What Do You See?

I am preaching this morning at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church in Lewisboro, NY. Here are my thoughts for this morning, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost.

Today is called Reformation Sunday. This is not a day that brings gets much attention in the United Methodist Church. From an historical standpoint, we, as United Methodists, focus on two other Sundays. The first is Heritage Sunday in April when we honor our heritage as members of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches and the merger of the two denominations. The second is Aldersgate Day on May 24th, when we celebrate John Wesley’s “heart warming experience” at the Aldersgate Chapel in London. This experience was crucial to Wesley’s own life and it became the touchstone of the Wesleyan movement.

But I think that we need to also consider today as more than simply a date on the liturgical calendar. Reformation Sunday commemorates October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther’s posted his 95 theses or propositions on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He was prompted to do this by the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in those days to sell what were known as indulgences. People bought these indulgences from church authorities in the belief that such purchases would enable them to enter heaven more easily. The money raised was used by the authorities in ways that had little to do with the work of the church.

Luther had become alarmed by this practice because, through his study of the Bible, he had come to understand that God was a God of grace and love, One who reached out to His children, One who understood their fallen humanity and forgave them. Further, God promised eternity to all with faith in Him.

Luther came to see righteousness as a relationship with God and one that could not be accomplished by anything that we do. Yes, God does demand moral purity from us; yes, our sin does earn us everlasting condemnation. But God Himself took on the flesh and bone of humanity through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ died on the cross so that we with faith would not be condemned. God gives all who have faith in Jesus forgiveness and everlasting life.

In his study of the Bible, Luther came to have what he called his “tower experience”, an experience that I think would be later matched by Wesley’s experience in the Aldersgate Chapel some two hundred years later. He came to know God’s love included all, including himself. He came to know that God’s righteousness was a gift from God for all who turned away from sin and entrusted their lives to Christ. God’s love for us was the gift that we have come to call grace. It was this understanding that would lead Luther to proclaim that God’s grace cannot be bought.

The sale of indulgences could be done because many people labored under the mistaken notion that righteousness was a state of moral perfection, a status that God demanded from us but that we, individually, were unable to obtain. If we are unable to obtain the perfection that God demands of us, then there is no hope in our lives. And those without hope will eagerly grab at anything that offers hope, no matter how slim or foolish the chance may be.

When Luther’s preaching and opposition to the sale of indulgences began to affect the bottom line, the Church went after him. He received what was known as an “imperial ban”, an agreement between the Church in Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, the confederation of principalities and nations that preceded modern day Germany that stated that Martin Luther was to be killed on sight. (1)

There are two things that I find interesting in reviewing the history of Reformation Sunday. I did not know until my preparations for this sermon that Luther’s life was in danger; I did know or understood that he was labeled a heretic or one who perverted the faith. It may be that we don’t want to be reminded that the church, in whatever denominational form it may take, does not treat well those who speak out against the church.

The second thing that I find interesting is that the sale of indulgences has not really stopped. If you were to travel through the various religious channels that reside on cable TV today, you would find preachers selling little scraps of prayer clothes or vials of holy water that will cure your ills and enable you to solve the problems of your life.

It may be that we need another reformation in the church today. . I am reminded of the Buffalo Springfield song from 1966,

There’s somethin’ happening here,

What it is ain’t exactly clear.

There’s a man with a gun over there,

Tellin’ me I gotta beware.

I think it’s time we stop,

Hey, what’s that sound,

Everybody look what’s going down.

We look around today and we see death, destruction, and despair. We see violence in the world and in our own cities. We see people who claim that there is no God because no God would allow such events to happen.

We read of authors who claim that there can be no God because everything can be rationally explained. For these individuals, there is no need for faith because there is nothing in which to have faith. But, as the writer of Hebrews, wrote, faith is a belief in things unseen. And those who do not seek God will not see God.

We hear and see preachers who proclaim that the death, destruction, and despair that are so much a part of this world today are a sign of God’s wrath for our sins. We see people who almost joyfully welcome the death and destruction because, for them, it marks the second coming of the Lord. It almost seems that these individuals rejoice when there is another event of cataclysmic proportions. Instead of working to stop the death, destruction, and despair, these individuals say there is no hope unless we create God’s kingdom here on earth.

These individuals see the death, destruction and despair of the world as a sign that we need to lead more pious lives. And leading such pious lives can only be accomplished through an imposition of God’s law. But this is the society of the Old Testament, a society so entangled in the law that it could not grow. It was a society that could not offer hope. The priests of that time were the priests that the writer of Hebrews warns us against in today’s Epistle reading. (2)

It should be no surprise that there is a close correlation between those who cling to a view of a secular kingdom on earth with its foundation in the Old Testament and to those with conservative political attitudes that fight vehemently against calls for change in the social, economic, and political structures today. It is a world in which God was available to only a select few and it is only those few who could meet God. To think of God as involved in the affairs of the world is utterly abhorrent. In this view of the world, God is isolated from the world and the world is without God – except, of course, for those who are possessors of the privilege. It is a world in which there is no promise for tomorrow. It is a world in which one cannot grow. It is world in which there can be no hope.

People will buy the trinkets; people will buy the little scraps of cloth because those selling such things are the only ones offering hope. Yes, it is a false hope but it is the only hope that many people see today. But it is not just the sale of these modern day indulgences that threatens the church today.

We live in a culture that emphasizes personal wealth and material prosperity. We seek to put our luxuries before other people’s necessities. Remember that Job has endured almost every possible calamity that we could imagine. He lost his property, he lost his children, he lost his wife and he lost his health. All of his friends proclaimed with the certainty of true believers that these calamities were the cause of Job’s sin; their responses were the responses of the present world.

