From The Darkness Into The Light

Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday in Advent, 30 November 2008. The Scriptures are Isaiah 64: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 1: 3 – 9, and Mark 12: 24 – 37


It is very difficult to write anything about Advent this year. Those who have read my writings over the past few months know that the economic problems facing this country are more than just words written in the print media or spoken on any number of radio and television broadcasts. The housing crisis is not something that is happening to other; it is something that is happening to my family and my friends. I hear of how this government is going to bail out various large industries but those of us who have been out of work for the past year may be lucky if Congress passes some sort of stimulus bill before the year ends. And what are we to do with a sum of money that will barely cover the mortgage payment? Are we supposed to spend this money on things that will stimulate the economy or should we spend it on more practical things, like food and medicine. I don’t know if Barack Obama ever suggested that the wealth of this country be shared and quite frankly, I don’t care if he said it or not. The suggestion that one can earn obscene amount of money while there are others who have nothing just makes me sick. I know that my lack of work is partially my fault; I hold to some pretty weird ideas when it comes to teaching chemistry at the introductory college level. I expect my students to read the textbook and to remember what they read; I expect my students to work the problems out and be prepared for problems that are similar but not the same as the ones covered in class. My test questions actually require some thought and don’t simply require the students to “kick back” what I said in class. Those were the things that I was expected to do when I was a student and they are the things that I make clear to my students that I expect from them. But that makes chemistry hard and our students don’t want to take hard courses. Our society has, over the years, gotten away from the concept of thinking and analyzing things. We seek quick answers and we don’t want to think about things. We readily let others do our thinking for us. And our ignorance as a society and as a nation is now beginning to show. When George W. Bush first ran for President in 2000, I heard comments about how he was prepared to be President because he had been Governor of Texas and had a M. B. A. Now, I have lived in Texas and, if nothing else, reading about Texas politics is always good for a laugh (and a cry at times). The Governor of Texas is not the most powerful politician in Texas; there are at least five other positions with more political power. But everyone thought that because he was a governor that he was qualified. What works in one state is not always a good model for understanding how another state works. And the current state of the economy can only tell us what having a M. B. A. means as a qualification to be President. We call it socialism when there is any hint of discussion that the gap between the poor and the wealthy is too big and perhaps there should be a more equitable sharing of the wealth. When an individual cannot pay their monthly bills, we threaten them with the modern day equivalent of debtor prison. Yes, there are some who have made some bad financial decisions and have tried to take advantage of the situation for their own benefit but not everyone facing foreclosure is that way. Yet, when a company makes bad financial decisions, we allow them to get funds from the government and we allow many of them to get the funds without any oversight. Many people objected when a man and a woman who were not the same race wanted to get married. Now, many people object when two individuals want to get married but who happened to be the same gender. In both cases, we heard the cry that it was against God’s law. But was it against God’s law or what we think is God’s law? Is it that we have forgotten who God is and that we have made God in our own image instead of remembering that we are all made in God’s image? I read the Old Testament reading for today and I wonder if I am not reading something about these times. Is God angry with us and is all that we see and hear a pronouncement from own high that we are doomed? Or have our own interests and desires so overcome our soul that we don’t remember who God is? Isaiah asks God not to be angry with us and not to forget us. He says that we are what God has made us. And you can hear Isaiah pleading with God to do something to save His people. Some would say that we are beyond redemption, beyond saving. We are like the scholars who come to Jesus and want to know which of seven brothers a woman is married to when it comes to the final day and we are all in heaven. As Jesus says in the Gospel reading for today, such a discussion shows a lack of understanding of the Bible and an lack of understanding of how God works. When God spoke to Moses and told him it was time to return to Egypt and free the Israelites from slavery, He did not say he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph. No, He said that He is that God. He is the God of then, now, and tomorrow; He goes beyond our time frame. We are so wrapped up in the present time, we lose track of the presence of God in our lives. We are the ones who have forgotten God; God has not forgotten us. So we are like Paul writing to the Corinthians, waiting expectedly for Jesus to arrive. And as we wait and prepare for Jesus to come, we are reminded that God has not forgotten us but that He so remembers us that He willingly sent His Son to be our Savior, even though He knew that we would reject Him. And though we once rejected Jesus and, in turn, rejected God, we have the opportunity to change that rejection into acceptance. Even though the darkness of the days resembles the darkness of our mood and the darkness of the times, we know that there is a Light. And though it is very dim right now, each day it grows a little bit brighter. This Light grows brighter because we let it grow in our heart, casting out those things which we think are the important things. We hear Paul’s words about the value of the things that we have through Christ and we understand that the Light that warms our heart is Christ. Yes, these are dark days. But they can will be days of light and hope and promise, if only we allow the Light to come in.

