“A Matter of Integrity”

I was at the New Milford (NY)/Edenville United Methodist Church in Warwick, NY, Sunday morning, October 7, 2012. The Scriptures for this morning, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (B), are Job 1:1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1: 1 – 4; 2: 5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16. Their services now start at 10 am with Sunday School at 9 and you are welcome to attend.

Ann told me that she thought this might be a bit more intellectual that some of my sermons, as if most of my sermons are not. But in this case, perhaps that is the case.

But when you are basing your message in part on one of the wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs or Song of Solomon; the Apocrypha also contains the Book of Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach), the message will be somewhat intellectual. Such messages are the most challenging to write for they demand one think it through to the end. That’s not to say that every message or sermon that is written does make the same demand but when you are using something from the wisdom literature, it requires a little bit more than usual. I hope and pray that I have that challenge and that when it is done, you will be challenged to seek more information for yourself as well.

I have always been amazed at how the topics that dominate the news are always matched by the Scriptures that have been designated for that particular week of the year. In this case, the Gospel reading from Mark deals with the Pharisees questioning Jesus about the subject of divorce. And two weeks ago, there was an announcement that a fragment of papyrus had been discovered that suggested that Jesus had a wife. Of course, a week later, it was announced that this papyrus fragment was a forgery and not a very good one at that.

Now, why would someone want to make a forgery like this? What motive was there in doing so? Of course, from my point of view, I also had to wonder why it was such a poor forgery in the first place. There is, after all, a curiosity about the life of Jesus, in part because of Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, and its plot that Jesus not only had a wife but a child as well and that child’s descendants can be traced through the blood lines of European families. Now, The Da Vinci Code is clearly a work of fiction but because of the nature of the topic, there were a lot of people who believed that there was some degree of truth behind it. After all, there is the notion that every myth has some element of truth in it. And since we know so little about the life of Jesus between the time He was 12 and engaging the Pharisees, scribes, and scholars in the temple and when He was thirty and He embarked on His mission, it becomes quite easy to imagine just about anything we want. And someone looking to make a few extra dollars can quite easily do so by creating a story that fits within the framework of what we want to believe.

There will be some who hear or read these words and feel that I have just given them justification for not believing in Jesus as the Risen Savior. To many people today, Jesus Christ is a myth. But who concocted this myth? And why?

That we are here today means that there is a degree of truth to the story of Christ, even if there are gaps in the story. And that the story of Christ has been told over the years across all of the continents should suggest that there is an element of truth to the story as well.

So, how we react to the story that Jesus may have had a wife and whether we choose to believe or not is a measure of the integrity or strength of our faith. How well can we stand up to the pressure of being questioned about our faith? How strong is our faith in our day-to-day life?

The Old Testament reading for today tells us of the story of Job, a seemingly rich and powerful resident of Uz. Job is characterized as an upright and blameless man who feared God and avoided evil. But in the first chapter of Job, he loses everything he has – his children, his servants, his flocks – only his wife remained.

The sad part about this is that we know someone who has suffered such a loss; perhaps we have suffered such a loss ourselves. And how did our friends, how did we handle this? Did we curse God and question why He would allow this to occur? And if God did allow this to occur, what does that make Him? What sort of god (and notice that I used a lower case god) would allow one of his beings, someone that was created in his image, to suffer as Job did in Chapter 1.

It is critical that we understand that one of the things that occurred in this reading still occurs today. When something goes wrong, when we suffer, we often presume that we have done something wrong. Listen over the next few weeks to the friends of Job as they make that same assumption; that Job’s suffering is a consequence of his having done something terribly, terribly wrong. But Job always asks, “what is it that I have done so wrong as to warrant such punishment?”

Others will argue that they want no part of a God that would allow a believer to suffer like Job. They would argue that such suffering and the level of evil in this world are perpetrated or permitted to go unchecked because faithful adherents to religion accept the notion that it is “god’s will”.

But the patience of Job is neither a rejection of God nor blind acceptance of what is happening. Rather it is done with the notion that something will transpire that will bring sense to it all. Job will never curse God but He will demand that God show up to defend His actions. Job will do what his wife and friends will ask him to not do, “persevere in his integrity.”

Much has been made about divorce and marriage and what Jesus said and did not say. I think it important to note the differences between Mark’s recording of this encounter and Matthew’s recording. But what I think we need to understand is why the Pharisees questioned Jesus about this matter in the first place (and I don’t think it had to do with whether or not Jesus had a wife).

Keep in mind that John the Baptist was executed in part for his denouncing Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias as a violation of Old Testament law. There is commentary by the Jewish historian Josephus that Herod was also afraid of the growing political and religious movement John was leading and his arrest and execution, for whatever reason, was an attempt to put an end to that movement.

The encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees occurs in part of the territory controlled by Herod. We know that the Pharisees were beginning to see Jesus as a threat much in the same manner as John the Baptist and they, the Pharisees, probably felt that if they could get Jesus to make some sort of pronouncement similar to John’s, the same results would occur.

For me, the Pharisees saw themselves as keepers of the faith though it was more that they were keepers of the religion. Religion may be seen as how we reach out to God; faith is God reaching out to us. At times, the two will be in direct opposition to each other. Religion is the interposition of our thoughts onto God, making God what we want Him to be, not what He is. Faith is that which may be termed spiritual and is separate from religion.

I would rather not have such distinctions but unfortunately I have meet too many people for whom their religion is their faith. They are not interested in what one believes as much as they are in maintaining what is currently there. The Old Testament prophets sought to deliver the people from an idolatrous trust in their own religion with its shrines, both mental and physical so that they could be delivered into faith with its trust in the living free God who comes to us in the moving events of history.

How we see God says a lot about the integrity of our faith. If we see God as being on the edges of our lives, there when things go wrong, then I would make the argument that our faith is weak; its integrity low. For me, the Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat because He challenged their faith and they were unable to respond.

For me, there are too many people today who have such an attitude. Jesus has a place in their lives but it is only on Sunday mornings, between 8 am and 12 noon. When they leave church on Sunday, they quietly but quickly put God on the shelf in the closet where He can’t be hurt and they go about their business for the rest of the week. Such a faith cannot stand to be questioned and such individuals will not allow such questioning to take place.

But if you see God as part of the day-to-day occurrences of life, as One who comes at points of confidence and strength as well as points of weakness and uncertainty, then the integrity of your faith cannot be questioned. And if it is questioned, you can answer with both word and action and you see the opportunity to bring Jesus Christ to those who seek Him.

Ask yourself this, how do I see Jesus today? On his blog, “Irreverend Mike” wrote,

The issue is this – we tend to treat Jesus like he’s a fact to believe rather than a person in whom we place all our faith. This is what Christianity is about. It’s not a truth we believe in like we believe that 2+2=4, or that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. It is about Jesus, who is the truth, who tells us “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6). Being a Christian means having a relationship with this Jesus – following his way so that we may truly live with God.

When we forget this – and Jesus becomes to us just another thing that we can think and say is true – then we do not truly know Jesus. Not only this – but when Jesus becomes a thing to us in our minds, we begin to shape him into something he is not. We create an “imaginary Jesus”.

Your imaginary Jesus tends to think like you, agree with you and never challenges you. And this imaginary Jesus is nice! He gives you the assurance of eternal life and unconditional love – and you really don’t have to do anything. It’s a good deal. That is – if this was the real Jesus. Which it is not.

The real Jesus isn’t like us. He is perfect and holy and filled with so much love – that we can’t handle it. The real Jesus isn’t content to leave you where you are in your sin, brokenness and failings. The real Jesus beckons you to follow him to do hard things and love people you don’t want to love. The real Jesus asks you for nothing less than your whole life, because after all – he gave his for you. (from http://irreverendmike.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/will-the-real-jesus-please-stand-up/

There comes a point when one must make a choice. We are reminded in the reading from Hebrews exactly why it was that Jesus began His mission in the Galilee and why He comes to this place and time today. Our salvation is found through Christ; His death on the Cross was so that we would be set free from sin and death. And having been set free from sin and death, we have the opportunity to find a new path in life and help others seek what we have found.

I find myself drawn more and more to the thoughts and words of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the 30s he was living in America and had the opportunity to stay in America when Hitler came to power. But to do so would have been too easy and he returned to Germany because he saw a church, his church, turning a blind eye to the horrors that engulfed his country. He began to feel that to religion was becoming separate from the world and that, in its silence, let the horrors of the Nazism grow and fester. A pacifist, Bonhoeffer would ultimately join the underground resistance against Hitler and lose his life just days before the concentration camp in which he had been a prisoner was liberated.

I have never understood, until perhaps today, why he would do that. But he thought that if one was to be truly Christian, there had to be a reliance on the Grace of Christ because it was only through that Grace that we could be free from self-concern and doubt and be freed to show a truly worldly concern for others. Being a Christian was, in Bonhoeffer’s thought, not merely an acceptance but an act of being in the world. It was more than what one did on Sunday but what one did throughout the week.

We are never asked to make a sacrifice such as the one Bonhoeffer made or even the one that Christ made. We are asked only to let Jesus into our hearts, our minds, and our souls.

Are we prepared to open up and let Jesus into our lives, not just on Sunday mornings but all day Sunday and then through out the week? Or will you be like the disciples who, despite what Jesus taught them, still tried to deny the children access to Jesus? We are all children of God and Jesus said to let the children come to Him.

But how many times has someone told another child of God that they could not come into the church because they were somehow different. Perhaps they were too loud, as a two-year-old might be; perhaps they were unclean, as Job became. And as Job became unclean, his friends deserted him.

I have not neglected the reading from Hebrews that comes with the passages from Job and Mark. It concludes by noting that Jesus Himself trusted in God and that He was and is with us, the children of God. And if He is with us, how can we deny others that same right?

I begin by suggesting that our faith is being questioned, in part by the “discovery” of the “Jesus’ wife papyrus fragment”, and how we might answer that. There was a time long ago when I felt that my faith was being challenged. I was enduring a series of setbacks and I could only conclude that perhaps I was a pawn in some game being played by individuals or beings outside the realm of my consciousness. I didn’t care that I was a pawn; I just wanted to know what the rules of the game were.