We see and hear in churches today messages that speak to our private needs and desires, not the needs of the world. We hear messages about the importance of paying one’s bills on time, not about what it means for us that God in Christ became a human being. We have to realize that Jesus promised us enough to take care of our basic needs, not grant us prosperity. We do not need messages that proclaim that wealth will gain us entry into heaven; we need to hear that it is God’s grace that opens the doors of the Kingdom.

For Job’s friends, it did not matter that Job was a righteous man; he must have done something so incomparably horrible to bring about God’s wrath. But Job would not hold to that thought; in fact, Job demanded to see God and Job demanded an explanation from God. Job went looking for God. In the end, Job comes to realize that a true understanding of God was beyond his powers. (3) It is a realization that comes from seeing and encountering God, not from some rational explanation.

Like Job, we want the answers to the questions. But we are not necessarily willing to seek God to gain the answers; if gaining the answers means giving up all that we have, we are like the rich young ruler who wanted to follow Jesus but not give up his possessions. We walk away from Jesus, perhaps to someone with a softer message.

In a world so full of death, destruction, and despair, it is quite easy to lose hope. And when you lose hope, it is quite easy to grab on to whatever comes by that looks like hope.

We are reminded that Christ came to this world to offer hope to all. But it was not a hope that comes through the present age. Any hope that is based on society’s view of the world is a hope locked into the present. It is a false hope because there cannot be a tomorrow.

A world without hope is a static world. It is a world in which things do not change. Society does not change, thoughts do not change, and churches do not change. But in Christ we see God, not as some static figure of history but as living presence. God is found in the openness of the world, not in the static, timeless world of society. Jesus changed the way we should see life.

Christ came as a servant, not as a master. He came not as a revealer of some ideological system but as one who gave Himself in such a way that He affirmed the need for human freedom and decision. He came as one who was prepared to risk His truth and His life within the openness of this world. He refused to identify Himself through an open display of power but the manner in which He lead His life.

If it were possible for the blind man on the side of the road to speak to us today, he might speak of the lack of hope that was in his life before Jesus walked by. Remember that his friends commanded him to be quiet as Jesus was approaching. But the blind man would not be quiet because he knew that Jesus was the true offer of hope. It was his faith in Jesus that enabled the blind man to see. (4)

We have a great opportunity before us today. We have the opportunity to bring back hope to a world that is quickly becoming devoid of hope. Instead of a world that is Christian in nature, we should be looking for a world in which Christians live. We cannot create a world in which our spiritual lives and secular lives are separate lives, for to do so is to create a world without God and leave God without the world. Rather than providing society with stability and unity through the imposition of some metaphysical formula or the imposition of some religious or institutional means, we should accept the responsibility to witness for Christ by pointing out his presence as He works in this world.

Instead of seeing the world as one that requires Biblical faith to fight society, we should learn to read the story of the Bible with new eyes, eyes of the blind man, and gain a new understanding of the world around us. This new vision will enable us to understand that the word “truth” in Hebrew means that which is dependable and reliable rather than that which can be rationally placed in any system of thought. God is true because God does what He says He will do. He becomes known as God not because we organize Him into a total system of understanding but because of what He has done and what He will do.

This new vision, which we gain because Jesus Christ became the high priest, allows us to see the world not in biblical revelation of God but in the living God of the present time. And when we see God as living in the present instead of the past we see God calling us to respond to the new possibilities of life, towards the new possibilities of an open community of God.

Jesus spoke of living as a servant first. He viewed others with kindness and compassion. He commanded us to do likewise. Kindness and compassion are not theoretical principles that we reflect upon and then apply to the world; kindness and compassion are the very principles that we are to live by. They are the ways that the world is reformed. Those who puff themselves up or belittle someone cannot truthfully proclaim the Gospel because they no longer live the Gospel.

The challenge for you today is to see the empty Cross, to see the empty tomb and to open your hearts to the power of the Risen Savior. The challenge is for you today to open your hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit. The challenge is one that has been given countless times before today and will be given countless times after today.

Remember when John the Baptist was arrested and was awaiting his execution, he sent his disciples to Jesus and asked if He, Jesus, was the Messiah? What was Jesus’ reply? It was, “tell him what you see, that the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the sick are healed.” Tell him that there is hope.

And remember the women at the well? What did she say after her encounter with Jesus? Remember how she ran and told all of her friends and neighbors to come and see this man who gave her hope and forgave her of her sins.

And remember that Sunday some two thousand years ago when Mary Magdalene and the other women came to the tomb? Remember how the angel told them to go and tell the disciples what they saw, that Jesus was not in the tomb.

It has and it will always be, “go and tell others what you see.” And when you do, when you meet that challenge that is put before you today, others will see in you the Risen Christ. And when you meet the challenge, others will see that there is hope in the world, a hope found in the power of the Christ, our Lord and Savior.

So my friends, I ask you today, what do you see?


(1) From http://markdaniels.blogspot.com/2005/10/why-is-this-called-reformation-sunday.html

(2) Hebrews 7: 23 – 28

(3) Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17

(4) Mark 10: 46 – 52

What Will You Ask For?

I am again preaching at Edenville UMC this morning. Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost.


In the early and mid 1980’s there was a “movement” to bring about excellence in business. It was not a new movement but rather a different approach to an age old approach. During that time, people looked for excellence in all areas, including my own area of science education. I mentioned this when I wrote my blog for May 7th of this year. (1) Two things came from this renewed search.

First, most of the innovations that occur in a business occur at the ground level of the business; very few innovations come from the top of the corporate ladder or through the internal structure of a company. Things like “Post-it notes” were not invented in corporate think tanks but rather from individuals aware of situations were applications were needed. The person responsible for the production of these ubiquitous yellow scraps of paper, Arthur Fry, knew two things.

