“Is this Heaven?”

This will be on the “Back Page” of the Fishkill UMC bulletin for this coming Sunday, August 25, 2019 (the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, year C). Our services start at 10:15 am and you are always welcome.

For me, some of the most iconic lines ever spoken in a baseball movie are, “Is this Heaven?  No . . . it’s Iowa.”  Iowa, as some of you know, is a major part of my life.  But that a baseball game was played in a field in northeast Iowa is not why I appreciate those lines.

Rather, it is that one can find Heaven in unexpected places.  Heaven has always been a special place, often defined by tradition.  But when you begin your ministry in the foothills of the Rockies and the better part of my ministry has been in the Appalachian and Adirondack mountains, you must have a new definition of Heaven.

We are at a time when many would like to return traditional views; views of what Heaven is and, perhaps more importantly, how we worship and who shall lead us in our worship.  The problem is that a traditional view does not see beyond the walls of one’s mind and blinds us to the opportunities that God lays before us.

God cannot be enclosed by a fixed view of the world or the people who live here. 

God will reach out to all those who seek Him; He will call upon anyone whom He feels can take His Word out into His world.

In seeing Heaven in a field in Iowa or the mountains and valleys of New York or the streets of New York City or El Paso, Texas, we acknowledge his presence in our lives.  And this acknowledgement allows each one of us to be more open to the call of God to take the Word out into the World. ~~Tony Mitchell

“This New Life”

As noted in the piece I put up earlier (“My schedule for the next few weeks”), this is the message that I am giving for the Friday Vespers in the Garden at Grace UMC in Newburgh, NY, this evening. The message tonight is based Colossians 3: 1 – 11 with references to Hosea 11: 1 – 12 and Luke 12: 13 – 21.

While I was preparing this message, I was looking ahead and thinking about the messages that I have to prepare for the next five weeks as well. On a couple of occasions the messages will essentially be the same though the venues will change (a listing of these messages follows this message).

But no matter what the venue or where the path that the Scriptures for each week lead me, the goal is, was, and will always be threefold:

  1. What does it mean to be a Christian?

  2. What does it mean to say that one is a Methodist?

  3. What do these statements mean for your life today and tomorrow?

When I looked at what Paul wrote to the Colossians, I thought about the commercial that often ran right after the World Series or Super Bowl was completed.

One of the players for the winning team had been selected as the Most Valuable Player and, during the post-game interview, was asked, “Now that you are the MVP, what are you going to do?”

And the reply was, “I’m going to Disney World!”

Now, I don’t mean to equate Heaven with Disney World but I sometimes think that is the way that many Christians think about Heaven when they accept Christ as their personal Savior.

Now, I have been to Disney World and I don’t think that Heaven is anything like that. I also remember the scene from “Field of Dreams” where one of the ball players (Shoeless Joe Jackson, I think) asks the Kevin Costner character, “Is this heaven?” And Costner replies, “No, this is Iowa.”

I don’t doubt that pain and suffering will be non-existent in Heaven but I am not totally sure what type of life it will be. Heaven may very well be what we want it to be. I hope that when the time comes I will be able to enter Heaven but I also know that if I focus on that life, the life that comes after this one here on earth, then I miss the point about being a Christian.

I may have said or written this before but there was a time when I almost left the church. It still vexes me today when someone tells me, in no uncertain terms, that they are one of the chosen ones and will be in Heaven and that I, because I did not come to Christ as they did nor do I believe as they do, will not.

But doesn’t God tell Hosea, in the Old Testament reading, that He knew each and everyone as an individual? Does that say that our path can be different because we are each an individual?

What I fear is happening today is that same attitude, that a specific attitude and specific knowledge about Christ and Heaven, is the primary force driving people away from the church. More importantly, it is the hypocrisy of those who tell you what to believe and how to believe but whose lives are counter to the Gospel message that keep people away. You cannot say to a person “love your neighbor” when you yourself do not.

