Who Shall Serve?


This was the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 11 July 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday after Pentecost were Amos 7: 7 – 17, Colossians 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 10: 25 – 37.

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In preparing today’s sermon I read an interesting interpretation of today’s Gospel reading. This interpretation of the Good Samaritan story is told in light of today’s values, mores, and society’s view of service and compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden. In other words, the Good Samaritan is viewed as a villain rather than the hero.

Indeed, the heroes of this story as told in today’s terms are the Pharisee and the Levite because they respected the rights of the individual and held true to their own values. As the writer pointed out, if the Pharisee had even thought about helping the individual, the very act of helping would have made it impossible for the Pharisee to perform his own job since he would have been ritually unclean. In light of this, it was more important for the Pharisee not to help one individual because he would then be unable to help others. The Levite is similarly applauded because he held to the community standards as laid out by the community leader, the Pharisee.

Not only is the Good Samaritan not considered the hero, there is even the suggestion that he was the one who beat up and robbed the individual so that he could stage the rescue and bring attention and glory upon himself. ("Living the Word" by Samuel Wells, Christian Century, 29 June 2004)

We would hope that people see this interpretation as a scathing indictment on the view of society towards those less fortunate. Yes, there are those who take advantage of the situation to gain a few extra dollars from individuals. This past week, I received a phone call from an individual in Peekskill who said he needed a large sum of money to pay his rent. This individual had AIDS and was unable to find employment. Everything he said was designed to make me feel guilty should I not help him.

And when I explained that I could not provide him with what he wanted, he proceeded to call me a hypocrite, a liar, and a fraud. He also made allusions to the hypocritical nature of the church that would say one thing but would not help an individual down on their luck. This attack on my soul might have worked except later that day I found out that he had called every other Methodist minister in the area and tried the same tactics.

But against this obvious scam, there are those who I encountered in my walks to and from Grand Central Station to Union Square where I used to work. These people were not interested in a large amount of money but just needed something to eat. My deal to them was I would buy them something to eat. And in just about every case, the person accepted my offer. I know of other pastors in this area who have arrangements with local restaurants when they receive similar calls. If it is a true call, the person shows up; if not, then the person is likely not to appear.

The question that we must ask ourselves each day is how we should react if this were to happen to each of us? How would we react if we encountered someone injured or in need of help? The point of the story of the Good Samaritan is that we are supposed to help those in need and not use our position in life as an excuse for not helping. Yes, in this day and age there are scams and we may or may not be the victim. God gave us the ability to think so that is what we should do, not simply blow off the individual in need just because we are cynical.

The problem is that cynicism has become the norm rather than the exception. We question anyone who seeks to help. It is no wonder then that the political process in this country turns people off. Politics today is more cynicism and being negative than it is a desire to help and foster good.

Now, I cannot offer any solutions to national politics; it is not the purpose or nature of the pulpit to do so. But, this attitude that serving is not for me, the cynicism that people do it for their own purposes and not for the good of the body extends into other areas as well.

This church community is faced with at least three crisis in the coming months. One, the financial, is pretty well documented. The solution to the problem is found in solving the other two problems. The first of the other two problems is that we have a list of forty-six individuals who, if nothing happens between now and the Church Conference, will be dropped from the membership list. They will not be dropped if they become active again (by participation, service, or financial contribution) or if the congregation votes not to drop them. Keep in mind that this latter solution will only be a temporary one because the congregation would have to vote on their status again at the next conference. It would be far better to get them active again. It should also be pointed out that we have begun a list on one-year inactive members. Copies of both lists are in the fellowship hall.

The other crisis, which getting people active again in the church will help to resolve, is to fill the vacancies on the church council. Now, at this point I have not, in my role as Chair of the Lay Leadership Committee, asked anyone to serve or to continue to serve. In part, I have not asked anyone because there really aren’t a whole lot of people to ask. Even with all the members on the two inactive lists, we still have 34 members on the active list. But of those 34, 22 do not come to church on a regular basis, maintaining their membership through financial contributions or service. In one or two cases, I do not even know who they are. This leaves us with twelve people who are active members in terms of presence and/or service. And because most of the twelve have served long and faithfully, it would be unfair to ask them to serve again (unless they want to do so).

If we were to fill all the slots on the PPRC committee, the Board of Trustees, and the Committee on Lay Leadership along with the slots on the Church Council and Finance Committee, we would need thirty two individuals. If we went with a minimum number of people for the PPRC, Trustees and Lay Leadership committees, we would still need twenty-three people. No matter how you look at, if we do not get many of the inactive back into activity and if we do not get those who live in this area active as well, we are not going to be able to provide the leadership for this church. If we cannot provide a leadership group that represents all the members of the church, then it will be very difficult to do anything else.

What is interesting is that many people have said that they would come but other things get in the way. Wasn’t this the reason why the Pharisee and the Levite did not help that unnamed person on the side of the road? Weren’t there other reasons that took precedent over helping someone?

Look again at the reading from the Old Testament. The people of Israel have gotten away from God and God has decided that enough is enough. No longer will He tolerate their indifference, their lack of service to the Lord. As you read Amos again, note that God is giving away the land of Israel; he is selling the property to someone else.

And instead of directing their anger at themselves, the Israelites attack the prophet. But Amos tells them that he is just a simple shepherd like his father; he is not a prophet so they shouldn’t get angry with him. It is God who has made the decision to give the land away. Now, I did not deliberately pick these readings for today; they were decided a long time ago and it is only because it is the 6th Sunday after Pentecost that they are read today.

Like the Israelites of old, this congregation must hear the word of God and hear it clearly. The call to service, the call to help others begins with service to the church and it begins here. We can no longer say that we will not serve because to do so is to let the prophet’s words come true. That was the one thing about the prophet’s words in the Old Testament; the people always had the chance to repent and return to God.

Now, less you think that this is only a sermon of gloom and doom, of terror that will come, keep in mind that we also have Paul’s words to consider as well. And they are words of hope for this day. There is hope for those who hold onto their faith; there is hope for those in whom people can see the presence of God.

There is one other reminder about service. We celebrate communion today as a reminder that Christ gave His life so that we could live. Perhaps, as we come to the table this day, we should stop and ponder where our lives might be if Christ had been a little more cynical about His Father’s call to minister to us.

We know that there was no cynicism in His words; we know that He gave His life so that we might live. And now He is calling us, calling us to reach out to the homeless, the oppressed, the sick, the needy. He is calling us and asking that we reach out to those not here today and to ask them to come back. He is asking, "who shall serve this day?"



What Does It Take?


This Sunday I return to New Milford/Edenville United Methodist Church (Location of Church).  The service starts at 10:30.  The Scriptures for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost are 2 Kings 2: 1 – 2, 6 – 14; Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 25; and Luke 9: 51 – 62.

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Here is the sermon – sorry that I was late in posting it but yesterday was rather hectic.

At the end of the sermon and the service, one person pointedly stated that they didn’t come to church to hear politics preached.  I think I know what “angered” this individual but I think it was when I referred to the Gulf of Mexico.  Interestingly enough, his comment reinforced what I was saying and have said about those who do not want to be reminded of the world outside the walls of the church on a Sunday morning.  But the world is out there and we cannot ignore what we have done and are doing.  If that is political, so be it.

Another person pointed out the one point that I should have stressed more and that was that our use of technology as a means of communication has virtually removed any one-to-one communication.

