“Seeing The Trees For The Forest”


I got the call to preach on a Friday night (ah, the life of a lay speaker and a circuit rider).  I will be preaching at the Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY (location of church) at 9:30 and then traveling down the road to its partner, Red Hook United Methodist Church (Location of church) to preach at 11:00.  You all are invited to either service (or both).

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The Scriptures for this Sunday are Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4; 2: 1- 4; 2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 4, 11 – 12; and Luke 19: 1 – 10.

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In one of the first sermons I ever preached I pointed out that if John Wesley were alive today, he would be very confused as to what century he was in. (Yes, I know that he would also be very old). 

He would look around at cars and planes and marvel how easy it would be to get from place to place.  He would look at computers and cell phones and the various combinations of computers and cell phones and be thoroughly amazed.  But I think that he would see ways to utilize each of the technologies that did not exist in the mid-18th century to better spread the Gospel message.

But he would also look around and wonder if he was, in fact, even in the 21st century.  After all, he would still see countries building empires and using military might to maintain control in the world.  He would see corporations that still oppressed the working and lower classes.  He would see individuals denied educational opportunities and discrimination because of a person’s gender or race.  He would see drug abuse and alcoholism reminiscent of 18th century England.

He would see a church indifferent to the needs of the people, where the words spoken and read every Sunday have no meaning the rest of the week. He would people proclaim loudly and proudly how Christian they were but whose lifestyle was more like a Pharisee than a sinner. He would see a church where the word sanctuary implies protection from the outside world.  He would have to wonder what happened to these people who called themselves Methodist. 

When you consider the works that were done during the Methodist Revival of the mid-18th century (schools for children, health clinics for those who had no health care, credit unions for those who did not have access to the banks, efforts to give equality to women and children, work to end slavery and discrimination) and you look around at what we are doing today, I cannot help but think that John Wesley would be very confused.

He would wonder what happened to the health care initiatives that he pursued in London and also wonder why the poor, the lower and middle classes were still at the mercy of the rich and powerful.

And why shouldn’t he be confused.  Against the backdrop of today’s form of Christianity, with what we believe and think Christianity is and what it should be, we are see the world as a forest but we can’t see the trees and we dare not venture into the depths and darkness of the forest. We know that there are problems in there, problems that we ought to deal with but we would rather ignore them and stay in our own safe shelter. Or we would much rather someone else solve the problem and neither bother us or ask to help in any way, shape, or form. We have focused so much on the “big picture” that we no longer see the little parts of the same picture.

I think about what Habakkuk might think if he were alive today (and yes, I know, he would be really, really old).  We live in a world in which people declare that that the Bible is truth. They will also tell you that the truth of the Bible allows them to plunder the environment, espouse hate in all forms, to discriminate against someone if you don’t like something about them and allows them to gather wealth without thought of source or result. The attitudes and mindset of too many people today speak to an indifference and ignorance of God’s Word.

The message of the Bible speaks to the human condition and, many times, to society’s indifference to the suffering of others.  In that sense, I think that Habakkuk’s words, first spoken so many years ago, are still true today.

We have heard the words of the prophets but, like the people of Israel three thousand years ago, have ignored them.  We are more and more like the Pharisees and scribes who complained when Jesus told Zaccaheus that He would have dinner with him that night.  The church today seems more concerned with appearances than it is with its mission in the world.  The church today clearly sees the forest but cannot identify the trees.

There are people today, and I believe that the number increases with each passing hour, who are beginning to see that the ignorance and hatred, the indifference and discrimination, the violence and anger that is so much a part of this world today will not work. But they see a church that stands by passively and does nothing and wonder what can be done.

And I know that there are those in the church today who understand that the church must do something but cannot see a way for anything to be done inside a church trapped in a collective mindset of caution and unwillingness to do what they have been called to do.

There is, out in the Methodist world, a new report entitled “A Call to Action”.  It speaks to what some in the United Methodist Church feel the denomination should be doing.  I will not make any judgment at this time because I haven’t read the report.  But I was intrigued by John Meunier’s thoughts on this report (“Call to Action: A rope of sand”), especially in some words that John Wesley wrote in his letter “Plain account of the People called Methodists”.

There were those in 18th century England who basically saw the Methodist revival as creating a schism in the Church of England.  Those in the Church of England felt that those who were called themselves Methodists were separating from the church.  But Wesley argued that those who called themselves Methodist felt that they were not a part of the church nor did they feel that they had any sort of connection to the church.  Wesley wrote

If it be said, “But there are some true Christians in the parish, and you destroy the Christian fellowship between these and them;” I answer, That which never existed, cannot be destroyed. But the fellowship you speak of never existed. Therefore it cannot be destroyed. Which of those true Christians had any such fellowship with these? Who watched over them in love? Who marked their growth in grace? Who advised and exhorted them from time to time? Who prayed with them and for them, as they had need? This, and this alone, is Christian fellowship: But, alas! where is it to be found? Look east or west, nor or south; name what parish you please: Is this Christian fellowship there? Rather, are not the bulk of the parishioners a mere rope of sand? What Christian connexion is there between them? What intercourse in spiritual things? What watching over each other’s souls? What bearing of one another’s burdens? What a mere jest is it then, to talk so gravely of destroying what never was! The real truth is just the reverse of this: We introduce Christian fellowship where it was utterly destroyed. And the fruits have been peace, joy, love, and zeal for every good word and work.  (“Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” in The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 9:259).

I would agree with John that Wesley’s words, written in defense of Methodists and the beginning Methodist Revival,

“a much more stinging description of the state of too many of our United Methodist congregations? Are not many of us little more than ropes of sand – not fit for helping anyone climb to the higher reaches of Christian life and love?  (from “Call to Action: A rope of sand”)

So there we are, like Zaccaheus, desperately trying to find Jesus in a forest of people and wondering how it can be done.

We heard Habakkuk’s words of despair this morning, of describing a world of indifference and wondering how things could change. We also heard God tell Habakkuk that there would be a vision and that he, Habakkuk, would write it down for all to see. He was to describe that vision very clearly so that the people will see it and know what it is.  The role Habakkuk was to play was to make sure that people knew what that vision was.

Perhaps we should take a clue from Zaccaheus and find another way to see Jesus.  I know that it is an old cliché but we need some sort of alternative thinking, some outside-the-box type of thoughts.  If people cannot see Jesus, perhaps we need to find new ways of showing His presence in this world.

If we are to regain our vision of the mission of the church, we may very well have to climb the tree like Zaccaheus did and go out on a limb.  We need to leave the safety of the sanctuary and do things that reflect the message of the Gospel and, in our case, the history of the Methodist Revival.  It may mean that we look around our neighborhood and our community and see what God is calling us to do.

When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, one of the first things that he did was tell them how he describes what they were doing to others that he has met.  The words that we read today, the words that speak of the love of God, Christ, and community amongst the people of Thessalonica, are words that reflect what was transpiring in the early Methodists societies as well.  There was a community of faith being built, it was a community of faith that involved everyone and did not exclude anyone.

The United Methodist Church is at a point in time where its future is cloudy and uncertain.  It can continue as it has been doing and it will die.  Or it can find its soul in what it once was and be renewed.  And in its own renewal it can again be a force of change, of hope and promise in the world around it.

But it is a matter of seeing the trees instead of the forest, of seeing the opportunities that exist, even if we do not know that they exist.  It means doing things because we are called to do things instead of doing things because they are expected to be done.

If you will allow me a moment of personal privilege, I want to speak of such an opportunity that begins this Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church in Newburgh, New York.

This past summer, my wife helped with the Vacation Bible School at Grace.  One of the things that she observed was the number of neighborhood kids who came to VBS hungry.  I don’t have the actual numbers before me but it would be safe to say that 75% of the students in the Newburgh elementary schools receive breakfast before school during the school year.  But these meals do not exist during the summer or when school is not in session.  What do they do on weekends and during the summer months?

Now, just as I hope my ministry is found in the Word and its presentation, my wife’s ministry is found in the gardens of the church and the kitchen.  It has been said that when she does coffee hour after the second service on Sunday, reservations are required.  :)

But her thoughts were about the children of the neighborhood and what she could do.  And out of those thoughts came what is now called “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.”  This will be a feeding ministry for the children of the neighborhood on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  It will not be a breakfast created by an institution but with love and care, as if Jesus were coming to eat with us. It will be a meal cooked with love and care because it is what is expected of us when we say we are Christians and Methodists.

