“Which One Are You?”


Here are my thoughts for Christ the King Sunday (Year C). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1: 11 – 20, and Luke 23: 33 – 43.

Some opening thoughts about this piece. When we are instructing/teaching/preparing people to give a sermon or a message, we often tell them to make their references relevant to the audience. I know that a couple of months ago I gave a message and one person commented that they did not a single individual who I referred to (though the list included Isaac Newton) and I have a habit of using songs from the 60s and I have absolutely no knowledge of today’s music.

So this piece comes with a caveat; it may be that you had to have been born before 1950 to truly understand some of what I have written. Those born after 1960 will have no memory or idea has to how this words came to be and those born between 1950 and 1960 will have some knowledge but not the exact knowledge that those ten years older might have.

As it happens, I am in that bracket of those born between 1950 and 1960. I have a memory of what transpired but it is not a very clear one. During the past few days, as we have watched countless shows about what transpired 50 years ago in Dallas, we have heard people talk about where they were when they were told that President Kennedy was dead. I know that I was somewhere in North Junior High School in Aurora, Colorado. I know that I sat with my parents, brothers and sister for much of that weekend watching all the events that took place. But I don’t remember what class I was in at North, nor do I have any recollection of what my parents might have thought or said.

That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t affected by all that transpired those four days. In fact, everything that took place from 1960 to 1963 had a direct effect on my life and the lives of my classmates and counterparts.

I was coming of age in 1963 and would, over the course of the next eighteen months, carry out the decision to seek the God and Country award in the Boy Scouts. It would be that decision that let me begin part of the journey that I take today.

Because it was the early 1960s, there was a great deal of emphasis on mathematics and science education and, with the space race opening before our eyes, I saw a career in the sciences as a possibility. In the spring of 1965 I would create a science fair project based on Newton’s Law of Gravitation and a trip to the moon in an Apollo space craft (one that was eerily prophetic when the fuel cell exploded on Apollo 13).

We who grew up during those later days of the 1960s were beneficiaries of the vision and thought of John Kennedy. We were taught and encouraged to see outside the box of traditional thought.

We grew up seeing opportunities to go beyond the boundaries of our land and outside the atmosphere of this planet, to see beyond the moon and planets and to the stars. We were beginning to since new opportunities here in this country and around the world.

Equality was beginning to have the meaning it was meant to have when Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The threat of nuclear war and the total destruction of the world was still present but opportunities to seek peace were growing, both at home and abroad.

There was a struggle to find answers but there was a hope that “New Frontier” that John Kennedy spoke of was going to be reached. There was a hope that no one would go hungry or be sick or be homeless.

Some might say that those dreams, those visions, that hope died at 1 p. m. Central Standard Time on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. I am not sure that is true. There were still opportunities to see and fulfill the dreams and visions of those days. But I think that over the course of the next few years, it became harder and harder to do so.

By 1968, when I graduated from high school, the answer to so many problems was not peace but war. And the cost of teaching and thinking creatively was driving it out of the schools. And while true equality for all was the law of the land, its enforcement and acceptance was still difficult.

And now, some fifty years later, we no longer see beyond the boundaries of earth’s atmosphere, we no longer have vision of voyages to the stars as something other than science fiction.

As a society, we still measure equality in terms economic status, the color of their skin, their sexuality and their gender. We say to those who are somehow different that they do not have the same rights and privileges that we have nor do they deserve to somehow think that they should. We tell those whom we consider less worthy than us that they can have the rights and privileges that we have provided that they become like us and yet we seldom give them the opportunity to achieve that outcome.

In our apathy and ineptitude, we have sown the seeds of our own destruction. We, as a society, say that we are Christians and that we believe in the Bible. Yet, as a society, we have no clue what are the words of the Bible or what they mean and we are as apt to use some sort of Old Testament thinking and say it represents the words of Christ.

We take the words of a 17th century bishop and make them the words of the Bible and the age of the earth and mankind. We take the words of a 19th century pastor who offered a vision of the end of the world and make them the words of a 3rd century evangelist. And we do not allow our children to question either of these errors.

We no longer are capable of thinking outside the box because we don’t want to live outside the box. We see a world in which yesterday was better than today and we have no interest in even knowing what tomorrow will bring. We ask no questions for we fear the answers.

The title for this piece comes from the passage from Luke. Three men were crucified on Golgotha that day that we have called Good Friday. Our focus needs to be, of course, on the one in the middle, Jesus Christ, for it was His death that evening that means everything to us.

I think that there is a point in time in our lives where we are faced with the situation that the two men who suffered alongside Jesus. It may not be the life and/or death situation that each of them faced but there is a point where we have to make a decision, a decision that both of those men had to face. And so, the question arises as to which one are you?

But we have to decide which of the other two men that were by His side that day we are. Are we like the one who ridiculed Jesus, who asked, as did so many others, why He did not call out the army of God to save Him? Or are we like the other individual, who understood why he hung from a cross as well, but also understood that Jesus offered a new vision, a new promise, a new hope, even in the last minutes of his own life?

The words from Jeremiah for today (Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6) easily speak to each one of us today. Some will hear those words and know that they have answered the call; others will hear those words and think that they apply to others but not them. Those who hear but do not listen are like the first man on the cross, unable to see or understand the vision and promise of the Gospel.

There are those in Jeremiah’s prophecy that live today. They are the ones who see tomorrow, who understand what it means to have Christ in their lives. They may be the ones who getting “dirty” helping others. They see the role of the church as more than a meeting in a fancy building for one hour on Sunday. They have put Christ in their lives and, as Paul writes to the Colossians, are learning and do the work of Christ.

Yes, this is hard work and sometimes we get tired of doing it. And in a world that sees today as the best it is ever going to be, that sees divisions and inequality as the norm, it is not easy to keep doing Christ’s work.

We are at a point where we must make a decision. Some say that we no longer have the luxury of time; that if we don’t make some decisions at this time, we will never have the time to correct the errors of our ways. Instead of Sheol in the afterlife, it will be in the present. We will, in our own stubborn way, made Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” a reality.

But, as Paul points out, there is another option and that is to follow Christ and continue the work that was begun some two thousand years ago.

So, on this day, when our focus begins to change to the coming of Christ, we have to ask ourselves where our vision might be. Are we like the one who could not see the Hope in Christ and who died that night on the Cross? Or are we like the one, who in those last moments of his own life, found Paradise in Christ?

We have that singular opportunity. Which of the two are you?

“Choices”


This was the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for Christ the King Sunday (C), 21 November 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1: 11 – 20 and Luke 23: 33 – 43.

I spoke last week (“Signs of Things to Come”) of the two responsibilities of the church, the social and personal responsibilities of the church in today’s society. Now, some might say that I spend too much time on the former while never speaking of the latter.

I have and I will always feel that my relationship with Christ is what allows me to speak out in this world, to speak out against injustice and oppression. I grew up in a world where the Bible and the words of God were used for injustice and repression. So it is that I think that it is my own relationship with God through Christ that allowed me to escape that view of the world and fight for a world of equality and justice.

In the words of Jeremiah, Jesus came to this world to take care of those that the world had forgotten. We seem to have forgotten that particular piece of prophecy in today’s world. Many churches today seem to think that this passage applies to the relief of oppression in the world and they hold onto that view at the expense of their own membership. For these churches, there is no church but the one outside the walls. Other churches, perhaps in response to the whole-world view of other churches, feel that the shepherd role applies first and foremost to a church’s own membership. For these churches, the world outside the walls doesn’t exist.

But the fact of the matter is that both worlds exist and any church that ignores one in favor of the other will, in the long run, suffer the consequences for its ignorance.

In a recent article comparing the nature of members in traditional, mainline churches and evangelical, fundamentalist churches, it was discovered that mainline churches favor traditional family values and are made up of traditional families. The members of the evangelical or fundamentalist churches are apt to be non-traditional, single parent families. You might think it to be otherwise, based on the most recent public events.

But the fact of the matter is that the traditional mainline denominations have difficulty adapting to the nature of the society outside the church and are not always willing to make the changes needed. The reason that these non-traditional families attend the non-traditional churches is that they get the one thing that they are missing in their lives, acceptance and love.