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I have been developing a course or a presentation entitled “Technology in the Pulpit.” No matter how we may feel, technology is an integral part of our everyday life. And, as such, we should understand how to use it, when to use it, and more importantly when not to use it.

Now, if I were to make that presentation today, utilizing Power Point, I would start off with a picture of a scroll. Because when we first wrote down the words of the Holy Scriptures, they were written on a scroll. And we need to remember that when Jesus stood up in his home synagogue in Nazareth, he took the scroll and read the passage for the day.

Then somewhere in times past, someone decided to cut the scroll into pages and bind the pages into a book. And we are now at a point where the book has literally become a text message on a personal communication device or the screen of a computer. But there is something that we are perhaps not aware of when we look at this transformation of information over the ages.

First, literary elite of the early church days were very conservative and viewed the early books (or codices) with the same suspicion that many people view electronic publications today. They were very much attached to the older format of the scrolls and very reluctantly adapted to the new “technology”.

Since early Christians were poorly educated and generally from the lower classes of society, they had no secular literary tradition to preserve. And as a relatively new religion, they also had no religious traditions to preserve as well. So, they adopted the book immediately and universally.

And when Gutenberg invented the printing press, Martin Luther and the other reformers quickly saw the technology as a way of spreading the word through copies of the printed Bible (a move that was very vehemently opposed by the religious and political establishments of the day).

In light of how the technologies of the past have helped Christianity, perhaps we should be willing embracers of the movement. But, before we do so quickly and blindly, let us stop and look at the times of the church before we were a religion, before we needed the Bible to spread the word and to a time when to state in public that you were a Christian was tantamount to asking that you be persecuted and even killed. How then did the Word spread? How did people throughout the Roman Empire come to know the story of Jesus Christ and the message that he began in the Galilee two thousand years ago?

I have noted on a number of other occasions that many students today assume that Paul had a copy of the New Testament with him as he journeyed from town to town in Asia Minor and Greece. But he didn’t and he couldn’t be everywhere at the same time – think of what he could have done if communication in those days was done at the speed of today. The answer was that the Word wasn’t spread by printed texts (which many of those who hear Paul preach wouldn’t have been able to read anyway) but by one person telling another and that person telling someone else.

The beginning of Christianity was done in a very personal, one-to-one relationship. What we now call churches began as gatherings in one person’s home (often secretly because of the penalty that accompanied being a Christian or a follower of The Way).

I am not opposed to technology. If anything, the ability to type out the words that I wish to say is far easier than if I were to write them down with pen and pencil. But I see a reminder with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that we can rely on technology far too much and I remember last February when over half the people in Dutchess County were without power for almost a week. To lose electricity is to lose the ability to use telephones, computers, televisions, radios, refrigerators, stoves and the lights in one’s house. And I have this sense that there are a number of people who would literally freak out if they couldn’t use their phone to send a text message to a friend.

I am not opposed to technology but I wonder if we really truly understand what to do with it. I know of one report where technology is creating a cultural divide because not everyone can afford computers and the accompanying technology; there was a recent report that indicated that having a computer in the home doesn’t necessarily assure educational gains. And what I have seen in the classroom tells me that most students do not have an understanding of how to use the technology for better results.

To be sure, they can find information but how good is that information? When I was teaching introductory chemistry courses, I gave my students an assignment on ethics. Imagine my surprise and shock when I would discover that students believed that one particular individual, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in biology, had cheated. That he didn’t was beside the point; many students found what they thought was the answer to my question and copied it straight from the web page to the word document. They never bothered to think about the ramifications of what they had just read.

If they had gone just a little further in their research, they would have discovered that the accusation of cheating was directed towards a co-worker and that the co-worker was eventually absolved of any wrong doing. The individual that my students were looking for was guilty by association in the minds of others because he defended the accused. Technology is a tool to finding the answer; it is not the answer.

We are finding out that this is the case in church today. Technology can reach out to people. Did you know that there are 282 United Methodist Churches within 50 miles of this area? And of those 282 churches, 90 (or not quite a third) don’t have an e-mail address listed and of the 191 that did have an address listed, 31 addresses were wrong. So while 121 churches in this area may have a presence on the web (because that is how I found them), they did not get the note I sent out recently about some events happening at my home church because their use of technology was not up to date.

And having the address doesn’t mean anything unless you are willing to sit down and write a message that can be duplicated and passed on to others. Technology will not do the work for you; it will only make the work easier for you to do. We want technology to set us free when, in fact, it has enslaved us. Technology can be the tool that will set us free; it will not automatically do so.

When Clarence Jordan translated Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he wrote that he used “worshipping gadgets” as one of the sins in verse 19; even the translation offered by The Message reads “trinkets gods”. What is it that we are doing with all the devices that we have if we are not worshipping them?

Our lives are understandably hard and the one thing that we don’t want to do is work that much harder. But it should also be understood that we need to put forth the effort if we want the reward. When you ask John Wooden’s players what they remember about their coach and mentor, many will tell you how hard the practices were. By preparing them for the game, the game became remarkably easy but this is a point lost on society today when we desire success immediately and without much effort.

And I see in our efforts in education, where the buzz word is accountability and the key to accountability is testing, this same lack of effort. It is quite easy to test a student on what he or she was taught last week and it is quite easy to prepare them for such tests. But the true test of learning comes six months to a year later when what was taught is actually used. But when we live in a society of instantaneous gratification, waiting six months is an eternity and we won’t do it.

When Elijah asked Elisha wanted he wanted, Elisha replied that he wanted a double share of Elijah’s inheritance. Elijah rightly answered that such a request was a difficult one and that if Elisha really wanted that double share, he must be prepared to work for it.

We are not prepared to change our priorities; we are not prepared to make the effort that we must make in order to assure ourselves of freedom in this world and the next. Hear again the words of Luke from today’s Gospel reading, as translated by Clarence Jordan.

Then Jesus said to another, “Share my life.”

The man replied, “Let me first discharge my family obligations.”

Jesus replied, “Let the people of the world care for themselves, but you, you spend your time promoting the God Movement.”

Still another said, “I will share your life, sir, but let me first work out things with my relatives.”

To him Jesus replied, “No man who commits himself to a course of action, and then keeps looking for a way out of it, is fit material for the God Movement.”

Sadly, those are not the words we want our preachers and ministers to speak today. We want them to tell us how we can get the good life; we want to be told that others are to be blamed for the problems of the world. We want the church today to tell us that we can go to war because God is on our side, even when Paul reminds us in Galatians that such actions will lead to our own destruction.

We want to hear that it is alright to desire material goods and that we can destroy the environment because God gave it to us to do what we will with it. At what point does it become obvious that if we don’t keep a clean house, we aren’t going to have a place to live?

We want church to be a safe haven from the problems of the world; we don’t want to be bothered for a few hours on Sunday morning being reminded that there is work to be done “outside the walls.” There is too much change going on in the world today; for a few moments on a Sunday morning (and only on Sunday morning) we want a remembrance of church as it once was. We don’t want the minister fiddling with the order of worship, trying new things or singing new songs. Even if it means that there is no Spirit in the church, we want what once was, not what it can be.

