Three Kings

This is the message that I gave on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 13 July 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12 – 19, Ephesians 1: 3 – 14, and Mark 6: 14 – 29


One of my favorite hymns is “We Gather Together”. I am not sure what it is that causes me to like it, though it might just be the tune and the rhythm. But it expresses the thought of why we are here this morning and why we gather together each Sunday morning at 10 o’clock.

UMH #131

So I have to ask you this morning, “Why are you here this Sunday morning?” Is it because you are supposed to be here? Is there some requirement in your life that makes you be here? Or, is it out of habit that you are here? You know how it is, you get so used to doing something each day that it becomes a habit.

Or perhaps it is because you find those moments on Sunday morning in the sanctuary, singing the hymns, reading the Scriptures, and hearing the message to give you a chance to reconnect with God through Christ. Is it possible that on days like today when we celebrate Holy Communion, you join with Christ as others do and have done over the years since Calvary?

I hope and trust that your reasons for being here are more of the latter rather than because it is the thing to do or because it is a habit that you have picked up over the years. But I have observed over the years those for whom attendance in church was more of a social obligation rather than a call from the soul. I have seen churches where the decisions by the members have been dictated, not by the spiritual reasons, but rather by political and social reasons in the community. Those are not reasons for going to church.

But even if the reasons for coming to church are mundane and superficial, the people are in church, they are singing the hymns, they are hearing the scriptures and there remains the distinct possibility that the Holy Spirit will crack the shell protecting their soul and they will change. We have seen it work in the past and we know that it will work in the future.

But there are still those who do not come to church on Sunday. For some, especially those who are not members of any church or denomination, Sunday is a day to do the things that didn’t get done during the week. Sunday is a day to relax and get away from things. Sunday is a day to do things other than go to church. And unfortunately, society is quick to catch on to the fact that Sundays are days of freedom for many and things are scheduled to involve everyone. I would be remiss in saying that I don’t like that concept but I realize that it is another thing that churches must compete with in this highly secular society.

But among those who do not come to church are those who should be here. They have, by public profession of their faith at least once in their life, stated that they will support a church through their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their service. Yet, as soon as those words have been said, they have been quickly forgotten.

Now, before anyone or everyone gets all riled up, let me say that I am aware that not everyone who is a member of this church and is not here falls into this general category. There are those who simply cannot physically be here; their ailments and well being prevent them from coming. And, when I know about such individuals and such individuals let me know, I make sure that communion is a part of their life and that they are a part of this community. Those individuals are a part of the church community and should never be considered otherwise.

But there are members who live elsewhere in this country and cannot by the nature of where they live come here on Sunday mornings. For those, membership in this church is convenient, simply a way to meet the obligations of society without any responsibility and obligation.

Membership in a church is not a matter of convenience or an obligation; it is a commitment. When it becomes a convenience, when it becomes simply a social statement, it quickly loses all of its meaning.

We read that the Ark of the Covenant was placed on a new cart and brought out of the house of Abinadab. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab drove the cart and Ahio walked in front. (2 Samuel 6: 3)

But this, while a logical method of transport, was against the rules for transporting the Ark. The law, in Exodus 25: 14, Numbers 3: 30 & 31, specifically stated that the Ark was to be carried by the sons of Kohath, not by a cart or any other vehicle. The Philistines had transported the Ark this way when they had captured it in battle and so for the Israelites to do so showed both ignorance of their own laws and disrespect for God.

What is interesting about the Old Testament reading for today are not the verses that we read but rather the verses that were skipped. In verses 6 through 12a, we read,

And when they came to Nachon’s threshing floor, Uzzah put out his hand to the Ark of God and took hold of it, the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the Ark of God. And David became angry because of the Lord’s outbreak against Uzzah; and he called the name of the place Perez Uzzah to this day.

David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” So David would not move the Ark of the Lord with him into the City of David; but David took it aside into the house of Obed-Edom the Hittite. The Ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Hittite three months. And the Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his household.

The commentary for this section indicates that though Uzzah’s violation (touching the Ark) was unintentional, it cost him his life. God had warned the Israelites in Numbers 4: 15 that no one, not even the Levites, could touch the holy objects of the tabernacle and that death was the penalty for violation. Now David was angry at this death but his anger was directed at God rather than at the carelessness of Uzzah or himself for allowing it to happen. Because of this, it was necessary to store the Ark for a period of time before it could be moved to Jerusalem. The Ark of the Covenant was stored in the house of a Levite for three months and then, as we read, transported to Jerusalem in the proper manner.

