“Time Has Come Today”

It seems to me that we are a nation obsessed with time. Were it not the case, why do we have "fast foods"? Why is it so important that we get all of our Christmas shopping done on the day after Christmas? Why is it that one of the best selling books today has to do with a fictional accounting of the end of time, as perhaps first described by Saint John in his Book of Revelations? Why is it that every day, when I pick up Ann at the train station in Beacon, I am overwhelmed by the number of people who have to run off the train and drive like crazy to get out of the parking lot? You would think that people, having spent 70 minutes or so on the train ride from Grand Central Station, would want to take their time getting home as well. But they run off the train and pretend that it is the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race where drivers sprint to the cars to start the race. Still, with all the speed they put into getting off the train and getting their cars out of the parking lot, these speed demons of Beacon end up waiting in line at the light. In rushing to cut down the time of their commute, they end up gaining nothing.

We are a society that expects things now, not tomorrow. Our politics and news are built around sound bites; short little snippets of information designed to fit every decreasing attention span. We allow others to define what it is we believe so that we do not have to take the time to think things through. Are "moral values" really simple statements of opinion without any thought to consequence or outcome? It seems that our education system spends more time preparing students for a day of testing than a lifetime of thinking. Just as with news and politics, students seem to want the information presented in short sound bites, easily memorized and not requiring any analysis or thought. Could it be that our problems with the education system are not because the teachers are incompetent, bad, or ill prepared but rather because we do not give teachers the time to work with their students?

And when it comes to Sunday morning, there never seems to be enough time, at least for church and Sunday school. Somewhere along the line, we have allowed the demands placed on us in the daily workplace to control the time we spend in church on Sunday. No longer is church a daylong event; no longer are stores limited in what they can sell on Sunday mornings. I am not arguing for a return to the time of horse and buggies or the re-establishment of blue laws limiting the sale of items (especially since most of the items that were limited, I didn’t buy anyway). But as technology gave us more freedom to move about and time became more available, church attendance is no longer an expected thing in the lives of a family. Rather, it has become something that must compete with the other events of the weekend, the soccer, football and basketball games, the dance classes, recitals, housework and yard work.

The services of many churches use many techniques to take advantage of time-obsession. Services are designed to fit your schedule. Music is easy to follow and carries no thought with it. A projector shows the words of the hymn on the screen over the altar (that way you don’t have to look up the words in a hymnal). And you may think I am joking but it seems that one of the criteria for being a successful pastor in the Memphis area is the length of their sermons? The most common comment of satisfaction seems to be that we get out of church before the Baptists. This means that we get to Shoney’s before they do and can get the best seats.

We rush through life, only to get stuck in traffic along with the others seeking to rush through life. We want the answers to our problems, be the mental ones of school and work or the physical ones of food and nourishment, to be quick and easy, so as to spare us the trouble of preparation and effort. We want our church services quick and easy, as if the meaning of the Gospel can be absorbed with quick sound bites and easy visual references.

But did not the writer of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, say that there was a time for every season and time for every purpose under heaven? Did not the Preacher complain about the quality of life that came when the spiritual needs of the body were not adequately dealt with?

In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Emily dies at the age of 26. She asks the stage manager narrating the play if she can return for a brief visit with her family. He grants her wish but advises her to choose the least important day in her life but will still be important enough. She chooses to return on her 12th birthday, only to find her father obsessed with his business problem and her mother preoccupied with kitchen duties. Emily exclaims, "Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, 14 years have gone by. I’m dead!" Unable to rouse her parents, Emily breaks down sobbing. "We don’t have time to look at one another . . . Goodbye, world! Goodbye, Mama and Papa . . . Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?" (From "Wake-up Call" by Peter W. Marty in Christian Century, November 16, 2004)

Are we so obsessed with time that we fail to see things coming? Is this society obsession with books on the end of time based on a desire to know what the ending will be without living this life? Was the owner of the house so occupied with the other things that he did not see the thief coming?

