“How Will They Know?”


This will be on the back page of the Fishkill UMC bulletin for Sunday, September 02, 2018 (the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B).


It is interesting that the Scripture readings for this Sunday come at a time when schools are starting in the area and have begun in many other areas of the country.

The “Song of Solomon”, along with the companion books in this section of the Old Testament and James in the New Testament are called the “wisdom” books.  The emphasis in these books is not so much what we know about God but how one lives in response to God.

Jesus chastises the “learned” ones for forgetting why the law was the law.  There were reasons why things were done but those reasons had become tradition.

When we teach something and say it must be learned but give no reason why it must be learned, it becomes something for the moment and quickly forgotten.

Our lives in Christ cannot simply be blind obedience to a set of laws set down so many years ago.  Rather our lives must be a true reflection of the nature of God.

Wisdom is more than just learning material; it is knowing what to do with it.                                                     ~~Tony Mitchell

One Phrase


A Meditation for 7 September, 2015, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), based on Proverbs 22: 1 – 2, 8 – 9, 22 – 23, James 2: 1 – 10, (11 – 13), 14 – 17, and Mark 7: 24 – 37.


I started this back at the first of September but never finished it.  Not wanting to leave things undone, I finished this afternoon.


I think that whenever one writes a sermon, a message or, in this case, a blog post, they do it for one of two reasons. The first reason is to teach something about the Scriptures. The second is offer encouragement or seek some sort of action based on the Scriptures. Often times, these two ideas overlap because true teaching only occurs when the students apply the lesson.

There are also two audiences to keep in mind for any piece or presentation. There are time when one is “preaching to the choir.” (And I might add that one Sunday several years ago, we had a guest choir of some fifty members come to our little church with its average attendance of twenty. That Sunday I truly preached to the choir!) The other audience is often times, especially with blogs in general and this blog in particular, directed towards people who are, for whatever reason, outside the church.

As much as I have always had a problem with seeing the mission of the church in terms of the Great Commission (Matthew 25: 18 – 20).

In the New International Version of the Bible, this passage reads,

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

But reread this passage as it translated in The Message,

Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee, headed for the mountain Jesus had set for their reunion. The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally. Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”

Note how Jesus’ command changes from “make” to “train”. To further show this, read how Clarence Jordan translated the same patch in his Cotton Patch Gospel translation of Matthew,

Well, the eleven students traveled to Alabama, to the mountain which Jesus had selected for them. When they saw him they accepted him as their Lord, but some couldn’t make up their minds. James came over to them and said, “Every right to rule in both the spiritual and physical realms has been given to me. As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you. And you know, I am right in there with you – all the time – until the last inning.”

I think it is important to notice that the emphasis was on teaching. Teaching cannot be accomplished (as we are finding out) by simply forcing people to learn things. We are finding out that many people who proclaim themselves Christians do not have a firm understanding of the Bible in terms of the words written or the meaning and context of the words (from “How Will They Know?”).

So it is that I see being a Christian in a different light than some of my contemporaries. But then again I have been a teacher for the majority of my professional life and I am of the opinion that unless a teacher’s students are prepared to implement the lessons they have been taught, the teaching was not very good.

But I have also been a Christian longer than I have been a teacher and one of the things that I learned early on in my Christian life was that there was more that life than just saying that I was a Christian.

And I know that part of that understanding comes from an incident in my life when I was a sophomore in college and it was based on a a phrase in the Gospel reading from Mark this week that strikes a deep chord in my soul and that is what the Syro-Phoenician woman said to Jesus when He first told her

Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. If there’s any left over, the dogs get it.”

She said, “Of course, Master. But don’t dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?”

In the Prayer of Humble Access found on page 30 in the current United Methodist Hymnal is the line “We are not so much as to gather up the crumbs under the table.” I don’t know for certain but I am pretty sure that those words come from the conversation between Jesus and the women.

I know that Jesus originally intended the message to be for the people of Israel but when they began to turn away, and especially when others such as this women began to listen and pay attention, the focus of the ministry changed. But it was focus that had its foundation in other places in the Bible.

As the words from Proverbs tell us, when it comes right down to it, there is no difference between the rich and the poor (a thought that Paul would later echo). The writer of Proverbs also warned about using one’s position in life as a means to oppressing others.

Unfortunately, in too many cases today, those who proclaim that they are Christian or use Christianity to justify their life or lifestyle forget, if they ever knew, this simple words from Proverbs. And the life lessons that they were taught seemed to have been forgotten as well.

In his letter, James warns about saying one thing and doing another. If you profess your faith in Christ, then your actions must show that faith (from “Teach Your Children Well”).

If you do nothing but go through the motions then it will have all been for naught. Only when you have put what you have been taught into action will your faith mean anything.

And there will come a time and a place in your life where a phrase will be said that will change how you think or how you live or how you treat someone. It maybe a phrase that you say that causes someone to ask you a question; it may be an answer to a question someone asks you.

I cannot predict what that phrase might be. When I heard the phrase about the crumbs under the table I found myself questioning what was going on. And I was in a place and a time when I found out that what I understood was wrong. But in that place and time I believe my life changed.

