“And A Child Shall Lead Them’


Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the Fishkill UMC Bulletin for this Sunday, 29 September 2019 (the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C).

On January 20, 1960, John Kennedy stood before the American people and the world as the youngest President ever elected,  His inaugural address put forth a vision for the future and also served as a rebuttal to those who thought that he was too young to serve as the President.

Earlier in the campaign, he addressed a gathering of pastors in Houston, Texas, who felt that his being a Roman Catholic denied him the right to serve as President.  In this speech, he pointed out that no one asked for the faith or nationality of those who died at the Alamo in the fight to gain freedom for Texas.

There are also many who will recall how the elders in Jerusalem sat in wonder, awe, amazement, and probably fear as a 12-year-old boy explained the nuances of the Scriptures and the Law.

Our society today is a society governed by the elders of the society; mostly white men who seem to be out of touch with society and seek to only serve the desires, needs, and wants of a select few.  They respond to the fears of the people and ignore the cries of the needy, the downtrodden, and the persecuted.  Theirs is a god of money and power, not hope and salvation.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul warns against pursuing riches for the sake of riches, for one cannot take them with you when you die.  He encourages Timothy to continue the walk with Jesus that they have shared.  In the alternative Old Testament reading for this Sunday, the prophet Amos warns the rich and the elite that they will be the first to be taken into captivity and driven into exile; that their riches and exalted lifestyle will not save them in the coming days.

And Jesus notes that they will not have the chance to warn their friends in the later days because they did nothing in the present time.

A week ago, the youth of this country and this world spoke directly to the leaders of this country and this world.  The future does not belong to the elders but to the youth.  Why did Jeremiah speak of buying the land?  It was not for now but for the future.  Two thousand years ago, the elders of society heard the voice of a young boy teaching them.  We know today that many of them ignored that young man; can we risk ignoring the voice of the youth of today?

~~Tony Mitchell

“Who? Me!”


Here is the message that I gave for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, October 4, 1992 at Grace United Methodist Church (St. Cloud, MN) and served as Laity Sunday. I based the message on Genesis 6: 11 – 14 and Mark 1: 16 – 20 (as I have previously noted, this was before I began using the lectionary as the basis for my message). This was also the third sermon/message that I ever presented.

And the Lord said to Noah “I want you to build me an ark”. What was Noah’s response? Did Noah check his calendar to see if he was available that week? Did he ask God to postpone the flood because he, Noah, wouldn’t be available? Maybe he thought that some of his friends were playing a joke on him? Noah lived in an area that got about one inch of rain a year so what was he supposed to think when God told him that it was going to rain for forty days and nights? We don’t know what Noah’s initial response was but we do know that he did what God asked him to do.

It hasn’t always been easy to get people to listen to God.  Consider Moses.  Here was the man God selected to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land; but what did he do?  He asked God to select someone else; “Who, me Lord?  Can’t you find someone else?” (Exodus 4:10 – 13) God did not let Moses off the hook but He did give him some help in the form of his brother Aaron.

It isn’t that we don’t hear God speaking to us, but that we often don’t know that He is.  In I Samuel 3:3 – 12 we read

the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down within the temple of the Lord, where the Ark of God was.  Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel!  Samuel!’ He said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’  But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’  So he went and lay down.  And the Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’  And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’  But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’  Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  And the Lord called Samuel again the third time.  And he arose and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’  Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.  Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears.’  So Samuel went and lay down in his place.  And the Lord came and stood forth, calling as at other times, ‘Samuel!  Samuel!’  And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for thy servant hears.’”

Samuel heard a voice but did not know that it was God speaking.  Fortunately, Eli understood and provided Samuel with the necessary guidance.  There have been others who have heard God speaking but, without guidance, could not respond.  Many others have probably never heard the voice of God.  Because of this, God sent His Son.

How did the twelve disciples respond when Jesus said, as we heard in the New Testament reading, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. (Mark 1: 16 – 20) Why should these men leave their livlihoods and follow Jesus?  Especially, as it was stated in the New Testament reading, since they did it immediately.  It wasn’t really practical to get up and leave their jobs and families behind.  There wasn’t anywhere else to go.  Wouldn’t it have been easier to stay as fisherman and eke out what living they could.  Times were tough and this man from Nazareth was asking them to leave their jobs and work for him, not knowing if they would every be paid for their efforts.  But they did, simply because they believed in what Jesus was doing.

Does God speak to us today?  In his book A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins describes his journey from upstate New York to New Orleans and his attempt to discover who he is.  During that journey, he was drawn to an old fashion church revival meeting where he discovered the Holy Spirit.  There it became clear why he was on his journey.  Later, in the second volume of his journey, The Walk West, Peter and his wife Barbara describe the events that lead up to their marriage.  While they were in love with each other, they still had some doubts. After all, Peter was not just asking Barbara to marry him; he was asking her to walk from New Orleans to Oregon through Texas.  As Sandra will tell you, west Texas is no place to take your brand new wife.  One evening, while at an evening church service, the preacher, referring to Ruth in the Old Testament, asked “Will you go with this man?”  To Peter and Barbara, this was the sign that all would be well.

