A Certain Outcome

This will be on the back page for the bulletin for Fishkill UMC for this Sunday (August 26, 2018, 14th Sunday after Pentecost – B).

The one thing that struck me about the Old Testament Reading was that Solomon’s Temple was open to all.  People would come because of the greatness of Solomon and they would discover God in the Temple that Solomon built.

What does that say about today when people are turning away from the church out of distrust and anger or they are seeking alternative means of worship because they cannot find God in the church today.

And when I read Paul’s words to the Ephesians, I hear him crying out again the battles inside the church.  The problem is not that the world is evil or anything like that; it is that some people want to exercise their authority as if it came from God,  And it is hard to take on those people; it is hard to take on the tasks Jesus asked us to begin.

But in our faith, and through God, we have been given the tools, the skills, and the abilities to take on those tasks.

What will we do?  Will we give up the fight or will you join the fight?                                 ~~Tony Mitchell

“The Value Of Wisdom”

A Meditation for 30 August, 2015, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), based on Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13, James 1: 17 – 27, and Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, 21 – 23

The other day, a blogging friend and colleague (Allan R. Bevere) posted a cartoon showing Jesus telling the four Gospel writers, “If you all don’t pay attention, we’re going to end up with four different versions of this miracle!” And on the side of the cartoon is a little boy holding a basket with 2 loaves of bread and 5 fish.

The catch in this cartoon is that, as best as we can figure, no one was taking notes about what transpired during the three years of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Mark began his Gospel some forty years or so after the fact; Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from what Mark wrote; and John wrote his Gospel much, much later. All four of the Gospels relied on what people had been saying over the years between the occurrence of the Gospels and when they were written.

Now, I knew that there were four versions of the feeding of the multitudes but I had found out when I began writing this piece that didn’t remember using John 6: 1 – 21 in any of the messages I have prepared over the past twenty years.

Now, before you frantically turn in your New Testament (you remember where you put it, I hope), this is John’s version of the feeding of the multitude. I think that because I focus so much on Matthew’s telling of the story and the fact that there are two stories in Matthew, I forgot that I have used the story in John on several occasions (five times in the past 15 years, including a couple of weeks ago). I also found out that is Luke’s version of the feeding that is not included in the lectionary.

Memory is a funny thing. If you don’t reinforce it, you are likely to forget what it is that you wanted to remember. I can, without much problem, give the first twenty elements of the periodic table in order. And I know most of the elements on the table, simply because it has been a part of my life for almost forty years now.

Even with all the work I have done preparing sermons, messages, and blog posts, chemistry is still my primary interest. So it is not surprising that I sometimes don’t remember what I have written with regards to the lectionary verses for each week. This single cartoon has reminded me that I need to pay just a little bit more attention to the lectionary verses each week and to be little more studious in the coming days.

One of the biggest problems we have today is our willingness to seek an immediate solution, without really understanding what the problem is. Our response to so many problems is something akin to the “old” saying, “A child with a hammer thinks everything looks like a nail” (from “A Collection Of Sayings”). We don’t stop to think about what the problem is and what has to be done to solve the problem.

Over the next few weeks, the Old Testament Reading will come from the section of the Old Testament knows as the “wisdom” section. In one sense, this is, for me, the best part of the Old Testament because it focuses on how we think. This section of the Old Testament bridges the history and law portions of the Old Testament with the prophecies. As you read the various books in this section, you are giving an alternative view to wisdom and an understanding of the nature of God. There is very little mention of God in the Song of Solomon or the books of Proverbs, Esther, Ruth, or Job, the books in the revised common lectionary that will be the source of the Old Testament reading for the next few weeks (from “Forgotten Books”).

Note added on 30 August – “James is a collection of early Jewish Christian wisdom materials.  As with the earlier wisdom writings, it emphasizes wisdom not so much as what one knows about God, but how one lives in response to God.”  (From (I believe) Ministry Matters)

This section shows that there is more to life than simply a framework of laws that must be rigorously followed. It also shows that there is a view of the world that does not necessarily end in tragedy and gloom.

The Song of Solomon reveals its treasures to the patient reader who approaches the book on its own terms, searching for and meditating on its meaning. (from “What Does It Mean?”)

Jesus challenges the Pharisees and religious scholars about their rigorous attention to the ritual hand-washing, almost to the point of ignoring the meal. Don’t get me wrong, there are some sound and very good scientific reasons for washing your hands before each meal (and you can hear every mother in this country saying, “see, I told you so.”).

I am sure that if we were to somehow trace the origin of this rule about washing one’s hands before a meal, we would find that is was developed for sanitary reasons. But, as is often the case, this reason got lost over the course of time. And when that happened, it lost its meaning. As Jesus pointed out, the ritual act of hand-washing is meaningless if what comes out of your mouth is dirty and polluted. It does little to wash the dirt and slime off your hands if your heart is not clean, for all that you touch will still be dirty.

Jesus’ point was that you had better understand what the act of washing was meant to do and then turn your life around. Paul, in the portion of his letter to the Ephesians that is part of the lectionary for today, points out that you have to act on what you hear. The catch here, of course, is that you have to distinguish between the Good and the evil. Paul also points out anyone can “talk a good game” but only through acting out your words can the true good be found.

In the end, we are tasked with knowing the Word and then acting out the Word. The closing words of the passage from Ephesians today remind us that our primary task in this world is to “reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against the corruption from the godless world.”

The value of wisdom is first remember that and then doing that.

“Tell Me the Truth, But . . .”

I was at the United Methodist Church of Purdys, North Salem, NY and First United Methodist Church of Brewster, Brewster, NY this morning as a last minute fill-in for their pastor. Services at Purdys start at 9; services at Brewster start at 11 and you are welcome to attend either service.

The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (B) were Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13, James 1: 17 – 27 and Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, and 21 – 23.

It is my habit to read the three scripture readings that constitute the lectionary readings for a particular Sunday and think of a title that somehow relates to the three readings. Sometimes this is easy to do; other times, like today; it is not so easy to do. The thing that makes it easy though is to understand and appreciate that that the Bible is a living and breathing document. It makes the readings especially easy to put into the context of the world around us.

So, in reading the three Scriptures and hearing Jesus and James call out the false leaders of their times, it wasn’t that hard to come up with the title. But the title for this message that you have been given, “Tell me the truth, but . . .”, is incomplete, if for no other reason than the entire title is a bit lengthy. The complete and full title is “Tell me the the truth but make sure it is my version of the truth.”

Of all the goals of humankind, the hardest to achieve is finding the truth. One could easily argue that the truth is subjective, dependent on time and place. We may, and many do, argue that the men whom Thomas Jefferson wrote about were a particular group of individuals and that today that group is a much broader, more inclusive group that goes beyond race and gender. It would be very difficult to apply a limited definition of equality in today’s day and age, though there are many throughout the world who would much rather do so with a straight face.

In the end, we are reminded of a very basic statement that Jesus Christ said to such a group that would seek to limit the freedom of others when he told them in John 8: 31 – 33, “seek the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Of course, those to whom that Jesus was speaking never considered themselves to be anything but free so it was difficult for them to realize that no matter how you may lead your life, slavery to sin and death is still slavery. And when you seek to impose your rules or your beliefs on others, as was the case of those who heard Jesus speak of truth and freedom, you seek to impose a degree of slavery on the people as well.

In these words that follow I seek to show you the truth, the truth as I see it. You may disagree with me on how I interpret what has been placed before me and that is your right. But I also hope that you will take on the challenge of finding out for yourself what the truth is.

