Wade In The Water

Here are my thoughts for tomorrow.


This is Reformation Sunday, the day that we honor/celebrate Martin Luther’s legendary defiant posting of his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. It does appear however that Luther never did post the 95 theses on the church door; he did however send a copy to his superiors with the hope that there would be a discussion about the direction the Catholic Church was taking. (“Legends about Luther: Nailing the 95 Theses to the Door of the Castle Church” – http://www.luther.de/en/tanschl.html)

I wonder what he might say about the condition of the church today. The Gospel reading for today (Matthew 23: 1 – 12) shows that Jesus is again calling the Pharisees accountable for the teachings and the practices that call the people to follow but which they themselves do not follow. In one sense, all Luther was doing was reminding his supervisors that they are just as responsible to the nature of the church as the Pharisees were in Jesus’ time.

As Kary Oberbrunner suggested in his book, “The Journey towards Relevance”, the Reformers of the 16th Century sought to return the Church to a “priesthood of believers” and put the Bible back in the hands of the believers ( “The Journey Towards Relevance”, Kary Oberbrunner, page 126). The only difference between the church of Martin Luther’s day and today is that the churches of today have allowed the leaders to dominant the thinking process.

There are times when the leaders of a church need to lead the thinking process. Remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child; I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13: 11) As we begin our journey in, with, and to Christ, we must rely on others to guide and direct us. But there are times when we must take over the journey ourselves. The problem is that too many people are comfortable when someone else does their thinking for them.

Many adult Christians never move beyond a stage of faith where they see authority as being outside of themselves. Such Christians see their faith system as a total package; they do not separate it and look at its parts. They feel no need to analyze the words of a service; they do not ask what the rituals mean nor do they question what is done in a church. They are likely to see changes or even simple questions as denials of Christian belief or even as an offense against God. ( From Connections, November, 2005)

This is part of the reason that Jesus spoke out against the Pharisees of the church. Their faith was locked into the structure of the church. The Pharisees were so afraid of breaking the Ten Commandments that they made 613 additional laws, 365 of which were negative in nature (beginning with “thou shall not”; the other 248 were positive in nature, beginning with “thou shall”). (From “The Journey Towards Relevance”, page 37) Like the Pharisees of old, we make rules and regulations that create, control, and curb personal holiness.

But, is there not a time that we should move forward with our faith? The Israelites stand on the banks of the River Jordan today (Joshua 3: 7 – 17) looking at the Promised Land on the other side.

After all the time in the wilderness, they are posed to enter the Promised Land but they cannot do so just standing on the river’s bank; they must get their feet wet. Now, it should be noted that it is the leaders of the twelve tribes, picked by Joshua, who are the ones to wade into water. And once they did, the waters of the River Jordan parted and allowed the children of Israel to cross over into the Promised Land. As I was writing this, I could not help but think how many people will say that it is up to the leaders to get us to the other side, we need not do anything. But all the leaders do in this passage is set the stage for all the others to cross over. Each person must make the journey; each person must cross over. The ground was dry and the passage was easy but each person must make the passage.

Entering into the Promised Land may be a joint effort but there is a point when you or I must take steps individually. If we do not move forward in our faith journey, we will stagnate and die in our faith. Unfortunately too many things are said and done today that suggest otherwise; we seem to think that the more spiritual and other-worldly we become, the more separate from the secular world we become, the better things will become.

Jesus told His disciples not to make a religion out of Him. What He brought was not a religion, for religions tend to get rigid. Religions don’t want to move forward, they don’t want to change. They set up shrines, create museums, organize councils and become stumbling blocks to the world. In the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25: 1 – 13) Jesus tells us that there will be some who will make a religion out of Me, a cozy haven, a state of bliss. It is the others who will be the living Christians, always open to change, always seeking something new, until the whole world stands renewed.

Any religion or statement of faith that separates us from other human beings is by nature a false religion. Jesus entered into the human condition in all its ugliness. He united people; He did not separate Himself from them. (From “Against Spiritual Complacency” by Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt – http://dailydig.bruderhof/articles/bl/PetrifiedReligion.html)

It is the opposite that is true. The more we learn to seek truth and to act upon it, the better we are. The Savior does not come as an ideal but as a reality, wherever people live and struggle. (Matthew 18: 20) Paul’s concern in his first letter to the Thessalonians was that they would walk in a way worthy of God, a walk to be taken without Paul holding their hands. (1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13)

In a world crying out for the presence of Christ, should we, His proclaimed disciples, be ready to answer. Should we not teach what Jesus taught us in the manner in which it was taught? (From “A Bridge Far Enough?” by Brian McLaren, Sojourners, September – October, 2005) Jesus came into a world stuck on the banks, afraid to go into the water. Jesus came into a world where the rigidity of faith prevented anyone from moving forward.

So, on this day when we celebrate the beginnings of the Reformation, should we not make sure that the reformation has been accomplished? Should we not take the church, laity and leaders, away from the comfortable banks of the River Jordan and cross on over to the Promised Land?

In this world of change, a change so frightening that it keeps many from moving forward, we see Jesus standing, not on the other side calling for us to come across on our own but rather at the shore, beckoning to us to be with Him as we cross over together. If we are not willing to come down to the shore where He stands today, then we will never be able to cross over. Is it about time that we wade in the water?

