“Our Max Yasgur Moment”


Here are my thoughts which will be on the “Back Page” of the Fishkill United Methodist Church for this coming Sunday, 8 September 2019, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C).

I am pretty sure you know who Max Yasgur was and what he said to the multitude gathered on his farm that Sunday some 50 years ago (In case you didn’t, here is a link to his speech).  But I am more interested in what he said to his neighbors before that Sunday that interests me.

He faced opposition in many forms to the idea of renting out his farm.  But he wanted to give the organizers a chance.  While we would, as he himself would, say that he was a conservative, he also had a different view of things.

Another farmer with a different view of things was Clarence Jordan.  In addition to a degree in agriculture, he also had a Ph. D. in the Greek New Testament.  His agriculture background and commitment to the Gospel lead him to begin what we call the Koinonia Farm.  His doctoral work led him to write the “Cotton Patch Gospels”.

Because the farm was in Georgia and integrated, there were numerous encounters with the Klan.  After one incident with the Klan, Mr. Jordan asked his brother Robert  to be the community’s attorney. Robert declined, saying that such an effort would ruin him politically (he would later become a Georgia state senator and justice on the state Supreme Court).

Clarence asked his brother if he was a Christian and reminded him how they had both stood at the altar of their church and accepted Christ.

Robert said that he followed Jesus but that he was not willing to go to the Cross.  Clarence said that he wasn’t a disciple of Christ but rather a good admirer of the man (https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2010/09/05/hold-on-now/),

This is where we are today.  Are we willing to stand before the world and say, “I am a Christian!  I may not want to do the work before me, I may not want to feed the hungry; I may not want to find shelter for the homeless or clothes for the needy; I am in no position to give comfort or support for those in pain and I certainly do not want to fight oppression and persecution.  But that is what I am called to do and that is what I shall do (see the remarks made by Will Campbell in https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/let-us-finish-what-we-started/).

This is, if you will, our “Max Yasgur moment.”

~~Tony Mitchell

What Option?


This is the message that I am presenting at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen at Grace UMC in Newburgh, NY, this Saturday, August 17th, and at Sunday Vespers in the Garden at Grace UMC. I am using primarily the reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 5: 1 – 7) for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost but also make reference to the readings from Hebrews (Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2) and Luke (Luke 12: 49 – 56).

The doors to Grannie Annie’s Kitchen open at 8 and all are welcome to come and be a part of the Saturday morning community. Vespers in the Garden at Grace begin at 7 on Fridays and Sundays and all are welcome to be a part of this worship service.

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When I first read the passage from Isaiah I thought of a couple of things. First, I thought about all those who have proclaimed that America is the new Israel, how this land is the new Promised Land.

Even today, there are those who see the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom taking place here in the United States and that the American people, or at least some of them, are the inheritors of the title of God’s chosen ones.

Of course, that sort of runs against Christ speaking of the opportunity for all to know God and it also means that we, the people, need to take the words of God spoken through Isaiah very, very carefully. Isaiah tells the people of Israel two thousand years ago that their choices to go away from God, to ignore their own people through violence, repression, and economic inequality are not the ways of God’s people.

The primary themes of the Bible, our relationship with God and our relationship with the other people who live on this planet, are the same today as they were two thousand years ago. And yet today, it seems as if we have not learned a thing.

There is still violence, repression, and economic inequality today and it seems to be getting worse, not better. There has to be an alternative that we have not considered, an alternative that brings out the best of the human condition, not the worst.

But what or where is that alternative? That is part of my second thought in reading this passage from Isaiah plus the words on faith that the writer of the Book of Hebrews wrote.

Some people will say that there is no God, no Yahweh, no Jehovah, no Allah, no supreme being by any other name. There are argument is that no god would ever allow such destruction, such violence, such indifference to the human plight to ever exist.

But stop and think about that for a moment.

If you say that there is no God or supreme being and you do not offer an alternative for what you believe, then you are essentially offering little to justify your own existence. For me, at least, to deny the existence of God is to deny one own existence and remove all hope from your life and to say that there is nothing in this world for you.

Those who offer this thought say that you have to go it alone, it is by whatever means you can think of that you will succeed. You put walls up around you so that no one can bother you. But what happens is that you limit your vision of the future and you have put yourself in a prison of your own making, a prison from which you cannot be released. And what kind of life is that?

If we understand that humans were created in the image of God, then you also understand that God gave us the ability to think and create as well as destroy. Anger, violence, war, and destruction come from the same source as love and creativity and to limit one is to surely limit the other. Anger, violence, war and destruction come from man, and to paraphrase President John Kennedy, problems created by man can be solved by man. And I do think that we have spent far too much time on the destruction aspect of our lives and too little time on our creativity.

But creativity requires vision, it requires hope and when your life is limited and without hope, such creativity is not possible to find.

The one thing that God offered the people of Israel, the one thing that God offers to each one of us today is hope, the promise that there is a worth to this life and a goal at the end.

That hope is found in Jesus Christ. In sending Jesus Christ to be among us, God said that there was hope, there was a chance for a better life. This is the theme of the book of Hebrews, that there is a hope present in our lives. Now, the writer of Hebrews didn’t say that this was going to be an easy life or that one might find the resolution of hope in their earthly life. But he also pointed out how many people followed through on that hope so that we might have that opportunity today.

