“The Presence Under The Tree”


Here is the sermon for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, 30 December 2012. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20, 26; Colossians 3: 12 – 17; and Luke 2: 41 – 52.

At Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY) we are celebrating Laity Sunday this Sunday. This message was presented by Debra Albrecht (who outlined the plans of the church for the coming year in her part of the message), Eric Szulewski (one of the youth of the church who asked the questions that Jesus might have asked the teachers and leaders), and myself.

There is a reason for the title and it becomes evident to the congregation at the end of the message; I put in an explanation but don’t jump to the end of the message to find out what I did.

Service begins at 10 am this Sunday. On Tuesday, January 1st, Grannie Annie’s Kitchen will be open from 11 to 1 to serve soup and bread. All are welcome as we begin the New Year.

The Presence Under The Tree”

So here we have come, to the end of another year, a year of sadness and disappointment, joy and wonder. A year where loved ones were lost; new lives began. And while we look back on the year that was, we also look forward to the year that is to be.

Each year at this time, we have to the opportunity to cast aside the worries and fears that have collected in our minds and throw them out with the beginnings of a new year. Each year also gives us the opportunity to take from the old year in order to make the new year a better one. And, in that regard, the transition from 2012 to 2013 is no different than any other year. Or is it?

In 2012, the United Methodist Church received the Bishop’s Call to Action. In one sense this is one of the most frightening documents ever composed, for it prophesizes that unless something is done and done quickly, the United Methodist Church will cease to exist within the timeframe of the next generation. But as frightening and ominous as that might sound, in the same pages a way to turn things around is suggested and offered.

The church today can no longer pretend or even strive to be what some would like it to be, the imposer of moral authority and judge of what is morally right or wrong. It must show the way to a better world, both on earth and in heaven.

The church today must be what it once was; it must be the place where people, no matter if they are members of the church or not, can find hope and peace, and come to find and know Christ for themselves.

Simply stated, to answer the Bishops’ Call to Action, the church, as a denomination, a conference, a district, or individual congregation, can no longer simply be a church that is present in the community; it must become a presence in the community.

Debra Albrecht

To be a presence in the community requires several things. It requires a commitment to the ongoing operations of the church. In the first reading for today, we read of Samuel’s mother preparing new clothes for Samuel each year, Her commitment to Samuel’s growth wasn’t merely to say that Samuel was God’s; it was also in her seeing that each year he had the proper materials to be the priest. It is a reminder that each one of us has to have an understanding of what is taking place so that we may better practice our faith, better establish the presence of faith and Christ in this community.

We begin the New Year with an understanding that Grace Church will commit to the Action Plan developed and established last year. As we move into the New Year we will educate, communicate, delicate and fully commit to the 5 year plan to make this church a relevant part of this community. We hear in our reading from 1 Samuel the story of Samuel’s mother’s preparations for her son’s new life. We can begin to see how we all need to grow and change and find the wisdom and strength to move forward toward the future.

My daughter Jenny help me to understand the generation of new believers recently. Over the holiday she was sharing with me a little about the religion course she attended this Fall. As I listened she explained that her generation of 20 year olds are defining themselves as spiritual and not religious. What does that mean for us?

We could see that this generation is looking for a community of believers that are open hearted and committed to showing the love of God in whatever they do. When we are less judgmental and more accepting we show how God loves all and a new life can be found in Jesus Christ. Look to your own heart and ask if you are willing to have a church that truly has an open heart and open doors to transform the world.

Our action Plan for the future is a detailed report with set goals for the future. Our main focus will be on creating dynamic worship renewal with emphasis on the following. (I will explain briefly each point)

  1. Embracing, Igniting and Uniting through Worship
  2. Sojourning
  3. Restructuring redesigning relevancy
  4. Embracing and redefining leadership

You, like all the members of this church, will be involved in this plan. Each committee in the church council has a set of goals in the plan, let us all work to achieve this goals. The finance committee is working on their set of plans to help the church be financially strong. The committee is ready to make these plans and set goals. We all need to prepare ourselves and be clothed in the spirit of Jesus Christ, the one who we all are called to serve. Now Eric will share some insights of a new generation of believers.

Eric Szulewski

To understand the church’s presence in the community, it must also offer a vision, not just of God’s Kingdom, but where it sees itself in the coming years. It must be a vision that echoes all the voices of the community, not just a select few.

The Gospel reading for today reminds us that when He was twelve, Jesus engaged the teachers and rabbis in a discussion of the Torah. It may have been that they were amazed at His understanding but then again, how many times had they had such a discussion with the young men and young women that would be the leaders of the community? What are the concerns and thoughts, what are the questions that today’s young people would ask of the elders of the church?

Here are the questions I would ask this morning:

  1. How should I ask my friends to come to church with me?
  2. How can I make my faith a larger part of my life?
  3. What can the Bible tell a teenager about growing up, even in today’s world?
  4. How can I tell my friends about Christ without being pushy?
  5. We hear of all the negative news stories in the media, how do we know God is here with us, even with such horrible things happening so close?

Tony

There is no doubt that without some sort of plan, it becomes very difficult for a church or any organization to have a current presence in a community. Without a vision, without an understanding of the future, it becomes almost impossible to venture into the region of tomorrow. But it is equally impossible and impractical for a church to have a presence in the community without the presence of Christ in the lives and practices of each member and each individual associated with the church.

There is no doubt that John Wesley had things in place when he began what would become the Methodist Revival. There is no doubt that he had a vision of the future, a church that was responsive to the needs of the people.

And yet, until that moment that we have come to call Aldersgate, the Methodist movement was wallowing in abject failure. What drove John Wesley to the Aldersgate chapel that May evening in 1738 was a sense of failure, that no matter hard he worked, nothing he had done amounted to anything.

And what many people do not know is that so great was this sense of failure that Charles Wesley was convinced that he was about to die because of it. But when he compared his experiences with his brother John, he would discover that the burden of illness was lifted from him at almost the same time that John felt his heart strangely warmed. In both cases, the presence of the Holy Spirit became a part of their lives and it was that presence that would change the direction and fortune of the Methodist Revival.

A blogging colleague of mine, John Meunier, a local United Methodist Pastor in Indiana, offers the following thoughts:

We United Methodists talk about John Wesley in a lot of odd ways. We quote him, sometimes wildly out of context.

But for good or ill, he is part of what makes us who we are as Christians. A group of English Christians became convinced of some core truths about the real meaning of Christianity and being a Christian. They put those ideas into practice. And 300 years later, here we are.

When someone asks me what makes United Methodism different from another denomination, I nearly always go to Wesleyan theology.

One answer that I came up with a couple years ago and continue to find confirmed in my reading and experience comes down to one word: holiness. Wesley often quoted Hebrews 12: 14b – “without holiness no one will ever see the Lord.” He wrote over and over about the connection between holiness and salvation. Indeed, he saw them as two different words for the same thing.

Holiness is the state in which our heart is filled with love for God and humankind. It is the place in which we follow the laws of God with joy. It is the condition of soul in which we rejoice in God our savior whatever comes our way.

Before any other doctrine or practice that would become hallmarks of Methodism occurred to John Wesley, he was convinced of this doctrine: without holiness, no one will see the Lord. Indeed, this doctrine was a source of great anxiety for Wesley because he knew he was not holy. Aldersgate was such a relief because he discovered something that explained why he had failed so often. (from John Meunier, “Methodists: Holiness is essential”

It is very easy to say that one is a member of a church and that they are a Christian but such words are often hollow if the actions of the individual do not match the words and the thoughts. Paul several times tells the Christians to “clothe themselves” with behaviors and practices indicative of their status as “God’s chosen ones,” not unlike Samuel wearing the ephod and the robe. These practices include compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and love, “the belt of perfection” (3:12-14). All of these things take time and considerable practice to “put on.” They must be learned and practiced intentionally in communities as dedicated to these things as a priestly community is dedicated to its craft. One might call these the “habit of community.”

