“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

“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

What Will Be The Outcome Of All Of This?


Here are my thoughts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, 15 August 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 5: 1 – 7, Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2, and Luke 12: 49- 56.

There is something about the Gospel reading for today that has always bothered me. I can’t remember exactly where I read the comment but I seem to recall someone using this passage as a justification for war. And while most of the translations of these verses from Luke use the word division, I can see how people might see such justification.

But even with Jesus saying that he has come to bring fire to this world, that doesn’t necessarily mean complete and total destruction. For those who heard those words two thousand years ago, the words would have meant referring to refining, the separation of the good metal from the ore.

But, for many, especially those who live in the western states of this country, fire is a necessary part of life; it is the thing which causes many plants to germinate. To bring fire to the prairie was to insure that life would go on, refreshed and renewed.

But I suppose that there is a portion of the population today that would have a problem with that analogy. We are, in this country today, divided when it comes to the Bible and what is written in the Bible.

There are those who will tell you that it is a complete work of fiction, with no truth or merit to it that those who believe in the Bible are fools and misguided, ignorant individuals who fantasize about a world that doesn’t exist. Then there are those who see the Bible as a fixed and unchanging document, a perfect description of the world around us and one that is not open to debate. It is, to these individuals, a book handed to them by God and the one true source of knowledge. It is, of course, interesting to note that other religions say the same thing about their Holy Scriptures as well. It speaks to our ability to think that we can say that about one set of writings and yet not accept the notion that someone else might have the same thought when it comes to their particular writings.

If Jesus did anything in creating a division, it was to create a division between those who found their place and the future in the status quo and those for whom the status quo was a barrier that denied them health, jobs, housing, and true freedom. I don’t know how one can find their future in the present or why one would want to keep in place a situation that divides people by race, gender, economic status, or creed but there are those who think that it is possible.

And what further confounds and confuses me is that many who call for the maintenance of the status quo or a return to better days of yesterday are those oppressed or denied opportunities by the status quo. It is almost as if they say we will support those who oppress us because there is a slim chance that they will set us free. We have been denied so much for so long that even the slimmest of hopes that we might get a slight taste of the “good life” is enough for us to support them.

I have never understood how one can say that they need to work inside the rules when those rules are designed to prevent them from succeeding. Such individuals are either among those who Jesus pointed out can interpret the earth and sky but are unable to interpret the present time. They see the future and would like to be a part of the future but they also are unable to see that in the present, they are unable to obtain the future.

When I read the Old Testament reading for today, I wondered who are the “wild grapes” in the passage today. Would they be the young, rebellious youth who do not see that the church has the answers to their problems? Or would they be the authorities, those that seek the maintenance of the status quo?

Some of the commentaries point out that this passage is an indictment against the people for failing to follow God. And those that hold that the Bible is fixed and infallible would probably say that this passage is speaking about me. But I would argue that the wild grapes are those who created laws and regulations that basically prevented people from finding God.

To me the wild grapes in the passage from Isaiah are those who would choke off the good growth, the creativity that is needed to reach the future. Those who hold to a fixed, unchanging view of the Bible don’t want the people to see the world around them except as they, the authorities, decide it should be viewed.

Who is it today that is preventing many people from finding God? Is it those who have truly followed God and lived by His Words? Or is it those who have created rules which choke and stifle individuals and said that the only way to God’s Kingdom is through the door they will open?

Who is to blame when God expects justice but blood is shed instead? Who is to blame when God demanded righteousness but only heard the cry of the forgotten?

The passage from Hebrews for today speaks to those who held to the faith, who walked with God in spite of the troubles that it would bring. There is no doubt that in choosing to hold onto the faith, to walk with God, that they were separated from their friends and their family. It may be that our choice to walk in faith will also cause such divisions.

There is no doubt that when Jesus spoke of the divisions, those that heard His words that day totally understood what He was saying. They had left everything to follow Him for an uncertain future. They had watched many people begin the journey but stopped when the pressure from home and society to maintain the status quo became too great. It is the same today; there are those who say that the status quo is the best that it is ever going to get and we should not even bother trying to change things.

