“What Does Your Church Look Like?”

I am at Sugar Loaf (NY) United Methodist Church this morning (May 5th). The message is “What Does Your Church Look Like?” and is based on the Scriptures for this Sunday, Acts 5: 27 – 32, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 20: 19 -31. Services are at 11 and you are welcome to attend.

I will be at Monroe UMC (Monroe, NY) on May 12th; services are at 8:30 am and 10:15 am and you are welcome to attend. The message for Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday is “The Gift of Love” and is based on the lectionary readings for May 12th, Acts 16: 16 – 34; Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 17, 20 – 21; and John 17: 20 – 26.


When I began thinking about this message, it was first based on the last lines of today’s reading from Acts,

After she was baptized, along with everyone in her household, she said in a surge of hospitality, “If you’re confident that I’m in this with you and believe in the Master truly, come home with me and be my guests.” We hesitated, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Here was a woman, who at the very moment of her conversion, opened her heart and responded to the Gospel message of Paul. Now, in an effort to understand this moment, I turned to one of my favorite references, the Cotton Patch Gospels of Clarence Jordan.

This translation of the New Testament is a distinctly Southern version of the New Testament written by a Southern Baptist preacher and Greek scholar who sought to make the words of the Bible relevant to the people of the South and in terms that related to the world of the South in the 50s and 60s to the time when Jesus walked the roads of the Galilee. Sadly, Dr. Jordan died while working on the translation of John so I am not able to read how the Gospel of John or the other books attributed to John would have been expressed.

This, I think, is important. If you cannot put the words of the Bible into the context of your own time, then the words of the Bible become somewhat meaningless. I knew when I was in high school where the church in Corinth that Paul was writing to was but I am sure that many people in the Memphis, Tennessee, area where I went to high school would have first thought of Corinth, Mississippi, before thinking of Corinth, Greece. And when I hear of Mount Moriah I am as apt to think of the most dangerous streets in Memphis as I am to think of the place where God told Abraham to take his son Isaac.

So it was when I read of Dr. Jordan’s translation describing Paul’s journey through Louisana and Mississippi and going to St. Louis, I could not help but think of my own journey and my ties to St. Louis and Missouri. As a graduate of the University of Missouri, I can relate to the Holy Spirit telling Paul not to go to Kansas. But I should also add that my own journey as a lay servant/speaker began in Odessa, Texas.

So while I was thinking of the hospitality of Lydia and what it means for us today, I was also thinking about my own journey throughout the South and up here in the North. I began thinking about the fact that I can often tell if a particular church that I see before me is a United Methodist Church long before I see the sign in the front. That was the case when I first came here to Sugar Loaf.

Sometimes you can see what you know is a church from miles away. I still recall the first time I ever saw the cathedral in Conception Junction, Missouri rising above the plains of northwest Missouri. I don’t know how far away I was but I could see that it was a church and it was something that I wanted to see up close (I wrote about this encounter for the Fishkill UMC back page in “A Reminder”.

Sometimes, that’s not the case though. There is a church in Springfield, Missouri, that looks like a three-story office building, square in shape and in the middle of a parking lot. It is not that different from the other office building along its street. The only way that you could ever know that it was, in fact, a church (besides the sign) is that the windows on the street side of the building form a cross.

And in the hills of eastern Kentucky you will see houses that could only be best described as run-down shacks; yet they are the homes of active Pentecostal churches.

Now, I have never been inside that church in Springfield, Missouri nor the Pentecostal churches that dotted the roads of eastern Kentucky (probably because I was on my way to my own small non-descript but decidedly United Methodist Church in Neon, Kentucky). I have been inside the church at Conception Junction and can understand why the people built it as an expression of their faith in the late 19th century.

But I also know of the massive cathedrals in Europe, built as an expression of faith, but now, for the most part, lie empty or serve more as tourist destinations than places to find God.

But it is not the outside but the inside of the church that tells you what a church looks like. I return to Lydia and her act of hospitality. Luke, the writer of Acts and companion on the journeys of Paul, probably included that note in his recording because Lydia probably began a church in her own home as did so many others in the early Christian church.

You may recall that many of what are know established United Methodist churches in this country, especially in this area began as gatherings in homes because the religious establishment would not let them meet in churches or build a church of their own.

It was the faith and desire to meet God that brought people together, even when it was perhaps difficult and possibly illegal to do so. And we can only imagine what it might be like to have been invited to visit one of these early home-churches or even a church today. (There was a great discussion on a blog that I follow on whether or not to invite a fellow Christian to one’s church.)

Some of us, I know, first came to church because someone invited us to come with them. Others, perhaps, were dragged kicking and screaming and not necessarily as children (though that perhaps describes my own situation).

There is a pastor in the New York Annual Conference who will tell you about the time before he was a Christian when he was told that he needed to be in a particular church on a Sunday morning for the baptism of a sibling’s child. And he will show you the bulletin for that Sunday that he still keeps on his desk so many years later that reminds him of that day and the lady who helped him get a cup of coffee after the service.

He will tell you how he found that bulletin a few weeks later and how he came back to the church, not kicking or screaming or rather reluctantly, but quite willing. He will gladly show you the spot at the altar rail where he answered the call and gave his life to Christ. This, by the way, was and is a United Methodist Church. It was the church that gave him the push and the backing to change his life and become a minister.

These are the stories that we want and need to hear; of people finding Christ and people, through simple acts helping some one to Christ.

This pastor told his story in that very church a few weeks ago. Unfortunately and rather sadly, there were some in the congregation who did not want to hear the story and who were complaining, before the service was over, how long the service was going. Instead of being time with Christ, church was, for them, a brief moment on Sunday mornings and not to interfere with their daily routine.