And since one cannot predict what the phrase will be, who will say it or if it will be you who says it, then perhaps your life has to be the way it is supposed to be from the day you said that you believed. It is better to do it that way and be prepared to help others than to think you know what you will do when it does happen.

And this will allow you to be ready to help the person who is looking and seeking for they may have heard the phrase or asked it themselves but not know where to find the answer.

In the end, we are reminded that God loved and loves each of us so much that He sent His son to this earth to live and die so that we may live. And that is the phrase that we must remember.

“One Life To Live”


This was the message I presented at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church (Bartlett, TN) for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (B), 31 August 1997. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Song of Songs 2: 8-13; James 1: 17-27; and Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23.  (This has been edited since it was first published.  Not sure why I had it listed as the 14th Sunday after Pentecost but my records suggest that it should be the 15th Sunday.)

There have been a number of reports in the news recently about drivers affected with what has become known as “road rage.” You can tell who these drivers are; they are the ones who rapidly change lanes, who come up behind you on the interstate driving faster than everyone else and flash their lights at you so that you will get out of your way. In the most extreme cases, they will even use their cars as battering rams or pull out a gun and shoot you. While these reports focus on towns such as Los Angeles where the car has become a part of daily life; we, as drivers in Memphis, know all too well that this “disease” is a part of the driving process here as well. And while I would like to think that going to work at 5 in the morning and coming home at 3 in the afternoon, supposedly non-peak driving times, would offer refuge from such drivers, I have seen too many examples of this phenomenon.

I really do not see nor do I understand why people want to drive this way. But I do know that this lack of civility is not limited to just the roads. I have seen people at the airport become irritated by delays in their flight and then blame the airlines, yet the reasons for the delay could not be controlled by the airlines. And I am sure that you have encountered people in your work who get angry if you do not take care of their request at that very moment. It is almost has if they have never heard the words of James,

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.

In our rush to gain a better life, I think we have forgotten how to live. One of my favorite passages from the old Testament is Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8

  • For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven:
  • a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
  • a time to kill, and a time to heal;
  • a time to break down, and a time to build up;
  • a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
  • a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
  • a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
  • a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
  • a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)This passage, along with the next verse “what gain have the workers for their toil?” (Ecclesiastes 3: 9), make even more sense when you know that the writer of Ecclesiastes, thought to be Solomon, wrote of the emptiness in his life even though his riches were seeming unlimited and he was widely acknowledged as the wisest man on earth.

Do we not feel the same way? We are seemingly forced by society into actions which leave us wanting but with no way to find solace in our long. With society’s demands on us, with the pressures of our peers to be like them, how can we continue being a Christian? This is perhaps the most difficult question facing Christians today. For as the church interacts with the secular world, it becomes more of the secular world and less of the spiritual world. What then, how can we exist in this world?

Do we pack up our bags and remove ourselves from society? Throughout history, there have been many cases of such decisions. Many monasteries were built as a means of providing the solitude and isolation from society the members of the community would need so that they could achieve a better spiritual life.

In our own American history, there are a number of instances where spiritual communities were built in an attempt to create an environment separate from contemporary society. The Amana colonies of Iowa are such an example.

Yet today, we know of the Amana colonies more for the quality of the appliances they built rather than the spiritual heritage that the colonies were built upon. While the appliances bearing the Amana name have longed been considered a good product, not many people know the history of the towns and the company that developed them. The same can be said for Shaker furniture. Shaker furniture is highly prized by antique dealers; yet the Shaker philosophy of simplicity is in direct contrast to the prices paid for the products of their work. So it is possible to be a Christian and gain wealth, but those who seek out Shaker furniture and Amana products probably know nothing of the Christian heritage that was behind those products. And that may be more of the problem than even we realize. We follow the ways of society without thinking about what society is demanding.

When the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples, they were not criticizing their culinary procedures but their failure to follow age-old traditions. Now, those age-old traditions came from what we would call common sense. It does make sense to prepare your food so that it is clean and safe to eat (and with all the news recently about food safety, that is even more the case today). But tradition practiced without an explanation soon loses its meaning. The culinary practices that the Pharisees demanded as tradition had come about from the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness many years before. And while the tradition of being clean had been kept, the reasons for the traditions had not.

As Jesus told the Pharisees,

“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
As James wrote,

If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

How are we to live our life? I entitled my sermon “One Life to Live” not because I am a soap opera fan but because we do have only one life to live. Jesus told his disciples, in response to the Pharisees’ criticism

“Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean'”.

“For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'”

Our actions in the world today reflect that which is in us.

Do not merely listed to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what is says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what he says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. but the man who looks intently into perfect law that gives freedom, and he has heard, but doing it — he will be blessed in what he does

This sermon should not be seen as an indictment of society even though both the Epistle and Gospel readings for today seemed to have a list of don’ts in them. There is a way to leave our lives that does lead to satisfaction. James started by telling us that.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

And I close with this thought

And you, too, youthful reader, will realize the Vision (not the idle wish) of your heart, be it base or beautiful, or a mixture of both, for you will always gravitate toward that which you, secretly, most love. Into your hands will be placed the exact results of your own thoughts; you will receive that which you earn; no more, no less. Whatever your present environment may be, you will fall, remain, or rise with your thoughts , your Vision, your Ideal. You will become as small as your controlling desire; a s great as your dominant aspiration . . .