Amidst all of this, I obtained a book entitled The Passover Plot in which the author hypothesized that Jesus faked His death on the Cross. After reading it, I could only conclude that if someone was willing to undergo what has been acknowledged as the most gruesome form of torture ever devised by man, then there must be something to what He believed. Over the years I have come to see Christ in my life in ways that are not always easy to describe. But I have come to think that because others have believed and that belief has remained strong over the years then what I know in my heart is true. And if what is in my heart is true, then I am obligated to help others know that as well.

Perhaps this is not the best way to think about the integrity of one’s faith but consider this. I cannot say I am a Christian if I do not believe it in my heart and live it with my words. I cannot say that I am a Christian if I say to you that you must believe as I do. I cannot say that I am a Christian because I go to church on Sunday but ignore the hungry, the homeless, the needy, or the oppressed. I cannot say that I am a Christian if I say that I am saved but do little to help you find your salvation.

If there is to be any integrity in what we believe, what we say, and what we do, it has to begin with us accepting Jesus’ invitation to let the children come to Him. In this case the invitation is to each one of us to allow Jesus into our hearts. And then, after we have let Jesus into our hearts, our souls, and our minds, then we must go out into the world, not just telling people about Jesus but showing them how Jesus changes lives and offers hope. The integrity of our souls is at stake if we do otherwise.

“What Is The Purpose?”

I am again at the New Milford (NY)/Edenville United Methodist Church in Warwick, NY, this morning. Their services start at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this morning, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, are 1 Kings 8: (1, 6, 10 – 11), 22 – 30, 41 – 43; Ephesians 6: 10 – 20; and John 6: 56 – 69.

In 1924 someone asked George Mallory why he continued trying to climb Mount Everest after having failed in two previous attempts. It has been said that his reply was “because it is there.” Mallory and a climbing companion would disappear on what was to have been the third attempt and their bodies would not be found until some 75 years later. Even today, it is not clear whether they had been successful in making the summit of Everest. In 1953 Edmund Hillary (now Sir Edmund Hillary) and Tenzing Norgay would be the first to successfully reach the summit and return to base camp.

Mallory’s comment about doing something because of the challenge it presented has been used numerous times since he first made that remark not quite 100 years ago. It was the allusion that President Kennedy sought to invoke when he spoke before a crowd at Rice University in 1961 and laid out the rationale for a manned space program and the goal of reaching the moon before 1970.

He spoke of the challenges and the dangers that were inherent in such a task. He also asked a question often either overlooked in rememberances of that speech. President Kennedy asked, “Why does Rice play Texas?” Those assembled that day in Houston knew that Rice played Texas every year in football and did so because it was a conference game and with the knowledge that, at that time, Texas would probably win. Still Rice played Texas each year with the hope that success would be theirs one year. If one were to face only those challenges that one could overcome, they would not be challenges; they would be commonplace occurrences.

It is ironic that I choose to use President Kennedy’s remarks on the same weekend that we learned that Neil Armstrong, the first to walk on the moon, died. Mr. Armstrong was a test pilot, chosen for the Gemini and Apollo missions because he had the ability to see the challenges and make the right decisions at the right times.

You may recall his Gemini 8 mission where a thruster rocket misfired and caused his spacecraft to wildly gyrate in space, at rates that threatened the safety of the crew. This mission was the first time this country learned of the dangers and hazards of space. Somewhere along the line, space travel became routine and blasé instead of challenging with risks of danger. The Challenger and Columbia disasters would remind us that space travel is neither routine nor blasé.

It would seem to me that we as a society today no longer seek the challenges before us. We are quite content with the present, hoping and preparing for tomorrow as if tomorrow will be no different than today. One report indicates that our children can expect a life no better than the present; that despite the fact that their parents’ incomes were substantially better than their grand-parents, their incomes will be no better than their parents. It is as if the Red Queen’s comment to Alice, “My dear, here we must run twice as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that” in “Alice in Wonderland” has become a reality of life instead of a line in a fictional story.

Faced with that sort of outcome, we hold onto very tightly to the present, so much so that we cannot even begin to wonder how it was that we got here in the first place and how we will get anywhere in the future. And if we cannot get anywhere, no matter where that may be, then we have to begin wondering what our purpose is for life.

And, of course, that is the reason and the rationale for the title of this message. What is the purpose? Why have we gathered here this morning? What is it that we hope to gain? One could answer with the words from the hymn, “We Gather Together” (Hymn #131). We have gathered here to ask the Lord’s blessing on us; we have gathered here to worship Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

But I am afraid that many, while agreeing with those ideas, may also have forgotten what was the rationale for the beginning of the church and what the mission of the church was and should be. They forget that those who formed the early church, the church before the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity acceptable and legal, often times gathered in fear, fear that their neighbors would turn them into the Roman authorities as enemies of the state. We forget that the symbol of the fish that we sometimes use to symbolize Christ and Christianity is an acroynm derived from the Greek letters ΙχθΥΣ, which meant “Jesus Christ, God’s Savior, Son” and was used so that Christians could identify each other.

We see the church today in a completely different light, one that does not shine well on what it is supposed to be and what it should be. Instead of being the place of refuge for the weak and the needy, it has become a sanctuary for those who wish to escape the fear and turmoil of the world.

We hear the words of Solomon dedicating the temple and announcing that people will come from far and away because they have heard about the God, the One True God, who is now a part of the lives of the Israelite community. And yet today, when our churches are to be open to the community, in honor of this pledge made so many years ago, our churches are often closed to those who are in need, both spiritually and physically..

Just as the early disciples did, we hear the words of Jesus. And it is quite apparent that many of those today who have heard those words today have also chosen not to follow them, choosing instead to build a church that is a temple to themselves more often than it is a place of worship for God.

I have said it before and probably from this pulpit but it is always interesting going from town to town, village to village, in this part of the country and seeing all the Methodist churchs. One can begin to imagine the 18th century circuit rider going from church to church bringing the Good News of Christ to the people. Sometimes he rode to a place and called upon those gathered together but most of the time the circuit rider came to places where believers had gathered. For some Jesse Lee is the name of two churches in Connecticut but I would hope that for others he is one of the circuit riders who along with Francis Asbury and Freeborn Garrettson, brought the Gospel message to these parts. This church, along with so many others in the Hudson Valley, has its roots in the efforts of the circuit riders and the early American Methodist movement to bring the Good News to a thirsty and hungry population, a population that could not necessarily meet in the established Anglican churches of 18th century America. We sometimes forget that being a Methodist at that time made one an outcast in society.

Several years ago, there was a church that was quite known for its support of the Native American community and of its many social activities. It was one of those churches formed from the efforts of the early settlers and the circuit riders. But it had a history that often was forgotten in the course of the church’s day to day existence.

People would come from miles around to be a part of these activities. And while the people would gather on the grounds of the church in friendship and fellowship, very seldom did anyone ever ventured into the church. And no one asked if the church was ever open. The people came for the food and the fellowship but not to worship. And the people who belonged to the church saw the events, not as part of the worship of the church, but as a means of keeping the building open. No invitations were ever made to those who came to the events to return for worship on Sunday and ultimately the church closed. And now, as it sits on the side of the road and cars roar by, it is a monument to days past.

It is a daunting challenge to keep a church open; it is an even more daunting challenge to meet the purpose of the church, the purpose first formed some two thousand years ago when people gathered in secret and in fear in order that they might worship Christ. And even after they were able to meet openly, there was still a fear. I can be like some and read the words of Paul to the Ephesians for today as a call to arms and war; it would only be natural to do so when Paul tells the people of Ephesus to put on the armor of God. And there are those who see daily life as a battle between good and evil, between God and Satan. I am not saying that life should not be seen in those terms but if we say that Christ is the Prince of Peace, how can we use warfare to defeat evil, in whatever form it may take? On the other hand, if as Paul wrote, our weapons are truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation, then God’s armor gives us that single added dimension that will allow us to prevail.

We have gathered here today, in part to be refreshed, in part to be inspired. We are like those who have gathered at this spot so many times in the past. We have to wonder what purpose there is jn our gathering. We have to wonder, as so many others did, two thousand years ago, what path we will take when we leave here. We can be like many, hearing the words of Jesus and realizing that the challenge is too great, that what Jesus is asking us to do is to great a task. Or we can also hear the words of Peter that we are committed to the task that Jesus sets before us, knowing that the purpose of our life comes in that commitment. And we know that from Christ will come that which we need to meet the challenges, whatever they may be, wherever they may lead, in the coming days.

“What’s The Next Step?”

I am preaching at New Milford/Edenville United Methodist Church this morning. The service is at 9:30 am and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) are 2 Samuel 18: 5 – 9, 15, 31 – 33; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2; and John 6: 35, 41 – 51.

From the time I took a long-term assignment as a lay speaker way back in 1995 (the Chattaqua Parish in Kansas – see “Hide and Seek”) I have followed the lectionary as the source for my Scripture readings. For those who are not familiar with this term, the lectionary is a set of three readings, generally one from the Old Testament, one from the Letters of the New Testament and one from the Gospel readings. If one follows the lectionary, one can, in a three-year period, cover the entire Bible. We happen to be in Year B of the three-year cycle.

And while we are familiar with the lectionary readings for a particular Sunday, it is my understanding that these readings also encompass the rest of the week and Sunday school as well (which is nice because many of our favorite stories are not in the selections for Sunday services).

Some lay speakers will use certain Scriptures that they are comfortable with but when I found it necessary to prepare a message for a series of weeks that method didn’t work well for me. Now, as it happens, the lectionary that I followed back in 1995 was the Common Lectionary; the scriptures for today are from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem but in addition to preparing this message I am also working on a message for next Sunday at the Fishkill United Methodist Church and a message for the Vespers in the Garden series on Sunday evening at Grace UMC in Newburgh. The Vespers message is special because we are also dedicating a cross that was given to the church back in September in memory of 9/11. I hope that you will be able to come up to Grace for this important moment in church and town history.

For the Vespers series, we have always used the Common Lectionary and there are subtle differences in the Common and Revised Common Lectionary. One is that part of the Old Testament reading for next Sunday is the concluding part of the Old Testament reading for today. And that leads me to the title for today’s message.

In theory one can travel back in time and in writing these three sermons I am traveling, at least in thought from next Sunday evening to next Sunday morning to today. So, if by chance, I sound like I don’t know if I am coming or going, at least you will know why. But I hope that you can come up to Newburgh next Sunday, knowing that in part what I say Sunday night comes from what I am saying today.