Following God requires faith and commitment.  When we have faith and a commitment to God, we can do anything.  Without either, our life is lost.  Ask Noah, Samuel, or any of the disciples what faith meant to them.  Ask the early circuit riders of the Methodist Church in America.  Without their faith in God, their efforts would have been meaningless.  Could they have survived the weeks on the trail as they traveled from one town to another preaching the Gospel if it were not for faith?   Francis Asbury, the first Bishop of the Methodist Church in America, made it a point to emphasize the physical struggles that they, these early preachers, would have to endure on their circuit.  It was not for the weak of body or spirit.  But for these early circuit riders, the Methodist Church might not have survived.

But it should also be noted that these churches would not have survived without the support of the laity either.  Because there weren’t enough preachers for all of the churches, the laity had to do the work of the church during the weeks when the preacher was not there.  How did those early congregations survive if it were not for faith and a commitment to God? Were it not for faith in God and a commitment to His work by the members of Grace Church, would this present building have been built?  That it was is a testament to that faith and commitment to do God’s work in St. Cloud.

Grace Church has a rich and distinguished history.  That is what today is about.  On this day we celebrate the role of the laity in the United Methodist Church, both in the past and for the future.  In picking the twelve disciples, none of whom were traditionally trained in the church, Jesus made the statement that it was the laity upon whom His church would be built.  It was the laity upon whom the foundation of the Methodist Church was built and upon whom the success of future churches lies.  But a history alone does not insure a future.

Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, stated that “We must disenthrall ourselves with the past and then we will save our country.” (What I Saw At the Revolution, Peggy Noonan) Lincoln was not saying that the United States should forget its past but that, if the country was to overcome the trauma and division that the Civil War brought, and move forward, it could not continue as it had.

Today God calls Grace Church.  He isn’t asking us to do something dramatic, drastic or beyond our capabilities.  God as never asked anyone to do something that they could not do.  It is just that many people don’t believe they have the capability of doing what God asks of them.  Nor is He asking us to forget our past.  He is asking that we look to the future.  For any church’s future to have a meaning, its members must work for it today.

Are you involved in the work of the church or are you committed to the work of the church?  There is a difference.  I am sure you have heard the story about the difference between involvement and commitment.  It happens every time you eat a breakfast of ham and eggs.  While the hen was involved in the successful production of the breakfast, the hog was committed to its success.  (I want to thank Hugh Bunday for this; he in turn will thank Dorothy.)  Are you involved or are you committed?

When we joined the United Methodist Church and when others join the church, we, along with the other members of the church, vow to “uphold the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, page 48 (1989).) What does this phrase mean? 

Do we meet our obligations to the church and the work of the church through our prayers?  Do you spend some time each day in prayer?  Will you pray for the success of next week’s Spiritual Renewal Mission?  There has been a sheet at the back of the sanctuary for the last four weeks asking people to sign up for one hour of prayer each day for the success of the Mission and for Grace Church.  Will you respond to the challenge by signing the sheet?

One month ago, John stood in this pulpit and told us how he prayed to  God for a sign that his ministry at Grace Church would be a success .  His prayers were answered.  He also asked for ten men to help rebuild the United Methodist Men’s organization here at Grace church.  Before he left church that Sunday he had six pledges.   This Saturday at 8:00, because of those six men and four others, we will be meeting to make that reorganization possible.

Next Sunday, Ken Krueger begins the Spiritual Renewal Mission.  Will you be here?  Will you come to each of the four evening services?  Will you bring a friend?  If everyone here today brought one friend, there would be more people in this sanctuary then have been in it for some 30 years.  IT CAN BE DONE!  But it requires a commitment.  Similar to the prayer clock, there is a sign up sheet for pew captains.  It is not necessary to be a captain for all five services; one is enough.  Will you take the challenge  put before you and sign up as a pew captain for one of those services?

What else can you do for the church?  Would you volunteer to serve as the lay reader one Sunday a month?  Would you sing in the choir?   Several members of this church, both old and young, new and long-time, have spoken to you about what Grace Church means to them.  I am sure that if you ask anyone of them, they would tell you that it can be very frightening to stand up here and say what is in your heart.  I am sure that everyone of them will also tell you that they did not come up here without first having spent some time praying and asking God for guidance and advice.  When the Holy Spirit is at your side, such things can be done.

