And How Shall You Speak?

I am again at Hankins UMC this Sunday.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road))  The service starts at 10:15 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 2010 were Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30.


This has been edited since it was first posted.


There was a murder trial in Wichita, Kansas, the other day. And whatever your thoughts about the trial might be, it was a murder trial. It was not a platform for a discussion of societal issues, which the defendant wanted it to be. It was not, as I believe the defendant wanted it to be, a platform for the presentation of his views. The defendant admitted that he planned the murder and then he carried out the plan. And the jury found him guilty of murder. And this young man will spend the rest of his life in jail.

I do not want to focus on either the reason for the murder or what the victim did; that is for another time and another place. But I am bothered that this young man basically used Christianity as his defense. His primary argument was that he had the right to murder his victim in order to save the lives of others and that he should not be punished as severely for his crimes as others might be.

His argument was that it is against one of the commandments to kill someone yet it is permissible to kill someone who is killing someone. And while Kansas does have the death penalty, it apparently does not apply to this case and we can also leave this discussion for another time and place. This young man will spend the rest of his life in a version of Sheol that is his own creation. And he will not get to die as a martyr to his faith, which I think he would like to do.

But my bringing this point up is that this young man said that the words of Christ and the words in the Bible were the justification for his thoughts and his actions. What bothers me is that he and those who support him will quote Leviticus 24: 19, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Too many people have taken this as a commandment; that which must be done. In truth, it is a limit.

We as a race and a society have a remarkable tendency to make up our own punishment, to decide the justice that each crime requires. It is our very nature as humans to hurt our attacker more than we were hurt. The phrasing in Leviticus was meant to put a limit to this vengeful tendency of mankind.

But I find something more disturbing in all of this, if it is possible to find something more disturbing than the murder of someone. It is that the word Christian was used in a way that is so contradictory to what it is supposed to mean. This trial and how the word Christian was used only reinforced something else that I heard last week.

Last week I heard someone speaking about the nature of society today in relationship to the Supreme Court decision that essentially confirmed the notion that a corporation in this country has the same rights and privileges as a citizen. This speaker painted a very bleak picture and harkened back to the late 1920s and early 30s when the Weimar Republic in Germany was seized by the Nazis. He spoke of the rich and the powerful gathering up the power, the wealth and material goods of this planet and finding ways of preventing others from sharing or benefiting. It is almost as if this group of ultra-elites seeks a Roman Empire state of mind. There is peace in this world of the ultra-elites but it is a peace enforced by countless skirmishes and wars along the border. There is prosperity in this world of the ultra-elites but it is prosperity for only the few and where the majority of the population is enslaved by economic status. It would also be a 21st century equivalent of Rome in biblical times except for one thing, the church.

Then the church, or rather the church community, was in opposition to the direction of the Empire. They worked for the people who were forgotten and cast aside; they worked for those who had no support.

But the picture that was painted by this speaker included the church as being that part of society that worked against the people. And while he confirmed what I knew and heard from others close to me also say, he didn’t say as others have that the “religious right” was at fault; he said that “Christians” were at fault and he did not differentiate between those who are Christians in what they say and what they do and those who say they are Christians but whose words, whose deeds, and whose lives belie the very word they want to be known by.

It was almost as if this speaker had forgotten that the church was the prime mover for civil rights in the sixties and against the war in Viet Nam. Yes, there were those in the church, pastors and laity alike, who wanted no part of the civil rights movement and were very much for the war in Viet Nam; they were the ones who created the conservative side of the church today. But I could not see then and I cannot see now how you can claim to be a follower of Christ and then find ways to imprison and degrade other human beings, or to use violence as a justification for violence, and turn your hearts against other human beings.

Last week, I spoke of the Bible being a living document, one in which the message remains true over the years. This is especially true when you read Paul’s words about saying things and doing things but saying and doing them with an empty heart and without love. The words and actions of too many Christians today are such words and such actions; they are words of selfish children, interested in their own well-being and outcome. The difference between a child-like faith and an adult-like faith is not situational but expanded. You see more of the world; those with the child-like faith that Paul writes about are limited in their thinking. The problem is that too many adults have this self-centered view of faith.

We cannot expect to find peace in this world if there is no peace in our hearts. And we cannot expect to have peace in our hearts until such time as we come to truly know Christ and the words that He spoke about taking care of people and loving each other fully and unconditionally.

But what this speaker said was true; the shift taking place in this country, the favoritism given to the rich and powerful over the rest of society, the destruction of individual rights, and the marginalization of the individual in general is supported by many who call themselves Christian. There is a distinct correlation between what is happening today in this country and what happened in Germany in the 1930s when Adolf Hitler came to power.

One of the major groups that supported Hitler was the Lutheran Church. For many in the church, his nationalist rhetoric overshadowed his racism and bigotry. And many turned a blind eye to the racism and the bigotry because they felt the same way as well, though perhaps not as overtly.

To turn a blind eye is nothing new. Jesus stood up in front of the people in the synagogue where He grew up, in front of the people who saw Him grow up and pronounced the fulfillment of the prophecy. Yet the people turned against Him when He reminded them of their failure as a nation to take care of people and their self-centeredness.

We who were taught and raised to see the church as the instrument for the salvation for humankind may find it hard to believe that many people died because the church as an institution and individually turned a blind eye to what was happening. But it did and we must not let it happen again. John Conway wrote,

It was the tragedy of the German churches that they were so inadequately prepared to oppose such strident heresies. They lacked safety valves against the challenge of the ‘radical right’ that offered a vision of church and state working hand in hand to renew the nation’s strength. The more perceptive churchmen realized too late the dangers of Nazi ambitions. The heresy of a nationalist pseudo-religion had gained too many adherents for effective defenses to be built or successful alternatives to be preached. Cut off from potential allies in the ecumenical movement abroad, only a handful of staunchly orthodox members of the Protestant Confessing Church were ready to take up arms to uphold Christian truths and to suffer for their faith. The lessons to be drawn from the churches’ behavior before and after the rise of National Socialism remain (

But we also need to remember that not all Lutheran pastors went merrily along with the crowd. There were many pastors who stood up and opposed the transformation of the Lutheran church into the spiritual advisor of the Nazi regime. There were people like Paul Schneider and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reverend Schneider was a Lutheran minister who consistently and openly spoke out against the Nazi regime and its attempt to subvert the Lutheran church. He was imprisoned in Buchenwald and died from a lethal injection in 1939 (This was adapted from comments about Paul Schneider in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell).

I also wonder what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might say to the churches of today who ignore the poor and whose leaders tow the party line. What would either Schneider or Bonhoeffer say to those whose view of the future does not keep the Cross in plain sight?

I first encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I was in college. His name kept coming up in situations related to the anti-war movement of the sixties. But I didn’t know who he was or why his thoughts were so important to that moment in time. When he was in his mid-twenties, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was recognized as one of the brightest theological minds of all times. Yet, with his great understanding of the Bible and theology, he wrestled with the idea of what being a Christian was all about. In part, this dissonance between his mental life and his daily life came because of what was happening in Germany at that time, the early 1930’s. He saw a church where many leaders welcomed with open arms Adolf Hitler and many others simply acquiesced to the rise of Nazism, hoping that it would all go away.

Bonhoeffer was living in America and could have stayed here, safe from the troubles in Germany. But God called him to go home. In Germany, he worked to overthrow the Third Reich and help smuggle Jews out of Germany. He was arrested and imprisoned for two years. He was executed for his part in the attempted assassination of Hitler four days before Allied troops liberated the prison camp where he was imprisoned.

During those two years he thought and wrote about faith, God, life, and the church. He already knew that grace without discipleship was meaningless. In prison, I think that he began to see why. He wrote of missing worship services though he could not explain why. He wrote of a deeper sense of God’s involvement in our lives. He began to see how we are able to bring good out of evil, much in the manner that Joseph saw through the injustices of his brothers and the plans of a vindictive and rejected wife to the uniqueness of God’s own plan. (This was adapted from comments about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.)

Most importantly, Bonhoeffer saw that crisis becomes that edge where change is possible. But such change requires something greater than human nature. That something is our faith in God.

I cringe at the thought that what happened 80 years ago may again be happening in this country today. I cringe because that is not how I came to my own faith and my understanding of what Christianity is about. When I was in college and struggling to learn many things, one of the things that I had to struggle with was the very nature of my faith. My vision of faith was very rudimentary and perhaps false.

I was like the child of faith that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Corinthians for today. But I wanted to learn; I wanted to understand how my faith would help me through those tough times then and the tough times now. I don’t have the answers but my faith is still growing as I learn more about it.

