“Thinking Outside The Box”

I am at Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY, tomorrow for the Sunday service at 11 am. You are welcome to attend if you are in the area. The message for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost is based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.

When I began working on this message, I envisioned the title as “A New Calling”. But my reviewer, after reading it, suggested that a better title was “Thinking Outside The Box.” And who am I to argue with my wife when it comes to such things? And the thinking that I am presenting today also matches some thinking and conversations that we are having at our church.

On a clear and cold January 20, 1961, John Kennedy stood on the steps of the United States Capitol and took the oath of office to become the President of the United States. He then spoke to the people gathered there, to the American people throughout the land, and to millions of people around the world.

He spoke of a torch being passed to a new generation, a generation tempered in the fires of war and guided by the principles set forth in the American Revolution. It was, I believe, a statement to all those who had said that he, John Kennedy, was too young and too inexperienced to be the President.

Let us ignore for the moment that John Kennedy was, at the time, older than many of the leaders of the American Revolution. Let us ignore the fact that John Kennedy was older than Jesus Christ when He began the ministry in the Galilee that would change the world.

John Kennedy’s words that day inspired a new generation to seek public service and to work for the ideals first expressed in the American Revolution. They were words that said that what you could do was determined by your ability, not by your age.

It was a time of inquiry and exploration. If you were in school at that time, you were part of the great changes taking place in the areas of science and mathematics, changes that would help us join those already beginning to explore the world beyond the skies.

It was a time when the promises of this country in terms of equality and opportunity seemed very close to fulfillment. There was a vision that we would reach beyond the stars before the next century began.

But something happened and that journey was never completed.

Today equality is measured by the balance in one’s bank account and opportunities exist for only a chosen few. From a society that saw its future in the stars we have become a society that wonders if there will ever be a future. Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, seem to be the daily litany of the news and far too commonplace.

Our educational system, instead of preparing thinkers and visionaries, produces individuals who can recite myriad reams of facts but have no clue what the facts mean, how they relate to the world, and how to use that information to solve the problems this country faces today and will face tomorrow.

People cling to battered and tired visions of the past, hoping to restore the “good old days”, even if they weren’t really that good. And because we have lost our vision, our ability to solve the problems that we faced today is limited. We seek solutions that based on the old ways and wonder why they don’t work.

The prophet Joel proclaimed,

And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.

But it seems that the old no longer dream, the young no longer see visions, and our sons and daughters can no longer prophesy. We turn to others to tell us what to say and think, individuals who rely on our fears and our ignorance, our traditions and our bias.

And I think that it is time that we change and do so before it is too late. I am not a believer in the end of the world vision offered by so many people today, in part because such a vision is based on our fears and our ignorance. It is time, I think, that we hear the Call of God and respond to it.

This is about answering the same call that God gave to Jeremiah. I know that Jeremiah says that “he is only a boy” but that doesn’t stop God from calling upon him to take on a task. And if a young boy is to be called to take the call of God, who is to say that anyone of us cannot take the same call?

How many of the prophets willingly and quickly answered God’s call? How many of the prophets offered excuses and reasons why they could not do what God wanted them to do?

This is not about how young or old we are today. The call from God isn’t and never was age-related. How old was Abram when God said to pack everything he had and head to a new land? How old was Sarai when God informed her that she was going to be pregnant? How old was Moses when God came to him somewhere in the Negev Desert and told him to return to Egypt and free God’s people?

How many people do you know whose age has never limited what they can do? In other words, how many people can think “outside the box?”

Back in 1988, I was a young (relatively speaking) college instructor struggling to complete his doctorate and getting those all important research papers published when I met the Nobel Laureate, Dr. Herbert C. Brown. While I was still trying to get that first publication, Dr. Brown was routinely involved in the publication of 100 research papers a year. It was not pro-forma that his name was on the paper; he was in the laboratory, offering advice and suggestions on the conduct of the research involved.

And yet we have all met and know individuals far younger than us who have not had an original thought in years.

Bob Dylan wrote a song in which he noted that times were changing and that we best heed the call. I got the note about the 175th anniversary of Rowe the other day and I liked what it said at the top of the page, “1838 – 2013 . . . and still counting!” It says to the people of this area that this church plans to be here for a long time and to be a part of the community for at least another 175 years or so.

It is important to remember who we are and where we have come from, for it tells us much about where we can go. But we need to rekindle and revive the vision that brought people to this place, to each of the United Methodist Churches in this area and throughout the country. Too many people today focus on issues founded in ignorance and bigotry and that turn our attention away from the Gospel message of hope and deliverance. Too many people wish things were the way they have always been and not the way they could be.

It was a Sabbath morning some two thousand years ago and Jesus was doing what He probably did every Sabbath during His three year ministry and what He had done every Sabbath since he was twelve; He was in the synagogue listening to the rabbi teach a lesson from the Torah or, as was the case in today’s Gospel lesson, teaching the lesson Himself.

But this Sabbath was perhaps just a little bit different. There was a woman, bent over with the pain of arthritis, present in the building, probably over in the women’s section since she wasn’t allowed to be in the same part of the building as the men. And Jesus called her over to Him, laid His hands on her, and healed her.

Think about this very carefully. First, Jesus brought a women into a part of the building where she was not supposed to be. Surely, that upset many of the traditionalists, for whom appearance and tradition counted more than anything else. Second, He touched her. This wasn’t the first time that Jesus had touched a sick person and in the very act of touching that person, Jesus became ritually unclean. In the eyes of the traditionalists, Jesus should have left the building right then and there!

And then, He healed her of an eighteen year ailment. At that point, the leader of the congregation had had enough and denounced Jesus for working on the Sabbath. And all Jesus did was point out the hypocrisy of the law that said it was proper to take care of one’s farm animals but not heal a sick person.

It also says something about the nature of that group of people that day that they were delighted that the Jesus had responded to the leader has He had. It makes you wonder how the leader treated the other members of the congregation.

And how many times have we seen that in our lives? Where tradition and honor take precedence over what is right and proper? How many times have we questioned the right of an individual to be a part of the church because they don’t fit into our preconceived notion of tradition and honor? How many times have we said “that’s just not the way things are done around here”?

John Wesley was not the first person of his time to show concern for the poor and impoverished people of England. In many sermons of that age, there is a real concern for the lower classes; but it is assumed that if they, the poor and working classes are to be saved and to enter into Christ’s purpose for them, they must take on the culture of their betters who stand as a living sign to the Grace of God. In other words, it was assumed (and I think it is still assumed today) that the will of God was to make “them” more like “us.”

The writer of Hebrews points out that those who follow Christ have been given a new way of life. Tradition told the people not to touch, in fact I think in some translations they were to never go near, Mount Sinai. To do so was to die. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we are in a new world, working under a new covenant, a fresh charter.

This new covenant, this new charter comes with a thorough house cleaning, a removal of all the historical and religious junk that has gotten in the way of entering God’s Kingdom. God is no longer on some mountain far away and untouchable; He is right here, right now, with us.

Because John Wesley followed the example of Jesus and went to the people, not to make them like their betters but to enable to find the way of Christ in their own world, he was bitterly attacked. The missionary work of John Wesley and all of the early Methodists, including those who founded this church 175 years ago, made a statement about the ideological assumptions of the privileged and threatened the security of their prejudices which they assumed to be the will and purpose of God.

The call that we have is to make sure that all the people have that opportunity. Jeremiah was to pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish, and then start over, building and planting. For me, that means looking at how we do church, where we do church and what church members can offer not only to and for each other but to and for those with whom they come into contact every day.

Will Cotton, the Senior Pastor at St. Barnabas UMC in Arlington, Texas, and the pastor whose words and actions were instrumental in my beginning this part of my own personal journey with Christ, wrote that he sees a different ministry for the church in the coming years.

The 21st century (for at least the rest of our lifetimes) in ministry will not be primarily about the local church. Churches and denominations will be wise to train people for ministry in secular situations. The gospel is returning to the streets, the marketplace, the classrooms, the chat rooms, the homes and even the bars. My job description has shifted in response to the leading of the Spirit. I am not just a performer of ministry; I am a leverage person, equipping people for ministry in places I will never be able to go. I used to lead Bible Studies with up to 80 people in them and they were enjoyed. But two years ago, I moved to more intensive studies that prepare leaders who then start classes, small groups, and even lead “in the marketplace” studies and support groups. My favorite book on this shift is Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal. My two CLMs came out of those classes. If I train 15-20 people (which I do at near seminary level with some texts actually from Course of Study for local pastors) and they lead groups of even 10 people, then the yield is three times what I was doing in the large studies before. The Church you and I are a part of will be so different in just 20 years from now, and the truth is, no one knows what it will look like (nearly every Bishop worth his or her consecration will tell you that). But the shift from church-centered ministry to community-centered ministry is part of it.

We must ask ourselves today how we can be witnesses to the crucified servant Lord. Our answer must be rooted in knowing that we are to be with him in the midst of the world’s needs, by His grace seeking to be the signs of his ultimate fulfillment and not the bringers of that fulfillment. In doing so we free ourselves from the conformity of the world’s self-assertive way and transformed into the way and manner Christ assumed in his ministry for us.

The church today, wherever it may be located, on a country road somewhere, in the suburbs of a city, or even on a street corner in the city, can no longer just be a Sunday only operation. It has to be, quite literally, a 24/7 operation. It can no longer be the repository of holy relics; it has to be the source for all who seek answers. It has to be a fulfillment of the Gospel message to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, lift up the downtrodden, and bring hope to the lost and weary.

Some will say that it is not possible for them or their church to answer that call. But the call that God makes is based on the skills and abilities of the people. Moses told God that he was incapable of speaking to the people (tradition says that he was a stutterer) so called Moses’ brother, Aaron, to do the speaking.

It may be that one does not know what can do; but there is a course offered in this district called “Knowing One’s Spiritual Gifts”. It is a very interesting course because it gives one insight into what one’s own gifts are. Knowing what one’s gifts are can tell you how to answer God’s call and to think outside the box.

We have two choices this Sunday morning. Time and time again we have allowed the methods of past generations to dictate what the next generation will do. But we end up finding ourselves asking and thinking that if we can only find the right and relevant method we will be as successful as they were.

It may strike some as quite out-of-place but it is not very important whether the number of Christians at a particular place and time is large or small. What is more important is to ask whether the large or small numbers of Christians know that they are representatives for all and that they are called to participate in the mission of the reconciliation of the universe.

We must leave it to God whether and when He wants to use our worship and witness in order to add to or cut down the number of His militant church on earth. In the end, it is not a question whether the church exists for itself but rather it exists as part of the whole world.

We have a new calling today, one to reach out to the world, first in this corner of the world that we call home and then to the rest of the world. We may say, as so many have done before, that we are small band and that we cannot do anything but God has always shown that He will give those who answer His call the skills, the abilities and the power to do so.

Will you answer the call of God, the New Calling, today? Do you dare to think outside the box?

My Schedule for the next few weeks

I was thinking of posting something lengthy concerning the changes in Lay Speaking but haven’t made up my mind yet whether I will or not.

The reason for posting that piece is that my district and conference are considering a plan where congregations will evaluate lay servants with regards to the message and presentation. Needless to say, I am not thrilled by that idea because I don’t think that it is appropriate or proper for congregations to evaluate the speaker and/or the pastor in this way. There are other ways that evaluations can take place.