First, Art Fry was in search of a bookmark that he could use for his church hymnal that was reusable and would not damage the hymnal. Second, he knew that his company, 3M, had created a glue-like substance that was not quite right; it was sticky but it wasn’t permanent. The combination made sense to him and he was able to develop a product that we use without thinking today. (2) But to get it done, Art Fry had to first overcome the internal inertia of the company that said that it could not be done. If he had worked for any other company besides 3 M, the likelihood would have been that the product would not have been invented. What the search for excellence showed was that innovation occurred when there was a climate of innovation. If management did not encourage it, then innovation was not going to occur.

The second thing that the search for excellence showed was that management needed to be aware of what was transpiring at the bottom levels of the corporate organization chart. Too often, it seems that the upper levels of management are not aware of what is transpiring at the bottom of the company. It was not that upper level managers had to do the work of the majority of the employees but it helped if they understood what was going on. While we like to think of corporate management in terms of a pyramid with the broad base at the bottom and the single most important person perched at the top; when it comes to knowledge about the company, the amount of knowledge should broaden and not narrow as one climbs the ladder.

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear a very simple proposal. (3) James and John want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in the new power structure that would come in God’s Kingdom. But Jesus’ rebuke to the “Sons of Thunder” (and the other disciples who were angered that these two would have the audacity to vocalize what they wanted for themselves) pointed out that neither James, John, nor any of the other disciples understood what price they would have to pay to gain those seats of power.

We understand today why the disciples would do this. It was the nature of society then and it is the nature of society today. Power and the authority that comes with power are what we seek; power and authority are the benchmarks by which things get done. Even John Kennedy understood that you could not get something done if you were not in a position of power. “I suppose anybody in politics would like to be President because that is the center of action, the mainspring, the wellspring of the American system.” (4) Later, as President, he would add “at least you have an opportunity to do something about all the problems which . . . I would be concerned [about] as a father or as a citizen . . .and if what you do is useful and successful, then . . . that is a great satisfaction.” (5) President Kennedy understood what access to power meant and what it was supposed to accomplish. It is not clear, or it seems that way to me, that many of the politicians today, on both of sides of the political aisle, have that same understanding.

Nor for that matter, do I think that we, as individuals, have a clear understanding of what having power means and what it requires of us as individuals. We want the glory that comes with power; we rejoice in having what others do not have. We want to sit in the seat of power; we want to sit where others cannot. But we fail to use that which we seek; we do not want to share what we have because we seem to think that it dilutes what we have gained. What good is it in today’s society to have something if everyone else has the same thing? That makes us no better than anyone else and there is nothing to be gained in that.

But we do not understand that simply having power does not give us what we seek. Having power and not using it for the common good, or having power and using it for personal gain is antithetical. Power used for one’s own self-interest only leads to corruption and destruction. Remember that when Jesus was in the wilderness and Satan tempted Him, one of the temptations was that of absolute power. (6) But Jesus understood that, if He were to have accepted Satan’s offer, He could not complete His mission. Satan’s offer of power comes the easy way, without commitment or sacrifice. But that is the way we see power today.

We live in a society and a world where having power means everything. We are not willing to accept the notion that having power means more than having a seat next to the Throne. We do not understand the true meaning of power. We do not understand how there can be death and destruction in this world; we do not understand how there can be suffering. We are quite willing to be like Job’s friends, who could only see a God capable of destruction and death, of causing pain and suffering. We have come to believe that we must seek and grab all the power that we can, for it is the only way that we can solve our problems.

It is to Job’s credit that he never bought into that viewpoint. He refused to accept the notion of a God that would punish someone for some unknown hideous evil. He refused to accept the notion of an all-powerful God who would cause pain, death, and destruction simply to prove that He was all powerful. All Job wanted was an accounting for what had transpired; he never once thought of denouncing God or questioning the power of God.

How many times are we like Job, suffering for unknown reasons, and demanding resolution in the simple terms? How many times do we ask for something without understanding what it is that we are asking for? How many times do we seek a simple solution when we do not even understand the problem?

In the Old Testament reading for today, God is responding to Job’s cry and demand for an explanation. Now some may say that God is lecturing or rebuking Job, saying that Job has no basis for his complaints. But God is simply pointing out to Job that Job has no understanding of God’s power. And since he has no understanding of God’s power, he cannot understand what has transpired in his life.

This is not an answer that we are willing to accept because it leaves us without an explanation. Job is willing to accept this answer because, more important than resolving the issue, he has met with God. Job’s faith in God is not lowered because he has not discovered the reason for his suffering; Job’s faith in God has increased because he has met God and God has responded to him.

As Jesus pointed out, those who would seek power must first be willing to be a servant. Those at the top of the power structure must be willing to serve at the bottom, if they are to gain what they seek. Jesus knew that the power that they sought would only come through suffering, pain, and death but it is not clear that the disciples understood what He was saying. The disciples still did not understand that they would endure pain and suffering much like Jesus would before they would gain what they sought. James was to be executed by Herod Agrippa I in A. D. 27 (7) and John would die alone in exile on the island of Patmos (8) after a life of being persecuted and watching his friends die. Gaining the right to sit on the right and left sides of the throne would not come from “connections” but through a commitment to the Gospel.

We are not called to be martyrs in the name of Jesus in order to be faithful servants or to gain a place at God’s table. We are not called to suffer simply because we are Christians. But we are called to make sure that others do not have to die or suffer for needless reasons. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus did not call Himself to the office of the high priest; He was called by His Father. (9) Jesus did not seek the power or the glory that was His; He accepted the same path that we must walk.