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water
God’s a-going to trouble the water

See that host all dressed in white
God’s a-going to trouble the water
The leader looks like the Israelite
God’s a-going to trouble the water

See that band all dressed in red
God’s a-going to trouble the water
Looks like the band that Moses led
God’s a-going to trouble the water

Look over yonder, what do you see?
God’s a-going to trouble the water
The Holy Ghost a-coming on me
God’s a-going to trouble the water

If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed
God’s a-going to trouble the water
Just follow me down to the Jordan’s stream
God’s a-going to trouble the water.

What is the promise?

As a way of introduction, I would say that I am from Memphis, Tennessee, and that I graduated from a Memphis area high school in 1968. So it should not be a surprise that anytime I have a mountaintop passage such as the one from the Old Testament, my attention turns to the spring of 1968 and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. It was that strike that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis that fateful spring.

During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. (http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/memphis-v-mlk/)

On February 12th, 1375 workers (mostly sanitation workers but with other Department of Public Works employees) went out on strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. At the time of the strike, workers were paid $1.70 per hour and were asking for $2.35 per hour; the city’s offer was a 5% (or 8-1/2 cents).

Dr. King was invited to Memphis to aid in the effort to bring about reconciliation between the workers and the city as well as bring attention to the disparity between classes. It should be noted that not many people outside of Memphis were aware of this strike. When this strike began a similar strike by sanitation workers in New York City had just ended. Even the respected New York Times did not consider a similar strike in a town of just 500,000 people to be newsworthy. The city of Memphis was able to keep the problem below “crisis-level” and out of the public’s eye.

So it was that on April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a gathering of strikers and supporters at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee and gave what has become known as his “Mountaintop” speech. This speech, which in part outlined the history of the civil rights struggle, concluded with

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (http://www.afscme.org/about/memphist.htm)

I cannot say, nor do I want to speculate, as to whether or not Dr. King knew that he was going to die the next day. Dr. King was well aware that threats had been made on his life. He had seen and experienced the violence that accompanied the civil rights struggle in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. I do not believe that he thought he was going to die by an assassin’s bullet the next day but I also think that he did not think that this struggle was going to end anytime soon. The tragedies of Katrina and Rita (and hopefully not Wilma) remind us that we still have a long, long way to go before everyone has the same opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

There were people back then in 1968 and there are still people today who think that Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox was only a temporary setback in the fight for states’ rights. There were those then and I am sure there are those today who feel that maintaining the status quo is the best for all concerned. It is not a new attitude.

Look again at the Gospel reading for today. For once, Jesus is the one asking the questions, trying to elicit a response from the Pharisees and Sadducees. But it was a question that challenged the manner in which they thought and acted with the people; it was a question that they were unable to answer. So, from that day on, the Pharisees and Sadducees did not ask Jesus any more questions. They were uncomfortable with the challenges Jesus put before them; they were uncomfortable justifying what was often unjustifiable. It was also at this time that these respectable religious leaders who claimed to be men of God began to think of ways of eliminating Jesus, the Son of God.

The church today is a lot like the church back then. We are uncomfortable with what Jesus challenges us to do. We would much rather learn about Jesus than learn the teachings of Jesus. We would much rather focus on what Jesus did for us than follow what He preached, taught and commanded us to do in His name. We would rather not be reminded that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. (Adapted from “The Jesus We Haven’t Followed” – http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/AlvinAlexsiCurrier.htm) We would rather not be reminded that Christ died for us so that we could live free from sin and death. It is almost as if we have taken Jesus out of the church.

The modern church is aware that there are individuals who are looking for answers in a complicated world. These are the ones sociologists call “seekers”. This is the generation that has been brought up with the notion of slick marketing tools and the use of sound-bites, short easy answers to the questions of the day. There is no doubt that these are the ones that the church today must reach out to but I wonder if the church is doing it in the right way. Slick marketing tools and slick sound bites will sell a lot of things but you cannot sell Christ. Rather, we must constantly remember that what people are seeking is Christ and if we take Christ out of the picture, they cannot find what they are seeking. In the Gospel of John we read, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4: 23 – 24) Later John wrote, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8: 31 – 32)

The churches we build are built to make newcomers feel comfortable. The seats are not the traditional pews but rather theater seats that recline. In many churches, the symbols that so often remind us of Christ’s suffering are no longer there because it scares away the people.

William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, a major author in Methodism and now Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, noted that he preached at a church that had tried to make its service “seeker-sensitive”. But in doing so, many of the historic Christian metaphors and images have been removed. (“It’s Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive When You Work for Jesus”, William H. Willimon, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003)

When I was working on my God and Country award in the Boy Scouts, I put together the services for my Boy Scout troop in Colorado. My father made a cross that I could carry in my backpack; it enabled me to provide a sense that the service that we had in the mountains of Colorado was a celebration of Christ’s presence in our lives and not just a spiritual moment in the wilderness. The cross is, at least for me, the centerpiece of Christian worship. It is the cross that reminds us that Christ’s sacrifice had meaning. It is the cross that holds meaning for all that we say and do. But in these new, “seeker-sensitive” services, there is no cross; there is no reminder that the Gospel is more than words.