In all human affairs there are “efforts”, and there are “results”, and the strength of the effort is the measure of the result. Chance is not. “Gifts”, powers, material, intellectual, and spiritual possessions are the fruits of efforts; they are thought completed, objects accomplished, visions realized.

The Vision that you glorify in your mind, the Ideal that you enthrone in your heart — this you will build your life by, this you will become. “As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen.

What will you become? What life will you live? As James said, we have been given a special gift, the gift of Jesus Christ. All we have to do to accept that gift is open our hears and allow Christ to reside within us.

Searching for the truth


Here are my thoughts for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scriptures are Proverbs 1: 20 – 33, James 3: 1 – 12, and Mark 8: 27 – 38.

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Every time that I read the Gospel passage for today (or its corollary passages in Matthew and Luke) I think of the first few football games that I officiated with my father and brothers (many of the officials who worked with my brothers and my father were not aware that I was the oldest son and so my presence was often greeted by “you mean, there’s another one!).

But I also recall what Jesus said to John the Baptizer’s disciples when they asked him if He was the One or should they wait for someone else to come.

“Go back and tell John what’s going on: The blind see, the lame walk, Lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.

“Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!” (Matthew 11: 4 – 6)

Even today people are not going to believe unless they see the evidence before them that Jesus is alive and well. It does not matter what you say if your actions belie your words. And Jesus would later say,

“If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.”

Surprised, they said, “But we’re descendants of Abraham. We’ve never been slaves to anyone. How can you say, ‘The truth will free you’?”

Jesus said, “I tell you most solemnly that anyone who chooses a life of sin is trapped in a dead-end life and is, in fact, a slave. A slave is a transient, who can’t come and go at will. The Son, though, has an established position, the run of the house. So if the Son sets you free, you are free through and through. I know you are Abraham’s descendants. But I also know that you are trying to kill me because my message hasn’t yet penetrated your thick skulls. I’m talking about things I have seen while keeping company with the Father, and you just go on doing what you have heard from your father.” (John 8: 31 – 34)

Mankind from its very creation has sought the truth and they have tried to make the truth very simple. But the truth can be very complex and very difficult to comprehend, especially if you put away the skills and tools that allow you to think “beyond the limits of the box.”

To me, this is the essence of what Jesus was saying to those who could not understand that He would set them free. They saw themselves as free men, descendants of Abraham who had never been slaves. The concept of freedom that Jesus spoke of (freedom from sin) was an enigma to them for they saw freedom in an adherence to the law. But as Paul would later write, such an adherence was as much slavery as anything else.

And when Peter rebuked Jesus for telling the disciples of his coming crucifixion and death, Jesus pointed out that Peter, even with his proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, was still thinking inside the box. It would take Peter a long time; in fact, it would take all the disciples a long time before they would understand the truth that was behind the message.

We have the advantage though. We know the truth of the Message. But we still don’t think “outside the box” when it comes to living the Message. We ignore the cries of wisdom, as proclaimed in the Book of Proverbs. We see the evidence and we turn away from it. We argue for a very simple existence and we are blind to what that simplicity brings. We fix our mind on a code that is inflexible and we hold to it, no matter what the contradictions say. We proclaim a belief in the Word of God but we merely hold onto the words of God, not the Spirit.

We have no answer when someone points out that the Bible, the very words of God, allow us to sell our recalcitrant children when they disobey us. We have no answer when it points out that slavery is allowed in the Bible. We have no answer when our children leave the church the first chance they get because they cannot deal with the hypocrisy and back-biting that takes place in the church. We have no answer when we see people proclaim their allegiance to Christ as Lord but only after proclaiming their allegiance to their country first. We have no answer when we hear that violence, death, and destruction throughout the world are necessary if Christ is to come again in this world.

What do we say when others say that God sends hurricanes or tornados to ravage the land and kill innocent people because there were sinners living there. What are we to say when others say that it was God’s will when children die in senseless acts of violence.

We may have the knowledge but we lack the wisdom. We hear the term “fear of the Lord” and we place in the context of an emotion. But this phrase is more a statement of knowing God, of having God in our heart, of living what the words mean, of living the Spirit of the law.

One of the books that I have used in developing my understanding of God was Letters of a C. O. in Prison (Timothy Zimmer, The Judson Press, Valley Forge, 1969).

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this is the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (Pages 36 – 37)

Zimmer’s words echo the words that James wrote some two thousand years ago. You have to be careful what you say and you have to do what you say.

It was the point that Christ made in the second part of the Gospel reading for today; it is the one thing that I think too many people do not understand. They are willing to say that they know the words of God but their very actions, their very thoughts, their very deeds belie what they say.

We lack the wisdom because we are not willing to take that second step in our lives, the step to commit to Christ. We are unwilling to put everything aside and walk with Christ, for we know where that walk could take us and we do not want to go there. We fear the walk while proclaiming our love for Christ.