On more than one occasion Jesus pointed out that following Him was not an easy path as well. And we know that each day on that three year journey from the River Jordan to Jerusalem, the number of people who followed Jesus became less and less as the reality of the journey became apparent.

I know that many people today don’t want to follow Christ; it is jut too hard to do so, it requires too much from them. They want a world where everything is given to them without question and without effort; they don’t want to have to return the effort.

In the Gospel reading for this weekend, Jesus points out that His coming would even bring division among families and friends. A Lutheran colleague offered the following words,

Similar words (from Matthew’s Gospel) began a section of a recent newsletter from LCMS Missionaries Brad and Genevieve Ermeling. They wrote: “These words of Jesus often strike us as harsh truths that many of us in Christian homes have never had to face.” (“A Warning Label of the Package of Christianity”)

We are often asked to do things that run counter to tradition and practice, things that speak of a new vision of the world and not simply a continuation of the present one. This will cause conflicts, both within families and within society.

But in that division is a sign of things to come. Two thousand years ago, there were those who could not see the signs. Trapped behind the walls of indifference and self-centeredness they could not see what was happening. They could not see the future.

And today, there are those who have built the same sort of walls, who feel that they are safe within those walls, safe from the problems of the world. There are those who have built walls of selfishness and greed, who place their own needs above everyone else, who are not willing to be a part of this world. Each of these individuals, trapped in a prison of their own making, cannot see the future.

But there was also those who saw what Jesus was doing and heard what He was saying, who understood that there was hope, there was a promise in the future. They understood that to follow Him was not an easy thing to do but that in doing so the results would be better, not just for themselves but for everyone. (Keep in mind that the earlier church, the church that Rome prosecuted, opened its doors, its hearts, its mind, its soul to all the people and not just the limited number of early believers.)

They understood that in Jesus there was a future, open and unbounded.

When I was growing up, I saw many a person who profess to believe in Christ but whose actions belied that belief. I saw people who engaged in many acts of selfishness and greed, whose actions and attitudes were devoted to their own self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. And yet, on Sunday, they would stand before God and the people and proclaim their belief in Christ and state how Christ had brought them from the prison of sin and death.

Something inside me said that was wrong. I saw a world of oppression and violence, of greed and inequality, and a church that was blind to the vision that Christ offered. And I knew others then who felt that way and I know many today who feel that way as well. They have left the organized church because they felt that there was no place for them and they have left God because they could not see how God would allow that to happen.

I might have done that as well and left the church, Jesus, and God far behind. But I do not want to imagine what might have happened.

But there were people who showed me that God’s love for each one of us was unlimited and that it overcame what other men might say and do. I was given an opportunity, as we all are, to find Christ, perhaps in a way that I had never thought.

I also knew that John Wesley saw the same church and the same people some two hundred years before. And I knew that he chose not to walk away but rather do something about a church that was indifferent to the world. He chose, as a follower of Christ, to reach out to the world, to the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the oppressed.

I was given the same opportunity and I have tried to do the same, through my words, my thoughts, and my deeds.

Christ said He came to this world to bring hope to the oppressed, that He came to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and build homes for the homeless. And He called upon us, each one of us, to continue that mission. Followers of Christ are called to make disciples of the people of this world and that means showing them through not only word but action what that means.

You may say that you will go it alone and that is the only way that you can survive. But that traps in you in slavery to sin as sure as anything else you do.

You may feel that Christ is for you and you alone and you have no obligation to share that faith with others. But if you do not share your faith by your thoughts, your words, your deeds, and/or your actions, how will others come to Christ. Can you truly be a follower of Christ when you do not do what you have been asked to do?

The point Wesleyan Christians have made consistently is that we cannot overcome sin, but that Christ can. If we are growing in holiness by working out our salvation, the Holy Spirit does, in fact, have the power to overcome sin. It is a long journey for many, but it is not impossible for God.

Kevin Watson recently wrote, concerning the fullness of the Gospel,

The gospel proclaims that Jesus was the Son of God, he was crucified, died, and raised again on the third day. Jesus faced the very worse that sin and death could do. He entered fully into the reality of death. And he conquered sin, even the grave! (from John Meunier – “He Breaks The Power of Canceled Sin”

The only power to escape that slavery is found in Christ. We cannot overcome sin but Christ can. In one of his hymns, Charles Wesley wrote of the power that Jesus has to cancel sin and set the prisoner free. It is by the Grace of God that we have this opportunity but it is the work of God in our lives that moves us onward to perfection and completion. (adapted from Allan Bevere “Grace Is a Gift From God, Grace Is a Work of God”)

We live in an interesting and challenging world, a world that often times offers little hope or promise for the future. We have been told that the option is that we have no option.

Perhaps that is true. If we do nothing today, then there are no options and there is no future. But God came to us in the form of Jesus Christ and offered an option, a choice, an opportunity for a future of freedom. Yes, it is not an easy option and sometimes what we have right now seems so much better. But a life of slavery to sin and death has no escape and that is hardly the best option.