I brought a few of the flyers with information about the program with me today.

I invite you to be a part of this program in whatever way you feel called to respond.  Perhaps you will come this Saturday and following Saturdays to help and possibly begin your own program.  Perhaps your presence will be in other ways.

This is not the only feeding ministry at Grace.  Our youth, along with the youth of several other local churches, have begun a feeding ministry of their own on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month.  This ministry was developed on their own initiative as well and speaks to the notion that we Methodists have been and are a part of the community.

There are times when the solution to a problem is easily seen and easily resolved. But other times the forest of humanity seems to block our vision and we have to climb a tree in order to find a solution.

It worked for Zaccaheus and he found salvation.  I think it is time that we see the trees in the forest and find the one that allows us to see our path, our salvation.

“Now What?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 7 November 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Haggai 1: 15 – 2: 9; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; Luke 20: 27 – 38.

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When I began thinking about this sermon last week I wasn’t sure where it was leading. But as I came home from the Church Conference a thought came to me and it allowed me to begin writing the sermon. I left the Conference with a feeling of hope, that things would begin turning around. And for some reason, I thought of a scene from the movie, "Hoosiers".

For those that need their memory refreshed, this movie, starring Gene Hackman, is about a small town high school in Indiana that, in 1952 (I believe), won the state basketball championship. Indiana is probably the only state that does not classify high schools by size for the end of the season basketball tournament. Thus, all the high schools in the state participate in the one tournament. This puts the smaller schools, with their limited enrollment, at a disadvantage when it comes to finding players. With the exception of 1952, no small school in Indiana has ever won the state championship.

Now you might think that the small schools would prefer a different type of tournament setup. Yet, year after year, as people seek equity among the high schools, the small schools say that they want the single chance of proving that their schools belong with the big schools in the premier state basketball tournament.

In the movie, Gene Hackman is hired as the coach and seeks to instill a new type of offense. It is an offense whose philosophy is counter to ones the kids have played before and it is not the type of game that the alumni and townspeople want. But it is an offense that is best suited for the school to play. So there is a struggle there.

Early in the season, there is a situation where one of the players fouls out of the game and Hackman, as the coach, decides not to replace him on the floor. This means that Hickory (the high school in the movie) will finish the game with only four players on the floor.

Naturally, the townspeople go crazy, screaming that the coach is breaking the rules by only playing four players. But, then as now, there is no rule that says you must have five players on the floor. The coach knows the rules better than the townspeople. This episode, coupled with the different style of play that the Coach is trying to teach, are the catalysts for the townspeople to meet at the local Methodist Church and call for his firing. It seems likely that this will be the case until other events cause a change in the situation. From that moment, the team slowly comes together and ultimately win the state championship.

Now, the episode with the four players is, to me, similar to what is transpiring in the Gospel reading today. Instead of focusing on the resurrection and life everlasting, the Sadducees are focusing on the law that requires a brother to marry his dead brother’s wife in order to keep the family line going. It seems to me that we worry more about the legality of things than we do the spirit of things.

The Sadducees and the Pharisees are seeking ways to trap Jesus. As the ones with political power, they saw Jesus as a direct threat to their power and well being. But they had to remove Him in such a way that would not turn the crowds following Him against them. In the passage prior to today’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees question Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. They wanted to get Jesus to say something that would make Him look like a political revolutionary so that they could then hand him over to Pilate. But Jesus responds that one should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God. Jesus is exalted and the Pharisees sulk as their attempt to trap Jesus fails.

In today’s Gospel reading, it is the Sadducees who seek to trap Jesus. The Sadducees reject the oral traditions that the Pharisees stringently obey. They base their teaching and thoughts on the first five books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses. Since these are the books that Jewish law is based on, the Sadducees are the lawyers of their day. To them, there cannot be a resurrection and they contrive this ludicrous example to suggest that the resurrection that Jesus is speaking of is impossible. In his summation of this issue, Jesus uses the law itself to make an impact on the Sadducees.

It has to be emphasized, since it seems to have been forgotten, that Jesus Himself said that He was the fulfillment of the law. Jesus constantly fought with those who used the law to further their own ambitions, instead of protecting those persecuted and abused by others. Jesus points in the passages following today’s Gospel how the scribes sought the best for themselves while allowing others to drive the poor and unfortunate from their homes.

I think that, if we are not careful, we are going to see this same legalistic view of the Gospel in the coming days. We saw evidence in the election that "moral values" were a dominant factor in the election of President Bush. What seems to have come from this election is a view of a legalistic view of the Gospel, one that allows others to tell you what to say, what to do, and what to think.

I don’t think that is what the Gospel is about. Yes, the Gospel tells me what to think and what to say and what to do. But it does not give me the power to tell you how to behave. As an evangelistic Christian, both in name and thought, I have the duty to present the Gospel to you but only you can decide what you will do. In presenting the Gospel, I will also point out the rewards that one can gain and what is likely to happen should you choose not to follow. But I cannot make you follow the Gospel nor should I try.

Now, the people of Thessalonika are faced with a quandary. Theirs is a quandary about the meaning of the Gospel. They are hearing many ideas about the Second Coming of Christ but most of them are false, contrary to the original teachings of Paul. They are coming from teachers who are twisting Paul’s own words in order to meet their own plans. As a result, many Thessalonians feel that now is the time of the Second Coming and there is no longer any reason to work for the church.

In this passage, Paul seeks to reinforce the ideas that he presented in his first letter. He encourages the people of the church to hold fast to the ideas that were first presented to them and to which they responded. It is their faith that will prevail, not their listening to the false teachings. And it is their faith that people are hearing about.

There is also a crisis in the Old Testament reading for today. Instead of the end of the society, as the people of Thessalonika fear, it is the rebuilding of the old society that is causing the crisis in Haggai.

When some of the Israelites returned from the Babylonian captivity in 538 BC, they were determined to restore the worship of God to its rightful place at the center of their lives. They planned to build a new temple in Jerusalem. Sadly, however, their resolve to do so vanished shortly after they returned to Jerusalem. They did build a new altar on the original temple site and later laid the foundation for a new temple. But when there was the first sign of trouble, construction halted. After the troubles passed and the people were free to return to their primary task, they did not do so. Though not idol worshippers like their ancestors, these Israelites had lost their passion for the worship of the living God.

When Haggai confronted the people, he addressed the problems of his day: the infertility of the land and the hard economic times. But he did not blame these problems on poor fiscal planning. Rather, he exhorted the people to focus on their spiritual condition. They were focusing on insignificant matters, like the decoration of their homes, while ignoring God’s temple that lay in ruins in front of them.

The temple was more than a building. It was the site of the people’s meeting with the living God, the symbol of the abiding presence of the Creator of the universe. If the people ignored the physical ruin of the temple, they were ignoring the spiritual wreckage in their souls as well.

The response to Haggai’s exhortation was quick and decisive. Three weeks after the message that we read today, they began to work on rebuilding the temple. Haggai noted that the Lord was with them, just as Moses had told the people in Exodus that God would be with them through their journey.

I am hoping that our response will be something similar. Right now, we are sending letters to the inactive members of the church asking them to indicate what they want to do. It is my hope that they will respond favorably to this particular request and challenge. I suppose that it is more than a coincidence that we are reading this passage today. For in three weeks, we began the celebration of Advent and I hope it will be a time of celebration and renewal.

We must focus on the one thing that will overcome all adversity and all trials, the faith that we were raised in and which, through the Holy Spirit, has led us to this day. There are times when life is at its darkest, through the death of a loved one or a setback in life. It is at those times that we are reminded that it is our faith, our belief in things unseen, that carries us through. It was the faith of the people of Thessalonika that went beyond the town limits and told people of the growth of the church.

It was the faith and desire of the people of Israel to rebuild their lives after the captivity that allowed them to rebuild the temple and again celebrate the presence of the living God in their lives. We are in a period of time when the old ways no longer seem to work. There are those who saw the results of last Tuesday’s election and asked, "Now, what?"There were those who left the meeting last Monday and asked, "Now, what?"