Seek the truth and the truth will set you free. Such an easy sentence to say and it somehow just melodically rolls off the tongue when you say it. But the word seek is an active word; you cannot seek the truth by standing on the sidelines of life and merely pronouncing that you believe. You cannot say the words of God are true unless they are in your heart as well as your mind. You cannot proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and then not walk with Him.

I have made two commitments to seek the truth in my life. One of those commitments was to seek the truth found through reason and wisdom, the other through faith. You cannot, I believe, live in world of reason without faith nor can you live in a world of faith without reason. When I earned my Bachelors degree in Chemistry in 1971, my Masters degree in Education, and my Doctorate in Science Education in 1990, it was to seek the truth about this world in which I live, the world of reason.

My life was committed to Christ through baptism on 24 December 1950 and I reaffirmed that commitment when I was confirmed as a member of the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado, in 1965. When I heard the call to become a lay speaker in the United Methodist church in 1990 and when I answered the call in 1991, I reaffirmed my commitment to seek the truth in the world of faith.

The challenge for each person today is to make the same commitment, to seek the truth in the world of reason through wisdom and knowledge and to seek the truth in the world of faith, to escape from the slavery to sin and death. The challenge today is to seek the truth so that the truth can set you free.

The Value of Things


This is the message that I gave on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 21 September 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Proverbs 31: 10 – 31; James 3: 13 – 4: 3, 7 – 8; and Mark 9: 30 – 37.

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Antique hunting is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon (and notice that I said Saturday afternoon). I think that is why the television series on PBS, “Antiques Roadshow”, is so popular. It ties together the fun of finding undiscovered treasures with the excitement of finding out what it might be worth.

It is interesting watching the series and seeing the expression on people’s faces when the appraiser tells them how much they, the appraiser, thinks the item that has been in the family for countless years will bring at auction. Most of the time, the appraised value is modest but every now and then you get something that brings out the “ooh’s, ah’s and huh’s?”.

I remember seeing the episode where one appraiser told this women that the brass object that she found in the attic of her house was a 16th century Italian bronze helmet gilded with gold and worth conservatively a quarter of a million dollars. She was so shocked that the price had to be repeated. Another family brought in a painting that turned out to be absolutely worthless but which concealed an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. And in what is perhaps the all-time record, the show opened once with the bidding at Sotheby’s where an antique piece of furniture at auction sold for over $600,000.

But just as there are times when dreams come true, there are times when the true face of reality is seen. One gentleman brought in a collection of Civil War era handguns, confident in their value. The only problem was that the guns were very clever fakes and, in fact, worthless as antiques. The damage to the gentleman’s pride surely was much greater that what he felt the guns were worth since the guns had been collateral for a loan.

But the one time that sticks with me through all the wonderful items that have been appraised was the time this couple came to the roadshow with what they claimed was an undiscovered and previously unknown van Gogh. They brought all the books they had used to substantiate their claim in hopes of riches beyond belief. But the appraiser was quick to point out that it was not in the style of van Gogh, it was not something he would have painted, and besides, the signature on the painting was nowhere close to matching the signature van Gogh used. Still, the couple left looking for an appraiser that would tell them what they wanted to hear and not what the painting was worth.

In watching those shows, I have learned a few important things. First, if you own a toy or a doll, do not throw away the box it came in. The value almost doubles if you have the original container. Second, if you own a piece of antique American furniture, do not strip away the age and dust that has accumulated. This patina is what gives the furniture its value. (You can imagine the horror on one woman’s face when she learned that the time and effort she spent in cleaning the piece she brought destroyed approximately 75% of the value of the item. In what she considered a dirty condition, the furniture was worth approximately $100,000. Cleaned and polished, the piece was worth $25,000.) And most importantly, the value that an appraiser gives never approaches the value an item holds when it is a family heirloom and one’s link to their past.

The success of such shows such as the “Antiques Roadshow” come perhaps from the way we as a society value things. There is nothing wrong with placing a value on things; it gives us a sense of worth. But often times the value placed on many things is not in line with its place in society.

We see nothing wrong with giving a professional athlete with a bachelor’s degree a multimillion-dollar salary yet we will not give a public school teacher with the same degree a similar salary. And it is not just teaching where such discrepancies exist; I remember a college graduate that I had worked with whose salary as an entry level chemist was more than double the combined salary of her parents, both with doctorates and professors in college.

Our value for things is way out of line with what we are willing to pay. The past few years have found an increasing demand that our schools turn out qualified graduates; yet we refuse to fund schools equitably or equally so that this can happen.

And while the country was receiving a tax cut that was supposed to benefit all, there was a provision in the law that took away the one tax loophole that benefited the poorest wage earners in this country. Included in the legislation was a change in the rules that make it harder for those with lower incomes to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit to claim this, their one true tax loophole. And, to add insult to injury, the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Tom deLay stated that no corrections to this oversight would be made unless further tax cuts benefiting upper income salaries were included.