We are offered the chance today, through God’s Grace and Love, to find our future through Christ. The choice is yours, what option shall you take?

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

But Where Does It Start?


Here are my thoughts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 August 2010. The Scriptures are Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.

I will be at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY, this coming Sunday (Location of church). The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.

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If you have been following my blog for any length of time, then you know that I have served as a lay minister in the past. At first, it was simply to “hold down the fort” while the district found a regular pastor. Then it changed into part of a strategy to rebuild or renew the church. I would like to think I was successful in those assignments but that will only be determined some time in the future.

As the assignments changed from simply preparing a single sermon for a single Sunday every once in a while to a sermon every week for 50 weeks at a time, I found myself looking at the materials a little differently. While the education of lay speakers, both local and certified, in my own district does involve an examination of the Scripture and the preparation for a particular Sunday, I don’t recall receiving that information when I first began lay speaking.

That’s not to say that my own education as a lay speaker was lacking. I had more than enough opportunities to watch, listen and learn from numerous pastors about the development of a sermon and a series of sermons. The manner in which one of lay speaking courses is run gives me the opportunity to continue learning and to continually update my knowledge and my skills. (I wouldn’t have created the “role” of Nathaniel Bartholomew if it hadn’t been for presentations that two individuals gave during our Lay Speaking schools).

But somewhere along the line, as I sought to get the churches that I lead and directed to focus on the issues of rebirth, renewal, and rebuilding, I found that my success came from preaching the Gospel. I don’t know how much of this comes from training, from experience, from my background, or just simply the sheer act of standing in a pulpit Sunday after Sunday.

I also know that it is more than looking at the words written some 1900 years ago and repeating them to the congregation and saying “now, do likewise.” It means really getting into what was happening and perhaps saying the words with 21st century English rather than an old and stilted translation. You all know how much I love to use or read “The Cotton Patch Gospels” by Clarence Jordan. It isn’t just the fun of reading Bible stories with a Southern twist; it is seeing the words come alive.

We have to see the words; we have to hear the words in terms of what is happening to us today if the meaning of the words is to have any validity. If we see the words and actions of the Bible only in terms of thoughts, words, and deeds of some two thousand years ago, they become fixed, rigid, and dead. Dead words have no meaning; dead words can offer no life or hope.

I cannot offer you a specific date and time when I began to see that life and that hope that comes from the Bible. I know that when I read passages like today’s passage, where Jesus challenged the religious authorities on matters of their law and their regulations, I began to see Jesus as a revolutionary. I grew up in an environment that said that the rules were made to be followed and no questions were to be asked about those rules.

But I also grew up in a variety of places. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense when the rules of one place were not the same as the rules for another place. And that is what Jesus is saying to the religious authorities in the Gospel reading today. Explain the sense of laws and regulations that say it is alright to treat a work animal but not a human being on the Sabbath. If a person is sick, they need to see a doctor.

Yes, there is a reason why we are encouraged to keep the Sabbath holy (a reason that seems to have been lost in the culture of today); however, when a person is sick, that person needs attention and there can be no rules that should prevent that from happening. But the religious authorities over the years, in order to enforce that commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, created a myriad of rules and regulations to do just that. Each time a rule was created, someone found a need for a loophole, and doesn’t that sound just like today?

When I hear or read of someone who seeks to bring into play a world of Biblical law, I think of those times when Jesus spoke out against the establishment and wonder what those others are thinking. I cannot help but think that they have forgotten the Gospel message; they have forgotten how the words and thoughts of the Bible are to be read. They want that dead Bible with its fixed and meaningless words.

And when I hear of those who criticize Christianity and say that they will never be part of the Christian church, I also think that they haven’t read the Gospel message. They do not know the meaning of what is inside the Bible. And how can they know? The only voices that they hear are the ones who call for Biblical law and condemnation of life styles that they, the earth-bound judges, deem unsuitable for inclusion in society.

They are the ones who shunned the women who had been sick for so long yet whom Jesus cured with a single command. They are the ones who criticized Jesus for violating their laws. Those who have turned away from the church have turned away because of those who feel their laws, their regulations are more important that what God wants us to do.

When you create a world of countless laws and regulations, fixed in time and meaning, you create a world when it is impossible to touch God. The writer of Hebrews reminds us how the Israelites feared Mount Sinai. God was meant to be respected, not feared. We are welcomed into His Holy City by the words and deeds of Jesus.

There are many today who seek those words; something inside them tells them that there is hope in the Gospel message. But they don’t know where to find those words; they don’t know who is speaking to them in a world that seems so rigid and fixed.

Part of my growing up, part of my beginning to see that the words of the Bible were alive and held meaning and hope came when I was in college. When I began, the college I attended was known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College; now it is known as Truman State University and is named after the former President, Harry S. Truman. President Truman is said to have placed on his desk in the oval office a plaque that read “the buck stops here.”

It emphasized the responsibilities that the office of the President held. Somewhere along the line, we have to ask ourselves not where the responsibilities stop but where do they begin. Who is responsible for telling others through their thoughts, words, deeds and actions that the words of the Bible are alive and have meaning in the world today? Who is responsible to see that the Gospel message of hope and renewal is a true message for today?