That is why we celebrate Advent and why we do it over a period of four weeks. We cannot prepare for the coming of the Lord in fifteen minutes or even a day. Rather, we must be in a state of mind that requires patience and time, qualities not often seen in today’s society. There is no urgency to the celebration of Advent but it almost seems as if society demands that it be done now.

But we have to see that Advent is more than just one Sunday. We sleep through God’s signals of alarm and act as if today is like every other day. And if we are casual with today, what chance is there that we will be careful with our lives? What hope is there that we can live less selfishly and more peacefully? (From "Wake-up Call" by Peter W. Marty in Christian Century, November 16, 2004)

We ask for things now but are unwilling to put in the time and effort to make them happen. Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of a hope that there will be a day when God will get God’s way. Isaiah knew that the hope of which he spoke in today’s passage from the Old Testament would not necessarily come in his lifetime. So he wrote in the future tense and pushed the people to walk in the light. (From "Wake-up Call" by Peter W. Marty in Christian Century, November 16, 2004)

Our hopes for the future must not be dashed because the time it takes is too long. Our hopes for the future must be based on the fact that, today, we begin the process that will make the future a possibility, that there will be peace in the coming days, that people will beat their swords into plowshares.

Walter Brueggemann wrote, in reference to Isaiah’s time and ours, "The key question is whether the promissory possibilities of God have a chance in the face of the entrenched geo-political realities." The book of Isaiah expresses profound confidence that God’s promises will prevail — against, within, despite, and through geo-political realities. But this means that it will take time; this means that it cannot occur overnight. It also means that it will take many people working together. What the words of Isaiah offer are the energy and the sustenance necessary to carry out this long journey. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

It may seem contradictory for me to say this but this journey cannot begin on some other day. It must start today. The time has come today when we must step forth and say that even though we may not know when the Lord will come, we are preparing for that day, no matter the time and the place. Paul’s words to the Romans today tell us that we can no longer wait and expect a quick solution at some other time. Paul is telling us that this is the time to begin and prepare, to lead lives that more reflect the presence of Christ than the lack of presence.

Isaiah encouraged those that heard his words to walk in the light, with the expectation of seeing God’s will enacted. Paul said that now was the time to cast aside all the aspects of your life that prevents you from being a disciple of Christ. As we sing our invitational hymn this morning, I invite you to come to the altar rail this morning. Take a few moments and ask Christ to come into your heart, if not for the first time, again. Take some time this morning as we sing our invitational hymn to consider how you, in the coming weeks, can best prepare for the coming of the Lord. Time has come today for you to make the choice that will allow Jesus to come, not only into your household but also into your life and into your heart.

“Winners and Losers”

I preached at the Dover Church again this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, were Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1; 11 – 20, and Luke 23: 33 – 43.


Many years ago, a friend of mine and I spent our lunch breaks discussing the nature of teaching. Both of us were high school teachers at the time; Mark taught art and I taught chemistry. Both of us were also teachers after the fact, having graduated with degrees in art and chemistry respectively and then getting our teaching credentials. Because we had both taken a slightly different route to the classroom than the typical art and chemistry teacher, we had a different outlook on teaching. You could say that we were an artist and chemist who taught as opposed to an art or chemistry teacher.

I cannot say whether one should approach teaching from the standpoint of the subject matter first or from the aspect of how to teach first. I would, of course, be partial to learning the subject matter and then learn the best ways to teach it. The problem, though, has been that we have opted for people to learn how to teach first and then learn the subject matter. Because of the depth of information that must be learned in both areas, the amount of subject matter learned is often minimal. This continues to lead to situations where individuals teach subjects in which they only know the basic information.

For most people outside education, this is fine because the attitude is that if you know how to teach, you can teach anything. All you have to do to be a successful teacher is apply a particular formula, make sure that certain things are accomplished during the school year and one is considered a successful teacher. In today’s society, this means that you have a number of tests that your students must take and all you have to do is make sure that they pass those tests.

All of this is contradicted by research that shows successful teachers do have a true understanding of the subject as well as how to teach. And they have a desire for their students to succeed, not now but later. It is reflected in the dialogue between Sir Thomas More and Richard Rich in the play, “A Man For All Seasons.”