I do not wish to suggest that those who let their membership become a matter of convenience will die like Uzzah. But when you let your membership slide, when you no longer work to keep it active, the church is ultimately forced to remove you from the list of members and then when you need the church it will not be there. In one sense, to not have the church there when you need it most is the same as dying.

Some of those who fall into this category live in other states or at a distance too far away to make coming here possible. For those, the options are to find a church closer and become members there. It is a choice that they must make, not the church and certainly not I.

But it is those who do live within a reasonable distance of this place but still do not come that bother me most. It is possible that they cannot come on Sunday mornings. I know personally that many of the people at Fishkill United Methodist Church do not fully comprehend the lack of my presence on Sundays. On more than one occasion, when someone has called, I have to point out that I work on Sundays and cannot attend. I, of course, then tell them where I am working and what I am doing.

But there are those who do not come to the church for other reasons. Either someone once said something to them and caused their feelings to be hurt or there is an atmosphere in the church that doesn’t seem quite holy. Worship must be a time when people sense God’s presence. If there are reasons for God’s presence to not be there, people should be worried.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is about unity, of being a community of believers, united in common belief. But though united in common belief, it is still a community of individuals and it is the diversity of members that provides the success of the community. But if the diversity of members is to be the measure of success, then there must also be respect among all members for the uniqueness and capabilities of all members. No one member has more than any other member and no member should ever feel less because his or her contribution doesn’t match someone else.

I think that is what we are to gain from the Gospel reading for today. Now, most commentaries point out that Mark put the story about the death of John the Baptist in his Gospel at this point to let everyone know that Jesus’ own ministry was not going to be easy and that Jesus was going to meet a violent death as well. But it is also a story about what happens when you start doing things solely for yourself.

Herod had spent most of his political life trying to please others. Since John the Baptist had publicly rebuked Herod for his present marriage, Herod was probably looking for ways to please his wife. In the Gospel for today we read how Herod threw a birthday party for himself. It was at this party that his daughter danced in such a way that everyone was pleased and Herod said that he would give her anything she wanted, even up to half the kingdom. When the daughter asked her mother what she should ask for, the mother suggested the head of John the Baptist. It was the daughter that added the part about having it on a platter.

But the key point is that Herod was forced through his own pride into doing something that he really didn’t want to do. But if he refused, he would have lost face and thus he could not refuse the request. As was noted in verse 26, the king was exceedingly sorry. It does not say what happened to Herod or how he dealt with the issue following the beheading but you know that he must have regretted that a man died because of his own pride.

Pride can be our downfall if we are not careful. It was David’s pride that prevented the Ark of the Covenant from being moved into Jerusalem. It was Herod’s pride that got John the Baptist killed. Now we can take pride in the fact that we are members of a particular church but we can never let that pride dictate how we feel or how we act. I will admit that I have seen people come to the table that I felt should not have come; people whose actions were more for their own self-interests rather than to benefit the church. But I also realize that whatever I think, it doesn’t count, let alone matter.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, especially the first part, is a celebration of the fact that all the members of the church are united in the belief. The last part of the Old Testament reading for today is also a celebration, a celebration of the establishment of God in our hearts.

And the Gospel reading for today serves as a reminder that the tasks that we, as members of this church, are asked to do are not always easy tasks. But we know also know that we do not do those tasks alone. As we come to the table this day, we are reminded that Jesus’ death was for us, so that we would be united together in belief and in purpose.

This table is open to all that confess their sins and accept Christ as their savior. We do not, in the United Methodist Church, qualify admission to the table. And when we leave this table having spent a few moments with Christ and reuniting with the presence of the Holy Spirit, we should also spend a few moments acknowledging to others that they are a part of this community of believers. This can mean that you simply say hello to someone whom you have spoken to or seen in some time; it may mean reaching out to the neighbor across the street or down the road and inviting them to come on Sunday morning. The challenge is to see that what you do tells others where the Holy Spirit is in your life.

There were three kings in the Scriptures this day. One king let his own pride and self-centeredness bring about his downfall. One king first found fault with God for what were his errors but eventually acknowledged his own errors and was able to celebrate the presence of God in his life. The third King died on a cross so that we could live today. My challenge to you today is to find the king in your life.

Getting What You Asked For

This is the message that I gave on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 16 July 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12 – 19, Ephesians 1: 3 – 14, and Mark 6: 14 – 29


Earlier on in her life, my youngest daughter learned quickly not to ask her father, “Daddy, do you know what?” For as often as not, I would reply, “Yes, he plays second base for the Cubs.” Now, after the service last week several people told me that I said that Mark McGwire plays second base. Believe me, I know who’s on first.

If you are like me, you enjoy hearing the performance of Abbott and Costello’s routine of “Who’s On First?” which is surely one of the greatest comedy sketches ever created. For those that are not familiar, this piece revolves around the matter of understanding what the question was and what the answer is. If you are going to get the answer that you want, you have the right question.