My own journey is perhaps a little different. Yes, I was brought kicking and screaming to church when I was in school and I could think of so many Sunday mornings when I was in college when I would have rather stayed in bed. But I made a decision to follow Christ when I was in high school on my own and the Holy Spirit spent much time and energy reminding me of that commitment. And while I may not have wanted to go, I also knew that I needed to be in church on Sunday morning, perhaps for reasons not yet evident.

I do know this; were it not for Marvin Fortel, the pastor of 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville, Missouri, when I began attending college there, my own journey with Christ, let alone my journey as a lay servant/speaker would have taken a different path and I probably would not be standing here today.

His words and his actions showed me the walk that I needed to walk; his counsel and the counsel of others at that time put the Gospel message in the context of my own life and gave me hope for the future. But I also know that Reverend Fortel’s words, thoughts, and deeds, with regards to the civil rights movement and his opposition to the war in Viet Nam which were similar to my own words, were not easily accepted by the other members of that congregation and he was asked to move on.

It does not matter what a church looks like on the outside; what matters is what is in the hearts and souls of the people inside the church. Have they built walls that exclude others? Have they built walls which they think protect them from the world outside but actually lock them in a prison?

The first Christian churches were in the homes of the followers because there was no other place to meet and to meet in public somewhere almost certainly meant the followers would be arrested. The first Methodists in this country met in homes as well because they were barred from meeting in the churches and they built meeting houses because the laws would not allow them to build churches of their own.

They met because they wanted to be with Jesus and help others meet with Him, even when the establishment would not allow it.

But there are no such rules and laws in place today in this country that prevent us from meeting openly in a church of our own, no matter what it may look like.

But what is it that people see. In the Gospel reading for today, Jeuse tells us that a loveless world is a sightless world. The world cannot see Christ if the love of Christ is not present. It was perhaps that knowledge of the love of Christ that prompted Lydia to extend her hospitality to Paul and Timothy. It was that expression of hospitality that allowed one man to get a cup of coffee and begin walking a new path.

It is that hospitality that says to the world that this is a place where one can be among friends and find Christ. John Wesley once said (I hope) that the world was his parish, that his call to ministry extended beyond the walls of the church where he preached.

There is a crisis in this world that is not just a counting of the number of wars or acts of violence. It is a crisis in that we see war and violence as the answer to our problems. We as a society, not just here but throughout the world, are not willing to seek other solutions, even when present solutions do not seem to work.

The other day, I heard Willie Nelson say that one person could not change the world but that one person with a message could. The message that Jesus carried across the roads of the Galilee and to Jerusalem is the prime example.

Many people today see the words of Revelation as the end, the end of everything. For them, these words are dark and exclusionary, meant only for a select few. But John the Seer may have written them knowing that darkness could not win, that darkness and evil will not and would not prevail. If we read the Book of Revelation with the thought that God has won and that evil in whatever form it may take has lost, then we see and hear words that tell us what we must do.

John wrote that the Tree of Life will yield twelve kinds of ripe fruit but who is to pick the fruit and distribute it? The leaves of this Tree are for healing nations but who will heal the nations and the people?

There are people outside the walls of the traditional church seeking to come in and find Christ. Would it be better if, perhaps, the people inside the church were to go outside and show them what Christ is like through their words, their deeds and their actions? What might happen in this world today if we extended the love of Christ to all we meet?

It is a frightening thought but perhaps no more frightening than that first time you came into the church, perhaps reluctantly, perhaps kicking and screaming. Jesus told the disciples

I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.

So we know that we can go out into the world, we know that we can as Lydia did, invite the world into our homes, perhaps not all at once but surely one person at a time.

The call goes out today to follow Jesus, to accept Him as savior. And the call goes out to allow the Holy Spirit into your life, to empower you and provide you with the strength for the task before you.

What does your church look like? I think it looks like each one of us for in each one of us, people will see Christ and we will see Christ in those we meet.

Must You See To Believe?

I am at Sugar Loaf (NY) United Methodist Church this morning. The Scriptures are Acts 5: 27 – 32, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 20: 19 -31. Services are at 11 and you are welcome to attend.

This has been edited since it was first posted.  I will be at Monroe UMC (Monroe, NY) on May 12th; services are at 8:30 am and 10:15 am and you are welcome to attend.  I will also be at Sugar Loaf again on May 5th.


I began working on this message back on March 13th, the day that just happens to be the anniversary of William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781.

Now, to be sure, Herschel wasn’t the first person to observe this planet in its journey across the evening sky. In fact, its presence had been recorded as early as 1690 but it was considered more of a star than a planet because it moved slower and was far dimmer than the planets known at that time.

It speaks of our own natural skepticism that those who first saw Uranus as it traveled across the sky were unwilling to characterize it as a planet. Even Herschel thought, despite the lack of evidence to support his thought, that what he had discovered was a comet rather than a planet. But as others looked at what Herschel described and gathered their own data, it became apparent that what was being observed was, in fact, a planet and not some other stellar object.

Science is very much an observational experience and others must be able to replicate what has been observed. The validity of one’s observations is predicated on the ability of others to see, for the most part, the same results that you have reported.

We are reminded of this by the announced discovery of cold fusion in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fusion, in chemistry and physics, is the combination of atomic nuclei to form a new nuclide. The fusion of hydrogen atoms to form helium atoms is the reaction that gives our sun and all the stars their source of energy. If we could develop reactors here on earth that could replicate what takes place on the sun, then we would have a relatively safe and relatively unlimited energy source. But such replication requires that we create on earth a mini-star with its accompanying high temperature and pressure. There are those who feel this is a possibility that will be accomplished within the next few years.