It bothers some people when you tell them that they need be wearing the cloak of Christ. They were brought up in believing and expecting that one’s personal belief in Christ is a private, personal statement. They equate the wearing of the cloak of Christ to the preacher, perhaps standing on the street corner and holding his Bible high in the air while exhorting the people to repent of their ways.

And I have met many people who don’t have a clue as to what they are to do when their pastor, perhaps Southern born and Southern bred, closes a particularly moving passage in the sermon with a request for the congregation to shout “AMEN!”

But wearing the cloak of Christ is not about where you were born, how you were raised, what translation of the Bible you read, or what songs you sing. It is about where Christ is in your life. You may go about working to meet the goals of the church but if Christ is not in your life while you are doing it, it will be an almost emotionless, mechanical response. You may believe, as I once did, that all one has to do is work for peace and justice and live a righteous life and all will turn out well in the end.

But, one afternoon in 1969, at one of the darkest points of my life, a point one might consider my Aldersgate moment, it was pointed out to me that nothing I did, no matter how good the job may be, will get me into Heaven. It is by God’s grace and the death of Christ on the cross that I have the access that I think my work here on earth will give me.

It may bother people that works without faith just get one hot, tired, and sweating. They may decide that it is not worth the effort. But we also have to understand that the opposite view, faith without works, does little to build the Kingdom of God.

And if you understand what it truly, truly means to be an United Methodist, then you understand that to walk in the footsteps of Philip Otterbein, Martin Boehm, John & Charles Wesley or to ride the trails that Francis Asbury once rode, you have to put your faith to work.

It is with that understanding that our faith, our lives are always going to fall short of the perfection of Christ but that should not stop us from seeking that perfection. If we are not going to seek the perfection of Christ in our lives, if we are not going to give our best for Christ, then who do we do it for? Sure we are bound to make mistakes but to do nothing so that you don’t make any mistakes is probably worse. If you do nothing with your faith, you neither grow in faith or spirit or help others to do likewise. (Can I have an AMEN!).

The plans of the church, the vision of the future are all meaningless unless you first not only put on the cloak of Christ but you let Christ into your life and let Him, through the Holy Spirit, work through you.

We are given a gift each year and a lot of times I think we leave it unopened under the tree. It is not in a fancy wrapped box, often times, it is not even seen. But it is the real and existing presence of Christ, that began that first Christmas some two thousand years ago and continues to shine each and every day. If one lets it, it will outshine every other light; but even if it just adds an after-glow to the scenery, it cannot be hidden.

At this point, I will be bringing a box from underneath the Christmon Tree next to the pulpit and opening it up. Inside is a large light bulb that will increase in luminosity as I increase the current. Hopefully, it will give the feeling of the Holy Spirit present.

Christ did not have to die on the cross but He choose to do so. Our choice is a far simpler one. We don’t have to do a thing. But the world will remain dark and cold.

Or we can take the presence of Christ from underneath the tree and take it into the world and through our thoughts, our words, our deeds, and our actions help it to grow until it shines throughout the whole world and universe.

Following the Rules


This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C), 15 February 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 17: 5 – 10, 1 Corinthians 15: 12 -20, and Luke 6: 17 – 26.

I believe in my heart and with all my soul that Jesus was a radical and revolutionary. Unfortunately, this view has gotten me into a lot of trouble, especially in my own family.

Some years ago, in one of my very first sermons, I suggested this very idea. That particular Sunday, one of my cousins was visiting. Paul is the patriarch of the Schüessler family, the oldest son of the oldest son of my maternal great-great grandfather. He, along with his father and two brothers, is a Lutheran minister, one of many that dominate the heritage of our family. After the service that Sunday, he commented that I really should not have portrayed Jesus in such a manner. Yet, a year later, in a sermon preached to the entire Schüessler clan, he raised the image of Jesus as a revolutionary. He did acknowledge that this view of our Lord and Savior came in part from what I had said the year before.

One of the reasons that I see Christ in these terms is that He challenged the status quo, He challenged the notions that people had about their relationship with God. The problem then and even now is that much of our understanding comes from what others have said or written. We willingly let others define what Christ should be for us when it should be up to us to make that definition.

When you get home, carefully reread the words of Jeremiah. He is warning us about relying on the thoughts of others to determine what our own thoughts should be. He starts by quoting the beginning of Psalm 1. But the Psalmist was emphasizing that a good life, the keys to blessing came from avoiding the wicked and studying the Torah. Jeremiah emphasized that the keys to a good life and well-being were found through trust in the Lord.

The “tree of life” that Jeremiah speaks of is the symbol of wisdom. Wisdom is meant to be the ability to perceive the order of God in creation, the intelligence to act in accordance with God’s order, and the moral behavior that leads to well being. Wisdom was not necessarily found in the hearts of mankind.

Jeremiah felt that you could not trust in both God and man. If you turned to one, you would turn away from the other. If we were to turn where our heart would lead us, than we are apt to turn away from where God is leading us or where God would have us go.

That might have been the rationale or reason for Paul writing about the resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians. There were those in Corinth who argued against the actual occurrence of the resurrection. Among the arguments presented was that it was not a physical resurrection but rather a spiritual one that we all go through.

But, and this is the central point to Paul’s rebuttal, if there is no resurrection, if Christ was not raised from the dead, then there is no hope in our faith, there is no promise in what we do. Even today, there are those in the Christian community who would argue that the basic tenets of our faith are no longer valid. They argue that science and the progress of civilization have made many of our statements of faith meaningless and mute. How can there be a loving God if there is war, violence, and repression in the world? If God so loved this world that He would send His only Son, how is it that we have sickness and death?

But wars are the consequences of mankind’s behavior, not God’s. God gave us the wisdom and the ability to act. If there are wars or violence, if there is hatred or repression in this world, it is because we have failed to be God’s servants, not because God has abandoned us. In sending His son, God said to us that He would never abandon us. Our own propensity for war or violence, repression and hatred; our own desires to put our thoughts first, to make the decision about what we are to do merely indicates that we perhaps have abandoned God. This is a world in which there is a lot to fear but putting the blame on an insensitive God does not remove or take away the fear.

When Jesus stood on the plain that day he knew the fears of the people gathered before Him. They were a people living under a tyrannical and repressive foreign government. The taxes imposed by Rome and their own leaders were so burdensome that there was virtually no middle class. Their own leaders worked hand-in-hand with the foreign governor, compromising their own values solely to survive.

Many felt that life was hopeless and adopted a cavalier, laziez faire, “what difference does it make” attitude. Some felt that it was necessary to fight back, to use the same weapons of violence as were used on them. And the Pharisees felt that only by slavish devotion to the countless, myriad, and often-contradictory laws was salvation possible.

This was the world in which Jesus lived; these were the people who gathered before Him that day. The Beatitudes, whether we speak of the traditional text found in Matthew or the shortened version that Luke wrote about in today’s Gospel reading, were not simply a collection of simple statements designed to comfort different groups of people. And they could not be read alone.

Think about the first time you read the Beatitudes and how you may have viewed them as individual statements. They seemed rather contradictory.

How can the meek inherit the world? Shouldn’t it be the ones that have the spirit in their lives who inherit the kingdom of heaven? But that is our thinking being applied to Jesus’ words. We fail to see the commitment that He put before us in order for us to reach the kingdom of Heaven.

Rather, they were meant to identify the stages of experience each person would go through in order to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus spoke of the poor but he was not speaking to the financially poor. Some may feel that he was offering pity to those that lacked resources for there were certainly many that did, but that would only give credence to their poverty. Rather he was speaking about those that lacked spirit and acknowledged that they were poor in spirit would find the ultimate in riches. Those were the ones who were more apt to find what they are looking for.