You may disagree with this idea but stop and think about it for a moment. These individuals are experiencing difficult family situations and are looking for a community that will help them get through their life. There is admittedly a dichotomy here. Evangelicalism holds up a traditional ideal of the family but has more non-traditional families, whereas mainline Protestantism holds up a more liberal ideal but has more traditional families in the pew. Churches may speak of being open and welcoming but whom do they welcome? To whom will the doors of the church open?

Jeremiah’s words are angry words and they were directed at the rulers of Judah. Jeremiah is merely acknowledging earlier pronouncements given in Ezra. And whether we care to admit it or not, those words are directed at this society where we have been given many of the same tasks that the leaders of Israel were given. And just like the leaders then, we have failed now.

But it is also interesting to note that the same Hebrew words that produce the phrase “bestow punishment”, used several times in this passage, also produce the phrase “bestowed care.” And God, in bestowing punishment on the people of Israel for failing to hold to the covenant promises, also provides care for those in need and suffering. The final part of this passage from Jeremiah is the prophecy that Jesus will come and He will be the one and true King of all people.

I think that the one thing that we have to consider is that no church, be it mainline or non-traditional, can presume to hold to one line of thought if its actions are opposite or not consistent with that thought. I think that is what has caused much of the problems with the mainline denomination; they hold to a liberal view of life, yet exclude or deny that view to many who seek it.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is another example of Paul having to deal with problems in a local church. And again, it has to do with how the people have interpreted the original message. The commentary that I use indicates that the church in Colosse focused on six things:

  1. Ceremonialism – the adherence to strict rules about the kinds of permissible food and drink, religious festivals, and circumcision.
  2. Asceticism – the carrying out of strict rules to the extreme
  3. Angel worship – this was not necessarily a belief in angels (which was okay) but rather a worship of the angels themselves as suitable replacement for God (which can never be okay).
  4. The depreciation of Christ – in the false teachings presented to the Colossians, Christ as our Lord and Savior was reduced in stature.
  5. The development of secret knowledge, – this was the idea that not everyone was entitled to the knowledge of the resurrection.
  6. And, a reliance on human wisdom and tradition – the false teachers were implying that salvation could only be obtained by combining faith in Christ with secret knowledge that only they, the teachers, could gain and with man-made regulations concerning the activities that one undertook in church and in daily life.

It is not likely that what many churches are doing today compares to the problems of the church in Colosse. But much of what is done in many churches today (and I am not going to split the difference between traditional and non-traditional churches) is very similar. We don’t spend time focusing on the single most important fact about why we are here – that Christ is King and Our Savior.

I think we hide that fact. I think we would rather focus on the church as a building and an entity on its own. But, if we stop and pause for a moment and think about why we are here, then we have to realize that which Paul emphasized in the portion of his letter that we read today. For Paul, our focus should be on the simple fact that Christ is the one and only King.

As the New Year approaches, we are faced with choices. Shall we, individually and collectively, make the decision to follow Christ, to acknowledge that He is our one and only King? Or shall we make the decision to keep going as we have been going, trusting in our own judgement? We do not know why the two criminals were crucified on the same day as Jesus. It might have simply been for expediency.

We know that the Romans and the Jewish Church Council certainly had no understanding of what was to transpire that day. To them, Jesus was just another criminal for whom punishment must be meted out. But for us, the act of crucifying Jesus was the symbol of care being meted out; it was a sign that God cared for us.

For the one criminal, wise to they ways of the world, Jesus was just like him, a common criminal and sentenced to death. There was nothing but punishment to be gained. But the other criminal understood, even at the moment of his own death, that Jesus was the Son of God and the Savior of man.

We can be like the first criminal and accept the punishment of life that we are given. Or we can see Christ as our Savior, as did the second criminal, and be given eternal life, free from slavery to sin and death. We can know that Jesus’ crucifixion was the bestowment of God’s care for us. The choices are ours to make, what shall they be?

“Priorities For Life”


This was the message I gave at Walker Valley UMC for Christ the King Sunday, 25 November 2001 (C). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1: 11 – 20, and Luke 23: 33 – 43.

Whether we know or it, this Sunday marks the end of the year. Of course, I am not talking about the end of the calendar year but rather the liturgical calendar. The church calendar is marked into four seasons — Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, and the Sundays after Pentecost (sometimes known as Kingdom Tide). This Sunday is called the Christ the King Sunday to mark the end of Kingdom Tide and the beginning of Advent.

It is one of those quiet Sundays on the calendar since we really don’t do anything big or spectacular with it. Perhaps we should. After twenty-five weeks in the Kingdom Tide, perhaps we should do something to celebrate. But then again, our celebration of Christ’s birth begins next week and to celebrate this week might be shade bit too much.

But we should stop and reflect what Christ’s presence in our lives means, for if nothing, that is what this Sunday is really about. What does Christ’s presence mean in our lives and what are we going to do because of it?

Jeremiah warns the people of Israel to beware of those who would not do what is required of them. What kind of shepherds would neglect their own flocks? At the time that Jeremiah spoke, the people of Israel were going through bad times. The government of Israel had essentially forgotten what its mandate was; it had forgotten what it meant to lead the people.

But God had not forgotten His covenant with the people; He had not forgotten his people. At a time when hope was needed, God would send them a leader, a shepherd who would take care of His people.

This passage from Jeremiah points out that God would finish what He started. For a people who needed love, God would see that they had it. If it were forgiveness that they desired, it would be given. If it were power for living that was needed, they would discover it.

God would keep the promise of the covenant he made with them. God would right the wrong, defeat the power of evil, and bring peace and joy and life to them all. The people of Israel would have a kingdom where all would be equal and would treat each other with love and justice.

In a time of darkness and fear, God would save them. No longer would they have to fear other nations. God would keep them secure. No one or no nation could ever destroy them. The protection of God would never be defeated. They would be safe in God’s arms.

The people of Israel sought a king would could make them safe and secure. We know now that the King that Jeremiah spoke of, the shepherd who would watch over his flocks and protect them from danger and trouble was the Christ. In Christ all the prophecies could be seen. Christ would deal wisely with the people, even when the earthly kings did not. He came to meet our needs, to provide lave and forgiveness and grace for our lives. Chris was, is and will always be sufficient for our needs.

Jeremiah pointed out that Christ would execute justice and righteousness. He opposed injustice, mistreatment of others, sinful living. He would call on the people to love one another, to meet the needs of the less fortunate, and to live as disciples of His Kingdom.

He provided salvation for all. If we put our lives in the hands of Christ, nothing can pry us loose from them. Christ will hold us tightly, keeping us secure through eternity.

Today we are faced with a decision. Which king shall we serve? There are plenty of earthly kings who promise much. Sometimes they carry names like materialism, pleasure, success or fame. All promise much, all promise to bring safety and security; but, in the end, none of these deliver what they promise. Yet Christ delivers what He promised.

Paul pointed out to the Colossians what it is about Jesus that truly makes Him the Lord of all people. Paul pointed out first that only Jesus had the power to rescue people from the darkness of sin and bring them to the Kingdom of light.

Second, in our desire to find security and safety, we seek that which we can know. There have been many attempts to describe God, to know what God is like. As our Savior, Jesus came to this world to give us a glimpse of God. God is revealed to us through the heart and mind of Christ Jesus. Through his acts of compassion, his merciful forgiveness, his sufficient grace, and his sensibility to human need, Christ reveals a portrait of God different from the one of a powerful agent of wrath, far removed from this world. Jesus showed us God as a loving Father who cared for us all.

Finally Paul reminds us that Jesus has authority over both the church and the individual. No matter what we may think or feel about the power of an individual, no person is the sole captain of their own soul; all are called to live their lives under the control and authority of Christ Jesus.

Paul concluded his letter by reminding us that Jesus came to reconcile us with God. As our Savior, Christ is involved in bringing everyone into a right relationship with God. He is the device by which we can communicate and move into fellowship with God.