There are some who believe that the Bible is a fixed and unchanging document; one that we should just leave alone. But such a document quickly becomes something that we read when we have time and interest. But if you feel, as I do, that the Bible is a living document then one can find one’s own passions, desires, thoughts, and feelings in the passages.

That would, I think, be the case in reading the Old Testament passage for today. There are very few people today who cannot relate to David’s cry of anguish when informed that his son Absalom had died. And David’s cry is even more painful when we know that David had specifically told his troops that they were not to harm Absalom, even though Absalom had instigated the rebellion against David. We are not told in the reading for today but it was Joab, one of David’s commanders, who killed Absalom and that he did so because he was sometimes at odds with what David wanted to do.

The death of Absalom effectively ends the rebellion and peace, as it were, is restored to the kingdom. But one has to ask how there can there be peace in a country recently divided. It is a question that has haunted this country for over one hundred years and one for which the Bible doesn’t always provide a clear answer. Or does it?

We are a nation that is still split, not just along racial lines but economic lines and cultural lines. We see war as the penultimate solution and are unwilling to do that which will prevent future wars. We lead lives that are counter to the examples that are given in the Bible for us to follow.

Paul writes to the Ephesians and speaks of changing the way one lives. Paul says that it is perfectly acceptable to be angry but don’t let that anger serve as fuel for revenge. And yet, when we are attacked, when we are slighted or wrong, our thoughts are to seek revenge. Paul speaks of getting an honest job so that we can help others who can’t work; yet we often express the thought that everyone is on their own when it comes to work and success. When President Kennedy spoke before the press following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, he spoke of victory and success having a thousand fathers but failure was an orphan. We have taken that statement and made success the product of individualism and those who do not succeed as failures.

We have taken the very notion of Christ’s love, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, as unconditional and made it conditional. We expect something, much if one listens to many of the television preachers, in return for our acknowledgment of God’s love.

We ignore Jesus’ words about who is in charge and expect that we, mere mortals, are capable of discerning what God is thinking. And we will not allow others to have any thoughts about Jesus, God, Christianity, or religion unless they are exact carbon copies of our own thoughts and beliefs.

We are at a point in time, a place in history, where we must make a choice. We know the numbers, we know the prediction that tell us that unless something is done and done soon, the United Methodist Church will be, quite literally, extinct within twenty-five years. There are those today who believe that religion will die out in that time frame as well.

Yet, those who predict the demise of religion offer nothing better as an alternative. At least the prophets in the Old Testament offered an alternative, even if the people often times ignored them. I would agree that any religion which speaks with more of a human voice or which offers alternatives that are different from the scriptures that they claim to derive their authority from probably deserves to die.

Jesus pointed out that the religious authorities of His day were not the one’s in charge, even if that was what they told the people. Christ came to this world, not to follow His own will or do what we would have Him do, but to do God’s will..

We cannot begin to discern God’s will if we are bickering amongst ourselves or relying on others to direct our path. The one problem that I have with current thoughts in the United Methodist Church is that those who lead the church have an absolute and true understanding of what must be done to revitalize the denomination.

I also know that one statement will get me into more hot water than anything else I may say. I can hear the voices of my mother in one ear and my father in the other saying, “Tony, don’t rock the boat. Go with the flow and don’t cause trouble.” But if Jesus had not rocked the boat some two thousand years ago; if Jesus had not challenged common opinion about the poor, the sick, the forgotten people, and the oppressed, where would we be today.

If John Wesley had merely taken the assignment as an Anglican priest and just did his parish work, would we even have a Methodist Church today? I wrote a piece the other day that I hope gets published. In it, I used the quote that Edward Kennedy used when he eulogized his brother Robert, “he saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

I am reminded that John Wesley’s answer to the lack of health care in 18th century England was the establishment of a health clinic and the publication of a book of medical cures. He saw people in debtors’ prisons because they could not pay their debts (something which is returning to this country today) and he established the first credit union. He saw the need for children to be educated and he helped begin the first Sunday School. And when there was a cry for people to bring the Word of God to the colonies, he sent men over to lead the ministry.

The answer to the crisis before us lies, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, not in the stars but in us. We must look around and where we are today and ask what it is that we can do, no matter how many or how few we may be, to bring the Word of God to the people of this community. We must look around and ask what are the needs of this community and how can we, individually or collectively, as one group or with others, provide the solution.

I heard a quote the other day that intrigued me: “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” Part of the intrigue was that I misunderstood who said it. I thought it was Arthur C. Clarke but I determined, with the aid of modern technology, that is was an individual named Joel A. Barker. I have never heard of this individual but I discovered that his claim to fame is that he took the notion of the paradigm shift, first proposed by Thomas Kuhn in relation to the idea of scientific ideas, and applied it to business models.

While I find that idea interesting, I also know that many individuals use the term “paradigm shift” without knowing what it means or involves. What I do know is that Jesus Christ offers a radical new idea, a paradigm shift if you will, to those who are willing to follow Him.

He speaks of the Bread of Life, of the sustenance that leads to eternal life. He offers each and everyone who takes of this Bread the opportunity for eternal life. This is the penultimate paradigm shift; it transforms our lives from a mere day-to-day existence to one that can change the world.

Some will hear this offer and ignore it. Some will hear this offer and say that one person can never change the world. But Jesus was one person and he did in fact change the world. That we are here this morning is proof of that. There is a proverb that basically states that life is a journey that begins with a single step. What shall your next step be? You can choose not to follow Jesus today. It is the safe bet because you know that the world will not change and what was out there when you came here this morning will be there when you leave.

Accepting Christ, choosing to follow Him down whatever road it may lead, does not meant that world outside changes. But you will have changed, changed in a way that others will see. In your words, your thoughts, your deeds, and your actions, people will see that Christ is a part of your life. They will see the love that God has for each one of us and they will want to be a part of that. When you care for someone because they are in trouble or need and not for your own gain, the world will begin to change. So we begin with a step; what is your next step?

Dealing with Our Struggles

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, 10 July 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 25: 19 – 24, Romans 8: 1 – 11, and Matthew 8: 1 – 9, 18 – 23.

I am at the New Milford/Edenville United Methodist Church (Location of Church) again this morning. Summer services start at 9:30 and you are always welcome there.


I think that I mentioned last week that I have two daughters, born three years apart, and of course, I am exceedingly proud of them. When I think back to the days when their mother was pregnant I remember how we could feel them moving about, anxious to leave the womb and get on with life. There isn’t much that I would trade for those experiences and the birth of each of my daughters.

I found out a few years later that twins are a natural occurrence on both sides of the family. There is some folklore that says that when there are twins in your family, they will appear in every other generation. And it was my generation’s turn to have twins but it wasn’t to be so perhaps when my grandchildren have children of their own, the trait of twins will appear. Still, I can only imagine what it might have been like to have the doctor come out and tell me that I was the father of twins.

That is what is so important about the reading from the Old Testament for today. As any parent will attest, there is something unique when you feel that young child begin to move inside the womb. We would like to think that Rachel was overjoyed to feel the twins moving inside of her but we also know, from our reading of the Old Testament today, that the struggle between Esau and Jacob that began in the womb would continue long after they grew up. And this would have naturally given her concern.

It should be natural for siblings to struggle, to strive and compete against each other. But it should be friendly and competitive. I didn’t play football when I was growing up; actually, I was involved in something more important, band. It is not often that a parent can watch their children compete against each other and be able to root equally for each of them. But both of my brothers played football and there is the memorable game in our family history when Raleigh-Egypt High School played Bartlett High School. The uniqueness of this game was that my brother Terry played halfback on the Bartlett offense and my brother Tim was playing for the Raleigh-Egypt defense at the same time.

But there are times when the prophecy of Esau and Jacob comes true for other families as well; times when the struggle is serious and deadly. With this being the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we are reminded of the struggle that engulfed this country and tore families apart and pitted brother against brother.

But the greatest struggle that each one of us face each day is an understanding of who we are and what our purpose in this world might be. We find ourselves struggling with questions of why does hunger, sickness, famine, and war exist in this world? We struggle with questions about poverty and wealth and who is truly favored in God’s eyes. We know that there are answers to these questions and we expect our church to be the one place where we might find those answers.

We want a certain degree of structure in our lives; we want our laws to be firm and fast, clear and concise. We hear so many people today say that if our society was a true Christian society, based on Judeo-Christian law, then we wouldn’t have all these problems. The only problem with this particular logic is that most people don’t know what the law they are referring to actually says. This is the image of the church, of a fixed and inflexible institution, out of touch with today and insisting on an adherence to a set of laws that perhaps don’t even exist in the Bible.

Against this backdrop we see individuals leaving the church, not singularly but in groups. They look at the church today and wonder how it came to be and why it cannot answer the questions that make up the meaning of life, even when that is often the unstated reason for the church.

Barrett Owen has written an interesting article entitled “Why Millennials Rarely Connect with Churches?” The Millennial Generation is that generation born in the period from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s; they are the children of the Baby Boom Generation. It is a generation that is leaving the church and there are many that cannot understand why.

It is a migration that goes beyond moving from home to college and onto their own lives; it is a migration from the church itself. It is a migration that confounds many parents and church authorities alike. And many experts would say that if we understood this generation, then we might be able to “save the church.”

And though we should be careful when we make generalizations about a collective group, be they Millennials, Generation X, or Baby Boomers, if we understand what they are thinking, perhaps we can understand what we have to do. First, let me say that creating a list of solutions based on these ideas is called marketing and marketing the church will never work.

So, with that caveat, here are some thoughts on the Millennial Generation:

  • They do not care about the institutional church. They do not tithe and have rejected traditional church offerings. They will refuse, reject, and rebuff denominational loyalty if it means causing separation, marginalization, or ostracizing an individual or a group of individuals.
  • Words such as “community”, “intentionality”, and “ecumenism” are mentioned long before words such as “doctrine”, “controversy”, or “resurgence.”
  • They are finding alternative and creative forms of giving.
  • They are building foundational beliefs about faith and morality that are based on experiential truths as opposed to doctrinal or creedal statements. This is not your normal Sunday school lesson they are learning and developing!
  • They will say that Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s love but they will also say that it is not the only expression. They will say that they are spiritual but not religious. They will seek to find God and they are not necessarily looking in the traditional places.
  • They have a lot to offer; they have optimism and a need for reconciliation which is desperately needed in this world today. They are motivated, not offended; they care about creation, people, worldviews, religions, art, creativity and beauty.
  • Faith, for millennials, is less about doctrine or institutional fellowship and more about experiential learning. Beliefs that speak of wholeness over segregation and separation, love over hate, commonalities over discrepancies, activism over bitterness, shared stories over division and missional engagement over doctrinal supremacy have become their heart’s cry.