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

We have turned our educational system into an assembly line rather than a learning process, where each student fits a particular mold, where they have done the “right things” and meet all the criteria so that they could say that they are educated. It is a process that, like practically everything else in today’s society, focuses on the bottom-line. It sacrifices creativity, critical thinking, and analytical thinking (long-term goals) for short-term gains.

It is a mentality that paints the world in black and white with no shades of gray. It leads to a world where there are winners and losers and it is the final score that counts, not what you did. It puts more value on the things that you have than who you are as an individual. It is a mentality that says that who you will be tomorrow has already been decided and, if you don’t have the right qualifications, then you are doomed to lead a life of failure.

We are at a point in time where the church and its message can offer much and provide answers for the questions that cannot be answered through traditional methods. T. S. Elliot, in his book The Idea of a Christian Society, written just before the beginning of World War II put forth the thesis that only a renewal of Christian culture could rescue society. It is an idea that has merit today. In fact, there are many who would seek such a renewal. But the Christian culture that he might have been thinking of was and still is not the Christian culture that is so much a part of our lives today. And the Christian culture of today, sadly, is not the culture of the Bible or of the early church.

Today’s church has bought into the bottom-line mentality of society; which is sort of a shame. The church today seems more interested in its own survival than it is in the survival and, more importantly, the success of the people of God.

The problem is that, to borrow a phrase from Colin Williamson, we spend more time thinking from below than we do thinking from above. And the church’s thinking and its adaptation of secular society have driven many away from the church, when they should be seeking the church as a means of answering the questions that plague and distract them. Jeremiah, in today’s Old Testament reading, put it best, “we have driven away the people.”

Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant, of a new relationship with God through Christ. But it seems to me that unless we cast aside our present way of thinking, if we don’t start challenging some of the common notions about the Bible and the church, we will never get many of those who have walked away to return. If we don’t begin to reconsider what it is that the church is supposed to be and what it is to be a Christian, we are going to be faced with the situation in which we find it impossible to make any changes.

When Jesus began His ministry, He echoed the call of John the Baptist to repent. Repent means to start over and begin anew. We must begin to see the words and actions of Jesus in a new light.

Now, in one particular cycle of the lectionary calendar, we might have been reading from the Book of Job through the final weeks before today. I struggle with the Book of Job, probably because there are times when I see in traditional settings. But the Book of Job, along with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and the Song of Solomon, are considered part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. These books offer a different viewpoint than what is expressed in the other books of the Old Testament.

But there isn’t a counterpart to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament in the New Testament. Unless, that is, you consider that the wisdom taught by Jesus and written throughout the Gospels is such an alternative wisdom. And contrary to the path of practicality and prosperity that passes for wisdom in most cultures, including our own, the wisdom that Jesus taught was a subversive wisdom.

Jesus led his followers away from conventional wisdom (this is the way that things are done) to a deeper enlightenment and understanding. He showed more compassion for people than one might gain through traditional learning. What did He do when he encountered individuals hurting and in despair? He didn’t give them lectures on the need to do things correctly; no, He healed them, He fed them. Most importantly He loved them.

Now, there is a warning that comes when you consider the nature of this learning; Jesus was executed because the ideas that He professed and taught threatened the norm of society.

It wasn’t simply that He taught subversive ideas but that He did it in a subversive manner as well. It wasn’t new information but information presented in new ways. It forced the listener to take the information and make it their own. It is a difficult process for the hardened soil of conventional wisdom must be broken up and prepared so the seeds of new thought can be planted in this fertile soil.

And that is the problem. Conventional wisdom tells us that hard work and righteousness will make you prosper. You reap what you sow and good things happen to good people. Conventional wisdom tells us that the robe that Jesus wore must have been made of some exotic fabric or the finest kind of silk; why else would the soldiers have gambled for the robe and other belongings at the foot of the cross as described in the Gospel reading for today?

This is one of the verses that allow many pastors to proclaim without hesitation that Jesus was wealthy and that we can be too. It ignores the facts that the soldiers always gambled for whatever belongings the condemned owned or that Jesus told his disciples to travel light and depend on what they could be given.