Some might have been hungry but it was not food that would satisfy their hunger. It was a hunger for righteousness in this world and the hunger would be gone when there was no injustice.

When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God on earth, he was not offering to make the people more comfortable in their sins. He was calling them to a new life in the Spirit, to a citizenship in His beloved community. The peace that they sought could be found in this community; it was a community that could bring peace to the world. Each of the Beatitudes was a step in the path towards that citizenship.

Each step was not merely an acknowledgement of what they lacked or what they sought; rather, it was a called to action. You cannot be a peacemaker simply by changing the environment; you must also change your heart.

To those whose loyalties lie with this world, those who are citizens of God’s kingdom are subversive agents, dangerous enemies that cannot be tolerated. They must be persecuted, ridiculed, ignored, or removed.

But Jesus warned those who make such citizenship an act of martyrdom to be carefully as well. It was not our task to go out into the work and deliberately seek persecution. To seek abuse in the name of God is hardly what the Word of God is about. That would, again, be our thinking; that would be our telling God what to do.

What Jesus told us to do then and what tells us to do now is to preach the Word and lead a life in great contrast to the world around us. Look at what Jesus said in the next passage in Luke. When we are struck on the check, we should turn the other check. When we find someone naked and cold, we should give that person the coat off our back.

We have a hard time with this approach because they are new rules and they are rules to a game that we may not want to play. They are not simply rules to follow, they are words of action. And it requires that we see the world in new terms, terms that we do not define.

God did not mean our lives to be solitary devoid of human contact. If others cannot see us, we are just as well hidden from God. Jesus’ words this day are a call to action, to do more than just listen. No matter what the cost might be, the words that Jesus spoke are how we should live. It is not simply a matter of course to preach the words; rather, we must demonstrate that we are living the words.

The Pharisees put forth a series of rules that defined each day. But in defining each day, they thought nothing of tomorrow. Jesus gave a set of rules to follow that would give us much more than today, following his rules gave us eternal life. Which set of rules do you wish to follow?

What Time Is It?


This was the message that I presented at the Fishkill (NY) United Methodist Church on 31 December 2000. I have this Sunday listed as the 1st Sunday after Christmas but I used the lectionary readings for New Year’s Day (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 13, Revelation 21: 1 – 6, and Matthew 25: 31 – 46).

I had moved up to this part of New York in May of 1999 and transferred my membership to the Fishkill Church at the beginning of June. In August, 1999, I began serving as the pastoral assistant to the District Superintendent with the assignment of being the lay pastor for the Walker Valley United Methodist Church. As such, I only knew the pastor (Arlene Beechert) and a few other members of the Fishkill Church. Most of the Fishkill church only knew of my assignment but did not know who I was. So, Pastor Beechert and I looked for a date where we could exchange pulpits and I might introduce myself to my home church at that time.

Unfortunately, the weather on this day was miserable. Services at Walker Valley were cancelled and attendance at the Fishkill Church was minimal. The bad part was that the organist couldn’t make the trip to church and we had to sing unaccompanied. That didn’t help matters. I like singing and think that music is an integral part of any service but I was never a good musician and I have to hear the music in order to lead it. In all honesty, this was not one of my better services. I would return to Fishkill pulpit in June of 2005; I did a much better job that time.

So here are my thoughts for 31 December 2000:

The measurement of time has always been a challenge for mankind. While we can say with a certain degree of certainty that it is 10:00 a.m. on December 31st, the telling of time has not always been that easy. For the founders of the Methodist Church some two hundred and sixty years ago, the telling of time required clocks that were big, bulky, and highly unreliable. And in Jesus’ time, time was measured by the hour glass and the passage of events.

And even today, we still mark the passage of time by the occurrence of certain events. That fact that today is the last day of the year 2000 and tomorrow is the first day of the year 2001 is one such occurrence. The Old Testament reading for today is about the passage of time.

For the Preacher, the name we give to the writer of Ecclesiastes saw time as a passage, as a balance of the events of life. Some of these events are joyful while others are not. And while we may wish to eliminate and do away with those events of life that are not so joyful. But with birth comes death, with love there is hate and with war there is peace.

Does this mean that God condones hatred, war, death, and uprooting? Or are these things beyond His control? I think that is why this reading is paired with the reading from the Book of Revelations. John’s words were words of hope. When John wrote this letter to the churches of Asia Minor, the Roman Empire was exacting a terrible toll on all those who would defy the power of Rome. It was a time of hoping for the return of Christ and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.

But the time of Christ’s return was unknown and though John offers a great hope for that kingdom, He also points out that God is now and forever, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In making a reference to the eternal nature of God, John was telling his readers not to wait for the return of Christ on this earth. In the opening verse of this passage from Revelation, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” John offers not a second beginning but a freshness, a fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah 65: 17, Isaiah 66: 22, and 2 Peter 3: 13

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65: 17)

“For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain befroe me,” says the Lord, “so shall your descendants your name remain.” (Isaiah 66: 22)

“Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”(2 Peter 3: 13)

But how is the hope that John speaks about fulfilled? How do we deal with the lack of meaning that Preacher gives to this existence on earth? Early in the American Revolution Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was time when things were not going good for the colonists; such a sentiment could be justly as easily expressed today.

We look around us and see countless examples of problems for which we feel there is no solution. Unlike those in the Gospel reading who asked who were the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, sick or in prison, we know who they are. Yet many times, we like they, walk right by.

Jesus told his disciples and followers that the Kingdom of God was already in place. We do not have to wait for His Second Coming because He is always with us, if we but look for him.

The foundation of the Methodist Church was and will always be in how we treat others less fortunate than us. Granted that salvation only comes to those who accept Christ in their hearts but coming to know Christ is very difficult when you are hungry, when you are sick, or when you are in prison, be it one with walls of stone or one which entraps your soul. John Wesley knew that for the world to be saved, concern for the poor, the weak, and the helpless had to be more than just words said on a Sunday. There had to be action on Monday.

But if we try to take on the task of solving all the world’s problems by ourselves, we will be like the Preacher seeing that after everything was tried how futile our efforts were. Because we alone cannot are not equal to the task. But the Preacher also pointed out that God put eternity in our hearts so as to give us a sense that what was around us is not all there is too life. If we allow God to be a part of our lives each day, then the moments of our lives can be transformed into something beautiful and with meaning.

As we end this year and get ready to begin the new one, it is important that we see what is before us, not in terms of what the world puts before us, but rather in what Christ shows us. Christ shows us that the opportunities to let the world know of His presence are in our actions.

The call this day is a simple one. For those in despair and exclusion, Christ offers the acceptance that the world denies you, the dignity denied by the world, and the spiritual guidance and community that are a foretaste of life in the Kingdom of God.

And for those who have come to know Christ as their personal Savior, there is also a call, “I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who knew my grace and were formed by love. But now the hour has come for you to see the signs of a New Hope that are being given to my people in this world. The hour has come to join Me in the midst of the struggle to interpret that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of the events of their daily life.”

What time is it? For some it is 1030 and time to get on with the rest of the day. But I hope that it is time to take Christ into your heart and then take the light of Christ out into the world.

“The True Gift of Christmas”


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

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Merry Christmas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Child Shall Lead Them


Here is the message I presented on the 1st Sunday after Christmas (26 December 2004) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 63: 7 – 9, Hebrews 2: 10 – 18,  and  Matthew 2: 13 – 23.

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In a society where youth is emphasized over age, where the ultimate goal is youth, we tend to ignore the youth of this country. But we have always done this. Even in Jesus’ time, the children of society were second-class citizens, on par with the wild dogs that roamed the street. WhenJesus told his disciples to let the children come to him, he was going against the common perception of the role and place of children in the society.

