“Notes for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost”


Here is a list of my sermons, messages, and posts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost.

This list was originally posted last year as part of the post of “To Finish the Journey” but only listed the posts for Year A as well as those posts that were based on the Scriptures. I have edited that post to be just the sermon and added a couple of posts to this list.

As I complete this particular year of posts, I anticipate shifting from the Sunday to the Scripture readings (since they are actually tied to the calendar and not necessarily the liturgical calendar) at the beginning of the new liturgical calendar year. But in the meantime, here are the messages/sermons/posts that I gave for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost.

Sunday, October 03, 1999 (A), Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY, “The Rules We Play By”

Sunday, October 22, 2000 (B), Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY, “Ask Not What Your Church Can Do”

Sunday, October 14, 2001 (C), World Communion Sunday, Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY, “Saying Thank You”

Sunday, September 29, 2002 (A), Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY, “How did we get this far?”

Sunday, October 19, 2003 (B), Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY, “Serving the Lord”

Sunday, October 10, 2004 (C), World Communion Sunday, Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY, Lay Speaker

Sunday, September 25, 2005 (A), Poughquag United Methodist Church, Poughquag, NY, “Who Goes First?”

Sunday, October 15, 2006 (B), Dover United Methodist Church, Dover Plains, NY, “Finding God”

Sunday, October 07, 2007 (C), What Are We Supposed To Do?

Sunday, September 21, 2008 (A), Dover United Methodist Church, Dover Plains, NY, “What Do We Need?”

Sunday, October 11, 2009 (B), Ridges/Roxbury & Springdale United Methodist Churches, Stamford, CT, “Can You?”

Sunday, October 03, 2010 (C), “What I See”

Sunday, October 16, 2011 (A) – Dover UMC, Dover Plains, NY, “Who Shall Feed My Sheep?”

Sunday, October 7, 2012 (B) – New Milford UMC, “A Matter of Integrity”

Luke 17: 5 – 10

To Finish the Journey


Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 23 October 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8, and Matthew 22: 34 – 46. This has been edited since it was first posted.

Have you been following the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, in other cities around the country and around the globe? I will be honest; I didn’t think there were enough people in this country willing to come to New York City or elsewhere and make a statement about the way life is going in this country. And the truth be told, if the situation would allow it, Ann and I would probably be down there.

The sad part about this protest is that there are too many people who should be there but aren’t, not because they cannot be there but because they do not understand that they should be there. The issues facing this country affect each and every one of us but there are some who are either unwilling or unable to see what lies before them.

Moses climbed to the top of the mountain and glimpsed into the Promised Land knowing that he would never set foot there. Of course, no one in that first generation of Israelites who left Egypt entered either; they weren’t even given the opportunity to see the goal they had sought. For the benefit of those who aren’t aware, the people had come to the Promised Land once before and sent spies into the land. While all twelve spies returned and confirmed that the Promised Land was indeed a land of milk and honey, ten of the twelve exaggerated the power and force of the people occupying the land. While two of the twelve did report the truth about what lie in the Promised Land, the Israelites choose to believe the other ten. And for this, God punished the people for their lack of faith and rebellion. It would be another forty years before the people would be given the opportunity to complete the journey called the Exodus.

We are at, I believe, a similar place in time. We see the truth before us but we seem to fear what we see. We seem uncertain and hesitant to cross over the River Jordan into the Promised Land because we aren’t certain about what lies there. We are dominated by a mindset that says that what we have right now is better than what might lie on the other side and we are unwilling to risk what we have in hopes of a better life.

I grew up in the 60s hearing those in power proclaim that we needed to maintain the status quo even though that meant maintaining inequality in this land. And yet, that decade started off with John Kennedy pushing this country to go beyond not only the boundaries of this country but the boundaries of this planet. But as we entered into the 70s and we fought a war in Southeast Asia, the cost of exploring the universe became too great. And I can only say that I think it was our fear of failure in Viet Nam that kept us from seeking a better world. And we have kept that mentality up until this day.

Our politics have become the politics of fear and hatred. Our fear has moved us backward in time. We seem bound and determined to return this country to a time when there were only two classes, the rich and the poor. Our middle class is shrinking and will in a few years, if nothing else changes, disappear.

Many of our churches, faced with shrinking populations, are unwilling or unable to see the mission opportunities outside their front, actually their back door. They have turned inward, holding on to what they have with the idea that yesterday was better than today and tomorrow only promises to be a disaster.

Many who call themselves Christian today hear the words of the Bible to treat the immigrant as a friend, not a stranger, because they, the people of the Bible, were once immigrants as well. Yet, while they hear those words, they either do not understand them or ignore them. They would rather build fences and walls that keep others out rather than let others in.

Many who call themselves Christian hear the words of the Bible that say to give comfort to poor and the needy yet often wish that the poor and needy would just accept their lot in life and go away. The 18th century notion that wealth is a sign of righteousness is alive and well in the 21st century. But while righteousness perhaps should imply a certain degree of sharing, the wealthy today want to keep what they have and actually want more. It seems they can’t get enough. It makes one wonder if they plan on taking their wealth and riches with them when they die.

One of the big debates in Jesus’ time was the same as today, taxes. And I would be willing to bet that the Romans imposed a flat tax on all of the citizens of Israel during that time. It is no wonder that the tax collector was one of the most hated persons in the community, especially among the lower classes. The rich weren’t hurt by the tax like the poor were and probably were able to get out of paying taxes most of the time.

And yet, with history telling us that flat taxes are regressive, i.e. hurt the ones with the least, we still seem fixated on the idea that a flat tax will solve all of our problems. I am not saying that our present tax code is that great but I also know that the alternatives before us are worse than the present situation.

I am reminded of a proposal made back in 2003 for a fair tax, one based on Judeo-Christian ethics. As I wrote in “Do As I Say? Or, Do As I Do?”, in 2003 the state of Alabama had and probably still has one of the most oppressive and regressive tax codes in the country. Besides topping out at 5%, the state also has a 4% sales tax. And communities are allowed to add their own sales tax to that 4%, creating in some places a sales tax of 10%.

Susan Price Hamill proposed a new tax code that would have been fairer than the present code, which placed an unfair burden on the poor while benefitting the middle and upper classes. Opposition to her proposal came from some of the places that you would expect (the rich, the land owners, and those who have to pay more in taxes). But opposition also came from the Alabama Christian Coalition who tried to say that Christians have no obligation to take care of their neighbors. And when that interesting piece of Christian theology failed, they resorted to slander.

There comes a time when we have to look at where we are and decide if it is better than where we might be or where we were. The Israelites chose a path that kept those who began the Exodus from ever entering or seeing the Promised Land. It would be the next generation that would be able to enter.

The church of today does not have that luxury; its policies and attitudes have driven most of the next generation away. Those who have stayed have stayed with the promise that they would be the leaders if the policies never changed. These individuals are so hungry for power that they are willing to hold onto the past, even when they see that what they will inherit is dying.

The youth of today, the hope and promise of this country are occupying Wall Street. Surprisingly, the things that they are doing are very similar to the beginnings of Christian communities two thousand years ago. But they don’t know that this is the way the church started because they don’t see it as a church. Rather they see it in what they were taught in Sunday School; they remember what Jesus did.