Finally, our gifts.  We are currently in the midst of our Stewardship Campaign.  Two weeks from today is Stewardship Sunday.  On that day, we will ask you to make a financial commitment to Grace Church.  Between now and then, you will be receiving a note from the Stewardship Committee asking that you give serious thought to your financial commitment to Grace Church.  I realize that filling out pledge cards is a new thing for many in this church and that many will not return the pledge cards.  Grace Church struggled for many years but this year, because of the faith and commitment of the members of this church, is not one of them.  In returning the pledge card, you are making a commitment to insure that  the plans for Grace Church in the coming year are a success.

Commitment requires more than involvement.  Jesus could not have completed his task, his mission on earth, without a commitment to the cross.  His commitment to us was a total one.  Our commitment can never match his but we are never asked to do so.  We are asked to make a commitment so that others can understand the commitment Jesus made on the cross.

Today, God is calling Grace Church.  He is asking “Who will help me?; who will follow me?; who will do My work?”  Will your answer be “me?” or will it be “ME!”

A blog for the weekend


This is the blog for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 12, 2010. The Scriptures for today are Jeremiah 4: 11 – 12, 22 – 28; 1 Timothy 1: 12 – 17; Luke 15: 1 – 10.

———————————————————————————————

I really never came up with a name for this weekend’s blog. I looked at the Scriptures and saw the threads of my thoughts but a title didn’t jump out, so this is a just “a blog for the weekend”. I suppose that I am going to get into trouble for writing this but I need to express some thoughts, thoughts that some people will find blasphemous or heretical. But I also hope that, as with many of the other blogs that I post, they will cause you to think.

Let’s start with how we began, how we became human. I once wrote that I believe that we became human the moment we discovered/created/realized who we were, when we became conscious of our surroundings and our place in said surroundings.

And when we became conscious of our own being, we had to begin asking “why?” We saw things and we had to wonder why they occurred. Some things that we saw (when I use “saw”, understand that I am using that term to mean a use of all five senses – sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing.) were easily explainable; others were not.

It seems to me that is why we created gods; it was an easy and logical means for explaining complicated observations and phenomena. There was conflict between people – it must be that there is a god of war. There are seasons – there must be gods that control the weather and the world around us. Plants grow and die – there must be gods for the crops and fertility. Mankind, in all places around the world, developed or created a god to explain everything observed.

Perhaps that is why we developed religions. We need some sort of organization to help us better understand who we are and where we are in relationship to this universe. But I have also noticed that many religions and many cultures had a supreme god, a central figure to whom all things were ultimately directed. And therein lays perhaps the greatest problem of all times.

Our position in the cosmos as Christians is predicated on a belief and a faith that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and that He came to us to offer salvation and the chance for redemption. But we sometimes forget, and there are many who don’t even know, how we became Christian.

We forget that the lineage of Christianity goes back to Judaism. And that Judaism began when Abram understood that there is and was only one God. Because of this revelation, Abram became Abraham and had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, both of whom became the founders of great nations. It will be Isaac whose sons and grandsons will lead to the nation of Israel; it will be through Ishmael that the nation of Islam will form.

Whether we are talking about one branch of this extended family tree or another, it still remains that all those who profess to believe in God as a Jew, as a Muslim, or as a Christian (what we call the Abrahamic religions) all have as a basic core belief that there is one God and you shall hold no other Gods before Him. We recognized that all those other gods (the god of war, the god of fertility, the god of money, and so forth) really don’t exist; though the way we live today would perhaps suggest that many still see such gods as real and more powerful than God.

I really don’t think it matters whether you choose to say you worship Allah, Yahweh, or God; the person who answers to all three names is the same. But I do hope that however you worship, you are true to your beliefs. I know many people who have experimented with a variety of religions and belief systems, trying to either resolve their own internal thoughts or because they feel that the religion is somehow no longer true or valid in today’s society. I am certain that others have attempted to create a belief system of their own through a study of all other systems and picking the best of each for their own. I really don’t see how that can work; one would be trying to create something out of a conglomerate of various parts of different sizes and shapes and somewhere along the line, you would have to force things to fit. And such a system, if it could be created, would be incomplete. There is a reason for a belief system and you have to accept the good parts and the bad parts, even if you don’t want some of the parts. And again, there are quite a few people today who do try to take only the good parts or somehow force the parts to be what they want. Maybe this is why we have so much trouble inside denominations and religions and between denominations and religions.

All I can say is that you should make sure that you follow whatever path you choose to follow. The animosity that occurs between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity occurs because adherents of each branch claim that only their branch is the true one and all others are false. And if you wish to get to heaven, then you must denounce your belief in other options and accept their option as the only viable and feasible one.

Now, because I was raised in a Christian environment and I was given the opportunity to think about the path that I wish to walk, I choose to follow Christ. There were times when I thought about that decision and I did explore, as others have always done, other options. But it always came down to who I was and what could I do and I was only going to find those answers in a path where I walked with Christ. I know many individuals who perhaps had the same path laid out before them and they have chosen to follow another one. That is their choice and I wish them well. But I see my life in the words of Paul, who understood where he was going and what he was likely to encounter because of his life as Saul.