Until John Wesley looked at the working conditions of the mines and factoriess of 18th century England, children were looked upon as just additional workers in an early industrial society. We know that children as young as ten worked the same shifts as their fathers and mothers in the mills. Though I could not find any comments about the situation, I am sure that Wesley was appalled by this situation. It was, of course, this situation that lead him to create Sunday school as a way of reaching out to adults, youth, and children and bring them a few moments of time where they might learn the Gospel. The Sunday school of John Wesley quickly became the regular school that we employ today.

Throughout our history, we have marginalized our youth and today is no exception. Despite the fact that youthfulness seems to be a necessity for success, we give very little support to the success of the youth. Compare the amount of money spent on being young today with the amount of money spent on our schools. I would suspect that there is a major difference in these two amounts and the money spent on school is not the greater amount.

Against that backdrop, look again at the Gospel reading for today. In the Gospel reading for today, we read of the wise men leaving after their visit with Jesus, Mary and Joseph; but that part of the Gospel story doesn’t occur until next week. Still, this is an important part of the Christmas story because it tells of Herod’s reaction to the birth of Christ.

The wise men told him that they had come to his country to see the newborn king. He told them that he wanted to do so as well and commanded them to come back and tell him where the new child might be found. But, even then, his intentions were less than honorable and the wise men, as the Gospel will tell us next week, were told by an angel to take a different way home. Herod’s reaction to this was to order the murder of all male infants two years or younger.

Because the newborn Christ was a threat, Herod sought to erase all signs of Christmas. I sometimes wonder if that is not what society tries to do each year. We don’t mind Christmas but we want it to be a single moment in time or at best just a short season during the year. Once it is over, we want it eliminated until we need it again.

But Christmas can never be just a single moment in time or just a few short weeks during the year. God wanted Jesus to grow up in this world so that he would know this world. In the Epistle reading from Hebrews today, it is pointed out that if Jesus is to be our Savior, he had to be a part of our life.

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says,

“I will declare your name to my brothers’ in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.”

And again,

“I will put my trust in him.”

And again he says,

Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil –and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

If Christ was to have impact on our lives, he must be a part of our lives. We cannot trivialize what Christmas is or what it means. We cannot ignore a child who will later grow up to lead his people.

So, before we take down the Christmas tree and put up all the trimmings until we need them again, let us look and see if there is not one more present that we might have overlooked. Christ is our gift from God, a present to us to remind us of his love and care for us.

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which he is praised, according to all the Lord has done for us – yes, the many good things he has done for the house of Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses.

He said, “Surely they are my people, sons who will not be false to me”; and so he became their Savior.

In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63: 7 – 9)

But unlike many presents that we get each year, this present is one that has to be used each day. But using this present means that we make Christ a part of our life. Each day we must keep in mind all that Christ is and we find that to be a very difficult task. No wonder it is much easier to only talk about Christ at Christmas.

Accepting Christ means that we regain our relationship with God and that means that we accept obedience to Him. When Christ speaks of following him, there are no alternatives.

“Man can never escape from obedience to God. A creature cannot but obey. The only choice given to me, as intelligent and free creatures, is to desire obedience or not to desire it. If a man does not desire it, he obeys nevertheless, perpetually, inasmuch as he is a thing subject to mechanical necessity. If he desire it, he is still subject to mechanical necessity, but a new necessity is added to it, a necessity constituted by laws belonging to supernatural things. Certain actions become impossible to him. Others are done by his agency, sometimes almost in spite of himself.

When we have the feeling that on some occasions that we have disobeyed God, it simply means that for a time we have ceased to desire obedience. (From Waiting For God by Simone Weil)

Joseph took his family to Egypt out of his obedience to God. Abraham took his family to the Promised Land without questioning God’s command to go. Neither one asked God what was there nor how they would survive. Our obedience to God has to be the same way. Faithful obedience to God allows him to work effectively in our lives, protecting us from dangers of which we may be unaware, and leading us into new and exciting opportunities we’ve never dreamed of.

We see Christmas as a brief moment in time, to serve as an escape from all the troubles of the world. But the problems don’t disappear. Christ came to save us from our most pressing problem – our sin. “Man’s greatest need is not for a new political or economic order. His primary problem is sin. He is alienated from God, bearing the burden of this guilt and loneliness, facing a frightening future. He needs to be liberated from the tyranny of his sins, reconciled to God, and given a hope that transcends the circumstances of his life. This is what the Gospel message is about.

We have a hard problem seeing the child Jesus as the grownup Jesus. But then we also have a problem relating to what the grownup Jesus will ask of us. But we know this. A group of shepherds had their lives changed because of an encounter with the baby in the manger; a group of wise men had their lives changed because of their encounter with an infant Jesus. Perhaps, our lives will change because we let a child lead us from Christmas to Easter and the ultimate gift of life.



“What Did You Get For Christmas?”


This is the message that I gave at Pleasant Grove UMC, Brighton, TN for the 1st Sunday after Christmas (27 December 1998).  I came home to Memphis from Kentucky for Christmas and took the opportunity to go back to one of the two Memphis area churches I was a part of before I moved to Kentucky.

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 63: 7 – 9, Hebrews 2: 10 – 18, and Matthew 2: 13 – 23.

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Well, Christmas is over. The family has all gone home; the unused wrapping paper has been put in the closet with the unused wrapping paper you stored away last year so that you wouldn’t have to buy any paper this year; and, the presents that haven’t been broken have been carefully been put away, never to be seen again. Sometime today or later this week we are going to take the lights off the tree and put it away until next year or throw it outside for the garbage collector to pick up.

Pretty soon all the signs of Christmas will be gone and life will return to normal. Then we will be wondering what happened to the hopes and dreams for peace and good will to all man kind.

I wonder what it was like for Mary and Joseph back then at the first Christmas. After all, at that very first Christmas, the shepherds came to visit them that night and then the wise men came a few days later. Then it was all over and life as a family began.

Of course, the life of the family took a turn that no one would have expected. When Herod found out that the wise men had lied to him, he sought vengeance. After all, to him the birth of this new King was not God’s promise to us but a threat to his own worldly kingdom. As the Gospel reading tells us,

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Because the newborn Christ was a threat, Herod sought to erase all signs of Christmas. I sometimes wonder if that is not what society tries to do each year. We don’t mind Christmas but we want it to be a single moment in time or at best just a short season during the year. Once it is over, we want it eliminated until we need it again.

But Christmas can never be just a single moment in time or just a few short weeks during the year. God wanted Jesus to grow up in this world so that he would know this world. In the Epistle reading from Hebrews today, it is pointed out that if Jesus is to be our Savior, he had to be a part of our life.

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says,

“I will declare your name to my brothers’ in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.”

And again,

“I will put my trust in him.”

And again he says,

Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil –and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made likes his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

So, before we take down the Christmas tree and put up all the trimmings until we need them again, let us look and see if there is not one more present that we might have overlooked. Christ is our gift from God, a present to us to remind us of his love and care for us.

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which he is praised, according to all the Lord has done for us – yes, the many good things he has done for the house of Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses.

He said, “Surely they are my people, sons who will not be false to me”; and so he became their Savior.

In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63: 7 – 9)

But unlike many presents that we get each year, this present is one that has to be used each day. But using this present means that we make Christ a part of our life. Each day we must keep in mind all that Christ is and we find that to be a very difficult task. No wonder it is much easier to only talk about Christ at Christmas.

Accepting Christ means that we regain our relationship with God and that means that we accept obedience to Him. When Christ speaks of following him, there are no alternatives.

“Man can never escape from obedience to God. A creature cannot but obey. The only choice given to me, as intelligent and free creatures, is to desire obedience or not to desire it. If a man does not desire it, he obeys nevertheless, perpetually, inasmuch as he is a thing subject to mechanical necessity. If he desire it, he is still subject to mechanical necessity, but a new necessity is added to it, a necessity constituted by laws belonging to supernatural things. Certain actions become impossible to him. Others are done by his agency, sometimes almost in spite of himself.

