“Seeing Around the Corner”


This will be the Back Page for the 13 August 2017 (10th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A) bulletin at  Fishkill United Methodist Church.  It is based on the lectionary readings for this Sunday.


There is a common misconception that our ancestors thought the earth was flat.  After all, as early at 240 B. C., the circumference of the earth had been measured (with a remarkable accuracy).  But there was something about watching a ship disappear over the horizon into unknown territory (often written on maps as “Terra incognito”).

Even today, we seem more secure in holding onto what we have and are less certain about moving into the future.  Even though Joseph offers a promising vision of the future, it is one that his brothers cannot accept.

Peter is given a vision of great promise but his inability to focus on the vision and his grasp of the present sends him flaying about in the water.

We have been offered a great promise of the future but to reach it requires that we do things that we are not necessarily willing to do. There was a point in John Wesley’s ministry when he, John Wesley, didn’t think he had the ability to go on.  He was advised to preach about faith until he had it, and then because he had faith, he would be able to be able to preach faith.  This was the beginning of a ministry that looked around the corner and allowed Wesley to do extraordinary works for God.

As Paul points out, it is our faith that allows us to see around the corner, to peer into the future without fear.  So, because of our faith in God and His Son, we can not only see around the corner but venture around it into the future as well.

“Who Do You See?”


This will be the “Back Page” of the Fishkill United Methodist Church bulletin for 6 August 2017 (9th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 32: 22 – 31, Romans 9: 1 – 5, and Matthew 14: 13 – 21.

This is a continuation of the idea that I wrote last week.  Each of today’s Scripture readings has one thing in common and it is perhaps something you didn’t realize was a need of life.

John Wesley recognized that there were certain basic needs of life – a place to stay, food to eat, and adequate healthcare among them.  If these basic needs are not met, then the Gospel message has no meaning.  These needs are discussed in the Old Testament and Gospel readings for today.

But each of the readings for today also discusses the need for one’s own identity.  It is quite clear that Jacob wanted his own identity and it is quite clear that Paul worried about the split between the Jews and Gentiles and the acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Messiah.  And we know that there were at least 20,000 people eating the meal that Jesus blessed that day.  In the society of Jesus’ day, not everyone was counted.  Some 15,000 individuals were invisible to society that day.

But they were not invisible to Jesus and they have never been invisible to God.  Jesus constantly went out of His way to make visible the invisible, to give identity to those without identity.

Ours has become the society of the invisible and the visible and some people are quite happy with that.  But what does it say when we see, or rather do not see, groups of people?  Who are we like when we do this?

“The Results of Our Work”


This is the message that I gave at the Bethel Home on 28 July 2002 (the 10th Sunday after Pentecost – Year A). The Scriptures were Genesis 29: 15 – 28, Romans 8: 26 – 39 (which I didn’t use because of the time frame for the service), and Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 -52.

Jacob loved Rachel. This is one of the basic ideas of the Old Testament, one that is used to illustrate the reason for Joseph being sold into slavery. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son because Rachel was Jacob’s favorite wife. In the Old Testament lesson for today we find out that Jacob worked seven years for Rachel’s father Laban in order to marry her. But when the wedding feast was over, Jacob found out that he had married Leah, Rachel’s older sister.

As Laban explained it to Jacob, he could not marry Rachel until Leah, the older sister had been married. This was the custom of the time. So it was that Jacob, the trickster had been tricked. Most commentary points out the irony of this. For Jacob had tricked his older brother Esau and then his father Isaac in order to gain the birthright and inheritance that came with it. It is only fitting that the trickster gets tricked when the time came. But Jacob loved Rachel enough that married Leah and worked another seven years in order to marry Rachel.

I am not sure if Jesus was thinking of Jacob when he taught his followers the parables that were the Gospel reading for today. But the points that he made in the lesson could be related to what happened to Jacob. If our focus is on the immediate results of our work, we can easily lose track of what we seek.

What good does it do for us to sell all that we have just so that we can get the one pearl of value? How shall we get anything else? The treasures might be in the field that we buy but they are still buried and beyond our reach.

The mustard seed is small and almost impossible to see but the rewards gained when it is planted and allowed to grow are incomparable. The value of the yeast is not in what it is now but in what it does to the loaves of bread.