But too many people stay as a child when it comes to their faith; they hold onto the simplistic ideas that they were taught as a child. The problem is that we cannot stay as a child when it comes to faith, because to do so is to leave our faith incomplete. I have seen too many people in my time whose faith is like that of a child because they stopped growing. In part, it was because the church did not offer the chance for the faith to grow; in part, because each individual was quite content with a faith that was black and white with no delineation of gray.

It is hard to live in the 21st century with a basis for belief that is locked into the past. It is hard to grow up when you are limited in what you know because you have closed your heart and mind to the message. The message transcends time; it doesn’t matter whether the message was written on a papyrus or parchment scroll or by electrons in an electronic book, the message remains the same. But if you insist that it is only true when read from the parchment scroll, then you lose the meaning of the message, for you are also locked in time.

We have heard the Gospel message. We see the world around us and wonder how we shall ever find an answer. We know that we need to cast aside our childish ways and we know that we must, as Paul wrote, rejoice in the truth. But too many people are perhaps unwilling to do so. They are unwilling to leave the protective cocoon of a child and venture out into the world.

Hear again the words of Jeremiah that “I am just a boy, a child, and I cannot do a thing.” And God said to Jeremiah, as He says to each one of us today that He will give us the words to say, He will give us the strength to act, and He will give us the ability to make things truly right in this world.

You may hear these words today, words written two and three thousand years ago and say that there is nothing we can do. The world is what it is and we are powerless to change the world. Or we can say that we have found Christ in our hearts and we have let the Holy Spirit empower us and though we are like a small child today, we will grow in the Spirit and we will take the Gospel message, first spoken in the synagogue in Nazareth, out into the world. So, my friends, how shall you speak this day?

The Starting Point

Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 1 February 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30.


For those who are not aware, there is a football game tonight. Now, were it not for the endless hype that proceeds this game, I would not even know which teams were playing. But, nonetheless, I imagine that the coaches at this moment thinking about what they will say to the teams just before they go out to play.

Actually, in my mind, the speech the coaches will say tonight is pretty much the same speech every coach gives in every sport just before the last game. It will not be much of an emotional speech (not withstanding the films of Knute Rockne’s speeches to his Notre Dame teams that we sometimes see) but it will be thoughtful. The words differ but the meaning is the same; the team has reached the goal it set for itself back at the beginning of the season. The coaches won’t speak of winning because that is still in front of them. Rather, they will speak about the hard work, sweat and practice that each player went through at the start of the season.

If we forget how we got to a point, then it is very difficult to value the reaching of that point. You cannot have a goal to reach unless you have a starting point. The Gospel readings for the last two weeks have marked the starting of Jesus’ public ministry. Two weeks ago, Jesus did his first miracle at the wedding in Canaan but that was an unplanned event and not known beyond the few involved in the serving of the wine.

But Jesus’ actions in the temple were deliberate and planned. Jesus fully intended that everyone know who he was and what he intended to do. It was the starting point in his ministry. One would think that Jesus meant for it to be a good start; when doing something monumental or seemingly important, you would like to do it in your home town or in a setting where you are the most comfortable. All you have to do is look at how those seeking to be president make their announcement; most times, it is in their hometown or at a place to which they have a connection.

Jesus was from Nazareth and so it was natural that he come to the temple where he grew up (note that those present knew who He was and who His father on earth was). It is hard to say whether Jesus knew what the reaction of those there that day would be; but the commentaries clearly suggest that He knew that any reaction would not be positive.

From the establishment point of view, Jesus did not have the qualifications to be a prophet, let alone be the Messiah. And as time went by, Jesus actions and violation of one Jewish law after another convinced the powers that be that Jesus was an imposter and charlatan.

The reaction of Jesus’ announcement that His ministry was a fulfillment of the law was an interesting one. For the most part, it was a reaction that we might find amongst the populace of today. We react to any overtly Christian message with skepticism and disdain. Why should we think that those hearing the first message of redemption through salvation should react any differently?

And that is where the problem lies for us today? We do not want to hear the message of repentance and salvation. We do not want to take the actions that Christ took. We are quite happy with a Christianity that tells us that we need not do anything since Christ died for our sins.

We see those who hear Jesus’ call as one that requires that they be persecuted. But this response leads to a martyr-complex, the basis of which is self-pity. But Jesus would have said that this doesn’t pay any dividends and is a sign of spiritual decay. Ultimately people will persecute themselves if they can’t get anyone to do it for them. They might sleep on a bed of spikes, or walk on hot coals, or in a more civilized country, they might wear a shirt of hurt feelings. It doesn’t matter what hurts them, just so they’re hurt and therefore have a legitimate reason to feel sorry for themselves. Those who do this, those who see Christ’s call as an inward call will never understand that it was a call for action and a call to move outward.

But Christ did call for action. He may not have wanted everyone to be a martyr but He did expect those who say they believe to do something. (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan)  Only in rare cases have Christian communities ever been hidden from the view of the public. In most cases, they have been situated where people could see them, where they could be eternal witnesses to the way people should live.

And that is the problem. We may want to hide, we may want to enjoy Christ by and for ourselves. But it can never be that way. The Christian community is God’s light that he has lit up with the glory of his own Son and He has no intention of hiding it. When we come into the fellowship, we become a part of God’s light. While we can determine the intensity of the light, we cannot escape the fact that we are part of the witness, for better or for worse.

As much as we despise overt acts of Christianity, we also no do not want to be the one who God calls on to do His work. We are like Nehemiah, who claimed that he was only a boy and was incapable of doing things. We are like Moses, who said that his stuttering would keep him from leading the people. We are like Jonah who ran away from the call of the Lord, only to be swallowed by the fish.

It has long been noted that

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and kicked against the pricks. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops. Nothing was farther from their intention. St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his heritage on the Farne; but he did not often get there. St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St Ignatius. At a few hours’ notice he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again. Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he felt he was decisively called. In all these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognize not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Thins like this — and they are constantly happening — gradually convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be. (From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill)

We don’t want the call because we feel that we cannot handle the challenge and we don’t feel that we have the skills that are needed. But it does not matter what our skills might be or how well we are prepared that will determine our success; rather, as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, it is our attitude that determines our success.

If we do not use the gifts that God has given us as He gave them to us, that is with love, then our gifts are wasted and unused. God intended that the gifts that He gave us were to be given away in love and not as an expression of power or might. To use them in any other manner, to bolster our own ego or power would destroy the gifts.

Paul insisted that love alone can fulfill the role of empowerment for it was the opposite of ego. Love will succeed because it turns outward, whereas ego turns inward. And it is the outward expression of God’s love that people will see and experience.

We are presented today with a unique opportunity. Today can be a new starting point in our own lives and how we experience and use God’s love. It can be the starting point for someone you encounter this week who is searching for the peace found through Christ. We have the chance this day and throughout the coming days to reach out to all in this community, both those members not here today and those new to the community.

Yes, it is going to be difficult; no one said it would not be. Yes, it is going to be frustrating. Yes, we are going to be rejected and not just once but many times. But the very people who He grew up with rejected Jesus in His hometown. Perhaps it was one of his school friends who was the loudest to jeer Him. But Jesus moved on, going to Capernaum and the next stop in His mission.

It was a mission that would ultimately lead to death on the cross. But His death on the cross would be our starting point of our journey through a life free from sin and death. Jesus would leave Nazareth but he would be free to preach the Gospel, free to preach the Good News that would free the slaves and bring life to the dead. He would preach the Word to a world that might not necessarily want to hear it.

But we have heard the word and now, like Jeremiah, we are asked to take the word into the world. This is our starting point; this is where Jesus’ ministry through us begins. Jesus is calling us; are we ready to start?

UMH #398 — "Jesus Call Us"

“If Not Now, When? If Not Me, Who?”

Here is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 28 January 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30.


It has always amazed me how the consequences of one person’s actions can be far different from what the person intended. When Rosa Parks got on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, that day in 1957 (I think it was), she never intended on starting the civil rights revolution of the 1960’s. All she wanted to do was sit down because her feet hurt and she was tired from a long day of working as a maid and housekeeper. But she chose to sit in the whites-only section of the bus, instead of making her way to the back of the bus where she was supposed to, by law, sit. Since she wouldn’t move, she was arrested. The boycott of the Montgomery bus line began as a protest, which brought Martin Luther King, Jr. into the nation’s eye and the rest we know.

I am not sure that Martin Luther intended on starting a new church when he nailed his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. All he was interested in doing was making sure that people understood that what got one into heaven was not the purchase of religious tokens but their sincere belief and faith in Christ as their own personal Savior.