Owen wondered if all this adds up to the death knell of today’s church. As Owen put it, “Giving up on financially supporting denominational bodies or larger institutions is a risky hope. It’s a hope that something new will emerge. But since this group doesn’t like division, corporate advancement or institutions, I wonder what could ever create enough momentum to have longevity?”

And then Jesus spoke of the sower sowing his seeds in the garden. Some of the seeds landed on rocky ground, where they withered and died. Some landed amongst the weeds and while they grew for a while, they too eventually died, choked by the other plant growth that stole the nutrients. But some landed on fertile soil, where they flourished and grew. And there was a good harvest amongst those that landed on the fertile soil.

What type of church do you have? Is it one filled with rocks and boulders, one where seeds planted have no chance to grow? Or is it one filled with weeds and other plants that choke off the growth of the other plants? Or is it the one with the fertile soil that gives growth to new ideas and plans?

I have seen some churches where this latter field exists. But I have also seen many churches that are rocky and nothing grows as well as many churches that have much growth but most of the growth is in the form of weeds that choke off the growth of the good flowers. And I know that you can turn a church that is filled with rocks or one with weeds into one with fertile ground. It is a matter of whether or not the church members wanted to get involved and get their hands dirty. I doubt that many today who long for such a church, a church where faith is more than a word, even know that such a church once existed.

The early church was an experiential church; it was church, not of words but of deeds. Experiential learning does not take place in the classroom; it takes place in the field. And the church of two thousand years ago bears little resemblance to the church of today. The churches that Paul wrote about met in people’s houses and not specifically built sanctuaries. In fact, when many gathered together to read the letter that Paul had recently written them, they probably gathered in secret because there was the fear of persecution. The structured church, with denominations and doctrines, is a product of the post-Constantine era, the period when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the de-facto state religion. If we were more like those early churches, or even more like the early Methodist churches, perhaps we wouldn’t be struggling as much today.

Paul points out that if Christ is a part of our life today, the struggles we face are minimal. Our own self becomes secondary when Christ is the center-piece of our life. Somewhere along the line we became convinced that the church was about us and not Jesus or God. And when that happened we started to become the church that now either scares away or drives away those who offer much hope. Pastor Owen is right that the Millennial Generation will not find what it seeks if it runs away from what it fears; the same is true for us and sometimes all we have to do is look around and know how true that is. But we can deal with our struggles if we quit dealing with our struggles and begin doing the work of God. The challenge is there and the call is there. If we do not answer the call, our struggles will continue for we will continue seeking answers. But if we answer the call, if we accept Christ into our heart and soul, then we can quit dealing with our struggles. And if we begin to make the church what it once was, then we will help others to deal with their struggles as well.

Last week, I used “Be Thou My Vision” as a preparation hymn, to prepare you for the message. Today, I use it as the invitational hymn, to invite you to vision the world that lies before you. Shall it be a world of rocks and weeds, a world of struggle and strife, or will it be a world of wonderful growth and wonderful harvests?

This Thing Called Freedom

This Sunday was at the New Milford/Edenville United Methodist Church (Location of Church).  Summer services start at 9:30 and you are always welcome there.  The Scriptures for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost are Genesis 24: 34 – 38, 42 – 49, 58 – 67; Romans 7: 15 – 25; and Matthew 11: 16 – 19, 25 – 30.


This has always been an interesting Sunday for me. Growing up as I did, a 2nd generation military brat, living much of my early life on Air Force Bases, I have one sense of what this day means. But, over the years, as I have looked at this day/weekend from the standpoint of the Scriptures and a conscious and public acceptance of Jesus Christ, I have come to appreciate a different, perhaps deeper meaning for today.

Clearly, this is a weekend to discuss freedom and what it means. But I think that we have to do so with an understanding that there is more to it than the public discussion. We understand and we appreciate those words that Thomas Jefferson wrote, “that all men are created equal”, yet we fail to understand that when Jefferson wrote those words in 1776 it applied to only men, and only men, who owned property. If you were a man but did not own property, a woman, or a minority, then the words of the Declaration of Independence were simply words on a piece of parchment, words without meaning to you. It may have been that this was how Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were able to justify the contradictions in their own personal and public lives.

Over the course of history we have heeded the words of Jesus when he spoke to the Pharisees in John 8:31 – 32, “seek the truth and the truth will set you free.” When we speak of all men being equal we mean everyone and not a select few.

It has always struck me that most of the discussions Jesus had with the Pharisees and the other establishment figures was how freedom transcended the law. For the Pharisees, the law was the limit; it was what defined a person and determined what they could and could not do. Jesus was always pushing the limit of the law, going beyond the law to the spirit of the law and its true meaning.

It is the establishment that criticized John the Baptizer for his words and his actions; it was the establishment that Jesus pointed out criticized Him when He ate with sinners. The establishment viewed such engagements as outside the boundaries of the law and, thus, actions that needed to be limited. Yet, the intent of the very laws that the establishment used to justify such limitations were never meant to do that. God’s kingdom was never meant to be exclusive; it was meant to be inclusive. The laws that God gave to the Israelites were to define the relationships in the kingdom. But the Ten Commandments quickly became some 600 laws with over ½ of them telling people what they could not do.

And we know from our own experience that the moment someone tells us that we cannot do something that is the very thing we want to do. We tell our children not to do this or not to do that and then we have to spend all of our time making sure that they don’t do it. But sooner or later a child finds out what hot or sharp means and we have to do something different.

We understand that there are things that we need to do and must do but we are so tempted by the “freedom” that sin offers, we turn away from God. We really would like to do those things that we know we shouldn’t, even if it is something trivial like have a second helping of pie for dessert, if for no other reason than there is that momentary satisfaction of feeling good.

I sense this struggle in what Paul is writing. He recognizes that there is a “freedom” outside the law, a “freedom” that we all at one time or another seek to enjoy. What was it that Paul said in the passage from Romans for today, “part of me wants to rebel?” But Paul goes one step further. This lure of “freedom” is nothing more than sin trying to steal us away from God and what God would have us do.

It is very hard for us sometimes to know what God would have us do in terms of freedom. We still see God in a strict, legalistic sense. We see God as deterministic, deciding the outcome of all decisions long before we enter into the picture. This is not the picture of freedom that we would like to see.

When I first read the Old Testament passage for today, I wondered how it would fit into any discussion of freedom. Let’s face it; the story doesn’t have much in the way of freedom in it for either Isaac or Rebekah. Did Isaac have any say in the sending of the servant to his ancient homeland? Did Isaac even know that his father was getting him a wife? Did Rebekah have any say in the decisions of her father and relatives when it came to the discussion between Abraham’s servant and them regarding the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah? Maybe Isaac wanted to marry a local girl? Maybe Rebekah wanted to marry a local boy? When you read the story, you get the impression that neither Isaac nor Rebekah was given much in the way of a choice. And Isaac doesn’t even get to meet Rebekah face to face.

On the face of things, this story goes against everything that one can say about freedom. But does it? By this point in his life, Isaac had to have known the story of his parents traveling from the ancient homeland to what will become Israel. Isaac clearly knew the story behind his trip to Mount Moriah. And though I am not aware of any passages in the Bible, surely Isaac and Abraham talked about God’s plan and how they fit within it.

Understanding God’s plan and where anyone fits in it is not a simple thing to do. It requires far more than maintaining a certain collection of laws. It requires understanding what we are being asked to do in this world. It is not something that is automatic or complete in one step; what did Jesus say in the second part of the Gospel reading for today – “I am willing to go over it line by line to whomever is willing to listen.”

In the end, what we might call freedom may very well be nothing more that slavery with fancy trimmings. We get trapped by laws or our desire to not be trapped by laws. We seek to achieve something that we cannot achieve because we are so certain that we must do it in one way and one way only.

The invitation today comes from Jesus Himself – are you tired, worn out, burned out with religion. Do you seek a new life, one that is free? Perhaps the solution is Christ because Christ sets us free from the slavery found in a life of laws and regulations. We are invited to follow Christ and find true freedom. You know, the interesting thing is that we don’t have to follow Christ. That freedom was also given to us.

But the freedom not to follow leaves us where we are now and that does not appear to be a good alternative. In following Christ, we find a freedom that allows us to expand our boundaries and find ourselves.

This thing called freedom is an elusive thing. Some will search and never find it; others will see it in front of them and never know it. You are given the invitation to find freedom through Christ today. It is yours for the asking. What will you do?

What Does It Take?

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Best Interests

This Sunday I am returning to New Milford/Edenville United Methodist Church (Location of Church).  I was there on October 23, 2005 (“What Is The Promise?”), October 8, 2006 (“What Do We Say?”), and October 22, 2006 (““What Will You Ask For?”)

The service starts at 10:30.  The Scriptures for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, and Matthew 21: 23 – 32.


It has been said that the comedian W. C. Fields was once caught reading the Bible. When he was asked why he was doing so, he replied that he was looking for loopholes. And while the story in itself may be apocryphal, it speaks to our own thoughts about the Bible and its role in our lives.

When I began preparing this sermon, I saw the phrase in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that you should not look to your own interests but to the interests of others as well (verse 4). It doesn’t matter if you read it from a traditional translation, a more modern one, such as The Message (which states “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”), or even from the Cotton Patch Gospel (“Never act competitively or for self-praise, but with humbleness esteem others as above yourselves. Don’t confine yourselves to your own interests, but seek the welfare of others.”) The words tell us that if we call ourselves Christians then our interests cannot take precedence over the interests of others. Yet, that is how Christianity is often portrayed.

These are critical times for believers. This is not about family values, moral decay, or the ability to worship your faith openly and without repercussion. This is about a difference between one’s view of faith and its prophetic vision. This is about the differences between a religion which promises easy certainty with absolutes and “black-and-white” issues and a religion the prompts a deeper reflection and a call to action. Those who promise easy certainty externalize their anxieties, fears, and insecurities, who seek to control others through violence and restriction; those who seek a deeper reflection and a call to action speak of independent thought, personal reflection, self-criticism, renewal, reformation and revival.