Saul saw his life as the enforcer of the truth and he did a very good job of prosecuting and persecuting the early Christian church (which wasn’t called the Christian Church but that’s for another time). Saul was the penultimate fundamentalist – there is only one path and I know what it is and you will follow that path to its conclusion or pay the price!

I can’t speak to why he converted. Maybe something inside him was driving him to justify his own faith; maybe watching how Stephen dealt with his stoning began to make him ask questions about his own belief. But on the road to Damascus, Saul’s life changed and he became Paul. As Paul, he pushed for the new faith but not with the ferocity that he had pushed Judaism as Saul. He did make it clear what he thought the best path was; he did make it clear what he believed were the consequences if one chose to follow an alternative path. But he did not condemn those who failed to follow his direction or chose to follow another path like those in today’s world do.

In the end, the choice of the path that we are to follow is our choice and our choice alone. We have to live with its consequences and enjoy its rewards. It is not up to us to say to others that you have to follow the same path that we are on. And if others say to us that they will go where they feel they must go, so be it. In the end, they have to deal with that choice and there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it. It is their choice and God gave them free will to choose.

All I know is that there are those in the world today who are lost, who seek answers. They may want others to provide the answers; they may want others to offer them the evidence so that they can make the choices. If I am to be a faithful follower of Christ, then I must offer that evidence to those who seek the answers, whether they accept what I offer or not.

It means that I lay out the evidence before them (such as using this blog); it means extending an invitation to come and visit my church, sometimes at home (services are at 9 and 10:30) and sometimes when I go somewhere as a lay speaker (see “Working for The Lord – Summer, 2010”).

We are at an interesting time in the life of civilization and this planet. We have the capability to destroy this world and those who live on it, both quickly and slowly. Our desire to use violence as the answer to violence says to me that we can quickly destroy this world if we do not change our course; our seeming indifference to what we have done and are doing to this planet tells me that we are slowly destroying this world and if we do not change course real soon, we will one day wake up and see that we have destroyed this world and wondered how it all happened.

And that is what I think when I read the words from Jeremiah today. I hear the words of the one true God telling this world that we have to make a change in the way we live, in the way we do things, and in the way we treat others in this country and around the world. Because of our indifference to the thoughts of others, because of our desire to believe that our thoughts are better and more important than those of others or that we are better or more important than others, we are on the verge of destroying this planet.

We have forgotten who we are, where we came from, and who brought us into this world. It is time we remember and it is time that we begin to change.

“The Great Tulip Boom and Bust”


This was the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 19 September 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 8: 19 – 9: 1, 1 Timothy 2: 1 – 7, and Luke 16: 1 – 13.

———————————————————————————–

There is a certain irony to the parables and encounters with Jesus. The problem is that we do not often see the irony. A woman comes to the village well at mid-day, seeking both to gather water for her family and, as it turns out, to avoid the crowds that would be at the well in the early morning. When she leaves the well and her encounter with Jesus, she seeks out crowds to proclaim the majesty and the glory that is Christ.

A group comes to Jesus, seeking his wisdom and guidance. It seems that they have caught a woman in the act of adultery and they wanted to know if stoning is the appropriate punishment. Yet, they all leave when Jesus allows that the one who is without sin may cast the first stone. They came expecting to find that the power to control granted them righteousness but left finding out that righteousness was not a product of earthly power.

Throughout Jesus’ entire ministry, the people sought a kingdom on the earth and missed the message of the eternal kingdom in Heaven that was theirs for the asking. As I said, there was a certain irony in what Jesus said and did and what we heard and did in return.

The same is true for the parable for today. We read of a foreman who has been charged with squandering the property of his master. The master, apparently believing those around him, fires the foreman. The foreman immediately slashes the amounts owed the owner in order to settle the accounts and close the books. And as Jesus is telling this parable, he is commending the foreman for what are seemingly illegal or, at least, unethical acts.

We school our children to be honest and here is a passage where Jesus commends dishonesty. Did something get lost in the translation? Did Luke, in writing the stories of Jesus miss something? Or was it that something was left out?

This was a time of the Roman occupation of Israel. It was a time of high and oppressive taxes. Remember that tax collectors were considered sinners, not only because they were for the most part Israelites working for the Romans but also because they often collected more than was required, keeping the balance. In about a month, we shall encounter Zacchaeus, the tax collector. In repenting, Zacchaeus gives back up to four times what he collected, so it is clear that what he had collected was far more than was needed.

