“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?

“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.

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?

Welcome Home

This was the message that I presented on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 15, 1999, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 45: 1 – 15; Romans 11: 1 – 2, 29 -32; and Matthew 15: (10 -20), 21 – 28.

The scriptures for this morning reminded me of a couple of episodes in my own life. The story in the Old Testament of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers after being separated from them for about 20 years reminded me, to some extent, of what happened when I returned to Memphis in 1980 after having left in 1968 to go to school in Missouri.

Now it should be noted that I am the oldest of four children, not the eleventh of twelve sons. And when I moved from Tennessee to Missouri to continue my college studies, I was going of my own accord. Joseph, of course, went to Egypt because his brothers had sold him into slavery.

Like Joseph, my contacts with my family after I left were limited and, after I graduated from college and was married, virtually non-existent. So it was that when I returned to Memphis in 1980, those people who knew my father and my two brothers were somewhat shocked, as were Joseph’s brothers, to discover my existence (the general acknowledgement of my presence was often “My God, do you mean that there’s another one!”). And like Joseph, I recall a great exhilaration on returning to my family.

But the major difference between my story of separation and that of Joseph’s was that my brothers and sister knew that I was alive and, most of the time, where I was living. Joseph’s brothers had no idea that he was still alive and that he had risen to such a position of power and authority.

And it is safe to say that my brothers and their friends was far less frightened that were Joseph’s brothers when he told them who he was. After all, he had far more power than they could ever conceive and their first thought must have surely been that he was going to seek revenge for what they had done to him. And I don’t doubt that Joseph sensed that fear. For as the scripture said,

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.

He sought to comfort them and let them know that all was part of God’s plan.

God’s plan is an interesting phrase. For it can suggest that all is ordained before hand. But if that is the case, it also means that nothing we do changes things. Quite simply, then, there would be no need for us to meet today or at any other time, for we would have no reason to celebrate Christ’s presence in our lives; we would have no hope.

And like the woman of Canaan in the Gospel reading for today, we could not seek out Jesus. But that is not the case. God’s plan offers us hope, to know that through our Savior Jesus Christ, we always have salvation. God’s plan is for us to come home to Him. It is that very plan that Paul writes about, “For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” God shows us his mercy but we must come to Him seeking forgiveness.

Jesus alluded to that plan when the woman from Canaan came to him that day, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” While that may have meant only the Jews of Jesus’ time, we have come to know that all who are lost can be saved by Christ.

The other episode that the scriptures today reminded me about occurred during the spring of 1969 while I was at college. That year had not been a good one for me and I struggled with many questions. But the one light in my life that year was the presence of Jesus.

Now I grew up going to church on Sunday. So, going away to college meant that I could sleep late on Sunday morning. But I quickly found out that I couldn’t do that. It was important to me that on Sunday morning that I go to church, to a place where I had a home and security.

First United Methodist Church in Kirksville offered me a home and a place of security at a time when it was most needed. So, when it came time for me to go back to Memphis for Easter, I felt that I needed to first celebrate communion at my own church. So I went to Marvin Fortel, the pastor at First that year, and asked if there were some way I could take communion before leaving for the spring break.

Reverend Fortel was surprised by this request. No other student had ever made such a request before but he agreed and we met at the chapel of the church. Rather than a formal observance of the communion ritual, we sat down together and discussed what the words of the ritual meant.

I remember arguing with Reverend Fortel about the words that we find on page 30 of our present hymnal, those words that the Canaanite woman spoke to Jesus so many years ago. It seemed to me, with all the wisdom of a college sophomore, that it wasn’t fair. Didn’t Christ’s sacrifice on the cross mean that we could sit at God’s table? How can we, who were saved by the grace of God, not be allowed to sit at God’s table? Wasn’t that why Jesus died for us? Wasn’t admission to God’s kingdom granted to us because Jesus died for us?