The Pharisees come to Jesus, again looking to trip him up with a theological question; but, as before He sees through their attempt. Referring to the Ten Commandments, they want to know which is the most important. It is an interesting question because each one of the commandments is different from the rest and you have to use all of them collectively rather than individually. And Jesus states that we are to love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and then to love others as well as we love ourselves. The rest of the law comes from there.

Just as the Israelites stood on the banks of the Promised Land but were unwilling to trust in God and fearful that their individual abilities would do them little good, so too do we put our reliance on the collection of laws and not what the laws are meant to do. We would rather make more laws that restrict than work from the basis of the laws we have. We would rather tell people what they cannot do then try to live as we are supposed. In the end, we would much rather stay where we are than try and finish the journey that we have undertaken.

If we are who we say we are, that is, if we are to be called Christians in today’s society, then we must finish the journey that was begun two thousand years ago. If we cannot love others as we love ourselves, then we will find that journey to be difficult.

We need to hear the words of Paul to the Thessalonians again, how what was said by Paul and Silas was not meant to cover things up or make things easy but to speak the truth. Paul and Silas didn’t come into Thessalonica with the airs of a television preacher, proclaiming the truth as they knew it and the people were to believe it. They did not just give the Message to the people, they gave their hearts and the Love of Christ.

We stand at the top of the mountain overlooking the Promised Land. We are being called to finish the journey but to do so we must leave the baggage of our fears and our hatred and exclusiveness behind. We must take on the mantle of Christ, to love God with all our passion, our prayers and our intelligence. And we are to love others as we would love ourselves. If there is to be a tomorrow in this world, it will be because we finished the journey that is expressed in our love for others.

Are you ready to finish the journey?

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?

What I See


Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 3 October 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Lamentations 1: 1 – 6, 2 Timothy 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 17: 5 – 10.  Sorry for the delay

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As you may know by now, I am an alumnus of Truman State University. But if you pressed me for specifics, I would point out that I really never attended Truman State University. Truman State University has only been in “existence” since 1995; before that, it was known as Northeast Missouri State University. But I only did graduate work at Northeast Missouri State University. I graduated in 1971 from Northeast Missouri State College, which was not the name of the school when I began my college studies. Over the years that I have been associated with Truman, its name has changed from Northeast Missouri State Teachers College to Northeast Missouri State College to Northeast Missouri State University and finally to Truman State University.

The changes in the name of Truman reflect not only its history but its mission. Founded in 1867, it was first known as First Missouri Normal School and Commercial College. It retained the designation as a Normal School until 1916 when it became Northeast Missouri State Teachers College. It became Truman State University when the mission of the school changed from teacher preparation to a more liberal arts direction.

I think that it was a good thing that these changes were made; I don’t know what people would say if I said I had graduated from a “normal” school and I am not entirely certain what it says about my degrees from the Universities of Missouri and Iowa.

But each name change in the 143 year history of the school reflects are change in the mission and purpose of the school, from a teacher’s training school to a liberal arts institution. Part of that change occurred in 1970 when Charles McClain was chosen as the President of the University. Now, many of the changes in the mission of the school and the resulting name changes occurred after I graduated so I cannot speak to those changes.

But the late 60s and early 70s were a time of immense change in this country. Long standing concepts about power and authority were being challenged. The changes that swept through this country at that time did not avoid Kirksville even if those who lived there may have wanted them to. In the spring of 1969, the Black Student Association organized a sit-in of the Administration Building (Baldwin Hall) in protest of the city of Kirksville’s housing policy and the college’s support for those policies rather than support the needs and desires of the students of the colleges. I participated in that sit-in as a supporter. Now, there are some who will tell you that this was a negative episode in the history of the school and the town but I saw it then and still see it today as part of the awakening of the college and of the college and the town becoming aware that there was a world outside the boundaries of northeast Missouri. I posted my own thoughts about this episode in the college’s history and my life in Side By Side.

I cannot speak as to what decisions were made that brought Dr. McClain to Kirksville in 1970 but I suspect that there were those who felt that a change was needed and it would have to come from outside the traditional sources. Dr. McClain’s predecessors as President tended to operate the office in what I would call a very autocratic and authoritarian, almost royal manner. There were to be no challenges to such power or any decisions that were made. This attitude, in part, lead to the Baldwin Hall sit-in.

But as Bob Dylan wrote “the times were a-changing”. And though I may not have known it at the time, my own personal encounter with Dr. McClain spoke of the things that were about to take place. For some reason, most likely the quality of the food in the dormitory cafeteria, I decided to invite Dr. McClain to be my guest for dinner one evening. So I went over to the administration building, went into his office and asked his secretary if he were available. He had a few moments free and I took the opportunity to invite him to be my guest for dinner in the dorm cafeteria that night. To my surprise, he accepted my invitation.

We met later that day and walked across campus to the dorm. I cannot recall what we talked about that night some forty years ago but it probably would have centered on college life. What I do remember is that, as we went through the serving line, everyone assumed that this man was my father.

It speaks to the times and the culture of the place that people (students, faculty, and staff) would think that way. It was a culture where the college president and upper level management very seldom ventured around campus and they most certainly did not eat in the dorm cafeteria with the students (they had their own private dining room). So it came as a shock to many when Dr. McClain ate dinner in the dorm with students that evening.

Did this little episode in the history of the school change anything? The dorm food really didn’t improve and I can’t speak to what happened after I graduated. But I would like to think it did or that it reflected the type of changes that were about to take place. I do know this; in 2009, when I posted a version of this story in a comment about the new presidential search taking place at Truman, I heard from Dr. McClain telling me that he remembered the invitation and the dinner. And what happened that night was a foretaste of things to come across this nation.

In the 80s there would be a flurry of articles and discussions about excellence in the workplace. One thing that came out of all of that discussion was the innovations came from the bottom up but were supported from the top down. Innovation could not take place unless those at the upper levels of management bought into the change and everyone in the organization was committed to the change. It does little good for a company, an organization, or an individual to say they are for change and then expect the change to occur without their full support or participation. Leaders cannot say that change will occur in their organization, whatever type of organization, and then maintain or continue what they have done in the past.

I wrote about the contradiction between the talk of change and the action of change back in 2006 with To Search for Excellence. The church is no exception. You cannot expect change to occur if it is driven from the top down and there is no support from the top. There is a discussion going on right now in response to a post by Dan Dick (“Make-No-Wave United Methodist Church”) that speaks to the conformity and complacency of the modern church, of the inability of the church, its leadership and its members to see beyond the walls of the church.

As many have pointed out in their comments to Dan Dick’s piece, we have been talking about the need to change the church for almost thirty years now. And all of the talk has been accompanied by a concern that we not rush the issue. But the people do not want the change; they are quite happy with what they have at the moment.

And until we realize that and then, having realized that, begin to make substantial changes in what happens, we are going to have in our churches the image that Jeremiah saw when he looked at Jerusalem at the beginning of the Babylonian exile. A once bustling and prosperous city is now empty because the people failed to heed the warnings given by countless prophets. Each prophet, including Jeremiah, pointed out that what the people were doing worked against rather than for the wishes of God. Each time an individual ignored another individual, an equal member of society in God’s eyes, was a strike against them.

But did not the prophets warn the people what was coming? How long will it take for the people today to heed the warnings given two thousand years ago? I see a church content in its life but afraid of what is outside the walls. I see a church that will not change, even when they hear the words of Christ.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus asks us if the owner of a business or a farm would invite his or her workers to dinner. The story signals a change in a relationship between people that would come with God’s kingdom, a change that was not always welcomed then and not always welcomed today. We have too many people today who echo the thoughts of two thousand years ago; that there is a structure to society and you best know where your place in society is.