To me, one of the most dramatic moments of Christ’s live here on earth was that moment depicted in the Gospel reading for today. For it showed what Christ was all about; why he came to this world and lived among us. Two criminals were hung by Jesus to die the same long, slow, painful death of crucifixion that Jesus would die. One of the two thieves still saw the world in earthly terms, seeing the power of the Messiah in selfish terms, only in terms of what it could for an individual.

As Paul pointed out, we are not the captains of our soul. To see power in terms of what it can do for us limits what that power can do. And the thief who mocked Jesus along with the soldiers could only see power in terms of what it would do for the individual. That thief was like a lot of people today who see power in terms of what it can do for the one.

But the other thief understood that he was on the cross for what he had done; he was on the cross because he sought to security through his own devices. And he realized that it was all of naught; that nothing he could do would save him from the punishment he received. But he also understood, even in the throes of pain and death that Jesus was the Messiah and that salvation was his for the asking.

As we begin the celebration of Advent we are asked to think about what Jesus means to each of us. We are asked to think about the role of Jesus in our lives. What are our priorities? How shall we live our lives?

The message for today is one of hope and promise. At a time when things look darkest, when we feel that there is no hope, we are asked to consider what our priorities are going to be. If we put aside all that this world around asks us to do, if we understand that our celebration of Advent is a celebration of the hope and promise embodied in Christ, then we begin to understand what our priorities should and must be.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the Sunday when we are reminded that the one priority in life is to follow Christ, to open our hearts to Him who would be the servant King. Today we are asked to evaluate our priorities in life and choose those which enable us to be faithful servants of the King.

A Particular Point In Time


I was at the Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY, this morning (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scripture readings for this morning were Ezekiel 34: 11 – 16, 20 – 24; Ephesians 1: 15 – 23; and Matthew 25: 31 – 46. 

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This has been edited since it was first posted.

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I began this message with a thought about how this is Christ the King Sunday and not the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The nature of the liturgical calendar always makes the identity of a particular Sunday very interesting. And the changing nature of the liturgical calendar and how it is dependent on Christmas and Easter lead me to a thought more appropriate perhaps for my chemistry lab than the pulpit.

One of the things that you learn in chemistry is that you may be able to determine the position of an electron with reference to the nucleus or you may be able to determine the velocity of the electron but you cannot determine both. This is the foundation for what is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. This is also part of the basis for the quantum mechanical model of the atom. Quantum mechanics can take us into some very interesting areas of chemistry and physics, none of which have any immediate impact on our lives today but perhaps might in the coming years. It also leads to some interesting thoughts and possibilities, possibilities that lead Albert Einstein to reject the notion of quantum mechanics and state quite categorically that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Einstein was never comfortable with the uncertainty that came with the development of quantum mechanics, firmly believing in a deterministic model of the universe; that is, there was an underlying reality in which particles, such as electrons, do have well defined positions and velocities and that this would ultimately become known to mankind (adapted in part from “Does God Play Dice?”)

As I was writing this, I began to think that there might be some sort of correlation between the deterministic model of the universe favored by Einstein and first developed by Isaac Newton in the 18th century and the deterministic, pre-destination model of theology developed by John Calvin.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564), the 16th century theologian, proposed that everyone is born a sinner and there is no escaping the penalty for sin. A simple way of saying it would be that good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people and if you were one of the bad people, then you had no hope in this world. It is a model that has been rejected by most theologians because if it were the operating model for our faith, then there would be no reason to have Jesus in our lives. Our escape from a life of sin and death is predicated on the presence of Jesus in our lives; if we cannot escape sin, then we have no need for Jesus or even God for that matter.

To some extent, this idea, that our lives were fixed and determined by God before we were born, was the basic understanding of the people of Jesus’ time. Illness, poverty, misfortune were all the signs of a sinful life; good health, riches, and a fortunate life were all the signs of a righteous life. How many times was it said that the children suffered because of some sin either or both of their parents did? It was, if you will, the central point of Jesus’ message to say that all had a hope and a possibility, one that came through Christ.

Unfortunately, John Calvin preceded Newton by almost 100 years and if there was any link, it would be in terms of what Newton thought, not what Calvin thought. So I will leave it to others more versed in theology to determine if there is a relationship between John Calvin’s deterministic ideas and those of Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). There may be such a link because what most people don’t know is that Isaac Newton wrote more about the Bible and faith than he did about any other area, including optics, calculus, or gravity (See my notes on Newton – “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”)

Still, some 600 years after Calvin, it is interesting to note that many people still believe that one’s life is determined at birth and riches come to the righteous while poverty comes because one leads a life of sin. Many people today are quite willing to believe that they will be the ones who will receive the stated rewards of heaven because they are, if you will, the “true believers”. But their actions often times don’t reflect their faith.

Oh, these “true believers” do come to church on Sunday but when the sun rises on Monday morning, in fact by the time the referee blows his whistle to start the football game on Sunday afternoon, what has been said and done on Sunday morning is often forgotten. They heard the pastor speak about the equality found in Jesus but practice inequality in their daily lives. They nod with knowing approval when someone gets up to say that the local food bank needs donations and volunteers but they always seem to find things on their calendar that somehow take precedence. They tell all their friends about how they were part of a mission trip to Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique but they are not willing to help with local missions as it is a waste of time and only encourages the poor to stay poor. Their day to day lives are more reflective of the people of the Old Testament who ignored the sick, the needy, the hungry, the oppressed and were more interested in their own lives.

It takes more than coming to church on a Sunday to be a Christian or giving lip service to the call of the many; to say that one is a Christian is to say that one has a new life, a new view of the world. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.

If we leave Christ behind when we leave the church then it is impossible for Christ to be in the world. If our lives during the week are not reflective of the time we spend in the church on Sunday, then we haven’t learned anything. It becomes easy then to not see the hungry or the homeless, the sick or the oppressed. When our focus is not on Christ and His message, it becomes very easy to become blind to the world.

When your life in Christ is limited to a few hours a week in a single building, you are not likely to see Christ as He walks by you on the street each day. When your focus is on the world in which our bodies lie, it is very hard to see the world in which our spirit tries to live. The Gospel reading today is a very stark reminder of what can happen. When our vision of Christ is an image on the wall in a building called a church, it is very hard to see Christ any other way.

It isn’t always about doing mission work far away from one’s home; it is about doing mission work anytime one walks out of the church and into the world. It is about seeing Christ not in the building they left but in the world outside the building.

It is quite easy, then, to understand why the people responded the way they did in the Gospel reading. I am utterly convinced that people today would respond the same as those who read the words in Matthew when they were first written two thousand years ago. They do not see the homeless, the hungry, the sick, or the imprisoned. Christ is viewed only in terms of the building they called the church, not the person who walked the dusty back roads of Galilee and taught others about the love of God the Father, who healed the sick and brought comfort to people who were convinced that they had been forgotten.

I find too many examples today where that is the case, where the church, despite its teachings and its history, ignores the poor and needy and favors the rich and powerful. Oh, I know that there probably isn’t a church in this country who is not conducting a food drive this week. But what are they doing next week? What are the people of the churches today doing to insure that the Kingdom of God has a chance in this world?

It takes more than a few words and some limited actions one week a year. It takes a change of heart; it takes a new vision. To see each person you encounter as Christ, not just another person on the street.

Some years ago, I took my mother to a new Christian restaurant in Memphis. That was how it was advertised. It was clean, it had a nice environment and no alcohol was served. It was a nice, clean place to take your family to eat. It should have been a booming success. Unfortunately it failed.

Now some will tell me that our society doesn’t like Christian-based businesses. They will tell you that this restaurant’s failure was based on society not wanting anything to do with a Christian theme business. But I will let you in on a little secret; if the food at a restaurant is not good, calling it a Christian restaurant won’t make it better. But the food was lousy and, in the end, a restaurant that serves lousy food is not going to be successful, no matter what its name. If the owners had been more of the Spirit, perhaps they would have understood this. I will be honest; I thought that their attitude was one in which the name would be enough.

What would you serve Christ for a meal? And if you were to serve the best for Christ, what would you serve his children? And that points out something very critical about our lives, do you treat each person that you meet, that you work with, that you encounter as you would treat Christ? Will you know it when you encounter Christ?