And I know that John Wesley never intended Methodism to become a denomination of its own. All Wesley wanted to do was revive the Church of England and bring it back to its stated mission, that of bringing hope to those without hope. Wesley never intended that what his brother, his friends and he did would eventually coalesce into an organized religion.

But the eighteenth-century church Wesley grew up in had fallen into decline because it had neglected the essential doctrines upon which it had been founded. To say that the young John Wesley was zealous in his belief would be quite easily an understatement. But he believed that a lukewarm Christianity was worse than open sin. Accordingly, he labored to bring every part of his life into submission to Jesus Christ. His zeal and that of his colleagues openly provoked ridicule and earned them the nickname "Methodists".

The problem with the approach that these early Methodists used, their semi-monastic existence and devotion to good works left them short of gaining the certainty of God’s love. For all their strict self-examinations, rigorous spiritual discipline, and sacrificial good works, the assurance of salvation eluded them.

Following the disaster of his American experience, Wesley began to realize that it was not what he could for God that would gain his salvation, it was what God could and had done for him. This realization came that night at the prayer meeting at the house on Aldersgate Street when John Wesley came to know that Jesus Christ was his own personal Savior. In sharing this with Charles and the others, he found that Charles had also found the presence of the Holy Spirit. It was this spiritual transformation that brought them from law to grace and changed them from legalists to evangelicals. Their own personal experience gave them spiritual peace, the impulse for evangelism, and a sustaining motivation for addressing the evils of society.

It wasn’t a new religion that Wesley sought but a church that was responsive to the needs of the society, who answered the call of Christ to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and needy."

So what may you ask has this to do with me? No matter what Paul may write about the skills and talents that we all have, I don’t have the skills or talents to be a preacher or an evangelist or a healer or a missionary.

The thing that we have to realize is that you and I are not the first to say that we cannot do it. Nehemiah, in the Old Testament reading for today, said much the same thing.

Noah must have laughed when God asked him to build that ark. Noah lived in an area that got about one inch of rain a year so what was he supposed to think when God told him that it was going to rain for forty days and nights?

Moses’ first response to God when God told him to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land was ask God to select someone else; "Who, me Lord? Can’t you find someone else?” (Exodus 4: 10 – 13) Moses argued that he couldn’t speak before the crowns but God told him to have his brother Aaron do all the public talking. Moses had to deal with the Pharaoh and with the communication between the people and God.

When first called by the Lord, Jonah chose to flee. And Jonah didn’t simply go to the next city or county to get away from God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God. It would be like trying to hide from the authorities in New York by going to Los Angeles. But it doesn’t matter where we hide, God can still find us. And, like Jonah, when our efforts to escape, until we come to the Lord trap us, He will not help us.

But God doesn’t call us to work without help. No one ever called by God to work for Him has done so alone. As God told Nehemiah, it will be by the spirit that the work can and will be accomplished.

It was by knowing that God loved him personally that John Wesley was able to transform the Methodists Societies from legalistic study groups into powerful agents of change. And it will be by the power of spirit and with the power of love as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians that what this church does will get accomplished. Paul closed that passage by pointing out that it was by faith that we came to God but it will be through love that we are able to imitate Him and show others what God is all about.

When you think about it, you understand why the people of Nazareth were so upset with Jesus. They saw Him in terms of what they expected and what they wanted, not for who He was and what He could do for them.

When what we do is for our own gain or for how we will feel, it will leave us short. But when we allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and guide and direct us, there is no limit to what we can do. We are not asked to lead a new revolution or change the course of history. Of course, if by our actions that does happen, so much the better.

But the task before us is much smaller and much easier. It is simply to be a part of this church and this community. And to that end, we need a few volunteers. As has been noted in some of the bulletins for the past few weeks, we are still looking for a lay leader and lay member to the annual conference. The latter is perhaps the more important part of the duty for it requires that you attend the annual conference and represent this church at that meeting. Since my work situation may preclude my attending, it becomes doubly important that someone attend.

We are also still looking for someone to head the ministries related to education. Again, this is not a single person doing all the work but someone who can organize the work of many and see that it gets done. We also need at least two individuals to fill slots on the Pastor-Parish Relation Committee and the Nominations & Personnel Committee. Each job does require some work but with the Holy Spirit as your primary helper it would be very easy work.

The title of my sermon was very deliberate because there does come a time when you have to ask when the work will get done and who will do the work. Many have been called by God to do His work; not all have answered the call.

Some have simply been called to be saved, to know the warmth in their heart that Wesley knew so many years ago. Others have been called to join this church, to be a part of the efforts of bringing the Gospel to the world. And for others the call is to serve, to lead and help this church in the coming years.

If not know, when you will answer the call? And if you don’t answer the call, who will?

First, Read the manual; then

I was at Hankins UMC this morning and will be there again next week.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just after the intersection of NY 94 and NY 97)  The service starts at 10:15 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 24 January 2010 were Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21.


The title for today’s sermon actually started out as something else but as sometimes happens, it changed in the process of the writing. Still, it is a highly appropriate title when you stop and consider what the Israelites did as described in the Old Testament reading for today.

The Israelites have returned from exile in Babylon to their home in Israel. This exile took them away, not only from their ancestral home, but from an understanding of who they were as a people. That is why the book was read to them; so that they would understand who they were and what they were to do. This reading wasn’t just the traditional stories; it was also the minutiae of life, the rules and regulations that were part and parcel of their identity.

And it wasn’t read to a select group but to the whole population. It refers to the women, something rarely done in the Bible. It speaks of those who have understanding and I have taken that to mean the youth of the population, those who were in and had attended school being in attendance. To include the women and the youth in the story tells you something of the importance of this moment in time.

In hearing the words and reading the words, the people got a better understanding of who they were and what they were to do. The rebuilding of the Temple could only be accomplished if the Israelites understood who they truly were.

And this is the key for us today. In a country that loudly proclaims at every opportunity that it is a Christian nation, founded on Judeo-Christian principles, it is quite surprising how many people have not read the Bible or, if they have read it, know what is in it.

We are a remarkably literate nation, but only in the sense that the majority of people can read. There is nothing wrong with that but true literacy is more than reading; it is also comprehending what has been read and then doing something with that newfound knowledge.

A couple of years ago I got a book about the speeches President John Kennedy made (Let Every Nation Know, Robert Dallek and Terry Golway). In it, the authors made a very telling statement. They pointed out that President Kennedy did not speak in the sound bites of today’s politicians but rather in literate paragraphs and with references to history that the listener was expected to know and understand. This is a sobering thought, especially when it is viewed in the context of today’s political discourse with sound bites filled with questionable and negative statements. But politicians can make such statements and their supporters quickly repeat them because we are willing to accept lies and misstatements as truth and are equally not willing to push the speakers to tell the truth.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that a nation could never expect to be free and ignorant at the same time; yet, we seem to revel in our ignorance and cannot see our freedom slipping away.

Time and time again, the people of this nation show their inability to remember what we learned in school. This inability to remember basic information and utilize what we know threatens the security of this nation and the continuation of civilization. And whether we wish to accept the idea or not, our lack of knowledge about the Bible and our inability to use that knowledge is part and parcel of this national threat.

This is not limited to one sector of our population. It is spread equally among the people, whether they do not attend church or disdain modern religion as a myth or an opiate of the mind or are among those who regularly attend church every Sunday.

Being a Christian today is hard enough; it is even harder because people do not know the basic tenets and history of their faith or what it is that they are supposed to do.

Consider the following little tidbits of information:

  1. Most people can not name all Ten Commandments; according to one Gallup poll, less than ½ of the born-again community can name five)
  2. Most people can name the four Beatles but cannot name one of the twelve apostles.
  3. Don’t ask too many Americans to identify the four Gospels because only one-half can name more than one of those books. And only three out of five Christians can recall the names of the first four books of the New Testament.
  4. Only one-third of the populace can tell you who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (See; only ½ of the Christians polled could identify the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
  5. 50% of high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were married.
  6. Three-quarters of the American populace believe that “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. Though it is biblical sounding, it comes from Poor Richard’s Almanac, a book definitely not one of the four Gospels and one that actually conflicts with the basic message of Scripture.

A 2004 Gallup survey ( indicated that

  1. Nearly one in ten teens think that Moses was one of the 12 apostles.
  2. 12 percent of adults think Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark.
  3. And ½ of those surveyed don’t know that the Book of Isaiah is in the Old Testament

Another survey ( showed

  1. That less than one out of every ten believers possess a biblical worldview as the basis for his or her decision-making or behavior.
  2. When given thirteen basic teachings from the Bible, only 1% of adult believers firmly embraced all thirteen as being biblical perspectives.