And this last week, we have listened to the uproar created by the awarding of a 150 million-dollar compensation package for the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. No matter that the package was probably legal or that there was nothing questionable about its value, it begs the question of what kind of work someone can do to justify such a payment. And, it begs the question of what one can do with all that money?

Let us not debate the amount of money one should receive for working; let us debate that what one receives should be a fair amount and should enable them to leave without hardship or difficulty.

It should never be about the money. We are entitled to earn whatever we can. Even our own John Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to earn all that they could. But they were to do it in such a way that did not cause suffering for the workers. When we see the discrepancies between the salaries of many CEOs and the average wages and salaries of the employees of those companies, we have to feel that Wesley was speaking about 250 years ahead of his time.

And it must be remembered that while Wesley was saying it was perfectly all right to earn as much as you could, he was also encouraging people to save as much as they could and to give as much as they could.

It is not about the money. It is about the values we hold and the importance we place on things. For we are a society in which people learn it is the things we have that counts. In a biweekly newsletter that I get, it was noted that

People treat their daily planners the way monks and nuns used to treat their prayer books. They keep them close at all times. The clasp them with missionary zeal as they head from meeting to meeting…. Like medieval displays of conspicuous piety, the planner announces to the world that you are one whose life and time are worth something…. The parallels between religious books of hours and our contemporary ones reflect our respective sets of values. While the intricate Celtic knots of the Books of Kells invited us to contemplate the interrelationship between the world of time and the world of eternity, the various interactive sections of the modern planner show only the interweaving of the various clock-bound schedules that make up the fabric of our contemporary lives…. Yet not of this points beyond our horizontal realm to the vertical realm in which we live. (Gary Eberle, in Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning (Shambhala Publications, 2002), quoted in Context, September 15, 2003.)

We are a society that places more emphasis on getting things because others have them; we are a society that defines our worth in terms of our possessions rather than who we are. It is a society where not having is deemed the worst possible sin imaginable. And it is a society in which we shake our heads when we read about some student who was killed because they had a pair of $150.00 basketball shoes or a $300.00 leather jacket.

Even if such reports are hyperbole, we are a consumer driven society where what we have defines us more that who we are. It is a society that insists we be the first to have something or to have something that no one else wants. We are society that allows the value of things to define us, rather have us define the value of things.

All of this is about envy, the desire to have what some one else has. And, as James points out, when we desire what others have, conflicts will arise. And envy is the one sin, if you will, that we get the most upset about. Envy, according to Joseph Epstein, is one of the last words in the English language that has the power to scandalize. It is a feeling that we all have had, for we are always in a position to envy something that someone else has, be it something physical or, even, something spiritual. But it seems to me that we live in a society where envy is a driving force; we are encouraged to develop this feeling and to take action.

That is what James warns about. He suggests that conflicts arise because of the envy we have for the things of other people. He suggests that our desires for things come not from our own sense of righteousness and good but rather from other base instincts. I am not sure but one can only assume that he was thinking of Cain and Able and the troubles between the two because one brother felt that the other was receiving favoritism from God. Our ability to receive things comes not from competing with others but rather because of desire to be a part of God.

Against this, we have the reading from Proverbs for today. These could have easily been the words of a braggart, exclaiming how wonderful his wife is and claiming all the credit for himself. But they are the words of someone who is acknowledging the true value and worth of his companion. At a time when women were considered property and an extension of the husband, this woman owned her own business and helped in providing for her family and others.

Rather than hoarding what she had earned, she had taken what she had been given and expanded its value by giving to others. Among those who shared in the value she had created was her husband whose own status among the town elders increased.

The Gospel reading for today is also a quiet statement about how we value things. While speaking to the disciples about what it will take to get into heaven, Jesus picks up a child and sets the child in his lap. Nothing is said but it is one act that shakes up the value system of society.

Society at that time placed children at the level of the dogs. Children were to be seen but not heard, Like the women of the time, they had no rights. But here was Jesus giving attention to a child. It was a simple statement that said God’s kingdom had a different set of values.

We should not be a society that ignores or belittles the poor or oppressed. We should not be a society that places more credibility in one’s ability to acquire large amounts of wealth or material things. In November of 1965, Millard Fuller found that his wife was leaving him. He was so absorbed in the acquisition of a million dollars a year that he failed to see that he was losing his wife and family.

In attempt to regain his family, they went to Florida but first stopped off to see some friends in Albany, GA. Albany, GA was the location of Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia community. There, Clarence Jordan counseled and advised him, saying, “What the poor need is not charity but capital, not caseworkers but coworkers. And what the rich need is a wise, honorable, and just way of divesting themselves of their overabundance.” (Page 48 of Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs)

Millard Fuller took this advice and counsel and applied his knowledge and business expertise to the work of the Koinonia community. You may not have heard of his work but from his work came the Habitat for Humanity ministry. It is that ministry that I hope will be one of the ministry efforts that we as a congregation will support. And we can support it in a very simple manner.

We all have a birthday and I think it is time that we celebrate our birthdays. So, I am hoping that each Sunday, normally at the beginning of the service, we will recognize those individuals having a birthday during the coming week and encourage them to place a dime for every year of their age in this piggy bank. It may not be a grandiose sum but it will gain in value as the year progresses. And others will benefit from our celebration.

