Here is the back page for the Fishkill UMC bulletin for September 17, 2017 (the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A).

There is, perhaps, no more contentious place than the dinner table. Sometimes it is a discussion about sports (woe be to the household where someone supports the Yankees and others support the Mets). At our house, it was the sitting arrangement. To accommodate one of my brothers being left-handed and the need for my baby sister to sit by my mother, there were only a few ways we could all sit at the table in peace.. But with the places set at the table, peace reigned and we could enjoy our dinner.
One of the first issues the early church faced was also at the dinner table. Was obedience to Jewish dietary laws a necessary component of the Christian faith. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, suggested that it was an non-issue. It wasn’t what you ate that counted but what you did with your life that mattered. If we cannot find peace at the dinner table, how can we find peace elsewhere? How can we find peace in our soul?
The world is in crisis today. The house we all live in is being battered by forces, both natural and man-made. And because of the perceived differences we see in each other, we refuse to sit at the same table. Instead of peace, we find fear. How then shall we find peace? How can we achieve that peace that surpasses all understanding?

For the Israelites, it was the light of God that guided them towards the Promised Land; it is the presence of Christ in our lives today. It is that peace that allows us to welcome all to the table, to discuss and define differences; then find ways to keep the house in order and allow all of us to move forward.

“The Value Of Your Ministry”

Meditation for 21 September 2014, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Exodus 16: 2 – 16, Philippians 1: 21 – 30, Matthew 20: 1 – 16

Sometimes we need to see the Scriptures in a totally new manner, or at least not view them in the way we have perhaps always done it. That, I hope, is the case with this particular post.

As you can see from the title, this has to do with the ministry of the church. When we think of a particular church’s ministry, it is often in terms of the congregation and the needs of the congregation first. The needs of the community in which the church resides are, perhaps, often overlooked, or thought to be the same as the congregation’s needs and wants.

Sometimes, this will work; often times I don’t think it does. My first impression of Rick Warren and his “Purpose Driven Church” model was that the church administration assessed the needs and interests of the congregation and got those people with common needs and interests together and called that a ministry. Now, if your church has the numbers to do this, it might work.

But, and I made this point when it was first presented to me, if your church is anything like the ones that I have worked with in the past, the numbers aren’t there and they never will be.

This has nothing to do with the perceived state of the church today. Some churches are in places where the population as a whole is not changing and is probably going down. Churches in such areas as these have to, by necessity, operate with an entirely different model. And churches such as these need our support more than we perhaps realize, simply so that the people in those congregations don’t think that they are being forgotten.

But there are churches in areas where the numbers speak of growth and promise, yet the ministries of those churches are adapted to the congregation and not the community. These are the churches in trouble. And that is an area that we really need to look at. A church whose ministries are inward and have turned a blind eye to the community outside the walls of the sanctuary is a dying church.

But I am looking at something else at this time. Much of our publication discussion of the ministry of the church has been of two types, one informal and one, naturally, formal. The informal ministry emphasizes our willingness or unwillingness to let the Spirit rule the Law. For some, the Law is everything and, thus, that which is against the Law cannot be allowed.

But there are those (and for the sake of clarity, I believe I am in that group) who feel that the Spirit supersedes the Law and we must often do that which is in conflict with the Law. I fear that this informal ministry will, in the next couple of years, be formalized and become part of the corporate ministry of the church and the denomination.

The formal ministry of the church, at the local, denominational, and general levels, is that by which the church is identified. As part of the corporate structure, the formal ministry is the current measure of the vitality of the church. This is what the church says it is going to do. But there is another view of the ministry, not the corporate view but the individual view.

And I think that we need to see the ministry of the church more from the individual view than from the corporate view. This view starts by asking each member, “What are your ministries? What do you do, individually, that shows others who Christ is and brings them to a point where they can accept Christ?” If your life has been given to Christ, then all ministries are of the same value and that value is, perhaps, priceless (yes, I know, it is part of a 21st century cliché but it fits the Gospel reading).

But if you are like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, angry that God has taken you away from the security of your slavery in Egypt, what value do you place on your ministry? What if you are one of the workers who has put in the long hours and ended up wit the same pay as those who worked less? What value do you place on your ministry? If you feel that your efforts deserve greater rewards, then perhaps your ministry really has no value.

The problem today is not necessarily our corporate ministries but rather the value that we place on them. Many corporate ministries today focus on the needs of the congregation rather than the needs of the community. And individually, we are more interested in what we get out of the ministry than what others might.