When we have the feeling that on some occasions that we have disobeyed God, it simply means that for a time we have ceased to desire obedience. (From Waiting For God by Simone Weil)

Joseph took his family to Egypt out of his obedience to God. Abraham took his family to the Promised Land without questioning God’s command to go. Neither one asked God what was there nor how they would survive. Our obedience to God has to be the same way. Faithful obedience to God allows him to work effectively in our lives, protecting us from dangers of which we may be unaware, and leading us into new and exciting opportunities we’ve never dreamed of.

We see Christmas as a brief moment in time, to serve as an escape from all the troubles of the world. But the problems don’t disappear. Christ came to save us from our most pressing problem – our sin. “Man’s greatest need is not for a new political or economic order. His primary problem is sin. He is alienated from God, bearing the burden of this guilt and loneliness, facing a frightening future. He needs to be liberated from the tyranny of his sins, reconciled to God, and given a hope that transcends the circumstances of his life. This is what the Gospel message is about.

What presents did you get for Christmas? Did you open the present that God gave you or is it still under the tree?



That One Singular Gift


I am at Dover UMC this morning.  (Location of church)  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20, 26; Colossians 3: 12 – 17; and Luke 2: 41 – 52.

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If there are ever a particular combination of Scripture readings for which I have a strong personal connection, it is the Old Testament reading for today with the Gospel reading for today. For they speak of the choices I made in 1963 that lead me to walk the path that brings me here today. But it is not the choices that I alone have made that I wish to speak of today.

That fact of the matter, excuse the cliché, is that each one of us has that moment described in the Old Testament reading and Gospel reading today; it is that one moment in time where we become aware of who we are and our relationship to the world around us. It is that moment in time when we begin to formalize the idea that we are both individuals and a part of the world. It is, if you will, the moment in time when we began to accept responsibility for our actions and our acts. At some age in our life, our youth allows us to escape responsibility and accountability but sooner or later, we are become responsible and accountable for what occurs because of our actions.

Can you recall the sense of awe that occurred when you had this revelation? Can you recall the sense of freedom that you had at this moment in time? Can you recall the panic that you felt when you realized what this all meant?

We are the sole proprietors of what we think, what we say, and what we do!

If there is anything wrong in society today, it is that this sense of responsibility and accountability seems to be terribly lacking in much of what occurs today. It is the student who refuses to accept the notion that learning requires an effort on their part, not just the sole exertion of the teacher or instructor. A new term has developed in the lexicon of education these days; it is the “helicopter parent”. This is a parent who “hovers” over the child and watches their every move. It is parenting to the extreme as it has gone from worrying about when to take the training wheels off a bicycle to sending text messages to high school teachers when their child gets a bad grade and where students arrived at college already “burned out” from the stress of learning. I have seen students in college who don’t know how to study simply because they never have had to do so or learned how, in part because their parents have been there to bully and harass the teacher into giving them a good grade. And when the parents try the same tactics in college, they are in for the shock of their lives when they find out that the laws that they lobbied for to protect their kids do just that and they, the parent, no longer have the say in their child’s education that they once had.

But it is more than simply parenting that has escaped the nature of responsibility, for such over protection has long been a part of society. It is just that it has expanded way beyond any rational thought process.

It is the businessman who says that they are entitled to a multi-million dollar bonus when their company is going bankrupt; it is the company owner whose salary is more than the workers may earn in a lifetime. It is the business who sends jobs overseas to foreign sweat shops with near-slavery conditions in order to reduce costs; such decisions are driven by the stock holders who want an improvement on the bottom line but fail to realize that such moves put workers here at home out of work. It is the healthcare industry whose sole interest is a profit, even if that means denying healthcare to an individual because they have gotten sick.

We have somehow accepted the words of politicians that it is better to have a bureaucracy run by a company than one run by the federal government decide our healthcare even when we know that a substantial portion of our population are covered by that federal government bureaucracy.

We want services but we are unwilling to pay for them. We seek politicians who will cut our taxes and find someone else to pay the bills. We agree with politicians who tell us government is too big and spends too much money and then we let them create a new bureaucracy and run up this nation’s fiscal deficit, leaving our children and grandchildren to pay the bills.

It is the politician who pledges to do the work of the people but only works for the highest bidder and can still find time to end their speeches with “God bless America.” Each action that we take has a result and we must at some time be held accountable for our actions.

It may be an overly romanticized depiction of the Great Depression but I am reminded of the Woody Guthrie Song, “Pretty Boy Floyd”, and what it means for today’s social conditions,

But a many a starving farmer

The same old story told

How the outlaw paid their mortgage

And saved their little homes.

Others tell you ‘bout a stranger

That come to beg a meal,

Underneath his napkin

Left a thousand dollar bill.

Well, you say that I am an outlaw,

You say that I’m a thief.

Here’s a Christmas dinner

For the families of relief.

Yes, as through this land I’ve wandered

I’ve seen lots of funny men;

Some will rob you with a six gun,

And others with a pen.

And as through your life you travel,

Yes, as through your life you roam,

You’ll never see an outlaw

Drive a family from their home.

(Lyrics from http://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/Pretty_Boy_Floyd.htm)

Our inability, reluctance, or refusal to accept responsibility even transcends our idea of religion, and for Christians, what Christmas really means. It is those here in America and overseas, no matter whether they are Christian, Jew, or Muslim, who claim that they have the right to kill someone in the name of God. We have somehow accepted the notion that Christmas is an economic event, not a spiritual one. We have somehow accepted the notion that because Jesus told us that the poor will be with us always that we need not worry about them.

There was an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week talking about a county politician in the St. Louis area wanting to remove some $300,000 in aid to charitable organizations from the St. Charles County budget. His argument was that taxes were nothing more than governmental theft and that the churches should take on the responsibility for the care of the poor.

I have heard this argument before but the kicker in this story is that the councilman is also a pastor of a local church in the area. This councilman didn’t say where the churches and other non-governmental agencies were going to get this money or what his church was doing. And one person who supported the councilman said that the Bible tells us that “God helps those who help themselves.” As you have heard me say before, in relationship to the literacy of the American people with regards to the Bible, it sounds Biblical but it isn’t in the Bible; it has always been attributed to Ben Franklin and his “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” Such responses are indicative of how we have shirked our responsibility.

This is not a put Christ back into Christmas argument; it strikes me that those who have been making this argument these past few years are among the loudest when it comes to pursuing the god of mammon and prosperity; they are the ugliest of the hypocrites when one compares their actions in the name of God to the words of Christ and what He did.

Rather, I would hope that we look at what the birth of a child some two thousand years ago means for us today. You see, we were given a gift last Friday morning. Each year, we receive this gift and, it seems to me, each year we waste it.

It is the gift of opportunity and promise, of a chance for a new beginning and a better tomorrow. But somehow, it gets lost in the pile of ribbon and wrapping paper and somehow it gets bundled up with the tree and thrown out on the street when the tree is taken down. It is a gift that comes with responsibility and perhaps that is why we don’t use it. We don’t want the responsibility that comes with this gift; we want something that doesn’t require anything from us.

Yet somehow we keep getting this gift every year. Perhaps it would mean more if we only had one chance and one chance alone to receive it. Maybe it would mean that we take Christmas more seriously and take time to understand what it really means for us today. But the uniqueness of the gift is that it is given every year without any strings attached. Maybe if we treated Christmas as a spiritual event rather than a social event or an economic event, it would mean something more. Maybe if saw Christmas as a beginning in time rather a moment in time, it would mean more to us.

Surely, Mary and Joseph had spoken to Jesus about His birth and the messages that they had received from the angels. Surely they had told Him about the visitors who came to see Him the day He was born. And like all children He began to look at the world around Him and He began to ask many questions. And as He grew up and saw the world around Him, He began to know and understand not only what His Father’s business was but what His work was to be. It should not be a surprise that Jesus would converse with the priests and the authorities in the temple that day so long ago.

