“What Will You Leave?”

Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the bulletin for this coming Sunday, September 15, 2019 (14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C) at Fishkill UMC. Service starts at 10:15 and you are most certainly welcome to be a part of worship.

The lectionary is a collection of readings that repeats every three years.  I have used the lectionary readings for this Sunday six times over the past twenty years and yet, each week I find something different.

This week, I have a sense that we need to be looking to the next generation.  What will be giving to the next generation?  Are the words from Jeremiah written so long ago, speaking of a lifeless and barren world, destroyed by the actions, attitudes, and practices of humankind, spoken to us today?

Are we so concerned about today that we have failed to look to tomorrow?  What happens if we leave the next generation a world in which there is no air to breathe or water to drink?  What happens if people must struggle to live each day?

Time and time again, God speaks to us and let’s know that our concerns must be for others who share this world with us.  God makes it very clear that to do otherwise is a path to doom.

The Good News is that we can change this doomsday direction.  Paul is focused on his legacy, on what he is going to pass onto the next generation.  As Paul points out, God gave him a second chance and God  us that same opportunity.

What will you leave for the next generation?  Will it be a dead and lifeless world, divided by fear and hatred?  Or will be a world of life and hope?

~~ Tony Mitchell

God’s Wrath or Man’s Ignorance

A Meditation for 21 August 2016, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). The meditation is based on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.

There are quite a few comments floating around over the Internet rejoicing the fate of a right-wing religious person whose home was destroyed by the recent Louisiana floods.  Those who are rejoicing feel that this is either God’s retribution or something similarly appropriate for this individual’s previous rather hateful statements.

Now, maybe it is right that anyone who has spoken words of hatred and exclusion should feel the same pain that they themselves have brought unto others but I don’t believe that is, if you will, the Christian way.  And I would say that if this individual or his supporters feel that their proclamation of self-based Christianity make them somehow more worthy of support than others, then I would suggest that they go to the end of the line until the truly needed have been helped.

I have heard those kinds of statements of how natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes are signs of God’s Wrath.  But as I once pointed out, how do we interpret the fact that the one of the most likely targets for a lightning strike is a church steeple.  In an Internet search I did a few years ago, I find over 100,000 instances of lightning hitting a church steeple.  Are the people who make up the church doing things that have incurred God’s Wrath or is it more likely that the steeple is the highest point in the area and, thus, more likely to be struck by lightning (from “And What Will You Say?”)?

But the God that seeks to invoke wrath on a person is not the God of my faith tradition.  This may have been the God of the Old Testament but my own faith tradition includes the New Testament and the God of the New Testament cared enough for all the people on this planet to send His Son to save us from sin and death.  And this is my own thought but I think God is smart enough to realize that retribution and anger don’t work.

Besides, if God was really that angry at mankind, he could have wiped us off the map years ago (and we know that He did this once before; he also told Noah that the rainbow would be a sign that never again would He destroy the world).

I also think that those who want an angry God do so because that’s the God of their lives.  They have transformed the Bible into what they want it to be and what it actually is.

The theme throughout the Old and New Testament is not one of anger and hatred, of war and violence, but of openness and acceptance.  A second theme, and the one that may, in part, account for our problems with floods and fires and such, is that we are stewards of this planet.

From the very beginning, we have been tasked with being good stewards, of taking care of this planet, our home.  And when we don’t take care of the planet, we can expect to be in deep, deep trouble.

There are those who have been saying that the severe weather that we have been dealing with for the past few years are only the beginning and the result of failure to heed the warnings that we were doing unalterable damage to the environment.

God sent His Son because the people ignored the prophets.  If we are to ignore His Son, if we are to ignore the teachings given to us for so many years, then we can expect what is to come.  It will not be God’s Wrath that destroys us; it will be our own ignorance.

“Thinking Outside The Box”

I am at Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY, tomorrow for the Sunday service at 11 am. You are welcome to attend if you are in the area. The message for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost is based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17.

When I began working on this message, I envisioned the title as “A New Calling”. But my reviewer, after reading it, suggested that a better title was “Thinking Outside The Box.” And who am I to argue with my wife when it comes to such things? And the thinking that I am presenting today also matches some thinking and conversations that we are having at our church.

On a clear and cold January 20, 1961, John Kennedy stood on the steps of the United States Capitol and took the oath of office to become the President of the United States. He then spoke to the people gathered there, to the American people throughout the land, and to millions of people around the world.

He spoke of a torch being passed to a new generation, a generation tempered in the fires of war and guided by the principles set forth in the American Revolution. It was, I believe, a statement to all those who had said that he, John Kennedy, was too young and too inexperienced to be the President.

Let us ignore for the moment that John Kennedy was, at the time, older than many of the leaders of the American Revolution. Let us ignore the fact that John Kennedy was older than Jesus Christ when He began the ministry in the Galilee that would change the world.

John Kennedy’s words that day inspired a new generation to seek public service and to work for the ideals first expressed in the American Revolution. They were words that said that what you could do was determined by your ability, not by your age.

It was a time of inquiry and exploration. If you were in school at that time, you were part of the great changes taking place in the areas of science and mathematics, changes that would help us join those already beginning to explore the world beyond the skies.

It was a time when the promises of this country in terms of equality and opportunity seemed very close to fulfillment. There was a vision that we would reach beyond the stars before the next century began.

But something happened and that journey was never completed.

Today equality is measured by the balance in one’s bank account and opportunities exist for only a chosen few. From a society that saw its future in the stars we have become a society that wonders if there will ever be a future. Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, seem to be the daily litany of the news and far too commonplace.

Our educational system, instead of preparing thinkers and visionaries, produces individuals who can recite myriad reams of facts but have no clue what the facts mean, how they relate to the world, and how to use that information to solve the problems this country faces today and will face tomorrow.

People cling to battered and tired visions of the past, hoping to restore the “good old days”, even if they weren’t really that good. And because we have lost our vision, our ability to solve the problems that we faced today is limited. We seek solutions that based on the old ways and wonder why they don’t work.

The prophet Joel proclaimed,

And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.

But it seems that the old no longer dream, the young no longer see visions, and our sons and daughters can no longer prophesy. We turn to others to tell us what to say and think, individuals who rely on our fears and our ignorance, our traditions and our bias.

And I think that it is time that we change and do so before it is too late. I am not a believer in the end of the world vision offered by so many people today, in part because such a vision is based on our fears and our ignorance. It is time, I think, that we hear the Call of God and respond to it.

This is about answering the same call that God gave to Jeremiah. I know that Jeremiah says that “he is only a boy” but that doesn’t stop God from calling upon him to take on a task. And if a young boy is to be called to take the call of God, who is to say that anyone of us cannot take the same call?

How many of the prophets willingly and quickly answered God’s call? How many of the prophets offered excuses and reasons why they could not do what God wanted them to do?

This is not about how young or old we are today. The call from God isn’t and never was age-related. How old was Abram when God said to pack everything he had and head to a new land? How old was Sarai when God informed her that she was going to be pregnant? How old was Moses when God came to him somewhere in the Negev Desert and told him to return to Egypt and free God’s people?

How many people do you know whose age has never limited what they can do? In other words, how many people can think “outside the box?”

