“Who Is Your God?

This will be on the “Back Page” of the bulletin for this coming Sunday, Labor Day Sunday and the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C), at Fishkill UMC. Service starts at 10:15 and you are welcome to be a part of the worship service.

I could not help but marvel at how appropriate the Scriptures for this Sunday are for today.

God, through His prophet Jeremiah, castigates the Israelites for destroying the land that they were given and once again seeking other gods.

Jesus questions the hospitality of His hosts because they save the good seats at the table for themselves and limit who may even sit at their table.

The writer of Hebrews tells us to not be worried about the material things of life.  Somehow, our holidays of celebration have turned into markers of time and excuses to buy things.

John Wesley had no problems with anyone earning as much as they could.  But he warned us against doing so on the backs of the labor class and the less fortunate.  He also encouraged each of us to save as much as we could and to give as much as we could.

I hope that we will take some time this week and consider who the gods of our society are?  It is a question that society has been asked since Paul debated the Athenians some two thousand years ago

On this weekend and in the coming days, consider who your God is.  Are your priorities right or convenient?  Remember that God has shown you in so different ways His love for you.  How are you showing your love for Him?  How are you telling the world  who your God is?

~~Tony Mitchell

“Finding Freedom”

This will be the back page for the Fishkill United Methodist Church bulletin for this Sunday, 27 August 2017, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A).  Service is at 10 am and you are welcome to come and worship with us.

And the new king did not know Joseph. With that line, a story of oppression begins. And out of that oppression will come Moses, who will lead his people to freedom.

We look around us today and we want a Moses, a person who will lead us to freedom. But we don’t understand what it means to be free.

Paul warns us about getting caught up in the culture of the times, thinking that will lead us to freedom. It is a lot easier to fit the Gospel message to one’s life than fit one’s life to the Gospel. And when you rewrite the gospel to fit your lifestyle, one finds the king who did not know Joseph. And that is not the way to freedom.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote

“Freedom is not a quality of man, nor is it an ability, a capacity, a kind of being that somehow flares up in him. . . . freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means “being free for the other,” because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free.”

Freedom comes when we accept Christ as our Savior. For John Wesley, that moment when he found his freedom and power was Aldersgate. For Peter and the disciples, it was that day 2000 years ago outside Caesarea Philippi.

Our freedom is not found in the places of this world but in our heart and who we place in our heart. Who is in your heart?

“Achieving Wisdom”

A Meditation for 16 August, 2015, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), based on 1 Kings 2: 10 – 12, 3: 3 – 14; Ephesians 5: 15 – 20; and John 6: 51 – 58

And there is Paul telling the Ephesians to wake up and climb out of their coffin. The last time that I used this reading (“What Does The Future Hold?”) I pointed out that this was a very interesting way to talk about thinking outside the box.

The first thing that Solomon asked for was wisdom; he knew that everything else would come if he had wisdom.

The powers that be could not understand what Jesus was saying. They were so hung up on the the current situation that it was almost impossible for them to see what was going on. And I am not entirely sure that they would have know what to do if they did know what was going on.

It is very much the same today. We focus on the present so much that we have no way of seeing or even envisioning what may take place tomorrow. We have been so concerned about our students not learning anything we have forgotten that the achievement of learning requires teaching them how to learn, not simply understanding untold number of facts.

And we as a society are quite willing to accept the words of a few self-appointed individuals as the truth and we do so without questioning or in face of the fact that what they are saying is not truth.

And quite honestly, many of those who espouse to be our religious leaders today, who tell us we need to live in a Christian society (while they themselves do not), would probably not recognize Jesus or would say that he doesn’t know what He is talking about, just as their 1st century counter-parts did.

And in the end, it does not matter what someone else tells you to think; it is what you decide to think that counts. But that means that you must study, you must seek, and you must be open to the whole world.

As I said, the first thing that Solomon sought when he became King was wisdom because that would give him the tools he needed to achieve other things.

How do we go about achieving that wisdom? It is by asking questions and seeking answers, not simply accepting what others tell you to say and/or do. Granted, if your teacher tells you early on that 1 and 1 is 2, it would be a good idea to accept that as the truth but you can always test the question but using a calculator to confirm the addition. Ultimately, of course, you have to do the calculations and trust the answers but that is part of the process of achieving wisdom.

Wisdom starts with some basic knowledge but to achieve wisdom you have to go beyond the basic information. Jesus gave everyone the same basic information and showed everyone how to get it; it was then and is now up to the individual to finish the task. We are pushed to think outside the box when we seek wisdom, the same wisdom that allowed Solomon to be one of the great Kings of Israel. But more than that, this gives us opportunities to further the Kingdom of God in ways that we may never know otherwise.

“Changing The World”

Meditation for 31 August 2014, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Labor Day

Exodus 3: 1 – 15, Romans 12: 9 – 21, Matthew 16: 21 — 28

I don’t know about you but there is something “different” about this being the last day of August and yet being the Labor Day weekend. But every now and then, the 1st day of September is going to be the 1st Monday in September and Labor Day weekend begins in August.