But what if we could some how force hydrogen atoms to fuse together and form helium atoms at room temperature and pressure? We would be saved the expense that comes with high temperatures and pressures and have an easily developed power source that ran on our tap water.

And this was what was announced in 1989 – the discovery of cold fusion, the combination of hydrogen atoms to form helium atoms at room temperature and pressure. Unfortunately, the discoverers of this process were more interested in gaining the fortune that would come with the discovery and they rushed their announcement. As others attempted to replicate their discovery, flaws in the process were discovered and ultimately the discovery was discounted.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the theory behind “cold” fusion; in fact, it was first proposed in the mid 1930s. But because others could not replicate what was first proposed in 1989, very few people are willing to pursue such research today.

The failure of others to replicate what was first reported is a natural extension of Thomas’ thoughts to his friends that night in the closed room some two thousand years ago, “if I don’t see it, how can I be sure that it happened?”

It is only natural that Thomas would ask for proof. It is in our nature to do so. Now, we also read in today’s Gospel reading that Jesus told Thomas that others would believe though they would not see the evidence that Thomas wished to see.

My question this morning is how those who did not see will come to believe. John gave part of the answer when he wrote that the stories were written down so that others will believe.

In Hebrews 11: 1 we read, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Clarence Jordan translated this in his Cotton Patch Gospels as “Now faith is the turning of dreams into deeds; it is betting your life on the unseen realities.

We are here today because something brought us here. Perhaps we have come because we have questions about our faith that could only be answered by things seen and unseen, in this time and place. But these are difficult times in which to question faith or even to begin asking questions about God, Christ, Christianity or religion in general.

And the answers that we often get don’t help our seeking.

We see a world of hatred and violence, death and destruction, and we want to know where God is in this world.

We see the church today, both in general and in denominational and local terms, as a dying church and if it is not dying it seems to be one that is no viable in today’s society. Somewhere along the line, the church that began as a movement and gathering has lost its direction, its ability to show others what it is that they first saw. The skeptics in today’s society see the church and they do not like what they see; they see a church that is closed and inflexible, unable to meet the needs of the world in which it lies.

And there are those who would say that the answer lies in a strict adherence to a set of rules and regulations that are to be accepted without question or hesitation. What we need today is a society grounded in some sort of Judeo-Christian law such as was first expressed in the Old Testament. And those who offer such solutions tell us that they and they alone understand what it is that God wants and that we are not to question our faith or their authority. To do so is to destroy one’s faith.

But it is the challenge that allows our faith to grow; it is the challenge that gives us the ability to help others come to know and understand. It was Jesus’ own challenge to the rigidity and inflexibility of the religious authorities that was the central focus of His mission. It was Jesus’ challenge to the power of the religious authorities to dictate to the people what they were supposed to believe that gave rise to our presence here today. And it was how Jesus taught the people and showed the people what was possible that gave them hope that tomorrow would be better.

But this is not possible in a church today that is more of a social club than a place to know and meet Jesus.

In Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar”, Cassius tells his friend Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The cartoonist Walt Kelley had his cartoon hero Pogo expressed it this way, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Most people, if you were to ask them, would probably say that Jesus Christ is very much the image described in Revelations, a man cloaked in the whitest of white robes and bathed in the brightest of bright lights.

But we are also reminded that Jesus Himself told us that

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

I am afraid that many people have encountered Jesus sometime during the journey but they did not know it.

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.” (from “A Chance Encounter”; 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, to 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 fed each Saturday might well be Jesus.

And if they did not know they had encountered Jesus, it is highly unlikely that they can help others see Jesus. If our own lives mirror the society that rejected Jesus two thousand years ago, how will those who society has rejected today see Him today?

During this past week, I heard something that reminded me of a Yardbirds song from the early 1960s. For those who remember such things, this was the rock and roll band that Eric Clapton was first a member. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page also played for this group. The particular song that I was reminded of was a post-Clapton song, “You’re A Better Man Than I.”

You’re A Better Man Than I (B. Hugg / M. Hugg)

Can you judge a man,
By the way he wears his hair?
Can you read his mind,
By the clothes that he wears?
Can you see a bad man,
By the pattern on his tie?

Well then, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Oh, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I.

Could you tell a wise man,
By the way he speaks or spells?
Is this more important,
Than the stories that he tells?
And call a man a fool,
If for wealth he doesn’t strive?

Well then, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Oh, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I.

Can you condemn a man,
If your faith he doesn’t hold?
Say the colour of his skin,
Is the colour of his soul?
Could you say that men,
For king and country all must die?

Well, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Oh, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I.

What exactly was it that got Peter and the other disciples in trouble with the authorities two thousand years ago? Was it that the just preached that the authorities hanged Jesus from a tree? Or did they, the disciples, do the same things that Jesus did, the same things that John as well as Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote about – heal the sick, feed the hungry, found clothes for the poor, and give comfort to the oppressed?

Was it that they disciples continued what Jesus began? Were the things that got John Wesley in trouble with the authorities the same things that Peter and the disciples did, heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give comfort to the oppressed and give those forgotten by society knowledge that they are part of society and not simply on the edge?

We are challenged today to see the world in the same way that Jesus saw the world; as those who have come before us have seen the world. But to see the world with these new eyes, we need to understand and believe that which cannot necessarily be seen, our faith in Jesus. It is very easy to do the things that others have done – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and bring comfort to the oppressed – but if we do it solely as a cognitive exercise, we have done little for ourselves.

We may feel good about what we have done but we really haven’t shown Jesus to others. If we have not experienced Jesus, then all of our works are done with our mind and not our heart.