We live in a world where we easily speak of equality but we are very hesitant to bring about such equality. We are quite content to let our church structure reflect the nature of society rather than the nature of God’s kingdom. It is a church where the workers are not welcome and the management has no desire to mingle or sit with the workers. It is, if you will, a mirror of what our society is and has become.

I am looking at a church that seems bent on bringing about its own death. It sees the people leaving but blames them. I am looking at a church that demands that its pastors preach a “feel-good” gospel, one that doesn’t demand much from the listeners. And I am looking at a church structure which tells those pastors who dare to move forward that they will not have much of a future. It is almost as if the church in its entirety is afraid of what might happen if the words of the Gospel were acted out instead of just spoken real quickly.

I know there are others who see what I see and know that we can no longer wait. And they are willing to seek movement where movement may not seem possible at the time. There are those in leadership positions, not many for sure but some, who know that such movement needs to be done right now. They know that the words of the prophets are meaningless if they are not followed by action. And the actions of the people outside the church tell us that most people are not listening. The change that must take place must take place now; it cannot wait.

Paul also warned us some two thousand years ago. He warned us that the presentation of the message would never be easy; that we could expect trials and tribulation; we could expect to be hated for wanting to do what is required of us.

It will take a lot of work to effect this change. It will require that we be willing to stand up and speak the truth, even if the truth works against what the people believe. Other discussions have taken place across the Methoblogosphere that tell me many of those who call themselves Methodists do not have a clue as to what Methodism is about. And when you consider the recent Pew Form on Religion and Public Life survey on knowledge of Christianity (see “What Do You Know? For some, apparently not much!”), then most of those who call themselves Christian don’t have a clue as to what Christianity is about.

There is a quote in Jeremiah that says that we are at a crossroads and we must make a choice as to which way to go. There are many today who are at the crossroad, trying to figure out which way to go. But I see a church at that same crossroad but closing its doors and refusing to help those who are lost and confused to find their way. Yes, it will be hard to make the changes that are necessary at this time. But that is because we have put them off for so long.

Still, I see many who are working for the change, who see the church as it once was, before Constantine and the imposition of a state church, working for all the people. What Jesus did more than anything else was show the people that God was open to all, no matter at what level of society they might be. It was a far cry from what the people saw in their lives and it was a far better vision.

Can we say the same thing today? Are we prepared to move in the direction that Jesus offered when He said to us to follow Him? Do we see that road?

“Saying Thank You”


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 14 October 2001.  Because of how the church’s communion schedule was set up, this was also World Communion Sunday at Walker Valley.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 1: 1, 4 – 7; 2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15; Luke 17: 11 – 19.

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There were two comments that I wanted to make about this particular sermon and its scriptures. First, a number of years ago I made some notes about wondering if the Israelites ever said thank you. It wasn’t in conjunction with these scriptures but it was one of those events in the Bible where the Israelites had been given something by God but they never seemed to acknowledge that gift. That seemed to be the case with the Gospel reading for today. Ten lepers came to Christ asking that He healed them of one of the most devastating diseases of its time, yet only one, the Samaritan, returned to say thank you.

We might never know if the other nine were truly healed of the disease but we can assume that they were.

The other comment, especially in light of the nature of the Gospel reading, is to find a way to connect the Gospel reading to the other two readings. I have probably made note of the fact that many pastors typically picked one of the three scripture readings as the basis for their sermon and leave the other two. Since I never have taken any formal learning in sermon preparation, I started off trying to find the link between the three and to use that link in the sermon. Sometimes the link is easy to find; sometimes it is not.

For me, the link today between the three readings is faith and service. Jeremiah speaks of what the Israelites exiled in Babylon should do while there; Paul reminds Timothy about why he serves God; and Luke asks us to consider the consequence of our service.

The Israelites are in exile in Babylon when Jeremiah wrote this letter to them. He had gathered from some of those with whom he was in contact that other prophets were telling the exiles to hold to the faith, for they would soon return to Jerusalem. But Jeremiah, instead of speaking and writing about the future, speaks to the present.

The other prophets were telling the people to wait for the future, to wait for the return before getting on with their lives. There is a certain amount of agreement in that thought. After all, when you are thousands of miles from your home, you should focus on getting back. Nothing you do should deter you from that goal.

But apparently those offering that hope of the future forgot that you must live in the present in order to have the future. While we may want a better future, it is better sometimes to work for it rather than waiting for it to happen. That is what Jeremiah reminded the people of Israel. If they waited for the future to happen, then the future would be rather bleak. Now was the time to prepare for the future.

Faith is never constructed or built on dreams. Life with God is built on our understanding the circumstances in which we live. To have a future means that we must enact our faith in the present. Dreaming about what we could be will never get us to what we can do.

Neither can we see the future in terms of what we once were. Just as life can never be what we dream it to be, nor can it be what we were. For sometimes we confuse the future with the past and think of what we could be in terms of what we were.

Life is lived with an understanding that "I am." And it is through living now that we are able to live for the future. If we cannot relate to God in the present, it is not very likely that we will be able to do so tomorrow. If we do not serve God or love other persons where we are today, then it is unlikely that we will be able to do so tomorrow.

Paul reminds us that we cannot place limitations on the Gospel. Paul points out that even when the speaker is confined or limited in his or her ability, the Word is not. Some of the greatest messages Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote during the Civil Rights struggle of the 60’s came when he was confined to the Birmingham jail. We know from history that every time governments have tried to prevent the spread of the Gospel, they have failed. But we must understand, and Paul reminds us, that it must be the Gospel message of peace and love. If we choose to trivialize the message by arguing over the nature of the words, then we are likely to fail.

We are, whether we acknowledge it publicly or not, all servants of God. It does not matter how we serve God but we must realize our actions speak to the nature of our servanthood. The other day I saw someone passing around some materials intended to describe what would happen to Afghanistan. Perhaps it was meant to be funny, but it described an infliction of pain and anguish on the Afghan people, not just the Taliban government that has chosen to abuse its power through its clear misinterpretation of the Koran. But the irony of this was that the person who was passing around these pictures wore a shirt saying "God Loves You." How can you preach a message of peace when your actions speak of war?

Some might say that it is well and good to speak of peace but I don’t have the ability or time to do so. Others might say that it is all well and good that you speaking of serving God in this world but the world does not want to hear of God’s peace. But when we allow the nature of the world to dictate the nature of God’s word, we fail. When we don’t allow God to be our primary force of life, then our dreams of the future get lost in our thoughts of the past.

The courage we have today comes from our confidence in tomorrow, in knowing that the promises of Christ are true. We are asked to serve in many ways. And the manner in which we serve speaks to our beliefs and our trust. We may see the world in the terms of what it once was and hope that it will again be that way. But it never will be that way.

When Robert Kennedy ran for President in 1968, he was found of quoting George Bernard Shaw, ‘You see things; and say "why?" But I dream of things that never were and say "why not?"  We must see the world in terms of faith, in terms of God’s promise to us through His Son, Jesus Christ.

Ten lepers came to Christ seeking a cure. But only one came back to say thank you. It was the faith of that individual that saved him. Nothing was ever said about the other nine but I think that they were also cured. But their lives were probably never quite complete; they never had an assurance that the disease would not return.