But we see the world around us and we know in our hearts and minds that we cannot continue to live in this world as it is today. The division that comes about is not the division of parent and child or sibling and sibling; it is the division that comes between God and each one of us. We know that those who let Christ into their lives began to change the world. Perhaps the change was seen as quickly as people would have liked but the world did change.

And when we leave this place today, we have to decide what we are going to do. Is the outcome of this all to be that the status quo remains and nothing changes? Or is the outcome to be that we will make the commitment to follow Christ and make a change in the world. If we choose the former, the division between God and man will grow larger; if we choose the latter, the division will close. We must make a decision today, in this place and in this time.

What Shall You Say?


This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (22 August 2004).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.

————————————————————————-

What would you have said last week to that person at the Corn and Hamburger Roast when they expressed surprise and amazement that Tompkins Corners was still an active United Methodist Church? Did you invite them to come and worship with us, enjoying in the wonderful talents of our keyboardist? Did you happen to get their name and address so that I could write to them and invite them to be a part of our church community? The answers to these questions vary with each of us and there is no shame if you wouldn’t have responded as others did or as I would have.

We live in a time and a society where speaking about our faith is not socially correct. Those that do so risk being labeled as kooky, weird, or with some other unkind adjective. We view those who openly practice evangelism with the proverbial grain of salt; we question their motives and we wonder about their agenda.

The problem is that evangelism in the 20th and 21st centuries has become rigidly associated with fundamentalism. It is no longer an invitation to hear the Gospel. Rather, it seems to be almost a reversal of the Gospel message, offering exclusivity when it should be open, condemnation and intimidation instead of hope and peace, and hatred and fear when there should be love. Theirs is not a world open to all but only to those who they, not God, decide are worthy. And what is even more interesting is the question of fundamentalism is not limited to just Christianity or the United States but is seen in Judaism and Islam as well, with the same familiar results.

As Karen Armstrong in her recent book, "The Battle for God", notes that fundamentalists have gunned down worshippers in a mosque, killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, and toppled governments. (From NewsScan Daily, 17 August 2004; Worth Thinking About: Fundamentalism)  Within the framework of Christian fundamentalism, we see the views of some being expressed politically. Jerry Falwell has said that true evangelical Christians can only vote for the Republican ticket this fall. (Quoted in the New York Times, 16 July 2004.)  Pat Robertson has said that President Bush will win in a landslide because God has picked him to be the President, no matter how good or bad he is. (Quoted on AP/Fox News, 2 January 2004)  Such views are the extremes and I doubt that God has expressed to anyone, let alone the major Christian fundamentalist preachers who He wants to win in November.

But against this backdrop of the role of religion in today’s society is the remarkable acquiescence of the American people to allow a few to define what they are supposed to believe. We live in an era of great personal freedom, a freedom defined by politics and thought; yet the American people seem willing to go along and let others more vocal define what is acceptable thought and behavior.

Ours is, at the basic level, a freedom defined by politics. It is the freedom gained through the struggle of the American Revolution, defined by our own bloody Civil War and refined during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Upon this level, we can build the second level of freedom, one defined by our own sense of moral responsibility.

This is the freedom that gives us the ability and authority to engage in such complex acts as political governance. It is this freedom that says we, as individuals, are responsible for our own acts. It is also a freedom that we too often surrender in the name of the "common good." But this second freedom also gives us the opportunity to move upwards, to seek a third level, one where we are free to live with God. ("Bound To Be Free", Reinhard Hütter, Christian Century, 10 August 2004)

As society has developed over the ages, it has evolved in the direction of this third level of freedom. As we have become more and more aware of the nature of our universe, our view of God and His role in our lives has changed. This development of a secular worldview pushes God to the side, where He remains until, in times of crisis, we can call upon him. (Colin Williams, Faith in a Secular Age, pg. 41)

There is a close relationship between those who cling to a world in which the church and state are seen as one institution, a world that this country was in not so long ago, and political views that work vehemently against any change in the racial, caste, class and political structure of the past. (Williams, pg. 63)  Is it no wonder that fundamentalists view such development with alarm? Is it no wonder that fundamentalists seek to control thought and action in a world where individuals are supposed to control their own thoughts and actions? Look at the Pharisees’ response to Jesus healing the women in today’s Gospel reading.