We are reminded that conventional wisdom tells us that we attend to the matters of the family before we leave to follow Jesus. Conventional wisdom tells us that we can make the decision as to when and where to follow Jesus.

But the decision is not ours. We cannot decide to follow Jesus when we feel like it; we have to go, as did the disciples, when we are called. And when we are called, we have to answer; we cannot say that we must first bury our parents or say goodbye to our friends and family. No, we must move forward; as Jesus told us, when our hands are on the plow, we cannot look backward. Nor can we expect to continue life as it was before we are called.

In preparing this sermon, I was reading Robin Meyers’ Saving Jesus From The Church and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. The conventional wisdom is, as Meyers wrote, that faith and belief being almost interchangeable in today’s society and that challenges to one’s understanding of Christ and Christianity are not allowed. There is one meaning and one understanding; you accept it or you don’t. If you accept it, you win; if you don’t, you lose. But this is not the meaning of faith as it was presented two thousand years ago. Faith is far more than automatically believing.

Bonhoeffer wrote of one’s faith allowing one to believe. The call to follow Jesus must be done through faith. If one chooses not to follow but rather stay behind, it is impossible to believe. Being called by Jesus moves one out of one’s comfort zone. It would have been very easy for Peter to stay with his boat and remain a fisherman all of his life. He could have told all his friends and those who might drop by that “yes, Jesus was a friend of mine and I had some interesting times with Him. But it was easier staying here as a fisherman.” We can say the same thing; we can still come to church every Sunday and our lives will remain the same.

But Peter didn’t walk on the water until after he chose to follow Jesus. If he hadn’t taken the risk, he would have never learned the true meaning of faith. And that is the same for each one of us. We hear the call and we hesitate.

In our world of conventional wisdom, winning means taking no risks; it means keeping what you have and getting more. To go off and follow Jesus is a losing proposition because we have to give up all that we have. In giving up all that we have, we give up our identity. And that is a frightening proposition in today’s society.

But Saul could have not been the minister to the world that Paul was. In order to spread the Gospel message from the Galilee to the world, he had to become Paul. Each of the disciples was empowered to take the message beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone. They had chosen to follow Jesus when He called; they had to go to places they had never been.

The world that we are offered through Christ is a different world than the one we see. Too often the world we see has no opportunities, the world seen through Christ has countless opportunities. For many, the world today has no hope, no promise. Yet, through Christ, there is a hope and a promise of a new day, a new beginning. We have come to the end of a cycle of readings and songs. Next week, we begin preparing for the coming of Christ.

We hear Him calling to us to come and to allow Him to be a part of our lives and for us to be a part of His. To follow is to win; to stay is to lose. We find that our minds and our hearts are open to new opportunities and to new possibilities. Paul wrote of how God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. Our lives change when we answer the call; we find new meaning in life, we find hope instead of despair, we find promise instead of rejection, we find life and not death. We do not think of winning or losing but rather of celebrating the Presence of Christ in our lives.


I used Faith in a Secular Age (Colin Williamson, 1966), Saving Jesus From The Church (Robin Meyers, 2009), and The Cost Of Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1959) in preparing this sermon.

What Should We Be Doing?

Each semester that I teach I give my students an assignment entitled “An Assignment on Academic and Scientific Integrity”.  As I wrote, it came about because I had an incident where two of my students cheated on a previous assignment.

Now, we have the incident at the University of Central Florida (see “Cheating and the Generational Divide”). 

I sort of chuckled when I first read it because it reminded me of an incident when I was a junior in high school and some of the seniors in one of the physics classes got hold of the upcoming physics exam and passed around the answer sheet to both sections.  I was offered a copy but refused it, in part because I probably understood that it was wrong but mostly because I hate memorizing.  The assumption then was that instructor would not know what happened; I don’t know what happened but the instructor did know or found out and switched the exam on them.  I presume that the incident in “Animal House” where something similar was done (with the exception of the dumpster diving) and the resulting fall-out were similar to what happened at my high school with those who used the faulty information.