I felt that because it was a little different I would have a little different take on the idea of Labor Day and focus on that which we can do with our labors.

Some years ago I used about a phrase that rather intrigued me at the time. It was “vision with action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” This phrase comes from Joel A. Barker and, while I have never heard of this individual, he took the idea of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift and applied it to the business world. (from “What’s The Next Step?”)

Now, as it happened, eight months later I was at the same church and I used a phrase that Willie Nelson said, “one person cannot change the world but one person with a message could.” As I recall, he pointed out that Jesus and the message he carried on the back roads of the Galilee was one prime example. (from “What Does Your Church Look Like?”)

But I didn’t tie the two statements together. Now, obviously I think that these two statements work together. But I think that the question remains as to how it would apply to each one of us. Clearly Jesus had a vision and he was developing a plan that would implement His mission. And clearly we, individually and collectively, are the means by which that mission will be accomplished.

But I sometimes wonder if we, individually and collectively, understand that is what we are supposed to be doing. We are so stuck in this time and place that we cannot see create a new vision. And if we are unable to create a new vision, then, as the saying from Proverbs 29: 18 goes, “without vision, the people perish.”

So you will say to me, “Who am I to take on the world?” You will say to me, “I cannot do anything significant in this world.” You will say, “I can’t even talk right! I wouldn’t know what to say!”

And I will say that you know your Bible, especially the Old Testament pretty well for your responses are the responses of Moses and the prophets when they were called by God and tell the people.

I have used a quote by George Bernard Shaw about asking why and why not but always from a reference to the times that Robert Kennedy used it during his Presidential campaign in 1968. It would appear that Senator Kennedy borrowed the idea of the quote from his brother, President Kennedy. In his speech to the Irish Parliament on June 28, 1963 John Kennedy said, in part,

This is an extraordinary country. George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, summed up an approach to life: Other people, he said “see things and say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were and I say: ‘Why not?'”

It is that quality of the Irish, that remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination, that is needed more than ever today. The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not. It matters not how small a nation is that seeks world peace and freedom, for, to paraphrase a citizen of my country (William Jennings Bryan), “the humblest nation of all the world, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of Error.”

And if does not matter the size of the nation, then it should not matter how many individuals seek to change the world.

There has to be a point where the cries of the people, both here in this country and around the world, are so loud that people must respond. How long can we go on in a world where the rich keep getting richer, the powerful continue to grab more and more power for themselves while there is a continued increase in the number of poor and the resources of the world diminished, all in the name of greed and the lust for power?

How long can we continue in a world where the powerful and the rich see other people as pawns in their own games, not as individuals with their own rights?

How long will it take before we realize that anger and violence will never remove anger and violence from this world? How long will the words of the Bible which speak of peace be ignored simply because we think that it is easier to respond in kind, with hatred, anger, and violence?

The thing is that we probably cannot change the world by ourselves if all we are interested in is ourselves. I don’t know what it is but it seems to me that when you begin to become rich and powerful, your focus becomes on keeping your riches and your power; you become self-centered and you know longer care about how you became rich or power. You only care about staying that way and you don’t care what you have to do to maintain that. You become blind to the fact that in your grab for all there is, you ultimately have everything and there is nothing left. And if there is nothing left, then sooner or later, you must consume yourself. To ignore others, to not share what you have will lead to your demise and destruction. It is, I believe, the inevitable outcome of greed; to be consumed by your own desires.

For whatever reason, this is what we have come to believe in our society; that we are incapable of seeing beyond today and we no longer have a vision for the future. And if we are to survive, individually and collectively, we must break the cycle of the present and began to see the future.

The term “paradigm shift” is an often abused and definitely misunderstood phrase in today’s society. To have a true paradigm shift, one must change their view of the present situation, not merely seek a change. Too many people today think that any change in the way we do things, especially if it is radical or steps outside the normal operation, is a paradigm shift.

But no matter how much change occurs, if it is all external and the message remains the same, nothing will actually change. It doesn’t do any good to change the appearance of things if the thinking behind the changes is the same. Thomas Kuhn, the creator of the term (from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), called a paradigm shift a complete change in thinking. (adapted from “The Decision We Must Make”)

And this is where each one of us has to make a decision. Shall we try to change the world in terms of the present mode of thinking or is there an alternative way to seek solutions to the problems of the world? Quite honestly, I don’t see how we can change the world if we don’t seek alternative solutions.

It is important that we note how Jesus responded to Peter upon Peter’s exclamation that Jesus’ impending death and resurrection were impossible. Of course, under present thinking, Peter was right but Jesus was offering a new way to see the world.

Think about what Paul is writing in Romans, “if your enemy is hungry, give them something to eat; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Paul, referring to the Old Testament Scriptures, echoes what Jesus told the disciples, and spoke of actions that ran counter to popular and current opinion.

