“The Life You Lead”

Mediation for October 19, 2014, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Laity Sunday

Exodus 33: 13 – 23; 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 10; Matthew 22: 15 – 22

I wrote some notes about these three passages a couple of months ago with the thought that I would be in the pulpit somewhere this Sunday. But in re-opening this file I noticed that what I wrote back then does not match what I am thinking today, which is often the nature and case.

I don’t know why this particular Sunday was picked to be Laity Sunday. I suspect that if one were to go back into the history of the denomination and examine old copies of The Discipline I think one might find a legal paragraph or two that mandates that lay speakers do one service a year in their own church.

I have a sense that such a rule/paragraph existed at one time and I know that it doesn’t exist today. In one sense, if it did exist, it would be a little impractical, especially in those churches with more than one active lay speaker. Of course, there really isn’t such a thing as a lay speaker anymore, having shifted to the title of lay servant and preaching or presenting the message is no longer the primary task of the lay servant.

But in one sense, having changed the focus from speaking to service makes every Sunday a Laity Sunday.

I was in a discussion with a friend the other day about the nature of the sermon and whether it served primarily as a call to respond to Christ or to provide information to the assembled people or some other purpose. I hope that we concluded with the idea that a particular sermon serves a particular purpose based on the situation and needs of those in attendance. But it also served as a call for each member of the church, the laity, to respond in some way.

Now, hold onto that thought for a moment. I will come back to it shortly.

In addition to time being set aside to recognize the laity of the church, this is also the time that many churches begin their stewardship campaign. And unfortunately most of these campaigns are simply pleas for money to operate the church and its functions for another year (see “Creative Stewardship” and “What Does Stewardship Mean To Me?” as my response to that approach).

Stewardship has to be more than simply giving money for the operation of the church. When everything is expressed in terms of operating the church, then I fear that we have elevated the building to a status similar to a false idol. This is not to say that the building is not important but then again, how many successful churches today are operating outside the framework of a permanent structure?

Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees, again looking for a way to entrap him. This time, the issue is taxation, an extremely sore point with the religious establishment who could not stand that money taken by the Romans was money that could have been given to them. And Jesus replies that one gives to the government what should be given to the government and one gives to God what should be given to God.

Let’s not get into a discussion on the rights, responsibilities, and obligations of citizenship (of course, back then the Israelites were not necessarily considered Roman citizens). But too many people, I think, use Jesus’ thought of giving to the government and giving to God as an excuse to not give to God because they have to give so much to the government.

But that can only occur when God is not the priority in your life, when His presence is a slot of time on Sundays and sometimes during the week. In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses challenges God to make His presence known to the people so that they will know and understand the special relationship they have with Him.

I think the problem is that, while God is among us today, we are blind to His presence. We speak of the unique relationship that we have but we don’t acknowledge it. And if we do not acknowledge it, we can’t be aware of it.

I wrote a prayer a few years ago that hung in our feeding ministry’s kitchen. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a copy of it on my hard drive. But I remember that one line I wrote acknowledged that Jesus Christ would be one of those who we feed that morning. How can we give to God what is God if we do not treat everyone as if he or she was a representative of Christ?

Second point, how can we see God if our lives are lived in such a way that it doesn’t reflect what we believe? When you read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians for today, note how he commends them for leading a life that shows the presence of Christ and what that means to others. Others see in the Thessalonians the way to live and the openness in which that live works.

And now I go back to the idea that every Sunday is Laity Sunday and that we, the laity, take with us at the end of the service is the knowledge that we serve Christ with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind.

You cannot split your life into parts as far as Christ is concerned. You either live it fully in and with Christ or you do not. And if you do not live it fully in and with Christ, then you had best do what Jesus Himself first called upon the people to do, repent of your ways and begin anew.

You cannot expect people to accept you as a Christian if your life does not show the love of Christ. What was it that cause the people to notice the behavior of the Thessalonians if it was not a change in their life?

In response to such a challenge last week, I wrote that “generosity requires a change in thinking.” Anyone can be generous with their money but how many people are generous with their lives?

On this Sunday, we need to understand that it is not a recognition of what we have done but rather what we are going to do. It is a recognition that the life we lead is one that leads to Christ and helps others find Christ in a troubled and disturbed world. It is a life that does truly lead to peace and justice for all.

“Renewal, Revival, and Rejoicing”

This is the message that I gave at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (Grace UMC, Newburgh) on Saturday, October 19th, for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 27 – 34, 2 Timothy 3: 14 – 4: 5; and Luke 18: 1 – 8; I focused primarily on the passage from Jeremiah but used thoughts from the other two readings as well.

When I thought about the title for this message, my first thought was something like “Destruction, Desolation, and Despair.” But that is a rather depressing title and neither the direction that I wanted to take the message nor indicative of the Scriptures for this weekend. So I looked again at the Scriptures and I thought about it and came up with “Renewal, Revival, and Rejoicing.”

But you have to realize that from destruction, desolation, and despair, to renewal, revival, and rejoicing, you have to think about what was happening to the Israelites some 3000 years ago and again some 2000 years ago and in this country some 200 or so years ago and perhaps even today.

The Old Testament reading comes at a time when the people of Israel are returning home after exile in Babylon. But they are returning to a country that has been completely and totally destroyed. The best and brightest of the Israelite society have been taken away and it would seem that there is no way that the country can be rebuilt. Amidst the desolation and destruction, there is only despair; there is no hope.

It was that way when during the time of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps there wasn’t much destruction since the country had been rebuilt but there certainly had to be desolation and despair. The country was occupied by a foreign power and was governed by a group of political and religious authorities who were more interested in their own power and sought favor from the Roman occupiers. Many of the people felt that there was no hope, no mercy, and certainly no justice unless, of course, one had money and power.

And two hundred years ago in this country, amidst the destruction and desolation that followed the American Revolution, there had to be a degree of despair. Because of the revolution, many of the clergy affiliated with the Anglican Church, the state church of the colonies and England, had left for the safety of England rather than stay through the struggles. This left many in this country without pastoral leadership.

In these three eras of history, there was clearly destruction and desolation and most certainly there was despair. To see hope and promise was very, very difficult if not even seemingly possible. And today, when there are still homeless, there is still hunger and sickness, it is quite easy to sense the despair amidst the destruction and desolation in the land that many see as the 21st century Promised Land, the “land of milk and honey.”

But against that background, against the attitude that perhaps there is no hope, no promise for a better tomorrow and no future, there is hope, there is a promise. It began with Jesus walking the roads of the Galilee, speaking about the promise and not just speaking but offering hope through healing, feeding, and prayer. It continued with Paul offering advice to Timothy, his successor.

Paul told Timothy to stick with what he, Timothy, had been taught and not get caught up with the spiritual junk food that so many other preachers of that time were offering. You know those type of preachers, they are still with us today.

They speak with smooth tongues and syrupy sweet voices, offering untold riches if you will send them your money. Maybe that would be the way to go, after all when they have your money they go out and buy expensive suits and fancy cars for themselves. I don’t think that is what is in the Gospel.

And I don’t trust those preachers who tell you that all the problems of the world are somebody else fault and that there is no hope for you, a lost sinner. I’ve heard these preachers before and all I know is that they do not speak the same words that Jesus spoke nor is what they offer what God offered me.

A God who would send His son to the world to save me from my sins because He loved me would not send a preacher to say there is no hope. Nor would He have His Son, Jesus, tell us that it was easy to get into heaven.

Paul told Timothy to keep preaching the Gospel, preach it with intensity and challenge the people. He reminded Timothy that it would be hard work and it would be difficult but it would be worth it when it was all said and done.

The call for mercy, justice, and hope can never be quieted. Jesus told the people about the persistent widow, who would call for justice and mercy from a judge corrupt beyond belief.

Just like the people who heard Jesus tell this story, we know how this story turns out. But Jesus said that the judge will ultimately grant the widow justice because it was the right thing to do.

For us today, in a world perhaps without hope or promise, we have to understand that God will not forget us; we have to understand that God will respond to our cries for help. But those who call out must continue to watch, listen, and work towards the outcome. Too many people today call out for God, “Help me, God!” and turn away when He does not answer immediately.

But as they are turning away, there is God reaching out. It isn’t that God didn’t respond; it is that we were not looking when the help was offered. Here the words of Jeremiah again,

Be ready. The time’s coming”—God’s Decree—“when I will plant people and animals in Israel and Judah, just as a farmer plants seed. And in the same way that earlier I relentlessly pulled up and tore down, took apart and demolished, so now I am sticking with them as they start over, building and planting.

These words were spoken to a people amidst the destruction of their country, amidst the despair of a life without hope. These were the words of God saying there was the promise of renewal and revival, of rejoicing in a new beginning.

And when the people of this country cried out for pastoral leadership, John Wesley sent the circuit riders to preach and teach among the people of this country. His actions, by the way, were in defiance of the religious leaders who would not respond to the cries of the people.