I began this message by talking about the discovery of Uranus. Many had seen the planet before it was “discovered” but it was only when the proof was confirmed that everyone understood that they were seeing something new.

Must you see to believe? It is an interesting question because to believe, to have faith is to trust in the unseen. But you trust in the unseen, the presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit, because others have and you have seen the change in their lives. Jesus told Thomas that others would believe even though they had not seen but Thomas went out into the world and told them what he had seen and that is why they believed.

Will others see Jesus in you and what you do every day because Jesus is in your heart and soul? Will what you do each day to help others be because you have encountered Jesus, not in some whiter than white robe, bathed in the brightest of bright lights but rather as someone walking along the street dressed in blue jeans or a business suit?

When we proclaim to the world that we have decided to follow Jesus, we proclaim that we have opened not only our mind but our heart and our soul. Is that what others see when they encounter you? There is an opportunity today to open your hearts to Jesus, to say to Him that you want to walk with Him, no matter where that walk takes you. You make that decision on faith and on faith alone. But others will see where you are going and they will see Jesus and they will come to you.

It may be that you have accepted Christ into your heart but have been looking for ways that in which you can show the world that you have encountered Jesus. Today is the day to open your heart to the power of the Holy Spirit to lead you to that solution.

“Who Sits At Your Table?”

I was at the Bellvale United Methodist Church, 41 Iron Forge Road, Warwick, NY 10990 (service starts at 9:15 am) and Sugar Loaf United Methodist Church, 1387 Kings Highway, Chester, NY 10918 (service starts at 11 am) this morning.

Location of churches

The Scriptures for this Sunday, July 31, 2011, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, are Genesis 32: 22- 31; Romans 9: 1 – 5; and Matthew 14: 13 – 21


I spent the better part of the week trying to come up with some humorous opening that would allow me to address what I read in the Scripture readings for today.  But the troubles of the world and the country would not let that happen.  There are some, I am sure, that would like it if the sermon were light-hearted and somehow allowed us to escape what is transpiring right now but I think that this is one of those times when we have to look at what is happening and ask ourselves “where is the church; where is God in all of this discussion?”

When you look at the Old Testament reading and you know that Jacob is struggling with God, you have to wonder if that is not where we are today.  Are we not struggling with the idea of who we are as a society and what our responsibilities are?  Last week I was told that Pastor Ernie had spent two weeks talking about the feeding of the 5,000 and that I needed to think about what I was going to say.  I would hope that one thing that you learned was that more than 5,000 were fed in that first group and more than 4,000 were fed in the second group.

The one thing that we need to be aware of is that only the adult men were counted; women and children were marginalized and placed on the edges of society.  Did not the disciples try to keep the children away from Jesus that one time only to be told that they should let the children come to Him?  How many times did a woman, outcast from society, seek to touch Jesus only to be pushed away by the disciples?

The one thing that annoyed the political and religious establishment more than anything else was the fact that Jesus associated Himself with the very aspects of society that they wanted no part of.  And what is the discussion in today’s society?

There are some who will not like what I am about to say for they will say that I am interjecting politics into religion.  But the root word for politics, I believe, comes from the same root as people.  And if the Bible is about nothing else, it is about people and the relationship between people.

If you read through the Bible and every time you encounter a passage that speaks about the poor, the disenfranchised, or the forgotten people and cut that passage out of the Bible, pretty soon you will have nothing left.  The Bible will fall apart.

The main theme of the Bible is the relationship between people and what we must do to ensure that each other is okay.  We have forgotten that particular point.

We have gotten so hung up on the finer points of the law that we have forgotten what the spirit of the law was meant to accomplish.  Paul speaks to the Romans of trying to heal the rift between the Jews and Christ, of being willing to give up his own salvation if it would mean that the Jews would be saved.  I am pretty sure that there are some who will take this passage to its extreme meaning but I trust that I am not one of them.

I think back to when Paul was Saul and it was his mission, his goal to prosecute and eliminate all of the early Christians.  He did so because he saw what they were doing as a violation of the law and strict obedience to the law was the standard for salvation in his day.  He remembered his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and being asked why he sought to persecute Christ.  I think (and this is only my thought) that he remembered that he was focused on the law and not the spirit when he lamented the loss of his compatriots.  If they were not so totally set on the law as the standard, perhaps they would be saved as well.

And I put that thought into the context of today.  There are so many people today who have a mindset that comes from those days in Israel some two thousand years ago.  Poverty, homelessness, illness – all are symptoms of sinful life.  Wealth and happiness are the signs of a good and righteous life.  If you were born to sinful parents, then you would lead a life of sin and despair; if your parents were rich and successful, then yours would be a life of wealth, success, and happiness as well.  And this attitude did not disappear after Christ was crucified.

It was the same attitude that drove John Wesley to seek a better way.  Wesley would begin to question the attitude of many in the established church, especially when it came to poverty and class distinction.  Both John and Charles Wesley struggled with the idea of what it took to be saved and what it meant to be saved. 

The catch is that we are all sinners, so wealth, success and happiness cannot be signs of a righteous life, no matter what some smooth talking television pastor may say. It wasn’t about who you were but who you would be.

We read the Old Testament reading for today and we marvel at the fact that the man who wrestled with Jacob had to resort to trickery to defeat Jacob.  Yet, somehow we know that this was God and God should not have to resort to trickery to win a wrestling match.  But what I think we have to realize is that there are times when we are the worthy opponent for God, because we are willing to do those tasks that He sets before us.

If we think we can beat God on our own, then I think we had better think again.  We cannot defeat God.  But if we are up to the tasks that God sets before us, then it will be a draw, just as it was for Jacob.  But we must also realize that, just like Jacob became Israel and a new nation began, we will not be the same person that we were when the struggle began.