In his book, The Age of Unreason, Charles Handy noted that Jesus changed the thinking of the time by teaching that the meek shall inherit the earth, the poor shall be blessed, and the first shall be last in the ultimate scheme of things (adapted from “Whose House?”).

I will not say that we, individually and/or collectively, cannot change the world. But it will be rather difficult to do so without a vision that does not speak of the world we envision. And our track record in that regard is rather dismal, if the present state of the world is any indication.

Moses feared that he would not be able to lead the people out of Egypt. But God pointed out that He would be there all along the way and that success would follow.

But, if we think about what Jesus said to the disciples that day some two thousand years ago and we accept Jesus in our hearts and our minds, then the change that we seek is possible.

When we accept Christ as our Savior, the world changes. Oh, it will not necessarily be an immediate change and it will not change unless we help to make the change. But the world will change.

There are those who would say that the world cannot change and we have to accept the outcome that lies before us. But that was the world into which Christ came and the world did change.

We see a world without hope, without justice, without compassion and we wonder if there ever will be a time when, in the words of Amos (5: 24) justice will flow like a stream and righteousness will be like a river that never runs dry.

When Jesus stood before the people and announced the beginning of His ministry, He said that He had come to proclaim the Good News to the poor, pardon the prisoners, recovery sight to the blind, set the burdened and battered free, and proclaim the Jubilee. It was time to act.

And it is time to act today. The fact is that we alone, even collectively, cannot change the world in a way that would really mean change. But in accepting Christ as our Savior, we accept a new vision and we are given the ability and power to do so.

If you have not done so, you need to open your heart, mind, and soul to Christ. If you have accepted Christ as your Savior, you need to open your heart, mind, and soul to the power of the Holy Spirit and become empowered to change the world.

“Why Are We Here?”

This was to be the message that I presented for the Friday Night Vespers in the Garden series at Grace UMC this past Friday. But as I noted in the first line, the weather was pretty bad Friday morning and we had flash food advisories all over the place. In fact, this is what it looked like a little earlier in the day (photo shared by a friend on Facebook:

So, when it was all said and done, we cancelled the Vespers for Friday. But we are planning on having Vespers tonight and then this coming Friday, so if you are in the neighborhood, come on by.

I based this message primarily on the passage from Isaiah (Isaiah 1, 10 – 20) but also used the readings from Hebrews (Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16) and Luke (Luke 12: 32 – 40).

So why are we here this Friday evening in the Grace UMC garden, especially with the weather the way it was this morning (for those reading this, it rained for the better part of the morning and caused the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood advisory for the area)? And why will we gather in our respective churches on Sunday morning or perhaps again here in the garden Sunday evening? Shouldn’t we be home resting from a long work week and preparing for a short but hectic weekend?


Well, first of all, worship isn’t supposed to be an add-on to what we do but rather a moment when we can gather as a group to be with God. It doesn’t matter if it is on a Friday night, a Saturday morning, or sometime on a Sunday; we have gathered to pause and be with God, to refresh our souls as much as we refresh our bodies.

I think sometimes we fail to realize that. We make the argument that we need our rest, that we need to recharge. But recharging our soul doesn’t simply shutting down for a period of time. It means putting back in what has been taken out. Our gathering together for worship should be to provide that opportunity.

But what was it that made God so mad in the passage from Isaiah that we read today. It wasn’t that the people of Israel had gathered together in worship but what they had done to the worship and what they had done to the concept of a society of God’s people.

In one sense, God has called the bluff of the Israelite people and said that He is tired of what they have substituted for true worship. Now, I suppose we could have a rather lengthy and deep discussion on the rituals and practices of religious ceremonies two thousand years ago and why God, through Isaiah, is complaining. It would seem to me that, while based on what God had laid out as the pattern for worship in the early days of the Exodus, worship had begun to borrow more and more from the neighbors and from the secular world. It was no longer what it was meant to be.

There are passages in the Old Testament that lay out what the people are supposed to be doing and when they are supposed to be doing it in terms of worshiping God. God was very specific in what the people were to do because they were just beginning to understand who they were and what their relationship to God was to be and what their relationship with others in their own community and other communities was to be. But, by the time we get to Isaiah, this group of people is no longer wandering through the wilderness, figuratively and physically, but well established as a country and an identity. They should understand the nature of worship and their relationship with God.

But they don’t, as we know from a study of the Old Testament. It isn’t just that the Israelites have this very frightening tendency to forget the who, the why, and the how of worship and would, more often than not, borrow the worship habits of their neighbors; they also forget the relationship with God. It would seem to me that they had allowed a priestly class, designed to assist them in worship, become a ruling class, dictating how to live and think.

No wonder God is so angry. The practice of worship had become something of a routine and when things become a routine, you sometimes have trouble remembering what it is you do.

