This is the message that I will be giving at Fishkill United Methodist Church this coming Sunday (24 June 2018 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost [B]). Services begin at 10 and you are always welcome.
Despite the title, there are no references to the Starship Enterprise, Jean Luc Picard, or, even though I have ties to Iowa, James T. Kirk in this message.
The last time I stood in this pulpit and delivered the message, I predicted that my next visit would be on October 13, 2019 (1). Clearly, I don’t have much of a career as a prophet. But as I said then, it is sometimes very difficult to imagine what the future will be.
There are, of course, a few people who believe that the future is fixed and when it is all done, they will enter Heaven and the rest of us will be left behind. But this begs the question, if we are doomed, if the path to salvation and Heaven is to be denied to us, then why did God send Jesus into this world?
Saying that the future is fixed, saying that we have no say in its outcome takes humankind, takes us, out of the equation. If the future is fixed, then life has no meaning.
Now, for some, not having to do anything seems like a good idea; they don’t have to think about things and they can do whatever they please. But one only needs to read the Book of Ecclesiastes and the other books of wisdom in the Old Testament to know life becomes hopeless if it has no meaning.
This is part of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians. A life without meaning is closed and encompassing, no matter how free and unlimited one might feel. A life in Christ, which some might see as enclosing and restrictive; in Paul’s words opens the world. It gives us options we never knew.
But an open future is both frightening and a challenge. It is frightening because it requires that we be involved. And that is why it is a challenge.
In 1962, Robert Kennedy wrote (2),
The future is not a gift: it is an achievement. Every generation helps make its own future. This is the essential challenge of the present.
During his visit to South Africa in 1966, Senator Kennedy said (3),
The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment [- – -]
Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is [ . . .] neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.
Albert Einstein once remarked,
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” (4)
When David prepared for his battle with Goliath, Saul outfitted him with the traditional armor of an Israelite soldier. But David could not move while encased in all the armor of an Israelite soldier and so he cast it aside, trusting in his own skills and abilities.
David used what he knew rather than rely on traditional methods of battle to defeat Goliath. It is to Saul’s credit that he let David use the skills that he, David, had and not have him use the traditional approach, a lesson many leaders have failed to learn even today (5).
My mother, who would have been 94 last week, was born and raised in rural North Carolina. She was, as the saying goes, Southern born and Southern bred.
My father, who would have been 98 next month, was a career Air Force officer and the son of a career Army officer. As an officer and an engineer, there was a certain degree of certainty to life.
Both of my parents grew up during the Great Depression. Most assuredly, those backgrounds shaped their views of the world.
As the children of an officer and of a mother who worked in the Pentagon, my brothers, sister and I grew up with the unstated mantra to never rock the boat or question those in higher positions.
In their own ways, sometimes not so clear, my parents expressed their love for us.
But I can tell you that I tested that love. I may not have rocked the boat, but I certainly rowed too fast and I most definitely questioned the “powers that be.”
When I was in college in the late 60s and early 70s, I was active in the anti-war movement, something that my parents were not exactly thrilled with. For Mother’s Day in 1969, I gave my mother a necklace with a pendant on it that read “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” (6)
After my mother received the necklace, she wrote me a very stern letter expressing her disapproval of my extra-curricular political activities. But she also wrote that she would keep the necklace because I was her son and she loved me, a thought that would echo throughout my life (7).
My parents’ displeasure with my anti-war activities was exceeded only by their disapproval with my civil rights activities. I shall not read from the pages of history what my grandmother said to my parents or what my parents thought when they were told that I was the only white student to participate in the Black Students Association sit-in of the administration building at Truman State University during the spring of 1969 (8).
But things change.
When my mother was in her late 60’s, her church, Good Shepherd United Methodist Church of Bartlett, TN, went on a mission trip to St. Vincent, an island in the Caribbean.
This mission trip had two objectives, continue construction on a school building and offer dental care to the people, especially the children, of the area. My mother went as the DH for the dental team.
I believe that some of her friends, upon hearing this, said something to the effect, “Oh my god! Virginia is going on a mission trip! Doesn’t she know how old she is!”
Understand that trips like these cannot take much in the way of medicines, especially pain killers; I will pause for a few seconds so that you can let that sink in. And that is why my mother went.
After each child completed their dental treatment, they were often hurting and crying. As the DH, the “designated hugger”, my momma, “Granny” would hug and comfort each child. She used the skills developed over many years of being a mother, a grandmother, and great-grandmother, only in a different setting.
A few years after the mission trip to St. Vincent, my mother decided she wanted to become a Gospel singer. My brothers, sister, and I produced a CD with the music of her favorite songs that she could take with her when she went to sing for, as she put it, the old folks in the Memphis area.
One Sunday, she said she wanted to sing at Pleasant Grove UMC, one of two rural churches north of Memphis, where I was part of the preaching team.