John and Charles Wesley both struggled with the idea of what it meant to be saved.  All they did before what we call the Aldersgate moment was meaningless and it did nothing to change their lives or the lives of the people they met.  When the two brothers came back from Georgia, they returned in failure and despair.  I don’t think that many people today know that on that night when John Wesley went to the meeting at Aldersgate, his brother Charles was at home dying.  That is how devastated Charles felt because of their failure in Georgia.  And at that moment when John felt his heart strangely warmed and he gained the assurance that God did truly love him, so too did Charles begin to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit renewing his life as well.  It was that empowerment that provided the spark that would enable the Methodist Revival to take hold in England and in America.

We live in a world where there are those who insist on a life of laws and regulations.  It defines their days; it allows them to define who may enter their world and who must stay out.  It is a world that says that military might is the only way to insure peace; it is a world that says security must be maintained at all cost.  In this world of laws and regulations, it is believed that people are unemployed because they want to be.  And if I have plenty of food on my table, why should I worry about those who go hungry every night?  And if I have a place to comfortably sleep each night, why should I worry about those who sleep outside or in a shelter if they are lucky?  Those who do not have homes to sleep in or food to eat are too lazy to find housing or food.  That is what it is like to live a life of laws and regulations.

The other day I stopped by my home church on an errand.  And I was asked where it was in the Bible that Jesus spoke of doing something for the least of these.  The answer is Matthew 25: 31 – 42.  The person who asked was involved in the Methodist and Friends Build, an off-shoot of Habitat for Humanity.  Someone had apparently asked why this group builds a home and one response comes from the passage from Matthew.  When the day that Jesus returns does come, He is going to want to know what you have done for him.  When you lead a life of laws and regulations, it becomes easy to marginalize the least of those in society so that you do not see them.  And then, when Jesus asks, you can only reply, “when did we see you hungry or cold, naked or ill, lonely or oppressed?”

We are struggling with God right now.  It is a struggle that causes Paul to cry out in pain and anguish that he would give up his salvation if it meant that the people who say they are God’s people would be saved.  It is a struggle when we stop to think about the number of people who go hungry each day because funds for food banks are being cut; it is a struggle when we stop to think about the number of people who have no place to stay or are sick because society doesn’t feel that housing programs or medical care are important.

And the disciples came to Jesus and asked who was going to feed the multitudes?  And he looked at them and basically said that you all are going to do it.  See what you can find and we will go from there.  At that time, the disciples still lived a life that was according to the law and regulations (though they were beginning to stretch those boundaries) and they could not see a solution other than to send the people away.  But then they saw what happened when you lived in the Spirit and how much was left after everyone, not just the men but the women and the children, was feed.

This is the struggle we have today.  The question I posed when I first began this message still holds, “Who sits at your table?” It would seem to me to be an easy choice.  If no one sits at your table, how can Christ be a part of your life?  When you allow Christ to be a part of your life, then you must be prepared to let everyone, those whom you know and those whom you do not know, to share your table, your life.  If you are not willing to do that, I don’t think that you will win in the struggle with God.  But if you let Christ into your life, then, like Jacob who became Israel, you will be a new person and many great things will come.

It is the question you must answer.

“Playing the End Game”

I was at the Bellvale United Methodist Church, 41 Iron Forge Road, Warwick, NY 10990 (service starts at 9:15 am) and Sugar Loaf United Methodist Church, 1387 Kings Highway, Chester, NY 10918 (service starts at 11 am) this morning.  I will be there next week as well.

Location of churches

The Scriptures for this Sunday, July 24, 2011, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, are Genesis 29: 15 – 28; Romans 8: 26 – 39; and Matthew 13: 31 – 33,44 – 52.


I had a couple of thoughts about the readings for this Sunday and where they may take me. First, it might have been interesting to know what happened to Jacob on his wedding night such that he wasn’t able to recognize who he actually married.

Second, I would like to have had Paul explain to me what he, Paul, meant when he wrote that God knew from the beginning what He, God, was doing. I have no doubt about the omnipotence of God but it seems to me that something is missing in the logic that Paul presents. If God knew the outcome, He might have saved Himself a lot of trouble by just skipping right to the end. And if God does truly know how it all turns out, don’t you think it would be nice if every now and then, He lets us in on the secret about what He is planning?

Now, by the same token, I don’t see God as some sort of supernatural deity who designed and built the universe, turned it on, and then walked away leaving us to figure it all out. But then again, maybe that is what God did. When God laid the groundwork for the Garden of Eden, he planted the Tree of Knowledge, the tree whose fruit would lead to our downfall. Creating us in His image means that we got part of His creativity and intelligence. He had to know that we would use that creativity and that intelligence. The question must be – that knowing that we have this creativity, knowing that we have this intelligence, – what are we going to do with them?

Ours is a history of following God and then rejecting Him; of being destroyed by our rejection and being reborn by our renewal of the covenant. The Bible tells of those times when the people followed God, kept the commandments and upheld the covenants; the Bible also tells us of the times when the people strayed from God, did not keep the commandments and forgot the covenants. When the people did the former, times were good; when the people did the latter, the times were bad. Invariably, when the times were good, many people began to think that it was their efforts and their work and that is when the bad times began to arrive. And when you read the Bible, you note that many times the bad times were worse than the good times were good.

I am not sure where we lie in that cycle of good times and bad times but I have seen enough that leads me to conclude that many see these not as bad times but rather as the beginning of the “End Times.” The sad thing is that there is enough evidence to suggest that many people today go out of their way to find evidence that would support this conclusion so that they can feel as if they will be one of the select few who shall be saved.