I also don’t like the idea that I will not be the first to see any comments made by the reviewers. But I am not opposed to the idea of review or evaluation; I just think that it needs to be more peer-based.

So I am posting my schedule for the next few weeks and inviting you to either visit wherever I may be or comment on what I post relative to what I will say. Note that I am scheduled to give the message for Friday Vespers in the Garden, Grannie Annie’s Kitchen, and Sunday Vespers in the Garden. These are subject to change if other lay servant/speakers wish to present the message (if interested, feel free to contact me).

August 2ndGrace United Methodist Church – Friday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – “This New Life” (Colossians 3: 1 – 11 with references to Hosea 11: 1 – 12 and Luke 12: 13 – 21)

August 9thGrace United Methodist Church – Friday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Isaiah 1: 1, 10 – 20; Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16; and Luke 12: 32 – 40

August 17thGrace United Methodist Church – Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (doors open at 8 am) – Message based in part on Isaiah 5: 1 – 7, Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2 and Luke 12: 49 – 56

August 18thGrace United Methodist Church – Sunday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Isaiah 5: 1 – 7, Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2 and Luke 12: 49 – 56

August 23rdGrace United Methodist Church – Friday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Psalm 71: 1 – 6; Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, Luke 13: 10 – 17

August 24thGrace United Methodist Church – Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (doors open at 8 am) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Psalm 71: 1 – 6; Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, Luke 13: 10 – 17

August 25thRowe United Methodist Church (Sunday service at 11 am) – “A New Calling” – Message based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Psalm 71: 1 – 6; Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, Luke 13: 10 – 17

August 31stGrace United Methodist Church – Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (doors open at 8 am) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13, Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16 and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

September 1stFort Montgomery United Methodist Church (Sunday service at 9:30 am) – “Guess Who’s Coming For Breakfast” – Message based in part on Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13, Psalm 81: 1, 10 – 16; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

September 1stGrace United Methodist Church – Sunday Vespers in the Garden (7 pm) – Message based in part on Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13, Psalm 81: 1, 10 – 16; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

“To Honor The Future”

I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) on Sunday. The Scripture readings for this Sunday (the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) were 2 Samuel 1: 1, 17 – 27, 2 Corinthians 8: 7 – 15, and Mark 5: 21 – 43. Services start at 9:30 a.m. and you are welcome to attend.

That I am a chemist by training and vocation is a matter of a particular set of circumstances.  As I will relate in a few moments, it was a choice made that was based, figuratively, on where I was in time and what I had done in the past.

Now, I have often wondered what my major might have been if I had not had to make the decision at the beginning of my college studies to be a chemistry major.  In the words of a Rod Steward song from a few years ago, if I had known then what I know today, I might have been a mathematics and computer science major.  As it turned out, when I graduated from college in 1971 I had a mathematics minor to go with my chemistry major and more hours in computer science than the college offered (in part, because I took some courses at other colleges while home during the summer).

But computers in 1971 were still essentially people who performed mathematical calculations but with the aid of big (and I mean big) calculating machines.  They were not the small desktop setups that we have today that have more computing power than the computers on the Apollo spacecrafts that went to the moon.  And the uses of the computer today are hardly what many people imagined back then.  All one has to do is consider the following statements:

  • In 1943, Thomas Watson said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
  • In 1949, Popular Science magazine predicted that computers in the future would weigh 1.5 tons.
  • In 1957, the editor in charge of business books for Prentice-Hall stated that data processing was a fad that wouldn’t last a year.
  • An engineer in the Advanced Computing Systems of IBM asked in 1968 what good was the microchip.
  • Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, stated in 1977 that there was no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.
  • When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak began working on what was to become the Apple computer, they went to Atari and said, “Hey, we got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us?  Or we’ll give it to you.  We just want to do it.  Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.”  And they said, “No.”  So we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, “Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t even gone to college yet.”
  • In 1981, Bill Gates proclaimed that 640K ought to be enough for everyone.  (see “Some Interesting Predictions”)

Each of these “prophecies” was made with a consideration for the current situation and what had transpired in the past.  But prophets don’t necessarily see the future; they merely tell the truth as they see it.  They point out the way things are, not the way people want things.  They can warn of dangers ahead if things do not change.; they do point out what they think is wrong.  (From “Should We Explain This?”)

To see the future requires that we understand the past.  But we have to be prepared to move from the present into the future, not merely look contemplatively at the past and say that is where we need to be now.  One of the first quotes that I collected was one by George Bernard Shaw which was also used by Robert Kennedy in the fateful presidential campaign of 1968,

Some men see things as they are and say why – I dream things that never were and say why not.”

While my studies and my inclination at the time would have dictated that I become an industrial chemist; my own decisions lead me into the chemistry classroom.  It may be that it was never part of the path that I chose to walk in 1966 but in walking that path I was able to do other things.  Even now, I find myself delving into the history of chemistry, especially when faith and science overlap; areas I would never have thought of almost fifty years ago.

I have discovered in the course of things that Robert Boyle, who is considered the father of modern chemistry, and Joseph Priestley, one of the discoverers of oxygen, were also intense men of faith and that their writings in the area of faith were as numerous as their scientific writings.  Coupled with the fact that Isaac Newton, more known as a mathematician and physicist, was also a chemist and also intensely interested in matters of faith and religion, I see a new path lying before me that results from the intersection of my interests in chemistry, faith, and religion.  (See “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”)

Seeing the future is not all that hard, provided one is willing to, and excuse me for using a cliche, think outside the box and go beyond the boundaries of conventional thinking.  I think one of the difficulties that we face as a society is that we
are unwilling to make that type of move; to use our background and experience in other areas or to dig deeper into areas which we find interesting.

We can read the Old Testament reading by itself and read a lament by David on the death of Saul and Jonathan.  There are a lot of people who do and don’t want to do anything more than that.  But that misses the point.

In the verses before today’s Old Testament reading we learn that Saul and Jonathan died in battle and that David was informed of their deaths by an Amalekite.  When this Amalekite told David that Saul and Jonathan were dead, he handed Saul’s crown to David, in effect making David the new king.  And it was this Amalekite, in at least one version of the story, who helped Saul to die.  The Amalekite’s action can be considered an act of mercy though David sees it as an act of treachery.

For David, mercy towards a dying man does not trump the presumption of anyone, least of all an enemy, to kill “the anointed of the Lord” under any circumstance.

It poses an interesting question for us today.  The Scripture records David’s decision but it does not record an evaluation of that decision.  It presents both David and the Amalekite’s stories and perspectives, shows their conflict and states the results.  The text, as is done so many times in the Bible, offers not one right answer but many questions for us to ponder and struggle over with one another and with God.

Are we more like David, committed at all costs to enforcing the social norms?  Or are we like the Amalekite, trying to show mercy and make the best of a dreadful situation.  Who saw beyond the boundaries?

For me, this is repeated in the Gospel reading for today as well.  The woman who sought to touch Jesus went outside the social norms of the day. Whatever the cause of her illness, she was considered unclean and society said, in no uncertain terms, that she was not to be a part of society.

Such an act as hers would have resulted in her being scolded and possibly even being stoned.  For those who were the keepers of the norms, her actions could not be tolerated.  And yet for Jesus, all she had done was exercise her faith.

Social convention was in play with the death of Jarius’ daughter as well. We hear of the mourners who had gathered to mourn the daughter’s death.  We are told in the commentaries that these individuals were professionals of a sort, paid to come and mourn.  The “right” thing would be to join in the mourning.  Clearly, for Jesus to tell them to stop the mourning because the girl was only sleeping was acting against the social norm.

Now, as I was writing all of this and knowing that for one to see beyond the walls of today to the paths of tomorrow, one has to break with tradition and societal norms, I kept wondering where I was going to put Paul’s thoughts to the Corinthians.  The letter to the Corinthians is one we all know too well for it is a discussion of church finances and the obligations of the church in one location to churches in other locations.  In reading this letter, we are reading of the connectionalism that is a part of Methodist tradition and practice.  And I know too many churches where the conversation always begins with church finances and the argument that if the bills are not paid, there can be no church.

But like the professional mourners who came to mourn the death of Jarius’ daughter or David’s reaction to the Amalekite’s bringing him Saul’s crown, this is also part of the social norm.

Have we somewhere along the line forgotten that the church began in first in hiding and then in people’s homes?  How many of us know why Paul had to even discuss the funds that the Corinthians had promised to send to the churches in Jerusalem?  Paul does not order the Corinthians to send the payment but he does suggest that it is for their sake that they do so.  You cannot begin to see the future when you are focused on the present and/or the past.  Paul does point out that if the Corinthians act to help Jerusalem now, Jerusalem will be in a position to help them later should the need arise.

I can imagine what administrative council meetings at the church in Corinth must have been like; I have been to quite a few such meetings in my own time.  But I have yet to hear people talk about the future of the church except in terms of the present, of saying that things that cannot be because they are not possible now.

The commentary notes that I used to prepare this message today indicate that we need to seek ways to teach or model ways to build positive community change where we are and for others elsewhere.  You cannot do this if your operating model fits within the social norm.  And I say that because the social norm for many churches today does not match what Christ was doing two thousand years ago. 

For many the church of today is not the church of two thousand years ago or even the church of John Wesley two hundred and fifty years ago. Today’s church is more likely to be one in which the actions of David in killing the Amalekite are applauded or people act in the role of the mourners in the Gospel reading.

In the middle of this week, we will pause to celebrate this country’s independence.  There will be many, many celebrations of what has happened; it is only natural.  But what I fear is that while many echo the words of the founding fathers their actions seem to reflect the actions of the British crown in stifling the dissent.  When we speak of independence this week, I hope and pray that it will be such that we will want to find ways to make the celebrations a way to speak of the future and what possibilities lie before us.

The same is true for the church today.  Chad Brooks wrote in his blog about why he became a Methodist.  He is in the process of becoming an Elder in the United Methodist Church and, as such, he must answer some very basic questions, one of which is “Why did you become a Methodist?”

Part of his answer was that “I found the practice of a Historic faith that also encouraged continuing to forward movement into contextualizing worship in the 21st century.”  (from “Why I Became A Methodist”)  When we understand that being a Methodist, no matter the path that one takes, is to take on the persona of a group of believers who saw beyond the social norm and chose a path that included all we are looking to the future.  There are too many people today who say they are Methodist but whose actions reflect the actions of David in upholding the social norm and who are more like the mourners in the Gospel reading, proclaiming that the girl is dead and nothing can be done.  If we are to honor the future, we must be like the Amalekite, showing mercy to even our enemies, and we must find ways to help those like the woman in the Gospel who sought Jesus.

Today is the day that we begin to honor the future.  In our vow to let Jesus Christ be our savior, we are looking to the future.  In our acceptance of the Holy Spirit, we are working for the future.  Today is the day that we begin honoring the future; let us begin.

A Different Sense of Community

I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) on Sunday. The Scripture readings for this Sunday (the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) were 1 Samuel 8: 4 – 20 (11: 14 – 15), 2 Corinthians 4: 13 – 5: 1, Mark 3: 20 – 35. Services start at 9:30 a.m. and you are welcome to attend.