But I had it backwards. It is by Christ’s death and our faith that we are saved. Like Joseph taken away from his home in slavery, sin takes us away from our home in heaven.

Deep sadness and an aching loneliness mark life in exile. The cries of Joseph upon being reunited with his brothers were heard throughout the palace. It is expressed in the words of Hymn 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” which we sing at Advent, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

The feeling of being separated from home and longing for home runs deeply in us. It may be one of the reasons the movie E. T. was so popular. Those who saw the movie can remember E. T. pointing his finger at the sky and saying in a haunting voice filled with prolonged yearning, “Home.” In our own lives, the experience of exile as estrangement or alienation can be felt as a flatness, a loss of connection with a center of vitality and meaning, when one day becomes very much like another and nothing has much zest. We yearn for something that we perhaps only vaguely remember. Life in exile thus has a profound existential meaning. It is living away from Zion, the place where God is present.

But if our problem is exile, of being separated from God and our home with him, what is the solution? The solution is a journey of return. The invitation for communion that I took some thirty years ago starts over with “Ye who truly and earnestly repent of your sins”. The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent” originally meant “return”. The invitation to return sounds throughout the second half of the book of Isaiah, spoken by a prophet whose name we do not know.

In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40: 3 – 4)

The beautiful and powerful language of this prophet has become familiar to us through Handel’s use in his work, The Messiah.

But, as Paul pointed out, God does not reject us and He has not forgotten us. The gifts that God has for us are irrevocable. God knows that we have sinned but still grants us mercy when we seek Him.

We may be like the Canaanite woman, thinking we are outcast but by our faith in Christ, we can hear God speaking to us, “welcome home.” It is the longing for home expressed in the gospel hymn (#348) “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling to you and to me.” The invitation is given to you this morning. If we believe in Jesus, He becomes a part of us. If we open our hearts to Him this morning, then we know can hear God saying to us, “Welcome Home.”

A New Beginning

Here are my thoughts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2011. I will be at Dover Plains UMC; the service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures are Exodus 12: 1 – 14, Romans 13: 8 – 14, and Matthew 18: 15 – 20.

I will also be at Grace UMC in Newburgh for the final Sunday of the Vespers in the Garden series. We will start at 7 pm and you are welcome to attend as well.

There is something intriguing about this particular Sunday. There is in the Old Testament reading for today a celebration, a celebration that we understand in the context of an organized religious practice but, as we read today, began as a family gathering. And the calendar tells us that we are or should be celebrating the American worker and his or her role in the building of this country. There is also the looming shadow of next week before us as well.

I say that it is a looming shadow because I am certain that while speaker after speaker, preacher and politician alike, will speak of the honor, courage and sacrifice of countless individuals, there will also be those who call for more sacrifice. But I fear that the call for sacrifice will be from those who have already sacrificed while others who have gained and profited from the ten years of war will continue to contribute nothing to the effort. And with countless families being threatened with home foreclosures and the loss of work, with countless workers being told they must take pay cuts and a reduction in benefits for the sake of the company, all the time while company after company reports record profits and jobs are exported overseas I am not entirely sure that we need to hear those words this time.

There seems to be a mentality in today’s society that runs completely counter to the words spoken by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. We are more than willing to confront those who oppose us but not in the style and manner that Jesus said; we want the confrontation, we want the chance to strike at our enemies and banish them from this world. We are not comfortable with the notion that maybe there is a solution in ways other than violence and war. There are alternatives to violence and war and yet we are not willing to look for them.

And if what is said between two individuals is eternal, be it a yes or a no, then we must choose our words carefully. When Patrick Henry rose before the Virginia House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, he began the speech, for which he is best known by first saying,

We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

Yes, Patrick Henry would argue for war but his argument for war came from the evidence that was before him.

Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! 

But we entered a war ten years ago on our own. We have elected to walk a path that was fed by lies and deceit, not truth. We had a chance to do it right but we did not. And now we are paying the price. We have bought into the rhetoric of those who see power in the same way that the Egyptians and Romans controlled the Israelites, through slavery and oppression.