As I read the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians for this Sunday, I could not help but think about all the time and effort that he, Paul, put into his work. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he was getting frustrated with the work (and at least one suggestion that the “thorn in his side” was a wife wondering when he was going to get a “real” job).

And maybe Paul did have the right to complain. How many times did he have to leave a town because he angered the power structure? Did the results that he achieved justify the time and effort he put in? Keep in mind that most of the time, the letters that he was dictating and mailing to the churches dealt with problems that had arose in the church. Is what Paul gained truly measurable by the bottom line demanded in the corporate and self-centered individual ministries of today?

What is the value of your ministry? Are you expecting more than what you put in? Or will your efforts offer someone new a hope or opportunity that they might not have received otherwise?

The hardest thing we have to do is finding out what our ministry is. Figuring out how to accomplish it becomes pretty easy. We start by committing our lives and our souls to Christ and then we work to help others do the same. The value of our ministry will perhaps never be known, except to those who are touched.


Here are my thoughts for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 17: 1 – 17, Philippians 2: 1 -13, and Matthew 21: 23 – 32. This was edited on 25 September 2011.

I will be at Drew UMC (Carmel, NY) for their Saturday evening worship service. There is lobster and chicken dinner from 4 to 8 with the service at 7 so, if you can, make plans to be there for the meal and stay for the worship. <Contact information>

There are choices and there are choices. Do I go with the lobster or do I go with the chicken? Actually, in my case, there is no choice. I am allergic to shell fish and I would rather not risk an allergic reaction, so I go with the chicken.

But, even if I couldn’t make the choice, it does illustrate something about making choices. You have to know what is involved if you are going to make any sort of choice. Sometimes you don’t have all the information; sometimes you do.

For me the problem is that we are a society that really doesn’t want to know what lies around the corner or over the horizon. We are like the society in the days before Columbus where everyone thought that the world was flat and that if you ventured far enough away from the safety of your home, you would fall off.

However, I really think that this image of a “flat earth” was a myth. There is enough evidence to suggest that people as far back as 240 BCE knew that the earth was a sphere (“Was Eratosthenes Correct? A Multi-Class Science Project”).

However, with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria it is quite possible that this information was lost. We know that many other writings, such as Democritus’ original work on the nature of the atom were “lost” in this way. There were enough fragments of Democritus’ work surviving to allow Isaac Newton to develop his ideas on optics and give John Dalton the impetus he needed to begin the first atomic theory.

So why would we even think that the earth might be flat? Because our initial impression tells us that things disappear over the horizon and since we don’t know what is over “there”, we create an answer that we can understand. And unless we do something to test that answer, we are apt to keep that answer in our minds long after we know the correct answer. Consider that most adults today will tell you that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects, even when they learned in school that they fall at the same rate. (See the discussion on this in “A New Vision (Part 1)” and “The World “Out There””.)

If we hold onto beliefs that have been shown to be outdated or incomplete, then it should not be a surprise that we tend to fear the unknown.

I will be honest; I think this is one of the major problems with the church and Christianity today. You see it in the opposition to the teaching of evolution. Now, this isn’t about whether or not God created the heavens and the earth; I happen to think He did. I also think that it was done in such a way that just begs for us to explore the whole concept.

But there are a number of individuals who would have us accept the first two chapters of Genesis as the truth and nothing but the truth. And it is to be accepted without question. But when you do that, when you put something out there and tell inquisitive minds that it cannot be explored, you are just asking for trouble.

And when powers that be say that is the way it is going to be, then you are also asking for trouble. And that is the problem with the church today. There are many in today’s churches who hold on to points of view that are in conflict with the world around them but they say that their points of view are the only ones that count. People will leave any organization when they are told what to think, what to say, and given no other options.

In the end, any organization, be it a church or some other group, that is not capable of adapting to the times risks death. Now, I am not saying that the beliefs of the organization have to change (unless, of course, time and evidence prove them incorrect. Nor am I saying that a church must adapt its message to the culture in which it exists. Too many people are doing that and all it does is send an additional message of hypocrisy to a population that would like to have some decent answers for the questions that bother them.

The message that the people today hear is either one that that is old and out of touch with them or is the product of some very interesting marketing techniques. It is a message that says that the sanctuary is there to protect them from the world and all that goes on in the world. It is a message that says that the church is there for each one of them, to allow them to achieve greatness while others may suffer.