We are challenged, just as Fuller was, to look at how we value things. If we put our efforts into helping others we will find that our lives turn out better. We are challenged to find ways not to withhold what we have gained but rather to share what we have. We are challenged today to find ways to use our talents in such a way that others benefit.

There are many hidden treasures in the world. But the ones that have the greatest value are the ones we use so that others may benefit. The value that we place on things will be determined by what we do with what we have.

The Order of Things


This is the message that I gave on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 24 September 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Proverbs 31: 10 – 31; James 3: 13 – 4: 3, 7 – 8; and Mark 9: 30 – 37.

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Once, some years ago, one of my cousins came to hear me preach. As I had just begun my lay speaking career and he lived not too far from me, he was interested in seeing and hearing what I might do in the pulpit. Now, you need to know that my cousins Paul and his two brothers, Karl and Deane are ministers in the Lutheran Church (Paul being Evangelical Lutheran, Karl being a member of the Canadian Lutheran Church, and Deane being a member of the Missouri Synod). In fact, I found out that I am the fourteenth minister in the Schüessler family, a heritage that goes back to Martin Luther and Germany in the 16th century. But I should point out that I made the decision to follow the path that Christ put before me long before I ever became aware of what my heritage was.

After the service was over, Paul and I discussed a variety of things pertaining to preaching and family matters. Paul mentioned that the length of my sermons was appropriate but I had to be careful about saying that Jesus was a revolutionary.

I suppose that in my experience and because of what Jesus means to me, I saw much of what Jesus did in his ministry to be of a revolutionary nature. I have to chuckle now because Paul has come around to my point of view, when at the last family reunion, he used the same terminology to talk about Jesus’ work.

By putting a child on his lap, Jesus challenged the very assumptions that society was based upon. Children were not given much status in society and when Jesus said, “Let the children come to me,” he was letting people know that just as important as the rest of His disciples. The same can be said for women and the other members of society who were seen as lower in status.

The reading from the Old Testament also challenges assumptions about position in society. In Proverbs 31: 16 we read

“She considers a field and buys it;

From her profits she plants a vineyard.

These are extraordinary words to read in the Old Testament. The women we are reading about used her own means to buy and sell things; tasks normally prohibited to women in that time and place. She worked independently at a time when women could not leave the house.

This passage speaks of viewing a woman in terms of action, not place; to judge her, not by who she is but by what she has and will do. And what she has done will have blessings on her husband and her children as well. Her husband’s reputation comes as much from his wife’s reputation as it does from his (and woe, if he should ever forget that).

Jesus saw everyone in equal terms, not in terms defined by societal position or economic status. He knew that to judge others in this was a waste of time and energy. Countless times he stated that his mission was not about judgement but about helping. He did not spend one minute on the demolition crew, that is, tearing down people. He spent his energy on creation and restoration. Judging others was not his job.

He said, “I did not judge you. Your own words judge you.” (John 5: 45)  He knew our accountability. He trusted each of us with our choices.

Judgement halts progress. When we judge others, we inhibit our own forward motion. Also, when we judge others, we are not doing our job because we are not in sync with the energy that moves us forward. Sometimes we judge others in ways that we are unaware of, such as looking to see where they are in the race. If you watch the track events in the Olympics, watch what happens when a runner starts looking over his or her shoulder to see where the competitors are. More times than not, the runner looses the place they were in because they were concentrating not on winning but on not losing.

Jesus said to Peter, “What business is it of yours what I say to John?” (John 21: 21 – 22)  In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus points out that being great in God’s kingdom does not necessarily come from the manner in which power comes to those on earth, that to serve God may sometimes mean being a servant of the people.

Jesus judged no one because He knew that the final count wasn’t in yet. Even the thief nailed on the cross next to Him made it into Paradise because, with his dying breath, he acknowledged and saw the truth. Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23: 43)

Jesus changed the order of things. To some extent that was what James is writing about. Wisdom is meaningless if envy or jealousy or desire for worldly goods drives it. Only when the actions that one make speak of the wisdom one has can it be said that wisdom is good. But that has to come from Christ and the presence of Christ in one’s life.

Last week, I spoke of having a secondhand and a firsthand religion. A secondhand religion is one that you study about; one where following the rules is more important than understanding what the rule was about and why it was created in the first place. A firsthand religion is one where understanding the rules that we live by is of utmost, even if that means breaking a law made by man. At the conclusion of the story of Job, after Job has experienced a dramatic self-disclosure of God, Job exclaims:

I had heard of thee by hearing of the ear, but now my eye beholds thee. (Job 42: 5)

Jesus makes it possible for us to have the same understanding, to have the same experience. By changing the order of things, by making it possible to have a personal relationship with God through His Son, our lives have become better.

 


The Price of Wisdom


I am again preaching at South Highlands UMC and Cold Spring UMC this morning. Here are my thoughts for this 15th Sunday after Pentecost.
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When I started working on this sermon, I chose the title “The Price of Wisdom.” I think I had in mind some witty conclusion based on the MasterCard commercials that we said that enumerate the cost of things and conclude with the price of something is priceless. I still think that wisdom, especially wisdom found through Jesus, is priceless. But I have found that what today is about is not the price of wisdom but rather what wisdom lets us do. Wisdom allows us to conquer fear.