And so here we are today, hearing the words of God, seeking to renew our lives and revive our spirits, rejoicing in the thought that through Christ we are saved. In the darkness of times we know that we have not been forgotten, that we are not lost but have been found and if we accept Jesus Christ as our own personal Savior, we have hope for the future.

We have that single opportunity today to renew our lives, revive our spirit and rejoice in Christ. Amen!

“Amazing Grace – The Power of The Holy Spirit”

This is the first message that I ever gave as a lay speaker. During a lay speaker class, I was asked how long it took to write my first message and I replied “three years.” I began thinking about being a lay speaker in 1988 but it was not until 17 November 1991 that I ever put together on paper the words for a sermon. Interestingly enough I never thought about the relationship between the title of this message and the fact that I was at Grace UMC when I gave it. I focused more on the hymn and what that hymn meant. That Grace UMC would make the turn around that it did (six months before this message, it was thought that the church was going to die; it survived those rough times and prospered over the years) is amazing and perhaps this was a way to foretell that.

Following the lead of my pastor, John Praetorius, I chose a reading and a text (as I have pointed out before, I didn’t start using the lectionary until 1995). I chose Matthew 28: 10 – 20 as the Scripture reading and 1 Chronicles 17: 16 – 17 as the text for my message.

The song “Amazing Grace” is an interesting one, both for its music and its message. This song is based in part on John Newton’s own life and experience (The Hymns & Hymn Writers of the Church, Tillet & Nutter, 1911). That experience can be understood from the passage from I Chronicles he used as the basis for the song:

Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that thou hast brought me thus far? And this was a small thing in thy eyes, O God; thou hast also spoken to thy servant’s house for a great while to come, and hast shown me future generations, O Lord God! (1 Chronicles 17:16 – 17)

At one point, he was a ship’s captain; more to the point he was a slave ship captain. One day, while on the regular run from Africa to the American colonies, he decided that what he was doing wasn’t right. He then turned his ship around and took the would-be slaves back to Africa. This was a rather dramatic move on his part, one that many people would have been afraid to make. Even Newton might have been afraid to make such a move, but the Holy Spirit gave John Newton the power to turn his boat around without fearing the consequences.

Saul also felt the power of the Holy Spirit when he was struck blind on the road to Damascus. More importantly, it was the same Holy Spirit which directed Ananias to go to Saul and help him.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosed to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:10 – 17)

Now Ananias may have been afraid to go see Saul on his own. After all, here was a man who had the power to throw Ananias in jail for simply believing in Jesus. But, with the power of the Holy Spirit, he was able to go to Saul.

It was the same power of the Holy Spirit which lead John Wesley to question his own faith and how the Church of England ministered to the people of England. Without that Power to lead him, it would have been very difficult for Wesley to lead the Methodist movement.

We have all felt the power of the Holy Spirit at some time in our lives. The first time it came to me was in the form of my mother’s right elbow. When I was 12 and my family was living in Montgomery, Alabama, I grew tired of my mother elbowing me to keep me awake during the sermon. As a result, I decided to sit by myself. During that time, I begain to think about what it was to be a Christian. Shortly after we moved to Denver, Colorado, that summer I approached George Eddy, the pastor at the 1st Evangelical United Brethen Church in Aurora, about studying for the God & Country Award given by the Boy Scouts. Under his tutelage, I earned that award and joined the EUB church in 1964. Even today, that still rates as one of my personal achievements. I am also convinced that it was the presence of the Holy Spirit that lead my family and I here from Odessa, Texas and to this church. I did not know about Grace Church until I walked by it while visiting the campus during the summer.

What these stories show is the impact the Holy Spirit can have on individuals. It is that power which change’s one life and gives them the strength to change others. The idea of leadership within the church is what this Sunday is about. Jesus, through his disciples, has empowered us, as the laity, with the task of ministering to the world:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Matthew 28:18 – 20)

Finding leaders for the church has always been a problem. Consider Moses’ reaction to his nomination by God to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt:

But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either heretofore or since thou hast spoken to thy servant; but I am slow of speech and tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who make him dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak. (Exodus 4:10 – 13)

Today is Laity Sunday, a day on which we honor all those who serve the chruch. Leadership is not limited to a select few, but is the responsibility of all members of the church. After all, when anyone joins the church, we as members also reaffirm our vows to “uphold it by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, page 48 (1989))

While I am a relatively new member of Grace Church, I still have an appreciation for its 130 year history. This is the most crucial time in that history. It is a time when this church can grow and expand its ministry in the neighborhood and the city. From the Talmud, we read

“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.” (I believe that I first saw this quote in Making of a President – 1960)

This is Grace Church’s time. Through the Holy Spirit, we are called to carry out the mission of this church.

How do we meet this challenge? First, our Church Conference is December 8th. As a member of the church, you are entitled to vote on matters before the church. We have started an Estimate of Giving program and you can return that card so that the church will be able to plan its budget. If you sing in the choir, serve as an usher, serve as a greeter after church, serve as a Sunday School teacher, or help with Fellowship Time between Sunday School and church, you serve the church. There are many other ways to help the church meet this great challenge.

The question that we as members of Grace Church must answer is “Are we willing to lead Grace Church in its mission and growth.” This is the same challenge John Newton faced when he turned his boat around and Ananias faced when he went to help Saul. If we do as John Newton, Ananias, John Wesley, and others have done and let the Holy Spririt guide and direct us, then we will be able to understand the meaning of the sixth verse of “Amazing Grace”:

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.”

“The Search For Excellence In The Church Today”

I am at the First United Methodist Church of Round Hill (Greenwich, CT) this Sunday morning, October 21, 2012. The Scriptures for this morning, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (B), are Job 38: 1 – 7, (34 – 41); Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; ; and Mark 10: 35 – 45. Their services start at 11:00 and you are welcome to attend.

We have traveled many different paths to get to this place in space and time. We traveled some of the paths because we had no other choice, we traveled some rather reluctantly, but there have been some paths that we willingly and joyfully chose to travel. Our lives have been formed by the paths that we have walked and our lives will determine the paths that we walk when we leave this place today.

In 1984 I moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to Silvis, Illinois, to begin teaching at a community college there. I was looking forward to making this move because I was going to be teaching again after being in graduate school at the University of Memphis. And because Iowa City was only about an hour and a half from the college where I was teaching, I would be able to complete the work on my doctorate in Science Education. As a side note, if you are interested in graduate work in the area of science education, the best place then and now to do this work was and is the University of Iowa. It was a path that I chose to walk.

That period of time, the mid 1980s, was a time when many in this country felt that the country had lost its competitive advantage and were seeking to regain it. It was also a time marked by an increased interest in the nature of creativity and innovation.

Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr., wrote a book entitled The Search For Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies in which they identified what they thought were the basic principles of modern business management. I was interested in this research for two reasons. First, my father was an industrial engineer who specialized in time and motion study. As a disciple of Frederick Winslow Taylor, he looked at the ways things operated and thought about how to make them work better.

More importantly, I arrived on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City as this search for excellence was being applied to science education in this country. The faculty members at Iowa who would guide, direct and advise me on my doctoral studies were leading this research.  And one mark of the excellence of the Iowa program, at least for me, is that I was allowed the choose the path my doctoral studies would take and I was not required to be part of this research.

The conclusions as to what made an excellent or exemplary program in science education very closely matched the conclusions of Peters and Waterman (see Penick, J. E., Yager, R. E., and Bonnstetter, R. (October, 1986). Teachers make exemplary programs. Educational Leadership, 44(2), 14-20.)

Peters and Waterman began their research by noting that the dominant model for business management was predicated and based on the financial bottom line. Nothing matter but that which improved the bottom line. There was no concern for the goods or products being produced; there was no concern for the workers involved or what the customers truly wanted. A company’s goal was to produce its product at the lowest possible cost.

Peters and Waterman found a blind acceptance of the bottom line as the only truth. But this model, called by some the “rational model” made people, both employees of the company and customers, part of the equation and, because it was an equation, there was no room for creativity and innovation. Management in the more traditional companies stayed away in their corporate offices, relying on analytical reports to give them a sense of the direction of the company.

What Peters and Waterman concluded was that successful companies did things just a bit differently. Such companies did not put a heavy reliance on analytical tools but understood that you had to understand what was happening. The bottom line on a financial picture can tell you one thing but it cannot tell you what is happening at that moment in the factory, the workplace, or the marketplace. Management in successful companies was accomplished by wandering around, seeing what was happening. By the way, how was it that Jesus conducted his ministry throughout the Galilee?

Successful companies focused on the needs of the customer and listened to the employees; they gave the employees the freedom to experiment, to be creative and innovative. It was pointed out that people in the successful companies were encouraged to develop new ideas and try them out without fear of failure. People in traditional companies who sought to do the same were often discouraged from doing so, to the point of perhaps being fired.