The music, as Dr. Willimon reported, was “me, my and mine.” The music that we sing must life us up, not simply make us feel good. The hymns that John and Charles Wesley wrote gave hope and joy to the poor and socially disadvantaged. The same hope and joy must be in the modern songs as well and I am not sure that it is there. Many of the so-called “experts” will say that you need newer music or a more varied instrumentation to bring in the “seekers”. The argument is that people don’t relate easily to the traditional songs and such songs are not always easily sung.

I think that is the wrong idea. While it never hurts to learn more songs, if for no other reason that to give better expression to the worship experience we cannot forget what the “old” songs say. We cannot simply change the songs we sing or the way they are sung simply because people don’t know the words or because the words hurt too much. Perhaps the traditional church hasn’t done enough to teach the meaning of the songs that we sing. It simply means that we need to do more. We need to remember that the old songs remind us of the sacrifice and repentance required of us; we cannot simply sing songs of joy and happiness but which have no substance. We should not be ashamed to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” simply because we do not want to be reminded that it is a symbol of suffering and shame.

“The Old Rugged Cross” – United Methodist Hymnal #504

When we sing such songs of power, such songs that offer us and show us the promise that God has for us, we are reminded why we are Christians.

It is become painfully clear that traditional church has failed to provide what individuals are looking for, a message of deliverance. These people want to hear a message that does not makes them feel guilty. They tell the pastor that they don’t want to hear about the outside world on Sunday, they get enough every other day. In a world with complicated problems, today’s church-going public want simple solutions; they want the problems of the world to disappear for a few hours on Sunday.

The traditional church has failed to give recognition to a person’s need for something more than a religion that made sense in the face of scientific rationalism and did more than address the painful social crises of the times. Too often, such churches overlooked the fact that people crave a connection with God that gives them a sense of being inwardly transformed. People want to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit,” but they have not found it in traditional churches. (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo) But today’s churches, whether they are modern day “growth” churches or traditional churches struggling to stay alive, have failed to deliver this message, so much the centerpiece of the Gospel message.

The churches in this country that are growing today give the seekers exactly what they want. They are giving them a sense of “being filled with the Spirit”; they are giving them a sense that their sins have been cleansed. And they are certainly giving them messages that bring purpose to their lives without making them feel guilty about what they have done. They hear that the poverty of this world, the death and desolation that come to this world are only signs of God’s return, of Christ’s Second Coming. They find in these new churches comfort and sanctuary.

But this is not the Gospel message. The Gospel message is not meant to make you feel good; it is meant for you to hear and then act. Barbara Wendland, an United Methodist layperson in Texas, points out that many of the things that make us comfortable in church often times make us less effective as a church. Patriotism is effective if it reminds us of our nation’s commitment to justice for all people, yet flags and martial hymns in worship tend to glorify war rather than remind us that we have been called to be peacemakers. We may find that tradition provides a sense of continuity but it can also make it difficult to bring about change. Emotion can inspire us to do God’s work in the world, but wrapping one’s self in a blanket of emotions can often block critical reasoning. The church can only be effective if it keeps reminding us how far we have to go before God’s will is done on this earth. An effective sermon on poverty and disease in our own community should leave us feeling rightly uneasy about not doing more to help and it should inspire us to do that little bit extra. (From Connections, April 2005)

The Gospel message cannot be pared down to something that fits on a bumper sticker. The Gospel is meant to transform us, not protect us. Unfortunately, this is not the message of many of these big churches. Without the cross, without the reason, the message presented is sugar coated and self-serving. People come to these services because they are not required to do much more than that.

The Gospel message is to be shared, not hoarded, and we must work to find ways to share it. This is something we are often unwilling to do. We hesitate to respond as Jesus would have us respond because it is so radical a notion. We would much rather focus on a quiet, private, personal relationship with the Lord rather than follow the teachings that call for a public, prophetic witness. We like being on the mountain, we do not want to come down and have to work in the valley. We can live with reports of poverty, sickness, and oppression; we just would rather not have to deal with it.

But as Katrina reminds us, the church needs to be very much a part of everyday life. Not as some would have it, the arbitrators of morality and justice, but as an agent of affirmation that all people are worthy in the eyes of God. It has been said that money should be put into areas where growth and self-sufficiency are more likely. It makes economic sense to do so but this isn’t what Jesus called His disciples to do, it is not what He calls us to do.

Even within the United Methodist Church we are forgetting our roots. No longer are the poor, rural and urban ministries emphasized. But the Wesleyan movement is rooted in the working class and poor. Perhaps it is a natural sign of growth but as we have transitioned into a middle- and upper-class denomination we seem to have left the poor and lower-classes behind. Instead of being a part of the church, we see such ministry as a social service, important in itself but not critical to the life of the church. (http://homepage.mac.com/larryhol/iblog/C2050680009/E20051007090723/

We are a lot like the people of Israel. We refuse to trust God; we refuse to be his people. We might love the person next to us in the pew today; we might even love our next door neighbor. But we are often times not willing to love someone in New Orleans or Houston because we believe that they are not worthy of our love. But the teachings of Jesus tell us that we need to reach out beyond the boundaries of little community. We have to come down from the mountaintop and into the valley; we have to go where the people are, no matter who they might be. (Adapted from “The Jesus We Haven’t Followed” – http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/AlvinAlexsiCurrier.htm) We have to trust in God and know that, in doing so, the promise given to us will be fulfilled.