Faith is very much a circle. And from time to time we must come back to the beginning. As we prepare today for Holy Communion we must understand that we are both coming to the table to remember the promise given to us and to say thank you for all that has been given to us. It is by our faith that we are able to come to this table today; it is through our faith that we say thank you.

Can You?


This Sunday, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, I am at Ridges/Roxbury UMC and the United Methodist Church of  Springdale (both in the Stamford, CT) area.  The service at the Ridges/Roxbury church is at 9 and the service at the Springdale church is at 10:30.  You are welcome to attend.

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Job 23: 1 – 9, 16 – 17; Hebrews 4: 12 – 16; and Mark 10: 17 – 31.

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The common thought about the church today is that it is dying. But that is not necessarily the case. In many parts of the world, the church is doing quite well and it is growing beyond description. And even in the United States, there are churches which are growing and prospering, even in these economic down times.

But there are a great number of churches, because of where they are located, that should be growing and prospering but aren’t. And on the denominational level, the same is true. There are some denominations that are doing quite well and some, including the United Methodist Church, which are not doing well. Some will say that the reason for this is that the individual church and the church as an institution is getting old and old things die.

But the church is more than two thousand years old and it has survived famine and plaque, war and destruction, persecution and oppression. Why should it be dying now? It is dying, not because it is physically old but because it is mentally old.

Some twenty years ago I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Herbert C. Brown. Dr. Brown won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1979 for his work with compounds known as organoboranes. These compounds are composed of hydrogen, carbon, and boron (which coincidentally are Dr. Brown’s initials, something he quite enjoyed telling people). The nature of these compounds opened an entire new set of pathways for the synthesis of other compounds and offer low cost methods for such syntheses.

When I met Dr. Brown in 1988, he had been retired from active teaching for ten years but he was still active in research, publishing over 100 manuscripts a year. Now, as a doctoral student still two years away from graduation, to hear someone speak of 100 publications a year while I was still trying to get my first publication, was absolutely awesome. But it illustrated quite easily that being old is merely a state of mind, not a quality of the calendar.

And I say that because some four years later, I meet another individual who was some ten years younger than Dr. Brown but who was, for all intents and purposes, academically dead. And if he was not dead, he was certainly on life support, counting the time until his teaching and academic career was over. This individual, to the best of my knowledge, had not published anything since obtaining tenure at the university where we both taught and he had no interest, as far as I could tell, in learning anything new (he did not know how to operate a VCR or turn on a computer and this was in 2000). His intransigence and unwillingness to learn was a block to the younger members of the department who sought to breathe life into the department. Now, some ten years later, that department has survived and is doing quite well. But at that time, I saw a situation where the mental age of the department threatened the life and vitality of the department and its members.

The same is true in the church today. You see too many people who are not willing to try new ideas and who yet bemoan the fact that the church is dying. But they are unwilling or, at least, very reluctant to change the nature of the church.

The individual local church today is too often seen as a decaying relic of yesterday. It uses words that, while they may have meant something many years ago, are meaningless in today’s society and culture. For those who grew up in the local church, the church today is in sharp contrast to what they studied in Sunday school and confirmation class. And when those who grew up in the local church get a chance, they leave that church behind. Sometimes they find another church more attuned to their needs; often times, they just walk away from the church.

We are at a moment in time when everything that we believe, everything we have ever learned is being challenged. We are being told that to be an evangelical Christian is to be a conservative Christian. We are told that the only issues of importance for Christians are abortion and homosexuality.

But what do we do about the poor? What do we do about education or the environment? What do we do when the system that is in place ignores the little children of this country in favor of big business and greedy corporate interests? What do we do when other Christians tell the parents of gays and lesbians that their children’s sexuality is their fault, that they somehow have lived a sinful and wrongful life? How is it that we have allowed Christianity to become so judgmental when our own Savior never judged anyone? (From an interview with Tony Campolo posted on Beliefnet.com on 12 November 2004)

Now, these thoughts, while parallel to some of my own, are not mine. They belong to Tony Campolo, Baptist minister, sociology professor, and conservative evangelical Christian. But even with those credentials, he feels that the concept of evangelism has been hijacked by the political motives of the religious right. He feels that the Gospel message of reaching out to the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed, has somehow been lost in the politics of the times.

What I find interesting are his thoughts on the churches of today. One reason he feels that mainline churches are in decline is because they have been so concerned with social justice that they have forgotten to place a major emphasis on bringing people into a close, personal relationship with God through Christ. Pentecostal and evangelical churches, the churches that are growing today, are doing so because they attract people who are hungry to know God. These individuals are not interested in knowing God from a theological standpoint, as a moral teacher, or as an advocate for social justice. They want God to be a part of their lives, to strengthen them, to transform them and enable them to better deal with the problems they have, both socially and personally.

Christianity has two emphases. One is social, the other personal. It is the responsibility of Christians to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society – to relieve the suffering of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. But it also has the responsibility to help bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ so that they can feel the joy and love of God in their lives. In today’s society, we see that fundamentalism emphasizes the latter while mainline churches emphasize the former. If we are not careful, we are going to find out that those who ignore the social ministry of the church are going to drive away those who seek God but they will have no place to go because the places that speak to the social ministry will have closed.

But where will they go? They are like Job in the Old Testament reading today. They know there is a God and they know that He is out there but they cannot find Him.

They cannot find Him in many of the local churches today. Instead, they find a church that has literally sold its soul to bring people in. They find a church that is in complete opposition to the words of today’s Gospel. Instead of a sacrifice, many churches today have adopted the mantra of today’s society that says materialism matters and it is what you have that counts. The rich young ruler in today’s Gospel reading would be gladly welcomed in many of today’s churches, for he would not have had to give up his wealth and his power in order to follow Jesus. In fact, he could have kept his wealth and power and he would have been told that Jesus will follow him. The message of many evangelists in many churches today is how God fits into your plans, not how you fit into His plans.

There is even a movement among conservatives and fundamentalists today to remove the liberal bias of the Bible and show how the Bible justifies a free-market economy (see “Editing the Bible”). But the free-market economy that these individuals want is completely counter to the words, concepts, and meaning of the Bible. I have used the example before but it is worth saying again.

Jim Wallis speaks of his experience as a seminary student with the Bible:

I was a seminary student in Chicago many years ago. We decided to try an experiment. We made a study of every single reference in the whole Bible to the poor, to God’s love for the poor, to God being the deliverer of the oppressed. We found thousands of verses on the subject. The Bible is full of the poor.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, it is the second most prominent theme. The first is idolatry and the two are most often connected. In the New Testament, we find that one of every sixteen verses is about poor people; in the gospels, one of every ten; in Luke, one of every seven. We find the poor everywhere in the Bible.
One member of our group was a very zealous young seminary student and he thought he would try something just to see what might happen. He took an old Bible and a pair of scissors. He cut every single reference to the poor out of the Bible. It took him a very long time.

When he was through, the Bible was very different, because when he came to Amos and read the words, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream," he just cut it out. When he got to Isaiah and heard the prophet say, "Is not this the fast that I choose: to bring the homeless poor into your home, to break the yoke and let the oppressed go free?" he just cut it right out. All those Psalms that see God as a deliverer of the oppressed, they disappeared.

In the gospels, he came to Mary’s wonderful song where she says, "The mighty will be put down from their thrones, the lowly exalted, the poor filled with good things and the rich sent empty away." Of course, you can guess what happened to that. In Matthew 25, the section about the least of these, that was gone. Luke 4, Jesus’ very first sermon, what I call his Nazareth manifesto, where he said, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to poor people" — that was gone, too. "Blessed are the poor," that was gone.