(There is a quiz at if you are interested.)

In the June 17, 2008, issue of Christian Century, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the “Introduction to World Religions” course that she taught at Piedmont College (“Faith Matters”). The course spends five weeks studying each of the world’s major religions. At best, only the basic information can be covered but it is enough to often change the thinking of many of the students. Students who completed the course indicate that they feel more at home in the world, they are less frightened by religious differences, and they are more informed and perhaps better equipped to wage peace instead of war.

But, when it came to the section covering Christianity, there were some disturbing results. Until they took the course, students said that they had never noticed that the nativity story in Matthew was different from the nativity story in Luke and that Mark and John have no such stories. They never imagined that the first Christians did not walk around with a copy of the New Testament in their pockets. In fact, they have no concept of how the books of the Bible were assembled. Most of the students assumed that Paul was one of the disciples and that was how he gathered the information that he used to write his letters. And no one told them about Constantine, Augustine, Benedict or Martin Luther. They have no idea that there are branches to the tree of Christianity. For most students, nothing happened during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own profession of faith. – “Just What Is The Right Thing To Do?” – 29 June 2008

This lack of understanding of the Bible and its history impacts on our lives in so many ways. It is very difficult to explain Christ and the meaning He has for each one of us when what is said and done in the name of Christ is so contradictory. People may say that Christ is a myth because they hear about this man who walked the paths of the Galilee some two thousand years ago and preached about healing people and freeing the oppressed but they see those who proclaim to be His followers exclude people and work for oppression and exclusion. Why should they not believe?

They hear preachers with syrupy-sweet Southern accents tell them God wants them to be wealthy and have the good life and all you have to do is give their ministry a few dollars because God will return you ten-fold or thousand-fold what you have given to Him. Not only is this not what is in the Bible; it is complete reversal of what is in the Bible.

The Bible tells us that we are to be the servant, to do for others what has been done for us. It is hard to see how, in a world that begs for bread, that someone would assume that God exists solely to meet our desires. But that is exactly what has happened because we don’t know the Bible, we don’t know how we got to this point in time, and we have let too many others tell us what it is we are to know and to believe.

It would have been very easy for Nehemiah and Ezra to tell the people of Israel to simply rebuild the Temple when they returned to Jerusalem. But they wouldn’t have had a clue as to why they were doing it or what to do when it was finished.

That is where we are today as a society and as a people of faith. We have gotten away from the basic knowledge and history of our faith and our denomination. We are like the people of Israel, coming back from exile, coming back from the near destruction of their identity. And like the people of Israel some three thousand years ago, we are faced with two tasks:

1. We must make sure that everyone understands what is in the Bible, what is not in the Bible, and what it all means.

2. We must also make sure that what is truly in the Bible is what we say and do.

When we read Paul’s letters, we must understand that he is not writing to some church on a street in Corinth, Ephesus, Colossi, or Galatia; he is writing to a group of believers who have gathered in someone’s home.

This is a part of our history as a church that most people don’t know. The early church was not some building on a street in Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, or Corinth; it was a community of believers. As a community, the people were interested in telling others the Good News about Jesus Christ but they were also interested in the welfare and well-being of the community and the people around the community. And it was these communities, banding together to insure all were fed and clothed and housed that were seen as a threat to the political and social establishment of the time. The threat these communities brought came not just from the message of equality, hope, and promise; it came from the actions of the early church to bring equality, hope, and promise.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians and speaks of the parts of the body, he is speaking to the community of believers as a whole. He wants them to understand that it is together that they are able to do the work that they have been called to do. It is not about everyone doing exactly the same thing but doing what it is that they do best so that the goals of the community are met.

We are faced with many great challenges in today’s society. We may want to close our doors and say to the world outside to leave us alone. But we run the risk of not seeing the world change.

But the actions and thoughts of too many are locked in a world two thousand years ago; this had lead to the creation of a church that excludes and denies, this has lead to many people turning away from the church. The message of the Bible has not changed in over two thousand years; the message of the Bible transcends time.

The key message of the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments is that we are to be concerned with the poor, the oppressed, the needy and the sick. The key message of the Bible is that we are to be more than concerned; we are to be the vehicle by which the message is put into practice.

In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (“Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37)

It is not a message about going to war and saying that war is just because God is our side and not our enemies; it should be about loving our enemy and taking away the reasons for war. If we seek peace in this world, it cannot be a peace enforced by military might or political superiority.

As President Kennedy said in the commencement address at American University (a Methodist supported university) on June 10, 1963, we should seek

“a genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.” (

It is not about taking away the fundamental rights of humans and calling slavery freedom. It is not about saying that someone is not welcome in a church because of their race, their creed, or their lifestyle. It is about insuring that all people on this planet have the same rights and that, as Martin Luther King put it, insuring that people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

It is not a message that says healthcare is only for those who aren’t sick and can afford healthcare or dropping someone from the roles because they get sick. It is the message that the sick shall be healed, the hungry fed, shelters built for the homeless, and the oppressed set free.

The message found in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is a message that brings hope to all, not just a select few. It is a message that opens doors, not shuts them. And like the people of Israel, when this message is heard and when the people today see the message in action, they will cry.

They will cry because, like the people of Israel did that day some two thousand and five hundred years ago, they understood that God had not forgotten them and that their lives, lost for so long in exile, were found.

The message for us today is a very simple one. Having read the manual, what are we going to do?

That is the opportunity that we have today. We have come today; we have heard the message. We can now begin the task of rebuilding our community and taking the true Gospel message out into the world.

What is a church? Is it a building or the people inside it?

We all know the song about the church and the people which make up the church and we remember the nursery rhyme, “here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.”

Over the years, though, this idea of what a church is and what a church is supposed to be has changed.

The church did not start out as a building on the main street of some village in Israel, Syria, Turkey or Greece. It began as a movement and became known as “The Way” and it began before Christians were even called Christians.

This early church movement was more of a community of believers brought together for the care and comfort of the people than it was some organized structure. It was a gathering of people in someone’s home because they could not gather together in public. But despite the threat of death for believing, they gathered together and dedicated themselves to keeping the ideas expressed across the Galilee alive.

Somewhere though, in the passage of time, after Constantine made Christianity legal and, in effect, the de facto state religion, the church took on a more corporate identity. And it is this corporate identity with an accompanying belief in its organizational structure that is the norm rather than the exception today.

Members of this corporate church will proudly proclaim their membership and tell anyone and everyone how long they have been a member. It was the church they grew up in and in which they wish to live their lives. It is a place where everyone believes the same way they do (even if they themselves do not know exactly what it is that they believe).

They see the world as a dangerous place and they see their church as the last bastion of morality. They want their church to be a place that offers protection against an evil and god-forsaken world; they want the church to put a stop to the sins that seemingly dominate this world. They don’t want the troubles of the world to come into their “quiet, little space” on Sunday morning. They want to feel safe in the sanctuary.

Oh yes, they know that their church is an elderly church and a dying church and they wonder where the new members come from. They wonder why visitors seeking God come to their church once but never a second time. They hear the talk about how the younger generation is leaving or has left the church and they wonder why.

They recall the days when their children and grandchildren were baptized in the church. They remember when the pews were full and there was very little discussion about the budget or missions, they remember how the UMYF met on Sunday evenings and the youth choir would sing once a month.

They hear about and listen to other pastors whose messages are always about how God will do wonders for you or how the Bible promises wealth in today’s world. And then they wonder why their pastor doesn’t preach the same message.

They will tell you about the pastor who once preached a sermon on equality and wanted to start a program to feed the hungry or maybe house a homeless family for a couple of nights in one of the Sunday school rooms. They will laugh when they tell you how the PPRC met that following week and literally ran that pastor out of town. They will tell you that she was a nice pastor but she didn’t understand the “community”.

Those inside the church walls have been inside the walls for so long that they cannot see what is happening outside those walls. They don’t understand that having modern or up-beat worships services means nothing if the attitudes don’t change. They don’t understand that greeting an old friend or neighbor warmly means nothing if you ignore the visitor by the door.

They don’t understand that a visitor who comes to the sanctuary seeking God doesn’t understand why members don’t show respect towards others when they are willing to gossip about members of the church or people in the community a few feet away from a place that is supposed to be considered Holy.

They may speak of preserving the church and they don’t understand that others take that to mean that the building is more important than the people of the community, especially when the members belittle the community that the church is a part.

