Upsetting the Apple Cart

I am preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY, this morning. Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.

Early in my lay preaching career, one of my cousins came to hear me preach. This was something special because this cousin, besides being the patriarch of our extended family, was also a Lutheran minister. Since I was just starting my lay speaking career, I wanted very much to hear his thoughts. Only after I began this journey that brings me here today did I found out that I am the fourteenth minister in the Schüessler family (my family through my paternal grandmother), a heritage that goes back to Martin Luther and Germany in the 16th Century.

After the service was over, we discussed a variety of things pertaining to family and preaching matters. Regarding the latter, my cousin thought my sermon was about the right length but he didn’t think that I should have said that Jesus was a revolutionary.

Those words are not in the printed sermon that I used that day but they fit into what I was saying that Sunday. What I know today is I said that Jesus was a revolutionary because I feel that much of what Jesus did in his ministry was of a revolutionary nature. I still think that is true today.

I have to smile when I think of that early conversation so many years ago. One year later, at our family reunion, my cousin spoke of Jesus as a revolutionary; that very thought he had cautioned me against using. When I mentioned this to him, he could only respond that people can change when it comes to matters of Jesus.

Why is it that I would say and think of Jesus as a revolutionary? When we think of revolutionaries, it is often in terms of armed rebels or groups of people storming the fortress. Loud protests and confrontations are often the hallmarks of revolutionaries for they want to make their statement known. Jesus was never one to make loud protests nor did He think in terms of storming the fortress or holding a protest rally. I doubt that Jesus ever raised his fist in the power salute that was the marker of 60’s protests.

But Jesus was a revolutionary, albeit a quiet one. As noted in the Gospel reading for today (1), in response to the disciples’ discussion of power and placement in the coming Kingdom, He simply put a young child in his lap. With that act, Jesus challenged the very assumptions upon which the society of that time was based.

Jesus made no comments about the justification for the disciples’ conversation but He pointed out that greatness and power in the new Kingdom will only come from being a servant of the people. This was a new way of thinking and not the way that the disciples were used to thinking.

This new way of thinking upset the apple cart of society. It brought into question the manner in which we are to live in God’s Kingdom. Throughout His ministry, Jesus counseled His disciples to live simply and without hypocrisy. He told them to trust God for their care and security rather than rely on the accumulation of possessions. Throughout His ministry, Jesus presented examples that revealed God’s will for us is completely different from our own inclinations and social training.

The Kingdom that Jesus talks of is a radical reversal for us. Everything that Jesus said and did presented an alternative to the normal ways of society. Money was and is the measure of respect; power is the path to success; competition is the character of many of our relationships; violence is regularly sanctioned by our culture as the final means for conflict resolution.

Yet, Jesus advised us to “be anxious for nothing”. He offered a way of life that is and was contrary to what we are accustomed. He overturned our assumptions of what is normal, reasonable, and responsible. Jesus was and is a revolutionary. Jesus upset the apple cart.

From the very early days of the church, it was clear that Christians saw the world in a different light and with a new way of thinking. Christians recognized that their notions of wisdom were in competition with other notions of wisdom. James’ discussion of wisdom in today’s Epistle reading (2) points out that our lives are different.

While there is nothing wrong with our desires for a better life in this world, James writes that we need to reorder our thinking about what we desire, the importance that we place on our desires and the motives that we have for pursuing them. It is a new way of thinking brought about by a new wisdom that can only be found in the Christ.

The Old Testament reading for today (3) points that out as well. The Book of Proverbs begins by outlining the goals for wisdom in general terms and, with the reading for today, concludes by giving a specific case. It is a case where the individual, a woman, has achieved her status by hard work, skill, and a fear of the Lord. Her wisdom comes from understanding of God. I think that it is important that we understand that this woman was independent and capable of making decisions on her own; in that regard, this reading from Proverbs offers an interesting commentary on the society of the time, when women were highly restricted in what they could do. The power and accomplishments of this woman come not from society, which would have sought to restrict her, but rather from what she has gained from God.

What comes about from the Scriptures today is that we see our lives in a different way. When we speak of the freedom that is offered through the Gospel, we have to understand what we have gained in our freedom. Through Jesus we are freed from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity that has imprisoned us. But we have to be aware that while we are free, it is a freedom that requires that we participate in His mission in this world. We find greatness in our freedom but it is because we are willing to be a servant to all. We are now free to meet the needs of society’s outcasts, the hopeless, and the helpless; we are able to deal with the smallness of vision that comes in today’s society.

But this freedom does not come easily. Do we not see the resistance that comes when we ask people to think of things in a new way? Do we not know the panic that sets in when a new way of thinking is presented? From the very moment that he started His ministry, there were those who were critical and unbelieving. From the moment that the impact of His words were understood, the chief priests and scribes, the holders of wealth and power, plotted against Jesus, mocked Him, and sought to destroy Him. Jesus’ teachings and behavior created conflict with the ruling authorities wherever He went. The Kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming undermined their whole system. (4)

When I was a college sophomore, I was at a point of crisis. I saw a future of chaos and despair, both in my own life and in the world around me. I was asking how it was that there could be a God that would allow death and destruction. How was I to profit from my life if it seemed there would be no world in which to peacefully live? I did not get all the answers back then but I was shown that through Jesus, I could make a difference in what the future might bring. It wasn’t just that I was saved through my acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; it was that I had a responsibility to work for Christ in this world to bring the Gospel message to fruition. If we are not willing to show Christ at work in our lives, then we practice a false evangelism, a religion that does not meet Christ’s demands. (5)

We cannot meet Christ’s demands if we are insensitive to the world around us, if we exclude people from the church and our church community. Some ten years later, while in the midst of a more personal crisis, I found myself in another Christian Community. This was a megachurch before megachurch was a popular term in church growth; it was a program-oriented church before churches saw programs as the way of growth; it was a church with a television ministry before there was cable TV.