It has been suggested that those who had to pay the taxes had to do the same; that is, they had to raise the prices of the goods they made and sold far above their true worth in order to pay their taxes and have something left over. So it is that when the foreman slashes the prices that his manager is owed, he is merely asking for what is actually owed.  (Adapted from "Belated Ingenuity" by James Howell – sermon notes for September 19, 2004 — additional notes by John Howard Yoder, "The Politics of Jesus")

It was, if you will, the popping of the bubble. We have come out of what financial people call the "great dot.com collapse." During the past few years, the price for various Internet and telecom related stocks rose far more rapidly than the actual value of the material and goods that the companies were producing. But this financial bubble was not the first time; prices for goods were far in excess of the value of the goods. We can look back to Holland in the 16th century and see that people have placed greater value on things than the things were actually worth.

Tulips came to the Low Countries (Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg) from Turkey in 1559. Within ten years, single bulbs were fetching prices approaching the million-dollar range in today’s prices. Driven by the thought of instance wealth, individuals in the middle and lower classes were mortgaging their homes and businesses in order to buy the bulbs. But market collapsed, leaving investors penniless and worse.

But apparently, nobody learned from this boom and bust cycle. In the early 1700’s investors in Great Britain, including Isaac Newton, were pouring all of their savings into what became known as the South Sea Bubble. Based on unrealistic expectations of future profits, prices paid for shares reached extraordinary levels. And then the petals fell off. ("Investment bubble blues" by Bruce Cameron, published on the web at http://www.persfin.co.za on 11 July 2003)

There have been schemes and plans throughout the ages. The one I like was the one where what was being sold and what it would do were unknown. Yet, people poured their money into it. And this was in the 1700’s. Our own economic history is documented by great schemes and plans which only culminated in the bubbles bursting in 1929, 1967, and most recently in the 1990’s. All have been based on the notion of large profits from very little investment. And when the truth becomes apparent, when it becomes apparent that deception is more the driving force than reality, the bubble bursts and we are faced with the crisis of the moment.

Go back and read the Gospel messages for the past few weeks. These readings have spoken about the friends we choose, how we spend our time, and how we use our wealth. In this, the sixteenth chapter of Luke, we are familiar with who Jesus eats dinner with and how He feels about wealth. We sympathize with the rich young ruler who has been turned away because he cannot give up his wealth; we have watched in amazement and perhaps delight as the prostitute washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. We even possibly made notes about the proper place to sit if invited to eat at someone else’s house.

Now we read of a worker faced with a crisis; a crisis not too different from what many workers today are encountering. This worker must quickly determine a course of action that will secure his future. Urgency defines his reality. But is this crisis any less urgent than the crisis others face each day, the crisis that Jesus interjects into our lives? Some how, to hear Jesus say "follow me" doesn’t pack the same punch as Donald Trump saying, "you’re fired!"

Yet, even if "follow me" sounds subtler, it too has high urgency and it too requires a life-changing response from us. Today, Jesus is telling us — one more time — that how we live right now has important consequences for God’s kingdom.

The presence of Jesus places a crisis in our midst. We cannot hear the call and give no answer. Even silence is answer, after all in silence we are saying no. And if our answer is yes, the decision to follow Jesus is not the end of the crisis but only the beginning. The crisis confronts us daily through the values we hold, the relationships we form, and even the way we use our money. Each little choice we make every day has important repercussions for God’s future. The time is at hand. How we will live into God’s future now that we know God’s expectations of us for the present? (Adapted from "Shrewd Investment" by Jennifer E. Copeland, Christian Century, September 7, 2004)

The words of Jeremiah speak to us today. Jeremiah speaks of the people of Israel trying to find solace and hope in other things. One of the commentaries that I use says that the Hebrew words for "foreign idols" was "foreign futilities." Jeremiah was noting that the people looked for deliverance in useless and motionless images. Instead of trusting in the covenant with God, they sought their future elsewhere. And they quickly found out that there was no future, no hope. We sing of the balm in Gilead but it is gone; the one thing that will ease our pain is not there.

Paul reminds us that our future is not found on earth but in Heaven and that whatever price we may wish to pay for admission, it is not enough. The price to pay has been paid by the blood of Christ. No matter what we do, God will have God’s future.

So what shall we do? We are called to take care of God’s world, to know our lives are God’s. But we have spent so many hours and days living for ourselves. We like to have money, to eat and drink, to enjoy the rewards of the powerful. Pray each day, reflect on God’s word, or serve the poor? Those are the actions of fools in this day and time. But are those not the things that we should be doing? Have we not squandered our master’s gifts? (Adapted from "Belated Ingenuity" by James Howell – sermon notes for September 19, 2004)

I always hope that these words go beyond the boundaries of this building, for that is what the Gospel is supposed to do. We live in a time when the response to violence is more violence. We live in a time and a society where a person’s appearance is more important than what is inside that person.