For the people of Jesus’ time, the question was “Who was Jesus?” In the opening part of the Gospel reading for today, the people are saying that Jesus is really John the Baptist, raised from the dead. He might also have been Elijah or another prophet. The people don’t really know who Jesus is and it clearly shows that the expectations Israel had for its coming Messiah where in sharp contrast to the divine mission that Jesus was fulfilling.

And Herod is worried because he had ordered the execution of John by beheading because of a promise he had made to his wife’s daughter. Salome had danced to please Herod and his court and in return, as noted in Mark 6: 22 – 25., Herod promised anything that she might ask for. Because her mother, Herod’s wife, hated John the Baptist for publicly denouncing their marriage as sinful and a violation of Jewish law, Salome asked for John’s head on a platter. The nature of the way the promise was made meant that Herod could not refuse her. No wonder he was afraid when he heard of Jesus and what people were saying. He certainly must have thought that if it were John the Baptist who was preaching, it was a ghost and he would suffer for held to his promise.

Thought the Old Testament reading for today is mostly about celebration, there is also a hidden undercurrent of resentment present.

David has brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem and established that city as the capital of Israel. There is a great celebration, complete with dancing and shouting and music and good food. And David, in his celebration, extended that joy to all the people. In the last verse, after David had finished the burnt offering, he shared the offering with all the people who had shared in the celebration, something ordinarily not done.

But contrasted with this celebration is the anger of Michal, David’s wife and the daughter of the former king Saul. Michal felt that David’s actions and dress were inappropriate for a king. She was also angry that her father and brother had died in battle. To say that she despised David in her heart, as verse 16 indicates, was perhaps an understatement. If you read verse 20 of this same chapter, you see her anger in all its fury.

Against this anger, David reminded her that it was God who had chosen him to be king in place of her father and that he would gladly be more undignified and humble if that would honor God. David asked only to serve the Lord and he was rewarded. Unlike her brother Jonathan, who had accepted what God had given him, Michal could not accept what God was giving her and did not trust in God for future happiness. Instead, she became angry with both David and God and, as the last verse of chapter of chapter 6 notes, she died childless, the result of her estrangement from David and perhaps divine punishment because of her refusal to join in the celebration of God’s name.

If you ask for God’s help, you will receive it. The grace of God is open to all those who seek it. The people of Israel wanted a Messiah and God willingly sent His Son to fulfill that request. But what the people wanted was an earthly king, someone who would lift out of the bonds of slavery.

But the slavery that Jesus would lift the people out of was not the slavery to Rome or other earthly kings, it was the slavery of sin and death. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, God does not guarantee health, wealth, and prosperity to the New Testament believer. Rather, belief in Christ offers the promise of a life with Christ. Throughout this entire letter, Paul tries to explain what God’s grace means and what we must do in order to gain that grace.

Knowing what question to ask is sometimes the most difficult task. For if we do not know what we want, we cannot ask the right question. To many of the Ephesians, God’s grace was a mystery, a puzzle that only a few or the initiated could solve. But that was religion was viewed as a mystery. Paul told the Ephesians that God’s will, once hidden and obscure, was now revealed by the presence of Jesus Christ, the Savior.

As we come to the Communion Table today, remember that you are only asked one question. Do you come with a open heart, repenting of your sins, knowing that Christ died for you? If you have that question in your heart, then you will receive the promise of eternal life, you will get what you asked for.

The State of Faith

I will be at Mountainville United Methodist Church (Mountainville, NY) on Sunday, June 14th; the service starts at 10 and everyone is welcome. 

The Scriptures are 1 Samuel 17: 1, 17 – 27, 2 Corinthians 8: 7 – 15, and Mark 5: 21 – 43.


I wrote the following a couple of years ago:

I have decided to start my own church. I am going to start on the Internet and after the contributions and donations start to roll in, I will begin televising the services. Maybe we will pull in enough to even buy an old auditorium or arena and turn into a worship center.

The name of my church is going to be the “1st Internet Worship Center of the Gospel of Prosperity.” We aren’t going to call it a church because that will scare away the customers (oops, sorry; I meant to say congregants). I probably will decorate the web site and the church with a dove and, since this will be a world-wide ministry, most definitely a globe. Don’t go looking for a cross or any references to Jesus; market research has indicated those things tend to make people uncomfortable.

Since it is an Internet site, you can come anytime; we will be open 24/7 and the attire is informal. That’s good because it seems that the dress code for preachers today is blue jeans and Hawaiian shirts. For right now, I will settle for t-shirts and sport shirts. Maybe when we start televising the services, I will have enough money to buy a few Armani suits.