And they wonder why people have become so dissatisfied with the church.

Oh, I wish this were a modern day phenomena brought about by a society completely wrapped up in its own self-righteousness and hypocrisy. But it isn’t and that is part of the problem.

Martin Luther protested the self-centeredness and corporate identity of the church. In doing so, he formed a new denomination and perhaps changed the course of history. But all it has done over the years has given people another opportunity to find a way to define “the truth” in their own terms and world view, not in terms of the early church or what was done in the Galilee two thousand years ago.

When John Wesley looked at his church some two hundred and fifty years ago, he also saw a church more interested in its own self-preservation and only the people inside the church walls. And those inside the church walls made it very clear to the people outside the church walls that they were not welcome inside.

It was this attitude that forced John Wesley to reevaluate his relationship with the church and with God. John Wesley’s desire to revitalize his church would force him and his followers from the church. Church rules would prohibit him and others from preaching or even holding meetings in their own churches.

It would lead to the formation of the Methodist societies, a gathering of believers for the common good of all. It would be a reminder of the early church and basis for the connectional system that we have today.

The connectionalism of the church is more than just a phrase used to justify things like apportionments. It is in everything we say and do as a church body. The other day, in response to a piece I posted on my blog concerning baptism, a person noted that “it is profound that the entire church vows to help raise an infant in the Christian faith when that child is baptized.”

It isn’t the building that we are talking about; it is the people in and outside the building. We, as a denomination, have a stake in the well-being of each and every member of the church and a concern for the well-being of everyone outside the church, no matter what they believe.

This concern led to the development of the first health clinic, the first credit union, and the first truly public school. Though most people are not aware of it, these developments have roots in the early Methodist revival. It should not be surprising then that we, as United Methodists, have an interest in the well-being of others. It is an inherent part of our culture and our history as a church.

When most people speak of “our church”, they are speaking about the church they attend every Sunday. But, to United Methodists, “our church” is not just the church attended on Sunday but every United Methodist Church.

Our own organization speaks of the people involved. Methodist polity rests on certain beliefs about church organization:

  1. Each member is a part of the whole and cannot be separated from the larger community of believers.
  2. The individual has a responsibility to the denomination, and the denomination has a responsibility to the individual.
  3. The proper functioning of the church requires faithful leaders and loyal followers.

United Methodist polity assumes that all members share a common commitment to the doctrine and mission of the church. Harmony in the church depends on a common confession that there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." In addition to the worship of the Holy Trinity, Methodist church polity assumes the willingness of individuals and congregations to set aside complete autonomy and function in mutually accountable ways.

Through apportionments each local church provides support for the annual and general conference and the many missional opportunities of the United Methodist Church nationally and internationally.

Just as the early church gathered collections for the “saints in Jerusalem” and early Methodist societies collected monies to pay off the debts for building a meeting house or to support the poor, so too do the apportionments help United Methodists everywhere.

This does not mean that a local church is limited in what it can and cannot do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, we know that being a bishop must be one of the most depressing jobs in the church — too many things that we are not doing that Jesus expects us to do. So Gladys thought it would be nice if we came down here to tell you to take heart. Something’s going right, that is, up in Cullman. (From “First-year bishop” by William H. Willimon, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

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

One might define local United Methodist churches as being one of three types:

  1. Congregations where the only missions done are those “required” through apportionments or special offerings,
  2. Representational congregations — where a small percentage of the participants “do” missions for the whole congregation, and
  3. Congregations defined by missional involvement.

In one study, 31% of the churches surveyed were in the first category, 52% in the second, and 16% in the third.

In the third category, 60+% of the membership were actively involved in some form of “hands-on” service. In those churches, it took some time to develop such a highly engaged membership (7-13 years). (From Dan Dick, “Sins of Nomission”)

The question one must ask this is not “what is a church?” Rather, it is “what type of church are we?” Is our church one where missions are done, perhaps reluctantly, through apportionments? Is our church one where someone goes to Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique on their own and everyone takes credit for it? (Or is our church one where we question the validity of such efforts?)

Or is our church one in which the ministries outside the framework of apportionments and the budget can be listed or identified? It is this work, this ministry through apportionments and local ministries that will ultimately determine the health of a church.

Dan Dick noted that

. . . churches that do for others tend to be healthier churches.  Giving is higher in missionally focused congregations.  Levels of participation and engagement tend to be higher.  Morale and spirit tend to be higher.  Just the other night I visited a small rural church where no fewer than five people proudly shared stories of the mission work being done by their congregation — and not just a few members of the congregation, but by the majority of the congregational members.  A few years ago I visited one of the poorest congregations (financially) I have ever seen.  They had funds for virtually nothing — including paying a full-time pastor or paying their apportionments in full — but just about every member of that church served in some mission-focused capacity in the community.  The spirit and energy in that congregation was infectious — a congregation with constant money worries where every person was smiling and singing and proudly sharing stories of the power of Christ to touch and change lives.  It was refreshing.

The health of a church can be measured by its response to the call for stewardship. Stewardship is not about giving money; it is about giving your time and your talents. Yes, for some, financial giving is all that they can do.

But when the response is limited or qualified, the people are saying that their church is dying and they just want the funeral quicker than slower. Those who say that others will do that simply are looking for the slower funeral.

There are those who avoid challenge. They are the ones who seek to blame or say that a person’s sorrow is a reflection of their sin and whatever happens is because they have fallen from God’s favor.

But there are others who say that it isn’t enough to just pay the apportionments or pray for those who go to Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique. There are those who relish the challenge; there are those who see God’s glory rather than God’s wrath. These are the people who, when faced with poverty, sickness, or oppression, react and seek resolution.

We need to be more of the latter than the former; we need to hear God calling us to work in the vineyard and we need to answer that call.

I have seen a church die slowly and painfully because it would not move beyond its walls because the members thought that the building was more important than the community.

But I have also seen a dying church be reborn because change its focus from what is happening inside the walls to what is happening outside those walls. I have seen a church which had not paid its apportionments and was expecting to die pay its apportionments in full in six months and go from just existing as a church to one with a building plan and then a new building (which was paid off two years ahead of schedule) because it put the work of God before the building.

You cannot turn a church around overnight; it takes time. But when people change their attitude about what a church is, the change does occur.

Stewardship does begin with a thought about how you will financially support the local, national, and international United Methodist Church. But it does not stop when the stewardship drive is over or the offering is taken each Sunday; in fact, that is when the stewardship begins.

It is welcoming the visitor as if they were an old family friend; it is helping feed the people who come by for the feeding ministry on Saturday evening; it is helping plant flowers and to pull weeds in the Children’s garden on an early spring morning. It is chatting with the people who stop by the church and admire the flowers. It is being a part of the Habitat for Humanity or other projects.

In the end, stewardship is the fulfillment of the vow that each one made when they joined the church and when others joined the church, to be there with your gifts, your prayers, your time, and your service.

A church once was a gathering of believers who believed in the Gospel message, lived the Gospel message, and then went out into the community to preach the message by word, thought, and deed. A church once was a gathering of believers who came together for the good of all the people. It is what the church was; it is what the church should be; and it is what the church can be.

Some Questions To Think About

I originally posted these questions back on 8 February 2008.  Between then and now (20 January 2010), 62 people have considered these questions.  I am still thinking about them and will post thoughts about the question.


Here are some questions that I have been thinking about.  As you add your comments, I am going to revise this piece so that the comments become part of the post.


Are people of God, be they Jewish, Muslim, or Christians, the moral conscience of society or the moral police?

What should Christians be doing in today’s world? As Christ’s disciples, are we to convert everyone to Christianity or are we to show everyone an alternative and let them make their own choices?

Where does feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick fit into God’s plan?

What is a church? Is it a building or is it the people inside it?

The Power of the People

Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 25 January 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21.  (correction of church and date made on 19 January 2014)


Have you ever thought about why churches are formed? What brings people together, sometimes knowing that the very act of coming together for worship will cause them to be persecuted? And the persecution of churchgoers is something neither limited to the early Christians or to countries with totalitarian governments today.

Even in America, we find historical examples of religious persecution. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (better known as the Mormons) was driven out of New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois before ending up in Utah. And, as one who grew up in Missouri, I am not proud that the Missouri State legislature made it virtually legal to kill a Mormon. The Missouri legal system, during the brief time the Mormons resided in Davies County, Missouri, sanctioned many forms of violence, all born out of hatred and envy. But do not think that it was only the Mormons or the Jews that were persecuted through the history of our country. Now, there is a covert persecution of Sikhs simply because they wear turbans and are confused with Muslims. We persecute Muslims simply because we do not understand the nature of Islam and confuse the actions of those who pervert the message of Mohammed with those faithful to the true meaning of the Quran.