Their response was not one of joy and celebration, that this woman long suffering was now free of pain. No, their response was to complain that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, in direct violation of church laws. But Jesus put the freedom of the individual over the structure of the church and in doing so took the control of the individual from the Pharisees and gave it to the woman. The Pharisees were angry because their role in the lives of others was removed.

In a world where people were marginalized because of who they were, where they lived, or their heritage, Jesus said that did not need to be the case. In a world where the status quo determined your future, Jesus sought to change the status quo. Jesus offered freedom to the individual and allowed the path to God to be direct and not necessarily through the Pharisees. In a world where the door to heaven was controlled by the religious establishment, Jesus tore down the wall and said that anyone could come in. No wonder that the Pharisees plotted against Jesus, everything He said and did threatened their very existence.

I do not know about you but I see many of the responses of today’s fundamentalists (and this is not necessarily limited to those who say they are Christian) similar to the Pharisees today. Fundamentalists today would seek to limit those who can come to God and marginalize the less than well off, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed. It seems to me that the thinking about God in personal terms is not acceptable to many fundamentalists today, because to do so might allow you to see through their own hypocrisy. And I see in the responses of today’s fundamentalists the same fears and worries that plagued yesterday’s Pharisees.

But it does not have to be this way. We should not fear the future just because God and man are moving apart. This is a time when that very separation offers the best chance in the world to find God. To some, the secularization of the world is the banishment of God from the world. But it can also be a chance for us to see that the God who shown Himself in Christ to be true free for mankind is also the God who desires that we seek his presence in the changing scene of history – in the openness of the secular world rather than in the static timeless world of the religious. (Williams, pg. 72)

Colin Williams in his book, "Faith In A Secular Age", expressed the same concerns as did Karen Armstrong. But he did so some forty years ago. And what he saw was not a precursor to moral collapse as do fundamentalists and conservatives but rather as one of the greatest opportunities of all times.

Colin Williams wrote some forty years ago, "it is true that when we read the agenda of the world, we can interpret it correctly only in the light of Christ. But, in turn, we are learning that this light of Christ comes to us only when we are ready to move out into the midst of the world – only when we leave the safe boundaries of the temple and the law where we so often try to keep God imprisoned, and are open for the light of Christ coming to us from the strange worlds of our neighbors. So often it is this unexpected light from Christ which enables us to read the world’s agenda: ‘When did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee?’

And it is as this unexpected light of Christ comes to us through the world’s agenda, that we are offered freedom from the smallness of vision and the limited obedience that continually threaten to strangle the church’s mission. And it is this freedom that we need – the freedom for Christ as He comes to us from the world of which He is Lord; freedom to be with Christ as He moves on in His missionary pilgrimage toward the goal of history. But, as the Gospel readings for the past weeks have emphasized, we are free to be his witnesses only if there is in us a constant readiness for surprise: ‘Watch therefore, you never know when He will appear.’" (William’s, pg. 109 – 110)

Now is the time to tell the people that caring for the poor and the vulnerable is what Christianity is about (Matthew 25: 35 – 40 and Isaiah 10: 1 – 2). Now is the time to tell the people that caring for God’s earth is what Christianity is about (Genesis 2: 15 and Psalm 24: 1). We need to remind people that truth will set us free, not simply saying what must be said to justify one’s actions (John 8: 32). We must show that human rights, respecting the image of God in every person, are central to being a Christian (Genesis 1: 27). We must remind people that a consistent ethic of human life is to obey the biblical injunction to choose life (Deuteronomy 30: 19). Now is the time to remind people that God calls us to be peacemakers, not makers of war (Matthew 5: 9). We must remind people that God no longer crowns kings and that wars in God’s name are not consistent with the basic Gospel message (Matthew 6: 33 and Proverbs 8: 12 – 13). (From www.takebackourfaith.org)  Our struggle should not be to fight for a return to Christendom; rather it should be a struggle to maintain the freedom that God has given us. (Williams, pg. 72)