It was one of the larger churches in town and it could offer everyone who came to church something in line with their interests and desires. The broadcast of the Sunday morning services reached out to a large portion of the surrounding metropolitan area.

And while I initially thought I had found what I needed at that time, I quickly came to realize that my unemployment status and slightly worn clothing did not fit into the accepted pattern of life in that church. For a long time, I could not figure out why this church started its Sunday morning services (which were televised live) by taking the offering. But one Sunday, when I was at home, I was able to turn on the television and my question was answered. By having the offering at the beginning of the service, it could be deleted from what the television viewers saw. Clearly, this church wanted to market its message without scaring away people with a request for money.

But when the church decided to spend several million dollars on its TV ministry because the other “megachurch” in town had decided to increase its television ministry, I found myself looking again for a new church. I had to seriously question how any church could spend money on marketing tools when there were people in that town without food and shelter. Does the Gospel command us to take care of those who are less fortunate than us? Is not Jesus’ message about taking care of and respecting the people around us?

The early Christian church was known by its particular pattern of life. The faith of the early Christians produced a discernible lifestyle, a process of growth visible to all. It was a lifestyle based on Jesus’ ministry and teachings. Christians were known to be a caring, sharing, and open community, sensitive to the needs of the poor and the outcast. Their love for God, for one another, and for the oppressed were central to their reputation. Their refusals to kill, to recognize racial distinctions, and to bow down before imperial deities were also a matter of public knowledge. Yet, how are our churches, our Christian communities viewed today?

I have been involved in the turn-around of four churches in the past twenty years. Each church, at the time that I entered the picture, was either on a downward spiral to death and closure or was at the bottom waiting to see would happen next. I do not and will not claim that anything I did changed the outcomes of each church. But I would hope that I was part of the group that sought to reverse the fortunes of each church.

All of these churches were really too small to think in terms of programs but they were not too small to think about communities. In the first church, this was done by making new Sunday school classes. As new members came into the church, they would find themselves in one of the current classes but when there were ten or so new members, they would form a new class. The common bond between the people was that they were new members of the church. It gave a sense of purpose for each group as they were part of the church and part of something growing.

In the next church, growth was hampered by location and finances. But a new location could not be considered until the finances were stabilized. The year that I joined, his particular church had not paid its apportionments in six months. It was said that administrative council meetings were angry, derisive, and confrontational as the church leaders decided the priority of the bills that needed to be paid.

I joined this church two months after a new pastor had been appointed. One of his first decisions was that ten percent of the church’s Sunday offering would go to the payment of the apportionments. Now, you may disagree with this statement; I know that the payment of apportionments is one area where there is a large disagreement in the church. But when has it not been? How many times did Paul mention the need for the churches that he dealt with to help the other churches in the Middle East?

I also know that any monies paid to our own United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) are given out dollar for dollar. The reason for that is UMCOR has no overhead; the overhead is carried through a portion of our apportionments. To not pay or limit payment of our apportionments is to limit the ability of UMCOR to accomplish its mission.

Apportionments are one of the ways in which we are connected to the other churches in the United Methodist community. While it may be that there are more equitable ways of determining a church’s apportionment, the decision of a church to withhold or not pay its apportionment is a decision to withdraw from the community. A church which finds itself outside the community will be very much like an individual struggling to find their way in this world. The consequences of being outside the community, especially when one makes it themselves, can be very disconcerting. Consider, for the moment, the story of the prodigal son.

The prodigal son chose to go it alone in the world, feeling it was possible to accomplish whatever he wanted. But in the end, he found himself cast off, discarded and alone. It was then that he realized that being a part of the community was a necessary part of his life. I think those churches who cut themselves off from the community of believers find themselves in the same situation.

This decision in the second church to tithe was not initially well-accepted but the decision was implemented and by the end of that year, the apportionments for that year had been paid in full. I encouraged the next two churches that I was associated with to adopt the same approach. That third church did so and was able to pay its apportionments in full and then began paying the next year’s apportionments in advance. This church was able to make the turn-around and move upward and onward.

The fourth church could not make the turn around. It was not willing to tithe its offering to meet the needs of the apportionment and it saw its events and programs as fund-raisers and not people events. People who came to the events never knew that there was a church sponsoring the event and they never saw the church as what it was. This church was unwilling to take on mission work for fear that success in mission work would result in an increase in apportionments. This church, I am afraid, is going to die within in the next two years. Its unwillingness to see life outside its own walls prevents it from growing.

If you will, the success of the three other churches was not in its abilities to start new Sunday school classes or meet its financial obligations. The success came from a focus on the people of the church as a community and of the church itself being a part of the community. The first church made the new members part of the community and that helped the community to grow; the other two churches saw their community as part of a bigger community. Now some might say that by giving to God through the apportionments, God was returning to them the riches of the kingdom. While this may be a popular theology today, I don’t think that is the case. The focus was no longer on the finances of the church but on the mission of the church. By refocusing the vision of the church, it became possible to see what Jesus was saying that day in Galilee.