In doing so, Jesus became the mediator between God and us. He removed the barrier that confounded Job. Because Jesus experienced all of what a person goes through on this earth, He knows how difficult it is to obey God completely, just as He understood the attractions of temptation. (10)

We seek power because we think that it will provide us with all that we lack. And when we have gained the power, we find that we have nothing. Yet, in seeking Christ, we find that we have gained power beyond anything imaginable; we have gained the power over sin and death. This does not give us the right to laud it over others; it gives us the right to go out into the world and seek justice where there is injustice, to offer hope where there is despair, to find the hungry, heal the sick, and proclaim the Good News.

We often forget that two other men were crucified the same day as Jesus. We forget that one of those men taunted Jesus, saying that Jesus should save Himself. He saw power in its corrupt and selfish form. But the other man understood what the power of the Cross meant and he asked Jesus to forgive him of his sins. He saw and understood the power of Christ.

What will you ask for? Will you seek the power that brings nothing but death? Or will you seek Christ and gain victory over sin and death? Will you open your heart to the Holy Spirit so that you have the power to help others find peace and hope in this world?
(1) https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2006/05/07/to-search-for-excellence/
(2) http://inventors.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http://www.3m.com/about3M/pioneers/fry.jhtml
(3) Mark 10: 35 – 45
(4) Stated often during the Presidential campaign of 1960 – Kennedy by Theodore Sorenson, page 95
(5) Stated in 1962 – from Kennedy by Theodore Sorenson, page 95
(6) Matthew 4: 8 – 9
(7) See Acts 12: 1 – 2
(8) Revelation 1: 9
(9) Hebrews 5: 5 – 6
(10) Hebrews 5: 8

Finding God

I am again preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY. Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost.


A couple of weeks ago, I spoke in passing of my experience with one of the early mega-churches in this country.(1) I began attending that particular church because of its single adult program. Ultimately two aspects of that church drove me away from that church.

The first was the discomfort that I felt. I was unemployed and my clothes were not of the highest quality. It was never stated but you could sense the differences between my life and the other members of the Sunday School class. This was that period of time when the term “yuppie” first appeared. The others in the class were among the first of this group and I clearly was not. There were other signs in that church who you were in your life and where you lived in the town were more important that where you stood in the eyes of Christ. Church is not supposed to be about one’s lifestyle; but in that church and at that time, it clearly was. I am not sure that church has changed much in the intervening years.

The other thing that drove me from that church was its desire to compete with the other mega-church in town. It was a defining moment when the church elected to spend several million dollars on its television ministry. It was a decision driven by market share and was as far from the Gospel as anyone could imagine. The thoughts and actions of the church’s leadership focused more on the body of the church rather than the soul of the church. I left because I could not comprehend how a church could spend money on its image when there were people in the city that were homeless, sick, and in desperate need of some sign of hope. Like many of those who quit following Jesus because they did not like the message they were hearing, I left the church because I did not like the message it was presenting.

But unlike those who left Jesus because they didn’t like His message that said to leave everything behind and follow Him, I wanted very much to be a part of His message. This church was very much like the rich, young man in today’s Gospel reading (2), willing to listen to Christ but unwilling to give up his earthly possessions and follow Christ.

I was faced with a dilemma. Where could I go so that I could find God? Where could I go so that I would feel welcomed?

During this particular period of time, I was still a member of a United Methodist Church, even though I had not attended the one where my membership was held or any other United Methodist Church for some time. I had attended this particular church because of the programs that it offered, not because of its message or denomination (it was not a United Methodist church). I could see that perhaps I needed to look where the traditional message and programs were closer to my heart and not just select a church for the amenities that it could offer.

So, I started looking at the various United Methodist Churches in the area. I found myself at one of the “larger” churches in town. It was large in number but there was something about it that didn’t make it seem large (especially when you compared it to the coldness and aloofness of the mega-church that I had recently experienced). And one Sunday, when the pastor made the invitation for others to join the church, I wanted to go up there. But since it had been several years since I had transferred my membership from one church to another, I wasn’t sure I should do it right then. At the end of the service, I asked one of the ushers what I needed to do. Now, I had filled out a visitor’s card indicating that I was interested in joining and this particular usher was actually looking for me. I knew that I had found a place where I could find God and I joined that church the very next week.

But how many people are looking for a church today and feel like Job, lost in the wilderness and unable to find their way? How many people today are wandering in this modern wilderness asking the questions that Job is asking today (3) We call those who seek God today “seekers”. These “seekers” of today are very much like Job. Job’s questions of three thousand years ago are the questions that so many people are asking today.

They go through a daily routine but have come to a realization that the answer to what they seek cannot be answered in what they do or what they have acquired. Though Job is seeking to find God in order to ask why he has lost everything, today’s “seekers” are asking why everything they have gained is not sufficient to fill the void in their souls. Why is it that the accumulation of possessions, the busyness of their lives, or the work that they do is not enough to answer the questions of their lives. They speak of not having a sense of purpose in their lives, a narrative that gives meaning to their lives. And against the backdrop of society, they feel lost.

In a life wherever minute is filled with activity and people, these “seekers” feel lonely. In a society where “things” bring security, they feel insecure. No matter how hard they look for love, they still need an assurance that someone “out there” cares for them. They seek others so as not to be alone, but they still feel alone.

In a recent speech, Barack Obama (Senator from Illinois) noted that when he worked as a community organizer, he came into contact with many Christians and a variety of churches. Yet, even though he understood what they were saying and he believed the same things that they believed, he still felt removed and detached from them. He was there but only in body. There was no spirit in his work with Christians. Slowly, he came to realize that what was missing, that sense of loneliness and lack of attachment in his life was that he had no outlet for his beliefs.