I am reminded of a church that one day welcomed a stranger into their midst. But just because he was a stranger, he wasn’t treated as such. He was welcomed as a friend and as a neighbor. It is my understanding that he never returned after that single visit. Some years later, the church received a check from the estate of this man, a check that enabled them to buy some property and build a new parsonage and turn the old parsonage into a Sunday school house. The stranger was welcomed into the church and he remembered that welcome.

I am also reminded of an individual who is a United Methodist preacher today but some ten years or so ago was a bouncer in a local bar. You would never have thought that this individual would become a preacher and even he would tell you that back then it was the furthest thing from his mind. But one day, he came to church because a family member insisted he needed to be there for a baptism. Someone helped him get a cup coffee and he stuck the bulletin for that Sunday in his coat pocket. A couple of weeks later, he discovered that bulletin and remembered the offer about the coffee and he came back. That particular bulletin sits on his desk as reminder that he once was a stranger and he was made welcome in a church.

I recognize that many times we come to church because we are looking for Jesus. In many modern day churches today, that is a hard thing to do. Too many churches today have made that a very difficult thing to do. For one thing, we sometimes don’t really want to find Christ because He will remind us of the things we are supposed to be doing. For another, we want Christ to be in one place when He is very likely to walk through the door as a visitor or a stranger in need. If you leave with one thought it is that we need to see Christ outside this place, not necessarily here.

This day is called Christ the King Sunday. It serves as a reminder of what the focus of our life should be. When John Calvin put forth his brand of theology, he told the people that many of them would lead lives of despair and grief; that was the way it was with God. But Jesus came into the world, not to condemn but to lift up and offer hope, to show that there was another path to take.

We stand at this particular point in time, staring at a choice we must make. We can choose to continue as we have done in the past, hoping against all hope that we will have an opportunity at some other time to choose to follow Christ. Or we can choose to follow Christ, to open our hearts, souls, and minds to Him. And as we leave this place today, we leave knowing that we are going to encounter Christ, not leave Him behind.

“Winners and Losers”


I preached at the Dover Church again this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, were Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1; 11 – 20, and Luke 23: 33 – 43.

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Many years ago, a friend of mine and I spent our lunch breaks discussing the nature of teaching. Both of us were high school teachers at the time; Mark taught art and I taught chemistry. Both of us were also teachers after the fact, having graduated with degrees in art and chemistry respectively and then getting our teaching credentials. Because we had both taken a slightly different route to the classroom than the typical art and chemistry teacher, we had a different outlook on teaching. You could say that we were an artist and chemist who taught as opposed to an art or chemistry teacher.

I cannot say whether one should approach teaching from the standpoint of the subject matter first or from the aspect of how to teach first. I would, of course, be partial to learning the subject matter and then learn the best ways to teach it. The problem, though, has been that we have opted for people to learn how to teach first and then learn the subject matter. Because of the depth of information that must be learned in both areas, the amount of subject matter learned is often minimal. This continues to lead to situations where individuals teach subjects in which they only know the basic information.

For most people outside education, this is fine because the attitude is that if you know how to teach, you can teach anything. All you have to do to be a successful teacher is apply a particular formula, make sure that certain things are accomplished during the school year and one is considered a successful teacher. In today’s society, this means that you have a number of tests that your students must take and all you have to do is make sure that they pass those tests.

All of this is contradicted by research that shows successful teachers do have a true understanding of the subject as well as how to teach. And they have a desire for their students to succeed, not now but later. It is reflected in the dialogue between Sir Thomas More and Richard Rich in the play, “A Man For All Seasons.”

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

We have turned our educational system into an assembly line rather than a learning process, where each student fits a particular mold, where they have done the “right things” and meet all the criteria so that they could say that they are educated. It is a process that, like practically everything else in today’s society, focuses on the bottom-line. It sacrifices creativity, critical thinking, and analytical thinking (long-term goals) for short-term gains.

It is a mentality that paints the world in black and white with no shades of gray. It leads to a world where there are winners and losers and it is the final score that counts, not what you did. It puts more value on the things that you have than who you are as an individual. It is a mentality that says that who you will be tomorrow has already been decided and, if you don’t have the right qualifications, then you are doomed to lead a life of failure.

We are at a point in time where the church and its message can offer much and provide answers for the questions that cannot be answered through traditional methods. T. S. Elliot, in his book The Idea of a Christian Society, written just before the beginning of World War II put forth the thesis that only a renewal of Christian culture could rescue society. It is an idea that has merit today. In fact, there are many who would seek such a renewal. But the Christian culture that he might have been thinking of was and still is not the Christian culture that is so much a part of our lives today. And the Christian culture of today, sadly, is not the culture of the Bible or of the early church.

Today’s church has bought into the bottom-line mentality of society; which is sort of a shame. The church today seems more interested in its own survival than it is in the survival and, more importantly, the success of the people of God.

The problem is that, to borrow a phrase from Colin Williamson, we spend more time thinking from below than we do thinking from above. And the church’s thinking and its adaptation of secular society have driven many away from the church, when they should be seeking the church as a means of answering the questions that plague and distract them. Jeremiah, in today’s Old Testament reading, put it best, “we have driven away the people.”

Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant, of a new relationship with God through Christ. But it seems to me that unless we cast aside our present way of thinking, if we don’t start challenging some of the common notions about the Bible and the church, we will never get many of those who have walked away to return. If we don’t begin to reconsider what it is that the church is supposed to be and what it is to be a Christian, we are going to be faced with the situation in which we find it impossible to make any changes.

When Jesus began His ministry, He echoed the call of John the Baptist to repent. Repent means to start over and begin anew. We must begin to see the words and actions of Jesus in a new light.

Now, in one particular cycle of the lectionary calendar, we might have been reading from the Book of Job through the final weeks before today. I struggle with the Book of Job, probably because there are times when I see in traditional settings. But the Book of Job, along with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and the Song of Solomon, are considered part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. These books offer a different viewpoint than what is expressed in the other books of the Old Testament.

But there isn’t a counterpart to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament in the New Testament. Unless, that is, you consider that the wisdom taught by Jesus and written throughout the Gospels is such an alternative wisdom. And contrary to the path of practicality and prosperity that passes for wisdom in most cultures, including our own, the wisdom that Jesus taught was a subversive wisdom.

Jesus led his followers away from conventional wisdom (this is the way that things are done) to a deeper enlightenment and understanding. He showed more compassion for people than one might gain through traditional learning. What did He do when he encountered individuals hurting and in despair? He didn’t give them lectures on the need to do things correctly; no, He healed them, He fed them. Most importantly He loved them.

Now, there is a warning that comes when you consider the nature of this learning; Jesus was executed because the ideas that He professed and taught threatened the norm of society.

It wasn’t simply that He taught subversive ideas but that He did it in a subversive manner as well. It wasn’t new information but information presented in new ways. It forced the listener to take the information and make it their own. It is a difficult process for the hardened soil of conventional wisdom must be broken up and prepared so the seeds of new thought can be planted in this fertile soil.

And that is the problem. Conventional wisdom tells us that hard work and righteousness will make you prosper. You reap what you sow and good things happen to good people. Conventional wisdom tells us that the robe that Jesus wore must have been made of some exotic fabric or the finest kind of silk; why else would the soldiers have gambled for the robe and other belongings at the foot of the cross as described in the Gospel reading for today?

This is one of the verses that allow many pastors to proclaim without hesitation that Jesus was wealthy and that we can be too. It ignores the facts that the soldiers always gambled for whatever belongings the condemned owned or that Jesus told his disciples to travel light and depend on what they could be given.

We are reminded that conventional wisdom tells us that we attend to the matters of the family before we leave to follow Jesus. Conventional wisdom tells us that we can make the decision as to when and where to follow Jesus.

But the decision is not ours. We cannot decide to follow Jesus when we feel like it; we have to go, as did the disciples, when we are called. And when we are called, we have to answer; we cannot say that we must first bury our parents or say goodbye to our friends and family. No, we must move forward; as Jesus told us, when our hands are on the plow, we cannot look backward. Nor can we expect to continue life as it was before we are called.