Ours will be a Biblical ministry but each sermon will be decided by input from focus groups. People want their churches to be biblical in nature but they want their pastors to avoid mentioning the Bible. By using focus groups, we can accommodate the wishes of the people.

Most certainly, since this is a church of the gospel of prosperity, we are going to focus on how one can use God to become wealthy and prosperous. We believe that poverty is a product of sin and wealth is a sign of a righteous life.

Ours will be a church (oops, sorry – meant to say worship center) that celebrates life. Ours will be a celebration of family values, so if you are not part of a traditional family you will have to go some place else.

If by now you haven’t figured it out, the above paragraphs were written with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. They come from impressions of many of the churches that are on television and the Internet today. They are what people are looking for because it gives them what they are looking for. But is that what a church (and I mean church) is supposed to do? (From “What Are We Supposed To Do?”)

If the church today is more what the people want it to be than it is what it should be, then those who profess its demise will be prophets after the fact. For many people today, the church is a period of time on Sunday morning and only Sunday morning. It is a time that is protected from the outside world and the problems of the world can be ignored.

I have jokingly said but with some degree of seriousness that the measure of a United Methodist pastor in the Memphis, Tennessee area (my hometown) is his or her ability to get the service over in time for the congregation to get to the Shoney’s before the Baptists get out. And pity the pastor, no matter where they might be, who calls the congregation to task for their failure to lead a Christian life.

The church two thousand years ago was a community of believers, bound together in common belief and for a common goal. It was a community that was open to all. Somewhere along the line we stopped being such a community.

The Gospel reading for today is reminder of the problems that many people had with the church in Jesus’ time and the problem they have today. The woman in the passage has been bleeding for twelve years and none of the physicians she went to were able to help her. What you have to keep in mind is that in her condition, she was considered ritually unclean and thus denied access to the temple. And anyone who might come into contact with her would also be considered unclean and denied access to the temple until they could be “cleansed.” Even today, we find reasons to tell people that they are not welcome in our churches, deeming them to be “unclean” in the eyes of society.

And while we may speak of Jesus as welcoming all and denying no one, our history as a church, written and unwritten, suggests that we still use the Bible justify separation and repression.

In 2002, Susan Pace Hamill, a professor of law at the University of Alabama law school and a member of the Trinity United Methodist Church in Tuscaloosa, was on sabbatical at Samford University to complete her master’s degree in theology. Her thesis was entitled “An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics” and stated that the Alabama tax code placed an unfair burden on the poor while benefiting the middle- and upper-income taxpayers. For Dr. Hamill, to say one is Christian is to accept a moral obligation to support tax reform. Furthermore, as a Christian, one has a higher calling to seek justice for the poor and the oppressed. (

Yet, the loudest opposition to this interesting attempt at tax reform (and I use the term attempt because it failed) came from the Alabama Christian Coalition. First, they tried to say that it was not the responsibility of individuals to take care of the people in the state but that of the church. When that didn’t work, they tried to slander Dr. Hamill. ( They made the argument that low taxes are good for families but when you see how much food and similar items are taxed you have to wonder whose families benefit from such low taxes.

The problem in reading the passage from 2nd Corinthians for today is that we read only part of the story. There are those within the Corinthian church who are challenging Paul’s personal integrity and his authority as an apostle. They have accused him of taking the money raised for the church in Jerusalem for his own benefit. The collection for the Jerusalem church had begun the year before and it was intended not only to address the economic problems of the Jerusalem church but also to stress the unity of the believers that formed the early church.

Paul advocates the ideals of self-sufficiency and fair balance, of having enough for one’s own needs while sharing the excess with others. And it should be noted that those who have received are obligated to reciprocate when the time and opportunity present themselves. The last part of what we read this morning reminds us of the people during the Exodus where the aged and weak might have collected less manna while others collected more, yet there was an equal distribution so that the excess of some ministered to the deficiency of others.

In today’s society, such words are revolutionary, radical, and to some, down right dangerous. That we should share the wealth that we worked so hard to get is, if nothing else, a dangerous thought. But, as I pointed out, this distribution came with the codicil that the recipients would some day be the donor and the donors would be the recipients. What was happening was happening to a community but the sense of community that is present in these writings and in what was the early church is missing in today’s discussion.

Now, I am not calling, as some might say, for a redistribution of wealth. But I am saying that we need to consider the growing differences in wealth, a long documented statistics. And it should be remembered that John Wesley had no qualms with persons earning a large salary; he was, of course, one of the highest paid people in England. But he had also determined what it would take to live in his world and society and everything above that amount was given away.