We see this in the exchange between the chief priests and elders with Jesus in the Gospel reading for today. Throughout the Gospel the majority of priests, elders, scribes, and other members of the establishment constantly questioned Jesus about His authority. They, the appointed representatives of God on earth, constantly sought to undermine Jesus in whatever He sought to do.

Now, as God’s representatives on earth, perhaps they had a right to do so. As it so clearly states in the Gospel, we have to be on guard against those who would preach in the name of God but yet be representatives of the Evil One. But the Pharisees, the scribes and the elders who questioned Jesus weren’t interested in determining the validity of His ministry; they were only interested in preserving their own power and status.

Early in my own faith development, growing up in the Deep South during the 50’s and 60’s, I saw many who call themselves Children of God yet whose words and actions were like those whom John the Baptist called vipers and hypocrites. Even today, when so much is made of the religion or the lack thereof of our leaders, it isn’t about true belief but who shall be in control and who shall be in power when the shouting is done.

Let’s face it. The establishment was very uncomfortable with His ministry. They objected to the idea of bringing sinners into the temple, of His associating with prostitutes and tax collectors, of healing the sick on the Sabbath. Their view of religion focused on those who really had no need for religion. Everything Jesus did worked against everything they stood for and worked to maintain.

The Philippian church was a culturally diverse church. In his letter, Paul specifically mentions an Asian, a Greek, and a Roman citizen; three different individuals representing three different races, three different social ranks, and probably each with a different religious loyalty before they each encountered Christ. Just as Jesus did in Jerusalem where he gathered all the people that the establishment did not want in the Temple, the church in Philippi broke the rules of society and class.

Somewhere in the history of the church, however, we lost that notion. I doubt that many people today understand that the label of Methodist was once a pejorative. We got our name because of the methodical way that John and Charles Wesley and their college friends went about their devotions and lives. But it quickly became the label for a trouble-maker and a revolutionary.

Even today, there are too many people who hold onto the view that church is a time and a place on Sunday. To borrow a phrase that is often associated with Las Vegas, many people are quite happy if what is said in the pulpit stays in the pulpit. Don’t ever challenge the people to think of church as something more than a social gathering on Sunday morning.

While Wesley believed that the churches primary mission was to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land”, he also understood that those words were meaningless without action. The United Methodist Church began because it spoke out against the direction society was taken. The people of the early Methodist movement spoke out against the callousness of society in putting its own interests above the needs of all its members. And the people of the early Methodist movement did more than just speak out; they put their words into action.

The early Methodist societies began what we would call a credit union to help people from being thrown into debtor’s prison. Others started job training programs. They started schools for children on Sunday because that was the only day that children were not working. They set up free health clinics because the poor and lower classes had no health care system.

But many people of Wesley’s time balked at this call; they barred Wesley and those who followed him from preaching in the established churches. And when the movement started building its own churches, it banned the building of those churches. If you get a chance, go to John Street United Methodist Church and read its history; it began as a meeting house because the established church of New York refused to allow Methodists to have their own church. To do what Wesley preached was simply too much for many people to take. To risk what you have for others, to give so that others would not suffer was simply too much to ask. But their actions were nothing new.

Consider the Israelites in their passage from Egypt to the Promised Land. As they left Egypt, they complained that they were going to die at the hands of the Egyptian army in the desert by the Red Sea. Last week, they complained about the lack of bread and meat; this week they complained about the lack of drinking water. It is quite easy to understand these complaints.

To the people on the Exodus, there was a certain degree of safety and security in their lives as slaves in Egypt. Their needs were met, that is certain. But their lives were controlled by others. In remembering the security and safety of their lives in Egypt, the Israelites forgot the harshness of that life. They forgot that they had called out to God to be saved. Each step on the journey, the people of Israel complained; each step of the way they forgot what God had done for them. They forgot how God defeated the Egyptian army in the mud and slop of the Red Sea. And while they cried out for food, they forgot that God had fed them with manna and quail. This week they will cry out for water, lamenting a life in slavery where water was plentiful. Yet God will provide the water they need.

Each passage in Exodus is going to mark how the Israelites put their own interests above all else, even in view of what God did for them. And yet, God never stopped. He protected them; He fed them; He gave them fresh water. And in the end, when they had left Him, He sent His Son to take on the life of a servant and rescue them once again.

If you are following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to a place you don’t even know exists, it is only natural that you will think of your own self-interests first. You want to make sure that your own basic needs are met and you want to feel safe and secure. To follow a cloud by day and fire by night and to only hear a voice calling out from the cloud doesn’t give one much piece of mind or security. But there is a problem when your interests take precedence over the interests of others. The church today is too much like the church of John Wesley’s time. It is more interested in its own survival than it is in the survival of God’s children.

John Wesley and others called this “lukewarm Christianity.” If the church is blind to the needs of the people outside the walls of the church, then it is not doing what it is supposed to be doing; it may be making disciples of the people but it is not living the Gospel message that Christ proclaimed.

The one hard lesson that Wesley learned was that you can’t put your interests above that of others. His failure as a missionary in Georgia followed his failures in England. His failures were not failures to reach out but failures to find peace and comfort in God. They were failures because he was putting his own interests before the interests of the Lord.

But when he accepted the Lord as his Savior, on that night that we have come to know as “Aldersgate”, his view changed. And when his view changed, the nature and the power of the Methodist movement changed.

The church today is failing, just as it was failing in Wesley’s day and just as it was failing in the days before Christ began His ministry. It is failing because it is putting its own interests before that of God. It is failing because it fears that what is happening outside the walls of the church will somehow creep inside the church and disturb or destroy the peace and tranquility they seek.

But as the church today builds walls to protect its sanctuary with its peace and quiet, it prevents those who seek that peace from coming in. As it builds the walls around the church, it seeks to trap God inside, preventing God from reaching out to the people who seek His touch and presence.

Tony Campolo has suggested that many denominational leaders failed to give enough attention to people who were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness and longing for a message of deliverance. The reason that evangelical churches have experienced such phenomenal growth in the past few years is probably because they have responded to the calls of the people who wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit.”

I will not deny that churches have failed in their primary mission. The mission of the church is and will always be to save souls. But trapped inside the walls of their churches, many people cannot see how to do this. They see their members leaving and they don’t understand why others are not coming to their church. So they have rewritten the Gospel message. They offer a message which speaks to an individual’s interests, not the interests of God. It is a message designed to make the listener feel good and not worried about the world outside the church walls. Many of these new churches take away the symbols of the church, especially the Cross; for fear that it will scare away the people.

But you cannot build a church around some numerical bottom line; it must be based on the spirit that infuses people. As Jim Wallis noted in his recent book, “The Great Awakening”, people are searching for something to be the engine that drives their passion for justice and a solid foundation for their lives. They want a faith that they can live, a faith that is committed to the Gospel message. It is interesting how the word “evangelical” has been transformed over the years. But it once meant to speak of the Good News, of the Gospel message of Christ.

If you have been saved, if you have proclaimed to the world that Jesus Christ is your personal Savior then you have the duty to go out into the world and show people what he has done. But people will not hear the words that you speak if they are hungry, homeless, sick, naked, or suppressed by an indifferent society.

Jesus asked the elders a question about two sons. When asked to go to work for their father, the older son say that he would but didn’t. The younger son refused but ended up working. Each son had his own interests but which one put the interests of God first?

We have a chance today to be that second son instead of continuing as the first. We have a chance to put the interests of others before our own. How will we make this church the church that Wesley wanted, how will we make the church of the 21st century emulate the first churches, the house churches of the 1st and 2nd century? How will we make this place a reminder of who Christ was and how will we make it a place where people can find a safe haven in a world full of turmoil and trouble?

We start by opening our hearts so that Christ can come in. Then we let the Holy Spirit come in. Then we begin doing what God asks us to do. The financial crisis that has dominated our lives for the past week affects more than a select few individuals on Wall Crisis. It is a financial crisis that has been affecting people for several years. Right now, there are no homeless shelters for homeless women and homeless families in Newburgh; the only shelter in Newburgh for homeless men operates during the winter months. Newburgh Ministries was created to find a solution to this problem. Perhaps He is asking you take part in the Newburgh Ministries. They can be reached through their web site – http://www.newburghministry.org/.

The food banks in this area are already pushed to the limit and I know that it is difficult to ask to contribute more. But often times, it is not asking you to contribute more but rather you asking your neighbors to contribute more.

It may not seem that the simple act of asking your neighbor to help with the food bank will end world-wide hungry. It probably won’t but in the simple act of involving someone else to act in faith will.

It Only Takes A Spark

If you seek to solve problems on your own, the problems will not be solved. But if you open your heart to Christ and let the power of the Holy Spirit guide and direct you, you will not be alone and you will not be acting in your own interests but in the interests of God and the community that we live in. This is what it is all about; this is in our best interests.

What Will You Ask For?

I am again preaching at Edenville UMC this morning. Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost.


In the early and mid 1980’s there was a “movement” to bring about excellence in business. It was not a new movement but rather a different approach to an age old approach. During that time, people looked for excellence in all areas, including my own area of science education. I mentioned this when I wrote my blog for May 7th of this year. (1) Two things came from this renewed search.

First, most of the innovations that occur in a business occur at the ground level of the business; very few innovations come from the top of the corporate ladder or through the internal structure of a company. Things like “Post-it notes” were not invented in corporate think tanks but rather from individuals aware of situations were applications were needed. The person responsible for the production of these ubiquitous yellow scraps of paper, Arthur Fry, knew two things.

First, Art Fry was in search of a bookmark that he could use for his church hymnal that was reusable and would not damage the hymnal. Second, he knew that his company, 3M, had created a glue-like substance that was not quite right; it was sticky but it wasn’t permanent. The combination made sense to him and he was able to develop a product that we use without thinking today. (2) But to get it done, Art Fry had to first overcome the internal inertia of the company that said that it could not be done. If he had worked for any other company besides 3 M, the likelihood would have been that the product would not have been invented. What the search for excellence showed was that innovation occurred when there was a climate of innovation. If management did not encourage it, then innovation was not going to occur.

The second thing that the search for excellence showed was that management needed to be aware of what was transpiring at the bottom levels of the corporate organization chart. Too often, it seems that the upper levels of management are not aware of what is transpiring at the bottom of the company. It was not that upper level managers had to do the work of the majority of the employees but it helped if they understood what was going on. While we like to think of corporate management in terms of a pyramid with the broad base at the bottom and the single most important person perched at the top; when it comes to knowledge about the company, the amount of knowledge should broaden and not narrow as one climbs the ladder.

