“That One Line”


This will be the back page for the August 20, 2017 bulletin at Fishkill United Methodist Church.  It is based on the lectionary readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A.


Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will. A paraphrase of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s principles by Eric Metaxas, his biographer.

If there was one line in the Bible that defines my life, it is Matthew 15: 27.  Oh, there are other lines that have meaning but this verse defines my life.

In 1969, I met with my pastor for communion before going home for spring break.  This was not the formal communion of Sunday morning but more of a conversation between a young student and his pastor.  

In our conversation, I expressed an objection to the words which are found on page 12 of our hymnal, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table”, words that echo the words of the Canaanite woman whose faith was rewarded that day.

I came into the chapel that day with an understanding of faith but not of God’s grace.  But when I left, I understood what God’s grace meant and what that meant for me as a Christian and an United Methodist.

What I do with my life does not get my God’s grace or mercy but are the duties of a citizen of God’s Kingdom.

By God’s grace and mercy and through faith, we have been given a great gift.  It is what we do with that gift that will define who we are.

““From Which Direction Does The Ministry Grow?”


Meditation for August 24, 2014, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Romans 12: 1- 8, Matthew 16: 13 – 20

This is for this coming Sunday.  I am trying to get back into a writing mode.

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In 1970, while I was a student at Northeast Missouri State College (now Truman State University), there was a transfer of power in the office of the President. But this was more than simply a change in the person who was in charge; it marked the beginning of a change in the attitude and perhaps the intellectual direction the college was taking.

When I began classes at Kirksville, it was known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College and its primary goal was the preparation of teachers. In 1968, the “Teachers” part was dropped, though I suspect that the purpose and goal of the college remained the same. Ultimately, the goal changed and the name changed to reflect that change. I think this all began when Charles McClain became President of the college in 1970.

Now, during the first four years that I was at Kirksville, three individuals served as President. I knew who each of them were but I had never met them and the odds were very good that I would never actually meet them.

Each one of those three gentlemen operated on the theory of an “imperial presidency”. They may be on the campus but they, to the best of my knowledge, never interacted with the students and with only limited interaction with the faculty. The only time that they may have interacted with the students was on those occasions when they ate in the private dining room off the student dining room in one of the dormitories.

So, for some reason, when Charles McClain became the new President of the college, I decided that I would invite him to be my guest for dinner in the dormitory one evening. And with this in mind, I went over to his office one afternoon, found that he was free for a few moments, and offered the invitation for him to be my guest that evening for dinner. Much to my surprise, he agreed.

As I recall, I went about my business for the rest of the afternoon and then came back to his office around 6 or so to meet him and walk across the campus to the dormitory cafeteria. I do not recall what we talked about that evening though it was probably about college life. What I do remember is that no one recognized him as the new President of the college and assumed that he was my father.

Even the cafeteria workers, employees of the college, did not recognize their new boss. And quite honestly, that would have been expected. The overall “bosses” of the college never interacted with the staff and the only adults that came to dinner with the students were the parents. So it would have been reasonable for them to think that this gentleman in the suit accompanying me to dinner was my father and not the President of the college.

I cannot say how much change happened after that evening. The college would become a university in a couple of years and then ultimately drop the direction from its name when its mission and direction were more clearly defined. But something had to change when the new President did something that none of his predecessors (or the ones that I knew) had ever done.

In the 1980s we would see changes in the business world that spoke of new management ideas, one of which was the involvement of the top level managers in the day-to-day operations of the organization.

Now, I have written about this before (I told the dinner story in “What I See” and the nature of change in “To Search For Excellence”) but it bears repeating, especially in light of the situation that the Israelites face in the Old Testament reading for today. When the upper levels of an organization do not know what is going on, that organization is really in trouble.

And what studies on excellence have shown time and time again is that the best change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. And if upper level management is going to embrace change in the organization, then they must be actively involved in the process. They cannot simply make a decision that change will occur and then expect it to take place.

The United Methodist Church is faced today with perhaps two problems. But being an aging church is, in my opinion, not one of the problems, provided you see age as a number on the calendar and not a state of mind. You can be young according to the calendar but have a relatively old state of mind. And this is evident in how they view the world.

Too many people in positions of management and/or power hold onto a world view that is outdated and limited. These individuals view the Bible as a fixed and unchanging law book. Theirs is a view of a world some two thousand years ago, when knowledge of the world was limited.

The second problem is that the size of the United Methodist Church makes it impossible to facilitate change and almost encourages a top-down model of operation.