And then His mother and brothers sent Jesus a message that they wanted to talk with Him. And Jesus responded to the messenger, “Who do you think are my mother and brothers?” Looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, He said, “Right here, right in front of you – my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

There are some who said Jesus rejected His family in this exchange that we read this morning. But it is more likely that Jesus expanded the concept of family and brought a new meaning to the definition of a community.

Now, Jesus said that those who obeyed God’s will would be His brothers and sisters. What does it meant to obey God’s will? Is it how we live or are we to create a separate community apart from the world? This nation is dotted with towns, some which still exist today, where people gathered as a community to follow God’s will. Or is it how we live our lives?

The meaning of community and our obligations within a community are ideas/concepts that have perplexed us from the day Cain asked God if he were his brother’s keeper. It is a thought echoed in the question asked by the lawyer in Luke when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Who is my neighbor?” It is also the question that John Wesley looked at his world in 18th century England. How we respond today will say a lot about our future as a society and as a church.

I had the opportunity two years ago to go to Annual Conference and hear Kwasi Kena, Director of Evangelism for the General Board of Discipleship. I thought that it was an interesting seminar because the ideas that Dr. Kena expressed ran counter to the current thoughts on the subject of evangelism and it gave me hope that the church as an institution, as a denomination, and individually can be saved.

Now, for too many people today, evangelism is getting people to proclaim Christ as their Savior and it is almost a forced process; either you follow Christ as we have described Him or you are doomed to a life outside the gates of Heaven. But as Dr. Kena pointed out, evangelism is more than just getting people to follow Christ; it is also teaching people about Christ and living the life that you preach and that Christ taught us to live.

But if the church (be it the institution in general, the denomination, or any individual church group) operates more on the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the Law, as long as the church today reflects the behavior and attitudes of the church authorities of two thousand years ago, when Jesus walked the back roads of the Galilee, then it will and is a dying church. (Adapted from “The State of Faith“)

Paul offers us, through his words to the Corinthian church, hope. One response to the need to live a biblical based life, one that illustrated and lifted up Christ’s teaching is the Koinonia Farm in Georgia, found by Clarence Jordan in the years following World War II. Clarence Jordan was a Southern Baptist preacher and Greek scholar. Dr. Jordan began the farm as a way of showing God’s love for all and an illustration of Jesus’ teaching. The farm was integrated and pacifist, ideas that were not well received in Georgia during the 50s and 60s. To say that Dr. Jordan and those who helped on the farm rattled the cages of the political and religious establishment of the time would be an understatement.

As a Greek scholar, Dr. Jordan took time to write the Cotton Patch Gospels, a translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into English, using as best as he could locations in Georgia to make the reading more relevant. So Paul’s letters to the Corinthians become letters to Atlanta Christians.

In his translation of 2 Corinthians, Dr. Jordan writes “I acted, then I talked” where the palmist wrote “I believed it, so I said it.” In 2 Corinthians 5: 1, Dr. Jordan wrote “For example, we are sure that if our external framework of God’s dwelling is pulled down, we still have a house built by God, a house that’s not man-made but spiritual and eternal.” In his notes for 2 Corinthians 5: 1, he noted that “dwelling” or “house” seems to refer to Christian fellowship and not to the individual body. Our community is wherever it may be in whatever form it may be; if we limit the form, we may find ourselves limiting ourselves as well.

What did the church authorities two thousand years ago do when Jesus was healing the sick and offering Good News to the people? They pronounced Him to be an agent of Satan. Many times, what Jesus did was in direct opposition to the rules and laws set down by the religious authorities but well within the scope of the Holy Scriptures. They could not counter His teachings with better examples of their own so they resorted to discredit him by saying He worked for Satan.

But as Jesus said, how could he be working for the Satan when what he did worked against Satan? I also have to imagine what the people, especially the people who were healed, who found hope in what Jesus taught, must have felt. Remember, sickness and disease were thought to be signs of sin and here Jesus was removing sin so how could he have been Satan?

There are too many people today who hold to that idea, that disease and poverty are sinful and those who are sick, homeless, and unemployed are somehow not worthy of God’s grace and should not be allowed in a church. But who did Jesus associate with and who found Jesus’ actions unacceptable? And we wonder why our churches are dying.

The Old Testament reading for today begins a story of what happened to the people of Israel when they decided not to follow God and obey His will. The history of Israel, as told in the history and writings of the Old Testament, tells us that the when the people followed God, things went well. But when they choose to go their own way, to be like the rest of the world as it where, then bad things happen.

The period of history that precedes the Old Testament reading is the period of judges, individuals (men and women) who offer counsel and leadership for the nation. The plan worked when the judges and the people followed God; it failed when they did not.

Now, there are some who would have us return to a Biblical style of government. Do they want us to follow the style as described in Judges and the beginning of Samuel? Or would they have us follow the style of the kings that follow in the history of the nation?

The one thing that a government by a king does offer is the opportunity for individuals to not do anything. The king listens to no one who does not agree with them and makes all the decisions himself. There are a lot of people today who wouldn’t mind it if someone made all the decisions for them. It is very interesting to hear Samuel’s warning to the people, especially in the context of today’s political climate.

Israel will get their king and they will try to be like all the countries around them. But they will lose the essence of their existence. Yes, Saul will give the bold leadership; David will give the nation of Israel credibility and Solomon will offer a new meaning for wisdom and build the First Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. But each will succumb to the temptation of power and glory and their reigns will end in essentially failure. Each king that follows will lead the nation of Israel farther and farther from God, into despair, desolation, and ultimately into the Babylonian exile.

I am sure that that is not the direction that we want to head, nor do I think we need a government or a community that is based on a strict interpretation of the laws that others might suggest. To repeat the past in hopes of improving the future seems rather futile. But that does leave us in a quandary, doesn’t it? How shall we build our community? Who will be a part of our community?

We remember that John Wesley saw people who were disenfranchised by the church but who needed to hear the Word of God. So he went into the factories, the mines, and the prisons. He not only took the Word but the help that was needed. It came in the form of health clinics and credit unions, schools and other forms of assistance. Wesley and those helped begin the Methodist Revival of the 18th century understood that no one will understand or even appreciate the meaning of God’s Word if they were hungry or sick or faced with prison because of their financial problems. So they built schools and credit unions and health clinics and then they preached the Word.

In a sermon I gave several years ago I spoke of the members of the Clifton Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, who felt the need to respond to the issue of homelessness in their local community. From the simple beginning of offering a few homeless individuals a place to stay for the night, it has become a shelter and home where some 30 individuals at a time find a way out of their homeless and back into society. The interesting thing was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church no longer exists; the congregation voted to disband and become parts of other Presbyterian churches in the area. But the ministry of the homeless stayed in the building that once was the church, continuing the ministry that was begun by the congregation.

There was also the story of the woman who wanted to help local high school students and during a high school assembly gave the students the church’s phone number. If the student wanted to talk with someone about a problem they might be having, all they had to do was call the church and someone would be there to listen. The next day, the church had over 300 calls from local students. (Adapted from “What Do We Need?” – The link to the story about the Clifton Presbyterian Church in my post is no longer working but you can go to “Clifton Sanctuary Ministries” to find out more about this ministry.)

Bishop Will Willimon told the story about two ladies who started a prison minister in North Alabama that began when two ladies went to visit one of the ladies’ grandsons. From a single visit came reading classes, Bible studies, and health care. Some of the ladies from this United Methodist Church in North Alabama aren’t able to visit the youth prison so they bake cookies for the others to take. (Adapted from “Who Goes First?”)

At this point, I mentioned Project VIVID, an community-based undertaking at Old Hickory UMC – I didn’t have a chance to put the details about the project into the manuscript I normally follow but here is a link to a description of the project – “Project VIVID

You have heard me speak of Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. Today, Grace UMC begins another ministry, Family Promise. It is a ministry that allows up to five homeless families shelter during the week while the parents work and the children go to school. When we speak of the homeless, it is often in terms of individuals. Yet the number of families without homes is growing every day. The families that will come to Grace Church tonight are working families who have lost their homes. The process by which they enter the program is very rigorous. At the end of the week, these families will go to the next church in the network. While in the network, they will receive counseling and aid so that they can get back to a place of their own. And the children will remain in their own school.

Each church in the network provides volunteers to prepare a dinner meal each day. Other volunteers will spend the night in the church. This will be the second time that I have been involved with this ministry and I am still amazed by the number of people who are fearful of what this means. I am not certain if they do not trust strangers or if it is that they do not want to see certain aspects of society.

The stories that one could tell abound but they all center on the fact that each individual or group of individuals had a different sense of community. It wasn’t about the building or the property but the people. And it wasn’t just the people of the church; it was the people of the community around the church.

The past few months, with the Arab Spring of 2011, have shown that we can no longer see ourselves as a community, small and isolated from the world. But then again, we were never supposed to be isolated from the world. Jesus looked at those who were with him that day and said that these are my brothers and sisters.

Churches today need not ask who are the brothers and sisters but rather how it, the church, can reach out. It is not about the resources but where the Spirit moves the church to respond. What some churches can do, others cannot. But in the manner of Paul, each church has its own unique set of gifts and from those gifts will come the means by which to reach out to the community.

The community was defined for us many years ago. How we reach out was defined as well. We are charged this day reaching out to the community so that all we encounter will know who Christ was and is and will be.

A Chance Encounter

I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) on Sunday; their service starts at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for the 5th Sunday in Easter, 6 May 2012, were Acts 8: 26 – 40; 1 John 4: 7 – 21, and John 15: 1 – 8.

I will be at Trinity-Boscobel UMC (Buchanan, NY) next Sunday for the 6th Sunday in Easter and Mother’s Day. The service starts at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.

I found myself working in two streams of thought this past week that will merge into one for this message.

One was a stream related to education and my background in chemistry (see “To Offer a New Vision”). In light of much of what has transpired this past week, our ability to learn, to see beyond tomorrow and around the next corner will be critical to our success as a society and as a church.

The other stream is one that I have been in, as it were, for some time now. It is the thought about when one meets Jesus. It is, in part, one of the reasons for the title of this message.

About a month ago, John Meunier, a blogging colleague of mine from Indiana, wrote about John Wesley’s experience leading up to his heart warming experience at the Aldersgate Chapel and wondered whether we are helping people achieve that moment when we know that we have been saved (see “Are we showing the way?”).

I appreciate what John M. blogs about because he offers insights into what John Wesley wrote. He pointed out that Wesley was convinced or thought that the conversion to being a Christian could or should be long and gradual as opposed to an instantaneous conversion. Wesley felt this way, in part, because he did not think he had experienced such a quick conversion.

But all he, Wesley, could find in the Bible was Paul’s three days of blindness. Wesley’s struggles with this came at the time when he had just returned from the colonies and was in what could be politely called a deep funk. Then came what has become the Aldersgate moment when he felt his heart strangely warmed. Coincidentally, Charles Wesley was at home, literally gravely ill because of the colony failures, when he felt the same way. At that moment, the Methodist Revival truly began as the Wesley brothers were empowered by the Holy Spirit and what was a mechanistic approach to religion changed into a heart-felt approach.