Back in 1988, I was a young (relatively speaking) college instructor struggling to complete his doctorate and getting those all important research papers published when I met the Nobel Laureate, Dr. Herbert C. Brown. While I was still trying to get that first publication, Dr. Brown was routinely involved in the publication of 100 research papers a year. It was not pro-forma that his name was on the paper; he was in the laboratory, offering advice and suggestions on the conduct of the research involved.

And yet we have all met and know individuals far younger than us who have not had an original thought in years.

Bob Dylan wrote a song in which he noted that times were changing and that we best heed the call. I got the note about the 175th anniversary of Rowe the other day and I liked what it said at the top of the page, “1838 – 2013 . . . and still counting!” It says to the people of this area that this church plans to be here for a long time and to be a part of the community for at least another 175 years or so.

It is important to remember who we are and where we have come from, for it tells us much about where we can go. But we need to rekindle and revive the vision that brought people to this place, to each of the United Methodist Churches in this area and throughout the country. Too many people today focus on issues founded in ignorance and bigotry and that turn our attention away from the Gospel message of hope and deliverance. Too many people wish things were the way they have always been and not the way they could be.

It was a Sabbath morning some two thousand years ago and Jesus was doing what He probably did every Sabbath during His three year ministry and what He had done every Sabbath since he was twelve; He was in the synagogue listening to the rabbi teach a lesson from the Torah or, as was the case in today’s Gospel lesson, teaching the lesson Himself.

But this Sabbath was perhaps just a little bit different. There was a woman, bent over with the pain of arthritis, present in the building, probably over in the women’s section since she wasn’t allowed to be in the same part of the building as the men. And Jesus called her over to Him, laid His hands on her, and healed her.

Think about this very carefully. First, Jesus brought a women into a part of the building where she was not supposed to be. Surely, that upset many of the traditionalists, for whom appearance and tradition counted more than anything else. Second, He touched her. This wasn’t the first time that Jesus had touched a sick person and in the very act of touching that person, Jesus became ritually unclean. In the eyes of the traditionalists, Jesus should have left the building right then and there!

And then, He healed her of an eighteen year ailment. At that point, the leader of the congregation had had enough and denounced Jesus for working on the Sabbath. And all Jesus did was point out the hypocrisy of the law that said it was proper to take care of one’s farm animals but not heal a sick person.

It also says something about the nature of that group of people that day that they were delighted that the Jesus had responded to the leader has He had. It makes you wonder how the leader treated the other members of the congregation.

And how many times have we seen that in our lives? Where tradition and honor take precedence over what is right and proper? How many times have we questioned the right of an individual to be a part of the church because they don’t fit into our preconceived notion of tradition and honor? How many times have we said “that’s just not the way things are done around here”?

John Wesley was not the first person of his time to show concern for the poor and impoverished people of England. In many sermons of that age, there is a real concern for the lower classes; but it is assumed that if they, the poor and working classes are to be saved and to enter into Christ’s purpose for them, they must take on the culture of their betters who stand as a living sign to the Grace of God. In other words, it was assumed (and I think it is still assumed today) that the will of God was to make “them” more like “us.”

The writer of Hebrews points out that those who follow Christ have been given a new way of life. Tradition told the people not to touch, in fact I think in some translations they were to never go near, Mount Sinai. To do so was to die. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we are in a new world, working under a new covenant, a fresh charter.

This new covenant, this new charter comes with a thorough house cleaning, a removal of all the historical and religious junk that has gotten in the way of entering God’s Kingdom. God is no longer on some mountain far away and untouchable; He is right here, right now, with us.

Because John Wesley followed the example of Jesus and went to the people, not to make them like their betters but to enable to find the way of Christ in their own world, he was bitterly attacked. The missionary work of John Wesley and all of the early Methodists, including those who founded this church 175 years ago, made a statement about the ideological assumptions of the privileged and threatened the security of their prejudices which they assumed to be the will and purpose of God.

The call that we have is to make sure that all the people have that opportunity. Jeremiah was to pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish, and then start over, building and planting. For me, that means looking at how we do church, where we do church and what church members can offer not only to and for each other but to and for those with whom they come into contact every day.

Will Cotton, the Senior Pastor at St. Barnabas UMC in Arlington, Texas, and the pastor whose words and actions were instrumental in my beginning this part of my own personal journey with Christ, wrote that he sees a different ministry for the church in the coming years.

The 21st century (for at least the rest of our lifetimes) in ministry will not be primarily about the local church. Churches and denominations will be wise to train people for ministry in secular situations. The gospel is returning to the streets, the marketplace, the classrooms, the chat rooms, the homes and even the bars. My job description has shifted in response to the leading of the Spirit. I am not just a performer of ministry; I am a leverage person, equipping people for ministry in places I will never be able to go. I used to lead Bible Studies with up to 80 people in them and they were enjoyed. But two years ago, I moved to more intensive studies that prepare leaders who then start classes, small groups, and even lead “in the marketplace” studies and support groups. My favorite book on this shift is Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal. My two CLMs came out of those classes. If I train 15-20 people (which I do at near seminary level with some texts actually from Course of Study for local pastors) and they lead groups of even 10 people, then the yield is three times what I was doing in the large studies before. The Church you and I are a part of will be so different in just 20 years from now, and the truth is, no one knows what it will look like (nearly every Bishop worth his or her consecration will tell you that). But the shift from church-centered ministry to community-centered ministry is part of it.

We must ask ourselves today how we can be witnesses to the crucified servant Lord. Our answer must be rooted in knowing that we are to be with him in the midst of the world’s needs, by His grace seeking to be the signs of his ultimate fulfillment and not the bringers of that fulfillment. In doing so we free ourselves from the conformity of the world’s self-assertive way and transformed into the way and manner Christ assumed in his ministry for us.

The church today, wherever it may be located, on a country road somewhere, in the suburbs of a city, or even on a street corner in the city, can no longer just be a Sunday only operation. It has to be, quite literally, a 24/7 operation. It can no longer be the repository of holy relics; it has to be the source for all who seek answers. It has to be a fulfillment of the Gospel message to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, lift up the downtrodden, and bring hope to the lost and weary.

Some will say that it is not possible for them or their church to answer that call. But the call that God makes is based on the skills and abilities of the people. Moses told God that he was incapable of speaking to the people (tradition says that he was a stutterer) so called Moses’ brother, Aaron, to do the speaking.

It may be that one does not know what can do; but there is a course offered in this district called “Knowing One’s Spiritual Gifts”. It is a very interesting course because it gives one insight into what one’s own gifts are. Knowing what one’s gifts are can tell you how to answer God’s call and to think outside the box.

We have two choices this Sunday morning. Time and time again we have allowed the methods of past generations to dictate what the next generation will do. But we end up finding ourselves asking and thinking that if we can only find the right and relevant method we will be as successful as they were.

It may strike some as quite out-of-place but it is not very important whether the number of Christians at a particular place and time is large or small. What is more important is to ask whether the large or small numbers of Christians know that they are representatives for all and that they are called to participate in the mission of the reconciliation of the universe.

We must leave it to God whether and when He wants to use our worship and witness in order to add to or cut down the number of His militant church on earth. In the end, it is not a question whether the church exists for itself but rather it exists as part of the whole world.

We have a new calling today, one to reach out to the world, first in this corner of the world that we call home and then to the rest of the world. We may say, as so many have done before, that we are small band and that we cannot do anything but God has always shown that He will give those who answer His call the skills, the abilities and the power to do so.

Will you answer the call of God, the New Calling, today? Do you dare to think outside the box?