But such models very seldom work and by the time the instructions are delivered from the top to the bottom, the meaning behind the instructions is lost. Now, I am fully aware that the only way the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, could receive the Ten Commandments was from the top down. But later on, when it came time to implement laws based on the Ten Commandments, then things got confusing.

Second, I also recognize that not much can be done about the present structure of the United Methodist Church. But we can either be bound by the structure, in which case, we lose, or we can, at the lower levels, where all the fun is, take it upon ourselves to do what it is that must be done, remembering the wonderful quasi-biblical phrase that is is better to seek forgiveness than ask for permission. And as I was writing this, it occurred to me that if any one of the Bishops of the United Methodist Church were to wander into my church on some Sunday, I probably wouldn’t know who he or she was. But that wouldn’t stop me from introducing myself and finding out if they needed anything or information about the church.

When you read the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, you can quite easily get the impression that the Pharaoh had no clue why the Israelites were even in Egypt. And because he did not know why they were there, he had ever reason to fear them. What happens when change is occurring at the lower levels of the organization and the upper levels of management don’t know what is going on?

The same is true for the United Methodist Church today. We still hold to a view that everyone should be in church on Sunday and when they are somewhere else, we get worried and scared. But we have forgotten the mission of the original church and what it is that we are supposed to be doing as people who have chosen to follow Christ.

All the talk about splitting the church over sexuality only amplifies the one problem that I mentioned above; an outdated and limited world-view. And as long as we think that limiting who can be a part of our church, we are showing our age and that we don’t know the mission of the church.

We can, if we want, wonder who the next Peter might be. Who will be the person upon which we can build, or in this case, rebuild the church? Quite honestly, I don’t see another Wesley, Whitfield, Boehm, Otterbein, Asbury, or any one of the many founding fathers and mothers of our denomination stepping forward.

I think it would be folly to look for one person to revitalize and/or change our church. But this isn’t a call for one individual; it is a call for many individuals. It has always struck me that as this denomination has gotten older and bigger, it has forgotten from which the strength of the church came, the laity. And maybe it is time for the laity, individually and collectively to step forward and do what they should have been doing all along.

What was it that Paul wrote to the Romans? Use the skills and talents that God has given each of you to the fullest possible extent? I wouldn’t wait around for someone at the top of the organizational pyramid to come up with an idea and hope that it will somehow work in our environment.

What works well for one church often times will fail in another. It isn’t about the lack of people or the lack of motivation; it is how well one mission idea fits within the scheme of each church. A plan that calls for 1000 people will not work in a church with only 10 members. But the church with 10 members can do a lot if it works with other churches, providing talents and skills that the other churches don’t have.

Not everyone can go on a mission trip but everyone can support a mission trip. But for this to work, the people who go have to meet the people who are supporting the trip. We need to start putting faces on the people that make up the church and not simply put a statement in the bulletin. We really need to get back to our roots, to that which helped the church grow.

Any organization that forgets where it came from is bound to fail. The church grew from the bottom up, with its roots in the soil of its community. Each community is different so each ministry is different. But the results of each ministry, unique and different, is the opening of the doors to the Kingdom for all the people.

So take the words that Jesus spoke to Peter so many years ago and put them in your heart. Each one of us is the rock upon which the church will grow and as it grows from our hearts, with all of our love and care, we can see the direction the ministry will take.

An Encounter on a Dusty Road


Here are my thoughts for last Sunday, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (28 August 2011). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 3: 1 – 15, Romans 12: 9 – 21, and Matthew 16: 21 – 28.

I was supposed to be at Drew UMC (Carmel, NY) for their Saturday evening worship service but Hurricane Irene sort of messed up those plans.

I will be at Drew on September 24. They have a potluck/BBQ starting at 5 with the service at 7 so, if you can, make plans to be there for the meal and stay for the worship. They are having a special service to mark the 1 year anniversary of their Saturday services on the 17th with Bishop Park of the New York Annual Conference giving the message. If you can make it to that or any of their Saturday services, you are more than welcome.

I will return to Dover Plains UMC on September 4th. The message is entitled “A New Beginning” and is based on Sunday’s Lectionary readings – Exodus 12: 1 – 14, Romans 13: 8 – 14, and Matthew 18: 15 – 20.

My initial thoughts about this piece focused on our use of technology in our lives, most notably GPS or “global position systems.” As you may note, when I go to another church, I will add the location of the church in the beginning notes. Originally, I looked up the location of the church so that I would be able to get to where I needed to be.