Now, I believe that everyone will or has encountered Jesus. For some, it will be like Paul; for others, it will be like Wesley. No matter how it happens, it will happen in way that is reflective of each individual. For Paul, it was a dramatic encounter because of what Paul was seeking to do; for Wesley, it was a quiet and comforting because it was what Wesley needed at that time. Laurie Beth Jones, in the prologue to her third book, Jesus in Blue Jeans, described her encounter with Jesus as follows,

Many years ago I dreamed that I was standing in a meadow. Suddenly I saw a man approaching me. As he got nearer I gasped to realize that it was Jesus in Blue Jeans. When he saw the expression on my face he said, “Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you wear blue jeans.”

(I first mentioned Laurie Beth Jones’ encounter with Jesus Christ in a message I gave at Tompkins Corners back in 2003 (“And When You Least Expect It”) but I didn’t really explain what happened to her; I would do that in “A New Vision” (which is also a companion piece to what I said last Thursday – “To Offer a New Vision” ) and “By the Side of the Road”.)

We are more apt, as Laurie Beth did, meet him in a casual encounter during the day; in fact, we are probably not even going to know that it was Him until later. The prayer that guides us when we are in “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen” includes a statement that one of those who come to be feed each Saturday might well be Jesus.

For myself, I believe that my conversion was like that of Wesley, a moment in time when I knew for certain, as did Wesley that Christ was mine and mine alone. Now, I have encountered many in my life who feel that the conversion moment has to be on the order of Paul, though perhaps not lasting three days.

They understand that it is a life changing experience but for some reason feel that it must be a “big” moment in life. For those whose lives are changed in this way, they want everyone’s encounter to be that way and they are apt to refuse that one can change in the way that Wesley did. And I am sure there are some, as John M. asked, who want desire and encounter a moment like Paul but get one as did Wesley. They may be as disappointed as those who expect Jesus to come to them from the clouds in bright shining robes.

Whatever the moment, however you encounter Jesus, it will be reflective of who you are and where you are in your life at that moment. It is not the church’s responsibility to arrange the encounter; the church’s responsibility is to make sure that you are prepared for the encounter, to offer the knowledge that will let you know that it is Christ you have meet that day.

I cannot help but recall what Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

As an analogy, let me offer some thoughts from teaching chemistry again. Many students struggle with chemistry because they are not prepared for the course. Oh, they have the materials and the tools but their thinking is slightly off. They come into my chemistry class expecting that it will be like their other classes where the instructor puts the notes on the board, gives them pages to read out of the book, and then tells them what will be on the test. There is absolutely no processing of information done; in the words of basic computer programming – garbage in, garbage out.

When I starting teaching chemistry, I became acquainted with the educational philosophy of Jean Piaget and his ideas about how children learn. One thing that research has discovered is that chemistry is taught at one level of learning and often at a higher level than what students are learning at. For students to learn chemistry they must be involved in it or the concepts and ideas presented are meaningless. Oh, you can memorize them and, if the questions are asked in the right way, use what you have memorized to get a good grade on the test and in the course. But this mechanistic approach does not allow you to understand chemistry.

To understand chemistry, you have to do chemistry; you simply cannot open a book and begin reading about it. You may see the words and you may memorize the words but you will not truly understand what the words mean until you do something with them.

For many, church is like that. They know the words; in fact, they probably have them memorized better than most (certainly better than me). But that doesn’t mean that they necessarily know what the words mean. The man from Ethiopia was in that situation. He had the words but they meant nothing to him because he had no clue what was going on. It was only in conversation with Philip that those words began to have meaning.

John M. makes the following comment about John Wesley’s conversion moment:

I know this story, but tonight in reading it I took note of how important it was for Wesley that he was told and taught what to expect. Böhler not only argued doctrine with him, but also he introduced him to people who had been converted and he taught Wesley what he would experience. He tutored Wesley.

Wesley had developed a mechanistic approach to religion, a method that would lead his group at Oxford to be called “The Methodists”. But it was missing something and it wasn’t until he had the discussion with Peter Böhler about the nature of Christ that he was able to complete the process of becoming who is was truly meant to be.

The question for each one of us today should not be about conversion. Our presence here today says that we have accepted Christ. No, the question is one about our ability and our desire to help others find Christ.

There has to be more to being a Christian than being a member of a church who perhaps comes every Sunday. It isn’t what you do on Sunday that defines your Christianity, your belief, your faith; it is what you do with it afterwards.

Jesus used the analogy of the grapevine for a number of reasons. First, most people understood what it took to care for the grapevine. The people knew that a healthy vine was likely to have some branches that bore no fruit or it perhaps bore a fruit that was sour tasting as well as many vines that have luscious, sweet-tasting grapes.

I remember that grape arbor that was part of my grandmother’s property in St. Louis. For my brothers, sister, and cousins, it was more of a place to play than anything else. What grapes that grew on those vines were often small and either tasteless or sour tasting. But we knew that at one time, the grapes were plentiful and sweet tasting. It wasn’t that my grandmother didn’t care about the grapes or the grape vine but she lived by herself most of the time and taking care of the grape vine was not necessarily the priority it was when she first began

To be a Christian is to be part of the Vine that is Christ. How we see that relationship, how we understand that relationship will determine the nature of the fruit that is produced.

There are some whose Christianity, if it can be called that, is a sour and bitter Christianity. I have never understood how that is possible but I have encountered many with that attitude. Theirs is a bitter fruit. An encounter with such a person is likely to lead you away from Christ. Sadly, there are many of these Christians in the world today. Oh, I am sure that when they first joined the church the fruit of their labors was wonderful. But they never cared for the vine and it slowly withered away and now they drive the people away.

Some have a bland, almost tasteless fruit. They will help you but that encounter will bring you no closer to Christ that one was before. It is almost as if they feel that they must suck up any nourishment in the fruit for themselves and are not willing to share it.

But those who have taken to heart the words that John wrote in his 1st letter will love all, without question, without judgment. Theirs is the most delicious fruit of the vine.

One of the tasks before us is to make sure that all members of the church have some role to play in the church. It need not be a big role but any stretch of the imagination but it needs to be something. In this way, the vine that they are never wilts or grows useless but rather continues to produce healthy and tasty fruit for many, many years.

Because, no matter whom we are or how old we are, there will undoubtedly be a moment in our live when we will encounter someone who needs to know about Jesus. Perhaps it has already occurred; perhaps it has happened in a way that you don’t even know. But it is probably going to happen again and this time you know that it will.

So what shall you do? This is perhaps the greatest question facing the church today but again the answer is in the words that have been studied, read, and spoken for almost two thousand years. First, we cannot be afraid to help others find Christ. As John wrote in his first letter, a fearful life, a fear of death and judgment, has no love in it. And ours must be a life of love. We cannot profess to love God but hate our friends. To do so is hypocrisy in its worst possible form.

I also feel that how one is called to respond to this message is unique to that individual. To expect each person to do the same as everyone else is to ignore the uniqueness of the individual. If Christ comes to us in a manner reflective of whom we are, then our response will be in the same way. If we all responded in the same manner, it might prove to be very boring and not very much fun.

There will be a moment in each person’s life where they will encounter Jesus Christ. It might be a deliberate moment or it might be a chance encounter. It will be a moment that will change their lives. And there will be some who will encounter, mostly by chance, who will see Christ in us and want to know what that is all about. It will be a moment that will change their lives. The question then is how we individually and collectively will help others when they have that chance encounter, that opportunity to change their lives.

“How Will They Know?”

I am at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) this morning and next Sunday. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 2nd Sunday of Easter are Acts 4: 32 – 35, 1 John 1: 1 – 2:2, and John 20: 19 – 31. I will have my notes for the 2nd Sunday of Easter posted later tonight.

I cannot tell you the numbers but I know that the Bible is one of the most published books in the world. Undoubtedly it is printed in every language spoken or read on this planet. And because of a thought that I want to explore this morning, I did a quick search through the vastness of the Internet and discovered that there is an effort in place to translate the Bible into Klingon, the language of the warrior race on the planet Klingon in Star Trek (Klingon Bible Translation Project – this link as a 2010 date – and “Why a Klingon Bible?”).

Now, clearly, translating the Bible into the language of a race that only exists in terms of a fictional television and movie series is limited but it does show us and gives us hints as to what we need to be doing with the Bible.

And it is how you see the Bible and what you do with it that goes a long way in defining how you see the church, both in general, denominational and local terms, in today’s society.

Some see the Bible as a fixed and unchanging document that presents the Word of God written some two thousand years ago. And as I have written before, when it is presented that way, it is very difficult to relate what is in the Bible to what is transpiring today. There are inconsistencies and contradictions that one has to work around in order to accept what is written as the absolute truth. And when you present such a view, you limit what can be done; you don’t allow the freedom to question and doubt, to explore and see what can be done.

Seen as a fixed and unchanging document, it quickly becomes a dead book. And if we are basing our hopes and dreams, the very essence perhaps of Christianity, on something dead, then we don’t have much hope and it is impossible to dream. And as it was written in the Bible, without a vision, without a dream, the people die.

On the other hand, if we understand that the Bible is a story of relationships, relationships between people and relationships between people and God, it can become alive and viable even in today’s technological society. It does not matter if it was written with quill and ink on papyrus scrolls or typed on a keyboard on a laptop computer, alive it carries meaning.

Yes, it is far more difficult to read when something has a deeper meaning than simply the words put down. It opens challenges that must be faced; questions that must be answered. Sometimes we can meet the challenge; sometimes we can answer the questions.

The greatest challenge facing the church today is the exodus of individuals leaving the church. Interestingly enough, they are not leaving God, just the church. And they are leaving the church, in part because they see it dying. It is dying because it holds on to a view that is fixed and unchanging. They see a church that holds onto rigid doctrinal views and rigid organization structures. It is not just the young who are leaving the church but all age groups. But they are not leaving God, just the church.

Seventy-five percent (75%) of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 no consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Study after study has shown this same essential statistic. The people know who Jesus was and what he did; they just don’t see such words and actions represented in the church of today (http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-clayton-emergingchurch-20120325,0,3793097.story)

They want the opportunity to doubt and question, an action that has been repressed, resisted or absent in the church for almost 300 years. They want a church that is responsive to the public; that has an improved scientific understanding and recognition of changing social norms. They do not want a church that tells them how to live; they want a church that can give them ideas about what to do with their lives.

The two greatest comments I have heard in the past few months are that 1) the major Christian denominations, including the United Methodist church, may very well be dead within the next twenty-five years and 2) there is no need for organized religion anymore anyway. I am not so certain. There will always be a need for a gathering of the believers on a regular basis. But if it is a gathering meant to maintain that which has been done time and time again, then the predicated outcome will not change.

If we stop and think about what it is that we are doing and what it is that we should be doing, perhaps we can change that outcome. It starts by understanding the questions that are being asked today about the church.

Diana Butler Bass (Notes from “A Resurrected Christianity” – Diana Butler Bass with a HT to Becca Clark – “Now What?”) noted that we used to ask three questions:

  1. What do I believe? But this was more what does the church say I should think about God?
  2. How should I behave? What are the rules my church asks me to follow?
  3. Who am I? What does it meant to be a faithful church member?

But now the questions have changed and I would think rightly so; it is no longer a matter of what to believe but how to believe. It is no longer a question of rules for living but what do I do with my life. And it is quite apparent that it is no longer about church membership but rather in whose company I find myself. The questions have become:

  1. How do I believe? How do I understand a faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?
  2. What should I do? How do my actions make a difference in this world?
  3. Whose am I? How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?