I know that I have told this story before, though perhaps not here. In November of 1965, Linda Fuller told her husband that she was leaving him. So absorbed had he been in his business and the making of 1 million dollars a year that he failed to see her slipping away from him. Panicked by this wake-up call, he gathered together his children and took them and his wife south to Florida.

On the way, they stopped to visit friends in Georgia. This was how Millard Fuller came to meet Clarence Jordan. And from this meeting and from the challenge that Clarence Jordan put before Millard Fuller came the idea for Habitat for Humanity.

We are not called to do something spectacular. But we are called to be resourceful and use what we have been given. At our disposal we have hope in God’s justice, faith in God’s peace, and trust in God’s grace. These are the best possible resources. In using them, others will say, "the master commended them because they acted shrewdly."

Those that bought into the great tulip craze of the 16th century and all the other great speculative ventures that have transpired and got out before the market collapsed were all "shrewd" investors. But somewhere along the line, there was that one person who was the last person left; the one person who would lose it all when the market collapsed. The foreman in the gospel was the last in line.

But his actions allow him to acquire the greater rewards of friendship and the gratitude of his neighbors and those from whom he acted unkindly. Jesus declared "practice the jubilee which I am announcing. By liberating others from their debts to you, liberate yourself from the bonds that keep you from being ready for the kingdom of God."1

The interesting thing about the great Tulip Boom and Bust was that you bought the tulips before they bloomed. Your expectations of great wealth and security were based on something that had not happened. And there was every bit the chance that instead of a spectacular bloom, it would be a bust and your fortune would be wiped out. Would it not be a great thing if, through our faith in God and the uses of the resources given to us, that we have the most beautiful bloom ever known?


“The Healing Process”


This was the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 23 September 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 8: 19 – 9: 1, 1 Timothy 2: 1 – 7, and Luke 16: 1 – 13.

———————————————————————————–

in the despair of the moment, we wonder where we will find comfort and solace. Like those who used the balm of Gilead to soothe the aches and pains of their hurts, what shall we use to heal the wounds that we have suffered? And while the passage from Jeremiah that we read would seem more appropriate for last week, it is appropriate for now because we know that our losses are truly God’s losses and that He has shed the tears we shed. This passage for Jeremiah was read to people who felt abandoned by God, who felt that God had left them to suffer and die in the ruins that were Jerusalem.

The power of this text comes from what it helped the people of Israel to do. The purpose of this passage was to help them rebuild, to begin again. It was pointed out that this passage was read in the Temple while people who had experienced the destruction of Jerusalem sat in the pews. The passage helped them frame their own sadness, helped them deal with their own sadness about the loss of everything. Jeremiah recollected the people’s grief and gave them a way to share their pain and grief. In doing so, the people were given back the focus they had lost when the Temple itself was destroyed. In destroying the Temple, the central aspect of their life was destroyed. Jeremiah sought to find ways to give the people back their focus.

What we do from this point on must be done with a clear understanding of what our lives are about. We cannot be like the manager of the properties, content to lead our lives and hoping to avoid any accounting for mistakes that we have made. At first glance the Gospel reading for today suggests that the steward was stealing from the owner of the properties and seeking revenge for having been fired. But it is more likely that manager was either reducing the interest charge on the debt, which would have been illegal under the law at that time or simply reducing the amount of commission that was owed him from those with debts to the owner of the property. That the owner of the property commended the steward/the manager for his actions suggests that the latter two ideas were more appropriate. It is clear from the parable that Jesus was suggesting that action taken to benefit one’s self are not often the best action taken.

It is obvious from the parable and what we know today that the owner of the property was God and that we are the stewards of God’s world. Jesus wanted to make the point that it is never our own money that we are dealing with; it is always God’s money. All that we have comes from God and we are expected to give back to God that which is God’s.

The focus of our lives must be God. That is the central reason why Christ came to this earth. His function was to reestablish the connection between the people and God and to show the people that salvation was theirs.

Paul tells us that it is God’s plan for the salvation of everyone. It may be that God has chosen some people to be saved, as was written in 1 Peter 1: 2. Some may say that God has selected in advance those who would be saved; others would say that God knows in advance those who will come to know the truth and thus be saved. But this contradiction and the belief that all can be saved if they come to Christ is not for us to decide. When we begin to guess what God is thinking, we get in way beyond our ability of reasoning and thinking.

What is more important is that we, through our prayers and our actions, come to a better knowledge of the truth. In our acts of worshipful prayer, we truly become the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We become agents for God’s plan of reconciliation.

It is by our prayers and our actions that we not only assist in the completion of God’s objectives but also bear the true nature of God. Paul reminds us, as he reminded Timothy in verses 5 and 6 that just as Christ’s function was to mediate between god and humanity, our call to reconcile is no different.