Even Methodism has known persecution. When John Wesley first started the Methodist revival in England, he so angered the Church of England that he and those who joined with him were barred from preaching in regular churches. And when they began preaching in regular homes, a law barring those identified with the Methodist revival from preaching in private homes was passed. But the need of the people to hear the word of God was so great, Methodist preachers moved out into the fields and the countryside to preach. Even then, on-lookers routinely threw stones at the Methodist evangelists. John Wesley even reported that he had been stoned many times as a preacher in those early days of the Methodist revival.

Even in America, this persecution was felt. The oldest Methodist Church is the one down on John Street in New York (where Jason Radmacher, formerly at Grace UMC here in Putnam Valley is now the preacher). In 1768 the congregation that met down there erected a 42 by 60-foot chapel. But New York had a tax-supported state church at that time and the law did not permit congregations of other denominations to build churches. So the Methodists built the new meeting-house with a fireplace and chimney and called it a house. And prior to and during the Revolution, Methodists preachers were viewed was much suspicion, partially in the belief that they still believed in rule by England and partially because of their pacifist views. (Taken from The Heritage of American Methodism by Kenneth Cain Kingdom, pages 28 – 29. Note the material about the legal restrictions placed on Methodists preachers in England is referenced in one of my earlier sermons.)

In view of the persecution that early members of churches felt and in view of the demands placed on people today, why do people come to church? And why are more people going to charismatic or fundamentalist type churches than are going to the more traditional mainline denominations? The answer in both cases is that people are trying to find God; they are trying to find a peace in this world that they cannot find anywhere else.

You may wonder why it is I use the Mormon Church and its history in some of my sermons. Though raised in the EUB, Methodist, and United Methodists churches there have been times when I thought there was a better answer, I thought there somewhere else I could find a better connection to God. Looking at the Mormon Church and its history was one way of finding where I wanted to be. I cannot speak for others, though I suspect it is true, but those who are called the seekers and find their church home in the neo-fundamentalist and charismatic churches of today do so because they feel that is where they are going to find their connection with God. I found in the United Methodist Church the best expression of faith and practice in today’s world. That may not be what others have found or felt.

In Ecclesiastes we read that the Preacher tried practically everything he could think of but he still could not find peace. Most people read the book of Ecclesiastes as the story of a man living apart from God. But, if you look closely at the book, there are many relevant questions, searching questions about the meaning of life. In the end the Preacher writes that there is an utter futility in an existence without God. As a whole, we may be comfortable being in church Sunday morning. We, as a whole, may feel that those who are not here are doing so because they cannot find God. I say they cannot find the presence of God in the worship that takes place.

Finding the presence of God in one’s life is a private thing, but it is shared communally with all others. All the people came together to hear Ezra read the law. For their community, the law was the ultimate authority and the rule by which all life was structured. Rather than being seen as a hindrance, it was regarded as essential to life. The reading of the law is celebrated with great joy and life, for all whom heard the law also understood it. The commentaries for the verses from the Old Testament that we read today all point to the reading of the law by Ezra as a celebration and one that took several hours to complete.

The problem for many churches today is that while there is a reading of the law and the Scriptures, it is done with a routine that has taken the life out of the reading. It is not a celebration but a ritual done without thinking, done solely by rote. The law has lost its meaning.

And for Jesus, the essential nature of the law superseded an adherence to the law. But instead of understanding the law, the people of Jesus’ community simply followed the law, blinded by their narrow ideas about who has the “authority” and the “power”.

No longer is the law of God celebrated; no longer is the law of God seen as liberating. The law of God has become restrictive and the source of oppression. That is why Jesus was rejected in his own community. Those that heard the message and the statement of its fulfillment saw a man threatening to take away their power and their authority; they could not see that Jesus’ statements that day was a fulfillment of the law. (Adapted from “Living the Law” in “The Good News” by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners, January, 2004.)

It is interesting to speak of the law as confining or restrictive; the purpose of the laws we have today is to protect. The speed limit on the Taconic is low for a reason; yet people see it as restrictive and ignore it. They ignore it until it is too late; of course, the penalty is far greater. There are those who say the rules of the Methodist Church are too restrictive; after all, why is the basic handbook of the church called The Discipline? But the rules first set down by Wesley some two hundred and fifty years ago are not meant to restrict and confine; they are meant to define.

Our own organization speaks of the people involved. Methodist polity rests on certain beliefs about church organization:

  1. Each member is a part of the whole and cannot be separated from the larger community of believers.
  2. The individual has a responsibility to the denomination, and the denomination has a responsibility to the individual.
  3. The proper functioning of the church requires faithful leaders and loyal followers.

United Methodist polity assumes that all members share a common commitment to the doctrine and mission of the church. Harmony in the church depends on a common confession that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” In addition to the worship of the Holy Trinity, Methodist church polity assumes the willingness of individuals and congregations to set aside complete autonomy and function in mutually accountable ways.

This is the same approach that I think Paul was using. The church is not a collection of individuals all looking and acting alike; it is a true collection of individuals, each of whom contributes to the growth of the church and nurture of its members. Every individual believer has a vital role assigned by God Himself. That is why we should neither boast in what we do or think too little of ourselves. Each one of us is important to God and we have a mission to accomplish here on earth.

Paul also noted that we have been given spiritual gifts for the profit of all, not for our sole benefit. Rather than being envious of other people’s gifts or positions, we should give of ourselves to others. Whenever any part of the body has a need, we should minister and help that part. But we work against that helping nature of the community when we complain about the work of others.

In verse 31 of the passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul may well have been telling the Corinthians that they improperly desired gifts that would bring attention to themselves. The greater gifts would build up the congregation, not the status of individuals. Rather than desire what was improper, they should be looking for a better expression, the expression of love that he (Paul) would write about in Chapter 13.

You will note that I have changed the order of the worship this morning. Actually I changed it last week. I was going to explain why then, but circumstances prevented me from doing so. I have always used a form of worship where the offering came before the sermon, thinking that one should not be distracted from the reading of the Gospel and the explanation of the Gospel by money.

I have always felt that doing this would allow the preacher to open the altar rail following the sermon. You have heard the call, so how will you answer it?

But the outline of the basic service given in our hymnal on page 4 puts the offering after the sermon, as a response to word. If we see the offering as solely a financial thing, then perhaps it is better if we do not even have an offering. Those offerings do not give of our selves. Some may only be able to give financially and we cannot ignore that; but there are other expressions, other ways of responding to the Word and we have to explore those ways. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul pointed out that while there was only one Spirit, there were many ways in which the Spirit could manifest itself. The gifts that we receive and the ways in which we use those gifts are not decided by someone else, but by how we individually react to the presence of the Spirit in our lives. Some may give of their talents and gifts through the proclamation of the Word, others through teaching; still others by working with others.

In the sixties, there was a call to bring power to the people. But too many people saw that as a call to take power. The greed and self-indulgence of the eighties quickly dissipated the egalitarian attitudes of the sixties. The people had the power when Jesus came to the synagogue that day in the Gospel reading; they did not want to give it up. Jesus expressed an idea that liberated the people, but those who heard his words knew that it would also mean that they would lose the power they hoarded and grabbed.

It is the same today. People are looking for a church where they can find God. They are desperately seeking solace in a world of trouble and turmoil. They will not find it in a place where the needs of the people subvert the needs of the community and ignore the demands of Christ. You see the gifts that we have been given, our ability to help others become because we have accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior. We have given up any claims to power so that we could be more powerful. As we celebrate the presence of God in our lives this day and this coming week, I open up the altar rail. I am not quite prepared to put the offering plate on the rail and ask that you bring your gifts to it. But while the offering is being collected, while the music is playing this day, if you want to come and pray, you are welcome. If you have some thoughts that you want to exchange with Jesus, here is the time and the place. Over the next few weeks, I am going to look for more ways that one can express thanks for the gifts that we have been given; I am going to look for more ways that one can find chances to find God in their own lives.

The power of the people is that we can find God and that we, through our word, our deeds, our service can help others to find God. The people called upon Ezra to bring God to them through the law; Jesus brought the fulfillment of the law to the people. We have the chances and opportunities to express that fulfillment even further.


“We, the People”

Here is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 21 January 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21.


Why are we here this morning? That is a good question for a cold and snowy day when it might be better to have stayed inside where we were safe and warm? But why do we come to church on Sunday?