At What Point

This is the message I presented for the 1st Sunday in Advent (December 1, 2002) at Tompkins Corners.  The Scriptures were Isaiah 64: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 1: 3 – 9, and Mark 12: 24 – 37.


John Wesley did not want to form a new church. All his life he was dedicated to reforming and returning the Church of England to its roots. But there came a time when he found that he must make changes that would ultimately lead to the formation of the Methodist Church in America.

If the preachers that Wesley was sending to America were to be effective preachers and ministers to the people, they had to be ordained. For without the ordination, the rites of baptism, marriage, and communion could not be performed. And if that sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it is the nature of my serving this church and the ones that I have served before as well as many other pastors who began their careers as pastoral assistants or lay pastors. For Wesley, the problem was compounded by the fact that the authorities that held the power of ordination would not ordain the preachers that Wesley was sending as ministers to the colonies, leaving the colonists without proper ministers and leaving Wesley in a quandary.

Wesley decided that he could not allow the situation to continue, thus he began ordaining ministers, empowering them to further the Word of the Gospel through baptisms, weddings, and communion. This obviously did not endear Wesley to the powers that be in the Church of England but since they would not help in the matters at hand, Wesley felt that he had no alternative.

That is the point. There are times when you must do something, when you must take action because the situation requires action and no one is willing to take the steps towards a solution. Now, I have made this argument before and there are some that say that in doing so I justify the actions of others to accomplish things that I view morally wrong or not within their view. Whatever actions one takes must be consistent with what one believes and we must always remember that it is not to either you or I that one must answer for their actions. One way to look at it is that if you are for peace, then violence can never be used as justification for peace.

For the people of Israel, such was the moment in the Old Testament reading today. They now understood the consequences of their actions. After having witnessed the many miracles of God and His awe-inspiring presence, they were beginning to realize that He wasn’t there for them at that moment. Suddenly, they were realizing that all that they had done only took them away from God. He may not have been hiding as they thought but it was clear that they, because of their sins and actions, could not see Him.

Jesus spoke of the same signs of thunder and lightning as signs of His Second Coming. But they were not signs of danger and demise but rather a hope for the future for all. Just as the fig tree blooming in the spring is a sign of the sure coming of summer, so too are the signs of the coming of Christ as sign of hope for the future. The growth of the fig tree, the sprouting of the leaves brings a sign that Christ will return and that we are not forgotten. But we cannot simply wait for the signs; after all, as Jesus said at the end of the Gospel lesson, we can never now the true time and place of His coming.

But how can we prepare? How can we know when Christ will come if He Himself has said that we will not know that time or place? It is not by listening to others who may be nothing more than false prophets.

When you read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, you can sense the sadness that Paul must have had as he wrote the letter. But, even in sadness, it was still a letter of support and joy. Paul begins by giving thanks to God for the Corinthians, even though the church at that time was experiencing many problems. This praise for God, rather than praising the Corinthians for their work, is in deep contrast to the other letters he wrote where he commended and rejoiced in the other churches. Paul does not praise the Corinthians for their good works as he did other churches. Instead he praised God who worked in them.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were brought about by what was transpiring in the church. It was a seriously troubled church split by factions seeking to drag each other into court, crippled by the abuse of the spiritual gifts they had received, and easily tempted to return to the old ways, the ways before they had received the Gospel. It was a church quickly falling apart, choosing sides to follow instead of staying true to the Gospel.

This was a church that was only four years old and it would be easy to write this off to “growing pains”, of an immaturity that they would eventually grow out of. When you read Corinthians, it might be easy to get confused and think that Paul was writing to a more modern church in the 21st century. That wouldn’t be hard for me, since Corinth, MS, is just down the road a bit from my mom’s house. In this day and age, we find it very easy to exalt dynamic leaders who engage us with their charisma and own leadership abilities. We find it easy to take sides in arguments that are more about personalities than anything else.

When we focus on people’s faults, hope soon wanes and discouragement will set in. When we let the leader or speaker become the focus, we loose the focus of the Gospel message. And when we lose the focus of the Gospel message we come back to that time in Isaiah when the people of Israel feared for the future.

Is there hope for the future, even today? Are we quickly becoming like the church of Corinth, following leaders here on earth but failing to follow the Gospel? For Corinth, Paul still saw a bright future but it required some major changes in the lives of those in the church. The balance of the letters to Corinth are Paul’s sections about coming together as a church and as a congregation, of showing unity through what was inside each of them. Paul’s letters are a call for the people of Corinth to make a decision, to understand that they had come to a point in time when the future would be decided.