So much of the Bible was cut out; so much so that when he was through, that old Bible literally was in shreds. It wouldn’t hold together. I held it in my hand and it was falling apart. It was a Bible full of holes. I would often take that Bible out with me to preach. I would hold it high in the air above American congregations and say, "Brothers and sister, this is the American Bible, full of holes from all we have cut out." We might as well have taken that pair of scissors and just cut out all that we have ignored for such a long time. In America the Bible that we read is full of holes.

Today’s generation of new church goers are called the “seekers”. Many of them have heard the words of redemption and sacrifice that are the message of the Bible. They know the story of the rich young ruler and the call from Jesus to put everything aside in order to follow Him. But they also see those who today live lives of greed, self-righteousness, and arrogance. They do not want to be a part of that church anymore.

They do not want to come to a church and find that the clock and calendar have been turned back some fifty or sixty years. They don’t really care that the church was chartered and a part of the local community since 1828. It doesn’t matter to them that the budget of the church is $320,000 nor that the church has had ten pastors and thirteen organists in the past 40 years.

They don’t want to be a part of a church that works on the assumption that Sunday is for church and the rest of the week is for more important matters. They want to know that the words they hear, from the congregation as much as from the pastor, mean something. They would rather meet with their friends at a Starbucks or Barnes & Noble bookstore on Sunday mornings to discuss things that are important to them than drink coffee in a styrofoam cup after the service on Sunday.

The church they find may have “modern” music or alternative worship services; it may let the pastor dress casually so that they appear to be hip. But these churches have so embraced the ways of society that it is no longer what it once was or what it can and should be. And no matter how modern the church may appear or act, it still holds to words and actions that speak of the glory days long ago. It does not matter how modern the church appears or sounds when the words of the congregation espouse exclusiveness, rejection and discrimination, not an openness or welcoming attitude.

What people are seeking today, what people actually need is the answer to such questions as “Do you know God; do you have a story?” They want to know that people actually know God personally and not just that they know a lot about God.

Ben Campbell Johnson, of Columbia Theological Seminary, suggests that you ask people outside church "When has God seemed near to you?" There is nothing judgmental about this approach; it starts with where people are and it takes their experience seriously.

If you cannot or will not share your faith with others, it may be that you are in the midst of a crisis of your own. Often times, people use aggressive tactics because they themselves are insecure about their own faith and are anxious for others to believe and behave in the manner that they do so as to make their own faith more plausible.

The question then, is whether one believes in the efficacy of the Gospel — the Gospel that justifies so that we don’t need to earn our status before God or vie for position with others. It is the Gospel that gives shape and purpose to life, making us other-directed rather than self-centered. It is the Gospel of peace that can reconcile broken relationships and build communities. It is the Gospel of justice that advocates for the poor and the marginalized. The word “Gospel” means good news and how can one keep from sharing the good news?

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ, our High Priest, is not out of touch with reality as so many churches are today. He has experienced everything that we have experienced (except for sin) and he is in a position to help us in these times, if we but walk up to him. Our challenge is two-fold.

First, we must open our hearts and our minds and once again welcome Christ into our lives. And second, we must ask ourselves some very tough questions.

Is the church, our church, closed, both in spirit and mind, to those whose lives or attitudes are different from ours? Or is the church, our church, open to all who seek Christ?

Is the church, our church, a rigid and inflexible relic of days long past that refuses to change and challenges any threats to its existence? Or is the church, our church, capable of absorbing the trials of society and still remain the source of hope, justice, and righteousness that was the promise of the Gospel message some two thousand years ago?

And finally, can you, today from the very moment you walk out of this sanctuary, through your thoughts, your words, your deeds, offer a Vision of Christ for the world today? Can you tell your story to the first person you meet when you leave this place today? That’s the question; what is your answer?

Serving the Lord


This is the message for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 19 October 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Job 38: 1- 7; Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; and Mark 10: 35 – 41.

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Today is Laity Sunday, the Sunday in the year when the work of the Laity is honored. The United Methodist Church is unique, I believe, in this celebration. Though other denominations use lay persons in their services, no other denomination puts a reliance on the laity like we do.

This is partially because of our history and the use of circuit riders to provide ordained leadership to the various churches strung along country roods. It fell to the laity of each local society or early church to provide the pastoral guidance as well as the secular leadership for the church between the visits of the circuit rider.

Today marks the twelfth anniversary of the first time I ever preached. Looking back, I can honestly say that I never anticipated that my service as a lay speaker would turn into what it has become. I still remember joking on that Sunday morning that my feelings of nervousness were such that I would make coffee nervous.

I took on the challenge of organizing Laity Sunday because it needed to be done. At the time that I came to that church, it was in decline, losing members, struggling with its finances, and just generally not doing very well. Laity Sunday at that church had been a day when the pastor took the day off. But it was not a vacation for the Lay Leader who, in that church, served as the liturgist. Laity Sunday simply meant that he, the Lay Leader, had to do the entire service rather than simply the parts before the offering.

So when I volunteered to do Laity Sunday back in 1991, I wanted all to participate. It was after all a celebration of the laity and not just one person. That year, I thought that it would be appropriate if I could get members of the congregation to do various parts of the service, from the greeting through the opening prayers and the various bible readings, leaving the last step (the message) for myself. It was a model that worked and I would hope that it continues at that church to this day.

In 1993, I sought to involve one of the other lay speakers in the church. It was a sign of the changes that were taking place in that church that others were becoming involved. I had two reasons for wanting someone else to present the message that Sunday,. Things for me were changing and I wanted to let the other speakers whom the church had sponsored and nurtured present their talents. I was also fearful that people there would think that I was hogging the spotlight, much in the manner that I disliked others in the church keeping a position when others were ready to serve.

But late on the Saturday afternoon before Laity Sunday, as I was relaxing and confident that I had achieved what I had sought out to do, I got a phone call from the scheduled speaker. He told me that he would not be able to present the message in church the next day and "Would I at the last moment do the message?" So it was that I also received my "baptism" in the role of the lay speaker who fills in at the last moment for an ailing pastor or lay speaker.

The other thing that I would note is that I have not forgotten this model of participation. I have not used that model at other churches simply because there hasn’t been a situation where it was a practical application. But I would like to use it, especially on a weekly basis where individuals serve as liturgists, reading the first scriptures and offering the opening prayers.

For me, being a lay speaker is an opportunity for service. At times, it has been the only thing that I could bring to the church. And as it came to be, the opportunities presented to me have been more than just simply filling in for a vacationing pastor, the traditional role of lay speakers in the Methodist Church.

In 1995, I was re-certified in Parsons’ District of the Kansas West Annual Conference. Shortly after my meeting with the District Council on Ministries, I received a call from the District Superintendent asking if I would provide the leadership for three churches in southeast Kansas. For five weeks, in an age of automobiles, computers, and television, I took on the role of an itinerant preacher moving between three churches on each Sunday. After that assignment I was given two more similar assignments as the District Superintendent sought a pastor for the charges. I came away with an appreciation for what those early Methodist ministers and circuit riders did.