But right now, I am not laughing.  The responses of some of the students at Central Florida, along with certain societal attitudes in general, beg the question, “Where should our children receive their ethics training?”  And it also asks the question, “What is the role of the church in all of this, especially if the young do not go to church?”

Your thoughts on the matter?

The Contradiction of Life Today

Here are my thoughts for this past Sunday, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures were Isaiah 65: 17 – 25, 2 Thessalonians 3: 6 – 13, and Luke 21: 5 – 19.


It seems to me that there is a contradiction in the Scriptures for today. And the problem today is that too many people want the contradiction. They want the good life espoused in Isaiah and push for the war that Jesus implies will come with the end of times. And the same people will offer Paul’s words for today as proof that the good life only comes through individual effort, not community effort and certainly not from anything the church may say or try to do.

But Isaiah’s words for today end with words of peace, Paul was writing about those who quit working for Christ because they felt that Christ was coming, and Jesus warned us to be wary of those who would try to mislead and deceive us.

I see too many people today who, because of the position in life they have created for themselves or others have created for them, believe that they have the right to tell me what to think and do. I also know that many people today are rather happy letting these so-called experts do just that, tell them what to think and do.

Yes, there is going to be dissension in the world today. There are far too many people who fear the world and want to find ways to gather all things together and keep them for themselves. I have said it on a number of occasions in the past and I will say it again; there are many people today who see the church sanctuary as protection from the outside world and all the work that they do for the church is make sure that the walls that separate them from the world are strong and impenetrable.

But when Isaiah wrote his words, he was writing to a community, not to a collection of individuals. When Paul was writing his words, he was also writing to a community and not a collection of individuals. And that is part of the contradiction of today. We call ourselves a community but then we act as a collection of individuals. We are more interested in our own well-being than we are the well-being of the community of which we are a part.

And we fail to realize that if the community that we live in should fail, we will be without just as much as those who don’t have anything right now. But our world says that we can do that; we can have wars and destruction, we can have families turn against families, brothers against brothers and parents against children and nothing will happen.

The contradiction is that we think that once we have done something simple, say to come to church on Sunday, then we have accomplished what is necessary for our lives. But we have to remember, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, in answering the call presented in the Gospels, we radically change our existence. When Jesus calls us to follow Him, we find ourselves being dragged out of a relatively safe and secure life into one that is absolutely insecure. We leave a life that is observable and calculable for one where everything is unobservable and fortuitous. We step out of the realm of finite into the realm of infinite possibilities.

Everything that we do in answering the call to follow Christ is in direct contradiction to what our senses, our friends, the law, and the world around us say it is. But that contradiction will bring more than we can imagine. There is a call today to put down your nets, your books, your things of life and follow Jesus. It will lead you to places unknown but it will lead you to a far greater life. You don’t have to do that; you have been given that choice. But it is choice that speaks of war and violence, death and destruction, hopelessness and frustration.

There is a choice and in an world of contradictions, a very clear choice.

A house built on a rock

This past Sunday, my wife and I had the pleasure of attending “Harmony for Habitat III”, a benefit concert for “Methodist & Friends Build”.  As the title of the concert suggests, this was to benefit Habitat for Humanity and its work in the Newburgh, NY, area.  The following are excerpts from remarks made to the audience by Vivian Yettru, Chair of “Methodist & Friends Build”.

Presently we have 14 churches working together as we plan and raise funds for our 3rd house. (That means 13 Methodist churches and one Congregational).  At the moment we are not positive of the location for our next house – but we do know we have started the journey. Fund raising is our focus right now and our goal is $55,000 – we already have about $16,000 of this. $3,000 of this was grant money from our Bishop’s Partners in Mission fund, and we are very grateful for this. The rest will be raised by grass roots efforts of our local churches. The concert today is one of those fund raisers.  And there are items on sale downstairs also.