That responsibility lies with each one of us. When God chose Jeremiah to be the prophet to His people, Jeremiah tried very hard to get out of the task. But God said that He had chosen Jeremiah. When Jeremiah said that he could not speak, God told him, as He told Moses and all the other prophets, He would give him the words to speak.

When we accept Christ as our Savior, our lives change. When we allow the Holy Spirit into our lives, we become empowered to help others change their lives. That is what happened to Jeremiah; that is what happened to every prophet, every disciple and every follower.

So where does it start today? Where does the preaching of the Good News, the Gospel start? It starts here today with each one of us.

How Do I Get To Twin Valley?


This was the last of the summer series I did for the Kansas East Conference in 1995.  The Scriptures for this 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 27 August 1995, were Jeremiah 28: 1 – 9, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 22 – 30.

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We are fast approaching the next century. And it is being done with a certain degree of fear. Last year, U. S. News and World Report reported that only 26% of Americans feel that the world will be a better place in the coming century. Forty-two percent (42%) felt that the world would be worse than it is today. (11 July 1994)

There are always unknowns to tomorrow but with the new century, these unknowns seem to have a greater impact. But the fear only comes because we do not know what the future holds. It is our lack of knowledge about the future that brings this fear.

The opening verses of the passage from Hebrews describe the initial contact between the people of Israel and God:

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that another word be spoken to them.

To the Israelites, God was someone to fear. Their fear came from their lack of knowledge about God.

Should we fear what comes with the new century? Historians tell us that people back in the year 999 truly feared the coming of the year 1000. In the area of computer technology, there is a certain fear about what will happen to all of our computer files when the year 2000 because the numbers 00 are associated with 1900, not 2000.

Now that may seem like a trivial reason but it does indicate that there are unknowns to this coming time. It does lead to some simple questions. Who do we turn to; which direction do we take?

I entitled this sermon "How Do I Get to Twin Valley?" because I needed to know the directions for getting here today. But what happens when the map falls apart or when our destination is a time and not a place? For us to accomplish all we want to do in life; to know where we are going and to do so with confidence and without fear, requires more than directions on a map. (When I gave the sermon I showed the map of Kansas that I had been using that summer; it was almost totally in shreds from all the folding and unfolding.)

To meet the challenges of the coming years, to face the unknown we must acknowledge that God must be a major part of our life.

The passage from Jeremiah illustrates that very point. This particular passage is the beginning of a narrative between two prophets claiming to speak for God.

Hananiah utters an oracle of salvation: the yoke of Babylon has been broken and within two years God will bring back to Jerusalem King Jehoiakim, the exiles of 597 BCE, and the sacred vessels stolen from the temple. Jeremiah, wearing a yoke to symbolize submission to Babylon, opposes Hananiah and his hopeful word. Indeed, he announces an oracle of judgment against Hananiah, a prophecy that comes to pass in his death that same year.

Can you imagine how the people of the court felt and what they said when Jeremiah issued his prophecy? "How dare Jeremiah! The good life is coming back, the exile will soon be over and we can return to Jerusalem with our king and our possessions and he has the audacity to say that Hananiah is going to die." But Jeremiah looked at the past and who was involved in this prophecy.

King Jeconiah was the king responsible for getting Israel taken over by Babylon in the first place. Jeconiah, as some of the kings before him, turned away from God. How could anyone expect things to get better if those responsible for the troubles in the first place were still running the kingdom? Still, Jeremiah did not abandon hope for the future. In the last verse of today’s passage,

As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of the prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

Just as we worry about the coming century, the people gathered around Jesus as he is walking towards Jerusalem were worrying about their future. But their concern was more self-centered; they worried about who was going to be saved. Had they done all the "right" things? To some extent these people were still trapped in the old view, that eternal salvation could be gained by following a set of established rules. Yet, it was those rules that had made salvation impossible. Society at that time was so riddled with legalistic and unbearable regulations that it was impossible to have a loving relationship with God. If you view God with fear and try to follow rules in order to keep God from getting angry, you quickly find yourselves lost and confused.

The problem that one gets into by simply following the law is that you start limiting your actions and abilities. It would be the same as going through life with your fists clenched, unwilling to grab new opportunities as they pass by.

The people of Jesus’ time no longer heard a message of a Loving Father who cared for His children. The rules and regulations of the church at that time made it impossible for them to do so. Many people at that time probably didn’t even know that their God cared for them. It wasn’t that they had left their religion but that their religion had left them. No longer did they hear a message of hope or promise. The people with Jesus that day knew that He offered something special and different but they were not ready to open their hearts and mind as He was asking.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray, addressing God as "Father." In doing so Jesus turned our relationship with our Father from one of fear to one of grace. When Jesus was crucified, the veil in the Temple was torn open, showing that there was now open access to the Father through Christ. No longer would it be necessary to follow the law in order for salvation to be gained.

"Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law."

The message Jesus offered to the people of Israel, the message that He offers to us today is one of hope and promise. It is a message that removes the fear from our hearts. Turn to hymn #58 in your hymnal. These are the words to the hymn written by Charles Wesley in celebration of his coming to Christ in 1739. As you read these words, you can begin to understand what the acceptance of Jesus Christ into one’s own heart can do. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, we take ourselves away from the earthly rules that hinder and bind us.