In April of 1997, I met with Memphis District Superintendent to discuss my candidacy for the ministry. As our meeting concluded, he asked if I could stay a little longer and be part of another meeting he had scheduled. In that meeting, I became the fourth of four to join in a project to provide pastoral leadership to two rural churches just outside Memphis. Both met at the same time on Sunday and shared the same pastor; since he could not preach at both, he alternated Sundays between the two churches. This meant that every other Sunday one of the two had no church service; the Tennessee conference was getting ready to close or combine the churches because of the waste of resources. The four of us provided a solution that provided pastoral leadership to the two communities.

I moved to Kentucky in 1998 thinking that I would not find opportunities like I had in Kansas or Tennessee. But in October of 1998, the District Superintendent for that part of Kentucky called me and asked if I would help the church in Neon, much as I had done before. The pastor had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was no longer able to serve and the church needed someone to lead them.

And when the plans were being made for me to move here to New York in 1999, I simply let the District Superintendent for this area (a fine young preacher from western Missouri named Dennis Winkleblack) know that I would be available if there was the opportunity. And he let me know that he might just have a place for me. That brought me to Walker Valley, and of course, ultimately to here.

I mentioned all of this because it has been the hallmark of my lay speaking career. I have been called to service in ways that I could never explain nor understand. I have never conscientiously sought rewards for what I have done; in all honesty, I don’t know that I could ever be rewarded. And if I should start looking at this role that I have chosen in terms of glory or honor, I need only remember those circuit riders of the past. The Methodist Church’s first Bishop, Francis Asbury made it clear when he recruited those early pastors that it was not a glorious job and that the rewards on this earth were limited. Peter Cartwright became a member of the early Methodist Episcopal Church in 1801 and quickly became one of this church’s early circuit riders. In a life that spanned eighty-seven years, he served as a circuit rider for twenty and an elder for some fifty years. In his autobiography, he wrote,

A Methodist preacher… when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or Biblical institute, hunted up a hardy pony of a horse, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, Bible, Hymn Book, and Discipline, he started, and with a test that never wore out nor grew stale, he cried, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.’ In this way he went through storm of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swam swollen streams, lay out all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle or saddle-bags for his pillow, and his old big coat or blanket, if he had any, for a covering. Often he slept in dirty cabins, on earthen floors, before the fire; ate roasting ears for bread, drank butter-milk for coffee, or sage tea for imperial (tea and cream); too, with a hearty zest, deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper, if he could get it. His text was always ready, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ (From The Heritage of American Methodism, Kentucky Annual Conference Edition)

For Peter Cartwright, being a circuit rider and enduring the trail through Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois in the early 19th century was more about service to God than rewards or power. It was a call from God to preach the word where no one had heard it or where people wanted to hear it.

But it was clearly not service that must have been going through the minds of James and John, the "sons of thunder", who either by themselves or with the encouragement of their mother (as described in Matthew’s account) when they sought out Jesus. They wanted and sought positions of honor and glory in God’s kingdom. The one seated at the right hand of the king said without speaking that he or she was the second most powerful person in the kingdom; the person on the left was just below in rank, honor, and glory.

It is noted in both Mark’s account and Matthew’s that the other disciples were displeased with the actions of James and John. It could only be because they themselves were thinking of the same thing. They wanted to share in the earthly power that they believed awaited Jesus. Clearly, they were either not listening to Jesus or understanding what He was saying about His life ending in shame and not glory. None of the disciples could conceive that what Jesus was offering was offering something other than political or religious power. They saw His preaching through the scope of their own needs. (Adapted from "Sharing in the Glory", from "Living the Word" by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourner, September/October 2003.)

Society teaches us to see our role in life in terms of the power it offers and the power it brings. Power is where it is at and if you do not have power, you are not there. We see that in so many ways in society and that includes the Christian church. Especially in today’s Third World, people see the Christian Church in much the same way the early Christian Church saw the Roman Empire, imperialistic, domineering, and arrogant. Others want the church to have a role of power and domination, attempting to control lives instead of allowing lives to develop to the fullest. But Jesus pointed out that the Kingdom that he would bring forth was not a kingdom of this world and the rules that applied to this world would not necessarily apply to the New Kingdom of heaven. Power for power’s sake would not apply.

We have equated power with leadership and leadership with power. If we are not powerful, we cannot lead. If we do not lead, we cannot be powerful. Yet, Jesus said that those who would serve would be last, a complete reversal of what we seek in this world.

Let us put ourselves with our desires for power in the place of Job. Job is asking God many great questions about suffering and divine justice. But God chooses not to answer those questions. But He also humiliates nor condemns Job for his actions. Rather, he asks if Job has sufficient knowledge about the world. In doing so, God vindicates Job, a vindication that will be later affirmed. But this discourse also shows Job that his role is that of a servant and not that of a king.

God essentially has challenged Job to teach him; and since Job cannot, he should be aware of what the consequences are. Job must be willing to be the servant of God since he can never be God’s equal.

The consequences are the same for each of us; they have been the same since the time mankind sought to build the Tower of Babel. We have a responsibility to learn but our knowledge will never surpass that of God’s, we should not expect to be at that level. It does not mean that we should not learn more about this world but that our ability to match the knowledge of God can never be reached.

That is where it is critical that we understand the difference between leadership defined by power and leadership defined by servanthood. Those who seek power (such as James or John might have wanted) care nothing about the institution that they seek to lead. All they are interested in is their own well being. But those who seek to lead by servanthood empower those around them. As the writer of Hebrews points out, we do not need a priest to lead us as the Israelites needed Aaron. For we have Jesus. And in Jesus we are able to transcend the differences between power and powerlessness, leader and follower, agent and victim. Jesus had the power to heal, to transform and to influence others. But He also suffered at the hands of the state, organized religion, and even His closest friends and allies. Jesus had the ultimate power, yet He gave it away.

In this world where power has mostly negative connotations, should we seek it? Not if it takes us away from what we should be doing. Is it the task of the church to adjust to the world or to change it? If we seek to stand in the faithful line of those who would change the world, then we need to reclaim the positive potential of power as well as the gospel’s capacity to influence, to change lives, and to renew communities.

It will begin with us. That is what today is about. Laity Sunday is a reminder that is we who serve, without the rewards that society has taught to expect even when what we do is what we are supposed to do. How shall we serve? That should be the question we are asking. There should be no limit to the number of volunteers seeking to serve the Lord. But, because others have sought power through their service, the volunteers are limited.

"Who shall serve?" is now the question. And for this church it is an important question. At this point, we need a chair for the administrative council, someone to serve as lay member to the Annual Conference (a job that has more to it that was first thought, as recent events have shown), and if not a financial secretary, at least an assistant financial secretary. I hope we have the person to fill the three-year term on the board of trustees. But we could always use a couple more individuals just to give some depth to the board. I hope I have the nominations for the church treasurer’s position, the chair for stewardship and finance, and the PPRC chair. At last year’s Church Conference, we stated that we wanted more people involved. At this year’s conference, the question is whether more people will attend. If more people do not attend, then it is very difficult to get more people to serve. If more people do not serve, then we have to hope that the same individuals serve again. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like things will have changed.

Service is never just loving humanity or simply caring about the masses. Service proceeds slowly, one person at a time. And ultimately service is about community. Often, when we are engaged in charity, there is no real community. The poor remain segregated from those who dole out some goodness for a few brief moments and then return to their own comfortable lives. Service brings people together in one community. Service means that we pray "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.," and then work to make the reality of heaven here on earth.

Today is the day we recognize the work of the Laity in serving the church throughout the history of the church. It has been and will also be service for the Lord. As we look to the coming year, one must ask how you will serve the Lord?