But I have found that over the course of the past few years some of the locations are just a bit off. I don’t know how systems such as Google maps or car-based GPS systems work but there have been some instances where the instructions lead you in the wrong direction.

The first time that I went to the Hankins United Methodist Church, the instructions lead me to the parking lot of an Assemblies of God church parking lot. I was close to where I needed to be but still about ½ mile away. Fortunately, I had some back up instructions and I got to the church on time.

There is an inherent error in the location of the Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church that I believe is based on the number of the church. If you are coming from I-84 into Mahopac, the instructions (both from Google Maps and an in-car system) have you turning left to get to the church. But the church is on the right hand side of the road, not the left.

And there was a United Methodist Church in Connecticut that I was trying to locate. The only problem was that when I used the Google maps function of “find-a-church” I was directed towards a United Methodist Church in Kentucky. That problem has been fixed but sure had a few people confused for a while.

By the way, do you know about the “find-a-church” feature at umc.org? It is a great feature and I think every United Methodist Church is listed in the database. But the information is not always up-to-date or even correct. May I suggest that you take the time to visit umc.org (find a church is in the lower right) and see what you can find out about your church and its location?

And technology of another kind was nice to have because it allowed us to see Hurricane Irene coming up the coast. Having lived the better part of my growing up years in the South, hurricanes are a part of my life. I can still remember living in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1961 and hearing naval aircraft fly over my elementary school and land at Sheppard AFB. When you grow up on an Air Force Base, you grow accustomed to certain sounds and airplanes flying in and out. But that day was different, maybe because the sounds were different or it was a different time of day. But you could see that the planes bore Navy markings and that was different.

It turned out that the Navy was flying all of their planes out of the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station in advance of Carla’s landfall. And that is how we became aware that Carla was coming. Back then, satellite observations were just beginning so the predication of path and intensity was not as precise as it is today.

In 1969, I was living in Memphis and experienced the rainfall of Hurricane Camille. We knew well in advance that Camille was coming our way but that didn’t stop the rain from falling. And believe me it fell.

We still are working on the prediction of the path and intensity of a hurricane. All through Friday and Saturday there were expectations that Irene would be a far greater storm than it turned out to be. And I will be honest; I have a feeling that it wasn’t going to be a gentle visit. I have lived in the New York for going on twelve years now and I am still not sure that this part of the country truly understands what it means to be struck by a hurricane.

In the end, Irene was a very strong tropical storm when it came into New York but that didn’t stop it from raining and raining for most of Saturday night and Sunday morning. The winds were not as bad as was expected but it still did enough damage that we lost power around 5:30 Sunday morning. We were lucky in that our power was restored that evening. It is my understanding that there are other parts of this area that are still without power and will be so through the weekend.

And then on Monday, we lost our cable. In itself, that wasn’t so bad but I use the cable for landline telephone and internet service. I have a backup system for the internet but it is not the preferred alternative.

And then the rains came and the flash floods followed and parts of Vermont and New Hampshire became separated from the rest of their respective states. Here again, I don’t think that people were entirely prepared for this. And these flash floods are making it that much harder because of the damage to the roads and the access ways.

There are those who will say that God directed Irene to the East Coast, to drown the politicians in Washington, D. C., or at least send a message to them. That may be well and good but the politicians were on vacation and very few of them were in Washington. And while I am not entirely upset that multi-million dollar homes built on the seashore may have been damaged, I had to worry about those who have no homes or don’t have the funds to repair any damage to their homes. We had made the decision to not serve breakfast at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen on Sunday because we were certain how bad the weather would be or if we would be able to cross the Hudson River. The decision had been announced that if the winds from Irene approached 60 mph, the Hudson River Bridges from New York City to north of Poughkeepsie would be closed. Also, there was a state of emergency declared in Newburgh so we couldn’t have gotten to the church anyway. Ours is a limited ministry so we were not able to provide those who came on Saturday with extra food stuffs for Sunday. And as at least one other blogger noted, while we may have been safe and sound, albeit without power on Sunday, how did those who had no shelter survive a night of continuous rain and wind?

I would hope that the events of this past weekend have opened the eyes of the people to the world around them. We are now faced with the possibility that many conservative politicians are going to demand that more cuts be made in the social programs of this country in order to fund the recovery efforts that we must make. And we are already seeing promises made to the heartland of this country, to the people of Joplin, Missouri, that they would receive funds to recover and rebuild are being stripped to fund the recovery and rebuilding efforts in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

But, at the same time, we still spend how many billions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan? When conservative politicians decry the waste in Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and other social programs, why do they not yell as loud or louder about the waste and loss of funds in the money we send to support our war effort?