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear a very simple proposal. (3) James and John want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in the new power structure that would come in God’s Kingdom. But Jesus’ rebuke to the “Sons of Thunder” (and the other disciples who were angered that these two would have the audacity to vocalize what they wanted for themselves) pointed out that neither James, John, nor any of the other disciples understood what price they would have to pay to gain those seats of power.

We understand today why the disciples would do this. It was the nature of society then and it is the nature of society today. Power and the authority that comes with power are what we seek; power and authority are the benchmarks by which things get done. Even John Kennedy understood that you could not get something done if you were not in a position of power. “I suppose anybody in politics would like to be President because that is the center of action, the mainspring, the wellspring of the American system.” (4) Later, as President, he would add “at least you have an opportunity to do something about all the problems which . . . I would be concerned [about] as a father or as a citizen . . .and if what you do is useful and successful, then . . . that is a great satisfaction.” (5) President Kennedy understood what access to power meant and what it was supposed to accomplish. It is not clear, or it seems that way to me, that many of the politicians today, on both of sides of the political aisle, have that same understanding.

Nor for that matter, do I think that we, as individuals, have a clear understanding of what having power means and what it requires of us as individuals. We want the glory that comes with power; we rejoice in having what others do not have. We want to sit in the seat of power; we want to sit where others cannot. But we fail to use that which we seek; we do not want to share what we have because we seem to think that it dilutes what we have gained. What good is it in today’s society to have something if everyone else has the same thing? That makes us no better than anyone else and there is nothing to be gained in that.

But we do not understand that simply having power does not give us what we seek. Having power and not using it for the common good, or having power and using it for personal gain is antithetical. Power used for one’s own self-interest only leads to corruption and destruction. Remember that when Jesus was in the wilderness and Satan tempted Him, one of the temptations was that of absolute power. (6) But Jesus understood that, if He were to have accepted Satan’s offer, He could not complete His mission. Satan’s offer of power comes the easy way, without commitment or sacrifice. But that is the way we see power today.

We live in a society and a world where having power means everything. We are not willing to accept the notion that having power means more than having a seat next to the Throne. We do not understand the true meaning of power. We do not understand how there can be death and destruction in this world; we do not understand how there can be suffering. We are quite willing to be like Job’s friends, who could only see a God capable of destruction and death, of causing pain and suffering. We have come to believe that we must seek and grab all the power that we can, for it is the only way that we can solve our problems.

It is to Job’s credit that he never bought into that viewpoint. He refused to accept the notion of a God that would punish someone for some unknown hideous evil. He refused to accept the notion of an all-powerful God who would cause pain, death, and destruction simply to prove that He was all powerful. All Job wanted was an accounting for what had transpired; he never once thought of denouncing God or questioning the power of God.

How many times are we like Job, suffering for unknown reasons, and demanding resolution in the simple terms? How many times do we ask for something without understanding what it is that we are asking for? How many times do we seek a simple solution when we do not even understand the problem?

In the Old Testament reading for today, God is responding to Job’s cry and demand for an explanation. Now some may say that God is lecturing or rebuking Job, saying that Job has no basis for his complaints. But God is simply pointing out to Job that Job has no understanding of God’s power. And since he has no understanding of God’s power, he cannot understand what has transpired in his life.

This is not an answer that we are willing to accept because it leaves us without an explanation. Job is willing to accept this answer because, more important than resolving the issue, he has met with God. Job’s faith in God is not lowered because he has not discovered the reason for his suffering; Job’s faith in God has increased because he has met God and God has responded to him.

As Jesus pointed out, those who would seek power must first be willing to be a servant. Those at the top of the power structure must be willing to serve at the bottom, if they are to gain what they seek. Jesus knew that the power that they sought would only come through suffering, pain, and death but it is not clear that the disciples understood what He was saying. The disciples still did not understand that they would endure pain and suffering much like Jesus would before they would gain what they sought. James was to be executed by Herod Agrippa I in A. D. 27 (7) and John would die alone in exile on the island of Patmos (8) after a life of being persecuted and watching his friends die. Gaining the right to sit on the right and left sides of the throne would not come from “connections” but through a commitment to the Gospel.

We are not called to be martyrs in the name of Jesus in order to be faithful servants or to gain a place at God’s table. We are not called to suffer simply because we are Christians. But we are called to make sure that others do not have to die or suffer for needless reasons. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus did not call Himself to the office of the high priest; He was called by His Father. (9) Jesus did not seek the power or the glory that was His; He accepted the same path that we must walk.

In doing so, Jesus became the mediator between God and us. He removed the barrier that confounded Job. Because Jesus experienced all of what a person goes through on this earth, He knows how difficult it is to obey God completely, just as He understood the attractions of temptation. (10)

We seek power because we think that it will provide us with all that we lack. And when we have gained the power, we find that we have nothing. Yet, in seeking Christ, we find that we have gained power beyond anything imaginable; we have gained the power over sin and death. This does not give us the right to laud it over others; it gives us the right to go out into the world and seek justice where there is injustice, to offer hope where there is despair, to find the hungry, heal the sick, and proclaim the Good News.

We often forget that two other men were crucified the same day as Jesus. We forget that one of those men taunted Jesus, saying that Jesus should save Himself. He saw power in its corrupt and selfish form. But the other man understood what the power of the Cross meant and he asked Jesus to forgive him of his sins. He saw and understood the power of Christ.

What will you ask for? Will you seek the power that brings nothing but death? Or will you seek Christ and gain victory over sin and death? Will you open your heart to the Holy Spirit so that you have the power to help others find peace and hope in this world?
(1) https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2006/05/07/to-search-for-excellence/
(2) http://inventors.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http://www.3m.com/about3M/pioneers/fry.jhtml
(3) Mark 10: 35 – 45
(4) Stated often during the Presidential campaign of 1960 – Kennedy by Theodore Sorenson, page 95
(5) Stated in 1962 – from Kennedy by Theodore Sorenson, page 95
(6) Matthew 4: 8 – 9
(7) See Acts 12: 1 – 2
(8) Revelation 1: 9
(9) Hebrews 5: 5 – 6
(10) Hebrews 5: 8

What Do We Say?

I am preaching at Edenville United Methodist Church in New Milford, NY, this morning. Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost.


What did you say last Monday when you came home and learned that three young girls had been killed in another school shooting? How do you explain the appearance of violence and murder in a community based on non-violence principles? And what do you say when the victims of the crime offer forgiveness to the killer and his family?

I cannot immediately explain why someone would decide to plan and then kill anyone, much less several people. The school shooting in Wisconsin the week before is perhaps easier to explain because the student was angry with the school and he had decided to take his anger out on the principal. The same explanation can help us explain the Columbine shootings; the young men involved there were angry with their classmates and sought revenge. But this explanation does not go far enough in explaining the other Colorado school shooting two weeks ago.

And though we can offer a rational explanation for the behavior of all those involved; it still doesn’t explain why all of these individuals decided to take their particular course of action.

Are we so enamored with violence that we have come to think that it is the only solution to the problems of society? Are we so fixated with violence that we think it will cure any problem we may have, whether they are real or perceived?

Against the backdrop of questions that we may not be able to answer, we are reintroduced to the story of Job this week. This book, written soon after the exile in Babylon, is an example of what is called subversive wisdom. It is an alternative to the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. Both the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes can be seen as a radical questioning of the easy confidence of the conventional wisdom found in the Book of Proverbs.

It is, for many, one of the great classics of world literature. The story of Job is the story of a righteous man from whom everything is taken – all his children, all his wealth, and finally all of his health. Its subject matter is a question that humankind has pondered ever since it had a sense of who they were: “Why should innocent persons suffer when the wicked seem to live in comfort and security?”

The early prophets attempted to deal with the question in terms of the Israelite nation but the writer of Job deals with it on an individual basis. It is a direct challenge to the time-honored and still accepted doctrine that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits. (1)

The dialogues between Job and his “comforters” are a sustained debate about the theme of requirements and rewards (“the righteous will flourish, the wicked will suffer”) which stand at the center of conventional wisdom. Job’s friends tell him that he must have done something very wrong (“Happy is the man whom God corrects”) and that this experience should lead to a greater piety. This experience should, in the end, lead to everything being all right.

But it is a conclusion and an argument that Job will not accept. From the very beginning, he is outraged at the injustice of what is happening. Job will not accept the results unless he is given an opportunity to see God and have God explain what is happening. Job rejects the comfort and counsel of his friends, with their established wisdom about God.

In the end, Job will come to peace with himself. He will meet God and find out that perhaps he, Job, is unable to understand all that makes up the world. Job finds out what we ourselves too often know, we are immersed in an overwhelming truth, a truth that we can only know through a limited view of the world.

In today’s Old Testament reading (2), Job is described as a righteous man. Two aspects of his character and actions are highlighted. Job is characterized as blameless and upright, meaning that he is “straightforward” and “ethically straight”. He is a man with a spotless character. Like Daniel, Job is blameless before his human critics but not necessarily before God.

But from the very beginning, in Job 2: 9 – 10, he is severely tested. His wife questions his integrity when she asks “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?” These are the very words that God used early in verse 3. They are words that emphasize Job’s perseverance. But his wife misconstrues this for religious fanaticism; she thinks that he is blindly refusing to see the reality of his desperate situation.

The thing is that the Book of Job alone does not present concrete solutions about why people suffer and how it is that we are to combat injustice. So what does this all mean for us? Are we to accept that there is no solution? How can we find hope in a world that offers no hope? Job’s wife’s comments precede the thoughts of many people today when they see the violence, hatred, angry and angst that pervade this society. They cannot accept that a loving God would allow this to happen. They get angry with God and walk away. They are closed to the words of God which still offer hope and possibility. Those who turn away from God do not see a world around them; they are blind to those who can help.

Job’s response and his urging that we accept both good and bad from God anticipates one of the central messages of the Book of Job; that a person of faith will trust in God through prosperity and adversity, even if they are unable to understand why the bad things happen. Just as Job finds trust in God at the end of the book, so too can we find trust in God through Jesus.