In preparing this sermon, I was reading Robin Meyers’ Saving Jesus From The Church and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. The conventional wisdom is, as Meyers wrote, that faith and belief being almost interchangeable in today’s society and that challenges to one’s understanding of Christ and Christianity are not allowed. There is one meaning and one understanding; you accept it or you don’t. If you accept it, you win; if you don’t, you lose. But this is not the meaning of faith as it was presented two thousand years ago. Faith is far more than automatically believing.

Bonhoeffer wrote of one’s faith allowing one to believe. The call to follow Jesus must be done through faith. If one chooses not to follow but rather stay behind, it is impossible to believe. Being called by Jesus moves one out of one’s comfort zone. It would have been very easy for Peter to stay with his boat and remain a fisherman all of his life. He could have told all his friends and those who might drop by that “yes, Jesus was a friend of mine and I had some interesting times with Him. But it was easier staying here as a fisherman.” We can say the same thing; we can still come to church every Sunday and our lives will remain the same.

But Peter didn’t walk on the water until after he chose to follow Jesus. If he hadn’t taken the risk, he would have never learned the true meaning of faith. And that is the same for each one of us. We hear the call and we hesitate.

In our world of conventional wisdom, winning means taking no risks; it means keeping what you have and getting more. To go off and follow Jesus is a losing proposition because we have to give up all that we have. In giving up all that we have, we give up our identity. And that is a frightening proposition in today’s society.

But Saul could have not been the minister to the world that Paul was. In order to spread the Gospel message from the Galilee to the world, he had to become Paul. Each of the disciples was empowered to take the message beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone. They had chosen to follow Jesus when He called; they had to go to places they had never been.

The world that we are offered through Christ is a different world than the one we see. Too often the world we see has no opportunities, the world seen through Christ has countless opportunities. For many, the world today has no hope, no promise. Yet, through Christ, there is a hope and a promise of a new day, a new beginning. We have come to the end of a cycle of readings and songs. Next week, we begin preparing for the coming of Christ.

We hear Him calling to us to come and to allow Him to be a part of our lives and for us to be a part of His. To follow is to win; to stay is to lose. We find that our minds and our hearts are open to new opportunities and to new possibilities. Paul wrote of how God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. Our lives change when we answer the call; we find new meaning in life, we find hope instead of despair, we find promise instead of rejection, we find life and not death. We do not think of winning or losing but rather of celebrating the Presence of Christ in our lives.

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I used Faith in a Secular Age (Colin Williamson, 1966), Saving Jesus From The Church (Robin Meyers, 2009), and The Cost Of Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1959) in preparing this sermon.

“Who Shall Lead Us?”


This was the message I gave at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for Christ the King Sunday, 22 November 1998.  The scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1: 11 – 20, and Luke 23: 33 – 43.

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I am posting it this weekend because of the references I made to Coach John Wooden and a piece that I will post later on my thoughts about this great man.

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As I first read the Old Testament reading for today, I thought the leadership struggle in the Republican Party. Now matter what the reasons were, I think that Newt Gingrich lost his job as Speaker of the House because he let the power of the office overtake the responsibility of the office.

And as this year comes to an end, President Clinton is also finding out what happens because he has apparently allowed the power of the office to go overtake the responsibilities. Like you, I disapproved of what President Clinton has done but I am not sure if what this country needs right now is the spectacle that the Republicans in the House of Representatives seek.

In Jeremiah, God spoke to the leaders of Israel about what happens when one lets the power of the office to overcome the responsibilities of the office.

“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.

God was angry with the Israelite leaders because time after time the leadership succumbed to the temptations of power and used the power of the office for their own personal gain rather than for good of the country.

But the scripture’s for today are not about power. After all, not many of us are going to reach positions of power. Rather, the focus on the scriptures is about sin and how we allow it to direct our lives. Each day we face decisions that can takes closer to God or farther away from him.

It is not unusual for us to face a situation that only we can solve. We have to be careful when we begin to think beyond that simple solution and begin to believe that we can solve all problems like the one we just solved. When that happens, we are as apt to fail as we are to succeed.

In the early 1700’s, John and Charles Wesley came to America fully expecting to be successful missionaries. They had studied, they understood or at least they thought they understood what Christianity was. Because of their studies, they felt they knew the right method for obtaining salvation. Yet, in 1738 they returned to England feeling that the whole time they were in America was a complete failure. This feeling was such that Charles Wesley was severely ill for the first few months he was back in England.

In the 1970’s, UCLA had the premier basketball program in the country. Coach John Wooden, who I admire as a leader and a teacher, understood that success was not guaranteed but something that you had to continually work for. But during the 1973 – 1974 his team lost four games, including the semifinal game in the NCAA national tournament. It may have been that North Carolina State was the better team that day in 1974, but as Bill Walton later pointed out, the attitude of the UCLA players had a lot to do with the outcome. Instead of practicing and preparing for the game, the Bruins felt that the game was theirs because they were the best. As a result, they lost the game.

Each day we face countless temptations. How we deal with them says a lot about our relationship with God. When we seek to push the limits of power beyond what is acceptable, this relationship gets strained. At the beginning of Eden, there was a peace in the world and mankind was at peace with God. But sin destroyed that peace and God sought countless time to restore that peace. Yet, like the kings of Israel, we are not always willing to allow our relationship with God to be the primary presence of our lives.

John and Charles Wesley returned to England in 1738 after their missionary service in Georgia feeling as if they were failures. Prepared as they were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither Wesley felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley was willing to say that they trusted the Lord. The turmoil in their lives after they came back can be directly related to that lack of trust in the Lord.

We are not alone when it comes to facing temptation. Jesus constantly faced the temptation of using his power as the Son of God for his own use. As he started his ministry, he was tempted by Satan to use his powers for his own good rather than for the good of the people he came to save. As he hung on the cross, he heard the taunts of those around him who did not understand his mission. If he were to have saved himself, then his mission would have been a failure.

As Henry Emerson Fosdick wrote,

First, then, our own experience suggests that power is always accompanied by the temptation to misuse it, and that the greater the power, the more self-restraint it requires to use it aright. Great temptations keep company with great powers. The little man fighting his little battles wishes that he were the great man so that the more easily he might overcome them; but when he understands the great man he sees that storms circle around his higher altitudes that make the petty battles of the lower level seem insignificant. The acorn seedling may be impeded by a few dead leaves, but it never will shake in the grip of the tempest until it becomes an oak. The analogy of our experience at once suggests that our Lord was tempted not less but more than we are. Haggard and hungry in the wilderness, as Tintoretto painted him, he was facing temptations that our puny powers can hardly imagine. “If thou art the Son of God, command that these stones become bread”; “If thou art the Son of God; cast thyself down”; “All the kingdoms of the world. . . if thou wilt worship me” His masterful powers were met by masterful temptations. (From The Manhood of the Master by Harry Emerson Fosdick)

On the day that Christ was crucified, two criminals were executed as well. One only saw power in its earthly form; he could only see Christ’s power as saving himself. The other saw Christ as his savior; he knew that the ultimate goal of a place in paradise could be his if he accepted Christ.

We see much the same choice today. Now, we may not feel that we are in a position of power but there are times when we do feel lost. There may even be times when we feel like those hanging on the crosses.

Only after Aldersgate, that moment in time when John Wesley accepted Christ as his personal Savior, could John Wesley know that he was truly saved.

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. And an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Only when he accepted Christ was John Wesley able to understand the direction his life was to take.

After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and he “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, year, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always the conqueror.

But we do know that even in those darkest times, when we feel alone and lost, Christ is still there. Paul told the people in Colossians that Christ was our representative before God. By dying for our sins, by dying on the cross, Christ made it possible for us to have peace with God.

Today we celebrate Christ as the King. We see that in all his power and glory, all that was his from the beginning of creation, he still thought enough of us to die for us on the cross.

We are lost in this world of sin. We often face two choices. We can take the choice of this earthly world, allowing the temptations we face to lead us. The gains we make this way may give us momentary satisfaction but will not give us what we really want. But, when we accept Jesus as our Savior, when we follow Jesus, then as Paul wrote in Colossians, “he rescues from the dominion of darkness and brings us into the Kingdom”.