The sanctuary, this place we are in tonight, is meant not to protect us from the world but to give us a place where we can find protection with the Saving Grace of Christ. It is meant to give us a place to recharge and regroup after we have done the business and the work of the church and of Christ.

Paul wrote to the Philippians and said to keep doing the things that you are doing. And what are those things? They are the things that Christ taught us, to care for the sick and the hungry, to work towards building homes and giving comfort to the people of the community, no matter who they might be and even if they may not be a member of the church. Those who came last week spoke of the meaning of this church and its people in their own lives and it gave credence to the words of Bishop Park.

The problem facing the United Methodist Church, as Bishop Park noted last week, is that we are an aging church. But before we say that we cannot do anything because we are an aging church, remember how old Abraham was when he and Sarah had their sons. Remember how old Moses was when he was told to bring the people out of Egypt.

Age is a point in time on a calendar somewhere. I have seen too many people whose calendar age is far less than mine but who are old in ways and desires. I have seen many whose calendar age is greater than mine but who are so young in mind and spirit.

The Pharisees were challenged by Jesus. It was a challenge that they were afraid to answer because it would show that they were as old in mind and spirit as they were in body. Their church and religion were suffering from a fixed viewpoint, one that would not allow questions, one that feared the unknown.

Jesus offers us a new vision, one that renews the mind and spirit and gives life to old bones. It is one that allows us to not fear the unknown.

We know where the walk with Jesus will lead us. There are some who are like the second son who act and talk as if they were devout and pious but who will not take that walk. There are those who are like the first son, whose lives are not the best, but who know that the only path that they can walk is the one that leads to the Cross.

We have never been asked to die on the Cross; Jesus Christ did that for us. But we must be prepared to go to the Cross, not just sit back and admire it from afar. At this point in the message I told the story of Clarence Jordan and his brother Robert and how Robert stated that he would go to the cross but that he wouldn’t be on the cross. Clarence challenged him as to how much of a Christian he really was. The first time that I told this story was in “What Do We Say?”. We must make a choice tonight; shall we be like the one son who says that he believes but does little? Or shall we be like the one son who may hesitate at first but does the work of Christ when called upon to do so?

A New Start

The Scriptures for this coming Sunday, September 8, 2008 (the 15th Sunday after Pentecost) are Exodus 12: 1 – 14, Romans 13: 8 – 14, and Matthew 18: 15 – 20 (following Cycle A of the Revised Common Lectionary).

This is fourth time that I will write something related to that set of readings.  This first time was right after I moved from Kentucky to New York in 1999 and I was just beginning my service as lay minister at Walker Valley United Methodist Church.  In 1999, September 8th was the 15th Sunday after Pentecost.  “A New Start” is the sermon that I gave that day.

Following the lectionary, the same set of scriptures were again used in 2002 and 2005 but for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.  As noted, this coming Sunday is the 15th Sunday.  It is interesting how the lectionary works over the years.  It is also interesting how the same Scriptures can lead to different sermons, all dependent on the time, the place, and the world around us.

My sermon for September 8, 2002, “A Sense of Community” (given at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY) is posted here.

My sermon for September 4, 2005, “Lexington, North Carolina (given at Vails Gate United Methodist Church, Vails Gate, NY) is posted here.


Back in the late 60’s there was a song by the group Chicago “Does Anyone Know What Time It Is?” After reading the first verse of today’s Old Testament reading, you have to ask that very question. For us, today is September 5, 1999, but that when you look at the meaning for the word “September”, you have to wonder what time it is. The root for the word “September” means seven because September was originally the seventh month in the calendar. When you look at October, November, and December, you see that they were originally the eighth, ninth, and tenth months respectively. But September became the ninth month in the calendar when Julius Caesar decided he wanted a month for himself and Caesar Augustus did not want to be out done. So we got the months of July and August.

In the OT reading for today, God tells the Israelites to begin preparing for the Passover, the last of the plagues to strike Egypt. He tells them that this will occur in what will become the first month of the year. On our traditional calendar, the month of Passover occurs in April. Now April is not the first month of the year; January, as we know, is.

In the Julian calendar, the one created when the months of July and August were added, the beginning of the New Year and the celebration of Passover were in the month of April. However, the Julian calendar caused problems with the celebration of Easter in the springtime, so Pope Gregory decided to modify the calendar and bring Easter back in line into the spring. The calendar, known as the Gregorian calendar, is essentially the calendar we used today.