Pleasant Grove was also the church where, a few years later, my wife Ann would first hear me preach. Now, my momma knew the one thing that I had neglected to tell Ann. When she sang at Pleasant Grove UMC that Sunday, my momma was the only white woman attending the service (9).
God never asks you to do something you couldn’t already do and He never sends you to a new place alone. The one constancy in every disciple’s life is the Presence of God, offering comfort and protection. Giving hugs and singing Gospel music were things my momma always did. God just wanted her to give the hugs to children and sing her Gospel songs in other parts of God’s Kingdom.
There is that moment in the Gospel reading when you know that the disciples are truly and genuinely afraid. They understood the Sea of Galilee was susceptible to rapid and severe changes in the weather. As we would be, they were clearly on the watch, but each storm is different, and one cannot easily prepare for every possibility.
And yet, with a few words, Jesus calmed the storm and the seas. How then can we be afraid to take on the tasks before us?
But what are those tasks? What lies before us?
In 1980, at the end of his television series, “Cosmos: A Personal Journey”, Carl Sagan paraphrased the prophet Jeremiah.
Jeremiah said that the people of Israel had come to a crossroads and were trying to decide which road to take. But the people would not take the road that lead to righteousness, saying that it was a false alarm and that Jeremiah’s warning did not concern them (how appropriate today are words written almost three thousand years ago) (10).
Sagan pointed out that we have created the technology that allows us to develop weapons of mass destruction that could not only destroy the people and nations of this planet, but this planet as well. But he also noted that these same skills and technology could be used to explore and expand our understanding of the universe and humankind.
We have come to those crossroads and it seems as if we have taken the wrong path.
We see a world where the God of material things is worshiped more than the One True God. We seem to have forgotten that we are tenants, temporary residents of this planet and not its owners. We are the stewards of this planet and we are not doing too well with that task
We see prejudice and hatred on the rise.
We spend more on destruction than we do on construction. War, violence, and discord have become the norm.
I fear we have lost our creative impulse. And without that creative impulse, we see a world in which there is no future.
We see people lost in society, seeking answers to questions that trouble their souls but who cannot find a place where those questions can be answered.
Their first inclination, as it has been for generations, is to seek God. But where is God?
Many churches today (individually and denominationally) seem to reflect the religious establishment of Jesus’ time, more concerned with the preservation of personal power than with a genuine concern for the people, both inside and outside the church walls.
Remember this. The people healed by Jesus were ritually unclean. Under religious law, they were barred from entering the Temple, barred from being with God. When Jesus healed them, they became clean and were able to enter the Temple and reestablish their connection with God.
It should also be noted that whenever Jesus touched an unclean person, or an unclean person touched Him, He became ritually unclean and, thus, was unable to enter the Temple. I invite you to see the irony in that.
Instead of rejoicing, the religious establishment grew angry because Jesus did what only they, the establishment, felt they had the power to do. The religious establishment also could not accept that Jesus socialized with individuals that they would never allow to enter the Temple. The establishment created rules and laws about religious and societal behavior and Jesus routinely violated every one of those laws, rules, and regulations.
We have proclaimed that we are His disciples. We have declared that we will follow Jesus no matter where the road leads, no matter the cost, and no matter what society might say. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, it is not an easy path.
We are the spiritual descendants of those in that boat that day some two thousand years ago. The presence of Christ is in our lives.
We are the spiritual descendants of those who gathered together in Jerusalem for Pentecost. The presence of the Holy Spirit is in our lives.
Two thousand years ago, our spiritual ancestors went out into the world and began to tell everyone they met about Jesus Christ. It can be very frightening to travel into a world where what lay beyond the horizon was unknown. Yet empowered by the Holy Spirit and with the presence of God, that is where they went and what they did (11).
By word and deed, our spiritual ancestors spread the Good News, teaching about Jesus, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and freeing the oppressed.
As United Methodists, we are the spiritual descendants of Jacob Albright, Martin Boehm, Philip Otterbein, and John Wesley.
Early Methodists found ways to feed the hungry and established free health care clinics to provide medical care. Because people were denied basic financial services and put into jail because they could not pay their bills, the early Methodists created the first credit unions. Because children worked in the mines and factories six days a week, the early Methodists created Sunday schools to educate them and their parents. Because of the efforts of the Wesleyan Revival, some historians think this is the reason England did not experience a bloody revolution like the French revolution of the same period (12).
Early Methodists were considered threats to the organized/established church. Our spiritual ancestors were outsiders and trouble makers! (13).
John Wesley and the early Methodists were barred from preaching in the Anglican churches in England and the Episcopal Churches in early America for going against the established view. Barred from preaching in the Anglican and Episcopal churches, Wesley and the other early Methodists went into the fields, the mines, and the factories to bring the Gospel message to the people.
Here in the United States, Methodists were prohibited by law from building their own churches. So, they built meeting houses and chapels instead.