We do not need to stand on the street corner and proclaim that God is coming at the top of our voice. In today’s society, we simply would be competing with other noises and distractions. No, we need to go into the communities where we live and simply lead the life that Christ would have us lead. We need to show others what Christ is about, not teach who Christ is.

It is not easy following God, being a disciple of Christ. As Paul begins this letter, he writes of the trouble that he left behind in Philippi. But it was because he and his co-workers trusted in God that they were successful. He also points out that their mission; their ministry comes from being with God and not for some ulterior or selfish motive. Paul writes that we need to live our lives differently, showing Christ rather than talking about Him. John Chrysostom took Paul’s words to heart when he instructed his congregation to astound people by the way you live. Words are great but they do not match the power of actions. Win the people by your life, not your words is what he encouraged the people to do. (Adapted from “Childish Behavior” by James Howell, Christian Century, October 18, 2005)

It is not easy following God, being a disciple of Christ. Just ask John Wesley. Barred from preaching in the churches he grew up in, he turned to preaching in the field. Every bone in his body ached figuratively and actually at having to do this. John Wesley was a firm believer in fixed prepared sermons but preaching in the field lead him to extemporaneous speaking. But the “powers that be” encouraged the people to heckle Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers. It has been reported that on a number of occasions, Wesley was even stoned by the people heckling him. Yet he kept on preaching and wrote of the badges of honor that the stones left on him. He kept on preaching the Gospel message of salvation for all and freedom from sin and death; he kept the promise that had been some two thousand years ago.

The promise of the Gospel is that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, the homeless given places to stay, and the oppressed will be set free. The promise of the Gospel is that we who open our hearts to Christ and accept Him as our Savior will receive in the end, eternal life free from sin. And though our body may die, our soul will live on in heaven. As we sing in “The Old Rugged Cross”, “I will cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it some day for a crown.”

We all have a mountaintop; we all have a place from which to see the Promised Land. Up on the mountaintop, it is often quiet and peaceful. There is a calmness that we cannot find anywhere else. And we know we are close to God. But God is not with us on the mountaintop. He is down in the valleys below and He is asking why are we not there, doing His work.


Looking west from Pine Mountain, KY, near Whitesburg, KY (Promised Land State Park is about 10 miles south of this position)

Maybe we should remember why it is that Moses went to the mountaintop. This was not the first time that he or the people of Israel had seen the Promised Land. In Numbers 13 and 14, we read of the people of Israel sending spies into the Promised Land to find out what was there. Twelve men, each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel, were chosen to find out what lie before them. While two of the spies reported that it was indeed a land of milk and honey, the other ten reported on the troubles that they, the Israelites, would encounter. And to make matters worse, the people plotted against Moses and Aaron and attempted to select someone who would lead them back to Egypt.

Only Joshua and Caleb held to the idea that God would protect them and enable them to enter the land of their forefathers. But the people were not willing to listen, believing the stories of the other ten. The story of the first Exodus is an interesting story. Time after time, the people complain that God has left them to die in the desert and time after time God responds to the cries of the people and provides protection and nourishment. Now, standing on the River Jordan, almost on the verge of reaching their goal, the Promised Land, the people again turn against God.

And God responded almost in kind. God was prepared to destroy all the Israelites, even those who stood by him. But Moses again reminded God that He had shown mercy before and mercy was needed at this time. So God choose to punish the people, causing them to wander in the desert for forty years, one year for each of the forty days that the spies were in the Promised Land. Those over the age of twenty would die in the wilderness, never to reach what had been theirs had they been faithful. Only Joshua and Caleb, the ones who told the truth and remained to God’s plan, would be allowed to live and enter the land. The other ten died almost immediately, as punishment for their sins.

Because Moses picked the men who would enter the Promised Land, he had to suffer the same fate as those he chose. And so it was that Moses stood on that mountaintop, looking into the Promised Land, and knowing that He would never enter it. But, as we stand on our own mountaintop and look down on the Promised Land, we know that we can enter that wonderful and beautiful place. That is the promise that was given to us, if only we would accept the call.

God is calling to each of us today, “I sent my Son so that you might live; come down from the mountaintop and welcome Him into your life”. Many have heard that call and God is now asking, “when will you do what my Son has shown you what must be done?” When will you fulfill the promise?

What Do You See?

Here are my thoughts for tomorrow.

So Jesus held up the coin and asked “whose head was on the coin?” The people responded “the emperor’s.” And Jesus said “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give to God that which is God’s.”

We know that this episode in the Gospel reading for today was a test by the Pharisees and Sadducees to see how Jesus would deal with the Roman occupation of Israel. If He was to acknowledge Caesar as the ruler of all, then they would be able to say that He was not the true Son of God. But if Jesus were to have said that anything that would have in effect denounced Caesar, then they could say to the Roman authorities that Jesus was a threat to the state. In the end, Jesus gave the answer that trapped the Pharisees and Sadducees. It also serves as somewhat of the basis for the separation of church and state in this country today.