When the NSTA group looked at what were considered exemplary and innovative programs in science education, they came away with many of the same conclusions. It was the teachers in the classroom who created the successful and exemplary classes, not the management or administration. Innovation and creativity come from the bottom up and the bottom line is a lousy way to measure productivity. I recall one instance where a school administration told the creator of one of the innovative chemistry programs that she had to have been doing something wrong because all of the students in that particular school wanted to take chemistry classes and it was the administration’s view that only about 10% of the students were capable of taking chemistry.

Now, some thirty years after these studies, I have to wonder if we learned any lessons from them, both in business and education. A number of years ago I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on Total Quality Management (see “To Search For Excellence”). As I wrote then, about half-way through the three-day seminar I began to experience a sense of deja vu. In the end, the only thing that I learned was that I already knew most of the points that were being presented because they were the driving points behind what my father did as an industrial engineer for the United States Air Force, McDonnell Aircraft (before the merger with Douglas Aircraft) and RCA. All that TQM did was take time and motion study and give it a new name. And for the record, this seminar was sponsored by the United Methodist Church.

I am not entirely certain that what Peters and Waterman laid out before us has ever accepted. It seems to me that we still place an overbearing reliance on that traditional model, that if big is better, becoming bigger is even better. In the time since that book was first published, we have seen company after company get bigger, not by work, but by buying other companies. And the American people have accepted that idea that low cost is better than quality. We see in the products we buy; we have pushed the idea in our schools.

And I fear that today, with regards to Christianity and the church, we may be doing the same thing. One of the things that prompted me to title this message as I did was the beginning portion of the conversation James and John had with Jesus that day some two thousand years ago. What does it say about your work when you are more interested in the power of the position than the outcome? How many times in our own churches have we heard such a discussion? How many times have we seen a church destroy itself internally because of similar power struggles?

A recent survey by the Pew Institute indicates that 1 in 5 Americans today no longer claims any religious affiliation. This doesn’t mean that they no longer believe in Christ or God but rather they can find no place where they feel it possible to express their beliefs. What they very well may see in churches today is not the church that was but an extension of the world around them. Those who disavow religion are not necessarily forsaking Christ but they want to know how to deal with the world and they believe that Christ will offer them the answer. But if the church, in general, by denomination, or by building, is no different that the world, how will they find the answer?

And there is that prediction that I am sure that you are well aware of that there will be no United Methodist Church in twenty-five years because there will be no more United Methodists alive. Personally I hope to still be around then but where will I go if I should be one of the few?

I know that my voice is in the minority and there are many out there who would rather that I keep silent on the subject of revitalizing the United Methodist Church. But when I consider how people of the United Methodist Church helped me find the path to walk when I needed that guidance and how that guidance kept me from the wildnerness, how can I keep silent?

I know that there are others like me who see a church that has forgotten what path it is supposed to be walking. There are many out there, laity and clergy, who feel that the present plans and thoughts of the United Methodist Church miss the point and lead down the wrong path. Like me, they are committed to returning the church, both in general and for the United Methodist Church in particular, to a path that leads to the Cross and beyond. Perhaps we are disturbers of the peace that don’t fit well into the traditional model of how things work but then again neither were the prophets of the Old Testament and John the Baptist. They raised their voices, they cried out in the wilderness and in the cities for the people to repent and change one’s ways.

I think about what a blogging colleague of mine, John Meunier, wrote about John Wesley a few weeks back. John is a local pastor out in Indiana and a business communication instructor at Indiana University. We will probably come to a major disagreement of some sort when the Iowa Hawkeyes soundly defeat the Indiana Hoosiers in football on November 3rd but not about Methodism in general. He wrote,

Methodism began because a group of college kids obsessed with holiness of heart and life discovered that such holiness was a gift of grace by faith in the saving work of Christ. They called it justification by faith and they preached it to everyone who would listen and to those who would not listen. Thrown out of pulpits, they preached it in the fields.

It was a movement grounded in spiritual disciplines and convinced that holy living included and required following the moral law of God. As it gathered people, it created new disciplines to help the people grow in grace. They held each other accountable in love for progress toward perfection in love. This was the growth that Wesley cultivated, growth in holiness. He would gut the membership of a society if he thought that was required to increase the holiness of the members who remained. This is what he meant by discipline.

In our 21st century context, we do cultivate independence, as the IOT report says. We cultivate independence from our own tradition and our vows of ordination. We cultivate independence from the doctrine of our own denomination. We cultivate independence from our own connection. Our solution, paradoxically, is to solve our decline by skipping over matters of doctrine and spirit and focusing solely on matters of discipline — but only for certain segments of the connection.

Much of what the Call to Action seeks to do is worthy, but the initiative has missed the words that it has quoted in its own support. If we seek not just the form of religion but its power, we need to grasp hold again of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of our movement. One out of three will not do it, I fear. (From John Meunier’s “The final word from the IOT”)

I fear that what has caused our numbers to drop and what has caused people in general to say that they have no religious affiliation is not a lack of belief but an indication that churches today no longer focus on the primary mission of the church. They have become way too concerned about other things, things expressed by the bottom line on a financial statement. Perhaps the one thing that the Peters and Waterman study showed was that when you put people first, you succeed. And if the United Methodist Church is not in the people business, then I don’t know what its business is.

The church, be it in general, by denomination, or by individual building, should be concerned about the people and not just the people who come on Sunday and sit in the pews. It is the people who are outside the sanctuary walls, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, and the oppressed. Those where the people Jesus came to minister to; those where the ones that Wesley and the other early Methodists reached out when the church ignored and cast them out.

I again turn to John Wesley’s words, words that he spoke about what Christianity should be doing. And I again give thanks to John Meunier for putting them on his blog. John Meunier wrote,

In his sermon “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” Wesley put the issue in plain terms:

Many of your brethren, beloved of God, have not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on; they have not a place where to lay their head. And why are they thus distressed? Because you impiously, unjustly, and cruelly detain from them what your Master and theirs lodges in your hands on purpose to supply their wants! See that poor member of Christ, pinched with hunger, shivering with cold, half naked! Meantime you have plenty of this world’s goods, — of meat, drink, and apparel. In the name of God, what are you doing? Do you neither fear God, nor regard man?

How much more would Wesley be horrified by us than he was by them? In practical terms, Methodists abandoned the tradition with regard to the use of money before John Wesley was laid to his rest. And we’ve gone on abandoning him on this point ever since. (From John Meunier’s “What is a Methodist?”

In another sermon, I believe that Wesley pointed out that for those who are physically hungry, there was little comfort in the Scriptures. How can we even begin to find excellence in the church today when our concerns no longer match the reason we are called Methodists?

So I return to the title of this message and ask how we will find excellence in the church today? Let us look again at what Jesus said to James, John, and the other disciples in the Gospel reading for today, if you want the power that comes in God’s Kingdom, you have to get your hands dirty. You have to go out and serve those whom you would lead. And if you are not willing to do that in some way, then be prepared to be left behind.

There are many interpretations of God’s monologue with Job in today’s Old Testament reading. Some will say that the God who spoke to Job and his friends was an angry God, reminding each and everyone of them of His power. For these individuals, God was reminding everyone that He is superior to all and that everyone needed to know it. In this vein, those who dare to challenge God are to be put into their place. I have heard this type of response before, from management who feel that they know my subject better than me and that my ideas are meaningless and worthless.

For the past five years I have served as the registrar for the New York/Connecticut District Lay Speaking, now Lay Servant, Committee. We have discovered that this position, which I essentially invented, may very well be the only such position in the entire United Methodist Church. Others are discovering that such a position is needed as we make the changes in the lay servant ministry. The other day someone high in the conference administration told the individual who took on my job as the registrar that he had a better program for monitoring the work of lay speakers. That’s great but how does he know that his program or method is better than mine when he never discussed it with me?

Would a god (lower case, by the way) more interested in power and authority have sent His Son to this time and place to save us?

If we understand that what God is doing in this case is responding to the request of Job, then we have a better understanding of what is happening. God’s Words are not words of anger but words of revelation. In His words to Job and Job’s friends, God opens up the world for us to see it in all of its glory. Instead of fear, we are to stand in awe.

For me, this monologue is also a statement that God is here, right now, in this place at this time, and if we cannot see Him, it is because we have forgotten who God is and what He looks like. We have become so hung up on the trappings of the church that we have forgotten why we are here in the first place. People do not come to church because of a number at the bottom of a column on a budget; they come to church because they seek God. They have heard of the great things God has done; they want to experience those great things as we have. They have heard the message that Jesus offers hope to the downtrodden and they seek that hope.

And yet, too many times, they are rejected by the people of the church. The passage from Hebrews that we read this morning reminds us that the church of Jesus’ time put layers between the people and God but that through Jesus’ sacrifice, those layers were removed. Can we truly say that anyone walking through the doors of this or any church are able to gain access to Christ or are we more worried about the way they look or act?

I began by noting that each one of us came to this time and place by a variety of paths, some that we choose, some that others choose for us. There was another path that I choose to walk, the path that lead me to Christ. My decision to seek Christ, as is everyone’s decision, was an individual one. The path that we walk to and with Christ is one that we will always walk alone, though others may be on the same path as each of us.