The Partner families come from poverty housing which might include overcrowding – parents sharing beds with their children, siblings sharing the living room as their bedroom – structural decay, dangerous wiring, pest and rodent infestation, lead paint. One family had such a bad mold problem that their youngest boy has to be hospitalized with breathing problems every few months.  Another child has learning problems because of ingesting lead paint in his old house. The faces of poverty are not pretty.

Habitat does not give away houses. A 2 parent family has to give 400 hours of sweat equity, either working on their own home or another house, and a single parent family has to do 250 hours. Their need must be extreme and they must be able to pay their mortgage. In many cases their mortgage payments are less than the horrific rents they were paying for their rat infested apartments. Since 1999, Habitat of Greater Newburgh has built 43 safe,decent,and affordable homes that over 225 children and adults now call home, and added more than $8.3 million to the City’s assessed property values.

One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that our Habitat gives 10% – a tithe – of our undesignated income  to Habitat for Humanity International. So, in addition to the 43 homes we’ve built here in Newburgh, we have also funded the construction of over 65 houses in Mexico, Ethiopia, Jordan and India. These are the countries our Board has chosen to support.

There are too many people in this world today who see poverty as it was envisioned in the Bible and even in England in the 18th century, the product of a sinful life and beyond hope.  They see wealth and riches as a sign of a righteous life.  The signs of society seem to say that this is still the attitude of the people, including many who call themselves Methodists, today.

It was this attitude that led John Wesley to begin the changes that led to the United Methodist Church.  We sometimes forget that the conditions that lead to poverty cannot be reversed unless we, as a people collectively and individually, are willing to work for the change.

The individuals who benefit from the work of Habitat for Humanity do not receive a handout, they receive a hand up.  Our society right now seems to be built, to borrow from the Gospel, on sand.  But through the efforts of groups like Habitat for Humanity and the “Methodists & Friends Build” in Newburgh, we are building houses on the rock.  If we are to see a revival such as what occurred when John Wesley began the Methodist Revival, we need to continue these efforts.

“A Different View of Things”

Here are my thoughts for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (7 November 2010).   The  Scriptures for this Sunday are Haggai 1: 15 – 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and Luke 20: 27 – 38.  (My apologies for not getting this posted on Sunday).


I am not entirely sure if I am using the Scriptures for this Sunday in the manner that they were to be interpreted but, as it my custom, I see something in them that relates to what I see transpiring in the world and I want to express my thoughts.  And one of those thoughts is that I found it highly appropriate that the passage from Haggai came the same week as the elections, for there is a theme of rebuilding in the two events.

It is just that the people of Israel are working to rebuild a nation that has collapsed but I cannot see the same thoughts in what has transpired this past week, or for that matter over the course of the past few years.  People today seem to have only one thing on their mind and that is the preservation of the status quo.  We have accepted the notion that maintaining the status quo or returning to the status quo will somehow improve life.

But that is a contradiction in terms.  To keep the status quo means to keep things the way they are and not change anything; no one will improve it that is that happens.  Yet, that seems to be the nature of the political and social dialogue these days.

And while God reminds the people of Israel who the real owner of the planet is, it would seem that there are people on this planet today who would prefer that they own the planet lock, stock, and barrel.  Paul is warning the people of Thessalonika not to stop working in anticipation of the 2nd coming and I would presume that this includes a warning against hoarding and keeping things for one’s self.

History tells us that the early Christian communities were, just that, communities.  Those who proclaimed belief in the Risen Christ had banded together in common accord and put all of their belongings and goods together so that all could benefit, not just one particular person.  It strikes me that, in this day and age, where we loudly proclaim that we are Christian, we quickly tried to gather as many material goods as we can for ourselves and we criticize any attempt to insure that all people have the basic necessities of life. 

And there are those today who are going to work within the law to insure that one’s place in life is fixed by one’s economic or social status; there are those who are going to see that equality comes from the basis of one’s checkbook and not one’s identity as a human.  What I read in the Gospel reading for today runs very similar to what many people want; laws that restrict and are cumbersome, laws that defy the spirit of the human consciousness and soul.