Andrew Conrad is part of the pastoral team at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and soon to be the pastor of the 1st United Methodist Church in El Dorado, Kansas. As he prepares to leave the one church and begin at his new church, he posted some questions about what was happening at 1st UMC, El Dorado.

Not all the questions are pertinent but some are questions that ever church, no matter where they are located, no matter how big or small the church may be (Resurrection is a mega-church and 1st UMC is decidedly smaller), needs to be asking. And it goes back to the question of how will people know about Jesus Christ?

Reverend Conrad asks:

  1. What is the vision and purpose of the church?
  2. In what ways do the vision and purpose guide what the church does?
  3. How is church engaging the community?
  4. What is the church’s favorite way of learning? Is through teaching, book study, etc.?
  5. What efforts are made to close the back door? How do you keep those who might otherwise leave engaged?
  6. What are the biggest barriers to people coming in the door?

There are other questions but they were more related, in my mind, to the role of the pastor. Interestingly enough, Reverend Conrad did ask, “what die-hard principle or practice that I might change would get me tarred and feathered?

If we (and I speak in the broadest sense of Christianity and the narrowest sense of any particular church) are to reverse the trend and bring people back into the fold, we obviously have to do something different. Simply offering a stricter adherence to creeds or demanding a return to an Old Testament style of living or even just better marketing plans will note work. Why should it? We have been trying that for some time now and it is not only not working, it is probably causing to stay away or leave in the first place! Rather, we need to focus on that which represents the church.

In his first letter, John speaks of how the followers had experienced the love of Christ. He also wrote about how they in turn told others about what they had experienced. But he also wrote that if someone claimed to have shared the experience but did not live that life, then they were lying.

There are too many people today who lead such a life; they claim to be followers of Christ but they will not share with others, as members of the early church described in Acts did. The problem facing the church today, be it Christianity in general, the United Methodist Church or any other denomination, or an individual church in particular is that there is a proclamation of following Christ but it is not backed up by the thoughts, words, deeds, or actions of those who make the proclamation. And they are the ones who cause individuals to leave the church; that is not a blanket statement on my part.

I have experienced the hypocrisy that John refers to, both in the past and even now in today’s society. My commitment to Christ through my work in the United Methodist Church keeps me in the church. You cannot change something from the outside; you must be in place to affect change.

The dilemma that we are faced with today, the challenge that we are given today is the very dilemma that Jesus presented to Thomas that day in the locked and protected room. Thomas would only believe that Jesus Christ had arisen from the dead when he, Thomas, could place his hands in the wounds of Christ and feel the body. But Jesus pointed out that there would be many others who would believe based on faith alone and not on the physical evidence.

If others are to believe without the physical evidence of the Risen Christ, how will they come to believe? As I stated in the title of my message, “how will they know?”

They will know because we will tell them. We may not necessarily tell me with our words but we will tell them through our actions, our thoughts, and our deeds. It is how we respond to others that will tell them about our relationship with Christ.

If you will allow me a moment of personal privilege, this past week my wife’s oldest niece became critically ill. She had not been well for the past year but it was one of those illnesses that seem to baffle modern medicine. This past week her condition became critical and required hospitalization and surgery. In the way of the world, this came at a time of great personal stress for her mother, my wife’s youngest sister. There was no question that Ann needed to be in Chicago with her sister and her niece.

Now, the dilemma for Ann and I was what to do about Grannie Annie’s Kitchen? You have heard me speak of this ministry before. This is Ann’s ministry and I am there to help. But I focus on the dining room and not the kitchen. So, with Ann’s absence, do we shut down the kitchen for the one or two weekends that she might be in Chicago? Or do we find a way to make it work and make it work at the level at which it has been done in the past? As I lifted up in thanksgiving during our prayers this morning, we have had some individuals helping us and Mo, Marisa, Hannah, and Amiel were able to be there yesterday to help with the cooking and the ministry. They, along with Tom and Jackie, our regular helpers, understood what Ann was doing with this kitchen/feeding ministry and were able to help me feed the 45 individuals who came yesterday without missing a beat. It was because they not only cared about Ann but the ministry (or perhaps the ministry and then Ann) that this was a positive day. It also allows the ministry to grow because we now have a team that can do the work.

There was a third possibility but it would have been a temporary solution and temporary solutions tend to not work against future plans.

My premise when I began this message was the Bible challenges us in so many ways but, as people of the New Testament as well as of the Old Testament, our challenge is find ways to tell people about Jesus Christ. And that makes us evangelicals. Now, I have to admit that I have been an evangelical all my life. I was baptized as an evangelical, I was confirmed as an evangelical and as a Methodist, I have accepted that idea that evangelism is part of the mission I undertook when I joined the church.

But evangelism is not browbeating someone into accepting Christ; that is an individual decision and one that can only be made if they truly understand what it means. It is not about offering someone a meal in return for them professing Christ. The doors to Grannie Annie’s Kitchen are open to all, no matter if they are believers or not.

As an evangelical, I am not interested in the creation of some sort of Christian-based theocracy nor am I interested in the imposition of some moral code on the lives of others. What I am interested in doing is making sure that the mission of Christ, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to clothe the naked, give comfort to those in need, and to free the oppressed. I see evangelism in an entirely different light than many but in the same way early disciples were empowered and John Wesley and those who joined him in the Methodist Revival of the 18th century saw evangelism. (http://www.religiondispatches.org/books/rd10q/5800/evangelicals_struggle_with_the_role_of_churches_in_society)

The challenge of the Bible, in fact, the challenge of Christianity today is for each one of us to understand what our relationship with others and what our relationship with God is. When we understand those relationships, which in turn will make the Bible alive, then we will be able to help others find Christ.

How will others find Christ? By our thoughts, words, deeds and actions, we will tell them! It is what we as the church have done in the past and it is what we will do to insure that there is a future.

Why Are We Cheering?

I received a call on Thursday to preach on Palm Sunday at Rowe UMC (Milan, NY) and Red Hook (NY) UMC. I used Isaiah 50: 4 – 9, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Mark 11: 1 – 11 as the Scriptures.

Several years I ago I received a request on a Thursday to fill in on the following Sunday. For a number of reasons I choose to open with the image of a baseball game in the bottom of the 9th inning and the outcome on the line. With the opening of the baseball season, at least from the standpoint of the St. Louis Cardinals a few days away, it would have been quite easy to do that again by using 6th game of the 2011 World Series, when the Cardinals were not one or two but three moments away from ignominious and shameful defeat (hey, I’m a Cardinal fan!). But because this is Palm Sunday I thought of another instance that was and is more appropriate for the moment.

As you can see from the three stripes on my robe, I hold a doctoral degree. If I had worn my hood, it would tell you that the degree is in science and that my school colors are black and gold. To be more specific I hold a doctoral degree in science education from the University of Iowa. And just as I am a fan and follower of the St. Louis Cardinals in victory and defeat; so too, am I a fan and follower of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes in victory and defeat.

In 2009, the Hawkeyes opened the football season with a home game against the University of Northern Iowa (or UNI). This was a typical home game where a big college invited a small college to come and play so that they, the big college, could achieve an easy victory. The small college accepted the invitation, knowing that defeat was inevitable but that it would come with a large check for the privilege and honor of being handily defeated.

That may have been the attitude of the Hawkeyes that day; that they were going to easily win this game and prepare for a more important game the following week against Iowa State University. Unfortunately someone forgot to tell the players from the University of Northern Iowa and, as the game progressed, the inevitable victory of the Hawkeyes over the Panthers seemed more and more unlikely.

And so it was, with seven seconds left in the game, the UNI Panthers found themselves trailing 17 – 16 but with a 1st down and the ball within easy field goal range. VICTORY was in their grasp! The ball was snapped; the holder quickly and precisely placed the ball; the kicker kicked the ball towards the goal posts and it appeared that an upset on the opening day was accomplished. But, wait, an Iowa defensive lineman got his hands on the ball and the ball was blocked. And as the Iowa fans cheered for the fantastic season saving play, the ball rolled on the ground until it was covered by a UNI player with one second left on the game clock.

As I wrote in my blog then (“Plays of the Day”), there was 1 second on the clock and the Iowa fans were jumping up and down cheering and celebrating. Those in the stands from UNI were probably cursing the football gods. But then a hush fell over the stadium.

The referee announced that, by rule, that UNI, not Iowa, retained possession of the ball. And now the UNI fans are cheering and the Iowa fans are cursing and booing. It is announced that the play is under review. Here’s the key to this – you have two football officials who are on the line of scrimmage. One of their responsibilities during a kick (punt, field goal, or try for point after touchdown) is to make sure that the ball crosses the line of scrimmage. If it doesn’t, then the kicking team can recover the blocked kick and retain possession. And guess what! That’s exactly what happened. The ball was blocked before it passed the line of scrimmage and it never crossed the line. So, by recovering the ball, UNI had another opportunity.

Now, with 1 second on the clock, Northern Iowa lines up to try another field goal. Remember that it was 1st down when they tried the first attempt so it is 2nd down for this attempt. And as before, the ball was snapped, the holder placed the ball, the kicker kicked the ball, and the Hawkeyes again blocked the kick. This time, the Iowa players fell on the ball and victory was achieved.

For me, that brief period in a football game some three years ago is much like this particular week in the life of the church. There is cheering and jubilation on Palm Sunday, slowly replaced by anguish, shock, dismay, and anger during the week, but culminating in cheering and jubilation on Easter Sunday. But were those who cheered on Palm Sunday really the ones who jeered on Good Friday; perhaps not.

Some notes that I came across while preparing this message suggested that the events of this day were the only time that Jesus organized the event. In the past, Jesus has always shied away from such celebration. But as Mark pointed out in his Gospel, this time He told His disciples to go and find the young colt for Him to ride into town. It would be logical, I hope, to then assume that those who cheered Jesus on that day were among those whose lives He had touched and changed during His three year ministry. Clearly they would not have been among those in the courtyard on Good Friday calling for his crucifixion and death.

Undoubtedly, there were some on Palm Sunday who turned against Him. There was a substantial presence in Israel at that time who sought a political king, someone who would lead an army in opposition to Roman authority. We know that two of the disciples, Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot, held such beliefs. And it was the realization that Jesus would not be the political king so long sought that may have pushed Judas, already angry at Jesus because of the anointing He had received a few days before, into the plot of betrayal. But Simon, though a Zealot and one who would have preferred the political solution, probably choose to wait and see what would happen. After Pentecost, tradition tells us that Simon would take the Gospel message to Persia where he would be martyred.

There were others as well who observed Jesus throughout the three years and perhaps wondered why He focused His ministry on the least of society, the outcasts and the shunned. We know from the reading of the Gospels that Jesus’ actions in cleansing the Temple on Tuesday of this week will be the tipping point, the time in which the political and religious authorities will seek to arrest Him.

We know, from the Gospel stories, that there were many who questioned Jesus when it came to His association with the beggars, the prostitutes, the poor and other sinners. Surely, in their minds, Jesus could not be the Son of God because God does not associate Himself with those types of people. The temple was for the best of the best, the most righteous and if you did not meet such standards, then you had no business being there. And Jesus worked against that very idea. It would be only natural that they would be in the courtyard on Good Friday calling for the death of Jesus. It would restore the world to its natural order.