The view of Christianity today almost seems to be totally focused on the first few pages at the beginning of the Old Testament (Genesis) and the last few pages of the New Testament (Revelations). It is like reading a murder mystery where we don’t want to be burdened with literary devices such as a cast of characters or a plot. We know that something went wrong in the beginning so we just jump to the end to find out how it all turns out.

If we do bother reading the Old and New Testament, it is read so fast as to forget what it is that we read. Our knowledge of the Bible is shockingly limited and often wrong. We have a limited understanding of how the Bible came into being and why. And I think that what’s worse is that we have virtually no understanding of how we became Christians or even Methodists or why we are who we say we are.

I know that this may be difficult for many to accept but consider this. Look at what is happening in our schools today. My experience is that students are not interested in how we got the answer to a question, only what the answer might be and if that particular question will be on the test.

When I began teaching a number of years ago, I was introduced to the idea/thought of “wait time.” “Wait time” is the time that the instructor needs to wait after asking a question.

In most classrooms, students are typically given less than one second to respond to a question posed by a teacher. Research shows that under these conditions students generally give short, recall responses or no answer at all rather than giving answers that involve higher-level thinking. Studies beginning in the early 1970s and continuing through the 1980s show that if teachers pause between three and seven seconds after asking higher-level questions, students respond with more thoughtful answers and that science achievement is increased. This finding is consistent at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels and across the science disciplines.

However, some research studies have suggested that the benefits of increasing wait time may depend on factors such as student expectations and the cognitive level of the questions. In a study of increased wait time in a high school physics class, students became more apathetic in classes where the wait time was increased. This might have occurred because this strategy did not match students’ expectations of how a high school physics course should be conducted. In a study at the elementary level, a decrease in achievement was attributed to waiting too long for responses to low-level questions. (From http://www.agpa.uakron.edu/p16/btp.php?id=waittime)

What is surprising about these results is that forty years ago, we wanted teachers to wait for the answers. Now, we have become a nation that expects results immediately if not sooner and we do not want to work for the results. And we think that if we get good scores on the test at the end of the year, we have an understanding of the subject.

There can be no doubt that one of the greatest love stories in the Bible is that of the relationship between Jacob and Rachel. That he worked for her father for seven years in anticipation of marrying her speaks to Jacob’s love for Rachel. But how could he work and live with that family for seven years and not know that Rachel was not going to be allowed to marry until her sister, Leah, was married? Was he so focused on the end that he missed the story?

Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, once said that “You must collect things for reasons you don’t yet understand.” You hear this statement practically every time that Jesus told a story or a parable. He is giving insight into what will come but because people want the answers now, they are having a hard time learning what He is teaching. And when they see how hard it was to learn what Jesus was teaching, they quit following Him. They weren’t interested in what Jesus was saying; they were interested in how all of this turns out and where they were going to be when the Kingdom of God became a reality. Could it be that those who began the journey but quit early did in fact understand that it would be a difficult and arduous task to follow Jesus and they didn’t want any part of it?

We know, I hope and trust, that this walk with Jesus will never be an easy one. We do have Paul’s words that tell us that the Holy Spirit will be right there with us, supporting us in our efforts and struggles. But how do we get to the end? What do we do when it may seem like these are the “End Times?”

If you are like me, you were shocked and appalled by the bombing and the mass shooting in Norway on Friday. For my family, it was more than a story on the television. My wife and two of her children lived in Norway for three years; they still have friends in the country. Their friends are okay but friends have friends and in a country as small as Norway, only 4 million people, all of those deaths will reach deep into those friendships.

There is a tendency by many to demand retribution for these acts of violence. And I think that you could hear those calls for retribution when it was felt that these acts of violence came from outside Norway. But it is becoming more and more apparent that the one who did this was a Norwegian, one of their own. But amidst those thoughts came the words of the Norwegian Prime Minister that the people of Norway would respond to this attack on their democracy with more democracy and this attack on their society with more humanity. This is totally in character with the Norwegian people. It is part of their national psyche.

We live in a world where we need to spend more time doing that, responding to acts of violence and hatred with humanity and love, not with more violence and hatred. What we need to do right now is not play the end game and say that nothing can be done. Rather, we have to take that which we have been taught and put it into practice. We have to make the teachings that we were taught in Sunday school more than something to pass the time away. We have to look around and see where we can put them into practice. How are we to feed the homeless? How are we to find homes for the homeless? How do we heal and take care of those who are sick and injured? How are we to remove the injustice and oppression that is so often present in this world?

I know what I can do to answer these questions and I know what I can and am presently doing to answer those questions? These are difficult questions and often times we may not be able to answer them. But then we hear the words that Paul wrote to the Romans, in those times when we struggle, the Holy Spirit is there with us. And we know this, there was a promise made two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem that said that we will never struggle alone. To play the end game requires that we play the whole game.

That means accepting Jesus as our Savior and then letting the Holy Spirit empower you. Are you ready to play the whole game and not just take a peak at the ending?

Which Way Will You Go?

This is a message that I will be giving on Sunday, August 10th, at Bellvale United Methodist Church, 41 Iron Forge Road, Warwick, NY 10990 (service starts at 9:15 am) and Sugar Loaf United Methodist Church, 1387 Kings Highway, Chester, NY 10918 (service starts at 11 am).

Location of churches

The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, are Genesis 37: 1 – 4, 12 – 28; Romans 10: 5 – 15; and Matthew 14: 22 – 33.

I have edited this twice, first right after I published it to correct some errors and then on 7 March 2015 to remove a bad link.