What we must do is to seek what we have lost. We must seek that which comes from within us and which has been there from the day we first came to know Jesus Christ as our personal Savior. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, points out that we seem to have lost something as simple as respect — for each other, for the environment in which we live, for the values that can bring us together. He argues that we have lost the common ground upon which we can meet.

But he also argues that we can find common ground but only if it is higher than where we are now. For me, this is found much in the same way that Paul encouraged the Thessalonians – in the faith in which they were raised and the faith by which they were known. There is a need for a vision of transformation and I firmly believe that it is found in the Gospel message. A new framework, a new language, a new vision can emerge from this day if we want it too, if we resurrect our own basic personal values. These are values that Paul speaks of in his words to the Thessalonians. These values bring us together

As we look to renew this church, let us remind ourselves that it will be through the Gospel that this is accomplished. As long as what we are doing is consistent with the Gospel message and United Methodist theology, we know that we will have God’s blessing. We may have been asking "Now, what?" last week but it is clear that today, with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the question will be, "Now, how?"

“Looking To The Future”


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 11 November2001.  This was also Veteran’s Day.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Haggai1: 15 – 2: 9; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; Luke 20: 27 – 38.

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Looking to the future has always proven to be a difficult task. No matter how hard we try, determining what the future holds is a very elusive thing. And more often than not, our vision of the future is a far cry from what it eventually becomes. Consider the following monumental prophecies about the world around us made many years ago:

  1. "This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." — Western Union internal memo, 1876
  2. "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." — Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895
  3. "Everything that can be invented has been invented." — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899
  4. "I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper." — Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in "Gone With The Wind"
  5. "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
  6. "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
  7. "I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year." — The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
  8. "We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962
  9. "But what … is it good for?" — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip
  10. "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. in 1977
  11. "The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible." — A Yale Univ. management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

As these statements show, predicting the future is fraught with danger and risk. And as the time between the prediction and the actual event increases, so too does the risk. Uncertainty arises when one is not sure. And with uncertainty comes frustration. For if we are not sure about what we are doing, then we can easily get frustrated by the work that we are doing today. This frustration shows in many ways.

The Sadducees who came to Jesus that day that we read about in the Gospel were certainly frustrated. Their frustration arose because they saw their religion and their future in terms of the law and obedience to the law, not the grace of God as Jesus preached.

Throughout the Gospel, in fact, throughout the whole New Testament, there is a tension between the law and grace. Even as Paul preached grace and salvation, those who would have people rigorously follow the law plagued him.

Jesus pointed out that the future was not in terms of how the law was applied or followed but rather by one’s faith and a belief in God’s grace. John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace" and many other hymns, understood that very clearly. When you know that he wrote the words to "Amazing Grace" after a mid-ocean encounter with God, when he realized that all he was doing to seek his future was built on a weak foundation, you come to understand what he wrought. Most importantly you understand, as he did, that it was grace that saved him, not adherence to the law and that it was grace that would bring him his future.

An adherence to the law brings a discipline but not a guarantee for the future. It is only through faith and a belief that Christ is our Savior that we are guaranteed the future. As Newton wrote, "it was grace that brought me safe thus far, it will be grace that brings me home."

Through our faith and our understanding of God’s presence in our lives, we will see the future and find a way to reach it.

In Haggai, we read about the frustration of the people of Israel. In the reading for today, the people are feeling frustrated as they struggle to rebuild the Temple. Excited as they were to have come out of exile and to be doing that which they had longed for so many years to do, they were frustrated with the task. Many felt that no matter what they did, the Temple they built would not match the splendor and glory of the old one.

Their frustrations arose because they did not look to the future but rather saw the past. And as their frustrations grew, so too did the feeling that God had abandoned them. If God had not abandoned them, then their work would produce a Temple of as a great grandeur as the old Temple.

But Haggai pointed out that the rebuilding process was the very symbol of encouragement that they wanted to have and that in rebuilding the Temple they would be reminded of God’s presence in their lives. Haggai called on the people to take courage and move forward because God had not forgotten them but was with them at that very moment. Our presence here today and in church on every Sunday is so that we can remember God’s grace, power, and presence in our lives.

The problem many times as we seek to move to the future is that we feel we must do it alone. We take on a task only in terms of what we can do, never thinking that God is a part of the process. We that happens, we are likely to be frustrated because we turn the task into something difficult. But when we allow God’s presence to be there, when we allow the Holy Spirit to provide the power that we need, then the task becomes easy.

Our service is not for the past but for the future. Haggai reminded the people that there would be a day when God will give them prosperity, a day when all their work would be justified. Our frustrations come because we cannot often see the results of what we do but we have to know and understand that what we do is never in vain. One reason why we celebrate Veteran’s Day in the fall and Memorial Day in the Spring is so that we can somehow communicate to those who have served that such service was not in vain.

Paul’s words to the Thessalonians also served to encourage. He reminded the members of that Church that though the present seemed bleak and that God had passed them by, there was still a hope for the future and promise of better days. At the time Paul wrote this letter, there was a feeling that the promised Second Coming of Christ had occurred and that they, the members of the church in Thessalonica, had been left behind.

Paul reminded them to remain steadfast in the faith and to remember that the signs of the Second Coming had not yet appeared, that what they had heard and had been told were false statements, made by insecure people seeking to justify their own thoughts and actions.

To look to the future is a difficult task, especially when what we see around us leads us to believe that the future does not hold much promise. When we let that around us guide us, our actions, our deeds seem futile and we become frustrated. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time, we try to find in the rules and regulations of life a basis for faith. It is no wonder that we become discouraged.

But, as Paul encouraged us to do, we hold on to the faith and understand that God’s presence in our live is not just some mystical statement but guaranteed by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we cannot be discouraged.

There are many challenges facing each one of us in the coming days and years. There will be times when the future looks bleak, when our hope for the future is not so bright or as clear as we would like. But, if our vision of the future comes through our faith, then we know that there is a hope and promise. We know that the future prosperity that Haggai said would come to the people as they rebuilt the Temple will come to us because of our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

And When You Least Expect It


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 4th Sunday of Advent, 21 December 2003. The scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 5: 2 – 5, Hebrews 10: 5 – 10, and Luke 1: 39 – 45.

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Back in the 1960′s there was a television show called “Candid Camera.” The basic premise of the show, as you all probably recall, was to play some sort of practical joke on someone and watch his or her reaction through a hidden camera. After the person was suitably embarrassed, the jokester would point out the hidden camera and say “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”

And, at the end the show, Allan Funt, the host and developer of the show would always look at the camera and warn us about someone coming up to us when we least expected it and saying the same thing.

It is that least expected part that tends to bother us. Because the things that are the least expected are generally surprises and we do not like surprises, except when someone is giving us something as a gift. Except on those rare occasions, we like to know what is coming.

And that is the way we are taught and that is the way we are expected to act, everything by the book and according to the rules. Everything we do, be it in school or life, is predicated on the idea that things will occur as expected.

And, when in life, when the unexpected happens, we are not usually equipped to deal with the outcome. The events of the past three years only show that we as a country were not prepared to deal with the idea of terrorism striking our homeland and that we still have no idea, even after three years, of how to deal with it.

If we had some idea of how to deal with the unexpected, our lives would probably be better off. Many times, we have seen that the great discoveries of society have all come when the person did not discard the unexpected results or dismiss them as superfluous. Teflon, penicillin, and X-rays are all discoveries that were the result of looking at the anomalous or unexpected results of another experimenter. Joseph Henry, one of America’s first great physicists, once remarked that “the seeds of great discoveries are constantly flowing around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.”

Advent is a season of preparation. It is the preparation for something totally unexpected. It is the birth of a king who came to save us from tyranny and to set us free. Yet it is a birth that will come in the most insignificant manner, to the person whom we least expect and in a place and time that does not benefit the birth of a king. Jesus will not be born the child of rich, famous or powerful people but rather in the most insignificant of surroundings and to the least expected of parents.

Even today, we have problems with the birth of Jesus. We are a society that likes powerful leaders, leaders whose force of personality will keep evil and tyranny away from this country. I have never understood how it is that such people are supposed to do this but it seems to be what we want our leaders to do. And it is the very thing that Jesus will not do.