It is the same for each one of us. There will come a time when we will be called upon to make a decision, to decide that this is the point in our life where things must change. John Newton and his decision to turn that slave ship around came to mind when I began working on this sermon. Here was a man who probably had every thing he could want or desire; everything that is except internal peace. But something happened. Maybe it were just thoughts about how he earned his living; maybe it was just looking at the human cargo his ship carried across the Atlantic that caused him to question his own life. But it is clear that something made him question what he had done and what he should do. What we do know is that John Newton saw the future and did not like what he saw. He knew that he was at that point when a change must occur, when he had to say to Christ was his savior.

The same is true for us today. There will be times in our lives when we hear the sky rumble and see the lightning flash. But these will be events that only we will experience. There will be times in our lives when it will feel as if we are sinking under the weight of our pride. Then we will know that we have come to that point in our lives where change is necessary. But the problem is that we may not have the time to change. The signs of the Lord’s coming are not the times to change one’s life.

Advent is a celebration of the coming of Christ; it is a time of preparation. It gives us the time to prepare not only for the coming of Christ as an infant, new to the world but for Christ the Savior, our savior, our hope for peace in a world of trouble and darkness.

The Light Begins To Shine

This is the message I presented for the 1st Sunday in Advent (November 28, 1999) at Walker Valley.  The Scriptures were Isaiah 64: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 1: 3 – 9, and Mark 12: 24 – 37.


Back in 1984 I moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to the Quad Cities area of Illinois and Iowa. It wasn’t that dramatic move and I certainly didn’t think much about it at the time. But as I settled into my life as a college chemistry instructor I couldn’t help but notice that, as the end of 1984 came near, it got darker a lot sooner than it did when I lived in Memphis.

Of course, as winter approaches, the days do get shorter and as one goes further north, the days get shorter still. But, if you are used to the seasons changing in a particular manner, then new changes are rather unexpected.

The season of Advent comes, in part by design, as winter approaches. As the days get shorter and sunlight disappears, it is as if hope is fading away. But The purpose of Advent is serve as reminder that Christ will soon be hear and that we should begin the preparation for his arrival, the dawning of a new age, the shining of a new light.

Christ’s birthday at this time of the year, when the shortest day of the year occurs, is figuratively into a world of darkness. It is darkness created by sin and indifference, as noted in the Old Testament reading from Isaiah for today.

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags’

we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. (Isaiah 64: 6 – 7)

Yet, by his birth, there is a hope that the darkness will not prevail.

Advent is more than just a period of preparation for Christmas; it is a season in itself. Advent proclaims the coming of the Lord and this is not necessarily the same as saying that Christmas is coming. The Gospel reading for today reaffirms that all Scriptures affirm: our God is the One who comes to the world. The question is “how shall the day of the Lord be?” Will it be in darkness or light, joy or dread, judgement or redemption? It should be this thought that stirs us and reminds us, as people of God, that Advent is not only a time of joy and anticipation but also one of redemption.

The Gospel reading from Mark for today speaks of the Lord’s coming in terms of cosmic and historical signs.

“But in those days, following that distress,

“’ the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light;

the stars will fall from the sky and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. (Mark 13: 24 – 25)

But this passage of doom is quickly followed by a passage of announcement.

“At that time men will see the Son of Man in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. (Mark 13: 26 – 27)

Though this part of the Gospel speaks of the coming of the Lord, it continues by telling us that we can not now neither the time of His coming nor how He will come.

“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with has assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: Watch!” (Mark 13: 32 – 37)

The message of the Gospel is true for us today. As we look around our world, how will we know if Christ has come again?

You will find the living God in the pages of the Bible. You will find him also just exactly where you are. When Jesus knew that he would not have much longer with his disciples he knew that they were sad at heart and he said to them: “It is for your own good that I am going because unless I go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I do go, I will send him to you. . . I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth.”(John 16: 7, 12, 13) Jesus does not break his promise. God has sent the Spirit of truth, he dwells in your heart. You have only to listen, to follow, and he will lead you to the complete truth. He leads through all the events, all the circumstances of your life. Nothing in your life is so insignificant, so small, that God cannot be found at its centre. We think of God in the dramatic things, the glorious sunsets, the majestic mountains, the tempestuous seas; but He is the little things too, in the smile of a passer-by or the gnarled hands of an old man, in a daisy, a tiny insect, falling leaves. God is in the music, in laughter and in sorrow too. And the grey times, when monotony stretches out ahead, these can be the times of steady, solid growth into God.