Our age abounds in information and technology, but it lacks godly conscience, Christ-like compassion, and Spirit-enabled commitment, the traits of our Methodist heritage. It can be said that the early Methodist church in England had an impact on the social conditions of the day. The key to that early church’s influence was found in the traits of conscience, compassion and commitment.

If we are to be faithful to our age, then we must bring the riches of our heritage to our social responsibility, using what ever tools our age affords us that have moral integrity. The in-groups of our culture will not always approve of our agendas or our choice of methods. For that we will suffer their censure, as did Jesus in His day and Wesley in his. Yet both served many well by serving God most of all. That is what faithfulness to one’s age meant then, and it is what it means today. (”John Wesley, the Methodists, and Social Reform in England, Luke Keefer”) From “The Differing Voices of Truth”

Somewhere along the line, we shall realize that what it takes to get where we want to go is not what we thought it would be. We shall find out that what it really takes has been there right in front of us all the time? It doesn’t matter if we read it on a scroll or in an early book. It doesn’t matter if we read it as an electronic book or even as a text message sent to us by a friend.

What it takes is that we realize what Christ did for us. As Paul writes,

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.

What does it take to have the life you seek? It takes a decision on your part, a decision to follow Christ, to let Him into your heart. It takes a decision on your part; a decision to let the Holy Spirit enter your life and guide and direct you. The call is made; it is a call that you must answer. That’s what it will take.

“To Set Us Free”


This was the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 4 July 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, Galatians 6: 1 – 16, and Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20.

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If you think about it, today is an interesting day. It is the day that we celebrate our nation’s independence from Great Britain, yet nothing done this day some two hundred and twenty years ago made us actually independent. I think the problem is that we truly have no idea what independence and freedom are all about.

If we were to truly celebrate our independence from Great Britain, it should be on October 19th when General Washington’s army defeated General Cornwallis at Yorktown or even on the day the Treaty of Paris, acknowledging that we won the Revolution, was signed.

This day only celebrates the day a document written by Thomas Jefferson, with help from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, at the direction of the Continental Congress, was read to the people of Philadelphia and later to residents of other cities in the thirteen colonies. It was a statement of our intention to be free and no matter how you read it, it did nothing to insure that such freedom would be granted. Everyone who agreed to those words knew that our actual freedom would only be gained through work and commitment to the cause and not by a mere reading of the words.

The problem is that we forget what it cost to gain our freedom. We see freedom in terms of what we can do, such as complain about the cost of gasoline while filling up a cost inefficient four wheel drive vehicle. We complain about the cost of energy but vote for politicians who create bills that stifle the development of and prevent the use of alternative energy research because we, the people, fear the consequences of developing nuclear and other alternative energy sources.

We think that because we have the freedom to say whatever we want wherever we want and whenever we want that we are truly free. We think that because we have the freedom to act in whatever manner we want, insulting whomever we want, we are truly free. But we do not realize that such actions contradict and threaten to take away the very freedoms that our parents, our grandparents, our colleagues and friends worked to gained.

In our efforts to show people how truly free we are, we find ourselves trapped and enslaved by the very things that we think our freedom gained. By our actions, we boast of our freedom; we want everyone to see just how free we can be. Like the "tribute" ancient kingdoms paid to conquering powers to stave off invasions, we say "look at what I have gathered in this life, look at my medals, my trophies. Admire me for what I am today. But don’t look at my soul; don’t look into the depths of my character, for even I am afraid to look there."

Paul seeks no admiration from his peers. He does not offer the Galatians any form of "tribute"; he does not enter into their game of boasting, no matter how subtle or unsubtle it might be. He wants people to know that there is only one thing they have to realize. He is a free man today because Jesus died on the cross so that he might live. It is not an achievement, quality or possession; it is not beautiful or stylish; it doesn’t even pertain to Paul himself. But it is the one thing that makes him free and that is all you need to know. (From "Dog tale" in "Living the Word" by Samuel Wells, Christian Century, June 29, 2004.)

This country is a free and independent nation, not because of words written on a piece of paper or because it was somehow inevitable. Rather, this country is free because men and women were committed to the cause of freedom regardless of the cost. We, as individuals, are freed from the bondage of sin and death, not because of what we might say or do but because Christ died on the cross so that we might live.

In last week’s Gospel reading it said that Jesus had his eyes set on Jerusalem and his meeting with the cross. So committed to walking that road was Jesus that nothing could distract Him. Our freedom in Christ today has to come with that same commitment.

This commitment is found not in doing whatever you want or going wherever you wish to go, but rather in letting yourself be wherever God places you, unwavering in your determination to be of one mind with God. (Quoted in the chapter on Prisoners in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs, Howell)

Naaman was a great commander, yet his greatness was threatened by his affliction with leprosy. And the king of Aram, whose own greatness came from the victories of Newman’s armies, was prepared to give virtually everything he had to so that his general could be cured and their greatness, their freedom could be insured.

But the king of Israel knew that he could not cure the leprosy and was afraid that Israel would be taken over because of his failure. Elisha offered a solution, but it was a solution that Naaman was not prepared to accept. It was a simple solution, bath in the Jordan seven times, but it was a solution that did not recognize the greatness of Naaman or the value of his power or his possessions. It was a solution that required a commitment on his part rather than the simple incantation of words and the application of some useless magical potion.

Naaman gained his freedom from leprosy because he was committed to its cure. It was a commitment that required a change in his thinking, his attitude, and his approach to life.

In the early days of Christianity, there was an author name Boethius. Caught in a power struggle, he was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately executed. While in prison he wrote, "the only way one . . . can exercise power over another is over [the] body and what is inferior to it, . . . possessions. You cannot impose anything on a free mind, and you cannot move from its state of inner tranquility a mind at peace with itself and firmly founded on reason.”  (Quoted in the chapter on Prisoners in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs -Howell).

On the news last week I heard a story about Christians in China. Without commenting on the feelings of conservative Christians in this country on this subject, I found this story about the struggle of Christianity in China very interesting. The most important part of the story was the statement that the People’s Republic of China fears the Bible more than any other book ever published. The Bible inspires creativity and free thought, topics that no totalitarian government can ever endorse.

When Jesus came to us, he came not as a worldly king but as a servant. He showed that one could be free of the shackles imposed by religious and cultural law. But he warns those whom he has called to share his mission that they cannot hold onto what is in this world if they expect to follow him. If one holds on their worldly things, they can never expect to find the freedom that Christ offers. The reason that the Bible is such a powerful tool for freedom is that it gives every individual the chance to find out who Christ is and, in doing so, find out who they are really are.

We must be ready to leave the safety of the sanctuary in order to be his witnesses. We must be willing to leave behind those things that define us according to society and by which we often keep God imprisoned. In doing so, we are offered a freedom that cannot be found in this world, a freedom not hampered by a smallness of vision and obedience to the world. This is the freedom that is ours; it is a freedom that brings Christ to us and allows us to take Christ into the world. (From Faith in a Secular Age, Colin Williams)

It is that same freedom that the seventy took with them, which gave them the power to cast out demons and heal others. It is a freedom to help others, not condemn them. Note that Jesus told those who went out in His name that if the people of a town were not to accept them, just walk on by and leave the town alone.

On this day, when the fireworks go off and we celebrate our political independence, we must realize that freedom is more than just the victory of one army over another. We should celebrate but we must realize that, as Nelson Mandela said upon the legal dismantling of apartheid that, "we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free."