It is not a decision as to how we should respond or what we should say. Nor can we ask others to do it for us. The opportunity that presents itself today is like the opportunities presented to the recipients of the letters to the Hebrews. They heard the words of the prophets and ignored them; they heard the words of Jesus and were set to ignore them as well. Shall we, in a like manner, ignore all that we know is true, simply because it is too much of a bother? Sooner or later, we must respond to God.

Just as God said to Jeremiah, God says to you today, "I knew you before you were born; I chose you." What will you say to God today when that is what He is saying to you? What will you say when you are reminded that Christ died on the cross so that you could have freedom today?

Genuine freedom comes only when it is received by faith. There is no other source. Genuine freedom grows out of the restored and redeemed relationship with the One whom, as Luther so memorably put it, "has created me together with all that exists." The very heartbeat and life of this relationship and thus of true freedom is love, created by the Holy Spirit in the human heart.

There is an intrinsic relationship between true freedom and true love. In trusting in God, we are set free from bondage to fear and repression. Propelled by God’s love for us, true freedom unfolds. ("Bound To Be Free", Reinhard Hütter, Christian Century, 10 August 2004)

As we look to the coming weeks and the upcoming revival, we have a chance to express that freedom and that love. We have the opportunity to renew our faith and help others to do likewise. For some, this may be the opportunity they have been searching for. There will come a day in the next few weeks where you might have an encounter like that of Philip with the Ethiopian. How will you respond? Will you be able to, if nothing else invite that person to be your guest next week?

Countless riders will go by this place next week, enjoying the scenery of Putnam County. Will you help to provide water and snacks and then invite the riders to come back and drink from the fountain of living water, as did the Samaritan woman at the well?

Evangelism is not preaching or condemnation; evangelism is simply inviting someone. The call today comes not from the pulpit but rather from within your heart. It is a call from God; what will you say?


26 August 2001


This is the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (26 August 2001).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.

———————————-

Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to think about my family. Not just my mother, brothers, sister and my family here in New York but rather my extended family of Schüessler cousins. Besides the thirteen or so ministers that are an integral part of the history of the family, we have a number of actors, musicians, and artists; enough so that I have thought we could form our own production company. Following the 1998 reunion, I began to think of how easy it might be to make a commercial of some sort, seeing how it was that we had all that available talent.

I thought it might be nice to make a commercial about coming to church especially the country church in Neon where I served in a similar capacity to what I do here in Walker Valley. Recently the announcement that the United Methodist Church was itself going to run a series of television commercials aimed at the 25 – 29 age group, the one group of people that seems so conspicuously absent from church membership today. I have no idea what these ads are going to be like; all that I have received is that there are going to be a number of them.

But I have to wonder if they are going to be some slick commercial designed to meet some marketing scheme. Or rather, are they going to be genuine attempts to get this age group to come back to church, be it the church they grew up in or some other church close by. It may be the latter but I have also found out that we may not get the opportunity to find out. Apparently only CBS will be carrying these ads in any of their prime time programming. NBC, ABC and FOX have all stated that it is against their policy to run religious advertisements on the air.

This is a time when many people see the world around them and look to find some meaning in the world. How else can you explain the proliferation of ads for psychic hotlines? In a desire for peace and security infomercials, someone’s wonderful invention of the thirty-minute commercial, about how to make money without breaking a sweat dominates the airways. And these commercials are often followed by other commercials extolling the virtues of some wonderful exercise machine designed to make it easy for you to stay in shape. Never mind that you will be told by the next exercise advertisement that this method doesn’t work and that you need to use the other method.

My point is this. We are at a point where people are seeking security. The problem is that many times they see security in terms of financial well being or stability in their lives. But sooner or later, they find that these do not provide the security and comfort that they seek. And they begin to look for the answers to their questions of why and why me.