Several years ago the church where I was a member decided to have a hog roast. The primary reason for having the roast was to get some of the college students in the area to know that the church was in the area. At the time the church was beginning its climb back from almost closing and it seemed like a good idea to let the local college students know that the church was there.

We ran into two problems with the hog roast. First, the night of the hog roast happened to be the same night as a major college event; as a result the hoped for attendance was lower than was anticipated. Second, it turned out that we really didn’t know how to roast a hog. This was only an inconvenience because we had built enough cooking time into the schedule so that, in the end, there wasn’t much of a problem in that regard. Still, with the lower attendance, we were left with about 200 hundred pounds of left-over pork.

This is where I came into the picture. We were relative newcomers to the church and weren’t involved in the original planning for this event. But we had come from a church where the church’s mid-week dinner was put on by the various Sunday School classes (and that included the Senior/Junior High class). So we knew about church dinners and preparation. We took the left-over meat home and started preparing some good old-fashioned pork barbeque. We prepared some baked beans to go with the barbeque and were able to get a quantity of rolls before we came back to church for services on Sunday. After services that morning, we sold BBQ sandwiches and reduced the leftovers to a minimal amount of waste.

The next year, during one of the summer Administrative Council meetings, the topic of hosting the hog roast came up. There were a number of complaints that we shouldn’t have another one because we didn’t make any money on the previous one. Since 1) the previous hog roast had never been intended as a money raiser and 2) we had made a profit, I objected to that particular characterization. I pointed out that we had made a profit (though I didn’t mention the fact that it was only about $5.00). I then stated that we should have a hog roast and that I would take care of it.

It wasn’t so much a matter of the date (we had learned from the previous year when to schedule this) nor was it a matter of getting the materials together. I came home from the meeting that night and let my wife know what I had volunteered the two of us for. She would handle arranging for the baked beans, desserts, and other basic things for a Methodist Church meal; I would handle obtaining the hog and getting the cook. Getting the hog was no problem because a member of the church was a hog farmer and would provide the prepared hog as a contribution to the church. That left me with procuring a cook.

I had someone in mind but wasn’t sure if he would do it. His wife was a member of the church and their kids were very active in the Sunday School program. I knew that he liked cooking but he always seemed to stay away from the church events. So there was some uncertainty in my mind whether he would do it or not. And, in light of the time frame that I was working on, if he said no, then I would be faced with a major problem.

But when I asked him if he would help us with the project, he gladly agreed to do so. That year, the hog roast was a success, both in terms of money (though that was never the reason we held the event) and people. People who knew little about the church came and found out that we were alive and doing better than they thought. More importantly, the one who I asked to cook the hog joined the church. He had entertained the idea of joining before this time but he was waiting for the invitation. He had wanted to join but had felt that he was not welcome in the church; to be invited to be a part of the activities of the church allowed to make the decision to join.

During that same period of time, we also revived the United Methodist Men’s program and he took a lead in the project, again being able to use his cooking skills to cook the men’s monthly breakfasts. The third year the hog roast became the men’s project and, with my thoughts turning to other matters, I was able to turn it over to them.

We all know that one way to kill an idea is to say, “We tried that one before and it didn’t work.” A second way to kill an idea is to use the wrong evaluation process. Those who felt that the first hog roast was a failure judged it in terms of the money that was received. Since they probably were not aware of the total sums involved, it was unlikely that they could have really judged whether or not it was a profit. Second, they saw the hog roast as a fund-raiser for a financially struggling church. But the event was never meant to be a fund-raiser; it was meant to bring people to the church. In that regard, it was a failure because we hadn’t anticipated another event would draw away the ones that we wanted to attend. But we fixed that problem with the next hog roast.

Now, considering the situation that the church was in at the time (a declining membership and the threat of closure), it was obvious why there was a reluctance to do the second hog roast. It was a reluctance grown out of a fear of failure. I think that, more than anything else it is the fear of the unknown and possible failure that prevents people and organizations from moving forward. It is an unwillingness to venture into the unknown.

Peter’s response to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading (1) shows us that fear. As Jesus describes what the future will be, Peter is doing his best to keep Jesus quiet. But Jesus will not allow Peter to prevent the people from hearing what the future will bring. It is noted that every time Jesus spoke of what the future would bring, people left because they were not willing to walk that path.

That, I think, is still true today. We hesitate to do things because we fear that they will not work. We do not seek to be innovative but rather try to things that have worked for others, even if they are not applicable to where we are or what resources we have. Let others try the new stuff; we will stay with our traditional approaches.

We, as individuals, seem to also fear what tomorrow brings. We readily follow those who promise to relieve our fears. The politics of today are not politics of promise or hope but politics of fear. I am not aware of too many politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who do not use fear to achieve their goals. And we readily accept their arguments because they play so much on our fears. We would rather do things that seem to take away our fear but, in reality, only mask that fear. Again, so much of what we do in this world is not to remove the cause of the fears but rather to mask the fears that we have.