Countless individuals have accepted the argument espoused by corporation and political bigwigs that union rules work against them. History tells us what it was like for the American worker before there were unions. History also tells us that corporations have always used the notion that unionization would work against the best interests of the worker. Excuse me if I sound a bit cynical but I get the impression that we are going to bring back the good old days when twelve-year olds worked in the mills and the mines. And let us not forget that one of the reasons for the Passover Feast was to remind the people of the life they had lead in Egypt before the exodus; a life as slaves.

It is not that I have anything against corporations. After all, there has to be some sort of organization in order for individuals to have jobs. But, when the interests of the corporation overshadow the interests of the workers who toil for the corporation then there is something severely wrong in this country. I am reminded that John Wesley had nothing against anyone earning as much as they possibly could but it was not to be earned through the oppression of the worker. And John Wesley made it abundantly clear that though one could earn as much as they could, they were to save as much as they could and then give away as much as they could.

But we have bought into the words of the hucksters and the scammers, politician and preacher alike that the best possible outcome is to have it all. And then once we have it all, we are to keep it for ourselves. In our efforts to earn as much as we can, we somehow have forgotten those two other conditions.

I am not enough of a Wesleyan scholar to know the basis for Wesley’s financial statement but I am sure part of it comes from Paul’s words to the Romans, especially the part about not running up debts and then making sure that you are not absorbed and exhausted by day-to-day obligations. When the focus becomes such that we are more concerned with the day-to-day stuff, it is quite possible that we lose track of things far more important, such as family and home.

So maybe we should think again about that time when families gathered together and prepared a feast to remember. Let us remember that it was the Methodist Church, following John Wesley’s example that brought about a revolution that saved England and brought about true social reform. This will come as a shock to many who see the church in terms of a fortress with iron gates and a moat that will protect them from the evil of the world around them.

But what did the Israelites put on their door to protect them from the Angel of Death, sent by God, the night of that First Passover? It was the blood of the sacrificed lamb. We don’t need to mark our doors as they did because Jesus died on the cross for that very same reason. The blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, will protect us if we are willing to accept Him as our Savior.

But we must be willing to put aside our worldly concerns and live for Christ. This is what Paul wrote to the Romans; this is what John Wesley discovered that night in the chapel on Aldersgate Street. It is that opportunity for a new beginning that we are offered at this moment, this time, and this place. Three thousand years ago, the Israelite nation began its journey from slavery to independence. It was a new beginning for them. Today, through Christ, we are offered the same opportunity to escape slavery, slavery from sin and death, and have a new beginning, a new life. That is something worth celebrating.

The Time and Place

On this 12th Sunday after Pentecost, I am once again at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 32: 22 – 31, Romans 9: 1- 5, Matthew 14: 13 – 21.  I have edited this since it was first posted on Saturday.


As I began working on this sermon my thoughts turned to a saying from the Talmud. It says that

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

I first came across this passage when I read about John Kennedy’s quest to become president. It was an explanation of the thinking involved in why he, President Kennedy, sought the presidency in 1960. It would not surprise me that many of those who have sought that office, both before 1960 and since then, have had pretty much the same thought.

And, no matter what our own ambitions might be, we have probably all had that same thought; that we have been or are in a particular place and time because we were meant to be there. It is perhaps a continuation of Paul’s thoughts over the past few weeks that we are responding to God’s plan. But the problem is that while we may think that we are where God would like us to be, we may not, in fact, be in that time and place. But as I worked on this thought and things have progressed this week, I have come to a conclusion that there are two meanings to this thought of being in a particular place at a particular time.

There is that time when we personally encounter God through Christ. And there is that time when others will encounter Christ through us.

