“Do You See the Light?”


This is the message I gave for Laity Sunday, October 16, 1994, at Grace Memorial United Methodist Church (Independence, KS) and Sycamore United Methodist Church (Sycamore, KS). It was also the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (B) but I choose Acts 9: 3 – 9; 17 – 19 and John 9: 30 – 34 as my Scripture readings.

Caves are very interesting places. For early mankind, caves offered shelter from the weather. During times of trouble, caves offered places to hide. Many a prophet hid in caves when the people got angry. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves. Even today, they serve as places of entertainment. One thing that used to dominate the countryside, especially in this part of the county, were barns painted with advertising to come and view Meramec Caverns outside St. Louis. I am sure that many of you have seen such advertising.

If you have never taken a tour of a cave, you should. And inevitably, during the tour, after you have gone deep into the passages, the tour guide will have everyone stop and then he (or she) will turn off the lights. When that happens, you begin to get the feeling of what it is to be blind. Nothing else comes close. Even at night time, with no moon, there is still enough light to allow us to see. In a cave with no added lights, the statement “so dark you cannot see your hand in front of your face” comes true.

It is also at such times that we can understand the fear that Saul must have felt when he was blinded by the Holy Spirit.

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.(Acts 9: 3 – 9)

The fortunate thing for Paul is that the blindness he suffered on the road to Damascus and the darkness we are surrounded by when we are in the caves is only temporary. Even while he struggled with his blindness, Paul knew that the God would take care of him. We know that the lights will come back on inside the cave.

Still, the thought of becoming blind is very frightening. Even in today’s enlighten times, it is hard for us to realize the limitations that society placed on the blind. During the 17 and 1800’s, the blind were often institutionalized. For others, though, blindness is not so temporary. It was perhaps even worse during Jesus’ time. The blind were looked upon with pity and sorrow for it was felt that, in someway, their blindness was due to some sin in their life. And if the person was born blind, as was the case of the individual in the passage we read in John, the sins were assumed to have been those of his parents.

Against the background of blindness and an indifferent society, the author of the three hymns we sing today, Fanny Crosby, triumphed. Most people are probably aware of the many traditional Methodist hymns written by Charles Wesley, John Wesley’s brother. However, I am sure that not many people are aware that over 1000 hymns Christians sing today were written by Fanny Crosby. She was born in 1820 and died in 1915, living most of her life in the New York area. And from the sixth week of her life, she was blind. The notes that accompany the United Methodist Hymnal point out that she spent most of her adult life working with other blind people and, of course, writing those wonderful hymns that we turn to in times of trouble and in times of joy.

Fanny Crosby was much like the blind man in John. Her presence and her song writing skills were to let others know what joy Jesus brings to our lives.

“As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9: 1 – 5)

It was her faith in Jesus that gave Fanny Crosby the vision needed to write such powerful songs as “Blessed Assurance”. Through her faith, through the light provided by Jesus, she saw just as well as you or I, perhaps even better.

Today, as we begin looking to the coming new century, we hear a lot of talk about our country’s lack of vision. But why should we be surprised by our country’s lack of vision. What Abraham Lincoln said some one hundred and thirty years ago is still true today. Governments are of, by, and from the people. If the people are lost and confused, the government will be likewise. If the people do not have a vision of what they expect for the future, how can we expect the country to know where it is going? If the government is to have a firm sense of direction for the coming years, that direction must come from us, both as individuals and as the church.

Today is Laity Sunday. This is the day we honor all those who have worked for the church during the past year. It is also an opportunity to look at how we, the members of the church, can work for the betterment of the the church and society. I do not think that it is a coincidence that our observation of Laity Sunday comes at the same time as our national elections or the meeting of the Nominations Committee of the local church. This is the time when we set the direction we want our church and our country to take. Yet, at least on the national level, this direction is very, very confusing.

The tone of most political commercials today seems to be how bad the opponent will be for the country. During the last two presidential campaigns, there were a number of complaints about the negative nature of the advertising. It does not appear that much has changed in the past two years. I heard a political advertisement the other day as I was driving to Tulsa. In this commercial, the challenger stated that his opponent was out of touch with Oklahoma and then he went through all the bad things the opponent had done. For this candidate, the solution to the problem was for the voters of Oklahoma to vote for him. Yet, this challenger never did say what it was that he would do if he were elected. Kansas political ads appear to be no different.

But our political campaigns are merely a reflection of the way we have allowed our nation. Whether it is in politics or just everyday living, the majority in this country willingly let others tell them how to act, what to wear, and how to think. At the time when the world is at peace, when the Glory of God should be shining through, we have lost our direction. We stand at the brink of the greatest time of our lives and our direction is set by others, not by God.

We are like the Israelites standing before the Promised Land. We struggled for many years to reach this point and now we wait for the final report. In the case of the Israelites, it was a matter of sending in twelve spies, one from each of the tribes of Israel. You would have thought that, considering the time in the wilderness and all the difficulties that trip had to overcome, the people would have been overjoyed. Yet what did the spies report:

“We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”(Numbers 13: 31 – 33)

And to this, the people cried

“Would that we have died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?”(Numbers 14: 2 – 3)

Every time during the Exodus when the Israelites ran into trouble, they cried out how Moses and Aaron had failed them and that they were going to die in the wilderness. Faced with the difficulties of traveling and living in the wilderness, knowing that the Promised Land was just inches away, the Israelites would have rather turned around and returned to the seemingly comfortable life of slavery in Egypt. Are we not like that today? Isn’t it much easier for us to complain about the present situation than to work towards improving our lot?

The turmoil in our lives today is directly related to the fact that we, both as a nation and individually, have lost our commitment to God. We have forgotten that with God, all things are possible. We no longer put God first in our lives and, as a result, have lost our spiritual direction. Like the Pharisees, we have become blind to the troubles of the world. In a world split by race, creed, and economic status, we see the problems these differences cause but we want others to solve them. Even though He has repeatedly told us that he would provide, we no longer have faith that God will do so.

It is admittedly not an easy task. But it was their faith in God that enabled the Israelites to leave slavery in Egypt and make the trip to the Promised Land in the first place. It was their faith in God that enabled them to conquer that land. Despite the negative report from ten of the spies, not all of the Israelites had lost their faith in God. Joshua and Caleb offered a different opinion of what was in the Promised Land.