“Old Dreams, New Visions”

This is the message that I gave at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen at Grace UMC in Newburgh, NY this morning. It is based on the lectionary reading from Hebrews (Hebrews 12: 18 – 29) but also has the thoughts of the Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10) and the Gospel reading (Luke 13: 10 – 17) in it as well.

I will be at Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY, tomorrow for the Sunday service at 11 am. You are welcome to attend if you are in the area. The message, “A New Calling”, is based in part on Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 10 – 17

A while back I came across a listing of the top ten anti-war songs. Now most of the songs on that list I knew and had sung but there were a couple on the list that I had never heard. One of those was “Fall of the Peacemakers” by Molly Hatchet.

Now, as a Southern boy, I sort of knew about this particular group as it is one of the leaders in the particular brand of rock and roll that has a distinctly Southern twang to it. The group is better known perhaps for “Flirting With Disaster” but I found the “Peacemakers” song very interesting, especially with its reference to the funeral of President John Kennedy. I also came to like a third song by the group, “Dreams I’ll Never See”, which starts off

Just one more morning I had to wake up with the blues.

Pulled myself out of bed yeah, put on my walking shoes.

Climbed up on a hilltop baby, see what I could see.

The whole world was falling down baby, right down in front of me.


‘Cause I’m hung up on dreams I’m never gonna see yeah.

Lord help me babe.

Dreams get the best of me, yeah.

I thought about this song when reading the passage from Hebrews that I read from this morning and because next week we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Washington memorial that became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

There was a hope at that time fifty years ago that the vision that Dr. King so proudly proclaimed would become reality, that one would judged by their character and not by the color of their skin. There was a hope some fifty years ago that the dreams and visions of this country would be fulfilled that year. And while the hope is still here today, it is seen in a dimmer light than it was then.

And we must also realize that this coming Thanksgiving we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy. It would be safe to say that the dreams and hopes that echoed throughout this land some fifty years ago began to fade when the bullets were fired that fateful day in Dallas, Texas.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews speaks in passing to another death, the death of Christ. If we were to put ourselves in the place of those gathered in Jerusalem some two thousand years ago, we might be rejoicing to hear Jesus speak of the hope and promise found in the Gospel message. It offered to the people then the same hope and promise that were given and felt that hot August day in Washington, D. C. fifty years ago.

And surely if we were to have been in Jerusalem on that fateful Friday that we have come to call Good Friday, we would have felt that same way about the death of Christ as we did when the announcement was made that John Kennedy had been killed in Dallas.

But the writer of Hebrews points out that the death of Christ was not a reason for sadness but for rejoicing. Because in Christ’s death on the Cross.we have found freedom.

But this is not a freedom where we can do anything we like and I think that is what too many people do not understand. It means that life as we know it has changed. Before Christ, many people feared God; note the words of Hebrews that said that if an animal so much as touched the ground on Mount Sinai, it was died. Even Moses was terrified.

The death of Abel in Genesis called for vengeance and retribution; Jesus’ death on the Cross was God’s sign of forgiveness and reconciliation. No longer could we not approach God but God was part of our lives.

The whole basis of society has changed. When John Wesley began the movement that was to lead to today’s United Methodist Church, it was assumed the righteousness was found in the good things of life. Only those who lead the “good” life would be able to find Christ; Wesley challenged that view and said that all could find Christ if given the opportunity.

But this view was always one that supported the status quo, that said that unless you were like me, you could never have the peace found in Christ. What John Wesley did was to say that you could have the same peace that anyone found in Christ; that you were not barred from doing so.

No longer was God inaccessible to you; no longer was the rewards of Heaven unattainable.

The challenge that we face today is the same challenge that John Wesley faced some two hundred fifty years ago, to bring Christ to others, how can we be witnesses for Christ? Our task, our challenge is to be with Christ in the midst of world’s needs, by His grace seeking to be the signs of His ultimate fulfillment. This means that we are concerned for mankind’s freedom, we are concerned for the well-being of others, we dream of a “new city”, and long for a life freed from despair.

In Christ comes the freedom, the equality that Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed would come. It is a vision that has been a part of our lives for almost two thousand years ago. The dream can be a vision and it can be a reality. It requires that we accept Christ as our Savior, it requires that we allow the Holy Spirit to enter our lives, and it requires that we work to fulfill the Gospel message in this place and in this time today.

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

Square Pegs and Round Holes

I was at Dover United Methodist Church this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 2: 4 – 14; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14.  I will be at Dover again next week (Location of church).  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.


I thought I knew where I was going with the Scriptures for today when I chose the title for this message. But, since the time that I made the decision and over the past few days, some things have transpired that made whatever reason I had disappear. Still, the meaning behind the title, of feeling like a square peg being forced into a round hole, is valid and I hope that it will help us understand how today’s Scriptures can help us respond to what is transpiring in the world today and in the coming days.

First, let me start off with a declaration. I chose a long time ago to be a Christian. I chose to do so because of what I was taught and what I learned. I did not need to be at Calvary, standing at the foot of the cross watching Him die for my sins. Nor did I have to be with the other disciples that First Easter morning to know that He had risen from the grave and conquered sin and death.

I have come to know in my own heart and my own mind what the truth of Christ is. It is a decision that at times makes me feel as if I were a square peg in a round hole. I know that Jesus offers each one of us the opportunity to follow Him and He left it up to each one of us to make the decision to do so. He did not lay out the path and say this is the only path; He did not say that we had to go this way or that way. All He said was “Follow me.”

I will admit that there were times when I didn’t follow Jesus, when I chose to walk on my own and because I did so I endured turmoil and distress. But, because of what I was taught and what I learned, I could remember the words of the writer of Hebrews telling me that God was always there and He would not let me down. And I knew that I could always come back to the right path.

It saddens me when other will tell me, with all sincerity, that the path that I have chosen to walk and the manner in which I have come to believe is wrong. It is not for others to judge my path or to tell me the path that I should walk

We, as a society, as a culture, as a people and as a world, have come to a crossroads on that path. It is a crossroads that we have come to time and time again in the history of this world. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Go stand at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the directions to the old road, the tried and true road. Then take it. Discover the right route for your souls. But the people said, ‘Nothing doing. We aren’t going that way.’” (Jeremiah 6: 16)

What we have to do today is help others find that right route, not simply tell them that there is only one right way or one right path. In the words of the traditional American song, “You got to walk that lonesome valley; you got to walk it by yourself. Ain’t nobody here can walk it for you; you got to walk it for yourself.”

In a time when churches and denominations are losing members and especially at a time when the public sees Christians as a legalistic, hypocritical collection of mean-spirited individuals, we have to find new ways to bring the Gospel message to the world.

Maybe it would help if our churches were a little more “hip” or “cool”. Maybe we wouldn’t have to worry about building our church numbers by counting all the people who log onto our webcasts or download the podcast of the sermon. There is a new kind of church out there in the real world today, a church where the pastor and congregation are hip, cool, media savvy, fashionable, artistic, culturally aware, and socially concerned. It is a place where tattoos, scruffy beards, and skinny jeans abound. I am definitely a square peg in a round hole in this case. I have to wonder how much of what these churches have is a natural expression of the presence of Christ in their lives and how much is a marketing ploy designed to bring people into the church. Even the author of a new book (Hipster Christianity: Where Church and Cool Collide) is not sure what is happening in these churches. I am not so certain that the individuals in the churches themselves know what is happening. Convinced in their own “coolness”, they may have lost the essence of the message. I am glad that they are socially concerned but I hope that means that they actually go outside the walls of the church and show the people the Gospel message through their actions and deeds. (Go to http://stillsearching.wordpress.com/2007/09/16/types-of-hipsters-part-one/; http://stillsearching.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/where-to-find-christian-hipsters-10-u-s-cities/; http://asceticpaige.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/hipster-christianity/ – this one leads you to a quiz that tells you how much of a hipster Christian you are; I have a low CHQ (Christian Hipster Quotient) and that is just find by me.)