But it is becoming apparent that the modern day Pharisees and Sadducees are looking to close the gap between church and state. It seems to me that they are unwilling to accept any answer which differentiates the heavenly kingdom of God with an earthly kingdom here on earth. In today’s political climate, it is unlikely that even Jesus would pass this modern day litmus test.

And this modern day litmus test is even being applied to individual Christians, no matter whether it is in the political arena or not. Tony Campolo noted that the image of Christians goes beyond a simple declaration of political allegiance (which is probably incorrect no matter what side of the political spectrum you might be on). To say that you are an evangelical Christian is to invite people to say that you are a ‘bigot’, ‘a homophobe’, ‘male chauvinist’, or a ‘reactionary’.

But if you asked those whom might describe Christians in those terms to describe Jesus they would say ‘caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, and sympathetic.” (Adapted from Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo) How is it that there is such a wide discrepancy between what people think of that who should be guiding our lives and what people think of us?

But to be an evangelical Christian is to be one who takes the Gospel out into the world. It is a message of bringing hope to the poor; it is a message of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry; it is about being a voice for those oppressed and without a voice. It is also a message telling others about the personal relationship with God that can be obtained through Jesus Christ. But it is not about forcing a message of any kind down the throats of others.

With everything making demands on our lives, we also find it hard to publicly declare that we are, in fact, Christians. But the public perception is that if you say that you are a Christian then you must be conservative and if you say that you are a liberal, then you have no faith or are not willing to publicly acknowledge your faith. And each group, despite their claims of openness, turn away individuals whose views are not exact duplicates of accepted party doctrine.

It is really interesting to contrast the public perception of Christians with what people thought some two thousand years ago. If we had lived in the eastern area of the Mediterranean Sea during the beginning of Christianity, we might have seen, hastily scrawled on the walls of buildings, a crude outline of a fish. No big deal, we might think since we were walking through a fishing village.

But to be a Christian in those days was to invite persecution. To be identified as a Christian was to risk arrest and trial, to be thrown into the arena to fight for one’s life against lions or gladiators. It was to invite death for what you believed. You could not greet others openly and you could not use the sign of the cross, for that would immediately label you as a threat. So you used a fish, for the Greek letters for the word fish are also the first letters of the Greek words for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

People risked their lives and well-being to become Christians because they had seen the power of the Good News in transforming lives. And people saw in them a tranquility, simplicity and cheerfulness that were encountered nowhere else in the world around them. (Adapted from “Reasons for Joy” by Huston Smith, Christian Century, 5 October 2005)

What is it that people see when they see us? The story about the coin and the image on the coin was told because we need to know that, whatever allegiances we owe here on earth, our true allegiances are to God first. But, for many people, we use the story to categorize our lives.

What would happen if it was one of us who Jesus lifted up for all to see and he were to ask “what do you see hear?” How would we answer? Thomas Kelly, the noted Quaker missionary, educator, speaker, writer and scholar wrote

We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us. Each of tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves. (In “Balance Sheet” by Judith Johnson – Siebold, Christian Century, 5 October 2005)

Kelly continued by pointing out that in this committee of selves there is no chairman; there is no center to which we can anchor our lives. As a result,

We are faced with the dilemma of what direction our lives should take. Too many people, too many activities demanding too much of our time lead to a confusing outcome. We are also not willing to accept the solution that Kelly suggested that of surrendering all to God. (Adapted from “Balance Sheet” by Judith Johnson – Siebold, Christian Century, 5 October 2005)

Now is the time to tell the people that caring for the poor and the vulnerable is what Christianity is about. (Matthew 25: 35 – 40 and Isaiah 10: 1 – 2) Now is the time to tell the people that caring for God’s earth is what Christianity is about. (Genesis 2: 15 and Psalm 24: 1) We need to remind people that truth will set us free, not simply saying what must be said to justify one’s actions. (John 8: 32) We must show that human rights, respecting the image of God in every person, are central to being a Christian. (Genesis 1: 27) We must remind people that a consistent ethic of human life is to obey the biblical injunction to choose life. (Deuteronomy 30: 19) Now is the time to remind people that God calls us to be peacemakers, not makers of war. (Matthew 5: 9) We must remind people that God no longer crowns kings and that war in God’s name is not consistent with the basic Gospel message. (Matthew 6: 33 and Proverbs 8: 12 – 13, From www.takebackourfaith.org) Our struggle should not be to fight for a return to Christendom; rather it should be a struggle to maintain the freedom that God has given us. (Colin Williams, Faith in a Secular Age, pg. 72)

Paul’s words to the Thessalonians should ring true with us today. Even though they risked persecution for their public expression for Christ, they became examples for others in the region. It was not just by words that this was done; it was by their actions as well. As Paul notes, others in the area reported that it was the actions of the Thessalonians that showed them who Christ was. What would Paul say to us these days? Are our actions such that others can see the Holy Spirit working in us?