Too many times we see greatness in terms of power and wealth. We see churches in the same way; we do not see churches that welcome the children of God in the same terms. Too many churches are better known for their exclusion of the children of God than they are for the welcome they give to God’s children. James reminds us that our desire for greatness can blind us to the need for a new wisdom that will bring about what we seek. Our desire for greatness without the appropriate wisdom can only lead to failure and disagreement. Disagreement robs us of the ability to resolve our disputes peaceably. And if we are fighting within, we cannot welcome others and we cannot welcome God into our lives. (6)

Jesus changed the way society worked; He upset the apple cart. We are not asked to pick up the apples and restore society to the way it was; we are asked to pick up the apples and begin a new society. It is not an easy process and we are likely to fail more times that we succeed as we try to be faithful disciples. But it is a process that we must try. Now ordinarily I would close by asking those who have not accepted Christ to open their hearts and let Him into their lives; I would then ask those who have accepted Christ into their hearts to open their hearts again to the Holy Spirit and let their lives be empowered.

But today, I am changing my normal closing. The world in which we live is a world of fear; it is a world where countless people are without hope or the promise of a better life. It is a world that builds walls and excludes people. It is a society in which power and greatness are accomplished by oppression and selfishness. It is a world of individuals without community. To build a community where no one is turned away requires that the apple cart be upset; to build a community where walls are torn down requires a new way of thinking. It is a world that comes through answering the call to come to Christ.

So, instead of my asking you to open your hearts to Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, I am asking that you go out into this world and make the invitation to someone else. Invite someone you know to be a part of this community of God; invite someone you know to accept Christ into their lives. It will be hard to do this, I know; but in the end the community of Christ will be that much bigger and that much better. And maybe we won’t have to upset the apple cart too many more times.

(1) Mark 9: 30 – 37

(2) James 3: 13 – 4: 3, 7 – 8a

(3) Proverbs 31: 10 – 31

(4) Adapted from “The Call” in The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis

(5) Adapted from Faith in the Secular World by Colin Williamson

(6) Adapted from “Wisdom Works” by Stephen Fowl, Christian Century, September 19, 2006

Growing up in Missouri

My youngest daughter, who grew up and still lives in Missouri, sent me this the other day. Since I also spent part of my life growing up and going to school in Missouri, I found it appropriate. I also did what #43 requires and sent it to one of my Missouri friends. Enjoy!

Growing up in Missouri

  1. You’ve never met any celebrities.
  2. Everyone you know has been on a “Float Trip,”
  3. “Vacation” means driving to Silver Dollar City, Worlds of Fun or Six Flags.
  4. You’ve seen all the biggest bands ten years AFTER they were popular.
  5. You measure distance in minutes rather than miles. For example, “Well, Hannibal is only 40 minutes away.”
  6. Down south to you means Springfield or Branson.
  7. The phrase “I’m going to the Lake this weekend” only means one thing.
  8. You know several people who have hit a deer.
  9. You think Missouri is spelled with an “ah” at the end.
  10. Your school classes were canceled because of cold.
  11. You know what “Party Cove” is.
  12. Your school classes were canceled because of heat.
  13. You instinctively ask someone you’ve just met, “What High School did you go to?”
  14. You’ve had to switch from “heat” to “A/C” in the same day.
  15. You think ethanol makes your truck “run a lot better.”
  16. You know what’s knee-high by the Fourth of July.
  17. You see people wear bib overalls at funerals.
  18. You see a car running in the parking lot at the store with no one in it, no matter what time of day.
  19. You know in your heart that Mizzou can beat Nebraska in football.
  20. You end your sentences with an unnecessary preposition. Example: “Where’s my coat at?”
  21. All the festivals across the state are named after a fruit, vegetable, season or grain.
  22. You install security lights on your house and garage and leave both unlocked.
  23. You think of the major four food groups as beef, pork, beer, and Jell‑O salad with marshmallows.
  24. You carry jumper cables in your car and know that everyone else should.
  25. You went to skating parties as a kid.
  26. You only own three spices: salt, pepper, and ketchup.
  27. You design your kid’s Halloween costume to fit over a snowsuit.
  28. You think sexy lingerie is tube socks and a flannel nightie.
  29. The local paper covers national and international headlines on one page, but requires six pages for sports.
  30. You think I-44 is spelled and pronounced “farty-far.” (St. Louis only.)
  31. You’ll pay for your kids to go to college unless they want to go to KU.
  32. You think that “deer season” is a National Holiday.
  33. You know that Concordia is halfway between Kansas City and Columbia, and Columbia is halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City, and the Warrenton Outlet Mall is halfway between Columbia and St. Louis.
  34. You can’t think of anything better than sitting on the porch in the middle of the summer during a thunderstorm.
  35. You know which leaves make good toilet paper.
  36. You’ve said, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”
  37. You know all four seasons: Almost Summer, Summer, Still Summer and Football.
  38. You know if another Missourian is from the Bootheel, Ozarks, Eastern, Middle or Western Missouri soon as they open their mouth.
  39. You know that Harry S Truman, Walt Disney and Mark Twain are all from Missouri.
  40. You failed World Geography in school because you thought Cuba, Versailles, California, Nevada, Houston, Cabool, Louisiana, Springfield, and Mexico were cities in Missouri. (And they are!) (Additionally, so are Memphis, Cairo, and Florida)
  41. You think a traffic jam is ten cars waiting to pass a tractor.
  42. You know what “HOME OF THE THROWED ROLL” means.
  43. You actually get this and forward it to all your Missouri friends.

The Price of Wisdom

I am again preaching at South Highlands UMC and Cold Spring UMC this morning. Here are my thoughts for this 15th Sunday after Pentecost.

When I started working on this sermon, I chose the title “The Price of Wisdom.” I think I had in mind some witty conclusion based on the MasterCard commercials that we said that enumerate the cost of things and conclude with the price of something is priceless. I still think that wisdom, especially wisdom found through Jesus, is priceless. But I have found that what today is about is not the price of wisdom but rather what wisdom lets us do. Wisdom allows us to conquer fear.