Let us move the pages of time from 33 A. D. to the present. Let us put ourselves into the places of the people on the side of the streets as Jesus is prepared to enter the city. Which side will we be on? Will we be cheering or jeering?

Right now, the United Methodist Church has received a Call to Action, a call to restore the church and turn around decades of decline and loss. Staring at the possibility that the United Methodist Church (and other mainline Protestant denominations) may very well die of, for the lack of better term, old age, the leadership of the denomination has called for a revitalization of the church.

There are two groups cheering right now, those who are glad that someone realizes that we have strayed from the path that was laid down by Christ and John Wesley and those who are glad that something is going to be done to save the church that they grew up in. But many of those in this latter group have no clue what means to be Methodist and no understanding of the role Methodism has played in the history of society over the past two hundred years.

They see no relationship between the Methodist church they have been a member of for the past fifty years and the Methodist church in the next town, the next county, or even the next state. They have no idea what drove John Wesley to begin the Methodist Revival in the mid-18th century. They just know that some rabble rousers and troublemakers want to let “those people” into their church. (See Dan Dick’s comments on the new book about Methodism – “God Bless You, George C. Hunter III!” and my thanks to John Meunier for providing the information – “Contagious Methodism”.)

There are many who have left the church of today because the church no longer seems responsive to the people and is more concerned with its own survival and existence. I will admit that there was a time many years ago when I would have left the United Methodist Church for many of the same reasons given today. Everything said and done is so much in contradiction to what Jesus taught and much of what Paul wrote about. But I didn’t leave because there were those who showed me that the church could be a force for good, a force for justice, and that it was possible to be a representative of Christ on Earth. It would be very difficult for me to leave today just as it is very difficult for me to watch others tell the word that the Gospel is about the rich and the powerful, the mighty and privileged.

Pete Townsend, guitarist and singer for “The Who”, wrote a song called “Somebody saved me.” I am not sure why he wrote it but part of the chorus, the part that sticks in my mind is, “Somebody saved me, it happened again. Somebody saved me, I thank you my friend.” For me, that friend is, was, and will always be Jesus Christ. But if I had not had the church and the expression of those in it that the Gospel message was true, I might not have found Jesus. And I would have nothing to cheer about today.

There has been for some years a counter movement (which has become known at the Emerging Church movement), a desire to bring the church back to what it was meant to be, more in line with the movement that spread outwards from Galilee and Jerusalem two thousand years ago. It was the church before Constantine, one that might be in the homes of people rather than ornate and stately cathedrals. It is a church not often known to many people today. It was a church that made sure that all who were hungry were fed, all who were naked received clothes, all those without shelter found a place to stay, all who were sick received medical care, and those who are oppressed receive justice. It is a movement that is found at Rowe with its support of Grannie Annie’s kitchen and at Red Hook with its Sunday afternoon food closet (which for the readers of my blog now supports at least 35 families and is watching its numbers rise each month).

It works through those who have been called to preach the word of God. Yesterday, I was in Ridgefield, CT, for the closing of the District Lay Speaking School. In the closing service in which we commissioned thirteen new local lay speakers, our District Superintendent, Reverend Betsy Ott, offered this benediction, found in the wedding ceremony in the back of our hymnal. Tonight I close the 2012 Lenten School in which seven new local lay speakers will be commissioned. Reverend Ott will be there for that event and will probably use there as well (a note – she did).

Bear witness to the love of God in this world, so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.    AMEN

We celebrate and cheer that there are twenty individuals who have heard the call to take the word and message of the Gospel out into the world. We know that despite the despair and gloom that will come on Good Friday, that the Resurrection will come next Sunday. And so we cheer.

“Did I Miss Something?”

I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) and Red Hook (NY) United Methodist Church this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Easter were Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10, and John 14: 1 – 14.


I must have missed something last night. I was under the impression that the world was coming to an end. It sure seemed like a lot of people thought that it was. And given the state of the news this morning, of floods, hurricanes, and tornados ravaging the land, wars and violence over much of the globe, of greed and selfishness (and our pre-occupation with those who are greedy and selfish), of a separation of the people by economic status, race and gender, it might not have been all that terrible if the world had come to an end last night. If nothing else, such news sort of makes you depressed and crawl back under the bed covers in hopes that it will all go away.

To hear many modern day prophets and doomsayers, such news is an indication that God has forsaken this land, this planet and the people who live on it. They went to sleep last night fully expecting that, this morning, they would find themselves swept up from this world and now safely in heaven while the rest of us are left to our devices and doomed to live in some sort of existential never-never land. I hope that they weren’t terribly disappointed when they woke up this morning. Perhaps I didn’t miss anything at all.

Others will tell you that such news simply means there is no God. And this group woke up quite happy this morning, even if the world still seems like a bad place to live. Because, for all the shouting and announcements to the contrary, nothing happened and it can only mean that there really isn’t a God and religions are a waste of time and superstitious hoo-ha. Sadly, it is such events as this that are the basis for the rejection of Christianity.

Bob Herring, in his blog for Saturday, noted that there are many Christians who don’t have clear understanding about what the Scriptures do say about the end of the world and this will leave them even more confused, perhaps to the point that they will leave the faith and belief in Jesus Christ and try to find some other source of hope in this day and age. (Adapted from “I’m Planning a “We’re Still Here Party” for Sunday”)

It is sad that the public opinion of Christianity and what we can do in this world is hampered by those whose proclamation and prophecy is faulty and illogical and not by the work of those who were actually doing the work of God on this planet.

Now, I have a confession to make. I know that the world will come to an end. There is more to the destruction of this planet, this solar system, and the universe than predictions somehow buried deep within the text of the Bible. Current theories about the life of stars tell us that one day our own Sun will start to expand and engulf this planet. Theories about the creation of the universe tell us that it is expanding but at sometime in the far, far future, it will stop expanding and perhaps even collapse. But both of these events will occur long after our existence has run its course and are, at best, speculation at this time. Whatever may happen, it will be an event that we will miss.

I think that there have been at least five and perhaps more predictions for the end of the world during my lifetime. Each has been expressed with an absolute sincerity and an equally absolute sense of certainty. There have been over 1000 such predictions for the end of the world as we know it made in the 2000 or so years of what is now called the Common Era. You would think that such intensive and exhaustive study of the same data and the same scriptures by so many individuals would eventually yield some sort of positive result.

God did give us wisdom and He did give us the ability to use this wisdom to both create and destroy. It would seem to me that we are more bent towards destruction than creativity. Let’s face the facts! God doesn’t need to destroy this planet; we are doing a good job of it ourselves!

There are many who do not have to be reminded of the unstated horrors of thermonuclear war that dominated our thoughts and lives during the 1950s and 1960s. We can easily visualize what might have happened if our squadrons of B-52 bombers, armed with thermonuclear weapons, had taken off on their missions of destruction in response to an attack by the former Soviet Union. We were constantly reminded during the 70s and 80s how many cities and targets could be destroyed with the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (or MIRV) on a single missile. I find it ironic that the more complicated the name we give for a nuclear weapon, the more destructive its capability.

Do we need to be reminded that the only thing that prevented a nuclear war in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s was the knowledge that such destruction was mutually assured (what better acronym is there for war than the one for “mutually assured destruction”, MAD)? We now know from the tapes made by President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, that we were perilously close to nuclear war and that one wrong move by either side would have triggered Armageddon.

All we have to do today is look around and see what we have done, from the development of more horrific weapons of mass destruction to what we have done to the environment (be it caused by global climate change or not), and how we treat other people and then we can wonder why it is we haven’t destroyed the world already.

What I suppose bothers me most is that people have seen these signs but ignored them. They are resigned to the destruction of the world and hope that somehow, because they are the true believers, they will be the ones that God saves.

They feel they are the ones that Peter called the chosen ones, and somehow this makes it acceptable to be blind to the world around them. They miss or forget the words that follow, that speak of being the instruments of God’s work, of having to speak out for God and telling others what it means to be a Christian, to speak of the difference Jesus Christ has made in their lives. They miss the words that Jesus spoke to Philip of continuing the work that Jesus began.

Instead of doing the work of Christ, they spend all their time pointing out how others have failed to keep this rule or that, or how we have to keep the church clean and proper (and they are not talking about vacuuming the carpet or polishing the brass on the altar). They frown on laughter and applause in the sanctuary because that is not the proper way to worship the Lord. They are so busy working to keep the church that they miss seeing Jesus walk right on by.

They are the ones who encouraged the mob to stone Stephen because he proclaimed a vision of Christ but one they could not see. And since they could not see the vision that Stephen laid out before them, they felt that he was the blasphemer, not them.

I hope that you did not miss the significance of this day as far as being a United Methodist, though. Today is Aldersgate Sunday because it is the Sunday closest to May 24th, the day that John Wesley encountered the Holy Spirit. We should remember that once John and Charles Wesley were both such legalistic Christians. When we say that we are Methodists, and while I hope that we say it boldly and proudly, we are telling everyone that our heritage was once a very strict and legalistic one.

But John and Charles Wesley both knew that this approach wasn’t working. It is said that this same week, when John Wesley went to Aldersgate, Charles was lying on his bed convinced that he was going to die and die a failure. But when they both received the Holy Spirit things changed.

We have to come to believe that the word martyr means one who has died for a cause but it really means witness. Stephen was the first martyr, not only because he died for the cause but also because he spoke of what he saw and what he knew. We are not asked to die for the cause but we are asked to tell the world what we have seen and what we know.

Do we need to be reminded that when John Wesley and the early Methodists began, they were barred from preaching in their churches so they took to the fields? And the religious authorities, much like the authorities in the reading from Acts, encouraged the people to throw stones and rocks at these early Methodists.

I saw a note the other day that Wesley’s early ministry went against the social norm of his day.  He went into the prisons, he fed the hungry, he even found ways to heal the sick.  He did so because that is where he felt he would find Christ and that is where he felt he could show Christ.

People are going to through stones at us when we walk that same path; when we witness for Christ as we do so.

You have heard me speak before about Grannie Annie’s kitchen and the breakfast ministry that we have begun at Grace Church in Newburgh. Our philosophy is that each person who comes in on Saturday and Sunday will receive a breakfast. There is plaque that has hung in Ann’s kitchen for 40 years that says “let all guests be received as Christ.” How do we know that any one individual who comes to our table is not Jesus? Where does it say that Jesus will come either in a fabulously white robe or an elegant suit? Is it not better to feed all who are hungry than ignore the one? Is this not the same work that Christ empowered Philip and the other disciples and followers to do?

But like Thomas, we are uncertain about the direction we must take or even what it is we must do.

Several years ago, I drove from Memphis to St. Louis. I could have taken the easy route north by crossing the Mississippi River into Arkansas and heading north on Interstate 55. Under optimal conditions, one can make the trip in 4 hours. But I don’t like driving Interstate highways unless I absolutely have to.

I chose to take a route up the east side of the Mississippi, through Kentucky, across the Ohio River, and into Illinois. It was a little bit longer but more scenic and there were more options to stop. Now, on this particular trip, I was listening to a St. Louis radio station and paying attention to the traffic. What I was not doing was paying attention to the road signs and pretty soon I noticed that the countryside of Illinois that I was passing through bore no resemblance to what I remembered from previous trips. It would be easy to say that I was lost because I did not know where I was other than I was somewhere in southwest Illinois. Having a map was partially useful but also of no help without knowing exactly where on the map I was.