We must realize that no one can be free if the powers that take away freedom, fear, hatred, intolerance, injustice, still exist. We must remember that freedom is more than just cramming our time full of things that we can choose to do. It means that we have the chance to maximize our options and can focus on time, on quiet and concentrate on life. Freedom gives us the chance to explore the bigger questions of life, sense our connections with others and choose good over evil.

Jesus came to set us free. He did not, as some had hoped then and some now evoke today, a great army. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus came to set us free, free from sin and oppression. We have been challenged to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the lonely, and to bring the message of hope through the Gospel to the oppressed. Having accepted Christ as our Savior, we now have the opportunity and the obligation to set others free. (Quoted in the chapter on Prisoners in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs, Howell)

Thoughts on Lay Speaking and Lay Leading


Back in February I posted a survey about lay speaking and lay leadership (“A Questionnaire About Lay Speaking”).  I didn’t get much in the way of an on-line response (darn it!) but I got a fairly reasonable return when I surveyed the lay speakers in my district. 

One of the reasons why I posted the questionnaire was because of the changes that are taking place in the Lay Speaking Curriculum developed by the General Board of Discipleship.  These changes focus on making what we call lay speaking more of lay leadership.

I will be honest; I am leery of any changes that come from the top down and are passed on with the attitude that this is the way it is going to be.  This may not have been the intention but it is the way that it was presented to some of us in this area.

Now, it will make the GBOD people and some conference officials happy to know that, at least in this area, it seems that lay speakers do, in fact, do more leading that speaking (at least that is my reading of the survey result – I will try to post a summary of those results sometime next week).

But if that is the case, then we need to think about how we prepare lay leaders and not try to make those trained in speaking into such (unless, of course, that is what they really want to be).  I think that the idea of training people to be leaders is commendable and necessary but don’t do it at the expense of a training system in place that moves people into the ministry (an informal counting of the clergy in this district shows that 1 in 10 started as a lay speaker and move into the ministry because of that beginning).

Kevin Watson has posted a piece about one possible process, a process routed in the tradition and history of the United Methodist Church – “Empowering and Equipping Laity”.  I encourage you to read this piece and add your thoughts on this issue, both on his site and here as well.

“The Task At Hand”


This was the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 8 July 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, Galatians 6: 1 – 16, and Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20.

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When you were growing up, I am sure there were tasks that you didn’t like doing, tasks that you would avoid at all costs. And there were tasks that you liked doing and would do no matter what. For me, it was cooking and doing the dishes. I didn’t mind cooking but I certainly hated cleaning up the kitchen.

My father graduated from Cornell University in 1943. And in his notes about his days at Ithaca were some comments about his time riding horses. My father learned to ride horses while in high school in Virginia and continued the hobby while in college. Now, my father attended Cornell because my grandfather, who was a Colonel in the Army at the time, had worked it out so that he was part of the R.O.T.C unit. This, in turn, allowed my father to attend Cornell.

Anyway, my father wrote that any time that he rode a horse, it was expected that he would clean the horse, the stalls and put everything back and the level at which the work was to be done was at a higher level than it was for any of the other unit members, because 1) he was the son of the unit commander and 2) he was also the R.O.T.C leader. Such tasks, as you can imagine, were not the most pleasant of tasks. But, any time my father took a date out for horseback riding, the sergeant in charge of the stables always told my father not to worry about taking care of the horses after the riding was complete; that he would look after everything.

Sometimes we are asked to take on a task that we don’t want to do but in the end provide us with some reward later on. In the Old Testament reading for today, the king grieves for what will be the loss of his kingdom. He takes the messages that are given to him to mean that he must personally heal Naaman. And he fears the consequences should he not be able to provide the healing that was sought. Elisha hears of the king’s worries and sends a message to him that he can heal the commander. Elisha sees the opportunity to demonstrate the power of the God of Israel.

The king thought that he had to solve this dilemma by himself. Time and time again, the Bible shows us that when faced with such situations, there are ways as a community that we can work together. In Genesis 2, the partnership between Adam and Eve is established to overcome loneliness and isolation. In Exodus 18, Moses’ father-in-law admonishes him for trying to personally take on too much responsibility. In Acts 4, the new Christian community pools its resources for the welfare of all.

Clearly, the biblical narrative offers the message that life’s burdens as well as its bounties are to be shared. Different people have different gifts for various tasks. We are obedient to God when we realize that we need one another and work to help each other.

As a community we are faced with a number of tasks. In September, we resume our Sunday school. As I mentioned last week, we are looking for a teacher for the older elementary kids. We will also start a junior high and high school confirmation class. To begin the new school year, we are hoping to revise the traditional "Rally Day". What can you do to help in each of these three parts of the Sunday school?

In October, we hope to bring a choir for New York City up. This event will require some publicity and planning. Will you be a part of that effort? The Bishop is coming to visit with us and preach on the first Sunday in December. Again, that visit (perhaps the first time the Bishop has come to this area in a long time) will require publicity and planning. Will you be a part of that special Sunday in the church?

Dennis Winkleblack, the District Superintendent, will be here the first Sunday in November to preach and then hold our Annual Charge Conference. I will be sending letters out to the members of the Committee on Lay Leadership (that’s the new title for what was known as the Nominations & Personnel Committee) to begin thinking about the officers of the Administrative Council and committee members for the coming year. The question, of course, that they must ask is "Who will serve Walker Valley this coming year?" What will your answer be?

And lastly, we set as our goal this year to reach out to every member of this church, to encourage them to return and be a part of this community. Part of that effort was a letter from Sandee Scheel, the membership secretary. Have you returned that letter? Even if everything in the information page was okay, did you return it? Have you taken the time during the week to think about someone that you haven’t seen in a while and given him or her a call, telling them that they are missed?

A number of people have indicated to Sandee that they wish that their names be removed from the membership list. I am not totally sure why some of these people have left. They may have felt that their church future was somewhere else. I know that some felt that there were no opportunities here.

But I also know that there are opportunities here to do many things and that many things can be done. They do not require that everyone in the church take part. That is not a requirement of a community. The one thing that I have discovered and the one thing that makes me personally certain about the future of the church is that the members of the church do work together, that a certain freedom is given to each person to take on whatever task is necessary and get it done, because it is what needs to be done. This is not the same as an individually deciding that they are the only one who can do something because they are acting individually without consultation with the community.

Our word for "strength" stems from a word that means "twisted together". It a comforting thought to realize that God strengthens us or twists Himself with humankind to help us bear life’s load. His Spirit intertwines with our spirit and demands that we strengthen others at their lowest times. The words that Paul wrote in the Epistle reading for today express that very idea. Prison, chains, torture, inquisitions, and questioning played significantly upon Paul’s mind. He could thank God that he had a Barnabas, a Silas, and a Luke who could strengthen him at his spirit’s inner depth.

Paul spoke of the community coming together in a fellowship or partnership, showing that the success of one of one was the success of the community and that the success of the community was the success of one.

The difficulty today is measuring success. In too many churches today, the measure of success is in numbers and other measurable items. But, if we tie the success of a church solely to a set of numbers, then we are asking for trouble. Such results are often so fleeting and so variable that the true results are burnout, discouragement, and weariness. Jesus warned the disciples that despite the fact that they were representing the Kingdom of God, not everyone would be interested or tolerant.