In the parables we heard today, Jesus pointed out that the keys to the kingdom of heaven were not in the things we do today. He made it clear time and time again that there was only one way to gain that entrance.

It is not always that easy. The things around us can easily sidetrack us from what we seek. But when we have made Christ the center of our life, when we let Christ be our guide, then our work takes on a different meaning. Instead of rewards gained now on earth, our rewards are the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

And at times when we might feel weak, at times when it seems like we cannot gain that reward, we are reminded that Jesus died so that the keys to heaven were guaranteed. The results of our work may never be enough, but if our focus is on Christ and his presence in our lives, then like the mustard seed which grows beyond what it is, then our work goes beyond the immediate and the keys to heaven become our reward.

“Doing the Right Thing”


I am preaching at Long Ridge United Methodist Church (Danbury, CT) and Georgetown United Methodist Church (Wilton, CT) on Sunday, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Romans 12: 1 – 8, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20. The service at Long Ridge starts at 9:15; the service at Georgetown begins at 11. You are welcome to attend.

I began preparing this message a little over a month ago. When I began looking at the three Scripture readings for today, I came to the conclusion that the title of the message should be “Doing the Right Thing.” In the passage from Exodus that is part of the lectionary for this morning, we are told that the Pharaoh has commanded that all new born baby boys be killed. The mid-wives are more afraid of what God might say than they are what the Pharaoh could ever do, so they create a story that explains their failure to follow the Pharaoh’s orders.

Later in the same passage, we read of the birth of Moses and his adoption by the Pharaoh’s daughter. And thus begins the story of the return of the Israelites to the Promised Land. From a historical standpoint, the mid-wives did the right thing. But how do the actions of some mid-wives some three thousand or so years ago pertain to us today?

Paul, in writing to the Romans, writes of what it is we are to do as followers of Christ. And, at least for me, this is where it becomes interesting.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to the Henderson Settlement in Kentucky. I accompanied another adult and four of the youth from my home church for a week of volunteer work. Ours was one of three groups, one from the Ohio area and the other from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Each group worked on a number of assignments, generally fixing or repairing homes and buildings within the area of the Settlement. Some of the work was on the Settlement property; other assignments were in the surrounding countryside.

The Henderson Settlement is part of the Red Bird Missionary Conference. I would think that many people are aware of the Red Bird Mission, which is part of this unique conference of the United Methodist Church. I don’t have all the details with me but the work of the Missionary Conference is, I believe, supported in part by our apportionments. But much of the funding for the Conference, the Red Bird Mission itself, and the Henderson Settlement comes from individual gifts and tithes. In addition, much of the work done in and around the Settlement and elsewhere through the Conference is done by volunteer work.

The interesting thing is that some years ago I lived about two hours from Henderson and, while I knew of the Red Bird Mission, I knew nothing about the Red Bird Missionary Conference or even the existence of Henderson. But while I may not have been aware of either the Henderson Settlement, the Red Bird Mission, or the Red Bird Missionary Conference as they were, I was aware that the three counties of southeast Kentucky (Bell, Cumberland, and Letcher) are among some of the poorest counties in this country (the poverty line for a family of two adults and two children in Bell County where Henderson is located is $21,000 and the median income for the area is $22,000; you do the math.)

If for no other reason than to say to the individuals of that area of this country that they are not forgotten, there is a need for the presence of the United Methodist Church in that area of this country. Sometimes the way that you tell someone that they are not forgotten is to help them do things that they cannot always do on their own. And that is why I went to Henderson two weeks ago.

This was not a vacation trip nor was it done so that I could revisit a part of the country where I lived and served a lay minister. It was an opportunity to put into practice during the week the words said so many times on Sunday.

It was not a vacation by any means. If anything, it provided the opportunity for many individuals, both youth and adult, to experience what I have come to call “working Christianity”, of putting the words taught in church on Sunday into practice on Monday. And this was before I began to consider the words that I would put down for this message today.

While I was there in Henderson I had the opportunity to lead the morning devotions on Monday and Tuesday. Devotions at Henderson are held on the side of a hill overlooking a valley and three crosses (pictures of which are on the Henderson Settlement page on Facebook). On Monday, with those three crosses and the valley as a backdrop, I spoke of the 72 who were sent out on mission trips by Jesus and how they came back jubilant at what they had done.