God may make himself known to you through the life of someone who, for you, is an ambassador for God, in whom you can see the beauty and truth and the love of God; anyone from St. Paul and the apostles through all the centuries to the present day, the great assembly of the saints and lovers of God. It may be that there is someone who loves you so deeply that you dare to believe that you are worth loving and so you can believe that God’s love for you could be possible after all. Sometimes it is through tragedy or serious illness that God speaks to our hearts and we know him for the first time. There is no limit to the ways in which God may make himself known. At every turn in our lives there can be a meeting place with God. How our hearts should sing with joy and thanksgiving! We have only to want him now at this moment – and at any moment in our lives – and he is there, wanting us, longing to welcome us, to forgive us all that has gone before that has separated us from him. “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14: 23) God makes his home in you. They are not empty words. It is true. “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.” This is prayer. Isn’t this the answer to all our yearning, our searching, our anguish, to all the longing, the incompleteness of our lives and our longing? Until we dwell in him and allow him to dwell in us we shall be strangers to peace. (From Prayer by Mother Frances Dominica)

As we begin this season of Advent and prepare for the coming of Christ, let us remember that this is a time of preparation for ourselves as well. Though we wish to celebrate the coming of Christ the King, we need to remember that he did not come into this world as a king. The place of his birth was not what one would have expected for a king nor was the life that He led what one would have expected. But Christ came to be a part of us so that we could be saved.

The days of darkness are not yet over. It will continue to darker each day. These are days when hope can be easily lost but we always know that there is hope. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter to them:

I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in everyway – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge – because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful. (1 Corinthians 1: 4 – 9)

So, my friends, as we begin this season of Advent, as we begin the preparation for the birth of Christ, let us also begin to prepare ourselves. Though the days may be getting darker, the light is actually beginning to shine. It is the light of Christ in the world through us. The challenge for each of us today is to carry that light out into the world so that others may see it as well.

Thanksgiving, 2008

For what do we have to be thankful this year? I am first thankful that I can post my thoughts. To post my thoughts and express my beliefs is, first and foremost, what I believe this day is about. While it may not have been the reason that the first thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 or the reason for Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving in 1863, we have ever reason to be thankful for our freedoms.

But I view Thanksgiving this year with some degree of cynicism. While I am thankful that I am working, I am only working 8 – ½ hours per week and earning less than 25% of what I should be making. I submit resumes and vitas but I don’t hear anything back. But I am thankful that I am working because there are people who are losing their jobs and the signs are that more people will be losing their jobs.

I will celebrate this Thanksgiving with my family and for that I am thankful. But I know of at least 1000 families for whom the Thanksgiving meal that our local churches provided this year will not have to feed them today but for the weekend as well because the food banks upon which they so depend are closed for the holidays. And next week, when the regular routine resumes, there will probably be more people in line as has been the case each week this year. The food bank at our church serves 150 families per week and that number has been increasing.

I have reasons to be thankful. But I also have reasons to be worried. For with Thanksgiving comes the celebration of Advent and the coming of Christ; the coming of Christ should come a celebration of peace and mankind. But I cannot see how, today, when there are so many things working against our being thankful, we can focus on what this day and the next four weeks offer us.

There is hope in Christ and for that we have to be thankful. And with that hope, we need to make sure that others have the same opportunity.

The Difference between Republicans and Democrats

For the past few months, I have been trying to find a joke that describes the differences between Democrats and Republicans. There are several parts to this joke comparing the attitudes and behaviors of such individuals. The punch line for the last comparison points out that the difference between Democrats and Republicans is why there are so few Republicans and so many Democrats. But now matter how I phrase the search, I can’t seem to find the joke.

It’s not that I haven’t found jokes with that title; it is just that most of these jokes are very sarcastic (not to say that the one I am looking for isn’t) but there are limits to sarcasm and some of these jokes go beyond the boundaries of good taste.

In the meantime, I could not help but note that John McCain’s presidential campaign recently used the songs “Running On Empty” by Jackson Browne and “Still the One” by John Hall (when he was with the group Orleans). I don’t know Jackson Browne’s political affiliation but John Hall happens to be a member of Congress and a Democrat. And the problem with this particular example is that George Bush used the same song in his presidential campaign in 2004.

Jackson Browne has sued the McCain campaign for failing to ask his permission to use the song; the McCain campaign has filed a motion asking that the suit be dismissed because the ad was covered under “fair-use standards.”

Republicans believe in business and the individual but they fail to respect one of the basic aspects of private enterprise, the copy-right. No matter what one’s political beliefs may be, it seems to me that if you state that you are for the individual and then you take that individual’s property (be it real property or intellectual property), you are doing what you complain the other person does.


Words From The Past – Words For The Future

Those who have read my blog or heard me preach know that I am a southerner and a 2nd generation military brat by birth.  Without doubt, where I was born and where I grew up in this world had a lot to do with how I feel and what I think of the world around me.

I was raised in an environment where the races were divided, in other words, segregated, and people were taught that this was the way that it was to be.  They held to the belief that the separation of the races was ordained by God and to breakdown this barrier was to go against the Word of God.