With the new calendar, several countries decided that it was better to celebrate the New Year on January 1st. But, like many things, there were still those who choose to celebrate the New Year on April 1st. Those who clung to the old celebration were called “April Fools” and sent fake party invitations and funny gifts by those who used the newer calendar.

Now, to make matters even more confusing, the Jewish civil calendar starts in what is the seventh month of their calendar, our month of September, with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. That celebration will be next Friday. And with the celebration, Jews around the world will begin the year 5761. And for the Chinese and the Muslims, their calendar year is an entirely different one. Each culture has its own calendar with its own set of references.

The same is true for our own calendar, which is supposed to begin with the birth of Christ. Yet that reference date is probably off by at least 4 years and instead of it being 1999, it is more likely the year 2003 since the birth of Christ and we missed the change in the millennium.

You know, come to think of it, maybe the Y2K problem isn’t such a bad idea after all. We could just wait for the clocks to roll over to double zero and start all over again.

Starting over is what Paul wrote to the Romans about.

And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.

While for many, the Second Coming of Christ was an actual occurrence in the time line of history, early Christians, such as the Romans to whom Paul was writing, did not. Christ Himself told his disciples that the hour and day of His coming was unknown but that we should prepare for it. Rather, they regarded the death and resurrection as crucial events in history that would begin the last days. Since the next great even in God’s redemptive plan would be the Second Coming, “the night”, as Paul writes and no matter how long chronologically it might be, was “nearly over.

To get tied up with the day, the month, and year of a particular calendar takes away the meaning and the reason for preparation. For what happens if we miss the day? It is clearly folly to think that we can ignore the signs. The penalty is obvious.

Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech.

“How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?

If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you.

But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand,

Since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke,

I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you —

When calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you.

Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me.

Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord,

Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke,

They will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.

For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them;

But whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm. (Proverbs 1: 20 – 33)

In the rest of the OT reading for today, Moses and Aaron are given the instructions on how to prepare the Passover feast. This was so that the people would always remember what it was like before the exodus from Egypt and traveled to the Promised Land. And this celebration would mark the beginning of the calendar year and a way to remember what God had done for them. The designation of this month as Israel’s religious New Year reminded Israel that her life as the people of God was grounded in God’s redemptive act in the exodus.

Paul’s exhortation to the Romans that they clothe themselves in Christ is his way of telling us that our preparation includes living a life like Christ would.

Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

Paul gives the rules of living, just as Christ also gave them. Paul wrote

So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.

In Luke 6: 27 – 37, Jesus spoke of loving one’s enemies, of turning the other check.

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is it to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect payment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

The behavior that Paul encourages the Romans to follow is much like that which Jesus encouraged his followers and disciples to follow as well. Settle the disputes with the love of Christ in your hearts, not with malice or hatred. Jesus made the special point of noting that whatever one does on earth will come back to them in heaven.

But where will this love come from? Will simply following a set of rules and laws offer the guarantee that you will be prepared? You can follow all the rules, as Paul says that you should.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covert,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

But will following the laws be sufficient? This was the very problem that John Wesley some two hundred and fifty years ago.

When I met Peter Böhler again, he consented to put the dispute upon the issue which I desired, namely, Scripture and experience. I first consulted the Scripture. But when I set aside the glosses of men, and simply considered the words of God, comparing them together, endeavouring to illustrate the obscure by the plainer passages; I found they all made against me, and was forced to retreat to my last hold, “that experience would never agree with the literal interpretation of those scriptures. Nor could I therefore allow it to be true, till I found some living witnesses of it.” He replied, he could show me such at any time; if I desired it, the next day. And accordingly, the next day he came again with three others, all of whom testified, of their own personal experience, that a true living faith in Christ is inseparable from a sense of pardon from all past, and freedom from all present, sins. They added with one mouth, that this faith was the gift, the free gift of God; and that he would surely bestow it upon every soul who earnestly and perseveringly sought it. I was now thoroughly convinced; and, by the grace of God, I resolved to seek it unto the end, 1. By absolutely renouncing all dependence, in whole or in part, upon my own works or righteousness; on which I had really grounded my hope of salvation, though I knew it not, from my youth up. 2. By adding to the consent use of all the other means of grace, continual prayer for this very thing, justifying, saving faith, a full reliance on the blood of Christ shed for me; a trust in him, as my Christ, as my sole justification, sanctification, and redemption. (John Wesley)

As Wesley points out, we have been given a gift, the gift of God’s Grace. It was that sudden realization that God’s grace will set us free that allowed John Newton to turn his life around. When you hear the words of the wonderful song “Amazing Grace”, understand that the writer of the song, John Newton, was a slave-ship owner who came to the realization that his life was headed to ruin unless he did something about it.