Jesus will lead us but we must first accept him as our Savior.



How Will It End?


Here are my thoughts for Christ the King Sunday, 22 November 2009. The scriptures for this Sunday are 2 Samuel 23: 1- 7, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 18: 33 – 37.

On this day as we complete another cycle in the church calendar and prepare for the beginning of Advent and the church’s New Year, it is perhaps fitting that our scriptures today speak of a beginning and an end. But in light of the discussions taking place, some on the internet, some in churches, some in families and some in the minds of many, I want to put into words some of those thoughts and what I think they mean for the future of the church.

And God said to John the Seer, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” I have heard this translated as “I am the Beginning and the End”. For many people these words offer a vision of a violent end to the world. It is part of a discussion that that began some two hundred years or so ago and continues today about how we began.

There are those who speak of the beginning only in terms of the Creation written in Genesis while there are those who see the beginning only in terms of the “Big Bang”. It is almost as if you must accept one or the other of these two views and are required to see the other as sheer foolishness.

This isn’t a discussion of Creation, Creationism, Intelligent Design, and/or evolution. It is, however, a discussion about the end of the church.

For me, the beginning comes in three stages:

1) The beginning of the universe,

2) The beginning of mankind, and finally

3) The beginning of one’s own consciousness and awareness.

The physical data tells me that this world is several million years old, not some six thousand years. The evidence is there and if it has somehow been tampered with so as to make a six thousand year old rock seem like it is several million years old, I want no part of any god that would do such a thing. And those who would argue that the evidence is only probable evidence need to examine how it is that such evidence is gathered and checked.

God created us in His image and He gave us the skills and ability to reach out and seek these things beyond our earthly limits. I cannot conceive of a god that would create beings in His image and then turn around and limit what humans can and cannot do.

It is humankind’s ability to think and envision that allows us to find a way to explain things. If we did not have that ability, we would not have ventured far away from our homes to find lands across the sea; we would not have looked at the stars and asked how we could get there. We looked at the moon from far away and wondered how to get there. We see things and asked why.

That is part of our own individual consciousness; in asking why, we created gods to create, explain, and seek answers. That is our identity. But our ability to explain only applies to the physical world; we are still at a loss to explain good and evil as a facet of the world around us.

Our existence comes not just from our physical presence on this planet but from our ability to think and reason, to know what can be explained because of the physical evidence and what must be understood through faith and belief. Our own existence has allowed us to understand that good and evil are not parts of our physical being but parts of our soul.

It is our ability to reason and think tells us that there is a something “out there” that we need to know more about. It has been a part of our being from the day we began to reason. It is the part of our being, our ability to reason and think that we ask “why?” Why did God give us the reason to think and reason? Why did He give us free will?

One day, some three thousand years ago, a young person had the audacity and the temerity to ask an elder to explain who we were and why we are here. It is a story that had been told many times in many places. One such story took place in what we have come to call Israel and it is the story of our being and our souls. Instead of rebuffing this young child, the elder gathered the young of the community together and began to explain those questions. And that is how we arrive at the third beginning.

I was raised in the church, though I would think that mine was a pragmatic upbringing. We went to the church that was closest to where we lived. But wherever we were, we went and it would have an impact on my life.

When I was twelve, I made a choice to seek a better understanding of who Christ was and where I fit into things by earning the God and Country award in Boy Scouts. This would thus lead to my membership in the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now the 1st United Methodist Church) in Aurora, Colorado. There may be some who saw this as a culmination of a journey; perhaps even I saw it that way as well.

But over the years, I have found myself in many situations where my background and knowledge has not prepared me as some would say it should have. I have found myself questioning my beliefs, sometimes because of what has happened in my life, sometimes because of what others have said. I have seen others questioned their beliefs and leave their faith because they could not answer the questions or they did not like the answers.

I have seen others leave their faith because they were not allowed to question their beliefs. And by the same measure, I have seen others who will not allow their faith, their beliefs to be questioned. And unfortunately, I see too many people today who are in this latter category, not allowing others to question their beliefs and themselves refusing to question them as well.

But questioning is, to me, the hallmark of belief. For, if we do not question our beliefs, if we do not seek to find the answers, then we risk having a faith that is rigid, inflexible, and incapable of truly being alive.

And that is what has happened to most denominations today. The elders of the church today say things that sound very similar to what the elders said when Jesus walked on this earth. Like the elders of the church then, they are bewildered and amazed when a child speaks words of wisdom and creativity. That is, of course, if there are any children in their church today and if they allow them to say anything.

The church today attempts to dominate the thought processes and daily lives of the people, some just in the local church, others nationally.

Instead of fostering thought about who Jesus was and what His message means to the people today, they hold onto old and often incorrect ideas, they argue points that don’t even exist in the Bible, and they make policy that has no relationship to the way Jesus worked with those who followed Him, both in Galilee and then throughout the Mediterranean after His death and resurrection.

It was evident in the amazement of the elders when the boy of twelve challenged them in the Temple during that Holy Week. It was evident in how the establishment condemned Jesus and his followers, calling them rebels and heretics, rebels against the policies of the lands and rebels against the leaders whose only interest was in their own self-preservation. It is the same today.

There are those who would stifle thought and creativity in order to make their story of civilization factual. There are those who would seek to impose religious law in ways that it was never intended.

I have been reading Robin Meyers’ new book, “Saving Jesus from the Church”. He offers some interesting thoughts about the state of the church today and I anticipate adding more comments over the next few months. But his comments and his thought reflect and echo some other things going on, some which are close to home, and some which are far away.

They are reflection of David’s last words and Jesus’ words to Pilate and what those words mean to each one of us. They are a reflection of reports of the people leaving the ministry because the denomination is more interested in the letter of the law to be the spirit of the law, because the denomination insists that typewriter is better than the word processor as the means to prepare sermons and reports and because the denomination doesn’t even see, let alone understand or use, what social networking is about.

And there are those in society today that say that the church is not only outmoded but the whole concept of religion is as well. It is a society that seems to place faith and reason into separate spheres of thought and which will not allow them to interact. And it is not just one side of the spectrum or the other that will not allow this to take place; it is both sides. Those whose life is faith and faith only seem to feel that there is no room for reason in their lives; and those whose life is reason and reason only have the same disdain for faith.

These are not the End Times that so many fundamentalists would have you believe but they very well could be the end of the church, in form and denomination. I don’t think that religion as a means of expressing faith will end but it will, if has not already, become a very difficult time to express one’s faith openly.

The problem at this point is that Jesus pointed out that His Kingdom was not of this world. To understand what Jesus is saying requires a new way of thinking, of thinking perhaps outside the box that the world and society seeks to place each one of us in. That is why it is so difficult for those who live lives in faith alone or reason alone have difficulty with the other concept; they have locked themselves into one box and they cannot escape.

The Gospel message hasn’t changed over the years; hope exists beyond the boundaries of time. It isn’t the translation that offers the message; when someone tells me that the King James Version of the Bible is the one true translation, I have to wonder how it was that Jesus, the disciples, Paul, and their contemporaries spoke in Elizabethan English while everyone else was speaking Aramaic. If the words that one says are true to the message, then the translation is trivial. And the words speak of a Christ that offers hope, not rejection. The works speak of a promise for all, not just a select few. The words speak of redemption and a release, not limits and imprisonment.

The one thing that I have discovered in my own personal journey with Christ, from those days in Montgomery, Alabama, when I made the choice to seek Jesus and God in my own mind and soul to these days is that the Jesus in the Bible is not the Jesus spoken of today. The God of today bears no resemblance to the God of the Bible. And the time has come to turn the church back, not in time, but to its roots and its original and true thoughts. We do not need to discover new writings; the ones that we have tell us what is going on. All we have to do is look at what we are saying and how that compares; then the change will take place.

There are going to be those who hear what I am saying and read what I have written here and they are going to call me a heretic and an unbeliever. But I know in my heart what I believe and I know in my heart that I have been called to say these words.