But over the years as I moved from Texas to Alabama to Colorado to Missouri and then finally to Tennessee I realized that segregation was not right and no matter how it was stated or what doctrine was applied to this belief (“separate but equal”), keeping people separate never made people equal.  In fact, all segregation seemed to do was make sure that those who have will keep what they have and those who do not have anything will never get anything.  Segregation was never about race but about economic status and the desire of some, mostly white, to keep power in their own hands and not to share it.

Those who sought to keep segregation as the status quo used fear as their primary means of control.  Listen to the rhetoric of those who proclaimed states’ rights and were so vehemently opposed to integration and you hear words of fear, fear of what would happen if children of the various races were allowed to go to school together or sit at the same lunch counter.  It was fear that allowed businesses in the south to keep unions out by claiming that through integration and union organizing, blacks would take jobs away from whites.

Fear is perhaps the most dangerous emotion because it provides the environment for hatred and violence to grow.  I am not old to remember the Joseph McCarthy era (I would think that for many of my generation, the only McCarthy they can remember is Eugene McCarthy) but I have seen pictures and old video tapes of what transpired during that time in the early 50’s.  If fear had a face, it was of a man standing before an audience and claiming to have the list of known Communists working in the State Department.   My wife was a young girl of ten when the McCarthy hearings began in 1953 and almost twelve when they ended in 1955. Though she didn’t understand the full scope of these hearings she knew there was a fear component in what was being said on the television. Out of this grew what has become the hysteria know as McCarthyism and anyone who once knew someone who may have been in the same room with someone who thought about joining the Communist party was quickly labeled the same. 

We get in an uproar when someone suggests that the phrase “under God” be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance but we fail to remember that it was put into the Pledge during this period of fear and hysteria.  And remnants of this fear and hysteria are still with us to this day; some people still have to sign loyalty oaths (see “Pledges and Loyalty Oaths”) in order to receive their paychecks.  Loyalty oaths are vestiges of that period.

So why do I speak of years gone by?  While the people who invoked such fears in our parents and older siblings may be gone, their descendants are still with us.  There is evidence that the election of Barak Obama will and has brought back those same attitudes of fear and hatred that so dominated this country in the 1950’s.

And understand this, fear works best in darkness and ignorance.  Those who use fear to incite others do so because they are only interested in keeping themselves in power and in control of what others do.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt was right when he said “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Fear is the product of ignorance and which results in the spawning of hatred.

Let those who would spread hatred and violence do so but make them stand in the light of truth and justice.  For in such light, they will wither and die.  Make sure that you understand what is going on and don’t let the so-called experts tell you what to think; do your own thinking and make your own decisions. There are people who refuse to look at the problems of the world with a critical eye. They prefer to believe what the pundits and talking heads spew because either they are too lazy to read, study and learn about “why” the problems exist or because the rhetoric of fear and hate fits in with their core beliefs. It was easier for them to believe that segregation fit in with God’s plan rather than look at the evils of segregation. They forgot that Jesus had given us the two Great Commandments –“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments rest all the law and the prophets.”

There are clear and visible economic and social problems in this country and this world.  To use the words and tactics of days past will not solve these problems.  The only thing that will solve these problems is a critical look at the problems and a rational discussion of possible solutions.  This requires an educated and informed people, not a group of self-proclaimed experts telling us what to think or believe and inciting our fears.  Some of the biggest challenges facing this nation and the world cannot be solved with fear. Words of hatred and fear will only exacerbate the problems that already exist.

Thomas Paine in his writings called the darkest days of the American Revolution the “times that try men’s souls.” These present times match that darkness; the success or failure of the American Experiment rests on our ability to move boldly and fearlessly into the future, even if it is not clear or certain what that future will bring.


The End Of The Year

I am at Lake Mahopac UMC this Sunday; service is at 10 am.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, are Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1: 15- 23, and Matthew 25: 31-46.


When I first read the Scriptures for today and considered the significance of this Sunday in the church year, I could not help but think of Robert Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice.”

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

This is the last Sunday in the church year and next week we begin the season of Advent. So it is that today we can truly look forward to the coming of Christ. But these are not the “End Times” that so many people equate with the coming of Christ; it is merely the end of the year.

Still, there are those who say that these are the “End Times”, a time when God will destroy the earth and all of His creation in a fit of rage because of our sins. It seems to me, though, that those who so loudly proclaim this apocalyptic forecast are among those who, into today’s Gospel reading, ask Christ who were the sick, the homeless, the needy and the oppressed.

It strikes me, and I have had these thoughts for as long as I can remember, that those who proclaim the sinfulness of this world and the need to repent are among those who ignore the less fortunate and are quick to cast out from their church any who do not meet their criteria when it comes to race, gender, or economic status. Those whom Jesus said would be cast into the fires of hell are those who proclaim their own self-righteousness and say that those who are less fortunate than they have only themselves to blame.