Forty years ago, the world seemed to be on the verge of destruction.  There were riots and protests across this country and around the globe.  We were sending our young men off to war in a country many of us didn’t even know existed and of which we knew very little.  Many of those young men that we sent to Viet Nam came back in body bags while others came back wounded and mutilated.  Sometimes the wounds were apparent and easily fixed; other times the wounds couldn’t be seen and haven’t, for many of those veterans, healed yet.

We watched in amazement and joy as the movement for human rights and liberty expanded beyond our horizons to include countries in Eastern Europe.  But then we watched in shock and horror as that wonderful time known as the Prague Spring came to end as Soviet tanks rolled through Prague and brutally silenced the voices of freedom and dissent.  It would be another twelve years before those voices would speak out again in Poland.

It was a year when powerful voices were heard across this land calling for real change in our society and offering substantial hope yet were stilled and silenced by an assassin’s bullet.  It was a year when the politics of this country began its slow and perhaps deliberate slide into what it is today, mud-slinging at its best, fear-mongering and hatred at its worst.

And on the morning of October 16, 1968, we watched as Tommie Smith blazed around the track at the Olympic stadium in Mexico City, winning the race in 19.83 seconds.  But those who watched those Olympics don’t remember that; what they remember is two runners, two young men standing on the metal platform and raising their fists and bowing their heads in protest as the National Anthem began to play.

Even today, some forty years later many people are note likely to remember the names of the men on the medal podium, Tommie Smith in first place, Peter Norman in second, and John Carlos, the third place finisher.  And what many people also don’t know is that Peter Norman was a part of that protest.   Peter Norman, an Australian, had closed the race fast and beat John Carlos out of second place.  If you see pictures of this moment, you see that he is wearing one of the buttons of the group that Smith and Carlos belonged to and had sought ways to bring attention to the racial inequality that was present in our country at that time.  It was Norman who suggested that because they only had the two gloves with them, that they each wear one. And what many people don’t know is that because of his support for their efforts, Peter Norman, raised in the ways of the Salvation Army to answer the call when a human cries out in need, was literally and virtually run out of Australian sports.

Now you will say that was a long time ago and we have come a long way since then.  But we are still involved in a war on the Asian continent, albeit in a different country and supposedly for a different reason.  We are now sending young men and women across the globe to countries that have names that are unpronounceable to many and that many can’t locate on a globe.  We don’t see the dead coming home from this war. And we treat those who come home with striking disregard for their health and their service. We cast aside those who are wounded and tell those whose wounds are hidden in their psyche that their problems existed before they enlisted.  There have been student-led demonstrations in other countries that recall the student-led demonstrations of forty years ago.  The only difference between then and now is that there will be no demonstrations for human rights, equality, and justice at the Olympic Games this year.

As I write these words, I think that protest is possible but not likely.  Just as the police in Mexico City cracked down with remarkable efficiency and brutality against the protests held outside the Olympic venue in 1968, so too will the Chinese political and military authorities refuse to allow any form of dissent during their attempts to showcase their view of China.  And society has changed its ways.  And we have, over the past few years, developed a fear mentality.  If it doesn’t immediately threaten us, we aren’t interested.  And if we are attacked, then we shall strike back in anger and retaliation.

We are so afraid of what is outside the walls of our community that we will allow the suppression of rights and privileges if that will keep the fear out.  We have lost our focus on what equality is; we no longer know what true freedom is.  When we understood what freedom is, when we had our eyes (as the saying goes) on the prize, we did great things, we brought about change that many said was impossible.  But, just like that moment when Peter took his eyes off of Jesus and realized that he indeed was walking on water and he was doing the impossible, we have panicked and sunk in a sea of fear.

And just like the disciples who saw Jesus coming to them across the stormy sea, offering comfort and hope, so too do we see Jesus coming to us.  And just like the disciples did that day some two thousand years ago, we react with fear. We do not trust our vision; we trust only what we can see and all we can see is the good life.  And we will do nothing to disturb the good life, even when the good life and the products it brings are made on the backs of laborers working long hours and for low wages in factories far away from our eyes.

You might say that the Olympics are not a place for protest and that Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, and John Carlos were wrong to have done what they did.  You will tell me that the Olympics are for competition and sportsmanship, not a place for political protest.  I remember Joe Garagiolo interviewing Kareem Abdul Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, about his decision to join the planned boycott and the differences between them and their view of the Olympics as a sports venue and the role of an athlete in society.  It seemed to me then that Joe Garagiolo still saw athletes as chattel that did the bidding of the owners and management while Abdul Jabbar was expressing his thoughts as a conscientious young man.

I was never a world-class athlete nor did I pretend to be one.  But I had friends back then who were or could have been and through them I came to understand what the reason for that boycott and protest were.  I also saw those who led the Olympic movement back then, and even today, as self-serving bureaucrats who were literal poster-children for hypocrisy (remember the scandals of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics?). 

If the Olympics were truly about competition and sportsmanship, then there would be no flags and there would be no national anthems played for the winners and we wouldn’t care how many gold, silver, or bronze medals a country wins.  We would only care that each person does their best.  But we don’t and we have turned the Olympics into what it was never meant to be and it is doubtful that we will ever see it in its purest form. 

Should there have been a protest like the one that the three medalists participated in?  As Dr. Martin Luther King, one of those voices assassinated that year, once said “injustice anywhere in the world is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

I was a sophomore in college in 1968 and I was at a friend’s apartment watching the Olympics and the award ceremony that October day.  My friend was one of those that could be called a world-class athlete and he was at that college because of his track ability.  He understood what was transpiring on the medal stand in Mexico City that night and later, in the spring of 1969, would lead the black students’ association in a sit-in of the administration building to protest the discriminatory housing policies of the town and the lack of support by the college administration for the black college students to find decent off-campus housing.