Some people do not want to serve Christ for they think that means doing mission work or preaching the Gospel. And I happen to agree that there are plenty of examples of people who approach the work of Christ in that manner, some good and some bad.

Though we do not all have to enter mission fields or preach the Gospel, we should, through our lives and how we live our lives, be able to show and tell others what Christ means to us. The Spirit given to us by Christ has a remarkable effect on our success. The seventy disciples came back from their first mission work filled with joy and happiness because they set out on their task with Christ in their lives.

Success should mean finding meaning, purpose, and happiness in life. The purpose of the church should be to give hope to those seeking hope, to be a haven for those seeking solace and safety, a place where people can find the purpose and meaning for their lives.

The task at hand for us today is not simply a matter of numbers; rather, it is finding ways to let others know that this place, Walker Valley United Methodist Church, is a place where hope exists, where peace can be found and that success, true success, can be obtained. All that we do in the coming months should be to allow others to know the joy and peace that come from knowing Christ.

The celebration of communion today is a reminder of the task at hand for us and the rewards that we will gain. For as we come to the table we are reminded that Christ knew what His future would be. He knew that it would be seen as a failure to some because He died on the cross. But the resurrection shows that His work was not a failure. We come to the table knowing that His death gives us the hope of eternal life. We come as well in celebration of the success based on that promise.

“Where Is God?”


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, 20 June 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Kings 19: 1 – 15, Galatians 3: 23 – 29, and Luke 8: 26 – 39.

Some opening questions:

  • If there is a God, why are there atheists?
  • If there is a God, why are there so many religions? And why are there so many denominations within each religion?
  • If religions are nothing more than superstitions then why have they existed over the years?

Some opening comments:

  • I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education. This means, I think, that I have an understanding of what science education is about but it doesn’t automatically make me a philosopher. But it proves that I can think.
  • I am a certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church. I may write and speak about the Gospel and what it means to me and in this world but that doesn’t make me a theologian.
  • I use the skills and experience that I have as a chemist and as an educator to better understand what I read and think each day, be it in the church or in the lab.
  • These points all come together somehow into the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

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(From http://andrewhongnsw.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!EEB36B88C6BA62C4!1921.entry)

As one who chose to follow the Wesleyan tradition (at first without knowing that I was), I seek a balance of the four points. I chose the tetrahedron shape because of its symmetry, that each of the four points is equivalent in meaning. If you put more emphasis on one point than the others, the symmetry is broken and life is not in balance.

But I see a world in which that is exactly what is happening. It is a world where there are some who insist that tradition or scripture take precedence over reason or experience. But the balance of life is removed when that is done.

I see a world in which religion and science have been made to be opposite ends of some sort of rationality spectrum that has no continuum; you are either one or the other and cannot be both. I see a world in which those who chose to live in a world of religion ignore the outside world and those who live in a world of science do likewise. It is as if you can live a complete life with one but not the other and I wonder how.

I think that part of the reason for the unpleasant dichotomy in our world is that we 1) don’t understand what each part does and 2) we have fallen into the trap that so many people have done in the past; we have allowed a structure designed for one task to take on another task.

Those who are most adamant in expressing their hatred and displeasure of religion point out the various cruelties and atrocities done in the name of the church. The history of this country and the attempted forced indoctrination of the native peoples, not only of this land but every land, are often used as the prime example. But is that the fault of religion or a group of men in the name of religion?

Methodist’s own John Wesley came to Georgia with the express purpose of preaching to the native population but I have always thought it was not to preach the Gospel but to test his ideas that would evolve into Methodism. We know that he was a failure in this task but not perhaps because the methods didn’t work but because the Spirit was neither in Wesley nor in what he was trying to do.

That others have attempted to subjugate others in the name of Christ should be seen for what it was and what it is today, a blatant power grab by men, not as the work of God through men. And I don’t necessarily mean mankind in this; the early works of the church gave women equal status with the men. It was the men of the church later in time that created the structure that subjugated women. And when you apply reason to the reading of the Bible and compare that with the present, the symmetry, the balance is clearly broken. It is no wonder that people question the meaning of the church. But they should question the people who are the church; not necessarily the institution.

Also, if we are to have an understanding of what Jesus said in His Great Commission (“go and make disciples”) then we must also remember that he told the seventy that they should leave a town behind if they did not want to hear the Word. I am not entirely sure where this “follow or die” mentality came from. If one chooses not to hear the Word or if one chooses not to follow Jesus, do I have the right or the authority to make them follow? I do not think so.

Keep in mind the Gospel story for today. The one who was cured (and we will not go into the nature of the cure but accept it as an explanation written at that time) wanted to follow but Jesus told him to tell others what had happened. Is that what those who believe are to do; tell others what has happened and show them the results so that they can make up their own minds?

And by the same token, those who proclaim that there cannot be a God because one cannot physically prove His existence are missing the point. You cannot prove the existence of something that is a spirit or, if you will, energy. The early ideas behind energy and light should tell us something about that difficulty.

Before we developed our modern ideas about energy, we (speaking of mankind) first developed the idea of phlogiston and then the caloric theory. Attempt to measure energy as a physical substance failed, not because they were wrong but because the idea was incorrect. As we understood what took place in heat transfer, we were better able to understand the concept of energy.

I hold that the same is true in understanding God. Those who insist that we need to physically prove the existence of God are missing the point. You are not going to do it. They are like Elijah, standing on the mountain as the wind blew, as the earthquake rocked the mountain, and a fire burned. God was not in the events that took place but in the Spirit that existed in all of them. The only problem for such modern day would-be prophets is that they don’t want to have the spirit in them and so they missed the point.

In the end, we are like those to whom Paul was writing in the reading from Galatians for today. We are trapped within the law, a framework of our own choosing. We seek easy answers to difficult questions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.” It goes back to what I said earlier; we have changed the nature of the words of the church, the words of Christ, from what they were to what we want them to be. We are not willing to invest the time and energy that is required to be serious Christians. We want a set of laws, rules, and regulations that we allow us to check of what we have done so we can see how good we have been.

It doesn’t work that way and it never did. It was the very system that Jesus challenged and sought to change when He was here two thousand years ago. It is the system that must be challenged and changed each day that we are here today. We will be trapped and without escape unless we are willing to go beyond the structure that we have imposed on ourselves. The challenge is clear.

I started off by asking “where is God?” He is out there in the world, waiting for us. It is not a matter of my telling you that He is out there and you need to believe what I am telling you. You don’t have to because you have the right to not believe. But somewhere along the line, you have to make some decisions, decisions that go to the very core of your being, and you will find that you cannot make them, because you have nothing upon which you can turn. The struggle of mankind throughout the ages shows there is a need for a God. There is that opportunity at this time to open your heart and mind to the power and presence of Jesus Christ as your personal Savior; this is the time to open your heart and mind to the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit to allow a change in your being from one who has been trapped to one who has been freed. This is the time to discover that God is here right now, standing by your side where He has always been.

Why Don’t We Remember?


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 13 June 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Kings 21: 1 – 21, Galatians 2: 15 – 21, and Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3.

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As I was thinking about this piece at the beginning of the week, a comment was posted to last week’s post – “What Are You Afraid Of?”. While I had spoken of the church being a moral voice in support of civil rights, “Jeff” reminded me not all churches, especially in the South, were such voices for the Civil Rights movement. And he was correct; for every pastor who spoke out against the Viet Nam war or for Civil Rights, there were probably two who were in favor of the war or thought that the church had no business getting involved in civil rights. And that is probably still true today. For all those in the church who speak out for civil rights for all and against the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East, there are as many or more who oppose equal rights and see the vindication of God in our military triumphs.