I have seen that type of expression in the youth and adults who have gone on similar mission trips in the past few years. To go on a mission trip, to work for Christ and not get paid, to give up a week’s vacation time and know that it was not wasted has to have an impact on one’s life.

But when I have read the passage in the past from Mark about the 72, I always thought that the 12 disciples were part of that group. That meant that there were some 60 individuals who went on a mission trip, came back with the glow of success but were never heard from again. What did they do between that passage in Mark and the Resurrection? Did they continue the work that they did in their home town and region? I pointed out to the fifty or so adults and youth that were there on Monday morning that they too would go home and I hoped that they would continue the mission work that they began in the hills of Kentucky during a week in August (“Thoughts for a week in August”).

On Tuesday, I offered a story that I have told many times before. It was a story that caused me to think about who I was when I was a college student, what I was doing at that time and what it meant to say that I was a Christian.

When I was a college sophomore, I was active in the anti-war and civil rights movements on campus. I participated because I thought that it was the right thing to do. But I also thought that my participation in these activities, which I felt were for the common good of the people, would be the key to my getting into heaven. Marvin Fortel, my pastor at that time, pointed out doing good things, in whatever form they may take, will not guarantee my entry into heaven.

Only a true and honest acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior will allow the doors of heaven to open up. Now, I suppose this is why we have so many individuals who profess to be Christian but whose actions, words, thoughts, and deeds belie that very idea. They have professed an acceptance of Jesus Christ and therefore expect that the doors of heaven will swing wide open upon their arrival. But the manner in which they have made this profession, often times very publically, belie their actions. They are the ones that John the Baptist and Jesus Himself would call hypocrites. Their actions do not speak of the act of repentance that must also come. You cannot profess Jesus Christ on Sunday and then go out into the world on Monday and forget what you said the day before.

My trip to Henderson also confirmed something that I had long suspected was true. When I was 12, I lived in Montgomery, Alabama. One Sunday, my grandmother, who had come down from St. Louis to visit with us, went to church with us. We attended St. James Methodist Church (this was in 1963 before the merger). Somehow, as we were leaving the church that Sunday morning, Grandma Mitchell got separated from us. When we found her outside the church, we asked her how she got out and she pointed over to a gentleman and said, “That nice young man over there helped me.”

Our response was that that particular young man was the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. For those who do not know, George Wallace was elected the Governor of Alabama as a staunch and defiant segregationist, and as I found out while in Henderson, a member of St. James Methodist Church. At that time, he had proudly and defiantly announced what the policies of the state of Alabama would be with regards to civil rights and equality in the state. If you did not understand where he stood politically then, I suppose you could say that he was a nice young man. But it was very hard for me, even at the age of 12, to see him as nice.

I will say this; to his credit, Governor Wallace repented of his words and actions and sought to make right the wrongs he once so proudly supported.

I will also say this; it was at that time that I made one of several decisions that would lead me to this particular place and time. I did not know what it meant to be a Christian in 1963; I had very little understanding of what the Methodist Church stood for. But I began a walk that year that I still continue to this day, learning and working about Christ and what it means to say that I am a Christian and a United Methodist.

But it didn’t sit right in my twelve-year heart then to hear a Methodist Governor preach hatred and exclusion, to say, in public, words that run counter to the very expression of what it means to be a United Methodist. There is no doubt that those words, along with the actions of the political establishment of that time, did a lot to push me in the direction I would walk a few years later.

To say that you were a Methodist back then or a member of the United Methodist church today means that you have accepted Christ as your Savior. You have acknowledged, along with Simon Peter, that Christ is your Messiah. And when you make the decision to follow Christ; when you acknowledge Him as your own Savior and you make that commitment to follow Him, your life changes. Your name may not change as it did for Peter or as is it did for Paul on the road to Damascus but your life will change.

And like I learned that spring day in Kirksville, Missouri, some forty-two years ago, when you make the announcement that you are a Christian and a Methodist, you are making the announcement that you understand that you fall short of the perfection of Christ. But, even in falling short, you are willing to work to reach the perfection of Christ, to go out and do as Paul suggests to the Romans:

Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.

It is admittedly a very difficult task, to do something for others when you want so much to take all the credit for it. Our whole society is predicated on the notion that we do things for ourselves and that we seek wealth, fame, riches, and glory because those are the way we will be measured in this world. We live in a world where the words that we say are more important that what we do.