I am the grandson of an Army officer and the son of an Air Force officer. This lineage gives me a slightly different view of the world than others may have. As the son of an active duty Air Force officer, I lived in four different localities before I began school and I attended five different elementary schools, two junior high schools, and one high school before my father retired in 1964. I would attend two other high schools from 1966 to 1968 as my father settled into post-service employment.

When I would mention this to my students sometimes, they sometimes saw me as some sort of trouble maker because they, truthfully, could not imagine someone moving practically every year of their life. But it was the life that I had and it is the life that has allowed me to do and see many things.

It was as a 7th grader in Montgomery, Alabama, that I would encounter the ubiquitous truth that schools could be separate but equal. What I remember about the first days of attendance at Bellingrath Junior High School was that my parents had to buy my books at a book store and the teachers were not going to give out the books on the first day of classes as I had experienced in previous years in previous schools in previous states. I did not know it at that time but tha was the way that the Montgomery, AL, school board dealt with the order that all schools had to be equal even if they were separated by the color of the students in the classes.

My exposure to the nature of racism and segregation wasn’t limited to attendance at an all-white school or having to buy my textbooks at a local book store. It also included a memorable encounter with the newly elected governor of Alabama, George Corley Wallace.

My grandmother had come to visit us from St. Louis and went to church with us on Sunday. As we left the church that Sunday morning, she somehow got separated from us. We, my two brothers and I, found her outside the church amongst the crowd and we asked how she got out. She pointed and said that she had been helped by that “nice young man over there.” To which we replied that that nice young man was the newly elected governor of Alabama, who had stood on the steps of the Alabama capital and defiantly announced that segregation would be the policy of the state of Alabama. A few months later, he would stand in the school house door and deny duly qualified black students the right to attend the University of Alabama. I might point out that this particular church was, in 1962, a Methodist church, and George Wallace was a Methodist.

We would move from Montgomery to the Denver area where I began studying for my God and Country award in Scouts and then from Denver to the St. Louis area. We would then make the move from Missouri to Memphis, Tennessee, and I would again encounter this idea of equality, perhaps a basic truth if you will, of education in southern states. There, the Shelby County Board of Education insured that students attending any school in the county received free textbooks. But the band and choral programs only received $50.00 for music, supplies and, if need be, repairs to the instruments. Other funds had to come from the Band Parent Organization that each school had. If your parents were in a high income group, your band was better equipped than those whose parents were less affluent, such as was the case with Bartlett or in lower social economic class, as much of Shelby County was back then

I could not help but begin to wonder why there was such a fundamental difference between the schools that I attended over the course of my junior high and high school years. It is entirely possible that there were other factors, factors perhaps that I was not aware of, but I encountered in those two years of high school in Memphis, Tennessee, many items that suggested that some individuals had a vision of the truth that conflicted with the vision of others. Let those who remember understand that I graduated from a high school in the Memphis, Tennessee, area in the spring of 1968, a spring that perhaps changed how we see our fellow man, both in this country and throughout the world.

And it would go beyond just high school and into the beginning of my college career. Before my family moved to Memphis in the summer of 1966 I began attending college at what was then called Northeast Missouri State Teachers College.

I do not know the exact conversation that took place between Wray Rieger, Dean of Students at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University), and my parents after I was selected for the Honors Program at Truman and before I began attending college that summer of 1966. But I am certain that Dean Rieger or someone from Truman called and expressed some concern and worry to my parents that I would be rooming with a 19 year old Negro from Dallas, Texas. And while I was surprised when I met Al, I discovered that neither my mother nor my father were, having cleared this pairing in advance. That the college would call on this was a surprise but equally surprising was the fact that my parents were not bothered by this random assignment of individuals to share a dormitory room.

Three years later, my grandmother would frantically call my parents to tell them that she had seen me leading a sit-in of the administration building on the Kirksville campus protesting the lack of available off-campus housing for black students enrolled in school. But I wasn’t leading the protest; I was merely standing next to my first college roommate, Al, as he and other leaders of the Black Students Association protested the unfairness of the housing or rather lack of housing available to them off-campus. I was there because Al and others involved were my friends and I believed that their cause was just. (see “Side By Side” for more on this). It just happened that the way the video was shot, it appeared that I, with my rather Afro-style naturally curly hair, appeared to be one of the leaders.

A few years later, I would get a phone call from my mother asking the full and complete name of Al, my roommate and friend. I told her it was Alphonso Jackson and she replied that he had just been named Secretary of Housing and Urban Development by George W. Bush. Sadly, because of the paths that we have taken and the choices we have made, Al and I are no longer friends, in part because I questioned his view of the truth.

We are faced with one of the greatest dangers that we can imagine and how we respond will do as much to dictate the future of this planet as perhaps if some life form from another planet were to appear out of the blue and tell us that the planet Earth is in the middle of a planned interplanetary galactic highway and we have less than twenty four hours to find somewhere else to live before the planet is destroyed by the demolition team (and yes, for some of you, that is the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!)

We have lost and are losing our ability to think creatively and independently. We would much rather have others tell us what to think if we are to think at all. We are being told what to believe and that those who would speak differently are at the very least liars and at the very worst, in religious terms, blasphemers and agents of Satan. We hear others say that there is only one true translation of the Bible and that it is not subject to interpretation. Perhaps that is the case; in which case, my thought that the Bible is living and breathing is faulty. And if the Bible is not living and breathing, then it cannot be read in the context of today’s world and we are unable to solve the problems that face us.

That period of time from 1962 to 1968 was a period of time when I began to find out who I was, both spiritually and mentally. I was given the opportunity to see the world for myself and not have to accept the views and definitions of others, possibly as the truth. I look around, and because of technology am able to see, hear and read the views of some of those who graduated from Bartlett the same year that I did and see that their view of the world hasn’t changed that much. And when I began reading the Scriptures for this morning, I came to the conclusion that one thing that we must all do is seek the truth, not the truth of others but the truth that God has laid out before us.

To read the Book of Solomon without giggles and some sense of embarrassment is difficult for some today Our sense of love has been so compromised by the “outside world” that we may not even begin to understand what the Song of Solomon is about or how it fits within the Bible.

You see, among other things, there is very little mention of God in the Song of Solomon or the books of Proverbs, Esther, Ruth, or Job, the books in the revised common lectionary that will be the source of the Old Testament reading for the next few weeks (from “Forgotten Books”). These books are a bridge between the history and law portions of the Old Testament and the prophecies. Those who put together the Old Testament put these books in to illustrate an alternative view of wisdom and a different understanding of God. There is more to life than a framework of laws that must be rigorously followed. The only way that one gains from reading these books, the Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Esther, Ruth, and Job, is approach them on their terms, searching and mediatiting on its meaning (from “What Does It Mean?”).

And that means being involved in the process, not merely letting someone else tell you what to think or what to do. Part of the reason that I chose to read the Scriptures today is that I like the translation that The Message provides. As I noted, the manner in which Ephesians was translated means that the selection starts with verse 16, a statement from James that we are not to get thrown off course.

What we hear from the Letter from James today is that we must first hear the words and then we can act upon what we hear. We have been given a great gift and those who would seek to incite anger and hatred in us, especially when it is done in the name of the Lord, only seek to destroy that gift. When we fail to think about what we are hearing, we can find ourselves, like James wrote, wondering who we are and what we are doing. But if we pause for a moment to truly hear the word, then we begin to get a glimpse of the One True Word, the Word that God gave to us and we begin to sense the truth that we may seek.

The Pharisees and other scholars confronted Jesus about His disciples’ lack of observance of the appropriate and proper rituals. Now, we as children were told repeatedly by our parents and we as parents have echoed those same words that one must wash their hands before eating. In part, we are merely echoing, for good reasons, what was the practice, habit, and culture of Jesus’ time. But we know why it must be done; the reasons why it was part of the culture then were lost in the passage of time.