Yes, part of my journey on that path was not by choice. It was my mother who insisted that I, along with my brothers and sister, be in Sunday School and church every Sunday, no matter where we might be or live. With my father as an Air Force officer, we moved from base to base on an almost yearly basis when I was in grade school. It was not easy finding a church but we did and my mother made sure that we were in Sunday School and church every Sunday.

She laid out the first parts of the path that I was to walk and she showed me the direction but it was a path that only I could walk. And when I made the decision to continue walking on that path, I was able to do so because 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church, now 1st United Methodist Church, of Aurora, Colorado was there.

There are others who wish to walk this path to Christ. But can they find that way station, that place of rest and hope that will help them find the way on their own journey? The measure of excellence in the church today is how well each church responds to the needs of those in its community, to find the path to Christ and to continue the journey in Christ. Each church must look at where it is, both spiritually and physically, and ask itself how can we help those in this community begin that walk to and with Christ?

The search for excellence in the church today is a search for Christ. It is also a part of our lives as Christians to seek the perfection that is Christ. We must be prepared to help others find Christ and we must find ways to seek the excellence that is Christ.  The challenge that each church faces today is to find those areas of excellence, the place where our gifts and our talents shine, and see how best they can be used to help others find Christ.

The invitation today is to open your heart and allow Christ to come in. Perhaps you are searching for Christ, now is the time to see Him right here. And perhaps like so many others you are seeking answers, much like Job. Now is the time to hear the answers to your questions. Or perhaps you are looking for ways in which you can help others to answer the questions that so often perplexed you. Now is the time to allow the Holy Spirit to come into your life, warm your heart as it did John Wesley’s heart that night in the Aldersgate Chapel so that when you leave this place, you leave on a new path, committed to the excellence that is Christ.

“Do You See the Light?”

This is the message I gave for Laity Sunday, October 16, 1994, at Grace Memorial United Methodist Church (Independence, KS) and Sycamore United Methodist Church (Sycamore, KS). It was also the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (B) but I choose Acts 9: 3 – 9; 17 – 19 and John 9: 30 – 34 as my Scripture readings.

Caves are very interesting places. For early mankind, caves offered shelter from the weather. During times of trouble, caves offered places to hide. Many a prophet hid in caves when the people got angry. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves. Even today, they serve as places of entertainment. One thing that used to dominate the countryside, especially in this part of the county, were barns painted with advertising to come and view Meramec Caverns outside St. Louis. I am sure that many of you have seen such advertising.

If you have never taken a tour of a cave, you should. And inevitably, during the tour, after you have gone deep into the passages, the tour guide will have everyone stop and then he (or she) will turn off the lights. When that happens, you begin to get the feeling of what it is to be blind. Nothing else comes close. Even at night time, with no moon, there is still enough light to allow us to see. In a cave with no added lights, the statement “so dark you cannot see your hand in front of your face” comes true.

It is also at such times that we can understand the fear that Saul must have felt when he was blinded by the Holy Spirit.

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.(Acts 9: 3 – 9)

The fortunate thing for Paul is that the blindness he suffered on the road to Damascus and the darkness we are surrounded by when we are in the caves is only temporary. Even while he struggled with his blindness, Paul knew that the God would take care of him. We know that the lights will come back on inside the cave.

Still, the thought of becoming blind is very frightening. Even in today’s enlighten times, it is hard for us to realize the limitations that society placed on the blind. During the 17 and 1800’s, the blind were often institutionalized. For others, though, blindness is not so temporary. It was perhaps even worse during Jesus’ time. The blind were looked upon with pity and sorrow for it was felt that, in someway, their blindness was due to some sin in their life. And if the person was born blind, as was the case of the individual in the passage we read in John, the sins were assumed to have been those of his parents.

Against the background of blindness and an indifferent society, the author of the three hymns we sing today, Fanny Crosby, triumphed. Most people are probably aware of the many traditional Methodist hymns written by Charles Wesley, John Wesley’s brother. However, I am sure that not many people are aware that over 1000 hymns Christians sing today were written by Fanny Crosby. She was born in 1820 and died in 1915, living most of her life in the New York area. And from the sixth week of her life, she was blind. The notes that accompany the United Methodist Hymnal point out that she spent most of her adult life working with other blind people and, of course, writing those wonderful hymns that we turn to in times of trouble and in times of joy.

Fanny Crosby was much like the blind man in John. Her presence and her song writing skills were to let others know what joy Jesus brings to our lives.

“As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9: 1 – 5)

It was her faith in Jesus that gave Fanny Crosby the vision needed to write such powerful songs as “Blessed Assurance”. Through her faith, through the light provided by Jesus, she saw just as well as you or I, perhaps even better.

Today, as we begin looking to the coming new century, we hear a lot of talk about our country’s lack of vision. But why should we be surprised by our country’s lack of vision. What Abraham Lincoln said some one hundred and thirty years ago is still true today. Governments are of, by, and from the people. If the people are lost and confused, the government will be likewise. If the people do not have a vision of what they expect for the future, how can we expect the country to know where it is going? If the government is to have a firm sense of direction for the coming years, that direction must come from us, both as individuals and as the church.

Today is Laity Sunday. This is the day we honor all those who have worked for the church during the past year. It is also an opportunity to look at how we, the members of the church, can work for the betterment of the the church and society. I do not think that it is a coincidence that our observation of Laity Sunday comes at the same time as our national elections or the meeting of the Nominations Committee of the local church. This is the time when we set the direction we want our church and our country to take. Yet, at least on the national level, this direction is very, very confusing.

The tone of most political commercials today seems to be how bad the opponent will be for the country. During the last two presidential campaigns, there were a number of complaints about the negative nature of the advertising. It does not appear that much has changed in the past two years. I heard a political advertisement the other day as I was driving to Tulsa. In this commercial, the challenger stated that his opponent was out of touch with Oklahoma and then he went through all the bad things the opponent had done. For this candidate, the solution to the problem was for the voters of Oklahoma to vote for him. Yet, this challenger never did say what it was that he would do if he were elected. Kansas political ads appear to be no different.

But our political campaigns are merely a reflection of the way we have allowed our nation. Whether it is in politics or just everyday living, the majority in this country willingly let others tell them how to act, what to wear, and how to think. At the time when the world is at peace, when the Glory of God should be shining through, we have lost our direction. We stand at the brink of the greatest time of our lives and our direction is set by others, not by God.

We are like the Israelites standing before the Promised Land. We struggled for many years to reach this point and now we wait for the final report. In the case of the Israelites, it was a matter of sending in twelve spies, one from each of the tribes of Israel. You would have thought that, considering the time in the wilderness and all the difficulties that trip had to overcome, the people would have been overjoyed. Yet what did the spies report:

“We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”(Numbers 13: 31 – 33)

And to this, the people cried

“Would that we have died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?”(Numbers 14: 2 – 3)

Every time during the Exodus when the Israelites ran into trouble, they cried out how Moses and Aaron had failed them and that they were going to die in the wilderness. Faced with the difficulties of traveling and living in the wilderness, knowing that the Promised Land was just inches away, the Israelites would have rather turned around and returned to the seemingly comfortable life of slavery in Egypt. Are we not like that today? Isn’t it much easier for us to complain about the present situation than to work towards improving our lot?

The turmoil in our lives today is directly related to the fact that we, both as a nation and individually, have lost our commitment to God. We have forgotten that with God, all things are possible. We no longer put God first in our lives and, as a result, have lost our spiritual direction. Like the Pharisees, we have become blind to the troubles of the world. In a world split by race, creed, and economic status, we see the problems these differences cause but we want others to solve them. Even though He has repeatedly told us that he would provide, we no longer have faith that God will do so.

It is admittedly not an easy task. But it was their faith in God that enabled the Israelites to leave slavery in Egypt and make the trip to the Promised Land in the first place. It was their faith in God that enabled them to conquer that land. Despite the negative report from ten of the spies, not all of the Israelites had lost their faith in God. Joshua and Caleb offered a different opinion of what was in the Promised Land.

And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, “The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” But the whole congregation threatened to stone them. (Numbers 14: 6 – 10)

Joshua and Caleb put their faith in the Lord and were rewarded for their faith. When the Israelites reached the Promised Land after spending the extra time wandering, only Joshua and Caleb were still alive to enjoy the fruits of the Promised Land. Those who had lost their faith had died during the extra years in the wilderness.

It is the same for us. In these times of trial, all we have to do is return to God. As James wrote

“If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to tell you, for a doubtful mind will be as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind; and every decision you then make will be uncertain, as you turn first this way, and then that. If you don’t ask with faith, don’t expect the Lord to give you any solid answer.”(James 1: 5 – 8)

When God sent the Israelites out of Egypt, he did not do so without providing them instruction. Even as they began that journey from the certain and safe surroundings of Egypt into the unknown wilderness they called the Promised Land, they still knew that it was God who guiding them.