John Wesley encouraged people to earn as much as they could but not to do it on the backs of the working class. And having earned all one could, he encouraged everyone to save as much as they could (something society in America is loathe to do) and to give as much as they could. It is interesting to note that on a per capita basis, those with incomes below $20,000 give a higher percentage of their earnings than any other income group ( and Is it because it is an expression of how a community bands together, a reflection of what we once were?

We no longer have the concept of community that Paul was writing to the Corinthians about and any discussion of community often evolves into an “us versus them” mentality and there is very little discussion about equal opportunities. And unless we begin thinking about the community that we say we belong to, the community of Christians, we are headed for trouble.

The Old Testament reading for today is David’s lament on the loss of Saul and Jonathan. It is not only a personal loss of a friend, but a loss for the community. It also contains a warning; David tells the nation of Israel not to give Israel’s enemies reason to rejoice. We have been given a warning as well. We see it in the health of the church and there are many today who see the church in the same state as the young daughter of Jairus. They said that she was dead and there was no hope. Yet Jesus told him to believe and have faith.

Too many people today, both in the church and outside the church, will laugh at such a pronouncement. There is no hope in this world and even if it is there, it cannot be found in the church of today. Perhaps such skeptics are correct but I see a church that once spoke for all the people that bandied together so that all would have the opportunity to live and succeed and can do so again.

I had an opportunity two weeks ago to attend our Annual Conference and a seminar on Evangelism led by Kwasi Kena, Director of Evangelism for the General Board of Discipleship. It was an interesting seminar in that it ran counter to the current thoughts on the subject of evangelism and it gave me hope that the church as an institution, as a denomination, and individually can be saved.

Now, for too many people today, evangelism is getting people to proclaim Christ as their Savior and it is almost a forced process; either you follow Christ as we have described Him or you are doomed to a life outside the gates of Heaven. But as Dr. Kena pointed out, evangelism is more than just getting people to follow Christ; it is also teaching people about Christ and living the life that you preach and that Christ taught us to live. If the church (be it the institution, the denomination, or any particular individual church) continues as it has been for the past few years, believing more in the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the law; as long as the church today reflects the behavior of the church two thousand years ago when Jesus walked the back roads of the Galilee, then this will be a dying church.

But, if we begin doing what was done some two thousand years ago, as members of a community of the local level and expanding outwards, then there can be and will be hope. Individually and collectively, we must say that now is the time to rise up from the dead and to begin once again to speak and act the word of God.

It is not enough to get people to follow Christ if they do not know who Christ is; they must be shown by word, thought, deed and action that Christ is alive and living in each of us. The question for you today is very simple, “What state is your faith in? Are you sleeping like the young girl? Or are you seeking Christ?”

You Came — Now What Will You Do?

This is the first in the Friday Night in the Garden Vespers series.


“I Come To The Garden”

The theme for tonight’s vesper service is “The Cost of Servanthood.” But what does a garden have to do with servanthood or the cost of being a servant for God?

A garden is not supposed to be a place where one even thinks about servanthood or what it means to be a servant for Christ. A garden is a place of memory and contemplation, a place to pause during a busy day and to be able to hide from the problems of the world. The last place we want to see or hear the world is when we are in the garden.

Too many times, people want their gardens to be closed off from the world. There were many people who wondered if these two gardens would not somehow be filled with trash. Surprisingly, for those people, that hasn’t happened. There are no signs around but the word is out that these are places of prayer and peace, of remembrance and contemplation. You are invited to come and sit, to enjoy the flowers and the smells and sounds. Sometimes in the morning, when the dew is still on the roses and the birds are singing, it is quite clear that God is in this place.

We need our time in the garden. What Paul wrote to the Corinthians still holds true today. We must constantly check on ourselves to see if we are still Christians; we have to take an inventory to see if who we are and what we do are evidence that Christ is within us. We cannot do that unless we have a place apart from the world around us. We need our gardens and we need the time we spend in them.

Even Christ found it necessary to seek time away from the world. On more than one occasion, the writers of the Gospels noted that He went away to pray. So He had to have gone to a garden or somewhere secluded to pray and recharge spiritually. But we are reminded that it was in the garden that Christ was arrested and, no matter how secluded the garden may have been, there was still a real world outside its boundaries.

And the time will come, when all is said and done, for us to return to the world outside the boundaries of the garden, to the problems of the world. We cannot stay in the garden forever, for we came to be with Christ and now that He is with us, we need to take Him back into the world. Having come to this place and recharged our batteries, we know have the strength that is needed to work for peace and justice, for hope and possibility in this world.