I went to Henderson really not knowing what I would be doing. I found myself doing things and using skills that I hadn’t used in some thirty years. I came back to the dormitory for lunch and dinner with my tee-shirts soaked to the point that they were still not dry the next day. And yet, it didn’t bother me. I was asked to go down and I expected to work, so I did. And I think that is the same feeling that all that came down from Newburgh and those who came from Ohio and New Jersey also felt.

But more importantly, there was something about being there, in the hills of Kentucky that allowed me to remember who I am and what I am. Over the past few months I have seen my ministry evolve from simply pulpit supply to one of caring. It has been a challenge as a small group of people have gone from strangers to part of a Christian community in Newburgh. Many of those in this community are perhaps not Christian but, then again, many of those in the first Christian communities two thousand years ago did not know who Christ was either. But those who did know Christ let them in and supported them in the ways that they had been taught.

As I said to those on the hillside that Monday morning now two weeks ago, I hoped that those who had come to Henderson that week would, like the 60, go home after that first mission trip and continue working for Christ. It is very easy to go home after a mission trip like Henderson, Red Bird, Biloxi, or Haiti and tell everyone about it and then do nothing until next year’s trip. Please excuse me if I sound blunt but when you do that, when you engage in mission work for a week and then rest for 51 weeks, you are doing it for yourself, not Christ. And that is not the right thing to do.

There are many challenges in this area. In response, my wife and I offer a worship ministry on Fridays and Sundays called “Vespers in the Garden”. It is a simple worship service but I have had the opportunity this summer to watch an individual grow in Christ and take on tasks that a few months ago he was only dreaming about. It also gives some individuals the opportunity to hear the Word of God and sing songs of praises in a peaceful setting that offers protection from the world outside. It is often the only worship they get because many of the churches in Newburgh have found a way to shut their doors to them because they are homeless and unemployed.

Our food banks are stressed to the limit and each week more and more people come looking for assistance. On Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings my wife and I host “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen”, which is sponsored by our church. We open the doors of the fellowship hall and offer a breakfast to those who might be hungry. We don’t ask what their situation might be; we do have some guidelines in place so that all may share of the limited bounty that we have. I wish it weren’t the case; I wish that there was a way to do this more often and for more people. We do not do it for glory or honor; we do it because Christ came to feed the hungry and heal the sick and find homes for the homeless. We do what we can with what we have and we praise God that we are able to do a small part. This is not a “feel-good” ministry; it is hard and sometimes burdensome. But it is, I think you will agree, the right thing to do. If you are up to it, I invite you to be a part of this ministry.

There is, in Orange County, a project called “Methodist and Friends Build” which works with Habitat for Humanity to build affordable housing for families that cannot, even in the best of times, afford to buy a home. There is also a project, called “Family Promise”, which is trying to help families who are homeless. You would be surprised how many families there are in this area, this state, and across the country who cannot afford housing, even though both parents are working. These programs offer opportunities and alternatives.

And yet there are those who profess Christ as their Savior on Sunday and then wonder why we allow the homeless, the hungry, the sick, to come to our church. There are those who would say that the hungry, the homeless, the sick or the destitute have no business being in the church at all. They brought their problems on themselves; let them fix them themselves.

And when Jesus ate with the sinners, the religious and political establishment questioned his ministry. What is the right thing to do?

I would encourage you to consider what you might do. Each community is different; each community has different things it can offer. You may not be able to go to Henderson or Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique but you can do something. It may be that you can help fund a youth trip or something similar. You may wish to support the Red Bird Missionary Conference or parts of it in addition to your regular tithing and support here in the New York Annual Conference. But don’t say that you can’t do something; my mother went on a Volunteer in Mission trip to the Caribbean when she was in her mid-sixties.

But don’t go or give expecting some great reward for your effort. God doesn’t want that nor do the people who you would be helping. And I don’t think you would gain much either. No longer do you work for yourself, expecting riches, fame, and glory for your efforts. You, having proclaimed Christ as your Savior, now do the right thing and work for God.

“This Is the Place”


This is the message I presented at the Walker Valley United Methodist Church in Walker Valley, NY, for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 1, 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 32: 22 – 31, Romans 9: 1 – 5, and Matthew 14: 13 – 21.  The significance of this message is that this was the Sunday that I began serving this church.  I would lead this church until 2002.  It started off a little rough but I think that it was a good three years.