The sad thing to say is that American churches are always there when some one needs to here the answer and many more times than not, American churches are the reason why people seek answers in other things. As you look at the commercials that dominate the airways, notice how many religious broadcasts are on the air (though maybe not on the major networks). Notice how these broadcasts all seem to be a reflection of the Old Testament version of God, of thunder and lightning, of fire and brimstone.

Verses 18 through 21 of the reading from Hebrews today remind us of Israel at Mount Sinai hearing Yahweh thundering out his commands. It was a setting that evoked a paralyzing fear of God in the people. They wanted no communication with from God of that mountain and they also realized that they could bear the demanding standards of holiness.

This picture of worship lacks a relationship between creation and the Creator. The fear of people results from a lack of knowledge about the God of the mountain. We cannot know someone with whom we have no relationship.

The Pharisees and Sadducees of Christ’s time helped to accentuate this picture of humanity’s relationship with God. While the Pharisees and Sadducees taught and expected a devotion to legalistic and unbearable regulations, Jesus taught the disciples to pray openly, addressing God as "Father."

The incident reported in the Gospel reading from Luke today points that out. The synagogue official didn’t feel that it was right for Jesus to perform a healing miracle on the Sabbath. As the official said in Luke 13: 14, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured." (Luke 13: 14)  The main concern for this ruler was not the healing of the individual but rather the maintenance of the rules. Jesus was more interested in healing the woman and restoring her relationship with God than He was in the order of how things were done.

The tearing of the veil in the Temple during the crucifixion was a vivid symbol of the open access to the Father, which Christ procured for humanity. Christ restored the relationship between the people and God.

I also feel that many churches in this country today do not present a message of compassion and love, the very essence of Christ’s message on earth. There is a lot of things wrong with this world but the church should be a unifying force, not one of the reasons for its division. Too many churches today preach a message of exclusion, not inclusion. And too many churches today do little to offer hope for anyone seeking to find shelter from the problems of today’ world.

If I were making a commercial today, I would say to those that listen that this was a place where they could feel safe. They may not find the answers to the problems that are plaguing them, they might not be able to resolve all the financial problems or medical problems that they have to fight. But they will find peace and comfort. They will have the opportunity to reestablish their relationship with God.; to be reminded as Jeremiah was, that God has always known who they were and how special they are to Him. As it said in the reading from Hebrews, they will get a chance to hear from God. This can come from either worship or it can come from quietly sitting in the sanctuary. The opportunity to do so is what we give them.

But until I get the family production group up and running and figure out how to get them all here to Walker Valley, I need to think about another type of commercial. And that is the commercial we produce every day of our lives. Each day that we go about our business is our chance to witness for Christ. I don’t mean to browbeat someone over the head with scripture but rather through our own unconscious actions show people what Christ’s love and sacrifice means for us.

Some might think this is the most difficult task every asked of them. Jeremiah said as much when God called him to be a prophet among his people. But again, think about what God told Jeremiah, just as He told all the prophets before and after him, "I will give you the strength and the ability necessary to meet the task at hand."

In all that you do, God will provide you with the strength and the ability to meet the tasks that you have to do. The hardest task may be simply to walk through life showing the spirit of Christ in your life. But it is the easiest way you can show someone that God is a God of love and that a relationship with Him is possible.

As this day ends and the new workweek begins, I want you to think about ways that you can serve, think about ways that you can quietly produce your own commercial about how Christ is a part of your life. Perhaps you will find the answer to serve some part of this church. Perhaps it will be to say something quiet and peaceful as way to offer strength and hope to someone else this week. I know that is scary thinking that some time this week you will be called to do something in Christ’s name but remember that the promise of God is that he will be with you in whatever you do and that whatever you do will be a success.


And What Will You Say?


Here are my thoughts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost.  I am preaching at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church (South Salem, NY).

——————————————————————————————————

I have edited this since it was first posted on 18 August 2007.