When you insist on doing something because “that’s they way it has been done since time immemorial” you have lost the reason why. If you tell me that we are trying to keep contagious infections down, then I will listen perhaps a little more carefully.

Jesus wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t wash our hands before dinner; he was merely pointing out that doing so out of habit contains no meaning. We will hear these words later, when Peter is hesitant to minister to the Gentiles for fear that he will violate any number of Jewish laws. It isn’t what you take in, it is what you put out that is the poison in this world.

I am like so many others who grew up in the South during the sixties. I sang the song, “Jesus loves the little children of the world” but lived in a world where the little children suffered because of the color of their skin. I encountered racism and segregation, sometimes subtely, other times overtly, all the while hearing from various pastors that God loved us enough that He sent His Son so that we might be saved. And yet, many of those who also heard those words back then and even today have chosen to hear a different set of truths.

We see it in many churches today, or rather we don’t see it in many of our churches today, because those that seek the truth do not come to the church to hear it because they don’t believe that the truth can be found in the church, in the one place where it is supposed to be told. What they see in many churches today is a place that holds onto a truth that is antiquated and favors the rich and the powerful, the very groups that Jesus spoke out against. How many times has some powerful clergy spoken out against everything that Jesus spoke out against in the closing words of the Gospel reading for today, “ obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness” (Mark 7: 21 – 23) while doing many of those acts themselves. Such individuals tell you the truth but it is their truth that they tell you and not the truth that you seek to know.

I grew up in a time and place where I came to understand that the truth that was told by religious and political leaders was not necessarily the Real Truth, the Truth of God. I will admit that I am still seeking the truth, much in the same way that John Wesley began to seek the truth in such a way that the Methodist Revival began. And I know that there will be some who hear my words or read them on my blog but who will scoff at what I say and what I write. But if perhaps one hears these words or reads these words and then begins to think and question, then they will begin the path to the truth that will set them free.

Each Sunday that we come to church, we are asked to make a choice, sometimes verbally, sometimes physically, sometimes in our minds, and sometimes in our heart. It is the choice to say in some way, by our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions that we are truly followers of Christ, that we will in some way find the means to help others seek the truth and be set free.

The call is not to hear the truth that one wants to hear; the call is to hear the truth that will set you free. The call is not to simply say that you believe in Christ on Sunday but that you will believe in Christ when you leave this place. The call is to open your heart, your mind and your soul to Christ today and allow the Holy Spirit to come in, empower you and give you the strength to go forward from this place.

“You Knew the Job Was Dangerous When You Took It”

This was the message that I presented at Alexander Chapel United Methodist Church (Mason, TN) on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), August 24, 1977. The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Kings 8: (1, 6, 10 – 11) 22 – 30, 41 – 43; Ephesians 6: 10 – 20; and John 6: 56 – 69

When I first read the Gospel and Epistle readings for today, my first thought was that being a Christian was a dangerous thing to be. But then, I thought about what Christ asks of us each day and I knew that I would call this sermon, “You Knew the Job Was Dangerous When You Took It.”

Now I must admit, and it brings embarrassment to my daughters and possibly my brothers and sister, that I am a fan of “George of the Jungle.” Now I am not talking about the movie of the same name, though I hope to see it soon, but rather the cartoon show from which the movie took its name. When I was in college, the only thing that got me out of bed on Saturday mornings was this cartoon show. As I recall, each week one of the vignettes during the half-hour show involved Superchicken and his faithful companion, Fred.

Now, no matter what happened during each episode, you could be assured that Fred would either get run over , blown up, or beaten up while the hero, Superchicken, would always walk away unscathed. And whenever Fred complained abought this obvious disparity in treatment, Superchicken would always say “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”

Even with Christians being persecuted in other countries and openly being a Christian bring ridicule in this country, being a Christian today should not be viewed as dangerous. Yes, Jesus warned us and his early followers that it would not be easy when we first go out on missions.

“I send you out like sheep among wolves; be wary as serpents, innocent as doves. Be on your guard, for you will be handed over to the courts, they will flog you in their synagogues, and you will be brought before governors and kings on my account, to testify before them and the Gentiles.” (Matthew 10: 16 – 18)

But we certainly do not have to face the dangers that either the early Christians nor the early Methodist ministers had to face when they began preaching some two hundred years ago. Stephen was stoned for preaching the salvation from sins through Christ.

Not only were early Methodist ministers barred from preaching in the churches of England, they were also subject to crowds throwing stones at them as they preached in the open fields of 18th century England. Even John Wesley bore with pride the bruises caused by a well-thrown stones. Yet, because these ministers were in the fields preaching the Gospel, more people heard the Gospel.

Despite all this, despite the ridicule, despite the obvious persecution, the dangers we face today come more from within, because when faced with the uncertainty of tomorrow, when faced with what seems to be an impossible task, many people will choose the easy way out.

When Jesus was in the wilderness, Satan tempted him with the easy way out. But Jesus knew, as we know today, that His Kingdom could not be reached by giving in and taking the easy way, will not give us that which we seek. His message is a difficult to hear and understand if your focus is on avoiding the hard path.

This was the case for many of the early followers of Jesus. Jesus spoke of the bread of life and how it brings the gift of eternal life. Many of his disciples could not accept this teaching.

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

On hearing this, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

The message of God’s love for us, of our salvation from sin by the Grace of God did not often fit with the desire of some of these early followers for an earthly king who would restore the kingdom of Israel. Wanting freedom from the oppressive Roman government, they were not willing to seek the heavenly kingdom and freedom from sin that Christ offered. Faced with the unknown, faced with the challenge of understanding Jesus’ message, many followers just were not willing to continue following Jesus. So they took the easy way out and left his group.

Understanding Jesus’ message is not an easy thing to do. Sometimes, our best choice is not to leave but to stay. Consider what Peter said to Jesus in response to Jesus’ asking if they wanted to leave as well.

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

But Jesus knew that not every one who began following him was going to be with him at the end. The mystery of faith is not always immediately obvious and often times we do not wish to make such leaps of faith. And in a society which likes to see its results now, having to wait is not the desired answer. But faith must be taken as it is. In Hebrews 11:1 we read “Faith gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of realities we do not see”.

Each day, we face some new challenge and we must decide which way we are going to go. When the troubles of the world start getting to us, when it seems like there is nothing that we can do, how will we react?

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. (From Meditations of a Hermit by Charles de Foucauld)

And as Solomon noted in his dedication of the new temple in Jerusalem, God is always with us.

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)

When Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, he closed with

“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name — for men will hear of your great name and your might hand and your outstretched arm — when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people of Israel, and may know that this house I have build bears your Name.

The temple was there for all who heard God speaking to them and the invitation to come to Christ was there even then. If we come to Christ, if we open our heart to Him, then we gain what we need to meet any dangers that we might encounter. Mother Theresa tells us

Put yourself completely under the influence of Jesus, so that he may think his thoughts in your mind, do his work through your hands, for you will be all-powerful with him to strengthen you. (A Gift for God by Mother Theresa)

Paul told the church at Ephesus, in a similar time of trouble and danger

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his might power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything to stand. Stand firm then with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

When we open our hearts to Christ, we find that no matter what we face, we are able to face it with the confidence that the Lord is with us. The invitation to come to the Lord has been here since long before we were on this earth.

There are dangers in the world, even today. Being a Christian will do nothing to change that. But being a Christian, accepting Christ as our personal Savior means that no job will ever be a dangerous one and we can go forward secure in our lives.