And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, “The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” But the whole congregation threatened to stone them. (Numbers 14: 6 – 10)

Joshua and Caleb put their faith in the Lord and were rewarded for their faith. When the Israelites reached the Promised Land after spending the extra time wandering, only Joshua and Caleb were still alive to enjoy the fruits of the Promised Land. Those who had lost their faith had died during the extra years in the wilderness.

It is the same for us. In these times of trial, all we have to do is return to God. As James wrote

“If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to tell you, for a doubtful mind will be as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind; and every decision you then make will be uncertain, as you turn first this way, and then that. If you don’t ask with faith, don’t expect the Lord to give you any solid answer.”(James 1: 5 – 8)

When God sent the Israelites out of Egypt, he did not do so without providing them instruction. Even as they began that journey from the certain and safe surroundings of Egypt into the unknown wilderness they called the Promised Land, they still knew that it was God who guiding them.

The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13: 17 – 22)

I have painted an admittedly dark picture of our and this country’s future. Yet, the pillar of fire which accompanied the Israelites by night and the pillar of cloud which accompanied them by day is still present today. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples in the passage from John, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9: 1 – 5)

Paul understood what it meant to see the world through the light of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote in his second letter to Corinthians.

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of god. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of god. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”.(2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6)

The light that shines in the darkness today is Jesus Christ, our Savior. It is that light which can guide each one of us. When we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, we will be like Saul regaining his sight and becoming Paul.

So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus,who has appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.(Acts 9: 17 – 19)

We are entering a world which is becoming increasingly dark and forbidding. We, you and I, must make a choice. We can live our lives in the total darkness of sin or we can live our lives in the light of the salvation of Jesus Christ. The question is ours to answer “Do you see the Light?”

“A Matter of Integrity”


I was at the New Milford (NY)/Edenville United Methodist Church in Warwick, NY, Sunday morning, October 7, 2012. The Scriptures for this morning, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (B), are Job 1:1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1: 1 – 4; 2: 5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16. Their services now start at 10 am with Sunday School at 9 and you are welcome to attend.

Ann told me that she thought this might be a bit more intellectual that some of my sermons, as if most of my sermons are not. But in this case, perhaps that is the case.

But when you are basing your message in part on one of the wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs or Song of Solomon; the Apocrypha also contains the Book of Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach), the message will be somewhat intellectual. Such messages are the most challenging to write for they demand one think it through to the end. That’s not to say that every message or sermon that is written does make the same demand but when you are using something from the wisdom literature, it requires a little bit more than usual. I hope and pray that I have that challenge and that when it is done, you will be challenged to seek more information for yourself as well.

I have always been amazed at how the topics that dominate the news are always matched by the Scriptures that have been designated for that particular week of the year. In this case, the Gospel reading from Mark deals with the Pharisees questioning Jesus about the subject of divorce. And two weeks ago, there was an announcement that a fragment of papyrus had been discovered that suggested that Jesus had a wife. Of course, a week later, it was announced that this papyrus fragment was a forgery and not a very good one at that.

Now, why would someone want to make a forgery like this? What motive was there in doing so? Of course, from my point of view, I also had to wonder why it was such a poor forgery in the first place. There is, after all, a curiosity about the life of Jesus, in part because of Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, and its plot that Jesus not only had a wife but a child as well and that child’s descendants can be traced through the blood lines of European families. Now, The Da Vinci Code is clearly a work of fiction but because of the nature of the topic, there were a lot of people who believed that there was some degree of truth behind it. After all, there is the notion that every myth has some element of truth in it. And since we know so little about the life of Jesus between the time He was 12 and engaging the Pharisees, scribes, and scholars in the temple and when He was thirty and He embarked on His mission, it becomes quite easy to imagine just about anything we want. And someone looking to make a few extra dollars can quite easily do so by creating a story that fits within the framework of what we want to believe.

There will be some who hear or read these words and feel that I have just given them justification for not believing in Jesus as the Risen Savior. To many people today, Jesus Christ is a myth. But who concocted this myth? And why?

That we are here today means that there is a degree of truth to the story of Christ, even if there are gaps in the story. And that the story of Christ has been told over the years across all of the continents should suggest that there is an element of truth to the story as well.

So, how we react to the story that Jesus may have had a wife and whether we choose to believe or not is a measure of the integrity or strength of our faith. How well can we stand up to the pressure of being questioned about our faith? How strong is our faith in our day-to-day life?

The Old Testament reading for today tells us of the story of Job, a seemingly rich and powerful resident of Uz. Job is characterized as an upright and blameless man who feared God and avoided evil. But in the first chapter of Job, he loses everything he has – his children, his servants, his flocks – only his wife remained.

The sad part about this is that we know someone who has suffered such a loss; perhaps we have suffered such a loss ourselves. And how did our friends, how did we handle this? Did we curse God and question why He would allow this to occur? And if God did allow this to occur, what does that make Him? What sort of god (and notice that I used a lower case god) would allow one of his beings, someone that was created in his image, to suffer as Job did in Chapter 1.

It is critical that we understand that one of the things that occurred in this reading still occurs today. When something goes wrong, when we suffer, we often presume that we have done something wrong. Listen over the next few weeks to the friends of Job as they make that same assumption; that Job’s suffering is a consequence of his having done something terribly, terribly wrong. But Job always asks, “what is it that I have done so wrong as to warrant such punishment?”

Others will argue that they want no part of a God that would allow a believer to suffer like Job. They would argue that such suffering and the level of evil in this world are perpetrated or permitted to go unchecked because faithful adherents to religion accept the notion that it is “god’s will”.

But the patience of Job is neither a rejection of God nor blind acceptance of what is happening. Rather it is done with the notion that something will transpire that will bring sense to it all. Job will never curse God but He will demand that God show up to defend His actions. Job will do what his wife and friends will ask him to not do, “persevere in his integrity.”

Much has been made about divorce and marriage and what Jesus said and did not say. I think it important to note the differences between Mark’s recording of this encounter and Matthew’s recording. But what I think we need to understand is why the Pharisees questioned Jesus about this matter in the first place (and I don’t think it had to do with whether or not Jesus had a wife).

Keep in mind that John the Baptist was executed in part for his denouncing Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias as a violation of Old Testament law. There is commentary by the Jewish historian Josephus that Herod was also afraid of the growing political and religious movement John was leading and his arrest and execution, for whatever reason, was an attempt to put an end to that movement.

The encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees occurs in part of the territory controlled by Herod. We know that the Pharisees were beginning to see Jesus as a threat much in the same manner as John the Baptist and they, the Pharisees, probably felt that if they could get Jesus to make some sort of pronouncement similar to John’s, the same results would occur.

For me, the Pharisees saw themselves as keepers of the faith though it was more that they were keepers of the religion. Religion may be seen as how we reach out to God; faith is God reaching out to us. At times, the two will be in direct opposition to each other. Religion is the interposition of our thoughts onto God, making God what we want Him to be, not what He is. Faith is that which may be termed spiritual and is separate from religion.

I would rather not have such distinctions but unfortunately I have meet too many people for whom their religion is their faith. They are not interested in what one believes as much as they are in maintaining what is currently there. The Old Testament prophets sought to deliver the people from an idolatrous trust in their own religion with its shrines, both mental and physical so that they could be delivered into faith with its trust in the living free God who comes to us in the moving events of history.

How we see God says a lot about the integrity of our faith. If we see God as being on the edges of our lives, there when things go wrong, then I would make the argument that our faith is weak; its integrity low. For me, the Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat because He challenged their faith and they were unable to respond.

For me, there are too many people today who have such an attitude. Jesus has a place in their lives but it is only on Sunday mornings, between 8 am and 12 noon. When they leave church on Sunday, they quietly but quickly put God on the shelf in the closet where He can’t be hurt and they go about their business for the rest of the week. Such a faith cannot stand to be questioned and such individuals will not allow such questioning to take place.

But if you see God as part of the day-to-day occurrences of life, as One who comes at points of confidence and strength as well as points of weakness and uncertainty, then the integrity of your faith cannot be questioned. And if it is questioned, you can answer with both word and action and you see the opportunity to bring Jesus Christ to those who seek Him.

Ask yourself this, how do I see Jesus today? On his blog, “Irreverend Mike” wrote,

The issue is this – we tend to treat Jesus like he’s a fact to believe rather than a person in whom we place all our faith. This is what Christianity is about. It’s not a truth we believe in like we believe that 2+2=4, or that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. It is about Jesus, who is the truth, who tells us “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6). Being a Christian means having a relationship with this Jesus – following his way so that we may truly live with God.

When we forget this – and Jesus becomes to us just another thing that we can think and say is true – then we do not truly know Jesus. Not only this – but when Jesus becomes a thing to us in our minds, we begin to shape him into something he is not. We create an “imaginary Jesus”.

Your imaginary Jesus tends to think like you, agree with you and never challenges you. And this imaginary Jesus is nice! He gives you the assurance of eternal life and unconditional love – and you really don’t have to do anything. It’s a good deal. That is – if this was the real Jesus. Which it is not.

The real Jesus isn’t like us. He is perfect and holy and filled with so much love – that we can’t handle it. The real Jesus isn’t content to leave you where you are in your sin, brokenness and failings. The real Jesus beckons you to follow him to do hard things and love people you don’t want to love. The real Jesus asks you for nothing less than your whole life, because after all – he gave his for you. (from http://irreverendmike.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/will-the-real-jesus-please-stand-up/

There comes a point when one must make a choice. We are reminded in the reading from Hebrews exactly why it was that Jesus began His mission in the Galilee and why He comes to this place and time today. Our salvation is found through Christ; His death on the Cross was so that we would be set free from sin and death. And having been set free from sin and death, we have the opportunity to find a new path in life and help others seek what we have found.

I find myself drawn more and more to the thoughts and words of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the 30s he was living in America and had the opportunity to stay in America when Hitler came to power. But to do so would have been too easy and he returned to Germany because he saw a church, his church, turning a blind eye to the horrors that engulfed his country. He began to feel that to religion was becoming separate from the world and that, in its silence, let the horrors of the Nazism grow and fester. A pacifist, Bonhoeffer would ultimately join the underground resistance against Hitler and lose his life just days before the concentration camp in which he had been a prisoner was liberated.

I have never understood, until perhaps today, why he would do that. But he thought that if one was to be truly Christian, there had to be a reliance on the Grace of Christ because it was only through that Grace that we could be free from self-concern and doubt and be freed to show a truly worldly concern for others. Being a Christian was, in Bonhoeffer’s thought, not merely an acceptance but an act of being in the world. It was more than what one did on Sunday but what one did throughout the week.

We are never asked to make a sacrifice such as the one Bonhoeffer made or even the one that Christ made. We are asked only to let Jesus into our hearts, our minds, and our souls.

Are we prepared to open up and let Jesus into our lives, not just on Sunday mornings but all day Sunday and then through out the week? Or will you be like the disciples who, despite what Jesus taught them, still tried to deny the children access to Jesus? We are all children of God and Jesus said to let the children come to Him.

But how many times has someone told another child of God that they could not come into the church because they were somehow different. Perhaps they were too loud, as a two-year-old might be; perhaps they were unclean, as Job became. And as Job became unclean, his friends deserted him.

I have not neglected the reading from Hebrews that comes with the passages from Job and Mark. It concludes by noting that Jesus Himself trusted in God and that He was and is with us, the children of God. And if He is with us, how can we deny others that same right?

I begin by suggesting that our faith is being questioned, in part by the “discovery” of the “Jesus’ wife papyrus fragment”, and how we might answer that. There was a time long ago when I felt that my faith was being challenged. I was enduring a series of setbacks and I could only conclude that perhaps I was a pawn in some game being played by individuals or beings outside the realm of my consciousness. I didn’t care that I was a pawn; I just wanted to know what the rules of the game were.

Amidst all of this, I obtained a book entitled The Passover Plot in which the author hypothesized that Jesus faked His death on the Cross. After reading it, I could only conclude that if someone was willing to undergo what has been acknowledged as the most gruesome form of torture ever devised by man, then there must be something to what He believed. Over the years I have come to see Christ in my life in ways that are not always easy to describe. But I have come to think that because others have believed and that belief has remained strong over the years then what I know in my heart is true. And if what is in my heart is true, then I am obligated to help others know that as well.

Perhaps this is not the best way to think about the integrity of one’s faith but consider this. I cannot say I am a Christian if I do not believe it in my heart and live it with my words. I cannot say that I am a Christian if I say to you that you must believe as I do. I cannot say that I am a Christian because I go to church on Sunday but ignore the hungry, the homeless, the needy, or the oppressed. I cannot say that I am a Christian if I say that I am saved but do little to help you find your salvation.