The Reverend Canon John L. Peterson spoke at the World Bank on May 31, 2005 about what has transpired since September 11, 2001. Speaking about comments the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, made concerning that day, Reverend Peterson said,

But the rest of Archbishop Rowan’s reflections did not really touch me until the following Saturday when I sat glued to BBC and CNN. All that day we heard on those two networks the language of revenge, the language of retaliation. Archbishop Rowan reminded me that God speaks a different language, not a language of revenge and retaliation, but a common language of reciprocity, of God sharing with us the experience of terror and death. “And when we speak to God the language of hatred and rejection, nails and spears, nail-bombs and air strikes, terror attacks and the bleeding bodies of children in Ireland, Baghdad, Jerusalem or New York, God refuses to answer in that language.” But then Archbishop Rowan says, “How hard for us really to believe we are free to speak God’s language!”

Later in his address, Reverend Peterson identified some comments written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu,

Tutu concludes: “Terrorists happen sometimes to be Christian, sometimes Muslim; sometimes Jewish, etc. The cause of terrorism lies not in their faith but in various circumstances: injustice, oppression, poverty, disease, hunger, ignorance, and so on. To combat this terrorism, we should not foolishly speak of ‘crusades’ against this or that faith, but we should eradicate the root causes that can drive people to the desperation that compels them to so engage in desperate acts. We will not win the war against terrorism until we do that.” (2)

In today’s Epistle reading (3) James warned the people of Jerusalem about the difficulty of speaking without knowledge. In verse 13, James wrote, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.” (4)  Believers should, therefore, be slow to speak. He wasn’t saying that one should not speak out but rather speak in terms of what you know.

James advises us to seek divine wisdom. Those that possess godly wisdom will show it with works, not just words. It is what we do that will remove our fears. Quoting Jonathan Sachs, Reverend Peterson wrote,

The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sachs, began his essay with a question asked by a Jewish sage: “Who is a hero?” So often society answers this question by lifting up the heroes of war and conflicts. But the Jewish Rabbi had a different answer: “Who is a hero?” “One who turns an enemy into a friend.” Sachs argued, “If I defeat you, I win and you lose. But in truth, I also lose because by diminishing you, I diminish myself. But if, in a moment of truth, I forgive you and you forgive me, then forgiveness leads to reconciliation. Reconciliation leads to friendship. And in friendship, instead of fighting one another, we can fight together the problems we share: poverty, hunger, starvation, disease, violence, injustice, and all the other injuries that still scar the face of our world. You gain, I gain, and all those with whom we are associated gain as well. We gain, economically, politically, but above all spiritually. My world has become bigger because it now includes you. Who is a hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend.”

Sachs reminds us that, “Breaking the cycle is anything but easy. War needs physical courage. Reconciliation demands moral courage, and that is far more rare. In war, ordinary people become heroes. In pursuit of peace, even great leaders are afraid to take the risk. The late Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin had the courage to take that risk, and both paid for it with their lives.” (2)

We are not going to conquer our fears with words of anger or uncertainty. Nor are we ever going to be able to go into the future without understanding. Jesus rebuked Peter because Peter was afraid of the future and because he was not thinking about what Jesus was saying. I realize that it must have been for those who followed Jesus back then to hear Him say that we must lose our life in order to save it. It must have been frightening to hear Him tell those who followed Him then that the road they would walk is long and hard, not short and easy. It is no wonder that so many dropped out as the time to Calvary grew shorter. But we are hearing these words after they were said, not when they were first were spoken. We know the outcome and we should not be afraid. We know the outcome and we should be working to fulfill the Gospel message.

I think that is why the reading from the Old Testament today (5) is the passage about looking for wisdom. Because if we don’t seek wisdom when we seek Jesus, we will only face calamity. As the writer of Proverbs wrote, “panic will strike like a storm; distress and anguish will come upon you.” It is because we are not open to Jesus in both mind and spirit that the lack of knowledge will be our downfall.

I have always had problems with the phrase “fear of the Lord.” But I have come to know that this fear is not the fear that threatens our lives; it is more an understanding of who God is and what God means to us. We may fear the Lord because it is a different world than the one we live in.

Jesus told his disciples to seek the truth and the truth will set you free. You cannot blindly seek the truth unless you are guided by the wisdom, both the wisdom of the world and the wisdom given through the Holy Spirit. As I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, I found myself dealing more with the consequences of fear than I did the price of wisdom.

Whether it is a fear of failure in what we do with our lives or a fear that transcends our life, wisdom is the one thing that will conquer our fears. It is the wisdom that allows us to know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. It is the wisdom that allows us to know that we can be empowered by the Holy Spirit and can then move forward into an uncertain future. We are closing today by singing that we will go where Jesus leads us. We do not necessarily know where that it but we will sing with the certainty of those who have come to Christ and have opened our hearts and minds to the power of the Risen Lord, safe in the knowledge that the future can bring no fear into our lives.

(3) James 3: 1- 12

(4) James 3: 13

(5) Proverbs 1: 20 – 33