From my prayer devotion guide comes the following:

When we turn over our lives to Jesus, we are certain about the outcome of life. "Lord Jesus, I believe that thou art able and willing to deliver me from all the care and unrest and bondage of my Christian life. I believe thou didst die to set me free, not only in the future, but now and here. I believe thou art stronger than sin, and that thou canst keep me, even me, in my extreme of weakness, from falling into its snares or yielding obedience to its commands. And, Lord, I am going to trust thee to keep me. I have tried keeping myself, and have failed, and failed, most grievously. I am absolutely helpless. So now I will trust thee. I give myself to thee. I keep back no reserves. Body, soul, and spirit, I present myself to thee as a piece of clay, to be fashioned into anything thy love and thy wisdom shall choose. And now I am thine. I believe thou dost accept that which present to thee; I believe that this poor, weak, foolish heart has been taken possession of by thee, and that thou hast even at this very moment begun to work in me to will and to do of thy good pleasure. I trust thee utterly, and I trust thee now. (The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith).

Faith simply means trust. It begins with the knowledge that our own righteous does not God’s standard and we cannot ever get God to lower that standard. Faith is also not blind. It is based on fact, not mere speculation. We stake our lives on the outcome. We trust in Christ to prove His promise.

There are many things to fear as we come closer to the beginning of the next century. In the closing verse from today’s reading from Hebrews we gain a certainty about our future that no one on earth can offer.

See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven."

This phrase, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of what is shaken — that is, created things — so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12: 25 – 29)

The future can be frightening; it can cause us to be afraid. But the

One thing we owe to Our Lord is never to be afraid. To be afraid is doubly an injury to him. Firstly, it means that we forget him; we forget he is with us and is all powerful; secondly, it means that we are not conformed to his will; for since all that happens is willed or permitted by him, we ought to rejoice in all that happens to us and feel neither anxiety nor fear. Let us then have the faith that banishes fear. Our Lord is at our side, with us, upholding us." (Meditations of a Hermit by Charles de Foucauld)

With nothing to fear, we can see the directions to the Promised Land. We know the direction we need to take. As Jesus once commanded the fisherman so many years ago, so to today does he tell us "Follow me."

“Who Will You Invite?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 13th Sunday of Pentecost, 29 August 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14.

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First of all, some things about this sermon must be stated up front. If anything so far has made you uncomfortable or if you think that I have deliberately picked the readings for today, you are mistaken. The scripture readings for today are part of the common lectionary and were probably picked over ten years ago. The title for today’s sermon was determined about six weeks ago, when I began looking at the month’s worship schedule. It is the coincidence of these events that confirms for me the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit to effect change in this world.

You have heard me speak about Grace United Methodist Church in St. Cloud, Minnesota on a number of occasions in the past. Grace is the church where I started the journey that has lead me to this place and time as a lay speaker in the United Methodist Church. In thinking of Minnesota, one often thinks of Scandinavians, Lutherans and “Grumpy Old Men.”

But the area around St. Cloud is primarily German and Roman Catholic. I was attracted to Grace Church for a number of reasons. It was small in physical size, the minister seemed friendly and we had a sense that it was a lot like the church we left behind in Odessa, Texas. And the Germanic heritage of this area was found in Grace Church, the former Evangelical United Brethren Church in St. Cloud, which as you know are where my own roots lie. So, for those reasons, we decided to make Grace Church our church home in St. Cloud.

I felt that the movies starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were more serious tragedies than they were comedies. It seemed to me that during the three years that I lived in Minnesota, most of the “native” men were always grumpy.

On that first Sunday, only one person besides the pastor greeted my family and me. Were the decisions about joining not based on other factors, this might have driven us away. In those first few weeks of attending I noticed that there were always two gentlemen sitting by the door between the church entryway and the sanctuary. These two gentlemen were the epitome of grumpy old men with the stated goal, I later found out, of driving away visitors. I do not know now, nor did I know then or even understand why they would want to do this.

For at that time, Grace Church was a dying church with members leaving for other churches and attendance rapidly falling off. To drive off people seemed hardly the best tactic to undertake. I suppose I should have taken the hint and looked elsewhere for a church. Or perhaps I should have done what others had done and just let them do their thing.

But I didn’t think that was right, and no matter what others may have said, I began to greet people at the doorway to the church, giving anyone a slightly better image that they would have gotten a few feet later. I did not consult with anyone or ask permission from the pastor or the church council; I just started saying hello. As time went by, the two old men gave up their task and sought other ways to undermine the efforts of those seeking to turn the church around. Others began to help me in my greetings and a formal greeter program was developed. When I left Grace in 1994, it was said that a visitor could not get out of the church without having to say hello to everyone in the church. When I left Grace Church, the membership decline had stopped and attendance was increasing. The changes in the church allowed them to take on the task of building a new and bigger church.