What can we expect for this action, for showing the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Probably not a whole lot, since the public expects something totally different. This is a public and a time where people value their allegiance to earthly matters more highly than they do any rewards that might be gained in heaven. But consider that Moses found favor in God’s sight for the work that he had done. And God granted favor and glory to Moses for that work.

Shall we, just as Moses, find that cleft in the rock that will protect us and allow us to see God in all of His glory? When we sing “Rock of Ages” we are reminded that God protected Moses so that Moses could see God passing by. The cleft in the rock was made so that Moses would be protected.

  1. Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee; let the water and the blood, from thy wounded side which flowed, be of sin the double cure; save from wrath and make me pure.
  2. Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law’s commands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.
  3. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.
  4. While I draw this fleeting breath, when mine eyes shall close in death, when I soar to worlds unknown, see thee on thy judgment throne, Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. (UMH #361)

So too does the presence of the Holy Spirit protect us from the world around us. We need not fear what we do, provided of course that it is with the Holy Spirit guiding and directing us. If our allegiances are to other gods, if our allegiance to Christ as our Lord and Savior only takes hold for one or two hours on a Sunday morning, then we cannot expect much protection.

Jesus held up the coin and asked whose image was on the coin. We are held up in full view of the public and the world is asked “What do you see? Whose image do you see?” How shall we respond?

As we struggle in this world, can we not hear Christ calling us to Him? As we go through this world, can we not hear Christ calling us to do His business? We are reminded that when Mary came to the tomb that first Easter morning, she saw nothing. But the angel told her that Christ was not there because He has risen from the dead, just as He said He would. And then she saw Him. Her response was to go tell others that she had seen Christ, alive and present in this world. What will be your response?

Invitation to a Party

I am preaching at Mountainville United Methodist Church this morning. Here is what I will be saying.

When asked why he planned to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory replied “Because it is there.” It was a challenge before him and it was a challenge to be answered. Mallory also knew that it was a challenge that was dangerous and history records that he died on the slopes of Everest trying to complete an ascent.

When John Kennedy proposed that this nation go into space, it was in the form of the challenge. He also acknowledged that there was danger in this challenge but he also stated that without the danger, there would be no challenge. And if we failed to face the danger, we would not respond to the challenge. And as history will undoubtedly note, the disasters that have befallen the space program in the recent years have come because we have become complacent about the risks that are involved. It almost seems as if we are trying to avoid failure more than we are trying to move outward.

Our own forefathers knew that it would be a challenge to take this country down the road to independence. They knew that any failure to meet this challenge would probably result in their own deaths. But to ignore the challenge because of the dangers that would come from failure would mean a life that was no better.

And our own John Wesley saw his ministry as a challenge, both in terms of place and the way that it would be conducted. On August 18, 1739, Wesley recorded the following dialogue between Joseph Butler, the Anglican Bishop of Bristol, and himself.

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

Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay. “([1] Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal (also noted in http://frterry.org/History/Chapter_15/Chap.15%20Handout_205.htm)

Because of the Anglican Church’s opposition to the Methodism Revival lead by John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield, John Wesley preached in open fields in the community. Used to the traditional approach of formally written sermons preached from the pulpit, John Wesley was initially reticent to utilize this new form of evangelism. But the challenge to present the Gospel message was greater than a reverence to tradition and Wesley moved out into the fields. In the fields, those who opposed the Wesleyan revival were encouraged to throw stones. Wesley wore the bruises that came with the stones as a badge of pride for he knew that if he did not go out into the fields then his ministry would come to an end.

It is really interesting how this unwillingness to venture forward has affected our lives. There is a certain understanding to keep fear at bay and to feel safe in this world. But, in the process of trying to do so, we have made fear of the unknown an even greater fear. Some of the older generation may remember what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said to the 77th Congress on January 6, 1941:

In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression –everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way– everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor –anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called “new order” of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. (http://www.libertynet.org/~edcivic/fdr.html)

We have forgotten these words, especially about a world free of fear. Now we live in a world where fear is an almost commonplace topic. We know live in a world where fear is the basis for all our decisions; we have left behind the other side of the human decision, the urge to be daring, and the urge to go out into the unknown.

We no longer take chances that will lead to positive change; in all that we do, we seek to keep the bad from getting worse, not letting the good become dominant. (Adapted from http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=26377) We see danger in the unknown and we dare not venture into the unknown because there is danger. We want to live in the security of the now and we dare not look to tomorrow.

This same fear has reached out and taken hold of the church. The message of the modern church is more one of self-righteousness and exclusiveness than it is one of welcome, hope and promise. It is a message that presents a “feel-good” version of the Gospel, designed to make you feel comfortable with where you are but without the challenge of the Gospel. In some quarters it is known as “Gospel-lite”; it sounds great but is less filling. The signs of Christ are missing; there is no reminder that Christ died on the cross for our sins for the Cross is no longer there. It makes too many people uncomfortable. The music sung in today’s modern church is almost devoid of feeling and more what critics call “7-11” songs, 7 words repeated 11 times.

The message of many churches today is one of comfort within the walls. It is a message more of fear for the unknown than it is a presentation of the Gospel message. It is more about being safe by keeping others out than it is welcoming others in; for we do not know what will happen when we let others in.