Evelyn Underhill wrote

"We are always praying, when we are doing our duty and turning it into work for God." He added that among the things which we should regard as spiritual in this sense are our household or professional work, the social duties of our station, friendly visits, kind actions and small courtesies, and also necessary recreation of body and of mind; so long as we link all these by intention with God and the great movement of his Will. (From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill)

We are not members of Christ’s kingdom for our own sake. We are his disciples so that by our actions others will come to know Christ. We often overlook the fact that we make disciples by a number of ways, including praying for those outside our congregation and being agents of reconciliation in nature.

The healing process begins when we understand that God grieves with us. It continues when we realize that the responsibility for overcoming the evil in this world, that the responsibility for seeing that actions which lead to evil never occur begin with us. There are those in this world who will say that there can be no God because He would never have let this happen. But when we show, through our actions, our words, and our deeds that God still exists and that He still loves us, then we insure that such actions cannot take place. True, it takes time but then healing is never a quick process.


It’s A Journey, Not A Thought


Here are my thoughts for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 16 September 2007.  I am preaching at Dover UMC (Dover Plains, NY) this weekend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 4: 11 – 12, 22 – 28; 1 Timothy 1: 12 – 17; and Luke 15: 1 – 10.

——————————————————————————————————

This has been edited since it was first published on 15 September 2007.

——————————————————————————————————

As most people know, I have a Ph. D. in Science Education with an emphasis in chemical education. But many people are surprised when they find out I am also a lay minister.

Somehow the training that you receive to be a chemist is not appropriate for the ministry. In one sense, that is correct. In an ideal world, one receives the call to follow Christ at a young age and goes to college to get degrees with a theological orientation. In our society today, those who choose to walk a path that wanders through scientific laboratories automatically eliminate religion from their lives.

We live in an interesting society. It is one that encourages individuality but only when everyone else is doing the same thing. When you choose to walk a different path and find a different solution to the questions in your life, you are often labeled a heretic, a rebel, or sometimes something worse.

To follow Christ is to walk a different path, to take a different journey than the one society thinks you should walk. Being a minister does not mean that you spend all your time in cloistered seminaries, pondering the imponderable and asking great questions of life that are only answerable in the ethereal wonder of life. I have had the pleasure of knowing several individuals whose call to follow Christ came during a first career. One pastor was a lawyer before he heard the call from the Supreme Judge of Life; another was a printer before he began preaching the words of the prophets instead of putting them on paper; and a third was a nurse before she began her work as an assistant to the Great Healer. A good friend of mine is both a Catholic priest and an organic chemist. You can believe in science and God at the same time and suffer no ill effects.

But, at a time when our world is becoming more and more complex, at a time when the direction the world is taking it becomes even more confusing, we are not sure where we can turn for direction and guidance. Do we turn to science and hope that science and technology can build us a better path? Or do we turn to religion and hope that there is substance to something we cannot see or define?

But what we see when we turn to either area makes it even more confusing. Too many people in the church today tells us that science is lying (See “Why the Creation-Evolution Controversy Is Important”) and too many people in science tell us that there is no God and all that churches do is offer some illusion to life.

We would like to find direction in the church today but we sense a dissonance there. We hear and see preachers whose message is one of prosperity through the Gospel. We think to ourselves that it must be working because these preachers command great fees for their appearances and lead lifestyles that reflect the wealth they say we all can gain. There seem to be great crowds wherever they go and we remember that Jesus Christ also had great crowds following Him. But we read in the Gospel that Jesus taught us to give up wealth, not seek it. And we remember that the crowds began to leave Jesus when He spoke of the commitments that one would have to make and the work that people would have to do in order for one soul to be saved.

We remember that Jesus welcomed all who sought Him, not just the rich and the powerful but the poor, the meek, the weak and the sick. We remember Jesus speaking of freeing the oppressed and then we see and hear preachers preach a litany of hatred, exclusion, and war.

We see and hear preachers give us sets of rules that will make our lives better but we see that they don’t follow the rules that they want to impose on us. We see and hear preachers who want to tell us what to believe and how to think. We see and hear preachers who want us to ignore the signs of the world around us because what we find in the real world conflicts with what the Bible tells us. Each day, as these contradictions become so much clearer, that feeling of dissonance comes over us.

Perhaps we can find a life through simple, rational thought. When mankind was just beginning to find its path in this world, it was easy to believe in gods. Gods provided the reason and the answer for why there was rain and wind, snow and cold, hot and dry. Gods provided the reason for why there was war and why we had to fight; gods provided the reason why people got sick and died or just suffered. As we grew in our ability to understand the world around us, these gods diminished in their importance in our lives.

Now we hear that there are no gods; that the God that we worship on Sunday is only a construct of our imagination and not the product of rationale thought. Everything that we seek or desire is found within us, not in a church on Sunday. Only in rational thought based on what we see and hear in the physical world will we find the path that we want to walk.