Still, as I thought about it, it occurred to me that I have no recollection of any pastor speaking for or against either topic until I was in college.

With one singular exception, I cannot think of anything any pastor said while I was growing up that had a profound impact on me. When I was in confirmation class at 1st E. U. B. in Aurora, CO, my pastor, George Eddy, said in reference to the pending merger of the E. U. B. denomination and the Methodist denomination, “they are joining us.” That didn’t make any sense to me until a later pastor, John Praetorius (who grew up in E. U. B. churches), characterized the merger as the best example of a hostile takeover he ever saw.

Could it be that I do not remember anything at all about what I was taught those early years of my life, now some sixty years ago? Could it be that whatever was said and done in those myriad numbers of churches and Sunday Schools that I attended (and there were quite a few) was so meaningless to my life that I recall very little?

In one sense, it is a miracle that I continued with church when I started going to college. I had the opportunity to not go to church but, as I have said many times before, something inside of me kept tugging at me to seek a church to call home. I suppose that I have my mom to thank for that as she insisted that we find a church wherever we lived and that we attend the church every Sunday and that we be a part of the church. As I look back to 1966 and the opportunity to “do my own thing”, I see that it was that internal insistence more than anything that I learned in Sunday School or church that kept me going.

And I wonder what the youth of today might say. I see and have written that we are losing our youth because they have no reason to continue coming to church after confirmation and graduation; for example, We Are Eating Our Seed Corn and The Lost Generation. But could it be that they see no relevance to the church today; could it be that they see no foundation for action in the world today?

Could it be that those who have been in the church cannot remember what it was like to be that age and to champ at the bit to get engaged in the work of the church, only to be told to “wait your turn”? That may have been the case sixty and seventy years ago and the elders (by age, not position) may have forgotten how they felt. But our youth today have a different world, a world in which time is fleeting, and whether we care to admit it or not, not part of the equation.

For other reasons, I read the recap of the Memphis Annual Conference session that took place last week. But in the recap, it was noted Reverend Leonard Sweet spoke to the delegates about the TGIF world in which we live, where “T = Twitter, G = Google, I = Iphone, and F = Facebook. He spoke of a faith that must grow in the world we have, not a world we wish to have. This is the world that the youth of today live in and we have to understand that world.

I am not saying that it is the world in which we live. I have no desire to Twitter and wonder about the nature of communication when it is limited to 140 characters. A world in which our friends are the ones we have in Facebook is a false world and one in which reality is fleeting at best. A world in which our information comes to us through some hand-held device is nice but the very nature of the device limits the information that is received and it doesn’t provide us with the ability to use that information. And until every piece of information ever created is somehow electronically stored and easily available and every piece of information that is on the Internet has been verified should we even think of Google as the ultimate source of information.

Technology is great; if it weren’t, I wouldn’t be sharing my thoughts through this blog. But technology is only a too; it can never be the end all answer to our problems. Those who presume that technology will solve the modern church from extinction need to rethink the nature of the church. You have to understand the technology and what the technology can and cannot do in order for it to have an impact. I remember one notable politician speaking of T-2 connectivity at a time when the party line was still the dominant form of communication in that area– and this was in 1999. Even today, there are a number of churches that I visit as a lay speaker where the Internet is just a word spoken by people; in fact, there is one church where I go where my cell phone doesn’t work. If we go to a technology-based church, what will happen to those individuals?

The decision to begin a blog and to post thoughts based on the lectionary every week was a two-fold one. First, I had been writing a sermon/message every week for some seven years and I didn’t want to get out of the habit. It wasn’t until a couple of years into the process that I began adding thoughts about chemistry, education, and politics.

Second, and most importantly, I saw it as a tool for spreading the word. And if the statistics are any indication, more and more people read these words every month. (It has been a long, slow climb up the evolutionary chain of bloggers but I never expected to be at the top immediately – an approach by the way that doesn’t go over well in so many churches where if it isn’t immediately successful, it is considered a failure.)

All I have ever tried to do is put the ideas that I find in the lectionary and other topics out there and challenge individuals who read this blog to take what was written to heart and to act upon what was written.

And whether or not I remember it, somebody in a place that I have forgotten said something to me and I paid attention to what was said. I may have seen church and Sunday school in my early days as a social exercise but a seed was planted and it was watered and nurtured and cared for. And when it came time, I saw church as a place that was a part of my life, not just someplace to be on a Sunday morning.

The summary for the Memphis Annual Conference also included a note describing the conference’s Young People Message. Darrah Clark, a 13-year-old member of South Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in Hazel, KY, delivered this message, and with modern references that echoed the message of Sweet, said, "We need to know how the lessons of a very old book can help guide us and the choices we make." From the report of the Memphis Annual Conference

I think it is fair to say that all youth have sought meaning to the words of the Bible. But the youth of today are not buying the answer that was probably given to us, “this is what happened two thousand years ago”. It is no wonder that the youth have “called the bluff” on the church when it comes to the words of the church and the actions that the church takes.

As I read the Scriptures today (and the one nice thing about writing from the lectionary is that you read most of the Scriptures every three years and it forces you into an organized Bible study), I see instance after instance that tell me that we don’t really remember what it is that we read or what we were taught when we were young.

Go back and re-read the passage of 1 Kings for today; don’t the words “eminent domain” jump out at you? And yet, there is and was very little outcry from the populace when the Supreme Court expanded the concept of eminent domain from what it had traditionally been used for to include the seizure of lands for corporate development. (From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelo_v._City_of_New_London; I believe this to be an accurate reflection of the case). Is it because we are blind to the domination of corporate interests in our lives (to paraphrase Horace Greely, “Look south, look south!”) or do we not recall the number of times that kings and queens in the Bible used the power of their position for their own benefit and greed? (How can you justify the prosperity gospel so prevalent on cable television today if you do not twist the words of the Bible?)

And when are we going to listen to the words of the Gospel as they were written, not as someone interpreted them for their own selfish interests? I noted a few weeks ago (“Rethinking the Church”) that our understanding of Paul and his attitudes is not supported by the majority of his writings. There are those today who proclaim Paul to be misogynist at worst and sexist at best, but his early writings (the ones we feel certain are his and not the work of a student using his name) do not reflect that. If we are to speak the truth of the Gospel, shouldn’t we make some sort of serious effort to understand who wrote what?

The Gospel reading for today is unique in that it is the basis upon which Pope Gregory, in 591, proclaimed Mary Magdalene to be a prostitute. But nothing in the passage states that the woman was a prostitute or that it was Mary Magdalene. Yet, until 1969, the Roman Catholic Church supported the notion that they were the same person. And even though the Catholic Church’s view may have officially changed, it is still part of the basis for inequality that exists in various denominations today; a basis that is not supported by Biblical writings or the actions of Jesus.

The church, unfortunately, is more like Simon the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading. It chooses who it wants as its guests, though it doesn’t always welcome its guests as it should. It welcomes those who could give the church honor instead of honoring those whom it should welcome. And it trivializes persons who somehow do not meet the standard of the righteousness that they feel is appropriate.