I was once told that most car accidents occur close to home. I don’t know how true that is today but I think it is very logical. You are comfortable in your home surroundings and you don’t necessarily look for things out of place. When you are in a new area, one that you don’t know, you tend to pay more attention to what you are doing. Accidents occur when you stop paying attention. When we stop paying attention to the simple things, the harder things become that much harder.

The same is true in church today. Often times when I go out to another church to provide pulpit supply I use the order of worship that is in place at that church. That’s fine because I am there to do one thing and that is not to change the ways things are. But I have also been told on more than one occasion that the congregation is not comfortable with changing the order of worship and that is frightening. Are the people so locked into a manner of worship that they can only to do things by the numbers? I have come to believe that the greatest problem in many congregations today is that change is not welcome – “this is they way that it was done when I came here; this is the way that it is done now; and this is the way that it will be tomorrow and for years to come.”

God points out that the Israelites are going through the motions, making notes on what they have done, the meetings they have attended, the grade of meat they provide for the church BBQ, whoops, sacrifices. But after it is all said and done, they go back to the same old lifestyle, one of sin and hatred, violence and greed, oppression and injustice.

There are two constant themes in the Bible and we know them well. Throughout the Old Testament, we are reminded that it is our relationship with God and others and how we react to each that is important. Even Jesus reminded his critics of these two points.

When the church members found out that he had cooked the liberals’ goose, they ganged up on him, and one of their bright boys, trying to get Jesus over a barrel, asked, “Doctor, what is the most important commandment in the Bible?”

Jesus said, “’You shall love your Lord God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind.’ This is the greatest and most important commandment. Next to it is this one: ‘You shall love your fellow man as yourself.’ The whole Bible hinges on these two.” (Matthew 34 – 40; The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan

You cannot do either of these if all you do is go through the motions. The key word in what Jesus said, at least to me, is “love”. I am sure that you can take care of the hungry, the needy, the sick, and the oppressed and do it without an ounce of love but what do you get out of it in the end and what do the people get as well.

So why are we here today; why will we be in worship on Sunday? I turn to the first part of the Gospel reading for today

What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

In the Cotton Patch Gospels, Clarence Jordan translated the second sentence of that passage as “Your Father has decided to make your responsible of the Movement.” In the verses that follow the passage from Luke, Dr. Jordan pointed out that those who do the work of God will be rewarded and those who don’t do the work that is expected will be in a lot of trouble. And that brings us back to Isaiah.

There is a song that we sing that opens with the following words,

Some come to dance

Some come to play

Some merely come to pass time away

Some come to laugh

Their voices do ring

But as for me

I come here to sing

We have come here to sing and praise, to refresh and renew, to hear the word and live the word. And then when the worship is over, to go out into the world and continue to do what God wants us to do.

Some will come because they are seeking God. If those who have come to this place and this time and come for their own selfish needs, to gather points for some unknown reward card, those who seek God will not find Him. But if those who are here have come to be with God, those who seek God will surely find Him.

The question seems simple but is complex. But the answer is often times very simple. I have come because I seek Christ and I know that in this worship I will find Christ and I will be able to help others to find Christ.

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

“Oppression or Freedom”

This is the message that I will present for the Sunday Vespers in the Garden series on August 19, 2013 (12th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) at Grace UMC in Newburgh this evening at 7 pm. The Scriptures used were 2 Samuel 18: 24 – 33, Ephesians 5: 15 – 20, and John 6: 51 – 58 (the Common Lectionary selections for today). We will be dedicating the Children’s Garden Cross this evening and you are invited to be a part of the service (see “A Litany for a Cross Dedication”)

When I was a college sophomore I came across a quote from the Greek Herodotus which essentially said “no one is foolish enough to prefer war over peace; in which, instead of children bury their parents, parents bury their children.”

There are probably very few people who cannot relate to David’s cry upon hearing the death of his son, Absalom. No parent, no child, no sibling wants to know that a loved one has died in war or through some senseless act of violence. We understand that death is a part of life but we want it to be at the end of life, not before its time. Those deaths upset the order of nature.

We can only begin to imagine what Adam and Eve must have felt when they were told that their son Cain had murdered their son Abel. And what must Mary, Jesus’ mother, have felt as she sat at the foot of the Cross on that first Good Friday and watched her son slowly die. How did she feel when Jesus said to John, the beloved disciple, “behold your mother” and to her, “behold your son.” What did she think when she heard others mock her son with “he saved others, let him save himself.”

The people that day saw the cross for what it was, a symbol of Roman power. The people that day saw the cross for it what it was, a sign that this what you can expect when you challenge Roman authority. The cross that day was a cruel reminder that the Pax Romana was established through force and oppression and that resistance or opposition would not be tolerated.

The religious authorities who had conspired with the Roman authorities to place Jesus on that cross must have felt pleased that another of God’s so-called messengers had been taken care of and his disciples and followers would soon disappear back into the Judean and Galilean countryside. In a few more days, their version of heaven, earth, and God’s kingdom would be restored.

