The Meaning of Service


This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 17, 2002.  The Scriptures were Joshua 24: 1 -3a, 14 – 25, 1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18, and Matthew 15: 1 – 13.

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It was the great Western philosopher and former Yankee catcher Yogi Berra who once said “when you get to a fork in the road, take it.” After all the laughter has died down, it is interesting to note that Yogi was merely restating what Isaiah said in Isaiah 30:21, “Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying this is the way, walk in it, whenever you turn to the right hand or whenever you turn to the left.”

The idea of having to make a decision; of having to choose which path one will take is not new. Even Jeremiah wrote

This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient path, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.'(Jeremiah 6: 16)

But it is, with some confidence, that I hope this congregation has not answered the Lord as the Israelites answered Jeremiah, “But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.”

This congregation has elected a new church council and with its election set a path for the future. It is a statement that the moving towards the future is more important than dwelling on the past. We appreciate what those who have served this congregation faithfully over the years have done, but there is also an understanding that a continuation of the past would never allow this congregation to move forward.

We have made a choice and we have asked a number of people to serve, to lead this congregation into the coming year. As much as the Gospel reading for this morning is about stewardship in its simplest monetary terms, it is also about service and which each person can give.

Many preachers typically use the parable of the talents in its simplest monetary terms to encourage the congregation to develop a successful stewardship campaign. The parable of the talents goes far beyond money. It speaks of the skills and the abilities each of us have.

A church has to be more than just dollars and cents; it must be a presence in the community and the congregation must find ways to make that presence known. It does not matter if we have one skill or many skills, it is only when we use those skills and abilities do they prosper and grow. If we have but one skill or ability and choose not to use it, then it will wither and die.

It is not easy to define what one’s talents or abilities are; some spend many years before finding out the answer to that question. But if one does not strive to find that one thing that can be called their own, if they say that they have no unique abilities; then they will be like the person who took the one talent and hid it away. They will end up having the talent they do have taken from them and they will lead a sad and lonely life.

Deborah’s selection as judge points out that leadership is not decided by the person one is but rather by the abilities and talents of that person. She did not become a judge out of some need for political correctness but rather because those who might have been judges did not have the leadership qualities that she had. Judges in those times were the leaders of the nation of Israel, chosen for their ability to understand what God wanted done, chosen because they were prophets in their own time.

Barak, the general mentioned in the Old Testament reading today, hesitated before going into battle. It was this hesitation that forced Deborah to lead the armies and along with Jael receive the honor and glory that came with the victory. The commentary makes a very pointed remark that Israel’s leadership at that time was bankrupt. These are not politically correct statements but rather statements indicating that those who served their self-interest before they served God were doomed to defeat, even when the enemy was against God.

Deborah’s leadership abilities came from her being with God, of understanding where God was in her life. With God in her life, she had the wisdom and understanding to make the decisions to lead the nation. Those who lead must understand that leadership does not mean doing everything themselves. Nor does it mean simply telling others what must be done.

Paul reminds us that our actions are done both in the name of God and with God’s presence in our lives. We cannot bear the breastplate of righteousness if God is not with us. But more importantly, we cannot do things alone. Paul also writes that we work together as one for the community, not as a community of individuals.

So it is that we come to this place. It is all right to look over our shoulder and see where we have been. Perhaps it is all right to think about what might have been down the other path. But we have chosen to walk this path and we have chosen to walk it with and in the company of the Lord.

John Kennedy was fond of quoting a statement about service, one that speaks to the present time and place.

“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.” (The Talmud)

This is such a time and this is such a place. This is a call for each of us to take on a new meaning of service, for we do things not for ourselves and ourselves alone but because we are a part of a renewed community of Christ, seeking to show the light of Christ to the world. To all that serve and who have served, we say thank you.