If we do not come to garden every now and then, then the cost of being Christ’s follower, of being His servant, is that we will become like the people of Christ’s time, unable to feel the Spirit or truly be God’s people. But, as Christ did so many times when the pressure of the world began to burden Him, we can come to the garden and become recharged and renewed, able to face the tests that the world places in front of us.

So we have come to the garden; now we leave, refreshed and recharged, able to be Christ’s disciple and servant.

Family Values

Now, this isn’t a blog about Governor Sanford and his problems, though we are reminded that when one “preaches” about one set of values and then lives and entirely different set of values, it is very difficult for people to hear the truth.

And while I am saddened by the death of Michael Jackson, it isn’t that high on my list of concerns. But, depending on what the autopsy finds and what that means for each one of us, I think that Farrah Fawcett’s death was more important (even if it did get pushed back because of Michael Jackson’s death). I say that her death was more important because she died of cancer.

But instead of hearing about research on cancer treatment and what needs to be done, we are going to be (and are being bombarded) with reports about Michael Jackson and his problems. It makes me wonder what our values truly are.

Why are we not more concerned about the state of health care in this country today? Why are we not pushing for active research in curing disease and removing the curse and scourge of cancer from our lives? Why are we not fighting for a more equitable health care program that reduces the cost of healthcare?

Now, I know one of the arguments being made today about healthcare and the efforts of the present administration to reform healthcare is that we don’t want the government telling us who we can see and what can be done? I agree with the concept of not having some bureaucrat telling me how my healthcare should be managed but tell me how having a bureaucratic insurance company is better than the government? Besides, Medicare is a government-run program and a very successful one at that.

To tell me that insurance companies, which are only interested in profits for themselves, is a better alternative than the government is really stretching the point. Insurance companies in the healthcare business are getting rich at the expense of individuals and I would not be surprised if the number of uninsured individuals in this country is not on the rise.

I always find it interesting how we bandy about the term “Christian nation”, especially when it is used by individuals who are not willing to lead Christian lives. It is no wonder that the Christianity is threatened today but the threat comes from those who use the label without using its meaning.

Consider what happened to Jesus. At the end of the 3rd chapter of Mark, Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters came looking for him.

Just then his mother and brothers showed up. Standing outside, they relayed a message that they wanted a word with him. He was surrounded by the crowd when he was given the message, “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside looking for you.”

Jesus responded, “Who do you think are my mother and brothers?” Looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, he said, “Right here, right in front of you—my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3: 31 – 35)

Jesus redefined the family; if we are part of that family, then isn’t time that we started caring for the family. Isn’t time we put some value to the term “family values”?


Leading Into The Future

This is the message that I presented on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost (6 July 2003) at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 5: 1- 9, 9 – 10, 2 Corinthians 12: 2 – 10, and Mark 6: 1- 13.


What exactly is freedom? What do we expect when we seek freedom? Freedom is one of the most elusive concepts we have today; for how we think of freedom today in no way matches what it really is.

Ask any fifteen-year-old what freedom means and they might reply that it means they can have a car. But ask the same individual some two years later how they are enjoying their new found freedom and they may very well complain about the cost of insurance and what it takes to keep the car they so long desired running.

We want freedom because we think it will take away our responsibilities and that there will be no problems. But freedom brings with it increased responsibilities and with these responsibilities come new problems. Freedom doesn’t release us from anything; it merely redefines our limitations.

It is clear today, as we look backward through the lens of time, that our founding fathers really had no clue what would be the outcome of their efforts of the summer of 1776. But we do know that they knew what the price of their efforts would be. Should the war for independence and freedom have failed, the Declaration of Independence would be their death warrant. Putting their names on this document meant that they were also willing to pay the price that came with freedom.

Sin can be that way; it can seemingly offer us freedom because it offers no responsibilities and promises no problems. But no matter how it is stated, sin’s promise of freedom is simply a cover for slavery and ultimately death.

True freedom comes when we are able to throw away the shackles of slavery and death. Even with the threat of death hanging over their heads, the founding fathers of this country choose freedom rather than slavery imposed by British colonial government. Paul also speaks of freedom, the freedom that could only be found through Christ. It was a freedom that one could have, as Paul reminded us, boasted of countless times.

Paul had every reason and every right to boast. His life before Christ was one of vindictiveness and hatred, of seeking glory through personal triumph and the defeat of others. His actions as Saul were those of someone who thought in the old ways, of thought of power on earth as the only possible solution. To bring the rebel Christians back into line with established religion was his goal for it would bring him power and glory. But he found it to be a hopeless task and one that ultimately brought him face to face with Jesus on the road to Damascus. He is the one of whom he writes in today’s second lesson.