I know that there are many congregations who would absolutely go apoplectic if any of these “hipster” Christians were to enter their sanctuaries. They would do so if there was anyone who even dared suggest a change in the routine of a Sunday morning. And that is, I believe, what the Gospel message is about. Any church which puts more emphasis on its own culture, what goes on inside the building, is not a church that embodies the Gospel message.

So, how does one reach out and include all those in the community? After all, that is what Jesus was saying in the Gospel message today.

One way is to involve the technology of today. There has been a discussion about the role of the Internet in the life of the church. There are many technologically savvy individuals in the world today; for any church to say that they are not going to be technologically oriented is to say to these individuals that they are not wanted in that particular church. I should point out that the United Methodist Church has set up a directory of all the churches in the country and you can find just about any church you want. When I looked for churches within a fifty-mile radius of Newburgh, I found that there were some 280 United Methodist Churches. Each church had a brief description of the church and where it was. But just about 10% of those listed either didn’t have an e-mail associated with the church or the e-mail listed was wrong. Similarly, there were a number of errors with web pages. If a church is going to have an e-mail address (and I believe that it should) and is going to have a web page (again, something that I believe they should), then they must also make every effort to insure that the address is correct and the site up-to-date. Someone who searches for a church and finds the wrong e-mail address or an incorrect web page address or an out-dated web page is going to think twice about visiting that church.

But the discussion this past week that took place was about moving the actual church on-line, of scheduling services that would be broadcast on-line and even holding communion in a virtual world.

Here I am definitely a square peg in a round whole (shoot, let’s face it; I am a 21st century Luddite)! I cannot even imagine a church service in a virtual or on-line environment. I can see where there are benefits to putting the church on-line but I see no benefit to say that the church is found only on-line. It runs counter to the very nature of what a church is to be, a gathering of individuals at a specific time and place. It also runs counter to what the IRS says that a church is; see “Church – What’s Your Definition?” If we cannot come together as a group of believers, then what is the use of coming together at all?

But we have to spread the word and blogging is part of that process. As you know, I blog and posting the sermons that I give is part of that process. I think that blogging is an important part of evangelical outreach. It doesn’t reach everyone, especially those without computers but it does reach or can reach many people.

Sometimes I get comments; most of the time I don’t. Comments are an important part of blogging because they give you a sense of what the blogging community is thinking. And I wonder why I don’t get a whole of lot of comments. Perhaps it is because I don’t blog the “right” way.

In her blog for August 21, 2010, Reverend Sonja Tobey posted a piece, “Thanks for Noticing”, in which she thanked Katie Z. Dawson for including her in a list of blogs in the article “Blogging for Pastors” in the current issue of the Circuit Rider. I was naturally disappointed that I wasn’t included in the list but since I am not a pastor I would probably have been excluded from consideration anyway.

Dawson did provide some pointers for those who are thinking about becoming bloggers. It is a good list to think about but it does have one point that I question. There seems to be an unwritten rule that says blogs have to be short and readable (somewhere between 500 and 750 words). It should be noted that I passed that limit a long time ago. J

This isn’t the first time that I have heard that a blog has to be short so that people will read it. Now I hope that my messages are understandable and readable; I know that they are not short by any stretch of the imagination. But I am not going to stop writing when I hit an arbitrary limit in words if I haven’t finished my thoughts. One of the problems today is that we want everything, including the sermon, to be short and not require too much thinking on our part; we want our religion like our news, in sound bites that we can quickly digest. So, if it came down to winning a popularity contest for bloggers or having a serious and lengthy discussion about the nature of the world, I will opt for the serious and lengthy discussion.

That’s because we need to have serious and lengthy discussions, especially when it comes to the meaning of religion in this country. The issue about the mosque in New York City jumps to mind. All I know is that what discussion has taken place has taken place with a shocking lack of knowledge about its location, Islam, and even about our own country’s history of religious tolerance and intolerance.

Let me remind everyone that to publically admit to being a Methodist, a follower of John Wesley, in the days before and after the American Revolution was to risk ostracism, rejection, and expulsion. We were viewed with suspicion because of our pacifist views (our refusal to fight in the Revolution was taken as a sign by many that we supported the King; some did but many did not. Pacifism is not necessarily a political idea.) We could not build churches or meet in established churches. It is almost as if we have forgotten what it meant to be a Christian in the early days of the church when we had to meet secretly or underground? Is it Christian to impose on others the same punishments that were once imposed on us?

Perhaps my concern is that I wish that the church today, or perhaps I should say that the people in the churches today, would step back and ask themselves where they are in the picture painted in the Gospel reading for today. Are they among those vying for the favored position at the table or are they sitting at the last place? Do they open their doors to all the people in the community or do they shut them at the first hint that there might be something different about them? Is it a church where square pegs fit into square holes and round pegs in round holes? Or is it a church that throws away such distinctions and says welcome to all and come inside and hear the word that brings peace and hope?

Is it a church that has forgotten from which it came and the God that brought them out of slavery and bondage? The words that Jeremiah spoke may have first been directed to the Israelites but they are words that we need to hear as well. Can we say that we have not destroyed the environment, polluted the land, the air, and the water? Can we say that we have not pushed aside God in favor of other, lesser gods simply because they are easier to pursue?

Look around and ask if the vessels that we use to hold water aren’t leaking? If there ever was a reason that I appreciate the translation of the Scriptures in The Message, it is today. God is asking us today why it is that we allow Sir Windbag and Lady Windbag, if you will, to preach their messages of hatred and ignorance. Free speech is one thing but to listen and give credence to such words is a matter of intelligence and choice. To accept their words as intelligent or truthful is neither. To say that they are the words of Christians is to deny the meaning of the Gospel in what I think is its truest sense.

The words in Hebrews speak of actions taken not for the self but for others. It is about how we relate to others; it is not about us. The words of the windbags are selfish words, words that hide greed, hatred, and ignorance; words hardly indicative of a Christian.

Jesus was crucified because He would not fit into the mold that society wanted Him to fit. It always struck me that Jesus was an outsider and when the establishment crucified Him, they took him outside the walls of the city. While we may desire to be an “insider” and sit at the honored place for the banquet, our place is with Jesus, on the outside and with those who have been excluded.

I do not ask that you be something you are not; what I ask today is that you consider if what you are is what you should be. What I ask is that you not think about where you fit in society but where Jesus fits in you. It is not a question fitting a square peg into a round hole but rather placing your life in Jesus’ hands and doing the work that He asks you to do. And then, it doesn’t matter whether you are hip or cool, whether you work on-line or not but rather what is it that you do to help others to find Christ in their lives. It’s hard being a square peg that others try to fit into round holes so it is a lot easier to let Christ fit into your life and go that route.