But we know that some forty-eight hours later, on that first Easter morning, all of that would change. God’s Kingdom would be re-established, not through oppression and legal maneuvering that upheld tradition but through the power of God over sin and death. The Cross on which Christ died would no longer be a symbol of oppression and tyranny but one of freedom, freedom from the tyranny of sin and death.

Our challenge this evening is to make sure that others, here tonight, in this neighborhood and community, in this town and throughout the state, nation and world, know that the cross, this cross and others like it represents freedom and not oppression, love and not hate, justice and not vengeance.

No longer can we hold onto the views that say this is the way that things are and there is nothing that we can do about it. Paul commanded the people of Ephesus to wake up, climb out of the box of death they had become entrapped in and change their lives. To stand by and live your lives as if nothing can change is to say that you wish to die; but who will cry for you? That is a life lived in darkness.

Paul reminds us that Christ gave us the light that would enable us to see the world, a light which would drive away the evil that can only survive in the darkness. Henri J. M. Nouwen wrote,

Only when we have come in touch with our own life experiences and have learned to listen to our inner cravings for liberation and new life can we realize that Jesus did not just speak, but that he reached out to us in our most personal needs. The Gospel doesn’t just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition. The Church is not so much an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables. Doctrines are not alien formulations which we must adhere to but the documentation of the most profound human experiences which, transcending time and place, are handed over from generation to generation. It is light in our our darkness. (– from Reaching Out by Henri J. M. Nouwen)

That work does not begin tonight; it continues what was begun some five years ago. We remember when we began working on the gardens, first on the prayer garden in the corner and then this garden, the children’s garden that people would steal the statuary and the flowers. Some things have disappeared but not while they were in the garden. There were those who feared for Ann’s safety as she worked in the garden early in the morning but no one has touched her and there have been many offers of help.

I won’t say that these are holy grounds though someone will have to explain why the tomatoes in the vegetable garden weren’t affected by the tomato blight that struck this area a couple of years ago.

This is an area of peace and the people know it. This is the place that people come to find the Holy Spirit, to be refreshed and renewed. People sought out Jesus because He offered them hope, He offered them the promise that there was a possibility to life. He offered the people the Bread of Life, a chance for a better life. That is why these gardens are here.

Eleven years ago, each one of us, directly or through family or friends, cried out as David cried out. There were some who sought to gain revenge, to extract in blood some sense of judgment. To those this cross is a cross of oppression but it is a cross that cannot provide the answers. If we see this cross as such, we will never find the answers because the answers cannot be found in oppression or violence. But if we see this cross for what it truly is, then there is hope, there is promise.

So as this day draws to a close, as darkness begins, let us remember that the light of Christ shines. Let us remember that two thousand years ago, there was a change in life, a change from oppression to freedom.

“What Does the Future Hold?”

I am at Fishkill United Methodist Church (Fishkill, NY) this Sunday; service is at 9:30 am and you are welcome to attend. I will also be at Grace UMC in Newburgh this evening for the Sunday of the Vespers in the Garden series and the dedication of the Children’s Garden Cross. We will start at 7 pm and you are welcome to attend as well.

Note added on August 20, 2012 – Fishkill UMC tapes the sermons and posts them on their web site at “Listen to the Sermon – Fishkill United Methodist Church”.

For those who have a strong sense of deja vu, yes, I have stood in this pulpit before with the most recent time being June 26, 2005. If there is a regularity or a cyclic nature to life, then I, God willing and the Fishkill Creek don’t rise, should again stand in this pulpit for Laity Sunday, October 13, 2019. But it is very difficult to plan, let alone imagine what will happen in the future because such plans are based in part on what we know today rather than what we might know tomorrow. In fact, where we go tomorrow is very much dependent on what we do and where we are today. That can make for a very uncertain future.

Right now, this world, this country, this society faces two distinctly possible, though different, paths to the future. Both are equally plausible, possible and both are based on what is occurring today.

There is the culture of fear that seems to underlie the current campaign rhetoric in this country that seems to get more vicious and less civil with each passing day. We are reminded of the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting (a shooting that occurred less than two miles from where I lived and went to church from 1963 – 1965), the shootings at the Sikh Temple outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin and other multiple shootings in Texas and Oklahoma. We would like to think that campaign rhetoric is only words and that words don’t always matter but words of hate, coming from ignorance, have always lead to the worst of outcomes. We would like to think that each of those shootings are isolated and perhaps they are; but when you live in a world where violence is commonplace, violence quickly becomes the answer to the most mundane problems. We wake up each morning to the bloody civil war in Syria and the repeated incidents of sectarian violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Perhaps, again, these are isolated incidents and they certainly don’t affect us, but an isolated act of violence in Sarajevo, Bosnia began a series of actions that lead to World War I.