The words of the Bible, be they the words of Jesus, the disciples, or Paul are there before us but it seems as if we either do not want to hear them again or we do not want to remember them. Paul pointed out to the Galatians that it is our faith by which we are justified, not our adherence to the law. Yet, it is the law that we seek to follow, as if we can somehow work our way into heaven.

I return to a conversation I had in the spring of 1969 with Marvin Fortel (“Our Father’s House”). At that time, I saw what I did as the necessary requirement for getting into heaven. But Reverend Fortel quietly and calmly pointed out that I would not gain my entrance through my works; it was my faith. But, because of my faith, I was required to work for justice and freedom, the very words that Paul spoke to the Galatians.

This is the time when we gather in our Annual Conference, to renew old friendships and rejoice in the success of others (a friend of mine, Gail Bruno, was ordained as an Elder in the Memphis Conference – way to go, Gail!), to hear the state of the church (it would seem that it is not good but then again it is not terrible) and to hear of the challenges that face the church and the denomination.

If we are to meet the challenges that we face, then we must remember the Good News that was brought to us so many years ago. Instead of worrying about the technology that is creeping into society and perhaps overtaking it, instead of doing things that make technology the message instead of the medium, perhaps we should focus once again on the message that we were taught and have long ago forgotten.

Instead of trying to do what we think the people of the early church would have done, let us do what the people did. Let us put the Good News, the Gospel into practice. Let us make the words of an old, old story alive and new again. The means to bring the message may have changed but the message is still the same. If we remember the message, then the message will live. (See the comment by “Dan” to my post, “Rethinking the Church”; his is but one of many churches who have decided to take the worship service outside the walls of the sanctuary.)

Let us not just remember what happened; let us again begin to make the memories reality. Let us renew our commitment to Christ; let us again be empowered by the Holy Spirit and let us remember that our faith has the ability to move mountains.

Technology Update


Just so that everyone knows, I am not opposed to technology.  I think it has its role in what we do but I don’t think that it will replace or can replace what we do.

This year I video-taped two of my sermons, “Do You Understand?” and “A Conversation Across the Ages”.  We are still trying to upload the second piece but I found a way to update the the first one without having to chop it up into smaller parts (doing so reminded me of listening to a copy of Ravel’s “Bolero” on a set of 78 rpm records (now that’s an old technology!) – just as the record got moving, it would change records.)

So, I have posted the video of ““Do You Understand?” to the web –

"Do You Understand" from Tony Mitchell on Vimeo.

I haven’t worked on it so you see it as it happened.  Hope you enjoy it; I had fun preparing it.

“A Sermon with No Title”


This was the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 24 June 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Kings 19: 1 – 15, Galatians 3: 23 – 29, and Luke 8: 26 – 39.

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There is something about Christianity and never accepting things as they are. As Christians we have been raised on the tales of the early prophets and the disciples, each one at some time speaking to the righting of wrongs.

From the time of Moses telling the Pharaoh to let the Israelites free to Stephen criticizing the Pharisees, the prophets and disciples have heard the call of God and done what was asked of them. Elijah, the main character in today’s reading from the Old Testament, is no different.

Prior to the passage for today, Elijah has challenged the gods of Baal, the chosen religion of Queen Jezebel. And because Elijah won the challenge, he is now running for his life as Queen Jezebel has sworn to have him killed for embarrassing her as he did.

That’s the problem with following God. When we do what God wants us to do, it seems like we get ourselves into more trouble. And that will always be the case as long as we view life from the standpoint of earth and man rather than heaven and God.

Faith is the matter of doing what you know is right, of letting go of all the wrong things, people, and objects and following Jesus as he directs our lives. Paul spoke of the law imprisoning him but faith, especially his faith in Christ, freeing him from sin and death.

The law defines sin but it cannot overcome it. And those who hold onto the law, as the way to live their lives, will quickly find that such a life is a prison. In one sense, that is what was causing so much grief for Elijah. He saw his work in the name of the Lord as a means of obeying the law. He figured that by doing God’s work, he was entitled to some type of reward, not punishment and certainly not having to run for his life.

But, in the deepest part of his despair, when he was convinced that he was all alone, Elijah came to know that God was still there and that he was not alone. The same can be said for each one of us.

We may think that faith in God will lead out of difficulty, not into it. But if we choose to live our lives firmly rooted in faith, we can be certain that conflict will soon be at our doorstep. And while conflict will be a certain part of our life, we also find out that serving the Lord, living a life of faith brings a joy as easily as it brings conflict and challenges.

And in today’s society, it is no different. Obedience to Christ leaves us no room to equivocate in the face of injustice. Jesus’ own words and actions in responding the Pharisees, the money-changers, the rich young man who wanted to know what he must do to gain eternal life, and even his own disciple Peter are direct and plain. Christian discipleship is demanding and we are quickly called to count the cost and determine whom we shall serve.

Faith in God is also a call to action. When we make decisions based on fear or a consideration for the law of society, we get ourselves into trouble. But decisions made on faith are different.

The act of faith is to rest our mind and heart on Jesus. Faith is acceptance of the Gospel message concerning Jesus Christ and the committal of one’s self into him or God as revealed in him. Jesus, as the object of our faith, unites us with God. This uniting with God provides the strength we need at those times when things seem to be most lost. When Elijah realized, even though he was in the middle of the wilderness, that God had not left him he came to an important realization. God will provide.

And this message has important meaning, not only on the public level, but also on the private level as well. At some point in our lives, we all have to face some demons in our lives, much live the man in the Gospel reading today. And the problem is that no matter how hard we try, we cannot get rid of them. The natural outcome of experiencing Christ is that we discover we are set free to follow Christ. This was the same experience that Paul wrote about.

Faith in God naturally calls us to act on that faith. Christ calls some of us to mission fields or other special ministries. But more often than not, what we are asked to do is stay where we are, used what we have, and be a witness to Christ’s life-changing power. God’s grace merits a response of loving service and joyous, generous living. We must remember that hardships are expected on this faith journey of ours.

“What Are You Afraid Of?”


Here are my thoughts for this past Sunday, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (6 June 2010). The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Kings 21: 1 – 21, Galatians 2: 15 – 21, and Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3.

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Stephen Stills wrote a song a few years back called “For What It’s Worth”. Many people thought that this song was a commentary on the shootings at Kent State (May 4, 1970) or perhaps as anti-Viet Nam war song. But despite the appropriateness of the lyrics for those two incidents, it was really written as a commentary for something that happened in Los Angeles while Stills was recording an album with Graham Nash and David Crosby. ("Wisdom, Power, and the Way of Life")

But I suppose that what make any particular piece of music good is its timelessness and appropriateness for other situations. And so the words of the song, written some 45 years ago, are still highly appropriate today.

The thoughts and expressions of my generation, growing up in the 60s, seem to still echo through today’s news. Yet, while the war in Viet Nam may be over, we are still engaged in another set of wars. And they are wars that have gone on far longer than Viet Nam and which threaten to continue for an unforeseeable length of time. There may be those who would proclaim that the battle for civil rights has been won but it still seems as if the rights of any one individual are still dependent on where one was born and the social, economic, and educational status in which one is raised. Despite the rhetoric of many, the American Dream is more of a nightmare than a reality.