Peter did not like it when Jesus spoke of having to go to Jerusalem. We don’t seem to like it when we are called to do things for the least of our citizens. And yet when we say we are Christians we are saying that we are prepared to make that walk to Jerusalem. Paul, in writing to the Romans, wrote of the things that we need to be doing and the things that we need not be doing. The reading concluded with Paul telling us that we see our enemies hungry we should feed them. And if they are thirsty, then we need to get them something to drink.

And if we are to do that for those we hate, what are we supposed to be doing for those we profess to love? Shall we only worry about those whom we would rather be like or do we need to worry about those whom we would prefer to not to know even exist?

When Moses encountered the burning bush that day so long ago, he heard God say that He, God, had heard the cry of His children and it was time to bring them home. And then God said to Moses that it would be Moses who led them home. And Moses could only offer excuses as to why he was not the best choice. We know how that story turns out – Moses will lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land.

From that encounter on a dusty road came the beginnings of a new nation. And from that nation and what would develop began part of our heritage. It certainly wasn’t dusty and the winds and the rains have pretty well taken away the roads but it is possible that we have encountered God this past weekend. It is an encounter which calls to question not what the politicians are doing but what we are doing. It is an encounter that calls on us to make sure that all people are taken care of and not just a select few. It is an encounter that calls on each one of us to examine the road we are walking and making sure that it is the same road that Jesus is walking. We can be like Peter was in this passage and seek to turn away from that path. Or we can like Peter will become, the leader, and begin the walk.

Consider what has transpired these past few days and consider where you will walk in the coming days. Just has Saul encountered Jesus on a dusty road to Damascus, just as Moses encountered God on a dusty road in Midian and just as Peter encountered the Christ on the road to Jerusalem so too have we each encountered Jesus. What shall you do?

WYSIWYG


This is the message I presented at the Walker Valley United Methodist Church in Walker Valley, NY, for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 8, 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 37: 1- 4, 12 – 28; Romans 10: 5 – 15, and Matthew 14: 22- 33.

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How often have you heard the term "what you see is what you get"? Often times, those using computers use the phrase "wee-zee-wig" with means the same thing. In computer terms, it means that what you see on the computer monitor is what will be printed out.

Of course, many people, especially when personal computers first came out, didn’t realize that this was the case and they would try to make what was in their mind what they wanted on paper. When this would happen, the output would not be what was desired and what you saw was not what you got.

Many times, our conversations with others take on the same type of approach. We will be thinking one thing but what others hear may be something totally different. I hope, of course, that my sermon today is not one of those situations.

The scriptures today deal with what we see, understanding what we see and knowing what to do with that understanding. The Old Testament reading for today is about Joseph and the day his older brothers sold him into slavery. Joseph’s brothers were angry with him, in part because as younger brothers often do, he had told their father of something wrong that they had done. In other words, he snitched on his brothers.

Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.

And there was the matter of the richly ornamented robe that Jacob had given him. If you have brothers or sisters, then you know how gifts given to one sibling or the appearance of favoritism can cause problems with the other siblings.

And last, there was the matter of Joseph and his dreams. Joseph was a dreamer. The Hebrew word used in the OT reading means “master of dreams” or “dream expert” but in the context that the brothers used it, it was used with obvious sarcasm. Joseph saw the future as it might be. But his brothers lived in the present and to them dreams meant nothing. So, in a society where birth order was extremely important, the last straw for the brothers was the dream that Joseph had that had them bowing down before him. When the opportunity came, they sold Joseph into slavery, unknowingly setting the stage for the dream they so despised to become reality. They did not want to see what Joseph saw.

The disciples saw Jesus walking across the surface of the lake but because it was early in the morning and they were perhaps still half asleep and a mist was rising from the surface of the lake, they couldn’t tell that it was Him. Rather, the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. Wouldn’t you, faced with an unknown apparition that appeared out of nowhere and defied what you knew was impossible, be just as terrified as the disciples were that morning?

What Jesus asks us to do is focus on Him and block out all outside distractions? But many times we are like Peter, eager to do what Christ wants us to do but faltering when we become aware of the outside world.