Against this backdrop of literally constant death and destruction, of hatred and ignorance, a small vehicle, perhaps not much bigger than a Volkswagen “bug”, landed on Mars. Joining its companions, Sojourner (which landed on July 4, 1997), and the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity will seek answers to questions humankind has been asking ever since we first looked up into the night sky and wondered what was out there and if we are alone in the vastness of the universe?

As I said, both of these paths are possible and very much in opposite directions, so much so that we have to be careful which one we choose. While I think that it should be intuitively obvious which one we should choose, there are those who would argue that spending the sums of money that we have spent on space exploration was wasted money and better spent here on earth. To ignore the unknown in favor of the known may be perhaps a wise choice but how will we ever find out what is unknown if we do not seek to find it? If we do not seek the unknown, we are not using what is perhaps the greatest ability God has given us and that is our ability to think.

There is a vast storage of knowledge in this world to be discovered but discovering it doesn’t necessarily mean that we can use it. How we use the knowledge that we have discovered, that we have gained will be the means by which we determine which path we will walk. It is our wisdom or lack of wisdom that will set the path that we walk.

After David had died and he inherited the throne, Solomon asked God for one thing and that was wisdom, the ability to use all that he knew so that he could make the right choices. And with wisdom comes the ability to learn more about the world as well. And God told Solomon that as long as he walked the path with God, wisdom would be his; let the record tell you what happened to Solomon when he left the path. And then God gave Solomon that which he had not asked for, power and wealth.

We look around and we see individuals obsessed with power and wealth; yet our schools are suffering to provide even the basic education and are not developing the skills that lead to wisdom.

Wisdom is more than book learning. Oh, don’t get me wrong; there is clearly a need for good old-fashioned book learning. But I don’t want a surgeon reading a book about a routine operation when I am the patient. I want him to understand what he is doing and what his actions and lack of action might mean to me. I don’t want a bus driver reading a book about how to drive a bus while he or she is transporting a number of children, possibly my grandchildren; I want that driver to understand what they are doing. I want people who understand what they are doing, what’s involved, and what’s likely to happen. You cannot accomplish this if all you do is learn the book. Besides, sometimes the book is wrong.

Some of you may know that I hold a doctorate in science and chemical education. I began studying chemistry in 1966 and many of the textbooks used at that time indicated that the noble gases (helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon) could not form compounds with other elements. Yet, four years before I began studying chemistry, Neil Bartlett looked at the information about xenon and deduced that chemical compounds were in fact possible. In making those wonderfully colored crystals of xenon hexafluoroplatinate (XePtF6) Bartlett transformed the nature of our thinking about elements and compounds. Yet, despite this discovery, many teachers still taught that noble gas compounds did not exist because the book said that they didn’t. Now, it is possible that some of the teachers didn’t know that this research had occurred but others taught what was in the book because that is what you teach.

Note added on August 20, 2012 – The book that I used when I took chemistry in high school was “Modern Chemistry” by Metcalfe, Williams, and Castka.  In the 1970 edition (which I used when I first started teaching in 1971) contains the following statement, “Notable exceptions are the noble elements: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon.  The atoms of these noble gases do not combine with each other to form larger particles.”  It may be inferred from this statement that the noble gas elements do not form compounds either.  “Modern Chemistry” was the basic chemistry text for most of the country during the 1960s and had two counterparts, “Modern Physics” and “Modern Biology”, both by the same group of authors.  Their predecessors were Dull and Dumb.

Now, I suppose this wouldn’t be too bad if our students didn’t leave school with the ideas that 1) if it isn’t the book, it isn’t going to be taught and, 2) all the problems have been solved and the answers are in the back of the book (from The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy, 1990). And heaven forbid if an instructor should ask an even-numbered question when the authors only provided answers to the odd-numbered questions. Handy also noted that “Learning is discovery but discovery doesn’t happen unless you are looking. Necessity may be the mother of invention but curiosity is the mother of discovery.”

Let us look again at the Gospel reading for today. The political and religious authorities, especially the religious ones, are having problems with Jesus’ statement that He is the Bread of Life. To them, the bread of life was the manna God gave to their ancestors wandering through the Sinai during the Exodus. That was what was in the Book (the Torah) and therefore that was what was correct. It did not matter what the people saw when Jesus healed the sick or fed the hungry or gave hope to the oppressed, the bread of life was the manna from Heaven and whatever Jesus did was either false, blasphemous, or some elaborate hoax or fabrication (which too many people today feel is and was the case).

If we let ourselves get trapped by that same sort of thinking, we run the risk of becoming a dying church. But wait! We are a dying church. All the numbers, all the evidence suggest that the United Methodist Church is a dying church. The most recent issue of the Vision tells us that while the New York Annual Conference didn’t lose a whole lot of members, there was a major loss of membership across the whole country. All that is left is for some cynic, who will undoubtedly enjoy the task, to toss the last few shovels of dirt over the coffin and put the headstone in place.

But what did Paul write to the Ephesians? “Wake up, climb out of that coffin.” Find hope in the life that you have been given through Christ. And then do something that will let others know what you have found. I don’t know about you but when I read the passage from Ephesians from The Message, my first thought was that Paul was saying to do some out of the box type thinking.