The sermon ended with “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” (The Faith We Sing 2112)

“Let Us Finish What We Started”

This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 5 September 2004.  The Scriptures were Jeremiah 18: 1 – 11, Philemon 1 – 21, and Luke 14: 25 – 33.


I subscribe to a magazine called Christian Century. It is an interesting magazine in that it provides commentary on a number of topics, religious and secular and sometimes where the two overlap. It has a section called “brief notes”, little snippets of information that may or may not impact on one’s life. And it provides some of the ideas that I use in my sermons.

One of those recent brief notes was about Will Campbell, a maverick Baptist preacher known for his civil rights activism. In August 1998, Sam Bowers, a former Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted of a crime committed in 1966. Then, Bowers and some fellow Klansmen torched the house of Vernon Dahmer. The fire killed Dahmer and injured one of his three children. Dahmer’s offense was that he had allowed blacks to pay their poll taxes (that insidious little device that kept poor people, black and white, from freely voting in some Southern states) at his grocery store. The case was retried in 1998 and reporters were surprised to see that Pastor Campbell had befriended not only Dahmer’s widow but also Bowers himself. In asking why he would befriend both a murderer and the victim’s widow, he replied, “Because I am Christian, damn it! (I have edited his actual remarks)” (From Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian and noted Century Marks in Christian Century, 7 September 2004)

This is the essence of Christianity, to love the sinner as much as we love all others. It is unfortunate that many Christians today are unwilling to express this same thought. We may be reluctant and unwilling to forgive the sinner but if we are to model Christ on earth, it is the one task that we have to undertake.

These are troublesome times if you are a Christian. These are times when the true meaning of the Gospel message is co-opted for a softer sell, in hopes of bringing people to Christ. These are times when people change the Gospel message to meet their own political agendas. These are times when the message of Jesus to love others, help others, to seek peace is forgotten and replaced by hatred, envy, rage, and war. These are times when we are called to think and act in different ways.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is predicated on that very thought. Under Roman law, Philemon can put Onesimus to death for stealing from him and for running away. But Paul wants Philemon to think in an entirely different manner, to think of Onesimus in terms of brotherhood and as a fellow follower of Christ. It is for Philemon a difficult choice. He is free to follow the law; he is free to follow his conscience. Which decision will he make?

Paul asks Philemon to stop and consider what he will do. Paul is not necessarily asking Philemon to free Onesimus or any other slaves that he might own. Quite the contrary, he wants Philemon to see that Onesimus, having come to Christ, is now more of a brother than a slave. It is this relationship that Paul wants Philemon to consider because it is similar to the relationship between Paul and Philemon.

Paul wrote that God was in a position to demand much of us. But he chose instead to send His Son. And His Son emptied himself of all His power to become a servant to us all. The glory of God is disclosed on a cross where, while we were yet sinners, disobedient to Authority, Christ died for us. Love that cannot be commanded is evoked by love. God is not the cosmic bully who demands our compliance with divine directives but rather one who risked unconditional love in perfect freedom, knowing that it might not be returned. The summons to a holy life comes not as a blunt statement from heaven but rather is evoked through the stark reality of the empty cross.

Paul’s notes to Philemon indicate that Philemon was free to do whatever he chose to do. But, if he were truly living in Christ, he would accept Onesimus as Christ would have accepted him.

Like Philemon then, there are times when what we as Christians are called to do can be easily done. But other times, the call is very difficult. We willingly accept the easy calls but hesitate when it comes to the difficult ones. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose voice and life showed us what it was like to be a Christian under Hitler’s regime, once said, “when Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” (“Jesus Creed” – What is the focus of spiritual life? By Scot McKnight in Christian Century, 7 September 2004)  Such calls are the ones we would prefer not to answer; yet such is the call that is the very essence of today’s Gospel message.

The Gospel message for today tells us that large crowds were traveling with Jesus. After a rather shaky beginning in his hometown synagogue, Jesus’ message was beginning to catch on with people. Crowds were following and the crowds were getting larger every day. You can imagine how the disciples must have felt, seeing the large crowds and figuring that something was right. You can almost hear any one of the disciples saying, “Master, take a look at that crowd! We must be doing something right!”

But then Jesus stops and speaks of brother turning against brother, child against parent. He speaks of dying in order to live. He speaks of the cost that one must pay in order to be considered a true disciple. Can you imagine what would happen if any politician, Republican, Democrat, or Independent, were to tell the real truth and nothing but the real truth? As one commentator put it, they would never have to worry about an election campaign.

And that is exactly what happened in the Gospel message. As soon as Jesus spoke, in the very next verse, the crowds began to leave. To hear that families would split and that there was a great cost involved in following Christ was too great for many to hear. And unfortunate as it may seem, it is still true today.

I mentioned last week two grumpy old men who sought to keep Grace Church in St. Cloud in their image, rather than the image of Christ. I sought to counter some of their work, because I thought that the Gospel required we mirror the activities of Christ. One of these two men, Joe, was also president of the trustees and was the holder of the church’s safety deposit box.

While consolidating our church bank accounts, we had come to find out that the church’s safety deposit box was a personal rather than corporate safety deposit box and that Joe’s signature was the only one on the documentation. That meant that he could keep the church officials from accessing important church documents. Because we were moving all of our banking business to another bank, he had been asked to surrender the contents of the safety deposit box.

When he had not done so in a timely manner, a meeting of the Administrative Council was held following church one Sunday at the altar of the church. At that time, Greg, the Chair of the Administrative Council, told Joe that he needed to sign a document surrendering control of the safety deposit box so that the church could open the new account. Joe’s response was to physically attack Greg, choking him with his hands.

I jumped in between the two men and pulled Joe away from Greg. Greg was really in no danger from the attack as he was 6′ 2″ tall and a guard at the state penitentiary in St. Cloud. As such, he was trained to respond to such situations, and I feared that he would respond as he was trained. So, even though Joe and I did not agree, I sought to protect him. I was pulled off of Joe by one of his friends, told to keep out of the way and that anyway I was the cause of the fight. I have never really figured out how that claim could be made, other than it was I, as the chair of the Finance Committee who had discovered this problem with the safety deposit box.

That this took place was shocking, to say the least. But you also have to know that Greg was Joe’s son-in-law and after that Sunday, the family was irrevocably split. Joe, his wife and son left the church, and for perhaps five years they did not speak to Greg or his wife who was Joe’s daughter, leaving the grandchildren without grandparents. So, unfortunately, I know that the Gospel message is true.

I think that is why we do not like hearing the Gospel message for today. We are afraid of the consequences of what we will happen if we follow Jesus. And, I think this fear pervades how we advertise and reach out to people who need to know that Jesus is real and there is hope in this world of desolation, fear, and division.

William H. Willimon, formerly at Duke University and now one of the new bishops of the United Methodist Church, wrote about a pastor of a very large church who had removed the cross from the sanctuary of his church. He had done so because, in the pastor’s words, “We find that the cross is an impediment, a turn off, that it gets in the way of our attempt to reach people with the gospel.”

What on earth is the gospel that this pastor is attempting to preach? If this is true, and I have reason to believe that it is, then it is a good example of our dangerous willingness to reach the world at any cost. The trouble is that if the world ever gives the church a real hearing, we, as the church, will find that without the cross, we have nothing significant to say in return. Why bother offering a “salvation” that any other helpful social service agency can provide?