In today’s world, it seems to me that too many self-proclaimed Christians have no problem equating sin and poverty but will not speak out against those who grow fat from the labors of others. That was the warning that Ezekiel gave to the people in today’s Old Testament reading. Those who had grown fat and lazy off the efforts of the workers were the ones who would feel God’s wrath.

And while it would be easy to find such individuals in the news of the day, we have to be very careful about how we read such news. We are in the process of quickly returning to the same attitudes that dominated society in England and America in the early 1700’s, the time when John Wesley began to take a critical look at his church, the Church of England.

The church of Wesley’s day showed little concern for the poor, the sick, the homeless and the ones caught up in the Industrial Revolution. It was a time of increasing drug and alcohol addiction; it was a time of child labor and no medical care for the lower class. It was a time when people believed that poverty was a sign of one’s sins and that it was your sins, or the lack of them, that determined your success in life. If you were successful in life, then it was obvious that God had smiled on you and rewarded you for your diligence and righteous life; if you were not successful in life, then it was obvious that you had incurred God’s displeasure. It is an attitude that is very much a part of today’s society as well.

We still see and seek riches as a means of measuring success; we are only interested in those things that will bring us wealth and power. But wealth and power will not necessarily gain one’s admittance into heaven.

Jesus told the story of the rich man who was condemned to hell, even though he had led an apparently righteous life. But in his daily passage to the Temple to meet his religious obligations, he ignored the beggar by his door. And because he ignored the beggar by his door, his actions at the Temple carried the mark of hypocrisy.

Jesus told the rich young man to give away everything he owned and to follow Him on His mission; the rich young man walked away because he was unable to give up that which he had and because he was unwilling to walk a different path.

We have lost track of the fact that life cannot be found in riches but in what one does with one’s riches, no matter how much we have or how little we have. We have also lost track that there are many who do not have anything and, as Wesley himself so often pointed out, it is very difficult to think about the Kingdom of Heaven when you cannot put food on the table for you and your children or clothes on your back or your children’s backs.

As we come to the end of this current year and begin to prepare for the true coming of Christ, we have to ask ourselves what this means for us today and what we shall do.

Shall we continue to walk down the path that we have been walking? It is clear that to do so would only end in turmoil, destruction, and death. We do not need for God to destroy this world; we are doing quite a good job of it ourselves.

Those who say that these are the End Times use the words of the Bible as a weapon and as words of hate and exclusion when the words of the Bible are words of love and inclusion. We do not need words of hatred and destruction; we need words of hope and promise.

Last Thursday would have been Robert F. Kennedy’s 83rd birthday. During that fateful Presidential campaign of 1968, he said many things but no words carried more weight than the ones he spoke on April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis.

That was the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN and as news of Dr. King’s death spread across the country, the anger of the people for such an act exploded in rage and violence. What Senator Kennedy said that night in Indianapolis still holds true today.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

Senator Kennedy continued by saying,

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

If we are to make those same words true today, for I think we have forgotten them and what they mean, we must see the world in a different light. And to see the world in a different light, we must have a change of heart.

If we do not change our heart, we cannot change our mind and will find ourselves no better than we are now. Changing our heart will lift us out of our present state, a state of selfishness, arrogance, pride, idolatry, sensuality, and slavery. To change one’s heart is a call for repentance, to begin a new life found in the liberation of the Gospel message.

In the Gospel we find a new path, a path that transcends all cultures, all human constructs, all civilizations and conventions. The Gospel is eternal, while politics and culture, including Christian culture, are fixed in time. (Adapted from I, Francis by Carlo Carretto)

And yes, this is a call for repentance, a call first given by John the Baptist in the Wilderness, a call given by Jesus, by Paul and all the disciples. For to repent is to begin a new life, a new life found in Christ, to go beyond the limits of time.

Yes, Jesus is coming but this does not mean it is the end of the world. It is only the end of the year and it means that we have an opportunity to seek a better world. We do have that chance and we should take it.

A Quote from Bobby Kennedy

In preparing for this Sunday’s sermon (I am at Lake Mahopac UMC this Sunday; service is at 10 am), I heard the speech that Bobby Kennedy gave in Indianapolis, Indiana the night of Martin Luther King’s death on April 4, 1968.  In light of what is transpiring right now in this country, it is important to read the words that he spoke that night.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.

Statement on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968.

I also came across these words that he spoke the next day.

“What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet.  “No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason.
“Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily – whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence – whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.” On the Mindless Menace of Violence, Cleveland, Ohio, April 5, 1968.

What he said in Cleveland was in response to the riots and violence that transpired across the nation the night before.  What is important to remember is that there was no violence, there were no riots in Indianapolis that night.

I am not certain the direction this country is going but I would hope that we consider where we have been and decide that perhaps we need to walk in other direction.


Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

How Do We Say Thanks?