But, for the most part, country roads in Illinois run east-west and north-south; so it was just a matter of driving north on the road I was on and I would soon reach an east-west road that would allow me to go west and eventually run into the road I normally took. I had the basic knowledge and that knowledge would lead me back to the path I was supposed to be on.

In the same vein, Jesus is the basic knowledge, the truth, the life, the way. Peter’s challenge is not just be like babes but to grow and mature, to take the knowledge presented to us and use it in ways that Christ has taught us. We are to show the world who Christ is and what it means to be a Christian.

It is more than simply seeing the world. There is something missing when all we see is destruction and desolation; there is something missing when we see a world destroyed by and through greed and selfishness; there is something missing when people are abused or oppressed. There is something missing when a person is rejected by society because of their economic status, their race, their gender, or their lifestyle.

The one thing that is missing is the love of God and that is what we must provide.

The cynics in the world today want to see God, they want to see Jesus and they ridicule those who believe. It isn’t that they missed seeing either God or Jesus; they have never been shown either the Father or the Son.

Philip asked Jesus to show him the Father and Jesus replied that those who have seen Him have seen the Father. Jesus also told Philip that he, Philip would be called on to do the same work that Jesus had been doing. When we do the work of Jesus, when we feed the hungry or help the homeless find shelter or we heal the sick, people will see Christ in us.

On his blog this week, John Meunier asked who would miss us if we were not here tomorrow. If we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, quite a few people would miss us – those served by the food banks, those who come to the church for a meeting, those whose lives were helped by UMCOR offering or a VIM trip, those who brought their children to a pre-school during the week. (from “Who Would Miss Us?”) There is a new ministry beginning in the Newburgh area; it is called Family Promise and it offers hope to families where the parents may be out of work or have lost their home because of the economic times. This ministry, like the food bank and the day care center and the UMCOR projects and the VIM trips are not done with the expectation that such actions will open the doors of heaven; they are done because we love others as God has loved us. It is the love that God expressed to us when He sent His Son to die on the cross.

The call today is very simple. We are called to open our hearts and our minds so that we can see, feel, touch, and sense the presence of Christ. Through our words, our deeds, our thoughts, and our actions we are to lead a life that would allow others to know Christ. We are called to bring Christ to the world. We are called today to go out into this world and be the opportunity to show Christ to world. I do not know about you but that is something I do not want to miss.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany.  I am preaching at Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY, Sunday. (I have edited this since it was first posted on Saturday.)  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 10: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 – 23.


This has been edited since it was posted on 26 January 2008.


The original title for this sermon was “The Beginning and The End” because of the nature of the Gospel reading for today. (Matthew 4: 12 – 23 ) The beginning part was easy because today’s Gospel reading was about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. But I could not figure out where the ending was.

If you are like me, you have a few books that you read over and over again. You read them because you like the author or you like the plot or even the characters that the author has created. You know how each story ends but you keep reading them anyway, looking for something you might have missed or trying to understand a passage that didn’t seem clear.  We know our stories so well that we can pick up a story at any time and know where we are in the progress of the story.

But, where is the ending in the story for today? Where do we fit into this collection of readings from the Old Testament and New Testament? Or is it possible that we find ourselves in the middle of a story and the ending hasn’t been written yet?

We read from the beginning of the ninth chapter of Isaiah for today. (Isaiah 9: 1 – 4) But though it is the beginning of the ninth chapter, to understand it you have to read the end of the eighth chapter. The ending of chapter eight is very gloomy; it is the prophet speaking of the end, the end of the nation and the end of the people as they are taken away into captivity. But then the prophet begins chapter nine with a statement of hope. Amidst the tragedy of exile and captivity, Isaiah promises hope to the very people to whom he has just spoken doom and despair.

It is that same promise of hope that Matthew is writing about. The Babylonian exile may have been a long time past when Matthew wrote his Gospel. But the feeling of doom was still present. Instead of the Babylonian captivity, it was the Roman occupation of Israel. It was the capitulation of the political and spiritual leaders who cooperated with Rome to ensure the continuation of the enslavement of many and enrichment for a few. It was a system that produced rules and regulations over all aspects of life, both spiritual and secular, and offered no hope. If there was one thing that the people of Israel needed at this time, it was hope and there was none.

But in last week’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist essentially tells his disciples to follow Jesus because of who Jesus is. Andrew told his brother Simon that they had found the Messiah. Suddenly there is a sense of hope. Today the call to Andrew and Peter is renewed and the call is given to James and John. The ministry begins with the preaching of the Good News and the healing of the sick throughout Galilee.

We know where this story ends. We know what will happen to Jesus and the disciples that He called. As the little group travels throughout the hills of Galilee, many will hear the Word proclaimed and hope will be renewed. Countless individuals will be healed. But divisions will arise between those in the system and those who follow Jesus. The authorities will begin to find fault with everything Jesus says and does and will begin to plot his arrest and conviction. The authorities want this story to end with Jesus crucified and this little band of disciples scattered to the winds.

But the story doesn’t end the way the authorities would like it to end. Though Jesus dies on the Cross, He rises from the dead on Easter morning. Instead of scattering the disciples to the winds and destroying the movement, the disciples take the Gospel message with them to the four corners of them to the four corners of the world and the movement grows. 

But somewhere along the line, the Gospel message has disappeared from the church. Somewhere along the line, the church has forgotten what it is and what it is supposed to be. Somewhere along the line, the story changed and doom has returned.

It seems to me that we have lost the focus of what Christianity is about. I have been told that war is inevitable and that violence is an inherent part of life. I have been told that evil is so much a part of our life that there is nothing we can do but wait for Christ to return.

But if war is inevitable, then why bother with this story? If there is nothing we can do about evil, then why even study what Jesus did? If the end of the world is death and destruction, then why even suggest, let alone offer, the simplest glimmer of hope? If there is no hope, then Isaiah would have ended with Chapter 8 and there would have been no one to say that there would be a new light.

I have been told more times that I can count that all we are to do is make disciples of all the nations. I cannot accept that we are to ignore the feeding of the hungry, cloth the naked, or heal the sick. I cannot accept the idea that those without deserve what they get and those who have are blessed by God.

Most translations of Matthew 28: 19 have Jesus telling the disciples to go out into the world and make disciples of all the nations. But not every translation says disciples, and I am not sure that disciples are the proper word. In preparing his Cotton Patch translation of the Gospel of Matthew, Clarence Jordan went to the original Greek and came up with “As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you.” (Matthew 28: 19 – 20 as translated by Clarence Jordan in his Cotton Patch Gospel. )

John G. Stackhouse, Jr. writes

Jesus called us to be his witnesses, not his experts in comparative religion. We cannot prove that Jesus is the world’s one Savior and Lord, or that the Bible is alone the Word of God written. Only the Holy Spirit of God can do that. What we can and must do is what Christians can uniquely do: Testify to our erience and conviction that Jesus is indeed Savior and Lord and that the Bible is the Word of god written, and invite men and women to consider those startling propositions for themselves on the way to encountering Jesus Himself. (From “Books and Culture” (Christianitytoday.com/books), September/October 2007 – in Context, February 2008, Part A)

In affect, Stackhouse writes, we are to do what the disciples did. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the world of life.” (1 John 1: 1)

Yes, it is difficult to follow Jesus, especially when we know where this story is going to go. Kyungsig Samuel Lee, writing in Korean Family Devotions, writes

The ultimate challenge of Jesus’ ministry was to go to the city, the city of Jerusalem. This city, which was the center of education, religion, and politics, was also the place where corruption and crimes abounded. Yet, Jesus went there anyway. Following Jesus to the city was a risky business. Many would-be followers dropped out when they saw this ultimate danger. What will it require of us to move to the city? I ask this question whenever I find myself wanting to settle down in the comfort of material well-being. God may not ask us to physically move to the city, but God does require that we reach out to hurting people with the gospel, wherever they might be. (Kyungsig Samuel Lee (Korean Family Devotions) – from Verse and Voice, 25 January 2008 )

But it is not us, per se, who must continue this mission. It is who we are to become when we hear and heed Jesus’ call. Jesus began his ministry with a call to repent. Repent is a tremendous word and one worth examining. Repentance is more than simply saying you are sorry; it is the singular act of changing your life.

The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent” originally meant “return.” To repent is to return to where we came from. We are God’s children and we have gone astray; if we repent, we return to God. The Greek word from which we get “repent” means “to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.” So when Jesus called on the people to repent, He was really saying that one needed to stop what they were doing and return to the way of life that was first in God.

No one has the right to call on others to change their ways unless they have a better alternative. Getting people to stop doing wrong is only half of repentance; heading in a new direction is the other half. The call to repentance is accompanied by the announcement that the Kingdom of God is here. For Christ, it was the way, the only way for people to live. (Adapted from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Clarence Jordan )

It is no wonder that people are turned off or driven away from the church. How can we ask people to be Christ’s disciples if they cannot see Christ at work in this world? How can we call men and women to conversion without seeing that Christ calls all of us to repent of our prejudices and be open to the fullness of life? We cannot practice Christianity and be a false witness; we cannot be evangelists while escaping from Christ’s demands for ourselves.

We cannot preach peace or the love of Christ unless it is in our own hearts. So we must change, we must allow the presence of Christ to redefine our views and our thoughts. If we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our old systems, old options, and old values, then we cannot even begin to think in new terms. New visions cannot come from old structures; new values will not be created from old assumptions. Visions come when people are renewed, not by their reactions. If we allow our reactions to guide the paths we walk, we will never be able to see as we should and as we can. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

We have to ask ourselves what it means to call people to Christ. The church’s sole purpose is to show the world, through word, deed, action and thought that God’s will is the best alternative to a materialistic or secular world.

Still, there is a vision of hope and promise. Just as John Wesley began the Methodist Revival when it appeared that the words and actions of the church were counter to the goals and outcomes of the Gospel, so too can we embark on a new revival. If there was ever a time for a church to embark on a course of evangelism and outreach, it is now. As Jesus said, there is no time to wait; the hour of His coming is unknown and lost to those who wait.

And that is where the problem lies for us today. We do not want to hear the message of repentance and salvation. We do not want to take the actions that Christ took. We are quite happy with a Christianity that tells us that we need not do anything since Christ died for our sins.

We see those who hear Jesus’ call as one that requires that they be persecuted. But this response leads to a martyr-complex, the basis of which is self-pity. But Jesus would have said that this doesn’t pay any dividends and is a sign of spiritual decay. Ultimately people will persecute themselves if they can’t get anyone to do it for them. They might sleep on a bed of spikes, or walk on hot coals, or in a more civilized country, they might wear a “shirt of hurt feelings.” It doesn’t matter what hurts them, just so they’re hurt and therefore have a legitimate reason to feel sorry for themselves. Those who do this, those who see Christ’s call as an inward call will never understand that it was a call for action and a call to move outward.

But Christ did call for action. He may not have wanted everyone to be a martyr but He did expect those who say they believe to do something. (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan ) Only in rare cases have Christian communities ever been hidden from the view of the public. In most cases, they have been situated where people could see them, where they could be eternal witnesses to the way people should live.

And that is the problem. We may want to hide; we may want to enjoy Christ by and for ourselves. As much as we despise overt acts of Christianity, we also no do not want to be the one who God calls on to do His work.