When Are We Going To Learn?

This Sunday, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, I am  at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Proverbs 22: 1 – 2, 8 – 9, 22 – 23; James 2: 1 – 10, 14 – 17; and Mark 7: 24 – 37


For awhile this week, I was thinking that the title for this message should have been “I am a Christian, but –“. Because everything I heard this week sounds like it starts with that phrase, such as

I am a Christian but I don’t think that everyone is entitled to health care;

I am a Christian but I don’t think we need to worry about the homeless or the poor;

I am a Christian but it is alright for me to proclaim that wealth is a sign of righteousness and the poor are to be blamed for their own poverty;

I am a Christian but I think it is foolishness to think that the church should be open to the homeless, the poor, and the needy because they are only going to steal you blind;

I am a Christian but it is alright for me to tell you how to live while I am free to do whatever I please;

I am a Christian but I ignore the answer when I ask what Jesus would do today;

I am a Christian but it is alright for my pastor to call for the death of national and international leaders from the pulpit.

And every time I hear one of these Christian “buts”, I think back to the beginnings of the Koinonia farm in Georgia. As I have probably mentioned before, this farm was started by Clarence Jordan, author of the Cotton Patch Gospels, and was the first integrated farm in the Deep South.

But it wasn’t always that easy. Early on, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups attacked it with the fury of a level 4 or 5 hurricane. That it has survived and prospered over the past sixty years is a testimony to the tenacity and the faith of the original group and to those who live and farm there today.

To combat these attacks Clarence Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some of the civil actions against the Klan. His brother refused, claiming that it would hurt his political aspirations (he was to become a Georgia state senator and later a justice on the State Supreme Court). He said that such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.

Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. To this, Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence.

Clarence then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.

Robert could only say that he followed Jesus, up to a point. Continuing the challenging, Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross.

Robert replied that he would go to the cross but that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but rather an admirer. He also said that he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.

Robert’s comments were interesting. He said, in effect, that if everyone who felt like I do did what you suggest, we would not have much of a church. Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church that he could go to. Later on, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society (From my notes on Clarence Jordan’s brother, Robert, in “What Do We Say”).

That phrase, “the betterment of society,” is an interesting phrase. But then again, so are the phrases “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. And what is worse, if you were to ask many people today, they probably couldn’t tell you that those phrases are the core of the preamble to the Constitution of the United States.

The debate in this country today is not about healthcare but whether or not this country is for all of the people and not just some of the people all of the time. The debate in this country today is not about the right to healthcare or education or housing or food; it is about whether or not we are who we say we are. Those who proclaim themselves Christian the loudest also add the loudest “but”.

And while they say they are Christian, it is just as likely that they couldn’t tell you that the dominant theme in the Bible is the care and concern for the welfare of the people, especially the poor and the destitute.

Jim Wallis, someone admired by many and probably despised by just as many, has said on a number of occasions,

I was a seminary student in Chicago many years ago. We decided to try an experiment. We made a study of every single reference in the whole Bible to the poor, to God’s love for the poor, to God being the deliverer of the oppressed. We found thousands of verses on the subject. The Bible is full of the poor.

In the Hebrew scriptures, for example, it is the second most prominent theme. The first is idolatry and the two are most often connected. In the New Testament, we find that one of every sixteen verses is about poor people; in the gospels, one of every ten; in Luke, one of every seven. We find the poor everywhere in the Bible.

One member of our group was a very zealous young seminary student and he thought he would try something just to see what might happen. He took an old Bible and a pair of scissors. He cut every single reference to the poor out of the Bible. It took him a very long time.

When he was through, the Bible was very different, because when he came to Amos and read the words, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he just cut it out. When he got to Isaiah and heard the prophet say, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to bring the homeless poor into your home, to break the yoke and let the oppressed go free?” he just cut it right out. All those Psalms that see God as a deliverer of the oppressed, they disappeared.

In the gospels, he came to Mary’s wonderful song where she says, “The mighty will be put down from their thrones, the lowly exalted, the poor filled with good things and the rich sent empty away.” Of course, you can guess what happened to that. In Matthew 25, the section about the least of these, that was gone. Luke 4, Jesus’ very first sermon, what I call his Nazareth manifesto, where he said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to poor people” — that was gone, too. “Blessed are the poor,” that was gone.

So much of the Bible was cut out; so much so that when he was through, that old Bible literally was in shreds. It wouldn’t hold together. I held it in my hand and it was falling apart. It was a Bible full of holes. I would often take that Bible out with me to preach. I would hold it high in the air above American congregations and say, “Brothers and sister, this is the American Bible, full of holes from all we have cut out.” We might as well have taken that pair of scissors and just cut out all that we have ignored for such a long time. In America the Bible that we read is full of holes.

We are faced with a crisis in this country. It transcends national and regional boundaries. It goes far beyond personal, corporate and national identity. It is a crisis of the mind and soul, for we have forgotten what the pages of history have taught us.

We are a faced with a crisis of identity when we have a conservative writer and politician saying we should bar immigrants from other countries while forgetting the ostracism and discrimination that his own ancestors encountered and endured because of their religion and land of origin when they first came to this country one hundred years ago.

It is a crisis of the mind when a preacher proclaims a Biblical truth that isn’t in the Bible and when those who hear those words nod in agreement.

It is a crisis of the soul when churches, ministers, and laity proclaim that they teach and preach the Gospel message but close their doors to outsiders and strangers.

It is a crisis of the soul when people say that poverty is acceptable and nothing can be done about it because Jesus said “the poor will be with you always”. (Matthew 26:11) It is a crisis of the mind and soul when people tell you that it is in the Bible that one may seek wealth and power and that they have a right to keep what they have gain.

It is a crisis that will strike deep within our soul and, if we are not careful, it will devour our soul leaving each one of us, man and woman, adult and child, totally empty.

I am not the first to make this cry; I will probably not be the last, for history tells us that we very seldom learn from our mistakes. The pages of the Bible are filled with prophets crying out to the people to repent of the ways, cast aside those old ways and begin anew. John the Baptizer stood in the wilderness and called for the people to repent and prepare for the coming of the Lord. Even Jesus called for us to repent and begin anew.

The crisis that we face today is not simply that we have ignored these cries; we have forgotten that they were ever spoken. You have heard me proclaim the hypocrisy of the modern church. But know that I am not alone in my view of the church in today’s world.

Barbara Wendland is someone whose writings I read on a regular basis. She publishes a monthly newsletter called “Connections” and in this month’s issue (Number 202 – September, 2009), she announced the beginning of a project to change the direction of the church. For her and her colleagues there is a need to do so because,

Like many of my readers, when I look at the South, I see a cruel parody of justice. Our prisons burst at the seams while social and economic inequality grows. Christians sing sweet songs about heaven and Jesus, but their idol is often uncritical patriotism. Too many vote for leaders who glorify war and discourage access to health care, education, and employment.

In the South, I also see a flood of misinformation. Bible studies and sermons reject ideas from scholars and scientists. Children are urged to pray in school but aren’t taught basic facts about the Bible and the church. Christianity is worshiped with no mention of its own sins or the virtues it shares with other faiths.

When I look at the South, I see more racism, sexism, and heterosexism inside churches than outside. Congregations invest in buildings and programs but ignore children from across the tracks. Women are told to be dependent and submissive; God is praised as male. Witch hunts target members and clergy.

And in the South, I see minority views scorned or stifled. Self-proclaimed church “moderates” preach unity and inclusion, yet reject uncomfortable truths outright. As one southern friend observes, “Where we live, you can’t stick your neck out without someone chopping it off.”