Several years ago the church where I was a member decided to have a hog roast. The primary reason for having the roast was to get some of the college students in the area to know that the church was in the area. At the time the church was beginning its climb back from almost closing and it seemed like a good idea to let the local college students know that the church was there.

We ran into two problems with the hog roast. First, the night of the hog roast happened to be the same night as a major college event; as a result the hoped for attendance was lower than was anticipated. Second, it turned out that we really didn’t know how to roast a hog. This was only an inconvenience because we had built enough cooking time into the schedule so that, in the end, there wasn’t much of a problem in that regard. Still, with the lower attendance, we were left with about 200 hundred pounds of left-over pork.

This is where I came into the picture. We were relative newcomers to the church and weren’t involved in the original planning for this event. But we had come from a church where the church’s mid-week dinner was put on by the various Sunday School classes (and that included the Senior/Junior High class). So we knew about church dinners and preparation. We took the left-over meat home and started preparing some good old-fashioned pork barbeque. We prepared some baked beans to go with the barbeque and were able to get a quantity of rolls before we came back to church for services on Sunday. After services that morning, we sold BBQ sandwiches and reduced the leftovers to a minimal amount of waste.

The next year, during one of the summer Administrative Council meetings, the topic of hosting the hog roast came up. There were a number of complaints that we shouldn’t have another one because we didn’t make any money on the previous one. Since 1) the previous hog roast had never been intended as a money raiser and 2) we had made a profit, I objected to that particular characterization. I pointed out that we had made a profit (though I didn’t mention the fact that it was only about $5.00). I then stated that we should have a hog roast and that I would take care of it.

It wasn’t so much a matter of the date (we had learned from the previous year when to schedule this) nor was it a matter of getting the materials together. I came home from the meeting that night and let my wife know what I had volunteered the two of us for. She would handle arranging for the baked beans, desserts, and other basic things for a Methodist Church meal; I would handle obtaining the hog and getting the cook. Getting the hog was no problem because a member of the church was a hog farmer and would provide the prepared hog as a contribution to the church. That left me with procuring a cook.

I had someone in mind but wasn’t sure if he would do it. His wife was a member of the church and their kids were very active in the Sunday School program. I knew that he liked cooking but he always seemed to stay away from the church events. So there was some uncertainty in my mind whether he would do it or not. And, in light of the time frame that I was working on, if he said no, then I would be faced with a major problem.

But when I asked him if he would help us with the project, he gladly agreed to do so. That year, the hog roast was a success, both in terms of money (though that was never the reason we held the event) and people. People who knew little about the church came and found out that we were alive and doing better than they thought. More importantly, the one who I asked to cook the hog joined the church. He had entertained the idea of joining before this time but he was waiting for the invitation. He had wanted to join but had felt that he was not welcome in the church; to be invited to be a part of the activities of the church allowed to make the decision to join.

During that same period of time, we also revived the United Methodist Men’s program and he took a lead in the project, again being able to use his cooking skills to cook the men’s monthly breakfasts. The third year the hog roast became the men’s project and, with my thoughts turning to other matters, I was able to turn it over to them.

We all know that one way to kill an idea is to say, “We tried that one before and it didn’t work.” A second way to kill an idea is to use the wrong evaluation process. Those who felt that the first hog roast was a failure judged it in terms of the money that was received. Since they probably were not aware of the total sums involved, it was unlikely that they could have really judged whether or not it was a profit. Second, they saw the hog roast as a fund-raiser for a financially struggling church. But the event was never meant to be a fund-raiser; it was meant to bring people to the church. In that regard, it was a failure because we hadn’t anticipated another event would draw away the ones that we wanted to attend. But we fixed that problem with the next hog roast.

Now, considering the situation that the church was in at the time (a declining membership and the threat of closure), it was obvious why there was a reluctance to do the second hog roast. It was a reluctance grown out of a fear of failure. I think that, more than anything else it is the fear of the unknown and possible failure that prevents people and organizations from moving forward. It is an unwillingness to venture into the unknown.

Peter’s response to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading (1) shows us that fear. As Jesus describes what the future will be, Peter is doing his best to keep Jesus quiet. But Jesus will not allow Peter to prevent the people from hearing what the future will bring. It is noted that every time Jesus spoke of what the future would bring, people left because they were not willing to walk that path.

That, I think, is still true today. We hesitate to do things because we fear that they will not work. We do not seek to be innovative but rather try to things that have worked for others, even if they are not applicable to where we are or what resources we have. Let others try the new stuff; we will stay with our traditional approaches.

We, as individuals, seem to also fear what tomorrow brings. We readily follow those who promise to relieve our fears. The politics of today are not politics of promise or hope but politics of fear. I am not aware of too many politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who do not use fear to achieve their goals. And we readily accept their arguments because they play so much on our fears. We would rather do things that seem to take away our fear but, in reality, only mask that fear. Again, so much of what we do in this world is not to remove the cause of the fears but rather to mask the fears that we have.

The Reverend Canon John L. Peterson spoke at the World Bank on May 31, 2005 about what has transpired since September 11, 2001. Speaking about comments the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, made concerning that day, Reverend Peterson said,

But the rest of Archbishop Rowan’s reflections did not really touch me until the following Saturday when I sat glued to BBC and CNN. All that day we heard on those two networks the language of revenge, the language of retaliation. Archbishop Rowan reminded me that God speaks a different language, not a language of revenge and retaliation, but a common language of reciprocity, of God sharing with us the experience of terror and death. “And when we speak to God the language of hatred and rejection, nails and spears, nail-bombs and air strikes, terror attacks and the bleeding bodies of children in Ireland, Baghdad, Jerusalem or New York, God refuses to answer in that language.” But then Archbishop Rowan says, “How hard for us really to believe we are free to speak God’s language!”