Paul’s words to the Colossians speak of a new life, one in which you have cast off all the old ways and begin a new life in and for Christ.

Now, I thought about those words and words that Paul has written to others before and how this type of life puts us outside the box. Our old life, trapped in the ways of society, limits our thinking. We do the same things each day because 1) we don’t know anything new and 2) we are afraid to try new things.

The parable that Jesus told the people in the New Testament reading for today speaks of how we measure our life. In today’s society, despite all the signs that massing immense wealth does little to insure the future, we still seek immense wealth. We fail to realize that 1) it does little good and 2) in doing so, we hurt others.

And we are so afraid of failure that we are unwilling to try new things. But consider this; in societal terms, Jesus’ mission was a total and complete failure. But that was because the people who persecuted Jesus could not see or understand what it was that He came to do.

Christ’s death on the Cross was the ultimate victory over sin and death. Death does not win nor does sin enslave us.

In Christ’s death we find a new life, one that frees us to do creative and wonderful things.

We have a choice today; stay in the present life, knowing that it only keeps us in slavery to sin and leads to death or choose a new life in Christ that frees us and let’s us find ourselves.

My schedule for the next four weeks looks like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Schedule for the next few weeks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Answer to the Question

I am at the Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY this Sunday (location of church).  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (8 August 2010), are Isaiah 1: 1, 10 – 20; Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16; and Luke 12: 32 – 40.  The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.


Belief in Christ is, I believe is a private moment with a public sharing. How we come to believe in Christ is very much an individual and private occurrence. Our purpose this morning is to share in those moments and the commonality of that moment. Yet, whether we care to admit it or not, there are other moments, unique to each one of us, that we share with others.

At some point in our lives, there has been a moment when we have doubted our faith, questioned our religious beliefs, and wondered perhaps if we have not made a mistake in choosing the path that we would walk through life. And while such questions are private, for no one wants to admit that they have doubts about the church in today’s society, it is how we seek the answers that determine the path that we will walk through life.

I have known some who are unable to articulate the questions that cause them so much pain and doubt and cannot find the answers; they lead lives that one would characterize as lost in the wilderness. Others I know have answers to their questions which have led them to lives in faith outside the one in which they were born and raised. Still others struggle to find the answers in this world and are convinced that such answers can be found in a strictly constructed world. They invite others with similar struggles into their world but often dictate the outcomes of such lives.

I know that when I was either a junior or senior in high school (around 1967) I began to question my faith and my beliefs. I began, mostly out of curiosity, to explore other paths. But it was a time when the struggle for civil rights was on-going and not simply words in a history book; it was a time when the Viet Nam war was becoming more and more a part of our daily life. And it was a time when the message in the pulpit and the lessons taught in Sunday school were often in stark contrast to what was transpiring across this nation and around the world.

And as I was pushed academically and intellectually I also found myself internally questioning my denominational beliefs, my religious choices, and perhaps the very core values of my faith. How could a country which so loudly and proudly proclaimed that all men were equal say that such equality was based on one’s race, gender, and economic status? How could a country which proclaimed that it was the land of opportunity and plenty say that the opportunity was limited to a select few and that though there was plenty for all, people lived in hunger every day?

And how could we sing in Sunday school and church that Jesus loved the little children of the world no matter what color they were and stay silent when others to set dogs on children and blow up churches? And how could pastors preach a message that bordered on hate when Jesus welcomed everyone?

It would take me a few years to find the answers to my questions and perhaps I am still seeking the answers. I was lucky; I found some pastors and other individuals who offered help and showed me where the answers could be found. But I know many who, forty years ago, asked the same questions that I did and walked away from the church. Some did not have the support that I had; others found individuals willing to help but who could not or would not help them find the answers.

And as I look around today, I see many of the same questions being asked by another generation. It strikes me as ironic that even some forty years after I struggled with such questions, today’s generation struggles as well. It is almost as if this struggle to identify who we are is a necessary part of finding one’s faith in a complex and complicated world.