Social agencies provide the services that we sometimes need. It is clear, when you read the Gospel message that Jesus has no interest in meeting our material needs. Rather, he appears intent upon giving us needs we would not have had, had we not met him. He speaks of severance from some of our most cherished values so that we may gain what we do not have. But we rebel at this message for it means that we give up what we truly cherish, motherhood, family and self-fulfillment.

You have to wonder why, after thinking about what Jesus has to say, why more people do not stay away from church. He wasn’t saying that His was the way for nine out of ten who heard His words. He wasn’t saying that His was the truth we think we wanted or His discipleship was the life we seek. Clearly, Jesus spoke words that go against the desires and needs of the crowds.

We would rather hear words that make life easier, put a little lilt in our voice, a bit more sunshine in our lives. We like the blandness found in much of today’s spirituality because it does not call for us to do anything. It is no wonder that in the next verse from Luke for today, we read that the crowds began to get smaller. Even then, the path that Jesus gave was not a popular one. (Adapted from William Willimon’s notes for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost)  We are not always prepared to hate our family or give up our material possessions to follow Christ. We are not always prepared to follow Christ, no matter what the cost.

But people came to hear Jesus back then because what He said was the truth. Not everyone left because they knew that in Christ there was a hope and a promise not found on earth or in earthly possession. People were willing to pay the price that would ensure them what they truly desired.

It is the cost of things that Paul is writing Philemon about. It is the same for us. If we are truly living in Christ, then we will do that which, under other circumstances, would seem unreasonable or unattainable. Like Philemon, we are free to hold on to all that we have but we cannot be true servants of Christ if we do. While people may be tempted to seek an easier path, they must know that there is no such path; there is no wide and easy path that one can walk.

It is hard enough to understand the message of the Gospel or the love for others that Paul writes about today under ordinary circumstances.

What will happen when people, seeking Christ, find out the true cost? We already know the answer to that question, for we have the reaction of the people in the Gospel. They will leave just as quickly as they came. And what will they do when they see the hypocrisy in the words of those who have preached exclusion, division, and hatred. I fear that they will never come back.

It occurred to me while I was working on this sermon that only those left behind when the crowds begin to leave would truly understand the cost of discipleship. They are the ones, who by their loyal and timeless service to Christ, see beyond the present. I also recognize that this is a highly ironic statement because there are some who say the ones left behind are the losers in the battle for the kingdom of God.

Just as Jesus spoke of discipleship in new terms, perhaps we need to look at this time in our lives in another way as well. In the Old Testament reading for today, we are reminded of the potter sitting at his wheel, shaping the clay for a new pot. . In one particular video that I use in my science education classes, there is a discussion of techniques of Japanese potters. The value of these vases that these artisans produce is never determined until after the firing of the pots. Only after the heat of the furnace has burned away the excess materials and hardened the clay is it possible to determine what it’s true value will be. It is that moment in the artistic process where the pot is put into the fire and hardened that determines what it will be.

The same can be said for us; we are shaped by the master potter and tempered by the fire. Our value is never determined until we have been tempered and hardened by the all-consuming fire that God puts into our lives. It is a long process, one filled with uncertainty. We have no way of knowing what will come about from our efforts, for only those who follow us later will fully appreciate our efforts.

What we do today is a continuation of what others started. What we do today is not for us but rather for those who come after us. Our journey, admittedly at times rough and complicated when we would have rather had it soft and smooth, began some two thousand years ago when Christ carried the cross to Calvary. Should we not finish what those before us started? Should we not finish what we have started so that others will have the same chance?

“Under Construction”

This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 9 September 2001.  The Scriptures were Jeremiah 18: 1 – 11, Philemon 1 – 21, and Luke 14: 25 – 33.


When I first read the scriptures for this week, especially the passage from Jeremiah, I could not help but think of the irony of having these scriptures during the week that school started. I also thought of that T-shirt that grandparents give their grandchildren that has the caption, "Be patient with me; God isn’t finished with me yet."

As we begin this year, I can’t help but note how people will expect great things from the educational system yet expect it to be done at a minimum of costs. Over the past few years, I have found it amazing that people will cry out that our schools are failing, both in general education terms and in terms of the moral education of children, yet they are not willing to pay what it costs for education to be valuable. It reminds of the other T-shirt which points out that "it will be a great day for society when schools have the money they need and it is the defense department that has to have a bake sale to get the money for the new bomber it wants.

And when people call for an increased emphasis on morals in the schools today, I have to ask, "Where are the parents? Where is the church?" Speaking from the classroom side of the fence, it is very difficult to teach moral values acceptable to all parents when someone is likely to find a problem with what you teach. I have found over time that while many parents criticize the way things in turn demand that nothing be done to change the way their own children are taught. Teachers have enough to deal with and it is time in this society that the church and parents take part of the burden in seeing that our nation’s children are raised in the proper environment.

While Jesus was speaking of the cost of following him, he used the analogies of completing the construction of a tower or the fighting of a battle. When we look at the education of our children, we must look at it from the same viewpoint. What cost are we willing to pay so that our children’s education is complete. And that education cannot be completed on a Monday through Friday basis. Education occurs everyday, even when our children are not in school.

In a sense, Paul spoke of education when he wrote to Philemon. He spoke of the traits and characteristics we should have because of our faith.

Paul pointed out that he had heard great things about Philemon’s faith. Christian character is shaped by our faith in God and our love for people. These, as Paul repeatedly emphasized, are the basic building blocks of a Christian life. Love is a natural result of true faith in God. In making these two characteristics the foundation of our life, we find corresponding traits of motive, attitude, and activity.

Our best example of motivation comes from Paul’s appeal in verses 8 and 9. Paul appeals to Philemon to be merciful to Onesimus, solely on the basis of love. Paul admits that he has the right to demand that Philemon do the "right" thing but he wishes that Philemon would be motivated to do so by the right stimulus.

"Rights" are not important considerations in the New Testament teachings about the Kingdom of God. In fact, as Paul wrote, as Christians we have lost certain rights of retaliation and are expected to forgive. We are the stewards of God’s grace and blessings. Our response to situations should be motivated more by Christian love than a desire for retaliation.

We may say that we love our neighbor but it will be our attitude that shows whether or not we are truly motivated to do so. Our actions are clearly derived from both our motivation and our attitude. How we act will say more about who we are than any words we might say.

Thomas Steagald wrote that whenever he heard or sang the hymn "Have Thine Own Way, Lord", it reminded him of the little Baptist Church in Milton, TN, where he grew up. It was the type of chapel that I remember seeing many times when I would visit my grandparents in North Caroline, the type that was on the side of a dusty road that bisected the old white frame sanctuary and the cemetery where the old-timers of the community were buried. Like many churches of that period, it had two front doors that, from a distance looked like sad, spaniel eyes. Each door was for an aisle, and the women and children would go through one door, the men through the other. In the old (really old) days, it was said that you count determine the number of men who attended on any given Sunday by counting the cigarette butts on the ground outside the men’s door and divide by seven.

Steagald was, and perhaps so were you, reminded that through the singing of hymns like "On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand," "Onward Christian Soldiers," "Rock of Ages," "I Will Sing the Wondrous Story," that we gained our understanding of what it means to be a Christians. The images in that hymn, of the potter and the clay, come from the reading from Jeremiah that we read today. God told Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house to hear God’s further word. When Jeremiah gets to the potter’s house, he sees the potter working on a lump of clay. But while making the pot, the clay gets spoiled and the pot is ruined. But with skill and perseverance the potter makes another pot. The former intent becomes an actuality. The life we live is like that; instead of having others do the work, it is necessary for us to see things through. Instead of criticizing others for their inability to complete the task, we need to complete the task before us.