I will not claim credit for any of the success that came to Grace Church. In fact, I don’t think I did all that much. My wife at that time, a Minnesota native, told me that doing what I wanted to do would not work. Minnesotans may be friendly to strangers but they do not always willingly let newcomers in their midst do new things. Still I thought something needed to be done to welcome people, visitors and members alike, each Sunday. Quite honestly, I wasn’t even aware of the passage from Hebrews that we read today. But something inside me said that I had to do something, something in line with what I had been taught all the years that I had gone to church. So without asking I began greeting people.

One can never estimate the consequences of meeting people. Though they may have forgotten what kindness meant to the church when I came there, Grace Church knew what kindness to strangers meant.

Some fifty years earlier a visitor came to Grace church. In the events that transpired, no one could ever remember who the visitor was or what had been said. But the visitor did; he remembered the warmness of the reception he received and the kindness of the members. So comforted was this stranger that he left a gift in his will to the church when he died. The money was sufficient to completely build a new parsonage.

Remember Abraham and Sarah? They welcomed three strangers into their household and for their kindness were rewarded with a family.

I think that the writer of Hebrews remembered the kindness of Abraham. In the second lesson today we are told to be kind to strangers and welcome them in. If we are Christians, then we are to give comfort to those who are in pain or lonely. It is easy to let strangers remain strangers and thus avoid any potential claim they might have on us. But this won’t work for those of us called to a Christ-mirroring vulnerability, one that regards the other as brother or sister and a claimant on our concern. The text from Hebrews challenges us to redefine strangers as angels, or as “friends we’ve yet to meet.” (From “Living by the Word” by Bruce Wollenberg, Christian Century, 24 August 2004)

Hymn 408 (verses 1 and 2)

I mention this for one specific reason. I was hoping that today we would spend most of the day outside the front part of the church greeting and visiting with the bicyclists that rode by the church. I don’t mind it when some of my ideas get shot down (and believe me, I have had many shot down). I certainly don’t mind it when my ideas don’t work. Remember that Thomas Edison tried over 100 combinations of materials and setups before he was able to develop the working light bulb. But instead of lamenting on the many failures, he pointed out that he knew 100 ways that it would not work. So, like Edison, I keep trying ideas, looking for the ones that work. What I do not like is when an idea of mine is shot down for the wrong reasons, such as people believing that it was someone else’s idea.

I saw the sign advertising the “Tour de Putnam Valley” on Wednesday the 18th when I came into Putnam Valley to mail the August announcements. I made a phone call to one person whose expertise and skills in planning I considered up to the task. Before church last Sunday, there were several other conversations before church dealing with other matters. An offer to facilitate the process related to the food stop was made because of those other conversations. Unfortunately, there were some that presumed things that were not true. And, based on what I was told, the reasons given for not being able to help were totally unfounded and based on incorrect evidence and without factual basis.

I have been the pastor of this church for just over two years. In those two years, I have tried to effect a change in the attitudes of people. It has not been easy and I suppose that I could have asked for another assignment. But it is not my style or my temperament to do so. It was clear from the very first day that I came here that there are conflicts within the church and within the Putnam Valley community that were going to be difficult to resolve. The greatest difficulty arose from the fact that neither side in any argument was completely in the right. In many cases, I came away with the thought that both sides in the argument were wrong.

As I said at the beginning, I did not pick the scriptures for today; they were decided several years back. But the Gospel for today is most appropriate. If anything, my experiences over the past two years and culminating last Monday tell me that very few members of this church are willing to give up their honored seat at the banquet table.

Those are harsh words, I know. But God’s words to the people of Israel were harsh and angry and meant to show the people where they were headed. What has transpired over the past few months and years is nothing more than a squabble between people unwilling to get along and allow the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts. My decision to invite people to stop by was based on something inside me that says we need to say to people that this church is alive and well, not merely a place that every few months puts on an event to bring people together. Invite in the stranger and make him or her welcome. But it is hard to do when the people at the front of the door don’t want them to come in.

Remember that this building was built so that people could worship God. They accepted the notion of Methodism and its social gospel. This is part of the covenant that we will treat strangers as friends. It was built with the same covenant with God that the children of Israel made with God in the desert of the wilderness. But the children of God forgot the covenant that they had made; the children of God forgot who they were supposed to worship and what they were supposed to represent. There is a lot of anger in the words God spoke through Jeremiah but it is the anger of God who is reminding His chosen people what they have failed to do.

The words of Jeremiah in the coming days are going to be words of promise and hope, words of a new covenant and the birth of a Savior. But right now, the words of Jeremiah are angry words, words calling people to look at their lives and take the steps that are necessary to atone for their mistakes and their sins.

I had hoped that we would be offering water to thirsty riders right now; I had hoped that we would also be able to offer the water from the fountain of living water that God spoke of through Jeremiah. But I have to wonder if the closing words of the passage for today are not also true. People today are no longer capable of holding that water.

The writer of Hebrews closed with an admonition to not neglect to do good and to share in what you have. Praise God so that what comes out of one’s month is pleasing to all. Jesus told those gathered around him that day that they would be blessed when they brought in others to share in the bounty of God’s blessings. It may not be a repayment today but it was guaranteed at the resurrection.