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

That may be the one thing that keeps us, as it were, from walking on water. We may want to come to Jesus; we may hear Jesus calling us to come to Him, but we hear the wind and we see the waves of water and we suddenly realize that we are sinking. Faith demands that our focus always remain on Jesus

When we focus on the here and now, when we let the distractions of the world around us get to us, there is no way that we can see or hear what Jesus offers us.

The passage from Romans speaks to us today about the nature of righteousness. Righteousness does not require that we do things that go beyond faith and believing. As Paul told the Romans,

But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Asking Jesus to come down from heaven or to arise from the grave are impossible questions for us to ask, let alone think about. But faith does not require that we do anything like that; it is the real world that makes those demands. All that Jesus asks us to do is believe.

"That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Just as we have to change the way we see Jesus, focusing solely on him, so too must we see the world in a different manner. Joseph’s brothers could only see the world around them and had no way to see or comprehend the future that Joseph tried to tell them about.

The disciples came to know that Jesus was truly the Son of God but when they saw Him walking across the water, the image they saw was not of Jesus but of a physical impossibility. If we try to see Jesus in terms of this world, the world we live in, we will never see him.

Like the disciples that morning, Wesley and others came to see Jesus and His message in a different light. The prevalent attitude of the church during Wesley’s time was that poverty was a result of sinful life. In the sermons of that time, one can read of a real concern for those less fortunate but it was assumed that the only way to save the working class, the poor and downtrodden was to make their lives better. Wesley felt that it wasn’t necessary for those less fortunate to be like their betters but it was necessary to enable them to find the way to Christ for themselves.

Paul challenged the Romans then, he challenges us today to focus on what to do with the word.

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

It is not important to have just heard the word and believe in it. We must also take the word out into the world. This can be a very daunting task because we are so prone to see the world around us and let it take away from what we truly wish to see.

When Peter’s focus was on Christ, he could do the impossible, he could walk on water. Yet, when he let the feeling of the wind on his face and he saw the waves lapping against his feet distract him, he lost his focus and fear took over as he sank beneath the water. That is the way life is for us sometimes. Yet, when that happens, whenever we may feel frightened, unsure about what is to take place, all we have to do is remember what Jesus say to His disciples that morning on the lake, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

When we open our hearts and let Jesus be the central part of our life, when we don’t let the outside world distract us from the true meaning of faith, then we can actually see more than we ever thought possible. In other words, when our focus, our faith, is on Jesus, what we see is what we get.

Know The Rules


I am preaching at Red Hook United Methodist Church, 4 Church Street, Red Hook, NY 12571, this Sunday.  The service starts at 9:30 with a hymn sing starting at 9:15.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 29: 15 – 28, Romans 8: 26 – 39, and Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 -52.


Location of church

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Many years ago, in a time long past and a place far away, I was a football official. I officiated junior high games on Thursdays, high school games on Fridays, and elementary school age level games on Saturdays. Most of the time, I enjoyed doing these games. They were fun to do and I would see things happen that very seldom happened in college or professional games.

But it was also frustrating, especially with the elementary school age level teams and coaches. At the beginning of each season, the officials’ group would send officials out to every team and go over the league rules, highlighting the changes and reminding the coaches of the differences in the game since they played. But, as the season played out you could see that many of the coaches had their own ideas about the rules and what the officials could do with those rules.

Many of the coaches coached the game as they were coached when they played the game some twenty years before and, quite honestly, they didn’t know or care that some of the rules had changed since they played their last game. In addition, many of the fans also were not aware that the rules for games played during the week are often different from the games they saw on Sundays. It has been said that the most common words uttered by game officials on Saturday are, “this isn’t Sunday, coach.”

And like any activity that one participates in, there are moments to remember. Such as the time we called holding on number “00” only to be told that his number was “88”. It was hard for us to tell because half of the jersey was stuck inside his pants. Oh yes, did I mention that it was one of those Saturday morning Pee-Wee games?

And, yes, there were instances that challenged my love of the game, such as the time a father of a cheerleader attacking the referee over a call (the father was banned from the games for the rest of that season). I probably would have moved up to officiating college games on Saturday afternoons except that I forgot a basic rule of kinesiology; a knee can bend in only one direction and damage will occur when the knee is forced to do otherwise. I injured my knee trying to get out of the way of a developing play and suffered the proverbial career-ending knee injury.

Rules, especially in football, are meant to protect the players. And those who do not know the rules or seek to bend the rules and find some advantage risk damage that goes beyond the boundaries of the playing field.

The same is true in life as well. It helps if we know the rules, whether they are the rules of sports or the rules of life.