————————————————————————–

The weather last week and the news in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and in the Newburgh Times Herald-Record about lightning striking church steeples in the respective towns of St. Louis, MO and Newburgh, NY prompted me to look for other similar incidents. Doing a search on the Internet, I discovered close to 100,000 occasions when “lightning strikes a church steeple.”

If occurrences of natural disasters are a sign of God’s wrath, how are we to interpret these instances? Are the people of the churches that were involved doing something sinful? Or is it likely that church steeples are a likely target for lightning because they are often times the highest point in an area and thus easily the “targets” for God’s fireworks?

Jesus said we see the signs of weather but we do not know what they mean. I can understand that. Some saw the floods that covered most of the Midwest in 1993 and said it was God’s punishment for the people’s behavior. Some saw Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the devastation that wrecked New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and said it was God’s punishment for the people of New Orleans’ behavior and lifestyle. The tsunami that ravaged the Indian Ocean two years ago was because God was angry with the people of that region. Even the collapsed bridge in Minnesota was said to have been for the extreme behavior of the people of Minnesota.

I cannot speak to God’s wrath and what causes it. When we hear of floods destroying the Midwest and have some preacher say it is God’s wrath, I am reminded that God promised us, with the sign of the rainbow, that he would never again destroy the earth through floods (Genesis 9: 8 – 11). And while the people of New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast may lead lifestyles that are not Christian in nature and they may do things that we personally do not like (one person in Alabama even argued that hurricane Katrina’s real target were the casinos on the Mississippi Gulf coast), the destruction of New Orleans was more a sign of how poorly we maintain the levies along the Mississippi River and the destruction of the wetlands south of New Orleans. The fact that we are still discussing New Orleans and Katrina some two years after it happened is a sign of how little we may care for people less fortunate than us. The collapse of the bridge in Minnesota is again another sign of how we take care of our public infrastructure. If Minnesotans are so sinful that their bridges collapse, how are we to read the sign of the steam pipe exploding in New York? Are New Yorkers not sinful enough to warrant God’s wrath?

To say that such acts of nature are a sign of God’s wrath is to show a lack of understanding of the natural world as well as a lack of understanding of our relationship with God. Treating acts of nature as acts of God is to put God on the same level as the gods of ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome.

If we see the signs around us as a portent of things to come, then we also do not understand what a prophecy is or what a prophet does. A prophet (from the Greek word for “speaker”) does not necessarily predict the future bur rather speaks out on behalf of God. A prophet does not foretell the future but tells forth. This can mean that they will foretell what the future will be but the primary and distinguishing characteristic of a biblical prophet is to be sought in the divine vocation and mission of telling and speaking in the name and by the designated authority.(Adapted from “Whose Bible Is It?” by Jaroslav Pelikan )

I do not perceive myself as a prophet by any stretch of the imagination but I do see the need to speak out (https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2007/01/14/no-i-cant-and-neither-should-you/). In a world that literally cries out for care and compassion, in a world where violence is almost too commonplace, there is a need for the Gospel message. Yet, today the church seems totally oblivious to the world around it. It seems to be that the church today has turned a blind eye to where it should be and where it is at.

I see churches where pastors, ministers, and leaders call for war and proclaim that the one true God is the God that we worship; anyone who worships the same God but in another religion worships a false God. But I also see churches and pastors who preach against war and call for peace.

When I wrote “Study War No More” and “Perhaps We Should Study War More Often”, I received a number of comments in support of war and arguing that war was inevitable. I found it amazing that these comments came from clergy in the United Methodist church rather than from the laity of the church. When I wrote about the killings at Virginia Teach (“It Happened Again”), it was a minister who argued that if one student had carried a gun the killings would have not happened. How is it that we can say that we work for the Prince of Peace but then say that war and violence are the solutions to war and violence? This is quite a change from the Methodists of this country in the 1700’s who were very much pacifists and opposed to war. Those who opposed the war were treated as loyalists and supporters of the crown, even if they were in support of the concept of the American Revolution.

I see and hear preachers today who claim that our founding fathers were devout Christians and who used their beliefs in God and Christ to write the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet, these same preachers forget that many of those they lift up were in fact deists, believers in an omnipotent God but not necessarily Christian. They revise history to suit their needs just as they have tried to revise science in order to quell questions that would undermine their own power and authority.