We have forgotten from where we came and we have no idea where we are going. We have turned the words of the Gospel inside out and made God our servant instead of being God’s servant. We have taken away the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross and substituted the perceived victory of the Pharisees as our victory. We will not, as the prophet Micah wrote, “do what is fair and just to our neighbor.” We will not “be compassionate and loyal in our love” nor are we willing to walk humbly with God.

There will come a day when all that we have forgotten will come back to haunt us. There are going to be those who proclaim these are the End Times and the coming of the Final Judgment. They will proclaim that these words were written by John the Seer in the Book of Revelation. John the Seer never wrote those words and those who proclaim the End Times as Biblical have forgotten what the Bible really says.

When are we going to learn that what we say and what we do are often times so often in opposition? When are we going to learn that our fate will be like those who never heard the cries of the needy or the poor, who never visited the sick, the dying, and the imprisoned and then wondered why they could not get into heaven? When are we going to learn that our fate, our destiny is very much determined by the relationships we have with God and others.

The words of Solomon in Proverbs about the treatment of the poor and the hungry; the words of James about the attitudes and actions of the rich against the poor; all will echo in the ears in the self-righteous as they struggle with the results and consequences of their greed and self-interests.

They will be like the ones who saw Jesus cure the sick, heal the lame, give sight to the blind, and hearing to the deaf and wonder how He did all that. They will not be able to understand the compassion that Jesus had for the ones that society had ostracized, that society had denied care and support to. In a society that would feed dogs before feeding children, Jesus gave hope to those who sought the crumbs from underneath the table. Yet, today’s society says that our children, our poor, our hungry, have no rights or concerns in this country.

I fear for this country. The dreams of too many people are fast fading and dying away. Our world is quickly becoming the world into which Alice entered when she passed through the looking glass, a world where one must travel twice as fast just to stay in place. And in such a world, there is no hope. And without hope, there can be no vision. And we are back to the Book of Proverbs, where it is written that without a vision, the people will perish.

The question isn’t really when are we going to learn but when are we going to learn that the way we are doing things doesn’t work. We can no longer treat others as less worthy of us or what we have is more important when others have nothing.. When are going to learn that what James wrote to the early Christians two thousand years ago is still true today, that our faith is meaningless if our efforts don’t match our words.

When are we going to learn, as Robert Jordan learned some sixty years ago, that the road to heaven goes through the Cross, not up to it or around it?

We already know that being is a witness is difficult; perhaps that is why we are so reluctant to be one and to live a live as a witness to and for Christ. But when are we going to learn that there is not other way.

But it need not be difficult and it need not be done alone. We can, today, here and now, open our hearts and minds to Christ, accept Him as our Savior, and then become empowered by the Holy Spirit to go forth as witnesses of God’s wonder and power. It is what we were taught; is it what we have learned?

The Answer to the Question

This is the message that I gave on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 14 September 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Proverbs 1: 20 – 33, James 3: 1 – 12, and Mark 8: 27 – 38.


The answer to the question is “42.” If you are a fan of the Douglas Adams novels, based on his first book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, then you know that the question relates to “Life, the Universe, and Everything Else.” Unfortunately, the actual question is “What is 6 * 9?”

Now, this means one of two things. Either the universe and life itself are highly irrational or whoever wrote the question was very, very confused. But in the end, since it is a work of fiction, it really doesn’t matter.

But there are times in our own lives when we are faced with questions that do in fact deal with life, the universe and just about everything else. And such questions require real answers. And often times, the questions don’t seem to make any sense and the answers we get are equally confusing or irrational.

There are times in our lives when the questions we ask or the answers that we seek determine just what we will do. I am a chemist because in June of 1966, Dr. Wray Rieger asked me what my major at Truman, then NE Missouri State Teachers College, was going to be. I replied chemistry only because it was the only course in my, then, short high school career where I had averaged straight A’s. I didn’t find out until five years later that Dr. Rieger was also a chemist and that he would be the person who would teach me Organic Chemistry. I learned then that sometimes we don’t comprehend or understand the impact of the questions we ask until much later in life.

My sophomore year at NEMO was a trying one for me. With the Viet Nam war threatening to define my future for me, I was struggling to answer many personal questions. It was a time when one’s beliefs were being challenged by the lessons learned both inside and outside the classroom. It was a time when the politics of war threatened to widen a gap between individuals that had begun with differences over race and economics. And in midst of all this change and confusion, I was trying to identify who I was and what I was to become.

That spring, the question I asked was, “Reverend Fortel, can I take communion before I leave for Spring break?” I was headed back to Memphis for the Easter/Spring break and I felt that I would be missing something in my own Easter celebration that year if I did not take communion at First Church in Kirksville.

I knew that I would take communion with my mother, brothers, and sister in the Bartlett church, since that was where they went. But my membership from the first Sunday I lived in Kirksville was with First Church and I wanted that connection.

For Reverend Fortel, it was a surprising question since no other student ever asked him anything remotely the same. It was probably because those students were members of the Methodist church in their hometown and never thought of asking.

So he agreed and we met in the chapel of the church just before I left. Instead of a formal ceremony, we read the ritual together. It was the same ritual that we will use this morning. And when we got to the passage on page 30 of our hymnal,

“We do not presume to come to this they table, O merciful Lord,, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.”

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under they table.”

“How,” I asked, “can it be that we are worthy to gather up the crumbs? Did not the fact that we have been saved give us the right to sit at God’s table?”

Remember that this was a time when the rights of individuals within society were being defined. The critical question of the time was who had the right to determine the path another might walk. In a time when there were protests against the war in Viet Nam, I was protesting the draft. Here I was, confident in all that I knew, being told I did not have the right or honor to sit at God’s table.

But, as Reverend Fortel pointed out, it was only by God’s grace that I was allowed to sit at the table. And it was because I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and could be considered saved that such grace could be offered to me. Our discussion continued along the line of what being saved meant. I don’t recall what exactly was said but I came away knowing that whatever good in the world that I might do was not what saved me.

Until that day I felt that it was the good, along with the personal conviction of Christ as my Savior, that saved me. But I was reminded that spring day some thirty-four years ago that it was my faith in Christ and my faith alone that saved me. But, as was noted in the portion of James’ letter that we read last week, it was my works that help keep my faith alive. As James pointed out, if we do not put our faith to work, it can easily die.

I came away from that time in the chapel more aware of whom I was and, more importantly who Christ was and what He meant to me. I can’t help but think about all those who have asked similar questions but turned away because they didn’t like the answers they received.

We are reminded today that wisdom, as described in the Old Testament reading for today, mocks those who do not seek it. But despite all we might say, ours is a society in which wisdom is not sought or desired.

Ours is a society where the sound bite rules; where quick snippets of short, witty sayings count more than detailed or thoughtful discussions. James warns us against those who speak with a quick tongue, for it leads to and causes nothing but trouble. Our lack of wisdom, our desire for the quick and simple answer also leads us away from the church.

Today’s church, in a desperate attempt to answer the questions of the people who come, is not always willing to demand that the people show some wisdom. Many churches today are willing to be ruled by the ways of society. William Willimon recently wrote that he preached in a United Methodist Church where many of the historic Christian metaphors and images were no longer a part of the church or the service. (“It’s Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive When You Work for Jesus”, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003.) The service was designed to be more “seeker-sensitive” and anything that would remind the congregation of Christ’s suffering or death would make them feel uncomfortable.