We impose a speed limit on cars and trucks traveling on our roads and highways because there is a safety factor involved and we are required to wear seatbelts for the same reason. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from traveling faster than the posted speed limit. There are motorcyclists who don’t like the laws that require helmets but the reasons for such laws become apparent only after an accident. Not knowing the rules often leads to results and consequences neither anticipated nor welcomed.

Today’s Old Testament reading relates how Jacob worked for his kinsman for seven years in order to marry Rachel. It was only after he had worked the seven years and the marriage ceremony that he discovered it was the custom of the people to marry off the oldest daughter first. Jacob’s life might have been a little better if he had known what the rules were concerning marrying a younger sister. But because he didn’t know the rules, Jacob, who had tricked his brother out of his inheritance, found himself marrying Leah. To Jacob’s credit, because he loved Rachel, he agreed to work for Laban another seven years so that he could marry Rachel.

I am not going to say much about what he must have been thinking when he thought he was marrying Rachel but ended up with Leah. Nor am I going to say much about those who argue for Biblical marriages when Jacob is married to two sisters and has children by both of them as well as their maids.

Can we have a life without rules or laws? Of course we can’t. Laws are the fabric which holds society together. But problems arise when we forget why we create laws or develop rules for behavior.

We speak of the Ten Commandments as being the basis for our laws. But we forget that God gave these ten basic principles of life after he brought the people out of Egypt. God did not pick out a group of people wandering around in the desert and say, “follow these commandments and I will save you.” Rather, He said, “Because I have saved you, these are the rules by which I expect you to live.”

He also explained what would happen when we followed these new rules and what would happen if we chose not to follow them. This was the basis for the Law Covenant, the agreement between God and the nation of Israel as the Abrahamic Covenant was an agreement between God and Abraham. And, as a covenant, it established a relationship between God and the people.

Yet, when the Israelites were first told about the Law, they rebelled and turned against God. And since that day so many years ago, humanity has demanded a rulebook by which to live instead of seeking a relationship with God.

The Law was never instituted to replace our relationship with God. It was meant to increase our relationship with God. But throughout history, people have missed the meaning and spirit of the Law and embraced the letter of the law. So fearful were the Pharisees that they might inadvertently break one of the Ten Commandments that they created 613 additional laws. 365 of these new laws began with “don’t” while the remaining 248 began with “you can do this”. But each law was a degree of control.

The Law was supposed to reveal sin and cause the people to turn to God. Robert Schuller wrote “God gave us these ten laws to protect us from an alluring, tempting path which would ultimately lead only to sickness, sin, and sorrow.” Yet more often than not, in our attempts to follow the law rather than the Spirit, we still end up in sin. Instead of setting us free, the laws we create enslave us.

Like the Pharisees before us, we are so afraid that we will lose our access to heaven that we make rules and laws that control our lives and the lives of others. While there is a clear need for laws and rules, it must be understood that laws should never be so constructed as to harm others. Laws should be made to prevent injustice, not cause it.

When I was growing up in the South, I saw the consequences of laws designed to continue the effects of segregation, even after segregation was illegal. In Alabama, students had to buy their own books rather than have them provided by the school system. If your parents could afford the books, then you had the books. If your parents couldn’t; well, you just suffered the consequences. In Tennessee, all music programs got the same amount of money each year but what was given was barely enough to buy the sheet music for one song. If you wanted more, or if you needed instruments for the band, then it was up to the Band Boosters to get the money. So schools whose students had parents with the financial resources got the better instruments and the better uniforms. If the parents didn’t have the financial resources, then the band didn’t get the better instruments, uniforms or other equipment.

The trouble is that we often see laws themselves, be they spiritual ones or societal ones, as the means to achieving success. Obey the laws and success would be yours. Disobey the laws and you fail. And we see salvation as our ability to successfully follow the laws. Salvation can never be determined by how well you follow the laws of society or the church but by your relationship with God.

And while many times the Israelites had the right actions, they still missed the whole love relationship with God. In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus is not giving us a set of rules but rather an explanation of this relationship. He is moving beyond the simple statement of the law to the idea of what we are to do with our lives.

We are called Methodists for a particular reason. When John and Charles Wesley began the movement that would become the church, they felt that they had to do certain things in order to be successful. Among these were daily prayer and regular Bible studies. But the Wesley brothers, raised in the church, quickly found that this model would not work. Only after coming to Christ, only after knowing that Christ was their Savior and that He had died for them, did the structure of their own personal lives take on meaning.