But Paul also knows that boasting about his past triumphs will not help him with the present task and those tasks still to be done. But boasting doesn’t get the job done and boasting takes away from the task. There is some question about what the thorn in his flesh was, that little thing that he referred to on a number of occasions but never fully explained. But it was clear that whatever it was, it was a reminder that his job was not to boast about the successes that he had but to continue working to the end.

Still, he found that as he worked, he grew stronger. And that no matter the pains or agonies he was to endure, the rewards he gained would be greater than whatever he might gain otherwise. And as he did the work of Christ in this world, he would get stronger.

That is the nice thing about freedom. It gives us the chance to boast. But it also reminds that there is still plenty of work to be done. We can boast about the successes of the past but our past successes are no guarantee for the future. They only serve as a reminder of what we must do for the future to be successful.

Because we have to work to hold on to our freedom, because the pain and suffering seem at time too much to bear, we do not want freedom. We are like those who would seek accommodation simply because it would reduce the burden on us. We would much rather have others do the work than have to do the work ourselves.

This, like so many other things, is nothing new. Today’s Old Testament reading is the culmination of years of struggle by the Hebrew people and the unwillingness of a people to hold onto the freedom that was given to them. As we look at the Old Testament, we can see the history of Israel in its early stages. The first five books are the traditions and the laws of the country. They show a nation governed by wise men and women, people who sought the counsel of God when facing perplexing decisions.

But the people of Israel saw the nations around them with kings and they felt that they needed a king as well, even though they had sworn allegiance to God as their only King. Now, it is apparent from the various prophecies that God did not mind the Israelites having a king but the Israelites wanted a king for the wrong reasons. The King that God wanted for Israel was one who would provide and show them the path of righteousness. The king the people of Israel wanted would be like the kings of other nations and would lead them into battle. And whatever the reasons for wanting a king, they amounted to a rejection of God as their one and true king.

As we progress through the book of Judges and Ruth, we see a nation that quickly forgot how it had agreed to be governed and how it transformed itself into just another nation in the Middle East. With the two books of Samuel, we see God responding to the clamor of the people for a king and the appointment of Samuel as the prophet who would anoint Saul as the duly appointed king of Israel. Samuel comes into the picture because the current leaders, including the sons of prophets, have been corrupted by the position and the power.

Saul is the first of God’s anointed King but his was a reign much like the leaders that preceded him. God’s choice for a king was someone who would walk in the ways of God and that is why David was chosen. But as we shall see over the next few weeks, David was susceptible to the trappings and power that came with the office and Israel would again stray from God.

The people of Israel wanted a king for all the wrong reasons. The most important was that they did not want to take on the responsibilities that came with the freedom that they had gained. And a people that is unwilling to take on the responsibilities of freedom is unprepared when the time comes for them to lead or when leadership fails.

I say this, having experienced it first hand. I developed a pretty decent junior bowling program back in middle 70’s but when circumstances forced a change in my own life, I found it necessary to turn the organization over to others. And because I had failed to prepare others to do the work that I had been doing, the organization ultimately collapsed.

If nothing else, that is why I put so much emphasis on reaching out to those who are members of this church but are not presently attending. In order to be a positive and active leadership, those in leadership must be willing to transfer their power to others and others must be available to take over the leadership positions. There is nothing wrong with people providing expertise wherever it is needed but there is also a definite need for others to be involved as well.

That is what Jesus was doing in the Gospel reading for today. Though the disciples were still not getting the idea that they were ultimately going to take over the work that Jesus was doing, Jesus knew that they had to be doing it before He left. And that is why he sent them out, two by two. If they did not start doing the mission work that Jesus was doing, they were not going to be ready when the time came and they would be unable to do the work.

As we celebrate the independence and the founding of this country, we should remember that freedom comes with a cost. John Kennedy, in his inauguration speech, said “that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” But he also added, and I think that most people forget this, that it will be the American people who must do the work. “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”

But this call was not, as some might say, for a continuation of the old ways. It was a call to seek new solutions to old problems. “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year, out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

Through Christ, we have gained freedom as well. It is the freedom from sin and death. And it gives us, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the power and the ability to find new solutions to the old problems. Just as Jesus empowered the twelve before he sent them on that first mission trip, so too does the Holy Spirit empower us to help the sick, the impoverished, the downtrodden.

We are able to walk the path of freedom today because of the efforts of others. We walk a path of freedom from sin and death because Jesus died on the cross for us. We are asked today to insure that freedom continues. And we know that this path is a rough one. But because we have accepted Christ as our Savior, we have the guarantee that it will be a road that we can walk and one that does lead into the future.