But this generation of seekers is faced with an even greater task. First, the number of individuals, whose journeys may mirror the journeys of the seekers, are fewer in number than years past. Second, for whatever reason, the desire to seek new knowledge, to ask questions and wonder about things unseen and unknown doesn’t seem to be there. We have created a world where information is gathered instantaneously but we have no tools for understanding what the information means. Many individuals have decided to let others determine what the information should be known, what the information means and what to do with it.

And if you should decide that perhaps you want to do that yourself, you are quickly labeled as an outsider, a radical, or a malcontent. In this world, one who questions faith is quickly called a heretic and just as quickly cast out of the church. If your decisions about faith do not match the prevailing theory you are ridiculed and dismissed as a non-believer.

But what is faith? Does faith truly move mountains and cause the ground to shake and the sky to rumble and flash? Or is it a quiet moment in one’s life that alters and changes the path they will take?

For the writer of Hebrews, faith is something that does happen but often times in ways that the world around us does not see. The writer of Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This author writes of those who, like Abraham, made a quiet decision to do something even when the outcome of their decision was unknown or seemingly impossible to attain. The faith that is in the Bible is in this world but not of this world.

The world expects decisions of faith to be rash, bold and heroic; that somehow change the world and everything in the world from that moment on. In a world of the sound-bite and fast food, faith is supposed to have an immediate outcome.

But faith is the vehicle that accompanies the struggle for justice; it was the faith of those who marched for civil rights that enabled the victory to take place, even when the marchers were beaten and sometimes killed. Faith is that vehicle that allows one to deal with a chronic or long-term illness, to fight the pain because they have been given the reassurance of ultimate peace, no matter if it is in this world or the next. And while others around them may say that such pain comes because of something they have done, their faith reminds them that such suffering is not a punishment for something they did long ago.

It is this quiet, unyielding faith that changes lives in ways no one can foresee. Dr. Francis Collins, present head of the National Institutes of Health, can tell you about that faith for he saw it countless times as a third-year medical student. He will also tell you that he did not understand what he was seeing.

As he describes in The Language of God, he was the son of free-thinkers. And as he grew up in this environment and later went to school, he found no need for any sort of higher being in his life. But during that third year of medical school, he could only begin to question that part of his life.

Faith was not the psychological crutch that others today claim it to be. If it were a crutch, it was a powerful one. Nor could faith simply be the veneer of some cultural tradition because if it were, why were these individuals not shaking their fists at God and demanding that their friends and family stop talking about a loving and benevolent supernatural power?

The singular moment in Dr. Collins’ life came when an older woman, suffering daily from severe untreatable angina, asked if he believed in Christ. She had shared with him her beliefs and now she was asking if he believed. And all he could say was that he wasn’t sure. As he describes it, he came away from that moment completely terrified. How could he justify all that he had done before; would he now have to take responsibility for actions that he would have preferred to keep unscrutinized; was he now answerable to someone other than himself? (Adapted from Language of God by Francis Collins)

Faith is something that is lived by people, often times “foreigners and strangers” to their own people, people who don’t fit into the prevailing cultural groove, people who are on an entirely different journey. And our society and our culture have become quite effective at making people an insider or an outsider, rewarding those who fit their standards and ignoring or shunning those who don’t.

It is really interesting to read what Dr. Collins writes about his journey in faith. For when it was announced that he was to be the head of the NIH, those on the left of the spiritual spectrum wondered if it was possible for someone who openly professed to being a Christian to direct such a major scientific organization such as the NIH. And those on the right of the spiritual spectrum wondered about the validity of his faith because of his education (he is an M. D. and also holds a Ph. D.)

But the witness of the Bible is that God calls those who society casts as an outsider as one of His own and makes them the ultimate insider. God is not playing society’s game against itself; in fact, God is refusing to play that game.

The game is not to have the right worship service with the right music at the right time. It is not about the clothes that one wears to church, nor is it about the place where the service is held. It is about the attitude that one brings to the church service. What was God saying through Isaiah in the Old Testament reading today?