Without a firm commitment to a particular community of faith, he knew that he would always remain alone and apart. So, as his work with church progressed, he also sought a church that he could join. It wasn’t just that he wanted to join a church to be a member; he wanted to join a church in order to fulfill his own commitment to be a follower of Christ. It was a commitment to discover God and to finish the journey of seeking.(4)

But what kind of church will other seekers find? I found my church because of my own desire and because the members of the church were looking for me. Senator Obama found his church through the work that he was doing? How will others find their church?

Jesus told the parable of the sower in which the seeds ended up in the rocks, in the weeds, and in fertile soil. Each of these situations describes a church setting in today’s society.

There are churches that are like the rocks and the hard ground. They hold onto the traditions of the church and insist on following the law. Things must be done in a certain way or they will not be done at all. The law must be upheld so as to keep the church the way it has always been. It is the type of church where yesterday’s Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes would feel right at home. The message of this church is a hard message and its doors are often closed to many. Like the seeds of the sower that fell on the hard ground and died, the hardness of the people of this church will cause the church to die.

The second type of church is like the part of the ground where the weeds grow. The message of these churches is the message of society. Anything that comes in the name of God should affect me and influence the way that we think about Him. These churches present an image of God who is accommodating, a God who wants to be your buddy. (5) These churches promise everything for everyone. If you need something to do, they will find a way to offer it. If you want music, these churches offer Christian music. If you desire a coffeehouse, then they will build a Christian coffeehouse. They will have a Christian bookstore in which to buy anything you want to read.

But all of these activities are like the weeds in a garden plot; weeds take away the nutrients that should go to the plants of the garden and ultimately the plants that are meant to grow die out from starvation. This is the church that the rich, young man wanted to join; it was one that would have let him keep his wealth and power. But it is not the church that Jesus was describing.

The church that Jesus was describing; the one that results from the seeds landing in the good soil is one like the church the writer of Hebrews describes in today’s reading. (6) It is a church where the Gospel is alive and well; it is a church where the presence of God through the Holy Spirit is alive and active. The true children of God are those who carry with them the nature of God. If we are looking for God, we are looking for the essentials of life that we are supposed to show others.

This is hard to even think about, let alone accomplish. We would rather change the Good News than change our own lives. As Mark tells us in today’s Gospel, there will be persecution and opposition to the Gospel long after Jesus’ death. We are not always willing to give up everything with the promise that what we give up will be returned. That is why the rich, young man turned away. It is the question expressed by Peter in today’s reading. He is saying that all of the disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus; how will they know that everything will be returned? But Jesus also assured Peter that following Him was better than whatever option Peter might have come up with.

Of course, the answer then is that they don’t know; they follow in faith. But Paul will write to the Corinthians and point out that Peter, the other apostles, and Jesus’ own family still had everything they had left behind twenty-five years later. (7)

Seekers want a place where their questions have real answers, not answers defined by society’s values. They seek a church where God lives and is present in the lives and actions of the church members. Such a church must be able to answer these questions, not through tradition or adherence to the law or various social activities and community activities, but rather through how they act, how they let the Holy Spirit move in their lives.

Let us remember that when John Wesley started his reformation of the church, he was like the church of the hard rocks. He saw a church in terms of strict adherence to a way of life (why do you think we are called “Methodists?). But the hardness of that life failed to bring about what he and the other members of the early Methodist group sought, peace in God.

Only when Wesley opened his heart and allowed the Holy Spirit to warm his heart did the vitality of the Methodist revival occur. That is what will be the defining moment of any church in today’s society. Are they willing to open up the hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit?

Those who seek Christ must be willing to truly seek Him. To resolve the crisis in his life, Job went seeking God. We know that our search is easier because we have Christ to help us. This is the word of encouragement that the writer of Hebrews gives us today. We have in Christ the One who understands who we are. Christ has been tested so we need not be. But we must approach the Throne of God; we cannot expect God to come to us. Those seeking God must take the risk that the rich, young man was not willing to take.

The same is true for the churches of today; they must be willing to take the risk that comes when you choose to follow Christ. It wasn’t so much that I sought to join that one church because it enabled me to answer some questions in my life; it was because that church was looking for me and was willing to help me find the answers. Churches today must be willing to invite others in, not keep them away. Churches today must be willing to take risks; they must be willing to live their lives as Christ lived His.

There are risks involved. The risk comes when one chooses to follow Christ; the risk comes when one chooses to put aside priorities defined by society and self and simply follow Christ. The risk comes when one opens their heart and allows the Holy Spirit to transform their lives. For churches, it is a risk to say that they will go against the ways of society and instead of offering society’s answer, will offer Christ through their lives.

Finding God can be difficult, especially if you don’t know where to look. Finding God can be risky when you are asked to change the way you see the world and yourself. But when you do take the risk, when you do put Christ into your life and you find that God has been there right by your side, you find that you have gained all those things that you thought you would never have.

(1) https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2006/09/24/upsetting-the-apple-cart/, 24 September 2006 (Dover Plains, NY)

(2) Mark 10: 17 – 31

(3) Job 23: 1 – 9, 16 – 17

(4) Adapted from “One Nation. . . Under God?” by Senator Barack Obama, Sojourners, November, 2006

(5) Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner

(6) Hebrews 4: 12 – 16

(7)See the reference in 1 Corinthians 9: 5

What Do We Say?

I am preaching at Edenville United Methodist Church in New Milford, NY, this morning. Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost.


What did you say last Monday when you came home and learned that three young girls had been killed in another school shooting? How do you explain the appearance of violence and murder in a community based on non-violence principles? And what do you say when the victims of the crime offer forgiveness to the killer and his family?