—————————————————————

When he first viewed the Great Salt Lake and the surrounding valley, Brigham Young was supposed to have said, “This is the place.” By this he meant the place where the Mormons could be safe from the persecution that had driven them from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.

There will always be places that we hold dear in our hearts; the place or places we grew up, the place where we got married, the place we wish to return to time and again. Perhaps privately we even give names to these places, much like the early Israelites gave names to the places where they encountered God. That is why Jacob named the place where he wrestled with God Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The Old Testament reading today is about a place, a place where Jacob struggled with who he was and what he was to be. I think there are times when we are a lot like Jacob, struggling to know God in our life and struggling to find out what we are to be. The thing that we know is that such struggles, no matter how much we may think they are ours alone, are common to the history of the church.

As much as places are important in our lives, so are times in which we live. While reading The Making of a President, 1960, I came across a statement from the Talmud

"In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader." (The Talmud)

Such a time and place was some one hundred years before the Mormons saw the Great Salt Lake when John Wesley and the Bishop of Bristol had the following conversation regarding where he, Wesley, would begin his ministry.

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

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

There are a number of times and places that I will always cherish. The dates June 7, 1973 and July 7, 1976 are special because they are the birthdates of my daughters, Melanie and Meara. And July 17th is a special date for me as it is my wedding anniversary. I will always remember the summer of 1995 when I served as the chief supply pastor for the Parsons District of the Kansas East conference. It was that summer that I began to feel that I could be a preacher. And I will remember today, August 1st, 1999, as the day I began my ministry at Walker Valley.

Just as Jacob struggled with who he was, it may be said that Paul struggled with the idea of being the apostle to the Gentiles. It is possible that had he been given the choice, Paul would have chosen to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar.

In the Epistle for today, Paul is expressing the frustration in his soul that he would rather be cursed and cut off from Christ if it would save others. The notes for this passage say that the Greek word for cursed is anathema, which means delivered over to the wrath of God for eternal destruction. To the commentator, this was an indication of Paul’s love for his fellow Jews.

I don’t see this as a condemnation of the Jews or any other group of people, but an expression of the frustration that he must have felt. While he, Paul, was to preach to the Gentiles, there were others whom he could not reach. That is why Wesley’s statement was so profound and powerful. He was supposed to be somewhere else but Bristol was where God wanted him to be.

As I was working on this particular passage, I could not help but remember a pastor with whom I served who didn’t want to be a pastor like his father and grandfather before him. Rather he chose to be a lawyer. Yet when he was done with law school and had begun a successful career as a prosecuting attorney, he still found that life would not be complete until he answered the call of God.

Prior to the time of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus had heard the news that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been executed. As was his custom, he wanted to withdraw from the people for a few moments of private mediation and privacy. But this time, the people followed him. And while he may have wanted to be alone in his grief, as the scripture said, “he had compassion on them and healed the sick.”

And so it was that it got late in the day. Like a lot of us might today, the disciples saw only a remote place far away from food and drink. So it should not be surprising that the disciples inclination was to send the people away. But the opportunity to meet God is never a planned moment in time or place. Nor is it determined by convenience or by us being in the right place at the right time.

Jesus told his disciples to give the people something to eat. I think we can all imagine how the disciples must have felt when they heard their teacher telling them to do this. And you have to realize that the crowd Jesus was telling the disciple to feed was closer to 15,000 people than the 5,000 that only represented the men presented.

We may look around at where we are and wonder if this is the time or place for us. Too often, we struggle like Jacob, trying to understand what our life is to be. Many times we are like Paul, frustrated and afraid that the task before us is too great and impossible for us to complete.

Many times we, like the disciples, insist that there is nothing we can do and that we are in the wrong place. But all that changes when we give our lives over to Christ, when we let Christ be our guide.

Before John Wesley came to Bristol, he had come to America with his brother Charles to be missionaries in Georgia. Their experiences there were such that when they returned to England in 1738, they were convinced that their lives were failures. Prepared as they were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither man felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley could say that they trusted the Lord. But at the place known as Aldersgate, John Wesley came to know Christ as his own personal Savior.