Perhaps we have not yet figured out what it is that we can do; then the call is to accept Jesus Christ into one’s heart and allow him through the Holy Spirit to guide and direct your life. Perhaps you know what it is that you want to do but are afraid; again, the call is to accept Jesus Christ into your heart and allow him through the Holy Spirit to guide and direct your life. And others will find that the call this day is to renew your covenant with the Lord, taking on the tasks present before you, accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

The Next Step


Here are my thoughts for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, 9 November 2008.  The Scriptures for today are Joshua 24: 1- 3a, 14 – 25,  1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18, and Matthew 25: 1 – 13.

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Last week marked the completion of two long-term events.  One was local; the other national.  The national event was, of course, the Presidential election; the more local event was a completion of a study of the Book of Revelations.  The one thing that came out of the study was that it is not the doom and gloom book that is so often the public perception.  Nor is it a predictor of things to inevitably come; it may be more a descriptor of things to come if we do not do certain things.

There are those, of course, who are predicting gloom and doom for the coming years because of the election and its outcome.  The rhetoric against the new administration has already begun, even though the new administration does not take office for two months.  And the rhetoric is not just from one side of the political spectrum but both.  While there are those who feel that too much is going to be done, there are also others who feel that not enough is going to be done.

But no where in this dialogue is there any discussion about what the people will do.  And I think this is the one thing that was missed.  If John the Seer foresaw death and destruction in his vision outlined in Revelations, it was because he saw a group of people unwilling to work for the completion of God’s Plan on earth.  He saw a people who would let the world around them fall into decay with people going hungry and sick, homeless and naked.  He saw a world where oppression was on the rise and the people willing participants in its ascendancy.

The Old Testament reading for today (Joshua 24: 1 – 3a, 14 – 25) tells us about the people of Israel making a covenant with God, that they will follow God and that they will never forsake God.  Yet, we know that is exactly what the people will, time and time again, not do.  They will leave God behind; they will forsake God; they will find other gods to worship.

And what are we doing today?  We are, as were the people of Israel some three thousand years ago, witnesses to our own actions.  We see what is going on but we would rather complain bitterly about what is happening rather than take action.  Paul warns the people of Thessalonica that they need to be looking forward, not carrying on as if the world was already over. (1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18)

Now, you may say to me that Paul is writing about the Second Coming and how those who are Christ’s disciples on earth will receive their rewards.  I won’t deny that but Paul is also pointing out (as he did in other letters) that we cannot get hung up on that point.  Excuse me for pointing out the obvious but if we stop moving forward, we cannot get where we want to go.  Those who quit working for the kingdom because they think that the time is at hand will not get to the kingdom or receive its rewards.  John the Seer made the same point in Revelations.  Just because we say we are believers does not guarantee us salvation if we do nothing but stand aside and let the world destroy itself.

We have become a society of quick fixes, instant gratification, and self-centeredness.  We want the benefits of a good society but we are unwilling to pay for the benefits.  We want the rights of citizenship without the responsibility.  We want it all but we want others to pay for it.  We have become a society of the foolish virgins in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 25: 1 – 13); we are unprepared for the problems that we have to face and we expect quick solutions will solve problems that have been developing over the past few years (and I am not talking just about the past eight years or so).

The coming years are going to be a challenge; there is no way that the problems that we have right now are going to be solved immediately or in the next 100 days or perhaps in the next 1000 days.  The problems are far too complicated to be easily and quickly solved.

We are faced with an energy crisis and the answer is not going to be drilling for more oil wherever it may be located.  The answer lies in seeking other solutions but other solutions also take time and money, factors we seem to generally ignore.  World hunger is on the rise, so the answer is to grow more food.  But growing more food requires more land and more fertilizer.  To get more farm land, we destroy forests; more fertilizer requires more of the resources that we need to solve our energy crisis.  Each problem that we are faced with has a solution; but we have to stop and think first, not act and hope that what we do right now is correct.  We have to remember that the earth’s resources are finite.