The noted Baptist minister, Tony Campolo, noted that

… the last place where I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies.’ (Tony Campolo, quoted in Christian Week magazine (reported in SojoMail for 9/10/03)

Our society has turned everything into a commodity. So churches have turned the Gospel into one as well. To make church more palatable we have reduced the Gospel to a minimalist set of slogans and techniques. We have pared the Gospel message down to a short message that can fit onto a bumper sticker, letting the consumer be the judge of what can be demanded, said, and expected in the name of Jesus.

Too late, we have discovered that rather than the Gospel message transforming the world, the medium has transformed the message. Evangelism is now measured by the feelings of good engendered in the congregation. In a society where everything is a commodity, the value of a church service is measured by what is gained from spending one or two hours in church every Sunday?

But if we do not put in the cross, if we do not mention the pain Christ will endure, then the Gospel is meaningless. In today’s Gospel reading we hear Peter proudly and boldly proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the One that they had been seeking for so long. But in that same time period, as Jesus begins to describe the pain and suffering that He will shortly undergo, Peter tries to shut him up.

How ironic that in the very first proclamation of Christ’s presence as the Messiah, a member of the congregation didn’t want to hear the Gospel story? Peter might be right at home in today’s modern, seeker-sensitive churches where the message is simple and easy to take. We live in a world today where people want to be told that Jesus can fix anything. They do not want to hear that following Christ may mean suffering and death on our part as well as that of Christ.

The Gospel message requires understanding, not a reduction to a short sound bite. We need to be reminded that Jesus suffered and died on the cross. We need to be reminded that Christ’s death was necessary for us to live. And we need to be reminded that life in Christ is not easy and that we cannot seek Christ as a short-term simple answer to a complicated question.

That is why we have communion. We do not come to the altar rail to partake of the bread and drink the wine because our bodies cry out for sustenance. We come because our souls do. Communion is the time when Christ’s death and suffering come home to us and when we are reminded what it is to be a Christian; it is our reminder of what life is really all about.

St. Francis of Assisi challenged the notion of what a servant of Christ could and should do. Like so many others, he became a mirror of Christ on earth; we may not meet Jesus but we will certainly meet those like St. Francis of Assisi who sought to be like Christ. In preparing his book, “Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs”, James Howell spent a night Assisi after doing some research on St. Francis. He wrote

For me, that night proved to be like the one Jacob spent by the river, when he wrestled all night with a stranger, perhaps an angel. Intellectually, I had learned much about Francis — but his memory shook me by the shoulders that night. In the face of his oddness, his extravagance, his utter devotion to Christ, I sensed how bland my own faith had become, how comfortably I managed to “fit in” to our culture, risking next to nothing; I was hardly a fool for Christ. (James C. Howell, “Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs”, page 23.)

He came away knowing that the bland, take no risks, be less passionate religion that allowed him to fit into today’s society would no longer work. He understood that you could not be like Christ without understanding.

We will always encounter those who have come to understand what it is to be a Christian; in doing so we will encounter Jesus. May be our encounter will be like that of James Howell whose soul was renewed through his search and encounter for St. Francis. It may be like Saint Francis’ own encounter when he heard Jesus speaking to him through the crucifix of a crumbling old church in San Damiano. Or may be it will be like Saul on the road to Damascus who met Jesus in a bright flash of light.

Laura Beth Jones wrote as the prologue of her book “Jesus in Blue Jeans”

Many years ago I dreamed that I was standing in a meadow. Suddenly I saw a man approaching me. As he got nearer I gasped to realize that is was Jesus in Blue Jeans. When he saw the expression on my face he said, “Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you wear blue jeans.” (Prologue to “Jesus in Blue Jeans” by Laura Beth Jones)

However you meet Christ, however your faith is challenged, there will be time when it will happen. And on that day, Jesus will ask you, just as He asked the disciples that day on the road in Galilee, “Who do you say that I am?”

That’s the question. What’s your answer?

The Use of Wisdom

This is the message that I gave on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 17 September 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Proverbs 1: 20 – 33, James 3: 1 – 12, and Mark 8: 27 – 38.


Wisdom is perhaps one of the most important concepts for an understanding of what the New Testament says about Jesus. It is central for two reasons. First, Jesus was a teacher of wisdom. Second, the New Testament presents Jesus as the embodiment or incarnation of divine wisdom.

The subject matter of wisdom is a broad one. Basically, wisdom concerns how to live. It speaks of the nature of reality and how to live one’s life in accord with reality. Central to understanding wisdom is the notion of a way or a path, indeed two paths: the wise way and the foolish way.

There are two types of wisdom and two types of sages or teachers of wisdom. The most common type of wisdom is conventional wisdom and its teachers are conventional. This wisdom is traditional and mainstream, “what everybody knows”. Such wisdom represents the culture one lives in and that culture’s understanding of what is real and how to live.

Conventional wisdom provides guidance about how we should live. It goes without saying that we may agree with James about the need to keep our tongue under control. Two weeks ago, we read from James that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. Our wisdom will come not from what we say or do not say but from what we do.

The book of Proverbs is also a source of conventional wisdom. The words of Proverbs offer an insight into the values of a culture, what is worthwhile and its images of a good life. The inclusion of Proverbs in the Bible was to show how people lived and how they learned. Ordinary people did not learn the life they lived through study but rather through growing up in a culture. That is something that still occurs today.

In Proverbs 1: 22 – 27 Wisdom addresses the simple ones. These are young people who have not yet made up their minds about life or the direction they will take. Wisdom ridicules those who reject her when they come to face the inevitable judgement of their foolishness. Yet wisdom laughs with joy at God’s work and has delight in the people of God.

When fools despise wisdom, they must face the results of their choice. Their hatred of wisdom arises out of a refusal to fear God. Verses 31 and 32 of this passage pick up the theme from the previous section that the study of wisdom is a matter of life and death. Rejecting wisdom will ultimately cause one’s destruction. But this passage does not end dismally; rather, it ends with a promise of life for those who will listen. In wisdom and knowledge of God, will people find safety and ease.

But, as the conclusion of the passage from the reading for today points out, conventional wisdom is intrinsically based upon the dynamic of rewards and punishment. You reap what you sow; follow this way and everything will go well. We find this true not only in our religion but our secular work as well. If you work hard you will succeed. Unfortunately, the corollary to this wisdom is also true; that is, if you don’t succeed or are not blessed or do not prosper, it is because you have not followed the right path. In conventional wisdom, life is a matter of requirement and reward, failure and punishment.

Whether in religious or secular form, conventional wisdom creates the world in which we live. It is life that can be and often is grim. It is a life of bondage to the dominant culture; it is a life of limited vision and blindness. It is a world of judgment; I judge others and myself by how well they and I measure up.

There is an image of God that goes with this conventional wisdom. God is seen primarily as a lawgiver and judge. God may be spoken of in other ways but the bottom line is that God is seen as both the source and enforcer. God becomes the one whom we must satisfy, the one whose requirements must be met.

In the conventional wisdom view of Christianity, Christianity is seen as a life of requirements. Another consequence to seeing Christianity in conventional terms is that we begin to divide the world up into two groups, those who have faith and those who don’t. Today, many people see Christianity in terms of requirements (whether of belief or behavior, or most times, both) and of rewards, typically in “the next world” and sometimes in this world as well.

The second type of wisdom is a subversive and alternative wisdom. This wisdom questions and undermines conventional wisdom and speaks of another path, another way. This wisdom speaks of a road “less traveled.” This was the type of wisdom that Jesus offered to people. His road was “a narrow way” that lead to life and subverted the “broad way” that, though traveled by many, was one that lead to destruction.