I see and hear preachers and churches that proclaim the gospel of riches and ignore the poor, claiming that the poor are sinful and responsible for their lot in life. But there are other preachers and churches who work to end poverty in this country; who see to it that the hungry are fed and work to build homes for the homeless when others turn their back on their plight.

We see the violence in the world; yet all we do is continue the violence. We see the hungry starving, even in our own country; yet our concern is limited to the compassion we feel for these poor souls. The poor keep getting poorer while the rich keep getting richer. Instead of making sure that everyone has the means for success, we encourage the hoarding of wealth. How big is the gap between the pay of a CEO in even the smallest companies in this country and the salaries and wages of the workers who work for that company? We see the quality of health care in this country more related to the amount of money in one’s bank account than to the skills and capabilities of the doctors, nurses, and technicians.

Yes, our own John Wesley encouraged us to earn all that we could; he was one of the highest paid ministers of his time. But he also encouraged us to save as much as we could and to give as much as we could. Even though John Wesley earned as much as 1400 pounds a year (a rather nice sum in those days), he had determined that he and his family could live on 28 pounds a year; the other money was given back to the church and to the poor. John Wesley sought to embody the words of Christ in his faith and his actions. How many pastors today, with their multi-million dollar book deals and salaries, with their expensive houses and private airplanes, can say the same thing? How long will it be before we realize that what we do to the least of our society is what we do to Christ?

I see and hear people in this country calling for a religious government, one that would emulate God’s Kingdom here on earth. Never mind that Christ never called for such a Kingdom but constantly urged us to prepare for the Kingdom in Heaven. I see and hear people who want nuclear war in the Middle East because it will start Armageddon and they will get to heaven. Never mind that the judgment as to who gets into heaven is made there and not here; that those who seek war and ignore peace, those who argue against helping the poor, the sick , and the needy will be the ones left out. I see and hear people in this country who put the country before God and claim that God will do the will of the people. Are we not supposed to do God’s will?

I see a parallel between what is happening in this country today and what happened in Germany in the 1930’s. When Adolph Hitler came to power, one of the groups that supported him was the Lutheran Church in Germany. For many in the church, his nationalistic rhetoric overshadowed his racism and bigotry.

It is hard to think that so many people died because the church turned a blind eye to the plight of the people. John Conway wrote,

It was the tragedy of the German churches that they were so inadequately prepared to oppose such strident heresies. They lacked safety valves against the challenge of the ‘radical right’ that offered a vision of church and state working hand in hand to renew the nation’s strength. The more perceptive churchmen realized too late the dangers of Nazi ambitions. The heresy of a nationalist pseudo-religion had gained too many adherents for effective defenses to be built or successful alternatives to be preached. Cut off from potential allies in the ecumenical movement abroad, only a handful of staunchly orthodox members of the Protestant Confessing Church were ready to take up arms to uphold Christian truths and to suffer for their faith. The lessons to be drawn from the churches’ behavior before and after the rise of National Socialism remain (http://www.bonhoeffer.com/bak2.htm ).

I cringe at the thought that was written about Germany in the 1930’s is again happening in this country at this time. How long shall Christians allow people to kill other people in the name of their country because they believe it is the correct action? We walk a fine line indeed when we say that our actions are acceptable because they are in the best interests of the country but which go against the moral teachings we supposedly learned in Sunday School and church. These are days which challenge the very soul of the church; these are days which cry out for each church to speak out and think of their responsibilities to mankind, no matter how they pray to God.

I see divisions in the church today. These divisions exist in local churches, denominations, and the church in general. And Jesus said that He had come not to bring peace, but division. Brother will turn against brother, parent against child, friend against friend (Luke 12: 49 – 56 ). This is a rather brutal statement from our Lord, especially in light of what He consistently said and did. But when you consider what He said and did, then it is easy to see how families can be divided, children will turn against their parents, and friends will split with friends. The message that Christ brought was a message that ran counter to the thoughts and actions of much of society. Those who followed Him would find themselves at odds with many people in society.