There are those who will hear these words and read these words and echo agreements, for these thoughts are their thoughts as well. The question for these individuals is “are you called to seek the new church, the church that John the Seer really envisioned?” How will the church end? The decision is not in the literature or the words of individuals, it is in your heart and your mind.

Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch


The stories about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, at least as far as I am concerned, are an integral part of Southern folklore. Unfortunately, in this day of political correctness, telling such stories has fallen by the wayside.

But, like all folk stories, these stories give us an insight into the human character. And so, with no apologies for the lack of political correctness and with no intent of offending anyone, here is the story of Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch.

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby!

Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch by Uncle Remus

“For a mighty long time” Brer Fox had tried to catch Brer Rabbit and Brer Rabbit had outwitted him. The closest Brer Fox ever came was this:

He built a contraption of molasses and tar that he called a “Tar Baby” and put it where Brer Rabbit was sure to find it. When Brer Rabbit came across the Tar Baby he tried, fruitlessly, to converse with it. In anger, Brer Rabbit punched at the Tar Baby until he became completely stuck.

Brer Fox, overjoyed at finally capturing his nemesis, mused aloud over what to do with him. With every idea (barbecuing, hanging, etc.) Brer Rabbit pleaded, “Do what you want but please don’t throw me into the Briar Patch!” Brer Fox, wanting to hurt the rabbit as badly as possible, flung him into the briar patch. Brer Fox realized his mistake when, instead of crying in agony, Brer Rabbit smiled smugly at the fox and sang that he was “Born and bred in the briar patch!” and Brer Fox knew that Brer Rabbit had once again outwitted him.

Now, if Brer Rabbit had not been so full of himself, he never would have gotten entangled with the "tar baby". But he could not stand it that someone would ignore him and that is what got him into trouble. And the more he struggled with that sticky concoction, the worse the situation got.

But as much as Brer Rabbit’s struggle reminds us what happens when our pride prevents us from solving problems or how it can get us into a deeper mess, so too does Brer Fox’s reaction tell us something about ourselves. Like we might have, he saw the thorns of the briar patch as a problem and not as a solution.

We don’t like thorns. Thorns hurt. We want simple problems to solve in life, ones that will quickly go away. Problems that are hard to solve or take too long are often called "thorny". We don’t want them in our lives. NIMBY, or not in my backyard, has quickly become the acronym for those problems that we don’t want in our lives. Our solution to such "thorny" issues is to give them to someone else.

The reference to thorns is not new. Paul referred to "the thorn in his flesh." (2 Corinthians 12: 7)  It has never really been established just what this thorn was. It could have been a real ailment or the reference to some temptation in Paul’s life. Or it could have just have been a metaphorical statement that served as a reminder of what Paul should focus on.

The writer of Proverbs also referred to thorns as an indication of laziness. "I went by the field of the lazy man, and the vineyard of the man devoid of understanding, and there it was, all overgrown with thorns; its surface was covered with nettles; its stone wall was broken down. (Proverbs 24: 30 – 31)  If we are lazy, our work becomes harder because we have to overcome the thorns that grow in the place of good work.

Even Jesus used the idea of thorns to show the difficulty of life. In the parable of the sower, some of the seeds were thrown on rocky ground and did not grow because it was impossible to do so. Some were thrown into a patch of thorns but the thorns grew more rapidly and prevented the growth of the seeds. It was only the seeds that were sown in the fertile soil that had a chance to grow properly. (Matthew 13: 3 – 9)  Later, Jesus explained to the disciples that "he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes untruthful." (Matthew 13: 22)

Just as the writer of Proverbs and Jesus both place the presence of thorns in one’s life in a negative sense, so too is David’s reference to thorns in today’s reading one of contempt. His use of the phrase "sons of rebellion" is one of contempt and scorn. It is the same phrase that was hurled at David as he had fled from Jerusalem and the rebellion incited by his son Absalom. David’s comments are in anticipation of God’s judgment on the ungodly, which like thorns are fit only to be burned.

But, in the case of Brer Rabbit, he knew what good come out of thorns. For him, they were the solution to the problem, not another problem. In today’s world, such thinking is often called "outside the box" or the result of a new paradigm.

Our reading from Revelations this morning gives us insight into such a new paradigm. For many, this passage is a description of the Second Coming. But I see it in an entirely different manner. The coming of Christ in one’s life is more likely to occur as it did for John Wesley, one of quiet assurance and comfort, than it is described in Revelation. But however it comes, it brings with it a sense of assurance and comfort.

Bringing Christ into our lives is the simplest and easiest way we have for empowerment. Contrary to what people may think, having Christ in one’s life does not insure that their problems will be solved. But there will be a confidence in their lives that will enable them to face the problem and solve it.

Pilate was faced with a dilemma that evening in Jerusalem. How should he resolve the problem with Jesus? The simplest solution was not the easiest by any means and that was the solution that Pilate wanted. Pilate could not find fault with Jesus but was forced by the desires of the crowd to take an action that he did not want to.

In the end, Jesus was given a crown of thorns. This crown of thorns was in mockery of a kingly crown and meant to embarrass or ridicule Jesus. But this crown of thorns is an expression of Christ’s suffering for us. And through Christ’s suffering, we find our freedom.

There will be times when we are trapped, struggling to find a solution. In such times we need to think in a new way, much as Brer Rabbit did when he was trapped with the tar baby. Brer Rabbit knew that the thorns of the briar patch were not a source of pain but rather a path to his freedom.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is a day when we are reminded that Christ is king, not of this earth but rather of heaven. He is our king and his crown is made of thorns. And in the pain and suffering that those thorns inflicted on Jesus, we find our freedom from sin and death, just as Brer Rabbit found his freedom in the briar patch.



 

Is This The Beginning or The End?


This is a sermon that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY, on Christ The King Sunday (26 November 2000).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 2 Samuel: 23: 1 – 7, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 18: 33 – 37.

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When I started teaching several years ago, I showed a movie about how we kept and marked time. The story of the movie was that a country was trying to determine what time it was. Since no one knew what a clock or calendars were, it was necessary to study the history of time keeping and calendar making.

The setting of time, both in terms of the clock and the calendar, has always been an arbitrary decision. Until railroads spanned the country and there was a need for a universal time system, every town and country in this country set its own time. While we can say for sure that it is 1030 a.m. on Sunday, November 26th, the telling of time has not always been so precise. In John Wesley’s time, clocks were bulky and highly unreliable. For the people of Jesus’ time, time was measured by the hourglass and by noting certain events. By noting the events around them and the passing of the seasons, calendars could be developed.

Certain events tend to dominate the calendar, both the yearly calendar of daily life and the church calendar. The reason we celebrate the beginning of the New Year on January 1st is our celebration of Easter. When problems arose about the timing of Easter and the coming of spring, Pope Gregory changed the existing Julian Calendar. The resulting calendar, known as the Gregorian calendar, is essentially the calendar we used today. With the new calendar, several countries decided that it was better to celebrate the New Year on January 1st rather than with the changing of the seasons around April 1st as has been the custom under the Julian Calendar.

Even the schedule for Easter, perhaps the single most important celebration in history, is tied to guidelines that tend to confuse most people. Easter changes each year because it is dependent on the phases of the moon and the vernal equinox. As a result, the seasons of Lent and Easter, and the celebration of Pentecost Sunday change from year to year.

Fortunately, Christmas and Advent are a different situation. Because Christmas is fixed to December 25th, the four Sundays of Advent are easy to anticipate and that makes the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent, today, very easy to determine.

Today, in the Christian year, is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the yearly cycle that begins with Advent and the celebration of Christmas. In a system of time keeping subject to mankind’s own whims and desires, it is nice to know that some things are fixed and certain.

That is what John wrote to the seven churches when he began the Book of Revelation. God is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega, one who was, is, and always will be. In a time when that which is made by man crumbles and disappears, God is always present.

Jesus expressed the same idea when He told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world. In that way, Jesus was showing that His kingdom went beyond the time frame of any earthly kingdom.

But Jesus was put to trial because the Jewish leaders saw Him as a threat to their earthly kingdoms. Even Pilate may have first thought the same thing. That is the reason why Jesus asked Pilate if he was asking about the kingdom or if the Jewish leaders put the question to Pilate.