This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on Christ the King Sunday, November 24, 2002.  The Scriptures were Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1: 15- 23, and Matthew 25: 31-46.


When you listen to the “Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keilor, there is always that moment when he speaks about what has transpired in Lake Woebegone during the last week. It is always nice to listen, especially when he gives the report about what the pastor of the Lutheran Church said during his sermon. Lake Woebegone only has the one Lutheran Church so I can only imagine what the Methodists in town, if there are any, might have heard that week. It seems that this was one of those weeks or times when I could use that type of approach.

First, there was the report of the ossuary that is supposed to contain the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. This revelation has the potential of striking at the central core of the Christianity, especially if one is a Roman Catholic. It seems that the one of the tenets of Catholicism is that Mary was always a virgin and therefore could not have any more children so Jesus could not have had any more natural brothers or sisters. The Orthodox churches get around this by saying that any other children mentioned in the bible were Joseph’s by a prior marriage.

But no matter whether one develops a theory within the context of a scientific or religious context, the rules are the same. And the rules say that when a theory must be stretched or twisted in order to explain an idea, then it might be a good idea to look at the theory again. So maybe we should just take the words of the bible as they are written and accept the idea that Jesus did have brothers and sisters and that James was his brother and that James became one of the leaders of the church upon his death.

With James comes another thought about Christianity, especially at this time of the year. In the letter attributed to James, one gets the idea that service and works can precede faith and allow for salvation, an idea that does not get along well with Paul’s view of faith alone as the source of salvation. How then do resolve this disparity between works and faith.

What first caused John Wesley to question the nature of his church, to label it a “lukewarm” Christianity was its lack of concern for the downtrodden, the poor, and the homeless, those whom the Industrial Revolution had left behind. It was a belief then, and perhaps today, that poverty was a result of sin; that your sins determined your success. If you were successful, then it was because you had led a godly and righteous life.

Wesley questioned those who would forget those who did not or could not benefit from the riches of society. He challenged people by his words and his actions to take the Gospel into the street. It is not a message you are likely to hear from evangelists today.

The message given today is about the one, a “me-first” theology as one writer put it, and when you look at many of the evangelists today, the one they are talking about is themselves. There seems to be no compassion, any caring about others in their message. It seems that people want to find salvation and peace but are not willing to take the steps that make it possible.

Having faith is the first step but remember what Jesus told the rich young ruler, that if he wanted to enter into the kingdom, he had to give up all his riches. And Jesus told the story of the man who was condemned to hell because, though he had led a godly and righteous life, he had ignored the beggar outside his door. Life is not found in the riches one has but rather what does with the riches one have, no matter how many they are.

But that was the message Ezekiel gave to the people of Israel; it was the central point of Jesus’ ministry. It was of little concern to Ezekiel where the lost sheep were or who the lost sheep were; what mattered was that they were lost; and, if they were lost, they must be found. Judgement about who was lost and why they were lost was left to the Shepherd, not to others.

Jesus spoke of the homeless, the sick, the poor, the downtrodden and oppressed as if He were one of them. He challenged his disciples to find His presence among them. Of course, the reply was that they did not see Jesus there. If we do not feed the hungry, help the downtrodden, visit the sick and needy, how then can we ever expect to find Christ. The condemnation came not to those who suffered but to those who would not help.

Wesley knew, as we must today, that works alone cannot bring the peace found in Christ. All we have to do is read of the struggles that Wesley went through, of all the pain and agony that he brought upon himself as he struggled with the issue of what Christ meant, to understand that you must have faith first before you can find peace. Only by trusting in Jesus and allowing faith to be the central part of your life can peace be found.

The one tenet that we have in the Methodism is that having come to Christ, then we must help others.

As I read the notes about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I have to ask ourselves how it was that Paul heard of the Ephesians faith and the love that they had for each other. The central theme to this letter is the transformation that the community underwent after the people had accepted the Gospel. But how do you hear of faith and love? How do you hear about the sharing that takes place in a community? If a person is transformed, it is through the actions that he or she makes after the change. And that comes back to the works that we do. That makes the Gospel reading for today so relevant and meaningful for today.

We are in the midst of a stewardship campaign. I want to emphasize that it is a stewardship campaign and not simply a financial drive. Stewardship is more than money. Yes, we need the money in order to maintain the presence of this church in this community but we need to look beyond simply keeping the church in the community. Stewardship means taking the message of Christ beyond the boundaries of our own lives.

Later this week, we shall stop and take time to be thankful. It is a time long fixed in the memories of our country, to pause and remember the difficult start many people had. It was a time of remembrance and thanksgiving to the Lord for His presence in their lives. So too should it be for us. We will gather as families to feast on the turkey and all the fixings that go with it. We hopefully will pause a few moments to thank the cook and the helpers.