I cannot immediately explain why someone would decide to plan and then kill anyone, much less several people. The school shooting in Wisconsin the week before is perhaps easier to explain because the student was angry with the school and he had decided to take his anger out on the principal. The same explanation can help us explain the Columbine shootings; the young men involved there were angry with their classmates and sought revenge. But this explanation does not go far enough in explaining the other Colorado school shooting two weeks ago.

And though we can offer a rational explanation for the behavior of all those involved; it still doesn’t explain why all of these individuals decided to take their particular course of action.

Are we so enamored with violence that we have come to think that it is the only solution to the problems of society? Are we so fixated with violence that we think it will cure any problem we may have, whether they are real or perceived?

Against the backdrop of questions that we may not be able to answer, we are reintroduced to the story of Job this week. This book, written soon after the exile in Babylon, is an example of what is called subversive wisdom. It is an alternative to the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. Both the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes can be seen as a radical questioning of the easy confidence of the conventional wisdom found in the Book of Proverbs.

It is, for many, one of the great classics of world literature. The story of Job is the story of a righteous man from whom everything is taken – all his children, all his wealth, and finally all of his health. Its subject matter is a question that humankind has pondered ever since it had a sense of who they were: “Why should innocent persons suffer when the wicked seem to live in comfort and security?”

The early prophets attempted to deal with the question in terms of the Israelite nation but the writer of Job deals with it on an individual basis. It is a direct challenge to the time-honored and still accepted doctrine that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits. (1)

The dialogues between Job and his “comforters” are a sustained debate about the theme of requirements and rewards (“the righteous will flourish, the wicked will suffer”) which stand at the center of conventional wisdom. Job’s friends tell him that he must have done something very wrong (“Happy is the man whom God corrects”) and that this experience should lead to a greater piety. This experience should, in the end, lead to everything being all right.

But it is a conclusion and an argument that Job will not accept. From the very beginning, he is outraged at the injustice of what is happening. Job will not accept the results unless he is given an opportunity to see God and have God explain what is happening. Job rejects the comfort and counsel of his friends, with their established wisdom about God.

In the end, Job will come to peace with himself. He will meet God and find out that perhaps he, Job, is unable to understand all that makes up the world. Job finds out what we ourselves too often know, we are immersed in an overwhelming truth, a truth that we can only know through a limited view of the world.

In today’s Old Testament reading (2), Job is described as a righteous man. Two aspects of his character and actions are highlighted. Job is characterized as blameless and upright, meaning that he is “straightforward” and “ethically straight”. He is a man with a spotless character. Like Daniel, Job is blameless before his human critics but not necessarily before God.

But from the very beginning, in Job 2: 9 – 10, he is severely tested. His wife questions his integrity when she asks “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?” These are the very words that God used early in verse 3. They are words that emphasize Job’s perseverance. But his wife misconstrues this for religious fanaticism; she thinks that he is blindly refusing to see the reality of his desperate situation.

The thing is that the Book of Job alone does not present concrete solutions about why people suffer and how it is that we are to combat injustice. So what does this all mean for us? Are we to accept that there is no solution? How can we find hope in a world that offers no hope? Job’s wife’s comments precede the thoughts of many people today when they see the violence, hatred, angry and angst that pervade this society. They cannot accept that a loving God would allow this to happen. They get angry with God and walk away. They are closed to the words of God which still offer hope and possibility. Those who turn away from God do not see a world around them; they are blind to those who can help.

Job’s response and his urging that we accept both good and bad from God anticipates one of the central messages of the Book of Job; that a person of faith will trust in God through prosperity and adversity, even if they are unable to understand why the bad things happen. Just as Job finds trust in God at the end of the book, so too can we find trust in God through Jesus.

Jesus’ ministry was an invitation to all to share in the same life that He had experienced. This is a challenging message to accept with conventional wisdom. Our culture’s secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the Holy Spirit; it only can accept the visible world and ordinary experiences. This leads us to see Christianity in passive terms. Rather than seeing life as a process and transformation, we see it as something where God has already done what has to be done.

This makes God a lawgiver and a judge. It is why the Pharisees and Sadducees constantly tested Jesus, as they did in today’s Gospel reading. (3)  Their questions were not necessarily about divorce, though this passage is the central tenet for the church’s view on divorce, but rather about the adherence to the law.

If you held to the requirements of the law, things were good; if you did not, then you could expect bad things. If you follow the requirements of the law, God will give you what you want and need; if you do not, then God will withhold the good and punish you. God’s forgiveness becomes conditional; it is only for those who believe and it only lasts until you sin again.

Jesus changed this. No longer is God solely a lawgiver or judge; now He is our Father in Heaven. No longer is God’s grace given because we met a series of requirements determined by adherence to the law; God’s grace is freely given to all who would seek it. No longer is God’s grace limited to a select few; it becomes open to all who accept Christ in their lives.

In all the questions that the Pharisees and Sadducees asked, it was always about holding the myriad requirements of the law, even when it was impossible or contradictory. Their lives and power were dependent on the people mindlessly following what they, the leaders, said. Christ changes that; now when we live our lives in accordance with God’s commands, the outcome changes.

Stop and consider what happens when we accept Christ into our lives. In the Epistle reading for today (4) the writer of Hebrews tells us that our lives change because of Christ’s presence. Jesus takes on our burdens and frees us. No longer are we entangled by the requirements of the law. Now we, the people of the 21st century, are the custodians of the journey that began so long ago in Israel.

In the world of today, based on conventional wisdom and the notion that bad things happen to sinners and good things happen to the righteous, we have a hard time accepting this. We still feel that it is our “right” to do wrong against the one who has wronged us (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth); we ignore Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek. We would rather act instinctively, even when we know that two wrongs don’t make a right and fire added to fire stills burns the house down. (5)

We are not willing to immediately accept the new version of wisdom that is offered through Christ. We are angry at those who inflict violence and injustice on us; we seek revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can forgive the family of the person who killed their children. We demand justice and revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can reach a hand of caring and forgiveness to a family that they are supposed to hate.