Ask Not What Your Church Can Do


This is the message for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 October 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Job 38: 1- 7; Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; and Mark 10: 35 – 41.

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If one reads the commentary for the passage from Job that was read this morning one gets an entirely different perception of the situation Job is in. In verse 2, God asks who it is that would challenge His plan or design for the universe. God also challenges Job to teach Him. In doing so, God alerts Job to the consequences of his actions and complaints against God. The commentary notes that in making these challenges and complaints, Job seeks an equal footing with God and is making a claim to the throne of God.

But, as I see it, and it should be noted that this is only my view of what Job is about, and in connection with the readings from Hebrews and Mark, I don’t think that Job every intended to challenge God or did he ever seek equality with God. All Job was asking for was the chance to come before God and ask God what was going on.

Job felt that nothing he had done warranted such distress and turmoil as what he had gone through. Of course, it was of little help that all of his so-called friends and comforters, who knew Job to be an upright and righteous man, insisted that he must have done something wrong. In the conventional wisdom, remember, sin is a consequence of your action and when bad comes to you, it is because of some sin that you have done. But we know that all that has come to Job came as a result of a test. Satan was testing Job with every sort of evil short of his own death to see if Job would renounce God; something that Job would never do and, in fact, never did.

All Job wanted to was a chance to ask God why things were happening, and in doing so, he challenged the very notion of who God was and is today.

The God of Israelite at that time was seen as a large and omnipotent being, capable of great wrath and anger, someone whose immense power commanded great respect. But at times, this respect came from fear; if you challenged God, you paid a price. This lead to a God who could never approached. No Israelite would ever think of writing God’s name or even saying it; the term “Yahweh” is our attempt to make sense of the manner in which this was done. The power of God was so great that to see the face of God meant almost certain death. When God first came to Moses, it was in the form of the burning bush and God told Moses to take off his shoes for he was standing on holy ground.

When Jacob wrested with God at Peniel and won, he asked to know whom he was wrestling. In Genesis 32:30, Jacob called the place Peniel because “I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.” The very experience of meeting God face to face also changed Jacob in a number of ways. First, as noted in verse 31, God touched Jacob on the hip and caused him to limp. He also changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which meant “for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Both of these changes would have a lasting impact on life of Jacob.

To see God face to face had a special meaning in the terms of the Old Testament. In Exodus 33: 10, it noted that that the people of Israel could not approach God in the manner that Moses did. Moses saw and spoke with the Lord as one would with a friend. During the exodus, the presence of God was seen as a pillar of cloud. The Israelites saw this pillar and recognized that it was the presence of God so they always stayed some distance away. Only Moses could come near the pillar, God’s Presence.

When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, he commanded the Israelites to build the Ark of the Covenant to carry those stone tablets. God also created the priesthood in order to care for the Ark and to provide a link between God and the people.

It was the priest’s duty to serve the people. The reading from Hebrews talks about what it takes and means to be a priest. A high priest was someone called by God to represent the people before God and to represent God before the people. Since the priest represented God before the people, it was important God called him or her to this task. All through Jesus’ ministry, he constantly emphasized that service was the most important thing. To be a disciple of Jesus meant that you were going to be a servant.

In the Gospel reading for today, James and John come to Jesus, perhaps in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God and ask to be seated at the right hand and left hand of the throne. Verse 41 points out that the other ten disciples were not too happy about this request. And one could understand their displeasure when you know that the seat on the right hand of the king was the place of most prominent in the court and the seat on the left hand ranked just below that. Jesus found it necessary to remind them that such places of power and respect came with a great price.

The writer points out that it was God who called Jesus to be a high priest, not something that Jesus did voluntarily.

And so Jesus could fully represent us before God, he first had to experience everything that a person on earth goes through. Jesus had to know for Himself how difficult it is to obey God and how attractive the temptations of life can be. The author of Hebrews also points out that Jesus successfully carried out God’s plan. He endured the suffering and temptations so that He could truly function as our High Priest, understanding our weaknesses and frustrations, and interceding before God for us.

Jesus own obedience to God, the Father, led to Calvary and His own death on the cross. But by that singular sacrifice, Jesus, who was without sin, died for our sins and became our source of salvation. Now we know longer have to have someone do anything for us, prepare anything, or offer anything in our name as the priest of Israel did, provided of course that we have accepted Christ as our Savior. Because Christ died for us, because we allow Jesus to be our Savior we have a better relationship with God. And God no longer is someone to be feared but one whom we know truly loves us.

Now, if we were of any faith other than United Methodists, that would be the end of the sermon. But I am on page 11 of a 9-page sermon, so we have awhile to go.

It is very simple for us to realize that through Jesus that we can come to God; that we have a way to find God, just as Job did. But what about those who have not yet come to know Christ? How will they come to the same path of life, how will they be able to ask God the questions that faced them as they faced Job? If for no other reason than to answer those questions, that is what the church is for.

What is the church, be it United Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, or any other denomination supposed to do?

I think there is always some time in our lives where we are like Job, where we want to talk to God directly. There has been perhaps one time in your own life where being told that it is God’s will that was done just doesn’t wash and until we hear it from Himself directly, we are not going to accept any answer.

My sophomore year in college was one such time. Spring break was coming up, and while I would be going home to Memphis and I would celebrate Easter with my family, I felt the need to take communion at the church that I attended in college since that was where I was a member.

Reverend Fortel was more than a little surprised by this request but he agreed to it anyway. No other student had ever made such a request (in part, I think, because most of the students at Kirksville at that time could go home on weekends and worship at their home church). So he agreed to meet with me the day before the break. Instead of a formal observance of the communion ritual, we sat down together and discussed what the words of the ritual meant. I don’t recall just how I felt when we read the prayer on page 30 of our current hymnal.

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.

But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.

Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.  (The United Methodist Hymnal, page 30)

I remember questioning the statement “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” because I felt that, as a Christian, our worth was such that we could sit at God’s table as his equal. It seemed to me, with all the wisdom of a college sophomore, that it wasn’t fair. Didn’t Christ’s sacrifice on the cross mean that we could sit at God’s table? How can we, who were saved by the grace of God, not be allowed to sit at God’s table? Wasn’t that why Jesus died for us? Wasn’t admission to God’s kingdom granted to us because Jesus died for us? Reverend Fortel pointed out that because of sin we had lost our place at God’s table, but because of His grace, God has restored our position.

The important thing to realize is that I could not have had that conversation unless the church had been there. That school year had not been a good one for me and I struggled with many questions.

But the one light in my life that year was the presence of Jesus. Now I grew up going to church on Sunday. So, going away to college meant that I could sleep late on Sunday morning. But I quickly found out that I couldn’t do that. It was important to me that on Sunday morning that I go to church, to a place where I had a home and security. First United Methodist Church in Kirksville offered me a home and a place of security at a time when it was most needed.

The challenge for us this day is the same. I noted with some interest a comment in Time magazine last week about an on-line church. It only seems logical that with the advent of new technology, someone would find a way to put a church on-line. Now it is one thing to put information about a church or resources for a church on-line but it is an entirely different thing to try and have a church that way. When you remove the human element, you take away that which is the very essence of a church, the people. As one of the songs that we sing points out, we are the church. Even with a strong one-to-relationship with Jesus in our hearts, it is still important that we, as well as other, have a place that we can go in times of strife.