Several churches in the Memphis area serve as temporary homes for homeless families. The families, and they must be families, have been made homeless for any number of reasons, mostly economic. But the parents are working and trying to make it in this world. They need the support of others in order to do that. Now, understand that these families have to go through a rather rigorous process in order to get into this program and they are put under a lot of strain. It is not easy moving from church to church each week but it is a great deal easier than the alternatives. But what I find interesting is the number of churches with the resources to be a part of the program that will not join because they have to let homeless men, women, and children stay in the church for a week at a time. We fear homelessness and we do not want such a fear to enter our church. But you cannot defeat fear with ignorance and when you are ignorant of the truth, you will be fearful. It seems that we are more like the people of Israel in the desert wilderness, afraid of what lies beyond the horizon, afraid to venture out alone.

Consider what has transpired in the Old Testament readings over the past few weeks. The people of Israel, who witnessed the great miracles of God in convincing the Egyptian Pharaoh to let them out of bondage, have also witnessed the great miracles of the destruction of the Egyptian army and being fed and given water. They have seen the foundation of society with the Ten Commandments. Yet they remain afraid, because God comes to them in thunder and lightening, in a dark cloud. They would rather let Moses speak to God than deal with God by themselves. And the moment that Moses leaves them to speak with God, they are crying out for a false god, one that they can see and touch. And they willingly give of themselves in order to have their request fulfilled. “Give us a god that we can see and touch and we will not be afraid,” cried the Israelites on the plain of the Sinai. They did not trust in the God who had brought them out of bondage, destroyed the Egyptian army and fed and watered them throughout their days in the desert. The minute all signs of God were gone, they panicked.

Look again at the words of Paul to the Philippians. “Always be glad you are Christians” Paul told the Philippians. “Since the Lord is close by, so don’t fret over anything. Rather, as you thankfully pray, let God in on all your needs. Then God’s peace, which is beyond anything you have experienced, will stand watch over your mind and emotions in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4: 4 – 7 (Cotton Patch Gospels, translated by Clarence Jordan)

“My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep From Singing) – In The Faith We Sing, #2212

If our fears are relieved by the presence of the Lord in our lives and we can keep on singing, then why should we not move forward? Our lives should focus on reaching out, going beyond the minimum. Yes, it is true that if we do not push ourselves beyond the status quo, we cannot lose what we have. But there are risks in simply holding on to what we have at and in the present. Consider the one who accepted the invitation to the party but then was kicked out because he was not dress properly. The invitation that God gives us requires that we go beyond where we are; it means that we must go beyond what we are today and look to a new life and a new beginning.

We are called, as Paul writes, to use our skills and talents to reach beyond ourselves and help others, not merely enjoy what we have for its own sake. When we use what God gives to us to enhance our own position in the world, we are circumventing the purpose of the Gospel. We live in a world where the name of God is invoked almost regularly. We live in a world that often makes light of the Gospel, sometimes using Christian rhetoric while pandering to the rich and powerful but ignoring the poor and the oppressed. Those who do this will be among those who are not invited to the party.

When we trivialize our commitment to God’s realm and try to fit into a secular culture, we are creating the same false gods that the Israelites made on the plains of the Sinai so many years ago. Instead of being the light of the world, we often make light of our own responsibilities to the world in the name of God. We fail to bring that Christ-like touch that we have gained into the dark places of the world. And when we do this, we become like the one who was invited to the party but did not prepare for the party and was then kicked out.

If we are Christians in name only or if we adopt a stance that overlooks justice and hospitality towards others, we deprive the world of Christ’s influence through us. We are also depriving ourselves of the rigor that changes lives; we deprive ourselves of the challenge that being called to Christ presents.

If we choose to follow the false gods of this world, we choose to live in a culture of cynicism and emphasis on form rather than substance. This encourages us to make light gestures more suitable for fifteen-minute sound bites rather than strong commitments. Jesus did not make light of the people with whom He interacted. He poured out His life, totally and completely as He listened, taught, and loved people, both friends and strangers. (Adapted from “An invitation” by Judith Johnson-Siebold in Christian Century, October 4, 2005)

There are three types of people involved in the parable of the wedding feast. The first are those who are to0 busy holding onto the false gods that give them security in the present but offer nothing for the future. How can they let go of what they have now in exchange for what they do not know about tomorrow? Such individuals cannot see the promise, the hope that is the Gospel message. The second type of person accepts the invitation but is unwilling to do more than is asked of them. They come but they leave the party early because they are also unwilling to commit to the future. The third type of person is the one who understands that God’s invitation is a fulfillment of the Gospel message.

In those darkest moments of personal despair, when our own fears and uncertainty seem to have driven away any hope, any promise of a better world, there is this invitation. Alone in the desert, we hear God calling to us to fear not, for I have sent my Son to save you. Do we not hear the words of His Son, our Lord and Savior, speaking out, “if you are tired from carrying heavy burdens, come to me and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28)

How can we not go into the future when we know that God will be with us throughout the journey? How can we not keep from singing and rejoicing in God’s presence in our lives?

There is no challenge in the invitation to the party that God is giving. That invitation was made long ago. Rather, the challenge that we face is to accept the invitation, to cast aside our fears, to cast aside the false gods that have confused our lives and go to the party.