Jesus’ ministry was an invitation to all to share in the same life that He had experienced. This is a challenging message to accept with conventional wisdom. Our culture’s secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the Holy Spirit; it only can accept the visible world and ordinary experiences. This leads us to see Christianity in passive terms. Rather than seeing life as a process and transformation, we see it as something where God has already done what has to be done.

This makes God a lawgiver and a judge. It is why the Pharisees and Sadducees constantly tested Jesus, as they did in today’s Gospel reading. (3)  Their questions were not necessarily about divorce, though this passage is the central tenet for the church’s view on divorce, but rather about the adherence to the law.

If you held to the requirements of the law, things were good; if you did not, then you could expect bad things. If you follow the requirements of the law, God will give you what you want and need; if you do not, then God will withhold the good and punish you. God’s forgiveness becomes conditional; it is only for those who believe and it only lasts until you sin again.

Jesus changed this. No longer is God solely a lawgiver or judge; now He is our Father in Heaven. No longer is God’s grace given because we met a series of requirements determined by adherence to the law; God’s grace is freely given to all who would seek it. No longer is God’s grace limited to a select few; it becomes open to all who accept Christ in their lives.

In all the questions that the Pharisees and Sadducees asked, it was always about holding the myriad requirements of the law, even when it was impossible or contradictory. Their lives and power were dependent on the people mindlessly following what they, the leaders, said. Christ changes that; now when we live our lives in accordance with God’s commands, the outcome changes.

Stop and consider what happens when we accept Christ into our lives. In the Epistle reading for today (4) the writer of Hebrews tells us that our lives change because of Christ’s presence. Jesus takes on our burdens and frees us. No longer are we entangled by the requirements of the law. Now we, the people of the 21st century, are the custodians of the journey that began so long ago in Israel.

In the world of today, based on conventional wisdom and the notion that bad things happen to sinners and good things happen to the righteous, we have a hard time accepting this. We still feel that it is our “right” to do wrong against the one who has wronged us (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth); we ignore Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek. We would rather act instinctively, even when we know that two wrongs don’t make a right and fire added to fire stills burns the house down. (5)

We are not willing to immediately accept the new version of wisdom that is offered through Christ. We are angry at those who inflict violence and injustice on us; we seek revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can forgive the family of the person who killed their children. We demand justice and revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can reach a hand of caring and forgiveness to a family that they are supposed to hate.

So what do we do? In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (6)

The word “disciple” does not necessarily mean “a student of a teacher” but more “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament is to follow Jesus, to go on a journey with Jesus.

Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. Discipleship is not an individual path, but a journey in the company of disciples. It is a road that is less traveled yet done with others who remember and celebrate Jesus.

And discipleship involves being compassionate. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of the follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.

The Christian journey is a life lived from the inside out, a life in which the things we experience within — dreams, memories, images, and symbols, and the presence of him whom we encounter in deep silence — are in constant tension and dialogue with all that we experience without — people, events, joys, sorrows, and the presence of him whom we encounter in others. Thomas Merton repeats a suggestion of Douglas Steere that the absence of this tension might well produce the most pervasive form of violence present in contemporary society. “To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,” Merton writes, “to surrender to too many demands, to commit one’s self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

One of the most critical tasks of the local church is to enable people to become “journeyers” rather than “wanderers.” This suggests that the leadership of a congregation needs to be serious about their own journeys, to the point where they are willing to share their experience with others, not as those who have arrived but as fellow journeyers able to receive as well as to give. . . .

In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjold records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (7)

We are faced with a challenge today. In light of the violence that seems to have become so much a part of our lives, in light of the poverty and homelessness that is so much a part of our lives, in light of the injustice and oppression that seems to have become the norm rather than the exception, what do we say? What do we do?

When the world around is filled with senseless violence and poverty and oppression, will you say that it is God’s wrath for the sins of unnamed souls? When innocent children are killed and lives are destroyed through senseless violence, will you cry out to God that it is His fault?

Or will you say that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Will you say that He came to save this world from sin and death by His own sacrifice on the Cross? Will you say that because He came to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, enable the lame to walk, set the oppressed free and bring hope to the downtrodden and forgotten, that you are willing to walk with Him today?

The writer William Safire viewed the story of Job and his encounter with God as a victory for Job because Job called the Lord of the universe to account. It was a dialogue between a powerless individual and an all-powerful authority. It is a model for the miraculous thing that individuals such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Andrei Sakharov accomplished. Safire concluded that injustice in all forms need not be accepted; on the contrary, justice must be pursued and established authority confronted. One person can make a difference. (8) And each one of us can be that one person who makes the difference.

We must first remember that we have proclaimed that we are Christ’s disciples. We have committed our lives and our souls to following Christ. Clarence Jordan is best known as the founder of the Koinonia farm in Georgia. Founded in the late 1940’s, it was one of the first attempts at integration in the Deep South.

As such, it was the target of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some of the civil actions against the Klan. His brother refused, claiming that it would hurt his political aspirations (he was to become a Georgia state senator and later a justice on the State Supreme Court). He said that such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.

Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. To this, Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence.

Clarence then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.

Robert could only say that he followed Jesus, up to a point. Continuing the challenging, Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross.

Robert replied that he would go to the cross but that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but rather an admirer. He also said that he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.

Robert’s comments were interesting. He said, in effect, that if everyone who felt like I do did what you suggest, we would not have much of a church. Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church that he could go to. Later on, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society. (9)

We must also remember that we are Methodists. And our heritage is based on the feelings of John Wesley that the church cannot be silent when people are hungry, or sick, or naked, or homeless, or in prison and without hope. John Wesley could not stand aside and let the church ignore those who were poor, hungry, naked, sick, or in jail, even if the conventional wisdom was that the cause of poverty, hunger, the lack of clothes, or ill-health was the intrinsic sinfulness of the individual. John Wesley started a movement because he could not accept the injustice of a society that would cast aside the lesser members of society.

There is violence in this world; there is injustice in this world. There is hatred and oppression. We can simply say that it is God’s will and there is nothing we can do; we can say that God doesn’t care and nothing we do will change that. Or we can open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit; we can open our ears to hear the call of God through Christ calling us to be His people.

You are being asked today if you are willing to follow, if you are willing to take on the task of completing the answer to a perplexing question. 

UMH #593 – Here I Am

As you leave this place today, as you go out into the world, how will you respond to the call of the Lord?  At the beginning of this message, we sang the spiritual, “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me.”  The journey that we are about to begin today is not an easy one.  It is not easy answering God’s call.  But we do not do either alone.  All we have to do is ask Jesus to take our hand and guide us through this journey that we are about to make.  Our closing hymn this morning is #474 – “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

(1) Adapted from http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/id-103,pageNum-42.html

(2) Job 1:1; 2: 1 – 10

(3) Mark 10: 2 – 16

(4) Hebrews 1: 1 – 4; 2: 5 – 12

(5) Adapted from “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 25

(6) “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37

(7) From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen

(8) Adapted from http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=13244

(9) Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs – Saints and their stories by James C. Howell

What is the promise?

As a way of introduction, I would say that I am from Memphis, Tennessee, and that I graduated from a Memphis area high school in 1968. So it should not be a surprise that anytime I have a mountaintop passage such as the one from the Old Testament, my attention turns to the spring of 1968 and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. It was that strike that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis that fateful spring.

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

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

Dr. King was invited to Memphis to aid in the effort to bring about reconciliation between the workers and the city as well as bring attention to the disparity between classes. It should be noted that not many people outside of Memphis were aware of this strike. When this strike began a similar strike by sanitation workers in New York City had just ended. Even the respected New York Times did not consider a similar strike in a town of just 500,000 people to be newsworthy. The city of Memphis was able to keep the problem below “crisis-level” and out of the public’s eye.

So it was that on April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a gathering of strikers and supporters at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee and gave what has become known as his “Mountaintop” speech. This speech, which in part outlined the history of the civil rights struggle, concluded with

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (http://www.afscme.org/about/memphist.htm)

I cannot say, nor do I want to speculate, as to whether or not Dr. King knew that he was going to die the next day. Dr. King was well aware that threats had been made on his life. He had seen and experienced the violence that accompanied the civil rights struggle in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. I do not believe that he thought he was going to die by an assassin’s bullet the next day but I also think that he did not think that this struggle was going to end anytime soon. The tragedies of Katrina and Rita (and hopefully not Wilma) remind us that we still have a long, long way to go before everyone has the same opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

There were people back then in 1968 and there are still people today who think that Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox was only a temporary setback in the fight for states’ rights. There were those then and I am sure there are those today who feel that maintaining the status quo is the best for all concerned. It is not a new attitude.

Look again at the Gospel reading for today. For once, Jesus is the one asking the questions, trying to elicit a response from the Pharisees and Sadducees. But it was a question that challenged the manner in which they thought and acted with the people; it was a question that they were unable to answer. So, from that day on, the Pharisees and Sadducees did not ask Jesus any more questions. They were uncomfortable with the challenges Jesus put before them; they were uncomfortable justifying what was often unjustifiable. It was also at this time that these respectable religious leaders who claimed to be men of God began to think of ways of eliminating Jesus, the Son of God.

The church today is a lot like the church back then. We are uncomfortable with what Jesus challenges us to do. We would much rather learn about Jesus than learn the teachings of Jesus. We would much rather focus on what Jesus did for us than follow what He preached, taught and commanded us to do in His name. We would rather not be reminded that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. (Adapted from “The Jesus We Haven’t Followed” – http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/AlvinAlexsiCurrier.htm) We would rather not be reminded that Christ died for us so that we could live free from sin and death. It is almost as if we have taken Jesus out of the church.

The modern church is aware that there are individuals who are looking for answers in a complicated world. These are the ones sociologists call “seekers”. This is the generation that has been brought up with the notion of slick marketing tools and the use of sound-bites, short easy answers to the questions of the day. There is no doubt that these are the ones that the church today must reach out to but I wonder if the church is doing it in the right way. Slick marketing tools and slick sound bites will sell a lot of things but you cannot sell Christ. Rather, we must constantly remember that what people are seeking is Christ and if we take Christ out of the picture, they cannot find what they are seeking. In the Gospel of John we read, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4: 23 – 24) Later John wrote, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8: 31 – 32)

The churches we build are built to make newcomers feel comfortable. The seats are not the traditional pews but rather theater seats that recline. In many churches, the symbols that so often remind us of Christ’s suffering are no longer there because it scares away the people.