Jesus told his disciples and followers in the passage from Matthew that we need to see life in a new way. But no matter how fearful we might be of leading such a life, we can always know that He will be there with us.

The Passover feast was to be the beginning of a new start for the Israeli people. As mention in Hebrews and the first letter of John (Hebrews 9: 22; 1 John 1: 7), the lamb served as this celebration was later represented as the Lamb of God through Jesus Christ and Jesus’ represents a new start for us.

The song that I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon talks about knowing what time it is. And to paraphrase that song, we do not need to know what time it is. What we do need to know is that Christ died for our sins and in that act of love, gave us the opportunity for a new start. Do we wait or do we take that opportunity?

Building On The Rocks

I  am preaching at Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church (275 Church Street, Buchanan, NY 10511 – Location of church) this Sunday, August 24th.  Service starts at 9 am.  The Scriptures for the the 15th Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10; Romans 12: 1 – 8, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20.


When I first began preparing this sermon and saw the Gospel message for today, my first thoughts were how often I had used that passage or its variants in Mark and Luke to describe my growing up in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. But those thoughts are for another day and time. But, in thinking of Memphis and reading Paul’s words in the 2nd lesson for today, I thought about pyramids; which is why there is a picture of a pyramid on the cover of the bulletin for this morning.

I cannot tell you why or how Memphis came to be called what it is. Perhaps it is the same distance down river from Cairo, Illinois, that Cairo, Egypt is up river from Memphis, Egypt. But for whatever reason that Memphis received its name, there is a modern day pyramid sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River today. And in this modern day pyramid the University of Memphis Tigers play basketball.

But the connection that I saw in Paul’s words comes neither from this pyramid nor from the pyramids that are so much the picture of Egypt today. Rather, it was another pyramid, somewhat related to the University of Memphis and its rise as a basketball power today. While the University of Memphis basketball program is one of the more successful programs in the country today (at least in terms of winning), when you say success and basketball you cannot help but think of UCLA and its coach from 1948 to 1975, John Wooden. And if you think of success and John Wooden, you think of his “Pyramid of Success.”

Much has been said about Coach Wooden and his Pyramid of Success. But just like the success of the UCLA basketball program did not come overnight, neither was this Pyramid created overnight. When you think of the UCLA basketball team, you think of the ten championships won between 1964 and 1975, But it was sixteen years between the time UCLA first hired him as the basketball coach in 1948 and the first national championship team in 1964. It took much effort and change on the part of Coach Wooden; the pyramid of success is a reflection of what it took to achieve success. And while Coach Wooden adapted the play of his teams over his career and he listened to his players, he never changed the core values that were the foundation of his coaching and his life. This core values are identified in the pyramid.

And if you asked any of his players, be they star or role-player, they will tell you that they thought this “pyramid of success” idea and Coach Wooden’s philosophy was a bunch of nonsense or corny at best. But each player will also tell you it wasn’t until later that they understood what he was teaching them. As Bill Walton said, “he didn’t teach us the answers; he taught us how to find the answers.” In a world where success is demanded immediately, true success takes time.

And while the capstone of this pyramid is success, the pyramid is more than success alone. It is built on industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm. There are eight other blocks that sit on these five blocks before you can achieve success and success is supported by faith and patience. It is interesting to note that Coach Wooden’s players all noted that he never equated success with winning. Yet in today’s society, the only measure of success is how many times we win and, very often, by the size of the victory. The same is true for many churches today; success is measured by how big it is when, in fact, the true measure of success can never be determined in our own or anyone’s lifetime. And when we don’t win, it can make life very hard.

To a certain extent, the church of today is much like the Israelites of the Old Testament reading. Our lives have been made hard and bitter by the demands of society; it seems that we are being asked to make bricks without straw. Our churches have lost their vision; no longer do old men dream dreams. Our youth no longer prophesy or see visions. For many churches today, there are no youth upon whom the future can be built and all the churches today can do is think of days long past.

And the sad news is that there is no Moses floating down the Nile, the Mississippi, or even the Hudson on whom the future can rely. But there need not be one, if we recognize what it is that we can do. It took John Wooden almost forty years to develop his Pyramid of Success, but like the other pyramids, it stands today because of what it is built upon.