In the second part of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus offers us an example of that type of alternative wisdom. One cannot make it to heaven by holding on to everything that is part of this world. Peter’s response to Jesus predicting His death, as Jesus pointed out, was a response based on conventional wisdom. Though his response was well intended and was based on fear and concerned, it did not take into consideration God’s purpose or plan. Because he did not understand what the plan was, Peter’s reaction was to rebuke Jesus. Because the Pharisees and scribes did not understand what Jesus’ mission was and what God’s plan was, they began to plan His death.

The image of God that Jesus presented is not one of a lawgiver or judge enforcing the life of requirements but rather that of a loving, gracious, compassionate God. When Jesus spoke of the last judgement, it was to subvert the widely accepted notions about that judgment. Many times what Jesus said about the last judgement was going to be a great deal different from what conventional wisdom said it would be.

Keep in mind that Jesus does eliminate the call for a final judgement. Much like the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus pointed out that blindness to the ills of society will have its consequences.

Most recently, I have been reading a book called “The Four Witnesses.” The author has tried to look at whom the writers were and what story each of them was attempting to tell. Central to this story was the question that was in the first part of the Gospel reading for today, “Who do you say that I am?” Each of the Gospel writers challenges us to see Jesus in a new way, to have a new understanding of who Jesus was and what He was about. But they do not show us what we should know, which might be thought of as conventional wisdom, but rather how to know it for ourselves, the alternative wisdom.

The wisdom that Jesus taught, the path that He shows for us is first an invitation to see God as loving and gracious rather than as a source and enforcer of requirements. It is also a way that leads away from the life of conventional wisdom to one more centered in God. The alternative wisdom of Jesus sees religious life as a deepening relationship with the Spirit of God, not as a life of requirements and rewards.

This alternative path also challenges the way we see religion and Christianity. To follow the alternative path that Jesus shows takes us from a “secondhand religion” of conventional wisdom to a “firsthand religion.” A secondhand religion consists of thinking that Christian life is about believing what the Bible says or what the doctrines of the church say. A firsthand religion consists of a relationship with what the Bible and the teachings of the church point — that reality that we call God or the Spirit of God.

It can be difficult to follow this way, this narrow path. It certainly must have felt that way to those who heard Jesus speak of giving up everything in order to gain everything. Conventional wisdom would say to hold on to everything you have and seek more. But such an approach to life is very difficult; think of all the people you know who seemingly have everything and yet long for something more.

Are We Who We Say We Are?

I will be preaching at the South Highlands United Methodist Church in Garrison, NY, and the Cold Spring United Methodist Church in Cold Spring, NY, for the next two weeks. Here are my thoughts for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost.

As a way of introduction, I am a second generation military brat; so as I was growing up, my family moved around a lot. But we always remained connected to our “roots” in St. Louis. So it is quite natural that, when it comes to baseball, I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I still have memories of my father setting up an old Hallicrafters radio receiver in the den of the house in Denver so that we could pick up the KMOX radio signal and listen to Harry Carey broadcast the Cardinal games.

Now if there was one thing you could count on with Harry Carey, it was his intense support for the teams that he covered. This support was so intense that, if you were watching the same game and listening to him broadcast that game over the radio, you had to wonder if you were watching the same game as he was.

Now, I look around me at this world in which we live and hear that we are a Christian nation following Biblical truths But when I read the Bible, I get the same feeling as when I watched a Cardinals baseball game and listened to Harry Carey describe it over the radio. Are we living in the same world? Are we reading the same words?

Today, if you say that you are a Christian the public believes that you are a political conservative. If you say that you are a political liberal, the public believes that you have no faith or are not willing to publicly acknowledge your faith. And each group, despite their claims of openness, turn away individuals whose views are not exact duplicates of accepted party doctrine.

So, with that in mind, I will say that I am an evangelical Christian; I am evangelical by baptism, evangelical by confirmation, and evangelical by belief. I am committed to a strong global mission to share my Christian faith with other people, without prejudice or discrimination. I fulfill this mandate given to me by Jesus Christ by my own personal witness and by supporting others through my financial support.

I feel, as do others, that to say and be an evangelical Christian is to say that you are willing to take the Gospel out into the world and bring a message of hope to the poor, a message of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry; it is about being a voice for those oppressed and without a voice. It is also about bringing a message that tells others about the personal relationship with God that can be obtained through Jesus Christ. But it is not about forcing a message of any kind down the throats of others.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, the term “evangelical” has been misused or distorted. To say that you are an evangelical Christian is to invite people to say that you are a ‘bigot’, ‘a homophobe’, ‘male chauvinist’, or a ‘reactionary’.

But the same people who describe Christians in those terms also describe Jesus as ‘caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, and sympathetic.” (1)  How is it that there is such a wide discrepancy between what people think of the One who guides our lives and what people think of us?

As Jimmy Carter stated in his 2002 Nobel speech in Oslo, Norway, “the present era is a challenging and disturbing time for those whose lives are shaped by religious faith based on kindness towards each other.” President Carter further expanded on this statement by saying,

There is a remarkable trend toward fundamentalism in all religions — including the different denominations of Christianity as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Increasing, true believers are inclined to begin a process of deciding: ‘Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently wrong,’ and the next step is ‘inherently inferior.’ The ultimate step is ‘subhuman’, and then their lives are not significant.

He went on to describe how he felt that fundamentalists had distorted the vision of Christ in the world and the nature of Christianity. He noted that fundamentalism could be characterized by three words: rigidity, domination, and exclusion. (2)

Fundamentalists say that they believe in a strict interpretation of the Bible. But the Gospel readings that we have read these past few weeks showed us that Jesus held to the Law without being rigid. It was the Pharisees and the Sadducees that held to a rigid interpretation of the law. And even the Bible tells us how Jesus refrained from giving even his own disciples authority over other people. In His charge to them to go out as witnesses, they were empowered only to serve others, by alleviating suffering and espousing truth, forgiveness, and love.

As we read the Gospel for today (3), we are again reminded that Jesus opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all those who would believe. There is a reason that Mark included the national identity of the woman in this story.

Keep in mind that in Jesus’ time and in the society of that time no woman, Gentile or Jew, would normally have been allowed to be that close to Jesus. By identifying the woman in today’s Gospel reading as non-Jewish, Mark further made it clear that those who society would reject were accepted in the Community of Christ. Jesus is not attempting to insult her by using the metaphor of “the little dogs under the table”, as others would; He is only testing her faith and with her response, he responded with “O woman, great is your faith.” (4)

Jesus would not exclude anyone. He sat with the Samarian women at the well; he ate dinner with Zaccaheus, much to the dismay of the religious leaders and personalities of the day. Remember how the Pharisees and Sadducees reacted when the woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair? Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of today, their reaction was to criticize and complain that things were being changed. Jesus only pointed out that the woman did what they, as hosts for the dinner at which Jesus was invited, failed to do what was required of them. Exclusion is not part of the Gospel message.

It amazes me that too many churches have forgotten the words of James that we read for today (5). How is it that a church that was founded on openness and that welcomed all has become one of exclusion? How is it that a church that began with everyone in the community sharing their resources has become one where wealth and power are the dominating values?

When we read the verses from Proverbs for today (6) and the words from James (5) as well, we are reminded of what the Bible is really about. It has long been noted and demonstrated that if you took out every verse or phrase in the Bible that dealt with the treatment of the poor, it would fall apart. One of every sixteen verses in the New Testament refers to money or the poor. This ratio is one in ten for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John; it is one in seven in Luke. In the Old Testament, only idolatry is mentioned more times.

At the beginning of the last century, the ten richest countries were nine times wealthier than the ten poorest ones. In 1960, the ratio increased to thirty to one. As we started this century, average income per person in the twenty richest nations was almost $28,000 per person, in the poorest nations this average income was just over $200. This is a ratio of 140 to 1.