We read of the priest’s amazement and wonder for they certainly had never had a student question them before. Such questioning would have probably not been accepted. It is the type of questions too many churches are unwilling to allow these days as well. For such questioning calls into place the notion of what a church is and what a church does and who the church is for.

It was right for Mary and Joseph to worry about their son, the child into whose care God had placed. And they raised Him with the singular notion of what He was to do, perhaps without true understanding (we know that later Jesus’ brothers would come for Him and He would reject them; but we also know that they would be there after the resurrection to lead the church in its early days).

We know little of what transpired in Jesus’ life for the next twenty years; we presume that He studied and worked for Joseph. But He also prepared for the task of doing His Father’s business.

It was a task that would take Him across the countryside, through the towns and villages of the Galilee, teaching the people, healing the sick and offering them a message of hope at a time when the government oppressed them and their own religious authorities had sold them out for their own personal interests. His ideas were radical ideas and they were not readily accepted by either the political or religious authorities. They were ideas that lead Him to be labeled and executed as a radical and an outlaw.

And the crucifixion of Christ on Calvary was a message to the people, “this is what we do to those who speak out against the establishment, who seek to change the rule of order that we call peace.”

But the people listened to Jesus and ignored the authorities. The people told others and what was supposed to end on a wooden cross on a hill faraway went beyond the boundaries of the Galilee.

And at a time when saying you were a follower of Christ, to proclaim your membership in the Way, was to produce your own death sentence, the people still gathered. They had heard the message of love and brotherhood, of gathering together in fellowship. They had heard the message that it was as important to care for others as it was to look after one’s self. They accepted the responsibility of spreading the message and living the message.

Paul’s words to the Colossians for today aren’t simply words that we have to memorize; they are an admonishment about how we are to live. There are those who say that we, as Christians, are to go out into the world and make disciples of all those we meet. But the word “disciple” doesn’t necessarily mean “a student of a teacher”; it means that one is a “follower of somebody”. From a New Testament viewpoint, to say that you are a disciple, to engage in discipleship, is to follow Jesus, to go on a journey.

So what are we to do? Christianity in the past few years has become extremely passive when it comes to what I believe is the true message of Christ. There is, without a doubt, a very active message out there that passes for the message of Christ but it is a message that is forced upon the listener, it is a message that demands obedience to the speaker, not to Christ. And the one aspect of the Gift that we have been given is that we must each make the choice as individuals; make the decision to follow Christ.

Jesus did not tell the twelve that they had to go with Him; He did not tell them that they would be condemned if they did not. He gave them the opportunity to follow and become fishers of men; they chose to follow. All of that somehow gets lost in the rhetoric and noise of the modern day evangelist and the modern day public church.

To follow Christ today means to be in a community, to be in the company of others who remember and celebrate the presence of Christ in their lives. It means being compassionate. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.

The Christian journey is a life lived from the inside out, a life in which the things we experience within — dreams, memories, images, and symbols, and the presence of him whom we encounter in deep silence — are in constant tension and dialogue with all that we experience without — people, events, joys, sorrows, and the presence of him whom we encounter in others. Thomas Merton repeats a suggestion of Douglas Steere that the absence of this tension might well produce the most pervasive form of violence present in contemporary society. “To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,” Merton writes, “to surrender to too many demands, to commit one’s self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

One of the most critical tasks of the local church is to enable people to become “journeyers” rather than “wanderers.” This suggests that the leadership of a congregation needs to be serious about their own journeys, to the point where they are willing to share their experience with others, not as those who have arrived but as fellow journeyers able to receive as well as to give. . . .

In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen)

So what do we do? In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (“Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37)

It is the message that we must hear again and which we must again tell others. It is not about building war machines that can destroy the world or seeking domination over other countries and calling it peace. It is not about taking away the fundamental rights of humans and calling slavery freedom. It is not a message that says healthcare is only for those who aren’t sick and can afford healthcare or dropping someone from the roles because they get sick.

It is the message that the sick shall be healed, the hungry fed, shelters built for the homeless, and the oppressed set free. Many will hear this message and say that it is not for them; so be it. But one by one, people will hear the message and they will begin to understand.

Some two thousand years ago a child was born. The child would grow in stature and wisdom. And then he would go to the people with a message that offered hope and promise. We were given that gift last Friday. It is one singular gift that we will ever be given and we are to give it away. We have heard the message and now it is our turn to tell the message.

The Good Thing About Children


This is the message that I presented on the 1st Sunday after Christmas (28 December 2003) at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20, 26; Colossians 3: 12 – 17; and Luke 2: 41 – 52.

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he most interesting thing about our society’s view of children is what we think about when we think of children. Without providing any commentary about why, the two things about children that came to mind when I started this sermon were "Children should be seen and not heard" and "A child with a hammer thinks everything is a nail."

The concordance for my primary Bible does not show any similar statements. In fact, any references to children are positive, imploring parents to do those things that will help their children. In Proverbs 20: 1 we read, "The righteous man leads a blameless life, blessed are his children after him." (Proverbs 20: 6) A second proverb, that some might say is negative is Proverbs 20: 11, "Even a child is known by his deed, whether what he does is pure and right." (Proverbs 20: 11) But the commentaries for this note shows that it is not the child that is held in a negative view but rather his or her parents. The patterns established early in life might continue to mark a person throughout his or her lifetime. It becomes necessary for those who are around the child to lead lives that show the type of character that they desire to see in the child. And it is important to realize that such behavior on our part is more than "do as I say, not as I do." For invariably, what we do will have more of an impact on our children than anything we say.

An infant’s smallness and adorable innocence often draw the attention of nearby adults. They know that a newborn life is a gift of great value. But as the infant grows, the parents realize the great responsibility of rearing the child. They know that the child needs to be taught, not just cared for. A multitude of child-rearing books on books store shelves attest to the fact that raising a child takes great wisdom.

At the heart of every good parenting principle lies Solomon’s words, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6) The verb for train means "to dedicate, " and the word for way generally refers to living correctly in God’s sight. Solomon was advising parents to set their child aside for special use, to dedicate him or her to the Lord and His path. The verb train includes the idea of stimulating the child to do good — through words of guidance, discipline, and encouragement on the right path. This is a parent’s main task, to receive a child as a charge from the Lord and then to dedicate the child to God’s ways. Some have taken the line "when he is old he will not depart from it" as a promise. They believe it to be a guarantee that proper parenting will always result in a child’s salvation. Proverbs, however, present general principles, not promises. Proverbs 22: 6, "to train a child", simply assures that the lessons learned in childhood will last a lifetime. Whether their child learns to follow the Lord will, in part, depend on his or her own choices. But lessons driven home at the crucial stage of childhood will not go away. Hence the need for parental discipline and guidance.

God promises to enable parents for their tasks, not to make decision for the child. Each generation is responsible for its own relationship with God. But even without a promise, this proverb remains wise advice for every parent. Dedicating a child to God’s ways is the best course to set.

And it also speaks to each of us in our relationship with all those we encounter. How we act, how we show our relationship with God will have an impact on each child that we meet as they seek to develop that relationship with God.

Samuel’s life was dedicated to a life with God from the day he was born. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, as we know from 1 Samuel 1: 11, was barren. She asked God to give her a son so that she might find favor with her husband. In return for this, she would dedicate the boy to a life of serving God. And when the time came, Samuel went to live and work in the temple in a manner similar to an apprentice serving a master carpenter or mason. And God rewarded Hannah with additional children.