The church of today is seen as a decaying old relic of days long past, using words that once meant something but are meaningless in today’s culture and society. People see a church that presents an image in contrast with what they studied in Sunday school and confirmation class. And they want no part of it. It isn’t the words that are said that are causing the death of the church; it is the manner in which the words are spoken, it is the way the words are used.

Today’s “seekers” grew up hearing about redemption and sacrifice but saw those who pushed the message living lives of greed, self-righteousness, and arrogance. They are asking basic gut level questions such as “Do you know God; do you live in 2008; do you have a story?” They do not want our answers to be that we know a lot about God but cannot say whether we actually know God personally. They don’t want to know that while it is 2008 outside the church it is 1952 inside the church on Sunday morning. And they don’t want to hear the story of how the church has been chartered since 1968 and that the budget is $256,000 or that we have had ten pastors and thirteen organists during that period.

They do not want to be a part of that church anymore. They want to know what it means to be a Christian today. They do not want to be a part of a church that works on the assumption that because it is there people will come. They would rather converse with their friends at a Starbucks on Sunday morning than drink coffee in a styrofoam cup during fellowship time after service on Sunday.

And the church often doesn’t know how to respond. It adds new music that sounds like the music of the age and it lets its preachers dress casually so that they appear to be hip. The church has so embraced the ways of society that it is no longer what it once was or what it should and could be. And it still holds to a worldview that is out of touch with the realities of the world.

There are many churches that are examining their processes and trying to figure out how the church can be more relevant in today’s work. And from these efforts, a new model for church growth, known coincidentally as the “emerging church matrix” is emerging. The proposed goal of many in this movement is to provide an alternative to the “seeker-driven, big church” model that blankets the evangelical countryside like kudzu on a southern hillside.

For those of you who have never encountered this ubiquitous southern weed, kudzu is not a native plant. It was introduced to the southern states as a way to cover hillsides and prevent erosion. But after it was planted, it was found that it grows anywhere and everywhere under almost any kind of condition. (Pictures of kudzu) It has been said that if you parked your car on the roadside next to a hill where kudzu was growing, it would be enveloped by the kudzu within twenty-four hours. Kudzu was thought to be a good idea when it was first introduced into this country. But it is clear that its ability was limited to a specific place and climate, neither of which were the southern states. There are good models for church growth available but we have to be very careful that the model that we pick is the model that is applicable to our setting, time, and place.

One advocate of the emerging church model, Sally Morgenthaler, suggested that seekers want to know what it meant to be a Christian 2000 years ago. But more importantly, they want to know how the Gospel and its life changing attributes will affect them and apply to them today. They want to know who Wesley is and why he is so important to the United Methodist Church. They want to know why it is we recite the various creeds. (Adapted from “Worship Transitions: The Road Less Traveled” by Sally Morgenthaler)

Now, I understand where Ms. Morgenthaler is coming from. Many churches do exhibit a time warp, turning back the clock to days long ago and holding services that have not changed one word since the day many members of the congregation were confirmed. Some of have said that we need to “modernize” our worship service, bringing in the new songs and new styles but keeping the same old attitudes. (Adapted from “Where Are You Going?”) And there is nothing more frightening to me than a relatively young person with the same attitude about church that their parents and grandparents had; I am now the leader of the church and we are going to do things my way.

If “seeker services” were considered contemporary worship and looked more like a Christian version of a rock concert, then emerging church worship could be considered more like a Christian version of Starbucks with its small spaces, comfortable seating (preferably couches) and interactivity. The things that have been stripped from the contemporary worship services of the seeker service (the cross, candles, bread and wine, altars) are very much a part of the scene in this new style of worship. In addition, just as in the contemporary worship service, there is a heavy emphasis on modern technology.

What I found most interesting in this discussion of the emerging church is the use of words such as post-conservative and post-liberal. There seems to be a discussion of the relevance of the church in a world that has been divided by the church and its adherents, both liberal and conservative. This discussion focuses on using the methods of today in conjunction with the traditions of the past to bring about a more relevant relationship with God. But for all its new style and return of old traditions, the emerging church model will fail as an alternative if it does little more than offer a newer, more hip version of the current culture. (Adapted from “What Comes Next”)

The “emerging church” or “emergent church” movement is more than the location of the worship or the style of worship. It is the message of the church that differentiates it from other churches, old or modern.

I came across two articles (“John Wesley and the Emerging Church” by Hal Knight and “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” by Scot McKnight) that point out that Methodism, from its inception, was essentially an emerging church. This is interesting because emerging churches are considered a relatively new phenomenon and Methodist churches are considered traditional.