It is important thing to realize is that we are able to gather and worship God. One of the primary reasons that people from Europe came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries was so that they would be free to worship God in their own manner and without the interference of the government. Not much thought was given when the Constitution was written about religious freedom but the freedom to worship was considered such a basic right of the individual that it was included in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

So we gather this morning, to hear the Word of God, to celebrate God’s presence in our lives.

<"We Gather Together">

But not everyone has the luxury of a nice church or building in which to worship God. The passage from the Old Testament is about the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon. Many of those who stood in the square that day had probably been born in Babylon and, thus, had never seen the homeland. And what they found when they returned to Palestine was nothing like the stories told to them by their elders. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the rebuilding of the community. Nehemiah tells of how he wept when he surveyed the scene and ruins that were once Jerusalem. After an appropriate period of mourning, he realized that his tears would not rebuild the walls of the temple but that the people working together would do so.

It was in the seventh month of that year, probably 430 B. C., the people gathered together and asked the Chief Priest to read the book of the Law to them. So starved to hear the Word, the people of Israel stood for six hours listening to their preacher read the Bible to them. And it wasn’t just the good stuff, the stories of Creation, Noah, and Abraham that they listened to. They also listened to the rules and the laws, the details about how the temple was to be built, and the dietary laws. I wonder what would happen if preachers were to read the book of Numbers and Leviticus all the way through to their congregations these days and have them stand up for the whole reading.

As they heard the Word of God spoken to them, the people began to get a sense that God did love them and that he did care for them, even in the most mundane and ordinary corners of their lives. The reading of the Word that day gave them a sense of their place in God’s world. It gave them a sense of why the temple was to be rebuilt. In reading the Law to the people, Ezra and Nehemiah were establishing the reasons for why the temple was to be rebuilt.

In rebuilding the temple, Israel’s identity could again be centered on the Law and the Temple. Through the providence of God’s redemptive acts, the identity of the people of God could be established in ways that did not exist before the exile.

When Jesus came to Nazareth, he came with great expectations. It had been reported that he was "filled with the power of the Spirit." People expected miracles. What he said that day in the synagogue was going to be evaluated in terms of peoples’ prior expectations. The difficulties Jesus had with the people of his hometown came not from what he said but from what people expected. The people of Nazareth had confused the messenger with the message. They saw Jesus in terms of Nazareth, in terms of the everyday world. They expected Jesus to perform the miracles; they did not expect Him to be the Son of God.

The failure of the people of Nazareth to hear what Jesus said that morning was that they had confused their own private interests with a commitment to the common good. The people were not willing to trust in each other to make the common good a reality.

The key to all of this, I believe, is that the people all worked towards the common goal. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, continued the point that he made in the previous chapter, the reading we heard last week. Though the gifts of the spirit are many, there is only one spirit. And though we may be different, we are all part of the same community. And by the same token, since are we different parts, we must work together in order to achieve the goals of the community.

It must have been important to Paul to stress the diversity of gifts and talents in the Corinthian community. Every Christian has been given some sort of gift and talent. With the Body of Christy, the church, we cannot distinguish as to the importance of any single gift over another. All are important; all have been tested and approved. And while it is possible to function when some of us are not hear, the results are best when all of us are together functioning as one unit.

That is part of the reason that we will throughout this year stress that we reach out to those who are not here. We, as a community, work best when we work together. Paul spoke of striving for the greater gifts. That greater gift is the unity of the body.

We all have different beliefs, we all have different ways of expressing our beliefs and worshipping God. Christianity is not one person or one idea over another. It is life inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve the Lord.

Jesus spoke of the compassion that God has for all people, for "the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed." The challenge for us this morning is to give others the opportunity to hear these words, to bring the celebration of Jesus’ presence in our lives. The Israelites celebrated the rebuilding of the Temple as a renewal of God’s presence in their lives. So too do we celebrate Jesus as our Savior, renewing God’s presence in our own lives.

And with this celebration comes the challenge to make sure that others can know His presence as well.

What is it about the good stuff?

These are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 17 January 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 62: 1 – 5, 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11, and John 2: 1 – 11. This is also “Human Relations Sunday”.


I didn’t realize that there was a song entitled the “The Good Stuff” or that Kenny Chesney wrote it. But I had heard something with the words “good stuff” in it and I went “looking” for it on the Internet. Then I connected the words that I had heard from a television commercial with his song. This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the song or country and western music for that matter. But it does have a lot to do with the theme for this Sunday being Human Relations Sunday and the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As it happens, the anniversary of Dr. King’s death in Memphis is Easter Sunday this year, April 4, 2010, and I will be at the Dover United Methodist Church (Location of church) to lead the services. “Nathaniel Bartholomew” will be presenting part of the message; hopefully John Wesley and the woman at the well will join him in the celebration of the Resurrection. More details will come in the next few weeks. If you have not read either “Where were you on April 4, 1968?” or “On this day”, then please do so. It will give you some idea of my thoughts for this particular Sunday.

When you read the history of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, you will find that it wasn’t just a strike for better wages or better working conditions; it was also a strike for dignity and respect.

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

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

It was this strike that brought Dr. King, rather reluctantly, to Memphis. But he understood that racial equality was very much tied to economic equality, so he came to Memphis. When you consider what has happened to the economy over the past few years, you have to wonder if people really care about equality of any kind.

Banking organizations argue that they are too big to fail and come begging for Federal money to save them. And both the present and the past administrations have blindly given them the money that they have requested. But all this has apparently done is to reinforce the notion that the rich can have what they want and the poor must suffer. The one single aspect of the economy over the past ten years or so is that the gap between the rich and the poor, those with and those without has gotten bigger and it looks like it will continue to get bigger.

And yet we continue to say that we are a Christian nation, committed to the ideals that Christ taught us some two thousand years ago. What happened to the money changers in the Temple? It was well known that they and the tax collectors routinely ripped off the common folk, charging exorbitant exchange rates and demanding more fees than were required or reasonable. Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple to show his anger with their behavior. Yet, it seems as if we merely put guards around our financial system and told the bankers to keep on doing what they have been doing.

When Martin Luther King came to Memphis in 1968, it was for equality, economic, social, and racial justice. Looking back over the past forty-two years, I am not entirely sure that we have changed that much.

Anytime there is a discussion of raising the Federal minimum wage, the conservatives hold true to form and say that this will destroy small businesses and they are opposed to the idea. But, from a business standpoint, what good does it do to allow big businesses to pay exorbitant salaries and bonuses to the upper level executives while the workers are struggling? It is time; in fact, it is long overdue that our discussion focuses on a living wage, not a minimum wage.

I wrote about the living wage back in 2006 when I gave the message “What If?” In it I noted that the city council of Chicago had voted to require Wal-Mart and other similar stories to pay their employees a living wage of $10.00 per hour with an additional $3.00 per hour in benefits by the year 2010. Wal-Mart replied that they would pull out of the Chicago market rather than do such a thing. Businessmen always seem to think that paying the employees a little bit more will do more harm than good, yet many companies have no problem giving upper level management ridiculously large bonuses.

I suppose that earning the minimum wage is alright if you can find a place where you can get by on $290 a week or $15,080 a year. Current Federal poverty guidelines state that the poverty line starts at $10,830 for one person, $14,570 for two persons, and $18,310 for a family of three (2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines). But the Federal guidelines don’t consider where you live or how many people are in your family.

Consider the following fiscal data for where I live in the state of New York. (The following data is from

The living wage shown is the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support their family, if they are the sole provider and are working full-time (2080 hours per year). The state minimum wage is the same for all individuals, regardless of how many dependents they may have. The poverty rate is typically quoted as gross annual income. In this data, it has been converted to an hourly wage for the sake of comparison. Wages that are less than the living wage are shown in red.

Hourly Wages One Adult One Adult, One Child Two Adults Two Adults, One Child Two Adults, Two Children
Living Wage $10.82 $19.96 $15.86 $25.00 $31.99
Poverty Wage $5.04 $6.68 $6.49 $7.81 $9.83
Minimum Wage $7.25 $7.25 $7.25 $7.25 $7.25

These values are reflective of the community in which the person lives. If I go twenty miles north, the living wage for a family of two adults and two children drops to $28.98; if I go twenty miles south, the living wage for the same family goes up to $34.65. But it is more important to note when you consider the expenses for living in this area, a single adult working at the minimum wage does not earn enough to meet his or her basic needs (see the following table on typical monthly expenses). Is this right?

Typical Expenses

These figures show the individual expenses that went into the living wage estimate. Their values vary by family size, composition, and the current location.