If we don’t, we run the risk of becoming like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes who were trapped in their traditional and legalistic way of thinking. If we say that there is only one way to “do” church and it is my way; if we say that there is only one form of music allowed in church; or we say that only certain things qualify as missions then we are falling into that same trap. I would also add that if the church has no idea who its neighbors are or what their needs are, it is very much a trapped church. If we say that this is what we can do for the community without knowing what it is that the community needs, we are a trapped church. It is like those people who gather up things that they have worn out or no longer need and deliver them to the church so that the church can distribute them to the poor and needy. If items of clothing are worn out, what makes you think that someone else would wear them? I always find it fascinating that people will donate computers that have become obsolete; what makes them think that something that is obsolete will work for someone else? I remember talking with some of the guys in the shop at the Henderson Settlement last summer about a donation of a box, a big box, of nuts, bolts, and screws. This lady had dumped all of the screws, nuts, and bolts in her late husband’s workshop into the one box and sent it down to the Henderson settlement as a donation. Of course, when the box arrived, someone had to sort through all of those screws, nuts, and bolts! This same lady apparently kept and sold all of her late husband’s tools, tools which the guys at Henderson really could have used. What are the needs of the community and how can the church help?

There are going to be some individuals for whom the presence of the church is what they need. They need to know that there is someone who cares that they are a person. The ministry of a church is not going to necessarily be found inside the walls of the church but rather outside the walls in the community. And what the church of today must do, what each one of us must do is something radically different from what we have been doing. And while it is radically different, it is at the same time radically simple.

Let us remember what John wrote, that God so loved this world that He sent His Son so that those who believed in Him would receive everlasting life.

We have been given the Bread of Life today; partaking of this Bread offers something that no other food item can ever provide and that is the gift of eternal life, of a life free from sin and death.

What the future holds, then, is entirely up to us. We can choose to walk the path we are on, believing perhaps that it is a safe path but troubled by where it may lead us, not certain if we can change the path before it is too late. Or we can choose to walk a path with Christ, knowing that at times it will be a rough path, a difficult path, what lies at the end is greater than all the riches and power we might have on this earth.

The choice will always be ours. What the future holds is up to you and you must make the choice

A Litany For A Cross Dedication

On Sunday, August 19th, we are dedicating a cross in the Children’s Garden at Grace UMC in Newburgh, NY. This cross is made of steel I-beams from the World Trade Center and was given to the church on 9/11/2011.

My message that evening as we prepare to dedicate this cross is “Oppression or Freedom – Think Twice” and is based on 2 Samuel 18: 24 – 33, Ephesians 5: 15 – 20, and John 6: 51 – 58. I haven’t begun thinking about all that I am going to say but I do know that one theme that I will use is that “this cross is planted in a Children’s Garden and it is a garden for peace, not violence. Those who want this cross to be a symbol of violence and war must find another cross in another garden.”

I mean no disrespect to those who died in the attacks on 9/11 but I also think that the best memorial that we can offer to them is to insure that such attacks do not happen again. I want to remind the people that the Romans used the cross as a sign of oppression, a sign that one had better think twice before opposing Roman rule. I want to remind the people that the religious authorities of that day didn’t mind using the cross to remind those that followed Jesus that disturbing the status quo and the power structure wasn’t a good idea.

And finally I want to remind people that through Christ’s Resurrection, the cross is a sign of hope and freedom.

What I want to do is conclude the message with the beginning of the litany that dedicates the cross. Here are the beginning lines of that litany:

  • Let this cross be a reminder that Christ died so that we may live;
  • Let this cross, meant to be a symbol of defeat, be a symbol of victory;
  • Let this cross, meant to oppress, be a symbol of hope;
  • Let this cross remind us that in and through Christ we work for freedom and justice.I would like to add a few more lines to this. What would you suggest?

Another One

This was the message that I gave at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Bartlett, TN, on 29 August 1993. This was the 12th Sunday after Pentecost but I used Mark 8: 27 – 37 as my Scripture reading and the basis for my message. This was the 7th message I gave in my career and I was still exploring how I was going to do things. I would begin following the common lectionary two years later when I served the churches of the Chattaqua Parish in Kansas (see “Hide and Seek”) and begin using the revised common lectionary when I moved onto Memphis in 1996.

Also, this was still early in the adaptation of technology to preaching, so you will find references to scripture readings instead of the reading itself. The pulpit was very crowded that Sunday as I had my printed notes and my Bible marked with pages to turn to when I needed to read the passage.

Good Shepherd was my mother’s church (hence the references within) and it would become my church when I moved from Kansas to Memphis.

When you read the text upon which this sermon is based, Mark 8: 27 – 28, you begin to wonder how the disciples phrased their answer. I don’t think that the disciples were surprised when people said that Jesus was another of the prophets. Now people are often surprised when they find out that I am Jenny LeBouef’s oldest son.