The prophet Micah tells us that the Messiah will come from the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin was the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons and his tribe was the smallest of the twelve tribes of Israel. If Jesus had been born according to society’s norms, he would have been born to the largest tribe or the tribe of the oldest son. Kings do not come from the smallest tribe or the simplest of surroundings. But Jesus did and that was unexpected.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, was hardly the most likely candidate to be the mother of the Son of God. Her pregnancy was more the subject for the town gossips than it was a cause for celebration. Without belittling the birth of Princes Harry or William of England, one can only remember the joy that spread throughout England when it was learned that Princess Diana was pregnant. And not only was Mary’s pregnancy unexpected and a cause for talk and gossip, so too was the pregnancy of Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. For Elizabeth was considered well past the age of child bearing when she became pregnant with John the Baptist.

Not much is written about the reason that Mary went to see Elizabeth. Undoubtedly it was to get away from those who would question her morality but it may have also been to help Elizabeth with her own pregnancy. Elizabeth was six months pregnant at the beginning of the Gospel reading for today and Mary stayed for three months, so that may be a reasonable conclusion.

We do not know all that went on when Mary and Elizabeth met, other than the baby John in Elizabeth’s womb jumped when Mary entered the room. But this we do know; both Elizabeth and Mary took great joy in the unexpected changes in their lives. In a society and at a time when pregnancies were a threat to the health and welfare of both the mother and the child, both Elizabeth and Mary should have feared what was coming. Elizabeth because a pregnancy at her age was never easy and Mary because a pregnancy at her age was not proper. Yet, the angels spoke to them of what their sons would do and the change that would come because of their presence on earth. So they sang in joy. (Adapted from “Living by the Word” by Herbert O’Driscoll in Christian Century, December 13, 2003.)

It was joy because there was a promise. It was a promise that things would be different, that the ways of society would change. Mary sings of a new king, one who will bring the mighty and high down low. It is a statement and prayer for all those who feel forgotten in this world.

It was a promise that God has chosen to reach us in the most unexpected of ways. It is a way that tells us that no matter who we are or what our place in society might be, God has not forgotten us.

It is also a statement that God’s love for us is constant, even when our own love for God may not be. It is a statement that says that God’s love is not based on societal or economic values. And that is the other unexpected result of Christ’s birth.

This very fact is hard for many people to accept because they are so used to the idea that it is power, economic status, and the place that you live that determines what you will be.

But because God’s grace and love are given freely, because Christ was born in such an unexpected manner, so too must we respond in unexpected ways. No longer can we respond to the threats and problems of the world, generally caused by the abuse of power and money, with more power and more money. If we do not have either, we feel that we are powerless and unable to act. Paul asks us, as he asked the Colossians, to show the love that Christ had for us through the way we live our lives. He exhorts us to make Christ’s presence in our lives more than simply a statement.

In John’s Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus didn’t get bogged down with one specific evil. He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, you must not commit adultery.” He did not say, “You cannot lie or cheat or steal.” He said, “You must be born again.” Jesus simply said, “You must change the whole structure of your life.” (Adapted from an article written by Stewart Burns concerning Martin Luther King in the January, 2004 issue of Sojourners.)

Paul exhorts us to show the same love that Christ showed for us. He exhorts us to live a life that says to others “Christ is alive in me.” And he does so because he knows that there will come a time when we will encounter Jesus.

But we will not encounter the Jesus of the Bible, walking along the road in sandals and robes. Rather, like the author Laurie Beth Jones wrote it is likely that we will encounter Jesus in blue jeans or a three-piece suit or dressed as anyone we might encounter in our daily lives. This encounter will be totally unexpected and if we do not prepare for that encounter now, we will not know what to do when it does come.

We celebrate the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Messiah. But it is a birth that came in an unexpected place and to people who we would not expect. The message of Christ as King is not the message that we expect from a king but it is a message more powerful than any earthly king or leader could ever pronounce. And someday, when you least expect it, Christ will come to you and ask you what you have done to help Him in this world. What will you say?



Basic Needs


Here are my thoughts for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Ruth 3: 1 – 5, 4: 13 – 17; Hebrews 9: 24 – 28; and Mark 12: 38 – 44.

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There was an interesting article in Christian Century this past week about biblical literacy (see http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=7927). It does repeat some information that I have used in the past from a 1997 Barna Survey (such as 12 percent of adults think Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark and about ½ of those surveyed don’t know that the Book of Isaiah is in the Old Testament) or a 2004 Gallup survey that showed that nearly one in ten teens think that Moses was one of the 12 apostles.

This article looks at the impact of scriptural illiteracy and ways of overcoming it. It is important to consider this because there are too many ideas about religion in general and Christianity in particular that come from a lack of knowledge about the one document that is the primary source of information.

Now, I am only mentioning that because of what I see in the readings for today and what they mean for us in this day and age. And, for me, this is an important distinction. If you do not know the basic facts about the Bible it is very difficult to understand what the words mean. And it is entirely possible that you will find a different message in the Scripture readings for today than the one I found. And there is nothing wrong with that because, if nothing else, it means that you are thinking about what you have read. The Bible should never be viewed as fixed in time because to do so is to remove the meaning from the words.

And so it is that I have to wonder why the Book of Ruth is part of the Old Testament. Now, one answer is found in the concluding part of the verses today. Ruth and Boaz had a son who is named Obed. And Obed will become the father of Jesse and Jesse will be the father of David. And, as the hymn goes, from the branch of Jesse’s tree shall come the Messiah.

But, there is more to the story than just the establishment of the royal line that will lead to Jesus. Or at least that is the way it seems to me. The story of Ruth is a recounting of tribal and societal policies, of making sure that everyone has the basic needs. It is in Ruth that we learn that farmers were told not to take the entire crop from the field but leave some on the edges so that the poor would be able to have some grain. This is also a tale about the nature of society where widows were often left outside the care of society.

Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, is a widow whose two sons have also died. To be a widow without children, especially sons, in that time was to be put outside the safety net of society. There was no security for Naomi and even less for Ruth. If Naomi is to have any sort of future, she must return to her homeland (having moved to Moab early in the story) and hope that her family will take her in. Ruth, being a Moabite, does not have that security and Naomi has suggested that she return to her family as well. But unlike her sister-in-law, Orpah, Ruth says that she will follow Naomi, even though there is no guarantee of security for her.

Now, the Gospel reading for today also speaks of a widow and most of the time we speak of the generosity of the widow (who gave everything) as compared to those who gave a portion of their abundance. But while we remember that part of the Gospel reading, we often forget the first part where Jesus said that those who “devour widows’ homes and say long prayers for appearance only” will be the ones who are condemned.

I think that we spend so much time in today’s society trying to make the Bible fit our view of the world that we forget what it is that the Bible is trying to tell us. And even if we did at one time know what was in the Bible, we have cast it aside in favor of whatever information we might think is in the Bible because it enables us to have our own view.

The Bible’s main message is that we must care for each other first. The poor get a better treatment in the Bible than they do in real life today, even though there are so many people today who say they are Christians. We may argue that capitalism is or isn’t the best economic system available; we may argue that there are other systems that are better for today’s economy. I am not much of a Bible scholar and I am not much of an economist. But I do recall what John Wesley said about earnings.

John Wesley had no problems with people earning as much as they could; in fact, he encouraged people “to earn as much as they could.” But such earnings came with the condition that you didn’t do it at the expense or “on the backs” of others. In other words, if your employment required the exploitation of others, you were in the wrong business. Your gain should not be at the expense of others.

Unfortunately, when you look at the disparity in incomes today between the various economic levels, it would be hard to say that the very, very rich are not exploiting the poor and under-classes. And the reports that I hear that tell me that local food closets are being pushed to the limit each week with more and more families seeking assistance in putting food on the table says that we have forgotten the Biblical imperative to leave some of the abundance for others.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t finish the John Wesley trilogy on finances. Not only did he say that one could earn all that they could, he said that one should save as much as they could and then give all that they could. It has long been noted that Wesley was one of the highest paid clergy in England but that the British tax collectors could not find his wealth.

They never could understand how someone earning as much as John Wesley was earning could not have anything. But John Wesley had figured out what it would take for his family to live and everything above that amount was given away.

Early Methodists followed his example, living simple lives and saving their money. But they saved their money not to hoard it but to give it away. It has long been noted that most people today do not save enough and our own society seems directed towards getting as much as one can for one’s own benefit as possible with little concern for others.