The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13: 17 – 22)

I have painted an admittedly dark picture of our and this country’s future. Yet, the pillar of fire which accompanied the Israelites by night and the pillar of cloud which accompanied them by day is still present today. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples in the passage from John, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9: 1 – 5)

Paul understood what it meant to see the world through the light of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote in his second letter to Corinthians.

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of god. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of god. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”.(2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6)

The light that shines in the darkness today is Jesus Christ, our Savior. It is that light which can guide each one of us. When we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, we will be like Saul regaining his sight and becoming Paul.

So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus,who has appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.(Acts 9: 17 – 19)

We are entering a world which is becoming increasingly dark and forbidding. We, you and I, must make a choice. We can live our lives in the total darkness of sin or we can live our lives in the light of the salvation of Jesus Christ. The question is ours to answer “Do you see the Light?”

What Do You Do?

This was the message that I gave on 24 October 1993 at Grace UMC in St. Cloud, MN as part of Laity Sunday. While this was the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, it was still early in my lay speaking career and I was still “picking and choosing” my Scripture readings instead of following the lectionary as I do today.

I wasn’t supposed to give the message this year. Though it was only October, I knew that I would be moving to Kansas after the current school year was completed and I wanted to begin a transition from “leader” to “observer”. I had organized the previous two Laity Sunday services and felt that others should begin getting involved. But on the Saturday afternoon before this Sunday, the person scheduled to give the message called and told me he was unable to be in church on Sunday and I would need to fill in. As this was early in my career, I wasn’t quite ready to do so but when you are a lay speaker you have said that you would answer the call when it is made and that is what I did. Because of the time frame of preparation, I liberally borrowed from messages I had given elsewhere figuring that no one present at Grace had been present at the places in Missouri and Tennessee where I had preached earlier. Unfortunately I forgot that one of those messages had been videotaped and I had shared that tape with some of the congregation. J

I based my thoughts for this message on 2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6 and Matthew 15: 24 – 25.

One of the churches where I have been a member is large enough to have a senior pastor and an associate pastor. During the Sunday worship, the associate pastor takes care of the lectionary readings, the prayers of the congregation, and the offering. There is also a youth minister to take care of the “Children’s Moment”. This leaves the senior pastor to concentrate on the sermon. At this church it is the custom for the children, following the “Children’s Moment”, to go to another area of the church where they have a Children’s service. One Sunday, as one young girl walked by the pulpit, she looked at the senior pastor and asked “What do you do?” For you see, every Sunday this child saw the associate pastor lead the congregation in prayer and other activities. She would go up to the altar to be with the Youth Minister for the “Children’s Moment”. But all she saw the other man do was sit in his chair because she, along with the other children, left before he preached. In answer to her question, the senior pastor did the “Children’s Moment” the next week.

“What do you do” has been a question for the church for a number of years. As we look at the world around us today, we have to ask ourselves “What do we do to change the direction of the world from its path of sin and desolation?” What do we do when society around us is intolerant of poverty and shows no concern for its less fortunate members? These questions are not unique to our generation; they have been with us since Jesus began His ministry.

John Wesley struggled with these questions for many years. He could not sit idly by and watch his church ignore the plight and conditions of the lower classes. In an exchange with Joseph Butler, the Bishop of Bristol, Wesley made it clear what he felt he must do.

Bishop Butler — “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”

John Wesley — “My lord, my business on earth is to do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do the most good here. Therefore here I stay.” (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal”, 16th to 24th August, 1739.)

John Wesley understood that a church and a nation which ignores members of its society can never expect worldly success, let alone success in Heaven. Having accepted Christ as one’s personal Savior, you could not sit back and wait for the Glory of the Lord to come to you. You had to take the message of the Gospel out into the world, both in thought, word and deed. To the elders of the Church of England, this call for action was unconscionable. How dare a pastor call for such radical action. This was a time when more and more people were getting wealthy every day so it was permissible to ignore those few who were not quite so fortunate. Remember poverty in Wesley’s time was thought to be a reflection of one’s sinful life. If you were rich, it was because you had lead a good life. If you were poor, it was because you were not living the right kind of life. It wasn’t the church’s fault that people were homeless and hungry; that medical care for the lower classes was almost non-existent; that only the rich could afford to go to school. Wesley would have felt right at home in the United States these last few years when concern for one’s own well-being was more important than a concern for members of society.

John Wesley understood that the church must present a message people understand. But the message must also be accompanied by actions. To Wesley, preaching the Gospel was more than a Sunday experience; it was a daily occurrence. Preaching the Gospel alone is not enough when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society; you must help people overcome such barriers. If people are hungry, they must be feed; if people are sick, they must be healed; if the people seek to improve their lives through education, there need to be schools. If the church is to be a vital and living part of the community today, it must offer the hope and promise of the Gospel message to all who seek it.

Yet, instead of supporting the work of Wesley and his followers, people in the Church of England barred them from preaching in the churches. Yet this did not stop the Methodist Revival. Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers simply began to preach wherever they could find the space. If that meant preaching in fields, then they preached in the fields.

When conditions cry for revolution, there will be a revolution. Many historians have looked at the conditions in England, both economic and social, and wondered why England did not undergo a violent revolution like that of France at much the same time. The difference between the revolution in England and the revolution in France can be attributed to the nature of the Methodist revival. Wesley and the early members of the Methodist Revival, by working to bring the Gospel to the people of England and changing the conditions of society, removed the threat of a violent revolution.

It was the same for Jesus. There was a need for a revolution in his country. Not the political revolution many people sought but a spiritual revolution. For people no longer heard a message of a Loving Father who cared for His children. Many people at that time probably did not even know that their God cared for them. The rules and regulations of the church made it impossible for them to do so. It wasn’t that they had left their religion but that their religion had left them. The message they did hear held no promise or hope. As Paul wrote in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians,

“He (speaking of Jesus) is the one who has helped us tell others about his new agreement to save them. We do not tell them that they must obey every law of God or die; but we tell them there is life for them for the Holy Spirit. The old way, trying to be saved by keeping the Ten Commandments, ends in death; in the new way, the Holy Spirit gives them life. (2 Corinthians 3: 6)

In his message and in his actions, Jesus sought to bring people back to God; to show them that their Father in Heaven did care for them and did truly love them.

The same thing is true today. The world is crying for a spiritual revolution. People are leaving the church today because they see a church which no longer cares about them and is indifferent to the needs of society. Today churches are seeking ways to bring back that generation we call the “baby boomers”. And, whatever actions are taken, they must be taken quickly because we could lose the next two generations, the “baby busters” and the children of the baby boomers. The church’s actions must reflect its mission. Such actions must also reflect the genuine compassion that Jesus felt for those who sought Him. Elton Trueblood offers the following thought:

“Because we cannot reasonably expect to erect a constantly expanding structure of social activism upon a constantly diminishing foundation of faith, attention to the cultivation of the inner life is our first order of business, even in a period of rapid social change. The Church, if it is to affect the world, must become a center from which new spiritual power emanates. While the Church must be secular in the sense that it operates in the world, if it is only secular it will not have the desired effect upon the secular order which it is called upon to penetrate. With no diminution of concern for people, we can and must give new attention to the production of a trustworthy religious experience.” (From The New Man for Our Time by Elton Trueblood)

When Jesus began to preach the Gospel, the message He gave was for everyone, not just a select few. Jesus never turned away anyone who sought His ministry. His ministry was open to all who sought Him. Jesus took his ministry to the people so that the people could come to Him.

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” And he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Sending her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me”. And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”. She said, “Yes, Lord: yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” An her daughter was healed instantly. And Jesus went on from there and passed along the Sea of Galilee. and he went up on the mountain, and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the throng wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.” (Matthew 15: 21 – 31)

The salvation we gain by accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior is not a two-way path. There is no way for us to gain salvation without going to Jesus Christ. But, if people are to come to Jesus, there must be a path available. Consider the desire of people who truly want to come to Jesus. In Mark 2 we read

“And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay.” (Mark 2: 1 – 4)

This man and his friends did what it took to get to Jesus. But not all people have such capability. If the path to Jesus is blocked, the people will turn away.

Every time we look around today, we see more reasons why the Church should be a part of society. Today, numerous studies tell churches how to revitalize their congregations, how to bring life back into dying congregations. Every time, the same answer comes through back. It is the members of the congregation which must do the work. That is what today is about. Laity Sunday honors the work of all those who do the work of the church. It also points out the role the laity has in bringing the Gospel message to the world.

Today Jesus is calling you. He is asking you to be a part of His community; to do His work. What will you do? Samuel heard God calling him and answered “Here I am Lord.” The disciples dropped what they were doing when asked by Jesus to follow Him. Paul did not want to become the missionary to the world; he wanted to put a stop to the mission of Jesus. As Saul, he saw Jesus and his followers as a threat to a way of life. Yet, after encountering the Holy Spirit on the road to Damascus, Paul understood what a life in Jesus Christ meant.