Now they know of her son Terry, who often plays guitar here at Good Shepherd, and possibly of Tim, a fireman here in Memphis and they know of Tracey, her daughter. But when they find out that she has an third, older son, their response is often “You mean there’s another one!”

I don’t think that the people used the term “another one” in disgust either. The story is often told about an early Methodist circuit rider named Nolley who

“. . . approached a settler unloading his wagon at a new homestead in Mississippi. When Nolley told the settler who he was, the settler exclaimed, ‘Another Methodist preacher! I left Virginia for Georgia to get clear of them. There they got my wife and daughter and I came here and here’s one before I got my wagon unloaded.’

Nolley replied, ‘My friend, if you get to Heaven, you will find Methodist preachers there, and if you go to Hell, I am afraid you will find some there; and you see how it is on earth, so you had better make terms with us and be at peace.'” (E. G. Watts, We Are United Methodists, Graded Press, 1987, page 31)

No, I don’t think it was with disgust either. On the whole, I think that, if you were to have asked people of that time who Jesus was, they probably would have answered “Oh, he’s just another prophet; we’ve heard them before.”

But Jesus wasn’t another prophet. The message he gave was far different from anything the prophets might have said or done. It was also a message never given in the synagogue and it was accompanied by actions which showed there was a power behind the words. Instead of gloom, it was a message of hope and joy and a vision for the future.

That this was an entirely different message is shown by the size of the crowds who came to hear Jesus, as we can read in Matthew 4:23 to 5:1. That this was a different message is also shown by the fact that people broke down age old differences and prejudices to seek out Jesus.

The Canaanite women        –    Matthew 15: 21 – 28

The women in the crowd        –    Mark 5: 25 – 34

Zaccaheus, the tax collector    –    Luke 19: 1 – 5

Today, our church faces a similar challenge. It must find ways to take the Gospel message outside the church walls; it must help those who have turned away to come back to Jesus.

I am speaking primarily of that generation we call the “baby boomers”, adults who during the 60’s turned away from the church and who are now seeking to return. I am also speaking of the children of this generation, known as the “baby busters”, who are now just making their own spiritual decisions. And close behind is another generation, the “baby boomlets”, whose spiritual well-being the church must concern itself with.

We hear and read that, in order to bring these groups into the church fold, the church must change. But too often churches change the message when it is the approach which must change.

The message Jesus gave us is still valid today but it cannot be presented in a language no one understands. The actions supporting the message must also reflect the message. “Boomers” left the church in the early 60’s in larger numbers than any other generation before in part because they no longer trusted the church. The message given by the church offered no hope or peace at a time when the country was torn apart.

The “boomers” went looking for a spiritual home but found a church whose message was as slick and superficial as the society they lived in. If we are not careful, the church today will lose the “busters” and the “boomlets” for the same reasons.

John Wesley understood the need for the church to present a message the people understood. A church blind to the needs of its members or its community cannot do its work. You cannot preach of the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood that an individual, having accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior, had the responsibility to show that he had done so. This meant helping the community

Now, English law prevented Wesley and the other early Methodist preachers from preaching in established churches and the law also made it difficult for their followers to build their own churches. This forced the Methodist Revival into the countryside. While this may have been intended to hold the movement down, it had the opposite effect because it took the Gospel message to the people. In taking the Gospel to the people, it became possible to put the Gospel into action.

A church which seeks to grow today, a church which feels the need to do more than exist from Sunday to Sunday must do two things. First, it must offer to all who seek it a chance to enter into that loving relationship with Jesus. Second, it must take its activities beyond the church walls.

Jesus never turned away anyone who sought His ministry. His disciples might have wished that he had ignored the Canaanite women but Jesus told her to come to Him. The scribes and Pharisees surely spoke ill of this man who would dare to eat with Zaccaheus, the tax collector and sinner. But Jesus’ ministry was not limited to a select few; it was open to all.

The Church of England in John Wesley’s time may have turned its back on the poor and lower classes but John Wesley knew that he could not do so.

Those who seek a spiritual home, those who are making that most important spiritual decision are all looking for that loving relationship that the church can provide. Will they find it?

The answer lies not with the pastor but with the people. The same studies that tell the church it must change if it is to grow also tell us that an individual returns to a church a second time if someone other than the pastor greeted them the first time they visited them.

We tell each other that Jesus loves us but do we show that love to others? Do we allow the Grace of Jesus Christ that is in our hearts, that warming of our souls, to be felt by others?

Today Jesus asks us the same questions he asked the disciples on the road to Caesarea Philippi: “But who do YOU say that I am?”
(Mark 8: 29)

Are we prepared to follow Christ as He asked in verses 34 – 38 of Mark 8?

When John the Baptist was in jail, he became concerned over the stories his followers told of this man from Galilee. – a reading from Matthew 11: 2 – 6

Could we respond the same way today?