As you go through this week I trust that you will give thanks to the Lord for the blessings of family and home that have been given to you. But I also hope that you find other ways to say thanks, that you find ways to take the faith that has brought you safe thus far (to borrow from my favorite hymn) and help others to be thankful as well. We are reminded that others only know of our faith and love through what we do and how we live. As we live and show the presence of Christ in our lives, that is how we best say thanks.

If Not Now, When? If Not Us, Who?

This is the message I presented at Walker Valley on Christ the King Sunday, November 21, 1999.  The Scriptures were Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1: 15- 23, and Matthew 25: 31-46.


The Scriptures for today had me thinking about what type of church we have and the type of church we would like it to be. Now, you must remember that I come from a part of the country where the church is a part of the social fabric of society and many people get uncomfortable when the church is called to work in society.

The church throughout its history has always been a society of people. But, for many people, this means that the church has taken on the form of a social club where like-minded people gather together and have fun and fellowship and generally support one another. Now, I see nothing wrong with those activities; they are essential parts of the life of a church. But I do see something wrong when people view themselves only in those terms and refuse to look beyond the boundaries of the church. I can remember the horror people had at one church when it was suggested that one week out of every fifteen the church house two or three homeless families and that the members of the church assist in the feeding of the families. Those things were just not done in polite society.

But that is the other side of the coin. Whatever breaks down in society, the church needs to be involved. In needs to stand up for what is right and good. Over the years, the church has stood for good education, equality among all peoples, civil rights, and stability in society. The church has often been seen as the one institution that stands ups for what is right. But the difficulty in this approach to the church’s work is that it is often seen as a means of achieving the goal of Christianity.

The difficulty for any church is finding the balance between what it does for its members and what it does for members of society.

Humanity has always wanted to help God. But it has always been done with the feeling that we could meet God halfway. Many people work hard in the church, serving on committees, helping out with any number of church projects. But if we are not careful, we begin thinking of our much God appreciates our work. When this happens, it is not very hard for the church, the body of Christ, to become a club or social organization where God is secondary.

John Wesley understood the importance of good works. The fruit of one’s good works are always and everywhere a response to what God has done. We respond to God through our appreciative works.

Is it possible to avoid good works? Jesus’ command, as hear in the Gospel reading for today, is simple. If you hear the message, live accordingly. By and of itself, the act of doing something good for someone is a meaningless act for us. It will help the other person, that is true, but it will do nothing to help us get into heaven. There is a living relationship established between God and us. That is what the message from the Old Testament tells us today. God went out looking for each of the lost sheep, be they the Israelites exiled in Babylon or elsewhere. He wanted to find each one of us; that is why He ultimately sent his Son to save us from our sins. It is by God’s grace that we are saved.

Because of this act of God’s grace exists, a relationship between God and us. It is living relationship with the Father through Christ who inspires our thoughts, words and deeds.

It follows then that we have a role in our relationship with God. We are the other party in the covenant established many years ago. We contribute to this living, dynamic fellowship. The question is, of course, how can we contribute to this relationship? How can we respond to God’s presence in our lives?

Each person in Christ has a specific calling. Each person has a unique personality and lives in relation to unique things. Each person draws together other persons, times, places, and events. The excitement of the Christian life is living out or doing good works within our own unique daily life. We are called to be a witness to what Christ has done for all humanity.

When I first began the preparation for this sermon, I thought of the church’s involvement in the political and social actions of the sixties. I thought about how the church was involved back then and is still today in the fight for human rights. Many churches were divided about the proper action of the church, its pastor, and its congregation in the fights that occurred back then. And even today, as I alluded to earlier, churches can be divided about what the role of the church in society should be.

As this decade ends and the new one begins, as we turn from the season of Pentecost to the season of Advent, what role will the church have in society? The United Methodist Church has, out of necessity and history, always been a social action church. There are those today who suggest that we need to review this tradition of the church. But such a change would take away the presence of this church in the world. As one who has looked at planning before, I know that what one church does is not necessarily the right thing for other churches to do. There is a role for every church, be they a very little one or one of immense size.

The question arises how. In my daily readings, I have had the opportunity to read the writings of Carlo Carretto, who wrote a biography of St. Francis of Assisi. One of those writings is especially true today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knew something about all that.

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

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

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

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

I was made always to go beyond time. (From I, Francis by Carlo Carretto)

I struggled with this sermon because it calls for us to take actions. Fortunately, I can take comfort in the words Paul wrote to the Ephesians encouraging them and asking that God give them wisdom so that they could better know him and understand what it is that He would have us to do.

And while I struggle with how to do it, I am reminded by what was said back in the sixties when people were questioning the timing of much of what was going on. That challenge, the title of the sermon today, is as valid today as it was thirty years ago. There is work to be done; there are those in need who seek our help. If we do not do it, who will? If it is not done today, when will it get done?