When Wesley accepted Christ, he began to understand the direction his life would take. When Wesley accepted Christ as his Savior, he gained the confidence and courage that he would need to insure the success of the Methodist revival. For Jacob, the blessing God gave him after they wrestled enabled him to become Israel, the father of a mighty nation. In trusting Jesus, the disciples were able to feed the multitude. And such was their trust in Jesus that there were enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets.

When we come to trust Christ as our own personal Savior, when we accept Him in our hearts, we come to know the blessing that God has given us, to see beyond the frustrations of the day and know that we can accomplish great things.

And on this day, in this place, you are invited to come to Christ’s Table, to join in the celebration of Christ’s victory of death, of our being a part of Christ’s Holy Church.

The Garden We Plant


I am preaching at two churches, Fort Montgomery UMC and The United Methodist Church of the Highlands (Highland Falls, NY) this coming Sunday, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost.

The service at Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church starts at 9:30 am with the service in Highland Falls beginning at 11 am.

Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church US 9W South, Fort Montgomery, NY 10922
United Methodist Church of The Highlands 341 Main Street,  Highland Falls, NY 10928

Directions View Larger Map

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 28: 10  – 19, Romans 8: 12 – 25, and Matthew 13: 24 – 30, 36 – 43.  Note this has been edited since I first posted it.

(I added the link to “The Lost Generation” on 9 November 2009)

————————————————-

Over the past few weeks and for the next few weeks to come the Scripture readings have focused (and will focus) on growth. The Gospel readings have been the parables of Jesus planting seeds in gardens and the difficulty of getting the right conditions for growth.

The Old Testament readings have been about the family of Abraham and its growing pains from the man Abram living in Ur to the establishment of the twelve tribes of Israel living in the Promised Land. Even the Epistle readings, Paul’s writings, have dealt with our own growth as individuals and with Christ.

Against that backdrop, my wife and I have been planting and developing a Children’s Garden at Grace Church (actually, my wife has been doing the work; I get the “fun” tasks of digging holes, moving rocks, rolling up the hoses, and putting the tools away). As we have prepared the soil, we have uncovered stones and debris of every size and shape; we have encountered the remnants of an old foundation, and we have dealt with and removed every sort of weed and unwanted foliage imaginable. I found a rock that I was going to call the “Peter Rock” because of its size until I found one bigger. If nothing else, the work in the garden has made the parables of Jesus come alive. But then again, that is why the parables were told and retold, to make the Gospel message come alive.

It is possible that Jesus could have told the message of the parables from an academic or theological standpoint and without the allegory or metaphors. He could have answered questions about the Heavenly Kingdom and God’s plan for us just has he did with the scholars and priests in the Temple when He was twelve (Luke 2:39-52). But many of those who came to hear Him when He was in the hills of the Galilee would probably not have understood such discourses. They were peasants, shepherds, and farmers; so the stories that they would remember and tell others needed to be stories about peasants, shepherds, and farmers, stories about themselves.

And perhaps that is why the disciples had trouble learning the message. As fisherman, stories about farming and being a shepherd were a far cry from their own lives, background, and knowledge. They understood the call to be fishers of men because they were fishermen. To seek the lost lamb as a shepherd would was a completely different story and one not easily understood by fishermen.

But it seems to me that even today, by the actions and words of the church today, we have forgotten the stories, do not understand those stories, or feel that they are no longer a part of our lives. Recent reports tell us that many people outside the church and even within the church see the church as hypocritical, of saying one thing but doing another. For me, this is not just something that others are saying.

I grew up in the South where people sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” on Sunday and then went out and enforced segregation in the schools and public institutions on Monday.

Nor is it is just something from my past. Reports of young people leaving the church or never coming near it are painfully close to home. One of our granddaughters is not interested in church because of what she sees and hears from those who proclaim to be Christian but who lead lives that are anything but Christian. It used to be that we could say that the reason our children left the church is because they have grown up and are on their own. That is true but it is also evident that the church has driven them away.  (see “The Lost Generation”)

And that can only mean that we have either forgotten the stories, don’t understand them, or they don’t figure into our lives anymore. We may sing “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” but we sing them as songs from our childhood. We are adults now and childhood stories don’t count anymore. They are meant for someone else; we have to deal with more practical things. Many people see what is done and said on Sunday as totally independent of what we do the rest of the week. We prefer to think in terms of the world and what the world calls upon us to do. But the world around us, as Paul so often reminds us, is not attuned to the message of the Gospel.