Later in his address, Reverend Peterson identified some comments written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu,

Tutu concludes: “Terrorists happen sometimes to be Christian, sometimes Muslim; sometimes Jewish, etc. The cause of terrorism lies not in their faith but in various circumstances: injustice, oppression, poverty, disease, hunger, ignorance, and so on. To combat this terrorism, we should not foolishly speak of ‘crusades’ against this or that faith, but we should eradicate the root causes that can drive people to the desperation that compels them to so engage in desperate acts. We will not win the war against terrorism until we do that.” (2)

In today’s Epistle reading (3) James warned the people of Jerusalem about the difficulty of speaking without knowledge. In verse 13, James wrote, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.” (4)  Believers should, therefore, be slow to speak. He wasn’t saying that one should not speak out but rather speak in terms of what you know.

James advises us to seek divine wisdom. Those that possess godly wisdom will show it with works, not just words. It is what we do that will remove our fears. Quoting Jonathan Sachs, Reverend Peterson wrote,

The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sachs, began his essay with a question asked by a Jewish sage: “Who is a hero?” So often society answers this question by lifting up the heroes of war and conflicts. But the Jewish Rabbi had a different answer: “Who is a hero?” “One who turns an enemy into a friend.” Sachs argued, “If I defeat you, I win and you lose. But in truth, I also lose because by diminishing you, I diminish myself. But if, in a moment of truth, I forgive you and you forgive me, then forgiveness leads to reconciliation. Reconciliation leads to friendship. And in friendship, instead of fighting one another, we can fight together the problems we share: poverty, hunger, starvation, disease, violence, injustice, and all the other injuries that still scar the face of our world. You gain, I gain, and all those with whom we are associated gain as well. We gain, economically, politically, but above all spiritually. My world has become bigger because it now includes you. Who is a hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend.”

Sachs reminds us that, “Breaking the cycle is anything but easy. War needs physical courage. Reconciliation demands moral courage, and that is far more rare. In war, ordinary people become heroes. In pursuit of peace, even great leaders are afraid to take the risk. The late Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin had the courage to take that risk, and both paid for it with their lives.” (2)

We are not going to conquer our fears with words of anger or uncertainty. Nor are we ever going to be able to go into the future without understanding. Jesus rebuked Peter because Peter was afraid of the future and because he was not thinking about what Jesus was saying. I realize that it must have been for those who followed Jesus back then to hear Him say that we must lose our life in order to save it. It must have been frightening to hear Him tell those who followed Him then that the road they would walk is long and hard, not short and easy. It is no wonder that so many dropped out as the time to Calvary grew shorter. But we are hearing these words after they were said, not when they were first were spoken. We know the outcome and we should not be afraid. We know the outcome and we should be working to fulfill the Gospel message.

I think that is why the reading from the Old Testament today (5) is the passage about looking for wisdom. Because if we don’t seek wisdom when we seek Jesus, we will only face calamity. As the writer of Proverbs wrote, “panic will strike like a storm; distress and anguish will come upon you.” It is because we are not open to Jesus in both mind and spirit that the lack of knowledge will be our downfall.

I have always had problems with the phrase “fear of the Lord.” But I have come to know that this fear is not the fear that threatens our lives; it is more an understanding of who God is and what God means to us. We may fear the Lord because it is a different world than the one we live in.

Jesus told his disciples to seek the truth and the truth will set you free. You cannot blindly seek the truth unless you are guided by the wisdom, both the wisdom of the world and the wisdom given through the Holy Spirit. As I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, I found myself dealing more with the consequences of fear than I did the price of wisdom.

Whether it is a fear of failure in what we do with our lives or a fear that transcends our life, wisdom is the one thing that will conquer our fears. It is the wisdom that allows us to know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. It is the wisdom that allows us to know that we can be empowered by the Holy Spirit and can then move forward into an uncertain future. We are closing today by singing that we will go where Jesus leads us. We do not necessarily know where that it but we will sing with the certainty of those who have come to Christ and have opened our hearts and minds to the power of the Risen Lord, safe in the knowledge that the future can bring no fear into our lives.

(3) James 3: 1- 12

(4) James 3: 13

(5) Proverbs 1: 20 – 33

Are We Who We Say We Are?

I will be preaching at the South Highlands United Methodist Church in Garrison, NY, and the Cold Spring United Methodist Church in Cold Spring, NY, for the next two weeks. Here are my thoughts for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost.

As a way of introduction, I am a second generation military brat; so as I was growing up, my family moved around a lot. But we always remained connected to our “roots” in St. Louis. So it is quite natural that, when it comes to baseball, I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I still have memories of my father setting up an old Hallicrafters radio receiver in the den of the house in Denver so that we could pick up the KMOX radio signal and listen to Harry Carey broadcast the Cardinal games.

Now if there was one thing you could count on with Harry Carey, it was his intense support for the teams that he covered. This support was so intense that, if you were watching the same game and listening to him broadcast that game over the radio, you had to wonder if you were watching the same game as he was.

Now, I look around me at this world in which we live and hear that we are a Christian nation following Biblical truths But when I read the Bible, I get the same feeling as when I watched a Cardinals baseball game and listened to Harry Carey describe it over the radio. Are we living in the same world? Are we reading the same words?