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of god. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world (meaning Satan) has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of god. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”. (2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6)

Today, Jesus asks us the same question the little girl asked the senior pastor, “What do you do?” How will you answer him?

Who Shall Feed My Sheep?

Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 16 October 2011. The Scriptures this Sunday are Exodus 33: 12 – 23, 1 Thessalonians 1 – 10, and Matthew 22: 15 -22. . It is also Laity Sunday and I will be at Dover Plains UMC; the service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend. 

I have edited this since it was first posted. As I was preparing a report, I noticed that I had this piece listed as the 18th Sunday after Pentecost when it was actually the 19th Sunday.

Yes, I know the title of my message is more attuned to what transpires in the Gospel of John following the resurrection (John 21: 1 – 19) than any of the readings for today. But in one sense, what Jesus asks Peter to do in that passage very specifically relates to what this day, Laity Sunday, is and should be about. So bear with me as we look at the three readings for today.

Let us first begin by remembering what this part of the country looked like some two hundred and sixty years ago. Route 9 from New York northward was, if I am not mistaken, first called the Albany Post Road and so it would have been the major land route north out of New York City. I would suspect that Route 22 would have been here, though obviously not paved. It would have been a well-worn path coming up from New York City. And when you look at the churches between Cold Spring and Carmel along NY Route 301, you know that there had to be a path there as well.

Those who had come to the shores of this country came seeking a new life, hoping that their future here held more promise than their lives in the old world ever would. Perhaps they came escaping an unpleasant past and/or present and just wanted the chance to start over. Others perhaps just wanted to start anew and fresh. Settlers to this part of New York would have followed these early land routes as well as sailing up the Hudson to find a place to live and begin their new life in this wondrous new world.

But starting over and beginning anew is more than coming to a new country and building a home. No matter how you want to romanticize it, it was and still is hard work.

Those who came to this new world knew that there was nothing here; nothing, at least, in terms of what they left behind in the old country. There were no towns; there were no schools; there were no churches. All that was once part of their life was left behind in the search for a new life in the new world.

And within the framework of each individual is a desire to know more about the world around them and there is a desire to understand and know that God is a part of one’s life.

So this new life required that you find a place to build a home and as people came you began to build a town, a school, and a church (especially when you came to this country to escape religious persecution in the old country). You built the school for the future of your community, though I sometimes think that we have forgotten that. And in many towns, especially in the mid-west, you know that the town is dying when the school closes or consolidates with another school.

Churches were and are an integral part of any town’s community. It is about having a place where one’s soul can be refreshed; it was about having a place where their souls could be feed. You built a church to give one’s soul a chance to recharge (and I will say that I know we have forgotten that). There is a great sadness in many communities across this country, not necessarily in the rural areas, when a church has to close its doors.

In those early days of this country, it wasn’t just a matter of building the schools or the churches; it was also finding the teachers and the preachers. When you look at the history of higher education, you see that the first colleges and universities were directed towards the training of ministers (which might surprise many of the alumni of those institutions). But those who were in school were not going to be in the pulpit for some time and the people were, if you will, very hungry.

It was a hunger that John Wesley understood and one he struggled to fill. His problem was that the Church of England was not willing to send ministers from England to lead the congregations that had aligned themselves with Wesley’s Methodist Revival. And Wesley was reluctant to appoint/ordain anyone. Ultimately, John Wesley will appoint individuals to lead the new Methodist congregations in this country. But, “The rise of American Methodism is largely the story of self-motivated laypeople whose experience of God’s redeeming grace compelled them to preach and organize societies, which later were linked together to form the earliest connection…” (From “That Dear Man of God:” Edward Evans and the Origins of American Methodism as quoted on http://www.methodist-motion.org/id43.html)

From the laity came the first circuit riders, those individuals (not always men) who traveled from location to location bringing the Word to the people. When one looks at the churches in this region of the Hudson Valley where we live, we see the sites and locations where they visited and preached.

But it does not matter whether we are talking about America in the early 18th century or America in the present time. People still feel the need to feed the hunger in the soul; they still need a place where they may find rest and comfort from their labors. And perhaps more so today than 250 years ago, they need to know that there is a reason for what is happening in this world. In a world of anger, hatred, violence, and war, they need to hear that there is an answer and it is not the answer of more anger, more hatred, more violence or more war.

The people know that the answer to this hunger, the place where they can find the answers, the place they can find rest and comfort is the church. But it is hard to find the answers at times when the world demands we pay more homage to Caesar than we do God.

We have become a society in which the weekend has become an extension of the workweek and we fail to realize that our soul needs rest as much as our body does. The Biblical notion of a day of rest every six days has somehow become the idea that everything not done during the previous six days must be done on the seventh.

And the church is as guilty of this as any other societal institution. Instead of being the place where we can find rest and comfort, it is another societal institution demanding our time and energy. We have forgotten what the church is and was about.

There is a balance between what we do for the church and what we do for God. It has become more of a social thing where we worry about paying the bills or the color of the carpet or when to have the next fund-raiser. If we were more in terms of what the Thessalonian church was doing, then the societal issues would be easily resolved. If the church today were more focused on providing that which the people truly need, then many of the issues that so dominate this world would probably disappear.

The cynic and the skeptic will tell me that this is all well and good but the church has to pay the bills or it cannot do the work. But people don’t talk about the church that pays its bills; they talk and they visit the church that welcomes them as Christ welcomed us. They talk and visit churches where the spirit of the Lord is alive and present in the thoughts, words, deeds, and actions of the members of the church. And I, unfortunately, know from my own experience that visitors to the church don’t want to hear about the financial problems of the church or the need to get involved in the next big church project/fund raiser.

Most of those words were written this past Wednesday afternoon. That evening, I received Dan Dick’s post. Hear what Reverend Dick wrote about the United Methodist Church in general,

As I prepare for General Conference I am reminded again that there are two churches in today’s United Methodism: one that is concerned with its own survival and existence that will spend exorbitant amounts of money to justify its own existence and a much smaller church that wants to serve God and Jesus Christ in the world. One is concerned with numbers; the other is concerned with lives. One is concerned with image; the other is concerned with integrity. One is concerned with power and control, the other with justice and service. We stand at a crossroads. We need to make a choice. Will we sell out to a lesser vision of church as social institution or will we rise up to BE the body of Christ? It begins with discipleship — and if our leaders are going to make this rich and wonderful concept meaningless, we are in deep, deep trouble.


There are many challenges facing the church, be it the church in general, a specific denomination or a specific church. The competition between Caesar and God will not be won by condemning Caesar nor will it be accomplished by making God the new Caesar. It will not be accomplished by marketing the church or finding ways to make the church seem like it is part of society.

There was another reason why I entitled the sermon what I did. There is a song by Jefferson Airplane entitled “Good Shepherd” which is based on the words that Jesus spoke to Peter in John.

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the blood-stained bandit
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the long-tongue liar
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep


If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the gun shot devil
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my life complete
Can’t you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

I used that song as part of the basis for a sermon a couple of years ago (see “A Rock and Roll Revival”) and in preparing that sermon I found that the lyrics for a 60s rock and roll song came from an early 19th century Methodist preacher. More importantly, it was what Jorma Kaukonen, the lead singer for the Airplane on this song, said about singing passages from the Bible. For Kaukonen, such songs as this one have opened the door to the Scriptures for him.

And I truly believe that is what the church must do today in order to feed the sheep of the world. It must find avenues and doors in the world around us that will open the Scriptures to the people who have that hunger that only the church can feed.

We cannot feed the sheep with platitudes and good wishes nor will they eat when all they receive from the church is rejection and hostility. Right now, I fear that too many churches have taken the attitude that the world outside the church should be left behind, never to be seen again. But what will you do when people find God in the world of rock and roll songs? When Jesus told his questioners to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s and render unto God that which was God’s, he was telling them to put things in perspective and priority. God does come first, no matter how or where you find Him.

The question is a simple one, “who will feed my sheep?” Our task is to feed the sheep wherever they may be. The people did not come to the circuit rider; the circuit rider came to the people. So who shall we call upon?

Moses asked God who was going to lead the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land and God said that he, Moses, would. Not some highly trained preacher or minister but a simple shepherd. Of course there were no highly trained preachers or ministers back then; there was just a group of people leaving a life of slavery and toil to return to the land of their ancestors, to return to a land of hope and promise. Moses would have Aaron, his brother, to help him but all the work would be done by the people.

When the Methodist Church began in this country two hundred and seventy some years ago, there were no trained preachers but there were committed lay people, willing to undergo the trials and tribulations of traveling town to town on nights when, as the old saying goes, the only thing out were Methodist circuit riders and crows.

Now, in the 21st century, when the people of the world cry out in anguish and pain because they sense that they have been forgotten and abandoned, when the bodies of the people and the souls of the people cry out in hunger, both sustenance for the body and sustenance for the soul, we hear Jesus again calling to us, “who will feed my sheep?”

On this Laity Sunday, there can only be one answer. Are you prepared this day to answer?