And yes, this is about health care. I am not going to make a plea for one form of health care or another. But it strikes me that too many people on both sides of the debate are offering plans that are “me-first” in nature and what is it going to cost me instead of trying to determine what is the best for all people. Yes, it is going to cost some people some money but is that a reason to say that others should not get some sort of decent health care? I am not interested in the argument that one plan is going to create some sort of gigantic bureaucracy when the private plans have already created a gigantic bureaucracy devoted more to making a profit than to insuring that people are healthy. Everything in the health care debate and the debate/discussion about the economy seems to be directed towards insuring the well being of the one individual who already has and not providing for the well being of those who have nothing. This is in direct contrast to what the basis for the Old Testament and Gospel readings for today.

The futility of these arguments can be said in what the writer of Hebrew tells us about the futility of the priests who offer sacrifices time and time again. The only true sacrifice is the one that Christ made for us. As long as our attempts to resolve societal issues focus on ourselves long before we worry about what others need, we will never find the answer. On the other hand, if we, like Christ, focus on others before ourselves, the answers will come quickly and easily.

The basic needs of people need to be answered before we even think about the superfluous needs of individuals. Let us pause and think about that as we enter the last days of the Pentecost season and prepare for Advent and the coming of Christ.

The Foundation of Our Hopes


This is the message for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 12 November 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are 1 Samuel 1: 4 – 20; Hebrews 10: 11 – 14 (15 – 18) 19 – 25;  and Mark 13: 1 – 18.

To me, there is an interesting connection between the Gospel and Old Testament readings for today. At the end of the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of war and the rumors of the war in conjunction with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and what must happen before the coming of Christ. The Old Testament reading takes place at Shiloh, the place in Israel where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. But to someone like myself, Shiloh has an entirely different meaning.

The place named Shiloh is about 45 miles east of Memphis and about fifteen miles from the Tennessee – Mississippi state line. In April of 1862, 42000 soldiers under the command of Ulysses S. Grant moved up from Corinth, Mississippi, to the town of Pittsburg Landing. The encampment of soldiers was on the grounds of the simple log building known as Shiloh Methodist Church. And though Shiloh means a "place of peace," the Battle of Shiloh was one of the bloodiest of all the Civil War battles.

It was at Shiloh that Grant and the other Union commanders realized that victory would not come easy. Nor would it be the quick, bloodless victory everyone hoped it would be. After Shiloh, everyone knew that the war would be costly and long.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus speaks of war and the rumors of war. He gives a dire prediction that nations will fight nations and kingdoms will go against kingdoms. In the death and destruction of the Civil War, many saw the end times that Jesus said was coming in the Gospel reading. Historians have noted that the period after the Civil War was a period of great evangelism in America as people sought to avoid the "end times."

There are those today who say that the end times, if not occurring right now, are very close. But I am not one of them. I freely admit that I have problems with those preachers who preach evangelism based on end times and a Second Coming of Christ. After all, even Christ said to be aware of those false prophets who preach fear in His name.

Many Bible historians have pointed out that Matthew and Mark wrote their Gospels after Roman soldiers destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A. D. Besides, to assume that the success of the Gospel requires massive destruction seems to me a contradiction of terms. For the Gospel is as much a message of hope and peace as it is about the ultimate triumph of God over sin and death.

There are those who say that world is not the place for the church; that the world is none of the church’s business. The business of the church is saving of souls and spreading the Gospel.

Louis Evely wrote,

To believe in God is to believe in the salvation of the world. The paradox of our time is that those who believe in God do not believe in the salvation of the world, and those who believe in the future of the world do not believe in God.

Christians believe in "the end of the world," they expect the final catastrophe, the punishment of others.

Atheists in their turn invent doctrines of salvation, try to give meaning to life, work, the future of humankind, and refuse to believe in God because Christians believe in him and take no interest in the world.

All ignore the true God: He who has so loved the world! But which is the more culpable ignorance?

To love God is to love the world. To love God passionately is to love the world passionately. To hope in God is to hope for the salvation of the world.

I often say to myself that, in our religion, God must feel very much alone: for is there anyone besides God who believes in the salvation of the world? God seeks among us sons and daughters who resemble him enough that he could send them into the world to save it. (From In the Christian Spirit by Louis Evely)

What goes on in the world does concern the church. While I may not believe in the end times that were prophesized in the Old Testament Book of Daniel and its counterpart in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, I do think that the destruction, violence, and poverty will be commonplace if we do nothing. In those times when life is darkest, it makes it even more critical that the church be a place of peace and the bearer of the "Good News", that there is hope in this world. To do so we must build that strong foundation of faith in God.

The passage from Hebrews tells us something about the way we live and what we do. If we allow the world to stay the same each and every day, then we are like the priests who made the same sacrifices each day. Their work did nothing to take away the sins of their congregation; their work did nothing to make the world a better place.

But with Christ’s sacrifice, the world changed. As the writer of Hebrews points out, in verses 19 – 25, we have access to God, that we can approach God with a boldness that was not possible before. With Christ, we have built the foundation by which we can do man y things. No longer do we fear the darkness; no longer do we fear the future. In Verse 23, the confession of our hope is our confident expectation of the future. If we do our part, there is no question that God will fulfill his part of the agreement.

Hannah’s live, as we read in the Old Testament reading for today, was very bleak. In ancient Israel, the failure to have children was regarded as a tragedy. First, children were needed to help with the everyday work of life. And without sons, the family name would not be preserved and without heirs, a family could not maintain its place in tribal allotments.

Because she did not bear him any children and especially sons, Elkanah could have divorced Hannah. But it is to his credit that he choose not to do so; rather, he married Peninah who bore him many sons and daughters. But Hannah’s life did not improve, for as we read, Peninah did not show her the same respect that Elkanah did.

But instead of giving up, instead of resigning herself to a life of depression and misery, of letting the darkness of life overcome her, Hannah turned to God. Through her faith, she asked God to give her a son and because of her faith, God gave her that opportunity.

In placing her life in God’s hands, in expressing her faith as the foundation for all she was to do, Hannah’s life changed. So too is for us; when we place complete and unbinding faith in God, so also do our lives change.



You Have To Get Your Feet Wet


This is the message I presented at Modena Memorial UMC on Reformation Sunday, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 31, 1999.  I exchanged pulpits that Sunday as their pastor was at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures were Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, and Matthew 23: 1 – 12.

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When I first read the Scriptures for today, I could not help but think of the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In that movie, the first of the Indiana Jones movies, Indiana Jones takes on the task of finding the lost Ark of the Covenant and in the process fighting the Nazis for its possession. The Nazis wanted the Ark because they saw its usefulness as a weapon of war that would bring them victory. Now, there may be some truth to that because whenever the Israelite army went into battle with the Ark in front of them, they seldom lost the battle.

But it was not with the Ark used as a death ray as suggested in the movie. Rather, the Ark contained the tablets of stone upon which the Ten Commandments were carved. The Ark was the embodiment of God and when the Israelites followed God, they were an invincible army. It was only when the army failed to believe in God and trusted in the “magic” of the Ark, such as when they fought the Philistines in 1 Samuel 4 – 6 that they lost the battle and the Ark. However, the Philistines were stricken with such horrible plagues that they quickly returned the Ark to Israel.

In the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites are about to cross the river Jordan into the Promised Land. God tells Joshua to pick twelve priests, one from every tribe of Israel to carry the Ark. When these twelve touch the waters of the river, the river will stop flowing and a path across the river will be made clear so that the nation of Israel can cross over on relatively dry land.

I grew up as a second-generation military brat, the son of an Air Force Major and the grandson of an Army Colonel. If I had been given the opportunity I would have jumped at the chance to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. But my vision prevented that.

The primary function of the service academies is to prepare individuals to serve this country as its military leaders. As such, part of the training the cadets and midshipman received is designed so that they will understand that there are men and women who must ultimately carry out the orders that their leaders give.

The college where I did do my undergraduate studies is not far from the birthplace of Omar Bradley. It was said that Bradley was a soldier’s soldier, a general who understood that there were men who must carry out his orders. The soldiers liked General Bradley because he understood them.

And though I use a military analogy, the same is true in private industry. Good leaders in business today understand what they are asking their workers to do. That is the point of the Old Testament reading today; the leaders of Israel were the ones who got their feet wet so that the nation could walk across the river Jordan.