So consider this today. The words of the Gospel are Jesus’ invitation to us; come and share the bounty of the heavenly kingdom. What we are on this earth does not matter with this invitation. All who seek God through Christ are welcome at God’s table. The invitation was given to us through the cross on Calvary; we are reminded that each time we see the cross that we are invited to be a part of God’s kingdom. We are told that much awaits us if we serve the Lord and offer praise and thanksgiving in His name.

Now, it is our turn. The early Christians squabbled over just about everything, arguing about what was correct and incorrect. They even argued about what food was proper, what was clean and what was unclean. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, suggested that they put away their differences, stop judging and despising one another so that they could work together in witness to the reconciling purpose of God.

“Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual understanding. Do not for the sake of food destroy the work of God.” There were sharp moral differences between the Roman Christians, serious questions about what God required. So too are there serious differences between members of this church, serious enough to have driven members away and keep visitors from coming back.

Just like the early church, the stakes are quite high. Failure to resolve differences will cause this church to die. Paul would not be dragged into the power struggle of the Roman church and I have tried to do the same here.

But now I must ask what the next step will be. What shall we do? Like Paul, I would say “Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” And remember that we are called to serve a Lord who taught his followers to turn the other check when attacked and love one’s enemies. We should also recall that Paul encouraged all to not be overcome with evil but rather overcome evil with good. (Adapted from “A season of repentance” by Richard B. Hays, Christian Century, 24 August 2004)

We have also been called to be peacemakers. These are times when to be other could prove disastrous. I would much rather have spoken this Sunday on global terms and the need for a renewed spirit in the world; the times require it. But I also know that global changes start at the local level. There lies before us a great opportunity. But we cannot expect change of any kind unless we are willing to change ourselves. Saint Francis of Assisi once said, “When you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.”

We cannot preach peace or the love of Christ unless it is in our own hearts. So we must change, we must allow the presence of Christ to redefine our views and our thoughts. If we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our old systems, old options, and old values, then we cannot even begin to think in new terms. New visions cannot come from old structures; new values will not be created from old assumptions. Visions come when people are renewed, not by their reactions. If we allow our reactions to guide the paths we walk, we will never be able to see as we should and as we can. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

And so we are called, called to repent and become new. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Today, we have the greatest opportunity that we could imagine. We have a chance to invite Jesus into our hearts and experience the warmth and trust found only through Him. We have the chance to invite the Holy Spirit to once again come into our lives and renew that flame that leads and guides us, just as it did for the Israelites in the wilderness, to Christ. We have that chance to invite God into our lives and to renew the covenant made countless times that leads us out of the wilderness.

How will we answer the invitation that has been given to us? The doors of this church are open and they are open to all that seek God through Christ. How open are the doors of your heart and soul? Who will you invite to come into your life?

Hymn 408 (verse 3)

 


“Choose Wisely”


This is the message that I presented for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 2 September 2001, at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Hebrews 13: 1 – 9, 15 – 16, and Luke14: 1, 7 – 14.

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It was that great existentialist philosopher, Yogi Berra, who reportedly said that "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." There are times when we are faced with a decision when that seems to be the best solution. The scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share." For we as Christians, discipleship itself is a something that must transcend the confines of time and space, so that the love of Christ is always made tangible in a busy and often cruel world. Individually we are invited to live our lives in such a way that we resist the clutter of things and money that so easily can skew our perspective of what is right and good according to God.

Over the next eight weeks, as we conclude the season of the church known as ordinary time and prepare for the season of Advent, we will be reminded by Jeremiah and the Psalms, by Paul in his letter to Timothy and the writer of Hebrews, and by Luke that our most important work is to magnify the presence of God wherever and whenever possible in the world. As I said last week, to be a witness doesn’t require that we hit people over the head with scripture but rather that we show others, our family, our friends, our co-workers and strangers that we worship the one true God.

It is possible and most likely probable that we are not up to the task, even though, as the Psalms say in Psalm 139: 14, we "are fearfully and wonderfully made" by a generous and loving God. We are assured that to be a true disciple all we have to do is care for the world as God does. With both persistent prayer (Luke 18: 6 – 7) and a steadfast faith (2 Timothy 3: 14), we can find the ways to love the prisoner, welcome the stranger (Hebrews 13: 1- 3), give to others abundantly, and rejoice when they cannot repay us. (Luke 14: 14)

We will also be reminded that the commitment to the gospel is an absolute one; only those free of possession can accept it. (Luke 14: 33) The best way to resist the pull of possessions is by sharing all that we have, and doing so with joy; in the words of the Mother Teresa, "It is not how much you give, but with how much love you give it." Our ability to give, and to do so with joy and love, will sufficiently betray our allegiance, not to any worldly leader or thing, but to the Holy One who has called us into being.

The scriptures this week specifically speak of how we live our lives. The Christian faith is not simply a decision we can give only passing notice. In being Christian, we become open to the possibilities of God’s power in our lives. The call to be a disciple of Christ is not done solely to agree with some theological point but to transform our life through new relationships and new priorities. The passages from Hebrew deal with how faith can impact on specific areas of our lives.