We see the signs but do we understand what they mean. How long will it take before we realize that some have too much money and many do not have enough? How long will it take before we realize that the continued oppression of a minority in any country can only incur hatred and violent rage? How long will it take before we realize that ignorance of the basic tenets of the Gospel will only yield terrorism, hatred, and continued violence?

So what are we to do in this time of struggle and strife? Are we to stand idly by and let the world self-destruct? Or are we to act so that the destruction of the world is a mute point?

Not all of the Lutheran ministers in Germany during the 1930’s went along with their church. There were many who openly opposed the transformation of the Lutheran Church into the spiritual advisor of the Nazi regime.

There were people like Paul Schneider and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reverend Schneider was a Lutheran minister who consistently and openly spoke out against the Nazi regime and its attempt to subvert the Lutheran church. He was imprisoned in Buchenwald and died from a lethal injection in 1939 (This was adapted from comments about Paul Schneider in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell ).

I also wonder what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might say to the churches of today who ignore the poor and whose leaders tow the party line. What would either of these two say to those whose view of the future does not keep the Cross in plain sight?

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah speaks of the vineyard and the walls that surrounded it (Isaiah 5: 1- 7). Isaiah is speaking out against the people of Judah because of their lack of faith. The vineyard that he speaks of in today’s Old Testament reading is the people and God’s is the vineyard owner. The wild grapes that overgrow the cultured grapes are the product of the people’s sins. This are just sins of the lifestyle but also sins of greed, arrogance, and self-centeredness. The people of Judah had destroyed their own lives with their own self-centeredness. Their own self-centeredness overcame their faith.

If we are not willing to speak out against violence in all forms, when will violence end? If we are not willing to call for positive ways of resolving the violence, both domestic and foreign, that exists in this world today, how can we ever expect violence to end?

I will reiterate what I have said in the past and which no one else, that I am aware of, has said. If we do nothing to eliminate the causes of terror; if we do not work to eliminate world-wide hunger, world-wide poverty, and world-wide oppression, then terrorism will always be a part of our lives and we can expect violence to continue. If we respond to violence with violence with violence, how can we ever expect to achieve peace?

We must seek another way, a way that reflects who we are and what we believe. What would have happened if the German pastors, instead of supporting the Nazis, had spoken out against the wrongs that the Nazi government was doing in the 1930’s. Would we have had World War II if these men of God had spoken out against war, violence, and evil then? Unfortunately, these men of God were more interested in their own well-being and establishing that they were just as nationalistic as everyone else in Germany.

We are not asked to be martyrs to the faith; rather we are asked to be representatives of the faith. We are asked to go to Biloxi or Red Bird or Bolivia. We are asked to aid when disaster calls. We asked to invite our friends and neighbors to be here with us on Sunday morning. We are simply asked to show the presence of Christ in this world.

Yes, what we are often asked to do is very difficult. It is so much easier to walk by a homeless person than offer help. It is much easier to say that someone’s plight of homelessness or poverty is because they are sinful in nature. It is much easier to go to war than to work for peace. It is much easier to turn a blind eye to oppression than it is to speak out.

It is not an easy task; ask the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2). The writer lists what many of the early members of the church endured to insure that safety and the future of the church. The road, the path that they walked was clearly not an easy one. Yes, there are those who died in battle or led the nation in times of conflict but there were conflicts imposed upon them, not incited by them. We have those who went before us, that great cloud of faith to remind us that we are asked to do much for God and to do it with only the hope of a reward later. That is what our faith gives us in these times.

I do not have the answers. I am still struggling with the questions myself. But I know that I must speak out. I can no longer simply stand by and let others destroy the work of those who came before us. I will seek to do what God asks me to do; I will say “here I am” when God asks who will serve Him.

Each day we are asked one of two questions:

“Will you follow Jesus, no matter where it leads you in life?”

“And when you follow Jesus, will you carry out the tasks of the Gospel?”

What will you say when God asks you?