Consider what is happening to Jacob in the Old Testament reading for today. He is returning to his home after some fourteen years. He is returning with two wives, two maids, and eleven sons. He is wealthy and his life is far beyond what he might have expected. Yet, he is worried. He has heard a rumor that his brother Esau is sending some four hundred men to meet him. When he last saw Esau, Esau had threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright. And with this rumor of the four hundred men coming, Jacob is worried. No matter how much wealth Jacob gained, no matter how much he sends to his brother, he is struggling with the fact that his wealth and well-being is due in part to how he treated his brother.

This is a time of great struggle for Jacob. As the commentary notes, Jacob had struggled almost from birth. He was born clutching the heel of his brother Esau and then he struggled with Laban, his kinsman, concerning his marriage to Rachel. And now, he is truly afraid. In the preceding passages, Jacob is doing everything he can think of to appease Esau for the wrong that he did to him. Amidst all of his own personal struggles, he encounters God, even though he doesn’t know that it is God. This encounter comes because Jacob is trying to resolve the problems of his life through the ways and means of society’s rules. His encounter with God is to change his life and, in changing his life, change the future.

At one time or another in our life, we have experienced what Jacob is going through in this passage and the preceding ones. And just like Jacob, we may not even know that where we are is where we will encounter God.

We see the world around us and we wonder if we have done the right thing. In a world where faith has become abused, belittled, and limited, we struggle with our own faith because we are not certain if it is enough. We ask why we must struggle because we have been a person of faith, faithful to God and His work while others say the words of faith while their actions belie their faith. It is a personal struggle and it can be defeating; it causes many to question the very existence of God and the purpose that He has for each one of us.

The problem is that we often have no way of knowing or finding out what the Will of God is. We seek the answers to such questions from a society that cannot give us the answers. And our struggle is hard because society and the times we live in make faith so superficial. The answer will never be found in present-day society. Evelyn Underhill wrote,

I do not think that any general answer can be given to this. In clear moral or political issues, we must surely judge and act by the great truths and demands of Christianity; and if we have the pluck to do this, then, as we act, more and more we shall perceive the direction the Will. That choice, cause, or action, which is least tainted by self-interest, which makes for the increase of happiness — health – beauty — peace — cleanses and harmonizes life, must always be in accordance with the will of the Spirit which is drawing life towards perfection. The difficulty comes when there is a conflict of loyalties, or a choice between two apparent gods. At such points many people feel unaware of any guidance, unable to discern or understand the signals of God; not because the signals are not given, but because the mind is too troubled, clouded and hurried to receive them. “He who is in a hurry,” said St. Vincent de Paul, “delays the things of God.” But when those who are at least attempting to live the life of the Spirit, and have consequently become more or less sensitive to its movements to have no clear light, they will often become aware, if they will wait in quietness, of a subtle yet insistent pressure in favour of the path which they should take. The early Friends were accustomed to trust implicitly in indications of this kind, and were usually justified. When there is no such pressure, then our conduct should be decided by charity and common sense; qualities which are given to us by God in order that they may be used. (From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill)

But you will ask, and well you should ask, how can I do that? When or where will I find that moment when the problems and troubles of the world do not interfere with my desire to find God? How can I sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life when the world around me won’t let me? And the only answer that I can give, as I have asked this question more times than I care to admit, is I don’t know.

I do know, as you probably know, of the anguish in John Newton’s soul when he wrote the words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” These are not just words of private guilt, individual salvation, or personal piety; they are the words of someone who was a wretch, whose income was derived from the sale and trading of human beings yet whose life was transformed by Jesus Christ one night on a storm-tossed ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

We know that Martin Luther King, Jr., was just a beginning pastor, fresh from seminary, when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. We know that he spoke of not entering the Promised Land of racial equality the night before he was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. But we probably are not aware that death threats against his family and he were a part of his life from the very beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956.

And despite all his training in philosophy and theology, despite growing up in the church, he had nothing that could not offer him comfort when confronted by the evil of segregation and the threats against his family and himself.