And that is where we fail. The world may not be tuned to the message of the Gospel because we have failed to do what we have been asked to do.  The Gospel reading for today is to remind us, as the previous few readings have done and the readings to come will do, that we are asked to prepare the fields for planting and, when the time comes, harvest the crops. But, for so many, the garden planned and planted on Sunday begins to wither and die on Monday.

Do we not have people today who sow the seeds that grow into weeds in our churches today? By their inaction, indifference, and intolerance do they not choke the growth of the church and its work in the community? Is it possible that those who call themselves Christians are the ones who sow the seeds of mistrust and discord in the garden that we are trying to plant? Unfortunately, the answer for those questions is too often “yes.”

There are those who offer words that sound like the Gospel message but lack the substance of the Gospel. There are those who offer words of encouragement and hope but give little to bring about actual encouragement and hope. There are those who preach hatred, exclusion, and violence and yet dare to call it the Gospel. There are those who would call on the wrath of God to destroy people while God Himself is calling us to help them. The fruits of these words are the weeds that choke off and kill the flowers that should be growing in our gardens.

It is no wonder so many people are leaving the church today. They cannot see the small blossoms of truth and beauty growing in the church’s garden because the weeds have overtaken the garden.

And it isn’t that there are others working to destroy the garden. We don’t always want to do the work that is required. It is hard working in the garden day after day and we don’t want to do that. We like a Gospel message that is easy to listen to and doesn’t require much from us. And we get angry when we are called to do God’s work; why must it be us? We sometimes express the thoughts that Joseph Donders, teacher and chaplain at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, expressed,

Jesus sowed the seed in our hearts and then off he went. He knew that things would not be ideal. There would be birds, droughts, weeds, insects, parasites and blights. Growing the gardens would not be easy but then He gave us the power of the seed itself (from Verse and Voice, 15 July 15, 2008 – Sojourners).

The power of the seed is the Holy Spirit; just as God promised Jacob that He, God, would be there, so too is the power of the Holy Spirit present in the work that we do. But we ignore the presence of the Holy Spirit and try to do the work ourselves. And it is, as Paul pointed out very hard work and in a culture that expects the results now, the promises of rewards later doesn’t fit too well.

 

We planted the gardens several years ago and we are content with what is growing now. We know what it takes to care for a garden and we do not need anyone telling us what to do. At times, it seems as if we know the answers before the questions are asked. And we hold onto our own ideas, ideas that may have worked years before, but are clearly not working today (see “That’s nice, preacher” – the original link didn’t work; I hope this is the correct link). Gardens are not easy to take care of; they require constant work to maintain. Unless you are willing to work in the garden that you planted, it will not grow; the weeds will come back and take over. And all our work is lost.

We can have gardens that remind us of the years past and the ones who have gone on to greater glory (as well we should). But we must also have gardens that speak to the future and what the future offers. As Paul said, our life is not a grave-tending life but one of adventure; our gardens should be full of the anticipation of what will blossom and flourish each year.

We must do like Jacob did in today’s Old Testament reading. Remember that Jacob is on the run from his brother Esau. Esau had threatened to kill Jacob because Jacob had lied and deceived Isaac in order to gain the birthright. When Esau finally understood that he had lost almost everything and nothing that he did would get it back, he vowed to kill Jacob. Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven is a sign from God that he, Jacob, was not running away from God but to God. In renaming the place where he slept as Bethel, Jacob was saying to the world this is God’s place, this is where my journey begins, not where it ends. We must do the same as well.

We must make a statement that God is present in everything we say and do. Paul speaks, not of our relationship with the world around us in the past and today, but of our relationship with God through Christ for today and tomorrow. Our gardens will not always be free of stones or weeds and it will be a constant struggle to let the garden grow. But that is symbolic of our relationship with God. The garden that we plant and take care of is our relationship with God. And it begins here today.

Why do we come to church each week? Do we come out of habit, trying to tend the garden of our memory when life was good and things weren’t so hard? Life, as Paul wrote in the words that we heard today, is always hard and we should not delude ourselves that it was once otherwise.

Or did we come here today because we want to plant a garden for the future? Do we come because we know that God is here, in this place, and this is our chance to once again be renewed and refreshed by the Holy Spirit so that we can go back out into the world and plant God’s garden? We are called to plant and care for a garden but which garden shall we plant?