The Sadducees want a solution to a problem that they have contrived, a problem with no real bearing on the meaning of the law they are studying.  It is not a matter of who is married to whom but whom is responsible for the caring of an individual.  The law dictates that a brother is responsible for the well-being of his brother’s widow; it does not speak to the issue of marriage in the Heavenly Kingdom.  And when you get caught up in such, excuse me, trivial matters, you lose the spirit of the law.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “the real trouble is that the pure Word of Jesus has been overlaid with so much human ballast – burdensome rules and regulations, false hopes and consolations – that it has become extremely difficult to make a genuine decision for Christ.” (The Cost of Discipleship, page 35).

I fear that there are many today who are going to use the law to prevent the spirit from being fulfilled.  We have so many problems in society today, problems that require our attention and we are going to get caught up in the trivial and mundane.  We are going to have individuals who are going to work against the spirit because they are more interested in their own well-being than they are the well-being of all.  And while they will offer words that hopeful and promising, they are words of greed and self-interest.  Many people will listen to those words and accept them as the truth because they appeal to the fears of the populace, they appeal to the ignorance of the populace.

Bonhoeffer later wrote,

Are we to follow the practice which has been all too common in the history of the Church, and impose on men demands too grievous to bear, demands which have little to do with the centralities of the Christian faith, demands which maybe a pious luxury for the few, but which the toiling masses, with their anxiety for  their daily bread, their  jobs and their families, can only reject  as utter blasphemy and a tempting of God?  Is it the Church’s concern to erect a spiritual tyranny over men, by dictating to them what must be believed and performed in  order to be saved, and by presuming to enforce that belief and behaviour with the sanctions of temporal and eternal punishment?  Shall the word of the Church bring tyranny and oppression over the souls of men?  It may well be that this is what many people want.  But could the Church consent to meet such a demand?  (The Cost of Discipleship, page 37).

I wonder what Bonhoeffer would be saying today when he hears so many people proclaim to be a Christian but who seem unwilling to answer the call of Christ.  I wonder what Bonhoeffer, who gave up freedom and life, to work for freedom in his native Germany, would say to those who proclaim a worldly view of life and proclaim it to be a Christ-like vision.  What would Bonhoeffer say when he sees so many churches today who blindly accept the notion that the state comes before the church and the church is an instrument of the state?

What I see in society today frightens me.  The vision of the world seems to echo pages from the history books, of people more interested in their own self-preservation than the preservation of the planet and the people who inhabit it.  I see echoes of the past in the words of many today.  There are some who seek to control the lives of others; there are some who seek to let others control their lives.

Many people today no longer know what are the words of the Bible or what they mean.  They see it as a document that will allow them to justify repression and hatred, violence and anger.  They are unwilling to read and listen; they are unwilling to give up what they see as freedom but which is nothing more than slavery.

There is a call to work in the readings for this Sunday.  It is a call to rebuild a country torn apart, a call to build a new kingdom, and a call to build a new life.  It is a call to see the world in a different way, one where we are citizens of the same planet, equal in the eyes of God.

It is a call to seek Freedom in its truest sense; it is a call to begin anew.  It is a call that must be answered today.

What Will The Future Be?

This is the message that I gave at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, 18 November 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 65: 17 – 25, 2 Thessalonians 3: 6 – 13, and Luke 21: 5 – 19.


Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, or at least the portion that we read as the second lesson this morning, is an interesting one. For some, this passage justifies a hard line approach to the issue of welfare in today’s society. For as we read, Paul made it very clear that if one was unwilling to work, then they should not eat.

But such a hard line runs counter to the very words of Jesus who admonished us to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the needy, and free the oppressed". In addition, such an approach ran counter to even Paul’s own words of joy when the churches he wrote to helped the other churches in times of needs.

And finally, Paul’s intention in writing this passage was entirely different. Rather than speaking to the needs of those for whom help was needed, Paul was writing about the Christians at Thessalonica who had become lazy in their faith. There was at that time a belief that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand and, therefore, working for the future of the church was not necessary.

Remember the incident between Martha and Mary at Bethany. Jesus had come to their home to have dinner and while Martha worked very seriously on the meal, Mary sat and listened to Jesus. Martha became angry with Mary for neglecting her duties. And Jesus chided Martha for taking her work to seriously and letting it get in the way of more important things.