The prophet Jeremiah once told us to stand at the crossroads and look at the paths before us.  One of these paths is the true path, the right path; the other looks good but is filled with trouble and turmoil.  Choose the path you wish to walk, Jeremiah told the people.  Choose the true path, he cried, but the people refused.

That is where we are right now.  We are at a crossroads in this journey of life.  There are some who would wish to turn back and return to the place from whence they come; turn back into a life of slavery to sin and death.

There are some who will profess faith and loyalty to God, just as the people of Israel did on the plain of Shechem some three thousand years ago.  But they will quickly choose another god to follow and the path they walk will lead to death and destruction. 

Some will choose an easy path to walk because that is what they think is the path to the Promised Land.  They will keep the things they have and tell others in need to get it on their own.  Their easy path will quickly become very difficult.

Some will seek to walk the path to the Promised Land but want others to carry them while they are able to walk.

Others will choose the one true Path.  It will not be an easy path to walk and it will be filled with many hardships and much turmoil.  Along the way, they will find themselves helping others who do not have as much as they do.

So we stand at the crossroads, preparing to take the next step.  What will it be?

Lighting the world through our talents


This has been an interesting week. First, with the shift from daylight savings time, darkness seems more pronounced. And with the increasing darkness of the days, I see an increasing darkness in the world.

There were some glimmers of light last week. The entire Dover, PA, school board was defeated in the election. Their defeat was almost totally because of their stance on the issue of “intelligent design.” But this glimmer of hope, this glimmer of light in a dark world was countered by the Kansas State Board of Education deciding to implement their new science curriculum which includes “intelligent design.” And then the world got a bit darker when Pat Robertson took it upon himself to say that God has turned his eyes away from the people of Dover for their voting to “exclude God from their lives.”

What has transpired this week is not about religion and science; it is about seeking the truth and knowing what the truth is. First, I will say that I have no doubts that God created this universe, this particular world, and the life that exists on this planet. That is a statement of what I believe. I also believe that God intended us to find out how He did it, not why He did it. Are we not created in His image? If we are, then why were we given a brain if not to think and discover things about the world around us?

Science is about the how of the world, not the philosophical why? Science is empirical; that is, it is based on the evidence that we see. Faith is that which is unseen. The two are exclusive and one cannot live by one alone. To put any suggestion of why something is done or to remove the search for empirical evidence by suggesting that some things cannot be determined because they are too complex for simple understanding is to change the nature of science.

The idea behind “intelligent design” is bad science and we are teaching enough bad science. The debate over evolution, creationism, and, now, “intelligent design” all started because science teachers were teaching evolution as a fact and not as a theory.

Let me state that not all science teachers teach evolution as a fact. There are some who do understand the nature of science and teach it properly. But the record shows that many science teachers in this country are woefully unprepared to teach science to begin with and so they do not understand what science is about. As a result, they transmit their misunderstanding of science to their students and it is this that has lead to the current situation.

Our science education process in this country is abysmal, to say the least, and any discussion about “intelligent design” should make that clear. Those empowered to teach do not understand what they are teaching and those who do not like what is being taught do not understand that what they want taught as science can never be defined as science.

I am not going to lay the blame solely on the teachers. Parents have failed in this process as well. The reason that parents have gotten upset about the teaching of evolution, from my viewpoint, is that their children are coming home with questions concerning the differences between what they are learning in school and what they are learning at home and at church. I think that is great, because it shows that the children are growing and inquiring about the world and ideas around them.

Those parents who have gotten angry about the teaching of evolution have found themselves in the position of defending what they believe. That is also good. If our faith is strong, we should be able to withstand the pressures of others. But I think what is happening is that parents do not want to defend their beliefs, because they do not know how to do so. As a result, their defense is that the teachers and the education system are at fault for their failure to teach the values that they believe. But if our educational system teaches one set of values, to the exclusion of others, then those who are excluded will also get angry.