Proponents of rational thought cannot explain why every culture has some form of Supreme Being. They cannot explain why all cultures have stories that explain how mankind came into existence. The only way they can explain why there is evil in the world is to suggest that it is part of human nature. In a world based solely on empirical evidence, good and evil become part of us and determined by who we are and where we are. Our lives are then controlled by the real world and the concept of free will has no place in our lives. If we have no free will, we cannot choose; if we cannot choose, then there is no hope. And we find in the seemingly safe world of rational thought and empirical evidence the same dissonance that we find in the church.

The problem is that we are not going to find the answers we seek nor determine the direction that we are to go in a wholly scientific setting or in a wholly theological one. Science and religion speak two languages; science speaks the language of facts while religion speaks the language of values. Science attends to objective knowledge about objects in the present whereas religion attends to subjective knowledge about transcendent dimensions of ultimate concern. As Albert Einstein once noted, “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” Science works best when it explains what is happening and religion works best when it explains what it means to us (http://www.elca.org/faithandscience/covalence/story/content/06-06-15-peters-1.asp; I am not sure if this link still works).

If we try to live a life by rules imposed on us through science or religion, we will quickly find ourselves trapped in a prison of our making. Both scientific fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists want us to follow rules that have very little flexibility. They offer a philosophy but not a direction. They give answers but not to the questions that we face each day. Christianity is not a philosophy and Jesus Christ was not a philosopher.

Christianity is a pathway, a way of life. It is not a set of creeds and doctrines that require total obedience. Christianity was, in fact, a reaction to a religion narrowly defined by law and ritual. The people of “The Way” swept through the Mediterranean world like a “mighty wind” of radical freedom. (Adapted from “Why The Christian Right Is Wrong” by Robin Meyers, page 68)

Instead of a society where the rules focused on what you did within society, a society was created where everyone was free and your concern was for the others as much as it was for yourself. This was an idea first expressed in the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments do not begin with “Here are the Ten Commandments, learn them by rote,” or, “Here are the Ten Commandments, obey them.” Rather, they begin with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

The Ten Commandments are not rules that confine people but set them free. As Joe Roos noted, the Ten Commandments set you free from using the ways of society to get ahead. (Adapted from “The Foolishness of the Cross” by Joe Roos in Sojourners, August 2007) You need not covet what your neighbor has or steal their belongings to establish who you are. Yes, they are rules but they are rules to live by, not confine us. They offer direction, not imprisonment. It is a freedom that extends to all and it is a freedom that we must seek for all.

The words of Jeremiah this morning (Jeremiah 4: 11 – 22; 22 – 28) apply today as much as they did some three thousand years ago. Jeremiah speaks of the words of the Lord who warns the people about limiting their understanding to simply following a set of rules. From Jeremiah 4: 22 we read, “My people are foolish and do not know me. They are stupid children who have no understanding. They are clever enough at doing wrong, but they have no idea how to do right!” (Jeremiah 4: 22) The terms “foolish” and “silly” that are used in this passage from Jeremiah are contrary to the terms “knowledge” and “understanding”. Understanding means going beyond the basic information. The Lord, through Jeremiah, is warning the people that they are walking the wrong path; they are headed in the wrong direction. Instead of sustaining the world, they are destroying it; all because they have not taken the time to understand what the world is about and what it means.

Paul, in referring to his own career as a prosecutor of Christians (1 Timothy 1: 12 – 17), says the same thing. He recognizes that his life before his encounter with Christ was one fixed in the law, unchanging in its nature, and essentially doomed to failure and defeat.

The journey with Christ goes beyond the limits of society’s rules. The journey with Christ goes beyond how one thinks of themselves but rather how one thinks of others. If you accept Christ as your savior, you make a commitment to walk a new path and find a new way. If you accept Christ as your Savior, then you go beyond just posting the Ten Commandments on courtroom walls. You seek to put “blessed are the merciful” on the same walls; you seek to put “blessed are the peacemakers” on the walls of the Pentagon. As Jesus pointed out in the parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep (Luke 15: 1- 10), you are more concerned for the one who is lost more than the ones who are saved.

If you accept Christ as your savior, you have said that you will not be limited in your belief to just the things around you or things somewhat ethereal. Rather, your world becomes a world of great possibilities, of understanding the world in which we live and the one which was provided by our divine creator.

We are called today to begin this journey. It is a journey that began some two thousand years ago when a group of people gathered in a room to celebrate a journey from slavery and death to freedom. Those in that room that night did not understand that their journey was just beginning; they did not understand that the words of freedom and victory that their teacher and our Lord spoke were not just thoughts but steps. They did not understand then but would in a few days understand what the words of freedom truly meant. We know today what the words of freedom and victory over sin and death mean. Thus we are called to continue the journey that was begun so many years ago. Let us begin that journey.