So what do we do? In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (6)

The word “disciple” does not necessarily mean “a student of a teacher” but more “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament is to follow Jesus, to go on a journey with Jesus.

Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. Discipleship is not an individual path, but a journey in the company of disciples. It is a road that is less traveled yet done with others who remember and celebrate Jesus.

And discipleship involves being compassionate. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of the follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.

The Christian journey is a life lived from the inside out, a life in which the things we experience within — dreams, memories, images, and symbols, and the presence of him whom we encounter in deep silence — are in constant tension and dialogue with all that we experience without — people, events, joys, sorrows, and the presence of him whom we encounter in others. Thomas Merton repeats a suggestion of Douglas Steere that the absence of this tension might well produce the most pervasive form of violence present in contemporary society. “To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,” Merton writes, “to surrender to too many demands, to commit one’s self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

One of the most critical tasks of the local church is to enable people to become “journeyers” rather than “wanderers.” This suggests that the leadership of a congregation needs to be serious about their own journeys, to the point where they are willing to share their experience with others, not as those who have arrived but as fellow journeyers able to receive as well as to give. . . .

In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjold records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (7)

We are faced with a challenge today. In light of the violence that seems to have become so much a part of our lives, in light of the poverty and homelessness that is so much a part of our lives, in light of the injustice and oppression that seems to have become the norm rather than the exception, what do we say? What do we do?

When the world around is filled with senseless violence and poverty and oppression, will you say that it is God’s wrath for the sins of unnamed souls? When innocent children are killed and lives are destroyed through senseless violence, will you cry out to God that it is His fault?

Or will you say that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Will you say that He came to save this world from sin and death by His own sacrifice on the Cross? Will you say that because He came to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, enable the lame to walk, set the oppressed free and bring hope to the downtrodden and forgotten, that you are willing to walk with Him today?

The writer William Safire viewed the story of Job and his encounter with God as a victory for Job because Job called the Lord of the universe to account. It was a dialogue between a powerless individual and an all-powerful authority. It is a model for the miraculous thing that individuals such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Andrei Sakharov accomplished. Safire concluded that injustice in all forms need not be accepted; on the contrary, justice must be pursued and established authority confronted. One person can make a difference. (8) And each one of us can be that one person who makes the difference.

We must first remember that we have proclaimed that we are Christ’s disciples. We have committed our lives and our souls to following Christ. Clarence Jordan is best known as the founder of the Koinonia farm in Georgia. Founded in the late 1940’s, it was one of the first attempts at integration in the Deep South.

As such, it was the target of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some of the civil actions against the Klan. His brother refused, claiming that it would hurt his political aspirations (he was to become a Georgia state senator and later a justice on the State Supreme Court). He said that such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.

Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. To this, Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence.

Clarence then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.

Robert could only say that he followed Jesus, up to a point. Continuing the challenging, Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross.

Robert replied that he would go to the cross but that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but rather an admirer. He also said that he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.

Robert’s comments were interesting. He said, in effect, that if everyone who felt like I do did what you suggest, we would not have much of a church. Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church that he could go to. Later on, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society. (9)

We must also remember that we are Methodists. And our heritage is based on the feelings of John Wesley that the church cannot be silent when people are hungry, or sick, or naked, or homeless, or in prison and without hope. John Wesley could not stand aside and let the church ignore those who were poor, hungry, naked, sick, or in jail, even if the conventional wisdom was that the cause of poverty, hunger, the lack of clothes, or ill-health was the intrinsic sinfulness of the individual. John Wesley started a movement because he could not accept the injustice of a society that would cast aside the lesser members of society.

There is violence in this world; there is injustice in this world. There is hatred and oppression. We can simply say that it is God’s will and there is nothing we can do; we can say that God doesn’t care and nothing we do will change that. Or we can open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit; we can open our ears to hear the call of God through Christ calling us to be His people.

You are being asked today if you are willing to follow, if you are willing to take on the task of completing the answer to a perplexing question. 

UMH #593 – Here I Am

As you leave this place today, as you go out into the world, how will you respond to the call of the Lord?  At the beginning of this message, we sang the spiritual, “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me.”  The journey that we are about to begin today is not an easy one.  It is not easy answering God’s call.  But we do not do either alone.  All we have to do is ask Jesus to take our hand and guide us through this journey that we are about to make.  Our closing hymn this morning is #474 – “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

(1) Adapted from http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/id-103,pageNum-42.html

(2) Job 1:1; 2: 1 – 10

(3) Mark 10: 2 – 16

(4) Hebrews 1: 1 – 4; 2: 5 – 12

(5) Adapted from “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 25

(6) “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37

(7) From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen

(8) Adapted from http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=13244

(9) Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs – Saints and their stories by James C. Howell

Where is God?

Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.

Two comments come to mind when I read the Gospel reading for today. (1) First, why is it that the disciples don’t get the message about how power is shared in God’s kingdom? Second, who are those individuals who are preaching in the name of Jesus that have gotten the disciples so riled up?

Of course, we know that the disciples are still stuck in the “old-school” mentality that power comes to those who follow a leader. And you had to be part of the group in order to be able to pass on the knowledge that you gained. Whoever has caused the disciples to get angry is not part of the immediate group and that is why the disciples see them as a threat. This outsider was also able to do what the disciples had not been able to do; that is, he was healing in the name of Jesus and the disciples hadn’t quite gotten that down yet. (2) So, who are these “outsiders” that threaten to destroy the cohesiveness of the disciples?