Today, if you say that you are a Christian the public believes that you are a political conservative. If you say that you are a political liberal, the public believes that 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.

So, with that in mind, I will say that I am an evangelical Christian; I am evangelical by baptism, evangelical by confirmation, and evangelical by belief. I am committed to a strong global mission to share my Christian faith with other people, without prejudice or discrimination. I fulfill this mandate given to me by Jesus Christ by my own personal witness and by supporting others through my financial support.

I feel, as do others, that to say and be an evangelical Christian is to say that you are willing to take the Gospel out into the world and bring a message of hope to the poor, 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 about bringing a message that tells 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.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, the term “evangelical” has been misused or distorted. 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 the same people who describe Christians in those terms also describe Jesus as ‘caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, and sympathetic.” (1)  How is it that there is such a wide discrepancy between what people think of the One who guides our lives and what people think of us?

As Jimmy Carter stated in his 2002 Nobel speech in Oslo, Norway, “the present era is a challenging and disturbing time for those whose lives are shaped by religious faith based on kindness towards each other.” President Carter further expanded on this statement by saying,

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

He went on to describe how he felt that fundamentalists had distorted the vision of Christ in the world and the nature of Christianity. He noted that fundamentalism could be characterized by three words: rigidity, domination, and exclusion. (2)

Fundamentalists say that they believe in a strict interpretation of the Bible. But the Gospel readings that we have read these past few weeks showed us that Jesus held to the Law without being rigid. It was the Pharisees and the Sadducees that held to a rigid interpretation of the law. And even the Bible tells us how Jesus refrained from giving even his own disciples authority over other people. In His charge to them to go out as witnesses, they were empowered only to serve others, by alleviating suffering and espousing truth, forgiveness, and love.

As we read the Gospel for today (3), we are again reminded that Jesus opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all those who would believe. There is a reason that Mark included the national identity of the woman in this story.

Keep in mind that in Jesus’ time and in the society of that time no woman, Gentile or Jew, would normally have been allowed to be that close to Jesus. By identifying the woman in today’s Gospel reading as non-Jewish, Mark further made it clear that those who society would reject were accepted in the Community of Christ. Jesus is not attempting to insult her by using the metaphor of “the little dogs under the table”, as others would; He is only testing her faith and with her response, he responded with “O woman, great is your faith.” (4)

Jesus would not exclude anyone. He sat with the Samarian women at the well; he ate dinner with Zaccaheus, much to the dismay of the religious leaders and personalities of the day. Remember how the Pharisees and Sadducees reacted when the woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair? Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of today, their reaction was to criticize and complain that things were being changed. Jesus only pointed out that the woman did what they, as hosts for the dinner at which Jesus was invited, failed to do what was required of them. Exclusion is not part of the Gospel message.

It amazes me that too many churches have forgotten the words of James that we read for today (5). How is it that a church that was founded on openness and that welcomed all has become one of exclusion? How is it that a church that began with everyone in the community sharing their resources has become one where wealth and power are the dominating values?

When we read the verses from Proverbs for today (6) and the words from James (5) as well, we are reminded of what the Bible is really about. It has long been noted and demonstrated that if you took out every verse or phrase in the Bible that dealt with the treatment of the poor, it would fall apart. One of every sixteen verses in the New Testament refers to money or the poor. This ratio is one in ten for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John; it is one in seven in Luke. In the Old Testament, only idolatry is mentioned more times.

At the beginning of the last century, the ten richest countries were nine times wealthier than the ten poorest ones. In 1960, the ratio increased to thirty to one. As we started this century, average income per person in the twenty richest nations was almost $28,000 per person, in the poorest nations this average income was just over $200. This is a ratio of 140 to 1.

These are the figures for the world; the disparity between poor and rich in this country is much the same. The ratio of incomes between the top and bottom one-fifth of the population is eleven to one in the United States. Every decision made in this country for the past six years has been in favor of the rich at the expense of the middle and lower classes.

Yet the church remains remarkably silent on this issue. If it speaks out, it is to encourage people to seek riches through God. This prosperity gospel only seeks to glorify wealth and power where care for the weak and needy should be paramount. While I realize that many churches do not fit into the model of the modern church, for which I am thankful, the churches that people hold up as successful are those with operating budgets that come close to those of many small countries and whose pastors earn salaries in the millions of dollars. How is it that a pastor can have a million dollar salary, several homes, a private jet and the other accouterments of wealth when Jesus told his disciples to travel simply? Is it any wonder that people see Christianity in less than a favorable light?

But before you think that the state of the church is beyond hope, let us remember what happened to the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 18: 20 – 19: 18, Elijah challenges the authorities to prove that their gods were better than God. It was a task that they failed. In retaliation, Queen Jezebel orders Ezekiel killed. As Ezekiel is running for his life, he finds himself alone in the wilderness.

There, Ezekiel asks God why he was left alone. To this God indicated that there were still true believers in the next town and that is where he should go.

There are still true believers today, ones who feel that the fundamentalist view of the world will be shown to be the false hope that it is. We are reminded by the writer of Proverbs that those who give kindness will receive kindness; those who seek injustice will only receive calamity. (6)

I was a member of a church in Minnesota that came to know the meaning of those words from Proverbs. Many years ago, someone visited this church. It was no big deal; others had probably visited the church before this person came one Sunday and others most certainly came after. Probably no one made much that there was a stranger in their midst that one Sunday morning. But a few years later, the church received a rather sizeable check from the stranger’s estate. On that one day when he was a stronger, this church had made him feel welcome. So when he died, he left the church some money. The money was used to purchase the church’s present parsonage and allowed the former parsonage to be used as a Sunday School building.