And I think that is part of the exasperation that Jesus must have felt in the Gospel reading for today concerning the leaders of society. They sat in positions of authority, accepting the accolades that went with the position but were not willing to get involved in the heavy work that went with leadership.

And we all now people in business or elsewhere who are like that. They like the trappings of power but make impossible demands on the workers or refuse to give the workers anything that will make the job easier. Companies with this type of structure find themselves quickly in trouble.

In the Epistle reading for today, Paul noted his conduct while he preached the Gospel in Thessalonica. He stated that though he was a messenger of God, that position gave him no special status or power. As the messenger, it is also important to note that he “urged and encouraged” rather than “demanded” that the Thessalonians lead a life of God.

The point expressed by Paul and Jesus in the Gospel reading is simply. If you wish the respect that comes with leadership, you must earn it; it does not simply come with the position. And my friends, this does not apply to just a select few among us who are the designated leaders. It applies to each and every one of us.

The challenges we face in today’s society are seemingly insurmountable. The divisions between us because of race, social status, or economic status will not go away because of who our leaders are now or who want to be our leaders. They will go away when we, as individuals guided by Christ, do His work. In the last of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus notes that there is only one teacher and one Messiah and we are all His students.

There is no way that we can call persons to Christ if we ignore what is going on in the world around us. John Wesley was not the first preacher to preach against the inequities of society in 18th century England. Other preachers did so as well but Wesley was perhaps the first preacher who called upon his parishioners, the founders of what is now our United Methodist Church, to take action.

Someone once asked me to define the differences between Methodism and other Christian denominations. Since all Christian denominations have in common the belief that by our faith in Christ, we are saved by the grace of God, what is it that makes us Methodists? Quite simply, for Methodists, the question is “Having been saved, what shall you do next?”

We can never be perfect and, even as saved individuals, we will never approach perfection. But that should not stop us from trying to reach perfection, of reaching a better state of grace. And that requires that we do, as John Wesley stated, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the time you can, to all the people you can and as long as you can.” (John Wesley quoted in the The 365-Day Devotional Commentary, p. 671)

Jesus pointed out in Matthew 23: 11 “The greatest among you will become servants” and in verse 12, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” If we are to be good leaders, we must first be good servants.

Our lives as Christians must be more than hearing the Gospel preached on Sunday. Auguste Sabetier wrote

Merely to reproduce his words is not to continue his work’ we must reproduce his life, passion and death. He desires to live again in each one of his disciples in order that he may continue to suffer, to bestow himself, and to labor in and through them towards the redemption of humanity, until all prodigal and lost children be found and brought back to their Father’s house. Thus it is that, instead of being removed far from human history, the life and death of Christ one more take their place in history, setting forth the law that governs it, and, by ceaselessly increasing the power of redemptive sacrifice, transform and govern it, and direct it towards its divine end. (From “The Atonement” by Auguste Sabetier as quoted in The Double Search by Rufus M. Jones)

If we are to be Christ’s disciples in this world, we must continue His work. Sometimes it feels like a hopeless cause and we desperately wish to have the Ark of the Covenant preceding us in battle, as it did for the Israelites as they took over the Promised Land. But no one knows where the Ark of the Covenant is today. At the conclusion of “The Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we see a government working putting the crate holding the Ark away in some obscure government warehouse. There is a legend among some Middle East Christian sects that the Ark is in a church somewhere in Ethiopia. But there is no sure way to determine if that is true or not.

Paul wrote the Thessalonians,

When you received the word of God, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in what you believe.

By our faith and acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Savior, God’s word takes on a newer meaning. The word of God is embodied in Christ and when we accepted him, it is as if the Word of God precedes us each day.

We stand on the banks of the river Jordan, looking across at the Promised Land. But to get there, we have to get our feet wet. We have to accept Christ as our Savior and we have to then let His presence in our lives show us the way that we must go. We cannot sit back and let others do it for us. The invitation to you today is that simple, shall you get your feet wet?

The Promise of Tomorrow


This is a sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 27 October 2002.  This was also Reformation Sunday.  The Scriptures are Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8, and Matthew 22: 33 -46.

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When I first moved to New York some three years ago from the hills of eastern Kentucky, most of the people I knew wondered why. “Why,” they asked, “would I want to leave the hill country for all that concrete and steel?”

So it was that I had to explain that Beacon and the area where I would live was much live the eastern slope of the Appalachian Mountains with broad valleys. And that the Hudson River at this point, though deeper, was a lot like the Mississippi River north of Davenport, IA, where I once lived.

We all have preconceived notions about the various parts of this country. And of all the places in this country, the one place that I think defies our notions about what it is like is Texas. Much is made, sometimes in jest, about the size of Texas. Now, Texas is not the biggest state in the Union; Alaska holds that honor. But it is the size of Texas that probably defines what it is. And if the size of Texas defines what it is, can you imagine what that means for Alaska?

From where I lived in Odessa, Texas, which is in the western part of the state just north of the Big Bend country, it is possible to drive over 300 miles and still be in Texas. And in the one direction that you can drive and leave Texas, you end up in another time zone.

For orthinologists, Texas presents a challenge. There are five major flyways, routes birds take during migration. Three of these highways in the sky pass through Texas. Until Roger Tory Peterson wrote “The Birds of Texas” for the Texas Wildlife & Game Commission in the early 60′s, most “birders” had to carry two or more bird books in the field for identification.

The geology of Texas also confounds people. In the 1930′s, the first big oil boom in the country was in the oil fields of east Texas. From a geological standpoint, the rock formations where the oil was found were much like the oil fields of Pennsylvania and it was thought that this type of rock formation was necessary in order to find oil. But at least one geologist looked at the rock formations and felt that there was oil in the Permian layers of rock deep below the stark landscape of west Texas. Most people were of the opinion that the only oil to be found was in east Texas, believing that the barren and stark landscape of west Texas was a reflection of a lack of resources below ground. But this one geologist, whose name escapes me now, urged the state of Texas to buy up the mineral rights to the land in west Texas.

And some seventy years later, his judgement about what was beneath the rocks of west Texas has continued to be correct as the oil pumped from the Permian Basin continues to fund the educational coffers of the University of Texas and Texas A & M systems. In fact, most of the oil in the world today is in the Permian rocks, not in the Pennsylvanian rocks as so many people thought.

Standing on the Edwards Plateau, the dominant geological landform of west central Texas, one cannot see that riches buried beneath the ground. No view from the mountaintop will ever show you what is deep within the valleys below.

It must have been frustrating for Moses in those last days of his life to be standing on the mountain overlooking the land to which he had lead his people. It must have been frustrating to have spent all that time in the wilderness knowing he would never see the Promised Land and that it could have been different.

For some forty years before, the nation of Israel stood poised to enter the Promised Land, just as they did in the Old Testament reading for today. It seemed as if they had learned nothing about trusting the Lord. Throughout the Exodus, the people of Israel continued to show a distinct lack of faith that the Lord would provide and on the verge of entering their ancestral homelands, they could not trust in the Lord. They felt it necessary to send in spies to make sure that it would be safe to enter.

Twelve spies, one for each tribe of Israel, choose a representative to see what promises, what riches were hidden in this land they had just spent forty years to reach. Ten of the spies came back with tales of terror and fears, claiming the inhabitants were superior in strength and incapable of defeat. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, came back with the promises of a land filled with milk and honey, of promises that the inhabitants could be defeated as long as they trusted in the Lord.

But the people of Israel choose to accept the tales of fear and terror from the ten rather the hopes and promises of the two. And the penalty was that the nation of Israel would wander in the wilderness for another forty years, a time when all those over twenty would die and leave the Promised Land for the next generation. Only Joshua and Caleb, because they trusted in the Lord, would live to see the entry into the Promised Land.

I find it interesting that we still use tales of fear and terror even today. We try to take advantage of every situation for our own good. Rather than seek the future and what it holds, we try to stay in the present. Look at the election ads that are running now. Most, if not all, tend to focus on negative things, on why the opponent cannot do the job. And very seldom do you see an ad that focus on the promises of tomorrow, that offers a vision of what can be. There may be fleeting visions or statements but they are quickly removed by attacks on the opponent’s views.

A lawyer comes to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, seeking to test Jesus’ knowledge of the Law. But the answer he seeks is not one of edification but rather of justification. Does Jesus’ knowledge match his own?