There are clearly differences between emerging churches and the typical Methodist church of today. First, as Knight pointed out, the emerging church tends to be diverse and decentralized and averse to static structures and fixed ideas. It is also driven by an increasing dissatisfaction with the assumption and practices of many churches.

But they also understand that discipleship is meant to closely follow and emulate the person and ministry of Jesus. And while many people express Christianity as being a handful of water at birth, a handful of rice at weddings, and a handful of dirt at funerals, most emerging churches know that there is more to the mission of the church.

Emerging churches also reject many of the dualisms that dominate the traditional churches. They tend to see all of life as potentially sacred and all culture subject to transformation and renewal by the Kingdom of God. Emerging churches are alternative communities, communities who participate in the mission of God in the world. No longer do people go to church; they are the church.

While emerging churches hold to the authority and primacy of the Scriptures, it is more of a narrative than a reading. With a narrative reading, the church is able to draw upon a broad scheme of things and offer more diverse forms of worship. Finally, there is a sense of what some call a generous orthodoxy. By this, truth is not something that is captured and mounted on a wall like a stuffed trophy but rather exemplified by the community of believers.

Each point in this description of the emerging church has a Methodist counterpoint, a point developed by John Wesley almost two hundred and fifty years ago. Wesley developed the Methodist Church of his time in response to the needs and demands of society and the lack of response by the church of that time. (Adapted from “Reinventing the Wheel”)

Charles Handy, the noted philosopher, noted Jesus changed the thinking of the time by teaching that the meek should inherit the earth, the poor would be blessed and the first would be last in the ultimate scheme of things. (Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason, pg 23) In doing so, Jesus challenged the system and caused people to think in an entirely different manner. You cannot be a true Christian unless you are willing to change your thinking and see things in a new way. You cannot do this in a solely rational manner; you must have a vision based on faith. By the same token, you cannot see new things in a new way based on faith alone; you must be able to act in a rational manner.

It seems to me that the United Methodist Church was an emerging church when it was created and it can be the emerging church of today. But it will require that we remember who we are and we need to see things, not through the lens of history, but through the lens of today.

We are reminded by today’s Old Testament lesson that the Egyptians had forgotten how it was that the Israelites had come to Egypt (as perhaps the Israelites themselves had forgotten). The Egyptians had forgotten that it was one of the Israelites, Joseph, who had saved them and their country from almost certain death by his foresight and leadership in the years of feast and famine. And while the Israelites would proclaim the story of the first Passover each year, many of them had forgotten who God was and what God had done for them to bring them out of Egypt by the time Jesus began His ministry.

And if we forget how we came to our faith, we will surely die. There were two men on the crosses next to Jesus that first Easter Sunday. One gained his faith that day and was rewarded with paradise; the other lived in the present and died that day.

We need to say that we are the people we say we are. It is more than simply trying to do things which favor the bottom line of the organization. It is about stating what faith is and who Jesus Christ is in ways that are relevant to today’s world. It is what Jesus did when He was on this earth and it is what He expects us to do today and tomorrow. (Adapted from “A New Order of Things”)

We have the foundation for our own pyramid. The basis upon which we build our church is the faith that we have. In the Gospel reading for today, Simon proclaims that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and because of his faith, Jesus renames him Peter, the rock upon which the church would be built. But faith is a thing which grows, or at least it should grow.

As Paul pointed out in the New Testament reading for today, we all have gifts that we bring to bear in the building of our church. Be they gifts of prophecy, ministering to the people, teaching the people, exhortation, generosity or compassion, we have the things upon which we build our church.

It is important that we remember what we once were, but not because they were the “good old days” to be remembered fondly. Rather, if we remember what we once were, we have the ability to build the church. The church of two thousand years ago was a community of believers, acting together to bring the Gospel message into the world.

Our church today can be that same living and breathing church, one whose foundation was first expressed some two thousand years ago. It will be anchored in faith and it will be built with the stones of teaching, preaching, caring, and ministry. It will not be a stone monument but rather the living and breathing members of the church who go out into the world, taking the Gospel message as a part of their lives each day.

Who are you?

This was to be my “blog” for August 28th; it is based on the common lectionary for that Sunday, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost.