William Willimon, formerly the Chaplain at Duke University and now the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference recently told the following story,

On one of my worst days, a grueling eight-hour marathon of appointments, I was about ready to go home when I was informed I had one more appointment. Two older women walked into my office.

“We’ve come to Birmingham from Cullman to tell you about our ministry,” one said. “Gladys’s grandson was busted, DUI. We went over to the youth prison camp to visit him. Sad to say, we had never been there before. We were appalled by the conditions, those young men packed in there like animals. We got to know them. Are you aware that only 10 percent of them can read? An illiterate 19-year-old and we wonder why he’s in prison!”

“Well, we began reading classes,” the other one said, “Sarah taught school before she retired. Then that led to a Bible study group in the evening. We’re up to three Bible study groups a week. Two friends of ours who can’t get out bake cookies for the boys. We’ve also enlisted wonderful nurses who help with the VD. Some of them said that those cookies were the first gift they have received.”

“And you want the conference to take responsibility for this ministry?” I asked with bureaucratic indifference.

“No, we don’t want to mess it up,” Sarah responded.

“You need me to come up with some money for you?”

“Don’t need any money. If we need something, we get it from our little church,” she said.

“Then why have you come down here to tell me about this?” I asked.

“Well, we know that being a bishop must be one of the most depressing jobs in the church — too many things that we are not doing that Jesus expect us to do. So Gladys thought it would be nice if we came down here to tell you to take heart. Something’s going right, that is, up in Cullman. (7)

Bishop Willimon said that he took heart that with all the troubles that he saw, in a world of darkness there was a glimmer of hope by the people of God in a small town in northern Alabama.

In preparing for this sermon, I came across two other stories that tell me that there are still people who are the true believers in Christ and the church on earth. In his notes for September 6th, the blogger known as Quotidian Grace writes about a workshop led by Reggie McNeal that was based on McNeal’s book, “The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church.”

During the seminar, McNeal told the story of a woman who wanted to help high school students in her neighborhood. She went to the principal of the high school and said that she wanted to volunteer to listen to any student who needed someone to talk to. The principal was thrilled and invited her to the next assembly. She rounded up four or five other women from her church to go with her. At the assembly she told the students that it was much harder to be a teenager today than when she was growing up. “Some of you don’t know one of your parents, you don’t have relatives close by, you may be having problems at home or school or with a girl friend or boyfriend.” She then gave them the phone number of her church and said to call that number if they just wanted someone to talk to. The next day the church had over 300 phone calls from those kids. (8)

There is still the question of how a particular church would respond to a similar situation. But there still remains the point that this unnamed woman sought to reach out to the people in her community.

The other story that I came across comes out of Atlanta, Georgia. It concerns the people of Clifton Presbyterian Church. It starts with a homeless man who started coming to Sunday morning services. A lot of times such individuals are discouraged from coming back but the people of Clifton Presbyterian made him feel welcome. Then, one day in 1979, the people of the church remembered Jesus saying to them “inasmuch as you done this to the least of these.” So, they made plans to give this homeless individual a place to lay his head at night.

They took the pews out and brought in chairs to sit on. With the pews taken out, they could install cots. So it was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church’s Night Hospitality ministry began. This one individual now had a place to stay and a place to eat. Other homeless men began to show up. And this church, as long as they were sober and obeyed the rules, became their home.

The people of the church realized that providing a home was not enough. Many of the men who spent the night needed counseling and training. The church bought property across from the church and turned it into transitional housing. The ministry grew, so much so that the people of the church made a decision to disband the congregation and move to other congregations. But they did not abandon the ministry that they had started. It is still there in Atlanta, located in a middle class Atlanta neighborhood. Though Clifton Presbyterian died, the Clifton Sanctuary Ministry remains today. (9) It reminds us that there are those who have heard the words of the Gospel to bring hope to the poor, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and to be a voice for the oppressed and those without a voice.

So today, having heard the stories of people and churches where the Holy Spirit lives and is alive, I ask you to make a decision. Will you be a Christian in the eyes of the public or will you be a Christian in the eyes of Lord?

In discussing the future of Christianity, President Carter wrote

Those Christians who resist the inclination toward fundamentalism and who truly follow the nature, actions, and words of Jesus Christ should encompass people who are different from us with our care, generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and unselfish love.

It is not easy to do this. It is a natural human inclination to encapsulate ourselves in a superior fashion with people who are just like us — and to assume that we are fulfilling the mandate of our lives if we just confine our love to our own family or to people who are similar and compatible. Breaking through this barrier and reaching out to others is what personifies a Christian and what emulates the perfect example that Christ set for us. (2)

When John Wesley came back to England after his ministry in America, he felt that he was a failure.  For all his training and upbringing he had concluded that he had not done what he thought he had been called to do.  But on that night when he went to the chapel on Aldersgate Street, his life changed when the Holy Spirit touched his heart.  Will you allow Christ to enter your life and change your life as it has so many others?  Will you, having accepted Christ as your personal savior, let the Holy Spirit empower you as it did John Wesley and so many others?  Will you be able to say that you are the person you say you are?

(1) Adapted from Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo

(2) “Our Endangered Values”

(3) Mark 7: 24 – 37

(4) Matthew 15: 28

(5) James 2: 1 – 10 (11 – 13), 14 – 17

(6) Proverbs 22: 1 – 2, 8 – 9, 22 – 23

(7) From “First-year bishop” by William H. Willimon, Christian Century, 20 September 2005

(8) – 6 September 2006

What Does It Mean?

Here are my thoughts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost.