But it can never be that way. The Christian community is God’s light, lit with the Glory of his own Son and He has no intention of hiding it. When we come into that fellowship, we become a part of God’s light. Our actions will determine how bright that light will shine but it is a light that, for better or for worse, we cannot escape.

Some may see a crisis in the church; others may see a crisis in the world and wonder why the church is not doing more. If we are called to evangelism — calling people to knowledge that Christ is Savior and Lord — we must understand what God is doing in our history and how He is calling us to join Christ in his action in the world. Evangelism, in other words, must point to the presence of Christ as Lord in the affairs of the world and to the call of Christ as Savior of each of us. In this way, we see Christ calling us to abandon our worldly ways — our petty tribalism, our limiting sectionalism, and our own personal selfishness — and accept his grace in such a way that we, as forgiven sinners, can work as servants of His kingdom within the kingdoms of this world.

There is the temptation to forget that the need to see Christ working within the variety of struggles in our time also carries with it the need to see Christ as the one calling us to repent, to die to our selfish ways, and be converted, rising again to a new life with Him, as we learn to be free to serve our neighbor. If we are not careful, we soon forget that the evangelistic task of the church is the framework by which we see our service to the world.

These are undoubtedly different words from what you usually hear; they are most certainly difficult words to hear. In today’s world, a call from God to go out into the world and show what God can truly do for the people is a frightening thought. But what can be more frightening than watching the light of the world slowly disappear into a sea of gloom and despair? We stand at the edge of a new journey. We do not know what lies at the end of that journey. But if we fear the journey that we are called today to make, then we fear the Cross. The message of the Cross is simple foolishness to those who cannot imagine anything beyond the present world. That is what Paul said to the Corinthians two thousand years ago. (1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18) But for those who believe, it is something more; it is the very power of God.

It is the one thing that will enable us to begin that journey that we are called today to begin. We are in the midst of a great and powerful story, a story which changed the world and will continue to change the world if we tell it and witness to it. We can, of course, do nothing. We may hold on to what we believe and trust in what we see and hear. But we will go nowhere and the darkness will continue to grow. Or we can go where we are called, trusting in the Lord and we will see the darkness disappear.

So where do we go from here?


“Seeing The Trees For The Forest”

I got the call to preach on a Friday night (ah, the life of a lay speaker and a circuit rider).  I will be preaching at the Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY (location of church) at 9:30 and then traveling down the road to its partner, Red Hook United Methodist Church (Location of church) to preach at 11:00.  You all are invited to either service (or both).


The Scriptures for this Sunday are Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4; 2: 1- 4; 2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 4, 11 – 12; and Luke 19: 1 – 10.


In one of the first sermons I ever preached I pointed out that if John Wesley were alive today, he would be very confused as to what century he was in. (Yes, I know that he would also be very old). 

He would look around at cars and planes and marvel how easy it would be to get from place to place.  He would look at computers and cell phones and the various combinations of computers and cell phones and be thoroughly amazed.  But I think that he would see ways to utilize each of the technologies that did not exist in the mid-18th century to better spread the Gospel message.

But he would also look around and wonder if he was, in fact, even in the 21st century.  After all, he would still see countries building empires and using military might to maintain control in the world.  He would see corporations that still oppressed the working and lower classes.  He would see individuals denied educational opportunities and discrimination because of a person’s gender or race.  He would see drug abuse and alcoholism reminiscent of 18th century England.

He would see a church indifferent to the needs of the people, where the words spoken and read every Sunday have no meaning the rest of the week. He would people proclaim loudly and proudly how Christian they were but whose lifestyle was more like a Pharisee than a sinner. He would see a church where the word sanctuary implies protection from the outside world.  He would have to wonder what happened to these people who called themselves Methodist. 

When you consider the works that were done during the Methodist Revival of the mid-18th century (schools for children, health clinics for those who had no health care, credit unions for those who did not have access to the banks, efforts to give equality to women and children, work to end slavery and discrimination) and you look around at what we are doing today, I cannot help but think that John Wesley would be very confused.

He would wonder what happened to the health care initiatives that he pursued in London and also wonder why the poor, the lower and middle classes were still at the mercy of the rich and powerful.

And why shouldn’t he be confused.  Against the backdrop of today’s form of Christianity, with what we believe and think Christianity is and what it should be, we are see the world as a forest but we can’t see the trees and we dare not venture into the depths and darkness of the forest. We know that there are problems in there, problems that we ought to deal with but we would rather ignore them and stay in our own safe shelter. Or we would much rather someone else solve the problem and neither bother us or ask to help in any way, shape, or form. We have focused so much on the “big picture” that we no longer see the little parts of the same picture.

I think about what Habakkuk might think if he were alive today (and yes, I know, he would be really, really old).  We live in a world in which people declare that that the Bible is truth. They will also tell you that the truth of the Bible allows them to plunder the environment, espouse hate in all forms, to discriminate against someone if you don’t like something about them and allows them to gather wealth without thought of source or result. The attitudes and mindset of too many people today speak to an indifference and ignorance of God’s Word.

The message of the Bible speaks to the human condition and, many times, to society’s indifference to the suffering of others.  In that sense, I think that Habakkuk’s words, first spoken so many years ago, are still true today.

We have heard the words of the prophets but, like the people of Israel three thousand years ago, have ignored them.  We are more and more like the Pharisees and scribes who complained when Jesus told Zaccaheus that He would have dinner with him that night.  The church today seems more concerned with appearances than it is with its mission in the world.  The church today clearly sees the forest but cannot identify the trees.

There are people today, and I believe that the number increases with each passing hour, who are beginning to see that the ignorance and hatred, the indifference and discrimination, the violence and anger that is so much a part of this world today will not work. But they see a church that stands by passively and does nothing and wonder what can be done.

And I know that there are those in the church today who understand that the church must do something but cannot see a way for anything to be done inside a church trapped in a collective mindset of caution and unwillingness to do what they have been called to do.

There is, out in the Methodist world, a new report entitled “A Call to Action”.  It speaks to what some in the United Methodist Church feel the denomination should be doing.  I will not make any judgment at this time because I haven’t read the report.  But I was intrigued by John Meunier’s thoughts on this report (“Call to Action: A rope of sand”), especially in some words that John Wesley wrote in his letter “Plain account of the People called Methodists”.

There were those in 18th century England who basically saw the Methodist revival as creating a schism in the Church of England.  Those in the Church of England felt that those who were called themselves Methodists were separating from the church.  But Wesley argued that those who called themselves Methodist felt that they were not a part of the church nor did they feel that they had any sort of connection to the church.  Wesley wrote

If it be said, “But there are some true Christians in the parish, and you destroy the Christian fellowship between these and them;” I answer, That which never existed, cannot be destroyed. But the fellowship you speak of never existed. Therefore it cannot be destroyed. Which of those true Christians had any such fellowship with these? Who watched over them in love? Who marked their growth in grace? Who advised and exhorted them from time to time? Who prayed with them and for them, as they had need? This, and this alone, is Christian fellowship: But, alas! where is it to be found? Look east or west, nor or south; name what parish you please: Is this Christian fellowship there? Rather, are not the bulk of the parishioners a mere rope of sand? What Christian connexion is there between them? What intercourse in spiritual things? What watching over each other’s souls? What bearing of one another’s burdens? What a mere jest is it then, to talk so gravely of destroying what never was! The real truth is just the reverse of this: We introduce Christian fellowship where it was utterly destroyed. And the fruits have been peace, joy, love, and zeal for every good word and work.  (“Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” in The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 9:259).

I would agree with John that Wesley’s words, written in defense of Methodists and the beginning Methodist Revival,

“a much more stinging description of the state of too many of our United Methodist congregations? Are not many of us little more than ropes of sand – not fit for helping anyone climb to the higher reaches of Christian life and love?  (from “Call to Action: A rope of sand”)

So there we are, like Zaccaheus, desperately trying to find Jesus in a forest of people and wondering how it can be done.

We heard Habakkuk’s words of despair this morning, of describing a world of indifference and wondering how things could change. We also heard God tell Habakkuk that there would be a vision and that he, Habakkuk, would write it down for all to see. He was to describe that vision very clearly so that the people will see it and know what it is.  The role Habakkuk was to play was to make sure that people knew what that vision was.

Perhaps we should take a clue from Zaccaheus and find another way to see Jesus.  I know that it is an old cliché but we need some sort of alternative thinking, some outside-the-box type of thoughts.  If people cannot see Jesus, perhaps we need to find new ways of showing His presence in this world.

If we are to regain our vision of the mission of the church, we may very well have to climb the tree like Zaccaheus did and go out on a limb.  We need to leave the safety of the sanctuary and do things that reflect the message of the Gospel and, in our case, the history of the Methodist Revival.  It may mean that we look around our neighborhood and our community and see what God is calling us to do.

When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, one of the first things that he did was tell them how he describes what they were doing to others that he has met.  The words that we read today, the words that speak of the love of God, Christ, and community amongst the people of Thessalonica, are words that reflect what was transpiring in the early Methodists societies as well.  There was a community of faith being built, it was a community of faith that involved everyone and did not exclude anyone.

The United Methodist Church is at a point in time where its future is cloudy and uncertain.  It can continue as it has been doing and it will die.  Or it can find its soul in what it once was and be renewed.  And in its own renewal it can again be a force of change, of hope and promise in the world around it.

But it is a matter of seeing the trees instead of the forest, of seeing the opportunities that exist, even if we do not know that they exist.  It means doing things because we are called to do things instead of doing things because they are expected to be done.

If you will allow me a moment of personal privilege, I want to speak of such an opportunity that begins this Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church in Newburgh, New York.

This past summer, my wife helped with the Vacation Bible School at Grace.  One of the things that she observed was the number of neighborhood kids who came to VBS hungry.  I don’t have the actual numbers before me but it would be safe to say that 75% of the students in the Newburgh elementary schools receive breakfast before school during the school year.  But these meals do not exist during the summer or when school is not in session.  What do they do on weekends and during the summer months?

Now, just as I hope my ministry is found in the Word and its presentation, my wife’s ministry is found in the gardens of the church and the kitchen.  It has been said that when she does coffee hour after the second service on Sunday, reservations are required.  🙂

But her thoughts were about the children of the neighborhood and what she could do.  And out of those thoughts came what is now called “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.”  This will be a feeding ministry for the children of the neighborhood on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  It will not be a breakfast created by an institution but with love and care, as if Jesus were coming to eat with us. It will be a meal cooked with love and care because it is what is expected of us when we say we are Christians and Methodists.

I brought a few of the flyers with information about the program with me today.

I invite you to be a part of this program in whatever way you feel called to respond.  Perhaps you will come this Saturday and following Saturdays to help and possibly begin your own program.  Perhaps your presence will be in other ways.

This is not the only feeding ministry at Grace.  Our youth, along with the youth of several other local churches, have begun a feeding ministry of their own on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month.  This ministry was developed on their own initiative as well and speaks to the notion that we Methodists have been and are a part of the community.

There are times when the solution to a problem is easily seen and easily resolved. But other times the forest of humanity seems to block our vision and we have to climb a tree in order to find a solution.

It worked for Zaccaheus and he found salvation.  I think it is time that we see the trees in the forest and find the one that allows us to see our path, our salvation.