If you like what I write or would like to use what I write in some of your writings, please contact me. I use other sources that are not always marked in my writing. My e-mail address is TonyMitchellPhD@optimum.net

Have a good week!
I am not a fan of the television show “CSI” or any of the other new crime genre shows.I think that they tend to oversimplify the analytical procedures used in forensic science and they glorify the process beyond what it is.This is not to say that the methods used in the shows are incorrect or not accurately portrayed; it is just that most of the analytical methods take longer than one hour.But, on television, the crime must generally be solved within sixty minutes for the show to stay on the air.

So I don’t watch “CSI” or any of its spin-offs.But, if the television is on, I know when the show is starting because of its theme music.The theme for the show is The Who’s “Who Are You?”Though I know the words and why the song was picked, I am not so sure that many of the people in the younger generation, for whom the show focuses, do.But my discussion today is more on the question the song asks rather than any crime that might need solving.

I was reminded of the song because of the Old Testament passage for this particular Sunday.Moses, tending the flocks of his father-in-law, encounters God via the burning bush.Moses’ reaction, as ours would be is, “Who are you?”God responses with the cryptic “I am who I am.”This phrase, in Hebrew, is the basis for Yahweh, the term often used to mean God.

As I said, Moses’ response is probably what we would expect and what I think we might say if we were in a similar situation.I also think that we would respond in much the same manner that Moses did when God asked him, Moses, to do something in His name.

Instead of “Who are you?” the query becomes “What gives you the authority to ask this of me?”And Moses also starts, as we would, to find reasons why he is not the person to whom God should entrust this task.

Nothing Moses does in this scene from the middle of an Arabian desert should seem strange or unusual.Granted, standing there watching a bush burn but not being consumed is rather strange and unusual but Moses’ responses are what we would expect because they are the responses we would give.When we encounter someone new, we are apt to ask who they are.And if this friend of ours should ask us to do something we often ask “by what right they have to ask or tell us to do that.”

When Hurricane Katrina first approached the Gulf Coast and authorities were telling people to leave, the response, for some, was this later response.Many choose to stay, feeling that they could ride out the storm as they had done many times before.Many also stayed because they had no other option.

But those, who had been given the opportunity to leave, found themselves faced with a storm stronger than anything they had ever imagined.Those who so quickly refused to head the warnings of authority quickly found out that there was no possible rescue because such an attempt would endanger too many lives.

What we have, with these two different groups (those that had the ability and opportunity to leave when they had the chance and those who had no ability to take advantage of the opportunity before them) is a clear reflection of the Gospel.Those without the ability to take advantage are those whom we need to be with, helping and assisting.Those who have the opportunity but refused on their own free will are like Peter in that moment following His declaration that Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus had asked His disciples “Who do the people say that I am?”He followed this up with a direct question to the disciples, “Who do you say I am?”Peter was very emphatic in his declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s promise to His promise.But in the very next paragraph, the Gospel reading for today, Peter tries to stop Jesus from moving onwards to Jerusalem and the completion of the mission.Jesus asks Peter “by what authority he (Peter) has to stop the mission?”

This is the dilemma we are faced with when we are face to face with Christ.We know that without Christ in our lives, we are condemned to death.We know that with Christ, we are promised an everlasting life.But we must give up everything that we own and are in order to follow Christ; it is something that not many of us are willing to do.Every time Christ made this type of announcement, the number of those following Him grew smaller.People were not willing to follow in His footsteps if it meant giving up what they had on earth.

But, if we are to follow Christ, we must live a new life.No longer can we live in a world where violence is met with more violence.No longer can we live in a world where people take advantage of human misery and suffering for their own profit.In Paul’s letter to the Romans for this Sunday, he noted that we should feed and take care of our enemies.Rather than respond in kind to oppression, we should respond with love.

Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia, tells the story about the time his daughter was being harassed by the school bully.Mr. Jordan stated that he was ready to forget all that he was saying and preaching about Christian love and use worldly methods to deal with this young man.But his daughter told him to let her solve the problem in her own way, to use Christian love.As she told her father, every time the boy came around, she gushed and proclaimed how glad she was to see him.Finally, the boy became so embarrassed that he quit coming around and harassing her and when he saw her coming, he turned away.By responding in love and kindness, the harassment stopped.

If, in a world of hatred, darkness, and despair, we bring some light and hope through our love, will the world not be a better place? If we respond to the Gospel message by bringing help to the oppressed, the sick, the needy, and lost souls of this world, will not the world be a better place?We have seen through this week what happens when people lose hope, when the promise of the future is bleak and dark.We are standing on the road and Jesus is asking “Who are you?Are you My disciple, willing to carry my cross and take the Gospel into the world?”