One of the hardest things to do in education is get people to understand that chemistry and the other sciences are as much a part of the liberal arts curriculum as are English, social studies, and the various arts. I think the problem is that people do not realize that it is not the courses you take but the outcome of the courses that you take that determines the nature of liberal arts.

From the beginning of liberal arts education, the focus has been on thinking. DiLiddo wrote

“The liberal arts education is a unique approach to the development of the scientific mind. It attempts to maximize the potential for creativity by the exposure of the mind to all the forces which power creative events. A liberal arts education forces a student into all areas of knowledge, including those which seem at the moment to be useless. A liberal arts curriculum realizes that no knowledge is ever useless, only perhaps little used. It also recognizes that one can not pre-know what one will need to know and so guards against potential ignorance with a potpourri of knowledge.

A liberal arts education also realizes that a creative event is fueled by more than knowledge alone. The importance of analytical training is not forgotten. Those who seek to diminish the analytical portion of the liberal arts curriculum contribute to the perpetuation of lackluster ideas based on innuendo and sloppy thinking.” (1)

Truman Schwartz stated it this way – the goal of liberal arts in its earlier forms (gymnastics, music, grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, musical harmony, and dialectics) was always

“To reveal the underlying, ideal forms of reality so that a student could apply that knowledge to the pursuit of the good life, both socially and individually. The goals were practical: education should lead to effective action.” (2)

Now how do liberal arts and the nature of thinking fit into the context of today’s readings? Because each of these readings reflect the need for critical thinking and require that we think about what is going on in order to understand the meaning of the message in each reading.

It is the adherence to the law or rather the tradition of law that Jesus speaks out in the reading of the Gospel for today. The Pharisees are complaining that Jesus and his disciples are not observing the law when it comes to eating their food. The distinction must be made between washing your hands before a meal (which is still a good idea) and the traditional washing that the Pharisees followed. The Pharisees had forgotten why it was that you were supposed to wash your hands and the food and turned a “law” into a tradition that was to be followed without question.

Jesus commands the people that day to understand what He is saying. He tells people to think about what they were doing. It is not what we put into our mouth that poisons us; it is what comes out of our mouths. This is what James is saying as well. Go beyond the words you say and turn your words into actions.

We are at a time when thinking skills seem to be at a premium; when society willingly allows others to dictate what is said and how we are to make our decisions. Society has willingly allowed others to become the authority and each individual’s contribution is minimized unless it fits within the majority view. To independently think seems to be a forgotten way of life in today’s society.

And when one stops and looks around, it is apparent that we need to stress thinking and understanding. As much as being a Methodist is based on the Holy Scriptures, there is also the understanding that we need to study the Scriptures and understand what is written. Knowledge and the ability to think play as much a role in our spiritual development as anything else.

We are a nation that claims to be Christian yet only 40 percent of Americans can name more than five of the Ten Commandments. Barely half of the population can name at least one of the authors of the four Gospels. Twelve percent of the population believes that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. While these statistics may reflect more of our country’s educational decline, they are also a reflection of our spiritual decline.

While three-quarters of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves,” this phrase does not appear in the Bible at all. This phrase, first uttered by Benjamin Franklin, indicates that we do not have any understanding of what the Bible is about.

We are a nation that professes a belief in Christianity yet do not understand what it is that we profess or what exactly it means to be a Christian We do not want to be challenged to follow Christ as much as we want to challenge Christ to follow us.

Over the course of the last few weeks, we have heard Christ do exactly that, challenge us to follow him. He has constantly challenged us to see the world differently and to follow him, rather than accept the world as it is. It is a challenge that requires that we begin to think about what is being said and what is being asked of us.

Why is a reading from the Song of Solomon (3) included with passages from James (4) and Mark (5)? The Song of Solomon is a unique book inn the Old Testament. Like the Book of Job, the Song of Solomon reveals its treasures to the patient reader who approaches the book on its own terms, searching for and meditating on its meaning.

The Song of Solomon is a part of the Old Testament that bridges the history and law portions of the Old Testament with the prophecies. As you read the various books in this section, you are giving an alternative view to wisdom and an understanding of the nature of God. This section shows that there is more to life than simply a framework of laws that must be rigorously followed. It also shows that there is a view of the world that does not necessarily end in tragedy and gloom.

We cannot see the world in terms of only one view, if that view is limited in its scope and nature. We live in a time when there is a true and desperate cry for Jesus, for a generous and compassionate Christ that desires mercy, not meaningless sacrifice and actively pursues peace at every level. But we will not be able to find Christ in this world if we are blind to the words of Jesus written in the Bible. In reading the Bible, we find a Jesus and prophets who are fiercely at odds with the public perception of Christianity. A liberal arts education would have us read the Bible more, not less, but it would be a reading with a greater degree of sophistication and understanding. It would give the meaning to the words of Christ; it would open our hearts to allow Christ to come in.

And having understood the words of Christ, we are better prepared to give meaning to the words of Christ. What does it mean to say one is a Christian? It is to say that you have taken the words of Christ into your heart and into your mind and you are prepared to meet the challenge of taking the Gospel message out into the world.


 McBride DiLiddo, R.: 1987, “Scientific Discovery: A Model for Creativity”, in Creativity and Liberal Learning – Problems and Possibilities in American Education, edited by David G. Tuerck, Ablex Publishing Corporation.

(2) Schwartz, A. T.: 1980, “Chemistry: One of the Liberal Arts”, A. Truman Schwartz, Journal of Chemical Education, 57, 13.
(3) Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13
(4) James 1: 17 – 27
(5) Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, 21 – 23