None of the notes that I have give any indication as to who this individual was. But we know that on at least one occasion, Jesus sent seventy others out into the world to teach and heal. (3) And they returned, exclaiming how successful they had been in doing what Jesus had asked them to do. It seems likely to me that this individual might have been one of the seventy.

This notion that others can do what we think can only be done in one specific way has great implications for us today. We tend to lock ourselves into one set of thoughts and we are very opposed to anyone who offers an alternative to those thoughts. I receive the newsletter Connections each month and in the October issue, the editor/publisher Barbara Wendland discusses Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor’s memoir, “Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.”

Reverend Taylor has recently left the pastoral ministry and, in her book, she offers a number of reasons why. The primary reason was that she saw members of her church who were pressured to believe official doctrine when their own experiences of God in this world did not match those beliefs. In many cases, those who were leaving the church did so, not only because of the dichotomy between experience and statement, but because they feared sharing their own experiences.

I am more than acutely aware of people who have left the church because they felt that what they believed would be dismissed by others. I am also aware that there are many who have left the church because they see hypocrisy in action on Sunday mornings.

As Reverend Taylor writes, “we proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue living with hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture. We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our own power to maintain equilibrium.”

Is it possible that we can meet God in settings other than formalized church structures on a Sunday morning? The answer, of course, is most emphatically yes! But we have to make sure that the settings that we choose are God’s settings and not what we feel they should be.

Those who have heard me and read what I have written know that I am not terribly fond of much of the new worship styles. It is not that I am stuck in a traditional mode when it comes to worship. If that were the case, then I would be arguing against myself in this message. What I am opposed to is approaches that are more market-driven than God inspired.

I have no problems with alternative forms of worship; having started my ministry through services in the Colorado Rockies while camping out, I cannot be opposed to alternative worship services. But those who proclaim that alternative processes are the only true worship services or the way to bring new people into the church are as closed-minded as those who would proclaim that there is only one true way for worship.

Some would say that the Internet is going to be the new form of worship. I don’t deny that one of the reasons that I post these messages on my blog is to utilize the far-reaching capability of the Internet. There are those who post the entire worship service, as either an audio or video file, on the Internet. But these cannot possibly take the place of actually being in worship and being in contact with others. It strikes me that something is missing from worship if you are not in contact with others.

I am not opposed to using modern music in church. We should have more of it. I will admit that I felt a certain ambivalence when the music of “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ, Superstar” first came out. But now the words and the music of these two pieces ring true in my heart and I wish there were more pieces like them. But it seems to me that more and more of the modern music is nothing more than simple phrases repeated several times. Some people may like these songs because they are simple and unchallenging.

The music and the words themselves are not the issue; it is what we do with the words and the music, it is the meaning that we give to the words and the music. If our words and actions in church have no meaning, then we gain nothing from the time we spent in worship. Others may disagree with me on this point, saying that they do get something from such services. And I would applaud them for that. But let us understand that we can no longer say that only one way of worship is the answer nor can we say that what others are successful doing is the way that we should do it.

We need to seriously examine how we come to find God, not just for a few short hours on Sunday morning but at all times of the week. We need to examine the possibility that we can find God in the most unlikely places as well as in an elaborate sanctuary.

A couple of years ago I drove to Detroit for a job interview. The job had potential but I felt a degree of uncertainty about the process. As I was driving home and leaving the plains of the central United States, I could see the mountains that held the town where I lived. And all I could think of as I saw the hills and mountains before me were the words of David,

I lift up my eyes to the hills — where does my help come from?

My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber;

Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD watches over you— the LORD is your shade at your right hand;

The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all harm — he will watch over your life;

The LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (4)

In the solitude of my car, the decision I had to make was illustrated by God’s handiwork and David’s writings. The decision to go back into the hills and pass on the job in Detroit ultimately led me down the road that I have walked these past few years and has come to the writing of this blog and notes on sermons. Would I have been able to find God and find the answer elsewhere? It is possible but the experiences I have had in other places, such as the plains of Kansas, tell me that there are other ways of finding God and being in communion with Him.

It is interesting that the Old Testament reading for today (5) is from Esther. Esther is a unique book in the Bible from the standpoint that the central figure of the story is a woman. At a time when women were very much marginalized, the deliverance from destruction comes through a woman. The second aspect of this story is the absence of any explicit reference to God, worship, prayer, or sacrifice. To many, this makes the book one with little religious value. But it may be that the author of Esther deliberately did this to highlight the fact that it is God who directs or controls the seemingly insignificant coincidences that make up the plot and issue in deliverance.

When we deliberately make God a central figure in our lives, we risk making Him nothing more than a figurehead. This is what was happening to the Israelite nation when Jesus began His ministry. God was no longer the Father to whom the nation turned but rather an abstract concept that was to be held in reverence. Tradition became more important than understanding who God is and the meaning for God in the people’s lives.

When Jesus rebuked the disciples for not accepting the work of another, He was reminding them (and us) that the community of God is bigger than we think it is. In his writing for today (6), James is reminding us that we are a community and that the community extends beyond what we might think. It is a community in which we should not close the doors to those who seek God in other ways but a community that opens its doors to all who seek God.

October 1st is World Communion Sunday. It is a day when the community of God goes beyond the walls of the church and extends around the world. The readings for today remind us that the community of God exists every day and we should be looking for that community every day. The community of God extends beyond the walls and we should make sure that the walls that we build enclose everyone and not keep others out. We should not be asking “where is God?” but rather we should be saying “welcome to our community for here you shall find Him.”

(1) Mark 9: 38 – 50

(2) Mark 9: 14 – 18, 28

(3) Luke 10: 1 – 12

(4) Psalm 121

(5) Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10, 9: 20 – 22

(6) James 5: 13 – 20