“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.

“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.



A New Order of Things


Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, Christ the King Sunday.

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A number of years ago a colleague and I wrote a paper entitled “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”. Our purpose in writing the paper was to suggest that 1) the goals for science education should be directed towards helping students think, 2) that science was a part of the liberal arts tradition, and 3) unless science was again considered a liberal art, there would be problems.

Last year I wrote that we would never have another president like John Kennedy (“Ages of Wisdom”).  As I noted then, it wasn’t so much that we would not allow his personal flaws and medical problems to be covered up as they were then but rather because he was probably the last President to speak in literate paragraphs with references to history. He expected those who heard his speeches to understand those references and to understand what he was saying. He did not expect people to always agree with what he said but he did think that those who heard his words should understand them. President Kennedy’s words could not be reduced to sound bites or jingoism; his thoughts were not simple statements easily forgotten but ones that dwelt in our minds and challenged us to think before acting.

Coupled with our observations, it is quite clear that we have not progressed towards a thinking society. If anything, we have regressed. Our clamor for quality education in elementary, junior high/middle, and high schools has lead to a glut of testing. But all we gain in testing is a measure of how many facts students know. Very little of the testing is directed towards critical thinking, evaluation and analysis, the higher end of the cognitive learning scale.

If we are created in God’s own image (Genesis 1: 27) then we have the ability to think beyond the boundaries of our limited world. We have the capability to see possibilities where possibilities do not seem to exist. But we are unwilling to do so out of fear and ignorance than lack of ability. We may be afraid to do this because we remember what happened when people tried to build the Tower of Babel. (Genesis 11: 1 – 10) But the people built that tower because they were motivated by pride and arrogance, not necessarily out of desire to know and understand the world around them.

It isn’t just in education that our understanding of the world around us has probably regressed. Shortly after I posted the “liberal arts” paper on November 18th, there were a number of links from http://www.instapolitico.com/liberal. This is a political blog with a number of categories, including “liberal” and “conservative”. From an examination of the material in the liberal section, this blog uses a search engine to find articles with the word “liberal” in the title. It would seem that the designers of this blog made the assumption that any article with the word “liberal” in it must have political connotations. Of course, the article that I posted only speaks of politics in a very peripheral sense.

But this confusion illustrates one of the problems that today’s society has. Our ability to understand what is said and written is hindered by a reaction to key words or thoughts. Within the framework of the church, if you say that you are liberal, then it is assumed that you are not a Christian. And if you say that you are a Christian, then it is assumed that you are conservative.

We no longer are willing to take the time to think about what is going on in this world; we are quite willing to let others think for us and tell us what to think. Instead of thinking for ourselves and analyzing what is happening, we have apparently decided, in the words of the reading for Jeremiah for today (Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6), to let our shepherds lead us astray.

It is not just our political or societal leaders but our religious leaders that have led us astray as well. Our inability to think creatively, to think beyond the boundaries is showing up in our inability to present the true message of Christ. The message that comes from the church can hardly be the message that Christ first gave us some two thousand years ago. When Christ first stood up in the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth, He proclaimed that He had come to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and free the oppressed. Yet, the message in many of today’s churches is one of exclusion and rejection. Or it is that wealth beyond your wildest dreams is yours if you only ask God. The message in many churches today is no longer about salvation and repentance. It is no longer about reaching out and bringing in the ones who are lost; it is about what God through Christ can do for you. It has become a singularly self-centered religion.

Christ was aware of His own death on the Cross; Christ understood that His mission ended on the Cross and our mission began with the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The modern church, in its various denominational forms, needs to focus on ways to continue the message.

But the modern church, in its various denominational forms, is fixated on its own death. It is the death caused by the bottom line of the secular world; it is the death that comes from a fear that the word of the church has no validity in this world. It has caused churches to seek ways that focus on bringing people in without any consideration for what the message might be. The church focuses more on the music, the setting, or softening the message in order to improve its bottom line, not fulfill its mission.

It has reinforced the beliefs of many that religion has no intrinsic value in today’s society and only serves to cloud a person’s mind. Cynics in society today are like the first criminal in today’s Gospel reading. (Luke 23: 33 – 43) Condemned to die on the cross, they ridicule the church for its inability to save itself.

Granted, if I think of Christianity in terms of rational thought alone, I might conclude that it is only, as Karl Marx wrote, “the opium of the masses.” But rational thought is no guarantee in life, for it does not have a way of explaining the often unexplainable. It is quite easy to see the contradictions in the Bible and say that any religion is based on false information and only supports close-minded thinking.

But when you stop to think about the parables that Jesus told, you have to wonder if He wanted His disciples to be close-minded. Those who heard the stories and only thought of them in terms of the old and present society often did not understand what Jesus was telling them. The twelve disciples were among those at the beginning who did not understand. But ultimately, they did understand and it was through their understanding that we have come to know what Christ’s message was.

Charles Handy, the noted philosopher, noted Jesus changed the thinking of the time by teaching that the meek should inherit the earth, the poor would be blessed and the first would be last in the ultimate scheme of things. (Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason, pg 23) In doing so, Jesus challenged the system and caused people to think in an entirely different manner. You cannot be a true Christian unless you are willing to change your thinking and see things in a new way. You cannot do this in a solely rational manner; you must have a vision based on faith. By the same token, you cannot see new things in a new way based on faith alone; you must be able to act in a rational manner.

A few weeks ago I characterized the emerging church as a church with a coffee shop or a coffee shop with a church. I will admit that I was wrong in that characterization. An emerging church is more than simply a “change of scenery”; it is a re-statement of what a church is.

There are two documents that I discovered “John Wesley and the Emerging Church” by Hal Knight and “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” by Scot McKnight ) that go into detail about what the emerging church is and what it isn’t. But it is clear from reading these documents that the United Methodist Church was the emerging church when it was created and it can be the emerging church today. It is a matter of understanding who we are and where we are headed. It is more than simply trying to do things which favor the bottom line of the organization. It is about stating what faith is and who Jesus Christ is in ways that are relevant to today’s world. It is what Jesus did when He was on this earth and it is what He expects us to do today and tomorrow.

You may think that Jesus was a fictional character but if you believe in Him, it doesn’t matter if He did in fact exist or not. But rational thought says that if we are still thinking about the man who walked the lands of Galilee some two thousand years ago and whose presence then changed the course of the world, then there must be something to what we believe.

And if you feel that our ability to think and act removes the need for such thoughts, then you have to be prepared to offer a means of seeing beyond what normal vision provides. Somewhere along the line, you need to believe.

Paul reminds us of what we believe and why. There will come a day when we will be like the two criminals who hang on the Cross on Calvary along with Christ. If we do not see the world in a new way, we will be like the first who can only see the world in its present form. We shall die without hope. But, if we see the world in the form that it is to be, then we will be like the second criminal who saw Jesus as He was, the true Messiah and our death will only be a physical one but our lives will gain everlasting life.

If we have accepted Christ as our Savior, then we have to work for the new kingdom. To work for the new kingdom is more than making disciples; it is bringing about changes which take away evil. To do so is more than simply encouraging or berating people to change their lives. It requires that you give them the means to change their lives and that requires that you use your ability to think and act accordingly.

We end the Christian calendar year today and we begin Advent, the season of preparation for the coming of Christ. What we say and do will be a reflection of what we think and what we believe. If we think and believe in the old world, then nothing will happen. But there is a new order brought about by the presence of Christ in this world. It is up to us to see and enable this new order of things.