It is important to understand the importance of talking about this. The duties of the priest were essentially a family thing, handed down from father to son. But Eli’s three sons did not keep the lessons learned at home growing up and were corrupt and handled their priestly duties with irreverence and disdain. And so, when the time came for the mantle of the Chief Priest to be passed on, it was passed on to Samuel and to none of Eli’s sons.

But in speaking of Samuel in later years is to get ahead of the story. It is the fact that the Old Testament reading for today focuses on that time when Samuel was twelve. I do not know the deliberations that take place in preparing the lectionary but I have to think that the pairing of 1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20 and 1 Samuel 2: 26 with Luke 2: 41 – 52 was very deliberate. For both Samuel and Jesus are about twelve years old at the time of their respective stories.

Twelve is a magic number for today’s children. Most kids today see it as a countdown to becoming a teen and the gaining of independence. Society, through its fashions, lifestyles, and whatever else might come to mind, easily reinforces that notion. But for all the hype and thought that being a teenager will set you free, little discussion is made about the fact that responsibilities come with the independence gained from a birthday. It should be noted that boys at twelve in time of Samuel and Jesus were getting ready to move into roles of responsibility and some authority, not simply getting permission to stay up longer at night.

I also find the fact that both boys were twelve interesting. For the age of twelve, at least from one theory, is the transition period from a concreter, physical object based thinking pattern to a more abstract and formal thought pattern. This was first proposed by the Swiss biologist Jean Piaget in a period of study just after World War II.

Unfortunately, in the fifty plus years since that landmark research the age of transition has moved backwards with most child developmental specialist feeling that that transition doesn’t take place until seventeen or eighteen. And from the viewpoint of a classroom teacher, and with a slightly cynical tone, I am not entirely sure that it is later than that. In fact, I think that many of today’s graduates are incapable of the complicated abstract thought patterns Piaget proposed as the nature of junior high students in the late 1940’s.

Maybe that is why we are amazed by the Gospel account of Jesus’ time in the temple. We cannot imagine or envision a child of twelve sitting in the great temple of Jerusalem and leading a thoughtful and in-depth discussion of the Torah with the nation’s best and brightest scholars. It would be almost like finding out that Albert Einstein was twelve when he formulated the basic concepts of relativity.

But the scholars were amazed as well, for their view of society held that children were an impediment. The view of children then is in harsh contrast to the words of Proverbs which speak of loving and caring for children, not ignoring them. It does not matter whether we are amazed that a child of twelve could have the intellectual capacity to discuss the Torah with scholars who had studied the law all their lives or whether we are amazed that a child would dare move outside his place in society; what matters is that we are amazed and we don’t think a child is capable of doing such things.

And I think that is the case today. If we cared for our children, if we followed the words of Proverbs, then why are schools in such disrepair? Why, when the subject of spending money on schools is brought up, is there such a hue and cry against the idea? If we are a nation that thinks of itself in terms of excellence, why are teachers among the lowest paid professionals in the world. We are willing to spend countless dollars thinking about our own immediate future but we barely even consider the impact of our decisions and actions today on our children’s future?

And if we cared for our children, would we as individuals and as a country act like a spoiled child when things do not go our way? Why does the leadership of this country continue to follow the schoolyard rules of "it’s my ball, so the game is played by my rules" in its international diplomacy. Why, when we are the wealthiest country on the earth, are there still poor and homeless? Shouldn’t the lessons of sharing and giving, taught at home at an early age, have some meaning in this world?

And why are our responses to crisis after crisis quick and impetuous, the signs of a child still in a concrete type of thinking. You would think that some thought would be given to looking at things from a long-term view, ending violence forever and not simply today.

I am not laying all the blame on the present administration. The trouble goes much deeper than that. Look at the television, our primary source of information and entertainment. Of course, telling the difference between the two has become almost impossible these days. Can we honestly say that we are challenged by what we read or see in today’s media?

And whose fault is that? The development of abstract thinking is not necessarily time independent. It must be pushed and there are a lot of people quite happy not to be pushed. There are a lot of people who want others to do their thinking for them and are willing to accept the consequences. Unless we are willing to take on the responsibility, we cannot accept the independence that free thinking brings.

Paul was faced with such a problem when he wrote to the people of Colosse. For there were some who thought that the freedom of the spirit allowed them to do just about anything they so desired. There were others who felt that Christianity was just another form of Judaism, bound by law and scripture, to a particular lifestyle. Neither view accepted the central truth of the Gospel, that salvation is found only through Christ.

And like a good father, Paul was counseling the members of the church in Colosse about how they should act. As you read Paul’s letter, you will notice that he spends as much time counseling and adjucating disputes as he does teaching and preaching. Like a father counseling his son or daughter, so too does Paul counsel the people.

And it is counsel that we should look at more closely,

"clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone, has a complaint again another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And the let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. (Colossians 3: 12 – 15)

The good thing about children is that they have parents. It may seem illogical to think of ourselves as a child in the same terms that we see our own children. We thought the birth of our own children had taken away that distinction. But we are still the children of God, a statement we affirm every Sunday with the Lord’s Prayer. And as children, we are still growing and learning. Growing in the eyes of God and learning how to better show the love that God has for us in the ways that we work and respect others.

So, as the 2003 ends and 2004 begins, we look our own behavior and vow to make it more like Jesus, dutiful son or daughter, obedient to God, and working to bring God’s message to the world.



Be It Resolved


This is the message I presented on the Epiphany of the Lord (4 January 2004) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  I used the Scriptures for the New Year instead of the lectionary for the Epiphany of the Lord (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 13, Revelation 21: 1 – 6, and Matthew 25: 31 – 46).

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This is the time of year when we look at things past and things yet to come. But time is a fleeting thing, and looking forward is difficult to do. There are many shows that will speak of things yet to come during the coming year but very few of these shows will come back next year and talk about how their predictions came out.

There are those who would say that John the Evangelist saw the future in his writing of the Book of Revelation. But John was writing to a group of Christians in seven different churches, each with their own problems, each with their own cares. His was not a prediction of the future but a warning of what was to come unless changes were made.

John didn’t see an end to time but rather the cause of time. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” was not a statement coming at the end of time but rather a statement of continuation. John recognized that God’s time and presence were continual while ours was not. We may not see much in the future to come but God is the future and in that future we have hope.

At the time that John wrote the Book of Revelations, Christians were experiencing the first of many persecution. To the readers, especially in the seven churches to whom the Book was directed, it was necessary to give them hope and show that there was a promise for the future.

And that is why the Preacher writes about time. The Preacher, as the author of Ecclesiastes is commonly known, saw time in passages and seasons, in moments when one should think, pause, and consider. Life was not simply a collection of bits and pieces of things done and yet to be done. Rather, life was a balance of actions and tasks.

The Preacher knew that life was futile when it was seen as a collection of things solely measured by time. Life was more than chasing after things that would not exist beyond the moment of the chase; life was more than a measure of the time we are on this planet. The Preacher knew and wrote that if we see life only in terms of what we have done, we can never even begin to see beyond today. Putting things into categories does keep things in order but it does little to help us see or understand God’s purpose.

Though we would like to even begin understanding God’s purpose, we cannot even begin to comprehend what it might be. But that should not stop us from trying. That is the very essence of the difference between our souls and us. We have been made in God’s image so we have an inborn inquisitiveness to find out about external realities. By coming to know our Creator, we can find our peace. The whole prelude to the reading of Ecclesiastes for today shows that without that purpose, all is folly.

All we can see are the micro-moments of our own existence in the grand span of eternity. But those moments give us a glimpse of what is to come. The Scriptures call us to live a life in robust faith, even during times of trial and pain. For we know that in the grand scheme of things God will make everything beautiful.

But therein lies the problem. We don’t like the idea that our time is limited. We don’t like the notion that in the grand scheme of things we are simply a blip in the passage of time. We are so caught up in our battles with time, we forget about others. Jesus spoke of the people missing Him when He was tired, poor, hungry, and homeless. But the people didn’t even know what he was talking about. “When did we see you hungry, or tired, or poor, or homeless?” they asked.