The most important relationship, of course, is the one between the Redeemer and the redeemed. The relationship with Christ overflows into our relationship with others. In the first three verses of Hebrews 13, the writer notes that our relationships with others are of ultimate significance.

We are to love one another as brothers. True love of others involves affirmation as well as confrontation. As Christ said, when we love each other in Christian love, the world will know that we are His disciples. And Christian love extends beyond those with whom we share the same faith. The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the countless times where the stranger was an angel. How we treat strangers is a mark of our faith as well.

Verse 3 in the passage from Hebrews today notes that we are to treat the imprisoned as fellow prisoners and the mistreated as fellow sufferers. This means that we are to identify with the bondage and suffering of those around us. Christ’s ministry was set forth in Luke 4: 18 as a fulfillment of the prophecy to set the captive free and heal the broken hearted. His purpose is the purpose of his followers, and it has not changed; we are still to be setting people free and healing their suffering. This passage should also remind us that the first mission of the John Wesley was to minister to those imprisoned in England.

The treatment of strangers and those less fortunate than us was the topic of the Gospel reading for today. Jesus had come as a guest for dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees. It should be noted that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were not as bad as one might think. They were highly respected merchants with a heart for God. In some regards, Jesus was most readily identified with them, rather than with the Sadducees.

It is clear from the words of Jesus that he had never studied under Dale Carnegie. He was not there to win friends or influence people. At the dinner, Jesus noticed how subtly but surely people made their way to the places of honor in the home. They were good people and they wanted to be recognized for their good work.

But Jesus saw it differently. More is at stake in this passage than a lesson in etiquette. This is, after all, a parable.

People’s actions reveal their hearts. The Pharisees saw themselves as more important than others. In the eyes of the Son of Man, that is a serious charge. Jesus calls for humility among religious leaders, not blowing their own horns and announcing their own importance.

I am sure that some of the people who were there must have looked at their friends and their host and wondered, "Who invited this guy?" It was one of those awkward moments that we have all encountered in a meeting or at a dinner. One of those moments that we hope will go away quickly.

But Jesus continued by questioning the motives of his host. This is clearly not something you would do if you wish to eat at this place again. Jesus asked, "Why did you invite only the beautiful people of the town? Where are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind? Why are they not considered important enough to invite for dinner?"

Those are clearly, at least to those at that dinner and perhaps to many today, silly questions. Good upstanding people know that there are standards to be upheld, reputations to consider. Besides this was a Sabbath dinner.

And that was the point that Jesus wanted to make. Because this was a Sabbath dinner, it was the perfect time to invite all of God’s children — the poor, those who were not able to invite you back; the crippled and the lame, those who may have to be carried into the room; the blind, those who have to be led.

Luke makes increasingly clear that those who were religious may be the blind ones. They can’t see nor can they hear what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of God and how one enters into it. They assume that it is the powerful who will inherit the earth, not the meek and that the meek must be stepped on in the process. Jesus reminded the religious leaders, as he reminds us today, that they should see themselves more as servants than as rulers.

It was Jeremiah who told us that "You are what you worship." While we may confess one faith, the object of our true devotion will be revealed in our everyday actions and in the things that we devote most of our time and energy. And when our hearts are devoted to anything but God, we betray not only God but also ourselves.

Jeremiah was not the first to remind the Israelites why their kingdom would fall. As in the narrative in 2 Kings 17, verse 15 of today’s reading states, "They went after false idols and became false." It is as if to say worship well, acknowledging God and God’s will, and you will grow in faith and knowledge and love of God and god’s children; worship and serve other gods — whether they be gods of gold, positions of power, or lusts of the flesh — worship falsely, and you will become false.

One writer noted that though more than 2,000 years have passed this passage was first read, little had changed; if anything, we now have more access to a greater variety of useless things. The idols are different in name and shape, but their effect is still the same. Lifeless objects bring only death, never life.

God’s lament is also a statement of God’s love. "What did I do so wrong," God asks in verse 4, "that you would act so wrongly." Interestingly enough, it was God’s grace that was the occasion for sin. We make the choice as to the God’s we worship. In the end, we are always given the freedom to choose between God and not-God.

In the Psalms we read that the one who "fears the Lord and greatly delights in commands" rejoices, for "his posterity shall be mighty upon the earth." (Psalm 112: 1 – 2) The choice to "fear" (which can also be translated as "revere") the Lord has never been easy one to make nor is it an easy one to maintain. But God promises that "I will never forsake you nor abandon you." (Hebrews 13: 5)

The decision to be a Christian, the decision to walk with Jesus, is not one taken lightly. Clearly, there are other paths that one can take. Each day we stand at the crossroads, like Jeremiah in Jeremiah 6: 16

Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk it in, and you will find rest for your souls.

The Israelites who heard Jeremiah choose to walk other paths. Jesus reaffirms the rewards of choosing the goodness that God asks of us. When our generosity and mercy have no bounds towards "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind … blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you." (Luke 14: 13 – 14)  We are most pleased when our generosity (like God’s) is not repayable.

We stand today at the crossroads. Perhaps it is not a crossroad or intersection on a road somewhere but it is a crossroads in our own path of life. The question must be which way to go; what road shall we take? The invitation is made to choose the path of Christ.