And as I read the description of what King himself called his “kitchen table relationship”, I saw in his life the lives of so many for whom the church was a life but a life in which they never strayed. But the comfort of the church cannot help if you do not have your own relationship with God, with Jesus, and with the Holy Spirit. As Dr. King noted, religion must be real to you, not simply something that you do in hopes of gaining salvation. That night in Montgomery, Alabama, some forty two years ago, he prayed. As he said,

Oh, yes, I prayed a prayer. I prayed out loud that night. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership. I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. I could hear an inner voice saying to me, Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for the truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world. I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. (Adapted from The Great Awakening by Jim Wallis)

I know that when I became Christ’s disciple, when I declared that I would follow Christ no matter what, I chose to follow a path that others don’t follow. I understand what Dr. King was saying because, while I have not led a national movement that would change the face of society, I have struggled with the idea that what I do is right but still seems hopeless. I have felt the emptiness that can only come from despair, the weakness that comes because you have nothing left. Yet, in those darkest moments of despair and failure, I have felt the presence of Holy Spirit guiding me, directing me, offering me comfort.

You hear the same tone in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Arrested for his participation in the anti-Nazi resistance movement during World War II, Bonhoeffer struggled with the very nature of what Christianity is, was, and will be. He struggled with the role Christianity was to play in the world around us. He came to the conclusion that while many people had felt the calming and supportive presence of the Holy Spirit, they had not accepted the Spirit into their lives.

Rather, they placed God on the edge of their lives, where they could call on Him whenever they were in danger. And when the problem is solved and the danger is gone, then they put God back on the shelf, ready to be used again when needed. The problem is that the danger or the threat never really disappeared. And each time we put God aside, we push Him further and further away, thus making it harder and harder to find Him when we really need Him.

The truth is that we must see Him as the Lord who is a part of our lives at all times, not just in our times of need but in our times of plenty, not just when we are weak but when we are strong. Our relationship with God is not a religious relationship with a Supreme Being, absolute in power and goodness but a new life for others, through our participation in the Being of God.

The people of Paul’s time did just that; they pushed God to the side and saved Him for the bad times. I think that too many people today have done the same thing. And that makes Paul’s words even more powerful. Listen to Paul’s words, especially as Clarence Jordan phrased the passage from Rome for today.

As a Christian who doesn’t lie and whose conscience is examined by the Holy Spirit, I’m telling you the honest truth: In my heart there is great grief and steady pain. I would be willing to sacrifice even my own life in Christ for the sake of my American Christian brethren. They are good folks; they are saved; they have prestige; they have worship services and Sunday schools; they have theological doctrines and are staunch supporters of Christ Himself. And God, who is over them all, is unceasingly magnified. So be it. (From Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, “Paul’s letter to the Christians in Washington”)

Paul is crying out because his people, the very people that God designated as His own, had everything going for them, yet they lost the opportunity that was given to them. They replaced the substance of the Spirit with the substance of things. And so busy were they protecting those things that they were blind to the call of the Spirit. That is why Paul was so angry with the people; they followed the book but didn’t talk the talk or walk the walk

Our lives should not be based on Jesus coming to us because we have done everything by the book but on our coming to Jesus and our walking with Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to the people, the people came to Jesus. They came to hear Him preach; the sick came to be healed. The people came because others had told them about Jesus. And like the multitudes that day, the people still seek Jesus today. And they seek Him for the same reasons. But they often do not find Him because no one can tell them where to look or where to go.