The Gospel message for today is interesting. It speaks of the Second Coming of Christ but it does not give a time when one might expect it to happen. And that is the point.

Jesus said we would never know the day, the hour, the time or the place of His coming. But our preparations should not be limited because we do not know; rather, our preparations should increase. It is easy to say that we are prepared but are we?

What would happen if someone came up to you and asked for help getting a bit to eat? What would happen if someone came up to you and asked you for a ride someplace down the road? Would you help them get the food they needed? Would you give them the ride?

It isn’t likely that such things are going to happen to you every day but it begs the question as to how you treat people you meet every day? How do you treat the people around you? Do you treat them the way you wish to be treated? Or is your treatment conditional? Do you treat them well when they do things for you?

It is very simple; our preparation of Christ is not based on apocalyptic visions or our random acts of kindness to strangers. It is based on what we do each day to those people whom we are in contact with every day.

That is why I make such a big deal about reaching out to those who are members of this church but are not here on a regular basis. But it has to be more than simply my sending letters to them. Because the letters that I send are the letters of a pastor, warning members of what will happen if they do not take action. But the words that come from the membership tell those individuals that they are in fact missed and that they are still considered a part of the community.

There really is no way that we can determine what will happen if we ignore these inactive members. But a church that does not care for its own will slowly die. A church that does not show care or concern for its own cannot show care or concern for others.

And if there is to be a Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church in 2005, it will be because there was an effort made to reach out to those in the community and try and bring them back in. Like those who heard the words of Jesus but did not know when they had missed their opportunity, so too will the opportunities for the growth of this church be fleeting and quickly gone if one is not careful.

We begin each year with resolutions, actions that we want to take that will make us better. I hope that the members of this church will resolve to reach out to the other members of this church who are not here and say to them, “You are still a part of this community and you are missed.”

John was writing at a time when the future was bleak, when the whole idea of Christianity was in doubt. But he saw hope for the future; he saw knew that God would be there. The Preacher wrote at a time when he thought his future was bleak; when he could see no purpose for living. But he saw hope; he saw that in all there was and would be God would be there. He gave him hope.

Jesus pointed out that He was here around and among us. Our hope and future lie in our ability to bring His presence into our lives and into the lives of others. I would hope and pray that we resolved to carry that mission into the future as well.

And What Change Will We Make?


Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, December 28, 2008. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 61: 10 – 62: 3, Galatians 4: 4 – 7, and Luke 2: 22 – 40.

The Sunday after Christmas is either the hardest Sunday or the second hardest to prepare for with, no doubt, the Sunday after Easter being the other Sunday. Attendance is lower than the previous four weeks because the reasons for attending church in December are now past tense. Unless there are dramatic changes in an individual’s life, the odds are that we won’t see many of the people until perhaps Easter and most definitely not until the next Advent season. And this year, between the downturn of the economy and the bad weather, there wasn’t much of a Christmas “presence” anyway.

And with the New Year now fast approaching, our thoughts are as much on the celebrations and parties that we will attend on New Year’s Eve as they are on attendance at church on Sunday. At least, the message of hope and the promise of a better tomorrow that comes with Christmas will stay with us through the first few months of 2009 as we wait to see if the new political administration can turn this country around and bring this country back to the glory that it has lost.

I, for one, would like to see this country turned around, though I am not certain about the glory part. Because the glory that everyone wants for the United States is a glory found in “old school” thinking, a style of thinking that preceded and precipitated the problems that we are faced with right now. And I am not altogether certain that this incoming administration is going to have much in the way of new thinking, not because they have a lack of it but, rather, because the current culture of political thought and machination will not allow it.

Over the past few days, I have had opportunities to think about this change in thinking and what it means. So many of the churches that I work with are locked into a mindset as to what they have to do in order to get people into their church on a weekly basis and to keep them coming back. The creation of new forms of worship, that is, the inclusion of praise music and “free-form” services, has done a lot to bring people in. But, by the same token, it may have done much to exacerbate differences within congregations.

There are those who would like to see more modern music, be it rock and roll, jazz, or whatever (though let’s limit the amount of whatever we use). But for every person who wants to “upgrade” the music, there is someone who feels the hymnal that we have in the United Methodist Church is just fine and we should stay with that. There are some, I am sure, who are still complaining about the revision in the hymnal that moved “O for a Thousand Tongues” from #1 to #57.

As I have suggested before in “Rock and Roll Revival” and the follow up pieces, “The Rock and Roll Revival Continued” and “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited”, there are plenty of songs with Biblical themes that we can use in church today. And as I noted in “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited”, there is an interesting piece of liturgy involving U2.

The key point about changing the music of a worship service isn’t the music itself but rather the quality of the music that is played and the “attitude” with which it is performed and sung. Bad music, no matter the type, is always bad music and to sing without meaning it (to paraphrase John Wesley’s “sing lustily and with good courage) just won’t work.

Change for change’s sake is never a good idea nor is not changing something because “that’s they way we have always done it.” If we are not open to change and if the change we seek is not real change then we are going to have problems in the future.

The Gospel reading tells of Joseph and Mary taking the new-born Jesus to the temple for the first time. At the temple, they encountered Simeon and Anna, individuals who would see in the baby Jesus the fulfillment of the prophets long before anyone else. Simeon announced that there would be some who would see in Jesus the hopes and promises of the future while others would be blind to what He would do. He also announced the Jesus would be misunderstood and contradicted, resulting, of course, in His rejection and death on the cross some thirty years later.

And what I find interesting is the last line of Simeon’s thoughts, (as translated in The Message), “But the rejection will force honesty as God reveals who they really are.” (Luke 2: 40). If there are those today who hold tightly onto the power that they have acquired over the ages and are reluctant to let go, it will be obvious. If there are those who have gained power but in doing so have split apart a community, that too will be obvious.

With Jesus’ birth, there is a new way of thinking, a manner which cannot be accomplished by old means. It will be a challenge for many because they have literally fought to get what they have and they are not willing to give it up; yet, when Jesus had the opportunity to grab the power, He gave it up. Simeon and Anna saw a new world in Jesus, a world in which He was the Christ. They welcomed the change.

In Clarence Jordan’s translation of Paul’s letter to the Galatians for today, we read that we were ruled by the deeply entrenched patterns of the culture in which we lived. But Jesus’ birth and resurrection rescues us from being caught in that system. Yet, Paul continues in verse 8 to point out how the Galatians, even knowing what being a Christian was all about, continued to follow the same old rules and regulations that existed before Christ. If we are to begin a new year with a vision of change and a promise of hope for tomorrow, then we cannot continue following the same methods, procedures, and policies that have lead us to this point.

The prophet Isaiah announced to the world that there was a new beginning, much like a wedding. A wedding is an opportunity for a new beginning as the bride and groom leave their old families behind and begin a new family. The word righteousness is very prominent in the reading from Isaiah for today and well it should be, for righteousness denotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard. It has meaning when applied to honorable business dealings (something that has been sorely lacking in the past few years) and in proper speech (which should come as a surprise to many religious and quasi-religious individuals).

As I was completing this piece, I thought about a piece of music from my high school days which I thought involved the word change in its title. In looking for the piece I came across another piece which I think is highly appropriate for this time and moment (see “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, performed by Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore”).

Unfortunately, I was either thinking of “Shape of Things to Come” by Max Frost and the Troopers

or “Shape of Things” by the Yardbirds.

If we want to keep what we have, then we do not need to make any change. But if we are to bring about true change in this world, we will first to need to change how we think. If we understand that Jesus was born so that we might live and that if we change our lives (in other words, repent of our past lives and begin a new life in Jesus) then we will see the hope and promise that we so much want to find. What change shall we each make as we begin the New Year?