And just like Peter Norman, I was a part of that protest.  I was just one person but I was motivated to be there because they were my friends, their cause was just and it was the right thing to do.  Why should I be allowed to having decent housing only because I was the right color and some of my friends were not? I came of age when the church and the people of the church fought and pushed for equality. I sometimes wonder if we remember that.

And I felt repercussions for my actions, though perhaps not on the scale that Peter Norman did (what parents can say and do is often times greater than the actions of any government organization).  Peter Norman never once said that he did the wrong thing and, if he had too, he probably would do it all over again.  They have made a documentary about his life and his participation and Qantas Airlines, the Australian national airline, will be showing on their flights into Beijing.  I know that were the same situation to occur again, I would stand by the side of my friend to seek justice and equality for all.

But something interesting has happened over the past forty years.  My friend, it is sad to say, decided to walk another and entirely different path.  From what I know, he has chosen to walk a path of riches and glory, of an easy life and political cronies, a path that takes him away from his past and his roots.  It is a path that too many people today walk, perhaps for the same reasons.  A path of riches and glory is a far easier path than one that requires that you stand up for others and seek justice where there is injustice.  But that is the path that this country embodies and encourages; look out for yourself and get what you can even when there are many who have nothing, who are sick, hungry, homeless, or without hope for a better tomorrow. 

And amidst these times, when our economy is faltering and prices are rising, we find the murmurs of discord and dissatisfaction.  It is not something that will be solved by the current political process; it will only be solved when we become who we say we are.  We say we are Christians but are we really?  René Padilla, Argentine Baptist theologian, asked the question “What is the value of a Christianity in which Jesus is worshipped as Lord, but Christian discipleship—”the way of Jesus”—is regarded as largely irrelevant to life in the modern world? (From Verse and Voice for 8/4/2008)

Our society is to a great extent like the sons of Jacob.  We are bound by a common thread, yet we each have our own unique qualities.  We tend to magnify our differences and what separates us rather than what brings us together.

We sometimes forget that while the twelve were sons of Jacob, they were a collection of half-brothers and the relationship between each of them reflected the relationship between their own mother and Jacob.  Joseph, the eleventh of the twelve, was the son of Rachel and while Joseph probably loved Lea, Rachel’s sister, he loved Rachel even more.  And he loved Joseph because he was born when Jacob was old.

In the part of the Old Testament passage for today that we did not read, Joseph speaks of his dream that he interpreted as meaning his brothers and their families would bow down before him.  This, of course, angers his brothers and sets in place the story that we read today.

It is the differences between the twelve that will lead the older brothers to seek the death of Joseph.  Reuben, the oldest will try to save his brother, but only in part to somehow redeem himself for his own actions against their father.    But the other brothers will eventually sell Joseph into slavery and then tell their father that he was killed.

We are like the twelve; we share common interests but we let our differences drive us apart.  We understand that there is a need to do the right thing and that someone must do it but we let society dictate to us what that is.  And when the moment comes that we are called to stand up for justice, for righteousness, and for equality, we turn and walk away.  We are afraid to do the right thing. 

We know that the right thing is found in Christ.  To the greatest extent, that is what Paul was telling the Romans in the 2nd lesson today – we know what is right but we fail to do it.  We fail because we do not think that it is within our power to do it.  We fail because we won’t even get out of the boat and try to walk across the water to the arms of Jesus.

There are ways to bring about hope and justice in this country and in this world.  They do not begin with armed conflict or the use of power; they begin when we accept the Gospel message to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, and bring justice to the oppressed.  They begin when we make the words of the Gospel message our words.  Paul concluded the passage of Romans today by saying that many will not hear the words unless someone speaks them; many will not believe unless they have proof.  And Paul asked how people would believe or come to believe unless there was someone to tell them?  When we say that we are Christian, we are saying that we are committed to the ways that Christ taught us.  It is more than saying the words; it is living the words as well.

Joseph had a dream; it was a dream that would lead him into slavery.  Others would have other dreams as well.  And Joseph would rise from slavery to a position of power because he understood the dreams and he understood what needed to be done.

In 1968 the world was changing.  Robert Kennedy would many times during that ill-fated presidential campaign of 1968 quote George Bernard Shaw, Some see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”  He offered hopes and plans but his death in 1968 took away that hope.  In 2008, we have been reminded that we once spoke out against inequality and injustice.

In 2008, we are a world where are responses to injustice, inequality, and oppression are more injustice, inequality, and oppression.  In 2008, we do not seek justice but revenge; we do not seek equality but all that we can get; we do not offer hope but an atmosphere that pushes aside the little ones in favor of the big ones.  The world around us is like the boat the disciples were in that night on the Sea of Galilee, tossed about and about to sink.  There is a glimmer of hope but we are unwilling to reach out for it.  For many, it is a ghost, an apparition and not real.  We are so afraid that we will not reach out; we will not get out of the boat and walk to what we see.  Jesus Christ is not an apparition or a ghost; He is alive and waiting for us.

We have a choice to make today.  We have to decide which way we will go, what direction we want our lives to take.  Do we need to be reminded that Jesus spoke out against indifference and hopelessness and that we have taken His name as our own?  Do we need to be reminded that once some two thousand years ago Jesus Christ walked on a path through a town to a hill to be crucified because society’s rulers did not want the status quo disturbed? 

Do we need to be reminded that in His death we have been set free and in His name we are to bring His words to the world, bringing hope and promise in a world that does not hear it?  You will go home shortly but which way will you go in your life?