If Pilate was asking the question, then Jesus could be considered a threat to Pilate’s own rule; but if the question was given to Pilate by the Jewish leaders, then it could be considered a matter of theology and thus no threat to Roman power.

Pilate knew that Jesus had done no wrong and was more that willing to let him go. In the Greek text, when Pilate asked Jesus if he were the "King of the Jews?" the emphasis placed on the word "you" indicates that Pilate did not see Jesus as was the defiant rebel to the Roman throne that the Jewish leaders made Him out to be. Much as been done to make Pilate the villain in this trial but he was trapped between the need to keep the Emperor in Rome happy and the need to keep peace among the Jews and Romans in Israel. There is no doubt that Pilate could have chosen his own path but when you are tied to earthly rules and constraints, as he was, it is very difficult to do so. But because the Jewish leaders saw Jesus as a threat to their earthly power, Pilate’s hand was forced.

As he was dying, David expressed God’s expectations for rulers. Bringing blessing like the light dawn after the rain, like a clear morning, like tender grass — each of these similes spoke of new life, purity, and refreshment. The function of the king was not to impoverish a nation but rather to ennoble them as he presented them the refreshing will of the God.

We might contrast this with how the rulers of Israel reacted to Jesus. It is probable that those who had Jesus arrested and brought before Pilate knew exactly what the message of the Gospel that Jesus had been preaching meant. But, to them, it was not a promise of hope but a promise to end that which they had developed over the years. Jesus was not a threat to Pilate, as the Gospel reading points out, but he was a threat to those who were empowered to served as God’s servants and had sought to misuse that power.

David’s concern (as we read in the Old Testament reading today) was that God’s covenant with his people would continue. In Verse 5, David speaks of the covenant that God made with him and asks if it will not increase. This somewhat rhetorical question expresses David’s faith that God would carry out His promise, a covenant based on God’s sovereign, unchangeable will.

What makes God’s Kingdom special is that despite its timelessness, it is opened to us through Christ. No longer is our relationship with God one of a religious relationship to a Supreme Being, absolute in power and goodness, but rather one of new life for others, through participation in the Being of God.

The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote that there was a time for every season. Seasons come and things change but the timelessness of God remains. Because God never changes, because there is no beginning or end, the message of hope and salvation remains the same. The Gospel and its message of hope go beyond all that we know and can ever hope for. The Gospel is a road beyond, a path that transcends all cultures, all human constructs, all civilizations and conventions. When we accept Christ as our Savior, it changes our relationship from one of time that ends to one that never ends.

As this day ends and we complete another year in the life of the church, we have to realize that it is not the end. Rather another year, one of hope and promise, begins.

What Is Truth?


This is a sermon that I presented at Alexander Chapel United Methodist Church, Mason, TN, on Christ The King Sunday (23 November 1997).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 2 Samuel: 23: 1 – 7, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 18: 33 – 37.

Alexander Chapel was part of a two-point charge (with Pleasant Grove UMC the other church) that I and three others helped cover.  When Robert Clark, the assigned pastor, was at one of the churches, one of the four of us was at the other church.  This Sunday it was my turn to be at Alexander Chapel.

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At the entrance to CIA Headquarters in Washington, D. C., there is a sign with a quote “Seek the truth and the truth will set you free.” Now, considering the object of the CIA is to gather intelligence and determine the truth from those facts, I find this to be a very appropriate quote for them to having, even if it seems a little unreal for a spy agency to quote from the Bible.

The gathering of knowledge so that we may better understand who we are has always been the nature of mankind. But the truth that is determined from this study and knowledge is of this world and often does little to help us to understand who we are. There will come a time though when, even with all the information at our disposal and with all the modern methods of information gathering, we will be faced with the question that Pilate could not answer.

In the next verse after the Gospel reading, John 18: 38, Pilate asks “What is the truth?” Sooner or later, we must answer this question. For even as we gather more information about the world around us, we find that we cannot use that information to help us understand our place in this world or what our relationship with God is or could be.

David, as he lay dying, spoke of his relationship with God. In 2 Samuel 23, verse 2, he said “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me, his word was on my tongue.” Later, in verse 5, “Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant arranged and secured in every part?” As he lay dying, David understood what it had been that guided his life. Yes, David had strayed from the path that God wished he would have followed, but he always came back. To some extent, it is that way for us. As we gather more knowledge and power in whatever we do and seek, will we remember from which we came?

Consider Francis of Assisi.

When I, Francis, heard the call of the Gospel, I did not set about organizing a political pressure-group in Assisi. What I did, I remember very well, I did for love, without expecting anything in return; I did it for the Gospel, without placing myself at odds with the rich, without squabbling with those who preferred to remain rich. And I certainly did it without any class hatred.

I did not challenge the poor people who came with me to fight for their rights, or win salary increases. I only told them that we would be blessed — if also battered, persecuted, or killed. The Gospel taught me to place the emphasis on the mystery of the human being more than on the duty of the human being.

I did not understand duty very well. But how well I understood — precisely because I had come from a life of pleasure — that when a poor person, a suffering person, a sick person, could smile, that was the perfect sign that God existed, and that he was helping the poor person in his or her difficulties.

The social struggle in my day was very lively and intense, almost, I should say, as much so as in your own times. Everywhere there arose groups of men and women professing poverty and preaching poverty in the Church and the renewal of society. But nothing changed, because these people did not change hearts. . .

No, brothers and sisters, it is not enough to change laws. You have to change hearts. Otherwise, when you have completed the journey of your social labors you shall yourselves right back at the beginning – only this time it is you who will be the arrogant, the rich, and the exploiters of the poor.

This is why I took the Gospel path. For me the Gospel was the sign of liberation, yes, but of true liberation, the liberation of hearts. This was the thrust that lifted me out of the middle-class spirit, which is present to every age, and is known as selfishness, arrogance, pride, sensuality, idolatry, and slavery.

I knew something about all this.

I knew what it meant be rich, I knew the danger flowing from a life of easy pleasure, and when I heard the text in Luke, “Alas for you, who are rich” my flesh crept. I understood, I had run a mortal risk, by according a value to the idols that filled my house, for they would have cast me in irons had I not fled.

It is not that I did not understand the importance of the various tasks that keep a city running. I understood but I sought to go beyond.

You can reproach me, go ahead. But I saw, in the Gospel, a road beyond, a path that beyond, a path that transcended all cultures, all human constructs, all civilization and conventions.

I felt the Gospel to be eternal. I felt politics and culture, including Christian culture, to be in time.

I was made always to go beyond time.

Are we not like that? Has the accumulation of power, knowledge, and other worldly goods taken us away from God? And yet, isn’t it the Gospel that provides the means for us to come back.

In Revelation, John saw Christ coming again, saying “I am the Alpha and the Omega, that who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Go back to Pilate question to Jesus in the Gospel reading for today, “Are you the king of the Jews?” This question had two meanings. Pilate could have been asking Jesus if he was a rebel, intent on establishing an earthly kingdom and overthrowing Pilate.

If this was the case, Pilate knew what he could and would have to do.

But, as Jesus noted, his kingdom was not of this world. The difficult thing for us is that we must understand this answer;’ that we must go beyond a worldly kingdom and see God’s kingdom and Jesus’ ministry as it really is.

On this day that we call Christ the King Sunday, when we celebrate Christ’s presence in this Kingdom, we must also consider Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wrote

But if is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is utile; you are still in yours sins.

To Paul, the truth was very simple. Christ died and was resurrected, all to save us from our sins. To St. Francis, the Gospel had no meaning until it was in his heart. To John Wesley, the power of the Gospel was useless until he accepted Christ wholly and unconditionally.

For us today, the same is true. Christ is and will be King forever as long as our hearts are open. Christ told his followers to seek the truth; Christ told Pilate what the truth was.

When we know and understand this truth, we will be free from the shackles of sin. If we cannot accept this, if we are not willing to accept this, then the only kingdom we can have is an earthly one and we will have no freedom.

But if we accept Christ, if we understand the truth of Christ’s kingdom, than freedom is truly ours. Today He asks you “What is the truth in your hearts?”