William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, a major author in Methodism and now Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, noted that he preached at a church that had tried to make its service “seeker-sensitive”. But in doing so, many of the historic Christian metaphors and images have been removed. (“It’s Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive When You Work for Jesus”, William H. Willimon, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003)

When I was working on my God and Country award in the Boy Scouts, I put together the services for my Boy Scout troop in Colorado. My father made a cross that I could carry in my backpack; it enabled me to provide a sense that the service that we had in the mountains of Colorado was a celebration of Christ’s presence in our lives and not just a spiritual moment in the wilderness. The cross is, at least for me, the centerpiece of Christian worship. It is the cross that reminds us that Christ’s sacrifice had meaning. It is the cross that holds meaning for all that we say and do. But in these new, “seeker-sensitive” services, there is no cross; there is no reminder that the Gospel is more than words.

The music, as Dr. Willimon reported, was “me, my and mine.” The music that we sing must life us up, not simply make us feel good. The hymns that John and Charles Wesley wrote gave hope and joy to the poor and socially disadvantaged. The same hope and joy must be in the modern songs as well and I am not sure that it is there. Many of the so-called “experts” will say that you need newer music or a more varied instrumentation to bring in the “seekers”. The argument is that people don’t relate easily to the traditional songs and such songs are not always easily sung.

I think that is the wrong idea. While it never hurts to learn more songs, if for no other reason that to give better expression to the worship experience we cannot forget what the “old” songs say. We cannot simply change the songs we sing or the way they are sung simply because people don’t know the words or because the words hurt too much. Perhaps the traditional church hasn’t done enough to teach the meaning of the songs that we sing. It simply means that we need to do more. We need to remember that the old songs remind us of the sacrifice and repentance required of us; we cannot simply sing songs of joy and happiness but which have no substance. We should not be ashamed to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” simply because we do not want to be reminded that it is a symbol of suffering and shame.

“The Old Rugged Cross” – United Methodist Hymnal #504

When we sing such songs of power, such songs that offer us and show us the promise that God has for us, we are reminded why we are Christians.

It is become painfully clear that traditional church has failed to provide what individuals are looking for, a message of deliverance. These people want to hear a message that does not makes them feel guilty. They tell the pastor that they don’t want to hear about the outside world on Sunday, they get enough every other day. In a world with complicated problems, today’s church-going public want simple solutions; they want the problems of the world to disappear for a few hours on Sunday.

The traditional church has failed to give recognition to a person’s need for something more than a religion that made sense in the face of scientific rationalism and did more than address the painful social crises of the times. Too often, such churches overlooked the fact that people crave a connection with God that gives them a sense of being inwardly transformed. People want to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit,” but they have not found it in traditional churches. (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo) But today’s churches, whether they are modern day “growth” churches or traditional churches struggling to stay alive, have failed to deliver this message, so much the centerpiece of the Gospel message.

The churches in this country that are growing today give the seekers exactly what they want. They are giving them a sense of “being filled with the Spirit”; they are giving them a sense that their sins have been cleansed. And they are certainly giving them messages that bring purpose to their lives without making them feel guilty about what they have done. They hear that the poverty of this world, the death and desolation that come to this world are only signs of God’s return, of Christ’s Second Coming. They find in these new churches comfort and sanctuary.

But this is not the Gospel message. The Gospel message is not meant to make you feel good; it is meant for you to hear and then act. Barbara Wendland, an United Methodist layperson in Texas, points out that many of the things that make us comfortable in church often times make us less effective as a church. Patriotism is effective if it reminds us of our nation’s commitment to justice for all people, yet flags and martial hymns in worship tend to glorify war rather than remind us that we have been called to be peacemakers. We may find that tradition provides a sense of continuity but it can also make it difficult to bring about change. Emotion can inspire us to do God’s work in the world, but wrapping one’s self in a blanket of emotions can often block critical reasoning. The church can only be effective if it keeps reminding us how far we have to go before God’s will is done on this earth. An effective sermon on poverty and disease in our own community should leave us feeling rightly uneasy about not doing more to help and it should inspire us to do that little bit extra. (From Connections, April 2005)

The Gospel message cannot be pared down to something that fits on a bumper sticker. The Gospel is meant to transform us, not protect us. Unfortunately, this is not the message of many of these big churches. Without the cross, without the reason, the message presented is sugar coated and self-serving. People come to these services because they are not required to do much more than that.

The Gospel message is to be shared, not hoarded, and we must work to find ways to share it. This is something we are often unwilling to do. We hesitate to respond as Jesus would have us respond because it is so radical a notion. We would much rather focus on a quiet, private, personal relationship with the Lord rather than follow the teachings that call for a public, prophetic witness. We like being on the mountain, we do not want to come down and have to work in the valley. We can live with reports of poverty, sickness, and oppression; we just would rather not have to deal with it.

But as Katrina reminds us, the church needs to be very much a part of everyday life. Not as some would have it, the arbitrators of morality and justice, but as an agent of affirmation that all people are worthy in the eyes of God. It has been said that money should be put into areas where growth and self-sufficiency are more likely. It makes economic sense to do so but this isn’t what Jesus called His disciples to do, it is not what He calls us to do.

Even within the United Methodist Church we are forgetting our roots. No longer are the poor, rural and urban ministries emphasized. But the Wesleyan movement is rooted in the working class and poor. Perhaps it is a natural sign of growth but as we have transitioned into a middle- and upper-class denomination we seem to have left the poor and lower-classes behind. Instead of being a part of the church, we see such ministry as a social service, important in itself but not critical to the life of the church. (http://homepage.mac.com/larryhol/iblog/C2050680009/E20051007090723/

We are a lot like the people of Israel. We refuse to trust God; we refuse to be his people. We might love the person next to us in the pew today; we might even love our next door neighbor. But we are often times not willing to love someone in New Orleans or Houston because we believe that they are not worthy of our love. But the teachings of Jesus tell us that we need to reach out beyond the boundaries of little community. We have to come down from the mountaintop and into the valley; we have to go where the people are, no matter who they might be. (Adapted from “The Jesus We Haven’t Followed” – http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/AlvinAlexsiCurrier.htm) We have to trust in God and know that, in doing so, the promise given to us will be fulfilled.

We do not need to stand on the street corner and proclaim that God is coming at the top of our voice. In today’s society, we simply would be competing with other noises and distractions. No, we need to go into the communities where we live and simply lead the life that Christ would have us lead. We need to show others what Christ is about, not teach who Christ is.

It is not easy following God, being a disciple of Christ. As Paul begins this letter, he writes of the trouble that he left behind in Philippi. But it was because he and his co-workers trusted in God that they were successful. He also points out that their mission; their ministry comes from being with God and not for some ulterior or selfish motive. Paul writes that we need to live our lives differently, showing Christ rather than talking about Him. John Chrysostom took Paul’s words to heart when he instructed his congregation to astound people by the way you live. Words are great but they do not match the power of actions. Win the people by your life, not your words is what he encouraged the people to do. (Adapted from “Childish Behavior” by James Howell, Christian Century, October 18, 2005)

It is not easy following God, being a disciple of Christ. Just ask John Wesley. Barred from preaching in the churches he grew up in, he turned to preaching in the field. Every bone in his body ached figuratively and actually at having to do this. John Wesley was a firm believer in fixed prepared sermons but preaching in the field lead him to extemporaneous speaking. But the “powers that be” encouraged the people to heckle Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers. It has been reported that on a number of occasions, Wesley was even stoned by the people heckling him. Yet he kept on preaching and wrote of the badges of honor that the stones left on him. He kept on preaching the Gospel message of salvation for all and freedom from sin and death; he kept the promise that had been some two thousand years ago.

The promise of the Gospel is that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, the homeless given places to stay, and the oppressed will be set free. The promise of the Gospel is that we who open our hearts to Christ and accept Him as our Savior will receive in the end, eternal life free from sin. And though our body may die, our soul will live on in heaven. As we sing in “The Old Rugged Cross”, “I will cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it some day for a crown.”

We all have a mountaintop; we all have a place from which to see the Promised Land. Up on the mountaintop, it is often quiet and peaceful. There is a calmness that we cannot find anywhere else. And we know we are close to God. But God is not with us on the mountaintop. He is down in the valleys below and He is asking why are we not there, doing His work.


Looking west from Pine Mountain, KY, near Whitesburg, KY (Promised Land State Park is about 10 miles south of this position)

Maybe we should remember why it is that Moses went to the mountaintop. This was not the first time that he or the people of Israel had seen the Promised Land. In Numbers 13 and 14, we read of the people of Israel sending spies into the Promised Land to find out what was there. Twelve men, each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel, were chosen to find out what lie before them. While two of the spies reported that it was indeed a land of milk and honey, the other ten reported on the troubles that they, the Israelites, would encounter. And to make matters worse, the people plotted against Moses and Aaron and attempted to select someone who would lead them back to Egypt.

Only Joshua and Caleb held to the idea that God would protect them and enable them to enter the land of their forefathers. But the people were not willing to listen, believing the stories of the other ten. The story of the first Exodus is an interesting story. Time after time, the people complain that God has left them to die in the desert and time after time God responds to the cries of the people and provides protection and nourishment. Now, standing on the River Jordan, almost on the verge of reaching their goal, the Promised Land, the people again turn against God.

And God responded almost in kind. God was prepared to destroy all the Israelites, even those who stood by him. But Moses again reminded God that He had shown mercy before and mercy was needed at this time. So God choose to punish the people, causing them to wander in the desert for forty years, one year for each of the forty days that the spies were in the Promised Land. Those over the age of twenty would die in the wilderness, never to reach what had been theirs had they been faithful. Only Joshua and Caleb, the ones who told the truth and remained to God’s plan, would be allowed to live and enter the land. The other ten died almost immediately, as punishment for their sins.

Because Moses picked the men who would enter the Promised Land, he had to suffer the same fate as those he chose. And so it was that Moses stood on that mountaintop, looking into the Promised Land, and knowing that He would never enter it. But, as we stand on our own mountaintop and look down on the Promised Land, we know that we can enter that wonderful and beautiful place. That is the promise that was given to us, if only we would accept the call.

God is calling to each of us today, “I sent my Son so that you might live; come down from the mountaintop and welcome Him into your life”. Many have heard that call and God is now asking, “when will you do what my Son has shown you what must be done?” When will you fulfill the promise?