But we must also be aware that when we let our devotion to Christ overtakes our responsibilities, we fail in both. What Jesus honored in Mary was her love, her adoration, and her focus on human relations. Jesus did not refuse to eat the meal that Martha prepared and he was very grateful for her hospitality. But what Jesus wanted Martha to see was that there was a balance between work and faith.

That was what Paul was saying to the people in Thessalonica. Just because the Second Coming might be coming was not a time to stop working. And those who stopped working for that reason were to be avoided.

The people came to Jesus wanting to know if this were "the end times," a question that still haunts us today. But Jesus pointed out that the signs of that time had not appeared and that the disciples should ignore the messages of others claiming to be the Messiah. Jesus warned his disciples and followers that the end times would be a difficult time and that they would endure much, but that they should hold onto their faith.

At times like the ones we are encountering today, it is very easy to think that such times are upon us now. It can very easily be a time for fear. Those who are fearful seek every sign and listen to the false messiahs. The clear message from Jesus is for us to not be led astray. When the time comes, it will be clear and obvious.

Our second response can be to adopt a "who cares" attitude, much like that of Thessalonians. But even an attitude such as that does not combat or protect us from feelings of depression, discouragement, or loneliness. Jesus told us to remain steadfast in our faith, to watch and pray. While we may be standing knee deep in thunder, broken dreams and a broken heart, Jesus reminds us that "not a hair on your head will perish."

In a world that is coming apart at the seams, the ways of coping generated by non-belief give little security. Our only security in a time such as these is found through Christ and the power that rolled away the stone at the foot of the tomb.

Isaiah wrote to the Hebrews in captivity. For many of them, the trials of captivity were taking a toll on them. "When will this end?" many of them cried. When will the grief and suffering end. Isaiah told of the day when the mourning that then filled the streets of Jerusalem would be replaced with rejoicing. No more would the "sound of weeping" be heard; no more would there be a "cry of distress." Through Christ’s resurrection the day will come when the suffering and misery will end.

For the Hebrews, this new day would be a day when they could live in their own homes again, eat the fruit of their vineyards, and enjoy the work of their hands. Their labors would not be in vain. Their service to God would be rewarded. They were reminded, as we are, that all that we do for God matters. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so.

As we come this week to celebrate Thanksgiving, we are reminded of those who came to this country, not knowing what they would find or what they would do when they got here. In our history classes, we learned how the Pilgrims struggled first to find the place where they were supposed to be. Failing that, they may what became known as the Mayflower Compact, an agreement to work and live together where they were. We know, through history, how those first months in what we now call Massachusetts were an intense struggle. Yet they survived and were able to celebrate that first Thanksgiving. The table they set that first Thanksgiving may not have been the one of legend but it was one where the presence of God was known and where their faith in God was rewarded.

As we come to our own table of Thanksgiving this week, we are again reminded of God’s presence in our lives. We are again reminded that our rewards come through our efforts to be God’s faithful servants. And more importantly we are reminded that the future is not as bleak as it may seem.

What will the future be? It is hard to look around us and see a time of peace and hope and prosperity. Now is a time when many are claiming not a time of joy and triumph but gloom and disaster. It is a certainly a time which, as Thomas Paine wrote, "tries our souls." Our actions will tell us what the future will be.

We may be like those in Thessalonica who quit working because they saw no need to continue working; we may be like those in the Babylonian captivity who saw no hope in the future, who saw futility in their work.

Or we can take heart of the words of Isaiah that there is a promise for a better tomorrow, that all that we do today will not be in vain. We can take heart in the words of Jesus when he told us to hold fast to our faith in times of trial and despair. Thus the future, the vision of the lion and the lamb eating together becomes a reality.

The future will be what we make it to be. If we see a future grim and hopeless, without the presence of Christ, that is what it will be. But if through our words, our deeds, our actions, the light of Christ through the Holy Spirit is let to shine then the future will be one of brightness and joy