Paul will write later in this chapter that God’s people are not those who give the appearance of the Spirit but those whose lives are rooted in God’s promise. Evelyn Underhill also wrote,

We are the agents of the Creative Spirit in this world. Real advance in the spiritual life, then, means accepting this vocation with all it involves. Not merely turning over the pages of an engineering magazine and enjoying the pictures, but putting on overalls and getting on with the job. The real spiritual life must be horizontal as well as vertical; spread more and more as well as aspire more and more. (From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill)

Each one of us knows the hardships of life; the news each day tells us that life is not easy for most people. A colleague of mine on the Methoblog, Josh Tinley, recently posted the following comment that he had heard more than one commentator suggest that

“The key to surviving the sluggish economy is putting more money in savings. One pundit advised having enough money in savings to cover 9–12 months of living expenses (as opposed to the six-month reserve that financial advisers often advocate). When asked where these savings-account deposits might come from, the commentator in question advised selling stocks or investing less in stocks. Again, the people who are being hurt most by recent economic woes may not have more than 9–12 days of living expenses tucked away. They probably aren’t investing in many stocks, either. Telling them to save more isn’t terribly helpful.” (“A Fundamental Misunderstanding of the Problem”)

And I will say this; the time will come when a modern day Paul will say the same thing about those who proclaim themselves to be God’s chosen people and Christ’s disciples that Jesus proclaimed some two thousand years ago. When the time does come, those who proclaim the Gospel message but do nothing to fulfill the Gospel message will find that the place they have gained is not the one they thought would be theirs. It does little good for the few to seek wealth and well-being when so many are struggling, are sick, hungry, homeless, or oppressed. It does little good to tell someone to be of good cheer when they are cold, hungry, sick, or in jail. Yet that is what so many people do today. The answer is not found in society but through Christ.

There are two times when we will be at a particular time and place in our lives. The first is when we encounter God through Christ; the second is when we are called upon to be God’s representative and Christ’s disciple.

I wish that the first encounter were an easy one and perhaps for some it is. But for most, it is not and the struggles of the world make it very difficult to see Christ’s presence in our lives. I can certainly attest to that.

The question will always be “what will our response to the struggle be?” I do not believe that we are supposed to just accept our lot in life and live in misery because that is the way life is. I wish that no one had to struggle and I especially wish, hope, and pray that no one has to struggle while watching others in this world seemingly get everything while others have nothing. I can only say that we must continue, trying to find God in our lives and trying to be His representative hear on earth.

In his encounter with God, Jacob refused to give up, even when he was in pain. In the end, because he would not give up, he was granted God’s blessing and given a new name. And from that day, Jacob’s life had changed. The same is true for each one of us.

We cannot name the time and place where we will meet God. But there will be come such a time and there will be a place and we must be ready for that moment. Just as he never anticipated encountering God on his road to his ancient homeland, Jacob did not know that he would wrestle with God that night so many years ago. Jacob named the place where he encountered God after he had met God face to face, not before.

We might be like those who were on the hillside in Galilee that one day. We seek Jesus because we know that is where the answer lies. Amidst all the problems of the world, the people still sought Jesus. And we must do so as well.

And like Jacob, who encountered God in a place that came to be known as Peniel, our lives will change for the better because we encountered God through Christ.

And after we have encountered God through Christ some time in our lives, we will find ourselves in a particular time and place like the disciples did on that hillside in Galilee two thousand years ago. At some time and some place, we will be like Saul whose encounter with Christ changed his life and made him Paul, not the prosecutor of Christians but the missionary to the world.

The time will come and we will be in the place where we will hear God calling to us. We will hear God’s call if we but listen for it and not to society’s call. And then there will the time and the place when others will hear that same call. It will be by our example and being that others will know that there is hope and there is a promise for tomorrow. My friends, the time is now, the place is here.

To Change Dreams Into Visions

When we are growing up, we all have dreams. Perhaps they were the same dreams as those that Joseph had, seeing his brothers all bow down before him or latter the dreams that would prophesy the seven good years of harvest followed by seven bad years. Perhaps they were just dreams of what we would like to be. But we had dreams. We also had visions as well; we saw what things could be or, more likely, what things were.

Growing up and living on Air Force bases, I saw the B-52 bombers parked at the end of the runways, ready to takeoff within 15 minutes of the order to do so and carry their bombs into the heart of the Soviet Union. Growing up in the South in the 1960’s, I saw and felt the effects of segregation and racism. If you are going to keep one part of society oppressed, you must enact rules that will affect all of society. Segregation is not simply something that affects blacks and minorities; it affects all. This was a vision that I saw growing up.