We are like the potter fashioning a pot on the potter’s wheel. I had a friend who was a potter and he pointed out that until the pot was fired, there was no way to tell what it would be like. Working with the pot on the wheel was the only time you had to make sure that it would turn out all right. Once it went into the oven and was fired, it was through.

Our actions, however minor we might think they are, are what the children see. It is by those actions that they learn. When a child is baptized in this church, we as a congregation agree to live in such a way that they will see whom Christ is and what Christ means. When someone joins this church, we are reminded that we are asked to work for the church, by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. When our actions, our motivations come from Christian love, then our children will grow in Christian love.

That is why we have communion. That is why the table is an open table. Because God loved us enough to send his son, we are to share in his blessings. Because that love is for all, the blessings are for all. Each day, we go through live reminding others of what Christ means to us. The challenge before us continues to be to live a life in which others see Christ.

Who Shall Be Invited?

I am preaching at 1st United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY, this morning.  Here are my thoughts for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14.

(Additional note – the portion in italics was quoted in the United Methodist Nexus for 5 September 2007; the latter portion in bold was quoted in the United Methodist Nexus  for 19 September 2007)


As part of my introduction this morning, I would add that I am the son of a United States Air Force officer and the grandson of a United States Army officer. To grow up as the child of a military officer in the 1950’s and the 1960’s often meant moving from one town to another, one air base to another almost every year. During that time I attended five different elementary schools, two junior high schools, and three high schools. While some may find this disconcerting and uncomfortable I think it gave me a view of the world that many do not often get to see. It did have its shortcomings though.

When I was a junior in high school, I felt that I was eligible for Mu Alpha Theta, the high school mathematics honor society. I was so certain of my eligibility that I started attending the meetings of the chapter in my high school. I was active in the society’s business and helped plan one of the regional meetings. Imagine how I felt when, at the end of the first semester that year, I was told that I was not eligible. Because I had transferred to the school, the school used a “formula” and, by this “formula”, I was not eligible.

Now, I don’t how you would feel about this. Many times honor societies are no more that social cliques and worthy of the Groucho Marx quote, “I would not be a member of any organization that would have me.” But I wanted to be a part of Mu Alpha Theta and I had been a part; to keep me out seemed rather ridiculous. So I made an offer to the faculty advisor. If I were to get a 98 on the Algebra II semester final, would they let me in? I supposed I could have picked 100 just to show that I had the abilities but I wanted a little bit of room. For the record, I scored a 99 (I still don’t know how I missed that one point) and I got my membership.

I tell this story because the Scriptures for today are about membership and the requirements for being a Christian. I want us to consider three questions today.

The first question is a very simple one, “Who can be a Christian?” It really doesn’t take much to be a Christian. You cannot make a deal with God to get into heaven or sit at His heavenly banquet. You must accept Jesus Christ as your Savior. The church is not an exclusive club with rigid rules that must be exactly and explicitly followed before you are allowed to join.

Yet, there are people today who will tell you that there are rules. Oh, they may not tell you exactly word for word what the rules are because the rules aren’t always written down. But they make it very clear that there are rules and you had better follow them if you wish to belong to their church.

Jesus lived in a society ordered by clear demarcations, sorting and separating people by an elaborate system of purity codes that stood as firmly as the Separation Wall that is being built in the Holy Land today and as some would like our borders to be today. These purity codes created no-trespassing zones of untouchability that had particular impact on the chronically ill, the disfigured or handicapped, on women, on foreigners and those of different ethnic groups and origins. Additionally, anyone with an unorthodox or questionable lifestyle was also on the wrong side of society’s boundary lines. This is the setting in which the parable of the banquet is told (1).

Yet Jesus frequently lifted up the faith and witness of those who had no legal standing in their own country. Samaritans were essentially persona non grata in the society of that time, yet it was a Samaritan woman from whom Jesus sought a drink and to whom He offered the well of living water (2). It was a Samaritan who helped the injured traveler after two outstanding members of society choose to walk on by (3). It is profoundly ironic that many contemporary followers of Jesus (or those who say that they are followers) hold to the very traditions of the law that Jesus so consistently broke in the name of a higher law (4).

Even today, some two thousand years later, we are still a community of believers whose thoughts about the laws of God threaten to divide and destroy the church.

At the last General Conference, delegates to the General Conference in Pittsburgh voted against a call to split the church. Conservative delegates to the General Conference brought a motion before the floor that would have split the United Methodist Church into two separate denominations, based on the views of the members on the issue of homosexuality. Though this motion was overwhelmingly defeated, those who brought the motion before the floor said that they will spend the next few years meeting with disaffected congregations and will probably seek to form a newer and more conservative branch of Methodism (5).

It almost seems as if we have forgotten Jesus’ own words that all are welcome at God’s table, not just the best or a select few. But this is one reason why people do not come to church. They see in the church an organization that excludes people, not welcome them.

The subdivisions that denominated society in Jesus’ time still dominate the church today. It seems that despite all we think and all we say, we are not always willing to accept other people’s ideas. This is not to say that we should accept clearly evil or wrong ideas but we should realize that other people have ideas as well. Many of today’s problems stem from an unwillingness of some to accept the notion that other people have ideas about God and Christ. Each of us has or will encounter Christ in a unique way. To say that my way or encounter is somehow better than yours or yours is somehow better than mine is as much a sin as murder or theft and, in the end, merely imposes rules that restrict one’s ability to find Christ.

Instead of judging the worthiness of those who are different, should we not look at our own lives and the opportunities that are presented to us each day? Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was killed by those opposed to his work with the poor and underclass, said that the ongoing process of conversion is itself the meaning of the church: “One cannot be part of this church without being faithful to [Jesus’] manner of passing from death to life, without a sincere movement of conversion and of fidelity to the Lord.” Archbishop Romero found that he had to rethink his preconceived notions about what – and who – makes the church (6). Perhaps we need to do so as well.

This leads to the second question. It is a slightly more difficult question, “What does a Christian do?” How willing are you to tell someone else that you are a Christian? To say that you are a Christian is to say that you hold to certain ideas and that you will act in a certain way. But today, while Jesus is still described as “caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, and sympathetic”, today’s Christians are likely to be described as “bigot”, “homophobe, “male chauvinist”, or “reactionary” (7). We have to wonder if we are on the same page, let alone in the same book.

It is really interesting to contrast the public perception of Christians with that of some two thousand years ago. If we had lived in the eastern area of the Mediterranean Sea during the beginning of Christianity, we might have seen, hastily scrawled on the walls of buildings, a crude outline of a fish. No big deal, we might think since we were walking through a fishing village.

To be a Christian in those days was to invite persecution. To be identified as a Christian was to risk arrest and trial, to be thrown into the arena to fight for one’s life against lions or gladiators. It was to invite death for what you believed. You could not greet others openly and you could not use the sign of the cross, for that would immediately label you as a threat. So you used a fish, for the Greek letters for the word fish are also the first letters of the Greek words for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

People risked their lives and well-being to become Christians because they had seen the power of the Good News in transforming lives. And people saw in them a tranquility, simplicity and cheerfulness that were encountered nowhere else in the world around them (8). These are the characteristics that are described in the reading from Hebrews for today (9).