If there is to be any integrity in what we believe, what we say, and what we do, it has to begin with us accepting Jesus’ invitation to let the children come to Him. In this case the invitation is to each one of us to allow Jesus into our hearts. And then, after we have let Jesus into our hearts, our souls, and our minds, then we must go out into the world, not just telling people about Jesus but showing them how Jesus changes lives and offers hope. The integrity of our souls is at stake if we do otherwise.

What Do You Do?


This was the message that I gave on 24 October 1993 at Grace UMC in St. Cloud, MN as part of Laity Sunday. While this was the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, it was still early in my lay speaking career and I was still “picking and choosing” my Scripture readings instead of following the lectionary as I do today.

I wasn’t supposed to give the message this year. Though it was only October, I knew that I would be moving to Kansas after the current school year was completed and I wanted to begin a transition from “leader” to “observer”. I had organized the previous two Laity Sunday services and felt that others should begin getting involved. But on the Saturday afternoon before this Sunday, the person scheduled to give the message called and told me he was unable to be in church on Sunday and I would need to fill in. As this was early in my career, I wasn’t quite ready to do so but when you are a lay speaker you have said that you would answer the call when it is made and that is what I did. Because of the time frame of preparation, I liberally borrowed from messages I had given elsewhere figuring that no one present at Grace had been present at the places in Missouri and Tennessee where I had preached earlier. Unfortunately I forgot that one of those messages had been videotaped and I had shared that tape with some of the congregation. J

I based my thoughts for this message on 2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6 and Matthew 15: 24 – 25.

One of the churches where I have been a member is large enough to have a senior pastor and an associate pastor. During the Sunday worship, the associate pastor takes care of the lectionary readings, the prayers of the congregation, and the offering. There is also a youth minister to take care of the “Children’s Moment”. This leaves the senior pastor to concentrate on the sermon. At this church it is the custom for the children, following the “Children’s Moment”, to go to another area of the church where they have a Children’s service. One Sunday, as one young girl walked by the pulpit, she looked at the senior pastor and asked “What do you do?” For you see, every Sunday this child saw the associate pastor lead the congregation in prayer and other activities. She would go up to the altar to be with the Youth Minister for the “Children’s Moment”. But all she saw the other man do was sit in his chair because she, along with the other children, left before he preached. In answer to her question, the senior pastor did the “Children’s Moment” the next week.

“What do you do” has been a question for the church for a number of years. As we look at the world around us today, we have to ask ourselves “What do we do to change the direction of the world from its path of sin and desolation?” What do we do when society around us is intolerant of poverty and shows no concern for its less fortunate members? These questions are not unique to our generation; they have been with us since Jesus began His ministry.

John Wesley struggled with these questions for many years. He could not sit idly by and watch his church ignore the plight and conditions of the lower classes. In an exchange with Joseph Butler, the Bishop of Bristol, Wesley made it clear what he felt he must do.

Bishop Butler — “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”

John Wesley — “My lord, my business on earth is to do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do the most good here. Therefore here I stay.” (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal”, 16th to 24th August, 1739.)

John Wesley understood that a church and a nation which ignores members of its society can never expect worldly success, let alone success in Heaven. Having accepted Christ as one’s personal Savior, you could not sit back and wait for the Glory of the Lord to come to you. You had to take the message of the Gospel out into the world, both in thought, word and deed. To the elders of the Church of England, this call for action was unconscionable. How dare a pastor call for such radical action. This was a time when more and more people were getting wealthy every day so it was permissible to ignore those few who were not quite so fortunate. Remember poverty in Wesley’s time was thought to be a reflection of one’s sinful life. If you were rich, it was because you had lead a good life. If you were poor, it was because you were not living the right kind of life. It wasn’t the church’s fault that people were homeless and hungry; that medical care for the lower classes was almost non-existent; that only the rich could afford to go to school. Wesley would have felt right at home in the United States these last few years when concern for one’s own well-being was more important than a concern for members of society.

John Wesley understood that the church must present a message people understand. But the message must also be accompanied by actions. To Wesley, preaching the Gospel was more than a Sunday experience; it was a daily occurrence. Preaching the Gospel alone is not enough when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society; you must help people overcome such barriers. If people are hungry, they must be feed; if people are sick, they must be healed; if the people seek to improve their lives through education, there need to be schools. If the church is to be a vital and living part of the community today, it must offer the hope and promise of the Gospel message to all who seek it.

Yet, instead of supporting the work of Wesley and his followers, people in the Church of England barred them from preaching in the churches. Yet this did not stop the Methodist Revival. Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers simply began to preach wherever they could find the space. If that meant preaching in fields, then they preached in the fields.

When conditions cry for revolution, there will be a revolution. Many historians have looked at the conditions in England, both economic and social, and wondered why England did not undergo a violent revolution like that of France at much the same time. The difference between the revolution in England and the revolution in France can be attributed to the nature of the Methodist revival. Wesley and the early members of the Methodist Revival, by working to bring the Gospel to the people of England and changing the conditions of society, removed the threat of a violent revolution.

It was the same for Jesus. There was a need for a revolution in his country. Not the political revolution many people sought but a spiritual revolution. For people no longer heard a message of a Loving Father who cared for His children. Many people at that time probably did not even know that their God cared for them. The rules and regulations of the church made it impossible for them to do so. It wasn’t that they had left their religion but that their religion had left them. The message they did hear held no promise or hope. As Paul wrote in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians,

“He (speaking of Jesus) is the one who has helped us tell others about his new agreement to save them. We do not tell them that they must obey every law of God or die; but we tell them there is life for them for the Holy Spirit. The old way, trying to be saved by keeping the Ten Commandments, ends in death; in the new way, the Holy Spirit gives them life. (2 Corinthians 3: 6)

In his message and in his actions, Jesus sought to bring people back to God; to show them that their Father in Heaven did care for them and did truly love them.