And I saw the effects of having the dreams of our youth and the hopes that we saw in our dreams shot down in cold blood. 1968 was the year that I graduated from Bartlett High School in Memphis, Tennessee.

It would have been one thing if the visions of that year were only that of a single item such as the Tet offensive. That would be enough to bring into question the hopes for the future when it seemed that a war that did not seem to have a conclusion was now a war that seemed dedicated to the killing of this country’s youth. But that was also the spring during which Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. It was the summer in which the hopes for peaceful protests were beaten down on the streets of Chicago. The hopes that came from the dreams were beaten and destroyed in the visions of violence and oppression of that year.

Joseph’s brothers reacted to his dreams by selling him off into slavery, never knowing that their act of hatred would be the vehicle that would enable the dream to become a vision. The ten older brothers let their vision of a world of tradition and rules prevent them from seeing the possibilities that Joseph’s dreams allowed. It is the same with us.

We can allow other factors to block our dreams and prevent them from becoming visions of the future. During that fateful political campaign of the spring of 1968, Robert Kennedy often quoted George Bernard Shaw, “Some people see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not?”

Shall we be those who simply ask why things are or shall we dream of things that never were and dare to ask why not? We seem to have become a nation of cynics, only interested in tearing down the efforts of others. We have become a nation willing to let others put their dreams into action, no matter what the consequence will be to us. Is it not time that we begin to act?

Peter and the other disciples are in a boat in the Sea of Galilee when they see Jesus walking across the water. Peter reacts by jumping out of the boat and walking across the water to meet Jesus. It is only when Peter takes his eyes off Jesus and realizes what exactly it is that he is doing that he falls into the water.

Where are we looking? Are our eyes focused on Jesus so that we have a new vision of the world? Or are we so rooted in the ways of life that we cannot believe what is possible? And what of those who have fallen into the sea? What happens to those who are drown in a sea of woe and trouble?

Jesus response to Peter was to say that Peter’s faith had let him down. If he had continued to believe, he could have walked on the water forever. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, asks how others who do not believe will ever achieve that same result. Paul asks how others are to believe if they never hear of Jesus and what the Gospel message is about.

Our vision of the world changes when our focus changes from the world around us to Jesus. And when our focus changes, so too does our life. It is not enough to simply change our life, accept Christ as our Savior, and then proceed down the road. And it is not enough to get others to hear the Word.

The problem today is that too many people are forcing others to hear the Word. Or the Word that is being broadcast by countless TV evangelists is one that limits the vision to the single person. I think that if we are to have a vision of a world in which the Gospel message is alive, then we must work towards that vision. We must work to feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick and free the oppressed. We cannot say that we believe in the Gospel but then act against what we say we believe.

It has been said that Patrick Henry had a vision of his wife enchained and locked away in the basement of their home in Virginia when he arose before the Second Virginia Convention on March 20, 1775 and spoke of freedom and the need for action. We all have memorized his concluding remarks, “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” But we were not aware that Patrick Henry’s wife, Sarah, was being treated for mental illness at the time of this speech. The treatment for mental illness then was nowhere near the humane treatment that many today receive; rather, the facilities where Sarah lived were more like a prison than a hospital. Faced with that choice, Patrick Henry elected to keep his wife at home, though he was obliged by law to keep her in chains.

So to speak of life in terms of chains and slavery was not simply a metaphor but a vision that was in Patrick Henry’s mind and life. Are we not much different today? Should not the dreams that we have, should not the visions that we see for this country drive our actions?

But like Peter trying to walk across the water and falling into the sea, our vision will only fail if we fail to focus on Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Our vision for this world will only become reality if we take heed of our Savior’s words and put them into action. We all have dreams but can we make the dreams become visions? If our vision is on Christ, I think that we can.