The majority of school systems respond by teaching valueless values. And we wonder why we have so many problems. And the problems are not going to go away; they are going to continue to grow because we, no matter who we are, are not willing to grow. Did not Paul say to the Thessalonians that we are “children of light”? (1 Thessalonians 5: 1 – 11) Did not Jesus point out that we should walk in the light and not hide it? When I hear mention of the light in the New Testament I think of two things.

First, of course, is freedom from sin and death. The powers of darkness do not do well in the light; sin and death cannot accomplish their task when exposed to the power of the sunlight (or perhaps one should write the Son Light). Second, the light is gained through the seeking of truth. Jesus also pointed out that those who seek the truth will be set free. Freedom from sin and death comes from knowledge; such knowledge is both about Jesus and what Jesus said and did. Freedom comes, not because we listen to others but because we learn.

To stop learning is to let darkness creep in to our lives. To stop learning is to let knowledge die. When darkness creeps into one’s life, one’s knowledge dies, there is no growth. And when there is no growth there can only be death. As Plato once wrote, “One can easily understand a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when grown men and women are afraid of the light.” (E-mail – Daily Dig for 8 November 2005)

Many use the Gospel reading, the parable of the talents (Matthew 25: 14 – 20), when a stewardship moment is needed. And for many, stewardship moments are about money; money to keep the church up or money to develop programs.

But I have always seen the parable as more than money. After all, when we joined the United Methodist Church, we said that we would support the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. Is this not a summary of the parable of the talents?

To me, this parable is about skills and knowledge, growth and life. If we hold on to what we have (as the individual given the one talent did) then we will die.

But we if we take the talents that we have been given and utilize them, they are returned in kind. The individual given ten talents returned twenty; the individual given five talents returned ten. It is hard to decide what talents we have but we cannot be afraid to use what we have and go beyond where we are in life.

The problem is that we are trying very hard in this country to not lose the talents we have; we have become afraid to venture beyond the boundaries of our existence. We are building walls and shutting people out. We do not extend our fellowship beyond those we trust for fear that we might find something new. Pat Robertson’s comments are only typical of those who fear the future. Those that fear the future are not willing to go beyond what they have; they are not willing to grow. Whatever talents they have been given, they seem more concerned about holding on to them, not giving them away so that they can be returned. And did not Paul, in his letter to Thessalonians for today, say that we are not destined for God’s wrath? (1 Thessalonians 5: 5)

Why would Pat Robertson say something like he did last week? Why are his comments so totally ignorant of the world around him? Could it be that he must defend his ideas and the only way he knows how is to attack? Why is it that so many fundamentalists are defensive when it comes to defending their views? As I read many of the Methodist blogs this past week, I saw many blogs that criticized the views of others, especially in light of the Judicial Council’s recent decisions. Some of the criticisms were done in the light, open to comment and discussion, in hopes that the truth will come out.

But others attacked the views of others and used false names and addresses so that there could be no response. Some, who did leave a valid address of some sort, do not allow comments posted on their sites. They freely spew venom, hate and ignorance but do not allow others to fight back. They are willing to cast darkness in the world for they fear the light.

“Seek ye the truth and the truth will set you free.” The truth is found in the light and if you make the world dark, then truth cannot be found.

The challenge today is to find the truth in the world; to understand the truth in the world. Yes, Jesus is the light, the truth, and the way we should live. But Jesus lived among us, not separate from us. He encouraged us to move beyond simply following the law; he encouraged us to live the law. His parable of the talents was not about money but rather about what we can do in this world.

My understanding of the Book of Judges is limited, since I am still learning. But I have come to know that this book of the Old Testament is about those whose talents were put to use, in leadership and prophecy. It was a time in the history of Israel when leadership was provided by talented individuals. These individuals used their talents for the betterment of the society and the nation; they sought no personal gain. Again, it is my understanding that the people of Israel were uncomfortable with this system of leadership, not because they thought it wouldn’t work (which it did) but because the nations around them had kings and the trappings of power. How could the nation of Israel be a strong nation if it did not have kings and the trappings of power?

