin, John is not certain if what he has done means anything to the people.

Jesus replies by asking the disciples what they see. Do they not see the lame walking, the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, the sick healed, and the oppressed rejoicing with the hearing of the Good News? The signs tell them that Jesus is the Messiah and John’s work has not been in vain.

But what does this mean for us? How can we, in the chaos of today’s world, see the signs that tell us Jesus has come or that what we have done has any meaning? Too many people want the church today to give them the answers; too many people want the church to ease the pain of living in this world. They do not want the church to tell them that their work and their lives have been in vain.

And too many churches today do exactly that; they give the people what the people want to hear. They do not give them the truth. Did not Jesus ask the people who were following him if John the Baptist was wearing colorful robes? Did not Jesus point out that John the Baptist came as he was and what he said was, if you will, the plain and unvarnished truth? The truth is often a very hard topic for the church to say and for the people to hear.

Last week, there were two shootings in Colorado. Some said that the killing of the people was part of God’s plan and nothing anyone did would have stopped the killing. I have a hard time with that view of the world because it means there is no hope in this world. It means that you walk a path through life but it is a path that goes nowhere and when the path ends, it ends. What Jesus offered was hope, not despair and I don’t think that God would allow people to die just to fulfill a plan.

There were others who said that these killings were indicative of how society is. Those who died in the school in Arvada or in the church in Colorado Springs died because of society’s indifference to the problems of the world. But, placing the blame on society still does not give us a reason or a solution. If society is partially to blame for the Colorado killings, it is because it has turned a deaf ear to the cries of the young man.

And if society did not hear the young man’s cries, it is because the church has not done its job. Despite what others may say, the church is neither the master nor the servant of the state; it is the conscience of the state. (Martin Luther King, Jr. – in “A Real ‘Values’ Agenda” by Jim Wallis, Sojourners, January 2008 ) The church is called today to lead those who hear the cries of the lost and the forgotten, not be among those who ignore the cries.

But in too many ways, the church does forget or ignore the cries. There are pastors today who will tell you that it is entirely proper and right for you to seek riches in this world. God has blessed you and you have the right to those blessings here and now. All you have to do is plant the seed and let the seed grow. The more you plant, the greater will be your reward. This is what is known as the prosperity gospel. It does not matter whether you have the money or not; you can always use your credit cards. But it seems to me that the only ones who are being rewarded are the preachers who ask you to send them your money and they are not too happy when you challenge them about their finances.

Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa has asked six prosperity gospel ministers to answer some questions about the money they receive and their clearly extravagant lifestyles. Two of the six have answered his questions; two of the six are thinking about answering the questions. The other two are refusing to do so, saying that to do so would be a violation of the separation of church and state.

There should be no questions whatsoever about one’s ministry. New Testament Christianity is humble, selfless, and authentic. Those who carry the truth don’t do so for selfish gain or to meet an emotional need for attention. We can only hope that God will help us root out the false apostles and false teachers who are making the American church sick with their human-centered, money-focused heresies. (“The Deadly Virus of Christianity”, http://www.charismamag.com/fireinmybones/Columns/show.php )

Not all churches preach the prosperity gospel. They just don’t preach the gospel at all. All you hear in so many churches today is what the people want to hear, not what they need to hear. Again, we hear Jesus rebuking the people who wanted John the Baptist to give it to them easy all over again. And Jesus’ rebuke to the people is a reminder that what He will ask of them is far harder and more demanding than anything John every asked.

It is one thing to have modern music in church today; it is an entirely different thing to take away the meaning of the music. It is one thing to put the Gospel into the vernacular or patois of today’s society; it is another thing entirely to take the Gospel out of the service. It is one thing to expect that we should live well or not lose what we have. It is another thing to say that what we have is ours and ours alone or that we will not share what we have with others who do not have anything. It is one thing to say that we have what God gave us and we do not have to give what we have to others.

God created the world before He created the church. The church is a part of the world but it has moved away from the world as people have sought easy answers. The church has moved away from being a church that faces conflict and suffers persecution, killings, and bombings to one that avoids conflicts and causes persecution. The church has moved from seeing Jesus as liberator to seeing Jesus as a servant of the church.

It is no wonder why people do not turn to the church in moments of crisis or turmoil; they see the church as the reason for the crisis or turmoil.

If we are to find our way again; if we are to get back on the “right” track, we have to make some radical changes in our lives. And we need to be reminded that John the Baptist’s call for repentance is a call for change. Repentance does not simply mean that we say we are sorry for what we have done; it means that we will seek to change and become a new person.

Instead of wrapping an impenetrable barrier around our hearts while we wrap the presents that we will place under the Christmas tree this year, we need to unwrap our hearts and let the Love of Christ come into our lives. Instead of thinking about December 26th as the day after Christmas and the day we return the unwanted gifts, we should begin to think about how we can take the Love of Christ given to us on Christmas Day and give it to others each day after Christmas.

The change may not come that easily but we are comforted by the words of James today who told us to be patient. (James 5: 7 – 10) It is easy for us to do this because we have seen what Jesus can do; we know what we must do.

Christmas has become that time when we think we have to go to Bethlehem. But because of the demands that society places on us, we don’t think that we can get there. We ask how we can get there when everything around us tells us that we can’t get there. But there is no longer a place in our journey; it is a time. And that time is now. How do we get there? We open our hearts and let Jesus come in.