The same thing is true today. The world is crying for a spiritual revolution. People are leaving the church today because they see a church which no longer cares about them and is indifferent to the needs of society. Today churches are seeking ways to bring back that generation we call the “baby boomers”. And, whatever actions are taken, they must be taken quickly because we could lose the next two generations, the “baby busters” and the children of the baby boomers. The church’s actions must reflect its mission. Such actions must also reflect the genuine compassion that Jesus felt for those who sought Him. Elton Trueblood offers the following thought:

“Because we cannot reasonably expect to erect a constantly expanding structure of social activism upon a constantly diminishing foundation of faith, attention to the cultivation of the inner life is our first order of business, even in a period of rapid social change. The Church, if it is to affect the world, must become a center from which new spiritual power emanates. While the Church must be secular in the sense that it operates in the world, if it is only secular it will not have the desired effect upon the secular order which it is called upon to penetrate. With no diminution of concern for people, we can and must give new attention to the production of a trustworthy religious experience.” (From The New Man for Our Time by Elton Trueblood)

When Jesus began to preach the Gospel, the message He gave was for everyone, not just a select few. Jesus never turned away anyone who sought His ministry. His ministry was open to all who sought Him. Jesus took his ministry to the people so that the people could come to Him.

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” And he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Sending her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me”. And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”. She said, “Yes, Lord: yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” An her daughter was healed instantly. And Jesus went on from there and passed along the Sea of Galilee. and he went up on the mountain, and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the throng wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.” (Matthew 15: 21 – 31)

The salvation we gain by accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior is not a two-way path. There is no way for us to gain salvation without going to Jesus Christ. But, if people are to come to Jesus, there must be a path available. Consider the desire of people who truly want to come to Jesus. In Mark 2 we read

“And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay.” (Mark 2: 1 – 4)

This man and his friends did what it took to get to Jesus. But not all people have such capability. If the path to Jesus is blocked, the people will turn away.

Every time we look around today, we see more reasons why the Church should be a part of society. Today, numerous studies tell churches how to revitalize their congregations, how to bring life back into dying congregations. Every time, the same answer comes through back. It is the members of the congregation which must do the work. That is what today is about. Laity Sunday honors the work of all those who do the work of the church. It also points out the role the laity has in bringing the Gospel message to the world.

Today Jesus is calling you. He is asking you to be a part of His community; to do His work. What will you do? Samuel heard God calling him and answered “Here I am Lord.” The disciples dropped what they were doing when asked by Jesus to follow Him. Paul did not want to become the missionary to the world; he wanted to put a stop to the mission of Jesus. As Saul, he saw Jesus and his followers as a threat to a way of life. Yet, after encountering the Holy Spirit on the road to Damascus, Paul understood what a life in Jesus Christ meant.

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of god. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world (meaning Satan) has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of god. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”. (2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6)

Today, Jesus asks us the same question the little girl asked the senior pastor, “What do you do?” How will you answer him?

Carrying the load


Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 30 October 2011. The Scripture readings for this Sunday are Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, and Matthew 23: 1 – 12. I have put my previous posts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A) and my posts for these readings at the end of this particular post.

I have edited this since it was first posted.

Somewhere on my blog there is a note that I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education from the University of Iowa. That means several things. It means that my academic gown is a little more elaborate than the gowns worn by those with Master’s degrees (though I liked the sleeves on the Master’s gown) or those worn by those with Bachelor’s degrees. It would have been nice if I could have gotten a beret to wear but that wasn’t part of the Iowa package. But I am happy with a robe that has a nice hood that shows my area to be science oriented and trimmed with the black and gold of Iowa.

More importantly, for those who are familiar with the field of science education, Iowa is the standard by which the field is measured. Because I choose to do my work in chemical education, it might have been better if I had gone to Purdue instead. Purdue has been the center of chemical education research since the late 1950s, when we began seriously examining the nature of how individuals learned science. But the opportunity to attend Iowa and complete my doctorate there was something that I could not pass up. To the credit of my doctoral committee, they gave me the opportunity to follow some ideas that I had rather than forcing me to choose one of their ideas that, while valuable to the field of science education, did not fit into my own career plans. It should be pointed out that I wanted to stay in and have stayed in chemistry; if I had desired or wanted to pursue a more education oriented career path, it would have been far more beneficial to follow the lead of the faculty at Iowa.

So, I am entitled to the use the title “Doctor” because I have earned it. But as a number of my friends, who supported me in the pursuit of this degree, have told me, they still won’t kiss my ring because of the extra letters I can put after my name.

But I have encountered many individuals who are like the religious scholars and Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. They have that air about them that says that because they have a doctorate or, even worse, a doctorate from the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, they are to be treated as royalty and every word that they uttered is to be treated as if it were from God Himself. There are on occasion those who even view God as an interloper into their realm. The sad part is that because the way life in academia goes, such attitudes are more prevalent and tend to be the norm, rather than the exception. And if you so desire to move forward in an academic-based life, it is the way that you have to go.

We do live in a world that almost demands adherence to the status quo, even when such adherence works against the goals of the organization. That I have a doctorate in science education means to some that I cannot, as I have written on a number of occasions, also have an active lay ministry. And for some, being an active lay minister in the United Methodist Church means that I cannot have a doctorate in science.

I also think that you are supposed to maintain the status quo when you receive your doctorate, even when your research and your writings are “outside the box” when it comes to the status quo. As I have pointed out on this blog, there have been a number of instances where I did something driven by my research or interests that don’t fit within what others think my doctorate should be about. Case in point – I was doing things relative to computer literacy before computer literacy was even considered a buzz word. Because I was ahead of the curve, I received quite a bit of static instead of praise. I thought that having a doctorate meant pushing the envelope, not simply confirming that wheels are round.

If the title that you have or the place you went to school is all that matters, then I fear that we are in for a very rude awakening in this country. For the simple fact of the matter is that we can’t all go to the very best schools and we can’t all have the fancy titles. Somewhere along the line, we have to get our hands dirty.

Twelve men were picked to carry the Ark of the Covenant across the River Jordan. While they stood in the River, the water stopped flowing and the people could cross safely. The Old Testament reading tells us that the river went dry while the twelve were standing in the river bed. But I wonder if the ground was immediately dry or if took some time to get that way. If it took time, that meant that the twelve carrying the ark were standing in mud for a little bit of time. It probably dried out as the people walked across but it had to be messy at the beginning.

And Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he and Silas worked at other jobs so as not to burden the people. Paul also speaks of the attitude in which they worked. Contrast what Paul to the Thessalonians with what was written about a prominent televangelist a few years ago –

One friend of mine in Texas recently inquired to see if a prominent preacher could speak at her conference. The minister’s assistant faxed back a list of requirements that had to be met in order to book a speaking engagement. The demands included:

  • a five-figure honorarium
  • a $10,000 gasoline deposit for the private plane
  • a manicurist and hairstylist for the speaker
  • a suite in a five-star hotel
  • a luxury car from the airport to the hotel (2004 model or newer)
  • room-temperature Perrier

This really makes me wonder how the apostle Paul, Timothy or Priscilla managed ministering to so many people in Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalonica. How did they survive without a manicurist if they broke a nail while laying hands on the sick? (from http://www.fireinmybones.com/Columns/072707.html – his is only one part of what J. Lee Grady wrote; let’s just say that some of those who claim to be preaching the Word of God are quoting the wrong book.)

It isn’t about who you are but what you do and why you do it. The research professor who simply passes notes to his graduate students about what to do and then write up the research report so that it can be submitted over his name without giving credit will have a hard time understanding the research if he never goes into the lab. The preacher (and there are so many of them today) who proclaim the prosperity gospel the true word of God will have a very hard time when they answer to St. Peter.

But I am concerned with those who listen to those false prophets and accept their words as the divine truth. I am concerned for those who see the poverty in this country but walk on by it; who see the need for housing in this country but choose to let the bankers destroy the housing industry. I am concerned with those who would rather let the insurance companies destroy the medical profession instead of seeking health care for all. I am truly concerned for those who say that the role of a Christian is to make disciples of all the peoples but who have no idea what that means.

It does not mean that we force people to believe as we do. When Jesus gathered with the disciples for what we call the Last Supper he told them love one another as He had loved them. This is how others would know that they were His disciples, by the love that they show for others. To show the love for others means that we must carry the load. We cannot stand on the side of the river and expect others to do the work; we have to be willing to help in whatever way we can. The Bible is filled with those stories that tell us the consequences of not completely the task before us.

In this time of so much uncertainty, it bodes well when we carry the load. Those who refuse to do so will find out soon enough what their refusal means.

“The Answer To The Question”


Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7; 2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15; and Luke 17: 11 – 19.

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If you haven’t noticed, there is something unique about this date. It isn’t that it is a “double” date, which it is. And it isn’t necessarily that it is a “triple” date, which it is as well. There is a “double” date in every month and there are a string of “triple” dates in every decade.

No, the uniqueness in this number comes from another source. Just as 6:02 am on October 23rd can be used to represent Avogadro’s number (NA = 6.02 x 1023), so too does the binary representation of today (101010) have a second meaning.

In base 10, 101010 is equivalent to 42. And, if you are a fan or follower of Douglas Adams, then you know that this is the answer to the question about life, the universe and everything. In the process of hitch-hiking across the galaxy, the hero of the Adams’ novels encounters the ultimate computer which provides the ultimate answer, “42”. Unfortunately, the question for which this is the answer is “what is 6 * 9?” And, as I pointed out in “The Answer to the Question”, this means one of two things; either the universe and life itself are highly irrational, or whoever wrote the original question was very, very confused.

There is probably something wrong in and with society today and this is causing great conflict, grief, and distress in our lives today. Now, there are some who will gladly tell you what the solution is. Some of these individuals will be glad to sell you the secret to the solution for $19.95 plus shipping and handling charges.

Others will merrily tell you that the answer is found in the “Good Book”, the Bible, and all you have to do is send their ministry any amount of money you want and it will be used as seed money and, in no time at all, your money will be returned to you ten-fold and all your problems will disappear. Other religious types will say that the problems of this country are rooted in the moral structure of this country and that the key to finding the solution and leading a better life is found in a rigid, inflexible structure where they do the thinking for you and where one’s ability to think freely is limited to matters of faith and faith alone.

And there are those, of course, who hear the words of the fake preachers and the extreme preachers and say that they are the words of all ministers and they represent the ideas of all the church and are reflective of the Gospel in its basic intent. But the problem with these modern thinkers who proudly bear the title of atheist is that they do not offer a solution either. What they do offer is a non-religion religion, a belief system based on non-belief which is as irrational as those fundamentalists who offer a limited worldview or those prosperity gospel preachers who only wish to line their own pockets.

Now, as a chemist and one who believes in research, I have to think that all problems have solutions, even if the solution is not readily or easily obtained. The critical thing about solving problems is to not limit one’s self in finding solutions. Perhaps this is what Thomas Kuhn came to call a paradigm shift; a radical change in the view of the world because the evidence before you required a different view of the world. We limit our solutions because we have limited ourselves.

I have to imagine that it was that way with the people of Israel at the time of the writing of the Book of Jeremiah. They were in exile in Babylon and Jerusalem was far away in ruins and desolate. The Babylonians had taken the best of the best, the brightest of the brightest and then destroyed their homeland. It was as if the world had come to an end for them.

And then what does God, through Jeremiah, tell them to do? They were to build houses and plant gardens. They were to marry and have children. They were to make Babylon their home. I would have thought that many people would have felt that God would have wanted them to do just the opposite. After all, Jerusalem was their home; it was where the Temple was and it was where God lived.

But Jeremiah states that if things go well for Babylon, then things will go well for the people of Israel. Because somewhere along the line, God has not deserted them; He was right there with them. If I understand the context of these writings and the time of the exile, it is a time when the concept of God having a home is altered. To put God in the Temple and only the Temple limits God to the desires of the people; if the Temple is destroyed, then God is destroyed and the people lose. In a sense, that is why the Babylonians destroyed the Temple; it was to destroy the hopes of the people.

But, if God resides with the people, then the hopes cannot be destroyed. And if the people begin a new life with God in a new place then the hopes will be reborn and continue. It is exactly that which Paul is expressing to Timothy; that our lives are intertwined with God through Christ when we have accepted Christ.

Those who find solace in the words know that there is hope. It may be that they have encountered someone who gave them hope or there was a moment in their own lives when they saw a fleeting glimpse of home.

Ten lepers encountered Christ on the road between Galilee and Samaria. Obeying all protocols, they asked for mercy but from a distance. And Jesus granted them that mercy, cleansing them of their illness. And when they had all discovered that they were clean, one of them came back to say “thank you”. Now, I have written about this before (“Saying Thank You”) but I wondered what happened to other nine. Oh, I am sure they were cured of the disease but did they change their lives so that they wouldn’t get it again.