Monthly Expenses One Adult One Adult, One Child Two Adults Two Adults, One Child Two Adults, Two Children
Food $237 $386 $458 $607 $756
Child Care $0 $624 $0 $624 $1,104
Medical $94 $186 $188 $280 $372
Housing $901 $1,103 $901 $1,103 $1,103
Transportation $278 $479 $556 $757 $958
Other $200 $393 $400 $593 $786
Monthly After-Tax Income That’s Required $1,710 $3,171 $2,503 $3,964 $5,079
Annual After-Tax Income That’s Required $20,520 $38,052 $30,036 $47,568 $60,954
Annual Taxes $1,995 $3,471 $2,943 $4,433 $5,580
Annual Before Tax Income That’s Required $22,515 $41,523 $32,979 $52,001 $66,534

Typical Hourly Wages

These are the typical hourly rates for various professions in this location. Wages that are below the living wage for one adult supporting one child are marked in red.

Occupational Area Typical Hourly Wage
Management $44.49
Legal $38.54
Computer and Mathematical $30.81
Architecture and Engineering $30.69
Healthcare Practitioner and Technical $30.13
Business and Financial Operations $27.51
Life, Physical and social Science $27.17
Education, Training and Library $23.04
Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media $20.66
Construction and Extraction $20.54
Protective Service $20.45
Installation, Maintenance and Repair $18.61
Community and Social Services $18.48
Healthcare Support $18.48
Sales and Related $15.68
Production $14.82
Office and Administrative Support $14.33
Transportation and Material Moving $14.04
Farming, Fishing and Forestry $12.18
Building and Grounds Cleaning and maintenance $11.77
Personal care and Services $10.92
Food Preparation and Serving Related $9.64

These values are reflective of the area in which I live. There are changes in these values depending on where you might live. But it is quite clear that people in certain jobs are not going to make it at their present salary without some sort of assistance. So we might ask “Who gets the good stuff?”

When Jesus changed the water into wine at the wedding feast, everyone was surprised because it was a better quality wine than was being served. From some notes I had before, one used the good stuff first and then passed out the lesser quality wine at the end when no one could tell the difference. Yet, when all of the supposedly good wine had been served and more was needed, Jesus turned water into wine and the quality of the wine was better than what the caterer had brought.

Maybe I am wrong about this but it seems to me that when John wrote about this episode in Jesus’ life, he was thinking about the differences in society, the same differences that exist in our society. There is a standard for the rich; there is a standard for the poor and lower class. We see it in the economic strata; we see it in the healthcare debate. No one who has power is willing to say that perhaps all the people deserve the good stuff. To borrow an analogy from modern day sports, this is not about a salary cap or a luxury tax on higher incomes; it is about each person being able to do the job they want to do and receiving a fair and equitable wage, one on which they can support a family.

John Wesley is probably shaking his head in sorrow. All the work that he did for all the people seems to have been thrown away. He probably cries when he sees those ministers with the six figure salaries asking people to send them more money with the vague promise of a greater return. He wonders why they remember that he said it was okay to earn whatever you could but forget that he also said don’t do it through the exploitation of workers or that he also encouraged saving all you could and giving all you could. The good stuff isn’t what you have; it is what you give away.

I know that some will say that the people getting the big bonuses are expecting them and that such bonuses are written into their performance contracts. So be it, but when your company is going bankrupt, are you still entitled to a bonus? Is it ethical for an executive of a company to earn more in a bonus than any of the workers employed by the same company may earn in their own lifetime? The good stuff is not something you have; it is who you are and what you are to be.

This is not about giving people a handout or a free ride; it is not about using Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “God helps those who help themselves,” and calling it Biblical. It is saying “allow us to recognize each others’ gifts and make sure that all have a chance to use those gifts to the best of their ability.”

Go back and look at that table and tell me that those who learn management skills deserve a pay rate almost twice that of those who taught them. Go back and look at that table and tell me that those who serve the food at the restaurant where you eat deserve a salary that is below poverty and 1/3 of what others make. Explain to me that those who do the scut work in hospitals can barely make it on what they are paid and then are ignored by the people who expect the hospitals to be clean when they come to visit.

This is an international issue as well. Terrorism finds its beginnings in overseas factories where workers are paid minimal wages for goods to be sold here in this country.

And while I may be angry at the discrepancy between salaries, the situation that we find ourselves is one which we have created ourselves. We no longer care about the quality of goods that we purchase, though we complain loudly about the lack of quality. All we want is cheap goods.

Our society has become a massive marketing tool. We have even decided that adding the word “Christian” to the label automatically makes it better. Several years ago, someone opened up a restaurant in Memphis and called it a Christian restaurant. It would be run by Christians and it would be a place where you could bring your family for music and entertainment and expect it to be good, clean entertainment (which it was). But it didn’t last long, not because it marketed itself as a Christian enterprise but rather because the food wasn’t that good. If your product is not very good, how can you expect it to stay in business?

And if we call ourselves a Christian nation or one with Christian roots, yet we treat our workers with indifference and disrespect, what can we expect to receive? There wasn’t, to my knowledge, a single member of the Memphis City Council who wasn’t a church-going man. And they would have told you that they believed in Christ and His message. But they had twisted the message to meet their views; they had twisted the message in order to maintain a political and racial divide amongst the people. They had twisted the message and convinced the people that theirs was the message that God intended for us to hear. There are those today who are doing and saying the same thing.

When you treat someone else in a manner less than you demand you be treated, what can you expect in the way of service and performance? What can you expect when you keep the rewards all for yourself? Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Memphis because the city of Memphis had made it clear it did not consider the sanitation workers worthy employees.

The solution is a political one but the answer will not be found in Congress or any state legislature because we have told our Federal, state, and local legislatures that it is alright for you to take money from lobbyists as long as you don’t raise our taxes or put the burden on us; put it on someone else’s back. Politics comes from the people and the people will have to work out the answer; that makes it a social answer as well.

This is not a call for some radical new political party. Others are doing that now and it is simply an excuse for more of the same, of finding new excuses to keep the good stuff for one’s self.

It is, however, a call to stop and think about what you have done and what you are doing with what you have been given. Too many individuals have claimed the good stuff for themselves and are unwilling to share with others. We have seen what greed and avarice have done to our society and the world in which we live. As we move into this new decade, this unwillingness will do more to destroy the world than any weapon of mass destruction would ever do.

It is time that we stop and think about our relationship with God and with others. Our place in this world is determined by those relationships. The words of the prophet Isaiah speak to each one of us individually; they put our life in terms of our relationship with God, not our relationship with others. It is a relationship determined by how we maximize the gifts that God has given us and not by the views of others.

In a world where money and power determined status and acclaim, Jesus showed the people of the Galilee that one’s worthiness was truly determined by their own personal relationship with God. Martin Luther King would come to Memphis for the same reason.

To be deemed worthy by God without regard to status is an important distinction. It gives meaning to life far more than any amount of material goods can do. A person will do the best job possible if they know they are respected for their efforts; that is the good stuff. To hoard material things and to measure one’s goodness by that amount of stuff is not; it’s that simple.

But the message heard first at the wedding in Cana and then echoed through the streets of London and Memphis is a message that we are all entitled to the good stuff because we are all equal in the eyes of God. Shall we continue the way that we are headed, knowing that trouble can only result? Or shall we continue the work that began at the wedding, worked through the streets of London and Memphis and ensure equality for all?

Every Now And Then

The one nice thing about the blog software that I use is that I don’t have to monitor my comments for spam comments.  The set up puts suspected spam into a special section and every now and then I have to go in and clean it out.  Generally speaking, it does a good job.  Every now and then, one gets through the filter and I have to mark it as spam.

But this morning the spam filter caught a couple of good ones that I think are along the lines of thought that say if one were to sit at a typewriter and randomly type characters over an infinite amount of time, one could produce the collected works of Shakespeare.  In theory, one could write a computer program that would generate the letters and you could just let it run in the background.

Since most of the spam that we get is computer generated, it is logical then to assume that every now and then, the comments posted to a particular blog piece should be more relevant than normal.  That is what happened this morning.

Some computer somewhere (the IP address suggests Germany) posted two comments to the piece that I posted on 26 December 2009 – “That One Singular Gift”:

Sometimes it’s really that simple, isn’t it? I feel a little stupid for not thinking of this myself/earlier, though.

Great idea, thanks for this tip!

And then, after this was initially posted, came this comment from the same spammer?

Great idea, but will this work over the long run?

They are still spam comments and they have been deleted but they do fit the piece I wrote, don’t you think?