God said that He was fed up with the people and the way that they worshipped Him. They tried to cover up their indifference to God by elaborate and fancy worship services, with elaborate and multiple sacrifices. God is telling the people that He will not have anything to do with them unless and until they make a commitment to change and then actually start changing.

And what is it that God wants the people to do? “Stop doing the wicked things. Learn to do what is good. Seek justice. Rescue those who are being treated unjustly. Decide cases in favor of the orphans and make sure that widows are treated right. When you have done this, then we shall have a dialog.”

I don’t think that God is saying that we should stop holding worship services but that our worship services should be a part of our lives and that our lives should reflect what it is that is the basis for our faith.

And Jesus said the same thing. He pointed out that our heart lies where our treasures are and if that means that we value material wealth more than spiritual wealth we are in trouble. If we put ourselves before others, we have a problem. It is hard to read the story in Luke, in part because we do not understand the customs of society two thousand years ago. But we also have a problem with a call that says that the master should feed the servants or even help them with their tasks. And yet that is exactly what Jesus is saying.

Now, I cannot answer the questions that you may have where it concerns faith and the path that you should walk. I am, as I said at the beginning, still trying to find that path myself. But I know this. The answers are there if you but ask the question. And there are those who are going to turn to you for the help in answering their own questions.

When Francis Collins found that the answers he had worked so long to find were not the right answers he turned to a neighbor for help. And that neighbor was a United Methodist minister.

There are going to be those who seek answers and come to this place because something inside them tells them that this is the place where the answers can be found. They will find those who speak out against the injustice and cruelty in the world; they will also find those who will go to Bolivia or Haiti or Biloxi to work.

In a world where love is just another four-letter world, they will see in some the love of Christ, a love which has grown over the years and seems to be growing even today. They see a person who serves the people of the church and the community, not because it is their turn to do so or because it is the “right” thing to do but because it is what Jesus commanded us to do.

They will see someone who will go out of their way to help someone, not expecting anything in return. They will see someone who will bake a cake to celebrate any occasion.

There are a lot of questions in this world; most of them start with “why?” And many of them can be answered by the way we respond to the world. The question to be asked at this time is “are you prepared to do God’s work in this world?” I leave the answer to that question to you.

What Does The Future Hold?

This was the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, 15 August 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 5: 1 – 7, Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2, and Luke 12: 49 – 56


How shall we view the future? Will it be a rosy and cheerful vision or will it be full of gloom overshadowed by a foreboding sense of doom? Or will it be somewhere between these two extremes?

The problem is that any vision of the future is based on what we know and experience today. If we see things rosy, then the future will be likewise. If we see a world of gloom in our future, then it is likely to be so. And whatever our vision might be, it often blinds us to other visions.

We want the church to be the answer; we want church to give us that rosy and cheerful vision. Churches are seen as havens of optimism and good tidings. They are places where the troubles of the world can be left on the doorstep and forgotten for a few brief moments in time. People come to church today because they know they will hear nothing about the secular world and its problems. And if people do hear about these problems, they are told that other people’s sins and the evil that lurks in the world cause such problems.

Churches today offer a rosy view of the future. They give people a place to hide; they preach a gospel message centered on blame and division. To the public, the church in America today is pro-war, pro-rich, and most definitely pro-American. (This and other comments were adapted from Jim Wallis’ commentary in SoJoMail from August 11, 2004.)  We have leaders, both political and theological, who preach to the majority, fearful of speaking the truth because it will make people uncomfortable. To preach the Gospel message that Jesus brought us is no longer politically, socially, or theologically expedient. (This and other comments were adapted from Rev. Frederick Boyle’s "Have We No Shame?" in the July/August (2004) issue of Christian Social Action.)

We like to think that being Christian gives us comfort and insulates us from the outside world. It enables us to be for war because war combats evil. It enables us to ignore the homeless, the hungry, the oppressed because those individuals are the victims of their own actions and sins.