I don’t think it was necessarily that important that the one who did come back was a Samaritan. It could have been anyone who was an outcast in the society of that time. But Jesus chose a Samaritan to make a point, that the world that He was offering was a new world, a world with room for all and with a new vision. It was not a world limited by place, time, or ability. But it did require that each individual choose to begin a new life in Christ.

And there we are. We stare out at the world around us and we wonder. “What it will take to change the world; to remove the strife and violence; to make the world productive and the people healthy?” I don’t that the world will ever be free of differences; I don’t think that I would want to live in such a world. It is the differences that make this world but it is our inability to accept differences because our visions are limited that make this world what it is today. We want to know the answer but we may not necessarily know the question.

The answers to these questions are not found in some wacky, misguided computer that was programmed improperly when it was built. The answer is not found in some secret sold only in the late hours or early mornings of the day on an obscure shopping channel. They are most definitely not found in the words of a false shaman or preacher who would have you follow his interpretation of the Gospel. And they are not found in those who say there are no words to turn to.

There are words to turn to and they have been spoken over the years. The answers to the questions we ask are found in our heart but if our heart is empty, the answers have no meaning. For me, the foundation of life is found in Christ and it is through Christ that I can offer wisdom and thought, solace and comfort, and the promise of hope for a better tomorrow. If you are seeking the answers, if there is that emptiness in your heart, then Christ can be the answer. And if you have found Christ, then you are invited to share that discovery with others.

The question is and will always be, “will you follow me?” Only you know the answer to that very basic question.

Now Is The Time


This is the message that I presented on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 17 October 2004, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 27 – 34, 2 Timothy 3: 14 – 4: 5, and Luke 18: 1 – 8.

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When I first read today’s Scriptures, my first thoughts were of a saying that I thought came from the Sixties, “If not now, when?” But, in my preparation for today, I could not find any reference to a time, a place, or a person where this was ever said.

I did find a phrase by Rabbi Hillel, a noted Jewish rabbi and scholar of the 19th century. But it wasn’t the phrase that I was looking for and I wasn’t sure if it even contained the same idea that I originally had. And besides, when I looked at the Scriptures again, I saw that the words spoke of now being the time for action rather than simply a question of when action should take place.

Now is the time when people should be calling for justice in a world that seems to be unjust. Now is the time when the cries for justice will be answered. Now is the time when we should be building, not destroying. Now is the time when people listen to the words of their youth and their heart rather than follow the leadership of those who espouse myths and easy promises for a better life.

We claim to be a Christian nation. Much of the political rhetoric of today’s campaigns is phrased in the aura of Christianity. Yet, how much of what is said today is actually Christian? Consider how this Christian nation is responding to terrorism. Terrorism is a product and an outgrowth of poverty, homelessness, disease, and oppression. Yet, our response to terrorism is more violence, more repression. We ignore the very things that create terrorists in the first place.

As a Christian nation, we should be responding to the needs of the homeless, the sick, the poor, and the oppressed. Yet, like our predecessors, we say to Christ, “when did we see thee homeless or sick or in need?” Our faith today seems to be a faith of convenience. We want it there when we need it but we are unwilling to be there when Christ needs us.

It is no longer be a question of when Christ will come. The words of Jeremiah tell us that now is the time of Christ’s coming. Yet, too many preachers today proclaim a false prophecy and speak of the coming of Christ as a future event. They speak of Christ’s coming but ignore the world around them. They speak as if only a chosen few, chosen by them rather than God, will be rewarded. These preachers, not God, tell their followers which path to walk so that one can receive redemption and salvation. In a world that cries for justice, it is the loudest representatives of Christ who act like the ones who persecuted Christ?

The frightening thing in all of this is that people listen to these false preachers. They accept these false concepts of the Gospel because it is easier to do that than to do what we are called to do in the Gospel message. It is easier to blame the homeless, the sick, the oppressed for the problems of the world than it is to build houses, hospitals, and restore justice. It is easier to see a glory to come later than to work for glory now. It is easier today to have a faith of convenience and ease than it is to have a faith of belief and action. But, as Christ said to us today, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Those not willing to walk the path where Christ leads are not likely to find the true faith.

Paul tells Timothy to be wary of those who teach false myths. What would Paul say today about the preachers who preach hatred, division and oppression, intolerance and ignorance, all in the name of Christ? Paul’s counsel to Timothy is to hold to that faith of his youth, to the teachings that were true. Even in the roughest times, hold to the truth that is found in your heart. Like the widow in today’s Gospel reading, if one holds to the truth found in God through Christ, one will prevail.

And it will not be a long wait. We hear from the prophet Jeremiah that now is the time. Jeremiah tells us that God now has a new covenant, one cast not in stone but written on our hearts. It is a covenant to replace the one that brought our ancestors out of bondage in Egypt. Jeremiah, in this passage, speaks of the new covenant formed between the people of this world and God through Christ. But it is a covenant that requires that we participate.

Now, you will say that this is all well and good. But violence is sometimes the only response to violence. I will not deny that one has to defend one’s self but should we seek violence. Remember that on the night Jesus was arrested Peter took a sword in defense of Him and cut off the ear of one of those who came to arrest Jesus. But Jesus commanded Peter to put down the sword and then healed the one who Peter struck.

You will say that we are only single individuals living in New York. You will say that it is hard enough to live and work here without having to take on the challenges of the world. Besides, nothing we do locally changes the global landscape. And, we have enough to do here at Tompkins Corners so we cannot worry about other things.

But what we do here today does have an impact on what happens elsewhere. Did we not, as a church, give a portion of our offering so that a person from this area could go to Mozambique and minister in the name of the Lord? Do not our birthday offerings go to relieve the homeless problem in this area? Do not our apportionments, along with those of other United Methodist Churches, expand the reach of this church beyond the boundaries of the corners and the county?

And do we not, as individuals, come in contact with countless others each day? Do we not, for brief moments each day, have the opportunity to show the presence of Christ in our lives?

The answer to all these questions is that we do. And each time we do something like that, we make a difference. Yest, it is a small difference but like the mustard seed of two weeks ago, from little differences come great things.

We must do as Paul counsels Timothy today. Hold fast to what you know is true. Hold fast to the counsel and guidance provided through the Holy Spirit. Continue doing what your knowledge of the scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit tell you is the right thing to do. We must listen to what is in our heart and in our mind, not what others might say. It is not an easy task, Paul tells Timothy, but it is the one task that receives the true rewards.