A church is also a community of believers who share. Over the past few weeks, I have spoken about rebuilding the prayer chain. The present outline has sixteen people on it. Is your name one of them?

Last week and this week, we have placed an ad in the bulletin asking for a Sunday school teacher. We have a possible candidate for that most awesome of tasks. But one person is not enough; there needs to be at least two to give us some flexibility and allow for unforeseen circumstances.

There is a need to have a confirmation class for which I will take the primary responsibility. But I would like someone to be my assistant and I would like the students in the junior high and high school to help pick the materials that are needed for this most important class.

You will note in the bulletin that we are beginning planning for the Advent season. You have two ways to help. I will try to have the Advent materials p

John Kennedy spoke of service to the country at his inauguration in 1961. He spoke in terms of what people could do for their country. That phrase has, over the years since, become one of the most overused phrases in America and one has to be careful when using it. But I think that it is most important that we use it today. The church is here for you but it cannot do a lot without you.

I have always said that as Methodists the challenge is what we are to do after having coming to Christ. The challenge today for each us is to serve this church in such a way that the next time somebody comes looking for God, there will be someone around to help him or her find Him. That is what you can do.

 


The Rules We Play By


This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 3, 1999.  The Scriptures were Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Philippians 3: 4-14, and Matthew 21: 33 – 46.

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I used to be a football official but had to give it up when I suffered a knee injury back in 1986. It was a fun time, working games that ranged from the Saturday morning Pee-Wee and little league games through Friday night high school games. In fact, had it not been for the injury that one Friday night in 1986, I would have even gotten to do some college games that season.

And like any activity that one participates in, there are moments to remember. Such as the time when we called holding on number “00” only to be told that his number was “88”. It was hard for us to tell because half of the jersey was stuck inside his pants. Oh yes, did I mention that it was one of those Saturday morning Pee-Wee games?

Perhaps the greatest moment in my officiating career came one Saturday night in 1983 during two games at Southhaven, MS. It was a routine to give the announcer a card with the officials and their positions listed on it so that it could be read over the PA system. We always felt that if you were going to boo the officials, you should at least use the right names. For the two games that night the game card read: Robert Mitchell, referee; Tim Mitchell, head linesman; Terry Mitchell, field judge for game 1 and clock operator for game 2; and Tony Mitchell, clock operator for game 1 and field judge for game 2. This was the only time in our family history that the four of us worked as a game crew. And, to be honest, we never did find out how the coaches reacted when they found out that the game crew was a father and his three sons.

Though there were little hearted moments, such as that night, the business of officiating was a serious one and it bothered me that many coaches, and for that matter, many parents did not know the rules of the games. Too many times during a Saturday game, a coach or parent would complain about a call we made or one we missed or why we wouldn’t let them do certain things that everyone saw happening on Sunday afternoon. To these complaints, the response was “this is Saturday, coach; not Sunday.”

Rules are the way we live each day in a civilized society. Without rules and laws, life would be chaos. In giving the Israelites the Ten Commandments early in the Exodus, God was giving them the rules of basic morality and relationships.

The Ten Commandments are often divided into two parts, our relationship with God and our relationship with others. The first four commandments deal with our relationship with God:

  1. Put God first in everything.
  2. Reject ideas about God that He himself has not revealed.
  3. Never speak or act as if God is not real or present.
  4. Set aside a day to rest and remember God.

The remaining six commandments deal with our relationship with others:

  1. Show respect for your parents.
  2. Do nothing with an intent to harm another person.
  3. Be faithful in your commitment to your spouse.
  4. Respect the rights of others.
  5. Respect others reputation as well as their lives and property.
  6. Care about others, not about their possessions.

Robert Schuller wrote “ God gave us these ten laws to protect us from an alluring, tempting path which would ultimately lead only to sickness, sin, and sorrow.”

It is also important to note that God gave the commandments to the Israelites after, not before He chose them. He did not say to a group of people wandering in the desert to keep these commandments and you would become my people. Rather, people will want to live the kind of life described by the commandments because God saved them.

God also did not force the Israelites to accept his laws. He did say that this was what was expected of them and what would happen should they choose not to follow the laws. But God also promised blessings upon the Israelites if they obeyed the commandments. This was the foundation for what is called the Law Covenant. Unlike God’s covenant with Abraham, this was an agreement between two parties, God and Israel.

In any society, there is a need for laws and rules but it must be understood that laws themselves cannot be so constructed as to harm others. When I was growing up in the South, I saw the consequences of laws designed to continue the effects of segregation, even after segregation was illegal. In Alabama, students had to buy their own books rather than have them provided by the school system. If your parents could afford the books, then you had the books. If your parents couldn’t; well, you just suffered the consequences. In Tennessee, all music programs got the same amount of money each year but what was given was barely enough to buy the sheet music for one song. If you wanted more, or if you need instruments for the band, then it was up to the Band Boosters to get the money. So schools where the parents had the resources got the better instruments and the better uniforms. If the parents didn’t have the resources, then the band didn’t get the better stuff. Laws should be made to prevent injustice, not cause it.

In Israel, during Jesus’ time, the laws and the interpretation of laws based on the Ten Commandments had become so restrictive has to make it impossible to live. In that society, salvation was seen only in terms of following the law.

But if the laws of society were so restrictive, salvation was hopeless. When the laws are this way, you spend all your time trying to avoid doing wrong and not doing right. Remember how aghast the Pharisees and scribes were when Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, a direct violation of the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

Somewhere through the passage of time, the Israelites forgot that the covenant with God given to them with the Ten Commandments was a two-party agreement. The parable from Matthew in the Gospel for today is a reminder of that covenant. As it said in verse 45, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”

The Pharisees and leaders of Israel had created a society that demanded perfection in following the law as the only means of achieving salvation. But God gave the laws to the Israelites after he saved them, not before. Following the law is not a requirement for salvation; believing in God is.

Paul, in the portion of his letter to the Philippians that we read today, makes it clear that he knows the law.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eight day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

But he, Paul, points out that righteousness cannot come from the law but rather from Christ and his salvation. In verse 9 we read,

Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Paul pointed out that, though he had everything in terms of the law, he lost it all to Christ on the road to Damascus.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Can we have a life without laws? Of course not. Laws are the rules by which society is able to keep together. The trouble is that we often see laws themselves, be they spiritual ones or political ones, as the means to achieving success. But when that happens, when we see the nature of laws as the means of success, when we believe that our path to heaven is set by how we obey the laws, then success can never be accomplished.

We are called Methodists for a particular reason. When John and Charles Wesley began the movement that would become the church, they felt that they had to do certain things in order to be successful. Among these were daily prayer and regular Bible studies. But the Wesley brothers, raised in the church, quickly found that this model would not work. Only after coming to Christ, only after knowing that Christ was their Savior, that He had died for them, did the structure of their own personal lives take on meaning.

The same is true for us today. If we try to live a life in terms of secular rules, derived though they may be from the Ten Commandments, we will quickly find that life is a difficult task. But when we come to Christ, when we as individuals make Christ the center of our live, it is much easier to live.

Paul wrote to Timothy about living life each day. In 2 Timothy 2: 11 – 16 we read,

If we died with him, we will also live with him;

If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us;

If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.

A Workman Appointed by God

Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.

The rules that we live each day by are easy ones to understand but we must remember when we got those rules and they were given to us. Paul concluded the portion of the letter to the Philippians by noting that he continued to press on with the goal being the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

That is the same for us today. By which rules will you play the game?