Churches today are not places where people want to be reminded about the troubles of the world. People do not want to know that the Gospel message calls for them to work against war and hunger, oppression and inequality. If a child dies somewhere, that child must have done something wrong. Or perhaps God was punishing the parents for some unimaginable sin they committed once in their lives. Whatever the reason, it is of no concern to today’s church.

If someone is poor or homeless, it is his or her problem. There is nothing the church can do that will help such individuals. Besides, such people are lazy, shiftless and sinners; sin is not to be rewarded by the actions of the church. And besides, it is of no concern to today’s church.

And Christians who oppose the war and feel that the true message of the Gospel is to fight oppression do not speak out for fear of ridicule and opposition.

Somewhere along the line, we forgot that this rationale that our sins dictate the direction of our life comes from the Old Testament. We have forgotten that this idea was left behind at the foot of a cross on a hill far away.

As I was writing this it occurred to me and maybe it occurred to you as well that the world of today is a lot like it was some two hundred and fifty years ago. John Wesley started the Methodist revival because he saw a church that preached a prosperity gospel and was oblivious to the needs and wants of the poor. It was a strikingly uncompassionate church and it needed reviving. I wonder what John Wesley might think of the church today. I also wonder what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might say to churches of today who ignore the poor and whose leaders tow the party line. What would either of these two say to those whose view of the future does not keep the cross in plain sight?

I first encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I was in college. His name kept coming up in situations related to the ant-war movement of the sixties. But I didn’t know who he was or why his thoughts were so important to that moment in time.

When he was in his mid-twenties, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was recognized as one of the brightest theological minds of all times. Yet, with his great understanding of the Bible and theology, he wrestled with the idea of what being a Christian was all about. In part, this dissonance between his mental life and his daily life came because of what was happening in Germany at that time, the early 1930’s. He saw a church where many leaders welcomed with open arms Adolf Hitler and many others simply acquiesced to the rise of Nazism, hoping that it would all go away.

Bonhoeffer was living in America and could have stayed here, safe from the troubles in Germany. But God called him to go home. In Germany, he worked to overthrow the Third Reich and help smuggle Jews out of Germany. He was arrested and imprisoned for two years. He was executed for his part in the attempted assassination of Hitler four days before Allied troops liberated the prison camp where he was imprisoned.

During those two years he thought and wrote about faith, God, life, and the church. He already knew that grace without discipleship was meaningless. In prison, I think that he began to see why. He wrote of missing worship services though he could not explain why. He wrote of a deeper sense of God’s involvement in our lives. He began to see how we are able to bring good out of evil, much in the manner that Joseph saw through the injustices of his brothers and the plans of a vindictive and rejected wife to the uniqueness of God’s own plan. (This adapted from comments about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.)

Most importantly, Bonhoeffer saw that crisis becomes that edge where change is possible. But such change requires something greater than human nature. That something is our faith in God.

Faith is the one common factor in all those mentioned in the letter to the Hebrews. It was their faith that sustained them through all their troubling times. It was the faith of those who came before us and it was faith that built this church.

So too will it be our faith that leads to the riches of tomorrow. We may not know who will reap those riches; certainly it will not be us. The words of Isaiah make it clear that we will not be here to enjoy the fruits of our labors. We plant the vineyard today so that others may enjoy the fruits tomorrow.

So, just as Isaiah offered a vision of the future, perhaps it is time for us to offer a new vision of the future, a vision based on the Gospel and one that does truly offer hope and promise for the future. We need to begin reminding people that faith hates violence and tries to reduce it. We need to be reminding people that faith challenges us to do justice for the poor instead of preaching a "prosperity" gospel. We need to be reminding people that faith creates a community from class, racial, and gender divisions. And it is that our faith upon which the values of family and life are based.