We know of course that that Israel did have a king, the one true King. But they were blind to God, as the Book of Judges depicts. And when there is a call for leadership among the people, it is those whose talents and abilities shine that are chosen. That is why the reading from the Old Testament for today (Judges 4: 1 – 7) focuses on Deborah.

It was her talents, her abilities that allowed the Israelites to succeed. I wonder how many fundamentalists or conservatives would be comfortable with someone like Deborah leading them. It is clear that the general of the Israelite armies, Barak, was not. In the passage following today’s selection, Barak is unwilling to go into battle on the words of a woman but he will go into battle if she goes with him.

I have seen too many people today who are uncomfortable with the changing nature of the world around them. They seek security in the old ways; they seek comfort in limited knowledge. They have taken the one talent they have been given and hidden it. And the parable of the talents tells us what happens to such individuals. There are those who have been given many talents but they are unwilling to use them, not because they fear the lose of the talents but because they fear what might happen, what others might say, if they use their talents. How many talented people refuse to work in public service today because of the climate of society?

And why should they not be afraid? The power of darkness is frightening and gains more power through fear. But those of us whose talents are few can do a lot to encourage others and in our encouragement, in our own work, we can overcome the darkness in the world and bring light to the world. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, “encourage one another and build up each other,” (1 Thessalonians 5: 11) are just as true today as they were in Paul’s time.

We must use the talents that we have been given, in ways we might not yet understand and for reasons that are not exactly clear to us. But when we use these talents, when we seek to move beyond where we are at this moment, then great things happened. The talents we are given are returned to us in kind. The world around us is no longer a world of darkness but one of light.

We are reminded that the world was in darkness when Jesus was born. The single light of His birth in Bethlehem did not die but rather was spread. It was the shepherds who saw the light first and they took the light with them The wise men came and took the light back with them to their own countries. The disciples came and then took the light beyond the boundaries of Israel and through the world.

The task of taking this light out into the world falls upon us today. It may seem that this is an impossible task. But God does not call us to do impossible tasks; He merely wants us to use what we have been given, not for our purposes but for His. And His purposes are to bring light to the world.

Though written for another occasion, the words of “Light One Candle” are very much appropriate as we think of our talents and bringing light into the world.

LIGHT ONE CANDLE (http://www.peterpaulandmary.com/music/14-10.htm)
Peter Yarrow- ©1983 Silver Dawn Music ASCAP

Light one candle for the Maccabee children
With thanks that their light didn’t die
Light one candle for the pain they endured
When their right to exist was denied
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
Justice and freedom demand
But light one candle for the wisdom to know
When the peacemaker’s time is at hand

chorus:
Don’t let the light go out!
It’s lasted for so many years!
Don’t let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.

Light one candle for the strength that we need
To never become our own foe
And light one candle for those who are suffering
Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in
That anger not tear us apart
And light one candle to find us together
With peace as the song in our hearts

(chorus)

What is the memory that’s valued so highly
That we keep it alive in that flame?
What’s the commitment to those who have died
That we cry out they’ve not died in vain?
We have come this far always believing
That justice would somehow prevail
This is the burden, this is the promise
This is why we will not fail!

(chorus)

Don’t let the light go out!
Don’t let the light go out!
Don’t let the light go out!

So today, there may be questions in your mind about what your talents are and what you should be doing? Listen carefully as you hear the voice of God asking you to open your heart, your mind, and your soul and to allow Jesus Christ to enter. And those who have allowed Christ to enter may hear God again calling you, saying “take that which has been given to you and go out into the world, using your talents so that others may come to know peace, joy, and freedom.”

Shall you be like the one individual who, given the single talent, did nothing and let the world stay in darkness? Or shall you answer the call, that voice inside you, and take the talents that you have been given to light the world?