This makes the passage from Romans that we read for today a very interesting passage to read. Paul writes that there is a path laid out before us, a path laid out by God long before we were ever born. This can mean one of two things. Either that the path that we walk through life is fixed and God already knows the outcome of our life or God knows where we are headed right now but there is an opportunity to change that direction.

The first option, a form of what is called Calvinism, is, to me, essentially a “no-win” solution. It says that God already knows who will be saved and who will not; there is no choice in the matter. But we don’t know which we are. If this is true and the outcome of our life is already decided, then we don’t need to worry about the rules for life because it doesn’t matter. We are either going into heaven or we are not and there isn’t a single thing we can do about it.

Personally, I have a hard time with that view. For if there is no choice in the matter, then why did God send His Son? Of what value in our lives was Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross? It seems to me that if God sent His Son, it was because He loved us and He was willing to show His love. That is the basic rule of life; that is the rule that we need to be thinking about today and tomorrow. Whatever we do, whatever we say must come from that single fact that God loves us. It brings the Law back into perspective and it shows us the relationship as it is supposed to be.

That is why Jesus used the analogies that we read in the Gospel passage for today. We have to see the world in a new way, with each one of us a part of the kingdom. We are not to go out to destroy the world but to build it up. We are not to be the judge of right and wrong, good and evil; that will be decided at the proper time by God.

Each of the prophets spoke about the relationship between the people and God. They cried out about how God is angry because they have not kept the commandments. The people would always respond that they had kept the commandments and made the proper sacrifices and did the right things. But, as Isaiah proclaimed, God did not want sacrifices done out of habit but rather deeds done out of love. The people then, as now, had trouble realizing that what they were doing did not make the relationship with God stronger but weaker. Their actions did not protect them from sin but made sin more of their lives.

And each of the prophets spoke of the One who was to come, the One who would bring hope and a sense of renewal, the Messiah. There was a chance for the people then to change their ways and prepare for the Messiah. The same is true today.

The task before us is not to create laws or rules that prevent or protect us. For when we do so, we simply put up barriers that keep us from God. Rather, we are to break down the barriers that laws have put between people and prevented people from reaching God.

Each of us says that we are one person and we can do nothing. But Jesus spoke of the mustard seed, one of the smallest seeds in the plant kingdom, growing into one of the largest bushes and one that provided much in the way of shelter and comfort. We may see ourselves as small cogs in a big world and incapable of doing much but consider this.

One individual walked to the Indian Ocean one day and picked up a few grains of salt from the beach where the water had evaporated. This was a violation of British laws that prohibited Indians from owning or processing raw salt. But this singular action by Gandhi was the act that began the movement that would result in independence for India and Pakistan.

A black lady, going home from work one day, was hot and tired. So she sat down in the first seat that she came to on the bus. But the law said that she had to sit in the back of the bus and not the front where the available seat was and if another person, a white person, demanded that seat, she was to give it up. That singular act of defiance by Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955 initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

On February 1, 1960, four young black college students sat at the lunch counter in a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter. The seats at the counter and in the booth were for the white customers; black customers had to stand if they wanted to eat there. And when they were refused service and told they had to leave, they politely said no and remained seated. This was the first successful sit-in; six months of peaceful, non-violent protests lead to the counter and seats being open for all customers, regardless of their color. The sit-in movement spread throughout the south and helped to end segregation in public facilities. It brought attention to the differences between people when we create laws and rules that control what we can do.

These were acts of non-violence; they were driven and guided by love. Yes, there was violence but it was violence by those who opposed equality and freedom and who did not understand the use of non-violence as a means of protest.

There are individuals today who take on seemingly impossible tasks. We live in a society today where violence is too often the norm and not the exception. And our response to violence is often violence in return. We seek revenge, not justice.

Do you remember the killing of the Amish children back in October, 2006? Do you remember the response of the Amish community? While some, when faced with violence, would respond with violence, this community chose to offer comfort and support to the family of the gunman who killed their children.

In my message at Dover United Methodist Church (“There Is A Choice”) two weeks ago, I spoke of hearing the message from the Catholic Mass at Fordham University. The priest who officiated that morning, Charles Beirne, S. J., spoke of a friend who sought justice for his sister, a Christian Aid worker, who was killed by government troops in El Salvador in the 1980s. Whether we are speaking of one person or several people, if they are empowered by the Love of God through Jesus Christ and not by the rules that society says that we must follow, they can make a difference.