How did you feel when the Gospel message from Luke was read this morning? Many people feel uncomfortable hearing Jesus proclaim that He came to create division, not eliminate it. The thing is that people see God in the rosiest of all scenarios and God doesn’t do confrontation anymore. Did not Jesus come to heal and join us all together? So how is it that he preaches division and confrontation?

But what does God expect of us? He expects us to confront the status quo and say that holding on to the same old things don’t work. He expects us to confront poverty and help people out of poverty by working for equality, not simply blaming one’s economic status on the sins they have committed.

Confrontation has and will be a major part of God’s presence in our lives. Did not God direct Moses to confront the Pharaoh and in no uncertain terms say, "Let my people go"? Were the prophets not told by God to confront the people and challenge them to change their ways? Will Jesus not confront the status quo and drive out the moneychangers in the temple? Will Jesus not confront the status quo when He gets to Jerusalem? If this is what the Bible has been telling us, how then shall we see life?

If our world were nothing but a place of created goodness and beauty, a space of flourishing for all, just and life giving for all in God’s creation, then there would be no need to be challenged by the Gospel message. In fact, the Gospel message would not be needed. (This and other comments were adapted from Teresa Burger’s "Living by the Word" in the August 10, 2004 issue of Christian Century)

But our world is in fact deeply marred and scared by countless conflicts; it brings death and destruction in many forms. Ours is a world that exploits all of its inhabitants and it is hardly sustainable. We seek to use our limited resources without thought for those who follow us. We leave the future with the debts and burdens of today. We may wish for a rosy future but the one that that comes appears to be otherwise.

If the future is to be otherwise, we must then prepare the ground and work the soil now, so that what we do does ensure a bountiful harvest. We need to reclaim our faith and say to others that here is a place where the Holy Spirit is alive and growing again. I propose that on September 11th, a date chosen as much for convenience as for its irony, we hold an old-fashion, on-the-lawn revival. Let us say to others that it is our faith, which has given us the strength to move forward and let us call on others to renew and reclaim their faith as well.

Invite those you know; invite those you don’t know. Challenge your friends, your neighbors but take this moment to see the future in hopeful terms, in terms of being able to help others enjoy the fruits of our labors, just as we are able to enjoy the fruits of the labors of those who came before us.

What does the future hold? It is hard to say. But we can say that we can, with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, make it a future worthy of those who sought to make their future worthy enough for us.

Listening Carefully

Here are my thoughts for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost.  For those that are interested, I will be at Steven Memorial UMC (South Salem, NY) next week (August 19th), Dover Plains UMC (Dover, NY) on August 26th, and First UMC (Newburgh, NY) on September 2nd.


It seems to me that there has been a marked increased in the prophets of old lately. It isn’t just the prophets of the Bible but such secular prophets as Edgar Cayce and Nostradamus as well. And the interest in what the prophets have said seems to focus on the impending end of the world. Some prophets think that the end of the world will come with Armageddon in the Middle East. Others think that the end of the world will come on December 21, 2012 because that is the end of the Mayan calendar.

But there are problems when you listen to these endless claims of gloom and doom. Remember all those who proclaimed that the transition from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000 would bring about numerous instances of ruin? Remember those who proclaimed that this transition would mark the new millennium and the coming of the Lord? The prophets did not get it right then (they also missed it when we transitioned from 1000 to 1001 and the beginning of the second millennium). Prophets speak words and we hear what we want those words to mean.

No matter if the prophet is secular or sectarian; I cannot help but wonder if their words are truly harbingers of things to come. Are not the things that they say merely a description of what is happening at the time the words were recorded? Can anyone, let alone a prophet, actually foretell the future and describe technology that has not been invented? How is it that nuclear weapons and nuclear war in the Middle East can be predicted, as at least one preacher constantly reminds us with presentations that put PowerPoint to shame, when they didn’t even know what an atom was or what truly caused the Sun to shine? They may proclaim disaster but only in terms that they understood and knew.