The answer to the lawyer’s question is from the great Jewish confession of faith, the Shema. The confession is called this because it begins with the Hebrew word shema meaning “hear”. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” And then Jesus follows this with the statement that one should love others as one loves themselves. Because we want the best for ourselves, we should want the best for others. We look at the Ten Commandments, we are reminded that we need to love God first and then love others second.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is directed toward those who criticized his ministry. Those who felt threatened by his ministry did so because Paul challenged their beliefs. Their criticisms were meant to show that all that Paul did, he did for himself and his own gain. Paul’s rebuttal was that he neither sought nor wanted glory and gain for himself but rather that all glory and honor should go to the Lord. Paul reminded those who would criticize him that God was the witness to his actions and that he was God’s servant.

For the ten spies the entry into the Promised Land was a threat to their own safety, not to the safety of their people. So they were not allowed to enter into the Promised Land. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes all saw Jesus as a threat to their lives, to their way of living. And it should be a threat for they were doing nothing to insure that others gained, only themselves.

Much like Moses, we stand on top of the mountain looking into the Promised Land. It is easy to stand on the mountaintop and not see anything or not be sure what you are seeing. That makes it easy to be fearful, that makes it easy to turn away and keep what you have close to the vest. When Daniel Boone first stood above the Cumberland Gap, the broad passage between North Carolina and Kentucky, the great opening of the west to the people seeking new lands and the promise of a new life, he must have wondered what was out there. The Cumberland Gap is just south of where I lived in Kentucky and there were many days when the valleys of that area were shrouded in clouds, making it impossible to see what lie on the ground below.

But Daniel Boone chose to go forward, leaving a safe established life for a future in Kentucky and later in Missouri. Moses stood on the mountaintop, knowing that there was a promise in the land that lie below his feet and though he would not get the chance to go to do so, those that trusted in the Lord would reap the rewards.

We stand on a mountaintop, perhaps not one as tall as the one Moses stood on, but still one that gives a great vision of the future. Shall we, like the people of Israel some forty years before, not trust in the Lord and only in ourselves or shall we trust in the Lord as the additional years of wandering had taught them to do? If we fail to trust in the Lord, we will die, like the elders of the tribes. But if we trust in the Lord, then the promise of tomorrow will be a good one and one in which we can hold. That choice is ours.

A New Model For The Church


On this 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, I was at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 33: 12 – 23, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 10, and Matthew 22: 15 – 22.

I will be at Dover again on November 2nd and at Lake Mahopac UMC (location of church)on November 9th and 23rd (services start at 10).

I have edited this piece since it was posted.

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This is about the church. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the local church, the denomination or the church universal. It is about the fact that the church, at whatever level, is a church in crisis. It is a crisis that involves the body and soul of the church. The body of the church is dying but unless the soul of the church is healed, no amount of healing will save the body.

And despite my own aversion to the use of business models in church settings, it will be what happens at the local church that decides the health and future of the denomination and the church universal. For, despite all the visions and ideas that change can come from the top, the most successful changes in any organization are the changes that occurred at the bottom first.

This crisis of body and soul has come because we (and here I mean the majority of those who call themselves Christian) have forgotten what it means when you say you are a Christian.

We are faced with an ever growing population, both church and unchurched, who seek answers to difficult questions, questions that come from the soul and from society. These individuals feel that possibly the church does know and can offer answers.  But they quickly find that the church does not know the answers or offers answers which are limited in scope or even confusing.

They see a church that preaches hatred, exclusion, and condemnation. They see and hear people who say they are followers of the Prince of Peace but use words of hatred and violence or who incite hatred and violence. They remember when the church stood up for civil rights and against war but now preach exclusion and support war.

Is it because we have forgotten who we are? Have we forgotten how we got to this place? In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses and the Israelites are unwilling to move further and come closer to the Promised Land unless they have some indication that God is going to be there with them. The problem is that today we have continued on but have left God at the mountain.

In a 2004 interview Tony Campolo noted

I think that Christianity has two emphases. One is a social emphasis to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society-to relieve the sufferings of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. The other emphasis is to bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ, where they feel the joy and the love of God in their lives. That they manifest what the fifth chapter of Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” Fundamentalism has emphasized the latter, mainline churches have emphasized the former. We cannot neglect the one for the other. (from ‘Evangelical Christianity Has Been Hijacked’: An Interview with Tony Campolo)

I would say that while fundamentalists have emphasized the latter part of Christianity, they do not feel like sharing the fruits of the Spirit. As President Jimmy Carter noted in his 2002 Nobel Peace Prize speech, “the present era is a challenging and disturbing time for those whose lives are shaped by religious faith based on kindness towards each other.” He further expanded on this statement by saying,

There is a remarkable trend toward fundamentalism in all religions — including the different denominations of Christianity as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Increasing, true believers are inclined to begin a process of deciding: ‘Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently wrong,’ and the next step is ‘inherently inferior.’ The ultimate step is ‘subhuman’, and then their lives are not significant.

He went on to describe how he felt that fundamentalists had distorted the vision of Christ in the world and the nature of Christianity. He noted that fundamentalism could be characterized by three words: rigidity, domination, and exclusion. (From Our Endangered Values)

That is not to say that those who would be characterized as liberal and emphasize the social portion of Christianity are blameless. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted that the weak point of liberal theology was that while it recognized Christ as a part of the world, it gives him a place but in disputes between the church and the world, it accepted the dictates of the world. (Adapted from Faith In A Secular Age)

You cannot live a life that is entirely guided by religious rules and regulation. If you lead a life of private faith, you create a world separate from the real world and it is impossible to bring the two together. It was this separation of church and state that lead the German church of the 1930’s to acquiesce to the false worldly values of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

Nor can you lead a life that is entirely in the secular world. By the very definition of the word “secular”, you are without the church. For Bonhoeffer, there was a desire to see a world that cuts through the sacred-secular dichotomy and would dispense with outward religiosity in order to free itself for the real world of human existence. But this relationship had to also be redemptive in its commitment to the true and costly transcendence of God expressed in Christ’s life of complete self-giving — in the suffering life of the One who was wholly ‘for others.’

We have to understand that Christ shows us God, not as the Omnipotent One who stands outside the word, a God that is God only in some religious world separate from our lives, but as the one who comes to us in our weaknesses and suffering, the One who comes to us by the roadside in the daily affairs of life.

The classic definition of the encounter between the Pharisees and Jesus in today’s Gospel reading shows us that relationship. The Pharisees are again seeking a way to trap Jesus into some statement in which he will either denounce Caesar or denounce God. It is the dilemma we often find ourselves in. We accept the secular world and ignore God, or we totally follow God and ignore the world around us. Neither works. The coin has no value if it has only one side and it cannot be used if it sits on the table with one showing. Evelyn Underhill wrote (in The Spiritual Life)

For a spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the center, where we are anchored in God: a life soaked through and through by a sense of his reality and claim, and self-given to the great movement of his will.

Most of our conflicts and difficulties come from trying to deal with the spiritual and practical aspects of our life separately instead of realizing them as parts of one whole. If our practical life is centered on our own interests, cluttered up by our possessions, distracted by ambitions, passions, wants and worries, beset by a sense of our own rights and importance, or anxieties for our own future, or longings for our own success, we need not expect that our spiritual life will be a contrast to all this. The soul’s house is not built on such a convenient plan: there are few soundproof partitions in it.

So we must build a new model for the church, a model which emphasizes the need of the individual to find the answers the questions of life while reaching out to the community in which the church resides. A model which emphasizes one over the other will die. The coin has two sides and is incomplete without both sides. As Elton Trueblood wrote (in The New Man for Our Time)

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.

We are called today to build a new church. We are called to build a church that reaches out, not just to the members of the church, but also to the people of the community. We are called to build a church that says to the people “we care”, not “go away, you are not wanted here.” We are called to build a church that reaches beyond age, income, race, creed, or lifestyle.

We are called to be like, among other churches, Grace UMC in Salisbury, MD.