These are the figures for the world; the disparity between poor and rich in this country is much the same. The ratio of incomes between the top and bottom one-fifth of the population is eleven to one in the United States. Every decision made in this country for the past six years has been in favor of the rich at the expense of the middle and lower classes.

Yet the church remains remarkably silent on this issue. If it speaks out, it is to encourage people to seek riches through God. This prosperity gospel only seeks to glorify wealth and power where care for the weak and needy should be paramount. While I realize that many churches do not fit into the model of the modern church, for which I am thankful, the churches that people hold up as successful are those with operating budgets that come close to those of many small countries and whose pastors earn salaries in the millions of dollars. How is it that a pastor can have a million dollar salary, several homes, a private jet and the other accouterments of wealth when Jesus told his disciples to travel simply? Is it any wonder that people see Christianity in less than a favorable light?

But before you think that the state of the church is beyond hope, let us remember what happened to the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 18: 20 – 19: 18, Elijah challenges the authorities to prove that their gods were better than God. It was a task that they failed. In retaliation, Queen Jezebel orders Ezekiel killed. As Ezekiel is running for his life, he finds himself alone in the wilderness.

There, Ezekiel asks God why he was left alone. To this God indicated that there were still true believers in the next town and that is where he should go.

There are still true believers today, ones who feel that the fundamentalist view of the world will be shown to be the false hope that it is. We are reminded by the writer of Proverbs that those who give kindness will receive kindness; those who seek injustice will only receive calamity. (6)

I was a member of a church in Minnesota that came to know the meaning of those words from Proverbs. Many years ago, someone visited this church. It was no big deal; others had probably visited the church before this person came one Sunday and others most certainly came after. Probably no one made much that there was a stranger in their midst that one Sunday morning. But a few years later, the church received a rather sizeable check from the stranger’s estate. On that one day when he was a stronger, this church had made him feel welcome. So when he died, he left the church some money. The money was used to purchase the church’s present parsonage and allowed the former parsonage to be used as a Sunday School building.

William Willimon, formerly the Chaplain at Duke University and now the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference recently told the following story,

On one of my worst days, a grueling eight-hour marathon of appointments, I was about ready to go home when I was informed I had one more appointment. Two older women walked into my office.

“We’ve come to Birmingham from Cullman to tell you about our ministry,” one said. “Gladys’s grandson was busted, DUI. We went over to the youth prison camp to visit him. Sad to say, we had never been there before. We were appalled by the conditions, those young men packed in there like animals. We got to know them. Are you aware that only 10 percent of them can read? An illiterate 19-year-old and we wonder why he’s in prison!”

“Well, we began reading classes,” the other one said, “Sarah taught school before she retired. Then that led to a Bible study group in the evening. We’re up to three Bible study groups a week. Two friends of ours who can’t get out bake cookies for the boys. We’ve also enlisted wonderful nurses who help with the VD. Some of them said that those cookies were the first gift they have received.”

“And you want the conference to take responsibility for this ministry?” I asked with bureaucratic indifference.

“No, we don’t want to mess it up,” Sarah responded.

“You need me to come up with some money for you?”

“Don’t need any money. If we need something, we get it from our little church,” she said.

“Then why have you come down here to tell me about this?” I asked.

“Well, we know that being a bishop must be one of the most depressing jobs in the church — too many things that we are not doing that Jesus expect us to do. So Gladys thought it would be nice if we came down here to tell you to take heart. Something’s going right, that is, up in Cullman. (7)

Bishop Willimon said that he took heart that with all the troubles that he saw, in a world of darkness there was a glimmer of hope by the people of God in a small town in northern Alabama.

In preparing for this sermon, I came across two other stories that tell me that there are still people who are the true believers in Christ and the church on earth. In his notes for September 6th, the blogger known as Quotidian Grace writes about a workshop led by Reggie McNeal that was based on McNeal’s book, “The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church.”

During the seminar, McNeal told the story of a woman who wanted to help high school students in her neighborhood. She went to the principal of the high school and said that she wanted to volunteer to listen to any student who needed someone to talk to. The principal was thrilled and invited her to the next assembly. She rounded up four or five other women from her church to go with her. At the assembly she told the students that it was much harder to be a teenager today than when she was growing up. “Some of you don’t know one of your parents, you don’t have relatives close by, you may be having problems at home or school or with a girl friend or boyfriend.” She then gave them the phone number of her church and said to call that number if they just wanted someone to talk to. The next day the church had over 300 phone calls from those kids. (8)

There is still the question of how a particular church would respond to a similar situation. But there still remains the point that this unnamed woman sought to reach out to the people in her community.

The other story that I came across comes out of Atlanta, Georgia. It concerns the people of Clifton Presbyterian Church. It starts with a homeless man who started coming to Sunday morning services. A lot of times such individuals are discouraged from coming back but the people of Clifton Presbyterian made him feel welcome. Then, one day in 1979, the people of the church remembered Jesus saying to them “inasmuch as you done this to the least of these.” So, they made plans to give this homeless individual a place to lay his head at night.

They took the pews out and brought in chairs to sit on. With the pews taken out, they could install cots. So it was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church’s Night Hospitality ministry began. This one individual now had a place to stay and a place to eat. Other homeless men began to show up. And this church, as long as they were sober and obeyed the rules, became their home.

The people of the church realized that providing a home was not enough. Many of the men who spent the night needed counseling and training. The church bought property across from the church and turned it into transitional housing. The ministry grew, so much so that the people of the church made a decision to disband the congregation and move to other congregations. But they did not abandon the ministry that they had started. It is still there in Atlanta, located in a middle class Atlanta neighborhood. Though Clifton Presbyterian died, the Clifton Sanctuary Ministry remains today. (9) It reminds us that there are those who have heard the words of the Gospel to bring hope to the poor, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and to be a voice for the oppressed and those without a voice.

So today, having heard the stories of people and churches where the Holy Spirit lives and is alive, I ask you to make a decision. Will you be a Christian in the eyes of the public or will you be a Christian in the eyes of Lord?

In discussing the future of Christianity, President Carter wrote

Those Christians who resist the inclination toward fundamentalism and who truly follow the nature, actions, and words of Jesus Christ should encompass people who are different from us with our care, generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and unselfish love.

It is not easy to do this. It is a natural human inclination to encapsulate ourselves in a superior fashion with people who are just like us — and to assume that we are fulfilling the mandate of our lives if we just confine our love to our own family or to people who are similar and compatible. Breaking through this barrier and reaching out to others is what personifies a Christian and what emulates the perfect example that Christ set for us. (2)

When John Wesley came back to England after his ministry in America, he felt that he was a failure.  For all his training and upbringing he had concluded that he had not done what he thought he had been called to do.  But on that night when he went to the chapel on Aldersgate Street, his life changed when the Holy Spirit touched his heart.  Will you allow Christ to enter your life and change your life as it has so many others?  Will you, having accepted Christ as your personal savior, let the Holy Spirit empower you as it did John Wesley and so many others?  Will you be able to say that you are the person you say you are?

(1) Adapted from Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo

(2) “Our Endangered Values”

(3) Mark 7: 24 – 37

(4) Matthew 15: 28

(5) James 2: 1 – 10 (11 – 13), 14 – 17

(6) Proverbs 22: 1 – 2, 8 – 9, 22 – 23

(7) From “First-year bishop” by William H. Willimon, Christian Century, 20 September 2005

(8) http://www.quotidiangrace.blogspot.com/ – 6 September 2006