If the words spoken some two thousand years ago are the way the future will be and there is nothing that we can do about changing the future, then all that we have done and all that we do is meaningless. But we are constantly reminded that we have the ability and the wherewithal to make the future be better than what the present is. We have the ability and the power but the ability and power are meaningless if we listen to others tell us what the future will be.

The words of the prophets spoke to the human condition then. If they apply to the human condition today, it is not because they are prophets foretelling the future but rather because the human condition is no different today than it was two thousand years ago. In the Old Testament reading for today (1), Isaiah is speaking against the worship practices of the people. Worship had become more “self-centered” and less “God-centered.” If anything, the same thing is happening today.

We claim that we are all God’s children, yet much of the discussion in our churches today seems to center on which of God’s children can come into the church. Instead of focusing on God, the new music and the new worship styles of today take away the very reason why we even have worship. Should not Isaiah’s prophetic words of two thousand years ago be heard again today?

Isaiah speaks out against the focus of the church. Instead of a focus on God and God’s tasks, the people of Israel were focusing on things that would best benefit them. Isaiah’s call to the people to refocus their thoughts in worship back to the cares and needs of the people ring very much true today. Instead of trying to decide which of God’s children are worthy of entry into our churches, our churches should be going out and taking care of the hungry, the sick, the homeless, the needy and the oppressed.

Instead of building walls to put God inside where we can display Him at our leisure, we should be tearing down the walls so that others can see Him and know who He is.

We have already been told what the outcome of our failure to note the words of the prophets will be. Isaiah and other prophets told us that obedience to God results in reward; failure to obey results in destruction. Destruction will come to all, not just those who do not listen. Destruction will come to those who know that it is coming and do nothing because they think they will receive great rewards, either on earth or in heaven.

Any prophet, be they secular or sectarian, who tells you they know the exact time for the end of the world is not in communication with those who have the power and the ability to make it so. Jesus tells us that we cannot know the day or time of His Second Coming (2). All He says is that we can and should be prepared because He can come at any time.

Our concerns should not be on the end of the world. Rather, they should be on doing what it is we are supposed to be doing. As Isaiah said, we need to think about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and helping those in need. When the time does come, we are going to be questioned about how we related to those around us. And many of those who so eagerly wait for this day and time will find that because they were more concerned about the end of time and not those around them that they will be the ones left behind.

It would be nice if we knew where this path that we walk goes or where it will take us. But that is not what this life is about. We should, without fear, know where this path ends and that is more important. And while it would be nice if the prophets who speak so knowingly of the future would tell us what will happen tomorrow, we know that they cannot do so. Without any clear guidance as to what the future will bring, we are in a quandary as to what to do.

But if we do as those who walked this path before us did, then we can walk the path without fear. Notice in the Epistle reading for today (3) how the writer of Hebrews emphasized the faith of the people. It was the faith that determined what happened, not what they did or who they were. That is the point in Isaiah’s warnings and what we have to think about. If we put the focus of our worship and our lives on ourselves, then we will not gain anything. If we put the focus on God through Christ, then we focus on our faith and through our faith we will find our rewards. The key thing, at least to me, is something that was pointed out to me a long time ago – our faith is the key to our salvation; our works do not buy us a ticket into heaven.

If we hear Isaiah’s warning and think that by doing good, we have heeded the warnings, we missed the point. If we think in those terms, we are still thinking about ourselves and the focus is not where it should be. On the other hand, if in our faith, we do what is expected of us, then our rewards are there.

Too many people hear the prophets of today and think that things are coming to an end. Their focus is on the prophet and not on God; their focus is on themselves and not on Christ. You are not listening to God but man.

If you do not fear the end times and are prepared for them, then your focus is where it should be. If you do what is expected of you in faith, then you are listening to God.

There comes a time in everyone’s life where they hear the call from God. It is a quiet and soft call, easily lost in the noise of the prophets. Are you listening carefully?

(1) Isaiah 1: 1, 10 – 20

(2) Luke 12: 32 – 40

(3) Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16