Now Is The Time

This is the message that I presented on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 17 October 2004, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 27 – 34, 2 Timothy 3: 14 – 4: 5, and Luke 18: 1 – 8.


When I first read today’s Scriptures, my first thoughts were of a saying that I thought came from the Sixties, “If not now, when?” But, in my preparation for today, I could not find any reference to a time, a place, or a person where this was ever said.

I did find a phrase by Rabbi Hillel, a noted Jewish rabbi and scholar of the 19th century. But it wasn’t the phrase that I was looking for and I wasn’t sure if it even contained the same idea that I originally had. And besides, when I looked at the Scriptures again, I saw that the words spoke of now being the time for action rather than simply a question of when action should take place.

Now is the time when people should be calling for justice in a world that seems to be unjust. Now is the time when the cries for justice will be answered. Now is the time when we should be building, not destroying. Now is the time when people listen to the words of their youth and their heart rather than follow the leadership of those who espouse myths and easy promises for a better life.

We claim to be a Christian nation. Much of the political rhetoric of today’s campaigns is phrased in the aura of Christianity. Yet, how much of what is said today is actually Christian? Consider how this Christian nation is responding to terrorism. Terrorism is a product and an outgrowth of poverty, homelessness, disease, and oppression. Yet, our response to terrorism is more violence, more repression. We ignore the very things that create terrorists in the first place.

As a Christian nation, we should be responding to the needs of the homeless, the sick, the poor, and the oppressed. Yet, like our predecessors, we say to Christ, “when did we see thee homeless or sick or in need?” Our faith today seems to be a faith of convenience. We want it there when we need it but we are unwilling to be there when Christ needs us.

It is no longer be a question of when Christ will come. The words of Jeremiah tell us that now is the time of Christ’s coming. Yet, too many preachers today proclaim a false prophecy and speak of the coming of Christ as a future event. They speak of Christ’s coming but ignore the world around them. They speak as if only a chosen few, chosen by them rather than God, will be rewarded. These preachers, not God, tell their followers which path to walk so that one can receive redemption and salvation. In a world that cries for justice, it is the loudest representatives of Christ who act like the ones who persecuted Christ?

The frightening thing in all of this is that people listen to these false preachers. They accept these false concepts of the Gospel because it is easier to do that than to do what we are called to do in the Gospel message. It is easier to blame the homeless, the sick, the oppressed for the problems of the world than it is to build houses, hospitals, and restore justice. It is easier to see a glory to come later than to work for glory now. It is easier today to have a faith of convenience and ease than it is to have a faith of belief and action. But, as Christ said to us today, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Those not willing to walk the path where Christ leads are not likely to find the true faith.

Paul tells Timothy to be wary of those who teach false myths. What would Paul say today about the preachers who preach hatred, division and oppression, intolerance and ignorance, all in the name of Christ? Paul’s counsel to Timothy is to hold to that faith of his youth, to the teachings that were true. Even in the roughest times, hold to the truth that is found in your heart. Like the widow in today’s Gospel reading, if one holds to the truth found in God through Christ, one will prevail.

And it will not be a long wait. We hear from the prophet Jeremiah that now is the time. Jeremiah tells us that God now has a new covenant, one cast not in stone but written on our hearts. It is a covenant to replace the one that brought our ancestors out of bondage in Egypt. Jeremiah, in this passage, speaks of the new covenant formed between the people of this world and God through Christ. But it is a covenant that requires that we participate.

Now, you will say that this is all well and good. But violence is sometimes the only response to violence. I will not deny that one has to defend one’s self but should we seek violence. Remember that on the night Jesus was arrested Peter took a sword in defense of Him and cut off the ear of one of those who came to arrest Jesus. But Jesus commanded Peter to put down the sword and then healed the one who Peter struck.

You will say that we are only single individuals living in New York. You will say that it is hard enough to live and work here without having to take on the challenges of the world. Besides, nothing we do locally changes the global landscape. And, we have enough to do here at Tompkins Corners so we cannot worry about other things.

But what we do here today does have an impact on what happens elsewhere. Did we not, as a church, give a portion of our offering so that a person from this area could go to Mozambique and minister in the name of the Lord? Do not our birthday offerings go to relieve the homeless problem in this area? Do not our apportionments, along with those of other United Methodist Churches, expand the reach of this church beyond the boundaries of the corners and the county?

And do we not, as individuals, come in contact with countless others each day? Do we not, for brief moments each day, have the opportunity to show the presence of Christ in our lives?

The answer to all these questions is that we do. And each time we do something like that, we make a difference. Yest, it is a small difference but like the mustard seed of two weeks ago, from little differences come great things.

We must do as Paul counsels Timothy today. Hold fast to what you know is true. Hold fast to the counsel and guidance provided through the Holy Spirit. Continue doing what your knowledge of the scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit tell you is the right thing to do. We must listen to what is in our heart and in our mind, not what others might say. It is not an easy task, Paul tells Timothy, but it is the one task that receives the true rewards.

We know that this is the time. Maybe you have been hearing Christ calling to you, asking you to repent. Now is the time to answer Christ’s calling. We know that this is the time where we can fight for justice, where we can reach out and show the power and the presence of Christ as our Savior. Maybe now is the time for you, individually, and we, as the church collectively, to renew the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Maybe the Holy Spirit has been calling you, asking you to reach out to your neighbor and invite them to be with us next Sunday. Now is the time to answer that call.

Jeremiah tells the people that this is the time when God will renew His covenant with His people. Now is the time to put our names on that covenant.

Parts of the Church

This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2002.  The Scriptures were Exodus 33: 12 -23, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 -10, and Matthew 22: 15 – 22.


Today is Laity Sunday in the United Methodist Church. This is both a unique and a historical day. It is unique in that our denomination is perhaps the only denomination that honors the laity of the church for the service that it does and has done. While laity may partake in the administration of a church service, very few denominations allow their laity to speak like the United Methodist Church does. And that is part of the historical nature of this denomination.

While historically the major denominations have been a part of the landscape of American history, only the United Methodist Church has allowed church services to be held and run by laity. This is because of the nature of the circuit rider, the traveling itinerant preacher unique to Methodism. If an Episcopal or a Lutheran church were established in an area, it was because there was an Episcopal or a Lutheran minister to lead and direct the church. But Methodism was established through societies, the meeting of laity, who relied on the traveling circuit rider to provide the pastoral leadership. And because the circuit rider had several churches under his charge, it was up to the laity to hold the church services on those Sundays when the rider was somewhere else.

Even today, we find many United Methodist churches across the country, even in our own church district, using lay speakers so that services can be held.

This relationship between clergy and laity is very unique to Methodism. Most denominations run with a top-down administration model that gives very little power to those outside the clergy. Even though the laity may participate in a particular Sunday service, it is a limited participation. And the administration of many churches holds the power very close to the vest, viewing the laity as truly lost sheep incapable of handling the complex issues of church administration.

For the United Methodist Church, it is slightly different. Though the administration of the overall United Methodist Church is through the bishops and the district superintendents, each local church has much to say regarding its own day-to-day operation. This was by design and has helped churches in those periods when there was no local pastor. And by design, this mode of operation leads to a sense of “creative tension,” a pulling between the overall church body and the local one.

Most of the time, such a tension is useful and productive. But there are times when it can be less useful, less productive, and even destructive. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians last week, we read of how the church in Philippi was in danger of tearing itself apart unless the people of the congregation worked together to meet the common goals of faith instead of working against each other. If we, individually and collectively, are to be a successful church, it will be because we work together and not against each other.

Paul wrote to Thessalonians about their faith and the results of their faith. He writes of their faith and how that faith led to true repentance. It was through their faith that they sought to bring the message of Jesus, the Gospel message of hope, peace, and righteousness to those around them. But it is important to note that he was writing to all the people of the church, not individual members.

And Paul gave a standard for the people to judge their work by. Paul first mentions their work for Christ in the midst of persecution, of pursuing the goals of the Gospel in spite of all that went on around them. Paul points out that the focus for all their activities is Jesus Christ. And that is the standard by which they, and we today, should measure our work. Does what we do glorify Christ?

The Gospel tells us that the Pharisees posed a questions to Jesus regarding taxes and obedience but there is more meaning behind the question. What are our priorities and what should they be?

The Pharisees come to Jesus, again seeking to trick him into make some type of false statement. This time, as we read in the Gospel, it was a question about taxes. Should the people of Israel pay taxes to the Roman government, something no self-respecting Jew wanted to do. It was one of those questions that can get a person into a lot of trouble. If Jesus were to say that it was proper and right to pay taxes, then He would lose the support of his followers. But, if he were to side with the Pharisees, then they would be able to say that he was working against the Roman government and he would be arrested for insurrection.

It is important that we see how Jesus answered the question. Instead of paying taxes, Jesus said that we should render unto Caesar that which was his. “Render” means to pay back and in using that word, Jesus says to pay back to the government that which was owed. As followers of Christ, we still have an obligation to the earthly government and that obligation is not removed until it becomes sinful to do so. There is no conflict between following Christ and living on earth, nor should there be.