Our Hope


The theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote

This urging to bring hope to public expression is based on a conviction about believing folks. It is premised on the capacity to evoke and bring to expression the hope that is within us (see 1 Peter 3: 15). It is there within and among us, for we are ordained of God to be people of hope. It is there by virtue of our being in the image of the promissory God. It is sealed there in the sacrament of baptism. It is dramatized in the Eucharist – “until he comes.” It is the structure of every creed that ends by trusting in God’s promises. Hope is the decision to which God invites Israel, a decision against despair, against permanent consignment to chaos (Isaiah 45: 18), oppression, barrenness, and exile.

Hope is the primary prophetic idiom not because the general dynamic of history or because of the sings of the times but because the prophet speaks to a people who, willy-nilly, are God’s people. Hope is what this community must do because it is Gods’ community invited to be in God’s pilgrimage. And as Israel is invited to grieve God’s grief over the ending, so Israel is now invited to hope in God’s promises. That very act of hope is the confession that we are not children of the royal consciousness.

Of course prophetic hope easily lends itself to distortion. It can be made so grandiose that it does not touch reality; it can be trivialized so that it does not impact reality; it can be “bread and circuses” so that it only supports and abets the general despair. But a prophet has another purpose in bring hope to public expression, and that is to return the community to its single referent, the sovereign faithfulness of God. (From The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann)

It will be hope that determines our lives but the lack of hope seems to be the dominant theme of daily lives.

It seems to me that one of the reasons that we cannot understand the nature of terrorism is that we do not understand what drives people to kill themselves in the name of a movement. But that it is because we lead reasonable lives, in which hope can be fulfilled. If hope cannot be fulfilled, we would do things to change the outcome.

For some, there is no hope in life and, thus, they are open to the words of those who offer hope, no matter how irrational that hope may be. The farmer in Matthew 13: 44 gave up all that he owned because there was a promise of greater riches buried in a field; the merchant in Matthew 13: 45 did the same so that he could buy a single pearl. If someone offers us untold riches, we are just as likely to give up all we have in return for a promise of greater riches somewhere else. The terrorists who killed themselves in London gave up their lives because someone promised them a better reward than what they might have in the world today.

In less dramatic examples, how do we explain the phenomena of people standing in line to buy a lottery ticket when the prize is in the billions? Their lives will be changed if by chance (and it is nothing but chance) that pick the right set of numbers. But for what price will this hope cost them? A number of years ago, one person won enough in a lottery so that they would not have to work for the rest of their life; but they could not quite their job because their job was a requirement of their parole.

We live in a society where we almost demand instant satisfaction. We are not interested in a Christ who demands sacrifice and obedience; we want a Christ who will meet our demands, not the other way around. We place our faith in the large and the accessible, not the small and hard to obtain. This is the delusion of hope to which Brueggemann spoke.

Jacob had hopes of marrying Rachel and he worked for seven years in order to reach that goal. But the trickster Jacob was tricked because tradition dictated that Rachel’s older sister be married first. So Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah. But Jacob did not give up his hope and he agreed to work for Leah and Rachel’s father for another seven years so that he could still marry Rachel.

In the parable of the field (Matthew 1: 44), Jesus also gave the analogy of the mustard seed. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.” That particular seed is small but yet grows in a tree that offers comfort and shelter for all. But the only way that we will attain that shelter is through process.

As long as we take away the hope of others, we will live in a world and a society of poverty, injustice, and repression. And a world in which poverty, injustice, and repression must expect what comes of that life.

But if we hear the words of the Gospel and we work to overcome poverty and repression, if we seek justice for all, then we will see the hope grow and flourish, just as the mustard seed grows from a tiny seed into a magnificent tree. Paul speaks to the Romans about the outcome of life. If our hope is built upon Christ, there is little that we cannot do; if our hope is built on other notions, then we can expect suffering and pain to be dominant in our lives.

The hymn “My Hope Is Built” tells us

1. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.  I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

Refrain:  On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.

2. When Darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace. In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.

(Refrain)

3. His oath, his covenant, his blood supports me in the whelming flood. When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.

(Refrain)

4. When he shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in him be found! Dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne!

(Refrain)

On what do we have our hope built? Do we seek our hope in that which will fade away through time or is our hope built on that we will endure and will always be there?