We know that this is the time. Maybe you have been hearing Christ calling to you, asking you to repent. Now is the time to answer Christ’s calling. We know that this is the time where we can fight for justice, where we can reach out and show the power and the presence of Christ as our Savior. Maybe now is the time for you, individually, and we, as the church collectively, to renew the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Maybe the Holy Spirit has been calling you, asking you to reach out to your neighbor and invite them to be with us next Sunday. Now is the time to answer that call.

Jeremiah tells the people that this is the time when God will renew His covenant with His people. Now is the time to put our names on that covenant.

“How Can I?” – The meaning of Advent


Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2009. The scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16, 1 Thessalonians 3: 9 – 13, and Luke 21: 25 – 36.

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Advent is meant to be the season of preparation for the coming of Christ but as I look around, I can’t help but wonder if I can write about the meaning of Advent.

How do you speak or write of preparation for a day in December when there are so many people in the world today for whom getting through today is more important than anything else? What do you say to a person whose Thanksgiving dinner was, perhaps, nothing more than a bowl of soup and some crackers? What do you say to the person who wonders if they will find a warm place to spend the night, let alone the next few days? What do you say to the family whose son, daughter, father or mother has been told that they will be sent overseas to fight in a battle that doesn’t appear to have an ending? What do you say to the person or the person’s family when they have been informed that they need immediate medical care but the health insurance company refuses to pay for it?

How can you preach a message of preparation when the message of society is to live only for yourself and for today? How can you preach a message that speaks of hope and opportunity for all of God’s children when so many ministers and religious leaders say that only a few are chosen and the rest will be cast aside.

It is no wonder that so many have left the church and there are so many who see the hypocrisy in the words and actions of the church. It is no wonder that so many people view Christmas as a co-opted pagan holiday and Christianity (and probably all religion) as mythical in nature.

As long as the focus of the church, denominationally and individually, is on the members of the church and only on the members of the church, Advent will be nothing more than four weeks of marking time until the church decides to die.

The church, for the most part, has forgotten what the Gospel message is and to whom it was given. It wasn’t given to the rich and powerful; it was given to those that the rich and powerful hated and despised; it was given to those who the rich and powerful could not see. It was given to those that society had cast aside or thrown away. It was a message for the ones that society had forgotten.

The church, for the most part, has built walls to keep people out when they should have been opening the doors so that they can come in. We sing of the shepherds, the lowest social class at that time, visiting the babe in the manager but we will not let the lower classes into our sanctuary.

The church is leaving the places where it should be present. You can’t build a successful mega-church in the inner city because the people will not come. You have to build the mega-churches out in the rich suburbs where the money is. And there are more churches concerned with their own well-being than they are the well-being of the people. And if you are out in the suburbs, you don’t have to come into the city, so you can ignore the problems.

And most importantly, as the number of homeless and hungry and poor increases, the church has remained remarkably silent. The church should echo the message of Jesus who spoke of seeking the one lost sheep while our corporations and their supporters tell us that such a loss is acceptable.

The church should be more concerned with the number of people who are hungry and without shelter than worrying about a person’s sexuality and lifestyle. The church should be more concerned with banks and financial firms that reap excessive profits and charge unreasonable and high fees than they are with the music that is sung in church.

Because Jesus was tortured by the political authorities of His day, the church today should be more concerned and not so silent that our country has tacitly approved the torture of individuals simply because their skin is darker and their faith is different.

Because Jesus fed the multitudes and healed the sick, the church today should be more concerned and not so silent that one in six today goes hungry and that the number of people without adequate healthcare increases everyday. But it seems that too many churches, individually and denominationally, feel that poverty and hunger are still signs of sin, not society. And too many churches today, individually and denominationally, feel that it is more important to tell someone who they can or cannot marry and what they can or can do with their body than insure their health and well-being.

There are many churches today making a difference in this world but there are as many churches where the words of Christ are said in a service on Sunday and forgotten before the person has even left the building. It is as if what a preacher says on Sunday has no meaning the rest of the week. Those who say that religion has no meaning or place in today’s society only need to point to what people see in churches today to prove that they are right. Unfortunately, those in church today can’t see the same thing because of the logs in their eyes.

It will take more than just remembering what Jesus said about taking the log out of our own eye before we take the splinter out of someone else’s eye.

And perhaps that is what Advent is about. Maybe now is the time for the wakeup call; maybe now is the time to begin preparing our hearts and minds and souls for Christ.

No matter the situation, we are reminded of a promise made to us through the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel that one would come who would execute righteousness and justice. We are reminded by Luke that no matter what may happen in this world, the words remain true.

Time and time again, it has been we who have reneged on our part of the covenant with God. Time and time again, we have walked away from God, turning to Him only when we needed Him. We see Christ not as our Lord but as our servant, to grant to us that which we want. But, time and time again, God has given us another chance.

And that is why we have Advent. We have to prepare for the coming of Christ, not on any particular day but in our hearts and in our minds. The promises are true and we who have heard those words must make sure that they are not forgotten and that the promises made are kept.

The Holy Child will not come to us; we must seek, as did the shepherds that night, the Holy Child. We must cast aside the trappings that society insists we bring with us; Christ will remove the burden of our lives from sin and death but only if we seek Him. Burdened by the trappings of society and unwilling to let go of them, we cannot make the journey.

This is not about doing good works in hopes that such works will get you into heaven. That is a debate for another time and for another place. What it is about is the fact that we are Christ’s representatives on this earth and we are the ones who by our acknowledgement that we are such must do his work. One time, many years ago, I saw the passage to heaven through the good works path. And my minister pointed out that it was still God’s grace, not anything that I could do, that would get me in. But because I had accepted Christ and because I proclaimed myself a Methodist, I had an obligation to work for Christ, to work in the way that Christ worked, and to do what Christ did.

If the birth of Christ is to have meaning in this world, it is because we have decided that Christmas is more than one day out of the year. And that is why we begin the season of Advent, not to prepare for one day but to prepare ourselves for a life in Christ, with Christ and for Christ. We can offer hope to those without hope, who have been forgotten in today’s society. But we must first cast aside the ways and trappings of a society that speaks of wealth and power as a sign of righteousness and pick up the mantle of the servant that Christ offers to us.

The promise of Advent lies in what we do these coming days, not what lies at the end. To speak of the promise is to speak of a new reality, the fulfillment of the Gospel. How can I speak of Advent as the promise of Christ? Because it is, it will be and because we must.