The Evangelical United Brethren church, the church through which I came to know Christ, was the merger of two other denominations developed by Jacob Albright, Martin Boehm, and Philip Otterbein. All three had connections and ties to the Methodist Church that was just beginning in the early days of this country and helped spread the Gospel to the German speaking people who had come to America in the early 18th century.
It was the distrust of the English-speaking members of the new Methodist movement in this country for the German-speaking individuals seeking to become Methodists that lead Otterbein, Boehm, Albright to form their own churches, churches which very much adhered to the Wesleyan model. I cannot help but think how this would have played out today.
Because so many of the members of these churches spoke German and followed the Methodist model, they were often called “German Methodists” (14).
In 1761, Otterbein would hear Martin Boehm preach and proclaimed “Wir sind Bruder!” (“We are brothers!) This was a statement that they shared a common belief in God, a belief that reached across traditional boundaries. Boehm would be later excommunicated from the Mennonite Church for his association with individuals and activities outside the Mennonite community. This included giving land to Pennsylvania Methodists on which to build a religious building. (15).
We are the spiritual brothers and sisters of the members of Zion Pilgrim Methodist Episcopal Church, the church that was just down the road from us on Baxtertown Road. Zion Pilgrim was a station on the Underground Railroad and members of that church risked their own freedom to help others find their own freedom (16).
The two white roses on the altar and the one that I wear in my hat are the symbols of the White Rose movement. We are spiritual cousins of the White Rose movement, the Christian student movement in Germany during World War II, which along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church (note – this is not the Confessing Movement!), rose in opposition to the Nazis and the church establishment that put the state before God (17).
We are about to begin a new chapter in the history of Fishkill United Methodist Church. Each generation writes its own pages in the book of history.
If the generations who came before us, who gave us our traditions, our legacy, and our heritage, found ways to reach out to the people of the community, to see past traditional and establishment views, to speak and act against oppression in all its forms, what will our own history be? What will be written about this generation on the pages of history 50 or 100 years from now?
The decisions we make today will shape the legacy we leave for the next generation. But, as Paul wrote, we must decide today.
Yes, this is going to be tough but no tougher than what those who proceeded before us endured. And what we do today will make it easier for those who follow us.
It is very easy to do nothing; that is a choice that we can make. But as Paul wrote, it is a choice which limits what one does. It is a choice which offers no future.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said (18):
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.
To choose to walk with Christ opens the world before us and helps us see a bright and better future.
God is calling us today! He is calling you today!
God is calling us, He is calling you, not to learn new skills, but use the skills we already have.
God is calling us, He is calling you today to continue bringing the Good News, through our words, our deeds, our thoughts, and our actions, to people we may not know and in places we may never have imagined.
God is calling you today? Will you answer the call?
- “What Does The Future Hold?”
- The Day of Affirmation quotes comes Senator Edward Kennedy’s eulogy of his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy. They are attributed to the Dave of Affirmation speeches Senator Kennedy gave during his trip to South Africa in 1966 – http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ekennedytributetorfk.html
- That this pendant is still available today at “Another Mother for Peace” speaks to how well we have dealt with the concept of war and peace over the past fifty years.
- adapted from “Defining Love”
- see “Side by Side” and “Side by Side”
- adapted from “A Celebration of Life”
- Jeremiah 6: 16 – 20
“Go stand at the crossroads and look around. Ask for directions to the old road,
The tried-and-true road. Then take it. Discover the right route for your souls.
But they said, ‘Nothing doing. We aren’t going that way.’
I even provided watchmen for them to warn them, to set off the alarm.
But the people said, ‘It’s a false alarm. It doesn’t concern us.’
And so I’m calling in the nations as witnesses: ‘Watch, witnesses, what happens to them!’
And, ‘Pay attention, Earth! Don’t miss these bulletins.’
I’m visiting catastrophe on this people, the end result of the games they’ve been playing with me.
They’ve ignored everything I’ve said, had nothing but contempt for my teaching.
What would I want with incense brought in from Sheba, rare spices from exotic places?
Your burnt sacrifices in worship give me no pleasure. Your religious rituals mean nothing to me.”
- “Seeing Around the Corner” and “What Is Around the Corner?”
- Methodist Revival and the non-English Revolution
http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/367 disputes this notion
- First expressed in “We Are Outsiders!”
- When I was looking for the phrase “German Methodists”, I came across a subset of American Methodist churches called the German Methodist Episcopal church. These were essential Methodist Episcopal churches for German speaking individuals in the early 1800’s (as far as my quick read of the notes could tell). Some of these churches were in Texas, which did have a high German immigrant population. Sadly, during the 1840 division of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the formation of the Methodist Episcopal South, there was a similar split of the German Methodist Episcopal church and the formation of the German Methodist Episcopal South church.
- Evangelical United Brethren Church
- Zion Pilgrim Methodist Church and the Underground Railroad
- The White Rose and the Confessing Church