Let’s hear it for Grace UMC in Salisbury, MD! Unlike many former downtown churches that have either closed or pulled up stakes, 142-member Grace UMC has “dug in its heels” to serve the surrounding neighborhood now plagued by drugs, prostitution and gangs, according to DelmarvaNow writer Bruce Stump. Through a partnership with several local agencies, Grace offers a feeding program that served 200 people on a recent Saturday. The church also provides housing help, scholarships, a Christmas outreach and other services. What’s more, it has grown 10 percent in the past three years and sent six members into the ordained ministry. Said member Anne Anderson: “It is easy not to look at places that have crime and social issues, but if we don’t make this place better, everybody suffers, the whole city suffers.” Laughed Grace’s pastor, the Rev. David Weber (who officially works only 20 hours a week): “All this is ‘typical good,’ but for a small church, we are kickin’ butt.” Amen! (From United Methodist Nexus for 10/15/2008)

In other words, we are called to build a church that once was the church, the church that Paul lauds in his letter to the Thessalonians that we read today. It was a church known for what it had done and was doing.

It speaks to the courage of the members of that church that they would be identified as Christian. It was a time when being a Christian was neither popular nor essentially healthy; yet, Paul speaks of the church in Thessalonica as being known far and wide. It can only be because of what the church and its members were doing and what they were doing was reaching out to the community, not keeping the community away.

It will take some doing to accomplish this. We are used to our present model; we are used to the comfortable in an environment where, for a couple of hours on Sunday, we can lock out the world around us. There will always be resistance to changes that call for the church to go beyond its own self-imposed boundaries, to witness in word and life for the true hope revealed in Christ.

We see the old ways collapsing so we need to find a new way to find Christ revealed, not hidden in some strange and dark theology, but as the One who has come to set us free. We are reminded that He told His disciples to tell others what they had seen and heard. There was once a time when the church said to the people, “in the world there is nothing for you but despair and exclusion; but in the community of the church you will receive the acceptance that the world refuses you, the dignity that the world denies you, and the spiritual guidance and community that will be for you a foretaste of the life in the Kingdom of God for which you were created.” It is time that the church says that again.

And while the church is calling out to the people, Christ is calling to the church, “in your years of despair, I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who know my grace and are formed from love; I call you know to join me in the midst of the struggle, interpreting that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of their daily lives.

We are called today for an evangelism that calls for decision for Christ which is related to calls for decision in Christ. We are called to create a new model of the church, where preaching points to what God is doing in the world, where the fellowship of the church reveals to the world that we are all one in God’s eyes and where the sacraments are a celebration of God’s redeeming work in Christ.

As we come to the table today, we join with others who celebrate the presence of Christ in their lives. As we come to the table today, we celebrate the beginning of the community two thousand years ago that brought Christianity into the world. As we come to the table today, we begin building that new model that will celebrate the rebirth and renewal of the church.

Which Way Do We Go?


This is a sermon that I presented on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (8 November 1998) at the Neon United Methodist Church in Neon, KY.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Haggai 1: 15 – 2: 9: 2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and Luke 20: 27 – 38.

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As the end of this year comes upon us, it brings us the new century closer to reality. And for many, with the new century come a fear that it is the end of the present age. As the year 999 was coming to a close, people were in panic because they were convinced that it was, in fact, the end time.

We know of course that the world did not end at that time and it is probably not going to end in some 400 days. Maybe it is not going to be the end of the world but from a technological sense, the year 2000 threatens to bring many problems for those who use computers or for those affected by the computers. This is also the time of year when the days get shorter and the darkness seems to overcome us.

For the people of ancient Israel, the darkness of the age seemed all too real. At the time of the Old Testament reading for today, many Israelites had been sent into exile and the temple in Jerusalem, the symbol of God’s presence in this world, was in ruin. (Haggai 1: 15b – 2:9)

On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’

“This is what the Lord Almighty says” “In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

There must have been a sense of hopelessness and despair among the Jews that day when Haggai spoke to them. After all, with the temple destroyed and much of their country taken from their homeland, how else should one feel. I sense in today’s society something of those same thoughts and feelings. As we look around, we are convinced that the “end times” are upon us and that God has forsaken this world. It seems like the world is headed in a direction that we cannot accept yet there is nothing we can. We ask who we can turn to, what direction should we take, what can we do. For many, the church of today does not offer the answers we have for our countless questions.

It is times like this when we seek direction to our life. When there are doubts in what we do, it is only natural to turn to someone who can provide the answers. But whom can we turn to? Who can we trust to tell us the truth? But what is the truth? Paul wrote his Second Letter to the Thessalonians at a time when they were convinced as they looked around at their society that it was the time of Jesus’ return. And in such times, it is only natural to look to someone for the answers. But it seemed that those who were predicting that return were only doing it for themselves, for their gain, not for God’s purposes.

Paul wrote the Thessalonians about that question (2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17)

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

But knowing what the truth is as always been a problem. Truth, both for the Thessalonians and for us, is based on that which is dependable and reliable rather than that which can be rationally placed in a system. (From Faith in a Secular Age by Colin Williams, page 24.) That is why Paul warned the Thessalonians to be careful whom they followed.

To the Jews of both Haggai’s time and Jesus’ time, it was felt that salvation came from following the law. We often feel the same way today. If we lead the right kind of life, if we do the right things, then we will be rewarded. Society does it part because it suggest that by following the rules society give us, success and wealth are ours for the asking. But what is the right thing to do? That was the question that the Sadducees poised to Jesus. (Luke 20: 27 – 38)

The Resurrection and Marriage

Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Not then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

The Sadducees had used their interpretation of the traditional laws to gain positions of power in the Jewish community of Jesus’ time. So, it was critical for them that Jesus give the answer that they wanted to hear, the answer that they thought was correct.

But we can never expect Jesus to give us the answer that we expect or want. That answer Jesus gave is based on the fact that the resurrection order does not nor can it be assumed to follow present earthly lines. The rules by which life is governed are changed by the resurrection.

But as Paul told the people of Thessalonica,

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

But the Sadducees misunderstood this. Their concerns for following the law was only so that they could maintain their position and had nothing to do with saving grace of God. When you seek to follow earthly rules, you cannot follow Jesus. As Paul was to say latter, it is not the law which saves you but your faith.

What then is the truth? What then do we do? Is the world headed for disaster? The year 2000 is just a little over a year away. Is the end of the world coming then?

It is only natural to fear that which we do not know. In John 14: 5 we read “Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?””

Well, for those that fear the new millennium, it should be noted that the new millennium doesn’t actually begin until January 1, 2001. Yes, there is still the problem that the year 2000 will bring trouble because some computers are not prepared for the change of date that will occur at midnight on December 31, 1999. But those are problems created by man, not by God. And these problems have arisen because men and women have allowed the problem to arise. It was noted many years ago that this problem could be fixed but everybody figured that they had plenty of time.

For us, the truth is very simple. In a world that we think God has forgotten, it is important to remember what he told the people of Israel some 2300 years ago. The people of Israel saw the desolation around them and had no hope when Haggai spoke to them.

‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

The truth is that it is God’s grace that offers us our ultimate salvation. Our hope for the future, as hymn 368 says, is not in the laws made by man but through Jesus’ blood and righteousness

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness/ I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking stand. (United Methodist Hymnal, 368)

Our life in Christ is a new life, one that does not follow the rules imposed on us by society. Jesuit Father Luis Espinal wrote the following shortly before he was assassinated in 1980 by Bolivian paramilitary forces.

There are Christians who have hysterical reactions, as if the world would have slipped out of God’s hands. They act violently as if they were risking everything.

But we believe in history; the world is not a roll of the dice going toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen…

As the days of the year get shorter and darker, we stand on the solid rock of our faith in Christ. It is not without purpose that Advent, the celebration of Christ’s birth comes at the darkest time of the year. Christ is our salvation and our hope.

But light is not enough; light is for the sake of life. We too must have life in ourselves. We too must, like the Life himself, live. We can live in no way but that in which Jesus lived, in which life was made in him. That way is, to give up our life. This is the one supreme action of life possible to us for the making of life in ourselves. Christ did it of himself, and so became light to us, that we might be able to do it ourselves, after him, and through his originating act. (From Creation in Christ by George Macdonald)

Our promise for tomorrow lies not in what society can offer us but what Jesus has promised us. Earlier, I said that many people were seeking direction yet the direction has been laid out for us today. Thomas asked Jesus where they were going. Jesus replied, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”(John 14: 6) The roads we walk, the path we take all are set when we accept Christ as our Savior, when we open our hearts and let him in. The challenge I give this morning, the challenge that we face every day, the choice we must make is whether we will follow that road.