Playing In The All-Star Game

This is the message that I gave on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, 9 July 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 5: 1- 9, 9 – 10, 2 Corinthians 12: 2 – 10, and Mark 6: 1- 13


Playing in an All-Star game is an interesting proposition. On the one hand, we consider each member of the All-Star team, be it in baseball, football, basketball or any other sport, to be the among the best in that particular sport. Yet, there are times when, even with the combined talents of all the superstars present, the All-Star team is not the best team in the sport. This is especially true when you look at all the professional teams who tried to put all the “superstars” on one team. Having the best players in the sport is not a guarantee of success unless they are all working to one common goal. The problem is that we consider All-Stars in terms of individual accomplishments, not necessarily their team accomplishments.

That’s the contrast that I saw in the Old Testament and Epistle readings for today. The people of Israel applaud David for his military exploits and victories and accept him as their king, completing the task that had been started several years before.

Paul, on the other hand, laments the fact that he has many weaknesses and that these weaknesses are holding him back from doing his ministry. But it should be noted that neither David’s nor Paul’s success was accomplished by themselves. It was the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives that made the difference.

As the concluding verse in the Old Testament reading for today notes, “David went on and became great, and the Lord God of hosts was with him.” (2 Samuel 5: 16)

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he had asked God many times to help him overcome the weaknesses, the thorn in his flesh, that he felt was holding back his ministry. Yet, God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12: 9)

In this passage Paul points out that he does not boast of his success in the ministry because people will not understand where the success comes from. And whatever the reason for the “thorn in his flesh” (and what this was has been one of the great historical questions of the church), Paul sees it as reminder of his own weaknesses, a painful and humiliating experience that prevents his own pride from taking credit for the work that Christ has done in his life.

Paul does point out that because of his weaknesses, Christ’s power is magnified and more apparent to others. As Paul notes at the end of the Epistle reading for today, if in my own weakness others see Christ, then I will be content with that.

Similarly, in the Gospel reading for today, we see that the focus of the people is on Jesus himself and not on His ministry and message. In Mark 6: 2 the people readily acknowledge Jesus’ wisdom and mighty works but because they still saw him as the local boy who did good, they were not truly open to the message. It may have been that others were jealous that it was Jesus was getting all the glory and adulation of the people. It was this envy that lead others to literally through Jesus out of Nazareth, as described in Luke 4: 28 – 30.

So all those in the synagogue, when they heard all these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way. (Luke 4: 28 – 30)

It has often been noted that Jesus did not pick twelve scholars or teachers or those who might have considered themselves future leaders in the kingdom of God when he picked His disciples. I know that it may be a cliché to say so but it does fit within the context of this sermon to say that Jesus did not pick the local Jewish superstars for his All-Star team. Rather, he picked twelve ordinary guys, people who no one would have imagined capable of great doing great things.

And it would be safe to say that left to their own powers, skills and abilities, they would not have accomplished much. But when Jesus sent them out on that first mission described in today’s Gospel reading he did not send them out alone. He paired them together so that they could work together as a team and he gave the power over unclean spirits. The success of the mission, as indicated in Mark 6: 13, only came about because the Holy Spirit was with the twelve and because they had the faith that was needed.

The success of the church today will be because, like the church of old, we do not rely on the talents or skills of a single superstar. Rather, like the church of old, it will be the skills and talents of all the members of the church working together for a single goal. Yes, there will be times when the success is not evident. Even Jesus’ disciples could not get it right the first time. And it is true that even when the disciples and others who were sent out on these first missions came back with stories of success, there were those who came back with stories of how they just didn’t quite get it.

Some might argue that the success of the church lies in everyone doing the same thing. But success requires that a variety of tasks be done and that can only be accomplished through teamwork. What is important is that we have a single goal in mind and that we are of one accord when it comes to that goal.

This can be accomplished when we let the Holy Spirit into our hearts. When that happens, whatever we desire will come to pass. Paul could never have accomplished what he did had he not accepted Christ as his personal savior. David’s triumphs quickly disappeared, as we shall see in the coming weeks, when he left God behind.

And Jesus’ own brothers, who were among those who scoffed at his miracles and wisdom, came to the faith after the resurrection, when they understood what Jesus message was really about. Jesus’ brothers, James and Judas, came to power, not because they were his brothers but because of their faith in Christ.

We may want to play in the All-Star Game yet feel that it is out of our reach because we don’t have the skills or talents necessary. Yet, if we accept Christ as our personal Savior, if we let the Holy Spirit guide and direct us in our daily life, we quickly will find that we can do more than our own skills and talents alone will ever do.

That’s the challenge for us this day. It is not our skills and talents but rather what is in our heart that brings us success. Is Christ a part of your life? Can you play in the all-star game?