Tenants of the Vineyard

This is my posting for tomorrow, October 2nd.


The selection of Exodus 20: 1 – 4, 7 – 9, and 12 – 20 with Matthew 21: 33 – 46 is an interesting pairing, especially in light of Paul’s comments in Philippians 3: 4 – 14 and what is happening in the world today. We all know that the parable in this Gospel reading was directed towards the Pharisees and the religious establishment of Jesus’ time. It was also Jesus’ attempt to tell his followers that His ministry would end in his crucifixion.

But should this parable also not be directed at the religious establishment, especially at those modern-day Pharisees who insist that they know what the law is and how the law should be enacted and enforced? In that regard, the connection to the Ten Commandments is two-fold.

First, our modern day Pharisees and Sadducees are waging a fight to post the Ten Commandments in various public places. While there does, I believe, need to be an understanding of how these ten statements are a part of our judicial system, does that understanding go so far as require the posting of the Ten Commandments? I think that the argument is more about the object than the meaning. And if that is the case, then the argument to put up posters of the Ten Commandments or 5,000 pound blocks of stone with the Commandments carved into them becomes a violation of the Second Commandment, “you shall have no idols.”

What is interesting is that those who would violate this commandment almost always invoke the commandment about killing “thou shall not kill” when it comes to abortion. It would not be so hypocritical except that many of those opposed to abortion do not mind keeping the death penalty and do not mind supporting the war in Iraq. But does not killing in any form end in the death of a human? How can you stop the killing of one human but allow the killing of another unless it is for political reasons. And political reasons are not the reason that God gave us the Ten Commandments. They were given in order that we could establish relationships with God and with others.

Look at the Ten Commandments again and what do you see? You see rules about one’s relationship with God and one’s relationship with their family and others. And we must also remember Jesus’ own statement, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” It seems to me those today who insist on a rigid, theocratic and legalistic view of religion fail to remember this very statement. It is the modern day Pharisees and Sadducees who seek to kill Jesus in the church, not those seeking to get in.

Even Paul, who acknowledges his own background in the law, acknowledges that Jesus’ presence changes the relationship of the Ten Commandments. He was one to enforce the rules until that day on the road to Damascus; he was the one who willingly sought to force people into a rigid adherence to the law. But he was also the first to understand that Christ was the fulfillment and the embodiment of the law. Paul is the one who takes the first steps of opening the door and bringing everyone in.

We have heard of the pastors who have denied people access to the church because of their sexual orientation. Over 160 years ago, our own United Methodist church split apart over the issue of slavery. Some members of the church felt that those who owned slaves should not be a part of the church so those who did walked out and formed their own church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. For over 100 years, the Methodist Church was divided on the simple issue of human life with neither side on the right. It was not right to own slaves but then it was also not right to say to someone that they could not come into the church because they did own slaves or became the owner of slaves through marriage or inheritance. The United Methodist Church is, I fear, on the verge of another such split with neither side correct. But what I fear that any split that results from a 20th century interpretation of human sexuality will accomplish is the destruction of the United Methodist Church. I do not believe that in 100 years, when new scientific evidence might tell us more about human sexuality, that we will bring back the shattered remnants of the church in union again.

Vineyards often times cannot be repaired after years of disrepair and neglect. We are on the verge of abandoning the vineyard because we don’t like the other people working there. We must remember that we are also tenants of the vineyard, so we should be careful that we do not point our fingers at today’s Pharisees and Sadducees; after all, they only reached those positions because we have allowed them to do so. We have allowed the rules to be made that oppress people; we have allowed people to go hungry, naked and homeless. We have not been very good tenants of the vineyard. (Adapted from “Dinner Reservations” by Roger Lovette, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

As tenants of the vineyard, we were to take care of the vineyard and let things grow. But by adopting and allowing a rigid view of the world, we do not allow things to grow. And this is the one thing that I do not believe Jesus intended in His ministry. In his story of the ten virgins, some of them were wise but others not so. (Matthew 15: 1 – 13)

In this story, Jesus was telling us that some will make a religion out of Him. They will make a cozy haven, safe from the distractions of the world. But in doing so, these individuals will become dead Christians. It is the others who will be the living Christians, open to change, seeking the new and working to bring the world to the same.

When we freeze the word of God, when we make it impossible to grow, we only kill ourselves. Freezing the word of God, literally carving it in stone, we can justify hatred, ignorance and oppression. But if we put the word of God into our heart, we bring life to the word; if we bring Jesus into our hearts as our savior, we bring life to ourselves. In freezing the word, we put up barriers, we separate humanity from each other and we separate ourselves from God. That is not what the ministry of Jesus is about; that is not what we should be doing. (Adapted from http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/bl/PetrifiedReligion.htm)

What we need to be doing is opening the doors and letting people in, not shutting them out. We need to be fulfilling the Gospel, not ignoring it. Roger Lovette writes about a new Christian who saw the notice in the church bulletin about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This individual’s questions were “About this supper thing, am I invited and how much does it cost?” How shall we answer this individual? As tenants of God’s vineyard, shall we hold to our interpretation of the law or shall we rely on the fulfillment of the law in Christ?