And I should not have to remind you of one man who spent three years on this earth speaking and teaching about bringing hope to the less fortunate, of healing the sick, of feeding the hungry and bringing justice to the oppressed. And for his efforts He was branded a threat to the state and executed by one of the cruelest forms of torture invented by mankind, crucifixion.

When we say that we are Christians, we are saying that we have chosen to follow Christ and to do what He did. We are not called to die on the cross but we are called to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring hope and justice to the less fortunate and oppressed. We are called to do what is right; we are called to know the rules.

This is the place


The other day I read an article which indicated that Rick Warren, the author of Purpose Driven Church and what is become known as the “purpose driven paradigm,” was becoming involved in the move to end world-wide poverty. Now, this may meet with some disdain in some parts of the church world and it may be meet with some skepticism in others, but I am glad to see that it is happening.

Now, let me first off indicate that I have not read any of his books. I have taken part in a seminar based on his work and it was perhaps that seminar that caused me to question the validity of the concept behind his books and thoughts. I came away from that seminar on church growth asking how one applied the concepts of church growth that required a minimum of 1000 individuals to a church that might be lucky to get 10 to 20 people on any given Sunday. That is part of the reason that I have problems with today’s church growth models; they focus on the big churches and not on the reason why we have churches. It almost seems as if the little church, the small church is doomed to extinction.

But Rick Warren has begun to change from focusing on the growth of his mega-church and other churches to the fight against global poverty. It is one thing to have a successful life but what good is one’s success if there are others who are not successful? Do you bring about success by driving down others or by keeping them from being successful?

In the Gospel readings for today, five thousand people have followed Jesus to hear Him preach. Now, it is my understanding that the women and children who might have been in the crowd were not counted so it is likely that there were anywhere between five and fifteen thousand people on the hillside that day. That, of course, makes the miracle of the feeding of the six thousand even more incredible.

It came to pass that Jesus’ disciples noted that the people were getting hungry and perhaps they should be sent away in order to get fed. But Jesus said that the disciples should feed the multitude, not send them away. And when the disciples said that they had no food to share, Jesus pointed out that there was food plenty enough to share among the people in the crowd. So the disciples search the crowd and found five loaves and two fish. Jesus blessed the food and the disciples gave it to the people. In the end, all the people ate and there was food left over.

It can never be about the number of people that come to the church to find God, it has to be about the feeding and care for the people that search for God. In a world of oppression and rejection, the people sought out Jesus to find the answers and find the hope for their lives. To ask them to find their own source of food was to remove that source of hope.

And I am convinced that is what we need to do today. Countless preachers and ministers are offering hope to people but it is an “empty” hope, one that doesn’t feed the soul forever but only for the moment. Other people are so physically hungry that they cannot search for the spiritual food that will feed their souls. John Wesley noted that a person who is hungry will not listen to the Gospel, for they are searching for food for the physical soul. They will not listen to the words of hope and promise if the grumbling in their stomachs is louder.

So we must feed both the physical and the spiritual. We cannot simply create churches that bring people in but ignore the people who do not have the resources to get to church. We are almost always required to take the Word that is inside the church walls outside the walls and into the world.

The Gospel message is for all, not just a select few. Paul writes to the Romans and points this out. The Gospel is not for some but for all, no matter what their background or ancestry. If we cannot take care of the ones outside the walls of the church, then we will have a hard time helping those inside the walls.

People come to a church for any number of reasons but it is safe to say that they are searching. Jacob comes to a place on his journey home where he struggles with God, a struggle that will end with his name no longer Jacob but rather Israel, one who struggled with God.

This morning, you might be struggling with God, asking why things are happening. Why must there be poverty and starvation in this world of plenty? Why must there be violence and repression in a world where many claim to follow the Prince of Peace? Why must there be injustice in a world where we are told that God seeks justice for all?

Perhaps it is because we are that same place as Jacob, now Israel, was. Perhaps it is because we see that knowing the Gospel is not enough. Having accepted Jesus as our Savior, what shall we do? This is the time and the place in our lives where, like Jacob, we are struggling with God. Perhaps this is the time and place where we begin our journey anew and refreshed, seeking not to keep the Gospel in our minds but in our hearts. Perhaps this is the time and place in our own journey where we begin to reach out and help those who need more than just spiritual comfort.

We are reminded that Jesus will ask us what we did to help the homeless, the oppressed, the hungry and the naked. This is the time that we answer in the affirmative rather than ask where such persons were.