And as I look around my own area and as I read what is happening in other areas of this country, I sense that this country is sinking slowing into a dark sea of fear and paranoia. It is as if we are afraid of what tomorrow might bring, of thinking that today is as good as it is going to get.

Some might say that we have been conditioned to accept that last idea. We are supposed to be quite content with our lot in life, even when it is not the best. And anything that might disturb this status quo makes us very fearful and very afraid.

I am not ready to completely accept that notion if for no other reason that I have seen too many individuals use that idea to justify a society where success is pre-ordained by birth and location of birth. It also speaks of a contradiction where we say we can express our own thoughts yet are limited in what we can say and do. We speak of being able to do whatever we want yet are forced to accept what we have now. From what I trust is a theological viewpoint, it is almost Calvinist in scope. It doesn’t matter what we think we can do, we are doomed to accept the notion of what we have as the very essence of our soul and being.

It boggles my mind that we should even make this argument as runs counter to free will and political freedom. Yet, as I look around this world and see the protests that are taking place and the rhetoric being espoused, I see that contradiction. I see people arguing for the status quo while being oppressed by the status quo. Somehow, they have accepted the notion that their lot in life will be better only when it remains the same. And anything that is done to disturb that situation, to offer a better alternative or let others share is to be feared.

Look around and tell me if that is not what is happening in this country today. We seek individuals who will quickly bring us out of the mire of our own confusion and ignorance; we gladly listen to individuals who offer solutions that are contrary to what is transpiring. We hear individuals call for smaller government and less interference from the federal government in local businesses but then turn around and demand that the federal government get involved. We hear individuals call for no federal health care programs but don’t want anyone to touch Medicare.

The fear that is expressed today is much the same fear that the people two thousand years ago expressed. It is the same fear expressed by the people when Jesus healed the individual in today’s Gospel reading. The people were not prepared for what Jesus would offer them. Yes, they wanted a Messiah but they wanted a political and military Messiah, one who would offer a traditional response to the political and military rule of Rome.

The people then and now were thirsty but all they are being offered is salt water. And when you drink salt water to quench your thirst, all you get is more thirst.

I also think that there is a reluctance to seek something new, a reluctance to go beyond the moment. The best counter to fear is knowledge and it is too bad that much of the protests today are done without knowledge. If the people understood what they are saying, then there might be some hope for true change in this country.

The widow in the Old Testament reading was afraid to take on the task that Elijah asked her to do, because it was an illogical request. But it was an illogical request because it was seen in terms of the world in which she lived, not in the world that God had and has to offer. The church today sees the world in the same way that the widow does and not in terms of what God asks of us. The church’s problems, like those of the world around it, are created because we refuse to see the world in a different light, because we refuse to accept an alternative.

I don’t know why it is but it always seems that the easiest response is one made out of fear and ignorance. Maybe it takes too much effort to stop and see what is transpiring. Sometimes fear is the proper response but we still have to stop and see what is happening.

As John Kennedy said, “our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man.” (Speech at American University, 10 June 1963) Yet, it seems so often that we are unwilling to do that. The problems of this world call for solutions not found by traditional methods. There is also no moral voice speaking out against the fear that seeks to encompass this world. It was the church that spoke out against the Viet Nam war; it was the church that was at the forefront of the civil rights struggle. Yet, the church today is remarkably silent when it comes to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The church, while proclaiming that we are all God’s children, seems to think that this proclamation is only for a few selected souls. And the church leaders of today are the ones who are making the selection, not God.

The image of the church today is one that mankind has made; it is an image of man, not Christ. But then, I doubt very seriously that many people can even provide the beginnings of an image of Christ because we have very carefully crafted that image in terms of what we want. Though many people are trying to change the nature of the church in what it says and what it does, the image of the church today is still one of a selfish, self-righteous group interested in only their own self preservation. The church today bears little resemblance to the church of two thousand years ago because we have forced it into a box of our design; we have failed to respond to what God wants us to do. Paul points out to the Galatians that the Gospel was not his but that is what we have made it. We have twisted it and modified it so much that we don’t even recognize it.

So perhaps it is time that we stop and look around at where we are and what we are doing. Instead of countering fear with fear, let us counter it with knowledge. Instead of countering violence with violence, let us remove the need for violence. Ignorance, hatred, fear and violence grow out of the very issues that Jesus sought to overcome in His Gospel message – hunger, sickness, poverty, and oppression. If you remove the factors that cause those things, what would happen? The problem is that we don’t often ask that question and perhaps it is time that we begin to do just that?

Why can’t we ask the question about what it is that the church is supposed to be doing in this time and place? Are we afraid of the answer we might receive? Are we afraid, like so many before, who heard the answer to “follow me” but were reluctant and afraid to do so?

We call ourselves Christian so perhaps now is the time to live as such. We call ourselves Methodist so let us begin once again to wear what was intended as an insult as a badge of honor. Or are we to afraid of what others might say?

Is it that we live our lives as Christians on Sunday morning only? If we live our lives as Christians 24/7, then we have nothing to fear. But are our lives lived in that manner? Those who wear the cloak of Christian righteousness on Sunday morning and carefully take it off and fold it up and put it in the pew that has belonged to their family for generation after generation when they leave church on Sunday should be afraid. For they will find that the clothes they wear the rest of the week cannot protect them.

Those who proclaim they have no belief in God or say there is no reason to believe in God have everything to be afraid of. For there will come a time when they will seek help and have nowhere to turn. (But the church today cannot offer the help because it doesn’t understand how to deal with this issue and, for that, the church needs to be afraid.)

But, amidst all of this, this fear, this uncertainty, this paranoia, comes a small voice. It began with the prophets on the plains of Israel, it was spoken by the voice of the Baptizer calling out in the wilderness, and it was spoken by Christ Himself. It was and is the call to repent, to begin anew.

But we don’t like to hear this call; we don’t like the very notion of repentance. We think of repentance as a momentary act, one that we can make anytime we want and done over and over. But we are afraid because, deep down inside, we know that repentance requires that we give up all that we have, to cast aside our old ways and begin a new life, a life in Christ. We like our old ways, even if we do not understand the trouble and danger that such a life encompasses. We don’t want to give up our old ways.

But the promise of tomorrow cannot be met unless we do just that, give up our olds ways and begin a new life. We cannot make the journey to tomorrow by moving to the past or trying to stay in the present. When Jesus began His ministry, He knew where it would end. His understanding of what He would ask the people to do would cause some to react in fear, paranoia, and hatred. He knew that He would be challenging the status quo and that He would offer a life with a different outcome.

We know what that outcome is; we know what we are being asked to do. Perhaps that is why we are afraid; we know the outcome. We see the Cross and we see Christ’s death on the Cross and we see ourselves hanging there. We see that image as the end of the journey and we are afraid.

But if we understand that Christ’s death on the Cross was necessary so that we could begin a new journey, we wouldn’t be afraid

So, our challenge today is to hear the call to repent and begin anew. You may choose to ignore this call because you are afraid. And the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning and the problems of the world will seem bigger and harder than ever before and you will have reason to be afraid. You will be afraid because you have no hope.

Or you can commit your life to Christ. It will not make the problems go away; it will not make the problems smaller or easier to solve. But it will take away that fear, that uncertainty that prevents you from solving the problems.

This is an unknown and uncharted path but you walk with Christ and many others so you need not be afraid. For in Christ comes the hope of tomorrow.