Christianity today is not the Christianity that swept across the Mediterranean Sea. Then it was a force that changed lives, now it seems to be a force that allows people to seek their own life, not the life that is given to us through Christ. We are more like the people of Israel whom Jeremiah castigates in today’s Old Testament reading (10).

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that the people of Israel pursued other gods; they lost sight of their identity as God’s chosen people. While they may have spoken of following and serving God, they worshipped false prophets and listened to false gods. Whereas God could offer water from the living well, the people put their faith in broken cisterns, unable to store water and useless in sustaining life. They had forgotten who they were and who had brought them to Israel.

They forgot how God had delivered them from oppression in Egypt and had given them food, water, and protection during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Each person sought to gain what they could and put themselves above others rather than reflecting on the help they received. Jesus’ parable for today reflects what many people did, have done, and continue to do today.

The third question for today is one of challenge and identity. What does being a Methodist mean? For me, to be a Methodist is to recognize that we do not have the perfection of Christ nor are we ever going to find it. But having come to Christ, we will work to reach that perfection and we will work to bring others to Christ. It means putting the words that Jesus first expressed in His synagogue some two thousand years ago into action today. As the writer of Hebrews put it,

Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name. And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God. (11)

And the thing to note about this passage is that we are to do good after we have declared our belief. Doing good before declaring our belief is no guarantee that we will gain what we seek.

I don’t think there is a person today that doesn’t remember what happened two years ago this past week. How can you not know? We are reminded and have been reminded each day for the past few weeks about the tragedy of Katrina, Rita, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast. We say that we are a Christian nation yet we have let our brothers and sisters down. We seemed to be more concerned that the casinos on the Gulf Coast are rebuilt bigger and safer than we are that homes in the 9th ward of New Orleans are.

The sad thing about all this talk about Katrina and the slowness of the recovery is that it is only the tip of iceberg. The destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is only the latest event in a series of events that demonstrates the lack of concern we have for people in this country. How long will we be a country that speaks of “family values” yet does not value the family? How long will we be a country where wealth is the goal and poverty is considered sinful? How long will we be a church where the prosperity gospel of wealth and abundance and not the Heavenly Kingdom is preached in the pulpit?

I know that countless people have gone to Biloxi and I know that not everyone can go. But if we are who we say we are, then why have we not, as Christians, cried out in anger at how we have treated our own brothers and sisters!? Is it because we would rather not think about it; is it because we would rather not bring the lower classes, the outcasts, and the refuse of society to our dinner table? Are we to forget that England in the period of time following the American Revolution almost underwent a similar fate as did France? Are we to forget that were it not for John Wesley and the Methodist Revival speaking out against the injustice done to the poor and lower classes, England would have undergone a similar violent revolution as did the French?

When Jesus stood in His home synagogue some two thousand years ago, he announced the Gospel, the Good News.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (12)

It was that Gospel that saved England; it will be that Gospel that defines where this country goes in the coming years. It will be through the Good News that the poor will be lifted out of poverty, the homeless will have shelter, the sick will be healed and the oppressed will find justice. This Gospel does not exclude and deny the right of people to be a part of God’s Kingdom because of their race, their income status, or their lifestyle.

The church today is in crisis today. We have probably lost one generation and are in danger of losing the generation after that. These young people see the hypocrisy of those who proclaimed Jesus as Savior but then shut the doors to the very people that Jesus ate with. Many churches today, even in the United Methodist Church, are more interested in a business-oriented line rather than a spiritual-oriented bottom line. They will tell you that the business of the church is to win disciples to Christ, and I will not argue with that point. But, if the homeless are not given shelter, if the poor are not given a chance to find work at wages so that they can feed their families; if the sick are not given adequate medical treatment, if the oppressed are never given an opportunity to see freedom, what good does it do to be a disciple of Christ?

I have asked three questions today. They are questions that have perplexed the church from its very beginnings. They are questions that continue to perplex the church and its various denominations even today. It is no wonder that churches are struggling. Each question gets more difficult to ask and equally more difficult to answer. No one wants to ask the hard questions; no one wants to answer the hard questions.

Tony Campolo, wrote 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.’ (13)

In 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King wrote his proclaimed “Letter from the Birmingham jail.” His comments then are strangely prophetic today. In this letter he wrote of his disappointment in the churches of the south remaining quiet while the political leaders spoke of hatred, defiance and opposition to equality. He wondered where were the people who said they were Christian but kept silent as persecution and oppression dominated life. And then he wrote,

Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably linked to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners for the struggle for freedom.

I hope that the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour (14).

It is far easier to ask simple questions and give simple answers. It is far easier to put the blame for sickness, poverty, hunger, and oppression on others than it is to do God’s work on this earth. It is far easier to say that we will be accepted in Heaven because we act righteous when Jesus Himself told us those that ignore the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed will be the ones left behind.

When you ask easy questions, you get the easy answers. But nothing gets done. We are not always willing to ask the hard questions; we are not always willing to hear the hard answers. But know this today, the hardest part of being a Christian has already been done for us. Jesus’ death on the Cross and His Resurrection means that the hardest part has already been done. All we have to do is complete the task.

You have an opportunity today. You have the opportunity to do nothing. There is no rule or regulation that says you have to do anything at this time.

You have the opportunity, if you want to and if you haven’t already done so, to invite Christ into your heart and into your life. You have the opportunity to gain that honored seat at the heavenly banquet that is promised to all those who open their heart. And you don’t have to do anything else.

You came to church this morning; you heard the preacher preach and now you can go home. You can go home and not worry about the person on the street or in the hospital bed or in the jail cell. You do not have to worry about the individual whose soul is lost in the wilderness of society. They are not your concerns now; someone else will take care of those problems.

There is a third opportunity this morning. Having accepted Christ as your Savior, you can invite the Holy Spirit to come into your life and change your life. But know this, when you invite the Holy Spirit into your life, your life changes. As Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus, when the Holy Spirit enters your life, you will find that your life changes.

You will find the path that you walk is not an easy one; you will find that the path you now walk is often lonely. Not too many people want to give up the honored seat so that someone else may be seated. You will find that you cannot go back to who or what you once were. You will find that you cannot turn your back on those whom society has cast off and would just as soon forget. Now, when you can go out into the world, your thoughts, your words, your deeds, and your actions will tell others that you have chosen to follow Jesus Christ. You can say to the world that I am Christian and that all are welcome in my house.

So, now the question asked today is a very simple one, “Who shall be invited into your house?”

(1) Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

(2) John 4: 1 – 26

(3) Luke 10: 25 – 37

(4) Adapted from “Strangers in a strange land” by Heidi Neumark, in “Getting on message – challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel (Rev. Peter Laarman, editor)

(5) The New York Times, May 8, 2004

(6) Adapted from “Living the Word”, Sojourners, May 2004

(7) Adapted from Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo

(8) Adapted from “Reasons for Joy” by Huston Smith, Christian Century, 5 October 2005

(9) Hebrews 13: 1 – 8

(10) Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13

(11) Hebrews 13: 15 – 16

(12) Luke 4: 16 – 21

(13) Tony Campolo as quoted in Christian Week magazine and reported in SojoMail for 9/10/03

(14) http://www.nobelprizes.com/nobel/peace/MLK-jail.html