What are our priorities? How shall we live? Shall we live in a world where Christ is a part of our lives only on Sunday, leaving the Gospel lesson behind when we leave the church building on Sunday afternoon?

Some two hundred and fifty years ago, the first circuit riders came to this area, bringing the message of the Gospel to all who would hear it. They sought to establish Methodist societies that quickly became Methodist churches. They left behind laity to carry on the work until the next time they would visit. They did not come alone for they brought the Holy Spirit with them.

As Moses stood in the cleft of the rock to observe the passage of God, he was not doing so for his own gain but rather for the assurance that God would be present in the adventure of faith that the people of Israel were to undertake. It was this assurance that told the Israelites and tells us today that God would be present throughout all our undertakings.

Today should be a renewal of our combined efforts to make the Gospel known to the world. Paul reminded us that there are many parts to the body of the church but there is only one church. And it is through the body that the work of the church is accomplished. Whether it was an ordained minister who preached at the early Methodist society meetings or a lay speaker, that was the message. It made no difference whether it was the minister or the laity who visited the sick, helped the homeless, or supported the downtrodden, the message of the Gospel was spread throughout early America. So too is that the case for today. In celebrating Laity Sunday, we are saying that we are all instruments of God’s message in this world today.


The Order of Things

This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 10, 1999.  The Scriptures were Exodus 33: 12 -23, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 -10, and Matthew 22: 15 – 22.


Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The Gospel reading for today is a most interesting one in light of today’s society and whom we honor today. For answering the challenge put forth by the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus draws the line between church and state. Of course, later Jesus points out that this division is only in terms of how we live our secular lives since we cannot serve two masters.

Some see the world around us and wonder how the church will survive, especially if it is part of today’s society. There are some people who feel that we are in the midst of a great cultural battle and that if society is to be saved, it must be through a return to strong Christian values.

This is not a new thought. The Shakers, whose hymn “Simple Gifts” is a favorite of mine, were a Christian group formed as a response to the social conditions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and bend, we will not be ashamed.

To turn and to turn will be our delight

Till by turning, turning, we come round right.”

For them, the only solution was to leave the present society behind and create a new one dedicated to the glory of God. The Shakers may have had the right idea because the movement flourished here in America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, the Shaker movement did not last because the evils, which caused the problems in the first place, were never corrected. The lesson to be learned is simple. A church that ignores its responsibilities to society, a church that does not seek to be a positive force in its community, will likewise die.

Instead of running away and cloistering ourselves in religious communities, immune from the outside world, we can accept the Gospel message in our hearts and take the Gospel message to the people. Jesus knew that the Gospel message must be taken to the people. He sought a ministry outside the temple walls. In closing the Sermon on the Mount, he told the people

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 13 – 16)

To take the Gospel to the people is undoubtedly the toughest choice we can make. It is tough enough to accept the Gospel; it is even tougher to live the Gospel message. John Wesley understood the challenge. He knew that if English society was to change, its heart must change first and that could only be done through the Gospel. Forbidden by law to preach in the Church of England, Wesley and his followers, our forefathers in the United Methodist Church, took the message of the Gospel into the fields and the streets of England. On more than one occasion, crowds were encouraged to harass and physically abuse Wesley and the other Methodist preachers. Many an earlier Methodist preacher was put into jail for preaching the Gospel. But we cannot expect others to know the Gospel message if we do not let them know.

So perhaps we should look at what is happening today in another way. Christ, through his example, showed us that there is creativity in life released to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. If we hold to a strictly religious view of the world, we may not see this. An open society, while seemingly opposed to God and one that we would fear, should be seen as an opportunity for us to seek the presence of God in this world. The freedom of an open society should be seen as a gift of Christ, not as a sign against him. Our task in this society is find ways to keep this freedom, not fight for a return to an olden ways or a separation from society. Christ calls us to see that we have the opportunity to join Him in his continued struggle in history, as we are lead toward the goal that He revealed (see notes at the end of Thessalonians).

Today is about finding out how we can do this, find ways to see Christ in today’s society. Today is Laity Sunday, the Sunday in the United Methodist Church dedicated to the laity of the church. It is a rather unique day in that while other faiths allow the laity to participate and occasionally preach, only the United Methodists focus on the laity.

It is not necessarily for those who are called to ministry, be it simple lay speaking or those who seek ordination but it is for all members of the church. It is my hope and belief that each and every one of you will somehow be involved in the work of the church. You will be getting a call from the worship committee in the next few weeks asking that you and your family take part in the Advent series that will start the last Sunday in November. It is not on the calendar and I do not know all of the plans, for I am leaving that to the laity, for the decoration of the church as well. After Advent, as we prepare for Lent and the Easter Season, I would like volunteers to read the Old Testament and Epistle readings on a particular Sunday.

It is not that I am trying to get out of work but a church that is to grow must have active laity and the activities are not a limited number. There are countless other places and times when you can help the church; you will know when that it is. As we approach the new year and annual conference, it is also a time for nominations to the various committees and administrative council. The reason for those positions is to provide the leadership for the church.

I don’t know of a faith that doesn’t have the laity doesn’t have the laity participate in the service but I do feel that such participation occurs only after training or the examination of credentials. Some faiths allow lay members to preach but frown upon them doing so from the pulpit. Neither of these practices occurs in the United Methodist Church. Also, the United Methodist Church is the only faith that I am aware of that has a program for lay speakers. It was through that program that I am at this point in my career.

But dedicating this day to the laity is not just about lay speaking. On Laity Sunday in some churches, today is simply an excuse for the pastor to take the day off and let the lay speaker or lay leader preach. Today is as much about the heritage of the church through the Methodist Episcopal Church founded by Wesley, the United Brethren in Christ founded by Philip Otterbein and Martin Boehm, and the Evangelical Association founded by Jacob Albright. For, if it had not been for the laity of the church during the days of the circuit riders, there would not be a United Methodist Church today.

In the old days, and they are not that old because I know of a number of and have been a circuit rider myself, it was the laity that held the church together and ran the services on the Sundays when the preacher was somewhere else.

That is why Paul spends as much time lauding the people of Thessalonica, Corinth, Galatia, Colossus, and all the other cities where he started churches. It was the laity during the early days of the church that held the church together and helped it grow; it was the laity that help churches grow and prosper here in American; it will be the laity that leads the church into the coming decade and new century.

And it should be noted that the one mark of a strong and healthy church is when the members, not just a few, but all participate in the activities of the church. It is important to note that it is not the activities themselves or the type of activities that are done nor that all people do all of the tasks but that all are involved.

But it hasn’t always been easy to get people involved in the activities of the church. We could, when asked, be like Jonah. Remember what happened to him? When first called by the Lord, Jonah chose to flee. Jonah did not simply go to the next city or county to get away from God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God. It would be like trying to hide from the authorities in New York by going to Los Angeles. But it doesn’t matter where we hide, God can still find us. And, like Jonah, when our efforts to escape fail, until we come to the Lord, He will not help us.

Consider Moses. Here was the man God selected to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land but what did he do? He asked God to select someone else; “Who, me Lord? Can’t you find someone else?” And in today’s Old Testament reading, Moses is asking God who is going to send to help him.

In 1991, on Laity Sunday, I preached my very first sermon, basing it in part on the song “Amazing Grace”. I have always loved that song, in part because of its ties to Southern gospel singing and in part for the reasons that John Newton wrote the song in the first place.

John Newton was a slave ship owner, plying the triangle trade of rum, tobacco, and slaves. But one day, it is reported that he began to question the morality and purpose of this commerce and he gave it up; he turned his ship around and freed the slaves that he was transporting. He did this because the Holy Spirit came to him. Now I do not know if his experience was like that of Paul’s, who was blinded by the light on the road to Damascus, or if it was like that of Wesley’s, whose heart was warmed by the Holy Spirit. It might have been like that of Moses’ who was able to see God after he walked by him as Moses was hidden in the rock. What I know was that his experience changed his life. Everyone has an experience with the Holy Spirit. It is one thing that changes your life.

It does not matter how you encounter the Holy Spirit; it does matter is that you do. Many times, I have wondered when I truly came to know Christ. I have come to know that while I cannot pinpoint the day and time like others can, I know that He is a part of my life. I, like Wesley, know in my heart that I can trust Christ as my Savior; that my life is much different because I did so and let Him into my life. I can truly say in awe how amazed I was to know that Christ died on the cross for me, even when I was not yet a person on this earth.

Hymn 163 – “Ask Me What Great Things I Know.”

Paul lauded the members of the churches for the work that they did in his name. The founders of the three faiths that now comprise the United Methodist Church put a great faith in the work of the laity to insure the success of the church. That is what today is about.

This day is also about bringing Christ into the world; of letting others know who Christ was and what He means today. We do not have to give up our lives as much as we have to change the direction our lives take. In a world of chaos and confusion, knowing who Christ is brings an order to things.